# A Peculiar, Recurring Challenge

Not infrequently, crackpot physics papers attain a level of wrongness where trying to point to specific mistakes is useless, and a critique of the specifics collapses down to “just take a physics class” — true, but unhelpful to the curious bystander. The physicist, trying to say anything substantive, ends up picking out psychological “tells”, like the suspiciously convenient mention of too many famous big problems all in a row. There are no solid particulars of physics to discuss, so we end up talking psychology and sociology. I find the psychological questions that arise quite fascinating. Why, for example, is the population of pseudophysics perpetrators so heavily skewed to the male? But, in general, it is difficult to take physics and mathematics crankery and find interesting comments to say about it. All these years later, and the circle still refuses to square.

I’m reminded of self-proclaimed mega-genius Christopher Langan, whose “Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe” mixed incoherence, impenetrability and arrogance. As one of my fellow science bloggers put it back in the day:

I have no idea what he means by “replacing set-theoretic objects with syntactic operators” – but I do know that what he wrote makes no sense – it’s sort of like saying “I’m going to fix the sink in my bathroom by replacing the leaky washer with the color blue”, or “I’m going to fly to the moon by correctly spelling my left leg.”

My personal favorite might be the parenthetical clarification, “conspansion consists of two alternative phases accounting for the wave and particle properties of matter and affording a logical explanation for accelerating cosmic expansion”. Words words words words, words words!

A kind of “security by obscurity” sometimes operates in cases like these, where the total lack of solid material to criticize leads to indifference and silence from established scientists. This “why bother?” response then becomes fodder for the pseudophysicist to claim that the academy is too stuffy to understand his work, or even actively censoring it. The truth is less dramatic, though not without its own interest to old-fashioned students of human nature.

# (Ahem)

You may already have seen the news about publishers suing the Internet Archive.

As a scientist and teacher, I will not write or peer-review for any journal from these publishers, nor will I use their books in my classroom, because their emotionally immature stunt risks the collective memory of the Internet.

Whether or not the “National Emergency Library” is ultimately a reasonable idea, there are good ways and bad ways to approach the issue, and Hachette, HarperCollins, Wiley and Penguin Random House have chosen a bad one. For two decades, scholars have been asking, “What value do publishers actually add?” Answers vary, but a bitter “not bloody much” is prominent among them. Undermining our social and technical infrastructure in a time of global crisis only gives that view more weight.

# Underappreciated

Some time ago, I had one of those odd little thoughts that could be the spark of an essay. But in this particular case, the point I wanted to make felt like it could be made most clearly by demonstration, rather than explication. So, I wrote a concise report on “An Underappreciated Exchange in the Bohr–Einstein Debate.” Judging by the modest splash of positive e-mail that I received after posting it, I think I layered the whimsy and the serious point adequately well.

# Fragmentary

on the surface, it’s hip and winking nostalgia, but on the inside, it’s a sincere, desperately passionate, gut-level urge to affirm that our childhood had value

in the ache of this impossible, inescapable present

— where — in — the — world — is —

today, we are making gourmet

the only training I’ve had for this situation was writing a science fiction novel

# The Adventure of the Scandalous Cauliflower

(very John Oliver voice) Good evening. Tonight’s top story: Web scraping. That’s when someone uses an automated tool to download, typically, large amounts of information from the Web and save it on their own computer for their own purposes. Now, there are situations where this is undoubtedly for the general good, like saving climate data so that it can’t be made to vanish with an act of government whimsy. But when personal information enters the picture, the ethical considerations can change, and there can be times when “it was available to the public!” becomes little more reassuring than, “Yes, I am following you while I happen to be carrying this camera, but you were walking outside, so you have to be OK with being seen, oh, and is this your regular bus stop?”.

Just a few days ago, the New York Times ran a provocative and alarming piece you have quite possibly already seen, titled “The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It” — oh, you’ve read it? Thanks for telling us, but don’t worry, Mark Zuckerberg already knows. Basically, the M.O. of Clearview AI was to scrape pictures from, as the Times says, “Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites,” and then use the resulting massive database to fuel the wet dreams of petty aspiring autocrats everywhere.

