Augmentation [Weekly Head Voices #23]

(This edition is about babies, textbook Ph.D. defences and mind-viruses in Snow Crash, all of which can mostly be filed under backyard-philosophy(ish).)

On the theme of striving for The Next Level, my not-quite-1-month-old bundle of joy laughed out loud today for the first time! I’m sure that it was not a false alarm, as I was being my usual comedic genius self (I target the 1 to 3 month-old crowd), and the pattern of stimulus and reaction was just too well-coordinated and sustained to be coincidental.

On the theme of really cool events, on Thursday I had the privilege of being part of the Best Ph.D. Defence EVAR. Seriously people, the day that my good friend Frans Steenbrink became my good friend Dr. Frans Steenbrink will pleasantly resonate in my mind for a long time to come.

A typical scene during an average Ph.D. defence. The candidate is in the middle, surrounded by committee members on both sides. At this very moment, he is investigating two possible lines of argument.

Here in NL, a Ph.D. defence is a fantastic affair: The candidate has to defend his work against the highly-experienced offensive mental manoeuvres of a committee consisting of around 7 wise men, most of them grizzled veteran professors who have eaten many a hapless candidate FOR BREAKFAST! As if that weren’t awe-inspiring enough, the defence usually takes place in some imposing building, preferably more than a few hundred years old (in this case, it was the Academiegebouw in Leiden, almost 500 hundred years old), the committee are in full academic (read: battle) garb, and the whole affair is public, so the candidate is joined by a potentially sizeable audience. Believe me, this can be a nauseatingly stressful experience.

Of course Dr. Steenbrink handled the whole affair with elegance and, extremely unusually, a healthy dose of humour. It might be the first time that I’ve ever seen a candidate disarm his opponents not only by artfully responding to their questions, but with an ever-so-slightly irreverent injection of humour. It was beautiful.

After the successful defence, we were all picked up by a boat and taken via the Leiden canals to De Poort for the after-party, and what an after-party it was… Besides the live performance of Frédérik Steenbrink, the two electro DJs, the superb saxophonist who was able to accompany them musically (!!!), the Louis Theroux-style documentary put together by Mr Cricket, and copious amounts of free beer, it was positively life-affirming to see the Master of Good Karma (the freshly minted doctor goes by many names) being surrounded by his Karma-children, all emanating. You need to know him in order to understand this completely, but you have to trust me that it was beautiful.

On the theme of understated super-heroes, I finally got around to reading Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, triggered by a Cosa Nostra t-shirt shown on boingboing. I know I know, I could have lost my Cyberpunk Nerd membership card for only reading it this late in my life…

In any case, I really enjoyed the book, especially for the characters (the protagonist, called Hiro Protagonist, is naturally a half-African American half-Korean hacker / sword-fighter / pizza delivery guy), the far-out society (the world is run by private franchises, amongst others the Mafia, owner of the extremely influential Cosa Nostra pizza chain and run by the charismatic Uncle Enzo), the crazy technological artefacts (the Rat Things!) and for all the changes in society brought about by the crazy technology, not least of which the Metaverse. The Metaverse is the name Stephenson gave to his extrapolation of various phenomena present or considered in 1992: The internet, virtual reality, Gibsonian cyberspace. The protagonists spend a portion of their time not quite jacked in, but with augmented reality goggles and high-fidelity ear-phones, walking around as avatars in an artificial world with a total population of slightly less than what facebook has now, if I remember correctly.

Personally, I didn’t find Snowcrash quite as good as Gibson’s Neuromancer (see my 2003 ode here. it still gives me goose-flesh…), but somehow, very sneakily, it has still managed to manoeuvre itself into my list of all-time favourite books.

The story is built around the interesting idea of a neuro-linguistic virus, that is a certain sequence of sounds that is somehow able to get into the human deep brain, screw things up royally and spread through verbal contact with other humans. It has a cyberspace equivalent called Snow Crash: If programmers in the Metaverse see this specially coded binary image (through their AR interfaces), their brains essentially crash and they’re turned into vegetables. It’s all very complex (see this wikipedia page) and quite far fetched, but the idea of considering certain large-scale social phenomena as a kind of mind-virus, that is a potentially damaging entity that integrates at very low level with its host, is self-replicating and is able to spread to other humans, is intriguing to say the least.

