Where do Electric Forces Come From?

There’s a good chance that, at some point in your life, someone told you that nature has four fundamental forces: gravity, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and the electromagnetic force.

This factoid is true, of course.

But what you probably weren’t told is that, at the scale of just about any natural thing that you are likely to think about, only one of those four forces has any relevance.  Gravity, for example, is so obscenely weak that one has to collect planet-sized balls of matter before its effect becomes noticeable.  At the other extreme, the strong nuclear force is so strong that it can never go unneutralized over distances larger than a few times the diameter of an atomic nucleus (\( \sim 10^{-15}\) meters); any larger object will essentially never notice its existence.  Finally, the weak nuclear force is extremely short-ranged, so that it too has effectively no influence over distances larger than \( \sim 10^{-15}\) meters.

That leaves the electromagnetic force, or, in other words, the Coulomb interaction.  This is the familiar law that says that like charges repel each and opposites attract.  This law alone dominates the interactions between essentially all objects larger than an atomic nucleus (\( 10^{-15}\) meters) and smaller than a planet (\( 10^{7}\) meters).  That’s more than twenty powers of ten.

But not only does the “four fundamental forces” meme give a false sense of egalitarianism between the forces, it is also highly misleading for another reason.  Namely, in physics forces are not considered to be “fundamental”.  They are, instead, byproducts of the objects that really are fundamental (to the best of our knowledge): fields.

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The Boydian Dialectic

If you’re a certain sort of metacognition-obsessed person, at some point in your intellectual wanderings, you will eventually run into a murky and illegible world of ideas and practices swirling around words and phrases like OODA loop, control the tempo, snowmobile, fast transient, maneuver warfare, E-M theory, inside the decision cycle of your adversary, fight the enemy, not the terrain, and be somebody or do something. If these seem vaguely familiar or have a peculiar resonance for you, you’ve encountered this world. It is the world of “Boydian” ideas, which swirls chaotically around the life and intellectual legacy of John Boyd. You’ve seen glimpses of this memeplex on this site before, and probably elsewhere on the Internet and in meatspace as well.

In the last four years, I’ve found myself giving impromptu and messy introductory tutorials on Boydian thought multiple times, in contexts ranging from casual emails and executive coaching conversations to online debates and talks at events. I’ve done 1-minute versions and 3-hour versions. I get reactions ranging from instant recognition (“Oh, I’ve often done that, I didn’t know there was a German word for it!”) to complete and bewildered incomprehension.

I figured it’d be fun to try writing a quick-and-dirty context-setting entry point to this stuff.

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A Dent in the Universe

At higher levels of the Maslow hierarchy, imagination is a survival skill. At the apex, where self-actualization is the primary concern, lack of imagination means death. Metaphoric death followed by literal death of the sort that tortured artists achieve through suicide. Less sensitive souls, such as earnest political philosophers and technically brilliant but unimaginative mathematicians, seem to end up clinically insane and institutionalized. Or as ranting homeless psychotics.

One way or the other, once you’ve clambered and backslid past the lower levels of the hierarchy, and found a shaky foothold near the top of esteem, lack of imagination kills as surely as hunger or guns. It just takes a little longer. We subconsciously recognize this threat, which is why we eagerly accept almost any excuse to arrest development at the esteem stage. The market for mostly harmless theaters of self-actualization thrives because we know the real thing punishes failure with death or madness. It’s the difference between a shooting video game and a war.

Which is not to say that imagination is not useful at lower levels. Presumably there are imaginative ways to escape from a bear chasing you or feed yourself. But some pretty unimaginative animals seem to manage using robotic instincts alone, so clearly imagination is not necessary. It is only sometimes useful, and often a liability.


But at higher levels,  imagination is necessary for tackling life. This is because, at higher levels of the hierarchy, the problem is  surplus freedom: what do you do when there is nothing specific you have to do? Where there are many sufficient paths forward, but no necessary ones?

Whatever you do, it turns out that being imaginative in dealing with the challenge of surplus freedom amounts to what Steve Jobs called putting a dent in the universe. Wanting to put a dent in the universe is not a matter of first-world entrepreneurial self-aggrandizement. It is a matter of life and death for everybody who is not killed by something else first.

