Vignette (The Best Foreseeble Ending)

Reading what people write as they try to cope with the assault on our common humanity known as Fifty Shades of Grey is weirdly addictive. Midway through one recap/critique, I realized that given the “hero’s” character, this “love story for the ages” would honestly have ended a few chapters in, and very badly. Then I realized just what TV show Christian Grey—rich, arrogant, with an opinion of his own intelligence far exceeding the evidence—would have been a murderer on.

“The officer outside said it looks like an accident.”

“Yes, well, any time a person dies not under a doctor’s care, my department gets involved. Usually it just comes down to paperwork. Always the report, we have to file.”

“And she had just graduated college, you say? Such a shame. A lovely, bright young woman like that. She had her whole life ahead of her. I hardly knew her, but I can’t help… Such a tragedy, and so unfair.”

“It never is fair, sir, you’re right about that.”

“If you don’t need me any longer, Lieutenant, I’ll be on my way. You can reach me through my office.”

“Oh, I think we’re about done here. We’ll give you a call if anything turns up.”

“Please. Good afternoon, then.”

“Oh, Mr. Grey, just one more thing! For my report, you know….”

Public Shaming in the Interest of Orthodoxy

In re: Time magazine’s poll of words which are, like, grody to the max

OK, let’s give Steinmetz a big heaping dollop of benefit-of-the-doubt. Suppose you really are just exasperated by celebrities being, you know, celebrities in interviews. Sure. Fine. Then shouldn’t you direct your ire to the media apparatus which persists in caring about what celebrities do and say, regardless of what they are actually good at? If “media trends” are your problem, why don’t you criticize, I dunno, the media?

“Words to ban” pieces, like their year-in-review cousins, are perfect candidates to be granfalloons of petty grievances. They are also ideal capsules of public shaming in the interests of orthodoxy.

Language is all bound up with emotion, sometimes trying to fill an emotional need with pure verbal art. Larry Gonick‘s example was promoting someone to “vice president”, instead of giving her a raise. “A switchboard operator no longer, you are now Vice President, Corporate Communication!” Here, the policing of vocabulary gives people who don’t have a lot of power themselves the ability to stomp on those with even less. Sometimes, word rage is a way of punching up: e.g., getting one back from the executive class by condemning manager-speak. People who insist “impact is not a verb” come across, to me anyway, like they’ve heard it too many times in vacuous babble from middle management (cf. “think outside the box!”). But a lot of word rage is punching down. When a usage is commonplace, people grow accustomed to it, and complaining about it becomes a niche pursuit of peeve-ologists. But when it’s an idiom spoken by Those Other People, it’s common enough to be noticed, but it doesn’t become familiar. It’s how Those Other People talk, and distaste for Those Other People gains a convenient and superficially polite outlet, in disparaging their vernacular.

Lacking Tonka

Dawkins claims that Hölldobler has “no truck with group selection”. Wilson and Hölldobler (2005) proposes, in the first sentence of its abstract, that “group selection is the strong binding force in eusocial evolution”. Later, Hölldobler (with Reeve) voiced support for the “trait-group selection and individual selection/inclusive fitness models are interconvertible” attitude. Hölldobler’s book with Wilson, The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies (2008), maintains this tone. Quoting from page 35:

It is important to keep in mind that mathematical gene-selectionist (inclusive fitness) models can be translated into multilevel selection models and vice versa. As Lee Dugatkin, Kern Reeve, and several others have demonstrated, the underlying mathematics is exactly the same; it merely takes the same cake and cuts it at different angles. Personal and kin components are distinguished in inclusive fitness theory; within-group and between-group components are distinguished in group selection theory. One can travel back and forth between these theories with the point of entry chosen according to the problem being addressed.

