Sunday, November 30, 2014

Faint hope for a better American Constitution

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, constitution, law, amendments

I have just finished reading the Constitution of the United States, and all 27 Amendments. It didn't take long; in the Octavo volume I was reading the main text comprises just over 16 pages and the amendments 13. Less than 30 pages in length, it remains the best Constitution so far devised for any nation. Yet no matter how good it may be, the existence of Amendments shows that as times change, the process of constituting "a more perfect union" is ongoing.

Consider Amendment XII, which provides that Electors shall vote separately for President and Vice-President. Following the original prescription in Article II, when the votes of the electors were counted, the person with the most votes became President, and second place was awarded the Vice-Presidency. This practically ensured that the chief executive and his second-in-command would be bitter political foes. After 1804, the POTUS and the VEEP have at least had some chance of having similar political views. But imagine the outcome of recent elections had the amendment never been proposed or ratified: President Clinton and Vice-President George H.W. Bush, or President George W. Bush and Vice-President Al Gore!

The authors of the original Constitution kicked a few problems into the future, slavery and universal suffrage among them. They were also perhaps a bit idealistic, and didn't foresee how human nature would distort the application of constitutional law. I suspect they never dreamed an "activist court" would arrogate the right of "Judicial Review", to determine what is and what is not "constitutional". One way and another, times continue to change, though people do not, so after the Bill of Rights, a new Amendment has been adopted about every decade or so.

In a new book, Retired Justice John Paul Stevens proposes six. The book is titled Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution. Justice Stevens served just under 25 years, or 11% of the time that the Supreme Court has existed, and as a Circuit Court Justice for some years before that. He believes that time has outpaced a couple of the Amendments, and that distortions in the political process have resulted, necessitating new Amendments beyond the repeal or rewording of those two.

I don't presume to understand everything I have read in the book, so I'll just comment on a few items. Firstly, Gerrymandering. Hardly anyone knows what this is any more except those who practice it, which leads to rather amazing contortions of district maps whenever they are re-drawn, usually following a Census. Take a look at what the Texas legislature wrought following the 1990 Census:

This was Texas District 30 from 1991-96. It gathered a great many Democrats into it, which raised Republicans to a majority in several surrounding Districts. The current district map of several states also show troubling levels of "non-compactness" in districts, which can result in, for example, a state in which 52% of the electorate votes Democratic having Democrats holding 66% of the seats in the state legislatures.

The key words in Justice Stevens's proposed amendment are "compact" and "contiguous". The District shown is probably contiguous, but it certainly isn't compact. However, the word "compact" needs defining. I propose the following: The area comprising a compact district shall comprise 80% or more of the area of the tightest-fitting convex polygon that wholly encompasses it.

Basically, wrap a string around the shape and measure its area, then the area of the proposed district. The district shown would only fill about 30% of an encompassing polygon.

Secondly, he proposes abolishing the Death Penalty via an Amendment that adds five words to Amendment VIII so that it reads
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments such as the death penalty inflicted. (my emphasis)
I have long favored capital punishment as the only certain means of ensuring that certain persons convicted of the most heinous crimes could never repeat their offense, nor any other. The Justice's arguments have convinced me otherwise. Most states now have laws imposing imprisonment without possibility of parole for those crimes. Though a capital offender very rarely escapes, technology is making this less and less likely. Life without parole accomplishes two things:
  1. The incredible cost of the death sentence appeal process would be much reduced (though LWOP appeals might grow to fill the gap), and
  2. As time passes, new evidence or new technology will lead to certain convicts being exonerated and, equally likely, certain others becoming even more clearly guilty. The latter case might also foreclose certain lengthy appeals.
Finally, I am only partly in agreement with Justice Stevens in his proposal to amend Amendment II. His proposal is to add five words, so that it reads:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed. (his emphasis)
I think he is right that the NRA in particular ignores the first clause of Amendment II. This is why he would add the five words, to tie the two clauses together in the way he believes the Authors understood it. However, I also understand the principle, "If it is a crime to own a gun, only criminals will have them." It's a little hard to get the American firearms toothpaste back in the tube.

It has been said, "The reason for the Second Amendment is in case the government does not keep the First Amendment." Seriously? Tell that to the Branch Davidians, or the folks at Ruby Ridge. No, the "reason" was the expectation of invasion by Britain, which happened in 1812, and the memory of the Revolutionary War which was very, very living memory to those writing the Amendment. There was no standing army, though the Constitution provides for one. There was only the Militia, and all men were expected to be ready to serve at a moment's notice.

