In An Imperfect World


So you don’t live in a utopian future. You don’t have anything to be embarrassed by there. Over eight percent fewer of us do than you’d imagined. There are many ways that the world is pretty good, despite everything we’ve been through. The world has capybaras, for example. And if that weren’t enough, we keep inventing new social media by which other people will send us pictures of capybaras. So that’s the baseline; as long as we have that, the world isn’t beyond hope.

But any of us can see ways the world might be better. It might be a little harder to spill things on shirts, for example. Or we might think of some quasi-verbal utterance other than “uh” and “uhm” to mark time while we’re speaking. For the variety. Maybe we could arrange for the first coffee mugs we drop and break to be the ugly ones with only-ever-funny-once jokes on them, instead of the souvenir ones from places that are gone. There are probably other things that would make life better, but those would see the most dramatic improvements.

It’s natural then to want to make the world a better place. It’s a dangerous pastime. You should think hard before you continue on in it. Consider: to make the world better, there has to be something wrong with it. If it would make the world better to have a more interesting variety of cupcakes available, that implies there aren’t enough interesting cupcakes already. Don’t go telling me there’s already plenty of interesting variety in vegan cookies, because while there may be, they’re still not cupcakes. And even if we have got the best imaginable state of one thing that doesn’t say anything about other things. Again, imagine we had our full complement of capybara photo access, but we never got to hear the theme to Secret Agent Man on the radio at the bagel shop ever again. Even happiness would be forever tainted by the thought of what was lost.

So fine if you figure something can be made better. The danger is there’s something already around that keeps it from being as good as it could be. Maybe that thing is already someone’s responsibility. Then trying to fix it means you’re telling that person they’ve screwed up so badly that someone has to come in and try fixing their mistakes. I don’t blame them wanting to slug you for that. How would you feel if someone pulled that on you? Exactly. Having to get within slugging range of someone to fix them has historically tempered the activity of people trying to fix up stuff, and made people think hard about what’s really worth improving. Advances in stick and other long-range poking and hitting technologies would have moved the balance of power to the status quo advocates. Or they would have, if the poking-and-hitting technologists didn’t see why they needed to make any advances in their product line, thank you. Internet activism makes it possible to try doing something about stuff that’s wholly outside of slugging range, which is why it’s so controversial and the results so mixed. On the one hand, people can be made instantly aware of what their state legislature is planning to do. On the other hand, what we mostly react to is a sassy put-down by the Instagram account of Jo-Ann’s Fabric.

And then there are things that could be better but that nobody’s actually responsible for. This is even more dangerous to try improving. If a particular person’s responsible for a thing, at least trying to improve it is only an attack on that person. If nobody’s responsible, then trying to improve it is an implicit declaration that everybody has failed to address the shortcoming. Everybody has reason to feel attacked by you. And you can’t stay outside of slugging range of everybody forever. They can catch you when you try to pick up your mail at least.

If you enjoy the life of danger, then, go ahead. It can be thrilling stuff and maybe you will make something better. But it’s going to cost you some happiness too. And this is the great thing about living in a non-utopian society. You can be sad about the thing that’s not right, or be sad about trying to make it right. It’s up to you how you break your heart.

Now that I’ve explained it, do I hope that’s made anything better?

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index rose another ten points today as analysts missed that now there’s somehow two houses on the block throwing out sofas now and how do they get all these sofas to put out on the street? Whatever’s going on can’t be any good and yet somehow they’re not worried about this. Yet.

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In The Long Term


It’s about time for some long-range planning, considering how well we’re doing with the short-range stuff. If you don’t agree, come back in about ten minutes and see if it’s time then. I’m thinking of really long term, not like those geology folks who think 1,625 million years is a fair stretch. I want something big.

As you go out long enough, the Sun is going to continue shining. This might sound controversial, but remember that we’ve almost completely amortized the costs of constructing the Sun. All we’re responsible for now is basic maintenance and upkeep. Even if we wanted to replace it with a more modern design it’d hardly be economical. And besides, the contemporary zoning regulations would make it really annoying to build the necessary falsework for a replacement to the Sun.

Now the thing about the Sun shining is that all that light falling down exerts pressure on the ground. Light hasn’t got any mass, being possessed of low self-esteem as a child when it might have formed some. But it does carry momentum, being unable by temperament to say no when asked to carry some momentum somewhere. When the light hits the ground and is absorbed or bounces off it pushes the ground down as surely as hitting it with tennis balls would, only without line judges. This is never a lot of push, but it is there all across the daylight half of the globe, and that adds up to a fair-sized push.

