A Nice Idea

I woke up this morning, lying in bed, and I sat wondering how I wanted to spend my summer. Mostly I want to do research in various areas, which I’ve talked about in previous posts. I also slightly considered a Youtube channel, but decided it wasn’t that great of an idea. But today I think I just came up with an awesome idea. One thing I’ve been worried about is that if I were to die tomorrow, most of the thoughts running through my head would die with me. I don’t like that idea. Sometimes I blog about the basics of things I work on and research, but since I try to make the posts self-contained and rather short, I end up covering most of the topics only superficially at a very basic level. This got me thinking.

Then a sudden insight came to mind. I thought about creating one or two new sections to my site which would link to my “life work”. What does that mean? Here’s the gist of what I want to do. I want to create a new section along the top bar of my website. It will be called “Space-Time and the Mind”. When you click that section, you’ll be directed to a sort of “table of contents” – a “book” of mine that I never finish writing. It just keeps getting better and more detailed as my life goes on. I just keep adding to it maybe twice a week as I learn more and more. As I research out a topic in depth, I’ll take time and write out detailed thoughts on the topics, tying it together with everything else I know, all organized in this “table of contents” of links, with a paragraph describing it and how it ties into the “big picture”. Instead of blogging like I do now, my posts will be sections of this “super book”, section by section, chapter by chapter. They’ll be very detailed and won’t be self contained. Sure, I’ll keep a normal blog, and from time to time write about life and other thoughts. But I want to be able to write posts that are very detailed yet people won’t feel lost reading them. Those posts won’t be self-contained in themselves, but the “book” as a whole will be self-contained.

Another awesome thing this does for me is give me a direction for my posts and how I spend my time. My posts won’t be random, based on some news article I just read, and then ranting about it. They will all flow and connect together, constantly building this ever-growing masterwork on space, time, the universe, the mind/brain, and physics. I’ve been wanting my website to be more focused, and I think this will do the trick. When I think what I have to share that is truly valuable, it’s insights related to how the brain functions, mental operations, philosophy of mind, reflections on space and time, and things of that sort. At the end of the day, those are the things which interest me most of all as well.

When you click that “Space-Time and the Mind” link, you’ll notice that table of contents page ever growing, being filled in with new topics and links. Today I’m going to start working on a detailed outline of everything I’m wanting to put in there, but here’s a short gist of what I came up with while lying in bed.

The main idea behind this is to leave a “trail” for people so that they can understand my thoughts and why I’m doing what I’m doing. The first thing that needs to be discussed relates to past philosophers and their thoughts on space, time, and mental operation. I want to overview the thoughts of Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Descartes, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, Satre, William James, and some others, highlighting their contributions and reflections, giving you all the “gist” and direction. I want to talk about “ideas”, “mind”, space, time, consciousness, change, motion, eternity, the nature of numbers, how numbers can be assigned to space to form coordinate systems, and so on. After that, I want to offer my own perspective on these things, which will be the next area. It will be a subjective perspective which will be a combination of a computational perspective and modern neuroscience, going into detail of various brain areas, patient case studies, computer vision research (robotic vision), and so on. It will try to teach you what your brain is doing, how it gives a subjective sense of space/time, and how far we’ve been able to emulate these brain operations with things like computer vision, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Next I want to tie this in with modern physics, which will be somewhere in this outline eventually. Though I’m fairly comfortable with Einstein’s relativity, quantum mechanics is still puzzling to me. I want to try to give people a detailed discussion of these things. I want to show a physicist’s conception of space and time, and show what relativity theory, particle physics, quantum mechanics, and string theory are saying about what space and time are. I’ll start with Newton, showing what insights he gave us. Next I’ll go to Einstein and his special and general theory of relativity. Then I’ll move to Bohr, Dirac, Schrodinger and other quantum physicists, telling about the strange problems we encounter once we move into the world of the very small, trying to give insights into how strange it all becomes and where the problems arise.

