Friday, March 10, 2006

Mind Googling

A google, I learned the other day, is the number of bits one scientist has estimated would be required to represent the whole of the visible universe − ten to the power of one hundred.

The same theorist, Jacob Bekenstein, has also established that the surface area of a black hole is proportional to the information it contains (or swallows).

To calculate the information content of a black hole Bekenstein divides its event horizon into planck squares (10 to the power of minus 33 cms), supposedly the smallest possible unit measurement of spacetime − the point at which it starts to go all "frothy" − and so perhaps a candidate for the fundamental pixels of our cosmos. He therefore speculates that a sphere one tenth of a lightyear across could 'contain' the visible universe.

Any hypothesis that would digitalise reality goes against the grain of theoretical physics which has traditionally been formulated using continuous phenomena like fields. In the Newtonian paradigm , it is generally agreed that the smallest computer model you could make of the universe would be the same size as the universe itself (rather like Borges' maps that fit snugly onto actual coastlines). But it goes without saying that The Matrix has made VR metaphysics extremely fashionable again, with Oxford's David Deutsch leading the way:

"It is possible to build a virtual reality generator whose repertoire includes every physically possible environment." and "Since building a universal virtual-reality generator is physically possible, it must actually be built in some universes."
One of the key challenges facing the would-be cosmological coder is the fact that there's really no such thing as empty space − which means you can't really come up with a compression routine (like JPEG) which economically encodes the void.

Meanwhile, veteran theorist John Archibald Wheeler remains convinced we live in a participatory universe where physical entities arise from underlying information content, and consciousness actively constructs physical reality through observation:

"It from bit symbolises the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom - at a very deep bottom, in most instances - an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that things physical are information-theoretic in origin."
It has for a long time struck me as interesting that both the universe and the human mind are one thing, while appearing to be something quite different. Consciousness is a fabulously complex parallel-processing system that literally thinks it's serial, while the universe is a fundamentally inderminate place that behaves as if it were determinate. (And perhaps also analog when it is in fact digital.)

Yet from the first time it was suggested that a cat might be both dead and alive at the same time physicists have generally been uncomfortable with these kinds of dualities, separating them into distinct theoretical frameworks and hoping that mathematics rather than metaphysics will one day make sense of it all.

As for the planck squares, Masami Yamasaki has spotted another kind of duality within string theory − a mathematical one − which suggests that the physics inside a tightly wrapped up dimension at the planck length is identical to that in the larger dimensions outside. This might means that reality doesn't end at that scale after all.

Lost Contribution?

What have the Imans ever done for us?

International Women's Day

Was marked in Mexico with some clever television advertisements showing an office in which all the women are inflatable sex dolls dressed as secretaries, and are being ogled and groped by passing male colleagues. The campaign is funded by the country's Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres and features the strapline "La mujer no es un objeto. El acoso sexual es un delito." (Women are not objects. Sexual harrassment is an offence.) Across the border in Guatemala recent statistics indicate that the problem goes way beyond harrassment. Around 625 women were killed there in 2005, more than triple the death toll of 184 in 2002.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Stephen Hawking has famously argued against the likelihood of time travel by pointing out the dearth of gawping tourists from the future currently clogging up our public spaces. It's a compelling argument, but somewhat lacking in imagination.

Hawking has allowed "that Quantum theory allows for time travel on the microscopic basis", and given that any beings clever enough to have figured out how to go for a ride in the fourth dimension would probably also have made great strides with nanotechnology, they should therefore have solved the 'problem' of their biological physicality and encoded themselves onto particle-sized structures capable of time travel. Even if they didn't go to the trouble of sending their own conscious selves back into the past, they could send back millions of tiny devices that could even now be watching us!

My mate's Marmite

Not having grown up with it, V was for many years markedly ill-disposed towards this century-old British brewing industry waste product.

These days however, there's even talk of taking a jar with us to Guatemala. It all started with a few explorative licks of my discarded breakfast knife. The next big breakthrough was the discovery that thinly spread Marmite goes rather well inside a sandwich or pitta filled with mozzarella and tomato.

Last week a half teaspoon of the black stuff found its way into her tomato-based pasta sauce, along with the end product of rubbing two pieces of rye bread together: a worthwhile bit of improvisation.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Review Follow-Up

The New York Times would appear to have started publishing a round-up of bloggers' reactions to their book reviews - in this instance Dan Dennett's controversial Breaking the Spell.

World's Dumbest Security Question

V rang her bank in Atlanta last night to activate her new Mastercard. Asking someone of Latin American origin what their mother's maiden name is has to be the all time stupidest security question. It baffles me how this can still be going on in a country that has such a large Hispanic population. Surely someone must have twigged by now?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Reading Public

Was pleased to read Ben Vershbow's views on the merits of blogging as a process.

I took up the practice myself in 2003 because I realised its value as a way of meshing together a number of existing activities (and different electronic formats) with which I recorded and supported my everyday reading, viewing and correspondence with key contacts.

Not all of these were expressly communicative; some were unashamedly solipsistic:
  • "Short notes"
  • "Long notes"
  • Journal
  • Regular email correspondence
  • Fragmentary writing
When memory and mind-space are a finite resource, and one's daily thought processes are geared towards synthesis or abstraction, any kind of external record will help to spread the processing (or "metabolising") load, as well as ensuring that much of the factual raw material that one has been disciplined to shed is retained in a more or less accessible format. In this way, implicit and intuited information can more easily be blended into the sort of output that is open to reason (one's own and that of others').

