Relativity and regrets

Einstein’s solution to nostalgia

One of the sure signs of success for a newspaper columnist is for an idea they have expressed or a phrase they have coined to survive long after the column has become a fish and chip wrapper. Many years ago, somewhere between twenty and thirty I think, I read an opinion column by Ian Warden, a humorous writer for the Canberra Times, in which he coined the phrase ‘daguerrophobia’. Mr Warden used this phrase to describe the pang of regret he felt when he looked at photos of his young children that had been snapped six months or more earlier, and saw that the children were already noticeably different and more grown-up than they were in the photo, and that they would never be that sweet young age again. If I remember correctly, the column went on to say that he was developing an aversion to looking at photos (‘daguerrotypes’) of his children because he wanted to avoid these pangs.
A quick Google search on daguerrophobia reveals that this coined term never caught on – not a single genuine hit. But it certainly had an effect on me. Over the intervening decades, especially after the birth of my children, this concept of regret for times and events that are gone and will never be again, has come back to me repeatedly. I didn’t suffer from it in the near-paralysing way that Mr Warden described, but it certainly made me think, and caused the odd regret. As far as actions went, it had the opposite effect from that which it had on Mr Warden. I think it was a major motivation in my buying good cameras and taking plenty of photos and videos of my children, as well as making regular entries in an exercise book about their development stages, characteristics and cute (or not so cute) sayings and actions.

But let’s think about the basis of this regret of times lost (this may or may not have some similarity to Marcel Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’. I don’t know as I haven’t read it). What are we regretting? Think of the joy a parent has when their children are young, sweet, simple and devoted to their parents. After a time, most or all of these characteristics will be replaced by those of a more mature person – simplicity by sophistication, devotion by independence (but hopefully not without affection). But those changes don’t alter the fact that the child did once have those characteristics, and that the parent did obtain happiness from them. That fact is a fact forever, or at least for as long as the parent remembers it, perhaps longer if they write about it.

But I think we can actually take this reality of good times past a step further, with the help of those great theoretical physicists Hermann Minkowski and Albert Einstein. Einstein published what is now known as the ‘Special theory of relativity’ in 1905. The key observations of this theory were that time slows down, lengths are shortened and mass increases for an object in rapid motion, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light and matter can be converted to energy (E=mc2). In 1908, Minkowski observed that Einstein’s theory could be best understood by regarding time and space as part of a unified four-dimensional continuum called ‘spacetime’, rather than as separate concepts. Einstein adopted this idea and it became central to his development of the ‘General theory of relativity’, published in 1915, which explained how the effects of gravity we observe arise from the curvature of spacetime caused by massive objects like the sun or the earth. Black holes are amongst the more exotic and exciting concepts to arise from this theory.

Minkowski’s view of the world as spacetime is very useful for practical calculations in astronomy, rocket science and particle physics, but I think it also has philosophical connotations, for those that are interested in such things. Under Minkowski’s view, our life is a set of events in the four-dimensional spacetime continuum, with no special distinction attached to events that are in the past rather than the present, or indeed in the future. We can view time just like any of the three space dimensions, so that an event in the past is just ‘over there’ on the continuum, separated from our current spacetime position (‘Now’) only by a certain distance in time. Think of it as if you were standing back from your life, admiring it from the outside, taking in the full panorama of events, thoughts and feelings from all the combinations of places and times that make it up. Strictly, you need to enter a five-dimensional world to properly view this curved, four dimensional continuum, just as you need to live in three dimensions in order to read a two-dimensional map. But a little imagination can make up for our lamentable human shortcomings in the dimensions department.

So when you look back on an event, be it a beautiful sunny Sunday morning or your daughter taking her first tottering steps, you don’t have to use the past tense, as in ‘I had a lovely day’ or ‘my daughter was very sweet’. You can use the present tense with equal validity if you think in four dimensions – ‘back then’ becomes ‘over there’. ‘I am having a lovely day on 10th September 1973 – see over there, just down and a bit to the left?’ ‘My daughter’s first steps fill me with joy, see up there, it’s so heart-warming isn’t it?’

This may seem contrived, but it’s not. It takes a bit of practice to think in four dimensions, but you get used to it after a while, and then you realise it’s just as genuine as thinking in three, perhaps more so. The traditional way of looking at time and space is at least as contrived. What, after all, is so special about the present? As soon as you think about it, it’s in the past! There is in popular culture at present a strong understanding of the need to ‘live in the moment’. I understand this to mean it’s wise to extract all the happiness you can from the present moment, rather than placing all your hopes on happiness that you expect to come some time in the future. Good advice, absolutely, but this affirms rather than contradicts the benefit of a four-dimensional view. By making the most of every moment, you are increasing the quality of the continuum that makes up your life path. You will have more happy events to look across at (not just look back on), rather than just one happy event towards the end of the continuum, which after all may not necessarily eventuate.

