Consciousness of consciousness

January 3rd, 2017

Everyone seems to pretty much agree that consciousness is a big mystery, and a really important one. Careers have been built, and books written, on the topic.

Of course, no one really agrees on what consciousness means. Is an animal recognizing itself in a mirror a form of consciousness? Others seem to confuse consciousness with thought. Is consciousness somehow related to emotion, such as what we feel when viewing a beautiful sunset? Is consciousness related to the elusive notion of qualia–what it means for something to be “red”, for example? Or is consciousness what distinguishes human beings from lower life forms–we are conscious, and they are not? Is consciousness merely the quality of being conscious (assuming we can define that), or something more? Is consciousness connected to, or identical with, the values we associate with humanity, such as ethics, or love, or loyalty? Is consciousness a state, or a process? Ultimately, in our discussions of consciousness we are trapped in an infinite loop: we don’t know what consciousness is, so we cannot speak coherently about it or what mechanisms it might be based on, and without knowing the mechanisms it is based on, we cannot define it.

To me, it makes no sense when talking about consciousness to say I’m conscious of having a headache. I just have a headache. It make no sense to say I’m conscious of seeing a chair. I just see a chair. It makes no sense to say I’m conscious of a beautiful sunset; it’s just a beautiful sunset. The term consciousness is vacuous if we use it to refer to any experience whatsoever. To be  worth talking about, consciousness must have a subject. For purposes of this discussion, we will say that the subject is an experience. Consciousness is not merely having the experience; it is a higher-level mental process whose subject is the having of the experience. By “experience” I mean something that we think, or sense, or feel. If one chooses to consider thoughts, and senses, and feelings, as neurological processes, then by this definition consciousness is a higher-level mental process whose subject is neurological processes. Since a mental process is itself a neurological process, it follows that consciousness is best defined as a neurological process the topic of which is a neurological process. Expressing this way makes the recursive nature of consciousness clear: we are conscious, but also can be conscious of being conscious, and conscious of being conscious of being conscious, and so on ad infinitum. To make it clear, this can be called reflective consciousness.

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The acid-head who thought he could fly

August 23rd, 2016


Let’s assume someone, perhaps under the influence of LSD, believes he can fly–or perhaps (he believes) God has told him he can fly–and so he jumps off a building intending to fly away. But instead he falls to the ground and dies. The reason is that his belief was incorrect; it was counter-factual. It did not conform to reality, or at least to a certain subset of known physical reality.

Now I’m well aware that the notion of “fact” is a slippery thing and there are many kind of beliefs and worldviews and mindsets that do not fall as cleanly onto the spectrum of fact vs. fiction as the belief that you can fly. However, one can stipulate that not all propositions in the world are necessarily characterizable as provable facts without abandoning the claim that some facts, physical or otherwise, do in fact hold.

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StackOverflow: the fatal flaw in its strategy

June 5th, 2016

StackOverflow, the granddaddy of programming Q&A sites, has begun a long, inexorable decline into irrelevance.

I won’t talk here about how “StackOverflow sucks”; you can google that. Most of those people are complaining about how unfriendly SO is to newcomers. I don’t care about that. I actually think it should be more unfriendly to newcomers, who pollute and dilute the site’s content. I want to talk about the fundamental dysfunction on the site, the poor experience for the experienced users who should matter, and the failure in both developing and implementing the strategy, which over time is slowly and surely going to ensure its demise.

StackOverflow’s major business is selling eyeballs of people who come to it via Google. It cannot be a good sign for this would-be Unicorn, then, that all traffic metrics are flat to declining. Part of the problem is that virtually all programmers in the world already now come to SO to find answers to their questions. Even to continue at current levels assumes that Google will continue to drive traffic to the site. Indeed, at present for many programming questions, a Google query brings up half a dozen answers from Stack Overflow on the first page. This is both a blessing (now) and a curse (in the future); as Google’s algorithms evolve, it could easily start bringing up fewer SO results, and this is especially likely to happen as overall answer/question quality declines, as discussed later.

So the only remaining growth potential is more programmers, new domains, more questions (meaning more views per person), new content models, or new forms of monetization.

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How to piss away $8M in venture funding

May 3rd, 2016

Following Tolstoy, “All successful startups are alike; each failed startup fails in its own way.” Some startups fail because of flawed product execution. Some fail because of poor marketing. Some fail because they can’t get the right people. Some fail because they run out of money. Some fail because they did not understand the marketplace and the competition.

