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The RoBlog
Wednesday, July 04, 2012
 
Unoccupied Self-Driving Cars; Some Thoughts

I wanted to talk a little bit more about the quick comment I made in a previous post entitled "Renting Cars", Comments on FutureShock

It seems inevitable at this point that we will have some version (or versions) of a car that will drive itself.  Google’s had self-driving cars for a while now, and they’re far from the only ones pursuing this.  Nevada created a special kind of license plate for self-driving cars, though I believe they still require one or more people to be in the car while it’s driving.

So where does this lead us to in the future?

Obviously it will mean that we can focus on other things besides driving during in-car time (this seems like it can only be a good thing considering how many things compete for our attention already when we’re driving, and if nothing is competing for it, the dangers of getting drowsy).

It seems likely that once we have successful consumer grade self-driving vehicles, it will only be a short step to getting unattended automatic driving approved.

If this is the case, I think there’s a very real question about whether most people will even continue to own cars, but let’s assume for a few moments that they do.  What changes?

Your car can drop you off and then go find its own parking spot.  I’ve often thought it’d be cool if cars at the mall (say) would self-park, and then work their way to the front-most parking spots as people leave.  Of course, if cars were totally automated, this would probably be unnecessary as you’d just let your car know that you need it to pick you up and it would drive itself from whatever parking space it had found.

Your car could seek out a place to recharge (I’m making the assumption here that all self-driving cars would be electric, but while I think it’s likely, there’s no strong reason that it has to be the case).  This would be important if not every parking space had recharging capabilities, which we can pretty confidently suppose at least in the short run.  If, like my local grocery store, there were a small number of charging stations, then we may still get the situation I imagined above where cars jockey for the available spaces.

Tangenting here in two directions:
What is needed for a self-charging car?
For a self-driving car to recharge while you’re not there it would need a way to automatically connect with the energy grid.  Current charging stations require a person do much the same kinds of actions that gas-based refueling requires: lifting hatches, taking a fueling connection off of a fueling station and plugging it in to the car in the right place.

It would seem, then, that the best approach for recharging would be inductive recharging, and that a standard system for doing this should be adopted by car manufacturers and recharging station manufacturers alike sooner rather than later.

Besides the ease created for an automatic car, inductive charging is easier on humans as well as you just pull into the right space and you’re basically done.  There’s no reason that we should carry forward the old actions of fueling a car into a new fuel paradigm like electricity.

Of course, what we’ll probably get is cars that have a standard “plug-in” interface so that they can be plugged in pretty much anywhere, which will further encourage plug-in-style recharging stations.  Inductive (or similar drive-onto charging) will come around and most cars and stations will eventually accommodate both for maximum flexibility.

What is needed for cars to “jockey for available spaces”?
For self-driving cars to negotiate for limited fueling stations they need something that is almost as exciting as self-driving: car-to-car communication.  It’s so interesting, in fact, that I’m going to save it for another post.

Back to the benefits of having your own self-driving car.

You could potentially rent your car out to other people.  I can envision a web site where people indicate where they need to go and how long they need to be there and any private car that anticipates being free during that time can fill the need for a fee.  While being used, the car would ensure that it could return in time for its owner and refuse to travel (based on changed plans) to locations that would put that at risk (keeping an eye on current traffic, and having a historical traffic patterns both stored locally and available via the Internet).

Obviously, if you were tired, intoxicated, injured, under-age, or otherwise unable to drive, you could still get places in your car.

If you needed something picked up but you couldn't get away to get it, you could send your car (assuming someone would be there to load it in, and assuming that the thing you needed couldn’t be similarly shipped from its origin).  This holds for things like packages as well as things like children from school and in-laws from the airport.

Let’s explore the idea of picking up children a little further.  Obviously this would only work if the kid was capable of making good decisions (for example, I would totally trust my daughter now that she’s 10, but I don’t think I could when she was 4), or some trustworthy adult was there to make sure the kid was loaded appropriately. 

I’d probably want some kind of occupancy sensor that would alert me if there were more or fewer passengers than expected, and probably some on-board camera so that I could look in to make sure everything was alright (onboard cameras would be helpful in the renting situation above as well, since it could take before-and-after photos of your car in case the car gets damaged in some way by the renters).

