Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Certainty in Quantum Physics

In a Scientific American guest blog on the relationship between physics and philosophy, James Lloyd writes:
"If we can’t be certain about the properties of fundamental particles, what does that say about our knowledge of nature?"
The author is referring to quantum physics, which accurately describes the probability of a given event on the scale of elementary particles, but cannot predict when (or if) it would occur.

Does quantum physics imply an inherent uncertainty in nature, as the author presumes?

No. Contrary to the claims of some leading physicists, all that quantum physics provides is certainty. Elementary particles behave exactly in accordance with the probabilities calculated using equations of quantum physics. Just because the equations do not predict which one of the possible ways an interaction would occur, it does not follow that such occurrences are causeless and, hence, metaphysically uncertain.

If not for the certainty, a quantum computer would be inconceivable.

And, "what does that say about our knowledge of nature"?

Not that it’s unreliable, as most modern philosophers jump to conclude. Rather, the achievements of physics, including those of quantum physics, are a testament to the fact that knowledge is possible, and can be obtained with certainty.

Just as an egg laid by an ostrich cannot give birth to a chicken, the facts identified by physicists cannot, in the end, invalidate factual knowledge.

Update [Dec. 08, 08:16 UTC]: Slightly edited for clarity.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” in Quotes

When I was in college, the only books on physics that I could really understand were written by Richard Feynman.

Six years later, I am beginning to rediscover him. From a different perspective.

Recently, I read his book "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!" and found it to be thoroughly amusing. The book is a collection of self-narrated stories of mischief from his super-adventurous life. I found out from it that Feynman's brilliance and rationality extended beyond his work in physics.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book*.

On honesty and integrity in being a scientist:
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool." [p. 313]
"We've learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature's phenomena will agree or they'll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven't tried to be very careful in this kind of work." [p. 312]
"Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools--guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus--THAT, I CANNOT STAND!" [Emphasis original; pp. 258-259]
[The last quote appears in the book as Feynman's describes his experience at an "inter-disciplinary" conference. He was a panelist in a debate on how to achieve "the ethics of equality". The participants put forward their proposals, but kept evading any attempt to discuss what is meant by the phrase "the ethics of equality". Feynman argued that it's futile to debate without defining one's terms. He said, "So, in my opinion, we had no dialogue at all. Instead, we had nothing but chaos!" At this point, he was attacked with even more unintelligible phrases, such as, "Don’t you think that order can come from chaos?" Feynman vowed not to attend any interdisciplinary conferences.]

On mind-altering drugs, and the joy of thinking:
"I had once thought to take drugs, but I got kind of scared of that: I love to think, and I don’t want to screw up the machine." [p. 301]
"You see, I get such fun out of thinking that I don't want to destroy this most pleasant machine that makes life such a big kick." [Emphasis original; p. 184]
On first-handedness in seeking a career:
"You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing." [p. 156]
[Feynman reached the above principle in declining an offer from a prestigious institute. The job was offered to him by reputed scientists, including Einstein. However, Feynman did not consider himself suitable for the job! From then on, he decided to put his own interest above others in all his career decisions, especially in choosing the problems for his research. He went on to undertake the problems that he found interesting, even if they seemed useless to his colleagues. This path led him to ultimately make many key discoveries in physics—including the one for which he later won the Nobel prize.]

Feynman also made some observations on topics that are not of interest to most scientists.

On unquestioned and unchecked authority:
"A teacher who has some idea of how to teach her children is forced by the school system to do it in some other way—or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn't do "the right thing," according to the experts." [p. 310]
On redistribution of wealth:
"[T]he idea of distributing everything evenly is based on a theory that there's only X amount of stuff in the world, that somehow we took it away from the poorer countries in the first place, and therefore we should give it back to them." [p. 257]
[Feynman is right. In the same paragraph, he speculates that some countries are poorer than others because they lack development and machinery. Although he could not identify the deeper cause of poverty—the lack of freedom and ideas—he does come close when he says that machinery, in turn, requires "concentration of capital".]

Since Feynman was a physicist, and not a philosopher, I find it remarkable that he held such unconventional and superb ideas. What kept me flipping the pages of the book were examples of how Feynman, whom I had already known as a brilliant physicist, first-handedly acquired and applied rational principles in his life. That, and the fact that the book is full of hilarious anecdotes that brought me loads of chuckles.

