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February 21, 2010

Breaking the Silence

It's silent

You've gone on holiday somewhere out in the open. The desire to escape the stress, tumult and pollution of the city has finally overcome you, and you and your family/friends/colleagues have decided to take use your holiday to go to the countryside. Or the woods. Or a deserted beach. I don't know where you are, you tell me. In any case, you've fled the masses and have found an isolated spot somewhere. Maybe you own the place, maybe you're just visiting. It could be the first time you're here, or it could be your favourite spot. Allow your imagination to roam. There is only one condition on the choice of your location.

It's silent.

Maybe there's a bird cooing in a tree. Maybe the waves are creating a gentle hiss. Maybe the wind is making some branches rustle. Maybe a nearby stream is But these are all natural sounds. They fit in with the silence that dominates this place. There are no cars driving about, and no electronic or mechanical noise gives away the presence of any foreign elements. Civilization seems far removed in this place. The constant humming, buzzing, or shouting that together form the trademark of human cities, have been reduced to nothingness. No artificial disturbance, no unwanted interruption of the stillness that greets the ear. 

It's silent.

It's delightfully silent. It is as if one has been transported back to a time where man has not yet conquered the Earth, and where nature is still almighty. Where the world's natural harmony hasn't been upset by Man's footprints. One feels transported to an otherworldly location, in which worries have evaporated. There is only oneself, the world, and the silence. It is perf...

"Wow, have you noticed how silent it is here?"

Ohmygodsomeoneistalking.

"It's incredible. You don't often experience something like that, do you?"

Stop. For the love of Mike, stop. Don't ruin it.

"Don't you think it's amazing?"

"Yeah."

"It reminds me of sometime a while ago, back when I was on holiday in..."

Bugger. The feeling's gone.


A lot of people I know would break the silence like this without thinking about it -- maybe they are the same people who like to talk during movies. I don't hate them for doing any of these things; in fact, without them, holidays out in the open would be incredibly boring. Eventually, someone needs to talk, to strike up a conversation. There's a time for silence, and a time for talking.

But I still find it ironic whenever someone talks out loud about the surrounding silence.


February 01, 2010

Apologies & Book reviews

To all regular readers of this blog:

I apologize for the lack of posts recently. I have had way too many things going on for me to sit down and write a blog post, and I'm afraid that there's probably not going to be another one soon. In a few weeks time, I should have sorted a few things out, and my compulsion to write blog posts will have returned.

In other news, I have decided to stop writing book reviews for this blog. That being said, I am still going to make book reviews -- except now they will be in video format! I have no idea if it will work, or if it's just a plain bad idea. Call it an experiment. If you want to see the first video book review, 'The Hunt For Red October', click here.

Discoveries so far: Talking to a camera is a strange and somewhat unsettling experience.


January 06, 2010

NYR 2010

I know, I said I would post these yesterday. A day late, but here they are, my New Year's Resolutions.

Quick note on the numbering system: The first two digits indicate what year the resolution is from. The next digit is the number of the resolution (1 to 5, see previous post). The last digit say what version of the resolution it is, i.e. if it has been revised.

  • 09.1.2: Get up within 5 seconds of turning off the alarm clock. Don’t go back to bed for at least half an hour.

  • 09.2.2: Exercise at least 130 times a year (corresponds to average of 2.5 times a week). “Exercising” is defined as a minimum of half an hour of working out or running, or both. Exercising several times a day still counts as a single time.

  • 09.3.1: Tidy my room every Sunday. The room is considered “tidy” when there is nothing on the floor that shouldn’t be, the floor has been hovered, there is at most one pile of papers on the desk, and no rubbish or paper remains on other surfaces.

  • 09.4.2: Reply to all personal emails, SMS and Facebook messages that require an answer, within 24 hours of reading. A message requires an answer if it is a not a response to one of my own messages, if it contains a question mark, or if it contains at least two sentences. If the reply would be more than two paragraphs long, you may give yourself more time.

  • 09.5.1: Be in bed by midnight. “Being in bed” is defined by being literally in bed, be it lying, sitting or standing. Once in bed, the bed must not be left before sleep has taken place

  • 10.1.1: Sit straight during lectures. If, on a given day, no time is spent in a lecture hall, ignore this resolution.

