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Friday, 29 August 2008


L. L. Barkat doesn't usually post about political happenings. She's more interested in personal growth and morality and how to live well; in spirituality, I guess I may freely say, since LL is a Christian blogger.

"I don't claim to understand it." In a recent post on Senator John Edwards' recently-revealed affair, LL quotes this response and then looks more deeply at the matter at hand. Do we really not understand how an illicit love affair could start? LL is willing to try, and I say brava!

"I don't claim to understand it" is the easiest response to an action or a viewpoint that you disagree with. It stops you from having to confront your own fallibility. To 'understand' in this sense is to identify the impulses that you, too, have which could in other circumstances prompt you to act that way. Claiming not to understand how someone could, say, have an extramarital affair is a way of claiming that you are innocent of all such deplorable impulses.

Having established that whatever prompted this action could not have been anything that you feel leaves you free to make the imagined motives as unpleasant as you like. LL herself notes that the picture she can imagine "is a radically different frame than that of the 'lurid affair' that the media loves to paint". Yes, it is. Similarly, the motivations of most atheists are radically different to the picture sometimes painted by apologists of people who simply don't want to obey God, being an anti-abortion activist doesn't actually mean that you hate women, and some "family" activists really need to learn that the sexual feelings of homosexuals do not consist entirely of 'lurid affairs' either.

Atheists are as guilty as anyone of painting an unrealistic picture of their opponents. I wince, sometimes, at the swiftness with which certain sections of the online atheist community will give up the attempt to explain religion in terms of anything that we feel and instead impute it to stupidity and smallmindedness, to greed and fear. Stupidity, smallmindedness, greed and fear are real phenomena, it's true, but if you choose to see those motives at the expense of others, you are showing a smallmindedness of your own.

The truth is, there are reasons to show compassion to others that even extend beyond the way it can help us to get along. If you truly want to understand the world, and if you truly want to understand yourself, then showing humility about your own motives and compassion about the motives of others is the only way to reach a semblance of truth.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Physics and Poetry

Yes, it's another Nonbelieving Literati post [Edit: This one's about Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. How could I forget to say that?] . I'm late again, but, as I posted on the Exterminator's contribution, this one did sort of look like one that I should make the effort on. John Evo, responding to the comment, was kind enough to characterise me as a poet, specifically by saying "I'd definitely like to hear what a poet has to say about this". But did I read this book as a poet?

I started out reading as a physicist. What can I say? When I was younger I used to love the slide and switch of reference frames, the pure and perfect mechanics of Galileo, Newton, Einstein. The characters' names in this book even sort of look like arcane mathematical expressions with symbols incomprehensibly juxtaposed: Qfwfq, (k)yK, Mrs. Ph(i)Nko. So when I read Qfwfq babbling away like an old man about how the Moon used to be closer to the Earth in those days, I started mentally checking the details. "She rolled around the sky like an umbrella chased by the wind". Well, the Moon would have to go fast. To be in orbit is to cross the horizon before you can fall to the ground. If the ground is closer, the Moon must reach the horizon more quickly! Indeed, the necessary speed bothered me a little.

This is how we did the job: in the boat we had a ladder: one of us held it, another climbed to the top, and a third, at the oars, rowed until we were right under the Moon . . .

What's wrong with this picture? I kept finding myself imagining the Moon falling until I realised that, at the distance I was imagining it, the Moon would probably have to be travelling a lot faster than the average rowboat. Ah, but isn't it fun to imagine that you could climb to the Moon on a ladder? Poetic license. Never mind.

Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realised this the moment you passed from one to the other: you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales, throwin your legs over your head, until your feet were on the Moon's surface. Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.

I was skeptical of this one at first. It is, however, true that the closer you get to the Moon, the stronger the Moon's pull. The question is, how close do you have to be? If the Moon is that close to the Earth, might not the point at which the Moon's attraction becomes stronger actually be inside the Moon?

A quick calculation informs me that I was wrong, however. As the distance between the Earth and the Moon increases, the point of equal gravitational pull becomes outside the Moon before the distance becomes greater than the Earth's radius! So that's all good.

"Cling together! Idiots! Cling together!" the Captain yelled. At this command, the sailors tried to form a group, a mass, to push all together until they reached the zone of the Earth's attraction: all of a sudden a cascade of bodies plunged into the sea with a loud splash.

