Monday, July 18, 2016

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

    (J. R. Green) The Wonders of the Ancient World (1983) Well done pamphlet about the 7 Wonders. Quick now, can you recite their names? I couldn’t either, still can’t. Anyhow, Green, Assistant Professor of Archaeology at Sydney University (Australia) writes well, packs an immense amount of information into very few words, and manages to get across what these Wonders meant to the Greeks, who made up the list. The illustrations assembled from many medieval and later sources by the Reader’s Digest team (RD take credit for the booklet) suit the text very well, and show how absence of data does not deter people from creating detailed pictures of things they have never seen. Certainly out of print by now, but that’s not the only reason this is a keeper. Lovely little reference, the kind that can settle friendly arguments. ****

Great Model Railroads 2016

     Kalmbach Publishing Co. Great Model Railroads 2016 It’s time to review another of these special annual Model Railroader issues. Model Railroader is a strong proponent of operations: the owners of all the layouts featured here either designed them for operation, or added operations after exposure to the entertainment value of the railroad game. They also want a stage for the trains, the actors in the drama, as Frank Ellison described it in his articles about the Delta Lines, a showcase for railroad-like operations in the 1940s and 50s. So the layouts look good, interpreting or echoing some prototype and set in a recognisable time.
     The articles generally follow the “How I Built My Railroad” format, which will be helpful to the novice. Since the magazine is intended as inspiration and showcase, this makes sense. However, I sometimes wonder whether page after page of basement- or garage-sized layouts might not overwhelm the new modeller, who more likely has a small bedroom or a corner of a family room available. The layouts here range in size from 299 to 1800 square feet. Most are in the 400 square foot range.
     That being said, the photography is excellent, the concepts are interesting, and every builder has solved some common problem in an unusual way. The most successful layouts, to my eyes, are those that use a minimalist approach. That is, design a track plan based on the prototype, which disliked spending unnecessary money, and so tended to build just enough track to get the job done. Use enough scenery to give the trains a setting. Avoid cluttery detail, but set up scenes that tell a story. Use colour and lighting to create the ambience desired, which is of course the illusion that we are looking at a miniature universe. Give the operators what they want while giving the mildly interested hangers-on something to look at and enjoy.
     While these layouts are large, they not complex. They all provide a full evening’s operation, some with a half dozen, other with a dozen or more players. The make playing at railroading easy enough to avoid frustration, and complicated enough to hold interest.
     A few faves:
    The Shasta Route (HO, Southern Pacific), a well thought out train-watchers layout with grand vistas and some switching to keep the puzzle-solvers busy. There’s enough staging to allow for a satisfyingly busy day down by the tracks.
     The Appalachian Route (On30, fictitious), which creates a nice early 20th century ambience for the nostalgia buff who likes to see small trains in large landscapes, and lots of laid back switching in towns and villages hosting small and medium-sized businesses.
     River City (HO, Minneapolis & St Louis), which recreates a few miles of small town railroading, with enough operation to keep a half dozen or so people busy for relaxing evening. The builder kept close to prototype track arrangements, but fudged a bit by including some defunct businesses to increase work for the peddler trains.
     This issue is no longer in print, but back issues are available from Kalmbach, and many hobby shops will still have a few copies on their racks. ***

The Past's Long Shadows: Trophies and Dead Things, by Marcia Muller

     Marcia Muller. Trophies and Dead Things (1990) Sharon McCone tracks a serial killer who’s randomly picking off people, including Perry Hilderley,  a client of Hank’s, colleague and lawyer at the All Souls Legal Cooperative. She solves that one, but the case isn’t over yet. Hilderley has left his fortune to four people whose connections to him and each other are obscure. McCone solves that one, too, but not without two more deaths. Muller likes stories in which the past’s long shadows darken the lives of the more or less innocent young. Here, it’s the anti-Vietnam War protest movement of the 60s. Multiple betrayals and confused motives messed up lives back then; unfinished business prompts some people to lethal action now.
     A plausible plot with not overly-TV’ed characters. The story moves at a leisurely pace. The back-stories of the All Souls characters advance a few steps. A couple of kittens appear here and there, and end up at McCone’s place. Love hurts are healed, somewhat. There’s no mention of fees, especially McCone’s, ever being paid. Well done entertainment, a cut or two above the average for the female PI genre. **½

