Sunday, February 16, 2020

The cruise that went worng

Hello.  Yes, I'm still alive.

I have not posted anything here in over three months mainly because I've fallen into some rather deep despair over the political situation in the U.S., a situation that doesn't promise to improve any time soon.  I am breaking radio silence now because I have just returned from a trip that turned into a rather interesting (in the sense of the Chinese curse) story that I thought I would share.  I would have live-blogged it, but the world has changed in the 17 years since I started writing, and I now have some serious doubts about the wisdom of advertising on the internet the fact that I'm away from home.

On the plus side, you won't have to wait to learn how it ends.  (Spoiler alert: we made it home OK.)

The story starts with a prelude that actually relates to the power outage that I wrote about in October.  After that experience forced us to retreat to a hotel we decided to get the house retrofitted for a generator.  That turned out to be much more complicated than I had ever imagined.  I thought that the process would be a simple matter of hiring an electrician to do the work.

I was wrong.

For starters, it turns out that electricians are really hard to find on the San Francisco peninsula.  They are all apparently quite busy nowadays.  Of the half dozen or so that I contacted, only two returned my calls, and only one gave me an estimate.  To my pleasant surprise the cost turned out to be quite reasonable, and he said he could do it without having to turn the power off to the house.  That struck me as a wee bit fishy, as I could not imagine any way that a generator hookup could be installed safely without disconnecting the power, but I figured that since he was a licensed electrician he must know what he was doing.

I was wrong about that too.

The quote he gave me included a line item for a mechanical interlock that would prevent the generator from being inadvertently connected to the grid.  The cost of that one item was surprisingly large, almost a quarter of the total.  When it came time to do the installation, the interlock was missing.  The electrician (I'm going to call him Bill -- that's not his real name) said that the part he had ordered turned out not to be the right one, and he was having trouble locating the correct part.

I have to digress here for a moment and tell you a little bit about the electrical wiring in our house.  (Believe it or not, all this will turn out to be relevant.)  We have two electric meters and two adjacent main electrical panels, all mounted on 4x4 posts out by the street.  The installation looks like this:

The panel on the left runs our house.  The one on the right is actually owned by the county, and it runs our sewage ejector pump.  Our house is built on the downhill side of a slope, and so the pump is necessary because parts of the house are below the main sewer.  In both cases, the electricity comes in to the meter through an underground conduit, runs through the meter into the main panel to the right of the meter where the circuit breakers are, and then down through another conduit to the house or the ejector pump.

So back to the story: I volunteered to help Bill find the right part for the interlock.  An internet search produced no results, so I called the technical support line for the manufacturer of our main electrical panel (Siemens).  They were very helpful, and told me that the reason we were having trouble finding the part is that it didn't exist.  The reason it didn't exist is that the panel we had was not designed to be connected to a generator.

And yet, our electrician had somehow wired it up to accept a generator.  We had a nice shiny RV-style connector to plug the generator into and two brand new breakers in the panel box.

I started to wonder what our electrician had actually done, so I opened up the main panel.  This is what it looks like when it comes from the manufacturer:

The electric meter is installed in the round opening on the left.  The electricity comes in through thick cables from below (not shown in this photo), runs through the meter, then out the the two short black cables into the main breaker on the right.  From there, two more cables (again, not shown) go down to deliver the electricity to the load.

This is what ours looked like before the installation of the generator connection:

The electricity comes in from the meter on the left through the two fat black wires and connects to the shiny metal plates behind the circuit breaker (called "busses").  It then flows through the  circuit breaker and comes out from the bottom through the red and black cables, whereupon it goes down into the conduit and into the house.

This is what it looked like after the generator cutoff installation:


You can see the two additional breakers for the generator on the right.  The small red and black wires go to the connector for the generator.  The problem (see if you can spot it yourself) is that this does not connect the generator to the house, it connects it to the main bus and thence to the grid!  Not only that, but the generator connector is wired for 120V while the grid power is 240V split-phase.  Both of the incoming black wires from the meter are hot 120V 180 degrees out of phase with each other to make 240V across the two.  But on the generator side both hots are tied together!  Not only would the generator have been connected to the grid and not the house, it would have actually shorted the grid, even if the main breaker was off!  God only knows what would have happened if I'd tried to test the installation.

Fortunately, I figured all this out before actually doing the test so we never found out.  Bill removed all the dangerous wiring and offered to give me a full refund.  I declined, on the theory that it could be handy to have an electrician who owed me a favor by not reporting him to the state licensing board.  He also convinced me that this was an honest mistake, and that in general he really did know what he was doing.

We still don't have our generator hookup (yet) but in the process of trying to figure out the right way to do it Bill and I developed a bit of a rapport.  Installing a generator to power your house the Right Way is surprisingly non-trivial, and in the end we decided to table the project until we got back from our trip.

So fast-forward a few weeks to early January, and we fly down to San Diego to board a cruise ship that is going to take us across the Pacific to Hong Kong.  We were scheduled to arrive in Hong Kong on Valentine's day, and our plan was to visit a friend in Macao, spend a few days in HK, and then fly home.  At the time our biggest concern was the protests, but we had a nice hotel in the western part of Kowloon that should have been pretty far from the action and had easy access to the airport.  We felt fairly secure in our plan.

There is not a lot of land in the Pacific between San Diego and Hong Kong.  Our first stop was Hawaii, which we would reach after five days at sea.  (Hawaii is the most isolated land mass on the entire planet.)  But three days into the trip we received a frantic email from our neighbor across the street.  Their car had rolled down their driveway and "hit your side fence and a box with cords and pipes that was next to your fence. I don’t know if this box is dangerous? Does it have electrical cords?"

I wasn't entirely certain what they were referring to (how could anyone be uncertain about whether or not they were looking at electrical cables?) so they sent us some photos.  It looked like this:


Our neighbor (I'll call her Chris, again not her real name) called PG&E and they came out and disconnected the power because this clearly was a dangerous situation.

So our house was dark.  And we were, quite literally, 1500 miles away in the middle of the ocean.

Happily, I just happened to know an electrician who owed me a favor.  :-)  I gave Chris Bill's phone number, and he was out there the next day and had the whole installation rebuilt within 24 hours.  It now looks like this:

Unfortunately, before the power could be turned back on, the new installation had to be inspected and signed off by the county.  Now, the car had taken out the meter on Thursday the 16th.  Our electrician had it all rebuilt on Friday the 17th, and the inspector actually came out the same day, but unfortunately got there just before the work was done and so was not able to sign off.  The following Monday was Martin Luther King day, so the earliest possible date to get the inspector back out was the following Tuesday.  And then we still had to get PG&E out to actually reconnect the power.  So we were looking at being dark for at least 3-4 more days.

Fortunately, we had other neighbors taking care of watering our plants, and they had a key to our house so they could come in and take all the food out of our refrigerator.  We waited anxiously through the weekend waiting for news of power being restored.  Our house has an alarm system with a battery backup, but it wouldn't last more than a few days and after that our house would be a sitting duck for burglars.

Tuesday we got word that the inspector had come out and signed off on the new construction, and now it was just matter of getting PG&E to come out and restore the power.  Our electrician told us they said they would be out on Wednesday.

Wednesday came and went.  On Thursday we were told that PG&E had come out, but our neighbor reported that evening that the house was still dark.  I sent an email to our electrician to please come out the next day and try to figure out what was going on -- maybe the main breaker was off?

I never did find out exactly what happened, but Friday evening our neighbor reported that our lights were back on.  Whew!  We breathed a sigh of relief and thought to myself that nothing else could possibly go wrong on this trip.

I was, of course, wrong about that too.

By this time we had left Hawaii and were heading for the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Guam.  The corona virus was in the news, but it still seemed like a fairly remote threat.  Wuhan province is many hundreds of miles from Hong Kong, which has always seemed to me to be generally more civilized (read: sanitary) than the rest of China.  We were still more worried about the protests than about the virus.

We had a very nice time in Guam.  I got to go snorkeling, which was fun.  The coral was in pretty good shape, which was gratifying.  There were tons of fish, a few reef sharks, even a snowflake eel, which I hadn't seen in a very long time.  So that was all good.

We sailed from Guam on Feb 2.  We didn't know it at the time, but we would not make landfall again for ten days.

