Computer Meltdown

2013-02-03 12.43.11

If you’ve been working with a personal computer for any length of time in your home or office, (and I think it’s safe to say most everyone has at least some experience in this regard) or even if you’ve just heard other people talking about them, you may have heard them use the term “meltdown” at some point. It’s kind of a catch-all phrase for when the darn thing stops working right in the middle of some important work you are trying to complete, or when it simply won’t start at all. If you’ve ever lost important data or media files you’ve been storing on a desktop computer, this can be enormously frustrating, and most often, it motivates us to begin a regimen of making backup file storage of one sort or another. There are all sorts of ways to accomplish this, with a variety of “cloud storage” options, as well as data storage on discs and thumb-drives, or even just a portable hard drive that you keep in a separate location. In one particular case recently, I received a request from friends of mine to help with a computer meltdown of a very different sort.

2013-02-03 12.45.15

Imagine being awakened in the middle of the night by a fireman standing in your bedroom telling you that your house is on fire. Just the thought of it gives me the shakes, but it happened to my friends a few weeks ago. Everyone is fine and there were no injuries, and the story seems to be unfolding toward recovery well enough. There was insurance on the house and its contents and they are safely moved in to a rental house nearby, and are receiving assistance from family and friends. They were very lucky in important ways.

When I offered my help, it began with clothing and groceries and the comforting of friends, but a few days ago, they asked if I thought I might be able to recover the data off their desktop computer. It had been sitting on a desk in the living room, and was exposed to what the firemen described as “about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit” temperatures at the height of the fire. I was skeptical from their description of the condition of the computer, but agreed to give it a try anyway.

fried electric board

When I finally got a look at the inside of the scorched electric panels and melted plastic pieces and roasted transistors, I was even less optimistic that anything might still be retrievable from the meltdown, but I pulled the hard drive out and installed it in an old desktop in my family room and to my surprise, it booted up and revealed that all of the contents were still quite intact!

The “brains” of the computer were fried beyond recovery, and my hands were filthy after poking around inside the blackened innards of the fried computer, but the smile on the faces of my friends….that was priceless!

The Abundance of Life and Love

earth from space

Recently in email I received a link to a video that presented a poem by Kate Nowak called, “May You Be Blessed.” It’s a very nice sentiment expressed in the poem, and her efforts have been re-posted quite often. I couldn’t help admiring her idea, but I really felt like it needed a response. Here is the poem and the link to the video on YouTube:

May You Be Blessed by Kate Nowak

May you be blessed
with all things good
May your joys
like the stars at night
be too numerous to count
May your victories
be more abundant
than all the grains of sand
on all the beaches
on all the oceans
in all the world
May lack and struggle
be always only serve
to make you stronger
and may beauty order
and abundance
be your constant companions
May every pathway you choose
lead to that which is pure
and good and lovely
May every doubt and fear
be replaced by a deep abiding trust
as you behold evidence
of a Higher Power
all around you
And when there is
only darkness
and the storms of life are closing in
May the light
at the core of your being
illuminate the world
May you always be aware
you are loved beyond measure
and may you be willing to
love unconditionally in return
May you always feel protected
and cradled
in the arms of God
like the cherished child you are
And when you are tempted
to judge may you be
reminded that we are ALL ONE
and that every thought you think
reverberates across the universe
touching everyone and everything
And when you
are tempted to hold back
may you remember that love flows best
when it flows freely
and it is in
giving that we receive
the greatest gift
May you always have music and laughter
and may a rainbow
follow every storm
May gladness wash away
every disappointment
may joy dissolve every sorrow
and may love ease every pain
May every wound bring wisdom
and every trial bring triumph
and with each passing day
may you live more abundantly
than the day before
May you be blessed
And may others
be blessed by you
This is my heartfelt wish for you
May you be blessed


There is much to admire in what Kate wrote here, but it seemed to me that her thoughts didn’t go quite far enough, and needed some additional thinking. After a fair amount of thought on what she wrote, I penned this response:


May you share in the abundance of all that is good, and feel compelled to share your portion, whatever it is, with others.

