Reply to a pessimistic friend, who thinks the world is doomed and is glad that he has no grandchildren.
Optimism/pessimism depends on your perspective. Remember back when we were in college - many people were pessimistic then. Science then said very certainly that the world would run out of oil in about 50 years and that population growth was so explosive that in 50 years the population would increase by an order of magnitude (China is where they really expected there to be billions upon billions) with the resulting malthusian nightmares. Many people back then solemnly swore they wouldn't have children because they didn't want to bring children into such a broken and failed world and also because they didn't want to add to the world's population problems.
Today we're facing an oil glut and the world population is nowhere near what was predicted. Parts of the world that 50 years ago were impoverished - hopelessly so - today are thriving. Global business fueled by the Internet leads to dislocations and disruptions but means that competition for labor and goods tends to level out the previously vast differences between economies. There is very little talk today about The Third World. Many countries that 50 years ago were hopelessly impoverished are now manufacturing and even technological powerhouses.
Who would have guessed that China would force through its one child policy, that that work that used to be done in Detroit or Pittsburgh would now be done in the Far East, that when you call a US company for technical help you wind up talking to someone in India...
Not that there aren't problems in the world - big problems. But the challenges we face today and that seem insuperable are very different from the problems we faced 50 years ago and that seemed insuperable then.
The known universe that we live in now is very different than the universe we used to think we lived in. Billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars with 13 billion year histories. The fact that the molecules essential for life that are in your body only exist because stars died - going supernova and thereby creating such complex matter. We now know that only about 20% of what exists consists of matter and energy that we can ever see or interact with, the rest being "dark matter" and "dark energy" that as of now we only detect because of gravitational effects. We are on the brink of creating computers and computer-based robotic entities capable of solving problems (and creating new problems) beyond the reach of human understanding. We also are scarily close to making contact with intelligent (and dangerous) living beings elsewhere in the universe. And within a couple decades we will have colonies in permanent orbit around the Earth and on the moon and on Mars.
I'm not saying that the changes to come will all be "good". I'm saying they will be unpredictable, and that today's dire predictions will be obsolete in comparison.
And this world and the other worlds that man will inhabit will need the brilliance, the ingenuity, the courage of your grandchildren and of their grandchildren.
There's always a "good old days". The past is always simpler than the present, because we know so little about it. We remember the threads of consequence, the events that shaped the world as we know it today. The other stories become mere anecdotes, curious unimportant details. And we have no way to reconstruct the branching paths of possibility that gave context and meaning to the circumstances in which events unfolded. Contemporary daily newspapers hint at the degree to which, in the moment, people were unaware of what the outcomes would be and how future generations would view or totally ignore the events of that day.
In the present, we are inundated by everything that is possible -- an infinite number of possibilities, all of which we need to take seriously and prepare for. When we consider the past, the choices and the challenges seem so much easier to deal with, not because they were, but because of our ignorance.
The ancient Greeks also had their
"good old days". They talked of the Golden Age, which came before
the Silver Age. And, to them, their present time (the time of
Pericles and Socrates and Plato and Sophocles and Euripides and
Herodotus) was the Iron Age.
Your body is a rental. The molecules that make up your body have been recycled over and over again for about 14 billion years and will continue to be recycled after you cease to be.
Somewhere in the world, there are probably doppelgangers of you -- people you'll never meet who are not related to you, but who look enough like you to be your twin.
The words you use have been used over and over by other people since the beginnings of language.
Other people have expressed or will express ideas close to ideas of yours.
Is there anything tangible and readily identifiable that is unique about you? (Not fingerprints or DNA, which require analysis by skilled technicians, with special equipment.)
Imagine a wall full of post-its, an infinite wall. One of the post-its has written on it the most interesting and important idea you have ever expressed. The other post-its covering that infinite wall have those same words, but were written by or will be written by other people.
There are differences in handwriting on these post-its that can be interpreted as indicators of personality. But nearly all of the current and future posits don't have handwriting at all -- they are computer printouts.
