Monday, October 11, 2010

What is money?

Over the past few years I have blogged about mathematical risk models (on my work blog) and the nature of reality (on my home blog). I'm becoming interested in a new question:

What is money?
Does that answer work??

Nope, it's not that kind of question.

So why am I interested in the nature of money?

A number of my posts have had connections to World War II. Examples: Herman Wouk, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman (worked on the Manhattan Project), the play Copenhagen (about an event that took place during World War II).

I've blogged about two economists who famously debated the causes and cures of the Great Depression, which immediately preceded World War II and was at least a contributory cause of it. (here, here, here) I've written perhaps a dozen posts on my work blog about the recent financial crisis of our own time; let's hope it doesn't have the same ending as the Great Depression!

So that's why I'm interested in the nature of money. It seems that issues about our understanding of money can have big consequences.

A few places I plan to go with this question:

While blogging about the nature of reality, I wrote about some interesting ideas of Douglas Adams and Jaron Lanier. The works by Adams and Lanier that I cited in those posts also include interesting ideas about money. I intend to revisit those ideas.

I recently discovered that John Nash has some thoughts about money. You may recall John Nash from the movie A Beautiful Mind. I hope to explore his ideas.

Finally, I recently attended a Slow Money National Gathering. I'm not sure if all of their ideas are "sustainable" or not, but I did find parts of Woody Tasch's book interesting. I'll blog about it sometime.

In any event, this post is not about any new ideas. This post is a request for interesting links. In the past, when I was blogging about mathematical risk models or the nature of reality, some of the readers of my blogs sent me links to interesting articles, books and videos (and cartoons!) that I would not have found otherwise. So if you encounter any interesting links about the nature of money, please send them along. Thank you.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The answer is 42!

I've got the answer! (to the question at the end of yesterday's post)

The answer is 42! Haha.

OK, the real answer is Blowin' in the Wind. Hahaha.

All joking aside—well, almost all joking aside—there is an amusing connection between the two preceding paragraphs. Can any readers of this blog explain it in the comments? If you need a hint see the first comment.

And did you realize that today is 10-10-10? That's completely unrelated. Or is it?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Quantum Reality

Quantum Reality, by Nick Herbert, is an excellent discussion of what quantum mechanics has to say about the nature of reality. It turns out that physicists don't agree on the nature of reality. Dr. Herbert describes eight different possible quantum realities:

QR #1: The Copenhagen Interpretation, Part I - There is no deep reality. As Niels Bohr put it: "There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum description." (p. 17)

QR #2: The Copenhagen Interpretation, Part II - Reality is created by observation. As John Wheeler put it: "No elementary phenomenon is a real phenomenon unless it is an observed phenomenon." (p. 18)

QR #3: Reality is an undivided wholeness. As David Bohm put it: "One is led to a new notion of unbroken wholeness which denies the classical analyzability of the world into separately and independently existing parts." (p. 18) In other words, the observer cannot be considered separate and distinct from the object being observed.

QR #4: The many-worlds interpretation - Reality consists of a steadily increasing number of parallel universes. Proposed by Hugh Everett in 1957: "in the Everett picture, everything that can happen does happen." (p. 175) Sounds like Douglas Adams.

QR #5: Quantum logic - The world obeys a non-human kind of reasoning. As David Finkelstein put it: "Our classical ideas of logic [based on the ideas of Aristotle and Boole] are simply wrong in a basic practical way. The next step is to learn to think in the right way, to learn to think quantum-logically." (p. 21)

QR #6: Neorealism - The world is made of ordinary objects, that is, objects which possess attributes of their own whether they are observed or not. This was Einstein's view.

QR #7: Consciousness creates reality. This is a stronger version of QR #2. John von Neumann helped create this view. As his colleague Eugene Wigner put it: "It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness." (p. 25)

QR #8: The duplex world of Werner Heisenberg - The world is twofold, consisting of potentials and actualities. In the quantum world there exist only potentials, which become actualities in the real world during the "magic act of measurement."

The Copenhagen Interpretation is the dominant view in physics today. But all of these interpretations have credible proponents. Dr. Herbert says that all of these interpretations are consistent with all known experiments. Are they perhaps therefore somehow equivalent?

For more on Bohr, Heisenberg and the Copenhagen Interpretation, see my series of posts in 2008 about the play Copenhagen.

