Sunday, July 24, 2016

Excess Energy

I was watching a baseball game the other day. As a batter stepped into the batter’s box, I took note of his motions. He scraped the dirt with the tip of his bat, tracing out an obliterated line on one side of the box. He set his feet, then kicked out a rut in the dirt, and set his feet again. He tapped home plate twice with his bat, then brought the bat up behind his shoulder. He took a slow practice swing—but not all the way through—while waiting for the pitcher. He brought the bat up again. He shifted his feet and lifted one knee.

We’ve all seen this performance before. But then I got to wondering how the game of baseball would be played by robots. A machine would walk or wheel itself into position—a place determined by triangulation from visual cues in memory to be the perfect location for the hitting of a ball. It would raise the bat to the correct elevation and angle for a perfect swing—again established by past programming. It would then wait for the pitch and for its cameras to collect enough information on the ball’s inbound trajectory to make the perfect connection in terms of speed, force, and angle, allowing for proper deflection and spin to put the outbound trajectory in the strategically perfect part of the field. And in between these separate acts—positioning, attaining bat angle, observing trajectory, and swinging—there would be nothing, stillness, silence, and neural calm, because everything was determined by programming from prior analysis and evaluation of previous experience and optimal probabilities.

Does this stillness due to programmed experience make the robot the better player? No, because the human being has just as much experience. Although a human batter could not verbally articulate or consciously identify all the previous pitches he had seen and all of his best responses and swings, they would indeed be stored somewhere in his memory and fed into his muscles by training and learned reflex.

Why then does the human batter have to move around so much? Why is he wasting energy that should be contained and stored and fed into the muscle power behind his swing?

Consider that our bodies are made up of individual cells. These are collected into nerve networks and muscle fibers, but each cell is still functioning as an independent metabolic factory. Each nerve is firing and each muscle is moving all the time, even when not needed—sometimes even when they are not wanted. Our bodies are complex associations of once-independent organisms, rather than intelligently designed, single-purpose—or even multi-purpose—machines. As individuals, we must learn to harness this energy. If we desire stillness, either mentally or physically, we must learn it through practice and concentration. Our natural state is daydreaming and fidgeting.

This is a survival skill. Not the peaceful pose and focused mind of the meditative Buddha, but the wandering mind and restless body of our keyed-up natural state. For a species that once lived by hunting and gathering—and often being hunted ourselves by larger, fiercer predators—we benefited from a pair of eyes that constantly scan and search from near to far and then left to right, an attention span that focuses briefly here and there in the underbrush and then in the sky, and muscles twitching and poised to move instantly in any direction. We put that excess energy in all those nerve and muscle fibers to good use: ready to snatch the next berry we spot, shoot an arrow at the next shadow that moves in the forest, or take advantage of a sudden line of retreat when the bushes shake and the leopard leaps.

This excess energy means that our minds and bodies are reevaluating current conditions and recalibrating our potential all the time. We need that in our upright stance and bipedal gait, because balancing on two legs requires constant tensioning of our muscles and tendons to maintain our posture, and constant monitoring of our inner-ear balance in relation to gravity as we sit, stand, or move in order to keep our upright bodies from toppling. It’s a problem that a turtle dragging its shell along on four legs—or a robot stabilized on four wheels or a tripod—does not have to face.

This excess energy and the jumpy, unfocused awareness and twitching muscles that accompany it mean that we not only have to practice stillness—such as when we wait patiently along a game trail for the shy deer to approach—but also when we want to perform a coordinated activity, like drawing and shooting an arrow or hitting a baseball with a bat. We must practice the individual acts of preparation, tension, and release; match the starting and ending positions of hands and limbs to the smooth movements we are about to make; focus our eyes on the selected target; and prepare our minds with rehearsed imagery and spiritual self-talk in order to keep our thoughts focused on the task at hand and coordinate the entire performance subliminally. We do these mental rituals so that this time—in actual execution instead of random practice—we don’t have to consciously break the performance down into the tiny, component movements and intermediate physical and mental positions that make up the whole.

