Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Article from the NY Times

I'm posting this article from the NY Times in its entirety because I think what it talks about can be applied to more than just medical ailments. It is easy for one to focus on the interesting and the exotic instead of the obvious and close to home.


Scare Yourself Silly, but the Real Terrors Are at Your Feet

Just in time for Halloween, the usual yearly ritual of terror by headline is now playing itself out in medical offices everywhere. Last year it revolved around flu shots; a few years ago it was anthrax and smallpox; a few years before that it was the "flesh-eating bacteria"; and before that it was Ebola virus, and Lyme disease and so on back into the distant past. This year it's the avian flu.
"I was crossing Third Avenue yesterday and I was coughing so hard I had to stop and barely made it across," a patient told me last week. "I'm really scared I'm getting the avian flu."
I just looked at him. What could I say? He has smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for the last 50 years. He has coughed and wheezed and gasped his way across Third Avenue now for the last 10 years. His emphysema is not going to get any better, but it might stop getting worse if he were to stop smoking.
He made it clear long ago that this is not going to happen. When it comes to the whole cigarette/health question, his motto, apparently, is "What, me worry?"
But the avian flu - now there's a health scare a person can sink his teeth into. So scary and yet, somehow, so pleasantly distant. So thrilling, so chilling, and yet, at the same time, so not here, not now, not yet. All in all, a completely satisfying health care fear experience. Unlike his actual illness.
Scary movies give children nightmares. Scary health news gives adults the extraordinary ability to ignore the immediate in favor of the distant, to escape from the real (and the really scary) into a far easier kind of fear.
A few years ago, a young woman waited patiently to be seen in our office after hours. She was a patient of one of my colleagues, but she couldn't wait for their scheduled appointment; she needed to see someone right away.
"I'm worried I have Lyme disease," she said. "I have all the symptoms. I think I need to be treated."
"But you have AIDS," I said.
"I'm tired and weak and I have fevers and sweats. I've lost my appetite. I can't think straight. I'm losing so much weight!"
She had seen a TV news report on Lyme disease, and then she had checked the Internet. All her symptoms were right there.
"But you have AIDS," I said. "And you don't want to take meds. That's why you're feeling so bad."
"I'm really scared about Lyme disease," she said. "I really need to get treated."
"If you want to be scared, how about that untreated AIDS of yours?"
We looked at each other. It was an impasse. The fact that logic was on my side mattered not at all: evidently the real was just a little too real for her. How much better to find another illness to be scared of, obsess over, get treated for, get rid of.
Eventually she coerced my colleague into testing her for Lyme disease and treating her despite negative tests. Then she decided her symptoms might actually be due to a brain tumor, instead. And so it went, until she died of AIDS.
Of four patients I saw in a single hour last week, three announced how scared they were of the avian flu. I reassured them, but there was quite a bit I did not say, and here it is.
I did not say: If you want to be scared, then how about that drug habit of yours you think I don't know about? How about the fact that you are 100 pounds overweight and eat nothing but junk? How about the fact that in a few short months Medicaid is going to stop paying for your very expensive medications and no one knows how just high that Medicare Part D deductible and co-payment are going to be? I did not say: If you want something to be scared of, how about the drug-resistant Klebsiella that is all over this very hospital, an ordinary run-of-the-mill bacterial strain that has become so resistant to so many antibiotics that we've had to resurrect a few we stopped using 30 years ago because they were so toxic.
That Klebsiella is one scary germ. It's in hospitals all over the country, and by now it's probably killed a thousandfold more people than the avian flu.
But you don't hear much about our Klebsiella. Like our bad habits and our dismally insoluble health insurance tangles, our antibiotic-resistant bacteria are with us, right here, right now. Apparently they all lack the drama, the suspense, the titillating worst-case situations that energize our politicians and turn into a really newsworthy health care scare.
They're all just too real.


Thursday, October 20, 2005

One Quote

This post is merely one line of wisdom I got from an Indian restaurant. I keep it with me because it states simply and succinctly a state of mind I would like to be in.

"Live every experience and every event you encounter as a learning opportunity, rather than as a threat of failure."

