Archive for June, 2004

“These people… keep their promises.”

Wednesday, June 30th, 2004

Ali at Iraq the Model posted about the Iraq handover and Bremer’s speech to the Iraqi people. A notable excerpt:

Another friend approached me. This one was not religious but he was one of the conspiracy theory believers. He put his hands on my shoulders and said smiling, I must admit that I’m beginning to believe in what you’ve been telling us for months and I’m beginning to have faith in America. I never thought that they will hand us sovereignty in time. These people have shown that they keep their promises.

Is it just me or is this a far cry from the nightly news? It’s interesting reading, and fairly short; go read the whole thing.

Hello Iraq, You’re On The Air

Tuesday, June 29th, 2004

The AP has an article about Iraqi talk radio. They report:

I send my congratulations to all Iraqis and every Iraqi home, Um Yassin gushed, her voice choked with emotion, while calling in to Iraq’s first, independent talk radio station, Radio Dijla. I want to tell Dr. Allawi to be bold, to be strong. We need him to build up the army because we need them at a time like this.

Her message was echoed by dozens of people on the day interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was given a letter that transferred sovereignty of the country back to its citizens[…].

Popular Iraqi radio host Rashid Limbaugh echoed the sentiment while fielding further calls from scores of jubilant Iraqis. Meanwhile, Baathist rabblerouser Ali Franquin’s short-lived show was cancelled after listeners protested his encouraging terrorists on the air.

Hat Tip: Captain’s Quarters

Geri Halliwell, Eat Your Heart Out

Thursday, June 24th, 2004

Though I am not a fan of the Olsen twins sisters, (I don’t actively dislike them… I’m just not a fan), I must say that I have a huge respect for their manager. This man, Robert Thorne, managed to take two infant girls with no particular talent to speak of, other than being reasonably cute, and turned them into billionaires before their 18th birthday.

They have movies, CDs, clothing lines, cosmetics, you name it, all tied into a billion-dollar company (of which they now have control since they recently turned 18). This is the greatest feat of no-particular-talent star-making since Ed McMahon first stepped on to the Tonight Show stage, or <insert Mr. T joke here>. Actually, it’s bigger, as I think the girls are worth a lot more $$$ than the other two combined.

Even if they are not able to sustain their success into adulthood — as they are becoming too old to be “cute” for the kids, not hottie enough to become models, and by their own account, not great actors — they are more than set for life. Nonetheless, I imagine that he will find a way to keep the Ashley/Mary Kate star vehicle rolling. The man has somehow turned 15 minutes into 18 years — I have no reason to start doubting him now.

I am also impressed that he (and their parents) managed to keep the sisters fairly down-to-earth. How many famous people can you think of whose egos far outweigh their talents? Now look at these relatively normal personalities coming from two girls who literally do not know what it’s like to not be a household name?. Remember the Spice Girls? They had a similar manager who made them the number one grossing performers in the world; but after a while their egos got too big for their own good and they fired him, immediately after which a giant fissure opened up in the earth and swallowed them whole.

Dear Mr. Thorne: I am a singer working professionally, (and a trained actor, though I have not worked in that business). Would you be interested in acquiring some new talent?

Oh, That Wacky Bushitler’s At It Again

Thursday, June 24th, 2004

Rex Reed’s review of Fahrenheit 911 makes the tired old claim that George W. Bush and company are just like the Third Reich. This is Rex Reed, nationally famous movie reviewer, mind you, not some whackjob at Indymedia. James Lileks this morning had a great response that I felt like sharing:

You have Bush. You have Saddam.

One is a meglomanical dictator with a small moustache who killed millions, gassed ethnic minorities, annexed a neighbor state and paid underlings to kill Jews.

The other is Hitler.

I know I’m an unsophisticated partisan blinded by ideology, but something about that equation just strikes me wrong.

Hey, when you’re right, your right.

Mr. Reed’s review has another quote that caught my eye:

[Director Michael] Moore is armed with facts, and he presents them accurately and succinctly. The controversial filmmaker stated [that] right-wing Republicans have charged Mr. Moore with staging a “left-wing conspiracy” to influence the forthcoming election. Well, duh.[…] The purpose of any documentary is to influence opinion.

