Friday, 25 November 2011


The Handwavy Physics of Interdimensional Exchange

I’m currently in the process of writing a series of stories, some of which i’ve decided to set in a fictional parallel universe i call the Caroline timeline.  Details of it can be found here:

In the story “Buttonless”, an underachieving menial worker at a university in our version of reality finds himself transported into the Caroline timeline.  This entry is to explain the imaginary science behind the story.

First, some real physics:

1) The light cone:  An event cannot influence other events faster than the speed of light.  Therefore, whatever happens on Alpha Centauri can only influence what happens here about four years later.  Until then, it’s irrelevant.  This also works in the other direction:  what happens here cannot influence anything on Alpha Centauri for more than four years.  This is because Alpha Centauri is about four light years away.

Thinking about this in three dimensions, it means that every event can be thought of as starting a spherical ripple of cause and effect which expands out from the point where it occurs at the speed of light.  If time is thought of as a dimension like those of space, this means that every event is at the end of a cone stretching back into the past and at the beginning of another cone stretching forwards into the future, like an hourglass whose waist is the present place and time, except that these cones are four-dimensional:  a “horizontal” section through such a cone would be spherical rather than circular.  This is referred to as a light cone.

Any events linked by cause and effect to here and now must be within that cone, because the velocity of light is the ultimate speed limit and for a chain of cause and effect to pass from the outside to the inside of the cone, something would have to travel faster than light.

2) Time travel paradoxes:  If travel backwards in time is possible, it appears to create a problem because of the “grandfather paradox”, whose classic version is that if one prevented one’s own conception, one wouldn’t exist to perform the act which prevented one’s existence in the first place, and so on without resolution.

Now some more speculative stuff:

Two possible solutions to the grandfather paradox:

1) Travel backwards in time must be accompanied by displacement outside the light cone.  Whereas “back travel” is possible, it must also involve something similar to moving faster than light in space.  That is, if one travels one year back in time, one must also be at least a light year away from one’s departure point.  This would prevent paradoxes because it would be impossible to influence anything within the past light cone of the departure point.  It also has a symmetry to it because ordinary travel in space also involves travel forwards in time, again within the light cone, but stretching into the future from one’s point of departure.

2) Travel backwards in time must involve moving into a different timeline, i.e. a parallel universe, in which the paradox caused happened anyway.  There is however a problem with this because in such a parallel universe, the event may not have been caused by the time travel itself.

I suggest that these two solutions are compatible and linked, as follows:

When an event occurs which could go either way, it can be seen as causing a “fork” in a time stream.  If someone tosses a coin to decide whether to take one course of action or another, the point of divergence (POD) between those two time streams appears to be the coin landing as heads or tails.  In fact, the POD is earlier because a coin landing a particular way up is in a chain of cause and effect connected to how high it is tossed, air currents, the initial height of the coin above the surface it lands on and so forth.  Therefore, the real POD is conceivably much earlier, perhaps even the beginning of time.  However, that then involves another problem.  It means that an entire universe has to be posited simply to account for a toss of a coin, which offends the sensibilities.  It would also mean that we don’t know which of a very large number of different universes we inhabit because we will never observe which of almost all PODs is actually the case.

There is a solution to this.  Rather than seeing the forking of timelines as a metaphor, they can be seen as literally arrayed along a dimension representing probability.  Since at any moment there are a very large number of possible forks, their density then becomes effectively a continuum of points and time can be seen as a plane rather than a series of forking paths.  Measuring the distance of a possible event then becomes a measurement of its probability and probability is then effectively an extra dimension.  If we never find out about the truth, that simply means we are ourselves extended in this dimension rather than just confined to the actual universe of time and space.  We have breadth across a series of possible worlds.

There is another problem with this view.  It cannot account for more than three separate events of exactly equal probability.  If two coins are tossed, the two heads possibility could be seen as to the left of the two tails possibility and the “direct” future could be seen as containing a possibility of a heads and a tails outcome.  However, there are two heads and tails outcomes, so this cannot work if they are equally probable.  One solution would be to suppose that no two events are of exactly equal probability, but this feels like a kludge.  There is, however, another solution:  two probability dimensions.  That would allow for a circle to be drawn of equally probable events, in other words an infinite number, thereby solving the problem.

Although two probability dimensions seems to be the minimum feasible number, nothing specifically rules out more.  To keep it simple though, i want to assume there are only two.

So, returning to the time travel paradox problem, if this is an accurate description of the state of affairs of the Multiverse, travel backwards in time which avoids paradoxes by shifting into a different timeline then simply becomes a diagonal shift similar to that involved in a straightforward spatial solution to the paradox problem where there is displacement outside the light curve with travel backwards in time.

