Category Archives: Thoughts

Damascus

I promised that I would write this, so I feel I really should, and I’ve severely neglected my blog of late. When I was going to write this, it felt pretty topical; it’s about Steve Jobs. Now it’s not topical at all, so you’re just going to have to forgive me.

It’s a really weird thing to say that you’re affected by the death of someone that you’ve never met. I know that I personally was weirded out by the public reaction to the deaths of Princess Diana, or Michael Jackson, and I’m usually not too bothered by the deaths of billionaires, either.

I think that what got to me was that Jobs did that rarest of things; he changed my mind.

One of the principles of logic is that some propositions are axioms; they are not derived from other propositions but their truth is deemed to be self-evident. Everyone has their own set of axioms; e.g. I take it to be true that the universe which I can see and taste and touch is real, and not an illusion that is indistinguishable from being real. I have no way of proving the truth of this assertion, but the alternative is somewhat solipsistic.

It used to be that I was really rather anti-Apple. I believed that Macs were too expensive, that the iPod/iTunes ecosystem was inherently corrupt. Now I have an iPhone, I’m typing this on an iPad, my work machine is a Mac Pro, and I’m seriously considering buying a MacBook Air. What the hell happened?

Honestly, I’m not sure. Every step along the road feels like it made sense; the iPhone 3G was so obviously superior to all the other phones on the market at the time that buying it felt like a no-brainer. The work Mac Pro has POSIX underpinnings without the bullshit that using Linux demands of you. The MBA is not only an object of mouth-watering beauty, as well as being stupidly thin and light. But all, together it represents an enormous shift in what I had come to believe about technology and gadgets.

So that’s why I think I was affected by Jobs’ death; I recently read his biography and it’s plainly obvious that he was not an easy man to work with, or to know. To put it plainly, like many great men, he was often a dick. But, sometimes, by sheer force of personality, he made things happen that were insanely great.

It’s a debate to be had if history is guided by the inevitable forces of economics and technology, or if it’s kicked forwards in great screaming leaps and bounds by great men and women. It’s hard to say; would personal computing as we know it exist today without the original Mac? Would smartphones and tablets have taken off? Would all these things still exist but actually just sort of suck?

I don’t know, but I have my suspicions. And my younger self would probably massively disagree with me.

Instructions

One of the real troubles I have with life (as opposed to the fake troubles, naturally) is that being a person doesn’t come with an instruction manual. At best, I’ve got a copy of the Quick Start guide that came in the box; although it’s surprisingly thick, there’s only one page per language, and every one is (badly) translated from Korean.

Some of the things in it aren’t nearly as true as I’d hoped (“The secret to lifelong happiness is behaving yourself and getting good grades at school.”) or worse, are just-flat out lies. It is amazing how long it took me to realise this.

Not to mention that there are whole sections of life that just aren’t covered at all. What do in case of X, or if Y starts happening, how do I deal with it? What if I discover I’m a Z?

So, absent a handy guidebook, I’ve been doing what I always do: analysing. I’m trying to figure out exactly what my personality flaws are, in an attempt to ultimately do something about them. In essence, trying to rediscover the guidebook using trial & error, deduction from first principles, and plain guesswork. Knowledge is power, so I reckon. The weird thing is that knowing what my flaws are doesn’t necessarily help; it just means I feel terribly self-aware as something gets screwed up (“Ahah! I feel like shit because of this!”), which is intellectually stimulating, but doesn’t really stop me feeling like shit. Actually, the process of intellectually dwelling can really just make things worse.

It doesn’t really help that I got terribly existential a few years back (as confused young men can, when they have access to either a well-stocked library or bookshop) and discovered that we all have absolute free will; in any situation you have total freedom of action. It’s simultaneously liberating and terrifying: absolute freedom of action is one of the most scary things imaginable. You become utterly aware that there is no such thing as following orders or going with the crowd; you’re making choices, all the time, and by freely making a choice you are assuming the awful weight of the responsibility that goes with that choice.

So if you screw up, it’s your fault. Even if you don’t know how you could have avoided screwing up, or if another choice could have screwed things up worse. The fact is, you did things the way you did (or didn’t do), and you’ve got to reap the consequences.

What I wish is that I could have access to a whole set of parallel lives so that I could try every possible action and figure out which one works best. An empirical approach to life, so that it could be led perfectly.

Although thinking about it, that’s just the plot to Groundhog Day.

Anyways, as I was writing this I thought of Neil Gaiman‘s “Instructions”, a narrated trailer for which I’ve embedded below, and it’s really marvellous.

My next post should be entitled “Damascus” and I’ve meant to type it out for a while. It’s been swimming about in my head.

