Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Some intellectual debates in Prague

Your humble correspondent has skipped the December 2018 and June 2019 events of the Klaus Institute – for a combination of reasons which I didn't want to emphasize. But after a delay, most of it may be declassified. The most important reason was that I felt that the folks were significantly more supportive of PM Babiš than I was (and in particular, I didn't want to be surprised and e.g. meet Babiš and be expected to be his fan LOL).

Now this difference seems very small to me again (especially because I enthusiastically expect Babiš to veto the EU carbon neutrality by 2050 on Thursday – today, on Wednesday, the EU will hype its EU New Green Deal) which is why the main excuse not to go to Prague disappeared.

OK, we had some good food and beverages in an Old Town Square café (Café Mozart) – funded not by Petr Kellner as I have thought for years but by Václav Petr, I hope that I remembered the name of the sponsor correctly – and aside from (some nice friendly encounters with others and) an old Czech Canadian geophysicist P.V., former minister and economist K.D., and Mr Jakl, two mayors of Prague were the most interesting people to chat with.

In particular, the ex-mayor (and former ambassador to Austria) who was trained as a solid state physicist and still does related things within the Academia has become a buddy of mine at those events. Of course I think he is a wise and nice guy – and the degree of understanding is probably understandable due to the intersection of the scientific and political backgrounds.

The other mayor told us some amazing stories (how he was unjustifiably harassed by them and) showing that while the Pirate Party – which currently controls Prague's city hall and is supported by something like 1/2 of young voters – is a party of the people who aren't friendly at all, it seems misleading to look at them as if they were a heavily ideological party. The Pirates are sometimes called a far left party for the youth and I often frame them in this way, too.

On the other hand, he did persuade me that they're extremely pragmatic and utilitarian, just defending their interests, and the ideology is just a somewhat random tool to define themselves as a group. But the collective considerations are just a tool for them and the people inside the Pirate Party are mostly self-serving individuals who aren't connected to the culture of the post-Velvet-Revolution years.

Well, I have my independent reasons to agree that the Pirates are utilitarian and non-ideological – like my personal knowledge of their P.R. guy, Mr J.H., whose job is very similar to that of Marek Prchal, the P.R. guy of Babiš's ANO. So while I think that they're still vastly more ideological than Babiš's ANO, the ex-mayor surely had some points backed by his personal experience that imply that the annoying traits of the Pirates can't be fully reduced to their ideology.

The other ex-mayor has spent hours with me. So I asked him many political and social issues that randomly came to my radar in recent months or even days such as
  • Should our side adopt similar tools like the "globalists", e.g. should we promote our own anti-Greta, someone like Soph?
  • Was Europe's social system in the Middle Ages better or worse than the system that existed in the current Muslim world?
and many more. When I somewhat randomly mentioned Thomas Aquinas as a symbol of "our", European medieval intellectuals, he had lots of things to say about him and his background – pretty impressive. Well, I still kept my view that our celebration of "our" dudes such as Thomas Aquinas is mostly a matter of tribalism, the Arabs and Persians do celebrate their own folks from that era (various ibn-someone dudes), and their folks were probably similarly "good or bad" as Aquinas and maybe better.

It's still my conclusion that the West only started to be ahead around 1500 or so with the rise of renaissance, Protestantism, scientific method, republicanism, constitutions, and manufacturing, aside from some other positive events.

Concerning anti-Greta, I saw that it's a widespread opinion in "my" ideological circles that inviting kids into political discussions is just wrong so our side should leave it to the other side. I don't really agree with that – it seems self-defeating. This new political influence of the kids and teenagers seems like an unavoidable fact to me. The very opinion that teenagers shouldn't affect policies in the adult world is a social convention that used to be generally accepted, that used to work, but that is being abandoned now.

Its abolition isn't an automatic road to hell because, you know, some teenagers are pretty smart and even mature. Many of the people whom we consider intelligent as adults were already intelligent as teenagers although most of them had some naive ideas that they repaired later. So I think that we should accept the general shift to these "rules of the game" and assuming this shift, we should try to make sure that it's being done right. In particular, the more intelligent, mature, honest, and independent teenagers should be more visible – and become the possible "alternative" role models for the youth. Well, the tragedy of the situation is shown even by the fact that the normal, better kids must be called "alternative" because the chairs for "common role models" have been hijacked by some people who don't deserve it at all – and some of them are literally mentally ill. I even think that if the actually clever teenagers were intensely looked for and promoted, they would have a high chance to defeat the stupid ones.

