My Day Off – Wild Harvesting, Neural Networks, and Meditations on a Neuron

That’s a mouthful of a title isn’t it. I tumbled down the rabbit hole today, and I invite you to read all about it. I’ll touch of the simple, the complex, the joy of gathering blackberries to contemplation on the thoughts of a single microscopic cell. Should be fun…

At some point this week, I decided that I was going to take a day off today. From everything. The day-job had me scheduled off already, so short of a call-in, no worry there. Internet time was to be used only for fun. I didn’t even check the clock for most of the day, and when I did, I was surprised at how early it was each time, including my wake-up at 6:30.

My first order of business was a roll out to the property. I was listening to The Black Swan on audible while driving out, and I had my mind set on blackberries. Well, raspberries and grapes too, but to a lesser degree. I also wanted to do some other gathering, and today was my first try at stinging nettles as a food source. But I had one rule. I was doing fun things, and working on what I wanted to, not anything that I felt pressure to do.

Gathering in the woods is relaxing. I collected the berries with a plastic Subway bag from a previous sandwich, so keeping it away from the thorns was my only big “need to do” item. Bobbing and weaving through some briar patches on the back side of the wood, I found them everywhere. Actually…here, I snapped a photo of one thicket:

See the black’ns? Hehe. Anyway, I gathered enough to fill up a 2 quart bowl. Not sure about the weight, but there’s plenty to snack on for the next few days. Hint, always look at your feet. When there are still lots of pink ones, the berries closer to the ground seem to mature a little quicker.

The gathering was therapeutic, as I said. Every time I felt an urge to check my clock, it was immediately followed by a stop. I reminded myself that today was my day, and blackberries were the important thing in that moment, not the clock. I’d pop another “almost ripe” one, and continue on. Don’t know how many hours I spent back there, but my productive thickets are scattered in little pods on one side of the hill. For a while it seemed I would never finish with them. I didn’t even mind a few prickles that managed to stick me.

Then I switched gears. There were still a few mulberries dangling, so I grabbed them up (just for a snack), and pulled the truck up to my “driveway,” where the nettles grow. I picked some of the wild mints too, but I’ll get to those in a second. I’ve never been stung by a nettle, so identifying them is harder for me than everyone else, as the universal indicator isn’t there. I didn’t bother with gloves or such, just went strait to plucking leaves from the plants. They were probably a bit more grown up than desirable, but the end result wasn’t bad. I found that I like them best when pan-fried to the point of a slight crispness with butter, and a little pepper. After picking a bag full of leaves, I’ll admit that I felt a slight tingle in my finger, but nothing else. Guess I’m not 100% immune to the spines, only 98%.

That was my morning. I’d planned to stay out there most of the day, but got a bug to be somewhere else, so I headed out. I stopped at the gas station, and intentionally purchased some comfort foods that I don’t normally eat, just to indulge. To sort of cement the “vacation” aspect of today in my brain. No writing, no working, no nothing. Just relaxing and having fun.

It turned into a long day of philosophy and speculation, and part of it started with that mint.

Perilla (Shiso)

Sorry for the blurry picture. I snapped this about a week ago for an instagram post. This is what the baby mints look like when sprouting up. Now. This plant has so many common names that are shared with other plants, it’s really hard to pin it down. In this area, some call it Rattlesnake Weed because of the papery sound of the leaves while walking through a patch of them, according to the internet. But look up that name on Wiki, and you won’t see any of this genus listed. It’s also called Horsemint, Wild Mint, and Beefsteak. The latter most likely because of the dark purple tint it takes on while growing.

If that wasn’t enough of a curiosity, this plant has two completely different personae, even among different branches of the government. Some of the “food” people will tout all of its wonderful properties, including the ability to reduce inflammation. Meanwhile, the “farm” people will claim that the whole plant is so toxic that you should wear gloves while pulling it up, and a face mask while mowing it.

