The Day the Earth Kept On Truckin’

(This was originally written in 2002. I’m reposting it as part of decommissioning my old website. It’s interesting how little has improved and some things have gotten worse in the time since.)

Written October 7, 2002.

Everybody and their dog seems to have felt compelled to comment on the events of September 11, 2001. Not me. Well, at least not until now, over a year later. I’ve hardly discussed the event with anyone in that time, nor do I have particularly strong feelings about it. I guess I’m writing this mainly to point out that not everyone was galvanized by the terrorist attack of that day.

Do You Remember Where You Were When…?

I remember the outline of what I did on 9/11. I got up, did the morning rituals, and got on the bus to school. On the bus I encountered a fellow from the graphics lab, and sat beside him as is mandated by law when encountering someone you know on the bus with an empty seat nearby.

I was saved the bother of trying to make conversation because he quickly opened up by asking if I had heard about the incident in New York that morning. I hadn’t. He said that an airplane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers and it was on fire. That was morbidly interesting enough to make me rouse from my morning stupor and pump him for information. He didn’t really have much more for me.

It was a fairly busy afternoon at school and I didn’t really have time to check the news. At one point I had to walk across campus and noticed that the A/V department had wheeled a large TV out into the hallway and there were about fifty students gathered around it like kids watching the news. I saw some shots of smoke coming from the buildings but didn’t stick around; I figured I could catch the repeat on the evening news when I got home.

When I got home and turned on the news, I was unsurprised to learn it was a terrorist attack. I was mildly surprised that they were creative and resourceful enough to turn airliners into weapons. The biggest surprise was that the towers had actually collapsed.

I was glued to the news channels as much as possible for the next three days, and I left the VCR running when I had other things to do. I got about 24 hours of news on tape, but most of it turned out to be repetitions of the pathetic footage of the money shots, with more occasionally being added as another tourist contributed the contents of his camcorder.


I had no great reaction to the event itself. The WTC towers were a bloody obvious target for any would-be terrorists, and had been the subject of an attempted bombing a few years earlier (which also failed to surprise me). I had no illusions about the future being terrorism-free; these things happen, and America being the world’s current 900lb gorilla makes it an obvious target for nutcakes everywhere.

I was, however, filled with curiosity about the disaster itself and the cleanup effort. I sought out as much footage and imagery as I could find for the next week or so. I was eager to know what had happened inside the towers up until there was no longer an inside. I tried to imagine what must have gone through the minds of the people who jumped from the burning tower.

Some might call this morbid curiosity and say there is something wrong with it. I don’t care; it was fascinating. I was disappointed at not being able to find much imagery of the gory deaths, but at the same time I knew I probably would have been pretty grossed out by some of what the rescue workers were no doubt finding in the rubble. I’m confident that the forensics photos will eventually show up on some website specializing in the grotesque though.


My stronger reactions to the September 11 terrorist attacks came later, and were inspired not by the events but by other peoples’ reactions to the events.

Shortly after the attacks, President Buh went on the air promising to bomb the stuffing out of any country found to harbour terrorists. My first thought following that was, “Way to let the bad guys win, George!”. I already knew he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the house, but at this point my opinion of him went negative and has stayed there ever since.

Since some people seem to have a hard time understanding my problem with that speech of his, it’s this: Baby, bathwater. By all means find the terrorists and slap them around, but send a clear message by not harming any innocent civilians in the process. By threatening indiscriminate bombing of general areas where terrorists might be, America was itself using terror tactics.

In the year following the attack, it became pretty apparent that the terrorists had won an enormous and heavily ironic victory. Sure, they probably only intended to knock over some buildings, scare some people and kill some people. Sure, they ended up getting their asses kicked hard. By conventional military assessment, the 9/11 operation would end up being a net loss for the terrorist’s side.

But the terrorists ended up winning big in terrorism terms, and that victory was handed to them on a silver platter by their enemies. They won by damaging the freedom and liberty that America is so proud of, and they won by making America do the damage to itself. Instead of extending a middle finger to the terrorists and saying, “Fuck you, we’re not going to let you scare us,” the Buh administration started buttoning up security at the expense of its own citizens’ freedom and privacy. Evidently the terror tactic worked extremely well.

Other entities benefited from the attacks as well; the cash-strapped airlines got a huge booster shot to tighten security, law enforcement agencies got increased power to circumvent inconvenient rights and freedoms, and the government got some extra leverage with which to lean on other governments. The attack was also a boon to the folks campaigning for privacy invasion via surveilance (and their other brother, the anti-encryption crowd), and to those trying to regulate the Internet.

For a while there, it looked like there was going to be a return to McCarthyism as everyone was overreacting to the slightest imagined hint of possible terrorist activity within the United States. People started reporting on their neighbors who just happened to be muslims or turban-wearers. Internment camps for suspicious-lookin’ American citizens were proposed. The Minstry of Truth was founded.


