Going to Extremes

How Deep, How High Can Humans Go?

Few among us have seriously dreamed to go where no human has gone before. Far fewer have risked their lives to live that dream. Ahmed Gabr and Reinhold Messner are two men who lived the dream and exceeded the limits of what was thought to be humanly possible. 

Ahmed dreamed of scuba diving deeper than anyone had ever ventured. When Helen and I vacationed to scuba dive in Mexico and the Caribbean, I wondered what attracted people to attempt the deepest dives. There would be little or no light, no beautiful coral or tropical fish. What compelled divers to seek such depths? Of course, I thought it must be either the challenge to exceed what had been done before or to become a notation in a record book. In any case, a serious attempt to set a diving record would require an extraordinary amount of skill and preparation. This is not the stuff of mere dreamers like me.

Ahmed, a 41-year-old Egyptian, prepared for the dive for four years. When the day of the dive arrived, he dove to a depth of over 1,090 feet in just 12 minutes. It took 15 hours to return to the surface to avoid injury from decompression and other risks of the ascent.  

The human record dive is just 3% of the deepest point of the ocean. Other mammals put the human record to shame. A Cuvier's beaked whale was recorded to dive to a depth of nearly 10,000 feet and other living things have been discovered as deep as 31,000 feet. Nevertheless, Ahmed sets the record for us land-based mammals.

Moving to the other extremity of the earth's landmass, Mount Everest rises to 29,029 feet. It was once thought impossible for a human to reach the summit without supplemental oxygen. The highest mountain I ever climbed was Mount Rainier guided my favorite uncle then in his seventies. During the climb, I marveled at the men and women who had climbed Mount Everest. I was climbing a mountain just half as high. Not having acclimated or trained for the climb, I craved (but did not have access to) supplemental oxygen.

In 1978, Reinhold Messner, considered to be the greatest mountain climber of all time, ascended Mount Everest without the aid of supplemental oxygen. Unlike the traditional Everest expeditions, Messner didn't use Sherpas to carry his gear, used no ladders or fixed ropes, no satellite phones, and carried everything he needed on his back. He climbed as fast as he could climbing slopes that normally take days in hours. Don't think he did all this in ideal conditions. He suffered a storm for two days weathering 125 mph winds and temperatures of 45-below-zero, awakening at night gasping for air because sleeping took more oxygen than he could corral. 

Image result for Reinhold Messner
Two years later he made his second ascent climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen in four days; it normally takes a month to climb expedition style.

I wonder what special discipline and drive make people like Reinhold Messner and Ahmed Gabr succeed beyond our perceived human limits. I don't have what it takes. I handle my daily obligations taking out the trash and repairing the house, even building practical and esthetic structures. But the older I get, the more I admire those who did so much more than even the Walter Mitty in me ever fantasized. 

The Richest Man in U.S. History

The Richest Man in U.S. History

If you read the prior blog post and guessed that the richest man in U.S. history exploited essential facilities and property rights to get rich, you would be correct. But John D. Rockefeller (I will call him JD) brings a couple more economic principles to light. Before examining JD's get-rich tactics, let's put his wealth in perspective. Mansa Musa reached his maximum wealth of an estimated $400 billion dollars. At his peak, JD controlled about 1.5% of the U.S. output, an equivalent of $350 billion in today's dollars. That is more than double the wealth of either of the two richest men in the world, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.

John D. Rockefeller 1885.jpg

So how did JD do it? He began his career at age 16 working as an assistant bookkeeper. He enthusiastically delved into all aspects of business and, especially, understanding costs. His early mastery of calculating transportation costs would serve him well later in life. At the age of 20, he and a handful of business partners built an oil refinery. At the time, whale oil was used as the primary source of light in homes. Oil held promise as a lower-cost substitute, but the ultimate importance of oil in the world's economies was not anticipated by anyone including JD. Nor was the concept of an essential facility on his mind. Whether by hunch, luck, or his mastery of good business, he had discovered a proverbial gold mine.

Oil refining was (and is) an essential facility. Between extracting oil from the ground and producing final products like kerosene and gasoline, crude oil must go through the refining bottleneck. To fully exploit the essential facility, JD needed the property right to most or all of the oil refining business. By age 26, JD could see glimpses of the future for oil and the industrial revolution and set about securing property rights to domestic refineries. He bought out his partners who sold cheaply not seeing the future JD saw. Just as he was turning 30 he formed Standard of Ohio and quickly became one of the largest shippers of kerosene and oil in the nation. His next step would be to secure property rights to virtually all refineries in the country and, more importantly, to begin the process of vertical and horizontal integration in the market for all oil products.

Horizontal integration is an economic concept that takes advantage of economies of scale. If one makes automobiles one at a time, the time and cost of the car would be absurdly high. On the other hand, by setting up an assembly line that could produce cars on a much larger scale, the cost per car could fall spectacularly. Reducing the marginal cost of producing a car is the result of economies of scale (with each increase in scale, the cost of producing yet another car, the marginal cost, is lowered). 

JD recognized that if he were to collect more and more oil refineries under Standard Oil, he could take advantage of economies of scale and undercut the prices of the remaining smaller competitors leaving him alone in control of his prized essential facility.

Vertical integration occurs when one acquires the property rights to other businesses "downstream" (oil wells and crude oil pipelines, for example) and "upstream" (manufacturing and distributing final products to consumers, for example). Complete vertical integration would collect the entire production, refining, and distribution of oil-based products under one company. JD set his sights on both horizontal and vertical integration.

The combination of vertical and horizontal integration creates opportunities for economies of scope. For example, by owning or controlling the transportation of refined oil and final products, JD could reduce the cost of transporting the entire scope of his products by combining many products in one delivery contract and in tankers he owned (Jeff Bezos became the wealthiest man today in part by using a similar tactic). He could make home deliveries of more than one product to a home or business at less cost than making two separate deliveries, and so forth. In other words, he could cut costs by managing his products as a group. JD could control the nation's oil-dependent products from bottom to top. He saw opportunities to control horizontal and vertical businesses without owning everything.