That’s the general idea anyway. I’m really liking this. It sounds like a huge project, but if I write one article/post for this book per week, over the period of five or six years I’ll have a HUGE book there. Then physicists and other scientists beginning the subject, searching the internet and such, will find that section and have a fantastic resource that not only offers original perspectives, but a great overview of everything. I’ll have a paved super-highway for them, showing how all of this stuff ties together and why it’s so interesting.

That also got me thinking that it’s about time to do a slight redesign of my website, as it hasn’t been updated since like 2006. I wanted to make a new graphic for the top which focused on physics, space, time, and the mind. I have some neat ideas for that, but I’ll have to surprise you all with it! Right now it shows a few of my favorite philosophers – Jean Paul Satre, Bertrand Russell, Immanuel Kant, and Sigmund Freud. It’s not a bad graphic, but I think it would be good to change it.

Possible Summer Goal – Construct Robot

I’ve been hard pressed to determine how I want to spend my summer. I thought about doing Physics research, but I decided I wanted to take some time and research some things on my own. That brings me to everything I’ve been wanting to study and learn. I have a huge pile of books here to read, and I’m going to go through some of them over the summer. Most of them are related to neuroscience and the mind. They’re detailed looks into how the brain processes different types of information and represents things. Also, I plan to spend a lot of hours studying quantum mechanics, which I still feel I don’t fully understand – and who knows if I ever will. But there’s been some technological innovations which have been … well, distracting me!

One of my dreams has been to reverse translate 2D images into their corresponding 3D environments. For example, I’d love to build a little robot which has two camera eyes, and is able to know that it’s in a 3D environment, be aware of what’s around it, how those things are moving, and successfully drive around without bumping into anything. I used to spend my time thinking about how that process of going from 2D images to 3D geometry would work, and I found it immensely difficult. In fact, the greatest minds and philosophers have been working on the problem for a very very long time (hundreds of years). Well, about a year and a half or so ago I discovered Vision Science, and later, Computer Vision.

I’ve acquired a small little library of computer vision books and have been trying to find time to study through them. Now I’m finding out that developers have released open source libraries of computer vision technology which do exactly what I want! Just last night I downloaded OpenCV (Open Computer Vision) and installed it on my computer. I developed a few simple applications with it using Visual Studio including an application that supported facial recognition. I integrated it with my webcam and it identified my face as I moved about on the screen. I was practically screaming out, “Yes! This is what I’ve wanted for ages!”

What I’m thinking of doing for my personal robot is first make the simplest robot possible. I’ll attach two webcams to a laptop and I’ll walk around the house with it and see if it successfully builds a 3D environment, properly separating objects one from one another. For example, it will build an environment of my kitchen, with the chairs, table, and so on, all located in the proper locations and orientations. Next I want to make sure that it separates the objects properly, knowing that the chairs are separate from the table, and so forth.

Then I will next program in a simple sort of mind, where I link words to these “objects” and it will be capable of identifying what it’s looking at. I will be able to stand in front of it and it will say, “Oh, that’s Jason!”

After that I want to try to program in some physics and intelligence into it. For example, I want to spin a swivel chair in front it and it to know that it’s a spinning chair, know it’s velocity information, angular momentum, and so forth. That way it will have a basic ability to anticipate what will happen in various situations. I don’t know to what degree OpenCV supports this sort of thing. I’ll have to research that out.

So as I thought about all of this, I decided to do more research over the weekend and see what else I could find. It turns out that the same group which supports OpenCV just late last year started a new open-source framework called OpenNI (Open Natural Interaction).  I don’t know all that much about it yet, but from what I’ve read, it’s all about capturing your body movements.  Check it out.

Using this I could not only identify human beings who are standing in front of the robot, but also highly anticipate their movements and behavior. Maybe I could even hook two little robotic arms to the robot and it could swing at anyone near it! (or at least anyone on my enemy list). That’d be really neat to construct.

Here’s another video of OpenNI in action.

