Archive for July, 2014

More on Learning Theories

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Tony Bates on Learning theories(via Stephen Downes)

Measurement in QM

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

This set of OneTab shared tabs collects some recent blog activity on the measurement process in Quantum Mechanics. This reminds me of the fact that once as a graduate student (in the ’70s), on hearing once too often that the measurement process was a mystery because unitary evolution cannot take a pure state into a mixed state, I thought I had something useful to say on the matter but was pointed to the discussion in von Neumann’s book and later elaborations by Jauch and Hepp that seemed to deal with the issue on the same lines (namely by modelling the measured and measuring systems together as a tensor product of a pure state of the former and a mixed state of the latter which could evolve unitarily in such a way that the marginal state in the measured system does evolve from pure to mixed).

Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Sardonic comment: The measurement problem in QM

Spherical Harmonics: On quantum measurement (Part 2: Some history, and John von Neumann is confused)

Spherical Harmonics: On quantum measurement (Part 3: No cloning allowed)

The Many Worlds of Quantum Mechanics | Sean Carroll

Everett’s Relative-State Formulation of Quantum Mechanics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Quantum Mechanics Smackdown | Sean Carroll

Why Probability in Quantum Mechanics is Given by the Wave Function Squared | Sean Carroll

On “Calling Out” the Insane Among Us

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

GMO advocate Keith Kloor has recently been reporting (in his blog at about the activities of a particularly insane anti-GMO activist whom I will not stoop to identify or link to.  Such vitriol does need to be called out (at least if it appears to be gaining any public traction), but there is a danger of seeing (or being perceived as seeing) the extremist as representative of the position.  So I was pleased to see that Keith has added an explanatory postscript at the end of his latest post. But his conclusion to that postscript raises a further question – namely how much responsibility do GMO opponents (or even just labelling advocates) have for controlling the nutbars.

Actually, I think that it can be hard to decide how much an advocate for any view or religion should be held responsible for finding and correcting extremists who claim to share their view – perhaps it depends on whether one is claiming some kind of “leadership” in one’s own advocacy. I am quick to condemn religious leaders (including “atheist” ones) who fail to control or at least to quickly identify and disavow vicious nonsense spouted by their followers, but I feel no real obligation on myself to address  and correct the anti-scientific nutbars when I make my own claims against those who would deny me the right to demand whatever information I want about the food I eat. (And my own confidence in the safety of GMOs is substantially reduced by the determination of their producers to deny me that information).

Winners Announced In The Rename “Global Warming” Contest! | William M. Briggs

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

Apparently, as one of the winners in Matt Briggs’  Rename “Global Warming” Contest, I have the option of writing an essay on “What I learned from Global Warming”. This is a bit of a challenge since it presumes the existence of something I have not yet experienced to any great degree. But to the extent that plausible evidence for Anthropogenic Global Warming has already appeared I would say that I have indeed learned something from it. So here goes:

What I Have Learned From Global Warming

The most important thing I have learned from Global Warming (so far) is that I have been right to give significant credence to predictions based on general scientific principles. More specifically, I have learned to take seriously the predictions of basic physics when made in the context of the simplest model that fits the known facts of the situation without introducing additional variables whose values and effects are less well understood. (But since I am not dead yet – and hope to continue learning until I am – I could find no way of addressing the topic without including that extra word in the title).

When the simplest scientific models predict something, it really should be considered as quite likely to happen – even if deniers and naysayers are able to point out various more complicated models in which the predicted effect may be reduced or counteracted by various other secondary effects. In the case of CO2 induced global warming, it was of course conceivable (before measurements proved otherwise) that the predicted absorption of outgoing radiation might be limited by saturation of CO2 energy levels (after all, if equipartition could not be at least temporarily defeated then lasers would be impossible); and if bicarbonate can buffer the addition of acids or bases to a solution then perhaps something could similarly damp the effects of atmospheric CO2; or maybe the global surface temperature is automatically stabilized by an increase in reflective cloud cover whenever the temperature goes up a bit, etc.etc.  All of these scenarios could of course have prevented global warming, but each is dependent on very special circumstances that we had no reason to expect were actually the case – and for each anti-warming scenario it was equally easy to come up with some hypothetical mechanism for amplifying rather than damping. So now that the trend is becoming clear, perhaps more and more people will see that banking on complicated second order effects as an excuse to postpone mitigating action against something predicted by a simple and clear first order argument was foolish. In this case it may quite possibly turn out to have been the most foolhardy and irresponsible and ultimately harmful act in the history of humanity.

