Archive for March, 2014

A haiku

This haiku ends with

Silence of five syllables


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This is Something that Happened

Get away, you beast, for this man

does not come tutored by your sister;

he comes to view your punishments.

            —Dante, Inferno, Canto XII, lines 16–20


There was a pause in the conversation­—one of those sudden strange lulls that seem to have meaning, but are actually just coincidences.  Mr. Herbert didn’t like coincidences of any kind, so he said the first thing that popped into his mind.

“Why don’t we bury politicians alive?”

The married couple, Mrs. and Mr. Quain, looked at each other knowingly, and it didn’t take much perception to surmise what they were thinking.  See, George, I told you he was weird.  Yes, Gladys, I see what you mean.  Have some more of the kale salad.  Why, I don’t mind if I do.

The fourth person at the table, Mr. Muraña, didn’t react at all to Mr. Herbert’s absurd declaration.  He kept sawing at his overdone steak with a huge serrated steak knife.  The sawing was surprisingly delicate, as if Mr. Muraña was preparing tissue samples to be placed between glass slides.

“I said, why don’t we bury politicians alive?”

“We heard you the first time,” said Mr. Quain.

“Oh, George, be nice.”

Mr. Herbert feigned a smile.  “I am serious.  Here’s my proposal.”  He gulped the rest of his wine—a cloyingly sweet port which suited him just fine.  “OK, so we have elections, right?  There are always plenty of candidates.  The problem is, none of the candidates are ever any good.  Idiots, the lot of them.  So here’s what we do: on election day, at around 8pm, say, we bury all the candidates alive.  Just trundle them all up in a bunch of coffins and stick ‘em six feet under.  And then, get this, when the election returns come in, we dig up the winner only.  Good riddance to the rest, I say.”  He popped a cherry tomato into his fleshy mouth.

Mrs. Quain was pretending she didn’t hear any of Mr. Herbert’s idea, chewing her kale with grim determination.  Mr. Quain was less subtle.

“I thought we were having a serious conversation,” he huffed.

“I am serious.”

Mr. Muraña raised a hand and snapped a finger.  This being a restaurant with two Michelin stars, a waiter or waitress (it was impossible to tell which) immediately refilled his glass of water.  He then resumed his steak sawing.

“Well,” said Mr. Quain, “we were discussing Heidegger’s Being and Time.  At least, I thought we were.  Then you bring up this nonsense—”

“Is this a sort of game to you, George?” Mr. Herbert asked.

“Whatever do you mean?”

“I mean, I change the subject, and you get all indignant?”

Mrs. Quain smiled faintly, as if she had thought of something naughty.  Her husband said: “I’m not indignant!”

“I don’t want to talk about Heidegger any more.  So I changed the subject.”

“To something ludicrous!”

Mr. Herbert lifted a blue-and-white napkin and wiped non-existent crumbs from his lips.  “Not as ridiculous as your analysis of Being and Time.”

Mr. Quain was nonplussed.  He appealed to Mr. Muraña, as if Mr. Muraña were a referee who could adjudicate a thorny issue.  “What say you, Reyes?”

Mr. Muraña looked up.  “About Being and Time, or about burying people alive?  As to the first, I think the book is overrated, as is Heidegger, truth be told.  I think that the informational content of the book is close to zero.  It reminds of new age nonsense, such as Deepak Chopra.  You see in the book whatever you want to see.  It is a kind of Rorschach test.  The language is convoluted, almost labyrinthine.  Page after page on the difference between Being, and Being-in.”  Mr. Muraña put his serrated knife down carefully, perpendicular to and on top of his fork, making a cruciform as if to ward off evil spirits.  “As to the second, well, I don’t think you have thought your plan completely through, Mr. Herbert.  When did you say you would bury the politicians?  8pm, no?”

“That’s right.”

Mrs. and Mr. Quain looked at each other again.  She was softly shaking her head; he was turning vermillion.

“Well,” continued Mr. Muraña, “assume that the election returns come in around 11.  All the politicians would be dead.  You cannot survive three hours buried alive.  You would suffocate.”

