What Is Space?

If I were to ask you what space is,  how would you respond?  What do you think it is?  We all seem to intuitively understand what it is, but what sort of magic tricks go on in our brains which give the impression that we’re immersed within it?

Before we get started, let’s first begin with a rather inspirational video.  If you understand what space is, you can build machines which can navigate their way through it and wonderful things happen.

One thing I find puzzling about this sort of research is how there are so many different approaches to building machines which can navigate through space.  For example, you can use lasers and radar type techniques, measuring the timing of reflected signal waves to build a 3D map of the world.  That’s what’s going on with that spinning “can” at the top of the Google car.  Or you can extract depth from a single colored image alone, analyzing how the colors in the image change.  Or you can extract 3D spatial structure from changes in related images, such as in a film reel, where objects further in the distance move more slowly than those up close as the camera moves.  You can even take two separate images from two nearby cameras, each with different focus settings, and extract the depth of the scene from that alone.  There’s so many different approaches.

You can be conscious of space from your sense of touch, feeling objects and being conscious of the signals feeding in from your entire body.  Or you can get a sense of space from sounds coming into your ears, the sound wave reaching one ear before the other.  Your brain automatically can take the slight delay into account, and you can get a sense of space and where the sound is coming from.

All of these methods, and more, can extract the spatial structure of the world, but what do they all have in common?  What property, quantity, or process are they all measuring?  Whatever that is, that’s what I think space is.  It’s a sort of information processing dynamic.  A “closed” information flow within the observer.  In our case, our brains.  There’s different ways to create that information flow, but that flow itself is what space and time are.  The real world has a casual structure to produce space (photons and light waves, physical matter, and so forth), but our simulations have different ways of doing it (polygons, textures, rendering algorithms, etc).  There’s not just one way to get to “space”.  Multiple approaches will get you there.  That’s why I think space within a computer simulation is just as real as “real” space.  Our simulations are now capable of making people feel immersed within space.  As the digital world evolves and grows, eventually we’ll be immersing ourselves in sophisticated virtual realities, and I think those too can be considered true parallel universes.

But these days I’m rather obsessed with figuring out what the “real world’s” space is.  I want to understand that common property between all the different methods we know of which can extract depth information.  The past six months I’ve been studying mathematics and physics primarily, studying dynamics such as how light scatters from objects, how photons travel through space carrying spatial information, how space contracts in the direction of motion (Lorentz contraction), and am working tirelessly to unite the conception of space used by physicists with the type of space used in fields such as computer vision and cognitive neuroscience.

In some methods, in order to extract “space” from a sensory impression I need time as well, such as when I extract structure from motion.  I need multiple sensory impressions and it’s a relation between them, a sort of complex information processing task, making certain heuristic assumptions about reality and assuming that reality has a constant structure which will remain throughout time.  Other methods, such as extracting spatial depth from shading, seem to have no need of time or change.   That alone baffles me.

The problem would be simpler if each method always worked, but that’s not the case.  Different methods have different degrees of reliability.  For example, I believe Ernst Mach concluded that the shape of an object is impossible to determine from the colors in an image alone because the laws governing light scattering from objects are too unpredictable.  Computer vision scientists struggle with methods based on this approach because it relies on what’s called Lambertian scattering, which is an assumption that light scatters uniformly in all directions.  In other words, nothing is shiny.  Those algorithms fail to work when an object reflects light differently at different angles.  Depending on the situation and your approach, you may or may not be able to extract spatial information.

I have all these thought experiments running through my head and I’m constantly working to learn more mathematics and physics so I can get closer to solving them.  Of course there’s huge overlaps.  It’s not like the computer vision algorithms use a different mathematics and physics.  It’s just they’re so different in their approach, I consider them totally different subjects.  All the physics I’ve done always assumes space exists and doesn’t bother trying to establish how we intuitively understand space.  I calculate a trajectory, but in physics I don’t worry about how my brain processes the images of its flight and knows its moving and that time is progressing.