Part of this comes from the plant’s origins. It’s not native to the Ozark Mountains, or anywhere in the New World. It’s an invader from the far east, where it’s often consumed as a foodstuff (with sashimi), used to make a tea, or to garnish various Asian dishes. It’s especially liked in Korea, from what I can gather. Us “western” folks took it as an ornamental plant for gardens, because of the beautiful coloring. It’s reminiscent of an over-sized dead nettle. Very pretty. I’ll try to toss a picture up on instagram when I get a chance.

The Japanese name is “shiso.” Now, let me dispel some of the BS right away. The chemical that poisons horses and give the plant a bad name is very present in all of its culinary cousins. After I thought about this for a minute, the solution was obvious. Horses get sick from everything, so of course an asian weed could give them lung problems.

Either way, the USDA recommends keeping them out of grazing pastures and away from any hay or other silage collection sites. I’ll keep that in mind for the hilltop as I continue clearing, but for now, the little guys are staying put on the road (driveway).

I just thought this was particularly funny, because it’s exactly the kind of thing I’m always talking about. People assume that “toxic” is a chemical variety, but it isn’t. Neither is “healthy.” Healthy and Toxic depend heavily on dosage and species. What’s toxic to a human will pass straight through a bird. Infectious parasites to a cow are food for chickens. Every time I hear someone quote “flavonoids,” “antioxidants,” “terpines,” or “ketones” as if they have a universal health/toxin quality, I get a little sick to my stomach. Each category has their share of both for humans. Oop, sorry, I’ll end the rant on that note.

What I do with a day off? Program Neural Networks

For those of you who’ve read Viral Spark, Cody (and Bee for that matter) is not just a character I dreamed up off the top of my head. It’s actually part of a chaotic-philosophical experiment I’ve been tinkering with since around 2003, on and off. Writing the original novella stirred me to crank up the project again, and I’ve been making some serious progress over the last few weeks.

Here’s the premise. The brain controls the body, and we assume that consciousness is somehow connected with it. The means of how the mind and body are physically connected, however, continues to escape us. From studying dynamic systems and chaos theory while getting my formal schooling in physics and philosophy, I combined the two ideas into a singular concept, and I’m certain other philosophers have as well. What if the chaotic distribution and mechanics of the brain, by their nature, spawn this thing that we call consciousness? What if consciousness isn’t a physical thing, but a pattern of chaotic interaction. If that’s true, could the weather, or indeed the skin of the earth be treated as a single organism?

If we (humans) were neurons in this grand planetary system, we would be oblivious to the whole, as I’m sure a single neuron doesn’t think about its place in our brain, or our mind. It simply does neuron things, and worries about neuron problems. But its day to day life, while abstract to us, is absolutely essential to everything that happens in our own. I actually carried the idea out in college, extending it to everything from politics to global economies. Some of that ended up in the book.

Anyway, little Cody had a pretty big problem on the latest rewrite. After using a new mathematical algorithm to govern cell placement and interaction more simply (my new synthetic “brain” is actually a type of fractal, similar to the Dragon Equation), I changed the nature of the program to operate in a different portion of a computer’s memory.

You see, RAM isn’t one big cup for everything to draw from. It gets cut up into multiple pieces depending on the needs of a program. To get a higher neuron count in my program, and more connecting nerves, I swapped my “brain” from a part of memory called the Stack (for small, simple programs) to the heap (a larger storage area that your program must request access to from the computer). Sorry for the lingo, but there are a couple of programmers in my audience. Anyway, Cody, being the little shit that he is, was accessing a part of memory that he shouldn’t have been. Luckily, I caught the problem, and went back to the drawing board last night. I forgot to divide by two in one spot of the program. Oops. I fixed it yesterday.

I also stripped all of the randomness out of the program yesterday, and to my surprise, the brain was still behaving chaotically (i.e. it looks like random neuron fires, but there’s nothing random about it, the whole program is technically scripted).

