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

nero_mus_munchen

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.

Saints preserve us!

Pope Francis has put two of his predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II, on the fast track to sainthood.  Well, alright, for all I know, they were fine people, and maybe deserve some recognition.  Setting aside for the moment the question of all the millions of other fine people who were their contemporaries, but not popes or even Catholics, I have a major quibble with the reasoning here.

According to the ancient rules of such things, to even get this far (beatitude) there has to have been an attested miracle.  This can vary widely, from healing the sick to simply not rotting in the casket.  In the case of John Paul II, there have been two alleged miracles, both involving inexplicable cures from incurable medical conditions after praying to him (while dead, of course) to intercede with God on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Here’s what’s weird.  Presumably, had JP II not been in heaven, all those pleas for intercession would have been for nothing, and the women involved would still be sick today, if they hadn’t died first.  But according to the Church, God is perfectly just.  The whole thing seems to resemble a lottery, in which your health depends not on medicine, or even on your personal faith or the extent of your prayers, but on whether you guessed right as to the eternal disposition of some dead person.

Of course, this is just a minor quibble, in the face of the idea that God, presumably the creator of the universe and hence all of the laws of physics, will suspend those laws on the request of someone from earth.  And not do it for anyone who doesn’t ask nicely, or even for the vast, vast majority of those who do.

Mysterious ways, indeed.

Ah, youth

Another tale from the annals of my splendidly misspent youth.  As usual, I have changed the names, out of a rather quaint sense of propriety.

Well, there we were, the lot of us squeezed comfortably into the crevices of a small, 5th floor pension a block from Plaza Cataluña in Barcelona.  What did we expect?  When you’re young, love blooms early and often, or at least what passes for love, some combination of lust and infatuation, I suppose.  Mother Nature gives us a double shot of hormones to get us making more of ourselves before we get distracted by life’s illusions.  For ordinary mammals, this is pretty straightforward; for us humans, anything but.

The Pension Fontanella was, above all, cheap, and the landlord easy going.  For 50 peseatas a day, about 75 cents in the exchange rate of the day, you got a bed in one of a half dozen or so rooms with anywhere from two to six beds each. In the morning was an included breakfast, of endless coffee, scones and butter, sometimes jam.  For another 30 pesetas, you could go down the street a ways to the worker’s cafeteria and get an enormous midday meal consisting, typically, of a giant bowl of paella, a grilled meat and potatoes course, and flan for dessert, all washed down with a Coca Cola bottle filled with cheap Spanish wine.  We thought Europe on $5 a Day, a popular guide book at the time, was woefully extravagant.

I won’t say the Pension Fontanella was a den of iniquity.  It was 1970.  The world was in one of its usual celebrations of youthful exuberance to accompany the coming of age of a postwar cohort, and the horrors of AIDS were nowhere on the horizon.  There were drugs, yes.  The landlord doubtless shared a portion of his profits with the local Guardia Civil.  It was 1970.  Mostly hashish, taken with a kind of connoisseurship: Moroccan blond, versus Lebanese red, etc.  Personally, while I had indulged lavishly while in military service, I had lost interest since my discharge.  I had come to find that while the first half hour or so of getting high was pleasant enough, after that I would often want to do something, and the hash haze became an obstacle.  Take whatever that says about the military as you wish; it was a different institution back in the days of Vietnam and the draft.

Anyway, as I said, there we were, merrily hopping from hash to hash and bed to bed, all bedazzled by the sheer possibility of life, blissfully ignorant of folly and its curses.  We played music; I imagined myself to be a competent guitarist and passable singer, mostly because of my friend Sid, who was so brilliant that when we played together, it made my amateurish thrashing about sound like intentional rustication.

Then, in walked Inga, and set it all a-tumble.

She wasn’t exactly beautiful, though her features were regular enough.  But, musically, she was head and shoulders above the quotidian, workmanlike talent we were used to.  It was the way she sang, with her eyes, gliding atop the effortless guitar lines with a sublime inevitability.  She made the trite seem fresh, and the fresh seem stunning; most of all, she made it seem personal to every male listening.  I was smitten.  So were we all.

She had arrived in the afternoon from nowhere in particular, and half the denizens of the pension sat far into the night under the spell of her singing and playing.  I fell asleep with the resolve that, in the morning, I would find her, and away from the rest of her admiring audience, I would have a chance at connecting.

Well, morning did come, and I found her, but not alone.  There she was at the reception desk, guitar and backpack all cinched up and ready to go.  Next to her was Billy, whom I had come to consider a good friend.  They were checking out.  Together.

