First Gift, Final Gift

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I’ve had a glimpse of how our society deals with death.  I spent ten days with Dad in a wonderful hospice house.  We spent the first half getting the pain meds out of his system, and the other half getting him strong enough so he could leave the place.

I spent many hours with him as cheerleader, advocate, and caregiver trainee.  However, there were many hours where he slept, so I got to know everyone.

What impressed me most was how many workers and volunteers truly care about their mission.  They are unsung, so I’m singing about them now.

However, there are also so many patients, mostly alone.  They were waiting.  Waiting to die.

Here’s the surprise.  Some of them are done.  As a gift to their children, they are content to hasten the process.

If you’re shocked, or sad, you should know that is how I felt.  At first.  When I listened to their stories it becomes obvious that many people are giving themselves up so that they are no longer a burden to their children.

It’s a wonderful gift.  It’s their decision.  And my only regret is that I’m not sure how many of those children appreciate that decision, that final gesture.

Creating a baby is only the first step to what will be a lifetime of joy.  But there are so many hard hours ahead.  Children who grow up tend to appreciate the gift of life given by their parents.

But the second greatest gift can be found at the end.  It is the parent letting go, and letting their child be free of their burden.  It’s sad to see them go, but it’s also a chance to celebrate their life and begin looking forward again.

To all those unsung parents who have sacrificed much during their lives, and then at the very end, life itself, for the benefit of their children, I thank you.

We should all thank them.

The best way to do that is to never forget them.

Mom and Dad.

 

Pride and Prejudice: Austen for Nerds

Great Novel, Great Novelist

Are you a romantic?  Know any nerds?

I’m both.  Today my romantic side lectured the nerdy side on why Jane Austen is so great.  Maybe your nerd might be interested.

 

Nerds know about computers and the software and hardware.  What follows is simplified, but generally speaking is how all computers work.

Closest to the user is a program, like chrome.  That program sits on top of the operating system, and that sits on top of the “shell” which sits on another operating system that runs directly on the processor.

Readers = computers.  We accept a file (book), getting information.

Now, lets talk about files.

Files means several things.  There are raw data or text files, there are files that are proprietary to a program, there are files that are themselves programs.  Files can also be “compiled,” and then there are a whole class of files that are compressed.  A compressed file can be any or all of the above files.

In general, a text file has little information for a given size, while a compressed file has the most.

Fellow nerds, here’s where the fun begins.

Ordinary books by ordinary authors are equivalent to text files being read by the browser.  Very low information content for a given size, almost no interaction capability.

Good books by great authors are like getting a compiled program complete with data files.  There’s a lot more going on between the pages than you see at first glance.  The book itself tells you how to run the program and read the data, so that you get an enhanced experience.  You can usually tell that you’re reading such a book because the author will tell you.

Then there’s Jane Austen.  At first glance her book looks like a simple text file.  Then you realize that there’s a program buried inside.  It’s not just any program, because she doesn’t tell you it’s there.  It sits in your brain and begins running, and it starts running on the data supplied by the book.  It’s a text file that speaks directly to the processor.

But it doesn’t end there either.  Because you can also feed it data from your life, your world, the real world.  And the program keeps running, giving you insights that weren’t there before.

Then you go back and read the book again, and again.  The book is a text file.  The book is a compiled program.  And more.

It’s compressed.  It’s compressed in such a way that it LOOKS like an ordinary text file.  But when you read it and it sits in your brain, it unspools, slowly, surely.

I figure that if P&P were written in uncompressed form, it would be somewhere around a half million words.  The book currently clocks in at 120,000.  That’s a 75% compression ratio.

So, the next time your non-nerdy friend tells you they are reading P&P, treat them with respect.  That’s no ordinary text file they are handling.

It’s goodstuff.txt.cpp.zip

 

Invisible Tools: Society

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This series has been all about invisible tools that our species uses to make life better for itself.

Notice I said, itself.  I’m talking about the species here.  Not you, not me.  Not our government, not even the world government.

