Linear Solutions to Exponential Problems

Humanity is facing many problems, immediately there’s COVID, longer (but not that long) term there’s Climate Change.

“Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.”

Probably not Einstein, but it sounds smarter if I say it’s Einstein

Ontario has decided to reopen, even if the projections are bad. It seems we keep closing and reopening and hoping that we can keep things under control. It’s easy to shit on the the people making these decisions, but regardless I plan on doing it here.

The challenge we have with COVID is the same as climate change. It’s that our linear thinking, that if we close down X or we lower Y doesn’t match up to the exponential world.

An easy way to visualize this is with regards to speed in relation to deaths in car accidents. Kinetic energy is equal to ½mv² with the v² being the important part here. So take a look at the chart below.

Basically, a small change in speed, causes a huge fucken change in probability of death. Now before you think this is just because of some correlation between humans dying and some magic speed. Spoiler it’s basically the same as just x²

By now you’ve probably surmised that COVID and climate change are exponential problems.

And while I’d love to try my best to surmise why humans are bad at it, many people have done it far better than I ever could.

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is the inability to understand the exponential function”

Al Bartlett

There’s a good video, it’s long and not the best produced one, but it’s by Al Barlett and he does a really good job of explaining why we’re fucked.

His main focus is overpopulation, but even if you just stick that lens and not carbon emissions is pretty easy to see that population growth and it’s inability to keep going up will mean massive changes for how we live. We take for granted now that we can have children, as many as we want really, but that’s going to change, and it’s going to change quickly.

The same will happen with climate change and the same is happening with COVID. It’s nothing and then all at once.

At least from our limited ability to perceive the “nothing” that becomes this “all at once”

Angsty songs & maybe we should change schools as kids

There are many songs that just scream teenage angst, and I feel like Lazy Eye by Silver Sun Pickups is one of them. And I don’t mean angsty in a bad or derogatory way, just in a, this captures the feelings well. Even the music video feels like exactly what as a 15 year old you think 18 year olds do.

It often felt like during my school years I was just waiting for time to pass by. To finally finish school to go to the fun parts of life. It’s interesting in a way how we portray schools. I wanted to change schools and I think many people often are stuck in shitty situations at school. Bullying, boredom, bad teachers, etc etc. But the common answer is that you need to suffer thru it. I think it has a perverse effect later in life where people don’t leave bad jobs or bad relationships because well, all they know is that they need to suffer thru this.

In reality, if you’re in a bad situation like a bad job, a bad relationship, toxic friendships, etc. you should just leave it. You don’t need to stay and suffer. I worry we’re often teaching kids they need to suffer thru things. Oh sure there’s a certain amount of “grit” that you need. You shouldn’t just drop everything once you face a simple challenge, but it almost feels like it builds in learned hopelessness. Like the elephant that could rip out the stake holding him down but doesn’t because he “learned” that he was powerless at a young age.

In a way, right now feels like that. We’re helpless in that (most of us anyway) can’t impact COVID 19. We can’t work on vaccine distribution or fixing the clusterfuck that is federal and provincial co-operation(1)or lack thereof. Sure we can do our part in staying on the couch. But it’s not the same.

And so in a way, the “learned helplessness” is not always a bad thing. If we reframe it as “acceptance”, well that changes everything doesn’t it? We need to accept the current circumstances and our ability (or lack thereof) to influence it.

So like most things:

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

Niels Bohr

In the meantime we can listen to angsty songs about waiting for the real world to begin (again):

[Verse 1]
I’ve been waiting
I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life
But it’s not quite right
And this ‘real’
It’s impossible if possible at whose blind word?
So clear but so unheard

[Verse 2]
I’ve been waiting
I’ve been waiting for this silence all night long
It’s just a matter of time
To appear sad
With the same ‘ol decent lazy eye fixed to rest on you
Aim free and so untrue

[Chorus]
Everyone’s so intimately rearranged
Everyone’s so focused clearly with such shine
Everyone’s so intimately rearranged
Everyone’s so focused clearly with such shine

Locked and loaded
Still the same ol’ decent lazy eye straight through your gaze
That’s why I said I relate
I said we relate, it’s so fun to relate

[Bridge]
It’s the room, the sun and the sky
The room, the sun and the sky

[Guitar Solo]

[Outro]
I’ve been waiting
I’ve been waiting for this moment…

Footnotes

1 or lack thereof

The Illusion of Choice (in video games)

I remember playing the first Walking Dead game from TellTale games. I never liked zombie games, but it was incredible. Your choice really seemed to matter. The story itself was all changed by them. I think it’s only when playing the Wolf Among Us that cracks started to show. Maybe it’s because the story of the Walking Dead is so poignant and powerful (It’s one of the most moving in any video game ever), but at the time I didn’t see thru the illusion.

I just finished playing Life is Strange 2 (Life is Strange rivals the Walking Dead and I really recommend you play it) and the first episode felt too transparent. The impact of choices seemed to be non-existent. It felt too much like determinism.

Don’t get me wrong, I know the world itself is pretty deterministic(ish) so how can one expect free will in a game that’s inside a deterministic world, but it still just felt useless. All the choice, they wouldn’t really change the story, at least ot in any meaningful way.

Perhaps part of the problem is expectations. These games sell themselves as “Story Driven” and “Decisions matter” but really, it’s the same thing as most RPGs since forever ago. Ya you make some decisions, but you know when playing Mass Effect that you won’t end up on a remote island running a bar at the end. You’ll be saving the world galaxy one way or another.

Anyways, tl;dr play Walking dead and Life is Strange, they are good stories even if free will is an illusion, but other such games aren’t necessarily worth it.

