Saturday 31 March 2018

#489 Life as a pool table - part 12

The acceleration of cultural evolution
In part 11, we saw how each robot had finally gained an identity and some understanding of its place within a small group thanks to language and cooperation becoming essential in the pursuit of food.

Experiences, which are like combinations of senses, can now be encoded using representations such as words, pictures, music and text. These representations can then be transferred between individuals and are therefore able to reproduce and evolve far faster than any of the robot's physical features, which require physical reproduction to be passed from one robot to another. Therefore, mechanically, the robots remain much the same over the next few thousand years, however a rapid evolution in culture and knowledge ensues, allowing each robot to expand its inner map of the world it inhabits.

The concept of emotions and emotional restraint
Back in part 10 when morality started to emerge through the game theory that governed the interactions of individuals, there was still mass violence in the robot world. The robots' emotions, being physiological responses to the sensation of significant events, made the robots prone to frequent aggressive outbursts which overrode the neural circuits which would otherwise help to determine their dominance or submission in the company of other robots.

Once the robots' brains develop sufficiently to accommodate the next level of awareness and the superego described in part 11, the tendency of each robot to comply with the will of the superego sufficiently to minimise violence within the group in which it inhabits becomes an inheritable feature. The superego acts as a moderator in this respect.

Friday 30 March 2018

#488 Life as a pool table - part 11

The concept of sweating
At around the same time that our robots start to talk, they find themselves living in a particularly hot part of the world. They're also now consuming large quantities of other lifeforms who inhabit the same area, rather than the dust they ate back in previous parts. To catch those lifeforms, they must chase them over long distances while working in small groups. Most animals have a tendency to overheat when running, therefore any developments that aid the robots' thermoregulation, such as sweating and hair loss, are inherited, as are any tendencies towards same-species cooperative behaviour. The robots become pack hunters, vanquishing their prey by running it to death over distances up to and exceeding fifty miles.

The concept of deliberate speech and the superego
The robots' new protein-rich diets fuel brain growth to the extent that they don't just sense sounds but they also sense that they sense them. Parts of their brains are now able to act upon this new level of sensory awareness and issue responses, creating basic group discussions. At the same time, individual identities are articulated within the groups, whose voices act as an external echo chamber for each individual's sense of self, while also comparing it and categorising it relative to the senses of selves of the other group members.

The relaying of the comparisons and categorisations back to the individual provide it with a superego in the form of stored memories, most of which the robot is unaware but which produce within the robot sensations that might conflict with what would otherwise be its own tendencies in certain situations.

At a biological level, the activity of neural circuits have been governing the status of individuals within local groups since somewhere between parts 8 and 9 but now each individual has more awareness of its own position.

The concept of cultural evolution
Back in part 1, we started out with an environment. A windy, dusty slate. Within that environment, the dust got blown around and started evolving. Now that the robots are able to communicate, we can focus on a whole new environment comprising the air through which their voices travel, as well as the mouths, ears and brains that create and process the sounds they make, translating them into thoughts and ideas and then back into words again.

In this new environment, new combinations of words and sequences of words representing ideas and sensations can evolve. Those that aid the robots in some way survive by being passed from robot to robot although there is also room in this new environment for words and ideas that do not benefit their hosts and yet will replicate nevertheless due to their own fitness within the environment, in the same way that the robots might not necessarily benefit the slate they walk on. They just have to leave it in good enough condition that they can continue walking on it.

To be continued

Thursday 29 March 2018

#487 Life as a pool table - part 10

This is the tenth post in a series that describes a thought experiment covering a simplistic emergence of what we might call conscious thought, from unconscious processes. I will start this tenth part by listing the concepts covered so far:

Death, growth, survival, mating, reproduction, light-sensitivity, eyes, sight, sight-related movement, inheritance, colour vision and increased freedom of movement, responsibility, robots, emergent properties, memory, decision-making, a sense of self, an ego, language.

The concept of morality
As the robots go about their business, they can't help but interact with one another repeatedly. Such interactions become an opportunity for trade, in the widest possible sense of the word. If a large and particularly strong robot were to meet every other robot only once, its optimum strategy for each encounter would be try to take advantage of the other robots to the point of destroying them. However because the interactions are repeated throughout the robot's life, cooperation becomes the most sensible strategy in order to reap continued benefits over time. Sensible is an appropriate word to use here because our robot doesn't yet understand its actions. It's reliant on its senses and memory as well as its inherited neurological circuits, which are by now sophisticated enough to act as another kind of memory that is passed between generations.

Obviously the robots aren't capable of thinking strategically, however it's at this stage that their morality develops. The juvenile robots will play together to learn movement coordination. When one robot is paired with another robot but the other robot is 10% bigger, that's enough to achieve dominance, so the bigger robot wins the first play-wrestling contest. 

What happens next is the subordinate robot has to come back and ask the larger robot to play again. However if the robots are paired repeatedly, they will continue to play only if the big robot lets the little robot win at least 30% of the time. Out of these interactions emerges an implicit morality among the robots even though they don't yet understand their own behaviour.

Wednesday 28 March 2018

#486 Life as a pool table - part 9

The concept of an ego
Let's imagine that as well as our robots reproducing, their cells reproduce too. In fact if I'd explained the development of the robot and its cells properly, this would be a given because we know that the robots is made of dust and we know that the dust reproduces (see previous parts). The addition of brain cells is generally useful to the robot insofar as they allow it to behave in more complex ways that aid its survival and reproduction, therefore they're inherited. We reach the stage where the robot has about 250,000 neurons, which is about as many as a fly.

