Avian Flu

Look at any city in the old world through the double-pane visor of your environmental suit, and you will see mankind’s buildings were nothing more than expensive roosts for the myriad.

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Her name is Aiko Njemba, and her brains have fanned out behind her like a carmine halo, a saint of the flesh…

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It’s 6:53 a.m. and I’ve had a migraine or aseptic meningitis for about six hours. I decided to write this because I’ve known people with chronic migraines and they have trouble explaining what it’s like, whereas my relationship with pain is somewhat rare.

Before I start, I should say that I’ve (self) ruled out septic meningitis by checking my temperature and having my wife look me over for a rash. If either of those were off, I’d be in the hospital right now. This is most likely food-induced – my wife had the same thing eating from the same restaurant two months back, and I blew it off because she was on a new medication that listed this as a side effect. She couldn’t even bear to hear the place mentioned. It’s either MSG or something fungal. I’ve already apologized to her for taking it lightly.

It started around 1 a.m. with some intense visual auras. Imagine a circle the diameter of a coffee mug; everything inside that circle is clear. Everything outside the circle is blurry and surreally three-dimensional, like looking at a hologram. I started to have pain in the muscle that runs on the right side of the nape of my neck, and where it connects to my skull. I was watching a T.V. show, it was late, so I decided I’d finish the episode and go to bed.

By the time I came to bed, it felt like I had a steak knife shoved into my brain just above the left end of my right eyebrow. This was a constant pain, that throbbed with movement and sound. My neck felt like I’d strained it, and when I laid down, it felt like my right temple was a water balloon that had been taped and pricked with a needle, so a thin stream of pain was trying to shoot out, or like popping a painful zit that reached 1 inch into my head. The muscle on the right side of my right eye was pulling like I was cramping. It sucked.

I’m a martial artist, a kinesthetic learner, and I’ve been meditating for 16 years (no religion or mantras, just mindfulness). I calmed myself down, decided the pain in my temple wasn’t severe enough for an aneurysm (also I wasn’t dead) and started to do what I could to make things better for myself.

The first thing I did was focus myself in the moment. You read about this a lot and it always sounds like bullshit. Here’s what it really means. When you’re dealing with constant pain, physical or otherwise, it’s almost always bearable. If it was unbearable, you would lose consciousness. What’s not bearable is the idea that this pain is going to keep going, or get worse. It’s like cleaning a house that’s been trashed by a party or running a marathon: if you try to do it all at once, you lose hope and it feels so much worse. But if you can focus on just what you’re feeling at this one moment and nothing else, it’s not as bad. You’re just running the next 100 yards, picking up the next piece of trash.

From there, I started to try different positions. Lying on my left side hurt pretty badly. Lying on my stomach with my head turned right, not as much. With my position as good as it could be, I started relaxing. My neck and my eyes (even though they were shut) were straining, so I tried to “feel” into the muscles and imagined opening my hand to let go. The muscles relaxed, and my pain decreased. You can actually do the same thing with your brain. Imagine trying to remember something that’s on the tip of your tongue, or work through a tough math equation. It’s the opposite of that. If I let my mind wander, my muscles and brain tensed up again, so this is kind of like playing whack a mole with your body.

With all that going on, I was managing the pain, but the problem I’ve found with mindfulness is that while, like any effort, it’s fatiguing, it also makes it impossible to fall asleep unless you stop. On normal nights, I’ll think about my breathing or clear my thoughts without meaning to, and I’ll have to “forget” I can do that before I can sleep for the night. Tonight, it was the only thing keeping me from some pretty intense pain, so that wasn’t an option. Instead, I cleared my thoughts, relaxed more deeply, and tried to give my brain a rest. Time stretched. Four hours felt as long as a full day at work. The slightest shifts or sounds stabbed into me. At 6 a.m., listening to the garbage trucks outside, I woke my wife and started medicating.

I started with two Excedrin migraine, which may have been a mistake. The knife in my eyebrow withdrew from 4 inches to 1 inch, but my whole brain felt like it had been rolled in crushed glass. The caffeine also made me wide awake, and nauseous. I got up and did half of the Tai Chi Chuan long form, and that helped. I took 5 mg of prednisone once I remembered the aseptic meningitis bit. Sitting on the toilet, I noticed a clicking our light makes for the first time. Every click startled me slightly, which caused pain. I relaxed – I’d learned to ignore gunfire, after all, and I grew up in a city with city noises – and the pain from that stopped. I also quickly learned not to try to understand what my wife was saying. If I heard it, I heard it, and if I didn’t I asked her to repeat herself. The key to the noise and the words and the Tai Chi seems to be not to exert effort, at all.

