8.28.2003

The Mystery of Consciousness

A pair of scissors is, at its most basic, a pair of blades attached by a pivot. Someone thought to put a couple loops on one end to make it easier to use. My arm is a pair of rods attached by a ball-joint. I flex my muscles by sending a signal along my nerves which stimulates millions of muscle cells to expand or contract in a practiced sequence. Choosing how and when to control those muscles is learned in our infancy when we are completely unaware of our ineptitude and are not able to comprehend our ignorance. In the end, mastery of our body becomes innate and invisible. Those who are burdened with physical disabilities would tell those of us who aren't to appreciate the ease with which we move and flow through space. Our struggle was fought years ago as babies and now we possess our bodies to a such degree that we consider them a part of ourselves, more than mere extensions but rather a full expression of who we are. That is a fallacy, of course. I would still be myself were I to lose an arm or a leg. Sure, I would change in many ways but it would not affect my consciousness other than having to constantly remind my brain that, no, it's gone. An awkward and frustrating retraining of the mind's relationship to its vessel.

I can dissect my arm and tell you how the muscles pull. I can understand how oxygen flows from the air, through brachioles into my blood on the bus marked 'Haemoglobin'. Yet, I will always struggle to tell you how my mind works.

What physical manifestation of consciousness will we ever find in our squishy, folded brain? Axons and dendrites, neurons and myelin sheathing. How do they fit together to store the memory of my wedding, the scent of bubble gum, the sound of thunder? Do I have some strange and unfathomable series of ones and zeroes, some organic version of registers and pointers? Where is the RAM? The hard drive? Where are those ancient memories of infancy stored? All of these questions are beyond my reach.

Part of the problem lies in emergence. You can look at a hydrogen atom and an oxygen atom all day long but you'd never be able to predict their behaviour in a water molecule. Take two things and mix 'em together and you get something greater than the sum of its parts. Emergence, by definition, is unpredictable. So even if we do manage to understand the basic components, it will not be immediately obvious (though perhaps not impossible) how consciousness arises from a sloshy mess of gooey brains.

8.21.2003

If I had to describe humanity to aliens in two words it would be:
Sugar and Ashes

That's a great title for something, isn't it?

8.19.2003

Obviously our laws are meant to prevent what we collectively agree upon as "wrong".

I read this once upon a time. This is something I've been thinking about and come to the conclusion that this rationale does not work. Laws cannot prevent anything. They are first and foremost punishments for acts.

Let's say I live in a place where we want to prevent murder. We agree to pass a law that says murder is wrong. Human nature being what it is (witness my vague handwaving) a murder then occurs. The law did not prevent the murder.

We rethink the law and add a penalty, imprisonment. A murder occurs. The law is ineffective, people say. It needs to be stronger.

We pass a law that sets a penalty of death on murder. A murder occurs. The law has failed again. Where can you go from here?

If I want to buy an apple, it costs 25 cents. If I want to buy a car, it costs $20,000. If I want to gather nuts, it costs me 100 kJoules. If I want to hunt a deer, it costs me 10,000 kJoules. If I want to park without paying the meter, it costs me $50. If I want to kill someone, it costs me 12 years.

Laws only set cost. We cannot govern each other's actual behaviours. The law will not enter the mind to prevent such a thing from happening.

The only way to eliminate "wrong" is to eliminate free will. Some acts are clearly wrong. Flying airplanes into buildings: wrong. I can always choose to do these acts, however. I can also choose not to do so, and I frequently do.

I have to make a decision whether or not it will be worth it (vis a vis the cost of my actions). And even then if I can formulate the situation in another way ("I wish to stop the people who are killing my people. My best bet is to kill as many of them as I can." ), then it is not "wrong" from my point of view. We must never underestimate the ability to rationalize our own actions. This is the fatal flaw in using laws to prevent or deter crime.

My brother took my favourite toy. I asked for it back. He said no. There are no parents. I push him down and take it back. As a third party, we would say this act is wrong. I would argue, no, it was my only recourse. I had no access to an arbiter (parent). [And, of course, I would pay no cost since the only witness is biased. :) ]

Thus, even if I live by what I believe is "right", it is my ability to rationalize and justify my own actions that inhibits me from always doing what society would consider right and proper behaviour. We can always rephrase our behaviour to conform to societal norms.

In the end, deterrence is an effect of the law. The cause of the law is to provide a sense of justice after the fact of a crime.

8.15.2003

I feel like telling a story. Stories are our best possessions and diminish not as they are shared. In fact, that's how they grow.

This story is true. You cannot beat the truth when it comes to stories. No imagination has the power of reality. Believe me, you'll know when I'm making something up.

In 1993, I was waiting in line with a friend of mine at a bank as she was withdrawing money. This was just before the advent of ATMs and people still had to visit a human being called a teller. While you waited in line to speak to the teller, there was a table with several forms and a couple pens; sometimes there was even a cheap calculator. There were all sorts of forms: one for withdrawals, another for deposits, etc. While you waited in line, the client of the bank (my friend, in this instance) would fill out a little slip for a withdrawal or deposit or whatever and have it ready to present to the teller when you got the end of the line.

My friend started to fill out her little form while we were in line. Bored, I took out one of the slips and wrote on the back: "This is a hold up." I slipped the piece of paper back into the pile and as she finished, our conversation resumed. I didn't mention what I had done until we left the bank. She wasn't happy but thought it was funny in the end.

