The End of (Western) Civilisation

English: Is this really 'the end of civilisati...
English: Is this really ‘the end of civilisation?’ The Worcestershire/Gloucestershire county boundary on the B4280. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In much of the world capitalism holds sway and there is no denying that, as an economic and social system) it has benefited humanity to a great extent. It has built the great global technological empires that give residents in “western” societies all the consumer goods that we enjoy.

It has provided well for its citizens in general with the standard of living in western societies being the envy of other people in other nations, to the extent that they strive to move to western societies even if their homelands are not embroiled in war and tyranny.

Monument to the fallen in the fight against fa...
Monument to the fallen in the fight against fascism and capitalism in the centre of village Skravena, Bulgaria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But capitalism has its faults, and to some extent it can be likened to a car without brakes. A car without brakes is still driveable, and it is still steerable and can stay on the road until it hits a downhill stretch. Then the driver cannot control the car as it gets faster and faster down the hill and the inevitable will eventually occur.

Capitalism tends to vest power in the businesses and organisations that benefit from it. It tends to concentrate the capital from which it gets its name, of course, in a few individuals and while it benefits most people, there are small but growing number who slide to the bottom of the heap for one reason or another.

Poor people in Tirana, Albania
Poor people in Tirana, Albania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The people at the bottom of the heap are not totally without the benefits of the capitalist system. They mostly have televisions for example, which would have been considered a luxury a few decades ago.

However, they often have difficulty with food, accommodation, schooling and medicine. Any jobs that they get will be generally low skilled and low paid. They may even have to work two or more jobs just to get by.

English: Health Care Português: Saúde Pública
English: Health Care Português: Saúde Pública (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In many western societies houses are becoming more expensive, as measured against family incomes. As houses of their own are out reach for them, they generally rent their accommodation, either from the state or private landlords. Even then they feel the effects of rising house prices in their rent, and often they are forced to rent houses which have serious defects, like damp and mould.

Landlords are of course subject to the capitalism system and are reluctant to spend much money on repairs and so on, as any such expenditure comes out of their pockets. Houses that they let out are often allowed to deteriorate badly.

Poor coastal housing at Hanuabada in Port Moresby2
Poor coastal housing at Hanuabada in Port Moresby2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those at the bottom of the heap, schooling may be an issue. While the state provides schools, not all schools are the same. A school in an upmarket suburb is almost always better resourced and has better teachers than a school in a poorer area. It’s no surprise, then, when the upmarket schools perform better in terms of qualifications achieved by the pupils.

Access to medical care is often a problem for those at the bottom of the heap. If a trip to the doctor costs $50, as it may well do, then that is a big chunk out of the family budget, and any prescribed medicines will at to the burden. As people get older, they may no longer be able to work and yet this is the time in their lives that they may need medical care more often. In contrast, a people higher up the scale will be more able to pay to have hip operations and so on performed privately.

People at the top of the scale often look down on those at the bottom as being lazy benefit bludgers who are unwilling to work. This is in most cases untrue. The barriers to rising from poverty to plenty are many, and are in the main insurmountable for many.

The poor are not stupid in the main, though many may not be the brightest of people, and the chances of making it off the bottom rung of the ladder are off putting to many. There are always stories of people making it against the odds, as the saying goes, but in most ways those who succeed in rising up the scale merely reflect the odds.

999 out of a thousand triers will fail, regardless of drive and ambition. Many will therefore not bother. Even if they did try, they might raise the odds to 2 in a thousand, scarcely any better. It truly is a trap at the very bottom of the heap.

The capitalist system is not able to provide for people in their old age when they are unable to work too. One can put aside a portion of one’s income to help provide for old age but many do not bother, and even they do, the portion that they can put aside depends on their position of the scale of wealth. A poor person, living from hand to mouth, may have no income that he or she can put away for old age.

English: Beggar man and beggar woman conversing
English: Beggar man and beggar woman conversing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Traditionally, at least in the last century or so, the state has helped out by providing a guaranteed income for old age in the shape of a pension. However this still has to be paid for and taxes are the way that it is usually done, which means that the richer people will pay for the poorer peoples’ pensions.

It has reached the state in many western societies that welfare, that is schooling, medicine and provision for old age is no longer affordable for society. This is a coming crisis that the current capitalist system cannot avert. It is not exaggeration that it may be the end of civilisation as we know it.

If the poor can no longer be sustained by the system, then stratification will definitely occur. The “have nots” who outnumber the “haves” will become jealous of them, and that may lead to actual conflict between the classes.

