The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Monday, July 30, 2007
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

In my continued quest for enlightenment and wisdom regarding the nature of human consciousness, I recently completed Douglas Hofstadter’s first book, “Godel, Escher, Bach” and just dug into his latest, “I Am A Strange Loop”. Hofstadter seems to have a small but determined following for his “strange loop” concept; just check out his reader reviews on the Amazon web site. Every now and then you see a negative review mixed in amidst the encomiums, and the fans retaliate by giving the skeptical reviewer a “very unhelpful” rating.

Personally, I think that the whole “strange loop” concept is overblown. It sounds good at first, all mysterious and powerful and deep. Hofstadter cranks out chapters and chapters of digressions on mathematical wonders and logical twists before he finally gets around to saying what a “strange loop” really is. And that turns out to be not very much. Most of his concrete examples of strange loops involve fantasies or mind tricks (e.g., the Escher paintings that he loves so much). The only real-world example that I remember from GEB regards something that almost (but didn’t) happen during the Watergate political crisis in the mid-1970s. President Nixon was about to reinterpret the Constitutional balance between the courts and the executive branch of government, but in the end he backed down. So the “strange loop” between the Supreme Court interpreting the Constitution regarding the extent of the President’s powers, and the President interpreting the Constitution regarding the extent of the Supreme Court’s powers was avoided.

I don’t think this was a very good example of what a real-live strange loop would be like. Why not? Because had Nixon carried out his threat, the situation would not have lasted very long. It would have self-destructed amidst riots and gunfire. Once a strange loop leaves the mind of the mathematician and reaches the world of high-stakes politics, the strangeness evaporates into a battle of raw power. The ones who happen to bleed the least win. Simple and familiar as that. Nothing strange about it at all.

Well, I still have a way to go in “I Am A Strange Loop”. But thus far, Hofstadter doesn’t seem to be doing any better grounding his strange loops in reality. As with GEB, he is trying to convince the reader that strange loops are the cause of all reality, given that they define the true nature of human consciousness. (And as such, he tries to prove that human consciousness, and thus all reality — from an idealist point of view, anyway — is just an illusion . . . but if so, then who is left to have this illusion? Hofstadter loves paradoxes, but he doesn’t seem to deal with that one.)

Unfortunately, Hofstadter doesn’t do much better than expose paradoxes in number theory and other such insubstantial entities. As philosopher John Searle says, consciousness somehow happens in the real, physical world, even though we don’t yet understand just how. Hofstadter is having a lot of trouble getting his strange loops off the blackboard. Hofstadter has another 200 pages or so to convince me otherwise, but after reading over 800 pages of his ramblings, I don’t see much solid, convincing evidence of any other kinds of strange loops happening out there in the real world that Searle refers to.

On the listening end, I just finished listening to a 12 part CD lecture on Consciousness by psychologist and philosopher Daniel N. Robinson. Most of the lectures covered familiar ground for me, since I’ve read over 10 books about consciousness. At the outset of his lectures, he did dwell a bit longer than usual on relating modern thought about consciousness with that of the ancient Greeks. But he soon settled down to qualia and zombies and sleepwalking and anesthesia and dream states and neuron firings and other typical points of discussion in the modern consciousness debate. So as I got to the eleventh lecture, Professor Robinson’s lecture seemed relatively unremarkable, although rather pleasant to listen to given his very civilized and authoritative style.

But then came lecture 12, and Professor Robinson introduced something that no one else of any intellectual and academic credibility has yet brought into the consciousness discussion. And that is the topic of morals and human values! He devoted almost all of that final half hour to questions raised by coma and vegetative state cases like Karen Ann Quinlan and Terry Schiavo (discussing both), and he doesn’t leave you with a whole lot of comfort about how such cases are handled. Professor Robinson has the temerity to discuss the value of life and how it relates to our understanding of ourselves – an understanding which occurs through consciousness. The many consciousness gurus out there today (including Chalmers, Dennett, Ramachandran, Blackmore, Block, Searle, Edelman, Damasio, McGinn, Humphrey, Churchland, Baars, and yes, Douglas Hofstadter) shy away from anything so “touchy-feely”, so unscientific – and so troublesome for their reductionist “I can explain it all if you buy my book” sales pitches. But I don’t think that they can shrug off an intellectual heavyweight like Robinson very easily.

