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  • Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

    When I’m feelin’ down, these are some things that bring me back up


    2011 - 03.16

    When I started this blog I told myself I would use this space to talk about things that inspire me and highlight the best in human character. I want it to be more about building things up, and talking about what is possible, rather than tearing things down or endless snark, cynicism, pessimism, paranoia, etc. The headlines lately have been dominated by disheartening news, particularly in my home state of Wisconsin, but there have been some awesome things going on, which I want to spend time thinking about.a

    There’s been some great press on the Ice Cube Neutrino Observatory lately, including an excellent article in IEEE spectrum.  I had previously blogged about Ice Cube, and it continues to remain in my thoughts, how awesome this thing is. Every time I read dismaying political news or feel despair at the missteps of our society, I remind myself that we’ve got dudes at the south pole tracking cosmic rays, and I feel a little bit better about our species. It’s reassuring–maybe the large majority of people are too caught up in the hustle of daily-life to bother with such existential “big-questions” but there is a tiny group of people working to answer these questions for our behalf. Those people are called heroes.

    Something else which is very, very cool is the STEREO spacecraft. Thanks to these guys, for the first time ever, we have a full 360 degree view of our sun. Sitting in same orbital position as earth, one satellite sped up and one slowed down, so that eventually (read:now!) they are positioned on opposite sides of our star. If I extrapolate correctly from the image above, it looks like from now and until around 2018, we can actually see the whole sun–enabling scientists to track sunspots, and the massive bursts of radiation that periodically spew forth. Although the odds of these radiation bursts and magnetic storms just so happening to align with Earth’s position are low, when it does happen, it directly affects all of our lives, in the form of blackouts, GPS interference, and slowdowns in many global industries affected by this radiation.  The rotating image at right is the first 360 degree composite they made of the sun.  There will be a lot more of these to come!

    The STEREO satellites, to me, represent some small measure of mastery over our cosmic front yard. It’s good to have a window to know what’s happening outside. And it excites me to think that we’re doing it. Not only do we have the technology to do it (the most obvious barrier), but we also have the political willpower to spend them dollas to get up there and DO it (this is the real obstacle to most awesome science). That, my friends, is what you call rad.

    I’ll sandwich in an honorable mention slash eulogy here for the NASA Glory satellite, which recently crashed into the Pacific. It’s a sad thing to think about, but worth mentioning, because hopefully they will try again. Long story short it was intended to monitor a whole slew of climate-related metrics to get us closer in touch with what the Earth is doing. Obviously very important work. This is actually the second satellite of this nature which failed to achieve orbit, so conspiracy theorists unite! (that’s the extent of my negativity here today)

    Another neat thing I read about recently is the All-Sky Fireball Network. In addition to having a maximum ass-kicking name, the project monitors the sky with a nationwide network of smart cameras, with the aim of tracking any meteors burning up in the atmosphere. William Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office states coolly, “nothing will burn up in those skies without me knowing about it!” Sweet!!

    Tracking these meteorites also gives them a vector for both where they should land and where they came from. Thus, if any of the meteorites leave remains that can be retrieved upon impact, the guys can study them, knowing a bit about their origin. Doublesweet. In effect it’s like getting free samples from outer space, without the need to launch costly rockets. Their data will also enable spacecraft designers to learn more about the nature of hole-punching threats that meteors would pose to future vehicles. Triplesweet.

    Learning about something like that is exciting, but I also get the feeling like, geez, this is so great, why didn’t we start doing this like 30 years ago? Again, the technology is nothing new, it’s simply summoning the will to pay for it that holds us back. Every time something like this gets funded, our priorities inch a little closer toward making sense in my mind. It’s reassuring to think about!

    Finding the Meaning: GTA Edition


    2011 - 02.26

    This is a long one, but hear me out: it ends in a great story–even if you hate video games.

