Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Making perception primary.

July 28, 2017

i’ve spent  long time wondering about the physical basis of perceptual entities. There’s lots of possible types of perceptual entity, visual, auditory, or the perception of time: indeed every possible form of mental activity. I’ve always been thinking about how the physical nature of the brain can perform physical activities theatre then interpreted as mental events. This is a hard problem: how do mental events supervene on physical events. No-one has the answer.

But now I’m wondering if this is the wrong question (and whether that’s why it’s quite so hard). We are very attached to out view of physical reality, whether that’s the physical nature of matter (quarks, electrons, atoms, molecules, or just pieces of stone and wood…), and energy (sound, music, light, and so on), so we look to physical reality to provide a basis for mental events. We know that physical reality is tricky: the physicists tell us that our everyday view of solid matter is not the only reality, that’s largely space. And we know that light is an electromagnetic radiation within a small say of wavelengths.

In fact all that we directly perceive is mental events. Everything else is provided to us as mental events, whether directly through our senses, or less directly through instrumentation that maps something invisible to something sensory, or less directly still through processing signals, or simply reading about it. So lets start at the other end, and make the mental events primary. So let’s start by assuming the reality of the mental events. Let’s not try to explain them away as accidental results of some physical process that’s dong something else.

It’s not that  don’t believe there is some physical correlate of mental events (I do: I can’t accept that the mental event has no physical correlate at all: to do so would be to accept the possibility of disembodied mental systems, which for this scientist seems a step too far right now). What I would suggest is that by making the mental events primal, we start to see just how far our “artificial intelligence” systems are from minds. Yes, we can map vectors to vectors, and learn about the deep structure of visual and auditory information; yes we can build systems that can perform certain types of mathematical reasoning, are create plans. But no, we can’t provide any sort of autonomous volition, not even the coalition that an amoeba has when swimming up a concentration gradient of some nutrient. We might be able to recognise the gradient (maybe – actually, that’s still quite hard), but we wouldn’t know that we wanted to swim up it.

I think we’re a whole lot further from the Singularity than is currently assumed. Yes we can build awfully clever automata, and make them perform some sparkling recognition  tricks, but little more than this.



Thoughts from the City of Derry

July 26, 2017

I’m in Derry, visiting the Magee Campus of the University of Ulster, to give a seminar (yesterday), and examine a PhD (today). Both done now, so I have a little time to be a tourist, and perhaps even to think. The picture id the Peace Bridge, a pedestrian bridge that crosses the River Foyle. It is, as you can see, a big river, with the old city (with it walls) on one side, and a rather newer area (which I haven’t yet seen) on the other. I gave a seminar entitled “40 years behind the keyboard, and what next”, and it seemed to go well, and I enjoyed the PhD Oral: a very good and able student. If this were Germany, the PhD would have been summa cum laude, but in the UK, we don’t grade them beyond pass and fail.

This afternoon, I walked from this hotel into the city, and wandered around the old town. While Derry is not quite on its uppers, it was sad to see what looked to have been an independent department store, Austin’s, closed.  Wandering around the walls, the views are excellent, but there’s still signs of the past, from the distant past (the siege of Derry, and the potato famine, when many migrants left from the docks in Derry, to more modern troubles). But the place has a guid conceit of itself, and a lively music scene too. I like it here: it’s very like Scotland in many ways (and not very far away either).

The new e-bicycle.

April 18, 2017

It’s only about 3 and a half miles from my house to my office, down the main (and rather busy) road. And it’s a bit further, and much hillier going over the Glen Road, a track that was a proper road till parts of it fell into the valley below leaving a track that’s now only for people and bicycles. I use this track now, and have been bicycling it once or twice  week for a few years. But I’d like to use it more often, yet I seem to need a day to recover between cycle runs.

So I finally took the plunge and bought an e-bike at the week-end: a Raleigh Motus Crossbar e-bicycle. I bought it from Easygo bikes in Linlithgow, who had a really big range of e-bikes.

So today I commuted to work on it. It’s got 5 different levels of pedal assist, from none to lots: so far I’ve only used the two lower levels of assist. And it’s like cycling with a following wind: it just takes he pain out of the hills. Back on it tomorrow!

Spring at last!

March 19, 2017

“If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring” (song, which I remember from  Harry Secombe singing it, a long time ago, written by Cyril Ornadel and Leslie Bricusse) seems fitting today. We have a small pond, and for most of this week – and particularly today – the frogs have been cavorting like mad. Now we have some frog spawn too, so we look forward to some tadpoles later in the spring. We dug the pond about 15 years ago, and now it seems very much part of the landscape.

