Yes You Can!

You may not like this.  We live in an era of excuses, and everyone has lots of them.  I'm here to tell you that they are mostly illusory and are holding you back from a better life.  You will probably think I'm just lacking compassion.  I don't mind if you come to that conclusion after you've heard me out and given my words some thought, but if you start with that assumption, we both lose.

Case in point: I am 71 years old, and I just had my first cataract operation last week.  It wasn't so bad.  My eye's still a bit sore and the new lens hasn't completely settled into position yet, so my vision hasn't really improved so far, but I'm confident it will soon.

The problem is, I was told not to lift anything heavier than 10 pounds for 3 weeks, and "strenuous exercise" is a no-no for at least that long.  So I have to "act like an old man" for 3 weeks.  Sounds easy, right? My knees and back could use some "down time" to recover from running hurdles.

But after less than a week of enforced lethargy, it's already becoming a habit!  Right now I feel weak and fragile -- pretty much like the stereotypical 71-year-old man -- and it's hard to imagine doing one pushup, never mind my usual 22.  If I didn't have documented evidence that I can indeed run the hurdles in Provincial age-group record time, I'd find it fantastical.

Which puts me in a position to understand why so many older people firmly believe that athletic competition is a thing of their distant past; that they will never be able to drop those extra pounds; that heavy lifting would be insanely reckless; that they'd better hang on to all the handrails lest they fall and fracture that doubtless-fragile hip joint; that their walks should not be too brisk lest the ol' ticker get stressed out and stop ticking.  Hell, I've been advised of all those myths by family, friends and medical personnel, many times.

So without empirical evidence to the contrary, why would I question the stereotype?  And if I did "act my age", how long would it take to make the stereotype true?  Longer than 3 weeks, I hope!

Here's the thing: how can anyone acquire enough empirical evidence to the contrary to convince themselves that they can Do It?  One can watch others Doing It and get inspiration from that, but it's surprisingly (well, not really) difficult for people to draw conclusions about themselves from evidence about others.  (That's called a "failure of enlightenment effect" by Psychologists, I believe.)  The only thing that's going to convince you that you can Do It is Doing It yourself!  (That's called a "Catch-22", I believe.)

If you're like me, that means more than just Doing It once and patting yourself on the back.  The conviction dies within days when I try to ignore societal stereotypes of what I can and can't Do.  I have to Do It as often as possible, and try to Do It better each time -- or at least not worse over the short term.  Perhaps I'm insecure.  Well, if you're not, this should be a lot easier for you!

Shall I run through an inventory of excuses?  No, that would be both mean and pointless.  Deep in your heart you know what actually prevents you from Doing It (whatever It might be for you) and what is just an excuse, doubtless backed up by a firmly entrenched stereotype.  Pain is real.  Bones do break.  Fat is hard to burn off (my metabolism seems to convert every gram of carbs directly into an ounce of fat).  Spines compress with age.  (I found out last week at that I am 2.25 inches shorter than I was at 25.  Over two inches!  Ack!  it must be bone-on-bone all the way down now.)  Pulmonary embolisms (I've had two) reduce your lung capacity.  Chemo has many impacts.  Shit happens.  You are definitely going to slow down with age; but that's what the Age-Graded Tables are for!

As long as you give yourself a full list of meaningful and worthy "It"s,

You Can Do It.

Now for the surprise: I am not just lecturing old people.  You younger folks have plenty of excuses too, and are prone to regard great accomplishments and heroic deeds as out of your reach, for reasons you can recite by heart.   Most of them are perfectly valid as far as they go, which is usually not as far as you think.  The most important lesson I have learned in my life is that

You Can Do Far More Than You Think You Can.

And you'll be glad you did.

The Experiment

The Physicist, a lovestruck knight
comports himself with honour
at the tournament Experiment
in hope that Lady Nature,
lovely, chaste, mysterious maiden,
charmed by his heroic deeds,
will twirl with delight and let her gown
slip open briefly to reveal
a glimpse of breast or flash of thigh.

The Chemist is a rogue who cares
only for schemes
to get into the lady's pants.

The Engineer's already down
on one knee proposing marriage
and the raising of bright
industrious children
who will make their parents rich.

The Biologist catalogues these
examples of courtship behaviour

while the Psychologist smiles knowingly

and the Philosopher is, of course,
above all this nonsense.

