Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day! (Really, I mean it.)

I hope my imaginary audience finds this day a reminder of all the love they have received and given and its central place in their lives.

But now for something completely different, that may seem like a downer initially but is what it is:

Worried? I mean, it's possible I'll still be alive in 2050. If diabetes and congestive heart failure haven't quite finished me off by then, I'll be 83, which is the average age of people entering assisted living communities these days. What is that going to look like, a world in which 1 in 4 or 5 people is past the Social Security Administration's current idea of retirement age? Is this a Big Problem I should be trying to solve? Well, let's see what Zen Master Minsky said several years ago about Big Problems.

[Zen Master Minsky's koan:
In the days when Sussman was a novice, Minsky once came to him as he sat hacking at the PDP-6.
"What are you doing?" asked Minsky.
"I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-tac-toe," Sussman replied.
"Why is the net wired randomly?", asked Minsky.
"I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play," Sussman said.
Minsky then shut his eyes.
"Why do you close your eyes?" Sussman asked his teacher.
"So that the room will be empty."
At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.

What I actually said was, "If you wire it randomly, it will still have preconceptions of how to play. But you just won't know what those preconceptions are." -- Marvin Minsky]

So here's Zen Master Minsky's all-over-the-place thought cloud about population, world problems, Arthur C. Clarke's ideas, emotion, psychology, robotic get the idea:

Still with me? OK, I'm drifting, but there's shore ahead, I promise. The census bureau has this cool database-thingy where you can see these projected population pyramids for various nations including the United States, but it only projects out to 2050. We don't get to see what happens 25 or 50 years after the pyramids become columns. There are signs that some are beginning to invert, to actually have larger elder populations than youth and child-bearing-age populations.

What's really confusing to me in the middle of this Depression-they're-still-calling-a-Recession-like-that-makes-it-more-palatable is the economics of it. We had a Baby Boom when economies of scale made it more affordable for more people to make babies. Now we're having an Old People Boom, both because those Babies are aging and because in the industrialized world, advances in health care, nutrition, and public health and services have made it more affordable to age and to be old, while it seems to have become less affordable to make babies. It's unclear I think whether this shift will address the population issue, as though it were part of some process of achieving an equilibrium of world population.

So what does this have to do with Valentine's Day?! a member of my imaginary audience would not be blamed for huffing in exasperation. Nothing, I suppose. I'm just hopeful of getting another assisted living job soon, and it's reminded me of how I feel like the old people on the leading edge of this Old People Boom, the ones I would be taking care of, are important as a cultural and demographic phenomena, as well as for their individual experiences, and that the standards that people in my line of work set for meeting the needs of these folks will have far-reaching consequences that affect a lot of people over the course of the whole 21st century. It's important to do our best to get it right.

Too often, we think of Valentine's Day in the context of romantic love, and even when we extend it to encompass a celebration of the love we have for our families and our friends and for ourselves, I wonder if we are falling short of the day's possibilities. The men featured in today's videos have passion for what they do. If we are lucky enough and thoughtful enough and alive enough (at whatever age), maybe we can mark this day by reviving, nurturing, or honoring not just the love in our lives, but the passion.

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