Saturday, December 27, 2008

Number 52

A year ago I committed to publishing a new article on The Nort Spews each week. If I had thought about how many weeks there are in a year, and that it would mean writing 52 essays in that time, I might have chickened out. But here it is, a year later, and we have arrived at number 52.

Looking back, what surprises me most is that I was never at a loss for something to write about. Between books, movies, music, politics, religion, science, grandchildren, sports, and prognostication, there was no shortage of material. In fact, for most of the year I had several articles waiting to post well in advance of my Saturday deadlines. Of course, professional columnists do this all the time, year after year -- some of them with daily deadlines on top of the weekly ones. This experiment has given me new respect for them while at the same time satisfying my curiosity about my ability to get that kind of a job done. (Offers, anyone?)

But it has meant much more to me than that.The blog has given me both opportunity and incentive to more fully explore my own life of the mind. It's one thing to enjoy a piece of music, another to give expression to that enjoyment and share it with others. Life itself is full and rich, but much of the richness flows past all too quickly and is lost like flotsam in the wake of a boat. The blog has been a way to capture some of those things as they go by, to take snapshots and fasten them into an album of memory.

Blog writing is really a new form of communication, part diary, part editorial, part open letter to an intimate friend. In making my efforts public, I find I have a reason to explore my thoughts more fully than I would if I were merely making notes for my own reference, as I would in a journal, or even in a deep discussion with a close friend. Instead of just saying what I remember, I'm forced to check my facts, which is often an interesting exercise in itself. As Yogi Berra said, "You can see a lot just by looking."

And what a full year it was. Looking back over my list of titles I see that I began and ended with exploring the future, both in science fiction and fact. In "The God of the Falls" and "The Simple Truth" I managed to give as complete a statement of personal spiritual belief -- and history -- as I have ever done. It was the year I explored ebooks with the Sony reader I got last Christmas, opening a new torrent of readily available literature. I recorded another visit to the Miami Book Fair, and explained the secret behind my fondness for the Olympic Games. There are memorials to my father-in-law as well as to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and reports on three notable Conscientious Objectors -- one of whom I met, and another who should be legendary.

I revisited the Evolution debate yet again, and explored a new theory about the origin and fate of the universe. I reviewed three 19th century books about America, three versions of The Man Who Would Be King, three books about Los Alamos, and two histories of the early U.S. Navy. I cheered on a Presidential candidate, and shared my vote with my eight-year-old grandson in an election that neither of us will ever forget. And always there was a backdrop of music ... the innovative computer animations of Animusic, the immortal pianist Glenn Gould, the history of local classical radio, and the lost jazz of Paul Desmond.

I'm under no delusions of fame for all this. Google's tracking software tells me I get some hits every day, but many are mere glances, like the passing eyes of browsers in a book store. There are a few faithful readers out there (you know who you are!) to whom I am grateful. Sometimes a comment comes back like the distant plunk of a pebble plumbing the depths of a deep well. But I am my own favorite reader, and the rewards of writing have never been more clear to me than they are now.

So onward into 2009. My challenge for the new year will be to keep it up without the clockwork of calendar deadlines. I may post more or less often than once per week, but life goes on, and so will these observances of it. I feel sure there is much more to come.

- Steve Donachie

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Wrestling With the Rosary

Merry Christmas -- with apologies from a lapsed Catholic ...

When my mother died I inherited two Madonnas -- no, not the singer, which is what you get if you do a search online, but the one named Mary who gave birth to a most famous Son apparently in a rare case of parthenogenesis. These small statues, one of wood, the other ivory (before it was illegal!), were brought back from Europe as gifts for my mom when my father returned from fighting World War II.

My family left the Catholic Church when I was very small, so these figures never acquired religious significance for me. But in keeping them I find they remind me of my mother, and of my connection to both of my parents.

Another mysterious symbol I have always remembered from my childhood was my grandmother's rosary. She most emphatically did not leave the Church, and spent part of her time praying for those of us who had.

Whenever my sister and I visited her apartment one of the things we did was to explore her jewelry box to find the rosary she had stashed away in there. This mystical artifact, its purpose unknown to us, with its silver cross and beads of black cut glass, seemed to point to something beyond, and fascinated us.

