Impact Without Agency: On the Peculiar Character of 2016

The skeptic in me – the one whose rationality was inspired by Carl Sagan, the one that must force himself to be politic when talk of God, psychic abililities, or superstitions come up, the one whose actual job is to be the voice of an entire skeptics’ organization – knows, for certain, that there is no curse attached to the calendar year 2016. There is nothing special about this particular trip around the Sun for our planet, nor is there any negative “energy” or force particular to this year that makes it any more or less eventful or tragic. 2016 has no magic power for killing celebrities.

I know that tens of thousands of people die every day. (And as my podcast co-host Brian Hogg is wont to remind us, the real tragedy there is that we never know that any of them ever existed.) And celebrities also die. That they seem to be dropping at a higher rate this year is attributable to any number of banal things.

Terrible national and global events happen in every year. Is it’s not political upheaval in one country its a natural disaster in another. Usually it’s both. 2016 may seem more tumultuous simply because this time it’s happening to us in the United States, you know, the Only Country That Really Matters™.

And of course, we all lead lives of varying degrees of drama, triumph, and misery. We all go through major life changes, endure challenges, learn new things about ourselves, and all the while the people we love do too. In some years more, in some years less.

And yet.

I had been thinking about writing about this subject – the “cursed” 2016, the Year of the Dumpster Fire – for some time, but I kept holding off, guessing that something might yet still happen, some big kick in the face, punch in the gut, or other metaphorical impact with a body part. I or a family member might find our lives upended, another beloved public figure might unexpectedly drop dead, another world event might Change Everything once again.

Of course, “2016” didn’t kill Carrie Fisher. Or George Michael. Or Prince or Bowie or Rickman. 2016 didn’t elect Donald Trump, or push the North Carolina state government to reject democracy. 2016 didn’t set loose the horrors of Syria or the attacks in Berlin, Nice, Orlando, or anywhere else. I know this.

But I also think it’s okay to recognize that these things did all happen during this year. Arbitrary and invented as it may be, the calendar is how we human beings conceptualize the passage of time and how we understand our history. So whether or not there is any preexisting or preordained “meaning” to the gathering of events between one January and another, we can’t help but experience it as a whole, of a piece. 2016, whether it’s logical or not, has a particular character to it.

For me, the year has been truly extraordinary, with highs, lows, and major discoveries that I’m just beginning to comprehend. Just off the top of my head: I found out that I’m autistic and my brother was diagnosed with fucking eye cancer (and then dozens of people pitched in to help him pay for medical expenses).

(I also went through far fewer phones than last year, only two tablets, and one pair of headphones. Take that, 2015!)

And while 2016 isn’t cursed, events do cascade to initiate other events. For example, it now seems clear that the madness of the GOP presidential primaries, both horrifying and hilarious at the time, could not be contained within the strict confines of a singular political party’s zealots. The fire raged into the general electorate, and Donald Trump wound up being elected by technicality. It didn’t happen “because it’s 2016,” but it did happen in 2016 because events that also happened to take place in temporal proximity set its eventuality in motion.

There are still four days left in 2016 as I write this. I can’t help but feel genuine anxiety about what yet may come during that time. And if some new earth shattering event occurs on January 1, 2017, it simply won’t feel like it’s part of the same whole. It will be its own era, a new volume to the chronicles. But it will also be irrevocably knocked askew by the events of 2016.

Not because a vaguely-sentient 2016 made them happen. But because they did happen in 2016. And it’s okay to take that in, to feel it in your chest. You don’t have to ascribe agency to the year to acknowledge its impact. It’s okay to think of that particular arrangement of four numerals, then pause for a moment, and feel a sense of dreadful awe.

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In a Dark, Confusing World: Carl Sagan, 20 Years Gone

20c_carl_saganTen years ago today I wrote a piece about the impact Carl Sagan had on my life, commemorating what was then the tenth anniversary of his death.

Today, obviously, Carl Sagan is 20 years gone, so I’ve dusted off the original piece to see if it still holds up. It does. Every word of it remains true. (Except I might today not talk about being “excited” to live in the world, but, you know, I grow more curmudgeonly and Asperger-y as I age.)

So, to mark two decades of being Carl-less, here’s “Why Paul Was Sad That Day,” written December 20, 2006. I’ll have additional thoughts at the end of the original piece.


I don’t remember where I was when I first heard that Carl Sagan had passed away, but I do remember where I was later that night. I was in college, hanging out at my friend’s apartment. A few close friends were there, and I brought up the news item of Dr. Sagan’s death.

“Carl Sagan died today,” I said, sadly.

“Who’s Carl Sagan?” was the reply.

