Thursday, May 28, 2015

Chapter 9: Grandfather of the Bride

“If you have an argument with an older person, you should listen to them. It doesn’t mean they’re right. It means their wrongness is rooted in more information than you have.”
       Louis C.K. Oh My God!

“Benjamin: Hey Rosie, am I doing anything right?
  Rosie: You're handsomer than the other dads. Lots of them don't have hair. So that's good.”
Matt Damon and Maggie Elizabeth Jones. We Bought a Zoo.

“Susi: Dad, there’s an old man down here who wants to sell us an 84 carat stone.
  Doug the Head: Where does he come from?
  Susi: I don’t know. Hard to tell. He’s got a thick Russian accent.”
               Tina Collins and Mike Reid. Snatch.

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 9: Grandfather of the Bride

My parents just arrived last night for a visit - in preparation for my daughter’s wedding next month. A "visit" from the old country, in this case, qualifies for a minimum one month stay given the trials and tribulations of cross-continental travel for two septuagenarian cancer survivors.

It became immediately obvious that my father had suffered a stroke about a year ago – and that all of his many doctors had failed to diagnose this. Even his simplest statements were clear indications of the symptoms commonly associated with strokes: "The left half of my body has had no feeling since the accident" and "I don't remember what happened. Suddenly I was on the ground with a big gash on my forehead that required several stitches."

Okay, so right now you’re thinking this is a story about bad medical practitioners in third world countries. But, as originally promised, this is actually a story about the virtues and pitfalls of stubbornness, the full extent of which will become obvious soon:

-       Dad, how could all these doctors possibly not recognize your symptoms?
-       I agree… They’re useless.
-       Did you tell anyone that the left half of your body had no feeling?
-       No, not exactly. Now that you mention it, I don’t think I ever told the doctors about that.

Having forcibly removed my jaw from the floor where it was now resting, I tried to explain to the old man that he had to actually inform the doctors about his symptoms if he expected to hold them accountable for the diagnosis. The concept seemed foreign to him. For the rest of the day, I kept hearing the TV commercials constantly reminding you to “tell your doctor about all your symptoms. Tell your doctor about all the medications you’re taking”.

But wait a minute, dad. We've been talking on the phone every week. I keep asking you if you've been to the doctor and whether everything is okay.  And you keep telling me you're in excellent shape, no problems, etc. How is that possible if you had this massive stroke and multiple stitches and hospital stays and …?

"It’s not a big deal. I just fell down in the street, broke my arm, and required several stitches to my forehead. We didn't want you to worry, so we said everything was okay.”


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Chapter 8: Father of the Bride - or - Rent-a-Baby

"I don’t get nearly enough credit in life for the things I manage not to say."
       Meg Rosoff. How I Live Now.

“Nick Taylor: If your parents told you that chocolate was dangerous, would you take their word for it? 
  [Children say no] 
  Nick Naylor: Exactly! So perhaps instead of acting like sheep when it comes to cigarettes, you should find out for yourself.”
       Aaron Eckhart. Thank You for Smoking.

"Those are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others."
       Groucho Marx. 

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 8: Father of the Bride - or - Rent-a-Baby

My daughter is getting married in a few weeks and asked me to say a few words at the wedding. It’s hard not to get sappy at such occasions. After all, I have only one child and I hope she will only get married once – so, by definition, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity: not just to tell her how much I love her and to welcome my new son-in-law to the family, but also to reminisce about her childhood and have some fun in the process.

Once, when she was two or three years old, we found her behind a sofa at home emptying single serve packets of sugar onto potato chips and eating them with obvious pleasure. After scratching our heads for a few minutes, we informed her that this was an unusual choice and that one did not typically mix those two particular food items together. Years later, the story would come back to haunt us as more and more snacks started showing up in the market with both sweet and salty ingredients: chocolate covered pretzels, truffles with sea salt or wrapped in bacon, kettle corn, you name it. It became obvious that we had stifled the creativity of a Julia Child in the making. “I coulda been somebody… I coulda been a contender,” she tells us mischievously when we remind her of the episode. 

Of course, like any other father, I think my daughter walks on water and am very proud of her. Not just because she’s highly educated (how many other kids out there have a doctorate in law and a masters degree in international relations and a bachelors in French literature?) or that she is simultaneously adjunct professor at two universities while also joggling a full-time job, but because that job – and her calling in life – is to help the poor, the downtrodden, the refugees, the immigrants, and the homeless. She is truly helping her community be a better place - first hand.

