Monday, April 20, 2009

It's the helium, stupid

Cold fusion is suddenly in the news again because of a recent 60 minutes story. For anyone who thinks that there is anything to this, I have only one word:


Excess energy is a red herring. There might be excess energy coming from somewhere, but if you're fusing hydrogen, then you produce helium. No helium, no fusion. It's as simple as that. And I'm not talking about the trace amounts that have been reported, there should be gobs and gobs of it, certainly enough to float a toy balloon and remove all doubt. There's also the problem that all known hydrogen-based fusion reactions produce energetic neutrons. Really, cold fusion researchers should be dropping dead left and right from radiation poisoning, but failing that the radiation should at least be detectable on a geiger counter. So where are the videos of the cold fusion apparatus with a geiger counter buzzing away next to it?

If there's no fusion, there could still be excess energy, but it's almost certainly coming from some prosaic source, and it's almost certainly consuming palladium somehow. Palladium might be an economically viable catalyst, but it makes a mighty expensive fuel.

UPDATE: Here's the math.

The specific heat of deuterium fusion is about 1 MeV, which is about 10^-13 joules. To produce enough helium to fill a balloon (let's say a liter at standard temperature and pressure, or about 0.05 mole) we'd need to produce ~5x10^7 joules of excess heat. That's actually quite a lot, enough to raise the temperature of a cubic meter of water by 50 degrees C. Not enough to vaporize the lab, but definitely enough to get someone's attention.

But here's the thing: some of these experiments run for months at a time. Measuring small amounts of excess heat over long periods of time is very hard. But collecting and storing even small amounts of putative excess helium is very easy. Let's say that the excess heat is only one watt, it would only take a year to accumulate a liter of helium, and the fact helium was being produced would be inarguable after only a few days. So I still say if it were there someone would have exhibited it by now.


I made a mistake in my calculations. There are actually two different deuterium fusion reactions. One produces 3He (helium 3, with two protons and one neutron) and an extra neutron, i.e. radiation. The other produces 4He, with two protons and two neutrons, and no extra neutrons. The second "clean" reaction also produces 23 times as much energy as the first one (or, equivalently, only about 4% as much helium per unit energy produced). It is also very rare. As far as I have been able to determine (which at this point means looking at a few Wikipedia articles) it does not occur in nature, and has not been achieved in more traditional "hot fusion" experiments. So I wrote off the possibility of achieving this reaction at room temperature as too good to be true. However, there are some plausible-looking reports of 4He production correlated with excess heat production in about the right amounts. So at this point I have to say that the possibility cannot be definitively ruled out. I still wouldn't bet my life savings on it, but if a policy maker were to ask me at this point I think I would recommend funding some of this research. These experiments are dirt-cheap by contemporary standards, and if it can be made to work it would be the single greatest technological breakthrough in the history of mankind. So it's worth putting some resources into it to determine definitively what, if anything, is going on.

The trouble with shadow photons

Chapter 7 of David Deutsch's "The Fabric of Reality" should be considered required reading for anyone who wants to understand the scientific process. Unfortunately, it is embedded in a book that is full of some crazy ideas, at least one of which is wrong even by Deutsch's own standards. This one mistake, which Deutsch makes very early on, infects the rest of his reasoning like a virus. This is very unfortunate because I think this is at least in part to blame for the fact that the book as a whole has not gotten the attention it deserves.

It makes a very interesting intellectual exercise to try to uncover Deutsch's mistake on your own. You don't need to be a physicist to find it. Here are two hints to get you started: the mistake is in chapter 2, and everything you need to know in order to figure it out is in this paper, which is written to be accessibly to a lay audience.

So at the risk of sounding like a broken record, get ye over to Amazon and buy a copy of Deutsch's book. Read chapter 7. Then read chapter 2 and try to solve this puzzle for yourself before you read any further. I promise you it will be time well spent. This post is not just about pointing a finger at David Deutsch and saying "ha! ha!" I want to make a much deeper point about how challenging it can be to figure out what is "true". It will help if you have the visceral experience of reading Deutsch's argument and trying to figure out for yourself what is wrong with it even if (perhaps especially if) you don't succeed.

Last warning. Spoiler alert.

Deutsch's mistake is in this paragraph, which in my copy is on page 43:

"Could it be that the photon splits into fragments which, after passing through the slits, change course and recombine? We can rule out that possibility too. If, again, we fire one photon through the apparatus, but use four detectors, one at each slit, then at most one of them ever registers anything. Since in such an experiment we never observe two of the detectors going off at once, we can tell that the entities that they detect are not splitting up."

In my "Quantum Mysteries Disentangled" paper I use the metaphor of a magic trick to describe how popular accounts of QM spread confusion. Most people think that magic is all about gimmicks and skillful sleight-of-hand, but the heart of a good magic trick is a narrative that seems plausible but in fact does not reflect the underlying reality. The elements of this narrative can be quite subtle. I take the Queen of Spades and I turn it face down and I put it, uh, over here. But in fact the card that I'm putting over here is not the queen of spades at all; I've already switched it out for a different card. Much later when the true identity of the card is revealed, you will swear on a stack of Bibles that that card was the queen of spades. You saw it with your own eyes. And you were watching it like a hawk the whole time. Except that by the time you started watching like a hawk the trick was already done. It happened during that little moment of confusion, when I lost my focus and couldn't quite remember what I was supposed to do next. In fact, I didn't lose my focus. Every move was scripted in minute detail. I say "uh" to make it look like I've lost my train of thought. That makes you take your guard down because if I've lost my train of thought then I'm not doing the trick. I look around trying to decide what I'm supposed to do with the card, and your gaze follows mine because deep down in your brain there are instincts that say when a member of your tribe is focusing their attention somewhere you should check it out too because they might be looking at a saber-tooth tiger. In that instant, I absent-mindedly put the card briefly back on the top of the deck before I put it over here. And in that instant I make the switch. Except that I don't even have to make a switch because in fact that card that I put on top of the deck was not the queen of spades either, it was two cards, with the queen of spades on the bottom.

