A Fragment of FinnCon, a Dribble of Dumbspeech

I finished the last of 32 Finncon slides today.  Here’s #25.

 

Now all I have to do is write a talk that has at least a tenuous connection to the other 31.

In other news, an excerpt from an upcoming article in The New Yorker:

There are people here who repeatedly drown themselves in the name of enlightenment. They climb into special glass coffins called “prisms”, seal the lid, and open the spigot until they’re completely submerged. Sometimes they leave a bubble of air at the top, barely big enough to stick their noses into; other times, not even that much.

This is not suicide (although occasional deaths have been reported). They would tell you that it is exactly the opposite, that you haven’t lived until you’ve nearly died. But there’s more to this than the pointless thrill-seeking of the adrenaline junkie. The Prismatic kink derives from the evolutionary underpinnings of consciousness itself.

Put your hand in an open flame and subconscious reflex will snatch it back long before your conscious self is even aware of the pain. It is only when some other agenda is in conflict — your hand hurts, but you don’t want to spill the contents of a hot serving tray all over your clean rug — that the self awakens and decides which impulse to obey. Long before art and science and philosophy arose, consciousness had but one function: not to merely implement motor commands, but to mediate between motor commands in opposition.

In a submerged body starving for air, it’s difficult to imagine two imperatives more opposed than the need to breathe and the need to hold your breath. As one Prismatic said to me, “Put yourself in one of those things, and tell me you aren’t more intensely conscious than you’ve ever been in your life.”

Their fetish — it seems grandiose to call it a “movement” — would itself seem to be the manifestation of an opposing impulse, a reaction against something. By all accounts drowning is an intensely unpleasant experience (although I did not take my interviewee up on her offer). It is difficult to imagine what kind of stimulus might provoke such intense pushback, why the need to assert one’s consciousness of all things would seem so pressing. None of the Prismatics I asked were able to cast any light on this question. They simply didn’t think of their actions in those terms. “It’s just important to know who you are,” one twenty-eight-year-old TATmaster told me after a few moments’ thought, but his words seemed as much question as answer.

—Keith Honeybourne, 2080: Travels With My Ant:
A Baseline Guide to Imminent Obsolescence

 

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday June 25 2013at 11:06 am , filed under fiblet, public interface . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

11 Responses to “A Fragment of FinnCon, a Dribble of Dumbspeech”

  1. So mr.Watts, what is a store, with your minister of defence, Paul Hellyer, who said about aliens into U.S. government?

  2. Hey, it’s Morsella’s research! Glad to see it referenced — I look forward to the full piece. You’ll link to it once it’s up, I hope?

  3. Truth be told, I have, in the past, considered making a somewhat similar device. The design hit the dead end when it turned out that none of the pulse oximeters I could reasonably expect to procure were capable of operating when submerged in water*.

    So I had to scrap that idea and settle for a semi-homebrew waterboarding rig…

    _________________________
    *The face a certain medical supplier’s employee made when I carefully explained that I might need a blood oxygenation monitoring device that can function when “significant amounts of water” are present and “wiping it off with a towel is not an option” was pure comedy gold :D

  4. The Prismatic might be right about being never more conscious than when the need to breathe and the need to hold the breath are in total opposition and both are at the point of being totally overwhelming.

    However, I cannot imagine that you are conscious of much other than those two things. Thus it would seem to me that it’s pretty pointless to get into such a state of enhanced consciousness and not be able to think of something that would be, outside of that situation of near drowning, far more interesting. For example, new reflections on Einstein or somesuch.

  5. Interesting. I had a recent experience that made me acutely aware of my subconscious mind.

    I was grilling out and had a set of heavy metal tongs out to rotate the corn. I put them down right next to the grill. As a result one side became scorching hot while the other remained relatively cool. I acme back to do the rotating and grabbed the tongs. That is when my mind seemed to split into 2 halves. I vividly remember feeling a burning pain in my hand, but then my mind seemed to get confused because from the same hand, and the same object was just a warm feeling. I could feel my ‘minds’ going back and forth really quick probing each sensation. I was aware of this exchange the whole time. The pain just turning off while the warm side was felt then back to the pain again. Finally I made the conscious decision to drop the tongs.