Blap!  Just like that.  I lost my moorings.  I stammered a “good morning,” and asked, “What’s going on?  Are you leaving?”

“Yeah, Billy said, smiling broadly.  “We’re heading for Ibiza; the boat leaves in an hour.”  Inga beamed radiantly.  I was crushed.

“I gotta go,” I said lamely,  I could feel their quizzical stares as I headed for the staircase and out the door.

Well, it’s an old story, I guess, ruefully celebrated in many a folksong:

For courting too slowly you have lost this fair maiden
Begone you will never enjoy her
Begone you will never enjoy her
I once loved a lass

I walked down the street to a pub we occasionally patronized for special occasions.  It’s bar, lined with tapas the length of it, was a major attraction that outweighed the price of the beer.  Inside, I found Will, Sid’s brother.  He looked up and saw my face.

“You too?” he said.

I nodded and let out a sigh, and sat down next to him.  It was beer and calamares for a long, long brunch for us.  Not quite equivalent to true love, but it would have to do.

Welcome home, Mom and Dad

Hey, welcome back. It’s been – what – almost 70 years! My God, the time flies. You’d think after all that time you’d hardly know the place. I guess that’s true, in a way. I mean, the big shopping centers in the Old Town, and on Dzirnava Street; nothing like that in your day. I know, I know, the city market; it’s still there, still huge and bustling, but in an organic way, like mushrooms and dandelions. These other places, well, you know them from America. Conceived and built from scratch by speculators long before anyone guessed they wanted them, and yet wildly successful, fulfilling God knows what lack. How could they be here, of all places?

I tried to find your old place on Ernestine Street – ridiculous, I know, since I don’t know the number. I did find a lovely little park, filled with trees and hillocks and children’s swings. I imagined you lived in one of the houses facing it, and watched your boys playing there.

What’s that? Oh, the graffiti. Ugly, isn’t it? Another import from outside. Partly copied from those Americans you never quite figured out, partly welled up from within during those cold grey years under the Dogma. I know, the people making it were never alive in that time, but cultures have a way of making hurt live on long after real grievances have gone extinct. My God, look at the Israelis and Palestinians, after 3000 years!

Still, there’s a lot you’d find familiar, I’ll bet. Just today, I was strolling in the Forest Park. You know the place, at the end of the trolley line, past all the cemeteries filled with the dead from wars and ordinary life. I’ll bet you’d find a few old friends in those places! A bit overgrown these days, at least in parts, and amidst a few soviet apartment buildings I guess would break your heart, covered with, yes, graffiti. I should have warned you. But at least the graves are well tended.

Near the canal by the Old Town, boys and girls still lay out their blankets on the grass, and give each other such joy as they can under the circumstances. Their soft laughter blends so well with sparrow’s songs, I can hardly tell the difference sometimes. I know you sat together here often; if I only knew the spot. You’d be shocked, though, to see how little they wear these warm summer days, not like the elegant suits and dresses of your day! Still, there might be a twinkle in your eyes. It is nearly midsummer – full breeding season here.

They still have those wooden boats, you know, to cruise out to the river in. I bought a straw hat just for the purpose. I wonder if you ever did.

Russian voices are everywhere. I doubt that would bother you. I still remember warm evenings of food, drink and fellowship with the Russians and Jews who came to share dinner with you when I was growing up. I never understood what you talked about, but it was grand, judging from the atmosphere.

There’s music everywhere, of course. I think you would have been shocked to find otherwise. I’m glad it took me this long to show you around. A few years ago, when I first came here, there were sour faces everywhere. Not so long before that ordinary people died in the streets for independence. The long gray shadow of the Soviet Union still cast its spell. Now, people seem to have forgotten how to be cynical, in spite of hard times lately. I mean, here’s a people who, despite centuries of conquest and exploitation kept their own language and culture, and sweet, cheerful demeanor. Okay, so maybe it’s because no one bothered to eradicate it. Still, it was there all along, invisible but strong. The last century was not the longest or worst period they’ve survived.

Did I tell you, there’s been a renaissance of tradition? That music I mentioned: yes,there’s the ubiquitous hip-hop, metal, and pop drivel, but rather a lot of traditional stuff as well. I doubt you’re surprised; music is music, as any Latvian will tell you. Today in Forest Park I passed an old man (Old! He was probably my age!) playing songs on the accordian I’ll bet you could sing along with. And in the Old Town, I saw a little girl, maybe 10 years old, playing a lap dulcimer and singing, with a beautiful clear voice, songs I heard from you, I believe even before I was born. The old religion is everywhere, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of Christian sourpusses. But wasn’t it always like that? The old oaks and elms, the thunder and fortune, could always accommodate a god or two in excess.

Dad, don’t listen for awhile, I’m talking to Mom now. I know you were afraid you were going to hell. Personally, I doubt you’re anywhere other than in my heart. But if you are, it’s not hell. You knew the value of the old ways, you felt the pulse of gypsies beating in your heart. There is no god worthy of the name who couldn’t stand that, who couldn’t see the beauty and righteousness of it.

Dad, I have no way of knowing what horrors you passed through. I know you were a good man, and I know you never wavered in doing what you thought was best for us. I took me a long time to forgive you, longer still to forgive myself. At last, it’s done.

I can’t quite grasp what it was to see it all crumbling, to watch the poison seeping into such a rich well, to leave it all so utterly behind. Did you really think you’d ever come back?

Anyway, I’m so glad I could show you around the old place. I hope you enjoyed it.

The ki to chi

Any one with at least a passing acquaintance with martial arts knows about ki, or chi, depending on the country of origin.  Most can give you some kind of definition, along the lines of, “a mysterious force you can tap into.”  Higher ranks will get you more mystical rhetoric, but the gist is usually the same.  You can “have” more or less of it, depending on your skill level in the art.

This is contradictory, since the force is said to pervade everything, a kind of combination of ancient Egyptian ma’at and the “ether.”  As a member of the universe, then, one has as much of it as anyone else, if indeed such a protean force can be said to be had.  Shin Shin Toitsu (Ki Aikido) recognizes this contradiction, and no longer speaks of an individual extending his or her ki, but rather being mindful of its existence.  There is, however, still talk of blocking ki, as if a miniscule speck can stop a force of nature from acting.  Worse yet, this is usually said to be done inadvertently, as if it is a human’s nature to block another nature.

I have seen amazing things done in martial arts, both in person and on video, even the famous touchless throw.  But all of what I have seen is explainable in terms of skill and timing, and the ability to anticipate how one’s opponents actions will unfold.  So, do I believe there is such a thing as ki or chi?

Yes and no.  If I have to accept a mysterious force that is separate from gravity, momentum, and biomechanics, count me out.  There are ways of moving, however, in concert with those familiar forces that are far more likely to get the results we want.  You don’t have to find a martial arts master to see it in action.  It’s there in a laborer who’s been at the job for years, and has pared down the energy required to dig a hole to the maximum efficiency.  I recall when I was a young man working on construction jobs, coming home spent at the end of the day.  There was an old man, Leroy, who never seemed to break a sweat.  He never hurried, never cursed, and was cheerful no matter what the situation.  Some people said he was lazy.  The only thing was, when you looked to see what everyone had accomplished at the end of the day, Leroy was always way ahead, untired, and still cheerful.  Leroy “had ki.”

Had he tapped into some mysterious supernatural force?  No.  He had simply stopped wasting energy on actions that did not contribute to the task at hand.

I say simply, but I do not mean easily.  His cheerful demeanor was not unrelated to his skill; to do this you must relax everything that isn’t working towards your end.  That includes your mind.  I won’t go into the techniques that will get you there.  Suffice it to say that Leroy’s skill was the result of a lifetime of work.

More examples of this are everywhere.  Think of a skilled musician, a carpenter, a surgeon, an athlete.  Think of yourself walking through a crowd.  Do it.  Go to a crowded mall, walk, and try to think ahead of what to do next to avoid each oncoming person, each person passing, each physical obstacle.  Then just give it up, and walk.  Which was the more successful?

How did you do it?  It’s not obvious.  Watch a toddler try the same thing.  Chaos.  You managed because you and everyone else involved have been walking and avoiding people and things all your lives.  You’ve gotten good at it.  No mysterious force required.

Of course, if someone is trying to harm you, that complicates things considerably;  it’s as if someone in the crowd were deliberately trying to bump into you.  It’s a situation you’re not as familiar with.  But what if you trained to keep your body in a position to move in any direction in an instant?  What if you also trained to anticipate the intention and the momentum of someone coming towards you.  Those things require calmness and total relaxation.  Nervousness will distract you, and muscle tension will impede your movements, so what if you trained yourself in those arts as well?

You’d have ki, my friend, all from within yourself.