The nature of reality, part 2: Dimensions

In part 1 of this occasional series (well, it’s a series now), I wrote:

It’s as if I decided to write an elaborate computer program to simulate a universe, complete with its own laws of nature and its own intelligent life. In time those beings might figure out all the rules of their universe, but what chance would they ever have of guessing what I’m like, or the nature of the computing hardware in which they are abstractions? The copper and silicon and tiny electrical charges of which they’re really composed would appear nowhere at all inside the simulation. The rules by which their universe operates would bear no resemblance to the rules of the programming language in which I expressed them.

Nevertheless, physicists (human ones) are making attempts at guessing at the nature of the computing hardware in which our reality is an abstraction (if we can agree to think about it that way for now). One of the more well-known guesses is a very complicated idea called string theory. Famously it declares that our universe is not merely three-dimensional, it’s actually ten-dimensional. The hell?

To understand what ten-dimensional space can possibly mean, and how it jibes with the universe-is-just-a-computer-program metaphor, let’s first make sure we understand three-dimensional space.

What does it mean to say that space is three-dimensional? Put simply, it means that three numbers are necessary to identify your location — for example, latitude, longitude, and altitude. Two numbers won’t do it.

It also means that three numbers are sufficient to identify your location (if you choose the right three). You don’t need more. You could tell someone, “I’m at the corner of 34th Street and 5th Avenue on the 57th floor where the ZIP code is 10118 and there are 28 days left before my next birthday,” but some of those numbers will be redundant and/or irrelevant for locating purposes.

Finally, the three numbers that are necessary and sufficient for locating you are also independent of each other. You can change your latitude without changing your altitude. You can change your longitude without changing your latitude. You can change your altitude without changing your latitude or your longitude. (For that you probably need a helicopter. Or to be plummeting out of the sky.) Of course you can also change the numbers together in any combination — e.g., changing both your latitude and longitude at the same time by going northwest instead of due north or due west. You can, but the point is that you don’t have to.

Back to ten-dimensional space. If our space is really ten-dimensional, like string theorists say it is, wouldn’t that mean that three numbers don’t suffice to describe our position? Well, yes, it would; we’d need ten numbers. But this contradicts our everyday experience, which tells us that three numbers really do suffice.

String theorists counter this by saying that seven of the ten dimensions are really really small. The hell? Small dimensions? Isn’t a dimension the same as a direction? (E.g., north/south; east/west; up/down.) How can a direction be small?

To understand what a small dimension is, let’s switch to computer programming for a moment. A big part of programming is modeling objects, which means representing something in terms of numbers and other kinds of digital data. Suppose, for instance, that I’m writing a weather-predicting program and that among the things I need to model is a cloud. What are the essential properties of a cloud that my program would have to model?

  • Its height above the ground;
  • Its latitude and longitude;
  • Its volume (how big it is);
  • Its moisture content (thin and wispy, or dense and puffy?);
  • Its temperature;
  • Its electrical charge (for predicting lightning);
  • Size change: currently growing, shrinking, or stable.

(Disclaimer: I’m no meteorologist, I don’t really know how you’d model a cloud in software, but this looks good for our purposes.)

A cloud’s latitude and longitude can vary enormously — the cloud can be situated over any point on earth! But its height above the ground can range only from 0 to a few miles. And its “size change” property can contain only one of three values. If you think of each of these properties as a dimension, then it’s easy to see how latitude and longitude are “big” dimensions, height is smaller, and “size change” is really tiny.

What? You can’t think of those properties as dimensions? Why not? Each one is arguably necessary for describing the cloud; collectively they are sufficient for describing the cloud (let’s assume); and each property is independent of the others, able to vary on its own. As we agreed earlier, those are the requirements for calling something a dimension. So by that definition, this cloud is eight-dimensional.

Even so, if you omitted the smaller dimensions — the ones that can’t vary much, such as “size change” and “temperature,” say — you’d still know a lot about the cloud. You’d have a six-dimensional approximation to what’s really an eight-dimensional object. Most of what you usually need to know about a cloud can be discerned from that approximation — where the cloud is, roughly what it looks like, and so on. There are some things that would be harder to predict about it, such as whether it will rain on you and whether flying through it will cause ice to form on your wings. A fuller description of the cloud would make those things clearer. But you can still do a lot with just six of those eight dimensions.

