A seam in the multiverse

Strange things happen at my house. Mostly computer stuff: the sound on my desktop refuses to mute when I ask — no, demand — it; printers mysteriously chat with each other in the dead of night and print out seemingly — only seemingly — incomprehensible reports on their meetings; my ebook, charged to within a nanometer of its battery’s capacity, is dead in the morning despite having been turned off, then charges up perfectly and is fine. It’s possible the ebook is an invited non-voting observer in the printer meetings, but it doesn’t seem to attend them all.

Well, ok, I thought, maybe Julian Assange is using my stuff to communicate with Putin, or something. There are oddly slow periods on the internet, and recently my router went on strike and I had to bring in a scab, which is working fine, but some of my other electronics are behaving strangely since the switch. I am willing to admit I can’t fully control my cyber-paramours. But this morning, the insurrection spread to something not even attached to the internet: my coffeepot.

My habit is to freshly grind some coffee at night before I go to bed, and get everything ready so that when I wake, all I have to do is poke a button, and Bob’s your uncle. Don’t laugh, I actually have an Uncle Bob, although he died at the age of five back in nineteen ought something or other. Anyway, this morning I smugly poked the button, ate my breakfast, and went to pour myself a delicious cuppa.

All I got was hot water.

Damn, I thought, I forgot to put in the coffee! It’s happened before, though rarely. So I opened the top, and, what the hell, there sat the filter, and in it was the proper amount of ground coffee, dry, as they say, as a bone. This is where String Theory, multiverses, and what-not come in. The design of the coffeepot is such that the heated water literally has nowhere else to go but through the coffee and into the pot, unless it clogs completely, in which case it would erupt all over the counter. Which it did not do.

You may have read a piece I posted recently about Shakespearean monkeys, in which I pointed out that, according to the theory of probability, there was no reason they couldn’t crank out, say, Henry V the minute they sat down rather than eons later. Similarly, if we are but one universe in a bubbly lather of multiverse, and if these bubbles, each containing it’s own set of physical laws, are bound to encroach on each other eventually, why not now, and why not at my house?

On the other hand, is it possible I inadvertently put the carafe, still full of water, in its place without first pouring the water in the reservoir?

Nah!

Do you suffer from IQS?

Do you find yourself repeating meaningless platitudes about love, courage, or creativity throughout the day?  Do you attribute nearly every possible sentence in the English language to the same half dozen famous people?  Do you feel strangely moved by reading the same quote for the hundredth time on Twitter or Facebook?  Do you feel an utterance is made more profound by dividing it into lines, pasting it onto a picture of a sunset, and attributing it to a famous dead person?

If so, you may be among the millions who suffer from Internet Quote Syndrome, or IQS.  Here’s what famous people are saying about IQS:

IQS is the single biggest obstacle to peace in the world today. -Mohandas Gandhi

Without a doubt, IQS is Internet Quote Syndrome – Abraham Lincoln

It’s amazing, all the stuff Lincoln said – Mark Twain

But now there’s something you can do about it.  Just send any normal sentence, in any language to me, along with the low, low price of $69.95, and I will read it.

Yes, It’s that simple.  Here’s what Neill Gaiman says about this extraordinary opportunity:

Hold on, you can’t use me; I ain’t dead yet!

So don’t delay, send today!

The illusion of online celebrity

A couple of quotes to ponder:

A politician riding on a wave of tweets feels as if the nation is cheering his every word, even when the nation is actually reading the sports page while a select splinter of hard-core supporters manically pound away on their smartphones. A hundred thousand people cheering you on in the social media feels like a mass movement. But this is a gigantic country.
— Gail Collins

…behavior online is too easily taken as a mirror of reality when it is nothing of the sort. What seems to be the voice of the masses is the voice of a self-appointed few, magnified and distorted.
— David Streitfeld

The reality is, even if you have 10,000 followers on Word Press, Twitter, Facebook, or God knows what else, most people have never heard of you.

We desperately need to get over ourselves.

Why we’re (not) all brilliant

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By Africa. freedigitalphotos.net

It seems to me that the proliferation of know-it-alls (I have to include myself, unfortunately) in world culture is directly traceable to the rise of Wikipedia.  There’s the obvious point that we can get information on almost anything at a click, but there’s also the less obvious inference from the fact that it’s crowd-sourced.

Anybody can add his/her two cents worth, or so the myth goes.  That may have been true at the inception, but try it now, and see how far you get.  That whole wisdom-of-crowds thing got a pretty good thrashing, as it became clear in the early days of Wikipedia that a lot of garbage was being put up.  Eventually, the Wiki-editor was born, and now you need credentials to post, or even revise.

But the myth lives on, and the prevalent, if dubious, implication that one opinion is as good as the next.  Politically attractive as such egalitarianism is, it just ain’t so.  Ironically, everyone seems aware of this in regard to someone else’s opinions; we’ll have to look elsewhere for the root of our narcissism.

The other part of this illusion of expertise is the instant accessibility of information.  This goes back to a very common misconception of long standing: the idea that an expert is nothing more than a repository of data.  There have always been two stereotypes of genius.  On one side is Einstein, standing before a blackboard filled with utterly incomprehensible symbols, and on the other is Ken Jennings, the record Jeopardy winner.  To me, the two represent complementary aspects of genius: Jennings the large working memory, and Einstein the ability to see patterns and implications.  Somehow, in the popular mind, this has gotten reduced to access to large databases.  Presumably, in this view, Einstein simply knew the encryption key which made all those facts available to him.

A recent cartoon has a character saying, “I’ve outsourced my memory to Google.”  Would that it were so simple.  Having all that information accessible in your brain is inherently different from being able to look it up quickly on your computer.  It is where the Jennings and Einstein stereotypes merge; you simply cannot see the pattern in a dataset if you can’t see the dataset all at once, and that requires a large working memory, inside your calabash, not on your desk.  Worse yet, you can’t see the fallacy in any given proposition if you can’t quickly compare it to other propositions.

My students used to ask me how you can choose between two plausible, but contradictory propositions.  Well, googling it will not help.  You need to closely examine the underlying assumptions of the two ideas, as well as the implications.  You also need to see how compatible they are with other propositions.  This is possible without a good working memory, but very difficult.

Much easier to pick a side, and stick with it.  You see this mirrored all the time in online “discussions.”  A makes an assertion; B makes a counter-assertion.  From that point, it’s either alternating re-assertions, or ad hominem, frequently both.  There is an appalling scarcity of any relevance from one comment to another.  If an adversary’s point is acknowledged at all, it is only as a prelude to insult.  “You say x; you’re hopelessly naive.”

Internet knowledge is very broad, but shallow as a puddle, I’m afraid.  Add to that the fact that most search engines will give you what the algorithm says you want, and online genius can be summed up in one word:

Fool.