Rationalist Flashpoint (Ratpoint?)

So in the tradition of remaking classic Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Superhero stories as rationalist stories (that is, what if everyone in the story tried to make their overcomplicated plots actually work), I’ve decided to describe how I’d do it to the Flash1. More specifically to Flashpoint, because that’s (a) everyone’s favourite Flash arc and (b) the only one for which I’ve actually read the comics. It would go something like this (Spoiler Warning: Flashpoint):

Like in the original comic, the Flash wakes up in a strange alternate universe. In this alternate universe crime is rampant, supervillains nearly destroy the earth (or at least kill millions of people) every other week, and the few poorly-organized superheroes still remaining barely manage to save the day at the last second each time. It’s only a matter of time until one of them slips up and total disaster comes. In other words, it’s the classic DC universe we’re all familiar with.

None of this matches up with the universe the Flash is from: There, the superheroes have long since united to figure out how to do the maximum amount of good with their abilities. Lex Luthor’s desire to change the world was channeled to more wholesome ends in that universe, and he used his miracle technologies to fight crime and disease. Superman, after putting in adequate safeguards, let Lex and his scientists experiment on him to advance medical research even further (all humans have nearly-unbreakable bones as a result of this research, and solar energy is cheap and universal due to inventions based on Superman’s Kryptonian skin receptors). But the safeguards were just a precaution – the superheroes of that universe trust each other.

In the original Flashpoint alternate universe, Bruce Wayne had been shot instead of his parents, and Thomas Wayne, haunted by the death of his son, became Batman, while Martha Wayne went mad and became the Joker. In my version’s original universe, Martha Wayne was the one who was shot. Thomas Wayne decides to work on sociological causes of crime, starting with lead removal. After he joins the other superheroes he also uses genetic engineering for population genetics to improve life outcomes (he mostly experiments on bats, giving him the name “Bat-man”). Bruce Wayne, left alone by his mother’s death and his father’s retreat into science, eventually goes mad and becomes the Joker, the superheroes’ greatest enemy, since he believes they’re replacing human warmth and emotion with cold utilitarian science.

Over the course of the story, the Flash befriends alternate-universe Bruce-Wayne-Batman, and gradually tells him about the philosophy of their original world. Bruce is skeptical of their ideals at first, but becomes convinced after hearing the results. In the original Flashpoint story, Thomas Wayne was convinced to help the Flash because it meant his son would be alive again (even if he wouldn’t be), and the story ends with the Flash giving Bruce a letter from his father he could never get before that. In my version, Bruce gives Flash a letter to his father saying he’s sorry for all the damage he caused in that world, and one to himself (it’s implied he’s trying to convince his alternate self to let go of his vendetta, but we never see the letter).

In original-world, the Flash is the most important member of the superhero society: Whenever they achieve a meaningful improvement, like curing bone fragility, he goes back in time to just after the league was formed and delivers it to them, so that the improvements affect as long a time as possible. Whenever a disaster threatens, he goes back in time to when it was still small and easily preventable, and undoes it. There are two necessary safeguards to this: First, he stops by to talk to versions of himself in the alternate timeline that exist at various points of time between now and the change, to make sure the change won’t have any terrible unforeseen consequences (any of them can call it off, and the Flash can always reverse the change in the future by going back to that point in time and telling himself not to do it).

Second, and this is important, he never, ever, goes back to before the society was organized. Because this would have the potential to undo the whole society (which instituted the safety protocols for the Flash’s time travel), it could potentially undo all the good they’ve done in their world. So as much as they might like to, say, kill baby Hitler and prevent World War 2, they can’t go back far enough to do it.

In the end of the story we find out this is precisely what caused this weird alternate universe in the first place: The Flash was tired of doing abstract good for everyone in the world when he wasn’t even allowed to go back in time and save his own mother. Eventually, he couldn’t stand it anymore, and he went back in time and saved her. The consequences were the complete dissolution of their world, millions dead from poverty and famine and disease, the world on the brink of destruction every other week. Once he finds out why it happened, he has to go back again and let his mother die.

