Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Floyd and OJ: One victim, one perpetrator

The trial for murder of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin will undoubtedly fill the cable news airwaves for the next several weeks. It started over the last weeks with coverage of the minutiae of jury selection. We've seen nothing like this since the OJ Simpson double homicide trial, which speaks of course, to what's at stake. Chauvin, after all, killed George Floyd, and it was witnessed by millions thanks to cellphone cameras. He slowly choked the black man to death under his knee for a reported 8 minutes and 46 seconds, which it now turns out was actually 9 minutes and 29 seconds. So what does the murder of George Floyd, a drug-using nobody made into a tragic celebrity by thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters last summer, and OJ Simpson, a beloved, superstar athlete and wealthy celebrity who disgraced himself, have in common if anything at all? (I mean apart from the over-the-top news media coverage.) OJ and Floyd could not be more opposite in almost every respect, except that they are both African-American men. In OJ's case the focus was on the alleged murderer, in Floyd's case it's on the victim. In OJ's case he murdered his white ex-wife and her friend, and in Floyd's case he was the unfortunate black victim of white police brutality. And yet there is something that undeniably connects OJ and Floyd that relates to what's at stake. Both trials have turned into a highly political cause celebre of the African American community, and in exactly the opposite way. Getting OJ off, irrespective of whether he was innocent or guilty, became the point. They saw the OJ trial as retribution for the brutal beating by the LAPD cops, also captured on film, of motorist Rodney King. The cops in that case got off, so for many African -Americans, getting OJ off was needed to balance the scales of justice. It had nothing to do with what the preponderance of evidence actually showed or didn't show. For Georges Floyd only a conviction (for 1st or 2nd degree murder) will balance the scales, for all the black men and women who were murdered by white police and got away with it. Both trials symbolize the injustice done to the black community by whites in power. So, where this Venn diagram of two trials overlaps is that in both cases it's really the police  and a system of white privilege that's on trial. OJs A-team of high priced defense attorneys managed to cast the LAPD investigators as both inept and racist, especially lead investigator Mark Furman. For George Floyd, the tactic is essentially the same, prosecutors will show that Chauvin went beyond his training, was excessively and unnecessarily forceful, and behaved with wanton disregard for the life of Floyd, with the implication that he was motivated by racism. When you consider the two trials together, there is a larger socio-political message at play. OJ symbolized something exceptional that was extremely important to the African-American community. He was a  black man with the extraordinary personal power and means to be able to game the system, just like whites of privilege have done for hundreds of years at the expense of blacks. OJ's ability to get away with his crime, a sort of lynching in reverse, demonstrated that a black person could turn a corrupt system to his advantage. In a way, if he could get away with murder, it showed that blacks had arrived, in the form of injustice for the perpetrator. Floyd's importance is that he symbolizes exactly the opposite, he is utterly unexceptional, without personal means or power, and in fact suffered from the failings of many black men. Where OJ represented what his community could aspire to, Floyd represents the condition that many black men are struggling to leave behind. While OJ, using his wealth and fame, carried the hopes of the community on his back, Floyd's fate, whether or not his death will be just another racial tragedy, has become a rallying point for the black community. And so, almost 30 years after the OJ trial, the Chauvin trial is another socio-political watershed for the black community. OJ's acquittal showed that a black man had arrived in America, and depending on the outcome of the Chauvin trial, it may or may not demonstrate, that the African-American community as a whole has finally arrived in the form of justice for the victim, which in America is a heavier lift than injustice for the perpetrator.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

If a Tree Falls

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Everybody knows that one, but no one is quite sure where it comes from. Some attribute it to George Berkeley who, in his Treatise Concerning The Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), wrote "But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them." He didn't actually ask the question, but he identified the main issue which is about the nature of knowledge and the role played by perception and observation. It's the question I kept asking myself as I read about quantum mechanics, and the so-called problem of observation, which is at the core of its mysteries. So it wasn't too surprising when I read that Albert Einstein has pondered a version of the question when he asked a colleague, "Do you really believe the moon only exists when you look at it?" What scientists want to understand is the nature of reality, which by definition would still be reality, with or without human observation. But in the seminal experiment of atomic and subatomic science, the double slit experiment, the results changed with the 'intervention' of observation. In other words, observation seemed to be inseparable from the results, and in the 100 or so years since the science of quantum mechanics was established, it's been a 'problem' the scientists have attempted to grapple with, or avoid altogether. Why would they avoid it altogether, or alternately, as in the Copenhagen interpretation, come up with an explanation that is really more of a description and not an explanation at all? Because the 'problem of observation' takes scientists uncomfortably into the realm of philosophy.

