How to change the world

English: Riot police in Washington, D.C. takin...
English: Riot police in Washington, D.C. taking a lunch break at the Old Post Office during International Monetary Fund protests. Français : Des membres de la police anti-émeute font une pause-déjeuner à Washington durant des manifestations contre le Fonds monétaire international. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do people think that petitions and protests can change the world? Well, they can but only if many, many other factors also fall in line. I’m thinking here of the protests about Post Offices or Bank Branches that are shut down when the demand for the services falls away.

If demand is falling, then the branches will not be financial profitable, and the bank or Post Office will be very unlikely to keep them open. Banks and the Post Office and not charitable institutions and have to make a profit for their shareholders, and they would not be able to do that if the branches are unprofitable.

English: ANZ Bank branch in Temora, New South ...
English: ANZ Bank branch in Temora, New South Wales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the same way cash strapped public services (such as the Police) are also being forced to close public offices. While the Police closures mentioned in the linked article cite the danger to the volunteers who man the offices, and the closures are supposed to be temporary, many people believe that the real reason is costs. In fact the Police management claim that using modern technology police of the street can be more mobile and do not need to use the offices so frequently.

Whatever the true reasons, protest and petitions are unlikely to have any effect. If changes are for operational or financial reasons, then unless the reasons change, the changes are very unlikely to be reversed. Any opposition is going to be ineffective.

English: Graph of profits made by BAIR company...
English: Graph of profits made by BAIR company from 1892 to 1903. The values are taken from page 131 of “The World Abir Made: The Margina-Lopori Basin, 1885-1903” by Robert Harms from Issue 12 of the Journal of African Economic History of 1983. The first two years are averages of a value given for a two year period. The black line represents a general trend described by Harms for years with no data. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes a protest or petition can be effective, but that requires that a lot of things go the the way of the protesters. In this country the Mixed Member Proportional election system was selected in 1996 to be the method of electing Parliament.

There were two main factors that enabled the selection of MMP as the election system. Firstly, there was a feeling that a change needed to occur, as many people thought that with the then existing system a vote for a losing candidate was a wasted vote, and that minor parties were unable to make an impression on Parliament – frequently a minor party would get 10 to 15% of the vote, but would get maybe only one or two seats out of 100.

English: Election signs for the major parties ...
English: Election signs for the major parties plus a sign supporting the MMP side in the referendum in the constituency of Ottawa South. Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty is the Liberal candidate there. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the two previous elections, one party, Labour, had secured more than 50% of the vote, but had lost out to National, because they had won more seats. Naturally the Labour voters were incensed by this seeming injustice.

The second big factor was a small and vociferous group of people who felt that it was necessary to change and the system and who were able to use their political connections to influence media and political commentators to promote their favoured system, MMP. It also helped that they had no effective opposition, as the opposition was politically naive and unorganised.

Crowds outside the National Assembly, with sig...
Crowds outside the National Assembly, with signs calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Said Musa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dubious tactics were alleged (and probably were used, on both sides), and well before it came to a vote in a referendum on the subject, it was almost a foregone conclusion. Actually the result was closer than many people predicted, though in retrospect that was probably just due to political inertia, and many people voted for the status quo of the time, rather than the new and untested alternative.

There were no real financial or operational reasons for not changing the voting system. If, say, it made it a lot more expensive to run an election, then the voting system would not have been changed, and if it made it a lot more complicated to vote (as did one of the competing systems, STV), then it would not have been changed.

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Similarly, if the proponents of the new system had been disorganised, disunited, or politically naive, then they would not have stood a chance. They would have failed at the first hurdle, which was getting a Royal Commission to look into the options set up.

As an example of how it can go wrong, fairly recently a referendum was held to decide if we were going to keep our existing flag or get a new one. There was no groundswell of dissatisfaction with the existing flag, except for the niggle that it kept getting mistaken for the Australia flag and vice versa.

English: Flag of New Zealand. Taken outside th...
English: Flag of New Zealand. Taken outside the Beehive, Wellington Deutsch: Flagge Neuseelands. Aufgenommen vor dem Beehive, Wellington. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was no politically inspired organisation to push for a new flag and there was no obvious contender for a new flag. Therefore, there was no momentum going into the referendum for a change in the flag. So the referendum came down to firstly choosing between some mediocre choices for a replacement and then a fight off between the existing flag and the alternative.

