Monday, December 17, 2012

...the fear...the hate...the only way out...the madness

this image came to me and i couldn't get it out of my head. that ghostly, emaciated, empty visage--haunting life before his death: adam lanza as another victim, but a victim of himself. it does not glorify the individual who perpetrated this mass-murder; it merely shows the world from his perspective. back in the early '60s, mike wallace did a think piece on malcolm x called "the hate that hate produced"--and that title is another thing that keeps coming back to me.

what happened was as much a reaction as a decision. you can't get to that kind of state without some kind of internal knee-jerk that is as intrinsic to the personal character as breath to the chest. and you don't get that overnight. no one knows what triggered anders brevik either; we only know he was captured alive to spew his twisted philosophy, which told us nothing more about his prime motivator, the tipping point. which is when they know, in their hearts, that... "that's the last straw...the final indignity...something MUST BE DONE, and DONE NOW!!!"

and what lies ahead after that? suicide (usually, the final victory; "now they'll never know!") or "...revenge...justice...peace from the voices..." or any combination of them. but what is obvious is that all that has come before is all that influences their decision. not merely the bitterness and shame they bear every day of their life, no. they have seen that killing is the sole solution for all the crimes against their selves...because they see it in every media and medium of entertainment.

whatever we learn about james holmes will never show us how to stop someone like him either, but we do know it was also the open secret of fame which was a major component of his enormity. one does not choose "the joker" without the joker existing. if we see it on the big screen, it has to be true! and it has to be good. because any slumping star with falling box office receipts need only pick up a shiny handgun or large-bore automatic weapon to see his value rise exponentially to his body count. we were once shocked when james bond shot a man twice, and calmly blew the smoke out of his silencer. today, when neo in "the matrix" says: "guns. lots of guns", we cheer. because we know "the secret": it's all a computer simulation--none of it is "real". and you're not killing anyone because they don't exist...only you do!

which is, of course, the same thing we find in the other simulations many find in this world. you only think you're real--they know the difference. but we don't. oh no! we say: the qualitative difference between the actions of the above-cited persons and the lead gun-character in any popular RPG shooter is negligible. and they also know "the secret", that it is all a game...because the popular kids laugh and call them "loser". kinda like "san andreas: no fault".

and now for the obligatory Wiki quote:

"In game theory and economic theory, a zero–sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which a participant's gain (or loss) of utility is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the utility of the other participant(s)."

which means that the last man standing wins. the reason their reason is without reason is that they never consider this is also a "no-loss" situation; when you have nothing to lose, you have everything to gain. 

with all the hand-wringing and resolutions and shouts for change, the basic fact of the matter is that no legislation for gun safety or mental health, no policing or vigilance on site, no buy-backs, no anti-NRA campaigning--none of it--will do anything to stop this mind-numbing horror from happening again until we do something about the culture of violence.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Journal of the Storm Week, Pt. 4


Papers didn’t come today, but your interest is the news is already reduced to a point of indifference. However, an item brought home from the office yesterday is a pod-style radio. Rather than sit with headphones on, you dig out an old pair of Radioshack desktop computer speakers which run on both A/C and batteries. The fact that they are C-cells gives you some encouragement; most things these days use either double-A or D-types—those that would be sold-out more often.

On the way down the stair you find your under-neighbors exiting, happy to know there are still at least three occupied units in your building. The hardware on 1st and 14th is letting customers in one at a time—cash only—and they have exactly two C sets left.

But before checking out the airwaves you realize how this has become a city where bikes rule in absentia, and decide to borrow one from the basement to expand the range by a factor greater than foot.

What comes to mind first is that every street is strewn with leaves. It isn’t just that they have been unraked but more, not even driven over that much. In a strange way, it feels more like a forest floor than a concrete jungle, lending it an ever-deepening sense of abandonment. One can’t help accessing memories of these post-WWIII and eco-disaster flicks of the last survivors eking out a subsistence on the remains of civilization. (Lurid can be fun.) At the East River, all the oldest and tallest trees—almost to a man, so to speak—are knocked over from the roots, dislodged so neatly that you wonder if the Parks Dept. might be able to crane them back into place and repot them…so to speak. By the time you exit the bike path at South Street Seaport, the movies have given way to an old novel, J.G. Ballard’s “The Drowned World”. Prescient enough to speak about the life on our planet after the ice-caps have melted, the book has one scene in particular which imprinted itself on your early sci-fi mind: the Financial District, wherein a free-sea pirate has sealed off the spaces between buildings and pumped out the water, being made into this surreal party zone. Everywhere you look today the gutters run with hoses and torrents.

On the ride home, you watch a chassidic couple filling plastic jugs from an open hydrant.

The batteries in, you tune the dial and stop at the first clear signal: WBGO, the jazz station. Interspersed with bits from NPR’s news division, the day now becomes smoother and less lonely, hence richer, for having live and looped updates on the post-storm story. The repeated tales of hardship—a woman hauling water up to parent’s apartment on the 15th floor, and her own in another building as well; day-long waits at stations for only one gallon of gas; the devastation of Breezy Point and Staten Island—all convince you that suffering is relative. Yet, even with resources stretched thin, the marathon is going on? Shocking. Almost as much as Christie coming down from his high-horse to tour the New Jersey shore with the President. It is more news than you can use.

But the beauty of the Blues hour—all live cuts, going from B.B. King’s “Blues Power” to a sidelong jam of the Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East, both which you had long ago memorized note-for-note—provides fine accompaniment for the afternoon. It reminds you that, while AM was your first love, FM was the grand passion; the post-juvenile romance that made your ears into arbiters of truth and art, of radio when it mattered. What better way to slip back into the young adult traumas of Katniss Everdeen as she transforms from antisocial, maladjusted teen into our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart? As the day draws to a close, Piano Jazz is like having an old friend drop by with a new acquaintance, one chatty, well-informed and oh-so-talented. On this occasion, the guest is Tammy McCann, one of those octave-mad singers who came to jazz out of opera, and offers up a set from Broadway to standards, which all mesh beautifully with the dimming into twilight, including a delightful version of the Gershwin’s “But Not For Me.” Just what you need to gather provisions from out the window and start dinner. The mid-evening set DJ’s expected guest didn’t make it in due to the emergency, so he says to his intern, Why don’t you go over to the library and pick out some things and YOU do a set? This is what live radio was meant for: a chance to get something totally out of the blue. And what the first selection consists of is a live Cannonball Adderly set (so deep ‘60s you realize you may be one of the few listening who get the references to Senator Dirksen) with vocal by Lou Rawls and Nancy Wilson. This is why we would call then “on-air personalities”: they are as real as someone sitting on your couch and yet curators as much as any gallery or museum directors. A perfect accompaniment for two hours of ferrying scalding hot pots from the stove to the tub. Perhaps you are turning into the perfect housemate but what of it—the comforts of home are not to be compared with else. All those who have found other places, couches, spare bedrooms—they may not be impositions, may even be welcome diversions from their own troubles—yet their time is not their own, nor is their space.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Journal of the Storm Week, pt. 3


From the window you can see buses coming up Avenue A. Knowing this, she decides it is worth the effort to get to her office: no matter what else needs be done, the chance to recharge our phones is a primary concern. (What you found out later is that the time it spends searching for signals is also what drains the batteries.) You think of the clusters of people you’d seen yesterday about the generator the Irish bar on 13th had set up for people to get some cellular power and the prospect of a similar vigil leads you to agree with her. And this will also afford a trip to the Whole Foods around the corner on 57th to restock supplies. This reminds you of the semi-prophetic song “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads, with the verse that ends: “I’ve got groceries/Some peanut butter/Should last a couple of days/But ain’t got no TV/Ain’t got no headphones/Ain’t got no records to play.” If they were up for a rewrite, it might be more pointed to revise: “Ain’t got no smartphone/Ain’t got no signal/Power’s dead anyways”.

A rendezvous is set up for 1PM at “a Chase bank between 53rd and—no, between 54th and 55th…” as she can’t remember her office address just then. It is only later that you will realize she didn’t give you the cross street. Morning calls also confirm that there will be another business holiday and your Brooklynite friend expresses, for the first time in history, sympathy for your plight of living in Manhattan.

