Another counterblast to tobacco

As I enter Grumpy Old Man territory (a tad over 30, and I’m sticking to that) I find myself less and less tolerant of people who smoke around me.

James I of England, portrait by Daniel Myrtens, 1621. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

James I of England, portrait by Daniel Myrtens, 1621. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

I’ve never smoked. it’s a horrible habit. What’s more, it inflicts itself on other people whether they like it or not, and I don’t see why I need to put up with it. If people want to succumb to their nicotine addiction and kill themselves slowly with some really nasty carcinogens, that’s up to them – but I’d rather they didn’t spew those carcinogens out around me.

I’m not alone. Back in the early 1600s, King James I of England penned a tirade about the latest import from the Americas – tobacco. Smoking had become all the rage in his court, and he hated it. Smoking, he insisted, was a ‘stinking suffumigation’. And this, what’s more, came at a time when attitudes to personal hygiene were split. Everybody said you needed baths. King James said you didn’t. The real question in his court was who might be suffumigated first. But he was King. His ‘Counterblaste to Tobacco’ was one of the first anti-smoking tracts. And it wasn’t the last.

The New Zealand government passed laws forbidding smoking in public places in 2003. A lot of offices have followed suit, with the result that central city shop doorways are usually filled with people loitering in choking clouds of cigarette smoke. Or they light up and wander off down the street, leaving non-smokers behind them to choke in the trail. Certainly in central Wellington, the foot traffic is dense enough to make it very difficult to get past them.

It’s pretty inconsiderate as far as I am concerned. I don’t spit in their faces. Why are they spitting smoke into mine? Grrrr…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Behold the mighty power of rapatronics

Rapatronics. Sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it – or maybe a berserk new music style. Except it isn’t.

In fact, rapatronics – ‘Rapid Action Electronics’ – was a technology for taking ultra-high speed photographs, invented by Harold Edgerton in the 1940s. That’s right – around 70 years ago. The system used oscillating magnetic fields to polarise and then depolarise a Faraday cell made typically of flint glass, turning it briefly transparent and acting as a shutter with exposure times down to 4 millionths of a second.

Rapatronic picture of an atomic explosion. Spikes are extensions of the fireball into the guy ropes stabilising the testing tower. Mottling effect is caused by the bomb casing, already vapourised and reflecting off the shock front of the fireball.

Rapatronic picture of an atomic explosion, milliseconds after detonation. Spikes are extensions of the fireball into the guy ropes stabilising the testing tower. Mottling effect is caused by the bomb casing, already vapourised and reflecting off the shock front of the fireball. Public domain, via Wikimedia.

Pretty cool tech even by today’s standards, and what’s even cooler is that the principle of using magnetic fields to polarise material was discovered by Michael Faraday in 1845.

Thing is, with a shutter speed of 1/4,000,000 of a second you need a pretty bright flash to properly expose the film. An atomic flash, in fact.  In 1947, Edgerton and two friends set up a company, EG&G, to make rapatronic cameras capable of photographing the first microseconds of nuclear test blasts. Each camera was good for one shot – there was no way of transporting roll film fast enough, so Edgerton typically ganged up a rack of them to take a series of shots at millisecond intervals. They were in operation by 1950 and used, for the last time, in 1962. By then the US, Britain and Soviet Union were already talking about a nuclear test ban treaty; and it was signed the following year – ending all nuclear tests except those held underground.

Edgington was also able to use his shutters to photograph hummingbirds in flight for the first time, at much slower shutter speeds, photographed bullets passing through playing cards, and was still working on camera systems in the 1980s – notably a strobe system that could take motion pictures of creatures that normally moved too slowly to be detected.

But his ghostly monochrome images of those atomic weapons tests remain perhaps the iconic demonstration of his inventiveness – and a sobering reminder of the wider mind-set of that age. The mid-twentieth century was still the age when humanity believed nature could be conquered. The atomic weapons and cameras used to photograph them ran to the edges of the laws of physics. It was an age when all things ‘atomic’ symbolised high-tech, superiority and power. When bigger was better – including, for a while, atomic bombs.

I still wonder how we got away with the twentieth century – why the world didn’t dissolve into armageddon, probably by accident. But we did get away with it. The dangerous stand-off was defused. Sanity prevailed.

Next time, of course, we may not be so lucky.

Copyright © Matthew Wright

History never repeats, except a bit…

Apple were reportedly subject last week to an employee lawsuit.

Detail from an engraving of a factory in Soho, Birmingham, c1820. Matthew Wright coll., public domain.

