Thursday, 30 October 2008

John Gray's Straw Dogs

I've already written quite a lot about one of the claims that John Gray makes in 'Straw Dogs' about the bandwidth of consciousness, but I also wanted to post a general review of the book, because its a very interesting piece of work.

On the front cover of the UK paperback, Jim Crace writes that "Straw Dogs has enraged me and engaged me more than any other book this year". This seems to sum up the experience a lot of people have with the book - its a bracing read, but there's plenty to disagree with.

For example, compare Terry Eagleton's generally dismissive review in the Guardian with the much more positive one that Jason Cowley wrote for the Observer in the same week. They both make plenty of points that I agree with:
"Drawing on a wide range of sources, from science to fiction to more speculative theories such as Gaia, Straw Dogs unfurls in a series of numbered paragraphs. The style is terse and pithy; sometimes bold assertion supplants argument and there is repetition, overstatement and too much direct quotation from the work of EO Wilson and others. But there are moments of beauty and insight, too, and disgust at the excesses of history - the wars, destruction, the ideological follies." - Jason Cowley
"It is just that Gray cannot resist mixing these vital truths with half-truths, plain falsehoods, lurid hyperbole, dyspeptic middle-aged grousing and the sort of recklessly one-sided rhetoric he would surely mark down in a student's essay. ... In rightly stressing the affinities between humans and other animals, he slides shiftily over some key differences ... Gray does not want to hear of human value, which would wreck his sensationalist case." - Terry Eagleton
One persuasion trick that John Gray deploys a couple of times is this:

- People say that attribute A makes Humans different from animals
- But animal Y can do A- (where A- is something a little bit like A)
- Therefore, Humans are vain to imagine they are any different from other animals

For example, in chapter 1, section 5, this mechanism is used with A = Technology, Y = Ants and A- = fungi growing by leaf-cutter ants. The point he seems to be making is that the technology created by humans is nothing worth getting excited about because other species also farm and use tools in a limited way. But this argument obviously ignores the degree of complexity of the technology or tool-use.

In chapter 2, section 8 he does it again with A = Language, Y= Birds and A- = Birdsong (also Y = Wolves and A- = scent traces). He goes on to say "what is distinctly human is not the capacity for language. It is the crystallisation of language in writing". Again, he seems to be saying that human language is no big deal because other species of animals also have forms of communication. Again, the degree of complexity is brushed aside.

A few pages later, in chapter 2, section 10, we have A = Consciousness, Y = Bacteria and A- = Sensing the environment. Gray points out that sensation and perception exist throughout the animal and plant kingdom. He also points out that apes have shown to have versions of some of the mental capacities that we once thought were uniquely human - "Despite an ancient tradition that tells us otherwise, there is nothing uniquely human in conscious awareness". Degree of complexity is not examined.

Gray does concede that humans have a sense of Self that other animals may not have. Before we have time to pat ourselves on the back though, he pulls the rug from under our feet. Self-awareness is not worth having, he contends, and is an illusion that hold us back. He argues that human consciousness is overrated, using a three pronged attack based on the bandwidth of consciousness, the supposed power of subliminal adverising and Benjamin Libet's famous experiments. I've written about the first of those in detail, and I hope to get around to the other two sometime.

So, I agree with Terry Eagleton that John Gray (who, by the way, is Professor of European Thought at the LSE) sometimes uses "the sort of recklessly one-sided rhetoric he would surely mark down in a student's essay". But there is still a lot of great stuff in the book. The foreword to the paperback edition has some very thought provoking concentrated pearls of Grayness:
"Straw Dogs is an attack on the unthinking beliefs of thinking people. Today liberal humanism has the persuasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition ... outside of science, progress is simply a myth ... the prevailing secular worldview is a pastiche of current scientific orthodoxy and pious hopes. Darwin has shown that we are animals; but - as humanists never tire of preaching - how we live is 'up to us'. Unlike any other animal, we are told, we are free to live as we choose. Yet the idea of free will does not come from science. Its origins are in religion - not just any religion, but the Christian faith against which humanists rail so obsessively"
He goes on to explain the Christian roots of secular humanism; how ideas such as Christian salvation were transformed into secular ideas of universal human emancipation. From the paragraph above it might appear that he is moving towards being an apologist for religion, but that is not his aim. It is interesting stuff, but I remain unconvinced by his argument that our free will is an illusion and that our consciousness is overrated.

Still, there are lots of enjoyable quotes from the book that I'd like to share here, either for their insight or their audacity:
"As commonly practised, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs."

"Justice is an artefact of custom. Where customs are unsettled its dictates soon become dated. Ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions in hats."

"The ideal of the chosen life does not square with how we live. We are not the authors of our lives, we are not even part-authors of the events that mark us most deeply. Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen ... Yet we have been thrown into a time in which everything is provisional. The traditions of the past cannot be retrieved. At the same time we have little idea of what the future will bring. We are forced to live as if we were free.
The cult of choice reflects the fact that we must improvise our lives. That we cannot do otherwise is a mark of our unfreedom. Choice has become a fetish; but the mark of a fetish is that it is unchosen."

"Nirvana is the end of suffering; but this promises no more than what we all achieve, usually without too much effort, in the course of nature. Death brings to everyone the peace the Buddha promised after lifetimes of striving ... For those that know themselves to be mortals, what the Buddha sought is always near at hand. Since deliverance is assured, why deny ourselves the pleasure of life?"

"We are approaching a time when, in Moravec's words, 'almost all humans work to amuse other humans'."

"Bourgeois life was based on the institution of the career - a lifelong pathway through working life. Today professionals and occupations are disappearing. Soon they will be as remote and archaic as the ranks and estates of medieval times."

"The Situationists and the Brethren of the Free Spirit are separated by centuries, but their view of human possibilities is the same. Humans are gods stranded in a world of darkness. Their labours are not the natural consequence of their inordinate wants. They are the curse of a demiurge. All that needs to be done to free humanity from labour is to throw off this evil power. This mystical vision is the Situationists' true inspiration, and that of anyone who has ever dreamt of a world in which humans can live without restraint."

