Einstein's Intuition, by Thad Roberts. is one of the most amazing books I have read in a long time. I saw Thad giving a TED talk about visualizing nature in more than the four dimensions we normally experience, and then before it was even over I started trying to track down this book. 

I have always assumed that there are more dimensions than the three spatial and one time dimension we humans are familiar with. The biggest objection to this assumption is usually: "if they exist, why don't we see them?" As far as I'm concerned the answer is because perceiving them doesn't contribute to our survival, therefore there is no evolutionary advantage to perceiving them. More typical answers from the scientific community are along the lines of "they are very small" or "they are rolled up." 

When I read "A Brief History of Time" as a child, I became fascinated with cosmology and quantum mechanics. One of the key ideas of quantum mechanics is that we can't know where a particle is or where it is going. To represent them quantum mechanics uses a "wave function" which is essentially a probability wave that gives you the probability that the particle will be in a certain location at a certain time. As a child I thought this was unbelievably cool, but as I grew and I thought more about it I started to have trouble with the interpretation of this concept. The typical interpretation of quantum mechanics is that the particle is not actually in any one location until we measure it, at which point the wave function collapses and the particle solidifies to a specific location. This has two rather disturbing implications. The first is that we humans somehow control the universe by the act of observing it, (this idea is explored in the fantastic fiction book by Greg Egan "Quarantine.") In my opinion this idea is the height of hubris, giving humans near magical powers to change the universe with our minds. The second implication is that the universe is stochastic, meaning that it is essentially random - we can predict probabilities but it is impossible to predict anything for certain.

Over the years I had convinced myself that the wave function was in fact a probability wave, and that we humans just couldn't know for sure where particles are going to be because of the limits of our minds and our technology. I thought it was crazy for scientists to actually think that the universe is random, that "god plays dice with the universe" to paraphrase Einstein. In my mind, that thought contradicts the whole basis of science. I believe that if one had complete knowledge of the universe, of every single particle's position and energy at any given point in time, one would be able to know exactly where every particle would be at any point in the future. The problem with this is that to model the entire universe one would need a computer that is far bigger than the entire universe, the easiest way to model the universe would be with an exact copy of the universe, which is obviously rather impractical. 

The part of Thad's TED talk that grabbed me in was when he showed a simulation of what it would be like to be a two-dimensional being. He showed a line that had colors of different sizes flashing on it in different areas for different amounts of time. There was no discernible pattern. Then he widened the perspective by a dimension, showing that the line was in fact a line cut from a video of a pool table with balls bouncing around it. When we add the extra dimension in it is easy to find the patterns, from the two dimensional point of view it looks like splotches of color are just popping into and out of existence randomly - much in the way quantum mechanics models particles.

Mr. Roberts apparently has the same issues with quantum mechanics that I do, and he proposes a theory which pretty much offers a simple and intuitive explanation for not only quantum mechanics, but the nature of space time and even the four fundamental forces of physics. While there is really no way to prove or disprove his theory yet, I greatly admire his audacity at thinking outside the box and challenging ideas that are widely accepted even though they don't really make that much sense. His theory is that space is quantum - that spacetime, rather than being an unbroken continuum of empty space, is in fact composed of what he calls "quanta" - discrete, tiny units. When an object moves in space it moves from one quanta to another. This implies that nature is in fact, eleven dimensional - we have the four dimensions we normally experience, plus three additional spatial dimensions and one time dimension in which the quanta exist, and three more dimensions with the quanta. 

The genius of Roberts' theory is that it offers a single, unified, intuitive explanation for many physics issues. For example, the four fundamental forces - gravity, nuclear weak, nuclear strong, and electromagnetic - can now be reduced to a single phenomen of vortexes in the quanta. The Planck constants become measurements of the size of the quanta. Time becomes an attribute of the quanta. Why the speed of light is a universal constant is also explained. Quantum tunneling is just particles jumping from one quanta to another through empty spaces in between them, rather than particles vanishing and reappearing somewhere else for no obvious reason.

