“Is Anybody Out There?”

That is the title of the cover story in this month’s issue of National Geographic. It points out that in our Universe there are billions and billions of stars, most of which have planets, and that we have had billions of years of time since the Big Bang for the development of life. From findings here on Earth, it appears that life can develop in all kinds of extreme environment, hot and cold, acidic and corrosive, so it is almost a complete certainty that there are plenty of life forms throughout the Universe, at various degree of intelligence advancement. We are not alone. The interesting question is: how do they look like?

In many of the contemporary science fiction books and movies, writers usually depict space visitors (or invaders) in various biological forms, such as that in the form of octopus. In my opinion, our space visitors are likely not so.

Let me explain my reasoning as follows:

Even though in theory there can be an almost infinite ways that life forms can evolve in various parts of the Universe depending on the local environment, two things are certain.

Firstly, no matter in which part of the Universe they come from, their technology must still obey the same physical laws as we do here on Earth. In particular, they cannot have spacecrafts traveling faster than the speed of light. Since star systems are separated by distance measured in light-years, that means space travel will require thousands if not tens of thousands of years. Biological life forms have much shorter life cycles than that due to decay and diseases and so not likely to be able to survive that long journey.

Secondly, if they are able to get on a journey traversing the vast space of Universe to reach us, they must be at a much higher level of technology than we do. This is analogous to the situation when the European explorers came to “visit”” the native America a few hundred years ago. So we should be “looking” into our far future (perhaps thousand years from now) to speculate on how they look like.

Here on Earth, life started randomly from simple biochemical molecules and evolved systematically to form biological creatures with increasing level of intelligence. As technology advances further and further, the intelligence generated in the biological life forms is then transferred to mechanical devices called computers and eventually robots, in the name of Artificial Intelligence. At the present time, we already have smart robots that can simulate many human functions, replacing real human workers. Remember that we are now only several decades since the invention of computers. Imagine several thousands years from now, or perhaps ten of thousands of years from now, the intelligence on Earth will be entirely transferred to machines, and intelligent robots will be able to do everything that human does. On the other hand, human in the form biological lives will gradually decline and be phased out as we have used up all the non-renewable energy resources and have generated enough waste to ruin the whole environment. Intelligence on this planet will then only survive in the “brains” of smart robots, as Earth moves into this new phase of intelligence evolution.

It will be those intelligent machines, which I will call “Physical Lives” that will be our space visitors, not biological ones.

In H. G. Wells” famous space invader book “ The War of the Worlds”, the invading Martians are biological life forms and they have “heat rays” that almost wiped out the human on Earth. It is fortunate that they eventually succumb to the “lowly” germs on earth for which they do not have immunity to. For the Physical Life Forms that I mention above, they are not going to have such a problem with germs, and they will have far more lethal weapons than just “heat rays”.

As to how they look like, here are my speculations based on Physical Life Forms. They will have all the physical devices required for intelligent living, such as two eyes and two ears for stereovision and hearing. They will have noses to detect odors for monitoring the environment and sound emitting devices (like our mouths) for audio communication, in addition to some advanced communication devices based on wireless waves. On the other hand, because they use physical energy such as nuclear power or some even more advanced power system (that we will probably discover in the future), they will not need any of our biological internal organs to process food, air and waste, i.e. no need for lung, heart, liver, stomach, bladder, kidney and guts etc. One thing I am not sure is whether they will still have any sex organs. Physical life forms can reproduce in a much simpler way, so that organ is obsolete. However, I think smart robot designers may still want to keep that for pleasure only. In short they will have a must simpler system to operate and maintain. As a result, they can have extremely long life spans, and that is the reason they can survive the long time travel to come to us.

One last note, it is unlikely that these Physical Life Forms will have any religion because of their super-advanced level of science development that should have cleared away most of the supernatural ideas carried over from the previous biological life forms. However, if they still do, the religion will certainly be different from any of those presently practiced here on Earth. Furthermore, if it so happens that they have preaching in their minds for the visit, it could mean great enlightenment for us people on Earth, but much more likely, it will spell a major disaster for mankind.

 

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My Knee Replacement Operation and the World Cup

My left knee started to have problem right after my retirement. It slowly got worse and worse over the past 8 years. By the middle of last year, I knew there was no more cartilage left on my left knee. It was bone rubbing on bone and so was very painful when walking. I had to start using a cane and was put on the waiting list for a knee replacement.

