Hello again, World!

I’ve decided to bring my blog back to the world. Hello again, World!

Not only will this let me share my most random thoughts with the world, it will let other people comment on my thoughts (always an interesting exercise), and will provide a potential distraction during my thesis writing (hopefully not, but I hear that procrastination tools are always good during thesis writing…possibly not for the thesis, though).

It will also let me point out various photos as I upload them to my gallery. Who knows, perhaps someone reading this will be inspired to give comments on my photographs, so I can improve my photography skills?

Fundamentally, I believe feedback on what I say and do to be of great importance. This blog will hopefully let people give that feedback easier (or improve their efficiency in ignoring me, if they want), and also lets me give that feedback to other people. And of course it lets me participate in the blogosphere – that wonderful new tool for spreading information around.

So, hello again, world. I apologise for the mess around here: it will be tidied up sooner or later…

</end of rambling, and talking in third person>

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Hello. I’m a crackpot. What’re you?

Crackpot – INTJ
20% Extraversion, 73% Intuition, 73% Thinking, 86% Judging People hate you.Paris Hilton hates Nicole Richie. Lex Luther hates Superman. Garfield hates Mondays.
But none these even rates against the insurmountable hate, people have for you.

I mean, you’re pretty damn clever and you know it. You love to flaunt your potential. Heard the word “arrogant” lately? How about “jerk?” Or perhaps they only say that behind your back.

That’s right. I know I can say this cause you’re not going to cry. You’re not exactly the most emotional person. You’d rather spend time with your theoretical questions and abstract theories than with other people.

Ever been kissed? Ever even been on a date? Trust me, your inflated ego is a complete turnoff with the opposite sex and I am telling you, you’re not that great with relationships as it is. You’re never going to be a dude or chick magnet, purely because you’re more concerned with yourself than others. Meh. They all hate you already anyway.

How about this- “stubborn?” Hrm? Heard that lately? All those facts which don’t fit your theories must just be wrong, right? I mean, really, the vast amounts of time you spend with your head in the clouds…you’re just plain strange.

***

Well, I found that amusing. I don’t think I even have an ego. But then, that could be my ego trying to hide itself… anyway, try the Brutally Honest Personality Test.

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Reinstalling and rebooting

I’ve just reinstalled my computer’s operating system – I’ve messed around with it too much, and changed too many random settings to figure out how to undo some random things that were happening on it. While reinstalling, I noticed something a bit odd about the number of times I rebooted the computer. I use Apple’s Mac OS, so I’m not used to rebooting that often. During the reinstall process – the operating system, and a number of applications – I rebooted a total of three times.

Reboot 1: from old operating system to installer.

Reboot 2: installing latest updates to the OS from Apple
Reboot 3: installing mouse

(When the installer ended, it did reboot the computer into the new operating system, but I’m not counting that as it didn’t realy load up an operating system to install the new OS. :) )

Note the odd one out. Why does something as simple as installing a mouse warrant a reboot of the whole computer? Ah yes, the mouse was made by Microsoft.

Need I say more?

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Handwriting and Psychology

I just came across Kei’s post about what handwriting shows of your personality, and I had to give it a go. (I guess it’s an interesting form of procrastination – I should really be writing an essay atm!). So, out comes the graphics tablet, followed by a short pause as I try to remember how to write. My sample:

The results (and my comments):

  • You plan ahead, and are interested in beauty, design, outward appearance, and symmetry.
    • OK, true to a certain extent.
  • You are a shy, idealistic person who does not find it easy to have relationships, especially intimate ones.
    • True with the first bit, less sure about the second bit – but then, because of the first bit, I’ve not really got much experience of the latter bit!
  • You are diplomatic, objective, and live in the present.
    • Fair enough.
  • You are not very reserved, impatient, self-confident and fond of action.
    • hmm; a little translation’s needed here. So I’m not reserved, but I am patient, not very self-confident, and I’m not fond of action. I’d say that I was reserved, and that I don’t mind action, but the middle bit’s probably correct.
  • You enjoy life in your own way and do not depend on the opinions of others.
    • Well, I _try_ to. I’m not sure how well I succeed, though. Darned ego.

I guess that the idea does make sense – your psychology will affect your handwriting, as it will affect everything else that you do (how you approach it, how much care you put into things, etc.). The question is more how much you can successfully read into it. I’m surprised that the website doesn’t ask for feedback on its results, to try to improve its responses – but then, would people really enter the truth about themselves into a website like that?

