Saturday, 24 January 2015

Meanwhile, back in the real world...

You don't live in the real world.

The world that you experience every day is, not exactly a figment of your imagination, but a representation of the real world, constructed by your brain. To my mind the clearest example of this is your perception of colour – the sky is blue, but blueness doesn't exist in the real world. In the real world, light from the sky is composed of a wide range of different frequencies, from the ultraviolet band, through the visible and tailing off into the infrared. We know this because we can measure it instrumentally. Our instruments can measure any property we like about this light – in addition to its intensity over the wide range of frequencies, its polarisation and coherence (and probably other properties I haven't heard of). We can even measure it as individual photons. But we can't measure its blueness.

Of course we know that light over a particular range of wavelengths appears to us as blue, but in the world as measured by instruments, blue light is different to red light only in its wavelength – it is a difference of quantity, not of quality. The quality of blueness can't be measured, because it's a subjective experience inside our heads. The experience of blueness occurs when the receptors in our eyes which are more sensitive to the blue wavelength band, are stimulated more than the receptors that are sensitive to red and to green. The colour blue is something that belongs to our simulated world, not to the “real world” out there.

Now, the simulated world that we live in does bear some relationship to the real world, but not in the way you might think. The world that we experience is a greatly simplified representation of the real world, that helps us to survive. It contains the details of patterns that we are drawn to notice, many of which are hard-wired (is that a face? is is there a leopard hiding in the grass over there?) and some of which are learned. There is nothing that requires the simulated world in our heads to be accurate, foolproof, or even make us happy. Magicians actually rely on fooling our brains (this happens in entirely reliable and predictable ways) into constructing a world that doesn't correspond to physical reality, for dramatic and entertaining effect.

In fact, the world of our everyday experience is full of things that don't really exist at all. Take a teacup, for example – an object of some moderate significance in our world. You can do all kinds of things with it, it has properties and functions that are useful for you, you can describe what it's like including its weight, shape, colour, etc. But in the physical reality at the molecular and atomic level it doesn't even exist as an object. The aluminium, silicon and oxygen atoms that make the teacup don't care that they're part of a teacup, they don't even know that they are part of a teacup. Each atom is affected by electronic interactions with its nearest neighbours, but further away than that there is no physical, atomic significance whatsoever for the fact that they are part of a teacup, a dollar-shop garden gnome or a Ming dynasty vase. Now, this is the important bit: in our constructed worlds, the thing that for us is a teacup (or a gnome, or a vase), emerges from the relationships between the components at the level below. The teacup is not a real, physical thing, but a pattern that only exists, only is recognised, only has any meaning inside your head. It's just as Spoon Boy explained to Neo in The Matrix: there is no spoon.

This might seem silly, but it's even easier to explain with living organisms like yourself. Your physical body is composed of cells of many different types, which live, reproduce and die according to rules that keep your body functioning properly. Over 25 years or so, every single one of your cells will have been replaced – some of them many times over. You are now composed of different matter than you were 25 years ago. In fact your body is a self-sustaining pattern that continually absorbs atoms from the environment when it eats, drinks and inhales; and emits them continually through exhaling, sweating and various other bodily excretions. Yet somehow you are still you, a bit like the old joke about Granddad's favourite axe that has had its head replaced twice and the handle three or four times. The point here bears repeating: the things that are significant in the perceived world that we live in are patterns in the “real world” like a wave is a pattern in water. What you think of as the real world is in fact a representation of the relationships between the components of the real physical world, not the real physical world itself.

Now in esoteric thought, it is considered that we humans inhabit the physical plane, the lowest of planes. I wonder though, if the world of our everyday experience is actually a fairly abstract representation of the patterns in the physical world, the world of our experience isn't the lowest plane after all. The "real" physical plane of molecules and atoms exists below the plane that we live in. It isn't a direct part of our world at all, but it's required absolutely for our world to exist. The patterns of our world are patterns in something – the physical world of atoms and molecules.

Even atoms though, are really just patterns of organisation of subatomic particles with emergent properties of their own. The protons, neutrons and electrons in the silicon atom in your teacup are the same as those in the aluminium atoms – they are merely taking part in a different dance and forming a different pattern with different emergent behaviours. At this level and below the world is a weird mix of quantum mechanics and strings vibrating in eleven dimensions: a world that is utterly unlike the world of our experience, dimly and imperfectly glimpsed through the lens of mathematics. But real, nonetheless. If it weren't so you wouldn't be reading this, because despite being utterly alien to us, quantum mechanics works and is the basis for the electronics we use every day.