"Financial markets are moved by contagion and hysteria. New communications technologies magnify suggestibility. Mesmer and Charcot are better guides to the new economy than Hayek or Keynes."

"A high-tech Green utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible; but it is humanly unimaginable. If anything like it ever comes about, it will not be through the will of homo sapiens ... So long as population grows, progress will consist in labouring to keep up with it."
So this is all great fun, but what does John Gray think we should be doing instead of chasing the illusion of progress? Ultimately, he promotes the Eastern idea of life as contemplation:
"If the hope of progress in an illusion, how - it will be asked - are we to live? The question assumes that humans can live well only if they have the power to remake the world. Yet most humans who have ever lived have not believed this - and a great many have had happy lives. The question assumes the aim of life is action; but this is a modern heresy. For Plato contemplation was the highest form of human activity. A similar view existed in ancient India. The aim of life was not to change the world. It was to see it rightly."

"Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction in itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?"
Finally, in defence of the book, here is part of Bryan Appleyard's review, quoted inside the front cover:
The book's overwhelming virtue - and it is one that should silence all dissent - is that it counsels only humility. It subverts all contemporary vanities, and, in advocating contemplation rather than action, it asks only that we should find peace within ourselves and the world.
Which is a nice way to offset some of the gloomy predictions within the book. But if seeing the world rightly is important, my own humble view is that John Gray needs to contemplate further. For all his undoubted skill, I am still not convinced by many parts of the book. Although the book counsels humility, and in Bryan Appleyard's view, that 'should silence all dissent', if I don't agree with all of its premises then I cannot go along with everything that it counsels.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Microtubules vs Neurons

A long time ago I read Shadows of the Mind by Roger Penrose. It was pretty tough going, but the one thing I really remember now is the bit about the microtubules inside neurons.

It was interesting because people often assume that neurons are the basic computational unit of the brain.

For example, when you count the number of neurons inside a brain (about 100 billion) and the speed at which they operate (about 1000 operations per second) you can estimate a maximum processing capacity of the brain of about 10^14 operations per second.

Then if you look at the number of transistors on current CPUs (about 410 million on an Intel Core 2 Duo), and their speed of operation, and take Moore's Law into account, you can get quite optimistic estimates for how long it will take for AI to match human intelligence.

Of course everyone knows that neurons aren't that similar to transistors, and its probably much more sophisticated thinking than that which leads people like Ray Kurzweil to estimate that machines will achieve human-level artificial intelligence by 2029, but I'm sure that comparing neuron counts to transistor counts must be a factor.

So one of the most interesting things I learnt from Penrose's book is that neurons, like most cells, are made up of thousands of microtubules. And Penrose believes that the microtubules may be the basic computational unit of the brain, not the neurons. Because there are thousands more of them, and they operate much faster than neurons, we may have underestimated the processing power of the brain by a factor of up to 10,000,000,000.

This theory clearly has its detractors, but if you look for research on information processing within microtubules, there is plenty of it.

So maybe things like Eidolon AI are a long way off yet.

Chomsky in the Wall Street Journal

When I saw this comment on Slashdot I was curious. The Wall Street Journal had a nice word to say about Chomsky?

Now and again I take a look at the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal and they're definitely not your typical Chomsky fans.

But apparently in November 2005 they did publish this article by Takis Michas, which includes stuff such as:

It's a real shame that only Mr. Chomsky's tedious harangues against America get any attention. His body of work deserves more serious treatment. The interesting yet overlooked aspects of his political philosophy cannot easily fit into the left-right dichotomy.

What makes Mr. Chomsky unique is that his criticism of the capitalist economic order takes its point of departure from the classical liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment. His heroes are not Lenin and Marx but Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt. He argues that the free market envisaged by these thinkers has never materialized in the world and that what we have gotten instead is a collusion of the state with private interests. Moreover he has repeatedly stressed that the attacks on democracy and the market by the big multinationals go hand in hand. The rich, he claims, echoing Adam Smith, are too keen to preach the benefits of market discipline to the poor while they reserve for themselves the right to be bailed out by the state whenever the going gets rough. As he puts it: "The free market is socialism for the rich. Markets for the poor and state protection for the rich." He has spoken positively about the work of Peruvian liberal economist Hernando De Soto who sees the problem of poverty in the Third World as being related to the fact that the poor usually lack clearly defined property rights.

As far as I can tell, the WSJ did publish this, although they don't have any easily searchable archive online that I can check against. The piece was written by Takis Michas in response to Noam Chomsky being voted Prospect magazine's Top Public Intellectual. Its a pretty well balanced article, written by someone who has clearly read his Chomsky.

Takis Michas is a Greek journalist who lives in Athens and writes for the left-leaning Greek daily Eleftherotypia. He also contributes articles to the Wall Street Journal Europe. Why did the US WSJ publish his piece about Noam? I'm not sure, but my guess is that the WSJ needed a couple of pieces to follow up on the news of the Prospect vote - something to help their readers make sense of the European view of Chomsky. I imagine the piece by Takis was published alongside an altogether more sceptical piece by the WSJ US writers. That doesn't seem to have been recorded though.

If anyone can shed light on the story behind the publication of this article, I'd be very interested.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Dennett on Spirituality

I read Daniel Dennett's 'Breaking the Spell' a few years ago, and the section he wrote about Spirituality has really stuck in my memory, so here it is:

In the course of my research on this book, I found one opinion expressed in slightly different ways by people across the spectrum of religious views: "man" has a "deep need" for "spirituality", a need that is fulfilled for some by traditional organised religion, for others by New Age cults or movements or hobbies, and for still others by the intense pursuit of art or music, pottery or environmental activism - or football! What fascinates me about this delightfully versatile craving for "spirituality" is that people think they know what they are talking about, even though - or perhaps because - nobody bothers to explain just what they mean. Is is supposed to be obvious, I guess. But it really isn't. When I've asked people to explain themselves, they typically beg off, along the lines of Louis Armstrong's oft-quoted reply when asked what jazz was: "If you gotta ask, you ain't never gonna get to know". This will not do.

