Friday, April 22, 2011

Primer Preparation

I'm taking some time to prepare a PowerPoint presentation about my population-consumption-happiness modeling, which I'll post on my Web site as a primer for those who are new to what I've been doing and don't have the patience to look at everything I've produced.  As a consequence of that work and starting my new job, the frequency of my posts (or at least their size) will probably be reduced for a while.

The review is already helping with my thinking about the model's validity and applications, which makes it a good exercise regardless of the physical result.  Bear with me, and I'll try to share my insights as soon as I process them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Self Calibration

When you're trying to contribute to a land of conscience, it's important to listen to your own conscience more frequently. Several hours after writing my last post (“Working Stiff”) it's clear that I was really full of myself, virtually gloating that I have a new job (if that's what you can call a contract gig these days) and bragging that I'm giving away my research so those “greedy bastards” can't profit from it. While everything I said was true, my conscience is more awake now, and I'm not so proud of where it was coming from, especially when I review the backstory of how I reacted when I got the news about the job.

The first thing I did was celebrate, which is one of my few traditions, by taking my wife out to dinner. Since being out of work, we've cut back on a lot relative to how we lived when we were both working full time jobs; we “walked the walk” of limiting consumption out of necessity, like too many other members of the vanishing middle class in the U.S. Knowing you have more money – or at least the promise of it – is like a drug, and I'm no less an addict than anyone else, binging on junk food, entertainment, and “replacement” equipment when it became possible again. While I was castigating politicians and business leaders for leading us all toward a cliff, in my own way and at a much smaller scale I was shuffling along in the same direction with rationalizations not dissimilar to theirs.

I've been thinking a lot about streamlines lately. The graphs I created on my Web site depicting the happiness and perceived environments of different people in the world's population bear a remarkable resemblance to those mathematical representations of the movement of water and air molecules that I studied as a physics student. It's not too far a stretch to expect that such an analysis might ultimately yield a similar field theory for the behavior of humans, which could have huge applications in strategic decision-making across all scales of life. Considering that prospect, I felt a burst of optimism that I haven't experienced in a long time. The “holy grail” of my research – a simple set of tools for anticipating the effects of everyday decisions on humanity's long-term future, the basis of my value system – appeared to be in reach, and it might be usable in time to avoid the global disaster that the use of our current set of tools is propelling us toward.

Not too surprisingly in retrospect, my head got bigger. On top of that, the career profile I completed at the local workforce center confirmed that I was more intellectual than practical, so I must be doing the right thing. I just needed to figure out how to get paid for it. That's where I was coming from last night.

The reader needs to keep in mind, as I reminded myself today, that I could be totally full of crap. As elaborate as my abstractions and musings have become, they are, at best, hypotheses based on an admittedly limited understanding of the world. I put them out to the world with the hope that others will test them and perhaps find them useful in some way I can't even imagine. I'm simply contributing to a conversation, doing my part to fill in the universal jigsaw puzzle that is human understanding of ourselves and where we live, so we can improve the chances of all living better and longer lives.

Sharing my personal experience is the newest part of that contribution. As a test engineer, one of my first steps in verifying the results of a measurement was to check the calibration of the equipment and procedures used to generate it. These reflections are, in large part, an effort to provide readers with information about my personal biases, so they can check my “calibration” and use it to filter the “raw data” I'm generating. Using that analogy, the review of the past using one's conscience is a form of “self-calibration,” which may be one of its most critical roles as the mind's way of viewing itself with something approaching objectivity.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Working Stiff

Next week I'll be starting my first job since September. It's a contract technical writing position with a large non-profit hospital chain, doing something very similar to what I've done before, which should last several months at a pay rate closer to what I'm worth than I've been able to get in a long while. In short, I got very lucky.

Ironically, I feel very close to a major breakthrough in my research. I recently posted a graph on my Web site that illustrates the “prime happiness” relationship I discovered back in February, which still tantalizes me with its simplicity and the potential for being more than a strange coincidence. It's certainly worth following up. In addition, I've come to suspect that my work with relative environments will lead to significant new insights about human perception and behavior that can ultimately be used to help steer us away from impending oblivion.

No matter how my work situation unfolds, I plan to continue my investigations, though probably at a slower rate until I can find a way to devote more time to it and meet my financial obligations. That way remains difficult to nail down, even as I'm collecting more evidence about the types of careers I'm suited for and not suited for. Technical writing remains the most economically viable thing I can do, even though for the most part it services a part of the economy – information technology – that is fundamentally unsustainable. An academic career is still on the table, though my reservations remain intact. Creative writing and investigation, unless I make a big splash with a large fan base, are unlikely to yield more than trivial spending money.