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Four Agreements

Miguel Ruiz wrote a self-help book called The Four Agreements that proposes that we replace the negative agreements we have with outselves with these four:

1. "Be impeccable with your word" -- Take care in the things you say to yourself and others.
2. "Don't take anything personally." -- What people say to you has more to do with them than you.
3. "Don't make assumptions." -- It is better to ask questions than to blow things out of proportion.
4. "Always do your best." -- Focus on fully enjoying your own actions, rather than on expected results.

The Four Agreements basically define those things that an individual has control over: what they say, what they do, and how they interpret what other people say and do. The key to happiness, the book argues, is to gain control of the things one can control, and stop frustrating oneself with things one cannot. To interpret it one way, The Four Agreements are spelling out the old prayer, "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

The book was helpful in that it got me thinking about the nature of the human psyche again. One of the basic premises of the book is that we are taught by society to make agreements with ourselves regarding our beliefs and values, and therefore that the unconstructive and damaging agreements can be replaced over time with positive ones like the four proposed. For me this invokes the age-old nature vs. nurture, therapy vs. drugs question: how much of our 'agreements' are inborn and how many are trained? The very idea of therapy, and hence self-help books, rests on the idea that many of our most damaging mental behaviors are a result of learning, and hence can be unlearned. But if these agreements, beliefs, or whatever you call them are natural mental tendencies brought about by brain chemistry, then therapy is minimally useful -- what is needed is a change in physical chemistry which will lead to the formation of different sets of attitudes, beliefs and values.

As is often the case, the answer probably lies somewhere in between -- but exactly where in between matters. The Four Agreements are very good rules to live by, but are not so useful if the negative agreements we already have with ourselves cannot be replaced. It does seem, though, that the human mind is adaptable to change, and that mental tendencies do not equate to permanent rules of thought and behavior.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

David Hume's Abstract for the Treatise on Human Nature

I recently finished a later work of the philosopher David Hume, an extended essay titled "Enquiry into Human Understanding", which in some ways soft-pedals the views he put forth in his well-known Treatise. What I found more interesting was the short abstract he wrote of his longer Treatise that was included in the collection. He summarizes his main arguments in such a clear way that I feel that I understand his other works better. It also strikes me how simple his main argument is, and also how seeing it presented so simply highlights the one philosophical opening which Kant later jumped upon -- the mention of "custom" being the motivation for the formation of our beliefs.

Hume starts from the perspective that all we know comes from our "perceptions" -- our ideas and our experiences. Then he argues that our ideas only come from our experiences. This includes our inner experiences, such as the feeling of an emotion or bodily sensations. We form our ideas by putting together various experiences, but it has to come from somewhere. He places ideas as being "weaker" perceptions in that they are never as vivid as the experiences from which those ideas are formed -- nothing is as real as reality.

He uses this basis to strike a sceptical blow to all philosophers claiming absolute knowledge. The basic argument is that we don't have any way of directly experiencing any of the basic principles that would allow us to have absolute knowledge in something. For instance, we can't experience "cause and effect" directly. We can see certain events leading to other events and see this repeated over and over, but this is only to show a predictive pattern. What we can't do is assume that this would continue ad infinitum into the future, because this assumes another principle we will never be able to experience directly, "constancy of physical law". We don't actually know that whatever patterns we see in this world will continue indefinitely -- we can only speculate reasonably based on what we have experienced in this world. We use these experiences to form reasonable working theories about our world, and those theories go all the way down to basic "laws" like cause and effect.

Theories and beliefs are very different, though -- a theory is a well-supported hypothesis, while a belief implies something much more certain. Hume argues that the main difference between a theory and a belief is emotional intensity. When we believe something we hold onto it more intensely and are less apt to question it. Most of our basic fundamental principles of thought are actually theories derived from experience, but they are so established that we treat them like absolute laws -- this treatment is due to the force of emotional attachment to these basic structures. Hume is a hard sceptic in this regard -- he insists that we treat even basic ideas like cause and effect as theories, and in general that we regard the limits to our own knowledge with a great deal of humility. In Hume's view, nothing is absolutely certain -- we live in a world of probabilities and working theories. This is why Hume is thought by many to be the father of modern philosophy -- he opened up the possibilities of modern pragmatism, deconstructionism and the like with his practical sceptical approach to epistemology.

