Sunday, July 6, 2008

Birthdays & Anniversaries

My birthday was a few days ago. Time for thinking again. But I'll spare everyone my thoughts on my own life, so common as we get older (Actually, I believe I started at 18). No, today I'm thinking about birthdays in general. And anniversaries too, since birthdays are just special anniversaries.

So what is special about adding another mental notch for the 'turning of a year'? (that's what anniversary literally means, so strictly speaking, a monthly anniversary is a misnomer). Well, to start with the obvious, the Earth is in the same spot, with respect to the sun, that it used to be on the day of the original event. So what? Well, if you are the type of person that believes the position of the stars matters somehow, that is a big deal, so that's what our ancestors marked. If not, you may consider decimal birthdays to be symbolically more meaningful, really.

You reach 1,000 days before you turn 3, and 10,000 when you're 27 years old. Most of us will not live to see 30,000 sunrises, and even the vast majority of ultracentenarians won't make it to 40,000. It seems like such a large supply of days, and yet it's limited. Calculating your age in days has a strange effect: you can't remember living, say, 9,735 days; actually, you can't even fathom that, as our mind handles poorly even numbers in the thousands. Not only can't we remember living each and every day, or even a detail from each day; the appalling reality is that we probably remember vague details of only 1 in 100 days, and can easily recall a full good mental picture of only a few dozens days that were significant to us. And even then, recent days are represented far more often than older ones. Try it. Sit down in a quiet place and take notes, in writing, of the days you remember in detail, it's an enlightening exercise. Yearly anniversaries seem to make a lot more sense in light of the information we can store; not to mention we get to celebrate more often with yearly, rather than decimal anniversaries (1,000 days).

But exactly why do we celebrate? Is it wise or justifiable to celebrate getting older? That very much depends on your perspective. When we're very young we can't wait to get older, primarily because reaching certain specific ages removes societal restrictions on our behavior, and unlocks entire new life experiences, much like reaching a new level in a videogame: at age w you can wear big-boy/girl underwear, at age x you can stay home alone, at age y you can date, at age z you can drive, etc. Between reaching the driving/voting, or in the US the drinking age, and retirement age, there are no longer any magic numbers to look forward to, and we may lose the taste for celebration. In fact, our professional careers offer many similar goals that are tied, however losely, to age, but after the internet age produced a number of 20-something billionaire CEOs, the connection is weaker than ever. Most of us probably do gain wisdom as we age, but you can't get a numerical feedback for that, and it doesn't sound like that much fun anyway. And after retirement, we start contemplating times ahead when we may progressively receive more and more restrictions: we may lose our driver's license, control of our finances, and even of our bladder. So what is there to celebrate?

Actually, a lot. While upcoming goals are certainly a good reason to celebrate, the true, overwhelmingly important reason to celebrate is that we are still here, we made it through another year against all odds. It's a victory, and victory deserves celebration. What am I talking about, most people live to be old, anyways? Yes, they do, but there's nothing obvious about it.
Both physics and biology paint grim pictures of life. Thermodynamically speaking, as Erwing Schroedinger observed, life should not exist. In fact, we die. Eventually. If you know the concept, consider that the change in Gibbs free energy (delta G) produced by our death is hugely negative, so nature strongly favors that outcome. It's only a matter of time, before nature takes its natural course.
Biologically speaking, if you haven't been eaten by a predator today, whether a large feline or a microscopic parasite, you should count yourself successful: most of your fellow organisms on this planet put a huge effort into avoiding just that, with uncertain outcomes. And even us humans, so successful as to be generally delivered from such concerns, do sometimes turn into food for predators, typically of the invisibly small kind.

These two scary monsters, thermodynamics and predators, are responsible for a statistical paradox: the older you are, the older you are likely to get. For example, in the US in 2005, if you were 5, your odds of reaching 90 were only 22.5%. But if you were 60 already, odds would improve to 25.4%, and had you been 75, they'd jump to 33.4%! You cleared many, many life-threatening obstacles in the past years of of your life, including the latest one. And you should celebrate that victory.

Similar forces threaten anything else we celebrate with an anniversary: romantic relationships fail or fade for myriads of reasons all the time; once proud and successful businesses sink or close doors; even world-spanning empires disintegrate. All these frail things seem to have an especially high mortality early on, and that was the case for human life too, until very recently. No wonder that endurance in the face of Time has always been a cause of celebration, still is, and always will be, as long as Time brings change and loss.

One question remains nagging us, though. Relationships, institutions, and even we ourselves change into unrecognizable entities over time, and we scarcely remember a handful of glimpses of what we have been. What, then, do we have in common with the person that we call ourself and lived 10 or 20,000 days ago, that we should celebrate such continuity?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Reasons for having a baby?

