Darwin’s Theorem


Science, religion, evolution, romance, action, siphonophors!

Darwin’s Theorem is a story about stories(the working title for a long time was “Metastory”) that’s also a mystery, a romance, an adventure, and various other things besides. Not quite science fiction, excessively didactic… think of it as “Dan Brown meets ‘Origin of Species’.”

If you like to see plot, action and strong characters deployed in the pursuit of big, speculative ideas, you should check it out!

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The Word vs The World

I’ve made the mistake of arguing with scripturalists recently, and while this won’t convince them of anything it’ll reduce my motivation to engage with them in future because there’ll be no point in just repeating what I’ve said here, which is a variation on things I’ve said before, but hopefully more clearly.

A few years ago former US President Jimmy Carter left the Southern Baptist Convention because he rejects the authority of scriptural passages that denigrate women.

I’m impressed by Carter putting his principles ahead of the people of the Southern Baptist Convention, who are his friends and colleagues. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do, even for someone famous and well-connected, and his action is courageous and admirable.

His theology, on the other hand, is a load of bollocks.

He writes, “The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.”

The problem with this is that as soon as you start rejecting the parts of scripture you don’t like, you are proclaiming, “There is a higher principle of moral judgement, one that is not based on scripture, that over-rides scripture.” This is well and good. Most sane people believe this in some form or another. There are very few strict scriptural literalists out there, although notably the members of the Southern Baptist Convention claim to be.

Unfortunately, people aren’t very good at thinking–I’m certainly not–and it takes a long, slow slog for us to figure out the implications of our beliefs. One of the things that people often say, having rejected parts of scripture on the basis of some higher principle, is that that principle itself is encoded in scripture. But this won’t do, because there is no way of knowing which aspects of scripture encode that principle without again bringing to scripture, from the outside, some non-scriptural decoding principle.

Even something as mild as “self-consistency” is not a scriptural principle–no where does scripture say it is self-consistent, and worse yet it contradicts itself all over the place (in fairness, the Quran is slightly less self-contradictory than the Bible, but not much, and it clashes with reality even more). As such anyone who uses self-consistency to interpret scripture is saying, “Scripture is NOT the final authority, this other, higher, non-scriptural principle is.” And they do not have–and cannot have–any scriptural warrant for the authority of that principle. For the Bible in particular, since it is a compendium whose boundaries are historically and doctrinally uncertain, no one can even claim with any scriptural authority what books should be in it, much less that all those books are consistent with one another.

Bringing in a higher, non-scriptural principle is precisely what Carter is doing when he claims that scripture has been “distorted” by the Church fathers of the 4th century. He’s jumping on the slipperiest of slippery slopes, because if you acknowledge that scripture has been distorted, why believe any of it on its own merits? Why not just jump to the higher principle being used to interpret it, and forget scripture entirely, since it has no authority?

Because it’s not like the contradictions and room for distortion in scripture are small.

For a sense of scale: let’s say the only histories of the American Rebellion had been written around 1825 by a group of fanatical partisans of Jefferson who believed in his ideal of a loosely-governed agrarian republic against the Hamiltonian ideal of a strong federal state, and today a commission was struck to edit a compendium of such documents to become the “official” historical doctrine of the United States. Republicans and Democrats would fight like mad for editorial control and work hard at “fixing up” the final document to conform to their beliefs. Would scholars two thousand years hence be able to find very much in that compendium that told them what George Washington really thought about almost anything? Maybe a tiny bit, but only if they used a big box of non-scriptural historical and analytical tools.

That’s the actual situation with scripture, and Christian scripture is the worst of all in this regard, being a politically-motivated mashup of diverse viewpoints that disagree on virtually every single point of doctrine, from the nature of god (one person or one substance?), the immortality of the soul (collective or individual?), to the path to salvation (works or faith?).

The only way to interpret such a body of work is to bring strong and comprehensive non-scriptural principles to it, which is what Carter does. The people of the Southern Baptist Convention do the same thing. It just happens their principles are different, so both groups claim the other is “distorting scripture”.

The only reasonable response to this is to recognize that scripture has no moral authority whatsoever. It cannot be used to justify any belief or practice. It is no more authoritative than a poem and considerably less authoritative than the leaf of a tree when it comes to ascertaining god’s will, because at least we know that god made the leaf.

If it’s possible to know god’s will at all, it isn’t through scripture, because scripture was made by human hands and passed down to us through human hands. It is not just possible but overwhelmingly plausible that human beings have got scripture wrong.

What is not plausible is that god got the world wrong, so if there is some unifying principle, some transcendent aspect of being or existence that is behind all this stuff we experience, we should aim to learn about it by studying the world, not the words. The discipline that does that is called science: publicly testing ideas by systematic observation, controlled experiment and Bayesian inference.

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Scattered Thoughts on Greece

I had my own reasons for hoping Greece would vote ‘yes’, but that’s not what happened.

Given how nonsensical the whole thing is I’m wondering if this is the most likely scenario:

“Granddad, how did World War III start?”

“Well, the Greeks voted in a referendum and said ‘No’, and that led to their country becoming a failed state that left NATO and was used as a forward base by Russia, and then it was probably just an accidental shot fired by a Russian soldier at some NATO troops on the border with Bulgaria that triggered the final conflagration.”

“What was the Greek referendum about?”

“The question was whether or not to accept an offer to loan Greece more money under some pretty tough conditions.”

“Why did they reject it?”

“Hard to say, with people.”

“Would it have all been different if they’d said yes?”

“I dunno… the offer they were voting on had been withdrawn a week before.”


“Yes sweetie?”

“People are stupid.”

“Now you understand how World War III started.”

The notion of a sovereign state that can’t issue its own currency may or may not be stupid, but it’s certainly weird. When one part of a nation-state suffers from chronic economic backwardness–think Newfoundland in Canada–there are various natural responses. Out-migration from the affected region is a major one, which makes living cheaper for those who remain behind. I can get a detached 3000 square foot home in St John’s for the price of a one bedroom condo in Vancouver. Subsidization is another, which is viable because there is political representation in Parliament from Atlantic Canada, and there is a certain degree of national feeling from the rest of us that allow us to tolerate the perpetual sinking of our tax dollars into various failed economic development projects.