He opened up the door to Immanuel Kant, who in some ways fathered modern psychology, by his comment on why people tend to treat things like cause and effect as absolute beliefs. Hume doesn't really answer this, instead saying that it is done because of "custom." But this opened up the question of why it is our custom. Kant's answer is that it has to do with the way we are built to perceive the world. Our minds are built to find patterns and form beliefs, Kant says. This is because there are basic principles that we are built to take for granted, like cause and effect, because that allows us to give structure and a working coherency to the world we see. Without assuming such things as cause and effect, we couldn't start to see patterns of cause and effect in our world -- we would just see a slew of data without any connections. While we may now disagree with Kant as to which basic principles are inborn, his insight was a big step towards psychology because it made us start to examine how it is that we process and organize our perceptions on the most basic operational level. Kant, in effect, opened up the can of worms that Hume's scepticism created.

Monday, July 18, 2005

"Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro

The science fiction novel "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro could be described as a deceptively simple story. Three kids grow up and slowly come to terms with their future and purpose. Their purpose, however, is to have their vital organs harvested for medical use when they reach adulthood. They live in a world they cannot be sheltered from -- a world that ultimately sees them as a physical commodity.

It's an extreme situation the characters face, but I couldn't help but see the parallels between their lives and ours. Like them we grow up in a sea of people, so many people that it seems almost impossible to be important in the larger scheme of things. Like them we find ourselves treated as commodities and doing our best to sell our worth to others. And perhaps most of all, we find ourselves in a situation where regardless of how we are sheltered or cultivate ourselves, we are all ultimately doomed to the same fate as the children -- to grow old, to lose our vital organs one by one and to die. Most of us will not die as early as the characters do, but that is only to say that our timeframe is longer, not that we do not face the same situation. One horrifying aspect of being mortal is that our end often doesn't come cleanly or elegantly -- sometimes it is quick and unexpected, and often it is a slow deterioration over decades where one organ after another fails us until finally we are done in.

The novel asks the question, is it possible to come to terms with the prospect of a death like this? The children all make peace with their fate, but it is an uneasy peace with a touch of sadness. Their guardians try their best first to shelter them, as well as expose them to art and literature so that they are able to lead positive lives during the time they have, but ultimately they are unable to stop the process -- there is no way out, and no way to even delay the end. The author seems to imply that a complete peace is not possible for these people, and hence not possible for us either. We can come to grips with our destiny and reach an acceptance, but ultimately deterioration and death is not a fate that can be conquered.

A related question the novel asks is whether it is better to be fully aware of our end, or to be blissfully unaware. It is the conflict between the value of truth and happiness. The characters arrive at different conclusions -- some think the children should know their fate from the beginning, and others think they should be allowed to be decieved or decieve themselves so that they can enjoy what lives they have. Most people, though, can't be at either extreme. I think we are all aware of our eventual deaths, but we neither pretend it doesn't exist nor do we dwell completely on it. We live our lives as the children do, enjoying what we can, dreaming of a different world, and dealing with things as they come.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

My Current Personal Philosophy

-Truth exists but is inaccessible due to the limits of our perception. The fact that we are able to find and use patterns within the world is proof that there is an underlying solid reality from which those patterns emerge. But the nature of the reality itself is inaccessible -- we live only in the patterns. Because of this, we must approach our own knowledge with humility and respect our limits.

-Consciousness is not a unique thing to humans; it pervades all life and all matter. Consciousness is present in all matter, and when matter is grouped together in our brains a fabric of consciousness weaves together creating our minds. Similarly, when we die our unique consciousness is scattered back among the matter from which we made.

-Life is to journey to improve oneself that continues throughout or lives. To cease striving to better ourselves is a spiritual death.

-The events of our lives are related but it's only apparent in hindsight. When we look back at those events we can see the connections that were not immediately apparent.

-The individual self is not a unified entity. We should think of ourselves as more of a composite over time of related thoughts and feelings, and as an interplay between the contradictory drives of the conscious and unconconscious.

