December 12, 2016

Metafoundry 65: Filigree Appendages

Coordinates; building an orrery; programming notes.

COORDINATES: Started this at my favourite desk at the Boston Athenaeum, where I’ve been spending as much time as I can recently. Outside the window, the sun was shining through a few gauzy clouds and some bright, sharp contrails, and it’s been just above freezing today. Realized I forgot to eat lunch, so wrapped it up at my local Clover Food Lab, to the accompaniment of a pinball game's "I AM THE KING OF PAIN!" and a view of traffic on the main drag as dusk settled into night.


I: Metastable states
I had lunch with a mathematician colleague a few days after the US election, and I drew this on a napkin for him:

This is a standard way to describe an energy landscape—you can think of it as a two-dimensional model of a ball at the top of a hill. This particular landscape has a metastable state; that is, if you perturb the ball a little bit (ie push it from side to side), it’ll tend to roll back to the bottom of that little divot on top of the hill. For an actual (physical) ball on a hill, that ‘ENERGY’ is a measure of gravitational potential energy, but diagrams like this can be used to describe all kinds of systems.

Then I drew this diagram on the napkin, my mental model of what had just happened with the election:

Here, the ‘ball’ is the political state of the US. A relatively small amount of 'political energy' had the effect of knocking it out of the metastable state, so it rolled over the edge of the divot and all the way down to the bottom of another, much deeper hole. After the election, then, we are in an entirely new part of the landscape. In particular, because many of the levers of power (not just the executive branch, but also majorities in the House and Senate) are now in the hands of one political party, that party has the opportunity to change the structure of political processes in a way that will make it much harder to move the ‘ball’ (ie make political change) in the future. Hence, the deep hole.

This, to me, is what’s specifically worrisome about this election. It’s not just where we stand today—and to be fair, all the evidence is that the people now in power are prepared to act in a way that is entirely at odds with democratic values of equity, transparency, and accountability—but rather, it's about being at the bottom of this energy well, with our political options for change in the future severely curtailed, or at least requiring a lot more energy to implement.

My colleague looked at the drawing, listened to my explanation, and then suggested an amendment:

The ball hasn’t yet rolled all the way down, he said. We can now see the shape of the landscape, but we still have the opportunity to push hard on the ball, put energy into the system, and keep the ball from getting to the bottom.

Just to be clear: This is a model of one aspect of what's coming down the pike in the US. And it's certainly not what I was hoping we'd be spending our collective energies on. But here we are.

II: Plans vs zombies
Only about 12% of faculty at American universities identify as ‘conservative’ or ‘far right’. A quarter identify as ‘middle of the road’, and 62% as either ‘liberal’ or ‘far left’. (Engineering faculty tend to be further to the right, but they still lean overwhelmingly left.) But, even after fifteen years in this country, I still have a really hard time wrapping my brain around why particular issues are classified as politically liberal or conservative. I mean, I support universal single-payer health care because I think access to health care is a human right, but also because all the data indicates that it’s much more cost-effective than private options (one reason for this is obvious to me every time I see an ad for an insurance provider on the subway). All of the scientific evidence is that climate change is real, just like acid rain and the effect of CFCs on the ozone layer are real, so I don’t understand how acknowledging its very existence is a marker of one’s political leanings (versus deciding how to respond, which of course is). It's hard not to agree with Rob Corddry's famous line fromThe Colbert Report, that the facts have a well-known liberal bias. Given all this, it’s hardly surprising that universities would be stocked with people who are politically 'left', because they are, pretty much by definition, institutions where people who engage with new ideas, which means considering the evidence.

So I find Scott Alexander’s thrive/survive model (aka the 'zombies vs post-scarcity utopia' model) of political behaviour more useful than a left/right distinction. The model looks like this: If you are (or anticipate) living in a world where zombies are after all of humanity, it fosters a ‘circle the wagon’ mentality: protect your own at all costs, don’t waste your resources on other people, support the military and stock up on guns, control reproduction (ie sexuality, particularly women’s) to ensure the survival of your tribe, create and enforce clear lines of command (hierarchies), etc. Alternatively, if you think that you live in a post-scarcity utopia, or that we someday will, you can prioritize things like helping other people, investing in art and science, taking care of the environment, and celebrating personal freedom.

