Saturday, March 1, 2014

Neo’s Choice

When Neo chose the Red Pill, he acknowledged that the life he knew was meaningless.  He chose to venture into the potential nightmare of living outside the matrix, rather than continue in the world that he knew, a world that, to be fair, wasn’t that great anyway.  The dingy, depressing environment created by the Wachowskis for The Matrix fell short on sunshine and hope, which perhaps contributed to our protagonist’s choice. Why not take the chance? What could be worse than living in a (pretty crappy) world that isn’t real?

The world may very well be divided by Red Pill and Blue Pill people. Those who would jump at the chance to rid themselves of a meaningless world if given it, and those who wouldn’t humor the offer it; those who are happy to be happy even if happy isn’t real. There has always been a question of whether or not this world is real.

Philosophers, scientists, writers and filmmakers have discussed it for centuries, though maybe not in terms as reduced as a choice between red and blue.

Albert Camus, the 20th century philosopher and writer, described this choice in the allegory of Sisyphus. The difference being that Sisyphus isn’t given the option of choosing the red pill. Or even that of the blue pill. He isn’t permitted to escape the Matrix, or forget – he is bound to live inside the Matrix aware of its absurdity. The takeaway from Camus’ story is a cheery one – When you realize that life is meaningless you have three choices. 

One: Commit Suicide. The knowledge hurts too much, nothing has meaning, so end it all. (Though he is astute enough to recognize that death itself is meaningless, so the problem is not solved!)

Two: Commit a sort of philosophical suicide, meaning to pretend that you didn’t figure out that life is meaningless. Lie to yourself, maintain the charade, and maybe achieve “happiness.”

Three: Live the rest of your life (or eternity, in the case of Sisyphus) recognizing the meaninglessness of life, but keep living it. Live honestly and bravely, and maybe find real happiness in the task.

The Gods cursing you to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity, or Morpheus telling you that your reality is a simulation may feel like hypotheticals, however some scientists think these thought pieces Camus’ and the Wachowskis have given us may not be that far off.

A recent New York Times article penned by Edward Frenkel asks if the universe in which we live might actually be a simulation.

Another thought experiment? Apparently not. 

In “Is the Universe a Simulation?” Frenkel highlights the immutable truths of mathematics (how scientists around the globe and across the decades reach the same mathematical conclusions, for example) as one of the tenets some scientists are using to support this hypothesis.  We did not create mathematics. Somehow mathematics already exists in our world, waiting to be discovered. How is this possible? How is math the same across cultures and generations? How is math already here?  

One creepy and awesome theory goes like this: the computer programmer of the future has built a simulation (our world).  When we “discover” mathematic formulas, really we are just uncovering bits and pieces of planted code in the simulation. 


 You may not take kindly to the idea of living inside a real “Matrix,” or consider the concept far-fetched, but some scientists say that the probability is actually quite good. Frenkel paraphrases Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom on the subject:

“Bostrom has argued that we are more likely to be in such a simulation than not. If such simulations are possible in theory, he reason, then eventually humans will create them – Presumably many of them. If this is so, in time there will be many more simulated worlds than nonsimulated ones. Statistically speaking, therefore, we are more likely to be living in a simulated world than in the real one.”

For me, the reality of this world doesn’t matter. Would a simulated universe make my coffee less soothing, my friends less caring, my partner’s eyes less blue? I know what I know, and in that case, “real” is indefinable. Even in meaninglessness, we can all choose to find happiness. In Camus’ words:

“Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Friday, February 7, 2014

Measuring Achievement in the Midst of Winter

Chicago's winter can be harsh. This year seems to be challenging even the most hard-core of Chicago's winter-lovers. The snow this season has accumulated in beautiful puffy piles that swiftly transform into inches-deep obstacles of grayish slush, hungrily waiting to swallow your boots whole. Some days, the sun has shone brightly, attempting to mask temperature dips so severe that schools and businesses closed to encourage us to stay safely indoors.

The winter anecdotally brings on the blues in a lot of people, and this mega-winter seems to be bringing on the mega-blues. For me, the winter is only partly the sources of the blues.  Its mostly that the winter came post-marathon.

In my absence from the blog I haven't shared much about the marathon. Here it is, in short:

My friends are awesome (those that ran with me, and those that supported me along the course).
The weather was undeniably perfect.
My girlfriend probably ran her own marathon chasing me around the city.
My sister, niece and nephew cheered me on with adorableness and big signs.
26.2 miles is long.
26.2 miles is boring.
After 26.2 miles you are pretty tired.
The next day you feel sore.
You may also feel sad.

