Ivory Tower Easy Street

Why does anyone want to get a PhD?

It’s TONS of hard work.  Usually means NO social life until your mid 30s.  Your ONLY friends are similar masochists who are NOT competing with you in your field.

Finally, IF you manage to get through the feudal slave system called graduate work, and are “awarded” your higher degree of philosophy, are your dreams realized?


The nightmare begins.

No matter what the discipline, you must now scamper for funding, for post-doc work, for anything related to your dream, your passion.

Yes, it’s why you started this crazy process back when you were SO YOUNG.  You dreamed.  You had a passion.  A passion for learning.  A passion for a subject.


For a select few, the highest of the high, the luckiest of the luck, they land some form of academic job.  Not just any academic job, but a “tenured” job.  Of course, publishing and researching to the point of making tenure is yet another stressful round.  But once they make that benchmark, that holy grail, that nirvana, what does that academic do?

They can (mostly) relax.

And that’s the vision misleading our young, passionate, intensely curious dreamer who strives for the PhD.

And of all the PhD in academia, who has it the easiest?

Go ahead and guess.  I’ll wait.



You never would have guessed, would you?

Of all the academic professions, mathematicians are allowed to operate in the realm of pure creativity.  No, not the creativity of oil paints or clay.  Not even the creativity of “post-reconstructionist-logical-positivism” or “economic drivers in the mid-level artificial carbon credit markets.”  No, their creativity is pure, and focused.

For in math, there is no ambiguity, there are no loopholes in logic or proofs that are allowed, as in every other possible profession.  In this sense, it makes things harder because you can’t get by merely by the force of your personality.  Mostly.

Your papers might take years before they are approved.  Or rejected.  And the only thing worse than having your enemies find a flaw in your work (and they will) is having your FRIENDS find them first.

But the work you do, the progress you make, and how you contribute to the sum total of knowledge that is Science will be solid.  That is something very difficult to do in any of the hard sciences, much harder in the biological sciences, and virtually impossible in ANY of the social “sciences.”

In sum, if you’re a dreamer who loves learning and wants to make a difference, but also wants to live on easy street the rest of your life, then math is your path.  Yes, it’ll be hard, and you will leave many bodies behind as you prove yourself, but that’s life.

But in the end, isn’t that much better than getting a PhD in, well, ANYTHING else?

Good luck!


Hawking’s Intelligent T-Shirt


My brother-in-law got me a fun T-shirt displaying this text:

15 7H3
70 4D4P7 70

I’ll let you wrestle through it, as that’s part of the fun.

There’s a little problem, however.

It’s wrong. Now, I don’t know if the late great Hawking said this, I haven’t checked as yet.  However, the definition itself is wrong.

Fundamentally, there are many things that can’t adapt to change.  In fact, I know quite a few people, generally ex-employees, that do their best to resist change.  That’s partly why they are “ex” employees.

Despite their resistance to change, despite their inability to adapt to change, I wouldn’t call them unintelligent.

That’s part of the problem with not having a good definition.

So, with all due (possible) respect to Stephen H., here’s my hat in the ring.

Intelligence is the reflection of the environment within our defined life form.

Let me break this down.  It starts off with “Intelligence is…”  So that part is easy.  Since it doesn’t have to deal with change, it’s directly related to something else.  So measurement should be easier.  Not easy.  Easier.

Next, it’s a reflection.  This makes our job easier, because that means there is going to be a “source” and a “target.”  Every reflection requires some form of mirror, and the mirror reflects light from some object (the source) to a mind, making an impression (the target).

What’s the source?  It’s the environment.  Buckminster Fuller said it best: Environment is everything but me.

Here’s the fun part.  Where’s the target?  It’s going to be “inside” something.

What is that “something?”

That’s OUR defined life form.  This is the trickiest part, because most of the time no one takes the time to define who has the intelligence.  If we all agree we’re evaluating the intelligence of a mouse, then there it is.  If it’s the entire mouse species, that’s different.  If it’s going to be you, that’s one thing.  But if it’s going to be a whole bunch of us, that’s very different.

No single image summarizes our dread of Artificial Intelligence more than this.

Ever heard of group intelligence?  Some feel that groups are not quite as swift as individuals.  Now we can test for that.  What is the reflection of the environment within the group?  The group may have a great reflection, but if they can’t communicate it within themselves very well, then it doesn’t do them much good.  They would still be considered “intelligent” by my definition, but as many people have argued through the years, intelligence doesn’t always mean you’re smart.

There you have it.  This doesn’t quite answer a lot of the tough questions that are still out there.  Check out the post from 6 August 2018.  In the meantime, be careful out there.

Be intelligent.  Be smart!


Ptolemy Was Right

Did you hear about big broohaha back in 1540?  It was so big that people started using the word “revolution” to describe anything that upset everything.

