Something I learned from fixing things

Sewer Repair
Your savings? They are gone now.

Recently our sewer pipe broke, and it’s going to cost us 10 grand to fix it. Our yard is a mess with an excavation eight feet deep and 80 feet in length. But that isn’t the important thing.

The important thing is that in the last 5 years, most of the houses on the block have had to have this repair done. All the houses were built about 50 years ago. Buried clay tile only lasts about 40 to 60 years.

If you build a lot of something, they will all start to break at about the same time.

I’ve spent a lifetime fixing things. Cars, bicycles, photographic equipment, computers, and more. When something breaks, people turn around and look at me. From this I’ve learned that systems and objects have a “service life”. That is, you can expect them to last about n years before they need repair or replacement. If you have 100 of them, and plot how long they worked until failing, a failure curve will emerge.  Most of them will fail at approximately n years and a few will fail before and after.

The big picture

Crude MTBF concept sketch
Crude MTBF concept sketch (click to embiggen)

If you build a bunch of houses, most of them will need new sewer pipes around the same time. The same goes for roofs, furnaces, sinks, etc. Each of these systems has a Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) curve. When you look at that curve, you know about how long it takes the system in question to wear out or at least need maintenance.

Ideally, you should use this information to plan ahead. Because fixing them is gonna be real expensive.

This also applies, broadly, to roads, bridges, tunnels, train tracks, schools, water mains and sewers, and much more. Now suppose you cut way back on maintenance and replacement? What would the result be?

Right: the roads, bridges, pipes, and whatnot will all start failing at once. It’ll be like an invasion, with foreign saboteurs dynamiting your vital infrastructure. Only in this case, the saboteur is named “Entropy” and you were supposed to be staying ahead of him all along. It is doubtful that actual terrorists could do as much damage on as wide a scale.

But maybe you were distracted by fighting wars you didn’t need to fight, propping up financial firms that were too big to fail, and just generally pretending that Entropy didn’t exist. Eventually you won’t be able to deny it anymore, and by that time the economy will be suffering because the infrastructure that supports it will be in shambles. It didn’t take much foresight to know Entropy was coming. All our experience in everyday life tells us about him.  Our leaders would be morons to pretend otherwise, and we’d be morons to keep voting for them.

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Pain dreams

Daudet-150tn
Second in a series on Chronic Pain

The dog had my upper right arm in his jaws, biting down hard. I could feel nerves, muscles, blood vessels, tearing. I could feel pressure on the bone. I pushed away; I hit him on the head. But each blow only seemed to tighten his bite…

What the hell?

I learned about pain dreams 20-some years ago. Pain will keep you from sleeping, but only until fatigue overcomes it. But your brain remains active even when you sleep, and sleep has no analgesic properties. Pain is still coming in.

Ever hear a sound in your dreams, only to wake up and find that the sound is actually present in your bedroom? Or dream about going to the bathroom, only to wake up and find that you really need to go to the bathroom? You can see where this is going…

The collapsed building

One of my pain dreams has recurred hundreds of times over the years. I’m in an old, inner-city office building with brick walls and radiators and tall windows. Usually it seems like the offices of a newspaper, or some kind of bureau, and I’m talking to someone at an old-style, gray Steelcase desk with a linoleum top and rubber borders, and a manual typewriter and dial telephone on it. Then something happens and the building collapses. There’s dust and noise and rescuers are moving around. I’m laying in the street and a huge pile of bricks is crushing my legs. And then I wake up. In my bed. My legs hurting like hell in the darkness and quiet of my bedroom.

Shards of glass

In another dream, I am walking down the street, again in an older part of a downtown area with plate-glass windows. It is evening and the street lights are coming on. There is a flash of light in a store and I throw up my hands to protect my face. Then I am sitting on a park bench looking at my hands and forearms. They are full of shards and splinters of glass. As people move around me, I begin to pull out the pieces of glass, one by one. Some of them are small, but others are three inches ling. After pulling out a few glass pieces, I wake up, with my hands and arms hurting. Usually it’s a generalized ache punctuated by flashes of sharp pain, even though my hands are actually uninjured. Just pain for no damn reason. This dream has recurred probably 50 times.

Klein bottle pain dream

I’m lying in bed, seemingly bathed in pain. My feet hurt, my legs hurt. My arms and hands hurt. My face hurts. I let out an involuntary moan… and wake up. I’m lying in bed, just like in my dream, and my whole body hurts. Should I get up? Move around the house a little, have a glass of milk? Take some ibuprofen? Or something stronger? I lift up the sheet and my shoulder protests… and I wake up. I’m lying in bed. I dreamed that I woke up and found myself in pain. And I am in pain. Awake. And usually I get up and plod down the hall for a glass of milk. This dream has recurred 20 times or so.

