Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Enrollment Cliff

In 2007-2008 the sub-prime mortgage debacle led to the Great Recession, which in turn led to a drop in the birth rate. Fourteen years later, the Denver Colorado public school board is debating whether to close ten schools in the city/county due to low enrollment (and reduced tax income). Jefferson County Colorado (where I live) is having similar discussions. As you might guess, this is controversial with parents.

A week ago I read this in Vox


which I'm now seeing referenced other places: colleges and universities are facing a similar "enrollment cliff", not just due to the birth rate, but from high school students selecting career paths other than college.

Pursuing a career path that does not include a college degree is a decision which I do not disagree - not every career requires a college degree, contrary to popular opinion (mostly from college marketing departments). And some extraordinary individuals can get all the training and knowledge they need through rigorous self-directed learning, even in technology fields like mine. (It's been my privilege to work with a few terrific folks like this.) But they are the exception, not the rule. Not every person has that skill set.

(I am deeply cynical however of major tech giants telling high school students that they do not need a college degree to work in the tech field, merely a certificate from specialized training. This is in not untrue. But they omit the words "perhaps for a while, and maybe at a lower salary". I wonder if the long term effect of this will be to encourage unionization in the tech field. [I don't object to this, either.])

Why do I care? For years I've been on an advisory board for the computer science department at my alma mater, so am aware of the impacts of not just enrollment but - to be honest - fads in the technology fields have on academia. And I'm watching this traveling wave of change move through the elementary and high schools, to the colleges and universities, and finally to employers.

I put my money where my mouth is on both sides of this: some years ago I endowed a modest scholarship at my alma mater in honor of my mentor and thesis advisor, the late great Bob Dixon, and I annually donate to support a lab at my alma mater that provides facilities and tools for students to do their own projects for self-directed learning (basically a makerspace supported by the computer science department).

I've also made it pretty obvious where I stand on continuous self-directed learning, by constantly doing technology projects of my own, having over thirty open-source software repositories on GitHub, and writing about all of it in this blog since 2006.

An old friend, university classmate, former fellow university employee, and one-time flat-mate of mine remarked recently that colleges are part of a free-market and are going to have to learn cost control. I agree. Although I'm concerned as much with the second order effects of this wave on our society as I am with the effects on, for example, my alma mater.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Time Police Play Hardball

Alain Aspect, John Clauser and Anton Zeilinger won the Nobel Prize for Physics this year for their groundbreaking experiments in the field of quantum physics that verified Bell's Theorem.

One of the more unsettling discoveries in the past half century is that the universe is not locally real. “Real,” meaning that objects have definite properties independent of observation—an apple can be red even when no one is looking; “local” means objects can only be influenced by their surroundings, and that any influence cannot travel faster than light. Investigations at the frontiers of quantum physics have found that these things cannot both be true. Instead, the evidence shows objects are not influenced solely by their surroundings and they may also lack definite properties prior to measurement. As Albert Einstein famously bemoaned to a friend, “Do you really believe the moon is not there when you are not looking at it?”


Blame for this achievement has now been laid squarely on the shoulders of three physicists: John Clauser, Alain Aspect and Anton Zeilinger. They equally split the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics “for experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science.” (“Bell inequalities” refers to the pioneering work of the Northern Irish physicist John Stewart Bell, who laid the foundations for this year’s Physics Nobel in the early 1960s.) 
[D. Garisto, "The Universe Is Not Locally Real, and the Physics Nobel Prize Winners Proved It", Scientific American, 2022-10-06]


It might occur to you to watch a 'Tube video or two, or read a popsci article on this work (like the one from Scientific American above). I've done this, with a dilettante's interest in the matter. I urge you to be cautious, and show restraint. I'm not entirely joking.

I've been reading and watching material on this very topic for years now. And I find it deeply troubling. As did Albert Einstein and his colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen (who were far far smarter than I've ever been) when they wrote their now-famous paper on the "EPR Paradox". They basically argued "the universe cannot work this way".

But alas, the results of actual experiments performed by these Nobel laureates (and which, remarkably, you can duplicate some of which just using three linear polarizing camera lens filters, which I've done) prove that indeed the universe is not "locally real". As John Stewart Bell (who died before winning a well deserved Nobel himself) showed, quantum physics implies that one of two things must be true: either things can interact in a non-local manner (exchanging information faster than the speed of light), or objects do not have intrinsic physical qualities (even basic stuff, like color or mass) until we measure them.

