Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Leaving Las Vegas

I have a host of unfinished business from previous blog entries below (more typically above, but, not here I suppose).  Among them is the name of that guy who wrote the National Geographic article called "Our Vegetable Travellers" that I enjoyed reading so much through the Purdue extension office.  Read my entry with the word "Salad" in the title to reorient yourself if you have no idea what I am talking about.  In any case, I promised to give the writers name out and a link when I had the time, and since it's only 1 AM, I figure, what the hell.  His name was, I assume he's done a bit of traveling of his own by now:  Victor R. Boswell, "Our Vegetable Travelers."

I read, just today, researching some book I read a long time ago, this quote by Carol Shields, "Happiness is a pane of glass you don't know you're looking through until it breaks."  I remember taking great pleasure and joy from life, but realizing I was not happy, in my distant past.  I used to sometimes laugh when asked, in earnest, were I  happy.  I find this sentence pretty interesting.  Unfortunately it would only truly be a practical philosophy to analyze in a world where ethics in experimentation were considerably different, so we're just going to have to continue to imagine what the other person really thinks of happiness.  At least from Shields perspective.  The people I know who I think would be somewhat offended at this sentiment--that one does not generally know whether they are happy until they are certain that they are not... are depressed.  Like the cyclops: they know a little too much.

My Uncle Gregg, suggests to anyone interested, that Howard Levy is a fantastic harmonica player.  After looking into Mr. Levy on the Internet, I am quite certain that he is worth following a bit more closely.  Just touch the hem of Mr. Levy's name's garment.

The Toyota Emergency Profit Improvement Committee strikes me as probably not worth boring you with (though I do not feel the same about myself---- ha, ha) except to share a case (yet again, yet again) of vive la differece.  GM sold its version, GMAC, two years ago.  Oh well, back then GM's market capitalization was four billion more than Wrigley gum (my favorite metric of a companies size, not that I really understand the numbers, but you get it) at $15 Billion.  Today:  $1 Billion.  Hmmm...   perhaps GM should be reminded that it's the amperage not the voltage that counts in an electric shock.  The GM Volt? More like the GM Vamp.

For what it is worth I was thinking the other day about the importance of the failure of solutions to problems.  For one reason or another it occurred to me to write this note in my notebook:  The wonderful thing about the limitations of any one solution is that it suggests a attitude consilient between the blatantly practical and the blindingly spiritual.  In other words, failure (and strong limitations) tends to occur when one is about to drive off the middle path in the name of excellence in a particular, narrow realm.  If you don't relate to this, cheerio, you must be a BIG success (somewhere).  And happy driving!

Visited Madison, Indiana on Google Earth when I returned from Madison more than a week ago (I told you I have unfinished business on my desktop notes!).  Nothing much to say, that I didn't say yesterday, but...  I was looking at Clifty Falls Electric's  smokestacks on Google Earth, and some advertisements caught my eye in blue hyperlink print.  I clicked on one and came to a really cool website that gives, I wasn't sure at first, detailed information about large architectural structures all over the world.  I am amazed this is even available.  I am really enjoying what I discover regularly on Google Earth, as yesterday's post should make clear.  But, I won't deny I am looking forward to the day when every object in the field of view, regardless of resolution, in Google, or Microsoft's equivalent, is deeply searchable, modeled, and hyper-linked.  Another example of this sort of thing is Microsoft's Photosynth product.  It takes every picture in an internet cloud picture website (most of the pictures taken for the usual reason), and through manipulated vector analyzed collages, turns the object of a thousand words (a picture) into a pixle in a new kind of synthesis.  Is a Photosynth a picture?  Well.... it is more like a simulation of a place in the world, or object in the world, that has been sensed by many photo devices.  The "sensations" of a digital camera can be taken then, and through sophisticated software woven together again through the magic of our computers and re-represented (and critically, made manipulatable).  I see a time in the future when every square inch of every town, house, and object in the world ends up in the cloud of computers that are being built today.  You will have as much ability to crawl through the world as you do over the world in Google Earth.  The only difference is that all the objects you look at will be manipulatable in a million different ways.  Every car referenced to its history, make and model.  Same with any other addressable piece of cultural significance, as a car inarguably is.  What about a house?  The platt book, the public records of its inhabitants, ect. all the way back to the original history of the land (plus its ecology, watershed, climate data, architectural detail, ect).  The elements of our world are knowable when one has the proper tools to GUESS.  Guessing tends to be very "good enough" as any doctor tends to count on pretty much daily.  Sorry to go on and on from a mere entry about Madison, Indiana, but for a curious person who wishes to dive into the history of his surroundings to the greatest detail and with the broadest view possible:  the present world, technology now available, and trends toward the future are almost Nirvana.  Sorry about my fun.  Say cheese. 

