Dalla bufera

February 14, 2013

Ciao dalla casa congelata,

non è stato bello qui questa sera.  Prima delle 19 la corrente se n’è andata di nuovo, questa volta quasi 25% di tutto rhode island è senza potenza elettrica, e 97% di Charlestown.  Ho parlato con Brian e loro sono anche senza corrente.  anche wakefield e forse la università qui sono al buio.  Penso che alla Brown c’è corrente.

Dopo un po ho deciso di scaricare tutta l’acqua, non c’è riscaldamento, neanche luce tranne la lampadina di batteria tipo LED.  La temperature fuori e -3 o forse adesso -4, con le previsioni che cada fino a -9.  Vento 60 ogni tanto 90 km/hr e sta nevicando.  La casa trema ogni tanto, o  forse la parola è dondola!  Sono previsti 50 cm di neve, possibilità di 60.  Più a Providence.  Quindi lo vedo molto più sicuro coprirmi ed allenare con pazienza.  Non dura per sempre…  

Mio fratello Tom e mio padre mi hanno consigliato di non dormire nell’Honda con il motore accesso.  Meglio rimanere nella casa vestito bene e sotto piumini, freddo ma sicuro.  Quindi stavo nella macchina per riscaldarmi per mezz’ora e adesso vado a letto sotto tutti i piumini.  Ce ne sono 3!.  Sarò nello stile di una volta – vestito!    Mio padre ha aggiunto che difatti io vado con bici in queste temperature, quindi so come vestirmi così.  L’ho fatto.  3 pantaloni, 4 maglioni, 3 calzini, due cappelli, guanti.  Sono preparato.  C’è almeno acqua che ho risparmiato per bere.  C’è cibo.  Dubito che l’acqua nella casa congeli ma se succede, c’è il riscaldamento dell’Honda.  

A proposito di un’uscita, sarebbe troppo rischioso e non so dove potrei andare.  La polizia e il governo hanno chiuso tutte le strade per tutti tranne che per la polizia ed EMT (veicoli di emergenza).  Quando guardo fuori casa, non vedo nulla – nessuna luce in nessun senso.  Assolutamente nero come lo spazio ma senza stelle.  Ma rumori ce ne sono, del vento, della neve che batte le finestre.

Devo dire che non mi spaventa, ma neanche mi piace. È brutto in un senso, ma la vita è così ogni tanto.  Almeno sono a casa, controllo il mio orario, il mio ambito.  I cellulari funzionano ma la linea fissa non funziona.  Collegato con intertnet tramite l’Iphone.

Allora non voglio creare un senso di disastro.  Direi che la situazione sia particolare, strano.  La civiltà scomparsa.  All’improvviso sono completamente isolato almeno per la notte tranne l’internet.  Dico fisicamente isolato.  Non sono fuori comunicazione intanto funziona la rete cellulare.  

E domani finisce la neve, le strade vengono aperte, ci sarà almeno luce del sole se non quello sintetico.  Parliamo di ore di attessa.  Ho abbigliamenti, acqua, cibo, pomeli, l’Honda, l’iphone.   La casa è fisicamente perfetta – nessun problema tranne corrente e quindi acqua.  

Quindi la sopravvivenza non è il problema.  Sarà un’esperienza come un giorno lungo con bici o un viaggio a un paese sconosciuto, e freddo!

Bufera di neve Rhode Island febbraio 2013

February 10, 2013

prima ora della bufera:

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la stessa vista, dopo 3 ore:

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la prossima mattina (sabato)

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il mio ufficio:

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il vialetto (non transitabile neanche con fuori strada)

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December 18, 2012

Piccole Navette e Piccoli Satelliti:

un rapporto problematico basato su un’analogia imperfetta

Dagli anni sessanta, quando fu sviluppato il transistor, la diminuzione di misura e massa è stata collegata con il progresso tecnologico.  Nonostante il costo importante di trasporto in orbita, da 5.000€ a 20.000€ al kg, dagli anni sessanta in poi, nel campo dello spazio il progresso è stato misurato in termini dell’aumento di misura e di massa.  I primi satelliti avevano una massa di circa 10 kg e il primo satellite per la comunicazione dall’orbita geosincrono, Telstar, al suo lancio, 10 luglio 1962, aveva una massa di 77 kg.  In paragone il Terrestar-1 comsat lanciato il 1 luglio 2009 aveva una massa di quasi 7.000 kg.  La ISS (International Space Station) ha una massa in orbita di 417.289 kg!