Spring is a little early this year, though there’s a little snow forecast for next week, still. Last week, I planted a tree, a Morello Cherry, and it looks good. The sun is shining now, and it must be 10 degrees C, or even a little more. Better get out in it, and abandon this machine!IMG_1502

106 days post-Brexit referendum

October 7, 2016

In a previous post, I talked about the hangover post Brexit. Now we’re starting to feel the pain. And we’re nowhere near actually doing any negotiations. The UK Pound is down about 20%, against the Euro and the Dollar, my friends from the EU who work here are worried (and that’s in Scotland, where the Scottish Government went as far as writing each and every one of them a letter telling them they were valued: goodness knows what it’s like in the deepest wilds of rural England where they voted strongly from Brexit: see the Punch cartoon from 1854 – nothing’s changed).

I cannot get over my anger with the Conservatives and the UKIP people, along with the crap peddled by the tabloid press that led the people down this road. Other have suggested that the voters are stupider that they used to be, but that seems unlikely. I’m reminded of the 1924 Zinoviev letter that may have altered the result of an election (and which was undoubtedly a forgery: published in the Daily Mail of the time). But I feel utterly powerless. What can I do about this idiocy? No-one here is admitting to being in favour of Brexit, though obviously, quite a lot were. Down in England, there’s presumably lots of people happy with the turn of events, as they have their country back, G** help them.

Wait till we actually start negotiations, and look at what happens to the UK Pound then: In the mean time, I’m off to invest in cowrie shells! Except that most of my savings are in the form of my pension, and I can’t go and invest it: it’s just been devalued for me.

I’d better stop here.


After the Brexit vote: the hangover

June 24, 2016

Well here we are, 24 June 2016, after a very close vote to leave the EU. And a very different picture here in Scotland where over 60% voted to stay, putting Scotland in the expected company of Northern Ireland, and the unexpected company of London. I am a staunch believer in the EU, so I’m not at all happy about this.

It seems to me that a populist wave is riding high in  politics in many places, from Putin In Russia, to the rise of Trump in the USA, and now this vote. It seems to have been carried primarily by the English (note for non-UK readers: the UK consist of England, with the majority of the population, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), for reasons that seem strange to me, but then I’m biassed. Am I right in thinking it’s  a harking back to halcyon days of yore, with warm beer, skittles in the pub and summer days, or is that too simplistic? It’s hard to see the economic arguments (I can see the car industry shrinking, and the markets for goods made here getting much smaller), and while I can see some arguments (fishing, for example, particularly in Scotland has not been well served but the EU), the arguments about freedom, and unelected representatives leave me cold. Actually, they sound very much like the arguments used in the Scottish referendum a little while ago.

So what now? I suppose we just have to grin (perhaps girn) and bear it. I fear the unintended consequences, like the destabilisation of the Ireland/Norther Ireland situation, like the almost immediately proposed second Scottish referendum, like the uncertainty over who fees and arraignments there may be for EU students coming to UK (and in particular Scottish) Universities. Not forgetting the situation of the very large numbers of expatriate Britons in the EU, and non-British EU nationals in the UK.  I see lots of instability coming up: what a bloody mess, all because the Conservative party was worried about the UK Independence party stealing their clothes. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle…

Of public lectures

April 16, 2016

Last Thursday, I gave a public lecture entitled The incredible shrinking computer: computer hardware from relays to 14 nanometre transistors, part of a series of public lectures in my Department. This series has been running for a few years now, and this was the third time I’d contributed. In 2014, I did one on sound, Hear here: from the ear to the brain, and in 2013 one on artificial intelligence, Artificial Intelligence: is it finally arriving?

These lectures attract an audience of between about 40 and 60, depending on whether it’s nice night, what else is going on, and so on. And it’s actually a lot of work creating these lectures (for example, for the one I just did, I managed to borrow old computer components, and that’s quite apart from the research of putting together something rather better than my average student lecture, with more and better images, for example). So now I (and I suspect, my co-presenters) are interested in where else we might present these talks. Yes, we understand that each talk will need more work, to make it just right for the particular audience, but even then, we’re interested in other possibilities for presenting these again.

I should add that the talks are well received by their audiences, and that the audiences we have had range in age from about 12 upwards – a long way upwards! Is anyone listening out there in www-land? Any suggestions?

(I have two ideas in mind: one is science festivals, and the other is secondary (i.e. high) schools: I just need to get out there and organise them.)