At it's base, this theory is a variation of Bohmian mechanics or pilot-wave theory, which is a deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics which uses hidden variables - variables we are not aware of. Adherents of the traditional stochastic Copenhagen interpretation have written proofs that these hidden variables can not exist. While I have not read any of these, the fact that someone can even try to prove that something we don't know about does not exist seems to me to be the height of insanity. Quantum mechanics is often touted as the most successful theory in the history of physics. It is very successful at predicting probabilities, so if you accept that the universe is random that may be true. If however, you believe that things happen for a reason (on a subatomic level) and that those reasons can be understood, the theory becomes a heuristic for predicting what could happen, without really understanding what actually is happening. 

Mr. Roberts shares my deep skepticism about received truths. This basically means that nothing you are told or you hear should be accepted as true until you understand the reasoning and/or facts behind it. This book questions the "why" behind much of current physics theory, and realizes that much of it doesn't make sense, so he comes up with another theory that does make sense. While Thad gives no real direct evidence to support his quantum space theory, he does provide a great deal of circumstantial evidence, and he has obviously thought all of it through very carefully (I should note that I am not sure that direct evidence is really possible given our current technology.) However, the fact that he is willing to abandon all of the things that are generally accepted as being true and to think outside the box is just amazing to me. There is nothing I love more than a completely new way of looking at things, and this book definitely provides that

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Book: This Changes Everything

Wednesday 17 May 2017

This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein, is a book about climate change, and specifically how having a habitable planet is directly at odds with the fundamental tenets of capitalism.

Capitalism is like a shark - it needs to keep moving forward or it dies. Except for capitalism moving forward means constant growth. If there is a year where the economy does not grow it is usually cause for panic. This is kind of a crazy concept to begin with - if there was a company that made the absolute best widgets in the world, and it made a billion dollars a year every year selling these widgets - it would still go out of business because it is not growing. I have thought much about why this is and my best guess is that it has to do with the stock market. Back in the old days most stocks paid dividends and when you bought a stock you were buying the future earning stream of dividends from that stock. This gave an easy and accurate way to price stocks - the present value of the dividends over however long you planned to keep the stock. However speculation has radically changed that. Most people today do not buy stock for the future dividends, they buy it because they hope the price will go up and they can sell if to someone else for more money. The reason the stock price would go up is if the company increases its earnings in the future and pays more dividends. The end result of this is that most stock trading these days is basically speculation - or gambling - that the price of the stock will go up. If the price will not go up there is no reason to buy it, most stocks don't pay even close to enough in dividends to justify their prices. 

But I digress, the point was that capitalism requires infinite growth. This is why companies would rather make poor quality products that will fall apart in a few years than make good quality long-lasting products. They want their customers to have to keep buying new ones, and who cares about all of the raw materials that are used to produce them, and all of the waste generated by people throwing away disposable crap. An example from the book is oil companies, who generally want to have unused oil reserves equal to the amount they are currently extracting. If they don't, it means that they are using up their oil and will eventually run out. This thought process assumes that there is an infinite supply of oil in the ground, and if they can just keep finding it it will never run out. Of course, this assumption is at odds with the fundamental nature of the universe.

This cartoon pretty well sums up my thoughts about people who are against environmental reforms. The most common argument these days seems to be that human carbon dioxide emissions are not the cause of climate change, or don't contribute to it in a meaningful way, so we should go ahead and pollute as much as possible. While to me the thought processes that lead to this conclusion are completely insane, one should never underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance. If someone makes money for something, no matter how horrible it is, they will find a way to convince themselves that it is good, or at least tolerable. No one thinks they are evil, the really evil people think everyone else is evil.

The most common argument for continued use of fossil fuels is that the short term economic benefit outweighs the long term harm to the planet. In an economy like ours, based on massive overconsumption, anything that threatens to reduce consumption is anathema. In today's political climate, where most of the power belongs to huge multinational corporations who would be directly effected by any reduction in consumption, such thoughts are unthinkable to any politican who wants to continue to get the corporate money that funds American politics. 