Actually, Moore, has always played fast and loose with the facts, and he does so again here. And as for the purpose of documentaries:

Documentary
1. Consisting of, concerning, or based on documents.
2. Presenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter, as in a book or film.

But, hey, let’s not let little matters like facts or the basic definitions of words get in the way of politics. (That is the Clinton legacy, after all.)

Here, however, is Reed’s money quote:

The Cannes cognoscenti and the limousine liberals have already declared Fahrenheit 9/11 the blockbuster documentary of the year. Who knows how it will play in Punkin Crick?

I think I have a pretty good idea how it’s going to play in Punkin Crick. Thank you, Mr. Reed, for showing us your true colors: elitist, arrogant, condescending, and too dumb to realize that the term “limousine liberal” is an insult. I take back my earlier statement. Rex Reed is a whackjob.

The Way of the Whigs

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2004

I’ve been meaning to post about this for quite a while now, but have not made the time to sit down and really write an in-depth discussion. Nonetheless, I wanted to get the statement out there — to put myself on the record.

To be blunt: The Democrat Party as we know it will no longer exist in 20 years. Possibly 10 years.

Modern liberalism is in its death throes. I predict that Bush will win this fall’s election by a handy margin, and that Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run will be the last stand for modern leftists in this country. If they win 2008 they have a few more decades; if not, they’re toast.

Someone will of course take their place — perhaps Ross Perot’s party. Sorry Libertarians, I don’t think it’s gonna be you….

[Update: There is a follow-up post here]

Private “Enterprise”

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2004

They Did It!

Private manned spaceflight is a reality. Mark my words: barring some bonehead move from lawmakers, within the next 10 years you will be able to plunk down some cash and go into space. $10-$50 grand I’m thinking, though not at first of course. It’ll start at a million or two and then market forces (and economies of scale and technological advances and advertising sponsorship and…) will bring the price down to within reach of Joe Citizen.

If I have the cash, I’ll be the first in line. See you there.

Memory and Identity, Pt. 2

Thursday, June 17th, 2004

In regard to my previous post, “Memory and Identity“, Steven Den Beste asked:

In “Ghost in the Shell”, one of the technologies was cyber-replacements for sections of the brain. Even the guy who was “still human” had some of that.

If a part of the brain is replaced by a cybernetic equivalent, is that a break in continuity?

If eventually the entire thing is replaced, but incrementally, one small piece at a time, is there any discontinuity? (Presuming information copyover on each replacement step)

If the rest of the body is also then replace, one piece at a time, with mechanical replacements, was there any discontinuity?

At the end you have a creature which is entirely fabricated. Every bit of it came from a factory. Yet it has the memories of a biological being, and has exactly the continuity of identity you describe.

Is it the same individual? Does it really make sense to say that?

In a sense, this is happening already. Constantly, cells are dying and being replaced within our bodies. This fingernails that Steven hypothetically clipped are growing back as we speak, every bit a part of him, and yet every bit as much not his identity as ever before.

Supposedly, your body completely replaces itself every 11 years or so. That is to say that by the time eleven years have passed, every bit of physical matter in your body has passed out and been replaced. All the cells have died and been lost to waste, or sweat, or what have you, and all new cells have been created and are now running the show. (I’m going to guess, counter to the theory, that this does not apply to the skeleton.) Was there a break in continuity? Not by the standard of which we’re speaking. This is not akin to the “brain transplant” hypotheticals because it happened gradually rather than all at once.

First off, I can not imagine that any future technology that allowed us to replace parts of the brain could possibly be so crude as to resemble modern surgery. Doctors will not be able to go in with scalpels and swap out brain parts like an auto mechanic replacing a transmission — any such process involving such a delicate mechanism as the brain will probably more resemble giving a leukemia patient a bone marrow transplant, (in which the donated marrow is put into an IV feed and carried by the blood to the various parts of the body, and put into place by the body’s own natural processes).