The reality of course, is that there are neither zombies nor utopias, just people who are making decisions about how to live with the people around them. I'm not even sure there is a good relationship between where someone stands on the zombie-utopia axis, in any objective sense, and the decisions that they make, because humans aren't exactly rational actorsin particular, we care for each other in ways that don't have any sort of ROI (and are often not even counted as economic actions, as memorably summarized in the title of Katrine Marçal's book, Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner?). But those decisions, individually or at the policy level, shape whether our society actually behaves more like we're living in a zombie apocalypse or in a post-scarcity utopia. I'm acutely aware that I mostly do live in a post-scarcity utopia—I have a high level of physical safety, a warm place to live, food, access to health care, friends, enough money to do some fun stuff, I benefit from the oversight of continent-spanning systems, and I get to devote most of my daily life to advancing human knowledge and to the intellectual development of other people’s children. And you know what? It’s great! I want more people to have what I have! The increasing divergence between productivity and wages, together with the rise of automation, suggests a lot of room to move towards, if not a post-scarcity utopia, at least to a society where the benefits of technology are more equitably shared. More to the point, it’s something to believe in and work towards, because while there is no zombie apocalypse in the offing, a dystopia of climate change refugees and borders enforced with increasingly lethal levels of force doesn't really seem all that far away.

III: Some models are useful
A few nights ago, I was in the campus dining hall talking with some of my students. The topic turned to modeling human behaviour, and I was emphatic about how much care must be taken with this, particularly when those models are drawn from science and engineering. It was prompted by a student referring to Dawkin’s idea of the selfish gene, which has had enormous explanatory power in biology, but which really falls down when it comes to people: as I noted, the model couldn't really explain why I was there having dinner with him and his fellow students instead of working to ensure the survival of my genes by helping to take care of my niece and nephews. More generally, of course, it’s only been a generation or so that (some) women have had both reproductive control and economic agency, and we really haven’t seen the full societal effects of that yet. I pointed him to Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World, which argues that the success of the selfish gene model has obscured the ubiquity of symbiosis and cooperation in biology, and that there's a place for both viewpoints in the broader cultural discourse.

The statistician George Box wrote that ‘all models are wrong, but some models are useful,' and this aphorism has attained the status of a truism for scientists. I teach introductory materials science, and it turns out that it is remarkably useful to think of atoms in metals as packing together like gumballs because it does a good job of explaining how metallic solids behave. Having taken upper-level quantum physics courses, I 'know' that atoms are blobs of probability, energy and force—but, well, that's just a model too, and one that's a lot more complex. Need to know how different metals behave so you can design for them in different conditions? You probably really do want to think about gumballs. There’s another famous line about ‘strong opinions, weakly held’ and I want to snowclone it for applying physical models to people. Something like: ‘useful models, easily replaced.’ Or maybe not even replaced, but hot-swapped—models as framing and perspectives, rather than explanations, brought to bear collectively on the situation at hand.

PROGRAMMING NOTES: For those of you who were paying attention, this is the first newsletter in nearly three months. Apologies. For those of you who weren't—well, hello again! I've been exceedingly busy with teaching this semester, making time for PROJECT PICKERING, occasionally getting outside, and with laying track for a sabbatical leave in London this spring (my cats, who I plan to take with me, now have enough implanted RFIDs to impress some grinders I know). Speaking of which, I'll be in Birmingham to give the Hay Lecture at Eastercon in April; my dancecard is pretty full, but I do have some bandwidth in the first half of 2017 if you're UK-based and interested in working with me or having me give a talk. The other reason why I haven't written in so long is just because I was trying to figure out how to deal with everything else happening in the world, and there are half-a-dozen essays in note form or incomplete drafts that I never had the heart to complete. Stay tuned for holiday reading recommendations, for a discussion of what leadership in tech means and why, how engineering education should (and really, will) never again be considered apolitical, and a regular dose of wonder, both human-created and that's been out there waiting for humans to find it.

Inside Jantar Mantar, Jaipur's 18th-century astronomical park.