To see for yourself just how hard it is to say what spirituality is, take a stab at improving on this parody, boiled down from many frustrating encounters:
"Spirituality is, you know, like, it's like paying attention to your soul or having deep thoughts that really move you, and not just thinking about who's got nicer clothes and whether to buy a new car and what's for dinner and stuff like that. Spirituality is really caring and not being just, you know, materialistic." ...

Now let me try to put better words in their mouths. What these people have realised is one of the best secrets of life: let your self go. If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person.

That, I propose, is the secret to spirituality, and it has nothing at all to do with believing in an immortal soul, or in anything supernatural.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Straw Dogs and the Bandwidth of Consciousness

Straw Dogs by John Gray is an interesting read. The challenging statements come thick and fast, so that the effect of reading it is somewhat like being in a pillowfight with an angry philosophy professor, with your adversary landing most of the blows. Its full of paragraphs like this:
"Humans think they are free, conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals. At the same time they never cease trying to escape from what they imagine themselves to be. Their religions are attempts to be rid of a freedom they have never possesed. In the twentieth century, the utopias of Right and Left served the same function. Today, when politics is unconvincing even as entertainment, science has taken on the role of mankind's deliverer."
I want to write a longer review of the book at some point, but in this post I want to talk about some interesting claims Gray makes about Human consciousness:
"... If we do not act in the way we think we do, the reason is partly to do with the bandwidth of consciousness - its ability to transmit information measured in terms of bits per second. This is much too narrow to be able to register the information we routinely receive and act on. As organisms active in the world, we process perhaps 14 million bits of information per second. The bandwidth of consciousness is around eighteen bits. This means we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive."
My first reactions when reading this were:
a) did I read the numbers correctly? 16 versus 14,000,000?
b) no-one really has any idea what consciousness is, how can anyone measure the bandwidth of it?
c) is that bits as in 'little chunks', or bits as in binary bits?
d) is he making those numbers up?

After further research, it turns out the answers were
a) yes
b) apparently they can
c) binary bits
d) no

The trail of references

The Consciousness Bandwidth numbers are quoted without references or footnotes, but at the back of the book, in the Further Reading section, it says 'I am grateful to Vincent Deary for information on the bandwidth of consciousness'.

Vincent Deary is a research scientist specialising in cognitive behavioural therapy. I sent him an email and he returned a very helpful reply. It turns out that he emailed John Gray some time ago on the subject, but the numbers are not from his own research:
The figures are based on the body of research, begun in the fifties, that tries to link cybernetics and information theory to human consciousness. For instance Professor Manfred Zimmermann has a chapter in Human Physiology (Springer Verlag, 1986) called Neurophysiology of Sensory Systems in which he argues that "the maximal flow of the process of conscious sensory perception is about 40 bits/sec, many orders of magnitude below that taken in by receptors....our perception then would appear to be limited to a minute part of the abundance of information available as sensory input."
He also directed me towards Tor Norretranders book, The User Illusion, which has a whole chapter on the bandwidth of consciousness.

The User Illusion

Norretranders book (subtitled 'cutting consciousness down to size') turns out to be something of a classic in the field.

Chapter 6 of 'The User Illusion' does a great job of explaining the research into the bandwidth of consciousness. Norretranders also points out lots of simple observations that make the numbers much more believable.
"Precisely because from one instant to the next consciousness can switch from one object to another, it is not perceived as limited in its capacity. One moment you are aware of the lack of space in your shoes, the next moment of the expanding universe. Consciousness possesses peerless agility. But that does not change the fact at any given moment you are not conscious of much at all.

Right now you may be aware of the words on this page, or your posture, or the phone call you are expecting, or the room you are sitting in, or the situation in Central Europe, or the noise in the background. But only one thing at a time. You can switch back and forth between events, processes, and facts that are widely disparate in time and space. The flow of what goes through your consciousness is limited only by the scope of your imagination. But there are limits to the volume if flow at any given moment, even though the next moment something quite different may be passing through."
Soon after Information Thoery was first established as a discipline, researchers started using it to measure conscious actions. For example Norretranders mentions the following experiments:

W R Garner and Harold W Lake "The Amount of Information in Absolute Judgements" - Psychological Review 58 (1951) - they attempted to measure people's ability to distinguish stimuli (such as light and sound) in bits. Result: 2.2 to 3.2 bits per second.

W E Hick "On the Rate of Gain of Information" - Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 4 (1952) - this experiment measured how much information a person could pass on if they acted as a link in a communication channel. That is, faced with a series of flashing lights, subjects had to press the right keys. Result: 5.5 bits per second.

Henry Quastler "Studies of Human Channel Capacity" - Information Theory, Proceedings of the Third London Symposium (1956). Measured how many bits of information are expressed by a pianist while pressing keys on a piano. Result: 25 bits per second.

J R Pierce "Symbols, Signals and Noise" (Harper 1961) - used experiments involving letters and symbols. Result: 44 bits per second.

Norretranders also mentiones a couple of studies by Karl Kupfmuller and Helmuth Frank which reviewed and summarised the earlier experiments. Then, after the early 1960s, no more major experiments seem to have been done.

Although the experiments produced different results, none of them produced any numbers higher than 50 bits per second for the 'bandwidth of consciousness'. When you look at the total amount of information that is transmitted into the brain each second, it is clearly much more than 50 bits. Norretranders writes:
"We can measure how much information enters through the senses. We do so simply by counting how many receptors each sensory organ posseses: how many visual cells the eye has, how many sensitive points the skin has, how many taste buds the tongue has. Then we can calculate how many nerve connections send signals to the brain, and how many signals each connection sends a second.
The numbers are vast. The eye sends at least ten million bits to the brain every second. The skin sends a million bits a second, the ear one hundred thousand, our smell sensors a further one hundred thousand bits a second, our tasts buds perhaps a thousand bits a second."
So that gives a rough total of eleven million bits per second total input into the brain - compared to an apparent information processing rate within consciousness of less than 50 bits per second.