Humans are dynamic systems that brim with energy—both mental and physical—and operate at much higher cellular and nervous rates—“clock rates,” if you will—than any machine designed for a single, dedicated purpose. The machine’s computer brain might have quicker reflexes, but it is programmed to pick up certain, pre-defined signals and then make predictable, pre-written responses. The machines—at least in their current generation—are a “one trick pony.” Give them the wrong signal or one for which they have not been programmed, and their response will be unpredictable—or they will remain completely inert.

To give the machines the appearance of versatility, a programmer must plan for and write instruction sets for more and more conditions, signals, and responses. With large memory capacity and high cycle rates, the machine may be able to store more and more programming able to cope with more and more situations. But a machine—at least in the current generation—will not be able to encounter an entirely new condition, receive a totally unknown signal, and intuit a correct response by comparison with past experience.

Humans also might not do well in a new situation for which they have not practiced. Give a bat to a young boy who has never played baseball, then throw a ball at him, and he might not hit it with any skill or grace. But if he has ever seen a ballgame or watched a brother or sister at play, he might at least try, because mimicry is another human trait. A robot will wait for specific instructions as to how to focus on the ball, position the bat, and swing it.

We humans divert all that excess energy and mental capacity into random fidgets and idle daydreams, because we are omni-purposed beings who live in an unpredictable world.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Taking Responsibility

In response to a Facebook friend’s recent posting of a video showing drivers supposedly blindfolded when moving among motorcyclists, I replied with my Three Rules for Riding: 1. Nobody’s looking out for you. 2. Even if they’re looking right at you, they don’t see you. 3. Even if they see you, they don’t care! It’s a reminder that drivers don’t understand the vulnerabilities of visibility and stability that a motorcyclist faces, and so it’s my job as a rider to watch out for them and stay out of their way. If I get into an accident—any accident, including being hit by another driver, skidding on a patch of oil or gravel, or running off the road—it’s going to be my fault.

This is part of what I call my “doctrine,” which is a loose and uncatalogued collection of rules and reminders that clicks into place every time I swing a leg over the saddle. One example of the doctrine is what to do if something darts out from the side of the road. In the split second between visual contact and collision, when the SIPRE process starts up,1 I have to decide how to weave so that my line of travel passes either in front of the moving object or behind it, based on its speed, my speed, and other characteristics. Behind is usually the safest choice, because that minimizes the potential for collision by separating the object’s observed trajectory from mine. And even if I miscalculate and hit the object broadside, I’ll be impacting with only the force of my own momentum and not adding the object’s momentum to the equation. If the moving object is a big shape, like a deer or a car, my doctrine says to steer so as to pass behind.

But if the object is small and light, such as a ball or a dog, the doctrine changes. Depending on location and time of day, such as a residential neighborhood and midday or evening, then any objects moving into the street have a high probability of being chased by a human being: a child after his ball or dog, or a mother after her toddler. In those cases, the doctrine says to steer in front of the moving object—and either brake sharply or speed up, depending on velocities—so as not to hit either the object or the person chasing it.

My riding doctrine has many pieces and parts like this, covering dozens of issues such as when to brake or accelerate in an emergency; how to treat any visually dark patch on the road, which might be a pothole, a piece of shredded truck tire, or a patch of oil; mirror checks and head checks when traveling straight, passing, and changing lanes; how much of a safety margin to maintain around the bike, including the “two-second rule”2 and when it’s safe to lane split;3 and so on.

Thinking ahead, being prepared for potential problems, and taking responsibility for your own health and safety, as well as for those around you, applies to more than just motorcycle riding.

I take the concept of margins seriously. This means providing extra space, time, or some other measurable dimension to allow for the unforeseen. In making travel plans, I always allow a time margin to account for extra traffic, an accident, or simply my “running late” before leaving. The thought that, in most cases, nothing will happen and I will arrive early, to be left kicking my heels at the airport or some other venue, does not deter me. That is why I have music and an ebook reader on my iPhone. Being a respectful sort, I would rather arrive early and then waste my own time waiting than arrive late and inconvenience other people—or perhaps miss the flight.

My work in publishing, technical writing, and corporate communications often involved projects on tight schedules. Again, I would build a time margin into my planning to allow for delayed interviews, extra review cycles, and breakdowns at the printing press. Sometimes I would also plan a dollar margin into the budget for these things, but budgeting and accounting were usually outside of my control. Because I had these time and cost margins built in, I often finished my work ahead of schedule and under budget. And that’s always a good place to be.

