Tour des Trees 2020: Rollin’ in Place

I retired from my role as President and CEO of Tree Research and Education Endowment Fund (TREE Fund) in November 2019. That was right around the time that we announced that the next installment of our premier community engagement event, the Tour des Trees, would be rolling through Colorado in September 2020. Having ridden in and fundraised for five prior Tours (click here for last year’s report), I had fully intended to ride that planned 2020 mountain route as well, but those plans changed last Spring when I was awarded the opportunity to visit Ideas Island in Sweden, creating an irreconcilable scheduling conflict.

Then, of course, Anno Virum happened, and everything changed. I’m not posting from Sweden right now, and the Tour did not roll through the Rockies as expected. Bummers on both fronts. While losing the opportunity to work on a project at Ideas Island impacted only me, the loss of the 2020 Tour had far more consequential impacts on TREE Fund, significantly cutting into its ability to provide community engagement and fundraising to support crucial arboricultural research programs. The West Coast is burning as I write this post, demonstrating clearly and painfully how necessary and valuable scientifically-robust research findings and practices are to mitigating climate change, combating invasive species, and capitalizing on the myriad benefits provided by healthy urban and community forests. TREE Fund is a major player in that effort, especially as Federal funding for such work has evaporated or been redirected in recent years.

I was pleased, therefore, when TREE Fund announced plans for a “Rollin’ In Place” Tour designed to allow riders, runners, walkers, swimmers, hikers, whatevers support the organization safely from and in their own home communities. They’ve set a goal of $150,000, around the theme of “3-2-1 Go!,” explained thusly:

Traditionally, Tour des Trees riders would spend a week riding through a state or region, engaging with communities and raising funds for TREE Fund. Instead of riding 321 miles in the Rockies this year, we challenge you to take on 321 your own way! Ride 321 km a month the entire duration of the campaign, run 3.21 miles a day, do 321 pushups a week, walk your dog 321 miles, pogo-stick jump to a new record of 321 . . . you get the idea. 321 is the magic number!

I’m down to do my part on that front to help TREE Fund reach its event goals. I’m sticking with cycling as my activity, with a 321 mile goal, ridden out on the road, like a normal Tour. While I can’t get the climbing experience in Iowa that I would have gotten in Colorado, I do want to replicate the daily endurance aspect of the Tour, so my objective is reach 321 miles in six rides (a typical Tour week), ideally including one century (100+ mile) ride. We are moving from Iowa on October 22, so I intend to complete the miles and the related fundraising before then.

I’ve kicked things off by making my own contribution to the cause, and would greatly appreciate it if you would support TREE Fund via my “Rollin’ In Place” campaign. Here’s my fundraising page, where you can make your own gift to support the mission and goal. That page is linked to my cycling computer, so it will show progress updates as they occur, and I will also report them here, of course. Thanks in advance for whatever you can chip in to the effort. I am grateful, as will be the entire TREE Fund team.

Last year’s Tour team. We’re not together in person this year, but the communal spirit remains strong. (Click to enlarge and see if you can spot the very professional Ex-President/CEO throwing the metal horns. BRUTAL!!)

Self-Descriptor

I learned a new word this week: autotelia, which is the state of being autotelic. It’s a 20th Century construction merging the Greek roots autos (self) and telos (goal). No, that’s not a fancy soccer/football term for kicking the ball into the net your own team is defending, but is rather a term used by T.S. Eliot to describe texts which are self-contained and independent of the author, and later adopted and adapted as a clinical descriptor by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Per Wikipedia, Csikszentmihalyi describes people who are internally driven, and who as such may exhibit a sense of purpose and curiosity, as autotelic. This is different from being externally driven, in which case things such as comfort, money, power, or fame are the motivating force. Csikszentmihalyi writes:

“An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power, or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding. Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they depend less on external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life of routines.”