Deutsch's mistake is a sin of omission: he fails to mention the crucial fact that when you do this experiment with the four detectors the interference goes away. This is a devastating fact for Deutsch's theory of shadow photons, but before I explain why there is another important thing to take note of, namely, that at this point in the argument Deutsch has not yet introduced the theory of shadow photons. This is what makes it so easy to miss that Deutsch has omitted an important fact.

The fact that adding detectors destroys interference is fatal for the theory of shadow photons. To understand why, we need to recap exactly what it is that the theory of shadow photons says: something influences the behavior of "real" (what Deutsch calls "tangible") photons to produce interference. Whatever that "something" is behaves just like "real" photons, except that it is "detectable only indirectly through ... interference effects ...". So we might as well call them (shadow) photons. Since shadow photons exist (because they have observable effects), it must be the case that entire shadow universes exist spanning an incomprehensible gamut of possible configurations, including some (actually incomprehensibly many) where David Deutsch does not exist, and therefore -- and this is crucial -- some in which the detectors on the slits do not exist.

This is the odd thing about shadow photons: they behave just like photons that exist in parallel universes except that their movements correspond exactly to the movements of photons in this universe. There are only two possibilities. One is that our universe is somehow privileged, and what we do here produces miraculous effects in the myriad shadow universes. If we decide to cover our slits then the photons in all the shadow universes are blocked, even those in shadow universes where the slits are still open. Imagine how puzzled those poor scientists must be trying to figure out why light behaves as it does. There is no correspondence between how light behaves in their universe and the physical configuration of their universe. Sometimes light passes through blocked slits, and sometimes it fails to pass through open slits. From this behavior they could likewise infer the presence of what is to them a shadow universe (which to us is the real universe) that governs the behavior of photons in their universe, but that just begs the question of why we happen to inhabit the one privileged universe whose macroscopic configuration governs the behavior of light in all of the shadow universes.

The other possibility is to postulate a new rule for shadow photons: only those shadow photons that come from shadow universes whose macroscopic configuration is the same as the "real" universe are allowed to influence "real" photons. But if we postulate that then it immediately follows that shadow universes with different macroscopic configurations have no influence on our universe whatsoever and therefore, by Deutsch's own criteria, do not exist.

One way or another, there is no escaping the fact that our universe is somehow special.

Now, the interesting this about this to me is not so much that Deutsch was wrong per se, but the process by which he came to be wrong. Unlike a magician, I'm pretty sure Deutsch did not set out intentionally to deceive. I'm also pretty sure that Deutsch didn't get it wrong because he was simply being stupid. To the contrary, I think Deutsch is probably brilliant, a lot smarter than me. For one thing, he's actually a physicist, which I'm pretty sure even now still makes an effective filter for idiocy. So what went wrong?

I have no way of knowing for sure, of course, but here's my best guess: I think Deutsch actually managed to fool himself. Deutch's book is, notwithstanding that much of it is actually wrong, a model of clear thinking. To find the flaw in his reasoning is not easy, in no small measure because of subtle details of how he presents his argument. This is why I urged you to actually do the exercise yourself.

The real point of this essay is not to harsh on David Deutsch, but to show that even very smart people, even scientists (sometimes especially scientists) can and do get things wrong, and sorting out the resulting mess is not always easy. This is one of many reasons why both scientists and Scientists ought always to maintain a healthy measure of humility.


Here's what David Deutsch had to say about this (via email -- I'm pretty sure he hasn't actually read this post):

RG: I know you probably hear this a lot, but I believe I have found a serious flaw in the theory of shadow photons. In a nutshell, the rules of motion for shadow photons are governed by the macroscopic configuration of *our* universe. If a slit is open in *our* universe, both tangible and shadow photons pass through. If a slit is blocked in *our* universe, both tangible and shadow photons are blocked. It seems to me there are only two possibilities: either the macroscopic configuration of *our* universe governs the movement of shadow photons (in which case shadow-scientists must be mightily puzzled why their tangible photons sometimes pass through solid objects, and sometimes fail to pass through open slits), or we have to postulate that only shadow photons from universes whose macroscopic configuration matches our own can interact with our tangible photons.

DD: The latter is, to a good approximation, the case.

RG: But if we postulate this, then shadow photons from universes whose macroscopic configurations do not match ours cannot interact with our universe in any way, and therefore by your own criteria do not exist. Or have I missed something?

DD: You're claiming there's an inadequacy in the criterion for existing that I presented, not a flaw in the 'theory of shadow photons' (which is aka quantum theory). However, that criterion was not intended as a criterion of what *doesn't* exist. If it were used in that way, then we would have to classify all the photons that have left the sun, and passed the Earth, and are never going to strike anything in the future, as being nonexistent.