Over a year later, not much has improved. Supposedly it is known who masterminded the attacks, and supposedly there is proof of his responsibility. He hasn’t been found (and neither has O.J. Simpson found his Real Killer yet). Some terrorists have been identified and captured. Afghanistan got the shit kicked out of it. George is using this terrorism thing as a very thin excuse to lean on Iraq. There is no doubt that he’ll parlay all this into a re-election.

But it’s worth keeping this all in perspective. Outrageous as the last year’s politics may seem to today’s sheltered youth, it’s still not nearly as bad as the ass-reaming that American citizens got during the second world war, and they recovered from that.

One thing that annoyed me about the whole media presentation of this stuff was the name: The War on Terrorism. I know marketing types have wet dreams about coming up with a name like that, but it’s misleading; terrorism is an idea, folks. You can’t locate it and destroy it. The best you can do is kill anyone who has heard of it, but it will eventually spontaneously reappear. Terrorism may not be the best way to make a point, but it’s one that will occur to any idiot with something to prove even if he hasn’t heard of it before. In short, a war on terrorism will never, can never, have a conclusive end. There’s always another terrorist cell lurking in mom’s basement.

Oddly enough, there is a noticable lack of similar names for the other big campaigns going on these days: The War on Freedom, the War on Privacy, the War on Fair Use, the War on Innovation, and the War on Common Sense.

To wrap up, let’s get back to the original topic: how 9/11 affected me. I can’t say it hasn’t. I wasn’t shocked or outraged by the event as everyone else seems to have been. I don’t know anyone involved or killed. I don’t particularly care that 3,000 presumably innocent Americans died in the towers, especially given that ten times that number die of simple ailments every year. The effects I feel have come and will continue to come from the political reaction.

The United States is one of the two biggest influences on the politics of my country, and already we’re seeing our own government start to suggest invasion of our privacy in the name of law enforcement.

Finally, I have no plans to fly again any time soon. Not because of hijacking or bombing risks; those risks are the same as ever. I’m not going to fly again because of the increases in airport security. I think it’s ridiculous to inconvenience travelers even more than they already were. It’s not going to solve any problems, and indeed it has already created some appalling new problems in the area of customer relations. Screw that, I’m taking the bus.

There’s a lot more I could say about this whole subject. I could comment on the many related issues that I’ve seen others comment on, like the 9/11 morning play-by-play or the Anthrax scare. But I’ve said enough for today; maybe I’ll add more some other time.

All the Flavors of Immortality

(This was originally written in 2002. I’m reposting it here as part of decommissioning my old website, and because I might want to refer to it later.)

Written March 14, 2002.
Major revisions October 10, 2002 suggested by Frink.

As an exercise, I thought I would try to enumerate all the different classes of immortality I have heard or read about, and give some discussion about the tradeoffs inherent in each and in the idea of immortality itself.

Some of these are real, some are fictional, and some are on the move from fiction to reality thanks to medical advances. I hope I don’t need to point out which are which.

Everyday Immortality

Immortality through Genetics

If your branch of your family tree doesn’t dead-end, you have this kind of immortality. Your genetic code, which defines characteristics of your body and health, will live on in your progeny, albeit in slightly altered forms. Unfortunately, your DNA doesn’t define your persona and after a few generations the part of it that is you will be severely diluted.

Another kind of genetic immortality would be having a sample of your DNA permanently recorded so that you could be cloned in the future. Sadly, as with your offspring, your clone is not you.

Immortality through Deeds

This is the romantic kind of immortality where you live on in the minds of others. Adults often try to sell this kind to kids when awkward questions about death come up. It can be as simple as being remembered fondly by family members or hallucinated by crazies. It can be as grand as being named a world hero for having accomplished some great work, and having numerous books and films made about you. The problem is that, as with DNA, memories get diluted over time. Even if your name is well-known enough to survive as part of world history, people will care less as time moves on, and you’re still vulnerable to being erased by some sort of global cataclysm. We remember the Caesars, but we’ve forgotten who invented fire and the wheel since they lived in a time when the worldwide disaster of not-having-a-coherent-written-history was going on.


Sometimes when people die, they come back to life a short time later as zombies. Possible causes of this are many and varied – it can be the result of radiation from space, the summons of a wizard or deity, general cursedness etc.

There are a lot of drawbacks to being a zombie. Zombies stink, have horrible skin conditions, shamble everywhere, moan a lot, and feed upon the brains of the living. That really cuts down on your enjoyment of immortality. Your social life will be restricted to other zombies, your hopes of an athletic career will be dashed, and some people simply don’t enjoy cracking skulls open to feast upon the goo inside.

