Sunday, September 18, 2016


Her: When is it?

Him: This weekend.

Her: Cool, I’ll go in cosplay.

Him: Hang on, you can’t just put a bag over your head and call yourself “Ironman”. 

Her: Hey, I’ve got some stuff from last year..

Him: [cautious but curious] Do you have any figurines?

Her: [laughing] No, I’ve got mainly books.. and comics.

Him: So.. so you just read them?

Her: Yeah, and I like to draw from them.

Him: Like freehand or do you trace them out?

Her: Freehand. It’s my chill time.. It makes me happy.

Him: Cool..

Her: Yeah..

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Journey in spacetime 3

I’ve been thinking. And I’ve come up with one conclusion and one question. The conclusion is this: when it comes to taxation money works best when it is made to churn round in circles. It does not work quite as well when parked in any particular place. The question I have - which is of far greater import - is this: as sentient beings do we merely reflect on the goings-on around us or do we actively shape the course of our lives?

For many that’s just a silly question. It’s silly because we already know the answer. And if we already know the answer then what’s the point of asking the question? But what if we don’t know the answer? What if it were wrong?

Allow me to start with a proposition. Instead of dividing the world into living things and nonliving things let’s divide it into things that necessarily take a unidirectional passage through spacetime and things that don’t. Some living things (which have a birth event, a death event, and a collection of sequential events in the middle called life) fall into the first group. Most, but not all, non-living things fall in the second group. 

First a clarification. It is important to differentiate the experience of spacetime from it’s true nature. The concept of spacetime presupposes space and time as inseparable and that time does not “pass” as we (living, sentient beings) like to think of it. The fact that we live in the present with a past behind us and a future ahead of us is merely a perception of spacetime and does not fully encapsulate its true nature (indeed, we do not really know whether there are dimensions beyond spacetime that currently escapes our imagination/calculations). In spacetime past, present, and future events coexist just as your house exists even when you are not in it. So when I say a “unidirectional passage in spacetime” what I mean is an irreversible traverse of spacetime events as experienced by the observing life form. The “true”, observer-independent version of spacetime has all events coexisting. Each event can be linked (in any direction) so long as it does not violate the laws of physics (as constrained by the speed of light). 

Now that’s out of the way let’s make it more difficult and untidy. There are physicists - notably those of the quantum variety - that believe that space and time are so hard-wired to our understanding of reality that it blinds us just like any other anthropomorphic construct. That is to say that spacetime itself is a construct that could be fundamentally flawed. In this sense the peculiarities of quantum physics might not be so peculiar if we are able to abandon our notions of space/time and replace it with some other, um… for want of a better phrase… even deeper understanding of reality. The way forward will almost certainly be through the rarefied field of advanced mathematics. The problem is that for it to have any meaning* it still has to translate back to the human experience. That might not be easy.

Wielding Occam’s razor to the current state of physics suggests that there is a deeper understanding of reality that humans have not come to terms with. The question is whether we possess the hardware (at present or augmented sometime in the future) to be able to process it.

But let’s work with what we’ve got. Let’s suppose spacetime exists as we currently understand it. Let’s also take the Eternalist's interpretation of spacetime as outlined above. Let’s also suppose that the universe is a closed system and that it arose 13.8 billion years ago from a singularity of immense mass and energy. Like the other propositions presented here there is no evidence (to date) that suggests that any of these hypotheses are untrue.

Let’s say that living things take a unidirectional passage through spacetime. That’s a proposition, not tautology.  And it’s all because of me. Well ok: not just me but you also. It’s because of the existence of human consciousness. The four-dimensional manifold of spacetime does not prioritise any event within it. Consciousness does. Consciousness builds on itself. It has direction. It has a past, a present, and a future. It has history. It cannot exist without a unidirectional traverse of the spacetime manifold. And it exists because I am writing this. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore my experience of life is a unidirectional traverse of spacetime.

