Monday, 6 July 2015

And yet it moves

Through the internet one discovers that for any thought, there is someone who thinks it.  Of course, some of the minority positions you see advocated are reasonable, or -- at least -- not demonstrably unreasonable.  Topics where there is no widely accepted explanation, or where the mainstream explanation is not entirely satisfactory, are natural and legitimate fields for speculation.  If the proponents are genuine and their ideas well informed, then engagement with fringe ideas can be an interesting and productive exercise; if the idea is completely juvenile (e.g. electric universe) then it is best left alone.  Then there are fervent pseudo-skeptics and poorly motivated conspiracy theories, some of which were well known to me (climate change denial, moon landing hoax); others new, but follow a familiar pattern (HAARP).  When it comes to scientific matters -- especially in areas where I have some special knowledge -- I occasionally take the bait, but I know better than to expect a good outcome.  But recently I encountered a position that actually shocked me; stunned me.  Perhaps it was because it involved both the rejection of well-established science and the invocation of a truly grand conspiracy.  It seems we have been lied to all these years: the Earth is stationary!

At first, I wondered if the post (and, indeed whole identity of the poster) was satirical.  After a bit of poking around, I concluded that was wishful thinking on my part.  Then, a few weeks later, I saw something very similar from a different person.  There's more than one person who thinks this!  Few people will deny things that can be demonstrated in a simple and straightforward way: I haven't yet seen "Planes don't really fly - the airline industry is a hoax!".  But even many basic aspects of the way we understand the world to work are not so simply demonstrable - they often require a level of trust (that the information you're being given is true) and an evaluation of multiple pieces of evidence for a most probable, parsimonious explanation.  If one is inclined to be suspicious then one might reject the evidence, or one might dissent in the evaluation of the "naturalness" of a given explanation; neither is necessarily crazy.  So I started to think about the evidence for the motion of the Earth, in an effort to evaluate how crazy it would be to reject it.

From the point of view of pre-modern astronomy (before the telescope) the motion of the Earth is particularly thorny because there is an almost exact symmetry between heliocentrism and geocentrism.  The sky changes either because the Earth is stationary and the sky ("Celestial Sphere") moves, or the sky is stationary and the Earth moves.  The two propositions produce exactly the same observations.  Hence both Copernicus and Kepler had to defend themselves from charges of "novelty": simply coming up with a new model because they could.  Of course, the ancients realised that a moving Earth would have some physical consequences, although they weren't entirely correct about what those would be.  We can't really blame them for that - mechanics in a rotating reference frame is actually quite tricky.  Nevertheless, they looked for such effects, didn't find any, and -- quite correctly -- concluded that the Earth was stationary.

The observation of Venus through a telescope by Galileo and others from 1610 onwards provided a genuinely new piece of information.  Venus, as observed from the Earth, goes through phases just like the Moon does.  The Ptolemaic model, the dominant pre-modern (and geocentric) astronomical model, was pretty vague about the relative positions of the Sun and inner planets, but no matter which way you arrange things you can't get it to produce a complete cycle of phases for Venus.  The Copernican model was consistent with the observations of Venus, but so was another geocentric model, the model of Tycho Brahe.  In the Tychonic model, the Sun orbits the Earth, and all the other planets orbit the Sun.  However, the Tychonic model would soon lose out to convenience.

During the first quarter of the 17th Century, Johannes Kepler produced a heliocentric model based on ellipses, which proved to be far more efficient at describing planetary motion than the circles of the Copernican and Tychonic systems.  The ephemerides he produced, the Rudolphine Tables, were so convenient that the astronomical community adopted heliocentrism despite its physical problems; but at that time it was still not clear that physics and astronomy would ever have much to say about each other.  In other words: Kepler's model could be a convenient computational device without being a realistic model of how things actually work. That changed in 1687 when Isaac Newton published his Universal Theory of Gravitation.  Newton provided a precise physical theory that explained Kepler's model.

All that is nice and, for the physics and astronomy communities at the end of the seventeenth century, compelling.  But that is still not actual proof that the Earth itself moves.  Before going further, we should specify the two types of motion required by Kepler's model.  Firstly, the Earth must rotate: this provides the alternation of day and night, depending on whether the bit of Earth you're standing on is facing the Sun.  Secondly, the Earth must revolve around the Sun: this produces the procession of the constellations across the evening sky over the course of a year.

