Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Mutually Assured Distraction

After watching All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace last night, I started thinking again about the climate change issue. As the programme talked through our collective failure to revolutionise ourselves as a leaderless, cooperative society, the lack of room in those ideals for the basic human natures of power and influence and how our own democracy works against us, making us individualistic, self-obsessed walking money bags, I started to think about our collective failure to handle or even properly address the fact that we're quite possibly screwed.

Imagine a protagonist in a story, set in a world that faces potential destruction in the hands of a population and governmental system who's relentless apathy and avarice blinds them to the obvious damage they're wreaking. Imagine that in that story, instead of attempting to change the situation, the protagonist simply ignored it or at best mildly worried about it sometimes. You'd probably think that the protagonist was a bit weak or that the author had chickened out of dealing with a complex problem; you'd probably have thought that you might have done things differently or at least cared more. Well, you didn't. And neither did I. In fact, not very many other people did either.

So why not? Why aren't we doing something about it? If your protagonist had been born into a doomed world, you'd naturally expect them to do something about it, right? Why aren't we that upset about being thrown the hot potato or mad about turning up to the party to find out all the drinks have gone and you've got to help tidy up? Why aren't we angrier?

Well, I think there are a couple of potential reasons, further to those I mentioned in my last post.

The first, as Machines... pointed out, depends upon the system that we've set up for ourselves. Our democracy encourages our individualistic tendencies towards self-serving goals; we care less because we're too busy looking at our own navels, worrying about how the products we buy define us as people.

Most of you reading this will, like me, have been born at the tail end of the last century; too young in the eighties to have understood the problem, cosily living out our teens in the naive Clinton wonder years bubble, cowering in fear of random terrorist attacks in our early twenties and more recently groaning at the latest round of public service cuts set out by our financial markets controlled government.

Since we became old enough to start getting what was going on, somehow other issues always seem to be getting in the way, which I presume has been happening much the same with previous generations to ours. Not even extreme examples of environmental disasters like the Deepwater Horizon spill really make much headway into the overall climate debate. There's always a bigger ticket news item, more directly affecting our lives that the one that's looming right there in front of us.

This is my second point really; as a people, we're not very good at reacting to foresight. It's much more in our nature to react to things that have happened than to things that might. Think about the recent protests against the spending cuts; why did we wait until after the government had made up its mind before kicking up a stink? We all knew it was coming, so why wait until afterwards? If we'd have acted up front, when the coalition was at its inception, perhaps we'd have had a better impact on the outcome. By protesting post the decision, we simply allowed the government to do what it wanted and then say "well you're stuck with it now" when we all started moaning.

Like I said before, collectively we're like children, unable to make the mature decision to stop eating sweets before our teeth rot out. Just as Machines... pointed out our inability to construct a truly egalitatian society due to our basic human desire for power, we're unable to unite ourselves to fix the planet due to other failings in our own nature.

My criticism of Machines... would be that it didn't present any solutions to the problems it laid out. It's easy to say things won't or don't work but harder to say what will. On my part, not being a scientist, I don't have a huge amount to suggest on the climate front, but one thought I'll finish with is that if our own human nature is the problem, perhaps if we can remove that from the equation, we might be ok? Perhaps the solution to humankind's immaturity is an external parent figure, taking the reins on the problems we can't bring ourselves to solve. Perhaps that solution is taking shape in our research into Artificial Intelligence? By creating a machine to think for us, to be driven by different motivations to us, perhaps we can eventually make the decisions that we've so far been unable to?

That said, in all likelihood, a truly intelligent machine created by humans would be subject to the very same humanity we are. If we train it to think, wouldn't it think exactly like we do? Perhaps hedging our bets on absolution isn't the answer either...

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Fixing the Planet: have we finally got some concrete options?

Fixing the Planet: have we finally got some concrete options?