So is a unidirectional traverse of spacetime a feature of life forms in general or just those that possess consciousness? The life cycle (a confusing turn of phrase) of an organism is made up of what appears to be an irreversible sequence of events. It is born, it lives, then it dies. Consciousness is merely the ability to reflect on that process. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification: life and consciousness are not easy things to define. But definitions and formalisations (like the separation of space and time) got us into this mess in the first place. 

The more I think of it, the more I wonder whether it is something about complexity that really counts rather than whether something possesses a genetic code; or whether it can replicate outside of a host, has organelles or a Krebs cycle; or whether it is multicellular or not. It might not be whether something is “alive”, or not, that really counts but something about its complexity**. Yet complexity might not be the right word. It might also miss the bit that is relevant. It is the conscious state that fixes events in spacetime and not the vessel that harbours it.

The more I think about it, the further down the rabbit hole I go. I’m not sure that’s the right way to go about it. For all we know there may be some disconnect between the human ability to reason and the fundamentals of the universe. I think we can understand the concept spacetime. I think we can propose that human consciousness fixes events in spacetime. I think we can be (and should be) uncomfortable placing a threshold for consciousness which make humans and possibly some other “higher" lifeforms special but understand that there are problems extrapolating “down the line”. So I dodge the bullet. But consciousness as humans experience it is special. It is probably special for other life forms but we can’t really know without properly understanding the basis of the conscious state.

On that note let’s just stick with the human experience. Humans inhabit a tiny speck in a vast, expanding universe. We can only ever observe and interact with a small part of the whole. The interaction of the human conscious state fixes events in spacetime. If a child picks up a pebble at the beach or a physicist looks at a quark in a lab that event becomes part of the human conscious state and thereby fixed in spacetime. Anything that becomes part of the human experience takes a unidirectional traverse of spacetime. That is to say: the conscious state gives anything that interacts with it (whether its living or not) a past, a present and a future.

A pebble is an aggregate of minerals and various noncrystalline structures (and may be inhabited by bacteria, moss and other life forms) which in turn is made up of molecules and atoms and subatomic particles. So it’s important to distinguish the level at which the interaction takes place. When we pick up a pebble the interaction is between the human conscious state and the pebble. If we take the pebble and scrutinise it in greater detail we extend that conscious interaction to include any element of the pebble’s composite structure. But until we do so it is nothing more than a pebble. In the absence of closer inspection it is the pebble as one, singular entity and not its component parts that takes a unidirectional traverse of spacetime. 

So if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, that depends. This is a question of universality and scale: universality of the conscious state and scale of the interaction. If you see the tree at any point in its lifecycle (say we give it three possible positions: standing/falling/fallen) then it will make/is making/has made a noise. The noise of the tree falling exists in spacetime whether it be in your past, your present, or your future. The interaction with your conscious state has fixed the existence and lifecycle of the tree. The noise of the tree falling exists even if you are not there to hear it. If we propose some universality of the conscious state (ie the experience of the tree by any conscious being results in the tree existing for all conscious beings) this means that if anyone interacts with the tree (in any one of its three positions) then the noise of the tree falling exists for all conscious beings even if that event lies outside the causality light cones for those other beings. 

Mr Einstein once asked Mr Bohr whether the moon exists when he is not looking at it. Well, yes. Duh… So much for them being geniuses and all… With universality of the conscious state the moon exists for everyone so long as someone has seen it at some point in time. Even if you have not, and cannot see the moon and live a gabillion, billion, billion light years away the moon will still exist for you (even if it cannot have an effect on you).

Then there’s scale. Imagine that you are the only conscious being to discover a planet full of trees. You look at the planet on a computer screen and each pixel represents 100 trees. Each individual tree has one of three possible positions (ie standing/falling/fallen). Until you improve your resolution you cannot know exactly what position any particular tree is in. At that scale you might be able to make some inference from, say, how much light is reflected off the planet, to get an idea of how many trees are standing and how many have fallen but you can’t tell with certainty the position of any particular tree. In other words, the conscious state of the observer has not engaged with the existence any particular tree. So does the tree make a noise in this case? No. Such events in spacetime have not been fixed by a conscious state and all trees exist in any one of three possible positions. From your (observer’s) point of view the tree does not exist as an individual entity.

