Pay Artists, Don’t Buy Art

Imagine a world where artists, rather than selling their artwork, were instead paid for their time; paid to work on art with other artists.

Imagine collaborative art projects with dozens, hundreds, or sometimes thousands of artists working together on large projects — imagine each artist being so well compensated that they give their solo work away for free.

Imagine large repositories of open art, free to all, to borrow and use for any sort of new project — friendships would be made, ideas would be born, and every artist could stand soundly on the shoulders of all those that came before — a culture would emerge where artists contribute to these vast and growing repositories of open art.

Imagine an economy where artists are in demand; teams of recruiters would persistently track every artist and seek to hire them for some collaboration or another. New graduates would be poached quickly, invited to join large art projects to work with the masters.

Imagine that as the demand grew, opportunities and new economic models would also grow, keeping all artists in constant demand, even as new people enter the field — a little talent and dedication would go a long way — it would not be a zero-sum game, it would be a continually growing field of artistic achievement, where we create the new economies necessary for the future to survive.

Venture capitalists would seek out groups of talented artists and pay them obscene amounts to start projects — imagine that an project would go on for years without any attempt at seriously monetizing the work, imagine money pouring in with only a vague sense that, “if this works, we’ll figure out how to make money later”.

Obviously, this imagined fantasy sounds absurd in the fine art world — today, galleries and artists do everything they can to sell “works of art” exclusively to buyers. Art is proprietary and unshared. To the winner go the spoils, to the loser nothing. This is a field where very few make a living, fewer still attain fame or fortune, and even fewer will (typically after their death) transform society through their art.

But this imagined fantasy, it does exist, this is exactly what the world looks like to the technologists, scientists, and artists that have birthed the Internet and the modern field of software development. From simple web pages to streaming media, smart phones and app stores — to social upheaval and ecommerce, society is continuously transforming — civilization is growing faster and faster as these technological artists create new economies and new opportunities.

We pay technological artists, we pay them for their time, and they are increasingly in demand.

By comparison the fine art world looks rotten to its core, as if it’s intent on poisoning its own future — this isn’t even a controversial statement — what is controversial is proposing an alternative.

At first blush we may think that artists are different from creative technologists. Even if that were true would it justify the abysmal treatment of art and artists in our culture?

Artists of all variety; musicians, painters, photographers, poets, … all of them offer a mix of creativity and skill — a blend of creative insight with technical execution. This is the life and soul of all art.

Today the technological talents are drawn to the forefront of change in society, shaping the future. Meanwhile, the non-technological artists are… relegated to the whims of a buyers fancy. The fine art economy is barely distinguishable from antique collecting, not exactly a space that nurtures innovation.

The future is being created now, and you won’t glimpse the future in modern art galleries.

Think about it — what will privacy look like in just a few years? What will governments look like in the future? What will corporations look like in the future? All of this is changing right now, and none of it in galleries.

Governments are being toppled, civilization and culture are changing faster than ever, if the artists are not the technologists then where– in the forefront of this rapidly changing civilization –are the artists?

Fortunately, there’s another way to look at this — the world is changing, the artists are fundamental to this change — they are not yet being compensated with the same demand of, say, software developers. Not yet.

Every day that an artists chooses to sell to a rich buyer, to partner with galleries and sell to the aristocratic whims of collectors — then that is another day our culture has failed to nurture art as an integral part of the social change that is happening, now.

Support art, pay artists, invest in artists, and stop buying artwork.

Revolutions

HavanaHavana, Cuba — Quiet, peaceful, and relaxing; there is a gentle ocean-air breeze– fawning playful nymphs dancing with the wind and water.

Island culture– there is so much potential in every smile and every laugh.

There is no perfect society, no perfect system, but perhaps there is the best in this moment.

If you struggle today hoping for a better tomorrow, have you not merely sown the seeds for tomorrows struggle?

We create the next moment continuously from the seeds of the present moment. The more I live, the more I travel, the more I realize that conflict produces only more conflict.

Often a conflict ends from the exhaustion of one side or another, usually both, then you have no peace– just exhaustion.

While there is no perfect society, there is a perfection in each moment; not yesterday, not tomorrow, but now — simply to make the best of the moment. In every moment there exists the divine; the actuality of the moment — it cannot exist anywhere else.

Engage with profound awareness in the world around you; recognize that you are this moment, the perception of the world as separate from you is an illusion — for who is perceiving? It is simply the universe reacting to itself, in only an abstract sense are you a component of that reaction.

The tree, the bushes, the wind upon your cheek, the lover lost in thought; all things you perceive are you — most literally abstractions in your head, and most profoundly all part of the motion of the universe, which if you like, is easily abstracted as “you”.

