Photography and Flickr

August 24, 2010 3 comments

I’ve just upgraded my Flickr account to ‘Pro’, which gives me the chance to get my photographs in order and put the best of them up there for all to see. I did this for two reasons: firstly to force me to sort out my collection of some 15,000 shots (most of which are not high quality, of course) and rescue some sense of purpose from the pure pleasure that photography brings me, but secondly so that, with that purpose, I can perhaps attract the attention of people or organisations who would like me to do more of it.

I did notice two apparently contradictory things when I’d uploaded (and the process is ongoing, by the way):

  • I found it very hard to choose which photos I wanted to upload. It was relatively easy to choose the best ones, but should I also upload some of the ‘second best’ ones, just to show my creative breadth, or should I relent for fear of decreasing the average quality of my images?
  • After uploading, I realised that I actually had very few really excellent pictures as a proportion of the total number I have in Lightroom – around 1% seems to be about the figure that I see reported from other photographers. Solution: take more photographs!

Anyway, here is the link.

I should think I can integrate some kind of Flickr functionality on WordPress too, so that’s something else to tinker with…


For the future

December 29, 2009 1 comment

For Christmas last year, I received from my mother a superb model of a Viking longboat, the Roar Ege, to build from a very basic set of materials with amusingly poor Danish-English instructions. Billing Boats makes kits that contain all the wood you’ll need, but none of the skills which took many months for me to master. Well, I say ‘master’, but ‘lay the foundations for’ would be more accurate.

I enjoyed making the Roar Ege so much, bending the thin strips to make the beautifully curved hull, and sanding the deck sides until it fitted properly, that I asked for a model again the next Christmas – possibly one that would be a step up in complexity, and more of a challenge.

Sure enough, this year, under the Christmas tree at my mother’s house sat a long, flat box that I recognised might contain a lot of balsa spars, strips, sheets and possibly sail material. But when it came to tearing off the wrapping paper, I was completely unprepared for what I would find inside.

As I unwrapped, Mum casually said “This is going to be quite an emotional present” and I wondered what she might mean. It was indeed a Billing Boats package – a 1:72 model of the Cutty Sark, very similar in appearance to a smaller plastic one I remember my father constructing when I was small. Maybe that’s what she meant – that it would be a mixture of excited anticipation and fond memories of my father, whom cancer had snatched away eight years ago. Then I saw what was written on the top of the box, in my father’s unmistakeable neat capital letters:

This kit bought in 1978. For the future…

My hand reached my mouth just in time to stifle an “Oh Christ” as tears filled my eyes.

The kit is so old that the rubber bands holding the bundles of wood together inside have long since perished to cracked solidity in my mother’s cold attic, and now stick to the balsa in little amber-like globules. I’ve just started building the hull, and it’s very much more complicated than last year’s model. It’s also huge – over three feet long, and includes full masts and sails. The rigging diagrams alone take eight pages.

Cutty Sark model kit from Billing Boats

The kit parts for a 1:72 scale model of The Cutty Sark

Maybe my father had left the model for his elder years, which he would tragically never live to fill, or maybe he left it for me. Ever since his death I’ve hoped and waited to find a message left for me – perhaps in one of his books, or on a computer drive somewhere, but there has been nothing. Except for this one missive, sent into an unknown future like an arrow fired blindly into the sky.

Musicians and class

December 7, 2009 2 comments

In what has become an annual event, members of Exultate Singers travel over to Wentworth Golf Club in early December to sing carols at their Christmas party. In return, the club makes a donation to the choir’s funds, and gives us a superb meal in the afternoon.

As you may have guessed, the club’s membership is extremely exclusive, the main criterion being, as far as we can see, money. The club house is, to be blunt, a castle, and contains many hugely luxurious rooms bedecked with antique paintings, and thick carpets trodden silently by armies of (mostly foreign-accented) forelock-tugging staff.