This term and definition resonated with me as a good descriptor of how I function much of the time. Take this website as a good example, with thousands of posts written over the years, many of them later destroyed, with few of them created for any work purposes or financial benefits. I just like to write (among other pursuits), I regularly enter flow-state, I am happy when that’s the case, and many (most?) of my topics are not “useful” in any meaningful way, but are rather products of me becoming interested in or curious about something and wanting to process and/or preserve it. There have been loads of other examples like that over the decades, back to when I was a fairly young child, creating things (e.g. stories, games, songs, pictures, websites) for my own amusement, even if they look like absurd time-wasters to parents, friends, teachers, and work colleagues. I am a big fan of novels, stories, artworks and films that are fundamentally based in expert-level world-building, and I think that’s at least partially because I so enjoy building little worlds myself, even if I’m the only one looking at or inhabiting them.

I think another reason that autotelia resonates with me, at least in the ways that Csikszentmihalyi decribes it, is because it’s presented as an acceptable personal trait, and not something to be apologized for, or explained away, or to be given up or outgrown to free up time and energy “better” spent pursuing external rewards. I note that I do not mind external rewards when they are offered to me. I appreciate feedback on my little creations, and if someone wants to pay me for them, that’s fine too! But I seldom, if ever, make decisions expressly for those reasons when it comes to my writing and reading and researching and other creative activities. I just do them because that’s the way I am wired, finding them satisfying in their own rights as end products, even if I never share them, or even if I share them, then later remove them from the public domain. I’ve written online for over a quarter-century now, so I do have some strong sense of and data about what types of things are going to generate the most response from and interaction with my readers, but I very, very rarely expressly plan to write and post such things just to pursue such responses, excluding pieces written for work purposes or other publications, then reproduced here. (For the record: this type of personally philosophical post is not from one of my more audience-pleasing categories of writing).

I hope that being drawn to the concept of autotelia as a self-descriptor does not make me sound self-aggrandizing. I know that if I read an article by someone explaining how they were self-actualized (or worse, transcendent) per Abraham Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, my gut emotional reaction would be to want to chide them for being presumptuous and pretentious. Such an article would also imply to me that the author did not actually understand self-actualization (nor transcendence), the achievement of which would, by definition, preclude such public grandstanding about their ascension to a state of being that most of us never achieve. I feel the same way about people who unilaterally declare themselves to be successes in the material and public worlds without external evidence to the same, especially when they then want to teach you to follow in their footsteps, for a modest fee, of course.

In both of those examples, the claimed “higher plane” is something that can only be achieved through a lot of work and reflection, whereas I read autotelia to be something that just is. I have green eyes, most other people do not. I am tall and thin, many other people are not. I was born in South Carolina, they vast majority of people were not. And I am autotelic, which some other people are not, though I have no idea as to what that percentage may be. It’s just the way I’m built, and not how I built myself. I don’t perceive that as a value judgment, nor as a self-congratulatory back-pat, nor as a humble brag. In fact, it’s really easy to make an argument that being autotelic is a bad thing, at least as far as my writing goes, with me having given away product of value for decades instead of having parsed it out for paying customers or public acclaim. But it’s an accurate assessment of my personal quirks, and I like having a single word to describe something about myself that has more typically required paragraphs or pages to explain. Makes life simpler that way, yeah?

In closing, I need to acknowledge where I learned the word: it’s the name of a musical group, and I read a review of their new album on an excellent website I frequent. Which then led to a long online research effort to get a better grip on the topic, eventually resulting in this article, which pleases me, and may also please others, but that’s just gravy if it does. Did I waste precious time in this little endeavor? Or was my exploration valuable simply because I found purpose and satisfaction in the acts of reading and thinking and writing? I know my own answers to those questions, though I leave it as an exercise for the reader as to whether I’m right or not about them, or anything else stated herein.

Click the image to hear Autotelia (The Band).