This is itself a curtailed perspective, whose validity is restricted to a narrow class of implementations of the “multilevel selection” idea. (Yeah, the terminology in this corner of science is rather confused, which doesn’t make talking about it easier.) Regardless, I cannot think of a way in which this can be construed as having “no truck with group selection”. The statement “method A is no better or worse than method B” is a far cry from “method A is worthless and only method B is genuinely scientific”.

If Dawkins has some personal information to which the published record is not privy, that’s fine, but even if that were the case, his statements could not be taken as a fair telling of the story.

EDIT TO ADD (21 November 2014): I forgot this 2010 solo-author piece by Hölldobler, in a perspective printed in Social Behaviour: Genes, Ecology and Evolution (T. Székely et al., eds). Quoting from page 127:

I was, and continue to be, intrigued by the universal observation that wherever social life in groups evolved on this planet, we encounter (with only a few exceptions) a striking correlation: the more tightly organized within-group cooperation and cohesion, the stronger the between-group discrimination and hostility. Ants, again, are excellent model systems for studying the transition from primitive eusocial systems, characterized by considerable within-group reproductive competition and conflict, and poorly developed reciprocal communication and cooperation, and little or no between-group competition, one one side, to the ultimate superorganisms (such as the gigantic colonies of the Atta leafcutter ants) with little or no within-group conflict, pronounced caste systems, elaborate division of labour, complex reciprocal communication, and intense between-group competition, on the other side (Hölldobler & Wilson 2008 [the book quoted above]).

And, a little while later, on p. 130:

In such advanced eusocial organisations the colony effectively becomes a main target of selection […] Selection therefore optimises caste demography, patterns of division of labour and communication systems at the colony level. For example, colonies that employ the most effective recruitment system to retrieve food, or that exhibit the most powerful colony defence against enemies and predators, will be able to raise the largest number of reproductive females and males each year and thus will have the greatest fitness within the population of colonies.

Fair Storytelling versus Young-Earth Creationism

An interesting essay from last month, by Fred Clark: “Phlebotinum, young-Earth creationism and the willing suspension of disbelief” (20 October 2014).

I think this analogy has something to it, but there’s also a point of contrast. A well-written phlebotinium story establishes the limitations of its fictitious technology, the rules by which it operates. Neither deflector shields nor transporters exist outside the story, but it’s well known that you can’t beam through the shields. Warp speed can only get you to the next star system so quickly. Go too fast for too long—warp 9.9 for more than seven minutes, let’s say—and your ship will break, and you will go no farther into space today.

By contrast, creationism flips from one standard to another, rewriting its own rules whenever convenient (or, rather, whenever it’s necessary to avoid an incovenience). Molecular biology is fine as long as it’s making pretty pictures of things “too complicated to evolve by chance!!!”, but as soon as it provides an explanation, out the door it goes. “Academic freedom” is the creationist rallying cry, as long as it’s creationists who are being cruelly un-freedom-ized (perhaps by the hateful demand that they actually get some science done).

Your Password

Your password must contain a pound of flesh. No blood, nor less nor more, but just a pound of flesh.

Your password must contain all passwords which do not contain themselves.

Your password must contain any letter of the alphabet save the second. NOT THE BEES! NOT THE BEES!

Your password must contain a reminder not to read the comments. Really. You’ll thank us.

Your password must have contained the potential within itself all along.

“It Should Have Been Obvious”

I can’t find my copy of The God Delusion. It wandered off to join the fairies in the Boston Public Garden, or something. This is only a problem when I’d like to look something up in it, to point to a passage and say, “Ah! If we’d read more carefully, we could have guessed that Dawkins was that terrible all along. It should have been obvious, even before he discovered Twitter!”

I could say more on this, and perhaps if the book turns up, and I have important work to procrastinate on but no Columbo episodes to watch, I might write at greater length. For now, I’ll just comment on a little thing which I don’t recall anyone pointing out before. The epigraph of the book is the Douglas Adams quotation to which I alluded, the one to the effect that the beauty of a garden should be satisfaction enough, without having to imagine “fairies at the bottom of it” in addition. This quotation comes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where it is part of Ford Prefect’s inner monologue. Ford is rejecting Zaphod Beeblebrox’s claim that their stolen spaceship is currently orbiting the lost planet of Magrathea. To Ford, Magrathea is “a myth, a fairy story, it’s what parents tell their kids about at night if they want them to grow up to become economists”.
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On the Act of Feeding Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls.”

