Time flies, drags and waits for no man.

31 05 2010

I am fascinated by the concept of time.

My bookcases are crammed with titles such as Times Arrow, Achilles in the Quantum Universe and Time travel in Einstein’s Universe.

So what is time?

It is common to suggest that time is the 4th dimension. We can measure the other three directly – we can reach out and touch three dimensional objects. Our physical bodies exist in a three dimensions. But we cannot touch time. I am aware of it’s effect when I look in the mirror. I look older. And time is always heading in the same direction. I am never going to grow younger.

This effect – times arrow – is scientifically founded in entropy. As we go “forward” in time, the second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of a system tends to increase or remain the same; it will never decrease. Entropy measurement can, therefore, be thought of as a kind of clock. However entropy is the only quantity in the physical sciences that seems to imply a particular direction for time. In other cases, other equations, time does not assume a particular direction. But it is this perception of time passing that resonates in our everyday life.

We experience time in different ways. We talk about time flying, time dragging, time weighing heavily. It’s passage is rarely, if ever, seen as regular, even or linear.

I heard a short story recently – more of a mind exercise really – where people in heaven relived their lives in the exact proportions they did on earth, but not in the same sequence. So if they had spent an hour a day on the train to work then in heaven they would spend 9,600 hours consecutively, without a break, sitting on a train. Bizarre thought but it does make you reassess how you spend time here on earth.
I had a perfect example yesterday. I have an iphone on which I play Bejeweled. I was trying to find the high scores when I came across a statistics page that suggested that I had played the game for 5 days – 5 whole days!! I’ve only had the phone for 7 months. Surely not?! I only play in those dead moments, waiting for a train, waiting for the kettle to boil so let’s assume i play 4 times a day, 10 minutes a time; 40 mins a day over 7 months is 8520 minutes – almost 6 days!! To my horror it is possible!!

And every Wednesday I sit. I sit in a world where time in the way I normally experience it just doesn’t exist. I help a guy who is the same age as I am and who has dementia. He has no coherent sense of time as his memory is fragmented and unreliable.

He knows that he knows me. He recognises me as a friend but can’t remember my name. He asks where I am from at about half hourly intervals. And so we sit and cycle through simple, often asked questions and responses throughout the evening.

He gets tired and he sleeps; he gets hungry and so he eats. There is a rhythm to his day which marks the massage of time but all of the memories of what has passed are vague and jumbled. Time is flattened as all his experiences have happened at the sane time: yesterday, last week, last year are indistinguishable and lumped together as being past.

In my life and when I teach yoga or meditation I encourage myself and others to live in the moment. Things that have happened are gone, cannot be changed and should not be dwelt upon. Things in the future are beyond our control and should not be worried over.

I do believe that this is true but to be trapped in the present is not to live in the moment. Rather it is to be timeless. To be adrift in your own life.

Working with someone with dementia has added hugely to my understanding of time. It can fly, it can drag and it can be lost completely.

What we know and what we think we know

20 05 2010

To say that I am not a fan of Donald Rumsfeld would be to dramatically understate the case. But I do find his description of knowns, unknowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns compelling.

The realm of what is known and what us unknown is ever changing. As we learn new things more becomes known, clearly, but things that we know can change too. Look at thecareas if healthy eating. A couple of years ago I knew that I could only eat a couple if eggs a week as they contained the wrong type of cholesterol. Now it seems I can eat as many as I like. My earlier knowledge has now been surplanted by new information.

I was thinking about this while listening to Womans Hour on my way down to Edinburgh during a piece where a neuroscientist tried to explain the concept of evidential gap that exists between neuroscience research that shows that brains of boys develop differently to those of girls to an educationalist who asserted that this must mean that they should be taught differently.

What we know from research in one field cannot simply be transposed onto a new one without filling that evidential gap. Don’t get me started on the number of alternative therapists who insist that quantum level uncetainty proves that their particular quakery had foundations in science.

But on reading two articles in the New Statesman of 17th May I must question what I think I know on two levels.