 Other pain dreams

There are a few other, less-repeated brain inventions to explain pain while sleeping. I’m being interrogated. I got an electrical shock and have that weak, trembly pain all over. I’m walking down the street and someone punches me in the kidney. I fall, and my ribs hurt terribly. I’m in a movie theatre, and my legs hurt so much I can barely pay attention to the movie. Or I’m talking to someone in an office, and my legs hurt so that I can barely pay attention to them. Or a large dog has my arm in a vise-like grip and won’t let go.

Morning finally comes

These dreams usually occur between 2 and 4 am, and they often signal the end of that night’s sleep. Occasionally I can get back to sleep. On a few occasions there will be a second pain dream the same night. It’s fair to say pain dreams do not improve my efficiency or demeanor at the office. They usually portend a painful day as well.

Why these dreams are interesting, though…

With the possible exception of the kidney-punch* dream, these experiences are not correlated with any actual organic damage or disease. It’s simply a malfunction of the nervous system. The part of my brain that handles imaging, interpretation, context, and story is still active even when sleeping, and still receiving stimuli from the rest of the body.

This is actually normal dream functioning. If there is a cricket in your bedroom, you may hear the cricket in your dream. Different parts of your brain are doing what they do, even though you are asleep. I might speculate that there is an evolutionary reason for this; some animals barely sleep, or only some parts of their brains sleep while others keep watch. It appears this is true to some extent of humans. You smell smoke? Feel a large insect crawling on you? Hear footsteps in the hall where there should be no footsteps? Wake up! Pump adrenalin!

The human brain is a small universe that fits inside our heads. It reflects, prioritizes, images, and in small ways manipulates the universe around us.

About This Series

In this series I’m trying to write about pain as a subject. I have a strong intuition that understanding pain and its effects will do more good than our reflex to offer sympathy. In this series I will be posting links on social media for discussion purposes.

Chronic pain is very common, but little discussed. It can be caused by arthritis, fibromyalgia, or at the other extremes of intensity, cancer or nerve damage from accidents or surgery.  It affects personality, relationships, employment, goals, and sleep to name a few.

Notes:

  • The kidney-punch dream may be related to passing a small kidney stone. I have passed a number of them in waking hours over the years; big, spiky nasty ones. And possibly a bunch of smaller ones.
  • I don’t write about my dreams – positive or negative – very often. Mainly this is because I don’t think most dreams mean very much. But in this case I think they reveal something about how the brain and body work.

Pain, part 1

This series started out as one humongous postDaudet-200

I’ve been trying to write this post about chronic pain for more than 2 years, but finally decided to break it down into parts. After all, books have chapters, don’t they? This post is the first of several.

I’m not attempting anything profound here, just writing down my thoughts about an interesting aspect of my life. Writing stuff down is sort of what I do, so here goes.

When this started and maybe what started it

Starting around 22 years ago I had a series of operations, in which it seems that something went wrong with the anesthesia. At least, that’s my guess because doctors have not been able to explain why, since then, ordinary sensations are downright painful. Even washing my hands and drying them with a towel, or sitting in a chair for more than an hour. Even lying in bed only starts out comfortable. Sleep is a challenge, since staying in motion is the only thing that helps.

One doctor said that I have “fibromyalgia”, which is an ill-defined cluster of symptoms related to pain and fatigue. Because of pain’s effect on sleep I suspect the fatigue is a by-product. It’s been said you know that you have fibromyalgia when you wake up every morning feeling like you have a hangover and got into a bar fight the night before. When that goes on for years, it begins to wear on you.

Pain and personality

Chronic pain is very common. Something like 2 people out of 5 experience it, ranging from my miswired nerves to the relentless agony of a cancer or accident victim. Think of all the people you know, and several of them are probably in pain at least half of their waking hours. And (as I’ll discuss in a future installment) their sleeping hours as well.

Funny thing about pain; if it is persistent it warps your personality. Over the years, other people have noticed. Some years I become impatient with others, and struggle to filter what I say. This is, I assure you, a bad combination.

People with chronic pain actually get tired of sympathy

There’s a reason people generally don’t talk about their pain, and it is sympathy. That’s right; ordinary, well-intentioned compassion and kindness begins to wear thin. When a friend or co-worker says “Well I hope you feel better soon!”… and you know you won’t, you just don’t know how to respond. You also start to become cynical about their sympathy. And while cynicism is corrosive enough when it’s about strangers; it feels awful when you think it of your friends.

And why this series

I get through hospital stays by geeking out over the technology. It’s just so interesting, that I try to forget that I am the character in the story. And that’s what I’m doing here. I’m writing an inside perspective on something that’s a bit of a mystery: why do some people’s bodies experience pain when there’s no injury? What’s up with that? How to live with it? That’s my focus.

I plan to write about pain and doctors, drugs, depression, sleep, relationships, and anything else that comes to mind. And I’m writing it on my blog with links in social media because social media just seems too ephemeral to me. Social media is made for discussion but isn’t much good for archiving.

How to make an interesting movie about Superman

Superman – you know him, right? Super-powerful, super-nice guy. He’s so super it’s difficult to find villains who pose any challenge to him. He can’t be wasted on thugs and crooks; Superman stories tend to ratchet up to planet-threatening scale (even though a mugger or a rapist is just as big a threat to Lois as Lex Luthor could be).

In the most recent Superman flick Man Of Steel, the big guy wound up in a destructive world-saving fight before most Earthlings knew he existed. Here’s the trailer:

Not that a Superman movie could be realistic, but on the day when thousands of people die, most people just learning of his existence would need a play book to know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. The most likely reaction is that people would want him off our planet as soon as possible. Out-of-context, he is a terrifying character.

It was a really lousy movie – the fight scenes went on forever while the audience struggled to find some reason to care. But it wasn’t a total loss. Watching Man Of Steel gave me a chance to figure out how to make a Superman movie that would at least be interesting to me: by turning the lens on the people around him.

Look at the problem differently: Young Clark is not twice as strong, not five times as strong as most people, but thousands of times as strong. To him we are as fragile as rotten eggshells. His biggest problem isn’t keeping a secret identity, it’s learning how (and why) not to kill people. He needs a reason to value human life, and a literally inhuman level of self-control. Jonathan and Martha Kent must figure out how to raise this dangerous child. And that’s where you spend your first movie; he isn’t the star, his adoptive parents are.

Scene: Jonathan Kent is in the local hospital with three broken ribs. Toddler Clark (only beginning to gain strength) awakens from a bad dream and lashes out, knocking him into the hallway. To the doctor Jonathan explains that he was kicked by a horse in the barn, though the bruise mark on his chest looks more like the hand of a child. He’s a bit doped up as he and Martha discuss what to do.

You see the problem? The conflict? They can’t turn loose of this found-child, but they are in way, way over their heads. He’s only going to get stronger, and stronger, and stronger. They don’t know yet that he will be able to fly, or cut steel with heat rays from his eyes.  As the magnitude of their problem dawns on them, they acquire a new – and probably unwelcome – life mission.

There’s never any respite from raising Clark. It isn’t like they could leave him with a babysitter and go out to the movies. They couldn’t just hand him over to the government, which never saw a new phenomenon that it didn’t try to weaponize. No, they’re stuck with him.

How do you wake a super-child who is having a nightmare, or even a childish tantrum? How do you teach him to stand out? Be a “pretty good athlete”? Have compassion – he must have compassion – without trying to fix the whole world? How to be an honest person while living an enormous lie?

They can’t wait until he’s a teenager to tell him his true origins. Who’s to say (as Man Of Steel suggested) that someone equally powerful, but grown up, won’t come looking for him? He needs to know. They need him to know. They can’t raise him without his help. This is as “bootstraps” as it gets.

Jonathan and Martha are raising perhaps the most difficult child in the universe, while keeping that difficulty an absolute secret. Maybe there’s someone in the community they can confide in, but maybe not. Who can they trust? Joseph and Mary surely had less trouble raising Jesus (and I doubt the initials are accidental either).

In my Superman movie, a childless couple in Kansas pull off the most high-stakes, high-wire-without-a-net child raising in history. Pretending to be Clark Kent most of the time is the most difficult thing that Superman ever does. And the first few times Superman makes the news, it has to be in an unambiguously positive way. There can’t be any cities in ruins before the world knows that Superman is a good guy.

Maybe the second movie should be about The Daily Planet. Let the third movie be a catastrophic, world-threatening crisis. But my bet would be on the first two as worth watching.

NOTES:

  • Let’s assume the Kents have seen the Twilight Zone episode, It’s A Good Life.
  • I see that movie makers have decided it’s OK to do 9-11 style destruction scenes again. Think of how many movies in the last year have involved destroying big buildings with people in them – Superman, Pacific Rim, Star Trek, Transformers, probably others. A bit overdone, if you ask me.
  • Man Of Steel touched for a moment or two on the problem of Clark learning self-control, but it got lost in all the planet-threatening violence.
  • The very enjoyable TV series Smallville hinted at the problem of Clark, but really it was more like a teen-spirit version of the grown-up Superman. At least, the episodes I saw; we didn’t get that station very well.
  • Lance Mannion wrote an excellent series of reviews on Man Of Steel – all of them targeting deficiencies in the movie. Here’s a re-post of one with a list of all the others: But Superman Would Never Do That.

