The Red Flower

Fire is, without a doubt, humanity’s oldest invention and its greatest friend; to many, the fundamental example what separates us from other animals. The abilities to keep warm through the coldest nights and harshest winters, to scare away predators by harnessing this strange force of nature, and to cook a joint of meat because screw it, it tastes better that way, are incredibly valuable ones, and they have seen us through many a tough moment. Over the centuries, fire in one form or another has been used for everything from being a weapon of war to furthering science, and very grateful we are for it too.

However, whilst the social history of fire is interesting, if I were to do a post on it then you dear readers would be faced with 1000 words of rather repetitive and somewhat boring myergh (technical term), so instead I thought I would take this opportunity to resort to my other old friend in these matters: science, as well as a few things learned from several years of very casual outdoorsmanship.

Fire is the natural product of any sufficiently exothermic reaction (ie one that gives out heat, rather than taking it in). These reactions can be of any type, but since fire can only form in air most of such reactions we are familiar with tend to be oxidation reactions; oxygen from the air bonding chemically with the substance in question (although there are exceptions;  a sample of potassium placed in water will float on the top and react with the water itself, become surrounded surrounded by a lilac flame sufficiently hot to melt it, and start fizzing violently and pushing itself around the container. A larger dose of potassium, or a more reactive alkali metal such as rubidium, will explode). The emission of heat causes a relatively gentle warming effect for the immediate area, but close to the site of the reaction itself a very large amount of heat is emitted in a small area. This excites the molecules of air close to the reaction and causes them to vibrate violently, emitting photons of electromagnetic radiation as they do so in the form of heat & light (among other things). These photons cause the air to glow brightly, creating the visible flame we can see; this large amount of thermal energy also ionises a lot of atoms and molecules in the area of the flame, meaning that a flame has a slight charge and is more conductive than the surrounding air. Because of this, flame probes are sometimes used to get rid of the excess charge in sensitive electromagnetic experiments, and flamethrowers can be made to fire lightning. Most often the glowing flame results in the characteristic reddy/orange colour of fire, but some reactions, such as the potassium one mentioned, cause them to emit radiation of other frequencies for a variety of reasons (chief among them the temperature of the flame and the spectral properties of the material in question), causing the flames to be of different colours, whilst a white-hot area of a fire is so hot that the molecules don’t care what frequency the photons they’re emitting are at so long as they can get rid of the things fast enough. Thus, light of all wavelengths gets emitted, and we see white light. The flickery nature of a flame is generally caused by the excited hot air moving about rapidly, until it gets far enough away from the source of heat to cool down and stop glowing; this process happens all the time with hundreds of packets of hot air, causing them to flicker back and forth.

However, we must remember that fires do not just give out heat, but must take some in too. This is to do with the way the chemical reaction to generate the heat in question works; the process requires the bonds between atoms to be broken, which uses up energy, before they can be reformed into a different pattern to release energy, and the energy needed to break the bonds and get the reaction going is known as the activation energy. Getting the molecules of the stuff you’re trying to react to the activation energy is the really hard part of lighting a fire, and different reactions (involving the burning of different stuff) have different activation energies, and thus different ‘ignition temperatures’ for the materials involved. Paper, for example, famously has an ignition temperature of 451 Fahrenheit (which means, incidentally, that you can cook with it if you’re sufficiently careful and not in a hurry to eat), whilst wood’s is only a little higher at around 300 degrees centigrade, both of which are less than that of a spark or flame. However, we must remember that neither fuel will ignite if it is wet, as water is not a fuel that can be burnt, meaning that it often takes a while to dry wood out sufficiently for it to catch, and that big, solid blocks of wood take quite a bit of energy to heat up.

