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Evolution – some ideas

December 2, 2012 1 comment

One of the books included in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great books of the western world set is “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. And the great idea more fully developed here, than in any book before, and probably more than in any information published for many decades since, is evolution.

Today, we have many more changes to try to come to grips with, and the ideas of evolution can help, especially if we are willing to apply them broadly.

It is also true, that the book itself, the way it presents its facts and arguments, the way in which it was constructed, the purposes it was meant to serve, and the events that caused Darwin to postpone his publication and the events that catalyzed its release, are probably very instructive, with many lessons about thought, invention, creativity and potentially controversial theses.

One of the things that differentiates the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books set, is the inclusion of two reference volumes called the Syntopicon, which serves as a kind of index or concordance to the entire corpus of books, making it possible to find where different authors have had something to say about the same idea. To understand how the idea of evolution can be helpful, I think it is important to see how it works, not only in the modification of genes of organisms over geologic time, but also how very similar processes are at work in several fields. Many of the best examples of evolution, and concepts invoked to explain its action are in uses and techniques of far too recent invention to have any hope of inclusion in a collection like the Great Books.

It is only in an age of ubiquitous, cheap recording technology, automatic information transcription and mechanical information distribution that we can witness some methods similar to those understood to underlie biological evolution, exemplified in non-biological systems. Though there is some precedence for the idea of evolution in economics, and other social sciences.

In Herodotus’s account of history we meet the character of Solon, the wise man of Athens, and hear of how he was unwilling to call anyone happy during his life. Solon, apparently believed that it took reflection, after the completion of someone’s life, to assess what satisfaction they knew, or what significance they had. In today’s world, it seems to me that we are a million miles away from that. And nowhere is this more true than on 24-hour rolling news TV channels. It is implied that there is too much to talk about, and never enough time. Reporters grow impatient quickly, and encourage the people they interview to give as short and unequivocal an answer to their questions as possible. Leaving aside the matter of how wisely their questions were chosen, or even how wise their choice was in picking one event to talk about over another, one person to interview as opposed to who else might have been available, I feel sure that if Solon could witness such a crime against contemplation, he would agree that no wisdom can come of this.

In a present and future-oriented culture as the one in which we live, I think it is more important that ever to remember that time is often essential for analysis. It is important to remember that acclimating to changes might not only take time but also be expensive, in terms of pain, possibly in terms of lives. This comes back to me each week, when it seems that I’m seeing advertisements from lawyers for a class-action suit against a new drug, on the grounds that it has some horrible side effects. I think of it each time I see an advertisement for a new drug, with active people smiling while they do things in sunny environments and an announcer lists several unpleasant-sounding potential side-effects. I think of these things every time I hear phrases like “beta test” or “early adopter”. The melancholy fact is that time is necessary for working out the problems in anything.

Time helps when there are persistent effects. Evolution requires the persistence of information over time.

Categories: Books Tags: , , , ,

The Mysterious Island

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment
The Mysterious Island

The Mysterious Island

One of the books I’ve read in the past few years that was most fascinating was “The Mysterious Island” by Jules Verne.

The book is about four men who made a daring escape in a balloon which was whisked by a powerful storm to an uninhabited island where they must use their resourcefulness to survive.

Verne stacked the deck in their favor. He has provided an island rich in natural resources, fresh water, useful plants, and game. One of the protagonists is an engineer who is inventive and knowledgeable about a range of modern crafts and techniques. Under his guidance the four men are able to start a fire without flint or matches and build many other fantastic things from what they find in nature.

The story is fantastic, if a bit hard to believe sometimes. Part of what makes it worthwhile is the marvel of discovering how many things are made from the most raw of materials. For a follow-up act, I recommend “Caveman Chemistry”.

One of the ways “The Mysterious Island” strains credibility is in what the engineer is able to accomplish purely out of his memory. Unlike the Professor in Gilligan’s Island, he does not have a trunk full of science books with him. He doesn’t even have a journal.

One of their amazing feats is the reckoning of their approximate location in latitude and longitude. This is accomplished through astronomical observations made with sticks stuck in the ground on a smooth sandy beach over several days, and by reference to one man’s watch, which kept the time of a known city. The problem is not that the measuring tools are insufficient. As we know Eratosthenes measured the Earth to within 2% in the 2nd century bc, using nothing but shadows, a reflection in a well and the known distance between two towns. A single “tin clock” was all that Joshua Slocum required to measure longitude on his famous trip, the first solo circumnavigation of the world. The bigger problem is remembering all of the facts relevant to make the measurements yield a meaningful location.

The characters, all native to North America, met in the city of Richmond, Virginia, yet when they found themselves on an island in the southern hemisphere they were able to recognize the Southern Cross, and use it to find the South Celestial Pole. One among them was a sailor, and I could readily believe that he could do this, but Verne gave the idea, the knowledge of astronomy and skill to use it, to the Engineer.