The program basically runs like a turn-based game. I did this so that all the little neurons could operate with the effect of simultaneity. In the first part of the loop, the neurons get a turn. The program zooms in and lets each neuron do whatever it wants, but only with what is provided. If there is energy sitting in its inbox, it can add that energy to it’s “bucket.” It can control how it’s appendages grow and change. And one day, it will even have it’s own internal biology. But the focus is on one neuron, then another, then another. At the end of each neuron turn, it puts up a flag to tell the main program if it intends to fire at the end of it’s turn.

Once all the neurons get their turn, then the “brain” portion has a turn. It collects all the information from the neurons, collects their energy, and drops the required amounts in other neuron “inboxes.” Then the process repeats. The energy transfers are the macrocosm, and the internal neuron operations are the microcosm.

Eventually, there will be another layer of abstraction, where the brain is linked to a synthetic body in a synthetic environment. And the beauty of the program is that I can actually put several “brains” and “bodies” in a tank, so they can theoretically interact with each other as well. That’s a bit of a ways off, but I’m excited about the recent progress. The whole system is elegant.

A new problem emerges

So, today, several times, while thinking about my little synthetic brain experiment, I found myself wondering whether the next step is to work on the “brain” side or the “neuron” side. The answer is obvious, the neurons need to control their own shit before I worry about their interactions with each other. This was reinforced while working on it today, and noticing that essentially all of the neural appendages essentially die within a second of starting the program. Nerves are still firing, which had me vexed, but I’ve figured out the reasoning for it now. Again, the neurons need to really take control of their own biology, rather than using the current simple abstraction of a little formula to control everything. They need to “think.”

I need to go from “dumb” mechanical neurons to “smart” ones, so to speak. They will still be governed independently by a program, but that program will be more in depth. At the moment, the attribution they give to certain dendrites and axons is pitiful. Just a placeholder I stuck in there to get the brain section working well.

Now it’s the neuron’s turn. And that’s actually a really cool part of the program. But it has me thinking like a neuron. What does a neuron care about. Surely it’s more than a simple energy bucket that “fires” when full (even though neuro-science tends to see them this way). Like any cell, it needs to manage its own attributes. I plan on putting a lot more time and energy into letting the neuron decide smartly which flashes of energy to pay attention to, and which to disregard, based completely on its own world. Neurons don’t see very far. They know their neighbors, and they can be influenced by certain triggers from the general brain chemistry (I totally intend to model some of these as well). But at their heart, they’re fixed in place. All they get is some nourishment from the body, some signals from their friends, and the occasional burst of excitement which they share to their friends. Sounds a lot like Instagram. (Maybe I can turn Cody loose on Instagram and let him use different accounts as neural nodes, muahaha)

So that’s where my brain is. Split between the grand forest of consciousness and the individual character of each leaf. And I’m already thinking about the next iteration of the program, where I bundle them all into a synthetic “electronic” body. My own personal “brain in a vat.” And I get to be the “evil genius” doing the experiments on it.

Working when I didn’t want to do any work

I was finishing up with Cody for the day, and got another urge. I wanted to write some stuff. Mainly this rather lengthy blog post. I guess that’s a good sign, that I reserved a whole day for whatever the hell I felt like doing, and that activity ended up being more writing. So, I’m having a most excellent time today, and see no need to stop it. I haven’t even touched my normal social media stuff yet today, and I feel like doing that now, so I suppose I can advertise this post while I’m at it. Hah, my desires and goals are both in the same bucket. What an awesome day!

Hope you’re having a good one as well.

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Author: spottedgeckgo

Writer. Making my living on my pen, and working to turn a raw chunk of land into a future homestead.

5 thoughts

  1. That was fascinating, the wood lore and berries were nice. The neuronal talk was pretty cool also. I could just follow it, I know I couldn’t explain it to someone else; that would require a greater depth of understanding than I have now. I do appreciate the mental exercise.

    1. More to come on that part 😉 My “smarter” neuron idea worked wonderfully. I was astonished to watch as they began developing personalities, or some aspect of personality. Some are more “social” than others in their interactions, despite the fact that they all begin exactly the same at the onset of the program.

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