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Schrödinger's Cat has Kittens

     John Gribbin. Schrödinger’s Kittens (1995) Gribbin’s follow-up to his In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, an earlier attempt to explain quantum mechanics. Here, he begins with an overview of the weird results of experiments inspired by various interpretations of QM, and an overview of several attempts to explain the weirdness. He focusses on non-locality, as evidenced in entanglement for example. Non-locality appears to require instantaneous exchange of information: If you determine the polarisation of one electron, the other instantly “collapses” into the complementary polarisation.
     And so on.
     I’ll note in passing that Gribbin spends a lot of time debunking the Copenhagen Interpretation (CI), which he claims requires a conscious observer. I don’t think it does, but let that pass. Either way, the CI interpretation relies on the metaphor of collapsing probability waves.
     Gribbin’s first insight, with which I agree, is that interpretations are metaphors or analogies. The question is of what? Gribbin says “Models!”, by which he means theories. And fails to see that Models is another metaphor. But he does say a couple of useful things about the relationship between theories (or models) and what they purport to explain, in particular that they are stories we make up in order to make sense of our observations. I don’t think he emphasises enough that these stories are told in mathematics.
     His second insight is that all experiments, and hence all theories that explain experimental results, are deliberate reductions of degrees of freedom, aka variables. Hold as many variables as possible constant, and see what happens when you mess with the rest, preferably just one if you manage it. Create a model of just one aspect of reality (whatever it is). Eg, the laws of motion don’t concern themselves with the chemical properties of the objects whose motion they describe.
     So which of the many models of reality embodied in QM and its interpretations is “true”? They all are, as far as they go. Which one goes farthest?
     Gribbin plumps for string theory, which was fairly new in 1995, and Cramer’s transaction interpretation, which hasn’t gained as much traction as string theory has. Cramer points out that a key equation in QM has two solutions, one of which implies that “waves” propagate backwards in time. Gribbin claims that this “myth for our time” resolves the paradoxes and weirdnesses of QM.
     Well, it made sense while I was reading it.
     Throughout his book, Gribbin, like other scientists who’ve offered interpretations of QM, talks as if theories are descriptions of reality. He does this even when he reminds us that any theory that works is true only as far as it goes. Thus the Rutherford atom works just fine in chemistry, which deals with the interactions of the electrons that surround the atom. Newton’s equations work just fine for small jaunts into space. The notion of a photon as a wave works for certain experiments, and not for others.
     By “works”, I infer that Gribbin means “predicts observations accurately to the desired degree of precision”. Gribbin neither states this concept explicitly nor examines what it might mean. I think he doesn’t think about what a model is. I’ve built models, so I’m acutely aware that a model is not a replica of its prototype. You can get close, as with a model steam locomotive that operates on steam. But its boiler will have thicker than scale-size walls because otherwise it would be too weak to hold the necessary steam pressure. Its control handles must be bigger than scale so you can work them. And so on.
     In short, all models compromise, and in doing so they misrepresent what they model. A model is limited to the features that the modeller finds interesting and leaves out everything else. So if we declare that a theory is a model, just what does that imply?
     A theory is a collection of intertwined equations that describe the possible states of some natural system and how it may change states. In this sense, a theory is a model of the system. More precisely, if it’s well enough constructed, it’s an algorithm. Input some data (say, the present position and velocity of a rocket), turn the crank, and output some data (the position and velocity of the rocket a few minutes or days or weeks from now). The simple model of rocket motion ignores the effects of wind as it rises through the atmosphere, and the effects of gravity as passes by the Moon and Mars. To fix that, more complex models are devised. Divergence between calculated an observed values require that the model be rerun with the new actual values. And so on.
     In short, the model supplies information. It tells us where to look for the rocket. It’s not a description of reality, but a recipe for acquiring knowledge. But it’s limited: The Newtonian model tells us about the rocket’s velocity and location, but it doesn’t tell us how the crew is doing, and whether they will survive. For that, we need a different model (and a rather more complicated one).
     A theory is about how we can know some things about some entities. It is not a description of those entities. Philosophically, it’s epistemological, not ontological.
     So also with QM. It doesn’t tell us what an electron is, or even where it will be. It only tells where it’s been, and where it might be if you look again. The probability wave isn’t a description of possible states of the electron, it’s a description of how likely we are to know that the electron is in any given state.
     Even if you don’t go as far down the epistemological path as I’ve gone, you still don’t know what an electron is. All we know of the electron is a list of interactions, and some recipes for predicting which interactions will be observed when and where. Those recipes are amazingly accurate. Well, they amaze people who know how difficult it is to make accurate and precise observations, which includes me. I think it’s the success of QM that tempts physicists into thinking they are talking about reality. They aren’t. They’re talking about interactions, of which observation by a human is merely one more, and which I don’t believe is privileged in any way.
     Still, the book is worth a read if you have the time. It’s a good introduction to some of the wonderful strangeness of our universe. Gribbin has continued to publish his ruminations about QM and many other topics, his website
will tell you more. The Wikipedia entry includes a complete bibliography.
     Recommended, but sometimes heavy going. ***
     Reposted 2016-07-13 after accidental deletion.