That is just too cool! I thought about starting a YouTube channel, and I would do various videos where I talk about the same sorts of things I blog about, and other philosophical questions on my mind. I thought about using ARToolkit in conjunction with this other stuff and having dialogs with little 3D animated models on my desk. The computer vision toolkit could be reprogrammed to track something far less conspicuous. Probably I’d have it track a little … oh, what are they called – they’re little mats you have on your desk which, if you had say a cup of iced tea, you’d place the glass on top of it. I’d use that as the “platform” for my little 3D people who would show up. I could have a whole little gang of animated characters who would show up from time to time and have discussions with me. I could download 3D models online and then animate them using OpenNI, so I wouldn’t have to mess with any 3D studio Max and other complex video effects. All of this would be very time consuming, however. I don’t know if I’d have enough time to work on all of that AND do my physics research.

One such character would be a reverend. If I started talking about evolution, or arguments against God, he’d pop out and start preaching to me. “That’s the path of the devil son! Just listen to yourself!” Another character would be an evil mad scientist who pops up from time to time, who would be my “dark side”. He’d always offer a confused perspective lacking all ethical considerations. I’d also love to have a little Gary Coleman who pops out from time to time to say, “Whatchu talkin’ about?”

When I’d relate an embarassing story that happened to me, I’d first tell the story in a way that tries to “save face”. Then he’d pop up on my cup holder and say, “Whatchu talking about? You CAN’T be serious. Ya’ll, let me telling you what really happened to Jason…” Then he’d retell the same story in a way that makes me look pathetic and ridiculous, with a delivery tone similar to this clip.

I’d have the time of my life making something like that. It’d be hilarious too, but I’d need help making all of it. Like I said, it’d be VERY time consuming. Using OpenCV and ARToolkit, I could place small little markers around the hallways and be able to transform the house into literally any 3D environment. I could walk around my bedroom and it appear as if I was on the deck of the Death Star. The problem is I’d be completely reliant on 3D models others have created. I don’t have any artistic skills making 3D models or environments. I know how to render them though, and place them anywhere I want, even my own house!

I wouldn’t mind writing the scripts for a YouTube program like this, but it’s the video editing, splicing, uploading to YouTube, and all of that which I don’t have time for. Though in other ways it would save me time because I could talk about the brain and whip out a physical model for everyone to look at, show which areas are doing what, and it’d be easier to communicate all I want to communicate that way. It opens up a new window of ways I could communicate with people.

There’s one central problem to all of this — it takes time away from my research. When I think about what I want to do with my physics degree once I actually get it, I think I’m going to do work with holograms. That involves light and lasers, space, and combining images from multiple angles using tools like computer vision. It’s right up my alley and ties in with everything I’m interested in. I need to find out which universities have the best hologram research programs and start moving in that direction.

As for the YouTube program, I’d love to show, step by step, how a robot starts from a 2D image camera, analyzes it in amazing ways, and then is able to know what it’s looking at. Using OpenCV, I could show you guys, step by step how all that works. Sometimes I try to do so with words, but it’d be more awesome to show you guys the algorithms, step by step, and explain it to you. You’d watch it step by step on the screen. After the explanation I could show you the brain areas in your own mind which perform similar functions!

I’ve thought about this for a long time, and I think my passion lies in understanding how the brain works, and the how the “virtual model” of reality we experience consciously differs from the deeper reality that is actually out there. I used to spend many hours and long walks contemplating how the brain stores objects and identifies them from the raw signals coming in from the eyes. Now with vision science and computer vision, I’m actually seeing how that works, which is really exciting to me. The brain probably doesn’t use the exact same algorithms that say OpenCV uses, but it likely performs something very similar. The overall idea that our subjective sense of space and identification of objects is an information processing task is probably true. The more I read, the more I’m convinced that that is the case. When I’m studying neuroscience, I find out which areas of the brain are doing these information processing tasks, and I just feel like I’ve finally found out what I am as a human being. I think, “Yes. This is what the human brain does. This is what it means to be a human being.” Of course, our brain does a lot more than just build up a concept of space and identify objects – it also has a sort of “intuitive physics” where it anticipates what objects will do in various situations, it’s able to think about objects and categorize them, produces emotions, and so on – but I’ve came to a deeper understanding of myself from all of this.

