"I'm Not Convinced We Know Anything"

Weekend Read: Physics of The Impossible

Weekend Read: Physics of The Impossible

Wine, music, book action! This weekend has been one of my best as I got lost into Michiu Kaku’s bestseller ‘Physics of The Impossible’. Michiu Kaku is an American Theoretical Physicist and one of the celebrity Physics faces beside Stephen Hawking.

Having watched him in several documentaries and lecture videos his style came across in the book making me feel like I was attending his class.

Physics of The Impossible is Kaku’s 3 group classification of various feats that might be considered impossible even though some have already been achieved in some form and others within reach in the foreseeable future. These range from things like invisibility cloaks to robots to time travel. There are three classes. The Class 1 Impossibilites are those that are not possible today but do not violate laws of physics for example teleportation and invisibility. Class II Impossibilites are at the fringe of our current knowledge and might be achieved after a million or so years e.g time machines. The last category, Class III Impossibilities, do not agree with our current laws of physics as we know them and might change our understanding of everything if ever achieved for instance perpetual motion machines.

The book makes it very obvious how much science fiction has influenced scientific exploration and technology and makes it hard to just dismiss something you see on TV as just for fun. It has actually made me want to watch more science fiction(though it’s all I watch nowadays) but with a more academic eye. In fact before I finished reading the book I was already looking for episodes of Star Trek which is the most mentioned science fiction in the book.

This is a great read and highly recommend it. It’s very enjoyable, he knows how to keep you glued. Unlike some books which towards the end I felt like I was reading just finish, this one got more interesting as I read along. I guess mostly because it veered into the quantum world which I love very much. However I felt at some point that it wrongly rides on the assumption that everything can be explained using Physics. Even though this is arguably close to the truth, sometimes the theme of the chapter is completely lost when the author delves into quantum physics and cosmology while ignoring other applicable fields of study like he ignores Biology in the chapter ‘Precognition’.

One other thing that came across is that ‘Physicists never learn’. It is interesting how they(we) can be at the very edge of knowledge and yet it reaches a point where they declare something impossible. Take Lord Kelvin for example. Kelvin is known to have claimed that heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible despite him being one of the giants of modern Physics and Mathematics.  William Bickerton the New Zealand Astronomer once said “This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of absurd length to which vicious specialization will carry scientists…the proposition appears to be basically impossible.” And new evidence seems to suggest that Einstein was wrong on the speed of light being the ultimate speed that can be achieved. What history should teach us is that we can never rule out something to be impossible, we can only say they are highly unlikely at a certain day and age. But it’s only human to look at history in the eye and dismiss it. Even Stephen Hawking has become guilty of this by saying that A Theory of Everything is impossible.  I like the way Kaku is open about a myriad of possibilities – but I do think that perpetual motion machines are impossible :)



When does free will kick in?

I’ve always been vocal against the theory that humans have free will.  I want to believe otherwise because it’s only human to do so, I don’t want to feel like everything has been determined already and just waiting for the time. I don’t want to feel like what I think are decisions am making are actually not, rather  in the background they are mathematical equations and solutions are already determined. However, what I feel is irrelevant. What matters is what agrees with evidence. For centuries humans felt the Earth is at the center of the Solar System. And since forever humans have felt that their is life after death despite the lack of evidence or at least a theory that aligns with observation. So let’s put feelings aside for now.

Last Sunday evening I realized I had been at my computer the whole weekend programming. I decided to go out for a few drinks so it didn’t turn out to be one of those weekends that just passed by. They had football on. It was a match between some two European clubs I can’t remember which. When it comes to sport I hardly know anything outside Formula 1 and MotoGP.

Anyway, I’m sipping away at the usual(Smirnoff Ice – I know it’s a girly drink but beer tastes whack), I’m watching football and kind of enjoying it even though I didn’t know which team to root for.  At some point I couldn’t help myself but think scientifically, and my second bottle made me a little philosophical too. I start to wonder what are the chances of a footballer making a move that is completely independent of what he’s been trained to do, his talent, his hormonal situation, his genes, his intelligence and his past experience. The answer is nearly nil. In fact every single move depends mainly on these factors. So at this point nothing seems random to me anymore. I almost want to look at the history of both teams to calculate the odds of which team will win, but then that would kill the element of surprise. Interestingly enough I still enjoy the game even though now it’s like observing Brownian motion (the presumably random moving of particles suspended in a fluid  resulting from their bombardment by the fast moving atoms or molecules in the gas or liquid).  Everything looks random even though looking closer you see patterns that help you predict outcomes. And that didn’t make watching football less fun, it’s still fun just in a different way.

This seemingly random but not quite random human behavior goes beyond football into our daily lives. Almost every action and inaction can be attributed to one of three things: biology, history, environment. I stay up late because I had a coffee earlier. I go for a drink because am thirsty.  I get out of bed because I have to go to work. I take this route because I have a bad experience with that one. I use Safaricom Network because they provide the fastest internet etc. There’s an explanation to why everything is happening the way it is. When I ‘decided’ to got out for drinks last Sunday evening their was factors that led to that. Factors that with the right equations wouldn’t have predicted any other outcome.

Some people say that Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight blog is the real winner of the US presidential election of 2012. While everyone else thought it was too close to call before election night, Nate crunched his data and predicted a 92% chance of an Obama win.  Reelecting Obama was a collective choice the American voters made. Nate used math to predict the outcome of that choice accurately. And this is not the first time he’s done it. He’s also not the only one in the game. It’s actually a whole field of study.

Most people think the ultimate Artificial Intelligence life form will be that with free will. But do we ourselves have free will? I think if we create something with free will we would have created something far more advanced than us humans. I think just because we think we make decisions doesn’t mean we actually do. I think we just react to situations, and our reactions depend on our genetic makeup, history and environment. And we have no more free will than a rock that just sits there.

