Saturday, December 28, 2013

Please Stop Ruining the Hobbit

I just saw the second movie in the Hobbit "trilogy".

The movie itself is a series of pointless sword fighting and action scenes with a cast of a dozen or so flat characters whose stories go nowhere.  I guess if you like Michael Bay movies, go see the Hobbit; you'll love it.

There is precisely one interesting character in the movie, and that is Tauriel.  This is a Peter Jackson original character.  And I'm saying a lot here when I say that Bilbo, Gandalf, and Smaug, the three characters who near single-handedly enchanted my childhood, do not come across as as interesting as some random elf lady practically from legolas by laura, thrown in to appease focus groups.

I've determined that the only way to make sense of the movies is to perceive them as fan fiction.  Extremely expensive, high budget fan fiction.  Peter Jackson is telling his own made-up story using the characters and elements of Middle Earth, and it just happens to vaguely correspond somewhat to the series of events in the Hobbit.  And it's great if Peter Jackson wants to write fan fiction and spend billions turning it in to a movie, but I'm sorry to say that Peter Jackson isn't as good of an author or story teller as J.R.R. Tolkien.

So why is the cinema making the movie about Peter Jackson's fan fiction, and not about Tolkien's story, the one that sold all the millions of copies and inspired all the millions of authors?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Cross-Section of Angels

Solidity is an illusion.

You may or may not already know this.  Matter is mostly empty space: when you smack your hand against a table, what prohibits the further movement of your hand is the interaction of electrons, protons, and neutrons.  At base, everything is likely a point particle, and all appearance of volume is caused by energetic excitations.

When you fire one point particle at another point particle, from a strictly geometric standpoint, the probability of collision is 0%.  Nothing should ever hit anything else.  And yet, two electrons launched at one another will "bounce"; the reason there being the electromagnetic repulsion.  To account for this discrepancy between the expected geometric probability of scattering and the empirical measured scattering caused by the interaction, physicists who study such collisions use a quantity called a scattering cross-section.  A scattering cross section is, more formally, a fictitious area describing the strength of interaction between two particles.  This is given as a ratio: number of scattered particles divided by total incoming particles.

This ratio can be measured empirically in the lab by mere bean counting, but it can also be derived theoretically from considerations of the interaction potential.  This is how we know the majority of what we know about anything on scales smaller than molecular.  The existence of the nucleus within the atom, for instance (as opposed to Thompson' plum-pudding model) was discovered through a scattering experiment.  We only know about quarks and the strong interaction through scattering.  The recently discovered Higgs particle is also a result of scattering experiments.  In all of these cases, just bouncing particles off of something and measuring the exact way that the particles bounce is enough to tell us what a thing is made of, how it is shaped, and -- more importantly -- the kinds of interactions that it undergoes.

Visible light is not normally useful to this purpose at subatomic lengths, but actually normal vision is an example of a kind of scattering experiment.  Light from a bulb bounces off of an object and to your eye: you in a sense "measure" the angular deflection and intensity of this incoming light, and can thus determine the size, shape, and color of the object in question.

All of the things that you can see scatter light because all of the things that you can see are made of charged particles.  Charged particles participate in the electromagnetic interaction, as does light, which means that normal matter is able to scatter light (as opposed to, say, dark matter).  Were it not for the interaction (or coupling) between light and matter, then the electromagnetic cross-section of matter would be zero; light would see every surface as having zero area and therefore not bounce off of it.

To make this point more clearly, consider the neutrino.  Neutrinos are not known to participate in any interaction besides the weak interaction.  Therefore, neutrinos can fly right through the planet without slowing down.  They're not flying through it like bullets, boring tiny holes; they're just flying through it.  The solid matter of the earth is, to them, intangible and ethereal.  They don not undergo the electromagnetic interaction, and so do not "see" the earth there.

I say all of this as introduction.  What I really want to discuss are angels.  In particular, how do we see them?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas: the Meta-Holiday

I would like to introduce a word to the language: meta-holiday.  A meta-holiday is a holiday that celebrates the fact of its celebration.

Initially, holidays are celebrated because of actual reasons.  Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from the plotted genocide of Haman.  Passover celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.  Yom Kippur celebrates redemption and atonement.  To stop picking on the Jews, Easter celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus.  The Feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates the Catholic belief in beginning of the life of Mary without Original Sin.

Actual things.

But after a while, people stop caring about the reasons for the celebration.  But not only do they keep celebrating, but the particulars of the celebration become the reasons for the celebration.  Thanksgiving is celebrated because turkey and pie.  Halloween is celebrated because candy and costumes.  St. Patricks Day is celebrated because green beer and clovers.  Talk Like a Pirate Day is celebrated because talk like a pirate.

The worst of these is Christmas.

Christmas is the celebration of the celebration of Christmas.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Please, Ask Me How the Football Team is Doing

My Alma Mater didn't have a football team, and I love this fact intensely.  While I was there, the most important sport was intramural Ultimate Frisbee.  It was serious business.  I don't really like Ultimate Frisbee, but I was okay with this.  It's a quirky kind of thing, and a fact that I'm proud of repeating.

Sadly, my Alma Mater doesn't give out PhDs, especially not in physics, and so I had to go elsewhere to finish my education.  Specifically, I had to go to a Research I university, because those are the sorts of schools that give out physics PhDs.

What is a Research I university, you might ask?  Well, in the simplest possible terms, it is a school that receives and spends more money on college athletic programs than it does on academics.  Or at least that's the definition I've arrived at from observation.

Let's not forget that fresh scent of Porta-Jons
The school I attend now has a proud tradition of inviting alumni back every Saturday in the Fall to get drunk on the school lawn and listen to terrible music at obnoxious volume levels while throwing hackey sacks in to holes cut out of plywood boards while some young adults in college at a 5th-grade reading level throw a ball around and concuss each other in a nearby stadium.  They then leave their mountains of ill-smelling trash behind to soak in the streets until a garbage crew comes by to pick it up.  My university endures this because those same people are so attached to this tradition that they are willing to pay large amounts of money for the privilege of doing it, and really, it's money.  

The physics building is right next to the stadium at my school.  This means that once a week I am incapable of entering my office, because it is surrounded by the hordes of barbecuing barbarians offering their drunken libations and burnt sacrifices to their pagan football deities, and if I try to go in then they will sneak in behind me and start a conga-line to the bathroom -- a situation that happened once before and resulted in me having to call campus security to get them evacuated from the building.

Maybe you can tell by my tone, but I don't really like football.  The actual game itself is kind of dumb, but you know what, whatever.  Have fun playing it, and have fun watching it.  A lot of people think fantasy novels are dumb, or math is dumb (or rather, too smart for them to be able to perform properly), or Christianity is dumb, or whatever.  People can like whatever stupid things they want to.  I certainly do.

What annoys me about football, though, is the ridiculous status granted to it by society.  If I'm at a restaurant trying to enjoy some food and conversation, woe to me if there's some game on somewhere, as now I must endure everyone in the bar feeling entirely justified in standing out of their seats and screaming at the top of their lungs every five minutes.  Normally, that's considered rude and discourteous.  But if you do it because of football?  Then it's perfectly fine, the team's doing good -- and who's that antisocial jerkwad over there in the corner scowling and not cheering them on?  (Fun fact: football players can hear the cheers of their fans all over the world when directed at their images on TV screens.  Kind of like how God hears prayer.)
Um, excuse me?  My friend and are trying to enjoy a beer and discuss our lives.  Thanks.
Watching people feel entitled to act like overbearing jackasses because of something that is pretty boring and mediocre (He threw the ball.  He caught the ball.  He is running after having caught the ball.  His running was impeded before its completion. Yay.) is really annoying.  Having my daily routine impeded because of the moronic devotion of football fans (like when they all decide to leave the stadium at the exact same time and now I can't leave my house or go anywhere or even get something to eat for the next two hours) is too much.

So all of that ranting is sort of just background.  Point is, my school has a really big football team, and about all my school has is a big football team, and about all my school cares about is its big football team, and I hate it all with a passion.  Football itself isn't interesting or compelling enough to hate -- the extent to which people care about it, however, definitely is.

Recently, I was helping my dad with a fundraiser he was putting on, the proceeds of which go to helping endangered wildlife.  I was moving tables and selling raffle tickets.  Some people would ask me what I do.  I'd tell them, I'm working on my PhD in physics.

"Oh, that's nice," they'd say, "Where do you go?"

