Jul 26, 2017

David Deutsch: some practical consequences...

Why am I so taken with David Deutsch? (See my earlier post for links )
Some people have commented that he is too abstract. I am a mathematician, so to me, abstract is a feature, not a bug.
But I’m also an engineer. And I am a citizen. And what he says has practical and civic implications.
According to one survey 65% of Americans think the world is getting worse. Another survey tells us that 57% of Americans think that our way of life will end in the next hundred years. 25% think we will go extinct. So we live in a country full of relatively hopeless, depressed people who differ in which catastrophe they think will destroy us (global warming, Islamic Jihadism, Ebola, Donald Trump).
Are we right to be so depressed? If not, what can we do about it? Deutsch states a principle that strikes me as an antidote—or at least an anodyne—for this depressed state. His explanation is an informal proof of the principle’s truth. He gives examples from human history to support his claim. (Although he would agree that examples prove nothing.)
Here’s the principle: Either a problem cannot be solved without violating the laws of the universe, or the problem can be solved—given the necessary knowledge. (Note that this does not mean you can solve it in a certain amount of time, or you can know how long it takes to solve it. It just says that you can, without question, solve it, given knowledge—or you’ve discovered a new law of the universe.)
His explanation: If you cannot solve a problem it cannot be that you didn’t have enough of some physical resource because you can always use knowledge to get more of any physical resource. There are only two remaining possibilities: either you do not yet have the knowledge (and once you have it, you will have the solution) or there is another law of the universe that was previously unknown that prevents you.
Therefore: all problems whose solutions do not violate the laws of the universe are solvable.
Take climate change as a practical example. Assume the dire scenarios are true. Assume that the cause is too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere already, plus more going in every day. We can solve this.
There’s no law of nature that prevents us from pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere. Therefore we could do it, given enough knowledge. We know some ways to do this. Solutions include accelerating the growth of plants that sequester carbon, creating bacteria or plants that can do it, building devices that pull CO2 from air passed over them. What we don’t know is how to do them at a cost low enough to make them practical.
None of these solutions (and there are many others, not listed here) are held back by physical impossibility. None of them is even close to physical limits. We just don’t know how to do them cost-effectively. The difference between knowing how to do something and knowing how to do it affordability is—just knowledge. So we could do it if we knew.
There’s no law of nature that says we can’t cool the planet even before we remove the CO2. We know what some of these are. What we don’t know is how to scale these up; how to do them cost-effectively; we don’t know all the side effects, and we don’t know how to avoid the side-effects that we do know. But these are just knowledge problems.
But perhaps the knowledge we lack is unobtainable? Could that be true?
Yes, but only if we are attempting to gain a kind of knowledge that the laws of nature say that we cannot gain. We can’t know the future. We can make short term projections, but that’s it. But none of these problems requires us to know things that cannot be known.
Historically when humanity has faced terrible problems some people have argued: “We can’t solve that problem because fact X prevents us.” And historically we’ve often solved those problems by doing something that no one knew about—or even imagined—at the time; or because there was a way around fact X that was unknown and even unimagined at the time. Or because fact X was in fact, not a fact. Deutsch’s book is full of such examples.
“Fact” X wasn’t the barrier to solving the problem. Our lack of knowledge was. And our incorrect belief that X was a barrier. Once we removed the error or had the knowledge, we solved it.
But, you might say, the climate problem is not just technical. It’s a political problem, as well. We not only have to get the technical knowledge that we need, but we also have to convince people to act.
True: and why can’t we get people to act? Because we don’t know how to convince them. Knowledge again. We know vastly more about the way that humans organize themselves now than we did several hundred years ago. We are better at communicating and educating people. But we are not good enough. We need to get better still.
Some people believe that the problem of educating (other) people is unsolvable. (Of course, our own ideas are correct and don’t need to be changed.) But there is no law of nature that says we can’t solve this problem. Most people once believed angry gods caused weather; now few people in civilized society believe that. Humanity is educable. And we can do a better job of education with more knowledge about the way people think, the way that they change their minds, and so on.
Deutsch’s point—that we can solve all our problems given enough knowledge—is of practical import. There are areas where we could be doing research, and we are not—and if people could understand that one or more of these areas might give us a better answer, maybe they would act to support a solution.
Is there an error in this argument? Maybe, but I don’t think so.
Some people believe that when we solve one problem, we always produce another one, worse than the first. Examples abound. But is there a law of nature that says that problems must get worse? You can find many examples of solutions that led to bigger problems. But you can find many examples that led to smaller ones. I don’t think that anyone has proposed it’s a law of nature.
We face some big problems, but the problems that we now have—as human beings—are the result of our solving this problem: “How do I avoid a life that is nasty, brutish and short?” That is where we started out. People died young. Societies died out when the climate changed unexpectedly—because they had no knowledge of climate change. Or even when the weather changed! They died when disease struck, and they had no knowledge of how to prevent disease or to cure it. And they died when neighbors attacked because they did not know how to maintain a civilization without constant violence.
I would claim that global warming, ISIS, Ebola, Trump are lesser problems dying early from disease or violence—which until recently was the fate of almost all of our ancestors.
We can solve any problem, given knowledge. This is an optimistic stance, and I think that holding the optimistic stance has practical benefits. We don’t know how long it will take us to get the knowledge that we need. We don’t know how long it would take to solve the problem if we did have the knowledge today. We don’t know if we can gain the knowledge in time. We don’t know if some other problem will overtake us in the meantime.
We’re better off because we have some knowledge. And we need to get better still. If we fail to survive, it will be for one reason and one reason only: we did not know how to avoid whatever tragedy befell us.
We also know that we are creating knowledge faster than ever. The growth of knowledge is exponential. But is it fast enough? We don’t know.
So here’s the policy implication that can help us improve our chances: we need to work to create more knowledge. We need to invest in knowledge creation and to avoid policies that stand in the way of knowledge. We can help in small ways by educating ourselves and others. Who can tell what the effect will be?
There are people across the political spectrum who have forms of knowledge that they want to suppress. They argue that it’s too dangerous or destabilizing. But it’s ignorance that is dangerous, not knowledge.
Among the most valuable kind of knowledge is epistemological: on what basis do we judge knowledge claims. Making such judgments is not just restricted to science because not all knowledge is scientific knowledge. Deutsch has something to offer on this subject, and what he has said has changed my beliefs about several issues.
Most important, it’s changed some of my beliefs about belief.
I’ll write about these topics next.