Furthermore, not all zombies have the ability to pull their bodies back together when smashed by zombie-haters (zombies are subject to much hatred from jealous non-zombies), which means that once your skeleton is broken into little bitty pieces, you have to spend eternity in one place. Very boring, and probably painful too.

This is Your Brain on Ice

There has been a lot of interest in cryonic preservation lately. It was in the news a fair bit in 2002 because of some baseball player who got frozen. Surprisingly, there are many people who object to allowing others to have themselves frozen. When examined, most of their arguments turn out to be hollow. The best debates arise out of the legal and ethical issues surrounding your existence after being frozen – what are your rights on ice, and what does the future owe you?

Cryo is currently the best chance we have of becoming immortal. There are lots of risks; it relies on keeping you frozen solid long enough for medical science to advance sufficiently to not only reverse the freezing damage but also fix whatever killed you and, if you only had your head frozen, grow you a new body. It’s impossible to estimate the probability that you’ll be awakened after having died and been frozen, but no matter how small it is, it’s still bigger than the chance of being revived after being buried or cremated. And even if being frozen turns out to be completely hopeless, you’re no worse off than you would be if you weren’t frozen.

Spiritual Immortality

There are many and varied cults in the world whose doctrines insist that death is merely a transition, and that afterwards our minds are freed from our bodies and either go on to another world, or are reincarnated into new bodies. Some believe that the other world involves some sort of eternal punishment or reward for deeds done while living, which sounds extremely boring.

Of course, nobody has found a single shred of evidence that these beliefs may be true, and some of them sound downright scary; for instance belief in reincarnation implies that the reincarnated person loses their memory and identity when reborn (since nobody can reliably recall a past life), and that sounds more like permanent death of the individual than immortality.

Immortality through Not Dying

A major shortcoming of the above listed forms of immortality is that they all involve dying. Besides seemingly violating the very definition of the word immortality, this is a big problem because if you want to be immortal, you probably don’t want to have to die to accomplish it. Too risky.

Tour the Fourth Dimension via Stasis

If you’re worried about dying, you can always stick yourself in some sort of time-stopping machine. You could do this in the hope that the future will have a cure for death ready for you when you step out, or you could just use it to spread your lifetime out over a longer range of real time in order to see what the future has in store.

The biggest problem with this plan is the risk that someone will mess with your preservation apparatus and kill you in your sleep. A certain amount of hedging can be done to prevent that, but you will still be at the mercy of environmental disasters.

Slow Aging with Relativity

That funny-looking man with the frizzy hair told us that as you move faster and faster, time slows down for you relative to the rest of the universe. The effect becomes most pronounced when you approach the speed of light.

This is better than the stasis idea because you can remain conscious and somewhat in touch with what’s going on in the universe. At a minimum, you can watch the stars move and get a time-lapse view of any nearby macro-engineering projects.

There are slight technical difficulties here; to avoid hitting something, you pretty much need to do this in space, which means you need a spacecraft capable of sustaining you for however long you intend to employ relativistic time dilation. Furthermore, it takes a hell of a lot of energy to get up near light speed, especially if you want to do so within your mortal lifetime. Life extension via relativistic effects is therefore outside most peoples’ budget – at least for the time being.

Medical Immortality

Body Swapping

Medical science has already made great strides in using organ transplants and other treatments to extend life. Cloning technology is being born right now. It is not hard to imagine having a fresh copy of your body cloned every few decades, and having your brain transplanted into it.

Brain deterioration would still be a problem, but progress is being made in treating that too. The major risk here is that your surrounding society may collapse and lose the ability to clone bodies for you. It’s safer for an immortal to be self-sufficient.

Instead of having the same old brain transplanted into a cloned body, sufficiently advanced technology could copy your neural wiring into a cloned brain. This raises the same identity questions as uploading and matter transporters.


Another route to medical immortality lies in finding out why aging happens, and finding a cure for it and for the various types of deterioration that afflict the elderly. In the literature this is often posited to take the final form of a drug, treatment or dietary supplement that prevents one from dying of natural causes. It does not necessarily prevent virulent disease or death from preventable poor health (like extreme obesity or malnutrition). Again, there may be a self-sufficiency problem here.

A related idea is that of curing the disease called old age. We’re giant machines for helping genes make more genes, and our bodies are designed to have a reproductive peak. Once we’re no longer fit for reproduction, our genes could care less about us and everything starts falling apart. With a sufficient understanding of how genetic molecules work, we could reprogram them to make the priority keeping the organism alive and healthy instead of simply reproducible.


Some people find the ideas of organ transplantation and cloning disturbing. Fortunately for them there are a wide range of mechanical body part replacements available. When something wears out, replace it with a machine. The logical end result is a machine with a human brain controlling it directly.