It is not an issue that can be addressed by merely changing the distribution, by effectively taking from the rich and giving to the poor, as this is unfair to those who are considered rich, and will be ineffective anyway, as it provides no incentive for the poor to provide for themselves.

But if nothing changes, things will get worse and worse until conflict, pestilence, famine and death spread in waves across the Earth. That is, unless we find a better, and fairer societal system.

The original Four Horsemen of Apocalypse. Pane...
The original Four Horsemen of Apocalypse. Panel from X-Factor #24. Art by Walt Simonson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Heaven and Hell

What if there is an afterlife? Personally I don’t believe in one, but still. What would it be like? The Christian version is that you get judged on your behaviour in this life then go to either heaven or hell. Some versions of Christianity require that you are at the very least baptised, or that you experience being “saved” or that you have taken part in certain rituals before your worldly behaviour is considered.

These lead to awkward questions about, for instance, babies who die before they have a chance to be baptised or whatever. Will they be condemned for ever? I hardly seems fair and various versions of Christianity have ways of getting around this issue. Some suggest that such babies go to a third type of afterlife where they experience neither heaven nor hell – a sort of post life waiting room, which to me seems to be a particularly cruel version of hell!

Bebe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is heaven like, though? It must be a pleasant place, as it is a given that it is a reward for a good life, and it has been suggested that it is a place where, the Deity, God, is glorified and worshipped, where all is light, and all the “souls” there experience the joy of being in the presence of the Deity.

Since no one who has died has reported back, the sources for these ideas come from speculation presented as fact, or, as some claim, divine inspiration, an actual message from the Deity. There’s a world of difference between these two options. In other words, it’s either a complete fiction, or absolute fact.

English: Pope Gregorius I dictating the gregor...
English: Pope Gregorius I dictating the gregorian chants (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What could we logically deduce, given, for the sake of argument, the existence of an afterlife? It could be that we are reborn in this world, as either a new human or an animal. However, no human can remember any previous existence on this earth, or even on a planet circling a star somewhere across the Universe.

Of course some people claim to remember previous lives, but strangely, these remembered lives are frequently people who were famous when they were alive, like Anne Boleyn or Shakespeare, and the people who claim to be such reincarnated people often get well documented details of their lives wrong. Of course, history may be wrong, completely wrong, but it is more likely that people who claim to remember previous lives are mistaken or even purposefully deceitful.

If we dismiss the idea of reincarnation, what then? Certainly we can throw away all we know of physics. The only thing that we can be sure of is that things will be different. It may well be that there would be something analogous to our usual physics in play but we have no way of knowing what that would be.

English: Stylized light cone based on the logo...
English: Stylized light cone based on the logo for the World Year of Physics 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may be that personality as such would not exist. No meeting with a previously expired spouse in the afterlife would occur, as the personality of the spouse would not exist, and nor would the personality of the recently expired person.

If personalities of the dead did exist in the afterlife, then this could cause issues. What if the recently expired person had remarried after a spouse had previously died. Which of the two spouses would be matched up with the recently expired person? Maybe the physics would be similar to our current physics, but different enough that one person could spend eternity with two or more people?

I get the impression that there are many more versions or varieties of hell postulated than there are heavens. Visions of hell are often detailed and gruesome. One only needs to look at the right most panel of “The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch”  to see some extreme examples.

Hell is punishment for transgressions in this world. Punishment extends “for all time” which would seem harsh as, surely any sin would be expiated eventually, just as any punishment with the exception of capital punishment in this world is time limited. However this assumes that time in this world is the same as time in the next world, and this may not be so.

A painting by Georgios Klontzas (Γεώργιος Κλόν...
A painting by Georgios Klontzas (Γεώργιος Κλόντζας), at the end of the 16th cent., of the Second Coming: a detail showing the punishment of the wicked ones at the Hell. The original whole painting at Digital Archive of the Greek Institute of Venice (Ψηφιοποιημένο Αρχείο του Ελληνικού Ινστιτούτου Βενετίας). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eternity may pass in a different way in the next world – maybe how eternity feels to the sufferer may depend on the seriousness of the transgressions. That may be fairer than for a minor transgressor to suffer through an endless time, judged by the standards of this world.

In accounts of heaven and hell both have inhabitants who have never (so far as I understand it) ever been mortal or human. Angels inhabit heaven and devils and demons live in hell. In both realms the job of the inhabitants appears to be to provide direction for the souls or entities from this world. Angels presumably assist in providing the dead souls with their appropriate rewards and devils and demons punish the transgressors.