To expand his monopoly power over what he couldn't own in the vertical production chain, he found means of control. For example, he used the enormous volumes of his shipping to negotiate rates as low as half the normal shipping rates. By the time JD approached 40 years of age, in addition to owning oil refineries that produced 90% of the nation's refined oil, he owned pipelines, thousands of oil wells, tank cars, home delivery networks, and had developed over 300 final products using refined oil (including paint, tar and hundreds more). But the United States was beginning to treat monopolizing an industry as an abusive business practice not in the public interest, perhaps even criminal behavior.

At age 40, JD was indicted on charges of monopolizing the oil industry. This threatened JD's property rights that had secured his fortune. But he was far from defeated. JD believed that his business practices were a benefit to the public and to the economy. The price of kerosene had dropped 80% since Standard Oil entered the business, for example. Nevertheless, state legislatures made it difficult or impossible to incorporate in one state and operate in another. To comply with the law, JD's oil interests fragmented into more than 40 companies operating in different states. 

But having clever lawyers at his disposal turned the obstacle into an annoyance but not the end of his property rights. He formed the nation's first significant trust. The fragmented companies placed their individual corporate shares of stock in a trust to be managed by the trustees. Nine trustees including JD ran 41 companies consisting of 20,000 domestic wells, 4,000 miles of pipeline, 5,000 tank cars, and over 100,000 employees. The property rights to almost 90% of the world's refining capacity, the oil business's essential facility, remained a property right controlled by JD.

Eventually, antitrust laws strengthened, competition in the oil industry oil throughout the world grew in ways that even JD couldn't control, and JD retired to give much of his fortune to charity.

What JD's story adds to Mansa Musa's story are three things: 1) Property rights in the more modern period operate on a legal and regulatory battlefield rather than on a military battlefield, 2) Horizontal and vertical integration can magnify the value of property rights to essential facilities, and 3) The cost advantages of economies of scale and scope can fortify a business against intrusion from competitors. JD profited from selling at prices competitors could not profitably match.

The Richest Man in World History

Note: this is the first in a series of blogs that explore how economic principles have been exploited to make people rich. 

Mansa Musa: the African King of Kings

It is impossible to say for certain who in the history of the world accumulated the greatest wealth. You can imagine the difficulties comparing the worth of salt, gold, and land across places and times that had no standard way to count money. Indeed, there is controversy today about how to compare the prices we pay now compared to a year ago. We presently rely on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to compare prices of a "typical" mix of goods most people tend to buy. But if you only bought bananas and someone else only bought wine, you would experience very different changes in the cost of living throughout the year.

Nevertheless, economists have ways of roughly estimating who was the most wealthy person in recorded history. However wealth is measured, there is some (though not unanimous) agreement that an African king, Mansa Musa, was the wealthiest person in history. I will use him to illustrate two economic principles that can be used to make one incomprehensibly wealthy. So how did Mansa Musa get to be so rich and how did his heirs lose it all in two generations?

Mansa Musa did not set out to own all the copper mines, salt mines, camels, or riverboats. He acquired and maintained control of what economists call "essential facilities". Most trade moving through Africa was funneled through Mali.  Mansa Musa used military force to expand Mali into an empire that spanned all of western Africa. The Mali Empire encompassed virtually all critical junctures in the overland and river trade routes. The Mali Empire contained the most navigable portions of the River Niger used to transport goods by water. The rich soil of the Niger Delta supported an abundance of food and animals to support trade. Mali housed cities that were centers of cultural, religious, educational, and economic activities. In other words, Mali contained all the resources that were necessary to facilitate trade within Africa and between Africa and Eurasia. Without the support of the Mali Empire, Africa's contribution to trade in much of the ancient world would have remained an obscure footnote in history.

Salt and gold were the most important commodities on the trade routes. Salt was mined in the dry Sahara Desert and transported south where it was an essential nutritional supplement replacing the natural body salts lost through sweat. Salt was transported towards the savanna south of Mali. Gold, an essential component of all international trade, was mined in and near the Mali Empire and exported north to international destinations. Only Mansa Musa could legally own gold nuggets inside Mali, only gold dust was used for local trade. Salt and gold were exchanged ounce for ounce on nearly equal terms. In addition, all goods crossing into or out of the Mali Empire (kola nuts, slaves, copper, and other resources) were taxed by Mansa Musa.

One look at the map of trade routes suggests why the Mali Empire, with Timbuktu at its center, became (what economists term) an essential facility in African trade. Without the support and permission of Mali, African trade would come to a halt. That is the nature of essential facilities: critical production and transactions require the essential facility to function. But it takes more than an essential facility to milk it for wealth.

To exploit an essential facility for gain, one needs to establish and sustain a property right to the facility. Thus the concept of a"property right" is the second lesson in economics Mansa Musa teaches us. Musa inherited the property right to Mali and used his military to encompass all major African trade routes.

Musa sustained his property rights in several important ways. He set taxes on trade at levels that didn't invite serious military challenges. He used his extensive military forces to protect merchants using the trade routes for which merchants were appreciative. And he prevented civil revolts by generously giving to the poor. Musa also promoted Islam as a religion of peace and equality among all humans (likely excepting slaves since he facilitated the slave trade on the trade routes). He is best known for his trek to Mecca leading 60,000 people and lavishing gold on the needy along the way (so much so that he depressed gold prices for years after). However, he ruthlessly dealt with any who threatened him or his regime. He had great management skills and built universities, mosques, and safe urban environments. All of these actions served to sustain his property rights to his essential facilities.

When Mansa Musa died, control of the Mali Empire passed to his heirs who lacked this management skills and strategic thinking. They disregarded the need to balance economic power with an understanding of human nature and complex organizational oversight. Within two generations, all the wealth of the empire was lost amid civil unrest, succession disputes, and the inability of Musa's son and older brother to keep Mali'a vassal states from becoming independent.

Urban Street Dogs

Homeless dog navigating a Moscow subway

During my first year of college a stray dog, living across the street in what we called a hobo camp next to the railroad tracks, adopted me. We were told he hopped morning trains into town returning each evening to camp. He avoided humans but hung around the hobo camp and outside our back door waiting for our nightly scraps of food. Then he discovered beer and hard cider leftover from one of our many parties. He spent more and more time in the house searching for beer. He eventually decided he owned our apartment and any food or beverage of his choosing. He stopped hopping trains. Of course, we gave him a name, Khan (fittingly rhymes with Con)

During a college party night, Kahn introduced himself to one of our guests by grasping the guest's arm with a soft bite but just enough to hold him hostage until Kahn got his share of beer. Kahn occasionally would awaken with a hangover, chewing tin cans to shreds. 

