Death Clocks and Douglas Adams

I’m going to indulge in something I’ve been superstitiously afraid of since I first heard about them. It was sometime during the mid-90s when I first heard of The Death Clock. Specifically, you typed in your name and age, and this website would output when your death would take place.

At this point, two circuits are triggered within my mind. The Rational Circuits which suspects that the Death Clock randomly outputs a date based on current statistics about life expectancy, because, if tasked to make such a website, that’s how I would do it. And the Superstitious Circuit, which now and then kicks in to make sure that I, say, don’t step on any crack in the pavement, or if I see litter that makes me responsible for picking it up, or any other mildly-OCD behaviour because the consequences will be UTTERLY DIRE AND LIFE EFFECTING. Or so the Superstitious Circuit assures me. It sees the Death Clock and immediately starts screaming that if I ever use it then my death-date will be locked into the machinery of the universe, which I’m sure has formed the basis of a number of sit-com episodes out there.

A fight breaks out between these two circuits, a fight that twenty years later the Superstitious Circuit keeps winning.

So I’m going to make my own Death Clock. I’m sure people might find the concept of this a little macabre, my mother for one. But for me it is a mere tool just to make sure that month-by-month I am asking myself the question: Am I satisfied with this month?

Douglas Adams was a writer that I grew up reading and I respect his work. He died aged 49, which was 590 months of life. I hope to live much longer than 49 years, but I’m still going to take this as a benchmark, that takes me until Tuesday, December 29, 2026, which means I have 136 months left.

Damn, that’s creepy to write.

And already, highly mind-focusing.

[This brings me to the next point. We have lists of accomplishments we want to achieve in life, and many people flippantly call these “Bucket Lists”. No idea why. I’ve also been moderately suspicious of the concept. I prefer the idea of structuring your life so that these hopes or desires are more likely to occur. THE SOUND OF INEVITABILITY, MR. ANDERSON. There are several dozen thoughts that have emerged around this theme of Bucket Lists, so I’ll explore those later.]

Climate change myths and other things

I spent some time last week on Twitter discussing climate change with a potential politician called Bill Koutalianos. Bill Koutalianos is/was president of the Freedom and Prosperity Party (which was the Party formerly known as No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics, which was the Party formerly known as The Climate Sceptics.)

In a clean-up of the electoral roll, the Australian Electoral Commission deregistered the Party for a failure to demonstrate the required 500 members.

Anyway, we had a disagreement about the “There has been no climate change for 18 years” claim, and Bill Koutalianos put a challenge to me to make my own charts with respect to it.

So I did.

We had a pretty good natter after that, with me presenting the currently scientific understanding of climate change, and Bill Koutalianos asking some pretty good questions about it.

I’ve storified the two main streams:

The “THERE HAS BEEN NO WARMING FOR X YEARS” Myth.

What is causing the Earth to warm?

Alas, in the end, Bill Koutalianos felt my answers were too much like spam, and he blocked me from his Twitter stream.

I should really thank him, as I had been meaning to explore this theme for a while in either writing or a video, and now Bill Koutalianos gave me the chance to put together a skeleton for some future work.

(In other news, I wonder how high this page will appear in a Google search for Bill Koutalianos?)

Reasonably Good At Sudoku

When writing job applications, there are normally a list of selection criteria that you spend a couple of paragraphs writing about. “I’ve had lots of experience in X, as seen by my Y years doing Z.”

I recently came across an old job application of mine. One of the selection criteria for the job I was applying for read:

• Excellent problem solving and creative thinking skills.

I was a bit stumped how to answer this. Admittedly, I might now answer it differently, but at the time I wrote this:

I have to admit, I find this selection criteria a difficult one to immediately answer. I feel like I need you to set me a problem and we can see how well I go about solving it. Like, fit this round peg into a square hole. Or get this chicken, fox and bag of corn across a stream without them eating each other.

In other organisations, I have sometimes become an informal go-to person for brainstorming new ideas, or suggestions on how to fix things that might be broken. I’m a big lover of whiteboards, and am always looking to jot down ideas when brainstorm anything from new titles for programs, designs for equipment, or working around staffing shortfalls.

I’m also reasonably good at Sudoku.

Tara Brach and Forgiveness

One of the overhangs of my Catholic upbringing is my propensity to forgive people.

Jesus is famously about forgiveness. (Unless you’re gay. In which case, according to many Christian doctrines, you’re going to burn in a lake of fire. And people wonder why I don’t ascribe to Catholic doctrine any more…)

Someone recently said that it was possible for people to push her too far; she would be in a place where forgiveness was not possible.

I’ve always felt that forgiveness is possible, and it should be possible. But outside of the teachings of Jesus, I didn’t have a hook.

In this lecture by Tara Brach, she outlines the reasons for forgiveness. Often, the person we first need to forgive is ourselves. Then outward to other people. Releasing blame and allowing ourselves to forgive another also allows the healing to begin for ourselves.