From time to time there is a protest by NRA members against proposed legislation or regulation regarding firearms. The ragtag, motley bunch that typically shows up at such events would be laughed out of any real militia. They give a bad name to the NRA. I certainly hope that the majority of loyal, patriotic members of the NRA are as deeply ashamed of those antics as I am. Such dern fool protesters are the kind who say, "You'll have to pry my gun out of my cold, dead fingers." Americans who honor the law silently reply, "That's a challenge we'll accept when needed."

Is there any serious chance for Justice Stevens's six proposals being adopted? I think not. America is no longer the Land of the Free but the Realm of the Rich, and there is too much money to be lost by powerful entities should even one of the six be enacted. Were I king of the country, here are a few Amendments, even less likely to be enacted, that I believe would be equally salutary to the American commonweal and her political health:

  • Congress shall pass no law exempting its Members from liability to obey any statute of the Federal Government or any State.
  • Corporations are not Persons in any political sense. Only persons who can vote have the right to donate to political campaigns either for a candidate or in favor of any ballot issue.
  • No member of the Senate or the House of Representatives shall be entitled to vote upon any measure who has not read the document in its entirety and is able to orally present a summary of its salient arguments upon demand by any constituent.
  • [Line Item Veto] Any measure passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives, presented to the President, shall be written in the form of clauses not to exceed one page in length each. Each clause is to be signed separately, and any clause not so signed is to be deemed Vetoed.
I think the good Justice might be halfway favorable to at least one or two of these. Anyone else?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

He's strong and good-looking, and above average

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, stories, memoirs, sketches, humor, humorists

Having listened to A Prairie Home Companion whenever I could between the 1970s and early 2000s, I snapped up Garrison Keillor's new book The Keillor Reader the moment I saw it. I've read only a couple other of his 20+ books, but this promised much, and it does indeed deliver.

The book collects items of Keillor's fiction, semi-fiction and memoir writing over a 45-year career. He thinks of himself primarily as a writer, one who happens to present much of his own writing—or, a stream-of-consciousness version of it—publicly on APHC and at other performance venues.

The arrangement of items is partly by time, within certain topics. He begins with some of his best-loved APHC monologues. I suppose these are from transcripts of his on-air performances, because he writes in one introduction that he pre-writes the monologues, but doesn't read them; he'll use about half the material on average, and chase rabbits (my term for it) as they seem appropriate. His written semi-script is more of a warehouse of ideas he can pick from during the talk. It is a fine way to prepare a talk, and I used a similar strategy in my Toastmasters' International days. But he does supremely better at it!

At least a couple of the monologues must be from public performances, not from on-the-air shows. The material veers into areas my mother used to term "daring". For example, in a hilarious bit triggered by events the day his cousin Kate tried out for a talent show wearing nothing under her sweater, he winds up holding her on his lap as they hide from the school nurse in a stall in the Boys' Room. When he asks, "Are you really not wearing a bra?", she pulls his hands underneath to check for himself. Assuming this is mostly autobiographical, I reckon it was a turning point for a 15-year old boy.

I guess I didn't hear the right monologues to understand the title "Iconic Pajamas" for the second section. The items are short pieces in various genres, published in various venues. He likes to turn well known stories on their head, writing "Little House on the Desert", for example, as a sideways look at Laura Ingalls Wilder: perhaps she "augmented" her stories, for example. Or rewriting "Casey at the Bat" from the perspective of the opposing team. Such bowdlerizations of history continue in the third section, where he lampoons, for example, Earl Grey, Don Giovanni and Zeus.

His humor gets its power from restrained exaggeration. But he can use it quite unrestrainedly when he likes, such as in "My Life in Prison", in which he serves a 512-year sentence for throwing a tomato at his sister. His recounting "My Stroke (I'm Over it)" is straight fact, told in a mildly humorous way, as a fellow, glad to be still alive, might tell his buddies while keeping it light. These are both from the fourth section.

He touches on his faith here and there, with enough emphasis that we realize how profound an affect it has had in his life. Though he was raised in an extremely strict sect of the Brethren, his family was split down the middle between two of its divisions. The various aunts and uncles agreed to be civil anyway, which afforded Keillor and his siblings and cousins more freedom than they'd have had otherwise. He forsook the strict way in his teens, and now takes comfort as an Episcopal. He is warmer than might be suggested by the "God's Frozen Chosen" moniker some use for Anglicans and Episcopals.

