Sunday, January 29, 2012

Mousetraps and Ipads

We recently detected evidence of a mouse in our garage. I went immediately to the hardware store and bought a couple of mousetraps and noted that they looked and operated exactly as mousetraps did when I was a kid some sixty years ago. (I’m 70; bite me!) Somewhere out there, there’s a company that’s been able to manufacture the same wood and wire mousetrap for, lo, these sixty years with virtually no R & D and no appreciable embellishment of the product.
            Of course there were other traps for sale, one apparently designed to resemble crocodile jaws with menacing steel teeth. I opted for the tried and true wood and wire one.
            Last Monday morning, the talk on CBC News World focused on RIM’s change of chair and CEO. The focus was on the stock market reaction to the news. It got me thinking about the entire picture in the computer/cell phone/tablet market these days and, obviously, to compare it to the lowly mousetrap. Seems you can get away with producing the same old wood and wire mousetrap year after year and be successful—even without advertising—but that doesn’t hold true in the tiny tech industries. Subtle changes to whatever worked before, accompanied by massive PR, seems to be the only way to prosper when it comes to computers/cell phones/tablets.
            Here’s a statement you’re never likely to hear: “My dad used this tablet to do his email when he was a kid, and it’s still working great!”
A mousetrap my grandfather used, however, might well fill the bill for annihilating that one mouse in the garage.
            I’m a moderate consumer of technology, but a bit of a sucker for the slick, new devices that can do almost unimaginable tricks to make a one-minute job take only 50 seconds. In my office you’ll find a desktop computer with a terabyte of memory, a laptop, a Blackberry Playbook (manufactured by the struggling RIM), a laser and an inkjet printer, two scanners (one of which reads receipts and shunts them into pre-organized virtual file folders) and, of course, the telephone with caller-ID. I could pretty much spend the whole day playing with these toys without getting a lick of meaningful work done.
            The cornerstone of the capitalist market is the manufacturing of needs in order to stimulate consumption. I didn’t invent this observation, of course, but I have to remind myself of it from time to time, and so I’ve been amused recently by the patently contradictory messages of economic pundits in the news:
a)      consumer debt is getting out of hand and individuals and families need to save and draw down their debt. Meanwhile
b)      “consumer confidence” (euphemism for unrestrained shopping) has to rise in order for the economy to bounce back.
So, to be a good citizen, I should save 10% of my income monthly, but in order to help the economy, I should buy a new car, the down payment for which I’d have to borrow because of the saving thing, but I need to draw down my debt, so I should keep the old car and walk if it gives out. Or should I use the 10% I saved to make the down payment on a new car, thereby boosting the economy?
            It’s not surprising that the average citizen is confused on this subject.
            While you’re pondering that, consider a way to get rich in this mad, mad, Kevin O’Leary world: invent a wood (oak) and  wire (stainless steel) mousetrap in a choice of green, pink or beige with a built in chip which triggers a message (“Got the little b*****d”) on your TV screen when the jaws snap down on the victim out there in the garage.
            Of course, everyone would soon be producing a variation of this Cadillac of mousetraps, so massive advertising would be required. (I visualize a model that plays “Abide with Me” to accompany the mouse to the pearly gates.)
        . . . I got the mouse, by the way, and now I suffer from cognitive dissonance produced by the simultaneous existence of my abhorrence of killing and the fact of having murdered a mouse. That’s not unique to this event or this time; I have to re-convince myself that meat grows on trees before lacing into a steak.
Would that the corporate world had at least a similar conscience about their role in dumbing down our world . . . even further.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Higg's Boson meets Peter Rabbit