In light of that, replacement of parts of the brain, while artificially induced, would still resemble the natural functions that are already at work within every human being. Our brains are being replaced, bit by bit, as we speak. In Steven’s example, the replacement would be of human design, and presumably more powerful than what nature gives us. This, still, does not seem to be too terribly different than what our brains already do — the structure changes hugely as we age, especially in the first ten or so years of our lives when our brain is literally wiring itself with neurons. (This is why it is easier for a child to learn music, or another language, than an adult — their brains are essentially pliable and are able to wire themselves to the type of information being input.)

I am not physically the same person I was when I was four years old, but… yes I am. I am not mentally the same person that I was at three, yet… I have memories of that age. Again, yes I am.

I’ve actually just thought of a different example that perhaps presents a more comparable situation which Steven suggests: Cryogenics. Cryogenics is the technical term for the freezing of a person’s body, usually after death in the hopes of reviving them sometime in the future when the technology exists to do so. I say “usually” because it is also, rarely, used on living people for the purpose of doing certain types of surgery such as… wait for it… brain surgery. One use for the technique is that they can eliminate blood pressure when doing reconstructive surgery on blood vessels in the brain. Freeze the person, pump the blood out, do the repair, put the blood back in, revive the person. Freaky but true.

If a person can be frozen to the point of cessation of body function, does this constitute a break in “continuity” as I have described it? On the immediate surface, I say “no”; it is more comparable to a deep coma. When the person is revived, the same processes (physical as well as mental) pick up where they left off. It’s similar to a person falling into freezing water in the winter and being pulled out an hour or two later, still alive (which happened several years ago here in Chicago). But again, what if instead of repairing blood vessels, the doctors are replacing the brain?

(Side Note: As far as Steven’s example above goes, I consider the replacement of the body parts irrelevant compared to the replacement of the brain. My arm is part of me, but it is not truly a part of what constitutes my personal identity. Though it might seem so, I would place such “identity-associated” body parts as the face in the same category as the arm. I have worn glasses since the second grade. Every time I get a new pair of glasses [new frames, that is] I go through a period where it is a bit of a surprise every time I look in a mirror; because glasses have become such an integral part of my physical appearance that to change them is to genuinely change the whole look of what I visually identify as “me”. In fact, I’ve had a few different people describe me as having “Clark Kent/Superman Syndrome”, meaning that if I take of my glasses I am hardly recognizable as the same person. Surely that difference does not actually make me a different person.)

What of replacing the brain while the patient is cryogenically frozen? I suppose that question depends on what part of the brain you replace. Swap out the motor centers, I would think that the consciousness is the same; but swap out the frontal lobes wholesale, and that would involve the kind of total disruption as whole-brain replacement, which I have already argued would constitute a continuity break.

“Yes”, I can already hear you saying, “but what about replacing just a small part of the frontal lobe, and doing that repeatedly over time until the whole thing is replaced?” Well, that’s a matter of degrees. We’ve already examined the two extremes — replacing it molecule-by-molecule in a way that mimics natural processes or replacing it wholesale like a mechanic swapping out spark plugs. Anything in between would be a matter of where you draw that line. Replace too much at once, and you disrupt the function enough to constitute a break; replace it in small enough bits and you are close enough to natural function to maintain continuity. I’m sure that there are areas in there that would resemble the kind of partial break similar to partial amnesia, or insanity, or brain damage, which have already been discussed.

Memory and Identity

Wednesday, June 16th, 2004

Note: I wrote this Friday, but didn’t get a chance to post it until today….

Stephen Den Beste has posted a discussion today inspired by one of my all-time favorite movies: Ghost in the Shell, (a movie which, in fact, I suggested he watch, in an email back when he started posting about anime). The movie is a Japanese anime which in a nutshell best fits in the “cyberpunk” category, except that the movie is truly not that easy to “nutshell”. It’s an extremely philosophical film; it asks questions that are not easy to answer, relating to personal identity, and the eternal question Who am I?.

