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.

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The Offensive Warfare Problem

If life has shown itself to be particularly proficient at anything, it is fighting. There is hardly a creature alive today that does not employ physical violence in some form to get what it wants (or defend what it has) and, despite a vast array of moral arguments to the contrary of that being a good idea (I must do a post on the prisoner’s dilemma some time…), humankind is, of course, no exception. Unfortunately, our innate inventiveness and imagination as a race means that we have been able to let our brains take our fighting to the next level, with consequences that have got ever-more destructive as  time has gone  by. With the construction of the first atomic bombs, humankind had finally got to where it had threatened to for so long- the ability to literally wipe out planet earth.

This insane level of offensive firepower is not just restricted to large-scale big-guns (the kind that have been used fir political genital comparison since Napoleon revolutionised the use of artillery in warfare)- perhaps the most interesting and terrifying advancement in modern warfare and conflict has been the increased prevalence and distribution of powerful small arms, giving ‘the common man’ of the battlefield a level of destructive power that would be considered hideously overwrought in any other situation (or, indeed, the battlefield of 100 years ago). The epitomy of this effect is, of course, the Kalashnikov AK-47, whose cheapness and insane durability has rendered it invaluable to rebel groups or other hastily thrown together armies, giving them an ability to kill stuff that makes them very, very dangerous to the population of wherever they’re fighting.

And this distribution of such awesomely dangerous firepower has began to change warfare, and to explain how I need to go on a rather dramatic detour. The goal of warfare has always, basically, centred around the control of land and/or population, and as James Herbert makes so eminently clear in Dune, whoever has the power to destroy something controls it, at least in a military context. In his book Ender’s Shadow (I feel I should apologise for all these sci-fi references), Orson Scott Card makes the entirely separate point that defensive warfare in the context of space warfare makes no practical sense. For a ship & its weapons to work in space warfare, he rather convincingly argues, the level of destruction it must be able to deliver would have to be so large that, were it to ever get within striking distance of earth it would be able to wipe out literally billions- and, given the distance over which any space war must be conducted, mutually assured destruction simply wouldn’t work as a defensive strategy as it would take far too long for any counterstrike attempt to happen. Therefore, any attempt to base one’s warfare effort around defence, in a space warfare context, is simply too risky, since one ship (or even a couple of stray missiles) slipping through in any of the infinite possible approach directions to a planet would be able to cause uncountable levels of damage, leaving the enemy with a demonstrable ability to destroy one’s home planet and, thus, control over it and the tactical initiative. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to focus on a strategy of defensive warfare and any long-distance space war becomes a question of getting there first (plus a bit of luck).

This is all rather theoretical and, since we’re talking about a bunch of spaceships firing missiles at one another, not especially relevant when considering the realities of modern warfare- but it does illustrate a point, namely that as offensive capabilities increase the stakes rise of the prospect of defensive systems failing. This was spectacularly, and horrifyingly, demonstrated during 9/11, during which a handful of fanatics armed with AK’s were able to kill 5,000 people, destroy the world trade centre and irrevocably change the face of the world economy and world in general. And that came from only one mode of attack, and despite all the advances in airport security that have been made since then there is still ample opportunity for an attack of similar magnitude to happen- a terrorist organisation, we must remember, only needs to get lucky once. This means that ‘normal’ defensive methods, especially since they would have to be enforced into all of our everyday lives (given the format that terrorist attacks typically take), cannot be applied to this problem, and we must rely almost solely on intelligence efforts to try and defend ourselves.

This business of defence and offence being in imbalance in some form or another is not a phenomenon solely confined to the modern age. Once, wars were fought solely with clubs and shields, creating a somewhat balanced case of attack and defence;  attack with the club, defend with the shield. If you were good enough at defending, you could survive; simple as that. However, some bright spark then came up with the idea of the bow, and suddenly the world was in imbalance- even if an arrow couldn’t pierce an animal skin stretched over some sticks (which, most of the time, it could), it was fast enough to appear from nowhere before you had a chance to defend yourself. Thus, our defensive capabilities could not match our offensive ones. Fast forward a millennia or two, and we come to a similar situation; now we defended ourselves against arrows and such by hiding in castles behind giant stone walls  and other fortifications that were near-impossible to break down, until some smart alec realised the use of this weird black powder invented in China. The cannons that were subsequently invented could bring down castle walls in a matter of hours or less, and once again they could not be matched from the defensive standpoint- our only option now lay in hiding somewhere the artillery couldn’t get us, or running out of the way of these lumbering beasts. As artillery technology advanced throughout the ensuing centuries, this latter option became less and less feasible as the sheer numbers of high-explosive weaponry trained on opposition armies made them next-to impossible to fight in the field; but they were still difficult to aim accurately at well dug-in soldiers, and from these starting conditions we ended up with the First World War.

