Thursday, April 30, 2009

No Swine 'Flu in Virginia

So far, Virginia (the state where I live) has no reported cases of swine 'flu.

That can only mean one thing: Virginia's 'flu monitoring system isn't working.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A new kind of science, or an old kind of mistake?

Stephen Wolfram has written a fascinating book called A New Kind of Science, which describes the universe in terms of cellular automata, which are a long standing interest of his.

First let me say that Wolfram is undoubtedly one of the brightest minds of our generation. Had he lived a couple of centuries earlier he would probably have been one of those people reputed to know all that is known (an impossible standard these days). Having acknowledged that...

...I have one big question about the idea, and it's this: For as far back as we can tell, humans have described the physical world using as a model, essentially, the most complex thing they know at the time. They've also tended to assume, naively, that today's Most Complex Thing will never be surpassed in complexity. Consider:

In pre-history the most complex thing we knew was ourselves, so we explained the universe [earth, or some small corner of it] in terms of malicious gods and capricious spirits who were pretty much like us, except magically powerful. Sadly, many people still do -- but that's a topic for another day. (If you're reading this and you believe in something supernatural, then obviously I'm not talking about your profoundly-held spiritual beliefs. I'm talking about those other people and their irrational, crackpot beliefs in the wrong religion/magic/astrology/pyschics/ghosts/etc.)

When the greeks became mathematicians and, most notably, geometers, the universe [solar system] was understood as a complex problem in geometry. This world model persisted all the way up to Kepler, who believed that the positions of the then-known planets could be explained by nesting Platonic solids -- which makes so much more sense than that Ptolemaic nonsense about concentric crystal spheres!

The scientific revolution that included Newton, Copernicus, and Galileo spawned physical laws based in differential calculus, equations with (theoretically) precise solutions, and a universe described as the most complex piece of clockwork imaginable. The world, like maths and machines, was entirely predictable.

In the 19th century, with the rise of both statistical theory and the industrial revolution, it became fashionable to think of the universe in terms of thermodynamics (in other words, the most complex steam engine imaginable). While the physical laws were still deterministic, the behavior of a complex system (like, say, a universe) was really only understandable in statistically averaged ways. Out of this insight would eventually emerge non-linearity, chaos theory, and sytems that were theoretically predictable yet practically unpredictable. In particular, it became clear that some systems were inherently irreducible: they cannot be simulated by anything simpler than the system itself. (This came as something of a shock to physicists who, as a profession, like to reduce and simplify. These are people who, according to a popular joke, if asked to bet on a horse race would begin "Consider a perfectly spherical, hairless horse...").

In the 20th century we had the digital computer and, surprise, the idea that the universe could best be understood in terms of information theory. In other words, the universe is like the most complex computer imaginable. Or maybe even like a quantum computer, because those are even more complex.

Intriguingly, the history of quantum field theory neatly recapitulates the history above. Quantum mechanics started out as an essentially mechanical theory in which certain quantities needed to be quantized, for reasons then unexplained, to explain well-known experimental results, but not much else about it was particularly weird; it evolved into a theory based in statistical processes and probability and inherent uncertainty; and it is increasingly best understood as a theory about conservation of information rather than a theory about particles and forces. (This latter line of thought is at the root of much of Hawking's work, especially with regard to the physics of black holes, that suggest that the concept of Entropy, so fundamental to the 19th century thermodynamic view, is actually more deeply explained by Information).

And now we have a proposal that suggests that the universe is like cellular automata. The cellular automaton is a wonderful discovery, a construct built from transparently simple rules that can generate behavior so complex and unexpected that it is, for all practical purposes, unpredictable (and some cases, perhaps even formally undecidable). It combines the fundamental certainty of precise laws; the impossibility of predicting the behavior of an arbitrary starting point short of actually running the machine; and fascinating relations to information theory.

So... Maybe Wolfram does have has a unique insight into the how to describe the universe. If anybody is going to, it would probably be a singular mind like his.

