Monday, October 30, 2006

video game life

i am a member of the first generation of video game players.
for the most part, i see this as a very good piece of me- the use of metaphors derived from video games.
there are some times in life when one must do repetitive things for a long time in order to earn enough money to buy the armour to get the next magical item. and the very idea of levels, that things get harder as one goes along, but one is also more skilled. the early video game makers were true masters. true myth makers, depositing age old wisdom in the computer code with low-res graphics and repetitive musical scores.

what were some of the early ones? there was some labarynth game where you found different colored crossbows and climbed up to higher levels. i don't remember the name of this game or the system it was played on, but thinking of it brings over me a nostalgia and sense of mystery that maybe other people from previous generations would have for playing a game in the closet, or exploring a market. then there was Yar's Revenge. a yar is a kind of fly. you shot away at the blocks surrounding a rapidly moving bright object and tried to shoot it when it turned into a sun and flew across the screen towards you. the music from the game comes back to me sometimes and brings on something akin to synaesthesia, where a texture in the back of my head takes on a substance richer and scarier than seems contained in the word or experience of "texture".

there was boulder dash that I played at my friend ryan's house. i've played later incarnations of the game, but the game play and the excitement and mystery of surrounding a growing blob with boulders until it turned into diamonds was never quite recaptured. i also played dungeons and dragons a few times in the attic at that house.

the first game i played was called sneakers and it was on an Apple IIE computer in elementary school. I played it after school, and imagined that i would win great wealth if I could ever get to the next level. i'll leave it there for now, but somehow, thinking of video games, for me, opens up a rich path back to earlier versions of me with the hint that i might take off in new and more promising directions starting from those early couches and soundtracks and pushing of buttons as fast as I could,

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

talking about things you know very little about

In the online wars over how people should view string theory, one of the issues that often comes up is whether someone has a right to express an opinion or form a judgement on something they know very little about. Someone will say something like: "I don't know much about string theory, but it seems like those people are just blowing hot air!" It could also be something more technical, like that a certain perturbation expansion doesn't converge, or whatever, but a typical response is to say: "if, by your own admission, you don't know anything about string theory, then can you just keep your opinions to your self??"

Normally I'd agree that people shouldn't talk too much about things they don't understand. But what if you encounter a certain subject frequently, but it is so full of details that you aren't likely to be able to understand it, even with a fair amount of effort? Another example would be a religion based on text in a foreign language. Suppose, for example, that someone keeps telling you that you will be reincarnated, but when you inquire further, you find that the evidence is supposed to be in some obscure Sanskrit text. What do you do? If you start to argue with the person (who supposedly knows at least some Sanskrit), they can just tell you that until you learn Sanskrit, you can't really form a complete opinion on the subject. You could read a translation, but they could always argue that the translation is imperfect when you start trying to poke holes in their arguments.

In the case of string theory, you have take each claim on its own terms. For example: "The world is made of 10 dimensions, 6 of which are tightly wrapped up so that they are hard to see."

"Fascinating," you may respond. "So, can I travel into these extra dimensions? Can I disappear here and appear over there? Can I gain great power by becoming master of more than the normal 4 dimensions?"

"Oh, no, not really." Will probably the response. The honest response, anyway. A somewhat dishonest response would be "maybe".

In the mind of the person who made the original claim is a bunch of math about surfaces and fields wrapped around strange abstract spaces. But when they make a claim to you about the world you live in, unless they can put it in terms of words you understand and have experience with, then they haven't communicated anything to you. You may hear these words that you don't understand and because of your opinion of how smart they are, take those words in a non-literal sense, and let them be a "mystery". Words in this symbolic part of your thinking can then take on all sorts of colorful meanings. They can take on a sort of religious meaning. You may hope that the powerful God of 10 dimensions will hear your prayers. Or picture your soul as made out of vibrating strings that are connected to all other people's souls. Or something along those lines.

So this kind of talk can start myths. Not that myths are bad. They can be comforting and beautiful. But they can also be misused by those whose talk started them in the first place. They can say: "meditation connects you to these strings, and so you'd better pay me some money to show you how to meditate the right way." So how do you fight against this kind of power someone can have over you? You have to have a conversation about something you don't know very much about. And you have to be very clear about what you know and what you don't know. And you have to make a sacrafice. You have to say: even though the idea of 10 dimensions and a unified field of consciousness is beautiful, because its not expressed clearly enough in language that I understand, I will not accept it.

