Archive for the ‘uncategorized’ Category

Beware the Fanaticism of Converts

Friday, October 25th, 2019

When one has been persuaded of an extreme view there is a danger of over-reacting in the opposite direction and turning to believe everything that is said against it and also against less extreme versions of the same view.

I wouldn’t call Mark Heyer’s answer to With global warming and coastal flooding imminent, should major coastal populations start relocating now? – Quora fanatical, but it does show the beginnings of turning from a gullible supporter of one view to become a similarly gullible supporter of its opposite.

In particular it seems that Heyer has gone from believing in extreme exaggerations about climate change to believing in extreme exaggerations about those who consider it a risk that should be avoided. (See Israel Ramirez’s answer to Did the climate scientist James Hansen really predict that New York’s West Side highway would be flooded by 2008?)

What’s Wrong with Yang’s UBI Proposal?

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

US Democrat presidential nomination candidate Andrew Yang includes a kind of universal basic income in his platform; and he identifies it as a “dividend” which I prefer because it clarifies that it is not welfare but a deserved share of our common heritage of wealth and knowledge which derives from the effort and skills of all our ancestors. But there are various aspects of his proposal which undermine its effect.

Most importantly it is NOT universal, and in fact is just a give-away to those of us whose need is not sufficient to qualify for welfare in the current system. Those on welfare do not get the full benefit of the “dividend” because they have to give up their current benefits in order to receive it. To call this a universal improvement is quite dishonest and the best I can do for Yang on this issue is thank him for raising the issue but not to support his proposal as it stands.

The issue does need to be discussed however, and Yang has other proposals that also deserve attention, so I do hope his voice gets heard and properly responded to.

#YangMediaBlackout

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

UBI advocate, Scott Santens, has produced A Visual History of the #YangMediaBlackout  in which he shows many examples of what appears to be systematic ignoring of Andrew Yang’s campaign (esp by MSN). This seems to be an example of the kind of snotty entitled behaviour of mainstream media that Trumpists decry as “fake news”. And I think they are right. The anger and distrust of the Trumpeters, science deniers, and right wing nut jobs does not come out of a vacuum. It is fed by the constant barrage of biased, and yes fake, reporting that comes from people who think they know a lot more than they really do. Unfortunately it is all too easy to accept political support even when it agrees with us for wrong reasons, and the situation is not helped by the tendency to belittle, as overly academic pretentious condescending quibbling, any attempt to correct the wrong reasoning behind a correct opinion.

That said, I don’t actually agree with Yang’s UBI proposal.

1. The metaphysics of memory – The Brains Blog

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

I can imagine falling in a playground whose features I remember and where I undoubtedly may have fallen several times. If I do that repeatedly I can come to feel that the imagined event really happened exactly as I imagine it – in which case I have a (possibly false) memory. What besides some sensation in my own mind distinguishes imagination from memory?

This week I am writing a series of posts about my new book Memory: A Self-Referential Account (Oxford University Press, 2019). My first post, today, concerns the metaphysics of experiential, or epi…

Source: 1. The metaphysics of memory – The Brains Blog

Waking Up

Monday, October 21st, 2019

“Now I’m awake, but the idea is gone.”

Why came it upon me to type that just now?

At first ’twas a puzzle, but now it has come to me.

Like the guy in “Forgetting” I had sent me a message

A clue to revive the idea that is gone.

——-

I recall repeating that mantra in sleepy-land

In the hope that later it would come back to mind

And now I must strive to bring back those great thoughts

That run through my head in the first light of dawn

It was something important I know that for sure

But what exactly it was I can recover no more.

Development as a chapter in the moral tale of economics | Aeon Essays

Sunday, October 20th, 2019

This includes some bits that I find helpful for thinking about both Tiananmen and the recent rise of the populist right.

Source: Development as a chapter in the moral tale of economics | Aeon Essays

Opinion | Even Physicists Don’t Understand Quantum Mechanics – The New York Times

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

Physicists brought up in the modern system will look into your eyes and explain with all sincerity that they’re not really interested in understanding how nature really works; they just want to successfully predict the outcomes of experiments.