Our next scheduled stop was Saipan, but when we got there the winds were too high to safely enter the harbor.  We had to abandon that and go on to our next scheduled port of call, Manila in the Philippines.

We were looking forward to seeing Manila, as were many on the crew.  The Philippines is a prime source of labor on cruise ships, so over the years we have met a zillion Filipinos, but had yet to actually visit their homeland.

By this time, the Diamond Princess was just starting to make headlines because she had confirmed cases of corona virus on board and she was not being allowed to dock in Japan.  We thought we were safe because our last landfall had been in Guam.  But then the CDC issued a formal travel advisory for Hong Kong, and shortly after that, the captain announced that our final stop in Hong Kong had been cancelled.  The company had not yet decided where they were going to re-route us, but we were probably going to Taiwan.

That was disappointing.  The whole point of choosing this itinerary had been to end up in Hong Kong so we could visit our friend in Macao.  We briefly contemplated flying from Taipei to Hong Kong but abandoned that plan almost immediately.  Our friend reported that Macao had turned into a ghost town, and a few days after that she fled to New York.  So that plan was dead.

On the other hand, ending up in Taiwan didn't seem so bad.  We had been meaning to visit there one of these years, so this seemed like as good an opportunity as any.  We cancelled all our Macao and Hong Kong hotel reservations and made new ones in Taipei.

The next day, the captain made another announcement: the port at Manila had been closed to all cruise ship traffic.  We would still go there, but we would refuel at anchor in the harbor.  We would not be allowed to dock or leave the ship.  As disappointing as this news was for us, it must have been devastating for the Filipino crew who had been looking forward to seeing family and loved ones after months at sea.  I can't even begin to imagine how heartbreaking this must have been for them.

By the time we arrived in Manila, the news from the Diamond Princess (and by now the Westerdam also) was starting to look pretty dire.  The Westerdam was virus-free, but because she had been to Hong Kong she was being denied entry at every port in Asia.  Then, while we were at anchor in Manila, it was announced that the port in Taipei had also been closed to all cruise ships.  So now we had no idea where we were going to end up.

I started playing out contingencies in my mind and came to the conclusion that what we really needed to do in order to avoid a serious nightmare was to return to Guam.  I expressed this opinion to the front desk and asked them to relay it to the powers-that-be.  I don't know if my concerns ever made it up the chain of command, but it didn't matter.  I didn't know it at the time, but Guam had also been closed to all cruise ships.  Like it or not, we were heading west, towards Viet Nam, with no idea what our ultimate destination would be.

On the bright side, our ship was "clean", or so we thought.  While en route to Viet Nam we were told that we had been denied entry there because we had passengers on board who had transited through Hong Kong.  Now, remember, that had all happened before the CDC issued the Hong Kong advisory, and there was no sign that anyone on board was falling ill.  But the Vietnamese government didn't care.  We were damaged goods, cruise shippa non grata.

By then I was more worried about overreaction by government officials than I was about the virus.  With Guam, Taipei, Manila and Viet Nam all closed, where could we go?  And what would be the next shoe to drop?  Would we end up like the Westedam, roaming the ocean in search of a friendly port?

We ended up in Singapore on Feb 12 after a total of ten days at sea.  We could have gotten there faster but we were told there was no dock space available before then.  I like to believe that, but it was suggested to me that we were actually under quarantine without being told.  For the last four days we had twice-daily temperature checks.  It was more than a little surreal.  On the plus side, the ship was very nice and the crew was terrific.  The temperature checks were very unobtrusive, and the rest of the time it was business-as-usual.  By far the most stressful aspect was the uncertainty, not knowing whether our permission to dock in Singapore would be pulled at the last minute, or if we'd be able to get off the ship.  But as it happens our arrival was completely uneventful.  We were cleared to disembark in less than an hour and that was that.  We were free.

The story doesn't quite end there though.

We could have stayed on the boat for a few more days but decided to go home the next morning because so many things had already gone wrong on this trip and we didn't want to tempt fate any more than necessary.  I was also eager to get home and assess the damage to our electrical panels.  We had an early morning flight on the 13th so we decided to spend the night at a hotel by the airport.  During the night, I got up to turn off a light in the hallway of our hotel room and stubbed my toe on a piece of furniture.  I hit it hard and ended up bleeding all over the place.  Fortunately we had bandages with us, but it didn't make for a very restful night.

We finally made it home and we thought it was all over but Murphy had one more curve ball to throw at us.  I went out to look at the electrical meters and noticed that the one for the house was on, but the one for the sewage ejector pump was not.  Without power to the pump, we have about a day of normal activity before the holding tank overflows and raw sewage pours out into our yard and down to the creek behind our house.  It turns out that when the inspector came out two weeks earlier he apparently didn't realize that there were two independent meters and each one needed their own inspection sticker, so he only put one on.  Again we were up against a weekend, but happily I was able to get someone at the county to lean on PG&E and they came out the next day and turned the power on.  It was actually an interesting process.  They don't do it by throwing a switch, they do it by physically attaching the electrical cable, which is running through a concrete service box, to a receptacle.  And they do this "live" while the electricity is on, because, well, there is no switch.  It's only 240V but it was still a scary looking process.  Sparks flew because the ejector pump was actually on and so it was drawing a huge startup load.  But power was restored and the technician and I both lived to tell the tale.

So now life is finally back to normal.  But there are two interesting post-scripts to the story.  The first is that I've been told that we actually have to undergo an additional inspection inside our house to make sure that our smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors are in order.  We don't have carbon monoxide detectors.  I'm still a little unclear what this has to do with the power being cut off, but I'm told be reliable sources that yes, this is the law in California.  It's almost enough to make me want to vote Republican.

The second postscript is that after the PG&E guy connected our second electric meter, the head electrician for the county showed up to assess the situation.  He was a really nice guy and really seemed to know what he was doing.  He pointed out a couple of things that our electrician did wrong in rebuilding our setup, but they were minor and said we could probably just let them slide.  But the thing he did that made me really happy was acknowledge that the ejector pump meter belongs to the county, and so it was actually the county's responsibility to get it rebuilt.  It's a moot point now, but maybe Chris can get some reimbursement from them because right now all the costs have come out of her pocket.

Anyway, it was an interesting trip, so I thought I'd share.  More things went wrong on this trip than in all the other trips we've ever taken put together, and by a wide margin.  Hopefully in the future things will regress to the mean.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Thoughts on a power outage: what worked, what didn't

We lost our electrical power for 45 hours as a result of the wildfires and high winds in Northern California.  This is by far the longest power outage we have ever had to endure, and we learned a lot about how to deal with them.  I thought I'd share some of the lessons.

What Worked

This outage was a lot easier to deal with than it might have been because we had a lot of warning.  PG&E started sounding the alarm about two days before the power was actually cut on Saturday night.  Because of that we were able to stock up on ice, stage flashlights, and so on.  The ice in particular proved to be very useful because that was the difference between saving some perishables and having them, well, perish.  It turns out that our freezer can last 24 hours without electricity (provided you don't open it) but 48 is pushing it.

LED lighting is just awesome.  I grew up on old-school incandescent flashlights that lasted an hour or two on a set of batteries.  LED flashlights will easily last 10-15 hours, and produce a lot more light in the process.  Battery-powered LED candles provide really nice mood lighting late at night. We also had some wall-mounted emergency lights that worked quite well, though we found that the first thing we wanted to do once PG&E pulled the plug was to turn them all off because the bluish light coming up from the wall was really harsh.  We also had no idea how long they would last because their internal batteries are quite small.  They are intended mainly for the use case where the power cuts off at night with no notice so you can find the real flashlights without having to go groping around in the dark, and for that purpose they worked quite well.

What Didn't

We have two phone lines, one of which is an old-school POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) line that is supposed to keep working even when the power goes out.  It didn't work.  As soon as the power died, so did the phone.  We even kept an old hard-wired phone to use with that line specifically so we would have comms without power.  That experiment was a dismal failure.  This corresponds to a data point collected from an acquaintance who did a similar experiment with similar results.  The days of reliable hard-wired communications in the face of power outages are apparently over.  And unfortunately, our house sits in a cell dead zone so that doesn't work as a backup for us either.

We had uninterruptible power supplies that kept some of our electronics running for a while, but that was mostly a failure too.  Some of the batteries had apparently aged out and quit after only a minute or two.

