Gradient Hopping

When I wrote this in 2013, I'd had a nasty head cold for the past few days. Then one day I felt better (though not yet well) and it was so wonderful it reminded me of something important:

It's better to feel better than to feel good.

Most of the time I feel pretty good, and all I can think about are the aches and pains and deficiencies that keep me from feeling perfect. I am well housed and well fed and well loved and well paid (well, pretty well) but my attention is rarely drawn to these good fortunes - only when I get caught out in the cold rain without an umbrella, or I miss a meal, or I'm away from my loved ones, or I get a bill I can't pay right away.

This is a trite lesson, I know, but I think some reflection might help me devise a better strategy for maximizing the joy in my life. Bear with me for a moment.

We are creatures driven by gradients, not absolutes. Our sense of well-being is extremely sensitive to how much better things are today than yesterday, and not very sensitive to how good they actually are now. The wealthy cannot really appreciate their wealth, they only get satisfaction from accumulating more. The poor are not really different; if they become wealthy, after the initial delight their static wealth becomes just as hollow. This is perfectly understandable in this model. So is the wayward eye of the person with an attractive, loving spouse. The stranger's approval means more than the lover's, because we already have the latter.

Is there any way this understanding can be anything but depressing and discouraging? I think so. Arrange to lose what means most - your health, your family, your home, your wealth - just so you can enjoy getting it back? That's no solution, though many people resort to it.

But at any given time you there are some things you lack, and hunger for, while other hungers are satisfied. You can maximize your appreciation of life by what I call "Gradient Hopping": quit seeking what you already have; refocus your attention on your unsatisfied needs and take action to gratify them without compromising those which are currently in good shape. Later on you can (and will probably need to) return to service the currently satisfied needs, since most of them recur periodically. In this endeavor you are unlikely to accumulate unappreciated excesses of any needs - which will benefit others with whom those resources should be shared.

More later....

Missing the Point of Politics

The trouble with "political correctness" is that it puts the cart before the horse. There is nothing wrong with trying to be sensitive to the feelings of others, cognizant of your own complicity in evil (even if only by inaction), appreciative of your unearned good fortune, responsible in your interactions with people - gasp - and the environment, wise and exemplary in your life choices, kind, generous, tolerant and caring. The problem arises when you try to think independently with all these caveats taking precedence over what you think or say.

I contend that you need to decide what you think first, and only then try to fit your conclusions into interstices in the lattice of mandatory or forbidden policies.

This is impossible, of course, because many of the lattice sites are defects: a lot of politically correct pre- or proscriptions are stupid ideas, born of a misguided or lazy compulsion to reduce everything to a few simple rules.

Hey, I know about this compulsion first-hand; I'm a Physicist! But, as Einstein once said, "Physics should be made as simple as possible - but no simpler!" The same goes double for politics.

So when you allow yourself to think independently of all the constraints of political correctness, you are bound to run into trouble: you will find that you don't agree with the rules set by well-meaning, charitable "liberals" any more than you agree with the rules set by cynical, self-serving "conservatives". This is bound to make your life difficult.

Well, duh! You thought life should be simple and easy?

The good news is that if you actually know what you think, you are less likely to be afraid to hear what others think. You may be able to hear them out, understand their point of view and argue amiably with them in a way that encourages them to hear what you have to say.

Sounds simple, eh? So how come it is a lost art today?


Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Democratic Party? 

Fuck you.  You know the answer.

You are advised not to speak disrespectfully to this Committee.  

Or what?  You'll put me away for longer?  Or maybe a firing squad -- I hardly care any more, living in this pitiful excuse for a country is unendurable now.

Perhaps you'd prefer to be questioned in Guantanamo?  


So, you admit to being a Democrat.  With whom have you colluded in this treason?  

Treason?  Seriously?  Ten years ago half the country were Democrats!

Fake news.  Illegal immigrants registering a hundred times each.  

Oooh, that hit a sore spot, didn't it?

We will not be baited, sir.  Name your accomplices!  

Well, let's see... there was Andrew Jackson, of course, and then Woodrow Wilson, FDR and...

Recent accomplices.  I very much doubt you were around in 1932 or 1912, much less 1800.  

Well, how about Barack Obama?

Aha!  So you were part of the Great Conspiracy!  

Oh, for god's sake, this is ridiculous.  I'll just take the 5th on the rest of your questions.

Taking the Lord's name in vain just increases your sentence.   And as you know, the 5th Amendment was repealed by President For Life Trump in 2019 after the unsuccessful coup attempt, along with all the other Liberal Nonsense about "Rights".  Praise Him for freeing us from Political Correctness.  

