Hegel, in 1822: No man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also is own spirit.
In the dying wetlands of the North Bay, there are these flocks of starlings that zip back and forth on the wind in great clouds or like a school of fish, but for starlings they call it a murmuration. Hegel thinks time moves the way a murmuration of starlings appears to move: in unison and unanimously. But watch these these murmurations of starlings; first one bird changes direction, fights the momentum of the group, recruits others to his cause, and if enough of them do so, the entire group moves. If he fails, he returns to the fold.
By necessity, then, it is not only possible for a man to surpass his own time, but for time to advance at all, it is required.
And Hegel would say, in 1807: This self-preserving Now is, therefore, not immediate but mediated; for it is determined as a permanent and self-preserving Now […] it is still just simply Now as before, and in this simplicity is indifferent to what happens in it.
And I tell Hegel That’s certainly how Everyone feels, isn’t it?
I stood on the balcony of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with my colleague.
You know the sun doesn’t set in the West, I told him.
I can see it right now, he said.
No, only twice a year, on the equinoxes.
I can see it right now and it’s February.
I know. But the Golden Gate isn’t due West of us.
Yes it is, he said.
No, I told him. It’s almost one minute South of West.
Today is the day the sun sets directly behind the Golden Gate from where we are.
You took the time to figure that out?
Every year it’s February ninth and November first.
You can reflect the sun completely in a glass of water the same way you can reflect it off the ocean if the ocean is still enough. In that way it’s like a fractal, isn’t it. You can take a still thimble and gaze at the reflection of the setting sun and then place that thimble in a field of millions of thimbles and watch the same setting sun. You can sit in the cupola of the International Space Station and watch that same setting sun. In the Bay we have two suns. I watched the two suns embrace at the horizon just below the bridge and disappear together.
I was waiting for a train at the Rockridge BART station listening to Moby when I caught a glimpse of the city reflected perfectly in the fractal water. I walked to the edge of the platform and felt the flow of cars on either side of me move on one side like a glacier, the other like slow and gentle lava. The cars were dangerous in the way galaxies were dangerous: The Milky Way and Andromeda don’t move fast through space, but they have mass. The Milky Way and Andromeda will slowly intertwine and destroy each other. They are not dangerous because they move quickly, but because they have momentum. It’s how a murmuration of starlings moves you when you’re fighting the group: Slowly but irrevocably.
“Scream Pilots” played in my ears; I placed my hands on the railing as the music and a land breeze took me.
Sorrow for the gentle lava: All they can do is drive their cars to wherever their destination—the night shift at work maybe—apathetic or unaware of the beauty around them. That only a few miles away from where they are they could be on top of the hills, looking down over the Bay as the suns hugged across the horizon, they could be removed from the bustle of the 21st century to admire things living and breathing.
And yet of course at the same time they create the beauty by being a part of it, and when I go into the city I do my small part to create it to, hoping that somewhere might be someone like me standing on the Rockridge platform or up in the Berkeley Hills admiring the beauty in the same way. I used to think this was the great paradox of life: Being unable to both witness the beauty and help create it at the same time. I can stand on the Rockridge platform and watch the city unfold before me, but by necessity there must be more people creating the city than observing it.
I don’t think this anymore because it’s not fractal in the way water reflecting light is fractal. We sit at the edge of the Milky Way and remark on the beauty of the galactic bulge because it makes us realize that we are not the center of things. So too did I stand on a train platform in Oakland remarking on the beauty of San Francisco realizing that Oakland is not the heart of the Bay. But where the people in San Francisco can’t look around them and remark on the beauty of their own city because they can’t observe it from the outside, I can only imagine that planets within the galactic bulge have only more stars to see, that the closer you are to the galactic center, the more beauty there is to behold.
Thus this perceived paradox is not a paradox at all, it’s just something we’ve created. It isn’t natural, nor is it necessary.
For the past few years, life has taken on a sense of jamais vu, like endless repetitions of a word. You can’t place exactly when the word started sounding strange, but one more repetition of it and you to realize that it’s not only strange now, but it has been for some time. It’s being betrayed by your own senses, wondering when it all went wrong and how many times you repeated the thing without realizing its strangeness. I don’t remember when I stopped seeing stars in the sky because I eventually forgot about them, but when I started working at LBL I knew that I hadn’t seen them for some time, and that nothing had been the same since.
