Monthly Archives: September 2007

The Concept of… (Part 1: “Life”)

Life.

What is life exactly? Humans are alive, and so are trees. What do trees and people have in common that allows them to be subsumed into the category of life? Trees don’t walk or think. They just stand there.

The reasons, of course, are internal. Trees are what we call “organic” – that is made of cells, and having the ability to grow. This is what fundamentally unifies all known life on Earth.

One of the interesting things about “life” is that most of it is very small. The smallest living thing ever discovered is called Nanoarchaeum, and it is only 400 nanometers (billionths of a meter) in diameter. Here is photograph of the creature:

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In fact, scientists debate whether or not the thing can actually be called living. At this level of microscopy, the conceptual distinctions between living and non-living become too vague – a telling reminder of how poorly constructed our concept of “life” truly is. Indeed, no line has yet to be conclusively drawn between that which is alive and that which is not. It’s a bizarre fact of science, that a concept so fundamental to our nature as “life” is, as of yet, undefinable.

There is, however, one thing that distinguishes life, and this is it’s unusual relationship with energy.

All matter and movement in the universe is predicated by the laws of thermodynamics. The second of those laws states that matter in a closed system cannot increase in entropy without an outside energy source. In other words, the level of chaotic kinetic energy in a closed system will remain in equilibrium unless acted upon. Life is unique, in this respect, as it seems ostensibly to violate this, the second of Newton’s laws. Of course, this is because “living things” tend to increase in entropy, rather than remain stable, or indeed, decrease.

The reason for this is that Earth is not a closed system; it recieves it’s energy from the Sun. Thus, the whole notion of “life” is built around the complex relationships between matter and energy that is created by the Earth and Sun. Really, it’s not that far-out of an idea; after all, there is clearly fundamental correlation between solar activity and this phenomenon that we have called “life.” Where does sunlight stop being cosmic rays and start being “nutrition” to some living thing? Living matter is no different than all other matter, except it needs to absorb energy, in order to increase it’s entropy. From photosynthesis to sunday dinner, you prove it every time you lift the fork to your mouth.

“Life” would be better defined as a universal cosmic tendency towards increased entropy (and thus, increased complexity of the physical organization of matter).

In light of this realization, one can conclude that the question of “life on other planets” is often addressed incorrectly: as if life on other planets would be anything like life on Earth. I doubt very much that we have the imaginative faculties necessary to fathom what strange patterns between matter and energy occur on other worlds – worlds whose particular solar circumstances are drastically different than our own. I believe that there are, floating out in the depths of space, depths of consciousness beyond the narrow constructions of the Earthbound Ape, and beyond our limited concept of “life.”

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Music and New Media: The (Ironically) Quiet Revolution

What happened to music? It used to belong to us. It used to be about people being in rhythm together, not about iPods leeched to our ears pumping out the most popular brand of complete shit that is being sold through the mainstream media. Come on people!

All one need to is scrape the underbelly of one’s culture to find where the best music is hiding. You have to crawl into the unknown caverns in your city if you want to see where the real innovation is, where music is truly fresh and original. Not only that; lo and behold listening to music with people ends up really enhancing the experience!

Don’t get me wrong, I think the world needs records. I get an enormous thrill out of hearing “There is no darkside of the moon; as a matter of fact, it’s all dark” in the last few fading moments of Darkside. All I’m saying is that to limit one’s self to the recorded musical experience is to limit one’s self to an equally (if not more) awesome experience: live music.

The more ritualized the experience becomes, the more I realize what I’ve been missing out on.

On another related note: I think it’s amazing, the democratizing effect of new media… the fact that free-music sharing online is completely dismantling powerful corporate bureaucracies… that is fundamentally revolutionary. I feel no guilt, and I think the artists are only going to adapt to this new way of doing business. In many ways, I’ve often viewed the increased fragmentation of music audiences to be a negotiation of that new relationship.

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Revelation: Celebration In Mass Society, And What We Can Learn From It

I went to the PNE last night. I got thinking about a few things while I was there.

I’ve always thought that it’s very unnatural for a human being to be completely surrounded by that many people at one time. The brain becomes overwhelmed with sensory input as it frantically scrambles to scan all immediate utterances, eye-movements and facial signals, as well as process all the flashing lights, whizzing contraptions and various smells. I believe it creates a permeating sense of tension that we all feel when we find ourselves in large crowds. But I also believe we can learn a lot about ourselves from such crowds.

From a humanist perspective, it’s quite a social achievement to have such large conglomerations of people, young and old alike together in celebration, with relatively few disruptions. Considering that the PNE provides their adult guests access to alcohol and gambling, it’s even more astonishing. I think our society’s ability to foster PNE-esque celebrations attests to our society’s relative peace, stability and, ironically, it’s calmness.

But that’s just one story the PNE has to tell. Spend enough time just observing what goes on around you at a place like the PNE, and one can learn a lot about the fundamental values of our society. For example, there was a children’s parade at about 10:30. Everything in the parade could have been somehow construed as a reflection on our society in a broader sense. All you have to do is think about what you are seeing, instead of just seeing it.

The first thing in the parade was two armed police officers on flashing motorcycles. They were wearing body armour and uniforms, and they were carrying various weapons for subduing anybody who might pose a threat to the crowd, and though you may not like having your children see weapons, and violence is ‘never the answer,’ the truth is that without a certain degree of fear, control and oppressive authority in our society, the ensuing parade would not have been possible.

The procession of floats were nearly all products of the mass media; that is, none of the cartoon characters depicted were part of any local folklore or mythology. Instead you get the Flintstones, Woody Woodpecker and Ronald McDonald – the mythological characters of the industrial/consumer age – relics of the great American mass media. As each float rolls by, children are given yet another dose of acceptance – another reminder of the normalness of it all – and with each passing float they place a little more trust in the traditions of the consmer society.

Between inflatable cartoon floats there are dance troupes of young girls. The parade tends to go from youngest to oldest, beginning with the 8-10 year olds, in their frilly pink princess costumes, endearing themselves to the entire audience with their adorable innocence and nervous smiles. As the parade marches on, and as the age of the girls gets higher, one notices a change: the costumes are made of less fabric, the make-up is applied more heavily, the dances become more elaborate and the smiles appear more… forced. One gets the impressiont that these are the rites and rituals of womanhood in our society. You may think that I’m reading too much into this, but put yourself in the place of a 7 year old girl, for whom the parade is essentially part of an introduction to the traditions, celebrations and rituals of her world.

At the end of the day, we can conclude that we are celebrating nothing. But that’s fine, because we are humans, and we don’t need anything to celebrate. At the end of the day, we just like eating sugary foods, watching cars fight each other in a ring, subjecting our bodies to unnatural sensations of acceleration and gravity, entrancing our eyes with flashing colours, and submitting ourselves to the kind of reckless abandon that typifies our society. The only tough choices we make are whether we like pink cotton candy, or blue.

I guess the important thing is that we just think about how lucky we are to get to live in a place that is capable of hosting a PNE style celebration, because there are many places on Earth that certainly could not. Oddly enough, our society’s ability to party is probably only made possible by the fact that people in uniforms somewhere got trained how to fire a  gun, and I think it’s important we remember that too.

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