Sunday, August 21, 2016

Fridge question

In a physics lesson at school we were asked whether a working fridge with the door open in a sealed room would increase, decrease or not change the temperature of the room. I answered that it wouldn't change but the teacher told me that it would increase.

I now think I was -  if not right, exactly - not wrong anyway.

If this experiment is taking place in an idealised universe then there is no reason that the fridge cannot be 100% efficient and therefore it will cool by exactly the amount it heats. In which case I would be right, there would be no change in temperature in the sealed room.

The teacher was treating this as a real life fridge which would then be less than 100% efficient and would produce more heat than cooling. But if this is the case then there is no such thing as a perfectly sealed room either. Some of the heat gain will be dissipated through the walls even if they are insulated. How much is unknown and could be less than or more than the amount generated by the fridge. So the answer is unknown in this situation.

So the answer is: either no effect or any of the options.

So there.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

global vote

Global democracy seems to be necessary for global policies. Clearly some things like climate affect everybody no matter where they live so it is only fair that there should be a system for everybody to have their say. Living in a democratic country, we are used to the idea of spheres of influence and accountability. We vote locally for people who make decisions that are more or less limited to our local area, then there are larger regions (in the UK these are devolved control of Welsh, Scottish & Northern Irish policies, the USA has states etc.) Then we have national government who have the most far-reaching control and European elections which give a glimpse of international democracy but really just a toe in the water (they are still British MEP's in a British political party).

But imagine international political parties campaigning on a global scale, trying to get votes from all round the world to build a concensus. They would stride over national differences, appealing to broader human beliefs. Of course, they would be just as susceptible to the power of the media as national parties and the problems of creating such a global democratic system would be considerable;bbut even the process of trying to set up a fair system which allowed everyone on the planet potentially to vote would involve a new way of working, requiring collaboration beyond anything previously attempted. Imagine a UN vote, but not by government representatives from each nation, by the populations of those nations. At the moment the UN isolates people from power such as the Palestinians because of their non-nation status. This would bypass that completely.

We have - as the intro to Six Million Dollar Man, would have it - the technology. We just need the will to distribute the power it brings evenly.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

let's go again, from the top

Time travel in movies has broken out of its original niche as a specific branch of Science Fiction and become a respectable narrative device in different genres. This blog wonders whether this reflects something in our attitude to the world and our current society.

To be clear what we mean by time travel here: it is one specific interpretation that is being exploited, which could be summarized as 'another chance'. The pattern was first popularised in the public imagination in the 1980's by Back to the Future. Where earlier stories used time as a warning (The Time Machine being the obvious example), Zemeckis' story is wish fulfillment writ large and delivered with a panache that made it irresistible. It is escapism in its most literal sense: the facility to break out of the situation which constrains us and re-create the world to deliver our desires. Two things are important about this approach to the subject: first, that delivery and retrieval to the past are constrained; and second, that the present returned to can be changed from the one that was left. For an engaging narrative, these two things are vital and have become universal plot foundations.

Science Fiction has taken over from the Western in the cinema as the tool for delivering low brow mass entertainment action to the young masses. Like westerns there are a set of established rules that are generally accepted within sci fi movies, although they are arguably much looser. There are white hats and black hats and the white hats ultimately win - we would expect nothing less. What sci fi inherited from westerns is that nothing is without cost and this is where time travel becomes problematic. Back to the Future, in its complete trilogy, is a 'lesson learned' yarn, following a cocky naive young man through his adventures which teach him humility and the importance of family. The point is it matters what he does, there is a right and wrong thing to do and there are consequences if he gets it wrong.

Another pillar of the genre is Groundhog Day which again delivers escapism and the promise of seemingly endless chances to get it right, but still, like the video games that were becoming popular, to progress to the next level you do have to get it right in the end. Groundhog Day is not science fiction - there is no mechanism for the time travel and nothing physical is transported. You could treat the whole thing as a psychological condition within Phil Connors' head; he can only break the cycle by becoming cured and living the perfect day. Edge of Tomorrow, dubbed Groundhog D-Day, followed the exact same structure but somehow (and you really might not want to read the end of this paragraph unless you've seen it) seems to pay a disservice to the sacrifice of the real D Day veterans by letting them all get out of it unscathed. What was learned? How to cheat basically.

Away from the silver screen, Audrey Niffenegger's novel The Time Traveller's Wife (as well as a sub-plot in Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkhaban) offer a fatalist view of time travel, ie. without being able to change anything. And it is dark. Obviously too dark for mainstream cinema which failed to do any kind of justice to the breadth and depth of Niffenegger's story. The Harry Potter films remain a monolithic exception to the status quo - how much so is only becoming clear a decade on.