To make the scheduled appointment, you have set aside an hour-and-a-half, thinking that a prudent reserve. When you get to 1st and 14th, however, you realize there is nothing prudent in anything today. As two buses approach and a third stands stalled, you see you are one of dozens, probably closer to 40 or 50 people, all swarming in on the latest arrivals, most of which are so full they can’t even open their doors to more of the horde. The bus starter the MTA has placed here is one of those veterans who know how to appeal to the better instincts of mob scenes—via the now-trademarked, long-suffering Queens—with a combination of humor, gentle persuasion and simple repetition. “Room for one more? Ok. Another? Over here. Squeeze in. Please get a little closer so we can close up. Little more. Think ‘intimate’. Bit more. Ok, close ‘em!” The mass moves in gnat clouds, trailing the buses while they roll to a stop; it reminds you of nothing so much as a those pictures of 3rd world jitneys where frustrated commuters sit on top or hang off the sides rather than wait on possible space. You hear a mother apologizing to her son for missing their opportunity at a cram-in because she was out-of-place when the window presented itself. “So, you were following another guy with a backward-turned baseball cap—LIKE I’M NOT WEARING?” Even when three arrive at once, the gaps of departures are filled before they can clear the portals by the fast and unencumbered. The helplessness on faces are as eloquent as the dispatcher’s sighs.

You drift down to 8th Street, thinking that you might upstage the later streets but find that all buses are now express and don’t even stop there. You briefly debate whether you might have better luck going down to Houston but that’s no guarantee either. You weigh the cost: you could walk down and try for a better position, or simply start now and walk up, but in the eventuality that you’d have to walk home with a full backpack... While these factors are spinning around in your head, you notice a taxi stopping about a block away to answer a hail. Words are exchanged with the driver and you can see others already inside moving over.

This was a YELLOW taxi, a fact in comparison that triggers the instant comprehension that the local economic model has changed. Today rides are a Seller’s market. The 20-something has stepped in front of you and flagged the next, and asks: “Can you take me to 73rd and Broadway?” The Indo-accented driver says: “I’m only going up to 83rd and 1st and no place else.” I hold out a twenty. “55th is fine with me,” which gets me the front jump seat. The backseat is already occupied by a waifish blonde who smiles and nods. Once we get above 23rd we pick up a guy with a Northern Euro accent—maybe scandian, who’ll settle for 59th Street—and the jam begins. But the driver is adept enough to do a bit of weaving and when he sees other driver’s taking the bus-reserved lanes, he follows suit. Pointing at the dead traffic lights, “If the lights don’t work, neither do the cameras.” Of his license plate, of course. Another part of the new economy. He says it is like this all over; it took him 3 and a half hours to just get to his garage from Queens, most of that walking. He got lucky and saw another cab from his fleet and got a lift just before he hit the TriBoro Bridge.

As is often the case, emergency situations makes everyone more liable to talk to one another. “What news?” “I heard six days.” “I was told a week.” “Well, you should probably split the difference on that one. Its like when Kirk would ask Scotty how long it would take to repair the engines this time, he gets told one number and then asks again later and its done. So he says: Chief Engineer, why is it you always tell me twice the time it will take to do the job? And Scotty says: How else will I maintain my reputation as a miracle worker?” This gets a chuckle from the backseat and even a smile from the driver, but probably more out of nervousness than recognition: none of them was born when this first aired.

Just below the UN, the snarl doubles as the driver has to make a choice between underpass and over, like it matters. But the one thing to be said about the over: you get a choice of lanes NOT to be moving in. The Euro guy can’t wait any long and asks what he owes him. He gestures vaguely at the running meter and says “Whatever.” He forks over two singles and a five, and you wish you’d waited on that twenty.

As it is, by 50th Street the clotting has become thick enough for curds and the driver says he’s going to take the FDR at the next opportunity so you can hoof it at any time. Crossing the avenue is no different than a parking lot. You wonder where anything is moving. Which is also the subject of a couple of stroller moms and a matron, and some German tourists you pass in you line of march.

When you finally figure out that the cross-street is missing, you have to say: How many Chase outlets could there be on the East side, between 54th and 55th? Well, she originally said 53rd, but made you cross that out on the envelope with the grocery list, which might be a factor. Then you have to double your immediate possible choices as it could be either side of the street. This process requires drifting into the center of every avenue to scan the storefronts for any sign of the bank logo. And there are a LOT of banks. When you find one on Park Avenue that fits the description you are certain…except that after ten minutes, the obsessive-compulsive significant other is nowhere to be seen on HER schedule. Taking a risk, you ascend from the ATM lobby to the second floor. The place is practically deserted: one or two tellers, and a couple of guys that look like desk clerks at a Marriot stand at the help island. Surprising as anything these days, they not only check the listing of branches between the specified zones but offer to call her as well! “…beep beep beep beep…” “We get a lot of line failures in this area.” Lacking anything better to do, you go back to the lobby and wait another ten minutes before trying again. This time is works. And she insists you weren’t listening when she gave you the cross street of Third Avenue. You point out to her that, according to your new best buddies at this branch, there IS NO Chase on Third between 54th and 55th. “56th” she says, as if this will explain YOUR mistake.

While waiting in the ATM lobby of 56th and Third, you notice all of the people who sit on the floor to use the outlets to recharge their phones, and the steady stream of a new person coming in every minute or so to use the branch facilities only to jerk on the door handle and read the sign about being closed due to the emergency. All that is offered is money and power: the latter being, if only for this moment, of equal worth…and free.

Your only quick study of shopping at Whole Foods on 57th is that, among the perishables,, you get one of the last three romaine lettuce heads. And that they have no more dinner candles. It comes as no surprise but only induces that buy of a small superlumens hand flash at the Duane Reade. Along with extra batteries.

The singular delight of getting on the M-15 and beating the mad scramble is to find seats still open. Catching an older fellow’s eye, neither can resist silently congratulating the other for such a coup. On the ride down—much quicker now, which you also realize applies to anything further from the river—you make phone calls and try to avoid the envious stars of the SRO crowd, none of whom appear pregnant, wounded, infirm or otherwise unable to handle their burdens which are no more than yours. Exiting at 14th you become more and more aware of the solos and couples all heading in the opposite direction. As you pass by the Stuyvesant residential police you can hear them ordering up additional security details to watch over the vacated buildings.

At home you realize it is time to abandon all hope that the fridge will do anything but keep stuff warm and transfer every item within, along with today’s purchases, out to a large metal-lined tea-box you’ve maneuvered out to the fire escape. The daytime temperature is listed in the paper as 56 degrees, but the night will be 39—no different than the deli case at the grocer’s. Enough to keep the water cool, the veggies crisp and the dairy from spoiling too fast. As you stow the precious commodities out in the air, 30 feet above the street, you look to see if anyone else has thought of this simple solution. No other fire escape appears to be used as a cooler. And still the rolling stock of caddy-people head west.

“The Hunger Games” has begun to become something of a disappointment. The text o the second book, “Catching Fire”, spends so much of its time recapitulating the events, emotional relationships and attendant histories, peak experiences, descriptions of outfits, meals, etc., of the first book that the actual range of activities is limited to a very few scenes of brief passion, snap judgments, split decisions and sudden revelations that have been so thoroughly telegraphed in advance you’d think it coded for transmission by Western Union. You can’t be sure whether the author used a template, a cookie cutter or a Chinese menu (one from column A, one from column b, one from column C, etc.) as her structure, unless this is some new form of app that creates genre novels for the historically uninformed.

Your first nightfall without her is when it hits you: there are dramatically less windows candlelit than even yesterday. The East Village is becoming depopulated as Stuyvesant. Then there is the choice to be made whether to light one candle  or just prepare dinner by flashlight. Not for the first time in days have you thought about your lifestyle” Amish, by all intents and appearances. You think of the strange attraction of the illuminated Vermeer-like scenes of the farmhouse in “Witness”; how even someone as cosmopolitan as John Book could feel drawn to the simple acts of uncomplicated labor—carpentry to milking. You feel it even more as you notice how quiet and immediate the conversation over meals has become. Very little opinion offered about the upcoming elections, or abstract thoughts about anything, except doing chores, tasks, maintenance of facilities. This is what they called “plain”—not with any form of pride but acknowledgment of accomplishment. This is what it means to reduce media down to a few hours of mp3’s drain on the iPods and even less of mp4’s on the iPads.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Journal of the Storm Week, pt. 2


There’s no point in starting the day before the sun is up, so it’s nice to play the iPod until morning light. This is when the taste of coffee is most satisfying and you want to make a joke like: “Honey, now THAT’s good coffee!” as Harrison Ford did in “Witness”, but would probably get the same look of incomprehension as he did from his Amish hosts. The fridge is still cool and the milk is fresh.

The first order of business is, of course, business. The office, being on 53rd, might be open. (You explain that there were lights to the north last night.) Her Blackberry can’t get a signal and both your phones read “NETWORK FAILURE” for every attempt. Out on the street you see others doing the exact same thing: walking along, stopping, then going forward again, all with eyes fixed on their palms—everybody’s dialing and nobody’s talking.

The obvious endpoint for the stroll is the Con Ed plant at the end of 14th. Which is also the destination of everyone else. But before then you say. “Let’s see the river.” The ramble through Stuyvesant town shows a lot of downed limbs but otherwise displays no ill effects. Which is sort of how and why you need to see the monster again: as a doctor would want to know, what was the last temperature before the fever broke—how bad was it?