I’d also include an explanation for the Flash’s speed, based on the multi-level brain theory from here. Basically, only the Flash’s lowest brain layers work at superhuman speeds, while his top layers work at normal speed. The inbetween layers are successively faster. This is why he can move fast enough to dodge bullets if he’s ready (he’s prepared his lower levels to execute dodging maneuvers), but not if he’s caught by surprise. It’s also why in a normal fight, he’s somewhat faster than normal but not fast enough to dodge bullets, his fight reflexes are lower than the top level but still above the deeply-trained bullet-dodging reflexes.

Also, rationalist Flash got with Patty Spivot, not Iris. Because she’s clearly much nicer to him and he’s not as controlled by plot-force as his non-rationalist counterpart.

1. Not actually write the story, though, because that would be way too much work.


The unfortunate consequences of Theodicy.

Warning: Only read this if you’ve already read UNSONG, since this contains major spoilers.




Done reading UNSONG?

(That means you too, Brian. Don’t read beyond this point.)




So let’s assume The Unsong theory of theodicy: The reason the world has evil in it is that God creates every possible world where the net amount of Good exceeds the net amount of Evil. What would a typical world look like?

Well, let’s start by assuming most worlds are kind of like ours. We have a planet, civilization evolves, eventually it reaches technological maturity. Let’s assume this civilization inevitably creates AI, and in almost all cases this AI is unfriendly. Is this universe consistent with theodicy?

Answer: quite possibly. For example, imagine a paperclip AI, as described in this article. As the article points out,

Plus, if we teach the AI to enjoy making paperclips (and some say these sorts of human-analogous incentives will be necessary to create true thinking machines) then at least it’ll be having a fun time.

In fact, if that AI turns the whole observable universe to paperclips and has no upper bound on the amount of joy it can feel, we’ve created a nigh-infinite source of joy. No matter how much misery humans experience in our thousands or millions of years as a species, the AI feels enough joy to counterbalance that. So while we might find theodicy reassuring in principle – the net balance of the world must be Good! – that doesn’t neccessarily mean we won’t be incredibly miserable.

But wait! it gets worse! Take a look at this graph:

This is a bell curve. It’s what happens when we have a lot of independent factors that can move things in either direction. That part isn’t new.

If we imagine the net Good in all possible universes (without theoditic intervention), we expect it to have a bell curve distribution, with neutral worlds in the middle1. After all, there are an unimaginable number of tiny independent factors that go into deciding how much good and evil goes into a potential universe. If we imagine theoditic intervention, God chops off the left half of the bell curve – everything to the left of the middle vanishes, and everything to the right stays in existence.

Now the key thing to remember about bell curves is that they are incredibly concentrated around the middle. The textbook pictures are incredibly misleading. They make it look like it’s a fairly wide distribution in the range. But it actually decays superexponentially. That 99.7% within three standard deviations of the mean? A standard deviation is on the order , where M is the total variance of the universe and is the number of factors. Since there are an unimaginably huge number of factors that go into creating a universe, that number is tiny. Almost all possible universes are barely breaking even. And if we think of civilization as gradually growing and improving, that means we’re almost certainly at a net loss right now – the current level of misery on the planet exceeds the amount of joy, and if it weren’t for the fact that we could improve it would be better to never have existed. And even when we do make things better, it’ll be just barely enough to break even with all the evil that happened before.

So even if God only allows the good universes to exist, from the outside view, our universe is probably kind of meh.

1. It might be argued that the mean random universe wouldn’t be neutral. It seems like a totally chaotic world might be evil. Unfortunately, this just means the distribution would be even more loaded towards the break-even point once we eliminate everything to the left of it. Conversely, if the mean random universe is to the right of the break-even point, we’re doing better. But that seems less likely.

