Monday, July 9, 2012

Prometheus and the Vile Offspring

Last night I overrode my inherited inhibitions against going to see "Prometheus," Ridley Scott's revisitation to the "Alien" universe some thirty-three years (and six movies by six or seven directors) after its creation.  And I am very glad I did, for while the film has its problems (a few problems, not the overwhelming lot I was instructed to expect) the stunning cinematography of the film was itself worth the price of admission; and the themes raised are just as complex and compelling (if, oddly, less horrific in their execution) than the original "Alien".  

Right off the bat "Prometheus" dives into the implications of empathy on our possibility of survival in a mysterious and dangerous universe.  As in 1979's "Alien," Scott plays with the potential for deep horror in the figure of the ungrateful or 'vile' offspring.  Using the imagery from deep-set human rites and relationships, he reconstrues offspring in the harshest darwinian light to raise the terrible question: does what we think makes us special and good, our capacity for empathy, actually make us weak?

Just an aside, I'll try to cluster spoilers as footnotes and mark them with an &.  If you intend to see the movie soon, do avoid them.  That being said: onwards!

The film opens with a sequence of grand vistas over a fertile but unpopulated planet.  The score and images generate a feeling of expectation and discovery, rather than foreboding: an unexpected tone, after the sinister portrayal of the movie's trailer.  Even as the film descends from this expectation into the murky unfolding of the plot, this tone of the glory of exploration continues to recur throughout - even to the very end, which surprised me.  (I wonder if some of the poor reactions from the fan community stemmed from broken tonal expectations: they may have expected it to be more classically a horror flick.)  Into this landscape, a lone, robed humanoid is shown to sacrifice himself.(&1)  We are meant to infer that his rite seeds the waters of this planet for life, and that our ancestors rose directly because of it.

Here already is hidden the terrible theme of life in the Alien universe: the new is born out of the sacrifice of the old, and the vile offspring supercedes and destroys its progenitors.  When we later see the sanctuary of these "Engineers," its contents(&2) and its sacred imagery(&3) underscore that for them, the struggle for survival is the primary sacrament and its outcomes good, whether parent or offspring wins.  As Charlize Theron's character states later in the film: "A king has his reign and then he dies: it's inevitable."  The Engineers have accepted this as the moral truth of the universe - their messiah figure is thus not that which saves, it is that which destroys and replaces them.

This inverted philosophy, wherein the child consumes the parent, is utterly abhorrent to our sense of humanity, and therein lies the source of horror for the tale.  The human crew (especially the faithful heroine Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) who 'chooses to believe' that the Engineers created us and are inviting us to meet them) came in search of answers about our larger purpose in the universe from those that might be able to supply it, our cosmological parents.  And yet as the Prometheus' crew explore this sepulchre it becomes clear that while it is somehow related to us, its principles are utterly alien.  Any opening of the self to beauty or the other in this strange world is an invitation for infestation and death(&4).

At the same time, it is clear that the Engineers themselves are dedicated to this worldview, and while they fought for their own survival, it seems to be without terror as we know it.  The Engineer species(&6) seem to have accepted that, should they fail, they deserved to fail; their battles to survive are as devoid of higher emotions as a lion tearing down a gazelle(&7).  We, who grow up with loving parents and supportive social networks, believe that love and empathy are valuable in their own right, and that our relationships help us to grow as individuals.

The centerpiece scene of the movie digs into this conflict and rides it for all its worth in its horrendous implications for the mother/child relationship.  This scene pits Elizabeth's maternal and survival instincts against each other, and the result is by far the most intense sequence in the film.  Though the personal conflict that informs these events was introduced late and clumsily, the sheer level of tension and terror that it evokes leads me to forgive its lack of a better setup.

By the end, I am rather impressed by this character.  From her beginnings she is rather naive and breakable for an Alien movie heroine; but she rises to the high survivalist bar set by Sigourney Weaver's Ripley(&8), and in some ways above it.  What sets her apart, and I think what places its lingering mark on the tone of this movie, is her continued desire to meet the engineers face-to-face and receive an account from them for their actions.  Even after all this the hope burns on in some of the crew that any living Engineers will welcome their return as prodigal children, and will depose gifts of knowledge and everlasting life(&9).  Of course, this belief is a terrible error - for to Engineers the children are a threat to destroy (if weak) or be destroyed by (if strong).  In the face of the results from their final gambit, the Elizabeth's dedication to uncovering the truth requires a level of faith that may border on sainthood.  Any more rational actor would high-tail it back to the safety of Earth(&10); I cannot imagine Ripley, after her experiences, consciously choosing to go back just to understand them.