For those that kept working, we learned the hard way that having a UPS with a power-out alarm that can't be muted is an incredibly bad idea.  I guess the designers thought that the UPS should be as obnoxious as possible in order to make sure that in the event it was being used to power a computer, the user would know to save their work and shut down.  But there are two serious problems with this theory.  First, when the power goes out, it's pretty obvious.  Even during the day, there's almost always something nearby that's powered by electricity that gives you an indication when it's no longer working.  And second, you might be using your UPS to power something other than a computer, something low-power that you want to keep running for a long time, like a DSL modem.  Also, even if you are using the UPS to power a computer, and even if it's the middle of the day so somehow you miss the fact that the power has gone out, there is no excuse for the thing to go on beeping for more than a few minutes, and absolutely no excuse not to provide some way to silence the damn thing short of chucking it out the window.

(BTW, anyone want to buy a slightly used UPS?)

But the worst problem we faced was that our water heater stopped working despite being powered mainly by natural gas.  It turns out that it also has an electrical element (some kind of blower) and when that's not working, the whole heater just shuts down.  We had residual hot water for about twelve hours, which got us through the first night and the following morning.  But after that we decided to check into a hotel.

This turns out to be the hardest problem to solve for future outages.  But for not having hot water, we could probably survive just about any likely outage.  But cold showers are a show-stopper for us.  To fix this, we'd either need to replace the water heater, or get a generator or a Tesla powerwall.  A generator is kind of loud and obnoxious, and a powerwall is some pretty major coin.  Both would need to be wired into the house in order to power the water heater.

Good thing climate change is a hoax or all this could start to get really annoying.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Joe Rogan interviews Ed Snowden

Joe Rogan has conducted a three-hour-long interview with Edward Snowden.  It is well worth investing the time to listen to all of it.

(If you don't have the time or the patience for that, you can also read his book.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

No, Mr. Graham, this is not a lynching in any sense

In a time where brazen dishonesty has become the norm it is sometimes necessary to belabor the painfully obvious, to wit, the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump are not even remotely within spitting distance of the same ballpark as a lynching.  I feel it necessary to point this out, particularly to Lyndsey Graham, who actually said, in no uncertain terms, "this is a lynching in every sense."

Mr. Graham, let me explain this at you in terms that I hope you will be able to understand: you see, a lynching is when some fine upstanding southern gentlemen go out and kill themselves a nigger.  Now our Mr. Trump here, last I checked, was still alive and kickin' and physically, if not mentally, intact.  Furthermore, Mr. Schiff ain't no fine upstanding southern gentleman.  He's from (brace yourself) California, the same state that Nancy Pelosi hails from.  So there might be something fishy goin' on here, but it ain't no lynching cuz we ain't got ourselves no nigger hanging from a tree.

If we somehow manage to get through this witch hunt and return to the recognition that Mr. Trump has been anointed by God Himself to free us from the scourge of liberalism and Mexican rapists, then maybe, just maybe, we can get ourselves some good old-fashioned legitimate lynchings.  But for the moment, those halcyon days are behind us.  This country hasn't seen a real lynching since 1981.

This is the point at which I would normally come up with a snappy line to close this post, but I'm coming up empty today.  Sorry.  I am just so fucking tired of all this shit.  Life is too short.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

William Barr echoes Adolf Hitler, with "militant secularists" playing the role of the Jews

Attorney General William Barr gave a speech at Notre Dame university where he resurrected some of Adolf Hitler's most odious rhetoric, with "militant secularists" (i.e. people who believe in reason and science rather than medieval superstitions) playing the role previously occupied by the Jews:
He [Barr] insisted that “the traditional Judeo-Christian moral system” of the United States was under siege by “modern secularists” who were responsible for every sort of “social pathology”, including drug abuse, rising suicide rates and illegitimacy.
(Here is the transcript in case you want to read what he actually said.)

I wonder if Mr. Barr considers the sexual abuse of minors to be a "social pathology", because there's a lot more of that going on in the Catholic church than at any secular organization that I know of.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Whatever happened to "no collusion"?

Funny how fast the "no collusion" slogan evaporated after the recent revelations about Trump trying to shake down the president of Ukraine to fabricate a smear campaign about Joe Biden.  Two years of hand-wringing about the Mueller report are suddenly moot.  Instead of "no collusion" it's now, "Sure I colluded, but it was for a good cause.  Collusion with a foreign government is perfectly acceptable if it is done in the name of rooting our corruption.  Oh, and it's just a coincidence that the most egregious corruption in the entire U.S. -- indeed the only such example that merits the enlistment of a foreign power to help ferret it out -- just happens to be my leading political opponent.

Somehow, if the polls are to be believed, over a third of the country actually buys that narrative.

When Trump was first elected there were some who hoped that he would "grow into the office" and become less Trumpy, that with some "adults in the room" to reign him in, disaster might be averted.  I wonder how much worse things have to get before the last holdouts realize that this is not going to happen.  Whenever Trump gets away with something his response is not, "Whew, that was close, I'd better be more careful next time."  Instead it's, "Well, that was cool, I wonder how much more I can get away with?"  In a scant two years we've gone from, "I never talked to the Russians" to "Sure, I use the power of the presidency to coerce a foreign government to interfere in our domestic politics.  So what?"  We've gone from pussy grabbing to concentration camps where children are forcibly separated from their families.  Do we really need to march all the way to the gas chambers before the Republican party wakes up and realizes that Donald Trump will lead them through the gates of hell if they give him even half a chance?  And for what, to overturn Roe v. Wade?  To wreak righteous vengeance against the spotted owl?

Seriously, if you're still a Trump supporter at this point (I'm looking at you, Publius) I really want you to explain this to me.  What is it that Trump is offering at this point that is worth the price of the nation's soul?

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Fedex: three months and counting

It has now been three months since we shipped a package via Fedex that turned out to be undeliverable (we sent it signature-required, and the recipient, unbeknownst to us, had moved).  We expected that in a situation like that, the package would simply be returned to us, but it wasn't because we paid cash for the original shipment and (again, unbeknownst to us) the shipping cost doesn't include return shipping.

Once we discovered all this, we opened a Fedex account (because for some unfathomable reason they won't simply accept a credit card to pay for the return shipping).  In fact, we opened two of them because it turns out that there is more than one kind of Fedex account and the first time around we opened the wrong kind.  But once we did all that we were assured that we'd get our package back.

Today marks the three-month anniversary of the original shipment and we still haven't gotten it back.  I called Fedex today to find out what was going on and was told that our package is in the "overgoods department" and was last scanned a month ago, on July 22.

So what has happened since then?  No one seems to know.  Not only that, but in order to locate the package again we have to tell them what was inside!  Not just a general description (it was a document) but they wanted the title of the document!  There is no other way to identify the package at this point because the package has been labelled a "problem package" and the tracking number has been changed.  Our package has been lumped together with a bunch of other "problem packages" under the same tracking number.

That means that they opened the package and discarded the original packaging.  And they did this without making any attempt to contact us despite the fact that our contact information was on the original order, and we even opened an account with them for the express purpose of getting this package returned to us.  Which, we were told, would be no problem.

At this point, I'll give you long odds against our ever seeing it again.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Fedex: when it absolutely, positively has to get stuck in the system for over two months

I have seen some pretty serious corporate bureaucratic dysfunction over the years, but I think this one takes the cake: on May 23, we shipped a package via Fedex from California to Colorado.  The package required a signature.  It turned out that the person we sent it to had moved, and so was not able to sign for the package, and so it was not delivered.

Now, the package has our return address on it, so you would think that in a situation like that Fedex would simply return the package to us.  But you would be wrong.  Very, very wrong.

Fedex has an on-line tracking system, so we knew that the package had not been delivered (though at the time we didn't know why).  We kept an eye on it for about a week waiting for it to be either delivered or returned.  After a week, we called Fedex to ask what was going on.  We were told that they had been unable to obtain the required signature.  We asked why the package had not been returned.  It turns out that return shipping is not included in the original price.  We had paid cash for the original shipment, they could not return it because they didn't have a credit card on file.

