A letter to my son (about death)

Dear son,

It is the year 2020. Here are some things that are, as far as I know, true: All of humanity lives on Earth, the third planet from our local star the Sun. The Earth is orbiting the Sun at a speed of approximately 108,000 km/h1. The Sun itself is travelling through the galaxy at a speed of approximately 782,000 km/h2, orbiting the Milky Way. We think the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old3 and we think the Universe is about 13.8 billion years old4.

There are about 7.6 billion people on Earth5. Humans are, as far as we know, the only self-aware beings on the planet. We evolved from primates approximately 5 to 8 million years ago6. A human, if they are fortunate, can live up to 100 years old and even longer in some cases. The average life expectancy varies greatly depending on different factors, such as where you are born on Earth.

In 2020 humans still live and die. To live forever and never die is the ambition of some people but here, early in the 21st-century, it is still not possible. Maybe, one day, we will extend our average life expectancy significantly, and maybe one day we will extend it indefinitely. For now though death is inevitable. When we are alive it is difficult to contemplate death, being alive is so intense and vivid it feels hard to imagine one day it will stop. People deal with the fact we all die differently. Most people don’t like to think about it or talk about it.

I was raised by my parents to believe that I wouldn’t die and that I would live forever. As an adult I realised this probably wasn’t true. The evidence shows us that we are living organisms that live, die, & decompose.

I think people deal with the reality of life and death differently. Some people choose not to think about it. Some people try to do lots and lots of different things to keep themselves busy so they don’t have time to think about it. Some people choose to believe they won’t die & they will live forever.

Some people think that all of our reality is a computer simulation. There is currently no strong evidence to confirm or deny this. We live relatively short lives with the fear of death hanging over us, so if this is a simulation I don’t think I want to meet the makers of such a place.

Some people think we should aim to try and find ways to live forever, and some people think it is good that life has a natural end and to live forever would be worse than living knowing we will die one day. I can see the concerns about the challenges we would face if we did find a way to live forever. But I believe whether immortality is a good thing or not is still an open question. I believe there is still the possibility that with the power to live forever could come the power to make immortality enjoyable.

Most of the time I choose not to think about death. Sometimes I do think about it and it makes me feel scared. Sometimes dying can be painful for people, and I don’t want to die painfully. I try to remind myself that most people die in hospital and their family is with them and they are taking medication that takes the pain away. And that doesn’t sound too bad.

I want you to know it is okay to find death scary. And it is okay to not want to think about it. That’s normal, pretty much everyone does that or something like it. I’m here if you ever do want to talk about it.

Love,
Dad


Footnotes

  1. https://phys.org/news/2014-11-earth-orbit-sun.html
  2. https://www.universetoday.com/18028/sun-orbit/
  3. https://www.space.com/24854-how-old-is-earth.html
  4. https://www.space.com/24054-how-old-is-the-universe.html
  5. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/how-many-people-live-in-the-world.html
  6. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/faq/cat02.html

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Dave’s Rules For Life

  • Don’t ride motorbikes on the open road
  • Don’t fly in helicopters or small planes
  • Don’t exceed the speed limit on the road
  • Do “drive to the conditions” when driving on the road
  • Don’t waste time, money, energy, or attention on Scientology. It’s a cult.
  • Don’t do anything that involves a high risk of dying or permanent loss of function (e.g. paralysis, blindness, etc)
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Series to watch during a pandemic

Recently my friend Dave asked me to recommend him some series to watch while he is housebound due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So! Here are my suggestions… (For reference, here is the rating system I use).

Series I recommend watching right now in March 2020
True Detective Season One 4.5 stars
Mr Robot 4 stars
Mad Men 4 stars (Full disclosure: I have only watched the first two seasons and they were great)
Boardwalk Empire 3.5 stars (I recently finished watching this. First three seasons are the best ones)
Ozark 3.5 stars
Westworld Seasons One and Two 3.5 stars
Atlanta 3.5 stars
Mindhunter 3 stars

Classic series
The Wire 5 stars
The Thick of It 5 stars
Deadwood 5 Stars

Documentary series
The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick 5 stars

True Crime documentary series
The Staircase 4 stars
The Jinx 4 stars

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Dave’s Overall Rating System (DORS)

1 star = Poor
2 stars = Average
3 stars = Good
3.5 stars = Good with moments of greatness
4 stars = Great
4.5 stars = Great with moments of excellence
5 stars = Excellent

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How my family moved to a flexitarian diet

My family & I have recently moved to a more plant-based diet because of the health benefits and lower impact on the environment.