  • 10.2.1: Play at least 30 minutes of piano a day. Teaching or playing for others also counts. If the day is spent travelling, i.e. if the bed from which you wake up is different from the one you fall asleep in, you may ignore this resolution.

  • 10.3.1: Every day, write a diary entry. There are no restrictions on content, length or style.

  • 10.4.1: Wash up anything that has been dirtied during the making of a meal, within 30 minutes of having finished the meal. When in Warwick, “washing up” is defined as washing, drying and putting back to its place. When in a house with a dishwasher, “washing up” is defined as rinsing and putting in the dishwasher, unless someone else is offering to do so.

  • 10.5.1: Do not turn on or use any computer on Saturdays.

Some of these need a little commenting.

09.5.1: A friend of mine found this one very odd, because in her words, "your time as a student is a time for living". I don't entirely see how this is synonymous with "going to bed late", but she did have a point. So I have decided that if I get to bed late because I have been out, my resolution will have failed for that day, but I will have no scruples about it. The point is to avoid those pointless evenings surfing the net or watching YouTube videos.

10.3.1: Up until now I have had no diary at all. The reason I'm starting one is a practical one more than anything else. We think we can remember things, but slowly and gradually memories slide out of our mind. In 50 years, most of us will have forgotten the details of our childhood or adolescence, and they will be briefly summed up by a few adjectives, like "happy" or "angsty". I don't want that to happen. My diary is, in effect, going to be an archive of past events, described as they were happening, without the romanticizing effects of retrospection. If I ever decide to write an autobiography, I will (hopefully) have a massive database of memories at my disposal.

10.5.1: This one is in fact an indirect version of "work more". Most of my procrastination on weekends is caused by my computer. The idea is that if I don't turn it on, it will be easier to force myself to work. By the same token, I will also decrease my dependency on the Internet, and prove to myself that I am still not entirely a slave to technology.

Feel free to modify any of these resolutions in order to suit your own goals.


November 28, 2009

Minor Frustrations #2

Follow-up to Minor Frustrations #1 from The Missing N

Brace for impact: Tomorrow starts a 6-day nightmare. Between Sunday morning and Friday afternoon, I have the following: three Maths assignments (so far I have only managed to finish one), two tests, one programming assignment, a concert, and a Student-Staff-Liaison-Committee meeting. Not to mention my usual unforgiving timetable. As it has been a while since my last post, and as I won't be able to post much next week, I thought I'd post a short blog entry now. And given the short amount of time I want to spend on this, the stressful circumstances and my current frustration at my Algebra assignment, I thought a little rant would be appropriate. A completely unrelated, but nonetheless heartfelt, rant.

I mentally frown at people who... comment on movies while watching them. Some people seem to be unable to help themselves, and I do my best not to get angry at them, but it is something that can really spoil a movie for me. Maybe they see it differently, but to me the whole idea behind watching a film is that you pay fully attention to what is being said and what is going on on the screen. The strength of a visual medium like a movie, is its power of immersion. You see events taking place before your very eyes and you hear the accompanying dialogue, noise and soundtrack; in short, you feel sucked into the screen, and the external world suddenly stops existing. You forget that it is, after all, just a movie.

Therefore, I find it terribly frustrating when someone on the couch next to you suddenly yells "Oh god, did you see that!?". Not only is it a rather silly question, it also instantaneously breaks the wonderful spell under which the film may have put you, and yanks you back to reality, to the fact that you are in fact sitting/lying in a room and staring at a TV or a computer screen, and that whatever what you see taking place is to some extent... fake. The magic is momentarily lost, and it always takes little a while to dive back into the movie.

Especially if the blabbermouth keeps talking.

I have come to realise, though, that those people who enjoy talking during movies do not do it intentionally. It is for them a spontaneous thing that they do not think about, and which is as much a part of the movie-watching as the silence is for me. And as I talked about in the previous Minor Frustrations post, this isn't an all-important issue in my life. Rather, it's one of those things you don't care that much about but that you feel good complaining about. There.


October 07, 2009

Introverts, Unite!