Time is Standing Still

I feel as though time has no meaning anymore, just waiting for the days to pass. It’s a bit ridiculous in a sense because so many things are the same. I still work, I still play games, I still cook, I still eat, I still learn, so many things are the same.

And yet, it’s not is it? I feel at times just like I’m waiting. Waiting to invite friends over, waiting to reconnect with friends and other I haven’t connected with as much. I sometimes often think about all the wasted time. I could learn more, I could exercise more, I could work more. And yes, I know it’s a trope by now that you need to be kind to yourself because of the pandemic. But still… It at times just feels like an excuse. And I say this for myself, I’m not saying that it’s not a total clusterfuck for so many people. But we don’t have kids, we don’t have any family who are sick, we only know a few people who are on the frontline / essential. This thing should just wash of our backs no?

And yes, there are a few bigger things at play. The world is literally in a state of chaos, the US is tearing itself apart and that won’t be good for anybody, especially not a country that relies heavily on the US such as Canada. But I have a hard time shaking that feeling of needing to be more and do more. Thankfully mediation is helping, I’m using Waking Up and I quite enjoy it. If you want to care less about the fact that time is standing still…. it’s worth a try.

Google kinda sucks

Recently I’ve been more and more impressed by just how bad Google’s products are. It reminds me of Microsoft in the late 90s. They have a solution for everything, it’s terrible, but people still use it because of the network effect.

I’ll go in detail in later posts but basically, google calendar hasn’t been updated in… ever? Google keeps being able to fuck up doing a messaging application. Android Auto? It’s amazing when it works…. Which is about half the time… Google maps? It was revolutionary when it came out, remember mapquest? But now, when I left to go pick up my prescription today it offered me to go to an address I haven’t gone to in almost a year and won’t be going back to.

There seems to be 2 general problems, one is usability and the other is shitty machine learning. Like I said I’ll have a few rants on them individually, but it’s so interesting to me how Google became what it was fighting (the big large monopolistic tech companies). I guess history just repeating itself.

The problem with washrooms

The pandemic and the lock-downs have highlighted a great many problems. One unexpected one of places being closed is the lack of public washrooms. I don’t think Ottawa has a single public washroom that one can just go to. Before it was pretty easy, I could stop at any Tim’s, or a random restaurant and just use the washroom. But now, it’s not possible and that’s problematic when you drink way too much water in a day.

Of course this problem hasn’t just appeared so to say. It’s been a problem for many people before, but much like many things with the pandemic it’s shown folks I think a side of some of the challenges of people who are less socioeconomically advantaged. I can walk into any restaurant and ask to sue the washroom without anyone ever saying no. I “look” like a customer. But the challenge with the lack of public washroom has been present for folks who live on the streets. It’s just brought to light something others have already been dealing with.

I hope you’re doing okay

Odds are we haven’t talked much. This year has been a bit weird for that. It at times felt like the lack of in person activities just stuck and transferred itself to online. That or just virtual meeting fatigue.

Regardless of how often we have or haven’t interacted, I’ve been thinking a lot about others and how they are doing thru this crazy year. Part of it is because of my focus on Buddhism (without belief) and meditation.

All that say is that even if I haven’t reached out, know that I care for you, I miss you, and I hope we’ll be able to meet again in 2021.

The rebirth of expertise

By now everyone knows, and it’s potentially become a true-ism that experts are not relevant anymore. TED talks(1)Too lazy to find the best ones, books, think pieces, etc all tout the distribution of knowledge, the wisdom of the crowds as having vanquished the experts.

Everyone knows you should look at the amazon review to see if it’s good or not. I mean review sites online can be bought or sold or etc.

The problem is that, like most things, once everyone thinks it’s true, it probably no longer is.

Every Amazon seller is gaming the review system. Both boosting themselves and also trying to take down the competition with fake reviews and fake returns.

The pandemic, and the US election has also proven how, let’s say sub-optimal, the wisdom of the crowd is. Recently I basically put more trust into Wirecutter reviews than anything else. I suspect the pendulum has already started to swing back and trust and expertise will be once again prioritized.

Or at least I hope.

Footnotes

1 Too lazy to find the best ones

Death has a way of putting things in perspective

In the last few years 3 people I knew who were my age died. Twice of cancer and one suicide. I’m still at an age where any death is tragic and death has a way of putting things in perspective.

I remember having a close call with someone very close to me who was suicidal. Those times really helped me put things in perspective.

I’ve always been good under pressure (which confuses folks because of the anxiety) and I remember a time working at VIP when some site went down and we may of caused data loss. I remember telling a coworker who felt anxious that they didn’t need to worry because no one died and no one will die from pageviews missing, even if it goes into the 100s of thousands of pageviews. I’m lucky in that I’m in a field where the chance of my mistake causing death is minimal and I feel for those who day in and day out have to accept that the consequences of their actions may be death.

Death also minimizes everything else. Being frustrated with a friend, a lover, a relationships (of any type) that broke down, all these things seem, unimportant. Why hold on to that pain? Why hold on to that resentment and anger when things are so fragile? Why choose to stay hurt and to not move forward when we’re a heartbeat away from nothingness?

I’ve been guilty of this, In the past and even now. So why is it that it’s so hard to let go and to make amends? Not only with others but with ourselves.

To radically accept what happened and see it for what it is. A lifeless memory from the past that shouldn’t take precedence on the living moment.

I know some folks will, rightfully, point out that there is a reason for this pain, that it’s purpose is to teach us a lesson. It’s there so we don’t just keep putting our hand on a hot stove or keep engaging in patterns that harm us. I think that’s distinct from accepting the past (or the present) and to make amends with it. It’s not that you forget what happened. It’s that you accept what happened and become at peace with it and the people involved.