This is true of everything, there is no non-arbitrary division or separation between you as the perceiver and you as the thing perceived.

The perfect system, the ideal utopian civilization is easily understood with this awareness — do not be surprised if utopia is nothing but a euphoric calm, or a loving kindness, or a profound and simple freedom from suffering.
IMG_8774
Any change may be possible, yet only without suffering can we attain growth and prosperity. Otherwise we are simply repeating our suffering: the same tired conflicts and divisiveness, the same endless revolution after revolution.

Airbnb’s NYC woes

airbnbYou’ve been following the airbnb legal battles in NYC, right?

As a local host I’ve been following these issues closely. I organize a local Airbnb group for West Village hosts, and in that group this has become a very sensitive topic. Airbnb organizers and various corporate representatives have met with us NYC hosts to discuss these issues.

Despite plenty of rhetoric, there is an ever widening grey area in this debate.

It seems pretty clear that the majority of NYC Airbnb hosts are doing business in good conscience, earning extra money to get by in a very costly city (where rent has been increasing much faster than income), and now they’re being caught in the legal crossfire.

To be fair; neither Airbnb, nor the city or state of New York have delineated a clear line between illegal hotels and locals with a room to rent. Unfortunately, this line is increasingly blurring as more and more money enters the picture.

Today I saw this: I Bought an Apartment Just to Rent Out on Airbnb. Maybe that’s a great idea, although if you’re in New York don’t get too excited, the market is already a bit crowded.

Here’s what’s actually going on: People in NYC are cashing in on this, and an increasing number are doing so illegally. The top Airbnb hosts in NY account for the bulk of all Airbnb NYC revenue. As the NYTimes piece points out the top hosts “have each grossed at least $400,000 over the past three years”. More and more we’re seeing individuals renting several units and turning them into Airbnb rentals. These aren’t exactly people struggling to get by.

So while the legal issue remains clear as mud, what do we know?

Share Economy?

At every Airbnb sponsored meeting someone will bring this up. In a nutshell, this is the future, it’s a revolutionary share economy, man.

It’s very tempting to take a hippie, neo-socialist, pay-it-forward kind of attitude when discussing Airbnb and it’s “share economy”.

But from someone with an active CouchSurfing and Airbnb profile, let’s be very clear — this isn’t CouchSurfing, Airbnb is straight up free market capitalism. This isn’t sharing resources in a gift-economy and feeling worldly about our shared humanity, this is unregulated hyper-capitalism. We are unapologetically monetizing resources and charging prices based on a very favorable demand-curve. This is as definitively “selling out” as you can possible get, and it’s par for the course in todays “entrepreneurial” overdrive.

But this isn’t true for most of the New York hosts, right? We’re just getting by, we’re making some money on Airbnb and it helps us live in New York. We are, at most, part-time hobby capitalists in this game.

What will happen when this unregulated market grows beyond the lucrative demand-curve and the supply evens out? If you’re profiting today on Airbnb, what will you do when the professional capitalists take over? In the game of “selling out” there will be lots of people willing to do much more selling out than a hobbyist. And historically, free markets never stay free when completely unregulated (they tend to be cornered by whomever was best at selling out).

Bad Actors?

This is the term Airbnb and the city and state of New York refer to as being responsible for these problems. These are the illegal hotels and profiteers who essentially compete with hotels without having to pay hotel taxes, and inadvertently drive up the cost of rent for everyone else (taking apartments off the rental market and putting them in a hotel market).

What is a Bad Actor exactly? Airbnb won’t say. The city won’t say. The state won’t say. Airbnb is doing very little to root out obvious bad actors, possibly because bad actors are very profitable and without a legal definition there’s no incentive to stop them.

Ask the person renting out a spare room as an alternative to roommates; a bad actor is everyone renting out their entire apartment.

Ask the person who rents their entire apartment; a bad actor is someone who has multiple apartments, not like them, who only rent out their apartment occasionally while they shack up somewhere else. It’s a part-time thing.

Ask the person who rents multiple apartments; a bad actor is the building owner who no longer rents out their apartments to locals but instead rents the available units to tourists on Airbnb.

Ask the building owner, a bad actor is the tenant renting out their apartments on Airbnb in clear violation of city ordinance and zoning laws (attracting unwanted attention in a city where building ordinances are routinely ignored).

In truth, all of the above are happening — and as expected in a hyper-capitalist market, it’s growing fast and people are “moving up” so-to-speak to higher and higher levels of this vaguely defined, “Bad Actor”. The person who starts out occasionally renting their place very quickly will realize that they can pay their entire months rent after a week or so of Airbnb rental. It’s hard not to rent another place when things are so lucrative.

Safety?

