Monday, March 30, 2015

Jay Ingram. The Velocity of Honey (2003)

     Jay Ingram. The Velocity of Honey (2003) Another collection of essays about the Science of Everyday Life. Ever wonder why honey piles up on your toast as it flows off the spoon? Or why some people are able wake up pretty close to the time they want? Or why you can skip stones on water? The answers are out there, but most of them are incomplete, and lead on to other puzzles. Everyday physics and chemistry is much more complicated than the simplified models of reality that are studied in the lab. Ingram is one of the best popular science writers we have. This book was nominated for the 2003 Science in Society book award.
     The chapter on why bread always lands buttered side down alone is worth the price: the table is just high enough that the toast rotates over 90 degrees before it touches down. It doesn’t always land spread side down of course, occasionally it’s swept off the table with a spin that stabilises it. Spin is one of the main factors in skipping stones, too. Recommended ****

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Jihadists: the latest example of terrorist cowards

One of the things that stands out in the history of terrorists is their preference for soft targets. They choose schools, shopping centres, hotels, places of worship, sports arenas, buses and trains. They rarely attack military installations or bases, preferring less well protected police stations. Their attacks on military targets by preference take the form of stealth weapons such as mines buried in roads. And many such organisations have used suicide bombers.

By “they” I mean the leadership of these organisations. They take great care to protect themselves, to avoid taking part in the operations, and to be well out of the way of any counterattacks. They choose targets with little or no capability of returning fire, and they usually send their most expendable members carry out the operations. The most expendable ones are the suicide bombers, who are usually young people who have no other military value, and are naive enough not to notice that the greater good for which they give their lives are the people who send them away to blow themselves up.

In short, terrorists as a group are a mix of idealism, power lust, thuggishness, and rage. The ideology, secular or religious, is both a justification for murder and a lure for alienated and idealistic youngsters who see the mess the world is in and yearn for some meaningful role in making it better. These youngsters become the expendable human weapons-platforms used by the leaders to satisfy their dark urges.

But the one thing terrorist leaders have in common is their cowardice.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Mick O’Hare. Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze? (2006)

     Mick O’Hare. Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze? (2006) New Scientist’s “Last Word” collects questions and answer about whatever triggers the questioner’s curiosity. This book collects 142 questions from the early 2000s, organised by topic. The section on food and drink is the largest. Does this mean that food os the prime concern, or merely that eating takes so little brain power that there’s plenty left over for idle curiosity about the food?
     It’s a potato-chip book, compulsively readable, highly entertaining, with serious and tongue-in-cheek answers. All kinds of oddities, some of which a moderately well-read geek knows about, and some of which are news to just about everybody. The collection also illustrates the inevitable downside of increasing knowledge: the more we know collectively, the less we know individually. And as the area of knowledge expands, the boundary between the known and the unknown lengthens. This means that the more we know, the more there is to be found out. And that’s a Good Thing.
     Highly recommended. ***

Friday, March 27, 2015

Schrödinger’s Cat (again): Reality is interactions

     Schrödinger’s Cat (again)

A recent issue of New Scientist had a series of articles on Chance. One of these cited quantum physics (QP) to make the point that the universe is fundamentally random. No problem with that, but the reference and a New Yorker cartoon once again made me think about Schrödinger’s cat.