Let’s hope that others learn quickly enough so that as a species we can keep my extra word in the title at least until the phenomenon really is history, because if it becomes “What We Learned” within the century or more that it will take to reliably stabilize our effects on the climate then that will only be in our epitaph.

Update: This has now been posted on Briggs’ site and the comments include both what may be a clearer presentation than my own of my main point by Rob Ryan, and an interesting (to me) exchange with Tom Scharf who, I think, misheard my claims as to the likely extent of the harmful effects but with whom I may really disagree about how important it is to try to prevent them them.

Plus ca change … meme chose!

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Recent events in Vancouver civic politics echo similar stories from four and thirty years ago!

Implications of the Free Will Debate?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

At Templeton’s BQO site, Alfred Mele asks What Are the Implications of the Free Will Debate for Individuals and Society? But before looking at the content, let me comment on that title.

Sometimes titles are imposed by editors, but the chance that that one was put forward (or at least approved) by the author certainly reduced my expectation of learning anything from the article – and that reduced expectation turns out to have been appropriate.

The debate, being an extended event or occurrence, may have consequences, but since it is not a proposition it can’t have any implications, and confusion between these two concepts permeates the article – with significant impact on its conclusions. (Often such language is used without adverse consequence – a newspaper editorial on the “implications of a trade agreement” for example may legitimately use the word “implications” as a colloquial substitute for “expected consequences”. But in the context of this particular philosophical discussion the distinction is crucial.)

It may well be that, as some researchers claim to show, a belief in “lack of free will” may be associated with (and so perhaps even in some cases be a cause of) behaviour and opinions deemed to display a lack of self control.  And, if true, the fact of the debate having those consequences might imply that there are reasons to avoid it and instead to just encourage people to believe in the existence of  “free will” regardless of whether or not it is actually true – and this might apply even if the propositions established in the debate actually imply that all commonly held definitions of the term “free will” are either incoherent or refer to something that does not exist.

The research on consequences of the debate so far is not conclusive so I won’t address the question of whether or not it might be a good idea to promote the existence of “free will” even if it doesn’t exist (which of course also raises other questions as to the morality of claiming to serve the common good of our peers by deliberately misinforming them). Rather, I will just deal with whether the author has proposed a meaningful definition for something that does not not exist.

And he has not.

(I will continue this post with more on that later)


Mathematics, Mathematicians and Desire

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

On Monday I attended the Math Ed Ph.D. defense of my former colleague Veda Roodal Persad, but although I had had some earlier discussions with Veda I have to admit that I hadn’t actually seen and read the full thesis, so any comment here is based solely on the oral presentation. The subject was Mathematics Education, and the topic was ‘Mathematics, Mathematicians and Desire’.  Veda’s background is in Statistics and her teaching approach to both statistics and mathematics was always pretty much straightforward, so I was a bit surprised to see her interest in approaching Math Ed from the perspective of a Lacanian psychoanalytic cultural criticism. This is something I know absolutely nothing about so my understanding of what is really intended by many of the words may be completely wrong. But on the face of it (with conventional understanding of the words), who can disagree that desire is the source of motivation without which we cannot expect people to put in the effort required for real progress?