    I’m a big fan of the video game blog Kotaku. Every day it’s a steady stream of news to check out, and they often have articles which are just musings upon what the editors liked about ‘the experience’ of playing a particular game. Often even more interesting is what you find in the comments on these articles; random people chiming in about their individual experiences, which is sometimes like a kaleidescope of perspectives and appreciations for different subtleties, and the stories that accompany them. I find it fascinating, reading about the reasons why people enjoy things, or that transcendent moment that ‘did it’ for them.

    One of my favorites was an article published shortly before the release of the fourth Grand Theft Auto entitled “GTA: Rememberances of Cars Jacked” which related lasting memories of experiences in the game and asked commenters what their favorite stories were. At the beginning of the article, Owen Good writes that one of the distinguishing hallmarks of the series is its ability to impart these moments of greatness “that rates the kind of visceral, first-time-ever memories that people usually have of events in the real world.”

    My friend Luke once described to me playing GTA: Vice City at a friend’s house. They were playing through the game near the beginning and had just obtained their first uzi submachine gun. Luke had stolen a motorcycle and was riding along the strip in Miami Beach, that famous stretch with all the vintage art deco hotels. Against the backdrop of neon signs, bikini-clad pedestrians, and 50’s-looking cars, he discovered he could shoot the uzi straight forward, something you can’t do in a car. He described finding the set of wooden ramps that lead to a set of daring motorcycle jumps across the rooftops, and taking that first wild jump where the camera suddenly swaps to a dramatic angle and the time goes slow motion. Through some convoluted series of police chases and blasting random cars with his new grip, he wound up back on the strip, looking out at the ocean–when right then the song “Shoot It Up” came on the radio.

    It’s one of those moments where you’ve just pulled off the craziest stunt, you can hardly believe you somehow came out unscathed, a bombardment of unexpected insanity ensues requiring deft maneuvers to escape, and then right in the thick of it all, that perfect song comes on and BAM, you’re not just sitting on the couch at a friend’s house–you’re transported. You’re in Miami. You smell the salt of seawater in the air, feel the breeze on your face, listening to the sounds of some song you haven’t heard since forever ago and it takes you back to some strangely-foreign, strangely-familiar place in your childhood. In that moment it really IS the 80s. You are THERE.

    Some of the more awesome comments from Kotaku:

    “Over the years and through three GTA games, we’d have a playsession once a week where (my friend and I would) each play a ‘turn’ wreaking havoc and trying to survive. When one of us would die in the game, we’d hand the controller over. His very first time playing GTAIII was especially memorable: after having seen me play it, he really wanted to steal an ambulance. So when he got the controller, he immediately popped a pedestrian and waited for the ambulance to arrive. When it did, he killed the EMTs and stole the ambulance, roaring in triumph and raising his fist in the air. I about fell off the bed laughing when, six seconds later, he drove the ambulance off a cliff and into the water (and died).”

    “I loved (the radio) so much, I actually bothered to rip the audio from the game discs of GTA3 and Vice City and converted it to play in my real-life car. Uncut, with (fake) commercials and all.” (I actually did the same thing for K-JAH/GTA3 and Radio Esperanto/VC)

    “The day I beat Vice City I watched all the Back to the Future movies and sewed all the Homestarrunner patches to a pair of tattered jeans I had. I was flying high and I couldn’t believe that after all the times I’d tried before, I’d finally done it. I was with my first gamer boyfriend (I know!) so for once in my life, playing a game and beating it was an event, something special. I couldn’t wait to tell him that night… then he dumped me. Ah, but I still remember the final firefight in the mansion like it was yesterday… I drove around on a bike in the gray t-shirt from the mall hitting as many pedestrians as possible in a huge victory lap around the city.”

    “My first GTA was Vice City for the PC, I didn’t have a PS2 then. I would spend hours cruising just listening to the radio station, I loved Fever. But I knew I was hooked on GTA when I was bummed out for the whole weekend that I had to take out Lance. Then, the first car I jumped in, they are playing “I Just Died In Your Arms” on the radio. It hit me so hard. Almost, almost teared up.”