An interesting point is that the “winning” alternative was not the one that got the most votes at the first count. As the selection was done on the STV system, as flags were removed from the list and the votes were reassigned, the second highest polling flag in the first round gained enough votes to overtake the highest polling flag.

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This demonstrates a deficiency of the STV system, though its supporters would claim that it was an advantage! In any case the alternative flag lost out to the existing flag by a fairly wide margin.

As an example of how to change the world, this debate and referendum was a dud. There was just not enough political nous on the side of those who would change the flag for it to become a reality. In addition, while the change was sponsored by the Prime Minister, it was not adopted by his party in a comprehensive way. It gave the impression that it was a pet project of the Prime Minister, and was not fully endorsed by his party.

So that is brief and by no means exhaustive look at how to change the world. It starts with a small number of dedicated and driven people and builds from there. It doesn’t matter if the ideas are actually good or bad, because if you can get the ball rolling, people will fight to sign up for the cause.

English: Thetford Post Office Centrally locate...
English: Thetford Post Office Centrally located dedicated Post Office at the top of King street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you can’t build the support, well, then your aims and ideals will go nowhere. That’s why little protests about Post Offices and Bank Branches will never win. They can’t build the momentum.

Enormous snowball made in South Park in a snow...
Enormous snowball made in South Park in a snow-covered Oxford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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Most people know that bees make cells which are hexagonal to store their honey. As it says in the article, this is the most economical structure in terms of the amount of wax that is needed to construct it, as the linked article describes.

Some people go into raptures about how clever the bees are and assume that they have some instinct which guides them in constructing these almost perfect hexagons. In fact the cells start out round and the bees warm them to make the wax mobile and liquid tension does the rest.

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The same process occurs in bubbles in a bath. If the bubbles are all roughly the same size, they also form a hexagonal array. This sort of diminishes the mystery of the beehive and the seeming ability of the bees to do geometry, but it seems obvious in retrospect. Bees don’t know geometry but they do know (in some sense) the properties of beeswax.

The above is a prime example of trivia. As defined at trivia is merely inconsequential information. However, it can be more than that, as while the information is (in most situations) totally useless, many people find it interesting and a few find it fascinating.

A Trivial Pursuit playing piece, with all six ...
A Trivial Pursuit playing piece, with all six wedges filled in. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a very few people trivia can become lucrative and even a full-time occupation. The prevalence of quiz shows where people are rewarded according to their ability to recall inconsequential facts shows that the human race as a whole appears to have the ability to remember obscure facts which apparently have little to do with their needs as they navigate through their daily lives.

All humans remember items of trivia. Granny might be able to recall what her sister told her on her wedding day, or exactly what Grandpa said when he returned from the war, but these are probably of no relevance to her Grandchildren. Memory is fluid however, and Great Aunt Mary might have totally different memories of the occasion.

Cathy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may be that being able to remember trivia is one of the things that separates us from the rest of the apes. It would presumably be an evolutionary advantage to store great amounts of apparently irrelevant information because one never knows when apparently irrelevant information suddenly becomes relevant.

For instance, staring at the stars and noting their apparently irrelevant patterns suddenly becomes relevant when you notice that about the same time that that particular pattern rises in the sky that the whole river valley becomes flooded and it is time to temporarily move to the hills.

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Some people have minds that soak up inconsequential facts and others do not have that ability to the same extent. I know that my mind does so, and this has gained me invitations to join quiz teams and so on, and I’ve even managed to get onto a TV quiz show, though I didn’t do too well on it.

I’m constantly amazed at what trivia my mind has stored in it. When watching a quiz show on TV I quite often know the answer to obscure questions, and I’ve no idea how I picked it up. Sometimes it is something that I could perhaps only have heard once, in passing, and it for some reason stuck in my head.

Memory lane
Memory lane (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Memory is fickle though. Many times I have been asked a question or a question has come up on a TV show and I am sure that I know the answer but I’ve been unable to recall it. When the answer is given there is a sense of “Of course!”.

As I mentioned above, memory can be totally false as well. Often an answer to a trivia question will pop into my head, and I’m certain that it is right, only for it to turn out to be wrong. I’m left with a sense of disappointment that my memory is incorrect.

