Thursday, December 13, 2007

Detecting Zombies

Only philosophers worry about zombies. The “philosophical zombie” is a thought experiment. Imagine a hypothetical being like ourselves in every possible observable way except one. The one thing a philosophical zombie lacks is a mind. If the zombie’s behavior and language performance were no different than what we would expect from a real person, how on earth could we possibly ever tell the difference between a real person with a mind, and a zombie devoid of inner experience? We couldn’t.

It is fortunate that zombies in the movies always stagger with outstretched arms and blood on their mouths, because that helps us identify them as zombies. If they behaved more normally (as in the recent movie, “Fido,” for example, or in the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), we would begin to have difficulty discriminating them from real people. If a zombie acted completely normal, how would we know it had no mind?

The puzzle of the philosophical zombie may seem silly at first, but when you think about it more, you realize it is really just a way to pose a more urgent question: How do we know that any other person has a mind? I only know my own mind; nobody else’s.

As a practical matter each of us assumes that other people have a mind roughly comparable to our own. This assumption is confirmed by observing that other people’s behavior and verbal output is for the most part as expected. But oddly enough, we don’t actually know if anyone else has a mind.

It is an odd quirk of nature that each of us has access to only our own mind. It could have been otherwise. I can see your body. I can hear your words. I can watch your behavior. Why can’t I perceive your mind? Why couldn’t evolution have proceeded down that path? That would seem to be a better choice for a social animal like us. As it is, you could be a zombie, a perfect one, a philosophical zombie with no inner experience, and I would never know as long as you acted appropriately.

The same issue underlies a basic problem of artificial intelligence. It seems only a matter of time until robots become so sophisticated that they act and speak normally. When that happens, they will be functional philosophical zombies.

As long as a robot has a metal skin, and blinking lights on its head we will not be too worried. But as soon as such a robot is dressed up in a convincing artificial skin and a good suit of clothes, it will be come a perfect philosophical zombie. We will not be able to deny that it has a mind and a full complement of inner experiences and feelings like us, because we aren’t even sure about each other! If I deny the robot has a mind, why wouldn’t I also deny that you have a mind?

This puzzle of “other minds” bothered me for a number of years, but no longer. I now believe it arises from a faulty assumption, the assumption that our minds are private. They’re not, at least not completely. They are inherently social. Even introspection is social because it is a kind of thinking, and thinking is social. Thinking is social because language is social. Language is a social invention, arising out of human interaction.

Language does not grow on trees. It is a product of people interacting with each other. You must acquire language from another person, through explicit teaching and learning. If you don’t get the training (as feral children often don’t), language does not develop spontaneously. There is no pill you can take, no exercise you can do on your own to acquire language. It is uniquely a social phenomenon.

To the extent that thinking involves language, and introspection involves thinking, it is clear that introspection is fundamentally a social phenomenon, imbued to its core with the values and assumptions embedded in the individual’s community. Therefore, because I speak and understand the same language as you, I do in fact know what is in your mind (more or less) and I know how you think about things (in general), and most importantly, I know you are “in there,” and not a zombie.

With only a little difficulty, we can make a similar argument about visual imagery and other explicit mental representations of sensory experience and expression, like songs, and so on. They are all social conventions, taught and learned.

What about a robot programmed to have completely appropriate language? Could I discriminate it from a real person? That question constitutes the famous “Turing test” proposed by Alan Turing in 1950. In that test, you have a conversation with a robot and a person hidden from you by curtains, and if you cannot tell which is which, the robot passes the test. In that case, you must, to avoid inconsistency, admit that it has a mind, albeit an artificial one.

Some robots have already passed a limited version of the Turing test, fooling adults, children, experts, psychologists, and many others ( . While these tests have been limited in scope, are we justified to expect a future robot that qualifies as a perfect linguistic zombie? I think not.

The robot contains the language knowledge of the programmer. In that sense the robot is not a natural language user. It did not acquire its language through the normal course of socialization, which takes many years of daily social interaction. The robot has no family, no peers, no social network out of which language understanding grows. The programmer has all those social connections and is a natural language user. The robot becomes a repository of the programmer’s lexicon and grammar, but not of the programmer’s social history. Consequently, it is not possible in principle for the robot to ever be a perfect linguistic zombie, because genuine language usage and understanding arise from living in a community. That’s why a linguistic robot language will inevitably be identified in an unconstrained Turing test.

Well then, couldn’t a robot be made that does live in a community of humans, and does partake of ordinary social interactions, and does acquire language through interaction like a human does? That would work in principle, but nobody has any idea how to make such a robot, because we don’t even know exactly how the process works for a human being. So in the end, there is no fear of zombie robots.

But more importantly, we can rest assured that if there are any “pod people” among us whose bodies have been snatched, we will know it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Music and Machine

In listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas, it occurred to me why his rhythmic patterns seem so different from those of today’s music. He was not surrounded by machinery as we are. The sonatas span 1795 to 1822. The Watt steam engine wasn’t even patented until 1769 and did not become commonplace until much later. Railroads were limited to coal mines until the early 1800’s, so he would not have much, if any experience of train sounds. In Beethoven's experience, it would have been relatively rare to hear the regular whumpa-whumpa-whumpa of rotating machinery. There were waterwheels and some farming machines, but these were not ubiquitous, and they did not spin at the tempos we associate with music.

I have read that the emergence of rock and roll music out of blues in the 1950’s was stimulated in no small part by the wide availability of the automobile in America. Most rock music emphasizes 4/4 time with a relentless drum that recalls the internal combustion engine.

Beethoven’s tempos are subtle, variable, and deeply internal to the harmony and melody. When his rhythmic structure does become obviously regular, it usually sounds like a march, a waltz, or some other human movement, like a person spinning, or like something falling down a slope. From what does the regular arpeggio of the Moonlight Sonata derive? To me it sounds like the movement of a human body, swaying or tapping. It does not suggest any kind of mechanical action like that of an engine.