As soon as you cross the FDR service road it is plainly a disaster of epic proportions. It is said that one indicator will tell you all you need to know about the subject, if it is significant enough. As if placed there by gods with a slapstick sense of humor, a large steel I-beam, attached by massive rivets to two broken wood pieces—one is part of a dock, the other the top of one of it’s pylons—sits high and astride  the metal railing to the first garden patch of the copse. At any other time you’d’ve need a crane. And behind it, about five to seven feet, sits one of its fellows, only this lays flat against the brink of the sea wall.

This is when a new revelation strikes you: people who are taking pictures are also sending them. By the river, you can pick up Brooklyn towers. She immediately begins e-mailing her office and you speak to yours and are told “looks like we’re on holiday. There’s no power south of 34th Street.” Not to mention that the subways are filled with overflow. And the tunnels for the cars too. And basements all over the Financial District and Battery.

So it’s home to read until lunch. That’s when you finally decide to get down to the young lady’s request—the office mate with who you share peanuts, secrets and the bay—to read “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins. You saw the movie but that hasn’t placated her. She insists that you read the trilogy so you can discuss the…socio-political ramifications of it? You had often reminded her of the fact that while you greatly respect her taste and opinion, your interest lay more in science right now than young adult fiction—however excellent it may be—which is just not your forte. You’ve even cited her championing of the “Twilight” series and the Harry Potter phenomenon. But she continues to insist that your prejudice is unacceptable.

Which it is, given that you’ve really got nothing better to do.

So, with the Kindle having a full charge and the .mobi files sitting in the “TO BE BURNED” folder on the iBook for the last six months…what better way to pass the time than reading a post-apocalyptic novel, than when you are in—basically, agenda-wise, environmentally, and if not socio-economically back to a barter system then for all immediate intents and practical purposes—a similar state?

By 4PM, you’ve read more in three hours, continuously, than you’ve read in years. The beauty of the Kindle is that you can open any book any time and for only one or two pages and that’s fine. To read a novel, however, is to surrender a small portion of yourself to that other consciousness; something, a talent or determination perhaps, not often given to the modern urban, where there’s always someplace to go or something to do of equal importance, and of limited duration of existence. As she has been writing her article, in longhandhand for later entry, it seems to be time for a break before the dusk falls, and to check in with the Verizon towers of Brooklyn again. Right outside your front door, the next door restaurant is just finishing its free lunch and putting away the steam tables. A little miffed to miss a delicacy you ask: What WAS on the menu? “Everything we had. Better to give it away than let it spoil.” You have to love a rationalist approach to rationing.

This run you encounter a pair of police officers directing traffic at—of all the odd places—Avenue B and 14th. As apropos a moment to speak to anyone in authority, you sidle up and ask: What’s the deal? The elder Irish white one has the cherubic demeanor of someone who’s got no answers and had to give then too often to take the questions seriously any longer. So he just indicates you look around you. And then it hits you: almost everyone you’ve passed on the walk over has been going in the opposite direction—west.—and all with backpacks, overnight shoulder bags and just as many pulling caddy luggage as not. And those are the same resolute faces you see streaming out of Stuyvesant village.

“We should get out of town?” “If you got somewhere to go,” he shrugs” “Yeah.” “So?” “Word is six days to a week.”

This is not what you had anticipated when you ground yesterday’s coffee for today’s breakfast.

Conversation at dinner is muted. She has been referencing “The Road”—specifically, the movie version starring Vigo Mortgensen and not the novel by Cormac McCarthy. You would rather talk about “The Hunger Games” and its relation to a possible Romney presidency. This appears to make her even more depressed. It is agreed to spend the remainder of the evening getting a hot bath. This requires heating water on the stove and carrying the kettle and three pots, still bubbling with scalding hot menace, to the bathroom, the other lighting the way with the flash, in constant rotation for over two hours. This also heats up the room—which still has the ambient temperature of early Fall—to the point where the windows mist up with condensation the way they used to when your mother would cook all day for Thanksgiving dinner. There is a lot to be said for natural gas and running water—including flush toilets— as the epitome of civilization. But hot water on tap should be right up there with them.

After a long soak there is no need for any media-enhancements towards sleep.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Journal of the Storm Week, pt. 1


The problem with symbolism is that the more you read into something, the more of it shows up begging for your attention.

I wanted something to take my mind off the election, and, for my sins, I got. It was served up on a silver platter, complete with garnish, trimmings and even a dipping sauce—one of confusion, growing dread and moody references to an apocalypse, and one, if not already now then pretty close to here.

To express the strange, ominous approach of Sandy is to reference less of Rod Serling and more of David Lynch. Like “Blue Velvet”, the mask of normalcy hid beneath it a disaster of epic proportion, yet, from outward appearances, you’d have to wonder what all the fuss was about. The Sunday shutdown of the subway for a storm that wouldn’t be arriving until Monday? Even Irene didn’t go that far. Of course, the obligatory panic-buying spree at the Associated didn’t help, nor the constant features showing lines outside of Trader Joe’s outlets, carts full of bottled water crates, still done up in shrinkwrap. But this was all old hat. Every time a big blizzard or nor’easter comes along people do the same things. What then had us joining the milling throngs at the supermarket queues? Presentment, or merely wanting to participate in the fearfest? Whichever, one is always thankful for the innate politeness of fellow shoppers at such times. No one descended into the base instinct until the last loaf left the shelf; no one cuts the checkout line…at least not until it comes to something more important than food—like gasoline. The paranoia then comes upon entering the streets and recognizing that you share the exact same attitude as everyone else, all out on the exact same mission: either traveling to it, increasing the pace of steps from deliberate to hasty, or strolling back from, now with micropore plastic sacks dangling from fists. Then, every slight dapple of wet on the wind, every breeze that rises up enough to rustle the dead leaves, send a cold chill down the spine, and—even with some hours to go before the scheduled shut-down of the transportation system—contributes to her shrill warnings that has you cancel a planned attendance at a housewarming party up top at Inwood. “That’s fine for a Sunday excursion but what if you can’t get back?” is the summary argument.

Still, the inescapable logic of your position can’t counter the dire predictions on every channel which crawls up her intuition in tendrils of dread, wrapping around every impulse, fed by every report. When, by Monday afternoon, there is nothing on any of the major networks but ‘Eyewitnesses’, ‘Trackers’, or ‘Our Channel __ Storm Team’, etc. This is when the details begin to emerge from the background noise of babble from these mike-wielding cassandras in weatherproof logos: high tide…full moon…backend surge simultaneous… This becomes less a matter of sensationalist storymongering and more one of Arithmetic: one plus one plus one, subtract nothing. That’s also when the anchors—who yesterday were teasing their co-chairs with labels like “Hurri-ween”, “Hallo-cane” and such variants—cease all banter and stick to the service advisories and weather bulletins, noting such obscuranta as the millibars of pressure being at the lowest recorded for an eye.

The beaches of Virginia and South Carolina we’ve seen churned up countless times before; you could almost run a loop of library footage and it would be the same. New Jersey, is another matter. Now even the AC casinos are closed—first time in…who knows? since 9/11?—and this is the upper Atlantic seaboard, an area abandoned after Labor Day. This may be from the tropical waters of the blue-green Caribbean but you couldn’t tell from the footage. Its surf, never more than a clear brown in sunny June, is the same dirty grey as the sky; and roiling—nothing to suggest its preternaturally calm demeanor.

And New York? It can’t happen here…

And for so long, it doesn’t. We seal up the sidewalk vent to the basement, set out cardboard and duct tape in the hall in case of broken windows, make sure the stairwell is cleared in the event of a quick evacuation—all the things good coop owners are supposed to do. And then…

Stay tuned for further updates.

And that is all you get. One shows the water at Battery Park, already up to the railings, railings you have stood at so often to watch the sunset over Lady Liberty and Hoboken, railings that you have never seen nearer to the harbor than six feet below, now getting a dribble of bay through their gratings.

You wait for the rising wind to howl and shriek with banshee terror wails. You wait for the droplets to become splatters to transform into sheeting rain, to arrive sideways with debris clouds picked up from street litter. You wait. And then, the curiosity gets the better of you, and you go out. It still feels like any other October evening, more September, despite the fallen leaves. Inexorably, it seems, you, like many other Apostles of Doom, you Doubting Thomases are drawn to the source of all their dire predictions: the East River.

To one who knows it intimately, it is a tranquil, even placid body, rippling only when a tanker, speedboat or sail craft comes along. Most of the time, you can judge it best by how much of the tiny spit of sand and concrete and wooden posts—the remains of a pier and ancient water main about six feet down, extending out 15 feet or so—is covered by the waves, and how much is covered by gulls, pigeons and the occasional cormorant. That the redevelopment of the area, from the Con Ed plant at 15th to the south to the ritzy Water Club up at 24th north, into the new park kept this tiny bit of unreconstructed nature adds an endless charm to the whole; a diamond in the rough. You always call it “the beach”.

