sábado, junho 19, 2021

Shooting Fish in a Barrel: "Ninefox Gambit” by Yoon Ha Lee


For many years as a SF veteran, what I always found incredibly irritating was the ability of SF writers not to know any kind of science and what they wrote turned instead into technobabble like this crap of a book called “Ninefox Gambit”. If it is to be science fiction, then make the fictional part of the science at least minimally plausible. I distinctly do not want to see mountains floating in mid-air or long lost races of humans that amazingly speak perfect English - unless there is a carefully built and plausible explanation for it (not examples taken from this novel but you get the gist). The potential range of fictional scenarios is still vast, even when held to reasonable extrapolations of known physical and social science. If you don’t base your fictional universe on sound terminology and concepts it’s just technobabble. No other word for it. In other words, you’ll have no story!

If magic and weird terminology is what SF consumers and producers want today, fine by me, but clearly label it as such. But, even in that genre, an effort has to be made to maintain consistent rules within the context of the story so that disbelief - for the purpose of amusement only - can be playfully suspended. Unfortunately, and all too often, fiction writers like Yoon Ha Lee are more interested in moving the story along than in being consistent with the accepted rules of knowledge or even with the rules they themselves create.

Utter nonsense. Don’t bother. Another contemporary stupid SF novel. It’s more like a “New-New-Weird” than a bog standard military SF, with all the calendrical heresy and nonsensical mind sharing stuff…Unfortunately this is what passes as hip and trendy SF today… I am terribly bored with the trend of botched and careless futures we see in science fiction at the moment. Bart Simpson said it best, "Depressing [SF for] teens is like shooting fish in a barrel."


sexta-feira, junho 18, 2021

Caldo Verde com Chouriço: "Traditional Portuguese Cooking" by Maria de Lourdes Modesto

We live in Greater Lisbon Portugal and have a patch of “couve-galega” cabbage which we planted in March last year thinking we'd have to live on “caldo verde” all year if the pandemic got really bad. They are now over 2m tall and spectacular with blossom which the bees love (see picture above). Don't slice it too thick, I was told by Maria de Lurdes Modesto. If you buy bags of it ready-sliced in the supermarkets here it really is very fine. But the “couve-galega” has firm, flat leaves and perhaps it's not so easy to slice other varieties so finely.

This book is considered in Portugal to be one of the "bibles" of Portuguese Cuisine (I’ve got one of the editions). And when I talk or write about Portuguese Cuisine what comes to mind is "caldo verde". Whatever you do, don’t zap potatoes, as you get a slimy soft paste that I find rather disgusting (what you'll need to do is to demolish them with every Portuguese housewife's/househusband’s favourite tool - the "varinha magica"; translated to English, it is the "magic wand"). Mashing or just simply leave them to boil to pieces small enough to mash with your fork on your plate (vinho verde anyone)? Traditionally, “caldo verde” is made with water, not stock, salt, a little thinly sliced onion, no garlic (I like with garlic) and the potato, boiled and then roughly crushed with a wooden spoon against the side of the pan; then add the shredded cabbage and one slice of chouriço (the “tora”) per person (if we served it up with just one slice, our children would have us shot! Repeatedly.  As with many Portuguese dishes, there isn’t much seasoning in “caldo verde” and I find it really needs the saltiness of the chouriço to perk it up), boil for just a few minutes; olive oil to taste is added at the table. In the North, where it originated, usually accompanied with “broa” (maize bread). Ready in twenty minutes, about the time it took to write this!

“Caldo Verde” is wonderful sustaining food source that originated with the simple ingredients available to poor and the peasantry. It should be made on a water base and without meat and is all the better for being made like that. The kale component is a biannual tallish plant which feeds man and beast.

Keep it simple says Maria de Lourdes Modesto! She is right of course.

