Category Archives: Sailors

God, Chess and Einstein’s Dilemma

Tristan Jones once sailed to the Arctic Ocean in a converted lifeboat and the company of a three legged, one-eyed dog. Frankly, I think the dog was the only one he could convince.

Tristan_Jones Inevitably the ice fields closed around him and the boat was trapped in the lee of an enormous berg. The counterbalancing mass beneath the surface eroded and the berg shifted, positioning thousands of tons of blue ice directly above the lifeboat held fast by the pack ice. Throughout the arctic winter the odds were even whether the pack would free the boat first or the berg would turn turtle and crush it like a rotten melon.

Jones mostly ate burgoo, a loathsome layering of porridge, bacon, and whatever else was at hand, flavored with whiskey and frozen in a barrel on deck. Meals consisted of chipping off bits of burgoo with a hammer and heating it in a paraffin stove. The dog ate the same but probably enjoyed it more.

God lit the fuse that ignited the Big Bang, the dice were rolled, and the game begun.

Jones played chess with himself. A game with proper suspense required he forget his opponents’ strategy, a sort of self-induced schizophrenia. At first he had to wait several weeks between moves until he had forgotten the old strategy of what was now his new opponent. It was awkward.

Over time he perfected his ability to play without cheating. Not only could he bounce between players in the game, occupying the memories and strategy of one while forgetting the other, but a third personality developed, a meta personality that impartially observed both players, cognizant of either strategy, forming judgments and opinions but giving away no clues to the opponents. The lifeboat became rather crowded.

I wonder if God plays chess.

Before the first creation, before the spark that ignited the universe, God was pure potential, the sum of all possibilities but the realization of none. What’s the point of potential if it’s never actualized? I suspect God was like a kid with a new 12-gauge shotgun and nothing to shoot.

Of course it’s absurd to ascribe human emotions to something utterly beyond human experience. Whatever the impetus, God lit the fuse that ignited the Big Bang, the dice were rolled, and the game begun.

There’s a problem. A game is hardly interesting if you already know the outcome. God was faced with Tristan Jones’ dilemma: How do you play a game alone? I suspect God’s solution was the same—forget that all the players are yourself.

It’s an elegant solution if simplistic. Everything comes from God initially; everything returns. In the interim, everything forgets itself in order to play the game convincingly.

Einstein, confronted by the inherent uncertainty of Quantum Mechanics, asserted that God didn’t play dice with the universe. Perhaps he was wrong.

Of course, it’s not my original idea. It’s been kicking about for thousands of years, probably first recorded in cuneiform on clay tablets. God is insatiably curious. Curiosity is the spark that ignited creation. Of course God, being omniscient, already knew what would happen. But we didn’t. We’re continually surprised, delighted, appalled, enraptured, disgusted, intrigued, excited, depressed, disappointed, amazed. In short, we’re immersed and enthralled by the game.

And that may explain those people with near death experiences who don’t remain dead, their entire lives flashing before their eyes in exacting detail complete with emotional soundtrack played in a bubble of timelessness. It sounds rather like a data dump, the incredibly dense data of a person’s entire life.

Albert_EinsteinI find that thought oddly comforting. Nothing is lost, nothing forgotten. Every false start, every failed ambition is remembered. As well, every kindness, every selfless act, and every bit of wonder.

Einstein, confronted by the inherent uncertainty of Quantum Mechanics, asserted that God didn’t play dice with the universe. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps God does play dice. Or chess.

Perigee Approaches

 NASA – Biggest Full Moon of the Year: Take 2

Moon over Puget Sound. Photo attribution: PFLY.

This Saturday, January 10, the moon will be in perigee, it’s closest approach to the earth for the year. It will be a moon of magnificent size especially as it nears the western horizon at 7:39 Sunday morning.

For reasons still unexplained, the moon seems larger near the horizon. I remember a night watch onboard a boat we delivered from Oahu to San Francisco. We were a week into a three week passage, already a bit dazed from standing watch-on-watch. Because there were only three in the delivery crew, we stood our watches alone. There was no one to ask when, in the middle of the wide Pacific, a ship steamed over the horizon on a collision course for the only other boat in existence, a 40 foot sailboat making four knots.

It must have been a cruise ship. The decks were flooded with light. Amid all the back scatter, I couldn’t pick out its running lights, couldn’t determine its exact direction, but it was coming on fast. I seriously thought about turning on the engine but where would I steer? The ship seemed to fill the eastern horizon as if it were about to run us down. They wouldn’t even feel the collision. They’d even know to turn and look for survivors. There seemed no escape.

And then the ship’s hull cleared the horizon. Something in my head audibly clicked. What seemed a ship at risk of collision turned into the moon rising above an empty ocean, an enormous moon sailing overhead.

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Sassafras, Syphilis, and the Land of Bad People

Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine, was commissioned by the French king Francis to explore the new world in 1524. Verrazzano made landfall near Cape Fear in the Carolinas and eventually sailed north to the coast of Maine which he called The Land of Bad People. Seventy-eight years later another explorer, Bartholomew Gosnold, sailed south from Nova Scotia to the Land of Bad People looking for a cure for syphilis. He was under the misapprehension that sassafras was that cure.

According to the History and Epidemiology of Syphilis, the disease had been recently introduced to Europe and everyone was to blame. The English called it the French disease. The French called it the Spanish disease. Ironically, it appears to have been the American disease, first contracted by Columbus’ crew from Caribbean islanders.

Even though it had no effect on syphilis, the root of sassafras made a passable drink later called root beer—a passable soft drink but not much of a beer. It has an alcohol content of only 0.4% by volume. Understandably, it was most popular during prohibition. Sassafras is also street slang for marijuana but so is almost everything.

It may be an inconsequential bit of loosely related history but it what a great title for a short story: Sassafras, Syphilis, and the Land of Bad People. I should get Chris Furst to build a body of flesh around its bones.

Urban Legends of San Francisco Sailors

Continuing with the theme Urban Legends of San Francisco Sailors, there are numerous legends about the single most dramatic landmark of the Bay—the Golden Gate Bridge. I sailed under the bridge a lot teaching coastal sailing, heavy weather techniques, and damage control but I always kept a wary eye aloft, especially after hearing about the Monterey fishing smack.

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