We discussed previously how a slug could make a decision using just two neurons. With 250,000 neurons, things become more interesting. Our robot's brain can effectively decide to play a mini lottery inside its own head to determine which neurons respond, resulting in unpredictable outcomes. The reason for this is clear. If the robot behaved predictably then its predators (which we've never introduced but let's just say there are some) would have a much easier task of catching it.

The robot can now sense a lot more of what's going on both inside its own body and in the world around it. It also has a relatively good degree of decision-making ability, at least compared to a sea slug. Yet it has no intent or forethought. It doesn't know what it's doing. As outsiders, we can certainly explain its behaviour because in terms of our own understanding, the rationales for many of its decisions are clear but they're not at all clear to the robot.

The concept of language
The growth of the robot's brain continues. Having seen the robot acquire its senses in part 5, we know that it can hear sound. Assuming the robot has a mouth, a windpipe and some lungs, it's not much of a stretch to imagine that one or more robots might start to produce sounds that can be heard by itself and other robots. Such sounds are produced completely unwittingly and without any intention, yet they attract the attention of other robots, making it easier to find mates to reproduce with, which makes the ability to make sounds an inherited feature.

In our earliest population of dust balls, those that survived were the ones that rolled around most easily. That is to say, those that were most easily transferable from one place to another, the reason being that the quality of transferability increased the dust ball's chances of reproduction. The same is true of the robot's earliest spoken words. Without any intent or planning, those sounds that are most efficiently and effectively produced and transmitted to other robots are the ones that are in turn picked up and reproduced by those other robots. Still without understanding and without reason.

Tuesday 27 March 2018

#485 Life as a pool table - part 8

The concept of decision-making
So far we've been describing the development of robots from balls of dust. At present the robots don't have brains although they do have nerves and memory and are able to respond to stimuli. This puts them in the same league as jellyfish, which have around 6,000 neurons. In order to develop them further, we'll have to give them a basic brain, which will put them in the same league as slugs, which have around 20,000 neurons.

Slugs have often been used in brain studies because unlike humans, whose neurons are microscopic, the neurons of a slug can be up to a millimetre in length and can be seen with the naked eye. Studies have shown that inputs from as few as two neurons in a slug's brain are sometimes used in making a decision about how to pursue food. One neuron picks up and transmits a signal about how hungry the slug is and the other picks up and transmits a signal about how far away the food is. The two signals can then be sensed by the slug's brain. The brain is made up of six clusters of nerve cells, which mediate and moderate its reactions and bodily functions. In this case, some are used to sense the signals from the two neurons and will determine how much energy the slug uses in its pursuit of food versus other bodily activities. The more desperately the slug needs the food, the more energy will be allocated to its pursuit.

The concept of a sense of self
Having covered the principles of feature acquisition and development in previous parts, we can probably imagine how, bit by bit, our robot could acquire a basic slug-like brain. Does the robot have some sense of self? It's another yes and no answer. No because it wouldn't recognise itself in a mirror. Yes because when its brain makes a determination about how hungry it is, a part of the robot really is sensing another part of the same robot. When our dust ball first developed light sensitivity, it had no sense of self. All it could sense was a change in light or dark. It then responded to that change. However, when the robot's brain is checking to see if it is hungry, it's sensing a change in itself. It's sensing itself, in about the most basic way imaginable.

But it's not much of a sense of self. It pales in comparison to our own sense of self to so many orders of magnitude that I suspect many people would be disinclined to call it a sense of self or to make such a comparison at all. In any case, there are still more developments that we can make to our robot.

To be continued

Monday 26 March 2018

#484 Life as a pool table - part 7

When we left our dust robot, it had developed the ability to detect and pursue food but it was far from having what we might call a mind. How can we imagine that it develops such a thing?

The concept of memory
In order to give our robot a mind, we should probably give it some neurons and a nervous system. We essentially did this earlier in the thought experiment when we gave the dust ball a pebble that was reactive to light-sensitive particles and in response to their movements upon sensing light, pushed itself out to the edge of the ball to make it roll faster. Neurons, similarly, are tiny things that respond to a stimulus and transmit an impulse from one place to another. 

One of the most basic forms of memory found in nature is in a sea slug, which, when squirted with water for the first time, closes its gills but when squirted with water many times, eventually stops closing its gills. This is because a neuron can eventually transmit less impulse over time when exposed to the same stimulus. The reason for this is that neurons exist for the purpose of detecting a change in the environment but when that new change becomes the norm, it's no longer a change and so the neuron no longer needs to detect it. This is known as neural adaption. We've already explained in principle several times how a dust ball or robot can acquire useful features, so we don't now need to go through the laborious process of explaining how or why it acquires a memory. We can simply imagine that it acquires one.

An important distinction between types of reason
When I explained above that the reason for neural adaption was because neurons existed for the purpose of detecting environmental changes, I was intentionally lying to demonstrate how easy it is to imagine that a function was intelligently designed rather than that it evolved by natural selection. What actually happened was that for no reason other than a chance encounter, one day, one robot acquired something a bit like a neuron and it happened to benefit the robot so it became an inheritable feature. The fact that having a memory allows the robot to detect environmental changes is in actual fact, a consequence, not a reason.

So far, our robot can sense things and remember things. In order to develop its mind further, we'll have to give it some more functions.

To be continued

Sunday 25 March 2018

#483 Life as a pool table - part 6

The difficulty in explaining the evolution of mind
The idea that a mechanical robot can be created, or in this case become assembled and develop naturally over a long period of time might seem, if not plausible then at least imaginable, which is what I've tried to exemplify extremely crudely in parts 1 to 5.