So I'd tell them the name of my school.

Do you know what they'd say to me next?

They'd start talking about how "my" team is getting its butt whooped by some other team.  Or did really well against some other team.  Or is going to the championships or whatever it is football has.

Which... is really depressing.

Those people are fine.  They donated a lot of money to help save endangered species and their habitats.  And they don't know any better than to ask me about football.  They were trying to be friendly and start small talk with one of the event volunteers.   What better thing to talk about than the All-American game that everyone loves all the time forever?  And I go to one of the biggest football name schools in the world, so of course I'm going to love hearing all about it.

But it's sad that that's all people know about my school.  And it's sad that for the rest of my life, this will be the flow of conversation.  I tell them where I got my PhD.  They ask if I saw the game last week.  I silently curse cruel fate under my breath, and ask what game they're talking about, because for all I care they mean the water polo tournament.

It's sad that my school is firstly a football name brand and marketing device, and secondly an academic institution.  And it's sad that I'll be reminded of this fact for as long as I live.

My question to the general, vague, swirling ether of the internet (to whomsoever might read this): is there some school I could go to instead where I won't be constantly reminded of the sophomoric displays of group-think and tribalism that prevented me from entering my office on Saturdays?

Am I just at the wrong institution, or is this going to happen no matter where I go?

Is it just a fact of life, established by the Providence of God to humble physicists at dinner parties by constantly reminding us that no one cares about our big-brain fancy learnin', it's all about how the team does?

Or is there a PhD-granting school which either does not have a football team, or has a team that no one cares about, at all (not even undergrads)?

Please say there is, or that's just too depressing to be real.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Upon Discovering Alien Life Forms

Some scientists in England recently claimed to have discovered alien life.  They even published an article about it in a peer-review journal.  So this is probably pretty legit.

The article is pretty easy to read.  Except the word "diatom frustule" (whatever the heck that is) it doesn't use a lot of jargon, or have any difficult math or anything.  But let me briefly summarize, anyway.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer: Good Speculative Fiction, Terrible Movie

I recently watched the movie "Jack the Giant Slayer".  It was at Red Box, and nothing else looked good, and "Jack" at least looked terrible.  Sometimes watching corny movies is fun.  But also, I wanted to see something fantastical, something out of a fairy tale.  So I gave "Jack" a try.

My review can be summed up, Great Speculative Fiction, Terrible Movie.

Everything after the first forty minutes of the movie is pretty much terrible.  The characters are kind of bland, the dialogue is kind of stiff and is like someone's dad trying way too hard to make corny jokes, and honestly the special effects are kind of hokey.  I don't normally care about special effects, but when half of the characters are CGI giants, it seems your special effects budget should be larger.  Personally, I'd have preferred it if they used puppets rather than CGI, because puppets always look real while CGI always looks like computer generated images... but no one in Hollywood asks my opinion.  Really, the plot of the movie and the characters and all of that aren't really noteworthy.  The movie isn't even bad enough to make fun of, contrary to what I suspected.

As a movie, and as a story, the whole thing stunk so much that it isn't even worth pointing out how much it stunk.

So why am I writing this?

Because whoever wrote the first thirty minutes knew what he was doing.

The story takes place in the Kingdom of Cloister.  There, long ago, a group of monks of an ancient order sought to climb to Heaven to reach God.  After searching for a ladder, they finally turned to magic and enchanting a set of seeds to grow in to a giant plant that reaches all the way to Heaven.

However, midway between Heaven and Earth, they got stuck.  Floating there in the sky was the realm of giants, who are cruel and stupid beasts.  The giants found the monks, captured them, and ate them; and once they had the taste of human flesh, they started to crave it.  The giants climbed down the beanstalk and started attacking the countryside slaying people where they found them.  The kingdom nearly fell.  At long last, the king of the giants was slain, and his black, stone heart was melted down in magic fires, and the monks formed dark spells to forge the giant's heart in to a crown.  Whoever wore the crown could command the giants to do his will.  Soon the giants were forced to bow in allegiance to the new king of cloister, and sent back up the beanstalk.  The stalk was cut down an the beans hidden in secret.  The King of Cloister continued to hold on to the crown that rules the giants, passing it along through the generations.

Jack is a young orphan living in the country with his uncle.  Due to hard times, he is sent to the castle to sell their last horse, which hopefully will bring back enough money to buy food.  Jack is not successful.  Towards the end of the day, as he's leaving, suddenly an alarm is sounded an guards block off the exits and begin searching everyone leaving.  They are looking for a monk trying to leave the castle.  At that moment, the monk in question sees a young man with a horse, and tells him that he needs it to escape the castle.  It is urgent.  Something dangerous has been stolen from the abbey, and the monk is trying to sneak it out of the castle lest it fall in to evil hands.  But Jack refuses to let go of the horse without money.   The monk has none.  Reluctantly, seeing an opportunity, the monk turns the dangerous artifact to Jack: it is a small leather bag of beans.  He tells Jack, within the week, to bring these beans to the abbey and he will be richly rewarded.  And so saying, the monk hops on to the horse and escapes, leaving Jack with nothing more than a small bag of beans.

So that's how Jack comes to own a set of magic beans that grow in to a giant beanstalk reaching to the sky, to a land between Heaven and Earth filled with giants.

Maybe i'm weird, but I think that's a fascinating beginning.  It is mythopoeia at its finest.  It makes a world and a history, and then the characters interact with that world.  Why are there magic beans?  Because an ancient sect of monks used magic to try to reach heaven.  Why is an old man trying to get rid of the magically enchanted beans?  Because he's trying to sneak the out of the castle past guards, fearing some sort of plot to use the beans to summon the giants.  And why does Jack fall for a stupid promise of magic beans?  Because the man who offered them is a monk needing help, and promises Jack a reward if he helps brings the beans out of the castle and helps the monk escape.  It all connects, to make something as ridiculous as a giant magic bean stalk reaching a kingdom of giants in the clouds seem actually plausible, and sensible.

After that, the movie very quickly goes downhill, and almost nothing interesting happens at all for the rest of the movie.  Really, not worth watching, I don't recommend it to anyone, but dang, whoever wrote the backstory should start doing novels.  That's my take on things, anyway.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Bottomless Starbucks Gift Card and Quantum Immortality

I have recently acquired an item of rare wonder and power.  An artifact of legend, forged in a mythical age.  I am now the owner of the Bottomless Starbucks Gift Card.

From Piled Higher and Deeper
How this enchanted relic came in to my possession is common enough.  Believe it or not, it was given to my mother (a middle school teacher) as an end-of-semester present.  She, seeing no need to for it, did bequeath it unto me.  And I, a grad student in physics, have found very much need for some extra coffee money.

I've gone through a number of these re-gifted Starbucks cards from my mom, almost all of which were for $5.  They got me about two uses, then I'd switch to the next.  I seriously carried four or five of them around, gradually burning through them.  But the Bottomless Card... that's the last one I came to.

I have no idea how much money is on it, or was on it.  I go up to the counter, order whatever I want, show them the card, they swipe it, and there's always still enough money left for next time.

There is an interpretation of Quantum Mechanics that is called Everett's Many-Worlds Hypothesis.  This is often misunderstood and abused by science fiction authors, and philosophers as implying something stronger than it actually does -- the actual existence of parallel universes with alternative versions of ourselves (like in His Dark Materials).  This isn't quite what it means; it's more like every quantum measurement, rather than resulting in a collapse of the wave function, actually results in the further entanglement of the observer with one of the terms in the superposition.  The parts of the universal wave function describing us continue to exist but now in a superposition, one with every possibility of the measurement.  It's kind of the same thing, but not really.
From Asbtruse Goose

Everett's is a popular interpretation and appears frequently cited in "popular science" articles and books.  It is not the strict implication of quantum mechanics, nor is it anything more than a philosophical framework built around quantum mechanics, but it's there and cited a lot.  Most of the appeal is the fantasticality of it; alternative universes, Narnia, cool!  There's also some physicists who prefer it for philosophical reasons; for instance, Everett's hypothesis would recover a deterministic universe, which was believed to be broken by quantum measurement.  Actually, Frank Tipler -- physicist, transhumanist, many-worldsist, and all around weird dude --  proposed an experiment to test Everett's based on the convergence of quantum interference patterns, to see if "probability" were in fact "leaking" to another universe.  I have no idea why no one has done this experiment yet, but he's put it out there.