You’ll hear often that Airbnb rentals do not meet the basic safety requirements of a hotel. Which is kind of weird, because that’s essentially saying that New Yorkers live in unsafe buildings.

How exactly does this work? If you’re a tourist, staying in NYC means you’ll be guaranteed a sprinkler system, a functioning fire-safety plan, and safety conscious building inspections. But if you’re a New Yorker, go fuck yourself.

If residential buildings are not considered safe enough for tourists to rent, the solution should not be to ban tourists from staying in these buildings while willfully ignoring the safety of tax-paying residents — the solution is to make all buildings safe.

There may be a safety problem in New York buildings, but let’s not pretend that’s the same issue as Airbnb rentals.

$$$

In the end, this is of course about money. Who in New York City will profit? And will anyone get screwed over?

Ideally, a reasonable definition of Bad Actor will be defined and enforced to protect those most vulnerable who really do need something like Airbnb to make ends meet. There are plenty of wonderful stories out there, and at some point it does start to remind me of CouchSurfing (but with money, so, not really).

The risks though are quite apparent. Airbnb is a for-profit corporation who is enjoying incredible revenue growth, they have little to no incentive to help out vulnerable New Yorkers. Additionally, there are powerful special interest groups, and of course lots of potential taxes for the city and state to levy. Then there are the opportunistic and greedy entrepreneurs that will not think twice about taking an apartment off the rental market for consumption by tourists.

And ultimately there are many tourists who would love to come to New York and stay in an affordable apartment and live like a New Yorker.

Nowhere in this mess of conflicting interests is a concern for those New Yorkers who are struggling to make ends meet. Personally, I’m hoping a reasonable legal definition will emerge before this whole thing is killed by it’s own hyper-capitalist growth. Because obviously this is a city full of reasonable people who will put the greater good in front of their own short term investment interests… well, maybe things will accidentally fall together amidst the irrational chaos and greed, there’s hope!

In a Dream

In a Dream by timwarnock

In a dream I heard the gurus talking with the anti-gurus, about inner gurus and outer gurus. There were priests and philosophers, holy men with flowing robes. There was much worship and ritual, talk of enlightenment and how to breath.

“Breathing”, I thought, I’m doing it wrong.

The dream reminded me of the psychonaut splendor of a drug induced mind. Altered states of consciousness, doors of perception swinging to-and-fro. The kind of experience that teaches a profound lesson: there are different states of consciousness, different ways of thinking, different methods of thought.

“Thinking”, I thought, I’m doing it wrong.

Can I awaken from this dream? To awaken, a mind needs not drugs nor gurus nor rituals. That’s all part of the dream. The mind need only awaken from its dream of ego, the thought of self. The mind can easily function without the thought of self, try it, let it go; and with it the gurus and drugs and rituals effortlessly fall away.

If it persists then nourish the thought of self such that it knows it is but a thought, and become as the dreamer dreaming — a wakened lucid dream — follow every desirous path of ecstasy and pleasure, all the way to transcendence.

I am the dreamer dreaming. I try and try to awaken from this dream, but the dreamer cannot awaken, for the dreamer is the dream, and ceases to be when awake.

In blissful silence the mind awakens, the dream ceases, and for that eternal moment, there is no dreamer.

There are no drugs nor gurus nor rituals that match such a state. It is a bliss of “breathing” and “thinking” in effortless harmony such that if there were still a dreamer, the dreamer would think, “this is right”.

Who is it that is Aware?

Who is Aware? by timwarnock

We often claim to be self aware. But who is the self that is aware? And what exactly is this self aware of?

Think of all that we do not see, the entirety of the electromagnetic spectrum, the microscopic life, the contouring space-time from gravity. Beyond the boundaries of the universe, beyond space and time, we have no awareness at all, but only mystified speculation — just imagine the infinitude of existence invisible to our perceptions. Our mind can know only what our mind can know; a near infinite potential in a potentially infinite cosmos.

Awareness is merely the function of the mind. It is as useful as color vision, and equally arbitrary in its mental mapping. Awareness is the razors edge of the perceiving mind, it cuts and abstracts memory and sensory input, creating concepts, creating "things" — "things" separate and divisible from other "things". Obviously this is a necessary function of a mind; imagine seeing an apple in a tree, perceiving it as a separate "thing" is quite helpful (especially if you’re hungry). But is it so separate? To a creature that eats only leaves, think how beautiful the individual leaves must appear, leaves that are the healthiest to eat might appear in brilliant tasty hues; to such a creature, the apple may appear no more interesting than the bark appears to us.

If you believe you are aware of the outside world, then consider that your perceptions exists only as a function of your mind, perception is just as much of a thought as the thought of "I", or the thought of duality that separates the "I" thought from the thought of "awareness".

