valentine’s day

[written in February 2001]

[names have been changed]

Sarah Goldstein was in my high school class and is now a year in front of me here [in med school]. She recently got married thank god and is now Sarah Steingold. During her second year, she started the Southwestern Jewish Alliance, which is now defunct. That same year she served as the editor of The Murmur, a quarterly newspaper designed to serve as a humorous outlet for medical students. At that time I had just moved to Dallas, and submitted a witty and intelligent criticism of the first week of medical school that she, without asking me, modified before including it in the paper. She expunged all the funny spicy parts and replaced them with hackneyed jokes, and introduced GRAMMATICAL MISTAKES. I sent her an email she probably never received because her internet-watch software picked up all the curse words and deleted the message before it got to her unblemished eyes.

This morning, she made everyone on the medicine 2a team (eight of us) brownies for valentine’s day. Later on in the morning I asked her what she was doing with her husband to celebrate the occasion and she told me with a self-satisfied look that she does not celebrate valentine’s day. I took the bait and asked why. Though I was blinded by the light reflecting off the Hebrew letters on her necklace that spell her name, I am sure she gave me a look of disgust as she said, “It’s Saint Valentine’s day, Reuben.”

An hour later I was waiting with Sarah, another student, and two residents as several members of the team were visiting a patient with tuberculosis. Somehow the hospital hallway conversation made its way to hot dogs and Dr. Vorth mentioned that though he is not jewish he has always eaten Hebrew National hot dogs. Sarah quickly pointed out that Hebrew National hot dogs are in fact not kosher. I should have known better, but I told her that they are widely consumed in kosher households, presumably because they say “kosher” on the package. She replied by telling me that Hebrew National has numerous documented instances of Kashrut violations and that no one who really keeps Kosher would allow anything made by Hebrew National into their home. It has been years since I have felt the masturbatory condescending slobber of this type of orthodox jew, and I should have known better, but I told her that everyone keeps kosher in their own way. To this she replied, with arms flailing, that you can not be pregnant in your own way, that you either keep kosher or you don’t.

When considering how to strangle someone, I recommend the Littmann Cardiology III stethoscope. Its single-shaft design won’t get caught up in your victim’s hair, and the diaphragm serves as a great handle for extra leverage. It’s the perfect length for most necks, and, when you’re finished, you can use it to confidently verify the absence of breath sounds.


Last weekend Mistaya celebrated her 30th birthday by renting a cottage a couple hours out of Montreal and bringing a group of us out there for a saturday night slumber party. Danny and I were called upon to arrange for dinner, so we did what anyone else faced with feeding a dozen people would do and brought frozen lasagna. Unfortunately, I was a bit aggressive with the intoxicants and eating lasagna is about the last thing I remember from the evening. I woke up on Sunday morning in my apartment, saw Danny and Amit just rising from sleep on my futon, and asked them if they wanted to go for brunch. Danny asked me why I wasn’t at work, and I told him I wasn’t working this Sunday. It’s Monday, he said.

So not only am I amnestic to whatever happened on Saturday after dinner, my memories do not resume until Monday morning. Very unsettling.

Last night Benji celebrated his 31st birthday with a house party of about 50 poorly-dressed people drinking and guitar-strumming. Many stories from last weekend were discussed, for example, Felber recounted my staring at a kitchen cabinet (not the contents of the cabinet, just the door itself) for 30 minutes. Very unsettling not to remember any of this, but at least it’s clear I had a good time. It got me to thinking about the value of non-remembered experiences, and I had a quick discussion with Rodney on the subject. In his usual mode of impartiality he insinuated memory of an event a single attribute among many, so that a non-remembered event might be just as valuable to someone as a remembered event. He suggested that many of us will forget much of our lives toward the end of our life and this does not devalue the forgotten experiences. He suggested that being tortured for 24 hours is a very significant occurrence, even if you don’t remember it the next day. Certainly his examples ring true, but on reflection they don’t really support the idea that memory is just one aspect of an event, competing with all other aspects for value. Memory is more important than that.

As you undergo an event, it has an experiential value which can be positive, or negative, or both (the zen farmer would say you have no way of knowing what its value is). If, at the end of that event, you forget it immediately (e.g. last Saturday night and Sunday), it does not lose the value it had as it was being experienced, but can not take on any additional value. As long as the memory of that event persists, however, it continues to have value – a value that changes over time. Usually its value becomes progressively smaller until the memory disappears. Sometimes its value can become suddenly much larger, for example if a trivial comment you made to a friend last week gets back to your boss and forms the basis for your dismissal. Photographs have the effect of increasing a memory’s value with each viewing, and since most photographed events are positive, we obsess over photographs for good reason, as they interrupt the tendency to forget and allow an event to continue to have value indefinitely. Unfortunately that obsession, when unchecked, interferes with the event itself, most obviously when tourists are so busy snapping photos they forget to see what they’re shooting.