My response:

1. I find it disingenuous to claim that the theory of shadow photons is "a.k.a. quantum theory." The theory of shadow photons is in fact a.k.a. Hugh Everett's relative state formulation of quantum mechanics, which was later renamed the many-worlds interpretation by Bryce DeWitt. To be sure it is taken seriously by a great many people, but to say without qualification that it is quantum theory is just flat-out wrong. I appreciate Deutsch's intellectual honesty in essentially admitting that my criticism is valid, but I'm puzzled by how he can rail against arbitrary complexity in scientific explanations on the one hand, and then accept as essentially inarguable the proposition that parallel universes are causally connected on a microscopic level by virtue of their macroscopic configurations. It seems plain to me that such an "explanation" of QM gets you exactly nowhere. But I suppose we'll just have to agree to disagree about that.

2. John Cramer's transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics actually does consider photons that never interact with anything to be non-existent, so this is not as outlandish a notion as Deutsch implies.


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.

Just for the record, my (current) disagreement with Deutsch is not huge. It's clear from the structure of QM that the proposition that there is only one (classical) universe is untenable. But that still leaves you with the choice of an infinite number of universes (Deutsch's position) or zero (mine). It has always seemed to me that zero was the more parsimonious choice, but I'm now beginning to have some doubts.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Why I am not a Unicornian

The title of this post is a play on Bertrand Russel's classic essay, "Why I am not a Christian." But the content is modeled after Chapter 7 of David Deutsch's highly under-appreciated book, "The Fabric of Reality". Following Deutsch (who himself followed John Worrall) the essay takes the form of a dialog between me (Ron) and a Unicornian, one who believes in Unicorns.

A disclaimer: this piece is a poor paraphrase of Deutsch's argument. If it weren't protected by copyright, I would just cut-and-paste the entirety of chapter 7 of TFOR here and leave it at that. I asked Deutsch once to put Chapter 7 on the web as a service to humanity but he declined. I cannot hope to reproduce the clarity and completeness of Deutch's argument (which is really Popper's argument), though I'll certainly give it my best shot.

I will lift one passage verbatim from Deutsch as fair-use, which is his statement of the thesis, so at least I won't be able to screw that up:

Science seeks better explanations. A scientific explanation accounts for our observations by postulating something about what reality is like and how it works. We deem an explanation to be better if it leaves fewer loose ends (such as entities whose properties are themselves unexplained), requires fewer and simpler postulates, is more general, meshes more easily with good explanations in other fields and so on. But why should a better explanation be what we always assume it to be in practice, namely the token of a truer theory? Why, for that matter, should a downright bad explanation (one that has none of the above attributes, say) necessarily be false? There is indeed no logically necessary connection between truth and explanatory power. A bad explanation ... may be true. Even the best and truest available theory may make a false prediction in particular cases, and those might be the very cases in which we rely on the theory. No valid form of reasoning can logically rule out such possibilities, or even prove them unlikely [emphasis added]. ... [Nonetheless] I believe that we can justify our expectation that [good scientific theories make accurate predictions].

So here's my humble attempt at channeling Deutsch. But seriously, get a copy of the book and read the original. It's available in paperback.

The setting is, as with Deutsch and Worrall, the top of the Eiffel tower. The characters are Ron and a Unicornian. Ron has just eaten some bad mussels and come down with a very serious case of food poisoning.


Ron: I'm not feeling so good. I think I'd better go to the hospital to be checked out.

Unicornian: You know, the line at the elevator is awfully long. Why don't we see if we can find a unicorn instead? Their horns have curative powers you know.

R: If it's all the same to you, I think I'll take my chances with the elevator line.

U: You don't believe in unicorns, do you.

R: That's right, I am an a-unicornist.

U: I feel sorry for you. You are going to risk dying from salmonella just because you stubbornly cling to your faith.

R: I don't really think of a-unicornism as faith. My non-belief in unicorns follows from my belief in science, which is to say, in my belief that experiment and rational argument are the best paths to Truth.

U: But science can't disprove he existence of unicorns.

R: That's right, it can't. Science can't disprove the existence of anything. What science can do is to show, in a philosophically justifiable way, that certain things are extremely unlikely.

U: I don't see how that's possible. After all, any argument you could possibly make has to start with some unprovable and untestable assumptions. Even the belief that experiment is a reliable guide to Truth (with a capital T) is unprovable and untestable. So I don't see how one argument that rests on unprovable and untestable assumptions can be any more philosophically justifiable than any other argument that rests on unprovable and untestable assumptions. You have your faith, I have mine, and there's no way to determine who is right and who is wrong (except that I know that you are wrong).

R: No, that's not true. But explaining why is rather subtle and complicated.

U: The elevator line has hardly moved at all since we started this little chat, so it would seem that as long as you cling to your misguided beliefs about hospitals and modern medicine we have time.

R: OK, let's see how far we get. Have you read David Deutsch's book, "The Fabric of Reality"?

U: Nope, never even heard of it.

R: If you really want to understand this stuff you really ought to read it, especially chapter 7. But I'll do my best to explain it. I'm in a fairly dire situation here. Let us assume for the sake of argument that whatever it is that can save my life, be it unicorns or antibiotics, is only available down there at ground level. After all, if I'm not mistaken, unicorns have many magical properties, but they can't fly.