However, I have found myself having to consciously correct some of my posts to restore the 'native' one-to-one (or one-to-self) voice which has tended to defer over time to the MSM-style one-to-many mode.

The New York Times take on the Edelman/Wal-Mart's blogger outreach activities reveals some of the key pressure points right now. The MSM would like the blogosphere to conform to the channel model and to thereby assume the same responsibilities of any other one-to-many publication. The PR industy is also inclined to view blogs as a powerful new communications channel. Consequently several agencies are tentatively exploring the opportunities, some of which exist precisely because of many bloggers' reluctance to position themselves an atomised version of the old media.

Anyway, people that think that all blogs sport distinctly individual voices don't read enough of them. When I recently researched blogger comments about a product launch I discovered that well over half of those that had picked up the story had published the contents of the company press release verbatim.

Ever trendier

Central American countries like Guatemala are getting "ever trendier as war memories recede" according to this piece on CNN today:

"Ten or 20 years ago, mentions of countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador and
Guatemala conjured up visions of soldiers and civil war..."
Perhaps civil war is a lot easier to visualise than epidemic violence lacking a indisputable set of underlying causes.

As if by contrast, Guatemala's Human Rights Ombudsman Sergio Morales yesterday reported a 60.4% increase in lethal violence in the country over the past 5 years (3000 murders in 2001, 5000 in 2005. ) According to WHO studies, Guatemala currently enjoys a homicide rate of 40 for each 100,000 inhabitants, where the guideline limit is 10 for each 100,000 inhabitants.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Dim Sum

In his latest book Breaking the Spell, a naturalistic investigation into our religious urges, Dan Dennett refers to his fellow atheists and agnostics as "Brights", suggesting "Supers" for the spiritually and supernaturally-minded − thereby avoiding the rather obvious implied alternative.

To save myself the trouble of actually having to read this book, I have been working my way through the growing number of published reviews. The most amusing was Andrew Brown's in the Guardian:

"Daniel Dennett writes early in this book: "I for one am not in awe of your faith. I am appalled by your arrogance, by your unreasoning certainty that you have all the answers" - and he's not talking about Richard Dawkins."

The trouble with Dennett − very much like Richard Dawkins − is that he tends to have an unreflectingly narcisistic approach to his own lines of argument. Rather than dallying to explore the interesting territory around their margins, he drives them forward with polemical zeal. He should have no trouble convincing the already convinced, but in this instance has gamely chosen to target the unconvinceable − America's ascendent hordes of righteous Bible-belters.

Dawkins it was who first coined the term meme, now in widespread abuse. Dennett posits two distinct theories of (religious) meme transmission: The Sweet Tooth, in which the meme ultimately confers a survival benefit on the minds it inhabits, and the Simbiont, where an essentially parasitical body of ideas evolves to promote its own survival through the medium of mental hosts. (Back in 2004 I myself referred to these alternatives as the mind gene and the mind virus respectively.)

Dennett apparently also has a go at de-bugging the persistent myth surrounding the moral superiority of believers. Most of them he suggests, don't actually believe in the more outrageously contradictory and irrational aspects of their faiths; instead they profess belief, which amounts to believing in belief − the notion that there are sound reasons for having (or appearing to have) certain assumptions regardless of whether they are true or not. This may be one reason an analysis of prison populations does little to bear out the notion that believers are better behaved. (And in the US atheists have the lowest divorce rates, evangelicals the highest.)

Thursday, March 02, 2006

In the Mood for Love

A similar situation originally led to my aunt and uncle getting it on. Perhaps they were less worried about lowering themselves to the level of their own errant spouses than Mr Chow and Mrs Chan.

Though I don't think it is entirely safe to assume − as many seem to − that this is a movie about the agonies of self restraint. ("The pining here is so graceful that you may be transfixed by it": Elvis Mitchell in the NY Times.) Wong Kar Wai originally shot several steamier scenes in room 2046 (a former British army building he converted into a hotel), but in the midst of his habitual pre-Cannes editing frenzy, chose to focus primarily on the painful forebearance. (Does that mean we should presume they never happened?)

When I first saw Fa yeung nin wa I didn't really know what to expect. This time I could sit back and soak up the elegance and inventiveness of the director's vision. So I picked up on the way the camera naturally adopts the perspective of a clandestine (or somewhat displaced) observer, from underneath a table or from just outside the room Mrs Chan is in, and amongst the scenes where the pair act out the betrayal that has thrown them together, I enjoyed the one where they each order food for the other as if for their unfaithful absent partner. (Neither of whom we ever see in full-face close up.)

Shigeru Umebayashi's Yumeji's Theme is indulgently haunting, though perhaps it gets a bit too much airtime over the course of the movie. Nat King Cole's efforts to croon boleros in his maladroit Spanish will always bring a smile to my face. (Akayoz oh-hoss vuurdez...) Maggie Cheung turns up in each scene with a different, wonderful, high-necked cheong-san dress.

Wong Kar Wai never uses scripts; everything is improvised. Which is why the film was shot in Macau rather than Beijing after the authorities demanded to see the finished text.

My original impressions of 2046 were "fidgety" but a second viewing thankfully cured me of that! With the 'sequel' fresh in my memory, it seems to me now that it wouldn't really matter which order you see these two films in. Wong Kar Wai ended up shooting them almost at the same time, and has said that there was a good degree of creative exchange between the two concepts as a result. That Chan helped Chow to write his pulp serials and that he had a secret to whisper into a hole seemed that much more significant. 2046 might more of a morass, but these days I think it is the better of the pair, though both are outstanding.