As I work on my philosophical conundrums of space, I may make some progress on some experiments, others I’ve had them on the back-burner for years.   Trying to master all these different “subjective” spatial techniques (as I call them) from computer vision are quite involved and it’s a rapidly growing and changing science.  The sort of space found in mathematics and physics changes less quickly, but it’s incredibly difficult to understand.  I’ve been working on a notebook of thought experiments I want to solve eventually, most of them rooted in my imperfect understanding of relativity and quantum mechanics.

For example, I was never satisfied with Maxwell’s equations when I first studied them.  I used to imagine two electromagnetic plane waves traveling side by side in the exact same direction, with the exact same polarity and phase, and I wondered if you could bring them infinitesimally close together without them interacting.   Then I thought, “No, these equations must be an approximation.  Surely they’d interact with each other at some point, even if not ‘perfectly’ touching.”  I guessed that it was probably due to quantum physics and the Planck length or something.   That’s one little thought experiment in my book, which I’ve largely solved.

Another example I’m thinking about.  Space contracts in the direction of motion, so say I was to fly high in the sky over my hometown.  Say I’m actually up in space, above my hometown, to make it a little simpler.  Consider what would happen if I rapidly sped up to near light speed, 99.9999999999999….99999% light speed, and the Earth in front of me contracts to some infinitesimally thin plate.  I only stay at this high speed for a moment, a near infinitesimal moment, and then I just as rapidly slow back down.  The Earth in front of me “compresses” into the thin plate and then “decompresses” back into the Earth.  Here’s the problem.  Is it the same Earth?  It’s similar to the problems of a singularity.  The atoms would be compressed into a smaller and smaller space, and the plate which is the Earth is a sort of 2D singularity plate.  I’m thinking weird effects of quantum physics must be taken into account and  I’ve been wondering whether or not the Earth would decompress back into its original form, or would it be akin to transporting myself into a parallel universe?

Oftentimes they’re wild speculations, but I wonder about those sorts of things.  It takes a lot of time and effort to solve all these experiments.  My process generally goes like this.  I study a bunch of things, think about the material over and over, make thought experiments in my notebooks, and then use them to direct my further inquiries and studies.  Oftentimes I make no progress at all, and overall, the more complicated the problem, the longer it takes me to solve, if ever.  They’ll sit in my notebooks for years before I get back to them, but I can’t get them out of my head.  I hate aging.  I want to continue working on these problems and solve them.  I live an insignificant amount of time in a universe too complicated for my feeble brain to work out in the time it’s given to live.  One of my professors once told me, “Jason, you’re not immortal.”  I sort of stared at the floor and thought, “Yeah, unfortunately not.”

More Reflections on Self and Identity

I always seem to find myself thinking about the same sorts of things.  But I guess I’ll spend today further reflecting on a subject I never seem to make any real progress on – the self.  Any time I try to think about what I am, and give it an honest deep examination, I can’t come up with any satisfactory answer.

My first problem arises because I want to come to some definition of self which is unchanging.  There has to be some aspect of myself which is unchanging or else I can be anything.  Let me explain.

It’s common to associate ourselves with our bodies, and to some extent I accept that.  Then again, it doesn’t seem to capture a complete description of what the “self” is.  Let’s illustrate this with some thought experiments.  Say I built a machine filled with nanobots which disintegrate anything placed in it, copy its structure into a computer, and then reassemble it on demand.  Say I step into this machine and am taken apart, atom by atom, “I” am left there on the ground for a week or two, and then I’m reassembled by the machine just as I was when I entered.  Would the same personal subjective consciousness reside in that body?  Would I “wake up” as me, as if nothing happened?

Let’s make it more complicated.  Let’s have a lovely young woman enter this machine with me, we’re both disassembled, and our atoms are all mixed up.  Then we’re both reassembled, me using some of her atoms and her using some of mine.  Would the same subjective consciousnesses exist within both of our bodies when reassembled?

Let’s get even more inventive.  Let’s just store my pattern in the computer, but use an entirely different set of atoms.  Would I be me when reassembled, subjectively “waking up” in that reassembled body?

These questions seem impossible to answer because there’s no way to verify personal subjective consciousness.  It’s called subjective because nobody else can experience it, therefore the scientific method can never help us here.  So instead of asking impossible questions, let’s instead draw out the implications.