All thoughts are movements of a mind that is fundamentally connected and inseparable from the universe that the mind attempts to perceive.

For this reason it is often said that self, or "I", is an illusion. But what does that mean? It is one thing to understand this in theory, and quite another to experience it directly in the totality of action. It means that this sentence, as you read and even hear a narrating voice, is in your head, reactions to sensory input combining with memories and learned skills; it is a beautiful flow state. All thoughts and emotions follow this same pattern, continuous reactions concocting sensory input with memories, temperament, and beliefs. The mind is an amazingly flexible mechanism to filter and concoct sensory input and memories, forming abstractions that serve as a custom representation of reality (which changes in each moment) — what a wondrous movement of energy!

What does it mean for a mind to be aware of the illusion of ego, of "I", the illusion of awareness itself? Can you be aware that “you” and “awareness” are illusionary? It is perhaps like a dream where you know you are dreaming, a lucid dream in an otherwise wakened state; with this understanding consciousness cannot be the same, how could it? How easy it becomes to let thoughts come and go, to think naturally and breath naturally.

The only thing you need to do, the only thing you can do, is to be aware that everything that is, is now; and that "you", and even your awareness, are illusions– and the truth, that which is beyond mere thoughts and speculation, is experienced. Truth is not a divisible thought– how could a thought capture what is beyond thought– instead truth is realized in the totality of actions of the non-dualistic mind. Ego thoughts may come and go, inversely as the bliss of being comes and goes. There is wisdom in realizing– deeply and profoundly, and not just intellectually– the nature of these illusions; and to think freely, a lightness and bliss in every breath.

Most of us feel the pressing need to learn the truth of our existence, yet we often ignore what is already known and knowable, sometimes preferring the cognitive dissonance of dogmatic ideologies to the rapturous awe and uncertainty of the universe — the very universe that we are part of and one with; including the illusionary "I am aware" thought.

The Library is Transcendental

The Library is Transcendental by timwarnock

The Library of Congress has over 34 million books (and over 150 million items) — meanwhile, I read maybe 50-60 books in a single year. In my lifetime I will read only a few thousand books. Even the most voracious readers, reading several books a day, will consume far less than one-tenth of one-percent of the books available at the Library of Congress.

This is over 800 miles of bookshelves.

For perspective: 10-feet of bookshelves will cover what you might read in your entire lifetime (assuming you live a long life) — that’s it, just ten paces through even a small local library.

Even the smartest among us, with superior memory and astonishing talents of speed reading, will cover 50 or 100 feet of bookshelves; that is far less than what is currently in stock at your local library.

But we don’t have to read every page, right? I know the story of Treasure Island but I never had time to read it. We may know of 100-times more books than we have actually read. But even then, we still haven’t left the local library. All the books you have ever heard of (and will ever hear of) is but a tiny fraction of the books available.

Think of all those stories you will never read; the echoes from our past, the tragic love stories, the historic lessons and the vast wisdom that guides humanity forward.

Think of all the stories you will never know exist. Think of the books that you and everyone around you have never heard of, stories loved by people elsewhere, whose lives were changed by reading those books. Think of the books that would change your life but you will never know they exist.

In each of these books people from different cultures and ages are speaking to you, and you can hear only a tiny fraction of the stories told.

Such tragic beauty, I want to hug a librarian.

Fermi Paradox

In 1950, while walking to lunch, Enrico Fermi and his colleagues were discussing the probability of extraterrestrial life in the cosmos. Fermi and others contended, and logically so, that there must be many forms of life in the cosmos, even intelligent life. Later, during lunch, the conversation shifted to other topics; and then, as the story goes; Fermi asked, “Where is everybody?”

Given the immense size of the visible universe, the quadrillions of star systems, certainly there must be intelligent life that has either visited or colonized- so where is everybody? In other words, where is the evidence?

This is known as the Fermi Paradox.

There are many interesting ways to approach this problem. The Drake Equation has become a useful formula to organize some of the variables. Many of the variables are completely speculative, so there’s not yet an answer, but it can be used as a helpful starting point. For reference, using the Drake equation I estimated a 1.26% probability, per year, of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence. That is, every year we might find something, and given what we know so far, I estimated each year we have a 1.26% chance of making the discovery. Speculation at its best!

All the speculation and wishful thinking still runs into this same paradox.

There is much discussion and wonderful speculations concerning this question; many attempt to dispel the various parochial biases (that is, using ourselves as the definition of intelligent life). It is very reasonable to wonder if the entire electromagnetic spectrum (not just distant radio waves) is alive with evidence of advanced civilizations and we simply have not yet understood the message. Perhaps it’s all around us all the time, perhaps the very laws of physics are covered in these messages.