One important line that I took away: forgiveness of an action does not mean that we condone the action. We recognise that someone may be suffering, and in turn has directed suffering towards ourselves.

A Pot Full Of Memory

Arthur Koestler, the Dada movement, and James Joyce believed that creativity can be found in taking old art and remixing in new and interesting ways. How this remixing happens could be as deliberate as direct editing, or as random as pulling words of a cut-up manuscript from a hat.

I found remixed creativity in a transcription service.

I have a bad habit of not writing out scripts for shows before I perform them. Instead, I write down the major topics I want to cover, and kind of make-it-up-as-I-go-along while I’m on stage. When I’m not constricted by a pre-written script, I have a theory that I ad-lib ideas, jokes, and other turn of phrases.

(I called this a bad habit, as it also means I’m continually thinking ahead during the first two or three performances. I’m not always connecting to the audience as my mind is otherwise occupied. I’m intending to makes a complete script before my next performance, and many rehearsals!)

I recently made use of a transcription service to write out the script of my stage show “Rough Science: LIFE.” I didn’t envy the task that the transcriber faced; I pulled the audio from a video of the show, so the sound isn’t always clear. For the most part the finished transcript is very accurate, though littered with a number of sections where I’ve gabbled, been muffled, or I’ve used a not-so-common turn of phrase. The poor, faceless transcriber has done their best, yet some of these moments have clearly been befuddling.

For instance, according to the transcript, I said to an audience member: “Nick. Hi, Nick. You’ve got bunny ears.”

At another point, I apparently got a touch of Tourette’s:

Okay, okay. Well, eventually scratch that one off. Okay. Okay. No writing. Don’t write the equipment. Okay, there we you go. Any representatives of the museum here? Oh, bug off.

More strange interactions with the audience:

Male Speaker: Just now little seekers. Okay.

Speaker 4: Thank you, sir.

And the odd moment of poetry. Instead of “an apocryphal memory”, the transcriber heard “a pot full of memory.” I think I’ll keep that one.

Erich Fromm and the hill that was

I do like owning a lot of books. When friends come over and we get discussing novels, I end up throwing a few in their direction to take away and read. I have a small shelf of “absolutely must keep”, while the rest (several bookcases) are in flux. Currently my library is at about 50/50, which is to say around half of them I’ve read. I’ve instituted a new scheme with the unread books: They have until the end of the year to demonstrate their worth, or I’ll be passing them on.

To this end I picked up “To Have or To Be?” by Erich Fromm from my shelf of “To Be Read”. This ended up in my library as a gift from a friend, which in turn was a gift to her. When I’ve finished it, I’ll pass it on.

The theme of the book instantly resonates. But today I want to share this line from the introduction, which just happens to be something I’ve been thinking about recently:

…we have tried to solve out existential problem by giving up the Messianic vision of harmony between humankind and nature by conquering nature, by transforming it to our own purposes until the conquest has become more and more equivalent to destruction.

Near where my parents live is a block of land that for the last five years has been a rolling hill covered in grass. It is now up for development, and I’ve watched it over the last few months be heavily excavated. When I saw it a few days ago, the hill had been transformed. It was stepped, such that houses could be built on it. The steps had been shored up with stone walls, and soon eveless suburban boxes will roll off the developers’ blueprints and onto the land.

2015-08-07 11.53.01

Rather making a house to suit the land, the developer wants to change the land to suit the house. I’m not a builder, but I do wonder what the lifespan of a house is that has been built on a newly disturbed hill, sliced apart because its gradient didn’t suit.

What would happen instead if we asked the hill what sort of house would it prefer to be built on it? What sort of shift in our psyche would be achieved (or be needed) to change our dwellings to suit the land, rather than shape the land to suit our dwellings?

Mindfulness and the God-shaped hole

People who know me well will have heard me speak of the God-Shaped hole. Many years ago when I eased my way out of the Catholic system, I discovered that there was still in my mind all of the wiring around belief and worship with nothing specific to believe or worship. Into the God-shaped hole might fall other things that I might for a time start to worship like God: girlfriends, the concept of breakfast, Batman.

I have been meditating regularly every day, using guided meditations by Stephan Pende Wormland, Sam Harris, and Tara Brach. The common thread from these is understanding and seeing thoughts as arising in my mind, but not being drawn into the story behind them.

The thought of a universal arbiter watching me and noting my actions in a huge ledger which is compared to a massive tome of rules, has been a pervasive and automatic response in my mind. Into that God-shaped hole fall people around me, and I become sure of two things: they are judging me, and it matters. Logically I know instead that it is possible they are judging me, and either way it really doesn’t matter.

Mindfulness is allowing me to unlearn the automatic thought of being judged, and highlight the automatic thought when it arises, and I can see it for what it is rather than be drawn into its story. The mental infrastructure around the God-shaped hole is being unwound.

