A Short History of Blurriness

I am short sighted; have been since I was about eight. It was glasses for a few years, but then it started to get bad and taking it off for rugby matches ceased to be a feasible strategy if I wanted to be able to catch the ball. So the contact lenses came in, firstly only for match days and subsequently the whole time. Nowadays, quite a lot of my mates are completely unaware that I wake up each morning to a blurry vision of my ceiling, which I guess is a tribute to the general awesomeness of modern technology

The reasons for poor vision concern the mechanics of the eye; eyes consist of (among other things) a lens made from some squishy substance that means its shape can change, and the retina, a patch of light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye. The aim is to bend light, emanating from a source, so that it all focuses onto one point right on the retina. The extent to which this bending must occur depends how far away the source is. How much the light is bent depends on the thickness of the lens- if it is thicker, the light is bent to a greater degree, which is preferable if the object is close to you, and vice-versa for objects further away. Your body is able to control the thickness of the lens thanks to a couple of suspensory ligaments running around the top and bottom of the eye, which pull at the lens to stretch it out. If they pull harder, then the lens gets thinner and light is bent less, allowing us to focus on far away objects. The degree to which these ligaments pull is controlled by the ciliary muscle; when the ciliary muscle pulls, the ligaments slacken, and vice-versa. If the lens was kept at this thickness, then light coming from a source close to us would not be focused onto the retina, and instead of a nice, clean, crisp picture then we would instead see a blurry image. All this, it should be pointed out, is working on the scale of fractions of millimetres, and it’s all a very finely-tuned balance.

In the majority of people, this is no problem at all- their eye muscles work fine and keep the lens at the thickness it needs to be. However, amongst the short-sighted, the ciliary muscle is too big and so cannot relax to the extent that it can in a normal eye. This means that the suspensory ligaments do not have quite the range that they should, and are unable to pull really hard to get the lens out to its thinnest setting. When viewing objects up close, this is no problem at all; the light needs to be bent a lot and it all lines up nicely over the retina, producing a lovely, clear image. However, once objects get further away, try as the ligaments might, they just can’t get the lens thin enough to do its job properly. The end result is that light from faraway objects is bent too much, focusing it onto a point just in front of the retina rather than actually on it, and resulting in a blurry image. In some ways, it’s quite an amusing paradox; the need to wear glasses, so often stereotypically associated with nerdery and physical weakness, comes about as a result of a muscle being too big.

In long-sighted people, the situation is reversed; the ciliary muscle is too small, and is unable to exert the required force to make the lens sufficiently thick to see close-up objects. This causes light to be focused behind the eye, resulting in the same kind of blurriness and requiring the person concerned to wear reading glasses or similar for dealing with nearby objects.

And whilst we’re on the subject of reading glasses, let us pause and consider glasses and contact lenses in general. In many ways, glasses were humankind’s first tentative step into the field of biomechanics, and I am occasionally amazed that they have been around long enough for us to take them for granted so. Somehow, I find it endlessly amazing that, by looking through some special glass, I can suddenly see things properly; it all feels suspiciously like witchcraft, even if it takes only simple science and geometry to understand. It’s a commonly known fact that light, when passing through glass, slows down and bends.  If we mess around looking at the geometry of the problem and apply that to light passing through a convex or concave shape, we arrive at an interesting conclusion- that a convex lens causes light to ‘turn inwards’, focusing initially parallel rays of light onto a point, and that a concave lens will do the reverse, causing light waves to spread out.

As we have seen, our eye has a convex lens built into it already to focus light onto the retina but we have already seen how this system can fail if all the finely-tuned controls are out of sorts. However, if we place another lens in front of our ‘broken’ lens, we can correct the flaws in it; if, for example, our original lens is too thick and bends light too much (as in short-sighted people), then by putting a concave lens in front of it we can bend the incoming light outwards, necessitating the light to be bent by a greater degree by the eye’s lens and allowing it to do its job properly. This, in effect, causes the light rays to be set at such an angle that it acts as if the object were positioned closer to the eye (my apologies if that sentence made no sense whatsoever), and a similar system using convex lenses can be utilised by long-sighted people. This is the principle upon which both glasses and contact lenses operate.

Then there’s laser eye surgery, in which the surgeon cuts open the eye, fires a laser at the cornea (the bit of the eye containing the lens and all the other refracting equipment) in order to reshape it, and then re-seals it. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go and huddle under my duvet as a direct result of that image…


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.

Who is most impressive?

As one or two of you may have noticed, the Olympics are almost over, prompting the requisite large party and giving some Brazilians a chance to wear odd clothes, dance about and generally play to stereotypes (probably- I’m feeling a little cynical today). However, in not too long a time that other, perhaps more understated, tetrannual sporting party will get underway: the Olympics’ disabled cousin, the Paralympics.

