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....

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.


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.


Your identity is your most valuable possession, in every sense of the word "valuable". At the crudest level, anyone who steals it (i.e. can successfully convince financial and/or governmental institutions that they are you) can empty your bank accounts, put you into unrecoverable debt, commit crimes for which you may be held responsible and trash your credit rating, not to mention your reputation.

So it is not surprising that we invest a lot of effort in protecting and securing our identities. But can we ever succeed? Let's take a long view:

Any sort of card or other physical device can be stolen. Most such ID is now backed up by passwords, PIN codes or personal questions, all of which can be guessed or extracted by sufficiently ingenious technology. I suggest that each new security technology will be followed quickly by a successful hacking technology; I know of no exceptions so far. Readable tattoos or implanted RFIDs don't help, although they are a little more difficult to physically steal.

The next level is obviously biometric data: facial features, fingerprint and retinal image scanners are already in use at the "high security" end of the spectrum. Even supposing unhackable software is processing these data, there will soon be ways of simulating the real thing -- if there aren't already. It is not impossible to imagine DNA scanners fast and accurate enough to use for positive ID, but -- as always -- the ability to fake DNA can't be far behind the ability to recognize it.

There is also the problem of access to records of whose fingerprints, retinal patters and DNA are whose. We are understandably uncomfortable with entrusting governments and corporations (assuming charitably that there is a difference) with this sort of access to our identity and whereabouts, even if, as they always say, "we have nothing to hide." Moreover, if the archives exist, they can be accessed and even changed by sufficiently adept hackers. What would you do if DNA scanners suddenly started recognizing you as someone else?

Looking a little further down the technological road, suppose it eventually becomes possible to make a full scan of your brain, neuron by neuron, and that this becomes your ultimate ID? Will any entity that thinks like you, has your memories and believes it is you be considered by law to be you?  And if not, why not?

I believe this is an entirely new class of legal, ethical and philosophical conundrum; but it is already in play.  Best we think it through carefully and (if possible) rationally now, while there is still time to plan.

No One Else's Problem

In Chapter 3 of "Life, The Universe and Everything", Douglas Adams immortalized the idea of the "Somebody Else's Problem" field, which makes things invisible. We all tend to look at the world of politics and war through an S.E.P. field.  This has to stop.

Consider the problem of Islamic terrorism: most non-Muslims feel that it is the responsibility of the majority of sensible, peaceful, moderate Muslims to "do something about" those who perform hate crimes against innocent civilians in the name of Islam.  And yet when a Muslim woman is violently attacked by "patriotic Canadians" for the crime of wearing a veil over her face, we dismiss this as an act of deranged idiots -- not something we'd do, not something we condone, so not our problem. But it is our problem.

Conversely, when sects of fanatic Christians raise money to bring on Armageddon, or disrupt the funerals of soldiers, most Christians dismiss them as "wingnuts -- not real Christians" and hence  S.E.P.  Wrong!  When people who call themselves the same thing you call yourself do something despicable, you have three ethical choices: convince them to stop, have them officially expelled from said tribe, or withdraw from the tribe yourself.  The collective is responsible for the acts of its individual members, and vice versa.  That's the social contract.

I know, it's hard enough monitoring our own behavior without worrying about that of others; but in today's world it is not enough to simply "set a good example".  Each of us has a responsibility to engage those we regard as "deranged", find out why they think the way they do, and try to talk them out of it.  We may not succeed, but we must try; otherwise nothing will halt the condensation of a diverse society into mutually hostile pools of like-minded individuals reinforcing each other's prejudices.

Talk to your enemy.  It's no one else's problem.


Academics pretend to believe that their writings are meant to transfer information intact from one mind to another. This is particularly ironic since they are so adept at preventing any such transfer, using ingenious obfuscatory language. But the model itself is deeply flawed. Words are intrinsically ambiguous, largely by design. When we read or hear another person's words, what we extract is mostly our own invention -- just as most of our memories are reinvented every time we recall them, until eventually we remember exactly and only what we choose.

A better model of communication is that words act as temporary couplings between separate individuals' internal universes. As for most couplings, the strength and specificity of the entanglement is largely due to the prior intent of the participants. Thus a particular horoscope or I Ching excerpt conveys incredibly apropos information if we expect it to. (This is obviously related to the placebo and nocebo effects.) A set of words chosen randomly by a computer from a list can be made to seem deeply meaningful if they are chosen with a bias toward "deep" connotations -- which in turn can be easily identified by simply searching for their frequencies of occurrence in "deep" literature. We fill in the blanks and find meaning in the result. That's what humans are really good at.

So if we think of "communication" as a temporary entanglement of separate realities, it's not hard to see why poetry seems so much deeper than prose: (a) it's expected to be, by both the poet and the reader [placebo effect]; (b) pointless details designed to reduce ambiguity [Ha!] are omitted.