I feel a little light-headed and weak, I’m going to try to get an hour of sleep and then go to work for a couple hours. There’s a report I produce every day; I’m going to do that, and come home, hopefully be tired enough to pass out. If you’ve never experienced a migraine, hope this helps you imagine it, and feel free to ask questions. If you’ve had or are having them, my sympathies, hope something in this helps you bear them with even a fraction less pain.

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Deep Learning and Cat Photos

So I've been learning about "deep learning" for work, which in layman's terms (and I am very much a layman) is a way of getting computers to beat the captcha code - understand things we understand intuitively, only sometimes better.

I should explain.

To a computer, a picture isn't "a picture" the way we think about it (we could argue that even we don't think of it the way we think we do). To a computer, a picture is a "grid" of pixels, and each picture is a color. A color is just a number (okay, a vector or matrix) - often a three part code called an RGB like (0,0,0) is black and (255,255,255) is white. Many computers don't even have eyes, but they're all overgrown calculators, so numbers they understand.

They also understand differences in numbers. When two similar numbers are close together, that's probably two bits of the same thing. If two different numbers are close together, that's an edge.

That's where cat pictures come in.

Suppose you were to tell a computer that a cluster of edges was a cat (1). That'd be swell, and if that cat sat in that position at that distance from the computer, it might even recognize it. Maybe you'd also show it a picture of an ice cream, or a dinosaur, and inform it that this was not-a-cat (0). If you did that a couple thousand times, the computer could come up with a better than even guess of what a cat "looked" like, based on the relationship between all those edges.

Like the sadistic parent you are, you then give your beaming machine 100 pictures and don't tell it what they are. It has to guess. Then you tell the poor thing it got 40% of the answers wrong and it says "01100110011101010110001101101011" which is a curse word in binary.

Scientists don't actually know how our brain works. A simple neuron does a lot more than fire or not fire, and the brain's storage capacity is very very big (or at least much bigger than our attention span). And the task is frankly unfair; computers can't take 2 years of pulling the family pet's ears, smelling kitty litter, and getting scratched to figure out what a cat is, mostly because we're not that patient.

Fortunately for them, computers can do a lot of math really quickly. So it takes a look at what change in its assumptions would make its guess more accurate (it takes the slope and subtracts it bla bla bla calculus stuff) and does that a couple thousand times, for each individual pixel, all at once. Then it tries again. Then it wipes the slate and tries again from another direction. It tosses its assumptions to the wind, ignores some pixels one round and stares at them another, because a computer doesn't really care what a cat is, but it's pretty dedicated to being right.

And once it knows what a cat is, it can crawl around the web collecting thousands of cat pictures for your perusal without ever taking a break.

So when you're pissed your screen won't unlock, or facial recognition doesn't work, or your spellchecker missed a missing word, keep in mind all the work that programmer had to go through to get your fancy calculator to surf cat pictures.



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Home is where the heart is

I was sitting on a flight between New York and Zurich when we ran into some very light turbulence. It wasn't the kind where your neighbor who doesn't like to fly gets a death grip on their armrest; most people stayed asleep, but the flight attendants still hurried to their seats. Curious, I checked the in-flight channel. We'd lost a couple thousand feet in a minute or two. I laughed out loud because most of the passengers didn't have a clue.

I was a pilot. I don't fly anymore, except as a passenger. On my first tour, I had three other helicopters crash in my squadron, with the crews killed or permanently injured, and almost died or crashed eight times. Of the times I experienced, one was due to enemy fire, one was almost due to friendly/neutral fire, and the rest were accidents. I did the math, considered myself lucky, and did my next deployment on the ground.

Everyone's combat experience is different. I can't speak for anyone else. I'm proud of the discomfort we experienced. I pulled a trigger and called in airstrikes; getting shot would have been fair play, though I successfully did my level best to avoid it. Another officer and I (and a squad of Marines) walked into an enemy controlled village in the middle of the night to meet an elder who never showed up. I had dysentery once. Corpsman gave me Cipro when I finally went to medical after several days of constant fluidity. I thought it was funny then, and I still think it's funny now. Dying for no reason, to no gain, not to save someone's life or in a measured gamble to win against a clever foe, but because I got a bad roll of the dice or stepped in the wrong place? Hard pass.

