The Incessant Cacophony

Imagine for a minute that you are an alien being, an intelligent species from somewhere out there in the universe, somewhere far, far, away, from a very distant galaxy.

Imagine that you are the alien being searching for signs of life in the universe, listening to patterns in the radio waves that whiz past all around you. You are capable of recognizing not just emissions from point sources, but also all the kinds of signaling that exist in the universe, both simple and sophisticated. You can certainly recognize all the simple forms of signaling invented on Planet Earth.

Imagine that one day you hear something from a very, very, distant source that seems to make sense to you. Somebody is trying to send some “information” to you about itself. And you are curious….

You focus more of your resources on tracking this new source of “information”, and you are able to pick the fainter signals emitted from this source. You begin to separate the many signals and the patterns in them. And you recognize that there are many, many, different kinds of signals, at widely varying signal strengths, being emitted. And embedded in these various signals are many different kinds of information coded in many different ways.  This information seems to be more sophisticated than what you first detected from this source.  Since you have zoomed in, you realize that information sources are clustered around a central location which seems to be generating most of what is being sent out into space. But there are also emissions from the space surrounding this central location, and the intensity of the emissions is  reducing gradually with distance from the central source.  Indeed, there seems to be some form of “communications” going on between the central source and the surrounding space.

And, you, the alien being, get even more curious. You find a way to focus even more of your resources on this source to find out what is going on. All of sudden, you are hearing a cacophony of signals that are getting more and more difficult to make sense of. The signals are in all kinds of frequencies and at varying signal levels, and the ones you can extract from this cacophony are of many different kinds. A lot of it is difficult to make sense of even when decoded.  There could be a lot of communications going on within the source, but it all seems so random.  It seems like chaos.  It seems like a mess. And, the intelligent creature that you are, you wonder what is going on. This source is generating a whole lot of what seems to be noise. Is it some form of pollution?  How is this being generated?  Is there a purpose? How much of the energy of the source is being used generating all of this noise?

And, perhaps, intelligent being that you are, you are concerned. This seems to be pointless, and maybe even self-destructive. Is the planet radioactive? Where is all the energy coming from, all to be expended into nothingness?  All of this cannot be sustained for too long a long time. What is going on?  What is the point?  Is there a purpose?

Onward to the Land of the Incas

We are preparing for a visit to Peru next month.  During this trip we will be traveling to the interior and visiting the heartland of the old Inca civilization, including the ancient city of Cusco.  We are looking forward to this visit.

I have been doing some reading in anticipation of this trip.  The first book that I read was ‘Turn Right at Machu Pichu”, by Mark Adams.  This book, first published in 2011, weaves two different story lines.  The first is Mark’s experience of traveling the region, following in the paths of earlier explorers, including trekking the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  Mark interweaves this narrative with an account of the history of the region, some of it very brutal, mostly centered around the time of the Spanish conquests of the area.  He talks about the “discovery” of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham III, a somewhat self-serving American explorer in search of fame, in 1911.  But Machu Picchu was never really “lost”, especially to the people who are from the region!  In any case, the stories are interesting, even if the details of the book are difficult to remember just a few weeks after reading it.  My memory is not what it used to be.

The other book I read more recently was “The Old Patagonian Express”, by Paul Theroux.  This book was first published in 1979.  It is an account of Paul’s travel from Boston, Massachusetts, to Esquel in Patagonia, mostly by train.  The travels took the author through Peru, and specifically Cusco and Machu Picchu.  I have a copy of the book that I had bought in June of 1985, when I was about to graduate with my doctorate degree.  It was time to open the book once again.

The spirit of the somewhat arduous trip taken by Paul Theroux (it took a few months to complete) is something that I can appreciate.  It is an undertaking that seems to have been driven mainly by the author’s sense of curiosity and adventure, and his need to leave his zone of comfort in the process.  It is about the thrill and the romance of travel.  You do it because you want to see, experience, and learn about new things, new places, new people, etc..  You are not looking for the familiar place or face.  You do not have a complete plan in place to handle the situations that you will encounter.  And it is more significant than that – you willingly open yourself to the unexpected and let yourself become more vulnerable. And in all of this, you manage to learn something more about yourself.

