In which I sound like a cranky ingrate

Scenes from Matanda, Malawi
This girl is going to have to walk 1km home. Photo from kym54 on Flickr.

This week, if you’ve seen any of my action on Twitter or Facebook, you probably know that I was admitted to the hospital on Monday for blood clots in my lungs. Three years ago I had a pulmonary embolism while I was in the hospital. To avoid the out on my third strike, I’m going to have to live the rest of my life regularizing my leafy green intake and taking Coumadin.

So, fine. I had a blood clot (again!) and I could have been one of the 100,000 Americans that die every year (one every 5 minutes) from a blood clot.

But I’m not. I survived. I’m very happy to be alive. I don’t really know how I would feel if I hadn’t survived this, but I know that my wife and children were quite upset when they came to see me in the hospital — their lives would be completely different had I not survived. And so, I’m happy for them that I’m sitting here in my back yard listening to the cicadas while my daughters play with the bugs they’ve caught today.

If the blood clot didn’t result in brain damage (i.e. a stroke), then the inconvenience of Coumadin is probably the most debilitating long term effect that most people suffer. There are even (very expensive) drugs available that take care of thinning the blood without being affected by diet. I’m on one now because the Heparin I was in the hospital for wasn’t getting my INR up quickly enough. But it costs $40 per dose. Paying $280 per week for preventative medicine doesn’t really work for my budget when there is a cheaper alternative (Coumadin) that has been working for 60 years.

But now when I tell people I’ve had two blood clots, they tend to freak out. “That sounds scary!” Or “I‘m praying for you.”

I understand this. When a friend of mine showed me a clot that he had in his leg, I was pretty surprised that he was up and about and not falling over in front of me. “Shouldn’t he be more worried?” I thought.

But now I think I understand his point of view a little better. People die from blood clots. Like I said, an American dies once every five minutes from one.

Maybe it is just that those of us who have had one (or two!) of them and survived realize that we are past the deadly part — we’re alive and life keeps happening.

I appreciate that the possibility of death looms every second that I’m alive. I appreciate the prayers of others for my health and my family’s well-being. Really, I’m grateful!

But I’m also grateful for drinkable running water. Water is essential for living, but most Westerner’s don’t spend time thinking about how blessed they are that they don’t have to walk to a communal well every day to get their water. And I don’t spend time telling them how lucky they are to have running water.

Death looms, but I’m alive.

It takes a lot of infrastructure and work that we don’t usually see to get plenty of fresh water, but I can take a nice long shower.

I’m lucky to be alive. There, I’ve acknowledged it. Can I just get on with living?

Someone I respect read my blog!

[photocommons file=”Asian food.jpg” width=240]Last night, I ate dinner twice. The first time I got an education about Israel’s wars in 1967 and 1973.

But at the second dinner, Amir told me he read my blog. So, of course, this post is about the discussion I had with him then.

He asked me why I make a point that I am Orthodox when I talk about my Christianity here. I suppose that from the outside, these differences look sort of petty. Yep, you’ve got bells and smells and they have a praise band. So what?

The first part of my answer was from Stuff White People Like: It is different than my parent’s religion. I remember when my wife and I were looking at Orthodoxy some 15 years ago. There were a lot of heated discussions with my parents — especially my dad. That made an impact on me and, even though the differences don’t mean much to someone who isn’t a Christian, they mean a lot to me. It is a distinct part of my identity. The point is not that if you’re the wrong kind of Christian (let alone an atheist) you are going to hell. Instead, it is simply a restatement of my identity.

To borrow from Tom Morris post on identity embracement, I’m an Orthodox, freetarded capitalist, and a straight, white, American father of four. When I post about an area where I feel like my identity is in the minority — like being an Orthodox Christian American — I dwell on it a bit more and that is reflected in what I write.

(Photo credit: No, that isn’t my dinner.  It is from John Martinez Pavliga and used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

Hong Kong (and MediaWiki)

Flu in Hong KongIt has been a while since I posted anything here and I’m only posting now to tell you that I’m in Hong Kong.

After Markus Glaser and I won the contract for MediaWiki release management from Wikimedia, he suggested that I come to Wikimania so that we would have a chance to talk to developers.

Markus has been busy in chapter meetings, so I’ve been spending some time talking to developers and getting ready for the MediaWiki architecture discussion later today.

Remember: Life sucks and it isn’t fair

This is just a general reminder that life sucks, not a navel-gazing, self-pitying examination of my own life. I’ll save that for another day. This is just a rambling rant that I felt the need to write down.

Most of us who don’t live in war zones get complacent. We like safety and comfort. We like predictability. We want tomorrow to be only moderately different than today. Not exactly the same, mind you. We saw Groundhog Day already and are pretty sure that would be a nightmare.

Even if we do like to mix it up some — Skydiving, anyone? — we are still looking for exciting, exhilarating life experiences, not life changing catastrophes.

But the reality is that life is filled with pain and heartache. The reality is that danger is ever-present and tomorrow, let alone the next second, isn’t guaranteed.

Too often, we come up against this hard reality and we wonder “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” Yes, something you did probably contributed to how your life sucks, but even if you lived perfectly and we can find nothing to fault you with, life sucks and, worse, it isn’t fair so your life will suck or, if you’ve somehow been able to live a life of pure bliss in which you did nothing wrong (ha!), you are still going to die.

But that isn’t all. Before you die, you’ll see people you care about, even those you love, having a sucky life and dying.

So, yeah, your life will suck. You’ll end up miserable and experiencing more pain than you deserve.

Instead of asking “Why me?” — instead of thinking that you shouldn’t have to live in misery and fear, remember that everyone’s life sucks. If you spend a little time reflecting on it, you’ll probably realize things could be worse. At the very least, you should realize that your misery isn’t unique. Everyone else’s life sucks at some point, so a better question is “Why not me?”

Instead of looking at the person you despise who is in misery and feeling smug or thinking “Well, that person deserved it!” try asking yourself “Why not me?” If you do that right — if you realize there really is little reason for you to escape suffering for what you’ve done while that person is in misery — you’ll find yourself hoping that the person you despise quickly recovers.

Yes, life sucks. Yours, mine, and everyone else’s. There is no escaping it. Misery and suffering are inevitable.

40 years of life

[photocommons file=”Sunset may 2006 panorama.jpg” width=”800″]
Today marks 40 years since my birth.

It is a birthday I share with Lady Gaga (but she is 13 years my junior); the Three Mile Island leak (when I was 6); Anheuser Busch, Jr., a beer brewing magnate; and the death (four years before my birth) of President Eisenhower (one of my favorite presidents for his prescient words about the “military-industrial complex”: the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. (As it happens Ronald Reagan was shot just two days after my eighth birthday, but I would have to wait exactly four months for my wife to be born.)

There is a lot more you could learn about March 28 in the news or in the Orthodox Church (my chosen religious tradition), but I’ve spent far too much time navel-gazing for now.

Instead, I’ll just note that the past 10 years have been a lot better than I ever thought they would be. I’ve been lucky enough to survive an head injury and I moved to the East Coast but I still haven’t got my first billion dollars. Somehow I still manage to be happy and satisfied with where I’m at with my family, friends, and life.

(Photo is CC BY-NC. Photographer is Fir0002/Flagstaffotos.)

Training vs Trying or “There is no try”

[photocommons file=”Old-Train-Engine.JPG” width=180]Yoda is well known for (among other things) his admonition to Luke Skywalker: “Do or do not. There is no try.” I like the saying, but when I’ve mentioned it to some people, they’ve taken offense. Americans, in particular, seem to be put off by this sentiment.

My impression is that our concept of “trying” is influenced by the story of the The Little Engine that Could. We look at our failures and console ourselves with “Well, at least I tried.”

Now, of course there is nothing wrong with trying. But sometimes that is the entirety of our effort. I came across this quote today that helped me think about this some more:

[I]t is important to distinguish “training” from “trying.” I might try very hard to win a marathon race, but if I have not trained, I will not even finish, not to mention win. Without training, the resources simply are not in my muscles, they are not in the ingrained habit structures of my body. On the day of the race, no amount of trying will make up for the failure to train. It is the training that will enable me to participate effectively in the race.

Richard Foster in Christianity Today


The quote was part of larger chapter on askesis (Greek: ἄσκησις) or spiritual exercise. But leaving aside the spiritual component, the Richard Foster quote above makes it clearer why just putting in an effort to accomplish something is insufficient.

In discussing “trying” vs “training” this morning, I came to a realization: trying something lasts only as long as our interest. In order to try, we don’t have to plan or prepare. Who knows? It is possible you’ll succeed if you try without any preparation. Indeed, some people will try so many times (taking the to heart the aphorism “If at first you don’t succeed, Try, try, try again.”) without any more preparation that the culmination of all your effort (and the practice that comes with it) will result in success.

But any real effort to achieve a goal will require some planning. It will require effort even when we don’t feel like trying any more because our failures have so discouraged us.

With this understanding, Yoda’s words (“Do or do not. There is no try.”) become clear. He isn’t telling us failure isn’t an option, but that we can’t be satisfied with just making an effort. If we’re really interested in finishing successfully, making an effort isn’t enough.

An example from my life is probably the best way to clarify this. I’ve been trying to lose some weight for quite some time. Instead, since my accident (when I lost a few pounds), I’ve gained almost 25lbs (11kg or 2 stone). I was trying to lose weight but the whole time I gained weight. But I didn’t have a plan. Without planning, I ate more than I needed to for the work I was doing. Without planning to, I gained weight. I should have realized “there is no try”.

Piety vs. Morality or, I’m a moral relativist

[photocommons file=”Gyárfás_Piety.jpg” width=180]I had an interesting discussion with a friend about piety and morality after I pointed to Fr. Stephen’s essay on “Godless Morality on Twitter.

This led me to look up what these two words have to do with each other. From Wikipedia:

Piety

The word piety comes from the Latin word pietas, the noun form of the adjective pius (which means “devout” or “good”). Pietas in traditional Latin usage expressed a complex, highly valued Roman virtue; a man with pietas respected his responsibilities to gods, country, parents, and kin.

Morality

Morality (from the Latin moralitas “manner, character, proper behavior”) is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are “good” (or right) and those that are “bad” (or wrong).

So, moral behavior would be derived from the piety one felt and what that respect would mean. Morality, to put it bluntly, cannot be objectively quantified. All morality is relative.

(We usually say “filial piety” when we mean respect to the family to distinguish it from respect for one’s god. It is interesting that the original Latin word could be used to talk about piety towards one’s country. Today, we use the word “patriotism” for that.)

As a result of this etymological search I don’t see a separation between piety (in the more general, Latin, sense) and morality. It looks to me like morality flows from the pieties one maintains.

That is, if you don’t have piety for my God, you won’t be motivated to do things that are in the moral system I have that results from the pieties I maintain.

Most of us have piety (that is, respect) for at least some sense of order and life, so prohibitions against, say, murder fit into our moral frameworks.

However, I have piety (respect) for God that others don’t share. Many people have a great piety towards science or reason that I don’t share. So they will do things that I wouldn’t do and I’ll do things that they won’t do. (For example, I am more ready to embrace the irrational, and many people don’t bother with loving God.)

So, when you hear people ranting about how immoral some people are, they’re absolutely right. However, they can’t expect anyone who doesn’t share their pieties to share their morality.

Robots are job creators

[photocommons file=”File:Toyota_Robot_at_Toyota_Kaikan.jpg” width=180]I was catching up on my reading this morning when I saw (via Patrick’s “Jobs worth doing” post) a Gizmodo article about things that computers are doing now, notably sports writing and filling out perscriptions.

These two cases aren’t terribly frightening: filling perscriptions is clearly something that should be automated to reduce the number of potentially fatal errors. And, as the article points out, most sports readers aren’t looking for great prose — they just want the highlights.

Now comes the question: What happens when computers take my job. Some people, (like this commentor) will see this as a good thing:

Tax the robotic factory well enough to give the unemployed decent wages for doing “nothing”. If you work you get paid very well. If you choose to go surfing every day and live off of the state you get a nice check to cover your living expenses.

I’m just as lazy as the next person — probably lazier — so I definitely see the attraction for being paid to surf. But I also think that humans are extremely creative and love to be challenged.

That, and I’m prejudiced: I’ve never been surfing. It could be that surfing poses new challenges every day. It would certainly challenge me if I were to try it.

And this, too, is why I’m not too concerned about a computer taking my job. If it takes my job, I’ll figure out something else to do. It may not pay as well, and I may end up hunting for feral cats to feed my family, but we’ll get by.

The idea of getting robot-run factories to just support people whose job has been “taken” by a computer job doesn’t seem reasonable (or scalable), though. In fact, it would probably serve to stifle creativity.

And it is here that my faith in people’s ability to creatively cope comes into play. When faced with elimination people have risen to meet the challenge. Which is not to say that everything will be fine and no one will suffer. Suffering is a given. Those of us who are suffering will probably use a lot of energy — all of it, sometimes — to deal with the suffering. But those of us on the edge see suffering and it motivates us to come up with new solutions, ways to escape the suffering.

Which is to say, those robots taking your jobs are (indirectly, at least) job creators

Open Source Bricks

The Year of Open Source has discovered the $1500 brick press that Open Source Ecology has developed.

This got my interest because it uses dirt and an inexpensive 20-ton press to make bricks. I spent the summer of 1987 working at an orphanage outside of Cap-Haïtien using cinder blocks made on-site. Since the design of the brick press is available for anyone to use, I could see a village using a portable brick press to help build new buildings.

The cost of raw materials for cinder blocks is more than the pressed bricks — cement is needed for the cinder blocks, pressed bricks only need dirt — and the manpower needed looks roughly equal. The trouble comes because, as cheap as it is, the brick press is more expensive than the equipment needed for creating cinder blocks,

Still, I’m curious.

Objective Data isn’t enough

[photocommons file=”Bill_Clinton_visit_to_Los_Alamos.jpg” width=180]From perusing Reddit this morning, I learned that President Clinton gave a substantive speech last night during the Democratic convention. I didn’t see it, but from the comments, it looks like it was an objective refutation of some of the compelling speeches last week (like Paul Ryan’s) during the Republican convention.

That alone would be enough for many Redditors. But Clinton is known for being compelling and persuasive and, from the comments, it looks like he managed to sway some voters, too.

After I read some of the comments there, I caught up on some of my RSS feeds and came across this gem by Oliver: “Emotive Data and Baby Teeth”.

I’ll quote a bit that makes the point that I’m trying to — facts are great, but facts don’t persuade people to do anything — and shows why Clinton’s speech was (evidently) so great. But you should go read the whole post.

A good example of this is found in the campaign for nuclear disarmament and reduction in the United States. During the 1950s it became clear, academically, that the testing of nuclear weapons was causing problems…but nobody really talked about it, because academic data wasn’t something that led people in the know to emote, and it wasn’t sexy enough for the media to pick it up and carry it to people not in the know.

What changed that was Eric and Louise Reiss’s Baby Tooth Survey. Tens of thousands of baby teeth from various time periods were taken and tested for radioactive isotopes – fallout from nuclear testing. The results, published first in 1961 and then more conclusively in 1963, showed that Strontium-90 levels in baby teeth had gone up by over 5000 percent since the start of nuclear weapons testing. It was this study that finally pushed JFK over the edge to sign the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the first nuclear weapons treaty.

It didn’t succeed at this because the data was new. The idea that nuclear weapons testing might have an impact on health was already known. It succeeded because it was emotional – it was dealing with childrens’ teeth. Every parent who ran into it could suddenly imagine those teeth belonging to their child.