Death and All of His Friends

The Government recently set up a website on which citizens can register petitions to the government; Parliament will debate any which cross a threshold of 100,000 signatures.

As of the time of writing, the issues with the most signatures are to bring back the death penalty, keep F1 free-to-air, and to retain the ban on the death penalty. Happily, the petition to retain the ban on the death penalty is absolutely spanking the petition to bring it back. Partly I’m happy about this because — please excuse the ad hominem — I find its originator, Paul Staines (who blogs under the pseudonym Guido Fawkes), to be a fairly unpleasant character whenever I come across his views.

Mostly though, I’m happy about this because I’m fundamentally opposed to the death penalty.

There are multiple dimensions to which you can analyse this debate: the purely practical issues of if it will be cheaper, or safer, for society in the long run to execute people rather than locking them up; and the moral dimension, is it fundamentally right to execute people?

I’m going to declare my bias: I think it’s morally wrong. It is an utterly appalling and regrettable thing for one human being to kill another, wherever and whenever it happens. There are, unfortunately, times when killing is necessary. Times when life must be taken in self-defence, or when it’s kill-or-be-killed, even occasionally in war: few would disagree that Hitler needed stopping.

But it’s important that when you fight monsters, you take care not to become a monster yourself. Hitler had to be stopped because he would have expanded Eastwards until either the Russians stopped him, or he’d enslaved or exterminated every single one of them. A little evil was committed to prevent a greater evil. There was no other choice.

Mostly, though, we do have a choice. When we catch a murderer, we can be better than they are. We don’t have to kill; we have a choice. We can lock them away so they’ll never do harm again. If we’re lucky, they’ll genuinely repent, and become useful members of society again. Gandhi said that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and (even though I’m not religious, I like this bit) Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek. Be bigger, be better, be greater.

That’s the problem with execution; it’s not justice. It’s revenge. And revenge is, for lack of a better word, easy. It’s the easy thing to do, when you’ve been wronged, to gang up with your friends, with society at large, and exert your power upon the wrong-doer, and make them suffer. It’s a damned hard thing to do — and this is what I think Jesus was trying to get at — to resist the urge to do so.

I think one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever heard of is Rais Bhuiyan. In 2001, just after the attacks on 9/11, Mark Stroman went on a shooting spree, killing anybody he believed to be Muslim. Bhuiyan was shot in the face with a shotgun, but survived, although he lost the sight in one eye, and still has shotgun pellets embedded in his skull. Two others were killed. Stroman has since been put to death, despite Bhuiyan campaigning for him to be spared. I find Rais Bhuiyan’s example awe-inspiring.

Personally, I think that spending the rest of your life in prison, potentially decades, is a far more awful thing than to merely die. There an awful lot of things in life which are worse than mere death.

Then there’s the purely mechanical issues. Is is cheaper to just execute someone (nope), does it deter murder (probably not), will innocent people be executed by mistake (quite likely), but honestly those don’t bother me so much; they’re not my primary reason.

I think the very notion that the state be allowed to kill fundamentally brutalises our culture; it is a difference not in kind but merely of magnitude between hanging a murder in this country, and stoning to death an adulterer in Iran.

That all said, the theory and philosophy of punishment is an incredibly difficult topic; the death penalty really cuts to the heart of thinking about what punishment is for, and how best to achieve that end. It’s a topic I hope to return to.

The Madness of Investors

This post about photo start-up Color on the NY Times website makes me utterly despair for the nature of modern capitalism.

Before the company had launched even a single product, Color raised $41 million from investors. That seems, to me, an absolutely stupefying amount of money. Given that Color’s first product (a perplexing and unfathomable iPhone app) flopped horribly, it seems now like an incredibly grave error.

It all stems (the NY Times speculates) from a desire not to miss out on the next Facebook, or Twitter, or Google. That’s all well and good, but in some ways this amounts to a get rich scheme; if it was that easy to pick out the next winners from the next losers, then everyone would be doing it, and we’d all get rich.

In pursuit of easy money, they’re taking unconscionable risks. It feels like many of the bubbles of old; presumably what they’re hoping for is to fund a lot of companies, and then hope that the return on the investment is of such Facebookian proportions that it drowns the losses. It’s madness, because if that scale of success doesn’t materialise, you lose the money.

Finance is, essentially, a utility. The function of it is move money from places where it is in surplus to where it is needed. As always, I grasp towards a physics analogy: it’s supposed to move the market from a higher energy state, to a lower energy state through a path that would otherwise be low probability. In doing so, it allows work in the system; jobs created, products made. The finance industry, for its part, takes a small amount of the energy it releases for itself. Overall, the system, the market, the economy, is better off for the action.

