Well, that was fun.

David and I got nailed on the way home from work today. We were stopped at a light, a guy came flying through and plowed into the side of David’s car. Wham, bang, both cars totaled.

Nobody was hurt, but the cops took the driver of the car that hit us off in handcuffs. He doesn’t speak English and had no license or ID. What’s left of David’s car got scraped up off the road (I mean that literally; they dragged it onto a flatbed with the wheels locked) and is off at some place somewhere waiting for some insurance company to do whatever it is they do.

So. Everyone’s fine, but that will make transportation to and from Dragon*Con a bit more interesting this weekend.

Some thoughts on complexity and human consciousness

A couple weeks ago, I decided to take out the trash. On the way to the trash can, I thought, “I should clean out the kitty litter.” Started to clean the litterbox, and thought, “No, actually, I should completely change the litter.” Started changing the litter, then realized that the cat had dragged some of it out on the floor. “Ah, I should get out the vacuum,” thought I.

Next thing you know, I’m totally cleaning the apartment, one end to the other.

On my way out to the dumpster, I started thinking about hourglasses. And that’s really what this post is about.

If you have ever watched the sand falling in an hourglass, you know how it goes. The sand in the bottom of the hourglass builds up and up and up, then collapses into a lower, wider pile; then as more sand streams down, it builds up and up and up again until it collapses again.

I don’t think any reasonable person would say that a pile of sand has consciousness or free will. It is a deterministic system; its behavior is not random at all, but is strictly determined by the immutable actions of physical law.

Yet in spite of that, it is not predictable. We can not model the behavior of the sand streaming through the hourglass and predict exactly when each collapse will happen.

This illustrates a very interesting point; even the behavior of a simple system governed by only a few simple rules can be, at least to some extent, unpredictable. We can tell what the sand won’t do–it won’t suddenly start falling up, or invade France–but we can’t predict past a certain limit of resolution what it will do, in spite of the fact that everything it does is deterministic.

The cascading sequence of events that started with “I should take out the trash” and ended with cleaning the apartment felt like a sudden, unexpected collapse of my own internal motivational pile of sand. And that led, as I carried bags of trash out to the dumpster, to thoughts of unpredictable deterministic systems, and human behavior.

The sand pouring through the hourglass is an example of a Lorenz system. Such a system is a chaotic system that’s completely deterministic, yet exhibits very complex behavior that is exquisitely sensitive to initial conditions. If you take just one of the grains of sand out of the pile forming in the bottom of the hourglass, flip it upside down, and put it back where it was, the sand will now have a different pattern of collapses. There’s absolutely no randomness to it, yet we can’t predict it because predicting it requires modeling every single action of every single individual grain, and if you change just one grain of sand just the tiniest bit, the entire system changes.

Now, the human brain is an extraordinarily complex system, much more complex both structurally and organizationally than a pile of sand, and subject to more complex laws. It’s also reflexive; a brain can store information, and its future behavior can be influenced not only by its state and the state of the environment it’s in, but also by the stored memories of past behavior.

So it’s no surprise that human behavior is complex and often unpredictable. But is it deterministic? Do we actually have free will, or is our behavior entirely determined by the operation of immutable natural law, with neither randomness nor deviance from a single path dictated by that immutable natural law.

We really like to believe that we have free will, and our behavior i subject to personal choice. But is it?

In the past, some Protestant denominations believed in pre-ordination, the notion that our lives and our choices were all determined in advance by an omniscient and omnipotent god, who made our decisions for us and then cast us into hell when those decisions were not the right ones. (The Calvinist joy in the notion that some folks were pre-destined to go to hell was somewhat tempered by their belief that some folks were destined to go to heaven, but on the whole they took great delight in the idea of a fiery pit awaiting the bulk of humanity.)

The kind of determinism I’m talking about here is very different. I’m not suggesting that our paths are laid out before us in advance, and certainly not that they are dictated by an outside supernatural agency; rather, what I’m saying is that we may be deterministic state machines. Fearsomely complicated, reflexive deterministic state machines that interact with the outside world and with each other in mind-bogglingly complex ways, and are influenced by the most subtle and tiny of conditions, but deterministic state machines nonetheless. We don’t actually make choices of free will; free will appears to emerge from our behavior because it is so complex and in many ways so unpredictable, but that apparent emergent behavior is not actually the truth.

An uncomfortable idea, and one that many people will no doubt find quite difficult to swallow.