Putting this all together, i get this:

A technique is found which can cause an object to change its space-time coordinates.  Applying this technique causes an object to shift in space without time passing forwards.  At first, this appears to be an instantaneous teleportation technique, but it soon emerges that the shift also takes place in time.  The object is shifted backwards in time by a distance equivalent to how far it is shifted in space.  So, moving an object a distance of one light year also causes it to travel back in time one year, because otherwise it would involve a problem with special relativity.  This is not, however, the complete picture of what’s happening.  An anomalous feature of these shifts is that the objects sometimes seem to alter when they arrive.  This is in fact because they are not simply shifting in time and space but also into completely different timelines, and there is a corresponding event in the other timeline where a similar object shifts into this one.  Since the other timeline has a different history, this object is often different.  This has to happen because otherwise mass and energy would be lost from one timeline and gained in another, which violates the first law of thermodynamics - energy cannot be created or destroyed, and according to relativity, mass is energy, so mass cannot be created or destroyed either.  Therefore, the technique appears to combine teleportation, time travel and the ability to enter an alternate universe, but is in fact an exchange of objects between two timelines.  Also, in order for this to happen, the “teleportation” must take place simultaneously in both timelines.

Associated phenomena might therefore be that a laboratory mouse exchanged with another timeline would have a 50% chance of having the opposite sex of its counterpart, a stopwatch might be designed differently and so on.

I have also chosen to assume that although in the ordinary spatial dimensions along with time, only distance can be controlled rather than direction, in the probability dimensions the control of direction is also possible.  Therefore, the Caroline and Gordon timelines can swap items freely.

The objects swapped can be trivial and inconsequential.  For instance, an eighty kilogramme human being can be swapped with eighty kilogrammes of air molecules, so they would be replaced by a large volume of air which would lead to them being briefly surrounded by a vacuum in the timeline they entered and cause a sudden increase of pressure in the one they exited and the air entered.  Alternatively, they could be exchanged with soil, leading to a less dramatic event of a human-shaped pile of soil replacing them where they exited but them being buried alive where they entered.  It is therefore much easier simply to swap individuals.

How the exchange device works:  There are two grids of electrically charged singularities in the booth, one at the top, one at the bottom.  These are fired towards each other at close to the speed of light using a pulse of electromagnetic induction.  As they pass through the matter in the booth, they displace it into the other timeline, location and time at a very high rate, effectively in the form of countless cylindrical slices.  These are so close together that it does not damage the matter - the forces between the particles composing it are conserved and there is no time for it to lead to any kind of physical movement.  At the same time, particles are exchanged between the two timelines to conserve mass and energy.  Hence the objects are swapped.

I have assumed that the inventors of this device are initially unaware of what it actually does.  The only hint they have is that they need to provide it with what seems to be too many parameters for it to work.  However, they have assumed that some of the parameters are arbitrary when in fact they determine the timeline with which the contents of the booth is exchanged.

What are quaternions and octonions?
This bit is based on genuine mathematics.
Quaternions and octonions are hypercomplex numbers.  A complex number is a two-dimensional value on the “number plane”.  Just as there is a real “number line” stretching from minus infinity to plus infinity, on which real numbers lie, so there is a second imaginary number line forming a second axis like a graph.  Imaginary numbers are seen as valid entities because they provide a solution to the equation x*x=-1.  As it stands, no single real number can be multiplied by itself to give the answer -1:  -1*-1=1 and 1*1=1.  Therefore, it was posited that there is a second number line perpendicular to the first.  A number on the plane formed by these two coordinates is known as a complex number, and they appear as solutions to the equations in relativity as the values of the mass of particles travelling faster than light.

Hypercomplex numbers are a generalisation of this idea to more coordinates.  A quaternion is a “four-dimensional” number, and an octonion is an “eight-dimensional” number.

Here comes the vaguer, more hand-wavy bit:  I have assumed that the physicists studying the displacement booth were describing its behaviour using quaternions because it seems to be a complete description of where the booth appears to relocate objects:  a certain distance away from the starting point in the three dimensions of space and the fourth of time.  However, they found that the equations needed to describe this seemed to be more complicated than they needed to be because what they were in fact describing was a displacement in eight dimensions rather than four.  Tom’s insight is that the displacement is best described by octonions, eight-dimensional numbers, rather than quaternions because of this.  His dreams are hints that this is what’s going on, but the Caroline-to-Gordon Tom realises this before the Gordon-to-Caroline Tom.

There are also eight PODs between the Caroline and Gordon timelines.  These partly represent the eightfold coordinate position of the Caroline and Gordon timelines relative to each other, in other words the “direction” of the Caroline timeline.  The Gordon timelines are in fact a “cluster” of eight timelines, each of which is itself a cluster, so they are a region in the multiverse rather than a single timeline like the Caroline one.  The Caroline timeline is also “straighter” and the Gordon timelines more “divergent”, in the sense that the Caroline is an extrapolation of apparent trends taken forwards from the 1970s and has fewer improbable events in it than the Gordon timelines.  For example, the Gordon timelines depend on two major figures narrowly escaping assassination attempts and two other major figures being improbably assassinated, and two divorces occurring at a time when they were rare.  Therefore, it’s our timeline which is improbable and not the Caroline one, so we’re “off to one side” compared to it.

Thursday, 29 September 2011


Bet you thought those were just numbers.