Now if you’re a jobbing musician, you will have noticed something odd that happens to your self-image when you perform at certain events, especially those in the rarefied atmospheres of the wealthy classes: you disappear. We’re all used to performing at concerts, of course, where we are centre-stage, and everyone pays attention, because that’s the cultural norm in these situations. Even when you’re hired to perform background music – and Christmas carols are this season’s live muzak – you expect some people to stop and listen, and you may even enjoy a ripple of applause or occasional audience participation. But when you’re in the presence of very wealthy people, who are paying through the nose for the event at which you’re performing, the relationship changes in a far more bizarre manner.

Wealthy classes – what might once have been ‘upper class’ – are more or less defined by purely exclusive criteria. The distinctions that indicate membership of this class are the education that they have that you might not (ha ha), the money they have that you do not (granted), the social connections, and similar distinctive acquistions. But further to this, to inhabit this class with true authenticity, you must develop a relationship with the have-nots that clearly defines you, both in others’ eyes and, eventually, even in your own self-image. In short, you have to treat the staff as if they’re nobodies. In the atmosphere of class, you must push down to generate your own upthrust.

When you’re providing some service to them, as we were at Wentworth, it’s very important that they pay you no more attention than they would to, say, the man who takes their coat at the door, or the waiter who brings them their dessert, or turns a blind eye to the privileged little brat who throws cream at them. There must be embarrassed awkwardness as their underlying humanity jars against the rules of their social position.

Despite the fact that you’re entertaining them, and they may well love to hear traditional carols sung with some style and panache, they absolutely cannot show this appreciation, for that would cost them valuable points in loftier game that they’re all dedicated to playing: the class game. When passing through the lobby, therefore, where we were smartly disported around the Christmas tree, they would hurry through, turn their heads away, and pretend not to notice us.

All except for the old people, and the children, who often stopped and listened. The old had no more need for such games: their status was safe. And the young had not yet been inculcated into the game that they were ultimately born to play. But those in the middle were playing hard, and we smiled extra sweetly at anyone who dared to catch our eye, just for fun.

There’s a terrific natural defence that the wealthy classes have against this charge, though: we must only state the charge, as I’ve done above, and they can immediately bark their embarrassed distaste at the conspiracy-laden whining of the ‘working classes’. By exposing the folly of their game, we’re already the losers. The trick, as played out through any hierarchical system, whether it’s based in class, wealth, or reputation (especially in the media) is to play the game, never speak ill of the game, and certainly never complain that the game is unjust.

It is the ugliest phenomenon imaginable, but you can rest assured that true, well-bred class has long ago abandoned this trite little performance as marking out the would-be greasy pole climbers. (What they might call the ‘middle classes’…)

Our conductor suggested, with some gleeful mischievousness, that we should put down a hat in front to make them really squirm. It would have been vulgar and distasteful, but we could probably have cleaned up.

The Anthropic Fallacy

December 1, 2009 5 comments

A couple of years ago, I attended a public lecture in Oxford given by Paul Davies, a professor of physics at various universities, including those of Queensland. and Arizona. He was on a lecture tour to promote his new book The Goldilocks Enigma, which addresses what appears to be a weirdly coincidental conundrum: that the universe – and planet Earth in particular – appears to be ‘just right’ for life to develop.

This claim is a variation on what is commonly known as The Anthropic Principle, and it has several real problems with it that classify it as an appeal to mysticism – the kind of populist tactic that has won Davies a lot of money from The Templeton Foundation. (The foundation makes a ridiculous attempt to unify science and religion, essentially bribing scientists to make vague religious claims for a million dollars.)

The core of Davies’s argument goes like this. The entire physics of the universe is based upon the values of only a handful of physical constants: things like the gravitational constant, the charge on the electron, the Plank constant, etc. This much is not in any doubt. If you were to change any of these constants, then the resulting physics would look different to how we see things in our universe, with our particular values for these constants. For some values, atoms would never form, making life as we know it (Jim) impossible, and in some, large molecules could never form, again stopping us from ever existing.