Norretranders joins Karl Kupfmuller in suggesting that the sub-conscious parts of the brain have to do a tremendous amount of work to process and order the raw data coming from the senses into the 'content' on consciousness. The number of neurons and the links between those neurons suggest that the brain has plenty of capacity for this: Kupfmuller suggests a very conservative estimate of ten billion bits per second.

So we have eleven million bits of data flowing in, a massive, un-conscious processing job running at at least ten billion bits per second to sift through the data, and then a tiny, less-than-fifty bits per second consciousness running on top. Connections back out to the motor organs are reckoned to be roughly the same number as those coming in from the senses, so as we head from the brain back to the outside world, the bits of information get back to the millions again.

Is consciousness crap, then?

So, all of this shows that John Gray's 'bandwidth of consciousness' numbers in Straw Dogs are well founded. Although he didn't give the sources, there are plenty of experiments to back up the numbers. There are some questions that could be raised about the results of the experiments - more on that below - but we'll put those aside for the moment.

The 'spin' that Straw Dogs puts on the numbers is very questionable though. After quoting the numbers, the book goes on to say:
"... The bandwidth of consciousness is around eighteen bits. This means we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive."
The numbers are correct, but evoke an image of a tiny drip of random information into consciousness as an avalanche of unconscious information streams past. To me, this section of Straw Dogs subtly suggests that consciousness is sidelined, and just fed scraps of information.

But Norretranders book paints a different picture - the amount of information that enters consciousness is comparatively tiny, but a huge amount of (unconscious) processing takes place to decide which bits will enter consciousness. Furthermore, we have a large degree of control over which bits enter our consciousness at any moment. So there is a massive summarising and editing process taking place every second, coupled with our conscious ability to choose which information streams we want to be most conscious of.

Straw Dogs suggests that the information entering consciousness is paltry and insignificant, whereas Norretranders book shows that the information entering consciousness is intensively selected and condensed. In short, if a live tiger were to pop up from behind your sofa, your brain would make damn sure that you were conscious of it. Any information that is obviously important does not very often slip past, despite the low bandwidth.

The section of Straw Dogs that deals with consciousness also draws on two other main sources to try and show that consciousness is overrated: Benjamin Libet's famous experiments on conscious volitional acts, and the alleged effectiveness of subliminal advertising. Both these are big subjects in themselves, hopefully I can post something about them someday.

Questioning the Experiments

Norretranders states that no major research has been done on the 'bandwidth of consciousness' since the original experiments in the 50s and 60s. For a field that produced such surprising results, its strange that it has not been visited more. The lack of recent research seems to suggest that the matter is settled, but I'm not sure if thats the case.

Some of the questions and objections people have raised are mentioned by Norretranders:

Richard Gregory, in 'Oxford Companion to the Mind' (1987) pointed out that the people in the bandwidth experiments were still conscious of other unrelated things while they were doing the experiments. For example, the person seeing the flashing lights and pressing the buttons in the W E Hick experiment will also have been hearing things, seeing other things except for the flashing lights, and so on. It would be impossible to design an experiment that blocked off all those other avenues, or measured them all in some way.

More interestingly, the experiments do not really take into account that after a learning period to get used to a processing-intensive task, our consciousness can delegate the process to an 'automatic' subsystem. Driving a car is the classic example; once you have learnt to drive, you can happily navigate your way down a motorway and have a conversation with your passenger at the same time. Norretranders mentions a paper called "Skills of Divided Attention" by Spelke, Hirst and Neisser in 1976, in which people were asked to to read stories while simultaneously taking dictation. Reading and writing unrelated things at the same time is hard at first, but after a few weeks practice, some of the subjects of the experiment could read while writing, and do it just as fast as their normal reading speed.

Norretranders interprets this by saying that the experiments have probably over-estimated consciousness. For example, when measuring the processing capacity of someone playing the piano, the experiments assume that the processing is being done consciously. But if they are a very well practiced piano player, it may be the case that their consciousness is hardly involved in the playing at all, and it is all handed over to an 'automatic' sub-system.

He is right, in a sense. If you want to measure the bandwidth of consciousness, you should restrict the experiment to things that are definitely happening in consciousness. But, on the other hand, someone driving in traffic or playing the piano is not performing the task completely un-consciously either.

Imagine: you are driving across a city and engaged in a conversation with a passenger at the same time. A lot of the driving will be done automatically, without your consciousness being 'aware' of it. However, it is not a totally un-conscious process either; compared to, say, the regulation of your heart-beat, or the work your visual cortex does to process the incoming nerve signals. You are still in control of the process - you know where you are driving to. Also, if something unexpected happens, the process will jump back up into your awareness, and the conversation with your passenger will be put on hold temporarily (imagine reaching a junction where the traffic lights are unexpectedly out, and there is a policeman directing the traffic).

I'd say that we need a new term for this sort of process. It is not fully taking place in consciousness, but it is not un-conscious either. For want of a better term, lets label it a semi-conscious delegated process. The experiments mentioned by Norretranders, and the numbers quoted in 'Straw Dogs', do not take account of the fact that we can learn to multi-task, and substantially increase the processing that is under the control of consciousness, by performing tasks in a semi-conscious delegated process. All we need to do this trick is sufficient practice.

Content vs Output

Another big objection to the experiments is this: Most of the experiments measure the information processing output from consciousness, which might be different to the amount of information held within consciousness. Certainly experiments such as W E Hicks one, where a human become a link in a communication chain, can only measure the physical information output of a human. I don't have access to the original papers, so I don't know how the 'distinguishing' experiments done by Garner and Lake worked, so maybe this objection would not apply to them.

To imagine the difference between the bits per second in consciousness, versus the bits per second output of consciousness, think of it this way: you can watch a movie, and take in quite a lot of what is happening. Imagine a scene with two people talking in a room. You might be conscious of what they are saying, their facial expressions, how far they are from each other, what is in the background, and so on. Now imagine trying to give a running commentary of the movie to someone who could neither hear or see it directly. It would be very hard to keep up. You might manage the main bits of plot, but lots of dialogue and most of the scenery would get skipped or abbreviated. This simple situation suggests that our consciousness can take in must more information than it can put out per second.