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The Physics of Stamp Collecting

Ernest Rutherford’s famous line, “all science is either physics or stamp collecting,” has bothered me ever since I first heard it. I’ve used it to make fun of biologists, and I’ve used it as a critical perspective on physics.

Rutherford almost certainly meant it as an insult to non-physicists, but there is a deeper and non-prejudiced philosophical thought underneath the dichotomy. To get there you have to ask: is there such a thing as a physics of stamp collecting?

I’ve discussed the quote once before, in my extended post on foxes and hedgehogs (short version: foxes are stamp collectors, hedgehogs are faux-physicists), but let’s dig a little deeper.

Turns out, the distinction between sustaining and disruptive variants of deliberate practice, which I discussed last week, is a consequence of the distinction between physics and stamp collecting.

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Power Gradients and Spherical Cows

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal had a comic recently explaining the argument against evolution based on the 2nd law of thermodynamics: “Life on Earth can’t get more complex because that would require energy, and the sun doesn’t exist.” The understanding of entropy is there, but conspicuously missing is the distinction between open and closed systems and the fact that increased entropy in the system does not preclude localized negentropic environments, such as those on Earth sustaining life.

This specific failure mode for thinking I call the Spherical Cow fallacy, after the classic physics joke. [Read more…]

The Legibility Tradeoff

Kartik is a 2014 blogging resident visiting us from his home turf at akkartik.name.

I am fascinated by organizations as a technology for agency transfer — getting people to follow some plan outside of their selves. We’re not yet very good at building such agency transformers; our organizations get gamed, taken over, taken advantage of, treated as externalities, captured by minority interests, ground down to gridlock, etc. But we’ve been getting better at it, finding better ways to influence others than the coercion and threat of violence that we started out with. In this post I want to survey the progress we’ve made, and suggest that there’s still wisdom to be milked from the old saw of “don’t micromanage, delegate.”

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Love Your Parasites

Parasitism is usually defined as a multi-party ecological organization in which one party benefits at another’s expense, and is contrasted with commensalism (the host is neither harmed nor helped) and mutualism (a type of symbiosis in which both parties benefit). Missing from this triptych are organizations in which a harm is partially offset with second-order benefits.

New research brings a little light to the subject in its analysis of the notorious brood parasites, the common cuckoo. The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, externalizing the costs of raising its young to other species, which bear the burden of feeding and caring for the cuckoo chicks, who compete strenuously with their own. However, it was found that the parasitized nests thrived relative to those left alone by the cuckoo; and this effect was causally related to the cuckoo chicks themselves, as moving the eggs to other nests moved the beneficient effects as well.

It turns out that cuckoo chicks defecate a kind of black, tarry substance that is incredibly toxic and serves to dissuade predators, resulting in net improved fitness for the host species despite the costs.

Ecological thinking is transforming our understanding of the natural world, and is blurring many of the firm boundaries erected under the old paradigms that fetishisized ‘identity’ and assumed in advance the nature of benefit and harm. The world of software seems perfectly poised for ecological analysis, as many of its fundamental concepts parallel those of biological systems (source code as the genotype to compiled code’s phenotype, for instance).

So what would parasitism in software look like?

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Algorithmic Governance and the Ghost in the Machine

This is a guest post by Sam Bhagwat from Moore’s Hand.

 Moore’s Law has granted to 21st-century organizations two new methods for governing complexity:  locally powerful god-algorithms we’ll call Athenas and omniscient but bureaucratic god-algorithms we’ll call Adjustment Bureaus

As an example of an Athena, consider this case:

Eighteen months ago a Buddhist convert in Los Angeles named Rick Ruzzamenti donated his kidney. It was flown on ice on a Continental red-eye, to a retiree in Newark in need of a transplant. The retiree’s niece then sent her kidney to a woman in Madison. The woman’s ex-boyfriend sent his kidney to a secretary in Pittsburgh. The secretary’s boyfriend sent his to a young father in San Diego.