Look at our planet too – it’s just the right distance from the Sun to have liquid water on it, which appears to be essential for all the life we’ve so far discovered on it. Much further away, and we’d be frozen like Mars; much closer and we’d be roasted like Venus. Earth is in ‘The Goldilocks Zone’ – it’s just right for life. It also has an iron core, which gives it a magnetic field. This field deflects the high-energy solar particles, and stops them stripping away our atmosphere and our water. Perfect.

All these coincidences are adding up, aren’t they, and it’s tempting to stop for a moment and suspect that we’re a little bit special – the carefully prepared product of some guiding hand, perhaps…

But you’ve already probably spotted at least one of the problems with this kind of argument. Here are just a few:

  1. All the life on this planet is related – you only have to glance at the molecular evidence in the form of DNA. It’s all from the same stock, and is supported by the element carbon. We know of no other form of life, although some have suggested that silicon could possibly form the kind of complex, long-chain molecules that life needs, as carbon does. This tends to give us what is known as ‘carbon chauvinism’, in that there could be plenty of other intelligent beings that aren’t like us, and don’t require the kind of physical or chemical set-up we have here. Just because we don’t know about them doesn’t mean that they couldn’t exist.
  2. Hindsight gives a very illusory idea of cause and effect. Imagine you’ve hit a golf ball 300 yards and it comes to rest with a specific and unique alignment with the blades of grass it finally comes into contact with, as it inevitably must. The chances of exactly that configuration occurring is zero, considering the infinite number of alternative positions that the ball could have occupied. That doesn’t mean that it can’t have happened, though, or that it was somehow ‘planned’ because the ball has to end up somewhere, doesn’t it. It’s next to impossible to win the lottery, but someone does, and the fact that you couldn’t have predicted the winner beforehand (unfortunately) is just as much as a giveaway as the fact that you couldn’t have predicted the arrangement of grass blades on your golf ball after the drive.
  3. This brings us to the third point, which is that you couldn’t predict – and no computer simulations have done so, because the number of variables is far too large – what kind of universe you would end up with given any set of values for these universal constants. Even our own. So given a set of random values for the constants, we might possibly ‘end up with’ a universe, planet or life-forms that differ from our own, but who’s to say that a similar observation might not be made by the life-forms there, who might proclaim “Wow, this super weak charge on the electron is exactly what’s required for my kind of plasmoid energy-field life matrix.”
  4. There is also the sheer power of evolution to contend with when we come to alternative universes. Natural selection is a universal phenomenon, and it will operate in any situation where information can replicate itself, compete for population space, and pass on its characteristics (notably those that make it good at replicating itself). For life on Earth, that information is coded in the form of chains of atoms in DNA. Given a range of values for the universal constants, natural selection will operate to generate populations of replicators (that we may call ‘life’) that are better and better adapted to the niches in which the  individuals reside. Evolution will tailor life to fit the prevailing conditions, whatever they are, even in universes whose values for the constants might seem wildly exotic to us. Even in the presence of supercomputers that could work out the physics, this fact alone would mitigate against the possibility of predicting the kind of life that might arise.

I like to quote Douglas Adams when talking about the absurdity of the Anthropic Principle, especially in relation to the biological process that fits life to its environment:

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.

Important madness

November 26, 2009 Leave a comment

There is an old saying that suggests that a sure sign of approaching madness is that one’s work appears suddenly very important. This is happening to me, and has been growing more so in the last couple of years.

Now, either I am going mad in an effort to find something ‘worthwhile’ to do with my short time here on Earth, or I have actually stumbled upon an idea that is really worth pursuing. If I am lucky enough to be in receipt of an especially potent combination of memes in my mind, and their combination marks the seed of something new and extraordinary, then my excitement at the possibility of that seed’s germination is fully justified.

