Distractions From Christmas

Oh no. I should be baking shortbread cookies for Christmas tomorrow. But I’ve had Linux on the mind the past few days and just read an article that exemplifies several issues related to the popular perception of Linux. I have to put off the shortbread for a bit, or I’ll end up somewhere else. Don’t worry, Kim, I’ll be getting all the cooking done I promised, and a little more.

GNU/Linux is an operating system that lets you interact with your computer’s hardware. Microsoft’s Windows is also an OS. So is Apple’s OSX. The article I will be taking as a reference is called OS shoot-out: Windows vs. Mac OS X vs. Linux published at InfoWorld.

You might infer from the title, which evokes images of people with guns trying to kill each other, discussions of OS superiority are generally heated. And also, since people are not actually firing guns at each other, you can see that the title is purposefully provocative, in the “best” ad/marketing tradition.

As expected, the content of the article is woefully short on facts, while being long on broad generalisations. This doesn’t bother me as long as the generalisations can be traced back to fact, and are not sloppy in what they lead the reader toward. I’m hoping to help cut through some of the prevailing marketing deception to give a clearer picture that is not biased.

First, it is important to know that Windows is made by a company named Microsoft. OS X is made by a company named Apple. GNU/Linux is not made by a company, but rather by hundreds (and I’m sure thousands) of companies and individuals around the world.

OS X is based upon Unix. Unix can (sloppily) be thought of as a very well-designed and academic way of doing things in your computer. GNU/Linux is also based upon Unix, and carries the “tradition” much further. Windows is not based upon Unix.

Apple and Microsoft’s primary goal is to make money. It has to be, by law. GNU/Linux’s primary goal is to do the best stuff, in the best way possible. As such, Apple and Microsoft care a great deal about the percentage of the OS market they dominate, while GNU/Linux has no care whatsoever about any market share. That’s not entirely true, though. Some GNU/Linux people see growing market share as an indication that what they have contributed is something as beautiful and wonderful as they imagined it was, while other GNU/Linux people will see their growing market share as being good progress in their effort to “free” people from the domination of purely corporate interests. The mindset is different. Apple and Microsoft development is driven by a strategy that wants to dominate the marketplace of users. GNU/Linux development is driven by a strategy that wants to create the best thing possible.

Everyone knows that Microsoft has a long history of doing bad and bully-ing things, while many people believe that Apple is an altruistic, cool and good company. The truthier thing is, Microsoft has been so bad and mean that their gigantic marketing department could not even alter the public’s perception entirely, to make them seem good. Apple focuses their marketing on the sexy and cool, while their bad behavior goes largely unnoticed. And from the fallout of these marketing wars, GNU/Linux gets stuck with an impression of freakish computer geniuses doing arcane stuff that is well beyond the reach of most users. Or rebels using piece-meal computer equipment fastened with duct tape who just hack.

Hello I'm Linux

Don’t believe the hype. The InfoWorld article suggests that Apple’s OS X may be “the best operating system available.” Yet, at the same time, they claim that the growing adoption of OS X within business is not because of IT department choices, but rather users who push the IT guys until get it. This suggests an entrenchment in Microsoft products within IT departments that Apple is working very hard to overcome. I’m happy seeing that, because Microsoft-based products have a tendency to grow considerably in cost, as you need to add functionality that other platforms like Apple’s and GNU/Linux, already have.

From the IT department’s standpoint, heterogeneous operating system environments are a problem. First, you must have people who know about each different platform. Second, there must be a way for those platforms to work together. This is where standards are important. Just like people, no matter what background you come from, if you can speak the same language, you can get stuff done. Microsoft has a long history of trying to take control of language then twisting certain words and phrases so that only people from the land of Microsoft can understand it. This influences people to wish they were from the land of Microsoft. Microsoft calls this subversion, enhancement. The GNU/Linux people call this Microsoft tactic, Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish. They seem to attempt this tactic with nearly anything created that they do not control. Fortunately, people’s creativity appears to outpace Microsoft’s capabilities to wage this tactic on every new development. Now, they must be more selective about their targets.

