Categories
Essays

Reasonable Determination

Two things used to keep me up at night when I was a teenager: Determinism and Eternity. Looking back, I guess I was pretty geeky to have esoteric concepts keeping me up at night, but that was the truth. Eternity, often mistaken for infinity, is, of course, time unending. This concept, I still have a problem with. I could never logically wrap my head around the idea that Heaven was all that great if we had to spend all of eternity there. It was the beginning of my personal fall from grace, and it’s left me the good-natured heathen that I am today.

Determinism, on the other hand, I’ve come to accept and, almost, embrace. And the two things I can thank for that are quantum physics and artificial intelligence. I guess I’m still pretty geeky as an adult, too.

Determinism is, loosely, the concept that once the universe was set in motion, it had to end up in this state. Newton was a big fan of determinism, which is why he often used a clock to demonstrate how orderly and precise the universe is in its running. During Newton’s time, however, the Big Bang wasn’t the model for the beginning of all things. It was believed by scientists, as it still is by some, that the universe was eternal, never beginning, never ending. The discovery of the expansion of the universe in the early 20th century put the kibosh on that. Since the universe is expanding, it must have been much smaller at one point, and, this is what got Determinists all a-lather, it must have come from a single source, a beginning point. If someone could discover the conditions at the very beginning of the universe, so it was thought, one could trace the entire history of the universe to its present state, and beyond. The laws of physics described all interactions from little atoms to giant galaxies, and therefore, the universe was just like a giant billiards table—if you knew the initial set up, you could make a pretty good guess on how it came to its present state of seeming randomness.

That was the deterministic view. Of course, the computations would be enormous; it wasn’t really thought that anyone could have a complete model of how the universe ended up in the present state, but it was nice to know that it was possible, until that interloper of classic physics came to the forefront, the quanta.

There is little need for a discussion on quantum physics in this essay, since I don’t understand more than a fraction of it anyway, but there are some key concepts to quantum physics that I’d like to share. The first is Schrödinger’s Cat. This was a thought experiment put forward to underscore the ludicrousness of quantum physics in the real, or macro, world. It is also unbelievable cruel to cats whose owners have access to nuclear material. To imagine this scenario, put a cat in a box with a vessel of vaporized poison and a small amount of radioactive uranium. Close the box, and don’t peek. Now wait a given amount of time for the uranium to decay and send off a beta particle; there is a 50% chance that it will do so. Did I mention that the stopper to the vessel of poison would disintegrate if it came in contact with a beta particle? Well, it will, and poison the cat, if it does. But, and this is the where the gold is, you don’t know if it will or not. There is an even chance that it will or won’t kill the cat. Quantum physics says that the uranium exists in a state where it has both decayed and not decayed, until observed, and then the “waveform collapses,” and then only one or the other can exist. So, according to Schrödinger, the cat exists in a state of both life and death until we peer inside the box. Once we do, we either find out that we have a very pissed-off cat, or a doorstopper.

And it is ridiculous. Do not doubt that Schrödinger’s Cat is an exercise in anything but silliness. The cat, herself, can act as a reasonable observer, and nothing on the macro-level of things is actually in this dual-existence state. So what good is it? It exposes a crucial part of quantum physics, which is that if sub-atomic particle has a choice to go left or right, it will do both, until something observes the particle, which makes that collapsing waveform thing happen, and, to the universe, the particle only took one path. It is the dual nature of these tiny particles—they are both waves and particles, until we look at them, and then they settle down.

This, initially, looked to blow determinism out of the realm of plausibility. The universe suddenly got a lot more random and disordered. But in the 1960s, a little noticed paper was published that changed everything, yet again. In simplest terms, it discussed the propagating nature of quantum physics, and what may actually be happening when an electron, let’s say, is observed going through the left slit, as opposed to the right one. This idea, too, said that the electron actually goes through both, as previously thought, but instead of its waveform collapsing when observed, the observer is just in a universe where it went through the left one. There is another universe where the electron went to the right when observed. Both happened; both exist. Within twenty years, the science-fiction ramifications were popular knowledge. Imagine, every decision that we’ve ever made, has split the universe into every possibility of that choice. It brought back determinism, bruised and limping, but viable again. We could, theoretically, run the universe through a film projector backwards and find out the initial conditions, and therefore we could look towards the future and play out all the scenarios that may happen in the end. Of course, since quantum fluctuations still exist, the possibilities for the end-run are huge. If all the computing power in the world could have been able to forecast the future from a clockwork universe, which it couldn’t, the additional computing power to solve the quantum universe would probably sap the Earth of all its power.