From all of this information we can extrapolate the first rule that everybody learns about firelighting; that in order to catch a fire needs air, dry fuel and heat (the air provides the oxygen, the fuel the stuff it reacts with and the heat the activation energy). When one of these is lacking, one must make up for it by providing an excess of at least one of the other two, whilst remembering not to let the provision of the other ingredients suffer; it does no good, for example, to throw tons of fuel onto a new, small fire since it will snuff out its access to the air and put the fire out. Whilst fuel and air are usually relatively easy to come by when starting a fire, heat is always the tricky thing; matches are short lived, sparks even more so, and the fact that most of your fuel is likely to be damp makes the job even harder.

Provision of heat is also the main reason behind all of our classical methods of putting a fire out; covering it with cold water cuts it off from both heat and oxygen, and whilst blowing on a fire will provide it with more oxygen, it will also blow away the warm air close to the fire and replace it with cold, causing small flames like candles to be snuffed out (it is for this reason that a fire should be blown on very gently if you are trying to get it to catch and also why doing so will cause the flames, which are caused by hot air remember, to disappear but the embers to glow more brightly and burn with renewed vigour once you have stopped blowing).  Once a fire has sufficient heat, it is almost impossible to put out and blowing on it will only provide it with more oxygen and cause it to burn faster, as was ably demonstrated during the Great Fire of London. I myself have once, with a few friends, laid a fire that burned for 11 hours straight; many times it was reduced to a few humble embers, but it was so hot that all we had to do was throw another log on it and it would instantly begin to burn again. When the time came to put it out, it took half an hour for the embers to dim their glow.

Questionably Moral

We human beings tend to set a lot of store by the idea of morality (well, most of us anyway), and it is generally accepted that having a strong code of morals is a good thing. Even if many of us have never exactly qualified what we consider to be right or wrong, the majority of people have at least a basic idea of what they consider morally acceptable and a significant number are willing to make their moral standpoint on various issues very well known to anyone who doesn’t want to listen (internet, I’m looking at you again). One of the key features considered to be integral to such a moral code is the idea of rigidity and having fixed rules. Much like law, morality should ideally be inflexible, passing equal judgement on the same situation regardless of who is involved, how you’re feeling at the time and other outside factors. If only to avoid being accused of hypocrisy, social law dictates that one ‘should’ pass equal moral judgement on both your worst enemy and your spouse, and such a stringent dedication to ‘justice’ is a prized concept among those with strong moral codes.

However, human beings are nothing if not inconsistent, and even the strongest and most vehemently held ideas have a habit of withering in the face of context. One’s moral code is no exception, and with that in mind, let’s talk about cats.

Consider a person- call him a socialist, if you like that sort of description. Somebody who basically believes that we should be doing our bit to help our fellow man. Someone who buys The Big Issue, donates to charity, and gives their change to the homeless. They take the view that those in a more disadvantaged position should be offered help, and they live and share this view on a daily basis.

Now, consider what happens when, one day, said person is having a barbecue and a stray cat comes into the garden. Such strays are, nowadays, uncommon in suburban Britain, but across Europe (the Mediterranean especially), there may be hundreds of them in a town (maybe the person’s on holiday). Picture one such cat- skinny, with visible ribs, unkempt and patchy fur, perhaps a few open sores. A mangy, quite pathetic creature, clinging onto life through a mixture of tenacity and grubbing for scraps, it enters the garden and makes its way towards the man and his barbecue.

Human beings, especially modern-day ones, leave quite a wasteful and indulgent existence. We certainly do not need the vast majority of the food we produce and consume, and could quite happily do without a fair bit of it. A small cat, by contrast, can survive quite happily for at least day on just one small bowl of food, or a few scraps of meat. From a neutral, logical standpoint, therefore, the correct and generous thing to do according to this person’s moral standpoint, would be to throw the cat a few scraps and sleep comfortably with a satisfied conscience that evening. But, all our person sees is a mangy street cat, a dirty horrible stray that they don’t want anywhere near them or their food, so they do all they can to kick, scream, shout, throw water and generally drive a starving life form after just a few scraps away from a huge pile of pristine meat, much of which is likely to go to waste.