After years and years of running, and meeting every goal - from that first mile, to those 26.2 in October - finishing the marathon sort of felt like the end of the climb. There is no higher to go. Of course I'm aware that there is, including faster times and longer races, but for a weekend racer, training for the marathon was a massive time commitment that won't easily be achieved again.

After the marathon, I had some trouble getting motivated. The holidays hit, things got busy with work, and getting back on the treadmill for 2 or 3 miles seemed sort of pointless without an end goal.  

Running the marathon was supposed to feel awesome - was supposed to feel like a life accomplishment, but really it just reminded me that sometimes the best hobbies or goals are the ones that remain unachieved. The ones that change and evolve and are measured in progress and growth. 

As I pull my hat down over my ears and stomp through inches of slush attacking my boots, I start to collect ideas of what's next. To look for a goal that can grow with me. A goal that I can't leave behind like a finish line. In the meantime, I might as well go to the gym - I think better on a run, anyway. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Eliot the Cat Gets an iPhone 5S

Now that I know that he can access the finger-print security pad, I see no reason to withhold any longer.

Eliot has always been a technophile. Here he harnesses
the sun's light to fuel future activity.

Check out the TechCrunch article about the new iPhone 5S's super loosy goosy touch pad here.

(Isn't it cute how the iPhone user gives the cat a little good job paw rub at the end?)

Monday, September 16, 2013

More on Gen-Y

This is Lucy.

In my previous post about the Y Generation, I separated out "Millennials" as group a little bit younger than myself (born in the 90s, perhaps). This humorous article extrapolates on why Gen Y is a sad generation. Broken down, it seems that our ambitions and undeserved superiority make "regular" life feel inadequate. Is it true? You decide.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Disconnection of Constant Connection

My generation moved from low-tech (or tech free) to high tech seamlessly. When I say "my generation" I recognize that there may be some debate about who falls into this group. I readily accept that Gen X ended in the 70's. The generation that came after (some say 77-94) is often called the Millenials. Although I was born in 1982, the idea of being group in with "Millenials" terrifies me.  Us early 80's babies have almost nothing in common with the early 90's babies. So, I suppose that makes me Gen Y, if that is such a thing.

Part of this differentiation comes from our experience with technology.  As an 80s baby, I remember when we first got the new and tiny internet, I got my first cell phone in college and avidly used Friendster and MySpace in my 20s before Facebook was ever born.

My generation grew up without these technologies, but were young enough to accept them as they were introduced. We took to cell phones, tablets and social networking slightly faster than our older siblings, but had a memory of walkmans, fax machines and typewriters that our younger siblings did not.

I was in middle school when I got hooked on AOL Instant Messenger, the precursor to a lot of the social media that I eventually got hooked on. As social websites evolved, I stuck with it.  I loved connecting with friends who had moved away, promoting my writing ventures, and using the hive-mind those applications collect to make decisions for me (What movie should I see tonight?), but recently I started to pull back. Perhaps it's the memory of what once was that has been causing me trouble.

When I close my eyes, I remember debates about movie characters that were not solved instantaneously with Wikipedia. I remember writing and receiving long emails and even paper letters full of details of friend's lives, rather than skimming their About Me sections, and receiving phone calls of good news rather than reading about a Relationship Status change on my cell phone while I wait for the train. I remember waiting to hear a song on the radio - and excitedly blasting it in the car - instead of just downloading everything I want whenever I want.

The happiness and energy that I used to feel being connected to so many people and their lives all the time has faded. The more I read about my friends and acquaintances online, the more distant I feel. My phone rarely rings. My emails are all deals and promotions. Friend post funny stories on my wall, instead of telling me in person. Happy hour plans are made electronically.

I think the recognition that this sort of constant communication leaves all of us out of touch is something Millenials might not be able to feel. They have always had everything at their fingertips. They have never gone 5 years without seeing the faces of their friends.  The memory of what once was makes this reality a little harder to accept. I think this is the feeling our parents (and their parents) have always tried to communicate to us with all of their "back in my day" stories.

The good thing is that getting back to the connections and communications that I remember isn't that hard. When I have a funny story to tell you, I'll call. When you see something online that reminds you of me, send it in an email. Cut out a magazine article and mail it. Let's ask each other how we are doing rather then gleaning each other's moods from our newsfeeds.

I'm a Gen Yer. That means that technology is a part of my life (a part that I love) - but that also means that I came of age during a simpler time. A time when people connected in person, and we shared our good news with our family and closest friends before we told everyone we've ever met with the click of a mouse.

Maybe by disconnecting a little we can all feel more connected.