May you know joy often and well, and when sorrow finds you, understand that it finds us all in one way or another; it’s simply a matter of degree.

Don’t attempt to compare the portions of joy or sorrow in your life to anyone else’s. We earn it sometimes, and at other times it just arrives unannounced. Be glad for what joy may come, and don’t allow what sorrow may come to prevent the return to joy in due time.

Know that every path we choose is simply the path we choose—nothing more or less. What happens along that path depends on who we are as we navigate through it. It is not the path which forms us; it is the form we inhabit as we walk the path that leads us as we go.

When diverted from our path by circumstances beyond our control, it is best to direct our attention to the task of finding our way back as soon as possible. Once we return to the path of our own choosing, we should look forward to the road ahead, and focus on every step we take in the moment it is taken.

Doubt and fear are the result of uncertainty within us and facing the unknown outside of us. As the only known species with the capacity for the higher cognitive tasks of imagination, intuition, and abstract thinking, we have the singular privilege of entertaining doubt. Don’t waste it!

Doubt is a necessary prerequisite to wisdom, and drives us to search with vigor to uncover the truth. It cannot be eliminated in a single lifetime, but it can be diminished when we seek in earnest to move forward with a firm belief in the value of our individual life, recognizing that each of us has a contribution to make to the unfolding of life everywhere.

If we can observe the beauty, order, and abundance all around us in nature, with all its intricate nuances and sweeping natural vistas, and not conclude that it is a consequence of something much greater than ourselves, we cannot hope to discover the source of that beauty, order, and abundance.

It is through giving love unconditionally that we open ourselves enough to receive love in return, and it is through the creation of the universe that everything and everyone we know and love came into existence in the first place. However you wish to describe the source of all creation, the opening of the universe in the act of creation, and our very existence as human beings, is the result of the most unconditionally loving gesture ever made. Sharing our love, in all its various forms, with every living entity in creation, is simply giving back what was unconditionally opened for us.

Life is an expression and manifestation of creation, and while the whole range of existence includes all the pairs of opposites and everything in between, we can either embrace both the darkness and the light, or choose to limit ourselves to a narrow band of the spectrum of life. Every life, whether it lasts a few moments, a few years, or a hundred years, is not measured well by how it is spent, but most clearly by how it is earned.

May you be blessed to know the broad range of what life can be, and share as much as you can of what you experience in life with as many others as may be possible during your time on Earth.

May you be blessed, and may others be blessed by you.

John J. Hyland January 2013

Hurricane Update 2PM

It’s Monday afternoon here now and the storm has begun to show its effects. The satellite image above looks ominous in revealing the magnitude of this storm, and we are continuing to track the storm for as long as the power holds out. We have several mobile devices in the house, although we expect even they might not be fully functional at the height of the storm, which is projected to be later tonight and into Tuesday morning. If the mobile networks hold out, I will try to post as possible. We are hunkered down here and hope that all our preparations will carry us through. It has been raining fairly steady most of the morning, but the wind seems to be picking up now and overnight last night the leaves seem to have mostly fallen out of the trees in the front and back yards.

Water has already begun to accumulate in front of our garage. I’m guessing later on today the photos will look much different:

Unfortunately, we may have to endure the bulk of the strongest part of the storm in the dark, as it is projected to peak sometime after 8PM. As I am able, I will report on our progress, and keep you updated.

It appears that I will have plenty of time for reading by lantern light and I’m hoping that the experience will produce something of interest to my readers.

…fingers crossed…..

First things first…

Patrice, my good friend and kindred spirit at “The Heartbreak of Invention,” asked me to join in on this revealing look at personal “firsts,” inspired by one of her fellow bloggers, and in the spirit of friendship I offer this humorous look at some of my own firsts.  Enjoy!

First Girlfriend:  My first efforts at attracting what might charitably be described as a “girlfriend,” were so meager and tentative, that I really wouldn’t feel right putting any young woman in such a category until I reached high school, in which case I would have to say a wonderful young woman in my freshman year named Joan certainly qualified.  We met shortly after the school year began, and before long we had kissed and said, “I love you,” to each other, and were inseparable for quite a while.  I was so inexperienced as a “boyfriend,” that when I started to notice other girls, I couldn’t hang on long enough to make it work, and it ended badly for us both.  She married another guy years later and wrote to me that while it wasn’t the same “head-over-heels” kind of relationship that we had together, it was definitely better.  So much for my beginnings on the relationship road.