We feel like we have free will. We feel like we make choices. And more than that, we feel as if the central core of ourselves, our stream of consciousness, is not dependent on our physical bodies, but comes from somewhere outside ourselves–a feeling which is all the more seductive because it offers us a way to believe in our own immortality and calm the fear of death. And anything which does that is an attractive idea indeed.

But is it true?

Some folks try to develop a way to believe that our behavior is not deterministic without resorting to the external or the supernatural. Mathematician Roger Penrose, for example, argues that consciousness is inherently dependent on quantum mechanics, and quantum mechanics is inherently non-deterministic. (I personally believe that his arguments amount to little more than half-baked handwaving, and that he has utterly failed to make a convincing, or even a plausible, argument in favor of any mechanism whatsoever linking self-awareness to quantum mechanics. To me, his arguments seem to come down to “I really, really, really, really want to believe that human beings are not deterministic, but I don’t believe in souls. See! Look over there! Quantum mechanics! Quantum mechanics! Chewbacca is a Wookie!” But that’s neither here nor there.)

Am I saying that the whole of human behavior is absolutely deterministic? No; there’s not (yet) enough evidence to support such an absolute claim. I am, however, saying that one argument often used to support the existence of free will–the fact that human being sometimes behave in surprising and unexpected ways that are not predictable–is not a valid argument. A system, even a simple system, can behave in surprising and unpredictable ways and still be entirely deterministic.

Ultimately, it does not really matter whether human behavior is deterministic or the result of free will. In many cases, humans seem to be happier, and certainly human society seems to function better, if we take the notion of free will for granted. In fact, and argument can be made that social systems depend for their effectiveness on the premise that human beings have free will; without that premise, ideas of legal accountability don’t make sense. So regardless of whether our behavior is deterministic or not, we need to believe that it is not in order for the legal systems we have made to be effective in influencing our behavior in ways that make our societies operate more smoothly.

But regardless of whether it’s important on a personal or a social level, I think the question is very interesting. And I do tend to believe that all the available evidence does point toward our behavior being deterministic.

And yes, this is the kind of shit that goes on in my head when I take out the trash. In fact, that’s a little taste of what it’s like to live inside my head all the time. I had a similar long chain of musings and introspections when I walked out to my car and saw it covered with pollen, which I will perhaps save for another post.

On credulity

It should come as a surprise to nobody that the much-hyped “discovery” of a Bigfoot corpse in Georgia was revealed today to be a hoax. A common, cheap Halloween costume, some opossum entrails, a cooler, and a whole lot of overheated gullibility combined to form a perfect storm of stupid. Profitable stupid, to be sure, but stupid nonetheless.

The man who orchestrated this hoax, incredibly, has been caught doing Bigfoot hoaxes in the past…and yet, people still took him seriously.

Now, I don’t give a toss about Bigfoot. But I do think there’s an interesting lesson in here.

Folks want to believe in things like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and astrology and UFOs and the divine love of Our Savior Jesus Christ and a whole lotta other unlikely and sometimes downright nonsensical things. And in fact we may even be hardwared to believe them. Human knowledge is a history of two steps forward, one step back; we no longer believe that solar eclipses are caused by gigantic marauding dragons pursuing the sun across the sky, but we do believe that our office mates are snippy and the coffee maker is on the fritz because of the motion of a tiny, tidally locked ball of rock with a large iron core.

All these things, from Bigfoot to psychics, are woven together by the common thread of irrationality. And no matter how many times a conman gets caught with an ape mask and a handful of animal guts, folks can predictably be relied upon to say “Well, this particular guy was a shyster, but Bigfoot still exists!”

But I didn’t actually come here to talk about Bigfoot.

Instead, I came here to talk about physics.

How are the two related? Through the common languages of money and credulity.

The hottest area of venture-capital investment in the US right now is alternative energy. Solar power, wind power, thermoelectric power–if it involves getting energy without burning stuff, people will invest in it.

And it’s in this environment that anyone with a scientific-sounding yarn and a pair of brass balls can score millions.

The problem with the Georgia Bigfoot hoaxsters is that they set the bar too low. You might make a few thousand dollars duping folks who like to believe in big, hairy ape-men running around upstate Georgia, but if you really want to score the dough, you need to think bigger. And the notion of limitless power from tap water is not a bad place to start.

This is an old-school scam, of course–I remember reading a plot in the newspaper comic Gasoline Alley a couple of decades ago that centered on one of the main characters being scammed by an elaborate con involving a car that could run on water. And today the Web is littered with Web sites offering to sell gizmos, usually for hundreds of dollars, that promise you can boost your mileage by running your car on water.