Oddly, although the visual cues underscore the connection between this film and the others of the Alien franchise, I feel it is thematically rather similar to another beautiful, somewhat flawed science fiction film: Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain."  This muted tale, told simultaneously in an uncertain present, a poetic future and a storybook past, explores the grief of loss in the face of the fight for survival, the denial of death and, ultimately, its acceptance as a necessary seed for new life.  Where "Prometheus" underscores the terror of abandonment in an amoral universe, "The Fountain" seeks to show that the cycle of life and death is indeed good and the proper order of the universe(&11), and finds a redemptive ending.  The latter movie rejects the idea, however, that love and growth may be meaningless if ending in death, that survival is the only good.  This is, I imagine, a somewhat easier story to sell in a world without chest-bursters.

There are a couple of choices that prevent the movie from reaching its full potential.  For one, the crew is too large - you shouldn't get to the final  action and wonder who that one guy is.  The production team probably felt they needed more people to kill off, but if you don't care about them then it's just pointless action, not horror.  For another, much of the character development felt rather clumsy; and mostly came too late, feeling shoehorned in just before it became relevant.  Again, that undermines our caring for these people and what they're going through.  But on the whole, these are minor quibbles about a successful film - and, I'll put a plug in here, a stunning use of 3D, which unfurls and gives substance to the intricate world of the ship and the claustrophobic alien ruins.

So if you have the stomach for a bit of body horror, I strongly recommend both Alien and Prometheus - and for different reasons.  Alien, because it's a tight, gut-clenching journey of terror, that pays off in spades; Prometheus, because it's a gorgeous and thought-provoking assay into a possible moral universe; oh, and The Fountain, because it's lovely and terribly sad, yet cathartic.

oh, caveat emptor: Prometheus is silly, at times.  There's a pretty collection of plot-points that just don't pass physics muster - blatant disregard for conservation of mass, travelling 50x faster than light speed - and smart characters occasionally act weirdly stupid.  But who knows - if I was beseiged on an alien planet, maybe I would forget about angular momentum too!

By the way, I stole the phrase 'vile offspring' from a comparable treatment in Charles Stross' brilliant and exuberant chronicle of our future singularity, "Accelerando."  In his treatment, we old-style meatspace humans are simply to limited to keep up with our increasingly rapid artificially intelligent offspring, who... well I don't want to ruin that for you!  It's a great book, zany, thoughtful, and hilarious.  Give it a read!

Spoilery Footnotes!
&1 In this parody of the rite of holy communion, he drinks the black chrism which destroys him down to the molecular level.  Thus his 'body and blood' feed the world and give rise to life - but at the dreadful cost of himself, and without a merciful god of empathy that will raise him from the dead after three days.

&2 The 'vases' filled with the black oil that creates new life, by devouring and repurposing the living material of its host.  As mentioned before, this provides a twisted take on the wine of holy communion (in which we physically partake in our messiah; rather than it physically partaking of us) and the baptismal waters (in which the baptised are reborn; in this case, quite literally).

&3 The Xenomorph (or 'Alien') is depicted in cruciform at the green alter behind the giant head.  This iconic figure holds a position of adulation, a messaianic role for the Engineers - for it is revealed at the end of the movie that this form emerges from the Engineers themselves when they are implanted from the xenomorph species.  The Alien is a perverted Christ, that saves by destruction, god from man, replacing the Engineers with a more perfect being: itself.

&4 The biologist, fascinated with a newly-discovered life-form, approaches and reaches out to touch a pale serpenty thing out of an admiration for its uniqueness and beauty - despite its downright creepy viper/penis/toothy vagina vibe (well done, design team!)  For his troubles, this gets him horrifically killed, his body implanted, and his parter melted, infected and... turned into a zombie caveman, maybe?  That bit was unclear.

&6 Though outwardly and genetically a match for humanity, the Engineers' philosophies are foreign enough to all human cultures to qualify them as a different species.