U: No, they can't fly, but they can ride elevators. There might be one up here. We really ought to look.

R: But then we'd risk losing our place in line.

U: Hm, good point. Maybe I should go looking and you could stay here?

R: If you don't mind I'd rather you stay. If I suddenly collapse I'd just as soon have the company.

U: It's your funeral.

R: Not yet, I hope. But there is another possible way of getting to the ground. We could jump over the side.

U: That seems like a bad plan.

R: Indeed it does. But *why* does it seem like a bad plan?

U: Duh, because you'd fall to your death.

R: And how do you know that? Maybe a unicorn would save me.

U: Dude, unicorns don't work that way.

R: I thought unicorns were magic.

U: They are, but their magic is limited. Their horns have curative powers (which is the reason I think you should seek one out) and they can, of course, become invisible (which is what makes them challenging to locate). But they can't fly, and they don't make particularly good backstops for a hard fall because of their horn and all.

R: And how do you know all that?

U: Because the Unicorn Bible says so.

R: And how do you know that what the Unicorn Bible says is true?

U: Because the Unicorn Bible is the Revealed Word of Uni, the omniscient and infallible unicorn who created the universe.

R: I see. Maybe if I jump over the side he'll break my fall?

U: Alas, no, that is not possible. Because while Uni is omniscient and infallible, he is alas not omnipotent.

R: How inconvenient. Though that does have the beneficial side-effect that you don't have to worry about the problem of theodicy.

U: Indeed not. All evil is the work of men, not unicorns.

R: OK, but even if Uni won't save me, something might. You can't prove that if I jumped over the side that I would fall to my death.

U: Sure I can. There are no exceptions to the law of gravity.

R: How do you know?

U: Because none has ever been observed.

R: But I've never seen a unicorn. You've never seen a unicorn. No one alive has ever seen a unicorn...

U: Duh, because they're invisible. I explained that already.

R: ...and yet you believe in unicorns. So just because something hasn't been observed doesn't prove it doesn't exist. How can we be sure that there isn't an invisible construction elevator just over there that would lower me gently to the ground?

U: Because that's ridiculous.

R: Is it? It seems no more ridiculous to me than the idea of invisible one-horned horses roaming the earth. Why should your intuitions about what is and is not ridiculous be so much more reliable than mine?

U: Because my intuitions are informed by the Revealed Word of Uni and yours are not.

R: That's not true. I've read the Unicorn Bible. I just happen not to believe that it is the Revealed Word of Uni.

U: "The fool sayeth in his heart: there are no unicorns."

R: Are you familiar with the concept of a circular argument?

U: Fair enough. But it seems to me that we have gotten exactly nowhere. It still seems to me that you base your beliefs on a set of unprovable untestable assumptions.

R: No. I base my beliefs on experimental evidence and rational argument.

U: Not so. No one has (as far as I know) ever conducted the experiment of jumping off the Eiffel tower, so you have no basis for believing that you would fall to your death. Sure, you may have seen lots of other things fall under the force of gravity, but to extrapolate from those experiments to this situation requires a leap of faith.

R: No, it doesn't.

U: Why not?

R: Because of the explanatory power of scientific theories.

U: What does that have to do with anything?

R: Scientific theories have value for two reasons. First, they allow you to make predictions about the world which can serve as useful guides for action. (For example, a fairly complex array of scientific theories, ranging from gravity to the biology, is currently guiding me to wait for the elevator so I can go to the hospital rather than leaping over the side.) Second, and more important, they provide explanations of how the universe *really* works (for some value of "really"). The quality of a scientific theory is judged not merely by how well its predictions match experimental observation, but also by the quality of the explanatory mechanism that it provides. For example, the problem with your theory of using unicorn horn to treat food poisoning is not that it is wrong, it is that it provides no explanatory power. It merely stipulates that unicorn horns are an antidote against poison, it doesn't say anything about the mechanism by which these curative powers arise.

U: Sure it does. Unicorns are magic.

R: But magic is not an explanation. Magic -- real magic, not the "fake" magic practiced by professional magicians -- by definition cannot be explained. That's what makes it magic. As soon as you explain it, it ceases to be magic and becomes science. Calling something "magic" offers no more of an explanation than saying that you simply don't know.

U: OK, but you still have to assume with no proof that "explanatory power" is a reliable guide to Truth. So your beliefs are still, at root, based on faith.

R: No, I don't. This is the really cool thing about science. It just turns out that theories with better explanatory power invariably make better, more reliable, more accurate, more precise predictions about the world than theories with poorer explanatory power. Why this should be is indeed a great mystery, but it is an incontrovertible fact.

U: Nothing is incontrovertible.

R: To controvert this you would have to resort to quite the extremes of intellectual dishonesty (some would say you'd have to be delusional or even clinically insane, though I'm not sure I'd go quite that far). The evidence that theories with better explanatory power make better predictions (mind you this is a very different thing from saying that these theories are actually true) pervades every aspect of modern life. Our modern technological society is utterly dependent on being able to make all manner of accurate predictions about what will happen if things like cars and cell phones and bridges are built in certain ways and not others. My life currently depends on my deciding whether or not to jump down to the ground or wait for the elevator. Historically, people who base such decisions on scientific theories that both 1) agree with experimental evidence and 2) have explanatory power have vastly better track records (in terms of the objective material outcomes of their decisions) than people who base their decisions on anything else. And over the centuries people have tried lots and lots of different things, prayed to lots and lots of different gods, listened to countless prophets, tried to gleaned meaning from myriad signs and portents. Compared to science, nothing else even comes close.

