Programming the Universe [Book Review]

I noticed that while I’m at work, I tend to get disappointed whenever I see a PowerPoint slide without a picture. There’s something magical about being able to connect a theory, statement, or an idea to a visual symbol. And my laziness to actually take pictures of my books at memorable sections has been in stark contrast to my preferences. This is something that I want to fix from now. Hopefully, I’ll also take photos of my books before I throw their “protective coverings” away (like in the book below).

But I found out that I can skip a few steps using the WordPress App. I can take a picture on my phone and upload it to my website, skipping a few steps along the way. Thank you website!

Well, on to the actual book review: Programming the Universe.


The title does state most of what you would find within the book. It’s not necessarily about actually programming the universe (surprise), but the methodology in which one COULD simulate physics, life, and the underlying forces of nature.


That’s the easy answer, though. The book goes deep into the idea of what information is, how to define it at the quantum level, and how quantum information can be used for unique computational methods (possibly being able to outperform conventional computers in the future). An actual summary the book in two words: “Quantum Computing.” That’s the short answer that may need some explanation (hence the book review).

If you are vaguely familiar with quantum mechanics, you have probably heard a bunch of weird quotes, which are theoretically true. I could walk through the wall because a small part of me exists on the other side. A bouncing ball in your hand could pop out of existence and reappear nearby. The reasoning behind these thought experiments is that, deep down, everything exists as a “wave.” The smaller the unit, the larger an area its wave-like nature is in size. This wave, in theory, is “the probably of where that item’s existence is at any specific moment.”

Electrons are funny “particles,” if that’s an accurate way to state them. If given multiple paths to travel, it will take them all at the same time [The same thing goes for photons, atoms, etc.]  Unless it decides to interact with something else, it stays like a wave until doing so. But when it does, all the energy in a wave “collapses” on a very specific location (which is pseudo-randomly chosen based the shape of it’s wave). That’s why we got pixels on old CRT TVs (remember those bulky displays?). The electron beam didn’t make a broad splash but typically hit a phosphor screen at a specified spot.

It’s also the reason why electrons exist in orbitals around the atom, instead of falling straight towards the positive nucleus like a meteor in the night sky. The wave “wraps” around the nucleus with a minimal energy level looking like a marble. Excited levels of the electron wave look like ripples in water; the more excited the particle is, the choppier the water appears.

The main line is that individual quantum objects, or qubits, (electrons and atoms included) act as waves until we “disturb” them. The neat thing about waves is that we can add multiple types of waves on top of each other, a term called “superposition” in quantum mechanics. Just like multiple notes played on a piano, multiple waves can exist in a single qubit (quantum bit), and they can be used for computations simultaneously.

The quantum computer, in theory, involves taking a bunch of qubits (particles or otherwise) and exciting them with their initial superposition of initial quantum states (lasers or Electromagnetic fields). Then these qubits will interact with each other and over a brief time will “collapse” into the final answer when “measured.” …..I think……

Unfortunately, the author Seth Lloyd, doesn’t relay many of the technical details on HOW to build a quantum computer (I mean, he helped build one). There’s a decent amount of theory involving the types of waves that can be used. This included atomic nuclear spins, electron excitation levels, and currents in superconducting rings. There’s a little bit of talk on interactions between lasers and atoms. However, this entire section only takes up 21 pages. And for a 200+ page document about quantum computing, wouldn’t you think it would be a larger chunk of the literature?

For example, there’s one page that talks about superconducting loops: Josephson junctions. I would have probably just skimmed this section, but I recently learned about them by browsing my Modern Physics textbook a few weeks ago. In superconductors, there’s a phenomenon call Cooper pairs (not mentioned), where the electrons all interact with each other in-sync and result in a single “wave” of electrons. Being a wave, the electron flow can go both clockwise AND counterclockwise simultaneously (which is briefly mentioned). By applying a magnetic field, the electrons can start to “spin” as desired (zero resistance means an indefinite flow of current without a voltage drop in the loop) within the circle and can the final results can be measured using an applied voltage (also not mentioned). In a nutshell, the book basically says that it was difficult to prove these devices initially, and then it was possible…… I mean, c’mon!

Being a quantum physicist in the mechanical engineering department at MIT, the author’s writing (and possibly most of his works) also seem to be more philosophical rather than technical. The first 100 pages (which doesn’t even touch the topic of quantum physics yet), is more of a pursuit of the terminology of bits, information, and the energy tied to the computation of data. There’s also an entire chapter in the back of the book on the topic of defining complexity (he currently has 30+ different measures of it)……

But seriously, I was definitely looking towards obtaining more technical information on this potential future technology. Not on how the universe is going to die, and on how we could live forever as a supreme being as large as the universe, fed off the scarce potential energy at the expanding edges of the universe and slow our internal processing down to the point where internal thoughts would take decades to compute……….. And that’s the last chapter?

As you can tell, I’m not really thrilled about this book. I fell asleep a lot reading it, hoping it would get more interesting. Yes, I did learn a few things, and cemented many more concepts I’m already aware of. But I don’t see myself recommending this book. I bought this book at a used bookstore in an airport (that I approve of!), and I was determined to finish it. The 3.7 rating on Amazon helps confirm my level of “excitement” towards this work.

I also have to say something about large numbers in a book. It’s one thing to put them in a text book, as if something you would reference or use in a computation. But almost every 5-6 pages, the author says something outrageous and attaches a number to it. Like 10^91 or 0.5^1024 or something outrageous. I’ve seen this done before in previous books, but it’s only happened like 2-5 times total in most, not >50 times (a possible exaggeration). There’s something distracting about these numbers, as if they have an importance that requires me to remember them. I have to force myself to step back and tell myself “It’s just a crazy large number, what’s the real idea that I want to take away from this paragraph!”

And they all are. 10^91, the number of bits in the universe? No one can fathom such a number! Yeah, sure it’s not as big as 10^122, the number of computations that a cosmological computer could have performed since the big bang….. but both numbers are still psychologically indistinguishable to a normal reader. It’s kind of like my rant over random people and quotes in my book review of “American Nations;” save the gritty details for the textbooks, please?

But …….. if you’re really into monkey-based analogies, this may be the book for you:


The Push [Book Rant]

Being stuck on an airplane, though not the most glamorous of moments, never really pushed my limits. I used to bring along my portable gaming systems and grind them out for hours on end. And now, I’ve decided to feel more “productive” rather than get lost in a virtual reality building upon virtual digits: levels, gold coins, and achievements. However, I find that airplanes are now equipped with many forms of distraction, now that everyone has 1-2 screens in front them. Currently, half of them are playing your classic “cheesy” modern films that I can never relate to.

During that time, I finished reading a book: The Push. It’s not the type of book that I would personally buy. I received it as a gift from my sister’s long-term boyfriend. He has had a longer history in rock climbing, and I’ve been successfully going to the local rock climbing gym multiple times a week. Today, I drove straight from the gym to the airport; Planet Rock has become my second home at this point.

Additionally, and also unexpectedly, this is going to be a longer-than-average “book review.” I have a lot I would like to say……

Being in Michigan, there’s really no good outdoor climbing opportunities available without driving > 5 hours southwest to the Appalachians. This literature fills in that lack of mental awareness on the outdoor rock climber’s lifestyle and the pains that accompany it. And Tommy Caldwell, the author, does this to the extreme, basically since birth. It always helps if you have a strong role-model for a father which you can follow in his footsteps, if you so choose. I have never felt the urge to take up dairy farming, that in which my parents have successfully done from almost nothing. I scraped enough cow manure in my lifetime.

Thus, this is a story of someone being “all in.” Literally. No education, no backup plan, no nothing.

After high school, he pursued a career in rock climbing. He lived in his van for multiple years, driving to locations to build his portfolio of personal fame while driving back home occasionally to raid his parent’s cabinets for food. Months consisted of minimal monetary backing, while living frugal and finding pleasantries in a thrift lifestyle, preferably where money wasn’t required. Hiking trails and visiting local libraries come to mind.

And in terms of most full-time athletes, fame is required to bring in free gear, sponsorships for paid tours, slideshow and video appearances, and eventually grants to write novels. But it takes years for a consistent sponsor-supported income, almost decades for Tommy due to the low popularity of rock climbing compared to your more “modern” TV-sponsored sports. Through most of his life, Tommy’s income is on the level of what a janitor would make.


It is not only is it the price you pay to do what you love, but it also allows you to enjoy a lifestyle that sharply deviates from a normal schedule. Three months tours of Europe, with most (major) expenses paid. A close, but global set of contacts that open up unique doors in culture and communication. All the while, however, there is lurking shadow of what could happen that could end it all. And very abruptly.

Personally, I have a hard time defending these extreme acts of pushing the human’s limit. And it’s not just rock climbing, but anything requiring years of training. Olympics included. In order to achieve these heights, that individual requires a team for support: coach(es), therapists, dieticians, sponsors. And this is done while sacrificing those closest to you. All for something that has no real societal value beyond some form of what-if trivia and “entertainment.” And in order for there to be superstars, as I’ve learned in the business world, the sacrifices of others need to create the ridiculous momentum required.

But there’s something to say about having a goal to live for. I don’t think it should take up ALL of your time, however, but having a deep strive is what makes one an individual. In this day and age, you see so many people spiritually die. They have no strive to learn or improve. They stay static, monotone, in the forms that bring instant pleasure without any resistance: food, sex, and sleep included.

I will see this especially in couples, where the weaker link can become an anchor in the relationship as a whole. Neither can agree on a direction and thus succumb not even the hanging fruit. I see them go on their 15 minute walks with their tiny puppies (a common appearance in my apartment complex).

Note: I’m NOT a pet person. Personally, animals should either be left in the wild or (sparingly) served on a dinner plate.

In addition, developing a skill or talent gives you perseverance and a positive outlook on life. Your time feels worth living. It develops an attractiveness (for both genders) that irradiates a social boost to those close around you. You don’t have to be famous to enjoy life or to become a good example.

Looking back, especially after reading this book, I don’t real any personal goal deep enough that spiritually drives me forward. I am decent at guitar, and I am proud that I can play and sing along to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” I can do some rad yo-yo tricks while I continue to improve my finger and palm grinds. And I can enjoy biking trails for hours, with butt pains being my limiting factor.

The biggest activities that I enjoy doing are reading/writing (including this blog) and backpacking. I have done some wonderful weekend backpacking trips that still bring senses of independence and comfort. Additionally, I do miss the R&D lifestyle that I lived back in grad school, despite the financial limitations. Bringing papers home to read, working on expensive machinery in the clean room. Skills that not many people can say they have experienced.

And now……I’m a PowerPoint engineer for a sales office in metro Detroit.

However, I don’t find myself running home to/from work in anticipation to improve any one of these skills. While I do try to keep an active lifestyle, I still feel myself dying in a sense of personal creativity. Ever since I have gotten divorced, my expertise has improved over these multiple factors. But was it due to the massive amounts of free that that have opened up for me? Do I find myself scattered over too many interests in pursuit of the next personal distraction? Or is it from my developed emotional dependence on my spouse’s happiness. I despised soda, but I would still buy her Coke from the grocery store.

Tommy has also had his spells with relationships and divorce. Like how Kristina and I heavily pursued our efforts in grad school, we always talked about where we’d live and what our kid’s names would be once we’ve completed our education hurdles. Likewise, there was this strange sense of dependence that Tom had for his first wife, Beth, during his 20’s that I found quite relatable; always trying to put your partner’s feelings first, turning into this mental machine of emotional dependence. At least Tommy had climbing afterwards. I found myself becoming dependent on the next woman in my life, and now I’m stranded. This habit and current living location, things I hope I break before I decide to marry again (if the opportunity arises).

The book also has a hidden topic on the topic of selfishness. Where do you draw the line between putting everything aside for your personal fulfillment and public fame? While Tommy and Beth both led a lifestyle of professional rock climbing ……………..

I can’t finish that last paragraph. In truth, I don’t know why they divorced. And I don’t feel like hypothesizing. Just like in my story, there are theories that Kristina left me for someone that reminded her more of home. Or maybe she needed someone to take care of. Nonetheless, I (would like to) believe that it is actually for the best. For the both of us. If the topic arises, I tend to say, “My divorce has been the best and worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

I read this book at almost a rate of 100 pages/day (~4 days in total). My hands are now tinted with black and gold from the hardcover’s cheap paint job. But it’s a story in which I was surprised at the depth one person can go; chaining yourself to the same wall for weeks just to study which peppercorn-shaped knobs will hold your weight…..

Oh yeah, I totally forgot to go into what this book is actually about! But I did warn you, this is a book rant, not a review.

In Yosemite, there is a ledge called El Capitan, or El Cap for short. There are many possible routes on the wall, but some are known to be impassible. One of those thought accordingly was the Dawn Wall. Basically it looked like a flat piece of vertical rock; there wasn’t much to hold onto. So the only way to climb such a route was with assistance, being pulled up to help reduce some of your own personal weight to complete the climbs.

Nowadays, most people want to “free climb” their routes. This involved being able to pull your own body weight without fail between sections, or pitches in rock climbing jargon. If you fall during a pitch, you start at that pitch’s beginning (not at the very bottom of the wall) and try again. If you are doing 10-20 pitches on a wall, you are going to be sleeping on the wall for a few nights. The Dawn Wall took >15 days.

Note: In free climbing, participants still use ropes for protection. There is also the practice of “free soloing,” where if you fall….you die. Basically, don’t do it unless you both want instant fame AND you nothing else to live for. Bottom line: DON’T DO IT!

So after seven years, on-and-off, of studying the wall and almost memorizing it move-by-move, Tommy and his climbing partner, Kevin, spent almost three weeks on the wall to successfully free climb each pitch in succession without leaving. Something thought impossible before. But after inflamed tendons, continuously bloody fingers, and nerve wrecking expectations, it was done. In December! They could have died from falling ice ……. but fortunately didn’t.

This is one of the stories in which someone has succeeded. The novel is littered with trials faith, endurance, and patience. Social isolation, monetary limits, emotional terror and confusion, broken physical limits, marital stress, and a loss of an index finger. But remember, many others have tried to live this this lifestyle and have nothing to prove for it. Others will never be even able to tell the tale of failure; some of the author’s friends die in this story. Just like anyone can die in a car crash, any climber can suffer the fate of a weak hold, avalanches of rock and ice, and “widowmakers.”

Nevertheless, the book has helped me cement my personal new year’s resolution: “Find a lifestyle worth living for, personally, and start rolling in that direction.” This year may be a little weird, and I may end up burning a few bridges along the way. Regardless, I feel it as a necessary step towards obtaining self-fulfillment. I’m done feeding off of a desire for social acceptance; true friends will accept me regardless of my ambitions.

How Innovation Really Works [Book Review]

Happy New Year!

And with the beginning of 2018, it’s time for a new book review.

And like new year’s resolutions, we like to get straight to the point (and finish early). Not going to lie, reading this book felt like going through a “dumbed-down” version of a dissertation. It had the many qualities that you would find in such a document (and in this order):

  • What has happened in the past, and why it doesn’t work?
  • What did I do to help fix this problem?
  • What did I find? What were the results?
  • Look….. equations!
  • Conclusionss in each section AND in the conclusion chapter.

I was a little worried at first, because it kind of had a similar feel to a previous book I reviewed, “Life at the speed of light.” But this book stayed on target, and I was not disappointed in the book’s material. Additionally, the book was, ironically for this type of book, mentally engaging. Half of the chapters are based off of misconceptions that most readers would consider “strong” before reading this book. Concepts were challenged based off of a common sense mentality and discussed the reasoning behind why some methods worked and others just made things worse.

Spoiler alert:  The chapter titles did spoil half of the surprise on which practices were inefficient.

This book is about Research and Development (R&D), and how best to optimize it (from a corporate standpoint). To stay strong, most industrial corporations must stay ahead of (or at least keep up with) the wave of technological progression. If it doesn’t keep up, no one buys your stuff and the company economically dies.

So companies give smart people LOTS of money and hope for the best. That’s the cool part about R&D in general.

But how much money is enough……and how should it get invested? Do you invest most of it in research OR development? Where should R&D take place? Should it be internally conducted? Or should you just buy it from someone else and not even bother setting up a lab?