Your handwriting used to be the standard indicator of your identity. A "holograph" of a famous person, a document written entirely in the handwriting of the author, was a collector's treasure. A handwritten letter was a work of art -- not just the words, but the presentation, the handwritten context that reveals the character of the writer and his or her state of mind at the time of writing. Also the neatness, the obvious care or the hurried scrawl express or don't express respect for the intended recipient. Or a hurried note could reflect the familiarity of the correspondents -- they are familiar enough with one another's handwriting that there is no need to be careful, like married couples finishing one another's sentences. They need just clues, not clarity. They can fill in the gaps without even thinking about it.
Medieval copyists were artists. They didn't just duplicate the words they saw in old manuscripts. Rather they embellished and beautified with color and flourishes.
Later, business copyists, handling the correspondence of the firms they worked for were expected to not simply copy words from one document to another or to faithfully transcribe words that were dictated to them. The finished documents they produced reflected on the firm. Presentation, not just accurate content, was essential. And that took skill and experience.
Think of Melville's Bartleby, Dickens' Bob Cratchit, and the clerk-copyists of Gogol's stories. All men.
With the invention of the typewriter, copying documents became a mechanical process, rather than a craft or art form. Low-paid typists (overwhelmingly women) took the place of educated and skilled clerks.
Today, with photocopying, scanning, spell-checked word processing, and email instead of paper mail, the skill level required to write and copy documents has dropped much farther. Bosses may write their own messages. And often, it would be difficult to determine from the presentation -- the look and feel of the document -- whether it was done by the boss or by an assistant. The document has become anonymous. It is no longer an indicator of identity.
states do not require schools to teach cursive reading or
writing. So in a
generation or two, not only will the vast majority of people not
write by hand, they also will not be able to read handwriting. Handwriting will be
like Latin, only understood by academics. And nearly all those
post-it notes on that infinite wall will look just the same as
I frequently enjoy the unique pleasure of watching an entire TV series one episode after another and another. I used to do this with DVDs, now I do it streaming using Netflix and Amazon Prime. Recently, I've watched this way: Scandal, Shameless, Homeland, Game of Thrones, Big Bang Theory, Sheldon, Dharma and Greg, Third Rock from the Sun, Frankie and Grace, Episodes, Coupling, Newsroom, Allie McBeall, Picket Fences, Gilmore Girls, Modern Family, Heart of Dixie, Dharma and Greg. I'm now addicted to/enjoying Stranger Things.
In the old days, the only choice for watching series was broadcast television. Typically, 22 episodes constituted a season, and the episodes were broadcast one per week, with the time slots for the rest of the year being reruns. It was a stop-start experience, often with cliff-hanger stories to encourage viewers to come back next week or next year.
The advent of video recorders changed that experience. You could save episodes and watch them whenever your wanted or in a bunch. You could rent or buy. You were no longer constrained by the schedule of the network or local station. You could fast-forward past commercials. You could pause. You could rewind and rewatch. You were in control.
Then came cable with video on demand and DVRs, giving you similar control even more conveniently. Programming to record what you wanted when you wanted was far easier.
Now with streaming, you don't have to plan ahead at all. You can at any moment decide to binge on a series and watch one episode after another, from the first episode of the series through the last one; without commercials. Watching in that mode, with only the interruptions you decide on you can get deeply involved in the story and identify with the characters, and see the actors growing up and aging -- like time-laps photography, watching grass grow or a flower bloom, where what normally takes days or months or years unfolding for you fast enough for you to perceive and enjoy the spectacle of change. Or you can choose to watch in stop-start style, with breaks s long as you want, to suit your personal schedule and life style.
Watching "Stranger Things" got me thinking about time and how viewing vast video stories by streaming has affected my perception of time. It sensitized me to the either/or aspect of time -- is time itself continuous or discontinuous?
Film mimics action. A series of still photos viewed in rapid sequence looks natural movement. The faster the sequence, the smoother and more natural-seeming the motion. The camera takes a series of discrete pictures of real action; and, in playback, you see that action mimicked, and would not notice that it was an illusion, unless you viewed in slow motion. And with animation, photos taken of still images (drawings or models) get replayed as action, making the impossible look natural.
You can get the reverse effect buy turning on a strobe light in a dark room. Then you perceive what would otherwise look like smooth motion as a sequence of discontinuous still shots.