deck of cardsNonostante il trend dello spazio verso la scala grande, la miniaturizzazione di componenti elettronici e la diminuzione della potenza elettrica richiesta hanno spinto, dagli anni sessanta ad oggi, lo sviluppo di piccoli satelliti soprattutto per opera di gruppi di amatori.   La crescita della capacità dei microsatelliti consentita dalle tecnologie dei microprocessori, delle pile litio-ione, e dei pannelli solari di galllium-arsenide con una capacità 4 volte quella dei pannelli solari al silicio usati all’inizio dell’epoca spaziale, ha reso possibile, dagli anni ottanta, che i piccoli satelliti siano capaci di missioni che vanno oltre quelle amatoriali.   I satelliti GLOMR di massa 50 kg furono usati dagli americani negli anni ottanta per seguire i movimenti dei sottomarini sovietici.  Il satellite HETE, sviluppato dalla MIT negli anni novanta, faceva le prime osservazioni di Gamma Ray Bursts (lampi di raggi gamma) che hanno spiegato l’origine e la fisica del fenomeno più brillante e anche più misterioso mai osservato dall’astronomia.   Negli ultimi 10 anni sono stati sviluppati centinai di Cubesat, picosatelliti di massa di circa 1 kg della grandezza di un pompelmo.

La crescita dell’interesse e delle applicazioni di microsatelliti con masse e prezzi circa l’1% di quelli dei satelliti convenzionali ha spinto lo sviluppo delle piccole navette per il loro lancio fra cui Pegasus e Falcon-1 degli USA, i razzi della serie M e N-1 del Giappone,  Shavit di Israele, Start-1 della Russia e più recentemente il razzo italiano / europeo Vega. Nonostante l’investimento mondiale di miliardi di Euro per la loro realizzazione e i successi di tutti questi razzi e di molti altri, il trasporto in orbita rimane la strozzatura principale che impedisce l’uso di piccoli satelliti.  I razzi più piccoli portano cariche paganti fra 150 e 1.500 kg mentre i loro passeggeri, i microsatelliti, hanno di solito una massa fra 1 e 50 kg, perciò sarà auspicabile che siano lanciati in gruppi.   Purtroppo, i satelliti sono raramente pronti a essere lanciati nello stesso tempo e neanche alle stesse orbite.  Più significativo è il gap fra i costi dei satelliti che vanno da meno di 1.000€ e quelli dei razzi, di decine di milioni di Euro.  Anche se le logistiche permettessero il lancio di dieci o venti microsatelliti insieme, il costo del trasporto sarebbe fra 100 e 1.000 volte più grandi di quello dei satelliti.

Due fattori spiegano la mancanza di piccoli ed economici razzi che sarebbero analoghi ai piccoli ed economici satelliti. Il primo di tale fattore è quello della scala fisica.  L’efficienza di ogni mezzo di trasporto, in acqua, sulla terra, in aria e nello spazio, cresce con la sua misura.  Volare da Roma a New York con un aereo grande come l’Airbus A380 di 600 posti costa meno di mille Euro, mentre lo stesso viaggio con un jet aziendale di 8 posti avrà un costo per ogni posto fra dieci e venticinque volte più alto.  Un pullman trasporta cinquanta passeggeri a un costo pro km pari a tre o quattro macchine che di solito ne portano 8.  L’alta prestazione di un razzo rende anche più grande l’efficienza di scala.

I piccoli razzi costano fino a 150.000€ al chilogrammo di carica pagante mentre i razzi più grandi come Ariane V, Proton e Delta IV-H offrono costi fra 5.000€ e 10.000€ al kg.

Meno ovvio è l’effetto della complessità. I piccoli satelliti sono, di solito e per necessità, semplici.  Non c’è spazio a bordo di un satellite di qualche chilo per strumenti complessi e multipli. Questi sono adattati a missioni semplici.  Invece, ogni razzo orbitale nonostante la sua scala, risulta complesso.  La struttura deve essere leggera perché soltanto qualche percentuale della massa lanciata può essere massa della carica pagante.  Il resto è costituito da propellente, serbatoi, motore, struttura e sistemi elettronici.  La massa è critica ma, allo stesso tempo, la struttura deve essere rigida per sostenere le forze dell’accelerazione e dell’atmosfera.  Per minimizzare la massa, ogni navetta è composta di stadi che devono essere separati quando il propellente è spento.  Anche la busta che protegge la carica pagante delle forze aerodinamiche deve essere gettata mentre il razzo esce dall’atmosfera.  I sistemi di navigazione, di controllo e di comunicazione sono gli stessi, nonostante la scala del razzo.  I costi terrestri, del controllo, del radar e dei sistemi di sicurezza sono quasi gli stessi nonostante la massa che verrà lanciata.

È un paradosso dell’ingegneria spaziale capace di fare missioni di complessità enorme, ma le mancano le tecnologie per missioni meno impegnative.  Possiamo dare la colpa alla terra con il suo campo gravitazionale forte e l’atmosfera spessa e densa.  Ogni navetta deve navigare con precisione e affidabilità su un percorso preciso a 30 km di atmosfera mentre rallentata di gravità durante la sua salita a un altitudine di centinaia di km e deve anche accelerare la sua carica pagante a una velocità di 7.5 km/s.  Queste sfide rendono il costo del trasporto nello spazio migliaia di volte più elevato dei costi dei trasporti terrestri.

