Sunday, 21 February 2010

Fat, fat and more fat! But more to the point.......

Do you know what's the worst thing about having a stroke. I don't mean, absolutely, I've been very fortunate, but for me, on a personal level. It's not the drugs you take; it's not being barred from topping up the nicotine level; it's not being able to go on a 'bender' now and again; it's not even speaking like a spastic. No, it's.....


(Apologies to sufferers of Cerebral Palsy. It's what you used to be called (even the charity was called the 'Spastics Society' before they changed their name to 'Scope' [whatever that means, except the marketing executive got paid muchos ackers to come up with it], and it's not really very nice, but I can think of no other way to describe it. Incoherent, incompetent, orally challenged; none of them will do. Spastic is the RIGHT word.)

'You've got to get your cholestrol level below 4, preferably below 3.5'.

'But it's only 5.4. I know people who are 9.5. 12.6! And they're OK.'

'Ah, but they've not had a stroke!' (Sounds vaguely risque, don't you think? High cholesterol is dangerous if you've had a stroke. So long as there's not a glimmer of a stroke in your life, high cholesterol is OK? [Ah hell, I know it isn't but I've no mind to put a reasoned argumant down right now - just go with the flow] But if you've had a stroke.....or perhaps a raking of the fingernails down your back....or maybe a gentle toe massage...that fingertip running along the inside of your thigh... then 5.4 is way too high! [I can jest, I've had one, remember. And besides, you've got to laugh; life is too short! And, probably in my case, even shorter than usual!])

'But you've no idea what it's doing to me!'

I used to dream of soft, nubile, young women; adventurous nymphomaniacs avid for 'Kama Sutra II - Die Harder!' Cute little turned up noses; pert, apple breasts with just a hint of a little paunch. Tight, firm buttocks and long legs that ended with the most delicate ankles. Toes that would capture the heart of a piece of coal! Enveloped in raspberry sauce.

And now?

Now all I can dream of is alligator, pan fried in garlic butter; tiramisu with double cream; lambs liver, flash fried in thin strips in yet more butter with paprika and red wine; pork crackling; asparagus with hollandaise; strawberry trifle. Do you have any idea what it is like to wake, seduced by a night-time reverie of roast potatoes in goose fat, suet pudding with black cherry jam, spaghetti carbonara (the real one), do you? You are doing this for my health, so I'll live longer. So I'll be like an able bodied man, not a semi paralysed cripple. But what is my life without fat! When all you have to look forward to is yet more fish, yet more chicken (without paprika butter). There's only so much broccoli (and even pheasant) that a man can take. Give me fat and give it me NOW!!

Let me wake up, just once God, please, and feel the grease dribble down my chin. Just let me please wake up to the smell of the goose breast in the oven. Hell, I'd be willing to settle for a mere whiff, let alone taste, of extra mature cheddar, stilton, Roquefort cheese, of garlic salami, of Lincolnshire Pork sausages. Let me savour the crisp skin of a roasted duck. Let me taste the joy in a cup of black coffee and a chocolate croissant for breakfast instead of unsweetened muesli and fruit juice (milk is verboten unless it is of the so skimmed that 'it tastes like water, because it is' variety). Hell, you even banned tabasco. How the hell are you supposed to make a three alarm chilli, assuming you could get away with the pork or beef, if there's no tabasco?

It's like sex without the foreplay!

You see, I know that you're only doing what's best for me. I know if I fall below the standards you set for me that you'll probably feel bad because you didn't spend enough time with me, persuade me to do all of this. I know I'm to blame if I don't go along with this and you must, perforce, feel guilty, Doc. One more failure to notch up on the bed post.

It's not your fault, honest!


Saturday, 20 February 2010

Cartesian dualism, emergent phenomena and my dad

I thought I'd carry on a bit from the Cartesian dualism I spoke about in my last blog and why the concept is so attractive.......and so wrong! But first.......

A little picture (which I finally got from my mother today - for safe keeping).

My dad and what he did in the war! He's the one with his hands out on the flatbed - only time he got in the papers! (Well, aside from the infamous 1959 pork scratching heist in which two lorry loads of pork scratchings mysteriously appeared in our front room. Made page 5 of the London Evening Standard, that did!)

There is no date but judging by what's in the news on the reverse of the newspaper clipping this comes from, it would have been sometime between June 1944 and October 1944.

That's all for the nostalgia!