Finally, there’s one sentance on the website that I really liked. After you’ve put in your handwriting sample, and got the results, the page says “Like handwriting analysis itself, the evaluation you just received is not a replacement for professional help.” So it’s telling me I need professional help? Gee, thanks!

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Laptops in Lectures

This post has been brought on by this post on Slashdot (or more directly, this article). Basically, a professor at the University of Memphis, USA, has banned laptops from her classroom. As most people who’ve been in a lecture that I’m also attending will know, I use a laptop to take notes down. I’ve decided that I should really explain why I do this, and while I’m at it I’ll describe how I view lectures in general too.

Why do I use a laptop? Well, for starters my handwriting is pretty bad. It’s probably gotten worse now as I don’t write much any more, but even at the start I found reading typed notes much easier. Another reason, which has developed over time, is that I type an awful lot faster than I can write – so I can get down much more of the detail given in the lectures, which is useful when reading through the material again at some future point. And finally, I can type without thinking much about the typing – so I listen to the lecture, and understand more of the material given in it straight away.

What’s the downsides to using a laptop? Well, at the start, I had problems with equations – but I quickly found Mathtype, which means that I can quickly type equations, rather than having to use the mouse to do them. So I can now type equations in pretty easily and quickly, although slower than I can type prose as it requires more key strokes per character (e.g. for greek letters, I hold down the Apple key (I use an Apple Mac computer), and press the ‘g’ key. I then release the Apple key, and press the key for the greek letter – e.g. ‘d’ for delta, ‘g’ for gamma, etc.

Another big problem, and this is one I have yet to resolve adequately, is diagrams. I’ve tried multiple approaches to this over the years – using a mouse (or rather, touchpad) to draw them in takes too long, using a graphics tablet can be confusing (you’re drawing in one place, and it’s appearing in another – though you get used to this), messy (wires everywhere) and slow (mainly due to the software, but also the delays in picking up and putting down the stylus, especially when typing in labels for the diagrams). So at the moment I just get the pen and paper out, doodle the diagrams down, give them an ID, insert the ID into the document at the appropriate place, and draw them in later.

If you’ve read the article I linked to above, you’ll know that the professor basically said that computers take up all of the student’s attention, and also creates a ‘picket fence’ between the student and the teacher. If you’ve read my comments above, you’ll realise that I don’t think this is a problem. What I do think can be problems with using a laptop in class is if the student isn’t using it to take notes – playing games, surfing the internet or chatting via IM has no place in a lecture – or if they’re using it badly, e.g. they can’t type fast. Also, if it distracts the teacher, or other students, then it’s not good. (Incidentally, if you’re in a lecture with me and I’m distracting or annoying you with typing, let me know – I’ll probably ask you why it’s disturbing you, and if you’ve got a valid reason I’ll put the laptop away and use pen and paper. I’ll then chat to you after the lecture about how I can keep the laptop from disturbing you in the future.)

Now, on to my views of lectures in general. I firmly believe that the purpose of a lecture is to convey understanding of the subject material from the teacher to the student. It is not a group note-taking session; that only distracts the student from the subject. Note that this is actually contrary to what the physics department of the University of Manchester (where I am at the moment) officially states.

My ideal lecture course would be either lecture notes provided beforehand (either on paper, or via the web – preferably both; also, either verbose lecture notes or presentation slides), which can be read by the student before the lecture starts. Then, the lecture goes through the material in the notes, with the emphasis being on explaining the material and making sure the students understand it. Regular “Put your hand up if you understand what’s going on” prompts from the teacher should make sure that everyone’s paying attention, and also prevents the “I don’t want to be the only person to put my hand up” that often happens if you ask who doesn’t understand the material. Also, at the end of the lecture do a quick sum up of the lecture, and say what will be taught in the next one – and make sure the students are paying attention, not packing up and trying to leave. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to start off the lecture in a similar way.

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Broadcasting via the Net

In a departure from the usual, this post is about technology. Specifically, TV and the internet. Precisely, how to use the latter to transmit the former.

The internet’s developing pretty nicely – it currently connects a large proportion of the First World, and will hopefully be getting greater inroads into the Third World in the future. Of those that are connected to it now, a large amount of them have nice, fast connections – easily enough to download TW-quality video in real time.

Yet we don’t have TV broadcast by the internet? Why? One reason would probably be piracy concerns, but I won’t talk about here. Another big reason is the sheer amount of bandwidth that the broadcaster would need. Let me explain.

