07 December 2017

Panglossian Wonderland

It's quite maddening to watch as politicians do an obviously bad job of Brexit and then give Panglossian self-reviews to the media. We are required to believe that current disaster is the best possible outcome in the best of worlds.

It's as though we've gone down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Up is down and sense is nonsense.

But this theme of of disaster being spun as a great victory is nothing new. Remember the Alamo? The Alamo was a failed attempt to withstand a siege. All the US soldiers died. The Charge of the Light Brigade? A suicidal cavalry charge at artillery. Everyone died. The more suicidal some mission is, the easier it is to sell failure as success.

While the news is focussed on the Brexit disaster something weird is going on.

Here in the UK the government tops up earnings for almost every working person in some way. And meanwhile the top 1% of the wealthy are squirrelling more and more wealth away in tax havens.

The government subsidises low wages so that wealthy shareholders can take an ever greater slice of the profits of industry. In-work benefits don't benefit workers struggling on subsistence wages, they benefit employers who have no incentive to pay a living wage.

 Landlords are subsidised to charge rents much higher than most people can afford, because govt meets the difference. Business owners are subsidised to pay low wages, or offer zero-hours contracts knowing that govt will top them up with "benefits".

And this is called "Free Market Economics"? Pull the other one. This is market manipulation to favour the rich. It's welfare that is being targeted at the rich. It is one of the biggest confidence tricks in history.

The really creepy thing is that the turkeys are all voting for Christmas and attacking anyone who suggests they should support the turkeys instead of the farmers.

I'm reminded of Monty Python... "Terrific race the Romans, terrific".

Anyway there's some really fucking evil genius at work here.

30 November 2017


Corresponding with a colleague I summed up life's problems like this.

We're self-aware, which has many advantages. However, it has the disadvantage of making us acutely aware that life is short, precarious, and unjust.

Like all living things we have an imperative to persist. But self-awareness tells us the awful truth. We are going to die.

We need certain things to survive--shelter, food, companions, etc--but self-awareness informs us that getting these things is often beyond our control. Nature just does its thing regardless--floods, fires, hurricanes, predators, draughts, etc.

And finally evolution has prepared us for living in small communities where we know what everyone is doing and following the rules cements the social cohesion that makes the social life-style so successful. So self-awareness has given us the ability to create small scale just societies, or at least societies in which principles of justice can be applied. But it also tells us that nature doesn't follow our rules. And in large societies people are not bound to follow the rules in the same way, so some feel free to break them. And of course we die. Life, from a human point of view, is on balance not just or fair.

Now some of us by luck and hard work can become reasonably insulated from hardship or injustice. We have enough to eat, access to clean water, live in a safe neighbourhood, and have either natural protection from nature, or the ability to rapidly rebuild after a disaster. Some of us manage to make life much less precarious and much less unjust. Its not perfect, but some of us do pretty well.

But no one escapes death. Everyone, every living organism dies. Communities persist much longer, but even they eventually die. Death is the one thing that we cannot escape; and yet we have this cellular imperative to persist. All living things have this imperative to keep going. Life never simply gives up, it always dies trying.

If you want to understand human beings this is one angle that must be considered. We know, we cannot avoid known, that in the end life is short, precarious, and unjust.

What do all religious leaders and politicians promise us? They promise to deal with the easy problem: resources and justice. Work, fair pay, fair prices, decent housing. The whole idea of the market economy was that it would efficiently deliver these. That is made everything worse except for the very wealthy is because it was based on mythology rather than science.

And they promise to be tough on crime. They will keep us safe from threats domestic and foreign.

The only thing that religion offers that is different, is immortality. Religion tells us how to cheat death. And when lose faith in the organised religions, we latch on to the New Age versions of these myths (ironically largely recycled and remixed from organised religion).

Here's the thing though. It is possible to deliver security and justice, at least to some extent. Ok, we've been going in the wrong direction for a few decades because we were hijacked by an ideology, but that doesn't discredit the whole enterprise. It just tells us that strong government and intervention are required to address the precariousness and injustice of life.