Now, you could argue that if the cat had been given food, it would have kept on coming back, quite insatiably, for more, and could possibly have got bolder and more aggressive. An aggressive, confident cat is more likely to try and steal food, and letting a possibly diseased and flea-ridden animal near food you are due to eat is probably not in the best interests of hygiene. You could argue that offering food is just going to encourage other cats to come to you for food, until you become a feeding station for all those in the area and are thus promoting the survival and growth of a feline population that nobody really likes to see around and would be unsustainable to keep. You could argue, if you were particularly harsh and probably not of the same viewpoint as the person in question, that a cat is not ‘worth’ as much as a human, if only because we should stick to looking after our own for starters and, in any case, it would be better for the world anyway if there weren’t stray cats around to cause such freak out-ness and moral dilemmas. But all of this does not change the fact that this person has, from an objective standpoint, violated their moral code by refusing a creature less fortunate than themselves a mere scrap that could, potentially, represent the difference between their living and dying.

There are other such examples of such moral inconsistency in the world around us. Animals are a common connecting factor (pacifists and people who generally don’t like murder will quite happily swat flies and such ‘because they’re annoying’), but there are other, more human examples (those who say we should be feeding the world’s poor whilst simultaneously both eating and wasting vast amounts of food and donating a mere pittance to help those in need). Now, does this mean that all of these moral standpoints are stupid? Of course not, if we all decided not to help and be nice to one another then the world would be an absolute mess. Does it mean that we’re all just bad, hypocritical people, as the violently forceful charity collectors would have you believe? Again, no- this ‘hypocrisy’ is something that all humans do to some extent, so either the entire human race is fundamentally flawed (in which case the point is not worth arguing) or we feel that looking after ourselves first and foremost before helping others is simply more practical. Should we all turn to communist leadership to try and redress some of these imbalances and remove the moral dilemmas? I won’t even go there.

It’s a little hard to identify a clear moral or conclusion to all of this, except to highlight that moral inconsistency is a natural and very human trait. Some might deplore this state of affairs, but we’ve always known humans are imperfect creatures; not that that gives us a right to give up on being the best we can be.