The internet works by you requesting data from a server, and that server sending the data to you via a series of relays. That data goes to you, and only you (excluding people snooping on it, but that’s another topic). So were you to receive a TV channel by the ‘net, then there would be a dedicated stream running from the server directly to you. For decent video quality, that requires a fair bit rate – and that bit rate needs to be delivered to a few million people simultaneously. That’s a huge amount of data that the TV station’s server needs to pump out – far more than is feasible.

So, how can this be got around? My answer would be to mirror what TV stations currently do to a certain extent – broadcast something once, and let everyone get copies of it. How? Imagine the server, sending out a single stream of video. You want to get this to the millions of recipients. Those recipients are connected to the server via a whole set of wires, relays and routers. The last of these is important here. Whenever the signal gets to a router, and needs to go more than one way, the router should just send copies of it each way. Think of it as a tree system, with the broadcasting server at the trunk, the recipients as the leaves, and the routers as the points where branches sprout off.

There’s a number of things that you need in order to do this. Some are easy, some are very difficult. First, an easy one: you need to know all of the recipients that want the TV signal. That’s easy because you just continue receiving the same requests as currently happen. Now, the difficult ones. You need to know the topography of the internet – the quickest routes to each of the recipients, and also the most economical (the routes which will cut the number of copies, and hence the total amount of data traveling through the internet, down to a minimum). That’s difficult, but not impossible with a fair bit of math and computer programming.

The most difficult problem is that you need to split the signal at the routers, which requires software running on the routers looking for the splitting commands. On the internet as a whole, that’s a huge amount of routers – most of which would probably need replacing to be able to cope with this (Cisco and the like would probably love that). The good news is that not all routers need to be able to do this – you can substitute for those that can’t by using the current system of multiple streams, such that you end up with multiple trees.

I should say that this doesn’t only have applications with TV broadcasting – it would apply to normal data being transmitted, if routers could combine pieces of data that are the same and are going to geographically close-together locations. That would probably cut down the amount of data being transmitted at any one time by a fair amount, in the same way that zipping a set of files decreases the amount of disk space needed to store them. It would also remove the problem of servers dying whenever large amounts of people simultaneously access them (e.g. the Slashdot effect).

I’ll finish with the downsides. First, this system would be very much time-based – the data would have to be requested, and/or transmitted, simultaneously to multiple recipients. The second is probably the killer – privacy and copy-protection. The routers would need to read through the content to some extent to process it, i.e. compress it and tag it with multiple locations. People would probably consider that to be rather Big Brother-ish. Also, such things as the so-called Digital Rights Management (DRM) would probably be incompatible with this system, as would encryption (as I understand it, both of these mix up the data in unique ways, such that only the intended recipients can view it – these would then have to be treated as separate data streams). But then, the current TV broadcasting systems don’t have DRM or encryption – anyone with a TV and an ariel can receive them. So maybe there’s hope for this idea yet.

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Omnipresence

A realization I had recently relates to one of the fundamentals of physics – it’s all about differences. Once more, it seems, I’m going to run into problems with the english language in this post – although in this case, that could well just be me. What’s probably going to cause more of a problem is that I’m going to talk about religion a bit later on.

At no point in physics, except in the occasional theory, do we ever talk about something that’s omnipresent (defining this as being constant everywhere), or ubiquitous (being constant at all times). Yes, I know that omnipresent doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the same everywhere – but it will here. And yes, I know that things like the speed of light are constant everywhere – but that’s not what I’m meaning. To describe exactly what I mean, I’m going to have to go into those theories that break this rule of mine – for example, the . To put it precisely,

If something is present at every point that we look at, then we can’t detect it.

But, you’ll say, a piece of wood is present at every point on the piece of wood – true, but the only way we can detect that wood is from an external point of view, such that we recognize that the wood is something different from air. Or to look at it another way, from within the wood – what we see are the particles which make up the wood, made measurable by the lack of stuff surrounding the particles (imagine an atom; it’s some small bits surrounded by nothing).

Let’s look at the theories that state that something is omnipresent. Luminiferous Aether was a theory from the end of the 19th century, invented as something to propagate electromagnetic radiation – or light. The theory is now obsolete.

Let’s take another; the Higgs Field. This is a recent theory (suggested in 1963; it’s a hot topic at the moment) that basically says that particles are given their mass through interactions with an all-permeating (i.e. omnipresent, by my definition), constant field. I’ll say now that I don’t like this theory – simply because it must be omnipresent. It does, however, have a testable spin-off – the Higgs boson. Whether or not this will be found is something for the guys at CERN to discover (or possibly a future particle accelerator, if CERN doesn’t find it), but the omnipresent field will never be testable.

