Archive for December, 2011
Recently I switched to electronic cigarettes. There was an “oh shit” moment when I realized that in 20 years, e-cigarettes will have almost entirely replaced conventional cigarettes. The overriding reason for this is that e-cigarettes probably do not cause cancer, emphysema, etc. This means that a smoker essentially has three alternatives: quit, risk death, or switch to e-cigarettes. I realized that this is a device which will save many, many lives.
What is an e-cigarette?
An e-cigarette is a vaporizer which vaporizes a fluid, called “e-fluid,” to create an experience like smoking a cigarette. The e-fluid usually consists of glycerin and/or propylene glycol, nicotine, and artificial flavorings. Glycerin and propylene glycol are synthetic sugars. Except for nictonine, all of the ingredients of e-fluid are common food additives.
An e-cigarette consists of three things: a cartridge, an atomizer, and a rechargeable battery. These are joined into a device that looks like a cigarette. The cartridge is a container for e-fluid. The atomizer is a heating element which vaporizes the e-fluid. The battery powers the atomizer. Usually the cartridge and the atomizer are joined in one replaceable container called a “cartomizer.”
Some e-cigarettes use cartridges pre-filled with e-fluid, which have to be replaced when the e-fluid runs out. (Usually they say that one cartridge is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes.) Other e-cigarettes use empty cartridges, which you fill with separately sold e-fluid. In the latter case it is possible to use e-fluids which come in thousands of different flavors.
Why do we care?
E-cigarettes probably do not have the health risks that cigarettes have. This would mean that a person could smoke e-cigarettes for their whole life without incurring any health problems. This provides a third alternative to smokers. Smokers can quit, risk death, or switch to e-cigarettes.
Are e-cigarettes really safe?
Except for nicotine, all of the ingredients in e-fluid are common food additives. This means that they probably do not carry any health risks.
Nicotine is a toxin. But, it is only one of many toxic chemicals in cigarettes. Cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals, including 19 known carcinogens, some of which are radioactive carcinogens. It is generally believed that most of the negative health effects of cigarettes do not come from nicotine.
We do not know for sure that e-cigarettes are safe, and we will not know this until some good studies are published on the topic. The really conclusive studies probably will not exist for 50 years or so, since we will probably need to actually watch people smoke e-cigarettes for decades and see what happens to them, to know for sure.
But our existing knowledge is enough to say that e-cigarettes probably are safe. Perhaps the really interesting question is not, are e-cigarettes safe, but why are we inclined to assume that they are dangerous?
Notice that, in scientific terms, e-cigarettes have almost nothing to do with cigarettes. The similarity is a purely human one: they look similar and serve a similar function. They feel similar to us, though in reality they are not similar things.
The fact that they feel similar leads to a psychological phenomenon where we propagate our fear of cigarettes to e-cigarettes. This “transference of fear” is the sort of thing that would have been useful in our ancestral environment. If your friend gets bitten by a snake and dies, you will learn to fear any unfamilar snake. Perhaps if you had never seen a garden hose before, you might be afraid of it.
So we find a situation with e-cigarettes where our instincts tell us to fear them, and science tells us that there is little to fear.
How much do they cost?
To start smoking e-cigarettes, one has to buy a “starter kit,” containing a battery, a charger, cartomizers, etc. Then one periodically needs to buy new cartomizers and/or e-fluid.
The startup costs of e-cigarette smoking are higher than cigarettes, but the costs over time are lower. Starter kits range in cost from around ten dollars to over a hundred. Cartomizers typically cost two or three dollars.
Do they taste like cigarettes?
E-cigarettes do not taste like cigarettes, despite the efforts of manufacturers to make them as close as possible. This is the biggest complaint I hear from people about e-cigarettes. People don’t want to smoke an e-cigarette; they want to smoke a cigarette.
