@Ramnath R Iyer
Planes of Existence
4-minute read

What does ‘nothing’ look like? Cosmologists are grappling with the question of how everything began, but the comprehension of nothingness is a more personal quest. To comprehend is to encode an idea, a metaphysical object, into bits in the physical world, circuits in your brain. There is, apparently, a natural division in the world between the realm of physical structures that can encode bits, and the realm of meaning that an observer may ascribe to these bits. Comprehension, or understanding, is behavior that falls squarely on the latter side; it is subjective, contestable, murky — something that is given rather than taken.

There is another way to describe the world though, and that is in the way of emergent phenomena. If you start with nothing along with a set of natural rules of transformation, what do you end up with? For instance, we know there is a natural ebb and flow of complexity, through an idea we know of best in the context of natural selection. Elementary particles don’t remain elementary, they congeal to create complex structures carried forward in a definite direction, though not always with metaphorical escape velocity.

This raises the interesting question of whether there are other such phenomena with emergent complexity, and if the very idea of abstraction is one of them. Consider the idea of ‘nothing’ once again. Before we had the decimal system with zero playing a pivotal role, nothing was simply…nothing. It had no representation, because — aren’t we talking about nothing? But then we realized that the concept itself was a thing and could be represented. With that, we developed an encoding — a comprehension — of the concept of nothing and could begin to reason about it. What if we had nothing, we asked, what follows then?

Now this brings us to the concept of levels or planes. Since the time of Bertrand Russell, we have known how self-referential systems are inconsistent and lead to paradox (“Does the barber who shaves everyone who can’t shave himself, shave himself?”). Our physical universe, in all its constructivist glory, does not tolerate paradox. Here, we have real things that begin to interact with other real things in a strictly sequential manner, bounded by the speed of information transmission (c = 299,792,458 m/s). Sure, feedback loops abound and spacetime may stretch or compress, but from the moment an electron-positron pair emerges from a burst of energy, we know the sequence in which the movie runs (even if we don’t know all the scenes to expect). This then, is the usual resolution to Russell’s paradox: the introduction of levels and jumping up a level any time a construction is about to lead to paradox. And thus, the jump from nothing to zero may be viewed as the addition of a level. In the same way, the extension of natural to negative numbers, and real to complex numbers, may be seen as another set of jumps.

Some people get carried away with the idea that this abstract world of concepts could be separated out and have a life of its own, independent of any physical reality. There is no basis in truth for this idea, and I reject it completely. But in a practical sense, each of us does inhabit a plane of existence at every point in our lives, and it isn’t the purely physical one. Rather, we may think of our existence as stretching our minds across these planes, bouncing back and forth. Intelligence, as we understand it, is arguably a measure of how much we can stretch, and how nimble we are at choosing to live in the plane that gives us the most utility at any given point in time.

Working Out Working Out
4-minute read

At the start of the year, I decided that I would spend more effort on staying healthy. This, in my view, translated to the combination of “eating well” and “working out”. Of course, this wasn’t my first time thinking about personal health. I was keenly aware of good health being a prerequisite for psychologically feeling good about oneself. And by “good health”, I don’t just mean “not being sick”, but feeling strong and powerful. Physical strength is a key contributor to mental strength and motivation.

During early 2021 amid the COVID pandemic, I’d had success for over three months committing to a 30-minute daily rowing workout at home. My approach this time around was different from past attempts in a few ways. First, I decided to obsess over metrics that I wanted to improve over time. This motivated me to purchase a Smart Scale capable of measuring body fat percentage (a quantity that represents the combination of subcutaneous fat and visceral fat in the body, separate from bone and muscle weight). I’ve been delighted by this purchase not just because it helped me better understand and closely track body fat, but also because it motivated me to make another tweak to my approach, which was to set a goal against these metrics.

