It’s going to be all right

I have always found history fascinating, perhaps because I thought I had so little of it personally. My favorite writers growing up were Shelby Foote and Stephen Ambrose, and even in fiction, I preferred novelists like Michener and Uris. I read Bradbury, but I think he was as much a historical writer as the rest in his own way, despite his genre. Throw in a bit of Mickey Spillane and Ellery Queen just for fun, and you’ve got the picture.

Discounting military service, virtually all my adult life has been spent as an archaeologist. In short, you might say I’ve been obsessed with the past. I’ve seen it all come and go: war and peace, wealth and poverty, nations rising and falling, cultures great and profane, cemeteries full of lives cut short, of crises forgotten or remembered, but either way, good for nothing better than allegory now. Through it all, one thing stands out, clear and cold.

It’s going to be all right. Not in the sense of world peace, the brotherhood of man, and all that, but it is going to be all right. In time, no one will remember any of the this. What we’re going through is serious, yes, and will cause a great deal of pain to people who deserve better. The same was true of whatever it was those people in the cemeteries of the world were enduring, those things we either can’t remember or experience only as intellectual abstractions today. The same will be true of whatever traumas and crises future generations will face, if there are any future generations.

Nor will anyone remember all the joy, the love and human companionship we are also experiencing, the intensity of compassion and purpose that fill the struggle against all the adversity I mention above, but that too, will continue beyond us, as it has these millennia.

You know the old joke: an optimist is one who believes this is the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist is one who’s afraid that’s true.

One way or the other, this is the world we’ve got, and we are the humanity we’ve got. It could be that we have broken the earth as a habitable place for us beyond repair, and it could be the death of us, of our species. If that happens, the earth will continue to spin on its axis and hurl itself around the sun; other living things will thrive, and possibly evolve to wonder about the remains we leave behind.

We’ll be just one more of the billions of species to disappear, just one more bag of remains in the vast cemetery we live on.

It’s going to be all right.

Good Riddance Day

On page 14 of the current New Yorker is a brief notice titled Good Riddance Day.  It’s about a promotion in Times Square by a company called Shred-It; they will utterly destroy and recycle any unwanted items people bring to the event.  Actually, it’s undoubtedly already happened, since it was scheduled for December 28.  According to the notice, the event was inspired by Latin American Año Viejo traditions, in which people stuff puppets with bits of paper scrawled with regrets, and no doubt curses, of the passing year, and ceremoniously burn them.

I think it would be a great and useful tradition to start in the US.  God knows we have enough poisonous emotions left over from 2016.  We could work out our own details, befitting our peculiar culture.  Instead of burning or shredding, we could toss bits of paper inscribed with unwanted emotions from car windows on the freeway.  Or we could stuff them into those Smokers Station things outside of public doorways.  For a really modern touch, we could type them up on computers, which would send them randomly to those people we’d like to be rid of as well.

Wait, we already do that last one.  It’s called Twitter.

Shakespearean monkeys

I’m sure you’ve heard it. Give a monkey a typewriter and all of eternity and he will eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. How you’re going to keep the monkey alive is another question. Does it still count if you have to switch monkeys in mid-stream? Will it still work if the dead one was half way through As You Like It?

As it happens, someone has created a virtual roomful of monkeys with typewriters, and claims that in less than a year, they’ve already written at least a poem or two. But he cheats. When one of his e-monkeys e-types any word that appears anywhere in Shakespeare, he saves it, and then puts the harvested words together to make up the desired result. Uh-huh. Not even close.

I don’t insist on live monkeys with physical typewriters, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the words come out pre-sorted into a play, or something. This does bring up an interesting corollary, though.

Purely in terms of probability, although the theorem is stated in terms of infinite time, it could happen at any point within infinity, like, for example, as soon as you plop the monkey down at his desk and say “Go!” Then, nothing for the rest of eternity, except maybe a Bill O’Reilly book or two. This is because, although the probability of it happening at all during infinity is 100%, the probability of it happening at any particular time is the same throughout infinity. It is vanishingly small, to be sure, but it isn’t zero. There is no reason to expect one particular period of time to have any advantage over any other, when it comes to random chance.

Then again, the nature of infinity, or eternity, if you prefer, is such that not only would you get all of Shakespeare, but all of O’Reilly as well, more’s the pity. If it makes you feel any better, you’d also get everything ever written in any language, millions of times over, as if the poor monkey had wised off to some cosmic schoolteacher and had to stay after and type things over and over. Presumably, that would include “I will not make fun of Shakespeare” on our virtual, typewritten blackboard. Infinity is infinitely elastic, and can hold an infinite number of iterations of anything.