Music experts always tell us that musical elements refer only to themselves, not to anything in the world, but I have never found that argument convincing. There are, after all many “pastoral” musical forms, madrigals, and other types designed explicitly to be representational. I don’t say that all music is symbolic, but musical ideas have to come from somewhere, and where else but the composer’s experience could they come?

That’s why I think Beethoven’s sound is so organic, compared to modern music. The musical ideas are intimately from the natural world, deriving from wind and waves, footsteps and horse hooves, dances, songs and screams. Just about all pre-modern music would be that way. You never get a sense of machinery. There is something almost suffocating about Beethoven’s music just because it does immerse you in the sounds of life.

Maybe that’s why classical music is considered “difficult” for most people. Anyone would understand more easily music that reflects the soundscape of their everyday experience and for us, that is a mechanized world. Our machinery keeps us distant from the natural world. We drive in our car out to the country to visit nature. We don’t live in nature anymore and our mechanically inspired music reminds us of that.

Beethoven’s is an ambient auditory world that is lost to us, probably forever. (And of course was lost to him as well, in his later years of increasing deafness).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Funniest or Stupidist Joke Ever

I was reading a humor book with all kinds of jokes when one hit my funny bone:

A man goes to a costume party with a woman draped over his shoulders and says he’s come as a tortoise. “Who’s that on your back?” asks the host. “That?” he says, “That’s Susan.”

I visualized the situation and the dialog and laughed so hard I had tears in my eyes. The absurdity of it just blew me away. Even now I am chuckling as I read it again.

So I read the joke to my wife. “That’s more stupid than funny,” she said without smiling. What? How could she not appreciate the surreal insanity of the joke?

I read the joke again and realized I had misunderstood it. The last sentence of the joke actually reads, “That?” he says, “That’s Michelle.”

It always did say Michelle, and that’s what I read the first time, but I did not connect the name to a terrible acoustic pun, “That’s my shell.” In my mind, “Michelle” could have been “Susan” and the joke would have been just as hilarious and that’s how I read it. My wife was right, the joke, as intended, was stupid, not the least bit funny. She had ruined it for me!

But if I ignored the acoustic pun and read the joke again as I had originally, it again became so funny I could not stop laughing for several minutes.

What was going on here? If the last line had been:

“That’s my dog.” Not funny.
“That’s just some woman.” Not funny.
“I don’t know.” Slightly funny.
“That’s my wife.” Slightly funny.
“That’s a corpse.” Not funny.
“That’s a Martian.” Not funny.
“That’s my collar.” Not funny.

What is it about “That’s Michelle/Susan” that makes the joke so funny the way I read it?

I was set up for a tortoise joke, and in the special syntax of jokes, you expect the punch line to involve some distinctive feature of tortoises, such as the fact that they move very slowly, or are hemispherical in shape.


That the man had a woman draped over his shoulders is already slightly funny. To say he came as a tortoise is also slightly funny, but the two ideas don’t add up to anything. If the joke had ended there, it would be such a total nonsequitur that I might have thought it was a misprint.

But when the host inquires about the woman on his back, I am led to imagine that there is a mystery to be solved about the costume. The host is thinking, “Okay, tortoise, if you say so, but what part is played by that woman on your back?”

The man answers with a surprised question, “That?”

That’s a nice bit of joke-writing there, because why would he be surprised by the question? If the woman really is part of the tortoise costume, he should be eager to explain the connection, but instead, he acts as if he had forgotten he had a woman on his back. So as the joke reader, I am thinking, well, maybe there is some other explanation here. I have been misdirected.

But the punch line, “That’s Michelle,” implies that she is always there. “Oh her, that’s just Michelle. Don’t pay any attention to her.”

It’s as if the guy is completely accustomed to having Michelle draped over his shoulders. I imagine Michelle being rather slim and drape-able, dressed in a tight, shiny party dress, lying limply over his shoulders with her long hair, arms, and legs dangling toward the floor.

But given the setup about a costume party and him presenting himself as a tortoise, with the forgotten Michelle on his back, the punch line is hilarious because of the juxtaposition of the two speakers’ assumptions.

The host is inquiring about the costume, but the guy answers as if he heard the question as an inquiry about the girl, which he answers matter-of-factly, as if it were a reasonable answer to a simple question.

It is that sudden shift in context that made me laugh. Even after analyzing this to death, I am still chuckling now.

Here’s the same joke in a different form:

A man walks into a bar with a beautiful multicolored bird on his head. “Wow,” the bartender says, “Where did you get that?” “I got him in France,” the bird answers, “They have millions of them there.”

Again the humor arises from the juxtaposition of the two speaker’s differing points of view, each oblivious to the others’. But this version is less funny because the differing contexts of understanding are confounded with the violation of expectation by having a talking bird, and that diminishes the effect of the context shift.

In the original joke, the opposition of the two speakers’ contexts is pure funny. Why, exactly, I still don’t know.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Food and Health

Food and Health

I’m always fascinated to learn interesting facts about food that has (allegedly) important health consequences, for example, that red wine is good for your heart. I am skeptical of all such claims, because they are incomplete, always changing, and often contradictory. Red wine may be good for the heart, but it can’t be that good for the brain, for example.