One has to remember that Paul Theroux’s book was written in the 1970s.  I now find that his attitude towards the kind of people that he encountered, especially the locals, seems to be somewhat condescending, or maybe it is just a general sense of superiority.  I wonder if it is actually a sign of the times that Paul Theroux lived and traveled in, or if it is a somewhat generic attitude taken by folks who are out on voyages of discovery, including most of the explorers of times past – especially those from Europe and North America.  They always thought that they were better off than the others, and that they knew what was good for others. Perhaps they were really better off from a materialistic point of view, but did they necessarily know what was good for others?

Paul talks a lot about the poverty he encountered in Peru, especially among the natives.  The power structures in place in government in those days did not seem to be geared towards improving the lives of the common man.  Perhaps it is all true.  My problem, reading Paul’s work at this time in my life, is the feeling I have that he does not seem to have gone beyond the superficial in trying to understand the lives of people.  He does not seem to have had the conversations that someone who is undertaking this kind of effort should be having.   Maybe he did not have enough time.  Maybe he did not think his book was meant to be read by somebody of Inca ancestry.  In my mind, he comes off as being quite opinionated in this regard.  He might have thought that he was be brutally honest, but I think the problem is that he did not make the attempt to have a more complete perspective. He really did not complete his homework.  Perhaps, this is a general problem with the attitudes of too many explorers.

Anyway, here we are, more than 40 years after the time of Paul Theroux’s travels to South America, and we are on our way to South America once again (we went to Ecuador two years ago).  I wonder how the country of Peru has changed since the 1970s.  We are not adventurers like Paul Theroux.  We are going in an organized tour group, and everything is going to be taken care of for us.   We will probably be shielded in some way from the locals.  Paul Theroux had also traveled through Ecuador, and he talks about the poverty in that country, but our exposure to those circumstances a couple of years ago in the tour group in Ecuador was minimal.  It could be that the situation has changed since the 1970s, but it could also be that we were just shown what would be tolerated by “tourists” like us – things that were unlikely to cause us distress, or show the country in a poor light.

It seems like the town of Cusco was geared somewhat towards tourism even in the 1970s.  It is in all likelihood even more so today.  You only have to see all the information on the Internet in this regard to sense that this is the case.  You would also be led to believe that people are generally much better off in Cusco today than 40 years ago, but how can one be sure without having the complete experience?

As I said before, since we will be arriving in Peru as tourists in a tour group, almost everything that we do will be according to a plan and a schedule.  But the explorer in me feels that perhaps some of the more remarkable and memorable moments of the trip could happen outside of the script.  One just has to be open to the possibilities.

One final note about the trains that Paul Theroux took many years ago.  Even in those days, there was no way to do the entire trip from Massachusetts to Patagonia solely by train.  Looking at the available train services today, this situation has gotten even worse.  Passenger train services are available in much fewer places today.  Common folk have to depend more on the buses than they used to do in times past.  In a few places, the trains have been saved by running services over short distances just for the tourists.  But this is not the real thing!  The romance of the railroad is not what it used to be.





Some of us feel quite good about ourselves because we recycle our plastics at home.  We believe we are doing our little bit to save the environment.  But, as it turns out, very little of the plastics that we recycle are being reused in a useful way.  As the article below points out, there are many challenges to achieving real meaningful recycling.  Perhaps the solution is to use less plastics, or plastics in a more sustainable way.  (The author of this article linked to below (click on the image) talks about “bioplastics”, which is something they are working on in their University.)  Whichever way you look at it, there are additional costs involved in getting things on the right path.  The article below is a good read in the sense that it also gives you a good sense of the bigger picture, and of the damage we are doing to ourselves over the longer run.

(Courtesy – The Conversation)

Here is a video from the article.