So let’s ramp up the resolution. What happens when humans enter the quantum realm? Well it’s the same thing. Nothing is fixed in spacetime until it interacts with a conscious state. The only difference is that it doesn’t get any smaller (the resolution does not get any finer). Well, actually, that’s not exactly true - it can take the form of a wave. Only when we look and measure it does it become a particle. I’m going to put it out there: it’s not the act of measurement/ observation but an act of the consciousness state fixing events in spacetime that collapses probabilistic wave functions, is responsible for spooky action at a distance, and dispenses with Schrödinger's cat (heck, it may even explain other bits of quantum weirdness I don’t understand). There, I said it. Kaboom! Of course, if any of this were true, someone else would have thought about it already. Then junked it.

This is not a one way street. An event experienced by a conscious state also has an effect on the life form that transacts that interaction. Which takes me back to my original question: do we reflect on our lives or do we shape our lives? Well, if we consider a recorded observation that is yet to enter the conscious state (say we set an instrument to measure the position of a subatomic particle but only check on the result after lunch) then the conclusion is that we reflect. The problem surely lies in the propositions for spacetime and consciousness. 

Or does it?


*You don’t need to understand the workings of a combustion engine (or an electric engine) for a car to mean something to you. You also don’t need to know about General Relativity to find value in global positioning systems. In short, we don’t have to understand how something works to find it useful as a tool. That is, until you ask the question: Why? Humans have an enormous capacity for abstract thought. Even novices can grasp the broader implications of Relativity ( or be taught the basics of Quantum Theory ( and - King Crocoduck has yet to release his final video in the series). But whilst we go about pondering questions that lie at the boundary of science and philosophy our bodies and senses are trapped by the laws of Newtonian physics. Just how far are we able to stray from the three-dimensional tick-tock of an everyday Newtonian reality? How far do we need to go?

**Physicists and biologists will happily chew your ear off about the meaning of complexity. Such a broad term draws in experts from all areas of the physical and life sciences as well as mathematicians, philosophers and linguists. It’s interesting because some people think complexity (and that other expansive area of research: information) underscores the existence of life and consciousness. If I could understand any of it I wouldn’t writing this post.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Journey in spacetime 2

Senior consultant: Hi Kevin. Happy new year.

Junior consultant: Hi Chris. Happy new year. Sorry I missed your call. I was at the movies.

Senior consultant: Hey, not a problem. I was ringing to see if you had joined the Shoulder and Elbow Society.

Junior consultant: Um. No. Not yet. It’s on my to do list... Sorry it’s a bit noisy in here.

Senior consultant: That’s fine. What were you watching?

Junior consultant: Um… I saw Big Hero 6. (Disney Studio’s manipulation of a Marvel Comics creation designed to capture a market too young to fully appreciate the magnificent Avengers series and their dystopic universe and, despite the grating tearjerkers and predictable storyline, it was entertaining enough and points a malleable mind in a useful direction which is certainly a darn sight better than that disgraceful “Frozen” movie the popularity of which suggests that people in privileged societies don’t give a damn that their daughters entrench the belief they are born princesses even if the rest of the world doesn’t recognise it and that such entitlement - given that women are secretly in charge of everything - marks the downfall of Western economies and thereby the downfall of Western thinking and ideology...)

Senior consultant: ...

Junior consultant: It actually wasn’t too bad. I rather enjoyed it. It’s a kids movie...

Senior consultant: ...

Junior consultant: I like animation.

Senior consultant: Yeah, that reminds me. I was going to see a movie with my daughter this morning but she slept in. I guess we’ll go this afternoon...

Junior consultant: Yeah. It’s pretty hot today. There are lots of people at the movies. 

Senior consultant: I don’t think it’s that hard to join the Shoulder and Elbow Society. You are in the Hand Society aren’t you?