The operation was on June 10. I was given the spinal anesthetic so that I was paralyzed from the waist down for 12 hours. I was also given some anesthetic by mouth to put me to sleep during the two-hour operation. However, I could faintly hear a lot of loud noises of electrical tools such as drills and saws. I knew what they were for. They saw off the lower end of my thighbone and the upper end of my leg bone to put in a replacement metallic joint. After the operation, my anesthesiologist woke me up and told me the operation was good. I believed it was his duty to check that I really woke up.

When I was moved to the post-operation recovery room, I found that I had lost all my feeling from the waist down. I did not feel any pain on my leg, but also did not feel my legs at all. It was a very eerie feeling when your hand could feel your lower body but your lower body did not feel your hand! It was like that for another 10 hours.

That night my left leg was swollen from upper thigh to toes like a “steamed sausage”. It was also deep red, which scared me a lot at the beginning.  I later discovered that it was only the antiseptic solution they painted on my leg for the operation. The practical nurse washed it off for me the next day.

The post-operation pain was not as bad as I had dreaded before. On a scale of 1 to 10, I told the nurse it was only in the order of 2 to 3. The fellow on the bed next to me was reporting something like 6 to 7. We were given a self-administering morphing machine for the night. Early that night I could not sleep, not because of the pain, but because some staff members were chatting all night outside in the nurse station and a TV was on in the staff lounge just across the hallway from my room. I pumped 3 shots and was able to fall asleep. They took my machine away the next morning after seeing that I did not use it much.

The next day a physiotherapist came over and got me off my bed to walk around in a walker with two front wheels. Then I got back some mobility freedom such as going to the bathroom. Before that I could only pee in a bedpan. Unfortunately, our bathroom was shared with the patient in the next room. That meant that the bathroom had two doors, and we had to lock the other one after we got in. Once, when I opened the door, a young lady was inside and she screamed.

The following day my surgeon doctor came over and told me everything looked good and I could leave that morning. That was one day earlier than the standard 3-day stay. I was so glad that I could get out early. The food was bad. They were made for nutrition, not taste. The bathroom was filthy and also inconvenient as I mentioned above. There were constantly people talking and chatting near my room. My roommate next bed was a problematic one. He had other medical problems so that he could not get up to use the bathroom. They wheeled in a wheel chair with a commode. I was so happy that he did not use it during my stay.

I got out of the hospital at 1 PM on June 12, just in time to catch the World Cup opening ceremony starting at 2 PM that day, and the first game of Brazil vs. Cameroon at 3 PM. For the next several weeks, I would have no problem passing the time. The games were at 9 AM, noon and 3 PM Vancouver. Perfect timing.

It is a long road to recovery, but I think I will eventually be able to walk better than before the surgery. There is one thing I am truly grateful. I did not have to pay a cent for the entire operation and the hospital stay. Thank you my Canada.

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My Alaska Cruise – The Moral Conflict

 

Last week, our family went for a 7-day cruise to Alaska. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Hubbard Glacier in southeast Alaska on the Pacific Coast. Hubbard is the largest glacier in North America and is one of the very few which are not receding inspite of Global Warming.

Along the way, we stopped by three small Alaskan towns: Icy Straight Point, Juneau and Ketchikan. Juneau is actually the capital city of Alaska, but it is just a little bigger than a large fishing village here in Canada. It is bounded on one side by high mountains and the other the sea, with no roads connecting to the rest of Alaska and North America.

Our stateroom has a small balcony with a table and two deck chairs. It did not rain during the trip, so we could make good use of the balcony to watch most of the scenery in private. As we headed further and further north towards the glacier, the mountains got more and more beautiful as they got taller and more snow-capped. The most stunning was Mount Fairweather, which was named by Captain Cook in 1778 for encountering similar nice weather we had during the cruise. At 15000 ft, it is about half as high as the Himalayas, but it is a Coastal Mount right next to the open ocean (Himalayas is hundreds of miles inland), so the view was really spectacular.

There was a Naturalist called Milos aboard, giving daily science lectures on sea animals, weather, environment and climate changes etc. As the Cruise Director said, he was the science teacher we wished we had. The other shows, including dances, comedians and magicians, were equally superb.