But let’s be honest, that is not what we are hoping to discover– we are looking for life similar to ours, we are looking for the parochial-biased life that looks more like us than our own terrestrial relatives.

We don’t want to find a near omnipotent space sponge that takes thousands of years to say “hello”. We want to find cosmic brothers and sisters and other familial relations that developed independently in the universe. Hell, according to most science fiction, we want them to look attractive… green skin, if it’s sexy.

Just as every star produces heavier elements, we want other planets to produce idealized humanoids, or at least beings that think and communicate as we do.

What a strange way of extending our pathetic anthropic bias onto the cosmos.

It is as egocentric as assuming that we are the center of the universe — it is a perverse and distorted way of putting humanity back into cosmic religious significance; the pompous assumption that life, somehow, leads to human-like intelligence. The truth is quite opposite, it is not humans that are significant to the cosmos, it is the cosmos that is significant to humans. We depend on the cosmos, the cosmos does not depend on us.

Consider all the varied forms of intelligent-life on earth. We can barely recognize the intelligence of other primates, let alone other mammals; and we even have a hard time recognizing the intelligence of our own species, most of the time. For example, we see little intelligence in politics, in television programming, or even in most art and music– most of us discover a rare drop of wisdom in a sea of noise. And yet the earth is exploding constantly in life, and we ignore it while looking up into empty space hoping to find intelligent friends.

But let’s run with our anthropic bias for a minute, let’s not judge, let’s see where it takes us. Maybe the Fermi Paradox can help us forward, if it’s not something we can discover, perhaps it’s what we ourselves can become.

We use radio waves and attempt to find human-like aliens who would also be using radio waves. So far we’ve found no signs of human-like life, and certainly no signs of advanced human-like intelligence- but you need not look very hard to discover the lack of advanced human-like intelligence, consider the following:

When we see unspoiled and untouched land, what do we do? This is the best part of an anthropic bias, we don’t need to ask the Dodo birds, we know exactly what we would do!

If we had the power to create a string of stars that spelled out a message, even a stupid message, we would absolutely do so; imagine what we could build if we could move the stars. If we had the ability, we would illuminate our existence bright and clear for the rest of the universe to see for millions of years… if we could.

If we could we would create a series of dancing pulsars that rhythmically play an endless orchestra, we would do this for no other reason than to state, simply, “we were here”. Everywhere we go, everything we touch, we leave evidence, and the evidence gets brighter and louder the more technologically advanced we become.

At present, we see no alien hieroglyphs in the lonely stars.

We can’t do any of that ourselves, because we don’t yet know how. We do know how to send faint radio waves, we’d turn it up if we knew how. But we easily imagine advanced civilizations that could move stars– the very things we would do if we could, we see no evidence of… we see empty space; untouched snow that no one has stepped in or spoiled in any way.

A beautiful untouched silence, think of what we could do! A blank cosmic canvas.

If we could we would build a bright light to inspire all intelligent life, a beacon; exactly as we do in every environment we touch, we shape it in ways to mark our existence. On dangerous coastlines we shine a bright light. And into this dangerous cosmos where we could easily perish, we ought to build a beacon of hope as an inspiration to all life that intelligence can ascend beyond its own destruction.

Some wonder whether our technology will be our end. We write more doomsday mythology than optimistic future mythology. We are far past the point of turning back, without technology we will perish with certainty. And with technology we might perish by our own hand, and yet that same technology could be used to shine brightly as a constant reminder that it’s possible to survive and flourish; that it’s possible to live peacefully, part of and one with the cosmos itself.

That silly anthropic bias, imagine the alien message that if discovered would solve the Fermi Paradox; imagine the advanced technology, even sexy aliens; what we imagine is a reflection of ourselves and our undying aspirations for what we hope to become. We are shrouded with doomsday mythologies, but our technology is the sliver of hope in this pandoras box of chaos and cosmos.

We can and should light our beacons of hope, we can and should burn brightly into the cosmic night.

What happens when I read the Sophist

This is what happens when I read the Sophist by Plato; on almost every page I would hope for something like this:

STRANGER: There are some who imitate, knowing what they imitate, and some who do not know. And what line of distinction can there possibly be greater than that which divides ignorance from knowledge?

THEAETETUS: There can be no greater.

STRANGER: Was not the sort of imitation of which we spoke just now the imitation of those who know? For he who would imitate you would surely know you and your figure?

THEAETETUS: Naturally.

STRANGER: And what would you say of the figure or form of justice or of virtue in general? Are we not well aware that many, having no knowledge of either, but only a sort of opinion, do their best to show that this opinion is really entertained by them, by expressing it, as far as they can, in word and deed?

** PUNCH **

STRANGER: OW!