Tipler's experiment is slightly more sane than another proposal: Quantum Immortality.

Quantum Immortality is - roughly - proposed to work in the following way.  You have a quantum gun; whether it fires a bullet when you pull the trigger is tied to some quantum mechanical superposition, so there is always a chance it won't fire.  In the Everett interpretation, each time you do this, your wave function splits in to two "worlds": one where the gun fires, the other where it doesn't.  The experiment calls for you to point the gun at your head and pull the trigger.  In Everett's interpretation, each time you do this, your wave function splits in to "dead" and "alive" parts; therefore, even if you do this 10,000 times, there still exists some version of you in some "universe" that is still alive.  Therefore, if you pull the trigger 10,000 times and live, you can conclude that you live in the "world" where you're still alive.

Here's an illustration from Super Mario World, where Mario keeps splitting and one Mario copy always survives:

The Quantum Immortality experiment doesn't require that you point the gun at your head.  It basically just states that if you keep making a quantum observation and keep getting the same result, then it makes more sense to assume you live in a universe that is a segment of a multiverse than that you just keep getting lucky.  You could even do this experiment with...

... a Starbucks Gift Card.

I have no idea how much money is on the card.  Each time I swipe it, I make an observation of whether or not there is sufficient money for my purchase.  There always is.  Always.  It's been weeks, and I still have enough money.  I've even started ordering fancy-fru-fru drinks and it keeps working.  It always works.

So now you can see how it works.  So long as I don't directly observe the exact amount of money on the card, there is no exact amount of money on the card!  Between "No Money" and "Yes Money", I also happen to live in the universe where the Card always splits to the "Yes Money" side of things.  Always.

And that is how I came upon the key to eternal coffee, and the strange mysteries that went to forging its powers.

[P.S. I'm not going to bother explaining every thing wrong with the Quantum Immortality proposal, nor my wonky application of it to an inherently non-quantum event.  Suffice it to say, almost none of it is scientifically rigorous, and Everett's interpretation is pretty dumb, even if it makes for fun science fiction.]

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Magic That Works

I have discovered that I have magic powers.  It is likely that you do, too.

There's a common theme in entertainment known as the Unspoken Plan Guarantee.  Put simply, if a character has a plan, the success of that plan hinges on whether the audience becomes aware of the plan before its execution.  If the audience is told the plan, then the plan will necessarily fail; if the audience is not told the plan, then it is almost certain to succeed.

When I was still young, I discovered a similar principle as this, except in real life.  The less I enunciate some wish or desire of mine, the more likely it is to actually happen; to actually state what I want to happen is to guarantee it to not happen.  Likewise, if I have a prediction, then it is guaranteed to not come true if I state it out loud, and more likely to come true if I refrain some speaking it.  Sometimes I will say things that I predict just so that they won't come true.

Obviously the above can't possibly be literally true, but they are principles that I have lived by.  It has dawned on me recently that my use of the above essentially constitutes the practice of magic.

For instance, I recently learned that Murphy's Laws grant me the power to control the weather.  I live on the second floor of an apartment building and ride a bicycle to work.  When I come home, I can either chain my bike up outside where it will get rained on, or carry it upstairs where it will be out of any rain that may or may not fall.  By so doing, I can either cause a regional drought by bringing my bike upstairs each night, or else I can summon rain by leaving my bike outside for the night.  In either circumstance, by using Murphy's Laws to my advantage, I can dictate the local weather patterns, with more assurance than the most fervent Indian rain dance.

Another example relates to the fantastic board game, Settlers of Catan.  In this game, a roll of 7 (statistically the most common roll) forces all players to discard half of their deck if they have more than 7 cards.  I have found a fail-safe way to guarantee that I never have to get rid of my cards in this game: if I have 8 or more cards, I simply repeatedly shout "Seven!" whenever the dice are rolled.

Now, it's not quite as simple as that.  I have to

  1. Be internally convinced that the dice really are going to turn up 7 and force me to lose half of my hand just before I can use them to make a critical move, either due ot others of Murphy's Laws or just because 7 is "due".
  2. Shout my prediction as an actual prediction, with as much conviction in my voice as possible.  Other players have to believe that I really believe and predict the dice to roll a "7".
By following the above procedure, I can virtually guarantee that 7 will not be rolled when I have too many cards.  So long as I don't think too hard on it.

Of course these aren't the only examples of how I frequently use the apparent antipathy of the impersonal universe towards me personally to redirect its senseless malice for my own good.  But these are the most striking examples of it.

It is very likely that what I've encountered is merely a data collection bias mixed with robust pessimism.  It's very possible that I only remember the situations when I leave my bike out and it immediately rains and not the times when it doesn't rain because the former cause my bike chains to rust and fill me with righteous indignation (a very heady emotion).  And it's possible that if I ever tried to make any sort of actual statistical analysis of rain patterns with my bike left out that I would find a null result.  I'm not pretending to scientific precision here; I'm just saying that I use these ideas to try and exert control over circumstances.

What I do wonder, is whether my decision to leave my bike out at night because the flowers need watering is really much different from painting myself stark white and dancing around a fire to summon ancestral spirits to bring rain.  Or if my shouting of "Seven!" to force the universe to not roll a 7 is as much of a spell as "Wingardium Leviosa"?

Am I practicing magic when I rely on Murphy's Laws to control circumstances?  And is this bad?  Should I cease doing this?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Upon Reading "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality"

There's a certain feeling you get when you find someone who has had the same idea as you, and who has carried out his idea with some success and to some amount of fame.  On one hand, it's a feeling of deep camaraderie to see someone else who has apparently reached into your private mental space and shared in your genius.  He, too, has thought as have I; perhaps this is the most basic bond that forms society.  But then, on the other hand, you think, "[expletive]! The [expletive] stole my [expletive] idea!"

So it goes for me with the popular fanfic, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

I have always been dissatisfied with the Harry Potter as a work of speculative fiction, because it seems as though absolutely no one in the wizarding community understands their own universe.  Everyone, from the lowliest Squib up to Dumbledore himself, is completely unreflective and unobservant of their situations.  They spend no time analyzing the way magic works and so seem completely baffled when magic does work.  They seem to have absolutely zero common sense.  The creative and engineering aspects of human nature seem entirely foreign to wizards and witches, who do not use their abilities to reverse entropy and violate conservation of energy for anything besides, apparently, making housework slightly easier and playing magical pranks on people.  Some guy actually invented a substance that causes infinite money and eternal life, and no one ever bothered replicating the formula, or even seemed to care that much about it, really.

A friend recently recommended the "Methods of Rationality" to me, telling me about how the obstacle course in Philosopher's Stone is analyzed as being absurd from beginning to end, and that is when I got very excited about it.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Norns and the Others

However many summers ago, before the release of the most recent Dance With Dragons, I managed to finish reading up to the end of Feast For Crows, and like most readers I had this frustrated desire to know what the heck is going on.

Who are the Others, what's up with R'hllor, who is the real Prince Who Was Promised, is Dany ever going to get her act together and invade Westeros, etc. etc.

Somewhere on some forum, I managed to pick up the interesting tidbit that the entire world of the series of A Song of Ice and Fire is based on the shorter, finished series Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams.  Martin himself has admitted as much in interviews.  The person on the forum claimed that most of the characters have one-to-one analogues, and it is pretty easy to get a feel for where the series is heading by reading the original.

[There are definitely ASOIAF spoilers below, and some minor background details about MST below; there are no story specific spoilers from MST, and I love it too much to tell you anything about what happens to its characters]

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Actually, the World Is Split into Good People and Death Eaters...

If there's one main criticism that childrens' books receive, it is their overly simplistic division of characters in to "Good" and "Evil".

In a children's book, this sort of thing is really necessary to an extent, as part of the goal of any good book for children should be to instill virtues.  Otherwise, it's all cows on farms going moo-moo.  There should be clear heroes who should do clearly good things, and evil jerks who act like evil jerks, so that children can learn the difference between what is valued and what is deplored in society.

In the Harry Potter series, Dolores Umbridge is, for a time, an interesting character in that while she is cruel and heartless, she actually has nothing to do with the Big Bad of the series.  Rather, she comes in with the Ministry of Magic, the primary Government institution for Wizards, and is supposed to represent the alleged good.  Unlike most of the Death Eaters --- who are either in it for the Evulz or who believe in a kind of Nietzschean ubermensh ethics whereby their power as a wizard grants them right to assert their own rules --- Umbridge honestly believes that she is doing what is good.  She believes that she is helping the students by teaching them discipline and to trust the Ministry of Magic - the good guys, that is.