Standards are also important to enable the complexities of various computer hardware to function together, as a whole unit. Apple is very aware of this. It is why they choose, very selectively, which hardware goes into their Mac systems. It is also why you can only purchase OS X and run it on Apple-purchased computers. If you try making OS X run on hardware other than Apple-purchased hardware, you may well find yourself sued by Apple. Apple claims these draconian tactics are in the best interest of people, because it assures that OS X will always run beautifully, since you can only run it on Apple-purchased hardware. It’s certainly in the best interest of Apple. Microsoft doesn’t care what hardware on which you run Windows. Neither does GNU/Linux.

Now, suppose you need to do something that’s never been done before. In both OS X and Windows, you can, to a degree. But Microsoft and Apple only allow you access to the way your computer functions in limited ways. A Microsoft or Apple employee will have had to imagine already something similar to what you wish to accomplish, if even in abstract terms. You only can access your computer in ways they allow and control. In GNU/Linux, you have absolutely no restrictions, and you can see or change everything, if you choose to.

This is why strange, new things are often created using GNU/Linux. I was amazed on my tour of astronomical observatories that the use of GNU/Linux was so prevalent. The world’s fastest supercomputers, the Large Hadron Collider, little microwave communication towers or sensing stations – anything that might require very low level access to a computer hardware system – Linux is likely the best choice. Not always. But when it is not, Windows or OS X certainly is not. Unless you are designing your new computer hardware system specifically for Windows or OS X.

Which brings us to hardware drivers. Hardware drivers are pieces of programming that live, pretty much, between your OS’s “brain”, and a given piece of hardware that must communicate with that brain. Sometimes strange hardware can avoid the necessity of having a special driver, if that hardware follows standards. But if it does not follow standards, or cannot, then the people who made the hardware are generally the people who write the driver. Almost always they will write a Windows driver. Often they will write an OS X driver, now that Apple has gained more market share. Rarely will they write a GNU/Linux driver. Two very notable exceptions to this are the primary video card manufacturers, Nvidia and ATI. They have been creating GNU/Linux drivers for a long time.

As the InfoWorld article points out, hardware driver availability is a headache in Linux. There is some truth to this, but there are also benefits to this, as well as headaches. When a company produces a hardware product and does not write a Linux driver, it is usually only a matter of time before an employee of that company, or a Linux user somewhere in the world who likes that hardware, writes one themselves, and then gives it out to the rest of the world. Once this is done, Linux forever supports that hardware. Here is the benefit in that:

My workstation computer system has a few pieces of strange hardware. When I install Windows on it, I have to go hunting for the disks that came with that hardware, so that I can install the drivers, so my computer can boot with Windows. It sometimes takes me a long time to find those driver installation disks, and I have to hope that they are still good. However, with Linux, I don’t have to go find any disks, because Linux knows about the hardware. The drivers have become part of Linux. Apple faces the same problem as Microsoft in this, if you purchased any hardware that did not come from Apple, for your Apple computer system. It is far less effort, and fewer steps, for me to install, say, Ubuntu, than it is to install Windows. And I can’t install OS X, because my hardware was not purchased from Apple – and even if I did, the nice Mac guy might come chasing me with an ax.

But the key point is fundamentally a perceptual one. What is reality, and what is marketing? It’s not always easy to tell in a technically complex field. The InfoWorld article mentions virtualization software, where OS X users and Linux users can actually run programs written for Windows. However, they also say, “Because Linux distributions run on Windows-compatible hardware, it’s straightforward to use desktop virtualization software.” This makes it sound like GNU/Linux is trying to run on hardware meant for Windows, and mentions nothing else. Actually, Microsoft’s Windows runs only on Intel’s x86 hardware platform (and derivatives) while GNU/Linux runs on this, and many others — even Apple’s former hardware platform, before Apple, also, moved to this “Windows-compatible” hardware. GNU/Linux systems are not limited by hardware platforms the way Apple and Microsoft are.

For the end user, who normally purchases computers based upon the x86 platform, and yes, that includes Apple now, that flexibility is not so important. What is important is being able to use the computer, in ways that matter to you. Similarly important, to some, is “doing the right thing” by not supporting companies that seek to control what you can and cannot do.

I know, from an IT perspective, it is far less expensive and much easier to maintain a huge fleet of GNU/Linux systems. But as IT people, we are there for the end users. Most of them have no idea what using GNU/Linux can be like. Many now know what using OS X can be like, and they are asking for more. As always, the best place to look is individual experience because it reflects the diversity of need. The rhetoric of marketing wars, or “shoot-outs”, distract from reality.

