Whither 2020

I think we all agree 2020 has been, as the curse puts it, an “interesting” year. Going into it, I had intentions about making changes. Most fell by the wayside due to COVID-19; I still haven’t taken the bus to watch the St. Paul Saints play. Or the bus-light rail combo to Target Field.

As a life long hard-core introvert, “social isolation” mostly meant I shopped for groceries less often but stocked up more when I did. The pain was fewer occasions of meeting a friend for tasty food, drink, and chat. I’m really looking forward to dining out again.

All-in-all, the last four years, this year… It’s been exhausting.

Sometimes it feels as if nothing much happens in retirement. The days and weeks can pass without much obvious sign of change. Streaming TV means there’s no weekly clock (or a very weak one, the few shows that dole out episodes).

One of my few weekly markers is that Monday is laundry day. I often find myself thinking, “Wow! It’s Monday again? What happened to the week?”

I’ve seen pictures of old people just sitting watching the world go by. One gets the impression they sat for hours. Fishing, contemplating a campfire, staring at ocean waves; these are similar. As I’ve gotten older, thoughtful modes like that have become easy and restful. Sometimes I realize I’ve been sitting thinking for quite some time.

Combined with how fast time passes now, I worry that all I’m doing is turning into one of those pictures. I love the constant idle freedom — it’s something I haven’t experienced since kindergarten — but sometimes I wonder what I’m doing. Or not doing, as the case may be.

It’s only in looking back I realize, “Holy canole, I’ve been busy!”

§ §

It’s almost hard to know where to start. Trivial first?…

I bought a new clothes washer and dryer after the original washer finally died. The washer is fine, but the dryer doesn’t always dry completely. Not sure what’s up with that; I can think of multiple possibilities.

I have to say I’ve been very lucky with the appliances here. I’ve been here since 2003 and only had to replace the water heater, the furnace control unit, and the washer-dryer. (I figure I’m on increasingly borrowed time with the dish washer, built-in microwave, and fridge.)


I finally said good-bye to BOOL, an intentionally weird programming language I’d been designing (but never completing) for thirty years.

It was obviously time to let it die; sitting here now I can’t think of a single useful thing to say about it.

Some projects turn out to be too ambitious to fulfill, but often trying to scale the mountain teaches one a lot. I did learn a lot tinkering with BOOL over the years. It was my “ship in a bottle” project — no useful value other than just being what it was. An example of “yeah, you could, but why would you?”

My thanks to the handful that attended the five-day wake.


Baseball in 2020 was just one more thing that was wrong with 2020. I didn’t pay nearly the attention to the season I have since 2010. The year was just too weird and fraught.

My Minnesota Twins did okay; they won the Division, but immediately lost to the Houston Asstros in Postseason. (That wasn’t a misspelling. The Asstros are now widely reviled for cheating to win the 2017 World Series. They’re the new Black Sox. I hope they all suffer from debilitating athlete’s foot.)


In late December, Pele woke up in Kilauea, the youngest (above water) volcano in the Hawaiian Island chain. I’ve always liked geology. Since living in Los Angeles, I’ve been interested in volcanoes and earthquakes.

[No volcanoes in Los Angeles (usually), but earthquakes and magma are underground kin, so there is a relation. For me, it’s the appreciation of Mother Nature’s power, so thunderstorms and tornadoes are included in the fascination.]

I fell in love with Pele when she threw a major temper tantrum in 2018. (That’s the thing about gods. When they get pissed, run for your life.) The eruption from May to August was an extraordinary geological event to witness in action.

She’s quieted down for the moment. The water lake that used to be down in the crater flash evaporated very quickly when the lava hit it. Check out this graphic from the USGS:

Now the crater has filled with lava (a bit more than shown above). It’ll be interesting to see what Pele does next.


After many decades, I returned to borrowing library books, but online with apps, Cloud Library and Libby, for my iPad and iPhone (and other devices, I’m sure).