There is a persistent theme in Harry Potter, arguably one of its better ones, that the Government's help isn't worth the loss of freedom it's printed on.  Right in the beginning of Chamber of Secrets the Ministry starts bungling things bad.  In Goblet of Fire, we learn about Barty Crouch; Crouch is trying to destroy the Death Eaters and is actively opposing Voldemort, yet resorts to tactics of law enforcement that leave a little bit of ambiguity as to whether he can really be called good.

Dolores probably represents the height of this.  She is a loyal follower of Cornelius Fudge who appears on his behalf as the new DADA instructor, in part to keep an eye on Harry and Dumbledore.  The latter she believes to be rebellious and trying to undermine the Ministry, while the former, Harry, she thinks just has histrionic disorder.  She wants for the children to stop believing in the lies that are frightening them, and her goal really is just to keep everyone calm.  To ensure this, Umbridge keeps enforcing more and more legislation and acts of the Ministry to give her more and more disciplinary power.  Her biggest fault, really, is probably being an idiot.  Apart from that, she's a self-righteous do-gooder who can't keep her nose out of everyone's business.  She wants discipline, but more so she wants obedience.

I've had plenty of teachers like her.  In American public school, they're ubiquitous.  I had one teacher in Spanish who gave us a vocabulary quiz on irregular verbs.  It was a list of English infinitives, and we had to write down the equivalent Spanish infinitive that corresponded to an irregular verb when conjugated in the 1st person present indicative.  One of them was "to know".  In Spanish, there are two verbs for this, conocer and saber, both of which are irregular in the first person, both of which translate as "to know".  So I wrote down both.  She took off points for me doing that, and when I asked her why, she said that conocer wasn't on the study list she gave us; it's an irregular Spanish verb meaning "to know", but the quiz was about her study list of Spanish verbs and not Spanish, so I have to lose points.  I've had plenty of teachers like McGonagall and Lupin and Sprout, sure, and none like Snape, but definitely lots of Umbridges, too.

In the Order of the Phoenix where we first encounter Umbridge, there is a scene between Harry and Sirius that I think is supposed to explain her character and open up the story for a deeper development of moral themes.  Dolores has just forced Harry to write over and over and over again that he will not tell lies, which scratches the words in blood upon the back of his hand.  But also, Harry's lightning bolt scar has been hurting more and more, and Dumbledore has not been around to consult about it.  Desperate for someone to speak to, Harry write to Sirius, asking for some advice.

When Sirius shows up in the fire of the Gryffindor common room, this is the conversation that he and Harry have, about his scar hurting and about Umbridge:
"Well, now he's back it's bound to hurt more often," said Sirius.
"So you don't think it had anything to do with Umbridge touching me when I was in detention with her?" Harry asked.
"I doubt it," said Sirius.  "I know her by reputation and I'm sure she's no Death Eater---"
"She's foul enough to be one," said Harry darkly and Ron and Hermione nodded vigorously in agreement.
"Yes, but the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters," said Sirius with a wry smile.  "I know she's a nasty piece of work, though --- you should hear Remus talk about her."
This statement by Sirius is meant to broaden our perspective on the nature of evil.  It isn't just black-robed evil murderer types, but there is also a more subtle cruelty of knights templar protecting us from our own selves.  Dolores might be terrible as a Death Eater, but she's nothing like them.

Except that... well... she is a Death Eater.

This might be one of the worst failures of the series.  Despite Sirius' claims, the world of Harry Potter is literally split in to good people and Death Eaters, and even the character meant to explicitly contradict this, is, in fact, in league with the Death Eaters.

At the moment it's cool and trendy to have "grey" morality in stories, to make sure there is no one good or evil side.  Works like Lord of the Rings or Narnia that do feature clear good and evil get a lot of criticism for it.  I think it is definitely interesting when a book shows things from the villain's perspective, or gives the villain actual motives, or even good motives.  But I have no problem with books that don't.  I like books with clear good and evil just as much as I like books with ambiguous factions.  I certainly don't hate books just because they have black/white morality.

It is one, thing, however, to have simple black/white morality.  It is another to have black/white morality and explicitly criticize black/white morality, to introduce characters to break the mold of black/white morality, and to still cave in to black/white morality anyway.

Every single villainous character in the entire series, from start to finish, is in league with Voldemort.  Even when it makes no sense or isn't necessary.

For instance, consider Draco and the allegiance of House Slytherin to Voldemort.  Draco is introduced in the beginning to just be a bully and a spoiled rich brat.  There's no reason he has to have anything to do with Voldemort or blood purity for his character to be effective.  He can be mean and cruel and be in Ravenclaw.  As it turns out, Draco is in league with the Death Eaters and later becomes a Death Eater, and as it turns out House Slytherin is in league with the Death Eaters and later almost completely takes Voldemort's side in the battle at Hogwarts.  Turns out the school bullies in the clique at Slytherin are black robed wizards of evil.

There are good people (Harry and Gryffindor House) and Death Eaters (Draco and Slytherin House).

Dolores Umbridge, of course, is the main example here.  Dolores is allied to the Ministry and is meant to actually represent a faction fighting Voldemort.  Her purpose is to show how even that can be bad.  Yet we learn of her history of blood prejudice (a Death Eater trait) in the 5th book, which very quickly lumps her in with Draco, Slytherin, Voldemort, and every single other bad guy in the book.

And when Umbridge wishes to organize an Inquisatorial Squad to keep order in the hallways, she doesn't select people like Percy, goody-two-shoes who love order and discipline as much as herself.  Rather, guess who she picks.  Yep, she picks Draco, the other villain, despite the fact that Draco's dad actually works for Voldemort (who she supposedly opposes) and that Draco is mostly a troublemaker who causes fights.

The unity between Umbridge and Draco is bizarre.  The two share almost nothing in common, really, besides that both are enemies of Harry Potter.  And so that is my point, really; every enemy of Harry Potter is a Death Eater, everyone who opposes him ends up, in the end, supporting Voldemort, even people from completely disparate factions.

So now Umbridge, a cruel disciplinarian, and Draco, a troublemaking bully, have joined forces to torment Harry Potter, and it is around this time that Sirius assures us that the world isn't divided in to good people and Death Eaters.

Later, after the fall of the Ministry, Umbridge is seen organizing the Muggle-Born Registration  Committee, enforcing blood-purity laws.  In this capacity she directly works with several Death Eaters such as Yaxley and Travers, doing their work for them.  There's no direct statement that Dolores is in Voldemort's ring of followers, but even if she never puts on a scull mask, it's clear that she's with them.  She supports Voldemort and his followers when he's in power, she does his bidding to suppress muggles, she works hand-in-hand with the Death Eaters.  She does everything they do, with as much cruelty, and in the same organizations, along with them.

So Dolores is in league with Draco who is in league with Slytherin who is in league with the Death Eaters who are in league with Voldemort.  All of the bad guys make one big group, versus Harry Potter.  They're all together.  Anyone not a good person, no matter what their sympathies or allegiance, in the end, is actually a Death Eater.

Again, this wouldn't be a problem if she didn't make it a problem.  Rowling pointed out that there is more to good and evil than Death Eater/not-Death Eater.  Then, I guess, forgot, and made all the bad guys Death Eaters.  Rowling is the one who made separate factions of bad guys, then Rowling is the one who collapsed all of the factions into a single one.

So, there you go.  Despite what Sirius says, actually the world of Harry Potter is split up, into good people, and Death Eaters, depending on how you get along with Harry.

Why Doesn't Everyone Believe in R'hllor?

One of the more interesting points (to me) about A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a Game of Thrones) is the role that religion plays in the series.

The principal religion of Westeros is called simply the Faith, and it is belief in the Seven.  This religion, in many ways, mirrors the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, what with monks and nuns and priests and a pope, and in some other ways, such as the prevalence of ceremonies and shrines and points of dogma.  The theology of this religion, in terms of their being seven gods who are one god, was supposed to mimic slightly the Christian notion of the Trinity (which, btw, it doesn't, but that's neither here nor there).  Even though the seven gods are all said to be one, there are in fact seven of them, and they are seven gods, making this religion polytheistic.  The seven gods are the Father, the Mother, the Maid, the Crone, the Warrior, the Smith, and the Stranger, each of which is meant to represent some aspect of human life.  The weirdest of these, most definitely, is the Stranger.  Holders of the Faith are often afraid of the Stranger; his image on a wall in a sept gives Catelyn chills during her prayer to the Seven.  The Stranger represents, amongst many other things, death and dying, and for this reason is worshipped at the House of Black and White.  Midway in to the fourth book, the Faith undergoes a kind of Protestant Reformation as the Sparrows lead and uprising to kick out what they see as corrupt septons and put in place their own High Septon to make reforms and turn back to a more pious worship of the Seven.

