Pointless exercises

April 24, 2019

I used to think that writing technical articles for academic journals was a “write-only” exercise: but now I realise that this is nothing in comparison to keeping a blog!

At least with the journal papers, I had a reasonable number of citations, but this blog seems to get read by a few of my immediate family, and that’s all. So I think I might leave it there.

The temptation is to write something so outrageous that I would know if anyone had read it. But for now I’ll resist that temptation.

Meanwhile, here’s a picture of our puppy. She’s a 4 month old Airedale Terrier (Airedale Terror?). That seems to be what’s really popular on the internet these days. Dumbing down? Nostalgia for quieter, more peaceful times?

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The subway aleph.

April 21, 2019

Imagine that all the subway systems in the cities in the world were connected.

Simul imagine everything is instrumented. No privacy, every tap you open, every track of music you listen to, every key you press, every time you swallow is recorded…

Instead of planes, trains, buses, and long car journeys, you just go to the nearest city with a subway, get on at Buchanan Street Glasgow, and off at 96th Street Manhattan, or Piccadilly London, or Avtozavodskaya …

You think back to a time of analogue technology when in some places listening to the wrong radio station could get you shot.

Perhaps instead there’s randomness. You get on at St George’s Cross Glasgow, intending to go to Kelvin Hall, but suddenly you are passing through Clemenceau in Brussels, or Foggy Bottom or Timiryazevskaya. Disoriented, you get off: find a cafe and drink an espresso or a vodka. Then back to the subway…

Will reading the wrong blog lead you to being unemployable, or reducing your social credit, if not actually getting you shot?

Will you ticket work? Will your card let you into this strange system?

What language do the buskers sing in? Where are the shops that are advertised? Do you dare to talk to your fellow passengers, and will they understand you if you open your mouth? Is everyone affected, or is this purely personal?

Is the Aleph on the subway or in you? Do you dare to investigate?

Quantum physics can help with Brexit and Irish Border problem.

March 6, 2019

The issue of the Irish border is bedevilling Brexit negotiations. But physics can provide a novel solution: the border should be a Schrödinger border.

Let me explain. 

Instead of a Newtonian border (with a clear demarcation of the location of the border) a Schrodinger border would have uncertainty about it: the closer one came to defining where the border was, the more uncertain would the existence of the border become. Similarly, one could be certain of the border’s existence, but then completely unsure about where it was. One would, however, be able to detect which side of the border one was on, but not when one crossed the border. 

Using quantum tunneling, a lorry carrying goods would at one instant be in Northern Ireland, and the next instant in the Republic. Because of the uncertainty about the existence of the border, it could instantly arrive into the Republic, without it being at all clear where it had crossed the border.  Thus, because of the delocalization of the border, there could be no possibility of policing it. 

(I wrote about this originally in https://lestheprof.com/2018/11/07/a-schrodinger-border/ : but there’s more mileage in this now that the issue is becoming more urgent.)

Playing the clarinet

March 4, 2019

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3380Two years ago I finally decided to take up a new instrument, and I chose the clarinet. It was portable (unlike the piano – even the electric piano), and is played in jazz, klezmer and classical music. What more could one wish for?

So I purchased a student clarinet, found a teacher, Gillian Armstrong, and set to. I’d never played a blowing instrument before (apart from an unsuccessful attempt with a fluke quite a long time ago), so it was a bit of a revelation to discover that one had to control breath, fingering and tonguing all at once. This from a piano player who’d never had to contend with those sorts of issues at all.

However, the ability to add so much expression to a melody line, the ability to take a note and crescendo and diminuendo on it, and the way in which the tonguing could alter a phrase was entirely new to me. And practise was critical. I soon discovered that I needed to play every day, or I might as well not try to learn a new instrument at all.

So at last, yesterday evening, I plucked up my courage, and played the tune Carrickfergus at the Dunblane folk club. It went well. Just the one tune: I’ll need to practice some others now!

Winter Solstice 2018.

December 21, 2018

Late night dram on the solstice

hopes of light to come.

Mixtures of music from the piano

major sevenths and ninths

and blue notes from old jazz tunes.

Will there be light again?

Will the darkness be defeated?

Only to come again next time round

next year, if we make it.

But the music will still be there.

Have I joined the dark side?

December 20, 2018

Netflix. Video on demand over the internet. I finally decided that broadcast TV just wan’t enough. We have FreeView: but there never seems to be a programme that I want to see when I want to see it. And while my smart TV (actually, a Mac mini with a USB tuner) can record TV programmes, and while I have iPlayer as well, and can watch programmes that have been shown, it never quite seems to work.

So I decided to try Netflix.

When I was but a young lecturer in Computing, teaching people about X25, and later the Coloured Book Protocols , the idea of Video on Demand was completely over the top. Getting that sort of data rate was quite unimaginable, and besides, it was seen as terribly wasteful of valuable communications resources. But faster networks, much better compression techniques, and virtually free processing cycles have turned all that on its head (even if the protocols and network are still not very well designed for that sort of thing). But here we are, into the 21st century, with videophones, VoD, though not jet-packs or 15 hour working weeks!

