Ebb and Flow

Dear L,

If you have ever worked in a Chemistry laboratory, you probably have come accross balances, usually used to measure amounts of chemicals to certain degrees of precision. On these jewelers’ tools encased in a glass boxes, the balance arm, rests on a socket, until you turn a knob to set it in motion. The moment you turn the knob, the balance arm lifts and the balancing act starts. Eventually, the slow oscillations subside, and you would know if your measurement is accurate enough. During exams where time was of the essence, sometimes we would need to use these scales; The most excruciating wait was the wait till the balance would come to a stable position, only to repeat another measurement all over again. I once got too impatient and tried to stabilise the balance by wedging in the fleshy part of my fingertip, thinking the measurement was accurate enough. My results were so off, the examiner thought something was wrong and let me run the experiment all over again with fresh chemical samples, with extra time.

The incident bugged me for quite a bit. I couldn’t convince myself that my intuition was wrong. I did pass the exams though, and ended up in engineering school. There, I came accross a set of disciplines; These disciplines, boils a certain type of phenomenons down to simple mathematical constructs, and very elegantly so. One day, out of spite, I worked out the mathematical equivalent of an oscillating balance; I plugged in the numbers and instantly saw why my premature attempt to stop the balance of swaying made it much worse! My math was rudimentary, and my numbers were very rough estimates, but it illuminated the underlying beauty of the mathematical description. I delved deeper into the study of oscillations.

Over time, I had developed a habit of distilling things to oscillatory interactions, mosty unscientifically so. It was a fun habit, like the ones one would indulge in long flights or waiting at the doctors office; From a receptionist’s desk toys, to a yoyo on a string. One of the most interesting aspects of all this indulgence was an observation. Most tangible systems have a certain amount of inherent oscillation, and it doesn’t take much to throw those oscillations off it’s limits. Oddly enough, I didn’t have to look far to find similar phonemenons.

Modern aircrafts, have computers that do a play a major role when it comes to keeping things stable. But in the 1950s, that wasn’t the case; As summarised by Virigina Heffererman, she writes,

When a plane is flying 13 miles up and close to twice the speed of sound, Wolfe writes, aerodynamics go haywire. Midcentury daredevils found that planes at that speed and altitude couldn’t bank without tumbling. Panicked pilots who instinctively rushed to reassert control, smashing knobs and buttons, would only make it worse. Several crashed and died.

The analogy is dramatic, and my reasoning is fraught with oversimpliciation and metrological fallacies. Or, maybe I am just too untrained in mathematics to put forth concrete justifications of my reasoning, but I can’t help but draw analogues between these two disparate fields of thought; Life and systems study. I can’t un-convince myself that the ups and downs of life is a perfectly normal side effect of existence; Like any system with any trace of inertia, it’s unavoidable.

The problem arises when we ourselves to actively try to achieve stabilisation. Virigina Hefferman continues,

[...] When Chuck Yeager found himself pitching at high speeds, he caught a lucky break: He was knocked unconscious. His plane rolled, horrifically, end over end, but — out cold — Yeager did nothing. Eventually he plummeted down seven full miles, back into the earth’s thicker air, where he awoke and righted his ship.

The lesson? As another pilot put it, “You take your hands off the controls and put the mother in the lap of a supernatural power.”

Or: “When frustrated, let go of the controller”

This is not to say that the optimal strategy of life is to give up any & every sort of control, but the acceptance that any trajectory in life has and will have turbulences and there’s nothing counter productive in letting go of control during turbulent times. Relating back to what I said about lower order fluctuations in life, the sadness that is rising in you, or the joy that’s lifting high up in the air is nothing but a mere indication that it won’t last; But your experiences are reflections of your existence. These ebbs and flows, to defy it is almost like trying to escape after entering a blackhole’s event horizon, it’s not a matter of strength.

Illusions of Time

A video game that doesn’t click until you let go of the controller — and your need to win

Opinion | In Praise of Mediocrity (Published 2018)

The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long


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