Archive for October, 2019

Doing Hard Things

Saturday, October 26th, 2019

Nosing around on YouTube the other day, I came across Patti Smith singing at the 2016 Nobel awards in Stockholm. If you haven’t seen this video, I strongly recommend watching it:

What I admire about Patti is her poise when her memory failed her. She just stopped, hit the reset button, and started in again at a familiar place, and pulled the performance off with aplomb. She had the audience in the palm of her hand by the end.

So many of us are reluctant to speak or perform publicly for fear that something might happen to us like it did for Patti. That we’ll be humiliated publicly, which seems to be a great fear many of us share. I would argue that I watched this YouTube over and over precisely because of her momentary failure. Rather than thinking less of her, I admired her all the more.

It seems that I’ve lately done several hard things… things I’d just as soon have avoided, but managed to get through them, and once done, they strengthened me rather than weakened me. None have been easy, but all have been worth the effort. An example is my recently speaking at a dear friend’s memorial service. Public speaking is not a fearful thing for me, but on this occasion, I was shaking in my boots. I was feeling so emotional that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get the words out, thereby not doing my job at honoring my late friend.

The speech went fine, and all the worrying was for nothing. I did challenge my thinking by getting up and standing at the podium however. And for me that was the plus. I think we all build pictures of the world in our minds, and filter experiences through that picture. If they don’t belong, we discard them. If experiences fit with our world picture, we welcome them in. This is probably healthy to a point, because allowing the world into our brains unfiltered would likely overwhelm us. My feeling is that we do need to challenge that world picture from time to time. And when it proves inadequate, it needs to be adjusted. It is easy to be lazy and stagnate, and hard to continue updating the model.

There is an arrogance we need to overcome. That picture we’ve made of the world required a lot of work, and we can believe it is perfect the way it is. But just imagine one of the crucial components of that picture, and further imagine a time in your life when that component was not part of your picture. Had you not have been open to embracing it, you might have lived your life without it. We need to stay open to new things that help us make sense of the world, while being careful to reject the poison. With the world changing so rapidly, keeping the model up to date is a full time job.

Fall Chores

Friday, October 18th, 2019

Summer and Winter are reasonably stable seasons out here. But Spring and Fall… now there are seasons of flux. In the Spring, I’m often out and about getting things ready for the coming growing season. And in the Fall, I’m putting it all away for another season.

We’ve had rain on and off quite a bit lately, but in-between, I’ve managed to get most of the Fall chores accomplished. In the picture above, I’m in the final stages of removing the big dock in our back pond. To do this, I bring a pipe wrench out to the pond, and launch myself into the pond in our small aluminum skiff. I go from pipe-to-pipe in the boat, first pulling the pin that holds the dock up, then using the pipe wrench to unscrew the pipe auger from the pond mud. Once the pipe is clear, I pull it up and insert the pin in its winter position. I do this six times until the dock is held only by one small pipe on shore.

I then wrap a nylon strap around the end of the dock, lift it off the shore pipe, and scoot it over to the side. I hook the whole thing up to my pickup and slowly drive the whole contraption out of the water onto dry land where it will wait for next Spring’s launch.

I have a similar process for my much smaller “watering dock” in the other pond. Getting these two docks out of the water is one of my most physically demanding Fall chores. Others include cleaning the chimneys, and removing the cover from the greenhouse. I still have the greenhouse cover left to do, and am waiting for just the right weather. The cover has to be dry, and the wind has to be calm when that big chore is attempted. The cover itself is 24′ x 120′, and it can turn into a very big sail if the wind decides to come up.

While I was out and about working on putting things away, I spent a few moments at the site of the reception tent for our son Steve’s wedding. It was a big job to get that site cleaned up, grass planted and watered, and ready for the big event. Since then, I’ve kept the area mowed, and I enjoy walking out there and standing in the center, lost in my thoughts about that lovely wedding day.

Fall, with its unpredictable weather, beautiful colors, and air of inevitability, seems like a good time to reflect on my good fortune. Living in such a beautiful place, with the luxury of all this water, the ability to grow a lot of our own food, and with such great friends and neighbors, makes me grateful for all the good things in life. Without family, these things wouldn’t mean much, but I also happen to be blessed with a wonderful family too.

Revelation

Sunday, October 13th, 2019

Some nights I wake up in the middle and can not easily go back to sleep. So I’ll often get up and crack a book. The other night I was nearing the end of Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe.” I was downstairs in my recliner, tablet on my lap, and slogging away at yet another few pages. This book was not light reading for me. I often only made it a couple of pages before I had to put it down and do something else for a while.

This night I was wide awake, and the literary juices were flowing pretty well. I got through quite a bit of the book when I had a revelation. Gosh, these things don’t happen very often, but when they do, they sure do perk a person up.

“The Elegant Universe” attempts to explain string theory to physics novices such as myself. The author goes to a lot of trouble talking about the math involved, and the fact that the 3 dimensions we are used to dealing with in our daily lives are joined by 7 more in string theory. While math exists to explore these additional dimensions, we are helpless when we try to visualize more than the normal three. On and on Brian Greene would work through the concepts that were barely at the edge of my comprehension.

A couple of concepts finally made sense to me that night. First, that black holes, as far as we know, have only a few attributes, and once they are known, black holes with the same attributes are identical to each other. Second, there is no size requirement for a black hole. All that is required is for matter to be packed densely enough. And third, I made the intuitive leap that we are living inside a black hole. That our universe is a string in a larger universe, and that the many strings that make up our universe are all universes in themselves. That when a black hole forms, the matter in contains compresses to the point where it tears the fabric of space/time into a new dimension where a new universe is created. Whew!

After that I was able to fall asleep, and by morning, the revelation adrenaline that had pumped through my veins that night had settled down somewhat.

My mind veered away from black holes and towards system 1 and 2 thinking. That concept came from a previous book I’d read called, “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. He suggests that we humans prepare a model of the world (system 1) which we hold in our brains, and when a decision needs to be made, we consult the model. This requires a minimal amount of energy. When we determine our model is not sufficient, we have to up the energy our brain uses, and “learn” something new (system 2). We are better at this when we are young, but pretty pathetic at it as we get older. We dislike spending the energy, so we live our lives inside our system 1 model, and avoid situations when we have to learn new things.

Slogging my way through “The Elegant Universe” made me realize why it was so difficult to get through very many pages of the book at a time. And it also made me understand where the revelation came from. Unless we make the considerable effort to learn new things, insights will escape us, because all the insights from the system 1 world model we’ve constructed have all been worked out. But if we make the necessary effort to exercise the system 2 side of our brains, the revelations should follow.

With knowledge doubling every 12 months or so, it can get discouraging enough that we just throw up our hands and say forget it. Let’s just live inside the comfortable model we’ve built up over our lives. Or we can keep going, especially in the fields that interest us. I vote for keeping going.