Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Trippy



The web is full of wacky sites, but most (unlike this one) are not associated with books put out by the MIT Press.

I found this by making use of my LinkBack hack, while looking for information relating to this much more austere and respectable MIT Press book, which I'm in the process of reading. Actually that one is pretty trippy too, but it does it through relentless logic rather than saturated colors.

Monday, December 25, 2006

LinkBack hack for Newtonmass

I messed around with Greasemonkey over the holiday weekend and came up with a way to add backlinks to web pages -- something people have been wanting since before there was a web! Details here.

The Anthropic Cosmological Principle meets Computational Complexity; Hilarity Ensues

Scott Aaronson, the second-most amusing person in string theory, demonstrates how to solve NP-complete problems, about halfway through a talk:


But what could NP-hardness possibly have to do with the Anthropic Principle? Well, when I talked before about computational complexity, I forgot to tell you that there's at least one foolproof way to solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time. The method is this: first guess a solution at random, say by measuring electron spins. Then, if the solution is wrong, kill yourself! If you accept the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, then there's certainly some branch of the wavefunction where you guessed right, and that's the only branch where you're around to ask whether you guessed right! It's a wonder more people don't try this.


This is a pretty obvious idea once you hear it (those are always the best ones. As Huxley was suppoed to have said upon reading The Origin of Species, "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that").


Aaronson takes this as evidence that anthropic arguments are invalid, since he's fairly attached to the idea that NP-hard problems are hard. I tend to agree, there has always been something Panglossian about anthropic cosmology. In fact...you could implement Dr. Pangloss using Aaronson's procedure. If you are convinced that the world is not as good as it could be, you kill yourself. Then the versions of you left alive are perforce inhabiting the best of all possible worlds.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Hacking in progress

Not that you care, but: I'm using this blog to test some automatic tagging software I'm messing with, so be prepared to see various sorts of labels come and go as it gets refined. For instance, it unsurprisingly picks up doom as a category, but misses this post which has doom three times (but in the title, not the body).

This is all by way of playing with the Blogger Beta (which supports tagging), the GData APIs, the Yahoo term extraction service, and other fun stuff.

But doing this very dumb preliminary term extraction and indexing renews my dream of having a system that will actually help me organize and structure the cluttered contents of my mind. This is something that I've wanted for at least 20 years (more like 30 actually, that's when I first encountered Ted Nelson's Computer Lib/Dream Machines). I've made some stabs at building stuff like this over the years. Blogs and wikis are stabs in related directions but still aren't quite it. Still, the dream is alive.

And I see I've dreamed out loud in this forum a year or so ago, without doing much since then.

Friday, December 15, 2006

God is not mocked

The forces of atheism are coming up with some new in-your-face tactics. One guy has issued a $50000 challenge:
This is an open challenge to any American citizen who passes a lie detector test that I will specify in a moment.

We will both take the math SAT or GRE (aptidude test). Your choice. We will both have only half the normally allotted time to lessen the chances of a perfect score. Lower score pays higher score $50,000.

To qualify you must take a reputable polygraph that proclaims you are truthful when you state that:

1. You are at least 95% sure that Jesus Christ came back from the dead.

AND

2. You are at least 95% sure that adults who die with the specific belief that Jesus probably wasn't resurrected will not go to heaven.
...
But I'm betting fifty grand they are not. Their beliefs make them relatively stupid (or uninterested in learning). Or only relatively stupid people can come to such beliefs. One or the other. That is my contention. And this challenge might help demonstrate that.

This is a nice idea but it might backfire. I'm sure the mean believer is pretty dumb, but I would not be surprised if there are some believers who are mathematically adept. William Dembski of the Discovery Institute is a jerk but he does have a PhD in Mathematics, for instance. And what about all those brilliant Jesuits? Do they still have them? I'd like to think that there is a class of brilliant and perverse people who are believers simply because it is intellectually challenging. Anyone can believe the possible, but believing in the impossible requires either stupidity or genius.

On a related note, The Blasphemy Challenge will offer you a free DVD of The God Who Wasn't There, and all you have to do is risk your immortal soul by posting a video clip where you deny the Holy Spirit.

I was going to do take the challenge, but then I realized that I didn't really want to deny the Holy Spirit. I'm not afraid of a little blasphemy, but I'm not sure exactly what the Holy Spirit is, so don't feel very secure in denying its existence.

Actually, I'm fairly sure that whatever the referent of "The Holy Spirit" may be (and it may be nothing more or less than an idea) I'm pretty sure it is not a thing, like a teapot orbiting Saturn. If it's anything then it is beyond existence or non-existence. Neti neti.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

High-energy metaphysics

There used to be a door at MIT labeled Department of Alchemy. Maybe it's still there. It was (I think) a joke, but Stanford has an apparently real Metaphysics Research Lab. It appears to have something to do with automated theorem proving and the existence of abstract objects, something I've speculated about in the past in the context of religion. I seriously doubt whether formal logic techniques can have anything interesting to say about metaphysics, but I also have to acknowledge that I may just be too ignorant to appreciate the depth of ideas here.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A map of mathematics

This paper Is “the theory of everything” merely the ultimate ensemble theory? by Max Tegmark is extremely interesting in many respects, but aside from its way-out metaphysics, I really appreciated this diagram showing common mathematical structures and their relationships. When I actually was trying to do math years ago, this is something I wished for and occasionally tried to construct myself.