The Kabbalah of Degenerates.

The overt meaning of degenerate is colinear.
The kabbalistic meaning of degenerate is “one who has strayed from God’s light.” We can derive this by decomposing the word: To generate is to create, so one who does not generate is maximally far away from the creator.
Furthermore, God is famously everywhere, in “both the heavens and on earth”. In R^3, a degenerate set of vectors is precisely one that cannot generate all three axes – that is, one that cannot generate both the two axes of the plane and the axis of the heavens.
Needless to say, none of this is a coincidence.
However, the probability of being degenerate is zero, because while we may approach degeneracy, we all carry a spark of God’s light inside us. This is also not a coincidence.

Chilly Autumn Nights in San Francisco

Whenever there’s a chilly night in San Francisco, I don’t know what it means.

It was straightforwards enough in New Haven. Chilly nights were the first harbingers of winter. Oh, it’d get warmer again tomorrow, for a week or two, but eventually it would be actual winter. Connecticut isn’t Minnesota or anything, but you’d usually get at least one or two serious blizzards, a bunch of smaller ones, and a week or two where the temperature dropped to double digit negatives. Biking in winter was doable, but it wasn’t fun.

Jerusalem was a bit less straightforwards, but autumn nights were even more important: You got the first hints of the smell of rain. After all those bone dry overheated months, soon you would be seeing rain again, and when it rains in Jerusalem, it pours. The soccer field in my high school used to turn into a pond. The smell after new rain is always amazing, but there’s nowhere else it’s as strong as in Jerusalem. Maybe because there’s so much of it  hitting dry earth. Maybe just because it was home.

If we were lucky, we’d get thunderstorms. If we were very, very lucky, we’d get a day or two of snow, and the whole city would shut down.

Winter in Toronto is the same as in Connecticut, except there’s a lot more snow and it never ends.

But in all of these – every lace I’ve lived – chilly autumn nights were exciting. Something was going to happen. Things were going to get interesting. The fact that, as a rule, things didn’t, was what made the start of summer a bit depressing. But never autumn. Autumn was alive.

I don’t know what chilly autumn nights mean here. Is it going to get colder? As I understand it, San Francisco has pretty much the same weather year round. Or maybe summers are the cold part? Mark Twain (reputedly) once said the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco. I know it has microclimates and all, but I still have a hard time believing it’ll actually get warmer here in the middle of winter. On the other hand, it can’t get much colder than our chilly nights, since it supposedly never snows here. And I doubt we’re going to get a sudden wave of heavy rains either – California is generally pretty dry, and we already get occasional drizzles (though it’s hard to even notice that it’s raining when they come).

So it’s a strange sensation. I’ve always associated chilly autumn nights with warnings of things to come, but as far as I can tell, they don’t actually mean much out here.

Crossover Idea: Band of Brothers and Avatar: The Last Airbender

Epistemic status: Almost certainly a terrible idea.

For a while now, I’ve had the idea for a crossover series between Avatar and Band of Brothers. It seems like a natural enough idea. A sequel series is supposed to be somewhat darker and more serious (but not too much). It would require kind of a reboot, but ever since season 2 of Korra that’s probably necessary anyway.

The basic idea is a steampunk Avatar universe WW2 show. The countries are a fantasy-world version of the way they were in the real WW2, and each country has all kinds of benders. The American armed forces are divided by bending ability – earthbenders in the army, waterbenders in the navy, airbenders in the air force and firebenders in the marines. The forces are segergated by bending style for the same reason as the actual military was segregated by race: In this universe, racial issues divided around bending ability instead of skin colour, and society is just on the edge of desegregating.

Instead of the following the new airborne units like Band of Brothers, the show follows one of these desegregation initiatives, an experimental mixed-bender force. The unit is composed of nine people: two benders of each type, and the nonbending Badass Normal commander. Their mission is to infiltrate Germany to look for the Avatar, who should be about twelve now (nobody knows who he is, but there are rumors he’s in Germany), and kill him to stop him winning the war for the Germans.