The scientific answer to the question of a falling tree would start with the understanding that everything is made of atoms. A tree falling in the forest would disturb the atoms of the tree as well as the surrounding atmosphere and make them move faster, producing a number of effects that human being's would perceive as sound (as well as other sensations such as heat, wind, smell etc.) Sound is indistinguishable from hearing, so the only way to confirm if something makes a sound is for a human being to be present. But a falling tree, a scientist would claim, certainly creates effects whether they are observed or not. Radio waves exist, but we do not hear them unless we have a certain kind of device to capture and then process them. It would follow that imperfect measuring equipment would result in an unreliable or imperfect result. For someone who is deaf, a falling tree makes no sound, for example. Our eyes are built to receive only a certain range of colours, but we have developed measuring equipment and techniques to reveal unseen colours, like ultraviolet, that we now know exist. So the more fundamental question seems to be, how can we know what we don't know. And the answer to that is by inference, and as the famed American physicist Richard Feynman used to love talking about, increasingly the imagination, in order to arrive at an hypothesis.

But back to falling trees, and the problem of observation being a factor in determining a result. Because observation on the tiniest scale of atomic and subatomic particles is so difficult, one has to ask if developing the observational tools and techniques to make accurate observations is even realistically possible. Einstein made inferences about space/time and gravity that it took almost 100 years to confirm. For one example, we have highly sensitive clocks that can actually measure the effect of mass on the passage of time at a small scale, confirming Einstein's theory of relativity. But even now the smallest scale we can measure is a distance of about 30 centimeters. Pretty small, but nowhere near the atomic level. So when quantum physicists say that an electron is a wave until it is observed and upon observation the wave function 'collapses' and the electron becomes a particle (the Copenhagen interpretation), maybe it's more like trees falling in forests than a statement about the fundamental nature of reality. Maybe it's about perception of reality and not reality itself. Observation does not change or determine the 'actual' result, only what we perceive as the result.

Friday, March 19, 2021

The Sum of The Parts

Let's say you had never seen a car before. What if I were to describe to you how to build one? Say I gave you a manual and all the parts, and provided complete instructions on how to assemble them. From only this much information would you be able to tell me what the car did? What its purpose was? Would you be able to figure out that it needed fuel to operate?

I can imagine that if I did the same thing with a more simple tool, say a hammer, you could figure out its purpose, or at least a purpose (or many purposes). But imagine the same scenario with a radio, or a cellphone, or a desktop computer. I ask the question because I'm thinking about how technology has changed the way we relate to the world around us. And what it means to be greater than the sum of the parts. This is the core of the problem associated with complexity. We may understand the components, and be able to describe them, and even the way they interact, but the sum of those interactions, the resulting effect, the 'whole', is far more difficult to grasp, bordering on mysterious. 

Why do I say mysterious? Think of an orchestra, all the components that make up an orchestra, from the players to their instruments. Now, does dissecting and describing the components of an orchestra, in as much detail as you want, tell us anything at all about the music the orchestra produces? Not at all. And yet without the music the orchestra is not an orchestra. And without the orchestra, the music is just notations on a page. The two are inextricably, definitionally linked. So maybe, the process of deconstruction actually misses the main point entirely. It might tell us how something works, the mechanics, without telling us anything truly essential about what it is

Another example, perhaps the most important and talked about one, is the brain. We can describe the brain in terms of its cellular components, its neural networks, its biological structure, its chemical composition etc. And none of that tells us anything essential about the brain, the nature of the mind, what a thought is, what consciousness is, how memories work, how emotions work etc.

