Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dawn Chorus

Greetings. This is one of Skip Morrow's less morose characters - the Ether Bunny, whose anaesthetic properties I am keen to discover.

I have written at length on the myth of Eostre of the dawn, thus will not weary this year's Easter readers with more of the same, except that the worship of Eostre was practised by 'Anglo-Saxon heathens", from which almost all will draw the wrong conclusions.

Neither shall I be rolling eggs down hills, painting them either red (for blood) or green (for spring), bowling them through long grass on the White House Lawn, nor eagerly hunting for them, cawing excitedly.

I shall, however be greeting the happy morn in the grounds of the British Embassy on Easter Sunday.  Why, exactly...let's just not go there, shall we? The fact that it is still days away and I feel the need to blog about it is testament to my dislike - sometimes with extreme prejudice - of early morning activities; the notion of a five mile run before breakfast - indeed the idea of breakfast consisting of little more than a cigarette and a cough - makes me want to throw up, and chirruping lustily before sunrise about the great benefits of the Resurrection to mankind, sublimely meritorious as they all undoubtedly are, has yet to generate much spiritual, emotional or even physical momentum. Perhaps later on, when civilised men drink espressos over the morning paper, I might manage a yelp or two of triumph.

In the meantime, I wondered which of my many female friends might care to receive one of these as a small Easter gift, including manufacturing instructions. Colour coded for each disciple, inclusive of Judas, the whole package is obtainable for less than seven dollars. Truly, a bargain.

Came the hour, came the man. In shock at being called upon to sing lustily at 5:30am after a sleepless night, returning, blessedly, at 8:30 to the People's Republic of Nod.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Cost of Outrage

I love this image. It's a view looking west from the ruins of Masada, perched 1300 feet  above the Judean wilderness. It's a fortress. Inaccessible and almost impossible to conquer without large troop commitment.

Protest has always been a risky undertaking. The Judaean revolt, according to Josephus - a pro-Roman historian - began in 66CE, provoked by Greeks sacrificing birds in front of a synagogue. The Roman garrison did not intervene and violence spread. Subsequently, Nero appointed Vespasian to crush the rebellion, which culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE. Tacitus records that six hundred thousand men and women took up arms. Those who fled and were caught by the Romans were summarily crucified. A year later, the mopping-up operation culminated in a siege where 10,000 Roman soldiers stormed the fortress at Masada to find almost 1,000 defenders had committed suicide rather than face defeat. Today, new graduates of the IDF are sworn in at a ceremony at Masada, with a climb to the top and the oath 'Masada shall not fall again'.

Outraged people take risks here, too, and their outrage is often well-founded, since human rights violations are so frequent here as to be almost commonplace. Brave souls publish editorials and articles in the national Press which expose events  and sometimes even individuals, stripping perpetrators of their cloaks of secrecy, woven around family ties and tribal favours. There may be a payoff. Those who engage in such risky activities may feel a little like the defenders at Masada, nervously waiting.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Nested Boxes

Just for those with a love of numbers, this one...I know you're out there...
A toy is made from nested square boxes, as shown. The side of the outermost box is 10cm and the sides of the next one in touch the midpoints of the outer one.

Easy first. Find the sum of the perimeters of the first three boxes.
Harder. Find the sum of the perimeters of n boxes, n being a large number. It's easy to see that this value will tend to one number, so your task is to find that number.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fibonacci Again

In 1970, John Dixon showed that the number of steps in the Euclidean algorithm for two positive integers  is less than or equal to 2.078[log a+1] where a is the larger of the two positive integers. 
It would seem that, roughly once a year, I return to Fibonacci, perhaps because I love playing with numbers.

Plotting known Fibonacci number intervals at stable values of  phi against their corresponding difference values yielded an interesting and perhaps comparative result to Dixon's. The equation, which isn't very clear on the graph, reads y=2.078ln(x)+1, which seemed curious...
What fun. 

Especially as I was looking for a trivial solution for the Schwarzchild radius of a black hole under a nonlinear gravitational field, and Euclid only dealt with integers.