Dunque, ironicamente, la sfida più impegnativa per quelli che sviluppano piccole missioni non è lo sviluppo del satellite quanto piuttosto trovare un lancio.   Tranne le missioni governative di alti significati, i piccoli satelliti sono lanciati in modo secondario.  Sfruttano piccoli angolini che altrimenti non saranno usati fra i grandi satelliti, i quali costituiscono le cariche paganti primarie delle grandi navette.  Di solito, il piccolo satellite lanciato in questo modo non paga per i suoi kg lanciati; paga piuttosto per l’ingegneria e la logistica collegate con la sua sistemazione alla navetta, e per i controlli di sicurezza.   La maggioranza delle navette ha sistemi per la sistemazione dei piccoli satelliti ma ogni lancio in quanto tale deve essere progettato su misura.  Il piccolo satellite non ha mai l’abilità di scegliere l’orbita su cui sarà portato e non può scegliere neanche la data del lancio.

Tutti questi impedimenti e i grandi valori offerti dai piccoli satelliti spiegano le prove di tutto il mondo di creare una navetta tanto piccola quanto economica per il loro trasporto, nonostante la fisica e la storia di queste prove indichino che la piccola navetta analogica al piccolo satellite sia un’impossibile.

Seeking Equilibrium: Random Thoughts on Thermodynamics and Packing

November 23, 2011

Inside my little beach house are symptoms of the next relocation. My resident Sphinx, Lulu, recognizes them, forecasts I’ll be leaving, and mopes. She brushes her black fur against the cardboard boxes I had gradually filled with things not to forget.

The open boxes stand as a daily reminder that every period in residence is a period, not a residence. The lid of an opened suitcase leans against the couch, the clothes in it laundered, unworn, like piles of micro-organization nested in macro chaos.

Ten times a year now I shake things up, down from ten times that—a far distant once-upon-a-time when my world was much further from equilibrium.

Two thousand kilometers away, a hurricane spins away over the central Atlantic. Computer models say it might touch Bermuda, but not us, with 95% probability; now we even know how likely we are to not know what we don’t know.

What we do know for sure (we who are so interested in how many calories are in a half-cup of cubed peaches, which we can never really know, nor how many half-cups of peaches equal a Cobb salad made with the leanest chicken cubes never to have been produced by a chicken), is that the ocean between America and Europe and the space between Earth and sky, clear and shiny between vacuum-separating hurricanes, are stirred up.

Thermodynamics is about equilibrium, the nature’s desire to be smooth, uniform, and tranquil. Equilibrium eliminates gradients, differences of temperature, of velocity, of density, of charge, of stress, of chemical potential. In exchange for allowing nature to reach her beloved and elusive equilibrium, we charge her an energy tax. That tax turns our shafts and our wheels and pushes airplanes and rockets and photons through space.

We even provide energy rebates to nature. We provide work in exchange for her allowing us to maintain a gradient we want, so that the inside of a freezer remains cold on a hot day is paid for by the work of a compressor—a tax rebate of sorts.

Driven by a gradient of ideas, of what I want, and by the difference between what is and what could be, by what we could create out of what we are, I pack.

Travel Is Hell: Food & Eating — Or Not

October 5, 2011

… after many years of being open to new experiences, I’ve come around to the philosophy of not.

Below are some more of  the 119 little inconveniences I’ve experienced as a Road Warrior. This category of The Travel Is Hell (TIH) Series investigates human digestions and the various ramifications thereof:

20. Find out how many calories are in those Starbucks Green Tea Frappes you’ve been rewarding yourself with every business day you’ve been in Tokyo.

21. 0730 Air Force breakfast briefing catered with acrid coffee and popcorn.

22. Squish beautiful, world-class persimmon in backpack (Note: next time, get uncrushable, mealy apple).

23. Arrive Vienna after full day working and traveling on flights too short for meal service. All food shops and restaurants closed ’till Sunday noon.

24. Durian. Any time, anywhere. No.

25. Traditional Korean elegant dining. Nubile, well-dressed, but otherwise completely uninteresting woman sits in lap. Stuffs each spoonful of food into my mouth as if I were 16 months old. (Vroom, vroom! Open hangar; here comes the plane!)

26. Très expensive fancy dinner. Clients demonstrate appreciation of my work. Honor successful vegetarian contractor at restaurant featuring rattlesnake, venison and mutton.

27. Korean BBQ in Darwin, Australia.

28. It’s 11:30 p.m., almost dinnertime in Buenos Aires. Pick one: steak or roast beef. Get up at 6:00 for flight to Bariloche, Patagonia.