People who study quantum mechanics are confronted by the seemingly unbridgeable gap between two distinct worlds, the one we experience every day and the subatomic one that forms the constituent parts of our world but appears to behave in ways that defy the familiar laws of nature. The two worlds exist at the point where we are trying to observe the unobservable (we're always trying to come up with new scientific ways to make observations), and theories fill the descriptive gap. It seems to ultimately come down to the limits of what is knowable and the nature of knowledge itself and its relationship to reality, which is called in philosophy epistemology. Another way of thinking about reality is the sum of the parts. 

Do the letters on the page and the sounds they make when we read them aloud tell us anything about the meaning of the words? What is the relationship between what we can describe and what something actually is? Is there any relationship at all, or is it merely an approximation? A best guess? A probability? Can we even talk about understanding the nature of reality? The sum of the parts.  

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Paradoxes of 'Now'

Something I heard the physicist Sean Carroll say a few weeks ago has stuck with me. In describing the properties of time he made a distinction with space. He said that in both space and time we can identify a location. In space it might be a longitude and latitude, or more familiarly a building address on a certain street. In time it may be a certain hour of the day - say to make an appointment. But the difference between space and time is that you can choose to travel between two points in space, from point A to point B, but you can not choose do the same in time, between past, present, and future. 

The past and present are similarly inaccessible. What can we say about the present, the 'Now'? Some people say only 'Now' exists, we exist in the 'eternal present'. The Greek philosopher Zeno presented a paradox of the eternal present, as a series of instants. In this case when the archer shoots his arrow, the time it takes for the arrow to leave the bow and fly through the air to its target, can be understood in its most basic form as a series of individual points in time, let's imagine frames of a film. Therefore, taken to its logical extreme, seeing time as individual moments would ultimately lead us to conclude that the arrow never 'actually' leaves the bow.  

Others have said that time is exactly the opposite, that in reality the present does not exist at all. The moment we think of 'Now' it has already become the past. This idea of time may be described as a flowing river in which you are standing. You point down at your feet and say this is the river, it is this water in which I am standing, by which time that water has already flown past. In this case the moment vanishes instantaneously to become the past. 

Maybe, the greatest paradox of time is that it seems to be both an eternal 'Now' (Zeno's arrow) and not 'Now' (a river).  

Moving from the philosophical to the more scientific, for the last 150 years or so physicists have regarded time as a function of 'entropy', which is to say, as the change in physical systems from order to complexity, or rather order to decay (called the Second Law of Thermodynamics). But we don't have to think of rotting fruit when we think of decay. Take for example a force applied to a pendulum. It swings back and forth as the force of gravity and resistance due to friction reduces its movement until it stops. Physicists would describe that as ordered energy, the initial force that got the pendulum swinging, transferred into complex energy, atoms bouncing around in heat and friction and sound etc. as the pendulum swings. The decay of the swinging is entropy and therefore indication of the passage of time, the past is marked by the degradation of the pendulum's motion until the present when it eventually stops.

Now imagine the same pendulum in a vacuum (no friction) and in space (no gravity). The pendulum will swing at the same rate forever. No decay in movement. In essence, the distinction between past and future as measured by the pendulum, would, for all intents and purposes, vanish.

We learned from Einstein that things don't happen at the same time in the universe, they travel over great distances. There is no simultaneity, or in other words, there are many 'Nows' in the universe. For example, if the sun were to extinguish we would not know it for 8 minutes, the time it takes for sunlight to reach the earth. In the same vein, Einstein showed us that space and time were interrelated, and that gravity was not a force in the classical sense, but rather a function of the way mass warps the fabric of space-time. The notion that time is affected (slowed down or sped up) in relation to gravity (the warping of space-time) has been scientifically shown with extremely sensitive clocks. For example, clocks on satellites that manage the global GPS system are adjusted to move slower than clocks on Earth to compensate for their distance (about 20,000 kms) from the planet's surface - to be precise by about 7 millionths of a second per day. I know 7 millionths of a second per day doesn't seem like much, but it has to be understood in terms of how much that increases in cosmological masses and distances.