Those things work because language and culture and politics all allow a high degree of mobility, and political representation ensures that there is an incentive for Parliament to take care of the struggling regions. After all, it might be Alberta that needs a hand-out next. We’re all in this together.

Europe does not have strong central political institutions of the kind Canada has. It has a bunch of national governments attempting to conform to the technocratic dictates from Brussels. The European Parliament passes regulations, not laws, and has little independent enforcement capacity and if it did that capacity would have little democratic legitimacy.

European nations also have significant barriers to mass migration. The average Newfoundlander can become an Albertan by doning a cowboy hat and learning that a fish is something accidentally dropped down a borehole rather than something eradicated by excess harvesting.

I’ve worked in three Canadian provinces–and am licensed in a regulated profession in two of them–and no one knows or cares where I’m from, because all Canadians are pretty much interchangeable. All Europeans are not.

The average Greek cannot become a German. Differences in language, laws and culture prevent it. Some few certainly can, but the barrier is many times higher than the barrier to moving within a nation. A drilling company hiring Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray knows they are getting basically standard-issue Canadians with funny accents. A German company hiring Greeks knows much less, and humans err on the side of caution. That’s one of the big reasons why under-employment is a problem for immigrants everywhere, including in Canada where we strive to only accept the best and brightest from abroad. In a mass migration you get everyone, and unemployment in the migrant population skyrockets. So Greeks aren’t mass-migrating, because they aren’t idiots and would rather be unemployed in Greece than unemployed in Germany.

One day, maybe, Europe will have a unified identity that will result in common standards, common education and common culture that will make all that a thing of the past. But that day is not today, and I’m not personally convinced it would be a good thing if it did happen. Diversity has value.

In my own experience, even so small a move as across the border to the US, where I’ve worked in two very different states, requires noticeable cultural adjustment. I’ve never lived in Quebec–still on my bucket list–but in the time I’ve spent there I’ve never felt as much as an alien as I have in the US, and I speak French like a deaf Anglo with a speech impediment. Changing countries is hard.

So when Greece finds itself “shocked, shocked” to discover that widespread corruption, over-generous and inefficient social programs, and cushy public-sector pensions are not the road to national prosperity, out-migration is not really an option.

In a country that has sovereignity over its currency, devaluation is generally what happens instead. People who have loaned money to that country denominated in the national currency get their loans paid back with little pieces of paper that are a smaller claim on the national wealth than they had anticipated. Sucks to be them, but that is the risk lenders take when they put their money out to use. In the meantime, imports drop and exports get cheaper, and the national economy recovers. This is not a cure for all ills, and nothing can fix the breakdown of the rule of law, but it’s pretty much taylor-made for what is happening in Greece.

But Greece can’t implement it, or anything like it. There’s a whole lot of middle ground between Canada’s completely-floating currency and Greece’s use of the euro, and any of those alternative arrangements–like a peg to the euro or some kind of lagged approximation to a basket of other currencies–would have allowed Greece to respond to the consequences of the country being run by generations of corrupt incompetents.

Instead, Greek goods and services are being priced in the same currency as German goods and services. It is possible for Greek merchants to just drop their prices, but people aren’t that flexible, and even so the price signal would be misleading, because one of the hallmarks of a corrupt, inefficient economy is failure to deliver. Pricing in drachma signals that risk as well as others.

Economies can be viewed as calculating machines, where the aggregate wisdom–such as it is–determines the prices of goods and services. Relative currency values reflect collective judgements better than any other known mechanism: the kind of hands-on collective judgement that was attempted by the Politburo back in the day is an example of what the failure of that mechanism looks like.

Greece today is an example of a different kind of failure of the same mechanism. The euro is a lie, a breaking of the market’s most fundamental mechanism. By not allowing Greek debt to devalue to reflect the economic realities of the country the euro is making a claim that is not true: that the Greek economy is just as able to pay creditors as the German economy. Greece can’t pay its debts, and when that happens, people who were foolish enough to loan money to them… lose.

The problem is that the euro is as much a political statement as an economic one. Greece leaving the euro would be bad for creditors (mostly the IMF and ECB) and not great for Greeks, who will find themselves destitute pariahs using a new currency backed by a borderline failed state that has the Russians cozying up to it in the kind of sincere and genuine friendship that Russia is so well known for.

Beyond that, the idea of a unified Europe would be damaged. Probably not permanently, because European institutions are robust and generations old now, but it’s still not a good thing.

The EU is a machine that is supposed to solve the problem of war in Europe. It has done OK so far. The euro is over-reach, and the Greek mess is a result of that over-reach. The euro was introduced to reduce friction due to exchange rates and risk to due fluctuations between national currencies. As someone whose level of American earnings has always been almost perfectly counter-cyclical with US-Canadian exchange rates, I appreciate the the reality of exchange risk in particular. But it is very difficult to argue today that the benefits of the euro have been sufficient to outweigh the costs.

Perhaps the solution will ultimately be the continued existence of the euro alongside floating national currencies. This would allow exchange rate risk to be largely managed, and in these days when money is mostly ones and zeros in computers, the cost of currency conversion should be the cost of doing the calculation, which in terms of computational burden is roughly 0.00001% of the cost of loading this Web page.

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Improv Game: Absent Friend

Carrie and I were talking about funerals and improv games yesterday and came up with the seed of this idea, which I’ve further embellished. I think very slowly and writing the idea out like this helps clarify it in my mind, so this is really a note to myself. It hasn’t been play-tested yet–although for all I know it already exists out there and I’m reinventing the wheel–but feel free to try it and tell me how it works!

This is a listening game, intended to practice listening skills and scene-thinking skills. It goes like this:

Start with three people on stage designate one of them to be the absent friend, who goes goes off to the side.