We did not see any large marine mammals, but on the last day coming back to Vancouver, there was a large family of dolphins following us, jumping and splashing like in aquarium shows. That was the first time I saw dolphins in the wild.

At the Hubbard Glacier our ship was parked at about half a mile for safety. In front of us was a cliff of ice 20 stories high and six miles wide. There was continuous breaking-up of ice falling into the sea (called “calving”), making thunderous noises and bobbing icebergs. The bergs came in three different colors: the blue ones were packed old ice (up to 400 years old) from the middle of the glacier, the white ones were relatively fresh snow from the top of the glacier, and the black ones contained mud scratched from the mountain side as the glacier moved down. The view was breathtaking. It was as beautiful as nature could get.

Then looking back inside the ship, it is a totally different world. The ship had 1800 guests, plus 1000 staff to serve and operate. For the seven day trip, we consumed 2400 dozen eggs, 11100 lbs of potatoes, 3600 lbs of onions, 4000 lbs of Lettuce, 68000 lbs of fresh vegetable, 3000 lbs of chicken, 3700 lbs of tenderloin etc, just to name a few. This was so that food and drinks could be served all day for a total of about 9000 meals a day. It is ironic that a tremendous amount of garbage would need to be generated inside the windows for us human to enjoy the pristine nature outside the windows described above.

To many people, the cruise week was a wonderful life. We could sleep and wake up anytime (no wakeup calls as in a land tour); ate anytime and ate as much as we could. There was no need to wash dishes and to clean the bed and bathroom.

However, from the environmental moral point of view, it was a pretty rotten week of life for us. As the onboard naturalist Milos said in one of his talks,” Perhaps the human race is not destined to survive on this planet. Nature may have to get rid of us in order to rescue the planet”.

 

 

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The Lunar Eclipse and the Columbus Legend

 

On the night of April 15, the red planet Mars was at its closest point to Earth, facing Earth, and so would appear to be the brightest. It also happened to be full Moon and Mars would sit right next to it. In addition, the Moon would get into a total eclipse that night, starting with a partial eclipse here in Vancouver in the late evening, with full eclipse conveniently at mid-night.  The timing was ideal. The eclipse starts as soon as the sky gets just dark enough (by 10 PM), so we do not have to stay up late to watch.  All these together make up a beautiful night of rare stellar event to watch.

As for lunar eclipse, there is a famous legend for Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of the New World.  It comes in slightly different versions. Essentially it is as follows.

In early 1500’s, during one of the later expeditions back to the Caribbean (after his initial 1492 Voyage of Discovery), Columbus and his crew were stranded on an island inhabited by Native Indians, who refused to give them food as the Columbus crew was not nice to them. It so happened that from the “sailors almanac” Columbus knew that there was going to be a lunar eclipse on a certain night coming up, with exact times listed. So he went to the Indians and told them that God was angry with the Indians for not feeding the Columbus team and so would “extinguish” their Moon on a certain night. Of course, the Indians did not believe him, until the eclipse night when they saw the Moon really disappeared. They became “convinced” and very afraid, and so they brought food to Columbus and begged him to talk to God to save the Moon. Columbus reluctantly “agreed” and soon the Moon re-emerged. The Indians “thanked” Columbus, and his crew was well fed since.

Although the legend is very entertaining, I find it too good to be true. Firstly, the tool for the calculations of movement of celestial bodies, the Newtonian Mechanics and the Law of Universal Gravitation, were not established until 150 years later in the 1660’s, so how could people of the day possibly predict an eclipse precisely to the hour for Columbus to play such a game? In fact, people at that time still believed the Sun revolving around the Earth, not the other way round. The great astronomer Copernicus worked on his Heliocentric Theory (that the planets go around the Sun, not the Earth) from 1506 to 1530, long after this Columbus trip to America.

Secondly, since lunar eclipses are quite frequent (occurring several times a year), the Indians must have seen enough of this “God extinguishing the Moon” show long before Columbus arrived, and so should not fall for his trick so easily.

IMHO, the legend was simply one made up by “historians” for fun, in particular, most likely by Columbus’s son (who wrote the initial story) as a spicy fairy tale to glorify his dad. On the other hand, it could also be made up by Columbus himself. He probably got the Indian food through some un-speakable means, and had to cook up a divine story to cover it.