Species.

Some of the tools our species uses were invented long before primates climbed down from the trees.  So things like using machines, sex, childhood, pair bonding and childhood are used by many other species.  Maybe they invented those on their own.  Maybe not.

However, some of the other tools we covered are pretty much unique to humans: Marriage, Relatives, Dynasties, and perhaps the biggest one of all, society.

Yes, we have a society.  If you talk to some biologists, they’ll argue some insects have a society as well.  But there’s a big difference, besides the fact that they are bugs.

We invent the society, we join the society, and we can leave the society.  The society isn’t baked into our DNA.  It’s in our heads.

 

Last post I asked if a family dynasty, like the Samsung Corporation, is good or bad?

There’s no way to tell without looking at the dynasty in context.  And the best context is within society.

If society is Korea, then the closer the purpose of Samsung is to the purpose of Korea will answer how “good” they are.

But if their purpose is at odds with the rest of their country, then we could argue that they are “bad.”

The primary purpose of any family, any dynasty, any government, and any society is to survive.  In fact, it’s the basic purpose of any living unit, like the species.  After all, if they don’t survive, they disappear.

We tend to forget this simple fact.  Heck, let’s call it the first axiom of life.

If something helps Korea survive, but impacts Samsung negatively, then Samsung will fight back.  They will resist.  They will undermine.  They will be “bad” for Korea.

In general, there will always be something that satisfies the above condition.  So, in general, a family dynasty is “bad” for society.

The same logic applies to the society and our species.  If a society wants to do something that is not good for the species, what happens?  You get pollution.  You get toxic waste.  You get human forced climate change.

That’s it for talking about tools.  We have them, we use them, usually without thinking about them.  Maybe we should start thinking, talking, and using them more effectively.

Then again, only if we want to survive.

Thanks for reading.

 

Pride and Prejudice: Surprise Visit

Great Novel, Great Novelist

Near the beginning of Volume 3, Elizabeth and her relatives had a surprisingly nice time visiting Lambton and Pemberly.  It’s been a few days, and Aunt and Uncle have gone out for a walk.

Elizabeth gets some letters from home.  She reads them.  She gets upset.  And, surprise, Darcy shows up, finding her in distress.

We don’t think too much about this fast-moving scene, because he’s the knight in shining armor, the cavalry, the savior, the life boat, all of those things.  That’s why he’s there, right?

Mmmm, I don’t think so.

This Austen lady, the writer of P&P, she was way too good to make things happen for their own sake.  No, when it comes to the main characters, their motivations run deep.  So deep that even the narrator doesn’t know.

Did I mention I’m writing a book similar to P&P?  In the course of writing my book, I’m analyzing every sentence, every word that Jane Austen left on the page.  Even more extreme, I’m also analyzing the words she DIDN’T put on the page.

Let’s return to that pivotal scene where Elizabeth’s world is crashing down around her, ruin hastened by her wild sister, Lydia, catalyzed by the good-looking scoundrel Wickham.  The Gardiners and she have been there several days.  They have been introduced to Georgiana.  They have proven themselves worthy of the best society.

In Darcy’s eyes, there is nothing left to prove.

So as he walked in the door, expecting to see a happy, relaxed Elizabeth, what do you think was on his mind?

Marriage.

As in that fateful first proposal, he was there to try again.  He wants to walk in and sweep her off her feet.  And we know she’s ready.  She’s dying to die in his arms.  Everything is perfect.

Except it’s not.  Only the deftness of Austen can make this train wreck happen with perfect timing and perfect pitch.  Each of our lovers is ready to jump into each other’s arms, and each is suddenly cast down by wild outcast characters that live their lives regardless of the sensibilities of others.

Now read that scene.  Darcy comes in, love in his breast, and he’s devastated.  Elizabeth is ready to receive him, love in full flower, and suddenly she’s lost her reputation, her family is in disarray, and she may end up with a family member who will forever keep her soulmate at bay.

