Roger Penrose

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I am not the first person to say that we are very lucky to be living during the lifetime of Roger Penrose. He is, I believe, the Einstein of our time. Though Penrose is very much a celebrity with certain types of nerds, the popular media have paid little attention to him, even after he won a Nobel Prize in 2020. It was Stephen Hawking, who died in 2018, who became a media pet. However, in my non-scientific opinion, Roger Penrose is a far more important and interesting scientist than Hawking was.

Penrose is now 91 years old, and he would have been 91 when the interview above was done. Penrose clearly likes doing interviews, as well as lectures. You’ll find many examples of both on YouTube. Most interviewers, though, don’t have the knowledge to do a good interview with Penrose. Robert Kuhn, who does the interview above, has actually read Penrose and does a much better job. The sharpness of Penrose’s mind and memory at age 91 is remarkable.

Some of Penrose’s ideas are controversial. Though testable, they’ve not yet been proven. Here is my short list of reasons why every intelligent person should take an interest in Roger Penrose:

• Penrose argues that consciousness does not arise out of any kind of computational algorithm. That is, no computer, no matter how complex, can be conscious, and no computer can ever have real understanding (keeping in mind that “understanding” is very hard to define). If true, then we can stop worrying about artificial intelligence surpassing human intelligence and taking over the world. Penrose’s theory is that there are structures inside the brain’s neurons that somehow use quantum entanglement to produce consciousness. The theory is called “orchestrated objective reduction,” or “ORCH-OR.” Penrose talks about ORCH-OR in many YouTube videos, though I’ve never come across a video that makes the theory as comprehensible as Penrose’s books do.

• Penrose argues that, before the Big Bang, there was a previous aeon, and that, when our present universe peters out, it will be followed by another Big Bang that will create a whole new universe. Even more than that, Penrose believes that certain information can pass from one universe (or aeon) to the next because of certain effects that black holes have (or had, or will have) on the cosmic microwave background.

• Penrose argues that there is a Platonic realm that is actually real. The Platonic realm, Penrose believes, is where mathematics is found. One of the strange capabilities of mind, or consciousness, is that the mind can tap into that Platonic realm and understand mathematics. I don’t recall reading anywhere that Penrose believes that artificial intelligence would be incapable of tapping into the Platonic realm, but I believe that would follow from his theories.

These theories are enormously appealing to the imagination. Interviewers sometimes try to get Penrose to speculate, but he refuses to do it. I just have to suppose, though, that his mind wanders into extremely interesting — and speculative — places that he won’t talk about in public, because that would be unbecoming for a scientist and mathematician.

If I could have a pub chat with anyone in the world, it’s very clear to me who my first choice would be: Roger Penrose. As for the pub, it would be in Oxford, preferably somewhere where Tolkien’s Inklings use to meet. Though it’s vague and I can’t put my finger on it, there is something very Tolkienesque about Penrose. Why doesn’t some interviewer ask him if he knew Tolkien?

The tip of another iceberg

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The media are underplaying yesterday’s arrest of Charles McGonigal, former head of counterintelligence in the New York field office of the FBI. Here is the Washington Post story:

Former FBI official accused of working for Russian he investigated

Even though we still know very little, despite the Mueller report, about Russian interference in the 2016 election and Russia infiltration of the American government at the highest levels, what we already know is so complicated that it’s hard to follow. McGonigal’s arrest ensures that more of truth is going to come out.

McGonigal’s connections are terrifying. He is connected to Putin, to the Russian mob including Oleg Deripaska, to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign manager (Paul Manafort), to James Comey, Rudy Giuliani, and Jared Kushner. In other words, McGonigal is connected to Trump.

With connections like that, it’s a certainty that McGonigal knows a lot more about Trump’s secrets and the doings of Trump henchmen. It’s also a certainty that the Department of Justice knows much more than was contained in yesterday’s news release. McGonigal has pleaded not guilty. If he flips, then we can expect to see much more of this iceberg.

If we are to believe that Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide, just as we are to believe that those Russian oligarchs recently accidentally fell out of windows and accidentally fell down stairs, then we might reasonably wonder whether McGonigal is now a candidate for suicide. There must be quite a few powerful people who don’t want him to talk.

According to the indictment, McGonigal took bribes totaling $225,000. That’s embarrassingly cheap, given the connections to billionaires with big agendas. If, like Paul Manafort, McGonigal is a right-wing true believer, then maybe a measly $225,000 is enough to get him to betray his country.

Don’t we have heretics anymore?

Babel: Or, the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. R.F. Kuang, Harper Voyager, 2022. 546 pages.

I almost never read bestsellers, and this book reminded me why. This book makes me want to go read some Jordan Peterson or something to wash the politically correct taste out of my mouth. Please don’t misunderstand me. My own liberal political views would almost surely be classified as 100 percent politically correct. But that doesn’t mean that I think that political correctness makes for good literature. Do we really need to be harangued and hectored about what we already know? There’s something insulting and condescending about that.

