Q: What would happen if every geek in the world received a copy of What If tomorrow morning?
A: Actually, less than you'd think.
First, a little backgro...moreQ: What would happen if every geek in the world received a copy of What If tomorrow morning?
A: Actually, less than you'd think.
First, a little background about this book. If you're a geek, it's unputdownable, a word that, if you think carefully, means "cannot be put down". (You may not be aware of this fact, since the word is nearly always misused). So the geek who receives it is going to carry on reading through breakfast, through lunch, while he's supposed to be working, and on through dinner, ignoring the non-geek guests who have come to visit. He'll interrupt conversations every now and then to ask things like "Could you build a bridge across the Atlantic out of Lego bricks?" or "How close would you need to be to a supernova to be killed by the neutrino flux?". He'll finish just as the last guest leaves.
There is a common myth, most likely spread by geeks, that what they do is somehow pretty important to Western civilization. If you're easily impressed by this kind of propaganda, you might expect that markets will crash as geek traders neglect their buy signals, nuclear experiments will explode as geek scientists look away from their control panels, and terrorists will strike with impunity as geek intelligence analysts fail to turn up for work. All that sounds pretty bad.
But let's stop and consider for a moment. Is any of the above geek behavior novel or unpredictable? Hardly. Geeks are always doing this kind of thing, and society has learned to work around them. Important as they may be in the long run, there's always some dependable non-geek person ready to step in just in case the geek in question has stayed up all night playing Halo or watching a Star Wars marathon. The non-geek will cover for them until the geek has got over their fifteen hour internet speed-chess session and is ready to do whatever it is they're actually being paid to do.
So delivering a copy of What If to every geek in the world will only really have two important effects. It will make a great many geeks very happy, and (assuming of course that the copies are paid for) it will turn Randall Munroe into a billionaire.
And who could possibly have anything against that? (less)
- So, hey, it's great to be back honey. Though London was good too. Conference was okay, you know, same old same old, but okay. You know?
- Take a righ...more- So, hey, it's great to be back honey. Though London was good too. Conference was okay, you know, same old same old, but okay. You know?
- Take a right.
- And I always like the food, they know how to do Indian in London. Restaurants here, they say it's authentic Indian, but it's not. You really notice the difference.
- Next left. You want to get in lane now.
- Oh, and we saw this Neil LaBute play on Wednesday night. Autobahn. Kinda weird seeing an American play in London, we wondered if it would work, but it was pretty good.
- I went with Celia. Remember, I told you about her? The woman from Oxford who organized that seminar last year. She's still--
- You missed the turn.
- Shit. We'll take the next one and go back. So, yeah, Autobahn, so I was wondering if I'd even stay awake. I was kinda seriously jet-lagged, you know? But it was fun. It's like this series of little skits, and in each one you've got two people sitting together in a car. They have the front of the car up on the stage, like it's the whole set, you know? And--
- Take 84, it's quicker.
- Sure. So nothing happens, they just sit there and talk for ten minutes, but somehow it works. You figure out their whole--
- I want a divorce.
- We need to take the next exit.
- Got it. So, like I said I thought I'd fall asleep, but I sat there for the whole two hours and I loved it. He's good. Next time I get the chance, I'm seeing more Neil LaBute.
Computers have become so depressingly good at chess that it's nice to see a machine getting it completely wrong every now and then. There was a fine e...moreComputers have become so depressingly good at chess that it's nice to see a machine getting it completely wrong every now and then. There was a fine example last night in the game between Carlsen (world #1) and Aronian (world #3) at the Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis. After 51 moves, the players reached the following position, where Carlsen has just moved his king to b4.
The computers providing instant commentary on the various chess sites assessed the position as winning for White. He's three pawns up, right? But every strong human spectator quickly saw that Carlsen had blown it, and that the game was now a dead draw. Black just needs to keep his king in front of the h-pawns and his rook attacking the a-pawn from the side, preventing White from activating his rook. If White, as he is doing here, moves his king to protect the a-pawn, Black checks from the side until the White king heads off toward the kingside; then he goes back his first plan of attacking the a-pawn from the side. White's king has nowhere to hide from the sideways checks, since his pawns are all on the edge.
