Monday, January 12, 2009

Cosmic Variance

I recently added the blog Cosmic Variance to my reader. It's great. I know you probably don't have much time for more content ... and the posts are all rather longish, but I'm really glad I stumbled on it.

As an example, I really identified with this post on the cult of genius. It really got me thinking about kids and the damage that can be inflicted unwittingly with too much general praise. I was told repeatedly that I was smart or a genius all the time at home growing up, and I turned out to be the prototypical skater. Disengaging when things would get remotely challenging. It didn't hit me (or maybe I didn't acknowledge) until I was 23-24 that I wasn't "exceptional" or "brilliant". The post really cemented some thoughts that I had been arriving at on my own ... that it's ok to struggle with stuff, that some things in life *are* hard, that practicing/working on something is sometimes the only way to advance in it. It seems odd to be realizing that stuff at age 34. Also takes the sting out of this.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Escape from Formal Systems

A few weeks ago we discussed this Discover article about the multiverse theory. (As an aside it's just sort of funny how when you've been concentrating on a particular subject all kinds of other, related memes come into your consciousness. Synchronicity, I think, is what Jung would call it). You'll remember that just prior to the publishing of the article I started reading Godel, Escher, Bach. While I didn't finish GEB, the part that I did read added quite a bit to my recent intellectual-religio quest. I was particularly struck by a passage early on in GEB where the author is discussing the differences between human thought and AI vis-a-vis formal systems. Humans have the ability to exit any system at will and survey the results, make judgements, or engage in some other system. Machines can, and often do, act unobservantly, i.e. completely immersed in the system. To wit:

How well have computers been taught to jump out of the system? ... In a computer chess tournament ... one program, the weakest of all the competing ones, had the unusual feature of quitting long before the game was over. It was not a very good chess player, but it at least had the redeeming quality of being able to spot a hopeless position, and to resign then and there, instead of waiting for the other program to go through the ritual of checkmating ... Thus, if you define "the system" as "making moves in a chess game", it is clear that the program had a sophisticated, preprogrammed ability to exit from the system. On the other hand, if you think of "the system" as being "whatever the computer had been programmed to do", then ... the computer had no ability whatsoever to exit the system.
Thus, it's all in how you define "the system". How PoMo.

The discussion of formal systems started to get me thinking about both the field of Physics and again my religious quest. Certainly the search for the grand unifying theory of physics is the search for the ultimate formal system. But my hunt for some kind of religio-spiritual truth was also a quest for the ultimate formal system. And, having just finished an election cycle, the search for, or adherence to a particular political ideology involves a formal system too.

If we ever find a grand unifying theory, two problems seem to arise (maybe three). The first is that it would seem that this unification would be subject to Godel's first incompleteness theorem: complete or consistent, not both. The second issue is that such a unification would be an example of a formal system that we (mankind) could not step out of and consider. Third, there's the fine tuning problem.

Here's something that struck me while reading that multiverse article. Certainly in Christianity (or Judeo-Christianity) we have the concept that Man is created in God's image. From a secular, socio-psychological perspective (or as Nietzsche might say), it's not hard to understand why the Man in God's image meme exists. And on the surface that meme seems incompatible with the concept of the multiverse. But it might just be right on. Going back GEB, if a defining characteristic of human intelligence is that it can, at will, step out of a formal system to make judgements or enter into a different formal system, and if human intelligence is created in the image of God, then God must be able to enter and exit formal systems at will too. But what sort of formal systems would a God deal with? Why not entire universes?

If God created the multiverse (i.e. an infinite set of universes), then ours is just one of an infinite number of permutations. Which helps assuage the fine tuning problem (we, then, aren't really fine tuned so much as just a probability). It also clears up the Man in God's Image meme. God can jump from one formal system (one universe) to the next just as we jump from Minesweeper to Solitaire. We inherit it from Him. And it sort of even answers the Godel Incompleteness problem in that whatever unification we came up with obviously wouldn 't be complete for all the other universes.

Yes, cramming the infinite and the unknowable into our puny linguistic constructs and conceptions is whack and narcissistic.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Secret of 2.0

I've got a separate post coming specifically on Twitter and it's ilk, but there was a phrase in this O'reilly post that really hit me.

"What's different, of course, is that Twitter isn't just a protocol. It's also a database. And that's the old secret of Web 2.0, Data is the "Intel Inside". That means that they can let go of controlling the interface. The more other people build on Twitter, the better their position becomes."

I sort of knew this, but it took this phraseology for me to really get it.

Two things immediately came into my head: 1) I need to ditch tiddly wiki and get some database backed blogging platform (or write my own). 2) Our typical clientele fundamentally does not understand this.

I'm starting to wonder why our community doesn't take a more Google (or even Amazon) like approach to their data. Aggregate it, put out some APIs and see what people do with it. Concentrate on availability, access, and environment/platform and get out of the way. Things like the DIB and DDMS and the rest of the standardized, top-down approach are starting to seem really heavy handed to me.