At the end of the school year, Kahn moved to a farm (happily ever after) and I moved to a dorm that didn't allow pets. What stayed with me through the years was how adept Kahn was at surviving and manipulating his environment. One strategy worked at the camp and another at our house.

To this day, I can't pass up an interesting article about the adaptability of street dogs (aka free-ranging urban dogs). For example, much has been written about street dogs in Moscow. Unlike wild dogs, a pack leader often is not the strongest dog in the pack but is the most intelligent. The leader establishes memes that increase survival rates in the urban environment.

 Examples are: the mugger, a dog that sneaks up behind a person about to take a bite of food and sharply barks to startle the person into dropping the food; the pimp, a pack leader will accompany an especially cute dog that attracts attention (and food) from people, the leader, of course, takes his or her cut; and the psychic, a dog that is exceptionally good at reading people and displaying behavior that best manipulates that person. Dogs have been proven to be the only non-primate species that can "read" human faces focusing on the right side of the face which is said to reveal more emotion than the left side.

Another meme is associated with the famous metro dogs. These dogs live in the subways and have learned to catch particular trains or combinations of trains to particular locations of interest (a park, a dog-loving chef, etc.). They return to their sleeping quarters at the end of their urban adventure. To get to a particular destination, it appears that the metro dogs have learned to use some combination of scents at stations, human announcements of station names, habits of regular commuters, and estimates of how long the train has been in motion.

Then there are the dogs of Bucharest. Their survival depends on avoiding automobiles in streets congested with cars and people. Street dogs gather at street intersections waiting with pedestrians until cross-traffic stops before proceeding with the crowd. Even when people are not present some Bucharest dogs have learned to obey traffic lights. Since dogs don't discriminate between red and green well, it is assumed they have learned the position of the brighter light as a cue to cross safely.

So the next time you see a street dog, take time to observe some surprisingly complex adaptive behavior. That's why they're still on the street.

Just Passing Through

The Nobel Prize was given to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald this year (2015) for their discovery that neutrinos have mass; nearly infinitesimal mass, but some mass, and it matters. Neutrinos are the smallest known particles in the universe.  It's hard to conceptualize how small they are though I will try to explain.

The discovery explains some of what we call dark matter. The majority of mass in the universe is "dark" because it cannot be detected like photons; dark matter is detected only by its gravitational influence on objects we can directly detect. Dark matter itself is invisible, hence dark. How much dark matter can be accounted for by neutrinos is unknown.

Neutrinos are important because they probe deeper into matter than any other known particle. We, unlike x-rays, are invisible to any possible neutrino detector. We think we are made of "solid" matter. But we are made of atoms which are 99.999999999999% empty space. What isn't empty space in an atom (outside of its nucleus) is made up of electrons so electrons are much, much smaller than atoms. Neutrinos are less than 1/100,000th the size of electrons; they are so much smaller than atoms that they fly right through them as if they weren't there. For example, by some estimates between 50 trillion and 100 trillion neutrinos originating from the sun's nuclear reactions pass through your body every second (note that the number in the cartoon is way off; more than 65 billion neutrinos pass through your thumbnail each second). They pass through you as if you didn't exist. In fact, most neutrinos from the sun pass through the entire earth as if it weren't there. 

However, more than 50 years ago, 100,000 gallons of cleaning fluid buried very deep in a mine in South Dakota produced an average of one argon molecule per day indicating that a single neutron interacted with a chlorine molecule. Raymond Davis, Jr. figured out how to detect the rare argon molecule in the cleaning fluid. Forty years later, in 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery. 

Unlike quarks and other subatomic particles, neutrinos are not constituents of matter. They just fly through the universe so fast that their speed cannot be distinguished from the speed of light. But neutrinos are now known to have mass and therefore cannot, in theory, actually reach the speed of light (there are erroneous reports, likely due to measurement errors, that neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light).

So are neutrinos of any practical use to us? Neutrinos are invisible to us and we are invisible to neutrinos, they don't coalesce into solid matter, and they don't seem to take much notice of matter as they fly through everything in their path. But neutrinos are potentially practical for two important reasons. Neutrinos, unlike anything else we know, can be used to communicate through any amount of matter on earth. One neutrino detector was able to receive an intelligible message through solid rock thicker than a football field. In theory, using neutrino transmitters and detectors, we could transmit messages from Western Australia to Maine through the center of the earth.

A second practical use of neutrinos is that understanding them gets us significantly closer to understanding the universe and the laws of physics that govern it. For example, because neutrinos aren't much obstructed by matter, we can detect neutrinos emerging from an exploding star over 100,000 light-years away. Because neutrinos provide a window into the universe at a far smaller scale than even the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, the prospects for major breakthroughs in physics are greatly enhanced. The more we understand the universe, the more we can harness natural phenomena to our benefit. This is why the Nobel Prize in physics singled out the scientists who first detected neutrinos for the award this year.

Decrypting a Rescue Cat

We adopted a rescue cat. She was trapped, ear-notched, spayed, and vaccinated. It's not normal for a cat that has been ear-notched (indicating sterilization) to end up in a kill-shelter. Normally such cats are released back into their environment to displace fertile feral cats. Nevertheless, she was rescued from the shelter and found her way to Petco where she was available for adoption.  All along the way, her preparation for adoption was subsidized, The adoption fee was just $40. She was estimated to be about 2-1/2 to 3 years old. She was not known to have had a home with humans. She wants to tell her own story but her vocalizations and body language are encrypted in CAT.  It is our job to decrypt her version of events. So we watch and listen to her and build our own picture of her past.

We are pretty sure she had a home at one time. She is too people-oriented to have been born feral but she has wild moments and is obsessed with hunting. So far we've had two half-eaten mice and one dead rat delivered to our bedside from her enclosed catio. She thinks we would enjoy a midnight snack I suppose. If you've ever stepped on half a dead mouse stumbling barefoot to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you will leave a night light on for as long as you own a feral cat. 