The consequence of access to all those free books is that I’ve done a lot of reading this year. I swept through entire catalogs of mystery authors. I read, and mostly thoroughly enjoyed, all The Expanse books. There were a bunch of other science fiction books, including some new authors (see: Ellis, Huang, & Chambers).

Which has been awesome and fun, but I’ve especially appreciated being able to read some of the popular science books I’ve had my eye on (but been thus far unwilling to pony up for).

I very much enjoyed Jim Baggott’s book about fairy tale physics as well as Philip Ball’s book about quantum mechanics interpretations. Both books concerned ideas I’ve been reading about and pondering for a while now. Quantum mechanics has stalled for decades looking for a way to advance. It’s easy to think we might not be on exactly the right path.

I’ve also enjoyed some popular math books. Matt Parker’s Humble Pi was a lot of fun (highly recommended for everyone), and I’d like to read more by Steven Strogatz — I really liked his book about the calculus.

§ §

Speaking of quantum mechanics and math, I reached a point where popular science books weren’t enough. I decided to try to learn the math and the mechanics. It’s a challenge still in progress, but it’s been a lot of fun.

It turns out YouTube is a wonderful resource for physics lectures. There are various QM courses and lectures. A lot has been over my head at first, but by chewing and chewing on it, it starts to come clear.

It’s long been said that QM can’t be fully described or understood with language, one must learn the math. I think part of the problem is that we don’t yet know what the math means. Once we truly understand what’s going on down at the quantum level, it might be easier to put it into words.

That said, currently our classically trained intuition is lost when it comes to QM. Learning the math does take it to a new level. I’m only in the foothills, but already my view is a lot broader and clearer.

I’ll talk more about this in the coming year.


Recently I’ve been getting into quantum computing. It started with a PDF text Scott Aaronson made available. Then I saw a lecture that mentioned the IBM Quantum Experience.

It’s an online quantum computing resource. Apparently anyone can join; I had no problem signing up for an account. There is a tutorial and documentation to get you started.

Here’s my first quantum computing “circuit” (program):

It’s a simple simulation of a Bell state — an entangled system of two qubits.

I’ll post about this in detail as I get more into it, but very briefly, from left to right, two qubits (q0 and q1) are initialized to |0>, then q0 is put in superposition (|0>+|1>) and entangled with q1. Finally both qubits are measured.

Because of the entanglement, the expected output is either |00> or |11> with equal probability. That is, if q0 is measured as |0> then q1 will also be measured as |0> (and vice-versa if we measure q1 first). Likewise if q0 is measured as |1> then q1 will also be |1>.

In quantum computing, since outcomes are probable, the circuit is run many times (thousands of times). The idea is that the desired answer shows up most of those times. When I ran the above circuit:

Which is what was expected. The infrequent |01> and |10> outcomes are due to the inherent uncertainty and probability of quantum mechanics.

It turns out the work I did with linear algebra and matrix rotation is very much the sort of math used in QC. All quantum logic gates are expressed as matrices, and so are quantum states. Mathematically, multiplying a qubit matrix by a gate matrix applies the gate to the qubit.

Stay tuned for more!

§ §

I’m very thankful 2020 brings the end of the #DiaperDonny era.

How do 74 million Americans look at that POS and see a hero? It has nothing to do with media spin or bias. His own words and actions say everything there is to say. That so many aren’t more deeply appalled says terrible things about our culture.

Republicans, for decades, planted seeds that grew into a brier patch of thorny weeds. They trained themselves to respond to noise and nonsense, and that had exactly the result one would expect. It may be the end of the Pumpkin Goblin’s reign, but it’s nowhere near the end of the problem.

I was going to list all the fun names, Twitler, Cheeto Charlie, and so, but I realized how much I no longer care and want to just forget he ever existed.

I say we just give the far right Mississippi and Alabama. Let them secede. We’ll even build their wall — between them and us. We’ll pay for it and guard the border carefully. No more Federal help, obviously. They’ll be on their own regarding highways, power and communication infrastructure, weather, disease and other resources, etc.

We may also have to do that with Vermont and Oregon for the far left end of the political spectrum. (I’d like to visit the Deschutes Brewery before we do, though. Their Fresh Squeezed IPA is a regular pick of mine. There’s some in the fridge right now. Love that Mosaic hops!)

Then maybe the rest of us can get on with having a decent moderate country.

[I am so goddamned tired of the polarization and extremist bullshit. Our national color is outrage and the national bird is the middle finger. The culture has become way over-amped.]

§ §

So it has been a busy year. (There was even a brief and strange torrid online affair during the summer. It’s definitely been an interesting year.)

I’ll leave you with this new video from Boston Dynamics. The robots are coming, and they’re going to kick your ass… on the dance floor:

This is hysterical and really well done. It’s even better than the one from two years ago featuring UpTown Spot.

What’s impressive to me is how they’ve got the motor control so precise and fast. And, wow, they’ve sure got the balance thing down!


It is true that, if one gazes into the Abyss, it gazes back. But if one is strong enough one can get used to it — even become friends. The strength comes from knowledge, of self, of others, and of the world. Darkness gives way to light.

Lux et veritas. Sapere aude.

Stay interested, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

19 responses to “Whither 2020

  • Wyrd Smythe

    If nothing else, you gotta watch that robot video!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    For those keeping count, it’s the 7th day of Chillaxmas with five to go. Enjoy!!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I think I set a record for links back to old posts. 🙂

    • emilyforceleste

      This might seem very random, but by chance just this morning my father was reminiscing about the old comic series called Rick O’Shay. I was trying to help him find a particular comic he really liked of Hipshot, and searching through the internet I came upon your old 2013 post!
      You happened to show the very comic my father remembered!

      You also wrote that your favorite comic could only be found in a small illegible picture. So I decided to do some digging to see if I could find your image for you. I managed to find it on an completely random space-related article. The comic is at the bottom of the article, and if you click on it the image should expand so you better able to read it. I hope this brings you some joy if you haven’t been able to find the comic yet!

      Here is the link: https://playingintheworldgame.com/2015/01/05/the-overview-effect-seeing-earth-from-the-outside/

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Happy New Year, and welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed that Rick O’Shay post — it’s one of the few here that people seem to find and really connect with. I obviously wasn’t the only one who really loved that comic!

        Thanks for the link! It’s not quite the one I remember, but it’s another good one. Nice big image, too! Thanks again!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I’ve added a couple of new indexes:

    Movie Reviews

    Book Reviews

    Check’m out. (The Book Reviews page doesn’t go all the way back to the beginning, yet. Still working on it.)

  • Anonymole

    I’m not even retired yet and I’ve already resigned myself to waiting for death. Work at a job I hate and wait for death. Frankly, I wished he’d hurry up.

    The Boston Dynamics robots would only be amazing if they’d learned those moves themselves. Or mimicked a human dancer. “Do what I do, say what I say, and make me proud.” (I’ve been watching much of Robert Miles videos: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCLB7AzTwc6VFZrBsO2ucBMg)

    And this showed up in my firefox homepage:

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It sucks when work sucks; it’s what forced me to retire early (and take the income hit). The last verse of the Bruce Cockburn tune, Pacing the Cage wouldn’t leave my mind: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you; You can’t see what’s round the bend; Sometimes the road leads through dark places; Sometimes the darkness is your friend; Today these eyes scan bleached-out land; For the coming of the outbound stage. There were days, ticket in hand, I really wished that damn stage would show up. Hopefully the rest one’s of life compensates in such cases.