Dark energy and the accelerating expanding Universe

March 31, 2016

Last night there was a Horizon programme on BBC entitled “The Mystery of Dark Energy”. In essence, it was about the discovery that not only was the Universe expanding, but it was doing so at an accelerating rate, as (at least initially) discovered using a particular type of supernova whose brightness is characteristic. They (more or less) laid down a challenge to think up reasons why this might be the case.

Well, I’m not (at least officially) a physicist (though I am a member of the American Institute of Physics through my membership of the the Acoustic Society of America). But I like a challenge. So here goes…

Much is made of the fact that matter bends spacetime, resulting in gravity. And presumably energy also bends spacetime (though the effect is generally small), because of the well-known relationship between energy and matter. In addition, electromagnetic radiation travels at the speed of light, faster than matter can possibly travel. A great deal of energy has been radiated over the duration of the Universe, and is still being radiated. But where is this energy now (in the sense of: where is the wavefront of the energy from long ago?). Clearly, we see from Earth the radiation from a cone of visibility of this energy, but surely most of the energy that has ever been radiated is now travelling (at the speed of light) towards the outer edge of the Universe (aside: I might suggest that the outer edge of the Universe is actually defined by where the energy has reached, combining energy and space in some way, but this may be a distraction from the point I’m trying to make.) So as time goes by, more energy tends to be at the very outermost edges of the Universe, and the bending of space caused by this concentration of energy causes the matter in the Universe to accelerate outwards.

Now, this may be (i) obvious and/or (ii) wrong. And I don’t have the capability (or the time, though even if I had the time, I still doubt whether I’d have the capability!) to put this into equations. But I think it’s comprehensible, and it might be nice to know why it’s wrong…

Ne’erday 2016

January 1, 2016

Today is New Year’s Day (known here as Ne’erday), a public holiday in Scotland. Virtually everything is closed, and it’s a time to meet up with old friends and relations.

I’ve lost my voice, almost certainly virally, but with luck and care, I’ll be better soon. So I thought it time to gather together a few thoughts.

Firstly, I’ve come to realise just how much I usually talk. Particularly with friends and family visiting, not being able to talk – or only being able to talk a little made me realise how much I do talk. I should listen more.

Secondly, being a little unwell made me able to read the books I’ve been reading through impossibly slowly, and some of those I’d been given for Christmas. Henning Mankell’s “A Treacherous Paradise” is a wonderful recreation of what Africa must have been like to a white person in the early 1900’s. Now I’m reading William Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain“, a recreation in the late 1990’s of a much earlier travelogue by Moschos (The spiritual meadow). This includes a great deal about early Eastern Christianity, particularly in the time around the foundation of Islam: it puts quite a number of issues into perspective, not least the huge differences between the many forms of Christianity practised there at that time, and modern Western Christianity. It puts a very different context into the issues of today. I should read more.

To close let me share a thought I had as I bought a newspaper in the only open shop in the town. Imagine if we had militant fundamentalist Scots whose religion forbade the opening of shops on the Ne’erday holiday – would there have been a crowd of kilted hairy Scotsmen (and women in plaids too) demonstrating against the shop being open, and threatening prospective customers with their sgian dubh’s?

I have just discovered Rumi…

April 10, 2015

I read a review of something that mentioned Rumi, and I recalled that he was a 13th century mystic poet, whose name  I had heard of somewhere, but knew nothing at all about. And I recalled that 13th century Persia  was a very cultivated and civilised place, with a history much longer than Dunblane in Scotland, where I’m writing this.

So I ordered the book that was mentioned, and eventually it arrived. It’s been sitting winking at me for most of the week, as I’ve struggled with marking assignments (or, enjoyed playing jazz…). And so this evening, tired out, and after a little wine, I finally opened it.

The effect was electric.

I read the poem “Sexual urgency, what a woman’s laughter can do, and the nature of true virility”. I had to read it aloud.  I thought through the images. I read it again, and saw more layers of images.

Finally I thought: I’ll write a blog about this, but before I do, I’ll look for “I have just discovered Rumi” on Google. There was only 10 results, but I knew I was not alone. I looked for the tile of the poem I named, and I found many copies of it. I was definitely not alone.

I haven’t read any more yet, but this was a teaching story by a Sufi master, set to delicate verse I suspect in Persian, and set to very effective verse in Coleman Bark’s translation. It made me think of Idries Shah’s books that I read nearly forty years ago, and that led me to reading teaching stories from the cultures, for there are many in other religions.

I shall come back for more.