Sunday, December 6, 2009

Is God a Mathematician?

Disclaimer 1: This is a quasi-serious post, so please, if you're going to laugh, at least snigger quietly.
Disclaimer 2: When I wrote God, and I wrote it with a capital G, I do not mean to impose any kind of religion, monotheistic or otherwise on anybody, nor to portray my opinion on the subject in any form or fashion. For the purposes of this post 'God' is a codeword for "whatever the hell made the universe and makes it run the way it does". You can think of it as the great cow Auðumbla licking the primordial ice away or some infinitesimally small nugget of energy that randomly explodes, it doesn't matter.

I just came back from a very interesting talk by Professor Mario Livio with the above title, discussing his book of the same name. I would like to share a few thoughts I had on the subject.
I suppose that I should first describe what the talk was about.
To sum it up in one sentence, which hardly does the author credit, one could say: The incredible ability that we have to make mathematical predictions of the real world, and to describe the world in mathematical equations to such a staggering degree of finesse can hardly be a coincidence, can it?
He went on further to say, and here we come to my first thought on the subject, that the question is more important than the answer.
Let's consider the ramifications of the question.
First of all, we are assuming the existence of God, something that created the universe (the Steady State theory was debunked, get over it people) and made some sort of rules or laws by which God will govern the universe, or the universe will govern itself. This in itself is mind blowing, but certainly must be the product of rational thought.
Can all the coincidences we see in nature really be just that, coincidences? Physicists base most of their science on the fact that physics here is exactly the same as physics elsewhere. Can that be a coincidence? Surely something designed it that way? But here I start sliding down a slippery slope that I do not want to slide down (see Disclaimer 2) so I will leave that one as a question. And the importance of the question is that we are questioning the source of our knowledge and understanding. W are questioning the main fundamental tool that we use to explore our universe, mathematics. Did we make it up? Are we simply observing known rules? Why is it that mathematics seems to work?
These are questions to which I don't have an answer, and perhaps nobody does. We must ponder them ourselves.
My second thought on the subject was that the professor tried to show how mathematics are both an invention, a product of human thought, and a discovery, a product of human observation.
He gave the example of the Golden Ratio. Now, Euclid is often credited with inventing the golden ratio, perhaps because his is the first example of a publication containing said ratio.
Basically, what it means is that if you divide a section, a line just so then the ration between the smaller part and the larger part is exactly equal to the ratio between the larger part and the whole line. This is an invention. There are an infinite amount of ways to divide a line, Euclid picked one.
Another invention is the Fibonacci sequence. We all know what that is. There are an infinite amount of sequences one can make, but the ancient mathematicians chose to focus on this one.
The fact that the Sequence converges to the Golden Ratio is a discovery. Nobody planned it that way. Two seemingly unrelated products of human thought are linked through a seemingly random connection, that is nonetheless true and intriguing, and to some extent beautiful.
In my studies I have often marveled at the magnificence and beauty of some of the equations that we learned. The fact that a complex motion like a football flying through the air describing an arc, and spinning around its axis can be described in 2 very simple equations is incredible.
I found myself often wondering how these brilliant people came up with this stuff.
Newton and Leibniz both invented calculus at roughly the same time. Two people, geographically separated working on seperate problems came up with the same thing. Coincidence? Perhaps. But the fact that calculus then became the single most widely used tool in any discipline only adds to the incredulity.
Maybe there is a divine being out there, who wants to be understood. Maybe we as humanity are taking baby steps toward understanding how this divine being works. Maybe we will discover that the entire universe is this divine being, and that the whole purpose of our existence is to strive for understanding.
I don't know, but it gives me the impetus I need to broaden my horizons, to search for knowledge, to try to slacken that unquenchable thirst that we seem to have for knowledge. To try to understand everything.
And the last thought I would like to share with you on the subject came when the lecture was over and I stood up to leave. It was then that I noticed that the seat I had been sitting in for the past hour and half was seat No. 42.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The universe is stalking me

