Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Is Natural Food Really Natural?

You hear a lot these days about eating natural food while avoiding artificial foods such as genetically modified organisms or GMOs. I am not sure that this is a meaningful dichotomy and would argue that there is no such thing as "natural" food.

I made the distinction in a previous post between natural and artificial saying that something is natural if it is a product of nature while we can think of it as artificial if it is caused or created by humans. Is the food we eat today, a product of nature? Honestly, I don't see how anyone can claim that anything we eat today is natural.

Around 10,000 years ago humans gave up their hunting and gathering lifestyle in order to settle down and stay in one place. In order to feed themselves they had to start farming and raising animals for food. I realize that I have hazed over the complexity of this transition. But the transition is not part of the argument I am making. The argument I am making is that humans have not eaten any natural food for over ten thousand years.

As people settled down, they began planting seeds in specific locations rather than gathering the grains from where ever they naturally grew. Over time they began selecting seeds from more desirable plants. Eventually, they started getting scientific about crop production and eventually got down to the DNA level with GMOs. The point here is that GMOs are not a different kind of thing from natural plants. They are merely the latest human innovation in attempting to improve the food supply. If you really want natural food, you need to go out to a pristine field somewhere and gather it in its natural state hoping that there are no human finger prints on it.

A similar argument can be made for animals which were fed and bred to produce more desirable results. The animals, as well as the plants, were not only selectively bred but they were protected against diseases by antibiotics and any number of other interventions. So, if you want a natural steak, you would have to go out to that pristine field and hope to find a woolly mammoth, hoping further that it hasn't eaten all your natural grain.

Natural vs. artificial is not the distinction we are looking for. But, if it isn't, what are we concerned about?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Caused vs Created

I said, in the last post, "Something is natural if it is caused or created by nature and not caused or created by mankind. Something is artificial if it is caused or created by mankind" I acknowledged that this may have to change and already I am beginning to doubt if this definition will work.

What is the difference between something that is caused and something that is created? Let's take some extreme examples. If lightning strikes your house and causes a fire, we would be fairly comfortable claiming that the lightning "caused" the fire but not very comfortable claiming that the lightning created the fire. On the other hand, if the person who lives in the house make a marble statue to honor the god of lightning in order to protect the house, we would be fairly comfortable in saying that the homeowner created the statue, while uncomfortable saying that the homeowner caused the statue. This is not as obvious as it sounds because if we view this activity in terms of Aristotle's Four Causes, one would have to acknowledge that the homeowner did cause the statue, although we don't look at things that way anymore.

To explore this line of reasoning, let's say that A causes B if B is an outcome, side product, or epi-phenomenon of A.  Alternatively, A creates B if the production of B is an intentional activity of A.This still does not quite work. If the homeowner threw gasoline on the house and then lit it, we would say that the homeowner caused the fire but might be reluctant to say that the homeowner created the fire. On the other hand the homeowner definitely created the statue and it would seem silly to say the homeowner caused the statue. So, in order to create we need not only intentional activity, but we need the thing created to be unique and brought into existence by the creator and not likely to be brought into existence any other way.

This may feel a little tedious, but we cannot make clear value judgements about things unless we clearly know what those things are. In addition we need to know what the consequences of those things are in order to assess their value. That also requires clear definitions. We could go on with the hair splitting of meanings but will drop it for now and come back to it later. Next we will look at some things and attempt to determine, using our current definitions, whether or not they are natural.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Evolving to the Artificial

There is a misunderstood and unfortunate dichotomy between the natural and the artificial that has created a lot of paranoia about eating genetically modified organisms or a day in the future when robots take over mankind and enslave us. While there are issues to be addressed, these paranoid ravings are not at all productive in addressing them. Over the next few posts I want to explore the meanings of natural and artificial, and see if we can get down to the real concerns, and hopefully address a few of them.

What is the difference between natural and artificial? And is the artificial, whether it be intelligence or some other creation a threat to humanity or is it merely the realization of mankind's destiny?  What is the role of nature in our lives and what is the role of the artificial? And when we refer to the natural are we always referring to something good? What threats and benefits do we derive from the natural and the artificial. and what can we do to have more of the benefits and less of threats?