So finally, someone with academic credibility has the guts to say that consciousness is about what it means to be human. We’re not just talking about a liver function here or a protein cycle. When we discuss consciousness, we’re talking about whether humanity really is anything more than an especially viral and adaptive animal or machine system. (Or at least whether we possibly COULD be somehow, if we keep trying). Douglas Hofstadter says that he hopes that we will all join him in seeing ourselves as “strange loops”. I’m not on his intellectual level, but I know that he’s wrong. I had to listen to Robinson’s final lecture a few times to realize just what he was saying and doing with it. It was a ray of sunshine in the gloom, a gasp of fresh air in the smoke. The best of what Athens and Jerusalem had endowed to humankind were finally being recovered from the trash-heap of modern rationalist hubris. The future may still hold a place for human dignity and respect and values, and not be overwhelmed by the useful but ultimately cold tools of skepticism and economic utility.

Later this year, Robinson will add to the huge collection of modern books about consciousness with a release entitled “Consciousness and Mental Life”. I’m obviously looking forward to it; perhaps this will finally be the edifying book on consciousness that I’ve been waiting for; a book that appeals to your heart as well as your mind, a book that lets you ponder what it means to be . . . . . well, ultimately to be a being that is in a state of being.

(I guess that I’ll still need to give Hofstadter credit for presenting and savoring paradoxes like that).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:22 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, July 27, 2007
Current Affairs ... Outer Space ...

I got a laugh today reading about the NASA astronauts who might have been launched into the heavens after a night of heavy drinking. Supposedly one of these cases involves an American going up in a Russian Soyez capsule to the Space Station. Well hey, you can’t really count that one. He was probably just trying to keep up with his Russian comrads. The Russians probably wouldn’t launch a guy who couldn’t hold his vodka. As to the American Space Shuttle flights, well — remember that the Shuttle holds 7 or 8 astronauts, and most of them don’t do anything during the launch anyway. The thing is so automated that even the pilot pretty much just watches. Therefore, it probably wasn’t such a big deal, so long as the other crew members kept the guy from touching the wrong switch before he would dry out and get over his hangover. Yes, if there was an accident he’d have less chance of getting out alive. But I gather that most Shuttle accidents are fatal. In all of its flights, we still haven’t seen an Apollo 13 situation where something went bad but a lot of struggle and effort eventually brought the ship home safely.

Well, now that the truth has become public, NASA will have to crack down; the age of “the Right Stuff” will finally be over. According to Tom Wolfe’s book, the true Right Stuff brothers were the rocket plane test pilots of the 1950s, who would stay out until 1 am sloshing down the hard stuff, then be up at 6 in a silvery fire suit, ready to be stuffed into a little winged thermos bottle full of liquid oxygen and other highly explosive stuff. They’d take him and his steed up into the sky attached to the belly of an old bomber plane, then drop him over the desert. He’d hit the switch to fire the rocket engines and then grab the steering stick and try his darndest to keep the little shooting star from flipping over and hurling him into the ground below, to perish in a ball of flame. If luck was with him, he’d be landing the thing in a few minutes with another mighty, heroic tale to tell. If not, his picture would go on the next available slot in the dead test pilot’s hall of fame.

I suspect that the Space Shuttle guys who had downed the better part of a bottle on the night before launch were trying to re-imagine those days. But obviously they couldn’t. After the sun came up, they were surrounded by a cocoon of computers that would make all the decisions and would determine their fate. The glory of the old days can never be re-lived. But we keep on trying until it’s all shown to be just as silly as it really is. That’s what I see happening in this little NASA tiff about the lack of bureaucratic discipline on the launch site. The bureaucrats have won, as they always must. Enjoy your excitement while you may, for the season of folly is brief.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:04 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Monday, July 23, 2007
History ... Society ...