It's difficult given the sense of 'I' that we all have to perceive of anything except in terms of 'I' looking in/around some sensory perception and making a judgement about it. The smell you receive through your nose, the taste which you get from a fine curry, mostly from your nose, oddly enough, but some through your tongue.......and your cheeks and gums when you realise that the speciality of the house 'Jalfeezi' is just that; especially designed to make your head explode and your eyes water! (Tip - don't drink water. The active ingredient in red chillis only dissolves in alcohol, so lots of beer, or a large scotch!)

It's even harder when you come to concepts, like is the Iraq war just (warmongering from a clapped out administration that knows only two things; how do dig a hole and how to dig it deeper, so deep in fact, that we all fall in it!) or what is truth, beauty? You see 'yourself' pondering the 'truth' that is laid out before you, the 'beauty' and 'you' make a judgement. What Dennett calls the 'Cartesian Theatre'. You are the audience. An observer to what is laid in front of you! The power of 'I' is so great that even when you realise it's nonsense to think this way, still the embedded power of the concept, the notion of a 'soul' gazing from outside, is so beguiling that it's difficult not to think that this is a self-evident truth; like the grass on your lawn mower which always turns to rust over the winter.

Now it's plain that all of you who have faith in some 'higher' being, a belief that there is all some purpose to this, not just the purpose we give it by being alive, all of you who believe in some everlasting 'soul', life force, whatever; those of you who believe this is not the only life we have, that somehow when we are all burnt to a crisp, dressed up in all our finery, life, of a sort, goes on; then this is not hard to imagine. But, what if this life is the only one possible; what if it really is ashes to ashes, dust to dust and whence we came is the only resting place? Food for the worms, cinders scattered to the winds, molecules endlessly recycled? Then the concept of a 'something' separate, distinct from the physical person we are, something looking in, like some worn-out shopper outside Harrod's, must be wrong. If there is no 'soul', if there is no life except what we conjure for ourselves, if the notion of a spectator is merely illusion then where does the notion come from? This sense we all have of 'I', who interacts with the world around us, but is somehow separate.

If our brain is all we have then there can be no doubt that somehow the random, and not so random, movement of chemicals across gateways in cells, the random, and not so random, electrical differentials that cause neurons to fire, discharge electicity, is all we have to justify, explain this sense of self.

A truly mad concept, wouldn't you agree? That this 'I' is the end product of merely physical forces and actions taking place in our physical brains?

And yet, mad as it is, in the absence of a 'soul', it must be close to the truth of what is to be 'me'. 'I' am simply what emerges, as a natural consequence, out of the physical actions taking place in my head. No 'soul' is required. And if no 'soul' is present, then no 'soul' is more privileged that any other.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Turing tests, Eve and garbage compactors

Now I'm quite sure you all know what the 'Turing Test' is. And no, it does not determine whether you are gay or not! Turing's test was a way of determining whether a machine had intelligence and, more importantly, was conscious.

The essence of the test was to ask questions of both a human subject and also a machine/computer subject by the same mechanism - keyboard, monitor - and then see if you could tell the difference between the machine response and a human one. Now, 'correctness' wasn't the issue here as both machine (and possibly) human could tell you when the Battle of Hastings was (assuming the computer had that information in its data store - likewise the human), it was more about asking the kind of subjective questions, like 'How do you fell about the bail out of banks?', 'What do you think about how well Obama/Brown/Sargozy is doing as leader of the respective countries?" Now quite clearly, AI and machine intelligence are not up to it right now - ever held a conversation with an emailable 'help line' which is based around AI algorithms? You can spot them after about the second response. But, nonetheless, it might be possible that in 99% of cases you couldn't tell the difference between a machine response and the human one.

Would that make the machine conscious? If you couldn't tell the difference between a machine and a human, would that perforce not make the machine conscious? After all, you and I have no doubt that another human being is conscious, like us. No? We don't believe our friends, relatives, people we meet in the street are zombies, do we? And yet, we would use exactly the same criteria to judge a human as we would a machine. So is not the machine, if it passes the test, conscious? Do we have any other way of determining its consciousness or otherwise? And yet, importantly, I think, we would in no way deem the computer to be conscious, sentient, even perhaps alive, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Why?