And it is gone. No, there is still just the barest top of a slab showing, looking more like something seen off Newfoundland or the Norway maelstrom than anything you’d recognize. Where did this raging torrent come from? This is New York Harbor chop on a very bad day, but a half mile north and six feet higher than you’d ever seen before. Having spent the previous weekend in Easton, PA on the campaign canvass, you’d talk to Dave, your driver, and had exchanges with the locals who answer your knock on College Hill, and each and all confirm that the lazy-looking Delaware, snaking along some 40 feet below your march, will certainly rise up like one of Poseidon’s chariot-shell sea monsters, and inundate all the environs you cross before heading into your district walk. It becomes easy then to envision the ancient’s myth of Leviathan. And the Christians too: once Doubting Thomas was offered a chance to put his fingers into the stigmata, and his hand in the spear wound, he too believed Jesus had risen.

Once you have seen the river like this—four hours before high tide—you know that whatever happens, it WILL happen. When you get home, there is no more talk about ignoring the warnings. When the word comes that Zone 1 is to be evacuated, you have the mild relief of knowing it stops one block away at Avenue B. This probably defines “cold comfort” for the families living in the projects on D and C. No one wants to become a displaced person (“DP” in WWII-speak), or worse—a refugee. So you count yourself lucky.

So it is the most awful cliché you can think of that comes to mind. The windows are open with screen in for an almost balmy evening. The bar-hopper-murmur as they sashay up and down Avenue A. The way the sky is dark, but threatening neither torrent nor tornado. This is the way is should be for the Wednesday parade or ghosts, goblins, ghouls and anything conceived in the imagination of costume designers up to and including plastic injection molding. But the only thing that comes to mind is: “Yes, It’s Quiet…Too Quiet.”

She has a sudden desire to make a crock of rice, reason being that the yield is near 6-to-8 balls which make hand-dandy microwavable meals out of the freezer. Now you realize that the self-induced panic of yesterday has come full circle; this is practical planning-she has entered the stage of a siege mentality. She then orders all the cooking pots to be filled as she does the same with the bath (from memories of the Fukushima tsunami). You dig up an old pocket flashlight and find that it still works with new batteries as she pulls out the few remaining table candles as you put the votary—purchased at a bodega on the walk back from Leviathan—right at the corner of the bathroom sink with a box of matches inside: easy to find and light by knowing an exact location in advance.

She’s cooking when the call comes in from your lesbian friends, ex-Manhattanites—in Florida, asking if we’re prepared. “You know what I miss most? (Shirl says, about losing power) I can’t have my morning coffee.” That’s when you call her in to take the phone while you stir the beef-&-squash combo in the wok. And grind some coffee beans.

At this point there is nothing else to do so you get on with whatever you were doing, most of which involves computer, DVD burners, TiVO lists, etc. Where choice is a matter, one does other things. Dinner would normally be at eight, but the rice delays the schedule. What you’ve been told is that high tide is between 8 and 9 PM, and that’s when you catch the eyewitness report of NY1 reporter Dean Meminger watching waves go past his front porch in Far Rockaways, much more subdued than the confident, assured newscaster doing stand-ups at fairs to crime scenes and the general gamut of any on-air personality. His normally unctuous tones are now unmodulated and candid. “No one here has ever seen anything like this.” You stare at what he stares at and wonder when you’re going to receive a piece of that action. You’ve done everything to prepare for it. Which way is it going to come?

And that’s when the lights dim for the first time. You recognize this from the blackout of 2003, and a few more recent summer brownouts. The voltage drops so precipitiously you can only stare at the bulb and try to will it back to brightness again. And it does! It is 8:30PM, more or less.

Then you hear the first explosions, to the east. “What was that?” “Transformers, I think.” More of a bang, really. And then some pops. The MSNBC guy is now saying the three steps from the Battery Plaza War memorial have been lapped. Then comes a few fireworks: roman candles, ladyfingers and whistlers. “What was that?” “New Yorkers.” Then comes another bang, one that is more of an explosion.

And the lights dim again. And then glow brighter.

Then black.

It is about 8:45PM, you guess, but since you can’t see the battery-powered travel alarm you use—and every other LED readout device is dead—you don’t know. But you have other things on your mind.

You head straight for the votary candle and the briefest funny flits across your brainpan: Oh, so who are you praying for? And… “Did you move the candle in the bathroom?” “Yes. I put it so it wouldn’t fall.” Marvelous. And no time for an argument. The flash finds it soon enough.

“Let’s have dinner.” A couple of espresso saucers from the never-used set make excellent set-ups with a few drops of wax as an anchor. But, before you sup, like all Doubting Thomases, you have to look out the window. We all do. The first flickerings of light dance on panes and ceilings across the street, people hanging off of eaves wave flashes. All the streetlights are out; now is the time for good manners and courtesy in all traffic situations. Dinner by candlelight isn’t romantic, under these conditions, but it is alright to pretend it was her idea.. Afterwards, you wash up as fast as you can before the hotwater goes. Nothing saps morale as fast as possible as floor clutter and dirty dishes in the dark: you’ll never know where the smells are coming from and if any little visitors might now be enjoying the atmosphere’s natural concealment assets.

Still, the night is still. The bar downstairs is rolling down its metal shutters. The Avenue A strollers thin to a trickle and evaporate. Only headlights show up and pass by. No rain, no wind. Only the dark. And now the quiet. No booming cars stereos. No sirens, yet. Just as black and peaceful as a country home in the woods. Curiosity overcomes you and what you see as a chance to get a perspective on history she sees as an opportunity to get blown off the roof” “Do what you want, I’m not coming with you.” Rather than advise that THERE IS NO WIND, you go the two flights up and find things even eerier. The odd gust, but nothing looks like it does on TV. The major observations: the white sky of Manhattan to the north; the roseate blush of Brooklyn to the east…and a high-rise on the Hudson with a white belt around its middle. And everything else as much as nature made it. And made it again.

She does consent to walk east, however, and as you exit, the neighbor across the hall evinces an interest in the same. While you two have thrown on windbreakers, he is still in t-shirt. It is that kind of air. Some people are still on the sidewalks but just as many join you in the center –of-the-street march towards Avenue C. And everyone is in silhouette.

Past B, you can already see the light shining from the headlamps of this SUV-type vehicle attempting to probe the depths. As soon as you arrive at water’s-edge, the car begins backing out. Storm drains never back up like this and you know the power plant is flooded.

Home to evening tea and cookies, she starts making shadow puppets, as if discovering something in a single candle not often found in an incandescent bulb. Pictures on a wall. In bed, the iPad options are offered: the 1960s Astroboy cartoons, Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire d’Cinema or the 1990s TV series Northern Exposure. She opts for recent history, the hit show set around a Jewish Columbia med grad, forced by special student loans, into indentured servitude for 4 years to the town of Cicely, Alaska. This episode is “Northern Hospitality” wherein the local psuedo-ditz bombshell, Shelly, now a new mother to the daughter with her common-law hubbie Hollings—proprietor of the Brick, the only diner/bar in town—has had vague stirrings of national pride in her Canadian identity and becomes annoyed at the prospect of American Exceptionalism (more or less). The second version of the title involves Joel, the doctor, being shamed as a “schnorer” and, attempting to and failing to give a decent dinner party due to his standard niggling, fressing and overall schlemiel attitude.

Neither of you make it to the end of the 43 minutes. Darkness prevails.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Time & Tide, pt. 5

“L’imagination se lassera plutot de concevoir que la nature de fournir.” (“Imagination tires [in conception] before nature does.”)—Blaise Pascal (French mathematician who wrote on projective geometry and later corresponded with Pierre de Fermat on probability theory)

“Nature’s fundamental laws do not govern the world as it appears in our mental picture…but control a substratum where we cannot form pictures without irrelevancies.”—P.A.M. Dirac (English theoretical physicist and Nobel co-winner with Erwin Schroedinger)

“They go, stop, start again, mount, descend, mount again, without the least tendency toward immobility.”—Jean Perrin, 1909 (Nobel Prize-winner for founding work on Brownian Motion)

“This endless embed of this shape into itself gives us an idea of what Tennyson describes somewhere as the Inner Infinity… Such similarity between the whole and its parts leads us to consider the Triadic Koch Island as marvelous. Had it been given life, it would not be possible to do away with it without destroying it altogether for it would rise again and again.”—Ernesto Cesaro, 1905 (Italian mathematician and pioneer in differential geometry)

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.”