Taking responsibility for your life and actions—as well as any accidents that might occur, on the presumption that most accidents are foreseeable and therefore avoidable—means that you live carefully. In my life, I have generally known where I was going and made an internal, if not entirely formal, threat evaluation of my next moves. I know there are places which are not safe and avoid them unless pressing business takes me there.

Understanding that future events might sometimes take me into dangerous situations, I took martial arts training at the university.4 I have carried a serviceable pocket knife since I was twelve and transferred to heavier models with at least one locking blade in my early twenties. At about that time, also, I inherited a couple of pistols from within the family and have since added a few more over the years, preferring .45s to lighter loads. It’s not that I’m much of a skilled fighter anymore—doing the martial arts more for exercise and coordination than for battle readiness—and I was never formally trained for knife fighting. I always practice with a new pistol at the range, so that I’m reasonably accurate with it. And I know how to clean, maintain, and store such a weapon safely. But I would not take any pistol outside the house on my daily travels without a concealed-carry permit, and those are difficult to the point of impossible to obtain in California.

The point of all this training and weaponry is not that I plan to attack anyone. But I will not be made a victim, powerless to defend myself, at least in my own mind. If I end up going into uncertain circumstances and being attacked and hurt or killed, I want it to be elective on my part—a failure of will or nerve, for which I will take responsibility—and not because I was foolish and unprepared.

In the larger picture, I try to examine and assess the moral or legal dimensions of my actions and consider their consequences. In my view, integrity depends on doing the right thing, guarding against waste and loss, and living in a way that protects yourself and your family and friends while not endangering or damaging other people. Integrity also means living on good terms with the people around you, your neighbors and fellow citizens, while making as few enemies as possible. Everyone gets a fair shake. Everyone receives as much as possible of what they want and need. Everyone goes home safe at the end of the day. I can’t take responsibility for the entire world, but I can try to ensure that the pool of karmic events surrounding my life remains calm and safe.

Taking responsibility for yourself and your actions is the core of being an adult in this society.

1. See SIPRE as a Way of Life from March 12, 2011. Briefly, SIPRE is the acronym for a defensive driving mechanism by which we see, evaluate, and take action against threats: See, Interpret, Predict, React, Execute. It’s in the React phase that an ingrained rule or reminder kicks in to direct the Execute phase.

2. The two-second rule describes the proper distance for following a vehicle. Pick an object along the side of the road—such as a signpost or even a piece of trash—and start counting when it passes the rear bumper of the vehicle ahead: “One chimpanzee, two chimpanzees …” If the object comes into alignment with my front tire before “two chimpanzees,” I’m following too close to the car ahead—although in California freeway traffic I’ll take one and a half chimpanzees as an acceptable margin. This rule has the beauty of simplicity, doesn’t require you to estimate car lengths, and works at any speed.

3. Lane splitting is a contentious issue among riders. I see some motorcycle riders diving between lines of cars moving at 50 miles an hour rather than slowing down even a fraction and staying in their lane. In order to make splitting worthwhile, you have to be traveling 15 or 20 miles an hour faster than the cars in the lanes on either side. This means that, with the cars traveling 50 miles an hour, you have to maintain a speed of 65 to 70 while trying to look far enough ahead, judge distances and the gap widths between cars, and be extra alert for cars that are signaling or moving around in their lane—a sign the driver is not wedded to his or her choice—or lunging out of it. Since I ride a large bike equipped with saddle bags—meaning I take up even more of the gap width—I will only split if traffic is totally jammed and just creeping along. I’m gambling that it’s safer to be between cars and doing 15 miles an hour than fuddling along in the lane—clutch in–foot down–throttle off, then throttle on–foot up–clutch out, time and time again—and risking getting run over by a careless driver texting behind me. At 15 miles an hour, if someone makes a sudden lunge into the next lane, I might go down; I might be injured; the bike will probably be trashed. But I won’t be thrown under another car or truck going 60 or 80 miles an hour and killed.