The human eye and brain evolved with this capability of converting a sequence of still images into the perception of motion. What was the survival benefit of this capability, which we evolved long before the invention of motion pictures? Why should we presume that the underlying reality which we perceive is smooth continuous motion? Rather, it seems likely that "reality" is discontinuous, like a series of still shots; and that when we evolved the ability to perceive it as continuous because that provided practical benefits. And perhaps that ability we developed was far more powerful that what was needed, laying the groundwork for creating and enjoying motion pictures.
In other words, it is possible that time itself, the medium in which motion occurs, is discontinuous, just as what we perceive as continuous solid matter actually consists of molecules and atom and force fields, and mostly is "empty space". So how small is the basic unit of time and what is the time between time or what is the mode of being that exists between these units of time?
Normally we talk about time by analogy with space.
In that mode, time is one dimensional like a line.
A spatial line extends infinitely. And time extends infinitely in the past and also in the future (by this spatial analogy, those are two directions on the same line.)
A point is the intersection of two lines. It is dimensionless. It has no extent. It can be thought of as infinitely small.
By analogy, one could think of a moment as the intersection of two times lines. How could there be more than one time line? Or why shouldn't there be?
There can be an infinite number of points on any line and on any line segment, no matter how small. But in the case of time, there is only one point -- now, which seems to move along the line in just one direction Behind now extends the past and in front of it extends the future.
If the analogy of a line to time is useful, the line need not be straight and need not be limited to a single plane. While a spatial line is itself one-dimensional, it can curve and spiral thereby existing in three spatial dimensions. In fact, since nothing can be straighter than a beam of light, and gravity either distorts space-time or bends a beam of light, in the real world all spatial lines exist in at least three spatial dimensions. Hence, by analogy, the time-line can be thought to exist in three temporal dimensions.
Instead of thinking of time as a straight line, visualize it as a line on a disk, like a record on a turntable. There might be multiple, even an infinite number of lines on this disk (which need not be flat/two-dimensional, but rather could be warped regularly or randomly, and might have a shape regularly or randomly changes). If the lines are equidistant from each other and therefore do not intersect, we could try to define "Now" without intersections. Continue the analogy of a record on a turntable, we might define "Now" as the intersection of the line or groove with something analogous to a needle. The turntable turns regularly or randomly and the needle stays in the groove/line. Where the needle has been is the past. Where it is headed is the future. And where it touches is "Now".
We define time by motion: the hands of a clock, the rotation of the Earth, he perceived illusory motion of the sun and stars. A digital clock belies that concept by displaying a sequence of numbers in stagger-step -- one number, then another, then another -- discrete changes rather than smooth continuous movement.
We might ask if reality is analog with smooth continuous changes or digital with stop-start discrete changes. In any case, if the discrete changes are small enough, we wouldn't perceive them any more than we see the discrete frames in a movie played at full speed.
Surely we could make machines that could perceive and record far more accurately than our all-too-human senses and brain. But the machine we rely on to extend our sensory and processing and memory capabilities are all digital -- based on two discrete choices -- yes or no; one or zero.
So we perceive time as smooth, continuous and analog, but that may be as much an illusion as what we experience in video. The limitations of our sense organs and of how we process sense data both with our brains and with the thinking machines we have designed make it impossible for us to determine if the underlying reality which we live in is continuous or discontinuous.
We perceive time very differently than machines record it. (Would it be an advance in artificial intelligence if we programmed a computer so it could mimic human subjective time?)
There is wide variation in time as subjectively experienced, ranging from sensory-deprived boredom to stress-induced trauma. A second can feel like and be remembered like an hour or a day or a lifetime. There are probably limits to what can be stored n short-term memory. In moments of life-or-death crisis that limit is probably broken and short-term spills over to long-term, and the mass of data that is perceived gets indelibly imprinted in long-term memory, and take up far more memory capacity than is normal.
You could think in terms of time itself going faster or slower, like varying speeds of the Now turntable. Or imagine that stress can trigger the brain as well as the body operating in exceptional ways, enabling the perception, processing and storing of far more data far more quickly than normal.
This notion of variable subjective time or variable speeds of time reminds me of a radio receiver tuning in to differently frequencies. It also reminds me of that series "Stranger Things" which triggered this sequence of thought. In that story El/11 moves to another dimension (or set of dimensions), the UpSideDown, through sensory deprivation.