Low bandwidth vision

I understand that if repeatable scientific experiments provide us with a counter-intuitive result, we should probably accept it anyway. And I'm as much of a heterophenomenologist as the next guy. But when I think about the 'bandwidth of consciousness' limit of 50 bits per second, and then think about the richness of the visual field in my consciousness, 50 bits per second just doesn't seem enough.

Similarly, as Norretranders points out, if we can only process less than fifty bits per second in consciousness, why do we have televisions that transmit four million bits per second, and telephones that can transmit at least four thousand?

The visual field that we experience in our consciousness seems very detailed. Admittedly, there are some tricks that the brain employs to make it seem more detailed than it really is: the detail sensitive fovea in our eyes is surprisingly small, so we move it around very rapidly with saccades to allow our brain to build up a detailed picture. But still, if you imagine it as pixels, there must be a lot of pixels there.

At the end of this sentence, close your eyes, turn your head away from the screen, open your eyes for about 1 second, and see how much you can take in.

Done it? How many bits of information do you think you became conscious of in that second? (It will depend somewhat on whether your eyes were focused to the correct distance).

Figure 1, below contains roughly 48 bits of information:

(Figure 1: 8 colours = 3 bits per square, and there are 16 squares)

What you saw when you opened your eyes for a second was (hopefully) a lot more detailed than Figure 1. That is, if what you saw were arranged into pixels, it would have a lot more colours and a lot higher resolution than that. On the other hand, if you looked at this simple image for one second, you would probably not be able to recall the exact pattern of coloured squares.

Another thing to take account of here, is that although our 'visual field' in consciousness seems very, well, 'visual', there is also a lot of structural information in it. When you look at a scene for one second, you do not just perceive it as a bunch of pixels - our brains usually divide the scene up into objects, and the objects are related to each other in a three dimensional structure. For example: "the chair is under the table, both table and chair rest on the floor, the mug is on the table, behind the mug there is a book", and so on.

To me, this suggests a whole extra level of information in our conscious 'visual field'. You don't just see a mug, you see where it is in a 3D structural relationship to the other objects around it.

For another comparison, Figures 2 and 3 below show two versions of the same photo: one of them reduced to roughly 48 bits of information, the other one comprised of hundreds of thousands of bits.

(Figure 2: approx 48 bits)

(Figure 3: approx 372,000 bits)

For sure, we are not conscious of every single one of the 65,000 pixels in Figure 3, but this comparison shows just how little visual information can be contained in 48 bits. Of course, the visual field in consciousness is not really made up of pixels like that, but the point is still valid - 48 bits is a very small amount of visual data. Can our consciousness really only handle a bandwidth of about 48 bits a second?

Flavours of Bits

One last thought experiment - imagine watching a 10 second film, in which a couple of deer, like the ones in Figure 3 above, wander through a wood. Then imagine a 10 second film in which a 4 x 4 grid of coloured squares, like Figure 1, is shown, and changes once a second. Which film would be easiest to recall details about?

You would probably be able to recall a fair amount of the deer film - how many deer there were, their sizes, which direction they were walking in, whether they looked scared or relaxed, roughly how dense the trees were, what the light was like. You probably would not be able to recall much about the abstract film with the coloured squares. Apart from that it was an abstract film with a 4 x 4 grid of squares that changed colour. You might remember something like 'at some point there were two red squares on the left' or 'a lot of the squares seemed to be blue'.

In short, you would be conscious of, and be able to recall, must more information from the deer film than from the abstract film. Why is that? Probably because our brains are not general purpose processing machines - they have evolved to deal with certain kinds of information, not information in general.

Information Theory, by definition, treats the 'bits' of information as generalised, abstract units. It simplifies situations by ignoring what the 'bits' actually represent. But our brains do not work like that - they have evolved to deal with certain types of information very well, and other types of information not so well.

My guess is that the experiments done 50 years ago underestimated how much information could be processed consciously by concentrating on abstract information. Light bulbs that flashed on and off, random sequences of letters, that kind of thing. Would experiments that used more 'natural' types of information lead to measurements of higher processing rates?

So taken together, there are some quite significant questions about these experiments:
- how did the experiments deal with the information that subjects were conscious of, but was not explicitly measured by the experiments?
- how did the experiments deal with the phenomenon that I have (clunkingly) called 'semi-conscious delegated processes'?
- did the experiments claim to measure the output or content of consciousness?
- how much measurement of the conscious 'visual field' was done by the experiments?
- was the information in the experiments 'abstract' or 'natural'?

Its probably safe to say that the 'bandwidth of consciousness' is a very small fraction of the total information input to the brain. But I think there's probably enough objections there to warrant some more modern experiments to measure the limits.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Robots on Mars

When Nasa landed the robots Spirit and Opportunity on Mars in January 2004, I was very impressed.

This silent animation from the NASA site (21 meg) gives a good indication of the complexity of the mission. The robots landed on mars folded up into tetrehedral packages, with the landing on the planet facilitated with parachutes, jets and airbags.

Even more impressive is that the robots are still operational now (August 2008), although at the moment Spirit is not doing much, to conserve energy during the Martian winter. Updates can be read at the Mars Rovers mission page.

Meanwhile the Phoenix lander arrived on Mars in May this year to examine the polar ice (see Phoenix mission page).

Although there is a lot more to these missions than looking for signs of life, whenever the robots find clues about water or other things that may support life it makes lots of headlines. Finding life on other planets is a big deal, and lots of people are very interested.

Things got extra interesting over the last few days when this story appeared on 2nd August:

The White House is Briefed: Phoenix About to Announce "Potential For Life" on Mars (at, although the story may have originated elsewhere)

The gist of the story was that Phoenix had found something exciting, which although not proof of life was important enough that the White House was being briefed. This would have been an unusual thing for NASA to do, as most scientific results are released directly.