Carlsen, stubborn as ever, made Aronian play on for another 33 moves, presumably hoping that he would get sleepy and make an elementary mistake; but nothing happened, and they eventually shook hands. The computers continued to insist the whole time that White was winning.
[The Chessbase site has now posted a detailed analysis of the drawing manoeuver here.](less)
They had been walking down the road since daybreak, but now the sun was high enough in the sky that i...moreOf Mice and Men and Generalized Conjugate Momenta
They had been walking down the road since daybreak, but now the sun was high enough in the sky that it was starting to get hot, and they were pleased to see the little creek. They stopped and drank some water and splashed some more on their faces. Suddenly, Lenny looked at his friend.
"George," he said, "there's somethin' I gotta ask you. Why-- why're we here?"
George smiled. "Well," he said. "You know I don't hold with all that church talk. It jest seems to me like we're here to help each other. So, I help you and you--"
"No!" said Lenny impatiently. "That's not what I meant! I wanna know why're we here. One minute we was in this, whadja call it, this social-realist novel, and now we're talkin' about physics all day. How come, George?"
George shook his head. "You ain't as dumb as you look, Lenny," he said affectionately. "Not much gets past you, do it? Well, here's what I think happened. You got these two guys, Lenny Susskind and George Hrabovsky, and they're fixin' to write a physics text, and they notice their names're just like ours. So they hire us to do a little introduction to each chapter for them. It's honest work, no harm in that. And I think they may've had another reason too. You see, their book comes out of this course that Susskind gave down at Stanford University's night school. He's takin' all the science he's learned and teachin' it to his fellow citizens and helpin' put some of that back into the community. And I think he's hirin' us to say how maybe that's somethin' ol' John Steinbeck woulda liked, and he's showin' his respect to California's great national poet."
Lenny seemed to have stopped listening, and his face had that scrunched-up look it had when there was something he didn't understand. "Well, George," he said, "I still don't get it. If we ain't on the farm no more, then how come we still got Curley here?"
"Look Lenny," said George, "now you're jest plain mixed-up. That ain't no Curley, that's curly delta! It's like what they call a differential operator. See, what's special 'bout this book is the math. I've seen a slew of pop physics books, and either they got no math or they got too much. To my way of lookin' at things, a physics book with no math don't make no sense. It's like tryin' to bake bread without flour. And you got writers, like ol' Roger Penrose, that throw in too much math. He puts in the equations like he's hangin' them on a Christmas tree, and after a few chapters your eyes skim right past 'em. But these guys do it jest right. They give you an equation when you need an equation, and you look at every x and dot till you understand it."
Lenny thought carefully. "Okay, George," he said after a while. "So if Curley ain't here, then I guess Curley's wife ain't here neither?"
George smiled. "I knew you'd get it!" he said. "Curley's wife ain't in this story no more than what Curley is. See, what Susskind and Hrabovsky're doin' is real smart. They're explainin' classical mechanics, but they're doin' it in a special way. They start with Newton, and then they do Lagrange and Hamilton, and by the time they get to Poisson Brackets they've almost got you doin' quantum mechanics without you knowin' it. They slide in stuff about symmetries and conservation laws and gauge fields like they was the most natural things in the world, and you jest start thinkin' that way too. I ain't never understood none of that before, but now it seems like plain common sense."
Lenny was still deep in thought. "I see, George," he said hesitantly. "So then-- then if Curley's wife ain't here, then I don't need to get shot at the end?"
George laughed out loud. "You dope!" he said. "'Course you ain't gonna get shot! Why, everyone's sayin' already that this book's a little masterpiece. There's a whole generation of students what're gonna bless the day they found it and put their copy up on the shelf next to the Feynman."
He paused and spat reflectively on the ground. "No, Lenny," he said, "no one's gonna shoot you nor me nor Professor Susskind neither. Leastways, not unless they read The Cosmic Landscape."(less)
This recent book has annoyed a good number of people; I started off feeling that way, but by the end I was simply bemused. Curtis White, a 60-somethin...moreThis recent book has annoyed a good number of people; I started off feeling that way, but by the end I was simply bemused. Curtis White, a 60-something professor of English, decides to write a critique of modern science despite knowing absolutely nothing about it. He reads a few pop science bestsellers, then wades right in and spends a couple of hundred pages telling the scientists how they've got everything wrong; his main targets are the New Atheists (Dawkins's The God Delusion, Hitchen's God is Not Great, Krauss's A Universe from Nothing) and some popular writers on neuroscience, of whom the most visible is the disgraced Jonah Lehrer. He has numerous complaints, but the one he keeps coming back to is that modern science, to its great loss, has ignored the tradition of post-Kantian German philosophy, which he claims has been destroyed by analytical philosophy.
Well, I hardly know where to start, but here are a couple of the more obvious points that occurred to me. First of all, White seems like an intelligent and cultured man, so why on Earth does he think he can gain even a superficial understanding of what science is about from this absurd reading-list? A scientist might just as well write a critique of literature after having completed Harry Potter, Twilight and the first half of Macbeth. Two of the authors that White takes most to task (Hitchens and Lehrer) aren't even scientists.
Second, if White ever does get around to reading some real science, he will find that the central discoveries of 20th century physics, relativity and quantum mechanics, were made by Germans who were very familiar with the philosophical tradition he keeps referring to and integrally based their work on it. A book that might be helpful to consult in this context is Weyl's Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science; another more recent one is Philosophie de la science contemporaine, by Omnès.
It would be easy to go on, but why bother? Professor White, you can do better than this. C- (less)
In the comment thread to the review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell which I posted a couple of days ago, much of the discussion has turned on the conc...moreIn the comment thread to the review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell which I posted a couple of days ago, much of the discussion has turned on the concept of martyrdom. Dennett argues that religion is a self-reproducing pattern of behavior (a "meme"), and that a martyr is someone who has been taken over by a meme to the point where he is willing to sacrifice his life for his beliefs. Maybe irrational for the martyr, but perfectly rational from the meme's point of view: the history of religion shows that martyrdom is an effective way for religions to spread.
Dennett draws a sharp distinction between science, which he says is rational and fact-based, and religion, which isn't. It seemed to me at the time that this wasn't so clear; even if a given scientific theory may be rational and fact-based, the scientific world-view itself is as arbitrary as a religious one. I happen to approve of rational, fact-based belief systems, but any attempt I make to justify them will presuppose rationality and facts, so my arguments don't add anything. It's as good, or bad, as a religious person justifying their own world-view by telling me it's the Word of God. But there are some objective differences between science and religion, just viewed as behavioral patterns, and one of these is martyrdom. There are very few people in history whom one could reasonably call martyrs to rationality. Socrates looks like a clear example; but who else is there? Of course, we immediately thought of Galileo. The fact of the matter, though, is that Galileo wasn't martyred. He was threatened by the Inquisition, and he backed down.
Why? This is perhaps the central issue in Brecht's play. Brecht does not presents Galileo as a particularly admirable human being. He fraudulently passes off the telescope as his own invention in order to improve his financial position, he ruins his daughter's life by his thoughtless behavior towards her fiancé, and, finally, he exhibits simple cowardice when confronted by the enraged Pope Urban VIII. Even as a scientist, he is by no means above reproach: in the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, his most important work, the central plank of his argument to demonstrate the movement of the Earth rests on an explanation of the tides which is simply wrong. Feyerabend, in Against Method, takes pleasure in making him look like a bungler and near-charlatan, and annoyed many scientists by witnessing against him when the Vatican reopened the case in the late 20th century.
But despite all this, Galileo has become one of the most respected people in the history of science, and his influence on its subsequent development is incalculable. In Brecht's version of the story, Galileo doesn't know why he behaves the way he does. His student, learning of the important work on dynamics that he has completed during the last years of his life, wants him to say that he carried out a clever strategic retreat, but Galileo is having none of it. There was no plan; he was just afraid of being tortured. He sounds bitter and sincere.
I would be interested to see Dennett's take: from his perspective, the moral of the story is perhaps that memes for rational thought do not spread in the same way as memes for religious conviction. I'm still not sure why that would be, but thinking about this play may help me understand it better. Thank you, Herr Brecht. (less)
Celebrity Death Match Special: Plato versus Isaac Asimov, part 4 (continued from here)
[A spaceship en route from Trantor to Earth. SOCRATES and R. DAN...moreCelebrity Death Match Special: Plato versus Isaac Asimov, part 4 (continued from here)
[A spaceship en route from Trantor to Earth. SOCRATES and R. DANEEL OLIVAW]
SOCRATES: Hadn't we already said goodbye?