What cannot be delivered by anyone anywhere is immortality. Priests of many varieties promise it to us, *after* we first die, but it is not possible. It won't happen. It cannot happen. We have to make our peace with this. But it is much harder it sounds. To really face your own death is horrifying for most people, especially when you're young. Though illness, especially mental illness, can make death seem welcome. For most people the imperative to persist is the strongest motivation they have. People survive concentration camps and all manner of deprivation or brutalisation. They hang onto life.

And to me, if there is only one life, then it is all the more precious. What I do with my life is all the more important. Yes, it is difficult, and sometimes I wish I was dead. But I'm usually sure I can hang on for one more day.

If I'm right about this, and I think its all fairly self-evident, then if I'm going to make a difference, the obvious place to apply my lever is the areas of the precariousness and injustice of life. That is, *helping people*. There are many ways to approach this. We all have different things that spark us off. Not everyone needs to be the Secretary General of the UN. For me being part of a community with a vision is important, because people working together are more effective than individuals. What I do can help make our collective more effective at addressing the problems that people have, even though my personal contribution might be quiet small and obscure, collectively we amount to more than the sum of our parts.

And of course sometimes we have to keep chipping away without much sense of progress or success. The 19 blows that weaken the rock, make it possible for the 20th blow to split it. Persistence is a great virtue.

I think most, if not all, of us know this stuff, at some level. We are all trying to make things better around us. We don't all have effective strategies and tactics, but we're trying (sometimes desperately). We all face the same existential problems. Nothing much has changed, in this sense, in thousands of years (millions even).

We don't need to love everyone or take on the sorrows of the world. All that grandiose rhetoric. We just need to do what we can to make life better for the people in our sphere of influence without making it worse for anyone in the process. If we all put the effort in locally, the global change will come.

23 November 2017

Müller’s daṇḍa

I seldom get to write comedy in my articles, but this line comes close:
"It is possible that Conze was influenced by Müller’s daṇḍa."
Of course I'll have to explain. The word daṇḍa means literally means "stick, rod". It is used figuratively to mean "beating, punishment". It's pronounced a bit like English "dunder" which from the 1620s was used in the (Germanic sounding) expression "dunderhead" ("a ponderously stupid person" according to the OED). The origin is obscure, but it might come from Dutch "donder" meaning "thunder". Both Müller and Conze were German by nationality, though Conze was in fact born in the UK (which enabled him to claim citizenship in 1933 when he fled from the Nazi's - he wasn't a Jew, but he was a communist).

Anyway, daṇḍa is also the name of a Devanāgarī punctuation mark, like this | And, as with all such things, there is always the Freudian connotation. So yeah, this is almost a dick-joke.

In 1884 Müller was working at Oxford University and he produced the very first Sanskrit Heart Sutra published outside Asia (only about 1000 years after the first Chinese printed books). Unfortunately, he inserted a daṇḍa where it should not have been. Conze (presumably following Müller) inserted a full-stop in his Roman script edition in 1948.

The result is that one sentence becomes two, but the second one is a fragment with no verb and no subject, just a string of adjectives hanging around causing trouble.

It would be unfair to refer to Conze as a dunderhead, after all, he spoke 14 languages, but the man was sloppy and often cut corners. He was a kind of intellectual cowboy (in the modern English, rather than the classic American sense). We really need to tear down everything he did and do it again properly this time. It puzzles me that he was ever revered, but he was and still is.

Of course the fact that the text everyone has translated from is garbled and incomprehensible at this point, has never stopped anyone from translating it as though it made perfect sense (though Red Pine slyly switches to translating the Chinese version at this point).

I am writing an article arguing for the removal of the extraneous full stop. In 2015, I made a killer argument for adding a dot over one of the letters, so this kind of balances things out. I get my laughs where I can.

06 November 2017


Modern life is weird. We have great new gadgets. Even my cheap phone takes amazing photographs, allows me to edit them, and then post them to a globe spanning computer network.

But I believe that we are also witnessing changes that will be extremely deleterious. One of the ancient principles of justice is that someone accused of a crime is presumed to be actually innocent until they are proven to be guilty in a court.

The burden of proof lies entirely on the prosecution (usually the state). They must show beyond any reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty. And they are innocent up to the point where a judge pronounces them guilty.

