Thursday, January 28, 2010

Time After Time

One's students never cease to interest, elevate and amuse. One young man came to me today and asked me in all seriousness whether or not I thought it might be possible for man to travel at the speed of light. I intend to find out why and by whom he was sent to me. For those who don't know, light travels awfully quickly, one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles a second, or a whisker under 300 million metres per second, to be precise, which would mean that we could travel from our current location to New York City in 0.03406 seconds, neglecting time dilation because of relativistic effects, and sunlight takes a little under nine minutes to reach us. Should things go very dark very fast, we might surmise that something went really badly pear-shaped with the sun a bit less than ten minutes ago. I used to set my A level students the problem - how long would it take at maximum available velocity to reach our nearest star system in Alpha Centauri, a distance of 4.2 light years, which normally draws them to the conclusion that space travel, apart from grandiose notions of visits to Mars at caterpillar speed, is likely to be some considerable time in development. If any reader is sufficiently anally retentive to try to work it out, I'd be happy to provide a solution for them. Daisy - Mae, don't even go there....

Returning to the curiosities of time dilation - space travellers would come back younger at speeds close to the speed of light than if they'd stayed at home with a good book - and yet our terrestrial perception of time is so fragile and subjective. The miraculous deliverance of a fifteen year old girl from the rubble of a building in Port-au-Prince today, fifteen days after the earthquake, gives a new perspective on time for the rest of us. Each hour must have seemed like a century and as the days wore on, her candle of hope must have flickered perilously. Good news.
My thanks to Sarah Hoyt for the image of the cover of her short stories about time travel and, of course, the divine Cyndi Lauper for the song...

Monday, January 25, 2010

My Cat and Other Selfish Creatures

Animals. Are they really worth the trouble? My cat is selfish to the point of Cleopatraesque imperiousness, quacking like a duck when either attention or food is required and treats me with sublime and effortless indifference at all other times. She demands to be let out on to the balcony to take the evening air and when she's had enough, merely looks at me, disdaining to actually ask that the patio door be opened to her. Our preoccupation with other species is incomprehensible. Live and let live. A few choice interactions follow, beginning with a thoroughly sensible offering from Greenpeace, not usually remembered for its lack of interest in cross-species communication.

Citing "organization-wide disinterest in a truly mundane species of bird," Greenpeace announced recently that it is ending its decades-long fight to save the endangered Northern Spotted Owl. "For some reason, we devoted more than 30 years to trying to save this unspectacular little owl," Greenpeace associate director Tomas Lindsburger said. "But somewhere along the way, I guess we just came to our senses and kind of lost interest." Lindsburger said the environmental group plans to shift its focus to "saving animals that people actually see every once in a while." Like pandas. Obviously.
Meanwhile, Arkady Raskolnikov, the longsuffering comander of the International Space Station reported yesterday that a raccoon, safe and well despite finding his way there via the centripetal orbiter, had wrought havoc on board."Yesterday, we found fruit rinds in the EVA suits and helmets, and the day before, it was garbage strewn all over the Pirs Docking Module," Arkady said via a video-link to Russian mission control. "Today, a controller on the starboard truss failed because the power cord was chewed clean through. The little guy's curious, that's for sure." Captain Raskolnikov plans to move to Kentucky. Closer to home, MacArthur Park visitor Cindy Bliss, 26, reported that she was disappointed to discover that the ducks she'd fed for more than twenty minutes yesterday were only interested in her bread. "I thought I'd really connected with them", she said. "But as soon as the bread ran out, they swam off to another part of the lake. All that time, they were just using me for my crumbs." Bliss said she has not felt so rejected since the "squirrel and peanuts incident" last year, and matters were worsened by the agonies of indecision she experienced when trying to decide whether to feed the ducks or give the bread to a homeless man in the park. Her therapist has taken control of the situation and the prognosis is excellent. Cindy suffers from agoraphobia and is eagerly awaiting Obama's long-promised help for the middle classes.
The author has a headache and two middle-class pandas are celebrating their good fortune.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Zen of 'Avatar'