I can image a line of cars at schools waiting to pick up the appropriate children.  Obviously there'd need to be some sort of process that made sure that the right kid got into the right car.  This would probably need to be both on the school’s end (right license plate, for example), and on the car’s end (facial recognition of the passengers).

Already we've found some interesting things to do with full automated cars, and I’m sure there is more, but I have some non-automated driving to do, so they, along with why self-driving cars may mean fewer people owning cars (which you can probably already see where that is going), will have to wait for now.

Let me know your thoughts on the future of “car” travel in the meantime.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2012
 
Grandes Cosas Vienen (A Star Wars/Coldplay Parody)
We were listening to Viva La Vida by Coldplay in the car the other day and a Star Wars-related phrase came to me as a substitution for the "I know St. Peter won't call my name."

Being on vacation, I have a little extra time on my hand, so here's a pass at a complete song.  It takes a little liberty with meter, and I think could tell a better story, but not bad for under 45 minutes' work, I think.


Grandes Cosas Vienen

(Something Big is Coming)

I want to rule the gal-ax-y
Planets will line up to worship me
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Count the stars that I’m going to own

I’m never going to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy's eyes
Listen as the crowd will sing
"Now the old kings are dead!” Long live me!"

I will master Obi Wan
Clench my fist and he’s gone
Qui-Gonn, Yoda, and Mace Windu,
Will be speckles of dust when I am through

I’ll feel the Emperor’s strength course through me
A bad-ass galactic power I will be
The dark side of the force revealed
A crimson lightsaber I will wield

All this effort is not in vein
Once you start there is never
Never an other course
But that is once I learn the Force

I have studied all of Vader’s ways
Could choke the insolent for days
Being evil to the weak and dumb
People cannot believe what I've become

I say to hell with lifting crates
Bring me heads on silver plates
I may only be thirteen
But who would never want to be king?

I’ll feel the Emperor’s strength course through me
A bad-ass galactic power I will be
The dark side of the force revealed
A crimson lightsaber I will wield

All this effort is not in vain
I know Lord Vader will call my name
I’ll become a Sith of course,
But that is once I learn the Force

I’ll feel the Emperor’s strength course through me
A bad-ass galactic power I will be
The dark side of the force revealed
A crimson lightsaber I will wield

All this effort is not in vain
I know Lord Vader will call my name
I’ll become a Sith of course,
But that is once I learn the Force

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Monday, July 02, 2012
 
Battlecards

Battlecards

A more strategic version of the classic card game War

My daughter and I came up with an improvement on the classic card game War that makes it more of a thinking person’s version of the game, so I thought I’d share it.  It may look complicated, but it’s really not once you account for a couple of special cases, and it allows you the opportunity to employ strategy and counter strategy in a way that the classic game doesn’t offer.

It’s not perfect.  It needs a faster way of ending the game when it’s clear that you’re going to lose.  I’m toying around with periodically removing the lowest remaining card from play (“everyone turn in your 2s), but can’t figure out if that’s unfair in some way, when to start removing them, and how often.

Let me know if you end up playing it, how it goes, and if you have to tweak anything to get it to work (or I forgot to address something or need more examples to help explain things).

Setup

Everyone gets an equal share of the deck, arranged in a single pile face down as in the regular game of War.

Each player takes the top 5 cards off of their pile and looks at them (but doesn't show anyone else).

Regular Game Play

Use your favorite method of choosing someone to go first.  I just let my daughter go first, but since she’s beaten me every time we play it may be time to reconsider.

The first person chooses any of the five cards in her hand to lay down, face up.  The remaining players decide which of the 5 cards in their hands that they want to play on their turn (we go clockwise, typically).

The person who put down the highest card gets all the face up cards, and puts them in a face-up stack that is separate from their face-down stack.

Everyone draws enough cards from the face-down pile to get back up to 5 cards (this will usually be one card, but may be more if wars were fought).

The person who won the last round then chooses a card from her hand and sets it down face up, starting the next round.

Emptying Your Face-Down Pile

At some point your face-down pile will become empty.  When that happens, you can draw no more cards until you've played every card in your hand EVEN THOUGH you probably have cards in a face up pile.  This means that, if you don’t get into any wars, you’ll have 5 cards to choose from, then 4, then 3, then 2, and then you’ll have no choice but to play the last card that you are holding.