The trouble is that the financial sector has given itself airs. They see themselves now as creators, and players in the system in their own right, rather than the facilitators and plumbers that they should be. So they take risks, play the system, create complicated schemes of financial instruments to manipulate the market to accrue money into their own hands.

The trouble with all of this is that banks can then create situations where they actually help to destroy value. We saw this sort of reckless stupidity in the credit crunch, and we see it here, too.

What we should be doing is encouraging companies to start small, and bootstrap themselves. Make a product, sell a product, make money. Use the money to grow. Take finance where you need it, but only when you need it to make more money, where a return is unlikely. Controlled, steady, sensible growth.

What banks seem to want is growth like an algal bloom, or an infection of smallpox. Big bang growth, get-rich-or-die-trying growth. Short-termist, irresponsible, madness.

I’m honestly a little surprised that the financial industry has survived the last recession relatively unscathed, and apparently with their ways throughly unmended. These people ought to be legally responsible for the harm they do, in the same way a plumber would be responsible for an explosion caused by a botched gas installation. Instead we let them get away with wreaking the most awful harm on our economies, and ruining lives.

In other news, I’m going to try and make a commitment to updating on a more regular schedule, and hopefully being a little more personal with it. Had a bit of a trend to the essayist in recent(ish) posts, so I’m going to steer away from it.

Basically, the problem is that I’m either working or I should be working on my PhD most of the time, so blogging has taken it in the neck. Haven’t even finished my new blog design yet…

Fond but Not in Love

I think that one of the prevailing problems with our political culture is that an awful lot of weight is put on ideology and tribalism, which is terribly detrimental to our political culture.

It’s one thing to disagree vociferously with your enemies when they’re wrong, but another to argue when they’re right. Too often is compromise seen as selling out, or attempting a dialogue seen as weakness.

I suppose that compromise especially is easier to spin, and easier to misconstrue. I suspect that this is one of the reasons why the Lib Dem participation in the coalition is seen by many as a betrayal.

I’d like to see myself as a pragmatist. I’m unhappy with cuts, and with tuition fees, and I’d rather see them not there at all. With that said, I also don’t see what is possible to avoid them; my best answer would be something along the lines of “Well, I wouldn’t start from here…”

As much as I hate the idea of the unelected, unaccountable, markets controlling our political destiny (and believe me, I really, really hate it), the plain ugly truth is that they do. Our government and our economy is kept turning by the money loaned to us by our creditors, and that gives them power over us. That’s what deficit means, after all; we could not pay our bills if that money wasn’t loaned to us. If we tried to break the chains as it stands now, in our hour of greatest weakness, we’d be plunged into an economic disaster that makes the cuts look like Christmas.

And the people who were the architects of this economic bondage are scoring points from the back of the cuts. It’s scandalous. I’m furious with Labour, frankly. I’m furious with their tribalism, their hypocrisy, their through selling out of the principles of liberty and socialism when they had untrammelled power for thirteen years. In boom times they brought in tuition fees, and in the years of plenty they spent more than we can afford. Living on money borrowed from capitalists is no socialism I recognise. They let, even encouraged, the markets to grow strong, and made us weak into the bargain. They have no right to carp on about betrayal!

The Lib Dems, by contrast, have had to compromise. Some elements of the manifesto were jettisoned, others watered down. That’s true. But many, many others were and are being enacted. It’s making the best of a bad job; being pragmatic, not just idealistic, and it’s being painted as a failure.

I bring this up partly because of the announcement of proposals for the reform of the House of Lords; I today received an email from Nick Clegg, which contains this paragraph:

It’s no secret that Liberal Democrats strongly favour a wholly-elected second chamber. That is the simplest, purest, and most democratic option. But we should not make the perfect the enemy of the very good. That approach has stymied Lords reform for too long. And 80% is very much better than 0%; and a lot more than Labour managed in 13 years of governing alone.

I agree with him. Ultimately, getting this to pass is going to need horse-trading with the Conservatives, elements of whom are going to be very against this proposal. A lot of people vote Conservative. A lot of people think like they do (and some of them are even friends of mine), and so they have a lot of representation (although more than they deserve). It’s right and proper that it has to be watered down from what the Lib Dems want, because the Lib Dems have less votes and less representation. It’s a great shame that many people can’t see things that way; true democracy requires that you compromise with the people you disagree with. Make no mistake on my disagreement with the Tories; but too long have we lived with the tyranny of absolutist majoritarianism.