This principle is article 11 in the UN declaration of Universal Human Rights.

Of course if someone confesses to a crime, that is different. Confession, acknowledges the crime and invites punishment.

I believe that this principle is under serious threat, because accusations are being equated with guilt. This was in fact the post-Roman Germanic system. If twelve people all accused you of the same thing, then you were guilty, unless you could prove otherwise. 

On the other hand, presumption of innocence also presumes an impartial judiciary. And I think it is fair to say that the judiciary and police are not always impartial. They are, for example, often racist and sexist. To my mind this is part of the same problem, it undermines the presumption of innocence if accusations are not taken seriously.

We seem to be veering back to the presumption of guilt. It is tied to the practice of reporting crimes to the media rather than to the police. Of course if the police do not take reports of crimes seriously, it may be argued that they leave victims no choice. So there is blame on the police in this case also. Still we are increasingly seeing this strategy of using the leverage of the mass-media to bypass the judiciary and the presumption of innocence, and to attack people in the public eye.

It seems to me, based on media reports, that, say, Harvey Weinstein is guilty. It certainly *seems* that way. By the Germanic standard, more than 12 people have accused him of similar crimes. I find it hard to believe he is *not* guilty. And in fact Weinstein seems to have made a tacit admission that he has committed crimes of that nature. Where there is admission of guilt, then the presumption of innocence no longer applies.

I also think of Paul Gambaccini, an American living in the UK who gained prominence as a DJ. He is now a patron of the arts, a noted philanthropist, and a BBC radio presenter. Gambaccini was one of many men arrested for "historical sexual offences" during Operation Yewtree. He was suspended from his job while the accusations against him were investigated and became the subject of considerable media speculation. The police were themselves using the media to raise the profile of their work bringing pederasts to justice. Although Gambaccini was never charged with a criminal offence, he was under a cloud for a year, and unable to work during that time. He argued that the presumption of innocence did not seem to apply to him (he wrote a book and is suing the police).

In the case of historical offences that were either not reported at the time, or where reports were ignored, there is a deficit of justice. Clearly there is a huge backlog of allegations that are now emerging. A lot of children we targeted by pederasts and not protected because society as a whole had trouble believing that the problem was there at all, let alone widespread in places like Catholic Churches, Scout groups, or football teams. And the media (especially the UK media) fan the flames, because they thrive of four emotions: anger, fear, disgust, and lust.

The problem is that we cannot suspend the principles of justice in the pursuit of justice delayed or denied. Justice delayed or denied is not justice; it is clearly unjust. But suspending the presumption of innocence is also unjust. Gambaccini was arguably punished by society merely for being accused of a crime. And maybe he does deserve to be compensated for this.

Justice is vitally important. Without it our society will fall apart. People, especially people of wealth/power, have to be held to account. Some of the most ancient rights we have as citizens were wrung from the monarchy by force (or the threat of it). The idea that we all equal in the eyes of the law is a precious victory for ordinary people.

We all have our opinions and intuitions about what we read in the media about people. But the media are not reliable guides to what is going on. The media are a business, whose sole aim is to provide dividends to shareholders (this aim has completely overwhelmed any other aims of business in the 21st Century). They do whatever it takes to make a profit and pay shareholders a fat dividend, limited only by what the law allows, and often not even that (as we know all too well in the UK).

In the end it is only through careful presentation of all of the evidence, and weighing it up in an unbiased manner (without the media hype), that justice can be served. If we serve a lesser mistress than justice, then we are in real trouble. And I suppose that many people would say that we are right now in real trouble because of the past denial of justice. To me this is not an argument for allowing the system to break even more; it is an argument for fixing the system and making it work for everyone.

More than most countries, Britain suffers from an "old-boys" network of men (and some women) educated in expensive and exclusive private schools and brought up to see themselves as naturally morally superior in ways that do not relate to how they behave. This means that they don't see themselves as bound by the laws made to keep lesser people in check. It is a monopoly on power that any good government would smash; but of course they are the government (and more recently the so-called Labour Party was run by them as well). In fact so much progress had been made in the UK that in 1979 a woman who was not part of that social elite became PM. But things have gone severely backward since then, partially as a result of reforms Thatcher herself instituted. The elite make a show of being socially liberal, while trying to entrench the power of their class economically and politically.