Jul 25, 2017

David Deutsch -- reading and viewing 1 of several

I majored in mathematics and minored in physics at MIT, have pursued my love of these subjects for half a century and spent my whole career working with computers. In an embarrassingly short time, David Deutsch convinced me that my understanding of mathematics and science were flawed; that my epistemology was defective; that some of my certainties were wrong; and that my understanding of the implications of computation was shallow.
12 July 2017 is the day that I first heard Deutsch (Wikipedia, home, twitter) talk about knowledge, science, and the nature of the universe. (Here’s the first talk I heard — also linked below) He’s at Oxford, is considered the father of quantum computing, is one of the leaders in understanding the implications of quantum theory, and the increasingly accepted many worlds interpretation, and is creating a new field called “constructor theory.
Deutsch is enthusiastic, articulate, knowledgeable, and witty. He is optimistic, but not naive. (Talk at RSA on Optimism) He acknowledges that things may go horribly wrong as—he points out—they have done for hundreds of thousands of years. But we’ve reached a point where the future before us is unlimited—but we must take care and successfully avoid disaster.
(Deutsch article “Why it’s good to be wrong“ Yes, it is!)
Here’s a taste, excerpted and edited from the first TED talk below:
I want to start with two things that everyone already knows. The first one is something that has been known for most of recorded history, and that is, that the planet Earth is uniquely suited to sustain our present existence, and most important, our future survival.
This idea has a dramatic name: Spaceship Earth. Outside the spaceship, the universe is implacably hostile, and inside is all we have, all we depend on, and we only get the one chance: if we mess up our spaceship, we’ve got nowhere else to go.
The second thing that everyone already knows is that human beings are not the hub of existence. As Stephen Hawking famously said, we’re just a chemical scum on the surface of a typical planet that’s in orbit around a typical star, which is on the outskirts of a typical galaxy, and so on.
The first of those two things is kind of saying that we’re at a very un-typical place, and the second one is saying that we’re at a typical place. If you regard these two as deep truths to live by and to inform your life decisions, then they seem a little bit to conflict with each other.
But that doesn’t prevent them from both being completely false.
Here are some talks by and with Deutsch and links to his books (both excellent).

(Also at TED, with a transcript)

Also at TED with a transcript
Deutsch’s books: (click on images to go to Amazon)
Fabric of Reality
Beginning of infinity

Jul 8, 2017

Out of my comfort zone

I am too comfortable.