Imagine, all the lost works of classical antiquity, if only you had an infinity of time to search through all the gibberish!

In any case, we have pretty good empirical evidence that there’s a monkey out there somewhere, typing merrily away. How else to explain social media?

Saving daylight

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a conspiracy nut, but there’s something fishy in this DST business. We do it, presumably, in order to save an hour of daylight during, well, most of the year, it turns out.

So how did it all begin? Not really with old Ben Franklin, as some people will tell you. Some people will tell you he invented the weekend, or the iPhone, too, but you don’t believe that, do you?

In the US, it started with the Standard Time Act of 1918, which established the time zones across the country, and threw in DST as a kind of bonus (Act now, and get Daylight Savings! Limited time only!). It was the standard summer DST, although why we call it that, since it lasted seven months, is beyond me. At any rate, it was wildly unpopular, and was repealed a year later. Congress used to have good sense, once upon a time.

We thought we were done with it, then. But no. Roosevelt snuck it back in in 1942, called it War Time, and made it last all year, to boot.

Actually, year round sounds fine, kind of like an invisible dog fence, doing its job, unnoticed but eternally vigilant. Whatever its job is, anyway. Something to do with petroleum, apparently. Most evil things are linked to petroleum one way or another.

After the war, it was dropped, and summer DST was optional until the Uniform Time Act of 1966, when congress got fed up with never being able to figure out what time it was where they were going for a big rally, and made it apply to the whole country. States could opt out if the whole state did it. Indiana, where I mostly grew up, would have no part of it, for instance, although wicked conservatives recently forced it on the citizenry there. GW tacked on another five weeks in 2007, and here we are.

I tell you all this history, gleaned from painstaking research (a couple of minutes on Wikipedia), so that you’ll believe me when I tell you that when you add up all the hours saved since 1918, not even counting the 20 years after WWII when it was optional, it comes to 13,170. That’s roughly 550 days, or 78 weeks, which comes to 19 months.

That’s right, just over a year and a half of constant daylight, 24/7, night and day!

So, where did all that daylight go? Is it in some kind of federal light bank somewhere?

Why can’t we draw it out, a couple of hours at a time in the middle of winter, when we need it?

Oh, Mr. Einstein, you’re such a kidder!

So, here’s the deal:  my cousin Bert, who lives on the planet Schnipplefarq, and I have devised an experiment.  We have carefully synchronized our watches to Cosmic Mean Time.  I will leave Earth at a prearranged time in my spaceship, which travels at exactly one half the speed of light, making a bee-line for Bert’s house, where he will wait with his notebook to write down the results.  In my spaceship, I will have two items: a red laser pointer, and a high tech bean shooter capable of shooting a bean, also at exactly one half the speed of light.  At a pre-determined time, I will simultaneously point the laser at Bert’s house and press the button, and launch a bean, also at his house.

Since the speed of light is constant, according to Mr. Einstein, and the speed of the bean is relative to the speed of my spaceship, they should arrive at the same time.  Bert will have long since given up, of course, forgetting that our carefully synchronized watches will be way off, since time for me and my watch will pass more slowly than for him and his.

What should happen is that my red pointer light will arrive on time, but magically blue.  Bert, by that time, having decided that I’m hopelessly forgetful, will have put away his notebook and gone back into the house for a quick shot and a nap.  So he won’t notice when the bean also arrives at the same time, having increased to infinite mass due to travelling at the speed of light.  Which is just as well, since Bert, his shot glass, his comfy chair, and his planet will be annihilated by the collision.

Now, you might think what I find bothersome about all this is that time slows down for me, or that a bean could acquire infinite mass just by going real, real fast, but no.  Oh, it’s true that while I’m zipping along relative to Bert, he’s also zipping along relative to me, and why wouldn’t our time distortions cancel out, or that infinite mass would by definition have to include everything else out there, but that’s not it. It’s the concept of speed.

See, we happen to live on a planet that is way, way larger than we are, which gives us the illusion that it’s stationary, so when we think of speed, it’s relative to the great blob of  stuff under our feet.  If we go six mph, we mean six miles of earth has passed beneath us during an hour.  But the earth itself is not standing still.  It’s rotating at about 1,036 mph, and orbiting the sun at about 67,000 mph.  As if that’s not enough, the sun is moving through the galaxy at about 447,400 mph, and the galaxy is moving … well, you get the point.  You are really moving many, many thousands of miles per hour.  Plus six.