Detail from an engraving of a factory in Soho, Birmingham, c1820. Matthew Wright coll., public domain.

Apparently, workers at their store are searched on leaving the workplace to make sure they haven’t pocketed product.

The action by two former employees is, reportedly, not because this is demeaning and assumes employees are thieves by default. Oh no. It’s because the workers apparently haven’t been paid while waiting to prove their innocence.

Doubtless truth will out, but on the face of the media reports - doesn’t this reverse the principle of innocent-until-proven-guilty that the western justice system rests on? As a friend of mine pointed out, if an employee is asked to submit to search – meaning their integrity is being questioned – surely the accused can reasonably request the police are called to properly investigate what is, by any measure, a very serious allegation?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic there’s a report in the UK over ‘zero hour’ employment – a normal exclusive arrangement (no secondary job), except the employer picks and chooses the hours the employee works and is paid for. According to the Guardian, Buckingham Palace uses the system, apparently, among others.

To me, that one harks back 200+ years to the early industrial revolution when workers lined up outside factories in the hope of being selected for a day’s work.

I suppose someone will invent work-houses next, places to humiliate and starve those whose misfortune is not of their making, but who can be conveniently blamed for it anyway. ‘More, Mr Twist? You want MORE?’

History never repeats in the specific; cultures change over time, ideals and values move with it.  Still, in the long game of history, it is possible to see patterns – to see swings, usually between extremes, punctuated by periods of reason. But underlying human nature doesn’t change, and if we look back we can see the same patterns of power, of injustice, of have and have not emerging time and again. A common human pattern, irrespective of how they are intellectualised and couched in the moment.

Which makes me wonder. In this age of buzz-words such as ‘solution’, will there be a moment when some wonk around the world, without the slightest trace of irony – and in profound ignorance of what they are actually saying – comes up with a ‘final’ solution to some problem or other.

I think I’d laugh. And then…then I think I’d get very scared.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Anyone for a PINT? What I dislike about psychometrics

There is a scream here in New Zealand at the moment about the way psychometric testing is being used to select public servants and others for redundancy. And quite rightly, too. One aggrieved victim has already obtained a $15,000 settlement in the employment court over it.

As far as I am concerned psychometrics are pseudoscience. Some stranger gives you questions based on a pop-theory about human behaviours and characteristics. None of them fit how you think, but you fumble through anyhow.

Then this stranger, who has never met you before and is ignorant of you as a rounded person, informs you what sort of person you Really Are. You’re classified, pigeon-holed and put into your box. Or is that ‘place’?

1206563615670858090johnny_automatic_soldiers_heads_svg_medI recall, years ago, being told what sort of person I was after such a test. When I objected, I was told this was because I was the sort of person who would object. Quite. There are words to describe people who follow this particular tautology.

What I object to is the arbitrariness. Most of these systems are based on how some psychologists imagine people should be. Yes, it  fits some broad character archetypes. And people can usually see aspects of themselves in the results, once they’ve heard them (think about what that actually means).

But these tests are  framed by the mind-set of those who create them – something defined by time and culture. A lot of psychometrics harks back to thinking of the early-mid twentieth century, with its mechanistic ways of deconstructing and classifying complex systems, notions of uniformity, and its arbitrary way of handling shades of grey.

Early twentieth century psychology was relentlessly guided by the period need to reduce and systematise humanity, just as the wider world was being systematised. Hence Jung’s work on psychological types and classifications which eventually fed into the Myers-Briggs reduction of complex human reality to just sixteen slots.

Psychometric testing is also culture-centric. The classic example is the IQ test posed in the 1920s to European migrants hoping to enter the US. They were stopped at Ellis Island and tested. One of the questions was a drawing of a house without a chimney; add the missing item. To those brought up in Eastern Europe the missing item was a cross over the door. But that wasn’t the right answer, and they missed other culturally-framed questions the same way – ergo, they were morons, and sent away again. Some were killed by the Nazis, a few years later.

But the limits of psychometric testing hasn’t stopped adoption by corporates. Why? Because these tests classify people in ways that can be enumerated, like accounts. And it’s attracted a lot of pseudo-science – even from people with qualifications in psychology – who have filled the market with ingenious, glib and corporate-friendly systems for fitting people into trendy theory. ‘Hey, here’s a test for reducing the human condition to twenty questions and four character types arrayed in a polyhedron.’

I have put much of my adult life into trying to understand the human condition – how it has framed history, how it frames us now; and I think one of our faults is our ability to over-rationalise and lead ourselves down fantasy paths.

