Jan 062005

What’s alpha all about, Alfie? Why are you boring us with this?

The great biologist E.O. Wilson wrote a little book called Consilience, in which he argued that it was past time to apply the methods of science — notably quantification — to fields traditionally considered outside its purview, like ethics, politics, and aesthetics. Any blog reader can see that arguments on these subjects invariably devolve into pointless squabbling because no base of knowledge and no shared premises exist. Alpha theory is a stab at Wilson’s program.

What kind of science could possibly apply to human behavior?

Thermodynamics. Living systems can sustain themselves only by generating negative entropy. Statistical thermodynamics is a vast and complex topic in which you can’t very well give a course on a blog, but here’s a good introduction. (Requires RealAudio.)

Don’t we have enough ethical philosophies?

Too many. The very existence of competing “schools” is the best evidence of failure. Of course science has competing theories as well, but it also has a large body of established theory that has achieved consensus. No astronomer quarrels with Kepler’s laws of planetary orbits. No biologist quarrels with natural selection. Philosophers and aestheticians quarrel over everything. Leibniz, who tried to develop a universal truth machine, wrote someplace that his main purpose in doing so was to shut people up. I see his point.

Not a chance. Anyway, what’s alpha got that we don’t have already?

A universal maximization function derived openly from physical laws, for openers. Two of them. The first is for the way all living system ought to behave. The second is for the way they do behave. To put the matter non-mathematically, every living system maximizes its sustainability by following the first equation. But in practice, it is impossible to follow directly. Living beings aren’t mathematical demons and can’t calculate at the molecular level. They act instead on a model, a simplification. That’s the second equation. If the model is accurate, the living being does well for itself. If not, not.

Sounds kinda like utilitarianism.

Not really. But there are similarities. Like utilitarianism, alpha theory is consequentialist, maintaining that actions are to be evaluated by their results. (Motive, to answer a question in the previous comment thread, counts for nothing; but then why should it?) But utilitarianism foundered on the problem of commensurable units. There are no “utiles” by which one can calculate “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” This is why John Stuart Mill, in desperation, resorted to “higher pleasures” and “lower pleasures,” neatly circumscribing his own philosophy. Alpha theory provides the unit.

Alpha also accounts for the recursive nature of making decisions, which classical ethical theories ignore altogether. (For example, short circuiting the recursive process through organ harvesting actually reduces the fitness of a group.) Most supposed ethical “dilemmas” are arid idealizations, because they have only two horns: the problem has been isolated from its context and thus simplified. But action in the real world is not like that; success, from a thermodynamic perspective, requires a continuous weighing of the alternatives and a continuous adjustment of one’s path. Alpha accounts for this with the concept of strong and weak solutions and filtrations. Utilitarianism doesn’t. Neither does any other moral philosophy.

That said, Jeremy Bentham, would, I am sure, sympathize with alpha theory, were he alive today.

You keep talking about alpha critical. Could you give an example?

Take a live frog. If we amputate its arm, what can we say about the two separate systems? Our intuition says that if the frog recovers (repairs and heals itself) from the amputation, it is still alive. The severed arm will not be able to fully repair damage and heal. Much of the machinery necessary to coordinate processes and manage the requirements of the complicated arrangement of cells depends on other systems in the body of the frog. The system defined by the arm will rapidly decay below alpha critical. Now take a single cell from the arm and place it in a nutrient bath. Draw a volume around this cell and calculate alpha again. This entity, freed from the positive entropy of the decaying complexity of the severed arm, will live.

What about frogs that can be frozen solid and thawed? Are they alive while frozen? Clearly there is a difference between freezing these frogs and freezing a human. It turns out that cells in these frogs release a sugar that prevents the formation of ice crystals. Human cells, lacking this sugar, shear and die. We can use LHopitals Rule to calculate alpha as the numerator and denominator both approach some limiting value. As we chart alpha in our two subjects, there will come a point where the shearing caused by ice crystal formation will cause the positive entropy (denominator) in the human subject to spike through alpha critical. He will die. The frog, on the other hand, will approach a state of suspended animation. Of course, such a state severely reduces the frogs ability to adapt.