OK, we said, that's kind of annoying to find out at this stage in the game, but no problem, we'll give you a credit card.  Oh no, they said, that won't work.  We can't accept a credit card payment at this point, you need a Fedex account number.  Why can't they accept a credit card now?  No one knew.

So we opened a Fedex account.  Problem solved, no?


It turns out that there is more than one kind of Fedex account, and we had opened the wrong kind.  So we opened another Fedex account.

By this point a month had gone by, and the package had been shipped from Colorado to Mississippi!  Why they didn't just send it back to California I have no idea, and neither did they.

By now we have spoken to no fewer than ten different people at Fedex over a period of two months.  No one can tell us why the package has not been returned to us.  At one point we were told it was going through some kind of security screening (there is nothing in the package but paper).  As if the situation were not already ironic enough, the latest delay (we are told) has something to do with Fedex wanting to give us a refund for the original shipping charge in order to make up for the inconvenience, though, of course, they are still going to charge us for the return shipment.

If by some bizarre chance anyone at Fedex upper management is seeing this, you have a very serious problem in your processes.  This is beyond unacceptable.  For an organization whose entire business model is based on getting things to their destinations on time, you should be hanging your head in shame that it has taken you over two months to return a package from Colorado To California with no end in sight.  I really don't like to engage in public shaming, but if ever there was a situation that warranted it, this is it.

Monday, July 08, 2019

The Trouble with Many Worlds

Ten years ago I wrote an essay entitled "The Trouble with Shadow Photons" describing a problem with the dramatic narrative of what is commonly called the "many-worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics (but which was originally and IMHO more appropriately called the "relative state" interpretation) as presented by David Deutsch in his (otherwise excellent) book, "The Fabric of Reality."  At the end of that essay I noted in an update:
Deutsch just referred me to this paper which is the more formal formulation of his multiple-worlds theory. I must confess that on a cursory read it seems to be a compelling argument. So I may have to rethink this whole thing.
That paper is entitled "The Structure of the Multiverse" and its abstract is delightfully succinct.  I quote it here in its entirety:
The structure of the multiverse is determined by information flow.
Those of you who have been following my quantum adventures know that I am a big fan of information theory, so I was well primed to resonate with Deutsch's theory.  And I did resonate with it (and still do).  Deutsch's argument was compelling (and still is).  Nonetheless, I never wrote a followup for two reasons.  First, something was still bothering me about the argument, though I couldn't really put my finger on it.  Yes, Deutsch's argument was compelling, but on the other hand, so was my argument (at least to me).  The difference seemed to me (as many things in QM interpretations do) a matter of taste, so it seemed pointless to elaborate.  And second, I didn't think anyone reading this blog would really care.  So I tabled it.

But last May the comment thread in the original post was awakened from its slumber by a fellow named Elliot Temple.  The subsequent exchange led me to this paper, of which I was previously unaware.  Here's the abstract, again, in its entirety:
The probabilistic predictions of quantum theory are conventionally obtained from a special probabilistic axiom.  But that is unnecessary because all the practical consequences of such predictions follow from the remaining, non-probabilistic, axioms of quantum theory, together with the non-probabilistic part of classical decision theory.
The "special probabilistic axiom" to which Deutsch refers is called the Born rule (named after Max Born).  The "remaining, non-probabilistic axioms of quantum theory" comprises mainly the Schrödinger equation.  (To condense things a bit I'll occsaionally refer to these as the BR and the SE.)

The process of applying quantum mechanics to real-world situations consists of two steps: first you solve the SE.  The result is something called a "wave function".  Then you apply the BR to the wave function and what pops out is a set of probabilities for various possible results of the experiment you're doing.  Following this procedure yields astonishingly accurate results: no experiment has ever been done whose outcome is at odds with its predictions.  The details don't matter.  What matters is: there's this procedure.  It yields incredibly accurate predictions.  It consists of two parts.  One part is deterministic, the other part isn't.

This naturally raises the question of why this procedure works as well as it does.  In particular, why does the procedure have two parts?  And why does it only yield probabilities?  Answering these questions is the business of "interpretations" of quantum mechanics.  Wikipedia lists almost twenty of these.  The fact that after nearly 100 years no consensus has emerged as to which one is correct gives you some idea of the thorniness of this problem.

So the paper that Elliot referred me to was potentially a Big Deal.  It is hard to overstate the magnitude of the breakthrough this would be.  It would show that there are not in fact two disparate parts to the theory, there is only one: the SE.  Such a unification would be of the same order of magnitude as the discovery of relativity.  It would be headline news.  David Deutsch would be a Nobel Laureate, on a par with Newton and Einstein.  But the fact that there is still an active debate over the issue shows that Deutsch's claim has not been universally accepted.  So there would seem to be only two possibilities: either Deutsch is wrong, or he's right and the rest of the physics community has failed to recognize it.

Normally when a claim of a major result like this fails to be recognized by the community it's because the claim is wrong.  In fact, more than 99% of the time it's because the claimant is a crackpot.  But Deutsch is no crackpot.  He's a foundational figure in quantum computing.  He discovered the first quantum algorithm.  Even if he got something wrong he very likely got it wrong in a very interesting way.

So I decided to do a deep dive into this.  It led me down quite the little rabbit hole.  There are a number of published critiques of Deutsch's work, and counter-critiques critiquing the critiques, and counter-counter-critiques.  They're all quite technical.  It took me a couple of months of steady effort to sort it all out, and that only with the kind of help of a couple of people who understand all this stuff much better than I do.  (Many thanks to Tim Maudlin, David Wallace, and especially the patient, knowledgeable, and splendidly-pseudonymed /u/ididnoteatyourcat on Reddit.)

In the rest of this post I'm going to try to describe the result of going down that rabbit hole in a way that is accessible to what I think is the majority of the audience of this blog.  The TL;DR is that Deutsch's argument depends on at least one assumption that is open to legitimate doubt.  Figuring out what that assumption is isn't easy, and whether or not the assumption is actually untrue is arguable.  That's the reason that Deutsch hasn't won his Nobel yet.

I have to start with a review of the rhetoric of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (MWI).  The rhetoric says that when you do a quantum measurement it is simply not the case that it has a single outcome.  Instead, what happens is that the universe "splits" into multiple parts when a measurement is performed, and so all of the possible outcomes of an experiment actually happen as a matter of physical fact.  The reason you only perceive a single outcome is that you yourself split into multiple copies.  Each copy of you perceives a single outcome, but the sum total of all the "you's" that have been created collectively perceive all the possible outcomes.

I used the word "rhetoric" above because, as we shall see, there is a disconnect between what I have just written and the math.  To be fair to Deutsch, his rhetoric is different from what I have written above, and it more closely matches the math.  Instead of "splitting", on Deutsch's view the universe "peels apart" (that's my terminology) in "waves of differentiation" (that is Deutsch's terminology) rather than "splitting" (that is everyone else's terminology) but this is a detail.  The point is that at the end of a process that involves you doing a quantum measurement with N possible outcomes, there are, again in point of actual physical fact, N "copies" of you (Deutsch uses the word "doppelgänger").

Again, to be fair to Deutsch, he acknowledges that this is not quite correct:
Universes, histories, particles and their instances are not referred to by quantum theory at all – any more than are planets, and human beings and their lives and loves. Those are all approximate, emergent phenomena in the multiverse.  [The Beginning of Infinity, p292, emphasis added.]
All of the difficulty, it will turn out, hinges on the fidelity of the approximation.  But let us ignore this for now and look at Deutsch's argument.

Deutsch attempts to capture the idea of probability in a deterministic theory using game theory, that is, by looking at how a rational agent should act, applying a few reasonable-looking assumptions about the utility function, and showing that a rational agent operating under the MWI would act exactly as if they were using the Born rule.  The argument is long and technical, but it can be summarized very simply.

[Note to nit-pickers: this simplified argument is in fact a straw man because it is based on the assumption that branch counting is a legitimate rational strategy, which is actually false on the Deutsch-Wallace view.  But since the conclusion I am going to reach is the same as Deutsch's I consider this legitimate rhetorical and literary license because the target audience here is mainly non-technical.]

For simplicity, let's consider only the case of doing an experiment with two possible outcomes (let's call them A and B).  The game-theoretical setup is this: you are going to place a bet on either A or B and then do the experiment.  If the outcome matches your choice, you win $1, otherwise you lose $1.