Sweating the really small stuff in the 'Peg

While visiting family yesterday, our sister-in-law showed us a comical essay on the word “up.” I suggested to Agnes that she email it to herself so we could have it, and she did. Her brother said, “I’m still amazed that you can, with a few key strokes, take a piece of information here in the countryside and place it on your computer far away. I mean, how does it get there?” and he waved a hand toward the ether.
            I, too, stand amazed.
            On average, our concepts of the world of quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics (QED) are probably comparable to a rabbit’s concept of parliamentary democracy. Unless you’re a physicist, that is, in which case your visualization of QED might be compared to the young rabbit’s concept of snow: the “what,” the “why” and the “how” are still mysterious; the nature and effects, however, are becoming clearer by the minute.
            Over generations, we’ll gradually come to be more conversant with the world of photons, quarks, leptons, neutrinos and all those other hadrons that mean little to us now.
What is probably even more difficult for us to grasp today, though, is the vista of possibilities that familiarity with the basic workings of the universe may open up. The idea that mass could be converted to waves, transported at the speed of light and reconstituted as mass again puts a whole new light on time and distance. (A tantalizing dream this, but it may be through QED that some will come closer to embracing the possibility of a non-material soul, life that is never ending and the possibility of places that are not evident in any physical exploration of the universe: heaven comes to mind. Not to mention intuition, second sight, a fourth dimension and—shudder—even demons, ghosts!)
Early discoveries in the area of quantum mechanics were also incomprehensible before their time; how could a voice possibly be transmitted for miles over a wire?? A technology so very simple by today’s standards was, in fact, an accidental stumbling on some principles of QED. A next step was exemplified by Marconi’s famous trans-Atlantic radio transmission. How can a voice be transmitted without even a wire when no apparent physical material is passed from A to B?? And then television pictures, cell phones, etc., etc. And now: how can entire books complete with illustrations be transported through space and appear in an intact—although still virtual—form, nanoseconds later, on the other side of the world??
How far away are we from the transportation of the actual physical book with such speed and integrity? Who knows? I’m sure many would say that such a thing is impossible, but that might be an overly-hasty response. That a heavier-than-air machine could fly was until recently—as long-time goes—considered a patent absurdity.
I am currently 800 kilometres from home and it was –25o C when we arrived in Winnipeg, and the drive here and home takes 9 hours each way and the price of fossil fuel is $1.11. I would relish the idea of being converted to my waveform in some phone booth-like apparatus and momentarily rematerializing in Rosthern, Saskatchewan, hopefully with my head still right-side-up on top of my neck and my arms and feet in their proper places.
Hello, Higg’s Boson! Hello neutrinos that travel faster than light (maybe; the jury’s still pondering)!
I can virtually hear you raising your eyebrows.
Skeptic! Ludite!


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Say "Hello!" to Higg's Boson

Grandpa's Basic Building Blocks of the Universe

Basic Building Block of the Universe - 1960 High School Text

Basic Building Block of the Universe - 2005 -highly simplified

A man walks into a church while the priest is greeting communicants arriving for Mass. “I welcome you here, but I don’t remember you,” says the priest.
“I’m Higgs Boson,” says the man, “and you don’t remember me because I’ve always been invisible until now.”
The priest smiles to himself and says, “Invisible or no, I assume you’ve always been a good Catholic?”
Boson smiles and says, “I’m everything and everywhere, Catholic included.”
The priest frowns and says, “Well I’m not sure if you’re welcome if you’re that undecided . . .  denominationally, I mean!”
               “Oh, but you have no choice,” says Higgs. “Without me you can’t have mass!”