Even as a college student, she would go off to Africa to work on the war crimes tribunals in one country or to help the refugees in another country. Her favorite topic when looking for a new book to read? Genocide! I once asked her why she chose this path in life. She looked at me like the answer was obvious and said, “It was because of you, dad. You made me watch all those documentaries as a child and you made me read all those books.” I felt at once proud and guilty.

Later, as part of her job, she helped form legal policy and pass regulations to help the homeless and the poor. I used to joke that I didn’t know where she got her social conscience from, given that her father was an unrepentant capitalist but what I came to realize was that she shared many of the same ideals as I do; she just had the guts to act on them. And for that I admire her.

When she was a baby, I made up a secret word to describe her: “bingly”. The word was later broadened in scope to include all things cute and cuddly and is still used by the two of us to signify the sighting of a cute baby at a shopping mall: “Watch out… Bingly at two o’clock”, or an adorable puppy on Youtube. Later I found out that there was a Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, but by then the word had caught on and we continued to use it in our own way.

The two of us even came up with a great (tongue in cheek) business idea around our obsession with cute babies: Rent-a-Baby. We would open a store at the local shopping mall where parents could drop off their kids to play - just like the ones that already exist in many shopping malls. Except, we would also optionally allow our other customers (newlyweds and couples planning on becoming parents) an opportunity to spend quality time with these same kids - paying us for the chance to "rent a baby" for an hour to see if they're ready for the real experience. Of course, the secret motive behind our business idea was that the two of us - the proprietors would get to play with all the binglies, too.

So my advice to my future son-in-law is to take good care of her. Not just because she is a great human being, but because she is also very bingly.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Chapter 7: The Future - or - The Coming Singularity

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know.
  It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
       Mark Twain.

"For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals.
 Then Something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination.
 We learned to talk."
       Pink Floyd. Keep Talking. The Division Bell.

Scrofula, a kind of tuberculosis, was in England called the 'King's evil,' and was supposedly curable only by the King's touch. Victims patiently lined up to be touched; the monarch briefly submitted to another burdensome obligation of high office, and - despite no one, it seems, actually being cured - the practice continued for centuries."
       Carl Sagan. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 7: The Future - or - The Coming Singularity

Not a whole lot of "autobiography" in this chapter I'm afraid... mostly musings about science.

In the Law of Accelerating Returns, Ray Kurzweil explains how the rate of scientific learning is not linear but rather exponential: “So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate)."

This is not exactly a new idea. Way back in 1982, Buckminster Fuller said the same thing in his book, The Critical Path. He estimated that it took 1500 years for humanity to double its knowledge of the world – as compared to everything we knew back at the beginning of the Christian Era. The next doubling took only 250 years, till about 1750 CE. By 1900, one hundred and fifty years later, knowledge had doubled again. The speed at which science discovers new facts about the universe around us is getting faster and faster – it’s not linear, it’s exponential. The doubling speed is now between one and two years.

Think about it. We know twice as much about the laws of the universe today as we did two years ago - in every aspect of science, be it physics or math or biology or genetics or evolutionary theory or what have you. And two years from now we will know twice as much as we know now. Wow!

This claim may seem hard to believe at first but a few real life examples will convince you of its veracity. Just look at how far we have come in the last few hundred years in terms not just of scientific advancement but also educational, cultural, medical, agricultural, and every other angle you can imagine. Five hundred years ago, we had just figured out how to print books. Four hundred years ago, we still thought the world was flat. Three hundred years ago, the average life expectancy was still in the mid-thirties. Two hundred years ago, we were still hunting witches. A hundred years ago, most people didn't have electricity, let alone telephones, televisions, or even refrigerators. Fifty years ago, most people had not traveled more than a dozen miles from their homes in their lifetimes, nor had they ever stepped on an airplane. Thirty years ago, almost no one had a personal computer. Twenty years ago, most people were not even on the Internet. Ten years ago, most people didn't have a smartphone.

Today, we have computers that can defeat our best human grand masters at chess (Big Blue), computers that can drive cars (Google), computers that answer our questions (Siri), computers that can translate between different human languages in real time (Skype Translator), and computers that are embedded in practically every aspect of our lives (Internet of Things).

We’re no longer even limited by Moore’s law. Yes, of course computing power is doubling once every year and a half – but we’re not limited to programming just one at a time. The symmetric tightly coupled multi-processor supercomputers of the past decades (the ones that I built my career on) have now given way to the cloud – a loosely coupled collection of elastic computing nodes that work together to solve the hardest computational problems. Why be limited to just doubling the speed of a single processor? Harness a hundred or a thousand computers together and you’re now growing your capacity orders of magnitude faster. Our rate of innovation is limited only by the size of our budget and that of our imagination.

If you are skeptical because those examples are just in the field of computer science, then also consider that we can now clone humans, we have doubled our own life expectancy, we have massively increased crop efficiency, we have cured most infectious diseases, we can grow human tissue (sometimes in the oddest places), we can kill millions of people with a single bomb, we know the history of the universe back to a nanosecond after the big bang, and we’re working on colonizing Mars – all advances in the last hundred years and much of it fueled by our increased technological powers.

We are learning faster than ever in every aspect of human knowledge. The singularity is not just a vague idea. It will happen sooner than we think. If you're not familiar with the concept, I recommend the following passionate two minute video by Jason Silva as well as this Q&A with Ray Kurzweil. For a much deeper dive, I highly recommend The Coming Singularity: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Chapter 6: Virtual Christmas - The Festivus for the Rest of Us!

"Frank Costanza: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way. 
Cosmo Kramer: What happened to the doll? 
Frank Costanza: It was destroyed. But out of that a new holiday was born … a Festivus for the rest of us!"
     Jerry Stiller and Michael Richards. Seinfeld.

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 6: Virtual Christmas - The Festivus for the Rest of Us!

I spent the first thirteen years of my life living in Tehran, the capital of Iran. My extended family, though, is from the Persian Gulf area in the South of Iran (Khuzestan province), right across the border from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq.

Tehran is a modern and chaotic metropolis with over ten million inhabitants. It’s also land locked and is situated at an altitude of almost 2000 meters – resulting in warm summers and cold winters with many feet of snow. Khuzestan, my ancestral homeland, however, is hot and dry with average temperatures of 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months, sometimes soaring to 130 degrees in the shade.

The region in the north of Iran, just a few short hours from Tehran and adjacent to the Caspian Sea, is known for its beautiful weather and was a popular summer holiday spot. We used to go there roughly once a year, but equally frequently, we ended up going to Ahwaz (the capital of Khuzestan province) to visit family. And of course these usually ended up being in the dead of summer to cope with our school schedules - not the smartest time to go south, but family usually won out.

I remember spending many happy summer afternoons in Ahwaz with cousins. We used to wander around the town without a care - and didn't even mind the oppressive heat. I'm talking heat that melts the tar on the road. Heat that requires a cold bottle of soda against the forehead every ten minutes.

We tried, intermittently and unsuccessfully, to hide from the heat. Once, on a dare, we watched "The Guns of Navarone" (all two hours and forty minutes of it) three times in a row in the same afternoon - waiting out the blistering heat outside in the dark air conditioned movie house. The evenings, though, were magical. They were enchanting and sultry and loaded with opportunities for mischief.

So far so good. So we visited our relatives in a God forsaken hell hole in the middle of summer. So what?

Here’s the interesting part. Once in a while, we would go to a place called "Atish-ha": literally, "The Fires". These were giant chimneys sticking out of the ground burning excess natural gas from the oil wells.

So we waited for the sun to set and then went to a public area near these massive chimneys. I’m not sure what the temperature was at these locations, but I’m pretty sure it dwarfed that of the afternoon sun. The idea was to find a spot a few hundred yards away from the chimneys and enjoy a nice picnic in the evening. The older folks would camp out here and enjoy the light and the heat of the "fires" while playing cards or backgammon. I suppose I can squint really hard and consider this as the equivalent of the heat lamp seen so often in our backyards today – except multiplied by a thousand.

You have to realize that we are not talking about a park setting here with trees and a lawn. This is a desolate Saharan landscape with nothing but dirt as the backdrop - Mad Max style. Somehow I never questioned it at the time, but the idea seems absurd in hindsight. 

Of course, as children, we used this opportunity to play all kinds of games, the most popular of which centered around getting as close as possible to the fires and staying there for the longest period of time - the desert dweller version of holding your breath under water, with the additional side benefit of frying our pre-adolescent brains like an egg for the duration.

If this had been the U.S., there would have been a restricted zone a mile wide around these chimneys with round-the-clock security guards. This being Iran in the 1970's, not only was there no restricted zone, but we were encouraged by our parents to enjoy ourselves. I'm sure they'd all be in prison for child abuse today, but I have to admit - it was a blast at the time.

But what does any of this have to do with Christmas?

Let’s press the Pause button on this story - and let's fast forward to December 2014, when my wife and I spent a few days this past holiday season with our soon to be in-laws. Forty years later and a life time away, we were welcomed into the warm family embrace of our new relatives – and spent quality time getting to know each other. Let’s be clear, though. They live in Minnesota. It was ten degrees Fahrenheit outside, not considering the wind chill factor. We didn't have much choice but to get to know each other.

We even braved the frozen tundra once or twice to go visit the Amish. I was touched by their simple lives but had trouble convincing myself that such a life of hardship – with no central heating or plumbing, no advanced education or technology – was a reasonable approach to life in this day and age when we’re working on sending civilians to outer space.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed our time with our new in-laws, but the experience left me wondering: Why do we always have to enjoy time with family in terrible weather? Why not opt for “virtual holidays” in the middle of summer instead? We have virtualized everything else in our world. Why not the holidays? Why not have a virtual Christmas in July and be done with it? We can all enjoy spending time with friends and family - and we don't have to freeze our asses to do so.

So here’s my idea… Introducing Virtual Christmas – it’s just like Christmas, only warmer. It's the festivus for the rest of us!

Let’s face it – the Europeans have a much better vacationing system than we do, everyone pretty much taking off for the month of August. We could have a similar month long summer vacation, perhaps starting with the Fourth of July festivities. I claim this results in better productivity in the office by having everyone engaged at the same time (how often do you have to postpone decisions because some random person is on vacation?), but also improves extended family bonds over time by promoting longer family-oriented vacations. Of course, this goes against our 24x7 lifestyles - some services may not be available for the month of July as businesses close for the holidays.

To our new in laws: Welcome to the family. We love you. Thank you for your hospitality, but until we have virtual Christmas in July, I recommend that we get together at our place in California next time for the winter holidays. I promise - We can even go outside without risking frostbite.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Chapter 5: Sabbatical, or Something to that Effect

"I’m on the job 24x7. That’s 24 hours a week, 7 months a year."
       Will Farrell as George Bush. Saturday Night Live.
“I only need you to work half days... The other twelve hours you can do whatever you want.”

"And I know, it's my own damn fault,"
       Jimmy Buffet. Margaritaville.
The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 5: Sabbatical, or Something to that Effect

Someone asked me recently how many hours a week I work - the implication being that I'm a workaholic. I was embarrassed to answer, so I hemmed and hawed and made up some number that would seem decent by Silicon Valley standards if not ridiculous. "I don't know - Let's see... 60? 70?"

The truth is nowhere near that number. It would be easier to ask how many hours I don’t work. The reality is that I work 24x7 - and I suspect many others are doing the same. I find myself thinking about work every single minute of every single day. So, literally: 24x7 = 168 hours a week.

You may remind me about sleep. Ok, at a (generous) average of six hours a night, I guess we can call it 120 hours a week and be done with it.  The truth, however, is that I suspect I'm mostly working while I sleep as well. I'm sure you've had that experience – waking up at three o'clock in the morning with an instant "Aha!" Moment, a recent gnarly problem finally solved - while you slept.

What about family and friends, you might ask. Hobbies? Sports? Sure. I do all of those things too, so let's subtract another thirty hours week and call it even - 90 hours a week.

I can live with that number. But the reality is that every one of those activities - time with family, watching a movie, biking on a lonely road, running a marathon - all happen in the background as I multi-task efficiently, checking my email and the stock market and the headline news furtively every few minutes on my iPhone or laptop or iPad.

You'd be amazed how much work you can do while biking. Just bring along an iPhone. I like to stop once an hour or so for a quick rest and send myself a quick reminder email on the topics I was thinking about for the past hour. Maybe send out an email to get status on some project.

Reading, one of my favorite activities, has become a painful exercise - almost to the point of impossibility. I find my mind drifting every few sentences, thinking about some problem at work or the last email I just glanced at a minute ago - or that pesky text message waiting for a response. It's impossible to concentrate on the text for more than a couple of paragraphs at a time. Multi-tasking has become the norm without us even being aware of it.

When I wake up at three am with a start these days, I hesitate before I reach for the iPad. A few futile minutes attempting to fall back asleep before giving in and checking email. I've had extended and passionate email exchanges with dozens of other executives and engineers - all also up in the middle of the night checking email. Hmmm.... So it’s not just me.

Airplanes used to be the only safe haven - allowing me to disconnect from the Internet (from "The Matrix") for a few hours. I used to land from an international flight with my inbox cleaned, a dozen documents read and a hundred pieces of email handled. Now, even that safe haven has been taken away. I landed from my most recent international flight exhausted - having just spent the past fourteen hours arguing with a dozen people at work - thanks to the advent of in-flight Internet.

So I asked my boss for three months off. Let's call it a sabbatical, shall we? I need to clear my head. Never mind that our company doesn't currently offer such a benefit. He was gracious enough to grant it - and I’m thankful for the time off.

Years ago, I was privileged enough to enjoy a similar sabbatical while working at Microsoft and I spent the whole three months traveling around the world - from photographic safaris in Africa and treks in Nepal to gondolas in Venice and bottles of Barolo in Tuscany.

This time? Not so much. The truth is I'm too busy.

So here we are three weeks into the sabbatical - and what do I find myself doing? I’m writing a business plan, I’m filing patents, I’m doing research, I’m giving keynotes, I’m blogging. My daughter is getting married next month. I have relatives visiting from out of town. I’m too busy to take time off.

The conclusion? It has nothing to do with the job or the company. Our pace of life has changed and we can't go back to the old days. At the end of the day, "It's my own damn fault". And our new electronic online lives are being too efficient in helping me.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Chapter 4: A Preemptive Eulogy – or – How Pets Impact our Lives

"I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."
Martin Luther King.

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 4: A Preemptive Eulogy – or – How Pets Impact our Lives

Soon after we became empty nesters, about fourteen years ago, my wife decided to get a pet. I'd always been against this idea - for no good reason other than I didn't want the emotional attachment and the hassles that come along with pet ownership. We travel extensively and, every time we do so, we feel guilty about the pets we now have: a nine year old Japanese Chin called Simba and two Persian cats, Mishka and Pookie, both about fourteen years old.

[ Mishka ]

Mishka arrived first as a kitten, only a few weeks old, a fluffy ball of cuteness.

[Mishka as a kitten]

Over the years, though, Mishka has turned sour - preferring his own solace to the distraction of people. He has had many emotional problems and still sometimes pees around the house once in a while when he's not happy about something. He even saw a psychiatrist for a while and was on Prozac for a year or two. It didn't seem to make any difference in his behavior, so we decided to stop torturing him and let him live his life the way he wants to - mostly alone in a corner of the yard or the living room - intentionally with his back to everyone. A typical Anti-social cat.

A year later the same breeder brought us Pookie and asked us to care for him. He was the same age as Mishka (one year old at that time), but had been a grand champion as a show cat.

[Pookie as a champion show cat]

He was also a sickly runt of the litter and the breeder felt we could care for him better given our financial situation.

We'll come back to him in a minute, but let's first meet the third member of our cast: Simba, the mischievous dog that my wife brought home nine years ago as a puppy when I was on a business trip to Japan.

[Simba as a puppy]

Wikipedia describes this breed as "the most cat like" of all dog breeds - and it's true. I have heard him bark no more than a handful of times in the past nine years. He seems to almost have trouble with his vocal cords when he tries - I suspect this is a trait that he was bred for. He has been the happy go luckiest sweetest dog I've ever met.

To be clear, I was not happy at the beginning. A dog was a big responsibility - walking him every day and playing with him and the travel problem again. But it took him only about five minutes to creep under my skin - with his mischievous behavior and pure love of life. Dogs truly do just want to have fun.

So, of course, my reaction was to shield myself from getting too close to him. Of course, secretly, I love him but I figure if I don't externalize those emotions, the pain will be less later. It's odd that I'm so obsessed with the death of these pets, but the inevitability of it seems too cruel to me. I have started several times seriously researching pet cloning - a practice that is shunned ethically for all the right reasons. But I know I will be devastated when we inevitably lose these pets. So I decided to write this blog entry to show my love for them. Consider this an early obituary for Pookie - the first one sure to go as he is so old and frail.

I instantly fell head over heels in love with Pookie when he arrived in our house. There is no way anyone could not fall in love with this cat. He is the sweetest smartest animal I've ever seen. He constantly wants to cuddle with anyone and everyone - literally jumping into people's laps five minutes after they arrive for the first time in our house.

Of course, he is always on the bed with us at night and purring away two inches from our heads - like a far-away locomotive that wakes us up every couple of hours. Sometimes, usually during the winter months, he even comes under the covers and sleeps with us like a toddler would.

But he is also very sickly. He is always underweight (no more than six or seven pounds at any point in his life), suffers from severe arthritis, and is always sick with a cold - sniffling or sneezing in our faces.

He is also a scaredy cat, terrified of his own shadow. It took me a few years to realize how damaged he was psychologically. I suspect this has much to do with the first year of his life and the tortures they put a show cat through. His nervousness only contributes to his problems.

Just a month ago, after living in this house for five years, I commented to my wife that Pookie was finally comfortable enough to come out in the backyard and sit for a few minutes enjoying the sun - unusual for him given all his neuroses.

A few years ago, I started calling him “The Ambassador of Love” - given his penchant for jumping into every stranger’s lap. My brother-in-law has a less generous term. He calls Pookie a “Love Whore”. Either way, the amount of love and attention that Pookie gives everyone is off the charts. He truly does love everyone.

Here he is massaging Simba: who says cats and dogs don't get along?

This is not an unusual event. He goes around massaging the other two on at least a weekly basis.

Another interesting factoid about Pookie: he is smart as a whip. No matter where my wife and I are in the house, he is exactly half way between the two of us. At any given point in time, I can draw a picture showing our respective positions in the house - and Pookie is guaranteed to be dead center in the middle of the line that would connect us. In cases where we are not both in line of sight, Pookie manages to form a perfect triangle between the three of us - so he can keep an eye on both of us simultaneously. His ability to do math and trigonometry is amazing. His biological clock is also in perfect tune with the universe. He can be trusted to wake us up at exactly 6:01 am day after day - and to start begging to go to bed at exactly the same time every night - down to the minute.

No, Pookie is not dead yet. But as he approaches fifteen, as he continues to lose weight, as his arthritis gets worse, as he spends more and more days with a cold, I feel I'm watching my child die in front of me - and I'm helpless to do anything about it. So I decided I wanted to write something about him. 

Why should I have to wait for him to die so I can write his obituary? Why not celebrate his life and tell him, at the same time, to rest in peace – not just after his death, but also for all the days he has left in his natural life.

Pookie, you have given me more joy and unconditional love than I could have ever imagined possible. For that, I thank you. 

Rest in peace, Pookie. Now and forever.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What If the Cure Is Worse than the Disease?

"When scientists underestimate complexity, they fall prey to the perils of unintended consequences."
       Siddhartha Mukherjee. The Gene: An Intimate History.

“Let me through. My brother is a doctor.”
       Dev Patel. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

"The problem with the gene pool is that there is no lifeguard."
       Steven Wright.

We live in an age where, it seems, as soon as we can come up with an ailment, someone is busy building and marketing a drug for it. Irritable Bowel Syndrome? No problem. We have a pill for that. Restless Leg syndrome? Ditto. Acid Reflux Disease? Right this way.

I have no doubt that all these conditions are real and people are actually suffering from them. What I’m having trouble with is the extent to which these same folks are apparently willing to go in order to address their ailments.

Sure, this will cure your irritable bowel syndrome… but it’s also known to cause thyroid cancer and jaundice. This one helps with your restless leg syndrome, but is also known to cause internal bleeding and strokes. Really? Is that the choice? Apparently it is, according to all the pharmaceutical companies who are happily spending billions of dollars inventing these drugs and more billions advertising them.

One of my favorites is a medication that is advertised as causing “headache, anxiety, insomnia, nausea, vomiting, constipation, dizziness, restlessness, high blood sugar, seizures, uncontrollable facial movements and suicidal thoughts." Another ad actually lists death as an unlikely but possible side effect.

"Talk to your doctor,” they always remind us at the end - as if the choices are sensible.

Which brings me to the story I was trying to relate... I just had a scary vision of myself as a centenarian, fifty years from now, still hanging on and being a pain in the ass not just to my daughter but also to her children and grandchildren. Given the advances in medicine and genetics, I have no doubt that they will find a cure for high cholesterol, hypertension, and cancer in the next few years - all things my parents happily passed onto me as part of their genetic heritage.

But given some of the side effects mentioned above, I’ll probably still be suffering from male pattern baldness and lower back pain. As Joan Osborne laments in Dracula Moon, “What if the cure is worse than the disease?”

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Chapter 3: The College Years aka Quantum Entanglement

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
      Mark Twain.

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 3: The College Years aka Quantum Entanglement

Okay, I admit it.

I hated physics in college - partly because my Physics 101 professor had to abandon the class half way through the semester to tend to his dying wife (a noble move on his part). In turn, we were saddled with an assortment of random Teaching Assistants covering the rest of the semester, turning physics into an incoherent mess for me. I was happy to walk away with a reasonable grade and never looked back. I was good at chemistry and biology and all the other sciences, so I could easily satisfy all the science requirements for the degrees I was pursuing without ever opening a Physics book again.

So it came as a surprise to me recently to stumble across the concept of “quantum entanglement”. How could it be that this existed and no one told me about it? WTF?