STRANGER: …

STRANGER: Did you just punch me in the face?

THEAETETUS: Yes, in the nose.

STRANGER: That REALLY hurt!

THEAETETUS: Sorry, but I had a “justified true belief” that punching you in the face would finally make this interesting.

STRANGER: I think my nose is bleeding…

THEAETETUS: I’ve been saying “yes”, and “very true” for over an hour now and you haven’t communicated anything of testable value. You’ve assumed a definition of knowledge and seem to be under the impression that we can arrive at absolute truth which would somehow settle further inquiry. You’ve provided not a single conjecture that I, or anyone listening, could ever evaluate, test, or even attempt to falsify.

STRANGER: But why did you punch me in the face?! That really hurt!

THEAETETUS: You’re right, that was uncalled for. Please, go on using sophistry to tell me why sophistry is bad.

But that never happened.

Here’s something fun, filter out everything Theaetetus says throughout the entire dialogue, here’s a section:


THEAETETUS: Yes.
THEAETETUS: True.
THEAETETUS: Certainly.
THEAETETUS: True.
THEAETETUS: What do you mean, and how do you distinguish them?
THEAETETUS: Very true.
THEAETETUS: True.
THEAETETUS: Yes.
THEAETETUS: Yes, it is often called so.
THEAETETUS: By all means.
THEAETETUS: True.
THEAETETUS: True.
THEAETETUS: Most true.
THEAETETUS: Certainly.
THEAETETUS: To be sure.
THEAETETUS: True.
THEAETETUS: Granted.
THEAETETUS: Very true
THEAETETUS: There are certainly the two kinds which you describe.
THEAETETUS: Very good.
THEAETETUS: By all means.
THEAETETUS: Undoubtedly.

Perhaps out of boredom, or perhaps I was just trying to distract myself from hoping the stranger gets punched in the face, I wondered if every “True” and “Very true” could be deciphered as some kind of code or riddle- maybe there is a hidden message encoded in his inane and repetitive affirmations. Or maybe I’m just desperately looking for something of value in this book…

Anyway, this is not a dialogue (as we use the word), but instead a diatribe against sophists; ironically characterizing “sophists” for doing exactly what Plato, as the “stranger”, was doing via his dialectic approach.

At one point I had to stop because I thought maybe I was reading a farcical comedy. I kept an open mind, but every page became harder and harder to get through. Hours of dialectic-glop and semantic entanglements. I’ll assume some of that was a problem of translation, but still, a punch in the face would have made things much more interesting.

grain-of-sand:earth

“The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.”
~ Carl Sagan

When I was young I would imagine that if the earth were the size of a baseball then perhaps the sun would be the size of a beach-ball and that they’d be about 20-ft (6 meters) apart at that scale. This seems about right, but it turns out to be very VERY wrong. If the earth was the size of a baseball, the sun would be almost 27-ft (8 meters) in diameter, already more than the distance I imagined separated the two. The distance between the baseball-size earth and the 27-ft diameter sun is about a half-mile.

In other words, imagine a ball that’s nearly three stories high, and you’d have to walk a half-mile to find a baseball-sized earth. The baseball:earth scale isn’t practical to construct a model.

But do astronomical models ever meaningful scale? That is, can we construct a scale model of the solar system and some nearby stars? Let’s see what happens.

Scale the earth down to a single grain of sand on the beach. Imagine a normal sandy beach like the one pictured above, and use an an average sand particle of about 1 mm, nothing exceptional.

At this grain-of-sand:earth scale, we would have a softball-size sun about 38-ft (12 meters) away from the grain of sand earth. This model would fit within most actual beaches, except on this beach, there’d only be 31 grains of sand that have been discovered so far (and four pieces of gravel, and a bunch of silt, but we’ll get to that).

Our moon on this scale would be about an inch away from the grain-of-sand earth, it would be an even smaller particle of sand. The furthest human beings have set foot is only one-inch on this beach.

Mars is another grain of sand, and its moons are so small they wouldn’t be visible, too small even to be called silt.

Jupiter would be 161-ft (49 meters) away from the grain-of-sand earth, but Jupiter would be too large to be considered sand, it would appropriately be called gravel. Jupiter would be the size of a small marble. About 50 meters away from the grain-of-sand earth is a marble-size Jupiter. This beach has four marbles revolving around a softball-size sun. Interestingly, there is more sand revolving around the marbles than there is sand revolving around the softball-size sun. Most of the objects on this beach are tiny bits of silt, i.e., particles too small to be considered grains of sand.

The furthest man-made object, the Voyager spacecrafts, would be far too microscopic to be visible on this beach, but these microscopic spacecraft would be almost a mile away from the softball-size sun.