As for viewing this “perfect” eclipse of April 15, the story ended just like many other stories in my life. When I was presented with a great opportunity, I had to miss it, often for simple or stupid reasons.

For this extremely rare stellar event, the sky was simply cloudy over Vancouver on the night of April 15, 2014. Columbus’ trick would have fail if the sky were otherwise on his night.

 

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Rotten Deals Faithfully Accepted

In the March 3 issue of TIME, there was an interview of the Holiness Dala Lama by the TIME reporter Elizabeth Dias who specializes in theologies. I presume it was for the occasion of celebrating International Woman’s Day on March 8. One of the questions was:

“What do you think Pope Francis and the Catholic Church can learn from Buddhism’s view of Women.”?

On first glance, the question seems to suggest that Buddhism has a higher level of wisdom on the status of women. Dala Lama’s answer was: (complete quote)

“Generally speaking, each one should follow their traditional way, (but) sometimes we have to judge according to a new reality. For example, female rights are very important. His holiness, the Pope, I think is very, very realistic and quite strict. I really admired his dismissing one German bishop (who was living) his own private life in a very sort of expensive, luxurious (way).”

Honestly, I cannot sense any wisdom in such an answer…. but then I am not surprised at all.

When I was a small kid, I remember one day I overheard my mother ranting to her best friends, “I don’t want to be a woman next life!”

At that time, I was too young to understand anything about it.

When I got older, one day I happened to find a Buddhism pamphlet called “The Book of Three Lives (Reincarnations)”, which “explains” why we have such and such a life this round. The idea is to “teach” people how to build up good Karma for the next life from lessons in the past life.

It has lines like “Wonder why you always lose money in business this life; that is because you owed money from others last life.”

“Wonder why you are born into a rich family; that is because you gave generously to the poor last life”.

And then I found this one. ” Wonder why you are a woman this life; that is because you did no good in the past life.” My heart sank. O my Mom!

When I looked at other religious books, I found the same pattern. Women are secondary and inferior.

In the Book of Genesis, when I read that the first woman was made from the rib of a man, and that, after listening to a talking snake and eating a forbidden apple, she was condemned to suffer labor pain for child birth and that she had to obey her husband, I said to myself “ O Really?” When my wife was struggling with labor pain in the delivery room for my kids, I never felt that she deserved it because another woman did something wrong before. Instead, I felt I had to love her more because she was willing to go through that suffering for our family.

As for Islam, I wonder what would I feel if I have to share my loving wife with four other men, and that I have to cover from head to toe in black walking in 40-degree heat.

The most ridiculous (and horrific) case I found was the Devadasi in Hinduism, where young poor girls are “offered” to the temple for sacred duties. In reality, they simply become entertainment objects of the holy men in the church: the infamous Prostitutes of God offering “Sacred Sex”.

Why do women get all such rotten deals from religions?

Even worse, why would women be willing to accept these rotten deals and do not see them as exploitation in disguise? Apparently, they are under the chokehold of having to be faithful to their religions. In my humble opinion, all these great religions will be so much the better by removing these questionable (literally Man-made) gender biases built into their scriptures. These biases will only benefit the leaders, not the people following the religions.

When I remember my mother said she did not want to be a woman next life, it makes me feel that she did this one just for me.

 

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The Joy of Holding A Lottery Ticket

 

 

A month ago, I got news from Hong Kong that one of my aunts just got baptized. She was in her mid-70s, so I found it a bit surprising. Why did she not pick up a religion when she was young? What was she doing it for now?

Last week, when I was waiting for a bus home, I met an old gentleman at the stop and started a casual little chat. I mentioned about my aunt being baptized at such an old age. He said, “Well, you don’t get an afterlife unless you have a religion.” He seemed to be a well-educated man. While I was trying to figure out what he meant, his bus came and we parted.

On my way home through the mall, I walked by a lottery booth. It displayed a big sign “20 Million Dollar Jackpot This Friday”. There was a line buying tickets. Out of curiosity, I bought a ticket for $2.

That night I when looked at the ticket, wonderful thoughts came to me. What if I win? What do I do with 20 million bucks? I could buy a big house, a fast car, a beautiful yacht and even perhaps a private jet. In short, I should have no problem finishing up everything on my bucket list.  How wonderful, if I win!

