fun with time’s arrow

I had an epiphany this week. I’m sure it’s not an original idea, but it’s the first time it dawned on me. We all have an intuitive grasp that the future can play out in multiple ways. We can imagine that, staring from an arbitrary point in time, say April 25, 12:00 pm ET–let’s call that the origin–time will unfold in a certain way, dependent on an unfathomable number of contingencies. It makes sense that if we return to the origin and run time forward again, time will play out differently, owing to the randomness of the contingencies.

Here’s the epiphany: what if we return to the origin and play time backwards? The intuitive instinct which I suspect most people have is that time would play back the same way always, because, after all, it already happened that way. But in fact, wouldn’t time play out differently every time we start at the origin and go backward from there? Wouldn’t the contingencies and randomness come into play? Wouldn’t there be an infinite number of possible pasts, just as there are an infinite number of futures?

The Coolin

Come with me, under my coat,
And we will drink our fill
Of the milk of the white goat,
Or wine if it be thy will

And we will talk, until
Talk is a trouble, too,
Out on the side of the hill;
And nothing is left to do,

But an eye to look into an eye;
And a hand in a hand to slip;
And a sigh to answer a sigh;
And a lip to find out a lip!

What if the night be black!
Or the air on the mountain chill!
Where the goat lies down in her track,
And all but the fern is still!

Stay with me, under my coat!
And we will drink our fill
Of the milk of the white goat,
Out on the side of the hill!

Race Day!

Someone on the teevee just said that this is the best day in New York, and I agree! The elite women are now off, and it’s an especially exciting women’s field. Jelena Prokopcuka has the chance to become the first woman since the legendary Grete Waitz to win New York three times in a row. Paula Radcliffe, candidate for all-time-greatest woman marathoner and current world record holder, is back after a two-year break from marathoning after giving birth to a daughter. Paula had a stunning victory in New York following her complete meltdown in the 2004 Olympics, the only marathon she has ever lost. Catherine the great is in the field. My own elite woman is going to start in another 15 minutes–next year, I vow, I’m going to join her.

UPDATE: It seems like Paula, just before the start, turned to the other women and said “see ya!” She’s been dominating from the start and after 7 miles has a 47″ lead on Jelena. Only Gete Wami is with her. If this were anyone other than Paula, you might think it was a bad move. But this is Paula. She’s here to run today, and she is going to win.

UPDATE II: The men ran mile 7 in 4:27. I will never, if I gave my life over to training, run anywhere near a single 4:27 mile, let alone run one and go on to finish a marathon. Incredible. Paula’s nod is back. Apparently, Wami is her nemesis and if she can hang on with Paula to the end, she can definitely out-sprint her. This could be a classic in the making. As the women are nearing Manhattan, I’m off to the course.

UPDATE III: Just saw my hero, Paula, live for the first time. Didn’t see her in 2004 because I was running. Wow. Just wow. Paula is in the park now, and Wami is hanging there right with her. Stunning!

UPDATE IV: PAULA WINS!!! A legendary race! Wami pressed and took the lead for a few yards just before Columbus Circle. And Paula just stomped on her. In 20 feet, she retook the lead and Wami acquiesced.

UPDATE V: Just saw N at mile 16, and she looks good. Where is J, her running partner??? Picked up the traditional celebratory champ on the way to Central Park.

FINAL: N finishes her fifth consecutive NYC marathon in 4:27:39. Bravissima!

Speaking of Philip K. Dick

Funny how everything good comes from some place else. One of the best scenes in John Carpenter’s Dark Star involves a conversation with the ship’s dead captain. Beyond being understandably groggy, he’s a bit put out that no one has talked to him for so long. Still, he offers good advice, that is, to teach the bomb phenomenology. I won’t explain. Apparently, Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik also features communication with the dead — with the same kind of crappy service and screw ups as it will have when Time Warner Cable offers it as a  part of its “cradle to the grave” bundle in 2037.

This has been another edition of blogging while delayed at LGA.

Are Dream Jokes Real?

Could be a Philip K. Dick story, but I also think it’s an inherently interesting question. If something happens in a dream that causes you to laugh, is it really funny? What if you can remember the scenario afterwards and your waking self doesn’t find it funny, or coherent? Once or twice when this has happened to me, my laughter wakes me up just enough to remember the dream. In the case that I remember, it wasn’t a funny narrative or wordplay that made me laugh, it was something more like a spatial or conceptual pun. It doesn’t appear to me a subject that many have pondered, however, if you want to understand the state of terror we sometimes experience, you need look no farther than sleep paralysis.

Back to Stem Cells

The confusion around stem cells is due, I think, in large part to a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of DNA. In the popular mind, DNA contains a complete description of a person’s body. From this perspective, the DNA in the 100 or so stem cells in a balstocyst fully describe what the person will eventually become. Now, if this were true, there would be a meaningful sense in which a blastocyst is a “potential” human being. But in fact, this is not how DNA works at all. Rather, DNA functions as a set of instructions and tools for building simple things, like proteins, for example. It’s more like a recipe book than an encyclopedia. When you understand this, it becomes easier to understand how human and other animal development occurs, starting with extremely simple structures, which over time become exponentially more complex. Leading eventually, by the way, to things like minds. This is the sense in which reductionism is unassailable.

Hey Nagel–not done with you yet!

The more alert among you will have long ago noticed that the cyberkrunk blog is, at its core, an extended rumination on the mind-body problem in the guise of chatty posts about pop music, restaurants and movies, all expressed in the language of a writing style I invented some time ago called “Gonzo Prufrock”.

Since I mentioned Thomas Nagel last week, let’s take a quick look at his most famous paper, “What is it like to Be a Bat?” I’ll wait till you finish.

Ok, ready? Good. Of course, it is true in many ways that I cannot know “what it is like to be a bat”. Bats have an entirely different sensory system, and don’t use language. Even if it were possible to jack a bat’s consciousness into krunkbot’s brain, that would not be what it is like to “be” a bat, that would be what it’s like to be krunkbot watching a bat’s consciousness. Right? And if I were able to somehow shut off the krunkbot consciousness while I was inside the bat, krunkbot would have no way of bringing that information back into the krunkbot consciousness; the experience would be non-transportable and therefore lost.

Why is this a weak argument against a reductionist theory of consciousness? It’s because of the way Nagel frames the question. He doesn’t ask “what is it like to echolocate like a bat?” or “what is it like taste honey like a bear?” or “what is it like to strum a power chord like Pete Townshend?” No, it’s his “be” that’s in my bonnet. How can you expect to have a reductionist response when you are essentially asking “what is the bat’s non-reducible, total experience including all memory like”? It’s a nice thought experiment, but it really proves nothing.