The grain-of-sand-scale model so far is a pretty lonely beach. This beach would go about a mile inland, a vast and open beach with 31 grains of sand, four marbles of gravel, countless silt particles thrown about (most of it would be invisible to the naked eye). The English language has precise words for silt, sand, and gravel; unfortunately, for solar system objects the English language isn’t as discriminating. Astronomically, we lump gravel together with sand and if they happen to be spherical and revolve around a star we call them “planets”. Some grains of sand are not planets only because they revolve around gravel. A bit silly, and if you’ve ever wondered why Pluto isn’t considered a planet, remember that it’s smaller than Earth’s moon, and would barely be visible as a grain of sand on this scale. Debates about Pluto completely miss the point: our knowledge of the solar system is far deeper than “there are 9 planets, no wait, 8 planets”.

Looking at the grain-of-sand earth, this is about the smallest reasonable scale that we can model, and so far this model fills a one-mile radius. We can count 31 grains of sand, four marbles, and bands of silt revolving within a mile-radius around the softball-size sun.

And this is just our solar system, we’re not into the universe, not yet. Let’s venture out to the closest star.

On this grain-of-sand-scale, the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, would be a bit larger than a softball (about 5.3 inches in diameter). And if our lonely beach with a tiny handful of sand, silt, and gravel were in Los Angeles, then you’d have to walk all the way to Tennessee (somewhere between Memphis and Nashville) to get to Alpha Centauri.

Walking from Los Angeles to Tennessee is far but not unreasonable with basic provisions. Unfortunately, at this scale, the speed of light would also be scaled down. We tend to think that the speed of light is fast, but at this grain-of-sand-scale, the speed of light is slower than a sloth. It’s about 0.05 miles-per-hour, about 84 meters-per-hour (277 feet-per-hour). How long would it take a sloth to get from Los Angeles to Nashville? It doesn’t matter, because at this scale the sloth would be faster than light.

84 meters per hour, that’s the speed that light would travel at this tiny scale, and hence it would take over 16 hours to get across the beach (from the sun to the edge of the solar system).

Those Voyager spacecraft, on this grain-of-sand-scale, are traveling less than half-a-centimeter every hour. That is slower than bamboo grows. When you imagine the solar system, realize that these objects are so far apart that both light and gravity are moving at a snails-pace relative to the distances; and that these scaled down objects would move slower than a plant grows. How long would it take a plant to grow from Los Angeles to Nashville?

Let’s look at the night sky, what about the north star, Polaris?

On this grain-of-sand-scale, Polaris is much bigger than the softball-sized sun, it’s about 16-ft (almost 5 meters) in diameter, and it’d be about 321,000 km away … so even at this grain-of-sand-scale, even though we have to go cross-country to get to the nearest softball-size star, for other stars we’d leave the earth. In the case of Polaris we’d almost be to the moon, and we wouldn’t find a softball, we’d find a 16-foot diameter bolder representing Polaris.

And what about the larger objects in our galactic neighborhood, for example, the star Betelgeuse would be over 220-ft (67 meters) in diameter, 474,000 km away from the grain-of-sand earth. On a clear night you may be able to see the Andromeda galaxy, on our grain-of-sand-scale this Andromeda model would be so large as to fill our actual inner solar system, but it’d be 1.8 billion kilometers away. The brightest quasar viewable from earth, 3C 273, on a grain-of-sand scale would be 1.8 trillion kilometers away.

Even at this tiny scale, a model of the solar system fits within a mile-wide beach, but to model our neighboring stars we’d leave earth and our model becomes as large as the thing we’re trying to model.

The problem with scale models of astronomy is that we try to model the physical stuff and forget that the largest and most interesting thing to model is the empty space itself. The size of a solar system, the size of a galaxy; like our lonely beach with 31 particles of sand; it’s mostly empty space.

This is why astronomical models aren’t to scale, the range of size within human intuition is simply too narrow, we have to continually abstract and abstract and can lose our bearings on just how big and how far away these objects are. Fortunately, it is within the poetry of mathematics that we can artfully express these abstractions. Mathematics becomes the language to convey these otherwise non-intuitive concepts, opening the universe to intelligence beyond scaled models.

References

For this scaling, we’re using the following size descriptors:

  • Silt: 0.002 mm to 0.0625 mm
  • Sand: 0.0625 mm to 2 mm
  • Gravel: 2 mm to 64 mm

To simplify the scaling, imagine the earth is a 1mm grain of sand, this puts the earth:grain-of-sand scale at 12756200000 : 1

Using that scale,

  • A silt particle models any object 25 km to 797 km in diameter
  • A sand particle models any object 797 km to 25,512 km in diameter
  • A piece of gravel models objects up to 816,397 km in diameter

This gives us the following models,

  • Gravel: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune
  • Sand: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Luna, Mars, Ganymede, Titan,
  • Silt: Dysnomia, Chaos, Enceladus, Proteus, Hale-Bopp,

At this scale, the model of the Sun (which is 1.391 million km) is too large for gravel; and scaled down to 4.3 inches is about the size of a softball, but to keep with the metaphor we would call this a Cobble stone.