Midwestern Measures

The weather in Iowa can be putrid pretty much any time of the year. We’ve been enduring a particular gnarly stint here in recent weeks, with a gross combo platter of grey skies, rain, wind and humidity. Last night, just as we sat down for dinner, the tornado sirens went off, just to add some spice to the stew of suck. None of this should be surprising should you consult the Köppen Climate Classification System before visiting (or moving to) Iowa, which is classified as having a “Hot Summer Continental Climate.” Here’s the dispassionate description of that:

A hot summer continental climate is a climatic region typified by large seasonal temperature differences, with warm to hot (and often humid) summers and cold (sometimes severely cold) winters. Precipitation is relatively well distributed year-round in many areas with this climate, while others may see a marked reduction in wintry precipitation and even a wintertime drought. Snowfall, regardless of average seasonal totals, occurs in all areas with a humid continental climate and in many such places is more common than rain during the height of winter. In places with sufficient wintertime precipitation, the snow cover is often deep. Most summer rainfall occurs during thunderstorms and a very occasional tropical system. Though humidity levels are often high in locations with humid continental climates, it is important to note that the “humid” designation does not mean that the humidity levels are necessarily high, but that the climate is not dry enough to be classified as semi-arid or arid.

Sounds lovely, huh? If you consult a global Köppen Classification map, you’ll note that Iowa shares its climate with such exciting weather tourist destinations as Kazakhstan, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Ontario and the cluster of American states in which corn, soybeans and hogs define the economy. Spring Break in Almaty, yo!! Woo Hoo!!

While looking out my window at the deep, deep drear this morning, I was reminded of a series of poems I wrote in 2004 and 2014 called “Midwestern Measures,” describing some of the unique facets and features of life in the Upper Corn Belt. The poems were written in Poulter’s Measure, a popular English Renaissance poetry form that also features heavily in various Christian hymns. I like it as a fun style, akin to double dactyls (I wrote a series called Women of Spam in that form), and limericks (which feature in my obviously titled ode to my homeland, Low Country Limericks). All part of my over-arching love for absurdist observational piffle and tripe.

I wrote the first set of Midwestern Measures during my “Poem A Day For A Year” project, and they were inspired by a visit to Marcia’s home state of Minnesota. The second set came after we moved to Iowa, and were originally published anonymously on my now-defunct Des Mean website. (That link will take you to the set of articles from there that I saw fit to move here when we left Iowa for Chicago in 2015, never imagining that we’d come back; this article will appear at top, but you can scroll down for many older ones). Some of the earlier Minnesota-based Midwestern Measures were later repurposed for Iowa, because despite many radical cultural, political, social and artistic differences between those two states, their geographic proximity does create some similarities, most of them having to do with vile weather.

So in “honor” of the revulsion that my local climate is producing right now, I re-post all of the Midwestern Measures below, opening with some of the weather gems. The Minnesota specific ones are appended at the end of the list. Hope they’re all good for a giggle. God knows we could all use some of those these days.

“Climate Control”

Our winters are quite cold.
The summers? Very hot.
It’s windy almost all the time,
and rainy when it’s not.

“Breezy, With A Chance of Showers”

The wind blows from the west,
and leaves us to the east.
And for as long as we recall
it’s never, ever ceased.

“Where Their Weather Goes”

The wind blows from the west
and crosses the Great Lakes,
which makes the snow in Buffalo
come down in sheets, not flakes.

“The Road Trip”

We drove off to the North.
I-35 was closed.
And somewhere just outside of Ames,
we sadly sat and froze.

“Iowa’s Greatest Lake”

Those Minnesota lakes?
The best I’ve ever seen!
But this Clear Lake, I’m sad to say,
is either ice . . . or green.

“On Landing at DSM”

We flew above the clouds.
We could not see the ground.
We saw some hills as we went up,
then none when we came down.

“Iowa Longevity”

We’re healthy folks ’round here,
a fact the world affirms.
We work hard, sleep lots, and live in
a place too cold for germs.

“Eating in Iowa”

The diet here is great,
our plates are quite the sight:
with corn and pork and milk and bread,
our food is always white.

“Practical Politics”

So we sent Joni Ernst
to D.C.’s hallowed halls,
because she knows her way around
a pair of porky balls.