The other two ask for a suggestion from the audience as usual and start a two-person scene, but in it their absent friend comes up in conversation. The suggestion from the audience should probably be asked for after the friend has been selected.

The friend, after listening a bit, can start to comment on what the two players on stage are saying. The players cannot hear the friend, but the friend can hear the players. This idea started out with Carrie and I discussing a funeral scenario, with the spirit of the dead person listening in to conversations about them. There’s no reason the game couldn’t be played that way, but I think generalizing it to any third party–who might be a relative, a co-worker or boss, or whatever, rather than just a friend–is a good idea. But they are “listening in spirit”.

This allows the friend to mess with the scene. To make it work the friend has to listen carefully to what the people on stage are saying, and the players on stage have to listen to the friend’s contributions and see how they fit in with the scene. Is it information they know, or is it something they don’t? This can be signaled with things like, “Man, you know I hate red wine!” as the players discuss what to buy their absent friend as a birthday present, for example.

The scene should run two or three minutes, and in some cases the friend might come in at the end. If they do enter the scene at the end, the friend behaves as if they haven’t heard any of the previous conversation. They were listening in spirit, not in fact!

One of the challenges of this game is that it’s very talky, so players get extra points for maintaining a high level of activity on stage.

Imaginary example. Players are Bob and Alice, friend is Mal (these are the standard names from cryptography discussions, where Bob and Alice are trying to communicate and Mal is trying to listen in.)

Bob and Alice ask “What’s something you had to eat today?” and someone in the audience shouts: “CABBAGE!” so they go with that.

Alice (making hoeing motions): These cabbages are really growing quickly.

Bob (making watering motions): It’s the organic gluten free vegan fair trade spring water I’m giving them.

Alice (picking up a bag of fertilizer and strewing it around): More like this great new chemical fertilizer Andy bought.

Bob: That stuff is poison! Andy’s just a shill for Big Fertilizer. Ever since he got that job with Monsanto he’s been saying all kinds of crazy stuff.

Alice: The cabbages agree with Andy, Uncle Fred.

Bob: I know he’s your fiance’ Frieda, but in this family we’ve always been organic.

Mal: Like I didn’t see you pigging out on a Big Mac last week, Fred.

Alice: He’s a great gardener.

Bob: Anyone can be a great gardener if they’re willing to dump chemicals all over the place.

Alice: Really Uncle Fred? I thought you said chemicals were poison!

Mal: You tell him!

Bob: Let’s not fight about it. You love him and he loves you, and that’s what really matters, I guess.

Alice: I… I guess I love him.

Mal: Huh?

Bob: You guess? If it’s love, you’d be sure.

Alice: I thought I saw him coming out of a MacDonald’s last week.

Bob: Well… uh… he’s a young man. Maybe he was just, you know, sowing some wild oats.

Mal: I was following you, Fred! I snuck in behind you because I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw you go in!

Alice: Wild oats I could deal with. But meat? I don’t think he was going in for the fries. I think the fertilizer is OK because it helps the plants grow even if it is chemicals. Beef is totally different! What if he actually eats dead animals! He promised me he was vegan!

Bob: A little meat never hurt anyone… much.

Alice: Except the poor animal! If he’s a meat-eater I’m going to have to break it off with him, and the wedding is tomorrow!

Mal: Wait, what? No!

Bob: Oh don’t do that! So he gave into temptation one time. MacDonald’s is like a bachelor party for the taste buds. One last fling, you know?

Alice: Uncle Fred?

Bob: Yes?

Alice: How do you know what MacDonald’s is like?

Bob: I, uh… well, I figured if everyone is so keen to eat it there must be something good about it!

Alice: I’m not keen to eat it. Andy isn’t either. At least he says.

Bob: Well maybe you should believe him.

Alice: But what was he doing there? Did you… take him there? Like dragging the groom to a strip club for his bachelor party?

Bob: Ha! You caught me. But he wasn’t having any! Really. He almost threw up at the smell of the meat cooking, the sight of those big juicy beef patties sizzling away…

Alice: It sounds like you enjoyed it!

Bob: Well, maybe I did, a little. A man can dream.

Mal: Dream? You sucked down two burgers and then ordered another!

Alice: I dream sometimes too, Uncle Fred.

Bob: Really? About burgers?

Alice: Is that wrong?

Bob: I guess… not really?

Mal: What are you saying, Freida! I love you!

Alice: Could you take me to MacDonalds? Just once?

Bob: Uh… sure.

Mal: Noooooooo!

Alice: Then let’s go, before I change my mind!

Mal (entering the scene, ignorant of everything that has just happened): Hey Frieda! There’s a new tofu smoothie place just opened up down the street! Let me buy you one!

Alice (her face falls, then she pastes on a fake smile): But Uncle Fred and I were just… well… OK! Thanks, Uncle Fred, but I’ll take a rain check. A tofu smoothie sounds just great!

Not the world’s most brilliant scene, but hopefully it catches the sense of the idea. Mal can introduce ideas into the scene and the players can embellish them, but it only works if everyone is listening carefully. And of course in this imaginary scene Alice and Bob continued to mime gardening throughout.

Maybe the game will work in practice, maybe it won’t. Try it out and see!

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My Career So Far

Career (v., int.): To rush headlong or carelessly; To move rapidly straight ahead, especially in an uncontrolled way.

In thirty years I’ve covered a fair bit of ground, and it’s definitely been headlong, careless and uncontrolled. I’m not sure “straight ahead” quite fits, so maybe I’ve had a “careen” more than a “career” so far.

Everything is an exploration. I got into engineering because I wanted to know how things were made, so I could make things. I got into physics because I wanted to know how the universe is made, although I don’t currently have any plans for making one. I was fortunate to go to a school that had an engineering physics program, and that let me move on to grad school in first a fairly applied area and finally some pretty esoteric stuff for my terminal degree.