Later they determine local time using the sun. As I learned from reading about sundials, the length of the solar day is variable, and interestingly, local apparent solar time does not coincide with local mean time even on the equinoxes. It is a little off-set on those days. Knowing when noon, according to a clock set to your meridian will coincide with the point when the sun is highest in the sky, requires a bit of calculation. The days when this happens changes slightly from year to year like the actual dates of the equinoxes and solstices. I expect most people would need an almanac to tell them these things. However, I learned a verse from a book that will get you pretty close:

April the Fourth, and June the Sixth remember;
August the Twentieth, and Twenty-fourth December;
On these Four Days and none else in the year,
The Sun and Watch both the same Time declare.

This mnemonic seems no more difficult than “Thirty days hath September”. I could have believed that the characters had the knowledge to measure their latitude if one of them had spoken this rhyme. Without it, as I said, my credulity is strained. It plays havoc with my willing suspension of disbelief.

So measuring the height of the celestial pole gives you your latitude, and measuring the time difference between a known meridian and your current meridian gives your longitude. So you’ve calculated a couple of numbers; what does that get you? To make use of this measurement you need to know what else is near by. The problem here, is that at this point in the story the characters did not have a map. So, from memory, the Engineer discusses how many miles their island is from the coast of South America, Australia, and Fiji. I imagine that Jules Verne probably had a map close at hand for reference at all times. But I find it hard to believe that he would have more than a vague idea about the coordinates of the world’s significant coasts and islands. It is easy to know things when you have the map to look at. Maybe you don’t feel like you are looking up a fact so much as getting a tiny nudge for your memory, but you need that nudge.

Far fetched as it may be, what would you know how to do if you were stranded on a desert island? Could you remember how to find your location? Would you know the constellations? Would you know the meridian of your hometown? Would you know when you could set your clock by the sun? Would you be able to remember the formulas and procedures for making soap? Ceramics? Metal? Rope? Fabric? Fire? Its easy to know a lot in your study at home, but if you were forced to rely on your wits to survive, could you? And should you be capable of it?

Joshua Foer at TED Talks

October 30, 2012 Leave a comment


Here’s another video with Joshua Foer, recent American Memory Champion, talking about how he got into the competition, beginning as a science writer who learned the techniques memory athletes use, and entered the contest to gain an inside experience.

Joshua Foer is the author of the book, “Moonwalking with Einstein,” Which is a pretty good survey of what people know today about memory, how it works, how it goes wrong, and how it can be trained to a higher capacity.

What Joshua Foer has learned is, to paraphrase Piotr Wozniac, The difference between a genius and a person of ordinary mental abilities is not so much a difference on the biological or synaptic level, but a difference in their skill to handle information. The genius quickly dismembers information and forms simple models that make life easy.

Categories: Books Tags: , ,

Professional Memorizers

October 26, 2012 1 comment

From “Moonwalking with Einstein,” by Josua Foer:

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Professional memorizers have existed in oral cultures throughout the world to transmit that heritage through the generations. In India, an entire class of priests was charged with memorizing the Vedas with perfect fidelity. In pre-Islamic Arabia, people known as Rawis were often attached to poets as official memorizers. The Buddha’s teachings were passed down in an unbroken chain of oral tradition for four centuries until they were committed to writing in Sri Lanka in the first century B.C. And for centuries, a group of hired tape recorders called tannaim (literally, “reciters”) memorized the oral law on behalf of the Jewish community.

This also puts me in mind of the roman nomenclator, who might deserve to be thought of as loosely belonging to this class. It was the nomenclator’s job to follow a politician as he walked through his district, interacting with the public and whisper into his ear the names of the citizens he talked with. Whether he was a professional memorizer or not, he was a professional memory aid.

In some fiction by Heinlein, especially, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” we find characters who have a special profession, known as “fair witnesses” who wear white robes, are trained in total recall and thoroughly indoctrinated against making unwarranted assumptions. (Any assumptions at all, it is implied, though I don’t see how this is at all possible. A person who made no assumptions whatsoever would be effectively insane. Writing that puts me in mind of the character in one of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, the thorouhgoing philosopher who lived in a shack, and, it was implied, was the real president of the galaxy that Zaphod was a distracting figurehead to hide.)

It seems odd, especially by the standards and assumptions built into Joshua Foer’s book, “Moonwalking with Einstein” to set such a profession, such a class of people in a technological future in which there also exist such things as three-dimensional television.

In one scene in “Stranger…”, Jubal calls for both two motion picture cameras and Anne, in her white witness robes to record a demonstration of Mike’s power to make things disappear.

Anne correctly reports that the objects seemed to diminish in apparent size rather than disappear instantaneously. Both movie cameras, when the film was played back also confirmed this, the objects receded into the distance, from every perspective.

Who really needed the Fair Witness in that world, when they could just hire a camera? And how would the existence of such a profession relate to one of the books earliest central protagonists, the reporter Ben Caxton? Remember it was Ben who hired the first fair witness to appear in the book. But what is a reporter’s job if not to investigate things, notice them and be a kind of witness? For two centuries the reporter has been imagined as someone who went about, constantly noting everything in his memo pad.