    “In real life, I was driving down a street that had a cul de sac. It was winter, so the road was snow-covered and slippery. I sped up my car, and did a hand-brake turn at the end, effectively doing a 180. My passenger said “whoa, where did you learn that?” I coolly said “GTA”.”

    Vice City overlaid on a photo of the Avalon Hotel, Miami Beach
    Which brings me to this: Where things really start to take on a new dimension are the tales where video games and reality begin to overlap. Not for the illusion of invincibility or the reckless audacity it may accompany, but for the feeling of magic, of excitement, and the rediscovery of the sense of wonder, exploration, and experimentation that it brings.

    The summer after Grand Theft Auto III came out, I was living in the upstairs apartment of a house in Madison Wisconsin with my friend Rob. We had a slack-off office summer job together and lived one short block from State Street, the buzzing magnet for youth and juvenile shenanigans. The street is closed to traffic, cluttered with skateboarders, bikers, and a mix of student pedestrians from the university at one end and working professionals from the capital square at the other. Strung out in a ring around this area, our map was dotted with pubs to crash, late-night pizza joints to raid, an abundance of odd concrete begging for a freestyle, and endless question marks.

    One of the coolest aspects of the GTA series is how it constantly prods you to explore. To jump out of the car and see where that narrow crack between the buildings leads. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a little spot tucked away from view, a winding walkway ending in a fire escape climb, atop of which sits a “hidden package.” A small white box tied up with twine that is a badge of discovery. A bite-size reward, a tour of duty emblem that adds one more number to your score of how far down into obscurity your voyages have taken you and how boldly you sought out the tiny spots waiting to be stumbled upon.

    We used to take that idea into real life and go “hidden package hunting” on many a late nite bender. Hidden package hunting wasn’t so much about finding something as it was about looking. We’d take the weirdest shortcuts through people’s back yards, slipping through holes in the fences and squeezing between closely parked cars. If you were to chart our path through the city on a map, it would have been a squiggly line with only the loosest adherence to streets, blocks, or sidewalks. There was one night we went up to the top of a multi-story car park and jumped a medium-sized gap to land inside the neighboring, separate car park, working our way back down and walking past the bored attendant who gave us a funny look on the way out.

    As the summer wore on we got more ambitious and mischievous. One night involved the creative repositioning of those blinky, wooden construction markers into a narrow, twisting corridor along some minor sidestreet. Anyone who had to navigate their way through there the next day surely suffered the wrath of our annoying prank. I’m not saying it was considerate, or even a good idea. But I AM saying that it was definitely awesome.

    Another night we found this cool little area recessed below street level, filled with furniture and an expansive shallow pool. Having passed right by it many times we both kind of looked at each other and asked, “how did we not know this was here??” One way or another, some of that furniture ended up sitting inside the shallow pool, tables and chairs neatly arranged for leisurely eating cafe food and chatting. We sat in the pool-chairs and giggled over a brief conversation or two, long enough to enjoy the fruits of our little escapade before slipping away into the night to continue our hidden package hunt. Probably the culmination of these adventures was sneaking into the newly built convention center on the lakefront to see if we could make it to the top of the fountain on the roof. We did.

    We made hand holds with our feet and knees to hoist each other up and after a series of surprisingly easy clamberings, we dipped our toes in the fountain’s water of triumph, surrounded on one side by city lights and the other by lakewater. It was a sublime moment of victory. We OWNED that city. We laughed and gawked at the expansive view, maybe waxed philosophical a bit, and sat down with our legs hanging off the edge of the fountain to savor the moment. It was a glorious instant in time.

    The spell of which was broken by an inquisitive police cruiser pausing far off at the end of the long pedestrian bridge which had led us here. We froze. “Do you think he can see us?” “Nah. It’s pitch black up here.” “But our legs…?” We both looked at each other. Sure it was completely dark up here, but our feet had been hanging off the edge for some time, and the base of the fountain was brightly lit. Shit!