Recall that Dawkins partly coined the by now well-known English term “meme” in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, as it turns out that the concept was more or less first written about by Semon in 1904. A meme, analogous to a gene, is an element of social information, for example the mistaken idea that going outside in cold weather increases the chances of getting a cold (in this case, not true, but still a meme). Analogous to a biological virus, a mind-virus would then be built up from various memes. Each meme would take care of a different function of the mind-virus, helping to guarantee its survival and proliferation throughout humankind, for example: Don’t question me (meme1), believe in me (meme2), spread me (meme3), be exclusively faithful to me (meme4), do this or you will be severely punished (meme5), do this and you will be greatly rewarded (meme6).

If you’re wondering what I mean by all of this, rest assured in the fact that Zombo Com has all the answers.

Kids, now go and have yourselves a fantastic week!

The Next Level. [Weekly Head Voices #22]

Due to the sleep- and concentration disrupting side-effects of a recent fantastic and life-changing event, I have skipped two editions of the Weekly Head Voices.  You’re going to have to bear with me, as it might happen again more than once in the coming months, whilst the ramification of aforementioned event matures some more and finally decides that those funny hairy creatures often occupying the same spaces that she does do deserve some rest.  Sometimes.

This edition of the Weekly Head Voices is almost 100% backyard philosophy, and more specifically is concerned with the meta-physical state some (language NSFW), in a brilliant exercise in post-modernistic satire, call The Next Level.  Let’s take a gentle start.

First have a look at this mobile phone:

The phone is not only glaring at a Rubik’s Cube, but IT’S PHYSICALLY SOLVING THE THING without even breaking a sweat, or begging for a battery recharge.  This phone has clearly reached the Next Level (of phones).

Then check out this robot:

Yes people, the robot is able to move by HAPPILY BALANCING ON A BALL, even recovering from a shove by its future human slave. That’s pure robot hardcore, and definitely a robot that’s reached the Next Level.

Humans have a next level too. Because we currently seem to be by far the dominant life-form on our sensory horizons, striving for this is a slightly more complex endeavour than being able to balance on a ball like that robot.  So how can we strive for the next level?

For a start, take a look at this list of cognitive biases on wikipedia. In essence, most humans are basically walking meat bags filled with misunderstandings, and convinced that they’re not. Related to this, and funny in a tragic kind of way, is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which boils down to the fact that people who are incompetent, are by nature even less capable of recognising their own incompetence (vaccine / main-stream health denialists and climate change denialists are textbook cases of this). In any case, one would be taking a really big step up the ladder to the next level if one were to memorise the list of cognitive biases above, and were to work really hard every day at trying to compensate for some of these effects in oneself.

Generalising this idea, I think a really great life philosophy is simply to strive every day to be better at something than you were the day before: Cycle a bit faster, remember better, think and see more clearly, be kinder. If one were to keep this up throughout one’s life, one will probably end up in a Very Good Place (philosophically that is).

Something else that one can try to practise in one’s journey to the mythical next level is meditation.  A friend recently posted the following Google TechTalk by Philippe Goldin on the neuroscience behind mindfulness meditation.  It’s 50 minutes long, so feel free to watch it after you finish reading this post:

I wasn’t aware that what I was doing in essence comes down to mindfulness meditation.  In contrast to concentration meditation, where the goal is focusing on the same thing (a mantra, an object) the whole time, mindfulness is about opening the mind and letting the now flow in, appreciating and mentally tasting it without judging.  Although alternative health sites already claim the world (as with all things alternative health, you should ignore these without hesitation), science is cautiously optimistic about the effects of mindfulness, in spite of the sub-standard quality of many of the studies.  There do seem to be definite personal benefits, and personally I am of the opinion that any form of regular meditation or focused self-reflection is an important catalyst in striving for the next level.

The same phenomenon currently disrupting my sleep and concentration, is very much related to this whole discussion, and probably caused it. Whilst it has justifiably been remarked that the act of procreation certainly doesn’t require a rocket scientist (on the contrary, sometimes), helping to sculpt the initial result into a potentially next level human being is an exquisite form of art that requires decennia for the completion of a single piece.

Thank you for stopping by to hear me ramble on, and please turn this into a real discussion by leaving a comment!