All of this speed, of course is relative to something else, us to the earth, the earth to the sun, and so on.  This means that it could be said that when we are moving six mph, the earth is moving that same speed relative to us.  Put another way, two cars, each going 30 mph relative to the earth, might be going anywhere from 0-60 relative to each other.

So what is the speed of light relative to?  According to Mr. E, nothing!  Or rather, itself.

Okay, let’s see.  If I wanted to measure the speed of light, I could count the number of some units of it that pass by during some time interval, like counting power poles from a train to figure out how fast it’s going.  That might be waves, but that’s dependent on frequency, and you get tautological pretty quick doing that.  Or it could be particles, but counting photons is worse than trying to figure the number of water molecules passing in a stream.  You’re left with bursts of light.  So you do that and get a good number.  Then Cousin Bert (still alive for the nonce) does the same thing, with the same bursts, while zooming past you at cosmic speeds.  And gets the same number.

What?  I don’t even know what speed means in that context.

Don’t even ask what would happen if I got the velocity upgrade for the pea shooter.

Walking

The sky, like a summer smile, is smudged with clouds, and the unwarm spring air baffles the jacket I grabbed on my way out of the house. I turn a corner, and there he is, walking towards me, eyes big with recognition. A few paces back, a woman in her fifties trails behind. It’s his mother, I know.

I see him often on my walks through the broad sides of the town, lying on the sidewalk, or sprawled against a curb, gazing at the meaning of things, his mother nearby but unobtrusive, though his age is at least sixteen. His discourse is with the wind, the texture of concrete, the colors of an oil slick.

Today, he sees me.

“Richard, Richard, Richard!” he shouts in an explosion of joy.

“It’s Mike,” I say. “You got it right last time, John.”

“Mike, Mike, Mike!” He extends his hand to shake. I take it. Like the sidewalk, it is surprisingly rough. A dark cloud scuds past, revealing the sun that was there all along.

We part, each of us with spring in his step.

The mountains and the sea, Part 2

Ah, GPS!  What would we do without it?  Those satellites tell us exactly where we are. That’s what they do, isn’t it?

Well, not exactly.  In fact, the only thing a GPS satellite does is tell you what time it is up there.  For that to tell you where you are, two things are required: two perfectly synchronized clocks, one in the satellite and one in the receiver, and a way to tell exactly how long the signal from above takes to get to you.  The clocks in the satellites are atomic clocks; they’re be accurate for many millennia.  The clocks here are quartz clocks, like your fancy wristwatch; they’re cheaper and you can easily reset them if they get off, something you can’t do to the satellite clocks.  The satellites just send out regularly timed strings of pseudo-random numbers.  The necessary calculations to figure out where we are all done down here.  The receivers generate the same, and then compare the signals to get the lag.  Since we know the speed of light, which is the same as radio waves, calculating the precise distance is easy peasy.

A little sidebar of interest: you know those equations Einstein came up with you thought were only good for bombs and nuclear reactors?  Without them, GPS wouldn’t work worth a damn.  You see, the satellites orbit at about 12,000 miles, far enough for them to be moving significantly faster that anything on the surface of the earth.  So fast, in fact, that time actually slows down for them relative to the earth.  If you don’t take that into account, you’ll end up thinking you’re in the middle of the ocean somewhere.

Cool.  There are enough satellites (27) so that you can get at least 3 or 4 from anywhere on the planet, and can thus pinpoint your location by trilateration.  But there are issues.  The military, which originally developed GPS, also wanted to know the elevations as well as horizontal location.

Remember sea level?  Our lumpy egg of a planet drove us to turn that into an abstract surface, where all points on it had the same gravitational potential.  An easy way to think of that is to think of a surface where an object weighs exactly the same, no matter where it is (yes, if you want to lose weight, just climb a mountain).  This surface is called the geoid, and is less lumpy than earth as a whole, but lumpy all the same.  GPS gives you the actual surface of the earth, but you have to adjust that to sea level to get a useful elevation.  Shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Wrong.  Since the geoid is irregular, there’s no easy way to model it for the computers to work with.  The best we could do was a smoothish egg, kinda-sorta where we thought sea level was, but often significantly different.  What to do?  It turns out that traditional ways of measuring elevation, with spirit levels, was very, very good at arriving at the geoid.

Years ago, I worked as a land surveyor when the military was just developing GPS.  The Defense Department sent out memos to surveyors everywhere, requesting us to set up our receivers at known elevation points every chance we got, and report the official elevation along with the what the GPS receiver thought the elevation was.  It wasn’t too long before an accurate model of the geoid was available.

Now you know what that little flat box does when you tell it to go to Grandma’s house, by the mountains or the sea.