Fast Radio Bursts Flying Under the Radar

Back in the summer of 2014 I distinctly remember driving through the hinterland of northern Massachusetts and hearing a news story on the radio that simply blew my mind.  It was a Sunday morning and we were listening to an NPR report (this one, in fact) about mysterious signals from outer space that had astronomers scratching their heads. These signals were of extremely short duration but very, very powerful. Astronomers called them “fast radio bursts” and put forward a range of possible explanations, ranging from pulsars, black holes and solar flares to plain old cell phone interference. But nothing seemed to fit.

This kind of thing is catnip for me. A big dramatic scientific mystery, signals from outer space, the patina of a possibility of extraterrestrial life. The moment I got home I stayed up late searching the internet for more information. Surprisingly, there was very little even in the scientific press. But it was a recently discovered phenomenon, so I figured it would take some time to capture the public’s imagination. I set a Google alert for “fast radio bursts” and got by on the occasional update on the research.

There was a flurry of stories in late 2015/early 2016 when a repeating signal was found, and another round of stories when, in January of this year, some researchers announced that they had located the source of one of these signals. Contrary to expectation, it was coming from another galaxy three billion light years away. This meant that whatever was generating these bursts (and the researchers were able to shed no light on this) was putting a ginormous amount of energy into it.

As for what is actually causing this phenomenon, the latest hypothesizing is focused on a type of neutron star called a magnetar, but other theories abound. It is genuinely exciting to have a scientific mystery of this proportion that is the focus of such a wide variety of astrophysical speculation.

Despite all this, fast radio bursts never gained much traction as a topic of mainstream scientific interest, but I still find it fascinating. So earlier this week I was very happy to see Quanta Magazine publish an excellent blow-by-blow primer by Katia Moskvitch on this phenomenon that touches on all the most recent discoveries. It conveys some sense of the excitement surrounding this very young field of research.  To give a small taste, here’s how Moskvitch describes the moment in 2015 when researchers found a burst that repeated:

The discovery was “both amazing and terrifying,” Chatterjee said — amazing, because “everyone knew that FRBs don’t repeat,” and terrifying because of the gargantuan energy required to produce even one of these bursts. Perhaps the only thing fiercer than emitting the energy of 500 million suns is doing it again.

Every now and then it is good to be reminded that it really and truly is an exciting time to be alive.

Bruce Sterling on the State of the World, 2017

More than a quarter of the year has passed and only this past week have I gotten around to reading Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky’s State of the World 2017 over at The Well. I’m glad I waited. Late December is so taken up with retrospective/prospective pieces that it can numb you to truly original thinking about our current moment. And Bruce Sterling has never been lacking in original thought about this or any other moment.

Sterling achieved notoriety in the science fiction scene of the early 1980’s as a leading light of the cyberpunk movement. His Shaper/Mechanist stories of 1982-1984 garnered multiple Hugo and Nebula award nominations, and his 1985 novel , Schismatrix, set in the Shaper/Mechanist universe, is one of the few works of fiction I reread on the regular. He earned a reputation as a critical firebrand and literary scold as editor of the Cheap Truth fanzine, which was a manifesto of sorts for the early cyberpunk movement (the first line of the first issue accurately conveys the flavor of Sterling’s critical rhetoric: “As American SF lies in a reptilian torpor, its small, squishy cousin, Fantasy, creeps gecko-like across the bookstands. Dreaming of dragon-hood, Fantasy has puffed itself up with air like a Mojave chuckwalla.”). And in 1986 he gave the larger literary world its first taste of the major voices in cyberpunk as editor of the Mirrorshades anthology.

But for all that Sterling’s fiction is something of an acquired taste, even to devoted science fiction fans. He lacks the evocative prose style and raw postindustrial aesthetic that helped catapult his compatriot, William Gibson, into literary stardom. His plots tend to move nonlinearly, chasing tangents or jumping the timeline in non-intuitive ways. The focus of his authorial gaze flits from one shiny, mind-melting thing to another.

While that may be grating in a novel (for some–I happen to love it), it makes Sterling’s non-fictional current events commentary consistently fascinating. I look to him to not only find and explain the oddball, under-the-radar stories circulating in the aphotic zones of the Internet, but to actively obsess about them. And his annual State of the World sessions with Jon Lebkowsky over at what remains of The Well are one of the best places to see that on display.

This year he begins with a lengthy and surprisingly heartfelt meditation on the death of Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, who was assassinated on December 19, 2016. Although knowing nothing about the ambassador prior to his death, Sterling writes that

I felt a kind of genuine and rueful affection for the guy. As if we were on a first-name basis, and he’d slipped and fallen on an icy sidewalk that presented a danger to anybody. “So, it’s come to this, has it Andrei?” I wanted to say.

Not that he is blind to the realpolitik of Russian aggression in Syria and elsewhere. But despite the gulf between Western and Russian ideologies Sterling sees Karlov’s death as the latest and most dramatic of a long line of harbingers foreshadowing the demise of the Westphalian order:

He’s got an alien value system, his activities don’t align with my interests, but somehow, I’m beyond that kind of knee-jerk irritation. Troll hot buttons rarely get to me at the dawn of 2017, I understand them as the counterfeit pennies of the modern intellectual marketplace. Karlov is dead, and I take his death “personalitically.” The personal is the political, and he’s like a freshly coffined microcosm of the trouble we share from pole to pole.

A variant of this sentiment creeps up later in the discussion regarding Vladimir Putin. Comparing him to Louis IX, Sterling writes that “Maybe the proper attitude in 2017 is not piling such emotional effort into: ‘What is this awful guy gonna do to mankind, what are his dreadful capacities,’ but ‘What if he’s not around?’”

The implications here being that the western-led world regime has relied on leaders in the periphery practicing various levels of authoritarianism as a key ingredient in global order. And in 2017 not even the dictators are safe, and the chaos that they so effectively repressed for so long is only one well-aimed bullet away from its debut on the world stage.

Elsewhere, Sterling launches into his tech-curmudgeon spiel, familiar from prior years. Google is “harebrained” and their “moonshots all miss the Moon.” Apple is “Elderly, formerly-daring, an aging diva who is transgressive in ways that nobody thinks are actually liberating.” Facebook is “bitter, toxic, creepy.” Amazon is the only major tech company Sterling thinks has any competence and even there he finds room for pessimism in Bezos’s recent entree into politics via the Washington Post.

More interesting his his take on AI. Despite being “genuinely impressed” by recent advances in deep learning, Sterling remains skeptical, largely due to their opacity:

You can’t mathematically prove that you have an accurate answer with a deep-learner. You just get cool Ouija-board hints. They strike me as a form of decadence for computer science, frankly. They have a baroque, visionary, suggestive, occultist quality when at this historical moment that’s the very last thing we need.

As someone who has been following Sterling for years, this techno-skepticism is almost cliche at this point, despite being a welcome counterweight to the prevailing tech boosterism that persists in mainstream media organs. And this point about the opacity of deep neural networks is something that the industry is starting to wring its hands about.

As scathing as he is about tech, this year Sterling reserves his harshest, most pessimistic words for the environmental movement:

If anybody thinks that standard Al Gore rationalist, scientific Blue State leftie environmentalists are destined to be the heroes of this great crisis of our civilization, well, they haven’t been entirely ineffectual, but they’ve gotta be one of the least successful mass movements ever.

[…]

… I get annoyed by the kind of febrile leftist melancholia that says, “Well, they failed to do what was obviously correct by my cogent analysis, and therefore a Dark Age looms.” It’s not that your analysis was even mistaken, it’s just that reality isn’t bound by your rationality.

###

There’s much more here worth reflecting on, including comparisons between the current economic crisis in China and Italian politics (“Once you’re inside Italy, you slowly realize that, though by anybody else’s standards it really is a deep and serious and chronic ‘crisis,’ by Italian standards it’s never a crisis unless they’re actively shooting each other”), thoughts about an insane recent Italian espionage case that has gotten exactly zero attention over here in the US, and speculation about the future of espionage in general.

