All posts by shakeddown

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.

Science Fiction from the satallite-eye view

The John Glenn post got me thinking how I’d approach writing hard(ish) SF. I wouldn’t want it to be too realistic, since that would be boring and wouldn’t include space travel. And there’s the issue of AI, which can break an SF story pretty easily, and you want to leave the possibility of interplanetary trade/warfare, but no story-breaking teleportation.

First of all, there’s Athena, the one superintelligence humanity has managed to built. She is (also uniquely) a quantum gravity computer, and can use closed timelike curves for computation1.

Athena2 was created as part of a project to allow interstellar travel. The concept of interstellar travel works like this: The topology of the universe has a dense subset of microscopic “wormholes”, that is, random pairs of points that are identified with each other. When asked, Athena can take advantage of these holes to find two coherent sets of holes in different solar systems, and transport an object instantly from one to the other. While this could, in principle, allow time travel (which Athena, as a QG computer, already takes advantage of), in practice Athena artificially maintains causality by using an internal universal clock: If one ship is transported from system A to system B, and then an hour later (in system A time) another ship is transported the same route, the second ship will be transferred to System B at the point in time one hour after the first ship arrived.

The other primary purpose of Athena is to prevent humanity from creating other AI. Nobody is quite sure how she does this, since she never interferes with humanity in any visible way, aside from occasionally answering questions. These answers are always true, informative, and helpful, and (aside from the teleportation, which is entirely predetermined) are Athena’s only interaction with humanity. The one degree of freedom Athena has is which questions she chooses to answer. For a superintelligence effectively capable of time travel, this is more than enough.

There are many things about how Athena was created that no one is quite sure of. It’s unknown if she was created as a superintelligence who quickly used her superintelligence to develop QG and teleportation abilities, or if she was originally created as a teleportation device whose QG abilities let self-hijack into superintelligence. Nobody’s sure who created her – whoever it was, the first thing he used Athena for was to destroy all traceable records of himself. Being the one person with the ability to mess with Athena’s priorities, he has, in effect, godlike power.

Actually, these questions are a lot more fun once you remove causality, which we are totally allowed to do once we have time travel. Which direction was Athena created? Doesn’t matter! In the interests of minimizing the complexity of a world in which QG computing is possible, there must exist exactly one QG computer whose primary job is, in effect, to minimize use of time travel. Is the creator a human who got godlike power, or a god who came to humanity, engineered a QG computer, and disappeared? Again, from the non-causality viewpoint, it doesn’t matter – there must exist a unique creator of a QG computer, who for all practical purposes is effectively a higher power (but would inevitably have some human quirks, which make for a good story and also kind of explain why the biblical God is so humanistically capricious. This also explains why humanity hasn’t met aliens.)

Meanwhile, interplanetary politics rely heavily on trade. Earth technology is heavily dependent on all sorts of minerals and resources that are bizarrely common on Earth (in particular, only Earth has fossil fuels, since only earth has fossils). Therefore there needs to be a lot of trade for all the resources needed to sustain advanced technology, especially the rocketry needed for interplanetary travel (While interstellar travel is handled by Athena, the error in teleportation is large enough that ships need a travel range on the order of a hundred million miles). The rich and powerful worlds are those who are either old enough to have developed technology more reliant on their particular mix of available resources, or those within reach of enough planets and asteroids to supply themselves with a wide range of resources. Warfare and piracy of (or between) the second type is reasonably common. Different planetary systems can thus allowed to have many types of communities and governments.

The actual story, on the other hand, needs to be told from a ground-level perspective. The first arc is fairly fairy-taleish: A small-town guy in an obscure (but fairly old, and thus mostly self-reliant due to idiosyncratic technology) world goes on a quest – let’s say, to save the local princess. On the way he enlists the help of the cranky old mathematician3, who lives as a hermit on a hill in the nearby forest and can figure out spaceflight. They find the princess somehow, but this raises new and troubling questions. (I have a mental image of her turning into a piranha plant and attacking them; this is probably a metaphor).

The second arc starts off with the mathematician’s philosophical exposition. He’s been wondering about Athena’s creator for years, and the troubling issues raised in the first arc (I really need to think of some appropriate issues) inspired him to look deeper into the question through them. He drags the rest along in what is, in effect, a quest to find a god.

The finale involves somehow meeting the creator, who scattered the breadcrumbs that led to them taking the quest (and the self-discovery involved) in the first place. They (and the reader) are left to wonder at his motivations – was he just having fun with them? Was this quest unique for them, or does everyone eventually get a secret voyage of self-realization which gives their lives meaning?

The characters (except maybe a younger one they meet at the end, who is inspired to start his own quest over an important issue that was somehow never resolved) have become philosophically satisfied, and retire to a life of peaceful farming.

1. I really hope I got the physics and computability theory here at least mostly right. Whatever mistakes are here, I’m chalking up to poetic license.

2. Athena was originally named on the fun coincidence of being both the goddess of wisdom and the younger sister of Apollo, since I like the idea that the last project to allow interstellar travel was the younger twin of the project to reach the moon. This was ruined when I remembered that Apollo’s sister is Artemis, not Athena.

1. We really need more fictional mathematicians. The only two I remember off the top of my head are Hari Seldon and Nicolas Bourbaki.