How Much Government?

After nursing a slight headache, I decided it was time to get off the computer.  So what would I do with myself?  Headaches are the worst.  They really limit what you can do with yourself.  I decided to grab a book off my bookshelf called The Future Of Science, written in 1959 by Bertrand Russell.  It’s a small little book and made for a perfect diversion.

I came to small blurb on the role of government which I thought I’d share.

“The dispute between anarchism and bureaucracy at present tends to take the form of one side maintaining that we want no organization, while the other maintains that we want as much as possible.  A person imbued with the scientific spirit would hardly even examine these extreme positions.  Some people think that we keep our rooms too hot for health, others that we keep them too cold.  If this were a political question, one party would maintain that the best temperature is the absolute zero, the other that it is the melting point of iron.  Those who maintained any intermediate position would be abused as timorous time-servers, concealed agents of the other side, men who maintained any intermediate position cause by tepid appeals to mere reason.  Any man who had the courage to say that our rooms ought to be neither very hot nor very cold would be abused by both parties, and probably shot in No Man’s Land.  Possibly some day politics may become more rational but so far there is not the faintest indication of a change in this direction.

To a rational mind, the question is not:  Do we want organization or do we not?  The question is:  How much organization do we want, and where and when and of what kind?”

– Bertrand Russell, The Future Of Science

A little later he got to talking about a one world government, predicting that once communications technologies matured, power could more easily be centralized and we’d see the birth of transnational corporations.  People who controlled the natural and economic resources would battle it out, the victor setting the rules for the one world government.  He believed that people in these sorts of positions are indifferent to money, mainly because they have so much of it.  To them, it’s a sort of game – a rivalry.  Once one of them “wins” the game, they would at first be terrible tyrants and life would hard for those under them.  However, with all their rivals defeated, they would eventually grow bored with it all and release their grip on the populace.  Then things would get a lot better.  An interesting way to see world domination, to say the least.  I don’t think it was an idea he loved, but he seemed to believe that we would soon destroy ourselves fighting with one another with advanced weapons, and this was the only alternative he could think of.

“The planet is of finite size, but the most efficient size for an organization is continually increased by new scientific inventions.  The world becomes more and more of an economic unity.  Before very long the technical conditions will exist for organizing the whole world as one producing and consuming unit.  If, when that times comes, two rival groups contend for mastery, the victor may be able to introduce that single world-wide organization that is needed to prevent the mutual extermination of civilized nations.  The world which would result would be, at first, very different from the dreams of either liberals or socialists; but it might grow less different with the lapse of time.  There would be at first economic and political tyranny of the victors, a dread of renewed upheavals, and therefore a drastic suppression of liberty.  But if the first half-dozen revolts were successfully repressed, the vanquished would give up hope, and accept the subordinate place assigned to them by the victors in the great world-trust.  As soon as the holders of power felt secure, they would grow less tyrannical and less energetic.  The motive of rivalry being removed, they would not work so hard as they do now, and would soon cease to exact such hard work from their subordinates.  Life at first might be unpleasant, but it would at least be possible, which would be enough to recommend the system after a long period of warfare.  Given a stable world-organization, economic and political, even if, at first, it rested upon nothing but armed force, the evils which now threaten civilization would gradually diminish, and a more thorough democracy than that which now exists might become possible.  I believe that, owing to men’s folly, a world-government will only be established by force, and will therefore be at first cruel and despotic.  But I believe that it is necessary for the preservation of a scientific civilization, and that, if once realized, it will gradually give rise to other conditions of a tolerable existence.”

Crazy People And The Aurora Shooting

After the recent shooting in Aurora, the same political talking heads are running over the same talking points we’ve all heard before.  The Republicans are telling us that if only someone in that crowd had a gun, they could’ve taken down the shooter and saved all those lives.  The Democrats are assuring us that if we ban guns, the shooter never could have acquired the weapon to begin with.  And pretty much everyone is assuming that this man is schizophrenic, so what can anyone do in that situation?