The next most influential religion is usually called just the old religion, and is a belief in the old gods.  These gods are worshipped at the weirwoods which it turns out have psychic time-travel abilities that can allow particular people to view and interact with the past.  This was the original religion of the Children of the Forest (a.k.a the Singers of the Song of Earth) that they taught to the First Men, and it is still retained mostly in the North.  The Starks hold to the old gods, as do most other Northmen, even the Wildlings.  This religions is also polytheistic, or animistic, or maybe pantheistic; the old gods have no names, and really no distinguishing properties, besides that they are worshipped at trees.  As you will find out, the old gods are mostly wargs like Bloodraven and Bran communicating with the past by controlling the weirwoods

The only other religion with any sway in Westeros is the one of the Iron Islands, the belief in the Drowned God.  This is a dualistic religion; there is the Drowned God who died for the people of the Islands, to save the from the Storm God, who sinks their ships and kills their men at sea.  The good deity of this religion is believed to have literally drowned and died to defeat the evil Storm God.  So far as I remember, the Drowned God is actually dead, but due to being dead he is stronger; what is dead cannot die.  They have a ritual very similar to baptism, involving a symbolic "drowning" that youth and converts undergo, whereby they also drown and die and then come back to life.  In more moderate versions, this is similar to sprinkling at infant baptisms, done to newborns on their name day.  In the more extreme forms, such as those practiced by Aaron Damphair, converts are literally drowned until they die, then a crude form of CPR is performed to resuscitate them to life.

Those are pretty much the only religions on Westeros, with maybe some slight difference.  However, due to the travels of various characters to Essos, we learn about several other religions.

The most prominent of these in the series is the worship of R'hllor, the Fire God, worshipped by the red priests such as Melisandre and Thoros.  But as I want to make a much longer point about R'hllor, I'll come back to this.

The Dothraki practice a kind of animism.  Their gods are horse spirits and the spirits of conquering kings.  Animist religions don't tend to have a lot of theology as a rule, and if the Dothraki have any at all then it isn't mentioned.

The Shepherd people practice what is arguably the only form of monotheism in the series.  They worship the Shepherd, of whom we are all children and sheep.  The practitioners of this religion are described as peaceable and unwarlike, preferring to just be alone and look after their sheep, similar to how the Shepherd is believed to watch after them.  Even though they're described as peaceful and unwarlike, the Shepherd people are known to fire their arrows at raiding Dothraki, and so are not actually pacifist.  Maybe I'm being self-flattering, but to me this religion had the most parallels with Protestant Christianity.

There is brief mention of a pacifistic people who worship a Butterfly god.  While the Shepherd people will use violence to defend themselves, the inhabitants of the island worshipping the Butterfly god will not.  One of Dany's scribes came from the island of these people, and she claims that the Butterfly god looks after them and keeps the slave ships from landing on their island.

The ancient Valyrian's believed in a pantheon of gods, some of whom are named in the series, but as Valyria is dead and their empire destroyed, little of that religion remains.

Then there is the House of Black and White.  This is set up as a temple to Death.  People come there to commit suicide, or to hire assassins to murder people.  The adherents of this temple honor death in all of its forms, and worship it in all the ways it has been worshipped in all religions.  One of their chief philosophies is that in all regions, in all times, people have honored Death as a god, and that as death claims everyone, death is the chief god worth serving.  Their temple is full of statues depicted various forms of death gods in various religions.  One of these is the Stranger from the Seven, along with many others.

So those are the various religions in the series, or at least as many as I can remember.  The Free Cities practice freedom of religion and there are innumerable gods and religions honored in them, so there are certainly many more even if not explicitly mentioned in the series.  Still, that's enough for now to make my point.

Let's go back to R'hllor.  I skipped him earlier.

R'hllor is the principal god of the religion of the red priests, which is arguably dualistic.  R'hllor is the god of fire, and thereby heat and thereby life and light.  He is in battle against the evil god known only as the Other, the god of cold and darkness and death.

The first believer in R'hllor that we encounter is arguably Thoros.  Of  course, Thoros isn't exactly the paragon of piety and so we never hear about the god of fire from him in the first book; Thoros is described simply as a red priest from the East who likes to set his sword on fire during tournament battles and get drunk.  I didn't even realize he was a different religion from the Faith until the third book.

But in the prologue of the second book we encounter Melisandre.  Most people hate her character (mostly because she's fervently religious), but I find what she represents highly intriguing.  She first comes on to the scene being challenged by an old Maester of the Faith, who attempts to poison her to save his beloved king Stannis from falling in with the unknown demon she preaches about.  The Maester wants to sneak poison in to her goblet, but failing to do so, he places it in his own and invites her to the center of the room to drink from his in a toast of friendship.  Uncannily, Melisandre knows what he is doing, and offers to let him back down, but she takes his challenge, chugs the poison, then offers the cup to him; he drinks it and dies with one sip.  She can drink poison and not be harmed, as well as know the intentions of people trying to kill her, and, as we learn, do many, many other things.

She leads the people on Dragonstone in burning their statues of the Seven and converting over to R'hllor, and in this she declares Stannis to be Azor Ahai Come-Again, a prophesied hero of legend who is destined to return and slay the Other.  While most readers very quickly grew to hate her (because, as I said, she's fervently religious), readers also really latched on to his idea of who is the real Azor Ahai.  It's pretty clearly not Stannis, despite what Melisandre believes, so who is the prophesied hero of legend?  Is it Dany?  Is it Jon Snow?

Then we go back to Thoros and the Brotherhood Without Banners, led by Beric Dondarrion.  At this point in the book, I was all about Dondarrion, and I'm kind of disappointed at where this went, but now I see how it was necessary. Beric has been leading the common people in revolt against the nobles who are murdering them and pillaging their villages, and we find out that in fact Beric is dead, and has died many times since.  Each time, Thoros, the red priest, calls upon the fire god R'hllor to revive Beric and Beric actually comes back from the dead.  That's how the BWB are able to keep fighting, even when their valiant leader is slain on the field, and is a constant source of confusion with the enemy.

And here is where there is some ambiguity.  Everyone hates Melisandre (and really, considering her shadow demons, she's pretty horrifying) and can't stand her prattling about the "Lord of Light", but by this point Thoros is using the power of R'hllor to revive one of the more honorable people in the series to destroy the wicked noblemen and their cruelty to the small people.  Same religion, same god.

As we keep going, we learn all of the things that red priests can do.  Beric can slit his hand on his sword and turn it in to a blade of burning fire.  Thoros can bring back the dead by breathing in to them.  Melisandre especially can drink poison, see the future in the fire, curse people to literal death by throwing leaches in to a fire, and birth terrible shadow monsters that can assassinate others.  The red priest on board Victarion's ship is able to cure Victarion's wounded hand that the other Maester was going to cut off, and replace it with a blackened, burnt cinder that is even stronger and more capable than the original hand.  The red priests have such incredible power, they know what ship to get their guy on so that he winds up shipwrecked in a storm and floats by in front of the boat that is going to bring him to Dany, who they suspect may be Azor Ahai.

Here's my point, really.  As interesting as the Seven and the Drowned God and the Shepherd may be, there is a clear winner here.  Even if you hate Melisandre and even if you hate Victarion, and even if you hate everything the red priests stand for, R'hllor is real.  In the world of Westeros, there is in fact a deity named R'hllor, who is worshipped by the red priests, who in fact has actual power as demonstrated again and again in the series.

And we sort of already know this, too.  I don't think there are many readers who consider the prophecies about Azor Ahai to be bunk; nearly every fan speculation I have seen operates as if the prophecy is absolutely going to happen, Azor Ahai is absolutely going to be born again (most likely in the timeframe of the series) and is totally going to defeat the Other.  We all know that R'hllor is real, and even if we hate all of his followers, we know that his prophecy is about a good guy who is going to do good things, probably either Dany or Jon Snow.

When you compare this to, say, the Seven, who can't do jack, you have to wonder why there is anyone at all in the world who does not believe in R'hllor?