29. Eat — or actually, just look at — plate of fish, still wiggling.

30. Yet another lavish dinner in beautiful continental restaurant with wonderful Scandinavian wood furnishings, candlelight, classical live piano, exquisite food, stunning service. Perfect for romantic dinner with girlfriend.  Instead, endured with three chain-smoking, Vodka -inhaling Russian entrepreneurs.

31. Eating light: make dinner out of half-roll of wintergreen Certs and some tiny foil bags of airline pretzels.

32. Four days in Russia surviving on apples and oranges stuffed into suitcase before departing New York. Offend hosts four times per day by refusing vodka at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert.

Namaste,

Rick Fleeter

author, Travels of a Thermodynamicist

(A Note to Readers: If you’ve had similarly unique and discomfiting travel experiences you’d like to share—and that have helped you toward a Buddhist appreciation of travel as inevitable suffering, from which you have returned a better, wiser person—feel free to share.)

Einbürgerungsurkunde: An American Simplifies Life in the EU

September 22, 2011

Rome, September 20, 2011 – I got my German naturalization document today at their embassy here in Rome. It had been signed in Köln in March and was countersigned in Rome today. (Einbürgerung means naturalization, and urkunde is an original of a paper, a document.)

The German Embassy is a big concrete building left over from the Fascist era, which somehow seems fitting (though so are most of the elementary schools in Rome since that was a project of Mussolini). Like the American Embassy and every other embassy in the world (including the Italian one in DC), the moment you walk in you are on their territory, in this case, German soil. They speak some Italian—the guards, for instance—but everybody there are Germans, as were the two embassy staff who checked my passport, did my fingerprints, helped me with some other forms, and congratulated me on becoming a German citizen.

Well, in the sense that life is an adventure, that was a little one, painless (for a change) and no risk of any bone breaks.

Having been born an American without giving it much thought since, all at once I sort of realized that becoming a citizen of a county is a serious thing. It’s not like applying for a grant or filling out a health club membership. It’s hard to describe. At the embassy they all speak German; they dress and act German more than Italian; they’ve got the German flag there and the big eagle symbol on everything. All of a sudden, that’s your heimatland. The embassy staff even reminded me it was my responsibility to ensure that I wouldn’t lose my American citizenship by becoming a German citizen. I had already checked that so it’s not a problem, but it’s another sign that formally becoming a citizen of a county is not quite like joining the local pool.

Informally, they asked what my family story was, how old my mother was when she came over, about where my other relatives were. They even wondered how my family felt about my becoming German. The question alone was a little unsettling, but as I said, it’s an adventure, this chapter of which I’m a German, at least here in Europe. The embassy woman in charge of my case asked if my mother had considered also getting a German citizenship, but she understood that if she is an American and only visits for an occasional vacation to Europe, maybe it doesn’t pay.

She said they get a lot of applications, but virtually none in Italy. I think that’s because Italians are already EU citizens, so there’s no motive for them to get a German citizenship. Plus, how many German Jews are in Italy? Very few. (For those leaving in 1939, I don’t think Italy was a great choice of refuge.)

Then we talked about places in Germany. The staff were very personable, and they really made me feel like they were glad I took the trouble to do the application and show up for the naturalization. I did not expect that from the German Embassy, since everyone operates from behind an inch of glass (though in the paranoia department, Americans are by far the leaders, with the Brits not far behind).

The German embassy is on a regular street and people actually drive up and park in front of it. A fence surrounds the American embassy, and the sidewalk around that is closed on all four sides. You have to cross the street constantly to get around all the detours, with no help from the American guards who just stare at you like you probably have a bomb in your backpack. Friendly, those Americans. Nothing like that for the Germans. Just a nice, neat, large concrete building a few doors down from the HQ of La Gazzetta dello Sport (the pink (in color only) national sports newspaper that founded the Giro d’italia—a long-distance bike race—103 years ago).

Unlike bank tellers, the Germans came out from behind their glass and met me in a waiting room to do my naturalization across a table. Also, the Germans work by appointment. In the US Embassy, you show up before they open and a line forms around the block, like you’re buying tickets to see The Rolling Stones. (Another reason I am glad to not have to deal with American visas.) If anything at all goes wrong, you spend the day in that line.

The nice passport photos we all labored to get here for me were annehmbar nicht (not acceptable)! Because they use digital image recognition, the pictures have to be just so. You can smile, but your mouth can’t be open more than a tiny amount. My agent told me hers were rejected for the same reason. (It’s the same in the US if you get a new passport, btw.) So she told me to do what she had done: walk to the local metro station two blocks away and pay 5€ to get photos in a machine for passports, which helps you get your head just the right size, etc. The metro machine photos were nice. The machine prints them on real photo stock, which is also better. I could have saved a lot of trouble for me and you at Moto. Sorry about that.