Mr. Herbert looked as though he were about to retort.

“Now look here,” Mr. Quain said, “let’s get back to Heidegger—”

Mrs. Quain rolled her eyes and muttered, “You did spend so much time slogging through it…”

“The thing I like about Heidegger is that he distinguished between factual properties, on the one hand, and ‘Being’ on the other, which is not a property,” Mr. Quain said somewhat pompously.

“Do you even know what that means?” Mr. Herbert asked.

“Of course.  Let me explain.  See Reyes over there?”  Mr. Muraña raised his water glass in salute.  “He is a man.  That’s one of his properties.  But his existence is not in and of itself a property.  The term ‘man’ is a category.  The term ‘being’ is an existential.  It is factual to say he is a man.  It is ‘factical’ to say that he is ‘being’ right now.  Do you get it?”

“George,” Mrs. Quain said, “I don’t even think Heidegger would have gotten that.”

Mr. Herbert shrugged.  “I didn’t want to get into all that ontological inquiry versus ontic inquiry over dinner.  I wanted to talk about something a bit more fun.  Now, Mr. Muraña, as to the suffocation problem—”

“I am a woman, you know,” Ms. Muraña said.  She swatted away a non-existent fly.

“—the way I see it is, we could put these ventilation tubes down into the coffins.  Let them breath just fine.  We can plug them up later when the results come in on CNN.”

“You’re a woman?” Mr. Quain said, the same way one might enunciate the phrase The volcano is exploding?

“Oh of course she is,” Mrs. Quain said.  “You really don’t have a finely tuned gaydar, do you, George?”

A waiter or waitress arrived with dessert: a Meyer lemon donut with cereal milk.  Everyone took a plate; Ms. Muraña also asked for strong coffee.

“We should go further,” Ms. Muraña said.  “Why not?  I propose that we bury the accused.  Just during jury deliberations, you know.  Bury these people alive, with ventilation, as you say.  Let the juries or judge deliberate.  Then if they are acquitted, we dig them up.  Otherwise—”  She smiled.

“Only for heinous crimes, surely” Mrs. Quain said, sipping her cereal milk.

“Not you too!” Mr. Quain gasped.

“Of course,” Ms. Muraña said.  “Rape, murder, maybe tax evasion.”

“I like it!” Mr. Herbert said, biting into his donut.

Mr. Quain decided that the only way to get the conversation back on track was to plow ahead, and pretend that his wife, his neighbor, and his (apparently) female boss had all gone temporarily bananas.  “Anyway, I am struck by Heidegger’s final thesis: that time is temporal.  Now, you see that if—”

Mrs. Quain suddenly became a minotaur.

First, her head snapped up, as if her mind were now controlled by a powerful sorcerer, within range but out of sight.  Her eyes rolled back, showing blood-shot whites but no pupils.  Veins in her neck started to bulge.  Her chest expanded; her blouse and bra popped off in shreds.  She stood up violently, knocking her chair backward.  Several drinks were spilled.  She then shook her head rapidly, almost comically, as if to say no no no no no no no.

Her limbs grew in length and girth.  Her skin tone darkened, and wiry black hair grew all over.  Her skirt fell away; her panties became tatters; a huge uncircumcised penis (fully erect) now protruded from between her legs.

Her head transformed last.  Mrs. Quain’s eyes began to bleed, as if here tears were made of blood; her lips cracked and bled as well.  Her formerly perfect teeth became dull and yellow and fetid.  Her nose doubled in size, then flattened and became decided bovine.  Her forehead puddled forward, as if viscous, then hardened into an elongated shape: definitely the head of a bull.  Her eyes shrunk in size and receded into a furry face.  Steam escaped her lips.

Now fully naked and close to seven feet tall, the minotaur that was Mrs. Quain bellowed: an almost primal roar that caused everyone in the restaurant to startle.  As if by magic, a huge battleaxe appeared in her hairy arms.

“Είμαι Μινώταυρος!”

