Schrödinger’s Cat Burglar

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The truth of something is not the thing itself, only the knowledge of it.
–Stephen Covey

Years ago, during a church basketball tournament, I was teamed with John Sabin, my volunteer referee teacher, to officiate a semi-final contest between an inner-city Washington DC team and one from an outlying suburb. With less than a minute to go in the game, the two teams were dead even. The suburban team was carefully passing to each other around its offensive perimeter to set up what they hoped would be the winning shot on the basket when seemingly out of nowhere, the star player from the DC team—call him Michael—burst into the path of a pass intended for an opponent—call him Bob—and intercepted the ball. At that instant, Michael’s momentum shot him in the direction of his own team’s basket, fueling his breakaway to the other end of the court. Because John was positioned near the baseline under Bob’s basket, and I stood nearest to the interception, it would be up to me to determine if whatever was about to happen next comported with the official basketball rulebook. But Michael’s quickness caught me flat-footed, and I was slow to reverse my opposing momentum. As Michael hurtled towards his basket, a stricken but scrappy Bob in hot pursuit, I would still be several feet away when both players reached the other end of the court. After closing the distance only a few feet, in the split-second it took for Michael and Bob to leap towards the hoop—and Michael to miss the shot—and Bob to get the rebound, I seemed to slip into a timeless machine that allowed me to inspect, in slow motion and stop action, but from a strangely remote point of vantage, every frame of that race to the goal. This was followed by an instant replay of the same procession that ran over and over in my mind until I knew with 100% clarity the course of action I needed to take. I blew my whistle as loud as I could.

John, my mentor, and a professionally trained basketball referee, was immediately at my side. “Did you see something? You were still a ways away, but I was at the other end and did not have a good view. This is clearly your call.”

Did I see something?

Thirty years later, I can still see in that same cosmic, instant replay every detail of Michael’s attempt to put away that semi-final game for his team. Michael steals the ball from Bob. Bob chases Michael to the basket. Both players leap upward and toward the basket at the same time. Michael attempts to lay the ball into the basket. The ball falls short and bounces off the rim. Bob gets the rebound and signals time out. I see no mischievous contact between them. I blow my whistle anyway.

But hold on a minute. As Michael and Bob leap together at the basket—no light between them—surely their bodies must have come together even a little. Of course, there would have been contact. I squint at the replay rolling across my mind’s eye. Is that Bob’s hip grazing Michael’s thigh, edging him off balance? Does Bob’s hand, lunging at the ball, move too fast for my eyes to register that it just brushes Michael’s arm as Michael lightly releases the ball? Was there a push? A pull? For his part, does Michael’s non-shooting arm or elbow knock Bob away? And in all the kinetics, does whatever I see, or think I see, or choose to see (or wish to see), merit blowing my whistle in the closing seconds of a semi-final game?

“Did you see something?”

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Albert Einstein

The scientific method involves making a hypothesis from observable data and then repeatedly testing that hypothesis, smothered with data, noting whether it holds up again and again. Like the old saw about a tree falling in the woods with no one there to hear it, if the data cannot be observed and repeated, assay after assay, at least from the point of vantage of that seat in the theater, the theory cannot hold. It was a scientist—Einstein, himself—who said something to the effect that the definition of insanity was to repeat the same assay again and again, expecting a different result. But what result was I expecting?

My timeless machine shifts into reverse. It’s the previous month on the same court, and I’m reffing a game solo between the same DC team and one whose players I know since they attend my same church. Michael, the player who will later miss the game-winning lay-up in the semi-finals, loses his cool—officiating alone that game, I did not see whatever trigger sent him off—blurts out something unspeakable in a house of worship. When I blow my whistle and penalize him for the outburst, his temperature blows sky-high as he lets fly a string of profanity, this time leading to his automatic ejection from the game. With their best player on the bench, the DC team has no hope of prevailing, and they lose the game. Afterward, when I approach Michael for what I hope will be a teaching moment—Michael plays for a youth team, and I am a full-grown adult, you see—I receive instead a moment of my own. Because from where Michael sits, I ejected him from the game so that all my buddies from my comfortable suburban neighborhood could maintain their hold over his inner-city boys that have never in their lives gotten a fair shake.

