Recollections of Depression

I’ve got this old, slightly torn and patched 100 dollar bill up on a desk shelf where I can see it. A few months back we found it between some papers and I didn’t have the slightest recollection of how I got it.

But now it’s coming back to me. I think a friend and business partner gave it to me to acknowledge the work I was putting into our project. I hope that externally I was suitably grateful, appreciative, and said “that’s not necessary”, all of which would have been true.

The project, and the acknowledgement, came at a time when my extended period of “mild to moderate” depression was well into “moderate”, but likely before I truly realized what was going on. I might have put all I had into that project, but what I had wasn’t much. My effort yielded a bunch of prototypes and some ambitious code that never saw completion. I might have been doing my best at the time, but I was all too aware that my best was a fraction of what I had been capable of in the past.

My internal dialogue compounded my funk. Was I now just too old to write good code? Was the passion I’d had since I was a kid just done with me? If so what next? I certainly didn’t think my efforts were worth much, certainly not $100. After launch and the first sales, now that’s worth a pat on the back and a nice dinner! Thrashing at a solution with nothing of production quality… not so much. No matter how sincere the effort, effort without results is difficult to distinguish from no effort at all.

No, this was an undeserved reward. Another testament to my failure to perform, something else to highlight the pervasive feeling that I had: I was afloat on a large body of still water in a deep fog, with a pair of good oars but no idea of where I was, where I was going, how far it might be, or in which direction I might proceed to find anything. There I sat, adrift. I might row from time to time, but it was never clear if the effort was pointless or not, if my limited transit was changing anything or just Brownian exploration. I am sure I stuffed that $100 someplace where I knew the chances I’d run across it again were slim, where it couldn’t remind me how adrift I was.

That was almost 20 years ago now. I had no way of knowing that I’d be in that ugly fog for more than 15 years, although with thankfully few bouts of moderate during its course.

Now I sit here, three or so years clear of the battle. [There is no way for me to say “there, that’s when I beat depression!” I just gain increasing confidence that it’s not coming back anytime soon.] I look at this old bill, not even knowing if it’s still a negotiable instrument, wondering if I should try to deposit it, frame it as a reminder that sooner or later if I simply persist it is possible to be free, or just slip it between a few papers and see if I rediscover it on a much later purge.

Whatever I do, there is no way to describe how I feel knowing that I am looking at this ugly beast in the proverbial rear view mirror.

On the Rise of Hate

On the Rise of Hate

As we recover from yet another mass killing we hear a lot of smart people saying that the rise of hate is driven by a fear of loss of power. But they don’t clearly identify where that fear comes from.

At the same time, even though we might not be aware of it most of us already know where it comes from on a visceral level. We worry about our debt load, about what kind of world our children and grandchildren will grow up in, about the environment, about our jobs, our pensions, and ironically about the rise of hate.

Humans are a competitive species. Our political systems are a gossamer barrier between modern civilization and tribalism. It’s far too easy to transfer our anxieties into an identification of some “other” that we can blame for our worries. It is a dangerously small step from resentment to hatred, and from there to violence.

What few seem to notice, or at least to explicitly identify, is the correlation between the confidence of the middle class and the strength of social liberalism. If most people think the future will be bright and there will be more than enough prosperity to go around, suddenly we’re a lot less concerned about differences in race, religion, gender, and so on.

It is a cruel irony that this social conservatism has a affinity for autocratic politicians, precisely the type that are going to ensure that the wealth gap increases. The real way to alleviate social anxiety is to vote for a party that will actually work to redistribute wealth. Instead of gravitating towards populists the anxious middle class should be gravitating to socialism.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d assert that the Illuminati (or whoever) are manipulating society to achieve this result, but I just can’t see that. I think it’s just our base human nature. We all have a responsibility to fight these instincts, for nothing good can come from the alternative.

Theory vs. Scientific Theory

The video below has been around for a few years. It’s a great clip. The issue I have with it is that I think it supports people who already understand the scientific process, but it fails to fully explain the distinction between the casual and scientific uses of “theory”.

There is a critical distinction between a theory and a Scientific Theory. For example, I have a theory that a significant proportion of people react to headlines without digging into the content behind that headline.

Theory vs Hypothesis

Colloquially, that’s a theory. Scientifically, it’s a Hypothesis. If I do a study to test this Hypothesis and I get data that confirms it, then it’s a Valid Hypothesis. It’s still not a Theory. [Note that if I indeed were to do such a study and publish it, it’s likely to be reported as “Study Proves People Only Read Headlines”. That headline is bullshit. Which is why just reading headlines is dangerous.]

Now if a bunch of other people also do studies and get the same result, then it’s on its way to becoming a Theory. That’s where Evolutionary Theory is now. There are hundreds of thousands of experiments that not only prove that evolution is a fact, there are millions that depend on it being a fact.

Science is Just Our Best Guess at Fact

Now it is true that sometimes science gets it wrong. Especially in life sciences. The attack on dietary fat that we’ve seen for the past 40 years or so is a prime example, but that’s starting to be corrected with new research. This is how the scientific method works. Science is still done by people, and people can get things wrong. Frequently science self-corrects fairly quickly, but sometimes it takes quite some time. When it’s wrong the contradictions eventually get exposed, and those contradictions lead to more focused research. Eventually the right answer emerges, even if it means contradicting previous conclusions. Evolutionary Theory has been around for over 150 years, and nobody has managed to invalidate it yet… and I’m sure many have tried. That’s the point the video makes well: there’s an overwhelming body of work that proves evolution is real. This proof is well beyond reasonable doubt.

