Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"Cowboy Up, Mulder"

I am developing this distinct fear that OaO is becoming the X-Files of blogs. That is, the writers of it think that people are reading it (in so far as anyone is reading this blog--please ignore the fact that I am comparing my blog to a tv show that was wildly popular, spawned a movie and video games, revitalized an entire sub-genre of science-fiction/mystery/conspiracy narrative, and rescued David Duchovny from a career appearing in soft porn and the occassional indie film. There is nothing to see here. Please move along) because of the ongoing, overarching, and unfolding mystery. In fact, the audience was reading it (blah blah television is Text blah) because of the things that happened in between the telling of this narrative. The writers thought the readers wanted to be let in on that unfolding mystery but the readers had become perplexed and bored by it--they wanted instead stories where Luke Wilson was a vampire, or Mulder and Scully were hallucinating their lives while slowly being digested by an enormous fungus.

I'm pretty sure, in any case, that nobody is reading these enormous posts I've racked up in the last week or so (well, Sam is, but Sam is an outlier, so to speak). In my mind, this is the whole point of OaO: the examination and redefinition of models and language and narrative and etc., but it occurred to me in the middle of writing the third enormously long, incredibly dense post in a row, that almost certainly nobody is reading this blog because of its length or density. If you wanted journal articles, you'd read a journal--instead, you're reading this blog. Or, at least, you were until I scared you away with my inability to write a blog entry shorter than 1000 words.

I have this operating theory that nobody who produces great art or great narrative actually knows why it's great. I take as evidence things like the incredibly clunky framing device used by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan, or the inability of the Posies to ever repeat the simple unvarnished greatness of Failure, an album they recorded in their parents' basement when they were 20 year-olds. The 'why' of it is something I think you just don't get to know--it's my experience that things you produce that you think are clever or brilliant or whatever turn out to be trite or affected or overworked. I don't know what one can do about it or what it says about the world; I think you just have to keep writing the text and hope that what you mean to say will be there somewhere in between the words you use to say it.

Next: More opaque and intractable commentaries!
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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Particle/Wave II: Probabilistic Boogaloo

Moderator: Hello, and welcome back. Before you go any farther, you should probably read part one. No, really, do it. Also, everything you ever wanted to know about Quantum Physics can be found here. Okay, all good? Let's get back to the dialog.

Calvino: There's a moderator?

The Stoat: Apparently there was. Is. I feel strangely as if some chunk of my life has been removed, and yet here I am, arguing the same points as before, as if nothing had happened.

Calvino: Well, that could be because it's been a week since the end of the previous discussion, and you're not in fact real but a figment of the author's imagination, and therefore completely bound to the whim of an unseeable (unless he chooses to let you see him) and undefiable creator.

The Stoat: No, no, that's not it. It's some sort of metaphysical new state of being. A line has been crossed. We have been preternaturally altered, never to be the same again. I have flipped a coin and it has come up heads 100 times in a row, and it's entirely due to narrative.

Calvino: Ooookay. Whatever. We were talking about coin flips and quantum physics?

The Stoat: Well, right, I was saying that I'm skeptical of the idea of many universes being an explanation for a coin that is going to come up heads 50% of the time and tails 50% of the time.

Calvino: Can you, just for the sake of posterity, go over how you connect phenomenon of quantum physics to a coin flip, which is definitively a macro-level event?

The Stoat: Sure. Actually, you did it yourself when last we spoke, when you pointed out that the results of a regular coin flip were subject to the whims of tiny changes in atmospheric pressure. I'm actually going to argue, in fact, that any macro outcome that you would model as probabilistic is made up of (many) such quantum events.

Calvino: I'll save you the trouble. I'm perfectly prepared to accept this proposition. Clearly the coin flip is this way, not only in that it's subject to the environment, but the conditions that exist in your body--the muscles, the cells, the chemical signals between your brain and your extremities--at the moment you strike your thumb against the side of the coin in order to send it flipping end over end into the air. I might even be willing to make a case for the contrapositive being true--that is, things that seem to us absolute, like tides or seasons or the orbits of the planets, are non-probabilistic precisely because they aren't as affected by such things as the decay of carbon atoms or the existence of an electron in one place or another.

The Stoat: Good then. Someday we'll talk about chaos, and the fact that a quantum event could theoretically affect which side of the sun the earth will be on several million years from now. But for now, the model you describe is perfect.