Firstly, I know that in order to reduce global warming we must reduce carbon emissions and that means carbon dioxide. But, according to Oliver Tickell, we are missing the bigger picture. Black carbon – soot to me and you – plays a huge role in climate change. He claims that a typical tonne of soot spends about 2 weeks in the atmosphere and causes the same amount of warming as 1600 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 20 years.

This has particular resonance for me as I collect wood to burn on my open fire, thinking that I was being environmentally responsible as I did so.
What I thought I knew I now do not.

And then to Michael Brookes article discussing the first Reith Lecture given by Michael Rees which looked at how confident we can be in the claims made by scientists as they uncover Rumsfeld’s known unknowns.

For example, did you know that in re-runs of published health studies the results were only replicated 5% of the time?

As a student I relied on the term ‘statistically significant ‘ a great deal. Essentially a result is deemed to be significant if there is only a 5% chance that it was generated by random chance. But this only holds true when examining a single variable. If you look at lots of things at once or only decide what it is we are looking for after the data has been collected then any conclusions drawn are unreliable.

This is often why so many published studies reach conclusions diametrically opposed to one another. The world is a very complex place and it is often virtually impossible to isolate a single variable and reach totally sound conclusions.

So even a time served rationalist like me has to accept that scientific evidence may not be all that it appears to be – that what we know, what we have shown to be true, may be unknowable. Maybe everything is an unknown known!

This just doesn’t FEEL right

18 05 2010

Anyone who knows me even a little will tell you that I am Spock like in my application of logic and intellectual rigour to problem solving.

But this just doesn’t feel right.

For the past 30 years I have been a supporter of the Liberal Party and, more recently, the Liberal Democrats. For all of that time my politics have been to the left of centre and for most of the last 20 years I have found myself to the left of New Labour as it strove to occupy the centre of Britsh politics. I cannot bring to mind anytime that I have found myself agreeing with any policy put forward by the Conservative Party.

Yet I now find the Liberal Democrats in a formal coalition with the Conservative party, one which seeks to keep a Tory Prime Minister in Downing Street for the next 5 years.

It just doesn’t feel right,  so I’ll revert to type. Let’s  bring some intellectual rigour to bear. Let’s look at the evidence.

A YouGov poll asked people whether they would consider themselves to be left, centre or to the right of the British political spectrum. 54% of Labour supporters put themselves firmly on the left, as did 43% of LibDem supporters. By contrast, 57% of Tory supporters put themselves out on the right. So it would appear that most British voters would, like me, put themselves to the left of centre.

This is confirmed by the actual voting figures, around 60% of voters putting their cross next to parties of the progressive left. So while Nick Clegg had said that he would talk to the party with the most seats/greatest individual share of the vote,  there does seem to have been plenty of scope for him to have sought to form a coalition of the left, with Labour and parties such as the SNP, with whom they have worked successfully in Scotland for a number of years, and Plaid Cymru.

So what made Nick Clegg decide to throw in his lot with David Cameron?

What has he agreed to? Trident stays, there will be huge cuts in public spending this year, Tory immigration policy remains untouched, Teresa May and George Osborne have posts of influence in the cabinet.

What has he gained? A referendum on voting reform, ID cards scrapped, a voice in cabinet for Vence Cable et al and a fabby new job for himself (but lest we get carried away, John Prescott was deputy PM!).

For any Liberal voting reform is a hugely important issue but will a referendum actually result in a change tio the voting system? The different types of voting system that might be adopted all offer a degree of proportionality but all are notoriously difficult to explain. Might the electorate, when faced with a complex array of options, simply revert to ” I don’t understand it, so I don’t trust it, better leave things as they are.” This past election seems to suggest that while the electorate may express a desire for change, Cleggmania, when it comes down to it many lose their nerve. Some 1m people who said that they were going to vote LibDem actually reverted to the Labour or Tory tribalism on the day of the election.

But even if electoral reform is delivered will it be at a price worth paying? Trident will remain, public services will have been slashed and foreign policy will remain in the hands of the xenophobic right.

I’m not sure…but it doesn’t FEEL right to me.