-We are neither our thoughts nor our feelings. Only our conscious will is present over the course of our lives. Our personality traits are tendencies over time, rather than unbreakable rules.

-Logic is just a process about thinking about something starting from a set of assumptions. But even slight variations in basic assumptions can lead logically to broad and diverse conclusions. These basic assumptions, or axioms, cannot be proven absolutely. To believe in anything absolutely is an act of faith.

-Life demands two contrasting things from us -- to be uncertain, but to act decisively to increase the chance of good results. Self-confidence is an act of practicality.

-People, places and objects mean nothing separated from the context of our love. It is our appreciation of things in the world that give them value.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Bennett and Pi

I have spent some time thinking about faith, knowledge, and happiness. Philosophically I am an agnostic -- one thing all those Dartmouth classes taught me was that nothing can absolutely be taken for granted, and that for every perspective there is an equal but opposite perspective, the difference often resulting from basic, unprovable axiomatic differences. When it comes to the realm of feeling, though, I am unresolved. I definitely have much hope, strong instincts drawing me towards certain beliefs, and very firm moral commitments, but no definite cohesive faith. To put it another way, I have all the makings for a strong spiritual side that haven't been fully developed. So I have been spending some spare time reading and thinking about faith and how it relates to happiness. I have found that the simple act of thinking about such things has the effect of making the daily experience richer. Simply asking questions makes the world deeper, even if the answers don't come.

For instance, I am reading a book called "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel, which tells the story of a boy who finds himself trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger. The beginning section of the book covers the peculiar spiritualism of the boy, who is a practicing hindu, muslim and christian all at once. The answers he gives to his devotion to each rests on the richness each practice adds to his life. For Christianity, for instance, he finds the story of Jesus Christ's sacrifice particularly compelling and fascinating. The idea that God would allow a section of itself to die in a very human way in an act of Love is an inspiring thing, and Pi is moved by this. He is moved by Muslim faith in its unflinching merging of everyday life and prayer, and the lifting of the spirit that comes from the daily acts of reverence. And his Hindu faith is woven into his way of thinking about the world -- he thinks about the unknowable world as brahman nirgana, and the concrete of that same world as brahman saguna in its various humanized forms: krishna, ganesh, shiva. For each religion that he embraces, he is experiencing faith as an act of life, rather than a category of belief. To have faith, to Pi, is to live with richness. To me this is a novel approach to faith, because I have thought of faith strictly in categorical terms -- one has faith in subject X if one believes in Y without proof Z. But for the character Pi, his faith is an act of spiritual living, and he embraces faiths in their spirit and metaphors to his own life, even if the beliefs of each are incompatible.

During this same period I had finished another book called "How To Live 24 Hours a Day" by Arnold Bennett, a self-help book I found on Project Gutenberg. His view on happiness is that one's life becomes richer when one challenges himself to look deeply at whatever interests him, rather than passively take it in and waste the hours. He urges you to train the mind to focus, and then take chunks of time out of every day and commit it to the pursuit of knowledge and craft in one's interests. The time spent on pursuing these things steadily over time leaves one with a life without regrets for not having tried to fulfill one's ambitions. But what ties this world to Life of Pi is the author's insistence that the singleminded pursuit of knowledge and excellence in any field leads to a deeper, more spiritual experience of the world. For instance, the act of pushing oneself to learn the principles and history of opera will make the next show one attends much richer and with more depth. The dedicated reading of poetry and explorations of metaphor will make one's experience more filling. Studying evolution in depth will turn a simple glance at the sea's horizon into an experience in one's mind of the vast, complex struggle for survival going on below the surface. The same goes for studying the business trends of the occupation one is in, or the history of the sport one plays. The act of enriching oneself with knowledge of our interests and actions makes our experiences richer, more purposeful, and spiritually fulfilling. Bennett starts to sound a lot like Pi.

