A Long, Long Time Ago Very Soon

 

New_Planet

Two weeks ago, astronomers made a huge discovery: for the first time in human history, we are able to witness the birth of a planet. The new planet, named PDS 70 b, is about 370 light years from earth. That means it is so far away, that what we’re seeing today actually happened 370 years ago, long before the foundation of the United States, before the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach. Centuries of human history transpired in that time. And yet, it will be billions of years before that planet is fully formed.

Scientists have discovered more than 1,000 of planets outside our solar system. Most of them orbit bizarrely close to their star. Others are super gas giants, many times the size of Jupiter. The methods used to discover these planets might explain why we have almost no found worlds that are potentially hospitable to human life. Eventually, we may have the ability to locate more planets outside our solar system, ones that are more like earth, with similar gravity. Perhaps someday we can determine whether a planet has a breathable atmosphere and similar diurnal cycle. Getting there is another issue altogether.

Assuming we could travel to the stars, as Carl Sagan hoped, we might decide to plant colonists on those worlds. Humans are fairly adaptable, so we could adjust to a different planetary rotation, where a day is 30 hours or 15 hours. The gravity could be weaker, like on Mars, or stronger. There might not be seasons. For the most part, those varying conditions occur on earth (except for the gravity bit). Residents north of the Arctic Circle experience long periods of daylight and darkness, depending on the season. People in tropical regions experience summer all year. People living in Nepal and Bolivia breathe thinner air than most of us.

With the turmoil of our current world, it’s easy to feel like we can’t possibly survive long enough to find our way out there. Some might question why we should even bother, with all the problems we’re facing here. We can’t seem to resolve our own conflicts without killing each other, not to mention that there are people literally dying to find a better life for themselves and their families. Refugees are turned away. Families are separated. Humanity isn’t looking like it’s worth saving.

But we could start over. Travel across the galaxy to a new world. Do it right this time, we’ll tell ourselves. This world will possess none of the negative things we left behind on earth. How will we overcome our human nature? Will we have rid ourselves of our greed, our need for revenge, our taste for violence? How will we end bigotry and xenophobia? How will we rid ourselves of the worst parts of our nature?

It seems that the only way we can make it to this bright future is that we evolve. Traveling outside our solar system will require collaboration on a global scale. We will have to overcome many obstacles that currently plague humanity. Until we conquer these negative aspects, we are grounded. Our best chance is to work together. Human development has a long way to go. It might be thousands of years before we are capable of achieving this.

In the meantime, we’re stuck with each other. We will see changes in our world that would stupefy our ancestors, and our grandchildren will come to accept things that would leave us speechless. Our world will change dramatically in that time, a thousand generations from now. Languages will shift (modern English is less than 1000 years old), attitudes will change, cultural norms will be unrecognizable. A thousand generations ago, humans had just migrated to North America. The Great Pyramid would not be built for millennia. So much can change in that time. Everything will change.

Really, the thing I am concerned about is not whether we blow ourselves up. I am more concerned about a stray asteroid or a mutated virus. If we can survive these things, I’m sure we can travel to the stars. When we get there, I’m not sure we will still be human.

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Envelope or envelope?

Texture: Envelope - Green
Flickr Photo by: Jeric Santiago

I sometimes listen to a show called A Way With Words, which I usually catch on Sunday afternoon. Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett host the hour-long program, covering topics like regional sayings, idiomatic expressions, word origins, and so on. They invite listeners to call in with their stories or questions about language. I’ve never gotten a response, but I wonder about word pronunciation.

For instance, I hear some people pronounce envelope like ahn-ve-lope, while others pronounce is with a short ‘e’ sound at the beginning (ˈen-və-ˌlōp). It’s the same with enclave. I never hear anyone pronounce entourage with a short ‘e’. I wonder why we don’t pronounce courage the same way. Either, neither, be-lie-ver?

I asked once whether Caribbean should be pronounced with stress on the ‘i’ or on the ‘e’. (kə-ˈri-bē-ən vs. ker-ə-ˈbē-ən). The person simply answered, “it depends on whether or not you’ve been there.” (Not helpful, even if it was just a sarcastic jab.)

