Twofish's Blog

September 29, 2007

Caveat Emptor

Filed under: academia, Career, china, ghosts, gifted children, mental health, new york city — twofish @ 11:42 am

One of the things that I’ve learned is that history doesn’t end, and problems don’t end.  You get what you want, and that resolves some problems, but the world changes, and you end up with new problems.  They might be better problems.  But unlike a movie or a novel where you reach the end, there is end to history.

One new problem that I’ve found is that I’m now in a position that I’ve giving advice to people, mostly about careers and strategy.  That worries me a lot because anything that I say is going to be incomplete, and I hope it is not incomplete in a way that will get people into trouble or which is misleading.  People thing in terms of “scripts” and “stories.”  There’s the “American dream” script, the “model student” script, the “patriotic overseas Chinese” script, and what I’m often asked to do is to basically help people conform their lives and efforts to a script.  Recently, it’s usually the “successful person in business” script.  What worries me is that a script is an incomplete description of a human being.

What I found is that sometimes you get a better idea of reality by asking the right question. If you ask enough questions and design an experiment well, you get answers. If enough people ask the right questions, you can make a huge amount of progress.

And sometimes the right question is something completely obvious?  Why do I write some much?  Why do I have such a strong urge to help people in their careers?  I think I have a vague understanding of my motives, and it’s a story I don’t want to tell you, and in some ways I can’t tell you.  But it’s something that doesn’t quite fit into the “successful person in business” script or in the “classic immigrant story” script.  Behind my motives, there is a lot of things that most people would consider “negative.”  There is fear, pain, anger, hate, shame, sadness, and guilt.  There are shadows all around me.  When you have lots of bright lights in the big city, shadows are difficult to avoid.

Let me talk about a recurring nightmare that I often have…..

There is a brick floating in mid-air.

That is frightening to me.  Brick don’t float in mid-air, they fall to the ground.  Maybe, one day I will see a brick floating in mid-air, and if that happens, then there is something very, very wrong.  That’s why I care a lot of about physics, math, economics, and law.  They provide certainty or at least the illusion of certainty.  If I see something, it should explainable by the laws of conservation of mass and energy, or it should be consistent with the Peano axioms of natural numbers, or it should be explainable via judicial precedent and constitutional law.  But what it doesn’t.  What if I see a brick floating in mid-air without any explanation.  They I know something is very wrong with the world, and it’s a deeply uncomfortable feeling.  If a brick floats in mid-air, and the laws of physics no longer hold, then what keeps me from falling into the center of the earth.  If I’m in a situation where there is no constitutional, legal  or economic framework, then what keeps “them” from doing nasty, unspeakable things to me.

I want to know that I’m sane, and that the world around me is sane.  That’s why it is important that 2+2 keep adding up to be 4, because if it ends up adding to be something else, then I’m not safe any more, and much of my life has been to deal with the horrible reality that things are not as safe and secure as I would like them to be.  And if they world starts going crazy, at least I want to know how crazy it is.  Maybe when I add 2+2 I don’t get 4.  Do I get 3.99999, 1, -2, or is the answer that I get when I add 2+2, magenta elephant or something that else that is not even a number.

The annoying thing is that the world being as confusing as it is, that I often don’t get 4 when I add 2 and 2.  Sometimes I get 3.999, sometimes I get nothing.  Sometimes I get -3.   Maybe I added wrong.  Maybe there is something I’m ignoring.  I don’t know.  But I find those moments very frightening and disturbing, because when I add two numbers and they don’t come out exactly right, I get the glimpse of that brick floating in mid-air.  And my strange insecurities and frustrations about numbers, gets me to the social embodiment of numbers….. Money…..

Money is a funny thing in that I found that people who seem to care a lot about money, really care about something else.  I care a lot about money.  For me, money is a sign that I am sane and that the world is sane.  In business there are so many things that can go wrong, and it is a constant struggle against chaos.  Being able to make money is hard, and making a profit demonstrates that in some way, you are connected to the rest of the world, and that you aren’t in your own little reality disconnected from the reality in the rest of the world.  Having money and making money allows me to convince myself that I am sane.