I was totally surprised, because I assumed everyone knew who he was. I didn’t expect that most people had read a bunch of his books, or had seen Cosmos (recently, anyway), but surely he was famous enough to warrant recognition by my friends at least. I mean, Johnny Carson had imitated him! “Billions and billions!” Come on people!

I tried to convey to them why it was so bad that we had lost this important man, and while my friends played along and humored me, I really couldn’t get my message across. I would have to grieve a little more privately. It was too lonely to be openly morose about the death of a man who, to everyone I was with, was no more than some guy that nerds worship for space or something. Maybe now, ten years later, I can have another go at it.

When Cosmos first aired, I was too young to understand any of it, at age three or four. It wasn’t long after, though, maybe only a couple of years, that my dad played me the series, recorded on videotape (on Beta, no less). He knew I was interested in space, but only inasmuch as it was a location where Star Wars took place and the Transformers came from. Would I sit still for a lengthy PBS series on the real thing?

Not only did I love the series as a child, but I would continue to love it as I grew up. Having the entire series on videotape was a tremendous blessing, as I would watch it in its entirety every couple of years for most of my childhood, well into college. In our house, Carl Sagan was a huge celebrity, frequently cited (and imitated). We would be delighted to see him appear on other shows, or be referenced or made fun of by comics. But what was it that was so great about him?

Carl Sagan was a gifted storyteller. Even to a fifth grader, the story of evolution, the birth of the solar system, the building of DNA, or the death of a star were all as fascinating as any fictitious story about monsters or aliens. While these things were no doubt of passing interest to me as long as I can remember, Carl Sagan made them thrilling.

As I got older, and read his books, I realized that he was about more than appreciating how cool outer space was. My appreciation for his work deepened tenfold when I heard his call to rationality. His dismissal of superstition and shortsightedness was influential to me even in the early part of my life, but it was upon reading The Demon-Haunted World that I had a framework to discuss it. I had a means to verbalize and visualize what had always been to me simply an abstraction, wanting to be logical and thoughtful. Carl Sagan shifted, in my mind, from a celebrity to a role model.

With Dr. Sagan, you didn’t need to layer on any supernatural hocus-pocus for the world to inspire and overwhelm. Biology, chemistry, and physics were plenty astounding on their own. And it wasn’t for science’s sake, or even for wonder’s sake. It was for our sake. Sagan knew that to understand our Universe, and to marvel at life on our planet, was to cherish it, and to work to preserve it. And by preserving it, we preserve ourselves. If there’s anything I think Carl Sagan wanted, it was for humans to survive into the millennia, so we can get a fair shot at growing, evolving, and unlocking more of the Universe’s secrets. He essentially wanted us to stay alive, and not to stay put.

the_sounds_of_earth_record_cover_-_gpn-2000-001978I have been a professional actor and musician for many years, and I am now moving into the world of professional politics. I am not, and probably never will be, a scientist. But if Carl Sagan’s goal was to open the wonders of science and the value of reason to non-scientists, I am his poster boy. I think Sagan’s purpose was not necessarily to make scientists, but to sow an appreciation and enthusiasm for the Universe as it actually is. Even though my career and career-to-be are not strictly about the workings of the world at the quantum level, the appreciation for those things that Sagan has fostered in me has made me excited to live in this world and inspired me to understand it and work toward its welfare.

Today, I read the works of folks like Richard Dawkins, Tim Ferris, and Brian Greene, and I devour their words and delight in the struggle to wrap my brain around concepts like branes, supersymmetry, and Bussard collectors. The problem is that I never would have taken the plunge into the world these scientists inhabit if Carl Sagan had not opened the door for me in the first place. I fear that without someone like him today, someone who can ignite the imagination as he could, far too few people will be drawn to science and reason. In a dark, confusing world that seems to be shying further and further away from those very things, I mourn the loss of Carl Sagan anew, on this day, the tenth anniversary of his death. I wish so very much he was still with us, because we need him today more than ever.

And that, my college friends of 1996, is why I was so sad that day.


Back to 2016. That last sentiment, that we need Sagan now more than ever, has only become more true. Only yesterday, our Electoral College formalized the election of a man to the presidency who embodies the brazen rejection of everything good Sagan represented. Misinformation is the rule now, not the exception. Conspiracy theory and emotion-fueled irrationality is the coin of the realm. Planetary-level existential threats, the kinds that Sagan would have given all of his energies to working against, are now accelerated.

If there exists an individual or individuals who have the inspirational power that Sagan possessed, I’m not aware of him or her. Many come close. But I’m afraid that they don’t come close enough. I do hope I am wrong.