Mr. Quain was cowering on the floor at his wife’s feet.  Mr. Herbert was standing some twenty feet away, trying to decide whether to exit the room entirely.  Ms. Muraña had picked up her steak knife and was holding it without enthusiasm, as if she realized its efficacy was nil.

“Αυτό είναι ένα σύμπαν στο οποίο συμβαίνει αυτό!”  Mrs. Quain swung her axe at the table, cleaving it in twain.

There was a stampede towards the door.  Mr. Herbert was one of the first to leave, no doubt thinking of burying minotaurs alive.  Mr. Quain was a babbling, incoherent mess.  Port wine and tears and cereal milk mixed as they dripped down his face.  He had shit himself.

Only Ms. Muraña retained any kind of composure, although ‘composure’ here is a relative term.  She had wet herself, and had bitten her lower lip until it bled, but by sheer force of will she had stood her ground and not backed away.  Paradoxically, the fierce look on her face and her aggressive stance made her appear more feminine.

Why did she stand her ground, that day, when confronted with the minotaur?  That is, of course, the question.  It is not for us to speculate, or judge.

“Είναι ένας τρόπος που οδηγεί από το αρχέγονο χρόνο για να την έννοια του να είναι εκεί! Μήπως το ίδιο το ίδιο χρονικό διάστημα, όπως αποκαλύπτουν τον ορίζοντα της ύπαρξης!”  Mrs. Quain sprang forward and swung the axe at Ms. Muraña.

In abject terror, Ms. Muraña flung her knife to the side.  It skittered across the marble floor.

Ms. Muraña was decapitated cleanly, her head sloughing off like mashed potatoes piled too high.  Through some autonomic response, she raised her hands and clutched at where her head used to be, as if feeling for her soul.

The corpse that used to be Ms. Muraña slumped to the ground.

This is something that happened.

In some universe, this occurred.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy my book Why Is There Anything? which is available for the Kindle on Amazon.com.


I am also currently collaborating on a multi-volume novel of speculative hard science fiction and futuristic deep-space horror called Sargasso Nova.  Publication of the first installment will be January 2015; further details will be released on FacebookTwitter, or via email: SargassoNova (at) gmail.com.

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The big news of late is the discovery of gravitational waves from the very earliest time after the Big Bang.  What hasn’t been widely reported is that this represents a huge bit of indirect evidence that multiple universes really do exist.

Here’s more:

Big Bang Discovery Opens Doors to the “Multiverse”.


(Harvard University / EPA)

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The conventional wisdom among people who know a little bit of quantum mechanics is that quantum mechanics is weird.

The conventional wisdom is wrong.  Quantum mechanics is not weird.  Interpretations of quantum mechanics are weird.

My thinking on this has changed over the years.  In high school I read everything I could about the “weirdness” of our universe: Schrödinger’s cat, wave-particle duality, the collapse of the wave function, many-worlds theory, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

Then a strange thing happened: I went to college.  I studied physics.  And guess what?  None of that stuff gets more than the briefest mention in the physics classroom.  Why?

Because those things are beside the point.  Quantum mechanics works.  How you interpret quantum mechanics is your problem.

There’s a dichotomy here which is the source of most people’s confusion.  Theories are different from interpretations of theories.  A theory is a mathematical model that allows us to make predictions.  An interpretation is a philosophical construct that allows us to sleep at night; it is a squishy heuristic that helps us unimaginative humans make sense of the math before us.  Theories get things done.  Interpretations never helped anybody, not really.


An abandoned shack.

Let’s say that in an abandoned shack you discovered a notebook with the word “PHYSICS” written by hand over and over, thousands of times, apparently filling every page.  You haven’t looked at the last few pages, but your theory is that these pages will also have the word “PHYSICS” written out.  Each time you turn a page, your theory is validated: “PHYSICS” is there, as predicted.

