May 11, 2013
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Bearing in mind the recent posts here that relate to the notion of a “self“… And thinking about our strongly ingrained consumeristic tendencies in this multimedia age of memetic supremacy… Not to mention our general herd-like behavioural patterns that we all (no matter who we are) get lost in from time to time i.e. at base: if Mr. Smith has an Audi, then so should I… I found myself walking past someone in need the other day without considering to help them.
I was in hurry to get to the bank in order to pay in some cheques I’d received for a bill that had already been paid out from my family’s business account. During the 20 minute march from my front door to the bank, I was focused on getting the cheques paid in so that we wouldn’t go over-drawn. While totally focused on my goal, I dodged families in the park next door (smiling kindly to the children who we dashing down the paths on scooters), crossed traffic laden roads (thanking the drivers who waited for me to cross the road before nuzzling up to the car in front’s bumper a couple of meters away), avoided teenagers walking four abreast on the pavement with no intention to reconfigure to give fair way to other passers by… And I also missed the old lady who was having a hard time bending down after she’d dropped her credit card by the “hole in the wall”.
“Tick-tock” my wrist watch clanged in my mind as I pictured the seconds fluttering past, which drove on the minutes towards a final cascade of closing steel shutters and possible bank charges for going overdrawn. Then, at least five paces further down the road and faced with a person burdened with shopping bags, I wondered why… ?
That’s when I realised what I had done. I had completely missed what had been (and probably still was) happening directly to my right (and back a bit now). The old lady… She had been devilishly having a hard time, clutching her handbag and walking stick in one frail, white hand while trying to defeat the stiffness of her back and legs so as to pick up her card to try to make her weekly withdrawal. I had seen it all unfolding in such obvious detail and clarity and, yet, something in my mind had found reason to overlook the simple bit of aid that I could have given to someone that wouldn’t have taken more than a minute of my time.
“BANK CHARGES!” rang through my mind… So I looked at my watch before I even turned around. I had 10 minutes left to get to the bank. Briefly I spun around to glance at the lady… Someone who had been waiting by the bus stop next to the cash point had noticed and had come to her aid. “Phew,” I thought as I marched on determined to get to where I needed to be. Still, while checking along, I suddenly remembered a few other incidents I had missed in and around Brighton recently due to “pressing” appointments I had had to keep. None of these, I reasoned, would have taken more than a minute or two of my time to offer a friendly hand to help. But even more pressing was the fact that I was totally amazed at the clarity of detail I could recall about the incidents of people to help, especially as I was “somewhere” else in mind. !?
Yes, we all have businesses to run. But, with a bit more awareness about what’s going on around us each moment and a bit better planning (so we don’t leave the proverbial bank run till last thing in the day), we might well find time to offer help where (and when) it is needed.
Bearing this in mind, I remembered a TED talk that Daniel Goleman gave on compassion back in 2007… And I’d like to share it here with anyone passing by… Hoping they have a few minutes to spare.
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To find out where I sourced the above video from, please click here.
To find out more about Daniel Goleman, please visit here his website by clicking here.
December 23, 2012
In lieu of the recent winter Solstice celebration, I’d like to offer everyone who passes by this website a short film that holds a special message for us all. It was made by a couple of friends of a friend, and has been leading up to their first general release, entitled “Continuum“, which is a feature length film looking at the root of the environmental crisis we are now all facing here on planet Earth. Perhaps, what with the recent end of the Mayan Long Count calendar (which some said was meant to spell the end of the world), we would all be advised to usher in a new way of perceiving the world on which we live, listening to those fortunate and wise enough to have seen something different to daily life that resides on the planet’s surface. Why? Because, bearing in mind all the recent indisputable evidence for man’s part in climate change, we might do well to begin to cultivate and cherish this finite planetary perspective that Guy and Steve have re-considered here, so as to avoid more sentient being casualties further down the line.
Fear not… It will not even take 20 minutes of your time… And will hopefully leave you with a thought that will change the way you understand our world and our roll in it.
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If you’d like to learn more about Guy and Steve, the creators of this amazing film, please check out their website by clicking here.
Or if you’d like to see more of their work, please check out their Vimeo channel, entitled the Planetary Collective, by clicking here.
July 18, 2012
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The opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.
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While the first part of this exposé on the notion of a ‘self’ discussed how the idea of my own individual ‘self,’ as a distinct and separate entity that (at least in the present social context of most Western understanding) seems to be independently existent aside from everything else outside of it, might – in actual fact – only be an illusory conceptualisation that had been derived from our use of language and fragmented academic understandings (about what we are and what we are not) that aim to separate the world into definable and distinctly measurable/quantifiable parts… Part 2 will focus on the idea of how our senses (which I will parallel with the idea lying behind a particular optical illusion) form the notion of a “self”… When viewed in this way, it poses the question of whether the notion of our “selves” is actually merely just an illusion and, thus, begets whether or not we should be bypassing all and any certainty that we may have that the “self” actually does exist as a separate and independent entity from everything else. Just as a mirage in a desert can fool the thirsty person who perceives it to be a real body of water… Running forward without ever reaching it to quench their thirst… So to can the notion of a ‘self’ be seen as a type of mirage that causes us to function in such a way that is not in line with the true nature of reality.
Certainly we can all – to varying degrees – perceive the world around us using these bio-molecular bodies that we all have come into (I will not doubt this point here, as Descartes did, mainly because other philosophers have adequately covered the ground of this seemingly futile question well enough for me for the moment). Through these bodies, we find our “selves” in near proximity to all that we immediately experience going on around us. It is as though we are continually immersed in all the activity that is directly going on around us, seeing it only from the locality of our own body’s perspective. This is because we perceive all the things/objects/events in our lives via our senses i.e. sight with eyes, hearing through our ears, tasting with our tongues, scents through our noses, touching with our bodies… And as each of our senses are derived from and associated with the various organs we just described, all of which are directly attached to our bodies, is it any wonder that rarely do we see things from the perspective of another body? Our perceptions don’t just easily re-tune into what another person is seeing from their seemingly separate bodily perspective. Thus, on the whole, “I” tend to perceive the world around me exactly as though my very body were the central hub from which all interaction with the outside surrounding world happened. And it is because of this proximity to everything around us that “I” mostly always feel to be embedded right in the middle of ‘my’ body.
So… Is it really any wonder that we perceive our “selves” to be separate independent entities that exist separately from one another, and/or as separately from everything else going on around us? Still… Despite the obvious answer to this question, I would nonetheless like to further expound on the seemingly absurd notion that the “self”, appearing to be independent of everything else around it, actually isn’t… And I aim to make my point by means of drawing a parallel between a well-known optical illusion and the idea of the senses forming an illusion of “self.”
By doing this, I hope not to disprove that the “self” exists at all… Rather my aim is to help us re-equate the notion of our “self” into a softer and more gentle fit for the present world around us i.e. as a designated notion of how our body – along with its feelings, emotions, thoughts, opinions, desires, etc… – can be described as an entity that is different from another’s for the purpose of describing our experiences separately.
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As some of you may already know… I have a tendency to call myself a Buddhist most of the time… Though I dare say that I have quite a bit of trouble walking the path of one nearly all the time. Still, I do my best, and on the whole, whenever some free-time presents itself, I enjoy reading as much as I can about the subject and how it relates back to some of the thoughts that I have while reading about scientific modes of inquiry into what consciousness might actually be.
As it happened, yesterday I was reading about how our consciousness is apparently connected to the world that we perceive around us via a website called the “Mind Lab.” On it, I came across four beautifully presented sessions that aim to investigate and demonstrate how our brain perceives everyday phenomena, as well as how there are in fact clear limits to what and how we can perceive these daily phenomena. While these limits might not be easily noticed by many of us, they nonetheless exist and very much influence the way in which we perceive and understand the world around us.
For the purposes of this entry, I would like to focus on the last session of the “Mind Lab” website, where we are presented with a well known illusion called the Kanizsa Triangle (see diagram immediately below). The Kanizsa Triangle was named after the Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa who first described its effect.
When you look at the above image your brain creates contours (outlines) of a triangle, even though one does not actually exist. In reality it is simply an illusion created by the the wedges and angles that exist in the image. To further this, on the “Mind Lab” website, in the session on “Perception Beyond Sensory Input”, we are told that:
“The brain sometimes perceives shapes and colours even in situations where there is no corresponding sensory input coming from the outside world.”
“For example (in the image directly above), you should see the missing sections of these dark disks as the sides of a square that is brighter than its surroundings, and even be able to see the vague contour lines of a square that doesn’t actually exist.
“When the brain sees an image like this, it interprets depth relationships to perceive that ‘there is a square set on top of four black disks.’”
The article on “Perception Beyond Sensory Input” then goes on to say, “these non-existent subjective contours can also occur with colour.” We are then presented with two more diagrams that illustrate illusions of this type and, are conclusively, lead to believe “that these subjective contours and colours are constructed by the brain to compensate for missing sensory information.”