U: OK, but this still isn't proof that scientific theories are actually true.

R: I never said that scientific theories are actually true, only that they are reliable guides to action. In fact, one of the fundamental tenets of science is that nearly all scientific theories are almost certain to be false. For example, there are two theories on which all of modern physics rests: general relativity and quantum mechanics. Both of these theories have enormous predictive and explanatory power. Neither theory has ever made a prediction that was not confirmed by experiment. And yet the two theories are fundamentally incompatible with each other so we actually know that at least one of them must be "wrong" in some sense. But (and this is very important) scientific theories, when they are wrong, are almost invariably wrong in a very particular way. The way in which they are wrong is rather tricky to describe. Isaac Asimov did an excellent job of describing how scientific theories are wrong in his essay, The Relativity of Wrong, which happily has been published on the Internet.

U: I'll be sure to read it at the earliest opportunity. But it still seems to me that none of this has anything to do with Truth (with a capital T). It may be that the methods of science could be effective even if they are completely wrong in a metaphysical sense.

R: Yes, that's possible, but it's unlikely. It's much more likely that the reason that scientific theories are as reliable as they are is that there really is a metaphysical reality "out there", and that our scientific theories really are a somewhat accurate description of that reality. Moreover, there is actually a sound scientific reason to believe that this is the case. You can actually treat the metaphysics of science as a scientific theory and test its predictions. For example, one of the predictions made by the theory that science is an accurate reflection of metaphysical reality is that we ourselves are a part of that metaphysical reality. This has consequences in terms of our ability to construct scientific theories. I won't get into the details here except to say that the theory of scientific metaphysical reality makes certain predictions about the structure of scientific theories, all of which turn out (so far) to be true. (For example, it predicts that scientific theories will be constructed by physical entities that emulate Turing machines.) So there really are some very powerful reasons to believe that science is a not-wholly-inaccurate description of metaphysical reality.

U: Holy cow.

R: Yes, it's rather a lot to take in, isn't it?

U: It certainly is.

R: And actually I've barely begun to scratch the surface. Scientific metaphysics is intimately related to neuroscience, computer science and information theory, all of which are fields of study that are only a few decades old. The entire enterprise of science only goes back a few hundred years. Who knows what we'll know a few decades or centuries from now?

U: OK, how do you account for all the Unicornians out there? All the early martys who died for their beliefs? People's personal experience with Uni and his minions? Do you really think we're all idiots?

R: "Idiot" is putting it a bit strongly. I certainly think you're (almost certainly) wrong in a metaphysical sense. But interestingly, there is a very satisfying (at least to me) scientific explanation of why so many people believe in unicorns. Unicorns may not be real, but the belief in unicorns is very real, and can have actual physical effects on the body by virtue of the placebo effect (which is a real, physiological, scientifically verified phenomenon). It is not even out of the question that if I could summon a sufficiently strong belief in unicorns that that belief alone could cure me or at least make me feel better.

U: So why don't you give yourself over to the power of Uni?

R: Because I can't. The placebo effect relies on believing in the efficacy of the placebo, and I know too much to ever be able to fool myself into thinking that unicorns are real in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary. Belief is very powerful, but its power is predicated on a level of ignorance that I am no longer able to muster. I don't know how to "unlearn" my Scientific worldview.

U: I'll pray for you nonetheless.

R: I appreciate the gesture, and accept it in the spirit in which it is offered. Hm, it looks like the line is starting to move. And you know what? I'm actually feeling a little better. Maybe it was just a touch of gas, not food poisoning after all.

U: Or maybe Uni just worked a miracle in your life.

R: Maybe. We could put it to the test and order another round of mussels.

U: I would think you would be reluctant to put yourself at risk like that.

R: I meant for you, not for me. I've had quite enough of this kind of experiment for one day.

U: But that wouldn't be a valid experiment according to you because even according to you I can summon the power of Uni by virtue of my belief even though you can't.

R: Good point. But the placebo effect will only get you so far. If these mussels really are contaminated with salmonella I think even the strongest belief in Uni will be impotent. You really will need antibiotics. (Christian Scientists occasionally do this kind of experiment on themselves or their kids, usually with unhappy results.) So while it would not be conclusive, I do think it would yield an interesting data point. Shall I place an order?

U: I think the elevator is here. We should go.

R: Yes, I suppose we should.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Hooked on God: Religion as a Drug

Karl Marx famously quipped that religion was the opium of the masses. I submit that this aphorism should be taken more seriously, that considering religion as a drug can be a constructive framework for understanding religion both for believers and, more to the point, non-believers. Non-believers tend to focus on religious claims rather than the effects of believing (or even going through the motions of believing) in those claims, and thus tend to miss the forest for the trees. The result is endless cycles of useless thrashing, wasted emotional energy, and a lot of unnecessary pain.