I say this because one day I might end up labeled as a “business success” and that happens, your story gets repeated, and like all stories, it is incomplete.  Descriptions of reality are always incomplete, but they can be incomplete without being misleading.  Just be aware that there are shadows following me.  I don’t want to tell you what they are, and pretty much everyone who finds out wishes that they didn’t know.  Just be aware that they are there…….

July 31, 2006

Off to Wikimania….

Will be heading off to WikiMania on Tuesday. The nice thing about blogs is that you can mix the personal and the professional. I’m a very nervous about going off to WikiMania because I’m in the middle of a life transition, something similar to graduating from college. I’m going to start travelling a lot more in the future than I have in the past, and things like my career, my family, and basically who I am are going to change radically in the next few months. As with all life transitions, I’ve been very, very nervous and stressed. I’ll survive, but it is uncomfortable. On the other hand, growing up always is.

The basic plan is that I’m going to be travelling to Taiwan in the summer when school is out for the kids, and I’ll be travelling either to NYC or Boston one week each month. One week each month should give me enough time and energy to network and start publishing papers. Part of the reason this is uncomfortable is that I’m not used to travelling so much. I’m also not used to spending money quite this freely. I’ve always been taught to save up money for the future, but the future has arrived, and if I don’t cash in my chips now, I don’t know when I ever will. If I don’t travel, I can’t network, if I can’t network, then I’m stuck in Austin for the rest of my life, and the thought of being 50 and doing what I’m doing now is both depressing and scary. I don’t want that to happen to me, and if I want to avoid that, I have to do something about it now.

A lot of this becoming a “global nomad” has to do with changes in technology and the way that the world works. Phone calls and telecommunications have made working remotely extremely cheap. Jet planes and discount tickets have also changed the economics of flight. One final thing that has also changed. In 1949, my family ended up on different sides of the Taiwan straits, and because of this separation, I’ve always had somewhat of a psychological resistance to anything that “splits the family.” One thing that is the case is that I’m now growing more confident that there won’t be a repeat of the Chinese Civil War, and this has freed up a lot of psychological energy, and made me less afraid of flying to and fro, and having my wife and kids physically in a different location than I am in.

I’m anxiously awaiting direct flights between Shanghai and Taipei in 2008, and that will just be the beginning. What will really change things is when you have direct flights between 2nd tier cities like between Jia-yi and Taizhou, Zhejiang or Hefei, Anhui which should start happening in the decade or so after the start of direct flights, at which point I really become a nomad. That opens up a whole other set of issues. My relatives in mainland China are blood, but they are still largely blood strangers, and either connecting or reconnecting is going to be stressful and create huge new constellations of relationships.

And with all of the changes and stresses in my life, it’s not surprising that I’ve been thinking a lot about my alter ego Professor W and his wife Professor L (see the sidebar). Professor W (aka the person I would have been if some things had changed) is more or less satisfied with his professional life, whereas it wasn’t until my nervous breakdown about three weeks ago, which was triggered by an article about the “real” Professor L, that I was willing to admit to myself (or more accurately forced to admit to myself) how totally dissatisfied I was with my professional life. The fortunate thing, however, is that to change this part of my life, I don’t need to break any fundamental laws of physics.

July 25, 2006

Protected: Grown ups have no problems…..

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July 22, 2006

Protected: Chasing away Professor W’s ghost

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Protected: Making peace with my own ghost

Filed under: academia, ghosts, grief, personal — twofish @ 6:02 am

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July 21, 2006

More ghost stories

Filed under: ghosts — twofish @ 11:59 pm

I’ve put two new pages on the side.  One is “Show me the money”.  The second is a ghost story.  The first story is intended to make sense.  The second story probably won’t make any sense.

