Saturday, October 31, 2009

Clanking Weirdness

Let him that has understanding….it won’t work.  This one looks as if because there’s more weight on the left side the balls will trundle round anticlockwise for ever. No they won’t. The balls will inevitably come to rest.

I have a friend (yes, at least one) who is obsessed with the idea of building a device which will fly in the face of the Universe’s inexorable rule that entropy always increases in order to get energy for nothing – a perpetual motion machine, in other words. I forbore to gently tell him that the last tiny frisson of excitement in this arena was stamped on firmly after the discovery of the neutrino and the debunking of cold fusion.  

The conversation ran something like this…

 “You know what, geometry gets in the way, man. Every time. You can try things over and over, and eventually you’re gonna figure out  that the geometry of the universe, and the physical laws constrained by that geometry are all conspiring to do one thing: absolutely prevent the possibility of a perpetual motion machine.”

“Yeah, OK, but I’m still going to try…”

He’s from an Arabic culture, thus has the commercial morals of a Levantine usurer, probably firmly believing that the sweat of one’s brow will overcome the immutability of physical law.

A comprehensive book on the theory of imaginary devices may be an enterprise best suited to some very old, very wise, very patient man. I like to imagine that one day perhaps I might become a guy like that. Old people need hobbies, in order to keep Alzheimer’s and dementia at bay so I’ll be able to retire in a luxuriant garden of clanking weirdness.
This is an image of Oroborus, an ancient alchemical symbol. Looks like a dog chasing its tail, doesn’t it…

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mise en Abyme

A friend used this phrase recently, and I confess I had to look it up, it’s meaning having been only half-remembered, since I must have last heard it at school. Which is a curious paradigm, since I find that a mise en abyme  is, inter alia, is a play of signifiers within a text, of sub-texts mirroring each other, like a film within a film, endlessly repeating an alternative virtual reality, like Gödel’s eternal braid. The image that springs to mind is from one of the Hannibal Lecter films of a moray eel, turning endlessly, a living Möbius strip.
We revisit the past, but imperfectly. Data is lost and the reality on second visit is never quite the same as at first. Hemingway once wrote that ‘the past is a foreign country’, but our past is familiar in a detached, reflective sense, small wrinkles in the continuum of reflections change the way we now see what was once so familiar. Theological praxis, on the other hand, is supposed to work in reverse; the ‘cloud of unknowing’ rolls away and things which seemed fuzzy and vague take on sharper clarity.
This in mind, I found myself musing about mathematics, symmetry and intelligence. Gödel’s great contribution was that all logical systems of any complexity are, by definition, incomplete; each of them contains, at any given time, more true statements than it can possibly prove according to its own defining set of rules.
Gödel's theorem has been used to argue that a computer can never be as smart as a human being because the extent of its knowledge is limited by a fixed set of axioms, whereas people can discover and hence make use of unexpected truths which sometimes surprise them. It plays a part in modern linguistic theories, which emphasise the power of language to come up with new ways to express ideas. The implication is that we can never entirely understand ourselves, since our minds, like any other closed system, can only be sure of what it ‘knows’ about itself by relying on what it in reality knows about ‘itself’. Is consciousness, then, merely a superset of the Universe?
The hall of mirrors eventually distorts the image beyond recognition. Put another way, it makes the science of lying almost as precise as Euclidean geometry.
‘we work our jobs, collect our pay.
Believe we’re gliding down the highway when in fact, we’re slip slidin’ away.’
Paul Simon
The image is of a strange loop. Kind of....

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Spaces, Places

I suppose it's part of getting more mature - I won't say 'old' since in my heart I'm 28 with a Testarossa - but I've been thinking about places. We create echoes of remembrance about place - why do we photograph them - and the echoes resonate down the years, becoming sepia toned and mellow like fine Armagnac. Some are simply breathtaking, others nestle quietly in the interstices of  experience, of themselves inconsequential, Koestler's 'shrugs of eternity'. 
Paris is one of the oldest cities in Europe, a place for grown-ups, urbane and well-cut, like a good suit. The Merovingian kings founded palaces here, St Denis, apostle to the Gauls, was beheaded here, a statue on the left portal of Notre Dame depicts him holding his head, and many more suffered the same fate at the hands of Madame la Guillotine in the ironically named Place de la Concorde, kicking and screaming as they were led from the Conciergerie to their fate. It's barely less dangerous now - get in the wrong lane and one circles forever around the seventh circle of hell. 