However, as they infiltrate Germany, they start finding out about the holocaust. The squad gradually decides to abandon the mission and rescue people from concentration camps instead, which becomes the main focus of the show (as well as the inter-character relationships).

One of the kids they rescue early on becomes a recurring minor character, as they struggle to get the people they rescue to safety. He’s shy and doesn’t talk much, but bonds with several of the squad members as they take to him. Over the later episodes, several of the squad members (of different bending abilities) teach him a little of their bending skills (though none of them is aware of any of the other conversations).

In the semi-last episode, the captain talks to a couple of his men and puts things together, realizing the kid must have been the Avatar. He decides not to tell anyone and send the kid to safety in America, since the kid’s been through enough, and never explicitly mentions this to anyone except in one last I-know-you-know-I-know conversation with the kid where neither of them says anything explicitly.

In the last episode, they storm either Auschwitz or The Eagle’s Nest where Hitler and the high command are hiding. Drama and explosions abound.

Poetry Translation – I’m a Guitar (Benny Amdursky)

Lyrics to the original (Hebrew). And here’s a video of the original song, for the tune.

I’m a guitar, the blowing wind is playing me
Under the changing moons
I’m a guitar, and somebody is strumming me,
Along the winding tunes

If I flirt with some brunette
I burst out in a duet
If it’s a trio or quartet
That’s not a problem

A picnic blanket, white and red
A bunch of grapes, a loaf of bread
And pears and apples in a spread
And wine in autumn

I’m a guitar…

I’m a witness, I’m a sign
I’ve been lonely, I’ve been fine
I’ve walked with friends along the line
We’ve come so far

On wild adventures here and there
In ships and planes flying through the air
And wandering rambles everywhere
Where e’er we are…

I’m a guitar…

About the girls, here’s how I feel
There’s an understanding, there’s a deal
I’ve no complaints, she’s what she will
None I remember

I don’t give up, I always say
What didn’t happen yet in May
With God’s help will come someday
By mid-september…

I’m a guitar, I guess I used to be a tree
And in my soundbox hull
I remember everyone who played on me
And I thank you all.

Translation of Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan (Hebrew)

ניסיתי לשנות ת’מערכת
עשרים שנה לבד היה הדין
עכשיו תורי, הגיע זמן ללכת
ניקח כבר את מנהטן, אחר כך את ברלין

מדריך אותי הסמל ברקיע
ואור בוער פנימי אותי מכווין
מנחה אותי יופיו של הקליע,
ניקח כבר את מנהטן, אחר כך את ברלין

הייתי מת לחיות ביחד, מותק
כל רגע שאני איתך אני נדהם
אבל רואה שם את ההמון המשותק?
אמרתי לך כבר פעם, הייתי אז כמותם

אהבת אותי כלוזר, עכשיו את לא יודעת
עכשיו אני נלחם עם גליצרין
את יודעת לעצור אותי, רק אין לך ת’משמעת
ניקח כבר את מנהטן, אחר כך את ברלין

אני לא אוהב איך שהכל תעשייתי
את הצ’ייסרים ואת ההירואין
אני לא אוהב מה שקרה לאחותי
ניקח כבר את מנהטן, אחר כך את ברלין

הייתי מת לחיות ביחד, מותק…

אני מודה על כל מה ששלחתי לי
על הכינור והבובה של הדולפין
אני נגן די טוב עכשיו, נראה לי…
ניקח כבר את מנהטן, אחר כך את ברלין.

מדריך אותי הסמל ברקיע…

זוכרת כשחייתי בשביל המוסיקה
נתת לי תקליטים להאזין
עכשיו כל צליל נשמע כמו חריקה
ניקח כבר את מנהטן, אחר כך את ברלין.