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Saturday, September 27, 2014

A speculation on the "afterlife."


In the moment of transition between life and death, only one thing changes: you lose the momentum of the biochemical cycles that keep the machinery running. In the moment before death, you are still composed of the same thousand trillion trillion atoms as in the moment after death— the only difference is that their neighborly network of social interactions has ground to a halt. 

At that moment, the atoms begin to drift apart, no longer enslaved to the goals of keeping up a human form. The interacting pieces that once constructed your body begin to unravel like a sweater, each thread spiraling off in a different direction. Following your last breath, those thousand trillion trillion atoms begin to blend into the earth around you. As you degrade, your atoms become incorporated into new constellations: the leaf of a staghorn fern, a speckled snail shell, a kernel of maize, a beetle’s mandible, a waxen bloodroot, a ptarmigan’s tail feather. 

But it turns out your thousand trillion trillion atoms were not an accidental collection: each was labeled as composing you and continues to be so wherever it goes. So you’re not gone, you’re simply taking on different forms. Instead of your gestures being the raising of an eyebrow or a blown kiss, now a gesture might consist of a rising gnat, a waving wheat stalk, and the inhaling lung of a breaching beluga whale. Your manner of expressing joy might become a seaweed sheet playing on a lapping wave, a pendulous funnel dancing from a cumulonimbus, a flapping grunion birthing, a glossy river pebble gliding around an eddy. 

From your present clumped point of view, this afterlife may sound unnervingly distributed. But in fact it is wonderful. You can’t imagine the pleasure of stretching your redefined body across vast territories: ruffling your grasses and bending your pine branch and flexing an egret’s wings while pushing a crab toward the surface through coruscating shafts of light. Lovemaking reaches heights it could never dream of in the compactness of human corporality. Now you can communicate in many places along your bodies at once; you weave your versatile hands over your lover’s multiflorous figure. Your rivers run together. You move in concert as interdigitating creatures of the meadow, entangled vegetation bursting from the fields, caressing weather fronts that climax into thunderstorms.

 Just as in your current life, the downside is that you are always in flux. As creatures degrade and your fruits fall and rot, you become capable of new gestures and lose others. Your lover might drift away from you in the migratory flight of tropic birds, a receding stampede of wintering elk, or a creek that quietly pokes its head under the ground and pops up somewhere unknown to you. 

Many of your same problems apply: temptation, anguish, anger, distrust, vice— and don’t forget the dread arising from free choice. Don’t be fooled into believing that plants grow mechanically toward the sun, that birds choose their direction by instinct, that wildebeest migrate by design: in fact, everything is seeking. Your atoms can spread, but they cannot escape the search. A wide distribution does not shield you from wondering how best to spend your time. Once every few millennia, all your atoms pull together again, traveling from around the globe, like the leaders of nations uniting for a summit, converging for their densest reunion in the form of a human. They are driven by nostalgia to regroup into the tight pinpoint geometry in which they began. In this form they can relish a forgotten sense of holiday-like intimacy. They come together to search for something they once knew but didn’t appreciate at the time. 

The reunion is warm and heartening for a while, but it isn’t long before they begin to miss their freedom. In the form of a human the atoms suffer a claustrophobia of size: gestures are agonizingly limited, restricted to the foundering of tiny limbs. As a condensed human they cannot see around corners, they can only talk within short distances to the nearest ear, they cannot reach out to touch across any meaningful expanses. We are the moment of least facility for the atoms. And in this form, they find themselves longing to ascend mountains, wander the seas, and conquer the air, seeking to recapture the limitlessness they once knew.

Eagleman, David (2009-02-10). Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (Kindle Locations 1009-1041). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. See also "Possibilianism."

On the cusp of the afterlife...

[Homage to Sir Thomas Browne]

Shall I tell you once more how it happens?

Even though you know, don’t you? You were born with the horror stamped upon you, like a fingerprint. All these years you have lived you have known. I but remind your memory, confirm the fear that has always been prime. Yet the facts have a force of their insolent own.

Wine is best made in a cellar, on a stone floor. Crush grapes in a barrel such that each grape is burst. When the barrel is three-quarters full, cover it with a fine-mesh cloth, and wait. In three days, an ear placed low over the mash will detect a faint crackling, which murmur, in two more days, rises to a continuous giggle. Only the rendering of fat or a forest fire far away makes such a sound. It is the song of fermentation! Remove the cloth and examine closely. The eye is startled by a bubble on the surface. Was it there and had it gone unnoticed? Or is it newly come?