Calvino: Last time you argued against the idea of multiple universes being an explanation for quantum events, or events in general that have multiple outcomes. That is, in the case of the coin flip that we interrupted so that we could talk about it, you tried to refute the idea that there's a universe in which it lands tails and a universe in which it lands heads.

The Stoat: That's right.

Calvino: It's not clear to me that you made this argument convincingly. I admit, on the surface the idea of many universes--and I acknoweldge that here "many" means "an ungodly large and incomprehensible number"--seems hopelessly complex, but that doesn't seem like enough to conclude that it's not a valid model of reality, or at the very least a useful one.

The Stoat: I grant that. Frankly, by the time I'm done this will be the least of your objections. My larger point is that I'm not to the point of making a rigorous argument yet. I'm not going to try and symbolically prove anything or write any equations. I'm only at the stage of making a proposition, or set of propositions.

Calvino: Okay. Then propose away.

The Stoat: All right. We were in the middle of that coin flip. Right now you would say that 50% of the time it's going to land heads and 50% of the time it's going to land tails. But if I won't let you have at least two universes, one in which the coin lands heads and one it which lands tails, what does that mean?

Calvino: I suppose it means that of the next ten flips, odds are that it'll come up heads about five times and tails five times.

The Stoat: No, no, we're not talking about multiple coin flips. We're talking about just this one, discrete flip. What does it mean to say that the result will be heads half the time and tails half the time?

Calvino: I don't understand what you're asking. This seems to be a pretty straightforward statement.

The Stoat: And I'm arguing that it's not. We've established and agreed that pre-flip, mid-flip, late-flip, and pretty much until it lands and we observe the results (when it does get kind of gray and have to do with things regarding cats and boxes) that the outcome of the flip isn't determined. But if you reject the idea that the universe somehow "splits" and there are multiple outcomes, there is no such thing as the coin coming out 50% heads and 50% tails.

Calvino: Look, this is stupid, and the only reason it seems like there's anything worth debating here is because this is a 50-50 proposition. If, for instance...well, okay, I'm thinking of a number between 1 and 100. If I ask you to guess what it is, I can say with as close as anything can be to actual, true, knowledge that you'll never....

The Stoat: It's 47.

Calvino: ...

The Stoat: ...

Moderator: Several moments of increasingly hilarious silence now ensue, followed at last by...

Calvino: Crap.

The Stoat: ...

Calvino: Okay, that was a bad example. I've got a hundred-sided die, and I'm going to roll it. I can say something about it: I can say that there's almost no way that it's going to come up 47.

The Stoat: Yeah, but you could say that about any number, including the number that's actually going to come up when you do roll it. I understand your frustration, but you're moving in a somewhat oblique direction to my argument. Here is what I am saying: when you say that the coin is going to come up heads half the time and tails half the time (or any way you want to phrase a statement on the probabilistic outcome of a discrete event), you are making a statement not about the event you're about to record, but about the nature of the results of an infinite number of those events--something I am, in fact, going to call the 'wave' of the flipped coin.

Calvino: Sure. I see that. But I'm still making an inference, based on that 'wave.' It sounds an awful lot like you're just saying I can't make a meaningful inference. This just doesn't sound right to me.

The Stoat: You aren't making an inference. You're making a statement about a wave. It's a wave, in fact, that is extremely well defined. The flip, on the other hand, is not defined at all.

Calvino: I just don't accept that. When the coin's in mid-air, isn't it 50% heads and 50% tails? That seems also extremely well defined.

The Stoat: Sure, sure. As long as it's a coin that's in mid-flip, or going to be flipped, or whatever (and you may make all manner of arguments about when that happens) it's in a superposition of states--50% heads and 50% tails if you like. But that's not information about what the outcome will be, that's a list of possible outcomes.

Calvino: Possible outcomes and their likelihood to occur!

The Stoat: It seems like that's true, but if there's no determinism--it wasn't predestined at any point to have a particular outcome, and there are no multiple outcomes--the universe doesn't split in two separate but equal universes in which each outcome occurs, what does that mean?

Calvino: It means that if I flip 100 coins...wait...crap....

The Stoat: Crap, exactly.

Calvino: I'm still hung up on the case of the hundred-sided die. I'd be stupid to bet on the next roll coming up 47. But that's a discrete event just like the coin flip. And there doesn't seem to be any getting around the simple fact that "not 47" is more likely than "47."