Said differently, I do not push myself out of my comfort zone. I let circumstances do that. The successes of my life are strongly due to the circumstances in which I've found myself.

And now, in this late period of my life, there are relatively few circumstances where I am driven to discomfort.  Worse, most of the time when I am uncomfortable, I can stop doing what made me uncomfortable. I can extract myself from circumstances. That’s a problem.

I'm out of my comfort zone if things are going too poorly.  I'm also out of my comfort zone if things are going too well. Both lead to inaction. So I'm comfortable when things are going "as expected" which means that they are routine re-enactments of that which I already know how to do. Out of that comfort zone, I quickly disengage and go to inaction. Unfortunately, I am fairly comfortable with inaction. That makes it a stable state.

I want this to change.

I know that I want to grow and improve. I can visualize parts of the life I would like to have. I have a vision of what I would describe as greater success. But I didn’t have a vision of what succeeding looks like.

Now I’m building that vision and planning how to realize it.

To first order: succeeding looks like doing things that make me uncomfortable, that put me outside my comfort zone. Succeeding looks like staying there, despite the discomfort.

Succeeding looks like acknowledging a poor outcome, examining what went wrong, staying with the discomfort, and making another attempt. Succeeding looks like experiencing an exceptional outcome, acknowledging the success, sticking with the discomfort, and taking the next step.

One way for me to acknowledge the success is to write about it.

Growth will never be comfortable. I know this intellectually. I know intellectually that I must seek out discomfort.

I am a meaning-making creature and my job is to remake the meaning of discomfort.  Not all discomfort leads to growth, but some does,

And I must take care to seek out that discomfort, experience it fully, and enjoy it.

Like right now.

Jul 6, 2017

A robot priest

Another job taken by robots. This robot priest will bless you. (Humans need not apply.
The robot has a touchscreen chest, two arms and a head. For the past 10 days, it has offered blessings in a choice of German, English, French, Spanish or Polish. Worshippers can choose between a male or female voice.
The robot raises its arms, flashes lights, recites a biblical verse and says: “God bless and protect you.” If requested, it will provide a printout of its words. A backup robot is available in case of breakdown.
The article includes a video of the robot giving a blessing. It’s a must watch.
Experimental data:
Even though the blessing was in German, the robot was giving the blessing to someone else, it had happened in the past, and I was watching a video and not experiencing the blessing live, I felt exactly as blessed as I have when I’ve been blessed by a human cleric.
More research is clearly needed, but first we need a reliable and objective way to test for blessedness. For all I know, I was way more blessed by the human cleric than the robot priest. Or the reverse.

Stalking my kids on Google Maps

Google Maps has this cool feature called location sharing. It’s a resurrection of a service that they used to provide called Latitude. I was sad when Google shut that service down. And I’m very happy that something like it is back up.
Here’s how it works.
To share your location you need to use the Google Maps app on a mobile device. From the hamburger menu, choose Share Location. You’ll get a screen that lists people who are sharing with you and any who you have shared with. A plus icon in the upper-right hand corner lets you change your sharing settings—including adding and removing people from your list.
I share my location with my kids, and I share all the time.
When you decide to share your location with someone, Google will send them a notification email. They can choose to back, or not.

FourFive of my six kids share with me, pretty much all the time. I love the other twoone anyway.
Right now Mira, John, and their kids are traveling by RV out west. Dana, Daniel, and Siena are traveling in Spain. And Alyssa and Konrad and kids just back from a trip to Maine are now at home.
Location updates are irregular. Sometimes every couple of minutes sometimes not for several hours. I can live with that.
In the browser version of Maps, I use Street View to see what my kids might be seeing. I zoom on their location, grab the street view icon and drop it near their last location, look around, or move along the road they are on to see what they might be seeing.
Then I teleport back to my computer.
Yay internet! Yay Google Maps. Yay kids who share location with me.

Yay, people reading my blog and changing their choices!

Jul 4, 2017

The purpose of the universe, life, and me

This is a longer, more intellectualized version of this post: "Do Your Job"

The purpose of the life, the universe, and everything
The universe has a purpose and most parts of it assist in that purpose.

The universe's purpose is to become aware; to know itself; to understand itself.

Most of the universe is engaged in that project--knowingly or not.

That's my job. And yours, if you want to do it.

How the universe carries out its mission
The universe carries out its purpose by organizing the stuff of which it the universe made. That's the method by which the universe produced everything that now exists and will ever exist.

