Edge of the Knife

The universe may not be connected in the Dirk Gently sense (or perhaps it is, wouldn’t that be fun?), but I can’t help but be bemused by those occasional moments of synchronicity. Just striking coincidences — almost certainly — and just a product of one’s own mind connecting personal dots, but still.

When a moment of such synchronicity involves favorite TV shows, South Park, NCIS, and Doctor Who, plus the Mandelbrot Set, it covers a lot of bases and adds an extra special element of cosmic delight. (Not to mention all the options for the lead image! (Except not really. Gotta be the new The Doctor!))

Fundamentally, it’s all another riff on an old standard: Yin-Yang.

Specifically, it’s about how the USA tends to align itself 50/50 on just about all key issues. One can almost get the impression society does this to keep a balance on social issues that actually don’t have solutions so much as choices.

The seed of my sychronitic flash was planted during the (long-awaited) season premiere of Doctor Who this past Sunday.

It came from The Doctor talking about the new Sonic Screwdriver she just made and how it was better called a Sonic Swiss Army Knife because of all the things it could do.

Except be a knife.

Because only idiots carry knives.

Which is totally what The Doctor would say. (And may I say I’m totally thumbs up on the new The Doctor. Jodie Whittaker nails it!)

At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of Gibb’s Rule #9: “Never go anywhere without a knife.”

What struck me was how both The Doctor and Jethro Gibbs (of NCIS) are hero figures to me. I like and respect their values. Which are my values. They’re hero figures to me because of their values.

Yet that knife business shows a Yin-Yang difference between them.

Somehow I regard both views positively; an interesting thing to contemplate.


Later that evening, I happened to watch the 100th South Park episode, I’m a little Bit Country (S07-E04, 2003), and the planted seed flashed into life.

The episode features the town of South Park equally divided on their support (or lack of) for the War (the 2003 invasion of Iraq). Meanwhile Cartman electrocutes himself to induce a flashback of colonial times where he finds the Founding Fathers also equally divided about war with England.

In the flashback, Benjamin Franklin says the new USA cannot appear to be a war-monger, but also cannot appear weak to the world. Therefore it must go to war, but must also allow protests. He presents it as “saying one thing and doing another” (aka “having your cake and eating it, too”).

One can view this as hypocrisy, or one can view it as merely being of two minds. It depends, perhaps, in how one views social solutions. Does one size fit all, or does a large society necessarily struggle to accommodate diverse approaches to life?

I’ve written before about how the USA seems so balanced on important issues, be it guns, abortion, immigration, economy, taxes, or whatever. Even on a local scale, states or cities, it can be hard to find a true consensus on some issues.

Given every person for something, someone else seems against it.

Part of the point of the South Park episode is the vitality that comes from living on the knife’s edge. Conservatives keep progressives from excess. Progressives keep conservatives from stagnation.

Or: Progressives keep things moving forward. Conservatives provide stability.

Both, in good robust form, seem necessary to a healthy society.

It’s possible that an entirely (or just strongly) progressive or conservative society would fail due to lack of vitality.


Consider the Mandelbrot Set. The parts well inside the “lakes” (black in the image to the right) and the parts well outside the set (the dark blue areas) aren’t interesting, aren’t vital.

It’s only near the border between the inside and outside of the Set that things get interesting. In that region, there is endless complexity and energy.

You can zoom in endlessly on any point along the border and the complexity never ends. In fact, the deeper you zoom (i.e. the smaller the area you examine), the more complex gets the dance of numbers.

Another interesting characteristic is that, all along that border, the complexity is different in every region. The Mandelbrot features infinite diversity within all that complexity. (In many fractals, the complexity exists, but it’s the same complexity in all regions and scales.)

Not bad for such a simple formula: Z1 = Z02 + C

So even something as simple as the Mandelbrot offers this startling, stunning complexity between the possible poles, and only at the very border between them. It seems the interplay between poles is where the life is.

The Yin-Yang symbol represents this along its curved border, the blend of two poles, at wavy, moving line (given the graphics ability of the time, take it as representing a gradient, shades of gray), between the black and white poles.

The dots in the symbol represent that each pole contains a bit of the other, nothing is purely one thing or another thing. There is always a bit of other.

Consider the North and South Poles of the Earth. They are abstractions — invisible mathematical points with no size. If you step exactly on the North Pole, your entire foot (save one infinitely tiny point) is actually a bit south of the pole.

Even if poles are pure and abstract, anything real and concrete is always “a little bit south.”


It may be that the only world worth living in is one balanced on the knife’s edge.

It may be that this kind of conflict in a society of any size is not just normal, but necessary. Think of it as a kind of crowd sourcing. Many different voices that end up pulling towards a reasonable center. Social compromise.

At the same time, the sheer size of humanity may affect the equation.

I’ve long wondered if the USA is just too big to ever be governed effectively. Is it, perhaps, impossible to balance the views of the Deep South with the West Coast? Or the Midwest with the North East? And Texas, as they say, is a state of mind.

Can a society get to a point where there no longer is a reasonable center? Has it become so much of a zero-sum game, it’s only winners and losers now?

Further, does our technology unbalance the equation? We’ve seen evidence that it does, despite how its proponents tout its supposed benefits to the social fabric.

(So far, to me, the downside seems to outweigh the putative benefits. The social leverage it gives small and fringe groups seems more harmful than good based on apparent results.)

An interesting thing about a balanced chaotic system is that new forces necessarily change the dynamic. If humanity is such a system (and I think it’s pretty clear it is), then our growing size, scope, and technology, definitely have an impact.

So how close are we coming to falling, or being knocked off, this knife’s edge?

I’ve grown very cynical about our chances, but it’s possible damping factors kick in and reasonable minds and hearts prevail. It would be nice to think we’re just going through some kind of massive social change that ultimately has a good outcome, a new balance on a new knife’s edge.

Regardless, it does seem the old curse, “May you live in interesting times,” is actually a recommendation to live in the only place that’s truly interesting: the knife’s edge.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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