I finished my deployments, finished my commitment, got out, kept the stories, no regrets, I'd do it all again. But I was edgy. I called in a suspicious package, my first year in New York. When I took a walk through one of the less opulent neighborhoods of Geneva at night, I did my best to project "hard target" and people crossed the street to avoid me. I don't attack people who startle me, but I could. I don't take cover when a firecracker goes off, but I figure out where the sound came from, just in case. I plan to live a long time.

In April of 2012 (I think, I'm terrible with calendars), I went back to Monaco, where I grew up, for the first time in 10 years. Monaco's a funny place. One family is responsible for making sure all the real estate is maintained and painted regularly. The police officers dress like Marines, even though they're not quite as sharp, and they're polite, multilingual, and everywhere. It's governed by the longest dynasty in the world, including Egyptian and Chinese rulers. The streets are clean*; the buses run on time. It's so predictable, I used the passive voice. Nothing happens in Monaco, not even accidents.

I was standing in a park on the side of the Rock, where the palace is. The gardens in Monaco are lovely and, like cops and surveillance, plentiful. But the smell hit me, the mix of the sea breeze and that particular combination of Mediterranean flora, the feel of the springy rubber of the playground under my feet where I'd run as a child over a decade back. New buildings had sprung up in other parts of the Principality, but this place was the same. Something inside me relaxed. I didn't feel the need to be watchful at all, and I thought, I'm standing at the precise point on Earth where the form of an idea has taken substance. I was safe. This was home.

*Even Monaco can't convince all the octogenarian heiresses to pick up after Mr. Ruffles, but it'll be pressure washed away by morning.


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Love, by other names

You can tell a lot about someone from the language or languages they speak. Cultural assumptions, thoughts, truths are nested into what can or can’t be said, and the word roots or idioms used to say them.

The Greeks didn’t invent philosophy—it was called wisdom long before Thales got his feet wet (this is a clever joke, look it up). But they were systematic about it and their language lends itself to analysis. As such, when I learned we had only one or two words for “love” in English and the Greeks had around 6*, depending on how wide you cast the net, I was interested.

You can find these on other sites, and I recommend it because it will help you write better romances and live them as well, but I like to touch on them in a particular order, which I hope you’ll find useful.

The first is philautia, or self-love. I am not, of course, encouraging narcissism, which is an unjustified self-esteem that is insatiable and self-destructive in its need for positive affirmation. Rather, I’m talking about a comprehensive and comprehending knowledge of who you are and why you do things and an acceptance of that person (other than things you care enough about to change). Philautia is important because no one else will let you see their every dirty secret, their weakness, their desperate need unless they think of you as part of themselves, which we’ll get to later.

Philautia makes agape possible. Agape is charity, the universal and unconditional love we have for all human beings. It’s your tolerance of other people’s imperfections, the kindness with which you fulfill their needs or spare them pain. Here’s a thing: if you can’t love yourself, knowing the full context and justification of your actions, and the things you didn’t do through great restraint, you can’t love other people. The best you can hope for is a kind of blind optimism that will continually disappoint you when people behave the same way you really do. Here’s another: people can smell agape from a mile away. It’s that sense that someone isn’t going to laugh at you or spit in your face when you bare your heart to them. It invites people in.

And if, when they step closer, something catches your eye that’s a trigger for you, a delight, something that fills your soul, you’ve hit eros. You’ve heard of eros. Some of you are sniggering already. The Greeks didn’t like eros that much, or at least the philosophers among them didn’t when they were calmly scribing or dictating. Eros is dangerous. You don’t control eros. It grabs you by the reproductive organs—I mean the heart—and leads you wherever it wants. It makes you do stupid things like find excuses to be near someone, or tear up when they flirt with someone else. It feels like the best and worst thing in the world. It destroys things that get in the way. This is good, because or else we’d never trust each other enough to reproduce. In English, it’s called infatuation, and it usually lasts between six months to two years, after which it lays dormant with occasional flare-ups (unless you feed it, which is a lot of fun).

