Friday, July 27, 2007

It's Not a Race

So we stand once again on the edge of the stream of consciousness, and prepare to skip a rock across the placid waters of the mind. Prepare for unimaginable boredom.

One of Zeno's paradoxes of motion is illustrated in the parable of Achilles and the Tortoise. Basically Achilles - indestructible killing machine of the Myrmidon army, hero of various engagements in the Trojan war, and all-around stud - is set to race against a tortoise - wizened armored slowpoke and butt of philosophers' jokes.

Being a good sport, Achilles gives the tortoise a head start of, say, a hundred meters. If Achilles runs at ten meters per second (a prodigious pace of 22 miles per hour), and the tortoise runs at one meter per second, Zeno, venal and doddering old rascal that he is, says that Achilles can never catch the tortoise.

The theory is that by the time Achilles has run a hundred meters to catch up to the tortoise, the tortoise will have run an additional ten meters. In the time it takes Achilles to cover that additional distance, the tortoise will have progressed another meter, and so on, ad infinitum. This is the same logic that irrefutably proves that the minute hand on your watch can never overtake the hour hand. And as slow as time may seem to crawl on certain painful days, it is immediately apparent to the most casual observer that there must be some flaw, some hidden fallacy, in Zeno's perfect logic.

Ever get the feeling that no matter how hard you work, how much you apply yourself to a task, you'll never reach the end? All the tortoises are writing the rules and, slow as they are, they can't be beaten. Now I'm not such a good sport, and rarely give head starts if I can avoid it, but I've run a lot of those races recently, and visions of turtle soup are starting to dance through my head.

The tortoises will tell you "Work Smarter, Not Harder". This is a facile platitude for they that have no intelligence to lend. The only way to win this kind of race is to be the tortoise, and have other people try to catch up to you. But who wants to be a fucking tortoise?

Our philosopher's stone, flat, round and smooth, whipped with all the speed and skill that our feeble modern minds can muster, skips off the water here, causing easily ignorable ripples, sails low through the air, and splashes down again on the Fletcher's Paradox.

Another of Zeno's illegitimate sons of politics and philosophy, the Fletcher's Paradox asks us to imagine an arrow, released at speed. Maybe shot by that consummate archer, Achilles. Maybe he's trying to kill that fucking tortoise.

We are then asked to imagine an indivisible unit of time. Observing the position of the arrow at any of these moments, we see that the arrow is not moving. But, the theory goes, movement must occur in the present. It can't be that the thing only moves in the past, and in the future, but right now is motionless. Straining the credulity of the sane, we are asked to deduce that throughout all time, the arrow is motionless.

That makes no sense. Let me try again: If we posit an infinitely small period of time, then the amount of movement permitted in that period of time will be correspondingly small. Infinitely small movement is about as good as no movement at all (at least in 450 BC, when the value of PI was 3). But since all time is composed of the sum of these tiny moments, there must be no movement throughout all time.

Of course, this ties in nicely with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principal (doesn't everything?), which basically describes how precisely the position and momentum of a particle (or arrow) can be simultaneously measured -- if we increase the precision in measuring one quantity, we are forced to lose precision in measuring the other. So if Zeno has us imagine an infinitely small, indivisible unit of time, wherein we may observe the arrow's location with pinpoint accuracy, then yeah, our measurement of it's momentum will be correspondingly inaccurate.

Okay, so it's not moving. So what?

I've been doing whatever it is I do for going on 15 years now. And I do it well (according to my own unbiased and objective evaluation). A couple months ago I got "promoted" to Team Leader. I know, it sounds cool, like I'm captain of the Super Friends or something, but really, in a team of two people, it's a little underwhelming.

Time crawls. I go nowhere.

I need a vacation.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Batting .750

This weekend, Wife, Son and I piled into the car and struck out to visit my parents in Corwnall, Ont. There was a local fair, with rides, fireworks, and musical extravaganzas, featuring such high-profile Canadian Has-Beens of Rock as Tom Cochrane, Sass Jordan, and April Wine. Ten bucks gets you a five-day pass, and they also have hot-air balloons! Of course we got rained on, so the balloons and fireworks were cancelled.

At some point, we borrowed some windbreakers from my parents, since the show was by the water. Pictured here is Son, indulging his nostalgia for the great old days of hockey by representing for the noble Nordiques du Quebec. The jacket's old, borrowed and blue. All that's missing is something new, and he's ready to get hitched!