It is remarkable to me how in my own life things tend to come together. Sometimes because I actively seek it, and sometimes because of all-too-common happy coincidences, but there are common ideas flowing through the books I'm reading and the people I'm speaking with. Part of me thinks things happen for a reason, and that somewhere in these common themes are the keys to happiness -- perhaps not The Key, but certainly some powerful wordless ideas that permeate the concepts of faith, fulfillment and spiritualism. As always, I will continue to read and think about it. I am now reading the works of the stoic Epictetus, and perhaps later this evening I will re-read Jesus's Sermon on the Mount and the passage concerning Buddha's revelations underneath the Bodhi tree and his telling of the essential truths. And I will read and think some more, and perhaps I can make the act of living more spiritual and hence more fulfilling -- like Pi, like Bennett.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Best Bars in New York

I'm posting this small list my sister sent me for my own benefit. I have my own list of best bars in NYC, including MOD, McSorely's, Chumley's, Fat Black Pussycat, Korova Milk Bar, Grassroots Tavern, 2nd on 2nd, and Beauty Bar. But I'd like to check out some of these too because I haven't been to some of them...


Decibel is the name of that cool sake bar. There
is also a location uptown somewhere. This place
is a late night must go.
240 E 9th St(between Second and Third avenues)
New York, NY
Neighborhood: East Village
6 at Astor Place
+1 212 979 2733
Open 6pm-4am

Pink Pony
176 Ludlow St, New York, NY 10002
(212) 253-1922
Arty, has poetry readings sometimes, seems
vaguely French café-ish...

The Room
144 Sullivan St # 144, New York, NY 10012
(212) 477-2102
Plays good music, comfy and classy, many kinds of

Belgian Beer Bar
There is a yummy belgian beer bar where you can
order cones of fries with tons of different kinds
of dipping sauces. It is just off of Washington
Square park if you go west on West 4'th Street
before you get to the basketball courts. If you keep
going west there are TONS of bars to choose from.

Corner Bistro
331 W 4th St,
New York 10014
At Jane St & 8th Ave
Two dollar beers, and the best burger in town--no
kidding. (A bit of a walk or take the F train or

Milk and Honey
F to Delancey St.
134 Eldridge St.
I've never actually been to this swanky,
exclusive bar, only open to non-members before 11pm, but
do hear it's quite cool. You need a reservation
to go and have to be buzzed in to the unmarked
entrance. If it interests you, you could give a
call and see if you can get in.

Friday, March 25, 2005

"The Beak of the Finch" by Jonathan Weiner

One of the critical points Creationists point to in their criticism of Evolution is that Evolution is still a theory: it hasn't been proven, and its processes have never been seen. Even though there are mounds of circumstantial evidence indicating that species arise and change over time, nobody's actually watched a new species being formed so Creationism is still just as valid a theory. Reading "The Beak of the Finch" was refreshing because it shows just how much real-world proof there is today of Evolution's processes. It turns out that when you observe species today, you find that evolution is still occurring, and at some times it occurs at a rapid pace. The principal driving mechanisms of the Evolutionary processes -- genetic variation between generations, and fierce natural selection (ie death) based on those relatively miniscule variations -- have been been proven to occur in today's species. Over generations of birds, insects, bacteria and the like, environmental changes can result in drastic changes in a species' appearance and functionality within 5 to 10 generations. Any Creationist claiming that species created at the beginning of time are unchanging are flat-out wrong.

What is interesting from the reading of this book, though, is that one sticking point of the Creationist argument has still never been proven. We have never directly observed one species splitting into two. We have observed species adapting over time. We have observed instances where there were one species, and then when we looked back later there were two. But we have never actually watched a species variate, split, and then evolve into two distinct species. We have all the proof of Evolution occurring, even down to the before and after pictures, but we have not yet watched it as it happened. It can still be claimed that although species vary and adapt widely to its environment, there is an invisible force keeping species from varying too much. So Evolution, despite the mountain of evidence supporting it, is still a theory. Creationism, despite the mountain of evidence against it, is also still a theory. This is not to say that they are equal -- and indeed, there is still the possibility that Evolution will be proved correct, because it is verifiable. There may be a study as robust as the ones the Grants made on the beaks of Darwin's finches that stumbles upon the direct observation of the Origin of Species.