Explore. Have an open mind. Educate yourselves. Learn to distinguish between marketing and reality. The best choice is not always the best choice. Nor is the worst, the worst. Openness, and open minds. Trust. Intent. Even purpose. Motives.

GNU/Linux does not mean that everything should be free, as in never make money. It means, what is out there, ought to be free, as in liberated, not hidden, and no hidden agendas, either. That distinction has taken a very long time to settle in, and probably will take a very long time more.

Think of it as a big, Merry Christmas gift, that will always be there, year ’round, waiting for you to open, under that big as the world tree. It’s a gift for people, as well as businesses. And for some reason, it’s a gift that makes a lot of people shoutin’ mad. Strange, isn’t it?

I’ve put the cookies off for far too long, saying more than I intended, and not nearly enough. Merry Christmas to those of you I won’t see or talk to. This isn’t a very holiday thing to write, I suppose. A bit of a digression, too, though not completely, from the material consciousness/spirit issue lately. But Merry Christmas anyway! I’ll never get all this cooking done now… damn distractions. Oh, Merry Christmas!

And What Might You Be, Crazy Creature?

Jake in the WheelbarrowI’ve never told him to do this. One day he just decided that he liked being in wheelbarrows. I accept such things, without understanding them. Maybe he feels he is a clever dog and wishes to demonstrate just how so. I think it’s not so grand, though. My suspicion is, being in a wheelbarrow is just another strange thing of many that he likes.

Right now the yard is covered in thick snow. It is a world he has never known. When he goes outside, he runs, back and forth wildly, in leaps to keep his chest above the snow. Then he stops, bends forward, pushing his head deep into the white powder, and does a somersault, flopping onto his back, then kicking himself around in circles. Then he stops, jumping up completely still and alert, looks quickly from side to side, then rolls onto his back again, rolling and kicking snow into the air while snorting. Again, I don’t know why. I tell him that he’s crazy, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

He also has obsessions, namely tennis balls. Always, he carries at least one around with him. He even drops one into his bowl as he eats, apparently because it’s all good. He can hold them between his paws, while he’s laying down, his stubby claws looking more like fingers, wrapping around the little ball. He even rests his paws on them, slowing rolling them around under his touch.

Jake holds the ballWhenever I come upstairs from down, there is at least one tennis ball on the steps, waiting for me. I am expected to bring it to him. When I stand near the bottom of the steps, doing dishes or making coffee, I almost always hear a thwunk, thwunk, thwunk as a ball slowly bounces down the steps. Looking up, he’s laying at the top of the stair with his paws hanging over, staring down at me with a big grin, waiting for me to throw the ball back up to him. It’s irresistible. I throw it up to him, where he catches it, chews it for a moment, then sets it on the ground between his paws. Moments later, he hits it with the top of his nose, sending it bouncing back down the steps to me, with that silly grin.

There is existence and awareness in that creature, that is not illusion, I have no doubt. There is a soul, as certainly as we might have one. This is beyond most forms of Christianity, and many other religions as well. In this, at least, those religions are wrong. And so are people who believe cats can even compare.

He has a darker side as well, manifest through pathological jealousy. Any other dog who dares comes near to say hello, he intercepts, and shoves firmly away, but in the friendliest of ways. He is the only one that will have our affection.

There is even self-sacrifice. Hating riding in the car, he lays down stiff and motionless in the back seat, completely unresponsive. It isn’t terror or sickness. It’s more like the ultimate in “grin and bear it”. So why, you might ask, is he forced to ride in the car? And the answer would be, he isn’t. He insists on going because it’s a much better alternative than you leaving without him.

I think it is likely, in his dog brain, that he has no awareness differentiating himself from humans. Laying down next to him to pet his head, you will find his paw on your own head, which is not always pleasant, when claws are loving torn down your cheek.  Nor always, your arm held firmly between his jaws when he is exceedingly happy about something. He has learned to curb his enthusiasm, to a degree, but not enough, by intent, to squelch his personality.

Jake a little downSometimes he needs to be reminded, not of his status, but of his limitations; those sometimes arbitrary-seeming rules of conduct. For example, the table is not his place to eat. The counter tops are sacred places, with strange and wondrous things to smell and eat, but never to trespass upon. And all of this is accomplished through the two soul-crushing sounds for which everything must stop. “No!” “Bad!”