    Shoes and socks hastily went back on, and we made the jumps down onto the hard concrete in a frantic escape dash. There was only one way out: straight toward the police cruiser over the pedestrian bridge. Unless… the doors to a glass-enclosed stairway down to a lower level were unlocked. As luck would have it, they were. Mad laughter ensued and we took the stairs at full speed, crashing through the door at the bottom which opened up to the city street. Clean getaway. Zero stars.

    The Spiritual Uplift of Infinity


    2011 - 01.30

    Part one: Immensity

    One of the most endlessly fascinating human concepts is the idea of infinity. It’s a concept that is referenced often, but seldom do we get the occasion to sit and deeply contemplate the idea. There are so many ways in which infinity is a breathtaking thought. Let’s delve into it!

    The marvel which immediately comes to mind is the size of it. I think of a hundred as a big number. If I have 100 blueberry muffins, I’ve got more breakfast food than I could possibly eat. The refrigerator is going to be full, and even then, some of these things are probably winding up in the garbage. As much as I hate to see anything go to waste, and as much as I love eating a fluffy blueberry muffin, I simply cannot eat 100 of them. So 100 is a lot.

    Stepping up one order of magnitude, if I had 1000 muffins, now I would have to start giving them away. There would be boxes everywhere. Definitely not enough space in the fridge and freezer combined, and now I think I never want to eat another muffin again. Even the ones with the sweet crunchy tops. Iew. If I had 10,000, now we’re dealing with a disaster. The landlord is incensed with the gargantuan piles spilling out all the doors, and there’s probably not much room to walk through the house. At 100,000 muffins, I would probably get killed. Squeezed to death by the immense force needed to cram so many into one house. Even when you compress all the air out of that fluffy goodness, we’re looking at some dangerous volumes.

    But to a lot of people 100,000 is still not that big of a number. What about a million? That number gets tossed around like nothing. A million bucks for a mansion. A million oranges in a large plantation. 310 million people living in the United States. It’s a big country. But there’s almost 7 BILLION people living on planet Earth. 310 million US residents is not a lot of people compared to the 7 billion world population. We’re only 1/22nd of the total amount.

    A billion, now that’s a really big number. The sun and the earth both formed about 4.5 billion years ago. The universe itself is estimated to be 13.75 billion years old, with a visible size of 46 billion light years. So big, you can no longer grasp how large that is. There’s easily over 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. That’s more galaxies than even the widest, boldest mind can imagine. But there are bigger numbers still. And yet, the sizes of all these things are insignificant next to the size of infinity. A hundred billion is exactly the same distance from infinity as the number one. That’s the wonder of infinity!

    Just for fun, let’s keep going. The number of bits available for storage on my 1.5TB hard drive, 12 trillion. The US national debt is currently 13.75 trillion. A hundred dollars for every year in the age of the universe! The number of neural connections in the human brain is over 10^14. There’s over 70 sextillion stars in the observable universe. That’s 70×10^21. 10^80 elemental particles present in the observable universe. Google, now a household word, is an alternate spelling of googol, which is the number 10^100. Written out, that’s:

    Ten followed by a hundred zeros. But there’s even bigger numbers still! A googolplex is 10^10^100. In a scene from Cosmos, Carl Sagan humorously shows how it’s not possible to write out a googolplex because it’s simply too big–it wouldn’t fit inside our universe! Those 10^80 particles are simply insufficient for the task, even if one particle was used to represent one zero. And still, there are even larger numbers than the googolplex. Even dramatically larger numbers. But still, the idea persists that even the largest number conceivable is precisely the same distance from infinity as the number one.

    Pt.2: Park it wherever you like

    I’d like to talk a little bit about another fascinating property of infinity that gives me a lot of optimism and joy. When we think about infinity, my mind at least goes straight to the large: the vastness of the cosmos and the unending progression of time. But for all the giant spaces infinity implies, there are implicit minuscule ones as well. When we count from 1 to 2, we think of that as a finite interval. It’s easy to see, if I have one apple and you give me a second one, now I have two, a finite number of apples. I definitely don’t have infinite apples. (Although I wish I did.)