So, according to Pablo Neruda, "Laughter is the language of the soul". And we've all polished that old chestnut: "The eyes are the windows to the soul". And the Three Stooges, arguably the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, frequently gouged each other's eyes with the goal of evoking laughter. Soul + Eyes + Laughter. Full Circle.

I just know this means something, but what? This is a perfect illustration for the limits of my capacity for reason. I'm perfectly able to detect the presence of some deeper meaning or pattern, just not what that important, life-altering message might be. There is always a missing piece, always an incomplete understanding. We have the old, the borrowed, and the blue, but the new, the final tantalizing nugget, is always missing. Good thing I've never read the bible, it'd probably drive me nuts.

This evening, Son and I invented a new game called "Hugs & Kisses", which is meant to replace our previous favorite "Knees & Knuckles". The object of this new game is for me to "kiss" him, by blowing a raspberry on his tummy, and for him to "hug" my neck until I pass out. This game still retains the entertaining core of our Ur-Sport, "Kick Daddy in the Balls". We've toned it down a little in deference to Wife's express desire for a kinder, gentler Son, but ultimately I think we've made it pretty clear that such is The Manner in Which We Role, and to divert these potent energies to a course inconsistent with our masculine imperative would be to break faith with the father-son bond.

So when Wife catches us in the act of tumbling around on Son's bed, bruising and contusing each other, I try to cover:

Me: "We were just, uh, checking the sheets for crumbs, because, uh, Son was eating toast in here before..."
Wife: "Why the hell do I bother?"
Me: "If loving me is wrong, you don't want to be right."
Son: (giggle).

Go Nordiques.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

All I'm Sayin' Is It Goes Without Sayin'

Some people find it difficult to make friends. I have been, and sometimes still am, one of those people.

There are lines drawn in the desert of our interactions with others, and these lines must not be crossed. Of course, they are constantly shifting with the winds and the dunes, and what may be appropriate dinner conversation in one context will get you thrown out of the restaurant under different circumstances.

For people who are less well equipped to discern these societal norms and unspoken rules, charting the waters of human interaction can be tricky business. Reefs and shoals abound, invisible tides and currents wait to carry you out to sea, beyond hope of rescue or redemption. Cut that girl loose, because after what you said last night, she'll never talk to you again.

These are the people who don't get the girl, who don't have a lot of friends, or who always say the wrong thing. The people who don't shower on a regular basis, because no one ever told them they should. The guy might be brilliant, he might have a heart of gold, he might even be a demon in the sack, but he doesn't shower, doesn't shave, and has no idea how to talk to co-workers, superiors, or women. He's toast. And no one will tell him why.

No one comes out and tells you what is acceptable behavior, you just have to figure it out. The topic of situational appropriateness is, paradoxically (or ironically, I can't remember which), one of the things we never talk about. I guess it's inappropriate.

(Something else weird: You know that Alanis Morissette song about how everything's ironic? And you know how all the things she talks about - rain on your wedding day, a free ride when you're already there, etc - aren't actually examples of irony? Don't you think that's a bit.... ironic?)

One of these unwritten rules of "appropriateness" (or maybe it is written, but I'm too lazy to look it up) governs the use of mixed metaphors. In a nutshell, the rule is: Don't. Reading back, you can see I've employed the use of "desert" and "ocean" metaphors, to describe the same thing. I wish I could say that this was by way of illustrating some point, but really it's because I'm a frickin' rookie.

There are some questions to which only personal experience can provide the answer. Things that cannot be taught, only learned. These lessons are always the most valuable, but so priceless is the lesson we have learned today (or failed to learn), that we should encase in salt and bury it a thousand miles beneath the Nevada desert, preserved for generations to come. Then, like the Egyptian pharaohs of old, we should bury the architects and builders of this tomb, and ensure that this lesson can only ever be "self-taught".

Of course I exaggerate to make a point, but if you've ever read anything that tries to teach the rules of human interaction, say a book on how to make friends, or how to meet women, you can begin to understand how difficult it is to verbalize some of the things we need to learn, to pass on. These books are almost painful to read.

If you can't verbalize it, you pretty much can't teach it. And so our loser-protagonist is doomed to wander the arctic wasteland of peer-society, never or rarely to know the warmth of successful interaction, and the many rewards it brings. Yet another metaphor. In case you're keeping score, that's 3-0.

Some things can be spoken, or written, and some can't. And some things cannot be blogged.

Totally unrelated: Condolences on the ending, and congratulations on the beginning, Boxer. She'd better deserve you.