There is a strange feeling doing something so normal, like searching for a 5-euro note in your wallet while seated in one of those little cabinets in a metro station—something you see other people do and think you would never find yourself doing—the tiny details. The photo repair guy was there to service the machines. We talked a little, and I thought, here I am speaking to an Italian photo repair guy as a tiny step in becoming a German citizen at an embassy two blocks from the Castro Pretorio metro stop, which happens to have these machines in it next to the ticket dispensers. Nobody could write that script. He advised me to use the second cabinet. “The photos work better and there’s more room; it’s more comfortable,” he said.

My passport will come in four weeks. When these guys say four weeks, they don’t mean 29 days, they mean 4.0 weeks. The embassy woman said if I don’t hear from her to email or call. But it’s a done deal. I paid the 59€ passport fee and the 21€ for the shipping of my papers from Germany and from Boston, and it all got signed and stamped for printing, with even the photo glued onto the original passport page. Then it gets bound into the passport book with the blank pages, I think in Cologne again.

Well, it was a little scary, but I’m really glad I did it. It’s a big advantage to have EU citizenship if you are all over the world like I am. Practically speaking, this means I can get paid here and not have to bill through a US company. And I have barely adhered to the visa laws for the last three years, always making sure I don’t stay 91 days, and using my visiting professor status to avoid having to get a real visa. The bureaucracy of a German passport is nothing—nothing!—compared to getting an Italian visa. And the German citizenship is for life. The visa you have to do for every single 90-day stay, and it has to be done less than 60 days in advance, and half the time it doesn’t come through on time anyway. It’s crazy as only Italians can be. So now I never have to deal with that again, which is a problem for every American working here lacking Eu cittadinanza, as they call it.

Today on Italian radio they happen to be playing all the songs from Mary Poppins as it was done here in Italy. A spoonful of sugar translates to: Basta un poco di zucchero e la pillola va giù.

P.S. For more about my travels, see Travels of a Thermodynamicist.

Travel Is Hell: Accommodating to Accommodations …

September 13, 2011

… we don’t always sleep on planes.  When there’s no overnight flight, the privilege of paying inevitably buys an opportunity for brushing up on Asceticism.

Below are a few of  the 119 little inconveniences I’ve experienced as a Road Warrior. This category of The Travel Is Hell (TIH) Series covers hotels. Even in the chains, no two are alike:

1. Person in front of me in coach puts seat ALL way back, necessitating balancing Mac laptop against my sternum for three hours until plane change in Atlanta.

2. Trapped in hotel in northern Norway for four days, awaiting break in weather. No pool, no bike, no walkable street.

3. Hermetically sealed Cocoa Beach Holiday Inn room. Lubrication-starved A/C motor with bad case of fan misalignment scrapes on housing, locks out caressing zephyr off Atlantic. Blue-green fluorescent walkway lights shine menacingly through sealed plate-glass window.

4. Hotel blocks 800 numbers. Use direct dial; pay extortionist fees.

5. Share last hotel room at long-gone-to-seed Cambridge HoJo with total stranger who happened to be just behind me in 45-minute-long Logan United customer (lack of) service line during freak April blizzard.

6. FYI: Seat 5A on United Dulles to Logan commuter narrower than laptop. Earplugs mandatory.

7. Mercury vapor street lamp posted virtually inside quaint Olde Englishe hotel room.

8. Drag girlfriend to beautiful spot you finally got contract in. It rains entire week.

9. The third electronic key that won’t open hotel room door.

10. Luggage turns up. At 3:00 a.m. They phone from lobby in case anything in it is urgently needed before I wake up.

Namaste,

Rick Fleeter

author, Travels of a Thermodynamicist

(A Note to Readers: If you’ve had similarly unique and discomfiting travel experiences you’d like to share—and that have helped you toward a Buddhist appreciation of travel as inevitable suffering, from which you have returned a better, wiser person—feel free to share.)

Travel Is Hell: Exercise and Entertainment

September 1, 2011

… proving that the only thing worse than no accommodations for either is the opposite.

Below are a few more of  the 119 little inconveniences I’ve experienced as a Road Warrior. This category of The Travel Is Hell (TIH) Series covers the ever-elusive pursuit of happiness:

11. Hamburg’s 20m x 20m x 1.5m deep, warmish pool. No lane lines.

12. Continuous rolling waves as housewives and grandparents breast-stroke heads up—to keep hearing aids, makeup, and hair-dos dry.

13. Sixteen hours of 300-baud, verb-free English punctuated by refreshments consisting of straight Scotch and vacuum-packed plastic bags of dried dead things.

