Reading: On the Origin of Time by Thomas Hertog

I’ve always enjoyed reading the general audience books on physics and cosmology as a general way of keeping up with the broader scientific world. However, I was drawn to Thomas Hertog’s On the Origin of Time based on it’s promise to bring some kind of evolutionary point of view to the origin of the universe and explain this improbably situation we find ourselves in where the laws of physics and the constants are so finely tuned to creating a universe where life can exist.

One potential explanation of our improbable situation is that of a multiverse, where many different versions of the universe exist, but of course we can only find ourselves in a particular one that can support us and our observation.

Hertog throws around many concepts related to natural selection, such as variation and path dependence, where particular accidents become central to our history only because they lie in our path. We know in biology, it is useless to ask why this and not that, in general. We see a particular vertebrate body plan because that’s the plan of successful ancestor from whom we and all other vertebrates descended. Clearly there are other potential paths, which we see in the very different brain and limb organization of insects and cephalopods. But asking why we don’t have 8 tentacles but an octopus does is a meaningless question.

We’re left with studying the path that brought us to this point. Prediction is impossible, we can only delve into the past to understand the accidents that led to us here and now.

But this kind of mapping of the freezing of physical laws is a real stretch.

This meta-evolution has a Darwinian flavor, with its interplay of variation and selection playing out in the primeval environment of the early universe. Variation enters because random quantumjumps cause frequent small excursions from deterministic behavior and occasional larger ones.Selection enters because some of these excursions, especially the larger ones, can be amplified and frozen in the form of new rules that help shape the subsequent evolution. The interaction between these two competing forces in the furnace of the hot big bang produces a branching process—somewhat analogous to how biological species emerge billions of years later—in which dimensions, forces, and particle species first diversify and then acquire their effective form when the universe expands and cools to ten billion degrees or so. The randomness involved in these transitions means that, just like the Darwinian evolution, the outcome of this truly ancient layer of cosmic evolution can only be understood ex post facto.

I don’t find this very illuminating. In evolution we have pre-existing variation. The variations that are stable in their environment persist into the future, which we call selection or fitness, but really is no more than stability. Hertog is positing not pre-existing variation upon which selection can operate, but more of a wandering around between states that eventually is frozen.

Now the idea of the path dependence is clear. And clearly it makes no sense to ask why the Planck Constant has the value it does if it was just frozen into place in the early universe, but Hertog offers no reasons for why those particular values that can support complex biology got frozen in other than to say that we are here, those are the values, and there is no final theory to be found.

I was hoping that Hertog had some explanation of why, during that early variation of the laws of physics, states that could support more complexity might survive and get baked in compared to sets of laws that lead to a quick recollapse of the early universe or a flat, uninteresting universe without large scale structure of galaxies and planets.

It seems to me there must be something to this idea that complexity is more stable, so it is understandable that we find ourself in this kind of universe. An immediate recollapse seems rather pointless. Our lives on the this rock moving through space asks us to find a reason for our existence here.

My Kindle Scribe Workflow

It’s taken a while for the Kindle Scribe to find its place among my working tools.

As I discussed in my first take on the device, it’s a highly modal experience. There is a Library view of books and PDFs plus a Notebook view of, well, Notebooks. The Scribe was picked up and put down over and over until I understood its strengths and weakness.

Here how I’m using each mode for now.


Quite simply, the Scribe is an excellent digital facsimile of my usual fountain pen and notebook.

There are a few advantages to the Scribe in fact. The stylus never runs out of ink, although the device can run out of juice. I’d say charging is of the same frequency as refilling one of my Pelikan piston filling pens so it really just comes down to the fact the stylus lives with the Scribe while I often sit down and don’t have a pen at the ready. My fault, given how many pens I own. The writing experience on the Scribe is really paper like and reminds me why I never could use the iPad pencil for note taking. Plus, the scribe is the size of my favored A5 size notebooks, but light and rigid enough to write on standing or sitting away from a desk. Notebooks really need writing surfaces for use, a pad like the Scribe can be held with one hand and written on with stylus in the other. Lets just say that the Scribe lends itself to casual use.

In the hybrid analog digital model, the Scribe is digitizing the image of my handwriting in real time and frequently uploading the file for off device storage. If the Scribe is lost or destroyed, my notes are secure. Notebooks can be lost, misplaced or soaked in the rain. Fountain pen ink is water based, so a wet notebook is not only wrinkled, but often smeared to the point of uselessness.

Barring loss or damage, a notebook needs the extra step of digital capture by scanner or photo. I use GeniusScan when I want a digital version of a notebook. I’m selective, copying over handwritten notes that I want to revise as text files. But the PDF images of a notebook sit side by side with PDFs sent from the Scribe, so ignoring the extra step of the iPhone capture, the end result is the same.

My notebooks have a couple of hundred pages, so I’m selective about what I archive digitally. The Scribe has no way of being selective other than exporting a PDF of an entire notebook and deleting unwanted pages or dividing up the file into multiple topic specific PDFs. For now, I’ve settled on starting a new notebook every month, so there are exported Scribe PDFs in a journal folder in DEVONthink for reference. DEVONthink does handwriting recognition and allows searching for notebook contents. I love the fountain pen and notebook experience at my desk. If not for that, I might have switched over to the Scribe completely for this kind of note taking.

PDF Annotation and eBooks

PDFs can be sent through the Send to Kindle service. Though PDFs live in the library, their interface is like that of a Notebook since once the page opens, the natural way to annotate is to write on the PDF with the stylus. Choosing the highlighter gives a transparent way to color over the PDF like one would highlight a paper printout. However, a long press on the text of the PDF allows the more standard type of PDF highlighting with the option of adding a note. Unfortunately, at this point that note only accepts typed input, which is less than optimal on this stylus focused device. Export of PDFs show the handwritten annotations with the highlighted text and note text following the PDF.

eBook annotation is much better developed, where the highlighter choice for the stylus acts in the usual way to select and highlight text. But if you add a note, one can enter either typed text or handwriting. I hope that they bring this over to PDF notes as well. But as with PDF output, we get the highlighted text followed by the note- handwritten or typed. This PDF also nicely goes into DEVONthink where the highlighted text or the handwritten annotation can be searched. The experience here is nice enough that I bought a book through the Kindle store (Thomas Hertog’s On the Origin of Time: Stephen Hawking’s Final Theory) which I am now reading and annotating on the Scribe. So for some types of reading, the Scribe may move me back toward eBooks from physical books read with a notebook at the desk.


Like all the tools we have for reading and note taking, the Scribe is a product that excels for specific use cases. I’m using it for notes involving brainstorming and option exploration in a monthly journal format, knowing that these kinds of notes would be lost in a paper notebook system. I’m also reading, highlighting and annotating a book with handwritten notes, which solves one of my frustrations with the traditional Kindle format. Amazon seems committed to improving the software on the device, likely to make it more useful in the future.

Polya on Plausible Reasoning

No idea is really bad, unless we are uncritical. What is really bad is to have no idea at all”

I’v just finished the first volume of George Polya’s books on how to solve problems, Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning, Volume 1: Induction and Analogy in Mathematics. I picked up these books, published in 1954 after Jaynes pointed them out as foundational in his book Probability Theory. Jaynes has a relative short, straightforward introduction to these concepts, but reading Polya is a delight because these books were aimed at helping math teachers guide their students into understanding how to do mathematics. As Polya points out through mathematical examples and problem sets, we solve problems by coming up with reasonable conjectures about the answer, exploring the consequences of the conjecture, collecting supportive or contradictory evidence, and some times coming to a certainty, a proof of the conjecture.