I’m pretty annoyed with malapropisms. That’s when a person uses one word in place of another similar word, or maybe not so similar. For example, well, here. People say things like “for all intensive purposes” and “he told me pacifically.” I’ve heard someone use the word “jubilee” when talking about jambalaya. One surprising one to me was that apparently “another think coming” is correct. I’ve heard people say (evidently incorrectly), “she has another thing coming”. I believe most people were unaware of this.

English is hard for many reasons, but mostly because it has been adulterated over the centuries. Modern English does not resemble its ancient roots any more than Icelandic resembles Japanese. Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Every language has its problems. French is described as having a few rules and the rest is idioms. I’m reminded of a Star Trek TNG (The Next Generation) episode, Darmok. Here, Captain Picard is stranded on a planet with an alien adversary whose language is incomprehensible to anyone in Star Fleet. Picard and the other captain finally do work out their communication obstacles, but at great cost. It’s one of my favorite episodes, and I recommend watching it. I believe Netflix is still streaming the show.

It’s time for bed now. I tend to dream in English, but sometimes also in Spanish. Perhaps that’s why I find all this so interesting. Language is entirely too complex a subject for me to tackle in this publication. I’m looking forward to hearing back from “A Way with Words” soon. By then I’ll probably have 100 more questions.

 

You Only Need to Ask

Help.

help

This is one of the most powerful words in the English language. The mere utterance moves people to respond. Shouting it will draw attention, and strangers will spring into action. It inspires us to give. It motivates us to self-sacrifice. The thought that someone needs our help might override our own instincts, for self-preservation, or at least the fear of being hurt or humiliated. And yet, we are often afraid to ask for help, even when we desperately need it. Why, then, are we so willing to offer help and yet not able to request it?

I was shopping for dinner at my favorite market, and I asked the butcher for two things: coarse-ground beef for chili and a cut-up fryer. The young guy had to get his manager because he wasn’t authorized to operate the saw to cut the chicken. I asked him to go ahead and do that for me, if he didn’t mind. He was more than happy to ask, and the manager took care of me without hesitation. All I had to do was ask.

I find myself asking people more and more when I genuinely need help, mainly because I know how helping people brings me joy and makes me feel fulfilled. So I don’t have a problem asking. I don’t take advantage of people. But I know there are things that I would do for someone if it is an inconvenience for that person and especially if it’s a task I enjoy doing or that distracts me from drudgery. On the other hand, I have found great value in saying ‘no’.

‘No’ doesn’t have to be a forceful rejection of someone’s request. I am often asked to do something by a coworker that that person should know how to do, and that is their responsibility in the first place. One of my flaws is that I tend to bend over backward to help people, even when it is an imposition and I should be doing something else. On a rare occasion that I have flat-out denied to do something (I could have been fired), that person has just now started talking to me again after 3 years. I try not to let these things bother me, but averting disappointment is a major motivator for me. I think I am not alone, here.

I hate letting people down, even when I am not at fault and there was no avenue for me to come to the rescue. It is fortunate that my job doesn’t require me to save lives, and that is something I remind co-workers of, that the worst case scenario is that someone will be disappointed, provided no one violates policy or law. At that point, all bets are off.

Asking for help, however, is not as risky as we might imagine it to be. A person can refuse to help, and that is their right. Some people are assholes. But that should not stop us from seeking help when we need it. I learned recently that sometimes you cannot do everything yourself, and you don’t have to be a martyr, trying to take it on all by yourself. But you won’t get help from people by declaring to the crowd, “I need a volunteer!” That moment when everyone steps up simultaneously makes for great cinema, but I’ve never seen it happen in real life. Don’t wait for it to happen magically. Leave that to Disney.

As much as we might think we don’t like being told what to do, most of us will respond to that, at least when it’s a gentle, persuasive appeal. I like the “congratulations! You’ve been chosen to help me…” line. I also used, “good news! We’re going to work together on a project.” You’d be surprised how well a little sarcastic humor is received. Don’t be afraid to be turned down. It’s okay to refuse sometimes. Just don’t be that guy. You know who I’m talking about.

Don’t be surprised when someone offers to help you. Most of us are looking for opportunities to be of some assistance. There’s something ingrained in us that makes us crave it, that satisfaction we get from helping another person. Actually, other creatures don’t seem to share our values. (I think polar bears kill their young or something like that. That’s probably something to do with food supplies and the wilderness, which we don’t run into much in the US.) all that being said, I’m still not sure what most of us are afraid of. I think I’ll make it a new year’s resolution to ask for help more often.