It’s a bit of a cliché to talk about ‘life’s rich tapestry’. But perhaps it’s also a more user-friendly way of describing the multi-dimensional spacetime continuum that was and is your life. Every bright spot in your life is another ornament on the tapestry, that you can sit back, admire and enjoy whenever you like.

It is regrettably quite common for women at any age over thirty to feel distressed about the fact that their beauty ‘now’ is less than it was ‘earlier’, and that it will be still less ‘later’. Men suffer less from this, but they may still be upset by declining athletic prowess or the fact that they are no longer besieged by offers from eligible women as they were in their early twenties (I speak only from personal experience here, I can’t comment on what others feel). Such distress is illogical and unnecessary. A woman will always have the beauty of her twenty year old self at the part of the continuum/tapestry that holds her twenty-year old self. Why should a woman bemoan at age forty the fact that she will be wrinkly at age seventy any more than she bemoaned it at age sixteen? It is a certainty at both ages. Most women will have beauty at some part of their lives, phasing to less beauty at other parts. The fact that ‘now’ is in one of those parts or the other is unimportant. I cannot run very fast at this point in my tapestry, but that’s all right, because I can run very fast in that part over there where I am twenty-four years old, and win trophies, applause and satisfaction for my efforts.

There is one thing that does distinguish the past from the present or the future though, and that is that we can do nothing to change it. Daguerrophobia may be very real and potent if, when we look at those toddler photos, we are reminded that we hardly spent any time with our young children, that they hardly knew us, and this causes us sorrow. If so then from our perspective it may have been a poor decision to spend so much time away from our children (Not necessarily though. We may have been frequently absent because, as a single parent on a low wage, we had to work long hours to keep the children housed, fed, healthy and educated.  If so, our sorrow at having missed parts of our children’s upbringing will be balanced by the satisfaction in thinking that we have done our best to give them a good start in life). Where we have made poor decisions in the past, we cannot undo them, although we may be able to take measures now to mitigate the effects. Such poor decisions will cause flaws in the tapestry, areas that cause no joy, perhaps even pain, to behold. Everybody has plenty of flaws in their tapestry. Perhaps the tapestry would be rather dull without them. But it’s probably a good guiding principle to do what we can to avoid major flaws. In many cases that involves thinking about how you will feel later about decisions you make now. You could try to avoid needing to say in future ‘I wish I had ……’, where the ellipsis could stand for ‘spent more time with my children’, ‘not given up playing the piano’, ‘been kinder to that unpopular kid in our class’, etc.

Is this way of looking at life selfish? Does it make it all about perfecting your own tapestry, so you can enjoy admiring it, without regard to anyone else? I think the answer to this is no because, unless you are a hermit, your tapestry is inextricably interwoven with those of all the other people with whom you come into contact, or who you otherwise influence. When you step back to look at your tapestry, you are looking at theirs as well, and it will be hard to take any pleasure from the prospect if you don’t see bright spots on the other tapestries that you helped create.

I have been a little loose in describing this as Einstein’s solution to nostalgia, when it was actually Minkowski that thought of it. I have taken artistic licence to call it Einstein’s because everybody has heard of him, whereas generally only physics and maths nerds like me will have heard of Minkowski. And it was after all Einstein that took Minkowski’s ideas and made them famous in the creation of his enormously influential, complex and famous General Theory of Relativity. But that Hermann Minkowski sounds like a pretty wise and cool chap, so let’s have three cheers for him!

