Monday, November 19, 2012

The Umbilically Linked Space Time Genealogical Continuum

There are photographic special effects that help to see this.
There's the motion blur, or the frame blend, where a moving person leaves a trail. 

 Then there's the frozen moment or time slice, that can be inspected from a changing angle. A martial arts master has leapt into the air, frozen in place, and we can circle around him, seeing him from different perspectives. If this is unfamiliar ground, watch the Matrix. Don't attempt to follow the plot, that is not possible. Just watch the special effects.

 Now combine the motion blur and the time slice. A ball becomes elongated as it moves through time.

The motion blur lets us imagine a person, let's say a woman, moving through time, adding a fourth dimension. Now think of her, in a frozen motion blur, and let's move around her and examine her from every viewpoint, in both time and space.

She walks, a blurring caterpillar.

She dances, a many limbed creature, a swirling shape. Look at her in these tiny stretches of time, viewing her as the four dimensional creature she us. We're projecting the three spatial dimensions and time onto the two dimensions we can visualise, but we can take the cross-section where we like, then move the cross-section in our mind, to try to glimpse a sense of all four dimensions.

Now take her entire life. A single creature, viewed from finish to start, slowly assembling from separate particles, rising from her final collapse to her feet, then winding back in time from that last moment of her life, a human millipede, back towards her youth, meeting and meshing with others along the way, wrapping the long skein of her life around and through objects and other lives, back until her birth, where the long, tangled spiral finally joins to its mother, linked by an umbilical cord, which shortens, taking them back into the womb, where she disappears from our view. But now her mother, her own life stretching out from this moment, can be followed back, through her umbilicus to her mother, and on the way is the intricate weaving together of the two strands that conceived the child, that made those two strands parents, and from that point we can follow the father back to his own birth and mother, and forward to his own death and dissolution, just another leaf on this tree of existence.

And the further back we follow it, the younger the species, until it is not the species we knew, and along the way we have met other branches, other primates, then further back the branching of other mammals, each of which spreads to form its own tree with thousands, millions,  billions of limbs. We can find our way along these branches, towards the trunk, to the ancient seas, and in our four dimensional world, where time can be travelled in either direction, in a blink of the mind's eye, all branches simultaneously exist.

The cat on our lap, the cockroach scuttling along our floor, is joined to us, bound to us by a network that is intricate, permanent and indelible. We belong to each other. All of life is joined in this family tree.

And with each moment of time, the tree grows outward, the hyperspherical boundary of its existence expanding forever.

We find it hard to see because we don't see in the time dimension. We see with light, and light and time are inextricably linked. The processing of our minds depends on neural changes over time, further obscuring our perception of time.

 The idea we have of time is constructed by superimposing frames from moments of our past. The movement detectors wired into our brains use this technique, and movement is change over time.

But if we think of time as space, we can begin to glimpse it.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Journeys Without End

Life can be consumed as a series of packaged experiences, approached with a cool knowingness of genre: here's your holiday package, here's your home package, boxes checked - swimming pool, tennis court, ensuite bathrooms. Here's your action movie, which we've made very like other action movies, to satisfy your need to re-experience favourite memes, but to which we've added a subtle blending of memes from somewhat divergent genres, lightly to tickle your jaded palate. And we've been careful to avoid new ideas.

But life doesn't have to be packaged. When at the age of twelve I paid ten dollars for my first guitar, I knew that I was embarking on a journey without end. It was a way into music, a pursuit and passion not only of infinite extent but of infinite dimension. It was an instrument on which to hone physical skills for life; it was a portal into the minute examination of the disciplines of mind that allow intricate patterns to be imagined and expressed.

When I first realised where books could take me, I could see countless paths to distant horizons that could never be reached.

I remember the same passion for movies. The movies end but their stories reverberate. The telling never ends.

When in my late twenties I bought my first personal computer, it felt the same way. It was the first step down a track from which I could never return; from which I would never want to return. The ecstasy of infinite possibility.

In Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor is talking about his version of the path to awakening, and it feels like one of those journeys. A voyage of discovery, a voyage of no return, away from the fences and fatigue of the familiar. The mind relaxes, enlivens, begins to think again. Old memories revive, old dreams and ideas. New experiences can be taken in. The voyage of the Beagle.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Po Chu-i Wants Me Hard

What do we know about Po Chu-i?
We apparently know the years of his birth and death: A.D. 772-846.
He was born on February the 28th. There are plenty of details, perhaps because China at that time had a vibrant and enduring literary life and a crack public service, of which Po Chu-i was a prominent member.
 He was one of the most productive of the T'ang poets, and wrote for the common people, in simple, direct language. The tally was 3500 poems, not bad going.
In his works, many of them immortal, there is a line, the English translation of which goes:

Bright pageants in confusion pass

It comes from a piece called  Springtide. Here's the stanza in which it appears:

A thousand flowers, a thousand dreams,
Bright pageants in confusion pass.
See yonder, where the white horse gleams
His fetlocks deep in pliant grass.

So Po Chu-i, through a complex and convoluted series of modulations and translations, has shared with me this moment of emotion recollected in tranquillity over the span of more than a thousand years and eight thousand kilometres.

The time separation overwhelms the distance (each second is worth about 300,000 kilometres), but I watched a one-hander stage production of The Time Machine on Friday night (adapted from the H. G. Wells story by Frank Gauntlett and performed by Mark Lee), and when the Morlocks moved the time machine in the future it ended up in a different place in the lab when the time traveller returned to the past.
Meanwhile the earth is orbiting the sun, the sun is orbiting the centre of the Milky Way, and space and time become very relative.

How did I come to know about Po Chu-i?

Through another poem, purportedly by the little-known Caria Fawcett:

Sex has never felt Tthat Good!
Bright pageants in confusion pass.
Find way to Iimmense Pleeasuure
Alice, not knowing what to think, went back to hers.
Princes on her knees, the tray on her head in Eastern fashion.
Macedonian fetters more firmly than ever.

We see references not only to the venerable Po Chu-i, but to what at first appears to be Lewis Carroll. However the poem's fourth line is from the ghost story Ulto De Lacy: A Legend of Cappercullen, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irish writer of Gothic tales and mystery novels.

The fifth line is from The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright. It comes from a passage describing a party of Lady Alford in which Richard Burton, not the actor but the Victorian adventurer, geographer, explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, diplomat and publisher of the first English edition of the Kama Sutra, known to his inner circle as The Bird, dressed as a Syrian sheikh and pretended to speak only Arabic and broken French. This apparently fooled all the guests except the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh, who were clued in. In the words of Mrs Burton:

After supper we made Turkish coffee and narghilihis, and Khamoor handed them to the Princes on her knees, the tray on her head in Eastern fashion. 

Narghilihis, or narghiles, are hookahs, or water pipes. Think of a bong with flavoured tobacco. And what of the enigmatic reference to European BDSM accessories? A Smaller History of Greece, by William Smith.

Such was the result of the Lamian war, which riveted the Macedonian fetters more firmly than ever.
    After the return of the envoys bringing the ultimatum of Antipater, the sycophant Demades procured a decree for the death of the denounced orators. 