I'm also reminded of a story
called "Never-ending Now" which I wrote back in college. In popular wisdom,
when you are near death your whole life flashes before your
eyes. I imagined
that in the moments before death that might happen over and over
again, that subjectively time expands, in a variant of Zeno's
Paradox. Just as
Achilles never catches up with the turtle, you, subjectively,
never reach death. That
is the limit that you get closer and closer to but never reach. To anyone else, your
time line ends. You
die. But to you,
you keep getting closer and closer forever. Or perhaps the Now
needle which is your self or soul leaves the groove which has
been your time or moves to another.
(written April 1965)
The following spring, Chiang Ti returned again to the village with a new answer. "A human life has no beginning and no end," he said. "The time of the sun and the stars is not the time of man. His mind has a time of its own.
"An hour's sleep is but a moment. And the second before a race begins can seem to last for hours. Imagine a condemned man on the scaffold with the rope around his neck. To him, how long does that moment last? What thoughts run through his mind? One minute to live, half a minute, a quarter, an eighth... And what minute, half minute, quarter, eighth... did you begin to be? The promise of eternal life was in the endless moment of conception. It's fulfillment is in the endless moment of death.
"What need is there for laws, judges, prisons? The final judgment, hell, and paradise are within you. Just remind people of the horrors or pleasures that could await them in that last endless moment, and there will be no more crime. All will live in peace and love."
But the doctor said, "Many people die in their sleep, unaware that death is approaching. Does your theory apply in that case? Or do those people simply die -- with no heaven and no hell?"
Chiang Ti suffered a century of frustration. A moment later, he turned and walked back to the mountains to look within himself for other answers.
Yesterday I stumbled upon The Wayback Machine, historical copies of selected web sites created by the nonprofit Internet Archive. I was surprised and delighted to find that they had captured my entire web site samizdat.com 666 times between Novemmber 1, 1996 and Sept. 11, 2017. I had recently changed domain names from samizdat.com (for which I had received an offer I couldn't refused) to seltzerbooks.com I had completely rebuilt the web site, which had been up snce 1995, and which I had revised almost daily.
In the early days of the Web, I worked for Digital Equipment's Internet Business Group as their "Internet evangelist." When the company was swallowed by Compaq, which was later swallowed by Hewlett-Packard, I morphed into an independent an Internet marketing consultant, writing extensively about business on the Internet. Samizdat.com served as my sandbox for testing new ideas about busness on the Web.
I thought the old content was gone forever -- but it has all been preserved. This was a form of resurrection, making "permanent" what on creation was expected.
This link takes you to the part of the
archive that is devoted to samizdat.com. Select
the date you are interested in; then you can browse the
archive the same as you do the live web, clicking on link
after link. Everything from the web site is there,
including all the issues of my Internet-on-a-Disk newsletter
and the hundreds of articles from my blog.
We're told that dark matter and dark energy account for 95.1% of all there is in the universe. Ordinary matter amounts to just 4.9%.
You can't see dark matter. You can't feel it or smell it or interact with it in any way. Theoretically, in aggregate, dark matter and dark energy account for the gravitational force hat is necessary for equations to work that are fundamental to our understanding of the physical world. Basically, they are a fudge factor. If we want to believe that we understand the physical world, if we want to believe that the physical laws which hold true in our solar system and our galaxy also hold true billions of light years way, if we want to believe we can look back 14 billion years and ahead billions of years and understand what was happening and what will happen, then we have to believe in dark matter and dark energy.
But concepts like spirit, soul, and self are non-scientific, beyond the pale, mere mystical speculation.
(excerpt from the book The Lizard of Oz, published in 1974)
Everybody in the class put on sunglasses and stretched out on the beach, with the waves tickling their toes. They felt even better than they had when they fell into the river from the mushroom. Maybe they were relieved to be safe after all the danger they had passed through. Miss Osborne, in particular felt good that the quest was ending. Finally they were in Ome, and soon they'd be Home.
"Gosh," said Donny, "that bush over there looks like it's on fire."
Everybody went running to the bush.