This story is about an anonymous company that failed for a relatively unique reason: a yawning gap between vision and product concept.

You might think that vision already implies a product concept. Yet actually the same vision can be realized via many product concepts. This particular company’s vision was to automate enterprise knowledge management and distribution. A wonderful vision, but one which could take the form of many different product concepts. For instance, one concept would be to build a monolithic, closed, smart knowledge management system. A very different concept would be to build smart knowledge management widgets that fit into and complement existing knowledge/content management approaches.

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AlphaGo: Implications for Machine Translation

April 7th, 2016

In this March 15, 2016 photo, South Korean professional Go player Lee Sedol reviews the match after finishing the final match of the Google DeepMind Challenge Match against Google's artificial intelligence program, AlphaGo, in Seoul, South Korea. Google's Go-playing computer program again defeated its human opponent in a final match on Tuesday that sealed its 4:1 victory. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)

Machine defeats man at the game of Go.

The entire world was stunned at the 4–1 win by Google’s Deep Mind over Lee Se-Dol, one of the world’s best Go players. Some say that Deep Mind is a highly specialized intelligence that only knows how to play Go. But the principles, techniques, and algorithms underlying Deep Mind do in fact have wider application to so-called AI-complete problems. What do they mean for Machine Translation (MT)?

The development of go programs and machine translation programs have followed a parallel path.

The initial generation of solutions to both problems were based on “classical” AI techniques of encoding human knowledge. The go programs used rules of “good shape”, and human-style “reading”. The MT programs used grammars and rulesets built by human linguists. The results, in the case of go, were programs which played at the amateur sub-dan level (meaning the top 10% of all players). The results, in the case of MT, were programs which could at best produce vaguely understandable translations.

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Mobile Phone Localization in India

March 20th, 2016

languagepanelThe Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is proposing, as part of the government’s Digital India push, to make regional language interface capability mandatory on feature phones. These standards are expected to go into effect in six months.

One of the world’s leading localization companies, Moravia, has weighed in with a blog post entitled “India Gets Serious about Mobile Phone Localization“. Unfortunately, this post reveals a fundamental confusion about almost every aspect of this situation: the difference between feature phones vs. smart phones, between language support on phones themselves vs. applications, and between localization of interface vs. content. The post says that India is:

already one of the fastest-growing smartphone markets in the world, and the second largest overall. India’s vast hinterland is smartphone-equipped and hungry for local language content. The communities are cash-rich, and India’s e-commerce companies will have to reach out to them in earnest if they want to stay in the game.

this single paragraph neatly encapsulating all the confusion.

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The Elusive Uberization of Translation

January 1st, 2016

The title of this post is borrowed shamelessly from the excellent article by Florian Faes found here.

Over the last decade, I’ve lost track of the number of times that the translation industry was gonig to be “reinvented” by this that or the other new model, usually one based on some sort of new technology. And each “reinvention” is accompanied by breathless hype and wonder in more blogs and posts by industry “experts” than you can count, many of whom should know better. Each “reinvention” is based on some plausible-sounding theory about the nature of the translation market that turns out to be just wrong.

These false theories and assumptions have no end. There would be an infinite demand for translation if only it were cheaper. There would be an infinite supply of translators if only we could tap the millions of bilingual people our there. Or no, the real problem is the efficiency of translation tools. Machine translation (MT) will eventually take over the lion’s share of translation work. Or it won’t. What we really need is to make it easier to order translation; where is my one-click translation button?

Problem is, none of these assumptions have proven to be true. The largest translation companies in the world continue to derive most of their revenue from large contracts with enterprises that have ongoing needs for translated documentation and software, carried out via well-defined processes and requiring well-defined quality levels. Startups based on the latest idea for a shiny new translation gadget flounder, ending up doing down-rounds to keep the lights on. Mid-tier translation companies continue to dominate the business in revenue terms, most doing semi-specialized medium-sized projects for medium-sized clients.

So how do we uberize this? The fundamental problem is to what extent translation is a commodity. Ride-hailing is the ultimate commodity: a car comes and takes you from point A to point B. There may be different sizes of cars, or special services like handicapped accessibility, but these amount to nothing more than different grades of coal. Ride-hailing is commoditizable because it is a commodity. We can aggregate demand, aggregate supply, and then tweak the economics of the business to death. To speak of uberizing translation implies that translation is a commodity.