Most of my recent reading has been about the atomic and subatomic realm, which is equally vast on a small scale as the universe is large. Consider for example that there are as many atoms in a single 8-ounce glass of water as there are 8-ounce glasses of water in all the oceans of the world. So I ask myself if time in the cosmological sense is so apparently 'malleable', why would it be any different in the atomic and subatomic sense? Time is defined in terms of a sequence of events. In the subatomic realm, as shown in the scientific field of quantum mechanics, events do not appear to occur sequentially. There is a phenomenon in which particles can be at two places or in two states at the same time, called 'superposition'. Another in which two independent particles seem to mysteriously coordinate at a distance (Einstein called it 'spooky action') called 'entanglement'. It's why people describe the subatomic realm as weird. It's questionable whether time exists at all in the subatomic realm, and some physicists (see: Carlo Rovelli) have dispensed with it altogether in their calculations. 

We are undeniably creatures bound by time, inextricably subject to the law of entropy, which defines our experience of 'Now'. But within this realm of 'Now' there is a vast subatomic world not governed by the rules of 'sequentiality', in essence without 'Nows', that is itself contained within a vast cosmos of many 'Nows'. And maybe that's why we experience time as a paradox, both an arrow and a river, Now and Not Now.

The Cost of Not Noticing

Lately I've been reading and thinking a lot about science. I was never any good at science in school. Chemistry class was a total disaster and my math skills weren't much better. I managed to get through physics class okay, and actually enjoyed dissecting the frog in biology class. It seems that I had no aptitude for the subjects that required an ability for purely abstract thinking, as opposed to the ones in which I could relate to something physical. It's a regret that I decided early on, with the encouragement of my high school teachers, that I couldn't 'do' science, because to this day I enjoy learning about how the universe works, what it's made of, and in fact what we're made of. Fortunately, there are a ton of terrific books and online information that make even the most complicated science accessible to regular people of average intelligence like me.

What science teaches, to my mind, is that life is always more intriguing than we thought. I love the way scientists are trained to think. Their foremost skill (and it's not algebra) is that they notice things that most of us don't, from (very) small things to (very) big things, and they pause to inquire about what they notice. I think we live in an age of not noticing, and not inquiring. And this is partly because modern life overwhelms us, not in terms of so much to do (work/life balance etc.) - we probably have more leisure time than any people in history - but in terms of being surrounded by technology. We take more for granted than ever before, and with every advance in technology we take even more for granted. For example, we all carry in our pockets devices that harvest and manipulate the mysteries of subatomic energy. We never think about what makes these devices work, even as we rely on them every minute of every day. We have become so accustomed to the magic brought to us by advanced science for daily living that we hardly notice it anymore. In a way, you might say that we've gotten used to not noticing because if we noticed and stopped to think about all the miracles we live with every day, it'd be hard to just get on with the routines of an ordinary day, because actually, no day is 'ordinary'. 

There's a cost to accepting so much about 'ordinary' life that we don't understand, even as we become increasingly reliant on it. For one, I think it makes us more susceptible to lies. All kinds of lies: Little ones and big ones, white ones, untruths, exaggerations, stretches, misinformation, misdirection, and the more recent innovations - truthful hyperbole (a la trump), and alternate facts (a la Kellyanne Conway). So my sudden new interest in science? It's not nostalgia for high school chemistry class, that's for sure. I think it's because I want to connect more deeply with genuine, authentic living. I'm looking for solid ground to stand on, some truth, as an antidote to the era of obfuscation, misinformation and lies. If science is about anything it's truth-seeking, independent of belief, politics etc. These days it feels like we are surrounded by liars and subsumed in electronically conveyed lies 24/7. It's cynicism-inducing on an unprecedented scale. 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Rules of the Game