Imagine the Earth to be made of Play-Doh. This is a metaphor: it is actually made of peanut butter. But if you take a gob of Play-Doh out of its can you can lose all focus while you absorb that strange plymer smell. Please try to be productive through that. While enjoying the smell roll the Play-Doh into a ball and then set it down. It will not stay a round ball forever. Even before other people in the house take it to build their own projects, the continual pull of gravity will spread it out. This takes time, but we have that time. There’s probably billions of years of time you haven’t scheduled anything for yet, but still won’t be able to get around to writing that novel you have in mind.

Earth isn’t sitting inactively on a table. This is a good thing as the temptation to hit it with a giant pool cue would be nearly irresistible. Nor is it sitting in a giant chicken nest, again good for everyone who worries about stuff hatching from underneath them. But while the pressure of sunlight is flattening the Earth, the Earth is also rotating. This implies all that sunlight has the same effect of rolling a ball of Play-Doh on the ground: it’s going to roll out into a long, thin pole.

There’s no denying this is a long-term fate, but I warned you about that four hundred words ago. As the rolling effect will continue eventually the Earth with be a pole world. Long enough at this and the Earth will just a few inches wide and enormously long swinging around the solar system like a baton. Imagine the size of the matching cheerleader.

What can we expect life on this Pole World Earth to be like? Narrower, for one. There will be evolutionary pressures towards plants with very shallow roots, which means we may at last be free of those impossible-to-remove lawn weeds. It will be difficult for trees to grow tall, but those which manage will find to their photosynthetic delight that spreading their branches even a couple inches to either side means they get sunlight all day long. Probably that’s good for plants. You can’t imagine them getting worn out from too much sunlight and sneaking off to a corner, exhausted and panting from all that sugar-making.

While burrowing life forms will find life difficult, those which are comfortable living on vines or branches will be in good shape. Two- and three-fingered sloths may find the climate most comfortable except when someone wants to pass.

Humans will need to adjust as well. Those with long experience in grabbing poles, as they may have on buses or subways, will have an advantage, of course. Thus we see in large-city mass transit systems as evolutionary pre-adaptations to the future Pole World Earth. Subtle foreknowledge of this fate and the privileged position city-dwellers will have may account for the smugness often held against the urbanized.

Yet subways will have long since ceased to run by then, probably by the time the world is a pretty long rod only about fifty feet in diameter since trains need more clearance than you would have guessed. Not a lot more, just like another two feet or so more. But that’s still more. Without subways we can expect the economy to be radically different and generally much more cylindrical. Strong but lightweight straps could reasonably be in demand, but on the other hand people may just grow steeper arches in their feet. This is why it is so hard to predict the distant future.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index continued to rise as traders discussed how they could adjust their lifestyles to be more like a capybara’s, and word that it involved a lot of staying in comfortably warm pools of water really worked for people.

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In Which I Am Surprised How Little Time British People Leave Tea Bags In


I’d been reading Marcus du Sautoy’s The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey Through Everyday Life because I still haven’t decided whether to make an inter-library loan request for Martin Albrow’s Bureaucracy or just to give up on the idea of fun altogether. Or whether I mean David Beetham’s Bureaucracy instead.

Anyway, de Sautoy gets going in a right jaunty chapter about how tea bag shapes were revolutionized in the 1990s when Tetley thought to try “circular” and it was incredibly popular. And PG had to think very hard about a shape not so fusty and old-fashioned as “mostly square I guess”. But the book mentioned part of the design challenge was how long the average British tea-maker left the bag in the hot water. Apparently it’d be as little as twenty seconds, short enough that in the mostly-square-I-guess bags not even all the tea leaves would get wet.

It’s left me stunned. I grew up with the American fashion of making tea, which is to put the bag into the water and leave it there forever. The only reason we ever throw out a mug is because it’s gotten stuffed full of spent tea bags, jammed into a dense mass of compressed diamond-like sourness. But I know that’s extreme. I hadn’t realized that the British way of making tea was so extreme on the other side. It’s left me wondering how tea was ever rationed, back in the day. It seems like even in the heights of wartime and Austerity Britain rationing they could’ve satisfied everyone’s tea tastes by just shipping a cardboard box labelled “tea” with instructions to bump it against the teapot three times before serving.

This is the eternal joy of learning: it makes you realize how little you understand the world.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

Investor confidence returned today when traders found a bunch of pictures of capybaras, including a bunch that are all other animals resting on top of capybaras that don’t seem phased by this at all, and now everybody also wants to be a capybara.

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