Like, seriously.  It is reported in 1 Kings 18 that Elijah the prophet challenged the priests of Baal to a competition; the god who could send fire from the sky to consume an offering was the real god.  When the Baals fail despite their best shouting and cutting of themselves, and when God sends fire that consumes the sacrifice, the point of Elijah is immediately and clearly made; there is one God, Yahweh, and he's real, while the Baals are fake.  If this sort of thing happened with any regularly, there would probably be much fewer atheists and many more Christians and little need for religious dialogues or debates.

And this is what Melisandre does; she drinks poison and the Maester drinks poison, she lives and he dies, and then she burns the dumb and silent statues that are supposed to be gods and can't even save themselves from a fire.  Maybe you think that's mean, or intolerant, but she has a point; R'hllor is real and the Seven are just worthless idols.

Are the Seven real?  Davos Seaworth, close to death, reports hearing the Mother speak to him, asking him to avenge them.  And maybe he really did hear her, or maybe he imagined it, but Melisandre can flippin' throw a bug in to a fire and kill Davos where he stands.  Even if the Seven are real, there is a clear winner here.

You would think that the red priests would have a much easier time spreading their religion, given their powers and abilities; in fact, almost anyone who sees what they can do does quickly join on in belief (such as Stannis' men or Victarion).  But this isn't a new religion; so why haven't they spread further?  Why are their people in Volantis who openly reject what is arguably the only real deity with any obvious displays of power in the entire series?

I think that to answer that, you need to dig a bit deeper in to what the House of Black and White believes.

I mean, arguably R'hllor isn't the only god with power.  The members of the HoBaW have some abilities as well; it's what helped them escape slavery in the fire mines, and it's what helps them assassinate today.  And among the various forms of Death worshipped at the HoBaW, one of them must be the Other, the evil god opposed to R'hllor.  The Other, pretty clearly, has some connection to the Others; after all, there's the name, but also the Others are associated with cold, darkness, and death, just like the Other, and just the opposite of the traits given to R'hllor.

I'm just hypothesizing, but I think that the Stranger, or the Other, or whatever other names exist for him, might also be real.  I don't think we know enough to know the full extent of what the Stranger is, or his connection to the Others, or his connection to the Children of the Forest, but I suspect that it goes back much deeper than is currently obvious.  The other six of the Seven likely aren't real, the stuff about the great Shepherd probably not either, and who knows about the Butterfly god; but R'hllor is real, and therefore his enemy the Other must be real, and the Other is almost identical to the Stranger.

To cut to the chase, when it comes to why more people don't worship R'hllor, I think the answer is this: R'hllor is the evil one, the Great Other is the good one.

The Prince That Was Promised... was not promised to us.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Whether Something Can Come From Nothing, and Quantum Mechanics

It is very popular  in certain circles that place a high value on the classical scholastic arguments for the existence of God to ask "why is there something rather than nothing?"  Ex nihil, nihil fit, is the Latin phrase, that from nothing, nothing comes.  If there is something, then why?  How did it get here?

It is then popular in certain circles that place a high value on scientific understanding --- people who perhaps don't understand math well enough to study it for real, but who nonetheless appreciate human efforts to understand the natural world in terms of rational processes and read as much of it as they can understand --- to make the rebuttal claim that, according to the physical understanding of quantum mechanics, something can come from nothing.

You can see an example of this conversation in the below video:

The idea is that in quantum field theory, study has shown that even in the state representing a vacuum, i.e. a system with zero particles, there is still the constant process of random particle-antiparticle pair creation and annihilation going on all the time.  You start with zero particles, and for brief instances you have two particles.  Or, in higher order interactions, four, or one hundred and twenty four.  Therefore, something -- particle-antiparticle pairs -- can come from nothing -- the quantum vacuum.

This idea is right, and it's wrong.  I think both people are talking past each other, and in this post, I would like to try to clarify.

I'm not a field theorist.  I've had some grad classes in it, but it's not anything in which I'm an expert (in fact, there probably isn't anything in which I'm an expert, but it's a helpful caveat).  Still, what I'm about to say is very basic to field theory (if anything in field theory can be called "basic"), and I'm more or less directly citing the text Field Quantization by Greiner and Reinhardt (available on Amazon for only $\$20$!).  What follows is a very, very brief outline of how quantum field theory leads to the understanding of the quantum vacuum, but also how the results therein do not mean what many people think it means.  I have some wikipedia links throughout, so that hopefully people who do not understand math can at least follow along with what I'm trying to say -- the math isn't important, but the physics is.

The Uncertainty Principle and Energy Non-Conservation, part 2

Quantum mechanics is typically interpreted to mean that the conservation of energy can be violated as long as the time scales involved are short.  An old professor of mine used to summarize it as "there is such a thing as a free lunch, if you can eat it fast enough."

Here's how the argument goes.  From quantum mechanics, we get the uncertainty relation
$$\Delta E \Delta t \geq \hbar,$$
where $\Delta E$ is the uncertainty -- or statistical spread -- of the energy, and $\Delta t$ is the uncertainty of the time.

Following this, physicists reinterpret the uncertainty $\Delta E$.  Rather than representing a quantification of our lack of knowledge about the energy of a system, this is interpreted as being, somehow, the amount of "free" energy that a system can borrow in violation of the First Law of Thermodynamics.  So if we have mean energy $E$ and uncertainty $\Delta E$, it means we "actually have" energy $E$, and then Nature gracefully lends us $\Delta E$ to overcome some energy barrier, which we quickly repay in time $\Delta t$.

However, that puts us at 
$$\Delta E \geq \hbar/\Delta t$$
which puts no limitation how much energy we can borrow.  Or, rather, it puts a lower bound; we must borrow at least $\hbar/\Delta t$ worth of energy.  Or, we could borrow even more!   If this is true, then we have infinite energy forever!

The oil companies will go bankrupt!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Late Night Musings

The other night I was up late, working on a draft for a paper I hope to have submitted before the end of the summer.  I think it was around 4 or so.  After a while, I decided to take a break, and normally I suppose that a break at 4 AM would mean something like sleeping.  For some reason, I was so excited by the research paper that I just didn't want to sleep, and had been just gunning through it pretty much for the past three days straight.  So I didn't sleep, and started updating my paper journal.

I made a poor stroke with the pen, and wanted to amend it.  Reaching in to my desk drawer, I took out the bottle of whiteout that I only now realize I have owned since I was in 3rd grade.  I have only ever in my entire life owned one bottle of whiteout, and it is this one.  I think that's weird.  Anyway, I took out the bottle of whiteout and was shocked to find that all the correction paste had dried up sometime in the past twenty years and would no longer come out of the bottle.

My apartment is a simple affair, single bedroom, bathroom, a kitchen.  The building is also pretty simple; it's a single property with a single building on a pretty quiet street.  The building is brick, two stories, and has a total of eight apartments.  I live on the top floor, and a (married?) couple live below me.  Unfortunately, pretty much every time I put a foot down on my floor, they know about it, so sometimes they've had to come up at, say, four in the morning, and ask me to please stop moving all of my furniture around, because they're trying to sleep like normal people.

Anyway, as I was saying, the whiteout wouldn't come up, and I needed to fix the pen stroke I'd made, and I don't have any other whiteout because I've only ever owned one bottle in my entire life, so I decide, based on my practically non-existent knowledge of chemistry, that I'll just mix hot water in with the dried-up correction fluid and thereby get liquid correction fluid.

So I'm at my sink, and I have the tap water running.  Just a trickle, because I don't want to waste water.  It's running, and heating up, and I put some in... and the whiteout doesn't mix with it.  So I start shaking the bottle, and I just know that with each down-shake I'm reverberating the entire celing of my downstairs neighbors.  But I keep doing this, water's running, I put water in, shake it up some, pour the water out, put more in, shake it up.  Some little flakes are starting to come, and I think, this is good, soon the flakes will be smaller, and then the small flakes will mix with the water like a colloidal dispersion, and then I can use it to correct my mistake.  So I put some water in, shake it up, pour it out, put some more in, shale it up, pour it out.

I don't even know how long I was doing this.  Seriously, maybe like thirty minutes.  I may seriously have spent thirty minutes at 4 in the morning on a weekday trying to revitalize my 3rd grade bottle of correction fluid.

