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.