For reasons I still don’t understand I got a post-doc at Caltech, which let me explore the rarefied atmosphere of top-tier American academia, as well as the less rarefied atmosphere of Los Angeles. During that time I designed a small neutrino detector that actually detected neutrinos using some fairly clever techniques to suppress backgrounds that were many orders of magnitude larger than the signal. That was also during the time of the 17 keV neutrino controversy, and I got to contribute to the untangling of it.

I wanted to raise my kids in Canada, though, so my excursion in the US didn’t last long, and as I changed countries I changed fields to medical physics, and spent a year up to my neck in megavoltage imaging. The new high-speed desktop computers–the 386 and 486–and peripherals were letting us do things that had been impossible a few years before, like capture and process images in realtime on a few thousand dollars worth of hardware. It was an exciting time, and the “pseudocorrelation” image registration algorithm I invented at that time turns out to be one of the more useful things I’ve done. It was based on some numerical techniques I’d learned as a pure physicist running radiation transport simulations, but applied to an imaging problem. Cross-pollination at its best.

The lure of pure physics brought me back to Kingston and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, where I worked on detector calibration issues for several years. I will always be grateful to Queen’s for giving me such an enormous range of opportunities. Pretty much every opportunity I’ve had is directly traceable to Queen’s.

I wanted to stay in Canada and also give my kids a life beyond the poverty line, so leaving academia seemed like a wise move, although it was easily one of the most difficult things I’ve done. I had always assumed I’d be a career academic, but there was both a lack of jobs in my field and a lack of interest on my part in doing the things one needed to do to climb that particular ladder.

I’ve always believed that it’s incoherent to say you want to do something if you don’t want to do the things that doing that thing entails. Want to be a musician? Better want to practice and study diligently, to go where the jobs are, to manage your career, and so on. Those things are what “being a musician” means. Likewise, being a professor means a lot of things, many of which I wasn’t very well-suited to. I loved hands-on research, but that’s not what profs spend most of their time doing. It was a disappointing and difficult realization, and one that took years for me to really wrap my head around. I can be kind of slow that way.

In the meantime, the dot-com boom was echoing across the land. A local company–Andyne Computing–was hiring anyone who was warm and breathing and had a little Unix experience. I had expanded my job search outside of academia and was sending off resume’s everywhere that looked remotely plausible. They turned me down for the job I’d originally applied to but would “keep my application on file”, which turned out not to be a euphemism for trashing it. A few months later I got a call and within a month or so I had jumped from academia to industry.

It was probably the most challenging time of my life, personally. The academic world has a lot going for it, but it has toxic elements that are difficult to see from the inside. The most important one is its hyper-competitive nature. In academia, everyone is a threat to everyone else’s advancement. Resources are few and finite, and any piece of the pie that someone else gets is one that you don’t. For all its superficial collegiality, the academic world is necessarily tense and hostile under the skin.

The business world is totally different. There, everyone is a resource to help grow the company. There is still politics, obviously, but one of my biggest revelations in my years at Andyne (later Hummingbird) was how much healthier the place was from a psychological point of view than even the best of the academic milieu. Academics who haven’t experienced both worlds will probably sneer at this, but for me at least the business world was just a much better place to be.

At the same time, I was getting interested in starting my own business, so I eventually moved on to explore far end of the commercial ocean, where small businesses and startups live, which turned out to be more frequently swept by storms and squalls than the sunny climes of large corporations.

I’d been through a downsizing at Hummingbird, but as the dot-com boom turned into the crash, smaller places were getting killed off at a rate sufficient to make f’dcompany a high-traffic website. The startup where I had been the first employee, putting together a computer-assisted surgery platform from scratch based on a lot of academic work done at Queen’s and KGH, folded, followed a year later by the genomics startup I jumped to after that. During that process I got to see the other side of downsizing, as I shrank my team to help lengthen the company’s runway.

Facing unemployment, I cut a deal with Parteq, the intellectual property arm of Queen’s, and licensed my former employer’s technology as part of a deal to help find a permanent home for it. My own company, Predictive Patterns Software Inc, came out of that deal.

I made some good judgements and some bad judgements over the next few years, and by the time the dust was settled PPS was a scientific and software consulting company with as much business as I could handle, including a great contract implementing my pseudo-correlation algorithm for an extremely complex intra-operative multi-modal registration procedure. I worked on everything from opthalmic ultrasound to cardiac imaging to advanced database design for clients ranging from university labs to some of the largest corporations in the world. The only thing I wouldn’t work on was stuff whose primary purpose is to kill people: I have no interest in being a deadweight loss.

When the financial crisis came rolling across the world my client base went strangely quiet. I was in the business of outsourcing rocket science, and in those uncertain times no one was spending money on anything the least bit speculative. Fortunately, one of my earliest clients had just been bought by a multi-national, and I was asked to come on board full-time. I took that opportunity, and while I continued to do a little consulting as the world recovered from the crisis, I’ve been living that alternative lifestyle known as “having a job” for almost six years now, which is almost twice as long as I’ve ever been employed by anyone other than myself.

Today, as it happens, is the last day of that employment. Corporate strategies and needs change, and what was once a business unit dedicated to new product development is being turned into one dedicated to supporting existing products. C’est la vie.

This leaves me at a juncture. I’ve done a lot of stuff in the past thirty years, and I’ve got another decade or two left in me. What to do with it?

As I said above, I’ve always been an explorer, and as such I’m drawn toward the new. While I’ve done a lot of project management over the years, it has rarely been my sole responsibility, and I’m thinking that may be one place to go next. While I’m proud of the technical work I’ve done, some of my most satisfying memories are of solving managerial problems, because they make the biggest impact on the people immediately around me.

I’m applying to some writing positions because that’s something else I’ve always wanted to do for a living. I’ve been selling my work in a small way for decades. Maybe it’s time to turn that into something more. It’s a difficult business, but what worthwhile thing has ever been easy?

