Thursday, October 30, 2014

Quantum theory and consciousness

     Quantum theory and  consciousness

     Efstratios Manousakis is member of the Department of Physics, Florida State University, in Tallahassee. He has written a paper, Founding quantum theory on the basis of consciousness [1], which purports to show that a Global Stream of Consciousness guarantees our observations of quantum events.
     In his introduction he writes,
     Von Neumann[2], using projection operators and density matrices as tools to describe the apparent statistical character of measurement, was able to show that the assumed boundary separating the observing instrument and the so-called observed object can be arbitrarily shifted and, therefore, ultimately the observer becomes the “abstract ego” (in Von Neumann’s terms) of the observer.
     He goes on to write,
     In this paper quantum theory (more generally, the description of nature) isfounded on the framework of the operation and on the primary ontological character of consciousness, rather than founding consciousness on the laws of physics. It is discussed that quantum theory follows naturally by starting from how consciousness operates upon a state of potential consciousness and more generally how it relates to the emergence or manifestation and our experience of matter. In addition, it is argued that the problem of measurement and the paradoxes of quantum theory arise due to our poor understanding of the nature and the operation of consciousness.
     It seems to me that Von Neumann’s theorem and Schrödinger’s Cat together imply that the observer has no special status. The wave function collapses when a quantum event occurs. That quantum event results in a chain of events, the last of which is the observation. I see no reason to infer that the observer has an ontological status different from the instrument. That is, the instrument would record the event whether or not an observer was present.
     An instrument is an entity whose state changes whenever it interacts with its environment. Every such interaction requires some exchange of energy. Quantum events are changes in local energy, one quantum at a time. This implies that any entity is an instrument. Hence von Neumann’s theorem. What we think of as an instrument is an assemblage of such entities constructed to magnify the energy changes until they affect our senses.
     As von Neumann shows, we, the observers, are the last in a chain of energy exchanges. We need not be. We could be entirely absent. But the changes would still occur, and the instrument would still change state. For that matter, the instrument need not be present. The quantum events would still occur. That quantum events are in principle unpredictable is irrelevant. What matters is that they happen.
     What’s more, we believe firmly that those events do in fact occur. Otherwise we wouldn’t trouble to invent ways of detecting them.
     Manousakis introduces a number of concepts, such as “potential consciousness”, “stream of consciousness”, etc. These amount to a claim of special ontological status for the conscious observer. He constructs an argument to imply a Global Consciousness which binds all our individual streams of consciousness together. This amounts to a variation of Berkeley’s argument for the existence of God. The use of quantum theory doesn’t make the argument any more valid than Berkeley’s version.

2. Efstratios Manousakis, Founding quantum theory on the basis of consciousness, (Found. Phys. 36 (6)). Also published on line: DOI: 10.1007/s10701-006-9049-9 http://dx/

1. J. Von Neumann, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, Chap. VI, pg. 417 (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1955).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

William Strunk Jr & E B White. The Elements of Style, 2nd edition (1972)

     William Strunk Jr & E B White. The Elements of Style, 2nd edition (1972) I first read this marvellous book several decades ago. I can’t recall who recommended it, but I owe them thanks. Strunk‘s course and his little book were legendary at Harvard.  His advice, allowing for changes in usage, is still sound. Know and understand grammar. Know and respect the rules of usage. Revise and rewrite. That’s it. There isn’t anything more.
   The Rules give examples that exemplify this advice. Most of the rules still stand. E B White revised the examples of bad usage, and added a chapter of general advice on the craft of writing. Some of the bad examples have either disappeared or become accepted, but that should not dissuade a writer from ignoring current usage. Good usage in any era consists of writing for the reader.
     When I taught composition, I stressed that writing should be clear, concise, and correct. In that order. Rereading Strunk’s book and E B White’s addition to it, I think that these three words sum up their counsel. ****

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Howard Engel. The Man Who Forgot How to Read (2012)

     Howard Engel. The Man Who Forgot How to Read (2012) Afterword by Oliver Sacks. Engel went out to get the paper one morning, and found he couldn’t read it. He drove to the Emergency Department of the nearby hospital, where they confirmed that he’d had a stroke in the left occipital area of his brain, a part of the visual cortex necessary for the decoding of print and writing into words and hence into meaning. But he could still write. The technical term is alexia sine agraphia, non-reading without non-writing. This made him a rare case, which is one reason that Oliver Sacks not only agreed to see him, but also agreed to write an afterword for the Benny Cooperman mystery Engel eventually wrote, the only one I’ve not read yet.
     This memoir begins with reading. It was Engel’s life, the essence of his imaginative and intellectual interaction with the world around him. To lose that could have been to lose everything. But during six weeks in rehab, plus every day since then, Engel found ways of coping with this deficit. It’s a powerful read, a page-turner. I read a few pages one late afternoon, and devoured the book in bed. It’s not only the futile attempt to imagine alexia that keeps you going, it’s Engel’s wry humour, his clear-eyed vision of himself and his situation, his gratitude for his family and friends. He’s a mensch, someone you would like to know. He’s a damn good writer, too.
     Recommended. ****