Well, last week’s solution didn’t work…

As I did last weekend, I am feeling like a sad, depressed, lonely bugger for no identifiable reason. Last week this lead to the disjointed and distinctly odd post on the subject of death, murder and assorted weird things, and as a method of letting out emotion it failed truly spectacularly. So today, I thought I might as well instead talk about depression.
I am not, incidentally, going to talk about this in a strict medical sense- I am neither qualified nor able to do so. But just-being-bloody-depressed-and-unhappy-half-the-time is something I have had to cope with for a large proportion of my life, and it is not something I have found to be well understood or, especially, appreciated.
Depression can arise from a wide variety of causes. For some people it’s  getting too philosophical and deciding there is no actual point to life, for others it’s an alternative to anger with the way their life is working out, and for some it’s just loneliness and boredom. The latter is actually an especially interesting scenario- people are generally only depressed when their mind is not occupied. A case in point is Robbie Williams, who for years suffered terribly with offstage depression whilst onstage having the time of his life. One thing, however, crops up when the matter is given thought- depression does not happen to anyone. Some people will never have a reason to, some will always be surrounded by friends, some will spend their entire lives kept too busy to really get depressed, but many simply don’t have the personality for it. Depressives tend to be people who think a lot- they may not necessarily be intelligent, but they will almost certainly be introverted to an extent and self-reflect a lot. The trouble is, bouncing ideas off yourself is not the same as bouncing them off friends, and it is unhealthy for a normal human brain.
The big problem with this is that the kind of people who get depressed are, therefore, those least likely to seek help. If you are an introverted person, you may have an unimpressive social life, perhaps be bad in the company of others or had some embarrassing rejections, and you are often unlikely to feel that opening up is going to help you. Plus… there is something delightfully selfish in wallowing in your own misery. It feels good. While everyone passes by and doesn’t help you, you feel better than them, which for a depressive is often a rare and satisfying feeling (Many depressives have major self-esteem issues; the irony is that these are often completely unfounded, and often caused by obsessive perfectionism or overambitiousness). The natural instinct of a depressive is to revert to their lifelong tactic and turn in on themselves, and it can take a seriously analytical and critical mind to realise that this is what is causing all the mental damage. Some people will never get out of this cycle, and will go to their grave with the same depressed tendencies that have dogged them all their lives, never telling a soul. These people are few- after an extended period of time, only the strongest-willed of depressives will not have thought of suicide, and it’s an option far too many have taken. Herein lies the issue- depressives hide from the rest of the world to prevent it from helping them, but often refuse to help themselves.
I must interrupt the flow here- if anyone who ever ends up reading this suffers from depression, make a beeline for your nearest counsellor. This can feel incredibly defeatist, like you’re giving up on yourself, but some things cannot be handled on your own. Counselling does not mean you are some psycho with mental issues, and counsellors are not psychoanalysts or quacks. Think of a counsellor as a professional friend- someone who you can talk about stuff to with no fear that it’s going to get spread, and who knows the best way to help you. If you really can’t persuade yourself that you should be getting counselling, or just want another tactic, throw yourself into your social life. Focus on a group of mates you’re sure you can trust (disloyal friends are killers to your self-esteem (and possibly wallet), as well as being amoral scum), and focus all of your efforts into enjoyment. Buy the first round, have an extra beer or two, be as wild as your inhibitions will let you. It may not work, but it’s worth a try, and if you manage to get yourself a stable social circle then the fight is as good as won.
However, there is one almost sure-fire way to help a depressive, and that is to break  their idea that introspection is a good tactic- to show them that the world is, actually, a good place full of good people. This not uncommonly happens by accident- the stressed-out worker with entering a spiral of depression receiving a rise and getting back on top of his rent. Many new parents may find coping with a new baby incredibly hard, and start getting depressed after the third night in a row that their little bundle of joy has woken up at 1am screaming their eyes out, and for them the release may come when such episodes stop becoming a nightly occurrence- circumstance too can be a saviour. But for many circumstances may not simply fall their way again, and this is where other people come in. I can speak from experience when I say that nothing cheers up a depressive more than somebody coming up to ask them what’s wrong, and persisting past the initial mumbled ‘Nothing’ or ‘I’m fine’ (although be warned anyone who tries this- make sure you know when to back off, because people who happened to just be staring vacantly that day may not take kindly to you asking deep questions about their mental fragility).  Somebody who genuinely wants to hear your problems and help you out is manna from heaven for a depressive, and there is also something deeply satisfying about knowing you’ve helped somebody else out. Depressives can sometimes be hard people to like- some have a tendency to be clingy while others demonstrate that there is clearly a reason they were out of the social loop. But if treated properly and pointed in the right direction, they are generally as nice enough people as the rest of us.
A little while ago, I heard a story about a schoolboy that I thought I could leave you with. He missed the bus home after school and, since he didn’t live too far away, decided to walk home. On the way back he met a guy in his year who was walking the same way- he didn’t know him well, only really as a face and name (I believe he was new to the school), but he seemed like an OK guy. They got talking, in the way schoolboys do, and spent most of the way back talking about football. It was a Friday, and as they parted the first boy asked his new mate if he wanted to come for a kickabout in the park over the weekend- he’d already arranged it with a few of his mates, and thought they could use an extra player to make up the numbers. The guy agreed, they parted, and met the next day at the football.
About a year later, the two having become pretty close friends, they got to talking about the day they first met. The second boy said that, for all the time he had been going to that school, that was the first time he’d had anyone to talk to on the way home. He also said that in his schoolbag that day had been a length of rope and, for but a missed bus and a few friendly words, he would have hung himself that evening.

