Quarkiness, The Story Of Nothing

“Photons. Lots of photons.”

That’s what I said to myself, well, actually I said it out loud as I groped in the dark to make my way across the living room this morning to get to the stairs that lead up to my new writing room.  At the base of the stairs there’s a light switch and flipping it produced lots and lots of photons, maybe trillions. Literally.

Life is photons, and a bunch of other invisible particles. Life is particles all the way down. There’s even a physicist proposing that space itself may be particulate, or digital, and he’s running an experiment to test that hypothesis.

We tend to think in terms of atoms when we think of subatomic stuff at all. But an atom is little more than a few particles organized in a system that is approximately 99.99 percent nothing. Someone noted that if you took all the humans on earth and crushed them, perhaps in hypergravity, to remove all the space in the atoms, smushing all the particles together, right up against one another, you’d have a ball the size of a marble. It would be very heavy. But it would comprise all humanity, and, as a bonus, it would solve a number of environmental problems.

You could make the ball even smaller by crushing out the space between quarks that comprise the protons and neutrons. Apparently there’s quite a bit of room inside protons and neutrons. It makes me wonder if we can call them particles when they are pretty much just space. And what about the inside of quarks? More space? Or are quarks really particles, spaceless, as it were? Perhaps they’re some sort of semi-particle, something comprising strings of vibrating energy that in one instant are only energy and the next are solid matter, constantly changing state at incomprehensible speed.

Amazing as all that may be, it doesn’t have a lot to do with how I make coffee in the morning or what I use to brush my teeth or what a woman feels like breathing next to me in the middle of the night. Physicists try to connect the unimaginably small world of quantum mechanics with the unimaginably large world of gravity through the universe. They haven’t done it yet, but it’s a little like trying to connect that woman with quarks. She’s not having it. (She is also completely imaginary, in case anyone was wondering.)

Thinking about these things, the mind struggles. If I am 99.99 percent nothing, then what am I? What’s left in that .01 percent? Ultimately the question is irrelevant. We live on the macro scale, we act in the world on the macro scale, and we need only step on the bathroom scale in the morning to see how macro we may be. We can’t change the way we act in the world by contemplating our spaciousness or by focusing our minds on rearranging the atoms of political enemies via some sort of quarkian brain waves.

We are Popeye. We am what we am and that’s all what we am. We are a lot of nothing and so is our spinach. But I find it fascinating that at four in the morning I can go out on my back porch and look up at the stars, and think that I am just quarks here contemplating quarks there. That’s pretty amazing for a lot of nothing.


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Death By Skunk



Apparently the skunks didn’t do any more damage overnight to the yellowjacket nest. Not that there was anything left to damage, as near as I can see. The skunks did a pretty thorough job the night before. I felt sad seeing the few insects buzzing around during the day. The most I saw at any one time was five, and they hovered around the remains, which really is little more than a big hole where the nest was, and, me projecting perhaps, they seemed at a loss for what to do. The center of their lives was destroyed. Building and maintaining the nest, caring for brood, developing queens, that was their life. In a brief time that was all taken from them. It’s as if I lost this house and my money and were put out on the street by predatory bankers and tax officials. Most of the yellowjackets would have died soon in any event, leaving only overwintering queens who would go out to establish new colonies in the Spring, but still, they had until November or so. Now there are just a few survivors, left with nothing, trying to follow instincts that no longer have purpose. Instead of dying as part of a nest, a colony, a community, they’ll die alone, separated from all they knew. This saddens me immensely. I’m sad for them, and sad for myself that I can empathize so strongly – but I think it is not so much empathy as it is projection, shining my fears on the screen of their destruction. And yet, for them, it is highly unlikely that the event is fraught with emotion. They operate on instinct, on ancient patterns of behavior. I suspect that the few survivors flying in and out of the few shreds of nest the skunks left were attempting to repair and rebuild. It’s what they do. They don’t see the task as impossible or fruitless. They simply act as they have always acted. They neither hope nor despair. They simply go on until they cannot and they die.

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Alfie? Alfie? What the hell?

I just finished reading ‘Plato and A Platypus Walk Into A Bar…’ by Cathcart and Klein for the fourth time. It’s not Harry Potter or The Lord of The Rings, but it’s pretty good for an intro to the odd and winding paths of philosophy. And it’s fun to read. Plenty of jokes to illustrate ideas.