First Person I kissed:  A while before I met Joan, I was participating in one of the “after school” activities in my freshman year, and was cornered by a young woman who clearly had been “dared” to attempt it.  We were backstage in the auditorium, and she ran up to me, wrapped us both up in the curtains, and kissed me squarely on the lips, quite unexpectedly.

First Job: I was a porter at Dunkin’ Donuts at the age of 15, after school and then during the summer.  The manager was a wonderful man with an artificial leg with whom I would have “donut fights,” with the donuts we had to throw away at the end of the shift.

First Pay/What did I buy:  My first ever paycheck went straight into the bank in a savings account (per parental decree), but when I was finally allowed to actually buy something with my own money, I bought my first set of genuine artist’s watercolor paints and several high quality brushes in preparation for my summer art classes. (age 16)

First CD I recall buying:  It’s always funny to think of CD’s as the only way of buying music these days, because my first ever purchase of music was a 45 (record) by B.J.Thomas called, “Hooked On A Feeling,” which I played so many times it eventually became unplayable.  My first purchase of an album, which was an LP (record) was Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s “Trilogy.”  In between LP’s and CD’s were cassette tapes, and my first cassette purchase was “Yessongs,” by the progressive rock group, “YES.”  My first actual CD purchase when they became available was “Abbey Road,” by the Beatles.

What Age Was I When I Moved From My Parent’s Home:   I enlisted in the US Army at the ripe old age of 20 and never went back for more than a few weeks after that except for the summer after I got out of the military when I spent the whole summer with my parents down the shore in Brigantine, NJ.

First Holiday Abroad:  When I completed my military training, I was assigned to the Federal Republic of Germany, and only two weeks after arriving in that country, I spent a week in Munich, and attended the Oktoberfest.  Not only was it my first ever visit to another country, but one of the most amazing international celebrations imaginable.  I met people from all over the world, and discovered what might possibly be the biggest and best beer party in the whole world.

OK….and now I will pass this Memes:First challenge to   who is one of my favorite young writers here at and who might have some fun firsts to share, and also to  who is a wonderfully talented writer and teacher of English in the Philippines who inspires me with her drive to enhance her skills in all areas of language.

Madness and the Demise of Common Sense

painting by untitled blue on flickr – Acrylic on 4 Canvas: 125x90cm

On a recent errand to acquire a bottle of aspirin from the neighborhood drug store, (never actually having set foot in the place previously,) as I walked through the door, I was immediately seized by an overwhelming desire to check the sign out front again to make sure I entered the right building! What I assumed was a place to buy medicine and health care products now appeared to be a Wal-Mart. Looking around briefly, I was tempted to ask directions to the pharmacy. Refusing to be intimidated, I walked past the lawn chairs, gift wrapping, housewares, videos, toys, and food, eventually ending up in the part of the store where one could find over-the-counter medicine. After a minute or two of further searching, I ended up in the aisle containing aspirin.

Easily forty feet long, what looked like a row in an aspirin warehouse contained hundreds of boxes of analgesics, with innumerable varieties of additives designed for every contingency of illness, except perhaps for the anxiety produced by too many choices.

Mike Kemp/Getty Images

Finding a particular brand, if you knew which one you wanted, was only marginally easier than deciding on a brand if you didn’t know. Cost-conscious consumers would have it a little easier, only having to choose amongst the generic versions of every brand name, knocking the search down by half. At that point you need only narrow your selection to small, medium, or large bottle; liquid or gel-tabs; chewable or time-release capsules; coated or plain. If you read labels you may have to spend the night! Of course, this is possible since the store is open twenty-four hours a day. What led to this madness? How did we get diverted from the relative simplicity of life a hundred years ago, to the virtually limitless chaos of modern life?