Now, as with so many of the depressing and horrifying developments of modern life, there is a level on which this feels absolutely unsurprising. Just another way in which the utopian promise of the Internet [stock art of Tron appears over shoulder] was betrayed and perverted into something irredeemably toxic by some guy out to make a quick buck. Back in 1990, when (now Sir) Tim Berners-Lee created the first ever website at CERN, the physics laboratory that now hosts the Large Hadron Collider, surely this disaster was not what he had in mind. Even today, surely we can count on scientists to rise above the venal impulses of the money-grubbers, hold themselves to the highest ethical standards in the pursuit of truth, act with discretion to the communities that their research affects and I’m just fucking with you. Scientists are people. Sometimes greedy, often fallible. And the process of correcting an error, even one due to simple carelessness, can be remarkably painful for all concerned.

I have been involved in writing an open letter in response to what I myself like to call “The Adventure of the Scandalous Cauliflower.” That open letter is available here in PDF and basic HTML. I was not the first person to call attention to this matter, nor perhaps even the loudest, but I like formatting academic documents, so the organizing somewhat fell to me by default. As typically happens in cases where an open letter gets written, everyone involved has their own opinions that may stretch beyond its margins, and I’m sure that I have my own takes (or at least choices of emphasis) that would not be co-signed by all of the letter’s signatories. This blog post is, beyond providing a pointer to the open letter, my attempt to underline that my idiosyncrasies should not be attributed to anybody else unless they have expressly indicated that they share those particular takes of mine.

The very short version is that a group of researchers at the University of Milan hoovered up a large quantity of social-media data without informing any of the communities they were studying, violated the Terms of Service of a community in that set explicitly devoted to scholars and academics, and thanks to a truly impressive feat of analyzing without thinking, concluded that the topic of cauliflower is a serious transgression of their subjects’ social norms.

This is how the letter begins:

We are writing to raise grave concerns regarding the ethics and methodology of “Mastodon Content Warnings: Inappropriate Contents in a Microblogging Platform,” by Matteo Zignani et al. of the University of Milan. The issues with this paper are sufficiently severe that the paper’s dataset has been removed from Harvard’s Dataverse repository. This open letter will explain the background of this removal and urge further action on the part of the paper’s authors, the University of Milan, and the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), who have published the paper in their conference proceedings. As we detail below, the data analysed in this paper was not collected ethically, failing to take even simple steps to anonymize the data released with the paper, and fundamental errors of methodology make its results irrelevant.

Mastodon is a decentralized, community-operated microblogging platform created in early 2016 by Eugen Rochko and is based on open protocols that allow people to communicate across different servers. Anyone who wishes to create a Mastodon server, or instance, can do so by downloading and installing the Mastodon software. Users who register accounts at an instance can then share social-media posts with other users on that instance as well as with other instances. The interconnection of different servers is known as federation.

Other things that could have ended up in the letter if I had been left to my own devices and if it weren’t already going to be fairly long:

• history of Mastodon’s “Content Warning” feature
• variability in CW practices and discontent caused thereby
• more details on the underlying ActivityPub protocol and its peculiarities
• the ongoing development of fediverse software that isn’t Mastodon
• the paper’s generally rushed, “we need a thing for this conference” feel
• why it’s a good thing that professional codes of conduct can be a less blunt instrument than the law
• the ambiguities fostered when the same software can be used as a means of publication and of social interaction

In short: Lots of indefinitely deep rabbit holes, and opportunities to say “a balance must be struck between the need for X and for Y” — though now that I’ve typed that phrase, I have to wonder how much that mode of rhetoric fuels compulsive centrism. Moreover, these are topics where it would be harder to pull together a core of agreement. I mean, would 45 other fediversians sign on to anything I wrote myself on my own about all that?

One way in which I am perhaps peculiar among the signatories is that, though I started this blog post talking about web scraping, in order to be topical and all, that’s not really the background from which I approached the topic. Indeed, this incident seems significantly dis-analogous to many if not most of the times I can recall that web scraping has become a hot-button issue for one reason or another. We’re in the realm of (potential) research misconduct, of science being done badly, and how lapses in ethics cannot always be pried apart from flaws of methodology. I think that the oversimplified “responsible conduct in science” lessons that we get spoon-fed in school tend to create the impression that ethical issues are when the results of a study are reliable, but the study was conducted in an objectionable way. However, that separation is too clean. Why should a study conducted with a lack of care be taken as reliable?

So, I could instead have started this blog post by invoking my very John Oliver voice and intoning, “Our top story tonight: Ethics. Otherwise known as the reason why just because you could, that doesn’t mean you should.”

But even that doesn’t quite get at the core of the matter.