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Some people, call them Quiz Masters, are able to store and remember trivial facts much better than the rest of us. These people star in quiz shows, win prizes and travel the world on the strength of their abilities. It’s not necessarily a sinecure, as they constantly have to top up their knowledge by reading, well, trivia.

On occasions a Quiz Master will mention that they have “just revised” a particular topic. Or that one of their peers has just recently told them something that just happened to occur in a question. A true Quiz Master apparently has to work pretty hard to keep on top of the facts that may occur in a quiz, to the extent of studying facts about something that they have no real interest in.

English: Coronation Stone of the Saxon Kings o...
English: Coronation Stone of the Saxon Kings of England, Kingston Upon Thames, showing the name of Athelstan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I mentioned above that I have no idea why the human race has this ability to store all this useless information. It’s evident that animals remember things, as you would not be able to train your dog if it didn’t remember things. However, it seems to me that other animals do not have this immense capacity to remember seemingly irrelevant information.

Maybe this is part of what leads to out ascendance on this planet. With our vast stores of information about things around us, we can use this information to survive where other animals can’t. Maybe it is this vast store of information, the ability to recall it all, and the ability to use or brains to process and use this information that allowed us to become ascendant.

Information-integration (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe the Quiz Masters are the intellectual descendants of the proto-humans who worked out that when those stars rose in that place in the sky that the animals that were their prey would be migrating around that time, and it was a good time to visit the migration trails.

Whatever the reason that we have the ability to remember information that appears at the moment of remembering to be totally irrelevant, we can nevertheless enjoy that moment when the Quiz Master on the TV gets the trivia question wrong and we can triumphantly claim “I knew that!”, in spite of the fact that we didn’t know the answers to the preceding twenty or thirty questions.

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The previous post that I made was the 200th since I started writing this blog. I started in January 2013 and intended, at the time to make it about cooking and my successes and failures in that respect. However the cooking has pretty much disappeared (at least for now) and I’ve been writing about things like science, politics and philosophy. It’s strange how things turn out!

200 posts mean 200,000 words, more or less. However some of the early ones are shorter and so I’ve probably not quite reached the 200,000 word point yet. I aim to keep going at least until I hit 250 posts which implies a word count of 250,000 or so.

Marker post, Tattenham Corner -
Marker post, Tattenham Corner – – 923637 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I, and most other bloggers I guess, blog about things that interest me. I don’t do it as a job, and I don’t seek out to address any particular set of people or demographic. I just hope that what I write is at least mildly interesting to those who stumble across it. I have around 100 “followers”, people who have subscribed to this blog, but I can’t tell how many of those skip over the emails that tell them that I have posted a new article.

Posting articles must fulfil some need that I have, but I don’t really know what it is. This is the first time that I’ve done something like this and not failed to keep it going. My random ramblings don’t spring out of a need to “reach out” to those out there. I don’t have a burning desire to see that my message is promulgated to all that will listen. I don’t even have a message.

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Nevertheless, blogs are a way of putting out there the things that interest me, like science, religion, and, basically, philosophy. It’s not a way of sorting out my thoughts and rubbing the rough edges off of my ideas. I don’t even think that my ideas are unique! When I do what little research I do while writing these articles, I often stumble across some article that addresses the same issues that I am writing about, probably in a more organised and coherent way.

I cite Wikipedia quite often, not because I think that it is the best reference collection on the Internet, but because I can almost always find an article on there on whatever topic I am searching for. Wikipedia is often criticised for being potentially inaccurate, and to some extent that is true as it is maintained by enthusiastic amateurs, after all. It does represent a good starting point for research and is generally not that bad.

Wikipedia events haunt you forever. It's true....
Wikipedia events haunt you forever. It’s true. I heard it on the internet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I started blogging I didn’t have any time schedule in mind, and I hadn’t settled on the target article size of 1000 words. As I recall the first few posts were sporadic and short. Some of the really early ones have been removed. It wasn’t until I settled on an article size of 1000 words and a publishing schedule of once a week that the blog took off (so far as I was concerned anyway) and I have been able to maintain the schedule over the last three years or so.

I originally intended to publish on a Saturday. This has slipped to Monday and I write these articles mainly on a Sunday. I’ve maintained this schedule for three years or so, and the nearest that I came to breaking the chain was when my sister was visiting and I didn’t have the time to write the articles. After she left I worked out how many weeks that I had missed and wrote and published the missing articles over a couple of weeks. It was one of the hardest things that I’ve done.

