Monthly Archives: May 2008

Timeless Physics

This post is part of the Quantum Physics Sequence.
Previously in seriesRelative Configuration Space 

Warning:  The central idea in today’s post is taken seriously by serious physicists; but it is not experimentally proven and is not taught as standard physics.

Today’s post draws heavily on the work of the physicist Julian Barbour, and contains diagrams stolen and/or modified from his book “The End of Time“.  However, some of the arguments here are of my own devising, and Barbour might(?) not agree with them.

I shall begin by asking a incredibly deep question:

What time is it?

If you have the excellent habit of giving obvious answers to obvious questions, you will answer, “It is now 7:30pm [or whatever].”

How do you know?

“I know because I looked at the clock on my computer monitor.”

Well, suppose I hacked into your computer and changed the clock.  Would it then be a different time?

“No,” you reply.

How do you know?

“Because I once used the ‘Set Date and Time’ facility on my computer to try and make it be the 22nd century, but it didn’t work.”

Ah.  And how do you know that it didn’t work?

Continue reading "Timeless Physics" »

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2nd Annual Roberts Podcast

Last year on Memorial Day Russ Roberts published his first podcast interview with me, that time on mostly on medicine.  This year again on Memorial Day Russ published his second podcast interview with me, this time more on signaling in human behavior and related topics.  It is long and somewhat rambling, and I may not have been in top form, but it sure was fun.  Dare I hope to do it again next year? 

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Who Shall We Honor?

In the US, today is Memorial Day, when we are to honor warriors who died in our side of wars.  In addition we are to honor all our warriors on Veterans’ Day, and our first warriors and politicians on Independence Day.  We also have days to honor wartime politicians, one warring explorer, all mothers, all fathers, and "laborers" (i.e., most all of us). 

Yes warriors, dead and otherwise, deserve some honor, but to me this seems all out of proportion.   Not only do we overemphasize warriors of dramatic battles we won (e.g., not WWI trench doughboys), but surely many others deserve honor.  How about warriors who died on other sides, or in other wars?  How about civilians who died or sacrificed in wars?  How about those who prevented wars?

And surely war should not be the main source of honor in our world!  How about holidays to honor those who died for or sacrificed for or at least benefited the rest of us in other ways?  For example, why not a day to honor volunteers?  Or a day to honor all explorers, including intellectual, artistic, and business explorers?  Why focus so much on our winning dead warriors? 

Added:  Yes our ancestors probably evolved warrior honor to get people to defend their tribe.  But shall we on reflection endorse or repudiate these feelings? 

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Relative Configuration Space

This post is part of the Quantum Physics Sequence.
Previously in seriesMach’s Principle: Anti-Epiphenomenal Physics
Followup toClassical Configuration Spaces

Warning:  The ideas in today’s post are taken seriously by serious physicists, but they are not experimentally proven and are not taught as standard physics.

Today’s post draws on the work of the physicist Julian Barbour, and contains diagrams stolen and/or modified from his book “The End of Time“.

Previously, we saw Mach’s idea (following in the earlier path of Leibniz) that inertia is resistance to relative motion.  So that, if the whole universe was rotating, it would drag the inertial frame along with it.  From the perspective of General Relativity, the rotating matter would generate gravitational waves.

All right:  It’s possible that you can’t tell if the universe is rotating, because the laws of gravitation may be set up to make it look the same either way.  But even if this turns out to be the case, it may not yet seem impossible to imagine that things could have been otherwise.

To expose Mach’s Principle directly, we turn to Julian Barbour.

The diagrams that follow are stolen from Julian Barbour’s The End of Time.  I’d forgotten what an amazing book this was, or I would have stolen diagrams from it earlier to explain configuration space. Anyone interested in the nature of reality must read this book.  Anyone interested in understanding modern quantum mechanics should read this book.  “Must” and “should” are defined as in RFC 2119.

Continue reading "Relative Configuration Space" »

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Beware Identity

More from Paul Graham’s fantastic essay on lying to kids:

Some parents feel a strong adherence to an ethnic or religious group and want their kids to feel it too. This usually requires two different kinds of lying: the first is to tell the child that he or she is an X, and the second is whatever specific lies Xes differentiate themselves by believing. …

Almost anything else you tell a kid, they can change their mind about later when they start to think for themselves. But if you tell a kid they’re a member of a certain group, that seems nearly impossible to shake. … When parents are of different religions, they’ll often agree between themselves that their children will be "raised as Xes." And it works. The kids obligingly grow up considering themselves as Xes …

If you want to set yourself apart from other people, you have to do things that are arbitrary, and believe things that are false. And after having spent their whole lives doing things that are arbitrary and believing things that are false, and being regarded as odd by "outsiders" on that account, the cognitive dissonance pushing children to regard themselves as Xes must be enormous. If they aren’t an X, why are they attached to all these arbitrary beliefs and customs? …

This form of lie is not without its uses. … You can tell the child that in addition to never wearing the color yellow, believing the world was created by a giant rabbit, and always snapping their fingers before eating fish, Xes are also particularly honest and industrious.  Then X children will grow up feeling it’s part of their identity to be honest and industrious.

I try to be wary of beliefs attributed to me via some part of my being a nerdy middle-age white male American economist homeowner parent.  I do not want any such feature to on net influence my beliefs (other than through influencing my truth-seeking).  Do read the whole Graham essay, by the way – it is gold. 