      I’ve subscribed to Robert Miles for a long time! I think he speaks very wisely. It’s really important to understand the consequences of creative goal-oriented software. Humans way have a tendency to be blinded and glamoured by new tech and off the cliff they go. That said, from a technologists point of view, those robots are way cool in terms of the problems that had to be solved to pull that off. It’s quite an accomplishment. It’s the platform — the tools — that allow, as you say, self learning and mimicking. They now have hardware that’s up to the task. The rest is software.

      That article about QC also speaks wisely. (It’s funny, I can tell the difference in understanding between the journalist who wrote the article and the guy he interviewed. The vocabulary and phrasing stood out.) There’s a lot people don’t get about QC. It’s not going to ever replace conventional computing. It’s not that QC is “better computing” — it’s different computing. It’s actually a kind of analogue computing that will be amazing for somethings (simulations of real things, for instance) and kinda useless for conventional computing (it’s slow and non-deterministic).

      The hardware is nontrivial, and the software is a whole new ballgame. It’s not clear, other than simulating systems at a quantum level, what applications QC will be good for. It’s very early days. It was neat to be reminded of the time span between the transistor, the IC, and the microchip. And that was with the head start that information science began long before the hardware. We had some specific goals in sight for it. With QC it’s more like we invented a really cool thing and now we have to figure out what it’s good for. (I have no doubt we will, though. It’s ability to simulate chemistry alone should be worthwhile, let alone things like protons or nuclei.)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Yeah, 2020. Very happy to put this one behind us.

    On retirement, if you had it to do over again, would you have done it? I ask because I’m on that precipice right now and the question remains very much in my mind. Supposedly if I retire, I’m going to write. But I really wonder if that will happen.

    On quantum mechanics, I was looking at the Schrodinger equation yesterday, and suddenly realized it wasn’t complete gobbledygook to me. Apparently reading all that Dirac notation saturated stuff has had some benefits. Not that I understand it by any margin. But I feel better that I understand *parts* of it at least. I really need to peruse that Aaronson doc.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      On retirement, in a heartbeat, but my situation may have been different. Work had gone from something I enjoyed and valued to something I didn’t, and the company had gone from valuing specialists like me to preferring off-the-shelf solutions by third parties. I hated being there and they clearly wished I didn’t have to be on the payroll, so the only real choice was the trade-off between serving more time in prison for a larger retirement check or taking the financial hit and saving my soul.

      There is a definite hit to one’s perceived value, one’s place in the world. It suddenly becomes more apparent one is one the downward part of the arc. Retirement for single guys is a little dangerous if one doesn’t have good hobbies. My buddy “Scott” always wanted more time to hunt and fish. For me it meant being able to indulge in many of my interests, so I’ve loved retirement. (If anything I wonder why I don’t get more done, but I also like relaxing and napping.)

      As to writing, what’s the drive in your heart? Are there stories you burn to tell? Is it love of the idea of writing? Is it fame or fortune? It’s sometimes worth asking oneself why — what’s the goal and endgame? Early I considered filmmaking and music, both chancy arts careers. I decided on the safer corporate path (and it basically served well until the last years). One thing I realized was that, while I had films in me, I didn’t really have songs. I love music, and I love to play, but — despite some early pretensions — I’m not a songwriter. OTOH, I could have been a filmmaker (if I’d gotten lucky and recognized among the crowd of others). So it’s a matter, I think, of what one has within.

      Long ago I learned an interesting lesson. A friend of mine was seriously stressing out over working two jobs — she was reaching the end of her rope. I asked her why two jobs? Because she was saving up for a house. We were in our mid-20s; she was single. I asked her why she wanted a house? She had to think, and the best answer was, “Because that’s what people do, they buy a house.” I asked her if that was what she really wanted — given needing to work two jobs. She quit one the next day and was a lot happier. (And she eventually did buy a house.) I just boils down to what one really wants, but one has to play that kid’s game of asking a lot of “why?” questions.

