Saturday, March 29, 2008

A neurologist finds nirvana 3

Another possible impact: strong AI. I've long believed such a thing was a non-starter, that machines do not think and cannot think. By contrast, the weak AI position, a mere simulation of thinking is being / will be achieved.

A primary point is true understanding and Searle's "Chinese room" analogy illustrates this beautifully. He imagined himself in an otherwise sealed room with two slots with which to communicate with the outside world. Through one cards would be fed in on which were written questions in Chinese, a language he didn't understand. Using a huge manual which contained all the permissable combinations of pictograms, he'd look up the answer, write it out and pass it through the out slot. At no point would he ever understand the meaning of the questions. This is precisely the mechanistic way in which computers work.

It strikes me in light of Dr Taylor's video, the problem lies with computers only simulating left-brain functions. Interestingly, where subjects such as pattern recognition, a right-brain function are attempted, serial mode computers (the ones in everyday use) work poorly. Much more effective are "neural nets", devices with a parallel architecture, much closer to the brain's.
Even thornier than understanding is the question of consciousness, a word which doesn't even have an agreed scientific definition. A common viewpoint is to claim it's the same as self-awareness. So could this be solved by linking up an otherwise intelligent computer to a video camera pointing at a mirror? Obviously not, though it's far more difficult to say precisely why not.

Again I think it comes down to simulating left side functionality only; but more interestingly, when Dr Taylor's left brain stopped working, she experienced awareness of her own body in a way we're not used to. Even more, it seems as though she experienced a non-standard sensory input from the rest of the world too.

Could this be the missing element of consciousness? A sense we're normally unaware of, normally filtered out of our everyday expience but somehow forming a base level of consciousness?

One interesting pro-strong AI analogy was developed by Jaron Lanier. Imagine a person having a neuron within their brain replaced by an equivalent electronic circuit. And then another, and another until their whole brain was replaced. Is there some point at which they would stop being conscious? Its a powerful argument, but I think from the foregoing we can assume there is something going on on the right side which wouldn't work electronically, so yes, at some point we would see breakdown / loss of functionality.

Friday, March 28, 2008

A neurologist finds nirvana 2

An interesting point raised in Dr Taylor's video concerns the right hemisphere's feeling of oneness with everyone, and indeed, everything versus the left's individuality and separateness. This was a dimension of the personality highlighted by Arthur Koestler as individuality against integration. It's all too easy to blame individuality for all the world's ills, yet when you think of the worst serial killers such as Dr Harold Shipman or Fred West, killing for their own perverse gratification, their crimes almost fade into insignificance when compared to those such as Hitler or Stalin, who, however misguided, believed their actions were for the greater good of humanity (or at least a part of it, the german people or the international proletariat, or whatever).

For all that, Koestler saw the problem as a lack of integration within the brain. However he saw the problem as being between the rational neocortex, the archaeocortex and the brain stem, evolutionarily new areas versus old ones, with the emotional limbic system in the domain of the old, divorced from the rationality of the new. It takes a sophisticated creature to be able to build a nuclear weapon but a primitive one to want to.
Dr Taylor's video suggests the integration problem may be lateral rather than vertical. Our individualistic left brain isn't even aware of the right brain's "mind".

Koestler's solution (as I've mentioned in a previous post) lay in hope that one day a pill might be invented that would fix the problem; I believe a non-chemical solution was found some 2500 years ago by Shakyamuni Buddha. His solution according to the Lotus Sutra was "hard to understand and hard to believe in", hardly surprising given the hemispherical split! Enlightenment, then, has a neurological aspect.

Anothe manifestation could be found in the current problem of nihilism and despair, and perhaps, depression. An article I read recently claimed depression to be an illness of the modern industrial age, predicated on the concurrent rise of individualism. I'm only partially convinced, the fact that it's never mentioned in mediaeval manuscripts is hardly proof it didn't exist. But it probably was less prevalent, minds absorbed in mother church, myth and legend, the sorts of things that are almost anathema to our rational minds. That there is a severe loss of this within our lives is without doubt, think of the popularity of science fiction, horror films, fantasy and especially Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, whose natural setting I'd guess at being early mediaeval, the time of Charlemagne, but a setting rich in myth.
This excessive reliance on individualism, in which, inevitably, many fail and many are even born into endemic failure has led to what might be considered as mass mental illness - addictions, tribalism, gang warfare and suchlike.

