Nov 042016

I recall that when I was a child I would occasionally become embroiled in arguments. This being the days long before Google, the notion of “fact checking” in real time was a science fiction fantasy. Nevertheless, I recall using the term “physically impossible” as a knockdown argument in rebutting claims. I wish I could remember where I picked up this term. I don’t recall it was from Star Trek, so perhaps it was my mother. If one of my little friends walked into an argument that could be countered with “that’s physically impossible” then I won!

Not surprisingly, as time went on I found myself using the term less and less. I honestly don’t recall the last time I adjudged something to be “physically impossible.” Nevertheless, over time, I’ve given the notion of things being “impossible” some degree of thought. I’ve concluded that possible vs. impossible is not a binary, but falls on a continuum. I’ve come to this conclusion partly because I believe there are different ~kinds~ of impossible, or different “flavors” if you will.

Consider the assertion “it’s impossible to eat the sun.” Indeed, that’s a good example of something that’s physically impossible. Now consider a different sort of assertion: “I could be President of the United States.” Sadly, with the nomination of Donald Trump, the strength of this argument is weakened, as Trump so lowered the bar of what would traditionally be obviously disqualifying behavior. Yes, I am ~legally~ allowed to be President, but beyond that I possess a set of social and cultural characteristics that would disqualify. We see that “legitimate candidacy” falls on a spectrum, and is not a binary, thus the possibility of Presidency also falls on a spectrum.

Consider the assertion “It’s possible that I’ll have sex with Elizabeth Taylor.” This is obviously IMPOSSIBLE, but impossible in a completely different way than eating the sun or becoming president. Death is a binary, as is time travel, as far as we understand the laws of physics and biology.

Consider the assertion “I could run a marathon race.” That may not be physically impossible. I would have to achieve many small goals before attempting the main goal. I have two legs, I can run, and I’m generally physically fit. Many in my cohort have achieved this goal. So we see that this example falls on a spectrum much closer to “possible” than “impossible.”

So why discuss this issue at all? Why analyze the notion of “impossible?” What is the value of thinking out loud about this issue? I believe it’s possible to make profound changes in one’s life for the better. It’s possible to change one’s emotional and physical well being. Sadly, some people simply label reasonable goals as “impossible” when they really are not. I suspect they may be conceiving possible and impossible as a binary when it should be viewed as a spectrum. This is a much more realistic way of thinking about the subject. Rational solutions to problems entail utilizing the best models of reality we can muster.

 Posted by on 11/04/2016 Culture, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Different Flavors of Impossible
Aug 072016

Hindsight is 20/20, especially when it comes to science fiction. Then again, what constitutes a “hit” or “miss” regarding a predicted future may be ambiguous or nuanced. Consider the claim that Star Trek (speaking here strictly of the TOS franchise, the only with which I’m really familiar) successfully predicted cell phones with the use of “communicators.” Even in the 60’s there were two-way radios, aka “walkie-talkies” but they were not integrated with the telephone infrastructure. Similarly, Star Trek’s communicators are only person to person or person to ship, which is really just a two way radio in space. The great failure of TOS to predict cell phones was in imagining that future communicators would be single function devices. Modern smart phones are vastly more complex, and effectively integrate text, video, data storage, and an array of apps that gives them essentially unlimited functionality.

Let’s extrapolate the use of another technology into TOS universe. Consider the so-called “body cam” that many police officers now wear. The moral argument is that police officers are public servants who have been given great authority and tools capable of applying lethal force, and therefore it’s a virtue to have an objective record of their actions. Though it’s never made explicit, as far as I know, we are given to understand that the Star Trek crew are essentially a combination of social emissaries, explorers, and scientific researchers. They are not soldiers, and they don’t appear to be employed by a corporation engaged in commerce. This three-fold job description makes them perfect candidates for body cams.

Consider the role of social emissary: In the TV show, situations are neatly wrapped up at the end of each episode. In the real world, alien contact is often just the beginning of often long-running relationships. Imagine the historical value of knowing EXACTLY how “first contact” occurred. Imagine how much more rich an historical record could be if we could SEE and HEAR exactly what happened during first contact. An electronic recording device is superior to human memory in not having a bias that might color descriptions of the way historical events really occurred.