The wonderful thing about setting a goal you examine daily is that you start to see and understand the details at work, with all its intricate machinery that you had previously glossed over. I became curious about how what I ate influenced the metrics the next day, and I realized that it wasn’t just what I ate, but when I ate that seemed to make a difference. I started to see the effects of sleep (and lack thereof) on the metrics and began to track macronutrient content in my diet along the way. The combination of a clear goal and ongoing measurement has made me see the whole exercise as a sort of continuous process with causal influences from the tradeoffs I happened to make the previous day.

So, the first lesson from this episode that I would share with you is that if success matters to you, start by identifying the metrics you care about, and setting a goal that you would like to achieve. A goal examined carefully daily is the gateway to curiosity, understanding, and eventual success. Who knows, you might even discover that what you really care about is something different from what you had originally assumed.

The second lesson from this episode is more tactical, but nevertheless important: treat your body’s health as a dynamic process with cause-and-effect being open to daily inspection. Here are my observations on the matter:

Body Weight = Fat + Muscle + Bone + …

To a first approximation, you probably care about body composition, not your weight in isolation. A healthy individual may have the same weight as a less healthy individual if they have a different body composition (other factors remaining the same).

Weight Gained = Calories Ingested – Calories Transformed

It remains a simple fact that anything you eat gets converted into either fat or muscle or gets burnt up as fuel for activity. You must work within this constraint. Muscle weighs more than fat, but it also increases your metabolic rate, transforming ingested calories faster.

Fasting Slows Down Metabolism

Fasting may end up being ineffective as it slows down your base metabolic rate (that’s your body protecting itself from starvation). Though your calorie intake may need to be reduced to create a deficit, you also need to ensure you’re eating small portions or snacks regularly, not starving yourself.

Strength Training Is Required

If you run on a calorie-deficit, you begin to lose weight. Except — you will lose muscle before you lose fat, making you weaker, lowering your base metabolic rate, and making it harder to keep up energy levels. Strength training (lifting weights etc.) therefore needs to be a critical part of your routine. What this does is break down muscles and signal your body to build more.

Diet Composition: Protein >> Fat >> Carbohydrates

Proteins, as a source of energy, burn slower and last longer, plus they have a harder time getting transformed into fat. Simple carbohydrates like glucose are on the other end of the spectrum. A protein-rich diet not only helps keep your body satisfied longer, but it is also essential for muscle growth, whereas carbohydrate-rich and starchy food are best had prior to workouts as quick fuel.

Is the Universe Infinite?
4-minute read

Traditionally when it comes to clickbait articles, it is common to frame the headline as a provocative question whose answer, all said and done, is “Nope, nothing to see here!” Happily, this article is not clickbait, and the answer to the titular question is most likely “Yes!”

The question of whether the Universe is finite or not is an interesting one, because despite there being only two possibilities, neither answer really seems satisfactory. When I was a kid, I used to wonder: (a) if the Universe is infinite, how could it possibly go on forever? (b) if the Universe is finite, what happens at the edge? Today, while I can make the question sound smarter with physics jargon thrown in (like “spacetime”), the essential point remains the same and the question is still open.

So here’s a fundamental problem: science ultimately relies on experiment to validate its hypotheses; with the acceptance of Einstein’s theories of relativity, we now know that the “observable” universe is about 93 billion light years across, and anything outside this bubble is beyond our reach forever (and in fact, cannot influence events in our part of the Universe at all). So from an experimental standpoint, we’re stuck, and may need to take a more Aristotlean approach to the problem. (Aristotle famously believed that women had fewer teeth than men…and didn’t bother to check.) So if we started from first principles and simple logic, should the Universe be finite or infinite?

In modern times, the question of whether spacetime is finite or not can be answered with an excellent trick. Let’s assume that there are only a hundred billion galaxies in all. Is spacetime finite or infinite? Answer: it is both, in a manner of speaking. Yes, it is finite, but no, you will never reach the edge. Consider the analogy of the surface of the Earth - the surface is finite but you can keep walking around forever (or until you drop). Now extend this analogy to spacetime as a whole. Can’t visualize it? Sorry, that’s the way it goes.