quinta-feira, junho 17, 2021

Lazy Conceptualism: "The Galaxy, and the Ground Within" by Becky Chambers


Has the early 21st century witnessed the death of the original? No-one seems able to write anything new these days, be it literature or TV film scripts - everything is a rehash, a reboot, a new slant on the old if not a shameless copy. 19th century fin de siècle Western society brimmed with the new, the adventurous (good and bad). The avant-garde across Europe, Russia and the USA were delighting a few and horrifying masses and this trend exploded in the early 1900's - Joyce, T.S Eliot, E.E. Cummings, Brecht. We had a sort of creative end to the 20th Century in music and art (good and bad) if not literature but it was shallow (the lazy conceptualism of massively over hyped YBAs is a prime example). There were no great new ideas driving art or society forward and no great new art created. Even the burst from the end of the 90's fizzled out completely within a few years and we are left with what...no new genre of music, art, literature or anything in 20 years. A dull landscape of repetition, hype and money & marketing in place of true creativity. Some of it expertly done I concede but passion and talent without originality is still a poor substitute for the real thing. The poor imitations we have today lack depth, lack quality, lack value - they do not merit or deserve the attention they receive in the absence of anything better. Perhaps there can be nothing new until the old is called out for what it now is - worthless - and destroyed accordingly. Of course, when it comes to SF the problem is perhaps 10-fold worse (Sturgeon’s Law applies here). The cultural "SF industry" today works in certain ways, limiting our access to a multitude of works. Originality is no longer a virtue strongly associated with modernity and modernism in particular. What has come after that – if we want to broadly call it postmodernism – accepts rewrites, versions, variations and loans. This is not bad in and of itself. After all, all of Brecht's works are essentially rewrites of earlier stories, and he made no secret of it. I'm still stunned at how many "writers" in any genre today and in SF in particular are seemingly content to retread old ground and don't even try to push boundaries. We’re not in Brecht territory here. There is a lot and I mean A LOT more to Brecht’s reworking than yet another redo of “Pride and Prejudice” (LINK) I'd hope you'd agree. When it comes to “new” SF it’s even more depressing; it seems that SF has exhausted itself and cannot come up with new forms and ideas, but looks yearningly back to the golden heydays…unfortunately present day SF hasn’t got any idea on how to write good stuff. Personally I think that as soon as a SF writer thinks more about remaining relevant and appealing (i.e. commercially viable) than remaining true to their artistry they cease to be writers. At least these SF writers should still be able to write a good yarn...

terça-feira, junho 15, 2021

Spinors and the Clifford Algebra for the Dirac Field: "Quantum Field Theory for the Gifted Amateur" by Tom Lancaster, Stephen J. Blundell


After reading a Schwinger biography I was in the mood for a more technical book on QFT and I found this one by Blundell and Lancaster. Okay, yes, you need to get through a part of tedious and unintuitive learning. After that and some further practice and read, QFT will become more intuitive to you though. This is the background you need:

1 - To know about the first 3 kinds of free fields (Klein-Gordon 0, Dirac 1/2, Maxwell 1). This is usually on the first chapter of books. Klein-Gordon is intuitive and the easiest, it described the Higgs field. Maxwell you already know, describes the photon. The only tricky one is the Dirac field, but you get used to it. Math required: Spinors and the Clifford algebra for the Dirac field.

2 - Learn the Quantum Electrodynamics Lagrangean, which studies the interaction of matter to light. So it is has a free matter (Dirac) term, a free photon (Maxwell) term, and an interaction term. Then learn about gauge symmetry, which is straightforward if you know the QED Lagrangean.

3 - How to quantize QED. Covariant quantization is very tedious. Learn the Path Integral method better, it's much faster and clear. Math required: Functional calculus.

4 - Since by quantising QED you have in principle a complete dynamics of your system, you can use the theory to study how particles interact. For this you need scattering theory, which is based on a simple assumption: your initial particles come from very far away (at r->infinity) so you assume they don't interact at the beginning (i.e. they are initially free waves). Then they get closer, interact according to your theory, particles can be created or destroyed so you get a new set of final free particles that fly off to infinity. You don't know what will happen, what the final state will be, but you can calculate the probability of each outcome, and for this you use a perturbation series. The first order term is the tree amplitude, it is the easiest to compute. You use Feynman diagrams to help you. There are many algebraic tricks here, nothing abstract though.

5 -The second order term is the loop amplitude, and it has the problem that (naively) it blows off to infinity. To correct this and make the amplitude finite, you need a mathematical technique (or better, set of techniques) called renormalization. There are higher order terms in the series, but these are more tedious and you don't need to compute them. With the loop amplitude calculation you get the general idea.

This is pretty much the whole idea behind a big chunk of QFT. Define your Lagrangean which has the dynamics (the particles and interactions) of your system. Quantize the Lagrangean with the path integral. Compute the scattering of particles using it, use renormalization if you calculate loop amplitudes. What changes is that there are more complex Lagrangeans with more sophisticated quantization and renormalization methods. The Yang-Mills Lagrangean, which is a generalization of the QED one, is the general one used in particle physics. However, the YM Lagrangean only allows massless carrier particles, but the W and Z bosons have masses, so you introduce the Higgs spin 0 field to give masses to the bosons and other particles through the Higgs mechanism. With the Yang Mills Lagrangean and the Higgs mechanism, you have pretty much the whole Standard Model covered, enough for most applications. If you're more theoretical though, you will want to learn non-perturbative QFT (which deals with global effects of a system), and that is a whole other beast, in my opinion much more complex than perturbative QFT.