Our wireless Internet connection still hasn't been set up in our house, and won't be ready before the 12th October. So I'm forced to write my blog posts from the library, using either my own laptop (and let it run on batteries) or one of the university terminals (which I am doing now). At the moment, the library is rather busy so I have people sitting all around me, including a very talkative group at the table right behind me. They are probably very nice people, and it's a non-quiet zone where people are allowed and encouraged to chat, but their incessant talking, as well as the other discussions going on in here, is slightly unnerving. I'm one of those people who find it very hard to concentrate when other things are going on around me, moving around and making sounds, and who would much rather work alone, in silence. This leads nicely into what I want to talk about this time, because these characteristics are typical of a certain group of individuals. Introverts.

Now, let's first agree on the vocabulary here. By introvert, I do not mean some eremit who spends his days in a dark room coding computer programs or planning world domination. Likewise, by extrovert, I do not mean someone who spends all of his/her time partying and socialising. With these two words, rather, I mean to split the population into two categories, so that any person can be said to be either one or the other, depending on how their brain works. An introvert, then, is essentially someone whose energy gets drained during social gatherings and large groups of people, and who needs some time on their own to recuperate. An extrovert, then, is the opposite: someone who feels a need to be with other people in order to relax and "re-energise". Usually, introverts tend to be distracted by background noise while extroverts feel more comfortable working with some kind of external stimulus -- like music -- although this is more an indicator than an actual identifier I suspect.

Some people will argue that some (if not all) people have an introverted side as well as an extroverted side, and thus cannot be classified as either. I don't believe that. There may be introverts who have been taught to act like extroverts or who force themselves to do so, and extroverts who are naturally shy (shyness and introversion being two seperate things), but the difference between the two above definitions is so fundamental that one cannot, in my opinion, be simultaneously one and the other. If you met me in real life, you would -- hopefully -- see a completely smiling, open, affable and completely normal person, but that does not change the fact that I am, by nature, an introvert.

My question is: Why should I have to hide this? Why is introversion generally perceived as a bad thing? Everywhere, especially in the job market, there seems to be a focus on skills such as team work, communication and multitasking, skills that are typical to extroverts. If you don't value these, you may well be seen as a bad element in a work group, regardless of your actual efficiency. On Friday nights, I am expected to be in town or at a friend's house or patying or socialising in one way or another (anywhere but home), but I don't take much pleasure in this so I why should I? I don't mind spending time with friends, but why does it have to be socially unacceptable to decline an invitation if I've had a long week and need to spendsome time on my own more than anything else? I'm not trying to be rude, offensive or antisocial, I just regularly require a few hours on my own, time to gather my thoughts, daydream, and be myself, before I'm ready for another dosis of social interactions. In short, all I have is another notion of what it means to "chill", so how come this natural orientation known as introversion, has acquired so many negative connotations like antisocial behaviour, shyness, misanthropy and lack of self-confidence?

The answer to these question has to do with the fact that the vast majority of people are extroverts (75-90% from what I've read), and so extrovert behaviour has become the norm. This leads to introversion being misunderstood and misinterpreted as a personality defect or a sign of hostility. In the same way that I cannot grasp how anyone can get "energised" by a massive party, extroverts fail to understand that we simply enjoy solitude more than social events. Also, it is again this majority that has lead the extrovert skills mentioned earlier (team work, multitasking etc.) to become more wanted qualities in a employee. But while it is true that an introvert may lack the qualities needed to work efficiently in a group, he or she will have other advantages which unfortunately seem to be neglected a lot of working environments. The ability to concentrate and work for a long time on a single task, for example, is common to most introverts, and ought to get more credit in any environment, be it school, university or work. And since when is it a bad thing to be able to complete something on your own?

I did a little research on the Net before writing this, to see if anyone else had been thinking about the same thing. And sure enough, I found an nice article titled "The Tyranny of the Extroverts", which discusses the topic of these "essential" skills further.
Even more ineresting was another article by a certain Jonathan Rauch, who started a whole Introversion vs. Extroversion debate with his innocent piece of writing. If you can't be bothered to read this blog post, then what I'll ask of you is, please, READ THIS. This is good stuff.
Finally, there's a lovely blog held by some Lee Ann Lambert, called Living Introverted. It covers a lot of questions extroverts might have about introverts.

For those at Warwick University: I'm trying to start up a new society, that would go by the name Warwick Introverts. Its aim is essentially to unite introverts and possibly do something about the bad reputation that introversion has received. However, I need 30 signatures, so if you would consider joining such a Society, please contact me and help me get this ball rolling. Also, introvert and extrovert, Warwick student or not, feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear about your agreements or disagreements. Thank you. 