If you want to blame it on God, and not the universe, itself. That's fine. And if you want to believe that God did this within recent history, that's fine. It doesn't change the fact that there's evidence, and it doesn't change the story that the evidence tells us.

Not in the beginning, but close--within the first ten seconds, the evidence in the Chronology of the Universe says--most of the universe was hydrogen. Yeah, a little helium and some stuff that we can't see and don't understand yet, called Dark Matter and Dark Energy. But mostly hydrogen.

And from hydrogen came the galaxies, and stars, and our sun, and our earth, and all the life on earth, and you, and me.

All from hydrogen.

Hydrogen is not able to understand anything--as far as we know, but stuff made from hydrogen, stuff like you and me--can understand things.

How did dumb old hydrogen turn into something that can know and understand things? We know part of the answer: a process, which must be inherent in the mechanics of the universe, causes hydrogen to form stars, which explode to form the other elements, which coalesce into new systems, on at least one of which life has arisen, and evolved into creatures that can understand.

The universe has organized itself into these new systems, into life, into us, into something that can understand the universe.

Organized things are organs
We can think of living things as organs of the universe: each meant to do a part of a job that the whole is collectively engaged in.

And that job, empirically, is self-knowledge and self-understanding.

We--the universe, life, humanity, me--are coming to know and to understand what we are.

Right now, I am--on behalf of the universe--trying to expressing this truth. This is not the first time I or anyone else has tried to say this. Nor will it be the last. That's the way the universe works: we learn by doing.

This post is my contribution today to this much greater project.

Embodied knowledge
A bacterium can metabolize chemicals to produce the energy it needs, to synthesize proteins and to build copies of itself. Bacteria do not "know" how to do any of this. They are not capable of knowing--as we conceive of knowing.

Does knowledge exist independent of minds that can know? Do sounds exist independent of creatures that can hear? I would answer both questions in the affirmative. Knowledge of protein synthesis exists, embodied, in a bacterium that can synthesize proteins, even if the bacteria are incapable of knowing what they can do, much less how they do it.

But where did that knowledge arise? Did bacteria create it? Did it appear only when it was embodied? I would argue that before it was encoded in the bodies of bacteria that knowledge was inherent in the structure of the universe.

The process of evolution extracted that knowledge and embodied it in living creatures. Then created living creatures capable of analyzing that embodied knowledge and understanding it.

We are parts of the awakening universe, beginning to know things that are already inherent in the universe.

My purpose
I believe that they purpose of the universe is to understand itself. I take as my purpose to assist in that endeavor.

I take as my purpose: to understand myself, and as much of the rest of the universe as I can.

The means by which the universe comes to understand itself is by collecting data, organizing it as information, knowledge, and understanding.

I take this as my job. And here I've done it.

I've taken some data, some information, and organized it.

Accordingly, I believe that I understand the universe a bit better.

Said differently: I'm doing my job.

I am for things that add to our store of knowledge and the breadth of our understanding.

I'm for science, and education.

I'm for open reporting and for fact checking.

I'm for transparency.

I'm against intellectual monopoly.

And more.

Jul 1, 2017

Thank you, Past Me. Thank you random stranger

(Original art from here)
Last night on Reddit I came across a comment that has changed my life. Of course, it doesn't take all that much to change someone's life. I wouldn't have written this but for that comment, so the existence of this post means reading that comment was a life changing event. But I hope my life will change it in a larger way.

Let me explain.

It started as I was browsing a thread on r/askreddit: "What's the most valuable thing you've learned on Reddit" Someone referred to a comment written by u/ryans01 in which he offered his four rules for better living. (Here is the orginal comment)

The first one:  No Zero Days. I'll come back to that idea at the end. No Zero Days is his main tool for making progress. But to get there, you need to hear the other stuff. Or I did.

His second rule was to be grateful to "the three yous." There's the past you, the present me you, and a future you. Or, in my case, it's Past Me, the Present Me, and the Future Me. 

I had written previously about "Future Me" and how unmotivated I am to do anything for him. Or at least Present Me thought that some Past Me had written. But ten minutes searching has not turned up the post, so let me express my remembered point of view.