A somewhat ridiculous but instructive way to think about successful living is to divide one’s life into discrete moments, and assign a satisfaction score to each moment. My satisfaction score is the sum of all the forces that make me happy at this moment, minus the sum of all the forces that make me unhappy at this moment. Positive memories act as forces that make us happy as long as we remember them, and now it’s easy to see why a remembered event is so much more valuable than a forgotton event. I may have had the time of my life last weekend, but the total value of that good time pales when compared to the more modestly good but remembered time I had last night, because the more modestly good time I had last night will continue to contribute to my moment-to-moment happiness, and therefore my total overall cumulative life happiness (!) for as long as I remember it. Conversely, bad memories continue to contribute negatively to TOCLH for as long as they are remembered, and once you forget a bad memory, you benefit from more happiness from the time you forget the bad memory until you die. This is of course the idea behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

There are ways in which an event can be valuable other than its experiential value; for example, one may have no memory of lifting weights for 20 years but still benefits from having great physical strength. In the case of last weekend, I added to the debaucherous vibe at the cottage. That has some value.

A second wrinkle is that my “memory” of last weekend is being repopulated by people discussing it. I now have an image of myself staring at a kitchen cabinet door for 30 minutes. Felber told me in the middle of the kitchen cabinet show he walked up to me and said something, I turned to him briefly, barely acknowledged his statement or his presence, and quickly returned my attention to the cabinet. Now I have formed what I call a pseudomemory, and these seem to be no less valuable than real memories, except that they may differ from actual events. If you tell a lie enough times and with enough force, you form a pseudomemory of it – not just of the lie, but of the content of the lie. For example if you tell everyone you hit a home run when you were in 8th grade, you may actually form a pseudomemory of hitting a home run in the eighth grade. This is important if you’re called upon to verify the lie.

The value of a memory has the potential to be of much greater value than the event itself – in the case of a pseudomemory generated by a lie, the value of the pseudomemory is infinitely greater than the event itself because there is no event itself. This means that you could add great value to your life by forming positive pseudomemories, but for most people the value of a memory will be proportional to its correlation with the truth. This is to say that my valuation of the pseudomemory of staring at the kitchen cabinet for 30 minutes is dependent on my believing Felber’s story. In fact, my instinct, on hearing his story, was to corroborate it. If I don’t demand evidence to validate the story, you can see how in time the line between pseudomemory and memory could blur, and ultimately I could forget Felber’s telling the story and recall only the pseudomemory of staring at the cabinet. At that point I will truly believe that the pseudomemory corresponds to actual events, and if Felber was pulling my chain, the deception will be complete, and the story will be a truth. What is necessary for deception to become truth is to relax the demand for experiential evidence and corroboration; this is called faith.

Somewhere in between memory and pseudomemory is a dream.

the couple concept

My sister is turning 25 in a couple weeks. She is dreading the day, and not because she’s nostalgic for the carefree summers of yesteryear or worried about losing her youthful figure. It turns out that 25 is halfway through her twenties, and Rachel is terrified that she will be 30 and single. She relates to me stories of single women in their thirties and how miserable they are, and though she tends toward melodrama, in this case she appears not to be exaggerating. She called me recently almost in tears because she left a message on her latest beau’s voicemail and he hadn’t called her back in two hours. What’s more, none of you are surprised by this. 25 year-old girls are somehow supposed to be consumed by the hunt for a mate. Guys, in addition to numerous other undeserved advantages in the dating game, are granted a decade’s reprieve, but the 40 year-old bachelor evokes the same pitiful response as the 30 year-old spinster.

Greek mythology has it that humans originally had four arms, four legs, and two faces, but then Zeus freaked out and split all of us in half, sprinkling us about the globe, condemned to spend our lives looking for our other half. This idea describes the strong version of soulmate, which is that there is a particular other person out there who will make me complete, and I have to find her. There are people who believe this, but I don’t know any. The weak version of soulmate, however, is a universally prevalent subscription. The weak version of soulmate is that ultimately I need to be in a committed relationship to be happy. Why would anyone, much less nearly everyone, believe this?

High-tech fertility aside, it takes a man and a woman to make a baby. If we are hard-wired to make babies (and we certainly are), it makes some sort of intuitive sense that the man and woman who make the baby should raise the baby, and voilá, the couple concept. Some goofball 10,000 years ago realized this, decided without any reflection that it should be one man one woman, and what Rachel is responding to is the weight of 10,000 years of cultural conditioning. Or not. Perhaps, in the same way we are hard-wired to make babies, we are hard-wired to find a soulmate. I’m not going to solve the nature/nurture problem here, the answer is always somewhere in between. What is clear is that social cues from every direction reinforce the belief, all day every day, from the time we’re old enough to think.

More importantly, it doesn’t matter if the couple concept is in our DNA. In any given six hour period, I have the impulse to eat six chocolate bars dipped in peanut butter. This might be because everyone else loves chocolate and peanut butter, or it might be that I’m brainwashed by the convincing Reece’s Pieces advertising, or it might be that chocolate dipped in peanut butter is just incredibly fucking delicious. Some combination of my genetics and environment generates a constant impulse to eat chocolate dipped in peanut butter, but I resist the impulse, because the impulse is bad for me.