Through out the rest of the piece we are presented with various examples that show us how our brain and mind automatically interpret things about the world around us, thus making assumptions about things that appear to be there when, in fact, they are not.
While reading through this section of the “Mind Lab” website, it dawned on me that the “self” came across as something very similar to the points (or disks) seen in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion that suggested to the brain/mind that there was a triangle present. But rather than graphical points in a diagram, when I began looking at what the “self” was, these points became points of a nexus of experiential phenomena that suggested the presence of a contained “self” – or an “I” – that resided in geographical proximity to each other, at the centre of a distinct and seemingly separate body i.e. our physical body.
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In order to make my point clearer, I would like to elaborate on a Buddhist idea that I recently came across called the “Five Skandhas” relating to the nature of compounded reality.
It should be noted here that Buddhism is not a religion in the classical sense i.e. it does not have a centralised omnipotent or omnipresent God or series of Gods that can be worshiped or appeased. Rather, Buddhism is based around the teachings of one man, a man who became the Gautama Buddha, or an enlightened being. And, as one does when ones achieves perfect realisation (so I’m told), he became perfectly aware of the true nature of reality and of all compounded phenomena that give rise to experience and karma.
No doubt, as the Buddha himself stated on several occasions, he was only ever truly just a man… A man who had strived to understand the world around him as best as he could in order to help all beings achieve a state of non-suffering, or Nirvana… And in doing so, he had severed all ties to the Karmic patterns of being that had kept him locked into daily routines of unenlightened activity so as to help other beings achieve the ultimate state of realisation that he had attained. Thus, rather than achieving enlightenment through supernatural means, he had merely learnt many helpful techniques from all the learned masters he had met during his lifetime (and previous lives). Then, along with much diligence, he had practised all these techniques with immeasurable devotion until he became a fully enlightened being.
I suppose I find strong parallels between how the Gautama Buddha learnt these techniques of liberation from all the Karmic patterns of his own making, as well as of those of other learned masters, AND how scientific methods of inquiry looking into phenomena so as to figure out how all the facets of the bigger picture fit into together and work around one another… Just as the Buddha strove to see things clearly and perfectly, without any dis-figuration or misunderstanding, in order to crystallise them into a naturally formed primordial experience devoid of any need for description or intellectualism, so too does science strive to see things clearly and perfectly without dis-figuration or misunderstanding (although without loosing the need for description or intellectualism). Perhaps this is why an eminent Buddhist teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche, wrote in his book, entitled “The Joy Of Living”, Buddhism “is a type of science, a method of exploring your own experience through techniques that enable you to examine your actions and reactions in a non-judgmental way…” While looking into the idea of what the “self” was, it was this particular quote that encouraged me to see the parallel between the concept behind an optical illusion (the Kanizsa Triangle) and the Buddhist idea of “non-self.”
Bearing this in mind… The Buddhist idea that I would like to have a look at to illustrate my point about how similar certain ‘optical’ illusions are to the notion of “non-self” is the principle of the ‘skandhas.’ The skandhas (which is Sanskrit) are any of five types of phenomena that serve as objects of ‘clinging’ and bases for a sense of ‘self.’ The historical Buddha often spoke of the “Five Skandhas,” also called the “Five Aggregates” or the “Five Heaps,” and taught that nothing among them is really ‘I’ or ‘mine.’ The skandhas, very roughly, might be thought of as components that come together to make an individual. Every thing that we think of as ‘I’ is a function of the skandhas. Put another way, we might think of an individual as a process of the skandhas (just in the same way that the points and angles in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion ‘suggest’ the presence of a triangle).
When the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, he began with the first Truth, life is ‘dukkha.’ This is often translated as ‘life is suffering,’ or ‘stressful’ or ‘unsatisfactory.’ But it is also well documented in Buddhism that the Buddha also used the word to mean ‘impermanent’ and ‘conditioned.’ To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. The Buddha taught that the skandhas were dukkha.
The component parts of the skandhas work together in such a seamless way that they create the sense of a single ‘self,’ or a notion of ‘I’ (much like the points and angles do in the Kanizsa Triangle when our body observes it). Despite this single sense of an isolated ‘self,’ the Buddha taught that there is no ‘self’ occupying the skandhas (much like there is actually no triangle present in the Kanizsa Triangle). Thus, in Buddhism, developing a deep understanding the skandhas is extremely helpful to seeing through the illusion of ‘self.’
Please note that, while the explanation provided here is very basic, it is suitable to demonstrate how the five senses come together to produce a sense of ‘I’ and/or ‘self.’ Also, it should be noted that the various schools of Buddhism understand the skandhas somewhat differently from one another, so if you were to read more about them you may find that the teachings of one school don’t exactly match the teachings of another.
In a moment I’ll discuss how the Six Organs/Senses or Faculties relate to the Five Skandas. But before I do this, I would like to individually list the Six Organs/Senses, along with their corresponding objects, so that we might get a clearer view of what they are exactly in Buddhist terms.
The Six Sense Organs or Faculties are:
The Six Corresponding Objects to the Sense Organs are (respectively):
1. Visible form
5. Tangible things
6. Thoughts and ideas
Next I will discuss the Five Skandas and how they relate to the Six Sense Organs or Faculties.
1. The First Skandha: Form (Rupa)
Rupa is form or matter; something material that can be sensed. In early Buddhist literature, rupa includes the Four Great Elements (solidity, fluidity, heat, and motion) and their derivatives. These derivatives are the first five faculties listed above (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body) and the first five corresponding objects (visible form, sound, odor, taste, tangible things).
Another way to understand rupa is to think of it as something that resists the probing of the senses. For example, an object has form if it blocks your vision – you can’t see what’s on the other side of it – or if it blocks your hand from occupying its space.
2. The Second Skandha: Sensation (Vedana)
Vedana is physical or mental sensation that we experience through contact of the six faculties with the external world. In other words, it is the sensation experienced through the contact of eye with visible form, ear with sound, nose with odour, tongue with taste, body with tangible things, mind (manas) with ideas or thoughts.
It is particularly important to understand that manas – mind – in the skandhas is a sense organ or faculty, just like an eye or an ear. We tend to think that mind is something like a spirit or soul, but that concept is very out of place in Buddhism.
Because vedana is the experience of pleasure or pain, it conditions craving, either to acquire something pleasurable or avoid something painful.
3. The Third Skandha: Perception (Samjna, or in Pali, Sanna)
Samjna is the faculty that recognizes. Most of what we call thinking fits into the aggregate of samjna.
The word “samjna” means “knowledge that puts together.” It is the capacity to conceptualize and recognize things by associating them with other things. For example, we recognize shoes as shoes because we associate them with our previous experience(s) with shoes.
When we see something for the first time, we invariably flip through our mental index cards to find categories we can associate with the new object. It’s “some kind of tool with a red handle,” for example, putting the new thing in the categories “tool” and “red.” Or, we might associate an object with its context – we recognize a machine as a car because we see them regularly on the roads around us.
4. The Fourth Skandha: Mental Formation (Samskara, or in Pali, Sankhara)
All volitional actions, good and bad, are included in the aggregate of mental formations. How are actions “mental” formations? As is stated in the first lines of the dhammapada (Acharya Buddharakkhita translation):
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”
The aggregate of mental formations is associated with karma, because volitional acts create karma. Samsara also contains latent karma that conditions our attitudes and predilections. Biases and prejudices belong to this skandha, as do interests and attractions.
5. The Fifth Skandha: Consciousness (Vijnana, or in Pali, Vinnana)
Vijnana is a reaction that has one of the six faculties as its basis and one of the six corresponding phenomena as its object. For example, aural consciousness – hearing – has the ear as its basis and a sound as its object. Mental consciousness has the mind (manas) as its basis and an idea or thought as its object.
It is important to understand that consciousness depends on the other skandhas and does not exist independently from them. It is an awareness but not a recognition, as recognition is a function of the third skandha. This awareness is not sensation, which is the second skandha. For most of us in the West, this is a very different way to think about “consciousness.”
It is also important to remember that vijnana is not “special” or “above” the other skandhas. It is not the “self.” It is the action and interaction of all five skandhas that create the illusion of a ‘self…’ This is much like Kalu Rinpoche discusses in “Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness” when he discusses tendrel in relation to what actually makes the sound of a bell.
As a buffer to this idea… I’d like to highlight an exert from a book that I have been reading, entitled “No Self, No Problem.”
We identify with our body made of flesh, bones, and other components and therefore we believe that we are material, substantial, and concrete. This understanding has become so embedded in our belief system that we rarely question it. The results of that are the inevitable conditions of old age, sickness, and death. We acquire these conditions simply out of believing that we are this physical body. We always pay a high price when we believe false ideas. This perception is not just held individually; it is held dearly by the collective mind of society and has been for many generations. That is why it is so strongly entrenched in our psyche. Our normal, everyday perception of each other is governed by this false identity and then strengthened and enforced by the language we use.