Or take a gas cloud. “You know, consider those gas clouds in the universe that are doing a lot of complicated stuff. What’s the difference [computationally] between what they’re doing and what we’re doing? It’s not easy to see.” (Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science.)

Draw a three-dimensional mesh around the gas cloud and vary the grid spacing to calculate alpha. Do the same for a living system. No matter how the grid is varied, the alpha of the random particles of the gas cloud will not remotely match the alpha of a living system.

Enough with the frogs and gas clouds. Talk about human beings.

Ah yes. Some of my commenters are heckling me for “cash value.” I am reminded of a blessedly former business associate who interrupted a class in abstruse financial math to ask the professor, “Yeah. But how does this get me closer to my Porsche?”

The first thing to recognize is that just about everything that you now believe is wrong, probably is wrong, in alpha terms. Murder, robbery, and the like are obviously radically alphadystropic, because alpha states that the inputs always have to be considered. (So does thermodynamics.) If this weren’t true you would have prima facie grounds for rejecting the theory. Evolution necessarily proceeds toward alpha maximization. Human beings have won many, many rounds in the alpha casino. Such universal rules as they have conceived are likely to be pretty sound by alpha standards.

These rules, however, are always prohibitions, never imperatives. This too jibes with alpha theory. Actions exist that are always alphadystropic; but no single action is always alphatropic. Here most traditional and theological thinking goes wrong. If such an action existed, we probably would have evolved to do it — constantly, and at the expense of all other actions. If alpha theory had a motto, it would be there are no universal strong solutions. You have to use that big, expensive glucose sink sitting in that thickly armored hemisphere between your ears. Isaiah Berlin’s concept of “negative liberty” fumbles toward this, and you “cash value” types ought to be able to derive a theory of the proper scope of law without too much trouble.

Still more “cash value” lies in information theory, which is an application of thermodynamics. Some say thermodynamics is an application of information theory; but this chicken-egg argument does not matter for our purposes. We care only that they are homologous. We can treat bits the same way we treat energy.

Now the fundamental problem of human action is incomplete information. The economists recognized this over a century ago but the philosophers, as usual, have lagged. To put it in alpha terms, they stopped incorporating new data into their filtration around 1850.

The alpha equation captures the nature of this problem. Its numerator is new information plus the negative entropy you generate from it; its denominator is positive entropy, what you dissipate. Numerator-oriented people are always busy with the next new thing; they consume newspapers and magazines in bulk and seem always to have forgotten what they knew the day before yesterday. This strategy can work — sometimes. Denominator-oriented people tend to stick with what has succeeded for them and rarely, if ever, modify their principles in light of new information. This strategy can also work — sometimes. The great trick is to be an alpha-oriented person. The Greeks, as so often, intuited all of this, lacking only the tools to formalize it. It’s what Empedocles is getting at when he says that life is strife, and what Aristotle is getting at when he says that right action lies in moderation.

Look around. Ask yourself why human beings go off the rails. Is it because we are perishing in an orgy of self-sacrifice, as the Objectivists would have it? Is it because we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves, as the Christians would have it? Or is it because we do our best to advance our interests and simply botch the job?

(Update: Marvin of New Sophists — a Spinal Tap joke lurks in that title — comments at length. At the risk of seeming churlish, I want to correct one small point of his generally accurate interpretation. He writes that “alpha is the negative entropy generated by a system’s behavioral strategy.” Not exactly. Alpha is the ratio between enthalpy plus negative entropy, in the numerator, and positive entropy, in the denominator. It is not measured in units of energy: it is dimensionless. That’s why I say life is a number, rather than a quantity of energy.)

  289 Responses to “Q&A”

  1. Indeed, if my values are fully integrated, the exception will invariably invoke the same greater goal as the rule itself had in its origin.

    As a function of what?

    "Now, of course, thinking is the only wy to determine truth, not feeling, but feelings are part of human beings’ ETHICAL mechanism. Rational thought is too. To the extent that alpha can help our decision-making process be more rational, it will be a great asset to ethics."

    As per your derivation, seems feeling is as valid a way as thinking to determine truth. One feels a truth even if one cannot verbalize or even conceptualize this chemical occurence.