If, for example, you are doing a study of 363 different online communities, each running its own server, and you don’t have the resources to examine the Terms of Service for each of those 363 installations and see if what you’re doing is in accord with all of them, then how can you say that you have the resources to evaluate the data you gathered on them?

As strange as this may sound, I don’t actually like it when I come across as mean. Every day, I wish I could use the Internet as a device for being kind to people I’ve never met.

But if science is to be a thing we value, we must hold it to account. That can mean booting scientists from the National Academy for sexual harassment, or taking an uncomfortably hard look at what telescopes we think we “need” to build, or even a critical analysis of a scandalous cauliflower.

# On the Writing Process

The problem I typically have when writing about technical topics is trying to include everything and to answer objections that seem vitally important to me but which don’t make much sense unless you’ve heard the debates inside my head. Removing that stuff has by now become a standard part of my revision process. My colleagues point it out, I feel a little hurt, then I grudgingly agree, and in a week or so I re-read my work and I don’t get why I thought that extra stuff was so important in the first place.

I’ve also noticed that the parts of an argument that people object to are often the bits that I thought were almost incidental, or that exist mostly in their head — they want to keep having the argument they’ve been having before. Trying to foresee how this will play out is hard, and it always helps to have input on that.

I count myself lucky to work with people who care about this kind of thing. I wish I’d had more training in my early years of physicist school — some harried lab reports and a single term paper don’t add up to much, honestly, given how much of our professional output is the written word.

# My 2019 in Science

First, of course, there was the doubt and the pain.

Let’s talk about the papers I managed to get out the door and into public view. In retrospect, the list is pleasingly not insubstantial:

There was also From Gender to Gleason, my review of Adam Becker’s book What is Real? (2018). By the time I was done, it was as lengthy as a paper, but the arXiv isn’t really a host for book reviews, so I just posted it here at Sunclipse and moved on.

# Predator/prey or Perish

Looking at academic publishing from the perspective of Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism is an interesting experience.

Consider, for example, the term predatory publisher for shady outfits that will accept anything for the right fee and put it on a website that calls itself a “journal”. Scummy behavior, right? But is it really “predatory”? What fraction, exactly, of their customers are being conned, and how many are walking into the deal with their eyes wide open? A used-car salesman might be a sleaze, but if you’re going to his dealership to pay cash for a getaway car, the relationship is more of a symbiosis.

I’m sure it’s convenient for the legacy institutions to present the situation as saintly scholars being exploited by deceptive newcomers. [cough]

Suppose the Web came to be, but there never were any respectable Open Access journals. No “Open Letter to Scientific Publishers” in 2001, so no Public Library of Science; no Budapest Initiative in 2002 or Berlin Declaration in 2003. Would the morass of “predatory” OA really look all that different? Perhaps not. Websites are cheap, calling yourself a journal is easy, and as we just noted, there’s a ready market.

But without the cover of PLOS and the like, would “predatory” OA have a veneer of respectability to offer its customers? Well, consider that paying to attend conferences is a thing that academia finds universally respectable. So, a “predator” could do what outfits like WASET do now: offer “conferences” with no standards, no dedicated space, perhaps not even a physical event. And if you’ve got a paper, great! For only a modest additional fee, it can go in the conference proceedings, which will conveniently be available online.

Quality is always the hard course of action. Legitimate OA journals were optional; only the pay-to-play racket was inevitable.

# As We Would Not Actually think

There’s an aspect of Vannevar Bush’s “memex” that, I think, would still be difficult to achieve with current software, and that is its intensely personal character. The memex that his 1945 essay “As We May Think” imagined was to be “an enlarged intimate supplement to [the user’s] memory.”

A modern analogue would have to be something like a personal wiki, hybridized with a social-media platform. Every post you make is intended to be retrievable: cross-indexed, hyperlinked. Like, if every time you posted to your Mastodon instance, it was also added as a page to your own MediaWiki setup. And you could share pages from your MediaWiki with just a few clicks, sending any set of them you wish to another Mastodon user. Instead of just sharing a news story, you could pull up every news story you ever shared, along with whatever comments you made about them, and all the ways that you had decided to tag them.

It’s not beyond what software can do, but we don’t generally seem to have worked toward what Vannevar Bush had in mind. There wasn’t supposed to be just one Memex for everybody.

The bits and pieces are present, but there hasn’t been the drive to put them together in a way that makes the package readily usable. We have software for sharing personal records and observations (social media), and we have platforms for making association trails (e.g., Wikipedia, TV Tropes, etc.). But the Memex that VB envisioned was an individual possession that facilitated social exchanges. In slogan form: The memex was like building your own Wikipedia, with adjustable privacy settings, one blog or microblog post at a time.