&7 The death of the last surviving Engineer at the hands-- er, tentacles-- of the squid-baby shows this: we see tension and possibly anger on his face as he struggles against his noodly demise, but I did not recognize fear.  Somehow once the heroine's out of the way, the terror of that scene vanished as well, and the rest was just a law of nature unfurling: the strong survive.

&8 Cutting out the alien squid-baby growing inside your own womb - the last terrible gift of your dead infected husband and research partner, with whom you never could conceive a true offspring - is a terrifying physical and psychological prospect, even with the aid of state-of-the-art surgical tools.

&9 The ancient Weyland's hope for continued personal life oddly mirrors the Engineer culture's own worship of survival.  He will not accept death, it seems, until it comes at the hands of a fitting adversary.  His expectation that the Engineers would wish to save him, however, contrasts rather ironically with his own disfavor for his own biological daughter, and favor of his (soulless) android son, who places curiocity above the life of his fellow crew.  Weyland's conflicting beliefs kill him just as surely as the blow from his presumptive 'heavenly' Father.

&10 as David suggests to her.  I think it's no accident that he winds up decapitated, just like the ancient Engineer, whose head is carried back to the ship and so uncannily recalls the giant sculpture that is the movie's icon.  Both the Engineers and David are rational, if brutal, actors, vying for ascendancy; they lack the emotional connections (the 'heart,' right Planeteers?) that make us human.  Quite the opposite of losing their heads, they 'lose their bodies' and David reveals his utterly cognitive nature.  This also contributes to the hopeful tone of the end of the film, as only the last complete human is physically capable of controlling her own destiny.  Wow, I got kind of Comp Lit there.

&11 The black oil of the Promethean rite is in function quite similar to the white sap of the Fountain's Tree of Life: both consume the celebrant and create new life from his body, though in one case predatorial and in the other, botanical.  The choice of palate betrays how in one case this is played for terror - and in the other, as a noble self-sacrifice.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The income inequality story, followup

I received some angry feedback from a reader, who took great issue with this line in my last post:
One of the amazing things about all this is, that almost everybody is pretty much equal.  Look at how flat the line is up to about 95% (~ $200,000): for the vast majority of people, your neighbors, friends, family and community is making pretty much the same amount of money that you are. 
This, the reader said, was patently untrue and made me sound like some out-of-touch egghead.  Because for almost everybody, that line doesn't look flat at all, and $200,000 is an incredibly unattainable sum.

In my last post, I was focusing on the relationship between the super-rich and the rest of us.  And when you compare the super-rich and the rest of us, the first thing to catch the eye is that they are making exponentially more money than everyone else.  That was my point last time.

Now lets look at another graph of the same data:

This is the same graph as last time, just zoomed in on a more reasonable range (income = $0 to $200,000).  This lets you see more readily what percentile you are, if you are the vast majority of people.  And when you plot the numbers this way, my previous statement about equality rings fairly hollow.  

The trap I fell into was simple: when you are considering big numbers, it is easy to lose track of little numbers. As a scientist, I tend to care most about big effects, and so what caught my eye was the insanely rapid increase in order of magnitude of income in the top 10%.  But when you're having trouble making ends meet, an extra $1000 can mean a LOT.

What I began to do at the end of my last post (and what is more ethically informative) was to compare the actual income of people to the income they need to live a healthy life with the possibility of improvement.  How many times the living wage do people make?  Well, that varies from place to place; but I can select a few representative ones*.  Take a look:

I'm plotting the income curve from above, but divided by the living wage in a variety of places (see the legend for details).  This is much more informative ethically speaking.  Dollars mean different things in different places; the living wage is supposed to tell you just how valuable your income is.

The story this graph tells us is that between 20 and 30 percent of Americans earn less than a living wage.  That should mean that roughly 20-30% of Americans are struggling to make ends meet, cutting corners on food, housing, education and healthcare, and getting stuck in cycles of predatory debt.  Moreover, the graph reveals that income inequality is definitely alive in the bottom 90%, even if it's totally blown out of proportion in the top 10%.