I think the logic most people use to support the couple concept is, I want kids, so I have to find a soulmate to have kids with. To escape this mentality, one must untangle reproduction from exclusive romance. But who wants to be a single parent? Not me–two people raising children is definitely better than one. But who says two is better than three? Or six? My point is not that it takes a village to raise a child, or that a hippie commune/kibbutz is the right model, only that our sociology doesn’t have to follow our physiology. There are lots of alternatives to conventional families, which wouldn’t merit consideration if the conventional family worked, but, most of the time, it doesn’t. The conventional family doesn’t work firstly insofar as most conventional families are totally fucked, and secondly insofar as the notion of the conventional family sustains the couple concept, which is a sham. It occurs to me that the reason most families are totally fucked might be that they are built on a sham.

Essential to the couple concept is the faith that your interest in your soulmate will last into the near and remote future. In this way, belief in the couple concept is a lot like belief in god, except that belief in god is much less likely to hurt you, because even the most devout can not actually rely on god for anything tangible (because there is no god). Faith in the permanence of another’s love underlies the surrender of our emotional-if not our financial-independence. Beautiful as this may be, we all know the statistics that demonstrate that this faith is misguided, that the couple concept is a deception, and when the deception declares itself, the consequences are often horrendous. But like the religious, we ignore the obvious and in its place substitute a comforting untruth, so that along with the deaths of our companions, divorce will be the worst thing that happens to most of us. Perhaps this is why soulmate has two accepted spellings: soulmate and soul mate.

The couple concept, for all the harm it does us, harms us most by taking happiness out of our hands. I can not imagine anything more tragic than believing that you are incapable of bringing about your own fulfillment, but this is exactly what the couple concept implies.

People frequently frame wanting to get coupled not with a desire for companionship per se, but as a way to avoid negative outcomes like growing old alone. This points to the irony that to the extent that the couple concept is not a sham, to the extent that your finding someone is essential to your happiness, it is essential because everyone believes it. If we all think we need to be in a couple to be happy, we all couple off and have families that leave us no time for anyone else, so single people run out of friends as they get older. How much more fun would it be if we grew old with our friends, rather than growing apart from them as we segregate ourselves into nuclear units.

It’s national singles week. Anyone craving chocolate dipped in peanut butter?

Sandra Tsing Loh on marriage

mango regimen

Even those without apocalyptic tendencies are finding it difficult not to become despondent these days. It seems impossible that the situation in the middle east will not end horribly if it ends at all; half the continent of Africa is AIDS-infected and the other half is either a perpetrator or victim of genocide; the icecaps are melting. It is an especially tough time to be an American: The rest of the world has always hated us, but never before have we not blamed them. To top it off, it looks like we’re soon to be prohibited from bringing iPods and laptops on the plane, for fuck’s sake. I’d rather get blown out of the sky.

To sustain your own happiness, I recommend that you adopt the following strategies.

1. Eat a mango every day. Let me quote from Andrew Weil’s The Marriage of the Sun and Moon.

An Indian I met in Bombay told me that at the height of the season, people lie on the sidewalks with glazed looks of ecstasy as they let ripe mangos drip into their mouths. In his Autobiography of a Yogi, the late Paramahansa Yogananda wrote that it is impossible for a Hindu to conceive of a heaven without mangos. Recently I came across the following exchange between the great Hindu saint, Ramakrishna, and his chief disciple, Narendra:

Narendra: Is there no afterlife? What about punishment for our sins?

Master: Why not enjoy your mangos? What need have you to calculate about the afterlife and what happens then and things like that? Eat your mangoes. You need mangos.

2. Exercise in the morning. Waking up to an alarm is the worst part of the day, and waking up to an alarm that sounds an hour earlier is more painful, but that additional pain is psychological, not real, as the amount of pain you feel on hearing your alarm sound is only loosely correlated with how long you’ve slept. So play mind games with your mind games: focus on how great it is to get out of bed to exercise, which brings joy, rather than getting out of bed to go to work, which brings tribulation. Offer yourself an incentive to rise an hour earlier, such as a mango. After you’ve exercised, the day, no matter what happens, is already a success. Work ends with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, rather than the usual dread that now you’re exhausted and have to go to the gym, which half the time you don’t do because you’re too exhausted, which you then feel guilty about. First thing in the morning is the time for exercise.

3. Make progress on your A tasks. This is my plug for the 43 folders lifestyle. A tasks are projects that, when completed, will offer lasting improvements to your life. Completed B tasks improve your life in the short term, and C tasks do not improve your life at all. The problem is that our to-do lists are filled with C tasks, like paying the electric bill or going grocery shopping. Though we love to check these items off our to-do lists, and we feel so accomplished having checked them off, the evil of C tasks is that the accomplishment we feel is false. C tasks need to get done, but completing them just keeps you from falling behind. Only A and B tasks move you ahead, so put off renewing your driver’s license for writing the next chapter in your novel or looking for a better job, not the other way around.

