Reality Conditions

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Another hiatus

I will be for the next two weeks in Zakopane, Poland, for the First Quantum Geometry and Quantum Gravity School. When I return I am likely to post some things on it; the lectures themselves will probably be too technical, but the general atmosphere and Carlo Rovelli's announced talks should get some discussion. As well, of course, as some photos of the place.

I have not forgotten that I promised to continue the teleporting discussion with arguments for my position, "teleporting is not death". I have all the post actually thought and written in my head, but haven't had time to write it before the trip. Meanwhile you can get more discussions on this subject at Scott's blog. Be sure not to miss his latest Quantum Computation lecture, with a discussion on Penrose's views on consciousness.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Book review: Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle

Dileffante has asked me for a review of The Baroque Cycle, and I receive specific requests for posts so infrequently that I feel complied to oblige. So here it goes:

The Baroque Cycle is a huge novel consisting in three volumes, each of them well over 800 pages. It takes place in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and can be viewed as an attempt to paint a broad fresco of the time, with an emphasis on the emergence of new forms of thought (the Scientific Revolution) and new economic structures (capitalism). It has an immense cast of characters, many of them taken from actual history, and covers as well an immense temporal and geographical scope: from the 1640s to 1715 the former, and from Europe to America to India to Japan the latter. It is also a sort of distant prequel to Cryptonomicon, though I know this only by reading reviews as I haven’t read (yet) Stephenson’s most famous book.

The first book of the cycle, Quicksilver, presents us in its first part the story of Daniel Waterhouse, son of Puritans and natural philosopher, told in flashbacks from the present (1715) in which old Daniel is returning to England from his dwellings in Boston to mediate in the quarrel between Newton and Leibniz. (In one of the first and best of the anachronistic winks present in the novel, Waterhouse is described as having created the “Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts”.) In the flashbacks, we are presented from young Daniel’s viewpoint to the innings of the Scientific Revolution: Daniel is mentored by John Wilkins, founder of the Royal Society, and becomes friends with Newton, Hooke, Pepys, Leibniz, and other key figures of the age. Scientific and philosophical ideas are presented in a witty and engaging way, and the plot mixes them with the political and military intrigues of the time.

The second part of the first book switches social spheres to tell us the story of Jack Shaftoe, who among his many aliases and nicknames takes pride especially in being called the King of Vagabonds. A likeable, colourful, half-crazy hero of picaresque-like tales and swashbuckling adventures (he recounts at one point being a first-hand witness of the death of d’Artagnan), Jack is serving as a mercenary in the battle of Vienna against the Turks in 1683 when he rescues young and beautiful Eliza of Qwghlm from the Sultan’s harem. After they both team up and live some adventures together, Eliza turns up to have an excellent head for business affairs, which makes her raise to a high position in the courts of Europe and end up as a double or triple agent spy, serving at the same time Louis XIV of France and William of Orange. Jack and Eliza eventually drift apart, though the feelings still lasting between them will be key to the action in the other volumes. Leibniz, Daniel Waterhouse and other natural philosophers then get mixed with the intricate and sometimes almost impossible to follow plots that Eliza gets involved in while sailing her way through the treacherous waters of the European international intrigue. Cryptography plays an important role at many points of the story here. The book ends with most plot threads unresolved, leading us directly to the sequel.

The second book, The Confusion, tells two very different stories alternating between them. On one side, Jack is now the leader of a band of galley slaves who become pirates when stealing a cache of Spanish gold. This leads to unexpected amounts of trouble as the gold has unusual properties and many of the shadowy powers pulling the strings of finance and politics are determinate to get hold of it. (One of them is none other than Isaac Newton, who has become the Master of the English Mint). Attempts to get a safe profit from the gold lead Jack and his gang to many exciting adventures all around the world, in Egypt, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Mexico. Meanwhile, Eliza continues to survive and make profits of her own in the complicated high spheres of Europe (though not without some great personal losses either) while continuing her friendship with such figures as Leibniz and Princess Caroline of Ansbach. The two tales cross a number of times and are joined satisfactorily at the end, though this ending is so abrupt that one is left especially eager for the last part of the tale.