A note on Evolution itself: Evolution is basically a process of breeding in the wild. Our genetic code is inconsistent between generations, both by accident and design. Variations occur throughout a population, and these variations make certain creatures more or less adapted to situations that may come up. Now, in periods of great environmental strain where there are limited resources, creatures end up dying. The creatures that had variations better suited for the crisis have a higher chance of living and hence having young that carry on the genetic line. But even when a death-filled environment is not culling the herd, variation is occurring. In fact, variation is constantly occurring. This is why when we look at fossil records, evolution seems to occur in spurts instead of gradually. Species are always changing, but there is only a high pressure to change in a certain way when the environment changes. That environmental change can be weather and terrain, the simple decrease of a resource, or the introduction of a competing species. And once again, while scientists have yet to observe a species being created in the wild, they certainly have watched hundreds of species die out completely. Some by our own doing, it should be noted. Natural selection is definitely occurring.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Samuel Delaney: On Writing

At the end of science fiction writer Samuel Delaney's short story collection, "Aye, and Gomorrah," Mr. Delaney writes a bit about the process of writing. He claims to only know 3 basic things about writing, but those 3 things end up being pretty big.

Mr. Delaney's rules of writing can be boiled down to 3 extremely simple statements. 1. Don't overwrite. 2. Don't be shallow. 3. Don't be cliche. By themselves, these 3 rules are almost too transparent to be much help. But when Mr. Delaney expands on these rules, they gain importance.

Think of a scene in your story -- now try to imagine every detail of that scene. Not only what you think to be important, but literally everything that would be in that scene, from the objects on the desk to the wallpaper to the strangers in the room and what they're wearing and how they're sitting. Now when you start to write, DON'T mention all of these things. Instead, get into the head of your character and only mention those details that you think that character would notice. The scene becomes richer both from what you include, and also what you leave out.

Have you gotten halfway through a story, and then get stuck somewhere and don't know how to end the story? If so, you need to sit down and think about your characters some more. Think more about your character's motivations, their psychological quirks, what makes them tick. As you keep adding in complexities to the character and the situation they're in, you should be able to see that there is something they would have to do, hence comes the continuation or ending of the story. If you still can't think of anything, trash the story and start another one with more potential for depth.

In today's world, most things have been done. So don't settle for doing what's been done before. Read constantly, and when it's time for you to write, try to approach the story in a way that is uncommon. Don't take the easy route, and instead try something new even if a positive result is not readily apparent. The result will be stories that are fresh and original, because you are willing to take risks.

In closing, Mr. Delaney says that the process of a writer is the process of doubting, of rejecting, of revising. The difference between a true writer and someone who writes is that for a writer, this doubting and revising process is happening continuously and simultaneously during the process of writing. A true writer is holding an image, scene, or psychology in his mind and is constantly thinking and rethinking about it while he is writing, so that the process of doubting does not merely negate, it spurs on new ideas and new ways of describing the same thing. Writing is an intensely active process of thinking recursively -- and the hoped-for result is prose or poetry that is not only good, but created by someone who has thought and rethought enough about it that he knows why it is good.

It is my feeling that the process of writing that Mr. Delaney describes is applicable to more than writing fiction. In fact, it may be the process needed for songwriting, or art, or business, or life. Because it describes a process of thinking, doubting, imagining, and ultimately making lots of small, distinct choices that add up to make a powerful whole.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Blankets, by Craig Thompson

For my recent 26th birthday, I was given a graphic novel called "Blankets, by Craig Thompson. It tells the story of a painfully-withdrawn boy born to a heavily-Christian family, and his experiences growing up and with his first love. It is a character study that hops back and forth between moments in his childhood, and moments he shared years later with his first girlfriend. It is a graphic novel that seeks to display life as it really was for the character, and because of this there is no grand, unified "message" to the novel. In fact, its main message is that life cannot be reduced down to simple rules or ideals. Life is a rich, complex, and sacred experience, and we are lucky to be able to participate, even if only temporarily.

In N Out vs. McDonalds: Business models

I learned these differing business models originally from the book "Fast Food Nation," but I realize that the overall models apply to all business, not just fast food. The In N Out and McDonalds models simply highlight the division in business between human specialization and technological specialization strategies.

