Idea-bending minds, mind-bending ideas

Long ago, I took 4/9ths of an undergraduate physics degree, along with 4/9ths computer science and 1/9th mathematics. Having had little or no contact with physics in the intervening years, I’ve started to do some light reading about relativity in the last couple of years. This week, I came across a tip on Quora * to a fellow traveller in space-time: “stop thinking of the speed of light as a number”. Erm… WHAT?! As every school child knows, the maximum  speed of light (or any other form of electromagnetic radiation) in a vacuum is about 600,000 Km/s. That sounds like a number to me. The problem with speed in Einstein’s relativistic model of reality though, is that distance and time get very weird. That makes them hard to think about, so the advice was to ignore what we think we know and look at things in a new way.
[* – I’ll add an acknowledgement to the author of  the comment on Quora, if I ever find it again. It took me a while to understand what I’d read. ]

I’m not sure I was entirely paying attention when I studied physics last time. I don’t remember anyone explaining the precise nature of the the scientific method, or indeed what physics actually is; that’s metaphysics. This time around I see science as the process of understanding how nature works, using evidence rather than guessing then arguing the case for your beliefs. That is philosophy, or a religion. Physics, in particular, is about observing reality and working out what the rules are. It is NOT about saying why things happen. As science was becoming formalised, it was known as ‘natural philosophy’ i.e. philosophy that refers to evidence from nature.

Einstein’s Theories of Relativity say that matter and energy are equivalent. His equation of mass-energy equivalence records the relationship between the alternative mass and energy forms of matter. It is a very well known equation, even with people who have no idea what it refers to.

The form of the equation we are most familiar with is

E = mc²

E is the concentrated energy contained in a mass, m. E is a much bigger number than m because we know that c is a big number AND it’s squared.

This equation can be re-arranged to a form I don’t remember seeing or taking note of before:

c = √(E/m)

This new way (at least to me) of looking at this century old theory says that c is related to the ratio between the Energy and mass of an object. This ratio stays the same, even as space-time expands or contracts, according to the General Theory of Relativity. The recent confirmation by the LIGO project of gravitation waves that also travel at c, were also predicted, so this gives extra weight to the theory

I’ve realised that physics often relates things to each other, without saying which is the ‘fundamental thing’. Does gravity bend space-time or is the curvature of space-time what causes gravity? The equations work either way.

John Archibald Wheeler said it a different way: “Space-time tells matter how to move; matter tells space-time how to curve” and matter can be converted to energy, energy to matter.
Continue reading Idea-bending minds, mind-bending ideas

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I’m through the Digital looking-glass

I think I’ve ‘got’ for the first time what the “DIGITAL” thing is.

I’ve been searching to find the meaning of the phrase “digital transformation”, which I assumed encompassed a change from ‘analogue’ to ‘digital’. I finally understood yesterday – that’s not what it’s really about.

The transformation happened slowly to me, over most of my life. My first programming was planned on paper then character boxes were filled-in with a graphite pencil on cards. They were shipped by road to a punch machine that punched the binary codes onto the cards which were then were fed into a computer by operators I never saw. A week later I got some printout back, usually telling me what had gone wrong.

Soon after arriving at university, I had access to GEORGE 3’s Multiple On-line Programming system: a terminal. I used a line editor to create a card-image file which was stored on disk then later submitted to the batch queue. Undergraduates were only allocated space to store one program at a time. There wasn’t room to keep things permanently on-line because of the price of disk space. Some of the research students still walked around with boxes of cards. It was easy to copy a card-stack on one of the card punches and keep it in a safe place. They could probably store more code that way.

I’ve been mostly digital since the 1970s but I saw my digital world as a binary virtualisation of a physical medium. I moved very slowly from dependence on physical to online-only artifacts which had always been representations of digital data.

I realised yesterday that most people have only recently moved their business objects: files, documents, photographs, drawings, 3D-models and social network connection information into the digital realm – from atoms to bits. That frees those objects from their bindings at a single, fixed physical location, leaving them to roam in more than the 3 dimensions of our visualisable reality. This paradigm shift has suddenly hit many without warning, like a revolution, whereas I experienced it as a series of small increments. I’ve been greatly underestimating how disorienting it has been for other industries to reluctantly release their tight grip on physical objects and how worrying it may be for those still facing the cultural adjustment.