Timmy got close enough to touch it.
"Watch out!" shouted Miss Shelby. "You'll get burnt."
"But it isn't burning, Miss Shelby," Timmy answered.
"Of course it's burning," said Miss Shelby. "You can see it's on fire."
But when she got closer, she too saw it wasn't burning.
"I wish Mr. Shermin were here," she said. "He was so good at explaining things. I learned so much from him."
"Why that's the fire that doesn't burn," said Miss Osborne, and she rushed forward with the stick that Plato had given her.
"What are you doing?" asked Joey.
"I want to see if this stick will catch fire, so we can bring the fire back home."
The stick glowed when she put it in the bush; but when she took it out, the glow faded.
"Do you think it's God?" asked Miss Shelby.
"Beware," a voice boomed, like it was coming from a loudspeaker.
Miss Shelby screamed, "The bush is talking!"
But Donny said, "Gosh, no, Miss Shelby. It's that astronaut over there.",
On top of the hill two men in space suits were walking toward them, waving as frantically in their cumbersome suits let them.
"Stand back from that bush," they said. "Return to the water. This area is contaminated. Radioactive material."
Everybody ran back to the water and got up to their waists in it. The spacemen plodded close to them.
"What's wrong?" asked Miss Osborne. "Did somebody drop a bomb or something?"
"No, miss, it's a natural phenomenon," answered one of the men. "Alpha and omega particles. It's long been a mystery, but we're very close to a break-through. Research has been going on here for years. Scientists named this land "Ohm" because they thought the phenomenon was electrical. An ohm is a measure of electrical resistance. But just last week we successfully separated and identified the two major forms of radiation: the alpha particle and a new particle we've christened the ohm-ega particle. That's an event of cosmic significance."
Miss Shelby explained to the class, "That means it's very important."
"Well, not really," the scientist corrected her. "Alpha and omega particles are cosmic rays and our discovery is very important in the study of cosmic rays. But nobody's sure how significant cosmic rays are in elementary particle physics."
Miss Shelby explained to the class, "Elementary means basic. The most important things, the building blocks you need for further study are elementary. Our school is an elementary school."
"Well, it's different in physics," the scientist explained. "Elementary particles are very advanced. Not that we've advanced that far in our knowledge of them, but that only advanced students ever study them. Actually, very few people study them, and we know very little about them and how they relate to the world of ordinary experience."
"You mean they don't matter?"
"Brilliant, my dear, brilliant!" he exclaimed. "Particles 'matter.' The very word we've been looking for. It's difficult to explain what exists and what happens at the subatomic level. Sometimes we talk of matter, and other times we talk of energy. Neither concept alone is sufficient, and yet the concepts of energy and matter seem mutually exclusive. When we try to put them together, we wind up with strange-sounding expressions like 'matter waves.' It all makes sense in terms of equations; but when we try to tell people what we're doing, language keeps leading us into trouble. The words we use often mean more than we mean them to mean.
"We have to be very careful with our words, for they can imply whole systems of thought, and no single system of thought or set of concepts is adequate for describing the world around us. We are faced with the difficult task of using contradictory sets of concepts, now using one and now another, according to the needs of the moment. It's a complicated process that can only to be learned by experience. There are no signposts to tell us when to use which."
"Gosh," said Donny, " Winthrop's like that. There aren't any street signs, and it's awful easy to get lost unless you've got a magic coin."
Miss Shelby started to reprimand Donny for interrupting, but the scientist just kept talking.
"Particles 'matter,'" he said. "That's beautiful. A simple pun might make it easier to talk about elementary particles. Yes, 'matter' is a verb as well as a noun, and on the subatomic level it makes more sense to use the word as a verb. Light isn't matter as a noun, but it is matter as a verb. Language, for all its pitfalls, is capable of unexpected beauties. Its very imprecision can be a source of clarity. Light matters. Electrons matter. Elementary particles matter. Perhaps even matter matters."
"I certainly hope so," said Miss Shelby. "I'd hate to think people spend their lives studying things that don't matter."
The scientist laughed, "That's
another good one. The words keep meaning more than we mean them to
mean. If we aren't careful, we might find ourselves talking about
values and morals and other things that have nothing to do with