Even though I knew I had a virtually zero chance of winning with that ticket, yet I felt so happy fantasizing about a fortune just because there was a chance, however minute.

Then came the draw on Friday night, and of course my ticket did not win. By Saturday morning, life had already returned to normal, the fantasies all disappeared but I still remembered the happy feeling I had holding that lottery ticket for the past several days like in a sweet dream. In the end, it was just false hope but I got three happy days for $2. On looking back, even though I knew full well that it was just about impossible for me to win and yet I could not control the warm feeling of fantasizing about “financial freedom” every minute before the draw. I may be fooling myself, but it was worth it.

And then I remembered what the man said at the bus stop.

Although I do not believe in afterlife, what if there is really one? My science professor said nothing could be absolutely certain. That is why we do science. What appears to be impossible now may become possible in the future someday. So just in case there is really an afterlife, imagine how wonderful it would be. We will no longer have to worry about our health (because we will never die again). That means we will effectively get back our youth and stay in it forever. We can even meet our deceased love ones, our parents, our grandparents and old friends. The list of happiness is endless. Indeed, for older people like myself, just the sheer thought of having an afterlife would bring up a lot of hope and happiness. The pipe dream is exactly like buying a lottery ticket and fantasizing about the riches.

So, after the day I die, if I find out that there is really no afterlife, it would still be OK. I will not be able to come back to complain about it anyway, but I would have already enjoyed a period of happy fantasy for the final years of my life when everything else is gloomy and sad. Happiness is what counts in life.

Now I understand why the idea of an afterlife is more and more appealing as one gets older and older.

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It is Easy to be a Psychic.

In this beginning of the year, I notice that the social media, magazines, newspapers and even YouTube, are filled with predictions and horoscopes for the year 2014, presented by various professional psychics and “gifted” people with divine powers.

For these, I always have these basic questions.

  1. How do these gifted people come up with those wonderful predictions? Why can’t they tell us?
  2. How accurate are these predictions? By this I mean do they ever come back at the end of the year to review what percentage of their predictions come true?
  3. Why different psychics have different predictions? Are they not “gifted” by the same divine power? In contrast to this, different scientists all over the world give essentially the same predictions.

To my great disappointment, I find that people seldom ask those questions. For the first one, they do not ask simply because they do not want to offend “sacred” people with divine powers. For the second one, they are easily impressed by the predictions that are fulfilled and not questioning those that failed. For the third one, it seems that they just assume the psychics are “gifted” in different ways.

In view of the above, I would like to introduce this “Measure of Divinity”, which is on a scale of 0 to 10. The higher the number, the more “divine” the forecast will be. For instance, predicting that the sun will rise tomorrow from the East has a measure of 0, while predicting the whole set of tomorrow’s lottery numbers will be close to 10. When I look at all the predictions of the gifted psychics in front of me, I would say virtually all of them would measure in the order of about 1, or 2.

So it seems to me that it is not difficult to be a psychic after all. You can simply say that something is going to happen to somebody or to the world. The easy part is that you do not have to explain why, other than saying that it comes from your gifted divine power. The best part of it is that only part of what you say need to be correct and people will still be happy.

So I will do my share of psychic contribution as below.

As a totally “ungifted” person with absolutely no divine power (that I know of), I would like to present my 10 predictions for the year 2014 as follows;

  1. There will be new outbreak of unrest in the Middle East and in surrounding countries.
  2. Some important world political leaders will be involved in scandals that may lead to their stepping down.
  3. Forest fires will hit California and Australia, while floods will hit East and South Asia.
  4. Hurricanes will hit Cuba and Florida, while typhoons will hit Taiwan and the Philippines.
  5. One or more top Hollywood movie stars will pass away.
  6. Gun violence will hit US schools or shopping malls.
  7. Major earthquakes will hit the Pacific Rim countries.
  8. One or more countries in Europe will develope financial problems.
  9. Terrorist strikes will hit the US or Europe.
  10. Some new electronic gadgets will appear on the market and become very popular.

For now, it is not necessary for you to ask me how I come up with these “foresights”, but I am pretty sure by January 2015, when we review these “predictions”, you will think I must have some divine power.

So by then you can call me a psychic.

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