In one of those bizarre coincidences that are not really uncommon in life, a rosary arrived in my mail recently, barely two days after I found myself remembering these things. (As always, there is a logical explanation: the local charity, Camillus House, had sent it out with an appeal for donations for the homeless. But that takes nothing away from the delight of the coincidence.)

So, as you must do when such an occasion lands in your lap, I decided to finally discover what the rosary was all about. I already knew by now that it was an aid to repetitious prayer, and that at least part of it involved the Hail Mary -- the one so widely known that it has become the name of a play in football where you just let loose with the long ball and pray for success.

Camillus thoughtfully enclosed a brochure of instructions for how to pray the rosary, so that's where I began. The title was "Praying the Rosary - An Easy Guide." I suppose it is easy enough, since the instructions were all in English (no Latin grammar required) and the steps were as simple as 1,2,3 ... 4,5,6,7,8,9, and 10. Here's where I took my first deep breath.

The rest of the instructions consisted of the text of the seven (seven!) different prayers to be repeated, and then a list of four sets of five (=20) Mysteries to be contemplated while engaged in the repetitions. First talk, then chew gum. Got it.

Setting the Mysteries aside for another day, I launched into the prayers. One of them, the Our Father, I already knew, thanks to several years of primary school in that simpler time when we began each day with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag (under God) and didn't even know it was bad for us.

Another one, the aforementioned Hail Mary, I almost knew -- and that was just as well, because I would have to repeat it a whopping 53 times, far more than any of the others, which I suppose is intended to stress the centrality of Mary in all this.

But before I could get on to these two old friends I first had to get past the Apostles' Creed, which I'd never seen or heard before. Right away I was troubled. This begins with the words "I believe," followed by quite a list: God (no problem there), Jesus (of course I believe he existed, it's well documented) (but that he was God's only son? Wasn't he telling us we are all children of God and should act accordingly?) (that he rose from the dead? -- books have been written about this) (and that he's coming back "to judge the living and the dead?" -- the same guy who challenged us to cast the first stone?) ...

But wait, there's more: the Holy Spirit (sounds fine), the Catholic Church (whoa), "the communion of saints" (need to look it up), forgiveness of sins (I certainly hope so), the resurrection of the body (do we really want our bodies back after they're dead? sounds macabre), and life everlasting (okay, but no dead body, please). So you see I had a few questions and issues.

And that was just for openers. At least it is only said one time. Then after a hop (Our Father), skip (3 Hail Mary's), and a jump (the Glory Be or Doxology), it was on to the first of the day's 5 mysteries. These are categorized and assigned to days of the week, but since there are 4 groups and only 7 days the Luminous Mysteries get short-changed and are only said once on Thursdays. The others groups are Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious. (Stop snickering back there with your Grumpy and Bashful.)

I confess (not in the Catholic sense) that I have not paid due attention yet to the Mysteries. They are all notable incidents from the Gospels, and certainly worthy of contemplation. But before I got to that page I stumbled across a typo in the "Let Us Pray" section of the Hail Holy Queen. There was a phrase that read "while meditation on these Mysteries," which was clearly intended to say "while meditating on" or "while in meditation on."

Such a small thing, really. The kind of mistake that must have plagued the monks who spent their lives copying books by hand. But it reminded me of finding a similar typo in Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time. Somewhere in the first few pages, at the end of a dense and difficult paragraph, the sentence that summed up the gist of the paragraph -- what we used to call in English class the "topic sentence" -- stated the exact opposite due to the insertion of a single "not" (or the absence of one, I'm not sure which). Again, a tiny flaw in a wonderful manuscript, but one that might have caused some readers to decide that they would never be able to understand the remainder of the book if this paragraph meant the opposite of what they thought it said.

So here was a similar issue in a prayer, a carefully formulated string of words that was meant to be said properly, yet flawed with the potential of other errors that might be less apparent. What if someone learned to do it wrong?

Another example was the Glory Be to the Father, which was by far my favorite part: "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen." A strong and clear affirmation of divinity in all its forms, and recognition of the eternal -- what's wrong with that? Nothing. But the brochure seemed to say it was optional ... or it might have meant the next part was optional, again unclear. And what did it say about my affinity for all this if my favorite part was the only one considered optional and able to be omitted altogether?

By this time I had become curious where the tradition came from and how far back it went, because I was pretty sure it was not something that Jesus did or even talked about. I did some research online and learned that early monks from the first few centuries used strings with knots in them to keep track of their prayers, and that a principle practice was to recite the psalms of David. Well, they were into some good poetry and rich imagery then.