She is, not by her choice, an indoor cat; cats don't survive outdoors in our neighborhood. Owls, hawks, bobcats, and coyotes live in the open space adjoining the homes here. Most of her day (when she is not sleeping) is spent looking outside plotting ways to escape. One day we caught her with her paws on the door lever trying to pull it down to escape the house.

Of the more than 20 cats we have owned during our 50+ years of marriage, she stands out in her ability to read us. She looks intensely into our eyes and scans our body language to determine our intentions. She knows by our behavior that we soon will get dressed to go to the theater (she hates that - she expects 100% of our attention on her terms, at home). She anticipates when I'm about to get up and open a door in hopes of escaping into the yard (she succeeded a couple of times - she's lightning-fast). And she is very good at figuring out the perfect hiding place from which to leap in front of us as we walk from room to room.

Her DNA test revealed she was predominantly Norwegian Forest Cat (aka "Wedgie").To let her feel closer to the outdoors, I erected a 6' wire mesh barrier in a 6' 9" door. With no effort, she cleared the barrier from a sitting position. After disappearing for an hour or so she returned home. Clearly, she is an experienced fence jumper likely having honed her jumping skill escaping predators in her feral days. 

She has other escape talents. She instinctively knows the smallest tunnels, picket fence spacing, and openings under fences or fireplace grates that she can enter at full speed.

We are sure she had a litter of kittens, probably lost before she could teach them to hunt. She occasionally yowls a sound that Wedgies use to call kittens back to mom. After yowling, she watches and listens for signs of their return. We teared up when we saw her reaction to a video of kittens searching for their mom. She has never shown an interest in media (TV, computer monitors, etc.) but she leaped onto the laptop circling around it searching for the source of the sound.

She spends the dusk and dawn hours outside in her catio knowing that raccoons and bobcats can't share her quarters and knowing equally well that mice and rats can, rarely successfully. 

Owls hooting put her on high alert. She knows where every owl is at all times. She also is fully aware of other predators, some of which we see and more we don't. If there ever is a cat that could survive our neighborhood, she might be the one but we won't take the chance. She obviously spent a significant portion of her life as a stray or feral successfully spotting and evading danger.

So here's what we think we have decrypted: She did spend time with humans when she was very young; she was lost or abandoned before she was a year old; she weighs in at 8 pounds and probably was
malnourished during her first year of life; she had kittens but lost the litter and still hopes they will return; she learned quickly how to survive attacks by predators and humans with bad intentions; her intelligence and ability to solve problems allowed her to survive in the wild (though she did fall for the feral cat trap, perhaps out of desperation); and she will never give up hunting and searching for her lost litter. 

Like most Wedgies, she is much more like a dog than like other cats we have owned. She waits by the door until we come home, she follows us from room to room, she greets company insisting on being touched but not too much, she comes when her name is called, and she has a much bigger cat vocabulary than other cats. As we get to know her, I hope to decrypt her vocalizations, perhaps by correlating them with her body language which we are beginning to understand pretty well. 

Why Is the Universe Coherent?

Seth Lloyd, a professor at MIT, proposed the first feasible design for a quantum computer. There are now many quantum computers operating around the world. Lloyd specializes in quantum communication, quantum computation, and quantum biology. A few years ago I read Lloyd's book, "Programming the Universe". I was researching the topic of universal consciousness. Lloyd concluded that the universe is a quantum computer that operates using the information inherent in all elementary particles in the universe. What does it compute? It computes itself. It occurred to me that this might be what makes the universe coherent. 

The universe obviously is not a ragtag collection of uncoordinated particles randomly bouncing around; it operates as if it were somehow centrally organized following a rule book that requires every component of the universe to behave according to a grand program containing the laws of physics.

Whether you believe the coherence of the universe is the result of an omnipotent creator or is inherent in the natural laws of physics, there is underlying coordination and communications between all parts of the universe that make it operate in a comprehensible and harmonious manner. How do the components of the universe communicate and coordinate?

Computers manage information by managing bits. Abstract bits are represented by the numbers 0 and 1 but the physical medium for bits can be anything that has two states. A state may be magnetized or not, light present or not, electricity flowing or not, and so forth. Morse code uses dashes and dots as bits. A flash drive uses electrons contained in a "trap" and an empty trap each representing bits. The important point is that organized bits are the building blocks for information storage, transmission, and processing in your smartphone, computer, or other digital devices.

Computers use logic gates to "flip" bits (change 0 into 1 or vice versa) to organize and reorganize bits to perform calculations, create images on a monitor, and produce written characters in a document.

You might guess by now that I am going to conclude elementary particles in the universe organize themselves by carrying and processing bits of information. That's looking in the right direction but the whole story is much more interesting than that. Stay with me; I will try to keep the story simple but coherent.

Elementary particles in the universe carry bits of information; the particle exists in a state that either has yet to express its bit-state, or it has a state that is one or another bit ready to be flipped under the right conditions. At the Big Bang, elementary particles flew in all directions, each carrying its own bit or potential bits. The early universe was nearly uniform revealing no tendency to become interestingly complex. Almost everything everywhere was essentially the same.

Then gravity, a relatively weak force in the universe, began to exploit small variations in the distribution of particles to collect small clumps of stuff. The nature of gravity is to multiply its power as clumps grow; more massive clumps have greater gravitational field and therefore make even bigger clumps. Solid matter and clouds of gasses gathered to form features that would become stars, galaxies, and planets.

As gravity gathers nearby particles, the particles collide. The average atom contains about 20 bits of information. When atoms collide, the result is equivalent to information processing that is performed by a computer. Thus when atoms formed and interacted in the universe, the universe revealed itself to function as a computer.

Physicists and philosophers distinguish between goal-oriented information processing and chaotic information processing. Not all information processing results in something coherent. The universe is computing by flipping bits, there is no doubt about that. So what does it compute? Most material objects simply compute themselves. The chair I am sitting in has coherence because its bits flip in a manner that makes it a reliable place to sit.