4. Keep your friends close. Lovers come and go, family is there forever no matter what, but your friends will keep you sustainably happy if you make the effort to keep them close. Keep them in your life – your daily life. That doesn’t mean you have to communicate every day, but you’re in trouble when all you can talk about is the big stuff like milestones, or reminisce about when you were in each other’s daily lives. It turns out that the milestones are the same for everyone, which makes them empty conversation pieces, which is strange because they feel like they should be really important. Satisfying conversations are built on details, the more irrelevant the better. If you haven’t spoken in a while, cover the big stuff in five minutes and spend your time talking about the fabulous curry you just whipped up or what you were thinking about this morning on the subway. Your college friends can stay daily friends through group email. Without any introduction or conclusion, write down what you said to the girl who was standing next to you today at the salad bar and send it to those seven peeps you’ve been meaning to call. Or start a blog and get your friends to read it.

5. Avoid instant messaging. IM is an acceptable medium for dialogue, if you’re a woodpecker. There is something about communicating in acronyms and emoticons that drains the soul.

6. Go out without corrective lenses. All day you wear your contacts or glasses and see clearly. If you make a habit of socializing without them, you will soon come to associate the blurry haze of myopia with the good feelings that accompany flirtation and inebriety. After enough repetition, the simple act of walking out of your apartment with uncorrected vision loosens you up. It’s like the first drink of the evening is on Pavlov.

7. Presort your laundry. Laundry is the paradigmatic C task; therefore, because time is your most valuable resource, you are charged with minimizing time spent doing laundry at all costs. The most obvious approach is to expand your wardrobe in such a way that you can lengthen the interval between laundry days, but if you’re not ready for that investment, an easier strategy is to get another hamper and divide your dirty clothes into whites and colors as you go. Couple this with making sure everything tossed into its proper bin is right side out, and be amazed at how much time you shave off this day-wasting chore.

8. Shower frequently.

9. Balance the ugly with the beautiful. Consumption of current events media is self-reinforcing, because as you learn more of the world’s horrors, the more interested in them you become. For some, this spiral culminates in activism, much to the annoyance of their friends. Most of us won’t end up in this unfortunate state, but because world news makes competing interests seem unimportant, we run the risk of saturating ourselves with misery. Counter this by being mindful of your consumption of news, news commentary, history, and politics; demand equal time spent on media that instead makes you glad to be alive. If you need some suggestions, you can start here, here, here, or here.


Christine writes:

>I wanted to ask you: when you give your
>tPA lecture, are you reading or have you
>pretty much memorized it or are you just
>talking? I got the feeling that the sentence
>structure seemed too well-thought-out to
>be off-the cuff, and you spoke in a very
>measured cadence, like someone reading.
>But at the same time, you seemed well engaged
>with the audience and didn’t noticeably look at
>your notes.

I learned most of what I know about presenting during a one-hour lecture I attended as a second year medical student six years ago. In the first two years, medical students are subjected to an endless stream of presentations at the hands of people who have no training in how to present, namely, doctors. Some of them are good at it, some are horrible. I didn’t think much of what made a good or bad presentation, though, until Dr. Foster gave us his diabetes talk.

Daniel Foster is a diabetes expert, and was the chairman of internal medicine at the time. He waltzed into the auditorium a few minutes late, while 150 of us waited. He grabbed a piece of chalk and wrote something on the blackboard and spoke. Every few minutes, he wrote a word or two on the blackboard. He never stopped speaking, except to ask questions to the audience. He spoke about diabetes the way someone would speak about a recent road trip. 150 pairs of eyes on him, totally engaged. How did he do it? It’s not like diabetes is an exciting subject.

There are two parts to any presentation, content and delivery, and they are equally important. Developing good content requires an appreciation of what your audience is interested in and a mastery of the topic. I won’t say anything more about content, but that’s only because getting people to develop good content is complicated, while improving delivery is straightforward and more interesting. But content is crucial; the problem with getting a degree in writing is that the most important part of writing is something you can’t teach, namely, having something to say.

It’s easy to see how Dr. Foster held our attention when you contrast his lecture with the usual powerpoint presentation, where the presenter reads her slides. When your parents read you to sleep, sometimes you would follow along in the book, and it was stimulating, but that is because you barely knew how to read, so hearing written words vocalized was minor magic. As an adult, hearing someone read causes a reflex boredom response, and hearing someone read words that you can see causes a reflex boredom response so severe that most people will focus their attention on something else (like the folds in their pants) to stop the pain.

The reason that presenters prepare slides full of text, which they proceed to read to the audience, is that reading your slides is the easiest way to get through a presentation. But reading your slides sucks. Stop it.

Ideally, we would be able to present like Dr. Foster, promptless, emphasizing important points as they come up by writing them on the blackboard, but that requires a degree of familiarity with the topic that is really hard to achieve, and most of us won’t get there for most of our presentations because most of us are not experts on most of what we present. What we *can* do is recognize what it is about that approach that makes it so engaging and try to emulate it.

