Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Big Ideas, My Shiny Metal Arse

I found some hastily scribbled notes the other day dating from the time of the Prime Minister's '2020 summit' (or, as I like to call it, 'Keating! The Musical'.)

Take on the AMA?

Take responsibility for the whole nuclear fuel cycle?

Nationalise insurance companies?

Show our integration with Asia by making an ambit claim for the Spratly and Paracel islands?

We could stop government funding to private schools.

We could drop out of the UN and approach our NATO partners in Afghanistan, Israel and Micronesia about forming a United Non-Evil Nations.

I think these are all things that a Labor government with a high approval rating might be able to pull off that are sort of kind of in the spirit of the historical Labor movement.

A Labor government should be able to take on the most powerful and disruptive union/cartel in the country, the Australian Medical Association. We do not have enough medical doctors. There are artificial constraints on the supply of medical doctors. Those constraints should be removed. There are other problems with our health system that are also amenable to imaginative legislative fixes- for instance, litigation costs us an enormous amount both through the huge insurance costs doctors pay and by encouraging them to carry out unnecessary tests. There are legislative ways to fix this, surely.

There is no real reason why the party of the workers should oppose something that could make us all richer than Croesus. Nuclear power is not going to disappear if we close our eyes and hope it goes away. We are already involved in the nuclear fuel cycle, so we are not standing to one side setting a pure and righteous example. I'm sure no rational person really thinks it is better for high level nuclear waste derived from Australian uranium to be stored in more densely populated countries that are geologically and politically less stable than we are.

Some things should be in the public sector; some things should be in the private sector. I think the evils engendered by insurance- which is haram, anyhow- would be minimised if securing individuals and companies from misfortune was made a responsibility of the collective.

Of course, issuing stamps showing the Shellberight Islands as part of Australia would only be a joke. But it would be funny.

I don't know why the government gives money to private schools. I don't know why private schools don't reject it on the basis that the one who pays the piper calls the tune. With all my exposure to the education system, primary, secondary, and tertiary, I think the sector as a whole is highly infected with selfish meme material: it exists largely to perpetuate its own existence, rather than carry out its ostensible function. Yes, the world has moved on from needing semi-literate manual labourers to work in factories and read the yellow press: there are better ways of educating people. (NB: better here does not mean 'cheaper', its invariable meaning in the education industry). One day I expect I shall have to write a 'Jerry Macguire'-style screed about all the things we are doing wrong and the better ways we could be doing them.

The last thing about ditching the United Nations is of course an old fantasy from the right wing of the blogosphere. But, if you really want to pursue the multilateralist strategy and punch above your weight diplomatically, is there any better way than to get in on the ground floor of the new, improved, United Nations 2.0? Lu Kewen could be the Billy Hughes of the 21st century.

Hey- it has been almost a year of the new order. How is the government working out for all of you who were so pleased when it came in? (Not trying to pick a fight here, mostly just interested in what sort of changes have trickled down to the Commonwealth public service, to those of you selflessly slaving away there.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

X is for Xenophon

No, seriously.

No, not the Senator.

And not directly, but at third or fourth hand.

But I am not just scraping around desperately for authors starting with ‘X’. I really do have an autobiographical story about my interaction with the Anabasis, though it can hardly be called one of *the* most significant books in my life.
When I was about eight, I read a paraphrased and condensed English version of Xenophon’s account of the retreat of the 10,000. I remember its illustrations were those black and white prints interspersed amid the text that used to be really common. Among them there was one of an ostrich running across the Syrian Desert, I am pretty sure, and one of a column of soldiers walking along a road with steep cliffs on either side. The lowering, overcast-sky quality of the illustrations helped colour my whole perception of antiquity. And translated over to my perception of Middle Earth, I think. The pictures that automatically leap to my mind when I think of those long lost places always have overcast skies. I think- again, I am not sure- that this was the first non-Biblical work I had read dealing with the Greco-Roman world. So it reinforced a mental image that I had for a long time, until I read much much more, of Greece as a distant place that you approach from the East, rather than as a place where you are.