Galileo had proposed that the moons of Jupiter could be used as a clock with which to determine longitude on Earth.  This method was not useful on ships, where the required observations were impractical, but was successfully used on land.  However, those who produced the necessary tables noticed a problem: sometimes their predictions were out a bit.  Ole Roemer realised that if Earth and Jupiter orbited the Sun, then the distance between the two planets changed with time.  If the speed of light were finite, then the time at which a particular Jovian moon would be observed in a particular position would depend on the travel time for the light.  In 1676 he estimated that it takes light 11 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth: a bit slow, but of the right magnitude.

The clearest consequence of a revolving Earth is that of stellar parallax: the observed position of a star should shift over the course of the year as the position of the Earth changes.  It was whilst looking for this that James Bradley discovered a more surprising, and subtle, effect: stellar aberration.  In a series of observations from 1725 to 1728, Bradley observed an annual oscillation in the position of star gamma Draconis.  In 1729 he published an explanation: the speed of light is finite (as demonstrated by Roemer), so for that part of the year when the Earth is travelling perpendicular to the direction of the star's light, the telescope moves while the light is travelling down its tube!  This results in a shift in the apparent position of the star.  From the size of the aberration he was able to deduce the relative speeds of the Earth and light, and hence the time it takes light to get from the Sun to the Earth: 8 mins 12 seconds.  Not bad!

It turns out that the distances to the stars are so large, and therefore the angle of parallax so small, that it was not conclusively observed for another hundred years.  It was Friedrich Bessel who finally made a positive measurement, on the star 61 Cygni, in 1838.

But what about the Earth's rotation?  A freely falling object will experience an apparent deflection in the direction of rotation:  the Coriolis force.  This is somewhat counter-intuitive; it is perhaps useful to think in terms of conservation of angular momentum, e.g. the increased rate of rotation of an ice skater as they pull their arms in.  In 1771, Giovanni Guglielmini dropped spheres from a tower.  A fall of 241 feet resulted in an eastward deflection of about seven tenths of an inch!  Artillerists would eventually have to correct for Coriolis force if they wanted to hit their target, and today it is central to our understanding of weather.

However, there is a simpler way to see the motion of the Earth.  In 1851, Leon Foucault installed a large pendulum in the Pantheon in Paris.  As the pendulum swings back and forth, the Earth goes through its daily rotation, rotating under the pendulum.  The direction of the pendulum's swing, in terms of the room in which it is installed, changes.  At the poles, the line of the pendulum's swing rotates 360 degrees per day; at the equator it rotates not at all.

Today we live on a planet surrounded by artificial satellites; we routinely use them for communication and navigation.  The Gaia observatory uses parallax to measure the distances of stars tens of thousands of light-years away.  We have sent probes to every planet in the solar system, and New Horizons is starting the exploration of the Kuyper belt.  But what do these things matter to the true crackpot!?  The history of science is all lies: the above remembrances ignore the many contradictory results.  And the reported effects are tiny, dependent on expensive equipment and the product of elite knowledge.  The various space programs of all those countries: lies.  Why should all those people, irrespective of nationality, politics or religion engage in a multi-national, multi-generational conspiracy?  I don't know, but I'm sure someone does!

Well, our crackpot could find a Foucault pendulum and spend a few hours observing it, if they have the patience; but they might suspect some interference.  There is usually some driver to keep the pendulum going.  They might build one themselves, but ensuring it swings straight is tricky, and it will need regular re-starting.

Instead, how about the old water swirling down the drain phenomenon?  The notion that the direction a water swirls out a sink/toilet/bath is determined by which hemisphere it's in (via Coriolis) is a myth: local conditions -- the way the water was poured in, the shape of the basin etc. -- dominate.  But, if the experiment is performed carefully, Coriolis can produce the expected effect.  This is beautifully demonstrated by Derek Muller and Destin Sandlin in a pair of Youtube videos: and (I recommend going to the effort of synchronising the videos - it really is pretty cool).  I think most of us would be happy to accept that this is a true record of an honest and competent experiment, but the experiment is simple enough that the skeptic could perform it at home, at least for one hemisphere.  Perhaps the skeptic travels, or perhaps they know someone they trust in the other hemisphere, who could repeat the experiment there.  Maybe they could find someone on the internet - you meet all sort of people there.