"Next time you come back, we want to see 3 of you!". In one of the many different variants, my wife and I have heard this message repeated many times lately. A recent visit to my hometown was sure to bring it up, but hints (or even explicit requests) have been raining on us from all sides. Normally, this wouldn't matter one bit, except that I've often caught this thought in my mind of its own accord. Not to mention that I find myself powerfully moved by images of dads carrying little kids on their shoulders, or teaching how to ride a bike or build a paper airplane. Yet, I had not, so far, pondered on the decision itself: that is, how/why people decide to have children.

It is not a trivial question. The availability of birth control doesn't only mean we can choose not to have children when we'd rather not. It also forces us to choose whether to have them and when. That freedom brings the burden of making a momentous choice. The costs of the choice to have kids are immediately apparent. Granted, there are advantages too, as there are costs (mostly social) to not having kids. But unlike the decision to live as a couple - with easily shown gains in personal satisfaction, finances and even life expectancy - the cost/benefit effect of children is not so immediately clear.

Not wanting to rely on the limited (and biased) pool of my friends and family for reasons, I turned to that repository of common consciousness called internet for reasons to choose (or not) to have a baby. Results (with Google):

  • The search "reasons to have children" returned 43,700 hits, some of which certainly spurious (e.g. "wrong reasons to have children"). The search "reasons not to have children" (plus a related variant) returned 16,210 hits (73% in favor 27% against). This reflects the attitudes of English-speakers, demographically dominated by Americans (fertility rate: 2.1 children/woman).

  • The same search in Italian - Italy has a notoriously low fertility rate, 1.3/woman - yielded 315 pages of reasons to and 899 pages with reasons not to (26% in favor 74% against).

  • In French (France, 1.98/woman), it brought up 3,800 pages for and 6,090 pages against (38% in favor 62% against). To the latter, a recent contentious book published there (No Kids: 40 reasons not to have children), by Corinne Maier (a mother of two), certainly contributed, through book reviews etc.

  • The German language (Germany/Austria/Switzerland about 1.4/woman) provided a paltry 5 pages for and 422 against (1% in favor 99% against), though I suspect translation issues in my search, and the effects of the debate on Maier's book.

  • In BokmÃ¥l Norwegian (Norway 1.9/woman), 7 pages for and 4 against (64% in favor 36% against), unlike much of Western Europe. From what I observed, Scandinavian (esp. Norwegian) parents take even infants anywhere, however rough or unsafe it may look to parents of other cultures. They also receive generous government help to raise kids.

  • A Spanish search (Spain 1.3/woman; Mexico and others don't contribute to internet autorship representatively to their population) came up with 902 pages for and 3220 not to (22% in favor 78% against).

We'll stop here. Clearly, the different natality rates & attitudes towards children on the two sides of the Atlantic are reflected here. The search in other parts of the world might have been interesting, but is limited by a combination of my personal language barriers (e.g. Russia, Japan), government censorship/propaganda (e.g. China), or minuscule and unrepresentative number of internet users (rest of the world).

The listed reasons for having or not having children, by and large, all fall within the same categories everywhere in the developed world:

Reasons to have children:

Fulfulling: Natural inclination, companionship, personal growth, desire of immortality, personal or global hopes, entertainment, excitement, pride in children's accomplishments, strengthening of couplehood, religious prescriptions
Avoiding: Social pressure

Reasons not to have children:

Fulfilling: Specific philosophical stances (ecological, existentialist, etc.), different life goals (monk, daredevil, etc.)
Avoiding: Loss of disposable income and time, career hindrance, strain on couplehood, pregnancy and labour, lifetime of responsibility/anxiety, generational conflicts, unpleasant tasks (diapers!), disappointment, health concerns

The two categories with the fewest items must not be looked at dismissively. Clearly, societies need people to have children much as our bodies need new blood cells to be continuously produced, so we all participate in creating this social pressure in obvious or subtle ways. And, in turn, we must consider it, to the extent we don't think of ourselves simply as isolated individuals. Just as clearly, some choices of world view and lifestyle are utterly incompatible with (responsible) parenthood. Beyond these unquestionable motivations, however, reasons to have children have primarily to do with growth and fulfillment. Reasons not to have children are primarily concerned with avoiding change and suffering.
There, distilled in one line, lies the nature of the choice. Lest anyone rushes ahead to pass a judgment by reading this, consider that this is, in its essence, the same all-important choice debated by Hamlet:

"To be or not to be: that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?"