After this, QFT is really a tool used in very different systems, it bifurcates a lot. You can study QFT in curved backgrounds (entering into Hawking radiation, black holes, etc.),  in condensed matter physics, in Supersymmetric theories and Supergravity, in String Theory, in holography and so on, each of which have their own mathematical techniques and physical intuition. At this point you have to specialize, although there is quite a bit of cross-breeding between subjects. I think it's safe to say none knows every "branch" of QFT at depth (and you don't need to). It's just too vast, so you pick what you can and work from there.

Tom Lancaster and Stephen J. Blundell's book unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on which side of the barricade you are) belongs only to the "shut-up-and-calculate" school. That means no ontological insights. If you’re only interested in the technical side of QFT this the book for you.


segunda-feira, junho 14, 2021

Point Particles vs. Fields: "Climbing the Mountain: The Scientific Biography of Julian Schwinger" by Jagdish Mehra, Kimball A. Milton


I still remember the first time I came across Schwinger’s take on QFT. Before reading Schwinger, I had tried to read (skimming) few of QFT books out there to get the general ideas. Reading at the TOCs alone, they always felt like a beast, with lots of chapters even if their page numbers were not always that much for physics textbooks…I also read quite a bit of standard introductory textbooks in the field (pun intended), but I never seem to get myself a "click" on what was it all about. Maybe it was from how I just read and never actually get myself wet with pen and paper, or it was that my QM needed more refining, or both, anyway I had never seem able to make sense of what is it all about (I did learn bits about canonical quantization of field by imposing commutation relation on them, and bits about creation and annihilation operator).  Then I thought most of my problems seem to be in how there seem to be a whole loads of seemingly unrelated maths in them, so the core structure of QFT didn't seem to correspond to specific math fields, like how differential geometry was to GR, or because there seemed nothing in math for QFT as explained in intro texts (e.g., perturbative QFT). So I set out to read real math books, and there does seem something interesting like algebraic QFT that used sheaves of observables, that felt more intuitive (it looked like to be Heisenberg formalism but on local patches of space).

So what's Quantum Field Theory all about? Was it like QM but with general field as its states? What's the differences between QFT and textbook QM in its math methods? In normal quantum mechanics, you've surely heard about the uncertainty relation between position and momentum. This is inspired from the classical view that particles are dots, which have properties such as a position and a velocity or momentum (their trajectories are lines), and then applying quantization to them (so now the particle is in many places "at the same time"). Now, in reality particles such as the photon are not dots. A more complete theory of photons describes them as electromagnetic waves/fields, with a given frequency, polarization and so on. So if you want to describe a photon in a quantum way, you have to quantize this theory, the field theory, not the antiquated dot photon theory. This is where QFT comes in. There is no longer a dot with position and momentum to impose an uncertainty on, but you have the photon's electromagnetic field. So you impose the uncertainty relation on, or quantize, the field itself: the field now doesn't have a definite value until it is measured, there is a superposition of many field configurations, just like in the dot case there were many positions superposed. The photon now is described by the quantized field, or quantum field.

Now the photon is not the only particle out there: there are electrons, neutrinos, and so on. Each has its own field that has to be quantized too. In general there are 5 types of fields which you deal with in QFT, classified by their "spins". In particle physics you see only 3 of them: spin 0 (Higgs), spin 1/2 (matter, like electron or quarks) and spin 1 (photon, gluon, etc.) fields. If you are interested in unification with gravity and supersymmetry, there are two other fields: spin 3/2 (gravitino) and 2 (graviton), which have never been observed, but are theoretically allowable. There don't exist higher spin fields because of a theorem that says they're inconsistent. So these are the basic building blocks of QFT, the 5 types of (quantum) fields.

Now, in general you're interested in the interactions between these particles (what happens when two electrons collide, or when a photon collides with an electron?). So you make the quantum fields interact, but the interactions make the whole thing very messy, so messy in fact that finding an exact solution is often impossible. Because it is impossible, you use many different mathematical frameworks and tricks, like Perturbation theory with its Feynman diagrams, Non-perturbative methods when perturbation theory fails, seek for symmetries that hopefully simplify your calculations, and so on. However, this is just the beginning: QFT is really an enormous beast, and it is a very general framework to compute particle interactions, full of brilliant physical insight and mathematical structures.

On the differences with normal QM: In philosophy, they are at first sight similar: the field quantization is akin to the dot particle quantization, the QFT perturbative theory is similar to the QM perturbation theory and so on. However, the mathematical methods and structure of QFT are much, much richer and technical than normal QM, and the connections with other areas of physics such as string theory, quantum information, and condensed matter and so on have filled it with insights which have no normal QM analogs. Furthermore, QFT is still under intensive research, and new structures are discovered each decade.