It’s depressing that outcome of all this could be a return, a bolstering, of what got us into this mess. Rather than fostering a heterogeneous environment of differing opinion, debate, and compromise, we could find ourselves going back to brutal tribalism, one party on the left, one party on the right, and to the victor (even if by a small margin), the spoils, the system that let us down so very awfully.

So I guess that answer, when anybody asks if I’m ashamed for voting Lib Dem, or joining the party, the answer, honestly, is no.

The Arrow of Time

I’ve been thinking about time recently; mostly about how I don’t seem to have enough of it. My PhD work seems to be expanding to take over my life, so all sorts of other persuits (cooking, cleaning, blogging, reading other people’s blogs) have taken a bit of a backseat. Hopefully the work-life balance will re-establish itself soon, but in the meantime, I’ve been thinking about the nature of time.

One of the really weird things about physics as we know it is that the very basic laws are all time-symmetric; they’re indifferent to time going forwards or time running backwards. For instance, the Earth’s motion around the Sun: if time switched direction, the Earth would just go around the other way. The equations would all work and be consistent.

As it happens this isn’t the whole story, as we actually seem to live in a universe in which the laws of physics stay the same if you do something called a CPT transformation: you reverse the direction of time, mirror-flip the entire universe, and then change all the particles for anti-particles. So an electron going right and forwards in time could equally be described as a positron going left and backwards in time, and the physics would all be the same — if you lived in such a universe you wouldn’t notice the difference, you’d think our universe is the crazy flipped one!

The weird and interesting thing is that from our point of view, time obviously has a direction! It marches ever onwards into the future. We remember yesterday, but not tomorrow. It’s blindingly obvious when a piece of film has been reversed, because ludicrous things happen like teacups forming from ceramic shards. That obviously isn’t reversible, so what gives?

Physicists call this problem the arrow of time; why does an arrow, a preferred direction, exist when all the most fundamental laws tell us that the two directions of time should be indistinguishable?

One possible answer is entropy. Broadly speaking, entropy is a measure of disorder in a system. It’s a way of counting how many microscopic ways there are to make a particular macroscopic system. Take for example our smashed teacup. Consider that there are two states that cup can exist in: smashed, and whole. There is only one way for the cup to be whole, so it has a low entropy. There are untold millions of ways that cup can exist as a pile of smashed fragments, so that state has high entropy.

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that, on average, the entropy of a closed system will always increase, based on simple probability – for the cup it is easier to be smashed than to be whole, because there are more ways to be smashed. The laws of physics remain reversible, but the fact that so many more high entropy states exist than low entropy ones mean that playing the odds, you’ll go from low to high entropy.

So cups will always tend to smash rather than spontaneously re-form, energy will tend to turn from ordered forms which we can use (like electricity) into unordered forms, spread through the environment that we cannot use (like heat). There are some pretty compelling thought experiments (see Maxwell’s Demon, for those interested) which suggest that remembering (or more precisely, forgetting) is a process which generates entropy. There’s only one way to remember something, but millions of ways you can forget it.

So maybe that’s why we can remember the past and not the future – our memory works by increasing entropy, and entropy increases into the future. But that doesn’t answer the question as to why entropy appears to have “chosen” a particular direction in which to operate.

Well, consider a universe that starts in an high-entropy state. If that universe is already near or at maximum entropy, then only reversible processes can ever happen, because irreversible processes are the ones which generate entropy. Nothing can live, or die (because death is irreversible). Cups cannot smash, and there is no free energy around with which to do work. Some people speculate that this fate awaits our universe, and it’s called “heat death”. It simply becomes impossible to extract useful energy from the environment because it’s all become useless heat. (The other possible fate is a deep freeze, where the universe spreads out so much that the average energy density of the universe goes to zero. It’s the same problem, a lack of available energy, but much, much colder).

So instead, imagine a universe which starts in a low-entropy state. This universe is then free to be full of entropy-generating events, like smashing cups, machines, and computers (and people!) with memories capable of remembering the past. So maybe the mystery of the arrow of time is solved by our universe beginning in an incredibly unlikely low-entropy state, and evolving towards a higher entropy one, just because higher entropy is more likely than low entropy. The laws of physics all remain fully reversible, it’s just bloody unlikely that our universe started so favourably.

Although, I did have an idea: what if what we think of as the beginning, this low-entropy state, is actually the middle of the existence of a universe? From that point, you could use the laws of physics to extrapolate that universe both forwards, and backwards, but the internally perceived arrow of time, pointing along the direction of entropy growth, would point in different directions in each half of the universe’s history. Furthermore, quantum indeterminancy would guarantee that each “sub-universe” would evolve differently, despite both having come from the same low-entropy seed. Maybe beyond the big bang lies another universe after all.