Hiroshima

About this time ten years ago I travelled for a week in Japan. Towards the end of my stay, I took a shinkansen south from Tokyo to Hiroshima. On the way I passed the time memorising the kanji of the cities the train passed through. I hadn’t really appreciated before the trip just how Japanese writing worked, with each character taking a specific syllable sound, and once memorised, I began to see them repeated in other words.

東京 To-kyo
京都 Kyo-to
大阪 Osa-ka
広島 Hiro-shima

I was travelling to Hiroshima in order to see the peace park that had been constructed after it was bombed in 1945. I had been told the story of Sadako (貞子) and the one thousand paper cranes when I was in grade 6, and learned how to fold an origami crane. Some time later while at university, I wrote a philosophy of science piece about the Little Boy bomb in the moment it was suspended above Hiroshima and below the Enola Gay, using actor-network theory to explore the stories that rolled from it.

When I told people that I was going to/had been to visit Hiroshima, the first thing they ask was “Isn’t it radioactive?” I’ve always thought that it was the bombing of the city that changed the way we approached the word “radioactive.” Before this, radioactive material were seen as wonder stuff, with health spas advertising their health-giving waters that contained traces of radium. After the bomb, and when Time magazine sent in a photographer to record the destruction, the world saw effect the demon touch of high density gamma rays could have on concrete, wood, and flesh.

The residual radioactive material in and around Hiroshima today is very minimal. The mass of uranium used in the Little Boy was 64kg, which would amount to a volume a bit less than a soccer ball (enriched uranium is very dense stuff). When the bomb exploded, a little of it was converted to energy, while the rest was scatter over the city and surrounding country. When I was there, this radioactive fallout that killed many of the survivors with strange varieties of cancers had long since been diluted by 60 years worth of time.

I had spent the afternoon in the peace park, visiting the museum, reading and seeing stories of individual survivors of the blast, with word rolling around my mind like searing, flesh, hanging, rags, heat, blast, crying, wreckage, rubble, burning, fire, blaze, melting. I went and stood on the hypo-centre of the bomb, and looked up, imagining a human-made sun blooming above my head. I made a paper crane and left it in the park.

To clear my mind I walked a block away into a mall, and into Japanese normality. Teenagers were hanging in groups laughing and talking to each other. Shoppers hurried between stores, carrying bags home in the evening peak hour. Music played. It was a summer night in a city.

Having reached my cultural threshold, I bought McDonald’s, and a bottle of saki. Walking back to my hotel, I walked over a bridge where guitar players were singing covers of Elvis. That night, I got drunk, ate maccas, and fell asleep watching a Korean horror movie.

Some time later, in London, I bought a folio of atomic test explosion photos by Michael Light off a remainders table for two pounds.

Daily Risk Generator

The school that author John Marsden founded, Candlebark, (possibly) has a motto: “Take care, take risks.”

(Which, incidentally, because things sound better when said in Latin, is: “Providendum est. Assumam extrema temptaturum.”)

I wonder how someone, who has learned to live without taking risks, can learn risky behaviour?

Ultimately, I guess, the object is to explore an outcome-space. I like to think of it like the decision tree of an adventure game. Sometimes, to get to those outcomes over there you might need to step off the edge of a cliff. Or pick up a snake. Or run with scissors. Carefully.

So maybe a lists of daily challenges for someone to explore perceived risk, and learn not to fear risky behaviour?

Try this: Roll a die. Or hit this random number generator.

Now use that number to define your risk:

1. Climb a tree.
2. In a public space, spin on the spot 10 times.
3. Ask a stranger for their phone number.
4. In a public space, stand in the Karate Kid “Crane” pose for 5 seconds.
5. Lock eyes with a stranger. (If they question you, tell them why you’re doing it, and challenge them to take a risk.)
6. In a public space, sing the theme to “Astro Boy”. (Lyrics.)

Take the risk before the day’s end. (And take care!)

Got suggestions for daily risks? Share them in the comments!

The Value of Giving Up

I passed a man in an alley who was standing in front of a brick wall, slowly beating his head against it. His forehead was bloody, and it was clear he was in lots of pain.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

*thump* “I need to get through this wall,” he told me. *thump*

“Dude! You’re hurting yourself!” I said.

*thump* “I know.” *thump* “But I mustn’t-” *thump* “-give up.” *thump*

*thump*

*thump*

I’ve grown up with the mantra of “don’t give up” and it works really well for many situations. Sometimes I have needed to hold course and endure.

And sometimes I’ve found myself in a cul-de-sac, and I’ve worked and worked and worked, and haven’t moved. And in those times I needed to stop, and climb out.

This has been true for personal relationships and professional jobs. Enduring has been causing me more harm than walking away.

The question is: how do I recognise the difference between the thing I should endure and the thing I need to give up?

Sometimes, it’s not a matter of giving up entirely. Sometimes, I might just need to rethink my approach.

Recognise that I might be using my head the wrong way to get through a brick wall.