It would be fun to do some "big data" analysis on selected literature to demonstrate this model's validity more explicitly.   (Wait...)

The Gift of Failure

(At a riverside cabin 11 miles south of Black Mountain, NC - 11 June 2015:)

Today I drove over to Asheville School, where I first arrived fifty-six years ago, almost to the day, and from which I departed several months later, never (I thought) to return. I'm glad I went back today, because it illuminated a turning point in my life that I had never fully understood before.

That summer long ago I had just completed eighth grade at a public Junior High in Winter Park, Florida. My family had a traditional respect for quality education and it was evident that I was ill-prepared for same, so they sent me off to Asheville to be brought up to speed in summer school. I have no knowledge of the considerations that contributed to that choice; I only know that I was a redneck kid with no interest in having my mind expanded. I spent the summer avoiding work, building model airplanes surreptitiously in my dorm room and complaining about the lousy fishing in the lake down the hill. I couldn't wait to get back to the bass of Florida, and I soon got my wish.

When my uncle came to retrieve me at the end of the term, he was informed that I was not welcome back. In short, I flunked out. This was a little embarrassing, I recall, and even moreso when I reflexively called my uncle "Sir" thanks to a month or two of conditioning.

When I got home to Winter Haven, Florida I was duly enrolled in Denison Junior High, where I spent two weeks discovering the consequences of my impulsive choice. My home room teacher enforced discipline like a prison warden; my classmates were exactly what I had been at the beginning of the summer. It was Kafka's hell.

I begged my mother to give me a second chance. Miraculously, I got one from Harry D. Hoey, then Headmaster of Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where my mother was working on her Masters degree at the Art Academy. This time I cooperated, and learning took hold.

I graduated from Cranbrook in 1963, from Trinity College (in Hartford, CT) in 1967 and then from the University of California at Berkeley with a Ph.D. in Physics in 1972; thence to an academic career at the University of British Columbia. A lot has happened. I've had a great life with many successes and few failures since that critical one at Asheville School. But the long story of my life is not really relevant to the point I'd like to make here:

Turning points don't come easily, especially to willful adolescents. Sometimes the most generous gift you can give a child is to let them know in no uncertain terms that they have failed - failed to live up to your well-advertised standards, failed to live up to their own potential. "Cultivating self-esteem" has its place, but today it has become an obsession that does harm to those whose self-esteem comes only from others' praise.

Love is meaningless if it has to be deserved; respect is meaningless if it doesn't.

Nonmaleficence Conundrum

If you watch television, you can't avoid hearing about how this pill or or that salve will miraculously cure your headache or skin rash or allergy, as long as you don't mind a small risk of coughing up your lungs while convulsing and popping blood vessels in your brain. The warnings required by law in drug advertising are so dire that people make jokes about them, because taking them seriously would foster the worst kind of paranoia. (Somehow beer ads are exempt from such encyclopedic caveats; although alcohol is certainly a dangerous drug, it's one we're used to -- and we still remember what happened when we tried to prohibit its use.)

Now I read about a study (see Wells & Kaptchuk) that shows how these warnings trigger a nocebo effect (see the eponymous Rant on this site): patients who are warned about possible side effects in the name of informed consent are significantly more likely to experience said side effects than those left blissfully ignorant.

It follows as night the day that all those warnings on TV about possible serious side effects are actually causing more such effects in the millions of viewers being warned. The legally mandated caveats are actually killing people! Surely the deep pockets of the pharmas are funding massive legal action to strike down these laws; if not, the first lawyer to think of it is going to make a lot of money.

Is there no way to retain the requirement for full disclosure without making more people sick? Sure there is: just provide all the information. Tell us how likely each of the side effects is; that information must exist, or it would be hard to justify requiring the warnings. The only problems are (a) viewers would have to acquire the wit to distinguish between a little and a lot (see my Rant on "Quantitacy" here) and (b) the ads would be several minutes long, unless the announcer learns to talk even faster!

Poor Cuba!

Today the USA announced that it would drop its ban on travel to Cuba and relax the trade restrictions that have prevented Cubans from exchanging good cigars for electronics and cars from the USA for the past half century.  I fear this will serve to drain Cuba's remaining resources into the capitalist reservoir in short order.  Why?  Simple statistical economics (Stat Ec for short):

To the extent that all wealth is shared equally in an ideal socialist economy, there is only one possible distribution of wealth, and so the economic entropy of such a system (i.e. the logarithm of the number of possible random redistributions) is zero.  More importantly, the entropy is unchanged when more wealth is added.  Cuba may not be an ideal socialist economy, but it's a lot closer than the USA, where every conceivable redistribution of wealth is a priori equally likely, giving an enormous economic entropy and a very large entropy increase with every injection of new wealth.  The USA is certainly not an ideal capitalist economy, but the deviation from randomness only occurs at the high end of the personal wealth spectrum: the wealth of the infamous 1% is far higher than predicted by a simple Boltzmann distribution (exponential decay of probability with increasing wealth), but for everyone else we might as well be utterly indiscriminating in all our financial transactions.  Look it up!