I have no idea what this means, if anything at all.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Shutter Island

Susan Sontag's commentary on the centenary of the cinema declared it to be in "ignominious, irreversible decline". "The hunt for more dramatic ... images," writes Sontag, "drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and a source of value .... The image as shock and the image as cliche are two aspects of the same presence" She added that "the commercial cinema has settled for a policy of bloated, derivative film-making...every film that hopes to reach the highest possible audience is designed as some kind of remake". This isn't really altogether fair, in the context of Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island". Part Gothic horror and part noir-thriller, we are taken on a spectacular, imaginative ride through the psychology of delusion. DiCaprio's character, Teddy, regards everything around him with suspicion, as he attempts to penetrate the real purpose of the maximum security facility in the title. Slipping in and out of reality, the character's increasingly disturbing paranoia seems grimly trying to hold on to normality in spite of monolithic apparent certainties which surround him. Acting talent is impressively abundant, superb design from Dante Ferretti, wonderfully original lighting by Robert Richardson, and Sandy Powell's costumes are 1950s surreal. Movie buffs will have plenty to say about Scorsese's allusions - the metaphor that America is slipping into a state of permanent delusion is not lost - but diCaprio's performance is the best I have seen this year. The image is of the Lighthouse, Shutter Island's Room 101, where hopeless cases undergo frontal lobotomies.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Suffer the Children

This is a bit of a rant, really, so if you're looking for my usual soothingly banal, sardonic humour, try somewhere else today.

The recent papal apology for the behaviour of Irish priests ignored the central issue - the appalling failures of an institution that systematically closed ranks, ignored the law, avoided scandal and shielded child rapists for years. The evidence that the Catholic Church was more concerned over its own reputation rather than the damage being inflicted on children is clear, unambiguous and damning. Benedict used the words 'misplaced concern' – which sounds altogether too whoopsie for me and he did not apologise for the cover up, only for the abuse, suggesting little new vision in Rome. Indeed whatever investigations are performed are done so under a cloak of secrecy. The ecclesiastical penalty for violation of secrecy by members of a tribunal so convened is excommunication, which probably means millions of years in purgatory with no ice-cream or virgins.

The church worldwide in every denomination has become painfully aware that there are now multiple documented cases where paedophiles in the clergy were identified and instead of being reported to the police, they were quietly moved to another diocese where they continued to abuse. Personally, I think it's obvious. Putting men with, let's say, a 'pastoral' – read 'controlling' turn of mind in situations where they have absolute authority, repressed homosexual tendencies and a degree of licence is asking for trouble. Unbelievers tend to tar us all with the same brush and when the hose is turned on, everybody gets wet.

In any other organisation there would be pressure for measures to be put in place to prevent this sort of abuse from being propagated again, so, why is it that Rome considers herself to be above or at least, beyond the law? She does not, in public, of course, but one only has to go and listen to a Catholic priest in full flow when the might of apostolic tradition as personified in the priestly role of the man at the front - the Vicar – God's personal representative, harangues the flock for imperfect adherence to rules and catechisms, to see that as an organisation, she believes herself answerable only to God.
Atheism looks tempting at this juncture. But, this is the view, not of an atheist but of an outraged believer, albeit a persistent kicker against the goad of tradition and political enslavement that churches condemn their adherents to with such resounding moral virtue. The reader will perhaps surmise that I hold the office of priesthood in Vaticanus in scant esteem.

As a cul-de-sac, years ago when I read JB Phillips’ 'Your God is Too Small', I sensed that the majority of atheists had never encountered a plausible concept of God and they systematically reject playground dogma as a viable alternative to disbelief. They were still rejecting the man with the white beard that they had outgrown in their youth. It's strange how our mathematics and literature courses become gradually more interesting as we get older and more competent to appreciate them but catechetics and theology remain for too long in kindergarten and thus become of little value as we mature. I think that atheists are frequently people who are either still working out adolescent authority issues ( so why am I not one, then?) or are sincere people waiting to believe in a truly glorious, transcendent God who is not imprisoned by fuzzy descriptions and restricted vision that many Christians - even popular and persuasive televangelists peddling the opium that Marx derided us for - communicate.

Living here, the imams in full flow remind me a little of Catholic priests. One does not need to speak Arabic to catch the passion, fire and vitriol of the preacher as he discourses at full volume, indeed the neighbourhood for several blocks receives full benefit. It all sounds less about a loving, merciful Allah and more about ghastly penalties for sin. But, perhaps I am mistaken and interfaith dialogue begins elsewhere. On a cheering note, by way of conclusion , the Romish heretics might take a leaf from Reverend Timothy Lovejoy's book who said in a memorable episode of the Simpsons, when Marge Simpson refused to divorce Homer on the grounds that it was 'sinful', replied "just about everything is a sin, technically we can't even go to the bathroom".

