Saturday, the 16th of March

Talking points

Doesn't your local boarding school look like this? PHOTO: Reuters
  1. China said Uyghur detention camps are actually 'boarding schools'
  2. Tim Berners-Lee's memo outlining the World Wide Web turned 30
  3. California announced a moratorium on state executions
  4. The world of K-Pop was shaken by a sex-tape scandal
  5. Massive blackouts plunged Venezuela into darkness
  6. Convicted child sex abuser George Pell received a 6 year sentence
  7. One of Kim Jong-nam's killers was freed, the other faced court
  8. Boeing 737 Max-8s were grounded worldwide after another crash
  9. U.S. Senators voted to end support for the Gulf war in Yemen
  10. A Google employee calculated Pi to 31.4 trillion decimal places

Deep Dive

"Time is an illusion" - Albert Einstein. PHOTO: AFP/Getty Images

Humankind has spent aeons pondering the passage of time. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once surmised that a man cannot step into the same river twice, as it's not the same river and it's not the same man, that steps back in. Time goes in one direction and it changes all of us (in defiance of anti-ageing skin creams). Well, there's no simple way to say this but this week a group of researchers playing with quantum computers may just have found a rebuttal to Heraclitus. 

The heat death of the universe

Believe us when we tell you we're not being melodramatic. This week's discovery could well have implications for the entire universe. But before we get to that, let's recap a few of the basics first! Stay with us, it's worth your time.

As you'll no doubt remember from high school science class (right?), the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy increases over time. Entropy is the process by which energy moves from an orderly state to a disorderly (or chaotic) state. In other words, the universe is slowly descending into chaos. (And dying. But don't lose sleep over that - it's happening very, very slowly.) The important thing to focus on is this: since we know that entropy is increasing (i.e., it's only going in one direction: from order to chaos), we can use it to identify the direction of time.

If all these words are melding into one another, go find a glass jar and smash it. You'll notice that the nice orderly state of the fully-formed glass jar increases in entropy as it becomes a disorderly mess of glass shards. And, since entropy increases over time, you know that a jar can't un-shatter itself. Capisce? So now you've got a good understanding of entropy, apply it to the entire universe.

All the energy in the universe is slowly becoming more 'chaotic' – it is diffusing. And since the universe is rather large (and getting larger) it will eventually reach a point where energy can't be diffused any more. At the point we'll have reached a state of maximum entropy (chaos), or what scientists call thermodynamic equilibrium. The point is that up until this week the Second Law of Thermodynamics was treated as a universal truth. Now, we're not so sure. 

The uncertain arrow of time

This week researchers from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) published in Scientific Reports that they've used a quantum computer to successfully simulate the reversal of time. The project lead, Dr. Gordey Lesovik, explained it thus, "We have artificially created a state that evolves in a direction opposite to that of the thermodynamic arrow of time". How? Well, unluckily for you this is a Physics double.

Quantum computers are already beginning to show their potential for paradigm-shifting research and development. Rather than the twee old binary systems (where a unit of computing information can either be '1' or '0'), quantum computers use qubits, units of quantum information that can be '1', '0', or a superposition of both simultaneously. What this means is that rather than processing tasks one-by-one (for example, searching a list for a matching item), quantum computers can massively speed up the process by checking all items in the list simultaneously. So one doesn't need a physics or computer science degree to understand that the shift to quantum computing will be bigger than the internet revolution, bigger than blockchain, bigger than Ben Hur.

The team at MIPT, with help from colleagues in the U.S. used one of IBM's quantum computers to run a novel experiment dealing with entropy. They used an 'evolution' program to cause a pair of well-ordered qubits to devolve into a dizzying combination of increasingly complex positions (i.e., chaos). Once order had been lost, they ran another program to prompt the qubits to reorganise and return to their original state. And incredibly, they did. Within the limited simulation of the quantum computer, MIPT scientists had un-shattered glass.

When two qubits were tested, the time-reversal technique worked 85% of the time. When a third qubit was added, effectiveness dropped to 50%. Still, those aren't bad results for an experiment that is challenging a fundamentals l precept of how the universe operates. 

Cher, you can finally stop soliloquising about what you would do if you could turn back time, and just get on a flight to Moscow to go do it.


Lori Loughlin and the daughter she tried to sneak into USC. PHOTO: Chris Pizzello / AP

Revenge of the 'Thirds'

This week U.S. authorities served arrest warrants to 50 people – Hollywood celebrities, run-of-the-mill multimillionaire parents, high school sports coaches, university examiners – over a fraudulent admissions scandal. Their crimes? Taking part in an elaborate system of bribery and fraudulence that funnelled less-than-deserving offspring of the hyper-wealthy into elite colleges. Concerned parents paid tens (and in some cases hundreds) of thousands of dollars to a shadowy network of school staff who doctored transcripts, fabricated sporting prowess (including photoshopped action shots) and even organised for entry tests to be sat by other, smarter, people. It's a side-door to the Ivy League that hundreds have passed through.