“The Other Maytag”

I ate the Tenderloin,
I ate the Snickers Pie,
but if you make me eat that cheese,
I think I might just die.

“Know Your Audience”

Bruce Braley thought he’d run
for Old Tom Harkin’s seat.
He made a “stupid farmer” joke,
then harvested defeat.

“Warning Signs”

I will not take my wife
to State Fairs anymore:
I went to go see Butter Cow,
and lost her to Big Boar.

“Side Effects”

I gave up eating meat
per PETA Girl’s requests.
I’m now a soy-fueled PETA Boy,
with unexpected breasts.

“Red Zone”

The Cyclones have the ball,
two seconds on the clock.
A pass, a score, they win the game!
(Twelve people die from shock).

“Trip Time Portal”

No matter where we go,
our GPS display
says driving there and back will take
three hours, either way.

“Gasp!”

The farmer’s wife was shocked
to find her husband’s porn,
from which she learned a brand new way
to eat an ear of corn.

“The Count”

Atop the Show Me State,
beneath 10,000 Lakes,
sits Iowa: The Capitol
of Caucus Count Mistakes.

“Her Scenic View”

We climbed the Loess Hills.
We hiked the Driftless Zone.
But anything between those points,
she makes me walk alone.

BONUS MINNESOTA MEASURES

“Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken”

The sky is bright and blue,
the air is cool and brisk,
but I am flushed and turning green:
I ate the lutefisk.

“All This and IKEA Too”

Progressive to the end,
this state will meet your needs,
and do it with efficiency.
(God Bless the noble Swedes!)

“Land of a Lot of Lakes”

Ten thousand lakes we saw,
and all of them were nice.
Although I think I’d like them more
if they weren’t solid ice.

“Friendly Neighbors”

In Minneapolis,
we’ve really got it all.
And if we don’t, then right next door,
they’ll have it in St. Paul.

“After the Bear”

We saw the Northern Lights,
we saw our clouded breath,
we saw our ripped up tent and then
we slowly froze to death.

“Football Is An Outside Sport”

The Vikings used to play
outside in Bloomington,
but now they play inside a dome.
It’s warm, but not as fun.

The view from my office desk. It’s really that dreadful.

 

Four Mathematicians (Poetically)

I think I’m done archiving old concert reviews for now. While trawling though that old hard drive, though, I did find a few other things that I found amusing, and that have not been up on my public website since the 1990s. One that particularly pleased me was my series of short poems about mathematicians. I don’t know why I wrote them, but I was happy to be reminded of their existence, and share them today. Because nerd.

ONE:
He George Boole
He no foole
He new al-jabre
Nifty toole
Things be yeae
Things be naye
Or and nor nande
All things saye.

TWO:
Fibonacci, in perplection,
Logicked out the Golden Section.

THREE:
Gödel’s Hurdles:
By going out a system seeking proofs,
A bigger system’s spawned with bigger troofs.
(Repeat ad infinitum).

FOUR:
Georg Cantor, never dull,
Starts the count at aleph null.
Now he’s boxed and wormy dirty,
Contemplating aleph thirty.

I think I see a Fibonacci Spiral in his stylish hat.

Credidero #9: Eternity

As I pondered this month’s Credidero topic over the past thirty days, it occurred to me fairly early on that there’s a “one of these things is not the like the other” facet to this particular concept, in that “Eternity” is the only one of the twelve topics that cannot be tangibly experienced by human beings in any way, because it does not actually exist in the natural world.

I could go take a walk right now and experience complexity, or hostility, or curiosity, or any of the other eight topics I’ve considered and written about before this one, but there’s no way for me to experience an infinite span of time — unless I put my absolute faith in the premise of eternal life after death, snuff myself, and evaluate never-ending time as a tree in Dante’s Forest of Suicides. Or, conversely, if I was unexpectedly squished by a bus, and all was well with my relationship with my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, at that moment, in which case I could be granted eternal bliss in the presence of the The LORD and all of His angels, world without end, amen, amen.