I’m still, in parallel, working my way through the Jaynes book. This all was triggered by my editing of the On Deciding . . . Better manuscript and realizing I needed to understand the basis of probabilistic reasoning. While Polya was interested in teaching mathematics and Jaynes was interested in correcting some of the errors of reasoning that had been introduced into the practice of statistics, I’m interested in how the brain performs it’s remarkable feats of inference, taking raw sensory input and creating an internal model that reflects the real physical world and the semantic world that we uniquely occupy as humans.

I’ll admit I’m in no hurry to complete these digressions into probability and plausible reasoning, but I do want to get onto another area that I don’t feel I fully grasp, the concepts of cybernetics and system control that were being expressed during the same period as Jaynes and Polya were working. Sadly, I think the lessons they learned were forgotten during periods of great advances in technology and biology, but have emerged again as relevant now that our technology has revealed to us that reductionism reaches explanatory limits when we deal with complexity and emergent phenomena.

These issues are at the root of my long interest in deciding better. Decisions would be easy if were not for the uncertainty we must deal with when the future is not predictable. Decisions would be easy if all values really were denominated in dollars. But our real world is complex and unpredictable. And our values are ill defined and full of conflicting principles. What is truly remarkable to me is that the brain deals with this uncertaintly seamlessly. And for the most part, chooses appropriate action that we understand only on reflection.

Reading Update

In 2023 so far, I’ve finished 23 books so far, 9 of which are non-fiction, the rest fiction. I just updated the Reading 2023 page to get it up to date. I’ve never kept such close track before, but the number seems about on par with my usual pace.

I finished Nefesh HaChaim last week, a project that began in November 2022. I read Hebrew plus English every morning for about 15 minutes, taking full notes on the book line by line. Lately, I added a short summary at the bottom of each page to facilitate review. I also filled my second notebook dedicated to the Jewish study of what we call Mussar, which is a path to self-improvement. Nefesh HaChaim is recognized as a somewhat mystical, philosophical book a man’s purpose and how to direct one’s life accordingly. Lots of what I think of as “celestial mechanics”, detailing the relationship between God, the spiritual worlds and our world of illusion.

My next book is a famous practical Mussar book, Cheshbon HaNefesh. Cheshbon means “accounting” and is a short methologicical book of how to improve and clarify the process of thought and create good habits of mind. These are both themes that have emerged as central to the idea of “Deciding Better”, so a very appropriate read at this point.

My attempted adjustment to read more nonfiction was a failure. Since reading Jaynes on Probability is real focused work, I thought I could add more non-fiction. I read through the very nice When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut which really straddles fiction/non-fiction, but then got stuck trying to read George Polya’s book Mathematics and Plausible Reaoning. I got the idea to read Polya from Jaynes and it’s a great read. It’s just too dense a read to be a leisure activity. So I need to tee up some more easy non-fiction reading in creativity or biography which was where I was going in the beginning of the year.

So it’s back to some nice fiction reading, having just finished Trust and starting Babel by R.F. Kuang.

There’s been a good bit more reading and looking in the realm of photography and image making, including a reread of Vincent Versace’s Oz books and the very nice How I Make Photographs based on Joel Meyerowitz’ online course. I found my notes on some photobooks I’d read a few years ago- also revisiting the notes and the books. I’ve learned a bit about my body of work, looking at images with a broader perspective, trying to get out of the Flickr photo stream state of mind.

Casual and Portfolio Workflows

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My Sniff and Shoot process is working out well. I’m collecting a lot of images mostly in the morning and late afternoon when there’s nice broken illumination. I return to the same subjects over and over, but of course the time, quality of light, angle of illumination and my experience of the scene allows for deep exploration that so far keeps me motivated.

It’s interesting to be working this dual workflow on my images. After they are imported into Capture One, I do a cull for interest and focus then do a quick set of casual adjustments to see what it “might” look like. Of course, as with this image the casual version is pretty nice. But I can see where I could improve the image by shifting tones around a bit to emphasize the light and the shapes that struck me when I captured the image.