The problem with powerpoint is that it takes the audience’s attention off the presenter and onto the screen, which, when the screen is filled with words, is less interesting than a human face, especially when the human is reading the words on the screen. The key to presenting well is to make sure that when the audience’s attention is on the screen, what is on the screen is more interesting than your face. Fortunately, there’s a lot of stuff out there that is more interesting than your face, in fact, just about anything is more interesting than your face, except words that you’re reading.

Once the text is off of your slides, the challenge is to remember what to say. I learned to do this by delivering wedding speeches. Most speakers at weddings stare at the sheets they’ve prepared and read their speeches, which invokes the reflex boredom response. Better speakers look up every few words, which is better, but they’re still reading. To avoid the reflex boredom response, you can’t read your speech. You can use prompts, like an outline on note card, but sentences coming out of your mouth have to sound spontaneous, which for those of us who aren’t actors means the sentences have to *be* spontaneous. I write a wedding speech out in its entirety, then I read it a few times, and then I make an outline that fits on a note card. Then I practice the recitation from the note card, referring to the speech as needed, you can actually do this in your head, on an airplane, it’s easy. After a couple of iterations, you don’t need the speech. After a couple more iterations, you don’t need the note card.

I do the same thing for my presentations. I write out exactly what I want to say, slide by slide, and then I read it a bunch of times. When I think I’ll know a lot more about what I’m presenting on than my audience, I can either be prompted by the pictures on the slides, or plug pithy prompts into the slides (this of course is why Dr. Foster can be so flippant and therefore so engaging – he knows more about diabetes than anyone). In other cases, I’ll deliver the presentation from an outline. When I’m presenting to people who know more about the topic than I do, I present straight from my “speech,” trying to look up and sound as natural as possible. This allows me to feel safe in that I won’t forget my lines, while keeping the audience interested. As I become a more experienced presenter, I read less and spontaneously say more.

Special mention should be made of whiz-bang features in powerpoint that drop or twirl words onto the screen, allow for special effect transitions, blink, or make noise. These are gimmicks in the lowest sense: they replace content with fluff. I am sure there is an inverse relationship between the concentration of powerpoint gimmicks in a given presentation and the amount of time spent in its preparation.

the wisconsin plan and the iBomb

In retaliation for more kidnapped soldiers and unfettered launching of civilian-directed rockets, Israel is now dropping bombs on Beirut.

The governments of Lebanon and Palestine have become indistinguishable from the Hezbollah and Hamas militias that have as their explicit goal the elimination of the jewish people. And that’s just two borders: The governments of Syria, Iran, Iraq, and to a lesser extent, Egypt and Jordan are all straightforwardly or latently hostile to Israel, and, to one degree or another, participate in the effort to reclaim the area as an arab state and expel the jews from the region and really the earth.

Jews and arabs have been at war over this slice of land unofficially since the dawn of time and more formally for about a century. Untold numbers of thousands of deaths on both sides, and there is NO END IN SIGHT. It’s clear to me that the people pulling the strings in the countries surrounding Israel, if not the inhabitants of those countries, will not be satisfied until the region has been cleansed of hebrew-speakers, and I’m not sure the Israelis want anything less with regard to the arabs. These two groups of people genuinely hate each other and a significant segment on both sides seems happy to die to advance the destruction of the other.

I’ve had enough of teenagers dying for their fathers’ cause. If we agree there is no foreseeable conclusion, every death is by definition in vain. We get the point. There’s no end to the hatred and killing. Enough is enough.

I propose that we take all the Israeli jews and move them to Wisconsin, leaving the irrigated desert that is Israel to the arabs to do with what they please.

The Wisconsin Plan will not put an end to the hatred between arabs and jews, but it will stop the killing. You could argue that to give up Israel now would be a disgrace to all those who have died in her defense. That may be true, but the importance of that disgrace pales in comparison to the value of a single needless death prevented.

You could argue that only a diaspora jew born 35 years after the holocaust could be stupid enough to suggest that jews don’t need their own state. I don’t doubt that there could be another holocaust – even those who squint through the narrowest peephole recognize the holocausts going on right now all over the world, and it’s obvious that until women take over, the hatred, greed, and aggression that facilitates these holocausts will never go out of style. But I believe that the likelihood of this happening in Wisconsin is sufficiently small that the steady stream of teenagers dying in the name of israel is unjustified. I could be proven wrong on this account; there is no shortage of bigotry in backwoods America, and if this bigotry develops into a force of sufficient magnitude that jews are compelled to flee, I’ll admit my error. But it’s a chance I think is worth taking.

You could argue that there is something about eretz yisrael, something intrinsic to the dirt and stones that make up the buildings in Jerusalem that is vital to the jewish people and worth dying for. If you are in this group, I urge you to stay behind, when everyone else gets on the boat to Wisconsin, to carry on the fight.