Confessions of a politics addict

11 05 2010

Politics has formed the backbone of my life.

Some of my earliest memories are of my father, grandfather and fiesty grandmother discussing politics and religion.

My grandparents had been involved in the early trade union movement in the north west of England. They are/were lifelong labour supporters. Old Labour that is. I cannot imagine that my nana would have approved of Blair, Campbell and Mandelson, though she probably would have voted for them as she believed that the working man had been given the vote so that they could vote Labour.

For my part I won the 1974 election on behalf of the Liberal Party. It was held in my school and I was swept to power…not bad as, at that time, you could fit the whole parliamentary Liberal Party  in a very small minibus.

During my teens, when my parents moved from Liverpool to Cheshire, a move my nana saw as a defection until her dying day, I was marooned in the Winterton fiefdom of Congleton. As a student my boyfriend and I consoled ourselves by selling copies of the Socialist Worker on the streets of Oxford and to campaigning for Gwyneth Dunwoody in the nearby constituency of Crewe.

The eighties were a disaster with Margaret Thatcher snatching free school milk and anything else she could get her hands on. When I moved to Scotland the spectre of the poll tax haunted Scotland and still makes the Tories unelectable north of the border.

I have always stayed up on election night, even before I could vote. Partly this is my interest in politics but mainly it is due to my love of competition. It is like watching the cup final! I sit there with wine in hand, plenty of snacks and a comfy chair and settle in for the long haul. I was up for Portillo and I was up to see Jaquie Smith lose her seat this time; both falls from grace that were thoroughly deserved.

This is the only benefit of the first past the post system; that the voters can get rid of individuals that they dislike – as shown by the voters of Montgomery.  Unfortunately this is the major drawback too, as most MPs occupy seats that have such huge majorities that they cannot, in practice, ever be removed – like the Wintertons when they squatted in Cheshire.  No matter how many excesses were exposed and how seldom Nicholas actually visited the Houses of Parliament (his lack of attendence even became a standing joke in the Tory friendly Daily Telegraph), he remained as the local MP. I had a twitter exchange with someone recently who felt that public sector workers were lazy, overpaid and had jobs for life. I begged to differ but certainly a lot of MPs, public sector workers, do fit this description.

I was glued to the TV until about 4am on Friday morning when it became obvious that the position was actually no clearer than when I sat down at 10pm. In fact it was exactly as was predicted before the campaign had even started! But since Friday morning it has been compulsive viewing and listening for election addicts like myself.

Will Nick Clegg take the Tory shilling?

Will Gordon stay or will he go?

Will the Tory grandees suffer any compromise?

And for a lifelong Liberal these are heady times! The Lib-Lab pact was an interesting time. The formation of the SDP brought huge hopes for a progressive coalition. Power sharing in Scotland under Jim Wallace offered the glimpse of what might be. And here we are – the prospect of change to an outdated electoral system, of fair taxation,  a zero carbon economy, the removal of trident and the scrapping of the surveillance society, as exemplified in Labours ID card system, are all within grasp.

If Nick Clegg hasn’t seen Braveheart then he should…..hold, hold, hold

Hold your nerve for all our sakes.

Do we REALLY want a “big society”?

3 05 2010

Over 20 years ago Margaret Thatcher said that there was no such thing as society.

While she did restate her position at the Keith Joseph Memorial lecture in 1996 as “I have never minimized the importance of society, only contested the assumption that society means the state rather than other people”, it still seems odd that David Cameron has set his big idea as ‘big society‘.

In the Conservative Party manifesto there is a call for ‘people power‘ and ‘social responsibilty not state control‘. But do people really want to get involved? There are already plenty of volunteering opportunities and community initiatives out there so why are more of us not already involved? As Oscar Wilde put it, “the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.”

But it would be possible to argue that more of us are involved than ever before. We have witnessed a plethora of blockbuster fund-raising events over the past 30 years, with TV spectaculars like Sports Relief and Children in Need and mass participation events such as the London Marathon. Certainly these activities raise many millions of pounds and it would be wrong to dismiss them, but my feelings are that these bursts of activity are actually detrimental to building a coherent socirty.