September 23, 2009

Choosing 2nd Year Modules

Inspired by this post, I decided to talk about the different modules I plan to take this year. If you're not a maths person, you can take pleasure in knowing that you will never have to know about this stuff. Also, it's a good way to get an idea of how many different areas Mathematics cover. It's not just one big 'Maths' module.

First, the compulsory ones (Core modules):

Second Year Essay: I have a friend who studies Politics (at Warwick). She always has at least two essays she's working on. We Maths students, on the contrary, only have yearly essays, which is of course totally sweet. And as if that weren't enough, we also get to choose the topic! I haven't decided on that one yet, though I'm wavering between Mathematics-of-Card-Shuffling and Something-To-Do-With-Chaos-Theory. The maths behind the Rubik's Cube could also be fun to have a look at, but I wonder if my tutor would accept that.

Differentiation: You'd think that by the end of our first year Maths course we would at least have covered differentiation. But oh no, it has only just started. From what I've gathered, it's about differentiating several functions of several variables. A generalised notion of a derivative, basically.

Vector Analysis: I've heard it's a bit like Geometry and Motion, with paths and trajectories and areas and surfaces and volumes and change of coordinates and all that.

Analysis III: I know what this is all about: formally defining integrals. Judge all you want, but I actually liked Analysis I and II. Learn and understand definitions of intuitive notions ("increasing", "tending to a limit", "continuous" ...), and rigorously work from there to prove complex theorems that often seems dead obvious when you think about them, that's what I like. Also the overall direction was very clear. I think I'll like this.

Algebra I: Also known as Advanced Linear Algebra. I wasn't too keen on Linear Algebra last year; it went from being mind-numbingly boring to over-your-head difficult. But I've made peace with eigenvalues and eigenvectors over the summer, so I think it'll be all right in the end. It'd better be; it's compulsory.

Algebra II: This is basically Group Theory, as far as I know. We touched a bit of Group Theory in college, and since then it has had a few cameo appearances in lectures. I don't understand what all the fuss is about, the definition of a Group seems rather straightforward to me, albeit a bit pointless. I hear Group Theory is a crucial concept in Mathematics, though.

Now we get to the optional ones, of which I still have to take a certain amount:

Metric Spaces: There's something magical about this. I've read ahead on this topic, and every time I read something new, I get this tingling feeling of delight in my stomach. There's just something neat about visualising metric spaces in your head. Maybe it's because I know that this is what leads to Topology, that it gets me so excited. Metric Spaces, please don't disappoint me.
This isn't strictly speaking a compulsory module, but one must take either that or...

Partial Differential Equations. And I've chosen both. PDEs don't appeal to me in the same way Metric Spaces do, but I've been told it's a useful tool to have. Although I know exactly what the module is about -- it's differential equations, but using partial derivatives instead of normal ones (duh) -- I have no idea of the difficulty, the concepts, the scope or whether I'm going to like it or not. We shall see.

Geometry: I want to do Geometry. Proper, formal geometry. Yes.

Mathematics of Random Events: The title sounds tantalising, but I guess the content is what matters. From what I can tell from the description on the Maths Department's website, this is something of a mixture between Analysis and Probability. While I adored Analysis, I abhorred Probability, so this is going to be an interesting one. But come on, "This module aims to provide an introduction to the mathematical ideas and language underlying the notion of randomness, which permeates through much of modern mathematics, as well as statistics and probability theory." I mean, who can resist that?

Stochastic Processes: Another module linked to probabilities. As much as I dislike probability, it is an important area in the mathematical world, and I know I can't try to work my way around it. So I might as well meet it face on, with my head high and a positive attitude. Besides, we did a bit of stochastics in college, and that wasn;t too bad. Also, I like the idea behind random walks, and that's one of the topics that will be covered, I believe.

Mathematical Economics A: Last year I did Introduction to Quantitative Economics, which was essentially Economics from a mathematical point of view. The one aspect I really enjoyed about the module was Game Theory. Game Theory is, in a nutshell, a mathematical study of what happens when two people play a game but they don't know what move the other person is going to do. Rock-paper-scissors style. Now, Mathematical Economics A is all about Game Theory, and nothing else it would seem. And I think it's fun.

Mathematical Methods for Physicists II: I'm no physicist, but this module was recommended to me by an older student, because it provides a nice introduction to something called Fourier Analysis. I have no clue what that is, but it comes up in later years and is a big thing. It should also be noted that while the word 'Physicists' is in the title of the module and while the exercises will probably be Physics-oriented, the actual content of the module is (apparently) purely mathematical. Which is a good thing.

Quantum Mechanics and its Applications: Last year I did Quantum Phenomena which was okay, if not a bit dull. Quantum Mechanics should provide a more mathematical and abstract presentation of Quantum Physics, which is just the way I want it. I am, however, taking this module tentatively, because I've been told it's a heavy load and it might not be so fun in the long run. But I want to give it a chance.

C programming: For the uninitiated, 'C' is the name of a programming language. I really like programming, although I would still qualify myself as a beginner. It's a kind of hobby for me, except I ought to spend more time doing it if I want it to become a serious pastime. Last year's module about Java programming was a good introduction to Object-Oriented Programming, but according to my friend and local Computer Scientist, Sarah, C is a much better language for programming games, a skill I would love to develop and perfect. After all, why else would you want to program?

Finally, there's Russian for Scientists. I definitely won't be doing this for credit, but I'm considering doing it for fun anyway, because I love languages and because I have a Russian-speaking friend. Plus, being able to say that you know a bit of Russian sounds awesome. Doing it for no credit also means I can easily drop it if it becomes too much of a burden.

All that brings me to a total of 173 CATS. The minimum is 120, maximum 180, and recommended maximum 150, the most sensible thing to do for me is to drop one or several of these modules as soon as I know which ones displease me the most.

Little side note explanation here: non-UK people often get confused when I talk about CATS, the Credit Accumulation Transfer Scheme, since they are used to ECTS, the European Credit Transfer System. ECTS is part of the Bologna process to make educational systems in Europe more comparable, which is why most European countries now use ECTS -- except England. The systems can still be compared, though, as 1 ECTS point = 2 CATS points. The irony is that "ECTS" is an English abbreviation.


September 16, 2009

Minor Frustrations #1

I have started making a list (I love lists) of all the little things people do, that I personally find irritating. I'm not talking about the big issues that some people dedicate their lives to changing, I just want to address some the minor frustrations that don't really cause me any serious problems, but which would nevertheless be cool to get rid of. I guess the most exact description I'm looking for is: things that make me frown at people. Not visibly, but just silently in my head.

So here goes the first one. If you have read the blog so far, you may have an idea of what is coming.

I mentally frown at people who... consistently use bad grammar, spelling or pronunciation when writing or speaking. Non-native speakers are excused, and the occasional mistake by native speakers is also easily overlooked, but chronically ignoring the inner workings of a language, is in my opinion not OK.

I'll point out some of the baddies:

- "Definately". The word is actuallt spelt "definitely", but it seems that only a minority knows this. Maybe people confuse it with the spelling of "fortunately", however the two words have completely different roots: "Fortune" -> "Fortunate" -> "Fortunately"; "Finite" -> "Definite" -> "Definitely". Writing "defiantly" is even more wrong, especially since this means something else. Please have a look at this awesome site.

- "Must of". It may sound right, but the proper expression is "must have". "He must of gone" is nonsensical.

- "Aks". Some people pronounce "ask" this way. I know it's a dialect thing, but to me it is still a blatant disregard for the actual spelling of the word. If the word is "A-S-K", you pronounce the "S" before the "K". No?

- "I didn't used to". The expression "I used to" is so automatic that people forget how the past tense works. It should be "didn't use to", without the "d", just like you say "I didn't like it" rather than "I didn't liked it". A few days ago, I winced when I saw for the first time the alternative "I usen't to". Also, I'm reminded of Ali G, who says in one of his clips (as a joke of course): "[This officer] is here to show us that drugs isn't something you should do, but something you should don't!"

Pronunciation of "ask"

And don't even get me started about "Your" and "You're"...

If you happen to agree with what I've said so far, you should have a look at this page, a collection of common mistakes in English. I use it myself as a reference sometimes, when in doubt.

Disclaimer: As a consequence of Muphry's Law, I am bound to make some typos and some grammatical mistakes in this post. I apologise in advance for those.


September 10, 2009

Anosmia FAQ

I can't smell.

I have congenital anosmia, meaning I have never been able to smell. Since people usually have never heard of this condition, they tend to ask the same kind of questions. So, as a way of informing you about anosmia in general, and as an illustration of how unimaginative people are, here's a collection of things I get asked very often.

ANOSMIA FAQ 

Q: What do you mean, you can't smell?
A: It simple, really. I just can't smell anything. My nose doesn't work. It's like being blind or deaf, except that your sense of smell is lacking, rather than your sight or hearing.

Q: Do you have a cold?
A: No I don't have a cold.

Q: Are you taking the mick out of me?
A: No I'm not joking. Check Wikipedia or WrongDiagnosis. I'm not making this up.

Q: So you really can't smell anything?
A: No.

Q: Can you smell food, or flowers? Or farts?
A: NO.

Q: Can you smell perfume?
A: Is it the 'N' or the 'O' that you don't get?

Q: How come you can't smell?
A: I don't know, really. I was born that way.

Q: Isn't it nice that you can't smell all the bad things, like garbage trucks or people with body odour?
A: Yeah I guess so. Now imagine if I lost all my other senses as well, I wouldn't be able to hear all the bad music and tragic news in the radio, or see all the ugly people and buildings in this world, or feel any pain whatsoever. I'd be the happiest man on Earth. Right?
Also, I'd like to point out that being being unable to smell the dog poo you trod in this morning, is not an advantage.

Q: Can you taste?
A: Why does this question always crop up? Blaaaargh! See? I've got a tongue. That's all you need in order to taste stuff.

Q: But when I pinch my nose I can't taste anything. So how come you can taste if you can't smell?
A: I dare you to pinch your nose and then take a large bite out of a lemon. Then think about your first statement again.

Q: If you can't use your nose, then you can only taste sweet, salt, sour, and bitter (plus umami if we are to believe those zany Japanese). So doesn't that mean that you can't taste as much as normal people?
A: There's some truth hidden in this, but I'd like to be precise about the vocabulary we use here. 'Taste' is the the sensorial input we get from out tongue, 'smell' is what we get from our nose. Combine these two, and you get 'flavour'. Often, however, people mistakenly use the word 'taste' when they mean 'flavour', because they don't realise that at least 3/4 of the experience they get from eating is actually provided by their nose. So in my case, I don't get all of the flavour (I lack the smelling part), but I certainly get all the taste. What this means in practice, is that the sensorial input I get is different from what you get, probably weaker. Most spices affect the taste of the food very little (with a few exceptions like curry or pepper), so words like "parsley" or "saffron" mean nothing to me, and I'm still amazed that other people can actually tell the difference between those. The difference between canned food and fresh food is almost non-distinguishable in my mouth - as long as we're talking about the same product, of course. A lot of kinds of tea taste exactly the same to me, although I've heard someone say that this is not too unusual. Also, a lot of sweets are based on smell, so something that is meant to taste like strawberry, simply has a nice sweet taste to me. However, saying that I'm limited to four basic tastes is very misleading, since everything still has its own taste to me. To take an example where texture and temperature give no hints: I can taste the difference between apple juice, orange juice, ananas juice, grape juice, cranberry juice, blueberry juice, tropical juice, ... Heck, sometimes I can even taste the difference between different brands of water (as long as they're not too similar). I don't like the taste of salad, and I prefer milk chocolate to dark chocolate, so saying I can't taste is plain wrong.
Something that is also worth taking into account, is that since I don't get the smell of food, I tend to focus on other things such as temperature and (especially) texture. Nothing beats the feeling of teeth slowly grinding through the flesh of a ripe apple. Fried potatoes is the perfect balance between soft and crunchy. "Squishy" foods, however, like mushrooms, make me want to gag. Redberries have a nice taste, but they get stuck in the teeth afterwards. And so on.

I think the best analogy I've heard, is that being anosmic is like being totally colour blind. When you watch TV, you can still see everything that is going on, and understand it perfectly, you just don't get the colours. In the same way, when you can't smell, you can still enjoy food and get the taste, but you don't get the full experience because you're lacking the smell.

There are other much more interesting questions, but I never get asked those. I'll include a few of these Unfrequently Asked Qustions, for fun:

Q: Do you know anyone else with anosmia?
A: No, but I wish I did.

Q: Is there a cure for anosmia?
A: No. Most doctors haven't even heard of it. I don't think that some kind of cure would be too hard to find, but the problem is that the condition is so uncommon, not to mention unimportant, that little research has been done. Medical students, get crackin'!

Q: When did you discover that you couldn't smell?
A: By the age of 15, I had understood that something wasn't quite right, but when I was 18 did I fully realise that I couldn't smell anything. The realisation came in the same time as the discovery that there were other people out there with the same problem.

Q: Why did it take you so long to realise?
A: That's an interesting question that would take us into a long discussion about subconscious beliefs, social conformity and the philosophy of knowledge and perception. I might save that for another post. The short answer is that I thought it was something you gradually learned as you grew up. The surprise wasn't only that I couldn't smell, but that others could.

Q: Do you get annoyed when people talk about smells?
A: No! I can understand why you'd think I would, but no! If someone says, "It smells really nice here," I'm glad he's actually informing me that the present smell is nice. Otherwise, how would I ever know? If someone compliments me on my perfume or deodorant, I feel exhilerated because I then know that I smell good, and I'm somehow relieved. If someone forgets that I can't smell, I don't feel offended because I know they don't do it on purpose. Rather, I'm strangely amused and uplifted by the way they profusely apologise afterwards. It's like a comedy show, in a way.

Q: If you could fix your sense of smell, would you do it?
A: Er... I'm not sure I would, actually. If someone offered me an operation that could give me a sense of smell, chances are I would be too scared to take the operation, scared that afterwards I would be overwhelmed by a sensation I couldn't understand. If someone offered me a magical potion that could restore my olfactory abilities, I would buy it and then hide it somewhere in my closet, only to peek at it occasionally in a mixture of awe and fear.
If I ever did drink it, it would be out of curiosity rather than longing to smell.

You can't miss what you've never had.


September 06, 2009

Singularity

Imagine a world where computers are dominating society. Not in a frigtening Terminator-end-of-the-world-way, but in a more peaceful, natural way. Humans have developed artificial intelligences so powerful and advanced that they can perform any task a human is capable of, only way faster and much more efficiently. Technology is progressing at a rate faster than ever, so fast indeed that no human is in fact able to keep track. Work in general is done by self-sufficient machines, leaving human beings to indulge themselves in whatever they take pleasure in. A world of leisure, rather than labour.

This in itself isn't an unrealistic scenario. We are getting better at building robots and developing Artificial Intelligence. In the 40's computers were "primitive" objects that few people had heard of or cared about; today most everyone in the Western world owns a PC, and computers are assisting humans in a multitude of tasks. The word "robot" was only invented in 1920, yet the field of robotics is in full bloom and new applications are constantly being found. In the future, it is likely that all trivial tasks within society will be performed by machines. Gradually, through training and self-learning AI, these can be taught to carry out more and more complex tasks. Eventually, we must reach a stage where we can build machines that are superior to humans and can take entirely care of us. The question is just how long it will take us to reach that stage. 1000 years? 500 years? 2000? More? Less?

Ray Kurzweil believes we will have reached this stage... by 2050.

This inventor and futurist is one of the most prominent advocator of what is known as the 'Technological Singularity'. In his article The Law of Accelerating Returns, he argues that technology will is progressing at an exponential rate, meaning that not only is it advancing faster and faster, the rate at which technology advances is itself also increasing faster and faster. This claim is supported by numerous graphs, Moore's Law, and also by the observation that, since computers are helping us advance technologically, faster computers means even faster progress, which in turn increases the computers capacities, and so on and so forth.

kurzweil1.jpg

kurzweil2.jpg

He then proposes the idea that we may soon reach the Singularity, a term which he loosely defines as "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history." The reasoning behind it is rather straightforward: Suppose we manage, one day, to build a supercomputer so powerful and intelligent, that it can perform any task a human would be able to, only better and faster. For instance, it will be able to design other supercomputers, even more powerful and sophisticated ones. These in turn will build computers that are even more advanced still. Quickly, we get an explosion of artificial intelligence, way beyond anything humans can fathom. This is the Singularity.

This event will lead to some radical changes in our lives, and we will have to reconsider some deep questions about what it means to be human. To keep up with the technological progress, it will become more and more common to enhance the capacities of certain humans, by genetically engineering their brain or body or by getting artificial machine implants that improve, say, your memory or your vision, thus effectively creating the first cyborgs (is this already happening?). Others will try to achieve eternal life, by gradually replacing every cell in their body by newer, healthier ones (using stem cell technology), or by transferring their brain pattern into an non-aging computer which perfectly emulates the input and output of the human brain. All the while, artificial intelligence wil develop and eventually reach a stage where it has become indistinguishable from humans in every aspect, which is going to raise questions about whether they should be treated as so.

All this may sound quite surreal, but Ray Kurzweil is not just some unimportant lunatic with a quixotical theory. Many academics before and after him have advanced similar scenarios, and a Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence has now been created. Movements have also appeared, be it groups that embrace the Singularity and actively work to it about, or goups that have decided to fight the Singularity as they see it as a potentially dangerous, even apocalyptic, idea. However, there's still a lot of scepticism going on, and many are those who claim that it is nothing but wishful thinking, and that computers will never be able to simulate the powers of the human brain. Not to mention that the majority of people have probably never even heard a mention of the Singularity.

Ever since a friend of mine told me about it a few years ago, I have been fascinated by the subject. Whereas I do see the Singularity as something generally positive that is worth looking forward to, I am not entirely convinced that it will definitely happen. Of course, I don't know enough about either artificial intelligence or brain psychology to predict if computers will ever reach a superhuman level, but 2050 just sounds a little early to me. That being said, I sometimes find myself thinking about what a post-singularitarian society would look like, and hoping - even wishing - that I may live to see such a radical change take place on our planet. Lately I have also begun looking at ways to increase life expectancy, since I would hate to miss by only a few years the most mind-numbing and extraordinary milestones of human history.

For those who would like to learn more about this topic, Wikipedia is a good start. There are also a number of blogs out there with Singularity-related news, stories and essays: Singularity Hub, Sentient Developments, Transhuman Goodness. Finally, for those with a more artistic taste, I can recommend the Hob storyline from the Dresden Codak webcomic. Enjoy.


July 23, 2009

CBD Rules

And there I was, on the 21st of July, relaxing, enjoying my summer, having absolutely no plans for the next few days... when suddenly it dawned on me. Tomorrow was the 22nd of July, 2009, also written as 22.07.09. My Co-Birthdate.

Now, I only have 16 CBDs left (including this one, and assuming I don't live to a hundred), so the plan was to make something special out of every one of them. Furthermore, the 22nd of July is Pi Approximation Day, because 22/7 is approximately equal to the mathematical constant π. Unfortunately however, one day was not enough to organise something big, most people I know had gone on holidays, and the nearest supermarket would be closed the following day. Another CBD wasted. I ended up having a rather nice day: I went cycling, I bought a downloadable game called 'World of Goo', and in the evening I went to the cinema and saw 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'. But it was a patheticly uneventful day compared to how epic it should have been.

Musings of my 12th CBD:

- World of Goo is a nice game. I have a felling it's going to take too short to finish it, but very long to reach 100% completion. It's basically a puzzle game in which the goal is to use balls of goo to construct structures in  order to reach a certain pipe that sucks in the remaining goo balls. The gameplay is surprisingly varied and creative; the humour is excellent. The game was recommended to me by a friend. Thank you friend.

- The 6th Harry Potter movie is in my opinion the worst of the Harry Potter movies so far. It's not an unpleasant experience; the others were just better. The special effects are, as always, amazing, but the story is sloppily presented. Then again, the 6th book was not my favourite. And besides, it's almost not a question of the movie being good or not: if you've read the entire series and seen all the movies so far, you don't have much choice but to go and see it.

- I don't know what you do on a CBD. I also don't know what you do on Pi Approximation Day, but given that you eat pies on Pi Day, I suppose you eat cakes (After all, cakes are good approximations to pies, no?). As I am probably the only person in the world celebrating CBDs, it must be up to me to determine how a true Co-Birthdate must be held. So here goes...

On a CBD, the following rules must be obeyed:

#1: A present must be bought, by me, to me.
#2: Friends must be invited.
#3: A cake must be bought or made.
#4: A film must be watched.
#5: Cider must be drunk.
#6: Sleep must not be fallen into before 3am.
#7: The passive tense must be used excessively.

There we go. Now all I have to do is wait until the 29th July, 2020. I'll make sure to have something prepared for next time.


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