Holmes, the Man of Action.

     Sherlock Holmes: The Game of Shadows (2011) [D: Guy Ritchie. Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, et al.] Conan Doyle’s Holmes this isn’t, but it’s a consistent re-imagining of the character. Moriarty wants massive profit by selling arms, so he arranges for assassinations intended to provoke war. Holmes and Watson manage to spike his guns, literally. Holmes takes Moriarty with him over the Reichenbach Falls, and the movie ends with Watson typing The End. Holmes materialises out of the armchair against the wall, and adds a question mark.
     Nicely done as a movie, good script with a clear enough narrative line and enough characterisation to give the actors something to work with. But the trend to CGI-enhanced, over-long “action” sequences doesn’t improve it. Robert Downey Jr does a creditable job as Holmes, Jude Law as Watson, and Kelly Reilly gets a nice bit part as Mary Watson, expert at solving ciphers and codes. Jared Harris’s Moriarty doesn’t convince me as the master of evil. Overall, a comic-book version of Holmes, a pleasant enough entertainment. **½

Brexit V: May says the right things

.... but does something strange, appointing Boris Johnson as her Foreign Minister. His history of confabulation, ducking responsibility, and attention seeking does not augur well for his skills as negotiator. So why did May appoint him? Cynic that I am, I suspect continuing internecine war within the Conservative Party. the nest few eeks should be interesting.
     The initial financial shocks have subsided. If the UK can demonstrate something like political stability, its economic decline may turn out to be less serious tan the first panicky reactions to Brexit suggested. We'll see. As with weather, economic forecasts need updating at regular intervals. My bet right now is that the slide of the pound will slow down, with an occasional uptick, but by this time next year it will at par with the dollar.

Food matters

     Seeds of Time (2013) Documentary that follows Cary Fowler as he travels round the world  as part of a world-wide seed-saving project. He was one of the instigators of the Svalbard Seed Vault. His message is simple: industrialised agriculture has brought about a sharp decline in crop diversity just when climate change has raised the need for genetic diversity so that crops can be adapted to changing conditions. Besides Svalbard, a project to preserve potato diversity in Peru gets central billing. There are also scenes of conferences, graphics illustrating the loss of seed banks, and so on. This is one of those slow-moving crises that people will ignore until it’s too late.
      Besides the Peruvian potato saving project, the film includes examples of seed saving by gardeners and other projects designed to preserve and increase diversify. Some of the repetitive bits could have been cut to provide more room for gardening, which in pure energy terms is the most efficient method of growing food.
     Unlike industrialised agriculture, a garden multiplies energy. The efficiency of agribusiness is an illusion limited to money. In terms of resources, it’s highly inefficient, because the externals aren’t priced. Gardening is labour intensive, but we get more food energy out of a garden than we put into it. Good thing too, or our ancestors, couldn’t have survived by preserving garden produce for the long cold winter. We subsidise agri-business by underpricing oil, which means we exchange the future of the planet for the present freedom from labour.
     A film both depressing and hopeful, relentlessly earnest, but necessary. Grow beans in your backyard even if you don’t watch it. ***

Consciousness and the real world

The New York Times recently reprinted an essay by Galen Strawson, "Consciousness isn't a Mystery. It's Matter".

I don’t usually review articles, but this one is I think worth reading. Strawson’s argument reverses the commonplace conception of what we know and don’t know about reality. Since I’ve long held similar views, his paper made me feel pretty good.

Briefly, this is how I interpret his thesis: The Hard Problem is not Consciousness. It’s Physical Reality. Physics offers an incomplete view of reality. It tells us how reality works, but it does not and it cannot tell us what reality is. This point was a commonplace one 100 years ago, Strawson writes, but it has gotten lost in the recent discussion of consciousness. Stephen Hawking makes [this point] dramatically in his book “A Brief History of Time.” Physics, he says, is “just a set of rules and equations.” The question is what “breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” What is the fundamental stuff of physical reality, the stuff that is structured in the way physics reveals? The answer, again, is that we don’t know — except insofar as this stuff takes the form of conscious experience.

In a post about Schrödinger’s Cat, I made the point that what physics offers us is a model of reality, of whatever-it-is that’s out there. Models are inherently limited. Whether built of equations or of plastic and metal, a model is not the prototype. It’s not even a replica of its prototype. (1) A model behaves in some limited respects like its prototype, which can be useful. A bridge design, that is, a conceptual model of a bridge, allows us to calculate the stresses well enough that the real bridge built according to that design will carry traffic without falling down. (2)

The model of the bridge can exist in several media: drawings, sets of equations and algorithms, physical objects made of wood or plastic or metal. None of them is the actual bridge, and none of them captures the total reality of the bridge. But, says Strawson, we can know the real bridge, insofar as [the bridge] takes the form of conscious experience. Indeed we can. We can look at it, we can hear the wind make the supporting cables hum, we can feel it shake as a truck passes over it, we can feel the texture of the railings as we hold on to them. That, implies Strawson, is the physical reality that our models can never capture. But our conscious experience is what we know directly, and all that we can know, of physical reality.

So the hard problem is the problem of matter (physical stuff in general). If physics made any claim that couldn’t be squared with the fact that our conscious experience is brain activity, then I believe that claim would be false. But physics doesn’t do any such thing. It’s not the physics picture of matter that’s the problem; it’s the ordinary everyday picture of matter. It’s ironic that the people who are most likely to doubt or deny the existence of consciousness (on the ground that everything is physical, and that consciousness can’t possibly be physical) are also those who are most insistent on the primacy of science, because it is precisely science that makes the key point shine most brightly: the point that there is a fundamental respect in which ultimate intrinsic nature of the stuff of the universe is unknown to us — except insofar as it is consciousness.

Strawson implies that reality is consciousness.  I’m not sure that I agree with that. But his stance has at least two advantages over the notion that Consciousness is the Hard Problem.

First, it reminds us that physics itself is motivated by a desire to make sense of our conscious experience. The fact that our models become ever more abstract, become “sets of rules and equations”, is a side effect of the experimental process that we believe yields objectively true insights. (3)

Secondly, it validates the empirical stance. We test accounts of reality, no matter how abstruse or abstract, against our own experience. “Truth” is the feeling we have that what’s been said corresponds to reality as we perceive it. This is as true about the most mystical theology as about the most concrete engineering problem. It’s as true about the silliest confabulations as about the most tested and proven claims.

“The truth is out there” undergirds all our sense of reality. But we know the truth only by sensing congruencies between different remembered experiences. Whatever is “out there” will forever be a mystery. That was Plato’s point in his image of the cave. His mistake was to believe that reasoning could access the reality outside the cave. He began the line of thought that ends with the blithe assumption that the “sets of rules and equations” describe reality not only more accurately but more completely than the accounts of our own experience.

There’s an irony here: The more we try to understand the nature of reality, the more we retreat from it. As Russel pointed out, in mathematics we know whether what we are saying is true, but we don’t know what it’s about; while in poetry we know what we are talking about, but we don’t know whether what we are saying is true. With all its quirks and imperfections, the conscious world is the only reality we know.

