Friday, November 30, 2007

Why Physicists Prefer Tee Shirts

Fresh out of self-contradictions, I went to HEB to restock. A highschool guy with a ring in his eyebrow was washing vegetables in produce and said to me, "dude, life is full of contradictions, yo". He is right. Some contradictions are the result of bureaucracies, some lies, and some are cosmic. A few years ago I read a book that, on page 86, provided a framework for levels of contradiction. Reading it saved me big money in therapy and here I am giving it to you for free. But first you have to read about physics and watch a video about quantum mechanics, so that's payment enough.

The video was sent to me by a physicist friend and former college roommate of mine (hi Danny, ahem, I mean Dr. Bruton). These mind blowing concepts were first presented to me as a college junior while I was taking Modern Physics.

The example in the video is about electrons, but the same is true for photons, the "particle" of light. Like electrons, the nature of light is sometimes self-contradictory. Is it a wave or is it a particle? It acts like both under different circumstances. Physicists argued about this for like, a long long time, before they finally decided it WAS both. That's when they made the t-shirt that says "I like the wave-particle duality of light" and had a physics party.

So are you ready for the four levels of contradiction? Are you ready to relieve some of the phycho-tension you carry around in the back of your mind but are afraid to expose to the conscious mind? Buckle your seatbelt my friend.

1) The Verbal Puzzle, the lowest level of contradiction,
: "one must die to live"
Explanation: The "contradiction" dissolves once terms are more clearly defined. A seed must "die" in order to "live" as a butternut squash plant.

2) The Mystery, the next level
: true but inexhaustive truth
: Some of the information is missing, there are no self-contradictory assertions, but you can't make full sense of it until someone gives you more information. When I write exam problems they usually, though unintentionally, fall into this category. It might go something like this:
a) Bob lives next door to Mary.
b) Mary lives next door to her brother.
At this point it is a mystery whether Bob and Mary are siblings; maybe so, maybe no. There is nothing contradictory in (a) and (b) but we don't have all the information. If we were later told that Mary's only has one neighbor, the mystery would be resolved.

3) The Temporary Agnosticism, the last resolvable level
: the wave-particle duality of light (and electrons, see the video)
Explanation: In this level, there are indeed full-blown contradictions; "light is ultimately a wave" and "light is ultimately a particle" for example. But these contradictions are held in tension temporarily with reason to hope that they will be resolved. In the case of light, the resolution was a new theory called QED (which secretly stands for Quick Earwax Dissolver, though physicists won't admit it publicly) which explained how light could behave as both. So a Temporary Agnosticism is when you mentally decide to accept two contradictory viewpoints in your head with the (perhaps unstated) hope that they will eventually be reconciled by physicists in t-shirts. It's agnosticism because you don't know how they could both be true, but you know they must be somehow, like the agnostic dyslexic who isn't sure if there even is a dog.

4) The Paradox, the irresolvable contradiction
: the square circle
: There is no reconciliation nor is there acknowledgement that the views are in contradiction. Yet there is an insistence that the square circle is just that, a square circle, not a squircle or some other new thing. It is like the Hindu-influenced idea that good and evil are the same thing or that they are both, in essence, the eyebrow-ring-wearing produce guy, yo.

Mood Altering Feline Friends (MAFF)

Gracie the cat had five kittens in our closet. That was six weeks ago. Now they are about as cute as anything you can image. When I get home from work I play with the kittens; they make me laugh as they tumble over each other and pounce on feathers and strings. They nibble on my fingers and sniff my ears which tickles. They crawl up my pants legs like a squirrel climbs a tree. In a bad mood? Kittens help. Sad or lonely? Kittens help. Have cancer or being held at gunpoint? Well, kittens can't help you there, sorry.
We're going to keep the only male. We named him Henry. Henry the kitten is bigger than the rest and likes to grapple his sisters and pull them to the ground. Then he bites them and pummels them with his hind legs. He's a bruiser. He knows kung-fu. He sleeps in my lap. It makes me happy.
Tomorrow a friend comes to adopt two of them. Tonight the boys cried because they are going to miss them. Goodbye little friends.

I'm not sure who has more hair, me or the cats!