With the millennium moving from future to distant past, suddenly second chances are everywhere. The Men in Black franchise needed new life breathing into it: how about a back story, but attended by a current character? Why not? Reboot Star Trek: the fans won't like it - ah but this is having your cake and eating a doughnut at the same time. Time Travel means never having to choose which version you prefer. Same deal with X Men, wheel on the oldies but let the youngsters do the stunts. Hollywood has found the perfect tool to deliver to two generations at the same time without all those cringy 'nudge nudge wink wink' innuendos in family films that became so popular in the 90's: deliver them two generations of actors at the same time. Looper is Die Hard: The Next Generation as well as the last.

Meanwhile, away from superheroes and aliens, we have... vampires and werewolves. (spoiler again) the final battle scene in Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 is presented as happening and then the protagonists have the chance to walk away. Woody Allen brought out Midnight in Paris, a kind of Nostalgia-ception: a golden age within a golden age within a golden age. The Butterfly Effect and Frequency continued the idea that once changed the past is a bugger to get back in its cage.

There's a sense of searching for a better today by learning lessons yesterday, as if it is already too late to learn them now. For the generations that grew up in the last half of the 20th century, the millennium was the event horizon and now that it's past, there is a longing to get another crack at it, as if history ended at that point and anything we do now is like clutching at straws when you're already drowning. Technology seems to offer a tantalizing taste of having more than one chance: once you wrote something down and it stayed written down, now you can re-record as often as you like. Once we had to suspend our disbelief on the narrative of a film but there was a clunky reality to objects and people, now everything is liquid, a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes that have no physical existence. We feel like our life is in need of post-production work to knock it into shape. The world, we try to convince ourselves, is a green screen waiting for us to project a better scene onto it. 

Quantum mechanics has become practical science and like electricity or computers have done before, it appears to offer a panacea for all the world's ills. There seems something disjointed about seeing famines in a world of instant global communication, as if an outbreak of Scurvy laid low the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Perhaps the millennium that we dreamed of as children got interrupted when it was only half downloaded; after the wristwatch TV's, videophones and bionic limbs but before the hovercars, fusion power plants and food generators. People used to talk about future shock because everything was advancing so fast but now there's a frustration that the really stubborn stains just aren't shifting. We still sit in queues in transport machines that burn oil - surely that was last century? We're arguing about building a railway - surely it should have been built half a century ago?

It's true I am older now than ever before but I see a trickle of the same cynicism in younger people too. When they surface from their virtual universe, they tend to look at the news and ask "How did it come to this? Why did you let it carry on so long?" If it's this fucked up, they seem to say, maybe it would be better just to hit control alt delete and reboot the whole thing. 21st Century 2.0 Despite the fact that everything always goes wrong as soon as anybody jumps into the past in any movie, I'm quite sure that, given the chance, we just wouldn't be able to resist.

Monday, March 18, 2013

questions of god

It is possible (even likely) that the question "Does god exist?" has no objective answer. This redefines agnosticism from being on the fence about god's existence to a more powerful position of pointing out the absurdity of the theist/atheist argument.

In the same way that there is no objective answer to where the centre of the universe is or whether a colour exists, the question of the existence of god may only be answerable from a particular subjective standpoint.

Friday, January 25, 2013

lossless compression

Seems to me there can't really be such a thing as lossless compression of data. Any system of compression must involve some assumption or prior knowledge of the information that is important in order to discard the rest. This is supported to my mind both philosophically: there is no redundant information in the universe; and empirically: no system of audio or video capture and replay ever looks or sounds like the original and they all differ from each other. There is not even a general movement towards 'better' as more advanced technology is involved. This is because one person's background noise is another person's atmosphere.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

corporate control of media

Corporations are anti-government control and regulation, they own the media so the media encourages the idea that politicians are corrupt and untrustworthy so that people reject control in favour of open market capitalism.

So the implementation of the Leveson Report (or not) is not about free speech: it's about counter-balancing vested commercial interests which have editorial control of the press. And I don't believe for a minute that it will inhibit investigative journalism: there are more opportunities for publishing than ever before and a story that's worth hearing can be sold. The editor of the Independent was moaning that his paper had done nothing wrong and was still going to be regulated along with the bad tabloids. Well, isn't that how the law always works? We're always being told that if we do nothing wrong we have nothing to fear but in reality we are restricted in every aspect of life by regulation.

The problem is that these publications call themselves NEWSpapers despite the fact that what they mainly do is push a point of view. All of them - tabloids or not. Consider the last election: even the Guardian openly supported a political party. They are targeted at a market sector and they put out whatever supports the prevailing view of this sector otherwise people would switch to another paper. So the Daily Mail puts out scare stories about immigration because white van man and tea shop lady are scared of immigration. That has nothing to do with news or free speech, it's just reinforcing people's identity as part of a group by reminding them of the boundary between 'us' and 'them'.