Which brings me to artificial intelligence (AI). AI is overestimated, and the concept that I am concerned with is more of the decision-making abilities of modern computer games. The more computing power the average home system has, the better the algorithms get for making the little people in your computer game look like they’re having a good time. In this case, AI is the ability for the software to anticipate and react to the user in more complex ways. The computer is still dumb, and no software is even close to achieving thought, but we can play simulation games over and over again, and each time the outcome is different. A small change in variables produces totally new results. Compare this to Pac Man. No matter how many of the little dots he ate, he’d just have to eat more. It was the same thing over and over, and in those games, good players were those that picked up the pattern that was built into the software. If the player went up at a specific time, the game would react the same every time. It was perfect example of clockwork determinism.

Modern games are much more of the quantum physics determinism. I can’t make the game do whatever I want, which would be complete free will, but I could decide to buy a particular couch for my Sims, or I could insult another character in my favorite role-playing game. Somewhere, on someone else’s computer, the exact same conditions existed, but that player did something different, and the outcome changed. I can do whatever I want in the parameters of that particular game and in this particular universe. Maybe it is all programmed in, but as the choices increase, I can’t tell the difference anymore between forced, determined action, and free will.

As Rush says, I will choose free will. I used to believe that determinism was the opposite of free will, but I’m able to go to bed at night thinking that I can’t tell the difference between a wide-open expanse of deterministic choices and total free-will, since no matter how much I may want to sleep, I can’t, and no matter how little I want to think about eternity, I will.

Categories
Metablogs

The Horror of the Entities

This is pure HTML-geek stuff, so if you’re not interested, skip down to the previous entry, which is a lot more silly. Anyway, I was wondering why my apostrophes weren’t working with Movable Type (this very system for the blog). It isn’t that they wouldn’t show up correctly, but the XML syndication-thingy wasn’t working right through PHP. Hmmm… well, the best thing to do, I thought, was ignore it, and just use the stupid hash marks that everyone thinks are apostrophes, but really aren’t. Can you see the difference between these two things? 1. A hash mark:   ′   2. An apostrophe (or single-right quote):   ’   Well, I sure can. I hate hash marks, but I was using them anyway, because they were parsing better in the blog excerpt on my portal page. But then, innocently, I was testing some of my pages for HTML and CSS compliance, and I found out, horrors of horrors, that I was using the wrong thing all along anyway. I’ve always been making my apostrophes by using ’, but this is very bad, apparently, and will eventually cause browsers to choke and rotate their heads 360° and all that. What I, and everyone else, should be using is ’. I never even knew that the HTML entities could even get that large. But, if you’re still reading this, and the only two people I know who would be are Keith and, maybe, Dan, the complete list is at http://www.cs.tut.fi/~jkorpela/html/guide/entities.html. Check it out, if you’re interested. It opened my eyes. And thanks to A List Apart, without which, I would still be blind. –JR

Categories
Silliness

Mundane Conspiracy Theories

Last night, I was woken suddenly by a sharp knock at my front door. A nervous, haggard man, chain smoking cigarettes, was pacing outside when I opened the door. He was clutching a package, torn and well-handled, which he thrust into my hands the instant he saw me. “Take it,” he hissed. “You’ll know what to do. You’ll be able to spread the word.” Before I could say anything, a dog barking in the distance made the man gasp and take off at a clip. I went back inside and took a look at the package. Between the torn wrapping, I could make out a book, and it’s title was Mundane Conspiracy Theories. No author’s name could I find, even once the package was opened. The pages were meticulously hand-written and perfect-bound, and while the grammar was a bit rough, the lessons were loud and clear. Last night, once awoken, I could no longer find comfort in sleep, for you see, I have read parts of this book, and I am making it my mission to disseminate the information contained within in here in my blog. It may astound you; it may disturb you, but most of all it will open your eyes to the truth! I begin with this shocking revelation:

