Conway’s game of life

This is my third attempt at spontaneous writing. Prior writing this, I decided to publish all three pieces if this one works out too.

I peer outside the train window, staring at the marvellous tree and fauna growths whirling by at high speed. These structures emerged as the result of nature’s long running optimisation problem, a more complex version of Conway’s game of life with a richer set of rules operating over a multidimensional playing field. How these rules emerged remains a hotly contested topic, and in particular whether the rule set came about with a goal in mind, so to speak, with all the assumptions that this carries forth.

Let us, however, move away from the ever so infinite domain of universal purpose, and closer towards a higher level of abstraction. Thinking from the personal or societal viewpoint is often much more interesting and rewarding. Why should we not use nature’s methods to our advantage? There is plenty of interesting work in this area, notably the methods of so-called genetic algorithms. Amongst other applications, they have been used to optimise circuit board layouts, minimising the distance that signals need to travel between components, and so forth. This to me seems to be a modest utilisation of this “technology”. We need not look further than at the forests, jungles, and other ecosystems, that have been, and continue to be, created organically, aided by none other than their own self perpetuity.

This to me seems to be a far more efficient method of large scale construction (think towns and cities) than the ones we use today. For various reasons our species has decided to ditch the free version of environment construction over time. It started with simple alterations to the environment, which included the derivation of tools from natural resources. This grew more advanced with the advent of farming and land terraforming, until humanity decided that nature’s frameworks simply won’t cut it and turned to full-fledged concrete cities. City building requires a lot of labour and even more ancillary human resources besides construction itself, such transportation.

Reading back through this, I can think of many holes to poke through my arguments. Construction is much less manual than it used to be. The design patterns of architecture, as it were, which provide a high degree of mass production and replication are likely prevalent and in heavy use, particularly for large constructions. As you probably have realised by this point, my knowledge on building and architecture technologies is moot. My most faithful argument is this: I want this to happen simply because it’s beautiful! I want humanity to engineer its own self-perpetuating city builders, much like plants do. I want us to master the elusive equations of chaos and bend them to our will.

3d printers seem to be a good step in that direction.


The semantics of cause and effect

Owing to the nature of habit, I decided to continue my attempt at painting a Picasso by rolling paint onto a blank canvas as it comes.

As I walk down the street I see a lady carrying some flowers. It reminds me of the SMBC comic where an alien species describes humans decorating their homes with “plant genitals” – funny how that works out. I suppose that flowers evolved to look pretty and smell nice to humans, such that they (humans) readily contribute to the task of spreading their seed. This is much like how fruits work too – in exchange for the delicious nutrients they provide, they hope that the animal eating them swallows their seeds, hopefully defecating them in a fertile location. I wonder whether the fact that faeces make good fertiliser has anything to do with this..

A related interesting fact is that avocados have large seeds due to their evolution coinciding with larger sized animals. Human farmers then cultivated the plant in its current form, more or less, thus there was no evolutionary pressure on avocados to reduce the size of their seeds.

Returning to the subject of flowers, one may argue conversely that flowers smell and look nice because humans cultivated them to be so, i.e. through selective breeding. This distinction falls under the curious domain of conflating cause and effect. As an example of this, I am reminded of Lawrence Krauss mentioning this point in a talk hosted by Julia Galef, where he argues against the position of the earth being intimately suitable for life, suggesting instead that life evolved to be suitable for the environment it found itself in.

This topic of cause and effect is quite an interesting one. I wonder how one could define it formally, and whether these definitions are tied to a notion of chronological precedence, i.e. the event that occurs first is the cause, which I don’t find to be a satisfying definition. For one, it assumes that events are points on the timeline, whereas events actually span across intervals. Also, if it turns out that time is not a line but a multidimensional space, then we can no longer impose an ordering on events.

It is a difficult question I think, because it involves imposing a pragmatic level of abstraction to reason under. To make this idea clear consider the concept of gravitational force. According to Newton’s gravitational law, all objects pull on each other proportionally to the product of their masses. In this model, both (or perhaps neither one) of the objects can be said to have caused the other to be pulled towards it. If however we go up a few levels of abstraction we may well say that the earth’s gravity caused the apple to drop from the tree, but we normally wouldn’t say that the apple caused the earth to come closer to it. This semantic distinction is further confused by the fact that the apple detaches from the tree that was holding it (or was the apple holding the tree.. hmm).

This suggests that cause and effect may often be semantic definitions that are only relevant to explaining phenomena at a particular level of abstraction or model of human thought. I would not preclude the possibility of defining the semantics of this human-centric notion, though I do heartily acknowledge its difficulty.