What about the other direction though? If the patterns that make up our world are patterns in the plane below, what of the patterns in our world? If the constructed world we live in is a representation of patterns in atoms, which themselves are patterns of subatomic particles, which are in turn patterns in vibrating string-stuff, what is the significance of the patterns in our world? Do they form a constructed reality for consciousnesses inhabiting the plane above? And what of the patterns of those patterns, at some even higher level? Scientific thought largely ignores this. In fact, science goes to a great deal of trouble to exclude any patterns at all from outside the experiment, to make clear the very simple kinds of interactions that are within our intellectual capabilities. This is a very good reason, but I think it has left a kind of cultural blind spot that comes with scientific training. The scientific study of the patterns themselves – ecology, chaos theory, whole systems analysis, are fiendishly complex and even then are not predictive of the emergent behaviours at the next level. They study the interactions, not the meaning of the interactions in the next plane up.

So in the prevailing western scientific world-view, perhaps as a result of this cultural blind spot, the assumption is that there is no significance at all to patterns in our world – except for the special case of the patterns of neuronal organisation in our brains. These special patterns somehow have the emergent property of consciousness (and among other things, the subjective experience of the colour blue). I suspect that the only reason for this acceptance is that it's difficult to deny the reality of subjective experience, and without a non-physical soul or spirit or some other essence (an unpopular notion in science these days), there doesn't seem to be any other way to explain it. It must therefore be an emergent property. So we're left with the slightly absurd notion that the complex network of interacting components in a human brain gives rise to consciousness (and, grudgingly, perhaps this is also true but to a lesser extent in animal brains), but that other kinds of complex networks of interacting components do not give rise to consciousness. This notion is of course entirely untestable in any way that is acceptable to science and hence is not properly a part of science at all. Ecosystems, human societies, weather patterns, biospheres, all are assumed to not give rise to consciousness in the same way that a brain does. There's no reason to make this assumption, in fact it may be more reasonable (and perhaps safer!) to assume the converse.

On the other hand, if consciousness is not “just” an emergent property of sufficiently complex physical systems (or whatever property it is that does the trick), and it arises because of some other factor like a life force or soul, then why wouldn't that factor also manifest in ways other than human consciousness? Unless your religion insists that said factor only applies to humans, but this doesn't seem any more satisfactory than the special pleading in the scientific world-view that only brains, and not any other kind of complex interacting network, cause the subjective experiences of consciousness to arise.

Either way, those subjective experiences do arise. You and I both do perceive the colour blue, and both recognise a teacup when we see one. Whether my experience of blueness is anything like yours, I have no idea. I guess that it probably is, because we're both humans with a lot of biology in common, but this is only and always will be just a working assumption. Although our experiences may be similar to each other's, they are not in any way similar to what “the real world” (whatever that might mean) is really like.

It could be that the world and its planes are just patterns all the way down, and may well be patterns all the way up as well.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Cycling to Work

After banging on about the lack of understanding of bicyclists by car drivers, you'd have to wonder why I choose to ride a bike at all, let alone 20km to and from work every day. Anything really worth doing usually has more than one good reason to do it, and cycling has several, at least for me.

1. It's really, really cheap

Cycling has to be just about the cheapest form of transport ever. If you're commuting regularly you'll want quite good tyres and these turn out to be the major ongoing cost. I figure about $80 (call it $100) each for a good commuter tyre, which goes to the rear wheel, the nearly worn out one going to the front where it wears much more slowly. I'll need to do this about every 10,000km or so, so of the order of $1 per 100km or about $2 per week.

Now, my bike is electric, so I also need to figure out costs for battery replacement and fuel (electricity). My current battery from Ping battery has done about 400 cycles and still works like brand new (after some major dramas with the battery management system, but that's a post for another day), so I expect it should be good for at least the rated 2000 cycles. Perhaps 3000 because I don't fully discharge each time and don't charge it as high as it will go. At about $500 per battery including shipping from Shanghai, that works out at around a bit less than $1 per 100km, maybe $1.50 if the cycle life doesn't work out. Electricity is about 30c per kWh and I average about 0.011kWh per km (1.1kWh / 100km), so about 30c per 100km.

So my total weekly operating costs are probably less than $5 – about the price of your average soy latte. Compare that to at least $35 per week if I take train and bus, and $20 – $30 per week on petrol alone (depending on price) if I take the car.

2. I never have trouble finding parking

No matter where I'm going, there's a street sign, a tree, sometimes even a bicycle rack(!) that I can lock up to, virtually at the front door. At work my bicycle spends the day with me in my office. If I take public transport I can factor in at least an extra 5 to 10 minutes of walking, more like an extra 15 minutes on top of a driving commute assuming I can find a parking spot not too far from work (either that, or fork over more than $1000 per year for a permit to park on campus, but even that doesn't guarantee finding a place).

No matter how busy the shopping centre is, I can lock up right outside to pick up some groceries on my way home. I don't waste 20 minutes getting into and out of the multi-storey car park.