"A human being is a part of a whole, called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest...a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. —Albert Einstein

“Infinity behaves differently from anything else, and is best avoided.”—Galileo

Regarding the Infinite, Pt. 2

The top-heavy quote-load for this missive is just to remind one and all just what is under discussion. And yes, last edition closed with a promise to return with the prime motivator of the entirety: the Higgs Boson. However, in order to get there, we have to sum up the journey, to gather all the far-flung assumptions under one roof (or page) because even I am still a little loose as to what’s going on…and what I’m trying to pull off.

So, because everybody should have their say, after all the scientists here’s a couple philosophers.

“Every idea, extended to infinity, becomes its own opposite.”—Hegel

“I should point out how Beginning and End meet together and how closely and intimately Eros and Death--?”—Schopenauer

And now, the one authentic mystic who was swirling around my consciousness at the outset. P.D. Ouspensky was, over the course of his life, a Russian radical, mathematician, Theosophist, one of the original followers of Gurdjieff, refugee, teacher, and cat fancier. The following is just one bit from his early, ground-breaking work “Tertium Organum” (1919).

“The mystery of infinity is that the visible universe has no dimension in comparison; that they are both equal to a point—a mathematical point which has no dimension whatever, and at the same time points which are not measureable as far as they may have different extensions and different dimensions.”

See? You have to love the fact that way back when, there were guys who were already anticipating the 10-dimensional universe of Calabi-Yau spaces. (I know. Well, maybe we’ll get to that and maybe you’ll just have to read the Green book.) What is also striking is that the second Einstein quote above so much resembles the entirety of “Tertium Organum” that it is almost as karmic as the other is comic.

As these notes bring out salient points, so do they wave. Each argument builds a sand castle; each wave turns it back to entropic mush. 'So why build them’, you ask? Because it wastes time, and it does so oh so wonderfully. ‘So why not build your sand castles further back from the ocean’, you ask? (Which is also my favorite restaurant on Fire Island—the Sand Castle in Cherry Grove, that is. Very good lobster bisque, friendly drag queen hostess, and nice place to view bikini bottoms, beach bums, and 2nd degree burns on the boardwalk above.) Because it is much too hard to carry water that far with the surface temperature of granulated silica is +/- a few degrees around pizza oven. And sand without water is merely dust. And the threat of imminent annihilation also makes the construction that much more precious. ‘So why’s it so wonderful and precious’, you ask?

Because it takes time.

Way back when this began, there was a concurrent free showing, at Lincoln Center, of Christian Marclay’s magnum opus, “The Clock”. Briefly, imagine you walk into a gallery, say Paula Cooper’s in Chelsea, on your average Saturday afternoon art-crawl, find a bunch of comfortable couches and a video playing. So you settle in and settle down, and notice that, like Mr. M’s previous masterpiece—“Quartet”—it is all made up of movie clips. If you came in without noting the title, is isn’t long before you see that every cut gets made around some form of time-keeping device (there’s even a sundial) or people mentioning the hour. And then comes the next revelation: it is—to the minute—the exact same one on your wrist chronometer! Once these two pieces of information come together…the world is your oyster. Or Rolex.

This was part and parcel of the original inspiration for this investigation. And why should it lead off the second part of “Infinity” (already a contradiction: how can something that is infinite be divided into two parts?)? Because that this installation also runs, in its complete version, 24 hours. I have no data on how many cuts there are, nor how many times certain movies show up, but still the mind reels, and unreels. Unreal. It is a loop of one day…and you can put it right up there next to James Joyce’s “Ulysseus” if you like for the sheer tour-de force that encompassing one sidereal Terran cycle can be, and this is.

There are few who have seen it in its entirety due to the fact that it is free admission (some people never leave…which also, oddly enough, brings up the central conceit of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”—but if I were to go there you would truly learn the meaning of endlessness in detail), and yet, having seen enough of a few sections, it is easy to state in all confidence that one does not tire of free association either. Much like a Rorschach test, or the aforementioned “The Lady or The Tiger”, what you get from it is pretty much what you bring to it. Some may bring a wealth of knowledge of world cinema, some nothing more than curiosity. Others, a box lunch.

However, some may see it even more as a meditation on the nature of Time itself. Sure, it is all the same: one second after another, minutes, hours…and so it goes, and so it flows. Is it the same ticking towards the appointed hour in the execution chamber of Sing-Sing, awaiting a call from the governor? As a child in a schoolroom, staring from the open window to summer and back up to the magic hands approaching 3PM? As Bruno Antony going to plant Guy Haines’s watch at the amusement park while the tennis player, on the courts at Forest Hills, fights to end a furious match and catch the evening local out of old Pennsylvania Station to stop him in Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train”? As the Hilltown clocktower or the digital readout in the Doc’s Delorean in any of Marty McFly’s several choices of alternate realities available in “Back to the Future”? (…which coincidentally also started this mishegoss…) The closer you examine it, even psycho-socially, the more it resembles “Ulysseus”, to represent the human scale in infinity--or at least all we can comprehend of it in our lives: the time that doesn't stop.

And the more it resembles quantum mechanics.

Which brings us back to the Higgs Boson. (Thought we’d never get there, didn’t you?)

If you spent any time at the press conference [see link in pt. 3] you could not help but be charmed by Rolf Heuer, CERN’s director-general (how great is that title? Like he should have a uniform with epaulets, gold braid, a cocked hat with plumes!), who sounds like a second cousin to the Roamin’ Gnome and looks nearly as cute with same neatly-trimmed goatee. For someone whose focus is on nano-seconds of existence, he also has surprisingly broad, and articulate, views of the grander scale of things.

When, toward the end, he was asked about the merits of such things as the hunt for the Higgs, in a world where famine and disease are rampant, and the everyday necessities of life are still in contest, he put it into a succinct perspective. (Note: the attempt to capture the man’s style is, admittedly, caricature. But it is a marvelous accent. The rest is some paraphrase.) ‘Yah, vell, zhere is applied research and blue-sky science, and while it may be better to have more problems solved now… It is like you have a bag of rice, yah? Zso, you may eat all the rice today, but you will starve tomorrow. But if you plant it all today, you will starve before you can harvest, yah? …Zhen vhat you vant is a Virtuous Circle, yah? Not a Vicious Circle. One that feeds the other and increases the benefits to each, yah? Zso ze answer is somewhere in between.’

Between: a negotiation of present needs vs. future plans is the way the world works, and an answer given by someone who sounds like he has had to deal with it often in meetings with boards and committees. Allocations of resources. Projected schedules and realistic expectations. This is all the most practical aspect of scaling, as well. And the Virtuous Circle? A positive feedback loop; geometry that even a 4th-grader can get behind.

And when it comes to loops, there is one in particular which has been at the forefront of Western Civ. 101 since Athens opened the Academy: Zeno’s Paradox. Briefest: Achilles, the world’s fastest runner, challenges a tortoise to a race, but gives himself a handicap—he’ll run 100 meters and the tortoise will do ten centimeters. So—they’re off…but here’s the trick: for every half-length Achilles covers, so does the tortoise: and that’s what makes it impossible. As the closer they get to the finish line the more they slow down and Achilles can’t get ahead of the tortoise because the remaining length keeps breaking down into millimeters, micrometers, nanometers, etc. and it NEVER ENDS. (For those of you old enough to remember, this was exactly what your slide rule was telling you too. It’s called a logorhythmic progression, and one of the earliest examples of infinity.) This is the most human scale of all because the universe does not understand futility…only utility.

So you say, ‘Well, Greek philosophy or not. That’s impossible, in reality’, and you’d be right. Sure, we know about angular momentum and the mass of Achillies’ body in motion would give him additional kinetic velocity, etc...buuuut Newton hadn’t shown up yet. Nope, it was another thing entirely that Zeno didn’t factor in: Time. You see, the early Hellenes were mostly farmers, herders, and the agrarian lifestyle didn't need clocks, only seasons. The USA didn't institute a standardized national time until the advent of trains that had to run on schedules. (Yes. That WAS long ago.)

The reason the words “human scale” keep cropping up is that we don’t want to forget that philosophers from there to here have always emphasized that if you can’t find some way to make the abstract semi-concrete—put flesh on the bones, so to speak—then you’re not constructing a world, even sand castles; you’re living a fantasy.

Which is how mathematicians and physicists sometimes find themselves at odds, even. A fascinating presentation on this can be found in “The Character of Physical Law”—the collected Messenger Lectures (no: just a co-incidence. The guy who endowed them was named Messenger…but fun to play with, ain’t it?) given at Cornell University by the late, lamented physicist and all-round-fun-guy, Richard Feynman, in 1964.

Yup. Pretty long ago warn’t it? Uh-yeh. And that’s what’s so amazing: everything he says is coming is what shows up in “The Elegant Universe” and then some. And what doesn’t is as relevant today as it was nearly fifty years earlier. You get bonus insights everywhere, but some of the goodies include: when you find one real, solid physical law of the universe, it becomes a can-opener to others, many just via Einstein’s Gedankenexperiment (“thought experiment”). Like Archimedes said: Give me a fulcrum, and I shall move the world. But even the simple explanation of Newton’s Law of Gravity is a boon. F=G mm’/r(squared): force is proportional to the product (multiple) of the masses of two objects and inversely as the square of the distance between them. It may sound too technical as a formula but written out is makes perfect sense. (The closer you get the more you need to get closer, and faster. Simplest.)