However, this is not a direct parallel of the situation we face now; today we deal with the simple and very real truth that a western power attempting to defend its borders (the situation is somewhat different when they are occupying somewhere like Afghanistan, but that can wait until another time) cannot rely on simple defensive methods alone- even if every citizen was an army trained veteran armed with a full complement of sub-machine guns (which they quite obviously aren’t), it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of a terrorist group to sneak a bomb in somewhere destructive. Right now, these methods may only be capable of killing or maiming hundreds or thousands at a time; tragic, but perhaps not capable of restructuring a society- but as our weapon systems get ever more advanced, and our more effective systems get ever cheaper and easier for fanatics to get hold of, the destructive power of lone murderers may increase dramatically, and with deadly consequences.

I’m not sure that counts as a coherent conclusion, or even if this counts as a coherent post, but it’s what y’got.

The President Problem

As one or two of you may have noticed, our good friends across the pond are getting dreadfully overexcited at the prospect of their upcoming election later this year, and America is gripped by the paralyzing dilemma of whether a Mormon or a black guy would be worse to put in charge of their country for the next four years. This has got me, when I have nothing better to do, having the occasional think about politics, politicians and the whole mess in general, and about how worked up everyone seems to get over it.

It is a long-established fact that the fastest way for a politician to get himself hated, apart from murdering some puppies on live TV, is to actually get himself in power. As the opposition, constantly biting at the heels of those in power, they can have lots of fun making snarky comments and criticisms about their opponent’s ineptitude, whereas when in power they have no choice but to sit quietly and absorb the insults, since their opponents are rarely doing anything interesting or important enough to warrant a good shouting. When in power, one constantly has the media jumping at every opportunity to ridicule decisions and throw around labels like ‘out of touch’ or just plain old ‘stupid’, and even the public seem to make it their business to hate everything their glorious leader does in their name. Nobody likes their politicians, and the only way for them once in power is, it seems, down.

An awful lot of reasons have been suggested for this trend, including the fact that we humans do love to hate stuff- but more on that another time, because I want to make another point. Consider why you, or anyone else for that matter, vote for your respective candidate during an election. Maybe it’s their dedication to a particular cause, such as education, that really makes you back them, or maybe their political philosophy is, broadly speaking, aligned with yours. Maybe it’s something that could be called politically superficial, such as skin colour; when Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980 it was for almost entirely that reason. Or is it because of the person themselves; somebody who presents themselves as a strong, capable leader, the kind of person you want to lead your country into the future?

Broadly speaking, we have to consider the fact that it is not just someone’s political alignment that gets a cross next to their name; it is who they are. To even become a politician somebody needs to be intelligent, diligent, very strong in their opinions and beliefs, have a good understanding of all the principles involved and an active political contributor. To persuade their party to let them stand, they need to be good with people, able to excite their peers and seniors, demonstrate an aligning political philosophy with the kind of people who choose these things, and able to lay everything, including their pride, in pursuit of a chance to run. To get elected, they need to be charismatic, tireless workers, dedicated to their cause, very good at getting their point across and associated PR, have no skeletons in the closet and be prepared to get shouted at by constituents for the rest of their career. To become a leader of a country, they need to have that art mastered to within a pinprick of perfection.

All of these requirements are what stop the bloke in the pub with a reason why the government is wrong about everything from ever actually having a chance to action his opinions, and they weed out a lot of people with one good idea from getting that idea out there- it takes an awful lot more than strong opinions and reasons why they will work to actually become a politician. However, this process has a habit of moulding people into politicians, rather than letting politicians be people, and that is often to the detriment of people in general. Everything becomes about what will let you stay in power, what you will have to give up to allow you to push the things you feel really strong for, and how many concessions you will have to make for the sake of popularity, just so you can do a little good with your time in power.

For instance, a while ago somebody compiled a list of the key demographics of British people (and gave them all stupid names like ‘Dinky Developers’ or whatever), expanded to include information about typical geographical spread, income and, among other things, political views. Two of those groups have been identified by the three main parties as being the most likely to swing their vote one way or the other (being middle of the road liberal types without a strong preference either way), and are thus the victim of an awful lot of vote-fishing by the various parties. In the 2005 election, some 80% of campaign funding (I’ve probably got this stat wrong; it’s been a while since I heard it) was directed towards swinging the votes of these key demographics to try and win key seats; never mind whether these policies were part of their exponent’s political views or even whether they ever got enacted to any great degree, they had to go in just to try and appease the voters. And, of course, when power eventually does come their way many of their promises prove an undeliverable part of their vision for a healthier future of their country.

This basically means that only ‘political people’, those suited to the hierarchical mess of a workplace environment and the PR mayhem that comes with the job, are able to ever get a shot at the top job, and these are not necessarily those who are best suited to get the best out of a country. And that, in turn means everybody gets pissed off with them. All. The. Bloody. Time.