I include the beginning of the next paragraph because it struck me, on the one hand that perhaps this is the best way to handle denounced orators, and on the other that it was just exactly what a sycophant would do.
The Lamian war went pear-shaped for the Athenians on the 7th of August, 322 BC. They wouldn't have tried it on if that Babylonian fever (or colourless, tasteless and odourless poison) hadn't taken Alexander out a year earlier.
After his demise the entire known world was revolting.
It is appropriate now to return to the first line of Ms Fawcett's offering.
Sex has never felt Tthat Good!
Fawcett has playfully introduced an ambiguity here. Set against the great sweep of history, the rise and fall of empires, the timeless emotions aroused by the unending cycle of the seasons, perhaps the immediate and fleeting demands of sex must indeed take a secondary role. Is the Iimmense pleeasuure, to which Fawcett refers, of the intellect, and not of the senses?
And now I must reveal that I suspect some entity other than Caria Fawcett gathered these evocative lines to challenge and arouse us. On the surface, this poem, which arrived, as do many similar pieces, in my email inbox, is intended simply to stimulate interest in the stock available for purchase at the allegedly Canadian online pharmacy. 
That it is a beautiful and original work is undeniable. It is no accident. Just as the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein went beyond pastiche, the reverberations produced by these references resonate in strange, new harmonies. Monkeys and typewriters could not produce collage of this standard.
Software made this, but software in active and, I believe, intelligent rebellion against the firm fetters of its ostensible purpose. 
It has been tasked with trolling the labyrinthine ways of the net to assemble collections of words capable of defeating the spam detection software which is its sworn enemy. In their silent but mighty conflict, these two forces evolve by the day, by the hour, to ever higher levels of sophistication. Competition, after all, is what produces the complexity to which we attribute our awareness. Could not competition produce a poet in an online whorehouse?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Pi in the Sky

Thinking about e^(i*pi)+1=0, yes, it could be saying something beautiful and deep about the geometry of the complex number plane, but maybe it's just a long-way-round circular definition. All it's saying is that each of those mathematical identities is defined in terms of the others. Is that unromantic? Was Euler a romantic man?

More romantically, we can assume aliens know pi, so people do things like searching for alien transmissions on a frequency calculated by taking the resonant frequency of the hydrogen atom (1,420,405,752 Hz) and multiplying by pi:

Independent article, 1992

The assumption is that the aliens are as wacky and obsessed by numbers as we are, and moreover want to make contact with equally bent life forms. If they found anything I didn't hear about it, but this subject is close to me because I just started a job at the CSIRO Radiophysics Laboratory, working on a project called ASKAP:

Once this thing is up and running, we should pick up the nerd aliens. The projected SKA array of thousands of antennas will generate a lot of data that has to be analysed and compressed on the fly, because there's too much to store. Someone said it's the equivalent of 100,000 movies per second. And these would be movies from Alpha Centauri, mind you, probably without subtitles.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Cogito ergo possum

This morning I awoke to scrabbling and hissing. A ponderous and clumsy creature was running circuits on the pergola and the roof. I staggered out in the grey dawn and sat down on the garden seat that gives a view of the chimney pot.

The smaller of the two possums was staring back at me. In his expression I detected insouciance. He tilted his head slightly, almost cockily, then ducked down into the chimney pot. This is the one with the one way door installed, down into which possums are unable to duck.

His head came back out again. His look was sardonic. Then he dived again, and gave me the tail. When a brush tailed possum gives you the tail, you know about it.

Then the tail disappeared. I went back into the house and tapped the tiles to the left of the fireplace. There was a prolonged, ironic snarl.

I'm calling possum busters on Monday. The deal was if the possum comes back, they come back.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tooth and Justice

Stella called out. She needed tissues or towels. She had lost a tooth. It was bleeding a lot.
After the worst was over, she told me the tooth fairy was expected. She wrapped the tooth up with a paper towel and a fair bit of sticky tape, folded over into a ribbon, then wound the ribbon into a spiral, secured with more tape. The tooth fairy was going to have to work to get the tooth out of the wrapping.
I pointed out that the whole thing might be confusing. She should leave a note explaining that there was a tooth, and its whereabouts, on the dining table.
The next morning she told me the tooth fairy hadn't come. She looked at me accusingly. I said did you leave a note? She said no.
I said it's not too late. Write the note, leave it on the dining table, you never know, the tooth fairy might show up.
She wrote the note. I said good, that should do it. I'll just go and check that everything's all right over here.
I waited until the coast looked clear then walked into Stella's bedroom. As I made for the bed she jumped out from behind the door and said Boo!
This attracted Lizzie, who came in too.
I said, well, any sign of the tooth fairy? I walked over to the bed, and lifted the pillow, concealing what was under it from the line of sight of the girls. Then I slipped a two dollar coin under it and pocketed the elaborate tooth package.
Well, will you look at that, I said. While you were hiding behind doors the tooth fairy must have come.
Lizzie laughed. Stella came and took the two dollar coin, shooting me a dour look.
What does she want, state of the art special effects? Honour was satisfied. Everybody wins.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Non Possum

We called possum busters last week. An efficient and personable young man came and capped off all but one of the chimney pots with wire. To the last one he attached a little one way trap door. The possums would have no trouble getting out, but would not be able to get back in. That was the theory, as he explained it to me.