To begin, let me be precise about exactly what I mean by "religion is a drug." I mean for this view to be taken literally, not metaphorically. Now, obviously I do not mean that religion is a chemical. Religion is a placebo, but that emphatically does not mean that it's "imaginary" or "all in your head." The placebo effect is a real, scientifically observable physical phenomenon with actual physiological effects. The placebo effect can, for example, measurably reduce physical pain, sometimes in cases where all other treatments are ineffective.

It is important to emphasize that the placebo effect is not mystical mumbo-jumbo. It is as well established a scientific fact as you cold hope to find. That double-blind studies are the gold standard of scientific proof in medicine is an explicit acknowledgement of the power of the placebo effect. To demonstrate the effectiveness of a pharmaceutical you have to explicitly and laboriously exclude the possibility that any observed benefit was due to the placebo effect. Doing a properly controlled double-blind study is difficult precisely because the mechanism by which the placebo effect operates is belief, which is very difficult to control with precision.

But religion is not just a placebo; it is in some sense the ultimate placebo, honed and refined over thousands of years to be vastly more potent and powerful than a mere sugar pill. Whereas the curative powers of a sugar pill can be undermined simply by revealing that it is a sugar pill, religions have built-in defenses against such anti-revelations, sometimes layer upon layer of defenses. Whereas sugar pills derive their power from the (presumed) authority of a medical doctor, religions derive theirs, if not from God Himself, at least from His authority. This is one of the most important things that non-believers miss about religion: because placebos derive their power from belief, it doesn't matter whether the thing being believed in is real or not. As long as the belief is genuine, it works. So it doesn't matter if the power of religion actually derives from God or merely from the idea of God; for the purpose of inducing a placebo effect, they are the same thing.

Placebos are particularly effective at producing relief from emotional pain, which is no less real and can be no less intense that actual physical pain. To this I can bear personal witness. I have (like many technically inclined people, I think) suffered from periodic bouts of severe, debilitating depression, even leading on one occasion back in grad school to a half-hearted suicide attempt. Even as a life-long confirmed non-believer, I find the odd prayer occasionally to be palliative. (I often tell people with tongue only half-way in cheek that I'm an unusual atheist: I talk to God. Moreover, He talks back. I tell Him that I don't believe in Him, and He tells me that's OK, that He's here for me when I need Him, but that He can get along without me.)

Within this framework a lot of seemingly intractable problems simply evaporate. Theodicy, for example, becomes a complete non-issue. The existence of evil is only a philosophical problem if one assumes that religious beliefs exist to describe objective reality. On the religion-as-a-drug view, that is not the reason religious beliefs exist at all, they exist to produce a placebo effect. The idea of an all-powerful all-knowing all-just all-loving God prevails not because it's (objectively) true, but because it's therapeutically effective. Moreover, it's a lot more effective if you believe it's actually, objectively true. So people believe it's actually objectively true. And they defend those beliefs against all reason because to do otherwise is painful, in many cases too painful to bear. This is not a sign of intellectual weakness or duplicity. It is simply an aspect of being human. We are both rational and emotional creatures, yin and yang. Militant atheism fails because it ignores this inconvenient truth. (It is no surprise to me that Christopher Hitchens is a chain-smoking alcoholic. Very few people can summon the courage to face the awful realities of life without some form of chemical intervention.)

The religion-as-drug framework helps make sense of many other normally vexing (to atheists) aspects of religious belief. Like any drug, it can be both beneficial (if it alleviates pain) and harmful (if it is abused). It comes in different forms with varying potencies and side-effects. It can be bought and sold. Because it's legal (mostly), there is a thriving economy in religious ideas catering to all segments of a huge and diverse market. It can be addictive, which is good if you make your living as a dealer, not so good if you become a junkie.

And, of course, like other psychoactive drugs, religion can make you crazy, even violent if not taken judiciously.

Finally, the religion-as-drug framework offers some useful insight into the likely outcomes of efforts to rid the world of religion, which are as likely to succeed as efforts to rid the world of other drugs have been. In particular, religion is very unlikely to yield to either reason, ridicule, or prohibition. It is important to understand that people don't adopt religious beliefs because they are stupid, they do it because self-deception can, via the placebo effect, actually improve quality of life. Until this is understood and accepted, the secular and religious will continue to be at loggerheads.

Kids ruin marriage. Who knew?

Via LiveScience:

"An eight-year study of 218 couples found 90 percent experienced a decrease in marital satisfaction once the first child was born."

Imagine that.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Dispatches from the jury assembly room

I've lived in Los Angeles county for twenty-one years now and I have never served on a jury. I've been summoned for jury duty probably a dozen times, but I've never actually been on a jury. In fact, until about two years ago I never even made it to the courthouse. I was always in the middle of some new startup or other that let me get excused from duty. They've cracked down on that kind of thing now and made it much harder to be excused. On the plus side, they've instituted a new system where if you don't actually get on a jury on your first day then you're done. They also have a new (and well hidden) way of going through the juror orientation on-line, which allows you to show up at the courthouse at 9:30 instead of 7:30. And the juror assembly room has free wireless. So all in all, while it's now nearly impossible to avoid, jury duty is not nearly the onerous chore that it once was.