Alas, I've mostly forgotten most of my math (and I've never really been able to grasp modern physics) but this table lets me fantasize about picking it up again -- at least I would be able to figure out where to start, what bit depends on which other bit, and where it all ultimately leads. Although apparently category theory is really where it's at in physics (or was 10 years ago) and that doesn't even appear in the diagram.

The only postulate in this theory is that all structures that exist mathematically exist also physically, by which we mean that in those complex enough to contain self-aware substructures (SASs), these SASs will subjectively perceive themselves as existing in a physically “real” world.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

IBM 1401, A User's Manual


There's been lots of music composed with computers but not so much about computers. Now an Icelandic composer has made an album of music commemorating the life and death of the IBM 1401 computer system. This computer was born about the same time I was and was one of the first computers I ever used (my high school district had one and they let the geeky kids play with it when it wasn't printing out paychecks and attendence reports).

Via dataisnature.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Taking Deepak Chopra Seriously (no, seriously!)

Deepak Chopra has been making an ass of himself attacking Richard Dawkins in a lengthy series of blog posts. He's been roundly mocked by various sciencebloggers, many of whom have given up in disgust.

For some contrarian reason I feel like coming to the guy's defense. Why on earth? Despite the fact that he probably pulls down $5M a year and has a staff managing his blog for him, I feel sorry for him. He's clearly the underdog in a battle of wits, being beaten up by the bullies of science.

I wish I remembered where I heard of this trick: there is an intellectual practice which is the opposite of argument -- it involves listening to someone who seems to have a profoundly diverging viewpoint, and instead of arguing against them, tentatively assume that what they are saying is "true" and try to figure out what it could be true of. Can we apply this technique to Chopra. Instead of flaming him -- is there any way to make any sense of what he's saying?

Where he violates NOMA by attacking science he is generally foolish. So toss out all the nonsense about evolution being a random process, and DNA decaying by entropy, or anything else that actually impinges on material reality.

What's left? There are some stale philosophical points, expressed poorly. His shtick on yellow flowers is just the problem of qualia. But it does point to a real problem in naturalistic metaphysics -- it's based on objectivity, the world as seen from the outside, and does not treat subjective experience very well. Despite efforts of cognitive science and philosophers to ground consciousness in the material functioning of the brain, something seems to get left out.

That something can be glossed over as epiphenomenal, or (if you are someone like Chopra) used as a lever to try and overthrow materialism entirely and postulate a metaphysics where consciousness is somehow prior to the material world. In other words, it's philosophical idealism.

Elsewhere he writes:
Science knows about objective reality, the mask of matter that our five senses detects.

intelligence is innate in nature. It gives rise to consciousness in myriad forms. The brain--and DNA--are agents of this underlying intelligence. They embody it, give it flesh and physical experience, carry out its activity mechanically, and so forth. The materialistic worldview rejects such assumptions categorically, but in doing so, it turns life into a random chemical reaction, which will never suffice.
So he is an idealist who believes that consciousness is foundationally prior to matter, and permeates space somehow. OK. That at least is a coherent philosophical position, with a long lineage. It's seems wrong to me, and vacuous, but it at least makes a certain kind of sense.

More:
The universe is a complex machine whose workings are steadily being demystified by science. Any other way of viewing the world is superstitious and reactionary....What is so strange about this argument is that Dawkins himself is totally reactionary. His defense of a material universe revealing its secrets ignores the total overthrow of materialism in modern physics. There is no world of solid objects; space-time itself depends upon shaping forces beyond both space and time.
He actually has a point here. Don't take "shaping forces" too literally -- it is the case that modern physics has a worldview that views the universe as something close to pure mathematics, with the solid material world as somehow emergent from the mathematical structure. Of course, this does nothing to the truth claims of sciences that work with the more mundane plumbing-level world (like biology). But it does mean we should take common-sensical materialism with at least a grain of salt.

The problem is that none of the weirdness of modern physics can be used to prove anything about God, as most physicists will tell you.