It’s also worth considering what a few million jews could do for Wisconsin. Note that while Israel is being bombed from every direction, most Israelis live a modern, comfortable life. All sorts of inventions, vaccines, and expertise come of out Israel, which until not long ago was a mostly cropless sand dune. Wisconsin is the dairy center of America, and I have always felt our potential in this area is unfulfilled. I guarantee that if the Israeli population relocated, within a generation the US would take the lead in manufacturing fine cheeses and other milk products.

There’s another reason why arab and israeli boys and girls dying over a small piece of land is stupid, and that is that we are all going up in smoke. This is not apocalyptic drivel or a critique of George Bush, it is the obvious consequence of technology’s course. 25 years ago, if you wanted to make a movie, you had to have a substantial reservoir of money, time, and expertise. Today, any schlep with a digital camera and a computer can make a movie, and in fact today most movies are made by just such schleps with iMovie. A farmer with 1000 acres used to be able to produce 20 bushels of corn per harvest; today the same farmer can produce 200. Until recently, ultrasound was only available to hospital-based specialists and big companies, now any doc can own and use cheap, portable machines that make better images than their progenitors, which took up most of a room. Technology can only move in one direction, and though the idea that science can be used for good and evil is cliché, the conclusion of this line of reasoning is relegated to doves and hippies on the media fringe, when in fact it is clear and incontrovertible. The US first, now Pakistan and North Korea, soon Iran, and the reservoir of time, money, and expertise needed to make a very powerful weapon will continue to fall, until it falls to a level where any schlep can make one. The iBomb.

I’m not alarmed by this; there’s not much to be done about it. And I’m not a nihilist, the world is ours for now, let’s do a good job with it. But let’s recognize that arabs and israelis killing each other is not going to change any outcome, so fuck Israel. Israel is not too important not to die for, jews(and arabs) are too important to die for Israel.

overstrike mode

Greg writes:

> how about insert?  there’s a button on my pc keyboard, probably could
> find out how to on the mac if i tried but that’s what you are for.

Evelyn writes:

>insert? you mean paste?

Hillery writes:

>no, I think he means as opposed to “typeover”, yes, babe?

This is called overstrike mode. 95% of the overstrike mode commentary on the web concerns the issue that most of us associate with the insert key: we accidentally hit it and then what we type overwrites what’s in front of it, forcing us to undo what we just screwed up and turn off overstrike mode. After a couple iterations this becomes really annoying, and the presiding sentiment among most PC users who have given any thought to the insert key is how can I disable the fucking thing.

That said, I can see how overstrike mode could be useful, as it allows you to replace a word without having to take your hands off the keyboard. Thing is, the cursor has to be in front of the word you want to replace, which, unless you are right above or below the position in question, is faster to do with the mouse, so you have to take your hands off the keyboard anyway. Mac users replace words or groups of words by double-clicking on them or dragging over them, which requires a move to the mouse, a move to the keyboard, and then back to the mouse to put the cursor where you want it, and then back to the keyboard to resume typing. It’s a frustratingly slow process actually, and I would welcome a more efficient editing method. I thought I would use my PowerMate for this purpose  by having it slide the cursor back and forth, but it didn’t save much time and I like it better as an iTunes volume control. I remember a device from the early mac days that attached to your head and positioned the cursor on the screen wherever you looked, by tracking your eye movements through muscles on your temples. It came with a peripheral that attached to your keyboard and added two “mouse” buttons below the space bar. The ad ran in MacWorld in the late eighties under the banner, “Look Ma, No Hands!” and disappeared after a couple of years. Must not have worked, but what a cool idea. 

So. The insert key is not on macintosh keyboards, and overstrike mode is not supported in most macintosh apps. Microsoft Word features an overstrike mode, but, in typical Microsoft fashion, it is implemented exactly as it is on a PC, except there is no insert key on a mac, so the fastest way to activate it is to click on the status bar “OVR” button, which means you have to take your hand off the keyboard, so you might as well double-click the word you want to replace. Note that in many applications you can use the command or option key + backspace or delete to erase the entire word before or following the cursor, respectively.

It’s interesting that word processor editing conventions haven’t changed since they were originally conceived in the seventies. At that time, computer scientists were coming to grips with GUIs and the mouse, and while I’m the last to disparage these advances, which were largely responsible for bringing computers to people who didn’t care about computers, the keyboard is fast and the mouse is slow. I envision a mouseless editing mode that might work like this: You want to replace three words that appear in the paragraph above the one you’re working on. You hit the edit button on your keyboard, which would perhaps be on the other side of the caps lock key (does the caps lock key really need to be two keys wide? Who uses the caps lock key?). Hitting the edit key activates edit mode, where labels appear around the window such that each cursor position on the screen is mapped to a row letter and column number. You punch in the beginning coordinate and, if you want to select text, an end coordinate. Then you key in the new text to replace the selected text, hit the edit key again, the coordinate labels disappear, and the cursor is back to its original position. I bet once you got used to this system it would be fast as shit and, more importantly, wouldn’t interrupt your flow by forcing your hands away from the keyboard.

