Free Will

You will see many discussions regarding free will. The question is, do you have it, or are we in some giant computer program. The problem is that classical physics is deterministic, and you will often see claims that Newtonian physics demands that the Universe works like some finely tuned machine, following precise laws of motion. And indeed, we can predict quite accurately when eclipses of the sun will occur, and where we should go to view them. The presence of eclipses in the future is determined now. Now let us extrapolate. If planets follow physical laws, and hence their behaviour can be determined, then so do snooker or pool balls, even if we cannot in practice calculate all that will happen on a given break. Let us take this further. Heat is merely random kinetic energy, but is it truly random? It seems that way, but the laws of motion are quite clear: we can calculate exactly what will happen in any collision and it is just in practice the calculations are too complicated to even consider doing it. You bring in chaos theory, but this does nothing for you; the calculations may be utterly impossible to carry out, but they are governed solely by deterministic physics, so ultimately what happens was determined and it is just that we do not know how to calculate it. Electrodynamics and quantum theory are deterministic, even if quantum theory has random probability distributions. Quantum behaviour always follows strict conservation laws and the Schrödinger equation is actually deterministic. If you know ψ and know the change of conditions, you know the new ψ. Further, all chemistry is deterministic. If I go into the lab, take some chemicals and mix them and if necessary heat them according to some procedure, every time I follow exactly the same procedures, I shall end up with the same result.

So far, so good. Every physical effect follows from a physical cause. Therefore, the argument goes, since our brain works on physical and chemical effects and these are deterministic, what our brains do is determined exactly by those conditions. But those conditions were determined by what went before, and those before that, and so on. Extrapolating, everything was predetermined at the time of the big bang! At this point the perceptive may feel that does not seem right, and it is not. Consider nuclear decay. We know that particles, say neutrons, are emitted with a certain probability over an extended period of time. They will be emitted, but we cannot say exactly, or even roughly, when. The nuclei have angular uncertainty, therefore it follows that you cannot know what direction it is emitted because according to the laws of physics that is not determined until it is emitted. You may say, so what? That is trivial. No, the so what is that when you find one exception, you falsify the overall premise that everythingwas determined at the big bang. Which means something else introduced causes. Also, the emitted neutron may now generate new causes that could not be predetermined.

Now we start to see a way out. Every physical effect follows from a physical cause, but where do the causes come from? Consider stretching a wire with ever increasing force; eventually it breaks. It usually breaks at the weakest point, which in principle is predictable, but suppose we have a perfect wire with no point weaker than any other. It must still break, but where? At the instant of breaking some quantum effect, such as molecular vibration, will offer momentarily weaker and stronger spots. One with the greatest weakness will go, but due to the Uncertainty Principle that the given spot is unpredictable.

Take evolution. This proceeds by variation in the nucleic acids, but where in the chain is almost certainly random because each phosphate ester linkage that has to be broken is equivalent, just like the points in the “ideal wire”. Most resultant mutations die out. Some survive, and those that survive long enough to reproduce contribute to an evolutionary change. But again, which survives depends on where it is. Thus a change that provides better heat insulation at the expense of mobility may survive in polar regions, but it offers nothing in the equatorial rain forest. There is nothing that determines where what mutation will arise; it is a random event.Once you cannot determine everything, even in principle, it follows you must accept that not every cause is determined by previous events. Once you accept that, since we have no idea how the mind works, you cannot insist the way my mind works was determined at the time of the big bang. The Universe is mechanical and predictable in terms of properties obeying the conservation laws, but not necessarily anything else. I have free will, and so do you. Use it well.

Ebook Discount

From January 21 – 28, my thriller, The Manganese Dilemma, will be discounted to 99c/99p on Amazon. 

The Russians did it; everyone is convinced of that. But just exactly what did they do? Charles Burrowes, a master hacker, is thrown into a ‘black op’ with the curvaceous Svetlana for company to validate new super stealth technology she has brought to the West. Some believe there is nothing there since their surveillance technology cannot show any evidence of it, but then it is “super stealth” so just maybe . . . Also, Svetlana’s father was shot dead as they made their escape. Can Burrowes provide what the CIA needs before Russian counterintelligence or a local criminal conspiracy blow the whole operation out of the water? The lives of many CIA agents in Russia will depend on how successful he is.

The Non-Green Internet

Did you know that by reading this you are contributing to climate change. Oops! Seriously, it is claimed that by 2025 the internet will use a fifth of the world’s electricity, assuming no massive increase in the use of electric transport. And before you decide to stop reading this to save the climate, apart from the use of your computer, you make no difference whether you read it or not. On the other hand, apparently Bitcoin mining consumes the total electricity consumption of Switzerland, so steady on there. The infrastructure for the internet is always on, and the messages you send make no difference. Sorry but you cannot save the world by not sending that email, and of course had you posted a physical letter, there would have been significant greenhouse gas emissions from getting the letter from your desk to wherever.

People that store their work in the cloud do contribute. A major data centre consumes about 30 GWh per year, and the UK has about 450 data centres. After all, all this rubbish we write and record has to be stored somewhere. That raises the question, how many data centres will have to be built? These centres are where the “cloud” resides, and if everyone is busy filling them up, what happens when it is no longer so easy to build more? How long can we continue recording everything?