Over the centuries people have imagined or vouchsafed a vision of heaven and hell. It seems that both heaven and hell have a hierarchy of inhabitants. The hierarchies are power hierarchies with the Deity at the top of the one, and the anti-Deity at the top of the other one. This is either a reflection of the prejudices of the person who is imagining these realms, or an interesting structural characteristic or heaven and hell.

Naturally hell is nasty and heaven is nice. I don’t know if it is some cultural bias as a result of my background and upbringing, but it seems to me that the stories and legends of hell are much more detailed than the stories and legends of heaven. My thought is that people are more interested in the gruesomeness of hell than the niceness of heaven.

English: 19th century Burmese temple painting....
English: 19th century Burmese temple painting. Tempura-like paint on cotton. 47” x 35” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Certainly the Wikipedia articles on heaven and hell support this theory, as the section on the Christian hell is much longer than the corresponding article on the Christian heaven. The Christian heaven merely has “many mansions“, while the Christian hell is more complex. In fiction especially as exemplified by Milton’s Paradise Lost, and in myth as in Egyptian beliefs hell can be envisaged as complex hierarchies.

But basically, we have no way of knowing for sure if heaven and hell are real and separate realms from our standard world. There can be no physical contact between such realms and our own, since physics describes only the behaviour of things within a single realm and it has no purview outside of that.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1480-1505) ...
The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1480-1505) by Hieronymus Bosch. Oil on wood triptych, 220 cm x 389 cm, now in the Museo del Prado. High-resolution version from The Prado in Google Earth. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We can’t know for sure, so while we may think that they exist and believe in heaven and hell, we should look for our ethics only in this world. Any other course is illogical.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Part II
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Part II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Photography, Ancient and Modern

19th century studio camera, with bellows for f...
19th century studio camera, with bellows for focusing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I looked up the date when photography was invented I was surprised that it was first tried in 1800, if you allow the word to mean the capturing by some means or other an image created by some means or other!

While optics were known and understood well before this time, no one apparently thought of using glass to create images of views, people or anything else. If they did, there appears to be no record. Also the technology didn’t exist to record any image so created, so it would have been pointless to do so anyway, though artists may have been able to benefit from an image projected onto a canvas as a guide.

The geometry of a pinhole camera as seen from ...
The geometry of a pinhole camera as seen from the X2 axis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So before “the camera” we had “the camera obscura”. A camera obscura is basically a darkened room with an image created by a pinhole camera projected onto a white screen.  They are fascinating to visit and I highly recommend visiting one.

When the means for creating an image (a lens) came together with a means of capturing the image photography was born. At first the techniques were hit and miss with wet plates coated in chemicals to capture the image and simple lens to create the image, and a long exposure time.

Brownie2 lens
Brownie2 lens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But techniques and technologies quickly improved and exposure times came down. In the early days, when sitting for a photograph, the long exposure times meant that braces had to be used to prevent the sitter from inadvertently moving and spoiling the photograph.

The image of a photographer in those days was of a man hiding under a dark cloth doing mysterious things with his camera, maybe firing off a tray of flash powder to record the image on a glass plate, then dashing off to his “dark room” to process and fix his image onto the glass plate with dangerous chemicals. The end result was an image with light and dark reversed, a so-called “negative”.

New dark room, Boston Camera Club, Bromfield St.
New dark room, Boston Camera Club, Bromfield St. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some of these early cameras were works of art, with shining brass trimming, great leather bellows and polished wood bodies and plate holders, all mounted on a substantial tripod. Great brass screws could move the lens closer to or further from the body which held the plate and often could move the lens up and down or from side to side to compensate for perspective distortions.

Several things eventually brought photography in reach of the man in the street. Firstly, it became possible to record the images onto a strip of plastic, which meant that the camera only had to be loaded once in a while. At the same time, it became possible for you to hand your film to the local chemist or apothecary and have the films developed and positive images printed on cards.

English: J. J. Williams, Portrait of Hawaiian ...
English: J. J. Williams, Portrait of Hawaiian woman. Print from glass plate negative. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rise of mass production allowed cameras to be produced very cheaply, and the Box Brownie arrived, costing two British pounds. Anyone could be a photographer. To be sure corners had to be cut, so the Brownie was a simple box with small and very simple lens, and the shutter was simply a plate that usually blocked light from entering.

On pressing the shutter lever a spring was tightened until the plate flicked over, giving the lens a brief look at the outside world. The film strip was held on one spool and transferred to another. A window in the back of the camera showed the backing strip of the film and you would the film on until the next number showed in the window.