Success

I say, "If you do what you love with elan and determination, and don't worry about 'making a living at it', eventually you will 'succeed'."

"Easy for you to say," says the spokesperson for all those in despair over their careers.  "You are the child of privilege, plus you got lucky."

"This is true," I confess, "but my way was never easy.  I had to work hard at what I loved, and I never gave up, in spite of many challenges."

"What do you know of 'challenges'?"

"What do you know of my life?"

The argument goes on to compare the merits of "doing what you love" right now versus working all your life at a job you hate, in order to save enough that you can retire at 65 and then "do what you love".

This elicits the response, "Retire?  I will never be able to retire!"

Here's the problem:  neither debator can imagine the other person's life experiences, and there is no argument that can convince either of the validity of the other's point of view.

Costs and Benefits

Warning: coarse language! 

I just finished struggling with a triply-sealed container for the umpteenth time.  This time I was wise enough to get out my needle-nosed pliers before I broke a fingernail.  It made me wonder how many person-years of frustrating effort are wasted on this nonsense every minute.  (See below for my estimate.)

"Wasted?  Nonsense?" I hear the self-righteous Safety Nut crying, "Don't you care about people being poisoned by domestic terrorists?"

No.

"No?  No??  NO??!  What kind of monster are you?"

The kind who thinks.  Every policy, if enforced, has consequences -- some good (benefits) and some bad (costs).   Ignoring either one is a fool's errand.  Many (if not most) people don't want to think; they want to spout homilies.

"No price is too great to pay to save even one human life," recites the idiot.

Of course it is!  You are SO full of shit!  If you really gave a damn about saving lives, you'd be giving all your money to the Food Bank, or (to save a lot more lives) to some Relief Fund for Refugees, or (to save the most lives) to medical or agricultural research.  Maybe you'd even be doing something yourself.

I reckon I spend an average of about a minute a day cursing at jars and bottles with child-proof seals.  (Some children must be very resourceful.)  That means Americans are investing about 16 person-years per day in preventing poisoning by sick fucks.  That's just under 6,000 person-years per year.  Assuming the putative poisoned would have an average of 60 years subtracted from their lives, we would need to be preventing at least 100 poisonings per year just to break even.  There must be a lot of sick fucks out there.

We could quibble over the difference between living under frustration and being dead, but if you are sure being dead is so much worse, I'd be interested in hearing all about your experience of being dead.

If you lower the bus fare in a major city, some people will die as a result who would otherwise have lived.  The question is not, "Will this save even one human life?"  It is, "Will this do more good than harm?"

See also http://jick.net/wordpress/?p=28.

Shells

Once upon a time there was a clam that grew a beautiful shell. The two halves of the shell were perfectly matched to each other and were very, very happy together.

Most people don't realize that the clam's shell is the smart part. The clam itself is just a dumb mollusc. But to realize its full potential, the two halves of the shell must work together, and the clam helps with this.

So when the clam died, as clams always do, the two halves of the shell were concerned -- with good reason, because it wasn't long before a big wave jammed the male half into the sand and tore loose the female half. When the sand washed away from the male half, its partner was nowhere to be seen.

For years the male half drifted back and forth, back and forth in the waves, wondering if he would ever see his other half again. The sand wore away his youthful sheen and his edges were chipped on rocks, but ever time another shell washed by he would ask, "Are you my other half?" Sometimes they would be almost right, but there was always some difference in size or shape that made them incompatible.

Then one day another shell half washed up beside him that looked just right. He asked, "Are you my other half?" His other half recognized him immediately, although both of them looked a lot different after all the years of abrasion and abuse. But she knew that he would expect her to be just as he remembered, and too many waves had washed over them both for that to work, so she just said,

"No, but we're a pretty good fit."

GOD & GUT

It all started like this:

GOD (which stands for Good Ol' Deity, obviously an experimentalist) decided to do an experiment.

"Bang!" He said, and there was a bang. A big one! However, since He had neglected to make a place for the big bang to go, it was hard to tell it had happened.

That's when GUT (for Grand Unification Theorist) tapped Him on the shoulder and reminder Him, "If you had come to all my lectures, you'd have remembered to create spacetime first." She was always pestering Him to think before acting. Typical Theorist.

