Programming the Universe

Apropos of my Dance of the Universe post, I saw this article in Wired Magazine about a forthcoming book called “Programming the Universe.”

Life, the Universe, and Everything
Seth Lloyd is the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with. Between gulps, the MIT prof will impart the details of how the universe really works. And if you order another, he’ll give you a summary of one of the most mind-boggling ideas emerging in science today. His new book, Programming the Universe, is a plainspoken tale of how the universe is – tell me if you’ve heard this before – one very large quantum computer. – Kevin Kelly

WIRED: I hear you’re a quantum computer repair guy.
LLOYD: Yes, I am a quantum mechanic! Those darn quantum computers break all the time.

You’ve jumped from working on quantum computers to saying, oh, by the way, the universe is a gigantic quantum computer.
When you zap things with light to build quantum computers, you’re hacking existing systems. You’re hijacking the computation that’s already happening in the universe, just like a hacker takes over someone else’s computer.

What is the universe computing when we are not hijacking it for our own purposes?
It computes itself. It computes the flow of orange juice as you drink it, or the position of each atom in your cells.

Um, how many times have you seen The Matrix?
Sadly, only once. In The Matrix, what you see is fake – a simulation of bits – which is only a facade of what is real beneath it. But our universe is a simulation so exact that it is indistinguishable from the real thing. Our universe is one big honking quantum mech anical computer.

When did you first start having these visions?
It’s not a new idea, or my idea. The notion that the universe is a computer is as old as Isaac Asimov’s story The Last Question in the ’50s and work by computer scientists Ed Fredkin and Konrad Zuse in the ’60s.

How do you explain Programming to your kids?
I tell them that it says everything in the universe is made of bits. Not chunks of stuff, but chunks of information – ones and zeros.

Do they believe you?
My daughter Zoey says, “No, Daddy, everything is made of atoms, except for light.” So I tell her, “Yes, Zoey, but those atoms are also information. You can think of atoms as carrying bits of information, or you can think of bits of information as carrying atoms. You can’t separate the two.”

I’ve just put on your magic glasses, and looking around I see that, oh my gosh, everything is computing. Is this just fashionable?
Computers are our favorite metaphor at the moment, so maybe we see everything as com puters. But this view is not that facile. Statistical mechanics, which underlies all chemistry, grew out of the realization that the world is information. The mathematical definition of a bit was first postulated not during the 1930s and ’40s when Claude Shannon and Norbert Weiner started information theory but by James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann during their 19th- century explorations of the nature of the atom. They were working on thermo dynamics, but they discovered that the world was made of information.

Would it be fair to say the universe is a mind?
You could use that metaphor. And if you did, then you and I and my cat are its thoughts. But the vast majority of the universe’s thinking is about humble vibrations and collisions of atoms.

You seem to be saying that the concept of the universe as one huge quantum computer is not just a metaphor – it’s real.
Absolutely. Atoms and electrons are bits. Atomic collisions are “ops.” Machine language is the laws of physics. The universe is a quantum computer.

Where is this all headed?
Some folks think life and technology and mind can keep expanding forever. Others say it can’t. We are still not clear on that.

Is there anything we can be clear on?
If I have one new message to convey in my book, it’s that the universe is a system where the very specific details and structures in it are created when quantum bits de-cohere – choose one path out of multiple possibilities – and that this process is identical to quantum computation. That is what I mean by programming the universe.


“Programming the Universe : A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos” (Seth Lloyd)

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Managing Stress With Your Breath

Working with your breath is an important way to affect your mental state. It’s easy too, since you always have your breath with you.

I have been using this highly effective technique since I read Dr. Andrew Weil’s, “8 Weeks to Optimum Health”. I recommend getting the book too, as it has a wide range of practical and insightful tips that I have used to improve my life.

From Dr. Andrew Weil’s site:

Unhealthy stress can wreak havoc on your body and mind. One effective way to help manage stress levels is through breath work, especially through a breathing exercise known as the relaxing breath. This exercise is simple, takes almost no time, requires no special equipment, and can be done anywhere. Start by sitting with your back straight. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
  • This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

Note that you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and begin inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.

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Meditation Timer

When I started meditating it was often difficult to know when to end. I didn’t want to have to be worrying about the time. When I’d set an alarm of some sort it was often jarring and unpleasant.
Gong
So I searched for a nicer way to signal the end of the meditation and found that the sound of a bell worked nicely, and I got one on MP3.

Then I was able to set up a playlist with an appropriate amount of silence for the mediation, and then the gong would ring.