Ah, counters the imaginative interlocutor: Consider a future in which drugs or neural implants give humans perfect recall. Such advances could obviate the need for even electronic devices. Yet consider what I call the “Bloomsday” analogy: The amount of time it takes an author, in this case James Joyce, to describe the events of a single day is VASTLY greater than a single day. Captain Kirk is a busy man. There is a reason his Captain’s logs are brief and pithy. Let future historians mull over his actions and question his motives at their leisure.

Consider the role of the Star Trek crew as explorers. Real world explorers periodically encounter danger, often abruptly and with little warning. Now imagine body cams that might do more than passively record events; imagine multi-function devices that could sense infrared or ultraviolet light, radio waves, charged particles, toxic chemicals, ultrasonic sounds, or other sorts of stimuli beyond the limited senses of the human organism. Futuristic body cams might warn the wearers of danger, or alert them to anomalous places or structures worth investigating. Unlike bulky tricorders, future body cams would not need to be held in the hand and constantly monitored. Imagine body cams that would relay this information in real time back to the ship. It’s safe to assume a future in which ALL the data is stored. It’s easy to imagine an AI level computer engaged in command level decisions, perhaps as trivial as “investigate over there” all the way up to “Don’t trust this guy, Jim, his heart rate just went up and his eye saccades suggest he’s bluffing.” At the very least, an AI aboard the Enterprise could help ~augment~ command level decisions, based on body cam input alone.

It’s safe to assume a future in which voice recognition technology would be more or less perfect. An AI integrated body cam could recognize the words and vocal intonations of crew members, and alert others automatically in perilous situations. But imagine a future using neural implants. Imagine Jim Kirk’s neural functioning being transmitted from the neural implant to the body cam, or even directly to an AI aboard the Enterprise. While frighteningly invasive, perhaps neural implants would be intentionally “de-tuned” perhaps programmed to automatically broadcast warnings, or distress calls. No more need to fire up a communicator to order “beam me aboard.”

Imagine body cams that were easily removable from one’s uniform. They could easily be integrated with a video enabled smart phone style communicator. Left discretely, such a body cam could turn a Klingon vessel into the Watergate Hotel.

Consider the purely scientific role of the Enterprise crew. Besides Mr. Spock, other command level crew members lack specific scientific training. It’s still safe to assume a future in which humans are specialized in their training and expertise. A multi-function body cam could help overcome the scientific shortcomings of untrained crew members. A body cam, transmitting in real time to an AI computer, might help a crew member avoid a plant that would shoot freaky spores that contain MDMA…

It’s been suggested that cell phones would have quickly obviated 90 per cent of the misunderstandings that drove sitcoms until very recently. In the same way, intelligent body cams would certainly increase the degree of power and control that the crew of the Enterprise enjoys. The next time you watch an episode of TOS, imagine how such devices would change if not simply eliminate the fundamental premise of the episode. To give drama a fighting chance, no doubt the crew would encounter malefactors that would simply strip them of any and all of their devices.

While “warp drive” and faster-than-light travel may forever be science fiction, a world full of humans wearing body cams is not at all unreasonable. Data analysis is only going to get better and data storage is already dirt cheap. A future world in which the heroism of explorers is so coupled or even eliminated by small electronic devices may not make for good fiction, but is in fact a much safer bet as to what will really happen.

 Posted by on 08/07/2016 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Star Trek and Body Cams
May 192016

I vaguely recall the environment of the boy’s locker room in my high school. I recall a number of posters which contained what might be called “motivational quotes.” Not surprisingly, they focused on athletic performance and winning. For those unfamiliar, they might be such sayings as “a winner never quits, and a quitter never wins.” At the time I found these abrasive, namely because I held science and technical innovation as MUCH higher human virtues than athletics, particularly team sports.

Not surprisingly, over time my thoughts on motivational quotes have changed. First of all, I notice that there are MANY human enterprises about which there are motivational quotes. A quick Google image search shows a number of categories, some of which include the following: Relationship, strength, determination, attitude, confidence and beauty. Helpfully, Google has chosen to further identify these categories with color codes! I invite you to check it out for yourself. Secondly, we all struggle with doing what we think is good, and avoiding what we think is bad, and I’m no different. Perhaps I’m still stuck with the juvenile disdain for motivational quotes I had when I was in high school, as I’m resistant to doing anything besides just reading these aphorisms when I see them. I would never buy a poster or print out a motivational quote and put it on my refrigerator.

Recently I began to think about the nature of resisting temptation, which is integral to creating and maintaining good habits. I believe “motivation” is a two headed coin; namely avoiding bad habits and inculcating good habits. A simple metaphor for this dichotomy is an Angel on one shoulder and a Demon on the other. Let’s consider for a moment the act of persuasion on the Demon’s part. First off, consider a more prosaic example. You are with someone who wants you to do something that you don’t immediately want to do. This person attempts to persuade you by suggesting positive outcomes if the suggested action is performed.

“Let’s go get Indian food!”
“Hmm… I’m sort of tired tonight. I’m not sure I feel like going out.”
“Oh,come on, you know how delicious that curry is, you know you’ll love it.”

Or the persuasion could go in a negative direction:

“Let’s go get Indian food!”
“Hmm… I’m sort of tired tonight. I’m not sure I feel like going out.”
“Don’t be such a wuss, we haven’t gone out in ages.”

The second example is a sort of double-whammy, as it implies that one’s inaction is preventing the other from having fun.

Obviously there are MANY sorts of persuasion, encompassing the entire spectrum of approaching positive outcomes to avoiding negative ones. In my opinion, some of the most successful persuasion works because the persuader KNOWS AND UNDERSTANDS the personality of the person being persuaded. Consider romantic relationships. Why is it that insults and threats delivered by a partner can be the most upsetting? Because of all the people on the planet, a partner is likely to know the sensitivities and weaknesses of the other the best. This is one of the great downsides to all romantic relationships. The person that knows you the best is also the person poised to hurt you the most.

But let’s step back from that dire human assessment for a moment. What if you are trying to break a bad habit? What if you are like me, and wish to stop snacking after dinner? Is there a killer motivational quote to help us? Well, I’m not sure, but consider this: Who REALLY is the Demon on your shoulder who tempts you to engage in postprandial snacking? It can be no other than you, yourself! Consider that of all the humans on the planet, probably including romantic partners, it is YOU who can formulate the most cunning and tempting idea, the most persuasive rationalization to give in to a bad habit. The Demon is YOU!

Frankly I don’t consider this a giant psychological insight, but I do find it helpful. When I find a temptation entering my stream of consciousness, I now realize that it has derives its psychological power from the fact that it came from ME, the person who can most persuasively tempt me of all humans on the planet. For what it’s worth, I find this conception empowering, as I now recognize how potent our OWN ideation can be.

Suppose I find myself in the kitchen, and the following idea enters my stream of consciousness:

“Go ahead and have a spoonful of peanut butter, if you use that long handled spoon it will be even cooler.”

Of all humans on the planet, IT IS I who knows just how much I love peanut butter, and how groovy I find my long handled spoons! Understanding this allows me to recognize how effective such internal persuasion can be, and weirdly, I feel it helps me resist it.

Perhaps understanding how effective your own persuasion works on you will enable you to resist it more effectively. So far it seems to be working for me. I plan to continue paying attention to see if it continues to function effectively.

Good luck!

Homer Simpson

 Posted by on 05/19/2016 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Musings on “Motivational Quotes.”
Apr 242016

Like many others, I was shocked and upset by the death of Prince. While I never owned any of his records, I liked his music and recognized his exemplary talent as a guitar player and song writer. His death at 57 was doubly shocking, and early reports have speculated that he died of an overdose of Percocet. This sensational story from the Daily Mail alludes to an underlying chronic pain condition and a “phobia of doctors”:

“The dealer, often to the stars, said the musician, who he described as ‘majorly addicted’, suffered crippling stage fright and could not get on stage and perform without the drugs – but had a phobia of doctors so could not obtain a prescription legally.

Tragically, Doctor D suggests it could have been a physician that unknowingly contributed to Prince’s death – by prescribing strong pain killers to the singer for his hip condition without knowing the extent of his secret opiate addiction.”

Clearly we should be skeptical of claims of this nature, so in no way do I flatly accept this as truth. Nevertheless, it provoked in me a strong reminder of what I know to be fact, which is witnessing the same sort of behavior in my mother.

My mother developed type II diabetes in about 1970, when I was only about 8 years old. As a child, I was too young to understand the medical nature of this situation. I do recall my mother deciding, rationally, that adjustments to diet were a good idea. Unfortunately she also decided, irrationally, that diet alone could CURE type II diabetes. She began to consume brewers yeast as a suspension in water, believing that the chromium within could CURE diabetes. She remained overweight, and did not exercise. In deciding that she was cured, she stopped checking her blood sugar levels, which at that time unfortunately entailed visiting the doctor’s office.

