A rear-view mirror is still a mirror

People say all the time that they have no regrets.  Me, I’m practically defined by them; a man with no regrets is a man with no imagination, as far as I’m concerned, and I say that all too often for people around me, I suspect.  Still, I confess I’m mystified by people who essentially admit they can’t think of anything in their past that could have gone better had they made a different decision.  Equally, I fail to understand the virtue of still being the same person you were 40 or 50 years ago.  As Muhammad Ali said, someone who has the same opinions at age 50 as they had at age 20 has wasted 30 years of life.

Maybe that’s why, now that I’m old, I have this strange compulsion to revisit my life, to retrace my steps.  I’m drawn to places, both actual and conceptual, I passed through on my way here, to physically visit them, to stand in my own footsteps to see — what?

It’s not at all clear what it is I’m looking for, certainly not a glimpse of myself as I was then; that’s a vision that’s all too clear.  Nor is it primarily an attempt to reconstruct what I was thinking, to re-find or redefine whatever it was I thought I was doing, although that would certainly be interesting.  I’m not looking for redemption, or even a rationale.

Part of it is to correct the unconscious revisions I have made to my own history.  I’m sure you’ve had the experience of reconnecting, after many years, with an old friend or acquaintance, only to find that there are at least two contradictory versions of some common experience.  These things are seldom resolved, though.  We generally each come away wondering how the other person could have gotten the memory so wrong and yet be so sure.  It needs a new term to describe these common events.  How about “memoroid?”  I think that has enough innuendo hanging from it to serve the purpose.

No doubt what I’m looking for is a lot closer to hand and a lot easier to get at than a precisely calibrated reconstruction of the past.  See, I don’t think you can have a realistic assessment of who you are without a clear picture of who you were.

That gets both more and less difficult as you get older.


A seam in the multiverse

Strange things happen at my house. Mostly computer stuff: the sound on my desktop refuses to mute when I ask — no, demand — it; printers mysteriously chat with each other in the dead of night and print out seemingly — only seemingly — incomprehensible reports on their meetings; my ebook, charged to within a nanometer of its battery’s capacity, is dead in the morning despite having been turned off, then charges up perfectly and is fine. It’s possible the ebook is an invited non-voting observer in the printer meetings, but it doesn’t seem to attend them all.

Well, ok, I thought, maybe Julian Assange is using my stuff to communicate with Putin, or something. There are oddly slow periods on the internet, and recently my router went on strike and I had to bring in a scab, which is working fine, but some of my other electronics are behaving strangely since the switch. I am willing to admit I can’t fully control my cyber-paramours. But this morning, the insurrection spread to something not even attached to the internet: my coffeepot.

My habit is to freshly grind some coffee at night before I go to bed, and get everything ready so that when I wake, all I have to do is poke a button, and Bob’s your uncle. Don’t laugh, I actually have an Uncle Bob, although he died at the age of five back in nineteen ought something or other. Anyway, this morning I smugly poked the button, ate my breakfast, and went to pour myself a delicious cuppa.

All I got was hot water.

Damn, I thought, I forgot to put in the coffee! It’s happened before, though rarely. So I opened the top, and, what the hell, there sat the filter, and in it was the proper amount of ground coffee, dry, as they say, as a bone. This is where String Theory, multiverses, and what-not come in. The design of the coffeepot is such that the heated water literally has nowhere else to go but through the coffee and into the pot, unless it clogs completely, in which case it would erupt all over the counter. Which it did not do.

You may have read a piece I posted recently about Shakespearean monkeys, in which I pointed out that, according to the theory of probability, there was no reason they couldn’t crank out, say, Henry V the minute they sat down rather than eons later. Similarly, if we are but one universe in a bubbly lather of multiverse, and if these bubbles, each containing it’s own set of physical laws, are bound to encroach on each other eventually, why not now, and why not at my house?

On the other hand, is it possible I inadvertently put the carafe, still full of water, in its place without first pouring the water in the reservoir?


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.

From the OPI

Office of Perpetual Investigation
Popular Music Division

Memorandum: Purple Berries?

Here are the facts as we know them:

An unspecified number of people are leaving, because they are not needed. They are leaving by sea, on ships made of wood (very free, apparently). We don’t know how many ships, but at least two, as the plural is specified, we don‘t know the size of the ships or the crew, although both seem small, and we don’t know of a destination, although aimless roaming is strongly suggested.

We also know that at least one person has subsisted on purple berries for 6 or 7 weeks, or the better part of 2 months, and we know that a second person has requested some of the same berries, and that the request has been granted. Some questions immediately arise:

1. Where were the ships procured, and how? Were they bought, built, or stolen?
2. Where were the purple berried procured?
3. What kind of berries, purple or otherwise, were nutritious enough to sustain someone for that long, especially without “getting sick once?”
4. How were enough of them to eat for the better part of 2 months stored on what certainly appear to be small vessels?
5. How were they stored in such a way as to keep them from spoiling for such a long time?
6. What was everyone else eating, since it appears to be the first request for the berries to be shared since the departure of the ships?

Unless and until these mysteries are cleared up, I’m afraid there will be serious doubt as to the veracity of the account.


I don’t get it. C, that is. The speed of light.

I get that it’s supposed to be constant, and I get that the idea enables us to have GPS and all kinds of other wonderments, and I don’t even wonder why, since the universe gets to have any rules it wants, as far as I’m concerned. I just don’t get what it means that the speed of light is constant. Not light itself, mind you, but its speed. An attribute trumps the thing it’s attached to.

When you’re talking about speed, the first question that pops up is, relative to what? With light, it doesn’t matter, it’s the same regardless of what it’s measured against. If I’m standing still, and you’re moving, we will still get the same reading on our cosmic radar guns. As if that weren’t enough boggle for one topic, yours would arrive a little bluer or redder than mine, because, of course, the frequency, which I would have thought had some relation to speed, is not constant.

What exactly was Einstein on about when he was talking about the speed of light? Clearly, velocity, almost by definition, is what relates time to space, so I get why it should have a central place in a theory that regards space-time as a continuum. But velocity is an attribute, dammit! It has no existence outside of the thing it is a characteristic of. How can it possibly be the root phenomenon of reality as we know it?

Then again, I still don’t understand airline pricing, so maybe such things are just beyond my grasp.

Damn that Galileo!

I find myself thinking about Galileo, for no apparent reason, and his famous Tower of Pisa experiment, which he may or may not have actually performed.  You know the one: dropping two balls of unequal mass simultaneously to show that acceleration due to gravity is independent of mass.  In short, the two unequal balls arrive at the earth at the same time.  In physics, this is an example of what is known as the Weak Equivalence Principle (WEP), which I point out only for the pleasure of using such a silly term.

Despite being undeniably true, this is, to me, counterintuitive.  Think of the implications.  Suppose you are in the vacuum of space, maybe took a wrong turn on the way to the coffee shop, or something.  About ten feet away is a softball.  According to the WEP, you and the softball will move towards each other at exactly the same rate as you and the earth, if it were ten feet away.  Lucky for you, though, the damage inflicted by the softball will be considerably less than that inflicted by the earth in a similar situation.  Okay, the softball is much smaller and has much less mass than the earth, so what’s my point?

Let’s substitute something else for the softball, say, the moon.  By the magic of imagination, retracing your steps to see how you missed the coffee shop, you find yourself ten feet from the moon.  Once again, you and the moon move together at that same rate, independent of mass.  This time, though, you will definitely feel something when you finally make contact, because the moon is much, much bigger than a softball.  (Never thought you’d see that phrase in print, did you?)

We’ve all seen that footage of Neil Armstrong bouncing about on the moon.  I love that little tune that he sings, by the way.  Anyhow, it’s apparent that jumping that high on earth would result in much more jarring to the body.  But the moon, though smaller than the earth, is easily sufficiently massive to stop you cold when you hit it.  Remember, starting at ten feet away, you will strike the surface of the moon at exactly the same speed as you would on earth, coming to a full and immediate stop in both cases, or as close to full and immediate as measurable.  So why is there more damage to your poor, unsuspecting body when you do it on earth?

I remember reading a variation on this question years ago, in some “Ask the Scientist” thingie: if two cars of identical mass collide, how is the force different from one of those cars hitting a stationary wall?  Mr. Scientist, no doubt sighing inwardly, patiently explained that it had to do with the momentum of both masses.  To get the same force with just the one car, it would have to be going twice as fast, and even the thickest of us can see the difference there.  But what if you substitute a mountain for the wall?  Or drop the car from a sufficient height so that it’s going the same speed at impact as in the collision with the wall?  Even double the speed, to take account of the second car?

Or jump off a ten foot platform on the moon?

Don’t mind me; I still can’t see why levers work; and don’t even bring up pulleys.

Nero’s fiddle


Ah, Nero, second only to Caligula, or perhaps, thanks to Hollywood, Commodus, among the Roman Emperors we love to hate.  Why, he fiddled while Rome burned.

Well, not really, since fiddles as such were a long way from being invented yet.  There was a rumor, though, perhaps started by Cassius Dio, certainly fueled by Seutonius, that when Rome caught fire and burned to the ground in 64CE, Nero climbed the Palatine Hill and “…sang the whole of the Sack of Ilion in his regular stage costume,” the aforementioned piece apparently being a long, theatrical declamation he had written (just for the occasion?).

What?  Regular stage costume?  Well, you have to understand the man.  Nero fancied himself a first class poet and playwright, a brilliant actor and dramatist, and, need I add, a superbly gifted athlete.  It was rumored that when he ordered his slave to kill him after he was driven from Rome by angry mobs and a smattering of generals, lacking the balls to do it himself, his dying words were “The world is losing a great genius!” or something to that effect.  He instituted regular festivals featuring contests of poetry, drama and music, which he himself inevitably entered, and just as inevitably won, since none of the judges fancied their chances if they declared for someone else.  This timorousness of judges extended to his athletic prowess as well.  He once entered the Quadriga,  a four horse chariot race, and the most prestigious of the races in the favorite athletic event in all of Rome, with a special chariot fitted with twelve, count ’em, twelve horses.  The judges conferred, and ruled that it was legal, having noted, I suppose, that twelve was a multiple of four, after all.  To be fair, he was leading into the turn-about (who would pass him?), but tipped over, surviving a horrible crash unscathed.  And victorious.  Those astute judges noted sagely that, well, he would have won, had he not tipped over, and awarded him the trophy.  In defense of the judges, it should be noted that more than one general lost his job, rank, and occasionally life, just for falling asleep during one of Nero’s poetry recitals.

So, the burning question (sigh) is, did or did not the man diddle, if not fiddle, while Rome burned?  It seems as though, if he did, he still had time to handle the situation honorably enough.  Tacitus wrote that he took in refugees from the fire at his own residence, and fed and clothed them, opening the substantial palace grounds to anyone in need.  So, if there was a fiddle, it was figurative, and much deeper, and here we get to the subject of who or what started the fire in the first place.

Fires in Rome were commonplace.  Just beyond the familiar temples and palaces of stone and brick, the city was a ramshackle jumble of rickety wooden structures.  Truthfully, even in the more substantial stone buildings, fire was a danger; remember, before electricity, heat and light were provided by fire.  The ubiquitous lamps used all over the city and beyond consisted of an open bowl filled with oil.  A wick was added, and the whole thing, when lit, provided ample opportunity for spillage and subsequent disaster.  Stone and brick were, all the same, filled with furniture, carpets, draperies – in short, fuel.  In the poorer quarters outside the central district, fires were so common and so dangerous that indoor cooking was forbidden.  More than one emperor capped his hallmark forum with a firewall against the slums next door.

Still, this particular fire had started suddenly, in an unusual place, and spread like, well, wildfire.  In the end, only a bit more than one fourth of the city escaped unscathed, with much of the central district destroyed completely.  And there’s the rub.

Nero had this area cleared, and built a fabulous new palace compound, the Domus Aurea, on the site.  It had a lake big enough to stage recreations of famous naval battles, and a statue of himself, as Sol Invictus, stood 30 meters (about 100 feet to us colonials) at the head of the grounds.  It was called the Colossus, and gave its name to the Coliseum that replaced his palace (a whole other story).  The name Domus Aurea refers to the centerpiece of this garden of splendor, the residence, with its dome covered with gold.  The dome was engineered to rotate, and the night sky was painted on the interior for the bemusement of dinner guests, who were sprayed with perfume and showered with petals on entrance.  True, other emperors before and after built lavish homes for themselves, but this particular effort sorely rankled, because Nero used public money to build it, on the grounds that it was essentially a city renovation project.

Truth to tell, there was precious little difference between public and private money where public officials were concerned, but each had its own pocket, and the populace cherished the fiction that they were separate.  Far from using public funds for their personal projects, high officials, and especially the emperor, were expected to spend their own money on public projects, as a show of magnanimity.  The lavish Domus Aurea  was a step too far, and it fueled rumors that Nero himself had set the fire, to rid himself of senate rivals, and clear the land.

To be fair, Nero had his own theory, and that was that Christians had set the fire in a sort of apocalyptic fervor.  The result was a very public campaign of persecution, leading, among other things, to the particularly venomous description of Rome in the Book of Revelations, generally supposed to have been written 30 years or so after the great fire, but could have been earlier. Well, to a lot of the Roman public, that seemed pretty likely, or at least plausible.  Nobody who wasn’t a Christian liked them very much.  They refused to honor the other gods of Rome, they hung around with slaves and other low-life, and they met in secret, where it was rumored that they partook of cannibalistic rituals.  If the fire wasn’t set by Christians, most people were content to let them get persecuted all the same.

Even some modern scholars believe that the idea of Christians starting the fire is not entirely out of the question.They got a lot of propaganda mileage out of the persecution, and laid the groundwork for expansion. Even so, it is the consensus now, as it was then, that it was either accidental, or set by Nero’s agents. But whether or not Nero was at fault, he certainly benefited from it, at least in the short term. He silenced most of his senatorial critics, and he got his magnificent residence in the middle of downtown Rome.

If there was a fiddle involved, that was it.