Two days later.

My friend starts yelling at me upon alighting her eyes on my face.

"You idiot!"

"What?"

"An old man took out the slip you wrote on and used it for his transaction. He presented it to the teller when he reached the desk. The teller flipped it over to stamp it and looked at the old man again. Appraently, the teller decided that this old man was not holding up the bank.

The teller showed the old man what was written on the flipside of the slip and he almost had a heart attack. He thought he was part of some scheme to rob the bank. The bank people calmed him down and smoothed everything out with him. They reviewed their security cameras and saw who did it, who they were with and tracked down who's account was used. They didn't know you but they found me. I had to go to the bank yesterday and they made me promise that you'd write a letter of apology."

"What?! No way!"

"You write that letter of apology."

"Uh. Ok."

" Tomorrow."

"Ok."

That letter has yet to be written.
After the blackout....

While New Yorkers poured out of immobile subway cars, emerged from stuck elevators, began long walks home or rested in local establishments, one unidentified man saw beauty.

"You can actually see the stars in New York City," he said.

-LARRY MARGASAK Canadian Press

8.12.2003

You can choose your friends but you can't choose your family.

I've never been particularly close to my family. I have nearly nothing in common with them. My father passed away in '92. He was distant, silent and reacted poorly to adversity. The only two things that I could share with him was that he could be funny when he chose to be (about once a year) and liked to watch sports. My mother is a self-centered Catholic. The only thing I have in common with her is a love of movies (and my difficulty in thinking of others before myself if I am to be fully honest).

My brother and I fought like sworn enemies growing up. Hostile, violent and uncompromising would best describe our relationship. We had no interests in common. I always wanted to play chess or sports or any game with him growing up. He didn't because I am way too competitive (though I didn't realise it at the time). We pretty much kept to ourselves. I'm not exactly sure what he did to keep himself busy, that's how far apart we were.

Things have changed today. We have more to talk about now. We found a common love of arts and foreign culture. I don't know if we can just hang out. I wouldn't really know what to say to him if I went out to dinner, just me and him. He's my brother and I would walk across fire for him but I don't call him up when I'm bored or have something to bitch about.

I have lots of very good friends. I treasure my friends above all else. I also treat them badly on occasion. I have been accused of being vicious and cruel to them and it's true. I can be a very poor friend at times. I can have terrible judgment when it comes to interacting with people. But I suppose that I don't do it often enough to chase them away so I seem to have built up many very close relationships. I know for a fact that were my familly killed and house burned to the ground I would be able to stay indefinitely with any of them. They could all be godparents to my future children (though perhaps some are more qualified than others). Maybe I overestimate the relationship but I think not.

Most of the people I meet, I want as little to do with as possible. Thus, my default personality for meeting strangers I am forced to interact with is cold and impersonal. I'll talk about the weather with you if you're lucky. "Nice day" is a conversation as far as I'm concerned; now leave me alone. I've got things to do and the only reason I'm talking to you is cause I need something from you. Strangers at a bus stop, cashiers, passers-by-- no more talking than necessary, please. I don't want to see pictures of your kids or hear your opinion of that guy's hat, you inane, petty navel-gazer.

Hmm. That sounds more introverted than I really am. I love to meet people at parties or functions where I can be sure people have something in common with me. If a friend is having a party, odds are the people there are there because my friend liked something about them. That goes a long way. I'll want to meet you. If I'm at church bazaar, I'll be sitting in a corner watching the clock hands spin mercilessly.

I was once sitting on a bench in a city square of Chartres (France) writing about what I saw on a cool but sunny Sunday morning. Suddenly, a strange man sat next to me (with a baguette, naturally) and begin chatting with me. I wanted to die. I was enjoying the solitude and in barged this thrashing beast. But because he was a resident of another country I talked with him, learned about him. Asked him what he liked about France, what he did, what he knew about Canada. I learned about how he saw his country, how he saw mine and how he saw himself. It ended up being quite pleasant, he was a nice enough guy. But it was certainly not something I would ever initiate.

Which makes the people I consider friends all the more special to me. People I can relate to. I am fiercely loyal to them and relish each opportunity to see them. I crave them and need both their validation or rejection, either is fine because, really, it's the honesty I seek. I need to know I'm not alone on this planet with people who have no desire to look past their front lawn. I need to argue, to laugh, to tell stories and to have stories told to me. I need people to sing with, to joke with, to threaten with mock fervour, to rant and vent upon, to be an audience and to perform for me. I rely on a network of people to get me through each day.

I chose you and you chose me. I like watching you change over the years. Watching you smile quietly or laugh uproariously. Seeing you passed out or running down a field. Hearing your tall tales or secret confessions. Fearing for you and cheering you on. You hold my hand and I hold yours and together we raise an island for ourselves against a rising tide of apathy.

8.05.2003

My wife started playing Morrowind. She is playing a character who is apparently perfect for being a thief. My darling wife then proceeded to steal something from a merchant. Afterwards, she told me she felt bad about it and then went about rationalizing her act. "Well, he wasn't using it. And I got it for him in the first place. He wasn't looking, so..." In essence, she felt guilty for stealing in a video game.

That's just not right.