About a week ago, my cousin and I got together to visit the old industrial neighborhood where our grandparents lived after coming over from Poland in 1912 (i.e., the Dundee section of Passaic). We brought our cameras and did some photography, as the place has just a bit more character than your typical modern suburb. It was a hot, humid afternoon, so we didn’t stay too long. We got some interesting pictures and got out, luckily unscathed (the area is still a low-income immigrant neighborhood, now hosting Mexicans and other Latinos; although most of them are good, hard-working people, there is some crime, and even some street-gang activity has been reported).

A few days later, we swapped a handful of e-mails about some family history questions that came up during our little walkabout. My cousin’s mother had worked in one of the big textile mills in Dundee, a factory called Forstmann. We both wondered where those mills were. My cousin vaguely remembered that they had been torn down, maybe in the early 1960s (one of the other big woolen mills, Gera, had survived until the huge 1985 fire that took down a huge chunk of the old Dundee factories; the other big mill, Botany, survives to this day, although being used for other things). But other than that, we were stumped. So, it was time for a bit of Googling. In went the key words “Forstmann” and “Passaic” (or “Dundee”, as an alternate). And surprisingly, out came a lot of interesting information.

It turns out that Forstmann has a significant place in the history of the American industrial labor movement. In 1926, the management of Botany and Forstmann decided  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:21 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Society ... Technology ...

I was reading an article today on the BBC web site saying that a huge underground lake has been found under the Darfur section of Sudan, and it may bring an end to the terrible violence that has plagued that region for the past 5 years or so. The BBC thinks that if wells are drilled and everyone gets enough water for farming and such, the Arabs and native Africans can settle down and put their guns aside. Let’s hope so.

If this were to happen, it would be one of the first times I know of that a war was ended peaceably by technology. Warfare has become more and more deadly over the past two or three centuries because of technology. But in Sudan, radar and satellite photography and computer analysis were used to find water where no one thought it could be (versus sending bombs and missiles to their targets with pinpoint accuracy).

Technology sometimes appears to be sending us on a one-way ride to doomsday. It’s nice to see that it might at times help humans to reclaim their humanity.

PS — of course, the New York Times is a bit pessimistic about whether the big water find is really going to stop the oppression and make things better in Sudan. I hate to say it, but they could yet be right. Perhaps it is still too early to break out the optimism.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:39 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Monday, July 16, 2007
Photo ...

My cousin and I were walking thru the Dundee section of Passaic the other day, trying to catch a glimpse of our social heritage and family history. Dundee was where our grandparents came to work and live, after leaving Poland back around 1910. The place has changed a lot since we used to get dragged there on Sunday afternoons by our parents. Our grandparents, and the old factories where they used to work, are now long gone. But here are two hold-outs: the railroad tracks and an old warehouse.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:21 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, July 14, 2007
Politics ... Society ...

I work in Newark, NJ, so the office scuttlebutt this past week focused on the federal indictment of former Newark Mayor Sharpe James. It came as a surprise, but in an inverted fashion; since the early 1990s, everyone “in the know” suspected James of taking a cut from all the real estate development going on in Newark. The James administration does deserve credit for getting a wide variety of real estate projects off the ground; during his 20 years in office, Sharpe James injected new life into a city that was otherwise going down the tubes. However, it seemed pretty clear that James was reaping his own gains from this, and was not limiting himself to using legal and ethical methods. However, James was a “Teflon genius”; he survived various investigations because the state and federal authorities could never make anything stick. Thus, we were taken aback on Thursday when US Attorney for NJ Chris Christie finally got an indictment against James (albeit, more than a year after James left City Hall, replaced by Cory Booker).