Protected: In sickness and in health

Filed under: academia, asian am, china, father, ghosts, personal — twofish @ 2:21 pm

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July 20, 2006

A Chinese Ghost story

Filed under: academia, china, ghosts, massachusetts institute of technology, personal — twofish @ 2:02 pm


Meg Tegmark wrote a paper in which he argued that the reason that space has three dimensions and time has one dimension is that only in this space can intellegence exists. What is intellegence, intellgence is the ability to ask “what if”. “If this event changed, how would subsequent events also have changed?” You can only mathematically define this problem in 3+1 space. In any other dimension, the question “what if” cannot mathematically be asked.

And intellegence requires time not to be changable. If you could change the past, then cause and effect do not exist. If cause and effect, do not exist, then intellegence and hence sentience is impossible. String theory says that there may be an infinite number of universes, but it is only in those universes that *you cannot change the past* can intellegence exist.

Death is irreversible therefore life attempts to avoid death, and this creates a process of natural selection in which intellegence exists, as intellegence is an effort to avoid death. Unicelluar animals do not die, hence it is unnecessary for them to be intelligent. In any world in which there is no death, intellegence is unnecessary. It is only when there is the reality of death and the ability through calculation to avoid death can there be natural selection pressures to create intellegence, hence death.


A lot of the basic fundmental conflicts that sentience faces are the result of its own existence. Any universe in which there is intelligent life must have these as fundamental laws

1) you cannot change the past

2) you cannot raise the dead

A colloary is that universe in which there is intelligent life must have ghosts.

A ghost is a valid solution to the equations of physics which did not manifest itself in this time line. In this time line, the car went right and hit someone, but it *could* have went left and not hit them. It is possible to *think* of what would have happened if the car went left. And the *possibility* that the world could have been something that it is not, influences our world.

I *could have been* a tenured astrophysics professor. I’m not, but the mere fact that I speak meaningfully of things that *could have been* but are not, is an example of a ghost. My parents *could have been* still alive, but they fact that they are not, creates a ghost.

Act I.

Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl falls in love with boy. They have children, and live happily ever after.

Act II.

Same situation, Boy meets girl. Boy almost tells girl that boy loves girl. Girl almost tells boy that girl loves boy. But before that can happen, boy leaves girl, and talking about this love becomes an unspoken taboo.
You now have a problem that becomes the heart of the conflict in the story. There are now some ghosts. The boy in Act II is now a different person as the boy in Act I. The girl in Act II is also a different person than the girl in Act I. As time passes and the time lines diverge, they will become more and more different, and the ghosts will be more and more “real”. The ghosts are in love, and they have produced more ghosts. The children that existed in the other time-line and do not exist in this one, are now ghosts.

Act III.

Boy meets someone else. Has children, but these are *other* children, not the one’s in act I. He exists, but he is some different than the person in Act I.

Someone dies. This attracts the jealous ghosts, who start haunting the boy. The boy is haunted by the ghost of the children, the ghost of the girl, but most importantly he is haunted by *his own ghost*. The person he *would have been* but isn’t.

Act IV.

Girl meets someone else. Has children but these are *other* children. I don’t know if the jealous ghosts arrive. I think that they are there.
What is the major dramatic conflict? Boy and girl do not say that there was ever love. In this world there isn’t. Boy is in love with someone else. Girl is also in love with someone else. There is no need to talk about love.

But there is. Because the boy and the girl are not in love, but the ghost of the boy and the ghost of the girl are. It is a fact that there is not and cannot be love now. But do say that there was *never* love, means that the ghosts do not exist, but since the ghosts *DO* exist, and wreak terrible havoc.
Why can the word love not be said? Because to say it would admit that one does not live in a perfect happy world. But if this is the perfect happy world, then the ghosts do not exist *even as ghosts* and they do. So the ghosts come to be recognized.

Act V.

Boy says lets the ghosts known that he admits that there was love, and that he mourns for the loss of the children and for the existence of his own ghost that do not exist. The ghosts are satisfied and leave.

Act VI.

No idea what the girl is doing. If the girl says love, then the ghosts can leave, but if the girl does not, then she will have to deal with some jealous ghosts.

The core of the dramatic conflict is this….

