Human civilization is just not at equilibrium


I was riding in to work this morning, listening to volume two of the Audible version of the Feynman Lectures on Physics (he was discussing symmetry in physical laws).  An accident ahead had closed down all but one lane of traffic, so I got to listen to the lecture much longer than I would have normally; even on a Saturday morning, to have only one lane of traffic open meant that things were very much backed up and slowed down.  In such cases, it’s truly a blessing to be able to listen to one of the great minds of the twentieth century sharing his understanding of the nature of the world.  It almost made the traffic jam pleasant.

As I rode along, listening to Feynman, I thought about how cool and interesting I’ve always found physics to be, especially when explained by one of its greatest practitioners and teachers.  And because Feynman mentioned some specifics of biology and chemistry, such as how the chirality of biological molecules is an accident of history, not a law of nature, I realized how cool and interesting I thought the complexity of biology and chemistry were, too.  After that take-off point, I thought about how cool and interesting was the mathematics that underlies physics, and thus underlies chemistry and biology.  And mathematics is much broader and more complex than just what’s used for physics, and it can all be tremendously interesting.  Even the stuff that’s way beyond my expertise* is fascinating when it’s explained by people who are experts, as on the videos on “Numperphile”, and “Three Blue, One Brown”, for instance.

Even human psychology, with all its biases and heuristics, its “system one” and “system two”, it’s knee-jerk reactions and all the irrationality it entails, is fascinating.  Though it frequently seems irreducibly silly, we can often discern why it’s silly, as a system that evolved under a particular set of circumstances that didn’t necessarily require it always to be fully rational.

So why, then, I wondered, is human sociology—and its compatriot, human history—so ­un­fascinating? Not to say that the details can’t be interesting, but the “pattern” it plays out, especially at the level of politics, popular entertainment, social mores, celebrity, and nowadays social media and the rest of the internet and web, is such a muddle.  The movement of vast flocks of starlings and of immense schools of fish can seem eerily precise, and we know that such epiphenomena can be produced merely by having each unit follow a few simple rules.  But large-scale human interactions are almost never reducible to anything consistent.  If there are mathematical patterns, they are difficult to discern.

I don’t know about you, but I find much of human interaction at the largish scale to be simply irritating and stupid.  It’s muddy.  It’s just a mess.  There’s no fractal-level chaos here, with hidden, self-similar intricacy.  It’s just the chaos of an untended garbage dump.

Then, suddenly**, it occurred to me:  human society is such a mess at least partly because it’s not in any kind of equilibrium.  It’s an unstable system whose parameters are constantly changing.  The human population is growing, and has been for millennia, at an ever-increasing rate.  New technologies, from the initiation of agriculture, to the invention of money, to the creation of the wheel, and to weapons, on into the modern age of deep science and potent technology, produce an ever-changing background set of assumptions in the system.  New methods of interaction and exchange of information, from spoken language, to written language, to moveable type, to the telegraph, to radio, to television, to the internet, have—especially in recent centuries—changed irrevocably the state of what had come before, producing new and ever-messier epiphenomena.

There has not been anything like the time needed for any kind of sociological and civilizational natural selection to take place.  There’s been no way for long-term evolutionarily stable strategies*** to be selected amongst the phenomena of human interactions at large scales, because before any such selection could happen, something fundamental in the driving parameters of the system changed radically.

So I guess maybe we shouldn’t feel too bad about the fact that politics is such an insane mess, that fashion and celebrity and entertainment are bastions of such goofiness, that we have trouble working out the best economic system (if there is such a thing, and if we are even able to define “best by what measure, best for what purpose?”), that social media is such a nightmare of infantile behavior, and that history is such a catalog of tragedy and horror.

The weather may be a chaotic system that’s all but impossible to predict in specifics beyond a few days, but the physics of it is at least consistent****.  The “physics” of human interaction is being subjected to ever-changing constants of nature (if you’ll allow the metaphor).  They may not change by that much at any given time, but we know that even tiny changes in the true “constants of nature” would lead to radically different universes, in most of which we would not be able to exist even for a microsecond.  We should probably be in awe of the fact that civilization survives at all.