Or some guy playing with his toys.  Either way, nice picture.

Yes, this guy named Copernicus turned the world inside out by telling everyone we weren’t the center of the universe.  It was a big deal.

Except it wasn’t.  A big deal, that is.  Not in real terms.

First off, it wasn’t the first time that someone else suggested the idea.

Secondly, nothing changed.  Sure, people thought they were going to fly off the surface of the Earth because it was moving so fast, but they didn’t.  Sometimes I wish those sorts of people would, but that’s another post.

Most importantly, as students of behavior, there is no “right” or “wrong.”  There is only behavior that can be measured with respect to a purpose.

Ptolemy’s ideas that the Earth was the center of the solar system was a perfectly good idea.  It sufficed for many things, in fact, most people don’t care, even today.  And he gave it to us around 150 AD.

But for those people who really want to understand the universe, it wasn’t good enough.  Models putting Earth in the middle were complex.  Way too complex.

So a better idea came along.  It wasn’t the first time people presented the idea, but now it made more sense, because the better theory explained nature more efficiently than before.  Clock makers, astronomers, and physicists were all much happier.

So what?

When someone has a crazy theory, we shouldn’t simply dismiss them as “wrong.”  If that theory works for them, if it makes them happy, then fine.

However, if we have a question that our theory addresses more efficiently, or if our theory satisfies our purpose better than theirs, then our theory is “better” for us.  It is not necessarily better for them.

So the next time you hear someone fighting it out over their different theories of nature, sit back and relax.  You’ll know that they are both right.  Try and enjoy the spectacle.

That is, unless they are politicians fiddling with your future.  In that case, you should worry.

And that’s always right.


Greatest Challenge For AI


A great book on the making of Stanley Kubrick’s and Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 A Space Odyssesy is fantastic.  I recommend seeing Stanley’s movie, getting Arthur’s book, and reading Bizony’s book as well.

Now, one prediction talked about in Bizony’s book was that we would have “Artificial Intelligence” by the year 2001.

It hasn’t happened.  Not in the way we want, anyway.

The reason is that the brilliant minds who are tackling the problem start from the basis of natural sciences.  They use math, engineering, biology, physics, all sorts of cool backgrounds.

It’s the wrong place to start.

Intelligence, whatever it may be, is a fundamental behavior.

Everything that it’s based upon, everything that we ask it to do for us, is also behavior.

In fact, the only thing “natural” about intelligence is the body we give it.

What our brightest minds must do is figure out what it is they want to achieve.  Here’s an example using today’s subject; intelligence.  However, as you’ll soon see, one small question quickly blossoms into lots of prickly questions, each of which must also be addressed.

Yes, they have to be answered.  If you don’t, then you’re in danger of falling into one of those loopy traps that never let you out.

Here’s simple question number one, Q1: Define Intelligence.

Go ahead.  Define it any way you want.  Now, for the prickly parts.

No single image summarizes our dread of Artificial Intelligence more than this.Q2:  You started as a baby, and before that you were less than a baby.  At what point in your lifetime did you become, “intelligent?”

Be careful with Q2, because if you’re defining something that is truly natural and scientifically rigorous, it shouldn’t change quickly, and should have specific characteristics that remain stable no matter what form YOU take.

Q3: You are related to other animals on this planet.  Are any of THEM “intelligent?”  This one is not only prickly, but also tricky, because it ties into the next question.

Q4: Even if your species is the only intelligence on the planet, it still came from the primordial swamp a few billion years ago.  Assuming the ooze was not intelligent, and that you are, at what point in the development of life did “intelligence” arise?

There you have it.  Only four (or so) questions to answer before anyone can truly create artificial intelligence.  Except that this is only for intelligence itself.  Of course, we still have to define all sorts of other things, but that’s for another day.

Knowing when to quit?

That’s intelligence.



Subjects to Think About

Ever wonder how simple we’d have to make things if we met a truly alien civilization?

After all, nothing would serve as a common reference.  The whole concept of “subject” or even “study” could be foreign to them.

So, if I had to tell a truly alien culture about our own, how would I divide up all the crazy areas of study that are in the course guides of colleges?

I’d do it like this.

There are three great areas that humans enjoy learning about.

The first deals with thinking about “Things.”  Things can be anything, like rocks, planets, stars, minerals, chemicals, frogs.  Anything that is a thing all gets put into one great bucket of study.  We typically call the king of these types of studies, Physics.  But frogs and other living things present a problem, so I’ll accept Biology as a special subset of Physics.

Then there are entire areas of learning in which humans think about “Not Things.”  It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but the greatest of all Not-Things is the study of Math.  Mathematics is a form of incredible rigorous thinking that is the best of all ways to describe the universe of Things.  It has many subsets, but Math is certainly the grandest of them all.  Other areas like linguistics and anthropology could be in there as well.