The next year I wrote a story at school, which I think must have been influenced strongly by the bit in Xenophon’s book where they are freezing to death in the Armenian mountains, because it was about a Greek army marching through an icy landscape and being generally miserable. Of course, in my story, there were also vampires.
The teacher (aide?) I showed it to didn’t believe I had written it and wanted to know where I had copied it from. I can’t remember whether I talked them around or not, but the accusation was evidently traumatic enough that I remember it with irritation even now.

This is all very trivial and autobiographical, I know. You may console yourself with the thought that we are nearly at the end of the alphabet, so soon I will stop talking about myself.

I had a read of a non-juvenile English translation before I wrote this, and it is interesting how very topical some of the themes are.

The dangers of unconditional negotiations with perfidious Persians:

Tissaphernes replied as follows: ‘I am really delighted, Clearchus, to hear your sensible speech. With the sentiments which you have, it seems to me that, if you were to contemplate doing me an injury, you would be simultaneously plotting against your own interests. But, now, you must listen in your turn so that you may be convinced that you, too, would be wrong in entertaining any lack of confidence either in the King or in me.
If we really wanted to destroy you, do you think we are short in numbers of cavalry or infantry or in the right sort of equipment with which to damage you, while incurring no risk of retaliation? Or do you think it is likely that we could not find favourable ground to attack you? Remember all the flat country which you go through with great difficulty even when the inhabitants are friendly to you. Consider all the mountains which you have to cross which we could occupy first and make impassable for you. Think of all the rivers where we could cut you into detachments and engage with as many at a time as we liked. And there are some of these rivers which you could not get across at all unless we brought you across. Even supposing we had the worst of it along all these lines, you can be sure, anyway, that fire is more powerful than crops, and if we burnt the crops we could bring famine into the battle against you; and, with all the courage in the world, you could not fight against that. With all of these methods of making war on you at our disposal, how can you imagine that out of all of them we should choose the one method which involves wickedness in the sight of the gods and shame in the eyes of men? It is simply and solely among people who are without means and desperate and without any other way out (and even then they must be villains) that you will find men willing to secure their ends by perjury to the gods and faithlessness towards men. It is not so with us, Clearchus. We are not such blockheads and simpletons.
You may ask why, since we have the power to destroy you, we have not proceeded to do so. Let me tell you that what is responsible for this is my own desire that I should earn the confidence of the Greeks and that I should, by doing good to them, return to the coast with the support of that mercenary army on which Cyrus, in his journey inland, relied only because he gave them their pay. As to the ways in which your help is useful to me, you have mentioned some of them yourself.’

After this conversation Tissaphernes behaved with great affection towards Clearchus, urged him to stay with him for the time being and had him as his guest at supper.

When they arrived at the entrance to of Tissaphernes’ tent, the generals were invited inside. They were Proxenus the Boeotian, Menon the Thessalian, Agias the Arcadian, Clearchus the Spartan and Socrates the Achaen. The captains waited at the entrance. Not long afterwards, at one and the same signal, those who were inside were seized and those who were outside were massacred. After that contingents of native cavalry rode over the plain and killed all the Greeks they could find, slaves and free-men alike. The Greeks saw with surprise these cavalry maneouvres from their camp and were in doubt about what they were doing until Nicarchus the Arcadian escaped and came there with a wound in his stomach and holding his intestines in his hands.

Some of the immemorial inherent problems of democracies, in this exchange between a Spartan and an Athenian:

‘It would be a much better plan, then, for us to steal a bit of the undefended mountain from them when they are not looking . . . I gather that you Spartans, Chirisophus,- I mean the real officer class- study how to steal from your earliest boyhood, and think that so far from being a disgrace it is an actual distinction to steal anything that is not forbidden by law. And, so that you may become expert thieves and try to get away with what you steal, it is laid down by law that you get a beating if you are caught stealing. Here is an excellent opportunity for you to give us an exhibition of the way in which you were brought up and to preserve us from blows, by seeing to it that we are not caught stealing our bit of mountain.’
‘Well,’ said Chirisophus, ‘what I have gathered about you Athenians is that you are remarkably good at stealing public funds, even though it is a very risky business for whoever does so; and your best men are the greatest experts at it, that is if it is your best men who are considered the right people to be in the government. So here is a chance for you too to give an exhibition of the way in which you were brought up.’

