Thursday, June 19, 2014

Favourite Posts

I got all nostalgic and re-read my whole blog. While I was doing it I made a list of all the things I enjoyed reading again. And tried to link to it in the right hand corner above the photo.  I don't know if it's obvious enough though.

Oxford English Dictionary

Hey, the OED's online:

www.oed.com

The real thing!

And they've put back all the ancient greek roots in real greek letters that were what I loved about it when I was a child, and which they took out in the last printed edition in order that it wouldn't be as good any more.

And you can add it to firefox as one of your search engines just by going to that page and clicking on the icon in the search bar, and then you can give it the keyword oed so that Ctrl-L oed reference will look up 'reference'.

Nice.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

I Hate Sport

In a recent electrical conversation with a friend, the fact that it was once possible for an Olympic athlete to be accused of 'training' came up.

I've been sporty for most of my adult life, and I know exactly what those guys in the 1920s were complaining about.

The game-theoretic structure of sport is wrong.

The point of sport is to have something fun and friendly to do at the weekend. All our sports are children's games that it turns out adults can enjoy too.

If you don't enjoy it, why would you even call it sport?

What you want out of sport is the joy of the game itself, the relationships that you make out of it, the atavistic thrill of combat without the ocean of blood, the wonderful feeling of practising something and getting better at it, the team spirit, the feeling of good health and freedom that comes from having some sort of physical activity in your life.

The reasons for enjoying and approving of sport are many. It was a great invention, when the first adults decided to play children's games in their new-found spare time.

There are two problems.

One is that it's possible to care about winning far too much. This is something in our evolved psychology whose origin is too obvious to mention.

The sport I've taken most seriously in my life has been rowing.

Not one competition I have ever entered has mattered in the grand scheme of things, and I have never thought it did. But when actually in a boat race, of any standard or against any rival, I would happily damage my own health in order to win. I often threw up at the end of hard races.

The day when I found myself, in the middle of a race at Peterborough Regatta whose result is nowhere recorded, and which went entirely unnoticed even by the spectators on the day, not caring insanely much about beating the boatful of complete strangers rowing next to us, and thinking that it might be nice to back off a bit and let the intense pain in my legs die down, was the day I gave up rowing for good.

Once, during the Head of the River Race, which is the big event for British men's rowing in the winter, rowed over the university boat race course on the Thames, with cheering crowds and the best boat of every club in England racing for results that are remembered for years, I misjudged my own strength, overdid it, and found myself 10 minutes into the race with my vision contracting to a tunnel, as the cells in my eyes and my brain starved for oxygen, until it felt as though I was looking at the back of the person in front of me through a telescope. I rowed the rest of the course in delirium.

Rowing is a technical sport. That kind of exhaustion is not going to do your technique any good at all, and you aren't going to produce significantly more power by putting yourself into that kind of place. It's beyond doubt counterproductive to race that hard.

To put this crazed over-exertion into perspective, this was early in my rowing career. I was rowing in my club's second VIII. We were very bad, and had no business being in the HORR at all. I honestly can't remember what administrative cock-up had resulted in our invitation. I think we came third from bottom out of four hundred boats.

And we knew this perfectly well before the start of the race. One of my favourite memories is of our utterly unrealistic captain giving his pre-race pep-talk. He said "We're going to go out there and own this river. We can be the fastest thing out there. We just have to believe." As he said this, the German national squad rowed past behind him on its way to the start.

I mentioned my tunnel vision to a friend of mine who rowed for the Cambridge University Lightweights.

He said "That's nothing. Every time I do an ergo I go blind." He was perfectly serious.

Have you any idea who won the lightweights race this year, or even when or where it was held? I haven't, and I coach rowing in Cambridge.

The second problem is that, although practising your sport can be great fun, there are lots of ways to get better at a sport that aren't a great deal of fun.

For instance, there's a sort of 'rowing simulator', called an ergometer, invented by Canadians whose rivers froze over in the winter, and who wanted a way to practice rowing without needing water.

It is almost never a good idea, from the point of view of the eventual speed of your boat, to do an ergo instead of going rowing.

The only real case for it would be if you were trying to explore your personal limits and get used to the various sensations that a beginner feels as pain, but an experienced rower feels as information.

But it can be difficult to organise rowing outings. In an VIII, you need all nine of your people to be available at the same time. And you need the river to be nice and clear of other traffic so that you can do your hard work out on the water.

So sometimes, it can be more organizationally feasible for a committed crew to organize say, five outings a week, and add another five ergo sessions on top of that.

I am talking about half-decent club athletes. Training close to the physical limits that the human body can tolerate. Many of them will be injured by the weight of training and drop out, for the season or for good.

And it doesn't make a great deal of difference in the end. What, without the ergometers and the hard training, would be a competition won by naturally fit people with good genes who practised enough to get technically good and decently fit, becomes a competition won by naturally fit people with good genes who practise enough to become technically good, and can also, by virtue of their good genes, tolerate insane training loads, and who have the obsessive personalities necessary to do this sort of thing in order to win.