-15647 (roughly):  Oogonium formation from primary germ cells begins.
-3220: Results of meiosis produces a haploid cell which peristalsis moves - flagellum not yet functional.
-3205:  LMP.
-3190:  <Ahem>.
-3189:  Ootid:  Diploid again.
-3174:  Awareness impinges beyond the internal environment.
-3167:  Heart begins beating.  Neural tube forming.  Defect in future cauda equina ultimately leads to unusual autonomic and lower peripheral nervous system function.
-3133:  SRY gene activates.
Minus2909:  Born.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011



Companions, Lords and Ladies


These three words are linked by loaves.  A companion is someone with (cum) whom one shares a loaf (panis), a lord is a “loaf-ward” – he looks after one’s loaf, and a lady is a “loaf-arranger” – she arranges for one to receive a loaf.

I’m thinking right now about three situations in which loaves and other food are shared, and i’d like to compare them:  shared meals and refreshments in a neighbourhood, shared lunches at a home ed group and shared bread and wine in Communion.  This is going to be mainly anthropological, but I can’t avoid some Christian elements and i’m not ashamed of them, so here we go.

I’m involved in two church initiatives involving food and the neighbourhood.  One of them is a late night cafe where we provide hot drinks, soup, crisps and biscuits to anyone who wishes to drop in.  These people are generally not Christian, so in a sense they are outsiders to us, but the act of offering these things to them is a good thing in itself and provides an opportunity for companionship, both between us and them and among themselves.  The other is a fortnightly breakfast at church including members and non-members, and is of course substantially about food and companionship.  It’s more mixed than the late night cafe, so to us within the church it’s the sharing of a meal with fellow Christians, and to those outside the church it’s the sharing of a meal within the community.

Then there’s Communion.  This is a lot of things, but one of its meanings to me is that it’s a symbolic shared meal with other people in our church, other churches on the planet, Christians in the past back to the Last Supper, Christ, and further back still to the Passover meal celebrated for centuries before that.  It’s also sharing a meal with all future Christians and with Christ in eternity, the eternal feast in Heaven where everyone will have what they need, freely given.  Everyone will be fed.

All of these meals, regardless of religious perspective, have the effect of binding people together through eating food together.  If you’re not Christian, you can lay aside what you doubtless see as my freaky God-bothering and just look at it as a social phenomenon:  we define and bond our group through food and drink and we also invite others to share with us.  This is even true of communion.

There is another shared meal in our experience as a family whose children don’t go to school, at the regular Tuesday meeting which as it happens also takes place in a church.  There, people cook lunch together and share it.  In my mind, the genuine obligation exists not to eat without providing food or at least contributing in another way.  This shared meal, like the others, is also bonding.  However, unlike the others, there is a barrier between me and the people who share, for two reasons.  Since i’m duty-bound to contribute to the meal, providing food cost me money, and since for us money is in short supply, this made it harder to eat for the rest of the week.  Also, the children in this family have been reluctant to eat the food provided.  Therefore, we didn’t share the meal with the others, placing us in the outgroup.  It meant we were not included in the sharing and interaction and had to sit there hungry while most other people shared a meal.  Not only that, but the food i offered was regarded as a nuisance and rejected.  Consequently, we have been pushed out of the group by the sharing of a meal.

To a degree, we are at least perceived as doing the same thing as Christians, though we are working against it.  I contribute to the shared breakfast and the late night cafe, but for some reason i don’t experience that contribution as onerous, unlike my contribution to the shared lunch.  I would also say that evangelism is “one beggar telling another where to find a crust of bread”, and that the parable of the banquet involved going out into the highways and byways and inviting people in to share.

This calls to mind another aspect of families whose children are not on a school roll.  It’s very tempting for us to become a clique and see ourselves as somehow special.  In reality, as i’ve said many times before, the vast majority of children in England are educated otherwise than at school for the majority of their childhood.  It also benefits those who are opposed to what we do to consider us an isolated clique or elite.  Therefore, the shared lunch which pushed us out may actually not only be entirely typical of a home ed group, but play into the hands of those who would seek to destroy what we do.

Monday, 12 September 2011


Why i believe in God

It’s not important to me whether you believe in God or not.  It may be important to you whether you believe in God.  That’s up to you to decide.  However, i hope you might be interested in knowing why i do believe in God.

I should probably define what i mean by God.  God to me is the supernatural consciousness whose existence does not depend on the existence of the Universe, and i also believe in a God who is emotionally involved with humans, which is much more specific than simply believing in God.  So that’s the kind of God i’m arguing for.

To dispose of the usual arguments for God, namely the cosmological, ontological and teleological, i would say the following.

The cosmological argument is that all things are caused, therefore the Universe has a cause.  This does not work for God for several reasons.  Firstly, cause and effect operate within time.  Since God is independent of time, cause and effect cannot apply.  Secondly, if God is seen as subject to time, it seems sensible to apply the idea of a cause there also, or just to eliminate the whole idea and say that the Universe either has no beginning or caused itself.  Thirdly, there do in fact seem to be uncaused events, for instance quantum effects.  However, i do believe the existence of the Universe depends on God, which is somewhat similar to the notion of a cause, though not something about which i currently feel confident to argue.

