On Schrodinger’s Cat

In 1935 the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger came up with one of the best known thought experiments of all time. You will probably be aware of it, but imagine a cat in a sealed box, containing a source of poison that has a 50 per cent chance of being released.

When you open the box, you will know if the cat is alive or dead. But beforehand? The theory is that it is in an indeterminate state, simultaneously dead and alive, and that this state is mirrored at the sub-atomic, quantum level. Objects can be both a wave and a particle, until observed, when their true state is known.

No weirder than other ideas in quantum physics. But this does not apply at the macro level, in the everyday world, because the indeterminacy disappears through interreactions with other particles, a process known as decoherence. (Apologies to genuine physicists, I am doing my best.)

Now studies by a number of academics just published have suggested that this is down to one effect of general relativity, time dilation caused by gravity waves. The closer an object is to another with a significant mass, the slower time runs. In an imperceptible way, almost undetectable. But an object in orbit around the Earth will see time running faster than one at sea level.

This has an effect at the atomic level, and destroys that indeterminate effect manifested at the quantum level.

Clear enough? Here comes the problem. I have read two popular reports on this, and on the implications for Schrodinger’s cat. One is titled “General relativity explains why Schrodinger’s cat is alive.” The other: “Research suggests gravity destroys Schrodinger’s cat.”

How two writers can come to the opposite conclusion from the same research is beyond me.  This is where we came in, though. The cat is still both alive and dead.


On My Old School, And The Bullingdon Club

My old school, which I seem to recall in the 1960s and 1970s was a fairly relaxed affair, about as socially inclusive as a fee-paying institution could be, seems to have reinvented itself into an offshoot of the Bullingdon Club.

Fees are now so high that even the headmaster admits he is mainly educating the offspring of oligarchs from overseas. The place seems to have got the message and has stopped requesting cash from me, but I do still receive the newsletter.

This shows various rich-looking kids, often in dinner jackets, at social functions. ( I have a horrible suspicion that these are owned, not rented for the occasion. What sort of teenager owns a dinner jacket?)

One event was attended by the Master of one of the more obscure City livery companies, apparently an old boy, who peers owlishly out from the page. Who would have been lucky to have got out without being tarred and feathered by the Trots in my day. Elsewhere there is an account of a visit by some old boys to one of London’s two big auction houses, presumably to help them to flog off the family silver to afford the fees for their own offspring.

As is the practice in such publications, when a distinguished alumnus is mentioned, he is listed with the year that he left, as in “Basil Mountford-Fortescue, OB 1960”. I cannot help but notice that not one of those pictured dates from my era, say 1965 to 1975.

Oddly, given we were at one of the best educational institutions in the country at the time, almost none of my generation seem to have achieved any prominence since.

Just call us the lost generation.

On The Labour Party

A nice lady came around the other day from the Labour Party. She was here to talk to Daughter, who is a party member and very active at her university.

Having let the dogs out to run her off the estate, I began to ponder Daughter’s support for Thigmoo, or This Great Movement Of Ours, as Labour Party people used to refer to it.

She has precious little choice. When I was a student, in the 1970s, the choice for the radical leftist was the various Trotskyist splinter groups* or, for the more fuddy-duddy, the Communist Party. Neither option seems to be around today.

The Labour Party existed on campus, but more as an extension of the party nationally. By no means cutting edge.

One has to wonder if the unexpected success among the Labour grass roots of the hard left Jeremy Corbyn, initially dismissed as a joke when he entered the Labour leadership contest but now ahead in some of the polls, has to do with the arrival, largely unnoticed, of hordes of young leftists. The party is startlingly cheap to join, even for students.

This means Labour may be about to select the fourth unelectable leader in my lifetime at the behest of a large number of people who, in another era, would not be party members. Or would be opposed as entryists, the name formerly given Trots and communists who tried to join in order to influence policy. Oh, the irony.

Incidentally, I would be ashamed of Daughter if she were anything else at her age. God forbid some Tory Libertarian, always banging on about Ayn Rand.

(*In my youth there was a splinter group known as the Communist Party of Great Britain. Nothing to do with the CP, or for that matter GB, the only country they approved of was Albania. They had an unusual membership policy.

If a member was accused of deviationism, or incorrect thoughts, the entire membership voted to expel him or her. If they passed, fine. If not, then they were expelled, and a similar vote was taken on any who had supported them. And so on, and so on, in an endlessly recursive process.

As a party, they were very small, but very ideologically pure.)

On Tube Announcements

There is a special corner of Hell reserved for whoever it was first decided to automate those passenger information messages on the Tube and on trains. This meant that at the push of a button we could be reminded not to leave luggage unattended, to report any suspicious objects, CCTV is in use on this train, etc, etc.