4. I used to say that, after four years at Penn State, I graduated with an honors degree in English literature and a black belt in Isshinryu karate. However, I admit that part of my motivation for the latter was the craze for James Bond–style secret-agent movies at the time, which made stylized fighting seem cool to a nerd like me.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Rules of Engagement

We recently saw the movie Krigen, or A War, about a Danish commander with his country’s forces in Afghanistan who, in the heat of battle, calls down a bombing run on a village compound that, after the fact, turns out to have contained civilians. The movie examines his situation, his motives, and the trial that follows under modern humanitarian rules for the pursuit of war. The crux of the matter—spoiler alert!—is whether the commander had “PID,” positive identification, of gunfire coming from the compound before he called in the strike.

It’s an interesting story, but it left me with an unsettled feeling: what is the sense of trying to make war humane?

We have restrictions in this country, too, on how to conduct our wars, called the “rules of engagement.” Basically, before firing upon or engaging a suspected enemy, a soldier or commander must generally establish that the target is indeed an enemy and has shown hostile intent. Other rules may also apply, depending on time and place. Presumably, we need these rules for two reasons.

First, U.S. forces are not fighting on our own ground in defense of our own country. We haven’t done this since the American Civil War. We have a big country and a strong military; so no one comes here to fight us. Our wars—at least since the two World Wars, and perhaps even then—have been wars of liberation: fighting on someone else’s territory to free them from a third-party aggressor. Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan—and any skirmishes I might have left out—have all been on other ground, fighting for other people. In these situations, you have to be careful about who are the friendlies and who are the hostiles—especially since your enemies are usually just friendlies with a different point of view and with different political and strategic backing.

Second, because U.S. forces are not fighting directly in our country’s own national interest—such as beating off a foreign invader—these wars require some political finesse with the people back home. War costs money and, even with the best training and will in the world, will get the sons and daughters of U.S. civilians maimed and killed. So the country, the politicians, have to present the effort as a “just” and “humane” war, with plenty of high-ranking care and consideration, with proper caution about the expenditure of force, and with lots of civilian oversight and debate. And because we are a great power in the world, we also submit to various international conventions on the types of weapons to be used, how local civilians are to be treated, and what actions are allowed or disallowed.1

Our modern enemies, not being stupid, have noticed all this and use it to their advantage. They embed themselves in local villages and cities. They place their headquarters near, or within, schools and hospitals. They take civilian hostages against military reprisals. Their modes of attack are the car bomb, the suicide vest, and the improvised explosive device. Their targets are just as likely to be the recalcitrant or unconvinced civilian population around them as the foreign peacekeeping army they oppose. These practices have become so common that the idea of two armed groups wearing uniforms and engaging on a battlefield outside of town for possession of some strategic objective now seems so 19th century, gentlemanly, and … quaint.

The third reason for fighting a limited and “humane” war is that the major players behind these conflicts now have the capability of fighting a “total” war through first-strike nuclear holocaust. Why fight for this or that objective, why try to eliminate your enemy’s will to fight, when in one stroke you can eliminate your enemy, his countryside, his entire civilian population, and the civilization behind it? The only reason why not is that any enemy worth fighting—generally, until recently, the East vs. the West—possesses enough retaliatory capability to ensure mutual destruction.2 And so differences have come to be resolved through proxy players, regional puppet states, and limited, “humane” conflicts.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, a common theme among science fiction stories and television programs was the attempt to find other means for conducting a war, now that nuclear weapons had made war so efficient as to make the outcome irrelevant. The notion was always that countries and civilizations would find less brutal ways of resolving their differences. They might hold an Olympic-style games to determine the superior culture and winner of the conflict. Or conduct computerized wargames that match and engage hypothetical forces in tests of strategy that do everything but consume men and matériel. Or play a championship game of chess or go—but perhaps, because accidents can happen and even geniuses sometimes make mistakes, involving three games out of five, or four out of seven.

This kind of alternative thinking is reminiscent of ancient armies that would come together in a designated spot but then, before clashing shield to shield, sent out their best fighters, their champions, to do single combat and perhaps resolve the battle without too much bloodshed. But always, outside the circle where the two champions met, would stand the entire army, ready to pick up weapons and charge if they lost the single combat.