If the experiment is set up in such a way that the quantum-mechanical odds of each outcome are the same (i.e. 50-50) then there is no conflict between the orthodox Born-rule-based approach and the MWI: in both cases, the agent has no reason to prefer betting on one outcome over the other.  The only difference is the rationale that each agent would offer: one would say, "The Born rule says the odds are even so I don't care which I choose" and the other would say, "I am going to split into two and one of me is going to experience one outcome (and win $1) and the other of me is going to experience the other outcome (and lose $1), and that will be situation no matter whether I choose A or B, so I don't care which I choose."

[Aside: Deutsch goes through a great deal more complicated argument to prove this result because it is based on an assumption that Deutsch rejects.  In fact, he goes on from there to put in a great deal more effort to extend this result to an experiment with N possible outcomes, all of which have equal probabilities under the Born rule.  He has to do this because my argument is based on a tacit assumption that Deutsch rejects.  We'll get to that.  My goal at this point is not to reproduce Deutsch's reasoning, only to convince you that this intermediate result is plausibly true.]

Now consider a case where the odds are not even.  Let's arrange for the probabilities to be 2:1 in favor of A (i.e. A happens 2/3 of the time, B happens 1/3 of the time, according to the Born rule).  Now we have a disconnect between the two world-views.  The Bornian would obviously choose A.  But what possible reason could the many-worlder have for doing the same?  After all, the situation is unchanged from before: again the many-worlder is going to split into two (because there are still only two possible outcomes).  What possible basis could they have for preferring one outcome over the other that doesn't assume the Born rule and hence beg the question?

Deutsch's argument is based on an assumption called branching indifference.  Deutsch himself did not make this explicit in his original paper, it was clarified by David Wallace in a follow-up paper.  Branching indifference says that a rational agent doesn't care about branching per se.  In other words, if an agent does a quantum experiment that doesn't have a wager associated with it, then the agent has no reason to care whether or not the experiment is performed or not.

The reasoning then proceeds as follows: suppose that the many-worlder who ends up on the A branch does a follow-up experiment with two outcomes and even odds, but without placing a bet.  Now there are three copies of him, two of which have won $1 and one of which has lost $1.  But (and this is the crucial point) all of these copies are now on branches that have equal probabilities.  Because of branch indifference, this situation is effectively equivalent to one where there was a single experiment with three outcomes, each with equal probability, but two of which result in winning $1, and where the agent had the opportunity to place the bet on both winning branches.

So that sounds like a reasonable argument.  In fact, it is a correct argument, i.e. the conclusions really do follow from the premises.

But are the premises reasonable?  Well, many many-worlders think so.  But I don't.  In particular, I cast a very jaundiced eye on branching indifference.  There are two reasons for this.  But first, let's look at Wallace's argument for why branching indifference is reasonable:
Solution continuity and branching indifference — and indeed problem continuity — can be understood in the same way, in terms of the limitations of any physically realisable agent. Any discontinuous preference order would require an agent to make arbitrarily precise distinctions between different acts, something which is not physically possible. Any preference order which could not be extended to allow for arbitrarily small changes in the acts being considered would have the same requirement. And a preference order which is not indifferent to branching per se would in practice be impossible to act on: branching is uncontrollable and ever-present in an Everettian universe.
If that didn't make sense to you, don't worry, I'll explain it.  But first I want to take a brief diversion.  Trust me, I'll come back to this.

Remember how I said earlier that my simplified argument for Deutsch's conclusion was based on a premise that Deutsch would reject?  That premise is called branch counting.  It is the idea that the number of copies of me that exist matters.  This seems like an odd premise to dispute.  How could it possibly not matter if there is one of me winning $1 or a million of me each winning $1?  The latter situation might not have a utility that is a million times higher than the former, but if I'm supposed to care about "copies of me" at all, how can it not matter how many there are?

Here is Wallace's answer:
Why it is irrational: The first thing to note about branch counting is that it can’t actually be motivated or even defined given the structure of quantum mechanics. There is no such thing as “branch count”: as I noted earlier, the branching structure emergent from unitary quantum mechanics does not provide us with a well-defined notion of how many branches there are.
Wait, what???  There is no "well defined notion of how many branches there are?"

No, there isn't.  Wallace reiterates this over and over:
...the precise fineness of the grain of the decomposition is underspecified 
There is no “real” branching structure beyond a certain fineness of grain... 
...agents branch all the time (trillions of times per second at least, though really any count is arbitrary) the actual physics there is no such thing as a well-defined branch number
Remember how earlier I told you that there was a disconnect between the rhetoric and the math?  That the idea of "splitting" or "peeling apart" or whatever you want to call it was an approximation?  Well, this is where the rubber meets the road on that approximation.  Branching indifference is necessary because branching is not a well-defined concept.

So what about the rhetoric of MWI, that when you do an experiment with N possible outcomes that you split/peel-apart/whatever-you-want-to-call-it into N copies of yourself?  That is an approximation to the truth, but like classical reality itself, it is not the truth.  The actual truth is much more complex and subtle, and it hinges on what the word "you" means.

If by "you" you mean your body, which is to say, all the atoms that make up your arms and legs and eyes and brain etc. then it's true that there is no such thing as a well-defined branch count.  This is because every atom — indeed, every electron and every other sub-atomic particle — in your body is constantly "splitting" by virtue of its interactions with other nearby particles, including photons that are emitted by the sun and your smart phone and all the other objects that surround you.  These "splits" propagate out at the speed of light and create what Deutsch calls "waves of differentiation", what I call the "peeling apart" of different "worlds".  (If you are a regular reader you will have heard me refer to this phenomenon as creating "large systems of mutually entangled particles".  Same thing.)  This process is a continuous one.  There is never a well-defined "point in time" where the entire universe splits into two, and no point in time where you (meaning your body) splits into two.  There is a constant and continuous process of "peeling apart".  Actually many, many (many!) peelings-apart, all of which are happening continuously.  To call it mind-boggling would be quite the understatement.

On the other hand, if by "you" you mean "the entity that has subjective experiences and makes decisions based on those experiences" then things are much less clear.  I don't know about you, but my subjective experience is that there is exactly one of me at all times.  I consider this aspect of my subjective experience to be an essential component of what it means to be me.  I might even go so far as to say that my subjective experience of being a single unified whole defines what it is to be "me".  So the only way that there could be a "copy of me" is if there is another entity that has a subjective experience that is bound to the same past as my own, but whose present subjective experience is somehow different from my own e.g. my experiment came out A and theirs came out B.  An entity whose subjective experience is indistinguishable from my own isn't a copy of me, it's me.

The mathematical account of universes "peeling apart" has nothing to say about when the peeling process has progressed far enough to be considered a fully-fledged universe in its own right and so it has nothing to say about when I have "peeled apart" sufficiently to be considered a copy.  That is why branch count is not a coherent concept.

And yet, if I am going to apply the notion of branching to myself (which is to say, to the entity having the subjective experience of being a coherent and unified whole) then branch count must be a coherent concept.  It might not be possible to know the branch count, but at any point in time whatever underlying physical processes are really going on,  it has to either qualify as me branching or not.  There is no middle ground.

So we are faced with this stark choice: we can either believe the math, or we can believe our subjective experiences, but we can't do both, at least not at the same time.  We can take a "God's eye view" and look at the universal wave function, or we can take a "mortal's-eye view" and see our unified subjective experience as real.  But we can't do both simultaneously.  It's like a Necker cube.  You can see it one way or the other, but not both at the same time.

Interestingly, this is all predicted by the math!  In fact, the math tells us why there is this dichotomy.  Subjective experience is necessarily classical because it requires copying information.  In order to be conscious, you have to be conscious of something.  In order to make decisions, you have to obtain information about your environment and take actions that affect your environment.  All of these things require copying information into and out of your brain.  But quantum information cannot be copied.  Only classical information can be copied.  And the only way to create copyable classical information out of a quantum system is to ignore part of the quantum system.  Classical behavior emerges from quantum systems (mathematically) when you trace over parts of the system.  Specifically, it emerges when you consider a subset of an entangled system in isolation from the rest of the system.  When you do that, the mathematical description of the system switches from being a pure state to being a mixed state.  Nothing physical has changed.  It's purely a question of the point of view you choose to take.  You can either look at the whole system (in which case you see quantum behavior) or you can look at part of the system (in which case you see classical behavior) but you can't do both at the same time.

