Fond but Not in Love

I think that one of the prevailing problems with our political culture is that an awful lot of weight is put on ideology and tribalism, which is terribly detrimental to our political culture.

It’s one thing to disagree vociferously with your enemies when they’re wrong, but another to argue when they’re right. Too often is compromise seen as selling out, or attempting a dialogue seen as weakness.

I suppose that compromise especially is easier to spin, and easier to misconstrue. I suspect that this is one of the reasons why the Lib Dem participation in the coalition is seen by many as a betrayal.

I’d like to see myself as a pragmatist. I’m unhappy with cuts, and with tuition fees, and I’d rather see them not there at all. With that said, I also don’t see what is possible to avoid them; my best answer would be something along the lines of “Well, I wouldn’t start from here…”

As much as I hate the idea of the unelected, unaccountable, markets controlling our political destiny (and believe me, I really, really hate it), the plain ugly truth is that they do. Our government and our economy is kept turning by the money loaned to us by our creditors, and that gives them power over us. That’s what deficit means, after all; we could not pay our bills if that money wasn’t loaned to us. If we tried to break the chains as it stands now, in our hour of greatest weakness, we’d be plunged into an economic disaster that makes the cuts look like Christmas.

And the people who were the architects of this economic bondage are scoring points from the back of the cuts. It’s scandalous. I’m furious with Labour, frankly. I’m furious with their tribalism, their hypocrisy, their through selling out of the principles of liberty and socialism when they had untrammelled power for thirteen years. In boom times they brought in tuition fees, and in the years of plenty they spent more than we can afford. Living on money borrowed from capitalists is no socialism I recognise. They let, even encouraged, the markets to grow strong, and made us weak into the bargain. They have no right to carp on about betrayal!

The Lib Dems, by contrast, have had to compromise. Some elements of the manifesto were jettisoned, others watered down. That’s true. But many, many others were and are being enacted. It’s making the best of a bad job; being pragmatic, not just idealistic, and it’s being painted as a failure.

I bring this up partly because of the announcement of proposals for the reform of the House of Lords; I today received an email from Nick Clegg, which contains this paragraph:

It’s no secret that Liberal Democrats strongly favour a wholly-elected second chamber. That is the simplest, purest, and most democratic option. But we should not make the perfect the enemy of the very good. That approach has stymied Lords reform for too long. And 80% is very much better than 0%; and a lot more than Labour managed in 13 years of governing alone.

I agree with him. Ultimately, getting this to pass is going to need horse-trading with the Conservatives, elements of whom are going to be very against this proposal. A lot of people vote Conservative. A lot of people think like they do (and some of them are even friends of mine), and so they have a lot of representation (although more than they deserve). It’s right and proper that it has to be watered down from what the Lib Dems want, because the Lib Dems have less votes and less representation. It’s a great shame that many people can’t see things that way; true democracy requires that you compromise with the people you disagree with. Make no mistake on my disagreement with the Tories; but too long have we lived with the tyranny of absolutist majoritarianism.

It’s depressing that outcome of all this could be a return, a bolstering, of what got us into this mess. Rather than fostering a heterogeneous environment of differing opinion, debate, and compromise, we could find ourselves going back to brutal tribalism, one party on the left, one party on the right, and to the victor (even if by a small margin), the spoils, the system that let us down so very awfully.

So I guess that answer, when anybody asks if I’m ashamed for voting Lib Dem, or joining the party, the answer, honestly, is no.

The Arrow of Time

I’ve been thinking about time recently; mostly about how I don’t seem to have enough of it. My PhD work seems to be expanding to take over my life, so all sorts of other persuits (cooking, cleaning, blogging, reading other people’s blogs) have taken a bit of a backseat. Hopefully the work-life balance will re-establish itself soon, but in the meantime, I’ve been thinking about the nature of time.

One of the really weird things about physics as we know it is that the very basic laws are all time-symmetric; they’re indifferent to time going forwards or time running backwards. For instance, the Earth’s motion around the Sun: if time switched direction, the Earth would just go around the other way. The equations would all work and be consistent.