Reading this book is all part of my plan to do the stuff I thought I’d be doing when I tottered off to college back in the day. You know, study stuff. How long ago was that, you ask? Well, back then a college education wasn’t fraught with career decisions, a liberal arts degree in the humanities opened the door to a wide variety of work and careers, and employers weren’t looking necessarily for fully trained people but for people who could think and learn. Yeah, that long ago.

I finally got a degree after seven years of educationis interruptus. An Ivy League degree at that. But I’d be hard pressed to say I learned anything that mattered. Certainly nothing that prepared me for my career of some fifty jobs, from waiter to corporate legal admin.

The most interesting work? Reporter for a daily newspaper, and temporary office worker. Reporting, every day was different and new stuff needed to be explored. Working temp provided a change of job and scenery every week or two usually. For better or for worse, I bore easily. And persistence numbers not among my great virtues. Persistence requires a narrowing of focus, but look around. There are tons and tons of interesting things in the world, things, places, objects, creations, ideas, all swirling about an open mind like the vast swirls of dust and gas that forms stars and galaxies. My default choice is to be a galaxy.

So, I end up reading about Plato and an odd creature from Australia doing philosophy. But I’m also studying social psychology, which I didn’t know existed until a few months ago. And logic and argumentation and philosophy, with side trips into math and learning Morse code for radio communication and electronics and reading history and dabbling in all sorts of stuff, from Greek and Latin to modern cosmology. And I play backgammon and am interested in Go.

But these days few people really care for these things. I suspect that all through history only a tiny percentage of humanity ever really cared about them. It’s like the old saw about the library at Alexandria, the one that goes ‘Raise your hand if you still get angry about the library at Alexandria.’ I suspect most people wouldn’t know what the hell you’re talking about when you say that. Me, I still get mad that all that written knowledge was destroyed. I wonder sometimes if the world would have been different if the Alexandrian books had survived instead of the babblings of religious zealots living in the desert near the Dead Sea.

Yeah, so I’m more than a little weird. So what? You expect normality from a guy who spends ninety-nine percent of his time alone? Except for the cats. As long as I feed them I can be as weird as I want and they won’t say a word. On the other hand, when I think I’m getting a bit too far out there, I tell myself that for all the contact and noise and babble people toss back and forth among themselves, everybody is alone. The noise is just about avoiding that fact. Or maybe that’s just sour grapes because I don’t have a girlfriend and a circle of friends. Doesn’t really matter. I may not be able to cuddle with a book, but I can open any of my thousands of books and in a few moments go just about anywhere in time and in the universe in the company of interesting people. (Though sometimes, I admit, I’d rather have the real girl.)

I dunno. I’m babbling. It’s been a long ride. I’m probably going to die alone, but I’d like to think that when I go I’ll have a book in my lap open to a page discussing something really hard to understand. Then when the EMTs find me one of them will say, “Hey, look at this. This guy must have been pretty smart, huh?” It’d be nice if I were smiling.


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Moral Choice?

“If it takes the threat of hell to make you a moral person, then you are not at all moral, you are just a coward who responds well to threats.”

I like the simplicity of the statement, but on further thought I think that perhaps it’s too simple, and a weak counter in that it shortcuts thought.

Consider the proposition that a choice made under duress cannot be a moral choice, but can only be amoral.

If you are ordered by an authority to kill someone or to be killed, and there are no other options, can you make a moral choice, a choice that accrues personal virtue to you? If you kill the person, you have chosen to live, but that doesn’t make you good or bad (or virtuous or non-virtuous). If you refuse to kill and instead die, still nothing accrues to you. Some people will say you made a moral choice, some will say you made a stupid choice: the matter comes down to opinion and as such is simply amoral.

You can only make a moral choice if you make the choice free of all authoritarian duress. If you see a person struggling in a flood and you dive in to try to save him, risking your own life, you’ve made a moral choice. If you choose not to try to save him, you’ve made a moral choice. But if someone orders you to jump in, or to stay on the bank, you haven’t chosen if you obey. Your morality is only tested if you disobey in such a case. Obedience in itself is not moral though it does occasion choice.

That’s a quick limning of the matter. The point is that it serves no purpose to call people cowards if they make their choices on the orders of a being they regard as an absolute authority and under threat of burning in hell or drowning in molasses or whatever if they disobey. They cannot make moral choices in that case and thus cannot call themselves moral beings. They can do great harm or great good, depending on their particular religious delusion on any given day, but they can only be considered moral if they disobey.