Still small potatoes, though.

Oh, no. To score for real, you gotta aim your sites not at average consumers, but at venture capitalists themselves. And what better way than by claiming to have discovered that all of modern physics is completely wrong, and that you can get limitless power from tap water by creating an entirely new state of matter?

That is exactly what a guy named Randell Mills has done, and he’s scoring big. A while back, he claimed that he has discovered a new state of hydrogen, which he calls the “hydrino,” that involves moving the electron closer to the nucleus than the laws of physics permit. It makes no difference that the math doesn’t work, nor that the book he wrote on the topic appears to be equal parts flawed math and text plagarized from other textbooks. What’s important, as any good Bigfoot “researcher” knows, is that it sounds good–and more importantly, that it talks about things that people really, really, really want to believe in.

The second part can make up for a lot of flaws in the first. We really, really want to believe that the world has meaning and purpose, and to that end we are willing to accept a great deal, and not look too closely at things that support what we’ve already decided we’d like to be true.

And a great many people want this notion of the “hydrino” to be true.

Randell Mills has been talking about hydrinos for quite some time now. Nearly twenty years, in fact. And he’s proven to be remarkably skilled at piggybacking his notion onto whatever other ideas happen to be getting attention at the moment.

When “cold fusion” was all the rage, he proposed that it worked because the hydrogen in the water was being converted into hydrinos, and the hydrinos were what was fusing. No real explanation for why this should be, mind you; but that’s a minor matter. The publicity is what’s important.

Now, with the price of oil high and alternative-fueled cars in the news, he’s proposing that fuel cells that work on hydrinos could provide limitless energy from tap water–and he’s scored fifty million dollars of venture capital funding to that end.

Never mind that in nearly two decades he’s never made this idea work. Never mind that current models of the behavior of hydrogen atoms have been verified experimentally over and over again. Never mind, even, that he’s been promising a major breakthrough since 1991, a breakthrough that’s always just a little bit of money away.

He keeps bringing in the money because investors want to believe.

And not just for obvious reasons.

Yes, it is true that the lure of owning the one invention that will bring an end to the era of Big Oil is powerful. Yes, it is true that anyone who wins on alternative energy is likely to win in the billions, at least. And yes, it is even true that the next big invention is likely to be surprising and to come from an unpredictable place.

But there’s another reason that Mills is so successful at scamming folks, and it has to do more with sociology than with technology. We all want to believe we can run our cars on water, but we also very much hate and fear science, and we all want to be able to laugh at those pointy-headed, superior scientists in their white lab jackets and say “Ha! You were WRONG! Ha, ha, ha!”

Randell Mills doesn’t exist in a vacuum. His success is very much a product of anti-intellectualism. We simply don’t like science, we don’t like the people who do it, and we want to give a giant “fuck you” to the people we hate so much. What better way than to buy into a gizmo that lets us drive cars on water and also proves all those complicated scientific theories are wrong?

And it’s not a stretch, really. Most folks are only dimly aware of hat an “atom” is, and haven’t the faintest idea of what a “ground state” is. Why not believe that it’s possible to shrink a hydrogen atom way down smaller than it’s supposed to be? And as long as we’re believing that, why not also believe that you’ll get a whole lot of power to run your car by doing it? Hey, it could happen, right?

Fifty million dollars in venture capital later, the math still doesn’t work and the idea is still bunk, but when you start with investors who don’t have the background to understand why the idea is bunk, but are itching to be able to say they helped knock a lot of know-it-all eggheads off their pedestals…well, the result really shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose.

I spend a lot of time talking about credulity and gullibility. Sometimes, people ask me why I, or anyone else, should care. What’s the harm in folks who believe blindly in Bigfoot? Who cares if people believe in things without evidence?

Randell Mills is the answer to that question. Credulity has a price. Sometimes, the price is financial; gullibility and anti-intellectualism allow people to be manipulated into parting with cash; they make for easy marks. Sometimes, the price is in human lives. Anti-intellectualism is what lets people believe that chlorinated water is bad.

All these things are related. And in the rush to believe what we want to believe, in the desire to be seduced by someone who will tell us the things we really want to hear, we sometimes forget to check our facts.

More IRS woes

It appears the IRS has discovered that I did in fact file my taxes in 2006, just like I thought I had. They have, however, now moved on to a new and weirder problem.

