Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pompa-dour.

All I can say is, it's a good thing for newscasters that soon-to-be-ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich won't be able to fulfill his supposed ambitions of becoming U.S. president, because at some point he'd almost surely have to sit down with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, thus resulting in the most unpronounceable summit meeting in history.

But at least this is one case where we know what the preconditions would be: "I'll take 4 billion rials, thank you very much...."

Did you hear the press conference where Blagojevich promised to "clean up Illinois," vowing to his mother that he'd be as honest as the day is long* and adding
quite specifically (and unprompted, as far as I could tell)that he'd never take a bribe? And now he tries to ebay Obama's vacated Senate seat, among other things. Can you even believe this guy?

* Then again, we're coming up on the shortest day of the year.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Guys like this jerk are why I didn't vote this year. I'm just fed up, they're all crooked. You wait and see, Obama will turn out to be the same as the rest. And who knows if there's more to this whole situation with Obama and that governor?
-Carl

roger o'keefe said...

I waited to see how you'd cover this, Steve. I'd wondered if only Republicans were worthy of your ire. Though I don't think you go into it to the depth it probably deserves, it's good to see you mention it. A person doesn't need to be quite as cynical as "Carl", to recognize that corruption exists across the political spectrum. The Bush team didn't invent it, as even the most diehard Clintonistas would have to admit.

Elizabeth said...

the most unpronounceable

Aw, nothing to it. It is Blagojewicz. Simple.

There is a lesson for young people in this sordid story (pay attention, you young'ems!): when you have been under federal investigation for corruption for years, refrain from using your phone to arrange your crooked deals.

Apart from that, I think the most important question on everyone's mind is who will play Blago in the crooked politico of the week made-for-TV movie? My money is on Steve Carell (but we'll have to tease his mane quite a lot).

Anonymous said...

Corruption maybe everywhere, but Illinois seems to have it bad. Remember Govenor Ryan, a Republican, got indicted too and he was succeeded by Blagojevich! Is there something the water in Illinois?

Elizabeth said...

Blago's fall was a long time coming and not a moment too soon. He's corrupted through and through and brazen beyond belief. On Monday, during a press conference, he pretty much taunted the press and law enforcement to charge him with anything.

So they did, the next morning, at 6 am, in his pj's. (Be careful what you ask for.) This guy's stupidity (not to mention other unpleasant character attributes) seems boundless.

And then there is that "[bleeping]" wife of his... What a couple.

Check this out for Blago-related comic relief (funny stuff):

If They IM'd: Rod Blagojevich and his cronies
http://tinyurl.com/68badv

and

Absolute Blago hair corrupts absolutely
http://tinyurl.com/5lsbom

Elizabeth said...

Huffington has an interesting (and entertaining) piece on Blago's scandal:

Blagojevich: Character is Destiny
http://tinyurl.com/5sqtda

Steve Salerno said...

Ahh yes, our friend Freud and his famous comment, "Anatomy is destiny." I'm reminded of "Visiting Day," a melancholy piece I once did for the Washington Post about my son's arrest, and his troubles generally; the Freud line is a key theme.

I agree that it's very difficult for most of us to escape who and what we are. Character can be developed, honed, but mostly it just...is. People will do what their character tells them to do, good or bad.

Elizabeth said...

Character, yes; anatomy, less so, I'd say. I have in mind the 25-yr-old woman without arms who's flying planes with her feet (and doing other amazing things).

Take that, Freud! (Along with your penis envy.)

Steve, is your "Visiting Day" available on-line?

Steve Salerno said...

See, that's the thing in a nutshell: I consider character part of anatomy. To me, character is physical. To me, thought is physical. Otherwise what is it??

"Visiting Day" may be available online, but I believe you have to subscribe to one of the services (e.g. HighBeam), which costs $$. There's also a much longer version of the story that was nominated for some award; it appeared in a literary mag called Confrontation some years back.

Elizabeth said...

Character as part of anatomy -- yes, I can see that. But probably not in such a deterministic sense as you do (I think).