The Stoat: Well, for one, you've just lumped 99 outcomes together and are comparing them with one outcome. So 99 is indeed greater than 1, and I'm fine with that definition of "more likely." If, however, you want to say, "not 47 happens more of the time than 47," that's true, but again it's not a statement about one die-roll, it's a statement about many die-rolls--about the probability wave of a rolled 100-sided die.

Calvino: Hmm. Whether or not you've convinced me of anything at all here, I can't help but feel as if I've been robbed. I used to be perfectly happy having knowledge about individual outcomes, and whether or not you've proven that this was false belief on my part, you haven't given me anything new. It seems like the onus is on you to offer a better model. You've sort of hinted at some sort of particle/wave thing, but I haven't seen it yet.

The Stoat: I realize that. And I haven't even broached the subject of the coin flip having no outcome until somebody observes it. Frankly, I'm in a little bit of a quandary as to how to accomplish this and still...blog. These dialogs are just too long. I should be writing a paragraph a day, rather than a treatise a week.

Calvino: So this dialog is just going to end, right here, with so much unresolved?

The Stoat: Yes. For today.

Next: More stuff! More things!
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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Ceci N'est Pas Une Second Wave/Particle Post

I started writing the follow up to my last post, and found the following to be true:
  • My post was becoming incredibly cluttered with sidetracks about physics and reality and such.
  • I was writing it as if everyone reading either knew about these things, or clicked on the links to find out about them, in either case ending up with the same understanding of them that I have.
  • Given the degree to which some have loudly complained that my discussions of such things are rudely opaque, this seemed to be a bad assumption, therefore...
  • ...being as how I generally have great affection for my audience and do not wish them to feel alienated, I thought I would provide a little bonus post to talk about some things which seem like they are scary and math-y/technical, but which are in fact cool and full of narrative.
  • If you already know about such things, and/or don't care, and/or you are not feeling alienated, you may skip this post.

So...the cat in the box that's both dead and alive: I have not yet explicitly mentioned Schrödinger's Cat, but it's come up in the comments, and the concepts involved are relevant. It is, for instance, the particular result that Physicists feel compelled to explain by introducing the concept of many universes. Here it is: experiments with very small particles, like electrons and photons, in the early part of the 20th century, revealed that these particles had a wave nature. This was relatively soon after physicists had discovered that light and energy had a particle nature, whereas classical physics had said that light and energy came in waves. Physicists in the first part of the last century had a lot of problems making up their minds.

One of the things these indecisive scientists discovered about particles was that one couldn't accurately measure the particle's velocity and position at the same time. That is, one could know where it was, but not exactly where it was going. Or know where it was going, but not exactly where it was. This is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This is a very powerful result, and it shattered the classical idea of Determinism--in this case, the belief that if you knew the velocity and position of every particle in the universe, you could know what was going to happen in the future--the weather tomorrow, whether that coin flip that I left right in the middle of my last post was going to end up heads or tails, etc. It turned out that you simply could never know the velocity and position of even one particle in the universe, let alone all of them. Even God was subject to Heisenberg.

This has all manner of repercussions in discussions of free will and fate and Philosophy in general which will be ignored by me right now. The upshot is that electrons are tricky bastards. You can track them for days, and still not know exactly where they are. Say you spot an electron somewhere (they are very small, so it's not like you can just put a tracking device on the thing; you have to put a detector some place and hope one passes by). The fact that you can't quite know where it was going (since you knew where it was) means that you're going to have to take a guess. So all you can do is narrow it down to a general area, based on what it was doing the last time you saw it. Think of this like watching a person entering a dark room: you know his path walking up to the doorway, but then he walks through the door and disappears. You know for sure he's now inside the room, and you could maybe make a pretty good guess where he is based on where he was headed, but that's about all you know. He could have stopped or changed direction after he's run into a chair because nobody bothered to turn on the goddamn light. Erwin Schrödinger more or less quantified this phenomenon with what is known as the Wave Function. It basically shows you the probability that a particle will be in a particular place given where you last saw it (actual Quantum Physicists are now having a freak out from this definition of the Wave Function. Fuck them. They are not important right now). Basically, it will be highly likely to be in some places and extremely unlikely to be in others.

