Monthly Archives: May 2022

WARNING (Climbing onto my soapbox)

I watched an interesting documentary this morning about fake news, fast and slow thinking, ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and Russians hacking our minds to sow confusion and division among us. Many of the ideas were drawn from the book below (which I read). The core problem is that we all have two modes of thinking: fast mode and slow mode. Both serve us well, but in different situations. Fast mode may be used when we don’t have time to thoroughly think things through, to analyze the data, compare, verify or validate, pick the best or optimum of alternatives, etc; for instance, when a lion is chasing us, we’re surrounded by enemies, a car just swerved into our lane, or our aircraft ran out of gas at 10,000 feet. Slow mode may be used when fast mode doesn’t come up with a viable solution, the problem is too complex for simplistic solutions, or the problem is important or consequential and you have the time to consider the risks and/or opportunities.

Unfortunately, most of us prefer or fall into fast mode thinking due to laziness, ignorance, or inability to operate in slow mode. Also, there are a few of us who can’t get out of slow mode thinking to save ourselves, when there’s no time to analyze, compare, verify, validate, etc.

Fast-mode thinkers are highly vulnerable to fake news, us versus them, Russian mind hacking, and snake-oil salesmen and politicians. The results of this vulnerability can range from a few people getting swindled to riots, looting, and lynching, to outright civil war. We are all vulnerable to inappropriate fast mode thinking; not just Republicans and Trump supporters – also Dems and everyone else, from elementary school drop-outs to PhD’s, scientists, philosophers, and religious leaders.

Politicians exploit fast mode thinking to garner votes. Social media and other advertisers exploit fast mode thinking to sell products and services, and Russia (and China) exploit fast mode thinking to weaken our democratic institutions and our unity.

Of course, slow-mode thinkers are vulnerable to lions, enemies, driving fast on freeways, and flying planes, unless they know how to turn on their fast mode.

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A Theory of Reality that Makes Sense

Just to be clear, what you are reading is an opinion. It doesn’t matter whose, but it happens to be mine.

The universe in which we live is fundamentally rational. It has been postulated that the universe is lazy. It is lazy in that it will expend the minimum work possible to cause an effect. That implies that the universe operates rationally because it would require more effort and energy to operate irrationally; for example, instead of an object following a straight line in a flat universe with nothing else near enough to affect it, it suddenly stops, jinks left or right or up or down, or disappears altogether. Something else might cause the object to do those things, but that would require an extra cause to change its course.

What about people, animals, and plants? What about bacteria, single cells, ribosomes, mitochondria, and viruses? Are they rational? They are all part of the universe.

According to a widely accepted theory, the universe contains matter, energy, and forces organized as an open system, but it contains within it both open and closed systems. Open systems disintegrate over time. Matter is attracted to other matter when it’s close enough to have an effect. When this happens with enough matter nearby, a closed system may be formed. The lipid envelope of a virus, the lipid cell walls, the chambers of our hearts and other organs, oyster shells, the skins of animals and people, the cellulose of plants, the wood bark of trees, cars, houses, airplanes, submarines, rocket ships, earth, and the sun are examples of closed systems.

In a closed system, the rules are different. As I wrote previously, living systems are examples of closed systems. Living systems depend on mitochondria and ATP from the sun (photosynthesis) or food to provide the energy required for cells to replicate, produce heat, grow, do repairs, and to keep their internal environment at levels that allow them to survive (homeostasis). Living systems integrate matter during birth and growth but, at some point, growth stops and, later begins to decay until they die. At that point, they begin to decay. Eventually, as skin, the walls of organs, and cell walls disintegrate, what was a closed system becomes an open system once again, rejoining the universe and its rational laws.

So, while we are closed systems, why don’t we behave rationally? That’s a good question, but that’s not what I want to discuss here. What I want to discuss are theories, specifically theories that attempt to explain how our universe works, at the macro level, at the micro-level, and at our level. Theories are not immutable truths. Theories are approximations and they are provisional. It has been said that the attributes of a good theory are [1] that it interprets and explains something more or better than what was previously known and [2] that it predicts what that thing will do more accurately than previous theories.

Newton’s theories about gravity were pretty good. The math equations made fairly good predictions and the explanations seemed to cover a lot of different situations.