This refusal to accept the changing conventions about the role of teenagers in the society seems analogous to another topic that we also discussed, namely the format by which the people absorb information. In particular, is is terrible that people switch from books-printed-on-paper to Kindle and similar stuff? I noticed that lots of traditional people – and not just ideologically rooted right-wingers – feel terrible about the disappearance of the traditional books.

Well, again, I am not one of them at all. It's a pure technicality and the modern "book technologies" just look technically superior in comparison with the old ones. So they should win – their victory in the markets should follow from the meritocracy. After all, the modern displays are capable of producing images that are, at least assuming given light conditions, physically indistinguishable (by the human eye with its resolution) from the books. If the smell of the old books is a great thing, I guess we can replace it by a spray, too. ;-)

I just can't imagine how such a petty "conservative" belief – e.g. that paper should be defended from the invasion of IPS displays – could be considered comparable in importance to the preservation of meritocracy, families, nation states, honesty in the scientific research, and other things. Paper vs Kindle is just a technicality. Mankind has surely survived many such technological transitions and it will survive the current ones, too.

The displays have tons of advantages and make many things faster and more efficient. You can copy-and-paste some quotes and do lots of other things. On the other hand, this very simplicity isn't always a good thing. Don't get me wrong: I think that this simplicity is a good thing in most cases – and almost always a good thing in the hands of a careful user.

However, the simplicity is sometimes a bad thing. I mentioned that as a high school student, I was an Einstein cultist, also willing to believe that Einstein could have found the correct unified field theory. People were just stupid, I used to speculate, and I could just re-read Einstein's forgotten papers, understand them, improve them, and explain to the stupid people why Einstein did find a TOE, after all. ;-)

OK, so I had to get the license to visit the State Scientific Library, get familiar with all the catalogs, pick a good enough German-Czech dictionary (but I did learn some German words by studying Einstein's papers, a year before German was taught to us in the wake of the Velvet Revolution), and I went through Einstein's papers. Even before I understood quantum mechanics (and even before I had good experience with the dot product of vectors and many other basic things LOL), I was able to understand that Einstein didn't get anywhere. If you understand the general theory of relativity well enough and if you roughly know what had to be explained in the later decades of the 20th century (like the list of quarks and leptons), you may easily conclude that Einstein got lost in not very sophisticated types of equations that were detached from what actually waited for a good explanation.

Einstein didn't accept quantum mechanics which was lethal. But he was also looking for his kind of simplicity and beauty that was just of a wrong type. For example, in numerous papers (one of the 3-5 basic directions he tried to elaborated upon), he tried to unify \(g_{\mu\nu}\) and \(F_{\mu\nu}\), the symmetric gravitational and antisymmetric electromagnetic tensor, into some asymmetric tensor \(g_{\mu\nu}+c\cdot F_{\mu\nu}\). Isn't it a nice unification of gravity and electromagnetism?

Well, it's not nice at all because the asymmetric tensor representation is reducible. To insist that a reducible representation must be treated in a unified way is artificial and ugly. And later I understood that this asymmetric tensor actually does appear in string theory but the antisymmetric part is \(B_{\mu\nu}\), a potential generalizing \(A_{\mu}\) to the case of string-like sources, and not a field strength. The equations of motion are second-order differential equations if you use \(g+B\) but Einstein wanted \(g+F\) which are two parts that obey second and first-order equations, respectively. It's too bad to unify or conflate them.

Similar criticism may be raised against another subclass of Einstein's papers that tried to get electromagnetism by adding torsion to the metric tensor. Torsion is really very unnatural and the equations with torsion cannot be said to be "equally simple and natural" as Einstein's original equations. At most, Einstein's equations with torsion would be "on par" with the conventional Einstein-Maxwell coupled system. (We may also disprove these theories experimentally but I really think that you don't absolutely need those experiments to discuss the theoretical credentials of a research direction; Einstein was motivated by aesthetic considerations and independently of experiments, one may understand why this sense of beauty was an example of bad taste.)

On top of that, all these problems ignored the two nuclear forces – and all elementary particle species known to particle physicists. An intelligent teenager may get enough data to become justifiably certain that Einstein couldn't have had discovered a theory of everything in his lifetime – he was clearly uncompetitive with the world's best theoretical physicists in the last 10-25 years of his life.

The only promising direction of "theories beyond GR coupled to matter" that Einstein supported in a satellite paper was the Kaluza-Klein theory but Einstein, a quantum mechanics denier, couldn't get anywhere – he couldn't even understand Klein's original contributions well.