They’re now notifying me that they want to see the records of my expenses and income from all the rental property I own. Specifically, they want me to fill out a form showing my total combined income from all my rental properties, together with itemized expenses for maintenance, repairs, and advertising for those rental properties.

*blink* *blink*

I have never in my life owned rental property. This is just getting bizarre.

Well, hell

Note: Those of you who don’t play World of Warcraft, move along. Nothing to see here.

Raid in Hyjal was scrubbed tonight. Couldn’t even get anyone interested in doing a Kara run for badges or killing Magtheridon or something. So, no raiding tonight for me!

Ran Magtheridon after we got out of Hyjal last week. Most. Messy. Kill. Ever.

Had him down to below 1% health, one of our tanks died, we didn’t stop his nova, wiped everyone ‘cept for one pally. I’m sitting there dead like “Oh, fer Crissakes, wiping on Mags is just obnoxious, ‘specially when he’s at under 1% health. I mean, we 22-man this guy just for fun.”

And our pally tank finished him off solo.

So, dead is still dead, but damn. There’s messy, and then there’s messy.

Back into Hyjal on Tuesday.

Anyone familiar with an outfit called Suavemente?

So lately, my inbox has been flooded with an unusually large amount of spam This spam is advertising Web sites with URLs such as klhrvbhqw dot com, hyaiocgsk dot com, dcghffxba dot com, and ipwbquigi dot com — you know, nonsensical domains made up of random letters, usually a sure bet that it’s a throwaway spam domain the spammer plans to use once for a single spam run and discard.

All of these domains are hosted at the same ISP, an outfit I’ve never heard of before called Suavemente.

Now, two things about Suavemente scream “bulletproof spam host” to me. The first is they didn’t bother to register the .com; their only URL is suavemente.net. The second is that they’re headquartered in the US, but their front page proudly screams High-speed offshore. In the world of ISPs, “offshore” normally means “we allow our users to violate American law, safe in the knowledge that their servers can not be subpoenaed or subject to American jurisdiction.”

So at first blush, Suavemente stinks of “owned by spammers, run by spammers for spammers.” However, I can’t find them on the usual compilations of known rogue ISPs; they are listed in the ISP hall of shame, but that’s about it.

And they respond to abuse complaints. They don’t respond by shutting down their spammers, but they do respond nonetheless. Text and headers of an email I just received from Suavemente’s abuse department

Okay, so.

I don’t like beer.

I don’t know how to cook.

I don’t know how to brew beer, except that the process involves mashing up some kind of grain at some step along the way. Oh, and I think yeast are involved, too.

I don’t know a thing about spices; see reference to “don’t know how to cook” above.

Nevertheless, last night I had a dream in which I came up with a new recipe for beer (which, just for the record, I don’t even drink). Said recipe involved nutmeg (which I know is a spice of some sort) and curry (which I believe to be a spice of some sort). I brewed large quantities of this beer, which I then loaded into the back of a station wagon, so that I could drive all over merry old England (a country I’ve never visited) selling it to pubs and bars.

Apparently, it was a big success, and by the end of the dream, Molson Brewing Company (a company I wasn’t even sure was real–I had to Google it just now) was negotiating with me to buy the rights to the beer for millions of dollars.

Either I have a secret font of arcane, esoteric knowledge buried deep inside my head somewhere, or someone else has been using my brain while I’m asleep. Would you even put stuff like curry and nutmeg in beer? I have no idea.

How to Tie a Rope Harness With Integrated Dildo Harness

Note: This is part 8 of an occasional ongoing "how to" series on BDSM.

Part 1 of the series, How to Tie a Rope Harness Part I, is here.
Part 2 of the series, How to Tie a Frog Tie, is here.
Part 3 of the series, How to Tie a Shinju, is here.
Part 4 of the series, How to Make a Custom Dildo out of Ice, is here.

Part 5 of the series, How to Make a Spikey Decorative Collar, is here.
Part 6 of the series, Theory and Practice of Ginger Figging, is here.
Part 7 of the series, Rape Fantasy and Resistance Play, is here.
Part 8 of the series, How to Tie a Two-Column Weave, is here.

As you can probably figure out, most of these tutorials are really, really not work-safe.

This particular tutorial is so not work-safe that clicking on this link at work is certain to doom you to absolute doom. The images connected with this tutorial show full frontal nudity. Even thinking about clicking on this link at work may result in angering of your company’s IT Morlocks, and nobody wants that! If you’re not at work and nudity doesn’t offend you, clicky the link!