But soon enough more beads gather in little colonies, winking and lining up at the brim. Stagnant fluid forms. It begins to turn. Slow currents carry bits of stem and grape meat on voyages of an inch or so. The pace quickens. The level rises. On the sixth day, the barrel is almost full. The teem must be poked down with a stick. The air of the cellar is dizzy with fruit flies and droplets of smell. On the seventh day, the fluid is racked into the second barrel for aging. It is wine.

Thus is the fruit of the earth taken, its flesh torn. Thus is it given over to standing, toward rot. It is the principle of corruption, the death of what is, the birth of what is to be. You are wine...

Dead, the body is somehow more solid, more massive. The shrink of dying is past. It is as though only moments before a wind had kept it aloft, and now, settled, it is only what it is— a mass, declaring itself, an ugly emphasis. Almost at once the skin changes color, from pink-highlighted yellow to gray-tinted blue. The eyes are open and lackluster; something, a bright dust, had been blown away, leaving the globes smoky . And there is an absolute limpness. Hours later, the neck and limbs are drawn up into a semiflexion, in the attitude of one who has just received a blow to the solar plexus.

One has...

Examine once more the eyes. How dull the cornea, this globe bereft of tension. Notice how the eyeball pits at the pressure of my fingernail. Whereas the front of your body is now drained of color, the back, upon which you rest, is found to be deeply violet. Even here, even now, gravity works upon the blood. In twenty-four hours, your untended body resumes its flaccidity, resigned to this everlasting posture.

You stay thus.

You do not die all at once. Some tissues live on for minutes, even hours, giving still their little cellular shrieks, molecular echoes of the agony of the whole corpus. Here and there a spray of nerves dances on. True, the heart stops; the blood no longer courses; the electricity of the brain sputters , then shuts down. Death is now pronounceable. But there are outposts where clusters of cells yet shine, besieged, little lights blinking in the advancing darkness. Doomed soldiers, they battle on. Until Death has secured the premises all to itself.

The silence, the darkness , is not for long. That which was for a moment dead leaps most sumptuously to life. There is a busyness gathering. It grows fierce.

There is to be a feast . The rich table has been set. The board groans. The guests have already arrived, numberless bacteria that had, in life, dwelt in saprophytic harmony with their host. Their turn now! Charged, they press against the membrane barriers, break through the new softness, sweep across plains of tissue, devouring, belching gas— a gas that puffs eyelids, cheeks, abdomen into bladders of murderous vapor. The slimmest man takes on the bloat of corpulence. Your swollen belly bursts with a ripping sound, followed by a long mean hiss.

And they are at large! Blisters appear upon the skin, enlarge, coalesce, blast, leaving brownish puddles in the declivities. You are becoming gravy. Arriving for the banquet late, of course, and all the more ravenous for it, are the twin sisters Calliphora and raucous Lucilia, the omnipresent greenbottle flies, their costumes metallic sequins. Their thousands of eggs are laid upon the meat, and soon the mass is wavy with the humped creamy backs of maggots nosing, crowding, hungrily absorbed. Gray sprays of fungus sprout in the resulting marinade, and there lacks only a mushroom growing from the nose.

At last— at last the bones appear, clean and white and dry. Reek and mangle abate; diminuendo the buzz and crawl. All, all is eaten. All is done. Hard endlessness is here even as the revelers abandon the skeleton.

You are alone, yet again.
Selzer, Richard (1996-04-15). Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery (Harvest Book) (Kindle Locations 1368-1483). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Friday, September 12, 2014

SHS 1964: reflecting on our high school 50th reunion

I had a glorious time back in Somerville, NJ last week seeing so many of you former classmates and reminiscing about those long bygone 60's days. Hats off to those who planned and oversaw the fabulous events (link to my shots posted to Facebook here). 

I left home immediately after Commencement in 1964 (seriously bitten by the Rock 'n Roll bug, to the utter fury of my now-late Dad), and this was only my 3rd time back in New Jersey since leaving the state. I have had a busy, interesting, and fulfilling life, but I have to now admit to much regret that I never maintained friendships with my classmates. Feeling the loss now. You are an impressive bunch. I wish you all the very best going forward.

apropos, I wanted to share with you a book I just finished, Garret Keizer's amazing "Getting Schooled: The Re-Education of an American Teacher." Got it yesterday. Had to put the world on 'pause.'