Psychometrics. Useful tool – or arbitrary systems for pigeon-holing people that we’ve inherited from an early-mid twentieth century that also brought us eugenics? Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

What’s wrong with progress? Nothing, except the way we think about it.

I am always bemused about the way we frame everything, often unconsciously, around the notion of ‘progress’.

Progress, nineteenth century style; bigger, faster, heavier... more Mordor.

Progress – bigger, faster, heavier… more. This sucker is four times the size of the trucks I used to deal with when I was working for a trucking company and can take 100 tonnes of spoil in one hit. That’s me on the right.

The concept of progress has been part of our lives ever since the Age of Reason burst upon the western world and we started down the path of that led from rationality to industry to nuclear weapons and climate change. Progress.

Not every society has that view – but western society does. We see ‘progress’ in a lot of things. It’s how the world, supposedly, works.

Things ‘progress’ from primitive to sophisticated; it is often used to explain or justify human constructs – ‘you can’t stop progress’, usually uttered as a wrecking ball slams through the last piece of rain-forest.

The implicit meaning is ‘directional change for the better through time’. It suffuses the way we think, and is so much an automatic assumption that often we don’t think about it.

Karl Marx used the concept of ‘progress’ as a pivot for his theories about social change – the notion that society changes directionally towards an ultimate final point. He’d taken that in turn from his inspiration, Georg Hegel. As Barbara Tuchman points out, one outcome was that Marx became the butt of one of history’s greatest jokes. His concepts of verelendung and zussamenbruch simply didn’t work. History is not determinist. Yet, as far as I can tell, this same principle of progress to a final end point also framed the thinking of Francis Fukuyama when he declared, in 1992, that history was over with the fall of the Soviet Union. Democracy and capitalism had won, we’d hit the final ideological nirvana and there would be no further change.

The problem, I think, is that we misunderstand the concept of ‘progress’. We mix up two different ideas.

Progress describes the process of human learning and invention – the way we discover things, and the way we apply those discoveries. Look at computers. In 1995 I bought a computer running Windows 98 with a 266mHz PII CPU. In 2006 I bought a hand-held iPAQ (not an Apple product) whose ARM processor outspecced it. That’s progress, and very good progress too.

As I write this, I still have the iPAQ.

Earth. An image I made with my Celestia installation (cool, free, science package).

Earth. An image I made with my Celestia installation (cool, free, science package).

But this concept of progress doesn’t describe everything humans do. Still less the way the universe works. The wider universe doesn’t automatically change in a direction at all, still less in a better one. We might define some of those changes as an improvement from our perspective. But not all.

Take the climate. It’s always changed naturally. Did it ever change in an ‘improved’ direction? Not really. It just changed. The state – ice age, dry, wet, and so forth – was  always transient. Of course now it’s changing in a specific direction, thanks to us, which is certainly not an improvement. Not for us, anyway.

It seems to me that the supposition that things change directionally has skewed our view of the way things work and – paradoxically – held up our understanding. We mask the deeper secrets of the universe from ourselves by viewing it through an obscured lens. And if we’re not careful, it’ll play jokes on us, the way history played jokes on Marx.

What’s your take on this one?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

When one plus one equals three – welcome to online marketers

The other evening She Who Must Be Obeyed fielded an email from an online bookstore. She looked up and said to me, ‘You and your Neandertals!’

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes.

OK internet – market me something based on what I’m doing here. Go on. I’m some dude in a hard hat. Wanna sell me beer? Actually – and this is not a joke – I was photographed in a coal mine while researching a book in which I mention Neandertals. Really. I’ve got a publisher contract, a grant and everything. It’s being published next year. Would you know it from the photo? I suspect not. But I’d still buy the beer…

Years ago, I did an undergrad degree in anthropology. I’ve kept up with the paleontological side ever since. I’d used her account to buy a study of our closest relatives. Now she was getting offers to buy other books about Krog the Cave Man.

Not her interest, but the store thought it was.

Which begs a question. Everything we do online – everything with our phones, where we go and so forth – is tracked. What profile does that really build?

We can’t control adverts served up randomly (as administrator, I don’t see the ones that turn up on this blog, but I bet you do – I HOPE they’re OK).

Point being, there is a story I heard about some guy who clicked on an offensive pop-up advert to make it go away. Next thing, his social media page – which he’d logged out of – was reporting he’d looked at this site. Made him look dodgy.

So injustices happen – and yet the logic is impeccable. Account holder X bought such-and-such, so they must be interested in such-and-such, therefore we’ll serve them advertisements for more of it. Person Y clicked on pop-up Z, so they must have looked at it and been interested in the content.

