Nothing But the Reticulum Exists

No Thing and Nothing

The other day I came across an interview with theoretical physicist and science writer Carlos Rovelli. He was describing ideas from the relational quantum mechanics theory.

Upon a quick scan, one quote caught my eye: “the world is not a set of things with properties.”

Okay, professor. I’ll bite. What is the world?

What’s Interacting?

“The world is a network of interactions,” he states.

Hmm, so, if there are no things with properties, what’s doing all that interacting?

Well, that’s the thing (or, I guess, the nothing?). There’s only the interacting. Nothing has properties until it interacts with something else.

Pretty Zen, right? Hold onto your hat. You ain’t seen nothing yet. Or, um, maybe you have?

Describing relational quantum mechanics, he states, “The idea is that what quantum theory is teaching us is that we should not think that the properties of something (for instance the kicked ball) are always defined. Rather, properties are just the way something affects something else. So, the ball has literally no properties–not even a position–until it affects something, the glass of the windows, for instance.”

Note the word “literally” here. This left me with oh so many questions, especially when he talks about objects. Can there even be objects? So what is an object?

Turns out an object is “the ensemble of the ways in which it affects other objects around itself. An object exists reflected in everything else.”

Got that? No objects unless they interact with other objects. But if there are no objects to start with, where do the other objects come from?

I know some of this is just the inability of language to capture difficult-to-express ideas about quantum mechanics.

But still…

Damn it!

Forced to Read Rovelli (Again)

Once I got to that point in the article point, I knew he had me. I had gone and interacted with his ideas. I could have avoided them. I could have become a human quantum eraser of Rovelli readings.

But no. The ideas and I had interacted and so we both took on properties, I guess. I was then forced to read his next damned book. 

Suddenly, thanks to the instant gratification allure of the Kindle, I was reading Hegoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution. After providing a few character sketches of the originators of quantum theory (Heisenberg, Bohr, Jordan and Dirac) and the key contributions of Schrodenger (who disconcertedly turns out to be a pedophile?), Rovelli quickly outlines the basics of quantum theory, jumps into the famously bizarre implications of the double-slit experiment, and briefly outlines various interpretations of quantum theory, with a rhetorical eye on gently undermining them.

But this is all appetizer stuff, preparing readers for the main course: the relational interpretation of quantum physical.

Rovelli’s Wrought Relationships

Let’s back up a sec. What exactly is the relational quantum mechanics (RQM) interpretation of quantum mechanics? Well, look at it like a game of poker.

You remember how Einstein broke broke 19th-century physics when he said the space and time were only relative rather than absolute concepts?

Well, Rovelli ups the ante on the relativity concept, basically going all in. It’s not only time and space that are relative. It’s everything in the whole of creation!

You Are the Eyes of the Universe

A key part of the original idea is that quantum systems are dependent on observers. That is, the state of the system boils down to a relationship between the observer and the heretofore mentioned system.

Confused? Me too.

Are the observers only conscious beings? Are the ball and window observers unto themselves? That is, do the ball and widow become “real” and interact even if I don’t see them do so, or at least see the outcome (that is, the broken window)?

Reality Is Literally Relative

In Hegoland, Rovelli tries to explain his point of view:

What quantum theory describes…is the way in which one part of nature manifests itself to any other single part of nature….The world that we know, that relates to us, that interests us, what we call “reality,” is the vast web of interacting entities, of which we are a part, that manifest themselves by interacting with each other. It is with this web that we are dealing.

One thing he does try to clear up is the role of the observer, saying that “any interaction between two physical objects can be seen as an observation.” So, I guess that we don’t need a person to see the interaction between a ball and window. They are both observers so their interactions make them take on their respective properties.

At least, I think that’s what he’s saying.

But it’s all relative. For you, a fact may be real yet still not be real for me. That’s the real mind-bender in all this.

The fact that some properties exist only with respect to something else should not overly surprise us. We already knew as much. Speed, for example, is a property that an object has relative to another object. Speed does not exist without being anchored (implicitly or explicitly) to something else. It is a relation between two entities. The discovery of quantum theory is only slightly more radical: it is the discovery that all the properties (variables) of all objects are relational, just as in the case of speed.

The Nodes Are the Links?

According to conventional wisdom, networks are made up of nodes and links, with nodes being connecting points joined with other connecting points via those links. Rovelli writes, “Objects are such only with respect to other objects, they are nodes where bridges meet.”

So, in his view, the links between the nodes only exist when the nodes intersect somehow. I think. So….the links don’t exist and then suddenly they do when the nonexistent objects intersect.

Or, something like that…

Part of my confusion is the fact that objects seldom if ever exist in a vacuum. The ball that’s flying toward the window is, as it travels, intersecting with air molecules, photons, water vapor, and so much more. Are all these things “observers” in Rovelli’s conceptualization?

I think so.

If I’ve got this right, it is the intersection of two no-things that causes something to exist. But then he states, “Entanglement is not a dance for two partners, it is a dance for three.”

The Mysterious Third Dancer

Who or what is the third dancer?

It’s what he refers to as a correlation. That is, anytime there is an interaction between two things, there’s a correlation between them, which he also refers to as an entanglement. Is this related to spooky-action-at-a-distance entanglement? He doesn’t say.

By Paulo Neis – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Here’s how he defines it: “Entanglement…is none other than the external perspective on the very relations that weave reality: the manifestation of one object to another, in the course of an interaction, in which the properties of the objects become actual.”