This would indeed be a sad commentary on the state of modern physics if only someone could give any real meaning to the question of “understanding how nature really works” beyond just being able to “successfully predict the outcomes of experiments”

Source: Opinion | Even Physicists Don’t Understand Quantum Mechanics – The New York Times

(106) What is meant by an ‘observer’ in QM? Do you have to directly observe the electron in order to collapse the wave? – Quora

Sunday, October 13th, 2019

In almost any imaginable theory an experiment involves the preparation of a system in what we call a “state” and the subsequent observation of various quantities which we call “observables”. The observable quantities might be lengths, colours, states of matter, relative phases of signals, or many other things – but they can almost always be reduced to just real numbers or even just sequences of yes/no questions. And the prepared states typically correspond to the specification of some particular observable values by filtering out those that don’t meet the required criteria. States which are specified as completely as possible are called “pure states” but it is also possible to prepare a “mixed state” in which the specification is not complete and so where the values of some quantities which could be specified more precisely (without interfering with others already specified) are given just by some statistical distribution. In quantum theories the complete specification of some observables may make it impossible to also have a complete specification of others and so even in pure states the values of some observables may not be completely determined. In such cases the state cannot be written as a statistical mixture of ones in which the problem variable is completely determined (which are called eigenstates of that observable), but rather as a linear combination (aka superposition) of the corresponding wave functions.

The measurement process has several stages, and a lot of confusion about what is meant by an “observer” in QM arises from not keeping them separate.
Two of these stages are often identified with the notion of “collapse”.
One is where a small part of the world appearing to be in a pure state (which, for any particular observable, may not be an eigenstate but just a linear superposition of the eigenstates corresponding to different values of the observable) interacts with some part of the external world (which is not in a pure state) in such a way that the small part ends up appearing to be in a classical statistical mixture of eigenstates. After this interaction is complete the observer still may not know which eigenvalue applies (ie what the observed value of the measurement will be), but the situation will be no more (nor less!) mysterious than that of a coin toss which has not yet been observed. For this first stage of collapse (which has been understood in principle since von Neumann, but for which in the last few decades specific more detailed examples have come to be touted as “decoherence”) the part of the world “causing” the collapse could be anything from surrounding thermal radiation, to an actual measurement instrument, or a cat, or another human observer (cf “Wigner’s friend”) who learns the truth before you do.

But if you are the observer we are interested in, then the system remains in a mixed state until you become aware of the result, and collapse of the classical probability distribution happens only in your mind.

So tl;dr there is no “collapse of the wave”. What there is are first decoherence of the wave (which can be caused by interaction with almost anything that is even slightly complicated), and then, later, collapse of the resulting probability distribution which is where you and your “consciousness” come in.

Source: (106) What is meant by an ‘observer’ in QM? Do you have to directly observe the electron in order to collapse the wave? – Quora

Speculative Science is not necessarily “Post-empirical” Pseudo-Science

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

In the promo for his piece: Post-empirical science is an oxymoron, and it is dangerous | Aeon EssaysJim Baggott is identified just as a “popular-science author”, but in fact he’s also a real scientist with research awards and applied experience. And this shows in the quality of his essay which objects to much of the sensationalist mumbo-jumbo that passes for popular science writing these days. But there are other real scientists among those he objects to and I think there is plenty of room for people to work on (and write about) speculative ideas that do not yet have testable consequences.

In his article, Baggott refers to an earlier article by Massimo Pigliucci entitled Must Science be Testable? which carried the subhead “String wars among physicists have highlighted just how much science needs philosophy – and not just the amateur version” (to which I responded with a comment at the time).

For me, YES, science must be testable, and No science does not “need” philosophy – especially the “professional” version.

That’s not a statement about how the world “is”, but about how I choose to define the word “science”, and I suspect that most of my scientific colleagues feel similarly (in general terms though not perhaps in all the details).

More completely, I think of science as the game (a word I shall not try to define!) of making the most complete and accurate predictions from the most compact set of assumptions. It differs from some games in that the “scoring” system is not precisely defined and is largely a matter of personal taste (kind of like judged aesthetic events like gymnastics and diving in the Olympics).

String Theory is a part of that game because it is an attempt (still in progress) to interpolate between General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory in a way that reduces the number of bits needed in order to describe the assumptions while not failing to at least match the accuracy of any of the separate theories’ predictions. One can argue as to whether it is likely to succeed, but any claim to have properly constructed it will be testable in several ways – not all experimental. One is just whether it is logically and mathematically consistent. Another is whether it has limiting cases which match GR & QFT. But then it will almost surely make predictions in situations where the other two break down, and so it will also probably be possible to design experiments which detect whether or not those predictions are correct.

A “theory” which I would not consider real science is the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. It is designed to exactly mimic the predictions of standard QM and requires exactly the same mathematical tools but just dignifies some of them with the label “real” which sadly does not seem to have any real meaning; however I can see how the interpretation might earn some points if we added a criterion of aesthetic appeal or conceptual accessibility to the scoring table.