As a practical matter, in our day-to-day lives we have no choice but to "look" only at "part" of the system, because "the system" is the entire universe.  (In fact, it's an interesting puzzle how we can observe quantum behavior at all.  Every photon has to be emitted by, and hence be entangled with, something.  So why does the two-slit experiment work?)  We can take a "God's-eye view" only in the abstract.  We can never actually know the true state of the universe.  And, in fact, neither can God.

Classical reality is what you get when you slice-and-dice the wave function in a particular way.  It turns out that there is more than one way to do the slicing-and-dicing, and so if you take a God's-eye view you get more than one classical universe.  An arbitrary number, in fact, because the slicing-and-dicing is somewhat arbitrary.  (It is only "somewhat" arbitrary because there are only certain ways to do the slicing-and-dicing that yield coherent classical universes.  But even with that constraint there are an infinite number of possibilities, hence "no well-defined branch count".)  But the only way you can be you, the only way to become aware of your own existence, indeed the only way to become aware of anything, is to descend from Olympus, ignore parts of the wave function, and become classical.  That leaves open the question of which parts to ignore.  To me, the answer is obvious: I ignore all of it except the parts that measurably effect the "branch" that "I" am on.  To me, that is the only possible rational choice.

Saturday, June 08, 2019

How do we know that quantum randomness is really random?

Since the dawn of quantum physics, the Born rule has been the cause of much consternation and gnashing of dentition, with Einstein famously complaining that God doesn't play dice.    Was Einstein right?  Is the apparent randomness of quantum measurements an illusion?  Are the results of quantum measurements actually deterministic but dependent on some hidden state that we simply don't have access to?  In other words, is the apparent randomness a reflection of a fundamental truth about objective reality, or simply a reflection of our ignorance?  And how can we possibly know for sure?  After all, ignorance, by its very nature, does not yield readily to introspection.

For the purposes of this discussion let's consider an idealized quantum experiment that has only two outcomes.  You can think of this as measuring the spin of an electron or the polarization of a photon.  Again, the details don't matter.  All that matters is that there are two possible outcomes (let's call them A and B).  Let's further suppose just for the sake of simplicity that both outcomes are equally likely.

So we do a bunch of experiments and collect a bunch of data.  This data is in the form of a sequence of A's and B's, each corresponding to the outcome of one instance of the experiment.  We analyze this sequence and it looks random.  We apply a bunch of statistical tests and they call come back and say, yep, this is a random sequence.  We wrack our brains to try to come up with a way to predict the outcome of the next experiment with odds better than chance and we fail.  Does that prove that this sequence is in fact random?

No, of course not.  We can trivially reproduce the exact same sequence in a purely deterministic way simply by playing back the record of the previous outcomes!  So how can we know that the sequence wasn't generated this way the first time around?  How do we know that there isn't a deterministic process out there in the universe somewhere that has pre-ordained the outcome of every quantum measurement we ever make?

It would seem that the fact that any sequence of experimental outcomes could be generated by playing back a record of them shows that we can never be sure that it wasn't actually done that way.  But this is wrong, and in fact it is easy to see exactly how and why it is wrong.  You might want to stop here and see if you can figure it out on your own.

Here's a clue: if the sequence of experimental outcomes was the result of simply replaying a record, or indeed of any kind of deterministic computational process (of which replaying a record is just one trivial example), we should be able to find evidence of that somewhere.  In order to make a record we have to store information somewhere.  In order to make a computational process we have to make a computer.  If that information was stored in any kind of straightforward way, and in particular (no pun intended) if that information is stored in any kind of physical artifact made of atoms then we should be able to find it.  Or at least we should be able to find some evidence that it exists.

But we can't.  And if you think about it, it is absolutely impossible for such an artifact to exist.  Why? Because it would have to store the outcome not just for the experiments that we actually do, but for any experiment that we could possibly do, and it would have to store those outcomes for every particle in the universe on which we might choose to perform an experiment including the particles that make up the artifact that is supposedly storing all this information!

Now, this is not yet an ironclad proof because there is one remaining possibility.  We don't actually have to store a separate record of the results of our experiments in order to be able to reproduce the same sequence of results.  It is enough simply to hang on to the particles themselves.  Once we have made a measurement on a particle, if we make the same measurement again we will get the same result.  So it's possible that the information that determines the results of experiments performed on particles is stored in the particles themselves.

The usual way to dispense with this possibility is to invoke Bell's theorem and to point out that it rules out local hidden variables.  But there's a more elementary (and, I think, more compelling) argument.

It is true that if we do the same experiment on a single particle twice in a row we will get the same result.  But nothing constrains us from doing different experiments on a single particle.  We could, for example, measure the position of a particle, and then its momentum, and then its position again, and then its momentum again.  If we do this, every result will be (apparently) random, completely disconnected from anything that has gone before.  And (and this is key) we can do this forever.  We can perform an infinite (well, OK, unbounded) number of measurements on one particle.  For the results to be deterministic, the state of the particle would have to store an infinite (and this time I really do mean infinite) amount of information.

Well, how do we know that this is not in fact the case?  Bohmian mechanics, for example, is a theory of exactly this sort.  In Bohmian mechanics, particles have positions, and (it turns out) all of the potentially infinite information that can be read out (eventually) via quantum measurements is encoded in the initial position of the particle.  This is possible because the position of the particle is metaphysically exact, represented by an actual real number with an infinite number of digits in its expansion and hence can contain an infinite amount of information.

How do we know that this is not what is actually happening?

Well, we don't.  Bohmian mechanics reproduces the predictions of quantum mechanics exactly so there is no way to settle the question experimentally.  There are nonetheless three good reasons to reject Bohm as an adequate explanation of physical reality.

First, the way that Bohm handles spin is really weird, bordering on the perverse.  Again for those who don't know, spin is a property of certain particles (mainly electrons) that can be measured and always produces one of two results (usually called "up" and "down" even though these don't actually have any physical significance).  In Bohmian mechanics, the only metaphysically real property that a particle has is position (and hence also velocity, which is just the time derivative of the position as in classical mechanics).  Spin is not part of the metaphysically real state of a particle.  When you think you're measuring spin, you're actually measuring the particle's position (because that's all there is) but the wave function (the "pilot wave", the thing that's pushing the particle around) conspires to move the particle through spin-measurement apparatus in just such a way that it looks as if the particle has spin, even though it really doesn't.  Bohmian mechanics is quite literally a cosmic conspiracy theory.

Second, Bohmian mechanics is causally non-local.  When you do an EPR-type experiment Bohm says that the underlying metaphysical reality is different depending on the order in which you perform the two measurements.  But according to relativity, the order of space-like separated events is not well defined.  So in order to extract an unambiguous description of physical reality from Bohm you have to arbitrarily assign an order to space-like separated events (the technical term for this is choosing a foliation).  There is no way to tell which foliation is correct (if there were then you could experimentally falsify relativity) so the choice is arbitrary.  But (and this is the crucial point) the fact that it is arbitrary completely undermines the whole point of adopting Bohmian mechanics to begin with, which was to provide a complete description of physical reality that was compatible with classical intuition.  Instead of one description of reality you have an arbitrary number of them, one for each possible foliation, and there's no way to tell which one is actually correct.

Third, although Bohm hangs his hat entirely on the physical reality of particle positions, it is fundamentally impossible to know what the position of a particle actually is.  Remember, when you measure the spin of a particle, on Bohmian mechanics you are not really measuring spin, you are really measuring position (because that's all there is).  Well, it turns out that when you measure position you aren't really measuring position either.  The only kind of measurement you can make is one that tells you whether or not the particle was inside or outside a particular (no pun intended) finite region of space.  The actual position of a particle cannot be measured.  So the one thing that Bohm advances as a description of physical reality turns out to be the operational equivalent of an invisible pink unicorn (IPU) — a thing that is posited to exist but which, by its very nature, can never be measured.

There is an even simpler argument to demonstrate the non-measurability of Bohmian positions: a measurement can only ever produce a finite amount of information, but the information encoded in the particle's actual metaphysical position is necessarily infinite (because it has to encode the results of all possible future measurements).  So the results of position measurements must contain errors.