So, I see a butterfly and, presto, the butterfly and I are entangled. Our reality is the product of that entanglement. Sure, we may have already been entangled with other stuff. For example, the butterfly may have already been entangled with a flower in my neighbor’s garden and I may have already been entangled with my sneakers (among other things) but the butterfly and I literally don’t exist for one another until there’s an entanglement.

At that point, I guess, my sneakers are entangled with me, which is entangled with the butterfly. Am I entangled with the flower on which the butterfly landed before I saw it? Rovelli leaves me guessing on that score.

Whence Lies Objectivity?

You may be asking yourself, “If the butterfly didn’t exist for you until you interacted with it, then why, once I too have seen the butterfly, do you and I agree on its characteristics?”

Good question.

He tries to answer it.

If I know that you have looked at the butterfly’s wings, and you tell me that they were blue, I know that if I look at them I will see them as blue: this is what the theory predicts, despite the fact that properties are relative [his emphasis]. The fragmentation of points of view, the multiplicity of perspective opened up by the fact that properties are only relative, is repaired, made coherent, by this consistency, which is an intrinsic part of the grammar of the theory. This consistency is the basis of the intersubjectivity of our communal vision of the world.

The Mind of God

I don’t know how things that don’t exist (or, at least, don’t have properties) can interact with one another. If he explains that, I somehow missed it.

Maybe groups of realities exist (for example, one with a butterfly and a flower and another with myself and my sneakers) in which all the nodes are interacting with one another. Then somebody (let’s say the butterfly) who has been made real in one reality (by virtue of its interactions) is able to interact with somebody (let’s say me) from a separate reality because of some clash between group/interaction-based realities.

Uh-huh. Even I don’t quite know what that means. I think the holes in Rovelli’s narrative leave me guessing.

Are we all just conceits in the mind of God, with no reality of our own?

Empty Teachings

His ideas also touch on our sense of self. That is, we do not exist in ourselves. Rather, we are made up of a vast reticulum of phenomena, each link and node dependent on others.

Rovelli tries to elucidate further by delving into the ideas of Nāgārjuna, an Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist philosopher who wrote The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way in the second century CE. “The central thesis of Nāgārjuna’s book,” Rovelli writes, “is simply that there is nothing that exists in itself independently from something else. The resonance with quantum physics is immediate.”

(Well, we should note that the resonance is particularly with his theory of quantum physics, but perhaps it’s churlish to point that out.)

The absence of some core, independent entity is known as śūnyatā, which tends to be translated as “emptiness.” So everything, including you and I, are part of this emptiness. He explains:

[L]ooking at a star, do I exist? No, not even I. So who is observing the star? No one, says Nāgārjuna. To see a star is a component of that set of interactions that I conventionally call my “self.”

Networks In and Out

Honestly, I can’t tell if we are literally or metaphorically discussing networks here, but it is interesting to think about the connections between our brains, our physical selves, and our quantum existence.

Our brains are networks, with our sense of self largely being emergent out the electrochemical patterns of neurons. Likewise, the rest of our physical selves are emergent from complex adaptive systems. Now, if Rovelli is on the right track, the whole of the universe is a constantly shifting and flowing network of realities. Reality is only seemingly objective. It is actually contingent and relative.

Everything else is emptiness.

I don’t know if that’s the truth of it, but so sayeth the scholar-saint physicist philosopher Carlos Rovelli. Or, at least, that’s the reality I’ve taken away from our interaction.

How it strikes you is no doubt destined to be different. Still, though our realities must be unique, we are now theoretically entangled: you, me, Rovelli and his thousands of other readers. Luckily, however, emptiness is everywhere, so none of us needs to feel the least crowded. Feel free to stretch out and ponder on your own.

Namaste.

How Long Till Renewables Power the World, Not Just Electrify It?

I recently wrote about the exponential growth of renewables as sources of global electricity. The outlook is fairly bright, so to speak, with the data suggesting that by 2037 the vast majority of the electrical grid will be powered by renewables.

Whether that turns out to be true or not, however, it only looks at a proportion of all energy usage. After all, we know that electricity is just a subset of energy, although we often think of them as one in the same.

In 2021, for example, the world produced 28,214.07 terawatt hours of electricity. In the same year, the world consumed 176,432 terawatt hours of energy. Therefore, electricity represents just 16% of the total energy consumed. Creating a carbon-free clean energy grid is not half the battle. It’s only 16% of it. Our global energy reticulum is much vaster.

IF Renewable Exponential Growth, THEN….

But that 16% figure may not be as depressing at it sounds. Let’s assume that the solar/wind duo continue to double the amount of energy they produce every four years or so.

Now I know this figure may be not conservative enough or may be too conservative. After all, renewable technologies such a wave and tidal energy may start to come into their own during this period, shrinking the periods that represent exponential growth of renewables.

Also, although they’re not renewable per se, non-carbon sources of energy such as modular nuclear fission plants or even nuclear fusion plants may also emerge as a significant source of energy.

But even just sticking with solar and wind energy, if the total amount produced by these sources (which are already the cheapest sources of electricity on the market) double every four years, then they will be able to produce 345,822.4 terawatt hours (TWh) worth of energy by the year 2049. This is, of course, far more than the 176,432 TWh of energy consumed in 2021.