First I’d like to address the problem of self continuity.  I’m changing all the time, little by little, and we don’t seem to have any problem saying I’m the same person throughout these changes.  But what about an abrupt change?  Let’s say I was put under anesthesia and had a sex change operation.  This operation is so thorough that I’m genetically altered and my body is completely redesigned.  While I’m unconscious, my brain is rewired and a totally false history is implanted into my brain.  When I wake up, will I be someone else?  Will I be a woman, in love with my “husband”?  It seems perfectly reasonable to me.  With sufficient technology, a skilled surgeon could put me under and change me into whoever he or she wished.

Now let’s take another problem.  Say two of us are in a room together and a mad scientist kidnaps us both.  We’re taken to his lab and our brains are wired together, but since this scientist is demented, he leaves us conscious throughout the entire operation.  Having access to advanced nanotechnology, he wires our brains together, one synapse at a time.  Eventually your sensory organs are feeding my brain information and vice versa.  My thoughts start blending with your thoughts.  When would we become “one”?  How would that work from a perspective of subjective consciousness?

I’ve never heard anyone give answers to any of these questions.   People are so often satisfied with a reductionist worldview but I don’t think I’ll be able to subscribe to their point of view until these sorts of questions are addressed.

I find myself often asking the question, “Why am I me?  Why am I living the life I’m living?”  I feel completely lost when thinking about this question.  I’ve never been able to make any progress at all.

This may sound a little weird at first, but I think that I’m me because I have no choice of being anyone else.  I have to in some sense be constricted and limited in order to have an identity.  I’m a male so long as I don’t have access to technology which could change that.  If I lived in a future age where technology was far more advanced than it is today, I could easily imagine being able to step into a machine and step out as someone else, remade to whatever specifications I programmed into it.

Or take another similar example.  In the future I believe our brains will be filled with all sorts of augmentations and I think there will come a time where we don’t just watch movies on a screen — we’ll actually “live” as different characters.  The machines in our brains will completely simulate a different person, their thoughts, their emotions, their perspective, in its complete entirety.  It will be very vivid.  The question is, as you’re simulating being someone else, how much of your original self do you wish to remain?

I think a partial description of the “self” can be achieved by brain activity.  So if we build these machines which let you live as different people, yet you still want to remain partly “yourself” as you play the role of various characters in virtual reality, or virtual movies, or whatever, you’ll have to change brain signals in the areas you want to change.  Want a different body?  Change the brain inputs from sensory systems but leave other aspects of the mind intact.  Or if you’re wanting to experience life as laborer in Egypt building the pyramids and you want everything to be fully realistic and immersive, you’ll also want to disable your memories and knowledge that you currently possess.  They would give it away that you’re in a simulation because you’d remember, “Oh, I remember going into the virtual reality machine, programming it to take me to ancient Eygpt”, and so forth.  You’d remember your family, the futuristic society you really belong to, and all that.  You’d say to yourself, “Oh yeah, none of this is real.”

Right now I’m forced to be “Jason” whether I like it or not.  There’s many aspects of my life which I don’t like.  I sometimes get bored, sick, I develop headaches, and I don’t always wish to deal with school or work.   If I had the power, there’s a lot of things I’d change.  I think everybody would say the same.  I’m sort of forced to be the Jason I am now because I have no choice but to be me.  I’m not powerful enough, or knowledgeable enough, to make the necessary changes.  But it’s weird to think of my identity as the things I can’t change.  This aspect of myself seems more like a lifeless process.  Like being born a male.  My parents came together and a mindless process of complex chemistry whipped me up inside my mother.  It’s a complex happening.

I’ve always found it strange to see people associated with things they had no control over.  I remember in school, some people were ridiculed for being poor.  How silly.  A ten year old is being held responsible for his parents life decisions.  He can’t help it if he’s wearing old shoes and hand-me-down clothes.  It’s not like the little guy can work and earn money, or provide for himself.  There’s so many circumstances in life that people can’t control yet they’re held responsible for it all anyway.