Andrew Kirk
July 2010

The dilemma of once-worn clothes

It’s time for the ABC to stop dodging the big issues. I’m as mad as an upside-down turtle about the censorship the MSM (that’s Mainstream Media for those of you that aren’t fully hip to the Drum lexicon) applies to one of the greatest moral challenges of our time. No, not that one, the other one – the dilemma of what to do with once-worn clothes. Surely a Nobel Prize awaits the person that can solve this problem.
Now I’m not talking about undies here. Or socks. Contrary to popular belief, we of the masculine persuasion do have some rudimentary standards of hygiene. Well, there is the age old trick of resting the socks for a day or two and then wearing them inside out but, to keep things simple, let’s just rule that one out of bounds for now. Worn undies and socks go straight into the wash.
But, I’m talking about t-shirts, I’m talking about trousers. You know what I’m talking about! In winter, I’m talking about jumpers and fleecies. You’ve worn it once, ….or twice. You take it off and get ready to toddle off to bed. The garment doesn’t smell and there is no discernible evidence of mud, sweat, ink, tomato sauce or less salubrious additives. Now what do you do with the darned thing? Does it go back into the cupboard with the clean clothes, or does it go into the washing basket? In the interests of sounding knowledgeable and analytical, let’s call these the Cupboard Option and the Wash Option [memo to self. In the unlikely event of lucrative offer for syndication into the US, change the former to Closet Option].
The Cupboard Option is great: neat, tidy, and helps justify the money you outlaid and the time you spent trying to assemble that super-capacious, mega-airy, architect-designed Snonk cupboardatory system from Ikea.
Living life the Cupboard Way is just one long festival, an obsessive compulsive’s dream, until one day, maybe a few months later, you take something out of the cupboard and realise it has gone green and furry – and not in a good way. You could just wrinkle up your nose and throw it in the wash, perhaps with a prefatory detour via a bowl of bleached water. But then your heart sinks as you realise – what about the clothes it was nestled up against inside the Snonk? Has the new life form you have unwittingly created spread and maybe infected the whole drawer, maybe even the whole cupboard? What should you do? Wash the whole drawer? Wash all of your clothes? Burn all of your clothes? Burn the Snonk?
Where you went wrong of course was that you lost track of how many times the garment had been worn. By camouflaging itself cunningly amongst a bunch of clean, unworn clothes, the offending sartorial component had cunningly concealed the fact that it had been worn every other day for four months, and by now had accumulated enough microscopic life forms and general grunge to destroy the entire ALP backroom powerbroker population of New South Wales.
OK then, maybe the Wash Option is the best way to go. You know where you are with the Wash Option. There is only one rule: when you take it off, it goes in the wash. Everything you take out of the cupboard to wear will be guaranteed washed, clean and brimming with freshness.
This goes pretty swimmingly for a while. You have to buy a bigger laundry basket, but that’s a small price to pay for the twin miracles of Order and Hygiene. Then, a little later, you get called into the boss’s office at work. She wants to know why you’ve been an average of two hours late for work every day of the last fortnight – Oh and also why are you sitting in her office wearing a Kevin 07 t-shirt and a pair of (fresh, newly-washed) acid-wash jeans, very de rigeur circa 1989. As your mind races for excuses, you toy with the idea of telling her the truth – that your daily washing obligations have increased so much that you have been spending most of your waking hours loading and unloading the washing machine, hanging out the clothes, bringing them in, folding them (we’ll assume thre’s no ironing, because you’re a bloke, after all), and even so you still only manage to have a couple of pieces of dry, clean, wearable clothes available at any given time…. – but then you decide it would be less embarrassing to just resign. You’re also worried about the threatening letters from the water and electricity companies and the hand-written note from Al Gore expressing his disappointment that your personal greenhouse footprint now exceeds that of Texas.
Tragic scenarios like those above have moved some of our foremost public intellectuals to propose alternative solutions to the great once-worn dilemma.
There’s the ‘Leave It Out’ solution. Here you leave any garment that has been worn but doesn’t yet need a wash, lying on the nearest available horizontal surface, as a daily reminder of its availability. This is great if you wear the same sort of clothes every day, but otherwise you will soon get to the point of being unable to find your bed, let alone the dinner table, under all the laid-out clothes.
There’s the Cache solution, in which you have a big basket just for once-worn clothes. Neater than Leave It Out, but you soon forget what’s in there and the basket just becomes a big, overflowing eyesore, with all the best bits buried at the bottom.
The Bucketing Option (aka the Extended Cache Option). Here you use not just one but a series of buckets or baskets, numbered from one to say three (or thirteen, depending on your hygiene standards), and place each piece of clothing in the bucket numbered according to the number of times it has been worn since the last wash. The only problem with this option is that it is silly. Nobody has that much space.
There’s the Kerry Packer option. Thus named not because the aforenamed individual invented it but because this is the most popular consensus view of focus groups convened to discuss what Australian swinging voters believe mega rich people do about their washing (I’ve heard the ALP party machine conducts these to keep in practice when they don’t have a Prime Minister to dispose of). Under this one, you only ever wear new clothes. When you take them off, one of your minions spirits them away to be given to those less fortunate than yourself (you know: stockbrokers, shock jocks, managing directors of public broadcasting organisations) and another minion fetches replacements from the warehouse in the East Wing of your garden.
Regrettably, this option is currently unavailable to many, including myself, for reasons that will have to be the subject of another essay.
Lastly, there’s the Diogenes option. Under this, you give away all your clothes except one set. On wash day you borrow a towel and hope it won’t rain. Simple but effective, and available to anybody with sufficient self-belief and Sternness of Resolve.  The only trouble with this option is that it’s unpleasant, and I don’t know of anyone since Diogenes who adopted it voluntarily. For some it is forced upon them by circumstances, and there’s nothing at all funny about that.
None of these options are satisfactory. As nobody else seems willing to step forward and solve this problem, I will have a go myself, as a public service. My proposal is called the Velcro Option, and it has two parts:
Firstly, all new clothes sold in Australia would be required to have a label indicating their inter-wash wearing capacity (IWWC). The label would bear words along the lines of ‘This garment may be worn up to n times between washes by a standard adult (under laboratory conditions) without their being regarded as a schmutz.’ The value of n would be determined based on rigorous testing by a new Commonwealth Government department staffed by chemists, apparel technologists and sniffer dogs.
Each label would have a section with n rectangular orange cotton strips attached to it by velcro, bearing the numbers from 1 to n, where n is the IWWC of the garment. The instruction CD accompanying the garment would explain that, after each wear, the user should remove the highest numbered velcro strip from the label and place in a drawer (are you still with me?). When there are no strips left, the garment will be due for a wash. After the wash, the velcro strips would be re-affixed and the cycle begins again.
With this system in place, you can put your worn clothes back in the cupboard, secure in the knowledge that they won’t end up exceeding their IWWC, and won’t that be a splendid feeling!
I know what you’re thinking:
– what a great idea!
– why hasn’t anybody thought of this before?
– calloo, callay, all my problems are solved, my life will be an absolute breeze from here on in!
– will the world’s Velcro-producing nations be able to keep up with demand?
– hang on a sec, I bet this is patented and he’s planning to make a fortune by charging like a wounded Prime Minister for its use.
Well I am delighted to inform you that that is the best news of all: I shall not patent this idea. Like the human genome, this discovery is too important to the future of mankind to lock it up with patents. It’s yours, for all of you, to keep. Use it well.
Now I wonder whether I can get one more wear out of this grey cardigan.
Andrew Kirk
July 2010