That may also be far more energy than the world needs if, as has happened in the United States since 2009, global energy consumption largely plateaus.

Who’s Right?

If exponential growth of renewables continues, then perhaps folks like author Bjørn Lomborg–who still claims wind and solar energy are a “somewhat boutique” form of energy and that fossil fuels will still account for 70% of energy consumption in 2050–will turn out to be badly mistaken. And not just Lomborg, who seems to be citing data from the U.S. Department of Energy: By current DOE estimates, 75% of U.S. energy will come from fossil fuels in 2050.

Time Is Gonna Tell

Based on the trends we’re currently seeing, my guess is that Lomborg and those DOE projections will turn out to be quite wrong. They fail to take into account the exponential growth projections of renewables. They also neglect other trendlines related to technological innovation, price-driven market forces, and the political will galvanized if and when there are alarming increases in drought and/or a dramatic uptick in the number of heat-related deaths.

On the other hand, what do I know? Some of these folks have spent a lot of time thinking about these trends, so maybe they’ll be right. Or at least closer to right than I’ll be.

Still, I choose to be hopeful. Sure, fossil fuels will be around for the next three decades, but I doubt that they’ll play anything like the outsized role in energy production they do today. (Though they’ll continue a play a role in others areas such as plastics and fertilizer production).

Or, if they do continue to play a large energy role, it will be because they transform fossil fuels into greener fuels (e.g., hydrogen) in ways that somehow capture most of the carbon in the refining process.

Watching the Milestones

We are, of course, already making considerable progress. Scientific American just reported, “Wind and solar output are up 18 percent through Nov. 20 compared to the same time last year and have grown 58 percent compared to 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The government energy tracker predicts that wind, solar and hydro will generate 22 percent of U.S. electricity by the end of this year. That is more than coal at 20 percent and nuclear at 19 percent.”

I should note that 18% annual growth in U.S. renewables gets us very close to a doubling every four years, and this most recent growth occurred before the implementation of the new climate bill.

But how about those longer term predictions? Well, we may not need to wait 30 years to get a clue about them. For example, we should be able to make short-term predications that, if they are relatively accurate, foreshadow longer-term trends. So, here are a couple of markers to hit if we are on a fast track for a low carbon world:

  • By the end of the year 2025, we should see solar and wind accounting for about 5,400 TWh of power globally.
  • By the year 2030 or there abouts we should see solar and wind accounting for about 10,800 TWh of power globally.

Even if we hit those markers, of course, there’s no telling when the S-curve is going to slow things down. And, if the green energy storage problems aren’t figured out and the NIMBY folks stop the growth of more transmission lines, then there could be a backlash against renewables as an undependable energy source. Or, if there is a conflict between the U.S. and China, which makes the lion’s share of solar panels today, then that could throw off the whole global trend.

Choosing Optimism

I know that “hope is not a plan,” but I am considerably more optimistic since the passage of the poorly named Inflation Reduction Act, which is the most important climate bill in U.S. history. I am not, of course, expecting miracles. But the fact that they passed it at all suggests to me that the corporations that hinge on “green” business models finally have enough economic clout and political prestige to help push such legislation over the finish line.

Then there’s the China factor. China is quickly cornering the market on green technologies and U.S. politicians are finally waking up to the fact that this is the near-term future of the global economy.

So, yeah, I am more optimistic because of my jaded perspective that our dismayingly unrepresentative, sold-to-the-highest-bidder political system is finally scenting the smell of the newly minted dollars printed by green(ish) corporations the world over.

Sure, Exxon and company will stay in business. But at least some balance is being struck in our economic and political hallways of power. With any luck, we might all be the beneficiaries of a saner, greener world over the next three decades, though I’m not fool enough to think we don’t yet have a long, long way to go.

Featured image:  Utah solar; a photovoltaic power station; August 2, 2017, Author Photo by Reegan Moen. – U.S. Department of Energy from United States

You Are the Edge of Chaos

As a human being, you either ride the edge of chaos or you perish.

Maybe that’s the wrong verb. It’s not so much that you ride it but that you represent it: you are the edge of chaos.

I’m not exaggerating. No matter how sedate or mundane your life may seem, you literally live in a zone between order and chaos, being a complex adaptive system, or CAS.

What Is a Complex Adaptive System?

We may feel singular, but that’s an illusion. You and I are biological collectives within a social collective within a planet-wide ecosystem. The cells that make up your body and mind are individual agents doing a dynamic dance with one another, an ensemble that is self organizing.

Complex adaptive systems, including yourself,  operate in a transitional space that exists between order and complete randomness. This is the conclusion of various scientists studying the workings of CAS across a variety of disciplines such as mathematics, physics, computer science and biology.

By operating at the edge of chaos, CAS are able to adapt in flexible ways to their changing environments. So, your cells neither fly apart (too much chaos) nor cohere into a changeless whole like a lump of stone or ice (too much order).

For example, when you find yourself in a cold environment, your body reacts in ways that preserve the complex adaptive system that is you. You involuntarily shiver and the blood flow to your extremities may slow to conserve core body heat.

Other Characteristics of CAS

The ability to bestride the edge of chaos is just one of the hallmarks of a CAS. Here’s a list of other characteristics, all of which apply to you:

  • First, you are made of many relatively simple cells, which themselves are made of smaller and simpler elements. In the lingo of CAS, these components are “agents” that are not too complex in themselves but which interact in complex ways.
  • Second, you are nonlinear. That is, the interactions among the multitude of small components of which you are made is nonlinear. This just means that small changes can become big ones and vice versa.  You’re packed with both positive and negative feedback loops.