On the other hand, we now have a small but vocal group of computer geeks who advocate not for tools to make word processors more efficient, but for a return to the typewriter.

the friction zone and an inconvenient truth

I first became aware of the friction zone while learning how to ride a motorcycle in 1995. Let’s say that the clutch, when it’s not being touched, is at position zero, and when it’s fully activated (pressed all the way down to the floorboard on a car, for example), is at position ten inches. The clutch has ten inches of possible travel, but often only a fraction of that travel is used by the car, so that, for example, the clutch starts to engage at three inches of travel and is fully engaged at seven inches of travel. All the movement between zero and three inches, and all the movement between seven inches and the floorboard, produces no effect. The distance between three and seven inches is the friction zone, and once you understand this it suddenly becomes a lot easier to drive a manual transmission, especially on a car you’re not familiar with. Getting used to a standard transmission is learning where the friction zone is on that car.

Another example is the hot water knob. Most people turn on the cold water first, so it’s hard to appreciate when, as you turn on the hot water, turning the knob is actually making more hot water come out of the faucet. Often the friction zone on the hot water knob is less than a single revolution, but it might take a couple of revolutions from the off position to get there, so that getting the temperature right on an unfamiliar faucet can be challenging. Ideally, the strategy for operating a new faucet would be to assess the friction zone for the hot and cold knobs individually, which would involve testing the hot with the cold off and the cold with the hot off. Because cold water is usually high-pressure and hot water is usually low-pressure, you can shortcut this methodical approach by reversing what your mother trained you to do: turn the hot water on first, then titrate the cold water to effect.

I apply the friction zone concept when I am providing analgesia for a painful procedure I’m doing on a patient, such as popping a dislocated shoulder back in, or shocking a heart with a defibrillator. The classic drug to use for this purpose is morphine; the trick is to give the right amount. For a given patient, the first ten milligrams might be insufficient to adequately manage the pain of the procedure, and, if I give twenty-five milligrams, the patient is unarousably unconscious. So the first ten milligrams are not important, and all the morphine I give after the twenty-fifth milligram is unimportant, what counts is the friction zone in between ten and twenty-five milligrams. In medicine we call this the therapeutic index. Doctors prefer to use drugs with a wide therapeutic index, so that it’s easy to produce the desired response without having to worry about adverse effects.

In romance, you can look at the push-pull game as a question of scoping out the friction zone with regard to the amount of interest you show. There is a point on the level of interest continuum below which you won’t register on her radar, and a point above which she’s not going to be interested in you because you’re showing too much interest. The goal of the first phase of dating is then to, um, find her friction zone.

Last week I saw An Inconvenient Truth. The movie is Al Gore giving a slide show (in Keynote, incidentally) about global warming, punctuated by clips that show Mr. Gore ostensibly carrying out his day to day business, which coat him with a What A Good Guy varnish. He makes a lot of compelling arguments, and it’s hard not to walk out of the theater feeling that the earth and its inhabitants are fucked. The strongest support for skeptics, however, appeared while I was waiting in line. A lady from PETA was walking around distributing flyers while shouting that if you’re concerned about global warming, the most important contribution you can make is to become a vegetarian, and “It’s not in the movie!” The flyer presented a number of equally persuasive arguments that the vaporized byproducts of raising livestock for meat consumption are more potent in effecting climate change than emissions from fuel consumption.

What is a lay observer to make of this? PETA’s “facts” seem just as true and relevant as Al Gore’s “facts.” In the face of competing facts, where do we find the truth? We are routinely confronted with this and have adapted our grade-school understanding of a fact as a truth to understanding facts as shades of truth as seen through the lens of the agendas that generate them. Confounding our attempts to know the truth are not only the agendas of the viewpoint generators, but also the agendas of the medium through which the viewpoints are presented. A given medium may have a substantive agenda (The San Francisco Examiner vs. The Washington Times), but the media are of course driven mostly by profit, and alarmism sells. This further complicates our consumption of facts, especially in cases of high alarmist potential like global warming.

Yesterday, as I was making my way through the backroads of maritime Canada, I came across an article in a regional newspaper that described a young lady who developed aplastic anemia, which is when your bone marrow stops making blood cells. The title of the front-page piece is “Teenager diagnosed with blood disorder often caused by environmental poisoning.” Two sentences are devoted to what caused her condition: “The cause of her disease is unknown. Causes of aplastic anemia include a genetic disposition – in this case, already ruled out – and environmental poisoning.” Any lay reader would conclude that this poor girl was poisoned by an environmental toxin and, holy shit, I might be next. In fact, of the cases of aplastic anemia where the cause is known, the great majority are the result of infectious agents(usually viruses), and of the very small proportion of cases that are thought to be caused by a toxin, the great majority are prescribed medications. So the likelihood that an environmental poison caused her condition is tiny, which is exactly opposite to the message that the article tries to convey*.