His closing essay, "Cheerfulness" is most touching. It begins with a lightning evaluation of synonyms for "happy", noting that being cheerful is a choice, more so than the rest. He claims to be cheerful despite his dour demeanor, and fills the piece with examples. No doubt about it, he spreads good cheer everywhere, so he has a plentiful store of it!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Decrying a Florida tourists seldom see

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, polemic, newspaper columns, essay collections

Carl Hiaasen is a journalist and columnist for the Miami Herald, and has been for quite some time. A hundred or so of his columns from the past ten years have been gathered by his editor Diane Stevenson into his new book Dance of the Reptiles. You might think the title is about alligators, but a piece of wisdom from my mother came to mind within a few pages of starting the book: Many years ago I was leaving to hike alone up Mt. Lowe, which is accessed through the old Groucho Marx estate in upper Altadena. She expressed worry for my safety, and I said, "I know how to avoid rattlesnakes." She said, "I know, but I'm worried about rattle-people!" The Reptiles of the book are public officials in Florida.

Alice Longworth Roosevelt is said to have carried a cushion embroidered with the words, "If you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit here by me." She'd have been delighted by a visit from Mr. Hiaasen, at least for a while. He is a skilled storyteller, and the writing itself kept me going for quite a while, maybe a third of the book. After that it became a slog. I just don't have an appetite for quite so much mad-dog, polemical journalism.

I understand his frustration. I moved here to the Mid-Atlantic area (I'm kinda south-west of Philadelphia) about 20 years ago. I sure didn't stay here because of the political climate. Within 2 years of our marriage, we moved from California to a Western state, and we've lived in the West or Midwest ever since. A couple of months after our move, our son entered first grade, so I began attending PTA and School Board meetings. What a shock! The PTA was OK, though I was sitting next to a corrupt politician who soon became a senator. My personal take on his voting record is that he has exactly opposite values to mine. I score him a perfect Zero, at least until yesterday, when he actually voted in favor of the XL Pipeline!! (Not that it did any good…)

School Board was another matter. Every member was on the take. The President was big into construction, and it was no coincidence that plans were brought forward time and again, either to demolish building A so a new school could be built somewhere else, or to change the school year in such a way as would necessitate big (and costly) amounts of remodeling of about half the buildings. I got the notion one day that a well-placed bomb at one of their closed door meetings (the usual kind) would do the human race a whole lot of good. Once I realized I had begun thinking that was a really good idea, I quit attending.

I really don't know what to say about the book. It is ancient wisdom that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I think it'd need a dozen more pens of the quality this author shows, to make much of a dent in Florida's public service industry. If you hanker for a really comprehensive catalog of the ways politics go bad, and you used to think New Jersey politics were the worst this country has to offer, read this book, or as much of it as you can without being awakened with the heebie-jeebies!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Biology gives you a brain - Life turns it into a mind

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, predictions, brain, mind

The title is a quote from Jeffrey Eugenides, and succinctly expresses my understanding of the mind. A longer exposition on the mind and its possible futures is found in The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind by Michio Kaku. Dr. Kaku, a physicist whose specialty is string theory, is well known to those who watch the Science and Discovery Network cable channels. He is always willing to provide a series of provocative and quotable sound bites on scientific subjects.

In The Future of the Mind he first explores what the mind is, particularly the conscious mind, and defines consciousness in his own unique way. I like his approach:
Human consciousness … creates a model of the world and then simulates it in time, by evaluating the past to simulate the future. This requires mediating and evaluating many feedback loops in order to make a decision to achieve a goal. (p 46)
I would only add: goals can be both innate (hunger or reproduction) and derived (the engineering steps needed to construct a bridge, even though the bridge is part of a larger, innate goal). The reference to feedback loops harks back to an earlier discussion of levels of consciousness.
  • Level 0: Stationary organisms or mechanisms that react to one or a very few feedback loops in a few parameters. The lowest possible consciousness is that of a thermostat, which he defines as Level 0:1 because it reacts to one parameter, Temperature. Plants react to Light, Gravity, Temperature, Moisture and perhaps a few Mineral Concentrations, and could be characterized as Level 0:n where n is about 10.
  • Level 1: Motile creatures (and perhaps some mechanisms) that can thus react to changes in space and location, particularly animals with a central nervous system such as fishes and reptiles.
  • Level 2: Social animals, particularly those that express a theory of mind and are thus reacting to the possible or probable intentions of their fellows and other animals such as predators or their prey. The number of feedback loops that Dr. Kaku might enumerate here grows into the hundreds or thousands.
  • Level 3: Future consciousness, which may or may not be among the capabilities of some nonhuman animals, but is a characteristic of human consciousness. Planning for the future, particularly with multiple contingencies, and not as an instinctual reaction, is the hallmark of this Level.
It occurs to me that Level 3 is an iffy business. Most people plan only when they have no alternative, and often do so badly. I suspect that we are pretty new at this. It may have been achieved less than 100,000 years ago. Dr. K doesn't mention the "when" of Level 3.