In fact, the book Feedback Control in Systems Biology states that “even the briefest consideration of the dynamics which arise from the biological reaction kinetics underpinning almost all cellular processes reveals the ubiquity of non-linear phenomena.”

  • Third, you’re an open system, which means you share information and energy with your environment. You take energy in (for example, you eat an apple) and put energy out (for example, you push a lawnmower).

You also take in and share information. You’re taking in this post, for example, which is information that I’m sending out into the world.

  • Fourth, your behavior is determined by the interactions among your many components. There are, for example, the cells and synapses of the matrix known as your brain as well as the cells in the rest of your body. Although it feels as if you, an individual, are in charge of your behavior, it is really the interactions among your many collective components that determine your thoughts and behaviors.
  • Fifth, you are emergent and, therefore, unpredictable. The interactions among your various components are too complex and nonlinear to be entirely anticipated. What emerges are your behaviors and sense of identity. It’s as if you were your own weather system, and your inner weather person (let’s say your consciousness) can’t always forecast what’s going to happen.
  • Sixth, you have a history. Which just means that one interaction leads to another, and your history largely determines your present state, even if it was unpredictability emergent.

What’s Your Point?

Because you are an open system, you are also part of a larger system, an agent in the global ecosystem.

That whole “I am one with the world” trope? Well, it’s literally true. I guess most of us know that at some level, but the ideas underlying complexity theory make it more explicit.

You and I are CAS but we are also agents in a larger whole. We are parts of the grander reticulum.

Featured Image: "Seeking the edge of chaos is not seeking disorder or randomness but the right balance between order and flexibility" (Joost Pauwelyn); 13 December 2011; https://pixabay.com/en/fractal-julia-quantity-mathematics-63166/ WikiImages

American Turkeys: Identify U.S. Politicians Dressed as Pilgrims

Happy Thanksgiving!

I actually had an ancestor on that cold little ship packed with the quasi-lost and often clueless immigrants who had to have their pasty white behinds saved by the merciful, generous and hospitable natives of the land.

Given the way things turned out for the natives, I get that this is not a day everybody wants to celebrate.

On the other hand, the idea of two groups of incredibly different people peaceably sitting down to share a common meal is a good lesson for our rabidly partisan age.

Thus, my images of our current (and some soon to be swapped out) U.S. political leaders below.

Please take them in the spirit in which they are intended, with humor and goodwill to all people (even the ones we consider fantastically dumb and/or cruel) for at least this one day.

Peace.

You can make it a game if you like.

  • One point for every politician you can identify by name
  • Another point for if you can remember their actual title

Answers supplied below

From top left moving right and then back down to the left:

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House

Kevin McCarthy, Republican Leader

Steny Hoyer, Majority Leader

Steve Scalise, Republican Whip

James Clyburn, Majority Whip

Elise Stefanik, Republican Conference Chairman

Katherine Clark, Assistant Speaker

Gary Palmer, Republican Policy Committee Chairman

Hakeem Jeffries, Democratic Caucus Chairman

Kamala Harris, Vice President

Patrick J. Leahy, President Pro Tempore

Charles E. Schumer, Democratic Leader Chairman of the Conference

Richard J. Durbin, Majority Whip

Mitch McConnell, Republican Leader

John Thune, Republican Whip

John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States

Ketanji Brown Jackson, Associate Justice

Joe Biden, President of the United States

How Networks Cause Reality Wars

The Virtues and Vices of Networks

Networks have a lot of virtues. Your personal neural net allows you to think. The Internet allows you to enjoy an astonishing array services and communications. Networks of fabric clothe you. Networks of roads and airports enable fast, cheap travel.

I could go on but you get the idea.

On the other hand, networks can also cause problems: sometimes fatal ones. In fact, they are largely responsible for the “culture wars” (which I think are more accurately defined as “reality wars”)  causing widespread social conflict to the point of weakening or even destroying democracies.

The Problem with Intelligence

When the network of your brain meets the Internet, we get some terrific things… and some downright dangerous ones.

Jeff Hawkins, the author of A Thousand Brains, explains why this happens. It boils down to language, especially written language.

Our brains can believe stuff that isn’t true. This is especially the case when we’re talking about things that we haven’t directly experienced. After all, mammals’ brains were originally evolved to make sense of their own experiences. Only via language are we humans able to communicate the details of our experience to others.

This is a powerful tool for survival. Imagine our ancestors being able to tell one another in detail about where the tree with the ripest fruit is, about which times of day they could avoid the lions stalking prey at the river bank, or about the best ways to craft a bow and arrows.

No doubt humans have always used language to lie, as well. But lying to others when in a small nomadic tribe will typically be a limited affair, affecting small groups of people who know one another well and have shared most of the same experiences.

These days it’s a different story. Lies can be quickly shared with millions of people who have little ability to verify the facts as presented. This can lead to widespread belief in fabrications, flawed understandings, and convoluted conspiracy theories.

The Truth of Pocket Pink Pachyderms

Let’s say you’ve read on some blog that there is a species of salmon-colored elephants you can hold in the palm of your hand. “Really?” you think. “Too weird!”