There’s still a long way to go until James either cuts a deal with the feds or goes to trial. But over the next few months, there may be some drama. From what I’ve heard, it’s going to focus around a former high-level Newark official and long-time associate of James, who is suspected of turning “state’s evidence” (this associate is also an elected official in his own right, on the county level; furthermore, he has been noted for his own questionable but very lucrative land dealings within the past few years). For a long time, there has been a wall of silence protecting Sharpe James. No one affiliated with him has dared to turn against him, even on pain of doing jail time (e.g., his former chief of staff Jackie Mattison). But now, a second-rate politico from Newark may emerge from the shadows and testify against James, allowing the feds to finally pin some serious land sale fraud charges on him and threaten the former mayor with real jail time.

In a way, it reminds me of that 1962 movie, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”. Well, only in a rough sense – the movie plot was actually rather complicated. Metaphors only go so far. But still, if the politico that I’m thinking of sticks with the program that the US Attorney and FBI are setting up, he will go down in history as the man who shot down the seemingly untouchable Sharpe James. It’s going to be interesting.

One footnote to the situation: the Sharpe James indictment came on the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Newark Riots. PBS just aired an episode of “P.O.V.” devoted to the Newark Riots (“Revolution 67”), and Sharpe James was interviewed in it. He came across with much gravity and dignity, a man of history. But ironically, just a day later he is a man under indictment, accused of selling city properties at way-below market prices to a woman who was keeping company with him on a variety of “business trips”. The woman in question, Tamkia Riley, was a failed businesswoman who had no real estate experience. And yet the Mayor saw fit to direct valuable city properties to her, on the rationale that she would develop those properties in ways that would benefit the city’s economic base. But all she did was to resell the properties to other interests, at a very handsome profit.

So, it was hard to take seriously the noises being made by some of the local black activists that the US Attorney (who is white) had intentionally timed the indictment because of racial motivations. Even the last of the 1960’s white activists, Rich Cammerieri, made a similar statement in the local paper. I used to know Rich, and I respect him for all that he has done for Newark. But I can’t go along with his knee-jerk, “support the cause” comments. The criminal justice system needs critics, for sure, given all of the power that the state can bring against the individual. But as to Sharpe James — he will have his day in court, with some very good (and expensive) legal firepower at his side. If I were Rich Cammerieri, I wouldn’t waste energy on shielding Sharpe James from racial persecution by the police. That sort of thing may well still be happening here. But it’s the little guys, not the big fish just begging to be caught, that Rich should be worrying about.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:59 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Personal Reflections ... Practical Advice ...

Many years ago, my ex-wife and I went our own ways after an earnest but star-crossed attempt to “build a life together”. During the process, she gave me a farewell present of sorts. It was a little acrylic birdfeeder meant to be attached to the outside of a glass window. My ex was a pro-nature, “Mother Earth” kind of person, so it wasn’t much of a surprise. I graciously accepted her gift, but being the mechanical kind of guy that I am (you can see why we really weren’t meant for each other), I was rather dubious about its utility. Sure, it would be nice to see wild birds at a window every day. But I doubted if its small suction cups would hold the thing up for more than a few hours. One blue jay, or even a starling, would bring it down. It was another idea that was just like our marriage: idealistic but unable to survive in this rough-and-tumble world of ours.

Being a pack-rat, however, I never threw the thing out. It sat in a box gathering dust in some corner of my apartment since the late 1980’s. This past spring, I came across it again, and I had an idea. I have an exterior air conditioner mounted in a window in my living room. Maybe with a piece of wood and some duct tape, I could attach the thing to the window and yet provide vertical support from the air conditioner. One Saturday afternoon I started experimenting, and voila, I came up with a reasonably sturdy support arrangement for the birdfeeder. I bought a small bag of cheap feed mix from the supermarket, loaded up the thing, and waited.

Finally, after a week or so, a couple of sparrows acknowledged my generosity. Then came a mourning dove or two. Then a blue jay stopped by, and of course some starlings followed. But then I saw a tufted titmouse making occasional forays from a tree across the driveway. And then came the cardinal couple, recently arrived from the south. Seeing the shocking-red male cardinal with his black mask just outside my window, along with his brown-feathered mate, got me hooked. Before long I started fiddling with different kinds of feed, including old bread, black sunflower seed, and dried corn. It was all good fun.