Steven is what he describes as a mechanistic atheist, and this being the foundation for his belief and outlook is probably one of the reasons I enjoy his writing so much. I pretty precisely match his religious/philosophical outlook (e.g. I too am a mechanistic atheist as defined by him), and his experience as an engineer sometimes gives him a conceptual vocabulary with which he can express concepts that I understand instinctually, but cannot articulate in words. This similarity will be important in a moment, as I intend to use his discussion of his own belief as a springboard for my own. As I saw the movie almost 10 years before he did, (and having seen and read Frankenstein long before that), I’ve probably spent a bit more time thinking about these things than he has. :)

In discussing some of the issues raised by the film, he hashes over some pretty obvious statements regarding the physical body, such as the idea that my getting a haircut does not remove anything that is inherently “me”, and moves through the gamut of losing a limb, and a Frankensteinesqe idea of swapping someone’s brain into another body and asking who that is. He writes:

What am I? As a mechanistic atheist, the only answer I’ve ever really ever had was that I am the computational properties of the higher functions of my brain and the memories and data which my brain has stored and uses in the process of thought. I am more than my memories, because a different brain which might be more powerful, or less powerful, or powerful in different ways, would use those memories differently and the result would not be the same. But at the same time, I am more than just the computational unit, because that unit with different memories would behave differently.[…]

Unfortunately, it also opens new uncomfortable questions. For instance, what if I were insane, or mentally disturbed? If I could be cured, would I still be the same person? There might be continuity of memory from before the cure, but would it be a new person accessing the memories of the previous occupant of the body, a previous person who no longer exists?

Doesn’t that happen anyway to us all? I am not the same at age 50 as I was at age 20. Am I really the same person, or am I someone different? If I’m not him, when did he go away? When did I appear? Were there any others?[…]

If I am my memories and the computational properties of my particular brain as it processes those memories, then if my memory is changed, at what point do I become another person? Or no person at all? How much change does it take?

If I suffer amnesia, did I die?

I agree with his premise, but I would like to try to answer his questions in a manner that is a bit more definitive than any response he gives. In brief: “I” am the culmination of my particular contiguous consciousness over the course of my life.

Ten minutes ago I was the culmination of that consciousness over the course of my life until ten minutes ago. Is that any different? Of course it is, though most likely that change is subtle. Over the course of years we generally change quite a bit, simply by the flood of tiny changes that happen to us over time — like micrometeors wearing away the surface of the moon. Major changes can happen quickly, as well. If something major happened in the last ten minutes, for example, if I’ve gotten in a car accident and killed someone, that would change me significantly. The key is this: though I am changed, I am still the culmination of my experiences and my consciousness.

The “contiguous” in this definition is important. In this type of discussion there is often posited the idea that your memories and so forth are copied to an incredibly advanced computer at the same time that you are killed. Is the computer now “you”? My answer is clearly “no”, because the consciousness in your original body ended and the copy started up separately. This always seemed to be a false question of sorts, because the death of the original person is an arbitrary complication that blurs what otherwise seems like an obvious question.

There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which a character is phobic of the transporters that are obiquitous throughout the Federation, because he thinks that you die when your atoms are dispersed and a new person with all your thoughts and memories and an identical body springs into being when the atoms are reassembled at the destination. Is he correct? If the consciousness ends at dispersion, then yes, he is; and we have over the years unwittingly witnessed a countless succession of murders on network TV. (Of course, we have anyway; just not on that particular show.) If they existed, I too would probably avoid matter teleporters. This concept is wonderfully illustrated in the short story Think Like a Dinosaur by James Patrick Kelley (also available here as an ebook.

He begs the question of amnesia. The issue with amnesia is that even without conscious memory of the past, an amnesiac usually retains unconscious memories. The general personality doesn’t change, usually, (any psychiatrists and the like please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!); which suggests to me that there is still a tenuous link to the consciousness of the past — there is, again, continuity. Did the person die? Almost, but not quite. There is something of the past there. That of course may be cold comfort to those who love the person he was, or offer hope of a recovery. There are also cases when personality changes radically, which suggests a total break from the earlier identity. In such a case, the old person is dead.

Though his heart stopped beating only a few days ago, Ronald Reagan, tragically, died years ago.

There is also the question of insanity, and there the issue becomes a bit more complicated. As I discussed a moment ago, we (obviously) do change over time. The insane person is still the culmination of past experiences — the insanity does not exist in a vacuum. Insanity is an illness, but short of completely wiping out all memories, it is the same person, but he is changed. If there is a recovery later, the then sane person will carry memories of the insanity, and that experience will affect who he is afterward.