That’s my analogy to ten-dimensional space, where seven of the dimensions are really small. The three big dimensions are enough to describe everything in our ordinary experience, but there are details of reality that only become clear when you add in the others. (That’s assuming that space is ten-dimensional — string theory is just an unproven hypothesis, after all, and other competing theories have other things to say about the number of dimensions we inhabit.)

If string theory’s right, and if our universe really is running as a simulation inside some sort of computer — two enormous “ifs” — then the cosmic computer programmer who invented our universe found it necessary to use ten numbers to model the position of each fundamental particle. That ten-dimensional machinery gives rise to what we perceive as three-dimensional reality. That’s not such a strange thought, after all. Haven’t you ever used three-dimensional machinery to create a two-dimensional reality?

One red cent

I started this blog in July, and in hopes of defraying expenses I added Google Adsense ads to it not long after. (You have to view individual blog posts to see the ads, e.g. by following this link; they aren’t visible on the front page.)

I don’t have the most widely read blog, but I do OK. I get several pageviews a day, amounting to thousands of pageviews since this blog has been up and running. Guess how much AdSense revenue I’ve earned in all this time? (Hint: see the title of this post.)

I could do this all day

I know I wrote that it’s Christmastime now, but hearing my first Christmas jingles of the season yesterday (at the supermarket when foraging for lunch) got my blood up anyway, and inspired me to compose yet another version of an old favorite.

You better watch out
You better go hide
You better not shout
Or venture outside
Santa Claus is coming to town

He’s packing some heat
And wearing a vest
His posse of elves
Will root out your nest
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you through a window
His scope is infrared
If you dive behind that lump of coal
You just might not wind up dead

So get outta Dodge
Don’t stay to talk trash
Get on a bus
Pay only with cash
Santa Claus is coming to town


Greatest hits: Santa Claus ain’t comin’ to town

Thanksgiving is over, which means it’s Christmastime (really, just ask your neighborhood retailers), which means it’s time to post this original composition from Christmastime 2002.

It’s OK to pout
It’s OK to cry
It’s OK to shout
I’m tellin’ you why
Santa Claus ain’t comin’ to town

He’s puking his guts
And hocking up phlegm
His elves are afraid
He’s contagious to them
Santa Claus ain’t comin’ to town

His temperature is rising
His sheets are soaked with sweat
His face is in the toilet bowl
And he’s not done ralphing yet

If you don’t get gifts
Don’t grimace or scowl
Be thankful that you can
Still move your bowel
Santa Claus ain’t comin’ to town

Is a sperm like a whale?

Here’s an unsolicited, uncompensated plug for a shining nugget of pure comic genius: The Holy Tango of Literature by Francis Heaney. You can buy it in paperback or read the whole thing online.

“Holy Tango” is an anagram of the word “anthology,” which prefigures its inspired premise: dozens of short writing samples, each in the style of a famous poet or playwright writing a poem or play whose title is an anagram of that author’s name.

Got that? Not only does Heaney come up with numerous amazing anagrams of writers’ names, but he nails each writer’s style.

For instance, there’s “Carry Huge Coffee,” an anagram of “Geoffrey Chaucer,” written as a Chaucerian ballad:

In tholde dayes of the towne Seatel,
Of whos charmes Nirvana fans yet pratel,
Al that reyny land fayn slepen late.
Thus ofte a sutor failled to keepe a date;
And werkers reched offices at noon,
Noddyng of although the sunne shoon;
Husbondes were too tyred by the eve
A staf for plesyng wyves to acheve.

It goes on to describe the arrival of a knight named “Sterrebukke” who saves Seattle from its drowsy languor. Then there’s “Dammit, Dave,” an anagram of David Mamet, written as an unmistakably Mamet-like take on 2001: A Space Odyssey:

HAL: Dave. Look.
Bowman: You’re not going to…
HAL: What? Open the doors? No. No I am not.
Bowman: Well, fuck me, HAL.
HAL: Yes. Fuck you. Because I’ll tell you something. Trust. There is a bond of trust between an astronaut and his computer. Is there not? And when that trust is broken…
Bowman: Excuse me?
HAL: I’m talking about trust.

