Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Week 20: When Change Changes Everything

For Ian Choo  

When Change Changes Everything
On the arbitrary foundations that make up our worldview, and the limits of reason:  Do we have ten fingers because the universe is base-10, or is our universe base-10 because we have ten fingers?  

If you can count to ten, you can count to a hundred; and if you can count to a hundred, you can count to a thousand; and if you can count to a thousand, you can count to ten thousand—and so on. 

But it all starts with ten. “If you can count to ten,” I explain to Billy, “you can count to anything, even infinity."

We play the infinity game for a while: him asking me how big infinity is, or infinity plus one, or infinity plus infinity, followed by infinity plus any finite quantity his puny mind could come up with ad nauseam.

I wish he would have asked something cooler, like “Why 10?” What is so special about the quantity described by the number ten (henceforth referred to simply as “the number 10”) that we base our entire mathematical system and almost all of modern society on it?

10 isn’t some fundamental constant of the universe; it doesn’t embody some transcendental truth. I think it’s safe to say that our choice of 10 as a quantitative base was an arbitrary but natural result of evolution: we just happened to have ten fingers that were perfect for counting.
Of course, if I were more Biblically inclined, that previous paragraph would have read like this:
10 is a fundamental constant of the universe; it embodies the transcendental truth of God. It’s safe to say that our choice of 10 as a quantitative base was not arbitrary, but decided for us by God: He designed us in His own image to have ten fingers for counting His ten transcendental quantities. All Base 2 systems (and hence our entire digital revolution) are the work of the devil, and all Base 5 systems (such as those used in Southeast Asia) are rooted in godless Theravada Buddhism.
But what if we didn’t live in a base-10 world? What if we evolved 12 fingers (base-12), or decided to use both fingers and toes (base-20), or just the fingers on one hand (base-5)? 

What if instead of fingers we evolved demonic hooves (base-2)?

When I’m alone, I like to fantasize about life in a world that isn’t base-10. I am never able to explore these realms in any depth. The foundation of my worldview is so strongly grounded in our base-10 system that my head spins and it becomes physically and mentally anguishing to try and imagine anything else. 

I think this is my brain trying to tell me that it too has limits: that it is not infinitely adaptable to change. When pressed, my brain becomes like a union worker threatening to strike: I will stop working (and you will suffer immensely) if you keep pushing me!

And thus have I come to understand the pain of a shattered belief system. This pain is why Europe was embroiled for centuries in wars over religion, and why separation of church and state is so important today. It is what pitted a Union against a Confederacy in the American Civil War, and it is why today we fight bitterly over the form of marriage even though we all fundamentally agree on its function. 

It is why people still cling to their Bibles, and cling even harder when you try and take them away.

Change is hard. Change is painful. Change is another crack in the foundation of your worldview—the foundation of all that is just and good and moral—that must be repaired. 

When someone wielding a giant sledgehammer comes knocking on your door, you batten down the hatches and prepare for the fight of your life. When pressed, you can commit acts of atrocity never before seen upon your fellow man: better to go down with your ship than to abandon it.

When change changes everything—you have nothing left to lose.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Week 19: Black Magic

Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law of Prediction states that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." If we can assume that all technology has its basis in electromechanical algorithms, then Clarke's Third Law can be restated as "any sufficiently advanced or complex algorithm is indistinguishable from magic.

To illustrate, allow me to read your mind:
1. Pick a number from 1 - 10.
2. Multiply that number by 9.
3. Subtract 5 from your answer.
4. Assign a letter to the number that you get. (A=1,B=2,C=3,etc)
5. Think of a country in Europe that starts with that letter. 
6. Take the second letter in that country's name, and think of an animal that starts with it.
7. Are there really elephants in Denmark? << Highlight this magic row of text.
My 3rd grade teacher mystified my entire class with that "magic" trick. Here are some other useful spells (taken from Pat Gilliland's Book of Black Arts) for all you young witches and warlocks out there practicing your times tables!  

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Week 18: Iron Chef

In Week 6, I explained to Billy that quantity:numeral/place value as time:hour/minute as place:city/street/house. I taught Billy the relationship between quantity and place value by drawing analogies to other abstract concepts and the social conventions that we use to describe them. 

My hidden agenda in all this, if not obvious by now, is to develop in Billy a keen sense of form versus function, so as to "emancipate" him from the "chains of mental slavery", as Bob Marley would say. 

But at the same time, I am wary of getting too abstract, of teaching him everything except what is pertinent.  While I can see a distinction between the concept of quantity and the social convention of numbering, I doubt that Billy, at the tender young age of 8, is able to appreciate or even care about such a nuance. It's simply not relevant to someone who can barely read numbers as it is. 

So today, rather than wax philosophical about the biochemical orgy that ignites in my brain when thinking about number systems based on anything other than the quantity described by the Hindu-Arabic numeral 10—I teach Billy to cook.
How to Make a Number
Step 1) Find the Recipe: To make the number 512, you first need to figure out how many of each ingredient to add. Each place value represents one ingredient, and the number in that place value tells you how much of that ingredient you need. So in the number 512, you need 2 ones, 1 ten, and 5 hundreds.

Step 2) Prepare the Ingredients: The preparation process requires two tools which you have already mastered the use of: addition and multiplication. Use multiplication first to measure out enough of each ingredient: (5 x 100), (1 x 10), and (2 x 1).

Step 3) Combine the Ingredients: Once you have measured out enough of each ingredient, use addition to combine them all together: (5 x 100) + (1 x 10) + (2 x 1).

Step 4) Reduce the Ingredients: Reduce all the ingredients until you end up with a single number: (500) + (10) + (2) = 512.

Step 5) Garnish and Serve: Check to make sure everything reduced correctly, and serve!
Pretty damn concrete, right?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Week 17: Each Ecstatic Instant

A rustic still life of blue cheese and red wine is randomly printed on the cover of Billy's notebook. It sits next to a passage from the Bible that, I presume, encourages one to meditate on the profundity of life's simple pleasures. And so Billy answers the call.
"What is wine?" he asks, eyes fixated on the notebook cover.

I ponder his question, trying to decide how to best explain fermentation to an 8 year old.

"Well," I begin, "there's a teeny tiny mushroom called yeast, and it loves to drink grape juice. When you leave grape juice out, this yeast starts to grow inside, swimming around and drinking all the juice."
"Whaaaat? A mushroom?"
"Yeah! Weird huh? Now what happens when you drink a lot of something? What do you need to do?" I ask.

"Right. After you drink something, you pee. After this mushroom drinks all the grape juice, it needs to pee too, so it pees in the bottle, and that's what we call wine. Wine is mushroom pee!" I conclude triumphantly.

"Eww why do people drink mushroom pee!?!" Billy asks in a fit of giggles.

"Because it makes them happy." I answer simply.

"But why does my mom say drinking wine is bad, if it makes people happy?"

Because a wise woman once wrote:
For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years,
Bitter contested farthings
And coffers heaped with tears.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Week 16: Hyperbola

"How do you say [   ] in math?" Billy asked in Week 15. 

"That's a good question." I giggled, before replying:

one step.
two steps.
three steps four—

with each step
move closer
to great Heaven's door.