There are other avenues of approach too. I’m not completely closing the door on further technical positions, or even going back to consulting, but again: I’d rather do something new over anything I’ve done before. That means I don’t capitalize quite so much on past experience as I might like, because companies increasingly want to hire people who have already done the exact job they are looking for, but that just means that I won’t end up working for people quite that myopic.

Or I could do something completely different, so different that I’ve not even thought of it yet.

So it’s an interesting time to be alive, and since I’ve had about five weeks vacation in the past fifteen years, I’m going to take advantage of the current gap to enjoy the sunshine and some of what the city has to offer while I look for the next landscape to explore.

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Making a Scene

Carrie and I have have just completed the ICI Open Scenes gym, and despite only having half an operating brain right now I want to get a few notes down before it all goes “poof”. The instructor, Brian Anderson, was excellent–consistently high-quality instruction is one of ICI’s trademarks–and the class really drove home several points for me.

1) Quiet is good. This is something that has been emphasized throughout the ICI program, but it takes some getting used to. I am a big, loud, guy, and I like large, dramatic scenes. But lesson the second is…

2) …it ain’t about what about I like. It’s about what the audience likes (this comes as a shock, I’m sure.)

3) There are a whole bunch of concrete techniques for giving the audience a good experience.

4) Show, don’t tell. The flip-side of my enjoyment of big, loud scenes is that I’m an intellectual and like to over-analyze things and over-talk things.

The class was a great mix of diverse talents. People have different styles and proclivities, and if I wanted to divide them into three types, I’d call them “dramatic”, “intellectual” and “quiet”. None of those names are very good, and everyone has some of each, but in most people one of the three runs a bit ahead of the others. Maybe “quiet” should be “characterful” or something. I dunno.

“Dramatic” is probably my dominant tendency, as I said, followed by “intellectual”. But “quiet” forms the best foundation for a scene. This again has been talked about a lot in various ICI courses: let the scene start slowly, quietly, and build up naturally. We covered this in Armando and Story in particular. Let the scene eventually take off into the stratosphere if you like, but lay the solid foundation of the ordinary first. It works better for the audience and creates better theatre.

I believed this going into the course, but it was a great exercise in seeing the principle in action, and maybe learning some habits that will help me start scenes quietly and let them build from an unassuming foundation.

One of the most delightful and illuminating exercises was done for only one scene with by three people: use just one-word sentences. It was set in heaven, and it was brilliant. The restriction to single-words both required the actors to “show don’t tell” and forced them into quiet mode. Almost everything was communicated by emotional reaction and body language.

Which is another lesson that had been covered before but I’m still wrapping my head around well enough to remember to do it in the moment:

5) A big emotional reaction can imbue another player’s work with great significance to the story and the audience.

Sometimes all you have to do is react. It doesn’t have to be extremely well-thought-out. Just treat what your scene partners have done as important… because it is, and if you treat it as important the audience will treat it as important. Which matters, because apparently we are up there to entertain the audience. I keep emphasizing this because although it’s obviously true, it’s so much fun to be on stage with the people I’ve met at ICI that it can be easy to forget that entertaining the audience, not enjoying myself, is the point.

Also, on reflection, pretty much ignoring the audience is a bad artistic habit I have from being a poet. Since no one (to a good approximation) is ever going to read my poetry, I can be entirely self-indulgent in what I create, writing for myself alone, plus Hilary and Carrie and maybe one or two others. In improv, even a small audience–even just the rest of the class–is comfortably larger than the audience for most my poetry, and they are right there in front of the stage, not scattered across the world from Serbia to Brazil. As such, it probably makes sense to pay more attention to what they want.

Brian had a lot of insights into what audiences generally want and how to give it to them, from the observation that low-status happy characters are instantly sympathetic to suggestions as to how to exploit character’s vulnerabilities for the audience’s entertainment. If a character wants something badly it’s gotta look like they aren’t going to get it, so the audience will get a rush when they finally do (or, on hopefully rare occasions, don’t.)

Those practical lessons were valuable, but the biggest thing was the practice of the quiet scene. I think (I hope) over the course of the course my scene work got lower-key, in keeping with my long-term goal of talking less, being less loud, less dramatic.

Quiet scenes are not the only good scenes by any means, but quiet scenes–especially scenes that start quietly and develop naturally–have the best chance of success. Maybe they’ll get big and dramatic. Maye they’ll get allegorical and intellectual (it does happen) but either way they’ll have a chance to do it on a foundation of some well-established characters in a solid environment with strong relationships. Quietly.

Posted in improv, life, poetry | Comments Off on Making a Scene

Many Interacting Worlds

There’s a quite clever spin on the Many Worlds Interpretation that’s just been published that solves some of the big problems but remains implausible to my jaundiced eye.

The idea is disarmingly simple and inherently non-local: suppose that there exist multiple worlds so each particle has N “avatars” (my term, not theirs) that exist in different universes. By hypothesis, the avatars don’t interact with each other except when every avatar in one universe is in almost exactly the same state as their companion avatar in an adjacent universe.

The inherent non-locality is manifest: it’s as if you put the finger-tips of your two hands together, but unless every finger was lined up with its opposite number, there would be no interaction between them. Try to put just the index fingers together and they’d pass through each other. But put all four fingers and your thumbs together and you can use one hand to push on the other. This is as non-local as it gets.

There is a sense in which they are reconceptualizating the abstract configuration space of the de Broglie-Bohm theory into a concrete set of real universes, which is definitely a more satisfactory ontology. Their inter-universe potential is closely related to Bohm’s quantum potential, and they motivate the theory with reference to Bohm’s work.

They also get to Born’s rule without a lot of flailing around, although their argument isn’t completely general (it requires the initial configuration be a solution of Schrodinger’s equation, amongst other things.) Still, this is a very nice feature, because the need to impose Born’s rule by hand is one of the most compelling critiques of Everett’s original Many Worlds idea.


Their analysis of quantum tunneling, while clever, reveals what looks to me to be a fundamental problem.