    Also, I think you are wrong both about the question being "the origin and nature of ethics" and a couple of other things. For example, I feel like it is ethical for the United States to be in Iraq because God would not have let our president be a bad guy. He is so cute and charming (God).

    Also, I don’t see how what you wrote made things perfectly clear. I don’t understand what you mean by your using ethics for yourself, you see, a great many things take place outside your realm of experience or cognizance. As such, any system of ethics you devise is pointless because it can only apply to a very congnizant sphere of your intellectual capacity. Even if you were the smartest person ever, you are not going to be able to tell me how bushmen and eskimos ethics are. Or are you? You would have to, beause that is what relative ethics leaves us.

    Sadly, alpha can only provide the meager way for any people at any time and under any circumstance to the exclusion of none based on our understanding of their culture.

    This is truly sad.

  2. Real ethics has been serving real human needs for a really long time. Clumsily, awkwardly and, so often, not knowing the ultimate "why," but the rational animal has been moving to things like alpha for a while, too.

  3. Marvin,

    Our ability to create a predictive and accurate filtration is part of the strategy being measured by alpha theory.

    Does that sound right?

    Yes. It’s based on a dimensionless variable, alpha, built up from empirical physical laws. It’s not a circular definition any more than Reynolds number is a circular definition of turbulence.

    How one thinks about all this would be part of one’s filtration, I suppose; how one builds a filtration is always recursively a piece of the filtration.

    Keep in mind that the ordering of the hierarchy isn’t subjective. It has an empirically corroborative basis.

    Hypothetically if humans were to decide that being cockroaches are a better evolutionary bet than being people, then humans might cease to exist — we could both "win" and "lose" simultaneously.

    Both humans and cockroaches are different strong solutions to the same environment. There are some situations in which cockroaches will have a greater likelihood of survival. However, the number of possible responses or adaptive strategies available to humans is far greater than those available to cockroaches.

    But you can’t fast forward the tape and select a path that favors cockroaches anymore than you can select a winning lotto ticket and claim that gambling is more economically productive than investment.

    Or is that really true? Does size ever trump sophistication as such, or does it just trump sophisticated systems that, despite their sophistication, have made the stupid mistake of allowing themselves to compete on size?

    No matter how effectively an organism has adapted to a specific environment, there will be a cost to adapting to a different one. A species can be very alphatropic in one environment and extinct in another.

    Or rather, I think I understand why it would count against; but I’m not sure it (being an indicator of mass dissatisfaction) would neccessarily count overwhelmingly against an alphatropic dystopia, which might have alpha-advantages I (but not the dystopian architects) haven’t yet articulated.

    Any dystopia involves curtailing degrees of freedom for a system. Those restrictions along with the disengagement caused by mental distress results in a smaller contribution to the collective alpha model from each of the society’s agents.

    It will be less alphatropic than a society where individuals willingly contribute and freely engage in its affairs. There are exceptions but they are rare e.g. centrally planned evactuation from a pending natural disaster.

    So maybe here’s the proper question to ask: how should one best pose a problem to alpha theory?

    It depends on the problem. There’s a thermodynamic cost to doing calculations. As Mr. Valliant has correctly pointed out, for many problems you encounter day-to-day, you’ve already developed highly optimized adaptive strategies that work quite well. Groups and societies overlay a collection of laws and ethics to reinforce these.

    At the molecular level, every state change always has the same thermodynamic characteristics. Every macroscopic change is a probabilistic combination of these microscopic changes.

    Given a set of paths, what are the expected alpha consequences for the systems that are affected? The one that maximizes expected alpha is to be preferred. Everytime.

    It describes the processes in a flux, not some final destination that straightjackets you.

    Which would make it potentially very useful to people who don’t really believe in universal moral laws anyway, but blasphemous to those who do.

    It simultaneously makes it more adaptive and less subjective. The standards of evidence are theoretically verifiable by everyone. It adds empirical corroboration where we once only had words. Just take a look at Zeno to understand how easily language can stymie philosophy and "pure reason".