Mundane Conspiracy Theory #31: I learned this from a friend who has an uncle who’s cousin works with a man who knows a guy who worked in the mail room a large metropolitan newspaper. You know that ink that you get on your hands? Don’t wash your hands in a sink to get it off!!! We all know that the ink contains little nanobots that track your reading habits so newspapers can charge more money for the best advertising spots, but a secret government agency (SGA) has hacked into the nanobot software, so that when you wash your hands after you read the paper, SGA not only knows if you read a paper with a liberal slant, but also gets your DNA by collecting all the little bots in sewers and cesspools!! Their secret plan is to clone people who read the Sports and Comic pages, while slowly letting the International News and Art & Leisure people die out!!! Pass this along to every one you know!!!

Scary stuff, sure, but read on:

MCT #51:Anyone with their ear to the ground knows about the Missing Gas Cap Conspiracy Theory (MGCCT), which proves that there is only one missing gas cap in any metropolitan area at any one time. Now what most people think is that when someone finds their cap is missing, they just steal it from the car next to them, which happens in most cases, thus preserving the -GC/UA ratio (minus one gas cap per urban area), but what these people don’t realize is that there are sinister forces behind the MGCCT.
Two agencies, sponsored by the NWO, are to blame. The first is the National Organization for Crude Auto Petroleum (NOCAP), which sends out operatives to any city or town where someone has purchased a replacement cap from an auto parts store, so as to maintain the -GC/UA ratio. The second agency, far more covert, is the United States Energy & Gasoline Arbitration Service (USEGAS), which makes its money off of the taxes you spend on getting a new gas cap with a lock and key, and also sends out operatives to make you leave your new gas cap on the roof of your car after you’ve finished pumping gas, so you forget it, and drive away, and lose it, and have to buy another one, which means that they get more money!!!

Nefarious, and completely logical. I’ll leave you with one more to chew on:

MCT #172:You may have thought that the clerks at the motor vehicles, or the cashiers at the supermarket, or the bank branch tellers, that all treat you rudely, do so because they have to deal with idiots all day, and are exhausted and about to break down and cry from all the stress. This is not true. They are nasty to you because they have been told to be rude by their bosses. These people make more money and eventually become managers by treating you like shit.

It’s enough to make you crazy, isn’t it? Well, I’ll continue to spread the truth, so long as The Man don’t try to keep me down. –JR

Categories
Metablogs

It Sure Is Fun

Well, I surprised myself by writing a flat-out essay on Saturday night/Sunday morning. I didn’t think I had it in me. Now all I need are some readers. Is there anybody out there?

Categories
Essays

If You Can Read This, You’re too Close to Heaven

Florida is positioned towards the right pocket, just below the Bible Belt. We’ve a strange mix of Jews, Gentiles, and Cubans down here, and while everyone usually keeps their distances from one another, they can’t help but advertise their faith. I tend to view this with amusement, afforded to me because I don’t really care what people think about mythology, but something about the branding of Jesus disturbs me deep-down inside.

The amount of proselytizing that goes on down here on the bumpers of cars is amazing. I had no idea there were so many clever ways of saying that I’m going to hell because I’m not Christian. I was out of the house and on the road for all of 15 minutes today, but that’s still enough time to be asked “Got Jesus?” by a bumper sticker. “Why that’s a play on a well-known advertisement by the Milk Council of America! How amusingly apropos,” I didn’t say to myself. Sure, Jesus is as necessary for strong bones as milk, but does He need a catch-phrase to entice me into salvation?

Well, according to another bumper sticker, He does: “Real Men Love Jesus.” That’s right. All you beer-drinkin’, women-lovin’, gun-totin’, hairy-chested men can burp in relief, because you too can find eternal bliss in the love of God. Phew! Of course, the correlation of this strikes me as a bit odd, which is “all non-Christian men must be wimps.” This of course maybe true in America, where all non-Christians are emaciated and must stay out of daylight for fear of getting run over and/or shot by the big bullies with their steel Bibles, but I don’t think that your average Sumo wrestler would agree with that statement. Another interesting thought about the “Real Men” who love Jesus is why they felt they had to tell the world that they were, in fact, real men. Unless I’m mistaken, we all stopped picking on Christian men a little bit after the Visigoths sacked Rome.