Next to this notebook is another that looks just like it.  You open the first page, and are not surprised to see “PHYSICS PHYSICS PHYSICS” again.  What’s going on?  Did some crazy person live in this shack?  Such speculation doesn’t really matter, since you can still hypothesize that “PHYSICS” fills this notebook as well.  In fact, you have a stronger theory: every notebook in this shack is filled with “PHYSICS”.

You perform an experiment: you turn the page.  “PHYSICS PHYSICS PHYSICS”.  The experiment supports your theory.  You find more notebooks; same results.  Every notebook in the shack is filled, apparently, with “PHYSICS”.  But guess what?  There are dozens of possible interpretations.  And in the absence of further data, you can never know which one is “correct”.

Maybe the shack was once inhabited by a crazy person, who wrote “PHYSICS” precisely 250,001 times in a futile attempt at summoning Cthulhu from his ancient slumber.

Maybe a student misspelled “physics” on a test, and her cruel teacher punished her in the most depraved way possible.

Maybe Matt Damon filled the notebooks, in a method-acting attempt to get into the mindset of an OCD scientist.

Which of these interpretations is the “truth”?  Without further data you cannot really say.  Arguing about which is right and which is wrong is futile at best, and annoying at worst.

Of course, new data may turn up.  We might find out that the notebooks are 75 years old, ruling out our Matt Damon interpretation.  That interpretation is no longer a valid interpretation of the data.

Which brings me to my next point: there is no official arbiter of what constitutes a theory versus what constitutes an interpretation.  Different philosophers and scientists have used the words differently at different times.  All you can hope for is that a particular author is consistent in his/her use of the terms.  I personally use the word “interpretation” to describe competing theories that cannot currently be differentiated by any known scientific experiment.  If two different interpretations make different, testable predictions, then they are promoted to being totally different theories.  (Caveat: others use the words slightly differently.  Deal with it.)

So what does this have to do with quantum mechanics?

Quantum mechanics is an entirely mathematical theory.  Its postulates are logical, concise, and powerful.  We can use quantum mechanics to invent cell phones, computers, lasers, and iPods.  Quantum mechanics doesn’t care if you “understand what it really means”, or not.  It is arguably the most successful and powerful theory to come out of the 20th century.

Now, the mathematics of quantum mechanics are abstract and hard to visualize.  Nevertheless, people insist on trying to visualize anyway.  And the result is all kinds of weirdness: Schrödinger’s cat, wave-particle duality, the collapse of the wave function, many-worlds theory, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  These ideas are all mental hoops that people have jumped through to explain some unambiguous, concrete, abstract linear algebra.  The math is just math, and it works; what it means is anyone’s guess.

There’s no crying in baseball, and there’s no philosophy in quantum mechanics.


There’s no philosophy in quantum mechanics!

Don’t like the many-worlds interpretation?  Fine.  Be a Copenhagenist.  Don’t like pilot waves?  Great.  Stick to your pet idea about superluminal communication.  Just remember that all of these competing interpretations make the exact same predictions, so for all practical purposes they are the same.  Some people go so far as to say, just shut up and calculate.  [Note added 3-19-14: there are problems with pilot wave theories that in my view rule them out as being a valid interpretations of quantum mechanics.  But there are hoops people can jump through to try and “force” pilot wave theories to be consistent with, say, Bell’s theorem.  My broader point is that there are multiple interpretations of QM and that all have followers to this day, but that none of the interpretations really have any distinct implications for our lives.]

I don’t usually go that far.  I actually think that the many-worlds interpretation is a testable theory, not an interpretation (hence the name of this blog).  I think many-worlds is falsifiable.  (If we ever observe a wave function collapsing, then many-worlds will have to be discarded.)  But I don’t think that will happen: many-worlds is too elegant, and too powerful, to not be true.

But we’ll see.

If you think it’s absurd that a cat can be alive and dead at the same time…if you think that it’s crazy to hypothesize other universes…if you think that God does not play dice with the universe…don’t blame quantum mechanics.  Blame the philosophers who try to interpret it.

Quantum mechanics works.  Otherwise, you’d be reading this on an actual piece of paper.

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