Life is not just a body

Today, I am in a bad mood. When I get into this particular bad mood, my thoughts turn a little dark. So, as such, this post is going to be on the subject of death.
People die all the time- just about the only certainty of anyone’s existence is that it’s going to happen eventually. Death is perfectly necessary, and for most humans living in the developed world, it happens after a long and hopefully fulfilling time on this earth. In fact, across nature this is a fairly established pattern- if a wildebeest survives to be full-grown, it’s likely that, barring illness or injury, it will continue to live until it is old enough to become a prime target for the lions again. Another regularly occurring feature is the method of death- animals die either of disease, or they are hunted and killed- this is the natural cycle. However, humans are the exception to the rule, as we have taken death and killing to an entirely new level.
The most obvious example of this is pure, cold-blooded murder. Humans are not the only species to fight and kill one another over, for example, a mate, but they are the only race to commit pure slaughter of innocents on such a massive scale as has been done. Psychopathic killings, grotesque genocides- many times throughout human history killing innocent people has been done for no justifiable reason. The Nazi genocides were of course the worst example of this- millions upon millions of people, innocent of any crime, were slaughtered like worthless animals simply for being different to a perverted image of perfection.
With its prevalence in everyday culture, the true impact of actually killing someone can often be forgotten. Consider it for a moment. You are the killer, faced with an innocent figure, begging you for their life. They have a life, maybe a family. They are a person just like you or I. They have hopes, dreams, emotions- they could be a wonderful person, do amazing things, help other people.  Once they are gone, all that can never be. You have removed someone’s child, someone’s parent. You have removed someone’s protector, someone’s friend. By removing them, you are abandoning their friends, their partners, their relatives, leaving them alone without a shoulder to lean on. When one really thinks about it, human beings can be truly amazing, capable of doing truly amazing things. Now, ask yourself- how is anybody capable of taking a perfectly innocent life?
Notice how all the above points make no reference to the destructive effect on the body- the real crime of a murder is not the destruction of their vehicle to live and breath, but the destruction of their ability to think and, in a more philosophical sense, be. There is something truly and deeply inhuman about idea of deliberately targeting a fellow human being’s soul to be forced to undergo the most horrible atrocities against its nature, to be battered and bent and destroyed. And that is why there are two other crimes I wish to talk about here that I believe, loosely, to be in the same bracket as murder.
The first of these is torture (and also, for much of the same reasons, rape). For anyone who hasn’t read it already, I refer you to part 3 of George Orwell’s ‘1984’. For everyone who has read it already, read it again- it’s a great read and I always thought that his descriptions of the effects of torture were especially accurate. Orwell makes a very telling point- the torture does not stop when Winston’s body is battered and destroyed- it stops when he surrenders his will. At that point, he has ceased to be Winston Smith, a man under his own control- his very being has been bent into the party doctrine. One does not even have to force the surrender for torture to be the basest of crimes- deliberately causing another human being to hurt and suffer. Deliberately making the life of another worse to the point of mental collapse, another person like yourself… now there is inhuman.
The last of the three crimes in this bracket is somewhat far removed from the other two, and is certainly not as severe a crime as either- it is defamation of character, ie formulating lies about another person in order to make them social rejects and generally ruin them. This varies widely in scale, from simple bullying (something else I have an obsessive hatred of on principle), to… well go onto BBC iPlayer, watch the latest episode of Sherlock and you get the idea- its a far more effective and complete victory than murder ever would be. The really interesting thing about this is the effect that it has on the mind. Loneliness is never noted as being a good thing for one’s mental health, but when it is combined with the knowledge that it is perpetuating for as long as you remain in the same sphere of existing, it is enough to drive you insane. Knowing that you are innocent of what is being said, and yet simultaneously having that fact thrown back into your face at every turn sends the mind into a spiral of confusion and chaos, ruining someone from the inside out. It may seem like something completely alien from the inhuman atrocities of torture and murder, and when it is performed ineffectually its effect is trifling. But doing it properly, to the right target in the right way, watching all the structure of the life they lead crumble about them, is one of the most destructive forces to target the mind.
I don’t really know why I wrote this, or if it sounds like some disjointed ramble or not (if it does, please comment and say so). But this has been going round my head for the past 24 hours, and I kind of needed to get it off my chest. My apologies for the dark subject matter, I’ll try to be more light-hearted next time