Louis L’Amour. Callaghen (1972)

    Louis L’Amour. Callaghen (1972) Another tale of a drifter, a private in the US Army a few days away from his discharge, who entangles himself in a situation he’d rather not be a part of. But his sense of honour and duty compel him to do what he can.  He can do quite a lot: rescue the passengers of a stage coach robbed by a couple of nasties, defend them and his military patrol from Mohaves, defeat those very same nasties when they come after him and the remaining passengers, and of course win the respect and love of a good woman. A nicely done adventure romance, with the usual L’Amour tropes. I read all but half a page while waiting for a minor procedure. The ER doc had to tend a couple more urgent cases than mine, so I had plenty of time. But I waited till I got home to read that last half page. Worth the wait. **½

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Alexander McCall-Smith. Trains and Lovers (2012)

     Alexander McCall-Smith. Trains and Lovers (2012) Four people share a compartment from Euston to Edinburgh. Two young men tell the stories of their loves, the older woman tells of her parent’s love, and the older man keeps silent, but we learn about his life-long chaste gay love for his boyhood friend. McCall-Smith knows how to tell stories so that we want to know more. His writing is skilful, his dialogue sounds natural, his scene-setting creates ambience the way good movie music does: we hardly notice that it’s done, still less how it’s done.
     The events of his characters’ lives are hardly unusual. It’s McCall-Smith’s ability to make the ordinariness of life significant that explains his popularity. I find his books very readable, but they are finally not quite satisfying. They are very well done stories, but they don’t demand that we reflect on our own lives, they don’t make us rethink our prejudices and insights. On they contrary, they soothe us by suggesting that our attitudes are just fine the way they are. A young man and a young woman can find a life-long love despite the social distance between them. A young woman can be deceptive and duplicitous. A man and a woman’s life together can engender something deeper than mutual respect.  Love is more than sex, it can grow and continue without sex. Do we doubt these insights? Only if we insist on cynicism, and McCall-Smith somehow disarms the impulse to sneer. That’s what makes his books something more than pleasant entertainments. **½

Louis L’Amour. Shalako (1962)

     Louis L’Amour. Shalako (1962) Shalako, a man with no past, meets up with a European hunting party led by Frederick von Hallstatt, a Prussian baron who wants to enjoy a “skirmish” with the Apache. Irina Carnarvon, whom Shalako accompanied back to the camp after finding their wagon-master dead, lends him her horse, and he leaves to find a place to hole up while the Apache deal with the hunting party and move on. But he of course he can’t stay away. One bloody event leads to another, the Prussian baron learns that his officer training is useless against guerrilla tactics, most of the hunting party die, Shalako fights a duel with Tats-ah-das-ay-go, a ruthless Apache warrior, and wins, barely. Shalako and Irina ride off together.
     L’Amour knew exactly what he was doing. His stories are chivalric romances. He puts us directly into the landscape, we can feel the heat, smell the dust, see the sun-bleached colours. The characters are just this side of caricature, what makes them believable is their ability to learn and change. The hero must overcome his impulse to avoid adult responsibility. As Tats-ah-das-ay-go falls to his death, Shalako cries out “Warrior! Brother!” and comes close to weeping.
      I like L’Amour’s books, even though they cover the same ground over and over again. He knows how to vary the plots, his narrative pace and rhythm keep us wanting to read. His writing is compact, there are no wasted words. This one is above his average. ***

Monday, October 20, 2014

Margery Allingham. My Friend Mr Campion (2011)

     Margery Allingham. My Friend Mr Campion (2011) Collection of short stories and the novella The Late Pig. I finished that last night, and promptly started rereading the stories. Entertaining, with enough, if stereotypical, characterisation to make you care. There was a TV series starring Peter Davison (also known as one of the Doctor in Dr Who), which captured the look and feel of the stories very well. Like the other women from the Golden Age, Allingham’s strength is character. The puzzles are often too complex for plausibility, but the clues are fairly placed for those readers who like to solve the puzzle before the ‘tec does, and Allingham nicely navigates the inherent implausibility of the amateur sleuth. Campion's friend Oates advances from Detective Inspector to Superintendent. Campion may play a lone hand occasionally when he’s unsure of his ground, but he sees himself as an assistant to the police, not a competitor. Good collection. ***

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Conrad Haynes. Bishop’s Gambit Declined (1987)

     Conrad Haynes. Bishop’s Gambit Declined (1987) I’m a sucker for novels set in Academia. Here,  it’s a fictitious private liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. There’s some satire of academics and administrators, but they’re easy targets, and Haynes is wise enough not to overdo it. The hero is Henry Bishop, a stereotypical unruly professor, who enjoys teaching and respects his students, as well as those of his colleagues who like him value thorough scholarship. A too-good-to-be true female detective sergeant and an apparent sleaze ball of a reporter interfere with each other’s investigations. The murders are designed to cover up an ancient semi-crime, and are not really necessary, but they make a good scaffold for the story, which is handled in movie-style scenes and with decent dialogue. The occasional authorial omniscient asides grate enough that I’d have cut them. All in all, good of its kind. **