Thursday, 27 March 2014


Note: The inconsistent use of macrons in this article is not a reflection of their linguistic importance, but only of the laziness of the author.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Dredd, and loving it.

The appearance of another Judge Dredd film has caused me to re-activate my status as Dredd fanboy.  I first encountered Judge Dredd when I was about 10 in a Best of 2000AD comic, and, as far as introductions go, I lucked out.  It was the story introducing Judge Death, one of the particularly memorable (and one of the few returning) baddies.  This story also introduced Judge Anderson of the Psi division.  I had never been much of a comics reader and I was quite shocked -- and fascinated -- by how dark and violent it was: I had no idea comics could be like that.  But that wasn't what kept me coming back.

The world that Dredd inhabited seemed frighteningly plausible (and, perhaps, does again).  Humanity crammed into super-cities, much of the planet uninhabitable, unemployment the norm.  Laura Norder has trumped all other political considerations leading to the creation of the Judges: a "super police" who both apprehend the criminal and sentence them on the spot, dispensing with the red-tape of trials, lawyers and juries.  And the high-density idle humanity keep them very busy.  The people of Megacity One as usually seen in colourful, "future punk" clothing (with the notable exception of Max Normal "the pin-stripe freak") and consume their time on earth playing Pin Boing, flying (often unsuccessfully) in bat suits, high-altitude graffiti, growing fantastically fat, or indulging in bloody inter-neighbourhood "block wars".

The necessity of extreme measures to maintain order often make Dredd a morally non-trivial character.  Dredd is a clone of the founding Judge, Fargo, and a legend even among the Judges; he is ethically (almost) one-dimensional, utterly devoted to the maintenance of The Law.  This means he can function as both anti-hero and hero.  The characteristics that make him a superlative Judge do not make him a nice person.  Whilst sometimes the plots are of Earth-shattering significance, often they're not.  One of my favourites involves Dredd chasing a litterer.

And his adventures are often delivered with straight-faced black humour. 

Fortunately, I only found out about the new movie quite recently, because I've found the subsequent wait interminable.  A good friend got tickets to the Auckland preview, which was greatly enhanced by finding the star, Karl Urban, tearing the tickets at the door!  But how did I find the film?

The cast was generally good and the leads were great.  Visually, it was bland and grimey.  The streets were relatively empty and the vehicles slightly old fashioned; with perhaps a late 80s theme to the movie in general.  The exceptions are the Judges and their equipment, which is slightly futuristic.  Dredd's Lawmaster looked good.  The cityscape is modern but rundown, with a giant skyscraper ("Block") on every city block.  Most of the film occurs inside one of these Blocks, and it looks like a very tall version of the impoverished housing developments popular in British crime drama.  I think the intention was to depict a civilisation halted by catastrophe, and to create some "immediacy" by having it look mundane, but for me it just looked half-assed, like the main characters were wearing costumes, but no one else was.  Certainly the Block was not convincing as a place where one could lead his whole life.

We were promised graphic violence and it was provided in buckets, with gruesome deaths, unpleasant images and 3D sprays of cgi blood.  The little ritual from the comic where Dredd announces the type of bullet before firing was fortunately preserved (but no ricochet -- my favourite).  Anderson uses her psi powers to good effect, and despite her inevitable capture doesn't need rescuing.  Dredd's script is kept suitably brief, almost like the comic.  Occasionally, just occasionally, there's a slight delay, as if there is thought behind the mask; its entirely enough.  The film has the plot of a platform game, the goal being to get from the bottom to the top, but it's a reasonably entertaining trip.  The mid-film surprise is not a plot twist, but a demonstration of the bad guys' (and film makers') cavalier attitude to humanity.  It doesn't matter: it's still shocking.

The film Dredd gets the characters right but, like the previous Stallone version, gets the backdrop wrong.  The lunacy of life lead under extreme conditions is forgotten, instead we get a vertical slum.  Judge Dredd is a double act, the Judge is one half, the City the other.  Neither film adaptation has properly understood that.  I was left disappointed by the wafer thinness of plot, but only later realised that Dredd is an anomalous action movie: it's actually character driven.  Dredd works because the relationship between Dredd and Anderson works, because Anderson's conviction in her own worth grows sufficiently slowly that it actually is a process.  True to the comic, there are no stirring speeches, just trial by fire.

