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Why Einstein was Right

October 20, 2011

Ever since the recent neutrino experiments that hint at faster-than-light travel, everyone (especially the media) is in a frenzy about Why Einstein Was Wrong, or in more extreme cases, Why Science Is Wrong. There are better bloggers than I covering the neutrino experiments and relativity in general, but I wanted to add my meagre weight to the consensus that the Theory of Special Relativity is in no danger of being disproven, regardless of the final outcome of the neutrino experiment. Just as Newtonian mechanics and Galileo’s original Theory of Relativity are still valid in most circumstances, Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity has been proven over and over to hold for many circumstances, and if it proves not to hold for faster-than-light particles it is still valid for everything else.

Having established that, I would now like to put forward some ideas of my own about Special Relativity that seem to have been (in my opinion) unfairly dismissed or not really considered. I will try and keep this simple, but it is complex physics, so I can’t guarantee it will be easy reading. Read more…

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The Decline of Men? I doubt it

October 17, 2011

I was checking the news last week, and one of the gaming websites I read had a small piece about an American author writing an article for CNN, bemoaning how terrible things have happened to men recently and it’s all the fault of computer games. This doesn’t seem like newsworthy material, but when I followed the link to his article I found even more rubbish in it than I had expected. Blaming games for everything is depressingly common, as is the assumption that only teenage boys and men who behave like teenage boys play them, and I’ll cover this later. More importantly, I found that what he means by “the very decline of [men]” is that over the last few decades women have been starting to catch up with men in terms of employment rates, education and wages. Basically, he is annoyed that men have less privilege than they used to, and believes drastic action is needed to reverse this! So I decided to be drastic and take his article apart, revealing his flawed arguments at a time. I don’t think this is quite what he had in mind, but it serves him right for writing a stupid article. Read more…

Gender and stuff

September 23, 2011
The Pyro from Team Fortress. Picture from the Team Fortress Wiki.

This post brought to you by the Pyro. (A fat videogame character in an all-concealing red protective suit, heavy boots, huge gloves, and a gas mask, pointing a flamethrower towards the camera.)

Yesterday I was in town, and had a look in a couple of charity shops, as you do. In one of them, I was browsing a rack of jeans when a couple of goths about my age walked in and asked the bloke on the counter about the price of a dress on one of the window mannequins – a little black thing with lots of buttons and a ruffle or two. Having established that it was £3.99, they started bickering over who should get it whilst the volunteer was taking it off the mannequin.

Both of these two were a little taller than me, both long-haired – one with dyed-black hair worn loose, one with a wavy brown ponytail – and both in the kind of goth gear that (and here, finally, the point) defies attempts at conventional gender-classification. Baggy long-sleeved T-shirts, capacious black jeans with chains, trainers, nail varnish. And arguing over who got to wear the little ruffly dress. (Eventually they agreed that the slightly taller one got first dibs, and if it didn’t fit, the slightly shorter one could have it.)

The incident stuck in my head, both because it’s not every day you run into pretty goths in charity shops, let alone two at once, and also because I had been having thinky thoughts about gender and stuff anyway and they gave me more food for thought. After all, both of these two were presenting a clear, consistent and legible identity: they might as well have been holding big signs saying “GOTH”. And yet too often, no matter how obvious it is what somebody’s outfit is supposed to ‘say’, it’s not treated as a valid or complete message if it isn’t clearly gendered. (I’ve written about gender and other messages before.)

The temptation to assume that there must be a simple, binary answer, and then to try and deduce one from circumstantial evidence, is deeply conditioned. I suspect it’s also helped along, or at least bolstered, by the way that we (as a society) currently talk about and understand sexuality. Ambiguity can be threatening, because if you’re vastly attracted to someone and then it turns out they’re the ‘wrong’ sex underneath, opprobrium awaits: even in relatively progressive communities, the reactions to people whose self-stated orientation is perceived not to ‘match’ with their sexual history can be toxic. (You can’t be straight/gay, you’ve slept with someone of the same/a different sex. You can’t be bi/pan, all your partners to date were the same/a different sex to you. You can’t be asexual, you slept with someone once. Etc.) It’s not always entirely externally imposed, either: sexuality is a cornerstone of identity for a lot of people, of all orientations, and it’s disquieting to have things you thought were axiomatic about yourself show signs of mutability.