But, unfortunately, this is the only way that the system of democracy can ever really function, for human nature will always drag it back to some semblance of this no matter how hard we try to change it; and that’s if it were ever to change at all. Maybe Terry Pratchett had it right all along; maybe a benevolent dictatorship is the way to go instead.

Today

Today, as very few of you will I’m sure be aware (hey, I wasn’t until a few minutes ago) is World Mental Health Day. I have touched on my own personal experiences of mental health problems before, having spent the last few years suffering from depression, but I feel today is a suitably appropriate time to bring it up again, because this is an issue that, in the modern world, cannot be talked about enough.

Y’see, conservative estimates claim at least 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in our lives, be it a relatively temporary one such as post-natal depression or a lifelong battle with the likes of manic depressive disorder or schizophrenia. Mental health is also in the top five biggest killers in the developed world, through a mixture of suicide, drug usage, self-harming or self-negligence, and as such there is next to zero chance that you will go through your life without somebody you know very closely suffering or even dying as a result of what’s going on in their upstairs. If mental health disorders were a disease in the traditional sense, this would be labelled a red alert, emergency level pandemic.

However, despite the prevalence and danger associated with mental health, the majority of sufferers do so in silence. Some have argued that the two correlate due to the mindset of sufferers, but this claim does not change the fact 9 out of 10 people suffering from a mental health problem say that they feel a degree of social stigma and discrimination against their disability (and yes that description is appropriate; a damaged mind is surely just as debilitating, if not more so, than a damaged body), and this prevents them from coming out to their friends about their suffering.

The reason for this is an all too human one; we humans rely heavily, perhaps more so than any other species, on our sense of sight to formulate our mental picture of the world around us, from the obviously there to the unsaid subtext. We are, therefore, easily able to identify with and relate to physical injuries and obvious behaviours that suggest something is ‘broken’ with another’s body and general being, and that they are injured or disabled is clear to us. However, a mental problem is confined to the unseen recesses of our brain, hiding away from the physical world and making it hard for us to identify with as a problem. We may see people acting down a lot, hanging their head and giving other hints through their body language that something’s up, but everybody looks that way from time to time and it is generally considered a regrettable but normal part of being human. If we see someone acting like that every day, our sympathy for what we perceive as a short-term issue may often turn into annoyance that people aren’t resolving it, creating a sense that they are in the wrong for being so unhappy the whole time and not taking a positive outlook on life.

Then we must also consider the fact that mental health problems tend to place a lot of emphasis on the self, rather than one’s surroundings. With a physical disability, such as a broken leg, the source of our problems, and our worry, is centred on the physical world around us; how can I get up that flight of stairs, will I be able to keep up with everyone, what if I slip or get knocked over, and so on. However, when one suffers from depression, anxiety or whatever, the source of our worry is generally to do with our own personal failings or problems, and less on the world around us. We might continually beat ourselves up over the most microscopic of failings and tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, or be filled by an overbearing, unidentifiable sense of dread that we can only identify as emanating from within ourselves. Thus, when suffering from mental issues we tend to focus our attention inwards, creating a barrier between our suffering and the outside world and making it hard to break through the wall and let others know of our suffering.

All this creates an environment surrounding mental health that it is a subject not to be broached in general conversation, that it just doesn’t get talked about; not so much because it is a taboo of any kind but more due to a sense that it will not fit into the real world that well. This is even a problem in the environment of counselling  specifically designed to try and address such issues, as people are naturally reluctant to let it out or even to ‘give in’ and admit there is something wrong. Many people who take a break from counselling, me included, confident that we’ve come a long way towards solving our various issues, are for this reason resistive to the idea of going back if things take a turn for the worse again.

And it’s not as simple as making people go to counselling either, because quite frequently that’s not the answer. For some people, they go to the wrong place and find their counsellor is not good at relating to and helping them; others may need medication or some such rather than words to get them through the worst times, and for others counselling just plain doesn’t work. But this does not detract from the fact that no mental health condition in no person, however serious, is so bad as to be untreatable, and the best treatment I’ve ever found for my depression has been those moments when people are just nice to me, and make me feel like I belong.

This then, is the two-part message of today, of World Mental Health Day, and of every day and every person across the world; if you have a mental health problem, talk. Get it out there, let people know. Tell your friends, tell your family, find a therapist and tell them, but break the walls of your own mental imprisonment and let the message out. This is not something that should be forever bottled up inside us.

And for the rest of you, those of us who do not suffer or are not at the moment, your task is perhaps even more important; be there. Be prepared to hear that someone has a mental health problem, be ready to offer them support, a shoulder to lean on, but most importantly, just be a nice human being. Share a little love wherever and to whoever you can, and help to make the world a better place for every silent sufferer out there.