Social Fairness?

A conversation on

My Question: "I think that insisting on fairness is toxic in intimate relationships. Is it a safe foundation for societies?"

One of the Answers, from Dave Davidson, Biologically founded Philosophy (Answered Oct 31, 2017):

There is a large difference between an intimate relationship, like pair bonding, and the social structures that reside outside the family. I agree that stringently trying to determine fairness in an intimate relationship is not the way to go. But a healthy governing social structure will possess fairness as a main value.Fairness in family dynamics is one thing but if you don’t have a fair society, your family gets to be ruled by a bunch of dangerous and cunning apes. Fairness in society is expressed by how the government physically intervenes among its constituents with the use of laws which have been established by the constituents. A law applies equally to all citizens.

My reply:

At last, someone who grasps the actual intent of the question! As you say, it is dangerous to trust one’s government, since there is no fixed person to trust. But a social relationship devoid of trust relies on the "completeness" of constitutional law — every possible abuse must be anticipated and explicitly prohibited. Even if this could succeed, it is then subject to reinterpretation "as times change", so you have to trust the Supreme Court (or equivalent), which brings us back to the same requirement, albeit at a more manageable level.Common law, on the other hand, acknowledges the necessity of trusting SOMEone, and puts the onus on the "reasonable man" (judge) to be trustworthy. It also fails, of course, but it makes abuses harder to hide; hence all the chopped-off heads in England’s history.

I don’t have a solution, but I’m starting to get pretty disillusioned with constitutional law.

Dave's response:

To form a healthy constitutional government, I think you are right about inhibiting abuse with strong oversight and the need to possess a great awareness at the point of creating the templates. But an adequate constitutional government will only really be complete in a situation where all the constituent families, basically, know each other.

You are right about disillusionment. Constitutional law can come into your space and physically force you to alter your behavior. Trustworthy is a hard row to hoe. You start with family and then extend it by observing the behavioral patterns of others and you integrate by paralleling the necessity of your agenda. Trust is a gut feeling which all organic life applies to physical interaction. Getting to where the trust needed for governance becomes acceptable can only be accomplished by the laws which are established and observations of their implementation.

I think we have a problem. The way I see it, this big government system won’t work. We were made to be governed at the tribal level with around 200 people. The dynamics of the growth of population and resources has allowed us to jury rig systems up to this point, but we are now where population and a complex ability which is supremely toxic make my progeny grasp a very grim future. I know this is pessimistic and even though my belief is such, I also feel that it is not my place to give up hope.

Me: Well said. May I quote you? I’m teaching a class on "What Will the Future be Like?" and next week’s topic is "Society".

Dave: Thank you. It’s an honor.

More Physics Haiku

Recently I attended a meeting of the CIfAR Quantum Materials program.  It was nice to see the old gang and all the new kids!  😉   Naturally, perverse inspiration struck again...


Iron selenium:
Yes, we have some bananas
in the QPI.


de Haas - van Alphen
without a Fermi surface?
Well, it oscillates!


What's a pseudogap?
We don't know, but we can see
them in everything!


In between the sheets
of strontium titanate
it's interesting.


quantum oscillations are
everywhere we look.


I don't understand,
but I use the words as if
I knew their meaning.

Original Sin

Look, that was a long time ago.  I wasn't even there.  I've never rebelled against God.  What does all that have to do with me?

Have you not benefitted from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? 

Well, yeah, of course.  But it would be stupid to just throw away knowledge, once it's learned.  Besides, I try to use that knowledge for the glory of God, and to make the lives of my fellow humans better.

So that they, too, become complicit in Sin? 

Oh, come on.  Seriously?  A farmer uses a lever to move a rock, and that's the same thing as taking an apple from a Snake?

The Children of Eve are damned, every one. 

And there's nothing we can do to atone for this ancient guilt?

Have you accepted the Savior? 

Well, sure.  Is that all I need to do?

Not quite.

Oh, okay, the tithe.  Fine.  I'll donate 10% of my income...

Ten percent?  You will give up all your worldly possessions, because they are all derived from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. 

Fine.  Take it all.  Say, aren't you a Child of Eve too?  Where does that leave you?


Premature Deaths

Ever notice how some phrases that have always seemed innocuous suddenly get really offensive when you stop to think about what they actually mean? (Look up "rule of thumb" sometime if you want to spoil that figure of speech for yourself.) The one that's started bothering me since I got old enough to be sensitive about such things is "premature deaths".