So I watched a Star-Trek movie, with a wee glass of whisky in my hand. Downtime. Necessary from time to time.

But will it work? One could spend all one’s time watching the box of delights. What about creative pursuits, like clarinet, piano, or, indeed, artificial intelligence or spike-based low-level audio interpretation…

Watch this space. Will the next blog entries be about music, or science, or reviews of films?

Emeritus at last…

December 15, 2018

At the University Court meeting on Monday last, I was made (I understand) an Emeritus Professor. Hurrah! Now at least I have an official position, again, with my University. Mind you, they kept me an office the whole time, so I can’t really complain.

An ocean of consciousness

November 15, 2018

How do minds and brains relate to each other? I was talking with Ashley, my niece Zoe’s partner about this, and she said she believed in an ocean of consciousness. (I misheard her the first time, I thought she said a notion of consciousness.)

I was sure I’d heard the phrase before, and I just looked it up: it seems common parlance for universal consciousness.

I’ve tended to believe in consciousness being created by the brain (or perhaps by the body and the brain together, though the brain is itself part of the body, so one might just say by the body). But, like most neuroscientists (computational in my case, but I’ve not heard anything different from clinical or experimental neuroscientists), I’ve not had much clue how the brain might give rise to consciousness. But what has been clear is that consciousness can change if the brain is stimulated, whether electrically or using drugs (or in any other way). I’d tended to think of that as being conclusive evidence for the brain being the seat of consciousness: but that neither speaks for nor against an ocean of consciousness. For the evidence doesn’t distinguish between whether the brain is entirely responsible for consciousness, or whether the brain simply connects the body to the ocean of consciousness. Indeed, the phrase seat of consciousness can be interpreted either way.

I seem to hold two diametrically opposed views.

From my own work as a computational neuroscientist, I know that we create our world from our sensory perceptions, and that our internal world is but a model of the macrocosm out there. And as a scientist, I have spent a lot of time making computational models of parts of the brain (and I’m very aware of the sophisticated models like NEST, or those of the Human Brain Project). However, I am very aware of both (i) what these models can and cannot do, and (ii) just how limited these models are when compared to the extraordinarily complex systems that really do take place in neural tissue. (Here, I’m thinking of the different type of ions, of the zoo of ion channels, the range of neuromodulators, not to mention the different proteins involved in neural excitability: and I haven’t even started on either glial cells or the amazingly complex three dimensional interconnection  between neural calls).

On the one hand, I can believe that somewhere in that complexity there is room for  generation of consciousness, (even though I cannot imagine what it might look like: the scientists within me requires that it be explainable).

On the other hand, each morning, I do some yoga, and I briefly meditate, and that seems to connect me to the world, to ground me within the world. This makes me more inclined towards the ocean view.

Could I then join resolve these different viewpoints by looking in the brain not for generation of consciousness, but for connection to the ocean of consciousness? But what might this look like? Would it be any less of a mystery than seeking to generate consciousness from matter? 

As I read this through, I am struck by the difficulty of talking about this at all. Phrased like “we create our world from our sensory perceptions” require a “we” and an “our” that has perceptions, and  world. I’m also struck by the range of difficulties within the area: the question’s just too big. I once wrote a short paper about the neural construction of perceptual time, and that seemed hard enough on its own, without considering any other issues! Maybe this is all just too hard!

Dunfermline abbey, west door.

November 9, 2018

Version 2Where do you think this might be? Italy? France? Spain?

In fact, it’s the tympanum of the West door of Dunfermline Abbey, in Scotland. While it’s famous for holding the bones of Robert the Bruce, it is one of the most ancient religious buildings in Scotland.

The tympanum above is (I think) 11th century, much older than the doors of the Cathedral in Dunblane where I live. I’m interested in the designs on the outermost stones – the inner ones seem to primarily have a chevron design on the innermost two, a flower-like pattern on the next one, and chevrons again on the 4th one.   On the outermost ring, some are faces, some interlocked rings, and some other designs that I don’t recognise. I’m sure these have symbolic meanings, but I don’t know what they might be.

I think this tympanum is exceptionally beautiful.

 

A Schrödinger border…

November 7, 2018

This morning I read in the Times letters of the concept of a Schrödinger border: researching it on the internet, I see that it’s not a new concept, but still, I think there’s mileage here.

To me, it would mean a border that

  • one can detect which side of it one is on

but

  • is never actually crossed (or if you prefer, one quantum tunnels through the border)

So, if one never actually crosses the border, but it still exists, this could satisfy contradicting demands from different politicians. This could be a way forward not just for the Irish border, but for a future Scotland/England border as well. Indeed, it could allow for local borders wherever one would like them (for example, for the Kingdom of Fife)….

This could be a politically useful application of quantum physics.