Okay, put that aside for a moment and consider the Double Slit Experiment. For this you'll need a visual aid. Here's a really cool one. Here's a lower tech version, if that doesn't work for you (you have to scroll down a little to get to the pictures). The reason Classical Physicists thought light was a wave was because it acted like one. If you turned on a light, and shined it through a barrier with two slits in it, it created an interference pattern on the wall behind it. This is what waves do--think of waves in the ocean. If two waves that are at their peak combine, they make a wave with a peak twice as high. If both waves meet when they're both at their lowest point, they'll make a trough twice as deep. And if two waves meet when one is at a peak and one is at a trough, they'll cancel each other out and the result will be smooth. So everyone was going along all happy with light being a wave until the late 19th century, when Max Planck realized that light had to come in small packets which he called 'quanta', because all the experiments with light and heat only made sense if energy came in discrete quantities. I won't expound on this, but it's kind of mind-blowing. I mean, hell, I've installed dimmer switches in my house, it sure looks to me like light is a relatively continuous quantity--I turn the switch, the light gets brighter. But this isn't quite what's going on. Light seems like it's analog, but it's digital--it comes in steps. They're very, very small steps, but they are steps nonetheless.

This threw the Physicists into a tizzy--I mean, what the fuck, right? (This was nothing compared to what was about to hit them.) Light acts like a wave. If light were a particle it would act like a particle when you shined it through a barrier with two slits in it--there would be no interference pattern, there'd just be two bright spots where the light shined through. "Well," they reasoned, "if light is a particle, we should be able to see which slits the particles are going through." So they set up the experiment again (I am being fast and loose with the time frame here), except this time they put some detectors by the slits to see which slit the particles were going through. As soon as they did that, light started acting like a particle. The interference pattern on the wall behind the double-slit barrier went away and was replaced by two bright splotches of light. As soon as the detectors were removed, the interference pattern returned. This was just too much. The Physicists, after having their entire foundation of what reality was crumble underneath them, all went out for a collective three-day crack-and-whore bender (or whatever it was they smoked in those days). When they came back from their lost weekends, they were left with only one reasonable conclusion: particles simply have no reality until you observe them. It's not just that a particle of light (or an electron--the double slit experiment has been verified with a particle as large as a bucky ball) can be in many places with varying probabilities, it's that it is in all of these places until an observation is made.

I should add here that many Physicists thought that this interpretation of the phenomenon was crap. Einstein was among them, saying famously that "God does not play dice with the universe" (to which I say, no duh: God is clearly playing Settlers of Catan with the universe). He spent much of the rest of his life trying to prove it. One of the results of this pursuit is what is known as the ERP Paradox, which postulates instantaneous exchange of information across unlimited distances. According to Einstein's own theory of Special Relativity, this is impossible, and all tests of the ERP Paradox have shown that this phenomenon is real. Quantum Physics is full of ironies like this. Another of these little ironies is Schrödinger's Cat (you were wondering when I was going to get back to that). Schrödinger also thought that this interpretation of his wave function, that it showed where a given particle could be with given probability, was complete bollocks. He created the thought experiment of the cat in a box to prove it. He imagined that there was an opaque, sound-proof box containing a cat, a canister of cyanide gas, and a hammer connected to a Geiger Counter. There was also a piece of radioactive material in the box, and it was such that the probability that a piece of the particle would decay in the span of an hour was exactly 50%. If this happened, the Geiger Counter would detect the radioactive decay, and trigger the hammer, which would smash the glass, letting out the gas and killing the cat. After an hour, you would look in and see how the cat was doing. But wait! Particle decay is a quantum event, which means that, according to the favored interpretation, the particle has neither decayed nor not decayed until an observation is made. But since you've created a system in which the life of the cat is connected to the decay of the particle, the cat is in the exact same condition--neither alive nor dead--until an observation is made. That is, until you lift the lid of the box and see if the cat is still alive.

"Clearly," said Schrödinger, "no reasonable person would ever believe in a cat that was both alive and dead at the same time. I mean, come on, have you ever seen one?" "No dude...wait...that's totally awesome!" replied the Physicists, who somehow had become stoner surfers from Long Beach between the last paragraph and this one, "The cat is totally alive and dead at the same time! It exists in some never-before-observed state of being. That totally rocks!" Then they all went out to score dime bags from their dealers, hitting the grocery store for some Fritos before going back to their labs to finish watching The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd's Dark Size of the Moon as the soundtrack. For his part, Schrödinger returned home, having had enough irony for one day.