     I can’t do the QP math, but I do understand what QP has shown: that at the atomic level, events happen at random, there are weird linkages between events, that the elementary entities each may exist (if that is the word) in any of a small suite of states, that measurement of one property or state will destroy information about another property or state, and so on. In practical terms, this means that at the most fundamental level we can at best specify probabilities. In QP, the wave-function specifies these probabilities with astonishing precision.
     And that’s where Schrödinger’s Cat comes in. Here’s Wikipedia’s description of Schrödinger’s thought experiment, which I quote because it’s beautifully concise and clear:
     Schrödinger's cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.
     And here’s the pretty picture:
     Schrödinger’s Cat is one of those cultural tokens that people use to point to a presumed common notion, in this case, QP’s weirdness. Imagine, a cat being both alive and dead until you open the lid of the box and look inside!
     Wikipedia takes up the question of how to interpret the weird result:
     In the Copenhagen interpretation, a system stops being a superposition of states and becomes either one or the other when an observation takes place.
     That word “observation” includes a lot of assumptions, and it’s these assumptions that create the supposed paradox. It seems obvious to me that Niels Bohr is right that “observation” merely means “measurement”, and does not mean “noticed by a human being”. But I want to go beyond Niels Bohr, and alternative interpretations (see The Wiki article for more). The other interpretations are attempts to resolve a supposed paradox, but I don’t think there’s any paradox to be resolved.
     Note again the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or another. I interpret QP to mean that "superposition" is a label for what we cannot know until we measure it. But measurement is a series of interactions, the last of which triggers a stream of photons that our eyes can detect. There follows another series of interactions, which may end with our saying, “Here kitty, kitty!”
     Measurement is not a privileged interaction. All interactions will change a particle’s state. In Schrödinger's thought experiment, we may suppose that the interaction occurs when the device detects the particle emitted by the radioactive atom. But I think that's not the case. The interaction occurs when the atom decays, when something occurs inside the nucleus. If (and only if) we are able to amplify the effect of that first interaction (e.g, by detecting the radioactivity), can we say, with a good deal of confidence, that the particle was, at the moment of interaction, in some state, that the wave function describing the particle's state has collapsed. “At the moment of interaction” is the key phrase: we cannot know what the state of the particle was before that moment, and we cannot know its subsequent history, any more than we knew anything of its history prior to the measurement. We can make another measurement, in which case we may be faced with the conundrum of what exactly the particle was between measurements.
     You may infer that I don't think Schrödinger’s Cat creates a paradoxical superposition of dead/alive. You will be right.
     I think it’s the word “observation” that has misled people. It implies an observer. But there is no observer. There are only interactions. When we say we “observe” something, that statement is itself an interaction, triggered by a complex series of prior interactions. What’s more, this series of interactions is, according to QP, fundamentally untraceable, because a measurement is an interposition in the chain of interactions, and so from that point on the chain will be different than it would have been absent the measurement. The measurement changes the state of the particle, and therefore determines the result of the next interaction. By measuring it, we change the history of the particle.
     And what we may wish to think of as a property of a particle is merely an interaction that is observed in some specified context. For that matter, a particle is merely a collection of such consistent interactions.
     In short, reality is interactions. That's all there is.
     2015-03-27 Updated 2015-07-07

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Louis L’Amour. Riding for the Brand (1986)

     Louis L’Amour. Riding for the Brand (1986) A collection of short stories, the second one that L’Amour issued because some other publisher had put out a collection without his approval. I’d like to know more about the copyright issues. He added introductory remarks, which made it possible to copyright this collection, even though he’d lost the rights to some of the stories.
     The stories are nicely done bite-size chunks of typical L’Amour material: the tough loner wandering in search of some stability, who becomes entangled in a conflict despite his efforts to keep to himself, and eventually defeats the forces of disorder and chaos. His reward is of course the girl, who usually has a nice little property attached.
     L’Amour has said of himself that I like to think of myself in the oral tradition – as a troubadour, a village taleteller, the man in the shadows of the campfire. I think he’s right, especially with the reference to the troubadour, who sang songs of chivalry, of knights errant that fought and destroyed the forces of darkness, protected the weak against the rapaciousness of the strong, and were guided by a ethic that made self-preservation important only because you can’t fight if you’re dead. His romance has more than a few traits of Courtly Love, with the Girl always presented as nearly unattainable, and in every respect a paragon of womanhood.
     These short stories show that L’Amour was a master of the clearly delineated character-driven plot, and of sketching a complete world for the story’s setting. Each of these tales has enough implicit complexity to make for easy conversion to a movie.  The impression of L’Amour that one gets from them is of a man who had a strong romantic streak, a great love of the Western landscape, admiration for the people who settled there and survived, and a clear-eyed awareness of the necessity of impersonal ruthlessness when justice depends on a mans’ ability to fight and kill the lawbreaker. ***

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dr. Karl Theodor Heigel. Andreas Hofer. Ein Vortrag (1875)