"I was just getting to that," He said, and created spacetime. Unfortunately, He created it with only one spatial dimension, which made it impossible for anything to get past anything else.

GUT waited patiently for GOD to figure it out on His own, but He could tell She was rolling Her eyes mentally. "Hmm," He said, "needs some more dimensions..." and created another 22 of them.

"Whoa!" said GOD, "Where did everything go?"

"Too much room," said GUT helpfully. "Why don't you curl some of them up to compact the space? You can still make strings in all 23, but let the strings bounce around in a more comfortable number of dimensions."

With much muttering, trials and errors, GOD finally converged on three spatial dimensions, but He forgot to keep time uncurled, so there was nothing actually happening.

GUT just stayed quiet until boredom acted as a reminder and GOD uncurled time.

Then things got busy.

Transported

Pain!

Searing, visceral, unendurable pain.  Terrifying pain, and then an end to endurance...

I die.  And yet I am still here.

What is "here"?

Think.  What came before the pain?  I was testing the new Transporter...

Oh my god, the Transporter must have malfunctioned!  But none of the birds and dogs showed the slightest discomfort after Transporting.  It was harmless...

Birdsong?  Barking?  Where are the sounds coming from?  Where am I?  Why can't I see anything?  Why can't I feel anything?  Wait.  A tingling in my fingertips.  Yes!  Now I can sense the weight of my arms, my legs... and a faint shading to the grayness, some parts darker and some lighter.

Color!  Suddenly I can see!  It's a sunset!  No, a sunrise over a tropical sea.  No, it's a forest, an endless sea of Autumn leaves.  No, a lush jungle full of orchids and...  Stop!  Close my eyes...

I have no eyes to close.  I can feel my body, but when I raise my hand before my face, I see nothing.  Is this all my imagination then?  With what am I imagining?

* * *

Screams!

Bloodcurdling, terrified, agonized screams.  Familiar screams.

Silence.  No, a whimpering whisper: "Oh my god, the Transporter must have malfunctioned!"

                                                                                                        
I once underwent a medical procedure for which I was given some sort of drug that would, in the doctor's words, "...keep me awake while ensuring that I would not remember the procedure."  For some reason this made me very apprehensive prior to the procedure, although, sure enough, I can remember nothing unpleasant now.  Ever since then I have wondered how the Star Trek writers know that Transporters have no ill effects on the Transported.  Sure, the guy that pops out the other side feels fine, but wasn't the original just taken apart cell by molecule by atom by quark?  And what if there really is a soul that survives our death?  Wouldn't this cause what Obi Wan Kenobe would call (sorry for the mixed metaphors) "a great disturbance in the Force"?

Identity

Your identity is your most valuable possession, in every sense of the word "valuable". At the crudest level, anyone who steals it (i.e. can successfully convince financial and/or governmental institutions that they are you) can empty your bank accounts, put you into unrecoverable debt, commit crimes for which you may be held responsible and trash your credit rating, not to mention your reputation.

So it is not surprising that we invest a lot of effort in protecting and securing our identities. But can we ever succeed? Let's take a long view:

Any sort of card or other physical device can be stolen. Most such ID is now backed up by passwords, PIN codes or personal questions, all of which can be guessed or extracted by sufficiently ingenious technology. I suggest that each new security technology will be followed quickly by a successful hacking technology; I know of no exceptions so far. Readable tattoos or implanted RFIDs don't help, although they are a little more difficult to physically steal.

The next level is obviously biometric data: facial features, fingerprint and retinal image scanners are already in use at the "high security" end of the spectrum. Even supposing unhackable software is processing these data, there will soon be ways of simulating the real thing -- if there aren't already. It is not impossible to imagine DNA scanners fast and accurate enough to use for positive ID, but -- as always -- the ability to fake DNA can't be far behind the ability to recognize it.

There is also the problem of access to records of whose fingerprints, retinal patters and DNA are whose. We are understandably uncomfortable with entrusting governments and corporations (assuming charitably that there is a difference) with this sort of access to our identity and whereabouts, even if, as they always say, "we have nothing to hide." Moreover, if the archives exist, they can be accessed and even changed by sufficiently adept hackers. What would you do if DNA scanners suddenly started recognizing you as someone else?

Looking a little further down the technological road, suppose it eventually becomes possible to make a full scan of your brain, neuron by neuron, and that this becomes your ultimate ID? Will any entity that thinks like you, has your memories and believes it is you be considered by law to be you?  And if not, why not?

I believe this is an entirely new class of legal, ethical and philosophical conundrum; but it is already in play.  Best we think it through carefully and (if possible) rationally now, while there is still time to plan.

Will Freed

William Harris Freed was born in 2034 on the eve of the long awaited Singularity. By then the world was effectively dichotomized into various sects: those who swore allegiance to Nature's People versus those who put all their faith in the superior intelligence of CE's (Cybernetic Entities -- a term that embraced both pure machines and enhanced humans, thus averting an even more sectarian conflict). Everyone was convinced that their adversaries would bring on Armageddon if not stopped by any means necessary. But when the CE's leapfrogged human intelligence at last, humanity was blindsided by a blow from an unexpected quarter.

Freed took a profound interest in philosophical issues as a young man, demonstrated his brilliance as a student and eventually became a Professor of Philosophy at a famous University at about the time that a team of CE's announced the culmination of their research on the human brain and endocrine system. They had long since achieved convincing simulation of human behavior, but philosophers were quick to explain that a simulation is not the same as the real thing. Naturally, the CE's asked why a quacking, waddling bird should not be treated, at least provisionally, as a duck. The philosophers smiled patronizingly.

So when the CE team declared that they could reliably predict the behavior of any "real" natural human they had mapped thoroughly, the fat was in the philosophical fire. Professor Freed volunteered to demonstrate how wrong the CE's were. He was mapped (non-destructively, of course) down to the last synapse and gland, and the CE's ran him as a holographic simulation in a virtual reality garnered from Freed's actual environment by a body suit of cameras, microphones, chemoreceptors, thermocouples and haptic pickups. The CE's knew more about his environment than he did himself, but the simulation was fed only the same sensory inputs that the man himself experienced.

Freed was smiling confidently as he acted on impulse and gave a middle finger salute to the CE team. His smile faltered as the hologram matched his gesture in real time. So did the simulation's. He left the room where the VR display was set up. Those who stayed to watch saw his hologram do the same thing. He remembered some chores he had forgotten to perform that morning, and went shopping. On impulse, he went to a store he rarely frequented. Then he went to the park instead of coming back to work, even though he really needed to prepare tomorrow's lecture; in the park he made a face at a complete stranger, for no reason whatsoever, just for the hell of it. Eventually he hailed a taxi (which he never did normally) and headed back to the VR lab to enjoy his certain victory.

When he arrived, his human friends wore long faces. Apparently the simulation had mimicked his every impulsive action to perfection. The conclusion was inescapable: every action of a human being is completely predictable, given a sufficiently detailed model. Freed jumped from a bridge the next day, as did his simulation.

When the paper was published, the Revolt of the Naturals broke out. Within a few weeks all Naturals were safely confined to reserves, where they gradually died out from a combination of suicide and lack of interest in reproduction.

Insulting Ads and Offensive Tabloids

Every unsolicited advertisment you see conveys an unsubtle message about what the advertiser thinks of you.  This is especially true of the ads you get on the Web, since (unless you go to a lot of trouble to subvert it) there is software analyzing every keystroke and/or click of your mouse to determine what appeals might be effective on your subconscious.  But (with some effort) you can block almost all advertising from your Web browser.  The same cannot be said of broadcast media like TV and radio, which have to draw their inferences from which programming you are watching/listening to on which channel.  I for one find it impossible to endure the ads that come with any sort of "action" movie or series, since they more or less explicitly declare the advertisers' belief that I am a testosterone-drenched teenaged male moron.  "Chick flics" are no better, as their ads scream, "You are a gullible and insecure woman, worried exclusively about your age, looks and popularity," or, sometimes, "You will send money to anyone who shows a picture of a sad puppy."  Fortunately, I have a video recorder that allows me to fast forward over these insults.

Unfortunately, I have to buy food; and at least some of the time I have to shop in supermarkets.  There I am trapped in checkout lines where I cannot avoid looking at the crassest tabloid garbage unless I close my eyes and try to navigate by touch alone -- which entails its own hazards in that context.