There are also some similar-sounding “multiverse” theories that go beyond the many worlds idea and may possibly one day make predictions re observable effects from “nearby” “branes” and such; and the “mirrorverse” idea that Leah Broussard is proposing to explain some observed anomalies in neutron decay time measurements seems to be one of these. As yet it may be even further from being properly constructed than string theory, but I think Baggott is overstating the case against it.

Baggot and others like Sabine Hossenfelder can argue that certain lines of investigation are a poor allocation of scientific resources, but that is very far from making it appropriate to identify them as “pseudo-science”.

An ant colony has memories that its individual members don’t have 

Saturday, September 28th, 2019

This could be used as part of a rebuttal to Searle’s silly ‘Chinese Room’ argument. Source: An ant colony has memories that its individual members don’t have | Aeon Ideas

Is dark makeup always racist?

Saturday, September 21st, 2019

In response to the dismay caused by recent disclosures of past events where he wore dark makeup, Justin Trudeau has said:

“Darkening your face, regardless of the context or the circumstances, is… unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface,” he said. “I should have understood that then and I never should have done it.”

But is this really true? Actually, I think not for it really does depend on the “context or circumstances”.

Some of the exceptions are extremely rare but it is wrong to deny that they exist. For example there may be medical treatments which darken skin as a side effect, and deliberate darkening for its own sake is often used by commandos and the like in order to evade detection at night or when moving in a dark environment.

The context of a non-comedic amateur dramatic performance should also, in my opinion, be excluded as it may be useful in such a context for both darkening and lightening makeup to be used to reinforce role reversal activities.

In professional performances though, I think there is an obligation to find appropriately pigmented actors if one wants to represent skin colour accurately because it is harder to lighten than to darken and so allowing colour adjustment gives an employment advantage to the lighter-skinned. But in that context the reason for the “ban” is to increase economic opportunity rather than because to permit the colouring would be in any sense racist.

It’s really only in the context of comic or malicious performances that skin darkening can be taken as strongly suggestive of racism, but any adult or adolescent halloween-type costume is sufficiently likely to have humorous or frightening intent that any reasonable adult should be aware that even if the intent is not there the possibility of it being perceived and hurtful is sufficient reason not to do it.

Unfortunately this last is the context that applies to Mr Trudeau and so I think he is right to apologize – and also to acknowledge at least to himself that there may have been an element of racist mockery in his behaviour. But to declare that his offense was to violate an arbitrary absolute ban actually diminishes rather than strengthens his apology.

Source: Trudeau Apologizes For Blackface Video After Saying Sorry For Brownface Photo | HuffPost Canada

Is ALL Advocacy and/or Advertising now Potentially Partisan According to Elections Canada?

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

If saying climate change is real could be seen as partisan activity just because some candidate or other denies it, then surely the same would apply to all advertising for, say, Coke or Pepsi if some candidate expressed a preference and intent to favour one or the other (esp. if in government contracts)  – or more realistically, if some politician spoke out against the widespread marketing of both these and other similarly poisonous addictive beverages.

Perhaps having to report their advertising budgets as third party political advocacy would not be too much of a burden on the big soft drink companies, but they would not be the only ones so labelled, and the loss of charitable status for healthy food advocates would be a nasty consequence of having their cause taken up more by some politicians than others.

So, if this interpretation stands then clearly the legislation was incompetently written. But perhaps the real takeaway is that all charitable contributions should be no more eligible for tax deduction than political ones. A fixed per person limit would both reduce the window for scammy self-serving “donations” and provide less encouragement for the wealthy to distort our pattern of social service by giving massively greater support to those charities that they happen to approve of.

Source: Saying climate change is real could be seen as partisan activity during election campaign, Elections Canada warns – The Globe and Mail

The Earth’s carrying capacity for human life may not be “fixed” but it IS bounded!

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

Ted Nordhaus’ disappointing essay in Aeon Ideas provides encouragement to those who would deny the need to end human population growth. Of course Earth’s carrying capacity is not fixed, but regardless of what future technology may bring, it will always remain several orders of magnitude less than “standing room only”. And allowing growth before ensuring that it can be supported will just guarantee more of the hardship and starvation that was happening before the “green revolution” (whose primary author was adamant about its giving us only a “breathing space” in which to come to terms with our looming “Population Monster”(*))

 

 

 

(*) From his Nobel Prize address in 1970: “The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only. Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the “Population Monster”…Since man is potentially a rational being, however, I am confident that within the next two decades he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth…”[34]

Is There really a Naturalistic Case for “Free Will”?