The Fair witness is reminiscent of the Mentats of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series. The common threatd may be that they each represent guesses about the possibilities of future training methods for mental development. But a critical difference between “Dune” and “Stranger…” was that in Dune, machines made to mimic the powers of the human mind were strictly forbidden. It was a story set in space, with technology and science, but in which the human mind, human strengths and foibles were still dominant, along with a form of government that seems atavistic by today’s standards. In a way, it was the opposite of a cyberpunk novel, in which we find shallow, empty characters rushing to augment or replace their humanity with computer technology.

Born on a Blue Day

October 14, 2012 Leave a comment
Born on a Blue Day

Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet

The title of this entry is the title of a book I read recently. The book was interesting and informative. It had many of the qualities I think make for a great book. It is an autobiographical work that tells about the early years, formative experiences, and major accomplishments of its author. It is also very rich in information related to his condition. I’ve been interested in memory feats and systems, synesthesia, aspergers syndromeand what is known about the phenomenon for some time. So I’ve been keeping a kind of file on news items, and related things. I was able to see early in the book that Daniel Tammet is at least as aware of the case studies and research as I am, and is able to mention everything relevant succinctly and in a logical place in his book.

The book also has the virtue of broadening our horizons. It helps us to understand something of what it is like to be very different. When you watch a movie like “Rainman,” based on another person, who is also a high-functioning autistic savant, you get a sense of how different someone like that is. You see that they can be loved by their close family members, that their unusual outbursts of emotion sometimes make a kind of sense, but what you don’t see is how they see themselves, how they experience the world around them, or what is going on in their heads when they perform their amazing feats of calculation or memory. In “Born on a Blue Day,” Daniel Tammet lets you do that.

If you’ve seen the “Brainman” documentary about him, as I have, there are going to be several things that you already know when you open the book. You’ll know something about how intimidating he finds the disorder of the outside world to be. You’ll know something about his epileptic fit as a child, and will probably have some idea that this led to his current abilities, you’ll know that he has amazed brain researchers in the U.S. by passing their tests, and proving that his synesthetic experiences of numbers are consistent. And that he did indeed learn to speak Icelandic in a week.

What this book will tell you that you may not know, is that his father and grandfather have some mild afflictions, and in his grandfather’s case it was exacerbated by experiences at war. You’ll learn that he credits the experiences of closeness to many siblings in a large family for a large part of his ability to bridge the gap between his condition and relating to people in a more normal way. You’ll learn how he challenged himself by choosing to volunteer to teach English abroad in Lithuania. And you’ll learn a few surprising things about mathematical puzzles, and Pi.

The book does leave me with several questions though. Particularly about the nature of memory and the confidence that Tammet expresses in his own, and in the late Kim Peek’s retention.
Specifically, Piotr Wozniak, a polish psychologist and sort of expert in the field of memory has built a system around one of the most useful facts about memory to come out of laboratory experiments; that memories fade at an exponential rate unless they are reinforced by rehearsal at certain spaced intervals. Using this information, the statistical law of memory defined as a forgetting curve, he has created a computer program to optimize studying so that a fact may only have to be reviewed ten times in order for a person to remember it throughout their lifetime. The more facts you want to force yourself to remember permanently the more time you need to spend making repetitions of those facts. Wozniak has written a computer program, called SuperMemo to turn this method into a product, which is relevant because it is widely used by people who are attempting to learn foreign languages, and from the book, one of Daniel Tammet’s sources of income is an online language-learning website.

By applying his understanding of the rate of forgetting through statistics gathered from the use of his program, Piotr Wozniak has arrived at some upper limits to what a person can expect to learn in a lifetime, and he finds that it would be impossible for a person to learn, say, the entire contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica. His reasoning is that the number of questions one would have to answer to retain above 85 percent of that knowledge would take more hours than anyone could devote to learning in a day. He also says that even people who use memory systems, or have extremely good natural memories are in the same boat as everyone else when it comes to retention. According to Wozniak, memory can be improved, by learning new ways of encoding or organizing information, but the idea that memories of any kind are permanent is a myth.

Against this, we have Daniel Tammet reporting of Kim Peek, that, “He can read two pages of a book simultaneously, one with each eye, with near perfect retention. Kim has read more than 9,000 books altogether and can recall all their content.”

If we take the experimental results and Wozniak seriously, it seems we have to be doubtful about the retention claimed for the late Kim Peek. And if it were true, how would we possibly explain it? Is every phone number, birthday or baseball statistic as significant an experience as putting your hand on a hot stove, or a life threatening fall? (Since those are some of the few things that ordinary people are likely to never forget, but wish they could.) Surely there must be at least some category of fact, even for him, that memories fade at the same rate as the rest of us. Or are we just overly willing to praise the outstanding abilities of a person who seems so terribly impaired in other areas of life? And is Tammet a little credulous in passing this praise on to us as fact?

Categories: Books Tags: , , ,
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