This is really where the strategy comes in as an attentive opponent can guess at what you might have left and play accordingly.  Similarly, you might guess how others will play knowing what you have and try to protect high cards for later use rather than risk being forced into losing one.

Once you have played the last card from your hand, you can turn over your face-up pile (making it the face-down pile), shuffle it, draw the top 5 and continue playing, creating a new face-up pile the next time you win a round.

War

If someone ahead of you in a round puts down a card that you have in your hand, you can choose to put down that card and force a war.  Keep in mind that, just like in regular War, if the highest card played in the round is higher than the war cards, that person wins and the war never happens.  Because of that, a war can only begin when all players have played their cards for that round.

To play out a war, take the top 3 cards from your face-down pile and place them face down next to your face up card that’s in the war (just like you would in regular War); no peeking!  Then the last person to get into the war chooses any card from their hand and places it face up next to their three face-down cards.  Each player engaged in the war does the same thing going from the last person to get into the war to the first person who got war forced upon them.  The player with the highest face-up card wins everything.  Of course, there can be more rounds of war if the highest cards played also match.

No one draws any new cards into their hands while they are at war (unless you are one of the situations listed below).  So if you started the round with 5 cards in your hand and played one that got you into a war, you will only have 4 cards to choose from to try and win the war.  If you get engaged in a second round of war, then you’ll only have 3 to choose from.

War: Special Cases

If you run out of face-down cards before you’ve played the three face down cards for your war, then the remaining cards come from the cards in your hand.  Lucky you, you get to choose which ones they are!  If using the cards in your hand would leave you with no cards in your hand, choose the card that you want to put face up, put the other card(s) face down for the war, turn over your face-up pile, shuffle it and pull the cards you need to put face down from the top of the pile (still no peaking!).  Once it’s your turn to play the face up card, play the last one in your hand.

If you have no cards in your hand when a  war starts (that is, the last card in your hand got you into the war), then you can turn over your face-up pile, shuffle it, draw 5 cards into your hand, and take the next 3 cards off the top of the pile and put them down without looking.  Lucky you, you get 5 cards in your hand to choose from!  If you’ve already shuffled the face-up pile because you’re in a second round of war, you don’t need to reshuffle them again.

If you don’t have enough cards to do a war (that is, you on the brink of losing), then pick one card to use as your face-up card, and put whatever cards you have left face down for your war cards.  If you only have one card, then you don’t need to put down any face down cards; you’ll win or lose based on the one card that you have left!

If the card that got you into the war was your very last card (sad face), then that is the card that you will fight with.  If anyone else’s card beats the card that you went to war with, they get it all.  If the highest card played by anyone else is still a tie, then you keep playing with that card until you’ve won or lost (they will need to keep putting down cards in regular war style as long as THEY still have cards).  (I can imagine a tie here where, say, two people have played their last cards and they are the same, and higher than any other players’ cards.  It’s bound to be a rare condition, but a crafty player could force it.  In this case, I’d suggest that the winning players take their own cards back, take the remaining cards that other players might have contributed along the way and turn them face-down.  Shuffle them and deal them to the winners evenly.  If there are any extra cards that would prevent an even distribution, they go to the first player to force the war.  Let me know if this ever happens to you.)

The Joker Variant

This is the version that we are currently playing.  It’s totally optional and probably only worth adding once you've mastered the main game.  It adds another small bit of strategy that can be fun.

Add in the Jokers to the deck before shuffling and dealing.  Jokers take on the value of the last card that WON a round.  So if there are two people playing, and a 9 beat a 3 in the previous round, the value of any Joker is now a 9.  It remains a 9 until a different value wins a round.  During this time, it’s treated as any other 9.  This means that if you have a Joker and no other high cards, you can suddenly get a high card.  If someone wins a round with an Ace, for example, your Joker is now an ace.  As soon as someone wins a round with a lower card (say, a 4), though, your Joker loses its value (from an Ace to a 4).

During a war, a Joker keeps the value of the card that won the last round the entire time.  If the card that won the last round was a 6, and the current round ends up in a war starting with aces, for example, Jokers are worth 6 the whole time, not an ace since no one has won this round yet.  If a war over aces is won by a 4, then the next round the Joker becomes a 4, not an ace (since the 4 is what won the round).

