Monthly Archives: February 2011

Uncertainty

Posted by daniel.j.gallagher on February 09, 2011
Life Skills, Meta-Everything, Ranting and Raving / No Comments

I’ve been reading a lot of things recently involving the words “uncertainty” and “risk”.

For one thing, I’m a bit of a nerd about security, so I read Schneier on Security and to a lesser extent John Robb’s Global Guerillas. Schneier’s is a household name among network engineers and system administrators. Robb’s analysis sometimes fails to impress, due to his shallowness in some of the fields he brings together, but his broader derivations about 21st century war and security (as read in his book, Brave New War) are reasonable and at times novel and compelling. Both share my disdain for the security industrial complex, which they see as too incompetent and/or too politicized to provide effective solutions based on rational risk-analysis.

Understanding risk (or put another way, probability) lies at the heart of security, and of systems-level engineering, and at a deeper level is integral to all scientific discovery. And it is very difficult. I know fully well that in my day-to-day decision making, I make plenty of intuitive judgments that are systematically flawed in how they handle risk and reward. And in fact this has led me to want to study the art of rationality itself, which includes the foundational principles necessary for risk analysis as well as insight into how and why people get it wrong.

It’s disconcerting whenever you discover a source of uncertainty or unreliability lurking somewhere between your beliefs about the world and the truth of the world. I went through this in school when I realized all news sources must be treated with skepticism. I went through it again when I learned people’s reasoning from evidence is often wrong, even when they’re not trying to deceive. And let’s not forget that perception itself is fake, i.e. the brain fudges information to form complete experiences when in fact the direct neural input is full of gaps.

Regardless, the solution is not to give up, or to pretend these flaws don’t exist. As long as you have logic and creativity, you can see the different realities that might explain what your mind sees, and painstakingly collect the information that will distinguish truth from fiction. And if the answer turns out to be that your world is chaotic, with many equally likely future states (chaos is one of the things people can mean by “uncertainty”), then you can act on your lack of knowledge by designing for multiple contingencies.

I’d like to tell you that being an Aspie makes this easy to apply to life, and that being a logical-minded person it’s easy to overcome those built-in biases and deal with risk and uncertainty properly. I’d like to.

Actually, the way I deal with uncertainty is terrible. When it gets bad enough, I have a tendency to shut down. This is why I tend to seek stability, settle for what already works, and it’s at least part of why I have trouble forming and changing routines. Even though much of my day-to-day living is worked out on-the-fly with minimal planning or structure, I hate the feeling of my life being aimless or up in the air. Examples of this are changes in relationship status, jobs, or housing.

For the last year I have been dealing with more uncertainty than at any previous time. In this case “uncertainty” primarily means not chaos but compounded risk, and a new set of restrictions on my long-term strategy. I have increased my risk of dying young by something less than the (very low) odds of current treatments failing to keep my cancer at bay. Not a huge deal in and of itself. But I’ve also significantly increased uncertainties about what I can do in my life and my career, because to afford my treatment I must have health insurance at all times.

I need new strategies for a number of things right now, mostly to do with personal motivation and coping with emotional baggage, but decision making (including risk assessment) is bound to be in there somewhere. Because my bias against uncertainty is overwhelming, I need to learn what practices will make me feel safe and secure, as well as which actually do improve my situation. And I need to codify the values by which I plan to weigh decisions, now that I know life is going to be that much more complicated than I ever expected. A mission statement would not be out of place.

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Gallagher Vacation 2k10

Posted by daniel.j.gallagher on February 09, 2011
Photos, Yours Truly / No Comments

Author’s note: this post somehow got stuck in the intertubes (meaning, I forgot about it and never finished it) in late December.

Gallagher family vacation status: we came, we saw, we ate and we conquered.

Deckside toast, Kate and Dan

Seven days and nights touring the beautiful eastern Caribbean. Though we knew we’d be returning soon enough to our usual, non-pampered lifestyle and the worries we left behind at the port, we kept our heads in the game. Each in our own way, we found fun and relief in our surroundings, and took the time to tend to ourselves and each other.

My big sister and I for instance–we haven’t had so much quality time in years. We shared a cabin near the bottom of the ship, where the white churn of the waves along the starboard hull seemed only an arm’s length or two from the porthole. I’d been suffering from dry sensitive skin and pain in the arches of my feet. Kate was getting over mono and still physically exhausted. So on our days at sea, we availed ourselves of late breakfast, lounged on the pool deck, read our books and snacked. I spent a little more time exploring the ship and sunning myself; she, for obvious reasons, spent her afternoons napping.

The first thing to know about me and Kate is that we aren’t all that close historically, but we are very alike and we get along well. I gather siblings in their late 20s do not always have this property. Another thing to know is that our sense of humor is a little bent. Being nerdy and polyamorous is a recipe for irreverence. Around the same time I took the above picture, up on deck prior to the ship’s departure, a curious thing began to happen. We were singled out–a bit rudely–by ship’s staff, mainly by photographers who wanted to take shots of us together. Besides interrupting our conversation, this meant showing the guy my room card so he could tag the photo properly.