This is a quiet Montmartre. Many thanks, BB. At night, it's one of my favourite places.

The sprawl of greater Istanbul from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara with seventeen million souls straddling Asia and Europe bisected by the deep, fast flowing Bosphorus has been inhabited continuously for two thousand seven hundred years, as Byzantium, Constantinople and finally, in 1930, Istanbul
Devotion to Artemis was especially favoured by the Byzantines for her aid in having protected them from the incursions of Philip of Macedon. Her symbols were the crescent and star, and 'the walls of her city were her provenance', which were later echoed in the Ottoman conquest of 1453 when the Islamic crescent ruled for almost four hundred and fifty years.

It'd be all too obvious to post something grand like a shot of the Suleimaniya Mosque or Hagia Sofia - the mosaics are quite beautiful - instead, this is Tarabya, where I used to live - with the restored marina and presidential palace on the shoreline. Flower-lovers attend the annual tulip festival and you can almost see my old apartment on the hillside.
So much for nostalgia, a dish best consumed in small quantities, with an appropriate coulis of reality.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Trouser on Earth

A colleague of mine, of necessity unmarried, has a distinctly lurid taste in shirts. Or, more precisely, the spectral concatenation of a purple shirt accompanying a green tie. I think it's probably something to do with the Fourier transform of the combination that triggers the collywobbles and eye-crossingly seasick reactions. Said colleague goes about his business with blind, cavalier insouciance, entirely oblivious to the chaos and mayhem he is causing to those around him, like a jet-ski at full throttle in a swimming pool filled with the Mothers and Toddlers Group. There really are some gentlemen who should not be allowed out to buy clothes unsupervised, but I am not, I think, one of them. It's time for me to lay up for myself treasure on earth in the form of a couple of pairs of pants and perhaps a shirt or two from my tailor. Apart from the fact that this involves having to go to the Fabric Souk - stubbing a live cigarette out in my eye is more appealing - it must be said that   purchasing is rapid, convenient and blissfully short. I walk in and grunt at my tailor, who appears to recognise me. A raised eyebrow indicates that the measurements and required design are the same as last time. He writes meaningless hieroglyphs down in his book like a mediaeval scribe, hands me a card with the job number on it and I am free to leave, returning in three days, having invariably lost the card.

Having been forced to wear bum-freezers at school, I do rather insist that shirtings are made extra long in order to insulate nether regions which have become a little more gravitationally challenged with the passage of time. Perhaps something in a gentle mauve or, perhaps, a fetching lime green, but not, I think, together.

In deference to those who derive childlike amusement from my modest mathematical skill, the curve is a reasonably accurate spectral representation of what happens when purple and green are put together. Pass the bucket.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Weaving Dreams

I sometimes wonder about church and preaching. In my more cavernous depths, a small, persistent candle still flickers, ignited in childhood – my teddy bears were spoken sternly to concerning the condition of their souls and my mother did the readings since I couldn’t manage the long words. Later, I was originally seduced by what one might describe as the ‘ambiance of heaven’. I listened to the dreamweaver as he led me to Zion’s mountain and left me there to be met.  Later, I took up my own tambourine and showed others the foothills. 
To succeed, dreamweavers are marketers; they have to touch dreams. They must ensure that the product is rationally consistent, also emotionally charged by creating something worthy of the company’s original taste. They must construct a theatrical setting, an ambiance where worth and excellence are transformed into unforgettable experiences. They must assign a name to that setting: a credible and exciting ‘brand’ that pulls the customers in and builds their expectations. They must relay an alluring, seductive message that mingles poetry with reality, truth with romance. Finally, they must find the customers worth seducing.
Everybody’s a salesman. Whether seeking to convince someone to buy an idea or influence an employer, win someone’s love, everyone’s selling something.  Many preachers think that selling their product is accomplished solely through recitation of facts, teachers being secondary offenders. However, the individual that makes theatre, creates an unforgettable ambiance, converting fact into poetry, will become the more effective communicator. No product is more excellent and of more value than the believer’s.
One day, I should like the opportunity. There. I said it. Perhaps I’m going to regret having done so, since what one says is often what one gets.
If you’re uncomfortable with the word “seduce”, don’t be. Scripture is full of images about romantic love.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Little Boxes