Some of those books in my “to read” list over this summer include books on how the mind represents numbers. That’s something I don’t understand. I don’t know what a number is. I was watching the videos on the edge.org website and saw Dr. Stanislas Debaene lecture on consciousness and found out that he wrote a book on just this. It’s called Number Sense: How The Mind Creates Mathematics.  I’m really looking forward to reading it.  Hopefully I’ll understand numbers after reading it.

I also don’t understand the object categorization process the brain uses. Sure, I’ve read books, such as my textbook on Vision Science, which speculate on what the brain might be doing, but I don’t feel confident in any of them. I spent several hours yesterday thinking about that problem, but no matter how much time I spend on it, I never seem to make any progress.  Unfortunately I don’t know of any detailed books on this subject, so I’m forced to think it all out for myself.  That’s a very slow process.

I have a few books on the mind by Steven Pinker which I still haven’t read.   I still haven’t read his book The Stuff Of Thought.  I plan to do so this summer.

Ugh, I never can decide what to do with myself.  I have like 100 different things I want to do at any given moment, and there’s not enough time for any of them.   I’ll have to prioritize all of this and decide how to spend my summer most effectively.

ARToolkit – A Neat Computer Vision Tool

Computer Vision allows some really neat things.  ARToolkit is a computer vision library created by Hirokazu Kato used for tracking a surface and placing an animated model on top of it.  It looks really neat.  This summer I’ll be researching more into it and playing around with it.  What you do program a surface into it, and then, using a camera, you can place animated 3D models into your real world environment.  Pretty cool.  If it sounds confusing, don’t worry.  It’s very simple to understand once you see it in action.

Here’s a video showing more details into what it does and how it works. It’s actually a programming library which you can use in Visual C++ and integrate into your applications. From what I can tell, it takes in a video feed from a camera using DirectX, processes the feed images using something like OpenCV (or possibly his own computer vision code, I don’t know), finds the surface and determines its position and orientation, and then renders the 3D model on top of it using OpenGL. I plan to write a lot more posts on computer vision this summer. I’ve been debating between spending my summer doing physics research at MST, or spending all my free time researching quantum mechanics and Computer Vision. Decisions decisions!

And just in case you didn’t notice, the 3D model they’re using is Hatsune Miku, a “vocaloid”. Japanese developers have created technology allowing synthetic voices to sing to music. That’s what you’re hearing in the background. Miku is a sort of virtual “diva” in Japan, and “she” sells lots and lots of records. They even have concerts where Miku is rendered using lasers refracting off of a glass plate.

One of the comments for this video sums up a lot of things,

see while Japan is creating all the cool things, America is busy making bombs and crap to control everyone 🙁

– SailorPerson

Another thing to keep an eye on is new holographic technology coming out.  Japanese scientists just recently made a breakthrough allowing them to make better holographic images using lasers.  You can read about that here.

The team at Osaka took another approach, they use both lasers and white light. They first fire a laser at an object, say an apple, to create an interference pattern, but instead of just one laser color, they actually use three; red, green and blue. The interference pattern is then captured on a light sensitive material which is coated with silver (because it contains electrons that are easily excited by white light) and silicon dioxide (to help steer the waves). They then shine a steady on the metal sheathed material exciting the free electrons, causing the creation of surface plasmons, which results in the regeneration of the captured image as a true-color 3-D ; one that can be viewed from almost any angle and is the same colors as the original object.

Currently, the technique has only been shown to work on still images, and the results displayed on a very small surface area (about as big as a baseball card), but the results of research is nonetheless a very big step towards creating not just more realistic holograms, but true animated 3-D technology.

Here’s an image of an apple which they made using this hologram technology.

The more I read about research Japanese scientists are doing, the more I admire them.  Japan is a beautiful place.  I hope they’re able to recover from their recent earthquake disaster quickly.

The State Of Our Economy

You’ll find an excellent piece in Vanity Fair written by Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitiz entitled Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.  I’d like to post several excerpts here today.

It’s no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top. In terms of income equality, America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride. Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran. While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow.