This is why its natural to tell scientists to shut up. Not because the practical effects of the stuff they do, used by those who "do" understand it is necessarilly bad, but because the mythic element of the language takes your power away from you. To be clear, in most cases I think that the mythic component to scientific claims is not understood by those making them. They don't necesarilly realize that the whole world of metaphors that their words will give birth to in the uninformed listener, has little to do with the more precise understanding of the concepts in their own mind.

Friday, October 20, 2006


I found this tunnel made out of corragated aluminum a few minute walk away from my office. I went walking there a few minutes ago and stood in the tunnel to stay out of the rain. The tunnel amplifies sounds so that you when you walk, the sound of your scuffling feet is sharp and crisp. In one direction, you can see a large warehouse type building that looks somewhat deserted, and in the other, you look off into the distance of the rest of the lab, with the view somewhat obscured by trees.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

rain rain rain

too much computer, movies, email, books, sore throat, thinking about religion, trying to understand non-linear dynamics, symbols, J_x,y in involution, independent, isolation, all these theorists, some respected and political, some isolated yet tolerated for their achievements. too much. stomach tight. a new form of tension. cut on finger, in the shape of an arrowhead, slowly healing. but somehow still at the bottom of things. a new place of stability? or a lack of ghosts? a lack of undoable work? will it make life lose meaning? meeting other people who talk about their difficult first winters on long island. three people now, have told me of how unhappy they were. one raised a red flag. two remember the cold. both ended up in relationships afterwards. but leaves changing are beautiful right? split as always. but learning to color in the edges/cracks, deemphasize isolation. as always. most optimistic face. i learned to be flexible. flexible.

aw. this sweet movie. they finally end up together. but lightning strikes. chinese superstition, sometimes ridiculed, sometimes honored.
the parallel postulate, renormaliztion, a barren field? picking up the pieces for other people?
probably not. its always more complicated than that.
phew. she's not dead. the turtle returns. and its raining in the movie too.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Friday, October 13, 2006

kitsch a folding screen set up to curtain off death.
-kundera, "unbearable lightness of being"

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

physics of religion (religion of physics)

Here's two examples:

Physics of Immortality by Frank Tipler of Tulane University.


Restructuring Physics from its Foundation in Light of Maharishi's Vedic Science by John Hagelin who used to teach at Maharishi University of Management.

I might also add Fritjof Capra's "Tao of Physics" to this genre. The thing to understand about these writings is that they work on a metaphorical level. They basically relieve, at a surface level, some of the cognitive dissonance for people for whom both science and religion has a hold. Its a set of word games so that when, on a breezy afternoon (or late at night?), one's mind roams freely around its different regions, there are word bridges connecting one to the other. The problem is that the bridges don't actually go where they claim to go.

I won't go into the reasons why these bridges don't go where they claim to go. Maybe I'll think about it in more detail some other time.
The game is just to build something that has an anchor in each world and then to call it a bridge. For Tipler, these structures are "God" and "resurrection". He has taken these religious concepts and defined them in physics language. "God" is what happens to life and complexity when (and if) the universe collapses on itself, and "resurrection" is the possibility that at that highly technologically advanced time, the same set of atoms that compose you could be brought into the same configuration again.

For Hagelin, he identifies the "unified field" of hypothetical physics models with subjective consciousness in a sort of Hindu (Maharishi-ized) perspective which identifies consciousness with God.