Solar Rigs

So I was reading this the other day and it got me to thinking: Who cares about the submarine, why don't we have just the "solar islands"? Imagine if we had huge solar islands (submersible even, so when the storms came they could just disappear for a while) in the same way that we have oil rigs. Or even solar islands that have wave/tidal generators on the underside. The downside of most alternative energy sources like wind and solar is that the equipment tends to exist in out of the way places where it's hard to get the produced energy to the grid. Obviously solar islands will suffer from the same hardship. It's just odd to me that we'd go through the effort of extracting oil from beneath the ocean floor, overcoming all kinds of challenges, yet solar islands (or farms) still are not widespread due to the overland distance thing.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Things I don't have time for: Golf, Religion ... coda.

Any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete.

In addition to being vexed by that proposition, a couple of other things started to move me off of the strict rationalist viewpoint. The more reading I did about this neo-rationalist movement, the New Atheists to some, the more uncomfortable I became with their rhetoric. The science they put forth is great. But it seems that this group is no longer content to let people "have their delusions". For Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, religion is dangerous. To be fair, this sentiment really solidified after 9/11 for that group. I don't want to rehash all of that. I understand the point they are making, but the more aggressive their speech gets about the dissolution of religion the more they sound like the lesser essays in TPA. When it's about the science it's fascinating. When it's about listing all the ills of religion, it's tedious. Bill Maher is the prototypical manifestation of this.

Additionally, as I mentioned last post, the rationalist re-education was still not complete. Maybe could never be complete. I couldn't shake this ... yearning for something. No matter how much sense the science made. Still though, the results of my Catholic experiment were never going to change. This is when, unexpectedly, Zen, of all things, started making sense to me. I think mainly because it's mum on the whole Godel imcompleteness thing (Zen would say that any sort of system is a figment of our imagination and so who cares about complete or consistent). Plus Zen doesn't have the "baggage of events". That is, things that are expected to *happen* and therefore are *verifiable*. I was thinking about Christianity today along those lines. How it waits for the end of the world. It's been 2000+ years and it hasn't happened. How long will the world go before people don't care/aren't fearful anymore? What if 2000 years is less than a nano-second in GodTime? What if the six billion years of the earth is a nano-second? And in another nano-second (i.e. another six billion years)
God destroys his creation? The entire history of the universe might be the blink of his metaphorical eye. Yet people right now are waiting for it. That whole "like a thief in the night" seems kinda ridiculous at times. That's the probelm with Christianity: specificity. And maybe that's why Zen makes sense to me at the moement: Lack of ... well anything. :)

So here I am ... a Zenful quasi-rationalist agnostic, unsatisfied as always. I wonder if it's part of the human condition to look to/for something outside the physical world or if it really is the God Delusion.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Things I don't have time for: Golf, Religion ... pt. 3

For whatever reason, a name that kept showing up on my meme-dar was Kurt Godel. I had, at some point, stumbled on his incompleteness theorem(s) and was captivated. I remarked to Ray (only somewhat tongue in cheek) that I thought it was sort of obvious. Specifically his first incompleteness theorem really spoke to me.

A while back I had read The Trouble With Physics by Lee Smolin and enjoyed it a lot. The author starts out by stating the five unifications that are missing from the current standard model, and goes on to describe the, as yet unsuccessful, efforts to round that model out. Whenever I think of Godel's first theorem I often think of this book, and the folly of looking for a complete system to describe the world, and the asaninity of stating, exactly, what you don't know.

Just recently, since I had Godel on the brain, I decided to plow through Godel, Escher, Bach. I'm just in the very beginning (strange loops). At one point, the author describes the shock and consternation when it was put forth that there are actually multiple different geometries beyond just Euclidian. Not all that alarming, until you consider that the idea, and subsequent debate, happened in the 1930s!!!!

It was only after reading about these multiple geometries that it occurred to me that my critique, or disdain for the current state of theoretical physics was somewhat at odds with my newly fashioned rationalist point of view. As I mentioned earlier, I was already having trouble fully excising all the residual spiritual thoughts, and now I'm confronted with an apparent incompatibility with my shiny new system. Not good. I had just figured everything out for God's sake! :)

Things I don't have time for: Golf, Religion ... pt. 2

The rationalist worldview that I adopted also dovetailed nicely with my interests in theoretical physics, astronomy, and math. So for a time everything fit together nicely. I wasn't "struggling" with competing worldviews that were inherently at odds. The rationalist view fit into this all-or-nothing mindset I described in the last post. There weren't any compromises necessary, no interpretations, no POMO deconstruction or relevatism. If nothing else, everything was a math equation at bottom and people tend not to argue with math :) . I felt like I had a "system" that "made sense" and that I could be at peace with. At least at first.

It turns out that it was a fair amount of work to re-train myself to think like a rationalist all the time. Whether it was due to Catholic upbringing or my study of Religion or D&D fanboydom, I kept catching myself thinking of non-empirical, non-rational, spiritual type things. I would have conversations with myself reminding myself that I don't believe that stuff anymore. It really turned out to be (mental) work. Not as arduous as living the conservative Catholic life, but work still. But all I had to do was read some more Dawkins (or listen to some evangelical Christian) to know that I had made a wise choice.

But always in the back of my mind ... this ... loneliness over the fact that, illusion or not, all the "other stuff" was now gone from my worldview.