    But for every number you can name between one and two, I can give you a number that’s halfway between your number and one. You say 1.5, I say 1.25. You say 1.1, I say 1.05. You say okay wiseguy, how about 1.000001? I reply 1.0000005. We can start using scientific notation and continue this volley–until forever. And just like that, we’ve slid down the chasm into infinity, INSIDE the space between one and two. Infinity can exist inside of finite boundaries, because of the idea that in addition to being endlessly large, infinity is also endlessly small.

    This idea has tremendous philosophical ramifications. When we lay outside under the stars at night and gaze out upon the universe, the sheer scale of ourselves, compared to it, can really seem bewildering. Stupefying. Daunting. Maybe even a bit disheartening. We realize how utterly tiny we are. And how the vast spaces beyond our planet will never know our names, our histories, or the fruits of our lives work. The collective plight of our entire species will likely be a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a blink in the scale of our own galaxy alone, nevermind the cosmos. We glimpse the scope of the large infinity and all the treasure we hold special suddenly seems not just petty, but outright laughable. When our train of thought goes so far down that track, infinity seems to be a source of despair, pointlessness.

    It is in this moment we need to remind ourselves that the grandiose richness of detail, subtlety, and surprise that large infinities encompass is also fully present within the infinities of the small. And these infinities of the small reside within our familiar finite spaces. Holding two apples, one in each hand, you can hold the entire cosmos between your fingertips. That same infinity up in the sky at night is right here, literally in our hands, available to be reshaped, to be studied, played with, laughed about, and to reshape us with its own, bottomless insight. This idea of infinity, so breathtaking in immensity, is right here with us, a trove of eternal possibilities for inquisition.

    It’s a mathematical proof for the idea of interconnectedness. Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Buddhist, eloquently muses upon the idea of oneness using a single tree within the larger world:

    A tree is very beautiful. A tree to me is as beautiful as a cathedral. Even more beautiful.
    I look into the tree and I saw the whole cosmos in it.
    I saw the sunshine in the tree. Can you see the sunshine in the tree?

    Yeah, because without the sunshine, no tree can grow.
    I see a cloud in the tree. Can you see? Without a cloud there can be no rain, no tree.

    I see the Earth in the tree–I see everything in the tree.
    So the tree is where everything in the cosmos… come into.
    And the cosmos reveals itself to me through a tree.

    Therefore a tree, to me, is a cathedral.

    It inspires me so very deeply to think that infinity can be bounded within a finite space. It inspires me to think that the potential for limitlessness is anywhere you look. The comprehensive vast ‘everything’ is right here. All around us, within our hands, and inside of us. Exactly like Thich Nhat’s tree, we can look into ourselves, we can look between our hands, we can look…wherever we want, and see the whole cosmos.

    Cicadas in the forest of the universe


    2010 - 12.23

    I remember as a child someone once telling me about a type of cicada that sleeps underground for years.  There are a great number of them hibernating in the dirt, and somehow, on a special day, all of them emerge at once. They climb out of the soil and up the trees, where they shed their exoskeleton and take flight to find their mate.  Once they’ve reproduced, the eggs are laid and the cicadas die.  These eggs hatch on tree branches and the larva fall to the ground, where they dig into the dirt and the cycle begins anew.  They too will spend years asleep underground, and emerge for a few frantic hours to proliferate themselves.  Depending on how quick it all goes down, they may live as a flying insect for a few days at most, and just a single night at the least.

    A recollection returned to me of digging in the sandbox and finding the empty shell of a cicada.  It was kind of gross, but I couldn’t help but study it, scooped up in my orange plastic shovel.  Suddenly that empty shell had taken on a new meaning.  It was the spectre of a creature who had lived, maybe only a few short hours.  Even to the perspective of a human child, probably six or seven years old, only having a few hours to live your whole life seemed like something of a sad story.  One night only.  Just a single sunset in the breadth of your whole being.

    Our existences are brief.  There is an expression, “we are not long for this world.”  How true it is.

