Saturday, January 31, 2009

Remains of the Day

Life is complicated. I find the best way to cope with all the complexities of the day is to try and compartmentalize its different facets. Wait - did I say Day? Yes I did. You have to take life one day at a time and try and achieve as much out of each day as if it were your last.

Today was such a day when I got up and the whole world seemed to be closing in with everything needing doing or sorting. The best solution was a large bowl of "Just Right" cereal followed by a quick tidy up of my immediate surroundings - a recliner settee covered in the half processed and unread detritus of the past working week. Why working week? Because with my wife and I working 8 till 5,  there's not much time for housework or tidying during the week, what with a darling dog bitch boxer pig-dog to walk, feed, water and love - as well as a black cat which keeps crossing our paths, is always hungry, fat, laid back and loves the boxer pig-dog so much she occasionally shares her bed with her. Being incredibly fit people, we also go to the gym more or less regularly. There's nothing like a good work-out, a good sweat in the sauna and a spell in the steam room until you have to leave because you can't breath any more!

And so today, we finally got our act together and did the thing we'd been planning and musing over for many a month - widening our driveway by converting one third of the lawn to a crazy paving type affair with stones in between. This was necessary because we were fed up with the lawn getting driven over, and the driveway being narrow to the point that it was difficult to park the limo so you stepped out onto concrete and not waterlogged lawn or mud. The job took much grunting and digging and wheel-barrowing vast quantities of lawn mud to form an artificial mountain at the bottom of the back garden, 2 trips to the garden centre as we mis-judge the number of bags of stones we needed. It was all worth it. It looks good - at the moment. We finished it in the almost - dark of nightfall, no time to work on it tomorrow.

And so, we felt we deserved the unbridled indolence which followed of crashing out in front of the TV with no feelings of guilt or "I should really be doing" such and such.

I felt the public made the wrong choice for our entry into Eurovision. It should have been Mark, though the twins looked the part - for Eurovision, that is. I liked the song, but didn't feel it was strong or catchy enough to win, not that we will win anyway with all this political block voting so unbeloved of Terry Wogan. And talking of Wogan, I am not sure I want to watch Eurovision any more as he and his witty witticisms were the one thing which made this annual pseudo-musical farce bearable with a smattering of entertainment value.

Thats it - busy day tomorrow - I'm off to bed.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Philosophical musings on death and consciousness

This is going to be a bit of a philosophical thought experiment.

I am fascinated and puzzled by the concept of consciousness. I am also fascinated by death.

There is, as far as I can see, a direct link between consciousness and death. We are conscious that we are going to die. We are probably the only species with this foresight. Because we cannot quite accept the notion of oblivion, non-existence - we have invented a number of hypotheses to get around the problem and these hypotheses are mainly enshrined within religion. We thus postulate an afterlife of one kind or another. Because we cannot understand our own existence, or even why anything should exist, the notion of a God, or many gods was mooted throughout the disparate societies of the planet to account for this. And so we have creationism.

Turning to the genesis of the universe, as you do, creationists espouse the notion that God created it because nothing can happen without a "first cause". Also, because God is God, He doesn't need a first cause to bring Him into existence because He is the eternal one, in whom and by whom everything exists. The problem I find with this idea is that there is no more reason for the universe to exist as there is for God to exist. If this god can exist without any beginning or first cause, and as this god must by definition be part of what exists, then by the same token, there is similarly no reason why the universe itself should not exist without a beginning or "first cause", and both concepts are equally conceivable - or inconceivable.