At some point, I hear movement downstairs, and I hear a door open.  The outside door.  Crap, I thought, I woke them up again.  I hate waking them up.  It's rude, really, and I don't like being rude.  So I tried to quiet it down and I got ready for when he'd knock and I'd go to the door to find him standing outside looking like a zombie raised from death not moments before asking me to please, please stop moving around, it's so early and people are trying to sleep, and it's pretty reasonable to ask you to keep it down, so please stop scurrying around doing whatever it is, and what are you even doing anyway?

And it was then that I realized, if they were to ask me what the heck I was doing up at 4 in the morning making all this noise, it would probably be impossible to convince them that I wasn't on drugs.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What is Spin? A More Simpler Explanation

The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics wasn't supposed to be mystical.  In fact, it was made precisely to avoid mysticism: "Shut up and calculate!" is probably the best summary of it possible.  Who cares what wavefunctions are or how they collapse, gimme the expectation value.  It's supposed to be practical, simple.  It's logical positivism at it's more rarified.

courtesy SMBC
Somehow, the refusal to address the complications of quantum and to just skate on by, has led to all sorts of weird mysticism stuff like quantum healing.  Today most non-physicists have misunderstandings of entanglement and many-worlds and why Schrodinger hated cats so much.  And very sadly, most physicists have no ability to correct them, as all they can do is draw squiggly tridents and funny S's and say "here is the answer".  That's all we're taught!  "It's a mystery, no one knows so shut up and calculate!"

The result is that no one really knows anything.  Physicists have a blackbox of expectation values and non-physicists have neat anecdotes for cocktail parties.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

English Place Pronouns Retain Case

There's often confusion about what "Old English" is.

When people talk about Old English, they typically mean Shakespeare or the King James Bible or any flowery language with "thee"s and "thou"s.  Which isn't Old English at all.  Elizabethan and Jacobean English are both just older forms of Modern English.  The fact that modern speakers of English can read these writings without advanced degrees pretty much says it all.  Sure, the older dialects had more grammatical complexity than we are familiar with (separate personal and familiar second persons, distinct conjugations for first, second, and third person singular, etc.), but overall, Modern English is a pretty simple language, grammatically.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Just Replace 'Baby' With 'Jesus'"

South Park is normally pretty vulgar and obscene, so I don't normally watch it.  Yet, for all that, they are really quite clever and can make some pretty good points.  And while they can be pretty nasty, they are generally pretty even-handed in offending as many people as possible.  If they cut out all the sex and poop jokes, I just might watch it more.

One of their points, from the 2003 episode "Christian Rock Hard" is that Christian music is basically just a bunch of love songs, but replacing "Baby" with "Jesus".

On a level, there is some validity to it.  Like it's really comical when Christian songs that don't explicitly say "Jesus" get played on the secular radio as love songs.  Songs such as "All Around Me" by Flyleaf, or "I Can't Deny You" by POD, or "Everything" by Lifehouse.

Heck, this problem is Biblical; even today, there is debate about whether the Song of Solomon, ostensibly an erotic love poem, is merely a love poem or if it represents the relationship between Christ and his Church.

Which is probably why the difference between love song and Christian song is blurry at times; even Jesus often says "I love you baby" sorts of things, such as promising his second coming in the words of an engagement speech.

But while South Park makes a good point, it isn't literally true.  Christian songs definitely have an element of "divine romance" to them (literally the name of a song by Phll Wickham), but they aren't just love songs with "baby" replaced by "Jesus".

To prove this point, I decided to take the top 5 Christian songs from 2003, the year the episode was aired, and actually go through and replace various words with "baby".  There was some fudging in which words to replace, but overall the effect is clear: If you sang a song about Jesus to your girlfriend and replaced his name with "baby", you would come off as incredibly clingy and creepy.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Computer Simulation of a Rift in the Space-Time Continuum Devouring the Universe

Part of my research involves computer simulation of bizarre materials with exotic optical properties; materials that can bend light in almost any manner desired.

I work on the theoretical side of things; I can say that I have in fact touched a beaker and used a pipet to move water from said beaker to another nearly identical beaker (I did this just to feel science-y and say I've done it) but I have no lab experience and would probably destroy everything in your lab if you let me use it.  All this to say, though I can sort of describe these materials (whilst gesticulating with a pipe, and with a dreamy glaze over my eyes and lulling drawl to my voice) I -- me -- am incapable of producing them.  So if I want to convince someone with a lab and knowledge (and a budget) to actually make them, I have to give more than my impressive pipe-gesticulations.

Hence, I use computer algorithms to make simulational models of the bizarre materials, send some simulated light in to them, and can thus prove to these experimental people with labs that the totally awesome sailing ship I just blew through a smoke ring can in fact be built and sailed through physical rings.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Harry Potter and the Council of Rejects

The second book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is the only one of the series that I read when it first came out, which was when I was 11.  When the third book came out, I felt less than eager about reading it.  So I didn't.

Rowling maintained throughout the entire series this notion of how incompetent the Ministry of Magic is.  They are a bunch of paper-pushing bureaucrats who mindlessly follow rules and ordinances, and they have a tendency to insulation and confirmation bias, in particular Cornelius Fudge's refusal to acknowledge the return of Voldemort.

But I don't think Rowling ever realized just how incompetent the Ministry really is.

Why the Shroud of Turin Can't Possibly Belong to Jesus

A friend of mine recently posted the following picture on facebook.

The caption refers to recent experiments trying to duplicate the image on the Shroud, specifically by bombarding it with electromagnetic radiation.  (This is the closest thing to a reference I could find - it's in Italian, sorry.)

A have a decent number of friends who very earnestly believe the Shroud of Turin to be the very same piece of fabric used to wrap the crucified body of Jesus.  By some unknown process, at the moment of his Resurrection, they believe the Shroud was irradiated to contain a photo negative imprint of Jesus' body; I don't know why the Resurrection should produce radiation, but then I guess I don't know why it shouldn't, either.

Even recently, in late March, one scientist in Italy produced tests tracing the Shroud to within the era of Jesus' lifetime.  This contradicts dozens of other scientific and historical investigations concluding that the Shroud came in to existence sometime in the 12th century AD, but I guess it's something.

Or maybe Poofy-Hair Guy is actually
right about something?
For all I know, the Shroud really was caused by miraculous radiation, and for all I know the Shroud absolutely existed in the first century, before being lost to all record for twelve hundred years, after which time it appeared suddenly and without provenance in France with more carbon-14 in its fibers than a natural piece of fabric should have.  That might very well be the case.  I don't know, and maybe I never will.

What I do know, however, is that the Shroud of Turin was not the piece of fabric that was used to wrap Jesus' body.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Theology of Gnomes

I spend a lot of time speculating on the possible underlying science of Fairyland.  Probably more time than is healthy for an unmarried adult male.

I suppose I got caught on this fairy tale bent by C. S. Lewis, after reading his fiction.  There are many themes in his writing, but the one that has most fascinated me is his treatment of the theology of sentient creatures in other worlds.

In the first book written by him, The Pilgrim's Regress, the story takes place in a kind of dreamworld, all of which is the country of the Landlord, a powerful entity living in a castle in the eastern mountains.  The story serves as a very dense allegory (Narnia is more like a simile compared to this) for the various kinds of philosophy considered by Lewis until his eventual conversion, yet the concept of God as Landlord is very compelling.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Upon Watching "Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog"

As I've often said, I don't typically watch movies, because most movies are terrible.  Maybe half of this blog is dedicated to complaining about the stupidity of various movies.  If it's less than half, it's only because I haven't seen any even worth complaining about, not because they've become any less stupid.

I actually don't even own a TV.  Or, I own a TV, and it sits unused in my closet underneath a pile of spare mattresses.  I don't own a DVD player either, though I still have a VHS player.  Somewhere.  It just isn't worth my time, I guess?

Anyway, I say that only because when I come out enjoying a movie, it is something rare and incredible.

I recently watched Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog, which is available on Netflix.

My only complaint is that it ended too soon.

I actually have a hard time explaining my enjoyment of the film, as is typical for when I enjoy things.  I am not capable of being impressed by visuals or orchestral music or spectacle or anything really I can point to; I guess it's entertaining while it lasts, then quickly bores me after 30 minutes or whenever it ends.  But what movies like this do, is they plant this barb deep into my viscera, then tug and tug until my organs spill out.

Or something like that.

The movie is the kind of thing that tears my heart from my chest and shows it to me, and I am only delighted to learn that I even have such an organ.  It's been invisible so long and beating so low that I forgot where it was.