    If you could live a thousand years, would life get boring?  What if you could live a hundred thousand years?  What would the meaning of life be, to someone who lived for so long?  Would it be different than a human who lived a normal 80 years?  What would the highlight be?

    Given a different set of parameters, ambitions change.  If a doctor told you tomorrow that you had one day left to live, you’d probably do something relaxing and introspective.  If he told you three months, you’d probably book some flights, see the MVPs of your life, and maybe check out the Mediterranean like you always wished you had.  If the doctor said you had 50 years left, well, you’d probably say, “thank you captain obvious,” and keep going in to work every Monday.  But what if you had 500 years?  You might start making some different plans.

    “What is the meaning of life?” is a question somewhat like “what is your favorite color?” in that everyone will have their own answer, and there are certainly popular replies.  “Blue” for instance, would be a lot more common than, say, “chartreuse”.  Of course there’s no wrong answer, but I wonder what it says about our priorities when we compare what our objectives might look like, given a much longer time span to execute.  I’ve been wondering to myself what my own ambitions would look like if I thought I had an extra century to get there.  What does it say about the merits of my current goals?

    At half-price books a few weekends ago I picked up a ten dollar hardcover entitled “Superstructures in Space” which contains boatloads of pictures illustrating the various craft we’ve sent out into the sky.  Everything from the Hubble Telescope to Voyager to the Deep Impact spacecraft.  A full-page image, taken by the Hubble, caught my attention.  This photo shows a nebulous stellar nursery, where stars are born.  A stunning sight, which explodes the boundaries of the mind.

    What amazements could possibly await those who will someday voyage there?  We think of our own planet as endless, and our lives as eternities, but compared to merely this one section of the cosmos, as captured by Hubble, they pale in size.  More than tiny.  Beyond minuscule.  Like cicadas in the vast forest of space, our minds cannot grasp the richness, complexity, and subtle beauty of our surroundings.  We are filled up with preoccupations of digging out of the dirt, and finding a partner, just in the nick of time before we all expire.  We may be lucky enough to soar over the treetops for our own brief instant, but a towering pine in the distance, a mountain upon the horizon, and that great unknown beyond it remains hidden to us.  Our time is too short to visit there.  Our time is too short to even figure out what may lie there.  Nevermind the world beyond that, and the world beyond that.

    “What is a drop of rain, compared to the storm?
    What is a thought, compared to the mind?
    Our unity is full of wonder which your tiny individualism cannot even conceive.”
    -System Shock, 1994

    In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan discusses the composition of Neptune’s moon Triton, which is covered in layers of frozen nitrogen snow.  He says, “In some places the surface is as bright and white as freshly fallen Antarctic snows (and may offer a skiing experience unrivaled in all the Solar System).”  Skiing on a moon of Neptune.  Think about that one for a minute.

    Then consider the fact that as wildly fantastical as skiing on Triton may sound, winter sports in our outer solar system is only one adventure, out of the innumerable adventures offered by our universe, on innumerable worlds, most of which are, in all likelihood, unimaginably different than Earth.  By the time we get to Triton, the sport of skiing may be as ancient as games once played by the Mayan tribes, or the Incas.  Humans will have since moved on to other snow sports, probably using technology not even conceived of yet.  Something even more outlandish than Marty McFly’s hoverboard.  By the time we make it to the stars captured in the Hubble image, homo sapiens will have long ago have evolved into creatures different than we now know ourselves.  Maybe some elegant, drastically improved humanoid who evolved through cosmic radiation and scientific enhancement, devoid of the flaws of tissue degeneration, memory loss, and tendencies toward aggression, thoughtlessness.

    These intrepid adventurers will set foot upon worlds we visited only in the ships of our imaginations, confined to the ground as we were.  We may smile, thinking of our own yearning to travel to such exotic places fulfilled vicariously by our descendants, a way of reaching past the limits of our own single evening as a cicada in the forest of our universe, and fulfilling a goal too vast for the blips of our lifetimes; to see, to know the universe.  To permeate it, populate it, celebrate it, to play a long, graceful part in it.