It is a question that I don't believe can be answered by Reason, and it's ultimately anyone's to ask and respond to. Frankly, when it comes to making our own decision on a baby, I doubt anything above will matter much. But there's one more item to consider that perhaps has a lot to say about human nature. When asked if they'd do it again, almost without exception (Corinne Maier apparently is one), parents answer much like the woman who cut my hair a few weeks ago: "Your life will change forever. But you'll never want to go back!". I happen to know of another activity that brings similarly unregretful responses despite its hardships: mountain climbing. And exactly why do we climb a mountain (or explore space, or decide to have a baby)? "Because it's there" (G.L. Mallory, 1923). That's it, really. Whether foolish or profound a reason, that's up to you to decide.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Blasting Sand Sculptures

Last night I watched an apparently silly show that proved to be very thought-stimulating. The show was called Sand Blasters, the 3rd edition of a beach competition where eight teams of 2 artists create magnificent sand sculptures over 2 days. Castles, of course, up to every sort of three-dimensional subject, ranging from the cute (children sleeping with teddy bear), to the surreal (a man holding a frame with a picture of himself holding the frame, on and on), to the powerfully symbolic (planet earth). The works were of the highest quality: cast in bronze some of them could have been museum material. It would seem such a waste to build them in sand, on the beach, where tides and vandals would quickly destroy every trace of their existence. But wait, it's actually even worse! From the piling-up stage, each sculpture is rigged with explosive: five sculptures are randomly selected to be blown up, at different stages, the last one only 2 hours before the judges' visit. You can watch a brief video of the competition here

What a wonderful metaphor of life, and what a tool to teach detachment. Buddhist monks, are known to make beautiful sand paintings that, once finished, they proceed to destroy with the sweep of an arm. The competition goes one step further, in that it is inherently unfair: some sculptures are not destroyed, and some artists have more time than others to make a comeback. And you have to start over after watching this creation of yours being blown to smithereens. The ultimate frustration; even more so as there is substantial prize money involved, too. What could be worse than having your sculpture destroyed last, only 2 hours before the judges' visit? Yet, most contestants were laughing at the very moment of the blast.

For those of us who are not artists, the closest comparison to this frustration is a computer failure, the hard disk that crashes right before your deadline, and you don't have a back up. I'm not sure I know anyone who would be laughing at the occurrence, and I have been known to curse in 3 languages when that happened to me. So, what's the secret behind the smiling faces and hard laughing of the contestants, two of which actually hoped to have their work blown up? I don't know for sure, except perhaps the simple fact that they were competing in this game; in fact, first-timers were rather heart broken, to be honest. Aristotle, for all his many faults, may have gotten this right: we acquire qualities of body and mind by doing things that require them, "Similarly, it is by doing just acts that we become just, by doing temperate acts that we become temperate, and by doing corageous acts that we become corageous" (Nicomachean Ethics, II, 1). So, we learn to become detached by blasting sand castles, for example.

Detachment is a strange quality, though, about which I still harbor mixed feelings. Does detachment mean we shouldn't love anything? That doesn't sound appealing at all. There's a scene in the movie ,"The first knight" where King Arthur says:

Just a thought...
A man who fears nothing is a man who loves nothing.
And if you love nothing, what joy is there in your life?
I may be wrong.

These words seem the perfect reply to the zen ethics of the samurais, and much Buddhist philosophy in general. Yet, the final "I may be wrong" is haunting. Some words of Joseph Campbell's about life come to mind: "It's a wonderful, wonderful opera, except that it hurts" (The Power of Myth), followed by an Irish saying: "Is this a private fight, or may anybody join?". Although I see hints in these words, I have not, over the past years, been able to perfectly reconcile the path of Detachment from Life and the path of Joyous Acceptance, so to speak, though the wisdom and appeal of both are hard to deny. Perhaps there is an answer in a rigged sand sculpture competition.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

My tax dollars at work

Every year, when I feel that that I pay too many taxes, I try to think about the fact that the money was really used to buy public goods that I need and enjoy, rather than just forcibly taken from me. Frankly, it would be nice if around tax time we could receive a government report saying: we took this much from you and here's how it was spent. Yes, the information is publicly available, but when I read that 27 billion dollars were spent on something out a 3 trillion dollar total, the numbers are so unfathomable that I just stare at them dumbfounded. Better to convert them to numbers we deal with in every day life. Therefore, I made my own report scaling the US budget to the taxes I paid, which besides the personal satisfaction, was enlightening in more than one way. I would encorage everyone to do it.