Flawless

For most of us, practically all our lives, we’ve been told repeatedly how imperfect we are. We may have been admonished for being flawed, shamed for being mere humans. Teachers and pastors surely reminded us that nobody’s perfect. Countless times, to be sure, everyone has been reminded that we are anything but perfect. They may have even gone so far as to tell us that we are unredeemable piles of human refuse. This is at least the impression I got from adults when I was young. We were told that no one was perfect except God. Who could argue with that? God, who made the universe and all its atrocities. God, who created smallpox and puff adders. God, who caused the great flood because, “the Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth…I will wipe from the earth the human race…”

When I was a kid, and I went to Sunday school to clear my mind of all the evil worldly thoughts filling my head, I began to question certain principles. Namely, that no one could be perfect. Believing oneself to be perfect was aligned with the sin of pride. How dare we claim this for ourselves? At the same time, it was impressed upon me the absolute necessity for me to strive for perfection. Grading systems were designed with an ideal to be made manifest. There is a “perfect” GPA. Baseball has a perfect game. A perfect storm. A perfect day. While we’ve been told there is no such thing as perfection, we certainly throw that word around a lot.

With all this shit swirling around like so many toilet bowls, it’s easy to assume that our teachers, parents, middle school bullies, swim coaches, and youth pastors were all right when they emphasized how we are all imperfect. Most of us were told to obey authority; and, therefore there was no reason to assume everyone was wrong. But they were. Not only is it possible to achieve perfection, I believe each that of us is already a perfect being. Before you start enumerating my many flaws, let’s first deal with that pesky issue of defining perfection. What does perfect actually mean?

The Greek philosopher Plato maintained that not only is our world imperfect, but it may not even exist. Plato held that the constantly changing world was only a copy of the ideal, the perfect and constant vision only attainable in human thought. A perfect circle, for example, might be conceptualized, but could never be physically produced. Indeed, even modern machines can render a near-perfect circle, but our even more advanced measuring equipment may now detect the smallest imperfections. And so it continues. In our minds, we can identify the ideal, but is that ideal based on something we were taught, or is it a universal, collective vision of perfection?

snowflake

For many of us, we have an idea of what perfection means. For example, we like to point to snowflakes as perfect units. But notice something about these? They’re all different. In fact, every snowflake is unique, each one different from the next. If a snowflake is perfect, then all of them are. But any difference, according to Plato, would in essence be an imperfection. But what is the ideal snowflake? How could there be just one perfect one? How could all copies of the ideal be considered less than perfect? In the world where we live, we are not afforded the opportunity to contemplate the ideal, the snowflake Form; we only have the real, the physical. All snowflakes, therefore, are perfect. And so is every potato, for that matter.

As for me, I know I am more complicated an organism than a potato. But I see wonders every time I check in on things around the world. For instance, there are sea creatures that do everything from change color to emit light, to name a few. Human beings might appear less significant in the grand scheme of things, if we’re going for existential despondency. I mean, we’re more than just animals, even though we are classified as primates who have simply evolved. The very act of my writing this indicates that there’s something more going on. Therefore, here we are, each of us, contemplating our existence and our place in the universe. Meanwhile, we’re still basically controlled by our basic urges and needs: sleep, eat, fuck, survive.

Now that I’ve established that I am ordinary, it makes my perfection argument a little easier. If we were as simple as dogs or grasshoppers or potatoes, how could anyone dispute that any of us were anything less than perfect? Naturally, there are those who might judge. The Westminster Kennel Club holds an annual event to decide which dog breed is superior to the rest. This is highly subjective, and the results should never be construed as to mean there is any one dog that is perfect. Really, aren’t they all?

The thing about perfection – a human preoccupation – is that there really is no such thing. What I mean by that is there is no one ideal of any item, person, or situation in our plane of existence. That “perfect storm” we keep hearing about is actually a confluence of forces or elements crossing a threshold, arbitrary perhaps, where conditions may be just right for the worst case scenario. This term is almost always used as a metaphor to describe some social or work situation where things go horribly wrong. Shit happens, but I wouldn’t call this perfection.

