this was 2017

No, this is not another lame attempt to predict the future (although it worked out remarkably well). Instead it is about my personal challenge for 2017, following in the footsteps of Mark Zuckerberg.
But I am not as smart as he is, so my goals for 2017 are much more modest: Read 12 books, write 12 computer programs (*), work through 12 physics papers.
I will probably report on my progress throughout the year on this blog, but there is one problem with books: I would like to read good books, but how do I know a good one before I read it?
Perhaps I may pick one from Bloomberg's list of five books to change a conservative's mind, because I am actually worried of becoming too conservative.
But I am also counting on you! Please let me know of any good book you think I should read.


I think I am all set for the beginning of the New Year now.

January book: Masters of Doom
program: Use PhoneGap to make a simple iPhone app.
physics: The instability of AdS and the formation of naked singularities.

February book: Thinking, Fast and Slow
program: Install h2o in R and write a script using randomForest.
physics: A new test of Lorentz invariance.

March books: A Man for All Markets and Der Henker von Wien
program: Create a Jupyter notebook using astroPy.
physics: Naturalness of asymptotically safe Higgs.

April book: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
program: Pong from pixels: reinforcement learning
physics:Black holes and the multiverse. See also this.

... and so on and so forth ...

other books to read:
The Maisky Diaries
Hit Makers
The Internet is Not the answer
Deep Work
The Making of the President

serious repudiation

"The election of Trump is therefore a serious repudiation of media “experts.” Pundits like those at Vox position themselves as “explainers” of reality, disguising the fact that they are making an awful lot of things up in order to cover gaps in their knowledge. [...]
Thus, going forward, we need to have far less confidence in the power of existing empirical data to predict and explain the world. There needs to be a complete reevaluation, not of techniques for estimating probability, but of the meaning and importance that is attributed to probabilities. The truth is that the world is far more unknowable than we think. [...]
Could this all have been avoided? It’s worth saying that in retrospect, running Hillary Clinton for president was never a very good idea. [...]
Let’s learn an important lesson here: do not run a widely-despised ruling-class candidate who has open contempt for the white working class. That is a recipe for electoral catastrophe. [...]
Let’s never again have a campaign in which people were constantly having to defend the indefensible."
Current Affairs via SlateStarCodex

This was one of the few articles about the election that made some sense to me. But so far I don't see that Democrats or the media learned all that much from this debacle - at least not yet.


"This post sketches a hypothetical curriculum for developing ... meta-systematic capabilities. It’s preliminary ...
According to this framework, there is also a stage 4.5, in which you lose the quasi-religious belief in systems, but haven’t yet developed the meta-systematic understanding that can replace blind faith. Stage 4.5 leaves you vulnerable to nihilism, including ontological despair (nothing seems true), epistemological anxiety (nothing seems knowable), and existential depression (nothing seems meaningful). It’s common to get stuck at 4.5, which is awful."
Meaningness via Cosma

I admit that I am indeed stuck at stage 4.5 and I'm not sure those "meta-systematic capabilities" will really help, but I am glad somebody is trying.

stage 4.6: The dance of nebulosity and pattern.

class awareness

"... What he seems to have carried from a boyhood in a blue-collar, union and Democratic family in Norfolk, Va., and through his tour of the American establishment, is an unreconstructed sense of class awareness, or bitterness — or betrayal. The Democratic Party betrayed its working-man roots, just as Hillary Clinton betrayed the longtime Clinton connection — Bill Clinton's connection — to the working man. "The Clinton strength," he says, "was to play to people without a college education. High school people. That's how you win elections." And, likewise, the Republican party would come to betray its working-man constituency forged under Reagan. In sum, the working man was betrayed by the establishment, or what he dismisses as the "donor class." ... That's what the Democrats missed. They were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It's not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about. ..."
The Hollywood Reporter: Ringside with Steve Bannon

I think if one wants to understand 'Trumpism' and what may be ahead in the coming years, it is not a bad idea to understand where Steve Bannon comes from. But the article linked above does not mention Robert Mercer, the money man behind Breitbart and the Trump campaign.

bluish yellow

CIP wrote about languages which have no or only a few words for colors.
This reminded me that I wanted to write about impossible colors. They are of two types and "bluish yellow" and "reddish green" are of the 2nd type, which normally cannot be seen, but the brain can supposedly generate those colors. There is a trick to see e.g. "bluish yellow" described on the wikipedia page, but when I try it, at best I see a "dirty green".
What do you get?