When a referee is thought to have missed an obvious call, cynical spectators sometimes accuse the official of afterward making what’s known as a “make-up” call to compensate for the earlier blunder. Was that why I felt so certain I had to blow my whistle? Was the foul I called on Bob in the semi-final game my way of smoothing over any hard feelings Michael might still harbor after his ejection from the game weeks before? Was my knee-jerk reaction to Michael’s missed lay-up nothing more than a naïve attempt to put right, in the single blast of a whistle, years of systemic injustices Michael and his team felt they had suffered? Is make-up officiating even ethical?


Years later, I would have an insightful conversation on perspective with Stephen Covey. We had lived in the same town for the first 19 years of my life, and he and my father had been business partners on a couple of small projects. I had met Steve a few times socially in my youth, even introducing him as the featured speaker at my high school graduation. In 1995, the two of us happened to be conducting seminars at the same hotel in Pebble Beach, California. We bumped into one another on a lunch break, and after catching up—Mr. Seek-First-To-Understand only wanted to ask about Kari and me and the well-being of her parents and mine—I managed to squeeze in a question about principle-centered leadership, a concept Steve had written a book about. I had recently met with his consulting team to explore how the concept of principle-centeredness could be applied to systems architecture. “What if,” I put to them, “I could use your system to derive the architectural principles of an organization?”

“You don’t understand, Scott,” they had replied. “The principles we’re espousing are altogether separate from what you’re talking about. They’re also quite specific and not really intended to be transferred into a different context.”

So, at lunch that day, I asked Steve how far his metaphor of True North-ness extended? Citing Bohm’s idea that the words theory and theater shared the same Greek roots, I asked him whether he thought the relatively minuscule difference in angle between a woman looking at the North Star while standing on the shore of New Zealand’s Lake Wanaka replicated the same perspective of the two of us basking in Pebble Beach, California’s bright sunshine and who could not yet see the night sky. Will all three of us experience, as it were, the same stage play?

In reply, Steve asked if I was free the next hour, as there was something he wanted me to see. It was my good fortune that I had a break in my speaking schedule.

I am a child of God
And he has sent me here

Naomi Ward Randall

When I entered his workshop, Steve was reviewing with a room full of human resources professionals some technical aspects of the many resources spread across their tables: an assortment of charts, gadgets, and dials that, without context, I had no basis for understanding them. After I’d been standing in the back of the room for a few minutes, he cued up a video of a people in Mauritius who lived simply compared to the clamor and press of Western society. Once the video began to play, Steve joined me in the back of the room as we watched the video together. Speaking of the harmony of life in the African village juxtaposed ironically with the miscellany cluttering the desks in the foreground, Steve said to me, eyes taking in the two conflicting scenes before us, “Scott, I do all this—the tables, the graphs, the logbooks—to bring these folks into the same ‘theater’ as you call it, so we can explore truths like this“—he gestures towards the village. (In a university course 20 years earlier, Dr. Covey taught me that truth was not things in and of themselves but the knowledge of those things, an indirection that would one day lead me to the title of this blog.) “If I could just teach these people to sing I Am a Child of God, no such translation would be necessary.


[This post was originally published in two parts. Following is Part Two of the original assay.]


Knowledge engineering is like looking for a black cat in a dark room and all the lights are out, and the cat was never there to begin with, and somebody yells, “I found the cat!”

Terry Hipolito

In Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box, Charles Darwin is said to have predicted of his many theories on organic evolution that when the instruments of observation to hand at the time—he was speaking of the levels of light and magnification possible with his current microscopes—when powerful machines will one day peer deeper behind the cell wall than they, who knows but that his views might then benefit from recalibration.

Darwin’s candor calls up an image of Einstein’s frustration over one of his most compelling theories he could not prove because of a lack of available knowledge. “I need more math!” he famously exclaimed. Although it would take mathematicians years to come up with it, the math Einstein called for was eventually produced and his theory posthumously proven.

An impatient scientist myself, I am always on the lookout for a shortcut. My first day of high school, my speech class teacher Roger Moore, guaranteed an ‘A’ grade to anyone who would never miss a day of class. On hearing this, I made certain, rain or shine, in sickness and in health—even if I missed every other class on my schedule that same day—I would never miss Speech. What Moore neglected to tell us was that his course was a practicum where every single class period, every single student, would be expected to stand before the class and, well, speak! And so I did. And so I did—earn every hour of that ‘A’ grade.

The next year, my geometry teacher, Richard Blackett, probably didn’t have practicum on his mind when after I asked during the lecture on angle bisection whether trisection was a thing, he replied, “Let me put it this way, Scott: were you to prove the trisection of an angle using the same simple compass you just used to bisect an angle, I will guarantee you an ‘A’ grade for this course. After school that day, when I recounted to my father, a math graduate, the condition and promise of Blackett’s challenge, he just laughed and said, “Forget the grade, I’ll give you the Nobel Prize!”

After Blackett threw down that glove, I stopped listening to his lectures and focused all my geometry class time attempting on trisecting the angle. Pretty soon, lacking table space, I stopped attending class altogether to work on the problem in the library where I could spread out my paper. I stayed up late working on it, sometimes worked on it Saturdays, a sacrifice I had never before made in the name of learning. It got to where Blackett’s challenge so consumed me that when taking a 50-mile bike ride one Saturday after staying up all night to work on the problem, I more than once fell asleep at the handlebars, dreaming of the problem for a few seconds before jolting back awake.

Did you see something?

I never proved the trisection—nor earned the Nobel Prize, When near the end of the term I showed my work to Mr. Blackett, which included a repeatable method I had devised to approximate a trisection, he mumbled something about calculus, whatever that was, and told me that while he wouldn’t give me the A, he would allow me to sit for the final in two weeks on the condition I turn in all of my homework for the term. To my surprise, eight weeks of assignments—“Wax on. Wax off”—hadn’t been so bad; and the final felt to me like a repeat of the concepts I had stumbled upon during my practicum. When I later confronted calculus formally, I recognized in its “close enough for the math we have today” approximation of something more absolute, if unobtainable. If Einstein needed more math, think of what the rest of us must lack.


In the closing minutes of that basketball game, I had seen, or sensed, or only imagined I saw something: whether in my mind’s eye or my actual eyes, I still cannot be certain. Even if what I saw was only an approximation of something, an approximation of what?

“Remember, Scott,” I can hear Dr. Covey say as I write this, “The truth of something is not the thing itself, only the knowledge of it.”

How closely can my observation of a thing ever be to the thing itself? And if an approximation, how much more math do I need to prove the truth of it?

“You sure took long enough to blow your whistle,” Bob confesses.

“Did you see something?”

According to the rulebook, the answer to John’s question should have been an unequivocal no. I had literally not seen anything amiss during the play. Not a hand out of place, not a hip where it shouldn’t have been, figuratively speaking, even a misplaced hair. And as I write this, in the entirety of the image of that mid-air “get together, “ let’s call it—it was by no means a” collision”—an image I can still see continually before me, I cannot prove even physical contact, let alone a foul. But there was something. There just had to be.

“Did you see something?” John keeps asking. Or maybe I just keep hearing it.

“Yes, John,” I finally say, “I saw something,” leaving out the bit—not in the rulebook—where I blew my whistle, not because of anything I had seen, but for something I had only sensed, The moment Michael took his final shot, an unmistakable, unknowable, and voiceless approximation of knowledge passed through my entire body.

“Scott. Blow your whistle. Now.”

“Then we’re good,” was John’s immediate and judgment-free reply.

I sighed a breath of relief. But marveled, not for the last time, about what had just gone down.

As John and I set the formation for Michael to take his free throws, I feel on me the penetrating eyes of all Bob’s teammates, and now that I think of it, half the attending crowd. What must they be thinking? And why hasn’t Bob complained? Why isn’t anybody yelling, even swearing at me the way Michael had done in the earlier game? Something isn’t right. Or is it just me second-guessing my call? The answer comes from the unlikeliest of sources.

Michael has taken his place at the free-throw line. To hand him the ball, I need to pass in front of Bob, lined up for the potentially deciding attempt, the only person besides Michael who knows what really happened the previous play. I know for a fact that I have no proof of anything. But as I pass by Bob, without looking up, he mutters something under his breath, almost inaudibly, and only to me. It is the tenderest of mercies. It is the answer to so many questions. It is the closest approximation to proof I will ever get.

“You sure took long enough to blow your whistle,” Bob confesses.



And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;

Joseph Smith, The Doctrine and Covenants, Section 93, Verse 24

In the 1980s, I sometimes began the week-long AI courses I taught to IBM customers with a vague nod to Erwin Schrödinger, the theoretical physicist partly responsible for conceiving what we today call the multiverse. In his famous thought experiment, he pictured a cat simultaneously considered both alive and dead at the same moment when unobserved from outside of a closed box, inside of which the cat’s fate was linked to a subatomic event that may or may not have occurred. For the experiment—don’t try this at home—a cat is placed into a box alongside a glass vial of cyanide gas, a hammer, a Geiger counter, a triggering mechanism, and a single radium atom. Radium-224, the radioactive substance that illuminates now-old-fashioned, glow-in-the-dark watch faces, has a half-life of three-and-a-half days. (The time it takes a radioactive substance to lose 50 percent of its radioactivity is called its half-life.) But because individual radioactive atoms decay at unpredictable rates, half-life is meant to represent decay in the aggregate, when all the atoms are taken together. (Your radium old-fashioned watch face mileage may vary.) For the radium-224 molecule placed in the box with the cat, the moment it will decay is basically random. It could happen today at 3:42 PM, or sometime next Wednesday.

After a lid is placed on the box, as the observer awaits the fate of the cat, Schrödinger’s thought experiment proceeds as follows, keeping in mind that because atomic decay is in this case a random event, the cat may or may not survive the experiment. And according to some, both outcomes can occur simultaneously.

If/when/if the atom decays, the Geiger counter measures the release of the radiation, which triggers the hammer to fall on the glass vial containing the cyanide gas, releasing it into the box such that upon inhaling the gas the cat succumbs. But since the observer cannot predict if and when the radium atom has decayed, what is she to make of the fate of the cat at any given moment if she is not allowed to take off the lid to confirm whether the cat is still breathing? Among other outcomes—think whether subatomic particles even exist or merely tend to do so (as some have posited)—Schrödinger’s thought experiment begs whether its observation alone causes matter to alter itself. The idea that merely looking at something might make it terrifying, not to mention mind-boggling. Never take the hypothetical lid off the hypothetical box and the hypothetical cat might live forever–hypothetically speaking. Or die in five minutes.

That was a long intro to explain the short intro I gave my AI class. We taught it to people we used to call “knowledge engineers” because their job was to design machines that could think for themselves. In that era of AI development, we basically spoon-fed knowledge into computers, hoping to prime them into doing so. I usually taught the week-long course with my colleague Terry Hipolito, a fellow IBMer and philosophy major from whose rich repertoire of biting but always delightful logic I concocted a geeky icebreaker that went something like the following:

If software engineering is like looking for a black cat in a dark room with all its lights out

And systems engineering is like looking for a black cat in a dark room with all the lights out, but before you begin to look for the cat, unbeknownst to you, someone has broken into the room and snatched it away...

Knowledge engineering is like looking for a black cat in a dark room, and all the lights are out, and the cat was never there to begin with, and somebody yells, “I found the cat!”


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