I remembered the other day that I used to jump off a shed roof at 5 years old. I could see the spot where I would land. I can’t imagine throwing myself out of a plane into free-fall and that’s why there are ‘digital coaches’. My empathy has been retrieved from an old backup tape. I’m sorry if my lack of understanding ever inconvenienced anyone.

The functional Pi Racket

I have a love/hate relationship with Clojure tooling.

I wanted to learn functional programming (FP) in a Lisp because:
1. There’s a thing I want to do and it felt like the right way to do it
N.B. ‘right’ is not always ‘easiest’
2. Lisp once beat me up quite badly. I’m bigger now. I wanted to go back and punch it on the nose
3. I won’t really ‘get’ immutability until I do some, with no option to cheat.
3. I find homoiconic functional programming conceptually elegant…

…then you try using the Clojure development environment and discover there isn’t one that everyone agrees on and the one used by expert requires you to learn a new language of keyboard hieroglyphs first.

I’ve done just enough Lisping to think that we are being as irresponsible teaching kids only object oriented programming as the BBC were in teaching them BASIC, but it would be actual child abuse to introduce them to FP via emacs and a language dependent on the underlying Object-Oriented Java Virtual Machine for it’s connection to libraries & reality.

This morning I realised I hadn’t plugged my Raspberry Pi in for ages. If you were a child who started coding with Scratch and a few drum loops on Sonic Pi then maybe a bit of the Squeak Smalltalk (Scratch is written in Squeak) or Python in a nice IDE, imagine being handed the ancient emacs scrolls and sent into a corner for a week to learn spells, before you could even start to learn to function. FP is going to initially make soup of your flabby imperative, ‘place is state’-damaged brain anyway. There is no need to make it harder. Teaching languages don’t have to train you for a job, only to think.

If we are going to raise functional children, we need a gentle slope up to Clojure. Clojure is probably the best practical language but it’s too hard. I’ve seen a few people suggest starting with Racket, which is a version of the Scheme Lisp dialect. This morning I poured DrRacket onto my Pi.

There was a minor hiccup with DrRacket not knowing what language I wanted it to read. Kids would need to be protected from that. I wanted “Determine language from source”, not to tell it I was a ‘beginning student’.

Because DrRacket is multi-lingual, the first line of the source code tells it what language to read:
#lang racket

You type in code then press the run button. This is not your grandfathers emacs REPL. Children should have no natural fear of their (parens). Ooh look, cats!

#lang racket

(define (extract str)
(substring str 4 8))

(extract “the cats out of the bag”)

;;-> “cats”

Relative re-energising in 2018

I read the instructions on my microwav(abl)e lunch: “800W for 4 minutes”. I wondered if that was input or output power. If microwaves got more efficient, would there be an increase in burned food? I needn’t have worried. Our microwave is 1200W in, 800W out but is that Root Mean Square, like a guitar amp? That’s how to blow up 100W speakers with 50W valve amps. They’re Peaky Bosters, like that Cillian Murphy’s accent in Series 1. Should I worry whether my risotto rice will assplode at 3:2 efficiency.

“Why would They label things relative to an obsolete technical standard?”, you might ask, if you’d never seen a modern 11W, 50W-equivalent(ish) light-bulb. You’d think ‘They’d at least have introduced a light-output based standard. There is a standard: ‘Lumens’ (total) and/or ‘Lux’ (intensity.) That’s an adventure for another day.

How many Horse-Power is your car; what size of horse; and how frisky is it feeling? I took a photo of a horse once, using an Digital Single Lens Reflex with a zoom lens that was specified by a foal length in Millimeters equivalent to a 50mm lens on a 35mm diameter camera with a slightly different frame width:height ratio. There are no sprocket holes on the digital either.

I’m trying out dropping ‘title-case’ in blog post titles. I didn’t even know what it was until a week ago. Unnecessary upper-case letters in titles appear to upset the design sensitivity of the font-folk. They have other ways of emphasising and I prefer not to offend people’s aesthetic until I mean to. I was persuaded to conform because the convention scrambles structure, content and style, while over-loading capital letters.