It also tells us that eliminating poverty is a problem we can solve.  Look at how much money is in the system, compared to the living wage!  Speaking simplistically, to eliminate poverty all we have to do is fill in that hole on the left of the graph.  Obviously how to do that is a detailed policy and economics question - but the capability to do it is not what is holding us back.

Thanks for reminding me not to get hung up on the little picture (the top 1%), when it's the big picture that matters.

*Living wage numbers taken, once again, from at the Pennsylvania State University.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The income inequality story

Numbers are fascinating and tantalizing things.  They're kind of like the words of power in some functional magic system* - with the exception that their powers are purely descriptive**, and not constructive.***

My goal is to have a footnote for every sentence in this post.****

Anyway, numbers:  they're liberating, in a sense, and can give a little guidance amidst confusion and doubt.  They can be used to figure out a story about the complex world we're living in, and there's nothing people need so much as a story about their life.

So here's a numerical question: what's going on with the Occupy movement?  When they claim "We are the 99%", what do they mean?  Well, they mean this:

(from, data from  Here we show total cash income in 2010 of all taxpayers in the United States, versus 'percentile' i.e. the percent of people compared to whom you make more money.  So reading this graph, if I make $25,000 a year, I'd be in about the 30th percentile - I'd make more money than 30% of people in the US.  (it's kind of hard to see on the graph, so I downloaded the data.)

Are you, then, in the oft-mentioned 99%?  From this data, the 99% are everyone who makes less than $515,000 a year.  So now you know.

This graph only goes up to the 99.9 percentile.  I read somewhere that the congressional budget office has not released data on the top 0.01% or the top 0.001% since 2005, and you can read what you like into that fact. But roughly speaking, the top 1% of earners make a comparable amount of money to the bottom 99%.

One of the amazing things about all this is, that almost everybody is pretty much equal.  Look at how flat the line is up to about 95% (~ $200,000): for the vast majority of people, your neighbors, friends, family and community is making pretty much the same amount of money that you are.  EXCEPT FOR the super rich!  Their colleagues are making stupendously more or less than them.  This kind of makes sense, since the most financially competitive people are probably also those who rise to the top.  It also probably provokes them to greater competition, as they see bigger swings of perceived prosperity than the rest of us.

Now we know all that, we need to ask: is income inequality a moral problem?  Not in and of itself.  If everyone in the society were taken care of, or able to take care of themselves, if there were a serious shared commitment to working for the good of all our citizens, than there would be no moral dilemma and perhaps the financial gaming of the wealthiest few shouldn't be a concern.

But there's another number that changes the story.  The living wage - an income necessary to pay for housing, food, and other necessities - is greater than the income of a large part of the population.  For Cambridge, MA, living wage for a family of 4 is ~ $66,000, and for a single adult living wage is ~$25,000.  That's (respectively) 45th percentile and 30th percentile nationally.*****  And that's the moral problem.

For the poor end of the spectrum, for whom service jobs are increasingly unsustainable, and for the lower middle class which is losing factory jobs overseas and increasingly to robots, these numbers reveal a rich environment for the growth of discontent.  For the richest of the rich, who subscribe to the Gospel of Pure Capitalism and make the claim that regulation will only ever harm them and (through them) the country,... well I imagine that they don't think too much about it.

I don't know about you, but having pieced together this story, I feel the need to compare it to another narrative, which has such sway over our national consciousness: the American Dream.  The idea that with effort anyone can improve their situation and pass on a better, healthier life with greater potential to their children is a stark contrast to the reality of life for so many millions in our country.  Our society is neglecting them, and leaving them behind, apparently for the sake of protecting the wealthy few.

As a country, is this who we want to be?

Not steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.
Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part. 
     - from Leonard Cohen, "A Villanelle for Our Time," 2004

*Beware links to there be time-wasting dragons here
**Actually, there's an ongoing and unresolved philosophy of science debate regarding why math has been so effective at describing the workings of the universe.  We have observed reality ('the universe') and we have conceptual structures that seem to have predictive power about the universe ('physics', or 'applied mathematics').  We also have something else: the observer ('conscious beings' or 'minds') that construct and note this relationship.  But what is the relationship between these three?  Does math somehow literally form the underpinnings of reality, i.e. the laws of physics are actual laws written on a metaphysical stone tablet?  Is describability an artifact of human intelligence only?  Can we apply the anthropic principle, and say that the universe MUST be intelligible for intelligent life to arise within it?  I need to figure out what the name for this question is - and when I do, I'll write more about it!  In the meantime, I strongly recommend this article from the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton: On Math, Matter and Mind.
***I have a neat idea for a functional magic system kicking around the back of my head based on this question.  It's an incredibly arcane and unwieldy type of magic where you have to self-consistently rewrite the local laws of physics to get what you want done.  Lots of unintended consequences.
****JK! no srsly LOL.
*****You can calculate the living wage in your area here:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In the style of John Cage