I continue to be a lifelong learner. There remain more books I still have to read than there are hours in the day. I've been studying a lot of late on the myriad facets of learning and teaching (the pedagogy, the politics), mostly for my Health IT blog work as they pertain to the requisite elements for an adequately staffed and competent health care workforce.

"Getting Schooled" blew me away. It simply overflows throughout with elegant prose and humbling, reflective insight. I'd like to share just a bit with you. Highly recommended. Here's an excerpt from the close -- Commencement Day:
As in the past, I view commencement exercises as an act of penance for the sins of the teaching year. Not a full expiation, for sure, but at least an act of contrition. The lengthy monotony of the proceedings, the stifling heat of a gymnasium in mid-June, the oxygen deprivation that comes of sitting with hundreds of spectators in a scarcely ventilated space— what else besides a guilty conscience could keep a person coming year after year? Add to these the inevitable if unintended insult that comes of being publicly “thanked” for an education whose quality is thrown into doubt by every other sentence accompanying the thanks, the self-congratulatory tone and smug insider jokes of the valedictory speakers, the steady deflation of making the rounds afterward to congratulate students in whose eyes it’s clear that anything you might have meant to them or they to you is dissolving like a mirage. Most of all, the oppressive loneliness that is relieved only by remembering that any number of the students up on the dais are feeling lonelier still. At the conclusion of what many of them have repeatedly been assured are the best years of their lives— which in some cases will prove sadly true, the relative crappiness of those years notwithstanding— small wonder that more than a few of them will be stone drunk by nightfall.
Of course, there’s plenty to move even a jaded heart: the sight of kids who are the first in their families to graduate high school or the first to be going on for further study, the pride in their eyes and in the eyes fixed on them. The kids overcome with more emotion than the occasion would seem to warrant, as if this were their first encounter with transience. The kids who unashamedly give flowers to their mothers, embracing the only individuals in the world besides themselves who truly know how hard it was to get to this day and how close they came to not making it. The uncanny self-possession of those students who put their high school years in perspective a long time ago, who will go on to do the quiet useful work they’ve set their sights on all along, who will keep their yearbooks but not open them often, who have instinctively understood that life gives a person several true friends at most and who will remain true to their friends all their lives...

Had I been invited to speak at graduation, as teachers sometimes are, and had I accepted, what might I have said? Probably nothing too heavy. High school graduations are not the place for diatribes or manifestos. Neither are high school classrooms. I have always believed it is a teacher’s duty to teach the curriculum and not to pontificate, to inspire debates and not to settle doctrines. I did on one or two occasions tell my students that the society they were living in valued people of their age, region, and class primarily as cannon fodder, cheap labor, and gullible consumers and that education could give them some of the weapons necessary to fight back. Those things I did say, and I might have ventured at least that far in a graduation speech. I find myself wishing, though, that I had had a simple refrain, some terse slogan I could have repeated to my classes day after day, like the Roman senator Cato, who is supposed to have ended every speech by saying “Carthage must be destroyed.”

In fact, Cato’s refrain might have done nicely. As it happens, the people of Carthage worshipped the same god their Phoenician ancestors had, a Canaanite deity they called Moloch, whose signature burnt offering was the dearest thing his worshippers had. When the Romans eventually took Cato’s advice, they found within the walls of the doomed city a multitude of clay urns containing the tiny charred bones of children. The Romans worshipped their own version of Moloch, needless to say, as do we if our poets are to be believed. “Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!” So wrote Allen Ginsberg when I was a mere three years old, half a century before the financial meltdown of 2007– 08, an unknown number of years before the last American soldier leaves Afghanistan.

Carthago delenda est. I couldn’t say that to kids without more explanation than I had time for and more trouble than my long-suffering hosts deserved, but at least I can say it to you. The sentimental hypocrisy that holds children to be our most precious resource even as every indicator from the conduct of foreign policy to the debate over guns puts them several notches down in value from the availability of cheap oil and the goodwill of the NRA—delenda est. The fatuous assurance that children are happiest when their parents behave as if no happiness matters so much as their own and that of their live-in lovers— delenda est. The two-headed effrontery of believing that equal opportunity in the society at large can be promoted merely by reforming schools and that schools can be reformed without radically transforming the structures of society— delenda est, both heads at a single stroke. 

And who better suited to wield the sword than we who are charged with giving our students a “head start” only so that— as one civil rights worker put it years ago— the most disadvantaged of them can run sooner into a brick wall? Who better than us to demand the wall’s destruction? May I live to see the day when a teachers’ strike is at the vanguard of a general strike. 
Till then, I have a room to straighten and grades to turn in. I have an inventory to complete. I have one last installment of my productivity rubric to enter on PowerSchool. I have a few scattered opportunities to tell a few drop-by visitors that I hope they’ll have a safe and happy summer...