  4. Emergence: From Chaos to Order is about how information can eliminate complexity. Starting today, and also, it seems, this is a verifiable way of discovering the value of alpha, for those who think it lacks practical application. Technology, I was told, is the practical application of scientific discoveries. Alpha might very well be called the pracitcal synthesis then (although the book is about the process of interdisciplinary science and their component applications, which will also shed light on such). Woot. Won’t be commenting for long time, good day and evening to you all. Except to Jim, to whom I wish good hunting.

  5. I never intended to make everything clear–that would be a big one–the whole of real ethics. The only idea I wanted to get across is that there can be, for humans–our present configuration–definite rules, because of that configuration and ITS specific needs. If you could advise a bee, you would have to say, "unless you can alter your nature, Mr. Bee, gather sugars from the local plant-life, dude!" I also meant to suggest that all of previous ethics are not the incoherent mess that has been alleged, and we did not need alpha to develop such sound ethics, to the degree we have done so. These have included sound positive prescriptions, too.

  6. Oh, and only reason can validate such rules, although many culturally evolved only semi-consciously. Emotions are not a means of knowledge, but the physical experience of one’s values, an instant reminder of things that may be very complex and abstract, like the tear of a patriot upon seeing the flag…

  7. Bourbaki and Marvin,


    Marvin: "How one thinks about all this would be part of one’s filtration, I suppose; how one builds a filtration is always recursively a piece of the filtration."

    Bourbaki: "Keep in mind that the ordering of the hierarchy isn’t subjective. It has an empirically corroborative basis."

    This, to me, is the most difficult and most interesting aspect of alpha theory, how to best undertand and optimize the hardware that is responsible for all of this, the brain.

    How does this happen? And where?

    The fact that is does happen is a given.

    I found this last night (while researching HIV skepticism), from skeptic.com: Brain, Mind and Consciousness.

    Seems interesting.

    One of the major weaknesses of human behavior is its reliance on too little information, or put another way, the priority to which our brain gives a few, and seemingly, unimportant events.

    For example, being humiliated by a bully on the playground as a child, or terrified by a movie, or "falling in love" with the girl-next-door, think Humbert Humbert not only "shape us", but continue to have an impact on us for many years or a lifetime.

    These so-called formative events tend to limit the adaptation of F, keeping us stuck in the past-relating to events now, as if they were happening to us back then, think Freud or Galen Strawson and the diachronic self.

    If man is to evolve, or sucessfully adapt, he must change the way his brain adapts to F at every new t.

    And what does this have to do with Brain, Mind, and Consciousness?



    Once Freud’s Project is completed, the task will then be what to do with that undertanding.

  8. MeTooThen,

    "One of the major weaknesses of human behavior is its reliance on too little information, or put another way, the priority to which our brain gives a few, and seemingly, unimportant events."

    I’d say that we are often prevented form using even the limited information that we have (which is often more than plenty) because of psychological factors. But, entering the realm of psychology requires that we understand the nature of all kinds of aspects of human consciousness, including concepts our authors are reluctant to use: ‘will,’ etc.

    Having professionally worked with recovering drug-addicts, I can definitely say that this is most often the key: the effort/willingness to think through the KNOWN consequences of our actions. Even the addict who KNOWS that it’s the drugs that are ruining his life will frequently nonetheless allow his psychology to swamp that clear knowledge. As his shrink will advise: "play the tape forward." I am no admirer of the "Dr. Phil School," but, in general, the tough-love school of therapy (when it’s not an organic brain issue), and the use of strict cognitive-behavior techniques, appear to be the only thing that can reach certain classes of the cognitively disordered.

    It is such work, attending group therapy with my addicts, counselling sessions, AA/NA meetings, private one-on-one sessions, etc., that have solidified this issue for me as essential.

  9. As a recovered drug user I can safely say that it was not my inability to think through the consequences but rather my inability to appreciate/value the consequences or even myself etc. that led to drug use.

  10. Precisely, Tommy, the intellectual understanding is insufficient in itself. And that goes for non-addicts, too. Humans, for good or ill, are creatures of habit. It’s like our behavior wears grooves into our minds, building a "second nature," as Aristotle called it. It’s not that we cannot do the new or change the routine. But to alter strongly formed, preexisting habits–mental and physical–requires both conscious awareness and an often difficult modification of behavior–again, both mental and physical. Mental routines of evasion are classic defense-mechanisms and the darndest things to overcome. The task is to rearrange the inner "incentive structure" that we all erect to make the regular, automatic, normally a good thing, and realign it with the new, conscious belief.