Let's consider what this means for humans. Are humans special? The "no" position is eloquently stated by Douglas Adams. The "yes" position is just as eloquently stated by Jaron Lanier and Herman Wouk.

I think most physicists—including Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Feynman—would agree with Adams. But not so fast. Doesn't QR #7 imply that humans are special? And see Copenhagen, part 4 where Niels Bohr says (in the playwright's words): "We put man back at the centre of the universe."

So, are humans special or not?

Dang. Stumped again. I'm sure the answer is right here in something that I've posted about, but it's just not coming to me. Maybe if I sleep on it the answer will come to me tomorrow.

UPDATE: I've got it!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Einstein: His Life and Universe

Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson, is an excellent biography of Albert Einstein (1879-1955). Einstein was the most famous physicist of the 20th century. He is best known for his Special Theory of Relativity (1905) and General Theory of Relativity (1915). The Special Theory led to the famous equation E = mc2 and the atomic bomb. The General Theory led to our current understanding of the outer universe, from its origin in the Big Bang to quasars and black holes.

Einstein also made important contributions to the other revolutionary physics theory of the 20th century: quantum mechanics. In fact it was for his 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect, not his work on relativity, that he was awarded the 1921 Nobel prize. But Einstein never became comfortable with the implications of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics leads to the conclusion that at the atomic and subatomic level, our world is not deterministic. It is probabilistic. Einstein famously wrote in 1926: "I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice."

Einstein and the second best known physicist of the 20th century, Niels Bohr, famously carried on a debate about the meaning of quantum mechanics for as long as they lived. For more about Bohr and quantum mechanics see my series of posts in 2008 about the play Copenhagen.

Einstein lived in Germany and Switzerland until he later emigrated to the United States. He earned what we would now call a bachelor's degree from Zurich Polytechnic in 1900, after which it took him two years to find a job! And then it was not a teaching job as he was hoping for, but a job as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office. In 1903 Einstein married. It was while working at the Swiss Patent Office, and before he earned his PhD, that Einstein wrote a series of revolutionary papers in 1905, two of which are noted above.

Einstein was married twice. He had three children with his first wife, a daughter before they were married and two sons after they were married. (Little is known about the daughter. She may have been given up for adoption and likely died as an infant.) He and his first wife separated in 1914 when Einstein moved to Berlin to accept a university professorship. (Just as World War I was starting!) The two boys remained with their mother in Zurich. Einstein remarried in 1919. His second wife tolerated his many affairs better than the first wife did.

Einstein was born Jewish but he did not think of himself as Jewish until the Nazi movement arose in Germany. Einstein was a professor in Berlin 1914-1933 but emigrated to the United States in 1933 when the German government passed a law barring Jews from teaching at universities. He was a supporter of the creation of Israel.

Although Albert Einstein signed the famous letter in 1939 to President Roosevelt that launched the Manhattan Project, Einstein was not himself directly involved in the development of the atomic bomb. In fact, he was excluded as a possible security risk because of his German background and political views. Einstein was a pacifist (he later regretted signing that letter) and he favored socialism. But he opposed communism and all forms of totalitarianism. He was a nonconformist in both science and politics, as well as his personal life.

Was Einstein religious? In 1929 he wrote: "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind." By "lawful harmony" Einstein meant the laws of science, which he spent his life trying to better understand.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Anything that happens happens

"Is There an Artificial God?" was the title of a talk given by Douglas Adams in 1998. It can be found in The Salmon of Doubt (p. 126 in the paperback edition) and online here. It relates to the concept of reality that I have blogged about.

Adams sums up his view as: "Anything that happens happens." He explains this in terms of the Four Ages of Sand. That is, sand to make glass lenses, silicon chips and fiber optic cable.

1. Telescopes - We discover the outer universe.
2. Microscopes - We discover the inner universe.
3. Computers - We discover computation.
4. The Internet - We discover new ways of communication.

In the First Age we discover that humans are insignificantly small. In the Second Age we discover that even with the microscope we still don't understand life. In the Third Age we discover that complexity can arise from the iteration of very simple processes.