Perfection is kind of an illusion. Except that here I am trying to convince you that we are all perfect beings. What makes this impossible to accept is that we’ve been told how imperfect we are our entire lives. But I maintain that we are all perfect and essential. We’re like cogs in the intricate machinery of the universe, to use a hyperbole here for a moment (if Plato can do it, well…) Perhaps we are perfect in that we are precisely where we need to be for the cosmic algorithm to function. What if we are all exactly where we’re supposed to be? Can’t we be perfect in the place we find ourselves?

I admit, my previous notions of perfection were rooted in that latent Catholic school guilt and self loathing, where we lesser things cannot possibly approach perfection. One of my instructors was wrong about many things; it stands to reason he was wrong about this, too. Maybe I am perfect. I’m not without fault, but my perfection may lie in the niche I fill. For my wife, I am exactly what she needs, or so she tells me sometimes. Am I the perfect husband? Perhaps for her. I might be the perfect employee for certain needs of my company. I might have been the perfect student, not because I made A’s, but perhaps because I made my teachers think or because I made them work harder. I may never know. But my point is that I believe we are all perfect beings.

In a sense, we are more than all the cells and plasma and elements in our bodies, the electrical impulses between our nerve endings, or the chemistry in our brains. We’re beyond the body and the physiology of the human animal. There’s no proof that we have souls or spirits, but there’s a lot we have not discovered about ourselves. There might be something perfect within all of us. Maybe our struggle, our suffering, is simply our souls colliding with our human instincts and emotional pressures. Is music a transport vessel for the soul? Is art another? What about acting or stand-up comedy? Or writing?

In claiming my perfection I am not placing myself above other people. On the contrary, I make no statement to that effect. I am not better than anyone else. But that’s not what I mean by perfection. I don’t mean to say I am flawless. But as Confucius said, it is better to be a diamond with a flaw than to be a pebble without one. In other words, being perfect may not be what it’s cracked up to be. Perfection might equal banality in that scenario where the world is populated with pebbles, or potatoes, or snowflakes. One’s  perfect state might be typified by his or her nonconformity or eccentricity. Where there is a “perfect” field of snow, the perfection we possess might be the footprint that provides dimension. What was seen as a flaw is now perceived as absolutely essential. In a word, it’s perfect.

 

Sticks, Stones, and the Effect of Language

About a million years ago, a proto-human picked up a stick and bludgeoned a deer with it, and voilà! dinner. And ever since, this was the way of mankind. Rather than talk things through, we communicated with sticks, some pointy, some thick and club-like with stones lashed to them. Later, we developed language, a way of describing all those sticks. We needed words as a delivery system for our more complex thoughts. And eventually, we would develop insults, and later, passive-aggressive tones. Hooray!

About a million years after this stick incident occurred, we were taught a pearl of wisdom that said words used against us were not going to harm us. This “sticks and stones” maxim reminded us that insults were the last refuge of the ignorant, and no words could injure us, no matter how harmful. It was a way of fending off bullies, by equating them to knuckle-dragging, thick-sculled cave men. The thing is, those insults and verbal jabs do take their toll. I argue that being punched does less harm in most cases, especially when I was a middle-schooler being punched by a pint-sized assailant.

But the words are sometimes used as ammunition by people other than our classmates and peers. Teachers and parents were capable of much more harm to us. I never would have believed that grown-ups could inflict such cruelty, but I was twelve, and I grew up believing that adults knew what was best for us. But they were as clueless as any 30-something today, perhaps even more so. At least now, people have a wealth of information at their disposal, practically the entire repository of human knowledge by way of the internet. You might expect there could be no excuse for being ignorant, and yet many of us are. We should know better, but we don’t.

Back to that sticks and stones analogy. Physical injuries tend to heal completely. There are of course cases where lasting damage occurs. Broken bones, like those in the little phrase, may heal, but it might affect the way you move further on. I broke my thumb when I was 14 (I was practicing throwing punches after being tripped earlier that day, and my thumb caught the edge of the chair and went “crack!”) That hurt like hell, and I felt really, really stupid. But the physical pain went away after a while, and my body “forgot” the pain. Decades later, when the barometer falls or when geese migrate, my thumb gets stiff or a little sore. It’s not my body “remembering” the original injury. Instead, this is a lasting result. Be that as it may, this injury troubles me a lot less than some of the things people said to me over the years. Even though the words dissipated in the atmosphere just after being spoken, they still echo in my mind to this day.