Information needs to be preserved (stored, however briefly) to be useful in information processing. A single atom of iron behaves according to quantum mechanics which isn't very useful to store or process data. Put twelve iron atoms together and the quantum behavior aggregates into more classical behavior. The small clumps of iron behave more like the iron that we magnetize to store data. Matter begins to be more coherent. The states of these tiny pieces are now influenced by outside magnetic influences; the 12-atom iron structures begin to communicate with each other. They begin to behave according to rules that allow for ever-increasing complexity. But how does increasing complexity spontaneously spawn more complexity?

Bits can be data or instructions. A few bits of data, combined with very simple instructions that combine data, can result in surprisingly complex patterns. For example, consider Conway's Game of Life. It starts with a simple rule that specifies how a single shaded grid on graph paper affects the shading of one or more of its 8 neighbors (adjoining and diagonal). Repeating the rule over and over generates unexpectedly complex patterns. In other words, complexity can arise from small components and a simple program. The resulting complexity is not evident in the early implementation of the rule.

The coherence of the universe depends on the natural emergence of information-processing rules like clumps of iron "talking" to each other through magnetic influences.

Knowing the rules doesn't give us the ability to predict the future of the universe, they just stimulate complexity that will play out as it will. Mathematics and logic (Gödel's incompleteness theorem and the Halting Problem) have been used to prove that the future course of the universe is inherently unpredictable however structured are the rules. Five billion years ago, the evolution of humans could not have been predicted as inevitable by any amount of information processing in any conceivable computer anywhere in the universe. Quantum behavior continually messes with complex behaviors because of its inherent randomness.

For more than half of the history of the universe, complexity naturally grew without life on earth. Galaxies and solar systems formed from gravitational forces and the bit flipping collision of elementary particles. Then information processing took a small but critical step. Information processing produced the most primitive form of life on earth. There was no magic spark, just a random combination of flipped bits that combined chemicals in a unique manner that allowed self-reproduction.

Were it not for the random influence of quantum physics (more on this in a later blog) life may have ended there. A tedious replicating of identical primitive organisms would likely not have survived long. But quantum behavior is inherently random. Elementary particles exist in an ambiguous state having two binary states at once. When an elementary particle interacts with another particle, quantum behavior demands that one or another state be expressed; the particle can no longer hide behind its quantum veil. In the presence of another particle, the bit has a 50% chance of having one state or the other. This randomness is inherent in all things. Life on earth could not result in identical organisms reproducing without random changes for better or for worse. Lloyd describes one of his favorite steps in complexity as the information revolution called sex which triggered billions of experimental forms of life and subsequent evolution.

Thus evolution happened because quantum mechanics randomly disturbed life generation after generation. In humans, DNA is an elaborate set of instructions and a huge amount of data. Every base pair of DNA has two bits that can be preserved or flipped by information processing instructions inherent in our biology. We are programming ourselves and our offspring with lots of random variation (See a prior blog post "I almost didn't exist").

Messing with reproduction has both good and bad consequences. Surviving organisms reproduce to have a better chance of improving the survival of their species. Weaker organisms become fewer in number on average and, without a turn of luck, will die out. Complexity marches on, building more complexity upon the more successful complexity. Seth Lloyd is fond of likening this process to successive information revolutions that each depend of previous revolutions. Human language preceded written language which in turn preceded printing, and so forth. Each information processing revolution could not have occurred were it not for the previous revolutions.

Seth Lloyd makes a compelling case that quantum mechanics introduces random "experiments" into the emergence of complexity and produces more even complexity. I view this as a sort of "survival of the fittest information processing" that is inherent in the laws of nature. It is fitting that today's information revolution is building on a deeper knowledge of quantum mechanics which is at the very core of a coherent universe.

Check out the many videos and interviews Seth Lloyd has produced for more depth on this subject. And if this subject interests you, I recommend reading "Programming the Universe".

Five Little Known Facts

Which are true?

1. The easternmost, westernmost, northernmost, and southernmost states are respectively, Maine, Alaska, Alaska, and Hawaii. False. Alaska is the most eastern thus holding three of the four positions. Because Alaska reaches into the eastern hemisphere, it is, according to geographers, farther east than Maine.

2. If you and your friend Google the same query, you will get the same list of websites. False. Google builds personalized profiles that deliver different suggested sites to people with different interests. There is a downside to this. Your beliefs, both right and wrong, can be reinforced rather than balanced with objectivity, thus Google can encourage confirmation bias. If you prefer cats to dogs or vice versa, for example, start with your own preference then Google the question that fits your preference first followed by the other question: "are cats better than dogs?" Or Google "are dogs better than cats?"  

3. Only humans deliberately lie. False. Koko, a gorilla who learned sign language, blamed a kitten for tearing a sink from a wall.

4. There is a Nobel Prize in economics. True, but with an explanation. The prize in economics is technically the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. In 1968 Riksbank, Sweden's central bank, donated money to the Nobel Foundation in memory of Alfred Nobel to be awarded to economists for outstanding contributions to the field. It is referred to as the "Nobel Memorial Prize" to distinguish it from the "Nobel Prize" referenced in Alfred Nobel's will. The Nobel Prize is limited to the sciences listed in Nobel's will.

5. Four Corners National Monument plaque marks where Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. Mostly true. However, in 1925 a Supreme Court decision overrode an 1860's act of congress to make that true. The original plaque was not placed at the congressionally-designated designated parallel and meridian lines due to primitive survey equipment. In 1925 the Supreme Court ruled that the congressionally designated description of the state boundaries is superseded by the placement of the original survey markers even though the markers were incorrectly placed. 

I Almost Didn't Exist

What are the chances of you or me existing at all? I'm not going to conclude by stating probabilities; it is an impossible calculation as you will see. I am more interested in how people approach this question. I will address two approaches in this post

Whether you believe in a creator or not, the discussion is pertinent. Whether you evolved from a single-celled animal or were created by an omnipotent entity, an exact copy of you would require the same level of complexity.  In other words, however, you came to be it is equally unlikely that you would be among the chosen creatures to walk on this earth.

Regardless of how you approach the question, you will come to a point where you need to calculate the number of combinations of unique genetic material that are possible and ask how likely it is that your exact combination exists. Let's start with the DNA of identical twins. They are not the same person although they have the same combination of genes at birth. Obviously, combinations of genes can't be the entire answer to the question. In addition, an unknown number of possible genetic combinations are not viable human beings. And there are a large number of factors outside genetic codes that matter. 

