The Expanding of the Canvas

Framed WallI was standing with Tony, who I’d just bought a copy of his book from at the Presentation College Reunion. I mentioned I was battling existence in my mind.

He said we writers look at the world differently and see things differently.

That’s a true statement, I think. I also think that it’s not true enough.

Our world is framed, and when I say that, I mean that your world is framed, my world is framed, and everyone else’s world is framed. There is absolutely nothing in our world that we deal with that isn’t a derived construct of our brains. All of our senses are interpreted, processed and spat out to us as reality. We know what we like and we know what we don’t like.

That physiological limitation is the first frame. We cannot experience things like magnetic waves and radio waves directly; these are things that we have interpreted into motion and sound so that we know that they exist. And all of our frames are slightly different – someone may have better vision, someone else better hearing, and someone else may be more sensitive to touch, smell… the list goes on. And how we interpret these signals, the ratio of these signals, varies our framing.

Then, when we introduce more human beings, it gets more complicated. We have sounds we agree on for language, and around the world we agree on different languages. We agree on things like what the color blue is, even though each one of us might perceive it differently, some of us more sensitive to the visual spectrum than others, but we have this agreement on what we call blue – and if you get into the finer details, you find the disagreements.

We frame our own physiological experiences to each other in the context of what we agree on. We will say that the sky is blue, even though it actually only appears to be what we all agree on as ‘blue’. And that, too, we frame – within our physiological frame. The communication frame, the ability to share things with others and have them shared with us.

Then it gets even more framed with society, with cultures and subcultures, and suddenly we’re looking at the world through shared experiences rather than as we actually see it, the phrase, ‘typing at a keyboard’ only making sense to someone who knows what a keyboard actually is.

So I don’t know that just writers see the world differently. I think we writers simply communicate more differently than others in the written sense, some of us  to expand it because we see the world differently at some level of framing and feel the need to expand the canvas within the frame. Some could argue that artists only see things that way, but that argument is typically made by artists. Scientists also have that issue.

In fact, everyone has that issue. It’s how we expand our canvases… or try to… that allows others to define us so.

Influence: Nikola Tesla

Tesla-bulbUntil the last decade or so, Nikola Tesla‘s place in history was paid lip service. Growing up around a motor rewinding shop, I was surrounded by the children of his works just about every day. When I found out that one man had come up with all these ideas, I had to know more about him – and there certainly is a lot to know. His grounding in science and technology was one thing – but a lot of people don’t know that he also translated poems, and that he also was a friend of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).

Grounded in science, he visualized things people couldn’t ‘see’  – magnetic fields, the flow of electricity. This is a man who created alternating current, something that many people can’t wrap their heads around. Increasingly, people can’t get their heads around any electrical thoughts, it seems, but… 

Beyond his science, he was a visionary who consistently put his castles firmly in the sky and then managed to build solid foundations under them. He lived a solitary life, which to an extent I understand – how do you share the kind of thoughts you have with someone else? How could anyone truly be close to someone who worked so hard to make his visions real? A solid work ethic, a solid scientific background, and the willingness to do what it took to see his vision through.

And people have begun to realize that. I could write more, but why would I when The Oatmeal pretty much nails it?

To understand reality is the drive in science, to dream and build in that reality is engineering.

Influence: Richard Feynman

Everyone has influences, and I’ve decided to write about a few of mine. Outside of Physics circles, few people seem to know about Richard Feynman – which is a shame. The majority of Feynman’s written works are not hard for people without a scientific background to read, and they all entail a philosophy well summed up here:


Without a doubt, his writings have influenced me. In some places they resonated because they made sense to me on an intuitive level and allowed me to grow beyond that. In other places, such as Ethics, it opened me up to new possibilities in looking at situations though I didn’t necessarily agree with him but have no space to argue with.

