06 Feb

a few questions

What is energy made of? When someone says “that has potential energy”, or “electrical energy” or “nuclear energy”, you know exactly what they mean, but what is energy actually made of? Can you extract energy from some action and show it to someone? Can you draw energy? Possibly a silly question… – maybe “energy” is an example of a “meta-attribute” (something which does not physically exist, but only exists in context)

Why does refraction happen?The usually metaphor used to describe refraction is a model car rolling along on a smooth surface like Lino, and encountering a rougher surface such as carpet, at an angle. Because a car is multi-dimensional in shape, part of the car will move onto the carpet before the rest, which causes that part to slow down, which causes the entire car to turn towards that side of the car (thus, the car is “refracted” by the carpet). Light, however, is usually portrayed as a single point which is travelling really fast. Does a point have sides? When entering a refractive object, can part of a photon be said to be “in” the slower medium, while the rest is still outside? If so, then I understand refraction, but it seems to me that light needs to be explained a bit more clearly in school…

Is the speed of light a constant or not? There have been reports of scientists recently slowing light to a crawl. Surely, that makes the speed of light a variable? Or, is c (the letter used to describe light-speed in physics) not actually “the speed of light”, but “the maximum speed of light”?

When approaching the speed of light, does “time” actually slow? It seems to me that if the speed of light is the fastest speed possible, then that can cause perceived time dilation while moving, without inventing actual malleable time. For instance, imagine a simple action such as passing a cup from one hand to another. Easy – takes a second. However, imagine you are now sitting in a spaceship travelling at the speed of light. Logically, you cannot now pass a cup from hand to hand, as simple vector math will show that be doing that, the cup will actually be travelling faster than c. Similarly, if perceived time depends on, say, an electron “ticking” around an atom, then at the speed of light, time must seem to stop altogether, as the electron will not be able to orbit the atom, as part of that orbit will be travelling faster than c. (similarly, as you /approach/ c, time will appear to “slow down”, when in fact, it just takes longer to perform any task, including thinking)

Am I wrong? Enquiring minds want to know…

22 Sep


I’m sitting here, at 11:30pm, reading through Richard P. Feynman’s “The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out“.

I have two copies of the book of his lectures, “The Character Of Physical Law“. The reason is, I bought a copy a long time ago, and read it straight through. After a few years, I wanted to read it again, but couldn’t find it, so I bought another copy. Now I have two (If anyone wants the spare one, please mail me).

Anyway – I came across a poem, which impressed me:

I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think.
There are the rushing waves…
mountains of molecules, each minding its own business…
trillions apart…
yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages…
before any eyes could see…
year after year…
thunderously pounding the shore as now.
For whom, for what?
…on a dead planet, with no life to entertain.

Never at rest…
tortured by energy…
wasted prodigiously by the sun…
poured into space.
A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another ’til complex new ones are formed.
They make others like themselves
…and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity…
living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein
…dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle onto the dry land…
here it is standing…
atoms with consciousness
…matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea…
wonders at wondering…
a universe of atoms
…an atom in the universe.

I wish I could speak with the man. He would have been a joy.

12 Sep


I’ve been thinking recently that my life should reflect my coding.

With my coding, I like to write an application out in “full” (ie, no shortcuts), then look over the code I’ve written, and try to abstract out as much as I can, which helps to simplify the code, making it easier to understand and to extend.

As some people know, I’m a diagnosed depressive, which means that I tend to get overwhelmed by things pretty easily. I came to an understanding recently that this was partly because I had been living my life “in full”, where it was now time to abstract out as much as possible.

One example is my books and media. I have a very extensive library, with hundreds each of books, VHS videos, and DVDs. Whenever I need to find something, I have to go digging through all those things, which are scattered around my house, crammed wherever they will fit.

It is that “scattering” which I think is an apt description of how my life is at the moment – I have too many different types of bill, there are too many projects I’m trying to keep track of, and in general, my attention is too scattered to be able to progress with anything.