At a very early age we are indoctrinated into this notion of self as the body. For example when we see a small child we say, “He is beautiful. I love his hair. she has the cutest eyes.” Through thoughts and comments such as these we are planting the seeds of this mistaken identity. Of course there is nothing wrong with giving compliments. It is much better than criticism. However it is still a form of misconception. The truth is that, independent of any characteristics, a child is inherently beautiful the moment she is born. So we are are all beautiful.
We are living in an age when people are disconnected from their true identity and this false perception is validated from every angle. Everyone is craving a perfect body and seeking it in others. For example, when you go to the grocery store you see magazines displaying pictures of men and women in a perfect and idealized youthful form. It is very difficult to resist these messages. They come from everywhere, all aspects of society, and they validate this sense of mistaken identity. They validate the sense that this body is who we really are. Given the tendency to establish a perfect idealized standard, many people suffer from pride, narcissism, arrogance, shame, guilt, and self-hatred because of their relationship with their body and their ability or inability to reflect this perfect standard.
Every moment when we wake up and look into the mirror there is a voice in our mind that is constantly judging us and others according to this standard. Have you ever noticed that? Our mind is always judging: “Oh, another wrinkle. She is too fat. He is strange looking. She is beautiful. He is handsome.” These judgements not only create a stumbling block on our spiritual path, they also create clouds of negativity in our consciousness and keep us firmly chained in the prison of duality.
But there is no need to hold onto this. There is the possibility of transcending this identification with our body in each and every moment. It is only when we drop all of these judgements that we will recognize that everyone is divine in their uniqueness. Egoic mind is always comparing self with others because it believes itself to be a separate entity and it uses the body as the divine line between self and others.
We are nonmaterial. We are insubstantial. We are not like a tale that eventually breaks down. The very essence of who we are goes beyond the conditions of decay and impermanence. Yes, our body is impermanent but our true nature is not impermanent. Our true nature is deathless and divine, transcending all imperfections. Because of this we are all equal, we are all one. Nobody is better or worse than anybody else. When someone manifests their true nature, they live out of love, kindness, and joy. They inflict less pain on others. When we meditate, sooner or later we discover that this is not just abstract theory. This corresponds to the truth, to reality.
by Anam Thubten
I hope that here you can now begin to see how the notion of a ‘self’ might comes about, as well as how it relates to an illusionary triangle that is suggested in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion. Just as the three disks and three angles in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion sit within proximity to each other in the diagram to suggest a triangle, so too do the six sense organs join together by way of the body via the 5 skandhas to produce a notion of a “self” or “I.”
I should highlight here that I am in no way suggesting that our “self” does not actually exist… Neither am I saying that it is certainly and independently existent of everything else. Rather I am suggesting that, in a relative sense, the “self” is related to many interdependent phenomena and, so, it should be obvious how the notion of our “self” is not independently existing away from everything/anything else around us i.e. the understanding that we are independent entities is actually a flawed perspective… In reality, everything is interconnected to everything else in a long chain-mail of causes and effects.
When we truly begin to understand this perspective, all the separate aspects of “self” and “other” merge into a unifying whole. What exactly happens at this point is somewhat beyond me as, while I can fairly clearly grasp the conceptual idea lying behind the negation of a certain and independent ‘self’, I find it possibly to be one of the hardest and most problematic notions to actually embrace into my being and way of living… I presume this is because ‘I’ am riddled with all sorts socially accepted forms of memetic vagaries and ideals, all of which relate very strongly and concisely to my living in a highly capitalist and consumerist society, the roots of which appear to be so deeply entrenched in my being that it somewhat reminds me of how I clear out the flower beds around my home from all the “creeping buttercup” that comes back each year… Every effort made to remove this invasive and vivacious plant from my garden’s boarders – even if almost all of the tiny/minuscule roots are removed (and, trust me, removing them all is near on an impossible task) – so as to prevent it strangling the other flowers that lie in the beds, is only as good as partially doing the job that is needed… Just one small part of a root left unwittingly in the bed ensures that the “buttercup” will come back the following year. In many ways, in order to take a decent go at negating my ‘self-ish’ tendencies, I would need to totally remove my ‘Being’ from the daily bombardment of advertising and business that I am presently immersed in, as well as taking solace away from usual social engagements and enactments, all of which would be much like one removing all the contaminated soil in and around the surrounding area to get rid of every last piece of the overbearing buttercup. No doubt it is a problem to develop a more attune sense of ‘self’ in a culture that ubiquitously embraces the ‘self’ as a justified and certain way of understanding and being.
Perhaps the only answer is to remove myself further from this culture’s pervasive and ‘self-ish’ embrace on my psyche? Or perhaps I should find a master to help me progress beyond this point at which I find myself stuck… And allow me to let go of my polarised views of what is right or wrong and so embrace all that simply is as it is… ? As emptiness… ?
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To find out more about Anam Thubten Rinpoche’s book, from Rinpoche himself, please click here.
June 2, 2012
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A few months back I watched a three part BBC documentary, entitled “The Code.” In this documentary Professor Marcus du Sautoy – the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science – discussed and demonstrated how our world is underpinned by a myriad of patterns and rhythms, all of which inter-react and inter-relate to one another in sometimes obvious, but mainly not so obvious, ways… However, when we logically work through these anomalies via modes of mathematical inquiry, after much study (so as not to make assumptions based on pure inference alone) we can quite discernibly trace out the workings behind most of their seemingly undefinable methods of unfolding. Thus, through this penetrating gaze of mathematical scrutiny, we can tell a lot about the processes of the world in which we live… As well as how we ourselves – as biological systems that are also based on mathematical unfolding – relate to the world around us.
While my partner is undoubtedly not a fan of Professor du Sautoy – mainly because of what she calls his slightly fanatical slant on how everything mathematical is so utterly amazing and, thus, must be the ‘main’ (if not, only) reason why we are all here – I must say that I still rather enjoy the way he meditates upon complex mathematical subjects and, yet, still manages to bring across a deeply penetrating and intricate understanding about how many universal processes – most of which seem to have no obvious explanation – function and unfold around us and/or within us in such a way that even a layman could grasp the blatant consequence of what these little insights demonstrate to us about our place here in the cosmos.
Still, quirky mannerisms aside, there is one important point in particular that Professor du Sautoy decidedly highlights in this series… One that, at least for me, seems to conspicuously stand apart from the rest. Why? Because it is a finding that, in my eyes, shows us how important everyone’s perspective here on Earth actually is to everyone else, no matter how outlandish or wild it might sound or seem… Especially to those of us who are looking for an answer to something specific.
But, more to the point, what probably makes this point even more fascinating for me is the fact that… Perhaps if it is used wisely by us all, it might allow every human being to gain a more accurate and compassionate insight into many of the most important questions that we all have concerning our existence here on Earth… About what our consciousness actually is… Along with how we perceive ourselves via processes of mind in the daily experience of being human. I mean… What more ‘just’ and ‘ethical’ a way to achieve a better understanding about who we are, than to ask for every individual’s perspective on the subject… Doing so, regardless of how absurd it may sound to any one of us from our own perspective… ?
Sure… To some it might well sound like a recipe for total disaster… One that could only blur and obfuscate our vision of what unknown quantity might actually be… I mean, can you imagine the notion of a God in an atheist’s understanding of how the world came about? Or how Darwin’s ideas on evolution well might go down at creationist meeting? But, even so, this process of asking everyone their opinion never seems to throw the accuracy of any answer derived from this process out. In fact, only when every answer is taken into account, does the accuracy of such a method become clear. And, for me, it is this very fact that demonstrates how all encompassing this method might well be for providing answers to some of the most important questions we could ask.
Perhaps I would even go so far as to say that, because of the promise that this idea holds for finding many accurate interpretations to many of Life’s conundrums and anomalies (Gods, scientific facts, philosophical conundrums, legends, myths and all the more) for us all, we should perhaps be as aware of it as we are of anything that we hold in high esteem and/or regard… Because, by coming together and placing our views into a melting pot of difference, no matter how disparate these views might well seem when set against one another’s… We should always achieve an answer that would be more accurately reflective of what is the actual case… And, thus, when everyone’s view is taken into account, we should all also be able to relate to the answer better, knowing we’ve had a part to play in its unfolding. Thus, if we decide to at least understand this process a bit better, we might well be afforded a slightly better insight into how our world is created (in all aspects), as well as functions… And, so, will have everything to gain… And little to loose… !
This point, which I hope I have not blown too much out of proportion, is somewhat obviously and rather simply called the “Wisdom Of The Crowd.” And before I say any more on the subject, I will introduce this idea properly by presenting a clip from the documentary in question… One that demonstrates this phenomenon in action and the principles behind it.