Sunday, July 01, 2012
 
The Road to Inspiration

I’m currently on vacation in the wilds of Northeast of Canada, by which I currently mean Prince Edward Island, which is not all that wild at all.

If you know me at all (and no doubt you don’t), you’ll know that I’m not short on ideas, but am quite short on…what…motivation?...energy?....stick-to-it-iveness?  Let’s just say the “doing”.

I have now two book series that I’d like to write, any number of articles about what the future has in store for us and how to learn from past predictions, ideas for new things, ideas for improving old things, ideas for websites that should be profitable if I could only get around to them, ideas that would take hundreds of millions of dollars to implement, thoughts about all kinds of philosophy, humorous observations of all kinds, a presentation or two for the local Quantified Self meetup that I’d like to give, and the occasional food/movie criticism.

As you can guess, not much is happening on any of these fronts as of yet, but on this trip I’ve run into two, what you may call “propellants”.

First, we visited the Alexander Graham Bell museum in Nova Scotia.  It was my wife’s idea to go there and, I have to say, I was pretty indifferent.  I came away pretty inspired.  Mr. Bell, most well known for his invention of the telephone, was hugely prolific as near as I can tell.  Also, as near as I can tell, he considered himself an amateur at most everything.  I don’t know why Thomas Edison, who was no doubt triply productive, doesn’t inspire me to the same depths.  I imagine Edison as the head of a large enterprise and Bell as working with a small number of passionate people.  I imagine the truth to be more complex than this.

I tried to find something suitable from the gift shop to capture the inspiration that I felt, but the best I could come up with was a bookmark (my daughter, on the other hand, came away with a complete ink and pen set like they used in the days before ball points).  It’s not enough, but I’ll put it on my desk when I get home as a reminder that the race goes to the runner, not the one who could imagine how to run faster.

The second propellant was the discovery that a neighbor died just as we set out on our adventure.  He was 57, and I don’t know what happened, but he left behind two kids, a wife, and an apparently non-trivial legacy.  A reminder that, as yet, time is ticking for all of us, and once the sponge between our ears is no longer wet, everything in it dries up and blows away, so at the very least, write things down.

So that’s what I’m doing.  Hopefully this means more entries about things and progress towards the increasingly large list of things I’d like to even get started on.

If you’d like to help me out on this, feel free to give me a nudge virtually or in person.  The more propellants we all have, I guess, the better.

Saturday, June 30, 2012
 
The Emergence of Elephants

So, I was curious about how one might get from the laws of physics (and probably some kind of starting conditions) to, say, an elephant.

The reason for this was a couple-fold.

First, I didn’t know if it was possible.  Given what I know about the state of knowledge, it didn’t seem likely, but given that I’m always surprised at what I don’t know, I thought I’d take a look.

Second, if you COULD get from physics to an elephant (not contemplating, for the moment, getting to a specific elephant), then it might have something to say about the concept of determinism; a topic that my friend Justin and I are continually exploring by way of good-natured arguments where I try to determine (heh, pun) what the consequences of a fully determined universe might be on an individual person, and he steadfastly believes in magic.

Third, it would tighten another discussion that Justin and I are always revisiting, which is whether, in an infinite universe (whatever specific kind of infinite that you happen to prefer), there is a version of you that has made better choices.  Justin thinks there is, and that makes him feel great by association with his more successful self.  I think that any universe that had so specific a lead up to get exactly you to be born may be required to be the same from there on out.  Much of this discussion is on the nature of randomness and whether there are really new universes splitting off around every decision that you COULD make (I believe that there may be splitting universes on a quantum level, but once you get to the macroscopic level of people, all bets are off).

Finally, there is something intriguing about thinking of science longitudinally across all sciences at once.  It seems like there are some interesting opportunities to speculate that the laws of physics basically make the universe a giant information processing machine (an example I’ve heard in the now distant past), which would have effects across all sciences at once, rather than in each domain specifically.

What DO physics, cosmology, chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology have as common organizing principles.  What ways of looking at these can we come up with that shed new light on everything all at once?

It would seem like the concept of emergence would be at play here in more than a “emergence happens” sort of way.  And I’m sure complexity theory has something to say here, though I find the Wikipedia article on this fairly impenetrable.