Happily for him, almost everything else is good. It is a peculiar and simple life, almost always coming back to tennis balls. There are times when he brings two or three in his mouth to you, laying them in your lap, wide-eyed and waiting for you to throw them. But other times, when you might be in the mood to play, he will hide them from you. And still others, he will hoard them between his paws, in an iron grip. He prefers sharing the tennis balls on his own terms.

But, being smarter than he, I have discovered ways to circumvent his particularities. I keep a spare ball, all my own, out of his sight. One bounce of that ball, anywhere in the house, and he will completely forget about any balls of his own. One bounce, knowing that another ball exists that is not his, and he will fixate, absolutely, on making it his own. It does not matter that he already had two or three balls. If you have one, he must have it. I have learned to exploit that laser-sighted greed to swoop in and steal the balls he left unguarded. He knows this trick by now. I can see it in his face, when he hears me bounce that ball, out of his sight. He knows I will end up with his, and hesitates. But another bounce will drive him over the top, where he simply must have it. And then I’ve won.

But other times he will just bring a mouthful of balls to you, laying them in your lap. Or sometimes he spreads them out on the floor in front his face, where he lays with his chin on the ground, staring at you until you come take them to play. If you stand near them, he will spring to his feet, crouched in a serious four-legged kung fu pose, completely motionless, waiting to catch the ball with his paws if you happen to kick one instead of picking it up.

It is far more interesting when a relationship is not domineering. Personalities blossom, in unexpected ways.

Here, the Fourth of July is very loud, with fireworks shooting up into the sky in any direction you look, with the occasional bright white flash of some deafening explosion. Jake loves the Fourth of July. He is the only dog I’ve known to love it. He runs out across the yard, barking at the lights and sounds, in a happy, not at all anxious way. And when he is hot from running, like the rest of the summer, he will lay in his little plastic swimming pool of water, rolling around in near ecstasy.

After balls, water is his second love. Even though he cannot sink his teeth into it, he tries. When you pick up the hose, he runs toward you, expecting to be squirted. He requires it. You cannot expect to use water from the hose without this dog finding a way to get in it. Even strong jets of icy water he will lay down in, as if it is the most nonintoxicating and pleasant massage.  Short bursts he will bite at, trying to catch, or bat at with his paws. He is a strange dog.

Did I mention he does yoga? He loves to stretch, and loves help stretching further. Maybe this is how he can so easily leap into the wheelbarrow with such balance. Perhaps that is why his paws are more like hands. Certainly his flexibility, strength and precision set him apart from most other dogs. Perhaps this is just the pride of a parent.

Jake's imp grinFor my part, I have never thought of Jake as a dog. Well, consciously you must. But I give him the benefit of more. Actually, I try to do that with all dogs. And yes, even cats. Well, after that initial period of ignoring them completely until they put themselves at a disadvantage by making the first gesture of friendship. But where they might walk away, I’ll listen. Even though it’s questionable they deserve it, after such games. But not all dogs, do I think of, as more than dogs. Their characters can be radically shaped by we humans. To me, that is a nearly overwhelming consideration. But it is not, for all humans.

It is a peculiar thing, the spirit of an animal. And peculiar even ourselves, when we have such power over it, what we choose to exert in that dominion. It is something telling, as all acts, and all inactions, are confessions of ourselves.

I can say he is a bad dog. Or a good dog. And I determine all boundaries and structures of his world. But I forfeit that power, as much as I can. Instead, I choose to be one creature to another with him. Perhaps this is how he can be something more – how he can be such a strange and wonderful dog.

In a large way, this is because of my dad, by his example, or the voodoo that seeps in through the alchemy of families. It is a realization that gives me pause. Because, if I must admit many things, it gives me, perhaps, just a glimpse, of my own wheelbarrow.

You might be seeing me, standing in it now, from your perspective that encapsulates such creatures. But I can talk. And were I to, I would tell you, I am not feeling particularly clever. I like the wheelbarrow. It’s a little above the ground and it’s fun to balance. Even when I get scolded. Or laughed at. I mean, look at this, standing in the wheelbarrow. You glorious little lunatic! Yes, you.

And so we know, there are people who say, treating your dog as an equal is a bad thing. They say, they need the discipline, hierarchy and rule of the pack. They are happier that way. Well, it isn’t true. They need excrutiatingly honest and sincere interaction with you. That’s all. And yes, that is a far taller order.