I certainly don’t intend to do self-harm in the name of research, and I hope that there’s not a bus grill in my immediate future, so those avenues for exploring the concept of endless time are not on the table at this point. And even if they were, do I believe that my incorporeal soul would tread one of those paths when my incredibly fleeting time as a sentient seawater sack plays out? No, not really. I’ve formally directed that my bodily remains be cremated when that time comes, and they’ll presumably be scattered somewhere (informally, I’ve suggested that they should be put in a fire ant nest at Stoney Creek Cemetery), so the closest thing to eternity that the constituent bits which once were me will likely experience is a slow dispersal of elements which will be reintegrated into other living things (most likely plants, or fungi), which will feed other living things, until such time as life is exterminated from our planet’s face, or the planet itself ceases to be. And even then, some of those bits may travel through interstellar space, landing who knows where, who knows when, until the universe itself collapses, leaving behind . . . something? Maybe?

That will take a long, long time, for sure, but not an eternity, in the normal use of that word. While the earliest moments of the universe are mind-bogglingly complex and confusing, and its final moments will likely mirror that incomprehensible chaos, time as human beings understand it will have started at one point, and ended at another, a finite (though immense) period, short of the infinity required to accurately capture the core concept of eternity. Scientifically and objectively speaking, the story arc of every other human being, and every other living thing, will be exactly the same on a macro basis, and even if we aggregate all of the life spans and all of the experiences of all of things that have ever creeped, crawled and croaked across our planet’s surface, we’d still come up with a time span that approached infinity, but never actually reached it.

Eternity is, therefore, a non-existent physical state in a non-metaphysical universe. And yet, it’s a cornerstone concept of most global faith traditions, where gods always have been and always will be, and human souls are presumed to endure over never-ending time spans, once they are sparked into being. (One of the quirky things about infinity is that a thing that has no beginning and no end exists for the the same amount of time as a thing that has a beginning, but no end). A logical corollary of such belief systems is that the periods of time when our souls are resident in their physical forms are essentially non-existent in the grand scheme of things, as ~80 years of corporeal life divided by an infinite number of life-after-death years equals zero, mathematically speaking. If we go to hell after death, then eternity is suffering, always. If there’s a paradise, then eternity is bliss, always. Everything that we are, and everything that we do, in our physical lives, condenses down to a single, timeless point, a toggle-switch in which the indeterminacy of forever is resolved into one of only two possible eternal states.

While I wouldn’t have understood or stated it quite that way, I can tell you that few concepts were more terrifying to me as a young person than this one, having been raised in an evangelical Christian household. The concept of The Rapture — when all believers, alive and dead, would rise to meet The LORD in glory — made eternity even more terrifying, as it could happen any time, and if it occurred during that one little moment of doubt, or that one little second after temptation had become sin, then I would be left behind to bear the tribulation, the Second Coming and the Last Judgment, after which eternal damnation or eternal salvation awaited. All I knew as a young person was that if I had been bad, I could wake up one morning to find that my parents and all of the “good” people in my life were gone. In theory, that should have helped me to behave. In practice, I sinned with great aplomb, and was just scared all of the time that I wouldn’t be quick or thorough enough in my prayers for forgiveness to dodge that incoming Rapture bullet.

This was real enough in my world that I can remember having deadly earnest conversations with friends in middle school church youth groups about what we would do if didn’t make the cut when the Rapture came: where we would meet, how we would hide, what we would do, when finally faced with the undeniable reality of eternity, to ensure that we made the next cut together, and weren’t cast into eternal darkness and suffering. We saw it as some sort of post-apocalyptic action movie scenario, where we’d live on the run, protecting our little community at all costs from the Beast, and the Whore, and the Antichrist and their minions, faithful in our hidden catacomb headquarters, desperately repentant that we didn’t get it right the first time, determined to make amends if only given one more chance. And we had those conversations, more than once, because we all knew that we were woefully inadequate in our abilities to maintain sin-free, fully faithful lives, 24/7/365, so that the odds were stacked against us that we might all be right, true, and squared up in our faith at the precise moment when the virtuous souls began ascending. None of us pondered eternity with any expectation that it would be a positive experience, at bottom line. At least not without a whole lot of suffering before we got there, anyway.