So when you here the word “theory”, ask yourself which meaning the person is using. Is it “I have a theory that someone steals one of each pair of my socks” theory, or is it “Gravitational Theory says that gravitational attraction is proportional to the square of the distance between two massive bodies” theory. It’s a pretty important distinction.

Creative Downloads: Everything Is Not Free, at Least Not Yet

A few minutes ago I didn’t know Sara Madison existed. Until an author friend shared her brilliant post “Dear Broke Reader: Your Sense of Entitlement is Killing Me” on Facebook.

Readers of this blog will know that I’m a huge fan of open source. Be it software, designs, engineering, etc. There’s a huge body of work that I believe benefits from the open source movement. That belief is predicated around freedom. I strongly believe that people who use products should have the ability to control their destiny after they acquire a product, and the best way to do that is to give them the tools to recreate and modify the product.

But that doesn’t mean everything should be free. While it’s true that I have contributed to collaborative open source projects that give the code away, it is not an entirely altruistic endeavour, for at the same time I’ve taken advantage of similar efforts by hundreds of others to build things that I never could have built alone. The key thing here is that these projects are collaborative works where all the participants in a community benefit.

Individual creative works are another thing entirely. There’s no similar multiplier that gives a creator back a multiple of what they’ve contributed. Someone who illegally downloads a book by a small author isn’t gaining any freedom, they’re just getting a product for free. If you download one of my Creative Commons licensed low resolution photographs and use it to print a crappy large format print, you deserve to waste your money. Book authors don’t enjoy that ability to constrain the clarity of digital versions of their work.

At some point, as individual labour stops being the way most of us add value to the economy, we’ll have to transition to some form of guaranteed minimum income scheme. At that point, there might be a rationalization that goes along the line of “this author is already receiving enough to get by, so they’re getting enough”. While I can’t say I agree with that position, at least someone who is passionate about creating has the knowledge that they won’t starve to death in the process. But neither will they live comfortably, nor will they receive the value that others derive from reading their work. A survivable system still isn’t a sustainable system. But this is futurism. We’re not there yet, and until then, taking advantage of someone who needs the money to keep doing what they’re doing is outright theft.

Keeping the House Cool, Old School

Today I’m keeping the inside of our house cool using a method I picked up many years ago: it was pretty cool and comfortable overnight, so early in the morning I closed all the windows, and pulled the curtains on any windows that let in direct sun.

Then I thought about where I picked up that trick, and it brought back summer memories. My father passed away when I was very young, leaving my mom with no significant assets and a child to raise. Fortunately her Air Force service in WW2 gave her the ability to get tuition for a university degree, and she manged to leverage that and her office experience into a teaching position at a small town high school–this was back in the days when school administrators had vastly more leeway than they do now. Her first principal hired her more on character and need than on formal qualifications.

Mom spent several subsequent summers in Toronto, taking teaching courses to upgrade her qualifications. The result of that was that I spent those summers boarded with a variety of families for a eight weeks of the summer. In all but one case, mother chose hosts well, and my summers were quite enjoyable, even though she wasn’t around. It was only much later in life that I understood the effort and sacrifices she made to ensure that I was provided for.

One of my most pleasant summers was spent with an older couple who lived in a small log house, on a lot with many large trees. Upon my arrival, I was instructed in the procedure for keeping the house cool: open the windows when going to bed to let the cool air in, close them early in the morning and draw the curtains to keep it in, and don’t leave the door open. It worked like a charm. That house was an oasis of cool on a hot summer day.

My guess is that their log house was built no later than the 1940’s, so it was probably a sieve for energy. Our current house is built to the post Energy Crisis standards of the late 1970’s, with many upgrades, not the least of which was a major replacement of doors and windows. So while we might not meet current standards, we seem to be in pretty good shape.

So far it’s working. Mid-afternoon and it’s pushing 29C outside, while the inside is running a comfortable 22C. Although the real benefit is this flood of memories of that idyllic summer that have come rushing back to put a smile on my face.

Federal Election 2015, Stephen Harper and the Conservative Dilemma

Despite a number of philosophical differences, I understand why many Canadians support the idea of a fiscally conservative government that only offers the most essential of services in exchange for costing less through taxes. I do understand the attraction; there are some policies that I support from both ends of the political spectrum, and I’ve had many a debate on these issues with family and friends.

What I don’t understand is how anyone, from any political stripe, can support Stephen Harper. The partisanship, the disrespect for both the democratic process and for the Canadian people, repeated defiance of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the outright corruption boggles my mind. When the Liberal ad scandal broke, the then (Liberal) Prime Minister ordered a public inquiry despite the obvious political cost, and yet some of my Conservative friends still hurl “corrupt” at the Liberal party while seemingly finding this crap to be acceptable. I cannot grasp how anyone with any moral values could say that.

This year, a vote for the Conservatives is a vote for Harper, and a vote for more of the same from him and his unelected PMO staff. You may counter that a Conservative vote is nothing more than a vote for your local candidate, but it is Harper who has muzzled his back-benchers, and stripped them of the ability to represent their constituents in the Commons and in committee, so this defence is invalid. A Conservative vote is a vote for Harper, and a vote for him endorses all of this corrupt, morally bankrupt activity.

I understand how your philosophical position might preclude you from voting for one of the other parties. I confess I have reservations about both and I am uneasy about my still wavering support for the NDP in this one. Since reaching voting age there have been two provincial elections where I’ve gone in and declined my ballot — I found none of the available options acceptable. But that’s not an option at the federal level. I’m pretty sure that if I was a hardcore Conservative and unable to support an alternative, this time around I’d be showing up on Election Day and spoiling my ballot in disgust.