Ooo – Make It Stop…


You must do things that you normally would not. Particularly if you have never done them before. If you are the slightest bit curious, that is, or think that you should. Or feel that you must.

I’m not going to say why. Just do it. If it doesn’t harm anyone. Take a peek behind those corners, inside those dark closets and basements, and under those stones. Stick your toe in. Take a leap. You just have to.

I did something completely out of character a couple nights ago. Something that I never do. Well, that I haven’t done for a very, very long time. I felt like I should, but I didn’t really want to. Even the thought of it made me feel awkward and uncertain. But strangely, that awkwardness began to bother me in other ways: it should not feel awkward, nor should it make me feel uncertain. And that’s what convinced me over the hump. I decided to do it. I was going to pray.

I know! But I’m telling you, you have to be able to take your own advice. Do something crazy. I told Jeff’s aunt, who seems like this sweet, wonderful lady, that I would pray her hip replacement surgery would go well. It seemed a nice and innocuous thing to do. But it wasn’t long before I wanted to back out of that promise.

But how could I? Backing out of something like that is like killing a butterfly, just to be mean. Not that I would know. Then I thought, well, while I’m it, I guess I’ll throw in some bigger ticket items, like including soldiers and civilians in the prayer, too. It couldn’t hurt, and would give me more bang for the buck.

And as that night wore on, the impending bizarre event loomed heavier and heavier on the near horizon. Why was it was such a big deal? It irritated me that it was a big deal. Was it irrational, being so bothered by something so benign? Was it my rationality that was offended, eliciting an emotional response of dread? That didn’t even make sense. Sure, rationality ought to be dispassionate, but even when it’s not, getting dread from something like having to pray just didn’t make sense. After all, this was simply a task that needed doing. Cut and dried. Matter of fact. But for some reason, it was HUGE. This made no sense.

Eventually it was time. Lights out, cell phone positioned, I took off my clothes and climbed into bed. Eyes closed. Laying on my back. Darkness. Ok. Here we go…

Now, simultaneously and contradictorily, in both hubris and jest, which you Psychologically dominated people are welcome to erroneously interpret as false modesty, I say that a lesser man would have just played with himself and gone to sleep. Nobody would be the wiser, if I just skipped out on this praying thing. Sure, I might have to answer to someone asking questions, but it would be a minor lie. Laying there, considering, I was on the verge of doing just that. But somehow, it sucked me in. I had to do it. I was going to pray. It was just too weird. I had to.

Ok. Wriggle, wriggle. Eyes closed. Dark. Silence.

I become very aware of the Earth at times like this, and our movement through everything out toward the stars — at least in my imagination.

Ok. Pray. Ok… Umm… Ok. Uh… who do I talk to? Where? Do I just think words, or do I speak into the darkness? Ok. I don’t need to speak. Thinking the words would be better. I’m sure he’s psychic. Well, he or she. Or whatever.

But words are so narrow. God has to be way larger than that. I can send him whole big landscapes of thought, instead of just narrow little words. I just can open up everything I am, and broadcast it out there, like an Arecibo made of meat and electricity. I wonder if satellites can pick it up? Damn freaks who go into the military to be voyeurs. Then again, people just broadcast themselves on webcams…

Ok. Wait. A prayer. It’s simple. Just pray for the hip. And not to the Hindu pantheon either, because she’s Christian. Those Hindu gods wouldn’t care about her hip. But why not? But maybe I could be just kinda Hindu-ish and unite with the vibrational energy that permeates the universe and make it flow into her hip toward the future when she’d be in the hospital. Gads, but it might short out the operating room equipment.

Damnit. God. Pray to God. Ok. God. Big guy. Yup. Ok. “Um, hi God,” I thought at Him.

Oh, how stupid is that? The creator of all existence, at all scales, both huge and subatomic and vast, and all the crazy intricacies, and I’m going, “duh. Hi God.” I mean, I can’t just outright talk to him, right? I guess he could have invented English, and speaks it. Or he’s like connected into everything, and I don’t even have to talk, because he knows it all, and made it all.