In that moment I realized I had missed out on some integral experience tying together the entire history of life on Earth. I was detached from this history, floating inexorably towards an event horizon beyond which humanity loses contact with its place in the universe, and like the gentle lava, the slow momentum of history was too great for me to stand against alone, and yet nobody around me seemed to notice.
I imagined myself on the cover of the “Scream Pilots” album, as the small hand-drawn alien looking up in loneliness at the sky, saying Wait for me.
I called Thomas the next day and told him how I felt and what I wanted to do.
He told me, Let’s go camping.
We were lying on our backs waiting for the sun to set and he asked me if I believed in God.
Scientists don’t believe in God, I told him.
I asked about you, he said, and sure they do.
I told him I believed God was light and he said, Okay, you don’t need to make fun of me.
The universe never once looked like this, I said. That star might be a million light years away, that one a billion. They might not have even existed at the same time, there might be no overlap at all, and certainly they didn’t look the way they do now at the same time. We’re seeing that star as it was during the first humans maybe, and that star as it was hundreds of millions of years before the dinosaurs. We’re not looking at the universe as it ever was—we’re looking at different parts of it as they were at different times.
I guess so.
I said, Think about relativity. Time slows down as you approach the speed of light, and distance compresses. That means that for something moving at the speed of light, time and distance have no meaning at all—from the photon’s perspective, it is both here and still at that star at the same time, and at the place it’ll be billions of years from now. And all three of those locations are in the same location—it never had to move at all and it didn’t, and it never will. But since from our perspective it’ll continue to move indefinitely it’ll eventually have to pass through every point in the universe. That means that from the photon’s perspective, it is everywhere in the universe all at once, and everything that has ever happened or ever will happen happens at the same time and in the same place. And some photons travel across the entire breadth of the known universe just to end their billion-year-long lives in a chloroplast or a retinal cell. The entire planet lives—we, as living observers—live and observe only because light that encompasses the entire universe in an infinitely small volume allows it to happen.
A shooting star passed overhead and Thomas said, Did you see that shooting star?
Of course I saw it, I told him.
Thomas said he knew a guy named Ray from Pacific Gas and Electric who knew how the power grid worked, but that Ray was a weird guy. I said that’s okay. Thomas arranged a meeting and we sat down at a Starbucks in San Jose. Ray reminded me of a mouse.
I’ve been calculating the square root of three lately, said Ray.
Why, I asked.
To prove that reality isn’t a hologram.
I don’t get it.
Why is the speed of light three hundred million meters per second? He asked.
It isn’t, I said. It’s two hundred ninety-nine million—
That’s not what I mean, Ray said. I mean why is it that.
It just is.
Exactly, said Ray. We can envision any other universe where the speed of light is anything else and it would function about the same. Why is the speed of light so slow? It takes billions of years for the fastest thing possible to cross the universe.
It’s not quite like that.
What I’m saying is that it’s a totally arbitrary number because the universe is a simulation.
Like The Matrix.
Don’t patronize me, said Ray. Do you realize how advanced computers are today? I know a lot of programmers, so I can tell you. Real fucking advanced. And they’ve only been around for what? Fifty years? Imagine how much more advanced they’ll become in another fifty years, or a hundred years, or a thousand years even. We’re talking things we can’t even dream of, man. Things we can’t even conceive of. A civilization like that could make simulations so advanced that even the programs don’t realize they’re programs.
Hear me out. Say in a civilization advanced enough to make a simulation like that, it takes x amount of energy to create and run such a simulation. Now say they wanted to create a physical universe—well that would take billions of times more energy. The fact of the matter is it’s way easer to make a simulation than it is to make a real universe, you see what I’m saying? If it were a hundred times easier to make a simulation than to make a real universe, that’s a hundred times more likely that we’re living in a simulation than in reality. This is the real deal, man.
So I’m calculating the square root of three, he said, because it’s irrational. Their universe may be very meticulous, but eventually they have to have an end to their irrational numbers because there’s only so much computing power available. If I run into either an infinitely repeating sequence or I reach the end, well that’s sure as hell a pretty bad sign, isn’t it?