Moments of clarity

September 19, 2011

You find sublimity in the strangest places.

Yesterday, Sunday, I and our friend Alan got up at the crack of dawn (I say crack of dawn; this is Student Standard Time. About eight-thirty) and lugged two sports bags full of paraphernalia, half a dozen model weapons, and a chainmail shirt down to Meanwood Park to go LARPing. LARP, for those not in the know, is Live-Action Role Playing, where you dress up and go arse around in the woods hitting one another with foam swords. It’s essentially a cross between Dungeons & Dragons, orienteering, and amateur dramatics; in the words of the passer-by who stopped four of us to ask for a photo, “cross-country pantomime”. The group we go to meets one Sunday a month and plays two adventures, one before lunch, one after. The gang split into two teams, one of characters and one of monsters; the monsters play, as you might imagine, all the monsters, which involves a lot of running around behind the scenes and hasty costume changes. After lunch, the teams swap over. At the end of the day everyone regroups, trades stories of hilarious moments on- and backstage (as it were) and votes for the best performance on each team. Then everyone goes home, to showers, food, regaling one’s housemates with tales of derring-do, and bed.

Yesterday, the morning was beautiful. Gorgeous late-summer sun, cool but not cold, and only a little squelchy underfoot. I was monstering for the morning session and was, successively, a violently purple carnivorous flower, a priest of the god of madness who’d been at the Cake That Grants You Visions (represented, appropriately enough, by chocolate brownies . . .), a bandit, half of another carnivorous plant, the boss villain’s ex-wife (who exploded), and a generic mook from the Stormtrooper School of Rubbish Minions. A great time was had by all, with the standout moment being when Alan’s character went into full-on berserker frenzy for the first time and, having single-handedly taken out I think three monsters, turned on his friends (a virtuoso performance that earned him the bonus experience points for awesomeness). Then it was lunchtime. And during lunchtime, it began to rain. Read more…

‘Privileges’

September 7, 2011

From the Guardian’s article on the government’s attempts to be seen to punish rioters:

Ministers are looking hard at how benefits, or tax credits, could be taken away to show criminals that privileges provided by the state can be temporarily withdrawn.

Emphasis mine.

So, in the aftermath of riots fuelled by poverty as much as anything (on which see Seamus’ excellent post on the riots), the government are at least considering stripping the poorest of those convicted of their state benefits. Not necessarily even for their own crimes, either: from later in the article, we learn that “Number 10 actively looking at the withdrawal of child maintenance or child benefit from parents who allow children to truant, or repeatedly allow them to stay on the streets late at night.” Allow seems to me to impute a degree of involvement from the parents that isn’t necessarily there. Parents can’t watch their children every hour of the day, and children are perfectly capable of getting into trouble unassisted. Either way, making the families poorer is unlikely to make the parents more present or the children less troublesome – if anything, the opposite.

I’m willing to consider the emphasised phrase above just the Guardian’s sloppy word choice, but it’s worryingly consonant with an unpleasantly popular view that always comes up whenever benefits are being talked about – that they are ‘privileges’, a special luxury given out by the state out of the goodness of its heart, which can be revoked for bad behaviour. I find it intensely worrying that there is always, apparently, someone willing to argue that being able to eat and have a roof over your head and clothe your children are luxuries rather than the basic human rights they are. The UK sits permanently on the Security Council of the United Nations – the same United Nations which drew up and published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here are Articles 23 to 25: Read more…

‘After the masque’

August 17, 2011

The thunder rolls, the rain redoubles;
Behind the church the gurgling drain
Drinks in the stream that runs and bubbles
Red-hot from the ragged vein.

