Evolution versus Tower of Hanoi

The Tower of Hanoi (Wikipedia: Tower of Hanoi) is a neat little stacking game. The rules are simple:

  1. There are a number disks of varying sizes.
  2. There are (typically) three slots the disks can sit on.
  3. Only one disk may be moved at a time.
  4. Only the top disk of a stack may be moved.
  5. No larger disk may be placed atop a smaller disk.

The goal is to get the entire stack of disks from one slot to another.

In this arrangement, it would be sensible enough to call out a natural ordering of the disks, from largest (bottom) to smallest (top). You could create a sensible narrative where the smaller disks are more fragile, or more exalted, or whatever.

The problem with many laypersons’ accounts of evolution (particularly those portrayed as deniers, e.g., in documentaries) is that they attempt to impose this sort of narrative where one doesn’t belong. In large part this may be due to the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” But regardless it is demonstrably false and it undermines any attempt to actually understand evolution.

Let’s start with that phrase. You have many animals or creatures in an environment, and suddenly food becomes scarce. The pressure on these animals causes some to starve, others to fight, &c.

What fitness means, and all it means, in that context is that those animals who happen to be best able to cope with the pressure will survive. That may be due to them hiding, running away, being lazybones that happened to sleep through a catastrophe, &c.

Fitness is being used very loosely in that phrase. It doesn’t mean the one that can run the 100 meter dash the fastest, nor the one that can bench-press n times its own body weight. It lends no credence to eugenics, for example, unless your idea of eugenics is letting random chance determine the gene pool.

They happened to survive, and that’s all that was required for them to be called fit. If you repeated the event 1,000 times, and some subset of the population portrayed a similar tendency to avoid the catastrophe in a large set of those trials, that would be a measure of fitness. But even once, even a fluke, still imbues them with some level of fitness.

When creatures or animals change from one species to another, it means there has been enough genetic change that they can no longer reproduce with their ancestors’ other species (be they the old species or other derived ones). That doesn’t mean the other species are extinct, nor does it mark them as inferior. It’s just a statement of biological fact.

The notion that we, as humans, are superior to all the other species is a common human belief. It may bear out in certain contexts, but it fails in many as well. For example, we cannot survive by swimming around in antarctic waters, eating krill. No, we are adapted to particular environments even if we may possess the intellect to adapt to a wider range of environments than other species.

Do us a favor, documentarians. When you wish to produce a documentary about those who deny evolution, please make sure they first take a class that dispels such fallacies, both ubiquitous and idiosyncratic.

If they still choose to disbelieve the science based on an understanding of it, fine. But calling them disbelievers when they don’t even have the correct picture to disbelieve reads as disingenuous. More akin to telling a joke poorly, and then when they don’t laugh writing it off to their poor sense of humor.


Solar Messaging for Interstellar Discovery

The sun, our star, emits something on the order of 400 terawatts (trillion, trillion watts; 15 zeros) of radiation. Per second. It is the biggest thing we have going for us. It lets us see, keeps us warm, powers our plant life.

In examining the question, “is earth alone?” we might turn to the sun. Launched in 2009, the Kepler space telescope has been finding remote planets. It has definitely found over one hundred such planets, and has thousands more unconfirmed. It does this work by focusing on the stars. It looks for telltale changes in what the star looks like over time, looks for a dimming that is caused by an orbiting planet moving between the star and the telescope.

The planets are too distant to be seen (yet?) by our instruments. But the stars, putting out terawatts of energy per second, we can see the stars.

And if we wish to signal to other intelligent life, or if it wishes to signal to us, the stars may be the most obvious and best bet. Because where else are we going to pick up a transmitter that can output terawatts?

But the trouble is how to wire this massive, powerful transmitter. As small as we are, with as limited resources as we have, it seems improbable we can make much of an impact on the solar output in any meaningful way. And even if we could, what way would that be, that would produce a detectable difference that would be definitive proof of life to aliens across the galaxy?

More importantly, what should we look for in the stars we can see?

The SETI Institute has been looking for intelligent life out there. But they tend to look for the alien equivalent of terrestrial signals: microwaves, radio waves, laser beacons. But, as far as I know, they do not look at the stars themselves, for anomalous readings that might indicate some subtle tampering by a local intelligence.

In a few hundred years, maybe, we will have advanced our space program and asteroid catalog far enough that we might endeavor to shift some asteroids about. We might do this with minimal effort, using a chain reaction in which we nudge one or a few asteroids ever so slightly. In this effort, we might produce a distinctive pattern for aliens who happen to glimpse our star. Maybe one that gives some sort of prime-number-based sequence to the next generation of alien Kepler-esque telescopes.