This doesn’t mean we should stop trying to solve all the many and varied problems of human civilization.  We must solve them.  But perhaps we (meaning I) should be more forgiving of just how stupid and inefficient and counterproductive and puerile and horrible so many of our institutions seem so often to be.  We’re still in the primordial soup here, and the primordial soup is cloudy.  We must work on it; we must strive to make it ever clearer.  If we don’t, natural selection will do what it seems to do best, which is to wipe out things that don’t have an evolutionarily stable strategy.  But we (meaning I) can at least perhaps try not to be so judgmental about the idiocy of our institutions.  You don’t judge the mind of a trilobite by the standards of the nervous system of a naked house ape.

But you still must address your problems and try to reach some semblance of an evolutionarily stable strategy (or set thereof) for society and civilization.  The trilobites are extinct and have been for a very long time, and the same thing could easily happen to human civilization, and to human individuals.  Nature would not care, would not give us any second chances, would not bend its rules in the slightest for us.  As far as we can tell, it never has, and it never will.

Still, though it seems any mathematical and modellable science of sociology is at a tremendous disadvantage (Asimov’s “psychohistory” is a long way away) and may never be able to become formalized until after humans have reached a Trantor-level of equilibrium, maybe the problems of trying to reach that stage—trying to survive long enough to reach that stage—can be interesting enough in and of themselves.  In any case, interesting or not, they’re problems that can’t be dodged.  Sometimes you just have to shut up work.

*The physics being discussed at that point in the Feynman lectures was not beyond my expertise, for what it’s worth.  I was a Physics major for a little over a year undergrad at Cornell, so I’m not quite a layman in the field.  And as an M.D., my familiarity with biology—at least parts of it—meets the legal definition of “expert”.

**Really.  It was honestly like an epiphany.

***I’m not referring to biological evolution here, but to a broader form of natural selection of sociological states.

****And thus, predictive climate science can be done

An apology straight from my gut

the-garden-of-earthly-delights-1515-8 detail

This was going to be a brief post, because it’s really just meant to be an apology.  As I’ve said before, I intend to write at least one post—preferably one of some substance, if not necessarily any great depth—every week for this, the second and more free-form of my blogs.  However, as I’ve already revealed on my main, eponymous blog*, I had a very nasty GI bug earlier this week that took the metaphorical wind out of my sails…as well as taking quite a bit more out of me in a rather literal sense.  I’ll spare you the details, though I’m sure you can imagine them with a fair amount of accuracy if you’re so inclined.  I’ll simply say that I didn’t have the energy to spare from my struggles to accomplish my daily work to think clearly enough to compose an involved blog post.

This is most distressing because I’ve only recently recommitted myself to writing at least something on this blog every week, for my sake, if for no one else’s benefit.  It seemed unseemly for me simply to seem to let that plan come apart at the seams without saying anything.  At worst, potential followers might decide that it wasn’t worth checking up on this blog on a regular basis, and though I can’t claim yet to have earned a loyal readership, I do want to earn such loyalty and such readers.

Actually, there’s an exaggeration in that last sentence.  “At worst” my failure to write a blog might lead to the destruction of the cosmos and the consignment of all conscious creatures to eternal, maximal torment…Sam Harris’s “the worst possible misery for everyone”.  That seems vanishingly unlikely, though, so I hopefully can be excused for considering—from my perspective—the worst likely outcome as the “worst” outcome.

Probably I’m the only person here who really cares about such pedantry, but I do care about it.  One of the reasons mathematics is so fruitful and so powerful is that it is truly pedantic, absolutely rigorous, and logically defined.  But everything in mathematics can be translated into ordinary language—this must be so, contrary to the statements of some mathematicians and physicists, or else no one would ever be able to be taught how to use it—and ordinary language can, therefore, be used to convey thoughts and ideas with precision and clarity that lend themselves to true logical induction, deduction, abduction, and so on.  And yet, because we use language so loosely and imprecisely—and, of course, because unlike the formalism of mathematics, most languages weren’t invented but merely happened—we arrive at many misunderstandings that contribute to the problems of the world.  I won’t say that perfect communication would obviate all conflicts that exist, but it would help to avoid a great many unnecessary ones, perhaps sparing us more time and energy to deal with issues of greater depth.

Language is crystallized thought.  The sloppy use of language, especially when one really is trying to make a point, is not merely indicative of sloppy thought; the habit of sloppy language can engender sloppy thought.

It’s rather analogous to deciding that you don’t need to use your turn signal every time you turn because sometimes it’s obvious that you’re turning, and sometimes there’s no one else around.  Such slacking tends to become habitual.  People lose their conditioned habits of care—if they had such habits in the first place—and on some occasions, it really matters whether or not a person uses his or her turn signal.  Statistics make it almost inescapably true that this dereliction sometimes leads to property damage, injury, and premature death.

It’s a similar notion to something almost anyone who’s ever been trained in gun safety has been told: Treat every gun as if it is loaded, even if you just personally unloaded it and ensured that it was empty­, so that you’ll never accidentally to treat a loaded gun as if it were not loaded.  Also, never point a gun at anything you wouldn’t be willing to shoot, for similar reasons.

Language may not be quite so immediately perilous as a gun or an automobile, but its power is far greater, and we should treat it with respect…even those of us who can’t help but play with it at times.  We should try to keep the flaws in our personal thought crystals to a minimum, or at least to keep them only where their presence adds to the overall beauty of the structure.

I’m probably stretching that metaphor a bit.

Well, this has been quite a peculiar apology, and I ended up saying more than I expected, but hopefully next week I’ll produce something a little less meandering.  In the meantime, thank you, my readers, for your patience.  And do be careful what you eat.

*Not to be confused with Hieronymus Bosch, though hopefully it is a garden of at least the occasional earthly delight.

You ain’t heavy; you’re my comrades



I’ve been trying to decide what to write about this week for this blog post.  Numerous ideas bounce around in my head every day, and I have at least three “quick memo” files on my smartphone full of blog post topics, some of which I’ve already written, but most of which I haven’t.

I read a lot—I always have—and I listen to podcasts and to audio books during my commute, at least when I’m not listening to music or just letting my thoughts meander like that restless wind inside a letterbox, as John Lennon so beautifully put it.  I even keep vaguely abreast of current events.  Because of all this, and because of the excitable nature of my mind, a great many ideas keep popping up, of varying quality and interest.

Unfortunately, as my life currently stands, I have very few—zero counts as few, right?—people with whom to have deep intellectual discussions…or even shallow intellectual discussions.  This is part of what drives me to want to make Iterations of Zero more active, so that at least I can feel that my thoughts are getting out there and bouncing around the world rather than just around my head.

I greatly admire the speaking, and especially the writing, of the late, great Christopher Hitchens; his rhetoric was certainly of the highest order.  When considering my own non-fiction writing, I’ve occasionally felt envious of and even aspired toward, that harsh, biting style of commentary that he and those like him often used, and my ambitions sometimes drive me to seek that manner of presentation.

In my more serene and sedate moments, though, I realize that such a style is probably not merely “not my cup of tea” but is possibly counterproductive.  There’s enough hostile, accusatory, derisive and derogatory interaction in the world.  There’s too much, in fact.  When explorations of ideas are approached as contests, with the implicit goal of scoring points—or worse, as wars—then the only likely place to expect intellectual growth is among disinterested spectators, and even they are apt to be persuaded more by cleverness of style, by skill with a cunning insult, than by depth of argument, quality of ideas, and consistency of logic.

I can’t endorse this as a way to explore truth.  I don’t have much interest in “debate” as a competition.  I’m much more interested in discussion, in conversation, where there is no shame in being persuaded by the legitimate arguments of one’s interlocutor.