Not like I feel as if the universe is following me around everywhere I go, everybody feels that. It's standard human paranoia.
What I mean is that the universe is actually stalking me, and probably out to get me.
See, the other day I went to buy new shoes. I walked into the shoe store and the overly helpful salesgirl bounded up and asked me if I need help.
I said I was looking for comfortable walking shoes. The ones I was currently wearing were completely worn through. (Yes, I walked holes in the bottoms of my shoes. It's possible, it just takes a lot of walking).
She steered me towards the correct corner of the store and let me browse for a few minutes. Once I had picked up and admired all of the shoes she came over again and I asked her if she could me this shoe in my size.
She smiled and asked what size is that.
I shrugged, since I didn't know. So I took off my shoe and looked in the tongue.
Would you believe me if I told you that my European shoe size is 42?
Well, it is.
That suddenly brought it all home to me.
Over the weekend I didn't check my emails or anything. So when I logged in this week I was expecting a lot of unread mail.
What I wasn't expecting was the exact number.
That's right. The window title proudly proclaimed that I have 42 unread emails.
On Sunday a few weeks ago I went to the gym, and when I was done I was kinda hungry. Fortunately there is a little café on the premises. I'd never been to this café before, and took my time poring over the menu, looking intently at all the sandwiches and trying to decide which one I want to eat.
Finally the guy at the counter asked me what I want. I randomly chose a sandwich from the list. I'm still not entirely sure what was in it. Some kind of cheese and tomatoes, also pesto and some other green stuff.
Anyway, I payed the man and he gave me my receipt. While I was waiting for my sandwich I idly glanced at the receipt in my hand. It had the name of the establishment, the name of the waiter, my order and the menu number of my order.
Sure enough, my random sandwich was menu item number 42.
And it gets even worse.
Last week I went to go buy new pants.
Now, the store that I went to sells cheap pants, but it's hard to find the correct size.
Not because of the selection, but because of the whole size system.
It's not like the sensible American system where you have 2 numbers, one for your waist and one for the length. The numbers make sense too, because they are precisely those measurements in inches.
Not here. They were using some weird European system where each pair of pants has a single number, which is supposedly the size of the pants. The numbers don't seem to correspond to anything in particular, just a random integer between 36 and 60. Usually an even number.
I have no idea whether this is the waist, the length or some strange computation of the two. The numbers seem to have no bearing on the physical description of the pants, yet they are clearly the pants' size. And even then, two pairs of pants bearing the same number are not necessarily the same size.
Anyway, at long last, after many trials and many errors I found a pair of pants that I liked and that mostly fit me.
I looked at the size, and sure enough, they were size 42.
I don't know what this means, only that the universe is probably up to no good and should get a ticket for stalking.
Hmm, all this writing made me hungry.
I think I'll go buy a sandwich.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Broked Universe

