Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Enabling Life

My latest book, Death Stoppers Anthology, takes its name from a poem I wrote a few years ago called Death Stoppers that is included in the book. After writing the poem, I wrote a blog post that delved into some of its meaning; and in the new book's memoir section, I concluded that it embodies perhaps the best strategy for dealing with the global threat of ecological catastrophe that years of research has forced me to accept. Perhaps even more important for me personally, and others who may also be drawn toward depression after coming to terms with our situation, it presents a vision of what success might look like – something that can motivate us and serve as a source of hope while we do the hard work ahead.

Yesterday I had some time to appreciate some of the natural beauty around me, which here on the Front Range of Colorado is as easy as focusing on the Rockies that frame half our view. After recent snowfall, the mountains are particularly stunning, a stark overlay of both the immediate past and the distant past that both relaxes and challenges the mind. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that I have spent an unhealthy fraction of my life obsessed with finding and characterizing problems, and not enough time finding and characterizing – and more importantly, experiencing – the good, in people as well as the rest of Nature. Preserving, enhancing, and proliferating that good, and providing opportunities for good that we have yet to know, is, when we value life above and beyond (while including) our own, what "death stopping" enables.

When we see ourselves as "life enablers," then both our guiding value, and what we must do to honor that value, are crystallized around a vision of the kind of world we want to be part of. Death Stoppers ends with my take on that vision:

Disaster was averted
Death slowed to a crawl
Love and health became the rule
The team became us all.

The "team," of course, is the group of people who facilitate the changes that make that vision a reality, and ultimately we all must maintain it.

The rest of the poem deals with how that can be achieved, beginning with shaming those people who "didn't share... Who raped the land for fun and gain... And cared not what was fair." Sadly such people exist; but in a social environment such as our present one, where the values that cast their behavior as bad are eroded or absent, and where, increasingly, the amoral, homicidal, and ultimately suicidal philosophy that "might makes right" dominates, resistance cannot be unified and have a decent chance of prevailing. In the poem, the team understands this, and chooses to set an example at great personal risk: "To stop the death that threatened all... Without a shred of fear." Shaming is one way to have a discussion about values, by introducing them explicitly as a reason for observable action (which is focused on stopping behavior), but such a discussion can also be facilitated by celebrating existing examples of how the alternative, preferred values translate into experience we might (and I believe most of us would) want more.

In my recent post "Evaluating Competition," I laid out a case for assessing the values that are embodied in a competition's goals, rules, and full set of consequences in order to decide whether the competition is worth our participation and our society's support. Death Stoppers displays an application of this, where the team rejects those aspects of economic competition that value the happiness of a minority over long-term fairness and survival for the majority. The team is initially assisted by many others because their individual happiness has suffered, and it must demonstrate healthy replacements for the needs that the current competition serves before its values can be fully accepted and incorporated into a longer-lasting way of living (the economic aspects of which were described in my post "Spaceship Finance").

I hold on to some hope that this process can be hastened by the shortcut of engaging people's imaginations and reasoning through words and images that simulate what living might be like in alternative futures that are based on the exercise of different values. Making them believable depends upon another major requirement for a healthy world, common (and accurate) understanding that enables both quality communication and credibility. Working on such a shortcut is one of my main motivations for pursuing a writing business, which along with my research has only now set the stage for it. Since I have limited personal resources, and because I'm frankly worn out by dwelling on the problem of apocalyptic futures, I intend to focus on describing the consequences of success in enabling life, as well as the good in the here-and-now that I was luckily reminded of yesterday.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Selling The Unseen

I have been thinking a lot about selling lately: selling my skills to those who can use them to do good things, selling products I've created that represent what I consider valuable, and selling ideas and knowledge that have come from a lifetime of experience. This does not come from any desire to become rich, or to dominate others, or to have a lot of stuff. I'm not currently good at the selling that could help me do so, and it's taken a lot of years to figure out why.

The reason is because my passion is not finding and giving people what they want, but finding new ways to see the world, asking questions others don't think of asking, and in the process, as my father used to say because we were so much alike, "exploring the obvious" to unveil a universe of wonder in everyone's midst. Being able to see that universe takes work, the result is intangible, and it risks exposing flaws in what you previously believed; but it is so worth it after you've done it, and it's addictive. You can't look at anything anymore without wondering about what you're not seeing. After you've found those hidden views a few times, you start the process automatically, even when you're consciously seeking a different goal that doesn't factor in the risks or recognize the potential gains.

How can you sell something like that? My father and I, and many colleagues we taught, searched for years to find the answer, and never found a good answer. We packaged some of our insights, and some of the more easily recognized processes, in ways that the educational market might appreciate, but the really interesting parts were unavoidably lost in the translation – to the point that what we could sell was barely competitive with what others had to sell, and we didn't have the resources to go any further anyway, right before my father died of a heart attack.