I don’t know of anything where someone is raised so high, only to be cast so low.  Not only that, but for it to be done without having to be explicit, that’s sheer genius.

Of course, that’s also sheer Austen.

 

Invisible Tools: Dynasty

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Sex, childhood, marriage, family.  These are some invisible behavioral tools our species uses to thrive.  We should understand them as tools, and make them better.  The more we think of them as tools, the better we use them, making our own lives easier.

Every tool can vary in quality.  Take any one of the items mentioned up front.  I’m sure you can think of both good and bad examples.  Please don’t dwell on the first one.

The family is most important here, because humans have gone far beyond the original tool.  In fact, this set of families are so different that they may need their own category.  It’s easiest to think of them as a “super-family.”

Your average, run-of-the-mill family has parents and kids.  A bigger family has grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.  An even bigger family may have some “greats” scattered here and there.  And some of the biggest families may have a celebration of relatives including hundreds of people.

Then there is the super-family.  The dynasty.  This is family taken to the highest level.  For not only can this family get large, it extends far back in time.  The dynasty becomes history unto itself.

The most famous dynasties are those that are connected to great wealth.  And that’s another feature of a successful dynasty, they are very good at passing wealth from one generation to another.  But that’s only the part we see.

The part we don’t see is that they also pass on secrets; teaching the next generation about keeping the dynasty together, growing its leadership, and increasing its wealth.

We don’t do a good job of tracking dynasties today.  Most are interested in conspicuous individuals.  Too bad, because it’s like only looking at the tip of an iceberg.

Most of the dynasty is hidden, just as interesting, and very powerful.  It will have branches embedded in government, commerce, and finance.  It will transcend nationalities, and can think on time scales most of us can’t conceive.

Japan and Korea have some famous dynasties you already know about.  China certainly has a few, and so does Europe.

Are family dynasties bad or good?  Not our job, not today.  The advantages are great power.  The disadvantage is the same.  The only question is this:

Does a dynasty want the same thing that is good for society in general?

Let’s tackle that next.

 

Pride and Prejudice: Smarty Darcy

Great Novel, Great Novelist

There’s a scene where an incredible amount of plot is covered in a few pages.  For a writer to get away with something like this is awesome.

For Jane Austen, it’s all in a day’s work.

For a hack writer like me, what she did can be done.  It’s tough work, but possible.

The problem is that Jane also wrote it so that the chapter is so exciting that you don’t notice what she did there.  It flows like poetry.  It’s an easy read.  And the characters are so twisted around each other that the words illuminate both of them, yet specifically to that character.

Where does this magic happen?

Remember that chapter where Darcy barges into the house at Hunsford?  Elizabeth has a headache, begged off tea at Rosings, and he’s worried.  He almost bangs down her door.

Then he proposes.

What?

She’s floored.  He’s totally into himself.

Only moments earlier she learned that he’s responsible for hurting her sister, all because of Bingley.  In addition, Elizabeth hasn’t liked him since she met him.  And he’s been all icky goofy the entire time she’s been visiting Charlotte.

By the way, in the process of proposing, he also insults her, her family, and admits that he doesn’t really want to, but can’t overcome those powerful feelings.  What a romantic.

Spoiler alert for those who don’t know the story (and why don’t you?)… she says no.

In the process of saying no, she gives great reasons.  One of which is the revelation about Darcy breaking up her sister and Bingley.

An average writer would stop and explain how she could know his “secret” he hadn’t revealed to anyone.

A better writer would put the explanation somewhere else, like in the makeup scene at the end of the book.

An incredible writer would be able to show how Darcy figured out how Elizabeth figured out his secret through small signs littered among the pages.

However, if you are of Jane Austen’s caliber (don’t delude yourself) …

You don’t say a thing.  You know your character is smart enough so that he figured it out on his own.  He may even allude to his knowledge in the letter he writes her, allowing that Colonel FitzWilliam can substantiate his claims regarding the care of Georgiana.