The ontological argument is that an existing object is more perfect than the idea of one and since the idea of God involves perfection, God must also be real.  This argument is so flawed to most people that it’s rejected out of hand whether or not they believe in God and it’s also a classic example of an argument which is wrong for interesting reasons as well as boring ones.  I would offer an extra reason why it’s wrong:  perfect objects are generally the ones which don’t exist and their real versions are flawed.  For instance, there are no perfectly flat or perfectly spherical objects made of atoms.

The teleological argument is also known as the “design argument”, and goes like this:  objects in the Universe and the Universe as a whole is intricate, complex, and works well, which implies a designer.  I strongly disagree with this argument.  There is the common reason for disagreement – that the existence of an observer means the Universe and that observer must have a certain structure, so we could be a rare example of a Universe which has produced observers among many which haven’t.  I personally have other reasons for opposing this idea.  One is that a design which suggests a designer is a poor design, or a poor work of art if you will.  An artist might include their own fingerprints in a painting, or some of their hair might get stuck in the wet paint, but if that happens accidentally, it is more likely to be considered a poor work of art.  Similarly, if a design draws attention to its designer, it’s a poor design – think of a flashy magazine page with garish colours and loads of different fonts in different sizes and positions, for example.  It might have the designer’s style “stamped” on it but that would distract the reader from the textual content.  So it doesn’t really work as an argument, because it would suggest that God is a poor designer rather than, as most theists would claim, a perfect one.  It also detracts from free will.  If God shows us that the Universe is designed incontrovertibly, we have little choice but to believe.  Our rationality would force us to see the world in that way and we would not be able to make our own choices.  A clearly designed universe would be coercive.

I would go further than that and say that not only is that so, but that on top of that, anything about the Universe as a whole or anything which can be apprehended appropriately using the techniques of natural science which suggests design is a mistake.  A Universe which suggests God exists is unworthy of God.  However, that only applies to the detached, dispassionate eye of the scientist, not to the involved and centred heart of the whole person, who may also be that same scientist.

So to me, those arguments all fail, though in instructive ways in some respects.  Nevertheless, i do believe in God.  I want to interject something here:  i don’t generally feel drawn to argue that God exists any more than i feel drawn to argue that human beings of my acquaintance exist.  It seems an odd thing to do in some ways:  perhaps it’s intellectually stimulating but it’s not the kind of thing one should best be spending one’s time on considering there are meals to cook, pestilences to avert and clean water to be made available in the southern hemisphere of the planet.  Nevertheless, here we are.

These are the arguments i generally use for the existence of God.  I don’t claim that they’re particularly good or strong, but they’re mine.  I don’t know if other people argue this way.

Firstly, in apparent contradiction of my rejection of the teleological argument, i believe that the existence of God is in a sense a testable hypothesis.  It differs from a testable hypothesis in natural science because it has to be experienced in a personal realm, though not necessarily at first hand.  This is how it can be tested.

People pray and those prayers are, hypothetically, either answered or not according to whether there is or is not a God of the kind who answers prayers.  If there is such a God, it might be expected that relevant improbable events would occur at a frequency significantly greater than chance after prayer on that subject.  I would maintain that this is so.  Therefore, one way of ascertaining whether God exists or not would be to “shadow” someone who prays and see what happens, or of course to pray oneself, the problem there being that to do that sincerely, one might have to believe already.

I feel confident that this would in fact work because my experience is that it does.  Having said that, interestingly, it’s not a particularly specific test for the existence of God, for a number of reasons.

There are other possibilities which would explain this impression.  These include pareidolia, coincidence and psionics, though there may be others.

Looking at coincidence, a sufficiently improbable and relevant coincidence in someone’s life could be enough to convince them that God exists, and a string of less improbable coincidences, or for that matter more improbable ones (though those are more improbable!), could take place on a planet where there have been around 80 thousand million human lives.  Therefore, even if we’re all purely rational, it would be a rational conclusion for a few people here at some point in history that God does exist even if there is no such person, simply because for a few people the evidence in their lives would be enough by chance alone.

Turning to pareidolia, we do of course see patterns where there are none, and think of randomness as being devoid of patterns when in fact it’s full of them.  In particular, we see faces, for instance of Jesus in the clouds, on our toast in the mornings and elsewhere, because we’re genetically programmed to spot such patterns.  That is of course another possibility, and an attractive one because it chimes with the idea that God’s existence is never evident through the rational analysis of what can be observed.

Then there’s the possibility of psionics.  This goes as follows:  a combination of telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis means that a religious community, individual or a more arbitrary group of people could bring about the same results as prayer seems to achieve.  My immediate problem with this is not rational – it just seems outlandish.  This kind of thing has been called the “argument from incredulous stare”, and isn’t very helpful because it’s not really an argument at all so much as an emotional reaction.  There is a better reason for rejecting it though:  the interestingly spelt principle of Ockham’s Razor – “entities should not be unnecessarily multiplied”.  The idea that God is linked to these improbable events is a simpler explanation than communities or individuals with several coordinated psychic powers of which there seems to be little evidence.

So that’s the first argument:  that the improbable relevant events following prayer are most easily explained by divine intervention.

