Monday, January 23, 2006

On what brains are for

Just started reading Sue Blackmore's new book: Conversations on Consciousness. Great introduction - but I have stalled already on Q2 of the 1st conversation - Baars. He says "the primary function of the nervous system is to encode knowledge...".

Surely not.

Brains are control systems for bodies. Pretty amazing control systems of course, but control systems all the same. Bodies have sensors (senses) and actuators (muscles). In very simple animals the outputs from the senses are almost directly connected to the muscles, so that the animal always reacts reflexively to stimuli. More complex animals have more brain in between senses and muscles and so may deliberate before reacting. Of course even very complex animals still have reflexes - think of the classic reflex test on your knee.

Of course I accept entirely that complex brains do encode knowledge, probably in a multiplicity of ways some of which we can discern - like the apparent spatial mapping of images into the visual cortex - but many ways that are not (yet) at all understandable.

But that is not what they're for.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

On blogging

Gosh this is interesting. Although an internet user since before there was an Internet*, I am completely new to blogging; a newbie blogger in fact - is there a word for that?

So, why now blogging..? A number of reasons I guess.

First, a bit of vanity I suppose. I guess you have to be just a little bit vain to suppose that anyone else might read, or indeed be the slightest bit interested in your musings.

Second, as an academic and professional communicator, and someone who believes very strongly that ideas should be freely exchanged and communicated, I am interested in blogging as a medium for just that.

Thirdly, because I think the internet is changing human culture in some deep and surprising ways. The internet is becoming a new kind of dynamic collective memory, allowing us to offload (or upload, to be more accurate) stuff that we used to either have to remember or carry around with us. A small thing, perhaps, but have you noticed that business cards have become pretty much obsolete (at least in academia): people say "just google me". Wired telephones also, I think the one in my office doesn't get used more that once a week now; made more or less obsolete by email (and therein lies another blog entry!). Dictionaries, encyclopedias, libraries all going the same way (but not books, interestingly). Even CDs. As I write this I am listening to internet radio (, being sucked wirelessly from my broadband connection and played on my HiFi by an amazing Philips Streamium. It's weeks since I played a CD! But it's more than these things: the way that we work, play and interact has changed profoundly. For the better? Well, maybe - that's a moot point. So, this is a rather long winded way of saying that blogging is, I think, a very interesting part of that change.

A final thought. Writing this feels strangely different to publishing web pages (which I've been doing since the web was invented). It feels much more personal, a kind of message in a virtual bottle. So, here it is, my first message cast out onto the ocean of the internet. Who knows where it will wash ashore.

*I recall sending emails to Caltech in c.1994 when you had to explicitly address the gateway between JANET and the ARPANET. It was quite a feat! I also built my research lab's first web server and hand coded the lab's first web pages sometime in 1996. The amazing wayback machine doesn't quite go way back enough - but here is it's earliest recorded IAS lab web page from April 1997.