John explains what this year's Nobel prize is about (at least one part of it).


According to the latest forecast, Matthew will reach us Thursday morning as Cat 3 hurricane. Similar to Frances in 2004. I will update this post from time to time.

added: A water vapor image loop.

Wed 9:30am: With every forecast the track shifted a little bit to the West; now it is expected that Matthew will pass Nassau slightly to the West, which makes it worse for us (more surge and rain). Also the sustained winds are expected at 130mph, which is exactly between Cat 3 and 4.
In other words, Matthew will be significantly worse than Frances was and probably the worst hurricane I experienced so far.

The white line is currently the ensemble average of several computer models, indicating the return of Matthew ... WTF !

Wed 7:30pm: Matthew is back to Cat 3 with 120mph winds.
We have the shutters down already. Electric power will be turned off at 11pm, if it does not go out earlier, which will also end internet access. Btw this is one difference between Bahamas and Florida, where they usually leave electricity on until the wind takes down power lines.

Wed 9:30pm: Power is out now, but internet not yet (as you can see); with the electric power the water supply went out too.

Thu 6am: Surprisingly, power is back, we have water and internet. The hurricane is Cat 3 and expected to strengthen to Cat 4 as it passes Nassau to the West.
We have interesting 12h ahead of us, but so far no visible damage to the house.
Currently we have 175 km/h winds, which will increase to 200 km/h between 10am and 11am (according to

Thu 8am: The power is gone again and it seems that the eye wall is finally approaching. The sound of the wind is getting scarier ...
Some trees are down.

Thu 9am: Some scary noises from the roof now; either something landed on it or some shingles took off.

Thu 2pm: It seems the worst is behind us but the wind is still very strong.
There is some damage to our patio but the roof is not leaking.
Lots of trees down and stuff lying around on the street ...
Power is still out and will probably be out for a while, internet runs on battery.

Thu 10:50pm: My final update. Power is already back and we are ok. I hope Florida is well prepared for Matthew.

this is not IgNobel but false

The 2016 IgNobel prize winners have been announced and the medicine prize went to "Christoph Helmchen, Carina Palzer, Thomas Münte, Silke Anders, and Andreas Sprenger, for discovering that if you have an itch on the left side of your body, you can relieve it by looking into a mirror and scratching the right side of your body (and vice versa)."

But I just tried this out and it did not work. I had a random itch on the right side of my face, went to a mirror, looked inside it and scratched the left side. The itch persisted until I scratched the right side.

contact ?

"A candidate signal for SETI is a welcome sign that our efforts in that direction may one day pay off. An international team of researchers has announced the detection of 'a strong signal' in the direction of HD164595 ..."

Did we finally make contact?
Perhaps not, but I will look up what a Kardashev Type II civilization would be - I guess a bit more advanced than our Kardashian type of civilization.


Currently CIP is reading and posting about Christof Koch's confessions and the phee of 'integrated information theory'.

I think the 'dynamic' aspect of consciousness is missing from this proposal and perhaps something like
phee * dphee/dt
would be a better measure.
Of course, this reminds one of dS/dt and the 2nd law, which may be an important feature, considering the proposal of Scott A. that matter has to participate in the arrow of time to be conscious.

Meanwhile, Lubos also wrote about phee, which he understands as a measure of entanglement entropy, and I find his point "mechanisms of the Heisenberg choice" quite remarkable. Here is the connection with the "interpretation problem" again.

Of course, so far this is all idle speculation and it is unclear how one could ever check or falsify these proposals. But, as Einstein remarked, one needs to have a theory first before one knows what to look for ...
It seems to me that this topic is currently in an early stage with many ideas brewing, nothing firm yet - but a big improvement over the situation just a few years ago.
I credit Daniel Dennett for the progress made so far; when he wrote his book Consciousness Explained, it became clear to many (including me) that actually we have no explanation whatsoever.


While you wait on the final word about that 750GeV excess, or the images from Juno, or the final tournament of the Euro 2016 between France and Portugal, or the return of James Corden after a two week break,
you may want to read the recent three blog posts of John Baez, {1}, {2}, {3}, to pass the time.