I’ve been to a few talks recently at the British Museum as part of their Out of this World exhibition, the general theme being science fiction and whether a lot of what we might think of as science fiction is really about to become science fact. So far this has been a debate on what the future might ’mean’ to us, the looming potential technological revolution and yesterday’s topic, whether we can solve the climate problem.

I’m probably going to post a few things about the series, which has so far been excellent, but this one’s going to focus on the climate debate. The premise of the talk was about whether we now have some ‘concrete’ options on how to save the planet from our scorching, super sea-levels, not enough food and ‘everybody has a fairly dreadful time of things’ apocalyptic future (on a sliding scale of shitness, depending on who you listen to). Not being amazingly up on current cutting edge climate-fixing technologies, I thought the event sounded like a good way to learn about some and hopefully coming out of it thinking a bit more that the answer would be “yes”, rather than the usual “we’re all fucked”.

The panel consisted of several prominent climate-based people, Chris Goodall, a notable climate scientist; Claire Faust, a climate activist; Craig Sams, the founder of organic chocolatiers Green & Black’s; Chris Turney, Professor of Climate Change at the university of New South Wales and the Chair, Mark Stevenson, a popular science writer and author of The Optimist’s Tour of the Future. I’ve not read The Optimist’s Tour... but it sounds pretty good – basically he travelled around the world asking really super-scientists about what they were up to and reporting back that generally it sounds like the future’s going to be pretty cool (which I think we all agree hopefully involves hoverboards). Stevenson had been on the panel of the week’s earlier events and generally I found his opinions and approach to science to be engaging and, well, optimistic, in a sense of both the celebration of the science itself but also of the overall outcomes. In part, his attitudes are kind of what I want to get into here, but we’ll get to that later on.

The climate debate started with an overview of the problem and a quick summary of the major routes possible solutions are taking. One of the major things under discussion was biochar, a method of recarbonising soil by producing a kind of charcoal from trees, which when mixed with the soil causes the earth to re-absorb carbon and return to being the carbon-rich kind of soil that we had in the days of yore (apparently, modern soil and its contents has like 10% of the carbon that it used to; carbon that’s now in the atmosphere).

The relative merits of biochar were debated heavily by the panellists, namely the likelihood it would work and exactly how much of it we’d need, which seemed to be a lot (like a “we’d need to dedicate a fifth of the world’s arable land to making it” kind of amount). Arguably, that could be justifiable if it was the ultimate answer but you’d clearly need to be so absolutely completely certain it would work or don’t even bother trying to convince anyone to even start taking it seriously. And so the debate went on for a bit, as well as about a few other likely candidates for our salvation, each panellist voicing opinions for or against nuclear power etc, but ultimately never really reaching much in the way of an agreement.

After a while, I started to think about the question posed by the event and whether I felt we were getting any closer to answering it – my conclusions were definitely heading towards the negative. I’d also made a few notes about things like dealing with climate change deniers, the overall negativity of climate science and the unreasonable expectations that some climate activists have (such as trying to bring down or radically change capitalism or global economics or calling for us all to return to our tribal roots and live in a yurt hunting rabbits). Sitting in that lecture hall listening to some really outstandingly knowledgeable individuals debate the options made just me think “if these people can’t decide what to do, then how the hell am I supposed to?”

Based on what I learned over the course of the event and on what I knew beforehand, I think we probably do have some serious options about fixing the planet; some of those options may still only be at the design stage, some may be more efficient or practical than others and any likely overall solution is likely to need to be comprised of many smaller ones rather than one big fix, but we definitely have some really strong ideas to start making progress. If that’s the case then why did I still feel as though we weren’t getting anywhere?

Climate change is a stone-cold proven fact and, although we might not be able to say for certain exactly what the consequences of it may be, we do know that they’re almost certainly going to be extremely serious and this is what made me realise that the question the event had set out to answer – do we have any concrete options to fix the planet – wasn’t the right question to be asking at all; what we should have been asking is “do we even have a concrete message about fixing the planet?”

I felt that although no one at the talk doubted the validity of climate change or the relevance of climate science I felt that if someone had spoken up against it, they would have derailed the whole conversation, certainly for a good while, and this is really where the problem lies: people who speak out against climate change are taken just as seriously or at least given an equal platform as those who try and raise our awareness, regardless of how qualified they may be to comment on the issue. Why isn’t Jeremy Clarkson dragged kicking and screaming into the news more often for voicing his idiotic and naive opinions, just as he would if he’d suddenly jumped on the homophobe bandwagon? Why do we allow oil companies who clearly have a vested interest in denying climate change to voice theirs?

In my opinion, climate science needs to wake up. Anyone with half a brain can work out that we’re doing awful things to the planet, so why do we allow that message to get denied, subverted or derailed by those with other agendas (which are now agendas on a rapidly decreasing timescale unless they stop acting like dicks, by the way)? The problem is that a massive part of the population is just not exposed to the facts in an engaging and educational way; it’s probably not the job of actual scientists to directly engage the public in the majority of subjects – they certainly don’t have to on this scale for most other topics (apart from maybe stem cells and GM foods) – and frankly I think their time is better spent doing what they do best, but what we need is for the scientific community to find a better way of putting their message across; more Brian Cox celebrating the science and less the University of East Anglia being dragged around by it, if you like.

Climate science also needs to get away from its obsession with declaring incomprehensible facts, the public isn’t equipped to deal with the data in the same way scientists are – “so what if the sea rises ten centimetres in ten years, ten centimetres is nothing”, “so we’re only putting an extra tenth of the carbon into the atmosphere that occurs naturally, how can only a tenth make a difference?” - the numbers themselves aren’t what’s important, it’s the impact of those numbers. Telling people about the sea level rise is one thing, telling them that a billion climate refugees might arrive at their doorstep in ten years is another.

The public are the key; convince them and you start convincing governments that come election time, they’d better start pulling out their green guns; convince the public and you start getting them to want to buy products that they know are economically and environmentally sustainable; do that and companies and corporations are going to change their policies; after that follows the markets and so on. In some respects it’s already happening - look at how many zero-carbon and electric cars have just come on the market – that’s great but it’s obvious - cars are the first thing people think of that burns fossil fuels, so an obvious status symbol for the greener citizens – let’s build on that and start pushing for zero-carbon energy companies and the like.... well, maybe it’s not quite as simple as that but you get the idea. If the public care then it’s a shorter walk until everything else starts to have to.

We also need to start helping to protect our climate scientists. The vast majority of them are doing incredibly complex work that requires the kind of skills that most of us will never have, to try and solve what may be the greatest problem we’ve ever faced. They’re not working to create an apocalyptic climate smokescreen just so that they can stay in their jobs; I would imagine most of them would love to be able to empirically prove that climate change wasn’t real as, not only would it immediately make them the world’s most famous scientist, but they’d be extremely relieved in the knowledge that we might actually make it into the next century. Unfortunately, for them, all the results that come back show that climate change is very real and very serious. What I’m trying to say is that we shouldn’t allow those with opposing agendas to interfere with the science. If scientists can’t work because they’re bombarded with Freedom of Information requests, or feeling threatened about simply being honest, then we need to ensure that our legislation and media are doing the job of condemning the instigators, rather than the scientists that suffer.

The last thing I’m going to say is that climate change is sold as about the single most depressing subject ever, pretty much wall to wall doom and gloom. Perhaps it’s time we started getting away from the negativity of the apocalyptic future and start looking at the positive and pro-active things that can be done to avert or change it. Humanity’s next biggest challenge is surviving its own achievements; it’s about growing up rather than growing fat; it’s about progress in maturity rather than progress in greed. Let’s phrase the question like you would to a child: what do you want to be when you grow up? The first answer everyone gives is “alive”.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Battle of Good and Evil: RESULTS!

Another week on and the results are in, the dust has settled and hangovers have abated. The battle of Highbrow, Good versus Evil, is finished and all the participants have emerged from an evening that was, in fairly equal parts ridiculous, hilarious, educational and thought-provoking.

The objective of last week’s Highbrow was to focus on the concepts of good and evil, right and wrong and to explore what these things meant to us. When we judge a person to one of these standards, are we judging them by our assumptions about that person or by their actions; are their actions judged by the intentions behind them or the consequences? I figured the best way to find out was to find some people and get judging...

In order to answer these questions, I decided to devise a game in which a selection of well known people were ranked as either good or evil. I compiled a list of famous faces, with a healthy cross section of obviously “good” (Stephen Fry) or “bad” (Osama bin Laden) individuals, as well as a good number of controversial ones, in which opinion could go either way (Bob Crow).

The Famous 45: let the Judgement begin!

Now in order to judge these unfortunates (or fortunates, depending on the outcome, I guess), it seemed inappropriate for a given person’s fate decided by the whole of Highbrow, so we needed a Judge and for this illustrious position I picked Highbrow regular, David Sorg. David’s a fairly decent kind of chap, even headed and the like, so he seemed like a good choice who’d be able to justify his decisions.

Now that we had a Judge, we needed a case for and a case against our defendants, so I split the rest of the Highbrow attendees into two teams – Team Good and Team Evil. For each of the famous faces, each team had about a minute to justify to the Judge whether that person was either “good” or “evil”. If the Judge eventually picked “good”, then Team Good got the person and also got a point. At the end of the game, after all 45 people were judged, the team with the most people/points were declared the winners... simple!

Now, you might think, “this is obvious, Hitler’s always going to end up as Evil”, well, that may be true, but Team Good still had to spend a whole minute trying to convince David that Hitler was ultimately a good guy – not an easy task right? This lead to some pretty funny justifications for our defendants, especially as people got a bit more, err, lubricated... Hitler “really loved that dog”, Thatcher shouldn’t be condemned as she’s “part of the Ginger minority” and Osama bin Laden was “the head of a not-for-profit organisation”.

Dividing up nicely into Team Good (far side) and Team Evil (near side)

On the Good side we had some interesting choices: Jade Goody – “an innocent imbecile”, Eminem survived his misogynist controversies as being “misunderstood by his critics”, Wynne Evans (the Go-compare guy) who, whilst reviling most of us musically, is ultimately just doing his job, and Michael Jackson didn’t have to settle out of court with David to maintain “innocent until proven guilty”.

On the Evil side, there were some massive surprises: Mother Teresa was condemned for her stance against abortions, contraception and homosexuality (whereas the Pope survived these accusations, and possibly worse to make “Good”) and Fern Britton’s dieting / stomach stapling based lies were enough to see her to the wrong side of the fence. Other Evil choices were Hugh Hefner (exploitation and women’s issues), Monika Lewinsky (kept the spunky dress) and Jeremy Clarkson (opinions about the environment, as well as general abhorrence).

The Good

Last choice on the list was slightly different from the others; instead of our Judge having to judge someone else, the last person’s fate was his own. He’d been fairly even in his decisions so far, so how would he fare? Well, in the end David was proven to be a Good Man, although by his own admission he thought he was perhaps not the person best placed to be making this decision. While you can see his point, it raises the question; if morality doesn’t start at home, how can we decide whether we’re doing the “right” thing?

So what else did we learn?

The final results were 24 Good and 19 Evil, with two fence sitters left undecided (nameless US and German soldiers, spared for their anonymity). Both Good and Evil had a similar mix of men and women – 5 women to 14 men for Evil and 8 to 16 for Good; non-whites didn’t seem to fair as well though, with another 5 to 14 whites ratio for Evil where as a worrying 2 non-whites to 22 whites on the Good side (Obama and Jacko, and Jacko’s pushing it really). We were going to check out how people with smiling pictures compared to non-smilers, but everyone had got fed up with counting and had reverted back to shouting again by this point.

So focusing on specifics, with Osama being Evil whereas Gerry Adams making Good, it seems that even terrorists can be absolved from their past if given the opportunity. We discussed this decision for a while and forwarded the question that if Gaddaffi’s fate had continued down the “world leader” path rather than the recent flip back to “crazed despot”, whether he’d have ended up on Team Good in a few years? It’s hard to say, but it seems we’re possibly more willing to judge people by their recent actions more than their former ones.

The Evil

Convicted criminals fared badly overall, which would seem to suggest that we hold at least some faith in our concepts of justice. Maxine Carr was condemned and, whilst it was understood that she was proven to be a largely naive accomplice to Huntley, she still broke the law and ignorance is no excuse.

Quite surprisingly, politicians did better than expected, our Judge, even being something of a Lefty, was willing to absolve David Cameron. Nick Clegg and Barack Obama also survived the chop, as did David “the other brother” Milliband. It was felt that even though we may not agree with their policies, these politicians are ultimately doing what they believe is right. I’m not sure that’s how everyone sees it but that’s how it ended up on the night. Had it been a bad news week for the Coalition (has there been a good news week?), then the chips might have fallen slightly differently.

After we’d exhausted the Battle conclusions and a few early leavers made their excuses, the remaining Highbrowers saw in a few more beers, discussing whether Good and Evil actions are judged by person’s motives (or sense of duty - the opinion favoured by Emmanuel Kant) or whether they should be judged by the consequences (which is the John Scott Mill side of things). Overall, I think we decided it was a bit of both for the majority of circumstances but my notes from the evening became somewhat haphazard by this point, to say the least.

Religion reared its head towards the end of the night, with some opinions that it had usurped humanity’s sense of morality as we evolved; that as we developed a more defined set of moral opinions, we used Religion to fill in the blanks as to why we’d made that choice not to kill etc; that religion was a social evolution, used to explain our naivety to both moral and scientific issues. I’m pretty sure Richard Dawkins would have enjoyed this section of the evening, especially as he likes getting his opinions across in the loudest possible manner (which condemned him but ironically by this point seemed the favoured way of making your point heard for the remaining Highbrowers).

See... actual proper note taking, with a pen and everything

To summarise, did we reach any real conclusions? Well, some perhaps, but that wasn’t really the point. What we did do was learn about the way we make those choices and encourage ourselves to re-examine the way we reach decisions about our morality, e.g. do you forgive famous people you like and condemn those you don’t? From the feedback I’ve had over the last few days, everyone who came along had a good time, learned a bit and generally went home if not wiser then certainly more open minded, which can only be a good thing.

The Highbrow team will be assembling again soon, hopefully next time not to exonerate Bono from his musical crimes (I can’t believe he got let off); until then, HIGHBROW is over and out.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


Somewhere, out there across the Universe, something unusual is happening...

Recent observations seem to indicate that somewhere in the region of 1,000 galaxy clusters are travelling in the wrong direction, well, more in a direction that we wouldn't expect them to at least.

Most galaxies, as well as everything else in the Universe, are all travelling outwards from a central point, the Big Bang. As the Universe expands overtime, the galaxies accelerate outwards as spacetime expands between them (I think that's right), with a long view of all matter eventually losing all thermodynamic energy and reaching a point of total entropy. This is known as the Heat Death theory.

The problem is that we've now discovered a whole bunch of galaxies that seem to be travelling, whilst still away from the Big Bang, in slightly a different direction - kind of curving off to the left, if you like.

The reason for this, which is only the loosest of theories still, is that this is being called by a thing called Dark Flow. Basically, Dark Flow, whilst sounding pretty sexy, is just the name we've given to the fact we have no real idea why this is happening - it's happening because of Dark Flow, next job: what's Dark Flow.

The are main contender for the answer to this, from what I've read, is that there are unseen "megastructures" beyond the limits of our observable Universe (i.e. the bits of the Universe too far away from us for light to have reached us, even if it set off at the beginning of time, around 13.6 billion years ago). These megastructures are either:

a) really unlike anything else we've ever seen and really, really fucking big, or
b) other/another Universe(s), or
c) we have no idea

If option A is correct, this completely breaks what's known as Copernican theory, which states that there's nothing particularly special about our part of the Universe, that everything that goes on in our "local" area happens just the same everywhere else. Our part of the Universe doesn't contain supergiant megastructures (we're talking single things the size of thousands of galaxies) so therefore if they're loitering around just beyond the edge of what we can see, they're pretty fucking not "normal".

If it's option B, then this seems to indicate that our Universe is part of a collection of other Universes, much like stars/galaxies/galaxy clusters etc and that, if that's true, we're REALLY nowhere near understanding anything. Universes within universes... a bit like that bit at the end of Men in Black but without all the CGI.

Lastly, option C is that we don't know what's happening and we're not looking like we're about to work that out any time soon. Maybe it's gravity bending spacetime round some kind of super black hole? Maybe it's the Universe starting to contract back into the Big Crunch?

Whatever's happening out there and whether we're on the right track to solving it or not, whatever the outcome, it does seem to indicate that we're still only really scratching the surface.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Highbrow: The Battle of Good and Evil

I'm sat in cafe not far from my house (due to lack of internet at the homestead, thanks for that BT), preparing the content for this week's forthcoming Highbrow: the Battle of Good and Evil.

For those of you who've got no idea what I'm on about, for the last few months I've been organising what could be called a gentleman's discussion group (not limited to gentlemen, though, of course) in a pub not far from my work. So far, the events have consisted of several interested participants meeting up, having a few drinks and taking part in or discussing whatever I've organised, with subjects to date including the concepts of freedom and democracy and an End of the World free for all.

We've also had an excursion to the fantastic DIRT exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, where we were lucky enough to get a free guided tour from the curator, Kate Forde - if you haven't been, I can't recommend it highly enough! Big thanks to David Sorg for organising, it was brilliant and hugely appreciated by all.

This week's Highbrow (excuse the name, by the way, it's not to be taken too seriously) is about the concepts of Good and Evil, so hopefully we'll be manhandling questions like "are good and evil empirical things?", "who’s doing the “right” thing?" and "how does this work in the real world and where do we fit in?". I'm about halfway through putting together the activities I've got planned for the night but, not to spoil the suprise, you'll have to come along if you want to find out what that involves!

Anyone who fancies coming along is more than welcome, we're a pretty rough and ready mix and there's absolutely no pre-requisites on actually having to know anything about any specific subjects. The main point of Highbrow is to:

a) have a good time
b) have a few beers
c) maybe learn something

If that sounds like something you'd be up for, then we'd love you to come and join in.

I'll probably post an update on the Battle of Good and Evil at some point after Wednesday (but probably not Thursday, depending on how much liquid intelligence is consumed), so eyes peeled for that...

Highbrow is this Wednesday (18th May) at the Old Coffee House, Soho and the Facebook event is here for those of you who are that way inclined.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Unnatural Persons

Not, as you might immediately think, a blog about ghosts, zombies or Ugandan attitudes towards homosexuals but rather about the concept of legal persons that aren’t real (natural) people at all.

Now, I’m not a lawyer, businessman or frankly even remotely qualified to talk about this in any great detail but, you know, this is the Internet, so why should that stop me?

As far as I can work it out, “legal persons” are non-human entities that are assigned some of the same rights as a real person for the purposes of, amongst other things, legal liability. What this means is that several natural people can create a new entity, separate from their own legal liability, which can act as a legal entity in its own right and do a number of thing natural people can do, such as own things, incur debt and be legally liable for its actions and responsibilities.

This isn’t exactly breaking news though, as it’s basically one of the fundamental aspects of corporate law and has been around pretty much since the Industrial Revolution.

Well, so what? Well, if you read the end of paragraph three, these entities can incur debt, debt for which the people that “own” that entity are not liable. Corporations are legal persons and so the basic rule of thumb is that the corporation incurs a lot of debt and fails, the shareholders aren’t liable for the whole of that debt, just whatever they’ve invested (and not any profits gained in the meantime, either). Any debts that the corporation might then owe are ultimately left owing to whoever lent them anything, with no actual real person liable for that debt.

From my fairly limited view of this, which please enlighten me if I'm shooting in the dark here, but it seems to me that this basic principle is the lynchpin of the current financial collapse. When this corporation is, say, a corporate bank or hedge fund and, due to outrageous gambling of its stock by its shareholders etc on the stock exchange, suddenly there’s a billion dollar debt with no one to pay it. If that corporation fails, there’s now a billion dollar shockwave of missing money out of the financial system. If several big corporations go, then the shockwave is that much bigger.

So how when all the Wall Street banks, RBS, whoever else started to fail, the countries they were in basically had the choice to either deal with the shockwave (bad) or bail out the giant debt hole with magic taxpayer money (you know, for like hospitals and stuff, so also bad). This then gets worse when the country itself starts to take on debts (or it just looks like they might have to) and then the International money market thinks “hey, Greece has lots of debt, they’re not a good place for us to invest” and we just move up to a larger scale and repeat (and then up to currencies etc).

So, this is all because the people who own these corporations aren’t themselves liable for their own debts, because they’re not their own debts, they’re the debts of a thing that’s just a name on a bit of paper. Once the company is big enough, stock markets and stakeholders are happy to gamble one against the other or whatever and if it all goes tits up, well, it doesn’t matter because it’s not actually me. I can take the profits but not the debts.

Maybe this is really old news to some of you, maybe I’m a slow learner but basically how can this not be completely insane? Maybe we should just let Somali pirates carry on kidnapping and ransoming people while we’re at it and maybe even pay them or make them into Lords or something for the privilege? Perhaps I've got the wrong end of what looks like a distinctly shitty stick and, like I said, please tell me if I'm wrong, but unnatural persons seems, certainly in this regard, like a deeply unnatural practice to me.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Quantum Uncertainly

I’ve been trying to understand quantum physics recently. Not an easy task and, let’s face it, I’m looking for more a high-level grasp than actually really getting into the maths of it. I think I’m fighting a fairly losing battle, after all, if even Richard Feynman once said “no-one understands quantum physics” and he was a quantum physicist, then what chance do I have?

Well, to be fair, Feynman’s quote is one of those things that’s often taken out of context; he really meant that the basic core of “uncertainty” in quantum physics, that things can exist in multiple states at once at the exact same time and that these things only revert to a single state when they are observed (basically, just observing them causes them to change), is just completely at odds with the way we expect the universe “ought” to behave. Obviously some people understand it, otherwise it wouldn’t be physics, it would just be bullshit.

Anyway, so I read the other day that Heisenberg’s quantum uncertainty principle can be useful in adding weight to the two arguments that:

a) We live in a computer simulation
b) The universe just created itself, completely out of nothing, completely at random

In the computer simulation one, mathematically, as a civilisation becomes capable of creating a computer program that is indistinguishable from reality for its inhabitants, given enough time that simulation will create a civilisation with its own sub-simulation and so on, the chances of our reality being the one at the top of the simulation pyramid are virtually zero; ergo we’re in someone else’s simulation.

I’m not going to go into why quantum physics helps this argument (you can read that here) but my point is that if we’re in a computer game, then so far, its shit. I’ve been playing for ages and I still haven’t collected any decent weapons, I’m level 30, with no spells and, for the most part, the soundtrack is terrible. Also, some bloke called Jesus seems to have cheated much earlier on in the game and pretty much ruined it for everyone ever since.

This kind of brings us back to point number two, that the universe just popped into existence all by itself. Now, I would normally have thought this kind of theory would seem unreasonable, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. None of the other theories - God did it, something unbelievably complicated did it, it didn’t happen at all or we’re all in a computer game or somebody’s dream etc – seem any more plausible when you start to think about them.

I quite like the fact that quantum physics suggests that we’re all here, in fact everything’s just here, by pure fluke and, more to the point, it would be far more likely for us just not to have existed at all. Obviously, we’re not about to solve that one yet but perhaps if more people took that kind of view, we might start appreciating the fact that we’re here, pretty much by the skin of our teeth, and perhaps we should start acting like that means something.

Monday, 9 May 2011

A strange, lonely and troubling death...

The news of Osama bin Laden’s death was deeply shocking. It was not just that another middles-aged Islamic man had died pointlessly.

Through the recent travails and sad ends of Saddam Hussein, Ali Hassan al-Majid and many others, citizens know to expect the unexpected of their Islamic cousins - particularly if those idols live a life that is shadowed by dark appetites or fractured by private vice.

There are dozens of household names out there with secret and not-so-secret hide-outs, or damaging habits both past and present.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anwar al-Awlaki, Khalid al-Asiri,  Abu Hamza al-Masri, Abu Izzadeen (or should I say Trevor Brooks); we all know who they are. And we are not being ghoulish to anticipate, or to be mentally braced for, their bad end: a long night, a mysterious stranger, an odd set of circumstances that herald a sudden death.

In the morning, a body has already turned cold before the first concerned hand reaches out to touch an icy Muslim shoulder. It is not exactly a new storyline, is it?

In fact, it is rather depressingly familiar. But somehow we never expected it of him. Never him. Not Osama bin Laden.

In the cheerful environs of Al-Qaeda, bin Laden was always charming, deadly, ruthless and terrifying.

A founder member of Afghanistan’s first non card-carrying Islamic fundamentalist organisation, he was the group's lead figurehead, even though he could barely carry a Kalashnikov in a Camel skin tote bag.

He became the Posh Spice of Al-Qaeda, a popular but largely decorous addition.

Laden came out as Islamic in 1992 after discovering bombing, initially targeting the Gold Mihor Hotel in Aden where he believed that bombing civilians was justified as the innocent bystanders would find their proper reward in death.

Although he was effectively smoked out of the closet, he has been hailed as a champion of Islamic rights, albeit a terrorist one.

At the time, Laden worried that the revelations might end his ultra-mainstream career as a US employed CIA operative, but he received an overwhelmingly positive response from fans. In fact, it only made them love him more.

In 2001, Laden entered into a thinly veiled excuse for a holy resource war by goading the invasion of Iraq by hapless US president George W Bush, who had been introduced to him by mutual friends Saddam Hussein and Donald Rumsfeld.

Last week, the couple were enjoying a holiday apart from each other in separate palatial high security private homes before their world was capsized.


All the official reports point to a completely legal death, with no suspicious circumstances. The al-Qaeda organisation are - perhaps understandably - keen to register their boy's demise on the national consciousness as nothing less than a martyrdom.

Even before the post-mortem and grainy video stills were released by the US authorities, the world’s citizens reiterated that they believed his sudden death was due to assassination.

But, hang on a minute. Something is terribly wrong with the way this incident has been shaped and spun into nothing more than an unfortunate mishap on a holiday weekend, like a broken teacup in the rented cottage.

Consider the way it has been largely reported, as if bin Laden had been brutally shot to death by a death squad of twenty US flag waving, baseball loving, apple pie eating, specially trained crack US marines.

The sugar coating on this fatality is so saccharine-thick that it obscures whatever bitter truth lies beneath. Politically waning insane 54-year-old Jihadist leaders do not automatically surpass the boundaries of the basic human right to a fair trial in a court of law.