You see, words can indeed cause long-term emotional pain, far beyond what a physical injury might have. We must therefore be extremely careful when choosing our words. We might start by developing effective feedback skills. This might be one of the most important parts of being a manager or any kind of leader. Saying the wrong thing can create problems further down the road. It is very difficult to undo the damage once this happens. You cannot un-say the wrong thing. Positive yet constructive criticism is like a precious resource, because it is rare that we receive it, and not very many people know how to deliver it. Saying something like, “I’d like to tell you where I see your strengths,” rather than, “do you know what your problem is?” for instance.

Once we have delivered valuable feedback, we can encourage others to learn this skill, as they begin to appreciate its worth. It will be like currency in a world where good communication is rare yet valuable. Right now I fear it is rare but unappreciated. Eventually, as we mature, we do see the value of it, but by then a subsequent generation has already been at the helm of our society. It’s important for teachers to develop this skill and pass it on. It needs to begin early on in a child’s development, earlier than we thought in the old way of thinking. Back then, children were not regarded as contributors to our society, but our understanding of the brain’s development has improved, and we know better now, so we tell ourselves.

Words have amazing power. We use them to inspire one another, to incite crowds, to soothe, and to charm. The right words are absolutely necessary for certain events, like toasting the bride and groom, delivering a eulogy, or giving someone bad news. Our words can injure. Words can be a weapon. Words can even heal. With the right words, a skilled negotiator can change the world more than any number of rockets and tanks. And the simple statement of, “whatever” can stop some of us in our tracks. Yes, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can injure you for a lifetime. So be careful with what you say.

I Know You’re Out There

I’d been wanting a telescope for a while. I had one when I was a kid. Later, my parents bought one for me and my brother, a reflector. It was small, but we were able to see the rings of Saturn and some of Jupiter’s moons. It was so cool to be able to see such things with my own eyes, that is, not in photographs, but looking at the actual planets and nebulae. We spent many hours in the back yard, late at night, looking to the skies.

I’ve read a lot of science fiction, and I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek TNG and Voyager. So, I’ve given the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence a lot of thought. I suppose most people don’t think about this much, and many don’t believe E.T. even exists. That might be true, but the universe is huge, and there’s bound to be at least one more world like ours out there. And scientists are discovering new planets every day. It’s a very exciting time to be alive. Within my lifetime, I believe we will send humans to Mars and further. I’m certain there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

If there are intelligent forms of life elsewhere in the universe, I wonder what they must think of us. We as a species make a lot of noise. We have been sending out radio and television transmissions for decades, now, and anyone with the most basic radio equipment could surely have picked up something by now. But do we really want Jerry Springer or Honey Boo-boo representing us to the galaxy. When some alien race does intercept our signals, they will see that we worship money, are highly fixated on the ideal human body; and we say we want to eat healthier food, and yet we continue to fill our bodies with poison.

If I were watching, I would seriously question the wisdom of visiting earth. The Arthur C. Clarke novel, Childhood’s End, portrayed this notion. Extra-terrestrial visitors were justifiably cautious about showing themselves (for good reason, as you will learn about halfway in). And human beings are, even to this day, decidedly superstitious and xenophobic. We hardly trust someone who doesn’t speak our language. In my country I am an outcast for promoting the metric system. Why do we believe we would not demonstrate our worst behaviour the moment first contact is initiated? Some of us will probably launch missiles. Others will panic and destroy themselves. Actually, we’re on our way to self-destruction without anyone’s help.

Well, this got depressing very quickly. My apologies. But while I appear to have absolutely no faith in humanity at this point in time, it should be noted that there is a lot of good in this world. Just listen to the works of Thomas Tallis, or contemplate the paintings of Van Gogh. I like to people watch. It’s a strange little game I play. I did it the other day, watching humans coming and going in a busy shopping area. It was fascinating to see people of all types, different shapes and sizes, clothing and hairstyle choices, the distinguished and the ludicrous, the ostentatious and the mundane. Oh, the humanity! But there were all are. We’re not easily dismissed, and you can’t put anyone into a single classification. Some of us are joyful, while others are contemplative and melancholy. Some are left-handed. Some of us are more creative than others. Some cannot discern red or green. Some of us are anxious. All of us are mortal.

