Saturday, December 28, 2013

2013: The Year of the Tiger Rocking the Boat

With this, my last blog entry for 2013, I was trying to figure out what sort of year 2013 was for me?  
The question I actually wrote down in my word palette for my blog was, “What Happened to me?”  And when I wrote it I meant the question to be answered in the most emphatic way.  Not just, “what events took place in my life this last year?”  More like, “Jeez...  What did all that s***t do to me?”
After writing down a bunch of stuff, comparing where I was at the end of 2012  to where I am now in various aspects of my life (“real” job, writing, family, health, etc.), I came up with one phrase that sort of sums it up, from an emotional, visceral standpoint at least.
The tiger in my boat is clearer now.  
If you’ve been reading my blog entries all year, you may recall one I wrote near the beginning of 2013, after I went to see the movie The Life of Pi.  This is the movie about a young man from India who is tossed overboard after the ship he is sailing on to Canada is sunk during a storm.  His only companion in the life-raft he sails in across the Pacific is a man-eating tiger from his family’s zoo.
In that entry, I contemplated what my “tiger” was.  In the movie, Pi, the young man from India, dedicates himself to keeping the tiger alive.  The danger of the tiger keeps him aware and on his toes.  Keeping it alive, despite all the difficulties to do so, gives him purpose.  The tiger is not his friend, that is made clear at the end of the film, but it is important to him.  Without the tiger, he very likely would not have survived his journey.  
In that entry, I didn’t come up with one single tiger.  I made the tiger into another metaphorical creature, the elephant being examined by the blind men, and found different things in my life that were part of the tiger, even though their impact on me was received differently.  
In this entry, I don’t expect to come up with the tiger’s identity.  But I’ve heard his growl in my ears this year.  And in his growl, I’ve heard different things being said to me.  Like...
“We’re a performance oriented company.”  
I heard this at work.  From my boss actually.  He was talking to someone else, but when he said it I could feel it resonating with me.  
What it basically means is that, as a manager, I’m free to run my department as I want.  My boss is not going to interfere with my handling of the department as long as one thing happens: We make the production goals the company has set for  us.  
If I don’t do that, I’m out on my ass.  This is what some people call “Freedom.”  
So far, I’ve made good use of this freedom.  After taking over the department in 2012, I beat the production goal they had set for the unit by thirty-seven percent.  For 2013, as my “reward,” they raised the goal by thirty percent.  With two days left in the year, I am ahead of that goal and fully expect to beat it.  
At a congratulatory dinner during the holiday season, one of the owners of the company told me that they’ve raised the production goal for 2014 by twelve percent.  Without giving any hard numbers, this means that what would have been a record setting month in 2012 is, in 2014, what is expected as a matter of course.  
When I tell my colleagues that this makes me nervous, they tell me that I’m being silly.  Maybe they don’t feel the tiger’s hot slobbery breath on the back of their throats the way I do.  
Another phrase I heard in 2013 that let me know the tiger is alive and well in my tiny boat: 
“I went to see the doctor...”  
In 2012 my mom developed a cancerous tumor on one of her kidneys.  They used a radiographic procedure to basically burn it off with radio waves.  There has been any sign of it returning since then.
Sigh of relief, back to normal.  Right?  
In 2013, my dad got a tumor on his kidney as well.  And found out that his hearing loss was caused by a tumor on his auditory nerve.  AND had to have bypass surgery.  My sister had her own tumor as well, in her left lung.  Fortunately her tumor was canceroid (acted like cancer) and not cancerous (was actual cancer).  The tumor was removed, along with the entire bottom lobe of her lung, and she seems to be out of the woods now.  She can definitely breathe easier, from what she tells me, literally AND metaphorically.  
Sigh of relief and back to normal...?  
I don’t think so.  This is the danger the tiger represents.  The idea that even with one’s best efforts you, or someone close to you, may be eaten up and taken from you.  
The sigh of relief is what is abnormal.  The imminent threat is status quo.  
“Thank you for submitting your story, but unfortunately...”  
2013 was nearly the year my obituary as a writer was written.  I made the decision to quit writing.  I went almost a week without putting any fictional words down on paper.  Six days.   
But like Pi, in that moment when the tiger is in the ocean and can’t get back in the boat, and he has the opportunity to kill the tiger once and for all, I changed my mind.  And like Pi, I don’t have any immediate explanation as to why.  It doesn’t feel like writing is my friend, the way I might have thought about it before.  It does feel like it’s necessary.  That without it I lose some part of me, my identity, my purpose, that I need to keep going.  
Dreams are dangerous like tigers.  If you cage them, they can’t harm you, but they can’t fulfill themselves either.  If you let them out so they can thrive in their natural state, they can kill you if you’re not careful.  
So, what did 2013 do to me?  I’m not sure.  Made me more aware of things I was taking for granted, maybe.  Reaffirmed for me what purpose I’ve assigned my life to, perhaps.  
Was I happy I went through it?  2013?  There were definitely parts of it that I would rather have missed, but the alternative to experiencing 2013 would have entailed a degree of non-existence that I’m still trying to avoid.  
Good-bye, 2013.  I’m still here.  Hello, 2014.  I may not be ready for what you’ll bring my way, but I’m going to give it a fight.  
Happy New Year, Everyone! 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Two Futures Await