The short story (based on my naive understanding of Physics) is that pairs or groups of particles can interact in such a way that their independent states can no longer be measured or described – you can only give the state of the system as a whole. In other words, the particles become “entangled”. For example, if one moves clockwise, the other moves counter-clockwise simultaneously. No big deal so far.

But here comes the interesting part: The particles can be at "arbitrarily large distances" - and the reaction happens almost instantaneously: much faster (hundreds of times faster) than the speed of light could travel between those two points in space. This is not a theory, it's been measured in physical experiments.

Wait. What?

I know I sucked at physics but I clearly remember the rule repeated, ad infinitum, that the speed of light is the fastest thing in the universe. I’m pretty sure that was etched on one of the tablets Moses brought down from the mountain.

Now you are telling me that was all just BS? Information somehow flows through the universe at a rate faster than the speed of light - and we have known about this and can't explain it and we just kept going with the old rules? Apparently Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance” – not a term that gives me much comfort.

Schrodinger’s cat, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle… all that is good and well. Of course I know about those. But this is different. I guess it's time to crack open that "Introduction to Quantum Mechanics" text book.

I wonder what else I missed in college. Am I going to find out tomorrow that the Earth is actually a hexagon, but that "it was much easier to calculate the circumference and volume as a sphere so we decided not to make a big deal about it. Besides, treating it like a sphere makes the math formulas so much easier."

Friday, May 8, 2015

Monty Python's Galaxy Song

As I sit in my office working, I can’t help but be amazed at the thought that we are all traveling through space at 67,000 miles an hour. That’s more than 100 times faster than a 747 - and yet we’re not even aware of it. Now that's what I call "first class" travel.

As usual, Monty Python explains it best. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Chapter 2: Today

"Alan had proved that there was no 'miraculous machine' that could solve all mathematical problems, but in the process he had discovered something almost equally miraculous, the idea of a universal machine that could take over the work of any machine. And he had argued that anything performed by a human computer could be done by a machine. So there could be a single machine which, by reading the descriptions of other machines played upon its 'tape', could perform the equivalent of human mental activity: a single machine, to replace the human computer! An electric brain."
Andrew Hodges. Alan Turning: The Enigma.

“There's definitely no logic to human behavior.”
Bjork. Human behavior.
The Autobiography of Ben & Bob
Chapter 2: Today

At what point in life is it okay to admit to yourself that you suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

I say this as I sit here, having just finished listening to my Bob Dylan collection - all 148 albums - chronologically. And I’m about to start on my Van Morrison journey – all 56 of them.

You have to realize that such a journey requires multiple months of dedication and planning. You can’t really absorb more than one Dylan album in a single session so, right there, we’re talking about a five month contract with yourself – assuming you get to do this every day. Of course, there is work and travel and family as well. So I get at best two days per week to enjoy this particular obsession. Now we’re talking about an eighteen month package deal: a deal with yourself to not listen to any other artist for a year and a half. Now that takes dedication. I mean, you'd have to be nuts to do that. Which is exactly my point.

Alphabetical. Chronological. By artist. By genre. By recording date (as opposed to release date). Yup, I've got an OCD problem.

Have I lost it? Almost definitely.

Am I worried? Not really.

Interestingly, the OCD behavior seems to affect only some of my activities - the enjoyable ones: watching Seinfeld, from the first episode to the last. Woody Allen, first movie to last. George Carlin – chronological, of course. Miles Davis, beginning to end. Dave Matthews Band - by concert date. You get the idea. Thankfully, I have a "mild" case of OCD - Which means I don't spend hours every day ironing my shirts or fixing the bed. In fact, I am a complete slob.

I even got into it with books for a while. I’d pick an author and read every one of his or her books in chronological order, but the time requirements were just too high. Even I am not crazy enough to continue on that journey to hell.

So, back to music: The way I see it. the sixteen different versions of Desolation Row in my collection are all so unique and different from each other that I obsess over giving them individual identity, treating them each like a separate song – because, in a sense, they are.

No one said OCD was going to be fun. By concentrating my OCD behavior on my favorite activities, at least I get to enjoy the journey.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Holy Cannoli

I was reading the news the other day when I ran across this story. I want you to zoom in and get a good look at the picture:

That there is a picture… a pho-to-graph… of a living creature. I will let that sink in for a second. 

Yikes! The thing looks like somebody’s science fiction nightmare – or a piece of animation from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But it’s real – and that thing sticking out of its head is basically a flashlight it uses to lure prey. There’s even a video available if you think the picture was photoshopped – sharks with frickin’ laser beams, indeed!