As an example, his work on the Manhattan Project was something that he thought about with this logic: He and others were scientists working on a project, and the greater society was responsible for how that work was used (A summary from ‘The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist‘). This is a straightforward way of looking at things that can assist in dealing with paralysis when trying to move forward, but I’m not sure that it’s necessarily correct. Ultimately, in this example, he was right – particularly since there was a race at the time to have atomic weapons and someone else would eventually have them and use them.

Yet his way of looking at the world beyond the matters of people was less problematic and more supportive to my own life in that there is beauty in science, particularly since I have always existed within technology and art. Some of the greatest works of art around us are explained by science – the simple flower as an example:

I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.” I think he’s kind of nutty. … There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
— Richard Feynman, What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988)

Quite an interesting man – a curious man – was Mr. Feynman, unabashedly so, and one of the great communicators in Science. These days there are greats such as Neil deGrasse Tyson to keep an eye on – but I do not know the body of his work well, and he is not done yet – he’s certainly not as dead as Feynman.

Some more quotes that I think are of worth from Feynman:

Well, we’re getting a little philosophical and serious, ok? Let’s go back to what we’re doing. One day we look at a map and this capital is K-Y-Z-Y-L and we decided it would be fun to go there because it’s so obscure and peculiar. It’s a game. It’s not serious. It doesn’t involve some deep philosophical point of view about authority or anything. It’s just the fun of having an adventure to try to go to a land that we’d never heard of, that we knew was an independent country once, no longer an independent country, find out what it’s like. And discover as we went along that nobody went there for a long time and it’s isolated made it more interesting. But, you know, many explorers liked to go to places that are unusual. And, it’s only for the fun of it. I don’t go for this philosophical interpretation of “our deeper understanding of what we’re doing.” We haven’t any deep understanding of what we’re doing. If we tried to understand what we’re doing, we’d go nutty.
— Richard Feynman, p. 236, from interview two weeks before his death in “The Quest for Tannu Tuva” (1989)

I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything. There are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask “Why are we here?” I might think about it a little bit, and if I can’t figure it out then I go on to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose — which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell. Possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.
— Richard Feynman, p. 239, from interview in “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” (1981)

The Search for Meaning.

Playmobile pottyI’m not sure we really matter.

No, this is not some existential issue I’m having. There have been enough of those, all without epiphanies. No, I’m writing about our species.

If, by some chance, I were to encounter a life form from another planet – or even a life form from this planet – I’m hard pressed to think of anything we do, as a whole, that is worth mentioning in a meeting where first impressions matter. Sure, we have technology, science, spirituality… the list goes on, but that’s all self-referential. If we actually look at what we do from outside of our species, it would make a very thin blog post. A colony of bees has a use. A planet of humans – we change everything to our own benefit even while changing things against our benefit. It’s wonky.

What is our purpose? Ask anyone and you’ll get a different answer. We’re convinced that our species is immortal when generations of us live and die under the light of dead stars. In a way we are immortal, somehow managing procreate faster than we die to the point where we’ve pretty much run out of space on a planet because of our own constructs. Governments pay farmers not to grow food in some countries while others starve. We have weapons in our arsenals that no one on the planet can run away from unless they have a ticket to get into space, and we haven’t quite figured out where we would want to go other than, ‘not here’.

It’s easy to imagine how our species got scattered around the planet. There was a lot of ‘not here’ involved. In fact, every country I have been to – those socioeconomic geopolitical divides cartographers note – has a fair number of people who want to go somewhere else simply because it’s ‘not here’. As a species, maybe that means we’re nomadic.

As individuals, we are defined and usually define ourselves by our role and status in society, but we would never admit to being drones serving queens in a hive. Or would we? And should we? I think so. We haven’t figured out a system that isn’t like indentureship – people work for a company, pay other companies, but really we work in a system and pay the system to live in the system simply because we were… born in the system. That’s pretty unimaginative.