    To me it felt as if my subconscious was confused to the point of needing a second opinion. It really felt as though 2 people were trying to figure out the problem. I was also amazed at the speed of the whole experience. It felt like seconds had passed, but in reality I think it couldn’t have been more than a half second or so.

  6. @Anonymous: That is fascinating. I have some analogous experiences but generally they’re due to driving a couple of different vehicles, some of which are manual transmission and some of which are different types of automatic transmission.

    One time I’m driving with a friend in a VW (old) Beetle and we’re coming up on a fairly hairy curve in the road, a bit of overpass underpass zip and dodge, and I’ve got a cup of coffee in the right hand and I realize I need to be down one gear in the ratio. Rather than expect him to grab a cup of hot coffee in time to for me to free a hand and down-shift, I just ask him, “hey, quick, hit third gear for me”, and I push in the clutch. This was not uncommon a thing to ask of a passenger in my crowd, and he just reaches out and moves the lever. So right when it’s time to dump the clutch to handle the curve, I discover he has somehow got it into first (low) gear going about 40MPH.

    This was bad enough and I was unclutching in a hurry but not before I hit a wet patch of pavement and the heavy rear of the car tries to keep going the way it was going but that’s not where the front wheels need to go. Further, if I correct the skid, I’ll be increasing my departure from the curve and there’s nothing but concrete pylon and brick wall in that direction. I need drag in back but not first gear as that will lock up the rear wheels and the skid gets worse.

    Time just about stopped as far as I was concerned, and it was with deep consideration about whether or not I wanted to try to secure my cup of hot coffee by clenching it between my thighs or perhaps in preference just run into the damned wall, that I elected to just leave the cup hanging in mid-air and speed-shift from first to third. Out goes the clutch, the rear wheels catch, I grab onto the wheel and the front wheels bite on a dry spot of tarmac, the car follows the road, and the coffee cup falls out of the air just grazing the shift knob and perfectly flips exactly one half turn and lands lid down between my friend’s deeply braced feet. Barely dribbled a bit onto the floor. The weird bit is that this had to be total coincidence, right? This is like the autistic kid who wins a raffle and gets to do a free throw at the school basketball game, flings it back over his head without looking and scores from the half-court line. Probably not repeatable. And nobody wants to try it again.

    But when it was happening, I swear it was like everything was moving underwater in molasses, and I was seeing graphs and lines and pointers with freakin’ annotations like The Terminator viewpoint in those movies. If I could get that to happen without being in a deadly risk situation, I’d do it all of the time. As it was I just decided to keep both hands free henceforth when driving around with this passenger. ;)

    FWIW I have a new Ford 6-speed transmission which evidently has some fuzzy-logic learning warez built in. Occasionally[1] it dithers around and goes “gear hunting”, about like your subconscious and reflexes not quite knowing what to do in terms of holding onto warm tongs or dropping burning hot tongs when it’s two different parts of the same object. Fortunately that trans comes with a manual-select mode though one has to consciously go to that mode and pick a gear for the vehicle (it will stay in whatever gear it’s already engaging). Otherwise the trans could go gear-hunting into the overdrives while sliding around a curve in the snow, which might end as badly as if your subconscious hadn’t passed the decision up to the conscious level: burnt extra crispy.

    One of these days I’ll figure out if I have an awesome subconscious autopilot that takes over in emergencies and is the best driver ever, or if more likely I am just one lucky SOB. Chances are it’s the latter.

    Ref:
    1. The trans learning warez can’t seem to figure out[2] that I have two driving modes, one of which is Poke-Along Percy working the revs and gearing low trying to get good city fuel economy in a freakin huge truck, and the other is running hilly back-road highways with a full cargo and not sparing the horses much.
    2. This is when it goes gear-hunting, when I’ve been in one mode for a while and then change modes.