Einstein’s theories of relativity were better than Newton’s because his equations made better predictions over longer distances (light from a distant star and time dilation from different relative speeds). Einstein’s explanations seemed counter-intuitive, but they explained more phenomena (except for the micro-level); however, Einstein’s math breaks down where black holes, traveling faster than the speed of light, and lengths or times less than a Planck constant are concerned. What that means is that the math equations come up with an answer of infinity in those situations, and there are no infinities in the physical universe.

Quantum theories were better than Einstein’s theories at the micro-level where gravitational forces don’t seem to work and discovered particles more fundamental than protons and neutrons (quarks and bosons). Schrödinger’s and others’ equations predicted the behavior of quantum particles more accurately than any previous theories. The problem with quantum theories is in the interpretation and explanation of what’s going on at the quantum level. According to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, we can’t know both the position and the momentum of a particle with absolute precision. The more accurately we know the one, the less accurately we know the other. We can only predict where a particle is or will be, statistically. The math deals with the probability waves of particles, rather than the particles themselves.

Many of the explanations of quantum theories have been so outlandish (objects can be in two places at the same time, coherence, consciousness causing collapse, entanglement, cats being both dead and alive depending on whether we saw it or not, and a new universe generated for each particle state) that many quantum physicists would prefer to just stick to the math predictions and leave the explanations to someone else.

The Holy Grail of physics would be a Theory of Everything that would tie quantum theories together with the theory of relativity. String Theory has made a valiant attempt at that but, so far, no cigar. String Theory’s explanations are far less outlandish than quantum theories, but they don’t predict anything, and they haven’t even generated any testable hypotheses.

Oh yes, another attribute of a good theory is that it is falsifiable. That means it can be reliably tested (and the test can be repeated over and over, producing the same results each time) and proven true or false.

I believe that once we understand how the universe really works, our explanations of it will be more rational than they are today.

We live in interesting times.

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(in)Dependence Day

Today is Independence Day in Israel. The date moves around on your Gregorian calendars every year because Israel’s official calendar is the Hebrew lunar calendar. As Wikipedia explains it: “Independence Day is designated to be on the 5th day of Iyar (ה’ באייר) in the Hebrew calendar, the anniversary of the day on which Israeli independence was proclaimed, when David Ben-Gurion publicly read the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The corresponding Gregorian date was 14 May 1948.” See Independence_Day_(Israel). Many countries, especially those that had been colonized, celebrate their Independence Days; for example, the 4th of July in the USA.

Independence is a wonderful feeling and most people around the world want it for themselves, although it is most often achieved and maintained only with blood, sweat, and tears. This is well-known.

There are limits to independence. Most often it starts at the country level (if it starts at all). Then there may develop strongly held differences of opinion along the way, and half the country wants to secede from the union. There was a bloody civil war in America, which almost resulted in America splitting into two countries. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Anywhere there are people with differing opinions or interests that are strongly held, let’s say stronger than the bonds that hold people together, there is a possibility that that group might want to detach itself from the larger group and become independent. Pushed to absurdity, every tribe, clan, or family might want (and be willing to fight for) its independence. John Donne wrote, “No man is an island”, and yet every man might want to be his own country. There are limits to independence, which reasonable men and women generally accept.

But I want to talk about something else: our dependence on each other. Once a people achieve independence and have their own country, they realize how dependent they are on each other, no matter where they came from, who they are, or what they believe or think. We all need an army to defend us. The army needs its countrymen to support it and to fill its ranks. We need religions to remind us of our moral and ethical responsibilities and our historical and spiritual roots, and religions need all of us to support and defend them. We need a government to lead and protect us, to provide services and infrastructure, and to deal with other countries diplomatically or militarily. The government needs its citizens to support it and to keep it honest and effective. We need the police, doctors and nurses, teachers, mechanics, farmers, fishermen, importers and exporters, pilots, cab drivers, truck drivers, trash and garbage collectors, and the list goes on and on. It’s easy for us to imagine how miserable we would be if they weren’t there; just remember the times some of them went on strike.

As a matter of fact, I propose we establish a new holiday. Yes, I know there are already more holidays than there are days in a year. So, I propose yet another holiday, which I’d call “Dependence Day”. On that day, at least once a year, we should recognize all the people on whom we depend, especially the ones we don’t generally think about, with all the speeches, dancing in the streets, fireworks, etc. that they deserve.

Think about this when you deprecate or ignore the needs or aspirations of one group or another: only when everyone does what he can, can we all exist.

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