Many depictions of Justice, personified as a woman with a pair of scales and a sword, show her blindfolded. That is to say as blind to the social status of those being judged. What such static depictions don't really get across, is that the sword does not strike until there is a clear judgement. Accusations are not convictions. It is all too easy to create smoke without fire, especially nowadays. We cannot trust the media, they do not serve us, they serve only their shareholders. And the shareholders seem only to be interested in accumulating personal wealth. Justice, it seems, cannot bend people to her will. But the will of the people can circumscribe the power of the ruling classes - and that is where most of our human rights come from.

Arguably, a society is fair to the extent that people have wrested power away from the ruling classes and made it fair.

02 November 2017

Scifi Tropes

I didn't take this one. In fact this is the first ever "space selfie" taken by Buzz Aldrin on an EVA during the Gemini 12 mission.

I love scifi, but one thing that always bothers me about scfi in space is that helmets have internal lighting. I can understand why they must do this on TV - glass is reflective and if the interior of the helmet is dark, then you won't be able to see the face of the actor. But it does mean that the actor cannot see out very well, if at all.

In this shot Buzz has managed to get the sun angling in from the right of shot so you can see his face, albeit with some strong shadows.

In my scfi stories, no suits have glass any more. Glass is vulnerable to cracking (common trope) and an astronaut can easily be blinded by unshaded sunlight (also common trope). And glass doesn't stop all forms of harmful radiation - of which there is a great deal in space. Note also in Aldrin's 1960s suit, that his field of view is clear upwards, but he cannot look down at all - he cannot even see his hands unless they are raised to shoulder height!

In my stories, suits have VR goggles and hi-res, multi-spectral cameras (with digital zoom and other processing features). At this point it's probably cheaper to do this than make a sphere of toughened glass. Cameras and screens have better resolution that our eyes can detect now. This also allows the possibility of overlays with infrared or ultra-violet light which would be very useful! And the helmet now provides much better radiation protection.

A super version of this, plumbs the video feed directly into the optic nerve - very limited versions of this are available now for artificial retinas.

But of course you cannot see the face of the person in the suit. So, bad for TV, unless the people are sinister.

Another weird thing, which I think might happen IRL is that the whole suit has atmosphere. So a common scifi trope is that a hole in the leg means all your air leaks out and you die. In my suits only the helmet has air, and there are no external hoses to spring leaks or be yanked out. And the whole thing is self-sealing (using currently available tech).

Which also reminds me, most scifi stories go on and on about "oxygen levels". Oxygen is non-trivial, but the most important thing, as we saw in Apollo 13, is carbon-dioxide levels. CO2 build-up kills quicker than lack of O2 in almost all of the scenarios when people are "running out of air".

One day I'll write some of these stories down!

30 October 2017

That Fucking Cat.

Most people have heard about Schrödinger's cat. Schrödinger was trying to disprove the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics - the idea that until a particle is "observed" it is literally in all possible quantum states (i.e. spin, charge, mass, position, velocity, etc) at once. He thought this proposition was absurd so came up with this metaphor of the cat in the box.

We don't know what state the cat is in until we look, so the cat is both alive and dead. Which is clearly absurd where cats are concerned. But it might not be so absurd when we are thinking of, say, the "spin" states of sub-atomic particles. This is still the most popular interpretation of the wave equation, though slightly less than half of all physicists agree with it.

The real problem we get at the popular level is that people don't get that the "observer" is also a metaphor. They think consciousness must somehow be involved. But it isn't. No one ever directly observed anything at the nanometer scale - we are not equipped for it. "Observe" here means physically interact with. The wave function of the particle collapses whenever the particle physically interacts with another particle. And at the particle scale it means any time two matter particles (fermions) exchange a force particle (boson). No consciousness is involved or required.

In terms of the cat metaphor this means that the universe does know whether the cat is alive or dead, because the cat interacts with the matter around it—it has to be in contact with the floor of the box for example. Touching the box collapses the wave function of the cat and the cat is either alive or dead and not in superposition of all states (probably never is).

