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Today is 10/10/10, which is not only one of the relatively rare occasions on which one can write the date without fear of ambiguity in today’s cosmopolitan world, but also the binary expression of the number 42, and hence the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.

How can I let that pass without a short memorial to Douglas Adams? After all, it won’t come around again for another century and by then I’ll be getting on a bit and might not remember.

But what memorial? I’ll start with one of my favorite quotes. It’s of no import whatsoever but it still makes me laugh every time I think of it, and what’s bad about that? It’s Douglas in his best P.G.Wodehouse mode. The man was a genius at saying things in a way that catches us short:

‘Dirk, please, if you would,’ said Dirk, grasping his hand warmly, ‘I prefer it. It has more of a sort of Scottish dagger feel to it, I think. Dirk Gently is the name under which I now trade. There are certain events in the past, I’m afraid, from which I would wish to disassociate myself.’

‘Absolutely, I know how you feel. Most of the fourteenth century, for instance, was pretty grim,’ agreed Reg earnestly.

Dirk was about to correct the misapprehension, but thought that it might be somewhat of a long trek and left it.

But here’s something more relevant to both the date and the theme of this blog. Back in the late 90’s my colleagues and I organised a really enjoyable conference on Artificial Life, to which Douglas came. I’d asked him to chair a debate but he balked at this and decided to give an impromptu talk instead (well, fairly impromptu – he tried it out on Richard Dawkins and me the night before in the bar). It was a triumph. Ann transcribed it for us and it now rests for the sake of posterity in Douglas’s official biography. The whole transcript is pretty long (and anyway it’s available on the web in various places), so I’ll just quote a short section for auld lang syne:

I want to pick up on a few other things that came around today. I was fascinated by Larry [Yaeger] (again), talking about tautology, because there’s an argument that I remember being stumped by once, to which I couldn’t come up with a reply, because I was so puzzled by the challenge and couldn’t quite figure it out. A guy said to me, ‘yes, but the whole theory of evolution is based on a tautology: that which survives, survives’ This is tautological, therefore it doesn’t mean anything. I thought about that for a while and it finally occurred to me that a tautology is something that, if it means nothing, not only has no information gone into it but no consequence has come out of it. So, we may have accidentally stumbled upon the ultimate answer; it’s the only thing, the only force, arguably the most powerful of which we are aware, which requires no other input, no other support from any other place, is self evident, hence tautological, but nevertheless astonishingly powerful in its effects. It’s hard to find anything that corresponds to that and I therefore put it at the beginning of one of my books. I reduced it to what I thought were the bare essentials, which are very similar to the ones you came up with earlier, which were “anything that happens happens, anything that in happening causes something else to happen causes something else to happen and anything that in happening causes itself to happen again, happens again”. In fact you don’t even need the second two because they flow from the first one, which is self-evident and there’s nothing else you need to say; everything else flows from that. So, I think we have in our grasp here a fundamental, ultimate truth, against which there is no gain-saying. It was spotted by the guy who said this is a tautology. Yes, it is, but it’s a unique tautology in that it requires no information to go in but an infinite amount of information comes out of it. So I think that it is arguably therefore the prime cause of everything in the Universe. Big claim, but I feel I’m talking to a sympathetic audience.

And he was.

So what did Douglas think about 42? I have a small personal insight into that, because Ann asked him to sign a copy of my all-time favorite book, for my 42nd birthday present. I’ll post that too, because the Web perhaps doesn’t fade as badly as paper. That was over ten years ago. Poor Douglas didn’t make it to my age.

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Lexicon

I’d like to coin a new term: The Hawking Horizon, named after “A Brief History of Time”, which everyone in the observable universe has read but nobody has ever finished. (Wouldn’t it be funny if the last page had explained that it was all a joke?)

The Hawking Horizon is the page number beyond which nobody will ever read, and so we authors are free to spout whatever far-fetched dribble we like without anyone noticing. The HH for my Lucy book is 142 and that for Creation is 195. However, I should point out that Grand’s Theorem states that the HH perceived by readers equals the HH claimed by the author multiplied by 0.67.

For some contemporary science books, this puts the True HH somewhere inside Chapter Two, making them into neutron books, from which information only extends a short distance beyond the original proposal. In rare cases, HH < 1, creating a Singularity.

Independence Day

I’ve been lucky enough to have lived with two very different women, both of them lovely people. I’m trying not to read too much into the fact that it was only after I left each of them that they really started to blossom, but yesterday I was able to mention Ann’s interview about her passion for science and her doctoral research, and today it’s Sara’s turn. She’s just finished writing a new book, so if you need a dose of her indomitable spirit and positive attitude, you’ll find it here. Good luck to both of them.

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Independence Day Parade, Flagstaff

Genesis

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Well, bless her little heart. Lucy the robot orangutan captured a lot of people’s interest and she turns up in quite a few popular science books and academic works, but I was recently amused to learn that she also helped inspire a novel!

 

An editor at Quercus in the UK kindly sent me a copy of Genesis, by Bernard Beckett, which they’re publishing next year in several countries. He said I’d be sure to find it interesting, and he was darn right. Not only is it about a strangely familiar-sounding robot orangutan, which was brought up and educated like a child, but it’s also an intriguing philosophical story with some neat twists. I won’t give away the plot, and obviously the robot in question is nowhere near as stupid as Lucy, but it deals with some big questions about man, machine and consciousness in a clever way.

Cool, huh?

Harmony of the neurons

I’ve just finished reading This is your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin. It’s a good read, even though it sometimes feels like it was written using an outliner, with sudden changes of topic and facts seemingly thrown in at random.

I’m a non-musician, so I found the parts on the structure of music really interesting. I was quite surprised to find out how arbitrary things like the Western scales are. I always assumed music would tell us a lot about the brain – for instance why should a minor key sound sad – but I didn’t know enough about the subject to find the answers. It does seem to me that music is playing on our innate sense of dynamics, and we interpret melodies using the same mechanisms we use to predict the movement of projectiles and prey, although Levitin seems to think the major/minor thing is mostly just cultural conditioning. He does support this dynamics hypothesis when he talks about the “trajectories” of melody and how different composers use this knowledge to exploit our expectations. Expectation seems to be the key, since he points out that we like music that’s challenging enough to be unpredictable yet simple enough not to sound random. It’s a kind of exercise for the brain that tunes our ability to predict in general.

For me, the most interesting parts relate to memory and classification. He demonstrates that we store cortical schemas consisting only of properties that are invariant. For example, if you try to sing Bohemian Rhapsody you’re very likely to sing it in the right key and at the right tempo. Because you’ve only ever heard the one rendition of it, you store all of its properties in memory. But sing Happy Birthday and it could come out in any old key, because you’ve heard it in so many keys and tempos that your brain only stores the relative notes (or, at least, all the distinct memories interfere to cancel out the key). Key isn’t an invariant property for Happy Birthday but it is for Bohemian Rhapsody, and key is stored separately from melodic shape. This is interesting because sensory invariance is the most striking aspect of perception, and up until now I’ve only thought about it from the angle of vision (e.g. we can recognize an object regardless of its location, scale and orientation). But invariance applies to hearing and touch too, and I hadn’t thought of it in terms of the construction of schemas for categorizing the world at large. It gave me pause for thought.