And as a final example, let’s take God. Up to a short time ago, I always thought that God was omnipresent (not necessarily by my definition), but it’s worth reading the Omnipresence article at Wikipedia to find out why this was not always so (in christian religion, that is). Let’s take the modern perspective that God is omnipresent (by the standard definition). If God is omnipresent by my definition, then physics will never be able to come up with a proof of God’s existence, or a proof that God doesn’t exist. I guess we’ll have to wait until we die to find out the definite truth one way or another.

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Dodging the Paradoxes

Once more, this is a post about the Physics and Reality course I’m doing at the moment, although this is slightly off-topic. What I intend to state, along with a couple of examples, is that science has a history of investigation not because of the big questions, but despite them.

What do I mean by this? Let’s take a fairly old example – Zeno’s paradoxes. These basically state the problem of change – “In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.” (Aristotle Physics VI:9, 239b15). What was science’s answer to this? Newtonian mechanics and calculus. I don’t think it’s really gotten much further than that. Since then, we generally just take the position of not worrying about it and getting on with things.

A more recent example would be the Big Bang. Basically put, the age-old question is: where did the universe come from? Well, scientists have poured huge amounts of effort into this, and have come up with the Big Bang model – and this is as close as we can get to answering the question. Science will most likely never come up with a definitive answer to the question; that stays firmly in the grip of religion.

Another example, and the final one I’ll give, would be Quantum Mechanics. This basically puts a fundamental limit on what we can know beyond a certain point – via the uncertainty principle – and I’m slowly getting the feeling that it’s basically saying “don’t worry about it; it’s all just magic”. Which to me seems to be the complete opposite of what science is.

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Two different worldviews

In yesterday’s Physics and Reality seminar, the following came up, and I thought that it was important to write it down. It follows on from the ideas in the previous post a bit.

First, let me explain the phrases I’m going to use here. The first is Dasein (plural: Dasein) – this follows on from Heidigger‘s ‘Being and Time’, where he defined the Dasein to be someone or something that thinks about existence – namely, humans (and any aliens and the like that we come across who also ponder existence). The second is the world-view of quantum mechanics – basically that something is in an undecided state (technically, a superposition of states) until it is observed. A popular example of this would be Schrodinger’s Cat.

Now, the worldviews. The first is the standard scientific (or possibly, intuitive) worldview – the universe is in a fixed state, and is evolving from that state over time. So the world that we scientifically measure is the real one. Quantum mechanically, I’d say that this means that every particle can, and does, act as an observer for the rest of them – such that the universe can evolve into superpositioned states, but such states will collapse down into one state pretty quickly. This might not be quite accurate (note to self: read up on the philosophy behind quantum mechanics), but the important thing for this argument is that the thing that’s measuring stuff, hence collapsing the wavefunctions, is something that physically exists.

The second is the ‘personal viewpoint’ – basically, that Dasein force the universe into a specific state when they observe it. So until a Dasein turns his attention to something, it’s in an undecided state. This means that the only ‘observer’ in quantum mechanics is the Dasein.

An example. Take an electron that’s not in a fixed state – i.e. it’s quantum mechanically in a superposition of states. Have some piece of apparatus which can measure the properties of this electron. Have a Dasein sitting at the controls, looking at the output. The electron will collapse down into one of the possible states. What causes this collapse? Is it the apparatus? Or is it the Dasein?

My response would be: the answer is unknowable. You can go either way, and there will be no proof to contradict you. If you say it’s the apparatus that collapses the electron’s state, how do you know for definite that the wavefunction has collapsed without examining the results? (thus, you being a Dasein, you could be the one to force the collapse). Or if you say it’s the Dasein, how do you prove that it is definately the Dasein? Take away the Dasein and watch the wavefunction not collapse?

So basically, there’s no way to determine which world-view is correct: the scientific one, or the Dasein one.

Aside: Kei’s put an interesting post up about the deduction of Quantum Theology in the same seminar.

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Time

This post will pretty much sum up various thoughts which popped into my head during the last week of the Physics and Reality course I’m currently on, specifically my impressions from the lecture and thoughts I had during the seminar.

In advance, I apologise for the confusion with terms relating to time – the english language is simply not set up for explaining such things well. I would put markers in where problems exist, but they’re probably pretty self-evident anyhow.