Life went on uneventfully for a number of years. In the mid 1980’s, she developed herpes zoster, a very painful skin condition. It’s well understood how high blood sugar levels can promote bacterial infection, but I remain unclear whether high blood glucose levels can promote viral infection. That said, I remain convinced that prompt, aggressive anti-viral treatment would have had a better chance of staving off what eventually happened, as opposed to doing nothing. Though novel, acyclovir was available at that time:

“Acyclovir got FDA approval and was released commercially in 1982. It was marked under the trade name Zovirax by the Burroughs Wellcome Company. The original formulation was a topical ointment. Acyclovir became available in oral formulation (200 mg capsules) in 1985.”

My mother must have visited a doctor early on in the process, as I clearly recall learning that her blood sugar levels were abnormally high. Obviously she never “cured” her diabetes with nutritional yeast and chromium… As to whether this doctor did or did not prescribe or recommended acyclovir, and/or she declined treatment, I just don’t know.

The disease process worsened, and she began to lose mobility. She was eventually using a walker. She was in a great deal of pain. Instead of having a doctor prescribe opiates, she chose to use aspirin. I know this because she was having me buy it for her at the pharmacy. She would ask me to buy her giant bottles of the stuff, claiming that she “wanted to make sure she had plenty on hand.” I knew that was an obvious rationalization. I attempted to reason with her, advising her that aspirin simply does not have the same pharmacological power as do opiate pain killers, and simply increasing the dose of aspirin would not help. Essentially I was enabling her self-destructive behavior simply by buying all this aspirin for her. I rationalized my own behavior thusly: I had a medical therapeutics textbook from one of my pharmacy classes that documented how some arthritics would take large doses of aspirin on a long term basis. Even then, the risk of GI bleeding was significant. At one point my mother complained of tinnitus, which I again advised her was a symptom of excessive aspirin use.

The color of my mother’s skin turned greenish yellow. I feared that she had somehow experienced liver failure. Not knowing what else to do, I turned to my father, begging him to order or coerce my mother go see a doctor. At this point I knew reasoning with my mother had failed, and was desperate for another solution. He declined to intercede.

At this time I slept in the basement and my mother slept in a bedroom on the main floor. My mother would gain my attention by rapping on the floor with a wooden cane. One Saturday morning my father had taken a walk to the library. As it happened, I had planned the night before to go jogging. I had planned to really extend myself that Saturday; perhaps I could run for 10 miles. As good fortune would have it, I was lazy that morning, and blew off my giant jog. I heard the rapping of my mother’s cane on the floor. I went upstairs to check on my mother. She was in acute distress, and incoherent. She was disoriented regarding person, place, and time. I KNEW that I had to call 911, despite her protests.

Making a bad scene worse, two nosy neighbor females trespassed into my house during this crisis. One of them even had the audacity to lecture me and give me unbidden psychological advice. I never forgave her for that.

My mother was transported to St. Patrick hospital, where I witnessed blood being pumped from her stomach. Indeed, she had not developed jaundice; her skin was yellowish because she was losing enormous amounts of blood from a GI bleed, caused by her pathological intake of aspirin. Had I chosen to go jogging that morning, I suspect my mother may have died.

Not only would my mother have known “by description” that aspirin would not work as an effective pain killer, she would have known it by “by acquaintance” simply by its failure to kill the pain.

For years I considered this matter very simply: My mother failed to listen to reason. Last night, as I pondered how a rich and supremely successful man like Prince might have died, I considered the connection between his death and my mother’s. According so some accounts, Prince suffered from chronic hip pain, probably requiring surgery. He chose not to undergo this surgery, allegedly due to a phobia of doctors and/or belief in a taboo against blood transfusions. If this is true, it’s another example of a failure of reason: Hospitals are not torture chambers, doctors are not sadists, and blood transfusions are safe and ethical.

It began to dawn on me that IRRATIONAL FEARS DON’T APPEAR IN THE MIND SPONTANEOUSLY. My mother’s irrational fear of doctors and hospitals MUST have had an origin in her personal history.

Once when I was a child, I was riding in the family car with my mother and brother when my mother alluded to a medical procedure she had undergone some years prior. I naively asked what it was. Evidently my mother was too uptight and repressed to say the word “ovary” as she said she “the same condition as Julie Nixon Eisenhower” who recently had an operation for an ovarian cyst. Perhaps my mother experienced some sort of physical or emotional trauma during that encounter. Many people of my parent’s generation had tonsillectomies. Perhaps my mother did, and perhaps she found the experience aversive. Most disturbing for me was to speculate that perhaps my mother’s Christianity was factoring into this; perhaps she felt her suffering was “God’s will” or that suffering brought her a deeper understanding of Christ’s Passion. Sadly, these are only speculations, but again, I’m now convinced that her fears had an origin.

Would I have been able to persuade my mother to seek medical treatment if I had been able to get to the root of her fears? I simply don’t know. Obviously an appeal to reason alone was insufficient.

It’s one thing to know the truth, it’s another to behave in accordance with it. Everyone who smokes cigarettes knows this. Everyone knows smoking is bad, yet most are unable or unwilling to act on this knowledge. Is the goal of skepticism and reason to simply know what’s true, or likely true, or is it to change behavior? At this point, I’m trying to broaden my own thinking, to at least factor in WHY people have come to the beliefs they have.

For many years, I thought of “skepticism” as simply the willingness to address and investigate claims about such subjects as astrology, Bigfoot, UFOs, ESP, and other “fringe” ideas. But as time has gone on, I see reason itself as an even more fundamental process. There is no need to be skeptical as to whether megadoses of aspirin can cause GI bleeding, it’s a well established scientific fact. The deeper issue is HOW we can persuade people to act in accordance with this reasonable principle.

As it happened, my mother survived her near-death experience, but did not recover from the atypical damage from the herpes zoster infection. At one point she was misdiagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. She spent the last 13 years of her life bedridden.

Her story largely contributes to my own dedication to reason and skepticism. Belief in things like Bigfoot, UFOs, and ESP has little real world harm, generally. But belief and subsequent behaviors based on medical misinformation can literally be deadly.

 Posted by on 04/24/2016 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Death of Prince, My Mother, and the Promotion of Reason
Mar 012016

We all have bad habits. In some cases, behaviors that others perceive as “bad” are not even noticed by the person engaging in the bad habit. We often hesitate to confront others on their bad habits for fear of offending. Sadly, this can result in the individual continuing the bad habit. The following is a short account of a man who chose to identify a bad habit of mine which led to me at least becoming aware of it, and to largely overcome it.

When I was in college at the University of Montana, a fellow lived on my dorm room floor named Jim Strain. At one point he was engaged to a woman named Joan Daly. She was serious about changing her name upon marriage to Joan Daly-Strain. Sadly, this happy state of affairs did not come to pass. I had various adventures with Jim, including crayfish fishing and watching one of the first World Cup soccer match finals broadcast on TV.

One night I walked downtown to the bars, either with the intention of meeting Jim, or simply to hang out and drink beer. I never cared for the Stockman’s Bar, as it was frequented by jocks who played poker. It had a violent vibe that always intimidated me, and made me genuinely frightened for my physical safety. I believe their motto was “Liquor up front, poker in the rear.” But for whatever reason, that night I entered “Stocks” and proceeded to chat with Jim Strain.

Jim was belly-up to the bar, chatting with an older man, whom I was introduced to. As I recall, the older man was a professor of economics at the U of M. I began to recount a story to Jim. Periodically throughout my monologue, the econ prof would interrupt me with a strange verbal interjection: “DING!”

This happened several times, and eventually I stopped my monologue. Jim began to chuckle at my confusion. Finally Jim enlightened me as to what was going on. “Matt, every time you say “you know” he’s saying “DING!”

Most people have interjections such as “you know” and “like” periodically peppered throughout their speech. These days I find myself interjecting “literally” at unnecessary points. Sadly, verbal interjections are one of those bad habits that can tend to creep back into one’s speech if one doesn’t maintain a certain verbal vigilance.

So step number one: Be aware of your own speech! It’s frightfully unlikely you will run into a freaky econ prof who will raise your consciousness in such a goofy way. Polite adults don’t usually do such things. Step two: Cut it out! Practice paying attention to what you ACTUALLY say. Articulate, thoughtful speech is a virtue, and one not commonly applauded these days. Eschew verbal “filler phrases” such as “you know” and “like” which are analogous to nervous energy discharges such as needlessly pushing eyeglasses further up one’s nose.

 Posted by on 03/01/2016 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Ding!