So, it’s time to abstract it all. I’ve started, by calling up almost every company I have a bill from, and organising direct debits with them. Next, I need to convert all my media into one single format (divx), and pack away the originals (in computer terms, the divx files might be considered an “abstraction layer”). Then I need to prioritise my projects, and cut myself off from those that I have no time for.

Then, I can sit down again and see if my life is still complex. If so, then there is more pruning to do. If not, then I can finally progress with my life.

09 Sep

bicentennial man

I just watched Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man, based on Isaac Asimov’s robot story of the same name.

This was an incredibly powerful film! I was blubbering by the end of it, trying to keep quiet, in case I woke my daughter up (she was asleep in my arms).

The story is about a robot, Andrew (played by Robin Williams), who is purchased by Richard Martin (played by Sam Neill), who is “flawed” in a way which means that he is emotional and creative, whereas all other robots are mere tools.

This “flaw” inspires Andrew to become more and more human. First, by adopting clothes, then a bank account, then cosmetic appearance, and by inventing prosthetic organs which can be used by himself and by “real” humans.

I really loved this film. It may have been a flop in the box office, but that appears to have just been unfortunate timing.

Andrew’s wish to become human opens up the question – what is “human”? When it is brought up in a court case, he points out that it cannot be just based on what a person is made of – after all, that would make people with artificial limbs or organs somehow less human!

The answer he is given, which I disagree with even though it makes a good story, is that to be human is to die. It is the awareness of ourselves and of our impending non-existence that defines the human condition. As Andrew was a robot and essentially immortal, he could not, therefore, be considered “human”.

Interesting logic, but a trifle unfair.

Watch the film. You’ll be glad you did.

24 Aug

good philosophy book

Great book, this. Philosophy, The Basics, by Nigel Warburton

A lot of problems are described very simply, without recourse to huge multisyllabic words like “multisyllabic”.

As an atheist, I enjoyed the discussions on the various proofs that there is indeed a god. No conclusions were given, other than that there is more discussion needed.

I’ve just finished reading up on ethics, and am only slightly disappointed to find that there are indeed no hard and fast rules for how to live your life (unless you are religious, in which case “good” means “what god says”). Some ethic theories (utilitarianism, virtue theory, Kantian ethics, etc) were discussed, along with some example problems and how they might be solved with the various systems.

Based on the above, I think I may follow something like “negative utilitarianism”, whereby the goal of any action is to minimise suffering.

Now that I think of it, that could even explain my vegetarianism – I don’t kill and eat cows, because it would cause the cows pain, and I don’t suffer by eating potatoes instead.

How that allows me to come to work in suede shoes, and leather trousers, is beyond me – but hell, I’m not a consistent person!

The book is aimed at people who don’t study philosophy in-depth, but want an overview of it. That aim has been achieved. Everything is explained clearly and concisely.

Of course, not everything is explained – after reading certain sections, I had some questions that were not answered, but the book supplies “further reading” lists at the end of each chapter.

27 May

infinite doesn't mean every

I was reading through Slashdot’s article on the crumbling possibilities of space elevators, and came across an interesting quotation:

An infinite universe is no guarantee that everything will happen. There are many infinities. For example, there are an infinite number of numbers between three and four, but none of them are five.

That was interesting to me, as it kind of effects something I am interested in – abiogenesis; the idea that life can appear out of semi-random chemical interaction (i.e.; no God).

One of the most popular arguments against abiogenesis is:

The probability of a self-reproducing molecule appearing by chance is so small that it should be considered impossible.

My favourite argument against that is:

In an inifinite universe, every configuration of molecules is not only probable, but inevitable.

The slashdot quote appears to negate that, by saying that even in an infinite universe, there may be impossible configurations. This is correct, but doesn’t really affect my belief in abiogenesis – my justification can be saved by adding one single word:

In an inifinite universe, every possible configuration of molecules is not only probable, but inevitable.

i.e.; in the original quote, it is impossible to have a number 5 which appears between 3 and 4, even though there are an infinite numbers that do appear between 3 and 4. However, the opposite is true – every possible number which is greater than 3 and lesser than 4 is most definitely part of that infinite set of 3<n<4.