Security theater, nuclear holocaust edition

First, Gizmodo: For twenty years the nuclear launch code at US Minuteman silos was 00000000.

Many people will set super-easy passwords to the systems they control. No matter how high the stakes, in some part of their brains, they just can’t believe anyone would get in and do anything wrong. So the lesson is this: any system that depends on everyone involved understanding the stakes and acting accordingly and conscientiously… is doomed to be more insecure than any one person will know. Systems should be designed so that Pollyanna won’t blithely compromise them with naivete.

One commenter noted that all-zeroes is no more random than any other series. But effective hacking begins with sets and series before it goes random. Also it is far easier to remember and send by phone a launch code that is a set or a series.

Notes:

Personal and corporate secrets

Corporate secrets are usually for competitive advantage or to shape public opinion. These can include a hidden scandal or documents from the NSA (blurry line there). When individuals keep secrets for personal competitive advantage we call them treacherous. When they reveal scandalous corporate secrets for the public good, we call them traitorous. But most of the time people keep personal secrets in self-defense against finger-wagging moralists – who can be very vindictive, even oppressive in their exercise of personal or corporate power.

The Republican’s sudden concern for voting process integrity

When the Voting Rights Act was overturned this year, (on the basis that racism is a thing of the past and it just isn’t needed anymore) Republican-dominated states responded by reigning in early voting, and with a plethora of “Voter ID” laws. The ostensible reason was to stop all that voter fraud which their fevered imaginations told them must be the only possible reason for their electoral losses.

Actually, no. Even if the actual reason weren’t blindingly obvious, a couple unguarded statements have let us know the real reason was to prevent Democrats from voting. Don Yelton, North Carolina Republican official, admitted the reason for their voter ID law was to “kick the Democrat’s butt“. And Florida’s Jim Greer straight-up admitted voter suppression was the reason for their election law.

Of course, as Don Yelton says, the photo ID is “free”. All you have to do is provide proof of identity at the Department of Motor Vehicles and you’re all set. And what constitutes “proof”? Former speaker of the US House of Representatives Jim Wright did so, but was turned away. Only a certified copy of his birth certificate would suffice. Of course most people already have a driver’s license, for which they didn’t have to provide a birth certificate. So the law will mostly affect the elderly or the very poor. Or young urbanites who don’t drive.

College students are targeted in a different way. You may recall that 18-year-olds won the right to vote during the 1970’s. Somehow it just didn’t seem right to ship them off to the Vietnam war without giving them the chance to vote. (The 18-year war was almost over by then. There were people registering for the draft who were born the year the war started.) But now Republicans want to reel that back, and residency requirements make a good start. After all, when a student is away at college, what is his residence? Shouldn’t he return to his home town to vote? (I use the male pronoun here deliberately.)

Republicans aren’t thrilled with (overwhelmingly pro-choice) women voters either. The curious custom of a woman changing her name when she marries is an opportunity to nudge them aside at the polls, as Texas judge Sandra Watts found out.  It’s also a problem for people in nursing homes, who are disproportionately women. And who have a lifetime’s experience being told by men what their options are in all things reproductive.

This concern for electoral integrity is odd considering the push for electronic voting machines, which are far less secure than Las Vegas slot machines. How do you check information stored on a chip, when the company that programmed it says it’s a big secret how it works?

Attempts to cheat “the other side” out of voting are not new. Today’s Southern Republicans are yesteryear’s Democrats, who were welcomed into the Republican party after Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through the… Voting Rights Act. The tactics then were underhanded and occasionally downright vicious, but the goal was the same: to keep poor people, women, and especially black people, from voting. As a nation, we often claim to be some kind of a beacon of democracy. I suppose, as long as the right “kind” of people do the voting.

  • Join me for discussion of this topic on G+
  • Important clarification: The endire Voting Rights Act was not struck down, but section 4 was.
  • The Daily Show on Voter ID laws
  • History teacher Ed Darrell: “No one questioned who he was. He just can’t vote with the ID he has. If Jim Wright can’t easily get an ID to vote, who can?” (Do you read Ed’s blog? Crikey, you should.)
  • In Texas you can show a concealed-carry permit to vote. Maybe all Democrats should go out and get concealed-carry permits. Think of it, Republicans! Nearly every black person over 18 possibly packing.