    This is why psychology goes hand-in-hand with ethics. This is why "character" is a meaningful concept. Our thoughts and actions build up over time the person we become, the conscience we acquire, the emotional responses that come as if genetically implanted, etc.

    Once, it was known that the development of moral character was an important feature of education.

    For some, Tommy, the thought of doing street drugs even once in experimentation comes with instant horror and revulsion, a powerful, if acquired, defense against such an addiction.

  11. Jim,

    Your point is well taken, but it is not necessarily one’s "psychology" that prevents one from optimizing the use of their F, it is their biology.

    And here is the basis for Freud’s Project, or the scientific basis of the mind and its behaviors.

    As my former boss, the late- and very great, Frank Morrell used to say, "All behavior represents learning, all learning represents synaptogenesis."

    Addiction to gambling, drugs, or alcohol, or chronic pain in many cases, represents maladaptive learned responses.

    It is hard to unlearn, it is hard to undo synaptic growth.

    And yes, the meeting, daily prayer, 12-step program, sponsor do work, for some. I have modeled some of my work with patients who suffer from chronic pain, from similar ideas.

    But I think my original point remains true, the persistent power of a select few experiences freeze our "self" in time, and ultimately prevent our successful use of F.

  12. MeTooThen,

    But I think my original point remains true, the persistent power of a select few experiences freeze our "self" in time, and ultimately prevent our successful use of F.

    How much overlap is there between chronic pain research and placebo research? Is there any comparative anthropology literature on chronic pain in different cultures?

    A couple of years ago, a friend’s father published Meaning, Medicine and the ‘Placebo Effect’. In it, he argued that the phenomenon should really be called the meaning effect.

    Clinical histories revealed that the meaningfulness of a treatment exhibits a dramatic impact on the efficacy of a therapy. Instead of assigning positive meaning to therapies, could a complementary phenomenon manifest to associate negative meaning to sources of pain? Perhaps in that model, adapting to F serves to reinforce that meaning and its social consequences?

    Just a guess.

    Kandel arrived yesterday. A 33 page table of contents! I read the first two chapters. It’s a pleasure to read. I just wish it was easier to carry around.

    OT, there’s a short interview with Christopher Alexander available online. He discusses his four-volume The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe. It’s worth a listen.


    Complexity appears to be one of those cross-disciplinary fields where this type of research is coalescing. When I first studied it about ten years ago, complexity was missing a metric–a number to assign to the process.

    The best non-technical introduction to the field is M. Mitchell Waldrop’s book–he was a staff writer for Science. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to put this series of posts in context. You can browse the book online at Amazon.com. I would recommend reading the first few pages.

    You can also try a couple of searches at Sante Fe for working papers to get a feel for the research.

  13. Bourbaki,

    Thank you for the toughtful comments.

    In my experience, there is much overlap between the power of chronic pain, in terms of its meaning, yes, and the power of placebo, again in terms of its meaning.

    Much of the research into chronic pain is highly atomistic, models of central and peripheral sensitization, immuno, inflammatory, and other regulators of the pain response (NO, NGF, purines, etc), and research into pain treatments.

    There is some, but relatively little in comparison, research into the cognitive or neuropsychological substrates of chronic pain.

    And yes, there are anthropological studies on chronic pain. I will find some useful ones if I can. In summary, chronic pain is an adaptation to having overcome the environment and seems to be a consequence of those societies that live in material comfort and personal safety.

    And yes, nocebo effects are just as important to be aware of in clinical practice, and they too have much meaning.

    Thanks for the book reference. I will read it.

    Two chapters?!

    Bourbaki the Magnificent!


  14. Cool to see they quoted Dan Moerman in the nocebo article. Thanks. I’m going to forward it along.

    Two chapters?!

    Each chapter is mercifully short ca. 15-30 pages. I’m on page 30. Out of 1279.

    Artificial organs research didn’t offer much opportunity to work with the brain. Given how quickly our hardware would initiate clotting, it’s probably a good thing.