I think the universe we live in is a little broken.
Not broken in the meaning of "reboot and that should fix it" or even "you'll have to format your hard drive" but broken in the meaning that there is something fundamentally wrong with the universe as a whole.
Well, actually not the universe as a whole, just the universe that people prefer to live in.
That's right folks, I'm talking about TV and movies.
Now, there are many popular lists and stuff about the biggest physics blunders in television and movies.
I'm not talking about those either. I mean, they're true, and as a person who understands the laws of physics, sometimes when I watch something it really makes me wince.
For example, this new show called Defying Gravity (apparently it was so bad that the first season was cut short, and there will be no second). Now, they got a lot of the physics right there. They have centrifugal force providing simulated gravity, they discuss the rocket burns and acceleration times as if they know what they're talking about. They even designed a suit capable of withstanding the Venusian atmosphere for a short period of time, and they make it sound like it should work (the show is set 50 odd years in the future).
But one thing they ignore is the speed of light.
How can you have a video conference with somebody 38 million kilometers away with no lag in the conversation? There should be a lag of almost three minutes!
That just annoys me.
But what I am talking about is programming.
A lot of these shows, more so in the newer ones, have a lot of tech involved. And a large part of the tech is writing code. The characters frequently need to make some program or run some simulation that involves a lot of code, and it always works on the first try!
Forget about coding in an alien language (and here my ire is mostly against Samantha Carter and Rodney McKay who can write flawless code in Gua'uld, Asgard, Wraith, Ancient and numerous other human languages, and it's not just the language. The hardware is totally different from anything on Earth!) but why the hell does it always work for them?!
Every programmer knows that code never works on the first try.
A program that you write never ever works the first time you run it. If it does, something is wrong.
Just the other day I wrote a program, ran a test cycle and it looked like it worked!
Now this is terrible. Because now I have to find the cases where it doesn't work. Debugging code that doesn't work is hard, debugging code that looks like it works is nigh on impossible.
But in the shows they never have to debug!
It shows a warped version of reality and it screws kids up. Some kid watches this and he wants to grow up to be a brilliant programmer. So, he (or she, I suppose, but I'm lazy and will save myself from typing that extra letter every time) will go to school and learn to program.
As soon as his first "Hello World" doesn't work and he has to debug, his dreams are shattered. Nobody told him that programming was slow and tedious work, often involving guessing what the problem is. He saw programs that were written lickety split and worked right out of the box (so to speak).
So there, ladies and gentlemen (and sundry other folk who don't fall into either category but are reading this) is why the universe that we cherish and love is broked.
Now, if you will excuse me, I have to finish this conference call from Jupiter. I sent my query 64 minutes ago and should be getting a response any minute now.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Higher Education

I would like to take this opportunity and say a very big thank you to the educational system.
See, I spent most (actually, all) of my childhood being taught at. From kindergarten to twelfth grade I was sitting in boring little rooms, some with cheerful pictures of letters, being lectured at by stern men and women.
Some of the classes were boring, some were interesting. Some of the teachers hated us (the kids) and most of us hated most of them (there was always one kid who loved his/her teacher. Fact of life: there's a freak in every crowd).
I worked hard at some subjects (the interesting ones) and slacked off the rest. I goofed off at recess and played pranks on others (teachers and students alike).
Tangent: One of the funniest things we did in eleventh grade.
See, the school had added on a new floor, on top of the building because we needed more classes. The seniors were never there anyway, so we were the first to move into the new classrooms.
These classes were now four stories up, and had nice big windows. To prevent us from falling (jumping?) out there were three, sturdy metal bars running the length of the windows, covering about half. We very quickly took to sitting on the window ledge, with our feet dangling four stories up and our arms resting comfortably on the bars.
One day my friend came to school with like, 10 rolls of Scotch tape. I'm still not sure why. Anyway, we wanted to see how strong Scotch tape is (tell me you've never wondered about this). So, we preformed experiments using the tape, a series of increasing weights and the convenient bars on the windows.
Our first weight was the empty plastic garbage can from our class. It was full, but we took care of that.
We attached the tape to the garbage can and pushed it out the window. We slowly unspooled the tape until the can was a nice height above the parking lot, and then wrapped it a few time around one of the metal bars and cut it.
It held.
We left it there for a few days, to see if there was any fatigue in the tape. There was none.
We then proceeded more quickly. We tried a full garbage can (that upended on the way down, too bad) and quickly arrived at chairs.
We decided that those heavy metal chairs with the plastic seats and backs were the limit, so we started hanging out as many as we could.
From outside the building it looked pretty cool. Six or seven chairs suspended at random heights, supported, apparently, by nothing (the scotch tape was clear).
One of the staff would come periodically to the classroom and tells us to take them down, and we did, but put them back promptly enough.
And then, one fateful day one of tape strands broke and the chair plummeted to the ground.
That chair was hanging fairly low, just outside the teachers' lounge window on the first floor, so it only fell like 5 feet. But it landed on the hood of the principal's car.
No actual damage to the car, just some scratched paint, but we got into a hell of a lot of trouble. Also, one guy almost fell out the window laughing.
Back on topic now.
Anyway, one of the most important things I got from school was not a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to learn (I got that from Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, Wired, Discover Magazine and the like) but a high school degree. This meant I could go to university.
And that meant that I could learn all kinds of cool stuff and important life skills.
Like, for example, this week I learned about port mapping, SVN, proxies and VPNs
See, the public wifi broadcast by the university blocks most ports, and they only open the ones they think about. So torrents is (of course) blocked, but that doesn't bother me too much.
What bothers me is that IRC clients are blocked. Therefore I had a real incentive to learn about this stuff and fix the problem.
So, I would like to thank the school system. If it weren't for them I would never have tried to hack a network.
Also, if my principal is reading this, I'm sorry about your car, but it's your fault for instilling curiosity about the natural world by making the classes so boring.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Of Gods and Men