Common sense, long ago revered as the most important form of everyday reasoning, seems to have all but vanished from modern life in the 21st century. So diverse are we that finding something in common with even most of us may be unreachable. Ask people what is meant by common sense, and you will inevitably get no consensus. In a very unscientific survey of a dozen diverse men and women in different departments of my own workplace produced twelve remarkably different responses. Here are the results of my short survey:

1. What ought to be obvious and sensible to a majority of individuals.
2. The innate ability to reason and find the easiest and most efficient way.
3. What you know instinctively to be the right way to do something.
4. Going along with the norms of society.
5. The ability to think without external guidelines.
6. Knowing right from wrong.
7. The golden rule. Don’t do to someone else what you wouldn’t do to yourself.
8. Popular opinion
9. The ability to handle life situations and react in a logical, thoughtful process.
10. Native intelligence.
11. Levelheadedness.
12. The understanding of logic.

Unable to find agreement among my contemporaries, I sought out some definitions from established sources. Webster’s dictionary defined it as “sound practical judgment not based on reasoning or special knowledge.” Ralph Waldo Emerson described it as “Genius dressed in its working clothes,” and “the shortest line between two points.” In an essay for the first issue of the Atlantic Monthly in 1857, Oliver Wendell Holmes related a criticism of an old gentleman, responding to a statement Holmes had made, which the gentleman said made him sound, “like a transcendentalist,” and proclaimed that “for his part, common sense was good enough for him.” Holmes then replied, “Precisely so, my dear sir, common sense as you understand it.”

Perhaps the most famous pamphlet in American history was the one entitled, “Common Sense,” published in January of 1776 and written by Thomas Paine advocating a “Declaration for Independence,” by the American colonies. In it, Paine asserted that “the more formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason.” He summed up his view on common sense in this way:

“Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they would frequently form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matter.”

It was a very different world in which Mr. Paine announced his essential description of common sense, and who actually qualified as”wise and able men” is unknown. However, even a brief examination of life in the colonial era shows how the word “common” applied. Life in colonial America was difficult. Many people lost their lives while attempting to adapt to frontier conditions. Compared to our modern standards of scheduled working hours, vacations, and leisure time, the colonist’s lives were bleak and tedious. They worked from dawn to dusk and could not restrict their work to any set number of hours. The needs of simply existing required constant effort. The family unit was paramount, spending time with each other in a way that is virtually unknown today. Most people had so much in common, that “sensible” almost always translated into “self-evident.” These days, we appear to have so little in common that what could be called common before, not longer seems possible.

Recent quantum leaps in the availability of information technology have resulted in an overwhelming volume of possible avenues to explore, presenting an entirely new problem to challenge the survival skills of modern humans. With this landslide of technology, we seem find ourselves slowly being buried under the weight of every new development, and its accompanying library of information. Take a look at any computer or science magazine these days and you will notice a great deal of shouting going on about the latest technological leap. Wizardry that makes Merlin’s magic pale by comparison is now routine. Our mass media is replete with spectacular showcases of special effects and futuristic fanfares designed to dazzle and delight, and anything that does not contain these elements, regardless of its significance, seems to end up somewhere between invisible and absent.

State-of-the-art technologies in the real world, such as those responsible for the Hubble Space Telescope, the Space Shuttle, satellite communications, and the many breakthroughs of modern medical science have long term, permanent, and profound consequences for all of humanity. Already, in the short time it has taken to develop these bodies of knowledge, we have been faced with serious moral and ethical questions. As the pace accelerates, so too does the necessity to search deeper within ourselves for the wisdom to create appropriate responses to them. As we expand our horizons, we expand our understanding, and acquire the raw materials for enlightened social change. We will not be defined so much by the new technologies of the future as we will by our thoughtful and intelligent use of them. Before we plunge headlong into the new and spectacular, we need to be better prepared for the challenges they will present.

Before the greatest ballerina gives her greatest performance, she hones her skills, relentlessly practices her routines, and labors endlessly to be the best she can be. Buying a bottle of aspirin, by comparison, should not require quite as much work. We must find a way to shift our concentration from consumerism and razzle-dazzle, to the urgency to prepare like the great ballerina, for the most important performance in history–our future survival as human beings.