Veda took particular  inspiration from Lacanian scholar Mark Bracher who said “Insofar as a cultural phenomenon succeeds in interpellating subjects – that is in summoning them to assume a certain subjective disposition – it does so by evoking some form of desire or by promising satisfaction of some desire” and who then categorized desire into four forms:

  • Passive Narcissistic Desire is desire to be the object of another’s  love, attention, and emulation (“I want to be recognized by mathematics and its community as a mathematician”)
  • Active Narcissistic is desire to emulate or become the other (I want to be a mathematician – ie to be like those who wear that label”)
  • Active Anaclytic is desire to have possess or use the other as a source of jouissance or pleasure (“I want to possess mathematics as a source of enjoyment – eg pleasure in knowing things and exercising skills”)
  • Passive Anaclytic desire is to be possessed in service of the jouissance of the other (“I want to be desired by mathematics as a means of adding to its glory”)

The audience had little trouble understanding the first three and how they can  be encouraged and used to contribute to even a beginning student’s engagement with mathematics, but the last one caused one of the examiners to ask “How can mathematics desire? That’s like saying this coffee cup can desire something”. Now the second sentence there is a bit odd since there had been no objection to the idea of mathematics-as-a-community seeing the subject as a worthy object of emulation as a “good mathematician”, but the idea of a beginning student actually being “needed” as a source of satisfaction even by the mathematics community, let alone the abstract discipline, is perhaps rather more challenging. Perhaps one could see the community as needing the satisfaction of  having resolution for an outstanding problem, but it is hard to see that as motivating for beginners – even though it certainly worked for three and a half centuries on those at a level capable of understanding the issue of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Nonetheless, Veda insisted, and I found myself agreeing, that this is a potential source of engagement even for beginners. In fact, even without the math-as-a-community interpretation, there is a real sense in which mathematics as a body of knowledge can “desire” satisfaction from anyone at any level. (I use scare quotes here because perhaps the attribution of emotion to a non-human entity is really only metaphorical, but more on that later).

Of course, regardless of whether mathematics is really capable of “desire” , the passive modes of desire represent feelings of the subject, so wishing to feel desired or needed by the object (either human or otherwise) is a possible emotional state for the subject even if the object is not actually capable of having any such feelings. So we can ask what are examples of feeling needed by mathematics and whether such feelings can be stimulated in an early learner. I think not only that they can, but also that they provide the most powerful (almost addictive) attraction for the learner to the subject. The situation for mathematics is similar to that for poetry or music where artists often describe a work as demanding to be written. Most mathematicians have similar experiences of an idea, pattern, or proof demanding understanding and I think that if we could tap more into the power of creating and drawing attention to that experience at an early age then we might get many more potential addicts hooked on mathematics.

P.S. Re the coffee cup: even without emotions doesn’t the handle need to be held and the cup to be filled?  One can say that calling these “needs” is merely metaphorical, but at one level (perhaps legitimately called psychopathic) the attribution of emotions to other humans is also metaphorical since it is only those of the self that are known directly.

Save Us From the Parasitic Drones

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

There is a plague upon the  Earth! Every day of our lives your blood and mine is being sucked by a growing army of parasitic drones. You may barely notice their effect right now, but if the drones are not stopped your children and grandchildren will be condemned to lives of servile poverty.

If it weren’t for the constant brainwashing with which we are flooded by their propaganda machine it would be obvious to all of us that a new and fairer tax scheme is needed in order to halt the increasing dominance of our societies by the parasitic drone class of  Non-Working Rich. But Robert Reich’s tax proposals don’t go nearly far enough. We urgently need now, in every country of the world, to limit the extent to which wealth can be passed to those who haven’t in any way earned it.

My own (as yet incomplete) proposal for a universal asset transfer tax is intended to be both transparent and almost impossible to evade. It would tax any transfer of assets between individuals as income on both sides based on a declared value whose artificial reduction to avoid tax would be discouraged by the provision that the state would always have the option to acquire the asset for a price equal to whatever value was declared by its recipient. In order not to unduly slow down the economy, transfers between corporations for the purpose of economic production, purchase of materials, and more effective business structuring might be treated differently (although some sort of lower rate Tobin tax might still actually be useful to control volatility), and then there might be a need to disqualify some such transfers as merely re-formulations of personal transfers for the purpose of tax-avoidance.

Sexuality by Choice

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

I never felt comfortable with “Born This Way” as I had no objection to people being gay by choice. So even though I have no actual skin in the game, I am happy to read Brandon Ambrosino in the New Republic saying Macklemore’s “Same Love” Sends the Wrong Message About Being Gay.


Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

I don’t know if I should be called an atheist so I’m certainly not an atheistocrat but I’m sure as hell against all forms of theocracy so I’m happy to identify as an atheocrat. I had thought all  loyal citizens of the USA were supposed to accept such atheocracy as part of their constitution, but according to the  Catholic News Agency (via Ophelia Benson), American Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Nebrasca deplores the “secular tendency towards atheocracy”.

Thank you bishop for inventing a label I can live with.

Is Math “Hard”?

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

A math major talks about fear – YouTube

A commenter objected to the statement that “math is hard” and I had to respond as follows.

Some math is hard is and some is not. Memorizing 3+4=7 is not hard, but *proving* 1+1=2 took 162 pages of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica in 1910, and the Fermat-Wiles theorem took 350 years from conjecture to proof (and defeated some of the greatest names in mathematics in the interim). Perhaps what she should have said is that *interesting* math is hard, but that’s so obviously what she meant that the qualifier is unnecessary. Indeed *nothing* that’s not hard is worth putting any effort into. (Breathing, at first sight, is not hard and it is only by seeking to perfect it and so “making it hard” that yoga teachers give its attention any value.)

The “problem” of Richard Feynman

Sunday, July 13th, 2014

3quarksdaily points to this bit of nonsense about Richard Feynman (which in turn re-opens a number of earlier versions of the same “news”).

What a pile of crap! Feynman was certainly “guilty” of occasional meanness, and of self-mythologizing to an almost absurdly grand (and completely unnecessary) extent, and also apparently of making sexist jokes in lectures (which, unlike some of those linked to from this article, I *do* consider a major issue!), but “pretended to be an undergraduate to get young women to sleep with him”? Oh come on! Let me see now – “Hi, I’m an incredibly handsome professor and future Nobel Prize winner, wanna fuck?” vs “Hi, I’m a kinda cute but dim and immature version of you, wanna fuck?” And, oh horror of horrors!, he went to bars and asked sex workers whether they were in the business of selling reality or fantasy before doing business (but soon discovered that that kind of sex was not what he wanted).  I don’t approve of the way he felt he had to denigrate the sex workers in his own mind before posing that question, but do these people have any idea how badly they have missed the real point (about how sexist the world was half a century ago – and about how some of the worst aspects of that attitude do still persist (esp. in the IT world) today)?

P.S. Whenever a stranger offers to buy me  a drink (or food, or anything else), unless the invitation includes others, or is made in the context of some evident specific celebration on their part or apparent need on my part, then I assume they want sex (or something else) in exchange (and if in doubt I try to make clear to them whether or not that is actually an option before accepting the offer).

Update: has taken down an earlier post on this issue as being not up to their “quality” standards – but apparently only because it failed to be sufficiently slanderous, as it has now been replaced by another article which makes a number of the same good points but includes a more explicitly dishonest portrayal of what Feynman did with regard to students (dishonest by using language which any uninformed reader would interpret as referring to doing sex-for-grades exchanges without any evidence other than his own admission of doing the opposite by underplaying his status in his dealings with prospective sex partners)

By far the most serious allegations against Feynman from the point of view of “Science Outreach” are those about his use of sexist humour in his lectures (which were almost dismissed by Julia Lipman in 1999 and have been totally ignored in the most recent bit of excitement). His choice of stories to include in his popular books is also unfortunate – but more because of the “clear and present” danger of misinterpretation in a way that will not just reflect badly on him but might indeed discourage potential future female scientists (rather than from what they actually say).

The fact that he may have sometimes been, in the terms of his time, a “cad” in personal relationships (which, despite not having seen any convincing evidence, I find plausible on the basis of his manifest personal vanity and narcissism) may indeed be of interest in a general biographical context – and also as an example of why it is not a good idea to designate him, or anyone else, as the ultimate hero. But it is not actually supported by the content of either his sex-with-students or B-girl stories. That he chose to tell those stories may convey something to be concerned about, but the actual content does not. And anyone who does not admit that is being either dishonest or incompetent.

An interesting counterpoint to the critical articles is provided by the transcript of interviews with Jenijoy LaBelle  who knew him at Caltech (through an initial meeting that some might find “creepy” but which she just found amusing) and whose tenure battle he supported in the 1970s. (But perhaps LaBelle herself would be dismissed as a character reference by those who consider any sexual relationship between a faculty member and student to be “predatory” even if there is no actual instructional relationship between them.)