This notion was brought home to me strongly by a recent conversation I had with my brother.  He and I have some minor political disagreements, but neither of us is fanatically committed to them.  We were complaining to each other about how frustrating Facebook in particular is, precisely because people there seem to have so much trouble being civil, if they even try.  With that preface, when our conversation came to areas on which we had some disagreement, I felt the knee-jerk urge to be biting, but it was easily curtailed.  This was my brother, after all.  We shared a room for the first decade and a half of my life, and we are trained, practiced, and naturally disposed to get along with each other.

My brother is not as “formally” educated as I am, but I also know that he is a much more positive person.  I, on the other hand, possess a vastly greater store of inherent malice—which, because of my awareness of it, I’ve trained myself to resist—so it’s easy for me to see, to know, that my brother is as far from being my enemy as it’s possible for someone to be.  I know from literal lifelong experience that his intentions are positive.  Good intentions may not be enough to ensure good outcomes, as the old cliché reminds us, but they do matter, and they certainly say important things about a person.

Because of that conversation, I reminded myself to fear the trap of thinking that those who disagree with me are my enemies.  They are not.  Quite the contrary in most cases.  The very fact that they care about the state of the world and about what’s true means that, at some deep level, they are my allies.

Now, of course, if someone refuses to listen to those who disagree with him, but instead merely insults and even assaults them, that person is not an ally of truth.  But to the degree that people are, at least in principle, open to argument and evidence, they are my brothers, my sisters, my comrades, in the quest better to understand the nature of reality.

Of course, I need to practice what I preach.  I’m a strong advocate of striving to be more reasonable than others, if you want to promote reason and to seek truth.  Obviously, this doesn’t mean conceding what you think is an important point about which you’re convinced you’re correct.  But it does mean recognizing that your opponents are not demons but are people , trying to make their way in the world, trying to figure out what they ought to do, and trying to find the will to do what they ought to do.

It’s a big old universe, and we haven’t been given an instruction manual to it.  No one understands it in its entirety.  And, contrary to the general tone of much of Facebook and Twitter, we can be pretty sure that only a small number of people are willfully—or even willingly—evil.

So, I’m going to try not to take a biting or combative or snarky tone in my writing here; I’m going to try to avoid being derogatory to anyone but myself (I’m the easiest target, anyway).  I’m going to pursue conversation as I would with a brother, a sister, a comrade…which includes accounting for the fact that an interlocutor might not see themselves as such, and so might feel defensive and threatened and even frightened by those with whom he or she disagrees.

We’ve all been taught at various times that to be shown to be wrong, or to admit to being wrong is to fail.  We should really be taught that to be wrong is how we fail…but that the remedy for that is to expose our understanding, such as it is, to well-meaning (and sometimes even not so well-meaning) exploration and criticism.  This is one of the most crucial arguments for freedom of speech, even speech that we find reprehensible.

If I fall short of the above ideals in the future, I beseech you, my readers, to take me to task.

But do try to be polite.

If you want to play the game well, you need to learn the rules

the gambler

Today I’m going to deal with something that’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine, albeit one that may seem nebulous at first.  The thing to which I refer is the common attitude that math and science, such as is taught in primary and secondary school, are not relevant to most people’s daily lives.

I don’t mean by this that most people don’t recognize how important math and science are to technology and to civilization.  I doubt there are many people with such a limited worldview.  I’m thinking of the people who may recognize how powerful and useful mathematics and science are, and who see all things they’ve done for humanity, but who think that their own time learning anything beyond the basics of arithmetic was a waste of time, and that they’ve never used any of it since they learned it in school.

This is silly.  This is foolish.  I have a few rejoinders to such claims.

First, I want to point out that people who exercise—by running, biking, lifting weights, doing push-up, whatever—don’t complain that they’ve never had to do push-ups in their day-to-day life or as part of their jobs.  They don’t whine that they never need to flee predators or chase down prey to survive.  The reason you don’t hear such nonsense is that most people know that the purpose of most exercise isn’t to perfect one’s ability to, say, lift weights beautifully, but to be healthier, stronger, and more physically able.  This attitude can be applied at least as well to mental exercise, whether or not you use the specific tasks with which you exercise your mind anywhere else.  Indeed, mental exercise is probably even more useful and beneficial than bodily workouts are, for a few reasons.  First, the brain has greater and more enduring plasticity and freedom to improve than the body does, and that ability of your brain to grow “stronger” can continue throughout your life, barring neurological illness.