Junior consultant: Yes.

Senior consultant: Well you should apply to join the Shoulder and Elbow Society. You can use me as a referee if you like. That’s if you want to.

Junior consultant: Thanks Chris. I really appreciate your support.

Senior consultant: Not a problem…

I don’t ever want to grow up. I once had plans on becoming an artist. Or failing that an animator, or an architect, or a puppeteer. Serious. I transcribed this conversation last year (Jan 2015) because it felt somehow surreal. Today my application to join the Shoulder and Elbow Society was accepted. 

Status quo is not a default option. It never really was. And it will never be.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Shoot the breeze

“I think I know why I get my headaches,’” I tell Anthony as we ride early one winter morning. “It’s because it’s so goddamn cold that my teeth freeze and it goes up to my brain. It’s up behind my left eye right now.” “Well maybe you should shut your mouth and stop talking for a while,” he chortles back. I pause a second or two as I figure it out, “Actually it’s ok. If I keep my lips over my teeth it’s not so bad.. Myeah mit’s metting metter malready..” 

Well, I have something to say. I often have something to say but today I have this to say: I think Google and the ability to easily check points of fact have, subtly (and sometimes not so subtly), diminished the value of conversation. Language provides an ability to transfer information but, while there can be no doubt about the importance of accuracy on matters of fact, I’m starting to understand that that’s probably not the main point of conversation. A conversation is a temporary sharing of a moment in time. It is just one of many possible interactions. Being right often has little to do with it.

I sit down as Anthony prepares a mug of hot chocolate for me and an expresso for himself. E. walks into the kitchen.

“Dad I think I left my towel in the car.” She gives Anthony a hug. Anthony returns the affection with one arm as he balances the jug of hot chocolate with the other. “Morning E.” he kisses her on the head, “That’s ok I found it last night and put it in the dryer. It was a bit damp.” E. pulls back, “But I need it now!” she says forcefully. “It’s just in the dryer honey. It should be dry by now," Anthony replies gently, "Why don’t you go downstairs and pick it up." E. twists her hips and wanders off to the door. She takes a few steps than comes back. “I don’t want to go downstairs. I don’t want to go on my own.” She sidles between Anthony and the table where he is preparing breakfast.

I smile at Anthony as I watch the events unfold. E. is nine years old and has a swimming carnival this morning. To be fair the area downstairs is technically outside the house and the sun has only just risen above the horizon. Morning clouds hide much of its glow.

“Ok honey. Let’s go pick it up.” Anthony saunters downstairs with E. skipping at his side. He comes back up carrying a load of washing and drops it into a basket. E. dives in to grab her things. Anthony gets back to breakfast. “It’s competition day,” he tells me. “It’s a bit like this on competition day,” he says with a grin. E. comes back with a white shirt in her hand. “There’s a stain on this dad. Look,” she points out a faint black mark that looks like a washed out ink stain. “Oh yeah you’re right,” Anthony replies attentively as he takes the shirt from E. “And here’s another,” he says opening up the shirt sleeve, “and here’s another on the collar.” E. peeks over Anthony’s shoulder. “Oh yeah.. I wonder how that got there,” she asks. “I’m not sure,” Anthony replies, “It’s probably something in the dryer.” E. furrows her brow as she scrutinises the stain, “I don’t think so dad,” she replies. “Dryers don’t cause stains. It has to be the washing machine. Something dark in the washing machine has caused the stain.” She takes the shirt from Anthony and wanders back to her room.

