Just a quick post of the new WordPress.com OSX App. First impression: very nice. Amazing that its a complete rewrite. Seems very well thought out and not a single issue. Did make me realize however that I had neglected to turn on two factor for my wordpress.com account, which was connected to all the blogs I run on wordpress….something I have since fixed 😉
Not sure where to start with this one, so I guess I will start at the beginning. First, a disclaimer: I am not afraid of reading above my weight class, and while I think I’ve bulked up a bit, there is still a ways I have to go before I will fully grasp all of Our Mathematical Universe. Don’t let that scare you off though – even though I know there are ideas I didn’t fully grasp, as well as ideas that I didn’t even notice were present, I still thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Besides, you are probably a lot smarter than I am.
This book made its way onto my to read pile courtesy of the Sam Harris podcast (aside: I am still struggling to determine if I am a Sam Harris Fan or Hater. I think I’m a bit of both). The book’s author, Max Tegmark, is a physics professor from MIT. Our Mathematical Universe is his attempt to make his ideas about the ultimate nature of reality accessible to the masses, in the tradition of those like Richard Feynman. His basic idea is this: reality is math. No, not that reality is described by math, but at it’s core actually IS math. Unites, featureless. Just quantity and relationship.
While that may seem like a pretty straightforward (if potentially hard to believe) claim, it has some pretty hard to grasp consequences, specifically that we exist within a four level multiverse. I’m not going to cover all the details of the four different levels, but merely comment that level 1 was pretty easy for me to grasp. Level 2 I think I almost understand. Level 3 lost me. And I think I get level 4 too – but I have doubts.
What fascinated me most about this book is the connections I found with topics ranging far beyond cosmology and particle physics. If I worked at Half Price Books and Our Mathematical Universe was on my cart to be shelved, I could just as easily put it in the Philosophy section (or even Buddhism) section as the Physics section. This is not to say that the book isn’t scientific. As Dr. Tegmark points out, quite rightly, for a theory to be scientific, you don’t have to be able to test all of its predictions, only some of them. Rather, the ideas he touches on sound similar to those I’ve been reading in those other areas.
Take for instance the ideas about the perception of time passing that comes in the chapter talking about the relationship between physical reality and mathematical reality:
Subjective perceptions of duration and change are qualia, basic instantaneous perceptions, just as reddened, blueness or sweetness.
Compare that to this quote from Zen Buddhist master Ch’an Master Hui-neng, writing in the 7th century:
In this moment there is nothing that comes to be. In this moment there is nothing that ceases to be. Thus there is no birth-and-death to be brought to an end. Thus the absolute peace in this present moment. Though it is at this moment, there is no limit to this moment, and herein lies eternal delight.
Or the discussion of self concept:
I’m arguing that your perceptions of having a self, that subjective vantage point you call “I”, are qualia just as your subjective perceptions of “red” and “green” are. In short, redness and self-awareness are both qualia.
Sounds like the same idea as Anatta to me.
I also found some interesting implications for my objectivist friends:
If you believe in an external reality independent of humans, then you must also believe that our physical reality is a mathematical structure (emphasis added)
Looks like the Randians need to study up on their math ;-).
There are a few other ideas that were new to me, but also struck me as deeply insightful in a philosophical sense. For example in a discussion about the level 4 multiverse, Dr. Tegmark draws a few conclusions from the idea that we live inside a mathematical structure that seem profound (to me anyway).
First an interesting idea coming from a math and physics guy:
Infinity is a convenient assumption, but not part of reality.
He goes on to explain that infinity helps us solve a certain class of math problems, but just like Newton’s laws of motion are only useful on objects of a particular scale, the assumption that there is an infinity sub dividable space may just be a “convenient” stand in, for lots and lots of granular space that is too hard for us to measure and count.
Then a few ideas about “initial conditions” which come from some discussion about the permanence of mathematical structure and the concept of space time being fixed and unchanging:
Initial conditions aren’t about our physical reality, but about our place in it.
Although we though all this information (referring to initial conditions) was about our physical reality, it was about us.
Apparent arbitrary initial conditions are caused by multiple universes, apparent randomness is caused by multiple you’s.
Ponderous, man, really ponderous. Seriously, I’m not sure what to take from these specific ideas, but they strike me as being really important to understanding my place in the universe and perhaps provide an alternative perspective to the things that happen to me in daily life. More meditation and processing is required.
The last idea that jumped out comes later in the chapter on the level 4 multiverse. He writes that there are 3 basic mathematical concepts with well defined relationships: formal systems, computations and mathematical structures. He goes on to wonder if there is something even more fundamental at the base of these three ideas that we have yet to discover. For whatever reason, this made me wonder if that is something we can actually understand?