I have been thinking about boxes, recently. Their size and uncertainty, principally.
At the end of the  nineteenth century, physics was intoxicated with Promethean hubris – or pride - false, insolent, and destructive.  As a young man eager to pursue physics, Max Planck was advised by the head of the physics department at Munich "The important discoveries [in physics] have been made.  It is hardly worth entering physics any more."  - a piece of advice he chose, wisely, not to listen to.  Classical physics-that is, Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism-seemingly accounted for all observed natural phenomena. The universe was aggressively deterministic, it seemed.  The planets, whirling eternally with inscrutable precision; the ebbing and flowing of the tides; the oscillations of a pendulum; the way bodies exchange energy and momentum; waves of light propagating through space – all slaves to determinism  Some claimed that given the initial conditions of the universe, all of its future behaviour could be precisely calculated.
The box was, after all, finite in size. God had been corralled into a space, unimaginably huge, but finite nevertheless.
Planck chose not to listen to advice, plunging headlong into an abyss of unknown dimensions and alhough he did not initially appreciate it, he opened the door for a new paradigm that would assert itself with such vigour that virtually no scientific endeavour would be left untouched by it: quantum physics.   In particular, he had stumbled into the thorny briar of wave-particle duality.  Light seems to propagate like a wave and exchange energy like a particle.  Einstein remarked: ‘’All the fifty years of conscious brooding have brought me no closer to the answer to the question, "what are light quanta? Of course today every rascal thinks he knows the answer, but he is deluding himself ‘’.
We continue to delude ourselves –in spite of de Broglie and the mighty Erwin Schrodinger, who took flight to a villa in the Swiss Alps in 1925, leaving his wife behind and gathering a former Viennese girlfriend.  What would come of this (presumably) quiet period of reflection would change the landscape of physics for ever.  Indeed, it changed the way we as a species comprehend the universe we live in.
The image is of a one-dimensional box of ideal rigidity constructed to solve the simplest one-dimensional Schrodinger wave equation.
And yet, a box is a box is….a box. The dimensions of the box are not ours to measure.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cruel Britannia

The Hilton hosts the odd event here, some stylish, some not. I was persuaded to go to the British Business Forum's annual jamboree the other night which celebrates the best of British, and all Britannia was in evidence. The BLS or British Ladies Society, wot lunches a lot, had a pitch cheek by jowl with the Kuwait Nomads who are a spectacularly bad rugby team who lost with cheerfully metronomic consistency all last year. Two members of the BLS are pictured above, clearly enjoying a pleasantry or two. There is a prize for the best caption, especially those referencing the object the lady on the right is holding. 

Competitors like the Sheraton put on the best canapes, just to show the four-stars how it ought to be done, expensive schools wheeled out their - mostly Pakistani - best and brightest and in spite of remorseless persuasion to the point of outright leverage, I failed to secure the raffle prize of a business class ticket to New York.

The Church of England was also present, and was breaking the law. It is forbidden to  display crosses publicly here; they got away with it by displaying a Celtic version which might have been mistaken for a decorative hubcap by naive locals. Church here has been described as truck stop where expats go for a whiff of familarity, rather like the beery bonhomie of English pubs on wet Sunday lunchtimes. All of which got me wondering what kind of people attend - or perhaps, log in to - St Pixels, the Internet Church. This link is the  joinup page, which I know you will all scramble to, pay your fiver, and fill in, thereby enjoying all privileges of membership. I don't, of course, join anything. Like Winston Churchill, I rather lean towards supporting like a flying buttress, from the outside. I did look on the Worship page, which revealed the following...