When the chain halted six months later, in December 2012, with a final transplant in Chicago, sixty operations had taken place, enabled by an algorithm that crunched through billions of match possibilities.

And for an example of an Adjustment Bureau, consider this case:

For several months in 2011, including the holiday sale season, JC Penney was at the top of a curious number of Google search results. “Dresses.” “Bedding.” “Area rugs.” “Skinny jeans.” “Home decor.” “Furniture.” Even “grommet top curtains.”

The placement generated huge traffic – 3.8 million monthly visitors just for ‘dresses’ – and  revenue in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.  Then an enterprising reporter noticed thousands of paid links in link directories, and brought the matter to the attention of Google’s webspam team, which flagged the site:

At 7 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, J. C. Penney was still the No. 1 result for “Samsonite carry on luggage.”

Two hours later, it was at No. 71.

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Penney was No. 1 in searches for “living room furniture.”

By 9 p.m., it had sunk to No. 68.

In other words, one moment Penney was the most visible online destination for living room furniture in the country. The next it was essentially buried.

Wide-eyed advocates of ‘algorithmic governance’ (Tim O’Reilly) beware: each god may grant you your local optimization, but their intervention is far from free.

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Deep Play: An Impressionistic Theory of Innovation

I have my second essay up at Aeon Magazine, Deep Play. It’s an attempt at an impressionistic picture of how the world of innovation works.  Here’s an extract:

The EMP Museum, the Gates Foundation, and the MOHAI form what I’ve dubbed the Titan Triangle of Seattle, a zone of violent urban terraforming. Sometimes, on my walks, an absurd image pops up into my head: Bezos, Gates and Allen standing like thousand-foot colossi at the three vertices, hammering away at the earth, with the ghost of Boeing looking on. Violence is the key word here. To scurry about within Titan Triangle is to be struck by the relentless violence — physical, financial, social, and psychological — of a process dubbed ‘creative destruction’. As popularised by the economist Joseph Schumpeter in the 1940s, this is the technology-driven unravelling and cohering of social orders in the human world.

But standing between the EMP Museum and the Gates Foundation, and taking in their opposing visions of innovation, I am equally struck by the fact that the transformative violence of creative destruction still appears to be governed by that apparently intractable question: how can you talk of colonies on Mars when there are starving children in Africa?

Billions of dollars are apportioned according to the logic of that question every year. And one has to wonder, do the financiers of creative destruction operate by better answers than the ones you and I trade at parties?

Without giving too much away, the essay tries to get at the fundamental structure of industrial-age innovation models using a happy/broken families metaphor, with some inspiration from Clifford Geertz’ notion of deep play.

And in case you missed it, here’s my first Aeon essay, American Cloudwhich appeared earlier this year.

These pieces at Aeon have been an interesting challenge: trying to treat themes as complex as the ones I attempt here at ribbonfarm, but in a more accessible way for a mainstream audience. Tough game, since it means doing without random engineering metaphors or too much obscure conceptual scaffolding (the first draft of this essay was a cheerful mess of yin-yang references, genies in lamps etc. which I would likely have let through untouched if I’d posted here).

Am learning as I go along, thanks to my editor there, Ross Andersen.

No time for a full post this week, but this one should keep you busy.

A Beginner’s Guide to Immortality

I recently reached an odd conclusion. A sense of history isn’t about knowing a lot of history or trying to learn from the past in order to create a better future. It is about living your mortal life as though you were immortal.

To understand why this is an interesting definition to play with, consider the following allegory.  Human life is like walking into a movie halfway through, and having to walk out again two minutes later. You’ll have no idea what’s going on when you walk in. And chances are, just as you begin to get a clue, you’ll be kicked out.

So unless you are lucky enough to walk in during a scene that is satisfying without any longer narrative context (think sex or violence), your ability to derive satisfaction from your two-minute glimpse will depend partly on your ability to construct meaning out of it.

One way to do this is to pretend to be immortal. This game of make-believe also reveals a few interesting things about literal immortality seeking, in the sense of seeking longevity therapies or waiting to upload your brain into Skynet, post-Singularity.

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