This rant was published on Sun, Apr 7, 1996.
So, I'm sitting here in the car, well, it's a sport utility vehicle, but that's not important right now, thinking to myself that I could write my own rants and publish them on the net. Maybe I'd become an industry pundit and people would ask me what I think about subjects I don't know anything about. Well, that's one way to learn new stuff and I would welcome it. The important thing is that I was thinking I could do this once I got home, but then I realized that I don't need to wait. I'm a nerd, I've got my PowerBook here in the car.
Today's rant is going to dance around the theme of spirituality. I am returning to the San Francisco Bay area from a weekend of skiing with my buddy John. He's a friend from school although I didn't know him then. He's a friend of another friend from school, whom I didn't know then either. I actually knew this guy named Dave from Alaska. He was a friend of my first dorm roommate and we hit it off and hung out a lot together for years. Then Dave and I got into a cycle were we each had girlfriends when the other didn't and didn't get to see each other much. He told about this friend of his, Mike, who he was hanging out with and told me that I would like him. Well, I move to California after graduating and Mike calls me up out of the blue. Apparently he was looking for a roomate and Dave told him that I was down there too. I remembered Dave talking highly of him and so we roomied together for a few years. He then moved to Seattle and we still ski together at every opportunity. We started an annual week long ski trip which we find very theraputic. Well, (we're unwinding the stack now) Mike had this friend and former roommate John who was living in Japan. Mike had gone to visit him while we were roomies and had a lot of fun, so I had heard all about John. Mike recommended him highly. Well, after 9 years, John moved from Japan to about a mile from me. I called him up, dragged him skiing, and we're now friends.
The world is a very small place.
It's this element of coincidence that I think is one of the philosophical spiritualities which we see so much in life. They occur all the time, but they mean nothing, unless we care to read meaning into them, and a lot of people do. I don't, but I do find them interesting. For example, we met a cool guy on the chair at Kirkwood today. He was from San Jose, as we are, which is another pointless coincidence. His name was Gary and he grew up in San Jose, went to work for Amdahl which is just a stone's throw down the road from Apple where I work. Well, he was our idol. He had packed it in, left his job and moved to the mountains. He paints and does carpentry during the summer and skis heavily during the winter. John and I want to do that, but we also want to do what we're doing. It's a little spiritual conflict. Well, Gary was just what we needed. He showed us some awesome steeps and helped us out of a dire prediciment. He even let me lead the last run, which he didn't have to do. He could easily have blown off into the distance as he had done earlier. I thought it was a nice move on his part. It also put some pep into my skiing. Trying to stay ahead of him wasn't easy, so I couldn't stop until we got to the bottom. Well, I caught an edge at top speed, but I didn't want to fall, so I had to just cope, and I did, by being more aggressive and slamming out several quick short turns to regain my balance. It was a spiritual moment for me, because I was a heartbeat from slamming face first into the snow at high speed.
Thank God I didn't.
This issue of God is one of the most spiritual issues around. So many people place their belief in the existance of what we in the computer business would call a root entity. One of the common roots is a tertiary entity known as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Another is a multi-armed multi-entity known as Vishnu. There are quite a few of these choices, and you are free to pick and choose. Some people even make up their own. Personally, I think America got the right notion when they decoupled faith and government. Others don't feel that way, but at least they are required to use existing legal procedures to make any changes, if they can.
Well, I've had several experiences which qualified in my mind as opportunities for God (whatever you may conceive him to be) to speak to me or even take me if He were so inclined. As of this writing, he hasn't touched me or made his presence known to me in any way, except possibily through this great universe he is general attributed with have given us. I've talked with numerous people who have professed to have been contacted by Jesus, and other dieties, but I have a hard time buying into the whole notion.
Organized religion has its place. Numerous people attest to that. Religion has helped many people, but it has hurt many also. To me, that shows the hand of man is guiding religion, and helps to convince me that God is not talking to anyone. I'm not saying God doesn't exist, because I've never seen any evidence that he doesn't, although human suffering is a fine argument for that theory. However, I've never seen any evidence that he does exist either; it's the presence of our lovely planet and the rest of the complex universe which I would use as a first argument that he does though.
As far as I am concerned, the jury is still out on this God thing.