As it happens this isn’t the whole story, as we actually seem to live in a universe in which the laws of physics stay the same if you do something called a CPT transformation: you reverse the direction of time, mirror-flip the entire universe, and then change all the particles for anti-particles. So an electron going right and forwards in time could equally be described as a positron going left and backwards in time, and the physics would all be the same — if you lived in such a universe you wouldn’t notice the difference, you’d think our universe is the crazy flipped one!

The weird and interesting thing is that from our point of view, time obviously has a direction! It marches ever onwards into the future. We remember yesterday, but not tomorrow. It’s blindingly obvious when a piece of film has been reversed, because ludicrous things happen like teacups forming from ceramic shards. That obviously isn’t reversible, so what gives?

Physicists call this problem the arrow of time; why does an arrow, a preferred direction, exist when all the most fundamental laws tell us that the two directions of time should be indistinguishable?

One possible answer is entropy. Broadly speaking, entropy is a measure of disorder in a system. It’s a way of counting how many microscopic ways there are to make a particular macroscopic system. Take for example our smashed teacup. Consider that there are two states that cup can exist in: smashed, and whole. There is only one way for the cup to be whole, so it has a low entropy. There are untold millions of ways that cup can exist as a pile of smashed fragments, so that state has high entropy.

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that, on average, the entropy of a closed system will always increase, based on simple probability – for the cup it is easier to be smashed than to be whole, because there are more ways to be smashed. The laws of physics remain reversible, but the fact that so many more high entropy states exist than low entropy ones mean that playing the odds, you’ll go from low to high entropy.

So cups will always tend to smash rather than spontaneously re-form, energy will tend to turn from ordered forms which we can use (like electricity) into unordered forms, spread through the environment that we cannot use (like heat). There are some pretty compelling thought experiments (see Maxwell’s Demon, for those interested) which suggest that remembering (or more precisely, forgetting) is a process which generates entropy. There’s only one way to remember something, but millions of ways you can forget it.

So maybe that’s why we can remember the past and not the future – our memory works by increasing entropy, and entropy increases into the future. But that doesn’t answer the question as to why entropy appears to have “chosen” a particular direction in which to operate.

Well, consider a universe that starts in an high-entropy state. If that universe is already near or at maximum entropy, then only reversible processes can ever happen, because irreversible processes are the ones which generate entropy. Nothing can live, or die (because death is irreversible). Cups cannot smash, and there is no free energy around with which to do work. Some people speculate that this fate awaits our universe, and it’s called “heat death”. It simply becomes impossible to extract useful energy from the environment because it’s all become useless heat. (The other possible fate is a deep freeze, where the universe spreads out so much that the average energy density of the universe goes to zero. It’s the same problem, a lack of available energy, but much, much colder).

So instead, imagine a universe which starts in a low-entropy state. This universe is then free to be full of entropy-generating events, like smashing cups, machines, and computers (and people!) with memories capable of remembering the past. So maybe the mystery of the arrow of time is solved by our universe beginning in an incredibly unlikely low-entropy state, and evolving towards a higher entropy one, just because higher entropy is more likely than low entropy. The laws of physics all remain fully reversible, it’s just bloody unlikely that our universe started so favourably.

Although, I did have an idea: what if what we think of as the beginning, this low-entropy state, is actually the middle of the existence of a universe? From that point, you could use the laws of physics to extrapolate that universe both forwards, and backwards, but the internally perceived arrow of time, pointing along the direction of entropy growth, would point in different directions in each half of the universe’s history. Furthermore, quantum indeterminancy would guarantee that each “sub-universe” would evolve differently, despite both having come from the same low-entropy seed. Maybe beyond the big bang lies another universe after all.

I Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Use a C++ Compiler

class mesh_cell
double _x, _v, _P, _rho, _q, _e;


// Defines that automatically write get/set accessors for me if I provide the variable names.
// Evil? Saves me writing boilerplate though!
#define var(i) double& i() { return _##i; }
#define get_var(i) const double& get_##i() const { return _##i; }
#define set_var(i) void set_##i(const double& var) { _##i = var; }
#define gs_var(i) var(i) get_var(i) set_var(i)



I need help.

Arch & Architecture

As I frequently do late at night when I’m bored, I reached for my iPad and decided to watch something on iPlayer. The only thing which caught my eye (and it must have been a really very slow iPlayer day) was a documentary following the redevelopment of King’s Cross. As it’s a listed building, any alterations to it must be approved with English Heritage, and the programme followed the discussions, arguments and compromises between all the parties involved on how to go forward with the project.

The parties involved were Network Rail, trying to ensure the station would be fit for purpose for the 21st Century, the architects trying to impose their vision, and English Heritage, trying to preserve the historical character of the building.

It’s easy to dismiss the efforts of English Heritage as pointless bureaucracy, forcing developers to jump through hoops to get their projects approved, but a cursory examination of any city in this country will show why they’re necessary. It is in the instincts of architects to build things which they believe are beautiful, and which fit with the prevailing architectural fashions; by and large they have no care for the old.

Because of this, all across this country perfectly good old buildings were torn down and replaced. An example highlighted in the programme is the old Euston Station: it, along with its fabulous grand arch, were torn down and replaced with the 60s monstrosity we see there today. The same wanton architectural vandalism, veiled with the name of progress and modernism, is visible up and down the country. It’s almost impossible to count the number of town and cities where the heart and soul of the place has been torn out, replaced with weather-damaged concrete boxes, decaying in the rain.

I dread to think of the fate that could have befallen King’s Cross if they were allowed to just tear it down entirely. Maybe what they would have replaced it with would be as beautiful as the current Victorian train-shed with its towering brick facade, but there’s no guaranteeing that. There’s certainly an argument for little-c conservatism in the treatment of our built environment, and that’s without consideration for preserving buildings solely as important cultural, architectural, and historical artefacts in themselves. Whatever is done with these buildings could last lifetimes; we have a duty to treat that responsibility with the respect and caution it deserves.

I want to make it clear that I’m not opposed to architectural progress. I’m actually quite a big fan of the modern style of having lots of glass and metal. My only concerns are that we not get so carried away with ourselves that we trample all over our past, and that we have concern for what these buildings are going to be like, 30, 50, 100 years down the road. My favourite way to go is where modern additions are brought into an older building in a way that’s sympathetic with it; like the fantastic new roof over the British Museum.

This was the most satisfying thing about the programme; the architect backed down from his plans to demolish the interior features of the building, and submitted a new design that incorporated them, and merged them with the modern to create a design that worked with a balance of the new and the old. He realised, to only slightly paraphrase his words, that other people could be right. It made me feel altogether rather happy.

Spotify Post-mortem

For a while now I’ve had a Spotify Premium account, and since I told myself it was an experiment which I would then subsequently review, I really ought to actually do that rather than just letting it roll over and over each month.

I assume most of you are familiar with Spotify; if you’re not, then where the hell have you been the last year? It’s pretty much ubiquitous now.

Anyways, Spotify Premium is £9.99 a month, and that entitles you to higher quality music, offline mode, and use on mobile devices, like the iPhone. A full comparison of the different types of account is available on the Spotify website. The main thing that drew me to paying for premium was the use on mobile devices, like my iPhone, and I have used it pretty extensively.

And, based on that experience, I think I’m going to stop paying for it.

There’s a few reasons for this: the catalogue on Spotify isn’t as extensive I would like, and has a really large number of omissions, the software is occasionally unstable, etc. but the major one is mostly a strictly human limitation. I found myself just listening to the same set of music over and over, or I was undecided about what I actually wanted to listen to on any particular day, and Spotify just isn’t geared up to make it easy to browse to find something you want. The tools available for finding entirely new music on Spotify aren’t really very wonderful, either.