The one part of Sterling’s remarks here that I keep turning over in my mind, and which I think deserves to be more generally discussed, is his perspective on our current fascination with dystopias in fiction and film. He writes:

Okay, I get it why dystopia is popular now, but that is a genuinely problematic sensibility. Today really WILL be over with, it’s crumbling, we’re gonna be knee-deep in the ruins of the unsustainable. However, we don’t have to get all ruin-porn about that. Even if that is our cultural sensibility, we could up our game and do it with better taste.

Scary political disaster, Nazism, Fascism – okay, a lot of people simply lived through that historic period. It didn’t last all that long. In fact it was only melodramatic creeps like Hitler who really thought it was a Thousand Year Reich that deserved to end in a totalizing scorched-earth Gotterdammerung. If you tremble all over from a prospect like that, you’re actually buying into the worldview of the problem.

Germany, Italy and Japan were all smoldering ruins in the 1940s and quite lively, prosperous, inventive places in the 1960s. Strange, but true.

Because text on The Well, god bless it, is not  threaded to make for an intuitive reading experience, I collected a condensed version of Sterling’s SOTW 2017 remarks in a Google doc viewable here.

Lessons from an Overlooked Mathematical Proof

This story about a retired mathematician proving a notoriously elusive statistical conjecture hits some really interesting themes.

Thomas Royen, a retired statistician who had worked in pharmaceuticals and academia, was brushing his teeth one morning when his brain burped out a method to prove something called Gaussian Correlation Inequality (the article has a very good general audience explanation for what exactly that is). Royen wrote up his proof, sent it to some colleagues, published it in an obscure journal no one reads, and then sat back and watched a whole lot of nothing happen for several years. Finally someone realized that Royen’s proof was in fact valid and constituted a significant achievement in the field. And next thing you know, here he is in Wired Magazine.

Apart from the fact that this happened in the first place, there are a few interesting aspects to this story that are worth dwelling on. The first is how easy it is for important developments in knowledge to get overlooked. Here is how the article describes the publication of Royen’s proof:

Proofs of obscure provenance are sometimes overlooked at first, but usually not for long: A major paper like Royen’s would normally get submitted and published somewhere like the Annals of Statistics, experts said, and then everybody would hear about it. But Royen, not having a career to advance, chose to skip the slow and often demanding peer-review process typical of top journals. He opted instead for quick publication in the Far East Journal of Theoretical Statistics, a periodical based in Allahabad, India, that was largely unknown to experts and which, on its website, rather suspiciously listed Royen as an editor. (He had agreed to join the editorial board the year before.)

With this red flag emblazoned on it, the proof continued to be ignored.

For a guy who just proved an important and intractable math problem, Royen sure seems to have gone out of his way to hide it in plain sight. There’s a wide berth between not wanting to go through the slog of peer review and publishing in an Indian journal with what sounds like single-digit readership. If Royen were twenty or thirty years younger I would wonder why he just didn’t publish his proof on Medium, or Stack Exchange, or even on Quora, which has a pretty strong math community.

But the paper was published. There it is in Volume 48 of the Far East Journal of Theoretical Statistics, right alongside papers on Bayesian Modelling of Growth Retardation among Children, Penalty Spline Estimators, and Simulated Hellinger Disparity Estimation. It’s not exactly click-bait, but it is clearly a serious academic venue.

And the Far East Journal is not entirely unread: its articles have been cited over 700 times since 2012, according to Google Scholar. (Interestingly, Royan’s is only the tenth most cited article in the Far East Journal’s history. The article with the most citations is titled “Parallel computing and Monte Carlo algorithms” by Jeffrey Rosenthal. It was published in 2000, giving it a 14-year head start.)

One way to view this is as a markets problem. The demand for theoretical statistical knowledge by savvy consumers is vastly smaller than the supply of knowledge on offer. The supply of both scholarly articles and the journals that publish them is large and the quality is uneven due to the need among academics to publish constantly. There are various curatorial functions, such as the formal curation that exists at arxiv.org and more informal method such as people simply sharing quality articles with each other over email. But collectively the curation is not robust enough to comprehensively cover the entire output across every venue and identify quality.

The market for specialized academic knowledge outside of the prestigious peer-reviewed ecosystem looks less like the New York Stock Exchange and more like the over the counter pink sheets market. You could hit it big and 100x your money, but it is far more likely that you loose your shirt.

Another part of this story that I found very interesting is the apparent simplicity of the proof. Statistician Donald Richards had been trying to find a proof for the Gaussian Correlation Conjecture for 30 years. But when he first saw Royen’s paper he said “I knew instantly that it was solved.” It is apparently an almost viscerally simple proof. Here is how the article describes it:

Any graduate student in statistics could follow the arguments, experts say. Royen said he hopes the “surprisingly simple proof … might encourage young students to use their own creativity to find new mathematical theorems,” since “a very high theoretical level is not always required.”

Just as Royen’s article was hiding in plain sight for three years before getting noticed, could it be that the proof was also hiding in plain sight for decades while statisticians dedicated to finding it looked elsewhere? If this proof was so simple why did it take so long to solve? And why did the proof come from someone so seemingly removed from the front lines of theoretical statistics research?

One possible answer is path dependency. Forty years ago a special, limited case of the conjecture was proved only for two-dimensional shapes. It was not a comprehensive proof, but it led researchers to believe that it contained the seeds for a comprehensive proof. Much work went into extending the two dimensional proof to a full proof. This turns out to have been the wrong approach, and it blinded researches to potential solutions elsewhere. Here is Loren Pitt, the mathematician responsible for the limited proof, describing this blindness:

Despite hundreds of pages of calculations leading nowhere, Pitt and other mathematicians felt certain—and took his 2-D proof as evidence—that the convex geometry framing of the GCI would lead to the general proof. “I had developed a conceptual way of thinking about this that perhaps I was overly wedded to,” Pitt said. “And what Royen did was kind of diametrically opposed to what I had in mind.”

I also wonder if there is currently a bias in favor of complex solutions, at least among academic researchers. Looking at the field it’s easy to assume that all the simple proofs have been found, and if a problem remains unsolved for as long the Gaussian Inequality Conjecture then the solution must be complex. For instance, it took mathematician Andrew Wiles over 150 pages (and his adult entire life) to prove that an+bn = cn, which is about as simple a mathematical statement as you could come up with.

The lessons I take away from this story are that simplicity is underrated, the default mode of complexity ought to be more regularly questioned, and maybe, just maybe, the truth is indeed out there, published in an obscure academic journal you’ve never heard of halfway around the world.

Recent Reading (Online)

  • Infrastructural Voodoo Doll from Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG, which summarizes and expands on Manaugh’s excellent Atlantic article on the new intelligence gathering unit at LAX. Here’s a fascinating quote from the Atlantic piece, also quoted on the blog:

It might sound like science fiction, but, in 20 years’ time, it could very well be that LAX has a stronger international-intelligence game than many U.S. allies. LAX field agents could be embedded overseas, cultivating informants, sussing out impending threats. It will be an era of infrastructural intelligence, when airfields, bridges, ports, and tunnels have, in effect, their own internal versions of the CIA—and LAX will be there first.

  • Situational Assessment 2015 by Jordan Greenhall on Medium almost two years ago now. It is a wide lens assessment of human civilization at this moment, and makes for particularly bracing reading after the 2016 US election. A taste:

After WWII, we engineered a deep retrofit with a whole set of new technologies (the welfare state, operational planning, mass production, scientific engineering, etc.) and this worked. Wonderfully. Population exploded, lifestyle transformed. We went to the moon.

But not all was well in the State of Denmark. Our late 20th Century innovations managed to carry us through to somewhere in the late 70’s or early 80’s. At this point we again started to see the edges of our “civilization toolkit” giving away and we made a fateful choice: stability in exchange for adaptive fitness. We doubled down. And since then, every time that the foundations started to shake, we’ve consistently chosen “more of the same.” The result is that we’ve been living in an increasingly delusional systemic environment.

At this point, it is increasingly evident that every single one of our social institutions are in what I call the “rococo stage” or the “root bound” stage: they are complex, heavy, ineffective, poorly designed and essentially impossible to change for the better. Education, healthcare, policing, legislative and regulatory decision making, wealth distribution, monetary system, etc, etc. You name it.

  • On Progress and Historical Change by Ada Palmer on Ex Urbe. This is another wide-lens look at our current moment, with a focus on the notion of progress and how change over time looks. It’s also a great exposition of Whig History, Great Forces history v. Human Agency history, and has a great description of a mock papal election Palmer conducted with her students last year that reads like an allegory for our current moment in history. Palmer is one of my favorite writers on history (she’s also pretty good at science fiction) Here is how she frames the piece:

I keep thinking about what it felt like during the Wars of the Roses, or the French Wars of Religion, during those little blips of peace, a decade long or so, that we, centuries later, call mere pauses, but which were long enough for a person to be born and grow to political maturity in seeming-peace, which only hindsight would label ‘dormant war.’  But then eventually the last flare ended and then the peace was real.  But on the ground it must have felt exactly the same, the real peace and those blips.

  • The Real Reason Your City Has No Money from Strongtowns.org, makes a strong case against urban infrastructure investment as an economic stimulus. on the dilemma of replacing ageing infrastructure. “Thus, Lafayette has a predicament. Infrastructure was supposed to serve them. Now they serve it.”

Tectonic Bureaucracy

I recently found myself making the case that the United States is less a democratic republic than it is a semi-permanent technocratic state in which a minority of the nation’s population (the electorate) dispatch briefly-tenured officials (primarily on the basis of personal charisma rather than skill) to effect small surface-level changes, while the superstructure of the system remains untouched and untouchable. Ours is a system, in other words, that is actually run by long-tenured bureaucrats who are not elected but selected on the basis of competency and skill. These individuals form a kind slow-moving but powerful political lithosphere atop which elected leaders act out their impermanent prerogatives. Think of it as a kind of fixed tectonic plate beneath the shifting topsoil of electoral politics. A tectonic bureaucracy.

I don’t actually believe this — political leaders can and frequently do re-engineer the deep structures of government on at least a semi-permanent basis, and often for the worse. But as fantasy goes, it’s a pretty good one. In the wake of Trump’s election I saw several stories about the power and imperative of bureaucrats to stand up to the ethically dubious directives that are expected to emanate from a Trump White House. My favorite of these stories was Evan Osnos’s piece in the New Yorker about John Chiang, the California State Controller, who effectively stonewalled a terrible and cruel executive order from then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

More recently, as the facts surrounding Russian interference in the election have gotten a wider airing, there has been a very sudden and very strange partisan realignment: while conservatives have developed a newfound love of Vladimir Putin, liberals have come to look to the US intelligence services — the very epitome of the tectonic bureaucracy — as a kind of savior. This is quite the 180 from the left’s natural inclination, reinforced after the Snowden leaks, to see the US intelligence apparatus as a kind of sinister deep state. I know politics makes strange bedfellows, but geez.

The tectonic bureaucracy is more fantasy than fact to my mind, at least in the United State. And it is almost certainly for the better. The most well-publicized version of this is probably the Turkish deep state, with its roots in the intrigues, conspiracies and secret armies of the Ottoman Empire. Its record of violence and corruption have made it a thing to be feared, and the depth of its penetration into the mechanisms of government have made it very easy for Erdogan to plausibly implicate many thousands of government employees, journalists, and business types as members of the deep state, regardless of the facts.

A somewhat more benign but no less destructive form of tectonic bureaucracy exists in Japan. In the wake of the Meiji Restoration Japan both restored direct imperial rule and jury-rigged a parliamentary democracy onto the imperial government. Two early imperatives laid the foundation for a tectonic bureaucracy: the desire to keep the emperor’s actions free from parliamentary oversight, and the tradition of keeping the emperor above politics by not intervening directly in government. Instead, the emperor’s privy council, originally made up of the samurai who overthrew Shogunate, acted on the emperor’s behalf, without oversight or interference from the elected parliament (and without input or protest from the emperor).

I had no idea about any of this until I read R. Taggart Murphy’s recent book, Japan and the Shackles of the Past. Here’s how he describes the process by which Japan’s bureaucracy first took hold:

As the genrō (elder statesmen–i.e., the Meiji leaders who survived into the twentieth century) began retreating from active policy-making into groups such as the Privy Council who could veto decisions without being required to bear the consequences, the stage was set for colossal political irresponsibility. That irresponsibility would culminate in the prosecution of a land war in Asia that lacked any plausible scenarion for victory and to a direct attack on an overseas power with an industrial base ten times larger than Japan’s The end-result would be precisely what the Meiji leaders had attempted to forestall: the loss of Japan’s control of its own affairs.

Japan’s bureaucracy metastasized over the decades, expanding even outside of the public sector. In the aftermath of WWII the Ministry of Finance, perhaps the most powerful of Japan’s unchecked bureaucratic forces of the era, pursued a hyper-aggressive growth policy, and in so doing co-opted some of the largest members of private industry into the tectonic bureaucracy. As Murphy describes it:

The economic ministries worked in a collaborative fashion with major companies as well as bureaucracies outside the formal government […]. Furthermore, the great business combines, particularly those in the guruppu gaisha (Sumitomo, Mitsubishi, etc.) where they owned shares in each other, functioned far more like bureaucracies than like profit-seeking business enterprises. They were not driven by “greed and fear” […]; among other things, large established Japanese companies effectively did not go bankrupt while “excessive” profit making was seen as socially suspect. Instead, like bureaucracies anywhere, these companies responded to expectations generated by the sociopolitical system in which they were embedded.

While this policy succeeded brilliantly in rebuilding the Japanese nation and vaulting it into the upper tier of the world’s economic powers, it went too far for too long, as Murpny expertly discusses in the book. Japan has been living with the economic consequences of this policy for almost three decades now.

As appealing a fantasy as an empowered, enlightened, benign tectonic bureaucracy is in this (hopefully brief) moment of extreme despair in our electoral politics, it is something that really ought to remain on the other side of the looking glass.

State Sponsored Pseudoscience

Did you know that the United States is using genetically modified foods as a bio-weapon against Russia, and is also creating a new human subspecies for use as a slave caste? It’s true. At least according to certain Kremlin-friendly Russian scientists. Maria Antonova has an interesting piece in Foreign Policy about the cancerous symbiosis between the Russian government and supposed “scientists” passing off outright conspiracy theories as science. A (legit) geneticist is quoted saying that “Even educated people are starting to talk about reptilians that have taken over and are plotting in the world government.”

I have a soft spot for pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, but strictly as entertainment. But when it rises to this level of public legitimacy you have a problem. Just as the Internet and social media have made it easier for individuals to retreat into cognitive bubbles by hedonically curating our information and social inputs, I wonder if its possible for an entire nation to retreat into an epistemic cocoon. I guess we’ll find out.

Recent Reading (Online)

  • Daniel Drezner on how effective opposition to Trump will be a very tricky balancing act. It’s all about timing:

Warn Americans about Trump too early, and most Americans will believe that you are overreacting. Warn Americans about Trump too late, and it’s too late. The challenge to those worried about Trump’s threat to liberal democracy is to figure out the best moment to sound the alarm.

  • The laws-of-physics defying EmDrive actually works. It might have something to do with pilot wave theory.
  • Rereading John Lanchesters Brexit Blues after Trump’s election. It hits themes that are by now familiar but which back in July were just hitting the US media’s radar
  • Extreme surveillance in the UK. This is worth reflecting on

The security agencies and police began the year braced for at least some opposition, rehearsing arguments for the debate. In the end, faced with public apathy and an opposition in disarray, the government did not have to make a single substantial concession to the privacy lobby.