Thursday, November 1, 2012

Chaos and Perspective, and the Importance of Not Taking It All Too Seriously

I am writing this post on a mobile phone while huddled under a blanket in a house that has cooled to refrigerator temperatures. That I am able to post at all in a power failure, and in general to keep working productively almost as if nothing had happened, is a testament to the value of current technology. The situation, though, also illustrates the way different people can have vastly different views of the same event, as a result of essentially random occurrences.

Roughly half of the people in the region affected by Hurricane Sandy lost power at some point. But this also means that half of us never lost power. It is the same locally. On the other side of the block I live on, everyone has power. On this side of the block, power went out during the height of the storm, 57 hours ago, and it is not expected to be restored today. This difference may be the result of something as random as which transformers blew up during the storm. If I were in a house on the other side of the block, perhaps watching political reporters on television, it would be easier to imagine that Hurricane Sandy was not such a big deal. In a house with no electricity or heat, where I have to go to a rain bucket to wash my hands, I am constantly reminded that Sandy was, by some measures, the largest storm in the history of North America.

Equally random differences affect our perceptions of more persistent conditions. The underlying chaos that puts us where we are also forms much of our perspective. Knowing that our vantage point is largely the result of random effects, it is easier not to get so attached to the way things appear to us right now, or to our plans and opinions that arise out of that momentary point of view.