Monday, August 12th, 2019

In The Naturalistic Case for Free Will: The Challenge, Christian List opens a series of posts at The Brains Blog discussing some key ideas from his book ‘Why Free Will is Real’ (Harvard University Press, 2019).

But if Free Will is defined, even just on a “first gloss”, as “an agent’s capacity to choose and control his or her (or its?) own actions”, then surely it does exist – even for an agent as simple as a programmed light switch (which chooses whether to switch on or off depending on what it perceives by way of motion and/or warm objects in its environment). So the “Free Will” that is denied by some must certainly be more than this (though rather than deny its existence, I would rather say that I have never seen a coherent definition of it).

What neither the light switch nor the human agent possesses is the capacity to change its own programming for past decisions. A human, or even a suitably programmed learning agent, can of course modify the part of its “program” that will make future decisions, and even may modify its own learning algorithm; but neither he, she nor it has the capacity to modify the program with which it started.

What is relevant for ethical and legal discussions though is not some mythical mystical property that is possessed uniquely by humans, but rather the property of responsibility – by which I think we should mean the capacity to modify ones future behaviour on the basis of responses (praise, censure, punishment, reward, etc.) that one receives, or perceives as being received by others as reactions to past decisions.

Oil refinery – Wikipedia

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

According to the Daily Caller website, “A mere 46 percent of oil is used to make gasoline, while the rest goes to help make a variety of other useful products. The other 54 percent of oil is used to make most over-the-counter medicines, various cleaning products, some rubber, tons of cosmetics, many lubricants and most of the world’s asphalt. Virtually all plastic, and every product made from or containing plastic, ultimately comes from oil. Out of every 42-gallon barrel of oil, 22.6 gallons is used to make products other than gasoline.”

But by priming the reader to make a false assumption, that quote is in fact a lie (since despite the long list provided, most of those “other useful products” are also fuels – and are not included in the list)

Checkout this pie chart

pie chart

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_refinery#/media/File:Usesofpetroleum.png

Source: Oil refinery – Wikipedia

In fact, according to the British Plastics Federation “In Europe, it is estimated that between 4–6% of oil and gas is used for producing plastics. By contrast, 87% is used for transport, electricity and heating — meaning it is simply burnt and lost.” (ie converted to CO2 in the atmosphere)

The “C-theory of time” asks if time really has a direction

Monday, July 29th, 2019

I’m sorry, but this article just adds to my impression that Feynman, Weinberg, and Hawking are right about the usefulness of philosophy in science.

Right now I have memories which include the memory of not having memories of some “more recent” events and of, within those memories, having memories which include the memory of remembering even fewer events. It turns out that this pattern of successively smaller sets of memories of memories defines a linear ordering of all my memories. I call the direction towards smaller memory sets my past and the direction from any past memory towards the present the future of that past. (I have no actual knowledge of any future now, but my past memories all had futures and I choose to act as if that pattern “will” continue.)

From those observations alone it does not follow that I will find other beings who have similar patterns of memory, but in fact I have done so (along with evidence that similar beings existed “prior” to my own earliest memory) – and none of us have seen any evidence of beings with a similarly defined sense of past direction that differs from my own. (For many centuries of our shared experience it appeared that we all shared a common “present” but more precise observations have established that that is only possible for beings not moving too rapidly relative to one another. However nothing has been observed which is inconsistent with us all seeing the “past” in the same direction.) A number of physical phenomena are observed to behave symmetrically between past and future but others definitely do not, and in those cases there are fairly simple rules which seem to predict which of two physical situations will be seen as “before” the other.

The upshot of all this (and lots more) is that all of the events that I can remember (or have seen reports of) can be consistently associated with points in a 4-dimensional (but non-Eulidean with +++- signature) “space-time” in which, at each point, there is a (double) cone of “time-like” directions such that many physical phenomena are consistently asymmetric between the two parts of the cone (ie with respect to any version of a “time” coordinate). This is all we mean when we say that “time has a direction”. And it’s true!

Knowledge is a problematic stone-age concept, but are we better off without it?

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

Philisopher David Papineau argues in a recent Aeon Essay that the idea of knowledge as rigorously justified true belief is “a crude concept we have inherited from our prehistoric ancestors, and it positively handicaps us in our dealings with the modern world.”

Now it is true that the unspecified level of rigorous justification needed to qualify a claim of knowledge makes the concept ambiguous (or at least context-dependent), but the fact that it is an ambiguous refinement of unqualified true belief does not alter the fact that it is indeed a refinement (ie less rather than more “crude”).