14. For one week, only Middle Eastern and Indian chant on all (3) radio stations.

15. Pathetic gratitude upon hearing “Bus Stop” (The Hollies, 1966) on AM taxi radio.

16. Locked inside chain link fence surrounding 50m outdoor pool in Darwin.

17. Pay phone just outside above chain link fence is just outside of arm’s reach. Next swim session shows up—90 minutes later.

18. Accidentally jump into unheated, and hence 12C (53°F), outdoor pool at 6:00 a.m.

19. Jakarta hotel gym: Climb service stairs from ground to tenth floor 100 times. Avoid squashing large bugs (corpses very messy).

Namaste,

Rick Fleeter

author, Travels of a Thermodynamicist

(A Note to Readers: If you’ve had similarly unique and discomfiting travel experiences you’d like to share—and that have helped you toward a Buddhist appreciation of travel as inevitable suffering, from which you have returned a better, wiser person—feel free to share.)

Travel Is Hell (and 119 Slices of Life There)

August 18, 2011

Buddhism short-circuited whining centuries ago.

Buddhists accept that the brief interval in which our souls exist isolated within mortal biological vessel, must, by its nature, imply suffering, and life proceeds from that premise. This is why sensible Japanese eschew Buddhism for weddings, preferring Christian or, more often, Shinto ceremonies, but console themselves about the deaths of their loved ones by going to Buddhist temples. Given the assumption of inevitable suffering throughout life implies—it must be a relief to die.

As a fully licensed road warrior, a professional who carries a pocketful of frequent flier and car rental cards, I spent my company’s accumulated wealth as I saw fit (while realizing a lot of my expenses might not ever be reimbursed) when I was a CEO.  Now, still a road warrior, but traveling for business mostly on my own account, I depart a Shinto and come home a Buddhist.

A deep sense of relief infuses my body as it enters a cab to Dulles or Logan or Fiumicino airports for the beginning of its next immersion into life as an aerospace missionary. Cut from the umbilical of the clothes in my closet, the toilet articles in my bathroom, and the electronic gadgetry on my writing desk (which has no room for writing covered as it is by equipment, wires, and the power supplies and connectors necessary to make them all cooperate), I am my own universe.

I will survive in nature as a component within the air transportation system. I’ll sleep, not under the stars next to a whitewater river with rafts dragged on shore for the evening and embers slowly dying in a campfire, and not even in a building, but rather—inside giant machines, their turbine engines whining and their seat belt signs turning ever on and off, always accompanied by a Pavlovian bell that induces even a soundly sleeping soul to unconsciously check the long-ago-fastened metal buckles.

Life becomes simpler. Whatever I don’t have, I’ll live without or buy or improvise. This simple life has in fact itself been purchased by contracts that are large compared with my actual salary, or by invitations to be that special speaker who comes right after the keynote speaker, that old guy whom they bring in to say something intelligent. Combined with the nth round-the-world airline ticket, 40 nights in overpriced hotels, several weeks of rental cars, Shinkansen tickets, and elegant meals with inelegant people—within the sea of that banality, a pearl of divinity must exist. Somewhere.

Whatever prep work I didn’t do will get done in a plane, a taxi, or a waiting room. Two shirts and two pairs of pants yield only four possible sartorial combinations. Dressing simply, I’ll live among the natural elements and commune with their spirits, for instance the aroma of Jet-A (aka jet fuel fumes). I won’t be alone; Eurodiesel exhaust mixed with a 6:00 a.m. cold mist will waft through the Parisian streets and alleys and red-light district and path along the Seine with me. I’ll experience life with them, and through them.

When I try to get the defroster to work, the rented red Chevy Cavalier sprays tobacco ashes on me. But it doesn’t matter. Life wasn’t designed to be comfortable. It was designed to pique the senses and test the mind, and that is what nature will do for me and to me for the next one, two, three, four, five, six, ten weeks.

Buddhists love life. They love it through its discomforts, its disappointments, its raw bitterness. The life of the itinerant traveler, lugging laptop, palm top, batteries, cell phones, cigarette chargers, wall charger, thumb drives, brochures, business cards, ear plugs, wallet, passport, tickets, books, magazines, pens and pencils, Ray-Bans, and maybe an emergency ration of Diet 7-Up, all in the eternal blue JanSport backpack, wasn’t built for comfort, or convenience, or sleep maintenance, or great eating, or perfect biking and swimming opportunities.

That life deprives you of those things whenever it can. At home we do not give thanks for an electrical outlet. But the occasional rate AC plug next to an unoccupied seat near the gate of my next flight is the day’s gift, my friend, my soulmate. A yogurt stand with sugar-free walnut flavor is my kill. An empty middle seat is my bed at night.