Their analysis goes like this: imagine a single particle with two avatars (in two different but closely adjacent universes) approaching a potential barrier that they don’t have enough energy to get over. The inter-universe potential results in a repulsive force between the avatars, causing one of them to speed up, one to slow down. If the universes are close enough together this will allow one of the avatars to pass over the barrier, because it will have gained enough energy to do so, while the other avatar will be slowed down.

The problem is: in the universe where the avatar makes it over the barrier, where does the energy go?

In real experiments, particles that penetrate the barrier have the same energy they started out with, once they’re through. If the inter-universe potential were the explanation for barrier penetration we would be wondering, “Where does the extra energy come from?” not “How does a particle with insufficient energy get over the barrier?”

It may be that in a more complete model this problem can be fixed up, but it isn’t obvious how. The whole point of this approach is that the dynamics are completely classical, up to the non-local, configuration-dependent strength of the inter-universe quantum potential. As such, it should be that any account of tunneling ultimately hits up against the same problem: the particles (avatars) we observe passing through the barrier should have more than enough energy to do so. That isn’t what we see, which calls the whole approach into question.

Posted in physics, prediction, quantum | Comments Off on Many Interacting Worlds

Some Notes on Armando

Carrie and I just completed an ICI Gym program in Armando, which is a variant of long-form improv. Long-form tends to have a basically similar structure: there is a (possibly repeating) source of inspiration that the improvers draw from (I like to use “improver”, pronounced “improv-er” rather than “improviser” both because it’s more specific to the art of improv rather than, say, improvising a fan belt out of a pair of pantyhose, and because it evokes “improve”, which is what we’re all trying to do.)

In Armando the source of inspiration is a “monologist” who gives typically three or maybe four monologues over the course of 20 or 30 minutes. The monologues are true stories about the monologist. There are various reasons for this: it increases emotional authenticity and tones down the more risque’ stuff, both of which are good things. Sex makes for easy humour, and who wants to do the easy thing?

We had monologues tonight about people learning to steal as kids, about the annoying behaviour of parents, about the stupid things we do as young adults, and so on. All gold-mines of material.

The way the material is used is as a source of inspiration, not as a literal plot. The improvers don’t act out the story of the monologue, but rather take some point in it and use that as the basis for a scene. The scene may be long or short, it may involve only one person or half a dozen. It may be intense, laid-back, wandering, directed, whatever. It isn’t always obvious (to me, anyway) how it links back to the monologue, but one of the fun things about improv is it gives you a glimpse inside other people’s minds: how they think, what seems natural to them.

In the Age of the Internet the notion that other people see the world in fundamentally different ways should not be a surprise, but C.S. Lewis’ observation that every child at the age of ten believes “the kind of fish-knives used in her father’s house were the proper or normal or ‘real’ kind, while those of the neighbouring families were ‘not real fish-knives’ at all” would seem to still apply to adults as well. We just don’t often find ourselves in situations where it matters what kind of fish-knives we or anyone else thinks are “real”.

Improv forces us to actively seek out and understand our fellow-player’s everyday understanding of common-place ideas, and we frequently discover it differs a good deal from our own. This is often quite fun.

The Armando class happened to have a bunch of people who had played together before, either in previous classes or in informal jams. This made for a great learning environment, facilitated by a great teacher, Margaret Nyfors.

These notes are just my quick impression of the class overall, which ran for four weeks in two-hour evening sessions. This seemed like a really good format, because the time just flew by and the work was exhausting.

At the beginning it was really challenging. Figuring out how to recognize and pull out ideas, figuring out how to contribute to a scene or when not to, and figuring out how to end a scene–which is usually done by “swiping”, in which a player (who may be in the scene) runs across the front to signal the end–were all difficult. By the third class we were getting the hang of it: the group was friendly and positive, and we all realized we were having similar issues and making sure everyone was supported as we struggled with them.

Here is an incomplete list of things I think I learned, in no particular order, noted down for my own use, but maybe they’ll be useful to others as well. Some are specific to Armando, most are more general:

  1. Any idea will do. Today there was one scene started on the basis of the monologist stumbling over a word that she couldn’t remember. The player starting the scene began telling a story to someone she drew in from the group, and as more and more people gathered round to hear it she began fumbling with words, blanking on completely commonplace terms, and finally getting into an argument over her story-telling ability. It was a great demonstration of how you can pick up one minor quirk of delivery and turn it into a scene.
  2. Variety, variety, variety. Scene length. Number of players. Active vs talky. High drama vs everyday. The scenes will eventually fill out some kind of envelope of possibility, or enough of it to make it time for a new monologue, and you want to cover some ground both for the sake of the story and the sake of the audience. Too much of anything gets monotonic. If the last scene was high drama, tone the next one down a bit. If a few two-person scenes have been done, do a group scene, or a single-person scene. Change it up.
  3. Trust. I’m not a person to whom trust comes naturally, and I’ve been trained as a scientist to be even less trusting. Many years ago a colleague came and asked me about a particular piece of apparatus I was using. It was sitting on the bench but the label plate wasn’t visible and so I just told him the model number. He insisted on getting in behind it to have a look. I started to think, “How rude” when I realized I would have done exactly the same thing. We are trained not to trust, especially when there’s an easy check.

    Improv isn’t like that: trust is the default, and the more you play with people the more you trust them. I can feel the degree of trust I’m able to extend getting larger, and changing in kind as the environment I’m playing in gets more free. In a game the level of trust is not huge because the structure keeps everything safe. The more free-form the scene is the more trust is required and the more powerful trust becomes. In Armando trust spans many dimensions: you can start a scene with half an idea and trust your fellow players will find the other half. You trust that you’ll find a story to tell, or a way to close the scene. You trust that someone will swipe the scene at a sensible time.

    All that trust lets you focus on doing your job in the scene, which may be staying out of it entirely. I’m still working on this.