  7. @Mr Non-Entity.. (its me, Anonymous. I was an a different PC and didnt put my name into the little box when I posted above)

    Cool story. I remember a Nova episode on PBS where a scientist designed a experiment to see if the human brain actually slows things down visually when we go into hyper mode. Like kicking up the FPS. He designed a wrist pad with a readout that could update the numbers much faster than we could normally see it. It just looked like a blur. He then would drop people from some height onto a trampoline or something and have then look at the display. If our ‘FPS’ were being ramped up the volunteers should have been able to read some of the numbers on the pad. None of them could. Turns out our brain just ramps up the FPS on out memories, taking more snapshots during that time. When then later interpret that as more time having passed giving us the sensation of things slowing down.

    As far as running in hyper mode at will, Id be carefull of that. Im willing to bet that your blood pressure and heart rate go way up at the same time. Along with a rush of chemical stimulants into the brain. Stay in hyper mode too long and you might have a stroke.

  8. @Jeremy: Once again, fascinating. I wonder if that function of “taking more snapshots” is to increase granularity so that if the person survives, later on in REM sleep they have a lot more data to work with to figure out exactly what (if anything) they did which was contributory to survival. Perhaps even to analyze to the degree of “well, that worked, but almost didn’t, would have worked better if…” and suddenly a new set of fast unconscious/subconscious routines are in place.

    As for the hyper mode causing strokes: I think it might, if you were totally unaccustomed to it. Yet think about the human propensity for sustained battle. The young warriors probably had pretty good cardio health and once they got into the thick of battle, they might be running in hyper mode until the last of the engagement. Some probably did stroke out, but they wouldn’t have lived to pass on that fault, though might already have done so. Of course, if you’re a 500-pound couch ornament with a diet of pure cholesterol heavily sprinkled with sloth and indolence, you might stroke out just from watching the space battle scenes in “the Empire Strikes Back”. ;) I think the hyper mode is probably fail-safed to only kick in when very rapid muscular exertion is called-for. Probably the closest one comes to that outside of physical risk is that creeped-out feeling one gets when the cow-orkers or the boss pull a fast one and you have to think very rapidly to win the game. That might not give most people a stroke but I bet it’s not helping their general heart-health.

    Cheers,


  9. In a submerged body starving for air, it’s difficult to imagine two imperatives more opposed than the need to breathe and the need to hold your breath. As one Prismatic said to me, “Put yourself in one of those things, and tell me you aren’t more intensely conscious than you’ve ever been in your life.”

    Seems like BS to me.

    Almost-drowning is such an unpleasant experience that even if it could bring an opiate high, people still would not do it.

    Anyone can try, just hold your breath and try to swim 70m under water…

  10. Nick Nimchuk:
    Hey, it’s Morsella’s research! Glad to see it referenced — I look forward to the full piece. You’ll link to it once it’s up, I hope?

    It’s actually an excerpt from Echopraxia — so of course, I’ll be including the citation. (Don’t get your hopes up, though; it’s a piece of ambiance, not the focus of the book or anything…)

    Mr Non-Entity: However, I cannot imagine that you are conscious of much other than those two things. Thus it would seem to me that it’s pretty pointless to get into such a state of enhanced consciousness and not be able to think of something that would be, outside of that situation of near drowning, far more interesting.

    Y.: Seems like BS to me.

    Almost-drowning is such an unpleasant experience that even if it could bring an opiate high, people still would not do it.

    You’re both right, of course. It’s BS. I’d hope the last paragraph at least gives a nod to that.

    what I’m trying to suggest here is a subconscious sense of existential dread slowly taking hold of the brainstems of Baseline humans. They can’t rationalize it, they can’t justify it, they’re not even consciously aware that it exists — but it drives them to some sort of extreme countermeasure, an act of defiance in defense of some sense of self. Something is scaring a whole segment of human society into insisting, however irrationally, not exactly that “I exist”, but that “I exist.”

    Exactly what that something is is left as an exercise for the reader.

  11. Peter Watts: It’s actually an excerpt from Echopraxia — so of course, I’ll be including the citation.(Don’t get your hopes up, though; it’s a piece of ambiance, not the focus of the book or anything…)

    I’m not sure I’d want to read a full book about people drowning themselves and the existential issues involved (though, many years ago, I probably would have said that I’m not sure I’d want to read a full book about emotionally stunted people living under the sea, so there’s that). I’m just looking forward to continued scraps of Echopraxia. Until, of course, we get the real thing.