For example, I set up the following if I wanted to meditate for 20 minutes:

  1. 30 Seconds of silence
  2. gong sound
  3. 5 minutes silence
  4. 5 minutes silence
  5. 5 minutes silence
  6. 5 minutes silence
  7. gong sound

This way I got a little bit of time to get settled, then a gong to start off with. Then 20 minutes of silence, then a gong to end with. I used a file of 5 minutes of silence so that I could set up different playlists for different lengths of time.

This worked very well, and could be adapted for use on a CD, if you wanted to. That is, just burn a CD with the appropriate tracks of gong or silence depending on how long you want your mediation to be.

I have a Palm Pilot that can play MP3s and has a speaker, so I just set up playlists like above and used them to time my meditations. (Nowadays, I found a great alarm program, Palmary Clock, that has a timer that can use an MP3 as the alarm sound, so I use that with my gong sound.)

Since I’ve heard that people are looking for a tool like this, I’m posting the gong sound I use and the tracks of silence in various lengths for you to download and use as you wish. I’ve included two different gong sounds. The first has the little “tap” before the striking of the gong, which I prefer. The second is just a gong sound.

Mindfulness Bell
Meditation Gong
Silence – 1 Minute
Silence – 5 Minutes
Silence-30 Seconds

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The Intense Attention of Mindfulness

I just finished a great book, “The Curse of Chalion”, that was not only a great read in the “speculative fiction” (fantasy) genre, but had a lot of bonus spiritual insights. The following quote is one of those.

Cazaril’s attention was arrested by a pebble that lay on the pavement near his knee. It was so dense. So persistent. The gods could not lift so much as a feather, but he, a mere human, might pick up this ancient unchanging object and place it wherever he wished, even into his pocket. He wondered why he had never apprecaiated the stubborn fidelity of matter. A dried leaf lay nearby, even more stunning in its complexity. Matter invented so many forms, and then went on to generate beauty beyond itself, minds and souls rising up out of it like melody from an instrument … matter was an amazement to the gods. Matter remembered itself so very clearly. He could not think why he had failed to notice it before. His own shaking hand was a miracle, as was the fine metal sword in his belly, and the orange trees in the tubs–one was tipped over now, wonderfully fractured and spilling–and the tubs, and the birdsong starting in the morning, and the water–water! Five gods, water!–in the fountain, and the morning light filtering into the sky…

Cazaril ignored it all, taken up with his pebble again. He wondered where it had come from, how it had arrived there. What it had been before it was a pebble. A rock? A mountain? Where? For how many years? It filled his mind. And if a pebble could fill his mind, what might a mountain do? The gods held mountains in their minds, and all else besides, all at once. Everything, with the same attention he gave to one thing. He had seen that, through the Lady’s eyes. If it had endured for longer than that infinitesimal blink, he thought his soul would have burst. As it was he felt strangely stretched. Had that glimpse been a gift or just a careless chance?

This, to me, is a wonderful description of what “mindfulness” is supposed to be. Being intensely aware of a single thing, and not just of the thing, but of where it came from, what it affects … where does this one thing fit into the great web of interbeing? In meditation this is one of the reasons you might concentrate on your breath. It’s not just to feel yourself breathing, but to be intensely aware of the air moving in and out of your body. There are meditative exercises that make it feel like the universe is breathing you, instead of you breathing the air (and of course that might be how it works ;)). When you do walking meditation, you relate to the earth beneath your feet in a much different way that you do when you are walking normally.

Of course, formal meditation is just the practice so that we can learn to live each moment that way, not just while on the cushion. We also practice so we can extend our awareness beyond the breath and beyond a single thing, on to all things.

Mindfulness of this sort reminds us that every thing, and every moment, is a miracle. Endeavor to take nothing for granted.


“The Curse of Chalion” (Lois McMaster Bujold)

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What’s Your Reason?

We all do things because we’ve always done them that way. Or maybe because that’s the way our parents did it when we were growing up. Seth Godin, on his blog, posted about some things we do today that are relics of some reason that’s now obsolete.

This reminds me of one of my favorite “make you think” stories:

A newly-wed couple was making their first dinner of roast beef together. The wife proceeded to take the roast and cut off one end before she put it into the oven. She wrapped the extra piece up and put it in the fridge. The husband asked why?

She said she didn’t know but that she’d always done it that way because her mother did it that way. The husband says, “that’s crazy, why would you cut off a perfectly good piece of meat and not cook it? Let’s call your mother and ask.”

So they call the wife’s mother. She says, “I don’t know why we cut the end of the roast off. I’ve always done it that way, because my mother always did it that way.”