Then there is the bewildering melange of ethnic groups riven with internecine strife in the Caucasus, just like there is today.

And I think there are clear analogies between the ‘poll-driven’ leadership of our times and Xenophon’s reliance on consulting sheep entrails to make decisions.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Random Jottings from Somewhere Else

The creek of reason

Was only ever a narrow ribbon of hope in the desert

But now it is a chain of stagnant waterholes

Full of shopping trolleys and broken bottles…

I am here in another inland city with a minor university, a minor university that has decided not to offer a chemistry degree anymore and so has handed over the chemistry it is contractually obligated to teach its third year students to our minor university: specifically, to me. I am here to supervise four going-on-five days of experimental work, where from 8:30 to 5:30 with a break for lunch they will grind away doing experiments. These experiments involve the exercise of real, unglamourous, skills- distillation, recrystallisation, not poisoning oneself or settling oneself on fire. The lab we are in is splendid. Such a high ceiling. Taps everywhere. It has the look and the smell of the organic chemistry labs of my own undergraduate days, but it is much too big for us. There is plenty of equipment, plenty of apparatus, plenty of room to rattle around in. All my life this sector of science, my sector of science, has, in this country at least been shrinking.

I never liked the term ‘central science’, but it is. It is the real key to solving our problems in health, our problems with the environment, in developing new materials that will allow Moore’s Law to keep rolling along, that will allow us to upload sentient lobsters to the Interweb.

Of course, these things are still rolling along, I tell myself. Science is not really a dried-up creek, it is still an unstoppable tsunami. Only not here. Or, not much.

Sometimes I google something to find out more about it and find something I have written about it, almost immediately.

Sometimes what I have written is embarrassingly wrong.

Watched the documentary about murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya on SBS the other night. I was impressed by how flash Moscow looked, how much stuff there was on the shelves of the market where her beautiful daughter Vera was shopping, how nice the buses seemed compared to the buses in Sydney. So while at the same time as I fully agreed with the central message about the abominable behavior of the Russian regime, I felt a utilitarian countercurrent of admiration, an involuntary hunch that maybe Putin is not just some grubby authoritarian, but Russia’s Lee Kuan Yew. I still remember those initial few hours of euphoria in Singapore “I have seen the future, and it works”.

As we enter the age of stupid…

My aversion to many-universes models was excessive and irrational. After thinking the matter over carefully, I no longer think there are any logical or moral objections to a many-universes model. I will continue to reject these models on two bases, but I will seek to moderate my language and will not automatically reject them. These two bases are:

(1) Parsimony. We can explain things adequately without them.

(2) Utility. They do not shed any useful light on the most interesting and crucial aspects of quantum mechanics, and hence are not very exciting.

I will now outline my initial objections to many-worlds models, and the answers to those objections I have come up with on further reflection.

The first objection is the aesthetic-moral one made so effectively by Larry Niven in the story ‘All the Myriad Ways’. This story made a strong impression on me, and I now realise with a shock that it alone probably qualifies Niven, after all, to hold down the letter ‘N’ in my list of influential authors.

[I need to find the story again to find the quote I want to put here, so in the meantime you can link to this discussion about the Buffyverse.]

But, in agreeing with this objection, I am not thinking quantitatively. And I am not thinking correctly about *how* microscopic splits of universes lead to macroscopic variations.

It is not equally likely that I will keep driving merrily along the road, and that I will veer suddenly to the left and run over a nun. The bundle of lives that it is ‘me’, if it has a 1 in 10 trillion chance of veering aside and hitting the nun, has been shaped by the choices it has made to be ‘better’ than some other bundle of lives that has a 1 in 10 million chance of veering aside and hitting the nun. Furthermore, I do not know that a choice I can think about is actually possible: perhaps my freedom is more restricted than I believe, and I actually have no finite probability of veering aside and running over the nun.

Perhaps this is best expressed in terms of another one of those Socratic dialogue thingies.