We’ve seen a steady decline in the quality of life in both the poor and the middle-class over the last twenty five years.  If you look at the current events unfolding, there’s no reason to expect change.  What’s most disappointing is the fact that the wealth the top 1% has been earning has little to do with performance – in fact, especially in the financial sector, it’s been the opposite.  We’ve had a financial system of bailouts, socialized losses yet privatized gains, and their CEOs receiving record bonuses for running the world into the ground.

Some people look at income inequality and shrug their shoulders. So what if this person gains and that person loses? What matters, they argue, is not how the pie is divided but the size of the pie. That argument is fundamentally wrong. An economy in which most citizens are doing worse year after year—an economy like America’s—is not likely to do well over the long haul. There are several reasons for this.

First, growing inequality is the flip side of something else: shrinking opportunity. Whenever we diminish equality of opportunity, it means that we are not using some of our most valuable assets—our people—in the most productive way possible. Second, many of the distortions that lead to inequality—such as those associated with monopoly power and preferential tax treatment for special interests—undermine the efficiency of the economy. This new inequality goes on to create new distortions, undermining efficiency even further. To give just one example, far too many of our most talented young people, seeing the astronomical rewards, have gone into finance rather than into fields that would lead to a more productive and healthy economy.

Third, and perhaps most important, a modern economy requires “collective action”—it needs government to invest in infrastructure, education, and technology. The United States and the world have benefited greatly from government-sponsored research that led to the Internet, to advances in public health, and so on. But America has long suffered from an under-investment in infrastructure (look at the condition of our highways and bridges, our railroads and airports), in basic research, and in education at all levels. Further cutbacks in these areas lie ahead.

Years ago, after a detailed study in economics, I was tempted to go into the financial world.  I thought about becoming a fund manager of some sort, mainly for the reason Stiglitiz suggested — it’s very lucrative.  I never went through with it though, mainly because I thought it was sleazy.  I would read books on investing and the market and think to myself, “The financial world is corrupt and completely manipulated.  How do any of these activities have anything to do with goods being produced and improving the quality of people’s lives?  All of this is criminal!”  As I learned more, I l figured out that most of those activities have nothing to do with improving people’s lives; they’re just easy ways to earn huge sums of money in an economy where the odds are stacked you. For example, I would read books on how to get real-estate loans for a low interest rate, with no money down, slightly fixing up the properties and then renting them out for more than your minimum payment.  This allowed you to build up lots of free equity, both from the minimum payments, but mostly from the housing bubble which was forming.  During the housing boom, you could’ve made a fortune doing this (and many people did!).  All in all, the method is dependent on the Federal Reserve’s cheap credit policies (Greenspan years), in combination with Wall Street’s mortgage back securities market, which allowed huge sums of money to flow into the mortgage market from investors around the world.  If you can’t find a tenant to rent to, you simply sell the place for a profit.  Considering housing prices were rising so quickly, it wasn’t a problem to sell 20% below market price and still earn a profit.  Other high earning methods I considered included things like acquiring cheap properties via tax liens during the massive defaults in select areas of the country.  The list goes on and on.  It all made me sick to my stomach though.  I couldn’t go through with any of it and be able to look at myself in the mirror.  I felt like a vulture.

But why are intelligent young people considering doing these sorts of things?  Here’s a little of my own story.  Around 10~12 years ago I was earning really good money developing software for various companies.  Back then companies respected software developers and were willing to pay good money for good work.  With time however, websites such as rentacoder.com came online, making it easy for companies to find and hire poor foreigners who were willing to work for wages far lower than are reasonable.  For example, a tour company was interviewing various developers to see who they would hire out to do a project for them.  I vividly remember meeting with the president of the company in a local restaurant, and I was given the specifications for the job.  I looked it over and told him I would do it for $800, which really wasn’t that much money.  It probably would have required 15~20 hours of my time.  He then told me, “We’ve found a developer in India who will do the project for $25, yet you want $800!?”  Then he gave me a condescending look and left.  He treated me as if I was trying to rip him off.  I sat in the chair, sipping on my Coca-cola, thinking, “Well, I suppose I need to find a new occupation.  There’s no way I can compete with this.”   Even if that Indian developer was better than me and could do it in half the time (which I seriously doubt), he would have been willing to work for $2 an hour.   I could become a custodian and earn seven times that much!  Why would I want to do difficult computer programming jobs and barely earn anything?  I was still able to earn good money for quite a while, but it became harder and harder to find jobs.