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So… “The Wisdom Of The Crowd” refers to a process of taking into account the overall collective opinion of a group of individuals, rather than relying on a single expert to answer a particular question. Reason being that a large group’s aggregated answers to particular questions involving quantity estimation, general world knowledge, and spatial reasoning have generally been found to be as good as, and often better than, the answer given by any isolated individuals within the group. An intuitive and often-cited explanation for this phenomenon is that there is idiosyncratic noise associated with each individuals judgement – noise that stems from the varied and multifarious individual experiences that each person has had specifically in their lifetime – and so, taking the average over a large number of responses, usually goes some way towards cancelling the effect of this noise completely.
Bearing this point in mind… When I come across people (as I have done quite a bit of late) who clearly state that they are either atheist or religious, or whatever group it is that they feel they belong to concerning some form of ideology or another… And procure an answer to some question posed that befits – from their own self-imposed view of the world – a way of thinking that the rest of the world would be best advised to adhere to… I find myself somewhat stumped. Why? Because through all the various modes of investigation that each and every individual is presently embarking upon (or not embarking upon)… Whether through the pursuit of science at a university or in a research institute… Or by striving for enlightenment while sitting in a cave (as Milarepa once did)… Or even looking to express something of Life’s wondrous magic while painting picture after picture… The very act of trying to understand what it is that we actually are – and, thus, what should be doing in respect to the whole greater picture of universal understanding, for the betterment of all – can, and should only, be properly answered (in my humble opinion) by all of us together as One.
Regardless of all the disputes that have recently come to light between all the multifarious modes of varied understanding in this memetic world of ours (whether in the name of scientific reasoning or by way of religious practise) and all the pain and aggravation that these extremist opinions and views (views that seem to always exclude someone else’s view somewhere down the line) seem to cause… They matter not a damn without another person’s validation. And even though I have rarely heard people discussing the possibility that perhaps there could be a bit of truth in each and every one of our own individual views just as much as there may be truth in someone else’s views… Perhaps we might do well to begin to understand the role that our own opinions play within the crowd of people in which we live (a crowd that is fast becoming the largest here on Earth) and thus allow ourselves all a little more room to accommodate each other’s opinions into our own egocentric speculations, even if many do sound like they could be way out there.
Still, despite the positive implications that this normalising effect ‘might’ have for us all when directing us towards an all pervading truth (and I only say ‘might’), there is much to be careful of when considering an issue as complex as this… Just as Larissa Conradt notes in her article below, entitled “Collective Behaviour: When It Pays To Share Decisions.”
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Collective Behaviour: When It Pays To Share Decisions
Theory suggests that the accuracy of a decision often increases with the number of decision makers, a phenomenon exploited by betting agents, Internet search engines and stock markets. Fish also use this ‘wisdom of the crowd’ effect.
Having trouble making a decision? The reason is that you’re probably not sure which is the best option. You seldom have perfect information, so might make a bad choice. Sharing decisions with others can help, because several decision makers can pool their information, and also eliminate individual errors. Consequently, the risk of making a mistake and settling on a bad option often decreases with the number of decision makers. For example, in court cases, juries consisting of several people are supposed to make correct decisions more often than can a single judge. In humans, there are numerous examples of this phenomenon. In social animals, the same principle should apply, but empirical demonstrations are rare.
Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ward et al. now show that larger shoals of fish not only make more-accurate decisions than do smaller shoals or single fish, but also make these decisions faster. In an elegantly designed experiment, combined with theoretical modelling, the authors gave mosquitofish, Gambusia holbrooki, a choice between a predator-free route and one that led past a predator model. A fish was more likely to make a correct choice (to avoid the predator model) the larger the shoal in which it swam. The size of this increase in accuracy was in close agreement with theoretical predictions. The effect did not arise because large shoals were more likely to contain one particularly clever ‘expert’ fish, which guided the others. In fact, individual fish did not differ much in their ability to make correct decisions and, moreover, were not even good at it. Thus, the authors have demonstrated a genuine ‘wisdom of the crowd’ (or, in biological terms, ‘many eyes’) effect (Fig. 1).
The increase in decision speed with shoal size is especially noteworthy, for two reasons. First, we typically expect a trade-off between decision accuracy and speed, so that decision speed decreases with increasing accuracy and vice versa. This is because more-accurate decisions usually require more information, and information gathering takes time. Second, we expect decision speed to decrease with the number of decision makers, because sharing decisions requires communication between decision makers and it seems plausible that this will also take time. Nevertheless, Ward and colleagues found that both decision speed and decision accuracy increased with the number of decision makers (that is, the number of fish in the shoal).
The reason that larger shoals managed to make not only more accurate but also faster decisions probably lies in the way information is communicated. Fish in shoals often move in a self-organized manner, whereby individuals react rapidly to the movements of close neighbours. Indeed, Ward et al. present convincing evidence that such a reaction to spatially close companions has a crucial role in the mosquitofish choice of route — pairs of fish within less than 6 centimetres of each other reacted very fast to each other’s movement changes; and a fish’s choice of route depended significantly on the average choice of close companions.
This simultaneous, self-organized system of ‘communication’ has two important features. One is that the speed with which information is exchanged is high and hardly decreases with the number of fish in the shoal. The other is that communication is decentralized: that is, information transfer can start from any shoal member. This means that overall decision speed depends crucially on the fastest decision maker(s) within the shoal. For stochastic reasons, a large shoal is more likely than a small one to contain a fish that, by chance, detects a predator relatively quickly, even if the fish do not differ in ‘expertise’.
In short, the higher likelihood of a shoal containing a fast decision maker, coupled with swift, decentralized information transfer, could explain the increase in decision speed with shoal size. However, such fast decision making usually also involves a cost, namely that of an increased risk of false positives. That is, if the fastest decision maker made a mistake (and ‘detected’ a predator that did not exist), this mistake could also be amplified, and the group might stage a costly ‘escape’ when none was necessary. The experiments of Ward and colleagues did not allow for such a situation — there was always one predator model present, and fish could either avoid it (true positive) or not (false negative). It remains to be seen whether accuracy and speed of decision making still increase together if fish are faced with a situation in which false positives are possible.
Fast and accurate decision making is highly desirable in many walks of life, for humans as well as animals. Ward and colleagues’ study shows that it can be achieved by sharing decisions widely and using a self-organized system of communication. This is, of course, exactly the strategy that has long been exploited by Internet search engines, and in this sense the mosquitofish of Ward and co-workers’ experiments are not that dissimilar from Google.
However, there are three caveats about the benefits of decision sharing. First, if the abilities of potential decision makers vary widely, it might still be better to listen to one ‘expert’. Second, there is the danger of information cascades, whereby decision makers no longer contribute independent information but instead amplify shared misconceptions. Finally, in many decisions, the goals of individual decision makers differ: that is, different members of the decision-making group favour different outcomes. In such a context, the sharing of decisions can have disadvantages as well as advantages. Although sharing might still increase the available information, it can also hand influence on the outcome to decision makers whose goals differ from your own. To date, surprisingly little is known about good decision-making strategies in these kinds of conflict situations.
by Larissa Conradt – the Department of Biology, School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QG, UK.
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I feel that Larissa Conradt’s article touches on a interesting tonic to my over zealous feelings about the general “Wisdom of the Crowd”… A wisdom that apparently belongs to the humans that have recently gathered here on Earth… As she points out with regards to “false positives” relating to the decision making of mosquitofish shoals when avoiding predators, there seems – at least for me – to be a very striking and obvious similarity that parallels our own human behaviour relating to climate change and how we react to it so as to avoid any certain catastrophic consequences.
Has mankind inadvertently stumbled into a dangerous media driven frenzy of misconstrued memetic deformities? A frenzy that seems to be propagated by the few decision makers who don’t really have all the facts at their finger tips and, thus, seem to lack the general knowledge needed to guide them away from assumptions that can only be based on pure inference alone… ? I dare say that this is a very important question that needs to be answered, especially in today’s global climate of well read and well educated, media savvy inhabitants. Why? Because many of these so-called decision makers are unwitting enough not to realise the power they weld with their writing and words. Nor do the majority of these people even realise that they are acting as decision makers for many of us… In fact, I am usually only too shocked to find out how many people make decisions based on these inadvertent decision maker’s opinions.
The most powerful of these inadvertent decision makers hold esteemed positions, such as writers and reporters, in the great publishing houses and corporations of our world (whether magazines, newspapers or even television) and, having graduated in the ideals of journalism and, thus, completely having missed out the immense importance of data-analysis and/or the psychology behind misconstruing evidence or even philosophical reasoning… They do the people of the world today the greatest disservice by merely amplifying shared misconceptions about whether or not important issues such as climate change and over-population should really be addressed with the urgency that we should… As I’ve said before, our human actions are indeed bigger than all the butter fly wings in the world flapping gently on the winds while procreating… And, as such, we are on the brink of irreversibly upsetting our world’s chaotic weather patterns beyond repair. Chaos is too sensitive to this kind of brunt outburst of carelessness.