Ghosts demand that they be mourned, so that they can be at peace. Mourning demands sadness. In the early 21st century, we do not like to talk about sadness since everyone must pretend to be happy. What is worse, in the early 21st century, people do not talk about ghosts, and if you don’t talk about ghosts, they become jealous and hungry, and wreak terrible havoc.

Tragedy requires a mistake.

The mistake was not to say the word love in Act II or III or IV. If the word had been said the ghosts would have been satisfied and left a long time ago.

Ghosts are real. They are solutions of equations that produce alternative time lines that did not manifest themselves in this time line. X is dead or non-existent in this time line, but you can *imagine* a alternate time line in which X exists. You can rigorously mathematically define the existence of alternate solutions of the laws of physics which are valid but which do not exist. This creates a ghost that influences this time line.

If you speak the name of the ghost, they are satisified and leave. If you admit their existence, then they have no need to cause havoc, but they demand that you be sad for them.

The boy in Act V is not the same person as the boy in Act I. The girl in Act VI is also not the same person as the girl in Act I. Each action that you take, you produce a huge number of ghosts. These are the people who you *could* have become, but didn’t. These ghosts

Let me stop with a riddle….

Our society has a lot of riddles. A job interview is a series of riddles. The SAT is a set of riddles. A debate between candidates is a series of riddles. Answer the riddles, you get money and power.

Let me ask an important riddle which I’d like the people at Wikimania to think about.

Why with all our technology and power, is it so difficult to talk about ghosts……

And about love?

Mourning things that can’t be undone….

Filed under: ghosts, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 7:27 am

Just had another thought……

Suppose my dream timeline *was* accurate. Let’s suppose hypothetically, that I do some more investigation, and it becomes obvious that my dream timeline *was* what would have happened if bad things didn’t affect my life. Suppose, I figure out that had the bad things not happened, that I would have ended up this high powered tenured professor who had really different relationships with different people, than what happened in this time line.

What then?

Rule one: The past can’t be undone.


Rule two: What can’t be undone should be mourned.


Consequence three: I shouldn’t be the only one mourning, or the only one sad. There are people who should be sad, not for me, but for them. If my timeline was accurate, then I’m not the only one who really lost something.

At the reunion at MIT, I met some people I hadn’t seen in a long time. And some of them knew the first bad thing that happened, but not the second. I’ve been dreading telling them, but I have to. Part of the reason I’m writing in public in fact is to that me makes it easier for me to bring up the topic. I think I’ll just point them to this blog.
And it is going to be sad. We are going to look at some things that could have happened, some things that would happen, some things that *should* have happened, and we are going to mourn what cannot be undone. And then we move on. But you have to have a funeral, because you cannot raise the dead, and being sad at a funeral, means that dead is dead.

But…. I need for everyone in the story to be sad, and to mourn things that could have been and maybe should have been, but aren’t. It’s not a small number of people at MIT, who knew me fifteen years ago, and know what happened then, and are going to be devastated to know what the outcome was. And part of the process of returning to MIT, involves letting them know.

I’m wondering how much more I should talk about this……

But…. I need to finish the obvious conclusion.

If there is someone in the story of what might have been but can’t be, who isn’t quite ready to admit to herself how important they are in the story, and is too damn busy to even listen to the story and understand their place in it, then we really do have a problem….

It’s not enough for the people in the story to feel sorry for me, or to regret what happened, to wish me well, or to send me some insurance form letter. They need to understand the impact of what happened on their own lives, and to feel sorry not for me, but for them.

I’m not crazy.

I think I’m the sanest person here.

I’m not looking forward to letting people know what happened.

I’m not looking forward to trying to arrange another funeral.

But the dead must be mourned.

And I’m not crazy for being mad when someone that should be mourning. Isn’t.

I have a confession.

About 15 years ago, I told what seemed like a harmless lie, and I didn’t realize the enormous consequences of telling that harmless lie until about five minutes ago.

I don’t exactly right now how to fix things, and it doesn’t have to be fixed soon, but it going to have to be fixed eventually.

But I’m going to sleep better tonight, now I know what the problem is………

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