Friday, March 19, 2010

Granny Smiths

The story is told of the old farmer who went to Church one Sunday morning. He was a man of few words. On his return, his wife asked him what the sermon was about. "Sin." he replied. The wife was a patient woman. "And..." she said. "Figgered the preacher was agin it." the man responded, before going off to milk the ducks, or whatever farmers do before Sunday lunch.
I re-read the account of the Fall, perhaps as small penance for my own real, imagined or alleged misdemeanours, imagining my own response to the temptress.
An apple is a fruit with a core - itself a fertility symbol - and multiple symbolic meanings. Wild crab-apples were gathered in ancient times, and full-sized varieties were already found in Central Europe in the Neolithic era. In ancient myth, the god of intoxication Dionysius was the creator of the apple, (and cider, presumably) which he presented to Aphrodite, goddess of love. Plus ca change. More erotic associations are obvious. In this way the apple acquired a somewhat ambiguous symbolism. The goddess Eris called for "the judgment of Paris" when she threw down a golden apple marked "for the most beautiful" (the "apple of discord" that in other languages corresponds to the English "bone of contention"); Helen of Troy was Paris' reward for choosing Aphrodite, but his abduction of Helen led to the Trojan War, a seriously discordant event, especially for Hector whose bloody corpse Achilles dragged behind his chariot around the city walls. Hercules had to brave great danger to retrieve the apples of the Hesperides from the far reaches of the west. On the other hand, the earth-goddess Gaea gave Hera an apple as a symbol of fertility upon her engagement to Zeus. In Athens, customarily, newlyweds divided and ate an apple when they entered the bridal chamber. Sending or tossing apples was a part of courtship. The Old Norse goddess Iduna guarded apples that brought eternal youth to whoever ate them. In the Celtic religion the apple was the symbol of knowledge handed down from ancestors.
It seems that in many mythologies apples and other multiseeded fruits have fertility overtones as well as resonances about knowledge and disobedience. The Genesis account may be a synthesis of many of them. I seem to be able to eat them without feeling particularly guilty, so the damage seems already to have been done.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Faith and Begob!

'Tis Paddy's Day, again, or 'Lá Fhéile Pádraig'. Even Google loves it. Worldwide, more Guinness is drunk today than on any other day of the year, allegedly; the St James' Gate brewery will no doubt celebrate anew and the Chicago River is dyed green. Yet, it was not always so. 1903 saw the first national holiday, over 150 years after the Boston Irish organised the first parade in 1737. The Government only backed it in 1995 to '"project, internationally, an accurate image of Ireland as a creative, professional and sophisticated country with wide appeal, as we approach the new Millennium." I'll remember that next time I get lost in Cork and ask for directions.
Today is a holy day of obligation for Irish Catholics and in times past, the faithful attended Church, then walked with their families in the garden, instead of sloshing down quarts of the black velvet and being badly behaved. 
Patrick was originally taken to Ireland as a teenage slave. Having escaped, he studied for the priesthood in Gaul, returning, somewhat irrationally, as a bishop to convert the heathen Celts, diplomatically focusing on royalty as well as the common people and his iconic shamrock which he used to explain the Trinity remains an enduring myth. He died, allegedly, on 17th March 461CE in Downpatrick. I wonder how he might have responded to what in 2007 Fr Vincent Twomey is quoted as remarking in 'The Word' that the anniversary of his death became an excuse for 'mindless, alcohol-fuelled revelry'. Perhaps he was thinking of the shortest Parade in the world, in Dripsey, Cork, a hundred yards between the village's two pubs. Just time to pour the next one..only a real Irish barmaid can draw a proper shamrock on the head...

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Getting it Right. More or less...

What follows is mostly nonsense but illustrates the traps we fall into when thinking is muddled. When I do a physics demonstration, my students assimilate that demonstration into what they already know about the world and how it works. They know that heavier things like bowling balls fall faster than lighter things like feathers, so when I drop a tennis ball and a basketball from the same height at the same time and they hit the ground together, well, the student body cries, they must weigh the same, right?  
First misconception.
Misconceptions are how we see the world. We each of us create a universe which we clothe with our misconceptions. We build our imperfect understanding of the world on cumulative experiences, most of which are subjective and misleading. What else could we do?
When we get more sophisticated, we call misconceptions “models”. The only difference is  - we know about them now.  For instance, I might have a misconception about alpha decay. A radioactive nucleus fires an alpha particle in one direction and, like the butt of a rifle; the nucleus recoils in the opposite direction. I’ve compared a microscopic event to an everyday occurrence, and it makes sense to a fourteen-year old.
Only it’s wrong. There’s no mechanism, spring, or store of potential energy inside a nucleus to allow it to fire off an alpha particle. Instead what happens is two protons and two neutrons suddenly, with no previous training or experience and, it seems, quite by accident find themselves stuck together and outside the nucleus by a process called quantum tunnelling. Which ones were 'chosen'? Er - dunno. Once there, the positive charge of the alpha and the much larger positive charge of the nucleus push against each other, sending the alpha flying in one direction and the nucleus recoiling in the other.
Oh, but that’s wrong, too. Alphas aren’t particles, at least not until I observe them, they're waves. The alpha is not in the nucleus, not really, but exists in all parts of the universe. It’s just that the most likely location is inside the nucleus – but just outside is relatively possible, too. And when the wave function collapses, the alpha might be in that relatively possible place that causes the pushing of positive against positive.
Good isn't it. We’re getting there, slowly.
I am used to a macroscopic world, where things like refrigerator magnets can repel one another. I know what that feels and looks like, and I imagine it for alpha particles, too. But that’s not right. Instead, virtual photons from the alpha and the nucleus interact, and that interaction produces the positive and negative momentum that sends the alpha and the nucleus flying.
Then there’s the fact that the alpha isn’t really made of two protons and two neutrons, but instead is made of  twelve quarks, each of which might actually just be a string, each of which . . .