How much has to be recorded for posterity? All those pointless Facebook posts that make pointless comments (rude or otherwise) or show a few emoticons. If they were deleted after a few weeks, would anyone notice? The problem then, of course, is, who decides? Notice the recent fuss about Trump not being allowed to tweet. In my opinion, if they had done that to him when he became President he would have been more effective but that is another matter. The problem is, when you appoint a “Great Deleter” you open up so many cans of worms it is not funny. Some of what we store will be of interest historically, perhaps especially Trump’s tweets. Right now photos recovered from long ago fascinate many of us. I know that I recently downloaded a whole lot of photos of the area where my mother grew up, and where, still a long time ago, I drove her back to have a look around. So for me, it was of interest to hear her say what was there, where, and now be able to see it. Quite simply, in two lifetimes everything has changed remarkably, and what was there is no longer, other than in memories, and memories die. Also, storing photos in data centres takes up much less space than storing hard copies. Of the hard copies left, many have been lost, but how much of what is stored digitally will be available in a hundred years?

Much of what is stored digitally may become unreadable. In the scientific community, for example, the Royal Society for Chemistry has noted that computations carried out in the last century often use code that nobody now understands. Some of us have computer files written many years ago, but unless they were updated and converted into new formats they are unreadable other than on an ancient computer. Back to electricity, either we can go into our shell and try to live like the Amish, do something about electricity generation, or be like politicians and make encouraging speeches and hope all gets well. Apparently, Facebook, Apple, Google and others have committed to using 100% renewable electricity (although when is another question) and Microsoft claims that by 2050 it will have removed all the carbon emissions it has ever produced. These are noble aspirations, but so far, according to Greenpeace, only about 20% of the electricity used by the world’s data centres is renewable. Further, the data centres run uniform power consumption over the entire time. Solar is of little use during the night, and wind power fails when the wind is not blowing. If we rely heavily on such renewables, what happens when there are blackouts? And, of course, there is the question of the non-renewable resources used to build the computers in the cloud. So no, I do not think anyone will be reading my blogs in a hundred years. However, we should make more effort to generate electricity more sustainably. Unless we solve the fusion problem, I favour the liquid salt thorium-type reactor.

2021 Underway

Here I am, refreshed with our pleasant summer, starting again another year. I hope I am entertaining, and that you all enjoyed your Christmas period.

In New Zealand, the New Year period tends to be when so many people are away on holiday, the reason being that if you are going away, you get more value for the leave you have to take from your job by adding in the statutory holidays. Accordingly, the news media tends to run on very reduced staff numbers, after all journalists have to have holidays too, not a lot happens locally, and often if something happens offshore it does not matter if it is ignored because it will usually be forgotten when life starts again later.

This year, not so. Two things have happened.  We have to let New Zealanders come home, where they go into managed isolation quarantine. While there is no community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 currently, the managed isolation places are getting almost 20 cases a day, including cases of the new virulent UK strain and the South African strain. These viruses certainly move fast, and it shows that people overseas are not really taking it seriously. So far, it is contained here, but I have this horrible feeling a breakout is almost inevitable. I hope that wherever you, my readers, are, you manage to keep virus-free.

However, the bigger news here was the remarkable scenes at the US Capitol. It seemed to me almost unbelievable that this was happening. Apparently there were many entries on Facebook and other social media sites effectively organizing this and one might have thought that someone like the NSA might have picked up these signs of trouble and arranged for better law enforcement.

In my opinion, this was not, as some seem to assert, a coup, an insurrection, or anything of the sort. It was a bunch of louts behaving really badly and the proper response is to properly enforce the law and prosecute said louts. Of course, the President’s twittering did not exactly help the situation. It is hard to see his strategy there, or even if he had one. Presumably he wanted to keep his political presence alive during the Biden years, to ensure that Biden had the sort of trouble he had, and since the Congress is lost to him, he had to find an alternative. What he chose, in my opinion, resulted in his shooting himself in the foot.

If we think a little more about strategy, what can the Republican Party do right now to get the best from this situation? The Democrats seem determined to make the most of this, and seemingly are determined to impeach Trump for a second time, and hope that enough Republicans will vote in favour in the Senate. Whether they will is debatable, because to do so would give the Democrats huge publicity. That still leaves what to do? As a writer, I have to formulate plots so I wrote the following last Sunday. As can be seen, the Republicans thought differently.

So, my suggested strategy starting last Monday: approach Trump and suggest he resign, thus giving Pence a few days as President. The advantages are:

(a)  For Trump, Pence will pardon him for whatever falls out from his Presidency. This starves the Democrats of political oxygen, Trump gets personal freedom and is able to stand in the primaries again in 2024 if he so wished. That should be enough to persuade Trump to comply. The alternative is the Republicans promise to convict him in the Senate, he will leave in disgrace and he will not run again. He hopefully would comply, but someone with congenital holes in feet may not. 

(b)  For Pence, be President, albeit for no more than a week, and maybe only a couple of days. He goes into history books as the shortest term President, but equally, perhaps the most productive per unit time.

(c)  For the party and for Pence: by getting Trump to resign and pardon him, it starves the Democrats of “political oxygen”. The statement made during the pardon is it is done because it is the only way to start healing the nation. Who can argue with that really? Many won’t like it, but so what? The alternative is continued bitter political fighting at the expense of the nation.

(d) For the Party and the Nation: Pence orders the military to assist with distribution and vaccination. There are apparently difficulties getting people vaccinated because there are not enough people able to do it and the vaccines are not always where they are needed. The military must have available logistics and health workers. This also starves Biden of his first “easy win”.

(e)  To harpoon the Democrats, pardon Assange from extradition. The liberal or progressive parts of the Democrats cannot object and makes the Republicans look good on freedom of speech, which is what they claim they want.Easy, isn’t it? Isn’t it??? My guess, at the time of writing, none of this will happen. More missed opportunities. And (added before posting) about the only thing I got right, I think, was that guess. What will happen now is anybody’s guess, and as you can see, anybody guesses better than me