A Half-baked Theory About Everything And Nothing

I actually wrote this a long long time ago, before the days of blogs, but I did not share it with anybody for reasons that should become obvious to you.  I send it out today without trying too much to revisit the thinking that produced this.  Why not?!

And I reserve the right to change my theory when I get smarter…..

I have not studied philosophy, and for that reason it is probably not a good thing to write about things philosophical. But I also do not see why somebody cannot develop a philosophy that is based on their experience.  It need not even be original, and perhaps someone will feel the urge to point that out to me.  So here it is – the half-baked theory about everything and nothing, the theory about life and death, the theory about order and chaos, about purpose and randomness, about sorrow and joy, love and hate (and I am actually getting carried away at this point!).  My theory may prove to be untrue, in fact there may be no way to prove it, but it can at least help me to make sense of the world in my mind, and hopefully give me some comfort in my thoughts.  Once you think you understand how things work, you may be able to stop your worrying.  Perhaps one will be able to even handle adversity better when it hits, at least that is the hope.

So everything is really all about nothing.  Everything just is. Past and future really do not mean anything, especially if you look far enough in either direction.  Your sphere of influence is very temporary.  These things that we call emotions, as opposed to things like hunger and pain, are only real in our minds.  Knowledge and so-called progress is something that we need to keep us going as a species, but in the grand picture these terms do not mean anything.  I am not trying to paint a bleak picture of the world.  I am not saying that we should not pursue knowledge and progress.  I am not saying that we should try to avoid emotions.  What I am saying is that we should realize that these things only make sense in the somewhat “artificial” circumstances of what exists right now.  In fact, we would not survive the moment or the day if we did not have these “things”, and we need to understand that and make use of these “things” appropriately.  I also know that I have mentioned thus far represents just a fraction of what defines humanity, but I also believe that the theory can cover anything can you can throw at it.

So why do we have all of this baggage that human beings carry around with them?  Essentially it is because our capability to think and join the dots has evolved to the point that we would have a hard time surviving without the baggage.  We have basically evolved from the point where we lived like the rest of the animals, to the point where we can think and put two and two together.  We have learnt how to use the capabilities of our brain in an efficient manner.  We have learnt to extrapolate from our observations.  I am not sure that we have really become smarter, but we have also learnt to somehow find ways to remember what we have learnt in the past and pass that knowledge down.  We are using what we already know to extend our understanding of the things around us.  As we extend this knowledge we also learn to make more and more use of the resources around us to further the new goals that we set out for ourselves.  Why do we as human beings feel a need to set such goals?  Is it primarily because that is the way the human beings are being taught to think from the day they are born?  A child does not know any of these concepts at birth.  We use the terms knowledge and progress.  It started with fire, the wheel, and the simple tools of prehistoric man.  We are carrying the same concept into our brave new worlds.  I wonder what would happen to a child who was brought up differently.

The ecosystem that we have created on this earth is clearly unstable.  The only reason we have created such ecosystem is so that we can support our expanding humankind, extend our lives and support our concept of progress.  But by doing what we do, we further extend our reach.  It is a system of positive feedback, and we know that such a system is destined to blow up at some time.  So the forces that work against this, both natural and man-made, are in a sense equalizing forces – but we are getting better and better at handling these countering forces also.  If we stop for a second to think about it, all of this makes no sense.  But we really do not need to stop and think about it right now, because we believe that such problems are for the future generations, and that they will find a way to address them.  Perhaps this is true, but the processes we use for addressing the daily problems today can also amplify the problems of the future.  In the worst case, humankind has taken over the entire Universe and there is no further place to go – that is unless we believe that the Universe is unending.  But most likely, it will never get that far, because, the more we assert ourselves as a species, the more we will face newer and newer problems that are more and more difficult to tackle, and at some point, the process of positive feedback may not even be able to sustain itself. We could even get hit by that one-in-a-million type of phenomena that can destroy everything around us in a single instant.  And who can forget that while we are making progress, we are also creating more and more efficient ways to destroy ourselves.  Any way you look at it, our days are limited in more ways than one.   Under the circumstances, it makes very little sense to speculate on the things beyond us, and to try to read more into the things around us than what we can actually rationally grasp and understand easily.  To us it all seems to happen for a reason that can be explained logically.  That makes us us comfortable.