Consider this. We need a "first cause" because the laws of physics demand it. We are taught at school that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Also, there is the law of the conservation of energy which states that the energy in a closed system remains constant and can neither be created or destroyed, but changed from one form of energy into another. If we look at Einstein's famous equation of E=mc2 where E is energy, m is mass and c2 is the speed of light squared, we see that matter and energy are part and parcel of the same thing. We are made of energy. Anyway, these, and all the other laws of the universe exist because there is a universe within which they can exist and can work. However, if there were no universe, or any kind of anything (or nothing) in existence, there would similarly be no laws for anything to apply to. We thus find ourselves in a situation whereby there is, by its very non-existence, the potential for a universe to spring into existence complete with its own laws of physics which govern its evolution. My belief is, therefore, that the universe sprang into existence by the "Big Bang" because there was no law of physics to prevent it from doing so. There was no need for a first cause. There was no need for a god. There is no need for God, or any god; the universe just is, because there was nothing to stop it from being otherwise.

Consciousness is a real puzzle. How can something which is made up of matter, irrespective of how complicated our make-up is, have self awareness, or whatever it is that makes me "me" and you "you"? In his book "The Emperor's New Mind" by Professor Roger Penrose, the concept of consciousness is explored in depth, and without any firm answers. From Penrose's arguments, it would appear that we will never be able to re-create consciousness on a digital computer, no matter how "clever" we make the program. It is apparent that consciousness emanates from a much deeper level of existence than we have so far managed to delve. He looks at quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle, as well as quantum entanglement and the other spooky effects of the sub atomic worlds, of which we know so little. From Penrose's perspective, until we have a proper understanding of the laws of quantum physics, there is no hope of us understanding the phenomenon of consciousness, because it is from this quantum level of existence that consciousness would appear to arise. We should also consider that scientists are developing a new type of computer which works using quantum mechanics as the basis of it's operation, and this type of computer is called a quantum computer. Still very much in its infancy, and a long way from appearing on the high street, the development of such a device holds out the prospect of our current most powerful computers looking like no more than pocket calculators by comparison. Such a computer may hold the way for us to either simulate or create (how would we know the difference?) an artificially conscious entity. Even so. this is no more than wild speculation and there is much we do not know about the sub atomic universe and the laws which govern it. Hopefully, when the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is finally repaired and up and running, we should make significant strides into a deeper understanding of the quantum world and, possibly, consciousness. Indeed, it may well be the case that only biological systems can exhibit consciousness, and we may never have a complete answer to this mystery. Even so, that is no reason to defer to a god, simply because we have not discovered a convincing answer to a question.

Moving swiftly on - what happens after death? Or, to put it another way, what happens to ME after I die? I have a simple solution to this conundrum, and it is tied in with consciousness. In order to be conscious of anything, you have to be alive, or to put it another way, in existence. I cannot be conscious of not existing as I have to exist in the first place to possess consciousness. In other words, death, or being dead, is not something any of us can experience. To put it as simply as I can, if I am dead, I am in the same state of non-existence as I was before I was born. I had no complaints then, and I do not expect to have any again when I have shaken off this mortal coil. The only thing I did have in this non-existent state, was the potential for coming into existence. In as much as I can never experience, or be conscious of being dead, by the same token I can only ever be conscious of being alive and I therefore have a kind of immortality. The only thing "I", if it be "I" can experience after death is being born again as a new conscious entity somewhere in the universe. In this respect, I am immortal, but will almost certainly have no recollection of any previous existence, notwithstanding the odd instance of apparent cases of reincarnation which appear to refute this notion. Either way, I do not think we should fear death, but only the manner in which we depart.

One final conundrum is this: why am I "me" and not someone else. What is it that indelibly links "me" to this body and personality, and not to anyone else. Or, to put it another way - when I awaken in the morning, why do I still find I am "me" inside of my own body and not someone else in a different body? You might think the answer to this is obvious, but think about it and you will see, hopefully, that the matter is not as clear cut as it might seem. Indeed, it might be that what we call consciousness is merely an illusion and the true nature of reality is actually permanently hidden from us.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

New President

So we have a new president of the United States.

I find him very heartening and was impressed by his inauguration speech.

I find it rather sad that so much import is put upon the colour of his skin, although given the racial prejudice we find in the world, and the sad history of the US in this area, I can understand it.