The problems of brain deterioration must still be faced, of course, unless you also replace it with a better thinking device. Furthermore, some current mechanical organ replacements are quite crude and cumbersome. You have to ensure your machine parts are well-maintained and receive enough power, or else you run the risk of becoming a statue.

There are a lot of potential advantages too, including the ability to interface digitally with computers, enhanced strength and speed, and resistance to hostile environments.

Immortality through Transformation

If humans can’t be immortal, maybe they can be changed into something that can.


For those of you born in the last five seconds, vampires are people who drink the blood of others in order to stay alive and young. Various additional powers are often attributed to vampires, along with some curious weaknesses.

The origin of vampirism is unknown, but the condition is believed to be a disease transmitted by bodily fluids. Vampires can transform humans into vampires by administering a non-fatal bite. This sometimes happens by accident when a vampire fails to drain enough blood to kill the victim.

The advantages and disadvantages of being a vampire are open to debate. There is a huge amount of variation in the powers and weaknesses ascribed to vampires.

Example powers include flight, limited invulnerability, superhuman strength and speed, limited shape-changing ability, uncommon attractiveness, ability to teleport via shadows or doorways, ability to mentally control animals or demons, and automatic ownership of outrageous castles in European mountain ranges.

Example weaknesses include weakness in the presence of garlic or religious symbols, death upon exposure to sunlight, ability to enter homes only when invited, extreme vulnerability to slivers, a requirement to sleep in a coffin, and a propensity for being followed around by angry mobs of peasants carrying torches and pitchforks.


Some people believe that humanity is just the larval stage of some kind of non-corporeal being. Others believe that when we die, our minds are freed to roam the universe. There are lots of variations on these themes, most of which end up with the mortal subject being transformed into some sort of pretty energy creature able to go where it wills.

Unfortunately there is no supporting evidence for such claims, and indeed we have plenty of reason to believe that a pure-energy life-form is physically impossible.

Another kind of transcendence involves becoming something godlike yet still rooted in matter. This can range all the way from unlocking the hidden secrets of the human brain and making full use of it, to being artificially “evolved” into a more advanced kind of life form, to uploading (see below) and expanding your consciousness to fill all available computing resources. Of course if you’re still matter you can still be destroyed, but presumably if you’re something much better than human you’ll also be better at avoiding danger.


With computing power growing at a fantastic rate, it is becoming practical to digitally simulate the behavior of the neurons that make us think. We’re still a long, long way from being able to simulate a human brain in any practical way, but it could happen. Combine that with advances in medical scanning technology, and hopefully a breakthrough in understanding how neurons work together to produce thought and memory and consciousness, and you have an obvious conclusion: Why not transcribe our brains into computers?

The potential advantages are mind-boggling. Immortality. Making extra backups of your mind just in case. Cheap space travel and exploration. Cheap travel anywhere there’s a network. Ability to multi-process; create a second copy of yourself to handle annoying people or tackle dangerous jobs. High-speed thought. Ability to slow thought to wait out boring events. Increased memory capacity and accuracy. Seamless interaction with computers. Enhanced communication abilities.

Along with this come heavy philosophical questions. If you upload yourself into a computer, is it still you, or have you died? Is the you in the computer really conscious and sentient, or is it just a flawless simulation? Does it even matter? Do you have continuity of consciousness? If the meat version of you remains alive, which one is legally a person or are both? Does this count as reproduction? Similar questions also apply to brain modifications.

Magical Means

Assuming the existence of magic, there are many and varied means to use it to keep oneself alive. Magic is often portrayed as having a Do-What-I-Mean interface, which is a big plus because it reduces the likelihood that you will accidentally curse yourself.

The wise magic-user will be cautious and flexible. Start with the basics, like protection from all sorts of harm (violence, poison, disease), then add self-regenerating health and vigor, create a set of quick-escapes from especially dangerous scenarios, and take steps to ensure that you will always be able to revise, strengthen or add to these spells in the future. Also, avoid placing trust in others to procure your survival supplies, because forever is plenty of opportunity for your side-kicks to change their minds and betray you.

For non-spellcasters, wish-granting genies and deals with demons are popular ways to gain magical immortality. Such entities tend to be capricious and overly literal in their interpretation of wishes, and they have good lawyers. If one is not exceedingly precise in the wording of a wish, it can become a curse. For example, wishing simply for eternal life might not save you from the ravages of disease and decay. You could end up an immortal mind trapped forever in a useless, rotten body. Not fun.

Of course, one can also become immortal as the result of a curse placed upon oneself by an enemy. This is often done to earthy characters who value their friends and family, because it subjects them to the torture of watching all their loved ones grow old and die, and deprives them of the chance of reaching whatever afterlife they might believe in. In this case, all you can do is make the most of it. No sense being depressed for all eternity.

