Saturday, June 30, 2012
Zen and loss of consciousness
Almost lost consciousness (twice) at this one day conference organised by the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. First at a debate on ‘Zen and consciousness’ that was so dull, it must count as a purely Zen event, beyond experience and language. The two academics couldn’t use a microphone, and mumbled their way incoherently through the subject. At the end, when asked to sum up in a sentence, we got the old ying-yang line. Zen consciousness, he claimed, is not ‘either…or’ it’s ‘both and and’. So said the wise one, not realising that logicians are well aware of logical disjunction (OR) and the either/or fallacy (presenting just two choices when there are more). What does ‘both and and’ mean’? He was. I suspect, confusing identity with addition. All he could mumble was reference to the ‘ying-yang’ symbol. Since when was a symbol a theory?
Art and consciousness
I was looking forward to this one – big mistake. The chair got the name of the first artist/academic wrong and it went from bad to worse. The first speaker showed a piece of video from her Mac but hadn’t even thought about an audio lead, so had to talk it through. All three read (too quickly in monotone voices) from notes, giving the impression that they really didn’t know what they were talking about (I suspect this was true). I hope for the sake of the University of Sussex, Plymouth and UCL that these three don’t teach. They were appalling communicators and even in their own fields couldn’t EXPLAIN anything. It was all WHAT with no WHY. But what was really illustrative of the problem was the middle talk where maria (sorry missed her second name) described a ‘field of consciousness’ experiment that was trite, showed no real knowledge of neuroscience, linguistics, or consciousness. At least she was honest in telling us about her awful efforts at data gathering. It was magnificently trite.
The problem is that their art installations were really just derivative pieces based on old bits of neurological theory, the rubber arm experiment and so on. There was a laughable piece that used the old ‘look at yourself in a mirror and see something else’ approach (as if that hasn’t been done before) and some waffle about ‘mirror’ neurons. This is not cross-disciplinary work, it’s one way traffic. It was clear that art was being informed by science but it was also clear that art was not informing science. When asked, they could think of not a single example of where art had led to an insight or breakthrough in our knowledge of consciousness. This really was fourth-rate academia.
This is not to diminish art at the expense of science. It is simply to recognise that art and science and not two sides of the same coin but very different areas of human endeavour, with very different approaches, goals and methodologies. Art doesn’t need to pander to science in this way. Art is not mimicry. We must be careful with science’s claims, as if it were the only thing that matters, but not parody scientific experiments and bits of theory with half-baked installations.
It is clear that in ‘consciousness theory’, cross-disciplinary work is essential, but that doesn’t mean shoving every discipline into the omelette. The real cross-disciplinary work is between the big ‘Ps’ – Philosophy, Psychology, Physics and Psychiatry. In each of these cases it’s 2+2=5. With art and science it’s 2+2=1, in the sense that the science often produces poor art, such as the examples we were shown.
Thankfully there was redemption in the final session. Anul is a fine speaker and admirably lays out the issues in the field. At last some academics who could present, explain and be honest about the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches to research. Bit of a lost opportunity here, as we could have had more of the real deal, that’s real neuroscience and associated RELEVANT disciplines. Instead we got some fluffy talks that pandered to popularism.
Friday, June 22, 2012
Artful Dodgers – creative industry, creative accountancy and tax evasion
So some of the most prominent performers of the black art of tax dodging are those in our much lauded ‘creative industries’. Jimmy Carr has sought redemption through Twitter but the secret’s out. The whole rotten industry is rife with tax evasion. It’s endemic.
Let’s be clear here. The losses to the economy through these dodges are in the many billions. More importantly, paying tax is part of being a citizen, someone who recognises a fiscal and moral responsibility towards the community they live in, and earn a living from. These people are to be despised for playing the same game as those rich crooks in Greece, who see tax as optional. If tehre's a lesson to be learned fron Greece, it's that states that pander to this view become failed states.
Next time we hear a liberal platitude from a comedian, actor or filmmaker, let’s look for the Janus-face, of public virtue and private vice. Next time you pay to see one of these clowns, or watch a movie, ask whether the money you’ve paid is being salted away in Luxembourg, Jersey or Virgin isles. If you want to read how it's done, I recommend Treasure Island by Nicholas Shaxson. He uncovers these places, often under the British flag, where tax crime become indistinguishable from hard-core organised crime.
Film makers seem to be the biggest scam artists of the lot. Five senior RBS staff were arrested this year for using film tax relief schemes and the system is widely known in the system to have descended into activity that borders on (or simply is) crime. Film tax fraud is estimated in a Times article this week to amount to £5 billion a year, or around 1p on the standard rate of income tax. There are 600 schemes under inquiry from the HMRC as we speak. It’s become a racket for the rich, who invest, then pull out early or switch to Luxembourg company to avoid tax.
