Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Equilibrium: The Universal Ledger, Or The Cosmic Balancing Act

In my humble and inconsequential opinion, the most important part of Einstein’s famous equation, e = mc2, is not the cryptic set of figures on either side of the equal sign. The most important part of this equation is the equal sign itself.

It’s a simple equation, stating that energy comes from some mixture of components. But in this simplicity lies its power. To me, the form of the equation (not the equation itself) presents the nature and structure of all things in the universe. It tells me that everything ultimately adds up, and that everything is a part of the grand scheme of things. It’s reduction and synthesis, but on a cosmic scale.

I learned about the laws of thermodynamics in high school physics. The first law states that the total amount of energy and matter in the entire universe remains constant, merely changing from one form to another.

I imagine a huge ball of play-doh, and this is creation in its entirety. I imagine this to be the stuff from which everything is made. If I want to create some planets, I pinch off some of the play-doh and roll them up into tiny little balls. If I need some stars, I pinch off some more play-doh from the giant play-doh ball and make me some. If I need some water, I peel off more play-doh from the giant ball and flatten it into a “sheet of water.” If I need whales to swim in the seas, I grab some more play-doh. If I need anything to be created, I just get more material from the big ball of clay. Soon, the clay gets all used up, but by then I have this diverse collection of objects that makes up my entire little universe.

But what if I need more whales? Well, I could recycle some of the planets (I’ve made too many of them, anyway) and use the clay to make more whales. If I need more cobalt atoms? I can pulverize a star here… or a corvette sportscar there… and come up with clay to build the cobalt atoms I need. In other words, if I need to create something, the material to build it must come from what was in the big ball of play-doh. That’s my own simplistic interpretation of the first law of thermodynamics.

But the point to all this that blows my mind is that we are but mere components in the grandiose, elaborate mechanism that is creation. And as part of this astonishing system, we are somehow connected to everything else that happens to exist. We share a purpose, a structure, and a destiny with the rest of creation. It’s just incredible to think that anything we do, any action that we take, any move we make, sends ripples of consequence across the entire universe, affecting everything else and tilting whatever delicate balance holds the cosmos together.

There is a concept in chaos theory called the butterfly effect. According to this theory, if a butterfly flaps its wings, it initiates a series of events that may or may not cause a typhoon to form. I’ve heard a teacher describe a variation of this concept as such: if a man sneezes here in Manila, it causes the stock markets in Beijing to fall a few weeks later. Or something like that.

In her book, “Biomimicry,” Janine Benyus speculates that the most important profession may actually be accounting. Accounting? Sure. Accounting, after all insists that the ledgers be balanced. At its core, accounting maintains that anything that is debited from one account is credited to another. Resources are finite and must be accounted for. Hence anything taken out from one portion of the system must be put into another area of the same system. Debits and credits. If you ask me, it sounds a lot like a demonstration of the first law of thermodynamics, not using clay, but using the bottom line.

Interestingly, this same concept of oneness seems to apply even to the non-material realm of human emotions. In his famous book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey describes the idea of the emotional bank account. It’s a metaphor for the amount of trust, or perhaps the strength of one’s relationship with another person. If you show kindness toward another person, then you are said to make a deposit into your emotional bank account with this person. Any negative acts, on the other hand, such as disrespect, or meanness, constitute a withdrawal from that account. At the end of the day, the account balance determines the health of your relationship with this person.

It’s an interesting metaphor. I don’t know if it’s correct, or if this thing can ever be proven quantitatively, but I like it, and it appeals to my intuition. And it seems to work in the real world. While it doesn’t quite present a finite store of emotions, it does build upon the same idea that everything somehow adds up to a grand total.

Some years ago, I attended a personal productivity seminar called “Awakening the Power Within,” conducted by Frank Regis. In one of the sessions, Frank shared an anecdote from his life which illustrated the interconnectedness of the universe. One day, he told us, he was riding on a bus, on his way to work. If you’ve tried the public transport system in Manila, then you know how dreadful this experience can be, and Frank wasn’t exactly having the time of his life standing in a crowded bus at the height of rush hour on his way to work. As he stared out the window, a shiny, white Volkswagen beetle rolled along beside the bus. Frank was instantly smitten (this was during the 70s, when the VW beetle was a hot item). He claimed that right there and then, he made up his mind that he would soon own a shiny, white VW beetle. He also claimed that he didn’t worry about how or when, he just kept thinking and believing that someday soon, he’d be driving his shiny white beetle to work.

He said that a few months later, the company assigned him a car. Naturally, it was a shiny new VW beetle. Frank’s point was that he didn’t have to think about how he would get the car of his dreams. He said he left that problem up to the universe. He told us that there was a Universal Accounting System (UAS) that figured all these things out. All he had to do was visualize what he wanted, and plug into the UAS. The UAS eventually delivered!

I don’t think Frank was ever able to prove this concept as an empirical formula for wish attainment, but the thing that grabs me about it is the idea that somewhere in the background of our conscious reality is an ubiquitous, ever-churning engine that alots material items to those willing and ready to receive it. It’s like my conceptual ball of clay, magnified to cosmological proportions, and governed by some cosmological database that keeps track of where each item of creation goes and keeps the books balanced– the Universal Accounting System! In the end it all tallies.