In some ways this will be a spiritual homecoming for the Paralympic Games- founded in 1948 for ex-servicemen with spinal injuries after the Second World War, it was the brainchild of Dr. Ludvig Guttmann of Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Great Britain (the sports centre at Stoke Mandeville is still called the Guttmann centre in his honour, and one of the two mascots for London 2012 is called Mandeville). Guttmann was a Jew, and had emigrated from his native Germany in 1939 to escape persecution from the Nazi government of the time. He founded the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke in 1944, and founded the ‘Stoke Mandeville Games’ (to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics) in response to his feeling that sport could be use as a form of therapy for the seriously disabled, giving them purpose and self-respect. His vision was a great success, ballooning in size and popularity until, in 1960, it became officially tied to the Olympics proper (it wasn’t called the Paralympics until 1984). Guttmann himself was showered in praise for his work, being awarded (among other things) a CBE, OBE, and a knighthood in 1966.

Since then, the Paralympic movement has continued to inspire and amaze. Since 1960 non-war veterans have been eligible to compete, and multiple categories of disability have been entering since 1976. For many, the very existence of the Games has been a beacon of hope for lives torn apart by accident or injury, something to focus their otherwise unspent athletic energies upon, and thus fulfilling Guttmann’s vision of sport as a therapy. For a special few, they have been a springboard to their being able to compete amongst able-bodied counterparts, in sports ranging from sprinting to shooting to swimming.

Paralympians, obviously, do not have the physical capacity to match able-bodied competitors in the majority of situations, and as such, on a purely numerical basis, they are ‘less impressive’. Human nature dictates that we thus find them less interesting and compelling to watch for an extended period of time, a problem compounded by the sheer number of different classifications, leading to a huge number of medals and competitions and thus a confusing and some might say unfocused set of events that becomes impossible to keep track of (there are, for instance, six different classes of cerebral palsy 100m sprinting, giving the athletes concerned 6 times less attention, 6 times less focus and interest and making their medals seem only a sixth as valuable).  All this means that the amount of funding and (especially) media coverage offered to the Paralympics is significantly less than the Olympic equivalents, despite a great advance in recent years, and that they are simply not taken quite as seriously as Usain Bolt & Co.

All of which begs the obvious question: are Olympians really better than their disabled counterparts, or do the mental battles, financial struggles, and management of trying to hold down a paying job before we even consider the crippling physical impairment enough to render Paralympic Athletes even more impressive?

This question ultimately boils down to a question of which is more impressive- being the best in the world, or being merely far, far better than the rest of us mere mortals despite having to overcome. To consider an example, the world record for 100m sprinting in the most severe class of blindness is 11.03 seconds, less than a second and a half slower than Usain Bolt’s fastest ever time and far faster than anyone I happen to know- and this is done whilst entirely unable to see where you are going.

OK, you might say, but blindness doesn’t actually affect physical capability, so what about something that does. Consider the shot put, which involves throwing a large metal ball weighing 16lb (7.26kg) as far as possible with a rigidly monitored technique. 7kg is a surprisingly ungainly mass at the best of times, but when compacted into a small, dense ball thrown in one hand it becomes even harder to handle. I have thrown a shot in school, much lighter than an Olympic one, and got it about 2 metres. Karmel Kardjena is quadriplegic, as in all limbs severely damaged to the point of muscles not working properly, and can throw it 11.

These are just examples I can find on Wikipedia that make for a good comparison- I’m sure a dedicated student of the Paralympics could quote dozens more. Perhaps the most famous Paralympian of all, South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius (aka Bladerunner) won a silver medal in the 2011 World Championships INSERT BIT ABOUT 2012 WHEN HE’S DONE IT (competitions he entered despite a 2008 ruling, which he later successfully appealed, that the carbon fibre replacements for his amputated forelegs were giving him an unfair advantage). He is competing amongst the very best in the world, regardless of the fact that he has no calves or feet, and he is representative of the sheer quality that is surely present among Paralympians.

However, in order to judge our argument effectively, we must still consider how impressive our able bodied athletes are. I have already dedicated an entire post to just how superhuman these people are, but it’s worth taking another look around at the plethora of talent on display over the last fortnight to truly comprehend that. To take a parallel with Kardjena, let us consider the equivalent men’s shot put record. We must, of course, bear in mind that able bodied athletes are capable of not only taking a hopping run-up but also twisting the full trunk of their body, but even so, their achievements are staggering- the world record is over 23 metres (interestingly enough still shorter than the shortest discus throw in Olympic history, at 25).

So then, which is better? Well, to be honest it really comes down to a matter of opinion. Some may believe that the sheer quality of Olympic athletes cannot be made up for by the disabilities of Paralympians, whilst others will say that they more than cover for it and that the Paralympics is the home of real sporting greats. But, in many ways, this argument is entirely irrelevant, if only because we could argue until the end of time and not reach an answer. The real fact to acknowledge is simply that these Paralympians are clearly not here ‘just to take part’- they are serious athletes going in serious competition and capable of seriously amazing things. Whether Oscar Pistorius is better or worse than Usain Bolt matters not so long as we are all agreed that both of them are so great, so beyond what any of the rest of us can do, that they deserve every ounce of admiration we can muster. As the father of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, famously said: “The important thing in life is not the victory but the contest; the essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well”

And sorry for the rather lame cop-out