So I was going to do something else today, but instead I got this great idea for a novel:

In a post-apocalyptic one-way spaceflight, a wisecracking mercenary stumbles across an encrypted data-feed, which spurs him into conflict with his own insecurity vis-a-vis girls, with the help of a leather clad female in shades and her wacky pet, culminating in a philosophical argument punctuated by violence.  The title is: "The Chronobots."

I have had a couple story ideas before but I haven't really taken them anywhere yet.  Deep down, I feel that this one has real possibility.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Virtuosity, or, how I came to understand both jazz and tap dancing in a particularly productive and enjoyable evening

I barely managed to squeak into NYC in time to go see two dance companies perform in a double-bill* at the Joyce Theater last friday.  Very few people in my acquaintance actually believe in the existence of Luck as a fundamental substrate in the universe; perhaps I just have a way with transportation methods, that makes them nice to me.

The first company was choreographed by and bore the name of Jason Samuels Smith, a ferocious tap-dancer with a surprisingly small number of feet**.  This was the first professional tap concert I've ever seen live; my past encounters have been limited to student groups of varying caliber and enthusiasm (uncorrelated), and a handful of Hollywood musicals.

From seat #B3, two rows from the stage and all the way to the left, I was closer to the dancers feet than the dancers themselves - and those feet were performing activities I could barely follow.  The first piece, "A.C.G.I.: Anybody Can Get It" (2009) provided a smorgasbord of dynamism and staccato athleticism as the five** dancers slid from perfect and insanely complex rhythmic unison in and out of teetering solos, to the accompaniment of an on-stage 3-piece jazz band.

Choreographically, though, there's not much to it.  The tap dancers tapdance.  If they're in unison, they're in formation; if they're soloing, the other four are in a line behind them, keeping time.  Occasionally the formations pulsate, rotate, or invert.  In fact other than their feet, they seem to pretty much do whatever they want to do (or, occasionally, need to do to stay upright).  To one of my companions, this freeformness was downright irritating; their arms were flying all over the place, lacking both rhyme AND reason!  No modern dance choreographer (let alone Ballet) would leave the visual aspect of a dance looking so unfinished.  Alas for optimistic titles.

I think it was actually the next piece really helped me to G.I..  This was "Chasing the Bird" (2009, Excerpts) and ode to Jazz great Charlie Parker, in which three women each took on the role of an instrument in Charlie's songs and learned to play its part with her tap shoes - rhythm, pitch, inflection, as much as could possibly be translated into an entirely separate medium.  The first part introduced this idea by dancing through one complete song: riffs, solos, harmonies, musical conversations.  In the second, the music carried through about halfway and then, slowly, faded away.  And my sensation of listening to music transferred, smoothly, to the sensations of watching the Tap.  The whole skeleton of the music was still there, the bones of rhythm and tendons of conversation, and attached to it like a halo was the physical dynamism and personality of the dancers themselves.

Tap dance has the same relationship to other kinds of dance as jazz has with the rest of music: half its soul is in the pursuit of the mercurial, fractal, and baroque virtuosity that the other half of its soul, the pure personality of the performer, shines through.  The goal isn't to put on a character or transport the audience to another world.  The world of tap and jazz is right here, right now, and these amazing talented people can do incredible things before your eyes, pouring their being into a instantaneous and fleeting bit of magic.  That's really exciting!  If you know enough to understand what's going on.

I wouldn't say I really understand either form, and each separately washes over me like a foreign language.  But I do speak a little dance, and a little music - and the slow, steady reveal of their holographic connection in Jason Samuels Smith's work gave me a taste of that world.