The development of a mind however is much harder to imagine. The reason for this is that most people, myself included, have next to no detailed knowledge of how their mind works. I couldn't tell you off-hand, which clusters of my neurons and other bits of my brain are involved or even how they are involved, when I imagine eating ice cream, for example. I certainly don't feel or see those neurons doing their thing. I only have an imaginary experience that is somewhat analogous to eating ice cream. Also, strangely, I can imagine eating ice cream even if I'm out walking in the countryside where there's no ice cream. What's the point of that?

The reason for the evolution of mind
The point of the human mind is a good place to start when trying to explain it. We might not know how a dust robot could acquire a mind but we can certainly see how, if it managed such a feat, it would be helpful to its survival. For example, it could imagine future scenarios and start planning its actions in advance as well as imagining how the experience would feel. The more realistic the imagined experience, the more likely the robot would be to plan effectively. It might think to itself "I really feel like I'd better get this right!" and it would sense, using its senses, that the matter was important.

Comparing the evolution of the body with that of the mind
When I started writing this, I didn't know how a ball of dust could become a sophisticated robot. Instead, I took the basic features of the robot and one by one, tried to imagine how a simple dust ball could have interacted with its environment in ways that would lead to its acquisition of useful features one by one. Could we take the same approach with the dust robot's mind? We could have a go. But does that mean reducing the mind to little more than a bundle of neurons, dendrites, axons, electricity and water? No. The mind, or at least our experience of it, is much more than the sum of its parts.

The concept of emergent properties
An emergent property is, put simply, a property that a collection of things has but which the collection's individual parts do not have. For example, most of us understand the basic ingredients of a cake. We know how to combine them and have watched them come together to create a cake. Is a cake nothing more than a bundle of ingredients? Well, yes and no. Yes because it's only made from those ingredients and no because the experience of eating cake is completely different from eating a raw egg, a cup of flour, some milk, some sugar. You get the idea.

What does a single grain of flour taste like? Pretty much nothing. What does a single brain cell think like? Pretty much nothing. What does cake taste like if an ingredient or two are absent? A bit like the full version but not quite the same. What is your mind like if some of your memory or reactions are absent? A bit like the full version but not quite the same. Note that this goes for both the experience and the functionality. What's it like to be a dog? A bit like being a human but not quite the same. What's it like to be a mouse? A bit like being a dog but not quite the same. I'm talking theoretically here, before you accuse me of never having been a dog or a mouse...

To be continued

Saturday 24 March 2018

#482 Life as a pool table - part 5

The concept of responsibility
In part 4, we saw how a dust ball could acquire a new feature, such as the ability to see in colour, which might not be that significant on its own. However, the moment that another part of the dust ball happens to react to the new feature in a way that helps the dust ball, the new feature becomes part of a process that is more likely to be inherited. The dust ball now has some ability to respond to the things it encounters. In other words, it has acquired some new response-ability.

Limbs and other senses
Limbs. Let's give the dust ball some limbs. A baby dust ball is, by chance, made with a tiny bit that sticks out, which happens to aid its movement in a way that makes food and mating more likely. Thousands of years later, almost all dust balls have limbs and one of them happens to get affected by a reaction that happens to a part of the dust ball that's connected to its eye and the dust ball acquires the ability to move the limb in response to what it sees, in a way that is helpful to it. Over a vast period of time, the dust ball develops four new senses in the exact same way that it developed its sight. It also develops a second eye, which gives it the benefit of depth perception.

The concept of dust robots
The continued improvement and acquisition of features gets us to a point where our dust balls are no longer dust balls at all. They're dust robots. They've become dynamic shapes that are superbly suited to sensing and moving towards things that are good for them while avoiding the perils of their environment. For the purpose of this thought experiment, we might now consider their physical development complete and move on to their mental development.

Friday 23 March 2018

#481 Life as a pool table - part 4

The concept of sight-related movement
Scattered about the piece of slate are some smooth pebbles of various shapes and sizes. Some of the pebbles are small enough to interact with the light-senstive particles. A dust ball with a light-sensitive particle crater rolls over a pebble and the pebble sticks to it, becoming embedded in the dust ball, near the crater. Now, when reflected light from the surface dust causes the light-sensitive particles to react, they in turn push the pebble out to the surface of the dust ball. Having a smooth pebble on its surface makes the dust ball roll fractionally faster. It rolls a greater distance over its life span, increasing its chance of finding food, mating and reproducing.

The concept of inheritance
Whenever two dust balls mate and reproduce, pieces of whatever features each ball has, are likely to break off and form part of the new baby dust ball. That baby dust ball will have whatever features it inherited from its parents, plus any new features it acquires during its lifetime.

Colour vision and increased freedom of movement

The features that a dust ball is born with might undergo improvements during its lifetime. For example, one of the light sensitive particles might be jolted and deform, so that it becomes sensitive not just to light itself but a different wavelength of light. This alone, isn't that significant until, by chance, the dust ball rolls over another type of pebble. A spiky pebble that reacts to deformed light-sensitive particles. When a deformed light-sensitive particle reacts to the new wavelength of light, it pushes the spiky pebble out to the surface of the dust ball, changing the direction in which the dust ball is rolling. It so happens that the new wavelength of light is reflected by the walls at the edges of the piece of slate. The dust ball is now able to change direction rather than smashing into the walls and becoming damaged. The new feature is inherited because it's helpful to the dust ball and improves its chances of surviving and mating.

To be continued

Thursday 22 March 2018

#480 Life as a pool table - part 3

After giving the balls basic survival skills, mating rituals and reproductive capabilities in Part 2, I felt stuck. They were doing things but they still had no awareness. How on earth was I going to give it to them? After pondering it for a while, the answer came. The same way as evolution. One small step at a time. What did they need next? The ability to see.