R.F. Kuang’s harangues in Babel: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, are about capitalism and British imperialism. Good grief. Isn’t it about 150 years too late for that? Then again, make that 250 years, because writers should be ahead of their time, not behind.

There was another clue that I should have checked in advance before I bought this book or spent umpteen hours reading it. That’s the rating that Babel got on Goodreads, a wretched hive of mean and mediocre-minded readers if there ever was one. Truly good books (if they get read at all) will almost always get marked down by vindictive readers ganging up to push a book’s ratings down if the book contains the slightest whiff of heresy. Goodreads doesn’t think very highly of heresy or boat-rocking. Whereas books like Babel will get mostly 5-star reviews from the hive. Babel would be boat-rocking only if Charlotte Brontë had written it, when Victoria was on the throne.

R.F. Kuang is a good writer with, obviously, a remarkably good education and many interesting ideas. But that’s no guarantee that she can write a good novel (though she can write novels that are guaranteed to get published). Sure, the world is still dealing with the consequences of British imperialism and slavery. But we know that. A novelist’s job — particularly a scholarly novelist like Kuang — is to be on the leading edge, not to grind (at great length — 546 pages) a very old axe. What could she add to what ahead-of-their-time scholars have already written?

As for the mediocrity and vindictiveness of Goodreads, check out some of the 1-star reviews of, say, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, or John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, both of which rocked the boat a little too hard. Kuang’s Babel has a higher Goodreads rating than either of them. Babel also got a slightly higher Goodreads rating that Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), which rocked the boat too much for mediocre readers and told us things that some people weren’t ready to hear. The Color Purple was not, as far as I can determine, a bestseller, and it’s on a list of the 100 books most frequently targeted for bans. Alice Walker was brave and heretical. Books like Kuang’s just invite approval.

Kuang’s characters are really very sweet, though. The atmosphere she stirs up in old Oxford is appealing. Some of her asides on linguistics are very interesting. But would you be surprised if I told you how diverse her four main characters are? One is Black, one is Chinese, one is an Indian Moslem, and one is white. The white character’s cluelessness is a foil for the what the other characters say to educate her.

Though, as I said, Kuang is a good writer, I think she lost control of this novel. Three-quarters of the way through, the dialogue loses it polish and the plotting grows careless.

But the greatest weakness of this book is plain old failure of imagination. All the gothic frills of fantasy are present, but all that remains underneath that is a rant and a harangue with no new insights. And not a whiff of heresy to redeem it.

200 years of conservative derp

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump. Corey Robin. Oxford University Press, second edition, 2018.

The last chapter of this book — written, I believe, in 2017 — is about Donald Trump. Corey Robin quotes Tony Schwartz, who was the ghostwriter for Trump’s The Art of the Deal:

“I put lipstick on a pig,” he told The New Yorker in the summer of 2016. “I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and make him more appealing than he is.” Schwartz’s disavowal is perplexing, though. The Art of the Deal is not a flattering or even outsized portrait of Trump. It’s a devastating — if unintentional — deflation of not only Trump the man but also the movement, party, and nation he now leads.”

This book is densely academic, but it’s not wishy-washy. I need to be careful here to distinguish between what I think about conservative intellectual discourse and what Corey Robin as an academic has to say about it. So this is me talking: Conservative discourse for 200 years, from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, has all been lipstick on pigs, no matter how high-flown it might be. My claim has a simple basis though it has taken me decades, as a liberal, to see it clearly. That is that no justification exists, not on this planet or on any planet in the galaxy, for the perpetuation of systems that sustain the hierarchy of domination and subordination.

Robin starts with Edmund Burke, 1729-1797, an opponent of democracy who expressed great sympathy for Marie Antoinette but who didn’t care a fig for the common people, whom he saw as dangerous without an aristocracy to manage them. From Burke, Robin works his way forward chronologically — Nietzsche, Hobbes, Hayek, Oakeshott, Goldwater, Ayn Rand, Donald Trump.

The conservative derp of, say, William F. Buckley or Bill Kristol, is no longer in the papers. But we still have conservative producers of high-flown derp such as George Will, Thomas Sowell, and Ross Douthat. Douthat is occasionally capable of making a valid point when he is not blinded by his religion. But my claim is that all conservative discourse, whether old or new, if you decompile it, contains an intentional deception, some form of self-deception, some form of fallacy, or some kind of deformity of character, simply because it tries to justify the unjustifiable. I also claim that Robin’s academic analysis supports my non-academic claim. There is always something uncaring and mean in the conservative character. One of the achievements of the Trump era was to make this meanness a public virtue and to make the supposedly Christian virtues of caring, fairness, and help for the poor and weak — now called “wokeness” — an existential threat to be beaten back and beaten down.