    So, after 30 pages, please take everything that follows with a brick of salt.

    seems to be a consequence of those societies that live in material comfort and personal safety.

    The curse of the strong solution?

    As Eustace graduates to higher levels of the casino, the games become more complex. Eustace needs some way of accommodating histories: inflexibility is a certain path to ruin.

    But then we go and make the game simple again?

    Wanderlust? Midlife crisis? Flying at the same altitude grows unsettling, it appears. If alpha isn’t going up, it’s either staying flat or going down. This was what Dan Gilbert’s research seemed to be getting at as well.

    There’s no set point. It could be a daily search for food. Or knowledge. Or creative output.

    It’s always about the process. Or, the journey is the reward. Once you get "there", once you achieve a goal, you need to keep moving (not necessarily physically, but in alpha terms). There is no there.

    And being without a goal is probably scariest of all. People look back more fondly on hard times than boring times.

    What’s amazing is that experience and sensation can be transmitted via information especially art. Both abstract and representational art can be alphatropic stimuli. It seems to be about the richness and organization of the signal and the receiver’s capacity to decode it.

    As you’ve pointed out, self-defeating strategies don’t seem to be about people wantonly harming themselves as much as they are about people using bad strategies to escape pain and, in the case of developed societies, ennui.

    WHOLE takes you into the world of people obessed with becoming an amputee. Some are "wannabes" while others succeed in ridding themselves of a limb.

    I did a little digging after I started reading Sacks. There are some incredible case histories out there.

    Then again, my experience is with molecules and cells. It’s humbling to imagine the subtleties involved in mental health.

  15. How can evolution be possible is on the molecular level things don’t evolve? I just thought of this. Does it make any sense?

    I am reading Fermi and Waldrop. I am having to teach myself calculus to understand thermodynamics, but it seems like it is easier than I had ever anticipated (now that I actually want to understand it). I am seeing how calculus seems to simulate the entirety of processes (I don’t really have the language yet…)

    Anyways, Waldrop is good stuff. I pass that recomendation along, with the addendum that you look at Hidden Order: how adaptation builds complexity, or any book by John Holland. His other book is about how information lowers complexity.

  16. How can evolution be possible is on the molecular level things don’t evolve? I just thought of this. Does it make any sense?

    Different arrangments of the same collection of atoms will respond differently to energy flux. In this respect, evolution is concerned with the variation of these arrangements.

    I am having to teach myself calculus to understand thermodynamics, but it seems like it is easier than I had ever anticipated (now that I actually want to understand it).

    That’s tremendous. I know you’ve already picked up a ton of books. For mathematics, I’ve always found that learning the history and personalities behind the ideas makes the concepts much easier to grasp.

    E.T. Bell was a math professor at CalTech. He wrote a very engaging book that surveys the major players of mathematatics. If you enjoyed my recommendation for Waldrop and want to start learning the tools that scientists use in practice, check out Bell’s book.

    It’s not without its critics but for about US$10 it will do more to get a new math student involved in discourse than books 10 times its price.

    By the time I was a student in high school I was reading the classic "Men of Mathematics" by E.T. Bell and I remember succeeding in proving the classic Fermat theorem about an integer multiplied by itself p times where p is a prime.
    –John Nash

  17. Bourbaki,

    Just a brief note.

    I was at a book sale today, looking for some nature books for a friend’s kids, when I found Complexity by M. Mithchell Waldrop.

    So far, I think it’s terrible.


    For whom exactly is this book written?


    Anyway, I will finish next week (at least it’s fast reading).

    It’s a good think I have Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, for all of you alphaphiles (even you alphaphobes), it is so far, one of the best, if not the best book I have ever read.


    Oh, and I found this, First on the Moon> by Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin. Now this is cool.

    Just sayin’.

  18. MeTooThen,

    For whom exactly is this book written?

    This question is answered by…

    Anyway, I will finish next week (at least it’s fast reading).

    This observation.

    Although Waldrop is a physicist, the book is not at all technical. It’s a quick and easy read that brings together key figures in the field. It presumes no prior knowledge of science. Any alternatives to introduce non-technical readers to the science is welcome.

