Stand Back, We’ve Lit The 2012

English: A regular polygon of n sides with the...
How Long A Year Is

One day I’m going to take a stand against the division of time into arbitrary regular periods. It’s a delusion anyway. The periods aren’t regular – I’ve noticed throughout my life that they grow consistently shorter. A year is a trivial amount of time now. On current trends, by the time I’m 80 one will last about as long as a summer’s afternoon did when I was five. No doubt it’s healthy to stop and take mental stock every so often, but marking every single year that comes along feels like indulging them.

But then again, without this end-of-the-year show it could easily have escaped my ephemeral notice that 2011 was an extraordinary one. I doubt if we’ve had so much change – especially so much hopeful change – since at least 1989. In some ways we’ve seen the anti-2001; the greatest act of terrorism was carried out by a Christian extremist, the people fighting for democracy were Muslim. It went a long way towards repairing the damage perpetrated during the miserable presidency of George W. Bush.

Except of course that done to the world economy, which is still utterly buggered. At least people rioted in the UK. Yeah, I see that as a positive. If we create a society where the rich can blow it all gambling yet somehow still stay rich, meanwhile telling the poor that they have to be poorer now, then it is a good thing that some people say “OK, we’re not playing by these rules anymore”. This isn’t justifying theft, it’s pointing out that societies are made out of people and you can’t keep taking the piss.

Similarly I think the riots against austerity in the Eurozone were on balance a good thing. I’d sooner peaceful civil disobedience like the Occupy movements, but a riot is the next best thing. Certainly, either is better than the supine attitude we seem to have adopted in Ireland.

This then is my greatest hope and fear for 2012. How will we channel our anger? Here in Galway, city councillors are trying to close the little Occupy encampment that we have on the grounds that it’s bad for business. That is how much our politicians care for actual politics. Every challenge to the system in the last ten years, from organised terrorism to music downloading, has been used by the powerful as an excuse to give themselves yet more power over the individual. There are real threats in the world to democratic capitalism, it is true. The greatest is from undemocratic capitalism.

I Nearly Died

Cleaned and repaired, but still looking somewhat Daliesque

Sorry, I suppose I shouldn’t have intimated that I was nearly killed and then not signed in for two days. You might have thought I’d succumbed to my injuries. However exactly one goes about succumbing.

In fact it’s Christmas shopping that’s kept me too busy to write. I wasn’t injured at all. It was just my mother’s house that nearly burned down.

Fortunately I was staying at my mother’s. Even more fortunately, I was still awake at half past two in the morning. OK I’m usually awake at half past two in the morning, but it’s lucky that this is usual.

The power went. A bit unexpected, but it is the middle of winter. I thought I heard one of the trips go in the circuit breaker box though (or fusebox, as we still call it).

Then another click, and the power was back on. Weird. Another, and it was off again. OK this was not good. Especially not when you begin to smell smoke.

I went to look at the fuse box, and saw something that put the fear through me. Picture the biggest wire in the house, the one that carries power in from the mains supply and is several times thicker than the ordinary domestic wiring.

Now picture that glowing like the filament of a light bulb. That’s pretty scary, isn’t it? And the only reason I could see it was that the casing of the fusebox was already starting to melt. This cable was coming off what looked like a combination of really heavy-duty circuit breaker and a huge fuse. Yet neither had stopped the current flowing – the breaker seemed to be stuck in the on position.

Fortunately it wasn’t too hot to touch, and I could trip it manually. The glowing and the smoking stopped, and the wooden board the box was mounted on survived with only a scorching. But clearly there had nearly been a fire. If my mother had been in the house alone, I dread to think.

Next day, after we replaced the failed breaker and the one that’s supposed to back it up, I also bought an extra smoke alarm. And replaced the battery of our existing one even though it still passed the test. And we are going to change the bedroom windows to ones you can escape through. It still doesn’t feel like enough though. Apparently this is not a freak occurrence. They age and fail – even though this installation was only about twenty-five years old.

I’m astonished and disturbed, frankly. With well over a century of design behind them, I would have thought – hell, I’d taken for granted – that household power systems would not have a single point of potentially lethal failure.

Tis The Season

Portrait of Václav Havel, a Czech playwright, ...
President and playwright Václav Havel

Still there? Good. Only there was quite a lot of unexpected shuffling off this mortal coil in the last couple of days. Christopher Hitchens it seems died of a broken heart, unable to go on without the war he had so loved.

Then the great Václav Havel, fun-loving playwright-in-president of what was once Czechoslovakia. Few people better represent the triumph of hopeful creativity over banal power.

And then Kim Jong-Il, which is an anagram of Milo J. King. I suppose the fact that he died before he managed to spark a war is a good thing. It is also the first time in history that a nuclear-power has been passed on from father to ill-prepared son like some feudal kingdom or family heirloom. Unless you count the Bushes.

And I nearly died too. But more of that later.

Merry Christmas, War Is Over Again

Saddam Hussein shortly after his capture. Deut...
Remind you of anyone?

Today is our first thoroughly frozen day in Ireland. I had to chip the car out of its cube before going to the shop. At least I was better off than my girlfriend. She takes a train to work.

I have to say for the shop, you’d hardly think it was Christmas there at all. I’ve noticed that in general this year people haven’t been playing up the celebrations excessively. I’ve only heard that damn Slade song twice so far, when in other years it’s seemed like it was on a loop. I guess this is to do with the disaster we politely call the recession. It’s not in good taste to trumpet your wares to the financially bereaved.

But this local shop has taken it to the point of austerity chic. Among the groceries, hardware and sheepdog treats, there is but one aisle-end display of seasonal stuff like Christmas balloons. And even these were red, white and green, which to me is completely wrong. Red and green is Christmas. These I suspect are really just Italian balloons.

But back to the business of the world. It may seem strange that I didn’t mention Iraq this week, but it’s because there’s no positive aspect of the war’s end not immediately trumped by the fact that it can never be quite as good as not having had the war in the first place. They liberated Iraq from Saddam’s dictatorship, but at the cost of probably more than half a million Iraqi lives. They stopped him torturing, but now America tortures. Bush’s war has been appalling not just for Iraq, not just for America’s standing in the world, but also perhaps for all of us. I strongly suspect that much of our current debt crisis can be traced ultimately to the fact that America has spent the last ten years fighting wars it couldn’t afford.

No Higgs Is Good News

An example of simulated data modelled for the ...
Spot the Higgs boson

It’s fun to watch television news attempting to report on the Higgs boson. Never has there been such an important story that so entirely lacks, well, a story.

News is narrative, for we are narrative animals. While others can understand – or misconstrue – cause and effect to some extent, only we¹ can tell each other about it. “This thing happened because this other thing happened.” It’s what human culture – indeed, our very mental machinery – is built around. Everything we do is shaped into narrative. Look at mathematics. There is nothing innately narrative about mathematics, it concerns things that never change at all. Yet a mathematical proof is a sort of story.

And that is in some ways misleading, because though one can deduce from something being true that another thing must also be, that doesn’t mean the first thing caused the second. The narrative drive can be distorting. Whenever we find a correlation between two things, our first assumption is always that one caused the other – even though they may be coincidental, or might both be the result of a third thing. From fairy stories to Jane Austen, all we want to hear about is how one thing causes another, how actions have consequences. If it was just a succession of unconnected incidents it wouldn’t be a story. Except in fact it would, because our minds would fill in connections between the events.

A good narrative is both exciting and enlightening. Exciting, because the best stories concern the biggest disasters. The worse the effects, the more we want to hear about the cause – so that we can avoid it. This is why we seem to like bad news so much. It also explains why we are more interested in news about people who are like us; it’s not so much that we care more about them as feel their disasters are more applicable. What makes a narrative enlightening is when it satisfactorily explains the relationship between cause and effect. “X leads to Z – and here’s why.” The better we understand the relationship, the better we can avoid Z when we see X happening. Or better bring about Z, in those rare cases of good news.

Which is why the Higgs boson fails as a story. Though it seems like it ought to be a great one, about fundamentals of the universe and the greatest depths of human knowledge, it lacks any real excitement because the vast majority of people simply lack any strong response to it at all. It could help complete or overthrow our understanding of physics. Which one of those was the good one again? Nor is it enlightening, because though we are assured by experts that it is important, even they cannot readily explain why.²

So news reports gussy it up; by using the deeply annoying nickname of “God particle”, suggesting that the Higgs is somehow much more important than all others (it’s not, it’s just harder to detect), or by hanging some other more speculative narrative on it. BBC News was guilty of that yesterday, wondering aloud if there might be some connection between the “absence” of the Higgs particle and the strange result found recently at CERN where neutrinos seemed to travel faster than light. What connection? Well none that anyone has actually thought of yet. Just, you know, some connection. (Imagine if they reported politics like that.) If the BBC’s graphics were anything to go by though, it might bring down the edifice of theoretical physics – which they illustrated with CGI Jenga blocks.³ The narrative we’re forced to take from this is that failure to find the Higgs would be some sort of disaster. And that could hardly be further from the truth.

It seems likely that the Higgs particle will be found within the next year. Physicists will be pleased if the ideas they most agree about are shown to be right, and will be glad to have a precise mass for the particle as that will help decide which version of the theory is best. But if they don’t find it, they’ll like that even more. Because it would mean they had something wrong – and that’s really much more interesting than being right.

 

  1. And possibly bees.
  2. Why does mass even need a particle? We think of mass as something an object just innately has, like length. There’s no length particle.
  3. Such an ‘edifice” in itself is a wholly wrong narrative about how physics works, suggesting that each new stage is built on the foundation of the previous discovery being completely right. In fact, each new stage is built on the foundation of the previous discovery being a little wrong.

The Silent Heads Of Easter Island

Moai at Rano Raraku, Easter Island
It's Got To Be A Metaphor For Something

A friend alerted me to this via Facebook today – The famous “Easter Island heads” are not just heads. They were whole bodies, buried up to their necks. Previously thought to be merely enigmatic and mysterious, this discovery demonstrates them to be more accurately described as madder than a cat flap.

But I do you wrong. Among people who actually pay attention, it was always well-known that these figures were whole bodies. The ones that seemed to be only heads were the exception rather than the rule, but are better known to the rest of us for two reasons. Firstly, they are striking and fascinating just sticking out of the ground like that. It’s one of the great images.

Secondly though, by the time cameras got to Easter Island all the free-standing ones had been knocked over. This seems to have been caused by conflict among the islanders. You know how it goes. Someone pushes one of yours over, you push over one of theirs, before you know it the only statues left vertical on the whole island are the ones that were buried upright.

But why were they carved and erected in the first place – and why did they stop? No one really knows, but one popular explanation was given in the comments to the article linked above, by a person calling themselves “I am the Birdman”. Being lazy, I will quote it in its entirety here:

The most likely theory is that they were carved as “tombstones” of sorts, a memorial to the person. And of course, the next man’s idol must be bigger. They also wore hats and had bright white eyes with pupils adhered to them. And if I remember correctly, that still non-ciphered language is called Rongo-Dongo¹. Sadly, it was the construction of these statues that did in the civilization. In order to roll them into place they needed logs, and in doing so, they completely decimated every tree on the island. No trees, no wood, no fire, no shelter, havoc, and then no more people. It’s sad really. Watch the movie 180 degrees South for a better animation of this.

Excessive pointless consumption leading to ecological devastation and thus the collapse of a civilization – a perfect parable for the errors of our times.

So perfect in fact that it couldn’t possibly be true. People do do entirely mad things occasionally of course, especially for religious purposes, but it seems more likely that deforestation was caused by rats and other species introduced by boats from other parts of Polynesia. (The coming of rats to Hawaii caused similar ecological upheaval.) The people and culture of the island was then upset even further by visits from various European explorers, missionaries, and finally slave traders, all bringing alien ideas and alien diseases with them.

So Easter Island is not a great metaphor for what happens to a planet when people consume excessively and without forethought. It’s a much better one though for what happens to a planet when it’s invaded by aliens. We’d better hope that doesn’t happen as well.

 

  1. They didn’t remember correctly. It’s called Rongorongo. If it is a true written language rather than some  simpler memory-aid or calendar system, and if it was not inspired by contact with another culture, it is one of perhaps only four instances of writing being invented independently.