We might look for the same sorts of patterns in the stars we examine with our next generations of planet-finders.

Or maybe there is some other property of the stars we will learn to manipulate more easily? That we might find alien stars exhibiting the same changes?

What secrets do you see looking up at the stars? What secrets do you fail to see?


2020: When Computers Will Look “Over There”

Wherever you are right now, go somewhere else in your head. If you’re in your home, think about a different room. If you’re not at home, think about a room in your home. You can probably look around the room a bit, remembering all the parts of it. Now you can probably go to some shelf or drawer and look around there.

You don’t have a perfect replica, but it’s good enough that you can remember, right now, where some remote object is. And if you went there right now, you would find that object where your brain said it would be.

This is a highly developed skill of the brain. So developed, in fact, that quite a few people use mnemonic device called the Memory Palace (Wikipedia: Method of loci) to allow them to memorize information rapidly and recall it with ease. But our computers currently rely upon the use of textual bits to demarcate things like files and folders.

If we’re forced to give the location for something, we tend to speak relatively: “down the hall, third door on the left, the big bookshelf in the corner with the taco bookends, second shelf from the top.” We don’t say, “the room called var, the piece of furniture called games, the shelf called board games, the object called dominoes.” (Okay, we do say roughly the last part.)

That’s all going to change. Let’s say you have a next-generation, non-invasive Brain-computer interface (Wikipedia: Brain-computer interface). Suddenly the computer can listen for you to “say” something like, “open that thing over there.” It can store a mapping for what “over there” means, and it can use your reference to it to trigger the mapping and get the data you want, without you needing to remember the location in the computer’s terms.

This will allow the computer to manage more of the problems that are currently shared between computer and user. And it will make computers easier to use.

But it will do some other things, too. It has the potential to overturn education, by having the computer help in your learning in a way that only the best teachers currently do.

Take, for example Kickstarter: Zombie-Based Learning: Geography taught in Zombie Apocalypse by David Hunter. This looks to be a great example of traditional teaching. The teacher uses their creativity to generate a compelling narrative for the material, setting the proper pacing, activities, etc. so that the kids all learn and retain the knowledge.

With computers, and a BCI (Brain-computer interface), the computer can help people to store memories in ways that will maximize their recall. This will initially happen in some rudimentary ways, like flashing pictures that are composed from a variety of images thought to be uncanny enough to help in memory. For example, a clown in a fish bowl, next to a fish in scuba gear.

But that may give way to better schemes where the computer has image representations of some of the places it knows you remember things, and it could suggest you add the memories in those places. It could also quiz you by flashing the location and asking you to show you remember what you should.

Passwords might consist of a challenge/response, where the computer flashes an image and you have to recall another image at some place in the same sequence.

Brain-computer interfaces represent a major leap forward in what computers will be able to do for humanity. They are on the horizon, and they are undoubtedly an epoch. Just as there is the world before the Internet and after, there is the world before widespread BCI and after.


What’s the Brain?

One thing that we all have in common is our brains.  We all have these immensely powerful computers in our heads.  For perspective, the total of humanity’s computing power (including things like cell phones) is probably a little more than one brain.  Understanding the brain is important to operating it, so today’s post focuses on the brain.

Let’s start with an exercise.  The word brain.  Your eye falls across the word, sending the pattern of shapes into the brain.  Inside your brain, neurons search for a pattern they recognize.  They pass that information to other neurons which are looking for other patterns.  And so on.

What results is a kind of thunderstorm of activity, with many neurons firing in several discrete parts of the brain.  Some of the patterns are discarded, others are highlighted.  Finally your conscious mind is awash in a set of believed-good patterns:

  1. The recognition of the word brain in the environment.
  2. The associations, including possibly a mental picture of the human brain’s physical existence as a folded mass of neurons, also including similar words like brian, rain, etc.
  3. The relative physical location of your own physical brain behind your eyes and between your ears.

Your brain is pulling up patterns constantly.  It is analyzing your visual field for movement, color.  It’s listening for patterns and breaks in the auditory environment.  It’s pulsing out to your body and receiving feedback like an itch on your nose or weight distribution on your feet.  It’s balancing you upright (when you’re standing).

The brain is a pattern recognition wizard.  And it improves with practice.  That’s how chess masters earn that name: through repetition of action, their brains rewire themselves to match chess patterns quickly and see the game as a sequence or cascade of questions (ie, a decision tree) rather than as a single move at a time.

Your brain may not be a chess master’s, but you have pretty good reading skills.  Your brain is matching patterns as you read this, deriving meaning from the shapes and sequences.

Your brain also has the concept of reward.  The neurons that match patterns well, or that quash invalid matches result in different chemicals released in the brain.  Indeed, the brain tries to make success occur, tries to be rewarded.

