June 2019: Call for perturbations

Hi all,

This is a low-effort rush-something-out-on-the-last-day job I’m afraid. It’s been a tiring month. Work went nuts at the start and is still pretty bad. I also had a bunch of things on and errands to run outside of it. A lot of this was good – I went to a one-week quantum foundations summer school in Zurich and learned a lot there. But overall I’m feeling kind of overstretched and unable to process what I’ve done or concentrate on anything interesting, and I hope things calm down again soon. I want to go back to my usual ‘boring’ pattern of having enough unstructured free time to read and think about things. (Also a lot of it feels like an introversion thing, like I’ve just been dealing with way way too many people and need to go stare at a blank wall for two days or something.)

I have a horrible feeling that my job might continue to be busy and annoying for some time, and so I’m starting to seriously think about leaving and doing… um, something else… except I have no idea what. More on that below. Then one other section with some thoughts on the summer school.

Call for perturbations

So, I’m trying to figure out what to do next. This section is a call for perturbations, which is a term I just made up. It’s something like a call for papers, except that I’m instead looking for random external kicks in the form of suggestions, life advice of any level of quality and thought-out-ness, clarifying questions, whatever. Anything that helps me frame the problem differently and get out of the rather stale old loop of thoughts that I’m currently stuck in. I guess the only constraint is that I’d prefer positive ‘have you considered X?’ to negative ‘I think that Y is a bad idea’. Please feel free to email to ask/suggest anything you like, it will be appreciated 🙂

Some context on what the hell I’ve been doing recently for people who don’t know: I finished a physics PhD coming up for six years ago and left academia. I didn’t want to stay in the same research area and I also wasn’t very well suited to the way academic physics does, well, anything, and I just wanted to get out by the end. I’m interested in a few specific ideas in the foundations of quantum physics, and straight after I left I had this bright idea that I could live cheaply for a while and learn/research what I wanted in between sporadic temp jobs. This sort of worked except that the PhD had temporarily used up my brain and I was mostly incredibly unproductive, and also it turns out that applying for and working at a series of stupid low-paid temp jobs gets old in the end (who knew). 

So after two years of that I tried the approach of getting a real job and working on physics in my spare time. This has worked surprisingly well! A lot of this was finally getting a helpful support network together, both within physics through my membership of the BRCP and also through blogging and finding my own place within the distributed network of weirdos doing unusual things on the internet. But also I lucked out with the particular job I got. I joined a medium-sized software company that mostly did unexciting-but-useful work for the public sector, and which treated its employees pretty nicely (many had stayed for 20+ years). They didn’t work us too hard, so I had a lot of mental energy left to do things outside of work. 

This company then got bought by a much bigger company, but for a long time my job stayed pretty much the same and I was still able to keep my brain for other things. But now they are finally doing the typical bigco thing and squeezing more work out of us, and the culture is gradually degrading, so there isn’t much advantage to being there anymore. 

So I guess I should leave. The main thing stopping me, other than laziness and inertia, is not really being sure what to go for next. It could be fun to do a more intrinsically challenging and enjoyable job, but then it might eat my brain and I wouldn’t get enough outside time to think. Or I could look for another dull job that gives me free time. These are quite hard to find, because ‘we’re really boring but don’t work you too hard’ isn’t something that employers directly signal, and if you mess up you end up with a dull job that doesn’t give you free time.

Or I could do… something else. This is where the call for perturbations comes in! I’m fairly open to doing something a bit weird for a while, but for some reason every time I think about this my brain just outputs these same two tired options with the same list of pros and cons. It would be nice to nudge it towards being more expansive and optimistic.

Solstice of Foundations

Some disconnected thoughts from the school: 