As an afterthought, today is Pi day - 3/14 - geddit - the most transcendental, beautiful, irrational number, and also dear old uncle Albert's birthday. Sweet. Google's masterful design deserves a whirl because it'll be gone by tomorrow. Hope they don't mind...

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Time Traveller's Reluctant Spouse

Time travel is, of course, entirely possible, even believable. Perhaps I'm unusual (thanks everyone, the chorus, almost roar, can be heard a century hence) but when I was a child, I imagined that time was elastic, twisting effortlessly like a cosmic Mobius strip. I saw myself, drifting improbably, at breathtaking speed, travelling - sometimes with, sometimes without a companion, a mentor, an angel, if you will, into the vastnesses of space and time, untroubled by acceleration, heat or cold. I had no problem visualising Einstein's 'fabric' of spacetime, I'd been there, a cosmic tourist, a mildly curious and impartial observer.
Robert Schwentke's beautifully directed "The Time Traveler's Wife' had about it echoes of home, strange familiarity. Much as my own imaginings in the cosmos did not concern themselves with the tedious mechanisms by which it all happened, so the viewer is spared the agony of attempting to explain all the paradoxical comings and goings. It 'just happens' - the genetic anomaly of the eponymous Chicago librarian whose wife is the subject is not dwelt upon; he appears and disappears at will. Thus, much as I was, one is freed to enjoy the ride, not least because of the theme music - the graceful and evocative echo from childhood Christmases, Est Ist Ein Ros' Ensprungen - the Victorian words beautifully melding with Michael Praetorius' score of 1599 - full of Lutheran simplicity. I thought the image itself good enough to publish and the ancient score can actually be followed. Joy.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Clever Science

The London Times' jolting revelation the other day that exam results are rigged - they didn't use the word, but 'readjusted grade boundaries' about sums it up, filled me with horror. After I'd stopped laughing, of course. Any teacher who's been in the game more than five minutes realises that a) kids concentrate less and dislike writing b) they don't listen to explanations 'cause it's patronising, innit, and they c) respond momentarily to videos and PowerPoint presentations in inverse ratio to the time it took to produce them. Most are unable to write a coherent, properly punctuated sentence and the flow of logical reasoning is about as alien as it would be to an emperor penguin. All this as well as a Government that decides in advance how many A grades it wants. 
Universities offer remedial reading programmes, which may or may not be an oxymoron. It might seem a tad obvious that people able to benefit from  degree courses ought perhaps to have some rudimentary understanding of their letters. A book published in 2001 entitled 'Remedial Reading for University Students' suggests without a trace of irony that 'beyond word identification, the student may have demonstrated a need for assistance in comprehending ideas'. Quite so.
I began to wonder if I might just be turning a shade cynical, but, no, the dilemma extends to the production of 'science' programmes as well. The UK production Brainiac has a nodding acquaintance with science; is always good for an explosion or two - as long as there are pretty, semi-naked girls lighting the fuses - and sometimes holds the attention of clever thirteen-year-olds, especially when the signature caravan is blown up. In America, it would seem, the dilemma is more acute. This, paraphrased  from 'The Onion' - always a reliable, accurate source.

Science Channel president Clark Bunting told reporters Tuesday that his cable network was "completely incapable" of watering down science any further than it already had.
"Look, we've tried, we really have, but it's simply not possible to set the bar any lower," said a visibly exhausted Bunting, adding that he "could not in good conscience" make science any more mindless or insultingly juvenile. "We already have a show called Really Big Things, which is just ridiculous if you think about it, and one called Heavy Metal Taskforce, which I guess deals with science on some distant level, though I don't know what it is.
Along with Bunting's remarks, the Science Channel issued a statement claiming that staff members are unable to bring themselves to make programming hours even more asinine.

All of the foregoing is attributable in its entirety to the fact that I have had five days’ vacation which I have been able to use to actually think for myself before returning tomorrow to the trolls, gnomes and terminally challenged. Ho-hum. Attempting to teach Galilean empiricism to those who actually believe a sentence which begins - "scientists say...' is an uphill battle, I think.

The image is what happens when you heat up a diamond and immerse it in liquid oxygen to form carbon dioxide. Riveting, isn't it...