I have long-term ambitions to eventually be vegan so this flexitarian diet is for me hopefully a way to transition to that.

Here’s how we moved to a flexitarian diet:

Our flexitarian diet cuts out cow’s milk in favour of soya milk and we have stopped eating these types of meat: beef, poultry, and pork. We are still eating fish, and we are still eating other dairy products besides cow’s milk.

In order to eat this flexitarian diet we have to be mindful of being more intentional to get these nutrients each day: calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids and protein. This is because these are easier to get when eating a traditional omnivore diet. The Google Document below lists alternative sources we use to get these nutrients beyond beef/poultry/chicken and cow’s milk:

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Guidelines for living

  • Make the most out of life take part
  • Have fun life is short
  • Be kind don’t be a dick

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Phillip K. Dick’s afterword for A Scanner Darkly

This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed—run over, maimed, destroyed—but they continued to play anyhow. We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshitting and playing, but it was for such a terrible brief time, and then the punishment was beyond belief: even when we could see it, we could not believe it…. For a while I myself was one of these children playing in the street; I was, like the rest of them, trying to play instead of being grown up, and I was punished. I am on the list below, which is a list of those to whom this novel is dedicated, and what became of each.

Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error in judgment. When a bunch of people begin to do it, it is a social error, a life-style. In this particular life-style the motto is “Be happy now because tomorrow you are dying.” But the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory. It is, then, only a speeding up, an intensifying, of the ordinary human existence. It is not different from your life-style, it is only faster. It all takes place in days or weeks or months instead of years. “Take the cash and let the credit go,” as Villon said in 1460. But that is a mistake if the cash is a penny and the credit a whole lifetime.

There is no moral in this novel; it is not bourgeois; it does not say they were wrong to play when they should have toiled; it just tells what the consequences were. In Greek drama they were beginning, as a society, to discover science, which means causal law. Here in this novel there is Nemesis: not fate, because any one of us could have chosen to stop playing in the street, but, as I narrate from the deepest part of my life and heart, a dreadful Nemesis for those who kept on playing. So, though, was our entire nation at this time. This novel is about more people than I knew personally. Some we all read about in the newspapers. It was, this sitting around with our buddies and bullshitting while making tape-recordings, the bad decision of the decade, the sixties, both in and out of the establishment. And nature cracked down on us. We were forced to stop by things dreadful.

If there was any ‘sin’, it was that these people wanted to keep on having a good time forever, and were punished for that, but, as I say, I feel that, if so, the punishment was far too great, and I prefer to think of it only in a Greek or morally neutral way, as mere science, as deterministic impartial cause-and-effect. I loved them all. Here is the list, to whom I dedicate my love:

To Gaylene deceased
To Ray deceased
To Francy permanent psychosis
To Kathy permanent brain damage
To Jim deceased
To Val massive permanent brain damage
To Nancy permanent psychosis
To Joanne permanent brain damage
To Maren deceased
To Nick deceased
To Terry deceased
To Dennis deceased
To Phil permanent pancreatic damage
To Sue permanent vascular damage
To Jerri permanent psychosis and vascular damage
…and so forth.

In Memoriam. These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The ‘enemy’ was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.

Source: https://www.reddit.com/r/Frisson/comments/1hbexo/text_phillip_k_dicks_afterword_for_a_scanner/

(For more context I recommend reading the ‘Autobiographical nature’ section of the A Scanner Darkly Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Scanner_Darkly#Autobiographical_nature)

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The Good Friend

Do any of us really actually care for each other? Or is everything we do ultimately in our own self-interest?

Isn’t looking out for the interests of my family & children in a way acting to guarantee the continuation of my genes? And is that in my self-interest?

How often is altruism really selfless? If you derive an improved sense of internal self-worth from the anonymous altruism you carry out, can you really call that truly selfless?

And can we fault anyone for putting themselves first? If the first tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is physiological, isn’t that just another way of saying survival? And who can fault anyone for wanting to survive? After all, if we don’t exist then we don’t even have the opportunity to argue about what self-interest is.