Let me explain. In Sapiens (which it just occurred to me that I never did a review of here….thought I was caught up after this one…sigh…), Harari argues that the thing that makes humans unique/powerful when compared to all other animal species is our storytelling ability: our ability to create myth, fiction, and story and to communicate it to others. Some have taken this further and claimed that our internal reality is only understood in the context of narrative. No, this isn’t “tell a story and it’s true”, but rather the idea that the only way our brains can actually comprehend anything is through story. If this is the case, then I wonder the core beneath formal systems, computations and mathematical structure is so abstract, so absent narrative, that humans are unable to understand it? This seems similar to the idea of the Tao: if you can talk about it, it’s no longer the Tao ;-).
In the end, I am really glad I heard about this book, bought it and read it. While I’m sure there is knowledge I am leaving behind in its pages, it has opened up and connected some ideas for me that were previously disorganized. If you feel like stretching a bit, or are more of a Physics and Math Zen Master, then I highly recommend it.
A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit Ann Arbor, MI for a week for business. I drove up late on a Sunday for an all day people performance review meeting on Monday that was a precursor to a larger meeting for the middle of the week and then a team meeting at the end. Hopefully that week met my meeting quota for a while.
After the first day of meetings, the group I was with setup a dinner a mile or so away from the hotel we were staying in at Zingerman’s Roadhouse. It was a very nice meal (I had some ribs that were quite good), but I didn’t think much of it otherwise. On the short drive home, I happened to see a “Zingerman’s coffee” sign on the grocery store across from our hotel. Hmm? Next morning, I boarded the bus to the farm where we were having our large team meeting and as we pulled up the sign read “Zingerman’s Cornman Farms”. Who is this Zingerman? Why does he seem to own half of Ann arbor? And does he have a famous pig?
I never discovered the answers to any of those questions, but I did learn quite a bit about the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses over the next few days. (As near as I can tell Zingerman’s is name the original founders made up, but I am sure there is a better story than that…). I learned that Zingerman’s grows its own organic vegetables for its restaurants on its farm. I learned that Zingerman’s makes its own cheese and butter at Zingerman’s creamery. I learned that Zingerman’s got its start as a Deli (that is still there today) in the 80s in downtown Ann Arbor. And I learned that one of the founders wrote a few interesting books.
Ari Weinzweig came to speak to our group on the morning of the last day. When he introduced himself as a lapsed anarchist and went into a quick spiel on how he spent lots of time reading early 20th century anarchist literature when he was in college and how it he sees it clearly applying to how business should be run, I was hooked. Although I normally am not one to introduce myself to strangers, I felt compelled to introduce myself to Ari. We talked for 10 minutes or so and I walked away with copies of his first three business books (he has more in the works).
The first in the series is called a Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business. The feel of the book is best described as a cross between Murray Rothbard and Tom Peters. Its all the energy of the best modern, progressive management books but comes from a perspective of free will and individual choice being the
best only way to really get things done. The main part of the book is a collection of essays on topics ranging from the “12 Natural Laws of Building a Great Business” (these should come as laminated cards that ever leader can stick on their monitor) to the need for systems (which he admits as an anarchist, lapsed or not, was difficult for him to accept).
For me the most impactful essays focused on vision. The “vision” term gets thrown around a lot mostly by corporate PR hacks and high priced consultants. Ari’s description of a vision as simply a story that describes what life will be like for you, your team and your customers when you get to where you are going at some reasonably distant, but not too far, point in the future, in my opinion, is far more useful than the corporate speak laden visions that adorn so many plaques. Words on a plaque never made anyone do anything great. A shared story of where you are headed though – that can be inspiring.
In the epilogue, Ari writes:
Sometimes I think of my life as being bookmarked: not so much in the usual sense of marking pages with pieces of paper, but in the sense that so many of my ideas are bracketed by somewhat random reading selections that happen to coincide with what is going on with (and around) me at the time I crack open the covers. Books often pop up for me at fortuitous times.
This happens to me too all the time as well. I read pretty widely and have a huge to read pile and a Amazon wish list in the thousands. Despite all these variables, it does seem to be more times than not that I end up cracking the covers on something helpful for whatever I’m facing at the time. That has certainly been the case in reading a Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business and I’m sure it will be true for the other two I added to my to read pile (once I get through the other 4..or 5…or is it 6? other books I am in the middle of…promised myself not to start anything new until I finish at least half of them).