Assertion: It seems that the possible number of universes is infinite, such that any imaginable universe is not only an image of truth, but a fraction of truth. Therefore the many-universes model is immoral and aesthetically repellent.

Response: However, the evidence suggests strongly that our universe has not existed forever, which means it had a beginning. This beginning surely imposes some set of initial conditions on the bundle of possible universes, which implies that the number of multiple universes is not infinite.

Assertion: Although the possible number of universes may be finite, it seems that we cannot quantify, to any extent whatsoever, the probability of one universe existing rather than another. Therefore the many-universes model is still immoral, yadda yadda.

Response: However, statistical thermodynamics provides a very good model for how we could do this. Imagine, if you will, a simple universe of a large number of red balls that can be placed at any of a large number of energy levels separated by a finite amount of energy. Let us imagine that this universe has a certain total energy, that it begins at some point in time with the balls assigned to some unique configuration of energy levels, and that balls are free to move from one energy level to another- not completely freely, but with a high probability to adjacent levels and a decreasing probability to more distant levels.

This is a reasonable model for a classical universe. We can’t know exactly what the configuration of balls is, but whenever any change happens in this universe, we can say it is in the direction of the configuration of balls that can be made in more different ways. This is just a statistical law, which arises from having lots of balls, but it is so solid that it is the basis for the second law of thermodynamics, and hence for everything.

Figure 1. Two sets of red ball universes with total energy 42. There is only one way of arranging the balls that gives rise to the universe on the left. There are many ways of arranging the balls that give rise to the set of universes on the right.

Is there anything to stop us from saying that the physical meaning of probability is that everything happens, and every time a ball moves from one place to another the universe splits?

No, there is nothing to stop us, we can certainly say this. This might be a useful way to look at things in a classical universe. It gives a very straightforward physical interpretation of probability. There are no real aesthetico-moral objections, since the choices (or deterministic non-choices) we make are the same ones we would make in the classical universe, according to the laws (or guidelines) or thermodynamics. We just interpret them as probabilities rather than unique events. I think, given how very large large numbers are, if we say that every particle in the universe can choose (or be impelled) to change state once a chronon, our macroscopic choices (or non choices) take place at such a high level of emergent phenomena that most of the unnerving possibilities that make us turn away from the many-universes model, like Larry Niven, with fear and loathing, are in any meaningful sense of the word, impossible.

Assertion: Okay, okay, maybe you’re right. But what about the two-slit experiment?

Response: The two-slit experiment?

Assertion: Let me explain. Actually, you can probably get a much better idea if you go out and get hold of a copy of Feynman’s ‘Lectures in Physics’. It is in Volume III.

If you have two slits in an electron-proof thingy such that a single beam of electrons can go through both of them at once, then ping onto an electron detector, you can get two different outcomes, depending on whether you put something at the slits to detect whether the electrons go through them or not.

Figure 2. Things that can happen in the two-slit experiment with a beam of particles.

You get this result- electrons acting like particles would act if you detect them, and like waves if you don’t detect them- even if you shoot them through one at a time, so you can detect each electron striking the other side individually, ping, ping, ping.

The two-slit experiment is relevant because it seems to imply communication between bundles of universes. An electron chooses to go through one slit or another: the universe splits. But the overall features of the observed universe depend on the choices of many electrons. How can this make sense, in a many universe model? How can the many-universes model cast any light on this? Should we not see, in a universe of red balls, the particle-like distribution of particles in all cases.

Response: Yes, this is one of the more wacky things about quantum mechanics. Actually, I fail to see how the many-universes model can cast any light upon it. Perhaps Marco (pbuh) can explain.

However, the two-slit experiment can still make sense in a many-universes model. It does *not* imply communication between universes, because wave-particle duality can mean something like the De Broglie pilot wave model, which is perfectly consistent with electrons going through independently to create an interference pattern. This does not rely on any spooky ‘now I’m a wave, now I’m a particle, ooga-booga’ weirdness, which Dr Clam has decided he finds more irritating than the many-universes model.