  4. Low-drama scenes are often better. Let the story develop. Let the characters speak and behave quasi-naturally. Let the humour come out of their authentic interaction. Don’t start too high, but let the absurdity of the scene ramp up over time, starting with something normal and finding an unforced path to something weird, but logical in its own way.
  5. Cats are nice (not relevant to Armando, but I’m writing this with a cat on my lap and I figure if I mention him he might settle down and stop clawing my arm and let me get it done.)
  6. Special for men: be charming. If you’re a jerk, make sure you get your comeuppance before the scene is done.
  7. Special for women: be nice to each other. Don’t be catty or hostile.
  8. It’s always about the relationship. Sure a scene may be in a video store, but it’s not about videos. It’s about the relationships between the people there.
  9. Who am I, where am I, and what am I doing? If you can answer those three questions you know why you are in the scene and probably what it is about.
  10. Who or what is the scene about? Once this is established, be wary of further offers that could confuse or overwhelm it. The scene doesn’t need them. Don’t think that because you have a great idea that the scene needs it. I’m still working on this.
  11. For the monologist: pay careful attention to the scenes and decide when to swipe the whole thing and start a new monologue. The monologist is the onlie begetter in Armando, and is responsible for providing fertile ground to the players and deciding when the ideas from one monologue have been mined out and it’s time to start another.

That’s all I can think of at the moment. It’s late, I’m tired, and it was a great class. ICI rocks.

Posted in improv | Comments Off on Some Notes on Armando

Some Notes on Being Bad at Stuff

I’m not a big fan of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says the language we use limits the ways we can think. The fact is we routinely create new language when we need to think new thoughts. But old language can tend to nudge us in problematic directions.

Consider the following statements:

1) “I am a student of X.”
2) “I am bad at X.”
3) “I am working on learning X.”
4) “Every time I do X I make big mistakes.”

We tend to sort these statements into two categories: “learner/student: good!” and “mistakes/bad: bad!” Yet in fact the “negative” statements are necessary consequences of the “positive” statements. Although there are lots of reasons we might be bad at something, one of the more common ones is that we’re just learning how to do it.

We need a word for “student-bad” rather than “incompetent-bad”. As it stands, we always say “I am bad at this” regardless of the reason, and that tends to make learning more emotionally difficult than it needs to be. At any level of learning there are certain mistakes we don’t want to make. But at the level we are at, there are mistakes we need to make, mistakes we are here to make, because by making those mistakes–recognizing them for what they are, watching and analyzing how we went wrong and figuring out ways to avoid them–is precisely how we learn in almost all cases.

“Book learning” is a bit different: it is a way to absorb information and maybe even knowledge without making many mistakes, and that’s a good and useful thing, but it only covers a small fraction of the totality of knowledge and skill.

The Maker movement has been not bad about lionizing the willingness to make mistakes, but we still don’t have a word for “Whenever I do X I make_the_kind_of_mistakes_I_need_to_make_to_learn_how_to_do_X_better,” and we need one.

Maybe such a word exists in some other language that we can steal in the finest tradition of English… my first suggestion is “litost”, from the Czech meaning “a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery”.

Posted in epistemology, language, life, making | Comments Off on Some Notes on Being Bad at Stuff

A Closed-Form Argument about Climate Change

I’ve been a critic of over-sold climate models for many years now. I am a computational physicist, and therefore–unlike climate scientists–am professionally qualified to judge the predictive quality of climate models.

I mention this because apparently many people think it important that whenever a physicist like Freeman Dyson says anything about climate change that people be reminded that physicists “are not climate scientists” as if that invalidates the points they make. In the present case, those self-same people ought therefore to be willing to dismiss anything climate scientists say about climate model accuracy in favour of the judgement of someone who is properly professionally qualified.

Personally, I think that’s a load of bollocks, but as I say: a surprising number of people take this notion very seriously.

And in fairness, climate scientist’s lack of expertise in the broader field of computational physics really is problematic. Because they haven’t spent most of their careers working with models that can be tested in detail, they seem to have very little notion of the insurmountable difficulties involved in building predictive models from imperfect physics.

In any case, I’ve been very interested in constructing a simple argument that does not depend on climate models in any kind of detail, and that answers the question, “Is climate change anthropogenic or not?”

That Earth’s climate is changing is pretty clear. Direct measurements indicate that about 1 W/m**2 is being added to the Earth’s heat budget, and a number of additional measurements, particularly ocean temperature profiles, support this view.

From that fact alone, however, there are two things we can’t infer:

1) Where the extra heat is coming from


2) What the effects of the extra heat will be.

The first question is what I am addressing here. Granted that additional heat of about 1 W/m**2 is being added–because this is a highly plausible proposition based on multiple independent measures–how do we know if human activity is responsible? Particularly, how do we know if greenhouse gases are responsible?

There are two steps to the argument.

The first is that greenhouse gas warming has particular signatures that are not shared by any known alternatives.

The first of these is the day/night effect: nights are seeing more warming than days. For changes in external sources, like the sun, we would expect the opposite effect. For greenhouse gases, which prevent the Earth’s surface from losing heat to space at night, this is what we would expect.

The second is the altitude effect: the surface is warming faster than the upper atmosphere (which is in fact cooling). This is consistent with heat being trapped near the Earth’s surface, as happens with any greenhouse gas model.

The third(ish) is the latitude effect: higher latitudes are warming faster than the tropics. This is more-or-less consequent on the altitude effect. Because the surface is warming faster than the upper atmosphere, snow and ice are melting, which exposes more dark surface (rocks) which leads to more warming.

These effects are signatures of greenhouse gas warming.

The second part of the argument is: where are the greenhouse gases coming from? Are there natural sources?

The major greenhouse gases (other than water) are CO2 and methane, both of which have concentrations that are measurably increasing, and both of which have large human sources that we can compute by simple arithmetic. We know how much coal and oil we burn, and we have a reasonable idea of how much methane is emitted by various industrial and agricultural processes, so we can both estimate our impact and measure our impact on the amount of these greenhouse gasses, and the numbers are roughly consistent.