But notice what has happened, once people have substituted 'training to win' for 'practising because it is enjoyable'.

Anyone who just does as much as a man would do for fun is 'hopeless', an 'underachiever', a 'tourist', 'lazy', 'rubbish', 'a joke'. Largely despised by the community around his sport.

Anyone else is doing at least something that he would rather not do. And anyone who would like to win a race some day is doing a very great deal of stuff that he would rather not be doing.

I'm still talking about amateur sport, someone's recreation. Once you start getting paid professional sportsmen, who may quite literally loathe their profession but have no other source of income, and a self-image built up around being good at their sport, and once you start getting sport as a business, cynically whipping up tribal hatreds in order to extract money from 'fans' who have nothing at all in common with the highest bidder mercenary players in the teams that they are supporting, the whole thing becomes profoundly distasteful.

I have been sporty all my adult life, and I hate sport.

Not the sort of thing that goes on between consenting adults on village cricket greens every weekend, which is largely friendly, enjoyable, and life enhancing, or the cheerful rivalry between Oxbridge college boat clubs, that provides a happy distraction from the stresses of undergraduate life.

But the high levels of sport, where the sport becomes the life, which are peopled by obsessive, selfish, nasty cheats. A number of whom have good PR.

This is the sort of thing that the amateur movement was trying to prevent. They had seen it all before in the nineteenth century, with its professional athletes and its betting rings and its corruption and its cheating and its match fixing, and they wanted none of it.

And for a while they had the upper hand, and 'sporting' somehow became a synonym for 'decent'.

But the game theoretic structure of sport is wrong, and it does not permit amateurism.

Once people can train, rather than practise, those who train will win.

Once people can make money from winning, they don't need to work, and so they can train a lot.

Once they can train a lot, they're doing something that they don't enjoy.

And if you're not enjoying it, there's no point to it at all.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Atomic Man

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance is the ability of atomic nuclei to absorb radio waves in a magnetic field.

It leads to an imaging technique (ironically using TV frequencies) called NMRI, that can be used, like X-rays, to look inside the body. It's much better than X-rays for a lot of purposes, and it doesn't use dangerous radiation.

When it was introduced in a medical setting, it was found that people were very frightened by the term 'nuclear magnetic resonance imaging', and so it was changed to MRI, dropping the offending adjective.

On this basis, I have decided henceforth to adopt the superhero name Atomic Man, because I am made of atoms.

I have recently been accused of stunning honesty. That can be my superpower.

"Twelve Years Ago, I did not walk in a friendly game of cricket even though I was 90% confident that I'd got a feather touch on the ball while trying to pull. I have felt wretched about it ever since, and have never done anything like it again..."

"Urrgh!"

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Fountain Of Doubt

This is my favourite from Less Wrong's 'Rationality Quotes':
From a BBC interview with a retiring Oxford Don:

Don: "Up until the age of 25, I believed that 'invective' was a synonym for 'urine'."

BBC: "Why ever would you have thought that?"

Don: "During my childhood, I read many of the Edgar Rice Burroughs 'Tarzan' stories, and in those books, whenever a lion wandered into a clearing, the monkeys would leap into the trees and 'cast streams of invective upon the lion's head.'"

BBC: long pause "But, surely sir, you now know the meaning of the word."

Don: "Yes, but I do wonder under what other misapprehensions I continue to labour."

Unfortunately I think it's apocryphal. If anyone has a reference or can fill in the name, I'd be most grateful.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Into How Many Regions Can Six Planes Divide Space?

I recently misread an easy recreational puzzle as 'Into how many regions can six planes divide space?'.

It took me about half an hour to get an answer. (Which was the correct answer to the wrong question, but sadly the wrong answer to the right question). But it turned out to be great fun to think about.

1,2,4,8,..... how does this sequence continue?

So far Tim and Sips and Paul Cook have had a go. Paul guessed the answer but didn't know why it was true and I haven't heard anything from the other two.

Have fun! It's not actually that hard.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Falsifiability of Classical Mechanics


So I am currently enjoying an argument with Smiling Dave on his excellent blog:
http://smilingdavesblog.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/top-ten-economic-blunders-according-to-mises, and it has wandered around, and like all arguments, touched on philosophy.

Anyway I said:

If Jupiter pulls a loop the loop, that doesn't disconfirm *my understanding* of physics. That's in flat contradiction with physics, and it means physics is wrong. Similarly with evolution and fossil rabbits in the precambrian.

And Dave said:

If Jupiter pulls a loop the loop, I doubt the reaction will be to throw out the physics and engineering textbooks. In fact we did have a Jupiter pulling a loop the loop, when quantum effects were first discovered, invalidating all Newton’s laws. So what happened?