It might have been good advice twenty-some years ago, when a “troll” was a guy who showed up in your newsgroup to argue that he could prove Fermat’s Last Theorem using the power of his perpetual motion machine. Perhaps such an annoyance would fade away if deprived of attention.

Now, though?

The motivations, the methods and the harms that can be wrought are all different. Let’s leave the facile suggestions back with Joel-versus-Mike, where they belong.

A Hypothesis on Interdisciplinary Perceptions

Postulate (Sturgeon’s Law): 90% of everything is crud.

Observation: Part of being educated in a field is learning how to filter out the crud produced in it—the work which is slapdash, too banal to spend brain-time on, fundamentally misguided, boring. This “learning how to filter” includes both recognizing bad work quickly when one sees it and taking advantage of existing social mechanisms for winnowing intellectual wheat from chaff.

Result: When Alice, trained in one field (say, physics) looks over into another (e.g., philosophy), she’s likely to hit crud. If this happens a few times over, Alice is apt to form a low opinion of the other field, a low opinion which is in a way justifiable but which in a deeper sense is misleading. This process repeats with Bob, Carol, etc.; by the time we get to Xenia, there is a notion afloat in one field that the other isn’t much good, leading to reciprocal enmity from the other.

Observation 2: If Amelie is formally trained in one field (say, pure mathematics) and accomplishes something legitimate in another (perhaps she pens an evocative new translation of the poems of Ryōkan), then the fact that she jumped discliplinary boundaries will be less remarked upon than if her effort failed. The departmental affiliation of a competent worker is easily forgotten, but that of a grandiose blowhard is easily remembered.

Overall result: In a subtle way, the world gets worse.

Epistricted Trits

In quantum mechanics, we are always calculating probabilities. We get results like, “There is a 50% chance this radioactive nucleus will decay in the next hour.” Or, “We can be 30% confident that the detector at position X will register a photon.” But the nature and origin of quantum probabilities remains obscure. Could it be that there are some kind of “gears in the nucleus,” and if we knew their alignment, we could predict what would happen with certainty? Fifty years of theorem-proving have made this a hard position to maintain: quantum probabilities are more exotic than that.

But what we can do is reconstruct a part of quantum theory in terms of “internal gears.” We start with a mundane theory of particles in motion or switches having different positions, and we impose a restriction on what we can know about the mundane goings-on. The theory which results, the theory of the knowledge we can have about the thing we’re studying, exhibits many of the same phenomena as quantum physics. It is clearly not the whole deal: For example, quantum physics offers the hope of making faster and more powerful computers, and the “toy theory” we’ve cooked up does not. But the “toy theory” can include many of the features of quantum mechanics deemed “mysterious.” In this way, we can draw a line between “surprising” and “truly enigmatic,” or to say it in a more dignified manner, between weakly nonclassical and strongly nonclassical.

The ancient Greek for “knowledge” is episteme (επιστημη) and so a restriction on our knowledge is an epistemic restriction, or epistriction for short.

A trit system is one where every degree of freedom has three possible values. Looking at Figure 4 of Spekkens’ “Quasi-quantization: classical statistical theories with an epistemic restriction,” we see that the valid states of an epistricted trit follow the same pattern as the SIC-allied Mutually Unbiased Bases of a quantum trit. But that is a story for another day.

Google Scholar Irregularities

Google Scholar is definitely missing citations to my papers.