Or take my own life.  I look at my past and things I’ve done.  There’s things I would change if I had the chance to go back.  In many other ways, I didn’t have a lot of choice.  I had to take what jobs came to me because I needed money.  I’ve worked odd jobs here and there and I sometimes wondered about people associating me with where I was.  That’s Jason.  He’s the computer guy at this company.  That’s who he is.  At the same time, I never wanted to work there and I had other passions.  It was just someplace I went to earn a paycheck.  Even so, I’m associated with “Jason the computer guy.”  It’s just weird.  Am I my passions and desires, or am I where I actually end up in life, in many cases against my will?  So many of us are pushed around by life’s currents and then everyone says, “That’s who you are!  That’s you!”  I don’t know about that.

But if you go to the opposite extreme and make me God, where no aspects of my identity are confined to my limitations, in some weird sense I cease to exist.  I have to want something, and to want something I have to be a slave to those desires.   Why should I desire one thing over another?  To be desireless is almost like ceasing to exist.  As God, I could always reform myself into whoever I wanted to be.  Don’t want to be Jason? I just change into whoever I want to be, but who would that be?  I’d have to want to be something else, but then I’m not all powerful because I’m a slave to that desire.   It doesn’t make sense.

As science progresses, and we can change our brains and our desires, I find it puzzling that mankind will be able to reform itself into something new, yet we have no criteria or direction to go in.  If we go by the common maxim of happiness as the ultimate goal, then we’re best off building robots to maintain our brains and we just place them in vats and keep ourselves indefinitely stoned on super powerful drugs until the universe dissipates into nothingness once more.  Why risk ever being unhappy?  Why risk ever experiencing pain?

People always think happiness is what life consists in.  I saw a good movie the other day.  It’s called Gran Turino and it stars Clint Eastwood.  Anyways, he plays an angry, lonely character who finds happiness helping a family of foreigners who move in next door.  But I remember a young girl coming up to him and telling him there’s no happiness or joy in his life, and we the viewers are supposed to see that as the ultimate indictment against him.  He must not be doing something right.  If you live right, you should be happy.  But when you take that sort of argument to its conclusion, as science progresses, we end up as brains in vats stoned on drugs, disconnecting ourselves from the world and any chance of pain.

Must this life have pain and suffering in order for us to have any sort of existence?  It seems to me to be a necessity.  I can’t imagine a world without it.

If you think about anything in this world very deeply, you find yourself free floating in a void of mystery and strangeness.   For example, the thought experiment of our minds being wired together by the scientist isn’t something I just came up with for kicks.  Think about the upcoming world where our brains are augmented and knowledge and memories can be directly beamed from one brain to another just like computers do with digital information.  Think about the time when I can directly beam what I’m seeing from my eyes to you all the way across the world, similar to sending a live stream from an iPhone camera.  We’re moving toward a world where we’ll be wired together, but what does that mean for individuality?  How does consciousness work when people are sharing sensory feeds?  Or what happens when various aspects of cognitive thinking is outsourced into the environment and shared between people?  Say you’re trying to solve a math problem, so your real brain contacts an artificial neural network computer, which then crunches on the problem and beams the solution back to your brain.  Further assume billions of people sharing these sorts of “cognitive servers”.   We start blending into a common organism.  Not really isolated individuals, but not really the exact duplicates either.

Something new is evolving here on Earth.  Our digital technology is greater than our iPhones, movies and music.  It’s wiring us into a new organism, but we’re just in the beginning stages so we still think we’re individuals, isolated from one another.  I don’t think humans will be in a few hundred years.  They’ll be wired up together, directly sharing experiences, knowledge, and emotions.  The computers located in the environment are the early beginnings of an extended nervous system.  They’re working their way into every aspect of our lives, and soon into our biology.  It’s something remarkable and deserves notice.  I think the internet is a form of life albeit different from the regular biological life we think of.

No… Nooooo… Not Obamaville! Anything but Obamaville!

Politics is a circus that I can’t take seriously.  I mean, look at this political ad by Rick Santorum.

Just think if Obama gets relected!  Every small town will become a wasteland, freedom of religion will be a thing of the past, gas prices will be through the roof, and Iran will nuke us!  Scared?  This is your cue to cry in terror and run in circles screaming, “What can I do?”  Of course there’s only one thing you can do — vote Rick Santorum!