But you bird feeding enthusiasts out there know what came next. One day I heard an unusual amount of noise coming from the top of the air conditioner; of course, it was from a squirrel gobbling up the day’s bounty. I made some noises and managed to chase the thing away. But the next day he was back, and the next, and the next. He would still jump back down to the driveway whenever I arrived at the window making threatening sounds. But a half-hour later he was back, finishing off what I had hoped would be enjoyed by the cardinals and their more dowdy-winged companions. The birds still managed to get a few nibbles in, but given how fast the food was disappearing each day, I was obviously doing more to support the local squirrel population than anything else.

If you do an internet search on squirrels and bird feeders, you can read a wide variety of opinions and approaches to the problem. Some people just give in and try to enjoy the natural charms (?) of the grey squirrel. Others totally give up; birds don’t really need people to feed them, as they know how to get by on grass seed and wild berries. Others try to appease the squirrels, setting up a feeding area just for them at the other end of the property. And then there are those red-blooded bird-lovers who see this strategy as a replay of Chamberlain at Munich in 1938.

I am that kind of bird lover. With Churchillian resolve, I vowed to fight squirrels on the driveway, fight them on the garbage cans, fight them on the house shingles, fight them on the air conditioner — and never surrender! But being an apartment renter in a twit-town (Montclair, NJ), I would have to stay within certain boundaries. I.e., no permanent attachments to the house, no traps, nothing that smacked of animal cruelty. OK, I was ready for the challenge.

First off, I cut some pieces of wood and taped them to the sides of the feeder (which was otherwise open on three sides). This cut off the preferred attack route of the enemy, but still allowed birds to fly and perch on the front edge of the feeder (slightly over the front of the air conditioner). I also re-arranged the garbage cans below my window, as to make the jump up to the air conditioner more difficult. This seemed to work for a few days. But one fine Saturday morning, there was that furry tail in the window again. The local squirrels adapted to the side panels by learning to perch atop the feeder, craning their necks like a vacuum cleaner hose down into the feed bin. This was a classic case of attack, response, and counter-response. My ex-wife would smugly proclaim the victory of Nature at this point, and advise me to just learn to live with the furry little critters.

But, as the web site discussions on this point clearly indicate, there are thousands of humans out there who see the struggle to feed birds without rodent interference as their privilege and destiny. So I got my tool kit out again and fashioned some further additions to the feeder. These included a small “porch” meant to push the birds back an inch or so from the feeding tray (so as to minimize the volume of seed falling down on to the driveway, otherwise attracting the attention of all critters in the area); and a 4-inch high “stage front” over the top edge of the feeder, meant to keep squirrels from perching atop the feeder. I also put some wood pieces into an alcove along the side of the air conditioner, after observing the squirrel invasion tactics (i.e., jump from the garbage can or adjacent window screen into the alcove, then jump from there onto the top of the AC).

Well, the first line of this new defense worked for a few days. But the enemy soon learned how to grab on to the wood in the alcove, and lurch themselves up from there. As to my second line of defense — the “front” over the top edge of the feeder — they soon figured out a way to anchor their feet on to it and lower their shoulders down into the feed bin. Most interesting. What was also interesting was their reticence to just cram themselves into the bin, tail and all, and suck up the food all around them. I saw them do this a couple of times; but each time, they would only stay for a moment or two, then get out. Most interesting once again — squirrels obviously don’t like to go into a walled-off area; they must have an instinct against becoming trapped.

OK, the squirrels had made another tactical adaptation; but this inspired a further response on my own part. I fashioned a higher “front”, and glued a small dowel stick, which protruded down into the entrance area. It would hardly affect the birds, but would require squirrels to enter the feeder perpendicularly, with their tails exposed to the public. If they had an anti-trapping instinct, they would certainly not favor this arrangement. So, after an hour or two of cutting hardboard and gluing and taping some wooden support pieces, I upped the ante for my opponents.