This Leica M11 Monochrom creates these interesting images right out of the camera with minimal processing, but that’s the camera speaking through my impulse. It’s afterwards that I get to focus and refine the presentation so that the impulse becomes more focused and obvious in the final image.

Portfolio Building

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A more prosaic approach to the intimate landscape.

The current project has turned into building a portfolio. I’m guided by some brief remarks Joel Meyerowitz makes at the very end of the book How I Make Photographs. He describes his process of culling a shoot down to the “keepers”, but then creating a group of images that are enjoyable to look at and inform the process of the current work. It’s great advice and wish I had figured it out sooner. I’ve been living in the photo stream approach of Flickr and Instagram which promote constant production, not reflective progression.

No Niche

There’s a nice email service called Refind that sends a few links to interesting web articles every morning. It’s a nice broad discovery mechanism, being something of a substitute for some of the links I used to find on Twitter.

This morning, this discussion of website niche development had me thinking:

The perils of niching down:

The most ubiquitous piece of advice in the creator economy is to niche down. Immerse yourself in one subculture. Pick a topic. Own it. Specialize. Become known for one thing.

This advice is everywhere because in many ways, it works. Internet media is noisy and competitive, and it’s easier to earn attention when your work is hyper-specialized. When you’re focused on a single subculture or topic, marketing and monetization become more controllable and predictable. If your goal is to create things online, and earn a living in a somewhat reliable fashion, niching down is a smart bet.

I’ve always felt a pull to make this site more focused to build some kind of audience outside of my internet friends and those who come here through a handful of search terms that I happen to rank high on at Google, but stick to the idea that it’s my personal online journal and just reflects my current set of interests, reflected here more or less as time permits.

Interesting to read then:

Over the last few years, I’ve met a surprising number of creators who were outwardly successful, with thriving businesses, but who felt trapped and resentful. They followed all the best practices, niched down, created what they thought their audience wanted, etc. And while it often “worked” for generating income, it rarely resulted in them feeling alive, authentic, connected, free. In fact, it led to the opposite. A feeling of deadness, disconnection from self and others, and a perceived loss of agency and freedom.

I’ve written before how I prefer to read reports of tools and techniques by those who use them in a real way for real purposes. So much of this web niching leads to a kind of navel gazing where the tools are used only for the purpose of posting about the tools. Every time a writer I enjoy quits the day job to run their site, I know that in not too long I’ll lose anything but cursory interest. Since I’ve been working on my photography lately, I’ll point to people like Thom Hogan who runs a big site, writes great books, but is a working photographer both leading trips- where he works too and doing commercial work. So too we get the insights of Vincent Versace and Greg Williams both of whom produces their own personal and commercial work. I admire the work and technique, so take the advice seriously.

It seems to me that the passion to create can’t get subsumed in the marketing and meta-talk about the creating. At its heart is the work and Rob Hardy is right that at the heart of creativity is the freedom to pursuit the paths that the work suggests, not service an audience you’ve created in the short term. It is indeed a long game.

Return to Oz

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I’ve been consistent with capturing images on a near daily basis, mostly in “Sniff and Shoot” mode, just carrying a camera when out in the back with the puppy. While casual photography is clearly where we are today, capturing in the camera with with an expressive exposure only gets the image 80% there. And some of my adjusted photos capture the scene, but just don’t have that dramatic, cincematic quality that I picked up from Vincent Versace’s Oz books. For the techniques, the color book Welcome to Oz 2.0 is all you need. It’s out of print, but there are used copies on Amazon.

This week I reviewed the two Oz books, taking notes on the techniques, which I can now distill way better than I could when I started down the path a bit more than 10 years ago. Hopefully, with a deeper understanding, speed and facility will follow. Sadly, two of his important tools, FocalPoint is no longer supported by its developers and the Lighting Effects filter in Photoshop has been abandoned. So we need to use alternative means to introduce lens blur and selective lighting. So far, not too much of a problem.

At least I have a few hundred captures this year, so some nice pixels to work on.