And that’s another Feynman confirmation of what we already know: “The burden of this lecture is just to emphasize the fact that it is impossible to explain honestly the beauties of the laws of nature in a way that people can feel, without their having some deep understanding of mathematics. …You might say, ‘Alright, then if there is no explanation of the law, at least tell me what the law IS. Why not tell me in words instead of symbols? Mathematics is just a language, and I want to be able to translate that language’. …But I do not think that is possible, because mathematics is NOT just another language. Mathematics is language plus reasoning; it is like language plus logic. …In mathematics, it is possible to connect one statement with another.”

I could go on but what seems like a good place to segue is right here because that's how we, in proseland, connect OUR statements. See, even this series of arguments, propositions and pronouncements is only made up of language. And it is considered artful if the transitions between paragraphs have some, if only a token, of reasoning. (As to whether this works for yourself, well, your narrator isn’t even too sure if he likes a lot of them.) But the one thing to get at this junction is that the purpose of bringing up Garrett Lisi before was to show how he was able to bring together so many different mathematical and geometrical languages to reach his conclusions. What did was in math, yes, but there was also English language and, despite what Feynman says above, some things can be understood the same way that we read anything: you just have to figure out what some of the technical terms are. Whether Lisi's right or just a waverider—can’t say. But just trying to follow this reasoning set me off on a voyage of discovery not seen since map borders read ‘Here Be Dragons’. Whether or not they will prove to be valid is beyond the scope of this work; they are offered as the path I followed to get here.

And, boy!—does that take a lot of time!

Was that supposed to be funny? Nope. Human scale, again. I paid attention to the words and found answers that made sense. See, that’s what we forget about math: in the same way the Bible talks about the Word-of-God-made-Man (in Jesus, I gather) so is geometry just mathematics made flesh…and conversely, mathematics is geometry made thought. Thus, we can see postulate/proof/theorem in our everyday lives, if we only try to find them.

(Oho? Postulate or apostate? Who’s delivering the message here? Hang in there—we are making the turn; don’t fall out on the curves!)

Which is all very well and good to SAY, but if it has no use, turn it loose! Then, like all vacuous and empty statements (outside of those made with high television ratings among target demographics), it should and will fade out of the universe. “Thus the yeoman work in any science, and especially physics, is done by the experimentalist, who must keep the theoreticians honest.”— Michio Kaku. This is the same as saying (pretty much the same as in Greene’s book): without some empirical evidence, no matter how many theories a 10-D, superstring/superpartner particle satisfies, until it gets off the page and into CERN, we can’t use the term “existence”.

Which brings us back to? The Higgs? Messenger particles? Signals? Or, the other way around—Information Theory, Media Theory, Brane Theory? Either way , we end up at odds with the other. But that’s part of the fun too. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald

If you note a preponderance towards quotes in this one it is 1) to give credit where credit is due, and 2) to show that these premises, however intangible, were previously occupied. The one I can’t give attribution for is due to the fact that I can’t remember where I heard it, but, being so common, I figure I can just throw it down without: “A mark of genius is the ability to create analogies.” As true as that is, it gets better when you change analogies to metaphors, because metaphors are being able to take a lesson from one situation and apply it to another…sorta like Scotty says above, but with a twist. The most popular metaphorical reasoner of the present day is/was Gregory House, MD, who could take a crime scenario and apply it to liver failure, or such. What we enjoyed so much about this was the immediate connection we could make to the story being told by House, and see the way this also lit up the faces of his associates.

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Ok. I think its time to stop with this summary of judgments, lest you think all these citation of “genius” reference are meant to imply your not-so-humble narrator.

There is, then, one more bit of intelligence to gather before the last part. What follows is something of a “vocabulary lesson”. It is not meant for the ardent fan of inside field jargon, but neither is it more than a just a bit arcane for the amateur ponderer. It is more to remind me of the journey to get here from there. It may not even be germane to the next portion…but probably will. Otherwise, I wouldn’t feel compelled to explain it to myself.

* * *

  1. The first thing to establish is point = particle. This is the basis of math-to-geometry and geometry-to-math: physics talks about particles, but the only measure (to “get the message”, which, beyond the photon-return-of-data thang that everyone agrees is so barely acceptable they had to create quantum physics to do it) they can make is in points. (Now, it DOES show up as a 14-tetravolt spike, true, but...*) And it is the same in an x-y-z coordinate graph as it is in a Cantor set of transfinite numbers. (And yes, I’d love to go into that too, but it would be a needless expenditure in blood & treasure and other valuable resources so unless you enjoyed the quagmire of Vietnam, or Afghanistan, I feel it best to drop the threat of quotient equations and walk away.) As for a wave? Math doesn’t make that distinction; only physics. (*...but, everything else between the first asterisk and this one IS speaking of a wave, only as a graphic element, which is--again!--geometrical. In physics, their only interest besides frequency is whether it is enough to cook your tv dinner, or show if your tooth has an absess.)

  1. Starting at the primal terms, a topological space is composed of a homogenous (smooth) set of points, which is the same as metric space—meaning measurable via distances between points as vectors and so, in laws of motion, velocities. When talking about Klein geometry or Riemannian geometry or Cartan geometry or even pseudo-Riemannian geometry, this is all that they are talking about: the stuff that matter is (more or less) made of. (In a pseudo-Riemannian inner product of the metric doesn’t even have to be positive-definite—meaning: exactly exact copy—as long as it is still isomorphic: two sets that are indistinguishable given only a selection of their features.)

  1. Klein stepped away from Euclid by saying that each geometric language had its own appropriate concepts: meaning—you could talk conic sections (as in ice cream cones, street hazards, party hats, etc.) in projective geometry but not in plane geometry. Q.E.D., yah? Stuff that projects OFF a surface? But you could bring them back together by way of subgroups of related symmetry. (Again: no brainer. If certain parts behave alike, or look alike, those parts are probably the same and can be treated via the same equations. Like angles with curves on a plane may have similar measurements to projected cones.)

  1. Klein geometry is then a space and a law of motion within that space. Nothing fancy there either. So when a velocity is included in this set of points, the space takes on the values of a vector space. (A vector is no different than the Euclidan “ray”—like a line with an arrowhead, yah?, where something can be measured between point A and point B. A ray like in a "radius", but without a circle.)

  1. It was Riemann, however, who threw the curve, literally. WIKI sez his language is one: “concerning the geometry of surfaces and the behavior of geodesics on them…applied to the study of differentiable manifolds of higher dimensions.” This may sound daunting but it ain’t; you just have to use creative visualization, remember? There’re two things here to make pictures of, in your mind. One is a “geodesic”. Those are the half-spheres of Buckminster Fuller’s 1960s projects, Expo ’67, some of our favorite sci-fi movies from “Silent Running” to “Logan’s Run”, and even the Biosphere experiment from a few years back. For our purpose, the best definition is “curves whose tangent vectors remain parallel if they are transported along it”—“it” being the curves. Which probably should have read as “them”, but hey? These are scientists, not grammarians. The other is “manifolds”. Riemann’s “tangent vectors are orthogonal (just what you think it is: visualize an architectural drawing of a house where it shows a corner and two sides; the base line has the 90-degree perpendicular and twin angles of 30-degrees to represent the bottom of the two walls, which make up parallelograms with angles of 60-degrees each. See it? That's what they call an "orthogonal view".) and orthonormal (same thing as isomorphic: see above) frames”…and that’s all smooth manifolds are! “MANY-FOLDS”, so to speak. Think of an accordion, or better, a bandoneon—one of those biiig Argentinian tango squeezeboxes. Or a slinky. They all maintain an integrity of form even when moving their orthonormal frames/manifolds around.

  1. So what does this have to do with “points”? They create an “inner product space”, which is STILL point-as-particles, far as we’re concerned. It may have bee Klein who put up the space-w/law-of-motion idea, but it was Riemann who made the expressions HOW stuff EXISTS and MOVES in curved space. And that’s what got Einstein stroking his mustache and thinking, “…hmmmm…ach zso…”

  1. So, the whole reason for this trip through obscure technical terms was to follow the thorny path to see how Lisi got from there to here. Remember “spinors”? The one thing to take away from the mindset of the surfin’ physicist is a knowledge that spinors on a manifold require a spin structure. So think of those orthogonal frames—manifolds—in rotation and suddenly it begins to look like Quarkville. Or Boson Square. The Clifford Bundles are what he figured would act on the manifolds through an affine connection—which isn’t that different from “affinity”, like all the manifolds (ortho-frames) move in parallel transport (equidistant from one another in their spatial relationships, right?—again: think accordion pleats, steady, regular, and even).