My other argument is again not entirely adequate, but it goes like this. There are such things as hallucinations and mistaken impressions resulting from fallacious thinking or pathological processes, such as Charles Bonnet syndrome, phosphenes and dreams.  However, all of these involve experiences in the sensory modalities which already exist, such as smell, proprioception, vision and so forth.  These sensory modalities are sometimes reliable and detect phenomena in the physical world fairly accurately.  There are no senses which do not do this.  Even pain, though it is entirely internal, detects changes in the internal environment, which is of course part of the physical world.  Now, people have a sense of the numinous – spiritual experience.  This can be triggered off by temporal lobe epilepsy or by the use of powerful magnetic fields in brain-scanning machines (or whatever they are).  The fact that this takes place is compatible with the existence of real stimuli which cause these experiences, and in fact it would be odd if we mostly had a sense which was purely hallucinatory and never accurate.  I would argue that the stimulus for this sense is God.

Again, this argument is imperfect.  This “sense” may not be a real one at all and we do have an imagination too.  We can think that things exist which don’t, and we can come to conclusions about things along the lines of “I don’t trust him because his eyes are too close together”.  Moreover, whereas the stimulus may be real, it may also be unwarranted to conclude that that stimulus is God.  It may be esprit du corps, the Dao or Gaia.  Nevertheless, i would claim that it probably does represent something real.

Taking those two arguments together, i would say that they both provide support for the existence of God, or at least something supernatural which is beyond us.

So there you go, that’s why i believe in God, or at least one story i’m telling you about my belief.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011


This is going to be a bit of a flight of fancy, and an inflammatory flight of fancy at that, so let me just say one thing first:  the children God has lent us have always had the choice to attend school or not and this choice has been realistic and we have done our best to present it fairly.  One reason for our approach to education is that we believe in freedom of choice.  If flexischooling were a more realistic option, we might have taken it, but the choices between state education, private education and education without attending school are not fairly distributed.

Can i just say also that teachers and teaching assistants are not enemies but to some degree victims of the educational system?  However, if you happen to be one of them and you carry on reading, you are probably going to be angry with me, so you might want to stop now.  I will try to address my attitude towards school staff in another post.

Having said all that, please indulge me.

In England, it is the responsibility of the parent or guardian to ensure that their children are educated properly.  The default position is that the parents are legally responsible for their children’s education.  I’m a little uncomfortable with saying that the children are “theirs” because in fact children belong to themselves, though they are the parents’ in a similar sense to one’s parents belonging to one.  They are not property.  As i’m Christian, i tend to think of them as belonging to God and i have more sympathy for the idea that they belong to a family than that they belong to the state, so there are degrees of wrongness here for me.

Anyway, as i’ve said before elsewhere, in England most parents home educate the most of the time but most children also go to state schools.  It would be disrespectful and patronising of me to criticise the decision to send their children to school even though i confess that i don’t understand it.  At the same time, i recognise that the following are true:  children learn all the time almost regardless of the setting, schools are primarily childcare facilities and money from anywhere generally comes with strings attached.

So, here comes the fantasy bit which will annoy a lot of people.  If you don’t like it, consider it as a hypothetical illustration of the kind of bias which is currently in favour of schooling, but in the opposite direction.  This is a utopian dream of what society would be like if it were opposed to schooling to a comparable extent to its current bias in favour.

As things stand, in law, parents are responsible for ensuring that their children receive as good an education as possible.  For most parents, this requirement is unnecessary as it goes with the fact that they are parents that they do this as they see it.  However, there is an argument for saying that that means that in some circumstances, it is actually a criminal offence to send your children to school.  If you can provide them with a better education without them going to school, for instance if they are being bullied, they have special needs which are not recognised by the school or if there are problems with the school environment, and you are aware of this, that means you are not ensuring that they are educated, and because of that, though this would never happen, by allowing them to continue to go to that school, which may be the only school available to you, you could be breaking the law.  There are many circumstances when you would have to do a very bad job indeed to do worse than the school at educating your child.  That is with the law as it stands.

Now to move on to fantasy land.  This is how i would like things to be.

State schools still exist.  They are, however, not educational institutions because for a child at least and probably an adult, the whole world is educational.  A school is potentially problematic because it segregates children from the community and deprives them of educational opportunities.  Therefore, it is a far from ideal environment for education.  Therefore, it is acknowledged in law, as it is in fact the case, that the function of a state school is to provide child care.  Moreover, a state school is a last resort option for child care, where neither the family nor the friends and neighbours of that family can provide childcare.  They are similar to children’s homes in that respect, with the consequent dangers and difficulties.  Given this, certain changes would need to be made.

Since sending children to school means you are not parenting them for the time they are there, if you send your children there, you should lose a proportionate fraction of your child benefit.  This is to deter parents from sending their children to school.  It means that money is not handed to families with strings attached to fund education otherwise than at school, but recognises that teachers and other school staff are in loco parentis.  They are being paid by the government to look after your children, so there is no need to pay parents for childcare when they are not in fact caring for the children but allowing them to attend school.  If children are going to school, parents also have a greater opportunity to work and therefore may have a greater income than they would do if they were caring for their children.

Compulsory education begins at seven, as it did in Russia (not sure about now) and ends at fourteen.  This is to lower further the requirement for schools.  Older children can go to college, younger children are likely to be provided for in other ways.