And this is a very good question indeed, and deserves an answer, but it is not about Austrian Economics so I am reluctant to clutter up Dave's blog with it, so here it is instead:

Classical Mechanics is dead as a theory of how the world works. It survives as an abstract mathematical model. And we still teach it. And it is still a very useful tool for understanding and predicting things. But anyone who actually thinks that the world works like that is a crackpot and will not be welcome at the sort of parties that mathematicians and physicists like.

Classical Mechanics died before the end of the nineteenth century, from many directions at once. Once people twigged that the "atoms" idea was actually true, and worked out how electromagnetism worked, and started measuring what happened when tiny fast things crashed into each other, classical mechanics was dead.

People used classical ideas to predict how the atoms behaved, and those predictions were unambiguously wrong. For a time they tried to patch the theory up by adding extra rules, but all those attempts failed miserably.

And so philosophers went from debating whether classical mechanics was just "true", or whether it was "necessarily true", to criticizing mathematicians and physicists for having ever thought it was true, since it is so obviously false.

And I hate to admit it, but the philosophers had a point. If you know a little quantum mechanics, and the modern ideas about how matter works, you realise that the classical theory was obviously wrong all along, and that if people had only thought a bit harder about it they would have realised that the world couldn't possibly have worked that way.

Classical Mechanics survives only as a mathematical theory, and in the sense that it is a 'limiting case' of general relativity and quantum mechanics.

But it is still just as useful as it ever was! And remember that that was very useful indeed. Every invention between Newton and the atomic bomb was invented using classical mechanics. Which means that the rise of the West and so the entire history of the world since Newton are squarely the fault of classical mechanics. It is a powerful set of ideas which happen to be untrue.

It can these days be characterized as "A simplified form of general relativity which is appropriate for predicting the behaviour of medium sized slow things, say anything between a cricket ball and a planet, but even then it will be wrong in ways that are not too difficult to spot, once you know what the real answers look like."

Now in fact, very shortly after Classical Mechanics collapsed, dead and greatly lamented by its friends, Einstein and Bohr came up with a couple of new theories about how very small, very large, or very fast things went about their business.

And surprise surprise, those theories turn out to be (a) much better at predicting the behaviour of vsvlvf things, and (b) much less intuitive to human beings, who after all have minds adapted to comprehend the behaviour of the sorts of things humans have to deal with in their daily lives.

Although a conversation with an undergraduate about physics will usually quickly disabuse one of the notion that classical mechanics is intuitive. Our built-in mental models are much more like Aristotle's version of physics, which is even more wrong.

Another surprise is that General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are also obviously wrong! They are completely different theories, and can't both be true in the same universe. And GR makes predictions even more absurd about small things than CM did, and QM is completely incapable of dealing with gravity. And also QM is famously very strange philosophically, in a way that is hard to explain, but it feels as though it is pulling clever tricks on one at every turn. And the only obvious, straightforward way to interpret the maths is so mind-bogglingly weird that no-one really buys it.

So it is our hope that there will one day be a nice big Theory of Everything that can reconcile these two theories, and make predictions about stuff without having to bring in all sorts of ad-hockery and special cases. But we sure aren't there yet, and we may never get there. And the smart money says that if we ever find this theory it will be even more weird and its implications even more bizarre than Quantum Mechanics, and that it will include General Relativity as a special case in the same way that Classical Mechanics is a special case of General Relativity.

----------

But if Jupiter actually pulled a loop the loop, that would be much much worse.

The orbit of Jupiter is one of the places where Classical Mechanics applies almost exactly. There are tiny corrections from General Relativity, but nothing that is going to cause loop-the-loops.

And the orbit of Jupiter has been successfully predicted since Newton's time, and is one of the things we know almost for sure about the universe.

If Jupiter pulled a loop-the-loop, then I think our reaction would be utter incredulity. In fact I think we'd instantly imagine fraud, deception, or incompetence. Even if the data were completely unambiguous and there were millions of witnesses and no possible way it was a trick, I think we'd end up treating the event in the same way we treat the Miracle of Fatima, as a massive delusion simultaneously and inexplicably affecting vast numbers of intelligent and reliable minds.

And I think we'd be right to. Unlikely as that is, it's way more likely than Classical Mechanics being so completely wrong about something that is so unambiguously in its domain.

But if Jupiter repeatedly and unambiguously started pulling loop-the-loops, what then?

Well, two options.

(a) Someone comes up with a new theory that cleverly and elegantly explains what is happening, and explains all the previous data as well, including the near total success of CM on planetary orbits to date, which I reckon is a 'highly non-trivial' thing to do.

(b) We give up. We figure that even though we've got all these clever physics theories and they explain so much so well, we just can't trust that way of thinking. We go back to believing that the universe has a mind of its own, and that angels push the planets around, or that we're living in a giant computer game, or some such wooo. We'll still use our theories, because they're so useful, but they're just 'rules of thumb' for working out 'how angels like to move planets'. And science as a philosophy is dead. We live in a magic world.

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