The Versatile Blogger Award

Many thanks to for including me on her list of fifteen bloggers here at for being…well…versatile. describes the word “versatile” like this:

[vur-suh-tl or, especially Brit., -tahyl] – adjective

1. Capable of or adapted for turning easily from one to another of various tasks, fields of endeavor, etc.: e.g. – a versatile writer

Based on that description, it sounds like being versatile is a good idea, and anyone who has read Patrice’s blog knows that she is an enormously talented and versatile writer. No mystery there. Her narratives are not only superbly written, heartfelt, and passionate, but they also reveal the character of her personal humanity, which is loving and generous and compassionate. Anyone who is NOT affected by her writing is simply not paying attention.

The person who is “Patrice the Writer,” is courageous and bold and articulate and astonishingly refreshing in her unique approach–one that I aspire to emulate. “Patrice the Person,” is someone that I admire greatly and I am especially glad to share the planet with her. Patrice has been generous in her characterization of my blog as being worthy of the attention of others, and I am grateful for her support and encouragement, but I actually think she simply enjoys tormenting me, as her brothers did to her growing up. Thankfully her approach to the task does not include spit, but even without the inclusion of spit in her method, I too have developed a deep and abiding fondness for her.

There are a few conditions for this award:

1. In a post on your, blog, nominate 15 fellow bloggers for The Versatile Blogger Award.
2. In the same post, Add the Versatile Blogger Award.
3. In the same post, thank the blogger who nominated you in a post with a link back to their blog.
4. In the same post, share 7 completely random pieces of information about yourself.
5. In the same post, include this set of rules.
6. Inform each nominated blogger of their nomination by posting a comment on each of their blogs.

7 random things about me

1. Although you probably wouldn’t even notice me in a crowd, in small groups I seem to be taller than just about everyone. (6 ‘ 3”)
2. I lived in Germany for two years in the late 1970’s.
3. I was the biggest baby my mom had out of eight children. (middle child)
4. Camping in the forests and mountains is my favorite vacation choice.
5. When I was in high school, I fell thirty feet off of a painter’s scaffold to the wooden floor in the gymnasium while hanging decorations for a dance.
6. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s I hosted a poetry discussion group on
7. When I was in college I met and conversed with Truman Capote.

These blogs all have something to offer beyond the average…Enjoy! – Life and love on the road in America – In her own words, “a wanna-be writer with an offbeat personality and social skills bordering on esoteric.” – Gideon Jagged is a novelist, essayist and all-round smart guy. – A new voice on the scene with fresh insights – A pop culture wiz with a keen sense of style – His goal is simple, to get you to think. Whether you agree or disagree is irrelevant – living a full life isn’t about having possessions, it’s about gaining and maintaining human connections. – Striving every day to make her dreams come true, and never forgetting the dreams that got her there in the first place. – a group of 26 of the brightest futures, ranging in ages from 18-29, write REVERSE self-letters, as in their future-self (their age advanced 20-30 years) writes them, their present-self reads them. – a woman with a passion for art currently working at the bottom of the food chain in the fashion industry. – Gaming, media, technology, and philosophy. – Amazing photography and a deeply spiritual philosophy – Great blog about books and Libraries and everything literary – a totally unique graphic comic blog – everything you could possibly want to know about negotiating

Nostalgia and the Future of Humanity

Some years ago, I photographed Roy Rogers at a meet and greet in New Jersey. A friend of mine recently forwarded an email which reflected on some of the television characters from our childhood years, like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Sky King and Superman and Sgt. Friday, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers, and Captain Noah, and “all those people from children’s television in the 1950’s whose lives touched ours, and made them better.” Nostalgia for those years afflicts many of us “baby boomers,” who remember fondly those years when there were great television heroes during our childhood, who tried to teach us right from wrong, and “how to have and show respect for each other and the animals that share this earth.”

As a result of the invention of television, “we were able to grow up with these great people even if we never met them. In their own way they taught us patriotism and honor, we learned that lying and cheating were bad, and sex wasn’t as important as love. We learned how to suffer through disappointment and failure and work through it. Our lives were drug free.”