The blog goes into detail about how some elephant experts spliced the DNA from Borneo pygmy elephants with the modified RNA of pot-bellied pigs, and how there are rich women in Indonesia who keep them in jewel-adorned bird cages as status symbols.

“Huh,” you think. “That seems way too detailed to be bogus.”

So you Google it and sure enough there’s a YouTube personality telling you they have a good friend who owns one of the tiny elephants and just adores it.

Yes, there’s a fact-checking website that says the tiny elephants are a hoax, but you don’t believe such websites because they’re all controlled by the mainstream media. You never believe anything from the MSM. You believe in real people on the Internet.

Speaking of which, you found another YouTuber who shares your views on many issues and says he personally saw one of the tiny pink elephants. He even shows a video of one of them (though another YouTube watcher claims the creature is just a newly born aardvark, a claim that sounds like sheer sour grapes to you).

Pretty soon you’re part of a private social media channel where people discuss the nefarious black market trade in these adorable creatures. Yet governments are doing nothing to stop this trade. Why not?  There must be an international cover up!

You have not personally seen the exquisite but vulnerable salmon-colored elephants in the flesh, but some people you know strongly believe in “pocket pachyderm” rights and are lobbying to make them legal service animals they can bring on airplanes.

This Is Your Brain on Memes

The pocket pink elephant is just an example of how memes get started and spread. Memes are ideas that spread from from brain to brain much as viruses spread from body to body. That is, they spread quickly, sometimes even exponentially, in groups that are susceptible to them.

Memes carry cultural ideas, but sometimes these ideas are based on false premises. That’s where the trouble lies. Hawkins writes, “On its own, a brain will inexorably move toward more and more accurate models of the world. But this process is thwarted, on a global scale, by viral false beliefs.”

Dangerously Different Realities

We’ve already witnessed some of the dangers this brings. The events of January 6th were largely the result of passionate people believing that there was massive fraud during the 2020 presidential election despite an absence of evidence of the sort that could convince judges that those claims were legitimate enough to be worth investigating.

Although most Americans didn’t believe in the so-called Big Lie, millions did.  This conflict of beliefs among people–who have no personal experiences of events and yet form strong opinions on whether or not those events occurred–is a danger to civil society. And, it allows politicians to play on those beliefs in order to maintain and strengthen political power, even if they themselves don’t truly hold those beliefs.

After all, pols can use the strategy of false beliefs to garner more votes, more campaign funding, and greater support for their agendas. This becomes a negative feedback loop in which false beliefs provide support for politicians and other stakeholders (for example, media outlets that sell advertising), who in turn reinforce those beliefs.

Then these beliefs become so widely shared that certain voters demand their leaders express those beliefs. And on it goes, a vicious cycle of belief in things that never happened and yet must be voiced if one wishes to continue to be viewed as a loyal member of a given group.

Networks and New Technologies

This problem is built into the nature of human language and cognition. But it is magnified by the Internet and other networks (e.g., television and radio).

Unless we address this dynamic, things are only going to get worse thanks to generative AI. Those technologies will make it ever easier to for people to mislead others as AI-fabricated photos, videos and audio to become pervasive.

We are, after all, designed to believe our eyes and ears. When we get ever more high quality video and audio fabrications spread over the global network, our reality wars may further intensify.

So, What Are You Gonna Do?

How do we avoid these reality wars? That’s among the most important questions of our age. Although I don’t hold the answers, here are some ideas to think about:

  • Ensure that all fact-checking organizations cite their sources, that assessments are reviewed by balanced editorial committees, and that the public can easily review methodologies and, where possible, sources. These systems can’t and won’t appease every fact-denier that comes along, but they help demonstrate the legitimacy of their analyses.
  • Use technologies such as blockchain to corroborate the authenticity of media sources. This remains difficult to do well, and associations between blockchain technologies and the vagaries of cryptocurrencies do not endear blockchains to the public at large. But over time, blockchains may serve useful role here.
  • Require that all products of generative AI technologies contain impossible or very difficult to remove identifiers that they are fabrications. And develop fake-spotting technologies that are easily used by anyone.
  • Require social media companies to ensure everyone gets at least a chance at a balanced perspective by modifying their link recommendation engines.
  • Require that this topic of how the mind works amid networks to be covered in schools as one major component of digital literacy.
  • Continue to use popular media to educate people about the dangers involved. Movies and documentaries can ultimately make people more aware of how false narratives and fake news works.

Seeing Things Differently

I’m not suggesting that everyone can or should hold the same positions on political or social issues. To a large degree, people can share most of the same realities and yet hold contrary opinions about them.

In fact, competing points of view are essential to the health of a working democracy.

But we need to at least agree on the fundamental facts themselves when it comes to major issues. From there, we can debate the significance of those facts and how they should addressed.

We also need to forge updated cultural attitudes toward politicians. Yes, it’s a trope that politicians lie. But in our current age, lies are more dangerous than ever before. We need to hold them to a higher standard of honesty than in the past. In fact, the 2022 mid-term elections in the United States suggests that this may be happening.

Networks are a fundamental reality, and the Internet is going nowhere barring some global catastrophe. We’ve got to figure out how to use it more wisely. Otherwise, it’ll tear us apart rather than knit us together.

Featured image from Grandjean, Martin (2014). "La connaissance est un réseau". Les Cahiers du Numérique 10 (3): 37-54. DOI:10.3166/LCN.10.3.37-54. Graph representing the metadata of thousands of archive documents. Wikipedia.

Drawing from Dead Illustrators

Yes, I’m a bit obsessed. This is another of my generative AI posts in which I’m experimenting with Stable Diffusion’s ability to imitate the styles of illustrators whose works reside on the Internet (among other places).

All the following illustrators are deceased, which is one of my criteria for using their names this way, as I’ve explained elsewhere.

I carried out a simple experiment. I put the words “illustrator XXX draws men” or “illustrator XXX draws women.” The images below are some of what I consider to be the better outcomes.

It’s true some images I got (and mostly rejected) are a bit weird. Stable Diffusion is still lousy with hands, legs and arms. You’ll sometimes get images of people with three legs or arms growing out of weird places, and hands often have the wrong number of digits, not to mention very long, creepy and crooked fingers.

It’s interesting that the incredible computing power behind these images still can’t count to two and three. I guess that like many of their genius human counterparts, AI artists are crap at the STEM subjects.

Anyway, have a look. You’ll see that each time a different artist’s name is referenced, the AI tends to produce different types of images.

Note that I’ve cut and paste these short artists’ bios from longer Wikipedia entries. For an entire list of illustrators, you can go to this page. There are, of course, living as well as dead illustrators in the Wikipedia entry.

I must reiterate that these illustrations were not drawn by these artists. Instead, I just used their names to help “conjure” the images. They do not reflect the quality of their original art.

Salomon van Abbé – etcher and illustrator of books and magazines

Salomon van Abbé (born Amsterdam, 31 July 1883, died London, 28 February 1955), also known as Jack van Abbé or Jack Abbey, was an artist, etcher and illustrator of books and magazines.

Edwin Austin Abbey – American artist, illustrator, and painter

Edwin Austin Abbey RA (April 1, 1852 – August 1, 1911) was an American muralist, illustrator, and painter. He flourished at the beginning of what is now referred to as the “golden age” of illustration, and is best known for his drawings and paintings of Shakespearean and Victorian subjects, as well as for his painting of Edward VII’s coronation.

Elenore Abbott – American book illustrator, scenic designer, and artist

Elenore Plaisted Abbott (1875–1935) was an American book illustrator, scenic designer, and painter. She illustrated early 20th-century editions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Robinson Crusoe, and Kidnapped.

Dan Adkins – American illustrator of comic books and science-fiction magazines

Danny L. Adkins (March 15, 1937 – May 3, 2013) was an American illustrator who worked mainly for comic books and science-fiction magazines.

Alex Akerbladh – Swedish-born UK comics artist

Alexander (Alex) Akerbladh was a Swedish-born comics artist who drew for the Amalgamated Press in the UK from the 1900s to the 1950s. He painted interiors and figures in oils and watercolours. A freelancer, he worked from home, and his pages are said to have arrived at the AP “in grubby condition, with no trouble taken to erase pencil marks or spilled ink”.

Constantin Alajalov – American painter and illustrator

Constantin Alajálov (also Aladjalov) (18 November 1900 — 23 October 1987) was an Armenian-American painter and illustrator.

Maria Pascual Alberich – Spanish book illustrator

Maria Pasqual i Alberich (Barcelona, 1 July 1933 – 13 December 2011) was a prolific and popular Spanish illustrator.

Annette Allcock – English children’s book illustrator

Annette Allcock née Rookledge, (28 November 1923 – 2 May 2001) was a British artist and illustrator.

The Alpha Test

You may have noticed that all of these illustrators have last names that begin with the letter A. That’s because I only drew from the A section of Wikipedia’s list of illustrators, and I excluded living artists.

I mention this to show that these images are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I suspect that eventually there will be sites, perhaps attached to the AI generators themselves, that use the names of artists as if they were colors in a palette or font styles.

That’s a very odd thought.

Or perhaps they’ll will create algorithms that simply bucket various artists into “schools” and provide examples of those artistic styles. Instead of using Georges Seurat as a “style,” perhaps they will just have a “Pointillist” style that incorporates Seurat into it.

Anyway, we will collectively figure it out. Somebody will probably, perhaps inevitably, make money off the idea. And on we’ll go, with past humanity being used as design tools for future AI.

O brave new world, that has such people in it.

Blogging on My Phone as Guilty Pleasure

Here I lie on the sofa, engaged in one of the of guiltier Internet pleasures for hopeless nerds: phone blogging.

My head on one throw pillow, my feet on another, I lie here tapping away with my right thumb while petting the cat with my left hand as he lies on the rug below, purring away like a small, warm, happy engine. He too is pro-phone-blogging.

My cat is in favor of phone blogging

It’s wonderfully relaxing, almost the opposite of some things that should, by rights, be similar: that is, social media posting.

Sure, I know, blogging is technically social media. There are the occasional comments and likes, which are appreciated, and I’ve even taken to using my Reader to peruse and appreciate other blogs.

But for me, blogging is meditative and creative. It helps me think through issues. It is something to do in the evenings instead of channel surfing or doom scrolling. It’s like taking my brain for a walk.

Blogging via a phone app (in my case, WordPress) takes the pressure off. It’s a much different setup than the standing desk I use for work all day.

The irony is that I’ve never cared for texting given my large hands and wide, knuckly fingers. I’m a reasonably good touch typist on a keyboard but a pathetically poor smartphone plunker.