Keeping in mind that this book was written in 2017, Robin sees the conservative movement in a state of decline:

“In recent years, the fusion of elitism and populism has grown brittle. Movement elites no longer find in the electoral majority such a wide or ready response to their populist calls. Like many movements struggling to hold onto power, conservative activists and leaders compensate for their dwindling support in the population by doubling down on their program, issuing ever more strident and racist calls for a return to a white, Christian, free-market nation…. Unable to fund its project on the basis of the masses, at least not nearly to the extent it once did, the right increasingly relies on the most anti-democratic elements of the state: not merely the Electoral College and the Supreme Court but also restrictions on the vote.”

This book is about how conservatives use ideas. A bigger concern, which lies outside the scope of this book, is how conservatives use power, when they can get it. Conservative ideas, no matter how much lipstick, are always mean and ugly. But even more ugly is the conservative desperation to hold onto the power to dominate, so recently on display at Trump rallies or the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The conservative mind can’t see the difference between the attack on the U.S. Capitol and a BLM protest that got out of hand. Here’s the difference that I see. It’s the difference between domination and subjugation, and the refusal to be dominated and subjugated. One wants to illegally install a vile and foul-mouthed oligarch in the most powerful office in the world. The other wants justice for the murder of powerless people. That difference is as wide as the galaxy, and there is something badly wrong with a mind that can’t see the difference.

Update: Thomas Edsall’s column in today’s New York Times is about psychopathy in today’s right-wing politics: “You Don’t Negotiate with These Kinds of People”

Barley brownies

I Googled for a recipe for barley brownies and found quite a good one. The recipe uses apple sauce instead of eggs. It’s a vegan recipe, but I substituted butter for margarine and milk for the water. Pumpkin sauce is not something I have very often, so I substituted more apple sauce for the pumpkin sauce. These are very good brownies. Barley flour’s nutty taste is perfect for brownies. I buy organic hulled barley from Amazon and grind the flour myself.

The Berlin Philharmonic, on line

Months ago, I downloaded the Berlin Philharmonic’s app on my Apple TV. But the slowness of my rural internet connection wouldn’t support it — not even close. Using a cellular hot spot, my download speed typically was about 2 Mbps, though sometimes in the past it was even slower than that. And then suddenly, when I made one of my periodic checks to see if T-Mobile’s home internet service was available to me, I was told that it was. I signed up. T-Mobile sent me a router. That was last week, and I still consider the new setup to be on probation. But now I’m getting real broadband speeds, sometimes as high as 100 Mbps download — somewhat slow by urban standards but a miracle here in the sticks. To celebrate, I splurged on a one-year “season ticket” for the Berlin Philharmonic. It is changing my life.

I would love to know how the economics of their on-line presence is working for the Berlin Philharmonic. It must be one of the richest orchestras in the world, though, like many rich musical institutions including the Metropolitan Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic must have taken a huge hit during the Covid pandemic. The concerts went on, sometimes to an empty house, on line only; and sometimes to a reduced audience, with everyone spaced four seats apart. It would seem, though, as things return to normal, that the orchestra’s “Digital Concert Hall” not only has expanded the orchestra’s audience but also is making money for the orchestra. A one-year subscription costs $150. The quality of the video and audio are superb. The orchestra has a packed schedule, and most concerts are streamed live. With a subscription, there are 733 concerts available in the archive. The quality of the video, the audio, and the production is extremely good.

One of the hardest parts of living in the sticks is the cultural isolation. I am surrounded by deplorables. There is, of course, a strong culture of folk music and country music in the Appalachians and the foothills. But frankly it doesn’t do much for me. Most of the locals who do country music have little or no musical training. There is just no substitute for superbly trained musicians doing the kind of music that superbly trained musicians do.

During my years in San Francisco, I often bought season tickets to the San Francisco Symphony. When I didn’t have season tickets, an old friend who was in the orchestra would give me complimentary tickets. It’s a good thing to support one’s local orchestra. Thanks to the disappointingly slow expansion of broadband into rural areas, an expansion which is finally reaching me, I find that the Berlin Philharmonic is now my local orchestra. Though there is no substitute for the collective experience of actually being in a concert hall, watching (and listening to) a live or recorded concert actually has some advantages. One gets to see the orchestra, the conductor, and the soloists from up close and from many different angles. The Berlin Philharmonic video is so good that you can sometimes read the music on the music stands. The presence of the audience also makes a difference, something that becomes clear if you watch one of the orchestra’s somehow-sad Covid-era concerts in an empty hall. Especially when watching a concert live, as I did last Saturday, one can almost imagine being there.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s “Digital Concert Hall” has apps for most devices. You also can watch in a web browser. Their web site is here.

When retro is way better

That was my telephone number in San Francisco for many years. I apologize to whoever has that number now.