These are big questions and cannot be addressed directly without developing some foundation. So, let's begin with the question - what is the difference between natural and artificial. Something is natural if it is caused or created by nature and not caused or created by mankind. Something is artificial if it is caused or created by mankind. We may have to modify this definition later as we further explore the topic. But, this is a workable definition for now.

Most people would agree that a primeval wilderness forest is natural and a robot is artificial as these two examples are at opposite ends of the spectrum. But, if the forest is going to be considered natural then nothing about its current state can be caused or created by mankind. So, if anything was done to influence the ecology of the forest such as laws or barriers to protect it from the surrounding environment, then it is no longer natural. If any effort was made to influence the flora or fauna in any way then it is no longer natural. Sometimes people with wonderfully good intentions do things in any attempt to protect nature. But, the very act of protecting reduces the naturalness that they are trying to protect. Given the extent to which mankind has come to dominate the globe, it would be very difficult to find anything on the planet that is truly natural. And any attempt to remedy this situation would further reduce the existence of anything truly natural on the planet.

We may try to back off a little and say that something is still natural if it has not been "intentionally" caused or created by mankind. The allows us to keep the robot in the artificial category while allowing aspects of nature that have only suffered side effects of mankind to still be in the natural category. But, further inspection shows that this doesn't work either. Mankind did not intentionally create global warming. So, global warming and climate change would have to be considered natural.

Further, the robot may not be excluded from the category of natural because it is not clear if the robot was "intentionally" caused by mankind or just the outcome of mankind's curiosity and natural tendency to make tools of varying levels of sophistication. When a lion attacks a zebra and causes its death, we see that as just part of nature because the lion is just following its natural tendencies. When a human creates a tool, why isn't that just an expression of the human's natural tendencies.

Already the dichotomy has become a little murky and we need to explore it a little further and in a little more depth.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

There is a Message in the Message

Yes, my last post was in January of 2015. That was a year and a half ago. I was giving tips on writing and in the last post I promised to elaborate on the list of items that I had offered. And then, nothing happened. Well, something did happen. I got distracted. I don't remember what it was. But whatever it was distracted me so that I forgot all about blogging. I wasn't sitting on the couch watching TV all day, as I never do that. And I was working. In the last year and a half I wrote a research paper entitled "What is Information" which I am presenting at a conference in a week or so. I developed a course in Python programming. And, yes, I worked on my writing.

At some point, earlier, in this blog I wrote about self-publishing. I still plan to do that although it may take me a while to get around to it. But, in order to make progress, I tried to write an essay every day so that when I finally got around to publishing a book of essays, I would have some rough drafts to work with. I haven't counted how many essays I wrote during that time but I would guess around 200-300. And I am still cranking them out although not every day.

I plan to not only write but to illustrate my writing as well. Unfortunately, I don't know how to draw. So, I put away the essays for a while to concentrate on teaching myself how to draw. I am making good progress but still have a way to go. Learning to draw is a lot like learning to write. Just do it every day. Look for ways to improve. Look for techniques to over come problems you encounter. Look at what others have done. And eventually, you will figure it out.

But most of all (and this is the continuity message in this post) I do what I feel like doing. I always have a number of tasks going on. There is always something I am getting tired of. And there is always something I feel like doing. So, I might write everyday until it isn't fun any more. Then I might work on lectures for a class that needs a little work. Then, I might obsesses over classic novels (btw Gone with the Wind is truly outstanding). Then my focus may turn to sketching, fishing, golf, mindfulness, jigsaw puzzles, cooking or any number of other interests. Here is the key. You need to pursue things with passion and discipline. But, your attention will always wear out at some point. Since you are a thousand times more productive when you are excited about something, you should always work on something you are excited about.

This blog came to my attention a day or so ago and this morning I was writing an essay on Natural vs. Artificial in which I wanted to put the rising paranoia about artificial intelligence into perspective. The two came together, and I thought "what a great topic for  my blog". So, here I am. Or, more dramiatically.... "I'm back"

Friday, January 30, 2015

How Did I Come Up With That List?