Nevertheless, conservative assumptions produce numbers. A postdoc in computational biology reports the probability of randomly selecting two identical viable human genes to be: 1/x where x is 1 followed by 10 million zeros. The largest number I know is googol = 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 That's only 100 zeros (Google picked its name as a variation of this to indicate it intended to access a nearly infinite amount of information). Imagine replacing the 100 zeros with 10 million zeros! By the way, there is not even a googol of atoms in the universe by current estimates. And combinations of genes are just one step in the calculation of the chances of you being here at all.

Let's look at the question from a different angle. The average man produces over 30 trillion unique sperms in his lifetime none of which are exactly alike. Neither are two eggs exactly produced by a female alike. You are the unique result of one particular sperm and one particular egg. The probability of your parents coming up with the one and only combination to produce you is incomprehensibly small (less than 1 in 10 trillion).

Then we need to consider the same calculation for your grandparents, and their parents and so forth back through the 40,000 generations or so in human history. We get a nearly infinitesimal number: 1/x where x is 2 with nearly a million zeros following. This is a larger probability than the first approach calculating probabilities of genetic combinations but still pretty small.

But, you are here. Call it a miracle, argue that the probability of your existence equals one, or claim that your creator bypassed all the evolutionary steps and designed you in all that detail from scratch. However you look at it, you won the ultimate lottery; you're here reading this blog post sharing my bizarre musing.

I stated at the beginning of this blog post that such calculations literally are impossible. If you live your life mostly out of harm's way, you are incalculably lucky. There is no greater lottery to win. Enjoy your winnings as best you are able.


I cannot summarize here the thousands of pages written about the concept of abstraction. Instead, I will focus on abstraction in mathematics and discuss some generalizations that naturally arise in the dialogue. Before you set aside this blog post thinking it will get technical, rest assured I will be exploring concepts, not mathematics per se. 

The primary question in this blog post is why mathematics is so tightly connected to concrete phenomena. When I was a young teenager I simply assumed that mathematics was like a language that describes reality. Of course, any description of reality would have a counterpart in the physical world.

But in high school, I became fascinated with Einstein's general theory of relativity. I learned that he used mathematics to predict phenomena that had never been observed. In 1915 he predicted that light would not travel in a straight line but would be bent and twisted by gravity even though it had no mass. Later, in 1919 the phenomenon was actually observed to be true.

This shocked me at the time. If mathematics were just a language that describes reality, how could it describe things that had never been observed in reality? How could it predict future observations?

In my first year of college, I took my first course in philosophy and encountered the concept of abstraction. The answer to my dilemma was there all the time, I had focused too much on physics and too little on philosophy (probably because I spent too many teenage years reading science fiction).

Mathematics is indeed a language that can describe the laws of nature. But, it is not a description of reality, It is a description of reality that strips away irrelevant specifics. For example, the mass of an object does not affect the rate at which it falls in a vacuum (you can drop two bricks and they will fall at the same rate when you glue the two bricks together and drop twice the mass as a single object). Thus, mathematics is an abstraction of related events.

Mathematics "predicts" the same will be true of falling rocks, falling rain, etc. We don't need to observe these events to describe them, mathematics conveniently extrapolates to unobserved events.

Abstraction is, for present purposes, simplification. It works in situations that go beyond mathematical predictions. It allows the categorization of things in general and in specifics. We can parse the universe into that which lies outside the earth's atmosphere and that that lies inside. The inside stuff can be divided into living and non-living things and further distinguish cats from dogs. Things get more specific when I identify our cat, Tikvah among living things; more so yet when I say Tikvah sleeping on my lap as I write this, and so forth.

By forming layers of abstraction, we come to understand reality. We know we shouldn't: try to walk through brick walls, tease mama bears, or leap onto a street from a third-story balcony. We need not treat one brick wall differently from another and we don't need the address of the balcony to determine if we can fly from it. In the blog post, "A Conversation" we can thank abstraction for knowing a brick is a brick.

Evolution has tuned our senses, and those of other animals, to maximize our respective chances of survival and reproduction. Useful abstractions form around these senses. Humans see details in daylight that Tikvah does not see and Tikvah sees details at night we cannot see; she has better peripheral vision and is nearsighted so a mouse has little chance of survival close to her. Below is a comparison between human and cat vision in daylight and at night.

Tikvah's senses categorize her nighttime world into mouse/no mouse and movement/no-movement. Humans see more detail in daylight to spot edible berries on a bush or a hungry predator in the woods. All animals pay special attention to abstract categories that matter most to their survival and the survival of their species. Evolution has embedded in our respective physical bodies the ability to sense what we need to survive and filters out unnecessary information. If we depended on chasing mice at night, we would have better night vision, and our abstract art would be, well, less interesting in my human eyes. It makes sense to me that abstraction is defined by the eyes and mind of the beholder.

The top panels simulate what a human sees,
the bottom panels simulate what a cat sees.

Tangled Musings

I started this blog simply to have a record of my random thoughts. I had no particular goal except to organize and sort my musings, fact-check my preconceived beliefs, and hopefully become more enlightened. The learning is happening as each blog entangles others. 

Like strings in a box that become knotted with small agitations (we've all been there), the random nature of my musings becomes more tangled the more I write. Looking back at the post that precedes this one (What makes it ... IT), there are tentacles reaching into earlier posts that reach into other posts forming an increasingly complex knot. My discussion of essence is deliberately tied to "A Conversation". It happened to tie to "A Lifelong Attitude Adjustment". Eventually, I expect the entire blog will, without deliberation, become a tangled tapestry that weaves every musing into an abstract mural that has yet to take form. Why?

At the University of California, San Diego, Dorian Reymer and Douglas Smith showed that agitated strings in a box had a probability of knotting that increased sharply with long agitation time, long length and higher flexibility. They approached the problem scientifically and mathematically. They agitated strings of various lengths and flexibility by tumbling them in boxes of different sizes. The project explained why "strings" (necklaces, electrical cords, ropes, etc.) seemed to spontaneously tangle. Indeed, it took very little agitation to knot the strings. Interestingly, a knot always began at one end and became more complicated with more agitation. Once a knot began to form at one end, it was rare that a knot would form at the other end.

