The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Thursday, August 29, 2013
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

I just read another “theory of consciousness” article attempting to use scientific logic to convince us that our conscious being is nothing more than an illusion. This one is by a Princeton U neuroscientist named Michael Graziano. He calls it the “attention schema“, as it focuses on how we direct our attention and self-awareness.

Dr. Graziano is a clever writer, but ultimately his article is just another attempt to demonstrate that science has it all down and physicalism is all there is. According to the good professor, consciousness isn’t different from anything else that science understands, such as transistors and catalysts and carbon cycles and superconductivity. Dr. Graziano seems to think that he has a powerful conceptual tool that makes consciousness fall into place. He co-opts and then debunks outer body experiences and rays coming out of the eyes and such — kind of a cheap shot, I’d say. The article mixes a bit of information theory and evolutionary process with the human brains’ ability to imagine and conceptualize things that don’t exist, along with the human need to form social structures. Knowing the usual “question of mind” philosophy quandaries, he also tries to defeat “epi-phenomenalism” (or talk around it, in my opinion).

In sum, Dr. G defines consciousness in a way that fits his pre-stated objectives. That’s groovy. But is what Professor Graziano conceptualizes as “consciousness” really what  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:23 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, August 24, 2013
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

I heard a story on the Voice of Russia radio news the other day about Ecuador’s plans to go ahead with drilling for oil in an environmentally rich and sensitive Amazon rainforest region, after failing to raise $3.6 billion in donations to “buy out” the economic value that the oil would have to its economy. The Washington Post article pretty much summed up the situation: “Ecuador asked the world to pay it not to drill for oil, and the world said no”. President Rafael Correa came up with this plan back in 2010. He managed to raise a total of $13 million; so it was 0.1 billion down, 3.5 to go. Now he decided to throw in the towel and drill, baby, drill. Of course, while requesting the funds, there were all sorts of dire consequences in the air; now he says that less than 1% of the Yasuni National Park will be affected.

Hmmm. This is something of a tough question. On the one hand . . . we can’t all ask each other to pay to not drill for oil. At some point, oil production would plummet and prices would shoot up, then the world economy would crash and nobody could make any further such payments. If Ecuador got away with this, then why not Mexico, Canada, Russia, Niger, maybe even North Dakota? On the other hand . . . poorer nations have a harder time integrating environmental concerns in their oil drilling efforts. (It is arguable that abundant natural-resources keep poorer nations from diversifying their economies, as they become too dependent on oil and mineral wealth — the “resource curse”). In all fairness, if environmentally sensitive areas are to be “saved”, or at least have damage minimized from hydrocarbon exploitation, then people in the better-off nations like the USA, Japan and Western Europe should contribute the most for this.

But other than asking for voluntary donations from governments or private individuals, there’s really no good way to make this happen. The world, such as it is, is just not ready for one-world government. It’s hard enough to make government work on local and state levels; and national politics in the past 10 years continue to make people doubt that government on the national level is useful. So why would we believe that a government of humankind-in-general could make things better?

So, sorry Ecuador, but the world is taking a pass on saving Yasuni (or that 1% of Yasuni that will be impacted). President Correa can now pin the blame on what he is about to do on the evil  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:00 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Photo ...

It’s just another Saturday night in northern New Jersey, with a middle-aged rock cover band (which includes my middle-aged brother, incidentally) hard at work keeping the patrons of an “ale house” in suburban Maywood entertained.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:00 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, August 18, 2013
Religion ... Spirituality ...

Atheism has been around for a long time and is fairly common in certain parts of the world, but it hasn’t yet caught on big here in the USA. However, it’s numbers are growing over time. A huge percentage of people in academia consider themselves atheists, especially in the sciences. So, atheism seems to be the preferred viewpoint of the “brightest of the bright”.

I have a lot of regard for those “brightest of the bright”. I consider myself to be something of a thinking man, a patron of critical thought and rationality. I myself have great regard for the ways and accomplishments of science; I myself subscribe to reason and the basic tenets of The Enlightenment.

And yet . . . I have a problem with atheism. I’m not ready to give up on God and the idea of some sort of life-after-death for we self-conscious beings with complex thinking and feeling abilities. So I have a question  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:00 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, August 16, 2013
Politics ...

The New Jersey Senatorial primary election was held on Tuesday, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker was never in doubt to win. He will now go on to trounce the GOP candidate in mid-October and then it’s Mr. Booker goes to Washington. You probably don’t need me to tell you that Cory is a rising star on the national scene; some people have already made comparisons between Cory’s present trajectory and that of a young African-American legislator from Illinois back in the mid-2000’s. (Although some also say that he needs his own version of Michelle . . .)

Even though Cory could win the primary (and the main election) with his eyes closed, he still went through the motions of running a competitive campaign. For about a week I received quite a few robo-calls on my voicemail from Cory, urging me to get out and vote (which I didn’t; sorry, I was just not worked up by any of the Democratic candidates. I like Cory, but he didn’t need me to win this one). In his messages, Mayor / Senator-to-be Booker tells me (rather unspecifically) about the great things that we can accomplish together, the great changes that we can bring about. Cory was obviously not running against anyone or anything, nor did he promise me better schools, better medical care, better roads, better jobs; in sum, no better anything. Instead, Cory seemed to be offering me hope.