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Beliefs about belief

December 13th, 2015

Last night I went to a dinner party. One guest was talking about how different people believe different things and that’s just how it is and that’s fine. According to her, it’s all about diversity, and tolerance, and acceptance, and realizing that different people have every right to form their own opinions. 

That sounds unassailably correct until you think harder about it and realize that it’s not. I pointed to a tree outside the window and asked her if she thought it was OK for a person to believe that the tree was not actually there. Somewhat trapped, she asserted that yes, it would indeed be OK. After all, it could be me that was hallucinating the existence of the tree. Perhaps the person is living in a parallel universe where the tree does not in fact exist. Perhaps the tree is a hologram.

The problem with this line of thought is that beliefs have consequences. If I go out and pick an apple from the “non-existent” tree and bring it into the house and ask the person to take a bite, they will be hard-pressed to deny that they are biting into a real apple. If the “non-existent” tree is blown over by strong winds and crashes into the roof of the house, the damage will be very real no matter what the person believed about the existence of the tree. Or if I am standing on the roof of a building and believe that I can fly and decide to therefore jump off, I will die. If I believe that global warming is not caused by humans, and thus choose to take no action, the Marshall Islands will eventually disappear into the ocean.

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The Meaning of Meaning (3)

February 1st, 2014

Of course, Zen therapy does not pinpoint only existential angst by mitigating cravings for universal meaning. It also influences the pattern-making and pattern-matching we use day-to-day. Now, our pattern machinery basically works quite well, look how far it’s gotten us. But at the same time there are many ways in which it’s broken, or should I say problems in how we use it. The main issue is how we try to apply patterns when they don’t really fit, how we apply them with no flexibility, how we fail to tweak the patterns as we are applying them. Of course there has to be an essence of the pattern, which is the point of its existence, but at the same time we have to keep evolving the patterns, choose the right patterns to apply, adapt and refine them. Our built-in reward system for finding and matching patterns can lead us to use patterns which aren’t really relevant, or to try to stuff a pattern down some situation’s throat.

Dogen’s Zen therapy not only relieves our cravings for patterns, and leaves us comfortable even in pattern-less situations, but also acts as a kind of lubricant for our patterning systems. It gradually rewires our brains so we more easily find new patterns, modify existing patterns, and choose the right pattern.

But let’s go back and parse a bit more of what Dogen was saying. He refers to “enlightened ones”. This, obviously, in terms of the patterns we know and love about sainthood and rarified states of being, must mean someone who is at a completely different level in terms of grasping deep, intricate patterns about existence, right? No, it just means a person who through intensive therapy has ceased addictively looking for non-existent patterns. He refers to “ultimate awareness”. This, obviously, must mean some exalted state of being achievable only by some sainted person in an altogether different league from ourselves, right? No, it just means someone who has stopped spending his energy seeking unseekable patterns and who therefore is able to focus on the reality in front of him.

Deciding to Start Zen

January 29th, 2013

The decision to start Zen could be treated more like a decision to start taking a painting class at the local adult education center. You could go to one class and not go back, or go for one quarter, or keep going for ten years, or keep going until you die. I guess I also disagree with the people who say this is a really big deal and is going to be real hard work and you have to really make a commitment or else the whole thing is a complete waste of time. Wrong! The thing about Zen is that, and this fits in with my theory that’s basically about rewiring your neurons, or neuroplasticity if you prefer fancy words, you do a little bit of it and experience a little effect or do more of it and experience more or do a whole lot and become an enlightened Zen master. It’s linearly scalable, in other words. If you started off by going to a dojo once a week and sitting with them, and maybe meditating 30 minutes per day, then after a month or two no, you would not have some kind of life-changing realization, but you would notice changes in the way you look at things which would be refreshing and helpful. A little bit of rewiring.

There is another thing about Zen which is sort of like the way that when you work out at the gym, your body changes in a way which helps you be more fit and healthy even when you don’t work out, you consume calories more efficiently, etc. As you keep doing Zen, by which I mean meditation, not reading books or listening to talks, you develop the ability over time to use every moment to enhance the way you view the world, not just when you’re meditating. Or to put it another way, you sort of learn to meditate as you’re going about your daily life, or conversely, you begin to see that your daily life is a kind of meditation, or perhaps that meditation is nothing more than a sort of concentrated form of daily life. As you get there, you might find yourself wanting to meditate more, and kick it up to two 30-minute sessions per day, as opposed to a thought process that says hey, I’m supposed to be doing this Zen thing, gotta work harder at it, I told myself I was really going to get into this, so I gotta buckle down.