I expect that the longer is my blog and the more flexible are my topics, the more entangled the posts will become, like knots in a string. It makes me wonder if all the stuff I have in my memory is a string, if my head is a box, and mental agitation is me messing with the string. I just hope as I age my individual musings add up to an accurate portrait of who I hope to be.

It was the post about Deidre drawing my attention to the essence of things that was the end of the string that relates directly to the knot in my blog. If I were more clever, I probably could find a level of abstraction that mathematically relates agitated strings to all my future blog posts. 

I intend to devote a future post to the concept of abstraction. And, of course, that will further agitate the string. In a few years, I will look back and see the evolving whole that will say a lot about me --I hope I like it.

What makes it ... IT?

In an earlier blog post titled "A Conversation With My Son," I promised a later blog would answer the questions: What makes a brick a brick, what makes our car our car, what makes Ali, Ali? The conversation was with our son, Branden.

As an economist, I naturally thought about property rights. There are no preordained lists of natural resources waiting to be claimed. Yes, early humans laid claim to a cave or captured territory rich with food, but it was human declaration backed by social power or brute force that enforced such claims. 

Today our laws and institutions, together with land surveyors, pound stakes in the ground, and make my property mine. The car is ours because it is registered to us in a database secured by government authority. Cars have embedded identifiers in whole (a VIN) and in part (part numbers). The property right to the car, even when the parts are changed, is established by databases that house these numbers. A brick looks like a brick, feels like a brick, and is used in ways bricks are used. Ownership of the brick is established by trade and it becomes mine when I purchase it to build a wall on my property. Change out a brick and the wall remains mine. Change out all bricks and it is still my wall.

But the question about Ali stumped me. He sheds millions of cells every day and they become the "property" of mites, plants, and whatever in nature recycles them. Clearly, there is a deeper question here. Ali remains himself and he is more than a walking talking collection of cells to which he has property rights. Like the car, codes are embedded in the cells that can identify him (DNA, e.g.). But that answer isn't satisfying; it misses the deeper point of the question. Ali is who he is, not just because of his DNA, but because he has a history, feelings, a community of family and friends, and aspirations that are not entirely dependent upon the particular cells that constitute his body at any one time.

Branden rarely accepted as fact things that weren't logically anchored in his mind. He once challenged his junior high teacher who claimed that the number represented by .999 (ad infinitum) was equal to the number 1.0. The teacher later described asymptotic convergence as an infinitely long curve forever approaching, but never actually touching a horizontal line. Branden argued that you can't have it both ways.

His conversation about bricks, our car, and his friend Ali was typical of his unusual queries. I became determined to understand, to the best of my ability, the answer to his question "what makes anything itself"? Property rights and (biological or digital) data don't really lead to a satisfying answer to the question.

It was our daughter, Deidre, who (unknowingly) led me to the answer that satisfied me. Deidre constantly surprised me with her natural ability to see the essence of things. Conversations with her are filled with insights that hit one with the impact of a punch line to a joke. You don't see it coming, but when it is there, you recognize she has cut right to the heart of an issue.

This talent has its downsides. She has a hard time telling long jokes. I told her a joke attributed to Ronald Reagan. He had addressed a group of lawyers explaining that FDA researchers in Washington DC began substituting lawyers for rats in their experiments. Why? There are more of them, you don't get attached to them in the laboratory, and there are some things rats just won't do.

Deidre retold the joke: "So, there are these white rats with red eyes and, ... uh ... they won't do what they are supposed to do but lawyers will." The joke had evoked a vivid image of the red-eyed white rats and a lab full of lawyers doing whatever they were told to do. The punch line was an incidental detail appended to the essence of what Deidre experienced listening to the joke. And that steered me towards the answer I was seeking.

A brick is a brick not just because it looks like a brick and feels like a brick. A brick is what made up the house the big bad wolf couldn't blowdown. It is what angry protesters throw at things they hate. It has a unique history in one's mind and a physical place in one's yard. The essence of a brick is everything a brick has been in one's experience.

Each of us is familiar with bricks because we are biologically similar enough to be able to identify and name objects that have familiar characteristics. But when we encounter bricks, our brain accesses, consciously or unconsciously, uniquely personal memories of our experiences with bricks. The essence of bricks is made up of these experiences. The essence of something is not the "picture" our senses transmit to our brains but is a by-product of model-dependent realism; according to Steven Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow we cannot know what is really "out there", we can only "know" the model our brain assembles from its sensory input. Our mental model of a brick is the sum total of all the information we have acquired about bricks.

Ali is Ali, not only because the momentary collection of his cells look like Ali. He is Ali because of his history, his relationships with others, his personality that evolves over the years. The cells, both dead and alive, are just the vehicle that allowed older versions of Ali to become newer versions of Ali. Yes, information is retained in Ali's cells by virtue of his DNA and other biological elements, but that the essence of Ali. Ali's friends have a model of Ali embedded in their brains that is independent of his present form. The essence of Ali is uniquely personal to each person (or animal) that knows Ali.

I envy Deidre but I cannot aspire to match her ability to effortlessly see the essence beneath the form. It is a source of great creativity, humor, and, at times I am sure, her discomforts. It makes her a great writer, an excellent photographer, and a very creative problem solver. I love the insights that I get from her unique perspectives. Without her, I would (sadly) still be pondering Branden's question thinking about property rights, quantum physics, entanglement, and the nature of material things.

Thank you, Branden. You taught me to listen to children more deeply and thoughtfully. Thank you, Deidre. You taught me that the words and pictures we wrap around our experiences often cloak the essence of what's really there. My life has been greatly enriched by both of you.

A life-long attitude adjustment

Decades ago I boarded a plane in New York returning to San Diego from a business trip. One of the last persons to board handed his suit coat and overcoat to the flight attendant. She hung the overcoat over the suit coat. The passenger shouted, "you should know better than to put a freshly pressed suit jacket under an overcoat!"