Footnote 1: There is a difference between a scale model of a steam locomotive that runs on steam, and a full size replica of the same locomotive. The model's boiler, for example, will have thicker than scale walls, else it cannot sustain the necessary steam pressure. The model will not accelerate and decelerate in scale proportion, because its power-to-mass ratio will be different.

Footnote 2: Nineteenth century theories of bridge behaviour were incomplete enough that many bridges fell down, and many people died. The real bridge does not behave exactly as modelled, thus giving graduate students in engineering lots of opportunity to observe them and refine the models.

Footnote 3: Quoting Bertrand Russell, Strawson writes:  “We know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events,” [Russell] wrote, “except when these are mental events that we directly experience.” In having conscious experience, he claims, we learn something about the intrinsic nature of physical stuff, for conscious experience is itself a form of physical stuff.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Encyclopedia of ETs

     Wayne Douglas Barlowe et al. Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials (1979 & 1987) With an introduction by Robert Silverberg. A nicely done survey of 48 extraterrestrials as described by 40-odd writers. Barlowe has done his best to interpret descriptions of varying completeness and vagueness into accurate renditions of their appearance, as well as summarising what the stories say or imply about their biology, social structure, political role(s), and so on.
Several of them contradict my visualisations (e.g., Dickson’s Ruml, from The Alien Way), others are wonderfully unearthly (e.g., the Dextran). It is after all logically impossible to imagine anything that is utterly alien: all ETs are inevitably extrapolations and interpretations of what we know about life on Earth, and what we can estimate about the physics and chemistry of exoplanets.
      Nevertheless, both writers and artists have tried to convey the sense of the Alien as something other than a human in a weird costume. The notes to the illustrations sometimes come close (e.g., Radiates, starfish shaped beings from Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman, “will join an interlocking wheeling dance”).
      A well done compendium, that any SF fan will enjoy. It should be on the reference shelf of anyone contemplating devising an SF movie or book. ***

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Brexit IV: The rats want to leave the sinking ship.

Standard Life Fund, the investment arm of the British-based multi-national life insurance company, has stopped withdrawals from its real estate investment mutual funds.  All of them hold London real estate, whose value is unknown now that Brexit may eliminate London's role as the world's premier financial services provider. If Standard Life's action is the first of many, there will be a world-wide financial crisis. Let's just hope it won't happen, and if it does, that it won't be as bad as 2008.

Related risks: The pound was always overvalued in terms of purchasing power. Anyone travelling to the UK found out pretty quickly that the UK was expensive: A pound spent in the UK bought about as much as a dollar spent in Canada or the USA, or roughly twice as much as at home. Its high exchange value reflected the financial power of London. The pound was a safe haven currency. If it loses that status, the financial crisis will be very bad. "Investors" will try to unload pounds. But the only people who ever wanted them in the fist place were the people who will be trying to get rid of them. So the Bank of England will have to buy pounds, and that means a serious risk of major sloshing of currencies around the world. When currencies slosh around because nobody wants them, hyperinflation looms on the horizon.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Pictures from a road trip.

     Michael Glover. Big Lonely and Beyond (2009) Disclosure: I have several pieces by Michael Glover, you may surmise that I like his work. This self-published book collects 58 sketches and drawings Glover made on several trips across the country. He likes to show us objects in a landscape or townscape, cars, buildings, boats, trains, and so on; and a few people. Glover has a confident line and knows how to use shading to model objects and create depth. His choice of subjects reveals a strong nostalgic streak; he focuses on the effects of time. Well printed, with a brief introduction.
     Glover’s website is He paints in a slightly abstract realistic style with strong shapes and muted colours. Worth a look, I think. Anyhow, I like his work. ***

The Years of Bitterness and Pride (1930s Depression photos)