But he doesn’t say anything.  He doesn’t ask anything.  Elizabeth doesn’t offer up the information.  And better yet, Jane Austen doesn’t touch it after that.  She doesn’t have to.  Her characters know their stuff.  And Jane Austen knows hers.

How’s that for being a smarty?

 

 

 

Invisible Tools: Relatives

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Does your family have a crazy uncle?

Perhaps you have a cousin?

Don’t assume everyone has a cousin.  As families shrink, as the human population contracts (and it will) the chances of having a cousin will shrink.

Having a cousin used to mean you shared a grandparent with that person, usually two grandparents.

In today’s society, with halves and steps and mixing of marriages, there’s a chance your cousin is in name only.  You may not share an ancestor within a thousand years of each other.

However, that’s not the point.  In a biological sense, we are all related.  That’s the whole point of being a species.  Humans are part of a single species we call humanity.  Everybody within a species is supposed to be able to marry anyone else within the species.  Please don’t try to marry someone outside your species!

Some scientists say that modern humans may have married Neanderthals back when they still rented rooms in Europe.  If that’s true, and they had kids, then they must also been part of our species.

No other animal has special names for relatives.  The most family other animals care about is Mom, Dad, and Kids.  And for most other animals, once the kids are adults, they aren’t part of the family anymore.

Humans seem to be unique in this way.  We keep track of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, grandparents, second cousins twice removed, and possibly even more.  In some languages there’s a word for my mother’s father’s brother.

What’s the benefit of tracking these relationships?

Power.  Pure and simple.  If you can name someone that can help you get what you want, then you are better off.  If you didn’t know who your cousin was, then you couldn’t go to them in order to ask for help.

Of course, the downside of relatives is a bit the same.  If a relative is a pain in the butt, and tends to drag you down, then you’d be better off without them.  We “forget” them.

The good news is that, on average, having relatives has been a good thing.  And thanks to another tool called marriage, we can increase our number of relatives by adding “-in-law” to their name.  We do that because it tells us that the bond is through marriage, and may not be as strong as a more direct biological connection.

So the next time your relative calls you up and asks for a favor, think of it as an advantage, not a nuisance.  At least do this a few times.

After that, read them the riot act.  Let’s face it.  They’re not going to change.

 

Invisible Tools: Marriage

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Ever thought about what the world would be without marriage?

Wait a minute.

Silly me.   I thought this would be a thought experiment.

We’re already doing this.  Women are empowered, Men are “depowered,” and the implications clear.

Women and men get married later in life, and those marriages last fewer years.  Regardless of marital status, couples are having fewer children.

Marriage is no longer standard, it’s an option.

That’s too bad.  Because way back when, in the days before primates climbed trees, families had begun taking care of their young even after they’d left the egg.

Primates came along, and the young stayed young even longer.  Mom stayed with her child for many years.  That Mom and that child would even identify each other, even when that child was an adult.

The primate Dad was a different story.  He was probably the alpha male.  He probably was the father of that child, because he would have killed the child of another male.  And Mom?  She was only one of many other wives.  That’s how alpha male societies work.

There are downsides.  For one thing, if a new alpha male comes along, then he also has access to all the old wives.  One of the first things he’ll do is get rid of all the other young males.  If you’re a mom, you don’t like that.

So there’s a push among moms to have one husband.  That’s where pair bonding comes in, another great invention.

But for males that like to be social, that can be a problem.  Social males like to have many friends.  And if those friends are female, what of it?  And if that female is feeling lonely and wants to snuggle, just a little, what’s wrong with that?  And if snuggling leads to something else, well, it’s all natural.

That’s where marriage comes in.  It’s a tool used by society to help lock down that male to that female.  It helps keep that one family together.  It’s a formal recognition of a pair bond and all the advantages it brings.

One straying married male can result in two failed families.

Did women invent marriage?  Perhaps.  But it’s unlikely that it would have become a social institution if men didn’t also see its advantages.  If you’re happily married, you know what those are.