Immortal Plus

Most of the previously mentioned forms of undying immortality only offer safety from common forms of death like old age and disease, but there are many ways to die. Here are some additional factors you might want to consider.

Permanence. Do you want to be absolutely immortal, or do you want the option of ending your own life if you get bored? Can you trust yourself to make a sound judgement of when to end it? A thousand years of depression might make it tempting, but a million years of bliss could be right around the corner.

Food. Do you want to have to continue eating? Consider how much food you’ll need to eat over the next 15 billion years. Granted it doesn’t take much more than a large, well-maintained garden to feed one person, and a garden is a renewable food source. Well, renewable barring extinction of the light source or mutation of the plants into something inedible and no doubt intent on the extermination of all animals. An immortal may no longer be subject to the forces of evolution, but his food supply still is.

However, if you want to take long trips you have to ensure food will be available, or lug some with you. And what about bad food? If you’re the adventurous type, you’ll probably want to sample the local delicacies wherever you go, but that almost guarantees you’ll be poisoned at some point. It would be really embarrassing to keel over at the local fast food joint while sharing your accumulated wisdom with the natives.

Invulnerability. No matter how much of a hermit you are, if you live forever you’re bound to get into altercations ranging from fisticuffs to interstellar wars. Do you want protection from physical harm? Probably, but what kind? Being completely impervious to harm will make you cocky and more likely to endanger those around you, while at the same time boring you in the long run. Suffering an injury can be a positive personal growth experience, so maybe what you want is something along the lines of protection from death combined with total body regeneration ability.

Of course, even the ability to completely regenerate your body can cause problems. What if someone tosses you into a star? You’ll be floating there constantly growing new flesh only to have it instantly burned to a crisp. Mmmm… bacon… where was I? Oh yes, this little scenario leads to:

Protection from traps. Some people resent immortals and will set nasty traps for them. There is also always the risk of doing something stupid and trapping yourself. This could be really bad, because if you’re immortal and fall into an inescapable trap, you’re going to be really bored for a really long time. Probably the most practical way to avoid this problem is to also have the ability to teleport yourself arbitrarily.

Even so, escaping traps is a major problem for invulnerable types. As Frink pointed out to me after reading the first version of this article, what if someone tosses you into a singularity? It would really suck to be able to survive that because it’s pretty far-fetched to imagine a way of getting out again. You’d pretty much have to hope that Hawking was right and wait for the thing to evaporate.

Travel ability. Not a major problem really, but worth thinking about. You will eventually get bored of whatever planet you start on, and will want to explore other worlds. How will you get there?

Common Misconceptions about Immortality

It’s Boring.

Could very well be, if mishandled. Fortunately humans are amazingly good at finding ways to rationalize remaining alive in bad situations. If it gets too boring, you can make it more interesting by playing games with yourself, like deliberately forgetting things, or becoming an investigator or a collector of the rarest of the rare. If you’re bored forever, you’re doing something wrong.

Nobody Wants to Live Forever!

Wrong. I do. I want to see what happens next. Then what happens after that, and so on. I want to be able to travel the universe and see the sights. I want to see how the universe ends. As I said to Frink once, I’d like to be able to point at a distant galaxy and say, “I think I’ll go see who lives there, but I’ll take my time and see all the sights along the way,” and be able to actually do it.

It’s Selfish.

Damn right it is; nothing wrong with that. However, an immortal can also be of enormous benefit as a carrier of knowledge. Having a friendly immortal on your planet is a great safeguard against long-term dark ages; that person can help civilization rebuild quickly after large-scale disasters.

Why Deny Yourself Your Eternal Reward?

There is no evidence to support the belief in an afterlife, therefore it is logical to put off death as long as possible to maximize enjoyment of life. If there is an afterlife, it will still be there for you when you get tired of immortality.

It can also be argued that dying is irresponsible because it denies the benefit of your future works to your society. You might think to counter-argue that a given immortal might be more of a burden than a benefit to society, but that argument breaks down when you talk about immortality because immortality practically guarantees that the person will change many times over, and at some point will be greatly productive.

I would go so far as to suggest that even believing in an afterlife is socially irresponsible, because it cheapens the lives of others. Life becomes more precious if you believe that death is The End.

Life is Good; Awareness is Better

(This article was originally written in 2005.  I’m reposting it as part of decommissioning my old website – although I don’t think it’s particularly well written, I find it still aligns with my current thinking surprisingly well.)

Executive summary: Wow, minds are really freaking nifty things. Let’s do everything we can to continue them forever.

Written April 17, 2005. Thanks to Frink for suggestions and corrections.

The universe is big and expensive, and right now it doesn’t seem to be doing anything terribly useful. Indications are that the universe has a finite useful lifetime, and a good portion of that lifetime has already passed. Also, most of the visible universe appears to be really dumb, in that it’s not doing anything intelligent. I propose we do something about both situations..

