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.