I hope that the quotes have encouraged you to gift yourself a Feynman book this Christmas. I certainly plan to read more from the man.

Update [Jul. 18, 16:50 UTC]: Slightly edited for clarity.

*The page number after each quote refers to the Bantam edition (paperback) published in February 1986.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, and Saying Grace on Thanksgiving: What do they have in Common?

The following words were spoken by an Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protester:
“[Bosses] and upper management people who have these top floor offices here, they don’t work; they don’t produce anything. They sit at the top and they count money, and their money makes money for them. They don’t provide anything for society; they suck wealth out of it.”
Another protester claimed that Steve Jobs “didn’t produce anything", but merely “took in the wealth that others produced”.

Now let’s have a look at Thanksgiving:

Thanksgiving started out as a celebration of good harvest. It is an acknowledgement of production. But whom do most families thank for the food on their table? They either thank no one in particular. Or they say grace, expressing their gratitude to God.

Do you see what’s common between the OWS and saying grace?

Both attempt to discredit the real producers.

The premise behind the statements of OWS protesters is that laborers and lower-wage employees are the only people essential to production (as explicated in a pamphlet that was widely distributed among the protesters). But this cannot be farther from the truth. Those with “top floor offices” are indispensible to production. They include the CEOs, investors, and top-level managers, who exercise their judgment to discover new talents, generate the capital to incentivize them as employees, and combine the product of their efforts. It’s only because of productive men like these that we have amazing products in the marketplace, including the technology that the OWS uses to organize and popularize their protests.

Likewise, saying grace attributes production to a nonexistent. It evades the fact that every luxury and delicacy at a Thanksgiving dinner is produced by producers who are unmistakably human. A turkey might exist in nature on its own, but it must be domesticated, processed, packed, distributed, retailed, and cooked before it sits on the silverware and becomes a food product. As writer Craig Biddle has pointed out, saying grace involves an “injustice of thanking an alleged God for the productive accomplishments of actual men.”

How can the OWS and those saying grace so easily ignore the nature and source of production? The culprit is the dominant morality of altruism. Focusing on other people blinds a man to the fact that his life depends on values that must be produced. It blinds him to the fact that production requires thinking, which is not automatic, but requires conscious effort. This, in turn, disables him to identify productivity as a virtue, and a producer as someone who is profoundly moral. The result is to ignore, detest, or vilify the producers. And if the demands of OWS are met, even rob them of their possessions.

This Thanksgiving, let’s reverse the injustice committed by the OWS and by those saying grace. Let’s thank real producers, including those with “top floor offices”, who bring into existence all products and goods, including the wonderful ones on our Thanksgiving table.

Thanks to the Center for Industrial Progress, and Ari Armstrong, for the interviews of OWS protesters.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Slide-to-Unlock --> When Geniuses Apply for Patents

The internet LOL’d when news broke out that Apple has been awarded a patent for Slide-to-Unlock—a design element apparently so trivial that almost every smartphone user blushed upon hearing the news. On a serious note, many complained that the legal practice of granting patents to components, instead of actual devices, doesn’t make sense. Defenders of Windows 8, which uses the same mechanism specified in the patent, claimed that since the implementation is "different" there is no issue of infringement.

Is there anything wrong with the Slide-to-Unlock patent? Let me first state that I’ve never been to law school, and I understand that arguments for patent laws are not always trivial, but let me tell you two remarkable stories from history that might make you lean in favor of the patent.

The first story begins in Scotland; the year is 1769. James Watt has invented a remarkable steam engine that has more than thrice the efficiency of the best existing engine. He is applying for a patent. The specifications in his patent application are different from most patents filed in his time. Six decades earlier, Thomas Newcomen had filed a patent application that included every detail of his breakthrough engine: pipes, valves, and whatnot. But Watt wants to receive patent protection for merely a single component: the condenser. His patent does not include the entire design.

Thanks to the sanity of the patent office, Watt was granted the patent. Needless to say, there were critics. They claimed that Watt is willfully concealing his invention by an incomplete specification. Even today, some cite the patent to question his status as a hero of industrial revolution, alleging that all he did was invent a small component of the steam engine.