Given the examples of people overcoming such incredible odds (like the armless woman flying planes), it would appear, again and to me, that we have some "say so" in modifying, to some extent, our nature-given traits and propensities.

But then you could -- and would -- argue that "the modifying" was pre-determined and already a part of our character and anatomy. (There ain't nothing I could say to that at this point, really -- I think I can only handle one discussion on free will vs. determinism per month. More than that drives me bonkers, as you have no doubt noticed.:))

As to thought being physical... Well, what do you mean? How is it physical?

I'll see if I can find "Visiting Day." I'm still trying to locate a copy of "Bed of Lies." (Does not help that my local video shops are going out of business in droves.)

Steve Salerno said...

Let me play devil's advocate: If thought isn't physical...what is it? Black magic? Voodoo? Spiritualism?

I happen to believe that everything that happens within the physical confines of the body is physical. I see thought as being composed of electrons and chemicals flying around in different combinations. If one set of chemicals/electrons gets released, we think one thing. If another set gets triggered, we think something else. If a third set gets set in motion, we have a "feeling." Etc.

Steve Salerno said...

And--as a p.s.--I think there is evidence for my way of seeing it in those experiments where they tickle specific regions of a person's brain with a probe, and that person has a certain thought or memory or sentiment.

Elizabeth said...

But see, Steve, this is the crux of the matter, or rather, the matter's limitations.

The basis of the cognitive processes is physical, but the processes themselves -- or rather, their product/expression -- is not. You cannot catch a thought, you cannot contain it, you cannot define it unless it is expressed. And even then, how can you say it exists -- in what form?

Yes, we know that certain parts of the brain are involved in specific cognitive tasks, but the best we can do (so far?) is draw a connection between stimulating a given part of the brain and a certain general response -- but not the specifics of the response (i.e. you may know that tickling this area will evoke a memory, but you will not know that it is the memory of aunt Martha giving you a red apple).

Or see our feelings: for example, you hurt when you lose a loved one. But what part of you really hurts? Can you touch it? Can you even name it, without resorting to spiritual/poetic terms?

The problem of consciousness seems to be the Holy Grail of science and a possible death blow to the mechanistic view of life. It also belongs to that maddening category of the (currently) unresolvables, where we may argue our respective viewpoints to death, based on our beliefs, for solid evidence is lacking -- and irk each other for another week or so. (There is always that risk, I've noticed.:)

The mechanistic-deterministic view of reality has not been able to account for our consciousness -- and it is likely that it won't. More likely we will have to modify our understanding of reality and come up with a new paradigm (yeah, that overused word) to explain the so-far-unexplainable. This includes consciousness, so-called paranormal phenomena,* etc. (BTW, they are only called "paranormal" because we do not have yet an understanding and proper explanation of their nature. But there is nothing "paranormal" or "supernatural" or unscientific about them; as there is evidence of their existence, they must be part of nature -- but it's a part we don't understand yet.)

*I'm not talking about zombies and vampires (what passes for "supernatural" in the American pop culture), but about ESP, for example.

Elizabeth said...

P.S.

"you may know that tickling this area will evoke a memory, but you will not know that it is the memory of aunt Martha giving you a red apple"

The "you" in this sentence means the experimenter/outside observer.

Steve Salerno said...

The problem of consciousness seems to be the Holy Grail of science and a possible death blow to the mechanistic view of life.... The mechanistic-deterministic view of reality has not been able to account for our consciousness...

Sez who? I just gave you a (brief) explanation of how I see consciousness. Why are you blithely ignoring it? A computer can perform certain limited AI functions. Is a computer conscious? As time passes, we will be able to program computers to think more as we do, and yes, to have feelings. We will do this by embedding a proper sequence of code within the computer. Do you have any doubt that this will happen? The only thing preventing that now is that we don't even understand how we think, so we can't replicate it.

Look at it this way: According to current understanding of evolution, we came from one-cell organisms. These organisms were obviously primitive and could not "think." Right? But somehow, through a purely biological process--that is what evolution argues, is it not?--those primitive things evolved to...us. So where did the magic and mystery enter the picture?