As a bit of a side note, this definition really applies to the “identity” of physical objects as well. Is Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper the same painting it was a week after he painted it? Yes, even though today it is significantly more worn. If I take a photograph of it and make a full-size print of it, that is not the original because of lack of continuity.

There are clearly situations wherein a person can change so completely that he is no longer recognizable. (“You’re just not the man I married!”, while not literally true, has a genuine meaning.) That does not change their identity, in my view. They are the same person, but that person has changed over time.

That’s about all I have for now. This is obviously not the be-all and end-all of discussion on the subject, but I think the concept serves the purpose well. Steven’s article asks a lot more than I have attempted to answer, but with complex conundrums, the answers (if there are any) are usually built up by examining small parts and using those examinations as blocks to form the structure of a greater model. Hopefully someone else (or I down the road) will find it useful and build from it.

Update: SDB sent me the following via email in response:

Your concentration on physical continuity has other problems associated with it. I’ve gotten (and answered) so many letters about this that I’m getting a bit weary, and I also have to go out and so some errands, so I’m afraid this will have to be a bit short.

In “Ghost in the Shell”, one of the technologies was cyber-replacements for sections of the brain. Even the guy who was “still human” had some of that.

If a part of the brain is replaced by a cybernetic equivalent, is that a break in continuity?

If eventually the entire thing is replaced, but incrementally, one small piece at a time, is there any discontinuity? (Presuming information copyover on each replacement step)

If the rest of the body is also then replace, one piece at a time, with mechanical replacements, was there any discontinuity?

At the end you have a creature which is entirely fabricated. Every bit of it came from a factory. Yet it has the memories of a biological being, and has exactly the continuity of identity you describe.

Is it the same individual? Does it really make sense to say that?

My immediate impulse is to say, “Yes, it’s the same person.” I may have to think about it further and comment in a later post.

Preaching to the choir

Friday, June 11th, 2004

My friend Erik sez: “[M]an, I don’t believe we wasted years in High school learning French.”

I’ve been thinking the same thing lately. On the other hand, I did use the word “salopards” (that’s “bastards” en anglais) in a post just the other day. :)

“Stupid citizens don’t get it…. Say it louder!”

Friday, June 11th, 2004

Anti-smoking activists in Australia are angry because graphic photos of diseases caused by smoking (rotting foot shots and that sort of thing) will only cover roughly 60% of the package surface, under a new law. They’re angry because they feel that a bigger warning on the front was crucial in punching the health message through.

Got that? They’ve told the citizenry that smoking is bad for you, but people still smoke. Therefore, the anti-smoking crusaders’ natural impulse is that if they say it again, and louder this time, the stupid smokers will realize that they just aren’t supposed to smoke, and will stop.

This is a perfect example of a common problem among liberal activists. They so believe in the the truth of their argument that they think that anybody who disagrees with them must simply not have heard them. It simply can’t be possible for a person to know that cigarettes are bad for you, and still chose to smoke.

It gets better:

Prominent anti-smoking groups yesterday accused the Government of bowing to tobacco industry lobbying and raised questions about political donations to the Government.[…]

Every time someone takes a cigarette out of a pack, they will see the warnings, [Parliamentary Secretary for Health Trish Worth] said. I think this is a very, very powerful message.[…]

Quit Victoria executive director Todd Harper said the decision was extremely puzzling and disappointing. The tobacco industry have got what they wanted, he said.

Actually, if the industry had gotten what they wanted, these pains-in-the-arse would be required to leave them the hell alone and let people smoke in peace. As for Ms. Worth’s prediction, I’m guessing that Australia is going to see a sharp upswing in the sale of cigarette cases.

Update: Den Beste said it …. um… beste:

When someone tries to use a strategy which is dictated by their ideology, and that strategy doesn’t seem to work, then they are caught in something of a cognitive bind. If they acknowledge the failure of the strategy, then they would be forced to question their ideology. If questioning the ideology is unthinkable, then the only possible conclusion is that the strategy failed because it wasn’t executed sufficiently well. They respond by turning up the power, rather than by considering alternatives. (This is sometimes referred to as escalation of failure.)