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Thoughts from the throne
Tuesday, May 31, 2005
An Informal Learning Hack

Entering your home bathroom, you leave everyday reality behind. (See Body Ritual among the Nacirema.) Escaping into this private and supremely personal setting seals you off from the outside world, much as meditation clears the head of noise and static.

You're free from jangling phones, the beckoning monitor, and the peering eyes of others. You can take your pants down or even strip naked without giving it a second thought. The space is yours. You can do what you want. Go ahead: make faces in the mirror; sing in the shower.

When seated on the porceline throne, you're free to reflect on your experiences and think new thoughts. This morning I ducked out of a muted conference call to sit on the commode for a few minutes. My mind flashed on the peculiarities of the visible spectrum.



Here's the gist. Our environment is chock full of electro-magnetic waves, from cosmic rays to x-rays to FM radio to TV to shortwave to electricity. Visible light is a tiny band of frequencies between infrared and ultraviolet. This is the only part of the spectrum picked up by our eyes.

Let's apply the spectrum concept to size. Things come in all sizes, from quark to nano to planetary to galactic and so forth up to cosmic. Newton's laws of motion, like visible light, hold true in the middle of the spectrum. "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." It's clockwork. It's predictable. Yes or no. Logical.

However, go to the small end of the size chart and all bets are off. Waves become energy, energy becomes waves, and you can determine the mass of a particle or its velocity, but never both. At the spacey end of the size spectrum, time warps, black holes, and string defy logic.

In fact, logic only seems to apply in the midrange of the size continuum. Everything larger or smaller is unpredictable. Making sense of the passage through complexity at the top and bottom of the scale is like the calculus. You describe what's going on by examining a thin slice of the flow. This isn't reality; it's an approximation. So, too, Newton's Laws only hold true in a limited context.

Sometimes logic comes up empty. I find this liberating. Chalk the unexplainable up to complexity. (Complexity is scientific jargon for "Shit Happens.") It's not possible to have all the answers, so don't fret about it.

Like Stephen Wright's observation that "Every place is in walking distance if you have enough time," I believe that everything's connected to everything else if you look far enough along the network. For that matter, nothing ever ends. But now 'tis time for a temporary hiatus as I leave the lavatory to return to that conference call.



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