Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U is for Uncertainty

This is the very first image that comes up in the Google image
search for 'uncertain,' from the beautifully-written Water Foul
by Joe Nick Patoski, a lovely essay on ecology. Oddly, it came
up because it was taken in the town of Uncertain, Texas, not
because it's one of those weird quasi-inspirational stock photos.
I got the idea for this one from L.M. Murphy over at See Murphy Write - I was feeling utterly uninspired about U (what was I gonna do, universe? Little too big, guys, even for me) and so I will cop to searching #atozchallenge on Twitter to see what everyone else was up to. Which is how I stumbled over L.M.'s lovely blog. Although I am blatantly ripping off the thing that U is for, I am not  ripping off L.M.'s post, which you should read, and please note that I give her all credit for the idea and am humbly grateful to have been inspired. (Also, she thought it was cool that I was inspired - Twitter sez so, so it's TRUE!)

That being said, I would like to quote her. "Life is uncertain." she writes. "I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, as the glass-half-empty people like to point out. (...) However.... right now, in this very moment, no matter what happens tomorrow, I am content."

(In addition to having some awesome Buddha-nature on display here, she also wins points with me because she confesses her weakness for edible goodies in this post. I'm a fan of any gal who can be won over by treats as easily as me.)
Romanesco broccoli, a naturally-occurring (and edible!)
fractal, from More To Explore: The Fort Collins Museum
and Discovery Science Center Blog. (Check it out!)
I tend to push uncertainty away, because I dislike it. I'm not obsessively tidy or anything, although I tend to feel an odd twitching inability to work well when the dishes haven't been done, but I hate the sensation of mental mess. Uncertainty is not the same as chaos,although even chaos is not actually the wretched mess we think it is - as evinced by this bizarre green thing here in this picture below. It's not a computer generated whatsit nor a spiny sea creature; it's a kind of cauliflower which displays fractal properties. What's a fractal? Oh man, this is really cool. A fractal is a bunch of different basically magical things, but among others, it's a kind of line whose measurement actually gets bigger the more you zoom in on it. Think, for example, of a coastline - we can map a coastline pretty easily, get a decent idea of how long it is even where it zigs and zags. But actually, that length changes with the size of the ruler. Use a REALLY BIG RULER and say it's a hundred miles long. Now grab your yardstick. With a yardstick, you're going to start taking into account all the extra little lumps and bumps from the biggest of the rocks - that's gonna add inches onto every few feet. Suddenly your hundred miles of coastline is a lot longer. Now get a smaller ruler, one that measures fractions of inches. Now the topography of the smaller rocks starts adding length to your coastline. Sure, it's itty bitty, but we're looking at a few fractions of an inch every foot or so for a hundred miles. That adds up way faster than you think. And more than that, it means that the more you zoom in, the longer the line. That's what a fractal line is - one that actually gets longer the closer you look, because the more you zoom in the more you see all the stuff it's got folded up in it. Like this magical broccoli thing, it's usually self-similar - that is, repeats the same motif over and over.

Read this.
Okay, so what do fractals have to do with chaos and uncertainty? Well, basically, they form from chaos. I don't, in all honesty, understand chaos theory well enough to explain it in a blog post at close to midnight with a few beers under my belt, but there is a truly wonderful and kind of life-changing book that might help. It's called "Fractals, the Patterns of Chaos: Discovering a New Aesthetic of Art, Science and Nature." You should read it, whoever you are. It's a lovely, simple book, and whether you're a geek or an artist, it will change the way you see the world. He makes things very easy: look, he says, "Chaos theory tells the story of the wild things that happen to dynamical systems as they evolve over time; fractal geometry records the images of their movement in space." What's a dynamical system? Glad you asked! It's a system - a set of parts working together - like the weather, or the human brain, which is "composed of so many interacting elements that it is tremendously sensitive to even the tiniest factor." (The famous Butterfly Effect, for example.) That means any time we look at a system that is too large for us to understand and control every piece of - i.e. almost everything interesting - we're seeing a dynamical system, and its behavior is full of, yes,  uncertainty. The strange fact that when we do map the behavior of dynamical systems we get these beautiful, weird patterns - well, that's something else entirely.

How does this relate to L.M.'s thoughtful statement about uncertainty? Well, I guess it's something like this. I dislike uncertainty because it makes me uncomfortable, on some deep neurotic level, not to know exactly what's going on, to feel like there's fog or loose ends or things not known. What L.M. is saying is something like this: what does it matter? Now is now. And that's absolutely right. Uncertainty, when taken beyond the experience of not knowing the best answer on the SAT (and who among you didn't hate that 'best answer' crap? Half the time ALL THE ANSWERS SUCKED) is basically a state of feeling the future to be in suspension. We feel like that creeps back and fucks us up right now, like not seeing down the road means we'll make a horrible turn right here and end up in the swamp.

But actually, that's not true. And what L.M. is saying - find contentment now, in the present moment - is right and good, because seeking it now is actually the only way to guarantee that you're making the right choice. We screw ourselves up, a lot, by following the demands of a future that looks clear and inviting but leaves us only one way to go, without room for wonder and happenstance and pleasure in the moment. And what the fractals are saying, in some odd and marvelous way, is that even when we feel like we're tipping over from uncertainty into chaos, a beautiful pattern may emerge that we could never have foreseen. Sometimes what looks like a mess is the beginning of something so vastly lovely we simply couldn't see it until we were in it to our necks.

So, I'm celebrating uncertainty. I have no idea, for example, how to make a Museum. But blogging about it, here and now, is a joy. I can't help feeling like this is exactly the thing to do, right now, that will take me one step at a time down the path of marvels.


  1. I still think it's wicked cool that I inspired you. ;)

    This was a lovely post. I adore how you interpreted my blog post (which, if I'm being honest, was pulled out of my ass at the last minute) and made it into a message of your own. Well done! *applauds*

    1. Thank you! I happen to believe that making something up on the spot can be an act that puts you in touch with a kind of unconscious, unfiltered form of truth - in this case, something as simple and lovely as your post. I'm all in favor of pulling ideas out of your ass. That's where some of the best come from.

  2. I was pretty lost about "U" also! I'm still not sure what I'll do about "X." *groan*

    1. I'm totally cheating - X is gonna be for Exultant and Exhilarated.

  3. But what if right now, I have a headache? Because I do :(

    I don't have an issue with uncertainty. I find there's way more to work on that I can work on than to fret about the things I can't figure out. In fact, I -hate- it when people want me to guess about things I don't know. Like, "how long do you think that will take?" I don't know. It will take as long as it takes, and why does it matter anyway? Stop trying to nail me down because you're having issues with doubt and uncertainty.

    My brother, specifically, used to have huge issues with the fact that I would deal with things as they came up instead of trying to figure out everything in advance. The result was that I did a better job of dealing with things, because I could adapt to the situation, but when things went outside of his plans (and they always did, because you just can't forsee everything (or much, really)), it would get him all bent out of shape.

    Well, you can have the soap box back now before I really get going.

    1. I tend to think a good balance is helpful, myself...

  4. Lovely pictures, great reflections, thoughtully and artfully. Been there at the tip of that board walk of uncertainty, taken a leap of faith often, knowing that God is in control. Thanks for the lovely post!


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