     Dr. Karl Theodor Heigel. Andreas Hofer. Ein Vortrag (1875) The title translates as Andreas Hofer: A Lecture, it’s the text of a talk given at a meeting of the Münchener Volksbildungsverein, which I infer to be one of the many societies for popular education that flourished all over Europe in the 19th century. Heigel surveys Hofer’s life, and analyses the resistance to Bavarian and French occupation of the Tyrol. This occupation was a part of the messy transfers of territory during the Napoleonic wars. Bavaria got the Tyrol because Austria was defeated. Later, when Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo, the Tyrol reverted to Austria.
     Hofer was a Tyrolese patriot and fervent subject of the Emperor. One of the tragedies in his story is that Vienna didn’t feel strong enough to support his fight, even though he saw it as a struggle for the Tyrol’s rightful place in the Hapsburg empire. More at
     The lecture is quite readable, clearly composed to be heard by a non-academic audience. Heigel proposes two main theses, first that Hofer was a complicated character, with many virtues and faults, whose adherence to principle could be seen as stubbornness in the face of overwhelming odds; and second that his patriotism is a model for German nationalists.
     Apparently, at the time Austrians didn’t revere Hofer as they later did. I was taught that Hofer was an iconic Austrian patriot, a model for Austrian self-awareness. Heigel equivocates about his admiration of Hofer’s resistance to Bavarian authority, partly I think because he can’t very well defend a rebel against his own government, and partly because Hofer was merely a peasant. As a military leader, Hofer is notable as a wager of what we now call guerilla warfare. In the last few paragraphs Heigel slides into pan-German nationalism, and elevates Hofer from local rebel to national hero. Neat trick.
     The author, a professor of history and Bavarian State Archivist, wrote a number of works on German and Austrian history. Collections are available, but I don’t know whether or which collection includes this lecture. My copy is an original. I could not find an entry for it in the German National Library. German Wiki has a brief bio:
     Interesting and informative, despite its tendentious use of Hofer for Heigel’s pan-German ideology. **½

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dan Riskin. Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You (2014)

     Dan Riskin. Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You (2014) One of those popular science books that not only tells you lots of cool stuff, but changes the way you look at the world around you. Riskin takes us back to basics: Nature really is red in tooth and claw, and we’d better not forget it. He demonstrates this thesis under the headings of six of the seven deadly sins, carefully including human examples as well. We are animals, we must eat other living things to survive, and like them we want to maximise the odds that our DNA will be passed on by the next generation. Quoting Dawkins brilliant insight, Riskin reminds us that we are machines whose function is to ensure the survival of the DNA that constructs us.
    So what does it matter that we experience love and kindness and joy, and yearn for justice and truth and beauty? These emotions are merely part of the mechanism that guarantees that we will make babies, along with the other emotions that guarantee that we will try to survive long enough to make sure our babies can make babies too.
     That’s the bleak vision Riskin arrives at when he gets to pride, which is a peculiarly human sin. It makes us oblivious of our connection to and participation in the natural world of competition for every possible scrap of advantage. But turn this pride inside out: Instead of being proud of ability to change other creatures to our advantage, we should be proud of our ability to change ourselves to our advantage. We are capable of doing something that other animals can’t do, which is to plan for the long-range future, and curb and redirect those behaviours that give us immediate, short-term advantages over each other and other animals. That, says Riskin, is something to be proud of. We can refuse to be slaves to our DNA.  Evolution produced us, but it also made us capable of defying its process. Or more humbly, to take advantage of its processes to enable the survival of our DNA not only in the next generation, but in the  generations after that. With luck and savvy, and a huge dollop of rethinking of our purposes, maybe for thousands of generations into the future.
     A book worth reading on many levels. Riskin has a sense of humour, he writes well, he knows how to present examples that not only teach but also entertain. ***

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Amanda Cross. Honest Doubt (2000)

     Amanda Cross. Honest Doubt (2000) This book introduces Estelle “Woody” Woodham, a PI hired by first the family then the colleagues of Charles Haycock, a professor of English at a small liberal arts college somewhere in New Jersey. The man was hated by everyone, all his colleagues are suspects. Woody doesn’t know much about the academic “country”, so a mutual friend recommends she consult with Kate Fansler. Fansler’s husband Reed calls in a favour which links Woody up with Don Jackson, who explains that the local police department would be happy for her to solve the case, which she does. A movie of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express figures in the solution, which Woody can’t share with anyone, not even Don.
     Woody is an appealing heroine. She deprecates herself because she’s fat, but she knows her craft, and she knows people. Kate has a background role only, perhaps Cross was tired of showing us academe from Kate’s privileged point of view. Despite having a law degree, Woody is no academic; as an outsider she’s a good vehicle for Cross’s satire. All in all a nicely done entertainment, narrated by a character whom we would like to know even better. There was one more Kate Fansler mystery published after this one, I’ve not found it and don’t know whether it continues with Woody or reverts to Kate.
     Amanda Cross was the pseudonym of Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, more  at Wiki.
     I liked this book as much as the other Kate Fansler novels. Cross has the gift of writing not only believable but intelligent conversation. ***

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Imitation Game (2014)