Keizer, Garret (2014-08-05). Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher (pp. 288-293). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

This dude can write!

On today's technology:
This fastidious obsession with visual resolution and digital sound, irrespective of the quality of the content depicted— what is it but the inevitable result of our gizmo-hawking market? Vacuity with special effects. We inculcate in our children the sensibilities of raccoons, a fascination with shiny objects and an appetite for garbage, and then carp about “the texting generation” as if thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds who couldn’t boil an egg are capable of creating a culture. They grow on what we feed them. It has never been otherwise. The only thing that changes is the food...
We sell the disease and we sell the cure, the carcinogenic chemical and the chemotherapy, the high-calorie soda and the exercise bike. We make kids illiterate by shrinking and/ or wiring their libraries; then we build wired support centers to teach the illiterates how to read. An iPad for the one and an iPad for the other, twice the profit from the same slick deal. I make it sound more conspiratorial than it is. In fact, it is the absence of conspiracy, of anything approaching a plan or vision, that yields these absurd results. A crapshoot is not a conspiracy, but as social policy it’s crap... [ibid, pp. 224-225]
One thing is clear from the outset: the biggest change in education since my departure from the classroom, bigger even than the place of technology in the curriculum, is the move toward uniform instruction. Students and teachers are obliged to be on the same page, or the same screen if you will, in terms of the “desired outcomes.” In many ways the changes are mutually supportive: the technology allows for greater standardization and oversight; it also provides the rationale for greater standardization and oversight. Our kids need to be prepared for the digital age and we need to be sure our teachers are preparing them.

Despite some strong misgivings— the “digital age” is not my god any more than the “global marketplace”— I want to work in concert with my colleagues. I want to do a good job. I recognize the dangers of the self-styled contrarian whose “different drummer” lesson plans amount to little more than a list of pet peeves and arbitrary waivers. I’ve met more than one English teacher, for example, who claimed that “writing can’t be taught” or that “grammar isn’t important.” At the same time, I’m not sure students are best served by a faculty of conformists, by teachers who are less shepherds than sheep. [ibid, pp. 33-34]
But, wait! There's more!!!
For someone who’s spent much of his adult life trying to mine personal experience for “larger,” often political implications, it’s hard not to feel a stinging challenge to my politics. Most teachers are some variety of centrist liberal, if only because they rightly see their own livelihoods as dependent on a generous social contract. But it is only with a great leap of faith that they achieve even the most lukewarm progressivism, which by its very definition requires the belief that human beings can progress— or want to. It’s in making that leap that I lose my footing. I have never doubted that many a disadvantaged kid was saved from the gallows by going to school. But to create a society in which gallows were permanently abolished— how many holdouts would first have to hang? At the risk of sounding impertinent, Comrade Guevara, how many people did your “great feeling of love” inspire you to execute? To reduce ignorance is one thing, but what remedy for inertia— for the tendency in many of us to find the demands of all but the most pedestrian forms of learning or liberation simply too much work? The question is way above my pay grade. I can’t even find a remedy for plagiarism. [ibid, pp. 201-202]
Not kidding. I could go on. But, I'd end up posting the entire book. A great read. Just thought you might like to know about it.

We were lucky to be in high school when we were. I taught "Critical Thinking" and "Argument Analysis" as an Adjunct at UNLV from 1999 - 2004. It was great fun, but, I'd look out over my undergrad classes sometimes and think 'man, you people need to re-take high school...'

We were indeed lucky. We have our parents and our teachers -- and each other -- to thank.

Be well, my friends. Hope to see you again soon.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mass layoff notice, Microsoft style

News comes that Microsoft plans on laying off up to 18,000 employees. Microsoft exec Stephen Elop delivers the bad news in an "empathic" internal email: 
Hello there,

Microsoft’s strategy is focused on productivity and our desire to help people “do more.” As the Microsoft Devices Group, our role is to light up this strategy for people. We are the team creating the hardware that showcases the finest of Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences, and we will be the confluence of the best of Microsoft’s applications, operating systems and cloud services.

To align with Microsoft’s strategy, we plan to focus our efforts. Given the wide range of device experiences, we must concentrate on the areas where we can add the most value. The roots of this company and our future are in productivity and helping people get things done. Our fundamental focus – for phones, Surface, for meetings with devices like PPI, Xbox hardware and new areas of innovation -- is to build on that strength. While our direction in the majority of our teams is largely unchanging, we have had an opportunity to plan carefully about the alignment of phones within Microsoft as the transferring Nokia team continues with its integration process.