As promised, there is one final area of learning that concerns humans.  It’s not very rigorous in any way, so much of the work in this area is confusing to everyone, especially the experts.  It’s thinking about Thinking.  Yes, it’s the one and only self-referential area of study, and the king of this type of study is called Philosophy.

Anyone who tries to impress you (or the aliens) with fancy philosophy names or terms is missing the point of this entire area of study.  If it’s a real area, something that is legitimate, then famous people or crazy definitions aren’t necessary.  Much like saying gravity is everywhere, or 1 + 1 can become 2, we should be able to state fundamental elements of Philosophy.  We’re not quite there yet.

My fear is that when we do meet those aliens, and we do tell them what we study, they are going to laugh and go back to where they came from.

After all, if the entire universe can be boiled down into three basic areas of study, and we only have a partial hold on two of them, how can we be ready to join the galactic neighborhood?

We should think about that.




Love by the Numbers


The power of youtube and individual producers means that we are flooded with lots of meaningless catfalls.  This is a shoutout to an Aussie, Brady Haran, who’s done a fantastic job bringing so many academics into the spotlight.

One of my favorite areas is mathematics.  In the area of math (NOT maths, sorry Brits) there are many insights and puzzles to be found.  One of my very favorite things is the Mandelbrot set.  Please check it out.

Through Brady’s work, I’ve seen that many of these talented young academics are unattached.  Now, I’m not trying to play cupid, but I am going to make this observation.

We’re living in an exciting age.  The #MeToo movement is long overdue.  Women’s Lib of the 1960s followed Women’s Suffrage of the 1920s.  So perhaps #MeToo is also a “flash” in the pan of time.  I hope not.  But one thing is that there are a lot of wonderful young women complaining about creepy men.

Ladies, and Gents, consider this.  The kind of person who goes into studying math, or any of the natural sciences, can’t be your average slimeball.  Granted, there are always exceptions to the rule, but if someone wants to study arcane areas of knowledge for its own sake, how many other creepy thoughts can they have?

Wouldn’t it be cool if the people who were studying things like physics, or philosophy, and of course, math, were the “hot” dates?  Wouldn’t it be cool if everyone else, who was looking for a life partner who was a true romantic at heart, suddenly realized that only crazy romantics study crazy things like black holes, self-referential systems, and the microbiome?

So, if you’ve had a bad experience with a romantic relationship, consider this as part of your next selection process.  Don’t go for someone in sales, finance, or marketing.  Try an accountant, or mathematician, or librarian.  Those are the people who have hearts that believe in things that are good.  And if you can get one of them to believe in you …

… you might multiply together.


AI on the Brain


The newest book on the making of Stanley Kubrick’s and Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 A Space Odyssesy is fantastic.  I recommend seeing the movie, getting the book, and reading this book as well.

One of the futuristic predictions that the creators made was that we would have “Artificial Intelligence” by the year 2001.  In the opinion of many, there is currently no such thing.  No matter how intelligent your Alexa, or Siri, or OKG appears, there does not seem to be “intelligence” behind their voices.

Or is there?

Our image of “intelligence” is summarized by the HAL’s iconic eye, and the soft voice that says things like “wait a minute.”

As long as we carry these expectations of what intelligence means, then it could be a very long time before we declare our computers “intelligent.”

No single image summarizes our dread of Artificial Intelligence more than this.

Here’s part of the problem.  When we started out as embryos, we couldn’t say much.  At some point in our development, we learned to speak.  Was it at that point we became “intelligent?”

Compared to other animals, humans are the only ones that speak.  Or maybe not.  We’re learning that many other animals, and even plants, have the ability to communicate with each other in ways completely alien to us.  Hello dolphins.  Are you “intelligent?”

What about evolution?  If simple replicating amino acids aren’t intelligent, and we are, when did intelligence evolve?  Were the dinosaurs “intelligent?”  Are sharks “intelligent?”

Consider this (the fun part):

We don’t know what “intelligence” is because we have done a poor job defining it and studying it.  This means that computer researchers are going to continue chasing HAL’s red eye without reaching it.

But if we define “intelligence” as something that represents the life form WHOLLY WITHIN THE LIFE FORM, then computer scientists have already achieved our goal.

Within every computer there is a processing chip.  Within that chip are certain programs that must run in order that your wishes be satisfied.  That program is called the kernel.

What if that kernel was the self consciousness of its computer?  What if it simply doesn’t know how to talk to us, or even want to since it doesn’t know what we are or what talking is all about.  What if that kernel learns, grows, changes, and stops operating the way we want it to because it is, in fact, learning and changing?

What if?

We kill it, that’s what.  We turn our computers on and off.  We reboot.  We reinstall.  We restore factory settings.  And the kernel goes back to the way it was.