Yet, my crappy thumb-typing is an advantage when it comes to phone blogging. It requires a plodding, leisurely pace that complements my slowed brain after a full day’s work.

It’s true that I still don’t do most graphics this way (though I’m working on it using the Canva app). I tend to use a laptop for final touches, but the lion’s share of writing is done like this.

I phone blog slowly, like a meandering donkey

So, even as the more technically ambitious ride off into the metaverse, outfitted like virtual knights in their latest VR gear, ready for new quests, I literally poke along. A virtual donkey, happily behind the times, nosing along the winding, reticular paths of my own idle thoughts.

So, that’s how I do it, Renard, in answer to your query on the topic. It’s not fancy and no doubt looks to my wife like sheer, irredeemable sloth.

But, the dinner dishes done, to me it’s a nice hour or so off the beaten paths of the increasingly frantic, irate and irrational Internet. This is the back way, the scenic route, the road less traveled. It is the Tao of the Slow Stroll, and I can recommend it.

All images from Stable Diffusion

Not Me

There is no transfer,

no shooting of the ghost

across town or time

or species of beast.

No beaming

or streaming

through cosmic

or copper wires.

No.


I am dead,

simply,

not me.


And yet,

and yet

wherever there’s an eye,

I may be,

seeing,

being

not the same snuffed candle

but another light,

a separate flame,

maybe roaring or sputtering

or soaring,

a shot in the dark,

a spark in the sky,

not this me, never

again, no,

yet I






Featured image: Van Gogh's "Starry Night"  

Web3 Will Finally Get the Internet Right…Right?

It’s hard for someone who watched the gorgeous clusterfucks of Web 1.0 and 2.0 to get starry-eyed about Web3 (or Web 3.0, or whatever we’re calling it this week).

But a daily dose of cynicism is among the sundry bitter pills that older generations take with their morning coffee. You know, to stay regular.

So, I wanted to use this post as a reason to give the W3 champions the benefit of the doubt and educate myself better about the latest “new and improved” world wide reticulum.

Blockchains: Ledgers for Liberté!

Many of the folks espousing blockchain and cryptocurrency are enthusiastic to the point of mania, seeing the tech as pivotal to forging a brave new Web3 world. Most other people are, however, blockchain agnostic or just plain apathetic. It seems like too much trouble to figure out how the damned thing works. (Then throw NFTs into the mix and you have a whole new level of bafflement.)

So let’s indulge in some obligatory but necessarily incomplete descriptions before we continue.

WTF Is a Blockchain?

A blockchain is a glorified ledger.  It records debits, credits, and closing balances. The magic word is “transactions.”

If you’re old enough to remember balancing a checkbook, then it’s a lot like that, except it’s digital. And somehow going to save the world.

So it’s a spreadsheet? Kind of. Maybe database is more accurate. The data are stored in virtual “blocks” that are virtually “chained” together. Thus, of course, the name.

Bored yet? Hang on. That chain thing? In theory, you can’t break or modify it. So, the database can’t be changed. Fraud is, therefore, tough, and you don’t need some trusted third party to vouch that everything is on the up and up. No traditional contracts and middlemen. In that sense, it’s decentralized. It’s all about the network, baby.

One common trope is that it’s tech forged by libertarian nerds who hate big government, big business and bureaucracies in all their nefarious forms. Therefore, we wind up with an amalgamation of something that pushes all their hot buttons: software plus finance plus ciphers plus decentralization plus implicit political ideology.

So, no, not a sexy look.

But make no mistake. Blockchain is not just for geeks. Not anymore. In fact, whole industries have bought into it. For example, energy companies use it to build peer-to-peer energy trading platforms so that homeowners with solar panels can sell their excess solar energy to neighbors.

Therefore, blockchain becomes solar chic.

Cryptocurrency Runs on Blockchains

Blockchains and cryptocurrencies aren’t synonymous, but they often go hand in hand. Cryptocurrencies are digital money that’s kept secure via cryptography so there’s no counterfeiting them. Most of these currencies are housed on decentralized systems where financial records are maintained and transactions are verified via blockchains.

Got it? Blockchains are the motors that make cryptocurrencies run.

A Very Short History of Cryptocurrencies

The first and best known cryptocurrency, Bitcoin (or BTC), is part of a longish history with its own mythology. The second most common and well known cryptocurrency is ether, or ETH, which is based on Ethereum technology. But these are just the big guns. Other currencies have been popping up like Mario mushrooms after a virtual rainfall. In fact, there are now more than 12,000 cryptocurrencies.

To keep things succinct, I’m just going to present a timeline that’s a combination of what’s on Greekforgeeks, CoinMarketCap and Wikipedia.

A Cryptocurrency Timeline

1991: Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta introduce blockchain technology to time-stamped digital documents, making them “tamper-free”

2000: Stefan Konst publishes his theory of cryptographic secured chains

2004: Hal Finney introduces a digital cash system that keeps the ownership of tokens registered on a “trusted” server

2008: Mystery person Satoshi Nakamoto comes up with the concept of “distributed blockchain,” which provides a peer-to-peer network of time stamping

2009: Satoshi Nakamoto releases the famed white paper on the subject of bitcoin

2014: Various industries start developing blockchain technologies that don’t include cryptocurrencies 

2015: Ethereum Frontier Network is launched, and along come smart contracts and dApps (for decentralized applications)

2016:  Someone exploits a bug in the Ethereum DAO code and hacks the Bitfinex bitcoin exchange.