Following politics in the US as much as I do sometimes feels like an exercise is masochism. It's like watching a car wreck every day; disturbing but hard to look away. It's always been a messy business, but now it's become so dysfunctional that even the most popular legislation in a generation, the $1.9 trillion Covid rescue package, popular with Democrats and Republicans alike across the country according to polling, is having trouble in the Senate. The only reasonable explanation is that the government has ceased to represent the interests of voters, particularly in the Senate. We know that the Senate is not a democratic body. The state of California has a population of almost 40 million and is represented by two senators. Two senators also represent the state of Wyoming which has a population of 582,000. The Senate is a relic of another time. For example, in 1787 Virginia had roughly ten times the population of Rhode Island, whereas today California has roughly 70 times the population of Wyoming. But it's about more than the numbers. It's about how numbers translate into power and control, which for the Republicans, means that since they are defacto the party of the minority, they no longer see the need to campaign on policy, legislation, or any notion of good governance. Instead, they can be the party of special interest, and focus their efforts on tactical wins by anti-democratic means, like suppressing the vote, and promoting mistrust in elections. Ultimately, what this does over time is undermine the trust that the citizens have in their elected officials and its supporting institutions in general. This is not new. The US has been on a trajectory of political implosion for the last 30 years or so. I thought it might come to a head with the insurrection of January 6th. I thought (hoped) that in subsequent weeks Americans would come to their collectives senses about what happened. I was wrong. The Republican party has since doubled down as an anti-democratic cult of personality. There is only one conclusion one can come to: The rules of the game have changed about the way US politics is played, and the future of American constitutional democracy hangs in the balance.

It sounds like a big deal, I know. But here's a sample of how it plays out on a small scale. I had the pleasure of talking to a cousin the other day, an ardent Fox-watching trump supporter. While trump was in power I avoided any conversation with him about politics when we'd see each other infrequently as we did. But now that the Biden era has begun I let my guard down. Our conversation started in agreement. He griped to me about how 'screwed up' things were in America these days and how lucky we are to live in a 'sane' country like Canada. No argument there. The US is controlled by fascists, he said. Yes, I replied, there's great danger to American democracy right now I said, since the Republicans have wholly embraced the lie that the election was stolen and they refuse to denounce political violence, instead embracing and activating thousands upon thousands of white supremacist domestic terrorists like the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th. 'What are you talking about' he says indignantly. 'It's the Democrats who threaten democracy, and the Black Lives Matter people who are the violent fascists because they want to cancel everything people think and say. Can you believe that they want to 'ban' Dr. Seuss now!' he says. Then he goes on to mention, that by the way, plenty of blacks are racist too, that white privilege doesn't really exist, and that blacks only represent about 13% of the population. I moved the conversation in a more congenial and non-political direction as quickly as I could.  

For the record, no one is 'banning' Dr. Seuss. That's the way it's being spun in right wing media, but what my cousin was talking about is that the Dr. Seuss Foundation responsible for publishing the books has decided to cease printing certain titles because they contain imagery that can be seen as racially insensitive or offensive. Frankly, I was disappointed by the decision because I loved reading those books to my kids and I think the decision is extreme and unwarranted. But, they own the books, and publishing them is entirely their decision, a commercial decision, so in my mind there's really not much to discuss. Anyone who chooses to make political hay out of an issue like this is obviously trying to distract from the really important issues at hand, like voter rights legislation, or legislation that will provide relief for millions of suffering people during the pandemic. Talking about Dr. Seuss is a form of political propaganda, mind-control.  

But my interaction with my cousin is illustrative of the state of American political discourse. One side wants to govern, while the other side wants to stop them from governing and would rather change the subject in a way that would fire up their political base with manufactured grievances. It's an appeal to the worst most racist fears of their supporters, the fear of threats by 'the other' (Muslims, Blacks, Socialists... fill in the blank). That's their game. But it's interesting to remember that at the outset of our conversation my cousin and I were both on exactly the same page, we were both concerned that democracy was being threatened by anti-democratic forces. Only in his view the insurrectionists who wanted to 'hang Mike Pence' and interrupt the peaceful transfer of power after an election to re-install trump as president, were fighting to protect democracy. My cousin just couldn't see how illogical and contradictory his position was. Once you've bought the election fraud lie hook, line and sinker, as he has, then using violence to upend the democratic transfer of power to 'save democracy' becomes justifiable. 