Fossil fuels are very similiar to addictive drugs like heroin. They may be ruining your life and leading to your eventual death, but the quick fix is still preferable to having to go through withdrawal and detox. And now that they have medication to counteract the main side effect of prescription opiates - constipation - you can just add another pill and continue to be addicted. If that pill gives you more side effects at some point someone will invent another pill for those side effects. So instead of solving the problem you just slapping bandaids on it. Getting off of fossil fuels won't be easy, it will be extremely painful and uncomfortable for a while, but in the end it will allow the world to survive and be a better place. 

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Book: The Botany of Desire

Sunday 07 May 2017

I have read and enjoyed a couple other books by Michael Pollan, but was not expecting this one to be as enjoyable as it was. Humans tend to see ourselves as separate from nature, and mostly above nature. This book puts a little spin on that point of view by describing things from the perspective of plants. The book focuses on four plants: apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes - and describes how those plants have taken advantage of human beings to further their own self-interest.

The biggest surprise for me in reading this book was the chapter about apples. It turns out that naturally apples are quite different from the apples we eat. They are small and apparently don't taste very good. It turns out that most farmed apples are grafts of a very small number of trees. This means that when a tree naturally occurs which has palatable fruit, the tree is essentially cloned. So out of all the millions of apple trees in the world there are really only a handful of genetically distinct trees.

Apple trees are not native to North America and were brought over by European settlers. Back then apples were mainly used to make alcoholic apple cider as they didn't taste good or sweet enough to be eaten off the tree. Apple trees were not adapted to survival in North America, but as the seeds were spread around by settlers they quickly evolved to be able to survive. This was aided by people like John Chapman, better known in the US as Johnny Appleseed, who seeded apple orchards in various areas as the European settlers spread west through North America, and who serves as the thread tying the chapter together.

While humans tend to think that we control everything, in fact humans and plants coevolve, as every chapter in the book explains. Potatoes originate from South America and their spread to Europe enabled humans to multiply far beyond the restrictions of the grains which served as the primary source of calories for Europeans before the potato was introduced. Apparently there was a backlash against the potato in places like Ireland, where it allowed families to grow enough food to feed themselves and not have to participate in the economy to make money to buy food to feed themselves. It also allowed the population to grow rapidly, but since there was basically a monoculture of potatoes, when a disease arose which infected that one species of potato that predominated, it caused the potato famine which affected millions of Irish.

The potato chapter is largely about a new GMO potato which produces its own pesticide. While reading this chapter my views on GMO swung from one extreme to the other. At first I thought GMOs were not safe, but after reading about how much pesticides and herbicides potato farmers must spray onto non-GMA potatos (enough that they won't even eat their own potatoes) I started to think maybe it wasn't such a bad thing. In the end, Pollan neither eats his own garden-grown GMO potatoes nor does he feed them to anyone else, not wanting to take the chance of exposing them to unknown risks.

This was a delightful and very interesting book, and I highly recommend it.


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Who Stole the American Dream, by Hedrick Smith, is about exactly what you would expect. It explains how and why the wealth in the United States has become so concentrated in the hands of the few. Back in the 1950s and 60s, in what is considered by many to be the height of American prosperity, corporations would act for the benefit of all their stakeholders - their employees, their consumers, society in general. At some point the focus shifted to be on maximizing shareholder value - which means trying to maximize stock price at the expense of everything else. 

The idea of maximizing shareholder value was promoted by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics, and like most of their ideas, is a lot better in theory than in practice. The stock market today focuses only on the most recent news and earnings and will punish a small drop in earnings dramatically. This leads corporations to try to maximize their quarterly earnings and ignore any long term considerations. The fact that CEOs get a large portion of their compensation as stock options only increases the incentive for management to focus exclusively on the short term. In the past corporations would regard their employees as long-term assets, and would provide pensions and job security. Today they are more likely to hire the least expensive employees they can find, often in third world countries, and they will offer 401(k)s which require the employees to fund their own retirements. So the working class loses their jobs to offshoring and who benefits? The CEOs who receive massive compensation packages - and the stockholders, who tend to be wealthy individuals.

The book covers a lot of different issues, far too many for me to recount here. The rise of the 401(k) is just one example of how the government has been corrupted by the corporations and the super-rich. Starting in the 1970s, corporations started to take more of an interest in politics, and that influence has grown steadily since. First loopholes in campaign finance laws were used for the wealthy to buy influence with politicians, and then Citizens United basically blew the doors wide open for the wealthy to control the government. 