It is particularly important to recognize that the role of phones within Microsoft is different than it was within Nokia. Whereas the hardware business of phones within Nokia was an end unto itself, within Microsoft all our devices are intended to embody the finest of Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences, while accruing value to Microsoft’s overall strategy. Our device strategy must reflect Microsoft’s strategy and must be accomplished within an appropriate financial envelope. Therefore, we plan to make some changes.

We will be particularly focused on making the market for Windows Phone. In the near term, we plan to drive Windows Phone volume by targeting the more affordable smartphone segments, which are the fastest growing segments of the market, with Lumia. In addition to the portfolio already planned, we plan to deliver additional lower-cost Lumia devices by shifting select future Nokia X designs and products to Windows Phone devices. We expect to make this shift immediately while continuing to sell and support existing Nokia X products.

To win in the higher price segments, we will focus on delivering great breakthrough products in alignment with major milestones ahead from both the Windows team and the Applications and Services Group. We will ensure that the very best experiences and scenarios from across the company will be showcased on our products. We plan to take advantage of innovation from the Windows team, like Universal Windows Apps, to continue to enrich the Windows application ecosystem. And in the very lowest price ranges, we plan to run our first phones business for maximum efficiency with a smaller team.

We expect these changes to have an impact to our team structure. With our focus, we plan to consolidate the former Smart Devices and Mobile Phones business units into one phone business unit that is responsible for all of our phone efforts. Under the plan, the phone business unit will be led by Jo Harlow with key members from both the Smart Devices and Mobile Phones teams in the management team. This team will be responsible for the success of our Lumia products, the transition of select future Nokia X products to Lumia and for the ongoing operation of the first phone business.

As part of the effort, we plan to select the appropriate business model approach for our sales markets while continuing to offer our products in all markets with a strong focus on maintaining business continuity. We will determine each market approach based on local market dynamics, our ability to profitably deliver local variants, current Lumia momentum and the strategic importance of the market to Microsoft. This will all be balanced with our overall capability to invest.

Our phone engineering efforts are expected to be concentrated in Salo, Finland (for future, high-end Lumia products) and Tampere, Finland (for more affordable devices). We plan to develop the supporting technologies in both locations. We plan to ramp down engineering work in Oulu. While we plan to reduce the engineering in Beijing and San Diego, both sites will continue to have supporting roles, including affordable devices in Beijing and supporting specific US requirements in San Diego. Espoo and Lund are planned to continue to be focused on application software development.

We plan to right-size our manufacturing operations to align to the new strategy and take advantage of integration opportunities. We expect to focus phone production mainly in Hanoi, with some production to continue in Beijing and Dongguan. We plan to shift other Microsoft manufacturing and repair operations to Manaus and Reynosa respectively, and start a phased exit from Komaron, Hungary.

In short, we will focus on driving Lumia volume in the areas where we are already successful today in order to make the market for Windows Phone. With more speed, we will build on our success in the affordable smartphone space with new products offering more differentiation. We’ll focus on acquiring new customers in the markets where Microsoft’s services and products are most concentrated. And, we’ll continue building momentum around applications.

We plan that this would result in an estimated reduction of 12,500 factory direct and professional employees over the next year. These decisions are difficult for the team, and we plan to support departing team members’ with severance benefits.

More broadly across the Devices team, we will continue our efforts to bring iconic tablets to market in ways that complement our OEM partners, power the next generation of meetings & collaboration devices and thoughtfully expand Windows with new interaction models. With a set of changes already implemented earlier this year in these teams, this means there will be limited change for the Surface, Xbox hardware, PPI/meetings or next generation teams.

We recognize these planned changes are broad and have very difficult implications for many of our team members. We will work to provide as much clarity and information as possible. Today and over the coming weeks leaders across the organization will hold town halls, host information sharing sessions and provide more details on the intranet.

The team transferring from Nokia and the teams that have been part of Microsoft have each experienced a number of remarkable changes these last few years. We operate in a competitive industry that moves rapidly, and change is necessary. As difficult as some of our changes are today, this direction deliberately aligns our work with the cross company efforts that Satya has described in his recent emails. Collectively, the clarity, focus and alignment across the company, and the opportunity to deliver the results of that work into the hands of people, will allow us to increase our success in the future.