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Immortality the Ineffable Underdog

Photo credit: Macrophy (Grant Beedie) via / CC BY-SA

Everyone you love and everyone you know and everything you touch will someday be gone. We will lose our lovers, our friends, our parents, our children, our animals, ourselves. The pain will be almost intolerable. The jobs we define ourselves by will end. Anything you make with your own two hands will eventually be dust. It will take only a few generations for you to be completely forgotten within your own family.

This is by Elmo Keep (she who is responsible for so much of the Mars One reporting/debunking that I’ve written about on this blog), who has written a positively brilliant, lengthy piece for The Verge on transhumanism, Zoltan Istvan, and the effort to harness technology to make human life, in some form or another, everlasting. Read the whole goddamn thing.

And this passage by Keep about the unbearable inevitability of death, this is exactly why I (like other white, male, no-longer-young tech enthusiasts) am so attracted to transhumanism in the abstract. We find ourselves living at a time when the ascent of computer superintelligences and, simultaneously, our ability to “meld” with computers are remarkably plausible. Perhaps not certain or even likely, but it’s out there in the hypothetical “someday.” If you squint, you can almost faintly see the event horizon of the Singularity.

And because I’m/we’re no longer young, we feel the tension, the gravitational pull, the off-putting gaze of death. We don’t have to squint to see it over the horizon. We just can’t quite tell how far away it is, exactly, but we know for certain it’s there.

So it’s a race, of sorts, or we imagine it to be. Two runners, death (nature) and immortality (technology), and the finish line is our lives.

We’re rooting for the Singularity, or at least for technology to save us from death. But right now, it’s no more than rooting, and for an underdog no less (or no more). If you’re like me and pushing 40, being saved by technology is a lot less likely than it is for, say, my kids.

But even so, we’re talking about something ineffable, really. A notion, a dream, nothing that’s been proven to be the case, to be imminent. We don’t know that technology will defeat death, or even vastly extend and preserve human life. We just really, really hope, and see inklings of possibilities. But that’s not enough for anyone to be hanging their hats on. To be working on? Investing in? Sure, fine.

I can’t afford to get my hopes up about it, though. I couldn’t bear the disappointment. The grief-upon-grief-upon-regret. I can watch for developments, and I can cheer on advances. But I can’t let myself believe in it.

But, oh, would I like to. I would like to so very much.

Transhumanism as a Possibility, Not a Promise

Photo credit: Smashn Time / Foter / CC BY-NC-SAThe caption by the artist is, "They are one weird bunch, essentially a brain in a box."
I have a soft spot for the transhumanists, and as I’ve said, if they were a little less sure of themselves and their goals, and if they were just a little less, well, religious in their faith about what technology and artificial intelligence will bring, I could see to donning the label myself.

Zoltan Istvan, the movement’s (and party’s) presidential candidate is the embodiment of this faith. A huge, strong fellow who has led a life that resembles Indiana Jones-meets-extreme sports, he has put himself at mortal risk countless times, only to undergo a kind of revelation about just how fragile and short life – even his – can be. Now he’s a kind of missionary for immortality, using his presidential campaign (such as it is) to get us talking and thinking more seriously about making life-extending technologies a prime priority for society.

After reading a fascinating “campaign trail” report by Dylan Matthews at Vox on Istvan, and watching Istvan’s 2014 TEDx presentation, I think I see something that distinguishes Istvan from what I normally think of when considering transhumanism.

To me, transhumanism is advocacy of the utilization of technology to radically improve, augment, and transform human life. Its “faith” is that machines and humans will merge in one form or another, and very soon, so that there will be no distinguishing between flesh and robotics, computer and brain, software and mind. And this is supposed to happen in the next few decades, in what’s called the Singularity. The person most associated with this line of thinking is of course futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, now a lead engineer at Google. He is the transhumanists’ equivalent of a prophet, and he is himself obsessed with keeping himself alive as long as possible in order to experience this Singularity himself.

If I were to paint in the broadest of strokes, I’d say that the Kurzweilian transhumanists are very much jazzed about the gee-wiz of technology, the wow-factor of look-what-we-can-do. Having a brain uploaded to a super-internet, enhanced by unfathomably powerful computers, is a kind of Rapture, a removal from existence as we know it. Maybe this isn’t a fair characterization, but it’s how it seems from my vantage point.

Zoltan Istvan is, I now think, a little different from this. If you take him at his word, he is after not advancement for advancement’s sake, but for “beauty.” As he says in his TEDx talk, “Unless you are alive, it is impossible to experience beauty.”