  • I’m starting to ‘get my ear in’ for quantum foundations. As in, I’m getting a general sense of the different topics people work on, the main results, etc. It reminds me a lot of going to a neutron star summer school in my second year of PhD and realising how much sense it made compared to the one the previous year, where I had no idea what was going on and spent most of the lectures writing key words and phrases in the margin to google afterwards. Still very much not an insider’s understanding, but I think I would mostly know where to start looking for information at least. 
  • This is sped up somewhat by the field being a bit more accessible to outsiders in terms of content. Neutron stars are a big mess, and almost anything in physics could potentially be relevant to them (all four fundamental forces, plus lots of condensed matter and fluid dynamics stuff). Quantum foundations has a relatively small core of problems (e.g. noncontextuality and nonlocality results come up over and over) and mathematical techniques (lots and lots of ways to think about linear algebra, mostly). Instead, most of the difficulty is in the core problems of the field being complete conceptual and philosophical brainfucks.
  • It was very well organised. Everything unobtrusively just worked, which must have taken a lot of effort.
  • I’d forgotten how combative physicists normally are. This wasn’t helped by the summer school skewing very young, and there being a lot of master’s/early PhD students who were in that defensive phase of trying to show how clever they are. Also they’d invited a couple of big names who seemed to have been having the same arguments for the last forty years, who reinforced that atmosphere. It wasn’t that bad by physics standards, but I wasn’t quite expecting it in a field like quantum foundations where the conceptual foundations are still in flux. (Then again, they’ve been in flux for ninety years, so maybe I should have expected lots of ossified arguments.) The only workshops I’ve gone to recently are the BRCP-organised ones, with a much more relaxed and collaborative style, where people are generally open about not understanding things or happy to work together to articulate a vague understanding. 
  • Not everyone was like that, though. I mostly spent the week hanging around with a group of people who were good at mucking around and finding silly ways of amusing ourselves. Talking nonsense, coming up with horrible puns, watching river vortices, reading out of a very boring book on radon we found being given away for free. This is one of my favourite personality traits. 
  • I was expecting to feel some kind of nostalgia for physics research/wishing I was still in academia, especially given my general lack of direction with work at the moment. I didn’t really get that at all, which was partly the combative tone thing, and partly something else about the field that’s harder to explain but is pretty much the same thing that stopped me trying to get into it in the first place after undergrad. It’s something like this: anything to do with quantum physics attracts people who are good at abstraction and algebraic thinking, because that’s the obvious way to navigate in a field where things are hard to understand intuitively or visualise geometrically. So there’s a high level of background competence at that sort of thing assumed, and often the atmosphere feels more pure-mathsy or theoretical-CSy than the parts of physics I’ve been exposed to before. I felt more at home in general relativity/fluid dynamics, which attracts more people with a similar thinking style to me.
  • Because of this, it sometimes turned into more of a notation fest/proof fest than I’d ideally have liked. A lot of sitting there thinking ‘can’t we have one example that illustrates the conceptual thing you want to talk about?’ 
  • I finally started to get my head around (classical) causal inference! The school would probably have been worthwhile just for that – it’s something I’ve been meaning to learn for ages, but somehow all the explanations I’d read drowned me in too much notation too quickly and I had no idea why any of the concepts were what they were. Now I’ve got a good vague understanding that could be sharpened to a proper one with (I think) a few days work. Then I’m in a position to start on the techniques used in quantum causality, which mostly went over my head at the school.
  • On Friday there was a kind of ‘random topics day’ with talks on subjects some way outside of the standard toolbox. This included Markus Mueller giving a very brief introduction to Solomonoff induction. He sounds like an interesting character, doing a mix of relatively mainstream work on quantum thermodynamics, and completely out-there work on reality being a massive pile of random bit strings with Solomonoff induction being used to calculate similarity between them. Or something like that. Anyway from what I can tell he possibly has some loose connection to the LessWrong world – he linked to their explanation of Solomonoff induction as a further reading suggestion, and also links to this discussion of his work on his home page. The LW people get everywhere! 

As far as I could see it also suffered from the usual gigantic LW blind spot of completely ignoring the question of how each bitstring takes on a meaning of being about something in the world, but I didn’t manage to ask him a question so I don’t know for sure. There were unsurprisingly a lot of questions about his proposal, but it was striking to me that they were almost all technical questions and nobody led with ‘UM SO HOW EXACTLY ARE YOU PLANNING TO GROUND ANY OF THIS??!?’ which was all that was in my head. Back when I was actually in physics, this would have just been a strong but unarticulated feeling of deep frustration with the whole thing. Now I’ve read a lot more and have a more vocabulary to express myself, which is something I suppose, but it’s still frustrating.

Next month

  • I have plenty of things lined up to make progress on if I manage to get enough time, energy and focus to do it. Top priority is writing up that thing about negative probabilities I talked about last time. I think I can also see a way to go a bit further, but I should really write up first or I never do it. Second priority would be causal inference.
  • I’m still using Anki on and off but haven’t been putting much work into it. Hard to tell whether I’m going to manage to sustain the habit/whether I’ll find it useful. I still feel like it has potential.
  • Anything I get kicked into doing by some random perturbations 🙂