Every time a solemn health bureaucrat reports a discovery that something is bad for you, you will hear these words: "Studies have shown that [the bad thing] has caused [some number or percentage of] premature deaths in the last [time unit]."

Well, that certainly makes us want to avoid [the bad thing], but have you ever asked yourself how many of the other kind of deaths it has caused?

What other kind? Why, the non-premature kind, of course. What shall we call them? "Post-mature" deaths? "It's about time, you old geezer!" deaths? Hold on here - if you want to label a death as non-premature, shouldn't you have to ask the dying person first? "Would you say that your imminent death is premature?" I'm betting you'd find that almost every death is premature.

"Oh no," the prim health bureaucrat assures me, "that's not what it means at all. We have calculated everyone's life expectancy and the probabilities of dying from various causes, so we know when you would normally be expected to die, and of what, so if you die sooner than that, of that cause, then it's considered premature." (Was that a condescending smile for this pathetic ignoramus?)

Yes folks, your days are actually numbered - literally! Here's a little secret I bet you didn't know: when you're born they tattoo a little "best before" date where you'll never notice it - on the underside of your tongue, amongst all the veins and salivary glands and stuff you'd really rather not think about (sorry!). Moreover, it's printed backwards, like a mirror image, so it is really hard to recognize as an expiry date. Why? So your dentist can check periodically to see how much longer you are good for. Yes, they're all in on it, the dental hygienists too! Don't let them catch you checking for it in the mirror.

Picture the doctor standing over your death bed with a clipboard and a watch: "Come on... come on... Dang! Missed the deadline! Oh well. Nurse, scratch out that check mark in the premature death box."

Do they have a special "Post-Mature" ward at the hospital where they give token care to people who will no longer swell the ranks of premature cadavers when they kick off? Based on experience, I think maybe yes. But it isn't a separate ward; everyone just knows....

OK, I've beaten this horse to death (there's another phrase we might want to give up, especially around Animal Rights folks). I just hope I've generated enough "cringe factor" to discourage the use of this particular offensive term and encourage those humourless health bureaucrats to find some other way of expressing their statistical inferences.

Yes You Can!

You may not like this.  We live in an era of excuses, and everyone has lots of them.  I'm here to tell you that they are mostly illusory and are holding you back from a better life.  You will probably think I'm just lacking compassion.  I don't mind if you come to that conclusion after you've heard me out and given my words some thought, but if you start with that assumption, we both lose.

Case in point: I am 71 years old, and I just had my first cataract operation last week.  It wasn't so bad.  My eye's still a bit sore and the new lens hasn't completely settled into position yet, so my vision hasn't really improved so far, but I'm confident it will soon.

The problem is, I was told not to lift anything heavier than 10 pounds for 3 weeks, and "strenuous exercise" is a no-no for at least that long.  So I have to "act like an old man" for 3 weeks.  Sounds easy, right? My knees and back could use some "down time" to recover from running hurdles.

But after less than a week of enforced lethargy, it's already becoming a habit!  Right now I feel weak and fragile -- pretty much like the stereotypical 71-year-old man -- and it's hard to imagine doing one pushup, never mind my usual 22.  If I didn't have documented evidence that I can indeed run the hurdles in Provincial age-group record time, I'd find it fantastical.

Which puts me in a position to understand why so many older people firmly believe that athletic competition is a thing of their distant past; that they will never be able to drop those extra pounds; that heavy lifting would be insanely reckless; that they'd better hang on to all the handrails lest they fall and fracture that doubtless-fragile hip joint; that their walks should not be too brisk lest the ol' ticker get stressed out and stop ticking.  Hell, I've been advised of all those myths by family, friends and medical personnel, many times.

So without empirical evidence to the contrary, why would I question the stereotype?  And if I did "act my age", how long would it take to make the stereotype true?  Longer than 3 weeks, I hope!

Here's the thing: how can anyone acquire enough empirical evidence to the contrary to convince themselves that they can Do It?  One can watch others Doing It and get inspiration from that, but it's surprisingly (well, not really) difficult for people to draw conclusions about themselves from evidence about others.  (That's called a "failure of enlightenment effect" by Psychologists, I believe.)  The only thing that's going to convince you that you can Do It is Doing It yourself!  (That's called a "Catch-22", I believe.)

If you're like me, that means more than just Doing It once and patting yourself on the back.  The conviction dies within days when I try to ignore societal stereotypes of what I can and can't Do.  I have to Do It as often as possible, and try to Do It better each time -- or at least not worse over the short term.  Perhaps I'm insecure.  Well, if you're not, this should be a lot easier for you!