So that’s what “eternity” meant to me through a good chunk of my formative years, a fraught concept fully anchored in an arcane belief system, and not in any observable reality — but terrifying nonetheless. That fear has abated over the ensuing decades, thankfully, and when I ponder the definition of eternity as “infinite time” now as an adult, I find that I can only perceive it at arm’s length, far more so than I can with any of the other Credidero concepts, as it has no meaningful impact or import in how I live my daily life and interact with other human beings. If I have any adult fears related to the concept, they spring from the knowledge that there are a shockingly large number of death cult zealots in positions of national leadership who are actively fomenting unrest in the Middle East in a misguided effort to hasten Armageddon and bring on the end times described by John the Revelator. I suppose eternity isn’t as frightening to them as it was to my young self, so secure are they in their faithful infallibility in the face of some final judgment. Must be nice.

Interestingly enough, the generally accepted definition of eternity as “infinite time” is (in relative terms) somewhat recent, having emerged only in the late Sixteenth Century. The ancient roots of the word are (possibly) found in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language’s aiw, meaning “vital [life] force.” From there we pass through the Latin aevum (age), aeviternus (great age), and aeternus (enduring). That latter form morphed into eternité in Old French, and thence into eternity in Late Middle English. The concept certainly captured long time spans over the aeons, if not infinite ones. There is also a specific philosophical usage where the word “eternity” means “outside of time,” as opposed to “sempiternity,” which is used to describe objects or concepts that exist now, and will continue to do so forever.

The crux of any discussion of eternity’s nuances, therefore, really hinges on whether the word is being used to describe very, very long time spans (which exist in our material world), or infinite ones (which do not). Which begs a second level question: does anything infinite really exist in the observable world? If there is no infinite time, is there an infinite distance, or an infinite mass, or an infinite number of some particular object(s), or anything else that has no beginning and no end when we attempt to count or measure it? Or even anything else that has no beginning and no end and exists somewhere else in the material world beyond our view or understanding?

I’m probably going to create a vision of myself as a most terribly neurotic child by sharing this, but I have to admit that “infinity” was another concept that kept me up at night as a young person, some years before fear of eternal damnation moved to the forefront of my existential anxieties. As a child of the ’60s, I was deeply fascinated by space exploration, and read voraciously about the topic. Our understanding of the solar system was a bit simpler then, with nine planets, and a readily countable and nameable number of natural satellites, plus some junk in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Beyond Pluto, there was Deep Space, which went on (we presumed) forever. I have specific memories of laying in bed thinking about that: I’d fly my mental space ship to Pluto, and then go further. And then further. And then further. And there would still be further to go. I could make myself woozy if I kept at it long enough, trying to comprehend space with no edge and no end. (Honestly, I could probably make myself woozy today if I thought too long about what’s out there 13.7 billion light years away from the center of the universe, at the very leading edge of the Big Bang’s reach; it’s just as mind-numbing to ponder now as it was then, if less scary).

Despite its questionable existence in the real world of tangible human experience (or our questionable ability to perceive it), infinity is a readily accessible, and useful, concept in higher mathematics, which fascinated me to no end when I was studying advanced calculus and differential equations in college. The key kluge to tangibly dealing with infinity is captured in the concept of mathematical limits, where the value of a function (or sequence) approaches some limit as the input (or index) approaches some other value. So we can say that the limit is zero as an input approaches infinity, or we can say that the limit is infinity as we approach zero, or any number of other possible permutations that can be framed by various formulae and equations. We can’t actually get to infinity, but we can understand what happens as we approach it, in perhaps simpler terms. We can also accept that anything divided by infinity is zero — but not that anything divided by zero is infinity. (I’ve seen various explanations and proofs of that concept over the years, and I accept them, though there’s still some sense of logical incongruity there for the casual mathematician).