The fact that it’s only nine centimeters long will have no bearing on the fact that it shall henceforth occupy a prominent position in my (and now your) personal nightmares.

You're welcome!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Musings of a Non-Economic Variety

“I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.”
       Nelson Mandela. Long Walk to Freedom.

Having kicked things off with my economic musings (something for which I have zero credentials, the intro class in college notwithstanding), I figured I'd offer my musings on philosophy, culture, politics, genetics, and sociology as well - all also things I have no credentials for.

Enjoy at your own risk.

If the Internet and social media have proven anything, it's that - at heart - we are a moral and a compassionate species. How else can you explain the viral nature of kittens playing piano and dancing babies or any of thousands of other memes? Compare the number of positive uplifting happy generous friendly internet memes to the negative hateful ones and I think you will see a pattern.

I am not naive enough to think there is no underbelly to the Internet. Gambling, pornography, drugs, and crime have all made their way to the Internet and are thriving online. But the vast majority of people prefer to watch cute puppies do yoga or old guys dropping their canes and jamming.

You may argue that this is the role of social media – to help us waste a few minutes laughing – so I've confused cause and effect. But I’m not just talking about bored teenagers and the entertainment value of Facebook here. I believe the trend is much broader and deeper than that.

Even when we report from rough places around the globe and cover wars – Tahrir Square in Cairo or downtown Mogadishu, there is usually a human angle to the story that uplifts us with pride, burns us with indignation, or at least shames us into acting – in one way or another attempting to engage us viscerally. Remember Neda, the girl who died on camera during the so-called Iranian green revolution or the plight of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram? And who can ever forget the image of a man staring down the tanks in Tiananmen Square?

You may argue that I’m just falling prey to journalistic propaganda and sentimentality. Again, I beg to differ. All those kids waving smartphones around and videotaping a slaughter just so they can share it on Youtube are not journalists.

These are the images, videos, and stories that capture our hearts. The positive uplifting ones. The ones that pull at our heartstrings. Hence my assertion that - at heart - we are a positive species. Given sufficient time, we will find a way to solve our problems. And move the world in a positive direction - with lots of fits and starts, for sure, but still generally moving in the right direction.

Just look at how far we have come in the last few hundred years in terms not just of scientific advancement but also educational, cultural, medical, agricultural, and every other angle you can imagine. Five hundred years ago, we had just figured out how to print books – until then, every book was copied by hand. Four hundred years ago, we still thought the world was flat. Three hundred years ago, the average life expectancy was still in the mid-thirties. Two hundred years ago, we were still hunting witches. A hundred years ago, most people didn't have electricity, let alone telephones, televisions, or even refrigerators. Fifty years ago, most people had not traveled more than a few miles from their homes in their lifetimes. Thirty years ago, almost no one had a personal computer. Ten years ago, most people were not even on the Internet.

We have come so far so quickly as a species that it’s breathtaking when you take a step back and watch. I would argue that, when viewed from a distance, the forces of good have always won over the forces of evil – in the long run.

In this world, Nazism would never have prevailed in the long run.  Even if the allies had lost the war, some revolutionary or guerrilla force somewhere would have fought on to eventually prevail and beat them - the good shall triumph. It’s in our nature to fight evil.

Communism failed, at the end of the day, not because its foundational economic principles were wrong. It failed because, as an experiment, it did not result in a happier populace. The same populace who could now turn on their satellite TVs and smartphones and see how the other half lives. China: ditto. Cuba: ditto. Dogma can only take you so far.

And the more of a unified global village we become, the more we share on the internet, the more we realize that we are not all that different from each other after all. We have more things in common than we thought – kittens and puppies and dancing babies included.

So I'm hopeful. I'm positive. I'm bullish on the future of the human race.

But what about all the fighting, all the hatred, all the terrorism, you may ask. I can only point you to Steven Pinker’s masterly work, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, where he shows that we have a much lower rate of violence in the world today than at any point in history. And the rate continues to drop.

“The Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, apologized to Pope Gregory VII for church-state conflicts by standing barefoot in the snow for three days.”
Steven Pinker. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Ok, that quote has almost nothing to do with the point I was trying to make, but I thought it was awesome and wanted to include it here.

This quote, however, does have a lot to do with the point I’m trying to make – and it comes from one of my favorite authors of all time:

“Nevertheless, an iron rule exists in genetic social evolution. It is that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.”
                Edward O. Wilson. The Social Conquest of Earth.

If we could only embody that statement at a global level instead of a local one, the world would be a better place. And believe me... as hard as it may be to see on a day to day basis, we are moving in the right direction.