The concept of light-sensitivity
Light particles/waves are very small. So too are the dust particles from which the pool balls are made. Some of the particles are so small that when the light hits them, they react. In other words, they are light-sensitive. In some of the balls, there happen to be clusters of these small, light-sensitive bits of dust.

The concept of eyes
If a dust ball rolls over a hard bump in the slate, the impact may form a small crater on the ball's surface. If the crater contains a cluster of light-sensitive particles, then the location of the reaction to the light will be particularly dependent on the direction that the light is coming from.

The concept of sight
The balls that gather the most dust grow fastest and therefore survive and reproduce most often. The dust is unevenly distributed across the slate, however it reflects light. The dust balls with light-sensitive craters are sensitive to the reflected light from the surface dust. They effectively know where their food is although so far they don't know that they know it and have no desire or incentive to go after it.

It seems worth noting at this point that the developments described should be imagined to have taken place over millions of years. What's more, as stated at the outset, there are trillions of dust balls. The dust balls are tiny in size and exist in a vast environment. What this means is that rare chance events, the likes of which, on a given day might seem almost impossible can become, in the grander scales of space and time, almost inevitable.

Also, I am not suggesting that every development written about here is fully possible in reality or that these examples are a good representation of how life evolved on planet earth. This is just a thought experiment and the first draft at that.

To be continued

Wednesday 21 March 2018

#479 Life as a pool table - part 2

The concept of mating
After writing part 1, I realised that the concept of growth would have been better explained in terms of a singular ball continuing to accumulate dust as it rolls around. Then when a ball stuck to another ball, that could better be described as the concept of mating.

The concept of reproduction
Over time, for some of the balls that get stuck together, parts of them merge and then break off and start rolling around on their own. This gives us the concept of reproduction.

Day and night
One feature of the pool hall in which the slate table and sticky dust balls exist is the alternation of light and dark. I will regard the existence of light and dark as a given. I won't go into why or how there is light and dark. Let's just imagine that the lights are on during the day and are switched off at night.

So the balls carry on rolling around. Growing, surviving, mating and reproducing under light and darkness.

The balls still have no idea what they're doing.

To be continued

Tuesday 20 March 2018

#478 Life as a pool table - part 1

This weekend, snow returned to the capital. The thermostat was clearly broken. I'd spent most of last week in two layers and some of it in one. One or two little insects had ventured out above ground, Now they were wishing they hadn't. Winter was ongoing. Lectures were ongoing. The job search was ongoing. It was all just a big continuum.

Recent family matters had inspired my sister and I to engage in some creative writing although the dust hadn't settled enough for our efforts to be shared. I decided instead to use my writing time this week to run through a thought experiment that I'd started at times in the past but had never properly articulated. I called it "Life as a pool table".

The experiment was meant to represent, in terms easy to understand, how conscious thought could arise out of unconscious processes. I'd first thought of it while watching some of Dan Dennett's videos years ago. I tried reading his book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back but found it hard going and wondered if it might be possible to explain some of the concepts in a more accessible way. A pool table seemed like as good an analogy as any.

Life as a pool table

The concept of death
Imagine trillions of balls on a very large piece of slate.
They've been formed from sticky bits of dust and are blown around on the slate by the wind.
The piece of slate contains some holes and is located over a pit of fire.
Some of the balls fall down the holes and disintegrate in the fire.
This gives us the concept of death.

The concept of growth
Some of the balls bump into each other and get stuck together.
The newly formed combinations of balls are larger. This gives us the concept of growth.

The concept of survival
The balls that combine are large enough not to fall down a hole if they roll over one.
This gives us the concept of survival.

To be continued

Monday 19 March 2018

#477 Wheeeeeton!!!

Looking at writers' blogs felt futile. Surely they'd save their best for print. I was desperate though in case that wasn't clear from yesterday's Arseblog post. Desperate to find a blog I actually wanted to read.

Blatherings was interesting. Just because its author, Debbie, had been writing it since 1997. That was insane. You could literally go back and find posts she'd written about Furbees. Furbees. That was twenty years ago, man. This thing was like a time capsule. She updated it properly too, there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of posts. Insane.

I also loved Will Wheaton's Exile blog which had wangled its way onto a list of writer's blogs just like he wangled his way onto Big Bang Theory. Clearly no-one could resist his irresistible irresistibleness. I was fairly sure it was the real him. I felt sad that he hadn't updated it, then I realised what an exile blog was. His real blog was at Will Wheaton dot net. OK. I still had no idea what the exile blog was but I was relieved to have found the main one.

In some ways, Will's blog was exactly what I was looking for. A regularly updated personal blog that didn't have a clear theme and showed a flawed side to its author. The flawed side was important. Not because it was unusual. Everyone had flaws but with some people they were more visible and Will's screamed at you the instant you laid eyes on his site. It was put together in such an overtly crappy way that if he wasn't a celebrity, no-one ever would have followed him.

But they did follow him. He had dozens of comments on every post and after skimming through a couple of the posts, I could see why. Will's blog was real. He wrote it to convey real thoughts he was having. It wasn't shiny. It wasn't dull. It wasn't informative. It was just... him. Will Wheaton. Writing about his experiences. The ones he felt brave enough to write about in public.

I knew I'd find a blog like that eventually. I never thought it would be written by a celebrity.

Sunday 18 March 2018

#476 Arseblog

The Horribly Happy Hooker, for its energy and passion, looked dead in the water. No recent posts. No trace of the author on social media. It was almost like she wanted to remain anonymous. Fortunately, HHH wasn't the only Irish blogger in town. And by town, I meant the world. Enter Arseblog, the Emerald Isle's lighthearted written commentary on all things Arsenal.