This is not to say our modern industrial society is not without benefits - prosperity, physical health, longevity, education and science immediately spring to mind. The challenge is not to abandon it but to re-integrate it with the rich, built-in complexity inherent within our lives.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A neurologist finds Nirvana

This is quite an astonishing film clip and Jill Bolte Taylor's exuberance could lead to accusations of flakiness in some quarters were she not a neuranatomist.

I'll note some of my immediate thoughts, reading the transcript, though I'll have to take time to reflect on what is some of the richest material I've come across. I've no idea of any religious convictions Dr. Taylor might have but her insights are very closely related to Buddhism, almost spookily.
Our right hemisphere is all about this present moment. It's all about right here right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. ...
My left hemisphere is a very different place. Our left hemisphere thinks linearly and methodically. Our left hemisphere is all about the past, and it's all about the future. Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment. And start picking details and more details and more details about those details. It then categorizes and organizes all that information. Associates it with everything in the past we've ever learned and projects into the future all of our possibilities.

Buddhist thought long ago came to an understanding of the human mind in many ways, one of which is the '9 Consciousnesses'. The first 6 of these are the senses and their integration into a whole, which it seems is the work of the right hemisphere. The seventh is about making value judgments and decisions, left hemisphere stuff. There are two further consciousnesses that don't fit in with this model in any obvious way, the alaya consciousness, the karmic storehouse, and the Buddha consciousness. This is, possibly to be expected though as they're not simply within this individual physical setup, the 8th extending over multiple lifetimes and the ninth being in some ways 'ours' but also part of the entire universe.
And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can't define where I begin and where I end. Because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy. Energy.

Not Buddhism, but this reminds me so much of the world of physics. With Einstein's Special Relativity and it's famous equation, E=mc2, solidity dropped out the picture, particles becoming patterns of energy. When you touch a tabletop, say, it feels solid enough yet the atoms of your fingertips and the atoms of the table are for the most part space - the solidity is an illusion created by the mutual repellence of the electron shells of those atoms. To go further, the physicist's view of the universe I would summarise as a thin skein of energy stretched across the hugeness of space-time, not spread evenly, but rather patterned so as to form wave-particles, and they themselves working within larger agglomerations, perhaps patterns upon patterns. The currently (I'm not a physicist; as an outsider this one seems to be forever in and out of fashion :)) most promising front on finding a "theory of everything" is string theory, which sees fundamental particles as tiny vibrating energy patterns snaking through 11 dimensions.
The right hemisphere's view might seem illusory but in fact it's the opposite - it's closer to the true reality. The peculiar thing here is that while it's always been believed we could never perceive this reality, this experience indicates we're feeling it all the time but it gets filtered out by our left brain.

And in that moment, my brain chatter, my left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button and -- total silence.

And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.

Within our version of Buddhism we don't meditate, but the similarity here to the claims of meditators is astonishing, that it's an exercise to do precisely that, to silence the mind's chatter to see what's beyond.
Euphoria was beautiful -- and then my left hemisphere comes online and it says "Hey! you've got to pay attention, we've got to get help," and I'm thinking, "I got to get help, I gotta focus."

The drawback - without the left brain we simply can't survive. It's vital to everyday functioning, the most basic things such as getting food. This is the problem to my mind with Theravada Buddhism, that you can't achieve Nirvana without extinguishing earthly life. Mahayana Buddhism, by contrast, aims not for extinction but to become boddhisatvas, ones who choose instead to remain in the world, to use enlightenment to help oneself and others.
Because I could not identify the position of my body in space, I felt enormous and expensive, like a genie just liberated from her bottle. And my spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria. Nirvana, I found Nirvana. I remember thinking there's no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body.

One's Buddha nature is often described as enormous, in fact universe-sized.
"And if I have found Nirvana and I'm still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana." I picture a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time. And that they could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives.

Our belief, that differs from the Theravada Buddhist view of enlightenment, is that one's Buddha nature is something that everyone posesses and has posessed from the beginning of time, rather than something to be attained over many, many lifetimes. Moreover that if a huge number of people changed their lives thus then the whole of our society would be changed enormously for the better, an aim we refer to as kosen rufu. Regrettably, it's not that easy to tap into our bigger selves, for most people it takes many years of practice and the overcoming of a lot of suffering, but still something we're capable of reaching within one single lifetime (and, hey, what better things have you got to do with this life?).
Right here right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere where we are -- I am -- the life force power of the universe, and the life force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form. At one with all that is. Or I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere. where I become a single individual, a solid, separate from the flow, separate from you.

This comes back to the heart of the matter, two realities, in Nichiren's Buddhism called myo and ho. Myo is the mystical, transcendent reality in which everything is possible, and ho the physical manifestation. Whereas most religions take the idealist view that only the spiritual world matters and materialism only the material world, Buddhism defines life as precisely the point at which these two come together.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


New interest seems to have been aroused by the 40th anniversary, though I don't remember anything much for its 20th or 30th. I was only a teenager at the time and never really understood much about what was happening in London, Paris and Prague. I remember seeing violence on the tv, though it was, of course, skewed coverage; wicked students attacking poor innocent coppers. Plus ca change.
The most important aspect of it was probably the emergence of the New Left. Stalinism had long lost it's appeal for anyone outside the USSR's nomenklatura with Kruschev's revelations and the crushing of the Hungarian uprising. Still this made little impact on the reporting of the time, as Tariq Ali's article shows, branding the demonstrators as "agents of Moscow". Dinosaurs then, dinosaurs now. They probably hadn't moved on since the Zinoviev letter.
What also seems so interesting is the crossing of two different strands of thought within popular culture - hippy peace and love against leftist revolution. This also reflects in a couple of songs of the time, the beatles's soppy "Revolution" against the Stones's inspirational "Street Fighting Man". Skin deep in retrospect as Lennon turned out to be much more the revolutionary as "Power to the People" and "Working Class Hero" attest, compared to the Stones's new aristocracy lifestyle. But they were hardly unique in that respect, we were left with a legacy of Hippy Capitalism.
The 2 strands had fallen apart by the time I left school and the longhair culture had moved much much to the insipid West Coast stuff; I'm thinking Crosby Stills & Nash here (I'll let Neil Young off for his excellent song "Ohio" at minimum). As the Young Trotskyite it left me somewhat alienated, I didn't fit in the hippy (or rather "freak" thing as it became known in the uk) and the other alternative, skinheadism was way too right wing for me, though latter-day fans, too young to have known the real thing, might deny that.
One of the most charming things of the 60s would have to be Thatcherite hatred of it, not just Norman Tebbit's vilification but the right's general blame of everything that's gone wrong on the period's permissiveness. This nonsense is still being put about after 18 years of Conservative rule and 7 of its clone, New Labour. While most such quotes seem plain silly, Nicholas Sarkozy's is just bizarre.

"May 1968 imposed intellectual and moral relaivism on us all," Sarkozy declared. "The heirs of May '68 imposed the idea that there was no longer any difference between good and evil, truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness. The heritage of May 1968 introduced cynicism into society and politics."

He even blamed the legacy of May '68 for greedy and seedy business practices. The May '68 attack on ethical standards helped to "weaken the morality of capitalism, to prepare the ground for the unscrupulous capitalism of golden parachutes for rogue bosses". So the 60s generation is held responsible for Enron, Conrad Black, the subprime mortgage crisis, Northern Rock, corrupt politicians, deregulation, the dictatorship of the "free market", a culture strangled by brazen opportunism.

They might also reflect on how so much of today's "intellectual property", one of the west's few sources of income now manufacturing has fled was created then, and how the counter-culture has fuelled the new digital economy.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Phorm fallout increases

FIPR says it's illegal under RIPA - BBC. Tim Berners-Lee says it's plain wrong - BBC. BT has to admit to cover-up - The Register.
Phorm's share price has dropped like a stone since the story broke - The Register.
Quite simply, BT, Virgin and Carphone Warehouse have made a serious mistake and should at least back out rather than try to defend the indefensible.

Strangely nothing from the governemnt's Information Commissioner.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The real face of war

Catching one of Channel4's documentaries on Iraq last night, Iraq's Lost Generation, I was profoundly moved by the children in hospital in Amman, all severely injured in the sectarian strife, all refugees waiting for operations in an overstretched facility. It was impressive just how cheerful they were in spite of having lost family members in addition to the awfulness of their plight. In particular, the little girl, Hanan was utterly marvelllous despite looking to be severely burnt all over (her photo's in the linked page's header) from a suicide bomber whose actions had also killed several of her family. She was bright and cheerful all the way through and only burst into tears when the surgeon who was treating her announced her next operation would be delayed for a year.

No child should have to suffer like that. Ever.

My compassion was only tempered by feelings of anger toward the architects of this war, the neo-cons in Washington, greedy for Iraq's oil, happy to give lucrative restoration projects to their friends in big business. Probably also concerned with the instability of Saddam's regime and his recent move to trade oil in Euros rather than dollars. Anger towards their crony, Blair and his dossiers of lies. Even more anger toward the big publishers, Murdoch in particular, whose media made the war possible, and the cowardly, snivelling teams of journalists that work for him - have they no conscience at all?

There's also another bunch of victims who are seldom thought of as such - last year 6,526 US Army veterans took their own lives compared to 3,863 actually killed in the 5 years of war, and ironically this comes from one of Murdoch's own publications, The Times.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Your ISP could soon be spying on you

BT, Virgin Media and Carphone Warehouse have announced plans to feed information about which websites you visit to a company called Phorm who in turn will supply targetted advertising to any sites you visit that take their advertising from them. BT have already surreptitiously trialled profiling as revealed in this Register article.

In June 2007, Reg reader Stephen noticed his Firefox installations making suspicious unauthorised connections to the domain every time he visted any website. Naturally worried his machines had contracted some kind of digital infection, Stephen performed a series of exhaustive malware scans, which all came back clean.

He wasn't the only BT subscriber to notice that his browser was making the mysterious contacts around July last year, as this thread archived at shows.

"I spent all weekend wiping my disks clean and reinstalling from backups (four PCs seemed to be affected). I spent a further two days researching and installing all kinds of anti-virus, anti-spyware and anti-rootkit utilities. But even after all that I still have this problem!" Stephen told us at the time.

Having failed to trace the source of the dodgy redirect in his own network, he contacted BT to suggest one of their DNS servers may have been hijacked. BT dismissed the idea, yet the browser requests were still making an unauthorised stop off at

Worried that his business' financial data might be being monitored, Stephen continued to investigate. A Whois search for revealed the domain was registered by Ahmet Can, an employee of a new online advertising company called 121Media. The address is now registered through a third party private domaining agency. 121Media rebranded itself as - you guessed it - Phorm in May 2007.

Phorm's provenence is even more questionable (Register article):
Phorm is run by Kent Ertegrul, a serial entrepreneur whose past ventures include selling joyrides on Russian fighter jets. Previously, his most notable foray online was as the founder of PeopleOnPage, an ad network that operated earlier in the decade and which was blacklisted as spyware by the likes of Symantec and F-Secure.

I fear few people using the ISPs in question will ever realise what's going on, let alone complain, and the revenue stream will make it virtually impossible for other ISPs to avoid signing up too. In short, soon you will have little choice.
What you can do is to set your browser to refuse cookies from, a form of opting-out rather than opting-in. Also, use Firefox as your browser and install the Adblock Plus add-in to get rid of not just this, but loads of other unwanted junk (when I check the server stats on any of my sites, I'm always amazed at the number of people still using Internet Explorer).

The BBC for once has a rather good article (their technology stuff is usually rather naive IMHO) addressing these concerns. As with the interviewer, I was also susprised by their claims that a "respected" organisation, Privacy Intenational, had praised their system. Personally, I'd never heard of them before, and it raises the eyebrow still further when it's mentioned that the consulting was done through a commercial enterprise that they'd only just recently set up.

As a broader concern, it annoys me more what big business is allowed to get away with, disengenuously using the lack of knowledge of the general public. For another example, the built-in DRM layer in Windows Vista. It's something the big studios asked for and does the consumer no earthly good while wasting a whole load of their computer's power.

These are legitimate businesses, yet their actions seem only one step removed from the criminals making viruses and trojans.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Optimism & pessimism

Seems just lately the news is full of murders. Moving onto the bigger, international picture things look even worse, intractable wars in the middle east and a hugely imbalanced global economy that seems to be constantly threatening to come crashing down.
It looks to me like the age in which the 3 poisons - greed, anger and ignorance - have truly taken hold. To be fair, it's probably seemed that way in many a previous time.
By contast the technology is soaring ahead and as a consequence we now have something akin to a global mindset. On the whole, people are wealthier than any other time in history.
What's missing is the attitude that can realise the benfits of our material wealth. In the uk in particular, the intellect is denigrated (in france, 'intellectuelle' is a compliment, here almost an insult) in favour of supposed pragmatism. Idealism is regarded as a sin of youth, something you grow out of into a dull, unrewarding middle age. No surprise then so many people suffer a mid life crisis.
The only solution I know is surprise, surprise, buddhism, to awaken the 3 buddha qualities of wisdom, courage and compassion that are inherent in all our lives.
We have the possibility of a true golden age just around the corner. We only have to believe in it and to choose it.