Just as I thought "what an asshole", hoping he was seated far away, he took the seat next to me. I cringed and looked out the window to avert a conversation cloaked in hostility. When the cabin service began, the flight attendant took breakfast orders and deliberately ignored him until all other orders were placed. He was upset that there were no choices left when she took his order. This launched a contest of authority which he, of course, lost. I silently applauded the attendant.

A couple of hours into the flight, I saw tears running down his cheeks. I asked him what was wrong. He quietly sobbed, then said: "My daughter just started college in San Diego. She was killed in a crosswalk by a hit-and-run driver last night. I can't hold it together. I still can't believe it's true. I'm not myself. I've been angry at everyone this morning like they had something to do with it and I can't blame them for striking back. I really need to pull myself together."

I didn't know how to console him but I tried. From that day forward, my attitude towards people who act like jerks changed.

Yes, 90% of people who cut in line ahead of me, people who cut me off in traffic, people who give me the finger are probably assholes. But there is one in ten who are late for something important, who are rushing to the hospital with an emergency, who just had a traumatic event in their life. I am happy to give the 90% a pass so that the 10% who deserve it get the benefit of my doubt.

Everyone occasionally fights invisible personal battles and we might encounter them at a bad moment. But they are, like you and me, humans with all of life's stresses and emotional reactions to personal affairs that may only be visible to themselves. Be kind. Give everyone some benefit of the doubt, and have some empathy for whatever may have contributed to their offensive behavior whether it be immediate stress or abuse experienced long ago.

Every day I am reminded of this important lesson. And to my benefit, it relieves me of unnecessary stressful reactions. That's a win-win in my life.

A Conversation with my son

Son (looking at the ground from a park bench): Dad, how do I know that's a brick?

Dad: Don't be silly, you know bricks when you see them.

Silence -- dad thinks about his interrupted business while waiting for the child's delayed medical appointment.

Branden: But every brick has different cracks, what makes a brick a brick?

Dad: All these bricks have different details we just know they're bricks because they look like bricks.

Long silence.

Branden: How do we know which car is ours?

Dad (impatient but starting to pay attention): I know you know the answer. What are you really asking?

Branden: If we changed the bumpers, then changed the doors, and then changed each of the other parts, it would still be our car. What makes it our car?

Dad (now sincerely curious): Why are you asking these questions?

Branden: My teacher told us that when we get older all the cells in our body die and are replaced by new ones. But my friend, Ali, will always be my friend Ali when all his cells are changed. What makes him Ali?

Dad: Wow, that's a really good question. And I don't know the answer. I need to think about it but I promise I will give you my best answer when I have one. [Note: a fact-check revealed that brain cells are not entirely replaced with age but that is beside the point of the conversation -- Ali is not just a brain, and our car is not just an assembly of its original parts]

Since having that conversation, I rarely dismissed kids' questions, however silly they seemed, and I learned that kids have much deeper thoughts than I had ever imagined. At the time of the conversation, my son was about 10 years old. I could easily have missed a great opportunity to get a deep appreciation for children's musings. A later blog post will explain the answer that finally satisfied me.

In Defense of Religion

I am now, and likely will remain, an atheist, a nonbeliever. Nevertheless, I am offended by a minority of atheists who disparage those who believe in God.

I use the word "God" to mean an entity that 1) is separate from everything, and 2) is capable of intervening in the natural course of the universe in general, and in human affairs in particular. The first condition prohibits equating God with everything that exists, otherwise, God's existence would trivially be true by definition. The second condition requires that the laws of physics (and nature in general) can be subjugated to God's will. (Note: I use the title God with the understanding that many religions use different names for the same concept, e.g., Allah, HaShem, Jehovah, etc.)

Humans have a strong innate desire to affiliate with a higher power. Indeed most societies throughout history have worshipped a creator and formed religions that gather others with common beliefs. There are scientific articles that propose humans, as a species, have a "religious gene" and/or have evolved with the benefit of a religious proclivity. It is not surprising that religions built around God have been so persistent in almost every culture around the world.

God is, in my belief system, a fantasy. But fantasies are beneficial to our collective well being. We enjoy fiction even though we know the emotions, the images, and introspection that fiction evokes do not describe real events in our environment. Fantasies can be even more powerful and motivating if we give them "life" by sincerely believing in them. Indeed stories and legends have been great motivators for as long as humans have had a spoken language.

In our family, we fantasize that our beloved pets die and wait by a river until we arrive to be guided across to a beautiful land that has no pain or suffering. It matters not that we know better, the fiction comforts us; it provides a soft landing for harsher realities. 

Religions that paint a bright image of glorious heaven (or a similar paradise) after death can be especially comforting to believers. It would be cruel to try to dissuade any person from a belief that brings hope and comfort in difficult times. It can be comforting as well to ask a higher power for help when one's own resources are impotent.

My quarrels with religion arise when it is used by religious authorities to manipulate people to perform self-serving acts that are harmful to others or unnecessarily destructive to nature, or when it promotes divisive exclusionary behavior that condemns the value of competing religions. Religion can be a powerful motivator and therefore a powerful manipulator, for good and for evil.

The personal benefits of religion are available to atheists like me. Although I don’t believe that God chose to create me or to preordain and protect my existence, I feel a reverent connection to nature and the natural forces that created life on earth.

I am very fortunate that an uncountable number of small events occurred over billions of years to bring about my brief time on earth. Every minute movement of every particle on earth, every accidental encounter of a man and a woman, every daily decision made by hundreds of thousands of my ancestors over hundreds of thousands of years, has determined that I fortuitously appeared here on earth at this time. I am elated to have a small slice of consciousness for a brief time in the history of the universe.

Every day I feel I won the greatest lottery of all. An important consequence of this is that I am in awe of nature on earth and the harmony that perseveres in concert with the natural rhythms of the universe.

Religion, put to good use, fosters an appreciation of the wonderful workings of nature and makes us all better humans. Atheism coupled with kind actions and a deep appreciation of natural forces can confer the same benefits. The end result is a kinder, more peaceful, and more compassionate world.

Life after death? Take your pick. For me, over 13 billion years passed with no life before life; I will simply return to no life after death. That makes my time on earth even more precious. Treasure whatever beliefs make your time on earth, or depending on your religious affiliations, 
your afterlife, most comfortable.