So why do we have this need for progress, something it seems that other species do not seem to have on this earth?  It does not necessarily seem to be a good thing.  Is it because we are special when compared to other living things?  Why is there a belief that when we die something special happens, whereas this may not necessarily be true for other species?  Well, perhaps it does, but that should not matter in the current reality.  Human beings will surely disappear in their current form in the future.  So what does it matter in the big picture?  We think too much of ourselves.  I think all of this thinking is a result of us being able to connect the dots, and then expanding our ability beyond where it needs to go.

So, what are we to do as individuals?  Should we throw away everything around us and change our life?  That does not make sense.  The only reality that we have is what we experience right now.  It does not make sense to throw everything away and to go off and live off the land (even if there is actually an argument to be made that one may really be happier in life doing just that).  But we can at least think of the results of our actions right now.  Are we going to continue to support this system of positive feedback?

One of the elements in this ability of ours to expand our domains happens to be our ability to work with each other towards new purposes that we define.  Without this, we would be goners.  Can we use this capability to our advantage?

Do we really need to try to help other people?  Is there a universal concept of morality?  Why should I not just look out for myself?  Placed in the context of the now and here, the answers to these questions are not likely to be encouraging, because we might feel that it really does not matter.  But it does matter when you think about your place in the universe of all human beings.  The structures that we have created so that we can expand our domain only survive because there are at least a few people who think that the answers for the above questions are important.  The fact of the matter is that we would not have our societies if we did not have such people.  So what do we say about the others who do not necessarily do what we call “good”.  There is no absolute basis to condemn them.  Everything just is!  I think that this is the reason we try to find other ways to motivate people.  The only real reason to motivate people seems to be so that we can continue our “progress”.

And I do not think I have become any smarter since I first wrote this…..

Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

A socially active friend of mine had told me about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a while back.  He is the type of person who is likely to latch on to out-of-the-mainstream causes, some of which require a lot of work to verify.  I only followed the story in the background of my mind for several years, not certain if there was any exaggeration in the statement of the problem.  The subject seems to have moved into the mainstream in more recent times.

We human beings do not realize the extent of the damage that we are doing to the planet just because we do not see a lot of it with our own eyes. We will also willingly deny the role that we play in the process of its destruction.

What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?  From Wikipedia:
“The patch is characterized by exceptionally high relative pelagic concentrations of plastic, chemical sludge, and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.  Its low density (4 particles per cubic meter) prevents detection by satellite imagery, or even by casual boaters or divers in the area. It consists primarily of an increase in suspended, often microscopic, particles in the upper water column.”

How big is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?  From Wikipedia:
“The findings from the two expeditions, show that the patch is 1.6 million square kilometers and has a concentration of 10-100 kg per square kilometers. They estimate there to be 80.000 metric tonnes in the patch, with 1.8 trillion plastic pieces, out of which 92% of the mass is to be found in objects larger than 0.5 centimeters.”

The reason for my posting of this blog was a mainstream news item that I saw on CNN regarding attempts to try to address the issue.  The project is called The Ocean Cleanup.  They think they are capable of cleaning up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years.  Part of the solution is trying to figure how the best way to recycle the garbage that is captured. Hope it all works, and that we can clean up the mess that we have all made!


The Downgrading of Nature in a Dictionary

I was stunned when I first read about this. A note about what had happened was in a book that I have just finished about America’s National Parks.  I found confirmation of the facts on the Snopes website.

via Dictionary Drama

I felt a little better after getting a better context for the bigger picture.  Nevertheless,  I feel a little sad about this, and I would also argue that what is going on may not necessarily be a good thing. There are other more important people who also seem to feel the same way.