Nevertheless I did a quick search through back issues of Science News, a magazine I read, to collect some recent food claims. Here is a selection of what I found:

Broccoli Prevents Cancer
A federal study has found that selenium eaten as a pure compound may not protect as well as selenium consumed as a part of food such as wheat or broccoli.
April 21, 2001; Vol. 159, No. 16 , p. 248

Broccoli Prevents Skin Cancer
When sulforaphane, a compound found in broccoli, is applied to the skin of cancer-prone mice after sun exposure, they develop fewer skin tumors then they otherwise would.
Nov. 19, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 21 , p. 334

Broccoli, Turkey Control Blood Sugar
A cup of cooked broccoli typically contains 22 µg of chromium, and 3 ounces of cooked turkey-leg meat has 100 µg. April 16, 2005; Vol. 167, No. 16

Broccoli, Sushi Prevent Prostate Cancer
Prostate cancer remains the most common malignancy among U.S. men, and internationally it ranks fourth. Though few studies have offered much insight into what triggers this disease, a growing number of researchers have found evidence suggesting that dietary selenium protects men against this cancer. Sushi and organ meats and broccoli
Week of May 3, 2003; Vol. 163, No. 18

Fruits And Vegetables Prevent Colorectal Cancer
Fiber in foods such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can reduce colorectal cancer, coronary heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and perhaps other ills.
March 11, 2006; Vol. 169, No. 10

Chocolate Reduces Blood Pressure
The antioxidant flavonoids abundant in dark chocolate appear to reduce blood pressure and perhaps protect people from dangerous blood clots. However, Most commercial chocolate products have few natural flavonoids left in them. However they are found in tea and apples.
Feb. 25, 2006; Vol. 169, No. 8

Chocolate is Usually Contaminated with Lead
The shell of cocoa beans is a remarkably efficient sponge for lead. It can tightly bind the metal, preventing it from reaching the interior bean. Samples of shells from Nigeria contained between 60 and 417 nanograms of lead per gram. That's at least 300 times as much lead as was in the beans inside. Still, there was lead in the cocoa beans. Dark chocolates, including bittersweet and semisweet, had the highest lead concentrations—roughly 30 to 70 nanograms of the heavy metal per gram versus just 11 to 35 ng/g in milk chocolate. Dec. 17, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 25

Tofu Reduces Lead Poisoning
Lead, a toxic heavy metal, can show up in the most unexpected places. For instance, several recent studies documented a worrisome tainting of calcium supplements. A new study finds that for people who can’t avoid such lead exposures, there may be a simple means to limit the body’s uptake: Eat tofu.
June 23, 2001; Vol. 159, No. 25

Cranberry Juice, Chocolate Prevent Heart Attacks
Molecule for molecule, the antioxidants in chocolate exceed the potency of vitamin C, but cranberries even moreso.
March 29, 2003; Vol. 163, No. 13

Coffee and Tea Prevent Liver disease
A study showed that people who routinely drank more than two cups of coffee or tea per day faced only half the risk of being hospitalized with cirrhosis and other types of serious liver disease.
Jan. 21, 2006; Vol. 169, No. 3

Milk Improves Lung Functioning
Physicians in New Zealand have linked the vitamin to improved lung function. Most commercial milk has added Vitamin D.

Cheese Cures Arthritis and Asthma
Data from a new study finds that an unusual fatty acid, a type of dairy fat, can modulate the injurious, runaway inflammation that underlies arthritis, asthma, and many other diseases.
Oct. 29, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 18

Teflon Kills You
High concentrations of a chemical used in the production of Teflon surfaces have turned up in people living near a Teflon-manufacturing plant in West Virginia. It is the first government-sponsored epidemiological study of the chemical, known both as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and C-8. Teflon is not a food, of course, but it is widely used in food-preparation kitchens. (Later studies clarified that the risk emerges only when an empty Teflon-coated pan is left on a high burner for at least 15 minutes. Since I never do that, I have kept all my pans, but some friends have traded them all in for cast iron.)
Aug. 27, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 9

Black Beans Prevent Heart Attack
One serving of black beans a day helps stave off heart disease, researchers have confirmed in a new study. July 9, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 2

Mayonnaise Makes you Blind
A pair of new studies from a Boston research team links mayonnaise, as well as certain vegetable oils, to an elevated risk of age-related cataracts.
May 14, 2005; Vol. 167, No. 20

Food Additive Prevents Peanut Poisoning
The additive is BHT (for butylated hydroxytoluene), and the poison is aflatoxin, a fungus, and one of the most deadly poisons known to man, and commonly found in peanuts and even in commercial peanut butter. Food laced with BHT almost eliminates aflatoxin poisoning in turkeys, animals that are substantially more sensitive to it than people are. March 26, 2005; Vol. 167, No. 13

Overcooked Meat Kills You
On Jan. 31, the National Toxicology Program (NTP), part of the National Institutes of Health, published its latest update of materials known to cause cancer in people. Among the 246 agents on the lists are the heterocyclic amines that develop in meats when they're cooked too long at high temperature.
Week of Feb. 19, 2005; Vol. 167, No. 8

Beer Prevents Cancer From Overcooked Meat
A new study shows that, at least in mice, beer limits the DNA damage triggered by exposure to the carcinogens that form in overcooked meat.
March 5, 2005; Vol. 167, No. 10

Tea Makes You Lose Weight
Oolong tea was enriched with some of the antioxidant compounds that naturally occur in green tea. Men who drank this hybrid brew during a 3-month study in Japan lost 1.1 more kilograms in weight than did men drinking conventional oolong tea—with no other difference in their respective diets or exercise.
Feb. 12, 2005; Vol. 167, No. 7

Tea Treats Prostate Cancer
Tea drinking appears to seed the body with compounds that retard the growth of prostate cancer, a new study finds. Although the men taking part in the new study all had advanced prostate cancer, the data suggest that it might be possible to slow the early development of this cancer, and perhaps others, with regular consumption of tea.
May 1, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 18

Green Tea Prevents Breast Cancer
Now, California researchers report data suggesting that drinking green tea may lower a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. The study failed to identify a similar advantage from black tea, much less coffee or herbal "teas" such as chamomile.
Sept. 13, 2003; Vol. 164, No. 11

Tea and Wine Improve Your Memory
The antioxidants in tea, wine, red fruit juices, and chocolate that may help lower people's risk of heart disease. They’re also among the berry pigments that experiments have shown boost memory and other aspects of mental functioning in geriatric animals (SN: 9/18/99, p. 180:

