26 August 2005

'New physics', same old problems

I caught an interesting docudrama on Thursday night entitled E=mc². It looked at the lives of Einstein, as well as Michael Faraday, Antoine Lavoisier and Emilie du Chatelet, all of whom contributed in some way to the thinking which resulted in the Theory of Relativity. Overall it was quite well done and accessible, even for those whose understanding of the science may not have been great.

What I'd like to take issue with is the oft-repeated contention that the world was changed forever by the Theory of Relativity. It's a lovely romantic notion, and indeed, it should be true. But then I look at the recent London bombings, the riots in Gaza, the awful state of scientific education in wealthy countries such as the USA and the massive influence of fundamentalism around the world, and I realise it's bunkum. Of course, the cumulative knowledge of the human race is greater than ever, as is the number of people who have access to formal education. There is more opportunity to acquire education, at least in most countries, than at any previous point in history. Yet precisely the systems, media and communications technologies which could be used to eliminate the ignorance which breeds hatred and violence have instead been hijacked to propagate various forms of ignorance. When once ignorance was diffused and belonged to individuals, it has become systemic and belongs to groups. And because these groups are self-encouraging, and in many cases defined by their opposition to mainstream thought, this is a form of ignorance far more dangerous and harder to combat.

And there can be little doubt that the worst perpetrators of this form of institutionalised ignorance are fundamentalist religious groups. Whilst extremist Islam obviously comes to mind, fundamentalist Christianity has been at least as successful at convincing its followers to disengage with modern science and thought, whilst enjoying all the trappings of modern medicine and technology which that science has brought them.

Those of us who believe that ignorance is the root of all evil and that the world can be made a better place through education have, frankly, been caught with our textbooks down. We have allowed religious groups, and every form of ‘-ism’ to hijack the public discourse, and we have allowed our governments to relax on their educational agenda. Meanwhile the agents of misinformation have not been nearly as apathetic. Lest we forget what the consequences of such complacency can be we need look only at Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

So has Einstein changed the world? Has the equivalence of energy and matter changed the world in any visible way apart from through nuclear bombs and the Cold War? In today’s world at least a third of the population live under what I might view as repressive regimes. Large sections of the African and Asian population do not have access to basic education. In the Middle-East, Pakistan, the US and other countries, hundreds of millions are in the grip of the anti-intellectual thought which comes with fundamentalist religion.

I could go on, but I’m starting to depress myself. Perhaps more important than despairing about the current situation is asking, “Where to from here?” Is there anything in my naive assertion that education and compassion really can improve the world, or is entropy inevitable, even in social systems? What do you think?Go to eebahgum!

24 August 2005

My cell phone is a word processor

Hard to believe perhaps, but this article is being written entirely on my Windows Smartphone. Not, I hasten to add, on the little abc keyboard or even using T9 word recognition. No, this was typed on my Dell Bluetooth keyboard using a lovely little freeware text editor called Orneta Notepad. And the good news is that it all works rather well—a very practical solution for the mobile writer.

C500 Smartphone with BT keyboard

That shouldn't come as such a surprise. My Orange SPV C500 may be small, but it packs in a 200 MHz processor and a bright 176x200 screen. And the operating system is not all that different from the version of Windows that runs on my PDA. Problem is Microsoft don't even ship a simple text editor with Windows Mobile 2003 for Smartphones, which is a damned shame, because I have to tell you, this is extremely good fun! Also, if I could afford the telephony costs, I'd be able to upload this article to my blog directly from my phone.

On top of that, the phone makes a pretty neat mp3 player (although decent 2.5 mm plug headphones are pretty hard to come by), a cute video player, aided by the excellent sound from the on-board speaker, and a tremendous portable navigation system when coupled with my Bluetooth GPS and TomTom Mobile 5 software. Although I prefer the larger screen of the PDA for in-car SatNav, on the phone I get 7.5 hours battery life or more, compared to the PDA's 3 and a bit. That was enough for a full dayƂ’s walking in London last weekend.

As well as that it does all the usual stuff like sync with my Outlook calendar and tasks and make phone calls. On that last point alone it is the best-featured, best sounding...simply the best mobile I have ever used. Throw in all the other features, tried or simply imagined, and you have a little miracle.Go to eebahgum!