Let’s back up a bit and look at how (we think) we got to where we are now.

The Past

At some point the universe started existing. We’re not sure exactly how, but it did. Unless I’m imagining it, which would raise all sorts of hairy questions. Let’s assume for the same of discussion that I’m not imagining it.

Theory projects that at first the universe was fairly uniform and didn’t have much structure, let alone useful things like particles out of which to build matter. After expanding and cooling for a while, matter started to condense and form structures. Because of the physical behaviors peculiar to this universe, it formed atoms with many distinct structures and interesting properties, like the ability to combine with other atoms to create larger structures, and the ability to change configurations under the influence of energy. Oh, and that little bit about warping space in large quantities, too – that weak but useful effect we call gravity.

Mainly thanks to gravity and the strong force, all that matter settled down into the familiar forms we know today: galaxies, stars, planets, asteroids, comets and so on. Our best guess is that it has now been 13 billion years or so since the universe first blinked on.

But all that matter out there that we can see is dumb. Even the kind that burns in stars and spews energy out all over the place. It all just sits there flying around in boring, repetitive paths dictated by gravity and occasionally bumping into other matter. Let’s call all this dumb stuff passive matter. Passive because it takes no initiative; it just reacts to its situation in ways that can be easily predicted with the methods we call the laws of physics.

A little while back – just a few billion years by current reckoning – something interesting started happening on this here mud-ball we call Earth. A bunch of complex molecules were sitting around in the plentiful water, and started getting all excited by the energy coming from the local star. These chemicals got busy with each other in all sorts of different combinations, and after trying an astronomical number of different configurations they hit on something truly remarkable: self-replicating molecule-machines. Well, self-replicating machines will tend to replicate themselves and spread, and before you knew it they were all over the place.

Out of all this random, unguided chemical experimentation came the first cells. These amazing little structures are a nanotechnologist’s wet dream. They’re programmable molecule factories that are programmed by molecules, and can be set up to generate copies of themselves as well as to perform actions that are useful on a scale larger than that of the cell itself. Like change shape or transmit electrical or chemical signals to other cells. Nanotechnologists love cells because their existence proves that nanotechnology can be an extremely fruitful pursuit. After all, it’s thanks to these naturally evolved molecule factories that life is so common on Earth today – quite an accomplishment for something that arose naturally. The remarkable thing about cells is that they can exist at all – evidently this universe is well-suited to complex small-scale interactions, which is great for us because without that we couldn’t think.

Anyway, once cells became popular things started moving pretty quickly. Cells started to clump together and exploit their ability to take on different properties by differentiating to form co-dependent communities where individuals were poorly suited to survival on their own but had abilities that helped the whole group survive. That idea took off too, and led to the enormously complex collections of cells we call plants and animals. Again, it’s marvellous that the universe allows this sort of self-organisation, even if it’s entirely driven by chance and the ability to survive.

Somewhere along the way some cells became specialized for mobility and some for sensing, and others connected the two so that what the sensors detected could affect what the motors did. That caused yet another sensation, and before you know it critters were evolving eyes, ears, complex nerve bundles and all sorts of muscle-powered contraptions for chasing, evading and eating each other. All in the name of better enabling their cells to replicate and spread, of course.

These nerve complexes – what eventually became brains – are of great importance. Here’s a particular physical configuration of matter – the neuron – that can make very simple decisions. Here is the first appearance of what I’ll call active matter. Neurons enable matter to take actions not dictated by brute force physics and chemistry. Although neurons (and their much simpler cousins, transistors) operate entirely within the constraints of physics and thus can be said to be purely reactive, they add something that isn’t part of what we consider normal physics: the ability to compute. They can perform integrations over time and cooperate with other computing elements in complex networks to produce reactions that are extremely difficult to predict. It’s always true that if we knew the exact state of every neuron in a brain at a given instant in time, we could calculate what the next decision would be. However, we’re still so far from being able to do that that we still see the process as voodoo, and even if we do eventually understand it that won’t change the fact that it happens and is useful.

Somewhere along the way the brains developed even more useful abilities like short-term and long-term memory recording, reason and communication with other brains. Remember that all this was driven by the sieve of evolution, which is a blind process without any end purpose or goal. If it weren’t the case that brains were useful for survival in the environment they arose in, they wouldn’t have got very far. Similarly, enhanced brain powers like reason exist because they enabled creatures that had them to survive and reproduce more effectively. It’s important to remember that nature doesn’t give a fig about big brains; the only reason we have them now is because they have enabled us to survive up to this point in time.

The Present

At some point, brains seem to have gone beyond the needs of survival though. The lineage that eventually became confused little Homo Sapiens, despite its relative physical uselessness, survived by developing more and more brainpower. It got to the point where those brains were able to reason recursively – ie to think about thinking, and to realize that they existed. It went even further than that – these brains, hosts to the new phenomenon of mind were able to imagine things – to internally create symbolic realities for the purpose of testing ideas – something that would have been very useful for hunting and defense, and eventually became a form of entertainment as well.