What I could do instead with my £10 is just buy a new album (or two) every month, add it to my collection, and then use tools like Genius playlists on the iPhone to listen to the whole damn lot in nicely selected chunks, which I find a really satisfying way of consuming music. This plan also has the advantage that I get to keep all this music if I every subsequently decide to stop paying monthly.

Anyways, I haven’t made any final decisions yet, so I’d be very interested to see what other people think about this, any tips/tricks or perspectives to share would be great.

(Coming up soon: a series of posts about my holiday to Ireland, and hopefully just more posts in general…)

The Famous Scientist Fallacy

If there’s one thing that really riles me, it’s when articles by laymen / crazy people fixate on famous scientists; you know the sort of thing I mean, endless speculation about the religious beliefs of Einstein or Darwin, endless analyses about exactly how their particular arguments were in some way flawed or incomplete, inane (but mercifully not endless) documentaries about their personal life carefully contrasted against their work.

I suppose in some ways it’s the fault of the way that science is regularly communicated. We seem to really love the “Great Man” theory of History in the scientific field. We love to pretend that great advances in science are propelled forwards by the heroic efforts of individuals. It’s absolute grade-A twaddle.

Sure, Einstein was smarter than your average bear; he figured out a great many things over a short period of time and for this he is justifiably famous. In 1905 alone, he postulated the photon, explained Brownian motion and the photoelectric effect, and laid out the first exposition of what came to be known as Special Relativity. It was a fantastic year, and is rightly known as his annus mirabilis.

The fact remains though that all of this work was riding the physical zeitgeist; for instance Special Relativity simply pieced together the work of Maxwell and Lorentz and many other contributors into a coherent framework. The pieces necessary were all ready and in place for the discovery, so somebody would have figured out the final piece — the principle of relativity — sooner or later. It was ripe for discovery.

Nor has that venerable theory gone unaltered since Einstein. It received a fairly substantial boost (no pun intended, physics fans) when Minkowski noticed that the theory made the most sense when cast in the form of a 4D space-time, which was named Minkowski space in his honour.

I apologise for the physics examples, but it’s just what I know best; I’m sure evolution and Darwin suffer ever more greatly from this phenomenon, where the central character becomes mythologised as law-giver.

This mythologised status, and the invented infallibility which goes with it, irritates me because it neglects that this sort of foundational work was done an awful long time ago, and science hasn’t been sitting on its hands for a hundred years. Today it doesn’t matter one iota what Darwin or Einstein did or said. That is relevant only as historical curiosity; as practical science they have been superceeded. Nobody learns mechanics by reading Newton’s “Principia”, or learns evolution by reading “On the Origin of Species”. These are not unquestionable sacred prophetic texts, but merely starting points on the road to a fuller understanding, to be amended or discarded as appropriate.

What got me immediately riled up was this article that John Gruber was dissecting, which falsely attributes some fairly odd platitudes to Einstein (as a side note, I desperately hate it when people over-extrapolate physical concepts beyond their range of applicability. It’s moronic). It shouldn’t matter what Einstein said, or thought, even if those thoughts weren’t just invented ad hoc by a lazy journalist. He was a good physicist, but his opinion would be fairly worthless in most fields of human endeavour. He was smart, but not an expert in everything!

The fact is that Darwin could have raped kittens for fun and it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the correctness of evolution. He could have screwed up one of his arguments, or mis-interpreted evidence, and it wouldn’t matter. Newton was an absolute bastard, but it doesn’t invalidate his ideas about gravity. His wacky religious ideas and theories on alchemy are rightly discarded and forgotten, because they’re nonsense, even though they’re from a figure as towering in the history of science as Newton.

I suppose it’s far easier to teach and understand the simplistic great man narrative; maybe it speaks to something which we want to believe. Alas, I fear it’s a way of thinking which does nothing but give succour to our enemies. It’s a bit like the terrible, misleading, New Scientist headlines, I think.