  1. Now, where Lisi ended up with was the McDowelll-Mansori Approach to Gravity. So what makes this so interesting? It is Cartan geometry. That’s where the affine connection comes in: the geometry of the principal bundle (say Clifford, for one) is tied to the base manifold (remember? The ¾ view of the house? That’s the same base, even if it isn’t flat) via an affine connection. In the McDowelll-Mansori Approach it is called a “solder connection”. (And why is it called a “solder conncetion”? See for yourself. That's the thing connecting the two wireframe wastebaskets above.) What makes it even better is that flat Cartan geometry is the same as flat Klein geometry. And a Riemann is just a flat Klein with an inner product space (where all the ortho-frames/manifolds--easier to see now how each one of those "wires" IS an OF/manifold, isn't it?) are all made up of similar points) and because the LAW OF MOTION STILL APPLIES.

  1. This isn’t opaque if I can see it; trust me. Go all the way back to Cantor and you’ll see that, like the Triadic Koch Island cited in the Cesaro quote above—a rumination of a fractal series of space-filling replications via many scale transformations—the self-similarity of the orthonormal bases means that points can exist in equal, or even slightly unequal, neighborhoods and still behave in manifolds… Like every atom can be slightly dissimilar and still follow Klein's Law of Motion.

  1. …and that’s all Cartan connections promise: a method of moving frames. Pretty simple.

  1. All the previous was just to get to this premise. And why? Because Cartan Geometry appears to be the final language to regard the whole, as described here—and in doing so, the infinite.

  1. Now take another look at that solder connection again. It connects two Riemannian manifold spaces, ok? And what does it DO? It relates the movements of one to the other, sorta like two bandoneons in orbit: one flowing concave, the other convex, tied into on seamless motions.

  1. And that’s very much like gravity.

  1. …which brings us back to… (No. For real. It HAS to…)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Time and Tide Pt. 4

“Mathematics is the language of God.”--Galileo

Regarding the Infinite, Pt. 1

For most people on the planet, some Supreme Being is the given arbiter of all subjects with no beginning or ending, and most frequently referred to in those terms, or term limits. (Which is the case for Supreme Court Justices as well, and who really should be under the latter aegis.) However, for mathematicians, physicists and others for whom infinity is a factor (meaning: some value to add into a subject in order to come to a conclusion—more or less, when approached via higher disciplines), while the subject is often discussed in terms which may approximate religious zeal, agape wonderment or prayer (if reworking equations over and over might be said to be comparable to davening, dervish dancing or holy rolling), the brutal fact of the matter is: numbers count, and nothing else does.


As much as we may want to get all mystical about it, or even metaphysical (like calling something “eternal”, which implies more than it means), the idea of a “transcendental figure” is best served by the Greek letter of pi, rather than anything conjured up by the Maharishi at Rishikesh. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to conjure with there; some people go all nuts over rolling it out for a couple million digits, looking for some pattern. It is only because of our particular schooling—that we have an innate teleological frame of mind (that being the belief that everything has a reason) from poor education into the nature of systems—that the vast majority would rather think about the Old Guy on the Clouds instead of the awe and majesty of 1) a discovery of a physical, universal truth of the universe, and 2) that the human mind could actually do this without divine intervention.

So, whist in the midst of this sun-dazed contemplation, I get back to the Kindle and turn the page on another story from the Philip K. Dick collection and what do I find? “The Infinites.”

For real. This was NOT arranged by me, OR the powers-that-be, to fit into the “flow” as much as you teleologists might think. The reason I cited Dick in part one was to explain how amazing his thought processes were well before the late 1960’s body of work which made his rep, and which has become something of a staple for Hollywood in recent years. More, after watching “The Twilight Zone” marathon over the last Independence Day celebrations, one cannot read these tales and help but think how well Philip would’ve fit in with Rod. Morality plays, O. Henry-like endings, scientific or psychological twists on space operas, smattering of sardonic humor pieces—even today, these are still reminders of how a sense of wonder could be encapsulated in stories under 5,000 words. And in Serling’s anthology format they couldn’t’ve failed, up there next to Robert Bloch, Earl Hamner, Jr. and the rest of his stable of pens.

But that this title would surface so neatly…begins to, in essence, creep one out. Teleologically speaking. I am equally suspicious of auspicious tarot cards, fortune cookies and I-Ching coin tosses. However, by this point in the day, the sun has begun to turn everything to burnt copper in long shadows; the brainbake from noon now producing a mind rind with the consistency of canola-crisped calamari, thoughts drift back to the topless towers of Illium and another beach, the one at Troy where Paris said to Pelias, “Hey, dad, why argue? We’ll burn it as an offering to the gods. Tomorrow.”

(Tempus Fugit, son.)

. "We've evolved," Eller said. "The radiation from the asteroid speeded up cell growth, like cancer. But not without design. There's purpose and direction to these changes, Blake. We're changing rapidly, moving through centuries in a few seconds."
. Blake stared at him.
. "It's true," Eller said. "I'm sure of it. The enlarged brain, diminished powers of sight, loss of hair, teeth. Increased dexterity and tactile sense. Our bodies have lost, for the most part. But our minds have benefited. We're developing greater cognitive powers, greater conceptual capacity. Our minds are moving ahead into the future. Our minds are evolving."
. "Evolving!" Blake sat down slowly. "Can this be true?"
. "I'm certain of it. We'll take more X-rays, of course. I'm anxious to see changes in the internal organs, kidneys, stomach. I imagine we've lost portions of our --"
. "Evolved! But that means that evolution is not the result of accidental external stresses. Competition and struggle. Natural selection, aimless, without direction. It implies that every organism carries the thread of its evolution within it. Then evolution is ideological, with a goal, not determined by chance."
. Eller nodded. "Our evolution seems to be more of an internal growth and change along distinct lines. Certainly not at random. It would be interesting to know what the directing force is."
. "This throws a new light on things," Blake murmured. "Then we're not monsters, after all. We're not monsters. We're -- we're men of the future."
. Eller glanced at him. There was a strange quality in Blake's voice. "I suppose you might say that," he admitted. "Of course, we'll still be considered freaks on Terra."
. "But they'll be wrong," Blake said. "Yes, they'll look at us and say we're freaks. But we're not freaks. In another few million years the rest of mankind will catch up to us. We're moving ahead of our own time, Eller."

Ok. This is late 50’s/early ‘60s science-fiction, even if it is PKD. Admittedly, as compelling as the ideas are, the story ain’t that far from pulp fiction. After the lab rats—literally—reverse the process, Eller gets the gal lab technician, so not that far off from the girl/girl stuff anyways.

But the point here is the main thesis. The view of Blake, that evolution—which, according to Darwin was a combination of environmental factors and benefits to the organism—shows itself to have a purpose, is teleological. Can’t remember how often that plot device was used on TV: in the “Zone”, “Outer Limits”, “Star Trek” and countless other futuristic utopian fictions.

And yet, it was only today, getting zoned by the sun's spectrum of visible frequencies (plus alpha-, beta-, gamma-, delta-, UV- and X-rays) and Carl Wilson, spaced by the horizon line where the water meets the sky, that this one singular revelation finally broke through. Evolution doesn’t have a purpose, and endpoint or such…but, perhaps, genes may have a potential for such, under such extreme mutations.

This could, then, be seen as an argument for Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene”, but it also applies to extreme math—a catchall term I use for anything involving numbers…and letters that stand-in for numbers. Because I have an aversion to formulae, I freely admit that what follows is simply a “naturalist’s” point of view, which is to say, ultimately a heuristic journey. If you want to find out about something, Wikipedia is a great place to start. Then just follow the other links and you can deduce a lot about your subject. (I am well aware of the ongoing mis-, dis- and mal-information which propogates all the jokes about what you get on search engines. Which is probably true—if you are looking for stories on Lee Harvey Oswald or Area 51. However, higher math? I cannot conceive of a prankster who would go to the trouble of creating articles on geometry in order to hoax the scientific world. First, such fallacies would be exposed by the first person of knowledge to click the button. Second, elaborate plots of this sort are reserved for things people might be interested in; urban legends, conspiracy theories, Hawaiian birth certificates. And, as you are about to observe, what follows here is going to put anyone but me—and the odd cruiser from CalTech if one should appear—dead to sleep in moments.)

The first thing you notice is the reduced formulae—good old semi-simple English. What this makes you realize is that these things need more explanation than even Field Medal specialists can immediately comprehend, via the traditional routes. And this get even better when you consider the Infinite. Perhaps the most telling quote comes from Georg Cantor. In 1907, he wrote the “Theory of Transfinite Numbers”, the well-nigh primer on the infinite series, and how to calculate something by adding in nothing (as far as I can figure, yes: that is an accurate statement). When he came to his first conclusions on the subject, he wrote: “To see is not to believe.” That should give you a good idea of what even the experts think about this. And one good reason is that: You can't get there from here.