Consciousness is a mere physical adaptation, just like thumbs and pubic hair and everything else. No more and no less. We flatter ourselves in the extreme by thinking that the human condition is something beyond biology.

Elizabeth said...

Sez who?

Some folk who have much more knowledge and brain capacity than I do.:)

I just gave you a (brief) explanation of how I see consciousness. Why are you blithely ignoring it?

Steve, I'm not ignoring it, I gave you a counter-example to show limitations of your explanation as I see them. (You are not itching for a fight, are you...? Sigh.)

A computer can perform certain limited AI functions. Is a computer conscious?

No, as far as we can tell.

As time passes, we will be able to program computers to think more as we do, and yes, to have feelings. We will do this by embedding a proper sequence of code within the computer. Do you have any doubt that this will happen?
The only thing preventing that now is that we don't even understand how we think, so we can't replicate it.


And a possible reason we don't understand it is because we have been steeped in the mechanistic reductionism.

Look at it this way: According to current understanding of evolution, we came from one-cell organisms. These organisms were obviously primitive and could not "think." Right? But somehow, through a purely biological process--that is what evolution argues, is it not?--those primitive things evolved to...us. So where did the magic and mystery enter the picture?

I don't think we are talking about "magic" here, Steve, though (a lot of) it is a mystery, I'll give you that.

Consciousness is a mere physical adaptation, just like thumbs and pubic hair and everything else. No more and no less.

Steve, apart from the fact that this is rather a statement of faith (for we do not have evidence either way), it does not explain anything, does it. It opens, however, a new can of worms. If it is a physical adaptation (and it very well may be), what exactly are its functions? Survival of the species can be very well accomplished (and one could argue much better -- see bacteria) without the burden of consciousness.

We flatter ourselves in the extreme by thinking that the human condition is something beyond biology.

No, Steve, you are misreading my POV. There is nothing "flattering" about it, nor is it "beyond biology." But it is likely beyond the mechanistic view of reality as a sum of tangible parts interacting with each other in a linear cause-reaction fashion. We are talking about aspects of biology (and reality) that we don't yet understand. Again, this not "spiritual" or "supernatural." It is natural, just not understood yet.

Think about, for example, our emotional reactions to each other (even via computers). We do have those (emotional reactions) to each other's words, don't we (as demonstrated on SHAMblog time and again;). What exactly are we reacting to, and how? The meaning of the words transmitted electronically, yes? But that meaning does not exist "objectively," in any physical sense, beyond what we create in our minds in response to those messages. What is the mechanism of this creation (of meaning?) There is no tangible "thing" or process we can ascribe it to -- not in our current mechanistic understanding of our functioning.

Same goes for the phenomenon of emotional contagion (and many others). We know our emotions are contagious and we can affect each other's moods. We look at someone smiling friendly at us and we feel better (for example). Now, what it's the mechanism of that -- i.e. what is the process of transmission of the emotions from the image of a smiling face in front of us (and our interpretation of its friendliness toward us) to our physiological and emotional response? Certainly there is no tangible "thread" or other similar mode of transmission involved there between the two individuals. Yet the effects of the interaction are subjectively felt, and objectively observable and measurable. But the transmission process (if you will) is not -- not in the mechanistically reductionist view of the world.

Again, I'm not postulating deus-ex-machina or magic as possible explanations, just stating, repeatedly, that we may have to look beyond the flatly mechanistic view of the world to explain many aspects of reality. IMO. (And, gosh, I really don't feel like arguing. It's Friday, and it's been a long week, you know.)

RevRon's Rants said...

"As time passes, we will be able to program computers to think more as we do, and yes, to have feelings. We will do this by embedding a proper sequence of code within the computer."

I think you're stretching things pretty thin here, Steve. We might be able to program sociopathy, wherein the machine mimics human feelings well enough to fool a casual observer. But actual feelings? I doubt it. And my doubt is every bit as valid as your certainty.

"Consciousness is a mere physical adaptation, just like thumbs and pubic hair and everything else. No more and no less."