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Prediction Markets and Insider Trading

The NYT reports:

With Internet gambling predicted to surpass $20 billion in 2008, and with illegal wagering accounting for $150 billion in the United States, by some estimates, the temptation for those seeking to influence the outcome of games has never been greater. Now, a raft of gambling scandals in sports, from cricket to soccer and most recently tennis, has raised an uncomfortable question: Are the games we watch fixed?

Part of the reason why sports is more vulnerable to manipulation is that, as I have long argued, they don’t matter:

Who wins these sporting contests is irrelevant. It does not matter, except inasmuch as people choose to make it matter. It does not make the world a better or worse place…Much of the lure of sports lies in the illusion that they are important. It is pretty clear, when you think about it, that they aren’t, but the illusion is strong. After all, an awful lot of people care about them. Our newspapers in the morning and news shows at night have a business segment, a political segment, and a sports segment, implying that these sectors are of equal value. There are magazines devoted to sports…It is no wonder that so many are fooled into taking them with far more seriousness than they deserve.

A CEO who manipulates his firms profits is manipulating something deeply attached to the real world: a measurement of how much value his firm is producing.  Since this value is hard to measure, there are ways to jigger the accounting, but they are inherently temporary.  Accumulated profits should appear in physical form, like cash or securities, or valuable property.  Eventually, Ponzi schemes and companies like Enron get caught, because their accumulated physical assets don’t match their claimed profits.

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A Broken Koan

At Baycon today and tomorrow.  Physics series resumes tomorrow.

Meanwhile, here’s a link to a page of Broken Koans and other Zen debris I ran across, which should amuse fans of ancient Eastern wisdom; and a koan of my own:

Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, "The flag is moving."

The other said, "The wind is moving."

Julian Barbour happened to be passing by.  He told them, "Not the wind, not the flag."

The first monk said, "Is the mind moving?"

Barbour replied, "Not even mind is moving."

The second monk said, "Is time moving?"

Barbour said, "There is no time.  You could say that it is mu-ving."

"Then why do we think that flags flap, and wind blows, and minds change, and time moves?" inquired the first monk.

Barbour thought, and said, "Because you remember."

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Mach’s Principle: Anti-Epiphenomenal Physics

This post is part of the Quantum Physics Sequence.
Previously in seriesMany Worlds, One Best Guess
Followup toThe Generalized Anti-Zombie Principle

Warning:  Mach’s Principle is not experimentally proven, though it is widely considered to be credible.

Centuries ago, when Galileo was promoting the Copernican model in which the Earth spun on its axis and traveled around the Sun, there was great opposition from those who trusted their common sense:

"How could the Earth be moving?  I don’t feel it moving!  The ground beneath my feet seems perfectly steady!"

And lo, Galileo said:  If you were on a ship sailing across a perfectly level sea, and you were in a room in the interior of the ship, you wouldn’t know how fast the ship was moving.  If you threw a ball in the air, you would still be able to catch it, because the ball would have initially been moving at the same speed as you and the room and the ship.  So you can never tell how fast you are moving.

This would turn out to be the beginning of one of the most important ideas in the history of physics.  Maybe even the most important idea in all of physics.  And I’m not talking about Special Relativity.

Continue reading "Mach’s Principle: Anti-Epiphenomenal Physics" »

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Lying to Kids

The insightful Paul Graham:

One of the most remarkable things about the way we lie to kids is how broad the conspiracy is.  All adults know what their culture lies to kids about: they’re the questions you answer "Ask your parents." If a kid asked you who won the World Series in 1982 or what the atomic weight of carbon was, you could just tell him. But if a kid asks you "Is there a God?" or "What’s a prostitute?" you’ll probably say "Ask your parents."

Since we all agree, kids see few cracks in the view of the world presented to them. The biggest disagreements are between parents and schools, but even those are small. Schools are careful what they say about controversial topics, and if they do contradict what parents want their kids to believe, parents either pressure the school into keeping quiet or move their kids to a new school.

The conspiracy is so thorough that most kids who discover it do so only by discovering internal contradictions in what they’re told. It can be traumatic for the ones who wake up during the operation. Here’s what happened to Einstein:

Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies: it was a crushing impression. 

I remember that feeling. By 15 I was convinced the world was corrupt from end to end. That’s why movies like The Matrix have such resonance.

What if one wrote a clear simple web page explaining to young kids the important lies they are told?  How popular would it be with kids?  Yes, even if kids like the page it might take a while for word to get around about it, but I suspect it would face a much bigger problem: very few kids really want to see through the lies.  Hat tip to Kat

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My Childhood Role Model

Followup toThat Alien Message

When I lecture on the Singularity, I often draw a graph of the “scale of intelligence” as it appears in everyday life:


But this is a rather parochial view of intelligence.  Sure, in everyday life, we only deal socially with other humans – only other humans are partners in the great game – and so we only meet the minds of intelligences ranging from village idiot to Einstein.  But what we really need to talk about Artificial Intelligence or theoretical optima of rationality, is this intelligence scale:


For us humans, it seems that the scale of intelligence runs from “village idiot” at the bottom to “Einstein” at the top.  Yet the distance from “village idiot” to “Einstein” is tiny, in the space of brain designs.  Einstein and the village idiot both have a prefrontal cortex, a hippocampus, a cerebellum…

Maybe Einstein has some minor genetic differences from the village idiot, engine tweaks.  But the brain-design-distance between Einstein and the village idiot is nothing remotely like the brain-design-distance between the village idiot and a chimpanzee.  A chimp couldn’t tell the difference between Einstein and the village idiot, and our descendants may not see much of a difference either.

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