Tea Prevents Cavities
Globally, in terms of its popularity as a drink, tea ranks second only to water. Researchers have recently turned up a variety of reasons to reinforce tea-quaffing habits. The newest: It slows the growth of germs that lead to cavities.
July 14, 2001; Vol. 160, No. 2

Coffee Treats Diabetes
New data now indicate that drinking coffee lots of it, and especially the caffeinated form—can curb type II diabetes.
Jan. 17, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 3

Vinegar Treats Diabetes
Two tablespoons of vinegar before a meal—perhaps, as part of a vinaigrette salad dressing—reduces the spike in blood concentrations of insulin and glucose that come after a meal. Dec. 18, 2004; Vol. 166, No. 25/26

Sauerkraut Prevents Breast Cancer
Midwestern scientists have found evidence that something in sauerkraut and related foods blocks the action of estrogen, a hormone that can fuel the growth of breast cancer and other reproductive-tract malignancies.
March 3, 2001; Vol. 159, No. 9

Fish Prevents Heart Disease
The Food and Drug Administration has announced that it will allow food manufacturers to make health claims for omega-3 fatty acids typically found in coldwater fish. Food labels can now note that products containing these oils might provide some protection from heart disease.
Sept. 25, 2004; Vol. 166, No. 13

Cinnamon Cleans the Breath
Dental scientists in Chicago have shown that an essential oil from cinnamon can kill oral bacteria, including germs responsible for a chemical that imparts the rotten-egg smell to the breath. May 22, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 21

Trans Fats Kill You
Scientists have warned us that A recent study has strengthened the caution, as researchers have investigated these fats in the bodies of first-heart-attack patients.
Whenever food manufacturers transform vegetable oils into solids—via a process called hydrogenation—trans fats are created. For the sake of texture and preservation, trans fats show up in most margarines, shortening, and foods cooked with partially hydrogenated oils. Eating trans fats can lead to heart problems. Different types of trans fats also occur naturally in dairy foods and some meats, but they tend to have health benefits
April 10, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 15

Tuna Kills You
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the first time gave joint advice on what types of fish are best to eat for those concerned about toxicity from mercury. Because mercury is harmful to the developing brain, health officials suggest that pregnant women, nursing mothers, women who may become pregnant, and young children reduce their intake of mercury.
March 27, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 13

Yogurt Prevents Osteoporosis
Foods such as yogurts supplemented with fiberlike sugars are commercial goods seeded with ingredients that boost their nutritiousness or healthfulness. Makers of foods doctored with these unusual, nearly flavorless sugars claim that their products improve the body's absorption of calcium in the diet, thereby strengthening bones. A report of the most recent animal tests suggests that by judiciously supplementing the diet with these carbohydrates, an elderly woman might significantly reduce her risk of osteoporosis.
Feb. 7, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 6

Eggs Improve Your Memory
Egg yolks are a rich source of choline. Researchers reported that a choline can substantially preserve an aging brain's dexterity. An experimental formulation of choline known as cytidine (5')-diphosphocholine (CDP-choline), might however limit the subtle onset of mental fuzziness that comes with age. At least, that's what it did for rats.
Nov. 22, 2003; Vol. 164, No. 21

Strawberries Prevent Cancer and Heart Disease
scientists at Cornell University find that strawberries may offer potent benefits in the body's fight against cancer and heart disease.
Oct. 18, 2003; Vol. 164, No. 16

Soybeans Lower Cholesterol
Soy can lower blood concentrations of the so-called bad, or low-density-lipoprotein (LDL), cholesterol. July 5, 2003; Vol. 164, No. 1 [I vaguely recall reading that this alleged benefit of soy has recently (in 2007) been overturned by subsequent studies].

French Fries Give you Heart Disease
Numerous studies have linked heavy consumption of saturated fats to elevated cholesterol, a major risk factor for heart disease. Now, Johns Hopkins University researchers tie high-saturated-fat found in French Fries to abdominal fat, a second risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
April 5, 2003; Vol. 163, No. 14

French Fries and Gingerbread Kill You
Acrylamide is a chemical that causes cancer in rats and is widely found in gingerbread. The FDA tested 53 samples of french fries, which are likely to develop fairly high concentrations of acrylamide. In the new survey, this food again had substantial acrylamide in every sample.
Dec. 14, 2002; Vol. 162, No. 24

Microwave Popcorn Kills You
Researchers with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services initially investigated a report of eight cases of serious lung disease among former employees of a microwave-popcorn factory. Half of these were mixers—workers who add salt and flavorings to tanks of soybean oil. The air at their workstation not only carried a strong buttery odor but also bore a cloud of visible dust. The other four workers came from popcorn-packaging stations 15 to 90 feet away. The rate of lung disease turned out to be about 31 percent for mixers, 1 percent for packers, and zero elsewhere in the plant.
May 11, 2002; Vol. 161, No. 19

Conclusion: The Perfect Dinner
A hamburger (barbequed, not fried in a teflon pan), with a large side dish of broccoli, and plenty of beer (in case the meat is overcooked), served with red wine and green tea (this is a classy dinner). Second course: fried eggs on a bed of sauerkraut. And for dessert, chocolate-covered tofu. Mmmm, delicious!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


A Techno blog at New Scientist Magazine recently covered a story that I had only just glimpsed in news releases.

(Photo: John Kanzius)

Apparently, a U.S. inventor, John Kanzius (Wikipedia:, has discovered that sea water will burn with a flame when it is irradiated with radio frequency waves around 13.5 Mhz, which is in the neighborhood of ship-to-shore radio.

See a YouTube demonstration at

The water heats up and escaping gases can be ignited into a brightly burning yellow flame. The phenomenon has been replicated. It looks like Kanzius has discovered a new method of electrolysis, the breaking apart of the hydrogen-oxygen bonds in water to release hydrogen and oxygen as gases. In the more traditional method, an electrical current is passed through the water between two metal electrodes, to do that job.