Kodak SIX_20 'BROWNIE' E
Kodak SIX_20 ‘BROWNIE’ E (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The user aimed the camera by using a crude “viewfinder”. This was simply a window in the top of the camera which allowed the photographer to look down on a tiny mirror which reflected the view in front of the camera. It was around a centimetre wide and pointed only more or less in the same direction. To switch from landscape mode to portrait mode you turned the camera over and looked into a similarly minute viewfinder!

Of course things rapidly moved on from there. People loved the Box Brownie and soon handheld cameras of all sorts appeared. Some had two linked lens arranged piggy back style as in the Rollieflex, and some had a single lens, like the Hasselblad. Those two were high end machines, and featured switchable components and high quality lenses and other accessories. They tended to be favoured by professional photographers.

Hasselblad 500C
Hasselblad 500C (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most other cameras were built on a different design, though. Most featured a eye level viewfinder, and cheaper ones usually didn’t have interchangeable accessories. Most moved away from the spool to spool system to the 35mm cassette. Really cheap cameras eventually had a drop in cassette system.

Two other big changes were the introduction of colour film and the single lens reflex system. Many photographers used to monochrome film were appalled by the advent of colour film and swore never to change to it. Most amateurs adopted it with enthusiasm of course. Eventually everyone (almost) used colour.

Empire-Baby camera
Empire-Baby camera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The single lens reflex system allowed the photographer to see exactly what he was shooting as the viewfinder looked through the same lens through which the image was captured. Generally the viewfinder was eye level but the Hassleblad was an exception retaining the waist level view point.

The more expensive cameras had knobs, dials and buttons all over them, but the cheaper varieties had only a few, and some did not have any controls. All used film cassettes and most had flash devices for low light level conditions.

English: A very popular collectible made even ...
English: A very popular collectible made even more popular by its appearance in the 2nd Harry Potter movie. This is just a cool camera, from its impressive dials and gears, to its nifty two-tone skin and bright chrome trim. This example is shown topped with the clip-on selenium meter. Because of its shape (and weight), the Argus C3 is affectionately known as “The Brick”. Made from 1958-66. Polski: aparat fotograficzny Argus C3 Matchmatic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then along came digital. Film disappeared, to be replaced by flash storage. Most cameras lost their viewfinders, which were replaced by small screens covering the whole of the back of the camera. Many settings could be set using the screen and a few buttons, and the cameras sizes shrunk. Some these days are credit card size.

But now, it seems that the so called “compact digital cameras” have briefly had their day. Every smartphone has an embedded camera, and people are not buying the compacts. Some smartphones now come with Leica lens technology.

English: Leica III camera with both the Clear ...
English: Leica III camera with both the Clear and Amber lens attachments. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The result? Billions (if I’m not mistaken) of absolutely atrocious photographs spamming the Internet. From cute cats to drunken revellers, everything is now floating around out these. But I’m optimistic. Real photographs and real photographers are still out there. Somewhere.



The Space Between the Stars

This image was selected as a picture of the we...
This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Farsi Wikipedia for the 8th week, 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Space is big. The Voyager spacecraft (Voyager I and II) were launched in 1977 and are, forty years later, only just entering interstellar space. Though the exact point at which space becomes “interstellar” is debatable.

The Voyagers will take 40,000 years or so to reach one of the stars in the “local” group. That’s about one fifth of the time that humans have existed as a separate species. Or 400 times as long as the length of time that a human is able to live. If a generation is around 20 years long, that is about 2,000 generations. It is a long, long time, and we may well be extinct as a species by then, for one reason or another.

English: Diagram of the Voyager spacecrafts wi...
English: Diagram of the Voyager spacecrafts with labels pointing to the important instruments and systems. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “local group” of stars is an arbitrary group of stars which are (relatively) close to the Sun. I’m unsure whether they really constitute a group of bodies bound by gravity or whether they are close to the sun by chance. Of course if any of the stars in the local group are bound by gravity, then the stars would form a binary or multiple star system.

Of course, our star and all the others in the local group are part of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Specifically we are part of one of the arms of the Milky Way, which is a spiral galaxy. All stars in the Milky Way are bound by gravity, with the possible exception of stars which are merely passing through the Milky Way at this time.

English: Using infrared images from NASA's Spi...
English: Using infrared images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, scientists have discovered that the Milky Way’s elegant spiral structure is dominated by just two arms wrapping off the ends of a central bar of stars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just like stars, galaxies seem to form groups, which then form super-groups and so on. All these structures are several orders of magnitude larger than the prior smaller ones, are more complex and contain more matter.