I normally avoided hovering my mouse cursor within a five centimeter radius of a football link for fear of accidentally clicking it but the quest to find blogs with real soul demanded peeking into every nook and cranny. Reluctantly, I held my nose and entered this particular cranny, to see what the fuss was about.

Supposedly Arseblog was highly respected among the club's supporters. It had plenty to offer them. Daily posts. A team of columnists. A weekly Arsecast. I wasn't about to start reading or listening to anyone talking about football so I checked out their St. Patrick's Day post instead.

The word "disgraceful" came to mind. It was like Lee Evans had emptied out the contents of his waste paper bin and stuck together the worst ten percent of the jokes he'd thrown away. Worse, it had been written in the name of St. Patrick yet the entire post made no real reference to him whatsoever. 

Unlike the Happy Hooker, who wrote authentically but had to hide her true identity, Arseblog had no shame in churning out low-grade babble. Had the St. Patrick's Day piece been funny or educational, it might have been worth examining one or two other posts. Since it was neither, Arseblog definitely wasn't making it anywhere near my favourites list.

Saturday 17 March 2018

#475 Searching high and low

Tonight's search for a soulful blog had me checking out some entries by prostitutes, drug users and alcoholics. That's what it had come to. I was searching on the wrong side of the tracks.

I'd hoped their blogs were crammed with deeply personal experiences, emotions and unique stories but most of the links hadn't been updated in years or were singular pieces rather than ongoing blogs.

Despite the odd addict or sex worker having achieved a flicker of fame through their literary efforts, most didn't blog. If they did, it was usually about other things. A couple of their articles were interesting enough but I wanted someone to follow. A character through whose eyes I could see a different world.

I'd asked the good folks of Quora if they knew such a blog. The responses were unsatisfying, even moreso than the Facebook group I'd asked previously. The links they provided were by a man who wrote about being an electrician (yawn) and a woman whose descriptive style would be at home on an episode of The Royle Family.

Despite not finding the blogs I wanted, I was now following twenty. Out of the shadier efforts I'd perused this evening, there was one I might have taken a second look at. It was way different from the other blogs I followed. Completely insane levels of exuberance and unquestionable authenticity. She wasn't a terrible writer either, I mean the structure was there.

The tone was sickly-impactful; reading it felt like drinking Sunny D, which I'd only ever done once twenty years ago but could still remember the taste. The blog hadn't been updated in four months but was still available to read. It's name? The Horribly Happy Hooker. It had strong adult themes but then so did reality. And reality, was what I was searching for.

Friday 16 March 2018

#474 Quora

Having struggled to find personal blogs with enough life to fill a space cruiser, today I decided to take a short break from the search and logged in to Quora instead.

In contrast to the yuppie bloggers who smugly photoshopped their clothing and weekend brunches and then used an online thesaurus to find words longer than two syllables, threw in a couple of explanation marks and called it interesting, here was an endless supply of people who wanted to have real discussions about their actual problems and who stood to benefit from the outcomes.

I answered one question. Then another. Then another. Every so often, a user would "upvote" one of my answers, which I found incredibly gratifying. "Why don't people like talking about death?", "How can I deal with my mum's borderline personality disorder?", "What are the pros of being an unmarried man?" There were plenty of people in need of assistance.

The stats were interesting too. Apparently the answers I'd made in the past had been viewed by about a hundred people last week. I'd only responded to half a dozen questions. If I upped that to 60, would I start getting a thousand views a week? That was decent newbie traffic. Especially if they liked the answers they were reading.

Sensing that I had become distracted and was tumbling down a rabbit hole, I reached out and posted a question asking the other members if anyone knew a blog that was a) about the person that wrote it, b) not linked to any typical themes (beauty/fashion/food) and c) read like fiction eg. Judy Blume or Roald Dahl's Boy/Going Solo. Quora might not have contained any blogs but maybe it contained people who knew where I could find them.

Thursday 15 March 2018

#473 Keep scrollin' scrollin' scrollin' scrollin'

Why? Why did they make their sites like that? The pages were so long that the scroll pip was tiny, which meant you needed the precision of a 19th century watchmaker to navigate. The odds of scrolling successfully though their way-too-many photos without overshooting the text and having to backtrack were practically zero, which meant the chances of me returning to their sites ever were also practically zero.

It was Wednesday and I'd been blog-hunting for autobiographical blogs since the weekend. I'd started long before that too but now I was stepping it up. Having covered off the first few pages of Google search results for things like "blog about my life", I was hitting a wall in terms of search options.

Posie Gets Cozy might have been a potential candidate had it not been an absolute scrolling catastrophe. Also the paragraphs were a bit long. Font was a bit small too. Great pictures though.

Donloree was entertaining but full of all the usual cliches like telling people to live their lives to the fullest. Ugh. When she wrote about herself I could stomach it but when her posts descended into the kind of waffle that looked like she'd strung together ten Facebook memes, I had to bail.

For all my criticisms, Posie and Dozy were the best of the bunch from this evening's searching. I could've carried on but I kept hitting food blogs. They made me so hungry I'd worked my way through an entire pack of cookies. Those things should come with a warning. The blogs, not the cookies.

Wednesday 14 March 2018

#472 Appearing to live the dream

Since joining the UK bloggers group, I'd been surprised at the number of writers who were monetising. This morning one asked how to declare a gift voucher on a tax return. Granted she might not make all her taxable income from blogging but even asking the question suggested a significant amount.

Some collaborated with brands. There were threads about aspects of a blog's frontend and backend that might sway a company's decision to work with them. Bloggers were attending product launch parties, festivals and charity events.