# Giving “Natural Theology” and “intelligent Design” the Respect They Deserve

“Imagine you’re in a desert and you find a pocketwatch.”

“Hey, free pocketwatch!”

“Um, no. You—”

“Oh, right, I know this one. I flip the pocketwatch over so its belly is not baking in the hot sun.”

# A Good Old-School Skeptic Rant

Today’s discovery:

The online store of Marie “does it spark joy” Kondo is the new SkyMall catalogue.

The $60 “French Market” totebag looks flammable, so if you do strike sparks, you might have to douse the flames with water from the Balance Gem Water Bottle ($98).

And $156 for a “small cheese knife”? That, my friends, is going beyond SkyMall. We can’t stop here — this is Williams-Sonoma country. And, of course, there’s the section of the shop devoted to — ting ting! — crystals. A tuning fork and a lump of rose quartz,$75 if you please.

Goddamn pseudoscientific “healing energy” crap for wine moms. Not only does it leech the respectability of science, but by aiming for that suburban market, it loses any chance of emotional depth. Nobody actually feels meaning or satisfaction from a SkyMall chakra stone, because of course they don’t. It just sits there. It does a worse job of just sitting there than a potted plant. The best you can do is try to convince yourself otherwise so you don’t admit you blew $75 feeding an exploitative industry that you could have spent paying off schoolchildren’s lunch debt or helping someone make the rent. As long as you’re trading in bunkum, why not up your game and sell something with real weight and history to it? You want some serious Goop? How about a kit for performing some fucking divination by entrails. Can’t find Mr. Right? Learn the secrets of the heart by going through the liver. # On Being a Quantum Physicist in Autumn 2019 (a friendly warning for police violence, transphobia and philosophy of physics) The way I see it, the two big Why? questions about quantum mechanics are, first, why do we use the particular mathematical apparatus of quantum theory, as opposed to any alternative we might imagine? And second, why do we only find it necessary to work with the full perplexities of quantum physics some of the time? These two questions are related. In order to understand how imprecise measurements might wash out quantum weirdness, we need to characterize which features of quantum theory really are fundamentally weird. And this, in turn, requires separating deep principles from convenient conventions and illuminating the true core of the physics. My own research has focused on the first question, but the second is never too far from my mind. Of course, I have a lot on my mind these days, but I don’t think I’m special in that regard. If you ask me, a “quantum system” can be any part of nature that is subject to an agent’s inquiry. A “quantum measurement” is, in principle, any action that an agent takes upon a quantum system. The road between Boston’s City Hall and the Holocaust Memorial is a quantum system. When the police use their bicycles as battering rams against queer kids and street medics, running towards the trouble is a quantum measurement. Being threatened with pepper spray, while secoondhand exposure already stings the eye and throat, one human thrown to the pavement in the intersection in front of you while another arrest happens on the sidewalk just behind you, is an outcome of that measurement. Unsurprisingly, textbooks provide little guidance on casting that event into the algebraic formalism of density matrices, and in the moment, other types of expertise are more immediately useful. I first encountered quantum physics in a serious way during the spring of my second year at university — 2003, that would have been. I did not particularly care about the conceptual or philosophical “foundations” of it until the summer of 2010. The interval in between encompassed six semesters of quantum mechanics and subjects dependent upon it, along with my first attempts to find a research problem in the area. Once my curiosity had been provoked, it took the better part of a year to find an “interpretation” of quantum mechanics that was at all satisfying, and longer than that to make the transition from “this is how a member of that school would answer that question” to “this is what I declare myself”. Part of that transition was my discovery that I could put my own stamp on the ideas: The concepts and the history provoked new mathematical questions, which I could approach with a background that nobody else had. The interpretation I adopted was the QBism of Chris Fuchs and Rüdiger Schack, later joined by N. David Mermin. QBism is an interpretation of quantum mechanics in which the ideas of agent and experience are fundamental. A “quantum measurement” is an act that an agent performs on the external world. A “quantum state” is an agent’s encoding of her own personal expectations for what she might experience as a consequence of her actions. Moreover, each measurement outcome is a personal event, an experience specific to the agent who incites it. Subjective judgments thus comprise much of the quantum machinery, but the formalism of the theory establishes the standard to which agents should strive to hold their expectations, and that standard for the relations among beliefs is as objective as any other physical theory. That’s how we put it in the FAQ. Any physicist who is weird enough to endorse an interpretation of quantum mechanics will naturally get inquiries about it. Many of these, we get often enough that we try to compile good answers together into a nicely portable package — with the proviso that the quantum is a project, and some answers are not final because if physics were easy, we’d be done by now. There’s a question which seems particularly suited to answering in the blog format, though: “Why don’t you believe in the Many Worlds Interpretation?” Continue reading On Being a Quantum Physicist in Autumn 2019 # Recollection Mathematics was always my worst subject at school, right up until I went to college. I’ve heard a similar story from other physicists. I don’t know how useful my speculation about it will be to anybody else, but I think this is the reason why. The kind of mistake I was prone to making, and the flaws in the way mathematics was taught, meshed perfectly. Carelessness cost more in math than in anything else, on the whole. If I was writing a history essay and I happened to swap Elba and St. Helena, I might only get docked a couple points out of a hundred, or perhaps none at all if the teacher had too many papers to grade. But if I wandered away from my pre-algebra homework, and upon my return my garishly awful handwriting had turned absolute-value bars into ordinary parentheses, my calculations would be completely off from that point onward. Nor did any of my teachers pick up on my problem — “Blake, you’ve got to be more careful!” — which makes me suspect that they weren’t much better at identifying what went wrong for other students, either. In history and to a large extent in science, I was able to get by all through middle and high school with what I had learned out of books and documentaries on my own. (I was extraordinarily lucky to have a family that already had plenty of books around, and the means and the sense to provide me with more as I packed their contents into my brains.) I don’t think I had to learn anything in school that came across as wholly new. Everything was at most an elaboration of a topic I had already seen, something I’d grasped from a Larry Gonick cartoon guide, let’s say, done up with a few more details that might just have been included for the sake of having homework problems to assign. Algebra and geometry and trig and calculus, though, came closer to asking for a genuine production on my part. Techniques of checking one’s work, which might have helped me to become a bit more generally competent, were either not taught or not motivated. “Plug your value of$x\$ back in and check” might have been the last step of a few algebra exercises, but only because it was part of the rubric, devised to add another thing that could be graded.