You need to realize that there’s absolutely no statistical correlation between schizophrenia (or other psychotic illnesses) and violence.  In a recent study conducted by Oxford, you have a 1 in 14.3 million chance of being murdered by a man with a psychotic illness.  If it says anything, you’re three times more likely to be struck my lightning.  In a study of 20,000 mentally ill patients, research indicated that there’s no way to correlate murder and mental illness.  You may think that someone with paranoid delusions and wild hallucinations would be a huge threat, but in reality they’re not.  However, you can easily correlate substance abuse with homicide. In other words, your odds of being killed by a drug addict or an alcoholic are way higher.  You should be much more worried of the guy sitting next to you in the bar.  People with mental illness do not deserve this unwarranted stigma as their lives are hard enough as it is.

Saying that the man was “crazy” doesn’t tell us anything about why it happened.  We’re much too quick to use mental illness as an explanation for violence.  We need to think more clearly and explore personal motives, grievances, or distorted political anger.

You want to know the worst rhetoric?  Religious people are blaming science education for this.  “You tell people they’re animals, they’ll act like them.”  Despite what they may think, the Enlightenment brought about the largest decrease in human violence the world has ever seen.  It’s the complete opposite.  The scientific way of thinking is one of demanding evidence, critical thinking, and coherent, well thought out explanations.  That’s what gave rise to our free and generally peaceful society.  What about religious superstition?  Remember the torture chambers of the middle ages?  How many people were beaten senseless with whips, impaled up the anus with sharp blades, and nailed to crosses in order that the sinner recant their evil beliefs?  How many people were burned alive at the stake only for holding a contrary opinion?  How many women were slowly cut to pieces for supposed “witchcraft”?  How many libraries were burned to the ground, setting human progress back literally thousands of years?  Then they have the gall to blame biologists for these sorts of things.  They’re curing diseases, educating physicians, and helping us keep our planet’s ecosystem healthy and thriving.  What are religious people up to?  To this day women are having their noses cut off and battery acid thrown in their face simply for having sex before marriage.

This shooting was a real tragedy and I feel for the families who lost loved ones.  Who could imagine being gunned down while waiting in line to watch a movie?  It’s really beyond words, but let’s not blame the wrong people.

The Human Condition

Not too long ago, my good friend Greg was in town and we went to our favorite restaurant, Alex’s Pizza, and did a little catching up.  We talked for a long time, as we often do when we’re together, and he began sharing his latest reflections on life and human existence.  We discussed different belief systems, primarily religious and political ideas, and after considerable reflection, we entertained an idea that there are always two “roots” buried deep within all human thought.  There’s either a pessimism, a sort of disapproval of the world, or there’s a confidence, a belief that the world is a good thing and a place where dreams can come true.

He’s recently revamped his website, and you’ll find this under his ‘Who is Greg Thompson’ section of his site.

What really makes us individuals at our core is what we believe and how we act in life. So I’m going to tell you what I believe in and how that affects what I do every day.

I, myself, and maybe even you, tend to view Reality as a Good Thing. A Very Good Thing… a playground for us souls to frolic in… to play in… to build inside of and with… to make real our dreams. To come true.

Sure, some other people choose to experience misery or even terror in their own personal reality. What Reality is to you all comes down to taste. It’s a good thing we have a choice, and I do hope you have good taste.

I’ve been seriously thinking about these things for the past months.

Is life a good thing?  It depends.  When we assess something like that, we have to think of the lives of all human beings throughout the ages.  When I study history, most people lived short and miserable lives.  They were surrounded by violence, plagues, and poverty.  Their average lifespan was next to nothing.  If you were to tell them, “Life is a place to frolic and play.  Make your dreams a reality!”  How would that work?  I picture a dirty woman cleaning clothes in the river, trying to wash out the lice and other vermin, her husband, covered in sweat and dirt, walking up to her and saying, “Let’s think positively, leave all this crud behind, and move on the bigger and better things.”  I suppose if they dreamed of making a life for their children that was slightly better than their own, they could be successful, but if they dreamed for anything much bigger, there’s no chance they’d have been successful.  Generations of hard work, by countless unremembered peoples, have created the world and opportunities available to all of us today.