At this point I must note a puzzling item, an apparent error. In his student years, the author experimented with Sodium-22 (Na-22), an isotope that emits positrons. He then mentions, in two places (pp 5, 26), that Na-22 is used for taking PET (positron emission tomography) scans of brain activity. Not really. Wafers containing a tiny amount of either Na-22 or Ge-68 are used as "spot markers", stuck on the outside of the body to provide orientation markers, typically for organs other than the brain, which has such a distinctive shape that markers are usually not used. Brain scanning in particular uses Fluorine-18 in a glucose analog (fluorodeoxyglucose or FDG); glucose concentrates in active areas of the brain, and FDG with it. The positrons detected in the scanner "light up" these active areas on the scans.

F-18 has the virtue of a very short half life of 110 minutes and must be generated in a reactor possessed by the imaging facility just before use. Na-22 and Ge-68 have half lives of 2.6 years and 8.9 months, respectively. Also, neither can be used to produce a glucose analog. Even if they could, to achieve a similar level of positron emission, much larger amounts would have to be used, which would continue to emit at that level for many months or years. Thus F-18 is thousands of times safer in the body than the other two.

Onward. Leading up to the multilevel model of consciousness, I find this statement:
Self-awareness is creating a model of the world and simulating the future in which you appear. (p 36)
This leads later to a discussion of whether machine consciousness can become self-aware. A recent article in Wired by Kevin Kelly discusses Artificial Intelligence as an emerging "cloud service", a scalable on-demand service already being used, for example, by face recognition modules in programs such as Picasa and Photo Gallery. Kelly particularly notes that consciousness seems to need an element of chance to make it work. If this is so, conscious intelligence is inherently less than 100% reliable, so that future AI offerings may need to be certified as "Non-Conscious". Thus his view of machine intelligence is as something supplementary to the "natural" consciousness we experience, and is best kept unaware.

Dr. Kaku believes just the opposite, and discusses at length the possibility of machine self-awareness, and the possibility that we will be replaced by machines. The word "robot" is bandied about, with little acknowledgement that the word has two very distinct, very different uses in science fiction versus industry.

Industrial robots are actually better described either as Waldoes—based on "Waldo" by Robert A. Heinlein in 1942—if they are directly human-controlled (this includes drones), or as programmable actuators when they are controlled by a program running in a connected computer. Thus they are a logical extension of NC (numerically controlled) machining.

Autonomous robots as described by Isaac Asimov in I, Robot and all his later "Robot" books and stories, whether subject to his "Three Laws of Robotics" or not, are still decades in the future, if indeed they can be realized as self-contained entities at all. Current state-of-the art autonomous robotic mechanisms, such as the car from Stanford that finally won the DARPA self-driving competition in 2005, are barely at the threshold of Level 1 consciousness. Their "planning" capabilities are pre-programmed, an analog of animal instinct, and limited to finding a way to specific GPS coordinates.

Moore's Law states that the number of devices on a computer chip tend to double about every 18 months. It is a trend Dr. Gordon Moore observed, but has become a self-fulfilling prophecy driven by the profit motive. Several related trends include the power requirements of a certain amount of processing speed: watts per gigaflop (GFLOP, where FLOP means FLoating-point OPerations; per second is implied) seem to fall by about half every two years. This allows us to make a prediction, based on the assumption that Moore's Law will continue to hold for a long enough period. Today's fastest computer system has processing speed and memory capacity very similar to the human brain, but consumes 9,000,000 watts, including air conditioning. The brain maxes out at 20-25 watts. Nine million divided by 25 is 360,000, or 2 to the 18.5 power. That implies at least 37 years before human-level AI can be run with 25 watts.