The struggle against the entropy of the universe seen at an average sustained speed of 60 mph, 24/7, maintained for weeks, with the occasional brilliant victory addict me. Cable TV, which I don’t have at home (actually, I don’t have any TV at home), catalyzes the metamorphosis from Shinto to Buddhist: tuning in to CNN Sports Summary on Flamingo Hotel cable in Solna, just north of Stockholm, watching that one golfer on that one hole, where she sinks the 58-foot putt, is meaningless if you haven’t watched all her missed gimmes. The tie-breaking homer in the bottom of the 13th is just another sailing baseball if you haven’t lived the inning-after-inning-after-inning monotony of a 1:1 deadlock through a steady Pittsburgh drizzle.

That’s the lure of travel, not the friendship of the carpet upon which I sit because the power plug isn’t near a seat by my gate at the airport. The white-hot heat of success is thermodynamically powerful only when coupled with the cold dimness of its frustrations, a few, in fact 90119, of which I’ve collected.

A few preliminary examples: an 80°F, 25m, non-turbulent pool with marked but empty lanes that’ll be open for the next 75 minutes is an everyday occurrence for me in Rhode Island. But I score that victory in Colombo, or Graz, or Kuala Lumpur, and it’s an event worthy of a nine-dollar phone call home. Hey! I swam 60 beautiful minutes in a real pool! The girlfriend, or my dad, thinks: For this he flew 10,000 km and disappeared for a month?

I plan to convene a road veteran’s conference for the purpose of canonizing and agreeing on the numbering of these inconveniences that create the freezing, entropyless cosmic background of travel against which our daily lives are pitted. Then, when we brush past each other in the stairwell of the 16-story hotel whose elevators, all two of them, kicked a breaker and died during the 8:00 a.m. rush to check out, we won’t need to say any more than “18? 15 for me yesterday — in Sydney can you believe it?” And we’ll nod and trudge ever downward.

In the next few weeks I’ll present all 119 of these little inconveniences. Perhaps you’ve encountered the same or similar ones. Maybe your red Chevy Cavalier was a Toyota something-or-other, or a fellow traveler was saturating your aisle with ear spray from open-style headphones in economy, not plus,instead of changing their kid’s diaper in public.

If you’ve had unique and discomfiting travel experiences you’d like to share—and that have helped you toward a Buddhist appreciation of travel as inevitable suffering, from which you have returned a better, wiser person—feel free to share.

Namaste!

Rick Fleeter

author, Travels of a Thermodynamicist


Souls

May 7, 2011

Writing about the universe filling its void with energy and my doing the same, am I indulging in a cute anthropomorphic attempt at poetry?  And does it matter to your life today, these philosophies of whether the universe has a soul.

Whether philosophy matters is a subject of talk shows.  Most of us fear our kids will become philo majors and end up using their ivy league diplomas to sell shoes and work in fast food.  Philosophers will tell you it was philosophy that first realized the existence of atoms – an idea absconded with by chemistry, along with the idea of a gas, and by the way the idea of flotation in fluids.  A lot of physics is really philosophy, when you get to extrapolating back to the beginning of the universe and the question of parallel universes and a cyclic re-collapse and big bang.  Even arguing about whether human space is worth doing given its huge cost, its risks and its absence of science return, versus robotic exploration, is at its essence philosophical.  Is exploration exploration if the explorers are humans remotely controlling rovers on Mars.  Have “we” landed on mars already?

To kill an animal, but feel it is wrong to kill a human, you have to have a special philosophy that animals can be killed if humans (or other animals) want to, but humans can not be killed by humans nor by animals.   And why that would be considered correct and acceptable behavior – sanctioned killing of anything non-human, is philosophical.  It is a belief that animals, like the universe, like the earth, lack a soul.

We as a culture have decided, have codified in the Bible, that only humans have souls, experience love, loss, joy, sorrow, create art in all its forms, invent things, strive to improve ourselves.  After millions of years of evolution flies are still getting trapped in spider webs, but we people feel to have improved our lot.  Scientists can tell you that these emotions emanate from a thinking mechanism that is highly complex that you are not going to find in a glass of water.  But if you don’t think a glass of water is complex, how about the whole universe, which includes us – isn’t it by definition much more complex than us?  If complexity is the measure, a deer or a bear is just not complex enough?  They do some pretty amazing things those animals, like living without clothing or shelter through a rhode island winter on the food they can find, including reproducing themselves, winter, spring, summer and fall, brutal as the weather may be.  Just how do they do that, these not quite complex enough animals?  Instinct is our one word dismissal.

Ergo we are special and being special give ourselves the right to exploit everything else, and strip it of the soul.  Historically people have done this to other people – to Jews, to Blacks, to Serbs, to women, to the old, to the disabled.  But we now consider that wrong.  The line is officially drawn at our species.  Each member of which has the right to live, at least formally though we not do much to ensure that possibility is realized, whereas the earth and its other inhabitants are only justifiably preserved if we need them for our survival or pleasure.   Is it impossible our current state of enlightenment will never change?  It changed so much in the last 50 years.  A billion years from now that line will still be drawn around humans – but what will that mean in a billion years – we will have evolved, and so will the bears and the deer and the birds.  Who will be inside the line, who outside?