    I guess it all depends on what you were expecting to get out of it. Can you be more specific?

  19. Bourbaki,

    Thanks for the prompt and thoughtful reply.

    Yes, I answered my own question.

    I expected something, well, more technical I suppose.

    The narrative is both distracting and poorly written.

    Also, there are some odd statements, like this, "Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich had just written his apocalyptic best-seller ‘The Population Bomb’."

    Yes, The Population Bomb was both apocalyptic and a best seller, but it was also hopelessly wrong.

    A small point perhaps, and maybe the point of using Ehrlich was just to add to the narrative of the personal journey of Brian Arthur, but Arthur as an economist interested in population studies, should have comes across Julian Simon, a revolutionary whose work thoroughly disproved Ehrlich.

    But these are small points. I don’t read much literature (OK, last summer I read quite a bit of Russian literature as I was dating an Ethnic Russian-Uzbek girl), so maybe it’s just me.

    OK, it’s just me.

    And you are correct, it is hard to introduce to the laity specialized studies. And yes, Oliver Sacks quickly comes to mind.

    I’ll shut up now and keep reading.

    I return you to your regular programming.

  20. What’s next, boss?

  21. Jesus. So much reading. I’m gonna check out that hayek liberty book.

  22. Check out Hayek’s THE FATAL CONCEIT, his last book and the most comprehensive statement of his theory of cultural and economic evolution. You’ll see alpha lurking around in there, too, I think. It puts his earlier work in better context.

  23. I started to read his liberty book. Speaking of bad writing (metoothen) that opening page has a few pretty terribly worded sentences. Ideas were good stuff though. Thanks for the recomendation Jim.

  24. Aaron,

    Admit it, you chose the name "Eustace" after Professor Eustace P. McGargle, and you aren’t giving us suckers an even break.


    So your point is "read E.T. Bell and go nuts"? BTW, why didn’t you reference Noether’s theorum when I attacked Helmholtz’s law?


    As much as I like his stuff, Julian Simon was nuts too.


    Hayek? Hayek? I thought you only read Rand? I’m telling you, you gotta read Robert Axlerod. He’s the dude.

  25. Mr. Kaplan,

    So your point is "read E.T. Bell and go nuts"?

    "[…] it will do more to get a new math student involved in discourse […]"

    Learning math from scratch is tough. It’s easy to get discouraged after trying a couple of problems. For new students, I think it’s helpful to know the histories of the personalities behind the concepts. You don’t feel so bad struggling with a proof when you realize that its discovery sometimes took centuries.

    Do you interpret being "involved in discourse" to "going nuts"?

    BTW, why didn’t you reference Noether’s theorum when I attacked Helmholtz’s law?

    A theorem doesn’t make for an empirical result, does it?

    Scroll up to

    Finally, the billiard ball model of the universe was abandoned for ideas like gauge theory and fields.

    And click through the link behind gauge theory. There’s little chance I can crank those figures on my calculator watch.

  26. Bill,

    Though barely literate, you’d be amazed at the websites, fer instance, I gets to.

  27. Jim,

    I hope I didn’t convey the impression that I thought you illiterate. Quite the contrary. I think of you as extraordinarily literate on one subject–kind of like a Talmudic scholar. And unlike Bourbaki, I am broadly sympathetic to the topic.


    Watch it, your radical empiricism is showing. The notion that Noether’s theorum and gauge theory are widely divergent in their epistmological roots is dubious at best. I have seen neither the the conservation laws nor gauges, but I believe in both–as do you.

  28. Mr. Kaplan,

    The notion that Noether’s theorum and gauge theory are widely divergent in their epistmological roots is dubious at best. I have seen neither the the conservation laws nor gauges, but I believe in both–as do you.

    Where did you get that notion? Widely divergent? Radical empiricism?

    You didn’t click through the link like I suggested:

    This is the global symmetry of this particular Lagrangian, and the symmetry group is often called the gauge group. Incidentally, Noether’s theorem implies that invariance under this group of transformations leads to the conservation of the current

    \ J^(a)_(\mu) = i\partial_\mu \Phi^T T^(a) \Phi

    where the Ta matrices are generators of the SO(n) group.

    Was there a point you were trying to make?