Moore's Law is already in trouble, however. The fastest computer chips today run at about the same speed as those of about 10 years ago. Greater total power in a "CPU chip" for your PC is achieved by putting multiple processors on the chip. That is why they are now called "multicore" CPU chips. The computer I am using has a 4-core CPU. Commercial chips top out at 16 cores (as of late 2014), and the Watson supercomputer has thousands of these wired together.

I don't hold out much hope for "quantum computers" (qC's). The hype about these devices is beyond incredible. Their operation requires maintaining coherence among some number of quanta, typically electrons or ions held in some kind of magnetic trap, and being able to decohere them in sequence for readout into ordinary, electronic devices. Holding coherence longer than a small fraction of a second is comparable to balancing a pencil on its point. I suspect that the ancillary machinery needed for maintaining coherence and, even worse, manipulating it quantum-by-quantum for readout, will grow exponentially with the length of time coherence is needed, and the number of quanta in use. I don't anticipate a qC to be able to crack AES-256 encryption anytime this century, if ever.

I find the middle of the book most useful. Dr. Kaku discusses mechanically enhancing our smarts. This is actually what we do all the time with the academic technologies, beginning with the emergence of writing a few thousand years ago. While we still ought to teach times tables to our youngsters (gigantic groan from the grandkids), calculators in our phones and watches ensure that we make fewer arithmetical blunders. In 1958 "The Feeling of Power" by Asimov was published, in which mental arithmetic is rediscovered after decades during which all calculation was done using small devices (in 1958 the "desk calculator" was a bit bigger than a portable typewriter). These days we use Google or Bing or DuckDuckGo to find stuff we're not quite sure we remember, or don't know in the first place. Siri and other voice apps on our phones make this process simpler than ever. This enhances our useful smarts.

I am not sure most of us will ever need the invasive devices he describes, such as nanowire hookups to our hippocampus and other areas that mediate memory. The mind is tough to tinker with mechanically. TMS (trans-cranial magnetic stimulation), using a magnetic coil outside the skull, can briefly inhibit certain functions. It has been used to make a person a temporary psychopath, by zapping the brain area where caring resides, and to briefly release savant capabilities, by shutting down an area of the brain that is inactive in autistic savants. But TMS does not add capabilities, it only releases inhibitions placed upon some functions in ordinary brains. Why would you want to be a psychopath, anyway? Ask Neil Armstrong, who needed totally uncaring, steely resolve to land the Lunar Module in 1969. Not all psychopaths are criminals. Maybe future lunar missions (or even commercial airliners) will include a TMS device to shut down distracting anxiety in a pilot during landing.

Supposing we learn to read out and implant memories, even to create or erase them at will. Sometimes this could be a very good thing. I define neuroses as "out of date defense mechanisms". The person or situation that hurt someone is gone forever, but they still react to certain stimuli in embarrassing or disabling ways. When a neurosis is based on a well defined, focal experience, psychologists call it an Engram, and erasing engrams might be a very useful future use of mind technology. Other than that, leave my memories alone!

But memory is slippery, and specific incidents don't just make a kind of diary record in some spot in the brain. Dr. Kaku describes well how shortcut/thumbnail images go one place, emotional memories another, smells elsewhere and so forth. Recalling a memory means gathering all these bits back together for replay through some part of the frontal lobe (and relevant spots throughout the brain) so you can relive the incident. But we edit our memories, emphasizing certain items at the expense of others that we gradually forget entirely. This makes "truth serums" unreliable, as discussed in a mind control chapter.

Dr. Kaku discusses the possibility that we might merge with our electronic offspring, once it is to our benefit to do so. This simply expands the notion of "prosthesis" to the brain. Certain modern "artificial legs" actually perform better than the original for specific tasks. Just ask the "blade runner" (and it is unfortunate that he is now a felon; I don't think it likely he knowingly killed the girl but he couldn't convince a jury of that). He wasn't nearly such a fast runner before he got springy metal feet. But he'd need differently designed prostheses to play football (soccer in America).

As I have mentioned many times in earlier posts, I made a 40-year career out of writing software that worked with people, taking advantage of what people to well and leaving to the machine the tasks that people do poorly. A mechanical brain excels at detecting differences. There are amusing puzzles such as "find 10 things that are different between these two pictures". Sometimes, one of the pictures is a mirror image, which to me actually makes it easier. Something that takes experienced puzzle solvers 5-10 minutes would be solved by a computer with a webcam in a second or less. It might also highlight several hundred or thousand tiny errors that arise from printing ink interacting with the fibers in the paper, something few humans would be able to notice without using a microscope. A "wetware" brain excels at detecting similarities. That is why we can see camels or fish in a cloudy sky, or recognize someone from seeing only the edge of a face turned mostly away.