In 2007, I paid the US Federal Government a total $ 5,460.09. This includes income tax, social security, medicare etc. In principle, these different taxes fall into different coffers, but in practice the US government lumps them together, so we'll work with that. I also paid another $1,000 or so to my local friendly state government, but these are more complicated to track down. Ok, let's see some of the goodies these $ 5,000+ bought me:

DEFENSE: $1,144.52
OK, a so big chunk (21%) went to the military, much more than in other countries for sure. We may also want to add another $144.90 that went towards veterans' healtcare and pensions. Still, I will not jump on the bandwaggon of bashing military spending. If one considers it as an insurance against hostile invasions, it's still pretty darn cheap, in terms of cost vs. risk.

HEALTH: $ 1,282.47
Now, this is rather perplexing considering the lack of universal health care and the many thousands of dollars my employer and I had to dish out for my own health insurance. Basically, this is money going towards health care for the elderly (Medicare, $745.02) and the poor (Medicaid, $384.02), which I certainly won't grudge, even though I didn't benefit directly. Medical research (mostly through NIH grants) took a smallish $58.37, we can certainly do better can't we? The Food and Drug Administration cost me a paltry $3.90, which, considering their role in everyday's food safety, has got to be the best spent 4 bucks of the entire year.

Another large chunk (19%) went to pay the pensions of retirees. Again not for my own benefit, but hey, they earned it, nothing to grudge here. Or rather, there would be nothing to grudge if the US government was not taking the money brought in for future social security and spending it for all sorts of other items on the budget, squandering its assets. Net result: I'm paying for someone's pension, but no one will pay for mine, which sounds more than a little unfair.

This is the quintessential public good: I'm using roads, highways ($97.27) and airports ($36.53) and so I should pay for them, and again, rather cheaply, I have to admit. More money is spent by states and counties, though.

This would be unemployment benefits ($69.15), food stamps ($111.97), subsidized housing ($77.96), and other programs that serve to redistribute wealth between haves and have-nots. The benefits to those on the receiving end are obvious, but there are many to those on the giving end, too (reduction of crime and social conflict). Much of the money is not accounted for by the 3 programs listed, the budget was neboulous about this item (as well as many others) and I didn't pursue it in depth.

JUSTICE: $90.68
This includes law enforcement ($49.73), prisons ($11.78) and courts ($21.09); bearing in mind that this is only at the federal level, a lot of money is also spent at the state and local level. Even so, it's still a very good deal: at current rates, this money would only buy me 4 hours of a bodyguard's time, if I had to pay for my own.

If I had paid that much interest in a year on credit card debt, I would have had an average balance of $4,608.53, at 15% interest rate, not horrible, but something worth paying back soon. Luckily, the government can borrow at much lower rates, so it would be the equivalent of $17,281.98, at about 4% interest (10 year treasuries rate). A mixed blessing really, since it's allowing a debt of 3 times the yearly revenue. In terms equivalent to the budget of an average family, it's as if we had a mortgage on a house, and the principal is not being paid back. Worse actually, since there is no house to back up its value, in this case. The important thing is that this interest takes away resources that could either be spent much better or result in lower taxes.

Not a huge cost, really, for all the ranting of those who think environmental protection costs taxapayers too much. National parks take $24.85, the US EPA $16.09.

EDUCATION: $188.04
Since the federal government doesn't run any schools, this is money that goes primarily to grants to improve the quality of teaching, build schools, and to social services ($34.54) and education research. Given the circumstances, and the money spent by states and municipalities, it sounds a bit expensive, but the funding of education is complex and cannot be judged solely from the federal budget. Elementary and secondary education together take almost twice as much as higher education.

This includes research grants on all sciences but medicine, taken together. Compare to the $58.37 of health research and you'll know part of the reason why biomedical sciences make daily advances, and physics or chemistry do not. Especially when you consider that NASA takes up $30.86, leaving little for everything else. Not necessarily wrong, but it does show our society's priorities.

Whenever a tornado or an earthquake strikes and the president promises assistance, well, that's the cost of that assistance. Again, nothing worth begrudging, though one would wish that the new houses were not rebuilt on flood-, avalanche- or earthquake-prone land. Wishful thinking, they usually are the most scenic places.

This includes the cost of embassies, ambassadors and diplomacy ($22.35), humanitarian aid ($31.62), but also military aid ($18.58) . The latter is the cost of aircarfts, tanks and advisors sent to Pervez Musharraf and other much less savory characters in return for their good will and cooperation.

Federal employees are really working for us, and so it falls on us to pay for their benefits (mostly retirement). Let's not carry this too far, though: the fact that they are on my payroll doesn't mean I can fire those IRS agents knocking on my door.

Ever wanted to know how much the salaries of senators and representatives cost you? Well, the cost of the legislative branch was $6.58, while the White House and related institutions cost me only $1.03. Not too bad, really. More irritating, on the other hand, is the cost of the IRS ($20.39); in essence, we have to pay to be able to pay (taxes), and, even more unpleasantly, we have to pay for those lovely tax audits.

There are a few more items, but the bulk is all here. The worst news come last. Expenses were more than revenues, a whopping $488.68 more (8.95%), sinking us even deeper into debt. This means that next year I'll pay an extra $19.55 in interests. Talk about living within our means. But wait, this calculation also includes all the funds taken from social security. Without that sort of creative finance, my share of our collective deficit would grow 3 times as big. Time to elect officials that understand basic arithmetic...

Monday, February 4, 2008

Bright stars and dark monsters

The NASA Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center is a monument to early space exploration, showing the first small, tentative feelers we sent out of our planet to the bright lights we see above. A moving document, that I was trying to capture in a picture with the dramatic backdrop of a Florida sunset. While waiting for the sun and the light to be just as I wanted them, an extraneous thought occurred to me. If NASA were to add specimens to trace the history of rockets just a little further back in time, they would need to place an infamous V-2 in the garden, an unseemly but nonetheless accurate addition. A V-2 (Vergeltungswaffe 2) was a military rocket developed by the Nazi army scientists at Peenemuende during WW2, and the direct precursor to modern ICBMs, under whose threat (or protection) we still live.

The motivation for the development, and much of the early work behind the instruments of one of the greatest human endeavors was one of the basest and most coward human aspirations, namely that of killing and destroying other human beings and their cities without risking loss to our own life and goods. The point, however, is not so much the trite (but not for that less true) idea that good things sometimes spring out of bad ones. Rather, the unsettling conclusion is that many good things owe their very existence to questionable ones, without which they may never have come into existence, or would have only far more slowly. The distinction between 'never' and 'more slowly' is an important one, but it's rarely obvious before something takes place, so it's inconsequential when looking ahead.

Another example comes from the relationship between the internet and pornography, feeding and building on each other. Now, I'm in no way suggesting that pornography is as damaging an undertaking as warfare, in fact I personally doubt it has any damaging effect at all. But numerous people do see it that way - an issue I will not discuss now - and yet, without the powerful motivations unleashed by pornography, the interest for some exotic network of computers used for scientific research would have been slim, at best. It would have languished as one of those geeky creations that the cool crowd, and the general public after them, snobs and yawns at. No massive infrastructure investment, no juicy public traffic to sell anything to, and no interest in creating and disseminating content for it, whether sublime or crass. Military applications may still have saved the World Wide Web, but certainly it would have been a very different beast from what we know today.

The lesson to me here is that we have to be careful condemning some supposedly "darker" sides of human nature lest we discover that along with them we may lose the emotions, aspirations and achivements we cherish most. This conclusion actually fits with a previous post ("Of sickness and Durkheim"), but I still have a hard time accepting many of the dark monsters of human nature: anger, hatred, cruelty and the rest of the repertoire we wishfullly and hastily label "inhuman". Oh well, some day, when I'm actually wise...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

New York

Something must have changed, either me or the Big Apple. My recent visits to the City, during the holidays, left me with a sense of disappointment. Disappointment, that is, that being there did not give me the same jolt of sensations it used to only a few years ago, every time, even when I would go weekly.

The sense of being in the center of the world, "the most dynamic place on earth" in R. Pirsig's words, where everything you desire can be had (for a price, of course). This is the cultural capital of Western Civilization, and beyond. The heart of a worldwide empire. The one place where musicals are created, struggling artists still flock to, and stretch limos look like they really belong. Being in Athens in Pericles's age, in Rome at the time of Augustus, in Baghdad at the noon of the Abbasid Caliphate, in Florence with Lorenzo the Magnificent, in London under queen Victoria, all must have felt like being in New York City today in these respects.

Yet there I was, feeling nothing of that. Now, clearly the City had not changed - or rather it had changed just has much as always. So it must be me. Perhaps the City had lost its aura because it could offer me nothing I desired. I seek no power, fame, money these days, the strongest items on NYC's menu. Pleasure, then? Of course, but for too hefty a price of cold, crowd and cash. No, thanks. Peace of mind? Never been the right place.

Well, then, I've changed and I'm very surprised by the way I have changed, actually. Lots of things have happened since 2002, and I should embrace the fact that I want different things. Don't get me wrong, I don't want any more idealistic or unselfish things than before. Just different ones.

Interesting... I spend all day, every day with me, and I can still surprise myself!