Which is not to say that it's not annoying. I still have to sit here all day knowing full well that I will never be empaneled on a jury. I know this because of what happened to me the last time I went through this, about two years ago. I sat around all day, and just before quittin' time I and about thirty of my fellow unfortunate prospective jurors had our names called. We all filed out and went to where we'd been instructed (a process that took about half an hour because one of the elevators was broken and the staircases are inaccessible except in emergencies "for security reasons"). There was just enough time to give us yet another pep talk about how wonderful it was to serve on a jury and participate in this unique American institution, and that we had to show up again the next day for the actual start of voir dire.

The next day, after several hours of sitting around waiting for some delay whose nature was never revealed, they started questioning us. That went on for several hours. A few jurors got dismissed by peremptory challenge but I was still there at the end of the day. So on day three I shlep myself to downtown LA yet again, wait around for a few more hours for more mysterious delays, before finally being summoned back into the courtroom. The very first thing that happens then is that the prosecution attorney dismisses me by peremptory challenge. That's it. I'm done. Great, but couldn't you have figured that out yesterday and saved me this trip?

Since I had already set the day aside anyway I decided to stick around and watch our justice system at work. I met a family attending the trial of a man accused of killing a family member. It struck me how different this reality was from the way it's portrayed on TV. The drama and pain are the same, but real life moves at a glacial pace by comparison to television, and even if the killer is convicted, the victim is still dead. And this time it's a real flesh-and-blood person, not a thinly drawn character who evaporates with the closing credits.

During one of the breaks I asked the prosecutor why she'd gotten rid of me, though I was pretty sure I already knew. She confirmed my suspicions: One of the voir dire questions was, "Would you have a problem convicting someone if the only evidence against them was eyewitness testimony?" I had to answer that yes, I would, because I had done a lot of reading about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.

I'm not sure which I find more annoying, that I was barred from serving for being too well informed, or that I now have to spend a day going through this whole process over again with no reason to believe that the outcome will be any different this time around. I'm no less informed now than I was then. The evidence for the unreliability of eyewitness testimony has, if anything, only grown stronger. I've also been the victim of a violent crime, which I'm told makes me tainted goods for defense attorneys as well. I should be able to get some kind of permanent undesirable-juror designation.

There are two ironies in this situation that really drive me bonkers. First, unlike most of my colleagues in the juror assembly room who view being placed on a jury as drawing the short straw, I actually wouldn't mind serving on a jury. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say I want to do it, but I'm certainly willing to do it. I do believe in the system, flawed as it is, and I believe in making the time to do my civic duty. I just wish it didn't have to be so damned inefficient. (I am also starting to have my doubts about whether or not, economically speaking, we can continue to afford to indulge ourselves in jury trials. There are an awful lot of people sitting around me being not terribly productive at the moment. And that damn video they just started showing with the sound cranked up to full volume isn't going to help end the recession any sooner either.)

The second irony: I'm pretty sure I'll never serve on a jury because both the prosecution and the defense think I'm prejudiced against them. Trick is, at least one of them must be wrong.

I wonder what would happen if they found out I believe in jury nullification.


Just happened to stumble across this gem from Philip "Greenspun's tenth law" Greenspun:

"Today we have a legal system with many safeguards for defendants' rights. However, in our heart of hearts, we don't really believe that we could convict enough defendants if we actually gave all of them all of their rights. Consequently, we set nominal penalties for crimes at absurdly high levels, e.g., 'life plus 100 years.' The actual penalty received by 95% of the people who commit such crimes is in fact 12-15 years. This is what they get if they agree to a plea bargain. However, if they choose to exercise their right to trial, they face the nominal penalty of life plus 100.

Obviously having these really high penalties is more subtle than physical torture, but the basic idea is the same and probably a fair number of sensible people are pleading guilty to crimes they didn't commit."

UPDATE 2 (the following day):

Dismissed without ever making it into the jury box. A day and a half down the drain for nothing. There has to be a better way.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Another domino falls

The Burlington Free Press reports:

"Vermont has become the fourth state to legalize gay marriage — and the first to do so with a legislature’s vote."

Four down. Forty-six to go.

Also, a tip o' the hat to Iowa state senator Mike Gronstal for channeling Atticus Finch.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Counterfeiters aren't too sharp (yet)

I would never have imagined that anyone would counterfeit a razor blade, and yet the other day I had the unfortunate experience of attempting to shave with what turned out to be a counterfeit Gillette Fusion razor blade. I think most high-end consumer products are mostly hype, but I have to tell you, if you have four-gauge whiskers like me you don't know what a comfortable shave is until you've tried the Fusion. It's horrifically expensive, but in my hirsute opinion worth every penny. (And no, Gillette is not paying me to say that. But if anyone from Gillette is reading this, I'll entertain offers.)

It was immediately obvious that something was wrong as soon as I took my first swipe. Instead of the normal effortless glide across my morning stubble leaving smooth skin behind it felt like my face was being ripped off. At first I didn't know what to make of it. It didn't dawn on me that there were counterfeit blades out there until I did a Google search and discovered that not only are there fake blades, there's an entire website dedicated to helping people ferret them out. Who knew?

Contrary to the information on that site, it was *very* hard to tell the counterfeit blades. I bought a package of known-good blades a local store so I could do a side-by-side comparison, and I was stunned and how close a match they were. About the only difference was the crappy shave, and the counterfeit's lack of the tell-tale serial number on each blade, which is supposed to be the smoking gun of genuine Fusion blades.