The Fourth Age is something that we are just beginning to experience. We have always had one-to-one communications. We have long had one-to-many communications (mass media). Adams says that democracy is a clunky form of many-to-one communications. What is new is the ability to have many-to-many communications. We don't really know where this will take us, but it is sure to be full of surprises. Adams talks at length about the novelty (at the time) of someone typing on a computer and being able to control a Coke dispensing machine thousands of miles away. He would be fascinated by today's news of the Stuxnet worm.

Adams's thesis rests primarily on the Third Age and the fact that complexity can emerge from simplicity. He says that this is where life comes from. In his view life did not come from an intelligent designer, but emerged out of the simpler natural world through iterative processes analogous to how computers work, gradually becoming more and more complex.

A good example of this idea is the Mandelbrot Set. Infinite complexity arises out of something so simple that even I have programmed it, just to see how it works. Experience with computer programming helps one to understand Adams's point.

Computation is certainly a wonderful thing. To Stephen Wolfram and Max Tegmark it is everything. (See also the ideas of Nick Bostrom, linked in the Tegmark post.)

But we should keep in mind that there might be another view, as eloquently expressed by Jaron Lanier and Herman Wouk.

Well, what other luminaries can we consult for their views? How about Einstein? Funny you should ask. I just finished listening to the biography of Einstein that Nancy gave me last Christmas. See the next post.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Salmon of Doubt

Douglas Noël Adams liked to tell people that he was born in Cambridge, England, in 1952 a few months before Watson and Crick made their famous discovery there and that his initials were DNA. Alas, he died all too young at the age of 49 in 2001.

Douglas Adams is best known for his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. His last book, The Salmon of Doubt, was published posthumously. It is a compilation of materials found on his various Macintosh computers. The last quarter of the book is an unfinished novel that might have become another book in the Hitchhiker series or another book in his series of Dirk Gently detective novels, no one is quite sure. "The Salmon of Doubt" was Adams's working title for this unfinished novel, and is a spoof on the Salmon of Wisdom in Irish mythology.

The rest of the book consists of a wide variety of materials. For example, we learn that Adams's favorite author was P. G. Wodehouse. From page 67 in the paperback edition:

He's up in the stratosphere of what the human mind can do, above tragedy and strenuous thought, where you will find Bach, Mozart, Einstein, Feynman, and Louis Armstrong, in the realms of pure, creative playfulness.

Sounds like Adams himself. We also learn that Douglas Adams was a friend and fan of Richard Dawkins, who wrote a "keening lament" when he heard that Adams had died in the gym of a heart attack: "I have lost an irreplaceable intellectual companion and one of the kindest and funniest men I ever met." This lament was published in the British press and is republished in The Salmon of Doubt as the Epilogue.

The Salmon of Doubt includes a fascinating talk that Douglas Adams gave in 1998: "Is There an Artificial God?" (p. 126) That talk relates to the theme of reality that I have blogged about here, and it deserves a post of its own.

Richard Dawkins gave the eulogy at the funeral for Douglas Adams. In the eulogy, Dr. Dawkins quoted liberally from Adams's talk "Is There an Artifical God?" Both the eulogy and the lament mentioned above are available online here.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Blowin' in the Wind

When climbing Sugarloaf yesterday we could see in the distance the wind turbines in the Kibby Mountain Wind Power Project. Today we drove home through them. From ME-27 north of Eustis:

From the Sarampus Falls Rest Area:

Well, this is a timely subject to post about, with Laura's recent climb to the top of a wind turbine in Samsø.

Xkcd recently had a hilarious comic about wind turbines:

The Tripods may be the least familiar of the four literary references in the comic. They are a great set of books that I read some years ago. It's nice to encounter someone else who appreciated them.

Speaking of references, the title of this post comes from the Bob Dylan song made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary.

Closer to home we have the Lowell Mountain wind project in the planning stages: official web site, recent news article. We saw a number of "Save the Lowell Mountain Range" signs driving through Lowell on our way to and from Sugarloaf.


We climbed Sugarloaf Mountain yesterday with Susan and Paul. It was a beautiful day, although cool and breezy on top. Nancy on the summit with Crocker Mountain in the background:

Our plan had been to go up the Appalachian Trail from Caribou Valley, but it had recently rained hard and the stream near the start of the trail (the South Branch of the Carrabassett) was too high to cross. So we drove back around to the ski area and hiked up and down ski trails.

Foliage was about peak. The view from the Haulback ski trail on the way down, with Bigelow Mountain in the background: