Death is a curious thing. In a way, we spend our entire lives preparing for it, yet it always seems to take us by surprise. I’m not talking about stepping in front of a bus or boarding a doomed plane. That’s just random noise. I’m talking about otherwise seemingly healthy people in our lives who are suddenly, out of the blue, lost to us.
Many times, I’ve cried over lost love. Many times, I’ve let go of things of which I was quite fond. Many times, I’ve yearned for rebirth of that which was lost. Today, I lose someone I didn’t expect to lose, in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. There I was in my lover’s arms early this morning, feeling a happiness I could never hope to fully explain in word or song, when I ignored a call from my aunt. Early morning calls rarely convey good news. This news was no different.
My youngest grandmother had been in and out of the hospital over the last week, losing weight quickly and painfully. First, it was this. Then, it was that. Then, it was surgery and finally, serenity. Inoperable was never a word that made my legs weak until it was applied to one of my favorite people.
Her daughters have taken it pretty hard, as one might expect. One day, I know I will lose my mother. That day, I’m sure I will face shock, doubt, and pain for which I can not prepare. The best hope I have is to cherish the time I have with her and choose to take those precious few opportunities I have, to spend money I don’t have to visit her, because she’s precious to me.
I live my life with few rules. One of those rules is to embrace choice, to live without regret. Still, every now and again, I find myself feeling the bittersweet sting of missed opportunity. I knew she was in the hospital. I even had her number. Yet, I thought, “She’s strong. She’ll get through this. We’ll chat about it over the holidays.” I didn’t call. Now, I’ll never have that chance. Instead, I’m sitting on a plane, flying home, drunk and devastated.
She never stopped caring, even at the end. She would give everything she had, everything she was, and everything she might ever be if it meant someone else might be a little more comfortable or have a slightly easier life. She taught me how to be human, to rise above petty bullshit and take the highest road available. Moreover, she taught me how to blaze trails in the unknown, to be bold in my compassion for others. She set the standard for excellence of self and of community, and she aimed high.
She gave me shelter when there was only storm. When my father chose his girlfriend over me and I was out on the street at 17, she gave me a roof and a whole lot of real perspective. She taught me that nothing is free, and even our parents can unearn our respect through action or inaction. She inspired me to believe that everyone earns their right in this world. She earned it. She uprooted her life for me. I know what it’s like to live alone. It’s glorious. She sacrificed that for me.
So, I’m left with this crippling loss, and at the same time I feel this unbearable happiness knowing she gave me the best advice, the best start I could have imagined. And I can rest easy, knowing she is so much more than proud of me for all I’ve achieved in my brief 35yrs. Even now, I can feel her influence. She’s saying, “I think you could restructure that 2nd paragraph. I don’t think anyone wants to hear about your lover. This is about me. Maybe tell a story about my life and how I changed yours.”
Well, grandma, here’s to you. You made me. You managed to keep my mom honest long enough to settle down and have me. You steered me off the sholes more times than I’m willing to admit. You always gave me good advice, and you’ll be in my thoughts until the end of my days. I love you. I promise I’ll write something that makes you proud. I just needed to get this part out first.
Most of our lives, we coast through, thinking how great we have it. Occasionally, we hit a bump. Some of us react to bumps with panic, grasping for the first opportunity to seek solace in the barely-certain. Some react with grace, bending in the wind of inevitability. Those folks who seek graceful ends certainly survive, whether through terror- or courage- or maybe foolish-driven courage. Still, there is a place for the resolute. It isn’t for the faint of heart. Weak-willed folks should seek an early exit, as this road is fraught with treachery and doubt. If you can not survive the uncertainty of everyday life, you will not reach the summit. You will not defeat the bear. And you must if you’re to defeat the avalanche. If you’re unprepared, you’ll beg to trade the unrelenting avalanche for a chance to tango with a yeti. His company lends much better company than the embarrassment of dying like a bitch.
This may seem like a negative way of looking at the world, but I offer you this perspective. At the right time, overwhelming confidence can be exactly what the world needs. Without leaders willing to risk everything they are, everything they have, we are lost. We rally behind the unrelenting commitment to glory our leaders show us. And with that direction, with that vision, we find ourselves willing to leap over certain death to strike at the bear, even when everything we know says we’re doomed to that death. We find some way to trounce the bear. It’s never something we plan to encounter. We don’t sit in a conference room and define a strategy for this. It jumps over the wall and stabs your brother in the neck, and you’re left to command your forces while he bleeds out in your arms. Still, you must make the choice. Will you honor his memory with glory or hide in anonymity? What will you say to the bear when it threatens you? Will you draw your blade or your running shoes? Make your mark.
I never was much a fan of Iron Man. I could never really relate to the character. He was too normal, just a chump in a metal suit, without any mutant powers. He can’t teleport or read minds or steal life force. He’s just a rich kid in an expensive and wholly over-designed tuxedo. Granted, a tuxedo that can fly and shoot bad guys, but still a suit, made by man. Nothing magic or mysterious about it. Lame, right?
And yet, I might use very similar words to describe Batman, and he has always been a role model to me. As I say every day, perception is complicated, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
So, I wrote off Iron Man as a child, preferring to focus on the more traditional superheroes, complete with super-human strength or laser vision, things I couldn’t ever imagine could be based in technology. To me, a superhero is special because the universe chose them by randomly imbuing them with magical powers. Sometimes, it’s more complicated than that, as in the case of Wolverine, where man meddles with destiny to exploit the mutant power toward their own ends. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate the complicated things in life. Complicated is interesting.
Iron Man is complicated, much more than I ever thought as a child. Maybe it’s the innocence of youth that blinded me to the harsh truths of life. Maybe I wasn’t ready to consider addiction as a primary driving force behind what motivates us to do impossible things, both for good and evil. Since the popular movie franchise has revitalized the Iron Man persona, I’ve been digging deeper into the story. The impetus for this post was speculation about the plot line of the third installment of the movie series. Rumors are flying about what the main story will be, but it seems clear that the yin and yang of Tony Stark’s alcoholism and brilliance, coupled with the seemingly insurmountable threat of the Mandarin, will lead inevitably to the Extremis story arc. This is where nanotechnology blurs the line between man and god.
For those who haven’t read and/or watched the Extremis story, it centers on the intersection of biology with technology. It’s basically a programmable virus that can act as a means of designing new components within the body. Instead of surgically implanting silicon and cobbling together some crude interface between man and machine, we might use programmable nanotechnology to grow cybernetic organs. If this is starting to sound like Kurtzweil’s Singularity, you’ve been paying attention.
A few weeks ago, we discussed biological computing on our podcast (http://distilled.podomatic.com). We whimsically discussed some potential uses for such technology for frivolous things like weight loss. But what happens when this technology starts to find its way into society? As the capabilities of the technology evolve, we are stuck in a hopeless cycle of divergence.
As Einstein famously said, “it is a great tragedy that our technology has surpassed our humanity.”
We are doomed to continue to diverge until we take measured action to inspire more consideration for the moral and ethical growth that is necessary to govern the connected populace. Maybe Kurtzweil was wrong. Yes, the technology is inevitable. It will continue to advance at breath-taking speed. Text-by-thought is no more than 10yrs away, and that barely begins to address the magic of tomorrow’s technology. As we experience this unavoidable intersection of man and machine, it is critical that we remember to remain grounded, lest we lose all of ourselves in the phoenix fire.
We can not predict the extents of our technological capabilities 25yrs from now, but we can guarantee total global annihilation if our moral and ethical evolution does not keep pace with technology. Humanity may not be ready for Iron Man, but power armor will be available on the consumer market before the end of this century. If we do not have an enlightened sensibility about the governance of such incredible power, wielded by average citizens, we will surely suffer. Maybe we can start by putting even 10% of the defense budget into education about peace, mutual prosperity, and tolerance. God knows we’re going to need it. And by “God” I mean Iron Man. In 50yrs, it may be hard to distinguish between them.
I’ve spent the last several hours stretching the capabilities of apps like Garage Band and Audacity to achieve a task they weren’t really meant to handle. They do very well with their intended tasks, but they leave quite a bit to be desired when used in the way I need. I can cut audio and shift it to another track with a different gain and effects and all that. I can shift clips relative to each other in time. But, the one thing I need that neither tool does at all is to organize discrete clips with tagging and/or annotations on each clip. This way, instead of starting with 2-3hrs of contiguous recorded time and removing irrelevant segments to distill down to an hour for production, we might consider cutting the whole into a number of clips and constructing a narrative by arranging clips to convey a cohesive theme.
For those who haven’t ever needed to edit audio for a podcast, what I’m really talking about here is the process of designing interactivity features based on experiencing first hand the frustration of an unfulfilled need. There is no clearer perspective on the possible solutions than that of a dissatisfied user who is also an experienced design professional. This is the closest we can ever hope to get to the feedback source. One of the most challenging aspects of product development is connecting with the users in a way that bridges the divide in communication between user and developer. Inevitably, users lack an understanding of the basic language, the terminology we use to describe behavior we see.
I have been accused of many things, far too many and risque to describe here. One thing I have never been called is cold and indifferent. I care. Anyone who sees the fruits of my labor or talks to me for 2mins can see this to be true. I might let some hacky shit find its way into a production app for all to see, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t notice it, nor that I expect it will survive more than a week at it is. Product development is at its core adaptive. We build what is needed. There is no ego. We react to the customer. Delivering core behavior is the first and last goal of any engineer’s effort. We may not always immediately understand your core problem, but as we interact with you, we learn more about your needs, that we might better serve them. Product engineering is 75% empathy, 25% gravitas. If we don’t understand and relate to the core pain point, we could never hope to solve the underlying problem effectively.
Have you ever had that feeling where you’re sprinting while others are crawling? It’s like you’re in a dream, but you’re not. It’s real life, and you’re redefining the meaning of swagger. Maybe it’s just for a short time, but it changes you. I’ve heard athletes call it the zone or the groove, as if to pay homage to the natural rightness of music. To be “in the groove” is to be at peace with your environment. The needle flirts with the ridges and valleys of a record, inspiring the bell to sing your favorite song.
To be in the flow of things is to understand the truths of the universe. One of our most brilliant minds compelled us to consider the relative significance of events in our collective consciousness. While we typically think of relativity as a physical concept, we see the same dynamics in other systems. Perceptual systems are particularly sensitive to the relativity model. When we are caught up in the flow of progress, we might as well be inside a time dilation field, where time flows slower. We experience multiple successive breakthroughs over a period of weeks, but to the outside observer, we’ve discretely changed from one state to another, like cel animation. In one frame, we’re assembling a bow. In the next, a wooden catapult. Before you know it, we’ve fashioned a rail gun capable of launching 10kg payloads into orbit.
Emotionally, I associate this sensation with the hope that tomorrow might accidentally turn out to be yesterday, just so I can have that much more time in this life. It makes me feel like sleep is a penalty for not finding enough interesting distractions to keep exhaustion at bay. So in that sense, I hope today lasts for years. But at the same time, I hope I can find a few weeks in there to fit in a nap.
We often think of love as we think of property. Either we have it or we don’t. It’s like ones and zeroes, a switch to be flipped on or off in the right situation. But does that make any sense at all? Is there something that would flip your switch from loving your dog to disregarding his or her value completely? The answer is obvious.
Love is much more than a simple on or off switch. We do not tally the state of this decision in some vast matrix of true or false values, assigned to represent the relationships between us and all those we encounter. Moreover, love is not a thing to be set and unset at the whim of some cold calculating algorithm. In this way, love is much more like the magnetic field of the iron molecules in a hard disk than it could ever be like the absolute truth of a solid state medium. Iron carries a history. It does not represent truth in terms of on or off, nor positive or negative. When you set a bit on a hard disk, you merely add to its collective representation of truth.
In the same way that data is stored on hard disks, we form memories of love in ourselves. After performing the same write operation over and over, assigning an element of that vast relationship matrix to true, we make it harder to set that value to false. Even after experiencing the most abject and bitter betrayal, when we switch that value to false twenty-fold, we still occasionally measure a true value for that element in the matrix. Just as we can resurrect the contents of a hard drive that has suffered devastating, soul-crushing inferno, so too can we find ourselves feeling the persistent love we cultivated.
We know not why this love persists. Perhaps we are not so unlike the primitive elemental magnetism we exploit for our collective convenience. We are not so easily overwritten. Our feelings carry on. And like the iron that stores our collective wisdom in hard disks around the world, we must be flexible in our interpretation of the facts we represent. Even after many thousands of hours, we find ourselves redefining the truth.
Picture yourself cycling to work. That part’s easy. It even seems nice in your head. You can take your time, enjoy the breeze, and get a little cardio workout. Sounds nice and healthy. It is actually a very healthy and sustainable solution to a problem we all face. We all need to go places, whether to work or to school or to the park or to the mall or (sometimes) to the airport or (hopefully very rarely) the hospital. But we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. We all collectively believe cars are the best choice because “freedom.” (rock and roll quotes added for effect)
Lots of people drive to work because they believe they need to drive to work. Many people don’t work or live near enough to public transportation for it to be convenient enough to suffer the extra time required to wait for buses and trains. The folks who live or work in rural areas are basically fucked. They have little choice but to buy a car, even if it sits in the driveway or a parking space 95% of the time.
Hopefully by now, some part of you is starting to think about the things you need to change in your life to transition from a car to a bicycle. For me, it was the sudden loss of my car. Loss is a common motivator. Whatever your situation, the choice may be challenging. Much of the challenge comes from within. You will start to find reasons why it wouldn’t work. You may begin making excuses for 5% situations (things you do only ever couple weeks) as if they are the 95% (things you do every day). If you’re able to survive through that, you will eventually come to one rather real conclusion – cycling is sweaty business.
This is where I segue the homeless into the mix, in an attempt to confuse and intrigue the reader. See how I did that?
We’ve all encountered a smelly homeless person in our lives. I have no problem with the homeless. Some folks just prefer the freedom of the open world. That’s a brave lifestyle choice. It’s not for me, but who am I to judge? That sentiment ends where my nose begins. If I can smell you from 3m away (that’s 10ft for you heathens), that’s a problem. (and maybe a public health risk)
This is where I tie it all together. Thanks for your patience.
What if we could provide a way for the cycling commuters to rinse off after biking to work, while simultaneously helping the homeless, and save everyone’s collective noses in the process? Here’s how we do it:
Provide pay showers in common commuter destinations. Give them enough space and privacy to be comfortable, but not so much that someone could sleep there. Then, add some kind of odor sensor on the pay box. If you trigger the sensor, you get a free 5min shower. Otherwise, it’s $2. Use solar energy for heating the water wherever possible to reduce energy requirements. Problem solved.
Now, go sell your car. Not as easy as it sounds, is it? Well, if we had some public shower infrastructure, maybe it would be an easier choice. If nothing else, the world would smell a little better. That’s something we can all appreciate.