I think, however, that this is mostly a matter of what people are used to. When I first smoked an e-cigarette, I didn’t like it. But I got used to it. Now when I smoke cigarettes, I wish that I was smoking an e-cigarette. In other words, the phenomenon has been turned on its head. So I think that it is familiarity and habit that makes people want their smoke to taste like a cigarette.
What’s the catch?
Right now there is a glut of brands of e-cigarettes, all of which are startup companies, and all of which sell incompatible components. (The e-fluid is the exception: it is cross-compatible between all e-cigarettes.) I have personally had trouble getting ahold of replacement components for my e-cigarettes.
This is the sort of problem that one runs into by being an early adopter. It will go away over time. Within several years, all of the gas stations will carry e-cigarette components, and a set of brands will emerge as dominant.
So, smokers, I present you with your options: quit, die, or switch.
Regina: Mary! It’s been a while! So nice to see you!
Mary: The same! How are you?
R: I am well! I see that you’re typing something. What are you working on?
M: I’m writing a book on mysticism.
R: Oh, you’re writing a book! How exciting! What is mysticism? Can you summarize the idea for me?
M: God exists. We are God. Our purpose is to become one with God. God created the universe, and designed it to help us fulfill our purpose most efficiently. We do not die with our bodies. The universe is an experience, and it is infinite and endless.
R: How do you know these things?
M: I can see these things to be true.
R: How come I can’t see them to be true?
M: Because you are asleep.
R: I’m assuming that that’s a metaphor. And to continue the metaphor, you think you are awake?
M: Correct on both counts.
R: What makes you think these things?
M: If one were in a room full of sleeping people, and one woke up, it would be obvious that one had been asleep, that now one was awake, and that everyone else was still asleep. But the sleeping people would have no idea that they were asleep, that it was possible to wake up, or that there existed people who were awake.
R: What do you mean when you say that you are awake?
M: I cannot explain to a sleeping person what it means to be awake. The only way to understand it is to wake up. I have already said, of course, that being awake involves seeing that the things I mentioned earlier are true. But those very statements are nonsensical except to somebody who is awake. Somebody who is asleep will either correctly recognize those statements as nonsensical, or think that they understand those statements when in fact they do not.
R: So you think that you are awake, and I am asleep. That sounds like some sort of grandiose delusion.
M: As far as “grandiose” goes, I don’t think that I’m better than you. Why would I look down on somebody for being asleep? I also sleep, and it is a state of being that is natural and not shameful. As far as “delusion” goes, it may well appear that way from the outside. But I know that I am not deluded; and so do my friends who are awake.
R: What evidence do I have which indicates to me that you are right?
M: You have no evidence which indicates to you that I am right.
R: But you think that you have the required evidence?
R: Why can’t you share it with me?
M: Because you are asleep.
R: How can I wake up?
M: I know of no foolproof method for waking up. But meditation sometimes works.
R: Supposing that meditation doesn’t work for me, do I have any reason to take you seriously?
R: OK; well, this has been interesting, but I have other business to attend to. Goodbye!
This was intended to be a template for a conversation between a mystic and a rationalist non-mystic. This is only one of many ways the conversation could go. If Mary is not confused about mysticism, then this is the general way that things will go.
There are various mistakes that Mary could make, which would make the conversation go awry. The biggest pitfall for Mary is that of attempting to argue for her position in any way. This will only muddle the issue, and Mary will probably lose the argument if Regina is intelligent.
Mary’s mistake comes from failing to realize that there is no line of argument which will convince a rational sleeping person that mysticism is true. She loses the argument not because her beliefs are false, but because she is confused about epistemology. If she were not confused about epistemology then she would not have tried to argue.
Something like this conversation has been in my head for a long time. But it took me a long time to accept that Mary’s statements are the right statements to make. I held out hope for an argument, for a couple reasons.
I feel that there is nothing more important than people waking up, and if people were to accept mysticism, then it would be easier for them to wake up. So it seems like it would be good to have some way to compel people to accept mysticism.