Shall I run through an inventory of excuses?  No, that would be both mean and pointless.  Deep in your heart you know what actually prevents you from Doing It (whatever It might be for you) and what is just an excuse, doubtless backed up by a firmly entrenched stereotype.  Pain is real.  Bones do break.  Fat is hard to burn off (my metabolism seems to convert every gram of carbs directly into an ounce of fat).  Spines compress with age.  (I found out last week at that I am 2.25 inches shorter than I was at 25.  Over two inches!  Ack!  it must be bone-on-bone all the way down now.)  Pulmonary embolisms (I've had two) reduce your lung capacity.  Chemo has many impacts.  Shit happens.  You are definitely going to slow down with age; but that's what the Age-Graded Tables are for!

As long as you give yourself a full list of meaningful and worthy "It"s,

You Can Do It.

Now for the surprise: I am not just lecturing old people.  You younger folks have plenty of excuses too, and are prone to regard great accomplishments and heroic deeds as out of your reach, for reasons you can recite by heart.   Most of them are perfectly valid as far as they go, which is usually not as far as you think.  The most important lesson I have learned in my life is that

You Can Do Far More Than You Think You Can.

And you'll be glad you did.

The Experiment

The Physicist, a lovestruck knight
comports himself with honour
at the tournament Experiment
in hope that Lady Nature,
lovely, chaste, mysterious maiden,
charmed by his heroic deeds,
will twirl with delight and let her gown
slip open briefly to reveal
a glimpse of breast or flash of thigh.

The Chemist is a rogue who cares
only for schemes
to get into the lady's pants.

The Engineer's already down
on one knee proposing marriage
and the raising of bright
industrious children
who will make their parents rich.

The Biologist catalogues these
examples of courtship behaviour

while the Psychologist smiles knowingly

and the Philosopher is, of course,
above all this nonsense.


I say, "If you do what you love with elan and determination, and don't worry about 'making a living at it', eventually you will 'succeed'."

"Easy for you to say," says the spokesperson for all those in despair over their careers.  "You are the child of privilege, plus you got lucky."

"This is true," I confess, "but my way was never easy.  I had to work hard at what I loved, and I never gave up, in spite of many challenges."

"What do you know of 'challenges'?"

"What do you know of my life?"

The argument goes on to compare the merits of "doing what you love" right now versus working all your life at a job you hate, in order to save enough that you can retire at 65 and then "do what you love".

This elicits the response, "Retire?  I will never be able to retire!"

Here's the problem:  neither debator can imagine the other person's life experiences, and there is no argument that can convince either of the validity of the other's point of view.

Costs and Benefits

Warning: coarse language! 

I just finished struggling with a triply-sealed container for the umpteenth time.  This time I was wise enough to get out my needle-nosed pliers before I broke a fingernail.  It made me wonder how many person-years of frustrating effort are wasted on this nonsense every minute.  (See below for my estimate.)

"Wasted?  Nonsense?" I hear the self-righteous Safety Nut crying, "Don't you care about people being poisoned by domestic terrorists?"


"No?  No??  NO??!  What kind of monster are you?"

The kind who thinks.  Every policy, if enforced, has consequences -- some good (benefits) and some bad (costs).   Ignoring either one is a fool's errand.  Many (if not most) people don't want to think; they want to spout homilies.

"No price is too great to pay to save even one human life," recites the idiot.

Of course it is!  You are SO full of shit!  If you really gave a damn about saving lives, you'd be giving all your money to the Food Bank, or (to save a lot more lives) to some Relief Fund for Refugees, or (to save the most lives) to medical or agricultural research.  Maybe you'd even be doing something yourself.

I reckon I spend an average of about a minute a day cursing at jars and bottles with child-proof seals.  (Some children must be very resourceful.)  That means Americans are investing about 16 person-years per day in preventing poisoning by sick fucks.  That's just under 6,000 person-years per year.  Assuming the putative poisoned would have an average of 60 years subtracted from their lives, we would need to be preventing at least 100 poisonings per year just to break even.  There must be a lot of sick fucks out there.

We could quibble over the difference between living under frustration and being dead, but if you are sure being dead is so much worse, I'd be interested in hearing all about your experience of being dead.

If you lower the bus fare in a major city, some people will die as a result who would otherwise have lived.  The question is not, "Will this save even one human life?"  It is, "Will this do more good than harm?"

See also