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I’ve taken inspiration from other bloggers. A friend of mine has a blog that he, until fairly recently updated with his photographs on a daily basis for many years. Well done, Brian!

Deadlines and milestones are, for me, the key to keeping up with this blog. Making a contract with myself to publish weekly affects no one else, unless someone out there is really waiting on the latest instalment of the blog, which I doubt.

English: Deadline Falls on the North Umpqua River
English: Deadline Falls on the North Umpqua River (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Douglas Adams said about deadlines : “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” However, when I’ve blogged before I’ve found that missing a deadline has been fatal to my attempts to keep a blog going. Sure, I’ve missed a few but caught up again, and my self-imposed deadline has slipped a couple of times, so there must be other factors.

I think that I probably passed a watershed where I might have stopped if I missed a deadline and that watershed may have been at the 50 or so mark, where I would have been reaching about a year of posts. Anyway the longevity of the blog certainly aids in continuing when things get sticky.

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Things do get sticky. Sometimes I sit down to write, on a Sunday usually, and nothing comes to mind. I’ve never experienced a total “writer’s block”, though. I get through it by basically waffling about something until a theme comes to mind. That is not the case this time though!

Milestones are what we strive for. I want to keep going at least until the 250 post mark, but earlier on in the blog the milestones were far more modest. When I reached 50 posts that was a significant milestone, as where 100, 150, and now, 200.

Madagascar milestone
Madagascar milestone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Milestones show us how far we have come, and if we have a destination in mind, how far we have to go. The thing about milestones is that they shouldn’t be too far apart, and indeed a mile could probably be very loosely described as a reasonable distance that can be covered in a reasonable amount of time, and is roughly one thousand paces as measured by Roman legions on the march.

If milestones (general ones, not the specific distance related ones) are too far apart, then we often break that distance down into smaller parts. For instance, if we have a boring job to do, say weeding a garden we may break it into chunks – this bit to that shrub, then that bit to the peonies, then the bit to the small tree, and so on.

Maple Walnut Fudge chunks. From 'Truffles, Can...
Maple Walnut Fudge chunks. From ‘Truffles, Candies & Confections” by Carole Bloom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All the smaller, quicker to accomplish tasks give targets that are short to complete but which still add up to the larger goal in the end. It’s funny how we fool ourselves in this and other ways.

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Seasons (again)

This is a bit of a repeat, since I almost forgot about writing this week. I decided to revisit the seasons thing.

English: Kukulkan at its finest during the Spr...
English: Kukulkan at its finest during the Spring Equinox. Chichen Itza Equinox March 2009. The famous descent of the snake at the temple. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have just begun the season of Southern Hemisphere spring. This officially starts on 1st September and runs through to 1st December. Then summer starts and runs through to 1st March, then autumn runs through until 1st June, and winter extend to 1st September and the cycle repeats.

The reason that the seasons are defined like this goes back to 1780 when an organisation called “Societas Meteorologica Palatina” defined them as above. The organisation chose those dates because the seasons pretty much aligned with those dates in terms of temperature and rainfall and so on. The coldest three months in the Northern Hemisphere tended to be December, January and February, the warmest tended to be June, July and August, and so on.

The mute Hendrick Avercamp painted almost excl...
The mute Hendrick Avercamp painted almost exclusively winter scenes of crowds seen from some distance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, the southern cycle is as described above. We have Christmas on the beach and spend July wrapped up and close to any source of heat!

Astronomers do it differently. They divide the year into four seasons, but the seasons are not aligned climatically, but are defined relative to the Earth’s position in its orbit around the Sun.

English: Illustration shows the relative posit...
English: Illustration shows the relative positions and timing of solstice, equinox and seasons in relation to the Earth’s orbit around the sun. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because the Earth’s axis is tilted relative to its orbit around the sun, the axis is be tilted towards the sun at one time of the year and away from it six months later. When the axis is tilted towards the sun, the sun is at its highest in the sky and more energy is received on Earth per square metre than at any other time of the year. It’s summer and warmer. When it is tilted away, the sun is at its lowest and we receive less energy than at any other time of the year. It’s winter and colder. (But read on).