A little Googling shows that the first cell phones became available in March 1984. I admit that I was fascinated and aspired to own one. It was not until 1995, though, that I first acquired a cell phone. That was when I went to work for the San Francisco Examiner, and they assigned me a phone as a 24/7 tether to the office.

The cell phones of the 1990s actually were quite good, though they were big and heavy. As long as you had a decent signal, the voice quality was as good as land lines. Then cellular service started going digital. We were promised that digital would be much better than analog, but that was a lie. By 2008, cellular providers no longer had to support analog phones. They dropped analog service in no time.

The end of analog service in 2008 was an ugly landmark in the history of the telephone. Voice quality dropped appallingly, as cellular carriers “compressed” the audio in order to be able to support more customers. A telephone conversation became an ordeal.

But another ugly landmark had occurred in 2007. That was when the first iPhone went on the market. The iPhone looked nothing like a telephone. It was flat — an absurdly unsuitable shape for a telephone. The reason it was flat, of course, was because the screen had become the most important thing. Even the old flip phones, which people now make fun of, were better telephones, because they had a bit of curve in them and accorded at least a little attention to the location of the human mouth and ear.

Telephones have fascinated me since I was a child. One’s telephone was one of the most loved objects in the house. In those days, it was the only two-way connection to the outside world. We actually used our telephones to have long talks with our friends in those days, and we enjoyed it. But by 2010, I had come to hate telephones. I wasn’t the only one. I hated them when they rang. I especially hated it when other people’s telephones rang. I hated telephones when I had to talk on them. I hated listening to other people talking on their phones, which was almost impossible to avoid in public places until (what an improvement) texting became more prevalent.

The red phone in the photo was my land line during my years in San Francisco. I love that phone, and I’ll never part with it. Was there ever a design better than the old telephones made by the Bell System and Western Electric? Young people today have probably never talked on such a phone. I will never forget them.

But for years my red telephone went unused. I experimented with services such as Verizon’s fixed cellular service, back around 2018, but that worked very poorly, because Verizon signals were so weak in rural areas.

But rural cellular service here has gradually gotten better. With a T-Mobile hot spot in my attic, I actually can get a data signal strong enough to be able to use cellular over WIFI, which, at least where I am, gives better voice quality than a direct cell phone connection. And I found a device that allows me to dedicate one of my cell phones to sitting on a shelf and imitating a land line, with my old red telephone connected to it.

The device is called a “Cell2Jack.” It costs $39 on Amazon. You can plug an old telephone into it. If your house has telephone wiring, you can connect the Cell2Jack to your house wiring. The device uses Bluetooth to become a telephone client of your cell phone. When I first bought the Cell2Jack, I wasn’t satisfied with its audio quality. But after a firmware update, plus T-Mobile’s recent improvements, the device works remarkably well. Not only can I use my old Bell System phone on those occasions when I can’t avoid a dreaded phone call. I actually can hear without straining my ear and my brain to try to understand the person (or robot) on the other end of the line.

As for talking on a flat, slippery device with a screen, I’d rather be beaten.

⬆︎ Some designs are just too perfect to ever give up.

Bread casserole with veggies, cheese, and walnuts

Bread casserole doesn’t sound very nutritious or low-ish carb. But it can be.

I used a food processor to coarsely chop the bread. Then, also in the food processor, I minced onion, parsley, spinach, celery, and an apple. The cheese, grated, is part cheddar and part Gruyère. The walnuts are partly pieces and partly halves. I did not add any liquid, though I wish I had used two or more apples instead of one. I moistened it with olive oil. It’s seasoned with sage and rosemary. The darker and heavier the bread the better. This was my barley-whole wheat bread, which was two days old.

It occurred to me that I could make a very good dessert-style bread pudding with minced apples and the same kind of bread, seasoned with cinnamon. I’ll do that next time I have two-day-old barley bread.

I grind hulled barley and wheat berries to make my own flour for this bread. It’s half barley, half wheat, plus water, salt, and yeast. I make this bread fairly often because the guilt factor is low. I’m always amazed at what a tasty grain barley is. For flour, I use hulled barley as opposed to pearl barley.

Now fully in the public domain: Sherlock Holmes

Illustration from the December 1892 issue of Strand Magazine

Each year on January 1, copyrights that are 95 years old expire. It was 95 years ago, in 1927, when the last Sherlock Holmes stories were published. (Copyright laws vary by country. In the U.S., copyrights expire after 95 years.)

Those who profit from copyrights will attempt all sorts of novel legal arguments to keep the profits going. Think Mickey Mouse and Beatrix Potter, as well as Sherlock Holmes. Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain is one of the few institutions that track the public interest in copyright laws. Here is a link to their post on Public Domain Day 2023, with a list of some of the books, movies, and songs that are in the public domain as of today.