The problem with any of these alternatives to war is that they are not serious, not binding. When you lose the pentathlon or the chess game, you can still send your army—or your missiles—over your opponent’s border. Worse, a tame form of war would encourage all kinds of reckless brinksmanship. Imagine a time when all conflicts were actually resolved by chess games. Imagine if a tiny state with a weak army—say, Thailand, in our current world—were to declare war on a much larger and more powerful country—say, China or the United States. When all you need to do is win a chess game, then you hire the best grand master you can find and cross your fingers. Hey, you might get lucky! And if you win, what do you get? Terms? Territory? Trade concessions? But if the spoils of such a toothless war are too onerous, the loser will simply repudiate them. And then what? You go to war in earnest—men and matériel fighting and dying for ground and a real chance to dictate the peace terms—either that, or you back down.

War is supposed to be difficult, dangerous, hard, and barbarous. That’s because war is the move of last resort, when a state, a country, a people are pushed into a corner from which they have no escape route, defending life, freedom, principles, and ground that they will not yield, cannot surrender, and without which they do not otherwise exist. When talks grind to a halt, negotiations break down, and the enemy’s demands are deemed unacceptable, usually then a people can still find another way. Perhaps they will ally with a stronger power, or prepare to bargain away lesser but still important goods, or cede territory outside the homeland that was actually in dispute from the beginning. But when the choice is existential—that is, fight or die—then a people will go to war. Not because they want to, but because they must.

And at that point, questions of whether they will fight a just or humane war, obey international conventions, and hold tribunals for commanders who win but with the wrong methods—all of that goes by the wayside. War is a serious business. The soldiers who are fighting almost always have no more choice about it than any other civilian involved in the fighting. And they will win by whatever means, using whatever weapons, and sacrificing whatever collateral assets, including women and children, may be necessary.

War is a terrible thing. And I believe we need to keep it terrible so that the urge to use it will remain beyond the reach of the average politician. It should be put on a special shelf, up high, and behind a thick pane of glass, to be used only in emergencies. And that is all the morality anyone can give to war: it must be so terrible that no special justification is necessary.

1. In this I’m reminded of the outraged Harvey Logan in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “Rules! In a knife fight? No rules!”

2. And, you know, that works for me. Mutually assured destruction has kept the peace—or at least limited all the nuclear-endowed players to a cold war pursued only through brushfire engagements—for seventy years. This proves that while human beings can be barbaric, they are not entirely stupid.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Locked In and Locked Out

One day recently I woke up realizing that I was now the person I would be for the rest of my life. This might seem like a trivial observation—well, of course, I’m me!—but as I move into the latter years of my seventh decade, the realization has a whole subset of corollary meanings.

We all are taught to believe in the possibility of personal change. And I still do. Last year, I started taking keyboard lessons.1 In the next few years I may follow my father’s example, from late in his own life, and take flying lessons—if I want to expend the time and money required for that expensive hobby. I’m still writing new books, reading voraciously, learning new things, and growing mentally. I still work out with my karate exercises, watch what I eat—mostly—and try to maintain my physical plant.

But with this early-morning realization came the understanding that, as a person, as a psyche slotted into a physical body and inhabiting a certain place in space and time, I am not going to change very much from here until my last morning and my last breath. My habits are pretty well fixed. So are my likes and dislikes. So are my core beliefs. So are my attention span, personal energy level, and degree of caring or not giving a damn about things and people in the world around me. While I might learn new things and acquire new skills, they are still going to fit into an established pattern, a defined worldview, and a set of psychological reflexes.

In part, this is an example of the Eighty-Twenty—or even, at this point in my life, the Ninety-Ten—Rule.2 The rule has various uses, but basically it states that 20% of your effort generally goes to 80% of your result, and the remaining 80% of effort goes to just 20% of result. So, in business and marketing, 80% of your profits come from 20% of your customers; 80% of your customers take 20% of your staff time; and 80% of your complaints come from 20% of your customers—but generally not the same 20% as those who provide the profits.

In life, I take the rule to mean that, when you’re young, you need to spend only about 20% of your time, effort, and energy to have a lasting effect on your life and future prospects. The years ahead are full of possibilities; your success depends on a wide range of probabilities; and your luck is still accumulating. But when you are much older, you need to invest 80% of your time and effort to make any real change in your life, because the possibilities are now fewer, the probabilities a lot lower, and your luck mostly spent.

