Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Microsoft Launches Ad Campaign for Windows Replacement

Microsoft is planning to spend $500 million on a new marketing campaign promoting its upcoming “Vista” operating system, which is slated to replace the ubiquitous Windows on PCs worldwide. Many industry-watchers are asking how that money will be spent. Here's the breakdown:

$100 million -- Hiring basketball superstar LeBron James for Vista ads—so consumers know which computer operating system will get them into the NBA.

$75 million -- Bill Gates to host elaborate potlatch for his business rivals--shaming of Steve Jobs with generous gifts of smoked salmon, beads and peripherals.

$55 million -- Sunday newspaper ad campaign: “Vista: While you slept last night, we went ahead and installed it on your computer”

$60 million -- Radio ad campaign: "Vista. Powerful. Flexible. Mandatory.”

$2 million -- Installing version 2.01 car bombs for both “Mac Guy” and “PC Guy”

$120 million -- TV ad campaign: For no discernable reason, grainy home-video footage of Bill Gates having sex.

$88 million -- Call from your parents ad campaign “Vista: It’s For Your Own Good”

Phase II: “Vista: We’re Telling You--Not Asking You”

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

World’s Oldest Person Dies Just Four Days after Becoming World’s Oldest Person.

Showing once again that the elderly simply don’t have the same strong work ethic of our generation. Do you think a motivated person in their 20s would give up a World Record after only 4 days? Especially if all they had to do was lay on their back?

Shortest ever reign for world's oldest person

"World's oldest person" was never likely to be the safest berth in the Guinness
Book of Records, but the title's escalating attrition rate has now claimed its
own place in the famous tome - "shortest ever reign as world's oldest person".

Emma Tillman, 114, a former nurse to Katharine Hepburn, was born to former slaves and lived to see 21 American presidencies.

Sadly, however, she lived to see little of her own "presidency" in the records book as she died
at a nursing home on Sunday - just four days after becoming the world's
oldest-known living person.

According to Robert Young, senior consultant for gerontology for Guinness World of Records, in dying so soon, Miss Tillman set a new record as her reign was the shortest so far recorded.

So she set a record, then she set another record concerning her record. Now she just needs another record about setting a record about setting a record* and she’ll be in the Guinness Book of Recursive Records.

*Like woman with the Most Shortest-lived World Records. Plus the Largest Beard Made out of Bees.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Baby Got Back

While, people can debate up and down whether it’s right or wrong, at least there’s one thing that we can all agree on right now: that they’re adorably delicious.

Baby: the other white meat.

(via Boing Boing)

1/30 addition:

It'll blow the roof off everything you *thought* you knew about rich, powerful celebrities and their insatiable appetites for babies.

Overheard at a Crowded Playground

Two men, a dad and his friend, are pushing a toddler on a swing.

The friend pushes the toddler too fast and too high and she screams. The friend apologizes.

The dad laughs and loudly says, “Don’t worry about it, Steve, that’s just some payback from all the times I’ve abused your kids!

The crowded playground goes silent.

There’s a pause and the dad awkwardly amends, “…you know from scaring them and rough-housing and...and that kind of thing.”

They leave the playground shortly thereafter.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Growing Pains Star Wants you to Meet a Special Man

As a child of the late 80s, I watched most every episode of Growing Pains. Not because it was good, but because it was on. Even back then, we kids knew it was a cheap knockoff of Family Ties. Which truth be told, was not exactly a TV masterpiece.

But where has the show’s star been since then?

I vaguely knew that Kirk Cameron had found Jesus. And had become not just a Christian, but a pretty fringe Evangelical Christian.

He’s no longer famous, but is “famous” in the Evangelical world. He’s the star of the “Left Behind” movies. You never heard of them?

Long story short: In one moment all the world’s Christians get sucked back up to heaven leaving piles of clothes all over the place and causing car-wrecks, now pilot-less planes to crash, etc. After that, the people “left behind” have to battle the anti-Christ who appears as a powerful and charismatic leader from the UN (that’s how you know it’s fiction) bent on destroying the world. Most of the world beginning with Israel gets destroyed anyway and we all learn an important lesson about salvation. Or something.

Does that make sense? I guess you just had to be there.

Anyhow Kirk Cameron is not just battling the Devil in the movies, but he’s doing it in real life. With his new show The Way of the Master (tagline: “Seek and Save the Lost the Way Jesus Did”*)

Way of the Master has nothing to do about martial arts and everything to do with taking a camera crew out and cornering “unsaved” people in malls, on sidewalks, at music festivals and “having a rap session about Jesus”. It must be seen to be believed.

Kirk Cameron basically gets people to admit to ever lying, to ever stealing and to ever looking at pretty women with “lust”. Then he turns around and calls them Liars and Thieves and Adulterers (in their minds). And as you can imagine, that pretty seamlessly segues into a sales pitch about Jesus.

These are real people and their reactions range anything from polite indifference to argumentative annoyance. But never, never, never in watching the show have I seen them actually “save” anyone. No one ever goes, "gee where can I find out more about this, what was his name, Jesus something?" It is unintentionally hilarious.

Wow, someone else did a comic based on stumbling upon this same show:

Apparently there’s a bit they do on the show where they hold up a banana and call it “the atheists worst enemy”. The reasoning goes something like this:

#1 The banana is both nutritious and delicious to people.

#2 The banana fits easily in a person’s hand and even curves into their mouth

#3 The banana is so perfect for us and could not have evolved, but was rather created by God specifically for his children.

I’m with them in step #1; and step #2 could refer to a penis, but I suppose it’s true for bananas too. But step #3, that is one crazy leap. I suppose you have banana-lovers who are following them up to this point nodding their heads and some % of them are going to let that good feeling about bananas carry them all the way through step #3.

Take that, you dirty ape atheists!

*Jesus apparently did his work with a full camera crew and ex-child-actors

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I’m Charles Ponzi and I Approved This Message

World’s most famous Virtual Economy may be a Virtual Pyramid Scheme

What I like about this little article: it takes a computer game very seriously. The methods the authors take are technical (from the field of economics) and it appears they actually used $10,000 in real money to test their hypothesis about in-game cash flows. It’s the new investigative journalism for the 21st century. What they discover is shocking, and will blow the lid off everything you thought you knew about online computer games, currency exchange rates and interest payments.

Also the article contains the phrase “online sexchat workers”.

Reminds me of a business plan I came up with in college: the ironic, self-aware pyramid scheme. Never got around to naming it, but had some candidates:

“Obvious Pyramid Scheme”™
“Super Pyramid Brothers”™
“Seriously Dudes, This is a Scam”™

So the business plan would be a typical pyramid scheme.

People pay to get in, and I’d pay them back when other people pay to get in. To get involved, you pay me $20 and I give each “investor” a tiny replica pyramid that they could display ironically. The marketing literature would describe that if enough of the little pyramids are stacked together, they’ll form a large pyramid, a “power pyramid” that can shoot a fountain of dollar bills from it’s single giant eye at the top.

The details on exactly how that happens are a little fuzzy, but they involve the ancient geometry of the pyramid shape combined with the power of mental concentration. Everyone involved can be all smug and ironic, knowing in their rational minds that it could never work. But deep in their hearts they wonder if it could.

The article also reminds me of my all-time favorite newspaper classified ad. Again, I saw it while I was in college back in Cleveland. It said something to the effect of:

Get Rich Quickly! Discover the secrets of making money through the mail! Find out how easy it is to have hundreds of people mail you $10. With my information packet, you’ll be able to set up a mail-based business with minimal effort. Find out how. Send $10 to PO Box 4930, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118.

I think the person responsible realized how sketchy that sounded, so next week the same ad appeared in the classifieds, with the same ad copy, except the money amounts were changed.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Is it Roe Vs. Wade Day already?

Jan. 22, 1973. Today marks the 34th anniversary of the controversial Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision. A decision that will be forever be remembered as *the* most important day in our nation's history, by a grateful bumper sticker industry.

Happy Birthday to you/
Happy Birthday to you/
Happy Birthday legalized abortion/
Thanks from me and my ex-girlfriend back in two thousand and two.

But obviously it's a somber topic that couldn't be more personal. That's why I'm especially appalled that the anniversary, like Christmas, has become too over-commercialized:

For shame Pizza Hut Corporation. For shame.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Killing a Satellite. How Cool is That?

It's official now: 3 nations in the world can do it
Apparently the Chinese changed their plea to 2nd degree satellite-slaughter.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Q13 News Gets the Scoop

Local Fox affiliate Q13 has become my new favorite local news team. Last night I watched with some interest as they described the driving conditions after the 3rd devastating snowstorm of the season.

They sent 3 on-air personalities to stand out in the cold at different locations around town telling the viewers how cold it was. That makes them a good channel. What makes them a great channel is that they interrupt the breathless snow coverage with this breathless BREAKING NEWS:

Sources tell us that something may have happened at Martha Lake in Snohomish
County this evening. There may be a police presence there--or maybe
not--nothing has been confirmed at this time. We’ll let you know when we
find out what’s happening. Back to our regular news.

To the casual viewer is seems like an extremely uninformed and unnecessary interruption. They ‘re missing most of the 5 Ws of good journalism: What, Why, Where, Who, & When--and were pretty vague on the rest.

But when you look at it deeper, it’s clear that most local news teams wouldn’t have the broadcast cajones to direct the viewer’s attention to the fact that said local news team does not know what--if anything--is going on in local news.

That’s the Q13 difference.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Brokeback Mountain Out of a Brokeback Molehill

Finally saw Brokeback Mountain this weekend. And I’m a little surprised to say this: but it didn’t turn me gay. There were tense moments, sure, but when the credits rolled, Paul was still batting right-handed if you know what I mean.

Consciously chose not to see it in the theaters when it came out--when the movie came out—er, when the movie was released. Figuring if the movie was good enough to make me suddenly gay, then it’d be easier to explain in the privacy of my own home than in a theater full of strangers. And that’s why DVDs are so popular.

The movie itself is pretty good. Not as good as Children of Men, but it’s got a solid plot and is exclusively character driven. Long story short: white trash cowboys fall in love; it’s unacceptable; tragedy unfolds. Credits roll as you dry your eyes.

Just like any classic love story the most important thing is the obstacle. Which in this case is just not society’s intolerant rednecks, but the little intolerant redneck that lives deep inside all of us—even if we’re having gay sex at the time.

Three things I noticed:

1) Saw a bunch of class concerns in there: Paying the bills, living in trailers, broken down trucks, that kind of thing. Thought the actors did have some pretty good drawls and it totally brought back memories of growing up trashy--hats off to their voice coaches! One of the plot points I suppose was that things would be all dandy for Jack and Ennis if their circumstances were different. I'm pretty sure gay money managers at Merrill Lynch don’t have the same problems they had.

2) The main relationship is a classic introvert-extrovert pairing. Ennis is the man of few words; Jack the outgoing goofball. Why introverts and extroverts are inexplicably drawn to each other is something of a mystery, but it happens all the time in real life.

3) The scenery was so darn beautiful. It was pretty much the 3rd most important character.

First Ang Lee film I saw was The Ice Storm back in college. Is good. He’s a hard director to get a bead on since he’s all over the map. Ice Storm was a dysfunctional suburb drama that’s black in tone as opposed to the melancholy of Brokeback. He’s done several Chinese language films and an English period drama. And then he did The Hulk where Hulk smash. Smash good! So in conclusion Lee is a schizophrenic who somebody gave a camera to.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Surge is Like Totally Awesomextreme

This week President Bush announced a new plan for winning the Iraq war, a “surge” of 21,500 troops added to the existing 132,000.

Surge is an extreme product geared towards today’s active young man—whether he currently skates, snowboards or surfs—he’ll have a jolt of Surge in his future.

Facts about Surge:
  • Surge can be habit-forming. Like Lay’s, a president can’t have just one.
  • The President wants to introduce it soon—citing the popularity of Mt. Dew’s Islamic Code Red.
  • Early marketing research indicates it may not be very popular with women, men, Americans, foreigners, generals and especially the important 18-24 year old Reservist demographic.
  • Surge can cause sleeplessness and health problems, especially for the 18-24 year old Reservist demographic.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Snowmaggedon! Snowpacalypse Now!

The city of Seattle shut down completely because of the Winter Storm of the Century. Again. Only a month after the previous Winter Storm of the Century. The 21st century just started and is already spoken for.

Local Fox News is the best at getting hysterical about the weather. Snow is everywhere! We’ve never seen anything like this, Bob! Drivers trapped in their cars for 9 hours!

I love how they send the Q13 news van out to interview stranded drivers—but then drive off so their anchorwoman can go stand somberly in front of a frozen water main.

A great follow-up story would be “Local Man Upset Over Callous News Team with 4-Wheel Drive”. Find out why at 11 -- exclusively on Q13.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Children of Men (part 2)

Children of Men is simply excellent.

Saw it last night with Justin at the Metro—glad to catch it on a big screen because there’s a lot of details you’d miss otherwise.

Year is 2027, most of the world is in chaos from an unspecified cocktail of maladies: most likely drug-resistant diseases, civil wars, ecological collapse and/or nuclear mishaps. And as a cake topper: all women in the world have been infertile for the past 18 years. For unexplained reasons, England is the only place that’s maintained order, but it’s become a police state that rounds up foreigners, takes their lunch money and generally acts like a total dick.

Why I like it:

  • It’s not preachy and not obvious.

  • Show me; don’t tell me -- It’s a director’s movie. Alfonso Cuaron, was pretty damn sanguine about tossing out elements of the book. Which I never read, but that’s what I’m told. Plot-wise, some major things have obviously happened in the last 20 years--but they are never explained. You have to guess from things in the background like newspaper clippings, city signs or burning cattle.

  • The actors do their jobs. No scenery chewing.

  • Shit goes wrong, in an extremely plausible way.

And it’s a tense movie, basically a chase movie, but also much more. Things it made me think about in no particular order:

  • Christianity in general, and the nativity story in particular

  • V for Vendetta but this is a much better movie

  • On the Beach

  • Blade Runner (only at the end)

  • Y Tu Mama Tambien and how this movie is so absolutely nothing like Y Tu Mama Tambien

  • Julianne Moore giving me a vigorous scrub down

  • Hippies and Earth Liberation Front. Ends justifying means.

  • 9/11 of course and especially the crypto-paranoid style of politics that followed it

  • Of course fascism. And xenophobia.

  • How I totally knew Clive Owen was a bad-ass back in Croupier

  • How so few science fiction elements Children of Men has, but how it’s great science fiction. No cool gizmos really. In 2027 they got better flat-screen monitors, more security cameras, some new games and moving advertisements. That’s pretty much it. No robots, no aliens. People drive to work or take the bus; they watch TV and smoke pot.

  • City of God and the kind of meaningless chaos it showed on the streets of Rio

  • Why are there so many Poles living in London these days? Something to do with the EU I bet.

Monday, January 8, 2007

The New York Times says you have no choice but to subscribe to the New York Times

Here’s a feel-good article that tells you why every single choice you’ve made in your life is a lie; why there’s no such thing as real freedom; and why you cannot even decide whether or not to click on this link:

It’s a good write-up and as a bonus includes a brief description of the single most disturbing medical study. Ever. Including all those penis studies. Because since when has science ever given us any good news about the penis?

In the 1970s, Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram and told the volunteers to make random motions, like pressing a button or flicking a finger, while he noted the time on a clock.

Dr. Libet found that brain signals associated with
these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them.

The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather than the other way around.

Holy crap! Now take a bite of that quote and swish it around in your mouth. The body was already doing something by the time the mind “decided” to do it. You think the body is looking out for you?

No, it is not. The body is only looking out for #1: seeking ill-advised sex partners and eating ice cream at night.

1/30/07 Addition. NY Times killed the link so here's the entire article. Hope that's not a copyright issue:

NY Times
I was a free man until they brought the dessert menu around. There was one of those molten chocolate cakes, and I was suddenly being dragged into a vortex, swirling helplessly toward caloric doom, sucked toward the edge of a black (chocolate) hole. Visions of my father’s heart attack danced before my glazed eyes. My wife, Nancy, had a resigned look on her face.
Jonathan Rosen
The outcome, endlessly replayed whenever we go out, is never in doubt, though I often cover my tracks by offering to split my dessert with the table. O.K., I can imagine what you’re thinking. There but for the grace of God.
Having just lived through another New Year’s Eve, many of you have just resolved to be better, wiser, stronger and richer in the coming months and years. After all, we’re free humans, not slaves, robots or animals doomed to repeat the same boring mistakes over and over again. As William James wrote in 1890, the whole “sting and excitement” of life comes from “our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.” Get over it, Dr. James. Go get yourself fitted for a new chain-mail vest. A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.
As a result, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place.
“Is it an illusion? That’s the question,” said Michael Silberstein, a science philosopher at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Another question, he added, is whether talking about this in public will fan the culture wars.
“If people freak at evolution, etc.,” he wrote in an e-mail message, “how much more will they freak if scientists and philosophers tell them they are nothing more than sophisticated meat machines, and is that conclusion now clearly warranted or is it premature?”
Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University who has written extensively about free will, said that “when we consider whether free will is an illusion or reality, we are looking into an abyss. What seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair.”
Mark Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said, “Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free.
“The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it,” he said.
That is hardly a new thought. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, as Einstein paraphrased it, that “a human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”
Einstein, among others, found that a comforting idea. “This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals,” he said.
How comforted or depressed this makes you might depend on what you mean by free will. The traditional definition is called “libertarian” or “deep” free will. It holds that humans are free moral agents whose actions are not predetermined. This school of thought says in effect that the whole chain of cause and effect in the history of the universe stops dead in its tracks as you ponder the dessert menu.
At that point, anything is possible. Whatever choice you make is unforced and could have been otherwise, but it is not random. You are responsible for any damage to your pocketbook and your arteries.
“That strikes many people as incoherent,” said Dr. Silberstein, who noted that every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random. “Both are bad news for free will,” he said. So if human actions can’t be caused and aren’t random, he said, “It must be — what — some weird magical power?”
People who believe already that humans are magic will have no problem with that.
But whatever that power is — call it soul or the spirit — those people have to explain how it could stand independent of the physical universe and yet reach from the immaterial world and meddle in our own, jiggling brain cells that lead us to say the words “molten chocolate.”
A vote in favor of free will comes from some physicists, who say it is a prerequisite for inventing theories and planning experiments.
That is especially true when it comes to quantum mechanics, the strange paradoxical theory that ascribes a microscopic randomness to the foundation of reality. Anton Zeilinger, a quantum physicist at the University of Vienna, said recently that quantum randomness was “not a proof, just a hint, telling us we have free will.”
Is there any evidence beyond our own intuitions and introspections that humans work that way?
Two Tips of the Iceberg
In the 1970s, Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram and told the volunteers to make random motions, like pressing a button or flicking a finger, while he noted the time on a clock.
Dr. Libet found that brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them.
The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather than the other way around.
In short, the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion, the monkey making up a story about what the tiger had already done.
Dr. Libet’s results have been reproduced again and again over the years, along with other experiments that suggest that people can be easily fooled when it comes to assuming ownership of their actions. Patients with tics or certain diseases, like chorea, cannot say whether their movements are voluntary or involuntary, Dr. Hallett said.
In some experiments, subjects have been tricked into believing they are responding to stimuli they couldn’t have seen in time to respond to, or into taking credit or blame for things they couldn’t have done. Take, for example, the “voodoo experiment” by Dan Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard, and Emily Pronin of Princeton. In the experiment, two people are invited to play witch doctor.
One person, the subject, puts a curse on the other by sticking pins into a doll. The second person, however, is in on the experiment, and by prior arrangement with the doctors, acts either obnoxious, so that the pin-sticker dislikes him, or nice.
After a while, the ostensible victim complains of a headache. In cases in which he or she was unlikable, the subject tended to claim responsibility for causing the headache, an example of the “magical thinking” that makes baseball fans put on their rally caps.
“We made it happen in a lab,” Dr. Wegner said.
Is a similar sort of magical thinking responsible for the experience of free will?
“We see two tips of the iceberg, the thought and the action,” Dr. Wegner said, “and we draw a connection.”
But most of the action is going on beneath the surface. Indeed, the conscious mind is often a drag on many activities. Too much thinking can give a golfer the yips. Drivers perform better on automatic pilot. Fiction writers report writing in a kind of trance in which they simply take dictation from the voices and characters in their head, a grace that is, alas, rarely if ever granted nonfiction writers.
Naturally, almost everyone has a slant on such experiments and whether or not the word “illusion” should be used in describing free will. Dr. Libet said his results left room for a limited version of free will in the form of a veto power over what we sense ourselves doing. In effect, the unconscious brain proposes and the mind disposes.
In a 1999 essay, he wrote that although this might not seem like much, it was enough to satisfy ethical standards. “Most of the Ten Commandments are ‘do not’ orders,” he wrote.
But that might seem a pinched and diminished form of free will.
Good Intentions
Dr. Dennett, the Tufts professor, is one of many who have tried to redefine free will in a way that involves no escape from the materialist world while still offering enough autonomy for moral responsibility, which seems to be what everyone cares about.
The belief that the traditional intuitive notion of a free will divorced from causality is inflated, metaphysical nonsense, Dr. Dennett says reflecting an outdated dualistic view of the world.
Rather, Dr. Dennett argues, it is precisely our immersion in causality and the material world that frees us. Evolution, history and culture, he explains, have endowed us with feedback systems that give us the unique ability to reflect and think things over and to imagine the future. Free will and determinism can co-exist.
“All the varieties of free will worth having, we have,” Dr. Dennett said.
“We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes,” he said. “We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.”
In this regard, causality is not our enemy but our friend, giving us the ability to look ahead and plan. “That’s what makes us moral agents,” Dr. Dennett said. “You don’t need a miracle to have responsibility.”
Other philosophers disagree on the degree and nature of such “freedom.” Their arguments partly turn on the extent to which collections of things, whether electrons or people, can transcend their origins and produce novel phenomena.
These so-called emergent phenomena, like brains and stock markets, or the idea of democracy, grow naturally in accordance with the laws of physics, so the story goes. But once they are here, they play by new rules, and can even act on their constituents, as when an artist envisions a teapot and then sculpts it — a concept sometimes known as “downward causation.” A knowledge of quarks is no help in predicting hurricanes — it’s physics all the way down. But does the same apply to the stock market or to the brain? Are the rules elusive just because we can’t solve the equations or because something fundamentally new happens when we increase numbers and levels of complexity?
Opinions vary about whether it will ultimately prove to be physics all the way down, total independence from physics, or some shade in between, and thus how free we are. Dr. Silberstein, the Elizabethtown College professor, said, “There’s nothing in fundamental physics by itself that tells us we can’t have such emergent properties when we get to different levels of complexities.”
He waxed poetically as he imagined how the universe would evolve, with more and more complicated forms emerging from primordial quantum muck as from an elaborate computer game, in accordance with a few simple rules: “If you understand, you ought to be awestruck, you ought to be bowled over.”
George R. F. Ellis, a cosmologist at the University of Cape Town, said that freedom could emerge from this framework as well. “A nuclear bomb, for example, proceeds to detonate according to the laws of nuclear physics,” he explained in an e-mail message. “Whether it does indeed detonate is determined by political and ethical considerations, which are of a completely different order.”
I have to admit that I find these kind of ideas inspiring, if not liberating. But I worry that I am being sold a sort of psychic perpetual motion machine. Free wills, ideas, phenomena created by physics but not accountable to it. Do they offer a release from the chains of determinism or just a prescription for a very intricate weave of the links?And so I sought clarity from mathematicians and computer scientists. According to deep mathematical principles, they say, even machines can become too complicated to predict their own behavior and would labor under the delusion of free will.
If by free will we mean the ability to choose, even a simple laptop computer has some kind of free will, said Seth Lloyd, an expert on quantum computing and professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Every time you click on an icon, he explained, the computer’s operating system decides how to allocate memory space, based on some deterministic instructions. But, Dr. Lloyd said, “If I ask how long will it take to boot up five minutes from now, the operating system will say ‘I don’t know, wait and see, and I’ll make decisions and let you know.’ ”
Why can’t computers say what they’re going to do? In 1930, the Austrian philosopher Kurt Gödel proved that in any formal system of logic, which includes mathematics and a kind of idealized computer called a Turing machine, there are statements that cannot be proven either true or false. Among them are self-referential statements like the famous paradox stated by the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, who said that all Cretans are liars: if he is telling the truth, then, as a Cretan, he is lying.
One implication is that no system can contain a complete representation of itself, or as Janna Levin, a cosmologist at Barnard College of Columbia University and author of the 2006 novel about Gödel, “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines,” said: “Gödel says you can’t program intelligence as complex as yourself. But you can let it evolve. A complex machine would still suffer from the illusion of free will.”
Another implication is there is no algorithm, or recipe for computation, to determine when or if any given computer program will finish some calculation. The only way to find out is to set it computing and see what happens. Any way to find out would be tantamount to doing the calculation itself.
“There are no shortcuts in computation,” Dr. Lloyd said.
That means that the more reasonably you try to act, the more unpredictable you are, at least to yourself, Dr. Lloyd said. Even if your wife knows you will order the chile rellenos, you have to live your life to find out.
To him that sounds like free will of a sort, for machines as well as for us. Our actions are determined, but so what? We still don’t know what they will be until the waiter brings the tray.
That works for me, because I am comfortable with so-called physicalist reasoning, and I’m always happy to leverage concepts of higher mathematics to cut through philosophical knots.
The Magician’s Spell
So what about Hitler?
The death of free will, or its exposure as a convenient illusion, some worry, could wreak havoc on our sense of moral and legal responsibility. According to those who believe that free will and determinism are incompatible, Dr. Silberstein said in an e-mail message, it would mean that “people are no more responsible for their actions than asteroids or planets.” Anything would go.
Dr. Wegner of Harvard said: “We worry that explaining evil condones it. We have to maintain our outrage at Hitler. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a theory of evil in advance that could keep him from coming to power?”
He added, “A system a bit more focused on helping people change rather than paying them back for what they’ve done might be a good thing.”
Dr. Wegner said he thought that exposing free will as an illusion would have little effect on people’s lives or on their feelings of self-worth. Most of them would remain in denial.
“It’s an illusion, but it’s a very persistent illusion; it keeps coming back,” he said, comparing it to a magician’s trick that has been seen again and again. “Even though you know it’s a trick, you get fooled every time. The feelings just don’t go away.”
In an essay about free will in 1999, Dr. Libet wound up quoting the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, who once said in an interview with the Paris Review, “The greatest gift which humanity has received is free choice. It is true that we are limited in our use of free choice. But the little free choice we have is such a great gift and is potentially worth so much that for this itself, life is worthwhile living.”
I could skip the chocolate cake, I really could, but why bother? Waiter!

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

I’m back!

Wow has it really been 7 years with no updates? I can't believe it's 2007 now. Sorry I haven’t been posting very regularly, I just got busy. But not getting busy ;)

Quick personal update:

Anyhoo, like a bonehead, I forgot to invest in Google, but spent the money instead on a sweet home-theater system with top-of-the-line Laserdisc player. My Laserdisc collection is second to none--at least to the point where they stopped making them.

A lot of people really thought that format was going to take off. :(