Saturday, February 28, 2004

If any of the files on the playlist have ever intrigued you, now is the time to pull them down. That server will be disappearing in a few days and it is doubtful that I will rebuild it somewhere else.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The cat Dinofelis, known as a false saber-tooth, was a specialized hunter of hominids. It seems to have enjoyed eating baboons and most likely, early humans.

The paleontologist C.K. Brain, in his book Hunter or the Hunted?, suggests that early man was more often prey than predators. Our move to predator status was a modern thing. We constructed fire and weapons and reversed an old power structure.

The writer Bruce Chatwin, a fascinating figure of his own, was drawn to Brain's theories. For Chatwin, Brain had discovered the ultimate fabled beast that lurks in our imaginations. Nicholas Shakespeare, in his biography of Chatwin, writes:

For two days Bruce engaged Brain in conversations which he described as "the most stimulating discussions in my life"... If the leopard-like cat had preyed on our ancestors, then man in his origins was not necessarily aggressive. He lived his life in fear, dinofelis watching him from the shadows.

Bruce--who called the cat "the Prince of Darkness"--amused the older man. Brain says, "He understood 'the Prince of Darkness' as a psychological necessity. He thought we had lived so long with prowling nocturnal predators they had become part of our make-up. When we no longer had these animals in bodily form, we invented dragons and heroes who went off to fight them." Discussing, for instance, Uccello's painting of St. George in the act of lancing the dragon, Bruce seemed to think this was an illustration of what had actually happened.

Brain had misgivings about this nostalgia for "the Beast we have lost". Nevertheless, it excited him to watch Bruce take his work and run with it. "Chatwin was like a nineteenth-century synthesiser," says Brain. "There is a place again for that kind of generalist, someone who can wander among specialised fields and pull things together. Otherwise it's very compartmentalised and syntheses don't really occur." The two men talked late into the night and on the following day they drove to the cave at Swartkrans.

Swartkrans is where Brain discovered the earliest use of fire by man. It is thus, in Brain's account, the epic place where the battle was turned.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

The Mayan calendar is based on the idea of cycles and cycles within cycles. This is not too different than either the Ptolemaic system or even the modern view of a moon that revolves around a planet that revolves around a Sun that in turn revolves around the center of a galaxy.

At some point though we discard the notion of cycles when it comes to human progress. Although we like to play with ideas of a post-nuclear world where civilization must rebuild itself, the prevailing view is that progress is linear, that life and civilization will expand and grow until it dominates not only other solar systems but also the entire universe.

This attitude is embodied in such theories as Frank Tipler's idea of an Omega point or among the futuristic theories of Nick Bostrom and his fellow transhumanists. The essential idea is that the future is limitless and that scientific progress, now that it has fully developed its young wings and survived the peril of being quashed by other dogmas, is poised for flight.

Once you accept the idea that we will continue to grow and develop until we are well past the point of being superhuman you can make all sorts of deductions. Tipler's Omega point theory relies on the idea that we will be able to control the universe and harness its seemingly limitless computing power. What will we do with all this power? Why we will of course use it to reconstruct simulations of our own past! Including, of course, this past, the world we live in now, inhabited by you and me and all of our loved ones and even our not so-loved ones. Also, hopefully, our pets. This is our immortality. We will be brought back to life, reconstituted by our super-powerful descendants, like a can of dried milk.

As outrageous as that may seem, Bostrom goes even further. He argues essentially that our descendants will not just construct one simulation, but countless numbers of them. After all, they live in an infinite future, harnessing the power of universes. Why shouldn't they build not just one Napoleonic War but also re-run it endlessly, as we re-run films, creating us in each viewing.

The outrageous and inevitable conclusion is this: If there are so many simulations and only one authentic version, well, what really are the chances that we are that authentic version? Bostrom argues that it is much more likely that we are a copy, that we are a mere simulation, and so he urges us to accept that.

The Mayans, as I was saying earlier, held, in contrast, that it is cycles all the way up. The universe will end. We will end. Everything will begin again. This may even happen as soon as 2012.

At this point it is not clear to me which view of the world makes more sense.
I am ashamed to admit I was at the launch party on friday night at Suite 181. Hey! the alcohol was free and suite 181 is a very cool space but the night was indeed Revenge of the Nerds.
Case in point: Even though the drinks were free, I tipped the bartenders with each drink. Nobody else was doing this. These were, after all, the regular bartenders.
I also came out of it with several Orkut pens which glow in three different colors. Ebay material.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

An early interest in Eastern spirituality and Zen mysticism in particular led me to read the books of Janwillem Van de Wetering. His book, The Empty Mirror, describes the experiences of a Westerner (a dutchman) studying at a Japanese Zen monastery.

I didnt realize until recently that Van de Wetering was now a popular and well-known mystery writer. I am currently reading through all his books. There is without a doubt an aura of religious detachment, of serenity, that permeates these novels and makes them also incredibly absorbing and readable. Here, for example, is an exchange from two detectives from the book, The Perfidious Parrot:

"No, seriously, sir. Even if the Amabagts arranged for that bunk inspector to drive into our dinner, the crime would not affect our project. Why bother with Quadrant? The goal recedes while we lose our way."

"You can't lose a way you're on," the commisaris said. "Besides the road is the goal. Make that call will you?"