And it's silly because the movie is a silly musical about an evil mad scientist who falls in love with a girl he meets at a laundromat.  It's ridiculous and tragic at the same time.  Which is probably exactly why it enraptured me so.

The last scene is the hero/villain entering a room of supervillains including "Professor Normal", "Dead Bowie", "Fake Thomas Jefferson", and lead by "Bad Horse, the Thoroughbred of Sin", who is a literal horse -- while singing a disharmonious anthem of loss and grief and the death of the soul in response to tragedy, a song so appropriately and inappropriately titled "Everything You Ever".  The scene takes itself perfectly seriously while at the same time is openly, patently absurd; and all this absurdity and gravity is itself only a mask for the defeated, deflated, withered shell of Dr. Horrible that remains.

It's... I dunno.  It's an incredible movie.  It's the story of the tragic fall of Dr. Horrible, the hero/villain whose tragic flaw is simply being too kind.  It's melancholic and discordant, and yet gave me joy with the small hope that there is any merely human agency anywhere on this planet who might actually understand me.  Like someone read my xanga from high school and turned it into an unattributed musical sci-fi biography.  I imagine many, many loner, melancholic types will sympathize.

I recommend it - selfishly, perhaps - to anyone.  It's live-streaming on Netflix.  It's only 45 minutes.  Watch it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Width of Narnia

As is revealed in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the world of Narnia is a flat earth.  Characters can literally fall of the edge of the world.

I started wondering, at one point, how thick is that edge?

Characters from our world report no differences in the gravity (or whatever) on Narnia; they don't feel any greater or lesser weight walking around.  Arguably, if Narnia had a lower gravity, then the Pevensies might have had, at least, an easier time crossing through the snow.  And contrariwise, if Narnia had a much higher gravity, then the adventure would have mostly been about aching knee joints.

Further, when the Pevensies stay in Narnia as kings and queens, they eat the food there, and this does not make them sick.  The food they eat they report as tasting equivalent to earth food.  When they grow up, they marry dryads and naiads and other mythological things and have children.  Weird as this is, it all proves pretty much conclusively that Narnia is made of the same kind of "stuff" as Earth; this is important.

So we know three things.  We know Narnia has the same overall downward-pulling force as Earth's gravity, we know that Narnia is made of the same kind of stuff as Earth, and we know that Narnia is a flat earth with a literal edge that you could fall off.

This is enough to calculate, to a very good approximation, how thick Narnia is.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

No, I Don't Like BBC's Sherlock

I get asked this maybe once a week, on a good week.  On a bad week, more.  I think so far, every person that I know has asked me at least twice.  I think friends from middle school that I haven't spoken to for over a decade have called me -- looked up my number and called me -- to ask if I like BBC's Sherlock. Then they hung up and called again to ask a second time.

The answer is no, I don't like it.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Literature Review Process, or So I Understand It

I'm in the bookstore, and a book catches my eye.  More often than I'd like to admit, it's because it has a pretty cover illustration, or a very respectable binding.   Or maybe it was misplaced on the shelf by a previous browser, or maybe it had a special display rack for itself.

Anyway, somehow, by some means, I've got the book in my hand, and I want to know: should I bother reading this?

Of course, I can't trust the reviews on the back of the book.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Time Travel is Creepy

The other day, an idea dawned on me.  It took several hours before the full weight of it began to sink in.  It's an idea that has enjoyed constant employment by the human imagination, so much so that the terror of it has been weakened from banality.  When I was forced to take it out of fantasy books and in to reality, I wasn't so sure I liked it.

It occurred to me, that it might be possible to make a device that causes light to travel in closed causal curves.  As in, I could do some calculations and tell you how to make it and someone with a nanolab could build it in a year or so. This would allow communication with the future through radio waves; you broadcast them in to the machine and into the future, the future responds by broadcasting into the past.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Vectors are Not 1-Forms

So, I recently moved in to a new research area.  It's new to my advisor, too.  Actually, generally speaking, it's pretty new period, first appearing some ten years ago or less.  Anyway, this new field deals fairly heavily with Maxwell's Equations in curved spacetime, so to understand it we are needing to review differential geometry and general relativity, two fields which are not in the normal purview of my advisor's expertise.  I was asked to prepare a chalk-talk that would introduce the key concepts of differential geometry to them, and another talk to segue in to Maxwells Equations in curved spacetime.

Not like I'm an expert on differential geometry, but I've studied it some privately and as an undergraduate.

While studying for this, it dawned on me suddenly, like the storm clouds that pile higher and higher until the first bolt of lightning strikes the ground, that vectors and 1-forms are different.

Every thing I have ever read in physics equates them.  Or not really.  Everything I have ever read in physics doesn't even demonstrate that it understands why those two should occupy different semantic domains.

What the heck am I even talking about?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Nice Guy Schadenfreude Day!

The title is actually all I wanted to say :P

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Kingkiller Chronicles Speculation: Why Can't Kvothe Do Magic?

There's a certain type of book series that offers the reader the chance to be a detective; the entire world of the series is a mystery whose origins lie shrouded in a mist of narrative, yet enough light pierces that veil to allow the attentive reader to glimpse the nature of things.

The Kingkiller Chronicles is just such a series, perhaps the best such series.  It is written by a very talented writer, and it is already finished; every twist in the plot is already written in a manuscript, and Rothfuss is largely just fixing diction at this point (which is still taking him agonizingly long).  Further, the future of the series is already known; we know the end of the story, where Kvothe becomes the humble innkeeper of Nevarre and the world is torn apart by demon spiders, and we know that the rest of the story is going to explain how all of this happened.

So, as I have done in the past, I would like to take a moment to wildly speculate about the series.

There are, of course, SPOILERS.  Please do not read this until you have read the first two books, and thoroughly.  Try to piece things together for yourself, or you're missing half the fun of the series.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Dreams of Smoking

I still have dreams of smoking cigarettes.

It's been maybe five years since I quit.  I was 20 or so then, and I'm 25 now, so maybe five years.  Cold turkey; went to bed having smoked a whole pack that day, woke up and haven't touched 'em since.  It was during finals week, my first semester at my Alma Mater.  It was really stressful and I have never hated anything more in my entire life.

Of course, I haven't "entirely" quit smoking.  I still smoke a pipe, sometimes, when I'm in certain moods.  Some friends of mine smoke cigars and I've joined them more than a few times.

But I have not touched a cigarette since.  Except in my dreams.

When I first quit and was furious with withdrawal it was understandable.  And those stopped after a while, too.  But I guess they didn't quit entirely, either.  I would still wake up and recall the feel of smooth smoke trickle down my throat and fill up my lungs with the calm and succor, remember the feel of the cigarette between my fingers, the fluid motion of tapping out the ash.

Today, just now, randomly, I remembered several dreams I've had in the past month or so about smoking.  Usually, I was waiting somewhere, and there'd be a cigarette in my hand.  I'd smoke, then feel guilty about it since I've quit.  But, I'd console myself, it's just one, and no one's around to watch, and I'm not going to do it again after this.  A one-time lapse is allowable.

So I would.

That was my thinking in my dreams.  It's not much different than my thinking in the waking world.  Thankfully I haven't actually relapsed, and thankfully my conscious mind apparently misses cigarettes much, much less than my dream-self.

Funnily enough, in my dream, I would remember the other times in dreams that I'd also smoked a cigarette under similar conditions, and think, "See, we can do it now and it's not going to take over your life; it's fine; it's our thing."

I don't know if I'll always have these dreams.  I'd prefer not to.  At the least I should stop trying to recount them while awake, as just remembering the smoking-sensation of my dreams with my full mind makes me really long for them again in reality.

Anyway, I don't know what any of that means, or if dreams ever do mean anything, but it was on my mind and it's my blog, so I shared it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

What was Skynet Thinking?

A lot of people have a wonky understanding of time travel, based mostly on Back to the Future.  There probably isn't any such thing as time travel, so in that sense I guess anything you believe about time travel is true.  But the common view, that someone going back to the past from the future is able to alter events in the past from how they already happened, doesn't even make sense.

When we think of traveling to the past, we always think of this in terms of us, now, going to the past, and not in terms of someone else from the future coming to the present, so we we tend to think that we can change it.  Really, any "change" you make was already made, by you, before you left, and could have been recorded by historians if they had bothered to write about it.

It's an almost understandable mistake, due to our perspective.

But what the heck was Skynet thinking?