And this is the crux of the matter: it just turns out as a matter of physical fact that a single particle can produce what appears to be an unbounded amount of information.  There are only two possibilities: either that information is generated on the fly ex nihilo, (that is, it's "really random") or it is stored somewhere.  But no one has been able to identify any possible repository in the physical world where that information could be stored.  In fact, QM fundamentally depends on this not being possible!  Interference effects only manifest themselves if there is no possible way to distinguish two different states of a system.  But to contain information, a system must have distinguishable states -- that's what information means!  To be compatible with the data, a hypothetical repository of that information must necessarily be an IPU.  Any theory where the existence of such a repository was experimentally demonstrable would not be compatible with QM.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Quantum transitions take time. This is not news.

A number of people have asked me to weigh in on this story in Quanta Magazine (based on this paper [PDF version] and also reported in this press release from Yale, and several other popular outlets.)

Here's how Quanta breathlessly reported the result:
When quantum mechanics was first developed a century ago as a theory for understanding the atomic-scale world, one of its key concepts was so radical, bold and counter-intuitive that it passed into popular language: the “quantum leap.” Purists might object that the common habit of applying this term to a big change misses the point that jumps between two quantum states are typically tiny, which is precisely why they weren’t noticed sooner. But the real point is that they’re sudden. So sudden, in fact, that many of the pioneers of quantum mechanics assumed they were instantaneous. 
A new experiment shows that they aren’t.
This is mostly hype.  While it is true that in the very early days of quantum mechanics some researchers (notably Niels Bohr) thought that quantum transitions were instantaneous, the fact that they aren't has been known for decades.  What is new here is that this is the first time that this fact has been demonstrated experimentally.  I don't want to detract from the technical accomplishment here in any way, it's a truly impressive experiment.  But it's not the kind of conceptual breakthrough that the Quanta story implies.  It's a totally expected result.

It is natural to conclude from the fact that energy states are quantized that the transition between them must happen instantaneously.  Consider a system that transitions from energy state 0 to an adjacent energy state 1 (in some suitable units). It can't do it via a smooth transition between intermediate energy levels because these are physically impossible (that the whole point of quantum mechanics).  So if a system is going to transition from 0 to 1 without occupying any energy state in between, the transition must be instantaneous, right?

Wrong.  There is a different kind of "smooth" transition that a system can make between the 0 and 1 states, and that is via a superposition of the two states.  Just as a particle can be in two different locations at the same time, it can be in two different energy states at the same time.  To go smoothly from 0 to 1, the system transitions through a series of superpositions of both states, i.e. it starts out entirely in state 0, and then transitions smoothly to being mostly in state 0 and a little bit in state 1, to being half in each state, to being mostly in 1 and a little bit in 0, to being entirely in 1.  This has been known for decades, and is predicted by the math.  You can even predict how fast the transition happens.  For most common physical processes, like an atom absorbing or emitting a photon, the transition is really fast.  But it's not instantaneous.

The tricky part is not figuring out that quantum transitions take time (well, OK, figuring it out is tricky too, but it's easy once you know how) but designing an experiment that demonstrates that the theory is correct.  This is because any straightforward measurement of the energy of the system will always produce a result that shows the system is in one state or the other.  The existence of superpositions can only be demonstrated indirectly, usually through interference effects.  So to demonstrate the non-instantaneous nature of a quantum transition you have to do two things: first, you need to actually catch a system during a (typically very fast) transition and second, you need to come up with a way of getting the system to interfere with itself (or producing some other indirect effect that would not occur but for the existence of a superposition).  That's what Minev et al. did.

The way they did it is really cool, but the advance here is an experimental one, not a theoretical one.  They used a superconductor to produce a macroscopic quantum system that behaved like an atom in that it had a small number of discrete energy levels that it could transition between.  Then they "tickled" this "atom" with microwaves and observed that the resulting response exhibited the kind of interference effects that would be expected if if were transitioning through superposition states.  It's very cool, and a very impressive technical achievement, but it is in no way unexpected or surprising.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

An open letter to Christian supporters of Donald Trump

Dear Christian supporters of Donald Trump:

I occasionally hear some of you complain that we west-coast liberals don't take you seriously.  Well, if you want me to take you seriously, then one of you is going to have to explain to me how this is not bearing false witness against your neighbor:
U.S. President Donald Trump, engaged in personal attacks on House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, retweeted a heavily edited video that falsely claimed the Democratic leader had difficulty speaking to reporters.
And, while I'm at it, maybe one of you would be good enough to explain to me how you square your support for Trump with Matthew 19:24?  Are there some really tiny camels out there (or some really big needles) that I don't know about?

Seriously, I want to understand you and reach a place of mutual respect.  But you sure aren't making it easy for me.


Saturday, May 18, 2019

If a fetus is a person...

Carliss Chatman raises some very interesting questions about the logical consequences of fetal personhood. To which I would like to add: if life begins at conception, and hence an embryo is a person, can I adopt a frozen embryo and write them off as a dependent on my taxes?  No, seriously, I want to know.  This could be very lucrative.

The mother of all buyer's remorse

[Part of an ongoing series of exchanges with Jimmy Weiss.]

Jimmy Weiss responded to my post on teleology and why I reject Jimmy's wager (not to be confused with Pascal's wager) nearly a month ago.  I apologize to Jimmy and anyone who has been waiting with bated breath for my response (yeah, right) for the long delay.  Somehow, life keeps happening while I'm not paying attention.

So, finally, to the task at hand.  Jimmy writes:
Ron presents the right kind of argument here.  He argues that an infinite reward is impossible, because, in his words, “an infinite reward is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.”  Ron “can hardly imagine a worse fate than to be immortal.” 
There is an important sense in which I quite agree with Ron’s statement here.  I absolutely agree that “an infinite reward is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.”  Human beings are, in the core of our nature: ignorant, proud, lazy, fearful, and restless.
I'm happy to hear that I'm presenting "the right kind of argument" and that we've found a bit of common ground.  That is my overarching goal in this effort, and for an atheist to find any common ground with a YEC is something I would have given you long odds against not so long ago.  (For those of you following this exchange, I think it's worth noting the fact that the age of the earth has not entered into the discussion at all.  I think that's salient.)

I have only a minor quibble with Jimmy's characterization of the situation: yes, humans are ignorant, proud, lazy (at least I am) fearful, and restless.  But I would not say that these things are in the core of our nature.  What is at the core of our nature is that we are living things.  Like all living things, we were born, and we will die, and yes that kind of sucks, but that's the way it is.  Would I like to live longer that I likely will?  Yeah, probably.  Would I like to live forever?  No.  Absolutely not.
Ron’s argument for the impossibility of the infinitude of God’s reward depends on the fixity of our nature.  But as far as I can see, there is no reason to assume fixity concerning those aspects of our nature that impede our ability to perceive, pursue, and enjoy goodness.
My argument against the desirability of immortality doesn't demand that our nature remain fixed.  I'm a very different person today than I was 10, 20, 30... years ago.  But I do think it's important that heaven not require us to change so much that we cease to be human, and the more I think about it, the more I come to believe that that is exactly what it does require.  I don't see any way that we could be immortal and still be human.  Mortality is an essential part of being human, indeed an essential part of being alive at all.

More than that, I want to argue here that being imperfect is an essential part of being human.  Consider the first adjective that Jimmy chose to characterize us: ignorant.  I imagine he intended it to be pejorative, and of course he's right.  Ignorance is not generally a good thing.  We should not seek to be ignorant, nor should we seek to remain ignorant.  The quest for knowledge is a noble one, one might even say that this quest is a core aspect of our nature.

But imagine what it would be like if we were to actually succeed in our quest not to be ignorant.  Ignorance means to lack knowledge, so by definition, to be not ignorant is to not lack any knowledge.  It is to be omniscient, to know everything.  In that respect we would become like God.

Would that be a good thing?  I don't know, but I do know this: if it were to happen, we would lose an essential aspect of our humanity because there would no longer be any point in engaging in our quest for knowledge.  If we succeed in totally eradicating ignorance, there would no longer be any point in reading a book; everyone would already know the contents of all possible books.  The value of reading a book is entirely dependent on ignorance of its contents.  If you are not ignorant of the contents of a book that means that you already know its contents.  You have memorized it word-for-word.  If you haven't, if there is any lack of knowledge about the contents of the book for which you have to actually go back and refer to the book itself, then you are still ignorant, at least of that aspect of the book's contents.