For anyone looking for a good business book from a practitioner and a true believer I can’t recommend this book highly enough. For anyone looking for all that AND a viewpoint consistent with free choice and individual empowerment, I guess I have to find a way to recommend it just a little higher.
I have to give credit where it is due: the whole reason I have discovered that I actually like history is due to Dan Carlin. As any of my few readers might know, I am a huge podcast fan and have been listening to Dan’s two podcasts for years (I owe a hat tip to another Dan, one I used to work with, for the pointer to DC). Although HH only comes out a few times a year, it immediately jumps to the top of my must listen list. I actually look for long drives and tasks when one gets posted so I can find time to listen.
In his most recent HH episode Dan recounts part of the same story that Tom Holland writes about in one of the books I read earlier this year, Persian Fire, specifically on King Cyrus, the arguable founder of the Persian Empire. It’s actually a nice companion piece to a podcast that Prof CJ did on King Sargon of Akkad, the first empire builder.
Near the end, Dan reads a quote from Herdotus, that I just love. According to the first historian, a herald was sent to King Cyrus from Queen Tomyris of the Massagetai on the eve before a battle between the two of them. The herald delivered this message to Cyrus from the Queen:
King of the Medes, cease to press this enterprise, for you cannot know if what you are doing will be of real advantage to you. Be content to rule in peace your own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern. As, however, I know you will not choose to hearken to this counsel, since there is nothing you less desirest than peace and quietness, come now, if you are so mightily desirous of meeting the Massagetai in arms, leave your useless toil of bridge-making; let us retire three days’ march from the river bank, and do you come across with your soldiers; or, if you like better to give us battle on your side the stream, retire yourself an equal distance.
It’s certainly longer than Molon Labe (which was directed Cyrus’ great grandson in the Hot Gates), but what it lacks in compactness, it makes up for is subtle gut punches. I think I would have like to have met that queen.
Disclaimer: Just as I am not a historian, but rather as Dan Carlin says a fan of history, I am also not a physicist, but merely a fan of physics.
Do you ever get a brain worm that you just can’t shake? No, I don’t mean a physical parasite, but something you just can’t get out of your head no matter what you try? For most people it’s a song. For me it’s been this the last few days: is the expanding universe causing them to accelerate?
A little background. I picked a copy of Max Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe a few weeks ago and am about 100 pages in.
<complete tangent> I swear to all of you that read this that I will finish at least half of the books I am in the middle of before I start anything else. I just finished one that interrupted OMU (review coming soon) so will go back to OMU, then loop my way back to Influence. Then back the finish the Problem of Political Authority. Then, perhaps I can actually look at my too read pile without an overwhelming sense of defeat.</complete tangent>
I feel like I am in some sort of book based Inception). I think I’ve groked most of it, but one can never be quite sure when reading something like this. One theory he talks about early on that I’ve heard elsewhere is the idea that the universe is expanding. The typical explanation involves dots on a ballon that is being blown up. The dots themselves get bigger and further apart.
The inflation part is not what’s stuck in my head. Rather it’s a seemingly random (and completely unsupported by data or even the flimsiest of theories, but just a intuitive sense that one would cause the other. Einstein proved that space and time are related, so wouldn’t the expansion of space have some effect on time? Being a fan of physics, it may well be that this relationship is well understood by real physicists, but I had a Eureka feeling when it first occurred to me. And no, not because it explains why we’re all getting fatter and there is less time in each day. Rather there is just something satisfying about developing a new concept, even if it proves out to be wrong or only just new to you. Discovery is exciting no matter what.
I once considered myself a consumate multi tasker. I could talk on the phone, have 3 chat windows going, be working on a presentation and filing an expense report all at the same time. I thought that multi tasking made me more productive.
Over the past few years I’ve had the nagging feeling that I was lying to myself. This state of continous partial attention had some hidden costs. I recognized the switching costs first: every time I switch from one task to the other I have to do a little mental reset. The time it takes for these varies, but it does take time. When I added up all those little slices of time to reboot, I realized I could fit in another whole task or two.
Much more recently, I’ve come across a more insidious cost to multi tasking: it allows (maybe even encourages) me to avoid hard work. When I was multitasking, any time I would hit a snag or a roadblock, I’d immediately switch to another task. I’m not advocating banging your head against the wall when you’re stuck, but giving up at the least bit of resistance eliminates the opportunity to think on something deeply, to become comfortable withe the discomfort and to get to the next level of creativity.