Seas Of Grass

I’ve always admired Sherlock Holmes.  He’s probably my favorite fictional character, mainly because he takes time to notice things most people never even consider.  Today I want to talk about one of those things, the various grasses covering the ground outside.

Since my mind obsesses over the “big questions” I first ask whether or not grass has always existed, and if not, how long has it been around?  The answer is no, it hasn’t always been around, and on an evolutionary time-scale it’s actually a rather recent addition to the Earth.  If you were to go back twenty-five million years or so, you wouldn’t find any grasses.  The dinosaurs never had a chance to see a single blade of grass.

I find green grass to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing sights in the world.  Even when full grown, few things are as soothing as watching their flowers sway in the wind.

Oftentimes grass flowers are not recognized as such.  Many grasses grow in open, treeless country where there is nearly always a breeze to distribute their pollen.  With no need to attract animal or insect pollinators, they don’t bother with the colorful flowers and instead use small, drab scales which grow in clusters on special tall stems.

Thinking of flowers, if I were given all the money in the world, I’d buy a large chunk of land and create a giant garden like paradise, hiring a legion of workers to help me keep it all maintained.  I love flowers and I love the outdoors.  Growing up I spent all my time outdoors, and while many people think I’m a person who spends all his time on the computer, I’m actually outside quite a bit.

If it weren’t for work and school I’d live in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, having very little contact with anyone.  I’d spend half my day studying and the other half planting elaborate flower gardens.  I sound like an old man, but I’ve never been able to relate to most young people.  They like rock concerts and movies.  I like books, flowers and the breeze.

Sorry for the slight tangent there.  The main thing grass needs is sunlight.  Grasses can endure scorching heat, fires, and intense sunshine, but they always need light.  That’s why you won’t find any grass on a forest floor – there’s not enough sunshine.  As for fires, while their leaves may be destroyed, grasses have their root stocks lying close to the surface of the soil and these are seldom damaged.  This is the central reason they’re able to maintain themselves after regular mutilations from animal grazers and the blades of lawnmowers.

Their remarkable endurance comes from the way they grow.  Take the leaves of most plants.  They spring from buds on a stem which then develop into a branching network of veins which carry their sap, eventually expanding out into their final shape.  If they’re damaged, this design can stop sap leakage but most plants are unable to repair themselves further.  Grass is different.  Its veins form, not in a network, but in a straight row of unbranched lines that run up the entire length of the leaf.  The growing point is at the base of the leaf and it is active throughout the entire life of the plant.  If the upper section of the leaf is damaged or chopped off, it grows again from the base to restore its original length.

Let’s compare the leaf structure of a normal plant with that of grass.  First a normal plant leaf.

See how it’s like a web?  Grass leaves don’t look like this.  There’s no branching out.  It’s straight lines.

What I always find fascinating about the world is how intricate and subtle it is.  All leaves aren’t the same.  Our eyes aren’t exquisite enough to notice all these details, but they’re there if you take the time to look.  Grass leaves almost seem more engineered and less natural.  Straight lines are very Euclidean.  I guess I always supposed that nature is more fractal like and branching but this isn’t always true.

But not only grasses durable, they’re also capable of spreading better than most plants.  They don’t just rely on seeds to spread; they’re also able to put out horizontal stems along the surface of the ground and each joint of these is able to sprout leaves of its own along with roots.

As a child I used to wonder how long grass lived.  Do each of those little plants live forever?  How old was the grass?  If I continued to water it, and it always got sunshine, would it live forever?  You might guess that the answer is no, and you’d be correct.  Nothing in this world lives forever, not even the grass.  Most individual grasses live for a few years before being replaced by new seedlings.  So every few years what you’re seeing outdoors is a brand new lawn.

The characteristics of the soil determine which grasses end up growing in that location.  There’s four central factors:

1) Soil depth
2) Soil texture
3) Nutrients
4) Nitrogen.