An interesting opinion, Steve, but not one effectively proved (or disproved) or universally accepted. So long as we remember that we are expressing opinions, rather than Ultimate Truths, productive dialog and learning are possible.

"We flatter ourselves in the extreme by thinking that the human condition is something beyond biology."

And I would counter that we delude ourselves by thinking ourselves capable of effectively quantifying and encapsulating the depth and breadth of reality. Hell, we can't even stop ourselves from killing each other over the kind of clothes our women wear or the way we pronounce the characters in our mythology! :-)

Elizabeth said...

We might be able to program sociopathy, wherein the machine mimics human feelings well enough to fool a casual observer.

I agree, Ron. Feelings are functions of our interactions with our environment and each other as members of the sexually reproducing sentient species. (The sentient part being the key here.) They are far more complex than it would appear on the surface and our ability to decipher them is nothing short of amazing.

There have been efforts to teach computers to recognize basic (human emotional) vocal and facial expressions and this endeavor appears fraught with insurmountable difficulties so far, because even "simple" emotional expressions are much more complex to recognize than we have thought. They are heavily-context dependent, for one (one reason why e-mail communications tend to be confusing at times and lead to unnecessary ruffling of feathers -- the same words expressed in a different tone of voice can have very different meanings -- and that aspect of our communication, for example -- our tone of voice, facial expression, etc. -- is stripped from e-mail exchanges).

And yet we human beings are amazingly adept at deciphering the contextual, non-verbal cues -- something we learn without the use of language, in an intuitive (for lack of a better word) manner early on -- and we hone it throughout our lifetimes.

If we were to create computers in our image, endowed with the feeling capacities identical (or very similar) to ours, those would have to be, by necessity, sentient creatures able to reproduce on their own, and fight for survival, on their own. IOW, we would create a new species of the sapiens kind (a la God as our religions perceive Him/Her/It) that would become independent of its creators and, in turn, create its own reality in which it would live and prosper (and reproduce, suffer, create and, quite likely, die). We also would have to teach them, step-by-step, the process of recognizing emotions, in our daily interactions with them -- the same way perhaps we teach our children and learn from each other. In a way, we'd have to create baby computers (or baby-equivalents of computers) and "raise" them as our own. This is a pretty fantastic proposition (note I'm not saying impossible), complicated, right off the bat, by the fact that so far we ourselves do not quite understand the process of emotional learning and communicating, certainly not enough to translate it into teachable units for non-human beings.

And we are talking about relatively simple emotions without even going into more complex feelings such as love (which, again, result from our biological imperatives, such as propagation of the species, but easily transcend them -- hence the many forms of love not associated with reproduction).

Well, my Friday soapbox limit has been effectively exhausted, I think (and I along with it). But I'd love it if you read Hello, Hal.
Will we ever get a computer we can really talk to?
, by John Seabrook, a (very) interesting article from The New Yorker (June this year). Six short pages well worth your time (certainly as it applies to our discussion here), IMO: http://tinyurl.com/6e6qog

Anonymous said...

Feelings are in our bodies! A computer would not be able to reproduce a feeling, but maybe mimic one.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 6:36: And how do you know this?

Anonymous said...

I know this, because many neuroscientists have been studying the connection between our bodies and our feelings for a while now. That is why our sense of smell has been under so much scrutiny. Our sense of smell goes right to the brain and is connected to our memories.

Now there was a robot in the UK last summer that scientists were working with to respond to humans' emotions. The Heart Robot, that was its name, would show fear if shaken, or grow limp when cuddled, but the robot was reacting to the humans. The responses were programmed into the robot and those responses were physical with heartrate and breathing would speed-up. Here is the link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2470017/A-robot-with-feelings-is-star-of-science-museum-show.html Of course this robot begs the question, what if your body does not respond normally? There are links between fear and sexual attraction and we all know about S & M. The Heart Robot would have a few limits.

Think how many people could get these robots instead of getting married, or finding partners? There are a few men who are in love with their $5,000 Real Dolls and a guy just created a talking robot.