I enjoyed the movie, but while watching the credits I couldn't imagine watching it again.  Twenty four hours later, I'm keen to revisit it, to see it what I think is there really is.

Friday, 17 August 2012

100% Unemployment

A while ago I heard a seemingly radical proposal.  Instead of having unemployment benefits, carers' benefits, disability pensions, the old-age pension and so on; just pay everyone in the country a universal allowance.  The main motivation of the proponent was to remove the stigma associated with some of these (especially unemployment), however what struck me was the efficiency of such a scheme.  It would be (more or less) fiscally neutral as wage earners would have their allowance taken back through increased income tax.  Despite the churn (the government handing out money and, in most cases, taking it straight back) it would lead to the abolition of a significant chunk of the public service: all that chasing job seekers and assessing disability claims would be unnecessary.  Needless to say, the political leaders of this great nation showed no sign of being inspired by this idea.

I thought of it again recently, however, in a rather different context.  The usual urging to greater efficiency and productivity in the private sector, and cutting of costs in the public sector have been steadily growing louder as the global economic environment continues struggle.  I think few people appreciate that "increased efficiency", "improved productivity" and "cost-cutting" are all euphemisms for "sacking people", both directly and indirectly (e.g. using less printer paper, forcing the paper supplier to sack people).  Of course, in some countries the meaning of the word "austerity" has become quite transparent.  However, all this is true in good times as well as bad.  An improvement in productivity (such as one driven by technological innovation) means a decreased need for labour, once the need for that good or service is close to saturated.  Innovation, organisation, efficiency: these are the natural enemies of employment.

The fact that near-universal unemployment is an inevitable result of a technological civilisation is no revelation.  Whether it's the utopian vision of Star Trek, where the combination of advanced technology and social innovation has liberated humanity from the need to work; or the dystopian visions of Brave New World, where innovation is suppressed so as to maintain the need for menial labour, or 1984, where perpetual war consumes production so that it cannot benefit humanity; this is a well-explored idea.  A more mundane scenario is offered by Judge Dredd, where near total unemployment leads to increased crime (and suitably draconian measures to control it) and the popularity of impressively reckless hobbies.  One memorable Judge Dredd story involved a riot sparked by rumours of a job opening as a "human canary" at a gas plant.  The canary just sits around all day, but if he or she suddenly keels over then the robots know there's a gas leak.

Whilst unemployment rates rise and fall according to local and global fluctuations in economic activity, it's possible we are already entering the phase where growth in production overwhelms growth in demand.  As Guy Rundle pointed out -- in a report on the global financial crisis -- much of the economic activity of developed countries already consists of selling coffee to each other.  The incredible growth over the last century in executive wages (as multiples of the average wage) is well documented.  There are, no doubt, many factors in this: one being a disconnection between the interests of the company and those of the people running it, leaving the foxes in charge of the hen-house.  But it's possible that we are already seeing the narrowing of the pyramid of production, with (relatively) fewer staff involved in actually producing and distributing goods and services.  Those profits have got to go somewhere, and they're winding up at the top.  Do we follow this to its logical conclusion, when developments in technology and infrastructure (both physical and social) mean that the profits of production are entirely in the hands of the person who owns the machine that makes everything, and the chief technician who pushes the button?

Sooner or later we will have to make the transition to a society where employment -- in the sense of each individual needing to work to sustain themselves -- no longer exists.  This will involve massive challenges, as it means that the people of that future civilisation will need to be motivated by rather different causes than the bulk of today's humanity.  This will also require further changes in the way we control production, to distribute the spoils of production in an equitable way that still rewards those responsible for production.  Abolishing the kind of "hand outs" mentioned above in favour of just paying everyone a "dividend" -- a share of the collective production -- seems a modest step in that direction.

Thursday, 2 August 2012


K. and I went to the NZSO's concert production of Valkyrie on Saturday night.  Valkyrie might well be my favourite opera and I was really looking forward to this given what a success the Auckland Philharmonia's Rheingold was last year.

The stage was crammed full of musicians, with just a bit of space left for the singers up front.  When the first violin came out to tune-up the orchestra it was clear that this was going to be good: they were all together, no messing about.  I confess that after Rheingold I was slightly apprehensive about the brass during the 1st act prelude, but there was no need to be: these guys were good.