Speaking of which, what’s different about our world today?  Why are there opportunities to escape that miserable, toilsome existence?  And where did those opportunities come from?  That’s the main question to ask yourself, and I don’t think it has an easy answer.  In short though, if you have no way of producing an abundance, you’re forced to struggle to survive and escape is impossible.   I’d recommend you read Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel.  Or you can just watch the three part film series covering the contents of the book.

There’s an interesting story behind that book and film series.  Dr. Diamond is a biologist and during his travels to Papua New Guinea, while performing wildlife research on the island there, one of the natives asked him, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”  By cargo, he was referring to why we have so much stuff and technology while they have practically nothing.  To this day, they live their lives in toil, barely able to eek out an existence, working all day long.  There’s never been an abundance for them.  Why is that?

Diamond knew that the answer had little to do with ingenuity or individual skill. From his own experience in the jungles of New Guinea, he had observed that native hunter-gatherers were just as intelligent as people of European descent — and far more resourceful. Their lives were tough, and it seemed a terrible paradox of history that these extraordinary people should be the conquered, and not the conquerors.

To examine the reasons for European success, Jared realized he had to peel back the layers of history and begin his search at a time of equality — a time when all the peoples of the world lived in exactly the same way.

The answer is very complicated.  To list a few of the reasons, we had access to things like wheat and barley, which could be planted very easily and provided the nutrients we needed.  There were also docile animals living in our geographic area which allowed us to domesticate them and harness their labor for farming.  This led to an abundance of food, freeing people to do other things, furthering progress.  There are very few animals which can be domesticated, despite what you may think.  Also, as we interacted with our domesticated animals, we contracted their diseases and eventually built up immunities.  When we went to battle with other cultures, such as the Incas and Mayans, our diseases killed them all off, giving us huge advantages.  It had nothing to do with us being “better”.

As we were freed from the menial aspects of existence, people from all over worked to better the human condition, bit by bit.  Farmers set out and cleared the land and constructed the foundations of our first cities.  Trade began, and civilizations were born.  It wasn’t always easy, and wasn’t all fun and games, but they did what they had to do.  I don’t think that journey is over, but if we keep at it, future generations can truly live in a reality where they’re free to “frolic”, “play”, and “make real our dreams”.  We’ve made a lot of progress, but we have a ways to go still.

Before leaving this topic, I’d like to share problems I have with human existence.

1.  Our mortality and the frailness of our existence

Most of my own dreams go well beyond my own lifespan.  I get depressed thinking about how short life is.  I don’t want to lose the ones I love, but as young as I am, it’s already happening.  I’ve watched my uncle and grandmother die.  I’ve witnessed other friend’s deaths, and have attended their funerals.  I think I’ve attended some twelve or so funerals in my lifetime.  They all were people who meant something to me, and a handful were very important to my life.

The invisible hand of time is always pushing us forward, moving us toward an uncertain future. We’re unable to escape its clutches, always incapable of seeing the end from the beginning.  We’re thrown into this body, shot out of life’s cannon at a hundred miles per hour, and slowly try to take control of our trajectory.  None of us are ever completely successful in this process, and so far every man who has ever lived has died.

Also, when I stare in the mirror, I can’t help but be angry about how weak and frail I am.  This human body is a very delicate machine.  I long for a better, stronger body which can handle the brutal world around me.  I’m so often too hot, or too cold, having to take baths, brush my teeth, suffering headaches, hunger, sore throats, and the list goes on.  Technology will eventually fix these problems, but I don’t expect they will within my lifetime.  There’s so much pointless suffering.