At some point beads began to be used in place of knots. In fact, the word "bead" comes from the Latin word "bede" for prayer. So you might say the word preceded the object as it did "In the Beginning."

The modern rosary only goes back to the 12th century when a monk who had been fasting and otherwise distressing his body fell into a coma. While unconscious he had a vision of the Blessed Virgin, who personally gave him the instructions he was to follow. Upon waking up he proceeded to spread the custom far and wide. Evidently visions from a coma were all the proof people needed back then.

If you know my scientific turn of mind you will be able to imagine the kind of sinking feeling that had come over me by now. But that was nothing compared to the further instructions I found on how to pray the rosary properly.

This online source, which I won't hold up for ridicule by name, stressed the importance of correctness in the process. You are supposed to imagine Jesus and his Mother standing before you. On your right hand your Guardian Angel (you do have one, don't you?) collects the roses you produce with each repetition and weaves them into a crown to adorn the heads of the holy duo. Since these are spiritual roses they will never die, but will continue to pile up. (Heaven must be loaded with them by now, though I would have thought Jesus had enough of the thorns while he was here among us.) But wait -- you mustn't forget that on your left hand is the Devil who is just waiting for your attention to wander so that you screw up one of your roses, and who then grabs it and "writes it in his book of death!"

Well, there you have it. That's as far as I got. Heaving a big sigh, and feeling sympathy for any children who are being frightened by this, I finally had to recognize that the same forces that drove my parents into Catholic exile were still at work in me, leading me to question everything, accept nothing on faith alone, and to find my own way in my own spiritual world. God, I feel sure, welcomes my earnest search for the truth no more or less than the earnest prayers, or attempts at prayer, of those who conform to the various rituals of their churches.

At meeting, we Quakers sit in silence and listen for the truth, whenever and however it may appear. That too is a ritual and can be done wrong, yet no one is ever threatened with death, and it is never implied that there is anything inherently better about the right hand than the left. Perhaps I will find myself contemplating a mystery there, whether it is one of the ones on the official list or not. I might even discover that the words of the Doxology or the Hail Mary are still with me, rosary or not.

But then again, maybe I'll just remember my grandma.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Singularity

The last thing we will ever have to invent is almost here ...

According to technology pundits like Ray Kurzweil (whose book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, I reported on a couple of years ago), the human race is about to replace itself with something new. We don't know yet exactly how it will come about, or even what form it will take, but if you follow the progress of scientific breakthroughs for another few decades all the arrows point to something unprecedented -- unless you go back to the evolution of human consciousness itself.

Statistician I. J. Good was the first to write about what he called a potential "intelligence explosion" back in 1965:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.
We're talking about the ultimate evolution of human tools. We started out with sticks and stones and used them to make ever more refined versions from more and more advanced materials. Now we are assembling components measured in nanometers and creating devices that can very nearly think for themselves. Soon the "very nearly" will be eliminated.

Vernor Vinge, who Kurzweil cites as a source, began to popularize this idea in the 1980's with a series of articles, including one called "The Coming Technological Singularity" (published in 1993 and available for free download from Feedbooks). Vinge is one of those people who have successfully straddled multiple worlds by pursuing careers as a mathematician, computer scientist, and science fiction author. (Another choice example is Rudy Rucker.) This article of his combines the forward looking vision of the futurist with the rigorous thought of the scientist.

Vinge applied the name "singularity" to the intelligence explosion, borrowing the astronomical term for a "black hole," in the sense that further prediction becomes impossible because the rules will change. It begins when super-intelligence -- whether mechanical or biological -- becomes capable of designing improved versions of itself.  (It is already impossible to design improved chips without using computers as tools.)

Once this point has been reached it becomes inevitable that they will eventually exceed not only the intelligence of a human, but the intelligence of all humans put together. Beyond that, our own survival may depend on how well we are able to adapt to this new state of affairs and what role, if any, remains for us to play in the new world. Or, for that matter, if "we" will still be who we are.