Before I start, I am not being sexist, it's just that the title "Of Gods and Goddesses and Men and Women" doesn't sound right.
Also, this is a sorta serious post.
I just finished reading The Iliad. You know, the epic book by Homer? Back before 'epic' meant 3 million Youtube views. Anyway, I had a few thoughts on the subject, and I decided to share them with all three and a half people who read this blog.
So, my first thought on the subject is how stupid the ancient Greeks were.
I mean, they were clever, but also stupid. See, the whole story takes place in the bronze age. All the weapons are made of bronze, as evidenced many times in the narrative. "Pitiless bronze" "sharp-edged bronze" "as the sun rising over the sea glints off the waves so too did the gleam of the bronze spear points reflect back the sunlight".
Anyway, making weapons out of bronze is smart. Bronze is a relatively light and hard metal, and is good for making a sharp edge. Not as good as steel, but better than iron (easier to work with and not as heavy).
What was not so clever was that they made their armor out of gold! I mean, it looks nice and everything, but gold is very heavy, and very soft. No wonder so many of them died.
My second thought on the subject is how civilized their wars were.
Oh, they were bloody and gruesome and violent beyond measure, but they were also civilized.
I think this may be because all of the battles were fought face to face and up close and personal.
For example we can take the first battle depicted in The Iliad.
In the middle of the battle, people are killing each other left and right, they call a time out. Everybody sits down (both armies) and they watch as two champions (one from each army) decide to kill each other mortal-combat style. That will decide who wins the war.
It didn't work, but that is another matter. The gods screwed that one up.
Another example is two people approach each other and are about to throw their spears in a wholehearted attempt to kill each other. Suddenly, Diomedes (from the Greeks' side) recognizes the Trojan he is trying to kill. It turns out he's a dear friend of the family. They both make long speeches about the joy and sanctity of friendship (while there is a battle raging on around them) then they shake hands and part in friendship. Each goes off to kill other people now.
I mean, how civilized is that?
I did enjoy The Iliad very much.
The parallelism between man's struggles and the gods' little feuds, the contrast between the futility of war that must end in death and the gods' little squabbles that end peacefully. The constant meddling of the gods for their own amusement. The long speeches which counteract (and sometimes intersect) the gruesome battle scenes.
Also, the characters are always saying how they are ruled by the gods and fate, and nothing that they themselves do is of any singular importance. On the other hand, the reader gets the impression that the war is so much more important than whatever little shenanigans the gods get up to.
I also very much like how this was the tale of a 10 year long war, and all that is told here is about a month and a half, towards the end. But not the end of the war (no wooden horse). That is because the poet decided to focus on the human content of the war. His heroes are portrayed as real people with emotions, and the last few chapters, dealing with death of some of our favorite characters, are quite moving.
I read The Iliad for my own enjoyment, and strongly recommend that you do as well.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Driving People