So, if there is a molecular configuration which supports life and is possible to replicate in this universe, then it is inevitable that it will appear at some time, given that the universe is infinite.

21 Dec

intelligent design ruled to be religion

"Well, d’uh!", I think is the sentiment every non-american would like to express. I really can’t understand how this farce made it so far through the courts. Thank $deity (haha!) that this has been thrown out.
It seems that the only difference between Creationism and Intelligent Design is that in Creationism, the weirdos are willing to give the creative force a name, but in ID, they pretend that the creative force is unknown to them.
I really don’t understand what the problem is that Creationists have with evolution. After all, evolutionary theory does not say that there is no god, but rather that if humans were "created" by God, then evolution is evidently the tool that God used!
Kae Verens, registered atheist/agnostic #1664

12 Sep

discussing reality with a sufist

Over the weekend, I had a visit from an old friend – Belinda McGowran, a reiki master from Dublin. She was up visiting someone in Emyvale, and decided to pay a passing visit to myself while heading back home.

She had a friend with her, a Sufist who’s name I can’t quite remember – Parva Herrity, I think it was.

We talked a lot about spiritual life, and we discovered that there are quite a few parallels between what I believe, an atheist, and what Parva believes, a Sufist.

While I think a lot of the stuff she talked about was a bit too outlandish for me, some points I agreed with completely. I won’t break them down, but instead, I’ll try to explain what we agreed.

Life is disorderly and cruel. Some people are lucky, and some people are unlucky. Sufists believe that this is all fate, that unlucky people are in that state because they need to learn from it. I think this is akin to “being in the gutter, but looking at the stars”.

Realising that there is no point to life is an important step in the growth of the self. At first, there is a mental anguish and an urge towards self-destruction, but eventually, this clears into a contented peacefulness with your own state of existance. This is true for both myself and Parva.

It is very difficult to explain an experience of “enlightenment” (or “realisation” or even “gestalt”) to someone that has not experienced it.

Here is part of the above description:

Simple techniques that strengthen our ability to concentrate are meditation, chanting (with awareness), and mentally affirming what’s happening now (“I am breathing in,” “I am tasting my food,” “I am driving my car and passing exit 89.”) Over time they help us being aware of (i.e. realizing) what’s happening in every moment.

This sounds elementary, but it’s actually quite difficult. For example, imagine your trip to work. Are you aware of everything around you? Most of the time, I find that I daydream on the way to work, and can’t describe anything that I have passed on the way. Enlightenment is a feeling of awareness, where you suddenly realise your state of being.

I won’t dwell on that, as I’m probably the wrong person to describe the feeling. For me, though, I believe I felt “enlightened” after I went through a very dark period in my life. Coming out of the other end, I realised that life, even if it is pointless, is worth living. I can’t describe the feeling – but it was a bit of a shock.

Another thing we agreed on is that the whole universe is basically a dream. Parva described us all as thoughts of God – that we think we’re real, but that we are actually just virtual versions of even more “real” versions. I described the philosophical idea of Platonic Idealism (the Cave story can explain it) to her, and she said that this was what she was trying to describe.

My own take on this is that the entire universe is just one probable configuration out of an infinite number of them. That, when taken individually, each universe is “real”, but when summed up, the total existance of these universes is null. This is kind of similar to the idea of virtual particles – that at any point in the universe, there exists a particle and its anti-particle. When taken in sum, those particles do not exist (ie: they are “virtual”), but each of the pair has the potential to exist. This is where Hawking radiation comes from – in essence, something has popped from virtually existing, to really existing. This is how I think the entire universe is – that in sum, it does not exist, but we live in one “potential” reality of it.

Again, that’s a hard concept to devour, but I think Parva understood what I was trying to say.