Man, I am making progress on my notes!  NEXT>>>>

I saw Ben Sherwood, who wrote The Survivors Club, on Charlie Rose last week.  The guy seemed interesting and on a mission of some sort, but I couldn't determine what exactly.  Clearly, he is interested in aspects of the human will, be it conscious or subconscious, to live, and prosper.  Certainly a legitimate interest.  A whole book?  A movement even (he claims, webwise.)  So, needless to say, I was at the bookstore, wandering around a few evenings ago with my coffee, and what should I see, but, The Survivors Club.  I was meaning to leave with my coffee at that point.  I had something important to do, like the removal of my self from an environment that I have spent far to much of my time in: the bookstore.  I found myself carrying the book to sit down somewhere.  The first thing to know about my problem, is that I cannot control my problem...    What did I gather from Mr. Sherwood's glorious shout out to the famously risky hardcover book industry:  not too bad.  The book is basically about, as I mentioned before, various aspects of the Survival instinct, and the plethora of outcomes that are available to the individual who is trained, or self taught, a vigilance about surviving in body, and spirit.  The book does an interesting weave and feint about spiritual matters (which is good, since people like me have a built in intolerance too much mumbo jumbo).  The worst that can be said of The Survivors on the front of spirituality is the already pretty obvious data available scientifically, and anecdotally on the advantages of faith, prayer, and a support group of others who share in your beliefs (whatever they are).  I found this pretty unthreatening, which, unless your a Dawkins type, you probably would as well. 
I have prayed in my life, despite my fairly militant atheism (for most of my life).  Why?  Pain relief is often preferable, to me, to existential discomfort.  I have never felt my atheism to be a particularly significant part of my identity.  More along the lines of my baldness.  Something to face squarely: without the combover.  So:  I am an atheist because I find the alternative unfitting to me.  Not ugly.  Not embarrassing.   Not stupid.  Not even really dishonest.  Just unfitting.  In those moments in my life where I have faced myself in the mirror, at my most fully human, I have seen the humours of religion pouring from my pores.  It is richly human (so am I) to be religious.  Not for mere answers, which seemed to be the religious folks excuse in my callow youth.  But for the fullest expression of what is possible at the human scale of life.  Sure:  you live in a skyscraper and fly a helicopter from one random spot on the globe to another, throughout the day, returning when you feel like it to be serviced by your robot, and a clear lack of a need for a God in your life can be truly appreciated.  But you live life on the human scale, giving yourself to the risks of childbirth (or watching, without control, your wife enter into labor), or seeing clearly the potential genius in giving to your enemy the fullest measure of an offer deeper than your disagreement.  Guess what?  Your gonna need to fly places where the helicopter and robot can't take you.  God CAN help with that stuff however.  That's what God is.  Do I believe in God?  No.  The mistake is imagining, that at any level, especially at the mode and level of even my own subjective life, it matters.  Trust me.  It doesn't matter a flying fuck what I think about God in this world.  To think otherwise, even for my own consolation, is absurd.  So, sometimes, atheist that I am, I give to the great Caesar in the sky, what's Caesar's. It feels good. Makes very little rational sense.  Feels good though.  That's human.  Not helicopter.
So the two truly fascinating things I got from The Survivors were quite different.  One involved a further elaboration on a story of one of the many, many folks who commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.  I  received a very nice documentary last fall from Netflix called, The Bridge.  And unlike most of the movies I just never get around to watching, this one I kept not getting around to because I was afraid of it.  I had thought that once the Netflix tyvec wrapper was in my hot little hands I would open it up before I convinced myself not to, but no.  It took a week before I forced myself to watch, while working on the computer at the same time (the first time I had ever even pretended I could do such a thing).  Clearly, I wanted the option of not really having seen it, without a full admission to myself of my own wuss fears.  Well....  The Bridge is a woderful documentary, that while about something heartbreaking, ultimately asks a questions central to our choices to not only live, but live well.  It also manages to show how difficult it is, even for most who succeed at it eventually, to kill oneself.  Person after person is shown pacing the Golden Gate Bridge, for hours and hours and chickening out.  Family and friends are interviewed, in many cases fully aware of their loved ones desire to hurt themselves, but lulled eventually by the committed genius of the sick person who simply thinks they must die.  Well... what does this sad (though, truly, great) documentary have to do with a book called, The Survivors?  Turns out one of the people you, sort of, see jump off the bridge in The Bridge, actually survives.  In case you don't know this, The Golden Gate Bridge is gigantic.  Much bigger than most people realize.  It is the equivalent, to jump off the bridge, of jumping off a 30 story building.  That is a much larger building than your are allowed to build in my town here, Bloomington, of 80,000 souls.  And yet the Golden Gate Bridge, as you surely can picture in your head, stretches through fog, to connect two slivers of land, the paddles in Geographic Pinball Game called the San Francisco Bay.  I'll never forget the picture I saw as a kid by Ansel Adams, The Golden Gate (Before The Bridge).  So what was the picture called?  Talk about a meta-issue...  Whatever the picture used to be called, I knew, even as a child, that one could not consider The Golden Gate today, without simultaneously contending with the fact of a bridge.  For most people the bridge is more important than what it spans.
Well anyway, one kid in the movie jumps off the bridge, and survives.  This virtually never happens.  And, he didn't jump, he dived.  It's just that after he dived he flipped himself over, and hit the water at the right angle, and didn't go too deep (due to his careful choice of angle) and fought his way to the surface of the violently rough ocean, amidst the sharks, to say hello again to life.  Because, hey, he wanted to live.  It's a wonderful life, even if you're bi-polar.  By the way, before he jumped, he had gone to a college class, gotten some M&M's for a sort of last meal, and made his way to the bridge.  The voices were telling him, you gotta do it.  I am not making light of this, by the way.  When I watched The Bridge, I felt so much sadness for this guy I almost had to turn it off.  I have never wanted to hurt myself in my life.  It is alien for me to see people talk about life like this.  I would be a very dangerous therapist, without training.  
So in the book The Survivors, I was thrilled to read an interview and discussion of this kids actions, choices, motivations and lessons.  Turns out he totally turned himself around, and is working day after day, on his survival.  This sort of presence of mind about the costs of the alternative (so obvious with the abjectly suicidal, anything but obvious with you and me) is sort of the theme of the book.  Survival is about a vigilance as to what your choices and attitude add up to.  For most people, it is an early death, and certainly a lesser degree of agency in the arena of their choosing (across the spectrum reasonably available to them).  You hear all the time about how much it stresses people out to have choices.  It makes their life more complicated.  This is one of the most popular forms of conversation if you listen to people talk at a coffee shop or what have you.  Obviously, people are right, they suffer.  But this book is brave saying to people you have more than choice when you consider the power of understanding.  Our society in some ways, I think, is not ready to expect this kind of thing broadly.  In the military it can be instituted as policy.  Few other places can motivate people (or threaten, rather) as the military can.  So we have a society of people with habits of body and mind who are always aware that they are not "surviving" but can only bring guilt to the table, so poor are their tools.  Hopefully, this book can bring more discussion to the mental and physical habits we normal Joe's can bring to our normal lives.  So we might survive a transformation.  