This image of a giant drug spoon has been lodged in my brain for the past month or so:


Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/01/health/sacklers-oxycontin-lawsuits.html

Built by artist Domenic Esposito, it was originally installed outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceuticals manufacturer, to protest that company’s role in the ongoing opioid epidemic in the United States. What particularly fascinates me about this photo is the people walking past it. For the purposes of this post let’s assume they are employees of Purdue. I’m fascinated by the idea of what might have gone through these people’s heads as they passed the spoon: did they know what it was referring to? Did they feel any guilt? When they sat down at their desks and were still thinking about it, were they dismissive of the spoon & what was trying to be said by the people who placed it there?

What if you weren’t a chemist at Purdue but you worked in the maintenance department at the headquarters, fixing squeaky hinges and blown lightbulbs? By working for Purdue Pharma, are you in some way complicit? Do we all have a responsibility as humans to think about the consequences of our actions on other people? Or is our first responsibility to our self-interest i.e. survival? And is this why appeals to “family” are so powerful in advertising? Because when advertisers say “family”, what they are really saying is ‘Your survival and the survival of your family is paramount, we get that, and we’re in the business of prioritising your survival. Buy our products.’ So maybe the Purdue Pharma maintenance man says to himself “I’m not a bad person. I just fix squeaky hinges. I’m not getting people hooked on painkillers. The doctors who prescribe them are. And…” – perhaps most importantly – “I have a family to feed/mortgage to pay/etc”.

According to Wikipedia, Purdue Pharma has 5000 employees worldwide, and in 2017 made revenue of US$3 billion. How many of those 5000 people think about whether they are complicit or not in an opioid crisis? How many of those people think they are complicit but justify their job? How many of those people think that Purdue Pharma is complicit in the opioid crisis but they, a person working at Purdue Pharma, are not complicit because they “do not support Purdue Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis and are actively working to change the company for the better from the inside”. And how many of those people actually believe that change from the inside can really happen inside a giant for-profit global pharmaceutical company?

And what about the suppliers to Purdue Pharma? And the logistics companies that transport their drugs? And the public health systems that buy their products using taxpayers’ dollars? Obviously you don’t have to look very far to find other examples of the same sort of thing: people working for Uber after it became public in 2017 the company carried out the Greyball program, people working for HSBC in 2012 after it became public the company was to be fined US$1.9 billion by US authorities over its involvement in money laundering including providing banking services to Saudi Arabian banks linked to terrorist financing. And on and on.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine chose to start working for an online gambling company. I never called him out on it. I was afraid it would hurt the friendship and I wanted to keep being friends. He has now quit that job but I have still never asked him why he decided to work there. Now I justify not asking by saying to myself “He doesn’t work there now so what would be the point?”. I don’t want to hurt his feelings and it seems like, at the end of the day, that’s what is most important to me.

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I made a playlist: Best Of Radiohead

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Practical life tips for my son

  • Never be afraid to doublecheck if you have locked the door when you are using the toilet
  • Always wear a helmet on a bike
  • Always be careful around roads, water, weights, heights, fast things, hot things, and sharp things. Remember: scratches and bruises on skin heal, if you lose an eye or a finger, those don’t grow back.
  • Never drink alcohol & drive a vehicle
  • Always where your seatbelt
  • As much as possible, own your mistakes
  • The keys to self-improvement are: to listen well, to learn from experience, and to read good books
  • Remember to floss
  • Wear earplugs to loud concerts (tinnitus later on in life sucks)
  • Note down the dates of when you started and left jobs, and when you moved house. You always seem to need these things for filling out forms.
  • Don’t let fear of non-conforming put you off being into the things you are into
  • Don’t live to please your parents
  • If you are feeling stuck on a problem, try going for a walk in the fresh air
  • Make your bed in the morning when you get up, it sets you up for the day
  • Unless absolutely necessary, be anonymous online and use an alias
  • Clean around the toilet after you use it and put the seat back down
  • If you don’t feel safe somewhere, just leave. No matter what anyone says, if you want to leave then leave.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you don’t ask, you don’t know.
  • Be kind
  • Respect & look after your body
  • Learn to swim well
  • You are not a tree, you can leave a job if you want and that isn’t a defeat – sometimes walking away is the strongest thing
  • Make a triple effort to remember the names of people when you meet them. It’s hard to do but worth it. It matters to people.
  • Look after your teeth. See a dentist regularly.
  • Wash your hands & wrists before you eat
  • Don’t leave leftover tuna in the tin in the fridge, the tin can leach into the tuna and cause it to become poisonous. Don’t eat leftover rice after it has been in the fridge for more than two days, it becomes unsafe to eat. Also, you can only reheat leftover rice once, after that it is unsafe to eat & you need to throw it away.

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