      On QM, cool! Yeah, with that stuff, the higher one climbs, the better the view. For me a key point was understanding one has to solve the Schrödinger equation. It’s so often framed as the quantum version of the classical F=ma, that it’s easy to think one just plugs in some values and gets an answer.

      But it’s more like x2+y2=1, the formula that defines the unit circle. We don’t start with values for x and y, we have to find values that solve the equation. All possible solutions comprise the unit circle. Similarly, one finds solutions to the SE for a given quantum system.

      What’s fun about the Dirac notation is it can be used metaphorically or canonically. Aaronson mentions one can put literally anything inside a ket to say “the quantum state of this thing.” Used canonically, a ket is a vertical column vector.


      You’ll definitely want to brush up on basic matrix math!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Thanks Wyrd. That fits the assessment I get from most retirees. Most love it.

        Work for me me was pretty bad a couple of years ago. If it had stayed that bad, I would have bailed back in the summer as soon as I was eligible. It’s actually not that bad right now. There are the usual annoyances, but they’re not out of hand. The problem I’m having is I’m just not that interested anymore.

        My fixed pension would be better if I hung on longer, potentially much better if I hang on for a few more years. The question I’m struggling with is if it’s worth it. My dad’s passing reminded me we all have an expiration date, and sacrificing more of that limited time feels like an existential cost.

        Good questions on what’s driving me. I think the main thing is exploring concepts, like the long term fate of humanity, what interstellar exploration might really be like, or maybe what things were like at the dawn of humanity when we lived in hunter gatherer groups, with all the scientific and philosophical speculations that arise. Basically, I want to be able to speculate about these things legitimately as what I do. Fiction writing seems to be the best path.

        On the SE, I definitely did get the impression that you run a lot through it for real calculations. The matrix math is what I hit a wall on when reading about quantum computing. But after months of poking around physics papers, maybe it wouldn’t be that impenetrable now. That said, my goal is really just to have a broad understanding. At this point, my best bet might be to peruse Aaronson’s PDF but hop over any math intensive parts.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The work pain versus pension amount is obviously a trade-off you’ll have to judge for yourself. There’s a lot to be said for enjoying what one has worked for all this time. (I’m still learning that it’s okay to spend money more casually — the “saving it for” time is over!)

        The ultimate key for me was doing the math. Can I live comfortably on what I’d get leaving now? That had a lot to do with picking the date. I didn’t leave myself much margin, that’s how much I had come to hate work. When the company-provided bridge to SS ended I didn’t turn SS on for a couple years, and my bank account dipped throughout that time. More outgo than income. Now that I’m on SS, it’s more comfortable again, bank account’s slowly rising. For a while, rising prices were a threat.

        From your goals, you sound like a science writer. Could you explore those things without needing characters, plot, or the other elements of fiction? Maybe we need a new genre: Speculative non-Fiction. SnF!

        The matrix math is pretty big in QC, and the Aaronson doc is full of it. As mentioned in the post, gates are defined using matrices, and they’re applied to qubits through multiplication, so they’re everywhere. Matrix math isn’t that bad, it’s all built on “regular” math, but there are new ways of putting it together. (Those posts of mine might be helpful, or go straight to the horse’s mouth, the Linear Algebra playlist on the 3Blue1Brown YouTube channel.)

        (Linear algebra is where things like eigenvectors and eigenvalues come from. It also underlies the SE. Solutions involve finding eigenvectors and eigenvalues. (In QM they call eigenvectors “eigenstates” because the vectors represent quantum states.) The eigenvalues are the possible measurement values for a given eigenstate.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Yeah, inflation is a concern. My pension would be quite comfortable, at first, but erode over time.

        I’ve actually mostly done the science / philosophy writing thing by blogging. But where I want to go wouldn’t be responsible science writing. The only way to do it right is in the context of entertainment. (And it’s the only way anyone might pay attention anyway.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, if you retire, you’ll have nothing but time, so good luck!!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Time to get back to it, I guess…

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