My latest acquisition is a package of Fusion blades ordered directly from Amazon. They also lacked the serial numbers, but they shave like genuine blades. So are they real or just good counterfeits? Does it matter?

I really wonder if 1000 years from now, when the technology to synthetically generate any object, any image or any video scene is available on electronic devices so cheap that they're given away as free premiums with your morning breakfast cereal, if anyone will be able to tell truth from fiction any more.

CSS is awesome

If it's on a coffee mug it must be true.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Announcing µWiki

I've been working on a coding project in order to keep my skills from completely atrophying. It's a little wiki called µWiki (pronounced micro-wiki). I started working on it because I needed a wiki for another project and none of the available ones met my needs so I decided to roll my own. Comments and feedback are welcome.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Some perspective on a destroyed career

Someone over on Hacker news posted a link to a comp.lang.lisp post that I wrote three years ago that's generating a lot of discussion. I found I had more to say about this than would comfortably fit in a comment, so I'm putting it here instead.

The gist of the original piece was that knowing Lisp gave my career an early boost because it was such a productivity multiplier, but later turned into a handicap because it led to frustration with the languages that were becoming the industry norms. The title of the piece was "How knowing Lisp destroyed my programming career" but that's a bit misleading. To understand how it's misleading and why I wrote it that way I have to give you a little bit more background. In particular, you have to understand the context in which that piece was written.

"How knowing Lisp destroyed my programming career" was a followup to an earlier and even more inflammatory piece that called How Common Lisp Sucks. That in turn was a follow up to literally years of off-and-on arguments about whether or not the Common Lisp standard ought to be revised. I thought (and still think) that it should be, but the overwhelming consensus in the Lisp community is that everything is just fine the way it is. (The argument is not unlike the one occasioned by my recent screed on CSS and several followup posts, including this one, which I think sums up both situations quite nicely. (One bit of evidence for this: of all the posts in the series, it is the one that has garnered the fewest comments.)

The important thing to understand about that post is that it was not intended to be therapy or a confession, it was intended to be persuasive. (It failed miserably, but that's neither here nor there.) The idea was to highlight the negative impact that knowing Lisp on the one hand and its failure to penetrate the market more deeply on the other had had on my career, in the hope that that might motivate some people to take market penetration more seriously. (Like I said, it didn't work. There is a hard-core group of Lispers who think Lisp is fine and dandy just the way it is and they honestly don't care whether Lisp is popular or not. These people wield enough influence in the community to effectively halt nearly all progress. But that is not what I want to talk about here.)

Anyway, that was the idea, and that's why I chose the gloom-and-doom title. It's misleading because the fact of the matter is that I never had a career as a programmer. My career up through the year 2000 was as a researcher. My product was academic papers, and if you'll pardon a bit of immodesty, I was pretty darn good at it. In fact, I was so good at it that by the time I was in my mid-thirties I had the equivalent of a tenured faculty position, and I was the most cited computer science researcher in all of NASA. (For all I know I may even still hold that title. I still held it in 2006 despite the fact that I hadn't published anything substantive for over five years.)

I say all this not to toot my horn, but to put my "destroyed career" in perspective. I quit JPL not because I wasn't successful, but because I was bored. I was successful not so much because I was good, but because I had figured out how to game the system. I figured out how to write papers that would get published, and how to write patents that would get accepted. (I successfully prosecuted three patents, including one on an invention that violates the laws of physics.)

Mind you, nothing I did was dishonest. I did not violate any laws or rules. Everything I did was completely aboveboard. What I did was to find the weaknesses in the system and exploit them. And one of the weaknesses that I exploited was an order-of-magnitude productivity increase in writing code. That let me do in a day what would take my colleagues a week, leaving me nine days free to do other things. Like study quantum mechanics.

Whatever problems I may have, an unwillingness to learn new things is not one of them. I love to learn new things. That's one of the reasons I hate Java, because learning Java didn't teach me anything except how truly brain-damaged a language can be. (I've never learned Perl, but I've never learned how to run the deep fryer at a McDonalds either. I like learning new things, but life is short and there are some things I'm content not to know.)

My problem is that I'm lazy. I don't mind working hard, but I mind very much working harder than I have to, especially if I know a better way. This is particularly a problem at an institution like NASA which, despite its reputation for innovation, is actually quite ossified and set in its ways, especially where software is concerned. So I quit and went to work for an obscure little Silicon Valley startup company named Google. And that worked out OK, despite the fact that I felt like I was borderline incompetent. I made some money, but more importantly, I learned more in my one year at Google than in the previous thirty. And when I was done I tried to bring some of those lessons back to where I had come from, back to JPL, and back to the Lisp community. They weren't interested, and while that saddens me, it doesn't paralyze me.

I may not be a particularly good coder (though I think I can hold my own) but I've discovered that I have one very marketable skill, and that is picking winners early. I've had two big wins so far in my life, Lisp and Google. Since Lisp "destroyed" my programming career I've started a new career as an angel investor and entrepreneur. I've been involved in over a dozen startups in the last four years, sometimes as a passive investor, sometimes as a co-founder. And I feel like I'm just getting started. I'm very new at this and I have a lot to learn. But I'm having a blast, so I say bring it on! I used to fret over not being able to program in Lisp; no more. If being in the Silicon Valley taught me anything it is that the world is planted thick with opportunity, and life is too short to worry about the road not taken.