Regarding non-local behavior: I remind my fellow science fiction fans that non-local behavior does not imply that we can use it for faster than light (FTL) communication. There is no way to modulate the effect to carry data. And you really do not want FTL, since its implications for our perception of reality - regarding our ability to distinguish between cause and effect - are even more dire, an issue which becomes obvious after a little reading about Special Relativity.

Regarding the measurement issue: the idea that "objects do not have intrinsic physical qualities until we measure them" sounds suspiciously like "as an optimization, reality isn't rendered until it comes into the viewpoint of a character in the game".

This is a lot more disturbing than it might first appear. One of the possible explanations (not the only one, but perhaps the simplest one) is "superdeterminism", in which the future is every bit as fixed as the past. I've heard several physicists - both quantum physicists and cosmologists, for different reasons - say "there's no such thing as free will; get over it".

My favorite quantum physicist and science explainer, Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder, brought this topic up in her blog/vlog just recently.

Many headlines promptly claimed that this means spooky action is real. But this is not correct. Rather, the experiments showed that you either have to stick with quantum mechanics and accept spooky action, or you reject spooky action and accept superdeterminism. Which is why I keep saying we need experiments to test superdeterminism.
[S. Hossenfelder, "Science News Oct 12", Backreaction, 2022-10-12]


The phrase "spooky action" here refers to Einstein's description of non-local behavior - specifically the collapse of the wave function upon observation, not quantum entanglement - as "spooky action at a distance", an effect that directly contradicts his own Special Theory of Relativity (which has been experimentally verified countless times, in fact, every time you use a GPS receiver). I look forward to reading about the design of an experiment for superdeterminism.

But such an experiment might incur sanctions from the Time Variance Authority (TVA). Last night Mrs. Overclock and I started watching the MCU series Loki, streaming on Disney+. It's fun, and funny, and of course Tom Hiddleston (as the Norse God of Mischief) and Owen Wilson (as a TVA agent) are terrific. But the best part of it is that it basically posits superdeterminism in the form of a "Sacred Time Line". It features the TVA, a time-police bureaucracy, that insures that everyone conforms to it. TVA operatives can "reset" (their term) the time line back to before it was disrupted, and "prune" (ditto) alternate history branches off of the time line. These actions typically cause time line violators to cease to exist. Or, indeed, to not ever have existed. (Or do they?)

The funny thing about "no free will" is that I'm still happier if I live my life - trying to be a good a person as I can be - as if I had free will. It's a strategy I suggest for everyone.

(Slightly revised on 2022-10-24 for clarity.)

Friday, August 19, 2022

Playing with a RISC-V SBC running Linux

Recently I began playing with a VisionFive RISC-V-based Single Board Computer (SBC). It was designed by StarFive. I purchased it from ameriDroid.

StarFive VisionFive 2-core RISC-V SBC "boron"

RISC-V is a relatively new processor architecture, developed by a team at UC Berkeley, that is entirely open source, unlike Intel and ARM processors. This is the first RISC-V board I know of that is designed to run Linux (in this case, based on the Fedora distribution). It has two 64-bit 1GHz SiFive U74 CPU cores and eight gigabytes of RAM.

"boron" is my code name for this project. (Every project gets a code name.) I added the nylon feet to hold the board up off the anti-static mat on my workbench. I started out with a keyboard, mouse, and HDMI display attached to the board, but since it supported SSH right out of the box, I quickly reverted to using the command line to build and test my SW, my preferred approach. Also, it reduces the cable clutter on my workbench, which is supporting another project at the moment.

The two projects of mine that I use the most, Diminuto (a C systems-programming library) and Hazer (a GNSS toolkit), were unusually easy to clone, build, and run; unlike most other Linux distros, I didn't have to install any optional packages (much to my surprise). I have successfully completed running all the unit tests for both projects, and am now moving on to functional testing and practical use.

Since my work tends not to be very CPU intensive, I haven't run any performance tests. I'll probably leave that to someone else. I was more worried about SW functionality. But note that this board is more expensive, and and its processor slower, than the ARM-based Raspberry Pi 4 SBCs I use these days.

But the ARM processor design, and the BroadCom implementation of it, on the Pi is closed, and I appreciated the chance to try my stuff out on the open RISC-V, after having read so much about it over the past few years.

Update: 2022-08-20

Just to provide some evidence that I have non-trivial stuff running on the VisionFive, here's a screen snapshot of gpstool running on the board.

Screen Shot 2022-08-19 at 16.22.19

gpstool is the Swiss Army knife of the Hazer toolkit, which is built on top of Diminuto. Here, it's processing input in real-time from a GlobalSat BU-353W10 GNSS receiver. The receiver, a USB dongle, is based on the widely used U-blox UBX-M8030 module.