25 years after I last read The Lord of the Rings the pandemic has given me a renewed appreciation for the book.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In ancient times the Rings of Power were crafted by the Elven-smiths, and Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was taken from him, and though he sought it throughout Middle-earth, it remained lost to him. After many ages it fell by chance into the hands of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins.
From Sauron's fastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor, his power spread far and wide. Sauron gathered all the Great Rings to him, but always he searched for the One Ring that would complete his dominion.
When Bilbo reached his eleventy-first birthday he disappeared, bequeathing to his young cousin Frodo the Ruling Ring and a perilous quest: to journey across Middle-earth, deep into the shadow of the Dark Lord, and destroy the Ring by casting it into the Cracks of Doom.
The Lord of the Rings tells of the great quest undertaken by Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring: Gandalf the Wizard; the hobbits Merry, Pippin, and Sam; Gimli the Dwarf; Legolas the Elf; Boromir of Gondor; and a tall, mysterious stranger called Strider.
There really is something truly unique about “The Lord of the Rings” (hereafter to be abbreviated “LOTR” because I’m way too lazy to type that out over and over). It’s well recognized that without J. R. R. Tolkien we might not have Brandon Sanderson or Robert Jordon or George R. R. Martin. But, at least in my own experience, even within the annals of high fantasy, Tolkien’s work is something special.
It had been at least 25 years since I’d last read the book. But I’d just come off of re-reading the Stormlight Archives and was waiting for the ninth Expanse book to come out, so it seemed like as good a time as any to return to Middle Earth to see how it held up.
And I’ll be damned if it isn’t still one of my absolute favourite books.
I have to wonder, though, if I would’ve felt quite the same way had I not read the book at this particular time in my life. Like the people of Hobbiton, we find ourselves facing a vague threat that permeates our lives and has profoundly changed the world in ways we can barely understand. It’s dizzying! And, like the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth, while I know that eventually this threat will diminish, the world will never return to the way it was. And maybe that’s okay.Continue reading...
The third post in my Blogging for the Holidays series: Grappling with Statistics. Hopefully not so heavy…
We ask a lot of the human brain these days. For a species that evolved on the savannah of Africa, hunting and gathering in small social groups, we’re now a population of 8 billion people living and working together, tackling ever large and more complex problems. Through application of our incredible minds, unmatched in the rest of the natural world, we’ve managed to spread to every corner of the planet, plumbed the depths of the earth, dived to the bottoms of the oceans, and extended our reach into the solar system.
And yet, through it all, we find ourselves grappling with ideas that seems beyond the reach of our comprehension.
Let’s try a little Stoic exercise. First, visualize yourself from above in the room you’re sitting in now. Next, pull back, and try to visualize your home and your position in it. Now pull back again, visualizing the block on which your house sits. And again, but your quadrant of the city. Now the city itself.
Now consider how quickly you lose the ability to truly reason about size and distance. For me, beyond my local neighbourhood, I start to lose a sense of scale. When just thinking about my city, I can only picture my position on the map because of how often I’ve punched my address into a GPS.
Next imagine the scale of your country or the planet. Already we’re beyond the reach of the human mind to reason. Instead, we have to rely on relatable metaphors that connect our ground truths to these types of scales.
And the solar system? Our galaxy? Good luck. The universe? Impossible!
The same can be said of many concepts. I’ve long believed that the inability for humanity to truly rally together to address climate change is, to a great degree, a consequence of the inability of the human mind to truly understand the magnitude of aggregate human impact on the planet, or the timescales over which we’re changing it. Humanity itself has gotten so large that our collective behaviour is beyond our intuition.
Probability and statistics are another example of this phenomenon. The human mind is simply not wired to think in these terms–I suspect this is one of the many reasons why Dr. Richard Feynman is famously quoted as saying “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”
Now, in the past, we mostly led our lives without spending a lot of time thinking about statistics. Rather, we’d use our intuition to make what we believed were sensible decisions every day; intuition that was often very wrong! But in the end, given the localized impacts of these decisions, that they were based on faulty reasoning didn’t matter all that much.
But, of course, the pandemic has upended things, turning normal uncertainty into life-or-death decision making. And we’re just not wired for it.Continue reading...
The second post in my Blogging for the Holidays series: Grappling with Viruses. Starting with the heavy stuff…
There is no shortage of diseases in the world that regularly sicken or kill people. Diseases like Malaria, for example, continue to threaten people throughout the world and particularly in the global south. However, it wasn’t that long ago that the threat of communicable disease was simply part of everyday life. So prominent was disease in our lives that it has a special place in our myths, often presented as the wrath of angry gods. It even gets its a mention in the biblical prophesies of Revelations.
But today, communicable diseases, particularly in the privileged west, are largely seen as distant and manageable risks. Few go through their daily lives worried that they might be exposed to some deadly pathogen that might kill them or their friends or family.
Contrast this with the case of Smallpox. Just 400 years ago, to manage the disease, people in Asia and the Middle East developed the technique of variolation. Those practicing variolation would take the scabs or fluid from the pustules of the infected and would rub it into scratches on the skin of the well, in the hopes of triggering a minor infection that would impart immunity.
Imagine that! Imagine being so afraid of a disease that you’d scratch yourself and rub someone else’s pus into the wound.
It’s truly hard to fathom.
But such was the world before antibiotics and vaccinations, when communicable disease felled entire communities. Smallpox itself is thought to have killed between 300 and 500 million people before its eradication in the late 1970s.
The dual miracles of antibiotics and vaccination have made for a far far safer world. Yet it’s this very fact that has left so many of us so unprepared for the realities of a pandemic.Continue reading...
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