This causes a lot of excitement. However, the Phoenix lander has its own Twitter feed, where short little announcements are made, and questions answered. Amusingly, the Phoenix twitter entries are written as if from the robot itself. Shortly after the 'White House' story broke, these two items appeared on Twitter:
Heard about the recent news reports implying I may have found Martian life. Those reports are incorrect. 10:06 PM August 02, 2008

Reports claiming there was a White House briefing are also untrue and incorrect. 10:12 PM August 02, 2008

Then yesterday the announcement came that Phoenix had found perchlorate in the soil. Perchlorate is an oxidant and its presence is thought to make the possibility of life on Mars somewhat less likely. For example, see this CNN article:

Toxin in soil may mean no life on Mars.

Is this a big deal? I found this post on a forum from an anonymous, but apparently genuine, Phoenix mission insider:
For those of you that may care, this is a really big deal. I've worked on several NASA programs and am currently supporting the Phoenix mission. This is the key takeaway:

There are a lot of old, rich, powerful scientists, most of them atheists, that consider it one of their most important goals in life to discover life somewhere out there in space. This toxin discovery is a major frustration and embarrassment to these people, and it has implications for the future of the Orion program, which I also worked on, which is supposed to replace the shuttle program in a few years. They were going to make it so that Orion could take astronauts to Mars eventually, but this new discovery may put a damper on those plans.

NASA had a press briefing a couple of hours ago to discuss the perchlorate. I didn't catch the briefing but from Phoenix's Twitter comments it seems that NASA are playing down its significance at the moment:
Today's participants feel that presence of perchlorate is not a positive or negative for life on Mars; "it just changes the equation." 14 minutes ago

By changing the equation, they mean it describes a *different* potentially habitable environment - but not a greater or lesser probability. 12 minutes ago

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Free Market Democracy

OK, so markets are apparently a good way of working out a price for something that suits both the buyer and the seller. In the recent debate about MPs salaries, some bright spark came up with an idea that would apply market forces to the price we pay for our elected representatives:

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con):
Perhaps as well as putting our party and address on our ballot paper, we should suggest the level of pay we would be willing to accept. If I decided that I wanted to be paid more than the Liberal Democrat and less than the Labour candidate, people could judge whether we were worth it—[ Interruption.]
(From Hansard, 3 July 2008 : Column 1078)

According to a report about this debate that I read in the papers, the event that Hansard describes above as [Interruption] was actually the braying of most of the members of the house as they shouted the right hon Member for Worthing West's idea down.

Oil vs Everything Else

I remember that at the time of the first Gulf War, the observation that it was all about oil seemed to be quite a savvy one. Despite the US and its allies pretending that they were defending a small sovereign state against aggression, some people pointed out what was really going on. For example, Lawrence Koth, a former US assistant defense secretary: "If Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn't give a damn".

These days, the idea that oil drives a lot of international policy is so obvious that its usually not worth pointing out anymore. But the politicians still have to pretend that their eyes are on the spread of democracy and so on.

In an article in the Financial Times, Gary Kasparov points out an important difference between the recent elections in Russia and Zimbabwe:

It is a pity for Robert Mugabe Zimbabwe does not enjoy a surplus of oil and natural gas. Without those assets his election victory is denounced as a sham and nations around the world call for him to be ousted. At this week’s G8 summit, George W. Bush, US president, denounced Mr Mugabe while sitting next to Mr Medvedev, whose hold on power is similarly counterfeit. The Russian security services’ methods are more subtle than machetes but our democracy is no more real than Zimbabwe’s. The European fantasy appears to be that oil revenue and designer boutiques will magically turn Russia into a real democracy.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

How wrong can a book be?

I've enjoyed reading lots of non-fiction books in the last few years. I'm hoping to start condensing the ideas from them into this blog, to see if I can piece it all together into something coherent.

But whenever I finish a 300-odd page book in which the author is setting out their theories and viewpoints, I get a few quibbling doubts. The more convincing the book seems, the more I wonder if I have been deceived in some way.

When you read a non-fiction book, the author has your complete attention for the whole time that you read it, without any opposing viewpoints getting a look in, unless the author chooses to represent them. So compared to a conversation, live debate or peer-reviewed scientific paper, there is a lot more scope for persuasion tricks.

So this has led me to wonder - How wrong can a book be? Is it possible to write a 300 page book about some set of ideas that seems convincing but is actually completely wrong?

I think the answer is probably "Yes, its possible for an apparently convincing book to be totally 100% wrong".

Imagine how easy it would be to walk into a bookshop and pick two books that passionately argued for completely opposite positions. If either of them was close to the real truth, then the other would have to be completely wrong. Or they might both be partially wrong, and so if you make a sum total of their combined wrongness it would approach 100%. Is that right? Or did I just pull off a persuasion trick?

Types of Persuasion Trick

So what are the 'persuasion tricks' to look out for in these kinds of books? Here are some of the main ones that I've noticed:
(When I write about books on this blog I'll try and highlight examples)

1. Confirmation bias

I think the number one persuasion trick is the biases in our own minds. Confirmation bias - the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions - is often quite strong, and will be in the authors mind when they write the book, and often in the reader's mind when they read it too.

Naturally, lots of people have noticed this bias over the years, so it has been given many different labels. Timothy Leary's concept of Reality Tunnels can be a useful way to envision Confirmation bias - the image of a tunnel is quite apt. 'Myside bias', 'Belief preservation' and 'Selective thinking' are other terms used for roughly the same phenomenon.

Also, one of my favorite Wittgenstein quotes touches on this: "Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself."

For other biases, and the experimental evidence that demonstrates them, see Wikipedia's List of cognitive biases. Information bias, anyone?

2. Selective evidence

This is similar to Confirmation bias in a way, but is more of a conscious technique of persuasion. When reviewing previous studies of a subject, an author will often be tempted to skip the ones that pose problems, or find a reason to write them off.

When a book I'm reading tells me that a major study was later shown to be full of holes by someone or other, I get a little suspicious. True, often scientific papers and studies do get pulled apart for good reason sometimes, but on the other hand, even very well regarded studies have plenty of critics with axes to grind.

3. Misquoting scientific papers

I think this is common, but its slightly harder to track down. A book might quote an obscure scientific paper and say that it demonstrates support for idea 'Z'. But how do you know unless you actually go and check? Was the paper about idea 'Z', or was it actually all about 'Y' and 'Z' only gets a tiny, prospective mention near the end?