Photographers stalked the group, weighing in on debates. Some wrote their own blogs, others were buddying up. There were discussions about contracts between snappers and jotters and how to deal with fees and rights and copyrights.

My Facebook feed was clogging up with their posts but I didn't want to filter them out just yet in case I learned something. Flogging blogging was a completely new area to me. Something More Weekly didn't have the views to make more than pennies in ad revenue but it was still fascinating to see so many people living the dream or appearing to.

Tuesday 13 March 2018

#471 Cat's blog

The morning after coming across Adam Townsend's blog, I woke at six-thirty, having had an early night the day before. I decided to waste no time in carrying on with the search for autobiographical blogs. I grabbed the laptop.

I decided to check the Facebook group again to see if anyone else had replied but before doing so, a post from Cat Darsley caught my eye. I met Cat in my first year at Durham. My friend Ruth had found her somehow and the pair got along well enough to hang out. In other words, they were friends.

Cat always had a smile on her face and a playful wit about her which made being in her company not just pleasant but perfectly effortless, apart from occasionally having to figure out whether she was joking or not. A keen rower, Cat would get up in the dead of night and train for hours on the river long before her lectures. Whereas I considered getting up before lunch the benchmark of a productive day so we didn't see each other much.

For the last four years, Cat had been taking a one second video clip of her life every day and she had just uploaded to the fourth year onto Youtube. Upon taking a look, it occurred to me that her video blog technically met some of my criteria. It was autobiographical. It didn't have a strong theme and she even updated it every day.

I hadn't expected that a vlog would feature in my search for more autobiographical blogs and I wasn't sure if Cat thought of her project as a vlog but I wanted to share it. I wondered if she knew anyone else who was documenting their life every day.

Monday 12 March 2018

#470 Looking for links

I'd been continuing the search for autobiographical blogs like my own. They existed but weren't easy to find. Lots of bloggers wrote about themselves but often did so informatively, with heavy themes such as lifestyle, fashion, food or parenthood.

Last week I wrote a message in the "Official UK Bloggers"Facebook group, asking if anyone knew blogs like the ones I was looking for. 28 people replied. I saved a couple of links. Most had typical themes. Among the respondents, one blogger fitted the description. His name was Adam Townsend.

Adam wrote from the inside out. He wasn't writing about what happened, he was describing his experiences. It was exactly the kind of style I'd been after.

Being authentic in his expression, Adam didn't write for the sake of routine. He only sat down and typed when something really worth describing had happened. At a rate of one per year, his updates were infrequent to say the least. They were also amazing.

Two of the older bloggers in the group had said that when the internet was still young, more blogs were like that. I asked them if they knew of any. I asked Adam too. They sent a link but it wasn't quite the ticket. I would continue my search and try to find as many other examples as I could.

Sunday 11 March 2018

#469 Theory and applications

I spent my time outside of lectures writing and looking for permanent work. The applications often required a current employer's reference. 

I was 99% sure the agency would give one. I'd get in touch with them during the week to make sure. I hadn't been in the job long and it felt soon to be asking. Then again, it was temporary and had no notice period on either side. Plus the hours would die down when the students had exams. The flexibility of the job was part of what attracted some support workers, who would come and go throughout the year.

I was mindful of the students' needs. I knew it was better for them to have the assistance, so until I actually found a new position, I'd taken on as many hours as I could and would keep it up for as long as I could. I enjoyed the work too although it wasn't enough to sustain me long-term.

I'd never seen another note-taker in the classes although I knew they existed. As a member of a pool of support workers, every day, a handful of assignments would hit my mailbox covering everything from note-taking to library assistance. Sometimes ad-hoc. Sometimes long-term.

It seemed possible there'd be other assignments over the summer. Colleges with different term dates. Summer courses. I'd asked the agency but their response suggested it was bits and pieces rather than anything substantial. I'd make the most of the role while I had it. Going back to uni had been fun but I couldn't stay there forever.


Hetal, who reads the blog, emailed me this week with a comment about another regular reader. She said I could include it in the blog, so here is what she wrote...

"Part of what I enjoy about your blog is FizzFan's comments. She's a really lovely and smart person. She never judges and adds interesting tales of her own."

Saturday 10 March 2018

#468 Maximum damage

Participation in the strikes varied from lecturer to lecturer, as you'd expect. Before my first one this week, a staff member tried to persuade the speaker to join the action. He apologised politely and explained that the particular topic really was important for the students. All this happened away from the microphone. I could just about hear it from my position in the front row.

It was thirteen years since I'd attended a lecture and now that I had a timetable full of them, they were getting cancelled. When I'd been at uni, I never went to all my lectures. Now it felt like the professors were getting their revenge.

The most sinister example was the lecturer I had on Thursday. Up until then, he'd shown no sign of any allegiance on either side. He just taught the subject. Now he was making an announcement. "I have not participated in the strike until now" he said, speaking slowly and with a trace of pride "but beware, that if I do participate, my intention is to create maximum damage so I will not tell you beforehand".

This was new. Most lecturers didn't have the cheek to talk about the strike to their students other than to let them know a lecture was cancelled. Now one was letting us know that he might cancel a lecture. What was the point of that? Was it an ego trip?

There wasn't a hint of consideration in the man's voice. In fact it was the opposite. He was actually using his class by taunting them to increase their frustration. It was an intelligent move from a strategic point of view but it didn't say much for his character, other than if he ever really got fed up of lecturing, he'd probably make a good terrorist.

His words were of a man with more than the usual axe to grind. Someone who had pursued the value of education to a point where he'd completely lost sight of it. Whatever pain was driving him ran deeper than the basis of his pension and flowed from another source. Something old and hidden. In all likelihood, we'd never find out what it was. The lecturer might not even have known himself.