Thomas Picketty, a French economist, wrote a book about why wealth inequality keeps growing, and it basically boils down to one simple equation: r > g, which means that the return on capital is greater than economic growth. What this means is that those who have money and invest it will make more return on their income (r) than those who works for a living and are dependent on rising wages for greater income. This depends on economic growth (g). This will inevitably lead to wealth concentration, as those who have money can invest it and make more money, while the incomes of those who work for a living are tied to economic growth. 

The book was very comprehensive in addressing the numerous economic and political aspects of this issue. It covers so many different topics one could almost say it was a bit rambling at times. However it was well written enough that the flood of information was never overwhelming. I highly recommend it.

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Book: The Divide

Saturday 01 April 2017

I picked up The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, by Matt Taibbi because I was looking for another book of his, Griftopia, but I couldn't find it in English here in Switzerland. The book was about how income inequality is tied to inequality in the American justice system - specifically how the poor are jailed in huge numbers for ridiculously silly things, while the rich can literally steal billions of dollars and only get a slap on the wrist. 

This is a subject with which I am intimately familiar, so there wasn't really anything new to me in this book. However, Taibbi really points out just how unjust the justice system is with detailed examples of how different types of people are treated completely differently. At one end of the spectrum in welfare fraud, which is aggressively prosecuted by states, and often incorrectly prosecuted. The welfare system is a vast bureaucracy where people are often charged with fraud where none exists - and without money to hire lawyers the defendants have absolutely no chance to beat the cases. So a poor single mother can be charged with fraud for basically any or no reason, and if she can't pay the money the state asks of her she risks facing felony fraud charges and jail time.

An example on the other end of the spectrum is HSBC, a massive multinational bank which was accused of working with drug cartels and terrorists to launder billions of dollars. In a deal typical of these types of white collar crimes, HSBC paid a fine of $1.9 bn, and faced no criminal charges. The US government felt that HSBC was "too big to fail" and feared that filing criminal charges could crash the world banking system. 

Personally, I don't think it makes sense for corporations to face criminal charges. Despite what the Supreme Court says, a corporation is not a person and can't make it's own decisions to engage in criminal behavior. An actual person had to make those decisions, and they should face the criminal charges. However no one at HSBC was charged with any crimes, nor were any of the banks whose actions led to the 2008 crisis charged with any crimes. The only bank charged with crimes related to the sub-prime mortgage crisis was a small bank in Chinatown, NY - which had no issues with subprime mortgages and thus no relation to the crisis, but which was scapegoated so that the government could say that they had prosecuted at least one bank.

American schools teach the propaganda that the US is a class-less society, where by hard-work and grit anyone can become rich. While this is a completely false statement - the US ranks near the bottom of developed countries as far as social mobility, it is perhaps considered a little white lie, encouraging people to work hard. The damage comes from the fact that this belief implies that if someone is not wealthy it is because they are lazy or unintelligent. So anyone who needs any kind of financial assistance is a priori assumed to be deficient in some manner. On the other hand someone who has money is considered to be superior, regardless of the facts or circumstances which led to them having the money. While there are some notable examples, such as Bernie Madoff, there are numerous other cases of wealthy hedge fund managers basically raping and pillaging the lower classes for a few extra bucks who are never even charged with a crime.

According to John Erlichman, who was an advisor to President Nixon, Nixon's motivation for launching the "war on drugs" was to politically target two groups of people who he disliked - the blacks and the anti-war movement. He couldn't overtly target those groups, so he instead decided to criminalize and focus on two drugs he felt were associated with those groups - heroin and marijuana, respectively. This has led directly to the huge incarceration rates in the US. The fact that different types of crimes are treated so differently is basically a continuation of this policy, except now anyone who is not a corporation and not fantastically wealthy is being targeted, with the crimes associated with poorer people being treated far more harshly than others. In this case, it is not a personal vendetta that is driving the laws, but the vast political influence the wealthy and corporations have over the government. 

Labels: books, politics
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