Brains that host minds are the next step beyond merely active matter. They’re proactive matter. Matter that can make plans for the future that have nothing to do with the immediate needs of survival.

This is where it gets really interesting for me. The thing we call mind is still beyond our understanding, but a few things are clear: it arises out of sufficiently complex and correctly configured arrangements of active matter, and it’s a very special phenomenon because it creates what is effectively spontaneous action of matter. Matter that contains mind is proactive in that it can direct its own action and although constrained by the laws of physics does not always have to take the simplest route offered by physics.

Let’s pause for a moment to look at a few details I skipped over in that last paragraph.

That phrase “correctly configured” is interesting. Not all arrangements of matter that can switch signals result in mind. It’s difficult to recognize when an object contains a mind or doesn’t, but we generally agree that more complex behavior indicates a greater likelihood of a mind being present. We consider ourselves (well, most of our species anyway) to all have minds. It’s not unreasonable to consider certain other animals, such as simians, cetaceans, elephants, dogs etc to have minds of a sort, since they do display some ability to learn and reason. Whether or not they contain that essential spark of self-awareness is open to debate and will be so for a long time yet.

Computers demonstrate very complex behavior, but we don’t consider them to have minds. Why not? Because we know exactly how they work and we can predict their actions with perfect accuracy. We consider the actions of computers to be driven by the simplest brute-force laws of physics, even though they do use active matter in the form of transistors. The catch here is that, in part because we don’t have an adequate understanding of how our own minds work, we haven’t figured out how to give computers the critical structures necessary to generate minds.

Our own critical structures arose out of chance. By fortuitous accident, individuals with brains capable of handling greater abstractions appeared and were better able to survive and reproduce than their dullard cousins. Two of our most important abilities – the ability to learn and the ability to remember – work by physically rewiring our brains in response to complex stimuli. That doesn’t happen automatically when you make a big brain. You can’t just create a random arrangement of neurons and expect it to spontaneously perform useful functions. Those abilities appeared piece by piece by chance, and by an even more fortuitous chance the neurological structures that make learning possible became encoded into the complex molecular programs that cause those little molecule factories we call cells to generate babies. Once babies with the ability to learn and reason from memory started to be born, their offspring inherited that ability and there was no more getting rid of it.

It follows that we if we try hard enough we will eventually discover (though perhaps by accident) a way to make either computer hardware or software self-programming in an analogous way. Some minimum initial configuration will be needed to generate an electronic mind, but once the process is started it will become as difficult for us to predict its actions as it is for us to predict the actions of other humans.

It’s also reasonable to assume that it will eventually be possible to copy a mind from a meat-based brain to a semiconductor-based one. If it is possible to perfectly reproduce the behavior of meat brains at the cellular level, which I believe is an entirely reasonable assumption, then it is definitely possible to reproduce a meat-based mind inside a digital simulation.

And yes, the statement that minds are unpredictable can be countered by arguing that if you know the entire state of a mind, you can predict its actions by cranking through the physics. Similarly if you know the entire state of a digital mind you can predict its next action by cranking through the logical equations. Even if we do become able to make such accurate predictions of behavior, the fact remains that the behavior of minds is very complex and definitely in a different class from passive matter and from simpler forms of active matter. Proactive matter (matter that contains minds) takes action that depends not just on the immediate physical circumstances, but on everything that has happened since that piece of matter first gained a mind.

Now, back to our story.

I’ve established that it is my belief that mind arose from the series of fortuitous events we call evolution, and although the rules of this universe permit mind to exist, mind is not a necessary consequence of this universe. It is also my belief that matter containing mind (proactive matter) is qualitatively different from mindless matter. Of course, that difference is only valuable to mind itself, since the universe doesn’t care, and so it falls to us minds to care about it and preserve it.

As yet we have no idea how common mind is in the universe, and therefore it behooves us to work hard to preserve and enhance what mind we have. It is our most valuable attribute.

We are only just beginning to devote a significant amount of thought to considering mind itself rather than the simpler problems of existing. We are still subject to the whims of evolution and could conceivable erase our own capacity for advanced reason through misguided reproduction. However, mind and understanding give us the ability to seize control of our own evolution. Our minds have enabled us to subdue the environment to the point where it poses little threat to our survival, and that removes the evolutionary incentive to become smarter. As far as survival goes, we only need to remain smart enough to maintain our security.