"I would imagine that if you could understand Morse code, a tap dancer would drive you crazy."
-Mitch Hedberg

* The second company is Trey McIntyre Project, and they're also worth talking about: but they're kind of off-topic for this post.  Next time I'll do something that's more standard dance-criticism.
** He had two feet.  It sounded like a lot more to me.
*** ethnically- and gender-diverse

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Problems with Solar

Happy 2012, everybody!  I hope you're already planning your End-Of-The-Conversations-About-the-Mayan-Civilization party (I sure am) and making wild and exuberant statements about your actions in the New Year.  I, for one, pledge to think one unprecedented thought every day.  Today's thought: feet could maintain mirror symmetry both across the body and across the foot if the big toe were in the middle.  Shoe production could cost half as much!*

Having painted an optimistic portrait of the Solar Revolution, lets take off the rose-colored sunglasses for a closer examination of the difficulties with solar power.

And the beginning of a new year is a good time to do this!  For the sun has just turned around its decreasing presence of the fall, and is beginning to rise moments earlier and stay up seconds longer.  Last year, on the shortest day our sun was in the sky for only 9 hours, 4 minutes and 33 seconds** in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Of course, the Sun plans to make up for it in the summer, with the longest day in 2012 planned for 15 hours, 17 minutes and 6 seconds on June 20th.

This annual variability seasonally aggravates the primary difficulty with solar power: NIGHT.

Yes, unlike Kalgash the Earth has but a single star and a high (365:1) rotation to revolution ratio, implying that for about half the time we receive (almost) no light from our primary star.  From a solar power perspective, this is a real pain.  The electrical grid was designed around fossil fuels, and requires 24-hour-a-day electricity generation as a necessary component: whenever someone somewhere plugs in a toaster, an electric company has a power station online burning the midnight oil.  And while on average there's enough luminous energy from the sun to power everyone's ovens and iPhones, all of it is concentrated in just one-half of the day (and less in the winter).  Plus people tend to use the most energy in the mornings and evenings, not during the middle of the day.

The solution to the day/night quandary will necessitate as big a change to the grid as installing the solar panels themselves.  We'll need to store the energy when the sun's up, so we can use it when the sun is down.  The proponents of renewable energy know this, and everything from batteries with liquid-metal or nanotech to flywheels to giant capacitor banks are being researched.  While small-scale electricity storage has undergone a couple revolutions recently (any of you reading this on a phone may be aware), large-scale electricity storage is actually kind of difficult.  I'll come back to that point sometime and discuss it in a bit more detail.

What about the seasons, though?  Remember there's a six-hour swing in the length of the day during a Boston year, and that'll get bigger the further north you go.  And unfortunately, those shorter days are also when energy use goes up, as people break out the space heaters and take long hot showers.  Storing electricity from day into night is eminently doable, but it's unclear how electricity could be effectively stocked up in the summer months for use in the winter.  Maybe some chemical storage process would work best if such storage duration became necessary (like making hydrogen fuel from water using electrolysis).

Alternatively the more regularly-cooked southern states could become major electricity exporters in the wintertime.  There's plenty of space in (say) Texas to manage giant solar farms.

The other big problem of course is weather.  We also enjoy rotisserie chicken on rainy days; to say nothing of snowy ones!  Shoveling the driveway is enough of a pain without having to shovel the solar panels as well.  To this, I suppose there are two solutions.  Solution the first: build giant solar facilities in deserts.  The Mojave desert (as I stated before) could theoretically provide enough solar electricity to power the entire US, and they have the nice dry air that lets the sunlight through.

Solution the second is that solution to so many of life's problems: zeppelins.  Or space lasers.

It's unfair, really.  The sun is trying so hard to keep us warm and happy and able to use power tools, and the Earth just won't cooperate, all spinny and tilted and weatherish.  Well, the spinny part is probably a good thing.  And the weather, come to think about it.  Maybe we could do something about the tilt***.  In the meantime, it's just as important to work on electricity storage as on solar generation.

Happy New Year!


"Things are as they are. Looking out into it the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations." - Alan Watts

* Don't worry, I won't subject you to the rest of these.
** December 22nd, the Winter Solstice.  See this rather impressive site to calculate the length of day in your city, for arbitrary dates going back and forward 20 years!
*** incidentally, this too is most likely a really bad idea.