But are there a hundred billion galaxies in all, or more, or…even more? No one knows, but, we can switch our perspective to consider time instead. If the Universe has existed forever, and has been creating galaxies all along, there must be an infinite amount of stuff lying around. So has the Universe been around forever? Here, we may be tempted to seek out one of the many philosophies that claim that time is cyclic, and that if you go back to the distant past you end up in the future. Roger Penrose has a far more scientific-sounding but no less mystic version of this philosophy posited as a hypothesis. But there is a simpler version of this idea: certain conditions are conducive to the creation of fields, that evolve relative to other fields, and we perceive these fields as quantized packets under the right observational conditions. The relative evolution generates the notion of time we understand on a day-to-day basis, so you can think of time as a “local” concept. Meanwhile, there is a sense in which all of this has been happening “forever”, where “forever” is not in terms of the conventional and local notion of time mentioned earlier. And so the bottomline is, we have stuff being created on a continual basis (assuming, reasonably so, that the Big Bang is not a once-in-a-Universe event), and that implies there cannot be a beginning or end to this process. And this, finally, leaves us with an infinite amount of stuff, and an infinite Universe.

Happy New Year
1-minute read

Happy New Year! 2024 is finally here, making its slowly way around the globe.

My hypothesis is that people like beginnings and endings, something that each New Year signifies. Beginnings, because it is an opportunity to start afresh. Endings, because it is a chance to declare “Good riddance to bad rubbish!”

Speaking of chance, a “New Year” is an overly predictable event, and it would be fun to add a bit of random chance to it, somewhat like a Powerball lottery. That is, we draw random numbers every day with ever decreasing chances of picking the winning number. When we do pick the winning number, we declare it to be the start of a new year. Until then we keep playing, and everyone remains on the edge of their seats.

Losing the Way
3-minute read

Losing your way is far more common than seems fair in life. One moment you’re trudging along happily, the world seems organized, you have goals — a purpose that seems legit — and then bam! everything goes haywire and nothing makes sense anymore. Why am I here, and what should I do next, you wonder. This is, of course, true both on a literal level when you’re walking along a road and take a wrong turn, as well as on a metaphorical level when you wake up some day at 2am. In all cases, you can easily see (in retrospect) that it’s all just a matter of perspective. Perhaps it’s also specifically the distortion of perspective that you once had, and are forced to look up in your records, re-evaluate, or even reconstruct from first principles.

Sense-making, or the act of bestowing subjective and actionable meaning upon the world around us, is a very human endeavor. Perhaps intelligent species like mice and dolphins do this as well (I reject the human-centric view in general), but it correlates with the degree of agency that you feel with respect to the actions that you take. It’s like you’re driving your car on a road trip with your itinerary mapped out, and suddenly realize you’ve forgotten where you’re heading. Or some volcano erupts and you’re forced to drive down an evacuation route.

The meaning we bestow on the world is influenced by the vision we create for ourselves. One person looks at a computer and sees it as a tool to pay his bills. When I look at a computer I see it as a portal for reaching in and crafting a vast system within the abstract world of software. Somewhere along the way we created a directionality to our lives that influences the way we perceive everything around us. A vision speaks to the final destination (with the caveat that nothing is ever final), and clarity of vision means that we’ve rationalized our heading and know when to course correct. And all that sounds great, except that in reality there’s a dense smoky fog around you, the smoke makes you sputter, you keep tripping and falling along the way, and the oasis you saw in the distance was just a mirage.

I recently finished reading Arnold Schwarz­enegger’s audiobook “Be Usefulon Spotify. One point that struck me was it is likely the case that we create the seeds of our visions early in life. And then, we take that seed and nurture it into something with greater definition. This, in turn, suggests that we already kinda sorta know what our vision is, and just have to work on refining it. And it gives me hope, for it suggests that we don’t ever really lose our way, we just need to rediscover and refine it from time to time. This is a process, not a catastrophe. After all, if something is “lost” and later found, was it ever lost in the first place?