I say that’s not enough. Our recent curiosity-directed exploration of the universe beyond what affects our daily lives has revealed that our survival is governed at a coarse scale by things that we cannot control as long as we remain on this planet. We are in constant danger of being crippled or wiped out by a collision with a stray chunk of passive matter. It’s a small risk, to be sure, but it’s a risk that is always there and that means it’s likely to get us one day. Furthermore, we know that the star we depend on for energy won’t last forever; it’s already in its middle age. We’ve recently become aware that there are deadly wavefronts of energy out there that can kill us all from many light years away, and unlike asteroids not only can we not see them coming, we can’t do much to stop them anyway. And we are aware that there many things and many potential dangers that we don’t yet perceive or understand.

To me all of this mandates not only increasing our powers of mind but spreading mind as far and wide as possible to ensure its survival. We need to take an active role in developing and spreading mind, and that means pushing hard on understanding ourselves, trying to enhance ourselves and to create new forms of mind. Preferably ones that don’t depend on meat so heavily, so that they’re easier to disperse through space and protect against the rigors of the universe.

Barring our premature extinction, I am certain that one day most of the minds in this corner of the universe will be things descended from human, but which our present selves would barely recognize as being human. Many people seem to object to such thoughts. Does it really matter? Would our protohuman ancestors consider us the same as them? Probably not. To me, all this lip-flapping about how important it is to be human is pointless; isn’t it enough to be a mind? Being a sentient, intelligent, self-aware self is far more important than being the particular ill-defined flavor of mind we call human. The difference between mind and mindless is far, far more important than the difference between human mind and nonhuman mind. Ensuring the survival of mind takes precedence over ensuring the primacy of the quirky thing we call the human mind, though it would certainly be nice to at least remember what it means to be human.

By the way, what does it mean to be human? I often see people spouting off about how important it is to be human, but they never give any specific reasons why it’s better than the (as yet unknown) alternatives. You can’t very well say it’s better to be a human mind than a nonhuman mind until you have a selection of nonhuman minds and a way to make meaningful comparisons between them. And how can you compare minds without being able to experience alternate states of mind?

The Future

Now, there is a lot we don’t know about the universe yet. We don’t know how galaxies get their striking spiral structures, which by what we do know should get smeared out due to different rotational speeds at different radii from the center. We’re certain the universe is still expanding, but we don’t know for sure whether it will continue expanding forever or eventually reverse and collapse.

Either outcome spells death for us as we are now. If the universe expands forever without somehow rejuvenating itself (which pretty much requires importing energy from other universes), it will eventually become a uniform void with no matter and a constant, very cold, temperature. It’s impossible for mind in any form we can conceive of to exist without either matter or energy differentials, preferably both. And if the universe eventually contracts, we’ll be crushed.

Therefore, the long-term goal of mind must be to find a way to either preserve the universe in a useful form forever, or to escape into another universe – possibly one created by mind for that purpose.

An interesting offshoot of that thought is that mind may become the means by which universes communicate with each other, or even reproduce. Universes themselves might evolve through the action of mind.


It’s pretty much all covered above. We have to find a way to preserve mind past the natural end of the universe. That end requires thorough understanding of both the universe and of all the forms of mind. Those goals in turn require more and better minds, and protection from extinction by the often forceful interactions of passive matter.

I suggest we start with these simultaneous avenues of attack:

  1. Improve our understanding of our bodies and minds so that we can enhance both.
  2. Work to try and create artificial minds and/or translate human minds to operate in sturdier, more efficient non-meat brains.
  3. Work to improve all technologies that enable exploration and travel through space.

Fortunately we’ve already started on all three, but there are problems. For bizarre reasons that I think must be rooted in unthinking superstition carried over from our animal ancestry, many people oppose medical research and development vital to the first goal. Achieving better understanding of mind is vital to the second goal, and so far we haven’t had much luck although we’ve only just started. Finally, we were doing well at the third goal for a while, but after going to the moon it all fell apart and got mired in the irrelevant muck of politics and economics. Development of space has to be opened up to everyone – governmental regulation will only smother it.

And what am I doing to promote mind? Well, writing this for starters. As for more affirmative action, give me time. I’m just getting started in this life, and hopefully those medical advances will enable me to live long enough to accomplish something worthwhile. Our mayfly lifespans have been a major hindrance to long-term development until recently.

Design and Sabotage

Here’s the temperature control from my fridge:



Which way makes it colder inside?  Do “min” and “max” refer to temperature or to the amount of work done to reduce the temperature?

Also note how the numbers on the dial increase in the opposite direction to the min/max labels.  All in all, a well-designed control if your goal is to confuse people and sabotage their food.

For a while I’ve been having trouble with food in my fridge freezing, and I decided to do something about it – only I found I’m not sure what to do.  Knowing engineers, my guess is that 9 is coldest, but it really should be warmest – or the dial should just be labelled “colder” and “warmer” instead of using numbers.

The user manual may or may not reveal the answer, but I don’t have it.