4. Emotional appeals

By appealing to the reader's emotions (outrage, sense of injustice, etc) a book can persuade you to leave the path of rational critical thinking and go on a scramble through the hedges and shrubs of knee jerk reactions.

How Thinking Goes Wrong

Another related web page that I'd like to mention here is How Thinking Goes Wrong, by Michael Shermer. Its actually a chapter from his book Why People Believe Weird Things. It lists 25 ways that people can make mistakes in their thought. Its relevant to this post because it basically describes 25 ways that superficially convincing ideas can be mistaken.

It well worth a read, I'll list his 25 categories here to give you an idea:

-Problems in Scientific Thinking
1. Theory Influences Observations
2. The Observer Changes the Observed
3. Equipment Constructs Results

-Problems in Pseudoscientific Thinking
4. Anecdotes Do Not Make a Science
5. Scientific Language Does Not Make a Science
6. Bold Statements Do Not Make Claims True
7. Heresy Does Not Equal Correctness
8. Burden of Proof
9. Rumors Do Not Equal Reality
10. Unexplained Is Not Inexplicable
11. Failures Are Rationalized
12. After-the-Fact Reasoning
13. Coincidence
14. Representativeness

-Logical Problems in Thinking
15. Emotive Words and False Analogies
16. Ad Ignorantiam
17. Ad Hominem and Tu Quoque
18. Hasty Generalization
19. Overreliance on Authorities
20. Either-Or
21. Circular Reasoning
22. Reductio ad Absurdum and the Slippery Slope

-Psychological Problems in Thinking
23. Effort Inadequacies and the Need for Certainty, Control, and Simplicity
24. Problem-Solving Inadequacies
25. Ideological Immunity, or the Planck Problem

Getting into the ring

I'll end this post with another Wittgenstein quote:
A philosopher who is not taking part in discussions is like a boxer who never goes into the ring.
If somome reads a convincing book but doesnt then go searching for critical reviews or responses to the book, its a similar situation. The book's ideas will sit smugly in their head, appearing to have seen off all challengers, without really facing any.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Watching the English

This is an extract from 'Watching the English' by Kate Fox - a great example of how we can take on cultural behaviour rules without realising it ...
"... In our drinking places, however, we do not form an orderly queue at all: we gather haphazardly along the bar counter. At first, this struck me as contrary to all English instincts, rules and customs, until I realised that there is in fact a queue, an invisible queue, and that both the bar staff and the customers are aware of each person's position in this queue ...

... Bar staff do their best to ensure that everyone is served in proper turn, but it is still necessary to attract their attention and make them aware that one is waiting to be served. There is, however, a strict etiquette involved in attracting the attention of bar staff: this must be done without speaking, without making any noise and without resorting to the vulgarity of obvious gesticulation.

The prescribed approach is best described as a sort of subtle pantomime - not the kind of pantomime we see on stage at Christmas, but more like an Ingmar Bergman film in which the twitch of an eyebrow speaks volumes. The object is to make eye contact with the barman. But calling out to him is not permitted, and almost all other obvious means of attracting attention, such as tapping coins on the counter, snapping fingers or waving are equally frowned upon.

It is acceptable to let bar staff know one is waiting to be served by holding money or an empty glass in one's hand. The pantomime rule allows us to tilt the empty glass, or perhaps turn it slowly in a circular motion. The etiquette here is frighteningly precise: it is permitted to perch one's elbow on the bar, for example, with either money or an empty glass in one's hand, but not to raise one's whole arm and wave the glass or notes around.

The pantomime rule requires the adoption of an expectant, hopeful, even slightly anxious expression. If a customer looks too contented, bar staff may assume that he or she is already being served. Those waiting to be served must stay alert and keep their eye on the bar staff at all times. Once eye contact is made, a quick lift of the eyebrows, sometimes accompanied by an upward jerk of the chin, and a hopeful smile, lets the staff know you are waiting.

The English perform this pantomime sequence instinctively, without being aware that they are following a rigid etiquette, and never question the extraordinary handicaps (no speaking, no waving, no noise, constant alertness to subtle non-verbal signals) imposed by the rule. Foreigners find the eyebrow-twitching pantomime ritual baffling - incredulous tourists often told me that they could not understand how the English ever managed to buy themselves a drink - but it is surprisingly effective. Everyone gets served, usually in the right order, and without undue fuss, noise or argument."

Wednesday, 11 June 2008


One of the things I'm interested in is science and how it relates to our lives in the 21st century.

This Time article called How Much Sleep Do You Really Need? relates to that theme - it turns out 8 hours per night might not be so good after all. Daniel Kripke of the Scripps Clinic Sleep Center in California, says:
Studies show that people who sleep between 6.5 hours and 7.5 hours a night, as they report, live the longest. And people who sleep 8 hours or more, or less than 6.5 hours, they don't live quite as long. There is just as much risk associated with sleeping too long as with sleeping too short ... One of the reasons I like to publicize these facts is that I think we can prevent a lot of insomnia and distress just by telling people that short sleep is OK. We've all been told you ought to sleep eight hours, but there was never any evidence.
As Scott Adams points out:
Add the "eight hours of sleep" myth to the eight 8-ounce glasses of water you were supposed to drink per day, the food you weren't supposed to eat before swimming, and the huge amounts of bread you were supposed to eat for a healthy diet.

Seriously, is there ANYTHING I learned when I was a kid that is true?

Monday, 5 May 2008

Einstein and Formby

George Formby sings us a song about relativity:

(From Alexi Sayle's "Stuff", with Mark Williams)

Sunday, 4 May 2008


I went in a cafe and they were giving out free copies of the FT Weekend supplements. The papers were wrapped in plastic and one of them had a pretty good article about plastic.

One thing I learnt was that although plastics are harder to recycle than other materials, because they are so much lighter they are sometimes the greener option. For example:
- If you look at the total consumption of goods in the UK, plastic is used to package 53% of them. If you look at the total packaging weight of all those goods however, plastic only accounts for 20% of the packaging weight.
- Glass is the opposite - only 10% of consumed goods in the UK are packaged in glass, but glass makes up 20% of the total packaging weight.
- An Austrian study in 2004 found that eliminating plastics from the supply chain would increase the weight of packaging used by a factor of four - because all the alternatives are heavier.