Here I'd like to defer to L., in her wifely guise of "Mrs. Transient Gadfly," in which she states the whole paradox of this quite nicely:
That there is no reality outside of our representation/observation/interpretation of it is, well, our approach to media, politics, art, philosophy, narrative, reading, writing, the world in general, and everything else there is in the universe -- absolutely...except that freaking cat...who though i believe in every every important, representational, constructed, intent, and purpose way is neither/both alive/dead in my heart of hearts, i secretly can't convince myself that really REALLY he isn't actually one or the other.

Before I finish, I want to make a little nod to Dan, who started this whole thing off. He made a couple of arguments for the possibility of many universes actually being a simpler model of reality than one fuzzy universe, a topic which I would like to address, but my posts are just getting way too damn long. Hopefully some day I'll get there. I've never met Dan, and I wouldn't know him if he fell on me (unless, of course, I were warned in advance that the person who would be, in just a moment, falling on me were to be Dan), but he's joined the dialog here at OaO, so I've added his blog, Until Today, to the blogroll at the left. Welcome, Dan.

Finally, L. also made reference in her comments on Sam's post as to how Quantum Physicists get steamed every time somebody in another field uses their models as metaphor for something else. Here is what I have to say to them: shut the hell up. Physics is metaphor. It is not reality. It is map, not territory, the same way Math is, the same way Anthropology is, the same way Art is, the same way Philosophy is. In 50 years, somebody will, within the established framework of Physics, prove this, and the Physicists will be shocked and amazed, and that person will win the Nobel Prize. Then everybody will go back to their labs where, quite surprisingly, they'll still be watching Judy Garland and listening to Floyd. So tomorrow or the next day, whenever I get back to Part II of the post, when I'll be making a bunch of metaphors that would make any real scientist cringe, I'll point back to this paragraph. Physicists have been, over the last century, galloping headlong towards the idea that everything everyone else already understood about everything macro, in every other intellectual discipline--that there is no truth, only good metaphor; that nothing is but that observing makes it so--holds for any level of reality you care to look at. Sooner or later, we'll all run into each other.

Next: brazenly pseudo-scientific quasi-intellectual babble!
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Wednesday, January 18, 2006


At the end of my previous post, I made a claim that was simply outrageous:
I invented the question mark.
No, wait...that wasn't me. This was me:
The longer you flip a fair coin, the closer it runs to 50% heads, 50% tails. And you still don't know a goddamn thing about what the next flip is going to be.

Calvino: My god, do I still exist? I hadn't heard from me in months. I thought I had been replaced.

The Stoat: Yet here you are. And I too. I suspect this happens every time the author is about to propose something radical, and it's just been that long since he's done so.

Calvino: Interesting theory. And indeed, suggesting that one knows nothing about the result of the next flip of a fair coin seems pretty radical. And also demonstrably false. You know 50% of the time it will come up heads, and 50% of the time it will come up tails. That's not nothing.

The Stoat: Well, he could merely have been talking about the fact that a million coin flips don't give you any new information about what the next flip is going to be. That is, he could be talking about the well-discussed fallacy that if you flip heads a hundred times in a row, the odds of flipping heads again are....

Calvino: 50/50. And not 1 in 2101. Yes, I know. I believe that the author might point out that this is a problem of language, not probability. Anyway, he didn't say that. He said you know nothing about the next flip.

The Stoat: Yes, and I'm going to propose that it's entirely possible that he indeed believes one knows nothing, that the appearance that one can make a discrete inference about this next flip being heads or landing tails is entirely illusory, and that there exists a more illuminating model. I'm also going to propose that he hasn't entirely formalized this theory, and that perhaps someone has goaded him into presenting this theory now, before it's been formalized, in the name of radicalism.

Calvino: I am bored by your propositions. I want to know why I can't say the next coin flip is going to be heads half the time and tails the other half.

The Stoat: Yes, I suspected that you might.

Coin flips are just about the perfect probabilistic event. A flip could result in the coin falling off the table and getting lost and thus you'll never know what the result was, or it could land perfectly on its side because it's 1961 and you work in a bank and suddenly can hear everybody thinking because you're the guy in that one episode of The Twilight Zone. But you can pretty much just throw those results out--any sane person would aver that if you flip a coin, 50% of the time it'll land heads and 50% of the time it'll land tails.

Go through this thought experiment with me: you've flipped the coin--it's turning over and over in the air, and now it's at it's peak before it starts coming down. Let's stop time and ask a few questions.

The Stoat: Is the outcome of the flip now pre-determined? That is, if time continues from this point on, would the outcome always be tails?

