New Year’s Resolutions for 2011

Looks like it’s December 31 again. It’s the annual time to make bold assertions about one’s future by listing a number of impossible or improbable goals.

The topic of New Year’s Resolutions was chosen independently by James F and Ben K at Westwood HS.

Here’s my list:

  1. Stop procrastinating. I do almost all my essays the night before they are due. Not good. Chance of success: 6.7%, especially considering my 2008 and 2009 resolutions have included the same.
  2. Don’t play WoW. Chance of success: 18.4%
  3. Read at least one novel. Chance of success: 99.99%, considering I’ve already started on one. And because I do actually read stuff.
  4. Read as many things as I did in 2010. Chance of success: 8.9%, as college is actually super-busy and I did read a lot in 2010.
  5. Edit my Nanowrimo novel at some point. Chance of success: 84%
  6. Acquire sufficient knowledge of photography. Chance of success: 100% (“sufficient” is subjective)
  7. .gnikoj ma I taht tpecxe ,%70.0 :sseccus fo ecnahC .sdrawkcab gnihtyreve etirW

Free Will: How We Do and Do Not Have It

Today’s topic of free will was chosen by Virginia W at Westwood High School. But was the topic freely chosen or was it already determined?

The answer has to do with the way our universe works. According to modern scientific theory, the universe can be broken down into a number of rules which govern how things interact. These rules are often presented to us as a series of confounding mathematical equations.

That, for example, is a formula of general relativity. Which would explain things including black holes:

[Both images courtesy of Wikipedia. For the rest of the images in this searches, thank Google search.]

Now, if you would agree at least that the movement of galaxies and stars are determined by rules, the laws of physics, the question is how far down does this go? Rather, a more interesting way is to look the opposite way, starting from the tiniest things we know: subatomic particles:

We can’t actually see them. But we know they are there. And we know about their properties through the laws of physics nonetheless.

How far up does this go? Combine subatomic particles together in certain ways and you get atoms. Put atoms together and you’ve got molecules, but wait, aren’t we now in the realm of chemistry?

These things are governed by formulas nonetheless. And when we put a bunch of these molecules together, we get a cell. Have the right kind of cell, and it’s a neuron. Your brain is a vast collection of interacting neurons:

Wouldn’t it follow that these also obey some rules? Even though we haven’t found these rules yet, all the neuron’s building blocks follow physical laws that are never violated. I remember Stumbling Upon this picture a couple of years ago, and it is still shocking. It shows the uncanny similarity between the structure of neuron clusters and the structure of galaxy clusters:

Point is, everything, including your brain, is governed by a set of rules. (You might hear in the news every so often that some law is broken, but that is only because the theory about the rule was incorrect, not the rule itself.)

Here is the tricky part. Suppose we knew all the rules, knew what the universe started from, and had a sufficiently powerful enough computer to run our universe as a simulation. (All 3 of these are far beyond are reach at the moment, especially the third, which is impossible, but is here for sake of thought experiment.) Because of the rules, the simulation would start running and emulating our universe exactly.

Sometime in the simulation a star would form, and there would be eight planets around it. On the third closest one, life forms would appear, eventually ones intelligent enough to question their own existence. They would ask, “Do we have free will?” And I’ll say, “No, but…

The answer is no, because if everything is governed by rules, then there is not any “intelligence” inside the simulation that is not part of something programmed into the simulation beforehand. What happens in the simulation only depends on what rules we decided upon and in what condition we started it, both choices having been made before the simulation ever began. There is no actual “free will” inside the simulation.

But there is always a “but.” Even supposing we figured out all the laws of our universe and its initial state, it would be physically impossible to create a simulation that could run our universe in at least real time.

Suppose in some simulation you have some number of particles. Further supposing that your computer has perfect, 100% efficiency, in that one particle in the computer could match one particle in the simulation, you would not be able to ever run the simulation, because you need as many particles in your computer as your entire universe contains! So you could run a partial simulation or a less detailed one, but this wouldn’t match your universe. Or you could slow it down, so you simulate only a fraction of the universe at a time (but still you would need storage).

The point here is, we physically cannot simulate our universe. We would need more particles than our universe contains. Even if we could tap into the resources of another universe, we would run into the problem that eventually in the simulation, the resources of another simulated universe would be tapped, thus requiring even more resources in the original universe. And so on.

So even though the universe might be determined, we can treat life as if we have free will anyways because we can never know what will come next. For all practical purposes, we do indeed possess free will. But theoretically, we don’t.

Edit: Here is a post I wrote later on an intriguing simulation aspect of determinism.

Desk After Birthday [Photos]

I got a camera! Thank you parents!

This means you’ll be seeing more photos on this blog. Warning: As a liberal-arts person though, I might sometimes go for “artistic” photos than ones actually containing content. So yeah…

Anyways, here’s the first photo, err, actually the second, as the first was the photo of the box above. But I guess it’s the first real photo:

Desk After Birthday

Note the random things people gave me. There are FOUR Barnes & Noble gift cards, two Target gift cards, a mathematical watch, a Samuel Beckett novel collection, a large light-up bouncy ball, a Silly Straw, Paper Chess, a La Madeleine gift card, numerous notes and letters, cash, and other things. But missing from this picture are four presents: this camera, a WoW game time card, a plate of cookies, and something that should not be mentioned.