As you actually get to know someone, you move into one of two states: philia or ludus. Philia is what we’d think of as true friendship, knowing someone and having an abiding but platonic (hah) fondness for them. It’s a more personal form of agape, and the two can be mistaken for each other. The main difference is how much effort you make to seek that person out over other people. Ludus, on the other hand, is the playful back-and-forth of children and lovers (whether sex is involved or not). It’s the jokes, the banter, the games, the fights, the dancing, and I would argue a certain level of deliberate and mindful sexuality. The key to moving from agape and eros to philia and ludus is understanding and esteem, because philia and ludus are shared by peers.

Finally, there is pragma. Pragma, the root of pragmatism, happens when you’ve decided the value of your philia or ludus is so great that you are willing to suffer for it. You compromise. You bend and trust the other person not to let you break. It’s the mark of long lasting friendships, marriages, and alliances between businesses and companies. It doesn’t do well with secrets and boundaries. It is completely rational because you are trading something temporary for something of greater value that will last your entire life. People in pragma defend each other, seek each other’s advantage, which is the beauty of it, because pragma leads from I to us. And when you’ve reached that point, you can loop right back to the beginning: philautia.

*I'm no Greek scholar, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once.



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A Marine joke

Since this past week has brought back a few memories, here's a joke that will make most Marines and people who know Marines laugh, and everyone else understand them a little better.

A U.S. Army corporal is out running in the hills with his team for PT (Physical Training). As they near a ridge, they see a Marine in full dress blues crest the skyline, raise a sharp salute, and then flip them the finger.

The corporal says, "Did you see that? You three go up there and kick his ass."

His team tears up the ridge, and the Marine backs away. There are crashes, and shouts, and a few whimpers. No one comes down.

The corporal hightails it in the other direction and runs into a squad practicing patrolling. He tells the squad leader what happened. The sergeant says, "Bullshit."

The corporal swears it's true.

The squad follows him up the hill, and the Marine crests the skyline in his dress blues. He raises a sharp salute, then flips them the finger.

The sergeant is pissed. "Get that guy!" he shouts, tearing up the hill. The others follow, except the corporal who hangs back.

Shouts. Clatters. Breaking glass. No one comes back.

Sweating and hiding behind a rock, the corporal calls his staff sergeant. The staff sergeant, being wiser and more experienced, realizes a rogue U.S. Marine loose in the hills is a major problem. He gathers a whole platoon - close to 50 soldiers - and marches them into the hills. They don't even slow as the Marine flips them off and disappears back over the hill, they just break into a run. The staff sergeant hangs back to make sure the corporal is okay. 

Crashes, screams, and the sound of someone crying, then silence. The staff sergeant shrugs at the corporal. "Well, let's go up there and make sure they don't beat him up too badly." They're halfway up the hill when one of the platoon members crawls over the ridge, face bruised and bleeding, and yells, "Staff Sergeant! Don't come up here; it's a trap! There's two of them!"

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WAO: Casual Pedestrians

The rain kept falling, I walked west along the river. I love light rain. A friend and I were talking about how our books tend to end up in, or narrowly avoid, a post-apocalyptic world, and I think it’s because we both enjoy not seeing another human being for miles around when we want to think. Rain keeps the casual pedestrian indoors. I was wearing my courier bag with 30lbs of weight in it, so I let myself get absorbed by the sounds, smell, and muted sights of the overcast day while trying to find the position that spread the load most evenly.

The ducks were out in force, flying after each other, swimming, or napping on the rocks by the river. A small clan of fierce duck warriors bickered and quacked at each other on the opposite shore, which of course was ridiculous because, well, they’re ducks. How can you possibly take that seriously? They’re the clowns of the animal kingdom, with all the comic/tragic sadism that entails.

I sat down on a bench in a small raised area where the Rhone and Arve river’s meet, the bag clinking on the stone behind me and weight lifting from my shoulders in more ways than one. An older English couple followed me up, but they left after a minute or two of trying to see where the nearest crossing was.

The Arve was green and a little milky like unpolished jade, with twinkling points of light where the sun caught raindrops hitting the fast flowing surface. I put my head on my hands, closed my eyes, and just listened for a while. There were three people – locals – who were also on the point for solace; they mostly sat still, away from each other, and watched the water. A group of kayakers was donning wetsuits and getting into the river, and they were much louder. The rain made a steady patter of white noise, masking the more distant sound of people on the high stone viaduct a few hundred yards downstream.

I opened my eyes and moved on when the rain stopped.

A foundry and warehouse turned indoor garden and music hall.

A foundry and warehouse turned indoor garden and music hall.

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