Even so, the fact that he is black is not what impresses me. It is his sheer intellect, rapport and likability. While it is remarkable that a black man has been elected to this office, what matters are what he actually does and the extent to which he makes the world a better place.

I wish him well.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dull blue Monday

It said on the radio this morning that today is Blue Monday. In other words, its the most miserable day of the year. I guess, apart from the fact that it was cold, dull, windy, wet and miserable, its probably about now that most of those New Year Resolutions get trashed. This was demonstrated by the absence of people at the gym this evening. There was hardly anybody there, so we virtually had the place to ourselves.

For me, it wasn't so much Blue Monday as extremely dull Monday as the lights fused as soon as my wife entered the house and attempted to switch on the living room lights. Flash, fut and that was that. Wonderful. We scrabbled around in the half light of improvised standard lamps and prepared to pump iron and other stuff.

Because I've been getting fat and lazy and my running has fallen away, I've decided to give myself something to aim for and entered myself into a 10 kilometer road race in April. This is not a New Year Resolution as such, as I didn't really make any on principle that I always fail. I'm just trying to be very good and proactive at everything I do. So the cunning plan is to star in the road race by training at the gym at least 3 times a week, and amongst all the other exercises I do, go on the treadmill and increase the distance by 1 kilometer a week. I am now up to running 4 kilometers at a go, and tonight I finished running at the staggering pace of 14.5 kilometers per hour.

Not bad for an old git.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Shame on Israel

I don't normally get political, and some may take this as just that. Even so, I feel compelled to write something on the insane and brutal attack on Gaza by Israel.

A few days ago I watched "Schindler's List". Anyone who has seen it cannot but be moved at this very graphic and moving true story from the Holocaust. Given the agonies and trauma the Jews have been subjected to down the ages, one would think that they would be determined not to commit those same atrocities themselves.

Whilst I feel some sympathy for their outrage at the rocket attacks from Gaza, their actions in Gaza are reminiscent of the Nazis. They are acting like monsters, out of all proportion with the rocket attacks. They are committing mass murder - nothing more, nothing less. They have the blood of hundreds of children and innocent people on their hands. The way they are going about it is completely over the top and one sided. And yet, the west does not condemn them. They make the noises of peace makers while standing on the sidelines supporting genocide by their reticence to call it what it actually is.

Israel (an illegitimate state) should be roundly condemned, and thoroughly ashamed. They are storing up untold horrors for the future, as their crimes against humanity will not be easily forgotten - or forgiven.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Film Review - The Day The Earth Stood Still

I went with my son to our local Cineworld to see “The day the Earth stood still”, a science fiction film. I haven't been to the flicks for a while, and every now and again I need another fix. I love science fiction which, for me, is the ultimate form of escapism. I like escapism; I need to escape every now and again to keep my insanity, so for me a good sci-fi is the ideal cinematic fix. We decided to go to the 9.15 showing on a Tuesday night for two reasons. The first is Tuesdays are cheaper, and as I break out into a cold sweat and descend into an out of control panic attack at the thought of spending any more money than I have to, Tuesday was the only logical choice. The second is that there would be fewer people in the cinema at that time, and less likelihood of my fix being degraded by distraction from others.

There were certainly fewer people in the cinema. We were viewing the film on “Screen 10”. When we walked in fifteen minutes before the performance was due to start, there was no one there. We wondered if we had made a mistake and checked our tickets. Yes, we were in the right screen at the right time, so no mistake there. The other reason we considered was that everyone else knew something about this film that we did not. I came to the obvious conclusion that the real reason was that this film, by its very nature, appealed to a higher level of intellect than the other dross showing at the same time which probably appealed more to the Sun reading lowest common denominator. As my son and I are of such a great intellectual stature that we can only really operate in a very limited social circle, it was clear that fellow followers of this film genre would be in the minority. Finally, three other couples entered the auditorium, all obviously on an intellectual par to ourselves. We settled down to the evening's offering.