Why don’t you just use pi? They’ve already gone pretty far with pi.
You think a civilization advanced enough to create a virtual universe wouldn’t calculate pi out to at least a few trillion digits? No, man. Pi, e, root two, they’re all too common. I’ve got to think outside the box.
Can I see the program you wrote?
Oh I’m not a programmer. If I just went out and got a computer and told it to keep calculating the square root of three, that’s just a giant universal computer creating a computer within itself and telling it to calculate the square root of three. It churns out numbers and I have no idea whether those numbers are right or wrong, but I assume they’re right because it’s a computer. But the Big Computer could just be making up random digits for my computer to churn out that may or may not be correct. Only if I do it by hand can I be sure all the digits are right, and the Big Computer isn’t just dicking me around.
I’m looking for a programmer.
I told you, I know programmers.
Most of the Bay is serviced by PG&E, but there are dozens of substations, get it? said Ray. The most logical way to do it is to get into the office of the main one in San Jose. From there you can upload some kind of virus that will knock out all the other PG&E substations from here to Pittsburg.
And that will black everything out?
Not really. There are power stations not owned by PG&E that would reroute power to the customers in the outage.
Ray provided me with a list of non-PG&E power stations:
– Santa Clara: Donald Von Raesfeld (Silicon Valley Power)
– Pittsburg: Delta Energy Center, Los Medanos Energy Center, Pittsburg Power Gas (Calpine)
– San Jose: Los Esteros Critical Energy Facility (Calpine)
o Most of the non-PG&E substations in the South Bay come from here
– Hayward: Russell City Energy Center (Calpine)
He wrote it on a napkin and slipped it into my bag. I asked him if he could get me into the San Jose station, and he said probably. I asked him if he knew a programmer, and he said, For the last time yes. I’ll put you in touch, too. But the catch is that this guy doesn’t act strictly within the confines of the American Justice System, you know? Like, we should keep it on the DL.
On Gauss Way at the LBL complex there’s a building that has no number, but instead is identified by a straight-edge-and-compass construction of a regular heptadecagon. The story is that the Greeks used to try to make regular polygons using only a straight edge and compass, but they could only do it for polygons with a multiple of three or five sides. They could do triangles, pentagons, 15-gons, 30-gons, but they could not do heptadecagons. They suspected it couldn’t be done. It wasn’t known to be possible until Carl Friedrich Gauss proved it in 1796 using an extremely complicated construction.
Two hundred years later, when the University of California, Berkeley finally decided to name the heretofore-unnamed access road, and chose the name Gauss Way, the obvious number for the first building on that road was not 1 but 17, and in lieu of the number on the door, they chose the Gauss construction of the heptadecagon.
The irony of this story is that Gauss’s construction is not doable in practice, because even if you were as precise as possible, the smallest of errors that you invariably make during each step eventually compound, resulting in a failed construction during the final step. Of course the number on the door was likely put on by a contractor copying an image by hand, which means the heptadecagon on the door of 17 Gauss Way drawn through the Gauss construction is imperfect, made so by the compilation of a thousand tiny human errors that are invisible in themselves.
The programmer was a Japanese man named Hidehito who worked for Denso when the QR Code was invented. He left the company when the code started to become popular. Now he finds QR codes in public places and manufactures his own that he prints onto stickers and places over them. These code stickers are identical to the old codes except for the key difference that whatever link the code sends you to, it also sends metadata to Hidehito’s computer. Hidehito uses a network of these stickers across the globe to compile metadata profiles of people, which he then sells to anyone who is willing to buy. His clients include banks, governments, advertisers, hitmen.
I want to ask you about your job, Hidehito.
I’m a programmer for hire.
You know what I mean.
I’m afraid I don’t. Would you care to see my car?
It’s a Tesla. Have you ever seen a Tesla?
He took me out to his car and opened the passenger door for me. I got in and he joined in the driver’s seat.
I don’t really care if you like my car, he said.
I’m looking for a programmer that can shut down power to all PG&E plants in the Bay Area. The reason I’m doing this—
I don’t care. I can do it for ten thousand and have the code for you in a month.
That’s a lot of money.
We’ll meet here again in two weeks and you’ll pay me the money, two weeks later I will give you the code.