This post from buzzfeed actually addresses this gap a little bit.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Labor Day Spring Cleaning

The dust that lined the baseboards had been building its home in the quiet darkness for almost four years. It feathered in the humid summer as air forced its way around the curves and corners powered by a box fax across the room, but it never lost its resolve. On Labor Day, it let loose. It made its way into my nostrils and lungs, stuck to the skin of my sweat-moistened stomach as I dragged out piles of unmatched socks and empty shoeboxes from the depths of my almost walk-in closet, clad only in a neon yellow tie-died sports bra and basketball shorts, on another steamy Chicago end-of-summer day.

Marathon training had been the impetus of a 12-mile run on Saturday morning and a 16-mile bike ride on Sunday afternoon, but I am a rule-follower, and Mondays are rest days. Overwhelmed by the impotence of a Monday off of work with no run to run, I decided at some point in the early afternoon that my bedroom closet would be the day's project. I could write or draw dinosaurs (two actually purposeful activities), but I craved a physical activity maybe to avoid a mental one.

I went through my closet, hanger by hanger, and removed some of my favorite shirts, shoving them deep into a donation bag, feeling reckless and irritated at my lifelong nostalgia. I decided I was out of my sneaker phase, replacing four pairs of infrequently worn, seriously worn-in shoes with a few sets of high heels on the shelf above my head.

Sneezing and sweating, I cleaned.  The computer blared indie dance tunes from the front room and the cat stayed safely hidden away from the commotion. I made a new space for the shoes that lived mostly in the hallway, and the stack of wicking shirts that had found a home on the floor. I found coins and bobby pins and, for some reason, three cylinders of Smarties. 

I imagined moving to my next place, and a shared closet with my girlfriend that wasn’t overrun by my clutter. I imagined loving my home so much that I would care too much to somehow let delicious packs of pastel colored candies get loose and live in the shadows of my GAP collared shirts.

The Great Closet Clean of 2013 was part girl-who-can’t-sit-still, part physical exercise, and part ode to commitment. In the weeks that precede yet another birthday, I want to continue to grow. I want to prove to myself that I am not done evolving. I also don’t want to end up on an episode of Hoarders.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Communication of the Dead - Westminster Abbey

Back-post from
15 June 2013

“The communication / of the dead is tongued with fire beyond / the language of the living.” 
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” 
The words that mark his memorial in Westminster Abbey.

It’s almost impossible to let go of my obsessive need to accomplish – to not waste a minute of time, to record every instance. This morning, I tried to shut it off. I let myself sleep until 930, mosey down to the common room for coffee and toast and relax a little.

My primary goal of the morning is a visit to Westminster Abbey, another site I disregarded on my original London excursion. Another day, another cathedral – this is London after all.

Rick Steves correctly advised me to chose the cash line (over the credit line) to get in the doors of this imposing building, but both lines moved surprisingly quick for a Saturday morning, just a couple years after the most recent Royal Wedding was held in this very space. (The first was in 1100!)

Entering the cathedral overwhelms visitors, as I myself do what each person has before me – touch my chest and let my jaw fall open.  It is stunning, and its place in British history cannot be overstated. For almost 800 years, this has been the site of nation-changing weddings, funerals and mention coronations.      

I’m not in the building for three minutes, barely getting my orientation, when I notice a wall plaque for Alfred Russel Wallace, a 19th century British explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist. Although a somewhat overlooked scientist, Wallace not only explored and described the flora and fauna of unknown regions of the world in the 1880’s, he also developed a theory of evolution independent of his contemporary Charles Darwin. Some suggest that Darwin was pushed to publish his On the Origin of Species primarily to beat Wallace to the punch. Although Wallace is buried in Dorset, as he wished, the plaque was placed in Westminster two years after his death, in 1915.

I’m still thinking about poor Wallace and the short-end he got in British history when I find myself standing on the stone marked for Darwin himself. I immediately wonder if Wallace’s scientist bros purposefully had his plaque added just a few feet in front of Darwin’s grave so he could be first at something. My hands shake and clench at the desire to break the rules and take a picture, but I can control myself. I’m honored and awed to be standing here and wish desperately that I could talk to the grumpy old Darwin and tell him what he means to me. I’m secretly glad that I skipped this stop when I was 19, because there’s no way it would have felt this special.

Nearby the rests stone of Charles Lyell, another scientist and contemporary of Darwin (a friend and mentor, really).  Among kings and queens, I also find a Isaac Newton, a brilliant dedication to William Shakespeare (who is buried in Stratford-Upon-Avon) and a memorial to T.S. Eliot, among other influential poets and writers. The list of rockstars who are buried or memorialized here would take up a whole post, but go ahead and check Wikipedia

Westminster Abbey is a place that can make you feel both tiny and inspired at the same time. To mingle with history in this close proximity really is to communicate with the dead.