Those who are of the same generation as me will probably know that The Day the Earth Stood Still is actually a remake of the original which hit the silver screen in 1951. While I have seen the original, I thought after seeing its latest incarnation it might be good to remind myself about the original by You-Tubing the original promotional trailer to try and get a bit of a comparison. First off, the alien space craft in the original is a flying saucer, pretty much what you would expect of the Zeitgeist of 1951. In the new version, its an impressive CGI (computer generated imagery) ethereal swirling sphere which looks a bit like a planet with beams of light shining from it. Also, the robot which stands guard over the spacecraft is truly gigantic and quite menacing.

Although the plot is basically the same, the detail of the story has been changed to bring it more in line with the early 21st century instead of the mid 20th. Also, its in colour – I bet you never saw that one coming! There is a message in the plot, in that mankind, in the opinion and intention of the aliens, should be destroyed because we are destroying the environment. The earth must be saved from us before we destroy the earth. In the 1951 version, we must be destroyed before we destroy the world with nuclear weapons. Given that the universe is so vast and the number of planets in the universe must be in the trillions it did make me wonder why any aliens would be particularly interested in our inconsequential speck of dust, unless of course, life is such a rare thing in the universe it must be conserved wherever possible and no matter how many light years you have to travel to do it. Maybe the aliens saw themselves as cosmic park rangers? Also, even if we do cause massive global warming with all the predicted disasters forecast by the gloomiest of soothsayers, one of the first casualties of such a catastrophe will be man himself. The fact is that we cannot destroy the planet, and the planet will always have the last laugh, so the aliens needn't worry. I did feel that the basic plot, though classic, is nonetheless rather corny, and needed a bit more of an air of mystery about it to keep you thinking and wondering after leaving the cinema. It needed a bit of what the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” had. I will never forget leaving the cinema after my first of 15 viewings of that film and listening to people muttering under their breaths that they never understood what it was all about. Of course, being an intellectual genius myself, and instantly tuned into that kind of thing, I understood it perfectly. I'm so modest.

The alien messenger , Klaatu, in the latest version is played by Keanu Reeves. He suites the part well, and acts in a semi-robotic inscrutable sort of way. He has all the charisma and personality of a castrated timber wolf who has lost all its timbers. Even so, there is something a little dark and unsettling about him, and its never really clear whether he is a threat or friend. Jennifer Connelly plays the part of Helen Benson, an astrobiologist who helps Klaatu along the path to his final decision deciding the fate of mankind. She comes across as extremely feisty and provides pleasant eye candy for the men, as no doubt, Reeves does for the women. Of course, Benson the astrobiologist has the easiest job in the world on a normal day, given that we haven't yet discovered any life anywhere else in the universe other than on our home world, so she doesn't exactly have much to study. I suppose her job is something akin to a flight safety officer on a kamikaze squadron.

Moving swiftly on, the CGI effects are quite outstanding and well translated to the screen. Some of the most impressive gee wizz moments come near the end of the film where millions of self replicating nano-bots are swarming around devouring like a manic plague of locusts everything human and of human origin. It put me a little in mind of another sci-fi movie based on a Stephen King story called “The Langoliers” where everything gets swallowed up by razor toothed globular creatures in a mysterious setting left adrift outside the normal flow of time, although in this story the devourers are swallowing up earth, time and space itself, but then, it is another story.

Finally, if you like science fiction films, and particularly if you like to do original and remake comparisons, go and see this film. It has enough action and visually impressive effects to keep you entertained and the attention grabbed. While the plot is a little lame, there is also the out of character intrigue of John Cleese playing the part of a mathematician. I found it difficult to take this seriously. While he was in deep intellectual discussion with Klaatu, there was a part of me smiling within which expected him at any moment to either exhibit a demonstration of silly walks, or start mentioning the war.