One begins with the empty set {}, then considers the set which contains the empty set {{}}, then the set which contains the empty set and the set which contains the empty set {{},{{}}}, and so on and so forth.
It turns out that the "and so on and so forth" is real magic and creates the ordinals and in particular large ordinals (*); This is truly mind-boggling stuff and as usual John explains it quite well.

But once you make it to the third blog post, keep in mind that "all the ordinals in this series of posts will be countable", which I find quite amazing to be honest.

(*) Initially one recreates the natural numbers as 0 = {}, 1 = {{}}, etc.
The first large ordinal is encountered as w = {0,1,2...} , i.e. the ordinal associated with the set of all natural numbers.
Then we get to w+1 = {1,2,3, ..., w} and the real fun begins...

explaining consciousness

I think most people who read Daniel Dennett's book Consciousness Explained would agree that at best he made a good attempt to explain away the problem. I think that The Mind's I, which he put together with Douglas Hofstadter, was much better and in particular I liked the story A Conversation with Einstein's Brain (*), because it points out what the problem is actually about (x). I recommend it as a first step into this topic, after all it was my first step ...

(*) The online version of the story is full of typos; you might want to read the actual book to enjoy it.

(x) In short: If my conscious experience is the result of some complex software running on the neural network that is my brain, then the physical details should not matter as long as the underlying computer is equivalent to a universal Turing machine. But such a machine can be realized in many different ways, e.g. as a complicated state machine described in a large book. Can a book be conscious? What happens to my consciousness if this computer pauses or halts forever? Where exactly is my consciousness if the pages of the book are distributed over the world? etc.

to sort false from true

John Holbo is working on the Dr.Seuss-inspired book On Beyond Zarathustra and I guess not only the fans of Friedrich Nietzsche will enjoy it.

"I'll go up the mountain
to sort false from true.
To sort out What's What
and to sort out Who's Who?
And which Wozamawhich
is the Best What to do."

a 5th force ?

"Recently a 6.8σ anomaly has been reported in the opening angle and invariant mass distributions of e+e− pairs produced in 8Be nuclear transitions. The data are explained by a 17 MeV vector gauge boson X that is produced in the decay of an excited state to the ground state, 8Be∗→8BeX, and then decays through X→e+e−. The X boson mediates a fifth force with a characteristic range of 12fm and has milli-charged couplings to up and down quarks and electrons, and a proton coupling that is suppressed relative to neutrons. The protophobic X boson may also alleviate the current 3.6σ discrepancy between the predicted and measured values of the muon's anomalous magnetic moment."

This would be quite a surprising step beyond the standard model, but why did nobody else notice this 17 Mev boson before?

added later: There are now some doubts about the experiment.

added much later: A pretty good explanation of the experiment, relevant theories and also some other anomalies which may or may not be related.

How (not) to translate Tolstoy

"I read you had trouble with the editing of the British Penguin edition of Anna Karenina."
"They hated what we did."
"It was quite something. For example, Kitty meets Levin at the skating rink. She asks him, "Did you come recently?" And the copy editor wrote a comment which said, I'm not sure if you're aware of it, but this word has now acquired different meanings. And there is a better example! Kitty is discussing the upcoming ball. Seventeen-year-old, completely innocent Kitty says, "I do like balls." Again the copy editor wrote, I'm not sure if you're aware . . . Then the editor had this other problem. I had written that Anna "got into the carriage." And the editor said, This is the American usage of the word got. We can't do this in a British edition. You should say Anna went into the carriage. I wrote back, I'm not sure if you're aware of it, but this word has now acquired different meanings..."

I think unfogged is still one of the best blogs out there ...

Sean and The Big Picture

Sean Carroll has just published his book about The Big Picture, which seems to be the kind of book accomplished physicists used to write after they got older.
I have not read it and I have no plans to do so. But he has given us a good idea about its content on his blog, so I can tell you what I find a bit weird about it.

We know that Sean is a believer of the many worlds interpretation (*) and it would make sense to discuss what it suggests for "the meaning of life, the universe and everything" if all possible worlds are equally real in some sense. Others have already discussed this in some parts, but it would have been interesting to get "the big picture" from one of the true believers.

But Sean told us that "The discussion of the basics of quantum mechanics itself is quite brief, and I mention the Many-Worlds formulation only to emphasize that there’s nothing about QM that implies we need to be idealist, anti-realist, or non-determinist".
Later he tells us e.g. this "poetic naturalist" story: "The universe is not a miracle. It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns of nature with scrupulous regularity. Over billions of years it has evolved naturally, from a state of low entropy toward increasing complexity, and it will eventually wind down to a featureless equilibrium condition."
This is obviously along the conventional one-world interpretation most people are familiar with (*).