Why preference the Coalition after a Green vote (Australian Election 2010)

Marieke Hardy says she is going to vote Green and give her preference to Labor over Liberal ( I also have used this strategy for as many elections as I can remember. The first preference goes to the Greens because it:

  • sends a strong message to both parties that environmental issues are important to the electorate
  • increases the public political funding the Greens will receive in the next election
  • in the Senate, increases the number of seats they can be expected to win
  • maybe one day (but not yet) may even lead to a Green member in the House of Representatives.

To date I have preferenced Labor above Liberal because its environmental policy, while usually inadequate, has been somewhat better than that of the Liberals.
But now, after so many years of voting this way, I am persuaded it’s necessary to change. Even though I believe a Labor government may be better for the environment than a Liberal government over the next three years, I believe a better result will be achieved for the environment in the long term if I and others like me vote Green but give their preferences to the Coalition. Why? Primarily because Labor has been taking the environmental vote for granted for a long time and is now starting to do so to an increasing extent. Its policies have become startlingly less green since the beginning of 2010 and it seems quite clear that Labor feels it has the environmental vote sewn up and hence is free to court the ‘middle ground’ of those that are more interested in short term economic outcomes than environmental issues.
Something must be done to stop the rot. If that something leads to the Liberals being in government for 3-6 years until Labor gets the message that it needs to earn the environmental vote, then that’s a reasonable price to pay. Yes, even if it means Prime Minister Abbott!
In the absence of any change like this, if the vast majority of Green preferences flow to Labor as in recent elections, Labor will be tactically and strategically correct (if morally bankrupt!) in deciding that it can ignore green issues as long as it stays just ever so slightly greener than the Coalition, no matter how rapacious and irresponsible the policies of the latter may be. Consequently there will never again be a major party in Australia that stands up for environmental issues.
If my voting strategy is moderately widely adopted then at best Labor will get an enormous scare but still return to government. The scare should be sufficient to ensure that they quickly adopt some serious environmental policies and continue to maintain them in future.
Or, the shift in preferences may be sufficient to unseat Labor and put the Coalition in government. That may mean some marginally worse environmental policies in the short term, but not by much, based on the current policy platforms. In any case, if all we ever achieve is what’s in Labor’s current policy platform, we’ll be so badly off in the long run that 3-6 years of Coalition rule won’t make a noticeable difference.
A secondary benefit of this strategy is that it may surprise the Liberal party to receive Green preferences and persuade it to court the environmental vote with suitable policies, rather than its current approach of writing it off as a Labor fiefdom and punishing it by studied neglect.
In Europe and California, environmental concern is not considered a left-wing issue, as such people as Angela Merkel, Arnold Schwarzenegger and David Cameron have shown us by their policies and actions. Neither should it be here but unfortunately it is, to the enormous detriment of Australian public policy. Perhaps the first step in rectifying this unfortunate situation is to vote as I have suggested and turn the environment back into an issue that concerns everyone.