The news media have focused on the potential of burning seawater as a fuel to replace oil. That will probably not happen. We have so much water on earth because water is extremely stable stuff. It takes a lot of energy to break it up, much more energy than the value of any free hydrogen you could ever get as a result.

Furthermore, traditional electrolysis is a lot cheaper and lower energy way to break up water than by using radio frequencies, so there is no obvious benefit to Kanzius’ method of electrolysis.

Still, some interesting questions arise from this finding.

Normally, an atom of oxygen has two stray electrons banging around loose in its outer shell. But an atom of hydrogen happens to be short one electron in its outer (and only) shell. So one oxygen makes two hydrogens very happy by taking care of their electron shortage while putting its two extra electrons to work. That bond between two hydrogens and one oxygen (H2O), works out extremely well for all concerned.

Traditional electrolysis works by providing such an overabundance of free electrons at the cathode (negative end), that the hydrogens do not need to share with oxygen any more. They can get electrons on their own, allowing them to form molecular hydrogen gas (H2), which boils off and can be burned, as Kanzius demonstrated. At the positive electrode, oxygen atoms give up their spare electrons and combine to form molecular oxygen gas (O2).

But why would a radio signal cause the hydrogen-oxygen bonds to break? No new electrons are added to that system. One imagines that the radio frequency used just happens to be one that resonates with the H2O covalent bonds, causing the water molecule to essentially shake itself apart. The fact that the water heats up to 3000 degrees Celsius suggests something like that is going on.

Still, if the radio frequency is really about 13.5 Mhz, not even as much as an AM radio signal, it would seem that the wavelength would be far too large to affect the covalent bonds. I don’t know enough physics to know for sure, but it seems like there is something going on here that is not obvious. What would other radio frequencies do in this situation, for example at exactly half the wavelength?

Next, why is the flame yellow? Hydrogen burns with a colorless (white) flame. Since the demonstration is done with sea water, which has a lot of sodium chloride (salt), we should probably assume that the yellow in the flame comes from oxidizing sodium, which does burn yellow.

I’m not sure how that would work, though. What, exactly is burning? Sodium hydroxide? Some weird hydrogenated plasma of sodium? Again, I lack the basic chemistry and physics to know, but it seems like something unusual is going on there.

Would the demonstration work at all with pure distilled water? If it is merely electrolysis, it should work fine. Yet all the articles I’ve seen on the topic describe only a salt water demonstration. Sea water, to be precise. Why? Would the demonstration work on isotonic saline, or does it have to be sea water? Again, something more than meets the eye is involved here.

Oddly, Kanzius describes the effect not as electrolysis, but as “reunification,” a kind of reverse electrolysis in which atomic hydrogen and oxygen come together to form water. That doesn’t make any sense, since that would consume the flammable gases to create water, which does not burn. Kanzius is not a credentialed scientist, but he clearly knows a thing or two, so I wonder why he would choose such an odd description for his phenomenon. He isn’t saying anything more about it while he applies for patents. This makes me wonder if he knows or suspects something more than electrolysis is involved.

Finally, even though breaking up the hydrogen-oxygen bonds will always use more energy than it releases, that isn’t necessarily a showstopper. Fuel cells and the much ballyhooed “hydrogen car” of the future consume more energy than they produce, but there are other factors to consider besides just thermodynamics.

Sourcing a fuel has costs. Is it cheaper or easier to generate a radio signal than to drill an oil well? Maybe. Distribution and portability of the fuel cost something, and maybe those costs can be lowered. Exhaust gases from combustion can be extremely costly, as we know with petroleum fuel, and those costs are greatly lowered with hydrogen as a fuel. There are also severe political costs and risks associated with fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are much less abundant than seawater. All these non-thermodynamic considerations need to be worked into any feasibility analysis.

So it is not out of the question that hydrogen produced by radio frequency radiation of sea water could be a viable fuel.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

People Never Seen in the Same Room

Assuming they are actually different people, I wonder why no one has cast James Bond star, Daniel Craig, in the part of Vladimir Putin? Or conversely, invited Putin to play a role in a Bond movie?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Vehicular Obsession

Why are people so interested in vehicles? All around the world, as soon as they have enough money for food, what do people want more than anything? A bicycle, scooter, car, or truck. When they finally have plenty of money, what do they want next? A bigger car, another car, an SUV, and a trailer. If someone is lucky enough to have rivers of cash or credit, what do they buy? A sailboat, snowmobile, jet ski, and a Harley. We want a huge RV with bicycles tied to the back, a boat on the roof, and a tow car behind. We would buy jet planes and helicopters if we could. What is the meaning of this human vehicular obsession?

Vehicles are often the tools of production. You can’t get your vegetables to market without a cart. Likewise, you might need a car to get to work. Okay fine. But that cannot be the whole story. You definitely do not need a kayak and a Hummer for anything. A Corolla will get you to
People will buy vehicles even when they don’t need them, can’t afford them, can’t maintain them, and have nowhere to store them. But even if you are swimming in money, why would you spend it on vehicles? How fast do you expect to go on the freeway at 5pm? When I see the sailboats and fishing boats struggling to avoid hitting each other in the bay, I wonder, “Where is the fun in that?”

Why not buy books or music? You can never have too much of those. If money is overflowing your bank account, why not create a scholarship fund, or support health care for people who would really, really be grateful? There are a hundred things to do with money more useful than buying another vehicle.

There must be a deep psychological reason for vehicular obsession because it makes no rational sense. I think it involves subconscious fantasies of omnipotence, omnipresence, and to a lesser extent, omniscience, for the imaginatively challenged.