Thing is, sometimes 1 + 1 doesn’t make 3. Marketers know what we do, but they don’t know the thinking behind it, or even necessarily whether it’s the same person, even.

This sort of 1 + 1 = 3 thinking is pretty common, historically.  Assumptions are made about how people behave, or about why they behave, based on prevailing frameworks of thought – themselves framed by prevailing ideas and prejudices.

History is also littered with examples of it going wrong. In the medieval period, for instance, if a woman went near a cow and it sickened, there was a fair chance she might be burned as a witch. The logic was impeccable at the time – woman X went near the cow, the cow sickened and died, so she must have hexed it. Whole trials were held to prove the point, all pivoting on the proximity of the woman to the cow.

Mad, by our standards, but logical and obvious then, at least to some. The frightening part being that medieval Europe got there by ordinary, rational steps. Starting with: ‘If you are innocent, you have nothing to fear’.

Just saying…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013 

Lamenting the lost hopes of a past future

These days we live in the unimagined future – a twenty-first century of micro-tech miracles that only Arthur C. Clarke actually predicted.

On  the way to Mars, concept for 1981 flight,via NASA.

On the way to Mars, concept for 1981 flight,via NASA.

We don’t have universal flying cars, or interplanetary passenger rockets, or moon bases, or any of the things we were supposed to. What we do have is even more wonderful – gadgetry that lets us communicate anywhere, with anyone. Phones with more computing grunt than NASA’s mainframes during the Apollo programme. The social impact is being felt in all fields of endeavour, not least of them the entertainment business.

And yet I cannot help lamenting the future we lost.

Does anybody remember the Six Million Dollar Man? Seventies sci-fi TV about an astronaut rebuilt with uber-tech after an air crash.  You knew when he was invoking his powers because he’d drop into slow-mo, backgrounded by annoying ‘bip-bip-bip’ noises and Oliver Nelson’s soundtrack (yes, that Oliver Nelson – the guy that wrote the best jazz album ever made, The Blues and the Abstract Truth…sigh….)

Wonderfully lampooned by Spike Milligan, and perhaps rightly so – the whole thing was, after all, very silly. Not least because you don’t just use legs and an arm to lift weights. (‘I’m sorry, Mr Austin, it’s not an extra bionic bit, it’s a hernia.”) The plots devolved to secret agent stuff, or plain silliness where the bionics became brute-force answers to problems that had simpler solutions. It hasn’t aged well.

Still, it summed up the optimism of the day. In 1973, when the pilot aired, humanity had just been to the Moon. Our future was a heroic, optimistic future of big engineering answers. Got an astronaut mangled in an accident? No problem – we can rebuild him. Things that worry us now didn’t enter into the calculation – I mean, the bionics were nuclear powered.

It’s this optimism – call it naïve, wide-eyed, sure – that we’ve lost. Swallowed by a wave of cynicism, cost realities, the collision between dreams and the immutable laws of physics.

Sure, today’s world of small-scale tech is wonderful. But I can’t help lamenting that lost age when we dreamed big and had every expectation that those dreams would come true. I lament it not because we missed out on those wonders – but because, when we found we couldn’t do them, we lost that sense of hope, too.

That’s what I miss. We need it. What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Top things I have never understood…

I have never understood quite a lot about the world. Why, for instance, it always happens that…

1. Whenever you’re in a supermarket queue, the air is inevitably shredded with hysterical cries of pain and terror. You look around for the murder scene only to discover some three year old has been told by their mum that they can’t have the chocolate bar in the checkout rack.

2.Whenever you approach an ATM machine without a queue, people hastily swarm in from the side, ahead of you, to form a queue before you can get there.

3. Whenever you do the laundry, no matter how sunny the day is, it starts raining three seconds after you peg the last shirt out.

4. The teller in the post office puts the ‘closed’ sign up just as you get to the head of the queue.

5. Trek may have predicted auto-opening doors, but contrary to what you see in Trek, they enter their ‘close’ cycle just as you get to them.

…and finally…

6. When the zombie apocalypse hits, you discover you’re one of the zombies.

Any thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Kindness 2013: the power of confidence in yourself

I thought I would wrap this series up with a few thoughts about what, to me, makes kindness possible on an every day basis.

MJWright2011I mentioned a couple of weeks back that one of the reasons why people forget kindness is that they wrap their sense of self-identity around something – often a goal or status. When somebody else intrudes on that – achieves ‘their’ ambition, or tips one of their sacred cows – the rules of common etiquette and courtesy seem to be lifted. Kindness disappears amidst a sudden frenzy of avenging anger.