Robert Crais. The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987)

     Robert Crais. The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987) Elvis Cole is P.I. in the classic mould: cynical, insightful, with a dry wit and a soft heart, driven to right wrongs no matter what the cost. Crais combines L.A, Hollywood, drug lords, corrupt politics, the sleazy side of show business, failed dreams, and a victim who becomes a heroine into a well done entertainment. There’s no puzzle, there’s just the question of whether Cole and Ellen Lang will be able to rescue her son before it’s too late. The central characters have enough depth to sustain interest and engage sympathy, and the secondary characters are well done animated scenery. The ambience draws heavily on the cliches of West Coast crime fiction, but Crais does a better job than most in emulating the classics. A series worth looking for, and collecting if you’re into that. **½

Nancy Pickard. Marriage is Murder (1987)

     Nancy Pickard. Marriage is Murder (1987) Jenny Cain and Detective Geof Bushfield’s wedding is set for two weeks hence, but several domestic murders threaten to interfere with their plans, and worse, Geof is so appalled at what he has witnessed that he wants to quit. Of course all’s well that ends well, but along the way Pickard delivers an extended if somewhat superficial examination of domestic violence. She’s hampered by not having enough space to explore the complex backstories of her characters, and can do little more than sketch the relationships and histories that bind them. Would she have delivered a better novel if she’d had more room? I think so. There’s more than a few hints that she’s really more interested in the psychology of evil and of human failures than in the crime puzzles that these engender. **½

Monday, October 13, 2014

Thomas King. The Inconvenient Indian (2012)

     Thomas King. The Inconvenient Indian (2012) A book everyone should read. King gives us a history of White-Indian relations from the beginning to the present. He uses stories, with a few numbers and generalisations here and there, but mostly stories. They are not nice stories. King’s ironic asides make them palatable, just. It’s a book that can be life-changing.
     Seems to me that the conquest of the Americas happened at the time when Europe began to reconsider the relationships between conquerors and conquered. Human history is about genocide, mostly. The Bible records several times when the Israelites slew everyone of their enemies, men, women, and children. Or they killed everyone except the boys, who could be trained to be slaves, and the girls and women, who could be used for pleasure or as trade goods. The Iliad ends with the slaughter of Trojans. Ghengis Khan built a pyramid with the heads of the inhabitants of a city that wouldn’t surrender. But after the Hundred Years War, Europeans began to change their attitudes. It’s not that they gave up extermination. It’s just they began to feel, um, squeamish about it. So the problem of the original inhabitants of the Americas became just that, a problem. A few centuries earlier, the wars of conquest between the Spanish and the Aztecs would have continued and expanded until the whole continent was White. Or perhaps a patchwork of Native and White states.
     But by around 1600, a different relationship had evolved. It was Europeans’ desire for beaver fur that made the difference. The Natives become trading partners. They became useful, and even necessary. When the fur trade ended, around the same time that the Thirteen Colonies successfully asserted their independence because the home country wouldn’t accept them as equals, the fact of continued Native presence became, well, inconvenient. Explicit genocide was out (which didn’t prevent massacres and other practices which amounted to genocide). So there were treaties, and abrogations of treaties. Attempts at assimilation. Legal and illegal theft of land. None of which ever got rid of Indians. They are as inconvenient as ever.
     King has traced the history of this inconvenience. It’s not nice. No story of clashing cultures ever is. There are degrees of awfulness, of course, but people invade other people because they want what other people have. If the attempted conquest succeeds, then there is eventually an integration of the  two cultures. Each modifies the other, and if the conquest was far enough in the past, the descendants may even (inconsistently) celebrate both the invaders and the invaded as their common heritage.
     But right now, Native and White relationships are still marked by prejudice, by assumptions of cultural superiority, by thinly disguised attempts at theft, by violence. Neither White nor Indian culture is what it was four hundred years ago, of course, and that fact gives us a small hope that both can influence each other for the better.
     But I’m not holding my breath.
     Unless a lot more people read King’s book. ****

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Peter Robinson. Friend of the Devil (2008)

     Peter Robinson. Friend of the Devil (2008) A wheelchair-bound woman is murdered; that’s Cabbot’s case. A girl is raped and strangled; that’s Banks’s case. Although these two crimes occur at opposite ends of Banks’s patch, they do connect eventually. Dual plots that intersect are Robinson’s speciality, as is the on-going soap opera of his principal characters. Banks and Cabbot both lonesome after their break-up, but neither can find a way to reconcile. The consequences of old crimes at first interfere with investigation the provide the break.
     A competent performance by Robinson, but not as engaging as his earlier works. He’s now a bankable writer, so his publishers give him leeway to digress and expand secondary plots. Some of these are truncated. Some scenes are merely plot points, and lack the suggestion of deeper currents and complex interwoven back stories that are Robinson’s forte. The psychology of one perpetrator is barely plausible. It’s this contrast between well done and perfunctory writing that grates. The overall effect is uneven. Or maybe I’ve come to expect to much from this series. **