Monday, September 23, 2002  

Infinity: The Christ of Mathematics

Humans have a historic and insatiable appetite for the abstract. Even while our most visible actions are motivated by unthinking survival, it is in that place of introspection that trends towards the more esoteric where we make our most visible progress. It’s in the altruistic ideas of our social conscious. It’s in the vague and ornate language of our laws and constitutions. It’s in our uniform drive for material acquisition, for educational degrees, for an existence that transcends this life of toil and effort. All of it lives just past the indelible bounds of primitive need and calculable science in that space beyond reason; a place of the intangible and the abstract.

That is the story of Religion; and to a lesser degree, The Holy Spirit; and to a lesser degree still, Christ.

In matters of the body we are certain. We live. We breathe. We eat. We sleep. We accumulate consumer debt and populate statistics on buyer trends. We die. But the matters of the spirit are scarcely so definable. There are souls and karmas. There are sins and retributions. There are ideas called names like faith and deliverance all living on a timeline of never-degrading persistence called eternity. I mean this is abstraction, folks. This is not about meat and potatoes, hunting and gathering, or Ford recalls on Firestone tires. This is the great beyond overseen by an omnipotent being of boundless love and forgiveness. I don’t know about you, but this makes me feel important. This delve into the abstract makes this other stuff seem simple. Mortgage payments, serial homicide, checking account fees…all trivial when compared to that conglomeration of undeterminable size known as “The Big Picture”.

And I am O.K. with this because this is not revolution I am talking about here. People far smarter than me that are actually credited with being thinkers have thought and rethought this to death…sometimes literally. We all know the origins of casual religious belief and have made up our minds. I just bring it up as evidence of our obsessive abstractionism.

There is a mathematical concept that we are all familiar with: Infinity. When I was a kid, Infinity was that ultimate weapon of measured escalation…it was the peacemaker, the final say. Later, I learned about it in algebra and in business calculus. Suddenly, Infinity became more than an incomprehensible quantity. It was a concept beyond extrapolation or even approach. Talk about abstract…this thing was the crown jewel of abstraction. This was unsettling to me because mathematics is supposed to be, more often than not, an area of the absolute. It was right or wrong, black or white with an infinitesimal margin for error. But then this concept, this abstract notion came along. Eventually I got my 3 credit hours, my four grade points, and decided that the failings of using abstract philosophy as a tenent of fundamental mathematics was something best left to the mathematicians.

Once outside the sphere of academic relevance I figured my dealings with Infinity would fall back to the usual, limited level. But like the living proof of some theorem about object proximity and energy intensity, I couldn’t shake it. This concept of Infinity stuck with me. It grew from being a concept about lazy number accumulation into an emotion. It was the human differential, that margin between the stark cold nothingness of exponentially expanding integers and the warmth of trust, of love, of sex in intimate positions.

Apparently I have not labored alone in this idea.

I saw a television commercial for SBC communication. It was narrated by Tommy Lee Jones whose voice is the very illusion of trust. He has dressed up and lied to me about his identity countless times, and each time I gave him $6 for the pleasure. And in that fantasy I came to trust that his various identities told the truth, even if it was a truth I didn’t want to know. The television ad’s concept was about how SBC is a big company and that is not a bad thing. They aren’t going to steal your pension, deflower your teenage daughter, or force you into games of mortal chance. They just want to sell you phone service or, at the very least, let you know they sell it to everyone else. But the message is about trust, and not just trust, but Infinite Trust. In the span of a 30 second ad they took this lifeless and broad concept of hopeless abstraction and turned it into an emotive condition.

This proved one thing to me …with the right blend of slick ad copy, well shot film footage, and venerable voice talent you can transform the abstract into the emotional and make the hearts of the masses your playground.

posted by Mike | 12:54 PM

Monday, September 09, 2002  

The Memory of Spiders

Arachnophobia does not appear on my roster of phobias. Coulrophobia– Fear of Clowns, yes I have that one. Iatrophobia – Fear of Doctors, got that one too. But nowhere in my repertoire of irrational fear will you find the fear of spiders.

I think that the spider is an amazing quirk of science and I scarcely understand what factors of progress and evolution caused this species into being. But I respect them and, as such, I am not overcome with a panicked urge to kill them on sight except in those cases when I recognize it as the variety of spider that has venom powerful enough to kill a Backstreet Boy. Note: I do this more as a effort to safeguard my environment than a desire to make my property safe for boy bands.

Around our house word has apparently gotten out that Haddon won’t kill you. Because since moving in our house has become a gathering ground for spiders of all shapes and sizes. They have yet to reach a population of epidemic or even bothersome proportions, but there are quite a few spinning webs at dusk and into the evening hours. I understand what benefits they have in the Haddon Ecology so I leave them to go about their life, which in the grand scheme of things is not too long. The only time I will ever intentionally bother the spider is when he is building a web in one of my main traffic paths. Even then, I don’t kill him, I just urge him to relocate his planned construction to a zone more life-friendly.

I begin to notice something amazing about these spiders: I only have to tell them once, and not even all of them. If I come across a spider doing his thing in an area I think will be bad for the both of us, I redirect him and he is on his way. Presumably the spider is smart enough to make his home in the most advantageous spot available- the place with the highest kill potential such as near a light where the bugs fly or near taller grass where the grasshoppers jump. So it would stand to reason that as soon as I shoo a spider along from this prime real estate another would come along promptly to take his spot causing me to begin anew this spider relocation process. But it doesn’t happen this way. In fact, I don’t even have to re-educate a different variety of spider, just one and they don’t come back (except for the next year and that is a whole new generation so you expect that, One life lesson every generation…not so bad I must admit).

The societal memory of spiders amazes me and makes me think about how we all make similar if not the exact same mistakes over and over. Even though folks laying on the scrapheap scream their precautions, we never see the web-stitched marker that says DO NOT BUILD; our spidey-sense never tingles and tells us to seek out new ground where we have a better chance to succeed. We make the same mistakes- not just generation after generation, but intra-generation as well. Evolution teaches us some powerful lessons.

posted by Mike | 1:44 PM
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