But part of being a Christian, apparently, is believing that the whole world is against you, as opposed to being part of the collective that has actually been running the world for several centuries. I assume this is an homage to the Jews’ famous collective guilt. So in this regard, we’re given this ponderable on yet another bumper sticker: “If you don’t believe in God, you’d better be right!” The “you’d better be right!” part is on its own line in a devilish-red typeface surrounded by comic-book flames. Ah, the inscrutable logic of believing what most everyone else believe, too. Sure, why take chances in believing that there’s nothing after this life? Believe in God, so He’ll allow you into Heaven, and if you’re wrong in that case, and there is no God, hey! no big deal, you won’t know it. Best to hedge your bets.

“Oh, dear. What if there is a God, but it’s not your Judeo-Christian one?” I think to the driver of the car in front of me. “Doesn’t that mean that you’ll have to answer to that god just the same as I’ll have to? Isn’t there the slightest chance that the other 4/5ths of the world may be right in their crazy beliefs, too?” But, sadly, my psychic questions go unanswered as the self-righteous Christian blows a red light, leaving me to ponder such mysteries alone in the left turning lane.

The fish that represents Jesus and Christianity is more popular here than those “My Child Is An Honor Student” bumper stickers are in New York, which means there’s a lot of fish. I don’t know whether this is to imply that the cars are believers, or just the occupants, but it has spawned (pardon the pun) a cottage industry of responses. The most well-known of these, of course, is the Darwin-fish, which is the Jesus-fish, except it faces to the right and has cute little legs and feet. Now, as any believer in evolution will tell you, Darwin and his theories did nothing to dispute the sanctity of Christ. Evolution may put a damper on some of the earlier Bible stories, but that’s it. But, still, Christians tend to be a sensitive bunch, and we’ve now got ourselves a bumper sticker that has the Jesus-fish with teeth eating the much smaller Darwin-fish. The accompanying text says “Jesus is still Lord, and fish don’t have legs.” Well, I can’t dispute the second part.

The most unexpected fish is the Linux-fish, which, like the Darwin-fish, faces to the right, but it has a shark fin on the top. I like the idea of the Linux-fish. It reminds me of the early Christians, who would eventually topple the degenerate, decaying ruling classes of Europe. Evangelizing and proselytizing are definitely needed to topple the degenerate, decaying ruling class of operating systems, so, whether or not it was intentional, the Linux-fish makes a wonderful statement, rich in symbolism and history. Will some misunderstanding, but enterprising, Christian design a bumper sticker with the Jesus-with-teeth-fish eating the Linux-fish? What could the tag-line be? Ah, I know, “Jesus is still Lord, and owns Microsoft stock.”

I know at the core of Christianity, especially the evangelical-flavored version that we have here in America, it is part of your life’s mission to preach the gospel. But is preaching the same as advertising, or, truly, sloganeering? Or is it yet another sign of the dullness of modern-day Americans? With so many Swooshes and Golden Arches all around us, must we take all our information in small, symbolic chunks, or else we can’t parse it? Will all religions bow down before the god with the best ad agency?

No answers from any of the drivers, because we all keep to ourselves. No one really bothers to confront anyone else, but we all want to live as if we’re subversive, that the world is against us, and the only way to strike back is to wear our messages on our Web pages, our t-shirts, or on the back our cars. Non-believers beware. And so my Darwin-fish may anger the driver behind me, but I’ll never know it, leaving us both to go to our final destinations in peace.

Categories
Metablogs

A Blog for the Rest of Me

I’ll be honest: Blogs are all over the place, and I didn’t think it necessary to have one, myself. I kind of thought that they were a bit pretentious, and the owners of blogs were pretty self-centered. But then, I realized that my WHOLE Web site was self-centered and pretentious. So I added this blog. I can rationalize it, of course—I need to write more, since I haven’t added a poem or essay in over a year. If I could write just a little blog entry every day, it may grow into bigger things. All five of my loyal viewers would be happy to read what I have to say every couple of days or so. And hey! I’m interesting, dammit! Blah, blah, blah. So for now, it’s an experiment. If it gets my creative juices flowing (ugh, not a pretty picture), then it is worth the exercise is self-adsorption; otherwise, I’m just spitting against the wind. –JR