We all agree to some extent on what life is. Our shared illusion, perhaps. We all know that death is a certainty and joke that taxes are too, when death is not of our creation and taxes are. We could, if we wanted, abolish taxes – but instead we fight to abolish death. And we’re getting better at that since in that way, the drones can pay more taxes before their deaths. That’s peculiar.

Let’s say that we abolish death. Does that mean we get to play life longer? How is that a benefit? I’m hard pressed to explain how that is a benefit.

Technology, science? Pretty self-referential so far. A bunch of primates staring at small screens while bumping into each other at varying speeds hardly seems like progress, particularly when meaningful conversation is lost amid the noise. It’s brownian motion. We’re as entertaining as a cup of tea.

Religion? Self-referential as well, and while Pascal’s Wager is worth exploring, people get indoctrinated into religion before they are allowed to make big decisions in society. It’s a child marriage of sorts. But beyond that, religion doesn’t say too much about what our species is supposed to do, just about how people should behave. Again, self-referential. Imagine the leaps the space programs of the world would have if religions dictated that prayers had to be made in space to be effective.

The very idea that we don’t matter eats at us. It devours us because we desperately, from within our place as cogs of society and the weight that comes with, want to think that all of this means something. That despite our species own demonstrated self-destruction while proliferating at a greater rate, that despite what we feel during those dark parts of our lives that we hide from, we matter.

Is not mattering such a problem?

So, here’s the fun part. If we don’t matter, it doesn’t matter if we think we do. We have a blank slate if we don’t matter, where we can define as a species who we really are… or we have the fingerpainted hieroglyphics of our past to define ourselves by.

Are we really defined by what we have done instead of what we could do? That’s how they measure the value of person in HR and in society – or more would be done for children in society.

Speaking for myself, I like the idea of defining ourselves by what we could do. 

But then, I don’t matter.

Precious Precarity

Nothing is ever truly complete because everything changes. While we’re not looking and still hold a snapshot of our former selves in our minds, we change – we’re almost never who we carry in our own mind.

We know this at the beach, when we stand and watch the sun rise at the intersection of boundaries of earth, sea and wind – and light. The sand shifts beneath our feet as the water laps at our toes, as we sink the wind blows through our hair. The light of the sun comes to our viewpoint through the globe prism of Earth’s atmosphere, cascading our eyes with a rainbow of reflected colors off of our surroundings.

We only see what isn’t absorbed, the colors we see the shadow of the visual spectrum that wasn’t.

Where the water line falls is determined by the tides, and the tides are combined effects of the gravitational forces exerted by the Moon and the Sun and the rotation of the Earth. And even as the Moon rotates around the Earth rotates around the Sun… our Sun hurtles toward Lambda Herculis at 20 km/s. 12 miles per second.

We’re dragging along with it with the rest of the Solar System even as Lambda Hercules itself rotates around the center of the galaxy that we, in the limitations of our languages, call “ours”.

As if happening to be in something gives one ownership. Think of that the next time you’re in a bad situation.

Most people don’t know all of this, and they don’t care. They just see the beauty of it – and they will talk about the beauty of a sunrise as if it’s a constant when it isn’t. It’s a precious precarity every morning of clouds, winds, dust and tides. It’s a cluster of precarity, a moving intersection in the Universe – however small those changes are.

And when I take a picture of all of this, people like that without knowing any of that.

It boggles me, like so many other things that people dismiss. The precious precarities that surround us, the wonderful beauty of improbability dancing through the Universe, ourselves looking in the mirror of our existence, wanting to be constant yet decidedly finite as we are.

That Cow Flatulence Issue.

A Bronx CheerJust a quick bit of research from the Internet, which never fails me:

Does the quantity of methane in cow farts get balanced out by the number of vegan farts should we all become vegans? Because vegans fart, and I want to make sure we have solid science behind the claim of having less cows creating less methane-by-cows… but the methane from humans? Do vegans produce less methane than cows in unit time?

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See, kids, Science can be fun!