But I digressed. My point was that as a teenager, I had to struggle to access Einstein's papers and because it required some time and energy, it was natural for me to try hard to do it right. These days, a teenager may replace all these steps by a Google search. "What were Einstein's equations for a theory of everything?" you may ask Google. And of course, one gets some top pages that are very far from getting at the tip of the human knowledge.

Well, I think that if some teenagers are as meticulous as I was, they won't be satisfied with the first hits – like a Wikipedia page on "a theory of everything" (although I believe that similar pages are very good for an encyclopedia and Wikipedia has already surpassed old-fashioned encyclopedias in most respects – yes, I may be called biased as a veteran Wikipedia editor who has accumulated some special rights on that server). But even if some folks effectively do what I did, but more efficiently, there is another problem: lots of people are "searching for the truth" although they just don't have the same high standards, intelligence, and integrity as the best teenagers.

So "everyone" can look for his or her truth today and we're being encouraged by the whole system – and explicitly by many people and media outlets – that everyone is equal and everyone may be the new Einstein and all these incredibly toxic lies. As a result, the people who do things right aren't really separated from those who just made a stupid Google search and parrot a few sentences that they have found and they like, for unscientific reasons. That's a very bad outcome and it may be said to be a direct result of the "easy usage" of the new technologies that replaced the classical libraries.

Thirty years ago or more, things were different. No other teenager in Pilsen – and maybe in the world, with a possible exception of Germany where some steps could have been omitted – did what I did in the 1980s. There was a simple algorithm to separate the serious teenage researchers into Einstein's publications on the unified field theories from the non-serious ones: the non-serious ones couldn't get anywhere at all so they couldn't even reproduce the buzzwords from a single paper by Einstein.

But these days, everyone can beat this test or almost any similar "fixed" test. Do you decide to define a serious teenage reader of Einstein's papers as one who knows some buzzword from a paper by Einstein? Well, a non-serious teenage reader can easily pass this test by another Google search. In other words, the modern technologies including the Google search engine have simplified the life for the serious people with high standards; but they have simplified the life of those who cheat even more! And that's bad.

In other words, Feynman liked (and I also like) the Buddhist wisdom "To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell. And so it is with science." where he added the last sentence about science. Perhaps it is even more apt to add "And so it is with Google and other Internet services". These keys may open the gates of heaven but they may also unlock the gates of hell. And the latter gates seem to be more influential these days. Lots of people have been playing with the Internet, unlocked many doors to hell, devils escaped and turned the reckless Internet users to new devils and vampires, and the number of devils, vampires, and gr@tins started to exponentially expand in the world around us.

So many of the insane things that are happening in the society are not due to the complete disappearance of the good people and their good scholarship respecting the scientific integrity etc. Instead, all the evolution is due to the overgrowth of the fake experts, false prophets, pseudoscientists who just did enough Google searches to fool almost everyone but who don't know enough to actually contribute to science according to those who know. And yes, schoolkids who use the Internet to cheat on their exams (or at least take-home exams) should be mentioned as the first obvious example.

Technologies have helped scammers, demagogues, fearmongers, and similar people – and these bad people were probably supported more dramatically by the technologies than the good people were. So it's hard to say whether the overall contribution of Google to the society is positive or negative. If it kills the ability of the society to separate the wheat from the chaff, it's surely a worse damage to mankind than the advantage of abolishing the need to do the paperwork in the Pilsner State Scientific Library. ;-) And if the bad things caused by the Internet are exponentially expanding, it's very likely that they will become (or have become) a contribution to mankind whose magnitude surpasses the good trends' contributions.

There's another argument in favor of "books printed on paper". A friend of the ex-mayor is publishing things and did a survey to figure out whether people in the subway read paper books or books on displays. It's about 50-50, the result seemed to say. But it's plausible that the classical books should be even greater part of the economy of publishing companies because the readers of the classical books are those who are more likely to believe in the old paradigm that "getting good books is non-trivial and one should pay for it (and spend a lot of time with it)". On the other hand, people who read from the displays are more likely to assume that even the good stuff is for free. Because of this "bias" (in a neutral sense – just the failure of the proportionality between the pages that people read and the revenue), even if the number of pages read from displays is equal to the number of pages read from printed books, most of the publishers' revenue may easily come from the classical books.

OK, aside from some "more relaxing topics", we were discussing many more serious things – also many aspects of gr@tinism and its interactions with assorted habitats in our societies. More generally, even though we are drowning in information, I think that the number of serious discussions about such important topics is too low these days. Most of the information that bombards us is low-value information that has exponentially grown due to the individuals who have escaped through the gates of hell.

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