I mentioned in last week’s blog entry my feeling that this time of year is a phase transition.  Our thinking as a society is shifting back and forth between thinking about the past, producing lists like “The 10 Best Moments in Baseball in 2013,” or looking toward the future, where we do things like write down our resolutions for the coming year.  
I’m doing a lot of thinking about the future.  The only problem I’m having is trying to figure out which future I should be thinking about.  
The Japanese have two words for the future.  One is pronounced “shourai,” and is written in Chinese characters, or kanji, like this: 将来.  The first character, 将, means “command,” and is used in words like shogun, the title of the military ruler of Japan during the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.  
The other Japanese word for the future is pronounced “mirai,” and is written in kanji like this: 未来.  The first character in mirai, 未, means “not” when used as a prefix.  You find it in words like mikon (未婚), which means “unmarried,” or michi (未知), which means the “unknown.”  
The breakdown of these two words should make the differences in meaning clear.  Shourai is used to describe the future you command.  When I say to someone, “Next August I’m going to London for WorldCon,” I am talking about shourai.  This is the future we see for ourselves.  It is the future we expect.  It is the future that we’re working for.  “I’m going to work on Monday,” or “I’m visiting my uncle on Christmas.”  This is shourai.
Mirai, on the other hand, is the future we don’t know.  There may be a meteor or comet heading toward the Earth right this very moment.  One that will hit the planet and devastate all life upon it, in about seventy-five years.  But we don’t know that now.  That is mirai.  
I try to keep myself aware of mirai.  It comes  out in odd ways.  Sometimes, when saying good-bye to people at work, someone might say something like...
“Have a good weekend!  See you Monday!”  
My mirai influence reply might come out something like...
“Sure...  If I don’t get hit by a bus or something, I’ll see you Monday!”  
People react negatively quite often when I give these mirai oriented answers.  
These days at work, I’m focusing on installing a new production process.  I have phone meetings with field agents, instructing them on how to process their work.  I read error reports from the network and send emails to our IT people looking for answers.  I review and test files to make sure the system we’ve set up works as expected.  These are shourai moments. 
But then, from off to the side, questions will come at me.  Have I oversold this procedure to my bosses?  Is my plan based on assumptions I don’t recognize as flawed?  What if it only makes a marginal difference in our speed and efficiency?  Or worse, what if it somehow makes things worse?  How will I explain that to my bosses after close to nine months of development?  
That is mirai tapping me on the shoulder, then turning away to whistle to itself as if it wasn’t really there.  
I think that most of our lives is an effort to somehow twist mirai into shourai.  It’s sort of like training a tiger to do circus tricks.  You get the beast to stand on the ball and walk it around the ring, and then when you turn to the audience to take your bow, it rakes its claws across your back and rips out your spine.  
Hmm...  I don’t know I like that analogy.  It works, but I don’t know if I like it.  
The problem is this, though...  By its very nature, mirai is not something we can plan for.  If you knew it was coming, if we knew about the big meteor coming to smash us in seventy-five years, knew it for certain, it would become shourai.  Something we could plan for?  Something we could do something about, or at least brace ourselves for.  Mirai is always right around the corner, ready to say “Boo!”  
Here is the tricky part.  For me at least.  I can see a logical way through this, but it stems from a way of thinking I am not used to.  I’ll give it a try, though.  
Maybe I’m being a bit too hard on mirai.  The examples I’ve given are all pretty negative.  The unknown is scary.  We, or at least I, assume the worst.  
But “unknown” is not synonymous for “bad.”  
Mirai could also be going to the party you didn’t really want to go to and meeting the person of your dreams.  It could be finding a hundred dollar bill as you walk down the street.  
Excuse me if I don’t come up with a whole list of good mirai.  As I indicated, I’m not used to thinking that way.  
My final conclusion?  I think I should just let mirai be.  Mirai is going to make its appearance know, one way or the other.  It will take all my little shourai plans and smash them into little bits.  Or bend them to the point where I’ll have to work three times harder to fix them.  Or even make them meaningless.  My only hope is to deal with mirai as best I can and continue to take command of it when I can.  I just have to deal.  
At least that is what I’m planning on doing for the future.   