On Earth, when the sun is high it is in the sky longer than when it is lower. The day is therefore longest and the night is the shortest in the yearly cycle. When the sun is midway between its highest and its lowest, the day and the night are of equal length.

English: Midnight Sun in Tromsø, seen from the...
English: Midnight Sun in Tromsø, seen from the old port. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The time when the sun is highest or lowest in the sky is called a “solstice“, either a winter solstice, or a summer solstice. The times when it is half way are called “equinoxes“, either an autumnal equinox or a vernal equinox, and the night and day are equal in length. These are the four main signposts of the seasons, as used by astronomers.

Strictly speaking, to say “Today is the summer solstice” or “Today is the autumnal equinox” are incorrect. Since the day and night lengths are changing all the time, the solstices and equinoxes are points in time, not whole days.

English: Two equinoxes are shown as the inters...
English: Two equinoxes are shown as the intersection of the ecliptic and celestial Ecuador, and the solstice’s times of the year in which the Sun reaches its maximum southern or northern position. Español: Se muestran los dos equinoccios como la intersección del ecuador celeste y la eclíptica, y los solsticios momentos del año en los que el Sol alcanza su máxima posición meridional o boreal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are four lesser known and less important signposts of the seasons, they are Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhain and Imbolc. I’ve used the Gaelic names, but they correspond, in order, to the Christian festivals of May Day, Lammas, Halloween, and St Brigid’s Day. These all fall more or less halfway between the four main seasonal signposts.

Astronomically the Winter Solstice, which occurs around 21st December in the Northern Hemisphere. Many sources identify the date of the solstice as the beginning of winter. Similarly the Summer Solstice is identified as the start of summer, and the equinoxes are identified as the start of their respective seasons.

English: Beltane Fire Festival is an annual pa...
English: Beltane Fire Festival is an annual participatory arts event and ritual drama, held on April 30 on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is odd, as the climatic seasons are usually considered to start three weeks earlier, with Northern Hemisphere winter climatically starting around the 1st December, and similarly for the other seasons. Starting the astronomical seasons on the 21st (or sometimes 22nd) of the month misses out 3 weeks or nearly a quarter of the season!

It’s also odd for another reason. The Northern Hemisphere winter solstice is when the sun is at its lowest point in its apparent position in the sky, so it is at its turning point in the cycle of the season and indeed the word “solstice” means “the point where the sun stands still”. It seems to me that this should be considered the mid point of the season, not the beginning of it.

English: Wheel of the Year with Fire Festivals...
English: Wheel of the Year with Fire Festivals and Quarter Festivals, Neopagan holidays: Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lughnasadh, Mabon, Samhain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is obviously true for the summer solstice too, and the equinoxes, being halfway between the solstices are add the mid points of the sun’s climb or descent to the solstices. They too also should be the mid points of their seasons, not the beginning points.

If the solstices and equinoxes are the middles of their seasons, where are the start end points then? Well, they would then coincide with the Gaelic or pagan festivals of Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhain, and Imbolc! For example Beltane is about halfway between the Northern Hemisphere spring equinox and summer solstice on 1st May.

Original caption: Jack Frost Battles with The ...
Original caption: Jack Frost Battles with The Green Man at the Imbolc festival in 2008. Stendedge visitor center,Marsden, Huddersfield. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although Beltane is a Gaelic or pagan festival and has mostly fallen out of favour, some cultures do celebrate the festival and some of the customs persist, such as the custom of dancing around a Maypole. Beltane and the other three similar festivals coincide with important agricultural events, such as sowing seeds and gathering in of harvests, so were of interest in earlier times.

However, if the astronomical seasons starts and ends were to be moved to coincide with the Gaelic festivals they would not coincide with the climatic seasons. The reason for this is that there is a seasonal shift because of the time that the seas and land take to warm up in spring and to cool down in winter. This pushes the climatic seasons back a few weeks and the start of climatic spring in the Northern Hemisphere is pushed back to about the 1st March and the same for all the other seasons.

English: Lammas growth on Quercus robur. Eglin...
English: Lammas growth on Quercus robur. Eglinton Country Park, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s why I think that the current idea of the astronomical seasons starting at the solstices and equinoxes is wrong! They should coincide with the Gaelic festivals instead, and then the astronomical and climatic seasons are related by the seasonal shift, instead of not being related properly at all.

Illumination of the earth during various seasons
Illumination of the earth during various seasons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)