I enjoyed the talk. It was fun. I’d like to do it again at some point, after we have both had time to digest what the other was saying.

06 Sep

what religion are you really?

Everyone else is doing it, so I’ll be a lemming and do it too.

satanism You scored as Satanism. Your beliefs most closely resemble those of Satanism! Before you scream, do a bit of research on it. To be a Satanist, you don’t actually have to believe in Satan. Satanism generally focuses upon the spiritual advancement of the self, rather than upon submission to a deity or a set of moral codes. Do some research if you immediately think of the satanic cult stereotype. Your beliefs may also resemble those of earth-based religions such as paganism.


















Which religion is the right one for you? (new version)

ick – the HTML above took quite a bit of cleaning… Anyway – Satanism, eh? The difference between Atheism and Satanism (IMHO) is that Atheism is the passive faith that there is no God, but Satanism is the active “yeah, so whatcha gonna do about it?” belief that there is no God, and therefore no code of conduct beyond what you decide for yourself. Fair enough.

23 Jun

neurons for memory

New Scientist has an article about a study which is honing in on particular neurons which fire when a person recognises an image of a person.

What I find surprising about this is that the concept is very simple to understand, but it seems to be taking researchers decades to come to the point – they seem surprised to find single neurons firing, as a single neuron is a very simple organism, so how could it hold an abstract concept?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about neural networks recently, as I’m working on a robotic gardening machine, which will eventually be put to good use in my own garden to help with my farming.

During my own thinking on this, I’ve also come to the realisation that one single neuron can hold an entire complex memory. When you think of it, a neuron includes not just itself, but its connections to the neurons around it. It is the connections that give a neuron its “intelligence”. A memory, then, is the sum of a neuron’s connections.

Now, it’s not quite as simple as that… the connections take input from other neurons, which in turn are calculated from further connections. In short, a simple yes/no question is actually quite complex when you try to work it out with neurons, but when you get the answer, you can trace back on the connections and get a very rich “reason” for the solution.

For instance, the article mentions Halle Berry. Now, for me, Halle Berry rings several bells – a very nice golf swing in a certain film I can’t remember the name of being the strongest. So, for me at least, the neuron (or small group of neurons) that recognises Halle also links the recognition strongly to that scene. There is also an image of her face, and for some reason, a Michael Jackson video (did she play an Egyptian queen in a video?).

That’s at least four neurons, each of which, if I think about them, will throw up a load more connections.

I think that the various neurons help to keep the memory strong. In Artificial Neural Networks, changing a single neuron is discouraged if it has strong connections to many others, as that change will affect the results of those other neurons.

I think that this is why mnemonic memory works so well. In Mnemonics, in order to remember a single item, you try to link it with something you already know. For example, in the old Memory Palace method, you imagine a walk through your house, or another familiar place. Each room that you enter, you can associate with a certain thought. For more memories, you can associate individual points of interest in the room – shelves, windows, corners, etc.

For instance, let’s say you are to remember a shopping list of “bananas, lightbulbs, baby food, and clothes pegs”, you could associate it with my own house like this: “I walk into my house. Before I can enter, I need to push a huge inflated banana out of the way. On my left is a lavatory. In that room, the walls are covered in blinking lightbulbs. Further on, I reach the main hall. The floor is cobbled with jars of baby food. I walk over the jars into the sitting room, where my girlfriend is sitting, trying to stick as many clothespegs to her face as possible”.

Now, by associating the front door with a banana, for instance, you are doing a few things – you strengthen connections between your front door and bananas, you also connect bananas with your front door, and the absurdity of the situation impresses the connections further. Later on, when you reach the shopping market, you don’t need to remember what was on your list – you just need to go through your memory palace a room at a time.

What is very important about this is that you have used only two items of memory (your front door, and bananas) to remember a third item – that bananas are on your list.

I wonder – Is the sum of possible memories far greater than the sum of neurons available to you? It seems to me that it’s dependant more on the connections than the neurons.

Ramble finished…