Balancing between planned and spontaenous

There are two ways of thinking about success in life, which I will explain using a historical example.

One could say that Apollo 11 was the pinnacle of America’s space program. It did something nobody had done before and was previously thought impossible. It also succeeded. It did exactly what the plan said it should do.

Yet there is a second camp, which includes me, which thinks Apollo 13 was the apex of the space program. I say this because it was an example of ingenuity and improvisation, mixed with good prior consideration of potential problems. It is one thing to take a bunch of very specialized components and do exactly what they were made to do. With Apollo, success was certainly the most likely option, especially over any particular failure. What the odyssey of 13 showed was these same components can be repurposed to do something completely different.

In life, all actions and results fall in a continuum between planned and improvised. We often have very specific life plans laid out, with both small and large decisions made well ahead of time. Of course, life plans of any time span and complexity rarely work out, because we cannot predict the actions of others, nor of the universe in general.

There exist people at the far end of the continuum for planning. They fear change and uncertainty, and want to gain control. Others may choose pure improvisation, never committing to any particular course of action until the moment arrives. You probably occupy the middle ground.

Both planning and improvisation are useful, but also incomplete. The disparity is more likely to create conflict in social relationships than synthesis. It is important to acknowledge reality. No matter what we do, our lives will still be over 95% improv, as even minor details like conversation are unpredictable. But the 5%ish that is planned helps anchor us and makes the improv meaningful. In Apollo 13, the detailed plan had to be thrown out, but simulations and worst-case-scenario analysis helped keep the situation from spiraling out of control. This backbone saved the astronauts, but the rigid thinking built by a purpose-built system also nearly killed them.

The Taoist concept of wu wei may seem to fit mostly with spontaneity, but it can encompass both ends of the spectrum. The “non-doing” aspect is also balanced with actions that are natural and not forced. Not all good plans fit the natural flow of things (The iconic quote by George Bernard Shaw:”The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”), but the natural flow should be duly considered. We seek to avoid conflict, but struggle is necessary, and often just. We are forever dynamic within this continuum, seeking both control and realizing it is often an illusion at the time.

Chalk dreams

Written on rough
concrete, begging for
repair,
groaning with the stress
of elder trees whose roots
have been growing since
the sidewalk was merely a
distant blueprint

each letter takes form,
the energy drains into
slate-colored tiles

the off-white substance,
once as long as an old man’s
weathered hands
grows smaller and humbler
until there is nothing left

but dreams and aspirations
waiting for the infrequent rainstorm
to wash it all away

Learning Opportunity: teaching death using technology

Opportunity takes a shadow portrait, March 27, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Recently the Opportunity rover on Mars made the news- after more than a decade on the surface, it has developed serious memory problems. As a project engineer said:

“The problems started off fairly benign, but now they’ve become more serious — much like an illness, the symptoms were mild, but now with the progression of time things have become more serious,”

We use spacecraft like Opportunity, Voyagers 1 and 2, and newer projects like Curiosity to teach kids about space, geology, and physics. Even though they are machines, they can teach us about one of the most important human journeys- death.

Space missions have a life expectancy. Probes we send to the Moon, Mars, and beyond the Solar System talk to us. Then over time their components fail, their signal grows weaker, and eventually we lose them. Voyager 2 was launched 13 years before I was born, and is still transmitting faintly from billions of miles away. Opportunity still roams, but its sister rover Spirit got stuck and went offline a few years ago. It lost a sibling, but soldiers on.

Death is a scary idea to everyone, and it’s difficult to bring the subject to youth. But what Opportunity is going through is an impersonal way to talk about a process that will affect their grandparents, parents, and eventually themselves. The probes have less energy. Their joints and arms don’t work the same as they used to. Their memory is spotty and they require more medical attention than before.

And like humans, these machines have life experience and leave a legacy. Opportunity has traveled almost 26 miles in the past decade, making several groundbreaking discoveries about the surface of Mars and its history. When it one day powers down, we will have a familiar debate about what to do with its body- will it stay there for eternity, or will we one day put it in a museum? How can we honor what has passed?

There is wisdom to be gained with the fact that even artificial things have a life cycle, and that machines and humans can have a great deal in common with their journeys. One day, like Voyager, I will stop talking. And how will the world remember me?

The pine-box forest

Thanks to human apathy
green-gray vines
grow with impunity

here lies the pine-box forest
each specimen assembled from
copses, large and small,
their origins many
their final place the same

here lies the pine-box forest
contained within –
forlorn, ecstatic
rageful, placid
pleasure, pain,
that feeling, as if you
flew above the world
soaring, effortless
the earth itself within reach

here lies the pine-box forest
where we find one rare piece
of common ground