(As an aside, am I the only one who finds Wikipedia is fairly impenetrable as soon as you get outside of topics that most people know something about?  There seems to be a cliff in any topic where it goes from being accessible to the lay person like me, to where you need to be a specialist in that particular field in order to know anything about it.  For a while I saw “Simple English” alternatives on a sparse few of these kinds of articles, but not in quite some time.)

Of course, I believe that this area is being actively pursued by probably thousands of people all over the world, so I thought I’d Google the unlikely phrase “can physics predict an elephant”.

The top result that I got was entitled “Can physics predict a giraffe” on a blog called Cosmic Hoizons.  Close enough.

That post is, itself, a comment on a post “Why biology and chemistry is not physics” at The Curious Wavefunction.

It is there that I’m working my way through the interesting (and, so far, civil) discussion in the comments.

I realize this isn’t a very satisfying place to end a blog post, but I assume that the result of finishing the comments will be more questions than answers, and so this post is a reflection of that.  Learning is a journey, not a destination, so consider this a vacation update.  Which, not coincidentally, it is, in fact.


Friday, June 22, 2012
 
"Renting Cars", Comments on Future Shock
Future Shock is a book written by Alvin Toffler, and published in 1970.  I'm reading through it and commenting as I go.  Feel free to follow (and comment) along!


On p65, Toffler mentions the then burgeoning rental car market as another indicator of our growing transient relationship with "things".  It would be interesting to see what he would think now of the "flex" cars available in most metro areas that allow you to pick them up when and where you need them, and more or less abandon them when you are done.

Even better, the likely coming wave of self-driving cars that come to you when you need them, take you to where you want to go, and then drive off to service someone else.
 
"Length of Car Ownership", Comments on Future Shock
Future Shock is a book written by Alvin Toffler, and published in 1970.  I'm reading through it and commenting as I go.  Feel free to follow (and comment) along!


On p64 Toffler mentions "..the fact that the average car owner in the United States keeps his automobile only three and a half years."

I did some quick searching to see where that figure was today.  According to data compiled by global market intelligence firm R.L. Polk & Co, that number is up from the 42 months quoted by toffler to 57 months now, though back in 2002 it was as low as 38 months.

They believe that both the current economic situation and better build quality are driving the shift to longer ownership.
 
"Rental Housing Starts", Comments on Future Shock
Future Shock is a book written by Alvin Toffler, and published in 1970.  I'm reading through it and commenting as I go.  Feel free to follow (and comment) along!

On p63, Toffler mentions that in 1961, rental units as a percentage of all housing starts had reached 24%, and by 1969 they had exceeded the number of regular housing starts.

Since I'm the curious type, I set out to see what the rate was these days.  I'm not sure if this is the same data that Toffler was referring to, but the Commerce Department lists new housing starts for the last year, broken down by single units, 2-4 attached units, and 5+ units.  These all may be non-rental properties, but if singles indicates owned, and 2+ indicates rentals (as opposed to, say, townhouses), then the average over the last year has been about 34.5%.

Here's a graphic:


 
"Modular Architecure", Comments on Future Shock
Future Shock is a book written by Alvin Toffler, and published in 1970.  I'm reading through it and commenting as I go.  Feel free to follow (and comment) along!

On p63, Toffler uses modular “snap in” architecture as examples of how man’s relationship with “things” is becoming ever more transient.

“…they all conspire toward the same psychological end: the ephemeralization of man’s links with the things that surround him.”

Could the fact that we haven’t moved, in the intervening 40 years, to large-scale transient architecture suggest that our desire for a less ephemeral surrounding outweighs our need for the convenience that a constantly changing environment would bring?  Or was he just too optimistic on how soon it would be until this kind of building was easy enough to implement broadly?  Or has, maybe, this already happened, and I’ve just missed it?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012
 
Starting Future Shock

Inspired by having finished (at long last) Arthur C. Clarke's Profiles of the Future, I decided to pull another book out of my futures-of-the-past library: Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler, written in 1970.

I’ve been avoiding reading this book for quite some time (although it should be said that I’ve not read ANY book in quite some time) primarily because it seemed to fall into my least favorite of three broad categories of predicting the future.  As I see it, those categories are:
•         Theories and How-Tos about predicting the future
•         Predictions of the SOCIAL future
•         Predictions of the TECHNOLOGICAL future

Future Shock seemed to fall into the category of social future predictions.