One of the all pervading myths about our existence revolves around 'Cartesian dualism'. Whether we be Christians, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, agnostics or even Mormans, we are brought up to believe, all evidence to the contrary, that we are special! It is so ingrained in the way we think, that we are the possessors of some divine, 'God' given, spark, that we are more than just the sum of our physical parts, that you would never convince 99.9% of the human population that a computer was 'alive', capable of conscious thought, capable of working out from first principles, just like Descartes, that it was wrong to kill another human being........or a sentient machine.

No, there will never be a conscious machine, a machine able to think, feel like us; or maybe think, feel unlike us, but think, feel just the same. We won't ever believe them!

So why, and don't deny it does, does it always bring a lump to your throat when Eve rebuilds Wall-E at the end of the film and he ignores her, solely interested in what he was programmed to do; compact rubbish. He is, like she is, only a machine!

And then when he recognises her?

We all wish we could talk to the animals - it would so relieve the monotony of being the only species capable of speech on the planet. Perhaps we will, ultimately, have to settle for machines, whether we like or not!

Monday, 15 February 2010

'The Verdict', mountains and pheasants

Oh, how one could forget how wonderful is this film. One of Newman's iconic performances, as the drunk, has-been lawyer, fighting a seemingly losing battle against corruption. Up against all the odds; the criminal justice system; the judge; the hot shot lawyers; the betrayal. And he doesn't win because he's a better lawyer; no, he wins because the case is just and he relies on the good and true men (and women) of the jury that they will deem justice as worth more than the mealy mouthed sentiments of advocates; those whose must present their case as best they may, whatever the cost in objective truth or even decency.

Mamet's screenplay, as always, spot on!

Irrespective of the film's worth as cinema, we all need 'art' like this. We all need the 90 minutes of release; the ninety minutes when you can kid yourself that the world is not going to hell in a hand cart, suspension of disbelief, unwilling or not; when it's possible to believe that a random selection of people really do have a morality, decency, a desire to do what's right in some kind of absolute sense, not just pragmatically right. I don't know, as an atheist, what is right in 'an absolute sense' at least in words that would make a rational argument, I just know it when I see it. Conversely I know its opposite. (Iraq war, anybody? Bail out of the banks?)

Ah, but this is just opinion, no? Just my view of what is right or wrong. Perhaps.

I am reminded of a discussion between Pontius Pilate and Christ (as recounted by Carel Kapek, I think just before the flagellation) in which Christ tries to persuade Pilate that there is only one truth, the truth the Christ himself expounds, only one right and wrong, only one belief system, only one (God-given) justice. Pilate's answer is to make an analogy, between a landscape of individual plains separated by high hills. The plains represent man's truth and the hills the barriers which separate one man's truth from another's. Each one distinct, multiple truths, co-existing but in isolation.

But what if, Pilate suggests, you were to climb a mountain in the vicinity, so much higher than the hills which separate the plains, wouldn't the hills tend towards insignificance and, to an observer on the high mountain, the plains would then merge into one, one truth amongst the myriad of 'different' truths.

I think that one just needs to make the effort to climb the mountain.

Not a bad week, as far as it went, although I do wish I wasn't so tired all the time. Come three o'clock I am ready for bed, even though I have only done the shopping (damn this low fat diet, with its fish, chicken, fish and the occasional venison/pheasant to relieve the monotony - and, God, the cost of it all) but to do so, climb into bed in the afternoon that is - on my own! - ends up disrupting the normal sleep patterns and leads to watching 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' at four am and is, I think, to be avoided.

It's interesting how much concentration is now needed to articulate words and whole sentances. What came so naturally is now a real effort. To have to break down words into single syllables, enunciated slowly and distinctly if they contain 'P' or 'B' or 'F' and other such sounds, is such a pain. To have so little control over the sounds that come out your mouth unless you concentrate, hard, when you used to gabber away nineteen to the dozen, is (a) frustrating and (b) apt to make you feel in some way 'sub-normal', especially with people you don't know! Of course, the more tired you get, the harder it is to concentrate and you find that as the afternnon progresses and evening falls, you are in increasing trouble! Still it is early days yet, and there are many who can't, after a month or so, even begin to articulate a sentence, let alone do what I am capable of. We must be thankful for small mercies. At least I don't have to repeat EVERYTHING!

I have taken to disturbing the neighbours with 'Winnie the Pooh' read aloud just to practice. I was going to do Shakespeare but decided that the similarities between that and running like Carl Lewis when you could not even walk were too close for comfort!

This is going to get boring after the umpteenth of saying it but all my colleagues and friends, both near and far, THANK YOU!