2.  The Enigma Of Existence

When I think on this universe, I feel like I’m immersed in a giant ocean, so deep and so vast, no matter how far I swim in any direction, I can barely get anywhere.  My purview is so limited that we might as well consider it nonexistent.  I look up into the night sky and see countless stars, billions of galaxies stretching back to the beginnings of the universe.  Whatever this universe is, it’s far beyond what we humans are capable of imagining.  Though we’re slowly learning how to get around in our small corner of the cosmos, we’re still in our infancy, and we’re still subject to mother nature’s capricious whims, which have rarely been kind to us.

My mind is limited and I’m forced to make certain assumptions about the world.  All of my thoughts are based on these assumptions and I’m always finding out that my views toward reality are wrong.  Each time my mind is opened to a deeper truth, I learn that the ocean I’m immersed in is even more vast than I had imagined previously and I feel totally lost.  I have no idea where or what I am.  My very existence is a mystery to me.

If I were immortal, I could tell myself that maybe one day I’ll figure out the answers to these mysteries, but knowing how short my life is, and how I’ll soon die, I feel frustrated that I lived and died yet had no clue what I took part in.

3.  Endless Desires

Deep down, in some inexplicable way, some aspect of myself is infinite and can never be satisfied with anything finite.  There are major problems in the very foundation of the human mind.  It desires more than this reality could possibly give.

Our infinite nature demands impossible things from society.  Each of us requires an assurance that there is an unconditional place for us in this world, but our lives are wasted in a long series of petty compromises, slowly having to settle into life’s routine as a hard shell of surrender seals off the deepest aspects of who we are.

Still Chugging Along

I apologize for not posting anything new in a while.  Most all of my time this summer has went into studying various numerical algorithms for computing differential equations.  I’ve written programs that model all kinds of things, and I’ve been testing how quickly various iterative methods converge and how long it takes my computer to solve matrices of various sizes using say LU Decomposition.   MASSIVE matrices.

It’s been a really productive time for me.  I’ve been practicing breaking partial differential equations into finite elements and solving them numerically, either by putting it all in a giant matrix and letting it crunch away, or using other iterative methods, such as say the Gauss-Seidal method.  There’s different techniques and I’ve been seeing how well they all work.  The current method I’m testing is the Crank-Nicholson method.

What is this sort of stuff used for?  I’ll give you an example.  Say you’re modeling how heat flows through, I dunno, a hubcap, and we want to watch the temperature in the material over time at each location.  I could model all of that using these techniques.

I’d watch that nice 3D model on screen and get a good feeling for what’s going on.  Temperature is important for what I’m modeling because different frequencies of radiation are emitted by objects at different temperatures.   I want to model everyday things like a metal hubcap.  Temperature represents the vibrations and motions of all the tiny atoms making up that hubcap.  The hubcap we actually see with our eyes is based on all the tiny atoms on its surface vibrating, which causes slight distortions in electric and magnetic fields which oscillate their way through space toward your eyeballs in small packets of energy called photons.

I want to be able to zoom in to a section of that hubcap’s surface and watch the individual atoms vibrating, observing the progression and evolution of those electric and magnetic fields as the radiation is emitted.

This may sound like an incredibly boring way to spend your summer, but these are the sorts of things I enjoy doing .  The world we live is so complex, yet most us have no idea what we’re looking at.  What is a moment in time?  As you’re sitting there in your computer chair, what sorts of processes created that moment for you?  I’m curious to find out.  I’m not being paid for this.  I’m not publishing any papers.  I just do it because I want to figure this stuff out.  I like to simulate complex things and render them in 3D on my computer screen and watch how the system behaves over time.  I guess for right now, my primary interest is in optical phenomenon, particularly how light scatters and moves through surfaces.   This ties in with my interest in what space is.  The world I see around me is based on objects scattering light from their surfaces.