I rather wondered why the worshippers had chosen such unflattering avatars. Then I read the prayers and all became clear. How very cruel of me. Can't wait till Friday service...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Symbols Mislaid

Whatever anybody says, I do quite like Dan Brown's writing. Not quite as much as the New York Times, it seems, but, enough. Purists argue, no doubt using big words like 'metonymy' that his style lacks class, but I think the associations between 'da Vinci' and 'Symbol' are intact, since similarly eerie nerve endings are remorselessly tweaked. The writing is a little bit too excitable for my own leisurely taste, I prefer my plotlines to unfold gently, curling upwards like good cigar smoke, and frequent and persistent use of italics is a technique I only employ when writing handouts for children with short attention spans. His, then,  is not an entry ticket to great writing, as if by picking up a Dan Brown and enjoying it will provide the reader with a gateway into literature; perhaps having finished it he might pick up 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' as his next good read. Cynic, know thyself. Bottom line is no one really knows why the hell we're here or what we are doing, but we have had a riot of a time trying, however clumsily, to explain it all and convince others that we're right. Some even try to tell us they hold the key to understanding, and the frisson is, we're tempted to believe them.

That's why Brown has had so much success. At times like these, we're tempted to have little faith in anything and we'd all like to see the systems that failed us get a good kick in the slats. We can't help but try to make sense of it all with these gigantic brains. Who doesn't prefer a nut to the glow and the haze, especially when we have a chance to crack it?

The image is of a piece of early Native American pottery found in Arizona. It is significant because of its striking resemblance to the Masonic compass and square.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sop to Cerberus

The world becomes stranger. 'Promising' was often a word used on a school report to indicate that a child might perhaps do quite well, given a following wind and some encouragement. Barack Obama might have earned a first presidency report which could use such a phrase. Unfortunately, so far we have all froth and comparatively little beer, a black hole of US debt which has weakened the world's most universal currency, Afghan militants with ascendant momentum, a policy of apparent appeasement in the Middle East, despite consistently transparent lies from the self-appointed guardians of Al Aqsa, and finally attempting to deal with a psychotic Iranian leader, undeniably capable of producing a working nuclear device.
But, the Nobel? Alfred Nobel's stipulation that the prize go "to the person who shall have done the most or best work for the fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace" seems hardly  appropriate since Obama simply has not had sufficient time to sweet talk Washington hawks and to justify being awarded it. The Committee can be capricious and not only in respect of the peace Prize. Rosie Franklin, from my old College, should have got the 1962 Medicine Prize over Watson and Crick, an example of the unpredictable nature of the award where one does the work and someone else cops the credit. And yet, faute de mieux. Morgan Tsvangirai is probably as deserving, or not, but if a currency is devalued, it takes longer to recover than if it were not. So might it be here. Obama promises much and is undeniably the fastest thinker on his feet that Washington has had for many years, but even this might not be enough. America is like a tennis star on the wane. She has had more than her share of aces but the overarm muscle isn't quite what it was on the world stage and others are flexing their biceps with an eye on the glittering prizes. It remains to be seen whether the Nobel comittee's sop to Cerberus will be enough to energise the beast sufficiently to regain the high political ground. 

Depressing, isn’t it…

I rather prefer the IgNobel Prizes, I think. At the 2009 ceremony, Public Health Prize winner Dr. Elena Bodnar demonstrated her invention — a brassiere that, in an emergency, can be rapidly converted into a pair of protective face masks, one for the brassiere wearer and one to be given to some needy bystander. Should swine flu strike, we look to the ladies for protection.
The Mathematics Prize was an exercise in standard form. Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s oxymoronic Reserve Bank was awarded the Prize by giving  people an everyday way to deal with a wide range of numbers - from very small to very big. His bank prints  notes with denominations ranging from one cent ($.01) to one hundred trillion dollars ($100,000,000,000,000).
In 2008, the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology and the citizens of Switzerland were winners of the Peace Prize for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity. It's only a heartbeat away, Barack...

Elena Bodnar clearly has her brains in her bra and is a very clever girl in consequence. Here she is at Harvard with facemasks and friends.