Let’s be honest:  humans don’t rule the world because of our physical acumen.  Numerous animals are stronger, faster, and more fearsome physically than humans (though our endurance is world class).  The reason we are so powerful is because of our outrageously overgrown brains, with which we’ve created external memories and communications that allow us to be social in ways that make honeybees and termites look like hikikomori.  So, if you want to maximize and optimize what makes humans strong, you need to maximize and optimize your mind.  Math and science are among the most rigorous and effective ways to do that.

At a deeper level, though, math and science are fundamental to reality itself in ways that all other endeavors are not.  Galileo famously said that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, and he was not the first or the last great mind to proclaim such Pythagorean sentiments, because it is a very deep and true statement about the universe.  I like to think of it as follows:  mathematics is the programming language of reality.  Everything that happens obeys it, and it cannot be contradicted, because such contradictions—in reality—simply cannot exist.  And science is our best attempt to learn the specifics of the program is in which we live.

Any good gamer will tell you, if you want to win a game—or thrive, or get as high a score as you’re able, or last as long as you can, whatever your goal might be when playing any given game—you need to know the rules.  Math and science are the rules, ultimately, that our game follows.  Human laws and customs are parochial and provincial; laws of nature are absolute.  If you try to go against them, you’ll eventually collide with them, and when you collide with the laws of nature, it’s always you that breaks.

Also, mathematics and science are a lot of fun if you give them a chance.  Contrary to popular belief, to understand and enjoy math and science can be tremendously captivating and inspiring, and they require and stimulate the imagination in ways that mere human stories and cultural creations never could.  As J. B. S. Haldane said, nature is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.  The only thing big enough really to simulate the universe is the universe itself, so we can never completely predict all of what we’re going to find before we find it, but math and science allow us to understand as much of it as possible.

That’s pretty exciting.  And it’s deeper and more real than anything else you’ll ever encounter.  Empires rise and fall; fashion is a form of ugliness so severe that we have to change it every few months; religions come and go; politics is notoriously ephemeral.  But physics is here for good, and as the saying goes, physicists defer only to mathematicians.

And mathematicians defer only to God…if ever.

Introducing a new (planned) regimen


Okay, I want to start doing more writing here on IoZ on a regular basis—to discuss stream-of-consciousness matters, to explore personal philosophy, to share my reactions to current events, my thoughts about science and math, and so on.  I do not, however, want this project to interfere with my daily writing and/or editing schedule, since that is the fundamental purpose and meaning for my life.

Given all that, I’m going to try just to fit this writing into the moments of down-time during my working day—during lunch, for instance—so that I can get it done without interfering with more essential matters.  Hopefully that won’t have a detrimental effect on the quality of the writing; I hope for feedback from you, my most beloved and loyal readers, if such becomes the case.  Still, since Iterations of Zero can, officially, be about anything, and in any format (unlike my “main” blog, which focuses mainly on fiction writing and related matters), I don’t have to feel too constrained.  For instance, I started this current entry without any topic in mind other than to introduce the notion that I mean to write a bit more regularly, hopefully putting at least one entry out a week.

I’m not sure whether I’m going to post pictures with each entry or not.  I suppose you’ll know the answer to that for this entry at least before you even get the chance to read it…though you may not realize that there was a question until you reach this point of the post.

Again, today I plan on just making this more or less stream of consciousness, and for the entries in general more or less to be according to whatever whims drive me on any given day or week.  I’ll try not to let the entries be too dominated by my dysthymia, but I can make no promises.  If I were able to have that degree of control, I would exert it on my own behalf before applying it merely to the blog posts.