Calvino: My first impulse is to say yes, and in fact to claim that the outcome was fixed as soon as you gave the coin an initial upward velocity and spin with your thumb. But on second thought, we know thanks to 20th century physics that we don't live in a deterministic universe--the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and all that. More concretely, I guess that you could reasonably predict that in some universes the atmospheric pressure where the coin is falling will change slightly just before the coin hits the table, such that it bounces funny and lands on a different side than it otherwise would have.

The Stoat: Yes, I agree. By the way, don't you think "Heisenberg Certainty Principle" is a totally awesome name for a rock band?

Calvino: Yes?

The Stoat: I'm just saying, if you go and start, like, a math rock band and name it that, you have to give me credit for having thought up the name.

Calvino: Yeah...sure, whatever. We were talking about probability?

The Stoat: Yes, sorry. Look, before we go any farther--well, you just mentioned above the idea that "in some universes things change and the coin flip comes out differently." It's a nice way to talk about the possibility that the coin can end up heads or end up tails, and I'm now going to take it away from you. The idea of many universes, splitting off from this one is crap, and I will now debunk it.

Calvino: Just like that? A model favored by many famous Physicists who are incredibly much smarter than you? I suppose also you are also going to explain away wave-particle duality at the same time?

The Stoat: Well, yes, I will. But not yet. One coin flip vis a vis many coin flips is in fact an excellent metaphor for particle and wave. But I'll get to that. Firstly, the many worlds interpretation of events states that where you have a quantum event (an atom of carbon, e.g., which will either decay or not decay in a particular time period), that two deterministic universes are created--one in which the particle decayed and one in which the particle did not decay. We also know, in fact, that you don't know in which of these universes you live unless you actually go and measure that particular carbon atom and see if it decayed.

Calvino: You are talking about the collapse of the Schrödinger Wave Function--that a particle actually doesn't have one state or the other until it is observed.

The Stoat: Yes--the many universes theory explains this by saying, no, it did have one state or the other, the universe split into two realities at the moment of the quantum event and you-the-observer landed in one or the other. My objection is this: can you imagine how much memory it would take to run the universe if near-infinite numbers of splits of reality are happening at every instant? Even if most of those universes eventually peter out into non-existence, you're still splitt ing off unimaginable numbers of copies.

Calvino: What, we're in the Matrix? The universe is a computer simulation?

The Stoat: I'm not claiming that, what I'm making is an argument using Ockham's Razor. Which is more likely: a universe that has a nearly infinite number of states, with more states splitting off every instant (many universes), or a universe that is kind of "fuzzy", where there's no fixed reality unless you force there to be one by making an observation (that is, via the collapse of a wave functions)? From a strictly design point of view, the second is utterly less complex to manage. Not only do you not have to keep track of the states of all possible universes, you don't even have to have to keep track of the state of the one--only when somebody's looking do you have to decide whether, e.g., the carbon atom decayed or not, or the coin flip came up heads or tails.

Calvino: Either you're insane or I'm totally lost.

Moderator: ...

Calvino: There's a moderator?

Moderator: Yes, and I'm going to end the discussion here for today, as the author is violating all reasonable laws of blogging by going on endlessly. We'll pick it up here tomorrow.
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Monday, January 16, 2006

Odds 'R

The second in the series of posts that stem from comments that weren't there the last time I looked comes courtesy of Dan, who pointed me towards Odds'R, which is a book of trivia presented in probabilistic form. e.g.:
If you had been arrested for witchcraft during the infamous Salem witch hunt and trials of 1692, what would have been your odds of being executed?
a) 1 in 4
b) 1 in 8
c) Zero--they all got away on their brooms.
Also there's a board game, and I'm sure any moment now, you're going to be able to buy the Official Odds'R Bow Tie and Mustache Set™ in a store near you (dude, that tie totally rocks).

Dan asks:
Is asking the odds on such specific questions as above still a problem within your argument that the "odds" are statistically meaningless because the question was asked within a framework where "meaning" does not correspond to numbers, thus the "odds don’t have the meaning that they appear to have?"
I, being a crass opportunist, will use this question to launch a larger discussion of what probability actually "means."