Schools should not duplicate or restrict public access to facilities.  Hence they should not have libraries if libraries are available in the neighbourhood, they should not provide computers or internet access, they should not have sports facilities and so forth, unless similar facilities are unavailable nearby.  If it is in fact the case that they are not, the school facilities should be open to the public.  This allows children to be in the neighbourhood rather than just be in school, and the neighbourhood has access to the school.  This increases the active and passive educational value of childhood.

Registration of a child at school should be an active process undertaken by the parent or guardian.  It should not be encouraged or publicised.  Doubtless most parents would opt to send their children to school anyway, but it shouldn’t be made easy for them to do so.

The adults who work in schools should do so substantially on a voluntary basis.  They should have a personal connection to some of the children in the school and they should be chosen by extent and variety of experience.

School hours should be shorter and school holidays longer.

There should be no age limits on access to tertiary education.

Where the workplace is not the home and it is at all practical, the majority of working days should be “take your child to work” days.  This would provide children with experience of a working environment.  This is clearly not always practical, but there should be the maximum possible level of flexibility here.  If it is at all possible that a child be in a workplace with a parent, they should be there.

At the same time, adults should be encouraged to work for themselves, in the home or in genuine cooperatives, in order that they have as much flexibility as possible to raise their children for as much of the time as possible.

Needless to say, i think, there should be no Ofsted, no CRB checks, no National Curriculum, no SATs and no targets.

OK, have i said enough to annoy everyone yet?

Monday, 1 August 2011


A common image used to explain the idea of the Universe expanding is of a balloon inflating, with the skin of the balloon representing space.  The balloon is covered in dots representing galaxies and as the balloon inflates, the galaxies recede from each other.  To an ant standing on one of the dots, everything is receding and she appears to be at the centre of the Universe.  Extending this image to the real Universe, rather than there being two dimensions across the curved skin of the balloon, there are three, but the constant recession of galaxies from each other would still be observed.

There are some other similar images used elsewhere in physics.  One of these is the idea that most of the eleven dimensions making up the Universe according to string theory are “rolled up”, so space is in fact “thicker” in these extra dimensions than it seems, but still so thin that we fail to notice these other dimensions directly.  A further image is of space as an elastic sheet with mass causing depressions like a weight on a sheet of rubber, used to explain gravity in general relativity and linked to the balloon image above.

Like any metaphor, these images have their limits and beyond them they can become misleading.  In the case of the balloon, there is a misleading idea of a pre-existing hyperspace into which the Universe expands.  Whereas this might be so, the general relativity and the Big Bang theory don’t require it to be looked at in this way.  There need not be such a space and the Universe need not have an inside or an outside for this to work.  The reason for this flaw is the nature of the concept of space.  Space is not a container for objects but a set of relationships between them.  Looking at space as if it’s some kind of vast ocean of infinitely subtle substance in which physical objects float is erroneous.  Granted, it may be that space is entirely permeated by something tangible such as the Higgs Field or virtual particles, but the existence of space does not depend on this being so.

Space can be considered as an abstraction of two relationships somewhat like temperature.  Although there is a temperature scale on which items such as the boiling point of water or the transition temperature of helium to a superfluid can be placed, there is no physical object called “temperature”, though there could be physical scales or devices for measuring temperature.  Not would it generally make sense to refer to something as being outside the temperature scale, but simply as something to which the concept of temperature does not apply, such as the number seven or the experience of fascination.  Similarly, the balloon in the image lacks an interior and an exterior, and in a sense even a surface.

The physical qualities of an object or event can be further sophisticated with respect to temperature.  For instance, the boiling points of liquids tend to go up with pressure.  Pressure could be introduced as another axis on a graph of physical properties, showing things like the boiling point of water at the top of Mount Everest or on the shores of the Dead Sea.  Salinity could constitute a third dimension here.  However, there is no real plane or volume where these events or points are located.  Nobody would seriously suggest there was.

Space is similar.  It appears to express two things:  direction and distance.  It is convenient to talk about locations as if they are physical, but points in space are more like “gunpoint” than “Gibraltar Point”.  They are not literally located within the largest possible physical object named “Space”.

Consider the following three thought experiments:

1. Everything in the Universe shifts one metre in the same direction.

2. The Universe is completely empty.

3. A sphere of space one metre in radius is scooped out of the Universe somewhere.

All of these three experiments are meaningless on closer examination, but would mean something if space were a physical object.  In the first place, there is no way to ascertain that such a shift had taken place, assuming inertia and momentum would not apply, because there would be no way to measure the shift.  The same is true of the second thought.  An empty Universe contains no rulers, sextants or protractors.  If it contained a ruler and a sextant alone, space could be defined in terms of those two items but there are other conceivable worlds containing, for example, two identical featureless spheres, which have distance but no direction and therefore no space.  Are there possible worlds with direction but no distance?  I don’t know.  The final example indicates that there is something wrong with thinking of space as a thing, although it also happens to be the closest of the three to having a meaning.  If space is a thing, scooping out a sphere is for some reason immediately followed by it “growing back” instantly.  Also, this sphere which is scooped out is somehow able to occupy the same space as another bit of space.  Higher dimensions are not a solution to this – simply imagine a hypersphere.  Having said that, there is a sort of sense to it because it could be taken as an outlandish way of describing moving everything in the Universe a metre closer centred about a particular point, assuming that the sphere is empty.  If it isn’t, the objects within the sphere would have to relocate to their antipodes on the surface of a sphere of the same radius as the distance to the centre of the sphere.  Also, this account assumes Euclidean space.