That being said, writing new fiction at least tends to do good things for my mood, so hopefully writing a decent amount of non-fiction—which technically is what these blog posts will be, though there may be matters included which are apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate—will have a similar beneficial effects.  It’s at least unlikely to be detrimental…to me, anyway.

I make no promises to my readers.  Caveat lector.

I’ll try to keep the posts from getting too long, and I plan to keep the final length on the order of about a thousand words, perhaps a bit less.  I figure that’s a pretty good amount of reading to digest in a quick sitting.  There may be occasions on which I need to put more than a thousand word’s worth of writing down on a subject, but if it’s very much more, I can always split an entry into more than one part and publish them as a micro-series.  That could be exciting, right?  It might introduce a bit of suspense to the process.

Probably not.

And with that, though it’s slightly shorter than a typical post will probably be, I think we’ve said enough for now.  It is, after all, just an introduction to the new regimen.  I hope you will enjoy my forthcoming posts and my planned increased output volume.

Come Back Again (a song)

Words and Music by Robert Elessar

(c) copyright 2019.  All rights reserved.

Performed by Robert Elessar

Produced by Robert Elessar

Sky blue
Sky gray
Dark and stormy night
Sunny day
Only meeting strangers
Always losing friends
Every new beginning
Always ends.
And if your travels bring you to a place
Where you’re afraid to show your face
All you’ll be is all you’ve been,
So turn around, come back again.

Walking down the street
I saw a car go by with no one driving
I watched it pass and wondered what the hell was going on.
There’s something not quite right, I thought
and hopped a bus that was just arriving
I got it and I sat down fine, but suddenly

I was gone.

Sky blue
Sky black
Creeping slowly forward
Falling back
Nothing ever stops
But nothing really goes
Is there any reason?
No one knows.

But I’d stay by you until the end
In times of darkness I’m your friend
So maybe
If you need
A helping hand
Just turn around
Come back again.

Come back again.

Come back again.

Come back again.

Breaking Me Down (rebuilt)

(c) 2019

Words and Music by Robert Elessar

Produced and performed by Robert Elessar

I sit alone at home sometimes and want to go berserk
But doing that just never seems to work
The shelves are stacked with books but I don’t feel that I could read
While all around a thousand phantoms lurk

I drink a little wine; I eat a little meat
I wonder why I’m shivering in such infernal heat
I feel a little tired; my head’s a little light
I wish that I could close my eyes and block my inner sight.

If you could see me now, you’d probably wonder where I’ve been
But I stand and I fall
And I listen for your call
While hiding out inside the dragon’s den.

I wander ‘round through my internal night
I travel back and forth throughout the town
But if you ask, I’ll tell you I’m all right
My nervousness is just breaking me down.

I listen to the sounds of everybody having fun
I can’t join in ‘cause I don’t have a gun,
They’re scattering their ashes all along the motorway
Then scampering like rabbits on the run

I bounce off all the walls; I turn out all the lights
I always want to hit someone, but I never get in fights
I feel a bit confused; my thoughts are incomplete
There’s tingling in my fingers and there’s swelling in my feet

If you could hear what I hear you would deafen both your ears
But I can’t, and I know
That no matter where I go
I’m followed by the grinding of my gears.

I stare around in paranoiac fright
While grinning at my heartbreak like a clown
So don’t come in, and don’t turn on the light
It’s just my past mistakes breaking me down

I look at all the colors of the pictures in my mind
They’re all so dark, I might as well be blind
The path laid out ahead of me is so filled up with smoke
I think that I’d prefer to just rewind

I roam around the house; I drive around the town
I don’t know if I’m back and forth or if I’m up and down
I dive into the sea; I look into the sky
I try to understand them, but we can’t see eye to eye

If you could see inside my head, your own head would explode
But I nod, and I grin
At the end where I begin
And I smile, and I wave
When I pass an open grave
And I slump, and I sigh
When we have to say goodbye
I’ll see you at the ending of the road

I wander through the wasteland struck with blight
I make my Hell to wear an earthly crown
I smash all mirrors, I can’t stand the sight
Of everything that is breaking me down.