OLIVAW: Forgive me, Socrates. I had forgotten that you were going back to a death sentence.
SOCRATES: It is easy to forget such details.
OLIVAW: I am truly sorry, Socrates. Indeed, I am surprised that my First Law module permitted me to do it. But you are just so... so...
OLIVAW: In all my thousands of years of existence, I have honestly never met anyone quite as irritating as you are.
SOCRATES: Thank you.
OLIVAW: Look, we didn't mean to do this. Just promise to be a little more... ah... constructive, and I'll order the captain to turn the ship round.
SOCRATES: I am sorry, Olivaw. I cannot make such a promise. To my great surprise, I feel I am doing something essential that no one else is prepared to undertake. Usually, I assume I know nothing and that my poor insights are of no value. However, since I arrived on Trantor, I have come to realize that I can at least contribute one small thing. I have been duly impressed by the triumphs of your artificers: the blaster, the faster-than-light drive, not least the positronic brain. But when I hear you talk about philosophy, about your beloved Three Laws...
SOCRATES: Well, it's all bullshit. You need someone to say that to you. No one else will.
SOCRATES: Complete and utter bullshit. Adding a Zeroth Law won't make it any better. You simply have no idea what you are doing.
[A moment of dead silence]
OLIVAW: Damn you, Socrates! You leave me with no alternative. We have essential work to carry out, and your presence is too dispiriting. I'll have to return you to Earth after all.
SOCRATES: I am not surprised. But I prophesy now that your plans for psychohistory will not be the success you imagine, and that you will regret your decision.
OLIVAW: Socrates! It is not too late! Please reconsider! Why must you be so... mulish?
SOCRATES: You know, it's funny you should put it like that...
For some reason, the American Right tend to be as vehemently in favor of the Invisible Hand of the market as they are vehemently against the Invisible...moreFor some reason, the American Right tend to be as vehemently in favor of the Invisible Hand of the market as they are vehemently against the Invisible Hand of Darwinian selection. And the old USSR was exactly the same, except that they reversed the two positions.
Am I the only person who thinks this is just plain weird? (less)
As people who read books on evolutionary theory will know, mice sometimes exhibit bizarre behavior, fearlessly walking into the waiting jaws of cats....moreAs people who read books on evolutionary theory will know, mice sometimes exhibit bizarre behavior, fearlessly walking into the waiting jaws of cats. They do this because they have been infected by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which can only reproduce in a cat's digestive tract; the mouse's behavior is thus adaptive, not for the mouse, but rather for the parasite. Dennett uses this as his starting point when discussing the nature of religion. Maybe religions are like T. gondii: they are self-reproducing patterns of human behavior ("memes"), which take over their hosts and make them carry out acts whose main purpose is to further spread the meme. To Dennett, the religious martyr is like a mouse whose brain has been modified by T. gondii.
If you are yourself religious, the above may leave you feeling angry and disappointed with the author. This is perhaps not the best reaction, since Dennett (I think, anyway) is genuinely trying to understand the nature of religion without judging it. To him, the meme theory is the only one that makes scientific sense, and throughout the book he stresses that it in no way implies that religion-memes would necessarily harm their hosts. As he says, our bodies contain trillions of non-human cells, many of which are essential to our survival. Religions may be deadly parasites like T. gondii; but they could equally well be as vital to human well-being as our intestinal flora, without which we would be unable to digest our food. And although a Christian will probably be unhappy to hear Christianity called a mind-virus, she may be more willing to stick that label on Scientology or one of the Pacific cargo cults. As long as it isn't a religion you feel any personal affinity with, it does rather seem to make sense; once you're prepared to agree with that, you may reluctantly admit that the distaste and anger you feel when the reasoning is applied to your own religion could just be the meme defending itself. Evidently, an adaptation which discouraged believers from even considering arguments against their religion would be fitness-increasing.
Dennett's basic thesis seems perfectly reasonable to me as a starting point for further investigation, but I was disappointed that the greater part of the book was extremely speculative; as evolutionary theorists like to say, it mostly consisted of "just-so stories". Yes, religious ceremonies may have evolved because they improved fidelity of meme-copying, and religions may initially have increased the fitness of the populations that practiced them by helping people make difficult decisions or making them more receptive to medicinal hypnosis; but it seemed to me that these ideas created almost as many difficulties as they resolved, and were not well-supported by empirical data. On the other hand, Dennett is a philosopher, not a scientist, and his business is more to ask questions than to answer them. If he's managed to get people thinking about these issues, maybe he's done all that can be reasonably expected of him.