But the brain is mostly operating below the conscious level.  And it’s doing a ton of work to keep recompiling itself into a more useful and more functional device in reaction to your environment.  One of the primary tools the brain uses to that end is sleep.  A good night’s rest allows your brain to improve its efficiency and keep the patterns coming smoothly.

One thing you may notice is, upon learning a new videogame for example, you may be better the second day, after you have slept.  Your brain will optimize its pattern systems to the particular controls, physics, and visual and auditory stimuli of that game.  Or if you’re learning to cook, your brain will do the same for chopping onions or estimating cook times.

Buddhists meditate because of neuroscience.  The meditation process is initially about feeding the brain white noise.  A completely placid input, which results in the pattern matchers growing very calm and quiet. That’s because over time in normal use the brain’s pattern matchers throw all sorts of patterns up the chain that should be suppressed.  They’ve become overactive, due to the pace of life and the abundance of stimuli.

Meditation allows the matchers to sort of reset, but they also let the higher-level matchers to perform functions similar to those during sleep.  The brain rewires itself.

At some level of pattern matching, the brain uses higher level beliefs to suppress or highlight patterns.  That’s why rival football fans, watching the same game, actually see different outcomes throughout.  Their brains are suppressing what the other side sees, due to higher level beliefs about their team and the other team.  It’s the equivalent to a color filter, which highlights clashing colors and masks similar colors.

The brain would normally satiate itself on certain inputs.  For example, if you play with a dog with the same toy in the same way over and over, it will get tired of it.  However, usually it won’t because there’s enough natural variation (and social feedback) to keep it interested.  That’s why football fans don’t stop watching: there’s enough variation (and they have their brains tuned to find certain patterns interesting).

Music.  Your brain likes music.  It likes new music for the novelty of the patterns.  It likes old music for both the dependable patterns it evokes and the various memories/associations that music has.  It likes its own music, too.  Studies have shown the brain produces an internal music during sleep, likely to help with the bookkeeping that goes on.  Studies have also shown that insomnia can be partly alleviated by recording the brain’s music and playing it back when someone is trying to fall asleep.

The brain is damned intriguing.  I think I’ll stop here for now as my brain seems to have exhausted its current thoughts about its kind of system.  There’s a lot more to say, though.


Disbelieving Evolution is Anti-science

For an old controversy with roots in institutional inequality (eg, the aristocracy in England in the late 18th century), evolution has a proud tradition of being rejected by the devout non-believers of science. And yet you see them claim they just make their minds up, not being anti-science or uninformed. They just buy the other argument.

The problem for their position: rejection of evolution amounts to rejection of science, due to the substance of the theory of evolution.

The theory of evolution states that those biological organisms that best adapt to their environment will tend to exist, while those maladaptive organisms will tend not to exist.

More generally, an evolutionary system (biological or not) is a system in which entities continue to exist (via simple continuation, via propagation, or some other mechanism) or cease to exist (via death, simple removal, or some other mechanism) based on having the property of being functional or not being functional in some context.

Thus, science itself is evolutionary. As are human thought, behavior, language, etc.

Science is based on the idea that explanatory power of an idea constitutes the fitness test. An idea which does not explain the evidence will tend to be rejected, while an idea which does explain the evidence will tend to be accepted.

Evolution is accepted exactly because it fits the evidence for why all of these organisms exist today while others that existed in the past died off.

Science is accepted exactly because it is a more functional way of seeking to understand the world and interact with it than other methods such as poking everything you see with a stick. If poking everything you see with a stick could generate the thrust needed to land humans on the moon, for example, then it would at least be a real competitor to science. It isn’t.

But without some better explanation than “I made my mind up” to reject evolution, any claim to be accepting of science in general would be mistaken. Moreover, any theory which explains the biological records better than evolution would instantly be adopted as a new paradigm for conducting all scientific inquiry, so those that reject evolution should be beating the rest of the scientific community in publishing astounding new findings in all areas.

It is not the case. The sad truth is that those who reject evolution do not understand it. They do not understand science. They have some vague notion, as they probably have with mathematics and other areas of knowledge.

And it is a sad truth, because a failure to model evolution and science is also a failure to model the psyche of their fellow man. And that failure leads to all sorts of anti-scientific political decisions that cause massive suffering. That failure means their own children have a lower quality of life.

Evolution is a beautiful idea that should be visited often with an eye toward how elegant systems can function. It is as beautiful as any painting or any song. And yet there are a lot of people that stare at it as if it’s a random dot autostereogram image (like those Magic Eye images that were popular some years ago), unable to bring into focus the reality before them. They dismiss it in favor of a simple line drawing with no depth or substance.