Now this is the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, not the Times, but the distortion is still sickening. Particularly sickening to me, because the only reason I’m aware of the distortion is because I have training in the issue at hand; since I don’t have training in 99% of the issues that come up in the media, the 1% of stories where I can identify the distortion serves as a marker for the other 99%.

So I go about trying to distill the truth from the facts by evaluating for credibility, and there is a friction zone effect here. Organizations or people who broadcast their agenda too quietly are not heard, and those that jump up and down and scream and shout are probably incapable of producing rational conclusions, as their agendas assume an unassailable stature–the hallmark of dogmatism. The paradigmatic example of this is PETA, so even if they’re correct–and the boy who cried wolf was eaten by a wolf–I can’t credit their arguments. What about Al Gore? The movie takes pains to convince us that climate change is *really* his passion, that one of his old professors sparked his interest decades ago. But then what’s up with the segment on his son, who almost died in a car crash, and all the shit about the oh so wonderful farm where he grew up? I went into the film with the assumption that Al Gore was done with politics, because he said he was done with politics, and I found myself wondering what on earth was going on with these interludes. If they wanted to break up the slide show, they could have found ways to do it that don’t pedestalize Mr. Gore. Now all I hear about is Gore 2008. And in retrospect, the film feels more and more like campaign speech. Blech.

So everyone has an agenda, and the problem is compounded by americans consuming entirely american media, liberals consuming liberal media, religious zealots consuming religious zealot media. Not too surprising that we’re becoming more polarized.

So, I ask again, what is the lay observer to make of this? I try to expose myself to competing viewpoints. KCRW’s Left, Right & Center is a show that at least makes an attempt at this, I would be interested if any of you know of other media that adopts a point-counterpoint format. Otherwise, read the San Francisco Examiner AND The Washington Times (you can cheat by isolating their Op-Ed pages), have a look at some international news outlets, surf the enemy.

This strategy at least makes me feel less like a victim, but the bottom line is that unless you saw it yourself, you can never really know. I can investigate the source data for one domain (medicine), because that’s my job, but for everything else I’m at the mercy of the media and the choir-preaching maze of factgendas that more often than not leave me concluding that the truth is not inconvenient, it’s unobtainable.

*Fuhrer M. Blood 2005 Sep 15;106(6):2102-4.

more laundry room diplomacy

This is a different girl than episode one.

This one lives right next to the laundry room and today is doing laundry at the same time as I am. She’s in her late twenties, wiry, doesn’t speak english. I come down with some dirty clothes, her wet clothes are still in the washing machine. I consider whether to knock on her door, move her clothes to the dryer, or put them on top of the dryer. I decide on the second option and then put a load the washing machine.

45 minutes later I come down and her clothes are finished, and I want to move my clothes over. Faced with another set of socially charged options: pile the clothes on the table, fold the clothes on the table, wait, or knock on her door. I knock on her door and ask her to deal with her laundry, which is she happy to do. She’s very friendly but speaks french with a thick quebec accent, so I can’t communicate with her beyond the basics.

She piles her clothes into a basket, smiles at me, thanks me for something I don’t understand (perhaps for alerting her that her clothes were done), and returns to her room. I start moving my clothes from the washing machine to the dryer and find

a pair of her undies.

Cute undies. Hello Kitty undies. When I moved her clothes from the washer to the dryer, I missed a pair of her undies. Now what do I do. Options:

a. Knock on her door and give them to her. If I do this, I run the risk of her thinking that I’m hoarding her underwear and trying to generate a pseudosexually charged situation by knocking on her door with them in my hand. It’s weird. I can’t do it.

b. Leave them in the laundry room. Unlike anonymous clothes that are often found in washing machines, we both know that I know that these are her clothes, and also that I know which door is hers. I can’t leave them in the laundry room.

c. Toss them. This felt like a very good option, except that I would be throwing away her perfectly good clothing.

What would you have done?

And then the right answer came to me:

d. Dry them. When they’re dry, I can knock on her door and give them to her pretending that *she* was the one who left them in the machine.

I’m so proud of myself.

for sale: made in china sticker remover – $19.99

We wealthy residents of wealthy nations are lucky to have all our basic needs taken care of for us. The problem space theory, however, predicts that we feel the same anguish burden as children in Sudan who are eating rocks for breakfast. Very simply, the problem space theory states that humans have a finite, fixed space in their consciousness for problems. If you have big problems, (malnourished Sudanese children, for example) you shrink the problems to fit inside the space; if you have trivial problems (anyone reading this), you enlarge them to fill the space.

My biggest problem at the moment is Made In China stickers. Like most things made in China, they seem adequate in the showroom, but once you get them home, they fuck you. I just bought a desk lamp that has not one but two Made In China stickers. When I discovered the second sticker (hidden inside the lampshade), I almost returned the thing.

Instead, I have developed a specialized heating, lubricating and peeling apparatus so that after breaking four fingernails you don’t have to reach for power tools that destroy the item the sticker was affixed to. In this way, the HLP Made In China Sticker Remover will pay for itself in no time. Get one while supplies last.