As a side note, the book spoke about many other subjects, I recommend it.  One of the fascinating subjects it covers, in the realm of medicine, concerns the length of time it takes for a first responder to reach the victim of a heart attack.  As will surprise no one, the faster a person is reached during, or after, a heart attack (or similar failure of the heart), the more likely the person is to receive treatment tantamount to a cure.  In practice, people who experience heart failure die a significant percentage of the time.  And worse.... if they do live, it is with a damaged, far less healthy heart.  To prevent the death of the heart attack victim, or permanent disability, the paramedic must arrive on the scene of the heart attack within two minutes or so.  This frequently doesn't happen.  People frequently die.  Nowhere did people more frequently experience this problem than Sin City, Las Vegas.  Apparently, there is this thing called, "Vegas Syndrome", which understandably enough to me, given my taste for alcohol and cigarettes, basically means people misbehave with their health and stress levels, in Vegas, to the extent that it causes them to have heart attacks well beyond the typical rate.  People were coming up dead in Vegas: routinely.  Some medical professionals looked into this and realized that due to the lag time in the victims first response treatment, some other procedure had to be designed.  So, many, many portable defibrillators were purchased up and down the strip.  Employees were trained in the proper use of the devices, as well as CPR and basic first response medical advice.  And, the Casino security teams were brought into the fold to look for instances of gross behavioral cues of ill health in the patrons of the Vegas gambling establishment.   The result:  Vegas now enjoys a status as the place where you are least likely to die of a heart attack.  On average, the victim of an attack is a mere fifty seconds from treatment by someone with training.  It is a fact that this is a better record than many hospitals enjoy.  Then again, is it really fair to compare a hospital system's security and vigilance to a casino?  I don't think so.  You'd almost hope a nurse has more on her plate than any particular heart attack, wouldn't you(!!) Not a very fair comparison, but certainly food for thought.  Vegas Baby!!!

And lastly, I will leave you with this piece of advice that I keep on my desk, to give me strength throughout the long struggle of my choices and survival:

"Few people can list a lot of bad habits that they have eliminated, and some people cannot identify even one of these.  Instead, practically every one has a great many bad habits he has long maintained despite their long being known as bad.  Given this situation, it is not too much in many cases to appraise early-formed habits as destiny.  When Marley's (Christmas Carol) miserable ghost says, "I wear the chains I forged in life," he is talking about chains of habit that were too light to be felt before they became too strong to be broken."

My thanks to Mark Andreessen blog.pmarca.com for that quote.  I have had it since November, and it came to me just in time.  Who care's what progress you have made if you still carry the burden of your desires.  I can only live today as if the man that used to laugh at the question, "Are you happy," was always more than the sum of his burdens.  So that rather than carry---- he carries on.

Andy Coffey

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