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Imitation Game

We’ve just returned from watching The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This is a very well executed, and deeply themed film. The story of Alan Turing, the Enigma machine, and the cracking of its code by a small group of mathematicians and linguists during the Second World War through the use of Turing’s development of the first electronic computer, is well known to most computer scientists and mathematicians, particularly those of us working in the defense industry. The accuracy of the portrayal of this 3 year long story in a 90 minute film undoubtedly is imperfect, but the key elements of the reality of struggling with a massively important problem under severe time pressure are well-represented.

Lesser known may be the reality of personal isolation of the true intellectual. This isolation begins at an early age when the brightest are ostracized for being odd and socially awkward, as their mental strength focuses on learning and undervalues social interaction. Exposure to verbal or physical attacks from age peers who either do not value intelligence, or fear who they cannot understand, leads to a spiral of further isolation and further abuse throughout adolescence and into adulthood. This is exhibited extremely well in the film, and was not unnecessarily exaggerated.

But the true power of the film, reflecting the real world story, is the tragic destruction of this brilliant man, a war hero not of brawn but of mind, by a society that could not be allowed to know of his greatness. Even had his contribution not been hidden in military secrecy, the general public would not value his achievement specifically because it was a victory of mind and not metal. The unthinking hatred of deviancy that created the law by which Turing was destroyed is the true importance of this story. That hatred of the unusual may be disappearing in the form of homophobia, but it remains very potent toward anyone who rises to become “too” successful, whether in wealth, in business, or intellect.

The plot is uncomplicated, and the theme not at all hidden, but in a modern film presenting a difficult message depth and complexity are not to be expected. I strongly recommend this film to anyone past the age of 12, as long as the parents are willing to handle a conversation about homosexuality. This element of the movie is handled with unexpected tact, with no objectionable scenes or conversations. The one sexually-related (and completely unnecessary) comment that verges on the tactless is presented so obliquely that I didn’t even recognize it for what it was for several seconds after it had been delivered.

In summary, this is not a movie to miss. One more positive, in my opinion, is that unlike the similar story portrayed in A Beautful Mind some years ago, Turing is not a neurologically flawed genius. He is a brilliant engineer (not a scientist) who applies his skill to an immediate and real-world problem, and wins a war of minds, thanklessly.

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Douglas Adams

I took a very long break, but I’m hoping to be back. No promises or excuses offered.

This review is admittedly a bit out of date. I recently read the entire collection of science fiction written by Douglas Adams, who died quite young in 2001. I had read his first    four books back when they were current (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life the Universe and Everything, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish). I recall them as being hilarious, but I wasn’t reading them with the same mind I now have.

The books are still hilarious. They are also written by a genius. However, they become disappointing.

Adams writes in the introduction to this compendium of 5 books that the story they tell   is self-contradictory, inconsistent, and basically just a mess in terms of organization. Furthermore, he points out that the radio show, the television show, and the eventual movie all disagree with one another and with the books. Interestingly, that really just expands upon the actual theme of his work.

The evidence of genius runs throughout his work. The humor is multilevel – enough of the silly and the nonsensical to make a child laugh, plenty of content to entertain the geeky teen, but also some rather deeper material that leaves the mathematician and the physicist both laughing and yet turning over the humor later in their mind and expanding upon the consequences of the ideas Adams throws out.

An excellent example is the Improbability Drive that powers one of the key spacecraft. The idea here is that due to quantum physics, the actual position of anything is only a matter of probability. I am most likely here in my house, but there is a finite, non-zero, but ridiculously small chance that I am actually in your living room. So, Adams imagines, suppose there is a fifth dimension of the Universe in which probability can be manipulated. And suppose we had the ability to travel in that dimension. If we knew the actual probability that I am in your living room, then we could travel the probability dimension until we were at that value, and suddenly I would find myself in your living room.

The idea does not hold up to close examination, but here are the implications used in the books. When we run the Improbability Drive, all sorts of insanity happens, and Adams uses that insanity to create masterful humor. Whales appear in mid atmosphere, people change into penguins, that kind of thing. But he can do more with this craziness. If we even have a limited ability to manipulate probability, as an early step in improbability research, we need only have an estimate of the probability of discovering how to create an improbability drive, and we can just move to that point on the probability dimension,  and we’ll have one!

I’ve had a similar notion about building a time machine, at least one that travels backward in time, and I’ll use it to prove that backward time travel is impossible (or, stealing Adams concept, at least extraordinarily improbable). If such a thing could happen, man will build one. If he builds one, he will use it. If it is used, it will travel backward in time. If it does so, man will see it and copy it to make a time machine.  In that way it creates itself. Since we don’t have time machines by now, they cannot be possible.

Adams also deals with the implications of time travel. Rapid and easy location travel has gradually homogenized cultures on Earth (not as much as some of us would wish, but it is true that the whole world knows McDonald’s and Coca Cola). Of course Adams immediately extends that to space travel making the Universe homogeneous (very inconsistently expressed throughout the books), but he also extends the idea humorously to time. He creates a society for the protection of history from time tourists, and laments that everywhen is beginning to be the same.

This kind of insight mixed with outrageous humor is Adams at his best. Another example is bistromathematics, fueling another form of spacetravel using the mathematics involved in settling a bill, including the tip, of a party of engineers eating in an Italian restaurant.  Add in the larger plot, if we can really call it that, of the Earth being an organic computer run by mice, who are really 5-dimensional beings, to answer the question of what is the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (the answer is known to be 42, but they don’t know the question), and mix in Gods last message to Man: “We apologize for the inconvenience”, and you see what we are dealing with from the mind of this genius.

But ultimately the very structure of the humor undermines the entire work. The theme is the built-in engine of the Universe being the source of nonsense. Adams universe has no rules, no order, no physics, no primacy of existence. As the end of the work approached, I was becoming uncomfortable with the idea that it may not come to any conclusion at all. Because Adams had died young, I was preparing myself to accept a non-ending. I have very deep ties to reading that engages me. I do not like endings that. leave loose ends, or that end miserably.

But Adams did not leave loose ends, at least not the bigger ends. Instead he took the very easy way out in the end, which is arguably the only clean ending nonsense can have. Everyone dies, and the great problem of the work dies with them.

So I do recommend the book. Mostly for teenagers, though the geeky adult will enjoy it as well. The geeky philosopher will, howeverm, get a great deal out of it, though it will wind up in the category of philosophical tragedy.

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Scientific Hypothesis, Theory and Law

A class member recently asked me what the difference is between a theory and a law.  I believe this is a very common confusion, usually stemming from a popular view that a scientific theory is “just a theory”, implying it is less than likely to be true.  Similarly a “law” is loosely viewed as some form of universal and inviolable truth.

Here is my understanding (after some reflection) on what these terms mean.  Let us start with a sketch of what human knowledge is and the process by which it is accumulated.  I will preface what follows by saying that I am discussing what is commonly called “scientific knowledge”, that is, knowledge obtained through the observations achieved with our human senses, and then acted upon by human reason.  This statement does not exclude the use of instruments with which we may collect information, but we ultimately receive that information into our rational mind through our senses.

The senses present information to our minds. Our minds then group these sensory perceptions into clusters of similar observations.  When enough similar observations have been made to understand what they have in common, our minds replace the individual observations with a concept. A concept is a mental representation of a group of similar things which share common defining features. For example, after observing a series of objects which have four wheels, are self-propelled and carry individual or small groups of people over a paved surface, we will replace those observations with the concept “car”.

The detail of this process of concept formation is a major topic in itself which could fill many pages.  It applies not only to simple concrete objects, but also to ideas at all levels of abstraction.  Not only the concepts of “apple”, “dog”, and “house”, but ideas like “love”, “algebra”, and “gravitation” as well.  The concepts that are not directly reflected in objects we may refer to as abstract concepts.  The observations leading to these concepts are our recognition of other, lower-level, concepts.  So, for example, the concept of “fruit” comes from recognizing that the concepts of “apple”, “orange”, “banana”, and so on share common features.

When we start observing the relationships between concepts, and in particular relationships of cause and effect, we have reached the starting point for the creation of scientific theory.  A phenomenon is observed requiring explanation – the cause for the observed effect is sought.  After observing some number of occurrences of the phenomenon (A), we may find a common event that occurs at or before each occurrence (B).  From these repeated observations, we can form a hypothesis that B causes the occurrence of A.  At this level of development, we may have many different hypotheses attempting to explain the same phenomenon.

Here is an example.  A hot plate of glass dropped into cold water will shatter.  After observing this to occur for a small number of identical cases, we develop the following hypotheses to explain the breaking of the glass:  (A) Water breaks glass.  (B) The impact of the glass onto the surface of the water breaks the glass.  (C) A chemical reaction occurs between hot glass and cold water which breaks the glass.  (D) The difference in the temperature between the glass and the water causes the glass to break.  Each of these hypotheses is valid based on the observed events, as possible explanations for what has been observed.  They are, however, only hypotheses at this point because they have not been tested, nor compared carefully against the rest of our knowledge about the world.

We next perform some experiments to attempt to validate each of these hypotheses.  Experiment (1): We take a hot glass plate and drop it into cold gasoline; the glass shatters.  Experiment (2): We slowly pour cold water over a hot glass plate; the glass shatters.  Experiment (3): We drop a room-temperature glass plate into cold water; the glass does not break.  Experiment (4): We place a hot plate in a cold freezer; the glass shatters.

Experiment (1) makes hypotheses (A) and (C) unlikely.  Experiment (3) confirms that hypothesis (A) is not correct.  Experiment (2) makes hypothesis (B) untrue.  Experiment (4) indicates that (C) is even less likely, and confirms hypothesis (D).  Now, after a set of carefully designed experiments have been completed, hypothesis (D) can be considered to be a theory instead of a hypothesis.  The difference between a theory and a hypothesis is the observation of experiments which confirm the hypothesis, while eliminating alternative explanations.  Typically scientific experiments are designed and controlled to progressively narrow the number of alternative explanations by attempting to change one related variable at a time.

At this level of verification, we have a scientific theory, but not a law.  Comprehending the difference requires an understanding of how human knowledge is properly accumulated.  To be accepted as scientific knowledge requires that not only is the theory seen to be true experimentally, but that it is logically consistent with the current body of accumulated scientific knowledge.  This generally requires the completion of two processes.  The new theory must not be contradicted by the existing scientific knowledge, and it must be shown that either the theory fundamentally expands upon the existing knowledge –  it is not logically related to the existing knowledge – or it can be explained using the existing knowledge.

These conditions may seem to preclude revolutionary scientific advances – the Copernican revolution, or Einstein’s theory of gravitation for example.  It may similarly seem to contradict my conviction that the existing regime of “modern physics”, based upon the quantum theory and the Standard Model, will be overturned in the future.  However, this is not at all the case.  The presumption of the scientific method as outlined is that it has been consistently followed throughout the development of the existing body of scientific knowledge that the new theory appears to challenge.  But there have been large segments of scientific development that have failed to adhere to the scientific method.

The most common error within the historical body of scientific knowledge is the failure to base science solely upon observed facts and data.  Far too often some other, non-scientific, source of information has been used to set the groundwork upon which a scientific theory is constructed.  Historically, the most common non-scientific sources have been religious.

The geocentric theory to explain the motions of the celestial bodies was originally based upon a mixture of observation and assumptions about the nature of the astronomical objects involved.  Basic observations would suggest that the Earth lies motionless with the celestial objects rotating around it daily; however, when details of the motions of the planets and the Sun were measured with increasing accuracy, the defense of the geocentric theory rapidly turned from being based upon observations to being based upon mystical beliefs in the divinity, and therefore perfection, of the celestial objects.  Bruno, Copernicus and Galileo did not need to defend their theories against science, but against the Church.

The mystical thread in the development of astronomy did not end with Galileo.  Kepler accepted the Copernican system with great reluctance, and hampered his own success in determining the actual motions of the planets by adamantly insisting that the orbits were circular, because of the presumed divinity of the planets and the necessary perfection of their motions.  During his struggles to solve the problems of planetary motion he oscillated between difficult scientific investigations and lengthy whimsical fantasies based purely upon a quest for religious revelation.  Even Isaac Newton, inventor of calculus and the “law” of gravity, believed the planets to be living beings, and presumed the existence of a Prime Mover.

Einstein’s theories – both special relativity and general relativity (a new law of gravitation) did not invalidate prior science, but rather were revolutionary for dramatically expanding upon existing theory without creating contradictions.  The general theory of relativity in particular was a re-statement of existing theory from a completely new perspective, which then allowed an enormous expansion of the ability of science to explain phenomena which had been observed and had been difficult or impossible to explain within the existing framework of physics.

But modern physics is far from having removed the effects of non-scientific thinking.  Quantum mechanics, developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s, sought to explain recently observed facts and data, but did so starting from outside existing scientific theory.  The origins of the quantum theory lie in a new set of assertions not derived from existing science, and lying in direct contradiction to the most fundamental assumptions of physics.  The new theory is capable of explaining a vast variety of experimental observations – as such it does qualify as a theory using the definition I have stated earlier.  However, all attempts to resolve the enormous contradictions that quantum theory brings against the fundamental elements of science have ended in failure, or emphatic denial that the contradictions need to be resolved.

There are two core contradictions between quantum mechanics and the rest of established science; both are severe and extraordinarily fundamental.  Science presumes that every entity in the universe has definite and precise quantitative features.  An object has a location in space which it occupies.  An event occurs at a particular moment in time.  Man and therefore Science may be limited in its ability to know the values of these aspects of an object – and the limitation may even be a fundamental limitation which is physically impossible to overcome.  But quantum mechanics denies that there are specific values for some attributes (such as position and time), and that this lack of specificity is not a lack of knowledge, but that no specific values actually exist.

Science also presumes that all phenomena are caused by other phenomena – the law of causality.  Quantum mechanics explicitly denies this, and replaces the law of causality with probabilistic rules.  Quantum events are fundamentally uncertain and undetermined.  Attempts to develop interpretations for quantum mechanics that allow for the law of causality to be retained evolve into a variety of absurdities, the best known being the “many universes” interpretation, in which every event causes a divergence into multiple universes dependent on the actual outcome – many in this sense is an insanely large number.

Returning to our main topic, a theory that does successfully integrate into the existing body of (truly) scientific knowledge, is shown not to be in contradiction with that knowledge, and which is either explained within its context, or advances a new viewpoint which expands the basis for scientific knowledge will attain the designation of a scientific law.  A law in this sense implies that its falsification would entail a major disruption in our most fundamental understanding of the meaning of science, and is therefore scientifically impossible.

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Recent Reading, and Reawakening

It’s been far too long since this space has been active, though you’ve heard that sad tale before. The best I can do for tonight is list some recent reading and provide shallow commentary. Much of my free time has gone into teaching Astronomy, and the rest into developing the hobby of astrophotography. I’ve still maintained a reading schedule, but without much reflection on content.

After completing Durant’s Age of Faith this spring, I read some minor fiction and then moved into a reading of an old textbook, The Use of Force, which is a large collection of essays regarding foreign policy, culminating in the Cold War tactics of the 1980s. This reading was mostly of historical interest, bringing out tidbits such as the dreadnought arms race prior to WW1, and some fascinating history of the development and very slow adoption of technology in armed forces. It also pointed out my lack of knowledge of the Cold War era.

I also read a history of Spain, though that was largely forgettable – the book itself was too superficial, and written to long ago to cover the Fall of Franco.

More recently, I read most of “Conceptual Foundations of Scientific Thought” by Marx Wartofsky. This work was of some interest, though the author focused on pragmatic interpretations of the philosophy of science, with an emphasis on linguistics. Eventually I stopped reading at the final section dealing with “modern physics” as it was sure to become intolerably painful.

I’ve also read through a few science fiction works, including Stranger in a Strange Land, which has been entertaining up until the final parts of the story, and the Mote in Gods Eye pair of books by Pournelle, which were a bit more entertaining.

One obscure book I just read this weekend was “Glide Path” by Arthur C Clarke. Not quite an SF story, this is a fictionalized account of the development of ground tracking radar in WW2. Mildly interesting, but really only for real nerds. Not much of a plot, nor character development.

I am planning to return to the Objectivist canon next, though I’m currently entertaining myself with Dashiel Hammett.

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Brief Reminder on Comments

I do accept comments on this blog; however, the frequency of spam comments is simply astounding. Despite the use of a spam blocker, I am still getting a couple obviously spam comments each month. The spammers are improving their techniques, using algorithms that produce comments that can look legitimate. I’ve just cleaned out the queue once again, and it’s possible that I’ve thrown out two or three actual valid comments. If you wish to place a comment in the future, either contact me through email (those of you who know me) or refer to something specific in the post that you are commenting upon. Otherwise you’ll most likely end up in the trash.

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Sowell’s Basic Economics – Part 1

We recently re-joined, and the first “new” book I purchased was Basic Economics, by Thomas Sowell.  I had read many of Sowell’s articles posted on Capitalism Magazine ( and found them to be very clearly written and always in agreement with free market principles.  Sowell has published a couple dozen books, mostly on economics – which actually was a concern for me in selecting to read (alright, listen to) his work.  I often worry that a prolific author may either be poorly edited, or repetitive.  I had also worried that a book entitled “Basic Economics” may have little to add to my reasonable knowledge of the subject.

The book is ponderous – in print it is 640 pages; as an audio book it ran over 18 hours.  I had mistakenly thought it was shorter because of how Audible had structured the downloads, but I was pleasantly surprised when the book did not end after the first 12 hours – and for a book on economics, being listened to in a car, that’s saying alot!  Sowell accomplishes a quite thorough review of major elements of economics at an introductory level, while making the material accessible and just barely entertaining.  In every instance where I was beginning to grow impatient with the length of the discussion on a topic, he either brought the topic to an end, or threw in some intriguing real-world case study.   I have only a couple minor complaints about the structure of the book.  There are the odd “Overview” chapters, occuring at the end of each major section, and which appear to contain more than mere summaries, might be misleading, and seem awfully long.  There are a few instances of straight out repetition of the text, which seem to be accidental – the kind of thing any editor who read the entire book would find and correct.

Sowell’s overall theme of the book is that the principles of economics are really quite simple, but become confusing in the popular mind when mixed with emotion, psychology, and politics.   He clearly defines economics as “the efficient allocation of sparse resources which have alternative uses” – and if you haven’t memorized this after he repeats it at least 50 times throughout the text, then you haven’t read the book.  He does an excellent job of boiling each element of economics down to fundamental principles – supply and demand as the fundamental of the value to be exchanged for an item, the difference between value and price as determined by the money supply, the nature of profit and loss and their effects on business, the fact that labor is just another commodity to be traded.  His coverage of banking and the financial system is a bit light, but accurate, and probably as deep as he can go without causing confusion in his target reader.

The most interesting sections for my advancement in understanding were in his treatment of risks and insurance, and his discussion of international trade.  He clearly describes the difference between an insurance policy – run by a profitable business – and the so-called government insurance programs, which he rightly identifies as merely a form of forced redistribution of wealth from the younger to the older generations.   In an insurance company, the study of risk is paramount, and premiums can be computed scientifically, based on the statistics of claims of various sorts for the various classes of clients.  In the government programs, where the insurance is an “entitlement”, risk is irrelevant, premiums are independent of class (other than being assigned as a percentage of income), and the funds collected as “premiums” are intentionally confused with general tax collection funds and spent as the current government sees fit.

In the international trade section, Sowell provides outstanding descriptions of how the fallacy of the “zero-sum game”, wherein any wealth transfered between countries is seen as a loss for debtor and a gain for the creditor, can be easily refuted, by noting that wealth is constantly being created through investments.  The conclusion is that with very rare exception any trade occuring between countries, regardless of the balance of exports and imports (in goods or funds) is greatly beneficial to both countries involved.

Equally as strong as his general themes are his selections of examples.  In explaining the economics of big business, he provides a lengthy description of the history, and change in market positions, of such companies as Sears and Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, JC Penny, McDonalds, White Castle, A&P, and Walmart.  These are fascinating histories in and of themselves, and a separate book just discussing these and similar histories would make extraordinarily interesting reading.

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