If, however, my excitement is along the lines of the Philip K. Dick school of paranoia and conspiracy – themselves brands of delusions of grandeur and self-centric universailty – then I’m clearly about to throw my noodles onto the wobbly stool.

But it’s not as if I have nothing to go on here – I’ve been working at both facets of what I shall call The Great Project for a few years now, and it’s still getting better and better, and more and more possible and exciting in its scope. It’s actually happening in the real world, rather than in my mind, and I cannot now stop myself from doing it, or thinking about it. Everything I see bears some reflection of its potential in the world, as long as I can get it to work, and get it finished.

It’s a lonely life, though – full of doubt and nauseous faith in oneself, but there are occasional moments when one is buoyed up by a breath of fresh, invigorating air as it washes down from the mountain on which one can envisage one’s beacon shining out from the future. Sometimes glimpses of other people climbing the same mountain spur one on, and sometimes they make one pale in hopelessness as one sees how much better kitted out one’s competitors are.

What I probably need is a team of collaborators – people with whom I can share my dream, and with whom a stronger bond of self-reliance can be forged that will take us all to the same victorious upper slopes.

But for the moment, I’m still trying on crampons in the village shop in the foothills…

Theory and practice

October 23, 2009 Leave a comment

There’s this old idiom “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater”, which means, essentially, that if some idea is to be discarded because it’s become useless, you might not want to discard all of that idea’s features, which might still be useful, valid or fruitful. The bathwater is useless after the bath, but don’t forget that there are still precious things in it.

There are some theories which have turned out not to be valid in the situations we thought they were, and a prime example is the Bernoulli Effect in aircraft wing design. It was originally believed (and you can still see this in many textbooks, even today) that aerofoils work because of the Bernoulli Effect, which describes how air travelling above and below the wing’s surface creates a pressure differential which results in an upthrust to the wing, hence the possibility of flight.

Now, this was later discovered to be nonsense – experiment revealed that this is not how aerofoils work at all. But this doesn’t invalidate the existence of the Bernoulli Effect, which is still a real phenomenon in many other situations. And neither does it suddenly mean that aircraft are going to stop flying, or that their wings must all be redesigned.

We discovered that wings work, with this special shape that we observe in birds and fish, and we made our wings likewise, experimenting with different shapes until they seemed to be optimally efficient for actual flight. The theory came afterwards, and it just happened to be the wrong one – very probably many wrong ones. But that makes little functional difference to the wings themselves.

The right theory, we now know (or, to be strict, the theory that explains it all much better*) involves Newton’s Laws, and a few other fluid dynamics theories such as the Coanda Effect.

But the interesting thing is that, while engineers continue to enjoy heated debate about what the fundamental cause of Aerodynamic Lift is, aeroplanes still work, and birds – who have no interest in these causes, nor have any need of such information – still fly.

We’re always catching up with the universe, and this is where the humility of science should really show, and always does when we abandon a theory that we’ve discovered is wrong.

The fact that the universe does things whether we understand their causes or not is in direct opposition to the standard religious type of view that says that the universe should be the way we want it to be: the way that makes us feel special or important or loved. See this Laurence Krauss lecture for much more on this.

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October 18, 2009 Leave a comment

In the last few years, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with two issues that are related in a very strange manner. The first is evolutionary biology. Since reading Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker a couple of decades ago, I’ve been intrigued at the simplicity and power of Darwin’s natural selection. Dennett reached fever pitch in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and ever since, I’ve been reading everything on the topic.

The second issue is creationism, and its big brother religion. I’m not religious myself, having learned early on the art of rational enquiry, but the way that creationism plays upon human cognitive biases is utterly fascinating. Hence I’m a regular reader of Pharyngula, and would someday like to see a completed human memome mapping, showing exactly how these ideas spread around human minds, and how they can be implanted and exploited by charlatans who would have you join their authoritarian organisations, or support them financially.