Damn. Hmm. Well, maybe I can just lay here, and be cosmically connected to him, and he’ll know about the prayer. Yeah. Ok. Deep breath. Focus. God blob. God blob… ok.. like all over the place and around, everywhere. Christ, how do I tell something so huge to make some person’s hip be ok? I mean, if the hip is bad, isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? How arrogant of me to try changing that plan. Or maybe he likes bad things until we beg him to make them good. That’s not very nice. Yeah, that whole problem of Evil existing so prominently. And those weak arguments about free will being the reason for it. Bah!

Man, but that lady’s hip. She seemed so sweet and nice. They’re going to have to slice into her, shatter her hip into pieces, dig it out, and put some synthetic bones back in her. That sucks. I bet lots of people end up going through that. All kinds of nasty, terrible stuff as you get older. And even those soldiers. I wonder how many of those young guys had to get their hips replaced cuz they got blown up? Lucky to be alive I suppose. So many bodies and lives, really. Strangers. I wonder what their stories were like? Never will know now, I guess. Silly young humans. Killing people. Getting killed. With all the conceits and vulnerabilities you see, in same people out here, walking around at a market. People that can kill people. Or get their own bodies ripped open by others.

And it wasn’t long before I found myself lying there, in the Dark, and in the Silence, amazed at all the images and feelings moving through me. I told myself, I’m not there with any of those people — I don’t know know any of them. It doesn’t matter. And it became even more proundly sad. And I found myself wanting, more than anything, for them all to be better. For them to be lifted out of that. To be free.

Stupid prayers. It wasn’t even a prayer. Well, maybe. I don’t know. But I was done. It was no different from, during every day, when you stop all the silliness around you, just to absorb in the world – to let your existence touch you, how it will. Or the existences of others. I don’t want that burden lifted. I need to feel that weight. I need to work to lessen that burden, and not just for myself.

Maybe that’s something God told me, in his language. I wouldn’t presume. Maybe when you pray, you’re not supposed to talk, or ask for things. Maybe you’re supposed to just open up and listen. Maybe our whole lives are supposed to be one, ever-present prayer. Maybe that’s why I felt so awkward, going to ask for something.

I wonder what people ask for, in their prayers. Or if they even pray, just to pray. Just to listen.

I guess I don’t know how to pray any more. Or I can’t. I tried, though. And I heard something really huge. And I am still really, really sad.

My Head, the Universe – Is It All Good?

That last piece on the nature of consciousness provoked some interesting responses. It makes me wonder why the philosophy departments are always so small. Probably because we feel more comfortable being error-prone lunatics, like unfastening the top button on the jeans after a big meal. I wonder what that says about people who always wear sweats?

Here’s a reminder, too. I was criminally negligent in supporting the positions for those three main views of consciousness in the last piece, Am I Alive? I am working under the assumption there is a reason philosophy departments are small. Very intricate and in-depth discussions for each of those positions exist, and are easily accessible if you have an interest in the detail. Even more importantly, distilling those arguments into quick examples lets me be lazy, too.

In addition to being told definitively what consciousness actually was, I was also pointed to a fascinating project within IBM’s Cognitive Computing group. This project just received $5 million in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same agency that funded the creation of the Internet, and many other incredible (and dubious) things.

The award funds IBM’s proposal, “Cognitive Computing via Synaptronics and Supercomputing (C2S2)”, which will be the first step in fulfilling DARPA’s “Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE)” initiative. Another company, HRL Laboratories, which is owned by Boeing and General Motors received three times this amount. HRL Laboratories is also involved in DARPA’s Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System, and their Urban Reasoning and Geospatial Exploitation Technology (URGENT) program, which wants to revolutionize urban combat using three-dimensional object recognition.

Anyway, IBM has built a rat brain. Well, not really. They’re simulating one on a supercomputer. Neural networks were long considered the most promising path toward simulating cognitive functions with computational devices. That approach focuses upon the role of neurons in the brain. However, neurons actually account for a very small fraction of the brain’s circuitry. Most of the circuitry are synapses, which connect the neurons together. Many synapses are connected to a single neuron. In fact, IBM’s rat brain has 55 million neurons and 442 billion synapses. That’s pretty much the same as a real rat brain. In comparison, a human cortex has around 22 billion neurons and 176 trillion synapses.

The IBM rat brain is somewhat larger than a rat, though. Their rat brain requires a 32,768 processor supercomputer with 8 trillion bytes of memory. It consumes more energy than 1,000 typical households. That is one fat rat.