So here is the closed-form argument:

Observed warming has signatures (day/night and altitude, which leads to latitude) that are only consistent with greenhouse gases. We can measure and calculate the amount of greenhouse gasses we dump into the air, and we know there are no other major sources (despite repeated lies about volcanoes etc.) Furthermore, the magnitude of observed warming is consistent with reasonable estimates–mostly from climate models–of the size of the greenhouse gas emissions. While climate models are not going to get the details right, we should expect them to get the size of the overall effect roughly correct, so whatever else we can say it’s not like the observed warming is orders of magnitude different from the predicted warming. They are basically on par. Given this, it is most plausible that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for the observed warming.

It is not clear what the effects of the excess heat will be, because climate models are not adequate for the kind of detailed prediction that would allow us to say anything about that with much confidence. We can, however, say that if the changes are more than extremely modest, they will likely be quite expensive, because our current economy is finely tuned to our current climate, so almost any change is likely to be economically disruptive on a global scale. Hardly the end of the world, but given we have the means at hand in terms of both policy and technology to tweak global, industrial capitalism to deal with climate change without impoverishing ourselves or engaging in some known-failed strategy like “changing everything”, it behooves us to do it.

Shifting from income to carbon taxes, building solar and storage capacity, building advanced/modular nuclear capacity and investing in thorium-cycle research and fusion research as well as carbon capture and geo-engineering research, are all good policy, and carbon pricing in particular will go a long way toward fixing the problem all by itself. We know how to do this. We don’t have to turn it into a titanic battle of good against evil. All we have to do is engage in the kind of ordinary, evidence-based policy-making that has improved public health and living standards so much over most of the past century.

So let’s get on that, shall we?

Posted in economics, physics, politics, prediction, science, software, technology | Comments Off on A Closed-Form Argument about Climate Change

What Is Game Theory a Theory Of?

I’ve written about the Prisoner’s Dilemma before but wanted to revisit the point.

Game theory purports to be a theory of “rational self-interested actors” or “rational maximizers.” These are individuals who are only interested in playing the game to win. All they know about the other player is that they are also a rational maximizer, and this is necessary for the theory to say anything interesting.

If both players were not rational maximizers then the rational player might need a completely different strategy depending on the nature of their opponent. Game theory would then be a theory of nothing much. It is only as a theory of rational maximizers that it has anything interesting to say at all.

Note that here I am talking about classic game theory, not newfangled modern inventions that study iterated games amongst semi-rational players and ask what the optimal strategy is in such circumstances. I’m talking about the historical foundations of the modern field, not the modern field.

The problem with the classic theory of deterministic symmetrical games is that in a deterministic symmetrical game all rational maximizers will necessarily choose the same strategy. To claim anything else would be to claim that we can rely on some rational maximizers to behave differently than others, which would only be the case when there are multiple strategies that have identical payoffs, which is not generally the case for symmetrical games, and is specifically not the case with regard to the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Again: stochastic game theory, where no agent can be relied upon to be a rational maximizer, is a different animal. In this case, a rational maximizer’s strategy is neither unique nor obvious, so a great deal of the supposed power of game theory goes away.

But for a theory of strict rational maximizers there is no more chance of one rational maximizer in a pairwise game to make a different choice than the other than there is of one mass in a physics problem falling down while an otherwise identical mass falls up. Classical physics is a deterministic theory of massive bodies, and as such all massive bodies are predicted to behave in the same way in the same situation.

In a deterministic theory of rational maximizers all rational maximizers are predicted to behave in the same way in the same situation.

It follows from the this that the off-diagonal elements of the payoff matrix for a symmetric one-off game between rational maximizers are irrelevant. No rational maximizer would ever consider them because they know that as matter of causal necessity whatever they choose the other actor will choose as well.

To claim otherwise is to claim that one actor is a rational maximizer and the other actor is a random number generator, which is not what classical game theory purports to be about.

I’m belabouring this point for a reason: this error of imposing an asymmetric assumption on a symmetric situation is incredibly common, the point of being our default assumption, and it is more often than not wrong.

To take a trivial example: Patrick Rothfuss’ novella “The Slow Regard of Silent Things” was pretty well received by his first readers, but they all thought no one else would like it even though they themselves did.

This is the Prisoner’s Fallacy: the rejection of the idea that the best, most robust, first-order predictor of other people’s behaviour is your own behaviour.

The opposite of this is the Law of Common Humanity: “To first order, They are pretty much like Us.”

The Prisoner’s Fallacy comes to us so naturally that an entire industry of very smart people failed to notice it in the roots of classical game theory. Of course the players of a symmetrical game could behave differently! How could this not be?

More interestingly: how could it be? How could we come to impose asymmetry on such a symmetrical situation?

Is it simply because we cannot see from any point of view but our own, and as soon as we think about the problem we project ourselves into the mind of the nominal rational maximizer, and so spontaneously break the symmetry of the problem? Maybe. But we have no warrant to do so.

This is not a small problem. The most extreme case results in the War Puzzle: the question of why anyone would go to war when there are always better alternatives available. The reason seems to be in part that we humans tend to expect others will behave differently than ourselves: we would fight back vigorously when attacked, but they will capitulate at the sound of the first shot.

Decentering our point of view is hard. There are entire books written on it and none of them have made much difference to the world. I don’t have any amazingly clever solution. I just wanted to point out how pervasive and easy this error is to make, so much so that I’m sure that most people versed in classical game theory will deny the premise of this post, and insist that no one ever claimed that classical game theory was just a theory of rational maximizers but some other theory that explicitly adopted fixes to allow non-rational actors into the mix. This may be, but every popular exposition of game theory I’ve read, as well as more technical introductions, tend to say things like, game theory is “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.”

Yet no theory of intelligent rational decision-makers will admit of the possibility that in a symmetric game there will be anything other than symmetrical behaviour on the part of identical entities.

Posted in economics, ethics, politics, war | Comments Off on What Is Game Theory a Theory Of?