It’s a pitfall into which humanity seem to keep plunging. Is there a way around it? Sure. One answer, it seems to me, is in being quietly self-confident.

I don’t mean arrogant, or hubris-laden, or self-entitled. These are, of themselves, roads away from kindness. I mean, quietly , modestly self-confident. Feeling secure in yourself. To me, modest self-confidence means:

1. Accepting mistakes – and figuring out how to not repeat ‘em. ‘Sure, I stuffed up. But I know better for next time’.

2. Being prepared to learn.

3. Being secure in your own beliefs, meaning that you are not threatened by the beliefs of others.

4. Humility. There is a difference between arrogant self-entitlement and self-confidence. Self-confident people, in general, seldom indulge in exercises of ego and power over others. No need; they feel secure enough in their own sense of identity.

It’s not always an easy pathway. I think western society, in particular, leans against it. I think the human condition, in general, carries aspects that lean against it. But I think quiet self-confidence – based on humility, acceptance and tolerance  – also fosters kindness.

And hey – at the end of the day, it all boils down to one thing. Being nice to people isn’t hard. Often it costs nothing – a simple smile, holding a door open. Little things count as much as the big gestures. And the rewards never stop.

What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up later this week: more writing tips. And a new series – the funny side of real science. Starting with UFO’s. Good for a laugh? Oh yes.

Bohr, Dirac, Planck, Heisenberg et al vs the ‘Law of Attraction’

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medLast week there was a post on the ‘Change Your Life’ blog (down in my links list) inviting readers to have their say about the ‘law of attraction’. Fact or fancy?

I posted a short comment, but there’s a lot more that I could say. I did physics before I swung into the arts. (My niece doesn’t call me ‘Uncle Sheldon’ for nothing).

The ‘law of attraction’ was made popular a few years ago in The Secret, a book by an Australian author. I did read it. As far as I can tell, what you desire is attracted to you via this ‘law’ which, apparently, works by ‘quantum physics’. Apparently thoughts create ‘vibrations’. Positive thoughts create more powerful ‘vibrations’ than negative, travel further, and so attract the desired object or outcome to the individual. If it doesn’t happen, it’s because the person making the wish didn’t have enough desire for what they wanted.

It is, of course, gibberish. As I understand it, the ‘law of attraction’ not only violates macro-level physics – specifically, the Second Law of Thermodynamics – it also violates the real laws of quantum physics. As a friend of mine pointed out, quantum physics is stochastic – that is, it’s about probabilities at scales below the Planck length, which is 1.616199×10-35  metres.  Kind of small.

By contrast, the ‘law of attraction’ is deterministic and operates in terms of abstract human desires.

Niels Bohr in 1922. Public domain, from Wikipedia.

Niels Bohr in 1922. Public domain, from Wikipedia.

This is something that has always bemused me – how so much that is actually metaphysical can be attributed to ‘quantum physics’. I know Einstein called it ‘spooky’, but it’s not THAT spooky! The principles are well established. Subatomic objects are waves and particles – the duality is an artefact of our classical physics approach; the blend is the closest we can come to defining what the subatomic object actually is. It’s possible to determine EITHER velocity OR position of this ‘wavicle’. Work by various physicists in the early twentieth century – Dirac, Heisenberg, Planck, Bohr and others – explored how the universe worked if the positions and velocities of the particles that made it up were indeterminate – if they existed as probabilities, not discrete and defineable numbers. It was utterly counter-intuitive. But it was also entirely about probabilities at subatomic level.

The cause of the ‘new age’ version, as far as I can tell, came out of a misunderstanding of Heisenberg and Schroedinger’s efforts to describe how a watching human might see the ‘spookiness’. This was then conflated with the problem of observational interference – that is, an effort to observe or detect a quantum event collapses the probabilities to a single outcome. This led to the idea that human consciousness causes the outcome. However, in real quantum physics, no human consciousness or personal observation is required. This was proven by experimental demonstration using a machine ‘observer’ as far back as 1998. Here’s the link.

To me real quantum physics is amazing enough without making it apparently magical as well. As for the ‘law of attraction’? Hokum. People get what they want because they work to achieve it.  Affirmations and visualisations can be part of the journey , helping direction – a motivation, a spur to happiness – but they don’t create anything of themselves. Only our own actions do that. I think people need to have faith in themselves, in their own abilities – and to be proud of what they achieve. To accept that they get what they want through their own efforts – which to me is a far, far more rewarding result than wish fulfilment.

What are your thoughts on this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013