Category Archives: Life

Life: A Poem

A child’s laugh fills the room,
fills our hearts.
Full of energy, full of adventure,
full of life.
In a split second, that voice, that laugh is gone.
Gone forever.
Forever silent.

Life is fragile.

The silence is maddening,
filling our hearts with despair.
Pulling us into darkness.
Into oblivion.

A child’s laugh pierces the silence,
pulls us back to the light.
Reminds us of love.
Of life.
In that laugh is all that was lost,
and all that still is.

Life endures.

With Great Power…

After Peter Parker is bitten by that radioactive spider, the first lesson he learns is that “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Society is constantly having to relearn this lesson, especially as technological advances give us more and more power in new and different realms. Harnessing the power of the atom has given us both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Medical advances have allowed us to extend life, even create life such as so-called test tube babies. Genetically modified food offers great hope to help feed the world but also the dangers of Franken-food. And the internet has revolutionized how we communicate, both for good and bad.

One of the next big frontiers of science is neuroscience, the science of the human brain. By understanding how the brain works, we are understanding more about how we function, why we behave the way we do, and what differentiates each of us. We are now at the point that we can, using a brain scan, know if we are looking at the brain of a psychopath or a normal person. If you think about it, this is tremendous power. This is probably as close as we will ever come to Minority Report, being able to tell if someone is likely a criminal before they ever do anything.

Think about it. If a psychopaths brain is truly different from the rest, a brain scan will identify who is a psychopath before they do anything to harm anyone. We would know if they have the potential for becoming a psychopath. And we might even be able to do that scan when they are a child.

Given that we could, in principle, do such a scan and identify potential psychopaths long before they become psychopathic, what should we do with that power? Should we scan everyone’s brains, and closely watch those that are likely to become psychopaths? This seems a huge infringement on personal liberty, but if it prevented the type of massacre that occurred in Norway, might it be worth it?

On the flip side, if psychopaths and other sociopaths truly have a different brain structure, how much of their actions are they really responsible for? If it is all brain chemistry controlled by genetics, should we all be thankful we have normal brains? Should we try to identify these people so we can find some way to treat them so they can lead normal lives?

And, finally, consider the fact that there is a very fine line between psychopathy and genius. Studies suggest many of the top CEOs exhibit psychopathic traits. If we somehow controlled the behavior of presumed psychopaths, would we be impacting other areas of society, including business and politics?

I have lots of questions and no answers. I think these types of questions will soon confront us. And technology is advancing at a pace that is much faster than at least our political and legal systems can keep up with. We will be faced with a future where people who barely understand the implications of the science, much less the science itself, are placed in a position of trying to address these questions. I think the sooner society as a whole dwells on them, the better able we will be able to deal with them.

Feeling guilty for needing help?

We all have this image of those that depend on government assistance, stereotyped by the so-called welfare queen, who is trying to milk the system as much as possible; someone who epitomizes laziness and wants someone else to care for them.

However, a recent NY Times piece points out that all of us are depending more and more on government assistance to get by and, ironically, it is in precisely those places where opposition to government aid is greatest where dependence on that aid has grown the most. In particular, the article describes research by a professor at Dartmouth College, Dean Lacy, who has found:

Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates.

Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates.

That is, the places that give more than they get tend to be Democrat, and those that get more than they give tend to be Republican. This isn’t new, it has been discussed before. It always struck me as strange. Those that rail most against taxes and big government are those that receive the most benefit. Whether this is from farm subsidies, food stamps, or whatever, the fact that the objections to government helping people come most from those getting that help strikes me as odd.

The article doesn’t give much insight into why this is the case. It does allude to the fact that maybe some of those receiving benefits are somehow ashamed of that and would rather that it not be so easy to get government assistance. That is, they’d almost rather be forced to take a harder road where they are more self-reliant. That the government helps them is almost a failing on their part, which by extension is a failing of the government.

I guess I don’t quite understand fully. Maybe it is related to the so-called American dream which provides us with the comforting notion that if we just work hard enough, we will have that nice suburban house with the white picket fence and the 2.3 children in an idyllic neighborhood. The reality, in my opinion, is not so clean. There is no way our system can support all of us attaining that ideal; as I’ve written about before, it seems to me that a large number of us have to fail in achieving that dream in order for our system to function. We need people at the bottom of the ladder to perform those jobs that the majority of us don’t want to do.

So, is it a failure to attain that dream, a failure of being self-sufficient and thus needing government help the reason for this contradiction in people taking government resources but at the same time wanting to cut them? Do they feel guilty for having to take them? Do they resent having to, in some sense, rely upon those that are willing to pay more taxes to support them? Do they resent that they even have the option, that government isn’t forcing them to struggle heroically in face of adversity, in the fashion that so much of American mythology is based?