3. I know exactly how long it will take me to get there.

Traffic conditions do not affect my trip time. In fact, the slower the traffic is, the more pleasant my trip, because it's quieter. When I was driving to work regularly, it would take me usually an hour (not including walking time from where I eventually find a parking spot). Forty minutes on a good day and two hours or more on a bad day. It's actually quite stressful if you need to be somewhere at particular time to deliver a lecture or pick up the kids. I'm sure that the stress that causes takes a toll, long term.

When I'm riding my bicycle, it takes an hour and 5 minutes each way, plus or minus 5 minutes. Maybe plus 15 minutes if I get a flat tyre (hence the need for good tyres) or if the weather is really awful.

4. Strapped into a metal box on a freeway-turned-parking lot, or...

Zooming down the virtually deserted Muddy Creek cycleway, sun and fresh air on my face, past the old Chinese guys fishing at the bridge, the moored boats, she-oaks and the blue wrens flitting in and out of the grass.

5. Less environmental impact

Less of just about everything – greenhouse emissions lower by about a factor of about 30 compared to driving a car, less other consumables, less materials used in manufacturing etc. For some people these things matter more than for others. For me, let's just say it's compatible with my religion. Whether this factor is important for anyone else is a matter for them.

6. I like riding bicycles

It feels great. I've always enjoyed it, there's not much to rationalise about that.

7. Health benefits

Sure I don't push much (riding an e-bike, after all, is just like a normal bike where everywhere is downhill), but I do spend my commute turning the pedals for camouflage, pushing a bit up hills, balancing etc. It's got to be healthier than sitting in a car for the same amount of time. I'm convinced my regular cycling has kept my cycling balance free from any noticeable effects from MS, although my walking balance is a little bit crap and I'm a long way from being able to ride a skateboard.

8. Being different

Showing people that there are alternatives, and it's ok to be different.

Sure there are downsides to cycle commuting too. It can be unpleasant when it rains, downright dangerous in high winds, I can't take passengers or carry heavy loads. I keep a car for when I really need those things, which is why it sits in the driveway while I'm enjoying my commute to work.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Cycling in Traffic

The other day I was riding east on Coward street, Mascot (Sydney) and stopped at the red traffic light at the intersection with Bourke street. The light goes green so I proceed out into the intersection, only to have the van behind me with two young gentlemen inside aggressively overtake me. Cyclists will know what this means. You make a point of overtaking with unnecessary revving of your engine, at a higher speed than you really need, passing as close as you think you can get away with without actually causing an accident.

I caught up with these guys at the next traffic light and was able to to engage in some polite discourse. I suggested that they had passed a bit too close. Apparently the driver thought that I wasn't aware that there were two lanes rather than three, that the right lane was turning right and I should have been riding way over in the gutter instead of in the middle of the left hand lane. He apparently objected to having to wait a few seconds longer until I was through the intersection. Let's leave aside for a moment the question of whether or not that's reason enough to want to risk someone else's life – and the next light went green before I could think of anything further to say. Not that whatever I said would have had any effect at all, the guy's dismissive attitude was pretty clear.

I've been riding a bicycle more or less regularly, in different environments including heavy traffic, in all kinds of weather for most of the last 30 years. I would have clocked up a total of probably 50 to 100 thousand kilometers on four different bicycles during that time. I've had one serious accident when I was idiot teenager (weren't we all?) and quite a few near and not-so-near misses. I've learned an awful lot in that time and I've internalised it so deeply that I'm often not even consciously aware of what I've learned and why I ride the way that I do. This was the case that morning on Coward street. I would not have been able to explain why I was out in the middle of the lane instead of at the left hand side, even if we had time to continue the conversation and I was able to persuade him to lower his window again.

I thought about this for the rest of the day, and on and off for the next several days. There are actually two reasons why I ride in the middle of the lane instead of the left hand side when going through an intersection. The first is visibility. When you're at the side of the lane you are close to the footpath and it's very easy for a driver to mis-identify you as a pedestrian in that fraction of a second that their gaze passes over you, or even not to see you at all because their attention is mostly focussed on the other cars that occupy the middle of the lanes. I have had people try to turn left in front of me when I'm on their left hand side, traffic coming the other way not see me and attempt to turn right in front of me, even had someone almost collect me attempting to do a u-turn in front of me (without checking his mirror, his blind spot or indicating – thanks for that). The second reason is stability and clearance – as you'll be aware it's much harder to accurately control the sideways movement of a bicycle at the very low speeds during the first few seconds after taking off. The last thing you want is a driver pulling up next to you quite closely because you're stationary. Safe, right? Yes – until the light goes green, then you have a moving car and a very narrow space within which to ride a bicycle at very low speed. Not safe. I had learned these things over many years of experience without even being conscious of what the reasons were!