Thus I would recommend that the findings of Ward’s research into the decision making behaviour of mosquitofish should be greatly encouraged and the findings be mirrored against mankind’s present decision making strategies to overcome any assuming notions based on inference alone and, so, steer us better into future times with the a more guided view to the “Wisdom of the Crowd.”
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To find out more about the BBC documentary called “The Code,” please click here.
Or to read more about “The Wisdom Of The Crowd,” please click here.
And to find out where I sourced the Nature article from, please click here.
January 16, 2012
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Out Beyond Ideas
Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase
doesn’t make any sense.
by Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi
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To find out more about the author of this poem, please click here.
January 14, 2012
. . .
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam or Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.
by Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi
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To find out more about the author of this poem, please click here.
And to find out more about Four Seasons Productions, please click here.
August 25, 2011
I’ve recently been researching a particular topic… One that concerns aspects about what ‘I’ am… Or, rather, what my ‘self’ is… And while on this hunt for my ‘self,’ I’ve noticed that quite a few scientific publications have also decided to write about this anomaly. Here’s one that I’d like to share with you… One that I read in the New Scientist a couple of months ago about how Buddhism and science are beginning to see eye to eye… Good news, I think!
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What Is The Self
IT’S THERE when we wake up and slips away when we fall asleep, maybe to reappear in our dreams. It’s that feeling we have of being anchored in a body we own and control and perceive the world from within. It’s the feeling of personal identity that stretches across time, from our first memories, via the here and now, to some imagined future. It’s all of these tied into a coherent whole. It’s our sense of self.
Humans have pondered the nature of the self for millennia. Is it real or an illusion? And if real, what is it, and where do we find it?
Different philosophical traditions have reached radically different conclusions. At one extreme is the Buddhist concept of “no self”, in which you are merely a fleeting collection of thoughts and sensations. At the other are dualist ideas, most recently associated with the philosopher Karl Popper and Nobel laureate and neuroscientist John Eccles. They argued that the self exists as a separate “field” which interacts with and controls the brain.
Modern science, if anything, is leaning towards Buddhism. Our sense of self is not an entity in its own right, but emerges from general purpose processes in the brain.
Seth Gillihan and Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia have proposed a view of the self that has three strands: the physical self (which arises from our sense of embodiment); the psychological self (which comprises our subjective point-of-view, our autobiographical memories and the ability to differentiate between self and others); and a higher level sense of agency, which attributes the actions of the physical self to the psychological self (Psychological Bulletin, vol 131, p 76).
We are now uncovering some of the brain processes underlying these strands. For instance, Olaf Blanke of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and colleagues have shown that the physical sense of self is centred on the temporo-parietal cortex. It integrates information from your senses to create a sense of embodiment, a feeling of being located in a particular body in a particular place. That feeling can be spectacularly disrupted if the temporo-parietal cortex receives contradictory inputs, causing it to generate out-of-body experiences (New Scientist, 10 October 2009, p 34).
Being in charge
It is proving harder to find the site of our sense of agency – that feeling of being in charge of our actions. In one functional MRI study volunteers with joysticks moved images around on a computer screen. When the volunteer felt he had initiated the action, the brain’s anterior insula was activated but the right inferior parietal cortex lit up when the volunteer attributed the action to the experimenter (Neuroimage, vol 15, p 596).
But other researchers, using different experiments, have identified many more brain regions that seem to be responsible for the sense of agency.
Within the brain, it seems, the self is both everywhere and nowhere. “If you make a list [for what's needed for a sense of self], there is hardly a brain region untouched,” says cognitive philosopher Thomas Metzinger of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Metzinger interprets this as meaning the self is an illusion. We are, he says, fooled by our brains into believing that we are substantial and unchanging. Mental disorders also make it abundantly clear that this entity that we regard as inviolate is not so. For example, those suffering from schizophrenia harbour delusions that experiences and thoughts are being implanted in their brain by someone or something else. “In some sense, it’s a disorder of the self, because these people are doing things, but they are not feeling as if they themselves are doing them,” says Anil Seth of the University of Sussex in the UK. “That’s a disorder of agency.”
Another striking condition is depersonalisation disorder, in which people feel a persistent sense of detachment from their body and thoughts. Even the narrative we have of ourselves as children growing up, becoming adults and growing old, which is carefully constructed from our bank of autobiographical memories, is error prone. Studies have shown that each time we recall an episode from our past, we remember the details differently, thus altering ourselves (Physics of Life Reviews, vol 7, p 88).
So the self, despite its seeming constancy and solidity, is constantly changing. We are not the same person we were a year ago and we will be different tomorrow or a year from now. And the only reason we believe otherwise is because the brain does such a stellar job of pulling the wool over our eyes.
by Anil Ananthaswamy
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To find out where I originally sourced this New Scientist article from, please click here.
And to find out more about the author, Anil Ananthaswamy, please click here.
OR visit the author’s website… Please click here.
August 24, 2011
In some ways it’s amazing… But in other ways, I wonder if I’m really surprised… ? I’ve been observing fractal patterns now for quite a few years in what many refer to as seemingly unrelated fields of occurrence i.e. hearing them in reverb simulations that I build within Max/MSP, OR while observing the patterns with which the Penicillium fungi grows on the bread that I want to avoid using in the toaster most mornings, through to markets and their ever shifting price-scapes… They’re everywhere. Yes… Everywhere.
They’ve even managed to naturally find their way into the experiential textures of my mind’s dynamic… Textures that the brain seems to weave together through strange attractor like eddies that occur between various nodes and hierarchical synaptic electrical discharges that fire so readily between various clusters within the brain’s overall structure… This in turn allows a type of consciousness to form i.e. myself, to perceive the material ‘aspects’ of the environment that I presently find myself in… ‘Aspects’ that are continually changing/moving/shifting. Most of these transformations are commonly seen as material changes i.e. day to night OR hot water turning into cold water… Changes that are forged from the same principles and materials i.e. atomic debris/fabric of the universe, that ‘I’ find myself a result of.
It’s amazing that ‘my’ five senses can somehow distinguish between these multifarious ‘aspects’ simply by observing the ever changing environmental interplay that unfolds in the world around me – and within me – allowing my body to cross-reference these abstractions (such as smell, sight, touch, taste, sound, etc…) into a functional braid of linear temporal registers that are plied together into a complex feedback loop of conscious awareness that correlates all of them into the fabric of experience. Through the natural evolution of this holographic image of universal dynamics – one that has been naturally selected for in most living organisms here on Earth in some manner or another – it’s pretty obvious that memetic evolution has given rise to – and certainly has benefited from – these unfolding fractal patterns of the mind, brain, body and environmental continuum… And, thus, so have I allowed myself – through much diligent study – to hang a myriad of meanings and socially accepted constructs onto the continuous flow of this biochemically experiential unfolding.
When I sit with this feeling, it seems very natural for everything to be just as it is… For us to be the way we are… Mortal, soft, delicate and changing… Prone to aging and death… Giving way to new progeny in an evolving loop of atomic re-awakening… And environmental readjustment/realignment… Suddenly it becomes okay to accept that one day I will die… And that my patterns of behavior will continue to ripple through the surrounding people I have met and the environment I once lived in, slowly being diluted, intermingling with other people’s activities, every evolving… Ever changing. Perhaps we don’t ever really die… ! Then I see that ‘I’ am not as free as many might imagine we are… Rather we are more willfully able to do whatever it is we choose to with the time we have here, acting within defined parameters of being… Operating to prolong our activities. I find acceptance in these limited modes… And I find true freedom in the limitless possibilities within my imagination. Just as chaos is limitless, and as the brain’s basis for functional ordering uses chaos to operate from… So I find myself not really being surprised that the universe ‘may’ have a fractal structure. When is see my lungs on a X-ray that had recently, there they are again… When I look at my arm closely and see the veins of blood flowing under my skin, fractal shapes come into focus… And I’m just amazed at the beauty of these patterns as they release their energetic uncoiling of potential energy into kinetic displays of wonder and marvel, spreading out over various timings into the delicately interconnected chaos of universal change.