Social futurism is much less interesting to me as it tends to be based on how we SHOULD behave and why they way that we DO behave will lead us to overpopulation, mass starvation, environmental collapse, and the like; all this from a heavily moralistic point of view.

It’s not that these aren’t valid, or even interesting problems, and I can easily imagine modern books on these topics being a fascinating read.  It is a peculiarity of what I like to read (books more than 20 years old that attempt to predict the future) that means that most books that I’d pick up about social future predictions are typically written in the 1960’s or ‘70’s, and are very preachy and/or impenetrable.

Based on the book cover summary, this is what I thought I was in for when I finally decided that it was too well known a book to ignore.

I’m happy to say that, SO FAR, I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  I’ll let you know if that changes over time, but here are a couple of things that I thought were interesting:
•         Introduction (p5): “Writers have had a harder and harder time keeping up with reality.  We have not yet learned to conceive, research, write and publish in “real time.””  Perhaps this is now a skill that modern writers may more readily possess?
•         I forget where this was and how specifically he addressed it and how much I just wandered into it myself, but it seems that we should probably get good at making broad predictions as a way to help improve how we get to more specific predictions.  The pace of any technology or field of study does seem to begin with a coarse understanding and get finer as we learn more.  I suppose there’s no reason that making predictions of the future shouldn’t go through this same series of refinements except that it is so much more fun to come up with (and read about) very specific predictions.


 
Profiles of the Future: The Rest

I started reading Arthur C. Clarke's Profiles of the Future way back in 2003.  I've finally gotten around to finishing it, and wanted to add in some comments to those I originally wrote on earlier chapters.  So, here we go!

P 198
While he’s not making a prediction here, the following comment is amusing for probably self-evident reasons:
“We seldom encounter really impressive feats of memory these days, because there is little need for them in our world of books and documents.”
I wonder if he ever reflected on this in the Google era.

On the same page, and of interest for similar reasons:
“When we discover how the brain manages to filter and store the blizzard of impressions pouring into it during every second of our lives, we may gain conscious or artificial control of memory.  It would no longer be an inefficient, hit-and-miss process; if you wanted to reread a page of a newspaper you had seen at a certain moment thirty years ago, you could do just that, bu stimulation of the proper brain cells.”
While it wouldn’t discount Mr. Clarke’s points about the vividness and completeness of recall that could be accomplished this way, I’ll be curious to see if the Tivo-ing of our lives through external monitoring (always on cameras, microphones, etc) will provide much the same experience (with handy multi-faceted search interface!) sooner than the level of vivid recall that he imagines.  Of course if you could turn on perfect recall 10 years after perfect life Tivo-ing, then you still have the added advantage (on top of the deep immersion) of being able to go back to a time before technology was recording you.  Nonetheless, we could have a lighter version of what Mr. Clarke imagines long before we get the full experience.

P 200
“Yet the mechanical educator – or some technique which performs similar functions – is such an urgent need that civilization cannot continue for many more decades without it.  The knowledge in the world is doubling every ten years – and the rate itself increasing.  Already, twenty years of schooling are insufficient; soon we will have died of old age before we have learned how to live, and our entire culture will have collapsed owing to its incomprehensible complexity.”

P 200 – 201
“It has already been demonstrated that the behavior of animals – and men – can be profoundly modified if minute electrical impulses are fed into certain regions of the cerebral cortex…Electronic possession of human robots controlled from a central broadcasting station is something that even George Orwell never thought of; but it may be technically possible long before 1984”

P 203
“The pilot of an aircraft, fathering data from his scores of dials and gauges…identifies himself with his vehicle, intellectually and perhaps even emotionally.  One day, through telemetering devices, we may be able to do the same with any animal.”
It’s interesting that he doesn’t take the opportunity to apply the telemetering devices to the airplane itself as we have started doing in the last decade.  Of course he may address this later (or did earlier, since it’s been a while since I’ve read the earlier part of the book), but it just struck me how directly he could have gotten there in this passage (despite that what he’s really talking about is connecting to the experiences of other animals directly in our brains).


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