Blogtrawling has its rewards. I ran across this (paraphrased, italics mine) the other day on a 'support Palestine' site.
Avatar may well be the biggest anti War film of all time. It stands against everything the West is identified with. It is against greed and capitalism, it is against interventionalism, it is against colonialism and imperialism, it is against technological orientation, it is against America and Britain. It puts Blair and Bush on trial without even mentioning their names. It enlightens the true meaning of ethics as a dynamic judgmental process rather than fixed moral guidelines (such as the Ten Commandments or the 1948 Human Rights Declaration). It throws a very dark light on our murderous tendencies towards other people, their belief and rituals. But it doesn’t just stop there. In the same breath, very much like German Leben philosophers - presumably he means Schopenhauer, it praises the power of nature and the attempt to bond in harmony with soil, the forest and the wildlife. It advises us all to integrate with our surrounding reality rather than impose ourselves on it. Very much like German Idealists and early Romanticists, it raises questions to do with essence, existence and the absolute. 
For Schopenhauer, rejecting Hegel's optimism, human desire was futile, illogical, directionless, and, by extension, so was all human action in the world. I wonder if the same can be said of the Hegelian zeitgeist which the author alleges is evident in 'Palestine'. I don't believe it for a moment.  Hamas's only interest in the collective consciousness is in the subjugation of the masses and the destruction of Israel. So much for integration.

Satan's Chains

Sometimes, the church doesn't really do itself any favours. Pat Robertson has gone on record as suggesting that the recent earthquake in Haiti was the result of Haiti having made a 'pact with the Devil' if he would free them from French domination, contrasting the abject poverty of the Haitians with the relative prosperity of the Dominican Republic next door. It was delivered with all seriousness, in the gently avuncular tones that are his stock-in-trade.

Oh dear. A few more little gems here from Uncle Pat for us to mull over. I couldn't bring myself to actually publish the image. Click and you'll see why.

It is, as it happens, a matter of record that some kind of 'pact' did in fact take place. Haiti became the first black republic to declare its independence in 1804, after a prolonged, bloody and desperate struggle. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and has been plagued by political violence - a history some explain with religious mythology. A satanic pact allegedly took place on August 14, 1791, during a meeting of slave leaders planning to launch their war for independence, resulting in the chains of Satan rather than those of the French.

Haiti's rough history very probably can be traced to rather more tangible threads which from the beginning have contributed to its instability. Haiti was forced to pay France over 100 million francs - a huge sum - over the decades under the Royal Ordinance of 1825 in which Charles X demanded restitution for the loss of France's colony in exchange for diplomatic recognition. OK. Steal it first, then make them pay to take it back afterwards. Works for some...The problem for Haiti is that if it was a hell on earth under slavery, it was also so after the slave revolt. Enslaved Africans sent to Haiti to work under the lash and suddenly freed were hardly a model constituency for civil society and the cycle of plundering and autocracy within Haitian leadership has continued uninterrupted more or less ever since, including Papa Doc Duvalier, right up there with Joe Stalin and Saddam in the dictatorship stakes.

The religious right in the USA, guardians of morality, defenders of the faith and lordly dispensers, it would seem, of justice also, are themselves on morally shaky ground with such pronouncements. To describe Mr Robertson's observations as 'stupid' is an understatement.

The image is of Haitians at prayer.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Curious Tinkering

It's a new year. Again. Often at this time of year, I find my thoughts turning to fundamentals, bedrocks, concepts and mechanisms I think I know about, but need to revisit. First, a little joke.

The condensed matter physics department of Umbrage University challenged God to a creation competition. "Our amazing subatomicparanucleicprogenitator is programmed with all possible DNA sequences and every conceivable atomic structure. We can create calling birds, French hens, cheese, gold rings, BMW's  - anything you can name."
"Make a gooseberry" said God.
"No problem," said the physicists. "We just type 'gooseberry' in the database search and all the settings come up, put in some dirt, and click "create".... how ripe do you want it?"
"Just a moment," said God. "Get your own dirt...."
Whichever way we cut it, we're only observers. We think we can make things; in reality all we can do is recycle. We are empiricists - any manufacturing - even curious tinkering only happens because we think we can be creative with raw material which has in reality been already given to us. There's Promethean hubris here and arrogance beyond comprehension. The Large Hadron Collider produces spectacular images of exotic, short-lived particles. I wonder, could we fill a Mercedes-Benz with Semtex, blow it to pieces then painstakingly reconstruct its original dimensions from the fragments?
King Solomon was right. There is indeed 'nothing new under the Sun'.
Put another way, from James Cameron's new film 'Avatar' -"all energy is only borrowed and one day you have to give it back."