This means they can be played over and over with no effort on the part of the staff. And they are. Every one and a half minutes, on average. On a scale of irritation levels, about up with “Your call is important to us…”

Now they have started up again with advice to carry a bottle of water in the hot weather. And not to run for the Tube train. And be careful because the floors may be uneven. “Please stand well back from the platform edge, especially when using your mobile phones.” Doubtless as winter draws in we will be advised to wrap up warm and wear our wellies. This is infantilising the customers, treating them like children who have to be nagged and nannied, who are incapable of looking after themselves.

Travelling on the Tube is bad enough already.

On The BBC

Hardly a day goes by without me shouting at the radio. This is not a particularly rational way of behaving, because whichever speaker you are shouting at can’t hear you. But I do it anyway.

The culprit is generally the Today programme on R4, which acts as a backdrop to the first hour or more of my day. There is something peculiarly infuriating about the queue of middle-class professionals explaining how austerity should not apply to their own profession.

How the only solution to this often manufactured “problem” is that “the government” – never you and me – must devote more “resources” to it. Teachers, lawyers, social workers – all are convinced there is a bottomless pile of cash that can be deployed immediately.

Then there are the wowsers. The ones who want to stop you doing something because it might be bad for you. There was an irritating women the other day who wanted the soft drinks I buy for my kids to be made more expensive, in case someone else’s consume too much of them.

All these arguments go largely without challenge, especially from the less able presenters. (No names.) No one says, but hang on, we’re have four people on already today demanding more cash. Any government has to prioritise, especially today, don’t they?. And there seems to be a hard core of these special pleaders who appear all the time.

Now the Government wants to take on the BBC. I agree it is iniquitous that the license fee, a mandatory tax, should have been used to spend hundreds of millions developing a free news website that provides unfair competition to commercial organisations like my own that have to operate in the free market. I am not sure of the point of Radio 1.  Too much of the BBC’s output is meretricious trash that is no better than that churned out by the other channels.

Yet there is a suggestion that there needs to be a review of the BBC’s impartiality, or lack of it. At its worst, and the idea seems to have been watered down, some bunch of the great and the good may end up deciding over the political approach the state broadcaster should be allowed to take. This is hugely dangerous. State control of the news media has not tended to have been a good idea in the past, to say the least.

You could end up with a BBC whose political stance swung back and forwards with whatever administration was in power. Dangerous stuff, given the temptation to use that control to remain in power.

The BBC is irritating. The same smug liberal mindset does indeed permeate the place – I know plenty of people who work there. There are far too many of them. Still, stick with the devil you now, for fear of much worse.

English As A Tonal Language

I have been reading about the Great Vowel Shift. This is one of the most important developments in the English language. The language of Chaucer would have been incomprehensible to us, the language of Shakespeare not much less so. The vowels shifted so much, over the centuries.

This tells us that English is evolving and developing. The latest development has been upshifting or upspeaking  – that weird 20 something habit of ending the sentence with an up tone. Started in Australia, probably introduced by Neighbours. “And I’m telling him, I’m doing this.” With an upshift on the “this” as if it is a question.

Some have suggested English will become a tonal language, like Chinese. In Chinese, there are four different tonal variants. One tone may mean this, one tone that. Different tones mean different things, with the same consonant.

Dare I say we are already there? In teenspeak. Take the phoneme “Dad”.

Speak it with a downtone, say, “Day-ud”, and it means:

a) Do you have to play your Led Zeppelin albums?

b) Please do not kiss my mother in front of me. It raises issues I do not want to have to deal with.

c) You really do not get the Internet, do you?

Now take the alternative. “Day-id”. With an uptone. This means:

a) Can I have some money?

b) Can I have a lift somewhere?

c) Can I have your permission to do something wildly inappropriate to my age?

An evolving language.

On The Odeon

I seldom swear on this blog. But Boy and I have just had a wasted journey to watch a film at our local Odeon. The film is advertised on their website, but it is not on.This is because, we are told, the times change every week but “the management” do not update the website.

The Odeon is owned by Guy Hands’ Terra Firma. I have spoken to the PR man. Doubt much will change. In this day and age, is it too hard to keep your website up to date? In a consumer-facing industry?

Customer service? How much do you need our money?

Update: a prompt and courteous response from the Odeon, who are investigating. I am offered a free viewing, which I cannot accept. I’ll delete the swearing, then.


On Wimbledon

It is Wimbledon fortnight. And I, having failed to read the calendar and think ahead, have booked time off during the second week of it.

Wimbledon has gone from, in my youth, a pleasant, sedate summer sporting event akin to the Henley Regatta to a massive annual corporate binge cum tourist attraction rivalling Glastonbury for size and general disruption and inconvenience to those who have to live there. Like me. And we don’t even win any more, if you disregard that bad-tempered Scot the other year.