A day or two later, I watched with both alarm and fascination as a squirrel hopped onto the feeder, jumped to the top of the new edge front, and hung himself downward into the feed tray. I could see what he did in order to access the feed; basically, he had to twist his head a full 180 degrees. Amazing. But even more amazing was when he gave up after a minute or two! What? Did I finally find the limit of what even a squirrel can endure in its relentless search for food? Was this the end of the beginning, if not yet the beginning of the end?

Hah! The next day I came home, only to find that my super edge-front had been torn off and sent down to the driveway macadam. I realized what was being said: “we ain’t playing no more”. I was a bit shaken given the level of force involved, but I took the hardboard edge-front back into the house and pondered the situation. I was almost ready to give in, but the web site discussions on the squirrel-bird feeder war renewed my faith in the power of the human race. First off, there were things I could do to structurally reinforce the edge front; I had previously relied on a rather lame version of duct tape, which was colored green to appease the environmental notions of my neighbors. Second, there were more things that could help to block the access route — e.g., covering the alcove area with slippery plastic. Third, and most important, I could make the reward less rewarding. There are several approaches here. First off, squirrels like big, chunky food like corn bits and sunflower seeds. They don’t like the smaller milo and millet seeds (although they will certainly eat them in a pinch). They dislike safflower seeds even more. So I went to Home Depot and got some safflower seeds, which are a bit expensive relative to basic bird food (but on the other side of the coin, cardinals are said to love this kind of seed).

However, the big gun is hot pepper. Birds just don’t taste it, but squirrels do. Even the most legitimate biology science web sites agree about this. There are some anti-animal cruelty sites that urge bird feeders not to add pepper flakes to the mix, because of the unpleasantry it causes to squirrels. But that said to me that it probably works! And excuse me, animal activists, but squirrels are extremely tough creatures; a little bit of ragin’ Cajun cuisine isn’t going to harm them, although it might send them looking for milder fare.

So I got out the pepper flakes and mixed them into the safflower and milo. The feeder was still “naked” of its front-edge defense, quite open to the hungry squirrel. The next day, I watched as the big tail popped up outside the window; I couldn’t believe my eyes. The dang thing stuck its nose into the feed, and immediately withdrew it. It walked away. And yet the birds kept on gobbling the stuff down, oblivious to the seasoning.

But that didn’t deter me from pursing the other upgrades to the defense system, i.e. the sheet of plexi-glass over the alcove and the beefed-up structure supporting the re-installed edge-front, along with a parallel “middle front” to keep the critters from finding a comfortable position with which to attack the edge panel. My brother also gave me some anti-critter pepper granules made by “Havaheart”, meant to deter ground approach. It seems like a pretty good system overall, one with various layers (kind-of like the American anti-ballistic missile system). But only time will tell how it will all work, especially once winter comes and squirrels get really hungry.

Actually, I don’t intend to take the battle any further; otherwise I’d have to buy a portable generator and a mask, and learn to arc-weld plate steel inside my apartment. (Not to mention that favorite squirrel solution out in the heartlands, i.e. the rifle and the skillet; the web has plenty of squirrel recipes!) At some point, even I will give in; I’d throw whatever feed I had left into the backyard and let nature take its course without my further interference. I’d go back to enjoying the antics of the local avian population from a distance. Including their fights and other nasty behavior.

But still, it will be good to know that with the help of human resources such as the Internet and Home Depot, I gave the critters a good run for the money — but I also know when to stop. My ex-wife couldn’t appreciate this, but it is important for humans to do their thinking and tinkering and researching and engineering. But admittedly, it’s also important for us to play within the rules. Squirrels can’t do research, can’t share ideas, can’t engineer solutions, and can’t make up and honor rules of fair play. I might make them climb and twist a bit, and give them a hot mouthful or two, but I’m not crippling or killing them. Whatever happens, I can still say that this is my finest hour.