Why I don’t like Leibniz time (and why I possibly do, too)

During the lecture, Dr. Barlow introduced the two viewpoints of time held in the 17th century – one by Newton, one by Leibniz. (This relates to the whole Leibniz/Clarke correspondance thing from earlier in the course).

Newton’s time is something that is continuous – think of how we tend to view space, as something that can be split up into infinitesimal pieces, and you can just keep on splitting it up. It acts as a background to everything that goes on in the universe.

Leibniz’s time, on the other hand, is far from continuous – it consists of a series of events, which follow on from previous events in a certain order. There’s no specified interval between each event, no metric. The example given in the lecture was that of a chess game – the actual playing of the game is Newtonian time (on the surface – more about that later), while the list of moves is Leibniz time.

So, why don’t I like Leibniz time? Let’s look at space briefly. It’s generally considered to be continuous, infinitely divisible (again, see later). On top of this, we typically introduce some coordinate system. Let’s stick with cartesian coordinates, and restrict our thinking to one dimension. So we have x = 0, 1, 2, 3, … . You can equally well look at the case when x = 0, 0.25, 1.34, 1.35, … – i.e. remove the metric from the problem. I would consider this to be Leibniz time. My point is that it’s possible to start with a Newtonian time, and reduce it to Leibniz time – so Leibniz time is just a reduced form of Newtonian time, with some information lost.

The problem comes when you look at time on the smallest units possible. I don’t know whether on this kind of scale it becomes quantized or not – Planck timescales would seem to indicate that it does, but they’re just a mathematical argument not a scientific proof. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, dEdt < = h-bar, probably has something to say before we get to those scales, anyhow. But for the sake of this argument, let's say that time is somehow quantized. Wouldn't this be Leibniz time? There would be no way to identify whether or not there's any sort of metric involved here. So what I considered to be Newtonian time above would in fact reduce to Leibniz time.


That pretty much sums up what I was discussing with Kei on the way back from the lecture. I guess it’s a fairly circular argument, with no clear winner, but I generally come down on the side of Newtonian time – at least, while I’m lacking evidence to the contrary.I want to go on to discuss something related (i.e., it’s about time), but which came later in my thinking – it was sort of brought up in the seminar, but I hope to show the divide more clearly here than then.


Two viewpoints on time

There’s two different viewpoints from which you can view time. These represent something much more fundamental in the world, which should become obvious shortly.

The first is the physics viewpoint. This is the standard, accepted one by pretty much any scientist out there. It says that time, and space, are something through which we are passing – it has existence separate to humans, existed before humans, and will continue existing well after humans have become extinct. I guess this’s related to the Newtonian viewpoint of time above.

The second is the personal viewpoint. This is probably the more natural, less abstracted viewpoint – but very much more paranoid, I guess. I would state this as: I was born 21 years ago. I have no proof that the universe before I was born defiantly existed. For all I know, it might all be a big con set up by some god on me, to fool me into thinking that I’m just part of something larger. So the universe, as I see it, came into existence when I was born, and will end its existence when I die.

(In the seminar, this was brought up slightly differently – it was discussed whether time existed before humanity, not before the individual person. I prefer my approach, as it’s much more personal and easily applicable).

The second viewpoint is very much an egotistical viewpoint of the universe – but try to prove that it isn’t the case. Personally, as an aspiring scientist I naturally subscribe to the former, but my mind keeps bringing up the latter. Either way, they’re both just theories – and both are fundamentally unprovable, as the majority of philosophy is. I guess I’ll either find out when I die (read: pass on from this reality), or I’ll never find out. For now, I’ll just stick with theorizing – at the very least, it’s interesting.


The last paragraph would be a really nice place to end this post, but I still have one more point I want to make. I tried to explain this in the seminar, but it didn’t go down well. While this is possibly for good reason, I didn’t hear a good explanation why it is wrong – the lecturer just pointed out the english problems, and left it at that.The question was brought up – if space is expanding (i.e. the expansion of the universe), then is time also expanding? My approach to answering this was that it’s two sides of the same coin. Either space is expanding, while time remains “constant” (this is where the english problems really kick in), or equally well you can say that space is constant while time is “expanding”.This is probably an odd way to look at the problem. If space is remaining constant, then that implies that the various scales are also remaining constant – so for example, atomic scales are constant, but the time they exist in is expanding. What does this do for quantum mechanics? I’m not sure it’s in a good position to answer, but hopefully I’ll find the answer someday. Continue reading

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