My math studies in college were one place where contemplating the infinite, the imaginary, and the irrational — and the ways in which they can modeled — was actually a positive, pleasurable experience. One of the most sublime intellectual moments of my life was seeing the derivation and proof of Euler’s identity:

“π,” as most know, is the ratio of the circumference to its diameter. It is an irrational number (e.g. it cannot be written as a fraction), and to the best of our knowledge, it continues irrationally infinitely; it has currently been calculated out to 31.4 trillion digits, and it never repeats in any predictable or discernible fashion. “e” is Euler’s Number, the base of natural logarithms. It has been calculated out to about 8 trillion digits, as best I can ascertain, also continuing irrationally in perpetuity. “i” is the imaginary number unit, which is the square root of -1. It cannot be calculated as it does not exist in the set of real numbers, but it’s a cornerstone concept in complex number theory. “0” is of course, zero, the opposite of infinity, and 1 is the first non-zero natural number, and the first in the infinite sequence of natural numbers. The fact that these five numbers — discovered and/or calculated and/or understood in different times, different ways, and different places throughout history — are provably related in such an ultimately simple and elegant way still utterly blows my mind with wonder and awe, both at the natural order that produces such relationships, and at the human powers of observation that divined and codified it. 

Those mathematical studies also inspired and spilled over into my creative life at the time. Around 1983, I wrote a song called “Anathematics” (there’s a demo version of it here), which included these lyrics, among others:

There’s a school of thought that is so large, it can’t be learned by one.
Six hundred monks are studying it now, but they have just begun.
The more they think, the less they know. They less they know, they’re not.
The more they’re not, the less I am. There’s more to me, I thought.
The limit is zero as we approach infinity.
The future’s uncertain, as only the past can’t be.
Anathematics explains what cannot be . . .

It’s less elegant than Euler’s Identity, certainly, but it was an attempt to try to capture the awesome confusion of the infinitely big and the infinitely small and the ways in which they overlap, taken from the viewpoint of modeling that which cannot be, rather than that which can. So essentially a poetic (and much shorter) version of what I’m doing here in this article, with a stiff beat that you most certainly cannot dance to.

There’s another way, in my life right here and right now, that I find myself reflecting on the limits of eternal time and eternal distance. My wife, daughter, and I all have the Drake Equation tattooed on our right forearms. Here it is, if you’re unfamiliar with it, along with an explanation of the terms embedded within it:

The Drake Equation was written in 1961 by Dr Frank Drake as a probabilistic argument to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. We know a lot more about some of the variables today than we did when Drake postulated this argument (e.g. rate of star formation, fraction of stars with planets, etc.), but for most of the variables related to life, we’re obviously still operating with an observable set of one species on one planet with the ability to cast electromagnetic signals outward to the stars, and we haven’t been doing it for very long, at all.

“L” in some ways is the most interesting variable to me, since we have no idea how long we’re going to be able to keep broadcasting before we destroy ourselves, or something else destroys us. I suspect in the grand scheme of things, it’s likely going to end up being a relatively small number. Imagine, though, if L for human and other civilizations was vastly large, approaching eternal, meaning that once a planet began broadcasting, it would broadcast forever, or at least until the collapse of the universe. I believe that were that the case, we’d be picking up myriad signals from across the galaxy, since I also believe that we are not the first planetary civilization to develop broadcast capabilities since the Milky Way emerged some 13.5 billion years ago. (Compare that to the current estimated age of the universe at 13.7 billion years . . . our galaxy was born about as early as it was physically possible for it to, if our understanding of those ancient events is accurate. Wow!)