In QM, you quantize a dot's position and momentum. In QFT you quantize a field. There are many fields so you care about how they interact which is messy and very mathy. QFT is much more mathematically rich than regular QM, but philosophically the principle is similar.

As I wrote elsewhere, I don’t “believe” in QFT. But I can surely appreciate Schwinger’s work as masterful.

domingo, junho 13, 2021

Individualised: "I'd Rather Be Reading - The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life" by Anne Bogel


Books don't need to be as individualised as people seem to be saying nowadays. Books come to us through the eyes, ears and speech of others. 'Mediated' as the jargon would have it, by many, many other people before we get to them. Then as we read them and finish them, most of us can't stop gassing about them. Books are like refrigerated moments in the general shash of conversation. We go into the fridge to read them, suspending usual social practices like conversation and eye-contact with others. But on either side of the refrigerated moments readers (and some non-readers) are in constant social interaction with what we have read. On the other hand, forget I said, “Books don't need to be as individualized”. I think that has to be re-phrased as: 'it's impossible for books to be individualized, as various points in the production and reception of them, there is a vast amount of social stuff going on. I can also argue that the act of reading is itself socially derived. That's to say, we read with the language we have acquired socially, the reading strategies we have acquired socially and the social experience (our mind-set, attitudes, personality, etc.) that we have acquired socially.

Where should I start with this simplistic, narrow minded vision of books and reading? Writing, especially fiction, is a gesture that is driven by alienation. By a discontent with the world and about your condition in it. Therefore it appeals with people that seek answers where their everyday life failed to deliver. If you're not looking for an empathic exchange of thoughts, yeah, reading is useless. But the person reading “The Count of Monte Cristo”, for example, isn't busy partying or seeking the wisdom of his grandfather (given that his grandfather is alive, let alone smart); it's somebody who needs solitude and a break from his everyday environment.

Go Wittgenstein on me if you like, it won't take anything away from the fact that fiction has a purpose in the shaping of one's identity. Those people might be alienated, but they are not better, not worse than you.

I’m with Bogel on this: Reading is a social act of protest against an age of Distraction.

sábado, junho 12, 2021

Nothingnesses: "The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction" by Alan Jacobs

Reading is for failures some say. Even Gorky was a big failure; that's why he tried to shoot himself…

Reading is a selfish thing. It's a pleasure and a necessity; it's something that sometimes must be done in secret, with difficulties: people forsake their dinner to be able to pay for a good read. I'm sure in the old days, grown-ups and kids took from what little they owned to pay a storyteller for his/her stories and if it's fiction or not is irrelevant. That's what we are: our imagination is addicted to stories; a scientist reading about the similarities between the scales of a crocodile and the feathers of a bird, a nurse student reading about the cell's metabolism, an anarchist reading about bomb-deeds or a billy-miller reading poetry: it's all the same: they have to do it. Some people feel the same about their bank account.

Of course, the people who tell us to read are the ones who make money out of our reading. There a whole lot of them out there, not only the writers but the publishers and marketing people. Are readers dupes? Do they end up with nuffin? If I hadn't been taken to reading I might have put some of my time into courtship, I might be married now, surrounded by happy kids. I'd be working too. The only creative thing I've ever done is make up excuses to the job-centre why I hadn't managed to find a job every time I went there. I was too busy reading to even look for one. There was always this or that I hadn't read. Booksellers always make you feel that you haven't really read until you've read something you haven't read. Even schoolteachers keep telling you to read. If I hadn't been so easily told what to do I would have saved myself from a life of reading? Had I read this when I was a teenager I might have given my mom some help with housework. But even my mom was duped because they told her if I read a lot I'd get one of the top jobs. Imagine that! They'd say anything to sell paper and ink, wouldn't they?

The above is a fictitious story (aren’t they the best ever..?). Short easily digestible 'truth' nugget: the Holy Grail of needing to read just one book (in this extension by reading short bursts of near nothingnesses), we do it all, right now! Comic, available in Hardback with free, placeholder and 5% off next purchase (have and be had, enjoy your day! Now smiley face I am your friend buy shite NOW. Like Jacobs implies and I also agree, books can be overrated - poems, plays, criticism, novels and even newspaper articles too. But the act of reading itself? This combines entertainment, enlightenment, boredom, thought, criticism, annoyance, love and quite a lot of skimming across purple prose about sunsets - and Eusébio, the greatest footballer who ever lived. That is life - in my opinion. Reading, that is, not Eusébio. In this age of attention span deficit, reading is an act of protest. It helps me direct my attention where I intend, instead of having it stolen from me. Having said that, fuck SF publishers for publishing shitty contemporary SF…


SF = Speculative Fiction.