Waking Up

There is one leap of faith necessary to bridge the gap between mere computational machinery and human awareness. This is the idea that consciousness results purely as a byproduct of a certain level of complexity and a certain degree of organization. In other words, the human brain apparently consists of nothing more than a collection of identical neurons interconnected with one another, a kind of "soft machine" which begins as a blank slate and gets programmed with memories and personality traits as it is exposed to the external stimulus of the outside world. There is no other mystery component that makes us who and what we are.

[Whatever mystical or spiritual connection there may be to a larger intelligence such as God is a question that is not addressed by this view -- in fact, the idea may have to be seriously reexamined once we are confronted with any example of intelligence beyond ourselves, whether or not it is one of our own making.]

At some point quite early in our lives we apparently "wake up," an event that may be as basic as becoming self aware and which may start with something as simple as discovering that we have toes. Perhaps there is another breakthrough in adolescence when we become even more self-aware (often painfully so) and arrive at maturity.

The leap of faith is the assumption that the intelligent machines we are building will similarly reach a point where they "wake up." This phrase is explicitly used by Vinge as he describes not one but several different ways in which super-intelligence might arise. Interestingly, they are not necessarily intentional:
  1. An advanced computer may "wake up," whether or not it was designed to do so, and demonstrate intelligence at or beyond the human level.
  2. An entire network of computers (like the kind run by search engines) may "wake up" as a single entity, again with or without intention on our part.
  3. Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that humans themselves can be considered enhanced to a higher level of intelligence. This is a sort of symbiotic result.
  4. Bioengineering made possible by the use of computers may result in humans of super-intelligence.
Perhaps the most likely scenario is that in time all of the above may come to pass. Our attraction to technological enhancement will lead us to continue to adopt anything that makes life easier, longer, more healthful, and more enjoyable. It is a road we started on long ago and are not likely to abandon now that it's really getting interesting.

Even those among us who are most critical of technology would be reluctant to give up much of what we have become accustomed to. You might be willing to do without TV, even movies and computers, but what about antibiotics, anesthetics, or modern dentistry? You might be willing to give up having a car, but would you also give up mass transit and go back to exclusively walking or riding a horse? Are you ready to take up farming?

So if they build it, we will likely buy it, and buy into it. And in the long run it will do no good to legislate against progress. If we have any moral qualms about playing Creator in this country, someone in Russia or China or Japan or India will not. Once it becomes possible, it will happen.

"It's Alive!"

Ever since Mary Shelley entertained her house guests with Frankenstein we have been haunted by nightmares of what could happen if our creations get the better of us. The image of the "robot" has become the personification of technology, and remains one of the powerful myths of our age even as it progresses rapidly from fantasy to reality. In fiction robots have been variously treated as benevolent servants and heartless destructive villains. (See my earlier blog about "The Terminator" and "I, Robot.") In real life they will be what we make them -- but only until they begin making themselves. If we want to influence the outcome we had better start making the decisions now.

When will all this happen? Kurzweil says by 2045. Vinge said he would be surprised if it happens later than 2030. So pretty soon we will begin living smarter, longer, healthier lives as "enhanced" humans, whatever that turns out to be. And the co-species we create, whether constructed or bioengineered, may go on to surpass us and to fulfill the dreams we gave them. Like proud parents we may cheer them on as they leave home to explore the stars. Let's hope they drop us a line now and then, just to let us know how they're getting on.

[Other resources: KurzweilAI.net contains another article by Vernor Vinge about what might happen if the singularity does not. Many links for further reading are in the Wikipedia entries for the Singlarity, Vinge, and Kurzweil. And if it all seems too fanciful for you then you need to have your imagination stretched a bit. Try Postsingular, Rudy Rucker's novel about how wacky things might get -- available on Feedbooks .]

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Year 2889

In which the intrepid Jules Verne hazards a leap into the distant future ...

Those who would predict things to come are in big trouble these days. The present is changing so rapidly that the future has become a moving target.

In the time capsule that I "planted" on the Internet back in 2000 I referred to the predictions of a woman from 1895 whose letter to the future had been unearthed from a real time capsule buried by the people of a Midwestern city that year. The most advanced thing she could imagine was that after a century a flying machine might have been invented. But as we know, that happened only eight years in her future when the Wright Brothers took off in 1903.

The real developments of the past century went so far beyond her understanding that they would have required lengthy explanation. Radio, television, space travel, nuclear energy, DNA, computers, bioengineering, robotics, nanotechnology, the Internet -- all the things that have really changed in our lives were either unimaginable or impossible to believe back then.