The weird thing is that I had a sense of the importance of the mathematics, of the motivation for it. I knew why Kepler had cared about sines and cosines — to hear the music of the spheres, to turn comets from signs of dread into those of wonder. Exponentials tracked the explosion of populations and the decay of radioisotopes, each ominous in its own way. The subject offered wonders of pure thought and marvels of application. At the time, schoolwork merely seemed disconnected from those treasures which I saw in secondhand outline. Now, in retrospect, it appears almost a parody of them.

# Concerning Wigner’s Former Roommate

I attended a workshop on the mini-genre of Extended Wigner’s Friend “paradoxes” but did not think that I’d write much on the topic myself. And, indeed, the comment I eventually produced is mostly bibliography.

B. C. Stacey, “On QBism and Assumption (Q)” [arXiv:1907.03805].

I correct two misapprehensions, one historical and one conceptual, in the recent literature on extensions of the Wigner’s Friend thought-experiment. Perhaps fittingly, both concern the accurate description of some quantum physicists’ beliefs by others.

Also available via SciRate.

# On Reconstructing the Quantum

It’s manifesto time! “Quantum Theory as Symmetry Broken by Vitality” [arXiv:1907.02432].

I summarize a research program that aims to reconstruct quantum theory from a fundamental physical principle that, while a quantum system has no intrinsic hidden variables, it can be understood using a reference measurement. This program reduces the physical question of why the quantum formalism is empirically successful to the mathematical question of why complete sets of equiangular lines appear to exist in complex vector spaces when they do not exist in real ones. My primary goal is to clarify motivations, rather than to present a closed book of numbered theorems, and consequently the discussion is more in the manner of a colloquium than a PRL.

Also available via SciRate.

# New Paper Dance

Another solo-author outing by me: “Invariant Off-Diagonality: SICs as Equicoherent Quantum States” [arXiv:1906.05637].

Coherence, treated as a resource in quantum information theory, is a basis-dependent quantity. Looking for states that have constant coherence under canonical changes of basis yields highly symmetric structures in state space. For the case of a qubit, we find an easy construction of qubit SICs (Symmetric Informationally Complete POVMs). SICs in dimension 3 and 8 are also shown to be equicoherent.

Also available via SciRate.