Half the money now, half when the job is done, I told him.
That’s not how we do this. Hidehito pulled out his wallet and handed me a twenty. Go inside and pay the bill.
When I got out of his car he drove off.
Oftentimes I go to the lab even when I’m not working. Mostly this is just to cry.
I should clarify: I don’t go to the lab for the purpose of crying, but crying is invariably what takes place. I almost never go inside on these excursions and instead sit in the grass next to the parking lot, and when it gets dark I lie on my back and stare out into the cosmos.
My theory is that part of the reason Society-at-Large has stopped caring about nature is that we look incorrectly at the stars (when we can see them at all). We stand in place and crane our necks back, which, while it allows for mostly the same view, eventually causes the neck to hurt, which gives us an excuse to look away after only a minute. I lie down because instead of looking up at the cosmos from the ground I like to look out at the cosmos from the face of the Earth. It doesn’t hurt my neck even though I have a very bad back. My hope is that if Society-at-Large stopped finding an excuse to look away, eventually they would stop feeling like they need one.
Two days later I got a postcard from Hidehito. On it was a phone number, the name Kenny, and the words HOTELS HAVE BACKUP GENERATORS.
I met with Kenny in the lobby of a hotel. He wore a cheap suit and carried a cheap briefcase.
It’s great to meet you!
Are you Kenny?
The one and only! Let’s go to my room, shall we? I have an excellent selection for you.
We went up to his room, which was also cheap, and stood on opposite sides of the bed, with his cheap briefcase in the middle. Kenny went to the closet and pulled out several of those hotel hangers where instead of a hook, they just had a little nub that slides into a loop in the closet so that you can’t steal the hanger. He opened the briefcase, inside of which were piles of little metal hooks.
Here, he said to me, holding up a brass one, we have a little buddy I like to call Brass Tacks.
He then affixed the brass hook to the hanger nub.
I’m sorry, what is this?
You’re here to buy HangerHoox™, aren’t you?
I don’t know what those are.
You haven’t seen my commercials?
I’m sorry, no. Why would people bother buying hooks to steal hotel hangers when they could just buy hangers?
I do quite well for myself, he said. He put the hook back in the briefcase and opened the door.
Wait, I told him. Hidehito gave me your number.
Are you going to pitch me an investment? Because you don’t look like the kind of guy who has an investment opportunity for me.
I need ten thousand dollars to cause a blackout across the Bay Area.
That’s ridiculous. No.
Hotels have backup generators.
Kenny closed the door. Pardon?
Hotels have backup generators. Houses don’t.
Kenny came back over to the bed. How long would this blackout last?
In some places a couple of days, in others a couple of weeks.
Kenny looked at the ground, wetted his lips. You don’t sound like the kind of guy I normally work with. You’re sure you can pull this off?
Not without the money.
He thought for a moment.
On the fire trail up in the Berkeley hills there’s a bench carved from a eucalyptus that sits at the back of a canyon, from which you can see the road that leads to the lab, downtown Berkeley, parts of Oakland, and on a clear day, all the way out past the Golden Gate. Just before this bench is a gap in the trees where you can leave the main trail and, after scaling roots up a short but steep hill, come to a second, largely-unknown trail looking off the back of the hills into the residential neighborhood. If you take a right at this trail you reach the summit, where the view is both more panoramic and darker than the view from the lab. I chose this as my observatory.
Kenny solved the problem of blacking out the non-PG&E plants by suggesting the construction of several pipe bombs that could be easily smuggled into the facility by false employees and placed amongst the conduits where they would likely go unnoticed for at least the evening. He told me he had several people he could hire, but that I would have to make the bombs myself, since I had access to chemicals at the lab. He warned me not to look online for instructions because of Edward Snowden.
I need your help, I told Thomas. I don’t want the NSA tracking my searches.
Have you ever heard of the city of Zara?
No, Thomas said. We stood on the balcony of the lab watching the glaciers cross the Bay Bridge back into Oakland for the evening.
It’s not called Zara anymore. It’s called Zadar, and it’s in Croatia.
I’ve never been to Croatia.
Me either, I said. I’ve always thought that San Francisco was the Venice of the modern world.