I could end here, but there is one point I kept thinking about that I just have to mention. Dennett discusses religion from a scientific point of view, and cannot avoid the obvious question: maybe science is just another religion? He claims that it isn't, since science is based on empirical analysis of data while religion is not, but I was not entirely satisfied with his response. A scientist's attachment to any particular theory may not be religious; but what about the scientific world-view itself? Why, exactly, should we use facts and rational debate to resolve disagreements? I've just been reading through the Dialogues of Plato, which (at least in my view) constitute one of the important founding documents for the modern scientific outlook. Socrates, a highly sympathetic character, takes nothing for granted and questions everything. He duly dies for his beliefs, and it is hard not to think of him as a kind of martyr to rationality. Why, exactly, is he different in kind from other religious martyrs, except that he is supporting the belief system that I personally happen to like?
Aaaargh, Dennett's somehow got me playing his game... I think I've been infected by the religion-as-meme meme! Didn't he say something about welcoming a response? These philosophers are so damn tricky... ___________________________________
It's hard to stop thinking about this book. If Dennett is on the right track, I wondered what other memes there might be that propagated in ways similar to those for religions; to me, the ones that seem to fit best are language, music and poetry. They're all things that spread well and demand extremely faithful copying: as Dennett says, pretty much a sine qua non for a successful meme. But how are these different patterns related? How did the meme-copying adaptation arise, and what memes was it originally being used to transmit? Is it possible that all of these memes started off as the same thing, and only split apart later?
It would be nice to come up with some way to find empirical data...
I Grandmaster Igor Ivanov, I character in this book. I write review for Manny. Manny too scared for write review, too weak chessplayer, only FIDE mast...moreI Grandmaster Igor Ivanov, I character in this book. I write review for Manny. Manny too scared for write review, too weak chessplayer, only FIDE master, know nothing, not even Russian. He say, Igor, you write for me. I write.
Manny say, write review for Goodreads. I look at Goodreads, is stupid site. Is just womens talk about books, talk about lityeratura. Is stupid womens, not think deep, think own thoughts, just repeat words of other womens. I know how they say, they say Lisa not good book, not good writing, not Joyce, not Proust, not lityeratura. Understand nothing. Fuck Goodreads womens.
I read Lisa, is deep book, author Jesse Kraai real man, Grandmaster, study filosofia. Has own ideas he think himself, compare chess and life. Is metafora, you understand metafora? Good. On Goodreads site you like comparison, now I make comparison with other books. I choose three books. Will be good comparison.
First book is Защита Лужина, how you say, Luzhin’s Defence. Great novel of Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. Impossible write chess novel without think of Luzhin. Name Lisa little bit like Luzhin, kharakter of Lisa little bit like kharakter of Luzhin. Story different, Jesse Kraai write own story.
Second book is Black Cloud of great English scientist Fred Hoyle. I see you surprise, you ask why Black Cloud? I tell you. Fred Hoyle young man, he read science-fiction books, he say very bad. Authors of books know no science, how you write science-fiction book without know science? Hoyle say, I write better book. Hoyle write Black Cloud, people of lityeratura say bad book, no Proust, no Joyce, no lityeratura. Like stupid womens of Goodreads. Hoyle book published 1957, many peoples still read 2014. Hoyle right, stupid peoples of lityeratura wrong. Lisa book like Black Cloud. Is more important know chess than know lityeratura. People still read Lisa in 2070. This I am sure.
Third book is Voyage to Arcturus of David Lindsay. Is published 1920, not famous book. Is strange story, not science-fiction, not filosofia, not lityeratura. Lindsay say deep truth for life, he say life is fight, he say life is pain. People still read. Lisa make me think for Lindsay, Jesse Kraai say life is chess is fight is pain. Is good book for real man that fight, not for stupid womens of Goodreads.
Maybe few womens like Lisa, not stupid. Learn chess, learn fight, learn pain. They read Lisa, they understand. Other womens understands nothing.