So the thought experiment does not work unless the cat is suspended in a perfect vacuum, in perfect darkness, isolated from all magnetic fields, and not subject to gravity (even from the box!). In other words it would have to be in another universe which consisted of the cat and only the cat, and which could not communicate with our universe in any way. In which case we'd never know the outcome of the experiment. The uncertainty is either permanent or non-existent.

In other words, in the end it's just a bad metaphor. Schrödinger decisively lost his argument with the Copenhagen crowd. They took this weak attempt to discredit them, and turned it into a powerful positive symbol of their approach. Ouch.

In fact in something on our scale - with (literally) millions of billions of trillions of particles in every gram of matter - the wave function is always collapsed because there is interaction going on all the time. People are always in one particular state at any time (though time flows incessantly).

If humans behaved like particles we would be diffracted every time we walked through a doorway. In other words we would emerge at a random angle every time. (I'm assuming we're sober, eh?).

If there were two doorways close together, as we approached  we would blur out, pass through both doorways simultaneously, interfere with ourselves, come back into focus moving at a random angle. I've staggered through some doorways in my time, but never two at once.

If people were like particles, when you did one forward-roll  (↻360°) you would end up upside-down, and would have to do another one to get right-way up.

If people were like particles we could only know where we are or where we were going, but not both at the same time.

If people were like particles, then having people watch you walk down the road would cause you to swerve.

Quantum doesn't work on our scale. There never was a cat. Consciousness has nothing to do with it. Most of us can safely ignore quantum and behave as if the world is classical because at our scale and in our frame of reference, basically, it is.  Or, to be more accurate, classical theories predict the behaviour of matter on scales of mass, length and energy we can actually experience, to a higher degree of accuracy and precision than we can currently measure.

Which is not to say that on very small scales it is not possible to have quantum effects. It is possible. Gravity is so weak you can ignore it on very small scales. If you cool everything down close to absolute zero, exclude electromagnetic fields, and tweak other conditions, you can see quantum effects up to the scale of some fairly large single molecules such as bucky-balls (C60H60). Beyond this, and much above absolute zero, quantum effects simply disappear.

27 October 2017

Ancestors Fallacy

There's a cognitive mistake we make that needs a name but doesn't have one as far as I can tell. In the linked article about wolves the author starts out with an example from closer to home.

It's often assumed that because great apes knuckle-walk when on the ground, that we must have evolved from knuckle-walkers. We talk about "learning walking upright" to make the distinction clear. In fact we evolved from a common ancestor and that ancestor is likely to have been a brachiator - to have live mostly in the tree tops, like today's gibbons and (some) lemurs.

When a gibbon is on the ground it almost always walks on two legs. Using it's arms to stabilise itself. Youtube thinks this is very funny and has many videos of gibbons walking "like a human". It's not that they have "learned to walk like a human", that's just what they do on the ground. Note even the great apes adopt bipedalism when wading in water.

So there is a fallacy here. The fallacy tells us that the chimp is our closest genetic relative, so our ancestors must have been chimp-like (hiding in their somewhere is the assumption that chimps are "primitive" animals and that only humans evolve). But our ancestors were not chimp-like. Chimps, gorillas, and orangutans evolved knuckle walking, humans never did. Nor did gibbons.

The modern view of evolution is that all organisms currently alive have been evolving for exactly the same amount of time. So just because a bacteria looks archaic, does not mean that it is archaic. Everything currently alive is modern. Evolution doesn't stop for living things.

Chimps and humans have evolved for equal lengths of time. And neither of us is more like our common ancestor than the other.

This means that there are no "primitive" tribes. Hunter-gatherers living now are not necessarily representative of pre-historic humans unless we know the conditions they live in have not changed (and given the intervention of the last ice-age this is extremely unlikely).

Yes, humans arrived in Australia as long ago as 60,000 years before the present, but they constantly changed. The evolved literally hundreds of languages for instance.

In my field of study, modern schools of Buddhism, whether Theravāda or Tibetan or Zen are often seen are representative of some previous era. This is the same fallacy. All forms of Buddhism currently being practised are modern (though not all are modernist). No amount of social conservatism can prevent changes from accumulating over dozens of generations.

I'm not sure what to call this fallacy.