(The term “Wimbledonisation” is even used to describe the process whereby the City, for example, which was once run by homegrown businesses, is now dominated by corporate behemoths from overseas. There are parallels with sport; the old City was a sedate, relaxed affair as well, probably too much so, the City today is anything but, and hugely more profitable. Sic transit.)

In the old days, I could leave school and walk to the grounds by about five pm, to be given tickets to the Centre Court by spectators who were just leaving. My school uniform, as I have written elsewhere, was so Edwardian and garish that it could be spotted by the local yahoos half a mile off.

It did, however, go down well with Americans, who would often ask me to pose for photographs before handing me a ticket. (Oh, innocent days. Don’t try this with passing schoolkids now.)

Somewhere, in yellowing albums in Des Moines, Louisville or Baton Rouge, there is a series of black and white photographs with my ten year old self peering out.

Anyway, one of the irritations of admitting you live in SW19 is being asked why you don’t rent your house out and use the proceeds for a holiday. There are specialist letting agencies who advertise, so it must happen. But I have met just two people who have done so.

The reasons are several. The school term. The fact that my house is several miles from the grounds, and too humble to be of interest to the seemingly interchangeable tennis princelings who dominate the game today.

They want five bedroom houses as close to the ground as possible, ideally with gyms, power showers and the rest. These tend to change hands at £5 million or so. The practice of letting them out may have been prevalent all those years ago, but these days, if you live in a house worth five million, you probably don’t need the hassle of moving out for a fortnight for a few thousand.

On Frank Herbert’s “Dune”

“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” Opening words, Dune.

It is, I am reminded, 50 years since Frank Herbert’s Dune was published. (The actual anniversary falls in October, but still, commemorative pieces are already appearing.)

This is regularly cited as one of the greatest works, if not the greatest, in science fiction. Certainly up there with Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness, William Gibson’s Sprawl series beginning with Neuromancer, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.

SF is often and erroneously seen as a predictive medium. Actually, for every idea that comes to pass, Arthur C Clarke’s geosynchronous satellites, Verne’s submarines, there are ten that do not. Commuting by jetpack, holiday hotels on the Moon. (Why would anyone want to go there?)

What it does, cliche warning for those who know the genre, is reflect the fears and uncertainties of the time when it is written. Le Guin is about changing gender roles, Gibson about a world dominated by huge, omnipotent global corporations where life is increasing lived online (he did coin the term cyberspace). Haldeman served in Vietnam and depicts an endless, pointless conflict that only exists to serve the interests of the military.

Orwell wrote 1984 at a time when an enemy, Germany, had overnight become an ally and an ally, Soviet Russia, an enemy. He worked at the BBC and was responsible for churning out propaganda justifying this. Sorry if you already know this. And all those 1950s works when your neighbours turn out to be aliens, creatures that look like us but are different. Godless commies.

Herbert was a jobbing writer, a product of Cascadia, that imaginary land that lies between northern California and the Yukon. It produces more than its fair share of libertarians, free thinkers, those that do not have much time for the state. The book went round the usual 20 publishers who couldn’t see the point and then became an overnight success, winning the two main awards in the genre.

Whether Dune is predictive is not yet clear, because it is set 24,000 years hence. It depicts a galaxy dominated by feudal houses vying for supremacy. Its hero, Paul Atreides, flees into the desert after his own house is conquered and returns with a victorious army.

The book’s themes are ecology, Eastern mysticism and mind-expanding drugs. In the mid 1960s. On the West Coast. You will take the point.

The film, directed by David Lynch, is much derided but gets much of Herbert’s “future primitive” vision right, even if the Atreides troops look worryingly like the Afrika Korps. It is one of the great Hollywood foul-ups. Produced by a scion of one of the great dynasties there, it is incomprehensible to anyone who has not read the book. The studio, in an attempt to make it less so, produced a version that Lynch disowned.

Paul comes back with an army of desert-dwelling jihadis. Fanatics, who worship him as the Mahdi. (Herbert, to give him his due, expresses Paul’s concern at being made a living god, and at the billions who will die as his jihad sweeps though the galaxy.)

They are suicide troops. One death to kill seven Imperial Sardaukar is a good death. They have no remorse, and no hesitation in killing civilians.

Sounds familiar? Oh, and the emperor they overthrow is called Shaddam.

A predictive medium?

On Calais

We should not be terribly surprised at the scenes of chaos at Calais, as strikers disrupt links to the UK and the authorities stand by, either impotent or uncaring. The French have always had an ambivalent attitude to industrial action, if it is seen as defending French jobs.

Some years ago, and this is a true story, French hauliers were blockading the Channel ports in support of…  or possibly in opposition to…  I can’t actually remember? British lamb exports? Probably.

Anyway, the time came for the hauliers to depart for their traditional two-hour lunch. Who would safeguard their lorries, parked across the road to prevent traffic getting in or out?

No problem. The police stepped in and baby-sat the lorries so no harm could come to them during that prolonged lunch.

What a country.