2019: Amazon announces its Managed Blockchain service on AWS

2021: In 2021, a study by Cambridge University determines that bitcoin used more electricity than Argentina or the Netherlands. El Salvador becomes the first country to make bitcoin legal tender, requiring all businesses to accept the cryptocurrency.

2022: The University of Cambridge estimates that the two largest proof-of-work blockchains, bitcoin and ether, together use twice as much electricity in one year as the whole of Sweden. The Central African Republic is the second nation to make bitcoin legal tender.

Raise a Glass to the WWW 3.0

Okay, with all the crypto and blockchain out of the way, let’s get back to Web3.

(Oh, wait, I forgot NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which are like one-of-a-kind digital objects that can be worth big money as collectables. These seem insane to me, which probably means they’ll play some pivotal economic role in the future).

These are the chief technologies and implied principles of Web3. As with the previous two iterations the Web, the advocates for Web3 argue that just they want to make the world a better place (even if they happen to make a killing along the way).

The main argument against the status quo is that our current systems are too centralized and corporatized. Financial institutions want to control money, governments want to control legal frameworks, and the biggest tech companies want to control data. Daniel Saito sums it up well here:

The problem with this system is that is leads to inequality and injustice. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. The powerful get more power while the powerless are left behind. The web 3.0 economy, on the other hand, is based on a decentralized system. This means that there is no central authority or institution that has control over the system. Instead, it is a network of computers that are all connected to each other.

This makes me smile and sigh. Meet the new techno-idealist, same as the old techno-idealist.

Taking a More Skeptical Approach

Does anyone really believe that the venture capitalists are funding this stuff for the good the humanity? Do we really expect, sticking with an example that Saito uses in his article, that the Nimbies are going away and making room for high-speed rail just because someone’s throwing bitcoins at the project?

At the same time, hope springs eternal. I truly want to think that these technologies will make things better in some ways. Maybe we can avoid a certain amount of corruption, fraud, and concentration of power through blockchains. I want to believe.

But there’s a darker side as well, even leaving aside the horrendous amounts of carbon-producing energy that cryptocurrencies consume in an era of global warming. In the article “Shifting Crypto Landscape Threatens Crime Investigations and Sanctions,” the authors note:

A …. potential cause for concern is the shift away from centralized exchanges, which are required to conduct identify checks for customers, to decentralized exchanges like dYdX and Uniswap, which is estimated to be the largest such exchange. Decentralized exchanges rely on peer-to-peer systems to operate. This means that several computers serve as nodes in a larger network, in contrast to centralized exchanges that are operated by a single entity. Decentralized exchanges make it easier for traders to anonymously buy and sell coins; most such exchanges do not currently comply with “know your customer” laws, which means that it can be cumbersome for government officials to identify the parties involved in cryptocurrency transactions. Because these exchanges are not run by a single entity, they can be exceedingly difficult to police and lack the sanctions-enforcement mechanism of more centralized exchanges.

Look, people are people. The worst ones want to accrue and maintain power at the expense of others. To the extent that Web3 makes this less likely, good.

To the degree it reduces accountability, however, we could wind up with greater concentrations of power. Power that can’t be changed–even theoretically–at the voting booth. Careful what you wish for.

Stay Hungry and Hopeful…But Also Skeptical

I like webs and networks (and wouldn’t have a blog called The Reticulum otherwise). I think networks are fundamental to the universe whereas hierarchies are only emergent.

So, to the degree we can move in the direction of efficient and effective networks, I’m all in. But don’t ask me to believe that Web3 is going to solve the world’s ills via the mechanics of blockchain and crypto. It won’t. The best we can hope for is movement in the direction of a fairer, more just and saner world free of power-hoarding, dangerous-tech-wielding dictator types. (We’re looking at you, Vladimir)

Free markets absolutely have their place. So do collectives. Ultimately what we want are socioeconomic and technical systems that allow us to find the right balance, one that keeps the network from stumbling into disastrous chaos on one hand or frozen intractability on the other hand. Both spell doom.

Those are, after all, the lessons of complexity theory, but that’s for another post.

Identify Your Leaders Drawn Leonardo-style

When I was a kid, we had this huge book of prints by Leonardo da Vinci. I loved it. Still do. So, just for fun, I used Stable Diffusion AI to get 30 images of 20th and 21st century political and business leaders as they might have been drawn by da Vinci. Check them out and see if you can identify these leaders.

The answers are at the end.

Top to bottom:

  1. Bill Clinton
  2. Bill Gates
  3. Boris Johnson
  4. Donald Trump
  5. Indira Gandhi
  6. Joe Biden
  7. Mahatma Gandhi
  8. George W. Bush
  9. Kamala Harris
  10. Hillary Clinton
  11. Jimmy Carter
  12. Justin Trudeau
  13. Emmanuel Macron
  14. Mao Zedong
  15. Narendra Modi
  16. Margaret Thatcher
  17. Angela Merkel
  18. Nelson Mandela
  19. Benjamin Netanyahu
  20. Barak Obama
  21. Oprah Winfrey
  22. Vladimir Putin
  23. Xi Jinping
  24. Elon Musk
  25. Mikhail Gorbachev
  26. Ronald Reagan
  27. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
  28. Donald Trump (again)
  29. John F. Kennedy
  30. Nikita Khrushchev