What can we actually infer from the above question about witchcraft (b is the answer they give as being correct--I know, I can't believe it wasn't c, that pinacle of well-timed comedy, either. Oh my god...witches, brooms...stop. I'm gonna pee)? Only that there were some number of people arrested for practicing witchcraft in Salem in 1692, say 24, and that 3 of them were executed. To infer what the question actually states as being true ("if YOU, the person now reading this sentence, were a person living in Salem in 1692 and you were arrested for practicing witchcraft, 12.5% of the time you would be executed") would be completely fallacious, meaningless, and frankly kind of a weird thing to infer. I can say with certainty that this did not happen to you. The odds of it are zero.

The phenomenon of Odds-Are-Oneness tries to make some sort of statement about what we tend to think of as fate--weird things happen to us, things that seem like they were spectacularly unlikely to happen, but did. But we also notice the "weird" things, and ignore the incidents of similar phenomenon that aren't "weird" to us. To review my very first example, nobody took note of the thousands of times that the New York City Pick Three Lottery came up, e.g., 1-6-5 on May 13th, 1995. Except, of course, to the people who won the lottery that day, at which point it suddenly seemed a lot like fate to them, and they, if they're like the majority of people in the world, probably went back and created some narrative about what those numbers "meant" and "why" they won.

But I also think the answer to Dan's question is unequivocally yes. These odds don't have anything to do with probability. They can't possibly apply to you imagining yourself into the shoes of an accused witch in Salem in 1692. Or in the case of another question found in Odds'R on a favorite topic of mine, "What are the odds that a US state has a law on the books challenging the validity of evolution?" (given answer, 17 in 50)--I'm not saying there's no meaning in that statement, but it sure isn't about probability. It's for sure not telling us that when the next territory or protectorate votes for statehood that there's a 34% chance someone will toss in an amendment saying, "We vote for statehood, and P.S., Puerto Rico also declares that Darwin did crack."

So the open question is, is there actually any such thing as logical discrete statistical inference? Can we logically infer from the fact that one out of every million plane flights ends up crashing whether or not we should get on the next plane? Does knowing that one out of every fifty persons who takes Vioxx experiences heart failure within two years tell us anything about whether we should take it? Don't get me wrong, probability and statistics are not meaningless. Casinos make money. Carbon 14 decays. A relatively predictable number of people will buy things from Amazon in the next year. Over a large sample size, statistics and probability are inexorable. The longer you flip a fair coin, the closer it runs to 50% heads, 50% tails. And you still don't know a goddamn thing about what the next flip is going to be.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Almost Famous

I was going back through my site and came across a couple of comments that weren't there the last time I looked. One, from Tarn, was on my first entry about Mechanical Turk, and pointed out that some among the burgeoning community of "Turkers" had stumbled across OaO. The post is this little narrative--first I'm super cool because I'm an insider. Then they realize that I don't actually work on Mechanical Turk (I don't know John Bravenec's name, or, in fact, what he actually does for Turk). In the end they conclude that I must be a "custodian." Ouch.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Quick-Hitter Thursday, Cont'd

Top 7 Previously Unknown Risks of Having Sam Stay At Your House*

  • Like a whore, will eat all of your peanut butter (where "whore"="someone who eats all of your peanut butter")

  • Literally forces you to stay up all night watching Sports Night.

  • May, of his own volition, install a new stereo in your car, replacing the perfectly serviceable empty hole that was already there.

  • Will cook bacon in your kitchen in the morning, which, while it smells yummy, is secretly yucky bacon.

  • Two words: way too much coffee
    • subrisk: will lose the ability to count the number of words in standard English phrases.

  • Nope, never mind, that's all I've got.

*based on a sample size of one (1) visit. Also possibly not previously unknown. Many of these things are not actual risks. Some of them are not specific to Sam. And okay, fine, I wanted to complain that Sam ate all my peanut butter, but needed some sort of excuse to do so. Please bite me.

Quick-Hitter Thursday

Mark and I get together semi-regularly and play music in a sort of surreal jam-like fashion which we think is cool but is probably dreary and obnoxious to anyone else (which is sad, because we're planning on coming out with an album one of these days). Mark plays bass, but lately he's started taking to the guitar again, and it occurred to me on Saturday, when last we convened, that he plays the guitar in a manner totally unlike anybody else I know. Most musicians, if they are playing along to a tune they don't know, will watch the other players or play a couple of tentative notes until they figure out what key everyone's in and/or what the chord progression is. Mark never does this, he just plays. If you asked him what key he's in, he'd have no idea, and he wouldn't know what chords are being played either. As far as I can tell by watching him play, he does it entirely by feel (and, I guess, by sound), as if he has entirely skipped the translation step anyone else would normally go through to accompany an unfamiliar tune. I find this pretty cool; I suspect it also has a lot to do with the fact that we're pretty used to each others' styles at this point.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Future of the Future

This is another little shout-out to someone whom I recently learned occassionally tunes in to OaO. This is a fellow I used to work for in one of my prior lives (one which, frankly, was not all that different from this one). Anyway, we'll call him 'gtp.' What makes gtp cooler than either you or me, as I just learned yesterday, is that he has his own entry in the IMDB, by virtue of once having narrated a computer game.