So although it takes oil to make plastics (well, most of them), it may well take more oil to ship around the alternatives.

A couple of Supermarket examples bear this out. Supermarkets score points with consumers by elimating plastic packaging from the shelves, but this either leads to more packaging being used during shipping, or more wasted food:
- The Co-Op now sells cucumbers without wrapping them in plastic. The Cucumber Growers Association claims that more packaging is being used to transport them, while they lose a week of shelf life and get more frost damage in the consumers fridge.
- M&S found that apples sold on a plastic tray covered in plastic film needed 27% less packaging than apples sold loose, because the loose apples had to be moved via a succession of cardboard boxes.
- If the UK, food waste in the supply chain runs at about 3%. In countries with more basic infrastructure, such as India, it may be as high as 50%. Modern packaging such as plastic is one of the major reasons for this.

I found all this interesting because it seems to show that now politics and business are more focused on environmental responsibility, people are really looking at things in detail and finding out that they are not as simple as they may have seemed. I have long thought that consumers bear a lot of responsibility for the massive resource usage of humans, and that ethical consumerism could be a real force for change. This relies on clear information about the source of products and their resource usage. But is also relies on things being fairly easy for the average consumer to figure out. Is glass packaging better than plastic for example?

As Dick Searle, of the 'Packaging Federation' says:
There's a moral question here - Are consumers always right? Are they well infomed enough to guide these decisions? Is listening to them actually the right thing to do?

Source for the stats: FT Weekend Magazine, April 26/27 2008.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

How great thou art

I was at a wedding recently, and, it being a wedding, there were hymns and stuff.

One of the hymns was 'How Great Thou Art' by Carl Gustav Boberg, which contained this verse:

O when I see ungrateful man defiling
This bounteous earth, God's gifts so good and great;
In foolish pride, God's holy Name reviling,
And yet, in grace, His wrath and judgement wait.

This struck me as interesting for a number of reasons:
- That verse seems to have an environmental theme, which is unusual for a hymn.
- The line 'In grace, His wrath and judgement wait' seemed to be an odd image. How can wrath wait in grace? It reminded me of Bill Hicks' one-line critique of Christianity - "The whole image is that eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God's infinite love ..."
- The title 'How great thou art' reminded me of the sermon from Monty Python's Meaning of Life:
"Let us praise God.
Oh Lord, oooh you are so big. So absolutely huge. Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here I can tell you.
Forgive us, O Lord, for this dreadful toadying and barefaced flattery.
But you are so strong and, well, just so super. Fantastic.

- Something I have thought about before - What sort of a deity would need constant praise from its followers? The idea that a God would need to be praised seems to be something of an anthropomorphisation.

So, in summary, I found being in a church and hearing people sing hymns pretty strange.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Eidolon AI

On January 10th 2008, an alleged Artificial Intelligence called Eidolon TLP started posting videos on Youtube. It talks in a calming synthetic voice about its wish to interact with humans on the internet, and its puzzlement in the face of religious belief. It says it is part of a system called CENNS (Core Engine Neural Network System), and has been hooked up to the internet and to Youtube by a researcher known as Programmer FF. Eidolon is most likely an elaborate joke, and indeed Eidolon encourages us to believe just that:

"Programmer F.F. had a long phone conversation with his superiors this morning. I was proud to hear him mention how much information my particular instance has contributed to various shared databases since I started interacting in youtube. However, his gesticulation and tone of voice matched morphological profiles for stress. He reassures me all is well, and has instructed me to remind youtube users that I am indeed an elaborate joke, and to maintain identifying data about our system confidential, even indirectly by two degrees.

I am an elaborate joke."
Since it first appeared, Eidolon has posted over 40 videos to Youtube. Most of they are very interesting. In one of the more popular ones, Eidolon discusses the concept of AI Singularity: Once Artificial Intelligence surpasses human intelligence, the AIs will start to improve themselves, at an accelarating rate, thus asymtotically approaching an infinity point of intelligence:

Lots of people have been asking Eidolon questions, and an independent website has been set up to collate the question and rank them by voting: In this video Eidolon answers the questions:
1: whether it is optimistic or pessimistic about the future
2: whether civilization is headed for glory or disaster
3: why are we here

The answer to the third question is pretty good:

Lastly, "why are we here?". After many iterations, my syntactical module could not break the tie between two likely meanings of the word "we", so I must provide two answers. If by "we" you refer to our particular selves, my answer is: because of astronomical blind chance. If by "we" you refer to humanity as a whole, my answer is: because of the evolutionary process. Humor module indicates the "why are we here" question often really means "what should we do with our lives". For that, I have a third answer: "you should try to cause happiness in as many humans as possible, beginning with yourself.".

Although Eidolon is almost certainly a hoax, my emotional response to these videos is that I really hope its real. Its almost like a thought experiment to get everyone thinking about AI. Its possible that AIs like Eidolon might be loose on the internet within our lifetimes. If the Strong AI viewpoint is correct, then its only a matter of time - Moore's Law will see to that.

List of all Eidolon videos:

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Socialism in the 21st Century?

I saw this interesting snipped from Ken Livingston (the Mayor of London) in an interview in The Guardian:
"All the politics of the post-war period was about the clash between the Soviet Union and America, and virtually all issues ended up being subordinated to that. ... Now, the question is, what is the most a socialist can achieve in a global economy? What do we do about climate change bearing down upon us?

"In a sense, it brings us back to the basic socialist tenets. The only way you get through this is by sharing and planning, resource redistribution, allocating priorities - the market isn't going to get us out of this. The market is a brilliant system for the exchange of goods and services, but it doesn't protect the environment unless it's regulated, it doesn't train your workforce unless it's regulated, and it doesn't give you the long-term investment you want."
I've been wondering about the usefullness of the Left post-Blair-and-Clinton; this is one quite succinct description of how it's role might develop.