Can you cool a warm room by leaving a refrigerator door open? This is a trick question that I’ve encountered a couple of times. I remember some very hot summers when I’ve tried precisely that. On scorching summer days, sometimes I’d leave the refrigerator door open to try and cool the room off. Sometimes I’d be really hot and impatient, and so I’d stick my entire head into the freezer to cool down.

The answer, of course, is NO. Heat travels from where it’s abundant to where it’s not. In other words, by leaving the refrigerator door open, you’re actually warming up the refrigerator, rather than cooling down the room. Interesting. But again, my point here is that heat – and all types of energy, for that matter – evens out. It’s like pouring liquid into an irregularly shaped container. The molecules of the liquid substance space each other out so that they evenly occupy the container.

One episode of the hit TV sitcom “Seinfeld” expounded on this universal tendency for things to even out. Jerry Seinfeld’s character is transfixed by his observation that things tend to be break-even for him. In one scene, Elaine borrows $20 from him, then she flings it out the window. Soon after, Jerry finds $20 in his jacket pocket. The phonomenon so fascinates him he declares himself “even Steven.”

Father Ruben Tanseco gives a quarterly retreat called the “Spiritual Deepening Retreat.” One of the stories he loves to tell is of this poor Chinese villager. The villager was so poor he had only one horse in his possession. While he was in his hut, the horse escaped and ran into the forest. “Ah, what bad luck!” lamented the neighbors, to which the villager replied, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”

A few days later, the horse came back, along with a dozen other horses in tow. “What good luck!” shouted the neighbors. “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?” said the villager.

The next day, the villagers son attempted to tame some of the wild horses, was thrown off by one of them, and broke his leg. “Ah! Bad luck!” said the neighbors. “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?” said the villager.

Then a few days later, the emperor’s men descended unto the village and drafted all the able-bodied young men to serve in the army against the conquering Huns. The villager’s son, because of his broken leg, was exempted from the draft. “What good luck!” said the neighbors. “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?” said the villager.

Even Steven.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Reduction: How To Swallow An Elephant

If something can be done, then it most likely can also be undone. That’s not necessarily bad, especially when you need to accomplish a task, and that task is overwhelmingly complex. The trick is to break it down into smaller component parts, then work on the individual pieces. The European colonial masterminds, during the age when Europeans were annexing most of the world outside Europe, had this down to a science. They called it “divide and conquer,” and this seemingly simple notion was all they needed to subjugate much of Asia, including the Indian and Chinese powerhouses.

The complexity instantly evaporates, and we’re faced with small, managable morsels of the original challenge. The trick then is to deal with each little bit, with each piece of success ultimately adding up to the big picture. Each component part of the big picture is like a little step on the road that ultimately takes us all the way to our destination.

Just last week, I attended a week-long course on I.T. Project Management at the Asian Institute of Management here in Manila. Much of the second day was devoted to understanding and applying “weebies” or work breakdown structures (WBS). Given a specific project, we were asked to break this down into component tasks. After that, we carefully scrutinized the resulting list, and sought out the tasks that could further be broken down into even smaller tasks. And so on, iterating through the process until we had chunks of work no greater than 40 hours apiece.

The best example of reduction I can think of from my own experiences was back in college, when I found myself taking part in the campus debate competitions of 1986 – 87. I had just transferred from UP Diliman to UP Los BaƱos, where I eventually joined the UP Student Catholic Action. Far from being prayerful and contemplative, the UPSCA during that time was rather left-leaning, and some of its members were true blue radicals who translated leftist sentiments into tangible, if rather disruptive, deeds.

In any case, these were a smart bunch of people. Some of the best young minds I’ve ever encountered; so fiercely idealistic, and so overflowing with social angst. UPSCA had always taken part in the UPLB Great Campus debate, and was a perennial winner in that annual event. The year I joined UPSCA, they had sniffed out my previous experience in my high school debate team, and tapped me to be part of the three-man team (well, two men and a woman, actually) for this year.

Our captain, Francis, was hard-driving, energetic, extremely opinionated, and totally confident in his abilities. I was the second speaker, and Lourie, a methodical and thorough young lady, was the backup. This was a tremendously talented team, and what we lacked in overall charisma, we more than made up for in sheer firepower.

But formidable as this team was, its real strength was in the coaching staff. The coaches, of course, consisted of the wiseguys in the organization; those with lots to say, but who would rather sit on the sidelines than actually bask in the frontlines of battle. And of these wiseguys, none were wiser than our two secret weapons… Apo and Bing.

Apo was a bona fide social strategist who, as I remember, was great at exposing patterns of social behavior. He was a deep and profound thinker, able to thread together complex scenarios from the barest of facts. I remember thinking that Apo had a marvelous mind trapped in a body suffering from some congenital physical deformity. Bing, on the other hand, was the technician with the wide repertoire of intellectual moves. He’d grab whatever elaborate conceptual subtlety Apo would toss up into the air, and hammer it into a tangible strategem for us to employ. By the time these two were done, we had about 80 percent of our battle plan drawn. All that remained was for us to execute during the debate itself.

Reduction was their weapon of choice. They would start off with the given resolution, say, “All men are created equal.” Then they’d get right down to stripping this into the main arguments both for and against. Then they would get each argument, and they’d strip each one down to its component logic, or to its accompanying dogma, or to its inherent legitimacy. They would continue on and on until the entire truth was laid ot before us like a bucket of Lego bricks. All we had to do was know each piece by heart, and then put them together as necessary during the debate itself.