Cooperative species

A friend and I were passing by a tennis court the other day, where people were happily playing tennis together. It struck me in that moment how prevalent it is for people to enjoy each others’ company through competitive activities.

Certainly this is not true for all shared activities, but it tends to be true for many of the more active ones. I wondered out loud whether there could be a sentient species who would find such a way of spending time completely incomprehensible — who might even find such behavior downright psychotic.

In other words, could a species evolve intelligence without ever evolving a sense of pleasure in competing with other members of their own species? Or is such a species impossible on first principles?

My friend pointed out, quite sensibly, that puppies and children compete with each other as a way to grow their skills. There is clear survival value in learning through competition.

But that didn’t completely satisfy me. That merely shows that competition is one successful paradigm for evolution. It doesn’t show that competition is necessary for all possible successful paths of evolution.

I found myself positing a species that is more like The Borg from STTNG. In such a species, individuals might be physically separate beings, yet possess a kind of communication that to us would seem like telepathy, like cooperating cells in a single organism. The evolutionary advantage possessed by such creatures would be linked to an inherent quality of cooperation, somewhat the way the tentacles of an octopus always cooperate with each other, even when they are engaged in disparate subtasks.

That still doesn’t mean that evolution of this kind of intelligent species is possible. There could be sound evolutionary reasons why it is not possible. But for now, it seems at least plausible.

Museum of Museums

Today in the NY Times I read a fascinating article about a Museum of Failures. Focusing on such failed products as the Segway, Google Glass, and Harley Davidson perfume, the museum takes a look at objects aimed at consumers that did not meet expectations.

One paragraph in the article, a quote from the founder of the museum, jumped out at me:

Dr. West said the idea for the museum dawned on him when he visited the Museum of Broken Relationships. “I couldn’t believe they had a Museum of Broken Relationships,” he said. “Then I decided I had to get busy with my Museum of Failure.”

My immediate thought upon reading this paragraph was, why not go meta? Given the vast variety of museums out there, shouldn’t there be a museum of museums?

Now that we have virtual and mixed reality, we can totally do this. In one physical location, you can embark on a journey to everything from a museum of Himalayan art to a museum of Natural History to a museum of Sex to a museum of Broken Relationships.

The museum of museums would be the ultimate museum. Isn’t it about time we created this?

Tiny people standing on your desk

One of the salient features of physical interaction between humans is that we all expect each other to be roughly the same size. Between you and the person you are talking to, there might be a height difference of as much as a factor of two, but just about never more than that, and usually much less.

We are not physically co-present with people with whom we are speaking on the phone, or texting, or exchanging email. Yet we still retain a mental picture of them as being more or less “human sized”.

But with the advent of ubiquitous mixed reality, there will be no intrinsic reason why people need to appear to each other at their natural scale. If you show up on my desk for a brief virtual chat, it might turn out to be convenient for me to see you as a miniature version of yourself, whilst I might appear to you as a giant version of myself against the sky.

Technically, there would be no impediment to this mode of interaction, and there might be some practical advantages. As a tiny person, you could show me a dance sequence, or a walk a path through a proposed architectural space. As a giant person, I could draw some choreography on your floor, or arrange some lights or cloud cover for you.

The more you think about it, the more different practical uses suggest themselves for people adopting asymmetric scales when interacting virtually. But would people accept such arrangements, on a social and psychological level?

My guess is yes. After all, you regularly go to movies where you see the faces of your favorite actors at enormously large scales. And when you turn on the TV, you see those same actors looking very small indeed.

So it would appear that you are already good at dealing with people who have been virtually rescaled. It’s just that soon they may be showing up as tiny people standing on your desk, or as giants, peering into your window.

Lisa Sonata

I went out this evening to watch the new Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a really fun movie if all you are expecting is a Guardians of the Galaxy movie.

Before the previews they have all those annoying advertisements that nobody likes, but we all have to sit through anyway. Of course nobody pays attention to the advertisements, so we all spend that time talking with the friends we came with.

At one point there was a Hyundai commercial that, like everyone else, I wasn’t paying any attention to. But in the periphery of my attention I happened to catch a glimpse of a name.

I turned to my friend and said “Did they just say Lisa Sonata? Who is Lisa Sonata?” I kept trying to figure out why that name sounded so familiar.

And then a beat later it occurred to me — this is a Hyundai car commercial. They weren’t actually talking about someone named Lisa Sonata, it just sounded like that.

OK then. Lisa, wherever you are, you can rest assured that people aren’t actually talking about you in pre-movie advertisements.


So many anniversaries! Yesterday Star Wars turned 40, and today Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turns 50 — at least in the U.K.

It’s strange to feel the tug of these cultural milestones from the past, and to ponder how powerfully their long reach continues to resonate. Film as a medium of popular entertainment fundamentally changed with the release of Star Wars.

And of course rock and roll was fundamentally altered the moment the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper. From the perspective of today, it’s almost hard to imagine the world that had existed before.

Before May 26, 1967, rock was just silly kid’s music, without any cultural caché. Then, in one fell swoop, it entered the pantheon of the Arts, alongside theatre, cinema, painting and opera.

Kind of cool, when you think about it.


I hadn’t posted about the recent horrific events in Manchester because I needed time to process. It’s hard to conceive of something so monstrous as what ISIS is up to here: Deliberately killing little children to provoke your “enemy” into an escalated military response.

I think everyone on this side of the sanity divide is aware of this agenda, and of the need to avoid blindly playing into it. But when I think about the terrible tragedy of little children being sacrificed for political ends, I can’t help thinking of our own country.

On a far greater scale, the Trump budget is also targeting little children. If this monstrous budget were to actually pass, a very large number of American children would die of avoidable disease, because they would no longer have access to adequate health care. Also, under this budget, many American children would start to die slowly of inadequate nutrition.

As horrific as it was, the brutal attack by ISIS succeeded in killing or harming a relatively small number of innocent children. When someone does that, people call it a crime against humanity.

The Trump domestic budget, if passed, would kill or harm a vastly larger number of innocent children. When someone does that, people call it politics.

Theoretical limits of human intelligence

People today live longer than at any previous time in history. They can run faster, jump higher, and perform all sorts of feats that would have been thought incredible during earlier epochs.

Yet nobody has ever lived much beyond the age of 120 (122 is in fact the recorded limit), and nobody can jump 20 feet up in the air. In other words, there are limits.

I suspect there are similar limits on the potential of human intelligence. After all, the brain is a biological organ. As astonishing as it is, it is not infinite.

But what are those limits, at their theoretical extreme? And how would we ever know if we have reached those limits? What, exactly, is the intellectual equivalent of living to the ripe old age of 122?