  29. Just a note here: The Fatal Conceit is as much a work of William Bartley’s as it is of Hayek’s. Hayek’s health and mental state were gradually deteriorating and he let Bartley, his editor, take more significant liberties with his revision than he otherwise would have. It’s still a good book worth reading (Bartley himself is a smart guy), but just keep in mind that it’s not all Hayek there. If MeTooThen and others liked The Constitution of Liberty, I’d suggest reading Law, Legislation and Liberty (all three volumes) next instead.

  30. Tommy,

    All of the works that Matt recommends are classics and, of course, he’s right.


    ‘Ya know, the real areas of my expertise are never called upon here!

  31. I don’t see what is especially enlightening in Hayek’s book. He seems to be talking about horses I beat to death when I was sixteen in colledge and trying to change the world. I have over 100 pages written (not including research) about this. It is like I am reading a less interesting (though more logical and cohesive certainly)… whatever, I will stick to calculus information theroy complexity and thermodynamics for now, and leave that book on Liberty to myself of 4 years ago.

    Thanks for the recomendations. Can anyone recomend a good calculus book to buy? I am tired of reading internet pages its fookin killin my back (i have the worst computer chair ever, period).

  32. Anyone here read Robert Ingersol? Heh, I was going through some of my old books, he’s the dude Bill.

  33. Tommy,

    Dover Publications is a good place to start.

    You can check out many of the books online to see if they suit you. And they’re often sold at a substantial discount (under US$20).

    There are also some free step-by-step solvers available.

  34. Tommy,

    Ingersol? Too upright. Stick to the works of nuts and geeks. They are more interesting.

  35. Bourbaki,

    I finished Complexity. OK, it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good.

    More on this later.


    Thanks for the recommendation. I will follow your recommnedation as soon as I finish Constitution of Liberty.

    In the meantime, I found and started reading A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination by Gerald Edelman.

    So far, so good.

    The past three nights I have delivered lectures, speaking about why I normally do.

    But I found myself wanting to talk about alpha theory.

    If it wasn’t for that that @#%&*! math.

    Oh, and Bourbaki,

    "Incidentally, Noether’s theorem implies that invariance under this group of transformations leads to the conservation of the current

    \ J^(a)_(\mu) = i\partial_\mu \Phi^T T^(a) \Phi

    where the Ta matrices are generators of the SO(n) group.

    OK, my mind completely exploded.

    This is why I still have nightmares about not being ready for the math test.


    It is to laugh.

  36. This is why I still have nightmares about not being ready for the math test.

    I still have them as well.

    Although I’ve had some excellent math professors, the middle and high school pedagogy of mathematics is terrible. No other subject is as universally hated. And yet, no other subject is as universally valid.

    That’s why I recommend non-technical books for people who are new to this. On the first pass, ignore the proofs and the problem sets. Learning the backstory seems to better prepare one’s brain for the technical material.

  37. MeTooThen,

    I think you will enjoy Edleman and Tononi’s Universe of Consciousness.

    I just ordered it. If you think it makes for a better introduction to this material, I’ll definitely pass along the recommendation.

    Thank you.

  38. Bourbaki,

    I think you will enjoy Edleman and Tononi’s Universe of Consciousness.

    The book serves to introduce the non-neurologist-neuroscientist-complexicist to the anatomical and theoretical substrates of human consciousness, in a way that reads much more easily than Waldrop’s Complexity and with greater power as well (Totally absent are the foolish, or irrelevant, politics and polemics found in Complexity).

    The thrust of the book is their model of brain behavior called the Dynamic Core Hypothesis which builds on the presence of "reentry" anatomical connections between neurons and brain regions, combined with the idea of "Neuronal Group Selection" as a way to describe synaptic activity.

    All of this is explained using models of complexity and "Integrated" or "Functional Clustering."

    The mathematical explanations describe this process by means of the entropy loss that occurs via integration as well as neural complexity.

    And then my head exploded (although I am beginning to intuit the math, I still don’t fully understand it’s derivation).

    All of this leads to qualia and beyond.

    It is a wonderful book and will certainly give you much to chew on.

    More later.

    Until then…

  39. and what say you???

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