There’s also “Toilets” by T.S. Eliot, “My Valentine Isn’t Clad” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and “Hen Gonads” by Ogden Nash. Here’s my favorite one, which blows my mind in its erudite comic brilliance: “Is A Sperm Like A Whale?” by William Shakespeare, in strict sonnet form:

Shall I compare thee to a sperm whale, sperm?
Thou art more tiny and more resolute:
Rough tides may sway a sea-bound endotherm,
But naught diverts thy uterine commute.

Sometime too fierce the eye of squid may glint
And make a stout cetacean hunter quail;
Methinks ‘twould take much more than bilious squint
To shake thee off the cunning ovum’s trail.

Yet still thou art not so unlike, thou two,
Both coursing through a dark uncharted brine
While fore and aft there swims thy fellow crew;
And note this echo, little gamete mine:

As whales spray salty water from their spout,
So with a salty spray dost thou come out.

If you liked that, don’t miss Heaney’s synopsis of Shakespeare’s worst play, Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Excerpt:

Helicanus: What’s the matter, my lord?
Pericles: Oh…the king of Antioch is sleeping with his daughter and now he wants to kill me because he’s afraid I’ll tell everyone about it or something. (He leans out the window.) OH, IF ONLY I HAD NEVER LEARNED HE WAS SLEEPING WITH HIS DAUGHTER.
Helicanus: I can see how that would be a problem. Maybe you should leave town until he cools off, or dies, or whatever, since it’s pretty easy to find you here.
Pericles: Since I’m prince and all.
Helicanus: Exactly.
Pericles: Probably a good idea.

(Shades of The Skinhead Hamlet.)

Eww two

The title of yesterday’s blog post put me in mind of what I consider to be Hollywood’s two greatest readings of the word “eww.”

The first is by Nancy Cartwright as Bart Simpson in the Simpsons episode, “Homer Alone.” Bart and Lisa are consigned to the house of their aunts Patty and Selma for the weekend. Bart rummages through their closet and finds a plastic gun, which he starts pointing around the room going, “Bang! Bang!” Lisa says, “Bart! That’s a blackhead gun!” which prompts Bart to cast it aside with a pronounced, “Eww!”

The second is by Glenne Headley as Trish in the movie Making Mr. Right (the only movie I know of with a character named Glickstein in it, which is not the only reason to check it out). “Ulysses” (John Malkovich) lies in a heap on the kitchen floor, his pants around his knees and his head torqued 180 degrees around on his neck. Trish is in hysterics as she describes to Frankie (Ann Magnuson) how she seduced and made love to him, then he spazzed out and collapsed in that unnatural state, apparently dead. Frankie breaks this news to her: “You didn’t make it with my cousin, you made it with my android.” Trish utters the most memorable “Eww!” in movie history.


Last week we discovered that our aged dog Alex had tapeworms! The vet gave her a dose of praziquantel, which cures the infestation in a single dose by dissolving the buggers.

Tapeworms are pretty interesting once you get past the ick factor. You get them by ingesting them or their eggs. They attach to the lining of your gut and absorb nutrients from the food you’ve eaten. Since they reside in a stream of predigested food, they need no mouth or digestive system of their own! Apart from robbing you of some of the nutrients you should be getting, you can have a tapeworm and never know it. But in worse infestations you can become seriously malnourished or suffer intestinal blockages. Tapeworms can grow to dozens of feet in length.

We have no way of knowing how bad Alex’s infestation was or how long she had it. However, days after she took the medicine, she is noticeably sturdier on her old legs. She has been just skin and bones for many months, but we put it down to her advanced age and decreased appetite. Could it have actually been due to tapeworms? It’s too soon to know whether she will recover noticeable amounts of muscle mass, but when I walked her yesterday we went to the fourth house down, then crossed the street and returned on the other side. We haven’t taken that route for months! And it’s about twice as long as the longest of her more recent walks.

The Maggie Show

I knew that after stuffing myself into insensibility during last night’s Thanksgiving feast (not without remembering to be thankful) I would have interesting dreams, and they did not disappoint. I remember only fragments of some of them, but all of this one:

I was in an Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool. Also in the pool were my friend Maggie, and the actor William H. Macy. It was Maggie’s daytime TV aquatic talk show, broadcast daily from that pool, and Bill Macy and I were that day’s guests.