The cited-by results for “Some Negative Remarks on Operational Approaches to Quantum Theory” [arXiv:1401.7254] on Google Scholar and on INSPIRE are completely nonoverlapping. Google Scholar can tell that “An Information-Theoretic Formalism for Multiscale Structure in Complex Systems” [arXiv:1409.4708] cites “Eco-Evolutionary Feedback in Host–Pathogen Spatial Dynamics” [arXiv:1110.3845] but not that it cites My Struggles with the Block Universe [arXiv:1405.2390]. Meanwhile, the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System catches both.

This would be a really petty thing to complain about, if people didn’t seemingly rely on such metrics.

EDIT TO ADD (17 November 2014): Google Scholar also misses that David Mermin cites MSwtBU in his “Why QBism is not the Copenhagen interpretation and what John Bell might have thought of it” [arXiv:1409.2454]. This maybe has something to do with being worse at detecting citations in footnotes than in endnotes.

Adventures in the Sophomoric

Yesternight, I went memory-road-tripping through my blog archives. One of the things I realized, apart from how amazingly enthusiastic I was for the blogging form back in 2007, was how much I reviled my sophomore-year university physics classes. At the time, they were unpleasant; in retrospect, they were deleterious.

The worst was the relativity class, which had most of the interesting stuff dug out, and hot air pumped in to fill it out to a semester. Also a waste of time was the first semester of quantum mechanics—we had three, and the latter two were great. That is actually a topic where a three-fold division could make sense. One could have, for example, a semester on the basic formalism, a semester on symmetries and exactly solvable systems and then a term covering approximation methods. But that’s not what we did. Instead, the first term was “intuition building,” which translates to “let’s plod through differential equations over and over and over again, because learning any oh-so-much-harder math would be too much for your young brains.” Mixed in with that was a rather bog-standard “physicist’s history of physics,” which was as usual too inevitably misleading to be worth bothering with. The time period in question is fascinating to me, as is our professional mythologizing about it. The textbook cardboard we got couldn’t do the subject justice.

And another thing: ditch the requirement of going to the Math Dept for a differential equations class. That class sucked. Again, pretty much inevitably. I’d say it was doomed from the get-go, i.e., failure was ensured by the choice of topics and level of coverage. (All I remember from that semester was the professor’s claim that the Laplace transform takes you into a world where everything is yellow. I still don’t know what that means. Everything I was supposed to learn in that class, I picked up elsewhere and elsewhen.) A much better alternative would be an in-house class on mathematical methods. It’d slot neatly into the same place in the curriculum, even. And there are good books to teach out of! Also, for the love of Gauss, don’t rely on Matlab. Real programming languages exist and are at least as easy to introduce. If you’re going to be gung-ho about Technologically Enhancing the Active Learning in your classrooms, you might as well teach some skills which physicists could actually use.

(Said in a tone of voice suggesting that one might eventually have dinosaurs on one’s dinosaur tour.)

Multiscale Structure via Information Theory

We have scienced:

B. Allen, B. C. Stacey and Y. Bar-Yam, “An Information-Theoretic Formalism for Multiscale Structure in Complex Systems” [arXiv:1409.4708].

We develop a general formalism for representing and understanding structure in complex systems. In our view, structure is the totality of relationships among a system’s components, and these relationships can be quantified using information theory. In the interest of flexibility we allow information to be quantified using any function, including Shannon entropy and Kolmogorov complexity, that satisfies certain fundamental axioms. Using these axioms, we formalize the notion of a dependency among components, and show how a system’s structure is revealed in the amount of information assigned to each dependency. We explore quantitative indices that summarize system structure, providing a new formal basis for the complexity profile and introducing a new index, the “marginal utility of information”. Using simple examples, we show how these indices capture intuitive ideas about structure in a quantitative way. Our formalism also sheds light on a longstanding mystery: that the mutual information of three or more variables can be negative. We discuss applications to complex networks, gene regulation, the kinetic theory of fluids and multiscale cybernetic thermodynamics.

There’s much more to do, but for the moment, let this indicate my mood:

"no matter how gifted, you alone cannot change the world"