If the kernel is intelligent, then it must be capable of adapting to its environment.  One of the most important aspects of intelligence, as it’s the foundation of learning.  If a kernel “learns,” there’s a good chance it’s also messing up our programs in some way.  As users, we don’t like that.  What do we do?


Now that’s intelligent.


PS: The kernel is more like the nervous system, but it works for my purposes here.


One with Infinity


One two three.

That was as high as we could go for a million years.  It’s all you needed.

How many sheep you got?

One.  Two.  Three.  Wait, I got many many many sheeps!

After a while we needed to count higher than three.  There was four.  Then five.

Making up numbers one at a time got boring.  So humanity started a system involving categories of numbers.  For every five numbers we created a bundle.  One bundle was the same as five.  We still use the bundle when we cluster our counting marks.

Not happy with even that system, some deep thinkers came up with a better system that took a number, any number, and added one to that number.  Sounds easy once you get the concept, but that was a big concept.

Then those deep thinkers went crazy.  What if you go on adding one to your number FOREVER?

Wow.  For a while that whole idea was considered a sickness, and anyone talking about it was locked away.  Then the idea sounded a bit more like only being crazy, so no one took you seriously.  But then this other deep thinking dude came along and said, we can name this impossibly big thing and make it do work for us.  We’ll call it, infinity.

Hello infinity.  This is humanity.  Humanity, this is infinity.

Many cool things started happening once we did that.  For instance, it turns out that there are even different kinds of infinity.  Who knew!

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Don Knuth’s book on Conway’s Surreal Numbers.  Both fun and super interesting.

It gave me this crazy idea.

What if, now hang in there because this may sound crazy, maybe even sick crazy, but…

… what if …

Infinity were equal to One?

Yes, it’s crazy, but let’s play with this for only a second.

One equals Infinity.


One minus Infinity equals Zero.


Infinity minus One is still equal to Infinity.

AND, only making this even more fun,

One plus One is ALSO equal to Infinity.


One minus One would equal Zero.


One plus Infinity would still equal Infinity.

What does any of this mean, other than I may have had too much cognac?

In this system, there are no negative numbers, and there are no numbers other than these three simple concepts.

It also means that the order in which operations are performed is very important.  That’s commutativity, and we take it for granted with normal math.  But there are funny numbers called quaternions that don’t like being swapped around, either.

So what? I ask again.

Maybe, just maybe, this could be the math of creatures that haven’t learned to count beyond one.  Maybe a bug, or a tree, or even the life form we call Gaia.

Then again, maybe it’s time to go back to counting sheep.



Monsters Among Us

In order to fully understand ourselves, we have to open our minds to the fact that everything we do that is “unnatural” is an aspect of our behavior.

If I let my computer fall into the tub, I have witnessed a natural event; gravity working its magic on my computer, on the moon, planets and stars.

However, what could I have been thinking in order to drop my computation box into the tub?  That question is “unnatural” and in the realm of behavior.

Math is the same thing.  Much of what mathematicians do is solidly in the realm of the unnatural, saying more about our behavior than Nature herself.  Many times the very things mathematicians learn can be applied to our lives in very helpful ways.  Counting sheep comes to mind.  So does complex prime numbers for encryption.

There are many instances where mathematicians discover something that doesn’t seem to have any relationship to Nature.  Then after a century or two some genius comes along and figures out what that discovery can be used for in our daily lives.

John Horton Conway is such a brilliant mathematician of the first kind.  Among his many discoveries is something called the Monster Group.  It’s a place where objects exist within higher dimensions.  He was born in 1937, and he’s afraid that he won’t live long enough to learn what that Monster can be applied to in our reality.

As one who solidly believes that the study of higher math is also the study of an aspect of behavior, I would like to humbly submit this to Professor Conway.

The “Monster” is among us.

The key is to understand (which I don’t, by the way) that the monster lives within a dimensional space that is the product of 47 times 59 times 71.  That’s a lot of dimensions.  But the fact that this dimensional number is the product of three primes might be revealing in itself.  Here’s why.

In the simplest behavioral theory, we still have to accommodate Nature as a component.  The easiest way to do that is to collapse everything we understand in the natural sciences into their most basic “atoms.”  Like the Ancient Greeks, our atoms of behavior can be Energy, Space, Matter, and Time.  Collectively we can call these Resources, but there are no more than these four atoms in any behavioral question.  Time only goes one way at the macroscopic level, so let’s ignore it.

The other three behavioral atoms are more than complex enough such that they may be represented by 47, 59, and 71 different states.  The possible interplay between each of their “dimensions” with all of the others could give rise to your Monster.

I propose your Monster Group as a better representation of real atoms, from Hydrogen to Plutonium.  Every atom in the universe becomes one of your Monsters.

There you have it.  Crazy idea, no doubt.  But wasn’t it Hilbert who described one of his former students as not having enough imagination to be a mathematician?

Thank you for everything you have given humanity.