That has no bearing on how I live my life though. It can't really. My essense, which is a spiritual thing regardless of how it got here or how it works, has been determined, in my opinion, from my experiences. I can't say how much I might have been predisposed by genetics or God's plan, so as far as I am concerned, those considerations are moot. I am what I have grown up to be. I've made my choices and hopefully learned from my mistakes, as well as from others. Many of those were spiritual experiences too.
The mind is the essense of our spirit though. Some differentiate it and call it the soul, but I think it's more in the mind. Unfortunately, this blurs a difficult line for those who believe that mankind is "blessed by God." Since several species of apes have been taught to speak, this clearly shows that humans aren't alone in their cognitive abilities. We are lightyears ahead of our competition though. While apes can talk, and they can do so better than some trailer park residents, they still don't think very deep thoughts. My joke is that they taught an ape to speak and it's first question was "When's lunch?" Not too different from humans, but certainly not as deep as humans can get, and it won't get them a job in computer programming. However, it is deep enough for me to consider them "soulful", which immediately shows that I don't consider humans all that special.
That's not quite true though. I consider humans to be very special. I just don't consider them to be any more unique than smart people are. We have lots of dim cousins sharing our planet with us (and no small number of them are human), and I think it's our duty to consider more than ourselves when making decisions about this world. As we grow beyond this mortal sphere, we are going to see more and more of our effects touching the planet. We can already see the damage we have been doing to the Earth, and it is becoming apparent that we need to consider our actions more carefully than we have in the past.
The most significant aspect of this is that science is still in its infancy. While we have plumbed the depths of our solar system and can save lives with astounding medical techniques, we still don't know what makes the universe or our bodies live. This is one place where spirituality kicks in strong. God is attributed with both of these acts. He created the universe and gave us life. Pretty darn nice of Him, I must say.
Unfortunately, he didn't give us much direction, and what little he did was basically, "Go forth and multiply." I think we've done that. The question is, what do we do now? The Catholic church is sticking with the procreation thing, but I think they might just be in a race with the other religions.
My vote for constructive pasttimes are art and science. Science is basically the search for the unknown, and since we know so little, the field is wide open. From medical science, to which I owe my life, to engineering sciences and other branches of cosmic science, there are people out there trying to understand the ways of the world and create new ways of dealing with them. I'm sure that I would be preaching to the choir if I were to launch into a litany of products which have benefited Mankind as a result of science. I'd be here all year just typing the list, so let's just mention computers and leave it at that. Since we're viewing this on the glowing phosphors, I think it's fair to point out how far we've come from the dung gathering tribal wanderers we once were. Now we've got information appliances which allow us to share our thoughts and ideas with millions. Never before in the history of our planet have we been able to create and share it with so many, at least at so little cost. Other people have certainly made an impact worldwide. You probably only know the names of a few of the more recent ones. Many are lost in antiquity. They key is that more are coming.
There's so much we still don't know.
Science will be a continuing pasttime, because there's such a minute chance that we will ever find everything out. Mostly we find new questions. It's certainly that way in the astro-sciences. They built that Hubble telescope, but being human they screwed it up. Luckily, they took the time and energy to fix it and man, has it thrown just about every theory it has looked at into chaos. For example, they thought that had figured out what black holes might behave like, although no one had ever seen them. In fact, it took a disabled physicist (Dr. Stephen Hawking) to even come up with the notion of a black hole. The Hubble has found several. Now many scientists agree that there is likely to be one at the center of our galaxy, just waiting to eat our sun. However, the Hubble has revealed more mysteries about black holes. They appear to be giving off different energies than anticipated. Matter seems to flow into them differently than we expected. Basically, we had clue, but got a lot of the details wrong. Typical of humans, in my mind.
However, there are still things we don't have a clue about. This is where science gets all spiritual. We don't know about the beginning of the universe. It's common question, how did the universe begin? A lot of people were buying into this Big Bang notion, which claimed that the universe just sort of exploded into being at some point tens of billions of years in the past. Now, new measurements made with the Hubble have skewed that whole theory. One of the common questions astrophysicists ask is, how old is the universe? They've been using the Hubble to answer this and it's already helped them determine that the universe is a lot older than they thought, which means the big bang either didn't happen then, didn't happen at all, or something else happened. In my mind, all bets are off, but many are claiming that the big bang still works, it's just needs some new numbers.
The key is that we just don't know.