The Blue Danube

Without music, life would be an error.

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Today’s topic of music was chosen by Jonathan C at UT Austin. He is also QUITE a musician, unlike me.

There is so much to say about music, and I’m afraid this is too broad a topic, so this post will focus on one piece in particular: “The Blue Danube” (“An der schönen blauen Donau”), an Austrian waltz composed by the Johann Strauss II in 1866.

The following video shows the Vienna Philharmonic performing the piece in their 2010 New Year’s Concert.

Now the next is from a certain film (which is ironically the one that popularized this piece), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Without music, this scene would certainly not have succeeded.

This must be one of the most artistic scenes of all time.

Is the Glass Half Full?

Today’s topic was chosen by Emily F at UT Austin.

Do you see a cup as half empty or half full?

The correct answer is both. Rather, both answers are correct. It all depends on context. If the context is this year, 2010, I would truthfully have to say, half empty, after quite some serious thought.

At first I thought my answer would be half full. I’m almost always an optimistic person. Probably due to how sarcastic—err, I mean, how serious—I normally am. No, but seriously speaking, I think my sarcasm usually allows me to look at the funny little ironic aspects of even the most not-funny things.

But there is one thing that might be too important to be taken sarcastically, and that is life. (Then again, Oscar Wilde once said, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”) Basically, you can’t take life too seriously or sarcastically. There needs to be a balance.

To answer whether the cup is half full or half empty, we need to consider what is happening to the amount of water in it: is it increasing or decreasing (or neither)? I think if we look at 2010 Year in Review’s around the web, we see that overall it has decreased this year:

  • CNN: The Stories that Mattered [link]
  • New York Times: The Year in Pictures [link]
  • Twitter: Top Trends [link]
  • etc.

From earthquakes to oil spills and armed conflicts to information ones, the news stories this year don’t seem too optimistic for us. On the other hand, there could have been worse. The oil spill was eventually capped, the Chilean miners were rescued, and the Koreas didn’t erupt into open war.

So I’m going back and forth on this question. Maybe it is half full after all.


Anyways, today is my birthday! It’s nice I guess to have a birthday that roughly coincides with the year. It makes it so that, when you look back on your year, you’re also looking back on the year holistically, nowadays globally. Regarding just my year, it has definitely been half full. 2010 contained my last semester of high school and first semester of college. This was a very intellectual year for me.

My blog also got quite some attention, twice. The first time was in March, when the US Census 2010 Win picture went viral. And the second was in November/December, when the same happened to the Planning vs. the Internet diagram.

On a personal level, it wasn’t a bad year at all. So my answer to the question is again half full.

A Serious Post, As Written by a Completely Serious Person

(Today’s topic of sarcasm may or may not have been chosen by Jeff H at Cornell. Okay fine, it was.)

First of all, I present a totally random quote on seriousness, as written by another completely serious person:

Life is too important to be taken seriously.

—Oscar Wilde

Therefore, you should NOT be as serious as Mr. Wilde, who, of course, meant the quote quite seriously. So don’t take his advice. And take life seriously, for it is actually not important enough to be treated in any other way than with absolute seriousness.

Obviously, we cannot expect to understand seriousness seriously with only one source. Here is another eminent source on seriousness, this time even more serious:

A joke is a very serious thing.

—Winston Churchill

But now we are led to wonder whether this is a joke. But if it is a joke, then it can’t be very serious, which would make the statement false. For the statement to be true, it must be a serious thing, so it is no joke that a joke is a very serious thing.

Final quote:

Why so serious?

—The Joker

The name matches the person, which means the Joker is only joking that he is the Joker, so he is in fact quite serious. But then his question of “Why so serious?” is ambiguous. Is he referring to a specific life or the human condition in general? In the latter case, it would include himself, which would be quite ironic. But irony is serious, which matches the current case.

What are your thoughts on seriousness? (Please be as serious as Oscar Wilde in your responses.)


A Musical Project

This article is about the CS 1610 project that I alluded to in the last post. The idea was to do something creative with what we had learned in class + outside research. Given that it was a very multi-disciplinary class, and that it was Cornell, that meant just about anything.

My group members were Andy W, Drew W, and Joseph V, also first-year students at Cornell. Our idea was originally to convert images to sounds and vice versa. While we did end up doing this, we ended up focusing on music: a more important part of the project was two-fold: original instrumental synthesizers and a piano-roll reader.

Here’s one example of the piano-roll reader:

This one’s a bit longer:

Being a bit more artistic:

Here’s my favorite one so far:

Anyways, the YouTube channel we made is called ScrollingMusic. If you’re interested, you should go to the channel and subscribe; we’re still adding new stuff even though it has been long after the project presentation. If you want to suggest some new pieces to add, go ahead and do so on the channel. Enjoy!