The other thing they do is to try and perpetuate their existence. So politicians are the common enemy. It helps to undermine the potential power of government by increasing people's perception of it as a bungling bureaucracy made up of weak, greedy, ignorant members. Tax is a good weapon because nobody likes paying tax much and the idea of unfairness in the tax system drives people to distraction (rightly) but the emphasis is less on making things fair and more a pincer movement on criticising high taxes and reduced services without pointing out the one is a consequence of the other.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


We are sheep, we truly are, or really dumb dogs. We need huge heavy handed all encompassing state machinery to protect us from each other, to tell us what to do, to control, coerce, trick us into behaving, to teach us (despite it having a long track record of being wrong and inaccurate and biased and fickle and self-interested about everything), to punish us otherwise we will repeat our mistakes and misdemeanours over and over again, to repress our base urges, to decree how and who we love, who we have sex with, who we talk to and what we talk about, when we work, when we play, shop, gamble, drink, take drugs, what drugs we can and can't take with little bearing on how dangerous or helpful they are, it defines when we are sick and how and whether we should get better, what treatments we can and can't have regardless of efficacy, it restricts where we can go, how we can get there, what we can look at, what we can record to show others, what we can wear and not wear, how we should look, what work we can do, how much we can earn and be charged, it dictates how we should bring up our kids, how they should be taught (mainly to continue to be sheep), where we can take them, what we can show them, what dangers we can expose them to; then, if we don't behave like good little sheep (and often even if we do and through no fault of our own fall foul of the laws it put in place to maintain its control and authority) it can take away our possessions, our livelihood, our health, our dignity, our personal freedom (what little we had to start with), it can even take away our children and our loved ones, it can kill us or it can keep us alive against our will.

And this, we are told, is not a totalitarian state: it is democracy, it is enlightened. We have never had it so good, so many opportunities, so much choice, so much freedom of speech, so much equality. How beneficent, how generous, kind and wise must this state be to provide so much and offer us so much chance to better ourselves despite our huge failings. How much better off we are than other places and other times and things just keep getting better and we just keep getting better, wealthier, healthier and happier. But we are still stupid and we squander our new wealth, we spend it on the wrong things, invest it in the wrong places, don't spend enough when the economy needs it and don't save enough for our futures, we should have more than enough to live on but we somehow can't manage it, we are tricked out of money by conmen, we buy things we can't afford on a whim because of jealousy and greed, we buy food that we won't eat, gadgets we won't use, entertainment we won't enjoy, clothes we won't wear, we buy things that are polluting the planet, exploiting children, funnelling money and power to brutal crimelords, undermining the very places that we live. We squander our health too, eating the wrong things, eating too much, drinking, sitting on our arses watching people telling us we are sitting on our arses too much and then we encourage our children to do the same, to make the same mistakes we made as well as making their own. We are, in short, so bad at looking after ourselves and our children that it is only through the utmost restraint that the state allows us these freedoms. What tolerance and patience it must take to endlessly point out the damage we are going to do and then watch while we do it anyway.

Take smoking: however forcefully we were told by the state that it was killing us, successive generations took to it like the popular image of lemmings jumping to their deaths off the same cliff. Yet, decades passed with no new laws being passed to prevent us from smoking or even to prevent new people from picking up the habit from their parents, their friends and their colleagues - what restraint, how valuable must our right to make our own stupid decisions be! And now we are simply eating ourselves to death while once more the state stands by and warns us that we are eating ourselves to death and it will keep warning us until we have eaten ourselves to death, some of us and the rest of us are trying to keep going, keep doing all the things we are supposed to do, while we deal with fallout of all our mistakes. Because, like it or not, we are a society and we are as interdependent as bees in a beehive, so everybody pays for everybody else's actions. Not equally and not fairly, some will pay drastically heavier prices for other people's ignorance or greed while some will benefit fantastically from other people's bad luck or hard work but the state won't intervene because on average (if you measure things in a particular way and ignore the things which disagree with the outcome you want to see) the statistics all show upward trends.

So we accept the arbitrariness of laws that allow us to destroy ourselves one way but not another because although we are stupid and ignorant we are just bright enough to realise that we are stupid and ignorant and we know that it would be much more dangerous to be left to our own devices. We've seen images of the chaos that occurs when states collapse and law and order are not enforced, we all carry images of street fights, petrol bombs, looting and carnage and we know that the same would happen to us if we were let off the leash. We are scared of foreigners taking what belongs to us, we are scared of people who have less than us coveting what we have, we are scared of our way of doing things to be lost amongst new and dangerous ideas, there is too much conflicting information being thrust at us so we ignore everything except that which supports what we think we already know. This is obvious, but beneath this outward show of suspicion and contempt, what we truly fear is ourselves. Without being constantly told what to do we just can't really imagine how we would lead our lives. Like a lost sheep we can only tell where we need to go by watching the movement of the flock, we have no other compass to guide us. But the flock is moving haphardardly from one area of green grass to another and has no more special knowledge about where it is going that we do.