Or perhaps Wolfram is merely the latest to model the universe in terms of the most complex thing we know. While it's always nice to understand the universe better, there's a decent possibility that the universe can't be adequately modeled by anything -- or at least, any one thing -- that is, by definition, within the Universe. I think Kurt Godel might have something to say about that...

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Political Aside: Jiu-Jitsu

I've been following with fascination the debate about the torture of prisoners accused of terrorism (and if you're one of the people defending the practice, I urge you to take a moment to note the word "accused" in that sentence: not "convicted", not even "tried", but simply "accused" within a system that never holds the accusers accountable.)

On the surface it seems like Obama is being unusually clumsy. Didn't he anticipate that his supporters would be outraged that he isn't planning to prosecute anybody? And doesn't he realize what a great opportunity this is to go after Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of that cabal?

Frankly I think that Obama knows exactly what he is doing. I'm coming to admire enormously his ability to shape the political battlefield before he engages the enemy (just like Colin Powell would do in a military conflict).

Think about this. If he had gone after the Bush/Cheney henchmen right away, the GOP and its proxies would wheel out the "Partisan witch-hunt!#@!!" talking points.

So what does Obama do? First he "upholds his promise of transparency" by releasing the documents. Then he says he's not planning to prosecute CIA officers who simply followed orders they'd been told were lawful [notice the implied contrast to the Bush regime's handling of Abu Ghraib...]. But he carefully leaves the door open. Then he waits...

...And pretty quickly there is an up-swelling of outrage from the public and the media demanding that somebody be held accountable, now that they have the details in the documents in front of them (yay transparency!). If not the CIA officers, then who? Well, I guess it has to be the people that authorized the torture. "I didn't want to appear partisan", says Obama, reluctantly, "but the American people demand accountability".

And of course, the increasingly ridiculous defense of these practices by Republicans plays right into his strategy. "It's not torture because... uh... we're Americans and Americans don't torture" wouldn't defeat an average high school debate team, let alone a master of political jiu-jitsu. Even funnier is watching them tie themselves in logical knots as they try to argue that Obama is endangering Americans by releasing these documents, while simultaneously demanding that he release more documents to prove that the torture worked and was therefore justified. It's only a matter of time before somebody's head explodes live on Fox News. (Please, God, let it be Sean Hannity.)

Oh and Rudy Giuliani: in case you're still wondering, this is what a "community organizer" does.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Thought for the day: the armed forces

Wouldn't it make more sense if the armed forces were called the Army, the Navy, and the Airy?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Color Commentary

If you are male and not professionally employed in home decor or design, you can create a lasting positive impression on your wife/girlfriend/significant other with one simple trick:

Casually refer to some shade of red by a more specific name, such as "burgundy" or "claret".

For maximum effect, you should phrase the reference in the form of a question so that she can correct you. This allows her to simultaneously acknowledge your sensitivity and reaffirm her superiority in that regard.

IMPORTANT: The benefits of this stratagem will be entirely lost if she ever discovers that "burgundy and gold" or "claret and blue" are the commonly-referenced colors of your favorite football [sic] team.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Thought for the day

There is no social situation so awkward and uncomfortable that it can't be made worse by somebody saying "Well, this is uncomfortable."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Better Off Ted

Well, I finally found a TV show I like: a new comedy called Better Off Ted. It reminds me heavily of the deadpan surrealism of the post-war Parisian Theatre of the Absurd, with an obvious influence of 19th century pataphysics in its setting, along with a whiff of commedia dell'arte. Its structure is a complete break from the standard tedious TV sitcom's setup line/zinger straightjacket, and in those regards reminds me of both Arrested Development and the underappreciated Andy Richter Controls The Universe -- not surprisingly, alums of both shows are involved in Ted.

It's smart, it's witty, and I give it no more than five weeks before its canceled and replaced with reruns of According To Jim.

Thursday, April 09, 2009