We may run a marathon or abseil down Big Ben and raise money for a charity without having to think too closely about the cause we espouse. How many runners in the London Marathon know how there money will be spent? How many really care? To an extent running the marathon and handing over the sponsorship money absolves us of the need to think; the need to really get involved. It is an easy and acceptable way to do our bit.

But how much better it would be if our efforts were appropriate to the needs of the charity and those it helps? If we were really concerned about cancer care, how much better to visit people in a hospice or to spend a few hours a week caring for the gardens so the terminally ill had a pleasant environment during their final days?

Many of the events organised for International Womens Day started and ended on that day, with well educated, middle-class women talking to other well educated middle-class women and each telling the other how wonderful they are. How much better it would have been if each of those women, instead of attending yet another empowerment conference, had done the shopping for an elderly female neighbour or provided a few hours respite care for a young girl caring for a sick parent.

And you see it with some ‘Secret Millionaires‘, a quick visit to a poor area, a few cheques and away again. And the free publicity they gain in the process couldn’t be bought!

If we really do want society to be improved I believe that we have to make long-term commitments to do something for our community and not just care in short bursts or give money as a substitute for really caring.

If you need inspiration read this and this and this, then make a long term commitment to improve our society!

A non overlapping magesteria

1 05 2010

The whole point of belief is that it exists beyond evidence. If there was real evidence for the existence of God then we would not need a belief system that supports a diety.

So science and belief operate in completely separate spheres with no possible overlap. We can proove something to be true and if there is no proof then we can still believe something to be true. As Stephen J. Gould puts it, science and belief are “none overlapping magesteria”

If a belief is dispelled it doesn’t move into an intermediate zone or move into the realm of science, it simply disappears. It is dispelled

The grey area exists where people believe in things that science can show to be untrue. Such a revelation should dispel that belief but believers stubbornly hold on to ideas that are demonstrably untrue.

Should science continue to make direct arguaments against religious beliefs and if so are full frontal attacks like those from Richard dawkins likely to work or just annoy the faithful into a position where they are prepared to defend what they know to be indefensible.

Religion has a long history. Evidence of belief in a practical realm exist across archeological time and across all human societies. Pascal Boyer in his excellent book ‘religion explained’ discusses in detail the evolutionary psychology of belief and it’s place in our psyche.

Religious belief is rooted in our need to make sense of the world around us. Ancient peoples were not unreasonable on supposing that the sun died and was reborn each day. Scientific exploration of the solar system has shown this not to be the case and now there are no belief systems based on this supposition.

Christians all now accept the position of the earth in relation to the sun and stars when not so very long ago the church insisted on placing the earth at the centre of the universe and persecuted all those that expressed a view to the contrary.

So religious belifes can and do change in the face of scientific evidence. Even great faiths like Christianity can change their belief systems. It used to amuse me as a child to wonder what happpened to the people in heaven when the pope changed his mind about the rules for entry. Where the Borgia popes booted out when celibacy became a new condition for acceptance on high? Will they be allowed back on when the Catholic church is forced to acknowledge that some normal human interaction by it’s priests in relationships and family life may be the best way to prevent them abusing the most vulnerable in their societies?

But I digress.

Why is it so important to dispel belief in a diety (or dieties)? Should we continue to try to dissuade believers from their beliefs? Surely as long as believers don’t believe in something as patently ludicrous as creationism we should leave them this belief in God?

I don’t think so.

Over and above the philosophical desire for the truth to be known and understood, anyone who prays is asking God to intervene in the material world.  This challenges the idea that science and belief should occupy separate spheres. In addition it removes the imperative to solve the problems ourselves.  We are shifting responsibility beyond ourselves for problems that we created and that ours to solve.

It is by putting church law above the state that generations of priests were allowed to abuse and go on abusing without admonition. Suicide bombers do so in the name of God.

So the belief in God is not always a benign affectation, a personal comfort blanket. More often believers congregate around that belief, creating organised religion, which is all too often used to corrupt and control.