Was it always religious?  No.  It certainly goes much further back.

Here’s the best part.  It’s a tool.  It’s a device we use to make life easier.  Instead of looking at it romantically, we should start to understand it as a tool.

Perhaps that will make all our lives easier.

It certainly will make the conversation more lively at the marriage counselor’s.

 

Pride and Prejudice: Who’s Your Mama?

Great Novel, Great Novelist

As I read through P&P with the intent of bringing it into the modern world, I read it at a level of detail beyond normal.

Beyond normal?  What does that mean?

It means I looked at every word.

Not only did I look at the words Jane Austen wrote, I began thinking about the words she DIDN’T use.

That’s right.  What words did she decide NOT to put into P&P?

It’s important, because one thing I’ve learned from this hippest of chicks is that she used every single word with precision.  And left them out with an equal amount.

The word for today is: Mother.  But not just any mother.

Jane isn’t afraid to talk about mothers all over the place.  In fact, the most annoying mother in the world (supposedly) is front and center for the entire book.

For a book centered on mothers, for a book written by a woman, for a book that is the beginning of the “Rom-Com” genre, there’s an interesting hole.

We never learn anything about the mother of Darcy.

We never learn anything about the mother of Wickham.

We know quite a bit more about the fathers.  We know for certain that Darcy’s father had a great fondness for Wickham.

Some may say Jane left out these mothers because they aren’t important to the story.

??????

Did I mention that this book is very much about mothers?  Did I mention that Jane is (okay, was) a woman?  Did I mention that she is quite possibly the best writer to EVER live?

Think about this for a moment.

What if the mother of Darcy …

… And the mother of Wickham …

… Each had a child by the same man?

In other words, Darcy and Wickham are related.  They could be half-brothers.

In many ways, this relationship goes a long way to explaining many things that happen behind the scenes.  Why was Darcy’s Dad so keen on Wickham?  Why did they have such a co-mingled childhood?  How was it that Wickham had such easy access to Georgiana?

So, if you’re a P&P enthusiast, enjoy the book one more time with this in mind.

What else could be going on between those covers?

 

Invisible Tools: Family

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We love to complain about family.  It takes years of therapy to get over the phobias our parents gave us.  If we survive, then we have to endure crazy sister during holidays, or the demands of the wild brother complicating our lives in other ways.  Finally, if we’re lucky, we have to help the parents deal with their old age.

No wonder so many jettison the concept entirely and stay away.

It’s a wonder anyone wants to be in a family at all.  What in the world is the family good for in the first place?

First place.  Where did the first family come from?

We discussed how animals invented childhood some time ago.  That childhood improved everyone’s chances of survival.  It must have worked quite well for humans, because we have the longest “childhood” of all animals.

For all animals with a childhood, their family exists for as long as the children are home.  Yes, the children can be birds, and the home can be a nest.

The problem for these families is that they cease to exist the moment the children leave home.  When the chicks leave the nest, the family no longer exists.

Humans have the only families that exist beyond the weaning of the children.  Some families even have parents of parents living with them.  This is certainly an achievement few other species have met.

And that’s the greatest advantage of the family, the human family, sharing knowledge gathered by previous generations.  Wisdom accumulated through hard experience saves the younger members a lot of time.  They make better choices, the family does better, the children have more children, and the family thrives through the ages.

For millennia, that is how the family worked.  Then something happened.  We figured out how to transfer knowledge in a more structured format during the Renaissance.  Then we became wealthy enough so that even grand parents preferred to live on their own than with their children and grand children, usually in warmer climates.

Today’s civilized family is a poor imitation of what the family used to be.  Regardless of what is best for the individuals, the family itself has suffered.  As a society, we should think about how we treat the family and how it can work for all of us to better advantage.

We should also think about what the family may look like if we ever take our species to the moon.  After all, do we need families in space?  Do we need them any more here?

We do.  And the next installment explains why.