As for those wuderkinden from Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook – cut the crap about doing no evil. Not paying tax is evil – get your headquarters out of Luxembourg. Then there’s the mobile phone industry with Vodaphone being among the worst tax offenders on the planet.
Meanwhile, Assange, who was well ahead of the game here, publishing the names and account details of tax evaders from Swiss banks, and sparked off some real political action on this front, has had his means of funding cut off from the major credit card companies, even Paypal. Unbelievably, Amazon refused to host the site.
On the whole, most of these industry sector tax relief schemes simply open the door for fraud. This is why we need to be wary of the recently announced tax relief schemes for TV production, animation and games. Let's not be fooled into thinking that the 'trickle-down' economy has worked. As tax writer David Johnston says, "A quarter century of tax cuts has not produced 'trickle-down' but 'Naigra -up'".
Friday, June 15, 2012
Prometheus: loved this movie for all the reasons the critics hated it
Sci-Fi’s closest genre, for me, is the Western. Both take huge landscapes that are largely empty and fill them with big moral and sometimes philosophical themes. Sci-Fi, in this sense is superior to the Western because it can more easily cope with bigger, philosophical themes. That’s why it’s my favourite genre.
I have also learned to ignore Sci-Fi film reviews, as they’re written by people who love movies, all movies. They love movies more than ideas. I love ideas more than movies. Movies are a means to and end for me, for reviewers they are too often an end in themselves. So it is with Prometheus – a movie that can be said to have disappointed the reviewers.
I loved this movie and loved it for all the reasons the critics hated it. First, it breaks the rules. The good looking hero is killed off pronto, it doesn’t pander to the traditional horror genre tricks (make you jump - regularly) and it doesn’t have an ending. For me these are surprises, not weaknesses. Movies don’t have a template which have to be slavishly followed. Good movies break the rules.
Prometheus, as the title suggests takes us into a Hesiodic world, a pantheon of lifeforms. Man is not the measure of all things. In fact, these other Titans see us as relatively insignificant and have their own battles to fight. This is a challenge to monotheism, even Darwinism. Why not?
It fits nicely into the Alien box set with its heroic woman, hapless men, the shift from landscape to claustrophobic ship, the robot and the terrifying lifeforms. The mapping sphere’s were great, the deep throat stuff brutal and self medication scary. And the planet itself was beautifully imagined, like a horrific, Hobbesian Earth, with its Google map inspired views and huge sandstorms, exactly as we know them from planets in our own solar system. The sandstorm scene is breathtaking. In the end it's carnage - only two survive.
If I have one criticism it’s the homage to Lawrence of Arabia (another Western by the way). It was obvious but of no significance, so why do it? Sometimes writers and directors can’t help but show off. One other quibble is the cave in Skye scene near the start where they rip off the Chauvet cave horses and relocate them in a cave in Skye! Haven’t they seen Cave of Forgotten Dreams? Didn’t the budget stretch to a few new cave paintings? And why was the main weapon in the human’s ship a crap flamethrower? This is set a couple of centuries into the future so for God’s sake get your guns right. What this needed was a couple of young games designers. When Scifi remains earthbound it loses its potency.
Catalyst Club hat trick – 3 brilliant speakers on 3 brilliant topics
Once again Dr Bramwell scores a hat trick at the Catalyst Club (Brighton’s hot ticket for debate, drink and deviancy) with three brilliant speakers on three brilliant topics.
Speaker 1: Anil Seth on Consciousness
First up an academic, Anil Seth, who talked us through the problems of consciousness. Anil has big eyes, bags of enthusiasm and an abundance of wit., so gave us a wonderfully accessible introduction to the subject; jargon free, and packed with good analogies and jokes. "Consciousness is the appearance of the world” was his opening distinction. A good phenomenological start, soon to be undercut by scientific hypothesising. Then a cartoon of a cat claiming it was the “annoying bits between naps”. Brilliant! What followed were eight problems that our own consciousness throws right back at us.
1. Where is consciousness in the brain?
The big numbers came out on numbers of neurons and even larger number of connections. What was more fascinating is that some regions of the brain are vastly more important than others. The cerebellum contains more neurons than the rest of the brain put together but seems quite benign. The thalamus, however, the walnut sized bit in the middle, is critical. Thankfully, we have moved on from the left/right brain model that became part of modern consciousness and still hangs around in the minds of teachers and those who want to see themselves as ‘creative’ (read superior). Things are very much more complex than this, involving flows across the entire brain. Glad to see that he also knocked Freud into touch.
2. Why does anaesthesia work?
We know that anaesthesia works, we just don’t know how it works. But it’s the fact that consciousness is lost, but the brain keeps on functioning, that’s puzzling. It’s as if the workings of the cinema and projector keep on rolling, without the film being seen by the audience. Quite a conundrum. This he attributed to a sort of ‘cognitive unbinding’, similar to what happens in non-REM sleep.