I don't object to this type of intellectual pursuit. What I object to is the lack of honesty. I think that in both these cases, the audience is mainly someone who doesn't understand much of the physics and can't really check the arguments. The role of the technical appendix in each case is just to ward off technical questions from someone who almost knows enough to counter the arguments. "Its all in the appendix" would be the response. But how the appendix relates to the text is where the dishonesty occurs. Really, a neutral language that is broad enough to include both physics and religion is needed. Or lacking that, a statement limiting the scope of the investigation to a metaphorical level is required. Some of their power derives from the over-hyped claims from physicists themselves. To explain why Hagelin is wrong, to sort of get to the other side of his thinking, as it were, one has to be able to concieve of physics as metaphor. We're used to thinking of religion as metaphor, but not science. At its most speculative level, physics requires metaphors to fill in the many technical unknowns and to ground mathematical concepts. By overselling superstring theory as more solid than it really is, people are more likely to find its connections to other areas as causal, rather than metaphorical. Perhaps Hagelin himself is confused on this issue and this is what allows him to continue selling "The Maharishi Effect" to the public. But my feeling is that its more out of intellectual exaustion and a sort of revenge on those who fed him the over-hyped string theory claims to begin with.

One interesting thing I found in reading Peter Woit's "Not Even Wrong" was that Maharishi's posters connecting the unified field theory to consciousness were popular among physicists at one point (I don't know whether seriously, or as a joke).

Saturday, October 07, 2006

east/west coasters

so i had this sort of story about how west coasters are friendly on the surface but below that kind of hard whereas east coasters had a rougher surface but kindness and loyalty beneath. tonight i met this danish guy who has the opposite perspective. someone please tell me what to think! i don't know what stereotypes to operate under anymore. arghhhh!

Friday, October 06, 2006

a few comments

I left a few comments on The Reference Frame under the pseudonym "Phil". The interaction always leaves me feeling a bit dirty. Why do I do it? I tried it once before in response to his linking to Fox News regarding a certain issue of sexual harassment. A boy was accused of sexual harassment, and Lubos argued that it was impossible because sexuality starts at a later age. I raised the possiblity that Fox News didn't necessarily have all the facts. I can't even remember all the names I was called, "liberal nutcase" would be a pleasant version of it.
Anyway, here I am spreading the disease of giving attention to Lubos. But there's a sort of sick pleasure in it... Also, I've been reading the two books he hates so much- the dreaded blue and black...
I should add, however, that I wrote my comments in good faith. Not necessarilly to get a rise out of him, and I was actually 70% interested in what he might say in response. Its just very difficult not to degenerate into name calling. And he has so much more of a stomach for it, that I'd never survive even if I were so inclined.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

learning and interacting

There's a weird non-intuitive thing I notice about the process of learning something new. I find that when I'm in the thick of absorbing new stuff that I don't understand very well, I feel arrogant and in a way, better than everyone else, or at least different from everyone else. Its as if I'm the only one who could possibly understand this really hard thing. The strange thing is that the feeling fades away after I actually understand the stuff I'm trying to learn.

I guess this is just another way of saying that arrogance is usally a sign of insecurity. Its a defense mechanism when your grasp of the facts is tenuous. To avoid slipping into arrogance, one can just describe oneself as out of commision in certain ways during those times. In academic or other environments where grasp of information is key, arrogance is always a job hazzard- both for yourself and for the other people you have to work with.

I have to remind myself of this process sometimes. I'm pretty good at math, but each time I learn something new, I have this feeling that if I learn this new thing, I'll have so much knowledge that I'll never be able to relate to normal people again. But as I mentioned, this feeling fades away after I actually learn the thing, and in fact, once its internalized, the math feels very human and I can even explain it relatively easy. I suppose there's a danger of trying to learn things that I'll never understand and getting stuck in a purgatory as a result. Anyway, all jobs have their hazards as well as their rewards.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


I started watching this film awhile ago and was annoyed, but somehow I ended up trying it again.
This time it worked for me. A minor complaint was that they didn't need to be so afraid of showing math. It had the feel of some editor coming in and saying, "the audience doesn't know math- tone that stuff down, it will scare them." There was also a little bit of self-conscousness surrounding the issue of women in math, a sort of tentative try to make a few comments, but not exactly sure what it was saying. But emotionally the film was pretty interesting. A nuanced look at how to determine whether or not someone's crazy and the subjectiveness about the conclusion. In this respect, the film was refreshing in its sparse treatment of math itself. Movies like "Pi" and "A Beautiful Mind" tied craziness with math ability more explicitly. Here the issues are separate.

Hmm, directed by John Madden... I'd love to hear the commentary with the play by play!