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Butterflies & Normalcy in Contemplating Phase Transitions

There is a health related contest going on at work.  It is a “Fat Loss” contest.  Not a weight loss contest.  The winner is the person that can lower their body fat percentage the most in a six month period.  
The company has kicked in $1,500 gift card for the person who has lowered their bod fat percentage by the biggest amount.  This incentive has caused a good number of people, including myself, to join.  They bough a scale that everyone has to step on at the beginning of each month that gives one’s weight and body fat percentage.  
A little side note: I wasn’t sure about the scale at first.  Every time I’ve had my body fat measured someone has had to do something to me.  Used calipers to pinch my body, or wrapped my arm with something that looked like it was taking my blood pressure, but which was actually shooting infrared light through my muscles.  I had to go online to discover that the scale uses “bioelectrical impedance” to measure a person’s fat percentage.  It sends a small electrical current through your body and measures how long it takes to go through you.  The higher your level of body fat, the greater the electrical resistance, the longer the current takes.  
The contest has been going on for a little over a month now.  At first everyone seemed to be doing something.  There must have been a lettuce shortage around our office in those first weeks because the number of salads being eaten in the lunch room skyrocketed.  Since then, things have leveled out, though there are some people who are still serious about staying in the contest.  How well they’ll do will depend on two things, I believe.
Butterflies and Normalcy.  
The “butterflies” are the small things that make big changes over time.  I’m taking this from chaos theory, and the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings over Shanghai, China can change weather patterns over the Pacific Ocean.  
Most of the people that started the contest made wholesale changes to their diets.  It’s the easiest thing to do, I suppose.  And everyone “knows” that a salad is healthier for you, and that you need to eat them to lose weight, right?  Unfortunately, I can already see people returning to their old dietary habits.  
I remember reading about a dietary study that indicated that eating the same food every day caused weight loss.  Even if you ate fatty junk food.  Variety is not only the spice of life, it is an encouragement to eat more.  The newness of the flavor makes us what to taste more of it.  Eating the same thing every day, or most days, the body tends to stop when its full because the food is less fun.  
What I’m trying to get to is, that while there are a lot of people out there who should radically change their diet, doing it all at once it one fell swoop might not be the way to do it and sustain that change.  Making small changes that stick are better.  Once the first changes are made and become habits, then other changes can be added.  
Which brings me to “normalcy.”  There is one young woman who is clearly serious about  winning this contest.  She is one of the people that threw out the bags of junk from the local fast-good restaurants and replaced them with food storage containers from home filled with vegetables and salad and organic ingredients.  Unlike most of the others, she seems to be sticking with it, bringing her healthier lunches in every day I’ve seen her since the contest started.  
The only thing that might derail her at this point would be the very vocal support and encouragement of her colleagues.  
“Ooh... Look at this!  You’re eating so healthy!” 
“Wow!  What do you bring?  Good for You!!”  
I hear her get these comments every day.  Big, broad compliments that emphasize how different her food choices are from before.  How big of a change she is making.  How they couldn’t do it themselves.  Etc., etc., etc... 
I know they are trying to be encouraging and supportive.  But the longer it goes, the greater it underscores how healthy eating for this young woman is NOT normal.  And the greater the chance she might start thinking, “Yeah...  This is different.  This isn’t what I ‘normally’ do.”  This could then lead to her falling back on old habits.  
To make my point, let me talk about my lunch.  Three times this week I had the exact same meal (one of my butterfly changes to help me in this contest): A serving of vegetarian chili, made with tofu and beans, served over brown rice, a small bowl of microwaved frozen vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower & carrots), a salad made with spinach and romaine lettuce, with a Caesar’s dressing made from extra virgin olive oil.  Not once this week did anyone at work comment on how healthy I was eating or give me lavish compliments for my efforts.
Why not?  Because that meal is normal for me.  It’s similar to what I eat every day.  The only difference is that I’ve decided, to hopefully take advantage of the findings of that study I mentioned, to chose repeat one meal for most of the week.  But it goes unnoticed, because it is very similar to what I eat all the time.  
It’s not a diet.  It’s how I live.  
This time of year is something of a phase transition.  We move from contemplating about the past, and the “year that was,” to thinking about the future, the “year that will be.”  Often our thinking about the past makes us consider our goals for the future.  And our plans for what we want for next year leads us to think about what kept us from bringing them to fruition before.  
To change our futures, we have to leave as if we’re in the future.  That means not noticing the small things we do everyday to live how we want to live, because they are so very normal for us.  
For want of a nail, as Benjamin Franklin once wrote, a nation can become lost.  A small, butterfly-like normal little thing can have that sort of impact.  