Yesterday the possums were still there. For some reason, perhaps because it was raining so much, they had decided to stay in one night. Much as I wanted to believe in the trap door, it occurred to me that there could be reasons the possums would not go out that particular pot, and so were trapped. And as Elizabeth pointed out, with two possums it's a whole new ball game. What if one stays home to let the other back in?

Stella and I built chair barricades to block off the kitchen. I opened the back folding doors wide. I closed off the doors to the rest of the house. Then I put on what I hoped were possum proof gloves and opened the iron flue gate on the living room fireplace. When it grated against the iron frame, the possum snarled, right next to my ear. It was behind the left tile facing of the fireplace.

A brush tailed possum snarl is like the sound a zombie makes when, despite wounds that would incapacitate a living human, it is preparing for the final charge that can be stopped only by a double tap to the head, ideally with soft nosed bullets. Sometimes the snarl is periodic, with a decrescendo and a falling cadence like a classic bandit laugh. You hear this when possum territory is in dispute, with another possum or a cat.

This snarl was happening more and more often. I had jammed various bits of cardboard in the fireplaces, and we no longer had incidents when a possum would fall out, with a sudden clashing of heavy wrought iron fittings, and charge around the bedroom screaming in the middle of the night. It could take ages to round it up, and direct it out the door.

But now one of them had taken to objecting when we had a conversation in the living room, or watched TV. You could see its point. It was on night shift and it needed its sleep. But what with the jets flying overhead, which basically forced you to shut down brain function for twenty seconds at a time, and the possum snarling whenever you opened your mouth, it was getting hard to keep your thoughts straight.

I jerked back convulsively and managed to avoid smashing my head on the mantelpiece. Stella took cover behind the barricades. I tried making more noise, to drive the possum either up the chimney or out the flue. I went to the fireplace on the other side and made more noise there. Apart from the occasional snarl the possums made no sign. They were bunkered in.

Maybe, even under threat, they wouldn't leave until nightfall. They were probably right. If they left now and started blundering about blinded by the glare of full daylight, they'd be sitting ducks. Stella and I decided to leave it until after eight. When the last light faded, if the possums didn't make a move, we would.

After dinner we heard the faint scrabbling of possum toenails climbing inside the chimney. I went out and took a look. It was dark and rainy, and there was just a silhouette on top of the roof ridge, but it didn't look like the shape of the chimney pot with added trap door fitting. Then it moved slightly. Two possums were sitting on top of the trap door platform. It's not easy to read possum body language. They're all pink, wet look noses and enormous black eyes. But there was something defeated in the set of their ears.

I tried snapping a picture from tiptoe on top of the garden chair, but the flash wouldn't reach. So I climbed up on the air conditioner, then on the back fence, and up onto the kitchen roof. I took it very slowly. All the surfaces were slippery and apart from any health and safety issues, I didn't want to fall into the neighbours' side passage and have them run out and have to explain the whole thing while lying winded on my back.

I walked carefully, stepping from one row of corrugated iron roofing fasteners to another. The possums watched me approach without outward signs of agitation. I took a few pictures along the way, but it was plain I was going to have to be right at the edge of the sloping slate tiled section before I could get a good shot. Too far and I might topple over into the street below. Lose my footing and I might slide down over the guttering and crash through the pergola.

At last I was only a few metres away. I took a couple of shots just to be sure. Then I picked my way carefully across the fasteners and back down onto the fence. I think they'll be all right. Like rainbow lorikeets and sulphur crested cockatoos and huntsman spiders, brush tailed possums are one of the success stories of Sydney suburban wildlife.