So what I thought was originally surprise… Has in fact turned out to be more of a sense of discovery… A rediscovery of my connectedness… My roots… My interlinked existence to everything – absolutely everything – around me. In many ways it has been an important rediscovery for me because this feeling of interconnectedness seems to have been masked over, obscured from obvious sight, by the daily meanderings of advertising, fictional drivel (mainly in the form of film and pulp fiction), political discussion, religious debate, scientific enquiry and general distraction, all of which seem to come from the supposed “perks” of Western modern day living…
But, thankfully, while immersing myself in this tangled mess of experiential twine – mainly by reading many, many scientific journals/publications over the last fifteen or so years, ones that concern themselves with how universal structure and function came into being (whether on the astrological and/or microscopic levels OR within the dynamics of the mind, brain, body, environmental continuum) – I’ve been unwittingly reconnecting myself with this feeling of interdependence. While closely keeping my eye on how the present theories (yes, theories, in the plural, because there are many of them out there) are continually evolving and changing… I’ve been unintentionally observing another form of natural selection at work… Much like Darwin did. One that is occurring within our minds. And, on the whole, it’s doing exactly what any good evolving form/system does i.e. works through the plethora of memetic constructs that are being formulated from experience by scrubbing the obviously impractical and blatantly cumbersome theories, revealing only the ones that best fit the observations. Then, while subjecting these selected few to yet more stringent tests, each idea/theory is further developed… OR revealed to be a fraud. Eventually one idea/theory in particular is found… One that fits better than all the rest. One that can generate self-similar observed data by repeating the experiments over and over again. This idea/theory then becomes a sort of fact… One that can be expounded further into more developed and concise levels of understanding… Where each idea/theory can interconnect and interrelate to other seemingly unrelated areas of scientific inquiry. Time and again, further cross-referencing and testing ensues, scrutinizing each novel idea/theory/notion… If one doesn’t fit, it is then modified, tweaked, or reconfigured to work into the overall account produced thus far… OR EVEN, if an idea is so obvious, then the other areas might find themselves being revised. This continues ad-infinitum, moving even onwards into finer details… Heading towards the vanishing point of a complexity that knows no bounds… A sort tailor made fitting for a more concise scientific understanding that will never be found.
In fact… So to does the evolution of animal form work in much the same way… As Professor Armand Marie Leroi states, “Species give rise to other species, and as they do so, they change. The changes are minute and subtle, but given enough time, the results could be spectacular. And so they are!” So to do our mind streams change and evolve over time… Allowing us to see more clearly whatever it is we are looking at.
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What Darwin didn’t Know
Documentary which tells the story of evolution theory since Darwin postulated it in 1859 in ‘On the Origin of Species’.
The theory of evolution by natural selection is now scientific orthodoxy, but when it was unveiled it caused a storm of controversy, from fellow scientists as well as religious people. They criticised it for being short on evidence and long on assertion and Darwin, being the honest scientist that he was, agreed with them. He knew that his theory was riddled with ‘difficulties’, but he entrusted future generations to complete his work and prove the essential truth of his vision, which is what scientists have been doing for the past 150 years.
Evolutionary biologist Professor Armand Marie Leroi charts the scientific endeavour that brought about the triumphant renaissance of Darwin’s theory. He argues that, with the new science of evolutionary developmental biology (evo devo), it may be possible to take that theory to a new level – to do more than explain what has evolved in the past, and start to predict what might evolve in the future.
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As time has gone on, I’ve been fortunate enough to rediscover how similar basic patterns permeate almost every single aspect of our lives as human beings… This rediscovery – for me at least – occurred because I had the fortunate experience of studying many dynamical systems for musical analogy… That is, I studied them over and over again, looking at how to translate these natural never-ending patterns into sonic textures for art’s sake. When you see them, though, you begin to spot them everywhere you care to look. It’s almost like it’s so obvious that they’re there, just staring us in the face, that because of it, we just haven’t noticed them… They’ve always been there… In plain sight. So why would we notice them? In some ways it’s just like when the astronauts of Apollo 11 landed to the moon for the first time… When they got there, they couldn’t see any trace of the Earth around them anymore. Their home of a planet was now just a beautiful jewel hanging in the moon’s inky black sky, just out of their reach. Everything that they had taken for granted i.e. an abundance of air, all the trees, plants, life, all the oceans of water, our homes, the people they loved, movies, the abundance of food, animals, clouds, rain, wind, etc… They just weren’t there around them anymore… And it stood out like a soar thumb as to how fortunate they were to live on a planet that had all those things… Things that were so common on Earth. This voyage to the moon profoundly changed the way they i.e Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr and pilot Michael Collins saw the Earth afterwards. In fact it changed ever astronaut who ever went to the moon’s perspective… So that when they returned, they couldn’t help but wonder why people couldn’t see what they now could see so clearly i.e. how precious the Earth is and all the beings that live on it… How connected we all are to one another… To everything around us… How much we need our planet… And how futile all our wars and disagreements are in the greater scheme of everything.
Something similar is going on in science now… Over the last year or so I’ve been coming across many publications wherein scientists are seemingly wanting to let go of some of their earlier preconceptions about how the textbook ideals – one’s which their contemporaries wrote down with absolute certitude for their students to learn from – concerning universal flow and other areas of scientific interest, don’t really quite fit with what these students are actually observing in the “real world…” And along with how they are having to “pull-out-of-the-hat” seemingly bizarre concepts, such as dark matter, in order to balance their predecessors equations… Many are beginning to feel that it’s time to evolve again. Thus it can be noticed that many of the new generation of scientists are looking for novel ideas to re-evaluated what they have learned… And as the models get more and more complex, so to do we see that complexity needs to be better understood… Revealing many types of fractal structures and all sorts of non-linear dynamics residing within the natural flow of universal unfolding.
As I have mentioned before in several blogs contained in this website… Until fractal/chaotic dynamics are properly introduced and included into the equations of physicists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, etc… There will always be a thin vale of mist that detaches their efforts from discovering the true order of things. For, until this time, discrepancies and vague approximations on how universal flow actually functions will cloud the depth of understanding that lies waiting to be seen beneath this mist.
Saying that… There are those who are already daring to go beyond… As Francesco Sylos Labini clearly demonstrates with his intuitive proposition below… The universe may have a fractal structure…
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Largest Cosmic Structures ‘Too Big’ For Theories
Space is festooned with vast “hyperclusters” of galaxies, a new cosmic map suggests. It could mean that gravity or dark energy – or perhaps something completely unknown – is behaving very strangely indeed.
We know that the universe was smooth just after its birth. Measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), the light emitted 370,000 years after the big bang, reveal only very slight variations in density from place to place. Gravity then took hold and amplified these variations into today’s galaxies and galaxy clusters, which in turn are arranged into big strings and knots called superclusters, with relatively empty voids in between.
On even larger scales, though, cosmological models say that the expansion of the universe should trump the clumping effect of gravity. That means there should be very little structure on scales larger than a few hundred million light years across.
But the universe, it seems, did not get the memo. Shaun Thomas of University College London (UCL), and colleagues have found aggregations of galaxies stretching for more than 3 billion light years. The hyperclusters are not very sharply defined, with only a couple of per cent variation in density from place to place, but even that density contrast is twice what theory predicts.
“This is a challenging result for the standard cosmological models,” saysFrancesco Sylos Labini of the University of Rome, Italy, who was not involved in the work.
The clumpiness emerges from an enormous catalogue of galaxies called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, compiled with a telescope at Apache Point, New Mexico. The survey plots the 2D positions of galaxies across a quarter of the sky. “Before this survey people were looking at smaller areas,” says Thomas. “As you look at more of the sky, you start to see larger structures.”
A 2D picture of the sky cannot reveal the true large-scale structure in the universe. To get the full picture, Thomas and his colleagues also used the colour of galaxies recorded in the survey.
More distant galaxies look redder than nearby ones because their light has been stretched to longer wavelengths while travelling through an expanding universe. By selecting a variety of bright, old elliptical galaxies whose natural colour is well known, the team calculated approximate distances to more than 700,000 objects. The upshot is a rough 3D map of one quadrant of the universe, showing the hazy outlines of some enormous structures.
Coagulating dark energy
The result hints at some profound new physical phenomenon, perhaps involving dark energy – the mysterious entity that is accelerating the expansion of space. Dark energy is usually assumed to be uniform across the cosmos. If instead it can pool in some areas, then its repulsive force could push away nearby matter, creating these giant patterns.
Alternatively, we may need to extend our understanding of gravity beyond Einstein’s general theory of relativity. “It could be that we need an even more general theory to explain how gravity works on very large scales,” says Thomas.
A more mundane answer might yet emerge. Using colour to find distance is very sensitive to observational error, says David Spergel of Princeton University. Dust and stars in our own galaxy could confuse the dataset, for example. Although the UCL team have run some checks for these sources of error, Thomas admits that the result might turn out to be the effect of foreground stars either masking or mimicking distant galaxies.
“It will be essential to confirm this with another technique,” says Spergel. The best solution would be to get detailed spectra of a large number of galaxies. Researchers would be able to work out their distances from Earth much more precisely, since they would know how much their light has been stretched, or red-shifted, by the expansion of space.
Sylos Labini has made such a map using a subset of Sloan data. It reveals clumpiness on unexpectedly large scales – though not as vast as these. He believes that the universe may have a fractal structure, looking similar at all scales.