What I'm cribbing today comes from a dinner conversation I had with gtp shortly after I quit working for him and just before I moved off to find my way in the world (which, as noted before, turned out to be pretty similar to my way in the world beforehand, except that I'm now married, studying acupuncture, and I blog). We were talking about visions of the future and gtp pointed out the following: the popular and widespread vision of the future has us expanding, off the earth and out to the stars, exploring the vast new frontiers. But not only does our current model of laws of physics make this a difficult enterprise, it isn't what's actually happening. Instead of expanding out, we're withdrawing further and further into ourselves.

If I remember gtp's premise, the main symptom of this is the slow replacement of the actual physical self with the virtual one in reacting and responding to the world. e.g. I have a physical identity in which my name is Paul, am 5'11", have black hair, and closely resemble the love child of Hugh Grant and Brad Pitt (just kidding. My hair is brown). I also have a blogger identity wherein my name is "Transient Gadfly," and I share a community with a bunch of people who only know me by what I write on this blog. If you follow that down the rabbit hole, you have that whole "on the internet you can be anyone you want to be," phenomenon, except as we move forward, we end up in some sort of Matrix-y, William Gibson-like world (that is to say, some science fiction narrative makers have fully embraced this kind of vision) wherein the outside world (where by contrast, you apparently can't be anyone you want) matters less and less and your online, virtual identity matters more and more.

I thought of this again lately when I noticed how much of popular computer gaming has become about not just getting through the game, but getting your character in the game better/richer/more power/more mojo/whatever. It's not just in the Warquest-like world where you're going up levels in some sort of role-playing-game-like way, it's in things like Grand Theft Auto, where you start out as a petty thief, and attempt to make your way up to crime lord--it's not about solving puzzles anymore, it's about solving puzzles so you become (virtually) rich and powerful and successful. It's especially these online worlds where this seems most evident, where actual outside world money is being exchanged for powers and advantages in the game. This phenomenon, this "who you are or can be online," is growing itself a real-world market, which seems like a big red neon arrow pointing to something dramatic going on.

This is another phenomenon I'd argue is not necessarily new (e.g. you could establish an identity through any kind of writing for the last several thousand years or so and it's likely to have been quite different from the actual person doing the writing), but the online platform on which it's happening now is making it a lot more prevolent and, apparently, a lot more attractive.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

"Jack, I swear..."

This is sort of a post about Brokeback Mountain, because everybody else was doing it. Plus, blogging about a gay cowboy movie set in Wyoming (but which was secretly filmed in Alberta, which is, in a somewhat odd definition of the term, where L. and I went on our first date) is kind of like writing about nature, which is what I am supposed to be doing in the first place.

I have seen this movie twice, and I left the second viewing with a very different sense of the movie than the first time. The first time I saw the gay cowboy movie (or the queer cowboy movie, as Sam has argued) and the second time I saw a movie which I found to be just incredibly, profoundly sad; so much so that I wasn't sure how I'd missed it the first time. As Dan has also mentioned, this movie sticks with you.

The reason it's staying with me, in a kind of molasses-of-sadness way that I can't remember another narrative doing in a long time, seems to me to be a thing apart from the movie itself--the writing, the acting, the directing, the cinematography--as L. said, forbidden love is a story you've seen a hundred times before; here they just changed one tiny little detail, and look what happened. I don't mean to imply that this film transcends its gayness, because regardless of what else you want to argue, THIS FILM IS TOTALLY GAY (or else it's totally queer, but I'll leave that argument to the people who have degrees in this stuff). It is gayer-than-a-tree-full-of-parrots gay. But this film did transcend some sort of narrative something for me, in a way which the other longing-and-loss texts that I've read/seen/whatever didn't, but which seems inextractable from its gay/queerness, but also beyond it.

Also, the two guys making out is totally hot.