This got me thinking about the aggro that exists between a small minority of car drivers and a small minority of cyclists. Although various local newspapers seem to take great delight in publishing stories to whip up a good argument between “us” and “them”, in my experience at least 99% of car drivers are in fact very careful and courteous (sometimes to the extent of creating a safety hazard – thank you, but I really would prefer you don't stop to allow me to turn right across the oncoming traffic!). The kinds of comments that are made on these stories typically involve drivers complaining that cyclists don't always obey the road rules, that they create hazards etc. In light of my own recent experience of not being able to explain my riding style, I had an epiphany of sorts. Cyclists actually have a quite different set of priorities to car drivers when it comes to using the road, which come about because of their vulnerability, agility and small size – and it occurred to me that, at least for the way that I ride, obeying the road rules is perhaps only priority number three.

Riding a bicycle in traffic means constantly making decisions, usually unconsciously, to optimise sometimes conflicting priorities.

My number one priority is safety – my own and that of others (it usually amounts to the same thing anyway – a collision with a pedestrian is at least as likely to cause grave injury to the cyclist as it is to the other party). Again I know this from experience (as an idiot teenager). In my case the other party was a dog, so I'm told, and I spent a good three days in hospital with a concussion, a couple of hairline fractures and patches of missing skin, from which I still bear scars today. To this day I can't remember anything about the accident before waking up in the middle of the road surrounded by people. I'm told the dog was unharmed.

Safety means assuming that the car driver hasn't seen you even though you are wearing a high-vis vest and enough flashing lights to look like a Christmas tree, assuming that there's a person sitting in that parked car who's about to fling the door open without checking if there's a cyclist just about to ride past (this is why cyclists often don't ride in the marked cycleways next to parked cars – those doors have a long reach and if they open at the wrong time and you're within range, there's literally nothing you can do), and taking the whole lane when stopping at a traffic light or going though an intersection. So one of our problems is that drivers, who are mostly not also bicycle-riders-in-traffic, simply have no idea of the special and particular hazards that cyclists are riding to avoid.

On the contrary, most bicycle-riders-in-traffic are also car drivers and are very well aware of what it's like to be a car driver. So believe it or not my second priority when cycling is to not inconvenience traffic. For example, as long as it's safe, at a traffic light with a left turn arrow where I want to go straight, I'll usually move slightly ahead of the stop line and to the right hand side of the left lane, to allow the traffic behind me to turn left when the green left arrow appears. (As explained already, staying at the left hand side of the left lane is usually unsafe at a traffic light). I can do this because I'm small and agile and can move around much more easily than a larger and heavier motorcycle.

Only at third priority (usually - sometimes it's more important than inconveniencing traffic) is obeying the road rules. The best example of this is probably riding on the footpath, which is illegal. There are times when the traffic conditions are such that this is the safest thing for all concerned, recognising that I do not have a right to be there, riding slowly and giving way to pedestrians, of whom there are usually only a few. If there are a lot of pedestrians it's probably time to get off and push – and choose a different route next time. Another good example is indicating – you're supposed to indicate when turning corners (car drivers, you're supposed to do this too, yeah?). I usually do indicate as I'm approaching a corner (so as to not inconvenience traffic, and because it's a road rule), but usually don't as I'm rounding the corner itself. It's simply a matter of safety. It's not possible to safely and effectively steer, brake, and indicate all at the same time on a bicycle. Sometimes I don't indicate at all because I need to be able to brake in an instant, or I'm steering to safely negotiate the lumps and dips in the asphalt that car drivers don't even realise are there, but can make a cyclist lose control if they aren't seen in time.

What about bicycle infrastructure, I hear you ask? The easiest way to understand the problem with the bicycle infrastructure in Sydney is to go to google maps and click the cycling route overlay. There you have it. Lots of short little squiggly green lines that do not form a connected network. So if you're at point A and have a point B that you want to get to, you're going to have to ride in traffic for at least part of your route. Now, since my number one priority is safety I do use the cycling infrastructure that lines up reasonably with my route requirements. The quality of that infrastructure is... well, lets be kind and call it variable. The cycle way around the outside of Sydney airport is just fantastic. The lumpy and uneven, slightly-wider-than-gutter “cycle lane” marked out westbound on Marsh street, between a cyclone fence on one side and heavy trucks on the other, not so great. When dedicated cycle infrastructure isn't available I use quiet back streets, but sometimes the only way though for miles around is a fairly busy road like Coward street.

So, sorry, van-driver dude, but I have evaluated the alternatives and I need to be on Coward street. I do generally keep to the left so as not to inconvenience traffic, but especially when stopping at lights or going through roundabouts, my safety takes priority. You'll just have to wait a few extra seconds.