How Innovation Really Works, written by Anne Knott, dives into these questinos. And no, it wasn’t her PhD dissertation work re-written into a book format. [It was “Do Managers Matter?” (I haven’t found a free copy to read yet)]. And the main tool that she uses to determine R&D efficiency is RQ (research quotient), a unit-less measurement that was founded by the author of this book over 10+ years of research and evaluation.

RQ also trademarked……in case you were wondering.

To calculate a company’s RQ score, years of financial data are required. Harvesting the fruits of R&D labor typically occurs after years of effort, so ~5 years minimum of data are required for an accurate “estimation” of a company’s performance.  Consequently, a company’s stock prices (also required) are correlated with a company’s RQ score. This correlated time lag between these two values is taken into account into calculating a company’s RQ value. This information is then applied to a regression analysis to observe the impact of R&D funding has on company performance in the following equation:

Output ~ [R&D Budget]^(RQ) x [Capital/Labor/Advertising/Etc.]

Also for normalization purposes (and ease understanding), the values are adjusted to read similar to the IQ scale in determining a human’s “cognitive skills,” with an average score of a 100 for all companies.

RQ is not necessarily independent on HOW MUCH money the R&D budget is. Sometimes investing more into development can improve the sector’s potential. Alternatively, RQ can fall drastically if too much money is allocated due to inefficient monetary allocation. But the major player that impacts RQ are the corporation’s internal practices. Below are a list of some major factors:

  • The number of patents filed is NOT a strong measurement of R&D performance. Most companies only patent for legal protection and leverage, while keeping many “crucial” discoveries as internal secrets hidden from the public (and thus hard to measure externally).
  • A major shift in corporate practice has been the “external allocation” of technological advances. Unfortunately, this work is filled with proof demonstrating that this trend is detrimental to a company’s financial potential, but sometimes necessary if time is of the essence. Once intellectual property has been purchased (which is NEVER cheap), the company still has to spend internal R&D resources to build up it’s understanding and incorporation into current procedures, which is basically redoing the work that was previously done by others. As stated by the author, “outsourced R&D had an RQ of zero!”
  • Companies tend to be split between having a single R&D headquarters vs. multiple field-specific sites. While it looks good on paper, the latter method reduces the potential to network between business segments to combine multiple distinct ideas into novel products. Additionally, the concept of R&D “silos” has the additional disadvantage of multiple groups working on the same problem, possibly leading to competitive vs. collaborative efforts (or even worse, not even knowing that the problem has already been solved internally).
  • R&D efforts can be split between research AND development tasks (companies mostly do r&D, with a strong emphasis on development). It can also be divided between incremental and radical innovation. Radical work involves more “fancy” topics including fusion science, gene editing, and other “start-up” ideas. But incremental works are the major game changers for large companies, allowing manufacturing costs to be reduced and product specifications to be improved.

These ideas, and many others, can better be explained by the RQ methodology. It gives R&D and upper management a clearer windows to observe which practices improve a company’s competitive edge and how efficiently it does so. It also lays out the reasoning why this method is superior to previous methods of innovation ranking, including patent potential, total factor productivity (TFP), and Innovation Premium (IP).

The one slightly-obvious detrimental aspect to this book’s appeal is it’s portrayal on RQ; it’s too positive. Just like in the dissertation model, it’s almost a long advertisement for the author’s personal “invention” (for lack of a better word at the moment). Like it’s a tool that can be bought for consulting purposes.

Not surprisingly, this is what you get when you do a quick Google search on RQ ……..



But the book still doesn’t state ANY methods of WHY it could possibly not work, or at least the possible limitations in this measurement. It lists some, but then right away “proves” that’s not the case with RQ.

Everything has some sort of weakness or limitation. Heroes can (and will) die. Corporate expansion plans can become disastrous if projected growth does not occur. Scientific theories are only applicable if certain caveats are ignored [From my experience, anything with the term nonlinear is always the exception rather than the rule]. And this RQ has got to have some limitation, with examples out there to prove them. While the concept is quite convincing, I can’t fully believe in the methodology until I have both sides of the story.



Side Rant: Leia should have died in space during that last movie. It would have made the movie more believable.