A fine example of something we've studied and studied and still don't have a clue about is gravity. I love this stuff. It's what I use for my favorite fun based activity, skiing. We use big diesel motors to run a series of chairs attached to a cable which is on wheels on elevated towers which run to the tops of snow covered mountains. These haul us uphill, against gravity, and dump us on forbidding mountain tops which people formerly had to climb to get to. From there, we slide down the snow on skis, boards and other contraptions, attempting to keep gravity from killing us. It's some serious fun.
Gravity is a complete mystery. We know how it works. At least we think so. Newton thought he knew, but he was only correct in a limited frame of reference. Einstein came up with a more general theory that has been holding a lot of water. In fact, decades after his death, his theories are still being proven correct. However, despite his success at predicting how gravity behaves, Einstein knew that he didn't know why it behaved that way. He searched for the answer until his death. Now the mantle has been taken up by Hawking, but he's not having much more luck.
The problem is that it defies our attempts at manipulation.
Gravity is a property of matter. If you have matter, you have gravity. That's all there is to it. The trouble is, gravity is puny. You need huge asteroid sized chunks of matter before they even begin to show any significant signs of gravity, and as you should realize, huge chunks of rock are hard to handle. Toss in the fact that we are sitting on a rock larger than any we could hope to handle, and you see that things are just in a scale too large for us to deal with.
I think the best thing about gravity is that for being the weakest of the natural forces, it is also the most powerful, and one which we all depend on for all of our needs. Here's where we get spiritual again. If it weren't for gravity, we wouldn't have the stars and universe we live in. Stars owe their lives to gravity. That's what causes them to clump together, compress and finally to burn in the vacuum of space. That alone makes gravity a pretty impressive force in my book. Now, gravity keeps us in the vicinity of our star, which is good, because that vacuum of space is very cold, and all the internal heating of our planet wouldn't help without the energy the sun bombards us with. Of course, that internal heating is very important because it has given us the oxygen we breathe, mostly from volcanic venting of one sort or another. Nowadays, we gather energy from the sun, as well as from gravity itself in the form of hydroelectric power. In addition, all the fossil fuels we use are there because of gravity's compression effects. We owe gravity for a lot of things.
Hawking said in his book A Brief History of Time that he thought gravity must be transmitted through some particle or wave phenomena which we simply cannot detect. It's as fine a guess as any. The key is that no one, not even our top scholars, really knows what gravity is. It just is.
Art isn't any easier to define.
Events in recent history have cast something of a bad light on art, mainly due to some well publicized artists pushing the envelope of acceptability while on the government's art budget. The problem seems to be that some people are tired of the common and well known art forms and are trying to stretch the borders. My notion is a little more off-center. I consider software to be art.
What is art?
In my mind, art is such a broad category that it can really only have a broad definition. That is: Art is anything that Mankind creates. Some would place a uselessness clause in there, but I don't think it's that limited. Frank Lloyd Wright's houses are obviously art, despite their usefulness. Andy Warhol proved that art could be as common as a picture of a soup can, which certainly does qualify as useless, but a lot of people would agree that cars are sometimes works of art, like a Ferrari or a '56 Chevy Nomad.
I think that makes a pretty solid case for software as art, although I think because of its nebulousness I should include my favorite definition for quality in here. I think it works for art as well, so the merit should be apparent.
I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it.
The relationship is more than literary, software art is often of an exceedingly high quality. For example, one of the digital artist's favorite tools, Adobe PhotoShop, is a piece of artwork. It's a joy to use, even before you learn how, and there's more to it than even an experienced user knows. Kai is still learning things about it.
It's not the software itself that matters though. It's the creation process. Mankind has this spiritual need to create and I think software folks fall into this realm. I know I do. Of course, writing is also a creative process, so software isn't the only way I can create, but it is a fun way to create something. The key is that you need something to create from, and that's where experience comes in. In order to create software, you need the experience to know what to create and how to create it. In order to write, you need to make stuff up or write about what you know. The key to writing about what you know is simply experience also. You have to get out there and experience the world. That's one of the reasons I ski. It gets me out and away from the house and computer and clears my head so that new thoughts can pour into it, and that's important after so many years in the software business.
I recommend a little spiritual cleaning for everyone occasionally.
Created on Sun, Mar 31, 1996 and last modified on Sun, Apr 7, 1996.