And the attempt to refine “true” and “belief” in terms of probability founders, at least for now, on the rock that there is no widely shared correct understanding of what it means. The bizarre and unrealistic example proposed by Papineau to motivate his discussion of probability in the law unfortunately just adds to the confusion – both by its confused analysis of probability and by adding a particularly fraught context (namely common law) for the discussion of what it means to “know” something.

Source: Knowledge is a stone-age concept, we’re better off without it | Aeon Essays

Massimo Pigliucci is wrong about Richard Feynman on beauty and truth in science

Saturday, July 13th, 2019

Do philosophers ever think before they write?

Massimo Pigliucci claims that Feynman is “often quoted” as saying: ‘You can recognise truth by its beauty and simplicity,’ and then uses this claim as the basis for an attack on Feynman’s understanding of what it was that he himself was really doing. Now I have no idea whether the claim that Feynman is “often quoted” that way is true – many people are inaccurately quoted, and the more famous they are the more likely they are to be falsely identified with whatever catchy phrase someone wants to promote. But one would think that a professional philosopher would be above using the fact that someone is “often quoted” as having an opinion to infer that they actually did so – especially since in this case the only supporting evidence comes from one journalist and Pigliucci “could not find other records of Feynman writing or saying it”.

No matter though.  For a philosopher apparently if someone can’t be found to have actually expressed an opinion, then it is sufficient evidence of  having had it that the accused may seen to have admired someone else who did have it – and apparently “we do know” that Feynman admired Paul Dirac who did want theories to be, in some sense, beautiful (and, despite Pigliucci’s complete lack of any attempt to support either of those claims, they are both indeed true). However Dirac’s well-attested reluctance to work on what he considered ugly does not necessarily translate into a conviction that the ugly theory could not actually be true, and despite occasional lapses (as in being initially doubtful of experimental results which  contradicted his and Gell-Mann’s weak interaction theory), Feynman’s ultimate position was exactly the opposite of what Pigliucci claims. His most famous and well-documented position on truth and beauty is in fact as follows:

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.

Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to a properly appreciative eye the property of most simply encompassing the largest known range of data is itself the criterion that we identify as beauty in a physical theory. Perhaps this is related to what the poet John Keats meant when he concluded his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by expressing the identity in both directions.

Source: Richard Feynman was wrong about beauty and truth in science | Aeon Ideas

The Sound of Music

Sunday, June 2nd, 2019
The clackety-clack of a train on the track 
is beating a rhythm that carries us back
to a time in the cave when our yackety-yak
and the chipping of stones
and the crackle of fire and the patter of rain
combined in a babble of sound to decode.

There repeating patterns were clues to the brain
as to what came from where and how to explain...

We appear to feel strongly rewarded by the recognition both of patterns and of deviations therefrom. This makes sense as such recognition is the basis of how we make useful predictions about the world around us, and the ability to make such predictions correctly is the key to our survival.

Our appreciation of music is just the aural manifestation of that reward system – similar in many respects to our appreciation of visual patterns in art and of more abstract patterns in mathematics.

Unfortunately the language and notation that has evolved to describe musical patterns has never “spoken” to me very clearly. It seems full of arbitrary and misleading names for things that could be expressed more simply. So maybe I should try to come up with an alternative (and/or an understanding of the rationale behind that conventional notation).

More on Science and Philosophy

Monday, May 13th, 2019

According to Nicholas Maxwell in Bring back science and philosophy as natural philosophy | Aeon Essays:

Far from being yet another specialised discipline, distinct from and alongside other specialised disciplines, as so much academic philosophy strives to be today, philosophy, properly pursued has, as a basic task, to counteract specialisation by keeping alive thinking about fundamental problems in a way that interacts, in both directions, with specialised research..

This is consistent with the designation of the degree required for teaching any discipline at the most senior levels as ‘Doctor of Philosophy’ in that discipline. But it raises the question of what is implied by a Ph.D. in philosophy. It’s sort of like being a master of mastery or an expert in expertise – which makes sense in a way except for the fact that in order to usefully study expertise perhaps one has to experience it in some non-self-referential context. But perhaps not. An ornithologist can study birds (and perhaps explain them to others and raise human appreciation of their value) without the experience of being one. So perhaps can a philosopher of science study the processes of scientists without actually being one. But just as the utility of the ornithologist to birds is not by way of helping them fly, so the utility of philosophers to scientists is not to help them in their work but rather to help improve their public relations. And even this is of course subject to the philosophers getting the message right – which raises the question of who decides what is the right story.