Computers are amazing.  If it wasn’t for them, there’d be no way to visualize these sorts of things.  Not in any real complexity.  I’m hoping to get to the place where I can model a handful of atoms on the surface of that hubcap, simulating everything that’s going on in full quantum mechanical detail.  I want to view the wave function of those atoms, watching them get excited and then discharge light.   Computers can translate those mathematical equations, which look a lot like hieroglyphics (even to someone like me who spends most of his time looking at them), and make them into 3D pictures like you see above.  That’s neat.  Takes a long time to master all of this, though.  You have to be a master in computer programming, writing the 3D simulation in say OpenGL, understanding all the mathematics and physics behind what you’re modeling.  Not only that, you have to understand numerical techniques which are different from traditional physics.  You have to be able to break the problem into small pieces and let the computer chug through the problem.  I won’t lie, this stuff isn’t easy, but it’s fulfilling to work on.

With every simulator I write, some complex, ugly equation becomes a vivid picture in my mind.  I deeply understand the physical process each equation represents, which is my ultimate goal.

Just yesterday I was with my mom and dad watching old video tapes.  I saw myself back in 1996, when I was only 12 or 13 years old.   I thought about the kinds of things which excited me back then and compared them to me today.   I sort of laughed to myself reflecting on it.  I’m a totally different person.  To give you an example, the other day I was grinning ear to ear, filled with joy because I learned something I had never even thought of doing.   I came across this in a numerical programming textbook.

“One problem is that many algorithms naturally like to go from 1 to M, not from 0 to M − 1. Sure, you can always convert them, but they then often acquire a baggage of additional arithmetic in array indices that is, at best, distracting.”

I immediately thought, “YES!  I HATE that.  In C and C++, indexed arrays start with 0, not 1, and it’s such a pain dealing with that.  You have say a 3 x 4 matrix.  You want to access the first element.  It’s not [1,1], it’s, [0,0].  *pulls hair out*.

“Consider:

float b[4],*bb;
bb=b-1;

The pointer bb now points one location before b. An immediate consequence is that the array elements bb[1], bb[2], bb[3], and bb[4] all exist. In other words the range of bb is bb[1..4]. We will refer to bb as a unit-offset vector.”

I stared at the book for near twenty minutes in utter disbelief.  It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. How could I have never thought of that?  Countless hours of headaches I’d experienced in the past, gone!  Want to write a for loop from element 1 to 10, you write it from 1 to 10!  So nice.  I’ve been writing code for, I dunno, somewhere around 15 years and I’ve never thought of doing that.

You can get really fancy if you want to.  Using an array of pointers you can create a multi-dimensional matrix and access to elements from any range you like.

#define NR_END 1
double **dmatrix(long nrl, long nrh, long ncl, long nch)
/* allocate a double matrix with subscript range m[nrl..nrh][ncl..nch] */
{
long i, nrow=nrh-nrl+1,ncol=nch-ncl+1;
double **m;

/* allocate pointers to rows */
m=(double **) malloc((size_t)((nrow+NR_END)*sizeof(double*)));
if (!m) nrerror(“allocation failure 1 in matrix()”);
m += NR_END;
m -= nrl;

/* allocate rows and set pointers to them */
m[nrl]=(double *) malloc((size_t)((nrow*ncol+NR_END)*sizeof(double)));
if (!m[nrl]) nrerror(“allocation failure 2 in matrix()”);
m[nrl] += NR_END;
m[nrl] -= ncl;

for(i=nrl+1;i<=nrh;i++) m[i]=m[i-1]+ncol;

/* return pointer to array of pointers to rows */
return m;
}
Whoever wrote that routine, someone should kiss you. Actually, now that I think about it, if you had told the 15 year old Jason how to do that trick, I probably would have kissed you then too. I don’t think I’d have understood it at age 12 though. I had only started programming then.