So they call the wife’s grandmother. She says, “I don’t know why we cut the end of the roast off. I’ve always done it that way, because my mother always did it that way.”

Luckily, the wife’s great-grandmother is still alive. They call her in the nursing home and ask why, for generations, these families have cut the end of the roast beef off before cooking it. She says, “that’s simple. When I was cooking roasts, I didn’t have a big enough pan, so I cut off part of the roast so it would fit.”

One of the goals of mindfulness is to “look deeply” at everything. That includes looking at the reasons you do things. Next time you’re doing something (anything! everything!), look deeply at why you’re doing it, or why you are doing it in that way. You might just discover that you’re being controlled by people and justifications long gone. Make sure you have a reason for everything you do. Do you like those reasons?

Another Worthwhile blog: The Lazy Way to Success

I had a moment to catch up on some blog reading recently. One of the blogs that I subscribed to a while ago, but left unread was The Lazy way to Success. After catching up on his last 6 or 8 posts, I see that It’s a worthwhile read, so will read it regularly now. I don’t have time to comment on any of his individual posts right now, but I think you’ll find it a worthwhile read, so I’m putting it in my “Worthwhile Blogs” list (which you’ll find on the left side of my blog’s homepage)

The Dance of the Universe

Here’s testament to being able to find inspiration in unlikely places. I was listening to the Bob Edwards Show on a podcast (via Audible) and heard him talking with the author of a book called “Last Dance in Havana”

The author read an excerpt of the book that struck me as a description of how the universe might work. Perhaps we’re all a part of some greater action, some large-scale existence that we cannot possibly grasp or even know about, but still we’re an integral part of it. And more, each of our actions and non-actions are connected to everyone else and are a necessary part of the whole. Nothing is unimportant, everything matters and affects everything else. As Dan Millman says, “there are no ordinary moments.”

It’s not unlike how our own bodies work. Each cell has its own existence, it’s own job. But none of the individual cells has any idea of the larger concept: that it is part of a working whole we call the body. It takes all of the cells, working together, to create our body and our existence. Like that, maybe, our individual existences, along with the existence of everything else is creating something…

This notion was even mentioned, albeit tongue-in-cheek in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the earth, and all of its inhabitants, is essentially a big computer. And it’s very much contained in Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of Interbeing.

But if we cannot conceive of that which we contribute to, how does this have any effect on us? For me, it has these implications, which I try to put into practice:

  • Everything I do is important. Every moment is significant. There are no ordinary moments. Therefore, be mindful of every moment.
  • The roles we play are important to the larger whole. Therefore I should fill that role to the best of my ability.
  • Nothing I do is so significant that everything depends on it, nor is anything I do so insignificant that I should discount it. Therefore, I try not to be devastated when things seem to go wrong, nor do I become bored when I seem to be doing the “same old thing”, neither do I think myself so important when I have achieved something — just enjoy being a part of the interplay, whatever happens.
  • Everything is connected to everything else in some subtle, and not so subtle ways. Therefore, look deeply to see those connections, however slight: How is something that I’m doing now going to affect my family, my neighbor, someone half the world away, someone 100 years from now, etc.
  • We only exist for, and because of, our connection to other things (people, animals, plants, minerals … everything!). Therefore, seek to understand those connections and strengthen them.

Of course the book had nothing to do with any of this, but almost as proof of this concept it was in there. Here’s the excerpt:

Across the extent of this huge space, filling it to capacity and beyond, couples were dancing. But dancing does not begin to tell what they were doing. They were whipping, They were twirling. They were circling, diving beneath locked arms, embracing. They were bumping, grinding, releasing, spinning, caressing, all but making love. They were doing all those things in a dense crowd, somehow coordinating their moves so that whenever a man swung his partner toward a given point on the floor, the man or woman in the neighboring couple who was occupying that space somehow moved out of the way just in time, gracefully shifting into another space that a millisecond earlier had likewise been magically vacated.

At first it looked to me as if some higher intelligence were guiding the movements of each of these hundreds of people. But then, as I continued to watch, another metaphor took over. This was an exercise in massively parallel computation. Many minds, each solving its own bit of an otherwise unsolvable problem. No one genius could have attended to so many vital details so perfectly. This group movement was decentralized but coordinated, almost like flocking or schooling but not at all instinctive, not in the least bit unconscious. It was brilliantly human, and clever, both spontaneous and purposeful, and it was one of the most stirring and beautiful sights I have ever seen.


“Last Dance in Havana” (Eugene Robinson)