Only in the past week, I noticed that Picasa is picking out faces that are in profile, something it couldn't do before. But it is still flagging a percent or so of things that are clearly not a human face. However, its ability to find 90+% of the faces in my photos really speeds up face tagging. If I give it time after loading a new batch of pix, it gathers suggestions for many of the faces from my library of identifications of about 700 friends in multiple images. This is an example of useful AI: it isn't as good as I am, and doesn't need to be. It just needs to do most of the work and leave it to me for refinement. But I would not want to leave it to the Picasa face-recognizer to guide a drone on a kill mission. Not when it mistakes so many other Asian women for my wife!

A minor error seen in passing on p 255: The fastest supercomputer at the time of writing could perform about 20 PFLOPs (P = Peta), which is explained as 20 trillion; it is actually 20 quadrillion. A trillion FLOPS is a TFLOP (T=Tera).

And, oh dear, another: comets in the Oort cloud are described on p 289 as lying "motionless in empty space". Even at distances up to a light year, these comets move at speeds in the range of at least 100 m/s in orbit about the Sun. Compared to the Earth zipping along at nearly 30 km/s, or even Pluto, averaging about 5 km/s, that is quite slow, but far from "motionless". Autobahn speeds top out near 90 m/s.

Dr. Kaku excels in speculation, which means he is frequently mistaken as his expectations are overtaken by actual events. However, only those who have the courage to predict have the chance of sometimes being right. While the single-processor version of Moore's law was played out about the year 2000, multicore chips and continuing experiments with vertical-transistor chips continue a somewhat more modest trend. Will we ever achieve the 20 PFLOP-at-20-watt processor needed to equal a brain in both speed and power required, and also in volume (2L or less)? Moore's law might suggest the 37-year timeline I figured above, but we can't really know until we try.

And I don't think duplicating human consciousness is a worthy goal anyway. Much better is producing machinery with sufficient computing power to enrich everyone's lives at affordable cost. This matches the old Japanese supercomputer project which had as one goal, achieving Cray-1 capability (100 MFLOPs) in a $2,000 PC by 1995. This goal was achieved. The computer I am using now, which I built, is 100 times that fast, and the parts cost $800. I want machines to continue what they do best: complement and supplement our abilities. I think Dr. Kaku would agree, in spite of his excited, blue-sky forecasts.

The Appendix is titled "Quantum Consciousness?". It is likely that "free will" and full consciousness require quantum uncertainty. Here I am in full agreement. There is quite a discussion of the "Cat in a box" proposed by Schrödinger. Based on a carefully set-up radioactive detector that has exactly a 50% chance of triggering the release of poison gas to kill the cat in the next hour, we are asked, at precisely the one hour point, "Do you think the cat is dead or alive?". Much is made of the meaning of the Observer, in the Copenhagen Interpretation favored by Niels Bohr and most physicists, and other interpretations. No mention is made of the fact that the cat is also an observer! In fact, the results of many experiments that are intended to "prove" these things show that photographic emulsions, CCD detectors and other devices are also observers! They record the "collapsed wave function" phenomena, whether or not a human is present. I think nobody suggests that the image on a piece of film, developed in automatic machinery, does not truly appear until a human actually turns on a light and looks at it.

I think I am repeating something I wrote elsewhere to say this: a beam of light passing through a vacuum is affected by everything it passes, at any distance whatever. Of course, if you pass it through a small hole you'll get a diffraction pattern. The edge of the hole is the "observer" that leads to the scattering of the photons into a more divergent beam. But even a 1mm diameter laser beam, if it passes through a 1 meter aperture, will make a different pattern on a distant film than it would if the aperture were 2 m across. It will also differ if the aperture is square vs round. The existence of "things" in the universe provides an infinite number of "observers", contributing to the collapse of the wave function—if indeed that is what actually happens—for every quantum event everywhere.