     Hiag Akmakjian. The Years of Bitterness and Pride (1975) A selection of Farm Security Administration photographs from 1935 to 1943. The Preface reminds us that the project to document the USA in photographs almost didn’t happen, and that it became one of most thorough and complete records of people and places ever undertaken. The photographers made over 250,000 pictures, all of them archived in Washington. A handful have become visual summaries of times and places that Americans that know of them hope will not be forgotten. But I suspect that we now have a couple of generations of Americans for whom the Depression is at best a remembered emotion passed on to them from elderly relatives, not an historical event.
     Yet anyone who sees these images will, I think, be reminded that economic dislocations engendered by laissez-faire capitalism have long-lasting effects on individuals and communities. I wonder what happened to these people who allowed themselves to be photographed. Some are defiant, some look beaten, some see hope around them. All look damaged in mind and spirit a well as in body. And yet the majority rebuilt their lives.
     There have been many collections of FSA images published. Look for them. They are fierce reminders that economic ideologies that mistake money for wealth and profit as a goal will inevitably hurt people. You can search the collection yourself here.

Brexit 3

    UKIP leader Nigel Farage has resigned. Another coward, afraid to face the consequences of his actions. He knows perfectly well that no one can deliver on the Leaver promises.
    Boris Johnson is now a mere backbencher and newspaper columnist, and as such he can repeat his nonsense about the UK's ability to negotiate the same deal outside as they have within the EU, but without the heavy hand of Brussels bureaucracy.
    To keep access to the Common Market will require accepting freedom of movement between the EU and the UK. The UK will lose EU subsidies for its agriculture etc., subsidies that are actually UK money coming back from the EU.
     But worse is that Leave voters will discover that they will not get what the thought they were getting, and will lose a lot what they've become used to. That will cause unrest, to put it politely.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Brexit Vote II

     The fallout continues pretty well as I expected.

      Harassment of immigrants has escalated. The Leavers expect things to get “back to normal”, to quote a woman interviewed by BBC. A young man in Leeds said he expected the immigrants to leave right now. The spin doctors are downplaying the racism in the anti-immigration sentiments, but it’s pretty obvious that race is the reason many Leavers want the immigrants out.
     The leaders of the Leave side always knew that they wouldn’t be able to deliver what they promised. Farage has already said that his claim that 350 pounds going to Brussels every week could be redirected to the National Health Service was “a mistake”. In one interview, he even denied making that claim. BBC News showed a photo of a bus plastered with that claim.
     Boris Johnson has stood down from running for Prime Minister. This supports my suspicion that his support for Leave was entirely a matter of rivalry with David Cameron. I don’t think he expected Leave to win, but hoped to get a strong enough vote that he could challenge Cameron. With a Leave win, he would have to negotiate the terms of leaving. The Europeans have made it quite clear that the best Britain could hope for would be a Norway deal: Accept the obligations of being in the EU in order to get the rights, except the most important one, which is having a say in how it’s run.

     What’s the likely future? A realisation by the Leavers that they can’t have what they thought they would get: jobs, security, control over the borders, well-funded public services, etc. As this realisation grows, “political unrest” will increase. It’s only a matter of time before a Leaver kills an immigrant. There will be a general election. It will be one of the nastiest ever in the UK.
     Northern Ireland will have to reconcile its desire to be British with the reality of losing access to Europe. I think the odds that they will want to join the Irish Republic will increase as that sinks in.
Scotland will play it both ways: try to block the exit, and separate from the UK. For them, it’s a win either way.
     If the Conservatives can get away from their stupid personal rivalries, they could use Scottish intransigence as an excuse to ignore the Leave vote in order to keep Britain united. But I’m not holding my breath on that one. This whole mess came about because of personal rivalries. Cameron wanted to keep the premiership, and offered the referendum to get enough votes to keep it. Johnson and others saw it as a wedge they could use to replace Cameron. None of them, I think, thought the vote could be close. If they had, they would have ensured a super-majority clause (60% or more) in the referendum rules.

     A few commentators have suggested that the Leave vote was as much an anti-government vote as an anti-Europe vote. The government, with the slobbering assistance of the tabloids, has used Europe as convenient whipping boy to explain and excuse the austerity programs they’ve imposed on Britain. Privatisation all over the place, an ill-disguised shift towards becoming a tax-haven, corruption on a scale not seen since the late 1700s, greed, contempt for the working people, all these things played into the Leave vote.

     For the time being, if you have money in Britain, get it out before the pound falls even further.