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Billions and Billions…

July 15, 2002

While waiting in the St. Louis airport last week, I sat aside with tea and a bagel and watched people go by.

It’s a busy airport; the procession of travelers never paused. On and on and on it went, and it started to look like the endless video montage in the movie “Koyaanisqatsi.” Perhaps you’ve seen it.

Except that “Koyaanisqatsi” was made to show things wrong with our world — the Hopi word means “life out of balance.” What I was watching was not unbalanced … just busy. Teeming, as life often is.

Eventually, I was overwhelmed into a kind of joy about it. I started to smile. The diversity in the human race is delightful.

If you think that the ideal community would be made of people who look and think like you, you may feel out of place for the rest of your current life.

We’re a mixed-up world, and it started long ago. Even the most homogeneous societies have gone out looking for stuff, including wives. The pure race, the pure faith, the pure life has never existed.

Human variation is great. In the parlance of geneticists, we are polymorphic and heterozygous to a high degree, as much as 20% … which is a lot. A chimp differs from us in genes by less than 2% after all.

In the airport, I saw the expected variation in heights, weights, noses, hair, skin; but there’s no accounting for style. You might think popular fashion is now universal, but personal style varied as much as the people themselves. Not to mention posture and gait.

Within hours of my stay in the St. Louis airport, I discovered a display of tiny artwork at the Salida Steamplant called “Faces I have known” by Carla Sondheim. It began as 1,000 different cartoon faces painted on small cards, although some are now sold. The style is “New Yorker”-ish.

In the context of my airport meditations, I had to chuckle again at all the faces. I wanted to look for doubles, to see if Carla had successfully pulled off the snowflake trick of making no two alike, but I didn’t have time … a thousand is a lot to look at.

It’s hard to imagine her painting them all. Perhaps it was a kind of meditation, like folding 1,000 paper cranes for good health.

One thousand of anything is usually a lot, but nowadays we’re inured to large and fantastical numbers. Ten thousand was a very large number to the ancient Chinese. The world of ten thousand things was a very complicated world. “Ten thousand li” meant not exactly 10,000 li but rather a very great distance.

A typo reduced the original “One picture is worth ten thousand words” to a mere thousand. But today we routinely refer to millions. “I had a million things to do.”

“Billions and billions,” Carl Sagan said.

There are billions of us, now, and thus the world is complicated. Or let’s say intricate. Sometimes, you just want to sum it all up, but you can’t. One simplifying view of the world is presented in an interesting book called “It’s getting better all the time: 100 greatest trends of the last 100 years.”

The book is heartening, if overly enthusiastic about making its point, which is that the world is a better place now than it was then. This is an important claim and worth examination.

I have a thousand points to make about the book, if you can wait another 10,000 minutes. Next time …


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