It’s because it isn’t very big objectively, but it has such an incredibly vast influence through trade and the arts and in this case technology that it really is the one of the most powerful places in the world. I mean this is where it’s all happening just like Venice was. I’m talking about medieval Venice, if you didn’t get that already.
I got it.
But every Venice needs a Zara. Zara was industrious, wealthy, somewhat powerful. Eventually they challenged Venice’s power, so the doge paid off the crusaders to sack the city. The Pope excommunicated the crusaders because Zara was Christian, but it didn’t matter. Venice won. Later on it orchestrated the sacking of Constantinople with those same excommunicated crusaders, leaving it as the sole power in the Mediterranean. Especially for the production of silk.
Look at everyone coming back from work. They all live in Oakland; those are all Oaklanders working twelve-hour days to make San Francisco this great city.
So Zara is Oakland. And gentrification is the crusaders. Maybe Silicon Valley is the doge or something. Or maybe gentrification is the doge and racism and income inequality are the crusaders, I don’t know. Either way the analogy holds.
Why are you telling me this?
Because Venice was a shining beacon of civilization in an otherwise-uncivilized time, supposedly. According to Everyone. But nobody ever talks about Zara. Nobody ever stands up for Zara. Even the Pope rescinded the excommunication almost immediately because Venice was powerful enough to challenge his authority.
Are you saying you’re Zara too, then? Because you’re some kind of populist hero janitor?
Don’t patronize me.
Thomas asked about my plan, but left when I told him that I was working with Ray and Hidehito and Kenny and the four men Kenny hired. He left in a hurry, but I don’t know where he went.
Four weeks after our first meeting, I met with Hidehito again to exchange the program.
This is a nice car, I told him.
Thank you. Would you like to hear the sound system?
We got in the car. He turned the radio on and pulled an envelope from his breast pocket.
Put the thumb drive into the computer and copy the files over. Tell your man to put them in an unassuming folder that isn’t checked often. The program can be activated from your iPhone by texting this number here. The password rotates every seventeen hours and only I know it, so you’ll have to call me on a burner before you launch it.
I like this sound system. I opened the door and left.
I’ve never really wondered about the afterlife, mostly because I died once back in grad school, and it was nothing special. A truck driver carrying a Maersk crate fell asleep at the wheel on 580 and tipped his trailer, which my car hit head on. I was alone in the arctic, under feet of sea ice in warm water. It was beautiful, my eyes were open, water was clear, and around me for miles I could see rolling sand dunes and murmurations of starlings zipping back and forth on the water’s flows. Just below the warm sea ice I sat in the soft currents with my limbs steadily drifting away like I was training for a trip to the ISS. Then a set of arms broke through the ice and grabbed at me; I hit them away like mosquitos; they were annoying. They took my wrists and spread me akimbo, lifted me up out of the water:
And I gasped, saw the paramedic sitting on top of me with his knees holding my arms down and his hands on my chest. When I breathed the broken pieces of rib slid across each other. I was on the 580 pavement and I was dry.
The paramedics put me on a stretcher, into a helicopter, and I slipped into a coma.
Anyways we got to do it in the next week, man. I copied the file, but the IT guy sifts through the hard drives every week and gets rid of anything we don’t need. Keeps clutter down, you know what I’m saying?
There’s a clear sky in two days, we can do it then, I said to Ray.
I think I found a repeating sequence, he said.
In root three. Six fours in a row, man. Four four four four four four, all in a row. I’ve never come across a string of digits that long before. It starts at place 87,556. Right now I’m at 87,562. I really think this is it, man. You’re collapsing the wave function.
That’s not the same thing as what you’re talking about.
How do you know there are even stars up there?
I’ve seen stars before.
Yes, in other places. How do you know there are even stars above San Francisco? Have you ever lived in a time where you could see stars from San Francisco? No. None of us have. What if there never were any stars above San Francisco because whoever designed our program never intended anyone to try and find them. You’re messing up their scheme by doing this, and it’s taking a lot of processing power or something, man. Processing power that’s supposed to be going to calculating the square root of three beyond 87,556 digits. You’re breaking everything down, man. This could be a new era.
It could be, I told him. Not for the reasons he thought, though.