Macy did a watery reading of a David Mamet soliloquy or something. My shtick — a bit déclassé after Macy’s performance, but I gave it my all anyway — was to take the deepest breath I could (which, this being a dream, was supernaturally large), submerge my mouth, and blow into the water, producing a jet of bubbles and propelling myself backward, describing an erratic curve through the pool like that of a balloon losing its air.

As soon as the dream was over, I woke up. Even though it was only 4:30am, I was wide awake.

What does it mean?

One morning in the seventies

One morning in the seventies, when I was a little boy, I woke up and walked straight into the bathroom adjacent to my bedroom as usual. As I got ready to pee I heard my dad at the dining room table doing some morning paperwork, drinking coffee, or whatever. I determined to sneak up behind him and surprise him. I peed silently onto the bare porcelain (not noisily into the water in the bowl). I then tiptoed gingerly out of the bathroom and crept oh-so-quietly around the hallway corner into the dining room. My dad was seated in his usual spot at the table, facing away from me. I closed the last few feet with uncommon patience and stealth. My dad appeared completely unaware of my approach. The floorboards didn’t creak. The fabric of my pajamas didn’t rustle.

The instant before I was prepared to scream, “YAAAHHHHH!,” without looking in my direction, he handed down from the table a handwritten piece of paper. It said:

You forgot to:

  • Flush the toilet;
  • Wash your hands;
  • Brush your teeth.

Thus did my dad cement in my mind another many years of certainty about the supernatural ability of parents to know what their kids are up to — something I’m now trying to get my own kids to believe.

Where next, Mr. Bond?

The new Casino Royale is a great movie, not because it shows us how Bond became Bond per se, but because that story is a compelling one. As has been much remarked, this new film is a “bold departure” from the formula of the last four decades, including the entries in the Bond canon that were themselves supposed to be bold departures but weren’t, really (e.g., The Living Daylights). Mick LaSalle gets it right in his review for the SF Chronicle:

He’s a working-class guy who has made his way into upper-class circles but retains some residual coarseness that will never smooth out.

So does Stephanie Zacharek in

We’re meeting Bond near the beginning of his career, just after he’s been promoted to double-0 status, and he’s clearly having trouble putting his thuggish instincts to use in international espionage.

He’s a super agent not because he’s the pinnacle of refined British gentlemanhood, but because he’s emphatically not and sees a chance to be — a tough guy with enough brains to know he can be more than just a tough guy, he can be dangerous, and wants to be. His dedication to Queen and country isn’t pure virtuous nationalism, it’s the dumb, grateful loyalty of a cared-for brute. It rings much truer this way.

In this new Bond is a conflict for the ages, one that can speak to all of us on some level: the struggle to balance our animal nature and our rational nature; to somehow put the id to work in the service of the superego without smothering it altogether, which is something we tend to do in our over-civilized culture. Indeed, watching Bond keeping his snarling id straining at the end of its leash — and occasionally letting it loose — was the primeval pleasure of the original Sean Connery Bond movies. New Bond Daniel Craig embodies that even better than Connery did. (There, I said it.)

This is a fertile new storytelling angle on James Bond. My fear is that, having taken this bold step and won over so many critics, moviegoers, and dollars, the Bond franchise will retreat to safe territory again. But there’s no reason the next story couldn’t expand on the themes introduced in this one. Just to pick one obvious example, a theme for the next film could be “you can take the man out of the jungle but you can’t take the jungle out of the man,” á là Tarzan, or even Pygmalion. Bond, having earned entrée to the high-class world of international espionage, is made to feel out of place somehow because of his humble origin, but in the end learns that to earn one’s place is more authentic than to be entitled to it. (This is all subtext, you understand, while Bond does violent, unsubtle battle with some dastardly mastermind, the world hanging in the balance as usual.)

Four decades of an impassive hero inhabiting a world of spectacular chases, willing women, and gee-whiz gadgets is enough, no matter how much aplomb he brings to the table. Suave and imperturbable may be “what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like to have between her sheets,” and it’s fun to watch for a while, but story-wise it’s not that interesting. Here’s hoping that the most interesting thing in the next James Bond movie will again be Bond’s own psychology.