All of these are important because they show the shortcomings of a view of space as a physical object shown by the balloon metaphor.  I’m not suggesting for a moment that they were intended seriously, or for that matter that the theories behind the images are true or false, but taking them that literally gets you nowhere and is misleading, except to illustrate that space is an abstraction of relationships and not a “thing”.

It so happens that an expanding Universe is a good way to illustrate the relational nature of space, even if the real Universe is not expanding.  It also happens that the Creationist hyperbolic model of space works equally well, but i don’t really want to go there.

At first glance, on the scale on which humans are accustomed to thinking, the distance between two objects simply varies between zero and infinity, that is, it has no upper limit.  The Big Bang theory claims something different:  that at any point in time, there is a finite maximum distance between objects, that that distance has been increasing for some time now and that any two objects surround each other in all directions.  The expansion of the Universe is simply the increase in the maximum possible distance between two objects.  There could be variants.  It might be that the maximum distance will begin to decrease, that its rate of increase will slow or that it was decreasing in the past.  One thing, however, it definitely does not claim is that the Universe is literally expanding into a pre-existing hyperspace (although i suppose it might be).

What’s not clear about this, intriguingly, is whether distance and direction are all that space expresses.  There might be other things involved.  It isn’t clear whether two separate locations can be at the same distance and direction from a third without being in the same place.  It might be, however, that such a situation would entail that space is not simply an abstraction of relationships, which would imply that it is in fact not possible.

So to imagining that notorious moment when the Earth was wrapped in bandages.  Possibly a good idea if we think we are hurting the planet, but anyway, the idea is this:  if you could somehow produce a strand of stationary massless bandages of any length you wanted and proceed to wrap them around Earth evenly, and assuming the Universe was otherwise empty, you would have surrounded yourself in bandages and be in the process of reducing the maximum distance at that time between the surface of the bandages.  If the Universe turned out to be expanding more slowly than the rate at which the layers of bandages were being laid down, you would eventually find that you were inside a hollow, gradually shrinking ball of bandages rather than outside them.  This can be made sense of thus:  everything is in all directions from everything else – in other words it surrounds everything else – and there is a finite maximum distance.

Eventually, the only way outwards is inwards.

Saturday, 30 July 2011


Comments on CRB checks.

CRB checks are the result of a long chain of events linked to a response to high profile cases of child sexual abuse and murder.  Clearly it is important to protect children from such events and the CRB can be perceived to be doing this effectively.  I would strongly dispute this claim and in what follows i will argue that this is ill-conceived.

Two phrases often used in connection with the CRB, along with many other controversial measures, are “If it saves one child” followed by something like “it is justified”, and “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”.

The first of these is a non-sequitur.  It hypothesises the alternatives of inaction causing horrible suffering and death to a single victim and action preventing that death and suffering.  However, this ignores the bigger picture of the negative consequences of such action.  The presumption is that such negative consequences cannot outweigh the suffering and death which, for the sake of argument, i will say are inevitable if the action is not taken.  There is another possibility though:  that the action taken will cause more evil than inaction, even weighed against that likelihood.  In other words, let us assume that it is absolutely certain that at least one child will suffer horribly and die as a direct result of that action not being taken.  It is not the case that any other situation is better than that.  This is a grim fact, but it is true.  For instance, the Rwandan genocide was worse than that.  African famines are worse.  Millions of children dying in pain of cancer is a worse outcome.  That last possibility is particularly relevant.  Extreme cases make bad law though.

The second claim, “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” makes two unwarranted assumptions.  It assumes a perfectly functioning system.  We know the CRB check system is not perfect because a number of people have gone through it with an unblemished record and gone on to harm children.  It’s also a common argument against the death penalty.  A pardon is of no benefit to an innocent person wrongly convicted and executed.  In the event of a mistake being made in a CRB check, there may have been damage to a reputation and a person’s career simply because they have been unable to keep in practice at their profession or work for an employer who recognises their potential and is able to promote them.  This is not simply a problem for that person, but for their passengers, customers, clients, pupils, students or patients.  Suppose that individual would otherwise have become an effective oncologist who was able to treat childhood leukaemia.  In the meantime, one child is saved from dying horribly.  Another consequence of the check is that an innocent medical student never became a surgeon and thousands of children died horribly anyway.  Compensation cannot address this problem and the potential surgeon’s wellbeing is not even an issue.  Suppose a teacher failed a CRB check who would have been particularly inspiring to the pupil who went on to become that surgeon.  The CRB system is known not to be perfect.  It produces both false positives and false negatives.  This makes it a hazard to the good of society in numerous unknown ways.  Talents and skills would be lost to society or never develop in the first place.