The scandal has come as a surprise to precisely no-one. In fact, the only surprising part of the affair was that the F.B.I. team in charge of the investigation were witty enough to name it Operation Varsity Blues. It's unsurprising because in a society that equates money with status, everything is pay-to-play. There is also an element of humorous satisfaction to the scandal: despite affording their children privileges hitherto unheralded in human history, these people still have to commit federal felonies to get those Stanford letterman jackets.

These are crimes that are driven by a desire to confer the best possible life upon one's children – surely one of the few universal motivations. So we must retain an iota of sympathy for parents (not to mention their largely blameless kids). But it is also a problem enabled by an acknowledgement that 'the rules' are only for people who can't afford to bend them. 
The view over Timber Creek. PHOTO: ABC

Spiritual harm minimisation

For the world's oldest-continuing culture, Australia's Indigenous peoples, a connection to land and place is paramount. 60,000+ years of habitation means that the land they walk is deeply entwined with traditional metaphysics and identity. So much so that the two cannot be separated. Which is why the forced population transfers of Indigenous peoples from their homelands was not only a physical and psychology injury but a spiritual one too. Over the past several decades Australia's courts have struggled over how to compensate victims for this historic and continuing dispossession. Two major High Court trials – Mabo and Wik – established and strengthened the notion of 'native title', though their calculations remained rooted in the spatiotemporal and the measurable. 

So an important question remained: what compensatory price should you put on spiritual harm?

This week the Ngaliwurru and Nungali people of the Northern Territory township of Timber Creek got their answer. $2.5m has been awarded in recognition of the diminishment of their native title – and this includes spiritual connection to place. It cannot be overstated just how important this decision is for the traditional owners of Australia.

In a worrying sign for all levels of Australia's government, the $2.5m of compensation only covers 127 hectares. Considering that there are 2.8m square kilometres of land under native title in Australia, the claims could run to countless billions.

At a time when Australia is awakening to the unimaginable violence that accompanied settlement, this is a very positive step towards recognition and reconciliation.

The Best of Times

They won't be another brick in the sea wall. PHOTO: The Guardian

School Strike 4 Climate

Yesterday schools emptied all over the world. Students took to the streets by the thousands to remind their elders everywhere that our abrogation of responsibility on climate action has not gone unnoticed. They marched in Uganda, Vanuatu, India, Finland, New Zealand. Everywhere. Well over one thousand cities hosted youths and their placards. For this we can thank Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swede who launched her first climate strike in August of last year. Remember, this is not a protest against climate change, it's a protest against us for so glibly ignoring it.

Low art

Last week we mentioned that in times of great psychic stress it is only natural to apply the balm of aesthetics. Well, it's been a tough news week so please enjoy the stylings of Pigcasso, the pig who paints abstract art.

The Worst of Times

The sites of a vicious terrorist attack. PHOTO: AFP

Terror in Christchurch

49 people have lost their lives in an orgy of white nationalist violence in Christchurch. As Kiwi Muslims gathered for jumu'ah – their sacred Friday prayer – a group of white terrorists descended upon a pair of mosques. The killing spree lasted nearly an hour before police had the killers in custody. Gallingly, the assailant at the Al Noor mosque filmed and broadcast the entire massacre on a helmet camera. He is an Australian who had come to New Zealand to train, and launch the attack. He was well-known in far-right internet circles.

We're not sharing a second bad news story this week. The first is more than enough. Please stand by the minorities in your community, because hate-speech breeds hate-crimes. And from now on let's all try to stop equivocating when white nationalists tell us what kind of world they want, one earned through ethnic cleansing. Let's believe them.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week


Rodrigo Duterte called women "bitches" and "crazy ladies" at an International Women's Day event organised to celebrate women in the Philippines armed services and police

Headline of the week

iPhone shields Australian man from bow and arrow attack.

The New Zealand Herald

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EDITOR'S NOTE: What can we possibly say about Brexit? Theresa May suffered two more stunning defeats at the hands of her colleagues. It was absolute pandemonium in the Commons this week. Too many backflips to describe with any fidelity, at any rate. The can has been kicked down the road, again. At this point in time the delaying action is the only one that won't sink the country.

Just let it be known that Britain's parliamentary process has been so wholly discredited that we're not even quite sure that a one-party dictatorship would be any worse.

Tom Wharton

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