I think people can learn a lot from cars.
In fact, I think people should be more like cars.
I will try to explain (but first point out that each line so far has started with the letter 'I', not something I planned. Cool, huh?).
You know how when a lot of people are leaving a room at the same time, say, a movie, a class, the gym locker room after somebody dropped a particularly heavy load? Anyway, I bet you noticed how traffic can sometimes get seriously backed up. A couple of people just stop right there in the doorway and need to talk. Completely disregarding the fact they are holding up up dozens of (possibly naked) people in a hurry.
Doesn't that just piss you off? Didn't you wish you had a horn so you could honk at them irritably? I mean, if a car had suddenly stopped for no reason and completely blocked the intersection, you'd honk. Right?
Another example. I'm walking down the street, in a bit of a hurry, and suddenly the woman in front of does an abrupt about-face and heads straight for me! Due to relative speeds and reaction time (not to mention the fact that I was pretty close behind her, getting ready to pass on the left) we had a head-on collision. Now, something like that wouldn't have happened if she had checked her rear-view mirror. But did she? NO! Because she didn't have one!
So, so far we established the fact that people need horns and a rear-view mirror.
Actually, a couple of side-view mirrors would help too.
I'm a pretty strong young man, and I help my friends and family schlep heavy, and often bulky, stuff. It's really hard to maneuver through doors and down stairs when you can't really see where you're going.
So, until we have these things installed, please try to be a considerate pedestrian and be aware of your surroundings. Anticipate what the person next to you (or in front of you) is going to do. Don't surprise the other pedestrians, and don't block the intersection!
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment to have a couple of blinkers installed on my shoulders. I can't run them yet, but when I finish writing the code for them I'll upload it via the USB port in my navel.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

It made my day

I am not an evil person, in fact, I'm not even moderately mean. But I do enjoy watching somebody else making a total ass clown of himself. And it's even better if I can help them along in any way.
See, what happened was this: I was driving on a three lane highway in the middle lane. This was fine because I wasn't going too slow, nor too fast. I wasn't in any particular hurry, so I was driving precisely the speed limit. I'm driving a little Toyota (my parents' car) and this huge, gleaming white SUV with a custom hood ornament starts tailgating me and flashing his brights in my rear-view mirror (it's angled just right so that the glare goes straight to my eyes).
I look back and there's this major douchebag behind the wheel making motions for me to go faster.
I don't understand his problem. There's an empty lane to the left, there's an empty lane to the right. There's even a notorious speed trap around the bend, and as I previously said, I was going exactly the speed limit. So to annoy him I slow down a little bit. Nothing noticeable, maybe 3 mph, but this guy is so close he almost rear-ended me. Now he starts to honk. I make a big show of ignoring him (easy to do while facing forward and wearing sunglasses).
Well, he pulls into the left lane and speeds ahead, giving me the finger as he speeds by.
I'm a little pissed off, but not much, he's a moron and a jerk and taking it out on the world. Not my problem.
Anyway, a few miles ahead the traffic slowed to a crawl. The three lanes were funneling down to two because of some kind of roadwork.
Well, Mr. SUV passed me on the left, and I saw him stuck there ahead of me. His lane wasn't moving and mine was. So, he of course pulled into my lane ahead of me. I beeped the horn friendly-like and when he looked up I smiled and waved at him, as if we were best buddies.
I swear the guy turned scarlet. I mean, there is nothing worse than acting all friendly to these jerks, it really gets to them.
By now our lane had stopped moving and now the right lane was moving again, so he pulled into the right lane and took off.
Ten minutes went by, and I kept creeping along in traffic. I didn't mind, it was air-conditioned and I had some good tunes with me. Needless to say, Mr. SUV was long gone.
Finally I get to the obstruction, and I see that the right lane was blocked off. There weren't any cops to direct the traffic, there was just a huge sign saying that the lane ends because of road work. The people just merged the best they could.
Well, I saw that there was a familiar looking SUV stuck in the right lane behind the orange road-work sign, trying desperately to merge with the middle lane. But since traffic was at a near standstill, everybody was close up against the car in front of them. There was nowhere to merge.
I laughed out loud, and when I drove by I beeped my horn again and waved at him.
Man, was he pissed! He jerked the wheel to the left and slammed the gas, trying to cut me off.
Unfortunately he forgot how close he was to the warning sign.
He drove straight into it and the thing fell over and smashed his hood. His custom hood ornament was destroyed, and the whole hood was scratched beyond belief. No actual damage to him or his car, just his poor, over-inflated ego.
It made my day.