So what’s replaced multitasking for me? A combination of acting with intent, focusing on one thing at a time and an adpatation of the pomodoro method with blocking distraction with music. I set my intentions for each day by visualizing what success looks like while reviewing my calendar, to dos and notes. Then I set a time block to work on each task. Last, I pick an album or maybe even just a song on repeat that is close to the time block I want to work. Headphones on, press play and watch the work roll out. One thing at a time.
The 1950s era fridge I had been using as my beer chiller in the garage finally bit the big one (to be fair, it might have had something to do with the hole I put in the coils when I was trying to chisel off some ice…) so I decided to go ahead and pull and idea off the someday maybe list and build a keezer. This is just a rough build. I’m going to see how I like it before finishing off the outside with a wider veneer of some oak or cherry and the inside of the collar with some insulation. Hat tip to home brew academy for the inspiration and general guidelines. Happy brewing.
After my whirlwind trip to Germany last week, I decided to take Friday off and head down with my daughter and her friend to the twice annual Knob Creek Machine Gun shoot. I think I missed it completely last year, so it was nice to get a chance to go. Nothing really stood out, but we had a great time, including the chance to go down range (when it was cold :-)) and inspect the damage.
A few pics below.
A quick review of the most recent casualty out of my “to read” pile: Alexander the Great by Lewis V. Cummings. Short for two reasons: I have to head to the airport in less than an hour (to fly to Germany for 12 hours to present 5 slides to 4 guys to get one question answered…but that’s another story) and because I’m not sure I am taking away any grand themes from this read.
This was added to my read pile a few months back on a monthly trip to Half Price Books. Unlike most of my other acquisitions there, this title was not on a wish list. Rather, I have been interested in reading more about Alexander, specifically after having read Persian Fire earlier this year. I almost looked at it like a sequel ;-). What I didn’t know when I picked this one up is that it was originally written in the 40s and as a testament to how dumb we (or at least I) have become I found the phrasing a bit difficult to get to. The challenging phrasing was compounded by all the unfamiliar Greek and Persian place and people names (sometimes I wasn’t sure whether it was one or the other) and a relative scarcity of maps to correlate the advances I was reading about. Overall this was a rather difficult book for me to get through. But it was worth doing.
A few ideas that stuck out to me about Alexander and his conquest:
- It’s amazing how far he went in such a short time. Persia, Egypt, India and nearly beyond. Immediately before his death he was preparing for an invasion of Arabia. I can only imagine how different he modern world would be if he had lived for another decade or two.
- He was most certainly a psychopath. Or at least extremely disturbed. How could you not be with the sort of childhood he had (Aristotle’s tutoring being perhaps the one exception…although he later causes Aristotle of being a sophist, so maybe even that didn’t “take”).
- Maps are a relative thing. The cities described in the book don’t exist anymore or have been through several name changes. The borders don’t exist at all.
- I’m calling out my own stupidity here, but I will admit that I didn;t realize that he wasn’t Greek. He was Macedonian. And calling him a Greek would be like calling someone from the deep south a yankee.
- He was always very concerned about protecting his flanks and rear. To accomplish this he would often leave the king of the city he conquered (either through arms or surrender) in charge with the help of a few of his own “military advisors”. This shows that it wasn’t personal (he didn’t hate the kings) put purely about power. In some cases he also took hostages from the conquered kings kinsmen with him if he though the king might not follow the advice of his “advisors”. This struck me as strangely similar to some of the “dotted line” reporting structures in some modern corporations…
- A note about the book rather than Alexander: this book made me realize (again) how hard it is to really know what happened in history. Cummings uses extensive footnotes, and half of them point out where the primary sources disagree. I can’t imagine trying to comb through Plutarch, Arrian, etc and try to figure out who is right.
- For all his accomplishments, and despite his nearly constant attempts to be worshipped as a god, he was still mortal and was likely killed (according to Cummings) by malaria. We all live in the same reality.
Favorite anecdote from the book (near the end): he was sailing down the Euphrates and his hat blew off. One of the crew dove in after it and, afraid that the water would damage it, put it on his head. Alexander rewarded him with a silver talent for saving his hat and then ordered him to be immediately executed for daring to place the royal symbol on his head.
Favorite quote from the book (beside the speech he gave to the Macedonians at the end which is a direct quote from Plutarch):
He (referring to Alexander) had, consciously or unconsciously, reached the conclusion that every tyrant before and since has at last had to learn, that no man ever ruled any body of people without there consent; that the instant they ceased to give that consent, whether passive or active, that instant they were his masters, and continued to be his masters as long as they could act in unison.
Off to the airport now with a copy of Our Mathematical Universe. The pattern seems to be history – science – philosophy. This one should check off two of those categories so it will be back to history when I land.