Assertion: What about the different behaviour of fermions and bosons? A few chapters later on in Feynman’s ‘Lectures on Physics’, there is this really nifty discussion of scattering. Particles that are different from each other scatter in one way, which is the same sort of way, more or less, as macroscopic lumps of matter. Particles that are identical scatter in one of two completely different ways, depending on whether they have integer spin (bosons) or half integer spin (fermions).

Feynman writes somewhere that he tried to put together an explanation for this difference between fermions and bosons into an undergraduate lecture, but found he couldn’t do it, which he says means that we don’t really understand it. Whatever it is, doesn’t it just knock the stuffing out of the many universes theory? Here we have macroscopic consequences arising from probabilities that don’t seem to behave anything like probabilities behave in your universe full of balls. And that’s the wacky way all probabilities behave in quantum mechanics. Sure, you can save your many-universes theory by adding lots of wacky ad hoc rules about how ‘balls’ of different kinds should behave, but what good is that? It hardly makes it a useful predictive theory, huh, huh?

Response: Again, this example is one of the more spectacularly weird things about quantum mechanics. And maybe shoehorning it into a many-universes model would just be papering-over a dodgy theory. But maybe it could actually shed some light on the problem. For instance, our model of the universe of balls sort of implies that we can tell the balls apart: but if the balls are indistinguishable, then there is only one way to get to this configuration, just like there is only one way to get to this configuration, and they are equally ‘probable’. Or am I dreaming?

Figure 3. Two sets of red ball universes with total energy 42. If all the balls are indistinguishable, isn’t it true that there is only one way of arranging the balls that gives rise to the universe on the right, just like the universe on the left?

White King: Tell him he’s dreaming.


I have been spending my time here in this inland city, doing wet chemistry during the day- which I am not so good at, I would not be the one doing this in a more knowledgeable time- and at night I come back and watch the Sky business news- because I have a very low resistance to television- and read ‘Accelerando’. Only a chapter at a time, because then my brain is too stretched and I have to go and take a nap. I thought tonight that maybe I am wasting my time, messing about with dumb matter, when the real game is elsewhere. But someone has to figure out these things.

I am reminded, in these exciting times, of a story I once read by Leo Szilard, where capitalism is compared to the manic depressive cycles of the insane.

Stross has something that is superficially plausible in ‘Accelerando’, on making command economies as effective as market economies, using expert systems that can evolve optimal allocations of resources without the need for competition in the real world. This sounds good, but what it leaves out is the ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’ principle. We have all these sophisticated computer models for all sorts of things, and so many of them are just rubbish, because they need more and better inputs than we can provide. A pseudo-market in silico cannot function like a real market until we are massively, massively, massively documented in real time.

When that day comes, we will have to get rid of so many of our stupid laws it isn’t funny.

Usury is a sin. Muahahahaha!

The world is flat - with gigantic frigging walls built everywhere.

Like, our dog runs off. He doesn’t go very far, and he hasn’t gotten into a great deal of trouble (yet), but we live in the sort of neighbourhood where one day, someone will shoot him. We went to a good deal of trouble putting up one of those electronic dog fences, which worked real well for a while. However, he is a dem clever dog, and when the battery in his zappy collar was low he worked it out, and just barreled out through it from then onwards. We thought we would get a more uber zappy collar, and the ones available locally were real expensive, but there were much cheaper ones on the net from overseas- like half the price- so we ordered one of them. Customs stopped it. It is apparently legal to sell them in Australia, but not to import them. This seems a bizarrely nit-picky instance of restraint of trade. We googled importing them, and all we could find was stuff about their use as sex toys. Oops.

Like, I get all these emails from Indian undergraduate project students looking for a place to come and do a three month or so final year project. Unfortunately, I always have to write back and tell them what I have found out after making inquiries, that there is a 0.0001% chance of their getting a visa to come and do this.

Like, our university demands one particular English test. It is the TOEFL instead of the IELTS, or vice versa. I can’t quite remember. I ended up waiting nine months for a student from the Middle East I had offered a scholarship- who had perfectly decent English skills- to get in to do the proper test at the heavily oversubscribed testing centre in his country, and what with one thing or another, I had to hand the scholarship money back before he could take it.