(Or pretty good, anyway).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:01 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, July 7, 2007
Personal Reflections ... Practical Advice ...

I’ve read about the relatively new mini-fluorescent light bulbs on the market, and how they hold great potential to cut our nation’s overall power consumption, improve the environment, and help forestall the upcoming calamity of global warming. Well, not wanting to be left out in such a noble cause, I decided on my last visit to Home Depot to invest in such a bulb. I bought a 30 watt bulb advertised as holding the equivalent illumination of an incandescent 120 W bulb. It sounded perfect for the lamp next to my reading chair, which presently uses a 100 W bulb. So I shelled out the $9 or so for the high-tech bulb and felt all warm and fuzzy about cutting power consumption, improving the earth and maybe even helping my own eyes.

Alas, the bulb turned out to not be the panacea that was promised. First off, the bulb was not good for reading. It just isn’t as bright as a regular 100 W bulb, despite the advertising claims. In fact, it’s noticeably less bright than a regular bulb. Second off, it’s rather large. It doesn’t fit in a lot of places where a 100 W or 60 W bulb can now be used. (However, the 60 W equivalents do fit fairly well into existing bulb spaces). In fact, aside from my reading lamp, I could only find one other place in my house where this bulb could be used (and it’s an out-of-the-way place where I only occasionally turn on the light). Third, the mini-fluorescent has mercury in it. Thus, it says on the package that you can’t just throw it out when it finally burns out. You need some sort of special environmentally approved program to get rid of it (hopefully your town has a hazardous waste pickup day). People say that this is not really a problem, since the average mini-fluorescent will last 7 to 9 years, and makes up for its environmental downside by saving a lot of electricity (and thus carbon emissions).

Personally, I found the thing disappointing. There are places in the home where the larger mini-fluorescents would work well – maybe ceiling lights or porch lights. But they are not good for reading purposes, and they have an environmental downside (aside from being a pain in the neck to properly dispose of – and how many people are going to go looking for a mercury disposal program versus just tossing them in with last night’s dinner scraps?). So I’m going to hold off until a truly and greener better light bulb is invented. (In the interim, I will spend a few bits more for the longer lasting incandescents.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:08 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Brain / Mind ... Society ...

One of the big questions regarding human consciousness is whether consciousness has any effect on the material brain and body. Does consciousness, which is surely not a physical entity (although many argue that it reduces to physical brain phenomenon, just as lightening relates to electrical discharges), have an independent effect on how the body acts and moves? Or is it “epiphenomenal”, just along for the ride, just “watching” what the mechanical mind is perceiving and deciding?

I personally thing that question will someday be shown to be a false presumption in itself. Consciousness will be shown to be inherent and inseparable from the physical processes within the brain. It can’t be that consciousness is some sort of severable force or ghost-like entity that stands apart from the physical brain and “throws the levers” within it. And yet, matter and physical processes having consciousness will be shown to act differently than those without consciousness.

For now, though, we still don’t have a clear definition of just what consciousness is. Just what sets it off? What tips a complicated physical system, one that handles lots of data and information, over the edge into self-awareness, into that higher realm of world awareness? We don’t know yet. Maybe someday we will. Until then, the best we can say is that we know consciousness when we see it (in someone else). And when we experience it (in ourself). One thing we can do in the interim: learn to make the most of the time that we do have consciousness.

PS — on the topic of national consciousness (if there is such a thing), there was an interesting poll done by CBS News the other day. When asked how the Founding Fathers (Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, etc.) would feel if they could come back and see America today, 72% said they would probably be disappointed! As to whether life for the future generations will be better, the same or worse, 48% said worse; 25% said better, and 24% said “the same”. Bottom line, about half aren’t very optimistic about the future. To be fair, there was some optimism; 49% said that they were at least “somewhat satisfied” with their present life, and 62% said they had better opportunities to succeed than their parents’ generation. That was down from 72% in a 2000 poll, though.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:25 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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