Also, it feels wrong to me to make the naked statement to somebody, “you are asleep.” It feels like putting them down. It feels mean, basically. I don’t want to be mean.
“Asleep” is not inherently a pejorative. But it kind of feels like a pejorative. This is connected with the fact that I am proud of being awake, and do in fact feel superior to people who are asleep, because I am awake.
This is not the right way to feel. A person is not inferior for being asleep. It is a shortcoming of mine that I feel this way.
I think that if I myself felt there to be no negative connotations to the word “asleep,” I would be comfortable telling people that they were asleep, if the topic came up. This isn’t a sure thing, because other people still might read negative connotations into it, and I might still want to avoid that. But the first step is surely changing my own feelings about sleeping people.
Two challenges made me abandon music AI for the past few weeks.
The first challenge was that, depending on the metaphysical nature of things, music AI might not be possible (specifically if reductionism is false). And, depending on how complicated a program needs to be to make good music, it might be possible but not feasible.
The second challenge was that music AI might be possible and feasible, but not worth the opportunity costs. Specifically, I think that what I should do is seek enlightenment, and writing music AI is not seeking enlightenment.
As far as the first challenge goes, I’ve come to the conclusion that continuing to doubt my philosophical views is only hurting me, and not helping anybody. So for now, I believe that reductionism and materialism are false.
Here is not the place to state what I believe instead; and I can’t do so adequately, because I haven’t finished clarifying my thoughts on the topic. But I do need to say what is true about the possibility of music AI under my metaphysics.
Under my metaphysics, “beauty” is not reducible to any finite mathematical formula. So writing a generalized beauty-creating computer progam is not possible.
But it is clear and obvious that some aspects of beauty can be mathematically quantified. The Baroque and Classical era defined elaborate rules which music should follow; and these rules partially select a set of beautiful pieces of music from the set of possible pieces of music.
What about the qualitative aspect of beauty? What about that feeling of beauty which feels purely non-logical?
That feeling is an illusory perspective on an objective reality. Perhaps, at least in many cases, there is an illusory logical perspective on the same objective reality. This would be the same position as reductionism, except that it does not privilege the logical perspective as being somehow more real than the qualitative perspective.
My own hypothesis is that we can define music-making rules which pick out particular subsets of the space of beautiful music. We can define rules which produce some beautiful music, but not all beautiful music. And we can continue making better and better rule sets infinitely, without ever arriving at a final rule set.
This is similar to what is true about math under Godel’s incompleteness theorem. Under Godel’s incompleteness theorem, every axiom set yields some truths, but not all truths. And we can continue constructing better and better axiom sets infinitely, without ever arriving at a final axiom set.
So if we are writing a music AI, the task we are considering is the task of defining and implementing a rule set which picks out some nice subset of the space of beautiful music.
I feel pretty confident that this is possible and feasible. The strongest evidence that it is possible and feasible is the existence of EMI. My project differs from EMI mainly in the details of the composition algorithm, and in the fact that EMI works from an existing corpus written by humans, whereas I intend to write an AI that does completely “de novo” composition.
So that leaves us with the second problem: should I do this? I think that what I should do is seek enlightenment, and if this project doesn’t contribute to that, then I shouldn’t do this project.
What I’m realizing, however, is that seeking enlightenment needs to involve having experiences in the everyday world and distilling new insights from those experiences. The everyday world is this huge, apparently chaotic flux of experience which helps us to discover things we didn’t know about. Assembling a huge quantity of those things eventually amounts to new fundamental understandings about the nature of enlightenment and the most efficient ways of seeking it.
So I’ve come to conclude that I should engage in and care about things that, in a superficial sense, have nothing to do with enlightenment. This means that working on music AI is not incompatible with the idea that what I should do is seek enlightenment.
So it seems that music AI is possible, feasible, and something I potentially should do. There are no fundamental philosophical obstacles to my working on it.