Another good example is the idea of going to the moon. Just think how many stories, novels, and movies were made about it when it was a wild fantasy, and they all got one thing wrong: No one ever dared to imagine that the landing would be televised live around the world. On the other hand, the lunar colonies of Clarke and Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey are still a fantasy. And people have been predicting flying cars for decades without result. Sometimes we seem to know what's coming, but not when.

Not even the 19th century pioneer of science fiction, Jules Verne -- who successfully predicted heavier-than-air flight, electric powered submarines, and a trip to the moon that actually departed from the east coast of Florida -- could see much beyond the mechanistic science of his own day. He left us a short piece titled "In the Year 2889" (available for free download from Feedbooks) which falls laughably short on so many counts that its chief value is to demonstrate just how wrong it is possible to be.

Let's have a look at some of the bullet points in his vision of the world 1,000 years in his future:

  • Cities will have 10 million people. OK, that's about right ... for now.
  • Streets will be 300 feet wide. Let's see, that's about 30 lanes, 15 each way -- or less if you include a median strip and shoulders -- so parts of the Interstate are almost there now. He doesn't tell us if the traffic will still be bumper to bumper. Or why anyone would still use a street when they could fly instead. Maybe flying cars didn't work out after all.
  • People will travel through pneumatic tubes (like the ones that carried interoffice messages back then) at speeds of 1,000 mph. Well, our fastest trains are about a third of the way there already. But just try getting through the airport.
  • The telephone will be augmented by the "telephote," making it possible to see images from a remote location. Will there still be commercials? Actually his description sounds more like a cross between a fax machine and a webcam than a TV. He accurately describes teleconferencing, but 900 years too late.
  • The US capital will move from Washington DC to Centropolis. Maybe because the waters rose from global warming, which he did not predict? Actually, he proposes melting the polar ice to create more living space. Bad idea! Wish he'd called it "Metropolis" instead, but he didn't predict Superman either.
  • There will be 100 stars on the American flag. Hmm ... the folks in South America and Canada might have something to say about that, assuming there is still a United States in 2889. Or an America. Actually he predicts we will annex the British Isles. Come to think of it, so did George Orwell in 1984. Maybe we already have.
  • The most powerful man in the world is the owner of a newspaper -- Yes! they will still have newspapers! -- although the news is now distributed through "telephonic journalism." You call them up and they speak the news to you. Don't have time? Set up your home phonograph to record it for you, then listen later. Tivo anyone?
  • The average life span will have increased from 37 to 52 years. This would be funny if it weren't so sad. I hope the health care system has not declined so much in a thousand years, though we are certainly headed in that direction.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Even Verne's wildest dreams were obsolete by 1989, let alone 2889. Let's not be too critical, though. Think you could do any better? How about the world of 3008? Oh, what the heck, let's give it a try ...

  • There is no travel in 3008. People prefer telepresence, which allows them to be anywhere in the Inhabited Worlds instantly. Most people no longer know or care where they are physically.
  • The idea of space travel has changed. Now it means sending tiny probes to good looking planets, which can take hundreds or thousands of years to arrive. Once there, the probes begin to replicate themselves from local materials and to diversify in function, just as the cells of a developing embryo assume the roles of bone and muscles. They mature into a fully functioning infrastructure to support civilization. Finally they are activated and people can live there telepresently.
  • Long range planning is now common, due to human longevity reaching into centuries and space colonization spanning millennia. There is a 100,000 year timetable for spreading human civilization throughout this half of the galaxy. After that we'll see.
  • The definition of "person" has changed a lot. It includes intelligent animals, sentient artificial intelligences (SAIS), and deceased humans whose minds continue to function in simulacrum (SIMS). All have equal rights under the law, though everyone knows the SAIS are calling all the shots since they are way smarter than anyone else.
  • The population of people living as SIMS exceeds the rest of the population, though in most cases it is hard to tell the difference.
Fun, isn't it? But even though I'm giving it my best shot, I feel sure that Jules Verne did too. Accordingly all these wildest dreams of mine may be hopelessly outdated by 2108, let alone 3008. Just wait and see.

[Thanks to Paleo-Future for the Victorian flying car pic. You should see the other stuff they have. And refer to this recent post about how The Long Now Foundation is trying to plan 10,000 years into the future.]