While these inferences strike a chord with just about everyone over fifty, there is a deeper issue which many of these nostalgic messages seem to miss. These reminders of life during what now seems like a time of innocence and uncomplicated choices, while they evoke a genuine charm and sense of delight, are actually a result of us remembering, not so much the charming particulars from our daily lives, but rather how the experience of those events and pleasures made us feel, and how they compare to our lives today.

The emphasis generally centers on our fondest memories, and neglects the accompanying difficulties and trials of those times. We lament the passing of simpler times and uncomplicated lifestyles, and yet those times contained many of the same charms and delights that exist in our lives today. We just have to look a little harder because our youthful perspectives have become obscured by maturity and balanced by adversity.

Sorbonne-neighborhood bookstore by treviño – Flickr – Photo Sharing!

A good illustration of how life has changed over the years can be found by reviewing a recent column by Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, which expressed sadness about the loss of the neighborhood bookstores to the much more economical and less complicated practice of ordering books online at places like In much the same frame of mind as many of us who cherish the experience of walking amongst the rows of freshly printed pages and browsing our favorite sections, inhaling the scent of new books and cappuccinos, and thumbing through our cherished, secret, and silent worlds, Mr. Fisher’s lament struck such a chord with me that I emailed him expressing my empathy and agreement.

Not even thirty years ago, I wrote to Darryl Sifford of the Philadelphia Inquirer about a column he wrote, which I typed on a manual typewriter and sent to him in an envelope with a stamp. A week later, he responded with a nice note which he also typed on a manual typewriter and mailed to me. I sent my email to Marc Fisher by clicking “send” on my “Hotmail homepage” with my “mouse” at 5:58 PM and received his response at 6:04 PM, just six minutes later!

I’m guessing that our children or grandchildren will be sending each other some kind of “Holographic Laser Visual Message,” remembering how quaint it used to be to type an email on a keyboard, and rather than calling older folks “older than dirt,” they may end up calling each other “older than silicon” or something.

Humanity has begun to evolve less through natural selection and more toward artificial selection as a result of the quantum leaps in new technologies, and as with most circumstances that result from radical changes, those who are able to adapt seem to fare better than those who either cannot or will not embrace the inevitable changes that adaptation demands.

However, what we cannot do is to lose sight of what lies at the core of our humanity. No matter what evolution may require of us as temporal beings in order to adapt and survive, within us and all around us, there is a unity of all living things which connects us to each other and the wider universe.

Jonas Salk, the great pioneer of the polio vaccine, once wrote that “Evolution is no longer a case of survival of the fittest, but rather one of survival of the wisest.” We are now entering one of the most important epochs for our species, and we must find a way to bring humanity together, without sacrificing the hard-won progress of our ancestors that brought us this far. There were many great aspects of our childhood that are no longer existent in the same way today, but the promise of the future, represented by our children and our grandchildren is even more important to consider as we evolve in the centuries to come.

Conscious Machines?

One of the most compelling forces behind much of my writing also happens to be one of the most important reasons why we should question the current wisdom of the modern study of human consciousness. Aside from acknowledging the central role that consciousness plays in our existence and the nearly complete lack of comprehension of its nature generally, the repeated encounter with individuals who feel confident that the subjective experience of consciousness is a product of brain function only, virtually screams for a dissenting voice in the world.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the completely reasonable disparity in the thinking which surrounds the controversial nature of the subject matter. Throughout human history, many of the most important issues of the day usually find a variety of human beings landing on opposite ends (and in every variation in between) of the whole spectrum of human thought regarding everything from what constitutes reality to morality and ethics. Diversity of thought in the realm of public discourse on most any subject will eventually result in some sort of consensus in the long run, and while I would not discourage discussion on any genuine attempt to describe the nature of our very human existence, to describe neurobiologists as “interested in how brains give rise to subjective experience,” as an article in the June issue of Scientific American did, immediately raised every hair on the back of my neck.

According to the article, “A Test for Consciousness,” by Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi, in the June 2011 issue, “The unified nature of consciousness stems from a multitude of interactions among relevant parts of your brain.” The writers go to elaborate lengths to justify this premise, none of which, in my view, even come close to convincing the reader that consciousness can be so easily explained away.

Part of the problem with judging as to whether or not a machine can be “conscious” lies in the difficulty we currently encounter when we attempt to confirm this same condition in other sentient beings. We experience conscious states vividly in our own day-to-day existence, but can only “infer” conscious states in others through observations and interactions with them. We cannot know with absolute certainty what others are experiencing, precisely because of the nature of conscious awareness. Even when conscious awareness was finally possible for the early humans, they did not immediately spring into functional consciousness. Even with the advantage of being able to “load” information into a machine, which is still a fairly lengthy process for humans needing years of learning, there are very few shortcuts available for accumulating experience, which is the real game changer.

In the postings to come, I will attempt to elaborate on this theme from a variety of viewpoints, and encourage anyone reading who is genuinely interested in the subject, (is anyone reading?) to ask questions or comment as I cover this ground.

Human Intelligence, Computers, and Consciousness

Vitruvian Man

Conventional wisdom these days isn’t much help when we look ahead to the future of life on earth, since life is fairly unconventional these days by most reckonings, and even what might previously have been described as common sense hardly seems common at all anymore. If there is any consolation to the currently prevailing uncertainty of it all, it is that with so much uncertainty there’s still a chance it might all turn out okay. That doesn’t sound like much of a chance until you consider the alternatives which include a clearly downward spiral toward the abyss.

Life itself arose in our little corner of a minor galaxy in an astonishing confluence of matter and energy and environment in our solar system, but took billions of years to produce significant results of the sort that permitted intelligent life to unfold. Once established, intelligent life progressed rapidly by comparison, and we see human progress increasing exponentially as the years pass.

When you consider the unlikely way in which life itself sprang into existence on Earth, our own uncertainty in the 21st century starts to look far less daunting. In the earliest epoch of humanity, the first truly useful and meaningful awareness of human consciousness in our ancient ancestors could only have appeared once the hominid brain finally possessed the necessary prerequisites for cognition and awareness. No matter when the architecture of the brain and the physiological structures within the body finally became mature enough to allow heightened sense perception and cognition, possession of these talents alone could not have produced significant results right away, and consciousness must have taken an enormous amount of time to develop into a recognizable phenomenon.

One can see in the parallel of our modern development from human babies to functional adults, that the ability to utilize the brains’ miraculous capacities requires an accumulation of knowledge and experience over many years before becoming notably useful beyond basic skills. Modern children normally have the advantage of being surrounded by already functional and accomplished human beings with a fully developed language and plenty of knowledge and experience from which to learn. For our ancient ancestors, who were starting from scratch, there was no such advantage. Of course, increased intelligence isn’t necessarily a harbinger of good news for humanity.

A recent article in Time magazine expresses this idea well. Ray Kurzweil’s predictions of what has been described as the “singularity” (Time magazine, February 21,2011, pg. 42), “n: The moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history,” points to a sort of tipping point in the progress of artificial intelligence. According to this theory, by 2023 computers will surpass human brainpower, and by 2045 they will possess “super intelligence,” or brainpower “…equivalent to that of all human brains combined.

While the author of this article, Lev Grossman, admits that such a “Singularity appears to be, on the face of it, preposterous, he also believes that “…it’s an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.” The problem for me, aside from equating artificial intelligence with the human variety, is his assertion that when “All that horsepower could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is that our brains are doing when they create consciousness…then all bets are off.

It always intrigues me when so-called “experts” attempt to simplify “human consciousness” as being some sort of evolutionary adaptation easily explained by brain physiology or cognitive functioning. It’s a “no-brainer” that our development of a complex and integrative cerebral cortex gave us access to a level of cognitive function (as yet unmatched by any other species to our knowledge) that permits an exceptionally keen awareness of BEING conscious, but consciousness itself is a much larger and expansive subject than brain physiology or cognitive science and any attempt to explain consciousness in a comprehensive sense clearly requires a much broader understanding.

I recently encountered the writings of Julian Jaynes, a Princeton professor who wrote extensively about the origins of consciousness in humans, and his theory posits that humans did not immediately develop into conscious creatures fully until around 2 B.C. when a fully developed “metaphorical language” provided the necessary requisites for the achievement of a fully functional human consciousness.

There can be no doubt that our awareness required the development of metaphorical language for our apprehension of consciousness to be expressed, and for meaningful thought to formulate ideas and concepts necessary for recognition of the existence of consciousness, but it seems much more likely that consciousness exists as a “fundamental feature” (Chalmers) of existence and that, as consciously aware creatures, we are “aware” of consciousness in the same way that we are aware of electromagnetism.

Whatever sort of result comes from technological progress in artificial intelligence, what we will no doubt find, as we look toward the uncertain future, is that no matter how intelligent we or our machines become, no amount of fiddling or advanced technology will change the fundamental features of existence.

Pen and ink drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, showing how a man’s body fits into a circle and a square by adjusting the position of his arms and legs, called Vitruvian Man.

“Vitruvius was an ancient Roman architect who wrote a series of ten books on architecture – one of the few collections of books of its type that survived into the Renaissance. In the third volume, which is on the proportions of temples, he states that these buildings should be based on the proportions of man, because the human body is the model of perfection. He justifies this by stating that the human body with arms and legs extended fits into the perfect geometric forms, the circle, and the square. “– excerpt from article © Robert M. Place 2000

The Human Spirit

Twenty-five years ago, on January 28, 1986, the world lost seven of its best and brightest citizens when the space shuttle Challenger was destroyed as it launched into space. Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Christa McAuliffe, and Gregory Jarvis were lost when their spacecraft exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on that brisk January morning.

At that time, I had only recently begun to make contact with other personal computer users on a server which sponsored what was called a “bulletin board,” (BBS) which was a place where you could exchange ideas and post messages to others in “user groups.”

My computer at that time was a Commodore 64, and the user group was called, “The Computer Connection,” described on the introductory page as “a not-for-profit organization addressing educational interests of personal computer users.” You connected to the server by dialing the phone number, with the phone jack connected to a device called a “modem.” You could upload text files either directly or from a word processing program, and there were a number of “directories” containing files on all sorts of educational and recreational topics which you could download to your own computer.

Before long, I became engaged in several of the “conferences” which contained discussions on everything from personal computing to rock music. The one that caught my attention in the summer of 1985 was called the “Philo Conference,” which dealt with ideas in Philosophy, Science, and Religion, and how all three were related. As you might imagine, I immediately found myself posting messages and responding to queries posted by other users.

The person who ran the BBS, the “Sysop,” was the host of the Philo conference, and was a professor at Jefferson Medical College who divided his time between teaching and research in neuroscience and pharmacology. As it turned out, I was the first person to post a message in the Philo conference, since he had only just brought it online a short time before I came across it. We immediately began a vigorous discussion and enjoyed a rewarding friendship which lasted several years.

On January 20, 1986, I posted a message about a television show called, “Teacher in Space,” a documentary on NBC about Christa McAuliffe’s training and preparation for the shuttle launch. I speculated that we might be able to “take a trip into outer space as civilians by the year 2000.”

When the accident occurred, I wrote a message that night which expressed my inability to put into words, “the feelings evoked by the tragic loss of the seven astronauts,” and closed by saying how I thought we could “best honor (their) memories by achieving the goals of space travel in spite of the loss.” The sysop wrote in the only response that the astronauts were “space pioneers,” who valued the knowledge gained by space travel “enough to take the risks – they exemplify the best of the human spirit.”

He added in closing, “that spirit has characterized humanity from antiquity and it remains.”

In an article by Clara Moskowitz for, she quotes Barbara Morgan, who “later became the first educator astronaut to reach orbit:

“We can never predict the future, but we can help shape the future. And if we want that future to be bright and open-ended and be one of lifelong learning, we’ve got to keep reaching for the stars.”

Here is a link to the full article:

May we continue to remain open to the future, regardless of the risks.