I grin at the small, innumerable travails that parents contend with each day. “I like how your kid’s problem suddenly becomes your problem,” I tell Anthony as he places a steaming mug of hot chocolate in front of me. I wrap my hands around the mug. “Thank you,” I sigh as the warmth hits me, “I reckon some people never grow up beyond that stage.” Anthony nods as he tamps his coffee. “It’s a bit like that isn’t it?” he replies, “But I think there is a limit of what we can absorb.” Anthony continues, “When I have the kids over the weekend I find that I can be a bit short with some of the patients I see at work the following day.. You know those people that sit down in front of you and tell you their problem, and, then, before you know it, it becomes your problem.” “Absolutely!” I laugh in agreement as I rock back in my chair, "I know the kind well.” Anthony’s coffee machine hisses to life. He continues, “Well, after a big weekend with the kids I've reached my fill so I'm like, ‘Hang on there, this isn’t my problem mate. This is your problem. I’m just here to help you.’” He pauses a microsecond and moderates, “‘This is something we can sort this out but it's something we're going to have to do together.’”

We grin in mutual understanding. Anthony takes his expresso and sips at it. He sits down as E. walks back into the kitchen.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The captain's call

We live in strange times..

Over the weekend I was involved in the selection process for the next round of orthopaedic trainees. This is done each year with a simultaneous set of interviews for each state of Australia. These interviews form a critical part of a junior doctor entering the training program and thereby setting him (or her) on course to becoming an orthopaedic surgeon. The station I was assigned was “leadership”. There are other stations that assess specifics about communication, ethics, high pressure technical and/or emotional situations, and basic medical knowledge.

It is no secret that junior doctors specifically train to answer the questions asked in these interviews. Each year the questions are different but the essence of the topic remains the same. Evidently the key words in the scenario on leadership (which places the interviewee in a tricky situation where he has to show evidence of leadership) were “collaboration” and a “non-confrontational approach" as every candidate started off with this. An exhaustive use of local and peripheral resources then follows as the hypothetical situation escalates.

There’s a phrase in Australia made infamous last year by our previous prime minister, Tony Abbott. The phrase is “captain’s call” and was the Macquarie Dictionary's 2015 Word of the Year. It refers to a unilateral decision made by an assigned leader without consultation with colleagues. Mt Abbott’s frequent and politically injudicious use of the term has expanded the use of a “captain’s call” to include a unilateral decision that goes against the majority opinion even after consultationThe phrase may be vilified but essentially refers to any unilateral decision made by an assigned leader.  

After the main question with the hypothetical situation was answered we had the opportunity to ask a question about any previous experience where the candidate had to show leadership skills. Not surprisingly most candidates at the interviews have had quite a deal of experience: most through sporting endeavours but also in debating or chess teams, as school prefects/ captains, and as members of organising committees and charity events. We then had to probe further for specific instances where they had to deal with a difficult situation. Most described situations that were resolved collaboratively for the collective good. Some described scenarios where the issue could not be resolved in such a utopian manner. In these situations I asked them whether they had to make a “captain’s call”. To their credit most said they did. 

A good leader should lead from the front. He has to take charge in decisions for what he perceives to be the greater good. A leader should also make sure he is well-informed and check that what he perceives to be the “greater good” is a reflection of reality. For this he has to be perceptive, communicative, motivating, and a good team-builder. It also pays to have vision, charisma, and a tall stature (and, at least historically in my discipline, white and male). 

Established media that is rigorous and independent brings people, companies, leadership and regimes to account. Social media can promote accountability but often lacks rigour. And the pervasive nature of social media often clouds an ability to lead from the front. It can be corrosive for reputations when people who can choose to remain anonymous leave commentary that is ill-informed and inflammatory. Anyone with a grudge can state their claim on a number of available platforms. This can gain traction with other naysayers, the naive, and the nescient. The ability to leave a permanent record of what used to be fleeting and inconsequential makes many, especially those with a tenuous hold on their position as leader, wary of inciting such a response. Elected politicians seem to bear the brunt of this with the result being indecision and pointless muttering and fluttering. That and referendums (= ballots forced on people who are typically less informed than the leaders they elected to make such decisions in the first place).

Leadership is about decision and direction. Sometimes that means collaboration and compromise. Sometimes it takes a captain’s call. 

And, sometimes, if you want to get things done, it pays to have a strong constitution, a thick skin, and a good social network of supportive family, friends and like-minded collaborators.

That's old school..