Wild And Uncontrolled is What The Ecosystem Needs Steve

In an interview earlier today with Richard Hoffman, Steve Ballmer pitched Windows mobile as better than Android and Apple’s iOS saying that the former is ‘wild’ and ‘uncontrolled’ while the latter is highly priced and highly controlled. Now this is the same Ballmer that laughed off the iPhone before it was released alluding that it’s impractical.  iPhone went on to become a very successful product and set new standards for the smartphone world. I’m not going to vouch for Apple here though, I dislike their products as much as the next freedom freak. I actually do agree with Ballmer about the iPhone. However, Android is my friend and the reason I love it is mainly because it is wild and uncontrolled.

According to the latest Gartner findings, Android now has 72% of the smartphone market share. That is up about 20% from the same time last year. It’s  not sheer luck that android is doing so well. It’s also not a coincidence that Samsung became the top phone selling manufacture after unveiling their Galaxy series that are powered by android. Android makes sense to users and developers alike. I developed my first android application before I knew any Java simply because of the huge number of people in the Open source community. Apparently their isn’t any problem I could come across that no one had already come across, posted on a forum and got dozens of answers. And now that I speak Java, things are much easier. Developing for iPhone requires that you first buy an overpriced Mac computer – there are hacks but you’ll still need a Mac.  Despite their sleek UI, awesome UX and stability, Macs just don’t cut it for me. I’d give anything for a little more control in my life, including boycotting Apple products. Developing a Windows mobile app requires you purchase softwares, starting with a Windows OS. Where is the incentive?

If Microsoft can’t recognise the Open Source Community they should focus their energy on surface computing and gaming technology. Android is probably the best thing that ever happened to mobile telephony. Wild and uncontrolled is good for development. Earlier in the week there was news about a $21 dollar tablet(20% price of an iPad) made in the UK targeting students in India. And of course it’s running on Android. Now this is something that wouldn’t happen in a very long time if the tablet industry was owned by the profit centric, anti Open-Source Microsoft and Apple.

Kenyan Politicians’ Walk of Shame

Kenyan politics is fun; when you pretend you are on the sidelines and it’s just a show that has no effect on your well being then it’s one of the funnest things to indulge in. However, it’s depressing when you think that the decisions the politicians make actually have big impact on the development of the country.
I like that the new constitution has brought with it a few new regulations that can cap how much games can go on in the political arena. The introduction of the deadline to form coalitions for example has arm twisted the politicians to shamelessly show how much they care about political seats than anything else.
We have for example Kalonzo Musyoka who ran up and down to various corners of Africa on a tax money spending spree dubbed ‘the shuttle diplomacy’ in a failed attempt to save the asses of Uhuru and Ruto from the Hague. It’s now more obvious that he had vested interests in protecting the war crime suspects – most probably being given a fat seat in the G7 alliance. Now that the Uhuruto have shown him he is dispensable he is back to forming a coalition with the guy he’s been against for the last 5 years. In just the last month he has gone from almost forming a coalition with 3 different parties with very different political views. They say that a wise man changes his mind but at the rate Kalonzo changes his mind, he is nothing but wise, sly maybe.
Musalia Mudavadi the once nearly clean politician has joined the Uhuruto alliance in a race against time to join something, no matter how dirty it is. I’m not saying that Uhuru and Ruto are guilty of crimes against humanity – ICC will be the judge of that in a few months – am simply saying that when you have a coalition made of war crimes suspects that is bent on trying to stop their cases, a coalition of that if found guilty if they form the government might turn the country into something akin to Sudan, a coalition that will go out of their way to fuck up our foreign policy by claiming that the west is interfering (even though such a position might lead economic sanctions that could result in Kenya becoming another Zimbabwe), then it doesn’t matter what kind of visionary you are because your dignity is tainted for life. This might very well be the end of his political career.
I have a lot respect for Raila as a reformist, or rather the closest thing we have to a reformist in a high place of power. But I’m not the biggest fan of his latest decision to have Kalonzo as his running mate. There’s a reason Kenyans refer to Kalonzo as ‘water melon’. It’s not because he is known to eat a lot of the fruit. Kalonzo goes with the tide. You need to watch his statements just for a month to realize how true this is. He is a big liability to ODM especially given how much negative interactions they’ve had in the recent past. I wonder how they would run the country smoothly with that kind of relationship. But then again they are politicians, more unpredictable than electrons. I feel like here Raila just played a game of numbers. From a rational perspective it’s a wise move since one needs the numbers to win, but then again Kenyans are ‘waking up’ and numbers might have a whole new meaning this time round.
I have never voted before except for those few times when someone says ‘by the show of hands…’ Those ones are easy, one doesn’t need to sit down and have a philosophical argument with self on whether democracy works or not etc. But this one is bigger. Today I read an article with a snippet on President Kibaki’s speech that said: “If you don’t register as a voter then how will you participate in choosing the right leaders to govern this nation?” Now am not one to be looking for inspiration from the same guy that says ‘Mavi ya Kuku’ and ‘Kumbaffu’ on a national presidential addresses. However, this simple statement has changed my all life reluctance to vote.
When the sun rises, and the window for making pre-election deals has passed, politicians will be waking up in the morning realizing who they are in bed with and go ‘Did we….? Oh shit!’. You on the other hand are not supposed to just stand by the road taking pictures of their walks of shame. Instead find a registration center, identify the right candidate that addresses your issues, and vote. Because at the end of this process the one thing the Kenyan politicians should finally learn is that numbers are taking new dynamics. It’s all about policies, issues, economy et al. It’s not tribe anymore. We are of one tribe. Kenya.