A comprehensive catalogue of spectra for Sloan galaxies is being assembled in a project called the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey. Meanwhile, the Dark Energy Survey will use a telescope in Chile to measure the colours of even more galaxies than Sloan, beginning in October. Such maps might bring hyperclusters out of the haze – or consign them to the status of monstrous mirage.
by Stephen Battersby
Journal reference: Physical Review Letters, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.106.241301
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For some continued viewing on the subject, please watch the following BBC documentary entitled, “The Secret Life Of Chaos”.
The Secret Life Of Chaos
Chaos theory has a bad name, conjuring up images of unpredictable weather, economic crashes and science gone wrong. But there is a fascinating and hidden side to Chaos, one that scientists are only now beginning to understand.
It turns out that chaos theory answers a question that mankind has asked for millennia – how did we get here?
In this documentary, Professor Jim Al-Khalili sets out to uncover one of the great mysteries of science – how does a universe that starts off as dust end up with intelligent life? How does order emerge from disorder?
It’s a mindbending, counterintuitive and – for many people – a deeply troubling idea. But Professor Al-Khalili reveals the science behind much of beauty and structure in the natural world and discovers that far from it being magic or an act of God, it is in fact an intrinsic part of the laws of physics. Amazingly, it turns out that the mathematics of chaos can explain how and why the universe creates exquisite order and pattern.
And the best thing is that one doesn’t need to be a scientist to understand it. The natural world is full of awe-inspiring examples of the way nature transforms simplicity into complexity. From trees to clouds to humans – after watching this film you’ll never be able to look at the world in the same way again.
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To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
May 15, 2011
April 30, 2011
Just the other day a friend brought to my attention this rather old online article from The Independent newspaper… And I have to say, I suddenly felt the overwhelming fresh sensation of reality kick in, as the reporter put into a better frame of reference the recent memetic scare mongering… Blowing out the flames of worry, as he did so, in order to give us all back our sense of humanity and perspective.
No doubt I’ve talked about this before in two blogs, one entitled “Expanding Those “Varied” Stances Of Perception” and the other “Manufacturing Of Consent“. Thus, I will not say much more on the subject… Other than well done Fisk!
Fighting Talk: The New Propaganda
Journalism has become a linguistic battleground – and when reporters use terms such ‘spike in violence’ or ‘surge’ or ‘settler’, they are playing along with a pernicious game, argues Robert Fisk.
Monday, 21 June 2010
Following the latest in semantics on the news? Journalism and the Israeli government are in love again. It’s Islamic terror, Turkish terror, Hamas terror, Islamic Jihad terror, Hezbollah terror, activist terror, war on terror, Palestinian terror, Muslim terror, Iranian terror, Syrian terror, anti-Semitic terror…
But I am doing the Israelis an injustice. Their lexicon, and that of the White House – most of the time – and our reporters’ lexicon, is the same. Yes, let’s be fair to the Israelis. Their lexicon goes like this: Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror.
How many times did I just use the word “terror”? Twenty. But it might as well be 60, or 100, or 1,000, or a million. We are in love with the word, seduced by it, fixated by it, attacked by it, assaulted by it, raped by it, committed to it. It is love and sadism and death in one double syllable, the prime time-theme song, the opening of every television symphony, the headline of every page, a punctuation mark in our journalism, a semicolon, a comma, our most powerful full stop. “Terror, terror, terror, terror”. Each repetition justifies its predecessor.
Most of all, it’s about the terror of power and the power of terror. Power and terror have become interchangeable. We journalists have let this happen. Our language has become not just a debased ally, but a full verbal partner in the language of governments and armies and generals and weapons. Remember the “bunker buster” and the “Scud buster” and the “target-rich environment” in the Gulf War (Part One)? Forget about “weapons of mass destruction”. Too obviously silly. But “WMD” in the Gulf War (Part Two) had a power of its own, a secret code – genetic, perhaps, like DNA – for something that would reap terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. “45 Minutes to Terror”.
Power and the media are not just about cosy relationships between journalists and political leaders, between editors and presidents. They are not just about the parasitic-osmotic relationship between supposedly honourable reporters and the nexus of power that runs between White House and State Department and Pentagon, between Downing Street and the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, between America and Israel.
In the Western context, power and the media is about words – and the use of words. It is about semantics. It is about the employment of phrases and their origins. And it is about the misuse of history, and about our ignorance of history. More and more today, we journalists have become prisoners of the language of power. Is this because we no longer care about linguistics or semantics? Is this because laptops “correct” our spelling, “trim” our grammar so that our sentences so often turn out to be identical to those of our rulers? Is this why newspaper editorials today often sound like political speeches?
For two decades now, the US and British – and Israeli and Palestinian – leaderships have used the words “peace process” to define the hopeless, inadequate, dishonourable agreement that allowed the US and Israel to dominate whatever slivers of land would be given to an occupied people. I first queried this expression, and its provenance, at the time of Oslo – although how easily we forget that the secret surrenders at Oslo were themselves a conspiracy without any legal basis.
Poor old Oslo, I always think. What did Oslo ever do to deserve this? It was the White House agreement that sealed this preposterous and dubious treaty – in which refugees, borders, Israeli colonies, even timetables – were to be delayed until they could no longer be negotiated.
And how easily we forget the White House lawn – though, yes, we remember the images – upon which it was Clinton who quoted from the Koran, and Arafat who chose to say: “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr President.” And what did we call this nonsense afterwards? Yes, it was “a moment of history”! Was it? Was it so?
Do you remember what Arafat called it? “The peace of the brave”. But I don’t remember any of us pointing out that “the peace of the brave” was used by General de Gaulle about the end of the Algerian war. The French lost the war in Algeria. We did not spot this extraordinary irony.
Same again today. We Western journalists – used yet again by our masters – have been reporting our jolly generals in Afghanistan, as saying their war can only be won with a “hearts and minds” campaign. No one asked them the obvious question: Wasn’t this the very same phrase used about Vietnamese civilians in the Vietnam War? And didn’t we – didn’t the West – lose the war in Vietnam? Yet now we Western journalists are using – about Afghanistan – the phrase “hearts and minds” in our reports as if it is a new dictionary definition, rather than a symbol of defeat for the second time in four decades.
Just look at the individual words we have recently co-opted from the US military. When we Westerners find that “our” enemies – al-Qa’ida, for example, or the Taliban – have set off more bombs and staged more attacks than usual, we call it “a spike in violence”.
Ah yes, a “spike”! A “spike” is a word first used in this context, according to my files, by a brigadier general in the Baghdad Green Zone in 2004. Yet now we use that phrase, we extemporise on it, we relay it on the air as our phrase, our journalistic invention. We are using, quite literally, an expression created for us by the Pentagon. A spike, of course, goes sharply up then sharply downwards. A “spike in violence” therefore avoids the ominous use of the words “increase in violence” – for an increase, of course, might not go down again afterwards.
Now again, when US generals refer to a sudden increase in their forces for an assault on Fallujah or central Baghdad or Kandahar – a mass movement of soldiers brought into Muslim countries by the tens of thousands – they call this a “surge”. And a surge, like a tsunami, or any other natural phenomena, can be devastating in its effects. What these “surges” really are – to use the real words of serious journalism – are reinforcements. And reinforcements are sent to conflicts when armies are losing those wars. But our television and newspaper boys and girls are still talking about “surges” without any attribution at all. The Pentagon wins again.
Meanwhile the “peace process” collapsed. Therefore our leaders – or “key players” as we like to call them – tried to make it work again. The process had to be put “back on track”. It was a train, you see. The carriages had come off the line. The Clinton administration first used this phrase, then the Israelis, then the BBC. But there was a problem when the “peace process” had repeatedly been put “back on track” – but still came off the line. So we produced a “road map” – run by a Quartet and led by our old Friend of God, Tony Blair, who – in an obscenity of history – we now refer to as a “peace envoy”. But the “road map” isn’t working. And now, I notice, the old “peace process” is back in our newspapers and on our television screens. And earlier this month, on CNN, one of those boring old fogies whom the TV boys and girls call “experts” told us again that the “peace process” was being put “back on track” because of the opening of “indirect talks” between Israelis and Palestinians. This isn’t just about clichés – this is preposterous journalism. There is no battle between the media and power; through language, we, the media, have become them.
Here’s another piece of media cowardice that makes my 63-year-old teeth grind together after 34 years of eating humus and tahina in the Middle East. We are told, in many analysis features, that what we have to deal with in the Middle East are “competing narratives”. How very cosy. There’s no justice, no injustice, just a couple of people who tell different history stories. “Competing narratives” now regularly pop up in the British press.
The phrase, from the false language of anthropology, deletes the possibility that one group of people – in the Middle East, for example – is occupied, while another is doing the occupying. Again, no justice, no injustice, no oppression or oppressing, just some friendly “competing narratives”, a football match, if you like, a level playing field because the two sides are – are they not? – “in competition”. And two sides have to be given equal time in every story.