In the coma I wasn’t dead; I was very much alive and that’s what made it better. Being dead was boring, just floating there under that ice with the starlings. In the coma, I got to explore the whole universe and found that I already knew where everything was when I got there. I was a lesser god that could move freely about all of creation. For hundreds of years I was there until my beard grew in long and grey and my eyes became turgid. I sat on neutron stars and drank out of subsurface oceans. Out there, there are planets so vast they have red spots the size of Jupiter. Out there is a comet with a period of twenty million years. The Sloan Great Wall is one-eighth the size of the largest galactic filament. The observable universe is just one sentence out of a very long book.
When I was called back two and a half weeks later, the doctors threw around words regarding my mental faculties, the university gave me a medical withdrawal, a social worker got me a job cleaning the lab where I used to work. I was treated differently, but that wasn’t what dissatisfied me. I was bored, I was trapped in my body. I wasn’t believed.
On the clear-sky night I got a call from Hidehito telling me that his men had planted the bombs successfully, and that they were ready to go off as soon as I gave him the signal. As the two suns crept closer on the horizon, I lay down on the grass and typed out the number 662606957 and pressed send.
I lived my entire life in Oakland thinking that Mt. Hamilton was a true wonder of nature, and when I traveled the universe I discovered Mt. Everest. Science has yet to discover even the Rockies. We can’t hope explore the Himalayas in a single human lifetime, and because of this we as a species have ceased to climb mountains altogether.
But what we can do in a single human lifetime is climb a single mountain, maybe two. Each successive generation can climb another, and eventually we will have such an extensive cartography that in a thousand generations, you won’t have to explore the Himalayas in a single human lifetime because they will already be at your disposal, laid out in charts and photographs ingrained in the collective consciousness of mankind. The exploring can be done on the computer, on the page, on the chalkboard. Undergraduates don’t need to build their own supercolliders to learn the elementary particles, but at some point, somewhere, somebody did have to. In my single human life, I can’t explore the cosmos for humanity, but I can remind them that it exists.
My reminder was the virus eating away at the operating programs in San Jose, Byzantium. My reminder was an explosion at each of the four corners of the Bay that destroyed transformers and broke power lines. My reminder was Thomas, searching somewhere for a police station and pressing hard against the slow momentum of history marching now against him. Every single star steadily coming into view, one by one, as the light from the cities faded and our eyes adjusted, was a reminder.
Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” played softly in my headphones as I lie on my back and put my arms out to either side, turning my palms posterior to grip the dry grass and the living grass.
Down below me, Everyone grinds to a halt. The gentle lava cools on the highways as first one man, a businessman maybe, stops his car and gets out to look at the sky. Behind him, a woman, maybe a lawyer or an engineer, does the same. One by one we collect ourselves and come out and fill the gaps between the cars, we press pause and appear from our homes and apartments and shelters, from our offices and hospitals and bars, and one by one another fish turns in my direction. I dream that for the first time in any of their lives, they are allowed to slow down enough for Now to catch up before they realize what I realized a long time ago: Now is not some dog that nips at our heels; Now is not a baseball that we’ve missed; Now is not even the size of a single moment. Now is the size of a month, a year, a decade, an epoch. Now is not the present manifestation of time, Now is the expression of time itself. Now is fractal in the way that viewing the stars is fractal: You can both enjoy it and create it. You are always both enjoying it and creating it.
Astronaut Rusty Sweickart, in 1974: You look down and see the surface of that globe that you’ve lived on all this time and you know all those people down there. They are like you, they are you, and somehow you represent them when you are up there—a sensing element, that point out on the end.
Now I feel gravity pull me backwards against the Earth and my feet hang like a marionette. Now I float at the top of a very deep and clear ocean, looking down into the infinite schools of fish turning one way and another in unison amongst the coral. Now I wear the earth like a backpack. Now the extremes of the universe widen until the hills become mountains and the valleys become canyons. The sirens and the screams drown away into the murk, and in that moment we are all floating in the silence as sensing elements for man.
Steve Genise is a writer and editor based in Seattle. He has worked with McSweeney’s, Counterpoint Press, The Believer, and was shortlisted for Epiphany Magazine’s Best Under 30 Award. You can read more of his work at stevengenise.com.