Each grass has its own root structure and different root structures require different soil depths.  On deep, well drained loamy soils, tall growing species such as big bluestem, B. dahl bluestem, and switchgrass develop root system five to seven feet deep.  Other grasses, such as blue grama, buffalograss, or common bermudagrass only need two feet of soil.

My favorite color is blue, so it’s only natural that my favorite grass is bluestem.

Isn’t that nice?  You can plant it as its own shrub in your flower garden and it stands alone, but it will also grow into a tall field and it’s beautiful to watch sway in the wind.

And we’ve all seen switchgrass.  It’s everywhere.

For good measure I’ll include a picture of buffalograss.  I think it’s the most beautiful of the green grasses.

You may have seen areas where grass is all spread out in small little clumps, leaving patches of dirt.  The Sherlock Holmes side of yourself may have been wondering, “Why does grass grow in a patchwork in this location whereas in this other area it’s very lush and full.”   For plants (grass included) to survive in shallow soils, they must spread themselves out so that their roots can spread around their radius to get water and nutrients.  Patchwork grass clumps indicates that the soil doesn’t go down very far at that location.  When plants have adequate soil depth, their roots will go down deep and they can happily sit right beside one another.

Soil texture is related to the different proportions of sand, silt, and clay.  This determines both the fertility of the soil as well as its ability to hold water.  Sandy soils have lower water holding capacity and greater aeration, whereas, clay soils have higher water holding capacity and lower aeration.  If you’ve ever played in the dirt (I used to all the time as a kid), this will be obvious to you.  I used to make things out of clay along the creek bed, and remember how clay would stay wet a long time.

Sandy soils have a lower capacity to hold cations.  Grass roots use these ions (primarily calcium and magnesium ions), in the process of extracting nutrients from the soil.  I don’t know this for certain, but I’m guessing the electromagnetic radiation from the sun stirs up the charged particles in the top-soil and somehow this is related to how the roots extract nutrients from the soil.  This is why the soil needs ions in it in order for plants to grow.

Since roots are living breathing cells, they also need oxygen.  They actually “breathe” underground which is why there has to be some degree of aeration in order for plants to grow.  If the soil is too compact, or there’s too much water, the plants literally drown.

All plants also need core nutrients from the soil.  They’ll only grow as far as the most limiting nutrient allows.  The main nutrients used are nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur, but small amounts of iron, manganese, cooper, boron, zinc, and a few others are also used.  But surprisingly, very little of the plant is made up of these compounds.   95% of plants are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in the form of carbohydrates and water.

Nitrogen is kind of complicated.  There’s an entire nitrogen cycle when dealing with plant growth.  It’s one of the most important because it’s used in cell growth and the formation of proteins.  If you want the grass to grow quickly, you’ll need soil rich in nitrogen.  In nature, where does the soil get its nitrogen?  A small amount comes from rainfall when the droplets attach themselves to nitrogen from the atmosphere, but most of it comes from decay of organic matter.  When insects, microbes, algae, and others eat on dead materials, their waste is rich in nitrogen.

I Can’t Stand Rick Santorum

On my post the other day about Rick Santorum, I should’ve also included this video.

Make sure you don’t vote for universal healthcare because when the government’s budget gets tight, the doctors will start euthanizing all the old people.  What?  Don’t you all know that in European countries with universal healthcare, they just kill off old people?  Wait, you’ve never heard?  Well you probably haven’t because it’s nonsense, but according to Rick Santorum, it happens all the time in the Netherlands.  Old people have to wear bracelets to tell doctors, “Please don’t euthanize me!”  Ten percent of all deaths there come from doctors killing off the elderly!  *stupid woman in background* “Oh woww……”  Talk about fear-mongering.

Remember when Sarah Palin was spreading these same sort of lies?  How can a candidate running for the highest office in our land get away with statements like this?  Where are the journalists doing fact checking, holding him to the fire?  When pressed about this issue by foreign reporters, our former senator’s spokeperson told them, “Rick is strong in his pro-life stance.  He speaks from the heart.”  Right.  No fact checking, just make things up when the facts get in the way, and remember, speak from the heart!  I can’t stand that man.  How is this guy a viable candidate for president of the United States?  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I weep for my country.