And it seems to all stem from this. The idea that death is a ridiculous waste, and that life offers so much beauty and enrichment, the likes of which we as mere homo sapiens have barely scratched the surface. In order to truly know what he calls “new concepts” and “new arenas” of beauty, we have to, first, not be dead (obviously), and second, invest in the kinds of technologies that will allow for this kind of life extension and experiential enhancement.

As someone who is on the record (severally) as one who fears death like nobody’s business, I am deeply sympathetic to this…what is it, aspiration? Wish? I wholeheartedly share Istvan’s view that death is something to be avoided and ultimately conquered, because as far as we silly meat-robots are concerned, there is literally nothing beyond our experience of this one short life. If we are a way for the universe to know itself, as Carl Sagan put it, I really do feel like the universe should get more of a chance to do so by not letting its intelligent, sentient creatures die.

And there was one more thing that surprised me about Istvan, and this from his profile by Dylan Matthews, who was joined on the Immortality Bus by fellow journalist Jamie Bartlett:

On many matters, Zoltan openly concedes that he just doesn’t know what to do. … To Jamie, who in addition to writing for the Telegraph is working on a book about “political revolutionaries” for Random House, this is striking. The other chapters in Jamie’s book profile movements characterized by unwavering faith in an inviolable set of principles. He’s writing about ISIS, about neo-Nazis, about radical Islamists in Canada. These are people willing to take extreme measures precisely because they know they’re right. That raises the question: Zoltan has a beautiful home, with two beautiful daughters. His wife makes a healthy living for the family, and he can get by as a futurist on the speaker circuit too. He could be in his bed with his wife, knowing that his kids are safe in the next room…

But instead, he’s sleeping on the side of the road in a decrepit 37-year-old RV without running water. Why, Jamie asks, if you’re not sure your ideas are correct, are you willing to go through all this? Zoltan shrugs. He’s not sure. Nobody’s ever sure. But he thinks his beliefs have better odds of being true than the alternatives. Otherwise, he wouldn’t believe them.

He’s not sure. And he can say so. It makes me feel a little better that what Istvan is selling is not a promise, but a possibility. This is probably why he refers to it as “the transhumanist wager” and not “the transhumanist guarantee.” He’s betting on this path to a better future, because why not? Why not invest heavily in technologies that will improve our lives, enhance our abilities, and perhaps one day eradicate death itself? Of course a comparable investment in ethics will be required for such a path, but there are positive dividends to be gained from that as well.

I suppose the “why not” could be the dangers of explosively advancing artificial superintelligence, a danger that folks from Nick Bostrom to Elon Musk are warning us against. In this line of thinking, the superintelligent machines (or machine) won’t give two figs about human lifespans or our experience of beauty, and rather pose a kind of threat in which our extinction is a small event.

So despite the enthusiasm of Istvan, or Kurzweil or any transhumanist for that matter, I can’t get too pollyanna about this. Set aside the actual feasibility of the transhumanist wager being won, I don’t feel like I can even spare the emotional investment in such a future. Can there be more of a crippling, depressing letdown than to believe that death will be conquered, only to discover that it won’t? “The human being is not a coffin,” Istvan says, but for now, it is, eventually.

Perhaps this makes me a lazy transhumanist, or a spectator transhumanist. I’m not yet willing to go there with them, but it isn’t to say that I don’t want them to keep going there. I think what I also want from them, then, is to do a little more of what I glimpse Istvan doing: admitting that they might be wrong.


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Frozen Worms = Immortality Around the Corner

Photo credit: Joneau / Foter / CC BY-NC

Cryogenics has long been the province of cranks, charlatans, and the easily-duped (I’m not a big This American Life fan, but the “Mistakes Were Made” episode is one for the ages), but its aims are right in my neurotic wheelhouse. I want the opportunity to extend my life as long as possible, but cryogenics was always a pipe dream, Captain America aside.

But hold on, folks. Because it’s not just enhanced World War II-era supersoldiers who can retain something of themselves after a lengthy deep freeze. Worms can do it too!

Here’s John Hewitt at ExtremeTech:

Two researchers, Natasha Vita-More and Daniel Barranco, have now proven for the first time that cryogenically-suspended worms retain specific acquired memories after reanimation. [ … ]

To do this, the researchers first trained the worms to move to specific areas when they smelled benzaldehyde (a component of almond oil). After mastering this new task, the worms were bathed in a glycerol-based cryoprotectant solution and put into to a deep freeze. When the worms were thawed, they remembered their job and moved to the right spot when benzaldehyde wafted in.

And this worked with two different freezing methods.

We clearly need to move on this. Fast. Defense of the homeland? The Mars program? Alaska? Forget them. Sell it all off, shut it all down, and let’s fund the shit out of this.