Against the stonework, close as lovers,
There one discloses, one discovers,
The truth of long-forgotten things,
The taste of blood, the sound of wings.

The bite lays open skin and muscle,
The muddy smell of rain replaced
By sweet and salt and copper taste;
The heart that in the ballroom’s bustle
Leapt at the smile, the kiss, the waltz,
Stirs once, and once again, and halts.

*

We started a new game of Vampire: The Masquerade last night. The party as planned  is myself, Rhiannon, Graham, and Graham’s housemate Angus, with Graham’s other housemate Alan GM’ing. (Pseudonyms ahoy!) J may or may not join in depending on whether he can think of a decent character concept in time. Anyway, I’ve had vampires on my mind somewhat, and this was the result.

Guest post: On the riots

August 10, 2011

I’ve been wanting to write something about the riots in the UK over the last four days, but thanks to being in full dissertation mode I haven’t really had the time or brain-space to pull anything coherent together. Seamus, however, has been consistently spot-on in his commentary on Facebook, and graciously agreed to put together a post here. All plaudits should be directed at him. Typos and formatting errors are probably, alas, mine.

*

I am going to talk about the political and social factors which I think are responsible for the wave of vandalism, theft and violence which has spread out across Britain over the last four nights. I believe that these riots are the inevitable result of certain conditions existing in this country.

At this point, if this were a TV interview, the host would very probably say, “Surely you’re not condoning the violence?” As if to think, in itself, were a dangerous thing at a time like this. As if the proper response would be to say, “Wow, the biggest outbreak of violent disorder in this country in 30 years just happened completely at random; there definitely aren’t any lessons to be drawn from this!”

I am not going to refrain from analysing the conditions that made this possible just because it might be taken as a justification for lawlessness. Nor am I going to add the standard disclaimer, “Of course, the riots are indefensible …” I leave it to you to decide whether a person, while being motivated enough to sit and write out his thoughts about how his country could be improved, would nevertheless be in favour of that country getting smashed to pieces.

So why has this happened now? We know that the spark, as with, to cite a few, the Brixton and Toxteth riots of 1981, the Newark riots of 1967, the Queens riots of 1973, and the LA riots of 1992, was an incident of police violence. Two, in fact: the shooting of Mark Duggan was the reason for the peaceful protest outside Tottenham Hale police station; this protest then became violent when a 16-year-old girl was allegedly attacked by police while demanding answers. Mistrusting the police is not unusual. Even so, the lurch of shock when you are suddenly made to feel that they are truly malevolent, truly out to get you whether you are guilty or not, pushes many people into the kind of violence that they would not otherwise contemplate.

Equally, we know that Duggan’s death and the incident at the police station cannot be the whole explanation. People breaking windows and looting shops in Birmingham, or Liverpool, or Bristol, are unlikely to have much thought of Duggan, and his name has not come up in any of the interviews with rioters that I have heard so far. Instead, statements like this are typical:

That’s what it’s all about: showing the police, we can do what we want. And now we have…. It’s the government’s fault…. We’re just showing the rich people that we can do what we want.

Why are you gonna miss the opportunity to get, like, free stuff that’s worth loads of money?… It’s about that the government aren’t in control, because if they was, we wouldn’t be able to do it, would we?

Anger towards the government is a strong theme, and with good reason. The current government has dealt hammer blow after hammer blow to the youth of this country, particularly in inner-city areas. Education Maintenance Allowance has been withdrawn and university tuition fees tripled, leaving further education less accessible for the poorest people.* Welfare schemes have been reduced or scrapped altogether; those who remain on sickness benefit are being aggressively pressurised to get off it. Youth services have seen their budgets catastrophically reduced, as well: Haringey, one of the worst-hit areas in the riots, has recently seen eight of its thirteen youth clubs closed. With amazing prescience, the Guardian posted a video just ten days ago with the title Haringey youth club closures: ‘There’ll be riots’. If the young people who are causing this trouble feel that the government doesn’t care about them, they feel so with good reason. I don’t think this government does care about them. It certainly doesn’t understand them. Read more…