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Reattaching fingers…

Back in January I started teaching myself to use the Dvorak layout on my keyboards instead of the standard qwerty layout. I’ve struggled for three months, but yesterday I gave it up as a bad idea.

I could never get faster than 35 words per minute and when I wanted to type my thoughts directly, if I started to speed up, my fingers would revert to qwerty. The wiring was just too wired into place.

I got a copy of Mavis Beacon to help me transit back to reality, and today I can once again type without having to think of where to put my fingers. I feel like I’ve been a castaway for months and now have returned to civilization.

None of this is a knock on the Dvorak layout. I think it makes a lot of sense and that it is easier on the hands and fingers. But trying to rewire fifty-five years of neural qwertyness just doesn’t work, at least not for me.

My hands at this point have pretty much taken up where they left off three months ago, with an occasional reversion. I suspect I’m back to my normal 75 words per minute, or close to it, which, given that I only went back yesterday, is pretty amazing. All that newsroom typing  must be seriously engraved on my brain.

I feel free again. Wheeeeeee!

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The Zen of motion, or possibly the motion of Zen

Today I’m back to physics, specifically Chapter 3 of Conceptual Physics, Linear Motion.

Here’s the skinny: Motion is relative. All motion.

If you’re riding a bus going thirty miles per hour your motion relative to the bus is zero. But your motion relative to the surface of the earth is thirty miles per hour.

When you’re standing on the sidewalk, not twitching a muscle, you’re still moving at tremendous speed relative to the sun and relative to the center of the galaxy.

The rest of the chapter goes on about speed, velocity, and acceleration, but since I was on only my first cup of coffee I naturally started down the path of motion relative to self.

Relative to itself an object can never move, according to the criterion for motion: Motion is relative.

So I, in fact, have not moved since I was born, since before I was born if you want to get snitty about it. I have never remained in the same place and I have never moved. Take that, Aristotle!!

When you hear one of those Zennish sorts say something like, “Wherever you go, there you are,” you now know he’s just spitting out some basic physics.

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My fingers have lost their tongues…

Lately I seem to have been on a masochistic streak, the best evidence of which was my decision to switch from standard keyboard to the Dvorak keyboard for typing.

In the past I have tried this switch a couple of times because Dvorak is a simpler typing system, considerably less stressful on the hands and fingers, and offering the potential for greater speed. However, at those times I was also out there in the world of work and everybody was stuck on QWERTY keyboards. It is extremely difficult to use both layouts simultaneously, as I quickly discovered. Now that I no longer have to worry about QWERTY world I decided to give Dvorak another try, and have done so for several weeks.

I feel as if the tongues have been cut out of my fingers. Using QWERTY I was a fast typist, 70 to 80 words a minute, and able to keep up with my thoughts. That is no longer the case. I can type now between 15 and 25 words a minute on a Dvorak layout, but it is a struggle. If I try to go faster I find my fingers reverting to the old layout, but at least I recognize the error when it happens.

Essentially, I’m trying to rewire an old brain that’s been doing the same thing for some 50 years and is not so keen on learning something new. On the other hand I think my neurons appreciate the challenge. Or, so I tell myself… In any event it’s frustrating but I do hope that in the long run it will be worth it. If nothing else I can always tell myself that as I got older, I wasn’t afraid to make a change in something important.

I have also added a couple of other challenges in the form of computer programs. One of them is called Scrivener, a Macintosh program being rewritten for windows. It is a writing program, focusing on gathering and organizing materials for virtually any kind of writing. It’s fascinating, it’s challenging, and I’m actually working in a beta version, which is not something I would normally do. But I do like the program.

Another new (to me) program that I like, well enough to have paid for, is called ConnectedText. It is essentially a personal wiki located on your desktop computer (or a laptop). I like that it uses markdown language for formatting and I like that it is really very flexible, as well as offering another challenge to my brain to learn something new.

Of course there is another challenge in all of this, which is that I have to consider the possibility that all of this may simply be a way to delay doing anything particularly useful or constructive. I seem to spend a good part of my life preparing to do things but not actually doing very many things. These new challenges could simply be an expression of that pattern.

However, all is not lost! I am dictating this post using speech recognition software from Dragon, thus giving my finger tongues and brain neurons a bit of a rest, as well as giving myself a little thrill by cheating. (Hey, I’m sort of human…)

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