The other assumption is that the values of the authority imposing the check are equal or superior to those of the person who believes they have something to hide.  This doesn’t follow either.  If someone hides their ethnic origin in a markedly racist society, they most certainly have something to fear from that being revealed.  A whistleblower would also have something to fear.  There are countless examples like this.  In the Orkney child abuse scandal, Quakers were accused.  They had something to fear but nothing to hide.

Turning to more detailed criticism of the CRB system, my major objections to their existence:

1.  Mission creep:  the initial remit of the CRB can expand in the absence of legislation enabling that, or its remit can be extended as a result of ill-considered legislation.  Organisations have to justify their own existence and tend to manufacture work for themselves.

2. If the protection of children and vulnerable adults is a major priority, it is worth doing the checks via the experts in this area, the police.  Whereas this could mean that other crime increases, the priority it has been given would imply that this is an acceptable price to pay.  If not, why is it being done at all?

3. Volunteers are discouraged.  A complex, time-consuming expensive bureaucratic system for doing these checks discourages volunteers.  This is directly harmful to society, costs public money because of the expensive results and denies many of the opportunity to gain experience and become of greater value to society.

4. It allows organisations to construct a spurious case that they have taken steps to minimise risks to children and vulnerable adults when they have in fact done no such thing.

5. It encourages a culture of distrust and vexatious litigation between the generations.

6. It is duplicated.  Each role requires another check.  This is akin to requiring a new driving test and licence for every vehicle bought, rented or used in the line of work.  The potential for harm from reckless or malicious driving is in no way less serious than the potential for harm from child sexual abuse and murder.  Similarly, a single passport is required for entry to many countries rather than a separate passport for each country, and there is ample potential for harm there in the form of organised crime and terrorism.  These are again no less harmful than child sexual abuse and murder.  If a single driving licence and a single passport is required, there can be no justification for multiple checks.

7. It lulls people into a false sense of security, including parents, responsible adults and the clients of the organisations concerned.

8. It is a tax on charity and goodwill.  The money a charity could otherwise use to pursue its purpose is diverted to the CRB and their agents.  If the individual bears the cost instead, it constitutes a barrier to the poor in volunteering.

9. The soft evidence is merely hearsay and is open to abuse.

10. It violates the principle of presumed innocence.

11. It impairs authentic relationships.

I am opposed to the very existence of the CRB and their agents.  However, if such a process is indeed necessary, i would suggest the following:

  • Define vulnerable adults very narrowly if at all.  For instance, it could mean adults who are on remand, homeless, severely mentally or physically disabled, diagnosable as seriously mentally ill, critically ill or the victims of violent crime or natural disasters or accidents, that is, the traumatised.  This is just an example.  It should not mean the likes of people who happen to be in receipt of any kind of medical treatment at all.
  • Define contact as involving being in near-constant close physical proximity or near-constant communication with children or vulnerable adults as defined above where a close relative or trusted adult friend of the individual is absent, and where consent has not been actively withdrawn.
  • Frequently review the organisation independently in an accountable way for mission creep.
  • Make the police responsible for carrying out the checks.  If this creates excessive extra work to the detriment of the other duties of the police, assess the relative value of the tasks and prioritise accordingly.
  • Recognise that as both teachers and certain other professionals are in loco parentis with children, they are expected to behave in certain ways as a parent would towards their child.  This would include providing medical treatment as a parent would, for instance inhalers, adrenalin injections, medication and the like.  As part of this, teachers and other professionals should be expected to have the same level of competence as a parent of a child with that kind of health problem if they are likely to come into contact with such a child.  However, they are expected to arrange to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to meet these needs and failure to ensure that the child receives the appropriate treatment is likely to be seen as criminal negligence.  Consent can be actively withdrawn by the parent or guardian or by a child above a certain age, but is otherwise assumed to be given tacitly, and the defence of the “reasonable man” is valid in this context for all parties involved.
  • In all things, presume innocence until guilt is demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt.
  • Do not require one check per role but attach the check to the individual in a manner analogous to a driving licence or a passport.  The checks must be transferable.  Model the nature of the checks on those required for driving licences or passports.
  • Specifically legislate that adherence to CRB checks is not a defence in law against an accusation of negligence or dereliction of duty of care against an organisation, i.e. in no way can it be accepted as evidence that the organisation has complied with any legal duty towards children or vulnerable adults.  The priority must be the safety of children or vulnerable adults rather than the avoidance of legal liability.
  • Fund the checks publically, not through the private sector or individuals.  The police are funded by the public to prevent crime and uphold the law.  There is no difference here, therefore these checks, if they have to happen, must also be publically funded.  They must also be carried out on a non-profit basis and the wages of any employee whose main responsibility involves these checks must be capped.
  • Specifically rule out certain actions and events from constituting unacceptable contact between professionals and children or responsible adults, such as non-sexual, non-aggressive physical contact, being in sight of children and assume consent for photography unless it has been actively and explicitly withdrawn by parents or children.

I realise this is all very sketchy at the moment, but this is roughly what i mean.  Rather than this last bit, i would prefer the CRB simply to be abolished without being replaced by anything.