And alas, it will probably never be on par with a real rat. Real rat brains, like our own, operate asynchronously, with variable timing (frequencies) and ooze chemicals as well as electricity. Being biological, they are also adaptable and fault tolerant. And most importantly, memory is not so separate from the processing. Traditional computers always keep memory separate from the processor. Then again, rat brains don’t run Linux.

But the IBM folks are well aware of their limitations. This is an incubation project. Cognitive Computing differs significantly from traditional artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence identifies problems, then comes up with ways to address those problems programmatically. On the other hand, cognitive computing does the engineering first (by reverse-engineering the brain) and worries about the more programmatic problems later.

The supercomputer is used only as a simulation. The intention is to build chips and electronics with a similar structure like a brain. They then plan to ram it full of sensory input from sensors all over the world, to create a “world brain”. I tell ya, these military guys are crazy. The idea is actually to overload this brain with sensory input. Part of me is suspicious, thinking these guys are hoping to create a physical structure modeled after a brain, and then by flooding it with sensory data, it might just burst into life with some ability to perform cognitive functions on that data. Or maybe even come alive… No, they would never say that.

What they do not intend to create is an actual rat brain, or human brain. At least that’s what they are saying. But you know mad scientists, particularly when they’re working for the military. They want to create computers that can get closer to the efficiency and power of biological brains, and this is, to them, in large part a structural issue.

What is interesting, philosophically, is suppose they do create a synthetic human brain. Would any mind, or consciousness, that arose from this brain also be synthetic? Or, for that matter, what exactly does synthetic mean? If souls exist, what is mind without a soul? If mind, or consciousness, is simply an illusion, is there anything wrong with just shutting it off and dismantling it, after we turn it on? Or if consciousness is only an illusion, is there anything wrong with just “turning off” a person’s mind?

Before we can deal with any of these questions we must define, if only in very broad terms, a nature of consciousness. Consciousness is something more than illusion. It may be an aggregate of biochemical processes, or it may be something related more closely to a notion of spirit. But to say that consciousness, which we all seem to experience, is merely illusion is to side step, in the name of convenience, the very basis of our ability to reason and perform science. Consciousness must exist or there is no context in which we might ask questions, formulate answers, be curious about matters, or feel anything at all. If consciousness is illusion, what is being tricked, if not consciousness itself? Consciousness precedes itself, when examining itself.

However, to say that consciousness exists is not to say that spirit exists. It may very well be that consciousness cannot exist independently of some physical substance. It is to say, however, that consciousness currently appears to be a more abstract quality than something wholly physical. That is, though consciousness may be dependent upon the physical, consciousness itself may not physical, any more than the processes of mathematics is physical. In fact, it is metaphysical (devoid of the pedestrian connotations).

I cannot touch my consciousness, or the consciousness of another person, nor can I smell it, see it, or measure it. This is does mean that consciousness is an illusion. Consciousness must exist before I carry out any processes of science. In order for me to see, taste, smell or feel, or on higher orders, evaluate, determine and hypothesize, I must have a consciousness. Whether or not this consciousness is dependent upon the physical, I am stuck with its necessity. Even though considering the consciousness illusory may help win some arguments, the problems created by such a proposition far outweigh any gains. Consciousness does exist and it is something metaphysical. It might even remain metaphysical, even if the bridging problem between physical, biochemical processes and the manifestation of consciousness are eventually solved.

This admission should not, in any way, fly in the face of science. Many abstract, not altogether tangible things exist that are, for some reason, wholly accepted by science. One of these things is mathematics. Another is the laws of physics themselves. Scientists have no problem accepting that some abstract laws exist that somehow determine the behaviour of everything physical. The question here is, what holds these laws? Why is there an electromagnetically negative charge and a positive charge, and only those two? What determines the probabilities associated with quantum mechanics? In science’s inference of multiple universes, where even the laws of physics can be utterly different in different universes, how are those laws of physics imprinted into that particular nature of reality? Perhaps consciousness is something abstractly structural like this. But it is abstract, similarly, beyond any given physical system. But again, that is not to say that it is not dependent upon a given physical system.

And now to the meat of things, the reason for this piece, which continues after the last one that left us questioning whether consciousness even exists, as most of us assume it must. For if we are questioning the epistemology of consciousness itself, where does that leave us when we consider other people, or other beings, or things, besides ourself? If we question the very possibility of consciousness, what possible hope is there for any sense of ethics or morality – of right or wrong?

