Monthly Archives: January 2017

Internaut day

Paul Morriss: 25 years ago I got onto the web

25 years ago I heard about this program from a USENET newsgroup called Mosaic. I downloaded and installed it. As they say: Mind. Blown. All the pages had a grey background. The images would download one by one, and you could see each line of pixels loading. A later version would download the pictures simultaneously.

I read about Mosaic in a little blurb in a print publication, so I checked it out and it was a-mazing. I did a bit of random surfing and before too long stumbled into a particularly yucky subculture. That was my first inkling of the memetic future to come. It’s been double rainbows ever since.

“Baboons recorded making key sounds found in human speech”

Baboons recorded making key sounds found in human speech (From New Scientist, via This Week In Sound

The team discovered that male and female baboons each produce four vowel-like sounds. Females produce one that males don’t, and vice versa, so in total there are five distinct vowels. They correspond to the second syllable in “roses”, and the vowel sounds in “you”, “thought”, “trap” and “ah” (PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0169321).

The findings raise fresh doubts about the link between the position of the human larynx and the origin of speech, says Fagot. He thinks important features of spoken language may have originated as far back as the common ancestor of monkeys and humans, which lived about 25 million years ago.

One way to read this slowly unfolding thought (in my recent posts) about non-human intelligence is that evolution is slower than we can imagine. Yes, we became precisely human when our species popped up, but imprecise versions of human are still pretty close.

The mission of this blog is

This blog is an open journal. I don’t know why I like having a public notebook that nobody reads, just that I do like it. It serves enough of a purpose that I keep doing it.

  • I am not seeking readers here. My guess at the readership is five people, all of whom know me well enough to send a direct email.
  • This blog is public. It is not for secrets. I expect that a little of this writing will be read by business connections.
  • It is indexed by search engines, but is low on the search results for my name. I don’t expect many business connections to find it.

Personal blogs like this one are a dead medium. In their 2000-2010 heyday I had enough readership here to think of it as a publishing platform, but that time has passed and isn’t coming back. Independent blogs are now for either professionals on the scale of Gawker or journals on the scale of this one.

But the rock-bottom readership here allows me to do writing at low risk. This blog would be a better place than Facebook for damning party photos or abrasive politics.  I don’t have to worry about context collapse.

Until I started blogging around 2001 I filled up physical notebooks, Moleskine-style. My writing voice there was about the same as on this blog. Even this post could be one of those journal entries. They weren’t intensely personal. They weren’t confessional.  I wrote blue sky ideas, drew inventions, endlessly redrafted the same essay.

A blog that is read by few people is a social medium like any other. It’s a cowpath in the making.


SciAm on Octopus Intelligence

Scientific American: Eight smart limbs plus a big brain add up to a weird and wondrous kind of intelligence

Octopuses and their kin (cuttlefish and squid) stand apart from other invertebrates, having evolved with much larger nervous systems and greater cognitive complexity.

The majority of neurons in an octopus are found in the arms, which can independently taste and touch and also control basic motions without input from the brain.

Octopus brains and vertebrate brains have no common anatomy but support a variety of similar features, including forms of short- and long-term memory, versions of sleep, and the capacities to recognize individual people and explore objects through play.

MLK day

As a White person, I can take responsibility for doing stuff about racism. I don’t have to slack.

It’s Martin Luther King day today. Ordinarily it’s just another day off, like President’s Day or Columbus Day. Usually I work on meaningless holidays. This year I will observe the occasion.

What I’ll do will be small – take my kids to a teach-in. Anything is better than nothing.

“Neanderthals Were People, Too” (NYT)


(NYT) Neanderthals Were People, Too. “New research shows they shared many behaviors that we long believed to be uniquely human. Why did science get them so wrong?

I think that understanding how much we share with neanderthals is only the beginning. I think we’ll extend this understanding to species that were close but different, like Homo heidelbergensis. We will see how little new there was in our own particular species, and that our experience is only different in subtle ways.

Obviously our daily lives at the height of the anthropocene are very different than those of our predecessors hundreds of thousands of years ago. Where our experience is similar is on a sensory and physical level. Things like smelling peanut butter, having an orgasm, breaking your leg, or feeling full after a meal.


Is Humanism Really Human?

How might a posthumanist approach to undoing interspecies hierarchies intervene with structures of violence among humans themselves? Trump’s election reflects and emboldens white supremacy and misogyny to a frightening degree. Could a posthumanist intervention risk moving focus away from a direct and much-needed struggle against these things, or could it help?

Octopus intelligence

Just how smart is an octopus?

The cleft in the tree of life that separated the lineages that led to vertebrates and invertebrates happened 600 million years ago. One path, as Godfrey-Smith explains, led to progressively more complex intelligences, in the form of fish, reptiles, birds and mammals. The other path, while producing sophisticated means of sensing and surviving in a dangerous world, eschewed mental complexity. The cephalopods represent an island of intelligence in this invertebrate sea. They represent a separate experiment in the evolution of the mind.

Godfrey-Smith is not a scientist but a philosopher. This is, he says, a philosophy book as well as a scientific one. The question with which he wrestles is that of consciousness: “Does it feel like something to be one of the large-brained cephalopods, or are they just biochemical machines for which all is dark inside?”