Further update (2014-07-16): I just read a relevant post by Saramoira Shields at ‘mathematigal’ who links to some places where PUA types seem to take support from his stories (a connection that was also noted earlier by others)  and replied with

From the assholes (PUA types) you link to I can see that it is true that some of Feynman’s stories do contribute (through what I consider gross, but quite predictable, misinterpretation) to some of the nastiness you have experienced. I am not surprised by that, and I consider his use of those stories to have been exceedingly ill-advised, stupid, and wrong. But I do not agree with those who interpret the behaviour he describes as misogynistic. I don’t think he hated or even dismissed women relative to men, but “merely” that he was so involved in his own “cleverness” that his vain narcissism blinded him to any adverse consequences of his actions or their re-telling.


Just Say No to Copyright Term Extension

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

Howard Knopf is right of course in his objection at EXCESS COPYRIGHT: Just Say No to Copyright Term Extension – Why More is Less: My Views on #TPP.

But I would go further. No copyright on any work should ever be extended beyond that which was in place at the time of its creation.

Not only is it obvious that no such extension of copyright can add any incentive to the creation of the work, but the extension is also actually an act of theft – first from the public whose rights are given away, but also from the creator (and any previous owner) who sold the work for a price based on the copyright term in effect at the time of the sale.

Who are the Authoritarians?

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

Are the Authoritarians Winning? by Michael Ignatieff | The New York Review of Books is a disappointingly vapid piece by Michael Ignatieff in which he reviews a number of recent books about the global situation.

Authority is just a matter of effective control – which always resides somewhere. Any government is based on a claim of authority and the only difference about a democracy is that the authority is claimed by the electorate. To limit the scope of its authority is merely to reassign that authority to individuals – which in a “liberal” democracy means to the wealthy.

Ignatieff’s most telling comment is this: “While the liberal state was never intended to enforce distributive equality, it was always supposed to keep the power of big money from suffocating competition and corrupting the political system.”

The opening conditional adverbial clause of that sentence is the key. Contrary to Ignatieff, distributive equality (properly defined) is, in my opinion, the only fair goal for any state or government. Anything else is just the facilitation of theft by attempting to mitigate its consequences. So how is distributive equality to be defined and achieved? My answer is as follows:

First, it does not mean that everyone always has the same access to comfort regardless of effort. And while talent is not earned it may take some time for people to accept that it does not somehow justify increased reward, so I am not going to make having reward independent of talent be an objective at this time. But in the meantime we should at least be able to get majority support for the idea that, although luck might also be a factor, it should not be actively enhanced by the state. So inheritance of property should ideally be out as a source of inequality. Everyone should receive, at an appropriate age, an equal share of the then current national (or eventually global) wealth as their rightful inheritance – perhaps by choosing between either three equal instalments at ages 15,25, and 35 or a single lump sum at age 21. This should be paid for by a combination of 100% death duty with a simple uniform tax on wealth and wealth transfers (including gifts) – to be adjusted as necessary so as to meet the needs for financing the legal system, protection of persons and property, publicly funded infrastructure, and social services for those unable to make a go of it on the basis of their inheritance, as well as to provide the ongoing provision of inheritances to those attaining the relevant age(s). The wealth tax should cover at least all costs of  the legal and property protection systems (including “national” defense). And the transfer tax should apply to all exchanges of property and labour, including gifts. Both should be based on declared values with no item of property to be either insurable or protectable via the law for more than its declared value – perhaps with a forced exchange to the state at the declared value as a possible consequence to discourage under-valuation, and the transfer tax should be applied to the greater of the declared values of the two sides of the transaction. The transfer tax might also include a progressive element based on the total of all transfers to or from an individual over a standard time interval (eg a year, as with current income tax).

This is simple effective and will work.  I will allow 48 hrs yrs for the submission and consideration of suggested changes, but at the end of that period it will need to have been put into effect globally – or I will be forced to express my severe annoyance.

Remember, you have just 48 hrs yrs, so get any comments or objections in as soon as possible!