The majority of space however is just space. The gaps between the bits of matter, stars, systems, galaxies, groups and so on contain almost nothing, or a seething sea of virtual particles depending on how you look at it.

Map of the Local Group of Galaxies
Map of the Local Group of Galaxies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “almost nothing” consists of a very small number of particles (usually hydrogen atoms or nuclei, protons) in a cubic metre. For comparison the best vacuum that can be created on Earth may contain several million atoms in that volume. This of the same order of magnitude as molecular clouds as observed by astronomers. Molecular clouds are among the densest clouds observed in space.

The stars, planets, asteroids and similar bodies comprise only a very small part of the Universe and the average density of the Universe is much the same as the density of empty space. In other words, the Voyagers are heading into areas where the conditions are more typical of the Universe than those around our star.

Voyager 1 is currently within the heliosheath ...
Voyager 1 is currently within the heliosheath and approaching interstellar space. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I mentioned virtual particles earlier. While virtual particles show up as short-lived particles that briefly come into existence in some particle interactions, the virtual particles that I refer to come into existence in a vacuum as pairs and almost immediately mutually annihilate. Though they do not interact with other matter, they do have an effect which can be measured.

Mathematicians have a different concept of space. In mathematics space is a (usually) three dimensional construct that serves merely to separate and give structure to such things as points, lines, planes, volumes and shapes. Point A is distinguished from point B by the distance between them and also the orientation of a line joining them.

In a simple case every point has (usually) three coordinates which define its position relative to some fixed point or origin and fixed coordinate system. The coordinate system can be any system that locates the point.

For instance, you can describe the point A’s position as “Face along a given axis, rise up until you are level with point A. The distance moved up is one coordinate. Rotate left through an angle until a line parallel to the plane you rose up from passes from you through the point A. The angle you turned through is the second coordinate. The third coordinate is the distance along the line from you to the point.

English: 3D spherical polar coordinates
English: 3D spherical polar coordinates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve described a cylindrical coordinate system, but the coordinate system may be any system that gives three unique (in that system) coordinates for point A. A common system is the Cartesian system of three mutual perpendicular axes. Another is the spherical system, defined by two angles and a distance.

Of course, such systems can be generalised to more dimensions or fewer, depending on the needs of the mathematician. Most people can understand simple two dimensional graphs which are usually drawn using a two dimensional Cartesian coordinate system.

English: Diagram showing relationship between ...
English: Diagram showing relationship between polar and rectangular coordinates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course scientists use mathematical models for various purposes. For instance the scientist may wish to know the probability of one hydrogen atom in the interstellar space meeting another such molecule. Since we have only about one such atom in every cubic metre, the probability is going to be small, but, of course, we can assume as lone a time period as we wish.

Gravity has to be figured in, to be sure, but a long time will be required for such atoms to collide. If the atoms are by chance moving slowly relative to each other, they may stick together and form the basis of a particle of matter. Such a clump might attract other atoms and before long (well actually after literally an astronomical length of time) a star will form.

The trajectories that enabled Voyager spacecra...
The trajectories that enabled Voyager spacecraft to visit the outer planets and achieve velocity to escape our solar system (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It must have happened otherwise we would not be here. We are the result of matter aggregating and then exploding. All the atoms in our bodies that are not hydrogen were made in the centres of stars. The stars have to have exploded to allow these atoms to end up in our bodies.

A long time has passed since the birth of the Universe. In that time matter has crept together hydrogen atom by hydrogen atom until great collections of atoms have compressed in the centre to the point where nuclear reactions have occurred. Hydrogen fused to helium, then to heavier elements all the way up to Uranium.

Ball-and-stick model of the haem a molecule as...
Ball-and-stick model of the haem a molecule as found in the crystal structure of bovine heart cytochrome c oxidase. Histidine residues coordinating the iron atom are coloured pink to distinguish them from haem a. Colour code: Carbon, C: grey-black Hydrogen, H: white Nitrogen, N: blue Oxygen, O: red Iron, Fe: blue-grey Structure by X-ray crystallography from PDB 1OCR, Science (1998) 280, 1723-1729. Image generated in Accelrys DS Visualizer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At which point the stars have exploded throwing all the elements out into the Universe. These elements then crept together again to produce new stars like our sun and gaseous and rocky planets orbiting them. Prior to this there were no rocky planets and no life. We live in the Universe Mark II.

NGC 1531
NGC 1531 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)