      The Imitation Game (2014) [D: Morton Tyldum. Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode] A fictionalised version of Turing’s life, focussing on his work at Bletchley Park, where he improved on a Polish code-breaking machine and invented the theoretical basis of the digital computer, and ending with his arrest on charges of gross indecency and the effects of synthetic estrogen on his personality and mind.
     The script emphasises the strained human relationships and emotional costs, and strongly hints that Turing was autistic. It dramatises the research and the conflicts within Bletchley Park, portraying its Commander as a narrow-minded results-focussed martinet who despised academics. The relationship between Turing and Joan Clarke has the ring of truth, despite the use of Knightley to act the part. The producers skim over the math and logic, rightly deciding I think that too much technical detail would cause eye-glazing. But an unfortunate side-effect is a variation on the mad-scientist-geek stereotype: Turing is not normal. I think that many, perhaps most, movie-goers will on the one hand sympathise with the emotional pain Turing suffered, and on the other will feel confirmed in the attitude that science is not for ordinary folk. The victimisation of Turing as a gay man will cause similar mixed responses.
     Having seen Codebreaker (See review of February 24, 2015) I think was an advantage, since it supplied an objective framework for this film’s point of view. We can never know what it feels like to be someone else; we even have difficulty reconstructing our own early selves. Biopics like this one help us, and when a nuanced script, a uniformly high level of action, and a carefully paced narrative rhythm come together as they do in this movie, we only be grateful. It’s worth seeing, both as a great movie and as a credible and moving interpretation of man’s life. ****

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Morley Callaghan. No Man’s Meat (1931)

     Morley Callaghan. No Man’s Meat (1931) Soft-porn novella originally published in 1931 in Paris in an edition of 525 copies, all signed by Callaghan. Reissued by Stoddart in 1990. A divorced woman visits her friends at their cottage in Muskoka. She plays poker with the husband, loses every hand, and finally bets her virtue. The wife insists that the husband collect the bet, which the friend feels is a matter of honour. It’s not a good experience for either of them. The wife comforts the friend. Next morning, she tells her husband that the friend left her marriage because she cannot stand the touch of a man. Next morning, she drives the friend to the station, and leaves with her. The husband is left alone to ponder the note in which the wife confesses that she loves the friend, and that she will not return.
     Like all of Callaghan’s stories, it’s told in a plain style that distances us from the action while at the same time engaging our imaginations and so our feelings. But it’s not among Callaghan’s best stories, and would not have been reprinted if it had been by another hand. **

Monday, March 09, 2015

Mr Harper's War on Science

Since taking power in 2006, the Harper government has systematically reduced funding for anything that directly or indirectly opposes their ideology. John Dupuis has compiled a chronology  on Science Blogs. Read it and weep.

Human Cantilever Bridge

Boing-Boing republished an old photo, which I first saw in a Wonder Book, a series of compendiums first published in England sometime in the 1920s, and continued into the 1950s: Human cantilever bridge

Monday, March 02, 2015

George Gently & Miss Fisher: two TV series episodes

     Gently: The Lost Child (2012) Episode 3 of the 2012 season. [D:Nicholas Benton. Martin Shaw, Lee Ingleby] An adopted child is kidnapped, but the reasons aren’t money. The kidnapper was himself an adopted child. The adoption agency is run by a woman with well-meaning but mistaken motives. Gently and Bacchus must navigate an emotionally intense tangle of past history, motives, secrets, and events. People are unable to reveal essential knowledge because they are afraid of their own vulnerability, and because they want to do what’s best for their partner. Well meaning motives cause trouble. Gently and Bacchus’s own lives mirror some of the relationship they must investigate.
     Like the other Gently episode we’ve seen, this one’s moody, sad, psychologically complex. Hunter (the author of the books) clearly is more interested in how the random collisions of private and public knowledge and motives lead to catastrophe. ***

     Miss Fisher: Raisins & Almonds (2012) [D: David Caesar. Essie Davis, Nathan Page.  Based on the books by Kerry Greenwood.]
     It’s the 1920s. The Hon. Phryne Fisher is for some reason displaced to Melbourne. There she lives in a fine house with a full staff and several hangers-on that assist her in her investigations. Just how she has created a PI career for herself is unclear, since this is the 5th episode. The series is now in its third season, we will watch it when we can.
     The series is agreeable fluff, lovely clothes and cars, stereotypes galore (Australia at the time was still very much a colony), many different accents, and light-weight historical references, which in this episode form a large part of the plot and puzzle. The McGuffin is a formula for synthetic rubber, created by the murder victim, who has Zionist connections. Family rivalries motivate the murder. There’s some kind of romance developing between Miss Fisher and Inspector Jack Robinson. Miss Fisher has a gun and a dagger, both of which she uses when she needs to.
In short, an adventure romance of the kind that is rarely written these days, which may explain why these books are quite often translated into video.
     The scripting, acting, photography add up to competent story-telling. A well-crafted entertainment. Worth watching if you like this genre. Wikipedia has entries on both Kerry Greenwood and the TV series.**½