This one had a spot on her nose so we called her "Booger". Never mind the cat pee on the wall behind her. Sorry you had to see that.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Guitar George

One day last August I was with a team of engineering students in a remote Honduran village called Pueblo Nuevo. We were there to install a "pico-hydro" generator, a very small hydroelectric generator using water from a nearby mountain stream. On normal days we would commute back to a nearby city (about 90 minutes' drive) to stay at a hotel there.
One day we got caught in the rain which made the rutted, rocky, mountain roads impossible to pass. In fact, we had to abandon our 4-wheel drive SUV and walk about 45 minutes back to the village in the rain. It was rather miserable. We slept at the little church there and the next morning we got up with the dawn.
Early that morning, John found a guitar kept at the church and started playing to himself in an informal, spontaneous, private worship time. Though it was a bit intrusive, I couldn't resist taking this picture with another student's disposable camera. I think it captured the moment well.

Over Commitment

I think I have a problem with over commitment. I tend to fill up my schedule to 150% of what I can handle. I have been doing some soul searching to try and figure out why I do this. I haven't figured it out, but here are some of my thoughts:

1) Perhaps I can't stand to be left out of anything I find interesting. Do I fear being on the margins?
2) Perhaps I don't like to have idle time. What might I be afraid to face? Am I running from something in my busy life?
3) Do I have something to prove? Am I insecure and feeling the need to overachieve in order to prove something?
4) Am I addicted to other people's approval? Must I always be being praised? Is that why I am writing this blog?
5) Perhaps I just love life and want to drink in as much as I can. I have been given certian opportunities and abilities and want to make the most of them.

Over Commitment African Style
(taken from the road in Kenya, 2006)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Preteen Thanksgiving Miracle

My son D is eleven and in fifth grade: too old for Pilgrim outfits, but not too young for profound observations. This week he brought a Thanksgiving assignment home from school that warmed my heart. He made a booklet that with each new page expressed something for which he was thankful. He was thankful for books and ramen soup, of course. And on one page he said he was thankful for his house because it has "climate control" and "plumbing" and "electricity". He explained to the reader, with a sense of you-won't-even-believe-this, that some people didn't have those things in their houses! I was delighted that he was grateful for such things. He doesn't complain because we don't have a video game system or a DVD player in our car. Instead he is sincerely grateful for what many consider the essential basics.

And I am grateful for my own opportunities to travel internationally in the last few years. I know that this has cultivated D's poverty awareness and ambient level of gratitude. He has seen my pictures and heard my stories of Kibera, the huge slum in Nairobi, Kenya with nearly a million inhabitants living on less than 700 acres: no running water, open sewers, abounding in addicts, epidemic hopelessness, a hellish place. Without a formal lecture on what he "should" be grateful for (i.e. eat your peas because there are starving people in sucn-and-such place) he has glimpsed his own level of blessedness and come away with true gratitude.

I wonder how many times I, like an unaware child, have taken blessings for granted? How often do I miss the miraculous? With what frequency am I blind to my own blindness? I am humbled and blessed by my preteen son and his eyes to see. Out of the mouth of babes...

Visiting Kibera in 2006

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Una Lunes Por La Noche (A Monday Night)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Our first day at the remote Honduran village of Pueblo Nuevo is a day of greetings, relationship building, and river exploration. We say our goodbyes for the day and get into our four-wheel-drive SUV to return to the city. A vehicle like this is the only thing that can reach this mountain village other than a horse. Back in the city our hotel is waiting.

Keys in ignition, seat belt, clutch in, turn the key… nada. We realize the battery is dead and get the sense that God has a sense of humor. Cosmic smirk. But I am not laughing, yet. Half a dozen men and innumerable boys from the village try to push-start the engine, but after many unsuccessful attempts we give up. One fellow produces a car battery from his house, but has no jumper cables. Not to worry, he has a bit of what looks like speaker wire too. He strips the insulation back from the ends by pulling it with his teeth. It is not able to start our SUV. While I am grateful for his efforts, I am not surprised.

Here we are, an engineering team that has come to install a hydro-powered battery charger, and our car’s battery is dead. We have come as deliverers of technology, and our technology has abandoned us. We have come with compassion to help those who we consider poor, but tonight it is us who need their compassionate help.

Two men hike off to the next town where someone is known to have a pick-up truck. After an hour or so they return with it and we are excited. It is dark now and even if we get it started it is too late to go back to the city. Still, we could charge our battery back to health if we could only get the engine started. Since our speaker-wire jumper cables will not reach, they remove their own battery and install it into our vehicle. Good plan. Bad implementation. They connect the cables backwards, spark! a fuse blows. We give up for the night.