Okay, this is not poetic licence. It's not my fault for being picky either. This isn't something I could fail to notice. It's blatantly wrong. In fact, there's a nice thought experiment due to Galileo that tries to disprove the above using basically that example. You see, bigger things do not fall faster than smaller ones. Not unless the smaller one is a feather, in which case the key phrase is air resistance. Without air resistance, all objects would fall at the same speed. With air resistance, well, the air resistance does not have to be as big in order to affect the fall of a small thing as it would need to be in order to affect the fall of a large thing. This is what creates the disparity. However, I can assure you that tying the lace of one shoe to the lace of the other will not make your shoes fall faster; it affects neither the air resistance nor the gravitational pull on each shoe. Similarly, coming together in a group will not make each person fall faster. Gravity does not check whether you are holding hands before deciding how hard to pull each of you!

Thus began an uneasy balance between science and poetry. The delight of these stories is in the way that they take a snippet of science and build around it an absurd flight of fancy, an almost narcissistic reflection of human foibles created around a simple detached fact. Moreover, although the science may sometimes be bent or broken, the humanity never is. Who cannot sympathise with the narrator of 'The Light Years', suddenly realising that the inhabitants of other galaxies have been watching him and worrying desperately about what they must think of him, but knowing that they are so distant that they will not see any improvement he makes to his behaviour for millions of years?

As with all stories that have an allegorical component, there is always a temptation to try to find the more commonplace 'meaning' behind the fantastical description. I suspect that, having begun my reading thinking like a scientist, I was slightly more prone to this than I might otherwise have been, and spent a certain amount of time reminding myself not to try to decode. The stories are sympathetic in their own right, and their meaning is in their sympathy. A reader should not need more.

Ah, but I loved the final story! I had settled down into poetry far enough that I could dispense with the science by means of a mere 'of course evolution couldn't really have this sort of purpose' and enjoy the pretty story of how we create beauty -- the beauty of a spiral, no less! How very mathematical. This book is not all true, but it is clearly truthful.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

". . . secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects . . ."

A laptop is among the most personal of objects. Sometimes just having somebody look over my shoulder when I'm on it gives me a not entirely comfortable prickle across my shoulder-blades. It's so terribly revealing: my list of Google contacts, the things I choose to have shortcuts for on my desktop, the fact that I play FreeCell often enough that it's currently got higher listing on my 'start' menu than iTunes -- to say nothing of my list of Firefox bookmarks (that's 'favorites' for all you people still stuck on Internet Explorer), which happens to include a favourite Doctor Who screencap of mine (this one, if you must know) just because I like to look at it occasionally.

So I really want to know why it is that this does not seem to violate any laws (Tip of the hat to Pharyngula):

Federal agents may take a traveler's laptop computer or other electronic device to an off-site location for an unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing, as part of border search policies the Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed. . . .

DHS officials said the newly disclosed policies -- which apply to anyone entering the country, including U.S. citizens -- are reasonable and necessary to prevent terrorism. Officials said such procedures have long been in place but were disclosed last month because of public interest in the matter.

You can view the policy here, which does contain partial exceptions for business information and attorney-client privileged material, and which does state that most of the information gathered (unless it relates to a crime) needs to be destroyed afterwards.

Now, I am not silly enough to let Firefox remember the password to my internet bank account, but anyone with access to my laptop could find their way into my email. Theoretically, when I enter the United States next month, immigration officials are allowed to look at every silly story or diary-like ramble in my 'documents' folder.

For some reason it doesn't bother me half so much that they're probably also allowed to read my paper diary if they wish. Electronic information is easily searched, easily copied, easily secreted, easily sent. Sure, you're supposed to destroy it all, but I bet that's unenforceable in practice. So I have to rely on the disinterest of customs officials and anyone else deemed necessary to decode my data. In my case, maybe that's not so bad. I'm not doing anything terribly secret or interesting, don't own any pornographic material of myself that could accidentally find its way onto the internet, and if all else fails, I'm white and I speak English and I bet that counts for more than it should in avoiding being searched in the first place. Travellers shouldn't have to rely on luck like that, though!

The Fourth Amendment, which I quoted in the post title, does not apply with the same force to border searches (see Wikipedia). Although they need reasonable suspicion to search me bodily, currently thay can search me mentally (via my laptop) for any reason or none. Frankly, I think I'd rather be searched bodily.

Although it will be to late to protect me, I hope Russ Feingold's plan to introduce legislation to stop this sort of thing is successful. Squick. Seriously, this is what I call an invasive search!