Thus, the author's conclusion is apt. We must know ourselves better, not only to enhance or even duplicate our abilities, but to develop tools that work with us in better and better ways, in more and more useful realms of experience.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

If you think your pet is crazy, you may be right

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, psychology

Our 4-year-old house cat has never been outside on her own. She leaves the house only when we take her to the veterinarian, in her carry-case. Now, you might think a 1600 square foot house with a full basement and a sun porch would be lots of space. After all, she's a lot smaller than we are. But an "outdoor cat" typically roams an area of a few acres, so her world is small. She certainly has more energy than she can expend while kept inside, so she's bored a lot of the time. The condition of our carpet attests to her need to stretch and scratch, a diversionary activity because she can't roam far. And she does something I haven't seen any of our other cats do (I grew up with cats): sometimes she rests with her chin on the floor. She isn't asleep. Her eyes are open but she doesn't move a muscle. It is usually something dogs do when they're bored. She's bored.

After reading Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, by Laurel Braitman, I realized we are pretty lucky. At least our poor kitty is not psychotic. She doesn't pull out her hair, nor circle or pace like a caged tiger, nor upchuck her food and eat it again, nor demonically attack us out of nowhere. That pacing tiger in the zoo? It or its ancestors had a natural territory measured in dozens of square miles. It has energy to match. What else can it do?

Human insight: Energetic people of all ages need an outlet. For some, it is extreme sports, long hikes (One of my cousins likes to take a 2- to 4-hour hike in the desert. Daily), jogging or aerobics classes. For others it may be joyriding stolen cars, dealing drugs, doing drugs, or other "antisocial" activities. My outlet during my teens and early 20's was splitting logs with an ax. There's nothing quite like setting up a 14-inch-diameter cut of Lodgepole pine when it is -10°F, and popping it in half with a single whack. Several easy splits later it is in 6-8 pieces, ready to burn. Half an hour, half a cord, and I'd be ready to sit still and do my homework. We burned a lot of wood those years!

In humans or animals, "misbehavior" has a reason. Of course, the roots of behavior are a mix of personality and pathology. Some people just seem born to be criminal, and I've written before of the psychopathic young person I knew from age 7, who seemed unable to think of anything legal to take up his time. I reckon animal personalities are similarly variable. There's a room we never let our cat enter. In this room, and this room only, she will seem peaceable for a while, but then get a wild look in her eyes and climb the drapes. We have drapes in other rooms that she ignores.

Ms Braitman began her journey of discovery because of her suicidal dog (I consider purebred dogs to be maniacs in the making anyway). She had a Bernese Mountain Dog named Oliver who clawed through a window frame, pushed aside an A/C unit and jumped from a fifth-floor window onto concrete. The poor dog was too tough to die just from that. Many vet bills later, he was home, but not for long. While still on the mend, he chewed up another window frame and swallowed enough wood to thoroughly twist up his intestines. He had to be euthanized. The Bernese Mountain Dog is a remarkably stable dog for a purebred. But Oliver had a poor life before the author and her husband agreed to care for him, and came to love him, in spite of his extreme anxiety. Suicide, human or animal, doesn't just come out of nowhere.

In her long quest to discover how nonhuman animals, mainly mammals and birds, suffer mental illness, the author traveled the world and spoke with many experts of many kinds. She is an opponent of the existence of zoos, declaring that once you know what to look for, you cannot see a single animal in a zoo that has normal psychology. She seems to have spent quite a bit of time in Thailand with elephants and their mahouts. The stories are remarkable, both of the normal ones and the abnormal. If a working elephant (few wild ones are left in Thailand) is well matched with a sympathetic mahout, the two become like loving siblings. One kind of trouble comes if an elephant, always a very social animal, is a bit overly anxious, and the mahout is hoping to marry. Jealousy can cause distress, destruction or murder. Another kind is a personality mismatch. Some "trouble elephants" have done much better when paired with a different man (hardly any mahouts are female).

Although an element of the author's purpose has been to illuminate human mental suffering, in reality the book provides a wide-ranging survey of mental illness in animals and the efforts of owners and veterinarians, sometimes helpful and sometimes tragically comical, to alleviate it. Fun fact: the normal dose of Prozac for a 50-pound dog is enough to make you sleep for a week, if you wake at all.

So at a circus, or the zoo, if you see an elephant in a small space, standing still and swaying a little back and forth, in her mind she's striding down a forest trail, enjoying the sights and smells she is denied in her tiny enclosure, and for an elephant an acre it tiny. Most captives endure much less.

I find it remarkable that so many animals, in homes, corrals, zoos, nature parks and so forth, do as well as they do. If you were my pet house cat, would you stay sane?