We will sleep at the church, a rectangular cinder block structure with a corrugated metal roof and concrete floor. Gratefully, we have inflatable mattresses and swimming pool “rafts” on which to sleep. These items had been our backup plan in case severe weather prevented us from leaving the village at night. We borrow a “candil”, a small kerosene-burning lantern used by the villagers and the exact technology we hope to displace with electric lights. John, forever faithful, also has a flashlight. We think about the 10 electric lanterns we brought from Texas but left back at the hotel and the irony deepens. We have protein bars, Slim Jims, and water for dinner.

Some of the electrical equipment we brought is laying around and becomes a table for our candil: old technology laughing at the new. The soft yellow light illuminates the church building like a beacon for adventure. A card game initiates. The sky is cloudless and moonless and the stars are spectacular. The glow of the Milky Way is bright (Juan’s first time to see it) and a huge meteor streaks across the sky lasting seconds (Juan’s first time again). Tonight the word “awe” is not exaggeration.

Heartfelt conversations occur spontaneously and a sense of love and acceptance is palpable. Community is happening. God’s presence is with us. We end our night with a lengthy time of reflection and group prayer. We reflect on God’s sovereign plan overriding the plans we make, and how his turn out to be better. He is cultivating a sense of compassion in us and giving us insight into how the villagers live, why they end their day early (because it’s so dark) and why they get up so early (which I will describe in a minute).

The weather is nice, it has cooled off and there is a gentle breeze. The hinged wooden window covers of the church are all open and cross ventilating well. I am apprehensive about one thing, however. I will not have may CPAP machine to help me with my sleep apnea and severe snoring. Since I don’t want the students to hate me, I decide to sleep outside on a concrete slab under the stars. By midnight it is cold and I sleep fully dressed, even wearing my hiking boots. Other than Teresa who has a tarp, there are no blankets or sheets for anyone. It is the worst night’s sleep I can remember.

Around 2:00, the moon rises and something happens that is at the same time delightful and annoying. Roosters from all the village homes begin to crow at the lunar dawn. A loud one nearby to my right is answered by another far away to my left. One up the mountain joins in and is answered by another at the river bottom. It is a cacophony of commotion. They are a wanna-be wolves howling at the moon. The are wild satyrs playing mythical flutes, no, make that trumpets. I have glimpsed, and lived to tell about, the secret side of chicken subculture.

My alarm clock, the sun, rises at 5:30 and I cannot find the snooze button. Santos comes and invites us to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, corn tortillas, and refried beans. I drink a cup of warm milk, perhaps fresh from the cow. Soon our host from the city, Humberto, arrives in a pick up to help us charge our SUV’s battery. After “reading” the owner’s manual in Spanish, we finally deduce the location of what must be the blown fuse. It is a monster 120 amp fuse, and we have blown it. That’s a lot. We exchange raised eyebrows and say “dude” several times. Then, for reasons that are too boring to write, we are unable to get the old fuse out of its socket, and even if we could, there is no replacement. The joke of “How many electrical engineers does it take to change a fuse?” is right on the tip of my tongue, but the tension of the moment tells me I should keep quiet.

My thoughts at this point are that this SUV will never leave the village because a tow truck will not be able to pull it up and down the rutted hills that approximate a road. Instead, it will rot here as a monument to failed engineering projects. My name will be attached on a placard as the guy who left the parking lights on. This is unacceptable.

Could the rental car company send a mechanic? I will surely be fired from BU if I let us ride back to the city in the bed of Humberto’s pickup. Even if we are able to rent another car, is this going to set us so far back in our schedule that we are unable to recover? It’s time to improvise. Humberto and perhaps a dozen village boys stand watching and Spanish chatting in the shade as we try various fuse replacement kluges. Eventually, we get the idea to stuff the fuse holder with a copper braided solder wick that John (of course) has in his tool bag. Will this really work? Will it be able to handle the current? If the contact is intermittent, will it cause the SUV computer to shut down the engine?

With a few more prayers we try to start it again. The engine turns and it comes to life! Cheers erupt from the crowd, followed by relieved laughter. God has told us a joke. It’s an interactive kind of joke with some profound lessons imbedded. Two hours later we are back at the hotel, ready for a shower and a nap. We return tomorrow.