Q: Why should I do X? (Where X is something that then-Present Me wants to do, but which will be not enjoyable in the doing.) 
A: Doing X a pain in the ass. It isn't going to benefit me (says then-Present Me). It might benefit some Future Me but--you know what? Future Me has never done anything for me. So why should I put myself out for someone who has never helped me,and who never will? 
Fuck you, Future Me. 
If you want X, then do it yourself!
Or send me something from the future that I can use in the present.
Otherwise, go fuck yourself. 
But I had it all wrong. And I'm thankful to u/ryans01 for the comment on Reddit that set me right.

I have a pretty good life. In fact, I have an awesome life. I know that. I've acknowledged it. Simply being alive is awesome. I've said that, too.

And what did I do to earn the life that I've got? Answer: nothing. Not one, single thing. Present Me did nada. It's was all Past Me. Past Me, and other Past People. They did the work. They're the ones who gave me what I've got. And I should have been grateful for them. But I wasn't. And now I am.

Because life is good.

So I now realize that Present Me has a debt to Past Me that Present Me can never repay. Instead, I can do this: I can be grateful to Past Me for the gift; I can pay it forward to Future Me. And I can share my gifts with other people. Because gifts are for giving.

So thank you Past Me. Thank you very much. You might not have been thinking of me. You might not have realized that you were giving me the gift that you've given me. That doesn't matter. I'm the recipient, nonetheless, and I am grateful.

And I'm grateful to be a Present Me recognizes this situation, and will pay the gift forward, and I'm not the ungrateful dick that I might have been. (Not to say I'm not an ungrateful dick. I'm just a different one, if I still am.)

Anyway, thank you, Present Me. I am grateful that I/you am/are here, and not the dickhead that I might have been.

Future Me, I have not met you yet, and I never will, but that's OK. I going to give you undeserved gifts, just as I have been given them. I'm going to stop bitching about how you've never done anything for Past or Present Me.

Future Me, I know that you will take our gift and do something good with it because you will know what I now know. I am confident you will do even better than I am doing. And for that, and for knowing that, I am grateful.

Back to u/ryans01. His next rule is about forgiveness. Forgive yourself, he says. And I realize that's a great place to start. There are people who are much harder on themselves than I am, but still--I've got a strong streak of perfectionism. I make a lot of misteaks. I know that I'm too hard on myself. 

Or rather, I've been too hard on Past Me. I've been angry at him for all the things that he's done wrong; for wasting his talent; for not living up to his potential. And I'm often hard on Present Me for the things that he should be doing and he's not. And I'm hard on Future Me, because I know he's going to fuck up the same way that Past Me has fucked up and Present Me is fucking up. 


There's a song in the show "Hamilton" that I love: "It's quiet uptown." In the song, Hamilton comes to terms with his life, with the things that he did that were painful, even shameful--scandal, betrayal, the death of his child. 

There are moments that the words don't reachThere is suffering too terrible to nameYou hold your child as tight as you canThen push away the unimaginable
The unimaginable!

It goes on:
There are moments that the words don't reachThere's a grace too powerful to nameWe push away what we can never understandWe push away the unimaginable
And finally:
Forgiveness, can you imagine?
Every time I hear the song, it stirs deep feelings. And every time I hear that line, "Forgiveness," the tears fall. As they are, right now.

There is a grace too powerful to name, but it's nearest nameable relative is: forgiveness. 

Forgiveness frees us. Lack of forgiveness traps us, or at least me. Or at least Past Me. 

So the idea is to forgive Past Me for what he did and didn't do. To forgive Present Me for whatever needs forgiving--for anything that stands in the way of Present Me doing the best that Present Me can do.

And to forgive Future Me. Future Me will fuck up. But he can be born in grace, already forgiven.

Forgiveness is an unlimited resource. You can't use it up. You can't run out of it. And you free yourself by using it. The more Present Me forgives the less he is attached, and the freer that he becomes--that I become--that Future Me will be. 

And it's not just forgiving myself, but forgiving anyone toward whom I feel any resentment. Resentment is crippling. I read once that resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies. Doesn't work that way.

Forgiveness. Everywhere and anywhere. 

Onward. The next rule is three words: "exercise and reading." They're good practices. Past Self agrees and Future Self almost certainly will. I've done lots of reading already,  but no exercising. So as soon as I finish this I'm going to go off and exercise a little bit.

Becuase No More Zero Days.

Here's the first rule, as promised.

No More Zero Days.

No days where I fail to do something, however small to move toward my goals. 

My goal includes writing. And No More Zero Days of writing. 

If I can't write a long post, then I can write (and post) something short.

And if I don't have something short, then I will post a sentence. Or a phrase.

No More Zero Days.

That would be enough.