In The System of the World, which closes the cycle, we are back in 1715 and following Daniel as he returns to England. This is the book with the most consistent and tight storyline as the three or four plot threads are kept closely interrelated. We have a mystery to unravel, of a series of murder attempts against natural philosophers; the battle of wits and arms between powerful Newton in his character of Royal Minter and vagabond Jack who has now became a coiner bent in undermining the economy; the political tension around the succession of the throne of England (will it go to the Hanoverians or the Jacobites?) and the role Eliza plays in the manoeuvres as friend to Princess Caroline, who will become the Queen if the Hanoverians win; and last by not least the philosophical dispute between suspicious, almost paranoid Newton and courtly philosopher Leibniz.

Though an immense attention is given to accurate historical details, the novel does not feel at all like a realistic account of the Baroque period. This is because Stephenson’s characters often talk and think in a very self-conscious way, making explicit the role they are playing in the grand scheme of history. Witness, for example, this dialogue between a Tory and a Whig in the third volume:

”The question is, shall we be ruled by Money and the Mob –which are one and the same to me, as neither serves any fixed principle- or by one who serves a higher good? That is the point of Royalty, Roger.

Roger paused. “ ‘Tis an attractive prospect,” he said. “And I do understand, Henry. We are at a fork in the road just now. One way takes us to a wholly new way of managing human affairs. It is a system I have helped, in my small way, to develop: the Royal Society, the Bank of England, Recoinage, the Whigs, and the Hanoverian Succession are all elements of it. The other way leads us to Versailles, and the rather different scheme that the King of France has got going there."

It is most unlikely that any real person in 1715 could have thought in this way. It is even more unlikely that Rev. John Wilkins, after Leinbiz discusses with him the binary numeric system and also shows him the mechanical calculator he has built, could have been so prescient as to say: “I believe that binary arithemetickal engines will be of enormous significance”. Or that Leibniz and Waterhouse could have tried to actually build an “binary arithmethickal engine” that follows the Laws of Thought, using punch cards like Babbage would do 150 years later (they call it a Logick Mill). Stephenson has them do this, because he obviously sees the informatic revolution of the 20th century as the natural culmination of the scientific revolution of the 17th, and wants to make it the case that this was already foreshadowed in the beginning. He writes not history as it was, but as it should have been. Which is often not only more entretaining, but also more educating to the reader. I feel I have learnt more from this novel that from many nonfiction books, precisely due to the simplifications and liberties Stephenson takes with historical realism in order to get his larger points across.

(A very different kind of non-realism is provided by the mysterious character of Enoch Root, a shadowy alchemist who appears and disappears from the plot at key moments and may or may not possess the secret of immortality. I mention this because of its potential interest to Cryptonomicon readers, as I understand the same character appears in that book as well.)

The main downside of the novel is of course its length; and also its style, full of long descriptive paragraphs and chaotic complexity in the plot, especially in the first volume. I don’t think as some reviews I’ve read that the novel was “badly needing an editor” because the length and the style are an intrinsic part of the world Stephenson wants to build here; but the task of entering this world for the casual reader can prove daunting. I would say that there are five factors you must consider in order to decide whether to invest money and time (a lot of time) in reading these books:

1) You are a geek.

2) You are deeply interested in the origins of modern science and the philosophical changes that accompained them.

3) You are deeply interested in the origins of modern economic structures such as banking, stock markets, financial enterprises of various kinds, and standarised coinage.

4) You enjoy action-packed swashbuckling adventures, pirates-and-swordfights style.

5) You are very patient and don’t mind reading long books even if there isn’t a clear linear plot to follow.