So a non-ignorant being cannot read a book.  A non-ignorant being cannot engage in a conversation with another non-ignorant being because both of them would already know what the other was going to say.  The whole point of reading books and engaging in conversations is to communicate information and that presupposes that the information is lacking somewhere.  Ignorance is necessary if communication is to have any point at all.

Let's consider Jimmy's next two adjective: "proud" and "lazy".  Again, I'm pretty sure he intended these to be pejorative.  But I am lazy, and I am proud of being lazy.  My laziness has been a powerful motivator for me to find more effective ways of accomplishing goals so that I don't have to work so hard to accomplish them.  I've built a highly successful career on that laziness, and I'm proud of that.  Is that bad?  I don't know.  What I do know is that both my laziness and my pride are essential components of who I am.  If you took those away, I wouldn't be me any more.

What about "fearful" and "restless"?  Well, I'm fearful on occasion.  For example, I'm fearful that climate change will destroy civilization.  This fear motivates me to overcome my laziness and moves me to act.  Restless?  That also motivates me.  If I give in to my laziness and sit on my duff for too long then I become restless and feel the need to do something like write blog posts.

All of these things are essential parts of me.  If you took them away, I wouldn't be me any more.

But I like being me.  Becoming the person I am has taken 54 years of work, sometimes very hard and painful work, and I'm generally pretty happy with the result so far.  This is not to say that there isn't room for improvement.  I'm still a work-in-progress, but even that on-going project is an essential part of being the person I have become.  I would be very reluctant to give that up.

Even my mortality is an essential part of who I am.  Railing against death like Lear against the storm is part of being human.  If you think about it, taking the prospect of heaven seriously means that saving someone's life is not a noble act.  You aren't saving their life, you are delaying their entry into heaven!  (Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists actually take this seriously!)

Accepting that death is the end removes the moral ambiguity from saving someone's life (which, if you think about it, is actually an oxymoron.  You can't save someone's life, you can only extend it.)  And this, too, is an essential part of being human.

Being human is fundamentally about struggling because being alive is fundamentally about struggling.  The key to living a good life is not to seek and end the struggle, but to find the right balance so that the struggle doesn't break you but sustains you instead.

So... maybe heaven is an eternity of having just the right amount of struggling, just the right amount of ignorance, just the right amount of laziness and pride and restlessness?  Well, yeah, maybe.  But this doesn't sound to me like what's on offer in Christian heaven.  In Christian heaven, ignorance and pride and laziness and fear and restlessness are unalloyed evils and so are banished forever.  So it's not just that I would get bored after a few trillion years of bliss and then be screwed for all eternity.  I would have to give up some essential parts of my identity on day one.

I suppose a Christian would say: yes, you're exactly right, in order to enter heaven you do have to give up some parts of your identity, specifically, you have to let go of sin.  But to me, the things that I would have to let go of don't feel like sins, they just feel like imperfections.  I don't want to let those go because my ongoing struggle against my imperfections and those of my fellow man is what gets me up in the morning.  If those went away, I honestly don't know what I would do with myself.

So while I can understand the appeal of a promise of eternal bliss, especially for someone who has not been as incredibly fortunate as I have to find the right balance of struggle in their lives, it still feels to me like a bad deal even on its own terms.  And if I'm right and it is a bad deal, then it's worth figuring this out before you get to heaven because once you get there it's too late.  You're screwed.  There is no way out.  It's not like buying into a time-share where you can just write off the loss, learn the lesson, and get on with your life.  Once you get to heaven, that is your life.  Forever.

Be very careful what you wish for.  Especially if the offer is non-refundable.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Impossible Burger is going to change the world

I had heard about the soy-based Impossible Burger a long time ago but they are not yet widely available.  Burger King is launching a pilot program offering Impossible Whoppers (the original of which just happens to be my favorite fast-food burger) but they are only available in the midwest at the moment.  Happily, it turns out that a number of smaller restaurants are offering them where I live, and today I got to try one.

It's not as good as a regular burger.  It's better.  It really does taste like beef, but that description doesn't really do it justice.  Because it's made of soy, which is bland, they have to spice it up (literally) to make it have any flavor at all, and their secret recipe of eleventy-two herbs and spices (I'm guessing) is just incredibly tasty.  It's subtle.  The beefy flavor is the definitely center stage (courtesy of added heme), but it doesn't taste like beef that is straight out of the package.  It tastes like beef that has been lovingly seasoned by Thomas Keller to just the point where none of the additions stands out, but the whole is much, much greater than the sum of its parts.  A bit of thyme, a touch of sage, a hint of smokiness.

But the flavor is not the best part, it's the texture.  It not only tastes like beef, it looks and feels like beef, but without any gristle or stray bits of bone and tendon that you sometimes find in some less-than-highest-quality cuts.  Every bite is uniformly perfect, what you'd get if you hand trimmed the absolute finest prime sirloin you could find.

I think this product is going to change the world, not necessarily because it's healthier than beef (the jury is still out on that) but because it's so much more environmentally friendly to produce.  Beef production wreaks holy hell on the environment.  Offering people a greener alternative that doesn't require any compromise in flavor or texture, indeed improves on the original, is going to be huge.  The Impossible Burger is the Tesla Model S of meat.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

We interrupt this blog to bring you a little eureka moment

One of the reasons that my posting has been more sporadic that usual is that I have a few other balls in air at the moment.  One of these is an on-going lecture series about the history of science.  The next installment is on relativity, and in preparation for that I am reading a book called "Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time" by Tim Maudlin.  It has the single most lucid explanation of relativity that I have ever encountered, which can be boiled down to a pithy slogan:
Clocks don't measure time!
What clocks actually measure is the space-time interval between events on the clock's world-line.  That turns out to reduce to what we call "time" if you and the clock are not moving relative to each other.  But if you and the clock are moving relative to each other, then things get weird because, well, clocks don't measure time.  In fact, time is not even a well-defined concept when things are moving relative to each other!

Two surprising consequences of this: first, the speed of light is not constant.  In fact, "the speed of light" is not even a well-defined concept because time is not a well-defined concept, and speed is defined in terms of time.  (In fact, "the speed of X" is not a well-defined concept for any X, because, well, you know.)

(What is true is that the measuring the "speed" of light will give you the same result no matter what reference frame you're in.  But that turns out to be a consequence of the fact that clocks measure space-time intervals rather than time.  It is not, as is often taught, the foundational principle of relativity.  Einstein himself got this wrong.)

The second surprising consequence is that the most common resolution of the "twin paradox" is mistaken.  Maudlin quotes Feynman as the prototypical example:
This is called a “paradox” only by people who believe that the principle of relativity means that that all motion is relative; they say “Heh, heh, heh, from the point of view of Paul can’t we say that Peter was moving and should therefore appear to age more slowly? By symmetry, the only possible result is that both should be the same age when they meet.” But in order for them to come back together and make the comparison Paul must either stop at the end of the trip and make a comparison of clocks, or, more simply, he has to come back, and the one who comes back must be the man who was moving, and he knows this, because he had to turn around. When he turned around, all kinds of things happened in his space-ship—the rockets went off, things jammed up against one wall, and so on—while Peter felt nothing. 
So the way to state the rule is that the man who has felt the accelerations, who has seen things fall against the walls. and so on, is the one who would be the younger; that is the difference between them in an absolute sense, and it is certainly correct.
Maudlin then minces no words:
Everything in this "explanation" is wrong.
That sort of clarity is rare.

(It's actually easy to see that any explanation in terms of acceleration must be wrong because it is easy to set up a "twin paradox" that involves no accelerations: use three clocks all moving in inertial trajectories along the same line.  Clock A starts to the left of clock B and is moving to the right (relative to B).  Clock C starts to the right of clock B and is moving to the left (relative to B).  The initial positions are such that A will be co-located with B before it is co-located with C.  When A meets B, A is set to the time shown on B.  Then, when A meets C, C is set to the time shown on A.  When C meets B, the reading on C will be less than the reading on B despite the fact that none of the clocks have undergone any acceleration.)

Anyway, I thought this was cool and so I thought I'd take a moment to share it.