Although it was just a concert production, the cast made considerable effort to include as much action and acting as possible.  I was actually getting nervous about the singers' entrances as the prelude was coming to a close -- my usual experience of concert productions is that the singers sit up-front throughout -- but sure enough our Siegfried appeared in time, as did our Sieglinde a little while later.

The cast was uniformly excellent, but Edith Haller (Sieglinde), was the stand-out for both of us.  She was delightful to watch on stage, at turns playful and reserved; and she sang with incredible power and beautiful tone.  I particularly liked the way she sang her brief low sections ("ein Greis in grauem Gewand"), but she effortlessly leaped into the big stuff too ("O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!").  The brass was a little tentative in the prelude to act 2, and it would have been nice to have another hunting horn or two in the finale to act 2, but I guess you can't have everything.  We did get nearly an hour and a half for dinner, which was appreciated.  We dashed down to Vivace (a regular haunt) and the Valkyrie programmes visible on nearby tables showed that it was popular choice.

The prelude to act 3 was as tight and tidy as I've ever heard, with the front of stage filled with a great cast of valkyrie managing to look suitably amazonian even in the usual concert evening-wear.  Again, despite the concert setting, they did a great job Brunnhilde's approach, apparently watching her and Sieglinde rushing in from a distance, generating real drama from the cry that Grane has stumbled.  Sieglinde's exit led K. to suggest that, despite the incredible barrage of valkyrie and orchestra we got at the start of the act, Haller could have sung over top of the lot.  In the finale, the inclusion of some red lighting suggested the flames that surrounded Brunnhilde; a nice touch.

The strength of this production is perhaps best summed-up by saying how engaging all the lengthy dialogues were; these are a challenge of both singing and acting, requiring tight integration with the orchestra.   Tchaikovsky complained of "endlessly long dialogues"; but on this night, there was just great musical drama.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012


A while ago, some German colleagues introduced me to the word "spießer".  I didn't know who they were describing, but it was clearly pejorative.  Failing to think of an adequate translation, they attempted to explain its meaning.  The origin story -- as it was told to me -- dates to the seventeenth or eighteenth century.  The basic grunts of the Prussian army were pikemen, the German for which was "spießer".  (My amateur philology, unencumbered by either training or a solid knowledge of any language other than English, leads me to conclude that "spieß" is the German reflex of English "spit", i.e. a long pointy stick.)  Those selected to be spießer (as opposed to cavalry or officers) were the least educated of the available recruits, so the term came to be derogatory, associated with people of little sophistication.  One usage example offered was of some relatives, who always ate their dinner at a certain time, not because it was particularly convenient or pleasurable, but simply because they lacked the imagination to do otherwise.

I suggested "bourgeois" as a possible English (*cough*) equivalent, and indeed Wiktionary offers:
  1. (pejorative) square (socially conventional person)
  2. (pejorative) philistine (person who lacks appreciation of art or culture)
  3. (pejorative) bourgeois (individual member of the middle class).
As is so often the case, while the word does indeed overlap with the ones above, in the Venn diagram of noun-space, it is not exactly the same as any of them.  I've found it a (disturbingly) useful word, such that I sometimes wonder how I got on without it.  I therefore offer it to my fellow anglophones and encourage, nay, urge them to make room for it in their wordhoard.

Update:  Another blogger sharing the love for "spießer".

Friday, 13 January 2012

Swift on Prime Ministers

A great little quote from Gulliver's Travels
....First or Chief Minister of State, the description of which, as far as it may be collected not only from their actions, but from the letters, memoirs, and writings published by themselves, the truth of which has not yet been disputed, may be allowed to be as follows: that he is a person wholly exempt from joy and grief, love and hatred, pity and anger; at least makes use of no other passions but a violent desire of wealth, power, and titles: that, he applies his words to all uses, except to the indication of his mind: that, he never tells a truth, but with an intent that you should take it for a lye; nor a lye, but with a design that you should take it for a truth; that those he speaks worst of behind their backs, are in the surest way to preferment; and whenever he begins to praise you to others or to your self, you are from that day forlorn.  The worst mark you can receive is a promise, especially when it is confirmed with an oath; after which every wise man retires, and gives over all hopes.