Such claims are absurd. That small component, a separate vessel for condensation, allowed the cylinder to be kept warm such that no steam was wasted in the next cycle. This is what essentially made Watt’s engine remarkably efficient and superior to any previous engine. As Watt himself explained*, he did not specify the other components because either those already existed in existing engines or he didn’t regard the improvements he made in those to be “significant”. His purpose was not to conceal his improvements in those components, rather to only protect what was truly essential. Sure enough, later when he or others made enough improvements in other components, they filed separate patents.

Our second story begins in Dayton, Ohio; the date is March, 1903. The Wright brothers are applying for a patent. It will be nine more months until they fly the first powered airplane in man’s history. But they are confident that they will succeed. Like Watt, they go one step further: their patent application specifies, not a component, but a method—a very uncommon practice at their time. Their application describes the method as controlling of an aircraft by changing the surface angle near the tips of wings.

After an initial rejection, and with the help of an attorney, the US patent office granted their patent. Here cometh the critics. Wright brothers had used wing-warping (twisting) to change the angle near wing tips. One of their rivals later used another method (ailerons) to change the angle. Critics claimed that this does not constitute a patent infringement, and that the method deserves credit by virtue of being "different".

Apart from the fact that the Wright brothers’ patent explicitly stated that the angle of the surface could be changed by any manner, the claim is baseless because an invention, by its very nature, involves an identification of essentials. For example, it is not essential to a telescope whether its scope is made of metal or wood. Galileo invented the telescope. He didn’t invent a wooden telescope! Likewise, the Wright brothers invented the method of changing surface angle as the key to achieving sustained flight. Whether the manner to achieve this is through wing-warping or ailerons is not essential to the invention.

From the two stories, it should be clear that (1) if patents were granted not to components, but entire devices, as some critics of Slide-to-Unlock patent would prefer, it would require the sacrifice of James Watt to his critics, and (2) if a rival is free to implement a patented method in another manner, as some defenders of Windows 8 would prefer, it would require the sacrifice of Wright brothers to their opponents.

Rational patent practices didn’t develop easily. Because of the unconventional way in which they specified their patents, both Watt and the brothers had to pursue lengthy legal battles to protect their inventions from infringement. Some criticize them for spending so much time in courts. But I think it is morally right to defend your property, material or intellectual. As Wilbur Wright righteously wrote in a letter to an aviator, "[it] is our view that morally the world owes its almost universal use of our system of lateral control entirely to us. It is also our opinion that legally it owes it to us." Neither Watt nor the brothers were famous or influential before their respective inventions; they took a bold, but sensible, step when they filed for patents in a manner that they saw effective. The genius of Watt and Wright brothers extends beyond their inventions—they were instrumental in establishing patent practices that will protect inventors, including those of Slide-to-Unlock, for centuries to come.

*A Plain Story (1796)—James Watt’s account of how he came upon invention, and a response to his critics.

Update [Nov. 17, 17:25 UTC]: Slightly edited for clarity.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Watt and Edison Contra Determinism

A common criticism levied against innovators is: “if not him, somebody else would have done it.”

Formally described as counterfactual conditional or simply “counterfactual”, such criticism is used in a variety of contexts: to emphasize competitors, to denounce CEO salaries, to oppose patents, etc.; but, essentially, its purpose is to rob an innovator of the moral recognition that he deserves. A recent example [video] is an Occupy Wall Street protester who used the criticism against Steve Jobs, and concluded it with “To Hell with Steve Jobs!

The philosophical doctrine underlying such criticism is determinism—the idea that your thoughts and actions are merely a consequence of external past influences. Its product is social theories such as “critical mass” theory of development, the labor theory of value, and ultimately the complete disregard for the individual under Communism.

But man has free will. The very fact that you can choose to disagree with that statement is evidence for it. Innovation requires knowledge and thought. And neither of those is automatic—they require volitional application of your mind. However, my purpose here is not to convince you that man has free will. (If you aren’t convinced, you’re determined to be doomed, anyways.) Instead, I will quote from some brilliant innovators who were, and still are, routinely charged with the “counterfactual”.
Thomas Edison, emphasizing the importance of effort, said:
None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.1
James Watt answered the criticism directly:
[I am] not so presumptuous as to think that there were not, and are not, numbers of mechanics in this nation, who, from the same or even fewer hints, would have completed a better engine than [I] did. [...] But [I do] not pretend that any body could have done it without thinking upon it, nor without much previous knowledge and some experience of similar things.2 [Emphasis original.]
Steve Jobs, on the other hand, pointed out that sometimes even the innovators feel that they don’t deserve full recognition:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something.3