They are absolutely batshit insane – to quote Lexifab, in another context – about occupational health and safety at the place I am visiting. A fellow came around this morning to move my pushbike – because he got an email from someone else in the Geschutzapparat, telling him to come around and move my pushbike – because it was a safety hazard, leaning up against a wall inside the lab in a way that impinged too much on a thoroughfare that none of us actually fared through during the course of a day.

It is the only place I have ever been where prescription glasses do not count as safety glasses in the teaching lab. I have just ignored this directive.


You should try and complete this statement my son made to me the other day: ‘My mind gets confused when I…’

I am about 43% of the way through Accelerando. My brain is feeling stretched, as it is meant to. At the same time, I am living through what seems to be an exciting economic phase transition.

It is probably right and good that the tertiary sector as presently constituted should begin to wither away. It is configured for the old age of stupid, not the coming age of stupid. We need to educate a leaven of people who actually know things to get us through the coming age of stupid, using the tools of this/that age.

A symptom of the new age of stupid is the idea that simulated ‘experiments’ can replace experiments. We need to find a way to escape from the tyranny of safe.

I predict that in another month, after the ‘worse than expected’ RMP growth numbers come out (worse than expected by who?) everyone will be looking critically for the first time at all the RMP economic data we’ve seen for the past decade and telling us that it is dodgy as. Roll on Economics 2.0!

‘…think about knight’s moves in four-dimensional chess.’


Finished Accelerando. Once the pace accelerates past what the characters can cope with so their story is left behind, it is relatively easy for a simple human like me to keep up.

For what its worth, I don’t think it is possible- within the universe- for there to be a conscious entity which stands in relation to a human being as a human being stands to a tapeworm. This analogy crops up a number of times in Accelerando.

Datum: The complexity of possible problems scales in a dizzying way. For example: Two body problem, easy. Three body problem, impossible. (NB: Number of bodies in the universe, 10180 ono. )

Datum: There is a limit to how fast information can pass from one place to another. It isn’t all that fast, compared to speeds we can imagine.

Datum: There is a limit to how much stuff can be packed into a particular volume. It isn’t all that much, compared to smallnesses we can imagine.

I think if you put these three things together, it will work out the horizon of possibly tractable problems in our universe will turn out to be not all that far removed from the horizon of problems solvable by human intelligence in our universe.

I believe there could certainly be conscious entities which stand in relation to a human being as a human civilization of several quadrillion humans stand to a human being. But I don’t think that degree of ability to hold information, to come up with new ideas, to link existing ideas, would be qualitatively different from human intelligence, to the same extent that we are different from tapeworms.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

One Universe is Enough for Anyone

Firstly, I expect you have noticed that P. J. O'Rourke has cancer.

Androoo must bear the weighty responsibility of putting me on to P. J. O'Rourke in the first place. This had the effect, eventually, of kicking me some distance along - though not all the way down - the continuum between traditional Catholic economic 'progressivism' and more libertarian economic principles.

The interesting thing for me is that P. J. Rourke states pretty much the same theodicy that I have used for a long time, though with fewer long words and funnier jokes, presumably because he doesn't have a doctorate but is famous for being a funny person:

I consider evolution to be more than a scientific theory. I think it's a call to God. God created a free universe. He could have created any kind of universe he wanted. But a universe without freedom would have been static and meaningless -- the taxpayer-funded-art-in-public-places universe.

Rather, God created a universe full of cosmic whatchmajiggers and subatomic whosits free to interact. And interact they did, becoming matter and organic matter and organic matter that replicated itself and life. And that life was completely free, as amoral as my cancer cells.

Life forms could exercise freedom to an idiotic extent, growing uncontrolled, thoughtless and greedy to the point that they killed the source of their own fool existence. But, with the help of death, matter began to learn right from wrong -- how to save itself and its ilk, how to nurture, how to love (or, anyway, how to build a Facebook page) and how to know God and his rules.

Which is basically what I have thought for the last twenty years. But I have never seen anyone else write it down.

Actually, this first bit about P. J. O'Rourke is not at all pertinent to my main points. Which I will get on to later tonight, or possibly tomorrow. Watch this space!