I guess, in the end, I don’t have an explanation and I really don’t understand this dichotomy. If we do end up electing politicians who do cut the safety net, it is those very people who want it cut that will be hurt the most. Ironically, it is those that support having the safety net that can best deal with it being cut. Not much of politics seems rational to me, and this particular issue epitomizes, for me, the irrationality of politics in America.

Company by Max Barry

Jones is a new hire at Zephyr Holdings, a company in Seattle.  His very first task upon arriving at the office is to find out who ate his boss’s donut.  From there, Jones begins a quest to find out exactly what it is this company he works for does. I mean, what is their business.  The answer is both surprising and a bit unsettling.

Company is the third book I’ve read by Max Barry (Jennifer Government and Syrup being the other two). Company follows right on the heels of the others, exploring the relationship between the corporate world and everyday life.  In Company, Barry focuses on the employees, the worker-bees in any corporation, and their role in the company’s successes and failures.  In particular, he examines how the different aspects of the company — marketing, IT, procurement, etc — work together — or don’t — for the betterment of the company.  But, he also explores how corporate culture demands personal sacrifice from the employees in order to maximize corporate success.

Barry explores corporate culture by taking it to absurd extremes — or, at least, I hope he does.  I can’t imagine working in an environment that he describes.  At the same time, while reading Company, I couldn’t help but think that “that’s a lot like where I work.” For example, regarding the different organizations in the company and their relationships to one another, I’ve often thought that there must be someone where I work who’s sole job is to make up new forms, just so I have new ones to fill out.  Not because it leads to more productivity, or makes it easier to do my job, but just because.  Just because someone has a job to make forms.

By lampooning corporate culture, Barry exposes some of the trends that are really disturbing once you think about them.  I won’t go into details because I think it would spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that by painting corporate life in an absurd extreme, Barry offers insight into just how corporate culture is affecting us, both as individuals and as a society.

I really enjoyed the novel and highly recommend it, both for its entertainment value and its perspective on our market-driven society. I’d really like to hear what people who are in large, multinational corporations think about this book.  Barry himself used to work at HP. Any HPeons out there willing to give their thoughts?

Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham

I heard about Catching Fire on NPR and thought the premise intriguing, so while on vacation I picked it up.  This book is full of fascinating ideas and the central tenet promises to shake up the current picture of human evolution quite a bit.

In Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham argues that the invention and adoption of cooking by our pre-homo sapien ancestors is a, if not the, key reason for our evolution into homo sapien. Cooking is an easy way of processing food such that our bodies can more easily digest it, and thus not spend nearly so much energy.  That energy, instead, is redirected to our brains.  That is, cooking freed our body from using energy for digestion and was able to use that energy to power our brains which could thus evolve into what they are today.

Much of Catching Fire offers various arguments to support this thesis, from the fact that raw diets result in drastic weight loss as the energy from the food cannot be extracted efficiently by the body; to evidence that processing food, even simply adding air to puff it up, makes it easier to digest; to the fact that in many cultures, cooking and sharing meals is a much more important sign of bonding between men and women than sexual relationships.

In addition to offering a new view of human evolution, Wrangham also points out some secondary effects that should resonate with our modern society.  First, the more foods are processed, the more easily our body can extract calories from them.  This, Wrangham speculates, is a key reason for the obesity epidemic: our foods are so processed that our bodies are getting way too much out of them.  Second, cooking has lead to a nearly universal subservient role for women.  In almost all cultures, women are tied to the kitchen, the cooking fire, the pit, and their lives are strongly centered on that role.

I’m still trying to figure out what the implications of the processed food argument are for my own life.  For example, is it better for me to get that steak medium rare or well done?  If well done, I will get more energy out of it, presumably giving me more energy myself and helping me feel overall more energetic. But, it also means it’s likely to add to my beer gut more than the medium rare steak, which my body will have to spend more work digesting.  Not sure which is overall better.

It is interesting that, in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter if the diet contains meat or is vegetarian, but more important if it involves cooked or raw food.  Wrangham argues that our bodies have evolved to essentially need cooked food; they aren’t designed to process raw food.  Our brains are too expensive, energetically, to be able to function on a raw food diet.

I felt that the book dragged on in places, with Wrangham padding his argument a bit more than he needed and sometimes offering evidence that was tenuous at best, but overall I thought that his ideas were fascinating.  I certainly learned quite a lot, both about humans as a species and about how I might want to approach my own diet.  I certainly recommend Catching Fire.