Ah yes, hope and change. It doesn’t seem so long ago when Barack Obama urged our nation to embrace the audacity of hope with him. And yet, here we are 5 years later, and more and more Americans seem to be losing hope in Mr. Obama’s hope. His poll approval ratings are trending south while the disapproval line  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:31 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Monday, August 12, 2013
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ...

I’ve read more than one article over the past year or so talking about the great things that fracking and other “unconventional” hydrocarbon sources (such as tar sands, very deep sea oil, methane hydrates, etc.) are or will soon do for our country. As you probably know, fracking is a controversial method of drilling for natural gas and oil deposits that until recently could not be extracted in a cost-effective fashion. Fracking has greatly increased domestic natural gas production such that gas prices have reached and stayed at very low levels relative to the 1980’s and 90’s. It also ended the on-going decline of oil production in the US, and has greatly increased the supply of domestic light oil, which (as compared with Californian heavy oil and Canadian tar sand oil) can be cheaply processed in almost all American refineries, and can be utilized for a wide variety of purposes.

The cost of fracking has been on the environmental side; fracking needs great amounts of water and produces chemically polluted waste-water that is hard to dispose of properly. It also might cause minor earthquakes and in a small percentage of cases pollute local groundwater with gas or the “injection chemicals” needed to break open rock layers. Very importantly, it is said to cause a great deal of methane emissions, which are potent greenhouse gasses and can overshadow the climate-change benefits of using lower-carbon natural gas versus coal.

As to the claim by many environmental activists that fracking is an environmental disaster in the making (see the movies Gasland and Gasland 2, if interested), I would not go that far. The wastewater disposal problem can be quite serious, but methane emissions can be controlled  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:57 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, August 9, 2013
Outer Space ... Science ...

I’m currently reading a book by Dr. Lee Smolin on the quantum gravity dilemma in modern physics (Three Roads to Quantum Gravity). Quantum gravity relates to the unsolved problem dating back to Einstein on how to unify General and Special Relativity (with their treatment of the big stuff in the universe), with quantum theory and its treatment of the tiniest stuff in the universe. In a nutshell, when physicists try to mix the two theories, they get crazy, impossible results. There has to be a broader theory out there that includes both relativity and quantum physics — but we still don’t know what that it. Thus the on-going search for “quantum gravity”, the search for a way of wrestling gravity (which is the core of General Relativity and which powers the planets, stars, galaxies and mega-clusters out in the heavens) into a quantum framework (i.e., finding and studying a tiny, irreducible “bit” of gravity akin to how a photon is an irreducible “bit” of visible light).

I really like Dr. Smolin’s way of explaining the really hairy, abstract ideas of modern cosmological physics to laypeople like myself. Thus I’m thinking about buying his latest book “Time Reborn”. It may be a while until I can get to it, but I took a look today at some quotes from it, and I like what I read. I especially enjoyed his critique on the current darling theory of modern cosmology, i.e. the “multiverse” concept. I have written a bit on my own distaste for what a lot of high-powered physicists (including Steven Hawking, Leonard Susskind, Brian Greene, Sean Carroll, et al) are now selling as “the big picture”, i.e. an unending hyper-process that cranks out universes with varying physical laws and characteristics, one of which just happens to be our own. Some of these support life as we know it, while most of them probably don’t. This solves the problem of needing an intelligent creator, and you know how unpopular intelligent creators are these days with most academic PhD’s. The question is, is the “multiverse” right? Well, for now we can’t know; but is it even a good theory?

Dr. Smolin doesn’t seem to think so. I don’t believe that Lee Smolin is trying to defend God here, but what he does say about the multiverse idea reflects  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:35 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Monday, August 5, 2013
Photo ...

It’s been a buggy summer here. In late May and early June, we had a huge invasion of 17-year cicadas. My residence just happens to be dead-center in a 4 or 5 block cicada “hot-spot”. The droning noise was really getting creepy after a while, and all the dead cicadas in the driveway from various stages of their development got rather messy. I was glad once they finished their business and were safely underground by early July.

Since then, I’ve had the usual summertime apartment invaders, including various brown beetles and a stray lightning bug here and there. (And those darn fruit flies that I discussed on July 6; then there was that bug in the zendo from June 14). But over the past 2 weeks I’ve seen a small fleet of butterflies tending to the plants out front. Much nicer than cicadas and beetles, but still kind-of . . . buggy.

Oh well, enjoy the shots. I might actually miss some of these critters on a dark-gray 5 degree morning in January.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:00 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, August 3, 2013
Current Affairs ... Society ... Technology ...

As a follow-up to my recent note on John McAfee and his book on the Hindu “yamas”, I read a bit more about the Belize murder case against him. The circumstances of that murder still seem fishy, and Mr. McAfee’s hypothetical role in it certainly does seem plausible. But McAfee seems to be off the hook now that he’s back in the States. Or is he?

There’s an interesting article on the Sci Am web site about new techniques for “lie detecting”. These techniques are based on “big data” studies of people’s behavior and language usage, not on “high tech” solutions such as sodium pentothol injections or wired lie detectors that monitor heart rates, brain wavelengths, skin tension, etc.

All you need now are some videos and e-mails of a suspected liar discussing things that relate to the “secret” that the person might be hiding. The big data studies show emerging trends and differences in what is said and how it is said between liars and truth-tellers.

Has anyone analyzed Mr. McAfee about the murder of his next door neighbor right after some of McAfee’s dogs were poisoned? In fact, someone has! A high-tech company called  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:42 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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