If you have an attractive, powerful car, then you are attractive and powerful. If the car is expensive, then you must be rich. If it is shiny, you must have good taste. The vehicle defines a new bodily self better than your run-down, flabby body. Actually, even if your body is in great shape, and you look good, and you are rich, you still can’t go from 0 to 60 in five seconds, can you? So you still need a better physical “shell” to fulfill your fantasy life.
Inside the vehicle we put aside our mortal embodiment and become re-embodied as an anonymous homunculus in a steel and glass superbody. The homunculus issues performance commands, enjoys the scenery whipping by, and imagines the awed respect of onlookers (as if anybody really cared how you spend your paycheck).

Other vehicles are seen as people. The person who “cut you off” in traffic is just the red coupe, because you have no idea who is actually in the car. It doesn’t matter. The behavior of the car is the behavior of its driver, just as your car represents your own superpowered body.

Notice that nobody fantasizes about owning a metro bus or an Amtrak train. We’re not interested in possessing public transportation, only personal vehicles. It’s not actually the vehicle we want, no matter how big it is. What we want is a fantasy superbody that can do amazing things.

It is a childish fantasy, like kids who want to be Spiderman, Batman, or Wonder Woman. They can’t think beyond behaving physically in the physical world. Rarely do you hear a child of ten say they would like to become a concert cellist, biologist or novelist. They simply don’t know the range of possibilities that life offers, so all they can think of is running, flying and punching bad guys. Their world view is restricted to the physical.

Vehicular obsessives are that way too. I submit it would be a rare concert cellist, biologist or novelist who drives a Ferrari or owns a sailboat. Why? Because those people have learned to enjoy a life that extends far beyond the physical body.

On the other hand, adults who glorify the physical body and who lack awareness of the depth and extent of intellectual, social, and aesthetic life, would be more likely to suffer vehicular obsession. That crowd would include body builders, dancers, athletes, and people whose mental life is centered around physicality. It would include television and movie actors, models and public figures because they trade in their physical image. The physical is all for them. It would not include radio personalities because only their voice matters so they don’t need a superbody.

If you won the lottery big time, what would you buy? Vehicles?

Friday, July 06, 2007

Science and Islam

I ran across an interesting book by Turkish-educated physicist Taner Edis: An Illusion Of Harmony: Science And Religion In Islam. Prometheus Books, 2007. It is well-reviewed on

The book asks why Islam has contributed nothing to modern science. The answer is simple, frightening, and perplexing. Muslim society is centered on literal interpretation of the Koran, and when scientific findings contradict scripture, science is rejected.

Unlike western societies, Muslim cultures did not experience a historical period like our Enlightenment, from about 1500 to 1650 and continuing to the present. Cultural attitudes about knowledge and truth changed radically in the west during that time. Instead of relying on the king, the church, and the ancients to define truth, the idea emerged that anyone could find out about the world by observing carefully and thinking critically.

The transformation from authoritarianism to empiricism did not always go smoothly, as when Galileo was imprisoned for insisting that his telescopic observations proved that the Earth was not the center of the universe. But over time, educated people in western cultures came to accept that empirical observation made by any suitably trained person produces truth about the natural world, regardless of pronouncements from crown or cross. That is the definition of modernism and of the modern mind.

None of that happened in Muslim history, for reasons that are not clear to me. Consequently, in today’s Muslim culture, religious authority still defines truth and there is no tradition of science. Engineering is well-advanced, according to Edis, but the mentality for questioning, experimentation, skepticism and reliance on empirical observation required for basic research is lacking. Islamic scholars try to reconcile scientific findings and principles with a literal interpretation of the infallible Koran, much as Christian fundamentalists do with the infallible Bible, and failing to find success in that effort, they turn to crackpot pseudoscience that is more compatible.

While western society was changing during the Enlightenment, Islamic cultures remained dominated by orthodox religious scholars who did not encourage “attention to knowledge that did not have any explicit religious purpose,” according to Edis. If one’s world view is totally defined by what’s in the Koran, then of course science would be a waste of time. But how could anyone live like that? What about natural curiosity?

It seems perfectly obvious to me that given the right population density, health and nutrition, with plenty of commerce to facilitate the exchange of ideas, the modern mind, and with it the scientific world view, would automatically flourish. People are naturally curious, they want to understand the natural world, and given the opportunity to explore, they would. But what is obvious to me is obviously wrong, since it did not happen that way in Islamic societies.

It’s a frightening contrast because it reminds me how totally alienated the two world views are from each other. We are never, ever going to resolve our differences in discussion over coffee! The historical differences have produced mind-sets that are too different to support much discussion.

But why can’t fundamentalists let it be? Why do they have to blow things up? If they prefer to live in a premodern state, why not do so quietly? What is the source of the animosity between us?

There are historical animosities, like the Crusades and the taking of Muslim lands by Israel. But there have been similar animosities in western cultures, including two recent world wars, but we worked it out. There is something else going on in the tension between western and Islamic cultures.

The obvious answer is that we want their oil, and they want our respect. Could it be as simple as that? I don’t think so. Such a simple trade could easily be worked out if that’s all there were to it.

Instead, I think each side wants the other to conform to its self. We want them to be secular democracies like us, with liberal, tolerant values and a modern, scientific outlook, like ours. But they want us to be fervent, unquestioning, literal believers of every word of the Koran, like them. Each side wants to recreate the other in its own image and is not content to let the other be different.

Why this mutually exclusive absolutism? Because each side believes its view of humanity, God, life and world is absolutely correct and that the other side’s is absolutely wrong. These unyielding positions are not just prideful postures. Their assumptions are so deeply ingrained into the fabric of each culture that it is not mentally possible to question one’s own position without a great deal of education and reflection.

We are modernists, products of the western Enlightenment and it is not actually possible for most of us to get free of that and think in premodern terms. It’s not a question of listening more carefully to the other side; we just can’t comprehend their assumptions about the world. Why not?

This is a perplexing mystery.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Who’s the Peacock Now?