If you are out there, here we are. We’re special, but we’re not remarkable, just like the stars in the sky. Some of them really shine. But there are so many that don’t even get a name. They have a number. But they’re all unique, like every human being. But I hope someday we will make contact. I hope we will be worthy of it. I hope that whoever represents the human race will not be a total embarrassment.

 

CUI BONO?

I’m fortunate that I am the recipient of a liberal arts education. This might seem like a contradiction in terms, since I did not receive specific job training from my university studies, aside from the credentials to teach literature, or having seemingly scattered reference points on the map of human history. Part of my career was in pursuit of the natural sciences, specifically human biology, at which I excelled. Ironically, I work in the field of information technology, which I came into purely by happy accident. So I am particularly blessed that I have a good job in spite of my area of study.

College may not be for everyone. There are many good-paying careers that do not require a college degree, not in the traditional sense. Electricians, plumbers, and welders, to name a few, while perhaps benefiting from study of a foreign language and some advanced maths, can find work after a one or two year course of study. Culinary arts and other fields promise the same results, with another year of study, possibly. But the traditional four year degree may not be necessary or economically feasible.

When I was an undergraduate back in the 1980’s, attending a school in the state university system, my tuition per semester amounted to about 8 weeks salary, based on minimum wage (then, $3.35 an hour) at 20 hours a week. Of course there was room and board, books, meals, and sundries. But I’m just talking about tuition. Here in 2017, that same state college tuition, based on minimum wage today of $7.25 an hour, will take you at least 60 weeks to pay off. It’s not unheard of for a college grad to be in hock for $100,000 or more in student debt. And if you are the parent of one of these students, you would pray that they have some career lined up, so they can start repaying their debt as soon as possible.

So I was fortunate. I did have to take out student loans, but not for too much. But I would gladly pay it all over again (provided I was paying 1980’s dollars). But reliving those years would offer no guarantee that things would work out the way they had. (Of course, things might have been better.) But was it worth it? Who benefited? (Cui Bono?) What did I really get with my degree? It didn’t provide any training germain to my current career. In fact, client-server software development didn’t really exist as we know it, not that anyone truly understands it now. (Incidentally, I met my wife at college). The skills needed to work in today’s IT world can be obtained from a local community college certificate program. But many companies still look for at least a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent work experience) from their candidates. Equivalent work experience? Abraham Lincoln was self-educated, and many people in their fields are self-taught.

But I would recommend the university experience for some. That experience is unique, and the memories last a lifetime. You may never apply your knowledge gained in that one semester of poli-sci, or remember the French you studied. But you will have benefitted from it. Will that experience be worth the thousands of dollars you will eventually have to pay? That may depend on what happens in the future. As I said, looking back, it seems worthwhile to me. But that was a different time, I suppose. It seems that colleges and universities are not what they used to be, academically speaking. Students may not wish to study literature, and they may see no value in analyzing Othello for hidden meaning.

It’s too bad you can’t simply certify yourself as self-taught. It worked for Lincoln. Why can’t a person study law and attempt the bar exam? What about medicine? Well, some areas of study really need to be at the university level. In the future, a four year degree might cost more than a house. I think we’re starting to see that now. It’s shocking how much tuition has increased over the years. As I mentioned above, calculated in terms of weeks worth of salary, it’s gone up by more than 7 times in 30 years. Is the answer in increasing the minimum wage? Should tuition be regulated? Is Bernie Sanders’ plan feasible? Could the US pay for anyone who wants a college education to receive one? In the meantime, certain skills are hard to come by. Even someone with a masters degree is not automatically qualified. On the other hand, I have a friend who has never set foot on a college campus and excels in the field of technology. But even then, education is the key. Education takes many forms. It can be through diligent observation of the world around us. It can be through books, extension of the great minds of the past. It may be through experience. Education is crucial.

And for you lawyers out there, cui bono does have a specific legal definition, but I am thinking of the broader meaning. Thanks for noticing.