Economists are not sure how to fully explain the growing inequality in America. The ordinary dynamics of supply and demand have certainly played a role: laborsaving technologies have reduced the demand for many “good” middle-class, blue-collar jobs. Globalization has created a worldwide marketplace, pitting expensive unskilled workers in America against cheap unskilled workers overseas. Social changes have also played a role—for instance, the decline of unions, which once represented a third of American workers and now represent about 12 percent.

Just the other day I talked about technologies such as OpenCV, which are making the construction and programming of robots easier than ever.  Factory jobs are going to become a thing of the past before too long.  Even cheap overseas labor will eventually become too expensive.  They’ll have robotic arms do all forms of assembly.  But for now, with trade agreements such as NAFTA, the corporations are outsourcing as much of their labor as possible overseas, allowing them to exploit third world labor markets to earn record profits.  How many of us have called Dell tech support only to get a foreigner who could barely speak English?  I’ve heard McDonalds wants to hire foreigners to remotely take their drive-through orders.  And as for all the workers in places like Mexico, their workers are toiling in un-airconditioned factories, given no benefits, and living in slums a few blocks away, barely earning enough money to survive.

And why do we keep hearing, “We’re broke, we’re broke”, yet find ourselves in a new war every other day?  First Afghanistan, then Iraq, then Pakistan, and now Libya.  Who’s next?

America’s inequality distorts our society in every conceivable way. There is, for one thing, a well-documented lifestyle effect—people outside the top 1 percent increasingly live beyond their means. Trickle-down economics may be a chimera, but trickle-down behaviorism is very real. Inequality massively distorts our foreign policy. The top 1 percent rarely serve in the military—the reality is that the “all-volunteer” army does not pay enough to attract their sons and daughters, and patriotism goes only so far. Plus, the wealthiest class feels no pinch from higher taxes when the nation goes to war: borrowed money will pay for all that. Foreign policy, by definition, is about the balancing of national interests and national resources. With the top 1 percent in charge, and paying no price, the notion of balance and restraint goes out the window. There is no limit to the adventures we can undertake; corporations and contractors stand only to gain. The rules of economic globalization are likewise designed to benefit the rich: they encourage competition among countries for business, which drives down taxes on corporations, weakens health and environmental protections, and undermines what used to be viewed as the “core” labor rights, which include the right to collective bargaining. Imagine what the world might look like if the rules were designed instead to encourage competition among countries for workers. Governments would compete in providing economic security, low taxes on ordinary wage earners, good education, and a clean environment—things workers care about. But the top 1 percent don’t need to care.

My generation has been hit hard by these things and our political efficacy is very low.  We don’t even believe in the system.  Only around 20% of those in my age group (in their twenties) even vote.  Celebrities may make television appearances trying to convince us how “cool” it is to vote, and how it’s our duty as responsible citizens to do so, but when we look at both parties, Democrats and Republicans, they both do the same thing — huge deficits, wars, erosion of civil liberties, and so on.  We see the rich getting richer, and all of us continually getting poorer, year after year – no matter which party is in charge.

Last semester I was told by my advisor to take a civics course, and so I did.  During class the professor lectured that one of America’s core beliefs is “equality of opportunity.”  I disagreed. I don’t see any evidence to support that claim and it doesn’t seem Stiglitiz does either.

…Of all the costs imposed on our society by the top 1 percent, perhaps the greatest is this: the erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important. America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them….

Why is this the case?  What’s going on here?