Last weekend I had to go to a “gala” charity event. I hate those things, with their ironically named silent auction, with the countdown of time remaining to bid blasted over a loudspeaker to penetrate the din of banal conversation blanketed by a layer of canned music from a half century ago (Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, and even the comeback Tony Bennett, not the Tony Bennett of the 40’s and 50’s who could actually sing). Last year we got a live string quartet. They must be cutting costs. And the speeches, good lord, the unending self-congratulatory speeches! But attending is the socially responsible thing to do, so I hold my nose, watch the clock, and make nice.

(Notice in the picture that my lovely wife is not displaying a peacock fan.)

Anyway, a woman with breath of crab cakes shouted an interesting offhand comment into my face. “It’s amazing what the women wear to these things,” she said, “compared to what men wear.” I looked around and she was right. Women had all manner of fantastic getups, in drapes of shiny fabrics, gauze, or lace; dripping sequins, jewels, and shiny pins; wearing upright collars, enormous floppy collars, no collars; cut-away fronts, backs and sides (not all on the same woman). There was every imaginable color including some you couldn't name. Men, on the other hand, were uniformly in dark blue suits or black tuxedoes. The daring ones allowed themselves a colorful print on the bow tie.

In the animal kingdom, the male is the brightly colored one. That spectacular peacock tail has very high evolutionary cost, since it serves no purpose, save one: to attract females, in the hope of scoring fertilization of some eggs. The eggs are the high value resource that males must compete for.

But in the human world (of charity events anyway), eggs mean nothing. The women give the showy display instead, apparently competing for men. Why? Presumably for the opportunity to score (or retain) wealth and security. The evolutionary script has flipped. How did this happen?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Why There Are No Aliens

People are fascinated with the idea that there are aliens out there; intelligent beings like us, or maybe not like us. This theme has been a staple of television and movies for decades, and is an obsession of UFO buffs. Scientists started the SETI project (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) in the hope of making contact with aliens. But there are no aliens.

How can I be so sure? With tens of billions of galaxies each containing hundreds of billions of stars, many of them like ours, statistics alone would argue for the nonzero probability of life elsewhere in the universe.

Ah, but I do not argue against the probability of extraterrestrial life. It would not surprise me too much if bacteria were found in some moist spot on Mars.

What’s impossible are intelligent aliens; beings that have thoughts, and technologies like radio and space travel and who could communicate with us. Why is that impossible? Because it is oxymoronic. It’s like trying to conceptualize a square circle or a flying pig. You can do it vaguely, in abstractions, as long as you don’t think it through too clearly. But if you give the idea a moment of serious thought, it becomes obvious that it is so muddled, we don’t know what we are talking about.

“Alien” means not like me; foreign in nature; from some other context. Yet we always assume our own context. That’s why E.T. (from the famous movie) looks so remarkably humanoid: one head, frontal eyes, mouth for speaking and eating (language too of course), two arms, two legs, one torso, ten fingers, bipedal locomotion, breathes air, functions in 1g of gravity, and on and on. Sure, he has some special powers and some special needs, but don’t we all. The differences are minor. How alien is E.T.? Not very. He is us.

The old TV show, Star Trek, had some imaginative aliens. My favorite was the Hortas. They were a silicon-based life form (as opposed to our carbon –based) and they looked approximately like a two-foot long gray egg with a fringe around the edge. The fringe presumably was for locomotion, as the Horta were ground dwellers. They looked like big rocks, but they were intelligent, as Spock proved by making a Vulcan mind link with one of them. That was a good representation of an alien that tried to cut through anthropocentric imagery. Nevertheless, the Horta still had thoughts and concerns very much human. It was concerned with territory, safety, family, nutrition and longevity. It didn’t look like us, but it was us.

Another good fictional alien was the race of Krell, the mysterious, extinct beings in the movie, Forbidden Planet, who left behind a gigantic underground computing complex. But surprise, they were not extinct as thought, and when they manifest, they appeared as wavering ghostly shapes of light, a sort of body. It turned out that the Krell were actually projections of the unconscious mind of man, the opposite of alien; extreme intimates of humanity. But their initial representation without a substantial body was innovative.

But why would a real alien have a psychology anything like ours? Would an alien distinguish subjectivity from objectivity, as we do? There’s no reason to think so. Would aliens think of the world as separate from themselves? Could they distinguish themselves as individuals in a group, or not? Maybe they would be absolute individuals. Is intelligence necessarily social? Would alien minds undergo years of socialization as ours do? Would they necessarily have language? Would they be mortal, and if so, would they conceptualize their mortality, and if so, would that mean anything important to them? Would they be susceptible to perceptual illusions (assuming they had perception)? Would they have emotions?

That list goes on endlessly. The fact is, we cannot conceive of a psychology that is very different from our own. We have no reason to expect that we could ever recognize aliens as intelligent beings since only egocentricism prompts us to suppose they would have a psychology like ours. Maybe they’re here now! Maybe the trees are them! That makes about as much sense as anything else.

A related problem is that we have no idea what “intelligence” is, not even in humans, let alone in aliens. We have vague ideas like “smart” versus “dim” people, but we really don’t know how to define that, even for ourselves. So looking for an alien intelligence is looking for something we cannot conceive.

In the movie, Contact, a message from aliens appeared on a computer screen in the pattern of a circle. The scientists looking at it appeared to be gazing into a large hand-mirror. As in fact they were.

The spacecraft Pioneer 10 was launched in 1972 by NASA. It left the solar system after its mission, to fly forever into deep space. The question arose, "What if someday, some intelligent extraterrestrial beings saw our spacecraft floating through deep space, and caught it. Wouldn't it be nice if we had a message for them." So it was decided that a small plaque would be mounted on the spacecraft with a message to the aliens. This is not a Hollywood movie. This actually happened.

What should we say on the plaque? And how? Do aliens know English? What if everyone speaks Spanish in interstellar space? The scientists got around that dilemma by using only pictures and symbols on the plaque. The nine planets of our solar system are shown lined up next to our sun as ten circles. The fourth one from the left (our circle) has an arrow coming off it that points to a little drawing of the spacecraft. Obviously, what we're trying to say here is that this spacecraft came from Earth, third planet from the Sun.

Is that obvious? Would it be obvious to an alien? This plaque is a monument to our ignorance and egocentricism. In what way does a circle represent a planet? Planets aren't circles. And in what way does a line of ten circles represent a solar system? Maybe the illustration means we really like to play billiards here on Earth. As for the arrow on one of the circles, what is an "arrow" anyway? A drawn arrow is a derivative of a hunting arrow, isn't it? Do we suppose that any aliens worth their salt would have used arrows at one time? For hunting space buffalo?

The line drawings of the naked man and woman are uninterpretable. They could be diagrams of electronic circuits. They could be coffee stains. How would an alien even know which side of the drawing was up? The incredible naiveté of the plaque designers seems to suggest that the aliens will look at the drawings and say, "Oh look. On Earth they're parting their hair on the left now."

Even if we allow that aliens might have some experience in common with us about solar systems and hydrogen atoms, it is a vast leap to assume they will also share our concepts of circles, arrows, binary arithmetic, time, distance, figure-ground relationships, spatial orientation, and two-dimensional line drawings. That plaque is just another hand mirror. We cannot conceive of an alien intelligence.

To summarize then. Why are there no intelligent extraterrestrial aliens? For the same reason there are no xlotopopples.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

We Live in the Past

English astronomers have discovered some very young galaxies, according to a new study (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, abstract available at, cited by Cowen (2007).

Twenty-one extremely young galaxies were identified. (Audience yells: “How young were they?”) These galaxies were so young, their eyes had just opened even though they had no face yet (see spooky picture above from the Hubble space telescope). Actually, they formed only 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang, which on a human time scale is about 8 years old.

These galaxies have many interesting properties, but what made me stop was the thought that if a giant green monster appeared in the sky and ate these galaxies, we would not know. It takes 12 billion years for light from these galaxies to reach us, traveling at, of course, the speed of light!

This is an old mind-twister that we learn in high school, but I still have trouble with it. As we see these galaxies now, we are looking at light that has reached us after traveling through space for the last 12 billion years, beginning long before the earth itself even existed. We are seeing what they looked like 12 billion years ago. They could have turned pink and formed the word “Hello!” in the sky, then gone back to their present configuration, but such antics would not be visible to us until many more billions of years from now.

The Hubble is a time machine. How do we feel about that? We are looking at these galaxies now, right now in the present moment. Yet we are seeing them as they were 12 billion years ago. What sense does that make?

It’s not like looking at an old picture of the 1880’s. Even though all the people in the picture are long since dead, you don’t get the sense (very much ) that you are peering through the veil of death because the photograph itself has survived (even if it’s a copy of a copy). We understand that many things in the universe survive longer than a human being.

But in this case, we are not looking at an old picture of a galaxy. We are looking at the galaxy as it appears in the natural world today. How can we be looking at something in the natural world today and be seeing it as it was 12 billion years ago, with no possible way to observe it as it is today?

This is also not like reconstructing the ages of things in the fossil record. We can say a certain plant lived 2 billion years ago, based on fossils. There were no humans around to see it, but we are here now and we see the traces it left behind. That’s like seeing someone’s footprints in the snow. The person is gone now, but the footprints reveal their former presence.

We are not looking at these galaxies' footprints or the dust and gas left over after they blew up. That’s them, right there, in the sky now. And yet, we are seeing what they looked like before we got here; before there even was a here here.

And the lifetime of those galaxies, as they grew up from 8 years old to the 80 years old they would be today, on a human scale – that lifetime is in the galaxies’ past, but it is in our future to observe it. In that sense, the galaxies, as they exist today, are 12 billion years in our future.

What’s amazing is that the same principle applies to looking at anything. When I look at my computer screen, I am seeing it in the past, because it takes a certain finite, non-zero amount of time for the light to reach my eyes, just as it does for the light from those distant galaxies. Of course that time is much shorter for the computer screen. In the same way, everything I see, I see in the past. It is not possible, in principle, to ever perceive anything in the present moment. Everything we perceive is history. We just choose to ignore the time lag when convenient. So is there a present moment? There can't be, in principle. We live in the past.

Cowen, R. (2007). Back to (Near) the Beginning: Galactic Springtime. Science News, 171 (April 21) 246.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Are Birds Imposters?

It has come to my attention that fish have no legs. This makes perfect sense for them, since they are fish. So why do birds have legs? A bird is designed as a flying machine (ignoring penguins, ostriches, and so on) and yet they can’t really make a living in the air, the way fish make a living in the sea. Who are birds trying to fool with the flying stunt?

Birds need those ridiculous little stick legs for landing on wires and for hopping about in the grass. Those are not serious legs. If you really need to make your living in on the ground rather than in the air, why be designed as a grand flying machine with inadequate legs?

It’s as if humans were designed with gills, but since we make our living on dry land, we had to evolve a bubble of water over our heads to breathe. It wouldn’t be efficient.

A bird should have proper legs like a mammal or a reptile so it can get around for hunting and breeding, and if it needs to fly, then some auxiliary wings. An eagle is a reasonable design, since it has substantial legs for hunting from the air, although it doesn’t walk well.

Geese should be embarrassed to walk. What sense does it make to be a bird that eats grass? Why not put wings on a cow?

Birds are really terrestrial animals just pretending to live aeronautically. Imposters, all. (Except raptors, perhaps.)

The ideal bird would be able to make its living entirely in the air, by intercepting insects the way bats do, or by filtering tiny organisms out of the air, as whales do from the water.

The basic problem with birds is that they are heavier than air so they can’t stay up all the time. The ideal bird would be about the same density as air. Then it could live in the medium for which it was designed. It wouldn’t need legs and I would feel better about that.