This “joke,” adapted from the internet, wouldn’t have meant anything to me if I hadn’t read Frank Close’s The Infinity Puzzle or recently heard Bob McDonald explain on the CBC News that the Hadron Collider in Switzerland was on the verge of proving the existence of the so-called “Higg’s Boson.” It’s all part of Quantum Physics' struggle to break the universe down to its smallest, most basic components and their interactions, thereby establishing once-and-for-all, a theory of everything.
               I doubt that anyone could explain all this to me in so simple a form that I would be able to say, “Oh, I get it now!” The need for the existence of a Higg’s Boson was worked out mathematically on a blackboard by physicists; the Hadron Collider is designed to accommodate experiments which prove or disprove what has been theorized.
               The Higg’s Boson is often called “The God particle,” especially by the media. Simply put, the Higg’s Boson is theorized to enable bundles of energy to acquire mass . . . become matter, if you will. (Do you get the pun now? Silly, isn’t it.) Without its effects, the molecules that form the rocks and the soil, the vegetation and the animal and human life on earth, the stars and the planets, would not exist, so the theory goes.  
               The technique for finding Higg’s Boson is simple; you fire streams of protons at high speed so they collide and disintegrate, and then you examine the pieces to find what the composition was. It’s a lot like figuring out what’s wrong with a certain model of car by colliding two of them at top speed and sorting through the debris!
               What does it mean for you and me? Besides determining who wins the next Nobel Prize for Physics (for which there is fierce competition!), not much. Even the strictest creationist should see that the Higg’s Boson—if it exists—has always existed and that the God of Creation is also God of the Higg’s Boson, which may—if it exists—be comfortably seen as one important tool in making possible the miracles of life, love and human consciousness.
               But there’ll be more rhetoric coming out around this. Already, the internet is filling up with it; many of its participants obviously knowing little about the subject.
There is no competition between Science and God. Discovering and describing how the universe works has always been a part of human nature; when it gets more complicated than the cross breeding of plants to produce more food, however, we sometimes feel threatened and become defensive.
We should get over it!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pipeline, Anyone??

Historical CNR Caboose.  
Far be it from me to say the two are the same . . . but:

Tuesday’s news highlighted:
1) President Assad’s defiant speech to the Syrian people and the world, and
2) the Canadian government’s statements regarding the mass of people registered to intervene at the opening of hearings on the Northern Gateway Pipeline from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat, BC.
Not the same, of course, but both news items bear one eerie similarity. In both cases, the entities in power applied the ad hominem argument to their opponents, a tactic that has been historically typical of tyrannies but hardly becomes the leadership of a democracy.
               It’s always a temptation in a debate—especially when truth is not firmly on your side—to bolster your chances by denigrating the opposition. President Assad and the Harper government both fell prey to this temptation yesterday and labelled their oppositions as:
a) being a uniform pack of agitators, and
b) supported by foreign interests.
The first assertion is an attempt to make the opposition appear to be an ignorant and/or malevolent mob, the latter an appeal to the nationalist sentiment in the population.
Neither addresses the merits or demerits of the argument.
Perhaps both Harper and Assad can be forgiven; the temptation to label and homogenize our opponents is deeply embedded in all of us. We practice it in our education systems, in our churches, in our municipal and provincial politics (especially at election time), even in our families. It is, after all, far simpler than the hard work of open, honest negotiation and reasoned debate. It raises its ugly head in families, for instance, when an exasperated father tells his son, “You’re nothing but a little thief,” when the son borrows a tool without asking and leaves it out in the rain. It shows itself in churches when people are grouped and labelled on the basis of differing interpretations of the faith. It’s implicit in party politics and the labels that attach to proponents of one viewpoint or the other.

“An ad hominem (Latin for "to the man" or "to the person"), short for argumentum ad hominem, is an attempt to negate the truth of a claim by pointing out a negative characteristic or belief of the person supporting it. Ad hominem reasoning is normally described as a logical fallacy.” (Wikipedia)

The government of Canada is convinced that the economic benefit to the country of being able to ship volumes of oil-sands oil to the Orient outweighs the danger of accidents and the compromising of the natural world that accompanies any project of this magnitude. The Aboriginal nations along its route see the pipeline as yet another infringement on their territories and their traditional way of life, besides being environmentally very risky.
These are major considerations. They need to be weighed soberly and respectfully.
Our government’s ad hominem intrusion into the atmosphere of the hearings before they even get started is inconsistent with the ideals of democracy.
Assad’s, on the other hand, is simply an affront to all that is reasoned, noble and generous in the human spirit.