We quickly realized we were victims of a demographic statistic. With certain notable exceptions (such as the wait-staff), everyone on the ship assumed we were either just-engaged or just-married, and most thought the latter. The fact that Kate uses her ex-husband’s last name doesn’t indicate much of anything nowadays, clues in our behavior would be subtler, and positive bias means no one will think that far. Understanding how it conveniences others doesn’t make it less frustrating, of course.

At first we could only froth and speculate about how much of this hassle we were going to endure. Later it became the subject of a series of hypothetical pranks against staff, and general bemused and inappropriate commentary. After the first couple days at sea, the shutterbugs mostly stop biting anyway.

Apart from that fuss, we had a lot of fun times, a lot of time to get caught up on each other’s lives and commiserate about the downsides to ocean travel. Mainly that there was no free Internet service to be found anywhere, let alone data service to our Droids (cruise ships do provide Internet at pay-through-the-nose rates, but only via the computer lab). We were both missing our respective sweeties.

More than anything, it was just great to be around my family so much, sharing the beautiful settings and the memorable experiences. And the photos! There are some pretty excellent photos (which I’ll omit for now) of me and Kate at a treetop obstacle course in St. Maarten, as well as some decent formal and casual photos of us and of the whole family, mostly on-board. I’m still waiting for the close-up photos of me para-sailing, which was thrilling and serene and beautiful and basically everything else folks say it is.

There were also the serious times. Mom paid the ridiculous roaming rates to fight with doctors over the phone, when they pushed back the start date for her chemo treatment (Verizon says they have in-network island coverage, but it is a filthy filthy lie). She and I also had some frank discussion about cancer, and our strength as a family, and what should be done if she is incapacitated. I admire her ability to think with a clear level head under the circumstances.

As she told us at the outset, though, the primary objective of the trip was not let these thoughts hang around and prevent us from relaxing and regrouping as a family unit, and overall it was a big success. It gave me strength to last through to the end of the calendar year, and it’s helped me somewhat in keeping composure since then, while mom is at the winter house in Florida.

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Punctuation

Posted by daniel.j.gallagher on February 09, 2011
Life Skills, Meta-Everything, Yours Truly / No Comments

Before I launch hard into any life-recapping or other thoughts I wanted to blog…

I think I’m having serious issues with my punctuation.

I’m not talking about symbols on a page here. The structure of my sentences may be less inspired now than before I started my technical career, but it’s still correct. Hell, it could be flat wrong at this point and no one would care but me.

What’s been improperly punctuated is the equilibrium of my life.

Talented polymaths aren’t meant to live lives where each day blends predictably into the next. They aren’t meant to bear the stress and degradation of being in a rut, or ever lose track of the ambition to meaningful self-improvement. They aren’t meant to see socializing as a way of avoiding tasks and distracting from unpleasant thoughts.

I think that only through strategic prompts to mindful and mixed activity, on a frequent if not necessarily clockwork basis, can someone as fucked up as me avoid frequent executive breakdowns, not to mention the greater tragedy of a life coasting by, asleep at the wheel. One traditional prompt is this blog.

(My blogging has changed over the years. In terms of how often, and what, and in terms of why. Bloggers are well-known for missing their stated or unstated deadlines/goals for cranking out posts, and then publicly beating themselves up over it. I stayed my hand on the whip this time, to consider the fact and ask why. Self-discipline needs to be budgeted. If I find myself not doing something that I usually do of my own free will, maybe it’s not because of obstacles but because there is no longer a need or motivation to do it. I concluded that as a platform for marketing myself and influencing others, the Lost in the Groove has always been a disappointment, but for recording and post-processing and sharing my life (i.e. serving as an online diary) it is unsurprisingly quite good.)

I do have other, better enforced prompts. I have a therapist. I’m in phone contact with mom at least once a week. But they aren’t good enough by themselves to thoroughly break up all this chaos into manageable pieces. Life has to be punctuated. Otherwise, it has a nasty tendency to punctuate itself–to become defined and remembered by external events, unwelcome surprises, moments of pain and loss–and to take on a meaning you never intended.

The last twelve months has been punctuated in this way. A year ago doctors told me I had cancer (with a good prognosis). Three months ago they told mom she had cancer (with a shitty prognosis). Last week I held Michelle and watched her grieve over the death of a loved one.

I can’t control or reliably predict punctuating events of this kind, but I am responsible for countless other events that fall between, and are (in aggregate) the greater story.

So, while I could have tried (with some degree of success) to do laundry or paper shredding or some other immediately productive organizational task tonight, I decided to stop myself and think about punctuation for a while.

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