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Lessons from Android Cephalopods

I’ve been thinking a lot about robots recently.  
It started back in September, when I read an article in Scientific American where the author posited a time in the near future where our relationship with robots would shift.  Currently robots are employed as servants, given tasks too dangers or too boring, or both, for humans to do.  Military drones and automobile assembly lines are good examples.  Others are coming to do things like explore the rubble of collapsed buildings after disasters and to locate and dispose of hazardous waste.  
But the article I read talked about how, in the very near future, that relationship would change to where human employees would take instructions from robots and AI expert systems.  These constructs would direct their human counterparts in assisting them to get work done.  An example was cited of a robot welder that had been created.  Working with a human assistant, to move and set-up the parts to be welded based on the robot’s commands, it was able to weld a frame for an armored vehicle much faster and less expensively than a team of four expert human welders.  
The article struck a cord in me.  As a manager of a production department, with about fifteen reporting to me, I had sometimes joked (during some days of extreme frustration) that I would replace my entire staff with robots if I could.  I would use a small force of robots with the capacity for telepresence.  They would work the copiers, move the jobs from one station to another, while an expert system would review the documents for legibility and accuracy.  When a problem came up that the AI system or the robots couldn’t handle I would get a message, remotely access the unit with the problem and fix it, using my solution to train the robot or AI in how to solve such a problem in the future.  I even had the model that I would want to buy, Right Here.  I figured about five of them, working twenty-four hours a day, would be able to replace my entire staff.  
What this article said to me, though, was that if anyone was likely to be replaced in such a work situation within the next twenty to thirty years, it would be me.  Having an AI, programed with an understanding of legal requirements for legal document production would be relatively simple, in time.  And the facets of the work that I saw myself teaching a robot staff, such as character recognition of hand-written doctor’s notes, could be handled by a human assistant under the instruction of a robot production manager.  
Damn.  Guess you should be careful what you wish for.  
It did inspire me to write a story about a Robot Boss.  It was the same story that nearly made me decide to give up writing all together.  I finished the rough draft for the story this week.  The key to finishing it was the idea of what the human assistant teaches his robot boss, and how human perception differs from that of robots (at least now and in the near future).  
Learning was also a part of another article about robots recently.  This one was about the efforts to create a robot octopus.  
Octopuses (octopi?) are the smartest invertebrate on the planet.  Their bodies have capacities that are envied by people in the field of robotics.  The soft body of a full grown octopus can squeeze itself through a hole the size of a quarter.  It can camouflage itself, changing colors to match its environment almost instantly, as well as shoot out a cloud of ink to disguise its escape as it jets away.  Robots designed by humans to work underwater have been rigid affairs, with limited motion and manipulation capacity when compared to these creatures.  
This article, which also appeared in a recent issue of Scientific American, underscored one of the reasons octopi (octopuses?) are so smart despite having limited brain capacity.  I remember reading years ago that octopi or ~puses have been rated as being about as smart as a dog, though their brains are only about the size of a walnut.  The reason for this apparent discrepancy is because the animal’s tentacles essentially control themselves.  The scientists referred to this as “embodied intelligence.”  The tiny octopus brain gives direction to the tentacles (“Grab that lobster so I can eat it!”) and the tentacles take care of the gross movement necessary to do so.  The neuroscientists associated with the robot octopus project didn’t know how the neurons within the tentacles did this.  The people working on designing the robot octopus, though, thought they could use the same concept to get their robotic tentacles to learn how to move and manipulate the objects around it.  It would be simpler than normal robotic programing, in fact.  Instead of programing the tentacles with a catalogue of specific motions to use at different times, they would only have to give them a small handful (or tentacle full) of motions, which would then be adapted as needed to overcome any problem the artificial cephalopod might encounter.  
I’ve started wondering if there’s a story about working for a Robot Octopus Boss.  Nothing has come to mind yet.  But the idea is intriguing.  In a weird sort of way.
Shifting gears a bit...  In recent weeks, when it comes to my writing, I feel like I’m in rehab.  Last month, as indicated by my last two blog entries, I was in a pretty extreme state.  I didn’t want to give up writing per se, but I wanted the frustration and the sense of wasting my time to stop.  And giving up writing seemed to be the way to do it.  
I don’t feel that way now, but I do notice that things are different.  My attitude and my approach to what I’m writing is different.  At times, it almost feels like something is missing.  I still get up at the same time, for the most part.  And I’m close to putting in about the same word count and hours.  But the...  Drive, maybe?  Or the insistence that I get “something done”...?  I haven’t identified what it is that’s different, just that something is.  
Maybe it’s not important.  It seems to be something about my writing and not within my writing itself. Maybe my writing really has a life of its own.  A part of me that is in control of itself the way the octopus’s...  Octopi’s...  That aforementioned cephalopod’s tentacle’s embodied intelligence directs its own motions.  My job, like the tiny brain inside that head designed for an alien mastermind, is to simply learn how to tell it what I want it to do.  
Maybe, for robots and people, it all comes down to learning.