I've packaged some of my own insights in the years since then, building on a mental rebuilding process that was initiated by his death and has made the process of asking and seeing virtually ongoing. The packaging was in lines of enquiry during my forays in test engineering, where potential dead-ends were merely unexplored opportunities, which I tried to turn into tangible results to justify their pursuit, not always successfully. The packaging also was in writing, which I continue to this day in blog posts and books with the similar hope that others will find enough value in them to help me continue. I discovered that I could create music as another tangible result of my explorations, an emotional presentation of stories I imagined as my mind spun through permutations of barely-hidden variables, some for fun, some for something deeper. As I wrote for others, capturing their processes, procedures, and knowledge, my insights intruded into my work unbidden, and increasingly unwelcome, as the forms and the mechanics became more automated and stripped the interesting parts as a consequence.

Like many people with my background, I initially scoffed at prognostications of ecological doom which my own investigations have now justified as worthy of serious concern and emergency action. After hard self-examination, I came to terms with the fact that I would rather be a poor person in a healthy world than a rich person in a dying one, and the near-certainty that a healthy world is inconsistent with levels of profit that will allow anyone to be very rich, to the extent that being rich translates into extreme power and physical consumption.

To switch our dying world into a healthy one, two ideas must be sold to most of us: the reality of our situation, which as a bad thing can't be sold in a market that does not distinguish the truth from lies that are easily shielded with false uncertainty; and major changes must be made to address the malady uncovered by that reality, which involve a lot of work where we're used to buying convenience. The parallel with my personal experience is too obvious to ignore, which is one big reason why I feel I have something valuable to contribute to this monumental problem, and also why I am filled with trepidation about its chances of solution.

Why would you buy a different way of looking at the world, when it requires a lot of work to learn, and has the potential for making your life harder as a result? This begs another question: How can you justify believing in a lie, and avoiding the initial work to solve the problem that the truth would reveal, so that the problem can become overwhelming later? Changing and testing your way of looking at the world enables you to detect threats and opportunities, and to take appropriate action to survive and thrive. There is also an ecstasy that comes with seeing things differently, which is comparable to the mind's experience of procreation, a natural reward for helping to ensure the survival of life that also requires work and risk, and just as worth it. We are all born with the curiosity and a basic logic that enables learning of this kind, just as we have instincts that enable procreation, but somehow many of us are trained to forget that, or to mistrust it, perhaps because it may pose a greater threat to those who profit the most from the illusions it might shatter, the people we trust to make our lives more "secure."

As a species in a sick world we have created, we can't afford to hoard any knowledge or capabilities that might help cure it, because it will take our combined effort if there is to be any reasonable chance of success. We can't rely on a "market" to identify "winners" and "losers," because lives are at stake, and too many of them, unless you're a sociopath who is okay with trading lives for an all-too-brief spike of power. To the dismay of some close to me, I've given away what I felt could contribute most to a healthier world, as a duty and an example, this post included – all to improve my chances of living in that better world – while packaging some of it, along with the rest, as both incentive for people who value money more, and as a possible means of helping me continue the work with minimal diversion.

I've been thinking a lot about selling lately, because we are relying on a market mentality for our survival, and I'm as dependent on it as anyone else. I'm trying to get better at it while hoping it will one day become more optional than necessary, one day that isn't too late.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Small Errors

In the blog post "Efficiency and Completion Time," I discussed how long we can realistically take to complete a given amount of a task. I was reminded of that discussion, along with the years of experience that backed it up, as I tried to complete the task of publishing my latest book, and as I continued my search for a source of income that could meet both my personal and global responsibilities.

I chose to self-publish the book because I felt it was critical to get its contents into the public eye as soon as possible, instead of another two years if I could go through a publisher. I estimated it would comfortably take a month to complete the text, edit it, and do the cover art myself. In retrospect, I fell into the same trap I warned about in the blog post: my estimate turned out to be the optimistic value, and, as would be expected, I ended up taking almost exactly three times as long to achieve successful completion. I realized that this was due, in part, to a focus on content more than form, which except for a few tweaks was actually complete in that first month.

After several months of peddling my résumé to recruiters and companies as part of an ongoing job search, I discovered a one-word error that was an extremely small fraction (an eighth of a percent) of total word count, and as such had understandably escaped notice during multiple readings by me and many others, apparently without consequence. Because it was small, I wasn't surprised that it was found by accident; in my experience, that's where unchallenged assumptions, the things no one is looking for and thus potentially the most impactful, tend to get exposed and tested (which is why it's good to spend some time "playing," independent of planned exercises).

My sensitivity to even the smallest errors has been heightened by thinking and studying about the consequences of the phenomenon of "feedback," where direct or indirect results of an action can change one or more sources of the action, and lead to complex and counterintuitive consequences. Most of my formal experience with feedback has involved electronic systems, but I've been recently learning about human ecology, which attempts to describe and understand the interaction between people and ecosystems, and uses similar principles to do so. The existential threats humanity now faces, which have been a preoccupation of mine in the years since I started looking for practical applications of a value system based on maximizing life (especially ours), stem from many feedbacks in our interactions with each other and the rest of Nature. Focusing on a limited range of objectives and impacts while yielding increasing power over the world has left a lot of "small errors" to multiply their effects through mechanisms were are barely aware of, if at all, to a point that we are now feeling their cumulative and typically negative effects. This awareness has driven me to be more careful in how I choose to work, at least while I can (detours remain a real possibility), and to responsibly play as much as possible along the way.