(Remember, as Saint McLuhan said: The Medium is the Message.)

Which is how one might develop a keen sense of vertigo contemplating the macro and the micro in the universe. If I know one thing, it is that if Mandelbrot was right, and everything points to that, then the closer you look, the further you go into minute examination of any material substance, the more likely you are to find your own eye staring right back at you.

Exactly what is it that makes this sound absurd? Doubtless it is the idea that "you" are at the other end of, say, the Hubble telescope raised to the sky, to whatever the exponential of "nth" is. Sure, that's what sounds dumb: like a universe so massive might be something else...on another scale. (Why does that word keep coming up?) Let's try a metaphor from one of the world's leading physicists, Lee Smolin. A favorite quote about him is from the Nobel-prize winning discoverer of the quark itself, Murray Gell-Mann: "Is he the guy with all the crazy ideas? He might not be wrong." And of these, the craziest and most fascinating--also called (by Richard Dawkins) "gloriously Darwinian"--is his solution to The Goldilocks Problem. (You can figure out that one, right? No? Check out Martin Rees book "Just Six Little Numbers" and you'll see more that you can imagine.)

It goes like this: Universes give birth to baby universes in black holes. (So? Why not? All that matter and energy that goes in and nothing, not even information, comes out. It has to go somewhere, right?) And the "daughter" universes inherit the fundamental laws and constants of the parental physics. (Makes sense.) However, in the birth process, mutations do occur, giving rise to heterogenous populations of universes. Lineages of varying universes are subject to the kind of natural selection in favor of whatever traits assist survival. (Some last longer than others, giving them time to reproduce. And some are more likely to generate black holes than others.) And the process goes on.

So, this is crazy? Stop and add in what we have learned from Chaos Theory: that in all regimes of turbulence, the point at which surface tension breaks down into swirls of random energy, patterns begin to form within them and that demonstrates the principle of self-organizing units. There is no reason to think that this principle is any different on the marcocosmic scale (again) than any other.

Then, not so absurd, speculatively, eh?

Ok, what about absolutely scientifically, yeah? Something with numbers or measurements.

Perhaps, then, is it the idea that there is something which could be at two places at the same time? The dilemma here is Classical Physics vs. Quantum Physics. We know that both obey their laws in their realms enough so that we can predict, with some certainty, how matter and energy will behave, and what is possible and what isn't. In classical physics--no, you can't be in two places at the same time (and you can say that because you can use a word like "time" in Classical). In Quantum physics, however, if you can't tell where you are twice at the same elapse-of-photon-based-measurement-message-return (because you can't use a word like "time" in Quantum), whatever constitutes "you" (at the level where a Planck length would be the size of a tree...if an atom were the size of the known universe) just could (meaning: under the laws of probability) be.

Ok. Stupid pet tricks abound when one tries to combine these two. But, given the parameters of the question, you have to envision a tipping point between these realms and, though it is so far into the minimum existence you'd need a souped-up cyclotron to get any data, accept the fact that all things being equal--

And there's the real crux of the problem: all things ARE equal. Even if you DO use a Large Hadron Collider, there's no reason to think that either end of a scale differs substantively, especially when they are numbers. But it appears to be the same when speaking of the languages of geometry as well. One of the major points of “The Elegant Universe” is how string theory seems to solve a lot of the contradictions between the language of the Standard Model (Quantum) and General Relativity (everything else), and that, when using the term “language” is freely accepted as methods of defining both, the major “misunderstanding” between them is pretty much called “syntax”—that which we in the grammatical world say is "the study of the principles and processes by which sentences are constructed in particular languages". (Definition admittedly ripped off from Wiki.) The reason for the previous plural is that one of the things that has come to light in my investigation is that there really are different systems of syntax; whole entities unto themselves used to describe such discrete elements as nested planes, curved space, rotations and such things as "rolling" one system along another via special linkages. If you are like me, you probably stopped with Euclid and squares, triangles and circles...because when you got to the idea of number pi (aforementioned) you went wugga-wugga-woo.

Which is pretty much how Wilson's central solo sounds. It is said that Carl eschewed the central tenet of rock and didn't plug into an amp in later recordings; he just jacked into the mix and wailed into headphones. And here on the beach, that's perfect: a private experience of turbulence erupting into chaos the way it replicates the grind from the pluck as it soars up the shore in the tidal bore, extending the light in silver slivers of white, ending in the eager eagre that resolves into furze frizzle foam which crashes into sand and disappears forever. Small wonder people pay so much to retire to oceanfront properties; you'd have to be pretty dim to ever get tired of this.

And that leads me to someone who, probably, shares the same vision as I, and maybe Carl, but on a much more significant level. There's this physicist who surfs named Garrett Lisi. Or—a surfer who does physics named Garrett Lisi. It’s a tossup which he prefers, having spent as much time on the board as studying for Boards, it would appear (from his press at least). As much as I can figure, he's fluent in a number of geometric languages and, like some utility translator at the United Nations, he has heard the babble and seen, amid the mess of the signal-to-noise ratio, a message. It went something like this. Ten years or so ago he was working on spinor fields (mathematical representations of particles like electrons) which were traditionally expressed algebraically. Only he wondered how they would look in geometric terms.

Hold that thought.

In some distant pre-X system in the past, Apple included an app called a graphic calculator. Sure, it could do sums at tax time just fine, but it also had the additional feature that if you put in a formula with x, y, and z as coordinates, it would show you not only how the graph looked, but how it looked in 3-D! You could see saddles and puckers and ellipses and hyperbolas and, oh, a lot of neato shapes. Hours of fun for the whole family. It has been said often, but most pointedly by the string theory adherent and science-TV popularizer Michio Kaku, that one of the barriers to us understanding higher dimensions is that we lack the physical equipment—i.e., five senses and ONLY binocular vision—to see it. Even to process the visualization. Until computer graphics came along. This meant that what we could think of—more or less—we could make pictures of.

So, Lisi’s spinor fields actually fit in very nicely with a mathematical language for Clifford Bundles, usually used to describe rotations. Their most common use? Computer graphics.

And now you may see.

The rest of the terms are just as complex but they do indicate something very key to the whole so hold on. Curiosity getting the better of him, Lisi wonders what Clifford Bundles would “look like” (more as a speculation than an actual image, though) used to describe strong/weak/electromagnetic forces. To do this, he uses a 30-year-old description of gravity called the MacDowell-Mansouri Approach. (Too detailed to go into here. The MacDowell–Mansouri action is a mathematical object (an action) that is used to derive Einstein's field equations of general relativity. [Wiki theft] The upshot is that it incorporates into the flow from Euclidean Geometry to Riemannian geometry and Klein Geometry by adding into the chain Cartan Geometry—the last being, again, a way of taking maths and putting them into versatile shapes, but adding in point-to-point connections not previously accounted for.) Where this led was to the properties of exceptional Lie groups, and, in particular, one called E8, famous for usage in descriptions of higher-level symmetries. Lisi then zeroed in on the E8 group—described as a spiderweb cloud with thousands of strands exploding from hubs of concentric circles. Yes. Takes a minute.

Long enough.

It is easy to bandy about a lot of obscure physics-meets-math doubletalk and expect people to accept what you say on trust. I would greatly enjoy going into the reams of readings to back up my proofs, but, as this isn’t for MENSA, or a grad degree, I will state only that this world is not for the faint of heart or the easily dissuaded. However, the yield from such exploration is rather astonishing.

Consider JUST the case of Lisi, who—right or wrong—has this strangely elegant formulation which feels like sense. He had to go through four, or maybe five, languages, each with their own syntax, before getting at something that even looked like a resolve. But, even for the individual following the progression of the various geometries aforesaid, to arrive at the end and realize just HOW you got there? That’s intoxicating. And why, you may say, does this Lie Group E8 look more like “sense” than anything else? Go to the Wiki page for it and look at it. Even as it comes in (if you’re lucky, it loads slowly) you can see the lines developing much as they probably did in Photoshop or Illustrator layers. And when it finally assembles into the finished picture, if it doesn’t ring that bell of “supersymmetry”…well, I can’t help you further.

Of course, that doesn’t mean anything without some further proofs does it? It could all be a pure fiction of imagination, I’ll grant.

Did Newton get hit on the head by an apple? No. Did he see one fall and make the connection? Both are apocryphal but the latter is reputed as having some validity.

Does Lisi catching glassies mean anything? The more you watch waves, the more they say to you. I can only wonder that riding them might give even greater insight. He has come to the place where gravity is seen as a manifestation of force fields, and he did it before we got the announcement from CERN that--

--takes us back to the Higgs Boson.

(to be continued)