Either Sean is not really serious about many worlds, or he did not think it through yet, or he left it all for his next book.

(*) As far as I know, his derivation of "the arrow of time" also involves a cosmological multiverse, which is independent of the many worlds interpretation, but surprisingly also mostly missing from his book as far as I can tell. If you find this disappointing, Don Page discussed a much bigger picture in this preprint.

dominoes and chess

I am posting this puzzle for two reasons: It is one of my favorites and I would like to check if Lee, who likes such a challenge, is still reading this blog ...
But of course everybody is invited to post an answer.

We consider a chessboard (8x8 squares) and 32 dominoes. The dominoes are of such size that they cover exactly two squares on the chess board.
But now assume that we cut off two squares at diagonally opposite corners of the chess board and take away one of the dominoes.
Is it possible to put the remaining 31 dominoes on the board so that all of the remaining 62 squares are covered and if yes how?

in a circle

Consider a quarter of a circle (black lines) and the two half circles in it (white).

Can you show that the orange area is equal to the green area?

via DerSpiegel

3 x 5 = ?

As a kid I was really bothered by the idea that everything is uncertain to some extent, except perhaps that I am - whatever that means. Maybe I was too young when I read Descartes for the first time.
It famously took Whitehead and Russell 379 pages to derive the theorem 1+1=2. But can we be sure that they did not make a mistake somewhere? And how would we quantify the uncertainty of that?

Well, today I had a chance to ask the experts: What is the probability that 15=3x5 is actually false?

added later: In the comments that followed Avi estimated the probability as 1:10^10^100.

adventure of a lifetime

Scott tries to (not) answer why the universe exists.
But I suspect what people really want to know is 'Why do I find myself in this strange virtual reality game "Confused Soul On Planet Earth VII" and what happens after I reach the final level?'

Some think they can find an important clue in old books, perhaps even the credits and a hint about the author, but I think it is fair to say that such attempts have failed to reveal anything interesting; the intelligent designer may not be too proud of this creation after all.

Don't get me wrong, there are many great ideas in it, especially in the math and physics area, and many clever puzzles need to be solved yet.
But the whole 'human suffering' idea (*) alone ensures that we are dealing with a design deserving of a Gentleman's C at best.

So what is one supposed to do? I recommend to keep working on a few interesting puzzles and otherwise enjoy the music and dance like a monkey...

(*) But consider what Friedrich thought about that.

LIGO advanced ...

... into a new state, with very concrete rumors about the detection of gravitational waves.
Assuming that this is all true, the gravitational observatory has directly witnessed the merger of two black holes.

via Lubos

added later: It really is all real and amazing and xkcd has already the details of what signals they received.
Btw the best blog post about LIGO is this one imho.

black hole memory

If you have an hour, Malcolm Perry explains to you what the black hole information loss problem is and how to solve it eventually (BMS and all that).


According to 538 the probability for Hillary to win Iowa is currently 79%.
The probability for Ted Cruz to win in Iowa is 52%.

The probability that Britain will leave the EU is around 33% according to betting markets.

And the probability of rain tomorrow in Nassau, Bahamas is 10% according to wunderground.

The question is what "probability" means for each individual case above; I guess The Matrix has 100 different programs labeled "Nassau, January 21, 2016" in its archive and only 10 of them with rain ... but for some reason the programming director recently likes to pick one of the rainy versions (*).

(*) added later: It's raining.

asymptotic safety again

I wrote previously about this approach to quantum gravity and in some sense it is a reason this blog still exists.
Recently, Frank Saueressig et al. were able to answer an important question and argue that their "result vanquishes the longstanding criticism that asymptotic safety will not survive once a "proper perturbative counterterm" is included in the projection space."

There were some comments about it on Jacques Distler's blog, who posted about a different paper.
Let me admit that I understand less than half of what he wrote about soft gravitons and photons, but it does seem to me now that asymptotic safety is in better shape than he thought previously.

Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.

One of the web pages I read on a regular basis is called brainpickings.
Nothing earth shattering, but I like the sentiment expressed e.g. in this short piece about Albert.