Then, as we continue to make Earth utterly miserable and uninhabitable, a select few of us can be frozen, and kept safe over the centuries until things, er, cool off. Then we’ll emerge from our slumbers, have all of our memories intact, and then, well, I guess we start killing each other over dominance and resources and mates and whatnot.

Wait, that went in a direction I didn’t intend.


Memére and Toby (at 14 months old)

When I first visited Maine with my then-bride-to-be, Memére filled me in on a lot of the family history, though she probably had little idea who I was as she talked. She was my wife Jessica’s grandmother, but she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, so it took her a little longer to understand what the hell this new person in her life was doing talking to her in her home.

Memére opened her home to us, a couple of years after Jess and I were married, when two assailants beat me near to death in the streets of Washington, D.C., and we had decided to suddenly pick up and leave to start a new life with our baby boy in Maine. That would not have been possible had Memére not let us live in her home, all three of us, for what became a half a year. She likely had less of an idea of what she was agreeing to than one might like, given how her Alzheimer’s was advancing, but the whole clan was behind our planned migration. And Memére was great about it.

Lorraine Boutet died last night at the age of 88, finally through with the battle with reality that her brain had been putting her through for years. She actually stuck around in that state a lot longer than anyone thought she could. Really, longer than I thought any human could, but it just shows how hearty she was. (Her obituary, written by her granddaughter Jess, is here.)

Memére was nothing if not tough. Well, the word I’ve heard most charitably used by her daughters is “stern.” I never knew her before the Alzheimer’s, but even as I’ve known her, she’s never been one to suffer fools or tolerate a lot of bullshit. It should be noted, though, that she lit up when the little kids were around. She found my two young children absolutely delightful, even when she was in the darkest depths of her Alzheimer’s. The kids could always get her to smile, wider than I ever saw her any other time.

Though stern, she loved her family deeply, but showed it by taking care of business and keeping everything together. When that was no longer her role, when it couldn’t be her role, it was hard for her and hard for us to watch her scramble to feel useful.

One moment that stands out to me is when she couldn’t identify our coffee maker that we’d brought with us to Maine, so she disassembled it, washed every component as if they were dishes, and then put all of it into the recycling bin. She didn’t quite know what was going on, but absolutely had to be taking care of things, whether what she was doing made any sense or not.

This is of course a memory of her very late in life. What she was like in her prime I know only from stories, but in a different way I also know it from the character of her progeny. I’m honored every day to be a member-by-marriage of this remarkable family that Lorraine Boutet once managed, cared for, and set an example for. And nearly every day amazed by their generosity of spirit, which is perhaps the greatest compliment I can give anyone. Memére did that. The refrain I heard several times as people spoke of her, and to her in her hospice bed, was, “You did good, Mem.”

And when my own new, little family was in its greatest time of need, even though (as she herself put it) she didn’t quite have all her marbles, she took care of us, too. She has always had, and will always have, my gratitude for that. You did good, Mem.

To Persist, to Ponder

Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi died on March 9 of lung cancer. He was, as I am, 37 years old. He had, as I do, a young daughter. (I also of course have a son.) Before he died, Kalanithi wrote about his mortality, the change in his experience of time, and what held meaning for him in his last days.

Time for me is double-edged: Every day brings me further from the low of my last cancer relapse, but every day also brings me closer to the next cancer recurrence — and eventually, death. Perhaps later than I think, but certainly sooner than I desire. There are, I imagine, two responses to that realization. The most obvious might be an impulse to frantic activity: to “live life to its fullest,” to travel, to dine, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions. Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time, it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day. It is a tired hare who now races. But even if I had the energy, I prefer a more tortoiselike approach. I plod, I ponder, some days I simply persist.

Even to those of us whose end is not impending (as far as we know) this is a satisfactory state. To persist and ponder.

Kalanithi writes of his goals and achievements now belonging exclusively to the past, and I’m glad that at the same age as he, I need to not succumb to that feeling, though at times I can feel like being 37 means that all meaningful opportunities are now lost. It is a fallacy, but one whose fiction I must constantly remind myself of. Kalanithi’s piece helps.

Here’s part of why there is meaning in the middle ground, of reaching a point where, as he puts it, there is less “ascending” and more of a plateau. It’s a good plateau. (Forgive me, this is his final paragraph, so, I suppose “spoiler alert”?)

When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

20150221_093538When my 2 1/2-year-old daughter greets me when I pick her up from daycare, she greets me with her whole self, throwing so much joy and love at me I can hardly take it all in. Things quickly move on to her inquiring frantically about the immediate availability of fruit snacks, but in those tiny welcoming seconds, I feel a lifetime of meaning.