When you look at the sheer volume of wealth controlled by the top 1 percent in this country, it’s tempting to see our growing inequality as a quintessentially American achievement—we started way behind the pack, but now we’re doing inequality on a world-class level. And it looks as if we’ll be building on this achievement for years to come, because what made it possible is self-reinforcing. Wealth begets power, which begets more wealth. During the savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s—a scandal whose dimensions, by today’s standards, seem almost quaint—the banker Charles Keating was asked by a congressional committee whether the $1.5 million he had spread among a few key elected officials could actually buy influence. “I certainly hope so,” he replied. The Supreme Court, in its recent Citizens United case, has enshrined the right of corporations to buy government, by removing limitations on campaign spending. The personal and the political are today in perfect alignment. Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office. By and large, the key executive-branch policymakers on trade and economic policy also come from the top 1 percent. When pharmaceutical companies receive a trillion-dollar gift—through legislation prohibiting the government, the largest buyer of drugs, from bargaining over price—it should not come as cause for wonder. It should not make jaws drop that a tax bill cannot emerge from Congress unless big tax cuts are put in place for the wealthy. Given the power of the top 1 percent, this is the way you would expect the system to work.

I don’t expect things to get better.  The disparity between rich and poor will continue to grow and the middle class will continue to slowly wither away.  I’m sorry for being pessimistic here, but how else should I see it?  Joseph Stiglitiz isn’t the only Nobel laureate economist telling us this.   These are the sorts of things that depress me.  I am fulfilled when I do scientific research, and think about the universe, but then I look back at human society, the greed, the religious conflicts, the wars, the diseases, the poverty, the stupidity, the soon to be mass extinction of nearly half of all species on the planet, the pollution, the rapid overuse of non-renewable resources, the slow erosion of civil liberties, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and so on, I find myself staring at the wall completely depressed.  It doesn’t help when some of the greatest thinkers I admire, such at Steven Hawking, are telling me that there’s a good chance the human species will annihilate itself in stupidity absent a huge effort to colonize space.  If humanity kills itself off in stupidity, I swear, I’m going to find a way to resurrect myself, travel back in the past, and use my zombie corpse to slap all of our leaders across the face.

Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography

I recently finished reading Bertrand Russell’s autobiography.   I can remember picking it off my shelf many times and reading the preface, thinking to myself, “This has to be good.”

What I have Lived For …
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness – that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that the saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and thought it might seem too good for human life, this is what – at last – I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography Of Bertrand Russell

I’m going to try to write out some of my thoughts from reading the book, but you’ll have to bear with me since I’m writing all of this from the top of my head.  There were many things which caught my attention throughout the book.

I enjoyed reading his letters and journal entries from his youth.  I’ve always felt alienated my entire life because I have been unable to talk with anyone about the things I think about.  He had a very similar experience.  My family members are all fundamentalist Christians and they’re not open minded at all.  I remember vividly my father coming into my room and looking at my books, telling me, “Grandma only read the Bible and that’s all she needed.  The reading of many books wearies the mind.”  Other times my mother and father would tell me that the devil worked through education, warping the mind.  Needless to say, I grew up in an environment which was far from intellectually conducive.  Bertrand Russell was raised by his grandmother and she was similar in many ways.  When he wrote home talking about his work in mathematical philosophy, his grandmother had little to no interest.

Russell’s childhood was happy but when he became a teenager he felt very alone.  If he brought up any of the things he was thinking about, his family members would grow angry and disappointed in him.  He developed a defensive wall which he struggled with his entire life to bring down.  He said that when people entered the room he would always close his book, and oftentimes hide the cover from them.  Growing up he never could let his grandmother or others see what he was reading.  In my late teens I always had to do the same thing.

I was particularly interested to read the Cambridge chapter, which told of his time there as a student.  It’s interesting that he never discussed any of his professors or his classes.  None of that seemed to be of any importance to him.  From how it sounded, he learned very little from class.  Of what he did learn, he said he had to unlearn a lot of it because it was wrong.  The entire Cambridge chapter was dedicated to a student society of which he became a member.  I can’t remember the name of it now.  His adviser, who I believe was Alfred North Whitehead, recommended he become a member of this group which consisted of the brightest members of the university.  Russell was surprised to find people he could talk to about his thoughts and who responded positively to the things he said.  He spent most of his time on walks with these members, discussing philosophy, economics, politics, and mathematics.

Russell spoke about his first time falling in love, which was interesting.  He was around my age when that happened.  Her name was Alys.  She was a Puritan/Quaker, but shortly after their marriage she gave up her religious beliefs because of discussions with him.  He said they rarely had sex, though this didn’t seem to didn’t bother him all that much.  She had beliefs stemming back from her religious days that sex was an evil thing only to be done for procreation.  He was happy with her for many years and she lifted him from the rather deep depressive feelings he had been having.

I was surprised at how he lost his feelings for her.  He was on a bike ride one afternoon and then realized that he no longer had feelings for Alys.  He hated Alys’ mother, and he started to notice those traits in her.  He told about his change in feelings, and though it caused a spat between them, he stayed married to her for a long time afterwards.  Something like nine years?  He slept in a separate room and grew more and more distant from her.

After seeing many people fall in and out of love throughout my lifetime (though I myself have never done so), I suppose I’ll admit that I get pretty pessimistic when I look at love.  Basing your entire life around those sorts of feelings seems foolish to me.  One day as you’re out on a bike ride, you suddenly realize, “Huh.  I don’t feel those feelings anymore.  Time to find someone else.”  I understand that people find great joy and happiness in love, but as an outsider looking at it, at times it can look pretty ridiculous.  People are always having to start over, like hitting the reset button on their lives.  Over and over and over.

As time went on, Russell became more and more miserable.  He talked about going for walks and oftentimes thought of laying down on the train tracks to commit suicide.  He lost himself in his work writing Principia Mathematica, which he found intellectually exhausting.  If you’ve ever looked at (or possibly read) it, you’re sure to sympathize.   He said he always wanted to contribute something of true intellectual worth to humanity and felt he had finally done so when he completed that work.

If I remember correctly, he was trying to work out what was going on with what is now famously known as Russell’s paradox.  It seemed like a trivial problem to him.  Even so, he didn’t want to publish the work without figuring it out, but he felt that a grown man shouldn’t waste so much time on something so trivial.  He would go for long walks with a piece of paper in hand, telling himself, “Alright.  Today I’m going to figure out what’s going on here.”  He’d return with that same blank sheet of paper, making no progress at all.

He later had an affair with a married woman, but she was unwilling to leave her husband because he was financially well off, and she enjoyed the material comfort.  Eventually that relationship broke off and became simply platonic, owing to a dental problem.  One of his teeth was rotting out and it gave him disgusting breath.  He was unaware of it at the time but she couldn’t find a way to point it out to him.

Later, as Russell was teaching mathematical philosophy at a university ( I think ), he met a female student who he liked.  They decided that they would marry, but then Russell wanted to run for political office and thought it may cause a scandal.  I can’t remember all the details.  He said she had a sharp mind but had a dark side to her.  I think she went insane after the rejection and then committed suicide.  I feel pretty certain about the insanity, but can’t remember if she committed suicide or not, but I think she did.

I was relieved to find out that I’m not the only one who enjoys those with a dark side to them.  Russell tried to stay positive and admired those with a positive outlook for humanity, but he also found many things absurd.  He enjoyed joking about the absurdities in life.  He’d talk with others about God being a cruel sadistic tyrant, who seemed to enjoy the misery and suffering of human beings.  I myself share this sentiment, and I find countless things in this life to be completely absurd.

It reminds me a lot of a scene from the movie Se7en.  Morgan Freeman’s fellow detective, Brad Pitt, got deceived into buying a home that well, had a little surprise.  They wondered why the real estate agent only gave them a five minute tour.  It turns out that a train passed by every so often, sending the entire house into a loud vibrating rumble.



My reaction to that situation would be similar. I imagined Bertrand Russell being the same way with his friends, talking about the world around them.  The more intelligent you become, the more vivid all of the absurdities will come at you. You’ll see them more clearly each day.  I can have a very dark sense of humor but it only comes to light when I’m with the right people.

It’s getting late.  I’ll have to write more about his biography at another time.