Friday 9 March 2018

#467 Mob mentality

The strike action outside the uni had been scaled up. At first, I'd first received timid invitations to listen but now I was being told not to cross the picket line in the morning. Careful, bud. Trying to tell me what to do, or what not to do before 9am isn't a smart move.

As if I'd listen to some mindless protest babble anyway. It's not that I had or didn't have a view on the issue itself, I just considered myself insusceptible to mob mentality. In fact it bothered me. So did the constant car horns sounding loudly as they passed the uni gates.

If the protesters were sitting calmly with a set of accounts or some decent analysis to disprove Universities UK's legal duty to address the deficit then some discussion might have been warranted but the crude signs and memes put out by the rabble did little to educate me.

What was going on here? Universities were supposed to be academic institutions and yet there was something very unacademic about the manner in which these people were making their arguments. If they handed out essays on the matter, I might have read one. Even if they were cheerful and handed out cakes it would've been better.

To be fair, yesterday some of them were cheerful and it did look like they'd stocked up on sweets. When it came to making a convincing demonstration though, they still had a long way to go.

Thursday 8 March 2018

#466 Getting shouted at

Most lecturers I'd had so far were intelligible. Their accent mattered but less than their inclination to mumble. After two or three with the same person, I'd figure out the pronunciation differences. Half-way through the second week, I had a lecturer who was hyper-intelligible.

I could not believe this woman. Her entire philosophy of speech must have been borrowed from a Soviet army sergent who woke up on the wrong side of the bed, ran out of coffee and found that someone had dented her car. Then she lectured the audience as though all three of those things were their fault.

Most lecturers gave talks. For this person, talking was the wrong word entirely. She hadn't talked a word in her life. She barked. A relentless stream of angry sarcasm. It didn't matter where we sat. Even in the back row, it would've felt like she was yelling at us right in our faces.

Sometimes she'd forget how she was going to end a sentence. There'd be a one second pause and then to make up for it, she'd yell the last word even louder and more angrilly. I looked down at her boots. They were lined with spikes. I wondered how she'd even been let into the university in the first place.

I knew it was probably just her style. That she might somehow be an ok person in other ways. Anger can be contagious though. In between taking the notes, I must have had a mild scowl on my face. I tried to regulate my breathing to stay calm.

If I'd been a student, I might have complained. Maybe I would anyway. Her tone was uniquely offensive. I'd never heard anything like it. I tolerated it for an hour and came out wanting to kick something. Thank goodness I'd only see her once a week.

Wednesday 7 March 2018

#465 Chasing wi-fi

In between my hours spent in lecture theatres copying down equations and code at point five past lightspeed, I had some downtime. An hour here and there that I needed to fill. It wasn't difficult. My main priority was finding my next job. What was difficult was getting online.

You'd think a uni would have decent network connectivity. And it did. Only I wasn't a student and there seemed to be some kind of firewall that extended to mobile data. I didn't even know if that made sense, all I knew was I couldn't check my email.

At the back of the uni was a canal. It was one of the waterways I'd explored over the summer. The boat people had to have connections. I walked gingerly down the steps to the towpath, perched on a wooden bench, reset my phone's hotspot and opened the laptop. Still no email page.

Over the road next to the canal was a Starbucks. I certainly wasn't going to buy coffee. Fortunately this wasn't just any Starbucks. Between the water and the road was a small park. The grass banked upward so as to cover the roof of the coffee shop. It reminded me of teletubby land.

I clambered up the bank, reset the phone again and got out the laptop to see if the page had loaded. Two police officers on horses clocked me and rode over to see what I was up to. "Lots of robberies around here Sir, you might want to put that laptop away" one said. I thanked her. As unlikely as it seemed that I'd get mugged within sight of the met's cavalry, I decided to move on.

Eventually I found a part of campus where I could connect. It was a short walk from the lecture theatre and I still didn't understand how or what made the difference but I had email so I was happy. Then I realised the time. With a sigh, I closed the laptop once again, put it back in my rucksack and jogged off to the next lecture.

Tuesday 6 March 2018

#464 Barbican Wine Man - Part 2

Though the wine man came alone, he was not unsociable. A couple once asked where he had purchased his booze. He replied quite honestly and seemed keen to strike up a conversation but they wandered off.

Later on, he became in need of a lavatory and asked if I would watch his things while he was gone. Actually he didn't ask. He simply informed me that he would be five minutes. I added "trustworthy" to his developing list of virtues.

For the next three weeks, the man drank uninterrupted. I was sitting elsewhere but could see him there, staring off into space for an hour or three, drinking his bottle and then leaving.

Did he work? Did he have a wife? Children? Was he psychologically sound? Was he a theatre-goer as I'd first suspected? It didn't seem likely but he could have been. Or did he just love the Barbican? I'd become quite fond of it myself.

I'd seen staff remove members of the public before and issue bans. Either he was very careful or he'd just been lucky. Then again, he wasn't menacing. He wasn't anything, really. A man, sat in a large public building every weekend, covertly drinking a bottle of wine. He'd probably carry on doing so for years to come.

Monday 5 March 2018

#463 Barbican Wine Man - Part 1

The first floor of the Barbican Centre really was a splendid place to chill out on a weekend. Not as splendid as say, a cosy pub, a coffee shop, a restaurant, a hotel lobby or the average living room but as a quiet, spacious public venue to escape to, with free wi-fi, sofas and mesmerising ceiling lights, it was unbeatable.

As a result of its unique qualities, the centre attracted a unique kind of crowd, composed of culture-seekers, students, and vagabonds. Looking at each person's behaviour and affects, it was usually clear to which category he or she belonged but there was one man who didn't fit into a category.