The McDonalds business model is well-known. They use high technology to automate as much as possible, reducing the need for skilled workers. They then hire low-skill workers and underpay them. Because they are underpaid those workers are hard to retain, but the simplicity of the day-to-day operation of the technology makes training time shorter, so the turnover is offset by high efficiency in readying new workers to replace them. The high turnover is actually beneficial because workers stay at a low wage, minimizing employee cost, but the maintenance of the automated equipment is costly. The McDonalds model is driven by technological specialization, and minimal human specialization.

The In N Out food chain does things significantly differently. Food is prepared and cooked by hand, and cooking everything up-to-speed requires significantly more training and longer retention periods, because the longer employees stay the more efficient they become at preparing and cooking. Keeping skilled employees requires significantly better pay, so employee cost is maximized. But the technology costs are low because those skilled workers can operate using simple machinery, and do not require the more expensive automated devices. The In N Out model is driven by human specialization, and minimal technological specialization.

These two opposing models are the two main paths of all modern business. Every business has to choose to what extent they wish to rely on human specialization or technological specialization in order to produce their goods or services. When a classical agency buys an automated phone answering service, it is hoping that the cost of the technology will be offset by the money saved over not having an operator. When a tech company implements a database or works to automate and simplify its own processes, it is increasing its technology cost and reducing the need for company-wide specialization and lowering its training time. When a farmer buys highly productive farm equipment, he spikes his technology cost and reduces the need for additional human laborers. Ideally, a company should have both well-trained employees and efficient, easy-to-use technology. But resources are always limited, particularly because corporations are under pressure not only to turn a profit, but turn a maximal profit, so in most cases, a tradeoff will have to occur between investment in people, and investment in technology that reduces the need for people.

* As a footnote, In N Out's business model is driven in part from a religious basis. The company is Christian and believes that a human-driven model is the right thing to do. It is interesting to note that when maximized, the human-driven model is as profitable as McDonalds' "anti-human" model. Another thing to note is that even though high technology can reduce certain employee cost, it requires radically more highly-skilled workers in order to build and fix the machines. At some point in the food chain, there will need to be specialized and retained workers -- and in general, the less workers you have doing the same amount of work, the higher amount of specialization required, technology or human.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Life on Other Planets: Asimov vs. Baxter

Contemporary science fiction author Stephen Baxter owes much to the man whom many call the father of modern sci-fi, Issac Asimov. Instead of using science fiction merely as an exotic metaphor for modern-day issues, both authors use the medium as a place to discuss about what the future really could be like. They both write to open a discussion about the possibilites of humankind's future. But their visions are drastically different, because of Baxter's disagreement with Asimov on one significant point: life on other planets.

Both authors believe there is life on other planets. Asimov, though, feels that the past 70 or so years of SETI research has shown us that if there is life out there, it's extremely rare, and most likely there is not so much in the way of intelligent, space-faring life. His vision for the future is a future filled with humans -- humans colonizing the universe, humans terraforming planets, humans fighting each other, and humans alone in the galaxy with only their technological children for company. Other lower life forms may develop on other planets, but only humankind has developed the intelligence and abilities necessary to expand and rule. The future of the universe is the story of man.

Stephen Baxter's future, though, is full of competing life forms, and in his view man is a worthy competitor to countless races in the universe. It is not man's superior intellect that makes him ultimately compete the best, it is his motivated drive towards risk, expansion, and power. In Baxter's view, life is very common, but we do not spot it now because of two main things: 1) other forms of life are not like our own so we are essentially looking for the wrong things, and 2) truly intelligent, space-travelling life simply does not bother to get in touch with us because to them we are inconsequential animals. It is not until man becomes a spacefaring people, Baxter argues, that we start to be aware of, and compete with, other species. The future of the universe is the story of evolution on a grand scale, filled with life at every corner, in which man competes admirably.

Despite these differing visions, both Asimov and Baxter have optimistic views of humankind's future. Both feel that man has what it takes to survive, that our futures are linked to advances in technology, and also that even far in the future, humans will still retain what is important about being human.