A lot of people in the media are talking about how more than 70 percent of Republicans don't believe that Biden is the fairly elected president. I'm not surprised. If you'd asked Democrats in 2017 whether they thought trump was the fairly elected POTUS I'm sure you would have gotten a similar number or maybe even higher. Of course in 2016 the sense in Democrats that the election had not been fair was because of Russian interference, which had credence, and led to the Mueller investigation. While in 2021 the Republican belief is fueled by lies about mail-in ballot fraud which has been disproved in court. But the point is that despite their feeling the Democrats stomached, and peacefully opposed trump for four years using democratic means, while Republicans seem to be prepared to take their efforts to oppose and delegitimize the Biden presidency beyond democratic means. That's a huge difference. The rules of the game have changed.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Superman complex

What makes Americans so susceptible to believing in things that are utterly divorced from reality? I mean bonkers stuff, like Elvis is still alive, or like the Clintons lead an international pedophile ring headquartered at a pizzeria, or that donald trump will save the day like the second coming. I've been asking myself this question for a while. And thinking about it from a few different angles. To start, are Americans any different than other countries where people believe outlandish things? I mean, Scandinavians and Europeans in general seem much more phlegmatic and grounded by comparison. Canadians too, and we share the same continent as Americans, so it can't be a question of geography or climate. Could it be something in the history and cultural DNA of America? Has the internet accelerated and amplified the tendency to believe in the bizarre? That seems obvious, but everyone the world over is subjected to the crazy stuff that proliferates on the internet. Americans seem far more likely than others to wholeheartedly embrace it. America seems to be made of the most fertile cultural and political soil for the growth and spread of meshugas. Often it's religious. I'm thinking in part of Mormonism. I have nothing against Mormons. I've known a few personally and they are very nice salt-of-the-earth people with admirable moral qualities. It's almost hard to believe that they believe what they believe in terms of the origin story of their religion. True, their origin story is not much different on the scale of bizarre than Judaism, Christianity or Islam, if taken literally, which most adherents do. But what separates Mormonism is that it's modern (19th century) and uniquely American. After the Enlightenment in the mid 17th century it was generally thought that the western world was done with creating new religions - except of course for the most fringe personality cults (often apocalyptic) like the Moonies, the Raelians, the Branch Davidians, The People's Temple etc. But shortly after its founding, America needed its own homegrown religion to justify its sense of being a new divinely chosen 'promised land'. Something that dovetails nicely with the American ethos of 'the land of the free', a place where there is the opportunity for anyone to rise to their potential, to be whoever they want to be, and believe whatever they want to believe (as long as you weren't an African slave in which case you were traded property.) So believing, as Mormons do, that the angel Moroni visited Joseph Smith and revealed to him the golden plates buried near his home in upstate New York on which a new book of the bible is written, isn't such a stretch. It has turned out over the centuries that Americans have a particular gift for being zealous about their religion. One recent poll estimates that approximately 25% of Americans define themselves as 'evangelical' and it may go as high as 35% (more than 100 million citizens). There are reportedly 1500 megachurches in the US (defined as more than 2000 in weekly Sunday service attendance), and 50 of those churches have attendance greater than 10,000. But that's not nearly the whole story, many more million of the faithful follow and donate to televangelists, a uniquely American innovation that marries religion, charismatic salesmanship and modern media. It's not hard to see a correlation between belief in religion and belief in outlandish conspiracy theory, especially ones that carry a religious subtext. But it has to be more than just evangelical Americans. Latin Americans are far more religious than Americans. Are they as susceptible to loony-tunes conspiracy theories? Probably not, because their religious belief is locked into Church doctrine and organization. American religious belief is more free market and free form, an expression of personal rights and independence. And to my mind this is the one ingredient that differentiates Americans from other places, religion-wise. It's a type of puritan righteousness and zealotry combined with a uniquely American sense of iconoclasm and personal freedom. It has more in common with Hollywood and superhero comics than it does with the Judeo-Christian tradition. What I mean is that Jesus saved humanity because he was a gentle soul who had the humility required to die for our sins. The American version of saviour is more like Superman, who comes from another galaxy but is raised on a mid-western American farm, possesses superhuman strength to pound evildoers into submission, and operates with a hidden identity. And in particular it's the hidden identity part that speaks to the cultural ethos at the heart of America, which is a land of shedding the old meek, failing and persecuted identity and becoming stronger and faster, new and improved. If you can believe in Superman as your saviour protecting the planet from the likes of Lex Luther, why not donald trump saving you from a Hillary Clinton-led baby-blood drinking international pedophile ring?