The Universal Beauty of Mathematics

When I hear someone say, “I hate math” or “I’m bad at math“, I cringe slightly, and respond almost embarrassed, “I like math, it’s quite beautiful“.

I sometimes go on to defend my belief that there is no useful difference between art, math, and science — none. I’ve had this conversation many times with many people.

Is math beautiful?

Most people seem to agree in theory — and I hear (all too common) stories involving painful memories of math classes. As if the beauty in mathematics is out of their reach, perhaps only beautiful to some nerd minority.

I remember my own math classes when I was young, and I cringe again.

The teaching of Mathematics, a language to express the ineffable beauty of existence, is reduced in classrooms everywhere to a painful Pavlovian conditioning of forced computation.

Imagine for a moment, that instead of teaching children to read and write, that we instead forced them to copy (like little drawing machines) printed books but only one letter of the alphabet at a time. Never learning to read, just forcing them to copy all the A’s on page, and then to copy all the B’s, and so on.

So a young student begins with the letter A and painfully fills in A’s on a blank sheet of paper attempting to match them to the A’s they see in a printed book.

Teachers hold up answer sheets to make sure the young students copied all the A’s and copied them to all the right places on their practice page.

This is a very good copy of the A’s,” the teacher will say.

And then as they get older they copy more and more letters, A’s, B’s, C’s and onward. We do not tell them why they are doing this, we do not tell them that these letters have any relation to their spoken language. And whenever a student asks why they have to do this, we tell them, “because I said so“.

Eventually, years later, a student has copied all the way to Z and finally copies entire pages of printed books. This student can now graduate.

As this student graduates she expresses in angst, “I will never need to do this again, I hate letters“. And she is illiterate, and so is most of this imagined society that forces children to copy letters without ever telling them why.

But perhaps this student goes to college, and while in college she decides to learn more about these letters. She takes an advanced class in letter writing.

She wonders if there are more letters to write, maybe new letters that she has never seen before. She has heard that these letters contain beauty, but she cannot possibly understand how.

The class she takes is called “Letter Theory”, and the teacher begins by asking a simple question,

What is a letter?”

How absurd, the student thinks, obviously a letter is what she’s been copying her entire life!

The teacher goes on, “when we put these letters together they form words, like the ones I am speaking now

Shocked, the student exclaims, “certainly not all words are made of letters, there are so few letters and so many words that we speak

The teacher smiles and replies, “all words, all the ideas you have ever heard with your ears, every lecture, every song, all of it, can be expressed using combinations of letters

Years later, the student has learned about grammar, semantics, composition, literature, poetry — and now she finds beauty in the letters that she never understood before.

Letters are amazing, just as numbers are amazing.

Mathematics is the study of beauty, and it is expressed in numbers.

You need not be a great writer to understand and experience beautiful writing, and you need not be a professional scientist or engineer to understand and experience the beauty of numbers.

Imagine if only professional writers learned how to read, that is our current world concerning mathematics.

If you have never experienced the beauty of numbers, understand that your entire education has failed you, and you are mathematically illiterate. Most likely, you have learned only drilled computation, and perhaps touched upon Algebra or Calculus without any explanation of what you were actually doing and, most importantly, why.

If you believe you are bad at the computation that was drilled into you at a young age, you are not alone; if you believe you were good at those computational drills, you are wrong — all humans are bad at computation. All of us. Our greatest computational geniuses are slower and stupider than even the cheapest pocket calculator. We don’t hire humans to be computers, and we don’t hire humans to be printers — fortunately, we are not training humans to be printers, but we are training children to be computers (really slow error prone computers), and we are robbing them of mathematic literacy.

And if you are mathematically illiterate, you are also (necessarily) scientifically illiterate.

This failure to teach math results in widespread illiteracy, and an inability for many people to read and express the beauty of existence, a poetry in numbers that opens our eyes to the infinite beauty of life.

When we stare at the stars and express their beauty in words, we have religious mythologies — and when we stare at the stars and express their beauty in numbers, we have a scientific revolution. For tens of thousands of years humans have had scientifically illiterate explanations for the stars (pinholes in a celestial blanket), but with the language of mathematics those stars became far grander and far more beautiful than anything we could possibly have imagined.

It is in that moment where science, math, and art converge into a unified inquiry — the study of existence, the study of infinite beauty.