More Chopra:
God, on the other hand, is merely inferred. He's an invisible supposition, and who needs one when we have fossils? The flaw here is subtle, for Dawkins is imagining God in advance and then claiming that what he imagines has little chance of existing. That's perfectly true, but why should God be what Dawkins imagines--a superhuman Creator making life the way a watchmaker makes a watch? Let's say God is closer to being a field of consciousness that pervades the universe.
OK, so God isn't an anthropomorphic person, but some impersonal "field". That's a little bit interesting, but of course Dawkins in his book says he has no problem with an impersonal God that is identical with the laws of nature (the God of Einstein and Spinoza). This isn't quite what Chopra is putting forward -- there's that word "consciousness" confusing things -- but it's close.
Let's say that this field keeps creating new forms within itself. These forms swirl and mix with each other, finding more combinations and complexities as time unfolds. Such a God couldn't be imagined because a field is infinite, and there's nowhere it isn't. Thus trying to talk about God is like a fish trying to talk about wetness. A fish is immersed in wetness; it has nothing to compare water to, and the same is true of consciousness. We are conscious and intelligent, and it does no good to talk about the probability of not being conscious and intelligent.
Woo. Let's say this. OK, the universe certainly is full of mixing and swirling forms. Fair enough. Call the totality of these forms "God". OK, why not? And such a God couldn't be imagined. Fine, I'm still with him here, barely. But then why has Chopra just made six long blog posts that purport to imagine the unimaginable? Does he have superfish powers that let him see the water?

I must say though, this is the point where Chopra's thinking starts to appeal to my own kind of woo. There is something about the universe that makes it structured, orderly, comprehensible and livable, and this "something" seems to elude ordinary science. Thinkers much deeper than Chopra have suggested that space itself is "alive" in some way -- I'm thinking of architect Christopher Alexander, who has published a maddening and fascinating 4-volume treatment of this idea, The Nature of Order. I should be reviewing that, that is the kind of woo that actually might be worth something.

Oh well, onwards with the current project. Here's a cheap rhetorical trick Chopra uses:
For thousands of years human beings have been obsessed by beauty, truth, love, honor, altruism, courage, social relationships, art, and God. They all go together as subjective experiences, and it's a straw man to set God up as the delusion. If he is, then so is truth itself or beauty itself. God stands for the perfection of both, and even if you think truth and beauty (along with love, justice, forgiveness, compassion, and other divine qualities) can never be perfect, to say that they are fantasies makes no sense.
Chopra lumps together a bunch of stuff that seem to him to be somehow above or beyond the material world. He says it's a "straw man to set God up as the delusion" -- not sure what that means, I suspect he is misusing the term "straw man". In fact, it's his concept of materialism that is the straw man -- his materialism is inherently blind, cold, random, and meaningless, so all his good stuff has to come from somewhere else.

Let's look at that list: beauty, truth, love, honor, altruism, courage, social relationships, art, and God. What a mixed bag! They all involve subjective experience, but what doesn't? Denying the existence of God does not imply the existence of art. Biology has quite a bit to say about altruism and social relationships as objective facts. Argh.

You know, I give up. There may be nuggets of truth in all this, but I feel like a street sparrow trying to peck seeds from a steaming pile of horse manure.

This was a failed experiment. Damn. Sorry I wasted my time (and yours).

Friday, December 01, 2006

Failed states

This past week there was a ridiculous debate about whether Iraq was in a state of civil war or some lesser state of violence ("a territorial arglebargle of regional qualms" in the words of John Oliver on The Daily Show). This is all masking the fact that it is actually worse than a civil war. A civil war has clearly identified sides and some sort of termination condition (one side winning). What we've got here is a chaos of competing armed factions, with no clear picture of who is in charge, what they want, or how to manage them. John Robb fills in some of the details. It's easier to break a state than make one, and the most of the factions in Iraq have no interest in having the state succeed. Certainly none is strong enough to impose a victory.

But his following post is even more disturbing, revealing that we may end up with another failed state much closer to home: Mexico, where the failure of the ostensibly losing side to concede a close election is threatening the institutions of the stat. Like Iraq, Mexico has gone from stable, corrupt autocracy to a state of uncertainty. The monopoly on violence has been broken up and its time the entrepenurs to take over. As a former anarchist, I must say, strong stable government has never looked so good. I guess this is a shadow of the ridiculous "bring back Saddam" meme that was also floated last week.

Robb has an obsession with infrastructure attacks, and he claims Mexico's oil and energy infrastructure is unusually vulnerable. Mexico is our third-biggest supplier of foreign oil, supplying about 14% of the total. A flailing Mexico could disrupt this and make our current immigration problems look trivial

Infojihad!

At last, Islamic terrorism has its own equivalent of Dr. Dobbs Journal:

The first issue of what is indicated to be a periodic magazine, “Technical Mujahid” [Al-Mujahid al-Teqany], published by al-Fajr Information Center, was electronically distributed to password-protected jihadist forums today...Material such as this, regarding anonymity on the Internet, concealing of personal files locally on a computer, and utilizing all schemes of encryption, is to serve as electronic jihad, and a virtual means of supporting the Mujahideen.
...
Links to download referenced software, such as the VMware virtual machine, and key generators to unlock features are also given by the editors. Another writer discusses PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) software and determines that its encryption is not adequate for the needs of the Mujahideen.

...
For future issues, the editors urge members of the jihadist Internet community to submit articles in the field of technology for publishing. They write: “My kind, technical Mujahid brother, the magnitude of responsibility which is placed upon you is equal to what you know in the regard of information. Do not underestimate anything that you know; perhaps a small article that you write and publish can benefit one Mujahid in the Cause of Allah or can protect a brother of yours in Allah. This way you will gain the great reward with the permission of Allah”.