First, I want to distinguish between ethics and morality. Here, ethics will mean something we can think about and discuss to reach conclusions. Morality will mean something that we learn through tradition, or are told. This being said, morality will be left out of the discussion altogether. This is done in the interest of expediency, since morality does not lend itself well to any reasonable discussion. Its basis sits in absolute notions that are generally entrenched and immobile. I leave it for people to shout about on the back porch between beer drinking and farts, until they reach their conclusions through a wrestling match, or a bloody club.

If a scientist or philosopher is of the ilk to question the existence of actual consciousness, it is altogether likely they are also of the ilk to question the existence of a basis for any ethics, let alone good or evil.

When you consider consciousness an illusion it is very difficult to reasonably consider ethics. Ethics seems intrinsically oriented toward life, and becomes more relevant the higher you go up on the complexity of life scale. If there is no consciousness, any notion of a higher order of life scale is arbitrary at best. Would you consider applying ethics to the way a physical cluster operates as individual components? How can mechanical operations be ethical or unethical if no consciousness guides them? Without consciousness, things function as they do. Ethics is replaced by gross domination through a preponderance of purpose, or just simply strength.

However, since we can more sanely say that consciousness is something more than illusion, we can also find a place for ethics. Perhaps not for good and evil, but ethics, most certainly. Here the question becomes, is there such a thing as right and wrong, or good and bad, that exists, similar to consciousness, or the laws of physics, in its own true abstraction? Stay with me scientists…

The question of ethics is a very old one; ancient even. Right now we are looking at these questions of ethics and consciousness, framed by a backdrop of new technologies, during a period increasingly dominated by scientific thinking. It is important to keep in mind that rational thinking is timeless, though not all rational positions remain rational over time. The questions of ethics are richly discussed in texts throughout many centuries, distinct from religion. My one selection here, for your consideration is this:

Let’s say that a dog exists. It’s a good dog, but occasionally bad, as dogs are. There is plenty of food for the dog, and the dog will not harm its environment. It will not overly reproduce. In fact, let’s assume there are no ill effects whatsoever from this dog existing, and there never will be. The question is, is it better that the dog lives or dies?

You would be an unusual person indeed if you claim the dog ought to die, when there are no bad effects from it living. If you just hate dogs, substitute a cat, or a monkey, or better yet, yourself. Particularly when you substitute yourself, even saying that it makes no difference whether you live or die rings a little untrue. Most people would agree that, all things being equal, it is better the dog, or you, should live, rather than die. But what makes it better? This is certainly not something purely mechanical.

Interestingly, you can take this even further back, to address concerns about the origin of the universe. Why does the universe exist? Why did it come into being? Well, is it better that the universe came into being, than if it did not? This is the exact line of reasoning early philosophers used to posit the existence of an ethical universe. Personally, I have a hard time accepting that the universe sprang into being because it was supposed to, along with all its physical laws. Nevertheless, there is something to be said about a natural state of ethics, alongside our conscious determination and use of the natural laws of nature.

It will be interesting, if we manage to create a synthetic, or even “real” consciousness – will that consciousness have a similar sense of the inherently ethical? Will it know that being alive is better than being dead? Will it know that promoting non-truths is bad? Or does it require emotion for such determinations? Does consciousness itself require emotion?

But I think the important thing for us to realize is that science and rational thinking does not require us to throw out any value we place upon life, nor to give up on what we know to be ethical choices. Science is still entrenched in its long war against the domination of religious thought. Unfortunately, it runs the risk of creating a narrow dominion of thought all its own, in the process. If we are to have truly open minds, our thoughts and perspectives must be willing to travel beyond their comfortable and familiar contexts, if only just to take a quick peek.

For all the dogma and doctrine out there, the important thing is that we are all alive, participating in, and affected by what each of us embrace, promote, or even just participate within. Life has intrinsic value that is greater than any equation or any religion. Life’s value is greater than any system of government, economy or social tradition.

It is a quality of life that it must grow. Consciousness must grow. However, reductionism and normalization should only be considered a fertilizer for the soil, and not the cage. Otherwise, we run the risk of scientific oppression that would make religious oppression pale in comparison.