Of course, it doesn't help that I hate money, specifically the harm generally required for its accumulation. If I could live and work for free, I would. What I consider the most valuable fruits of my labor, understanding that could lead to everyone living better lives, I am giving away, on my blogs and Web site. In return, I'm deriving some pleasure in the knowledge that it might be doing some good, and that it can't be bought and sold, and therefore hoarded, by a bunch of greedy bastards who would gladly sell humanity down the toilet for more personal power. I'm not above charging for some of my labor, of course, but mainly for derivative works (my art), luxury items (advertised in pop-up ads accompanying a few of my pages), and already economically-valuable services (like my technical writing).

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lessons of Nostalgia

For the past couple of weeks I've been revisiting favorite TV shows and music, mostly from my teens and twenties (the 1970s and 1980s). I'm not sure why. Perhaps it has something to do with feeling overwhelmed with the bad news about where the world is headed. Or maybe it's a way of saying goodbye to my past in preparation for the future. The reason could be as simple as the fact that my experience from those years is becoming more relevant to the here and now, such as the education research I did with my father, the tough lessons I learned as a young test engineer, and the tragic loss of my mother due to cancer.

Three shows stand out: MacGyver, Airwolf, and The Incredible Hulk. MacGyver reminds me of my father's exploits, and the many hours I spent as an engineer verifying and troubleshooting problems. Airwolf was mainly escapist entertainment, though I could somewhat identify with the loner aspect of the main character, and maintained some hope that technology like the title's helicopter could solve any problem. I identified most, however, with David Banner in The Incredible Hulk, who felt that his calm, cerebral self needed to always dominate over his brutish, dangerous physical self.

In my late thirties I finally allowed my physical self to grow, and achieved the equivalent of what Hulk's David Banner got stuck in during a pair of episodes called “Prometheus”: a state half-way between his two selves. Unlike Banner, I was able to fuse the two selves together into a healthy whole, completing the transition to maturity that should have naturally happened a decade earlier.

Reviewing my past, I've abandoned the belief in the quick fixes that characterizes MacGyver and Airwolf. MacGyver's solutions were always just stopgap measures, dealing with immediate needs but never intended as permanent solutions. Airwolf's utility was limited to very specific circumstances, even if you bought the simplistic premise, still dominating action theater and the delusions of militarists, that a strong show of force is necessary to achieve peace.

During my review, ultraconservatives were demonstrating a new level of viciousness in their efforts to remove societal control over the pursuit of personal power. Unlike David Banner, whose innate goodness was reflected in the Hulk's goals (if not his methods), these folks appear to prefer being sociopathic hulks, willing to kill anyone or anything that gets in the way of their perceived path to personal gratification. For the time being, compromise seems to be keeping the worst from happening, reversing the “metamorphosis” in time so that they are merely human sociopaths, but it is unlikely to continue working. Unfortunately, a lot of damage is still being done in a world that has already been beat to a pulp, a world we all depend on for survival. That damage and the motivation behind it fits my definition of evil; just thinking about it makes me angry, and “you wouldn't like me when I'm angry” (though at least I'm able to get past it without doing any harm). 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Gasp of Normality

April 1:  My projections of a world population peak and crash felt unusually personal as I woke up this morning, even as the prospects improved that I would be employed soon. I pushed away the feeling, and for one day pretended that my main problem was surviving the recession and paying off debt. In the afternoon's job interview, I focused on the immediate requirements of the job, which included whether the work environment would be a good fit. In short, I lived in temporary denial, reacting to events as if they were not part of a larger context, but rather points on either side of a more simple extrapolation of normal life.

Of course, the thoughts came back with a vengeance when my duties were done. The familiar jaw-tightening, digestive discomfort, and tension headache surged as I reviewed the day's news and thought about the backstories and potential futures of the people and animals I had directly encountered. The title of yesterday's Comment of the Day seemed to hold a special significance: “Energy for a Dying World.” That's what I was helping to do, enabling a last gasp of normality for me and my fellow planet-killers as our victim groaned in agony. Emerging from the normality, I was once again reminded what an aberration it was becoming.

Last night, I learned that radiation from Japan's damage nuclear plant was being found in the U.S. food supply, and it wasn't necessarily a sure thing that the Food and Drug Administration would be testing for it. There was some discussion in the news that the levels found so far were “safe,” which was far from comforting. Meanwhile, the poor victims near the epicenter of the quake that started it all were fighting incredible odds just to hang on, dealing with much higher contamination as well, and facing the prospect that the exports that might help them recover could be banned from the global marketplace. To me, it was one of the more egregious examples of dangerous waste as a natural byproduct of economic activity, whose costs could always be measured in terms of pain and death. If we were all mature, responsible people who cared more about life than power, minimizing such waste and controlling its dispersion would be a no-brainer; but we aren't, it isn't, and our collective future is more bleak because of it.

I went to bed thinking about this, and tonight I will do the same. Tomorrow won't be a normal day, just another step along the way to finding hope grounded in reality while keeping the stress of what I know from overwhelming me.