So an “occupation” becomes a “dispute”. Thus a “wall” becomes a “fence” or “security barrier”. Thus Israeli acts of colonisation of Arab land, contrary to all international law, become “settlements” or “outposts” or “Jewish neighbourhoods”. It was Colin Powell, in his starring, powerless appearance as Secretary of State to George W Bush, who told US diplomats to refer to occupied Palestinian land as “disputed land” – and that was good enough for most of the US media. There are no “competing narratives”, of course, between the US military and the Taliban. When there are, you’ll know the West has lost.
But I’ll give you an example of how “competing narratives” come undone. In April, I gave a lecture in Toronto to mark the 95th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide, the deliberate mass murder of 1.5 million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Turkish army and militia. Before my talk, I was interviewed on Canadian Television, CTV, which also owns Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper. And from the start, I could see that the interviewer had a problem. Canada has a large Armenian community. But Toronto also has a large Turkish community. And the Turks, as the Globe and Mail always tell us, “hotly dispute” that this was a genocide.
So the interviewer called the genocide “deadly massacres”. Of course, I spotted her specific problem straight away. She couldn’t call the massacres a “genocide”, because the Turkish community would be outraged. But she sensed that “massacres” on its own – especially with the gruesome studio background photographs of dead Armenians – was not quite up to defining a million and a half murdered human beings. Hence the “deadly massacres”. How odd! If there are “deadly” massacres, are there some massacres which are not “deadly”, from which the victims walk away alive? It was a ludicrous tautology.
Yet the use of the language of power – of its beacon words and its beacon phrases – goes on among us still. How many times have I heard Western reporters talking about “foreign fighters” in Afghanistan? They are referring, of course, to the various Arab groups supposedly helping the Taliban. We heard the same story from Iraq. Saudis, Jordanians, Palestinian, Chechen fighters, of course. The generals called them “foreign fighters”. Immediately, we Western reporters did the same. Calling them “foreign fighters” meant they were an invading force. But not once – ever – have I heard a mainstream Western television station refer to the fact that there are at least 150,000 “foreign fighters” in Afghanistan, and that all of them happen to be wearing American, British and other NATO uniforms. It is “we” who are the real “foreign fighters”.
Similarly, the pernicious phrase “Af-Pak” – as racist as it is politically dishonest – is now used by reporters, although it was originally a creation of the US State Department on the day Richard Holbrooke was appointed special US representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the phrase avoids the use of the word “India” – whose influence in Afghanistan and whose presence in Afghanistan, is a vital part of the story. Furthermore, “Af-Pak” – by deleting India – effectively deleted the whole Kashmir crisis from the conflict in south-east Asia. It thus deprived Pakistan of any say in US local policy on Kashmir – after all, Holbrooke was made the “Af-Pak” envoy, specifically forbidden from discussing Kashmir. Thus the phrase “Af-Pak”, which completely avoids the tragedy of Kashmir – too many “competing narratives”, perhaps? – means that when we journalists use the same phrase, “Af-Pak”, which was surely created for us journalists, we are doing the State Department’s work.
Now let’s look at history. Our leaders love history. Most of all, they love the Second World War. In 2003, George W Bush thought he was Churchill. True, Bush had spent the Vietnam War protecting the skies of Texas from the Vietcong. But now, in 2003, he was standing up to the “appeasers” who did not want a war with Saddam who was, of course, “the Hitler of the Tigris”. The appeasers were the British who didn’t want to fight Nazi Germany in 1938. Blair, of course, also tried on Churchill’s waistcoat and jacket for size. No “appeaser” he. America was Britain’s oldest ally, he proclaimed – and both Bush and Blair reminded journalists that the US had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Britain in her hour of need in 1940.
But none of this was true. Britain’s oldest ally was not the United States. It was Portugal, a neutral fascist state during the Second World War, which flew its national flags at half-mast when Hitler died (even the Irish didn’t do that).
Nor did America fight alongside Britain in her hour of need in 1940, when Hitler threatened invasion and the Luftwaffe blitzed London. No, in 1940 America was enjoying a very profitable period of neutrality, and did not join Britain in the war until Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Similarly, back in 1956, Eden called Nasser the “Mussolini of the Nile”. A bad mistake. Nasser was loved by the Arabs, not hated as Mussolini was by the majority of Africans, especially the Arab Libyans. The Mussolini parallel was not challenged or questioned by the British press. And we all know what happened at Suez in 1956. When it comes to history, we journalists let the presidents and prime ministers take us for a ride.
Yet the most dangerous side of our new semantic war, our use of the words of power – though it is not a war, since we have largely surrendered – is that it isolates us from our viewers and readers. They are not stupid. They understand words in many cases – I fear – better than we do. History, too. They know that we are drawing our vocabulary from the language of generals and presidents, from the so-called elites, from the arrogance of the Brookings Institute experts, or those of those of the Rand Corporation. Thus we have become part of this language.
Over the past two weeks, as foreigners – humanitarians or “activist terrorists” – tried to take food and medicines by sea to the hungry Palestinians of Gaza, we journalists should have been reminding our viewers and listeners of a long-ago day when America and Britain went to the aid of a surrounded people, bringing food and fuel – our own servicemen dying as they did so – to help a starving population. That population had been surrounded by a fence erected by a brutal army which wished to starve the people into submission. The army was Russian. The city was Berlin. The wall was to come later. The people had been our enemies only three years earlier. Yet we flew the Berlin airlift to save them. Now look at Gaza today: which Western journalist – since we love historical parallels – has even mentioned 1948 Berlin in the context of Gaza?
Instead, what did we get? “Activists” who turned into “armed activists” the moment they opposed the Israeli army’s boarding parties. How dare these men upset the lexicon? Their punishment was obvious. They became “terrorists”. And the Israeli raids – in which “activists” were killed (another proof of their “terrorism”) – then became “deadly” raids. In this case, “deadly” was more excusable than it had been on CTV – nine dead men of Turkish origin being slightly fewer than a million and a half murdered Armenians in 1915. But it was interesting that the Israelis – who for their own political reasons had hitherto shamefully gone along with the Turkish denial – now suddenly wanted to inform the world of the 1915 Armenian genocide. This provoked an understandable frisson among many of our colleagues. Journalists who have regularly ducked all mention of the 20th century’s first Holocaust – unless they could also refer to the way in which the Turks “hotly dispute” the genocide label (ergo the Toronto Globe and Mail) – could suddenly refer to it. Israel’s new-found historical interest made the subject legitimate, though almost all reports managed to avoid any explanation of what actually happened in 1915.
And what did the Israeli seaborne raid become? It became a “botched” raid. Botched is a lovely word. It began as a German-origin Middle English word, “bocchen”, which meant to “repair badly”. And we more or less kept to that definition until our journalistic lexicon advisors changed its meaning. Schoolchildren “botch” an exam. We could “botch” a piece of sewing, an attempt to repair a piece of material. We could even botch an attempt to persuade our boss to give us a raise. But now we “botch” a military operation. It wasn’t a disaster. It wasn’t a catastrophe. It just killed some Turks.
So, given the bad publicity, the Israelis just “botched” the raid. Weirdly, the last time reporters and governments utilised this particular word followed Israel’s attempt to kill the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, in the streets of Amman. In this case, Israel’s professional assassins were caught after trying to poison Meshaal, and King Hussain forced the then Israeli prime minister (a certain B Netanyahu) to provide the antidote (and to let a lot of Hamas “terrorists” out of jail). Meshaal’s life was saved.
But for Israel and its obedient Western journalists this became a “botched attempt” on Meshaal’s life. Not because he wasn’t meant to die, but because Israel failed to kill him. You can thus “botch” an operation by killing Turks – or you can “botch” an operation by not killing a Palestinian.
How do we break with the language of power? It is certainly killing us. That, I suspect, is one reason why readers have turned away from the “mainstream” press to the internet. Not because the net is free, but because readers know they have been lied to and conned; they know that what they watch and what they read in newspapers is an extension of what they hear from the Pentagon or the Israeli government, that our words have become synonymous with the language of a government-approved, careful middle ground, which obscures the truth as surely as it makes us political – and military – allies of all major Western governments.
Many of my colleagues on various Western newspapers would ultimately risk their jobs if they were constantly to challenge the false reality of news journalism, the nexus of media-government power. How many news organisations thought to run footage, at the time of the Gaza disaster, of the airlift to break the blockade of Berlin? Did the BBC?
The hell they did! We prefer “competing narratives”. Politicians didn’t want – I told the Doha meeting on 11 May – the Gaza voyage to reach its destination, “be its end successful, farcical or tragic”. We believe in the “peace process”, the “road map”. Keep the “fence” around the Palestinians. Let the “key players” sort it out. And remember what this is all about: “Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror.”
by Robert Fisk
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
And to find out more about the author of the article, Robert Fisk, please click here.