Although Jobs deserves enormous moral praise for being an “insanely great” producer (and for many other reasons, perhaps), I disagree with him on the source of “little guilt”. Jobs is right that creativity requires mental integration. But the act of “seeing” a “connection” between things is a uniquely human capacity. It requires conscious effort, and is our sole means of survival. Thus, properly understood, creative activity can only be a source of pride. To the extent that a creative person feels guilt is the extent to which he accepts the premise of determinism.

1 As per Wikiquote, the statement was made in a press conference (1929).
2 A Plain Story (1796)—his account of how he came upon invention, and a response to his critics.
3 Wired (February 1995)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hazare’s “Solution” does Not Solve Anything

The basic problem with Indian activist Anna Hazare’s “solution” to the problem of corruption is that it only adds to the bureaucracy. If passed in any form, the so called Jan Lokpal or Citizens' Ombudsman Bill would subordinate the judicial- as well as some portions of executive-branch of the government to arbitrary and uncontrolled power, while adding another layer of bureaucrats, who will be less accountable and more powerful than the elected ones.

Hazare’s evil lies in his advocacy of statism, his version of which is an expanded and more arbitrary form of government in India. His “solution” to corruption does nothing to address its root cause: the arbitrary power of the democratically elected looters to redistribute wealth (some of which they unsurprisingly keep in their pockets). Instead, the only difference under Jan Lokpal would be that the loot and bribes would be divided among a larger number of bureaucrats. Even worse, the consequent increase in legal and judicial complexity would make the redistribution of loot even more non-objective and difficult to track—all in the name of “transparency”.

No matter how the deck chairs are rearranged, the corrupt will remain attracted to politics as long as the winner gets to distribute Rs. 2,00,00,00,00,000 in non-defense activities (hint: look up "2G scam"). The Hazare “solution” is a recipe for attracting even more corrupt power-mongers to politics.

An alternative political method to prevent corruption does exist. It consists of eradicating the disease, and not merely treating the symptoms. Begin by scraping the power of the bureaucrats to implement “welfare” programs. Scrap their coercive monopolization of electricity distribution, roadways, dams etc. Cut their hold on corporate mergers, bond markets, polio vaccines, and 2G licenses. In principle, separate the government from economics. Strip the government to its only legitimate functions: the police, the army, and the judiciary. The economic liberalization of India in the 1990s was a step in the right direction. It is time to advocate for a consistent and non-contradictory implementation of the free-market.

Not only does Hazare hold fascist political ends (meaning tyrannical in spirit, but freedom-enhancing in pretense), his means are consistent as well. Hunger strike is not an argument—it is a knee-jerk crybaby reaction. Consequently, some have criticized Hazare for not being truly Gandhian, who was arguably much more intellectually versed than Hazare. True, but I would argue that even though Hazare’s interest in ideas might be weaker than Gandhi’s, his tactics are Gandhian to the core (where, by “Gandhian” I mean marked by an appeal to emotion as opposed to reason.) His choice of hunger-strike rather than a political treatise is insulting, non-intellectual, and non-mindful of individual judgment.

There is an irony in Anna Hazare supporters singing “Ek dokha kha chuke hain aur kha sakte nahin” (translated: “Having been deceived once [by the British], we cannot be deceived again”). Who really needs to sing this line is the Indians who have so far resisted the brainwash, and they need to start singing it soon.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Why I like Daphnis and Chloe

I wrote a guest post at One Objectivist's Art Object of the Day on why Daphnis and Chloe by Louis Hersent is one of my favorite paintings.
I like the painting for its depiction of a passionate couple engaged in a life-affirming moment. Let me define that moment by briefly describing the painting as we see it (i.e. without any reference to the story that it's based upon).

A beautiful young couple is sitting in the countryside. The girl is holding a double-flute close to her mouth, while her face and eyes are rotated just enough to glance at the guy. The guy's slightly open mouth and the same positioning of their fingers suggest that he is teaching her how to play a melody. [...]
Go read the whole thing, here. And, please leave a comment!

Thanks to One Objectivist's Art Object of the Day for letting me guest-blog.