The first condition is the only sine qua non one. Stephenson is a geek writing for geeks, in the sense of people who love the play of ideas, concepts and abstract structures. (In fact, the novel can be read as making the case that the Royal Society memebers were the geeks of the 17th century.) The remaining four conditions are not all necessary, but if you satisfy less than two of them this novel will be too long and boring for you, no matter how much of a geek you are. In my own case, I am not very patient and I am only mildly interested in economical matters; sometimes Stephenson managed to hold my interest in those parts and those of complicated political intrigues, and sometimes he didn’t and I found myself aching to turn pages without reading them. Overall I enjoyed the novel a lot, especially the last two volumes, and am likely to reread it at some point to get a clearer view of how the plots weave together when viewed in hindsight. If you satisfy more than two of conditions 2)-5), then I recommend you to buy these books, and I guarantee that you will enjoy them hugely.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Poem of the Day

Poe, E.
Near a Raven

Midnights so dreary, tired and weary.
Silently pondering volumes extolling all by-now obsolete lore.
During my rather long nap - the weirdest tap!
An ominous vibrating sound disturbing my chamber's antedoor.
"This", I whispered quietly, "I ignore".

Perfectly, the intellect remembers: the ghostly fires, a glittering ember.
Inflamed by lightning's outbursts, windows cast penumbras upon this floor.
Sorrowful, as one mistreated, unhappy thoughts I heeded:
That inimitable lesson in elegance - Lenore -
Is delighting, exciting...nevermore.

...and so on; read the whole poem here. If you can't understand what underlies this variation on Poe's masterpiece and why it was chosen as poem of the day, this link and a moment of thinking should make it clear.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A philosophical poll

I’ve been having a long discussion on MSN with my suspicious friend concerning the interpretation of the film The Prestige. The discussion morphed gradually into a purely philosophical one, about abstract questions of self-identity, and at one point in which I voiced an opinion, my friend said: that I was crazy, and that most of our friends would agree with him in that I was crazy in having that opinon. So I decided to make it into a post and ask everybody, friend of ours or not, to leave their opinion and say whether I am crazy or not. Though this post is not about the plot of the movie, there may be a partial spoiler in it because the question discussed is inspired by a major plot point, so you may prefer not to read it if you haven’t seen the film.

The plot point in question is a teleporting machine –and at this point those philosophically savvy amoing you might guess already what the discussion is about, because it is a question popular among many philosophers since Derek Parfit gave it a prominent role in Reasons and Persons. (It is also something of a staple trope in science fiction.) Suppose there existed a “teleporting” machine that worked by scanning your body and creating an exact duplicate of you, atom by atom. Assume that the replica would have the same personality and memories that you have (that is, don’t consider the possibility of your selfhood residing in an inmaterial soul) and that the procedure is instantaneous, so from the point of view of the replica it has just been teleported, having a continuous experience from being at one place to being at another. Then, is there any reason to consider “you” to be the version of you that remains at the same place, instead of the replica? If the machine works by killing the original “you” at the same time that creating the replica, is stepping in the machine a form of suicide or just a convenient way of transportation?

My belief is that there is no reason to say “you” are “the you that remains at the same place”. If both “versions of you” have the same personality, memories, etc (and let’s not forget, also bodily appearance, though I am unsure of the relevance of this) then both have equal call to be called “the future you”. There is simply no answer to the question of which is you: both are to the same extent. My friend disagrees, and says that he is sure he would be the same person that remains at the same place: the other one is just a copy (as he puts it: “the one that is under this skin is me; I want my skin not to die”.)

Who do you agree with? To make things clear, forget about the movie if you saw it, and suppose you are just given the following choice: a) stay where you are, and be subjected to horrible torture (not so horrible that makes you prefer to die, but pretty horrible), or b) step in the machine and have it create a copy and destroy at the same time the original, knowing that the copy (who, in my reading of this scenario, is “you”) will live a blissful life afterwards. I said I would choose b) without a doubt (assuming that the machine is perfectly reliable, etc.) This is the opinion that my friend considers crazy. Who do you agree with?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Three links

Philosophia Naturalis #7 is up at The Geek Counterpoint.

My suspicious friend has posted a list of short reviews of every film he saw in 2006. If I counted correctly, they are 50. I have seen only 10 of them.

A new friend enters the blogroll, or will when next updated -which, of course, means probably in several months' time. It it MariaE recounting her Bali experiences, at Blogging A Little Island.