At least as a thought experiment (thank you Einsten for that degree of freedom) it’s worth imagining the crazy idea that in fact everything has a soul, or is a member of a system that has a soul.  OK, you might argue a pebble on the beach does not have a soul, and I’m with you on that one, but if you look at it as a component of the beach, which is a component of the sea-land interface, which is a critical element of the ocean, which accounts for a huge part of the earth’s surface area and biomass and without which the rest of us would not be here, what about that system?

What about the moods of the sea, the patterns of the clouds reflected in a salt pond at dawn in pink and grey and orange, what about the singing of birds on a background of waves reaching the pebbles and sand, what about the clarity of the air on a mountaintop above the clouds, the sad look in your dog’s eyes when she realizes you are leaving for work and faces a day alone in the house, even if you let her sleep on your nice new sofa?

Nature doesn’t create art, you can say staring up at the milky way, at the tiny crescent of the moon following the sun to the horizon on a juicy summer evening through a red atmosphere dripping with water showing off all three of its phases?  Native Americans believed the earth was their mother, giving them all they needed to survive, space, nourishment, warmth, shelter, and the animals and the trees were all parts of that great soul.  They would not harm one bit of her.  We don’t believe that, nor the similar beliefs of the Shinto, now similarly out of fashion in Japan, nor the aborigine, marginalized in Australia and living on their reservations.

Scientists mostly don’t believe in UFOs, and if they do, they are marginalized like the aborigine.  What about Einstein?  What about the speed of light?  If they are so smart, why are they not talking with us – why are they sneaking around our solar system?   Scientists have a science to explain why UFO believers are wrong and not scientists and humans have a philosophy of the soul to marginalize every other element of the entire universe.  Neat.  But right?

I have a philosophical belief that to paraphrase Arthur Clarke, when techies say something is possible, they are usually right, but when they say something is impossible, usually wrong.  He was told that geosynchronous communications satellites were impossible about 25 years before they were in common use carrying our television and radio broadcasts and our phone conversations all around the globe instantly.  Nobody called him back and said “hey guy, sorry about that”.

Einstein is still going to be The Man 100, 1,000, 10,000 years from now?  No loopholes in the speed of light thing?   I claim the least scientific people are those scientists who believe we now have it figured out.  How depressing.  Nobody is going to upset the Grand Order?  There is no use for young people except they can work in little microniches and figure out the energy balance of a cosmic jet or the lifetime of some exotic atom or particle, the thermal conductivity of helium-neon mixtures.  But nobody is ever going to change physics, UFOs are impossible, the world and its limits as we know them will never change.  After a few billion years, we have thought seriously about these things for a couple hundred years and now we can consider the case closed and everything worth knowing is known then.  That’s not comforting to me.  We used to think Newton had mechanics worked out… now we have lasers and semiconductors and curved space time and GPS satellites with clocks corrected for relativistic effects and Einstein, so we are done.

And philosophically we will never change our minds about whether that system which accompanies our world with clouds and waves and rain and plants and birds and the beauty of every day, which evolved everything including us, is not complex enough to have what we have, but instead is merely a sort of chemistry experiment in a large test tube,  unthinking, cold and soul less.   Soul can only be in humans, and much as a deer or a cow may suffer seeing its young child taken from it and killed, that is just the illusion of a soul because only humans are licensed to have them.  Please ignore that man behind the curtain, for I am the Wizard of Oz.

The end of life is the end, time is irreversible – even Einstein did not believe that.  He believed time was a dimension just like the other three, but we so far lacked the ability to traverse it freely at any speed in any direction.  Those lost to us are according to the cold sleek science of 2011 gone forever.  That idea is never going to change either?  The past is gone, the future is the future, all that exists is the present.  But the present is infinitely small.  It leaves very little room for those souls we claim we have.

Descartes advised hedging on the side of belief, since there’s little downside.  If we act  like all these things are soul less and abuse them for our ends, what if it turns out we were wrong.  We can claim we didn’t get the memo?   Our own courts say ignorance of the law is no defense.  Walking softly you risk the rest of humans thinking you an idiot, a pacifist, a child, naïve, burdensome.  The alternative is to act in ways most people will find acceptable.  And what got learned and discovered, what horizons were opened – the idea of the atom,the idea of a spherical earth, the idea of the earth orbiting the sun, the idea of evolution instead of creation, the idea of microorganisms, of extremophyles, geosynchronous satellites, microsatellites, cell phones, personal computers, accepting all the preconceptions and philosophies that ensure you won’t be exiled like the aborigine?

If enough of us become exiles, the exilers will one day find themselves the exiled.  That’s my philosophy.


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