So what happens when a "hot" wealth reservoir (one with almost no increase of entropy per unit added wealth) is put in economic contact with a "cold" one (with a large increase of entropy for every addition of wealth)?  Wealth flows spontaneously from Cuba to the USA through the agency of completely random exchanges.  Again, look it up!  Any textbook on Statistical Mechanics will give you the details; or you can read mine:

Which brings me to another observation that will surely be misunderstood by most readers: there will always be more people with low wealth than with high wealth, and this fact has nothing to do with anyone's intentions.  It is an unavoidable consequence of completely random transactions involving exchanges of wealth.  Yes, like you, I believe my transactions are far from random; but then where does that Boltzmann distribution come from?  We try to bias our transactions in our favour, but we fail.  Randomness cannot be defeated.

Therefore if we could tomorrow gather up all the wealth in the world and distribute it evenly among all people (the limiting case of our desire to "flatten the distribution"), within several years the distribution would be back to the Boltzmann form -- probably with even more "excess" wealth at the top end, because we would probably have relaxed many of the safeguards we have now, in the mistaken belief that uniform wealth would ensure fair trade.

The best we can hope for is to ensure equality of opportunity.  Equality of success is impossible, and not even desirable!  In our recent quest for the latter, we have compromised our traditional commitment to the former.  While "liberals" pursue the fantasy of a flat distribution of wealth, "conservatives" have been inventing ways to cheat in the game of wealth accumulation.  Crooks don't want equality of opportunity; they want to have all the opportunity, and they want you to have none.

I am not a liberal.  I am not a conservative.  No, I do not have to choose a side.  Don't be a fool.


Last night I went to a Green College/STS meeting in which four young academics described what they thought Science was or wasn't.  The first was an Historian bent on insulting all who thought of themselves as Scientists; the second was another, more conciliatory Historian trying to educate Scientists as to what they actually do; the third was an STSer trying to explain what STS is or isn't; and the last was a Mathematical Physicist who seemed completely unaware of his context or what the discussion was supposed to be about.  I stuck up my hand, of course, but was never called on.  So I came home and stewed overnight, and now I think I'm ready to express my thoughts.

To make bold statements, or even to think critically, about any subject requires a certain arrogance: you must believe that not only is it possible to understand the subject, it is possible for you to understand the subject.  To be correct in this assumption, however, requires a certain humility: you must acknowledge that other people may have thought about the subject too, and that their thoughts are worth listening to and absorbing before you shoot your mouth off.  I have too little of the latter to become a great thinker.  Dang.

I think it is necessary to stipulate that Science is both "what Scientists do" and "what Scientists are trying to do".  These are clearly not the same thing.  Moreover, they both beg the question of, "Who is a Scientist?"  Lots of kooks go around calling themselves Scientists, and while some of them turn out eventually to be correct, this transition almost always depends upon their acceptance by other Scientists.  So Science really is a "club" of sorts.  We are stuck with some sort of Constructivist sociological model; but not necessarily the Strong Program, which states confidently that facts are determined only by politics.

Coming back to the (I think critical) question of "what are Scientists trying to do," the obvious answer is, "All sorts of different, and frequently incompatible, things."  But is there anything sufficiently universal to use as a sort of RFID for Scientists?  I think so.  It is that guardedly arrogant notion that every phenomenon has an explanation and is ultimately understandable -- perhaps not by me, but definitely by a sufficiently intelligent entity.  Sociologists and STSers usually conflate this immediately with Realism, but that's just their usual silliness; the Understandability Principle would apply equally well to a purely Solipsist universe where all phenomena were only in your head (whatever that is).  It would be a lot harder to understand such phenomena, since that gets into the realm of Psychology, but the same aesthetic would still apply.  It is, after all, an aesthetic commitment more than a rational belief, since it is patently unprovable and unrefutable.

There is more than a tautological truth to the statement, "Science is what Scientists do."  It implies that, by definition, if you are not a Scientist you don't know what you are talking about when you try to describe Science.  Of course, unless I can campaign successfully to persuade the Scientific Community to accept my definition of the common aesthetic commitment of all Scientists as the best way to determine who gets membership in the club, I got no clout.  Oh well, I can still use it to annoy STSers back.

A room full of STSers quoting from Bruno Latour about Science is like a bunch of couch potatoes quoting from Don Cherry about hockey during the Superbowl halftime show.  No, actually, it's like a panel of TV sportscasters delving into their statistics to reach consensus that the only way Usain Bolt could run that fast is if he's on steroids.  They have never run 100m or 200m at any speed; they have no personal experience of what they are talking about; and they really don't have a right to their opinions, but of course they will have them anyway, and try to shove them down the sprinters' throats.