Before diving into the elements of the list I just provided, a good question to ask is - how did I come up with the list. The answer is that I took a piece of paper, jotted a few things down, thought for a minute, scratched a couple out, and added a couple more. There is no magic in it. And the more often you do things like this the easier it will get. And, I should mention that if you want your list to be perfect and read by everyone, then you should probably stop right now. Your list will be one of thousands of writing exercises. And out of those thousands of writing exercise a few gems will emerge. But, you won't know, as you start out, which will be the gems and which will be practice writing exercises.

So, I have a list and the next thing to do is to try to make it work. This is what I will be doing over the next few posts. I will create as good of an argument as I can for each of the items. At the end, I might get rid of an item. I might merge two items. I might add one or more items. But, the purpose of the list is not to be right or perfect. The purpose of the list is to get you started.

Once you have started on the list, and tried to make a solid argument for each, you will find that your cognitive juices are flowing. New ideas come to mind. You see existing ideas in a new light. You decide some of the ideas weren't as good as you thought. But, you are rolling. And that is the purpose of the list.

I attended a writing workshop many years ago where the instructor said that the reason you get writer's block is that you don't have anything to say. If you have something to say, the words will flow. So, if you don't have anything to say, you need to get something to say. There are many ways to do that. But, a tried an true way that I use a lot is to make a list and get going with it.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Keys to Good Writing

There are thousands of books on writing and nobody has a preferred position on it. I have some favorites that suit my style (both my cognitive style and my writing style), but different books provide different things because different people need different things. In this piece, I thought I would provide some ideas off the top of my head, expand upon them in the next few posts, and then follow up with a revision. That is, after all, how I write and I thought that allowing you to see the underlying evolving thought processes might be useful. Here are the keys to good writing in no particular order:

1) Curiosity - You need something to write about, and something that interests you may very well interest others.

2) Reading - Hearing the voice of others will help you craft your own voice as well as giving you ideas on useful techniques.

3) Need for Expression - Once you have figured something out or created something, you must have a desire to share it with others.

4) Writing Practice - Just like learning to play a musical instrument takes a lot of practice, learning to write takes a lot of practice as well. Nobody ever just picked up a saxophone and played hot jazz without years of practice. And nobody every just picked up a pen and wrote the great American novel.

5) Writing for a Target - Different kinds of writing require different styles. You have to know who you are writing for and tailor your writing for that target.

6) Determination - You have to stick with it way longer than you would ever imagine. And if that is daunting, you might want to consider something else.

This is my working outline. Over the next several posts I will elaborate on these and we will see where this little writing exercise goes.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Self Publishing

Here is something I am thinking about a lot these days. We have seen both a dramatic rise and a change in kind with Self Publishing since Amazon got in the game. It used to be, not so many years ago, that self publishing options were call "Vanity Press". The idea was that if you had to pay to have your work published; if you couldn't find a publisher to publish it; then your work was not worth publishing. And, if you paid to have it published then you were doing so to satisfy your own vanity. Most people who did this landed up with boxes of their book in their garages which they gave away to friends and relatives.

That isn't to say that nobody made any money on self publishing. Some did extraordinarily well. But, there were very few. This was because publishing houses controlled the means of distribution. So most self publishers could not get their books to the public. And they sat in boxes in the garage.

I have been carrying on in my Patterns and Predictions  blog about Dying Hegemonies of Access . The premise is that industries who primary role was to provide access to a resource that technology can provide better access to do not have a bright future. Publishing is, in my opinion, on of those Dying Hegemonies.

Any body can publish a book these days on Amazon. There is a bit more to it than this as there are Kindle books and hard copies. Of course, one must have writing skills and something to write about. But, But of all the writers who are capable of cranking out something worth buying, only a tiny fraction of them saw their books in book stores. Now, with these new options for self publishing, the marketplace is wide open. And Amazon is not only vehicle for self publishing. It just happens to be more well known.

I also don't want to imply that everyone who publishes this way is going to be successful. But, historically, publishing houses controlled which books were published and which books got into book stores. This is still true for a majority of books published today. But, that is changing and it is changing very rapidly. Self publishing is beginning to challenge traditional publishing in the same way that bloggers and people using their smart phones to make videos challenged traditional journalism. More about this to come.