Given the immense distances at play, I’m not sure that we’d ever actually meet any of the other civilizations, but it would be transformative for humans on a planetary basis to know that we’re not alone, rather than simply believing it. It would also be truly revelatory to know that our sentient non-human colleagues in our universe are not metaphysical in nature (e.g angels, demons, gods and goddesses), but exist instead in the knowable, experiential world of real things. I’m not a dewy-eyed optimist about how that knowledge would instantly make everything better on earth (we’d likely still be prone to inhumanity in our dealings with others of our species), but it would certainly answer a lot of big questions, and it would certainly present some big opportunities.

After we got the Drake Equation tattoos, my wife summarized what she thinks when she looks at hers thusly: “It reminds me that we are small, but special.” True that, for sure, for now. Given the fact that a longer “L” for humanity means we would have a higher probability of eventually demonstrating that “N” is greater than 1, I’d be most inclined to adopt and hew to a belief structure and practice that’s anchored in managing our lives, our cultures, our civilizations and our planet in ways that increase the likelihood of extending “L” for as long as humanly possible. It seems to me that a belief in and commitment to the tangible (though as yet indeterminate) time span “L” is of greater utility than being afraid of and/or longing for a metaphysical eternity and what it might (though probably doesn’t) represent and contain.

So is anybody up for starting The Church of Maximum “L,” with a defining core belief that “N” is greater than one, if we can only stick around long enough to establish contact and connect? I’d be a darned good early apostle if you need one.

Two-thirds of the family’s Drake Equation tattoos, freshly inked . . .

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this ninth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Five: “Authority”

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue

 

Space Madness

Marcia had a work conference last week, and I had work in Charlotte Monday and Tuesday this week, so I decided to head down to Florida for a few days of warmth with her before returning to the dreary Midwestern weather last night. Rather than staying at her conference hotel when her meetings were done, we decided to head over for a couple of nights in Cocoa Beach, on the Atlantic Coast. For folks our age, if we know anything about that seaside community, it’s likely the fact that it was the fictional home of Major Anthony Nelson (an astronaut) and Jeannie, from the deliciously cheesy television program, I Dream of Jeannie.

As we were headed up to our room on Friday night, we noticed a schedule of events in the elevator, and there was a paper sticker on the very date of our arrival showing a cartoon rocket. I pulled out my phone and, hurrah, was pleased to discover that SpaceX was, in fact, launching a mission that very night, at 245am. When we arrived in our room on the seventh floor, I happily noted that our private balcony was aligned in such a way that we had almost a straight-shot view of the pad where the Falcon Heavy rocket carrying a Dragon supply ship to the International Space Station would be launching. Double hurrah!

We set alarms and went out on the balcony at the appointed hour, and like clockwork, got to watch (and hear) my first orbital launch ever:

If you know me well, you know I’m a hardcore space nerd, so this was a real treat, and a great appetizer to our already planned Saturday adventure to visit Kennedy Space Center, where I got to snap a selfie at the business end of the mighty Saturn V Rocket.

Marcia also snapped me with my second favorite of all possible rockets, the Titan-Gemini stack.

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Back-tracking a bit, Marcia had work meetings during the days in Orlando while I was there, and I also had a night alone there as she flew out on Sunday, and I didn’t head to Charlotte until Monday morning. So I spent the time making friends, as one does:

I also got to embrace my inner redneck with a visit to my favorite greasy spoon destination in the world, for some delicious carbs and fats.

The business part of my trip to Charlotte was great, too. A board meeting and a research workshop at the Bartlett Research Labs, a glorious location near the area where my Dad was born and raised. We had wonderful fellowship and got a ton of work done with good people in an amazing setting. Win, win, win, win and win, with thanks to Bartlett for hosting us.

In closing, if you don’t know the source of the title of this post, you need to watch the following video, perhaps the finest fifteen minutes of animation ever created for television. It was life-altering the first time I saw it, early one Sunday morning sitting in a hotel room with an infant Katelin, trying to find something amusing to do while Marcia was trying to sleep in. I do not think all of my tearful laughter helped the situation on that front, but Katelin and I did have a new favorite cartoon series for many years afterward, so a reasonable trade-off, I think.