The first time I encountered him, I was sat with my laptop on the first floor, completing some training for a temp job. A tired looking man of about forty-five came and sat the other side of the small coffee table in front of me. At first I took him for a theatre-goer but as I studied him, his behaviour defied that assumption.

Some minutes after having taken the seat, the man reached into his rucksack, pulled out an ordinary wine glass and placed it on the table. Predictably, he then took out a bottle of red wine, filled the glass and then returned the bottle to his bag. He was a secret wine-drinker.

Sunday 4 March 2018

#462 The white stuff

Building a fort under my two duvets had stopped the cold air from attacking me. The light from my laptop screen was enough to type and the slope of my thighs was as good a desk as any for now. I didn't know when the radiator had started struggling. It had definitely worked when I moved in. Last week it wasn't great. Maybe the radiator and the weather had been jointly conspiring against me.

I video-called Naino as I walked to the station. I wanted to show her Goose Green covered in snow. It was the most we'd had in several years. Nobody had made a snowman but I walked past two kids on a sledge. That made no sense. Goose Green was flat. Unless anyone was brave slash dumb enough to use the main road, Dulwich was useless for sledging.

I thought about bleeding the radiator in my room as I walked to work. I'd never done it before. It seemed straightforward. Get a key. Turn it. Then turn it back again. Come to think if it, I'd never seen anyone else bleed one either. Except the guy on Youtube but he seemed happy enough. The lecture hall was frickin freezing yesterday too. Maybe their radiators needed bleeding too.

Summarising undergraduate mathematics on paper was hard enough without the loss of circulation to my outer limbs. I'd started to think about which part of my hand actually did the writing. Gripping the pen harder helped a bit. The motion seemed to come more from a muscle at the base of the thumb but it probably involved the whole arm. My fingers needed warming up though. Hopefully nobody wondered why I kept frantically rubbing my hand against my leg.

Saturday 3 March 2018

#461 Not the nine o'clock lecture

Six forty was cold. I hadn't got up this early in over a year. Flicking the light on, I rolled over and poured myself a ramekin of dry roasted peanuts. I'd heard the best way to regulate appetite and concentration during the morning was through protein and fat. Eggs and bacon. I didn't live in a cafe though. Nuts were the next best thing.

The sky was more cloudy than when the snow had first appeared. The streets contained fewer people, wearing more layers. My journey was straightforward. Walk, train, walk. Twenty minutes each. I crunched my way to Peckham. Half-way through the train ride, someone moved and I got one of those half-seats. The carpet-coated ledges that are too narrow and high to sit on properly but you can kind of perch.

It was my first full week of student support. I say full, what that meant was between three and five lectures a day. Roughly 40% got cancelled at the last minute. Before getting off the train, I received a message from the student saying she couldn't make the first one. I had two hours to amuse myself on campus.

The campus' network connection was accessible to anyone who could make up a fake uni email address and claim they were staying on campus. I decided to go the legit route though and tethered to my phone. Once connected, I spotted a stool on the other side of my room that was near a radiator and a plug socket. Jackpot. I picked up my belongings, carried them over and plugged myself in for two hours of warmth and web access.

Friday 2 March 2018

#460 Proofreading

Andres was a PE teacher in his twenties, who lived... somewhere. During the weekend's drinks in Clapham, I'd agreed to review his dissertation, a 4,000 word essay on the utility of a learning concept.

Some guy whose last name began with a "V" had come up with a descriptive term for a range of tasks that a child could reasonably be expected to learn how to complete, with assistance from a peer or teacher. It was like their comfort zone of learning. Andres' essay covered the details and benefits of the concept's application to his own teaching experiences.

I enjoyed proofreading. It made me feel powerful. It wasn't just that I was a native English speaker. I'd also grown up within a part of society that was relatively free from any regional peculiarities or slang. It allowed me to write how I spoke, without having to think about it. The hard part then became thinking about it. In order to explain the changes to the reader, I had to work backwards by figuring out the reasons for my alterations after I'd made them.

I offered to discuss the changes with Andres. He said he was happy with them. Hopefully he'd look it over again himself, as many times as it took until he could read it right through without noticing anything that needed improving. Then hopefully his paper would get published, earn him millions and he'd decide to buy me a Jaguar. I don't drive but I could sit in it the next time I proofread an essay and feel even more powerful.

Thursday 1 March 2018

#459 Sounds from the picket line

On my way to work today, I encountered a striker. Not a pro footballer. An employee who was refusing to do her job and thought it a better use of time to stand outside in the cold, trying to persuade members of the public to give a damn about some change to her pension.

Her story was that her employers had decided to change her pension scheme from defined benefit to defined contribution. It seemed an odd thing to protest about. Defined contribution schemes were common. Many employers had made the same decision as a way of addressing the UK's ageing population. She explained that the decision had been made to correct a deficit but that she didn't believe it had been calculated correctly.

Her gripe seemed understandable based on her rationale, if it could be validated. If not as a reason to loiter in the cold, then at least as a reason to feel some sense of injustice. She carried on talking as I walked past, reciting facts and trying to find an angle from which her plight also affected me in some significant way. It didn't. Higher Education seemed like a pleasant sector all in all and defined benefits were rare, most people could never hope to have one.

What irritated me was her supposition that I might agree with her about the existence of the deficit without having actually reviewed the figures myself or at least a report on them. Maybe she didn't suppose it. Perhaps she was just dishing out as much information as she could about her cause because she was desperate to do what she could to influence the outcome. I couldn't stay and listen to more information though. I had a lecture to go to.

Any comments made above represent opinions or interactions that I have had in a personal capacity, not as an employee of an organisation.