Before starting this Rant, for once I bothered to check with Google to see what other people might have written on the subject.  I was horrified to discover that most of the Web-accessible opinion on supermarket tabloids seems to accept the notion that they are harmless expressions of Western cultural tradition and/or useful sources of information that would otherwise be suppressed.  (Yes, I enjoyed Men in Black too, but I didn't take it seriously!)

I disagree.  I think supermarket tabloids are the most profoundly insulting abuse in the entire arsenal of advertising insults.  And I consider supermarkets that respect the "tradition" of shoving them in my face in unavoidable checkout lines to be unworthy of my business.

Surely I am not alone in this reaction.  Surely there are enough others who feel as strongly as I do that we could mount a class action against all supermarkets for defamation of our cultural character.  Surely...

Are you with me?

No One Else's Problem

In Chapter 3 of "Life, The Universe and Everything", Douglas Adams immortalized the idea of the "Somebody Else's Problem" field, which makes things invisible. We all tend to look at the world of politics and war through an S.E.P. field.  This has to stop.

Consider the problem of Islamic terrorism: most non-Muslims feel that it is the responsibility of the majority of sensible, peaceful, moderate Muslims to "do something about" those who perform hate crimes against innocent civilians in the name of Islam.  And yet when a Muslim woman is violently attacked by "patriotic Canadians" for the crime of wearing a veil over her face, we dismiss this as an act of deranged idiots -- not something we'd do, not something we condone, so not our problem. But it is our problem.

Conversely, when sects of fanatic Christians raise money to bring on Armageddon, or disrupt the funerals of soldiers, most Christians dismiss them as "wingnuts -- not real Christians" and hence  S.E.P.  Wrong!  When people who call themselves the same thing you call yourself do something despicable, you have three ethical choices: convince them to stop, have them officially expelled from said tribe, or withdraw from the tribe yourself.  The collective is responsible for the acts of its individual members, and vice versa.  That's the social contract.

I know, it's hard enough monitoring our own behavior without worrying about that of others; but in today's world it is not enough to simply "set a good example".  Each of us has a responsibility to engage those we regard as "deranged", find out why they think the way they do, and try to talk them out of it.  We may not succeed, but we must try; otherwise nothing will halt the condensation of a diverse society into mutually hostile pools of like-minded individuals reinforcing each other's prejudices.

Talk to your enemy.  It's no one else's problem.

Your Risk vs. Everyone's Risk

This is so obvious it's embarrassing to be writing about it, but it's also obvious that a large fraction of my fellow citizens just don't get it; so I have no choice:

There is a difference between personal choice and epidemiology. 

Wikipedia says, "Epidemiology is the study of the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations. It is the cornerstone of public health, and shapes policy decisions and evidence-based practice by identifying risk factors for disease and targets for preventive healthcare."  I'm happy with that definition.  Lots of people are charged with the responsibility of worrying about the epidemiological consequences of various choices; and so they should be. 

Personal choice is different.  It's up to you whether you want to worry about something that might affect you adversely.  Or it should be.  These days I find that an awful lot of other people think it's up to them whether I should worry about my risks.

A concrete example might help clarify this distinction:  Project Gasbuggy.   Back in middle of the 20th Century, certain parties proposed to use nuclear bombs to collapse salt domes underground, releasing vast quantities of natural gas that was (and still is) stored in such natural formations.  The gas thus released would be radioactive, of course, so it was proposed to mix it with other natural gas to dilute the radioactivity to "acceptable" levels.

This proposal was rejected, but let's suppose it had recently been implemented.  Should you worry?  Let me rephrase that: should you be worried for your own safety?  Exposing millions of people to radioactive natural gas would probably cause thousands of "extra" deaths per year from cancer, so epidemiologically it would clearly be a Bad Thing.  But your chances of dying of cancer would probably be boosted from about 30% to something like 31%.  (These are not carefully calculated numbers, but it hardly matters for the purpose of my argument.)

Let's face it: regardless of how much exercise you get, how meticulously you optimize your diet, how good your medical plan is or how carefully you avoid all dangerous practices and hazardous materials, you, personally, are going to die.  You need to start by facing this fact.  Once you have done so, you should realize that all you have any control over are the time and cause of your death.  And not much control at that.  It pays not to be foolish, but people are pretty foolish anyway.  (Or are they?  That's another question.)

So, in my opinion, for the reasons stated above, you would be silly to worry for you own safety about many things that we all might agree would be unethical to impose on the population at large.