3. What is the self?
We can be induced into thinking we have an extra hand and experience out of body experiences. This playing around with the sense of ‘self’ tells us much about whet the ‘self’ is. We feel that the ‘I’ is some sort of single executor. In reality it is lots of different things; sense of body shape, thoughts, memories and imagination. We are beginning to unravel this complex rope into its constituent parts. For example, we now know rather a lot about memory, the many different types of memory, their limits and fallibility. Although he did make a serious error by claiming that ALL memory is subject to decay and alteration as they are dynamically recalled. The fact that I have recalled 2+2=4 for over 50 years, flawlessly and without error, puts paid to that simple assertion. What you have to do when talking about memory is always talk about different types of memories.
4. Do we have free will?
The Libor effect was brought in, rightly, as it has thrown the whole issue of conscious volition into the air. This quickly becomes a serious philosophical issue but is being informed by newer models of decision making, largely computational, where actions are selected from invisible, probabilistic options.
5. Why consciousness?
We have it but why? Could we function without it? Given the fact that it has evolved, possibly many times, and exists, surely suggests that it has a necessary role. That role may be one of pulling things together, a sort of manager and curator. Although, oddly, many things can take place without consciousness.
6. What is consciousness?
This is where it gets seriously philosophical. There are all sorts of problems with seeing brain scans and lab work as in any way revealing the true nature of ‘consciousness’ as opposed to brain structure. We have to be very careful of adopting too readily the computational model, without adequate criticism. This happened centuries earlier when we adopted the mechanical model of the brain, in Cartesian dualism. We then saw the brain as a tabla rasa in the era of behaviourism, led by an obsession with animal experimentation. We may now be doing exactly the same thing, just because computer science and information processing is currently popular.
7. Are other animals conscious?
Interesting one. It would seem as though octopi and birds have consciousness, although how we’ve cracked the solipsistic puzzle is open to debate. Anil suggests that cephalopods an birds are indeed conscious which means consciousness has been selected in evolution several times. What then is its adaptive advantage?
8. Are vegetative patients conscious?
He made an error here by claiming that there were 150,000 vegetative patients in the US. The figure is actually nearer to one tenth of this (a fraudulent slip?). But that’s by the by. What really matters is what’s going on in the minds of these patients. Are they conscious? Brain scans, comparing them with normal patients, suggest some (not all) are. This raises all sorts of moral questions about people in such states.
Speaker 2: Barbara Moore
What a double act! The vivacious interviewer had 'found' Barbara Moore, languishing in a flat in Bognor, and talked, sang and played clips while interviewing her fascinating subject. No one has ever heard of Barbara Moore but she played a bit part in the music of the sixties, singing as a backing singer in The Ladybirds, then as an arranger for TV theme tunes and a couple of hits. The curious thing about this interview wasn’t the music at all, it was Barbara, who’s in her eighties, is as spritely and irreverent as John Lydon. She hinted at a rather wild life, selling her five homes and taking off to France where she bought a Chateau with her French lover, all ending in disaster. She ended up in a flat in Bognor Regis. She was grateful that she’d been saved from an ‘early cremation’ by this renewed interest in her work. The strangest anecdote was of her doing backing vocals on Hey Joe, with Hendrix wandering in and being roundly ignored by arrogant BBC session musicians, then blowing them away with the first few bars from his wailing guitar. She told how she had to take him up to the BBC canteen to feed him up as he was so painfully thin from his heroin habit. Beneath the fun loving image is a wily, old bird who made sure she was paid royalties, and was paid royally, for her work. What a trooper.
Speaker 3: Ulysses Black
This was a weirdly subversive talk from a man with a great name and beguiling manner. Ostensibly about the the ‘rituals’ of Padstow May Day, Ulysses played with the concept and talked us through his day at Padstow, all the while playing in the background an accordion and drum tune, that played all day long at said May Day. Damn clever the way he matched his delivery, in a slow, faltering style to the rhythm of this one, relentless tune. It was a tale of local factions, exclusion, drinking and above all, that damn tune. I’m sure the audience were lulled into some sort of trance as the questions got very strange. At one point Dr Bramwell said “Give us a round of applause for that rational question” after a series of oddball qureies that were more stream of consciousness than questions. I’m sure Danny Boyle is up to something along these lines in his Olympic Ceremony. He has a Maypole and England’s green and pleasant land, I’m sure will erupt into something darker and feistier.
What a great night, crammed into a basement club in the dark, with a few beers, talking with friends, and strangers, A wonderful lad, sitting opposite me, claimed to be a drummer who was, “between punk bands at the moment…although I’m not so sure that there’s one on the other side”. That's Brighton for you.