Writing Wrong

I’ve always admired skillful calligraphy and my handwriting isn’t awful, so I’ve thought for a few years that I’d like to try some simple lettering for an art-break from all the digital typing. I’ve bought some cheap cartridge pens with italic nibs in a range of widths. They are flat ended, so they make a broad stroke when used vertically and thin horizontally. I’ve always assumed calligraphers modified the width of the line by rotating the pen. They don’t.

I discovered that modern calligraphers use a pointed nib that splays with pressure, to vary line-width. Now, of course, I’ve realised that would be a lot easier to simulate with a pressure sensitive tablet, without all the messy ink. I can’t help it; I’m a software guy. I’m more about the tools than the medium and I like to have an undo.

Midland Writing

At the both junior schools and the senior school in my village, sports days were organised by competing ‘houses’, named after great Staffordshire people. I think I remember Walton, Wedgwood, Dalton, Spode, Minton, Garrick and at least once I was in Johnson. On Sunday I finally made the long-overdue pilgrimage to visit The Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum & Bookshop in Lichfield, having greatly enjoyed a Summer-time visit to Erasmus Darwin’s house, only a short walk away.

Johnson went to Lichfield Grammar School then Stourbridge before going to Oxford. he left after about a year, enraged at an anonymous gift of new shoes, the last straw in his attempt to cope with his relative poverty. After his marriage and a failed attempt to open a new school in Lichfield, which only attracted 3 pupils, he ran away to London with his pupil, the great actor David Garrick, who remained a life-long friend.

I’d also been to visit Johnson’s rented London home at 17 Gough Square in the City of London where he worked from 1748 to 1759, mostly on ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’. Johnson also spent some of his later years with Mr. Henry & Mrs Hester Thrale of Streatham who owned the Anchor Brewery, where Johnson also had an apartment and he remained in contact with Hester until she remarried after her husband’s death, when he cut off their friendship.

I tried writing with a quill pen which reminded me that my attempt to learn some basic calligraphy had lapsed. Johnson’s father Michael was a bookseller. I didn’t know that this also meant bookbinder. The books arrived as printed blocks to be bound on site. Johnson was first published in Birmingham by John Baskerville, now a resident of Warstone Lane Cemetery.

Since, I looked at therange.co.uk where I knew I had seen calligraphy dip pen sets. The ones I had remembered are by Manuscript, https://www.calligraphy.co.uk/. They come with a nib tin bearing the logo of D. Leonardt & Co. of Birmingham. They have now moved to Shropshire, along with Joseph Gillot, now part of William Mitchell Ltd. https://www.williammitchellcalligraphy.co.uk/ They are the only remaining English pen manufacturers. In 1850, Birmingham manufactured half of the world’s pens.

I also learned that I’ve been using the wrong kind of pen. Italic pens are not the route to good calligraphy.

What I Don’t Know

A Wiki is sometimes described by the ‘backronym’ “What I Know Is”.

Recently I’ve been using Quora. You can ask a question or, if you see someone else’s question and think you know the answer, you can reply. Over time, you become associated with areas of knowledge that interest you. The obvious equivalent to the Wiki translation would be “What I want to know is” but you always have to use social systems to understand their dynamics. I didn’t ‘get’ Twitter until I’d used it for some time because at first, nothing happens.

I discovered Quora is really about “What I Don’t Know Is”. It’s obvious that by asking a question, you declare a ‘known unknown’  but human ignorance goes deeper than that. As someone who tries to answer questions, you learn about the gaps in your own knowledge, that you are unable to explain a concept you thought you understood and that there are things many people don’t know or understand that you had assumed were obvious to everyone. We all struggle to provide good, clear, concise, unambiguous questions and answers, because we don’t know everything.

I discovered that other people’s thinking and motivations are often very different from mine. I wasn’t aware of how much more of a rush many young people are in to ‘be a star’ at something, often without much understanding of what that something is. I never hurried or set targets, so I wasn’t aware of how much I’d learned about life, until I read some of their questions.

A journey of a thousand thoughts can begin with a single question. The view from the far end of that trail may be different. We need to be curious about everything around us rather than too ambitious to arrive at a fixed destination by the fastest or shortest route. You can dream about the future but it may not arrive packaged as you expect it and pieces may be missing. Plan your early moves, travel at a sustainable rate and stay aware. I’m worried that many of the young hopefuls on Quora will burn-out before they get close to their targets and become disillusioned.

I’m still hungry to learn. There is so much I don’t know and it’s growing all the time.