This cause-and-effect was shown to me most forcefully when I was at the university. A student in a four-year degree program will generally take eight semesters worth of classes—or twelve quarters, in the schools on that system—between matriculation and graduation. Theoretically, the contribution of each class grade, and the average of grades earned in each semester or quarter, has the same level of effect in establishing your overall grade point average (GPA) as any other class or semester. But in the first semester or quarter of your freshman year, you establish that GPA quickly—low, middling, or high—depending on the quality of your effort. In the second and third terms, you can move that GPA up or down fairly easy, depending on the effort you invest. But soon after that, and with each passing grading period, your average becomes more and more locked in, and movement becomes more sluggish. Until, finally, in the last term of your senior year, you can either work like hell or slack off entirely, and either way you won’t be able to budge your average by a hundredth of a grade point. Your GPA and your destiny are fixed, for good or ill.

How you feel about this slow and steady stabilizing of your personality and limiting of your prospects in a kind of time-hardened amber depends on how you feel about yourself and your life. This is a personal conversation you must have with your angels—or demons—when you reach late middle age.

If you have become the sort of person you aspired to be in your teens and twenties, you can take satisfaction in knowing that not much will be able to change you. In the time remaining to you, you might suffer financial or personal loss; you might lose your house and possessions to fire or flood; you will certainly lose friends and loved ones to the grim reaper; your body and mind both will slowly lose resiliency and elasticity. But you will still remain cheerful and optimistic—if that is your nature. You will still be able to make new friends or establish a new home, and you will mark the losses of body and mind with equanimity, just as you have met other adversities.

But even if you have become exactly the person you meant to be, that early-morning realization still represents a closing off of possibilities. If you have passed out of the job market, as so many of my age cohort have now done, then you know you can never go back at the level you once attained. If your retirement planning and savings fall short, and you need to go to work again, it will be at a different level, probably much lower, in a different field, with different people, and with foreshortened expectations of authority and prestige. You also know that alternative avenues, other possible lives and achievements, are no longer open to you. You won’t ever be President, or a rock star, an astronaut, a big-league ballplayer, or any of those dreams that must start when a person is young and can invest a lifetime’s worth of effort to achieve. You won’t even be able to become a mediocre physician, lawyer, therapist, or other professional—at least not without a total upheaval of your life and current situation, and probably not even then.

And if you are not the person you wanted to be, not in the place you wanted to inhabit, not in the personal relationship or professional situation you wanted to occupy at the age you have become, then that early-morning realization can come on as a sudden feeling of suffocation. Like trying to budge a 2.8 GPA into the high 3’s in your senior year, the opportunities, the possibilities, just aren’t there anymore. You are like a fully loaded airplane with not enough remaining runway or a strong enough headwind to take off. You are mathematically at a dead end. At this point in your life, all you can do is maintenance work. You can try to be nicer to people, make an effort to shed your bad habits, go out and try to meet new people and form new relationships. You can change some of the negatives about yourself that have accumulated over the years, but the chances of changing your basic situation are slim. Your time and your luck have both been spent.

As Bette Davis and Steve Forbes—and probably philosophers and pundits going back to the ancient Sumerian civilization—have observed, growing old is not for sissies. It’s even harder than that, because—as most of my friends have agreed—while you may be aging outwardly, inwardly you still feel about thirty years old, or whatever age was your floruit, your green years of flowering expectations, your good times. And that imagined age will last for decades after the flowering has passed. I suspect you feel thirty or however many years old right up until physical and mental infirmity so distort and limit your life that you bitterly regret the things you once could do that are now impossible.

Time is a bitch. Old age is hardly a blessing. But still, as they say, it’s better than the alternative.

1. I was inspired to do this by a story told at one of the management meetings at the biotech company where I worked. The story related to new cellular regeneration—that is, “stem cell”—technologies and how people will be living longer in the years to come. A woman had turned one hundred years old and was asked by a bright young reporter if she had any regrets. “Yes,” said the woman. “I regret I didn’t start taking violin lessons when I was sixty, because by now I would have been playing for forty years.” Think about that for a moment. You or I might die tomorrow. But if we did live another forty years, what are the skills we might master and the things we might achieve?

2. Also known as the Pareto Principle, after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto.