No, Your Faith Will Not Spare You…But God Is Still Good!

Standard

There are many things largely forgotten to history, one of them a horrendous tragedy that took place on June 15th, 1904, near “Hell’s Gates” on the East River, which would forever change one ethnic community in New York City, and that being the General Slocum ferry disaster.

What had started as an annual church excursion of German-Americans, mostly women and children, from their community in the city’s East Village to Long Island, ended with terror and over 1000 deaths. The poorly maintained boat caught fire, while underway, fire fighting equipment failed and the wooden craft quickly became an inferno.

Helpless mothers, unable to swim themselves, especially not in the heavy clothing of the time, put life preservers on their children only to see them sink like rocks into the river as the cork in the flotation devices had degraded. The Captain, likely trying to avoid causing a more devastating fire on shore, decided to head for some islands, into the wind, which only made the wooden ferry into a blow torch before it felt apart.

The result of this hell on earth was the eventual dissolution of the German-American community in New York City and one can only imagine the personal torment this left for the survivors and the fathers and husbands left behind.

My worse nightmare is not being able to help those whom I love. I had, in casual conversation with a psychiatrist, been told that I showed symptoms of PTSD after the unexpected death of Saniyah and judging from my current awful feelings and tears right now, from writing this, I would guess that they were right in their analysis.

If only seeing someone I loved deeply wail the loss of their daughter could rip the fabric of my being to such an extent, I can’t even begin to imagine what seeing them roasted alive would do. Lord have mercy!

My Covid-19 Mini-Crisis

Being raised in an American culture that too often confuses health and prosperity with God’s favor, the idea that someone that I love could be felled by a virus seems obscene. But, faith, right? Shouldn’t faith prevent my family members and loved ones from dying prematurely from a virus?

But it seems that the truly Orthodox have no such delusion. True, Fr. Seraphim expressed his belief that one cannot become sick through their participation in the body of Christ. However, even still, that does not preclude the possibility of our becoming sick during the fellowship and interactions afterward, does it?

It is was in the contemplation of father’s words that I ran across the story of early Christians who, unlike their pagan neighbors who fled, deliberately went into harm’s way to attend to their plague suffering neighbors. They attended to the sick, taking the illness upon themselves in many cases and succumbing in as much agony as anyone else.

How could this be?

Did their faith mean anything at all?

My own thoughts continued an ongoing internal discussion about the evidence (or lack thereof) for a God that actually cares. In my American-tinted perspective, they should have been protected from disease to prove God’s sovereignty over all of creation and show the truth of their Christian testimony, that’s only logical, right?

I can’t claim to understand. All I know is that many of them died, yet the stories of their extraordinary faith spread throughout the Roman world and you can still read of their testimony even in Foreign Policy articles published in our time. They died and yet they also demonstrated an example of love that has lived on to this very day and have defied my own logic in that.

We have but one life to live, all people die eventually, yet it is said that all people have two deaths: The first death being their physical death, when their body is put into the grave. Then a second ‘death’ at some point in the future when their name is said for the last time. And, I would argue that, in that light, those who, in faith, sacrificed their lives for their neighbor’s sake have actually outlived those who fled in fear.

It turns out that the Christ of Christianity only ever promised a life of suffering for others to those who would follow him. The ‘faith’ of those seeking health and wealth is shallow and will fall apart in times of crisis. But true faith lives for the good of others, despite uncertainty and fear, the proof is not in their own health so much as their faithful and lasting impact on the world.

No, your faith will not spare you, but if you live in love you will find God waiting on the other side of your suffering.

Crisis averted.

How I Have Seen God At Work

This may be a strange way to make an announcement of sorts, but I’ve never professed to be anything other than strange. I mean, I’ve tried to act normal, yet it never seems to work out for me. And so I guess I work with what I’m given, right?

Anyhow, I mentioned a bhest in past blogs, including my last blog, and haven’t really explained what bhest really means.

Right now, on the opposite of the world from where I am currently writing, lives a beautiful flower, her name is Charlotte. I found her in a moment of great faith, when my life remained consumed in my Mennonite identity and struggle with the father of a young woman, and had agreed to participate in her life as only an encouragement. She had moved to Taiwan, from her mountain home in the Philippines, as a means to support her son and secure an annulment from the father of her son.

Given her marital situation (along with my Mennonite and purity culture priorities) and my continued faithful pursuit of the impossibility, I told her that our relationship would have to remain platonic (which is something she allowed without any protest) and offered to be her encouragement. My commitment was to show her that someone still cared about her life, despite her being separated from family and not having anyone else to turn to at the time. At the time I was also on the road, away from home, so I understood the loneliness that comes with separation from family and friends.

There was a bit of a pattern that developed. I would be her faithful wake up call, to wish her a wonderful day, but later (with the stress of a high-pressure work environment and conflicts with coworkers) she would come back online with the crying puppy emoticon, which was my signal to get to work, and I would make it my mission to cheer her up again. Soon, by whatever miracle, I would have her laughing and smiling again.

At some point, pretty early on, she asked me if it was okay if she would call me “bhest” and (after a momentary hesitation to consider the potential damage of letting her use a term of endearment in our context) I decided to give her permission. It is a term that I had no idea what it meant really then and still am not entirely sure. But, eventually, it felt dumb to let her be alone in using that term, there was no term and thus she too became my bhest.

Bhest, according to Charlotte, meant this: “the very best best person, who is my friend, who is always beside me, to pray for me, advise me, cheer me up and who really shows care for me.”

Bhest, best explained, is a word mystical in meaning, has become a sort of joint identity and not something my words can easily explain. But I do know that it stands for a commitment to care. And, when my own road reached an end in the Mennonite church, like hitting a brick wall, it was the hand of my bhest reaching through, telling me in a moment of suicidal darkness, “if you go, take me with you,” and demonstrated a level of commitment to me even greater than my mother. It was then that I decided to stay to serve this lost sheep that I had found and if only for her good.

Charlotte’s happiness, I decided, was worth my suffering through another day of this life. The seed of faith that I gave to her months before, in my pure concern for her, grew into a limb that I could hold onto until my own feet again. She was the one who told me to “be strong for her” and gave me the courage to walk through the doors of Holy Cross, in Williamsport, on the road to my Orthodox conversion. And it was Charlotte who finally gave me that reason to no longer be “thirty years old living in Milton” (as the faithless alternative explained) and compelled me, months later, to board a Boeing 747 headed for the other side of the world.

Bringing This to the Present

There is so much I could say about Charlotte and her son. So many moments, from profound moments of sadness together (after the murder of her uncle Roland) to those of our greatest joy and many others somewhere in between. Her family has embraced me, reposed uncle Roland especially, welcomed me with open arms, and made me feel right at home twelve timezones from my current residence. I honestly felt like I had experienced a taste of heaven in Baguio City and in our various excursions.

Now that country, like my own, is experiencing the same Covid-19 lockdown (albeit stricter than my own) and our hopes for the future are overshadowed with even greater uncertainty than before. But at least Charlotte is stranded, for once, with her son Y-dran, whom she loves deeply despite being separated from him for years. He’s a real handful, a biter when I met him (who learned quickly that, unlike his grandma and aunts, I bite back), and has since matured to a bright (while still completely energetic) eight-year-old. His wide smile always welcomed me and I’ve missed him since our first meeting.

More recently, due to his history of illness, and a recent bout with pneumonia (he’s still coughing), along with the spread of Covid-19 worldwide, along with my own struggles due to some history of my own mentioned earlier, it has been exceedingly difficult for me to rest easy and trust God in this moment of chaos.

In one of my silly, more romantic moments, after Charlotte watched one of my favorite movie classics, “The Last of the Mohicans,” I recited to her the words of Hawkeye, “You be strong, you survive! You stay alive, no matter what occurs, I will find you! No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!” Which was a promise said with a little smile and laughter, nevertheless pretty accurately represents the commitment that I’ve made to her. I’ve nearly had to make real on that once when she called me after almost being abducted by two men, while in Taiwan, and our current situation has left me wondering what extreme measures might be necessary to bring her here to my side, with her son, our son, Y-dran?

As of today, upon the request of Y-dran (a shortened version of his full name, pronounced yid-run) himself, that I will begin to call Y-dran my son. I had worried a few months ago whether or not a young Igorot boy, with his own biological father, would ever accept this goofy overwrought religious refugee American. But we hardly even speak the same language yet (although he was actually using sign language today and will likely learn English far quicker than I learn Tagalog and his tribal tongue) and yet he has asked me if I could be his father. *gulp* I really didn’t know how to express all my excitement, he had completely pre-empted all of my preparations for the future where I would need to explain this, where I would have to walk gingerly to avoid undermining the man that is his biological father, and now I do not have to worry about that.

Prayer answered.

And, speaking of prayer, unprompted, Y-dran, after all that, requested that I lead the prayers before he went to bed. So, being as Orthodox Christian as I know to be, I gathered myself and my phone, we went to the prayer corner of my house and led in the Lord’s prayer before praying for our future together, that it may come quickly and that he can remain healthy until then.

Dreams and Prayers

I have big dreams of what to do as a father with his son. But I also have a fear that hangs over me. My own life has been full of hopes ripped away from me right at the time when I thought things were in the clear. Now, before I can have my happy and simple life, with a little broken and repaired family, there is this monster called Covid-19 lurking in the darkness. I have full awareness of the terrible tragedies that have cut down the faithful and heathen alike, sometimes on a bright sunny day, like that day those German-Americans boarded General Slocum before their final hellish terror.

However, come hell or high water, I am determined, as determined as I am to pursue impossibility in faith, to not live my life in fear. I believe that God exists and that God is good because I have not alternative. I believe in God because without God there is no good. Logic and reason cannot explain away the feelings I have for my precious bhest and her livewire son. Even if we are cruelly kept apart for many more years, due to legal nonsense or plague, I know we will be together again and someday soon.

May God have mercy on us!

Only will tell if my dreams for this life will ever come true. It is easier for me to predict a global pandemic than to know if my next few days, weeks, or years on this planet will be happy or harrowing. Maybe my battered faith will finally meet it’s match, in something awful yet to come, and my hopes finally drown in a seas of despair. Nevertheless, as long as I’m alive, let my hymn be this: “Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have set our hope in Thee.” And, in the perilous days ahead, may I cling all the more to the words of St Paul:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35‭-‬39 NIV)

P.s., Y-dran, like his father, is also a fan of Dunkin donuts, which they do have in the Philippines, so the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree!

My Final Position On Covid-19

Standard

I’ve never been one to get caught up in the latest hysteria.  I tend to be a skeptic of everyone from fundamentalist doomsayers to their secular climate catastrophe counterparts. 

There are many things are not worth getting worked up about, things that I can’t really change myself or prevent, and it takes discernment to know what we should or should not be concerned about. 
The media tends to turn everything into a crisis.  Sensational headlines invite clicks and clicks produce ad revenue.  So, yes, minor problems or statistically unlikely scenarios do too often get blown out of proportion.  Politicians, for their part, love to capitalize on anxieties and fears of the public as a means to gain power for themselves. 

These false prophets of the corporate media and political establishment do a terrible disservice to the public, they are like the boy who cried wolf and eventually paid the price for his deception.

The cynical exploitation of the public by those who should be making them aware and leading out against real threats eventually leads to distrust of authority and an apathetic response.  Many take to heart the adage, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” and use it as a reason to reject all warnings from all established sources or at least those that do not comport with their own political alignment.  Unfortunately, an overreaction against all authority can also leave the ‘sheep’ vulnerable when the real ‘wolf’ finally does arrive.

My own concern over Covid-19 did not originate with the recent media hype over the story and the foolish efforts to politicize it against the current administration.  My concern began weeks ago and originated from my own personal analysis of the characteristics of this particular virus and the extreme Chinese response in trying to contain it.  Those who continue to trivialize the threat do not understand it, they are only reacting like those townsfolk fooled one too many times, and need to take a step back, take off their jaded lenses for a moment and reexamine the evidence.

No, Covid-19 is not the same as SAR’s, Swine Flu…

There are many silly memes out there about all the public scares that we have survived.  And all that is true.  But, while it is important to see the current claims of the media in the context of their previous record, it is also important to remember that even a broken clock is right twice a day and therefore must be able to discern for ourselves.

When I first became aware of the new (or novel) “Coronavirus” outbreak in Wuhan back in January there were several things that initially jumped out to me then and continue to stand out.  Covid-19, as it has more recently been designated, is not nearly as deadly as Ebola or some other flu viruses, nevertheless the Chinese effort to contain it has been extreme.

Chinese authorities have taken unprecedented steps to try to stop the spread, going as far as to quarantine huge industrial centers of millions of people and building massive new hospitals.  Why?  Well, probably because they have a reason to be concerned.  A country does not deliberately cripple their own economy to the extent that the Chinese have done without there being a good reason to do so. 

One reason to be concerned is that the Chinese, not wanting to scare away foreign investment, also have plenty of reason to try to conceal or downplay the reality on the ground.  That is why they made efforts to silence those who brought broader attention to the situation by sharing what they saw on social media.  They accused an optometrist, Li Wenliang (who himself would later would become infected and die while in treatment) of “spreading rumors” for telling the truth, so can we trust that they are telling us the full extent of what is happening now?

Li Wenliang

What we do already know is that Covid-19 is not as deadly as Ebola and other viruses.  But, according to current estimates, it still kills an alarming number of those who become infected:

“On Tuesday, WHO said the global death rate for the novel coronavirus based on the latest figures is 3.4% — higher than earlier figures of about 2%. The World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that the new coronavirus “is a unique virus with unique characteristics.””

However, it is not the death rate or that Covid-19 is extremely deadly that caught my attention. 

No, it was how transmissible and impossible to contain that it has proven to be.  In many cases, the most deadly viruses are less dangerous, on a world scale, because they kill their host quickly enough that it cannot spread far or they are not easily transmitted.  Covid-19, by contrast, does spread through the air, it has a long incubation period that makes it hard to detect those infected, it does kill a significant number of those infected, and has successfully spread around the globe in a matter of weeks.

But doesn’t the flu kill X amount of people per year?

One of the dumbest reoccurring comments I’ve encountered is of those who point to the higher death count of the flu as a reason not to be concerned about Covid-19.  Many have reasoned that since the flu has killed more people than Covid-19 this past year that therefore the flu is a bigger threat.  Of course, those making this claim have obviously not paid attention in probability and statistics or simply fail to grasp the difference between those killed previously and future death rates.

Sure the flu has absolutely killed more last year before Covid-19 arrived on the scene, but it only kills a fraction of a percent and nowhere near even the low estimates for Covid-19.  In other words, if Covid-19 were to continue to break containment, as it has consistently, and spreads around the world, it will likely kill millions of people worldwide.  In fact, if you multiply the current estimate of death rate out to the US population, that’s well over 11 million Americans, and that’s assuming everyone else who becomes seriously ill, needs to be intubated and weeks of ICU treatment or would probably die, is getting good medical care.

Responding to the news that a grizzly bear has escaped containment by pointing out that a mountain lion also killed last year only shows how little a person understands the situation.  Sure, the grizzly isn’t going to kill everyone in the neighborhood, but it is certainly a bigger threat than the mountain lion, it actually compounds the danger, it only adds another deadly creature when one was bad enough and certainly isn’t going to improve the experience for those living in the neighborhood of where it now roams free.  

Grizzly vs Cougar

At very best Covid-19 being on the loose only adds to the misery of flu season and, at worse, well…

Do I think it is the end of the world?

My cousin Mel suggested that there are two ditches that people fall into, those who see it as “the normal flu here, move along,” and the “Run!!!!!” 

I’m not sure what camp he would place me in, but I believe that there is definitely a middle ground between those two extremes.  My own position is that Covid-19 does present a unique threat to the ‘normal’ flu, in that it is a novel virus and currently killing by at least a whole order of magnitude greater or more.  But, at the same time, I’m not in that window of those most vulnerable and most people will survive. 

So, no, it is not the end of the world.  Humanity has come through many similar events, many plagues far worse than a virus that potentially kills 3.4% of the current population, and here we are.  Covid-19 won’t kill us all.  As of March 6th, at the time I am writing, the virus has already killed 14 here (in America) and 3,300 worldwide.  Not much when you consider how many die in automobile accidents, etc.

Do I think it is a big joke?

No, absolutely not!

If Covid-19 continues to get past all containment lines, as it has, and spread into the general population the death rates could be much higher as our medical infrastructure would reach capacity, as supply chains break down (watch this video) due to the extreme worldwide demand coupled with decreased production, and more people, afraid of the infection, began to stay home rather than go to work and risk their health.  

In an era of just in time deliveries and global supply chains, we are actually more vulnerable than ever if the proverbial excrement were to hit the proverbial fan and would very soon learn how very dependant we are on those who produce, transport and distribute our goods.  Even those in rural areas cannot escape the potential fallout if there was a breakdown of the systems that we take for granted as potentially millions would flee urban areas in search of basic necessities or simply to get away from the chaos.

Even if the social order didn’t collapse and death rates remained at current levels, are you really going to say that burying three out every hundred people you know is not a big deal?  That could include your grandparents, your parents, possibly close friends, and coworkers.  It could also mean that you spend weeks in the ICU, as medical bills pile up, gasping for breath and wishing to die, thinking you might and possibly even being right.  I would not do anything where there is a three percent chance of death for myself or a friend, would you?

Should you panic?

I’m reminded of the refrain of a movie “Bridge of Spies” where Tom Hanks plays a lawyer defending a captured KGB spy and asks his client, who is likely facing death at the hands of the Russians if he’s turned over or the Americans if he is not, “aren’t you worried?”  To which the old spy answers, with a deadpan expression, “would it help?

Bridge of Spies

Panic would do absolutely nothing to help a person trying to survive a deadly viral outbreak and is something that must be avoided.  It is why you see the true experts (not the talking heads on the media) taking a measured approach and treating Covid-19 as if it is not a big deal.  Ultimately, what will be will be and tanking the economy ahead of time, with dire predictions, would only make matters worse.

If the worse case scenario were to play out fear would likely be as big a threat as the disease itself and that is why I say…

Prepare Now!

The best way to prevent future panic is preparedness.  No, I’m not talking about taking things to an extreme, you probably won’t need that hazmat suit and I’m doubtful converting your life-savings to gold is a good idea.  But having a few weeks of food stocks (canned goods, dried beans and rice) along with purified water, iodized salt, ethyl alcohol, and other disinfectants, some N95 masks, all things that could be good to have around anyways, could be enough to ride out the worst case scenario.  

Remember the parable about the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) where some came prepared with extra oil, thus were ready for the bridegroom, while the others had run out and desperate?  That story has some general application and can be applied to our attitudes pertaining to Covid-19.  It is better to have some foresight, to be aware of the various scenarios that could play out, and plan accordingly, rather than wait until the last minute when it is already too late.  There is still time (at least as I write this) to be reasonably prepared and that is my suggestion.

Failure to anticipate and plan accordingly can be fatal…

As 339 students boarded the MV Sewol, a Korean ferry, for a school outing, I’m doubtful any of them could’ve imagined the nightmare that would soon play out.  I’m still haunted by the videos made as they chattered nervously while the stricken ship began to list.  They had been told, by those in authority on the vessel, to stay put in their cabins—and that is exactly what they did up until those final moments of terror as the ship capsized.  Had they been proactive, had they disobeyed and went on the deck rather than allow themselves to be trapped, they would have easily avoided a terrible fate.

MV Sewol

People would do many things differently had the chance. The ill-fated OV-099 Challenger would never have left the launch pad had warnings about potential O-ring failure not been ignored.  Likewise, had those trying to tell the Titanic about icebergs been heard rather than told “shut up” by the overworked radio operator, or had the lookouts decided to break the lock for the binoculars rather than squint into the darkness without them, countless lives would have been saved and the Titanic not become a symbol of excessive human pride.

OV-099 Challenger

We are able to make predictions based in available evidence.  But many are distracted (or just plain oblivious) and otherwise unable to sift through the information to find the signs of danger and make the correct call.  I would venture a guess that those thousands who have contracted Covid-19 had no idea, when the first symptoms started to show, that they would have their lives upended.  Those who died probably thought this was just another flu, like the many they had experienced before, and their lack of awareness would not save them.  

And yet we can’t prepare for everything...

We can’t know the future. An asteroid could collided with our planet tomorrow, end life as we know it, and there is very little we could do now to be ready for that.  

But, that said, there are many things we are able to anticipate and should.  If you are not concerned about pandemic, I suggest you do some reading about the Spanish flu or Black Death and consider that we would not necessarily be any better off the day that the ‘perfect storm’ flu finally does arrive. Vaccines cannot be developed overnight (sorry, antivax conspiracy theorists) and a third of world population (including you) could be gone before an effective solution was found.

That is reality.  There are many who had their lives planned out, they had hopes and dreams, before meeting their unexpected demise.

Death is coming, are you ready?

Sounds dark and yet it is true.  If it isn’t Covid-19 it will be something else and it is good to live with a little awareness of our true vulnerability and eventual end.  We might make better use of our time if we were a bit more mindful of death.  

Fools laugh when they should be sober and consider their time is short.  There are many things that are easily take for granted could be wiped away in an instant.  Those of us born at the top can have a tendency towards arrogance.  But neither God nor the universe care about your feelings of self-importance and one only needs to consider how many powerful civilizations have collapsed as fast as they rose in prominence.  Oftentimes the “writing on the wall” was there and had they not been too drunk with their own hubris they may have changed course.

I’ve needed to deal with my own regrets for having not taken an illness seriously enough.  It simply did not occur to me that an eighteen month old child could die from what had seemed to be mundane and easily treated medical issues.  Had I known what would happen to her I would have moved heaven and Earth to be sure that she received top notch treatment.  I’ve dealt with years of post-traumatic stress symptoms as a result of my own failures then.  And even today it is a reminder to be vigilant and to do today what is too easily put off until tomorrow.  Being ready for death means living a worthwhile existence in the present moment.

So what is my final position of Covid-19?

In the end, I’m not losing any sleep over Covid-19, it is still something on the horizon and what would it help to get all worked up about it?  

At the same time, I do believe it is a serious threat and am glad for the resources being directed to combat and contain the virus.  We should be taking precautions for the good of ourselves and our communities.  A little more conscientiousness in our society could do a whole lot of good.  Consider the example of the Japanese who, because of measures taken to stop the spread of Covid-19, had a far less severe flu season this year.  Think about it.  If we were to practice a little better hygiene and show a little more respect to the reality of our environment we could, at very least, avoid suffering through a few days of sickness.

I really do not know for sure what will happen in the coming weeks, months and years.  The disruptions caused by Covid-19, already being experienced, will probably be short-term.  We might even forget about the whole story by April.  Soon enough, by the diligent efforts of some, a vaccine will be developed and those skeptical of the attention being brought to this virus can convince themselves this success is proof they were right not to be concerned.  But it is very likely that millions around the world will not see next Christmas. 

If you are a man over fifty it very well could be you.

Are you ready?

Dangerous Complexity: What To Do About the Complex Problem of Complexity?

Standard

Air-travel has become safer than ever and that due, in large part, to the increase in automated systems in the cockpit. However, with this advanced technology there comes a downside and the downside being that an otherwise perfectly functional aircraft (I.e., mechanically sound) with competent operators, can be lost because of a small electronic glitch somewhere in the system.

This issue was discussed, at length in response to the crash of Air France flight 447, an Airbus A330, in 2009, when an issue with an airspeed indicator and automated systems led to pilot confusion—which, in the end, resulted in a plunge into the ocean and the loss of all 228 people on board. The pilots were ultimately responsible for not responding in the correct way (they were in a stall and needed to push the nose down to recover lift) and yet the reason for their failure is as complex as the automated systems that were there to help them manage the cockpit.

It is this problem with advanced electronics that is summarized as a “systemic problem with complexity” in the quote below:

One of the more common questions asked in cockpits today is “What’s it doing now?” Robert’s “We don’t understand anything!” was an extreme version of the same. Sarter said, “We now have this systemic problem with complexity, and it does not involve just one manufacturer. I could easily list 10 or more incidents from either manufacturer where the problem was related to automation and confusion. Complexity means you have a large number of subcomponents and they interact in sometimes unexpected ways. Pilots don’t know, because they haven’t experienced the fringe conditions that are built into the system. I was once in a room with five engineers who had been involved in building a particular airplane, and I started asking, ‘Well, how does this or that work?’ And they could not agree on the answers. So I was thinking, If these five engineers cannot agree, the poor pilot, if he ever encounters that particular situation . . . well, good luck.” (“Should Airplanes Be Flying Themselves?,” The Human Factor)

More recently this problem of complexity has come back into focus after a couple disasters involving Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft. Initial reports have suggested that at an automated system on the aircraft has malfunctioned—pushing the nose down at low altitudes on take-offs as if responding to a stall—and with catastrophic consequences.

It could very well be something as simple as one sensor going haywire. It could very well be that everything else on the aircraft is functioning properly except this one small part. If that is the case, it certainly not something that should bring down an aircraft and would not have in years past when there was an actual direct mechanical linkage between pilot and control surfaces. But, now, since automated systems can override pilot inputs and take away some of the intuitive ‘feel’ of things in a cockpit, the possibility is very real that the pilots simply did not have enough time to sift through the possibilities of what was going wrong enough to diagnose the issue, switch to a manual mode, and prevent disaster.

The FAA, following after the lead of China and the Europeans, has decided to ground the entire fleet of Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft pending the results of the investigations. This move on the part of regulators will probably be a big inconvenience for air travelers. Nevertheless, after two incidents, and hundreds dead, it is better to take the precaution and get to the bottom of the issue.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js
https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1105471621672960000

President Trump’s off-the-cuff Twitter response, basically stating “the complexity creates danger,” was met with the usual ridicule from those who hate the man and apparently do not understand hyperbole. (It ironic that some, who likely see themselves as sophisticated, have yet to see that through Trump’s putting-it-in-simple-layman’s-terms shtick.) However, technically incorrect is not the same as totally wrong and there is absolutely nothing ridiculous about the general point being made—there are unique (and unforeseeable) problems that come with complex systems.

The “keep it simple, stupid” mantra (aka: KISS principle) is not without merit in an age where our technology is advancing beyond our ability to control it. If a minor glitch in a system can lead to a major disaster, that is dangerous complexity and a real problem that needs to be addressed. Furthermore, if something as simple as flight can be made incomprehensible, even for a trained professional crew, then imagine the risk when a system is too complicated for humans alone to operate—say, for example, a nuclear power plant?

Systems too complex for humans to operate?

On the topic of dangerous complexity, I’m reminded of the meltdown of reactor two at Three Mile Island and the series of small human errors leading up to the big event. A few men, who held the fate of a wide swath of central Pennsylvania in their hands, made a few blunders in diagnosing the issue with serious consequences.

Human operators aren’t even able to comprehend the enormous (and awful) potential of their errors in such circumstances—they cannot fear to the same magnitude or to the proportion of the possible fallout of their actions—let alone have the ability to respond correctly to the cascade of blaring alarms when things did start to go south:

Perrow concluded that the failure at Three Mile Island was a consequence of the system’s immense complexity. Such modern high-risk systems, he realized, were prone to failures however well they were managed. It was inevitable that they would eventually suffer what he termed a ‘normal accident’. Therefore, he suggested, we might do better to contemplate a radical redesign, or if that was not possible, to abandon such technology entirely. (“In retrospect: Normal accidents“. Nature.)

The system accident (also called the “normal” accident by Yale sociologist, Charles Perrow, who wrote a book on the topic) is when a series of minor things go wrong together or combine in an unexpected way and eventually lead to a cataclysmic failure. This “unanticipated interaction of multiple factors” is what happened at Three Mile Island. It is called ‘normal’ because people, put in these immensely complex situations, revert to their normal routines and (like a pilot who has the nose of his aircraft inexplicably pitch down on routine take off) they lose (or just plain lack) the “narrative thread” necessary to properly respond to an emerging crisis situation.

Such was the case at Three Mile Island. It was not gross misconduct on the part of one person nor a terrible flaw in the design of the reactor itself, but rather it was a series of minor issues that led to operator confusion and number of small of mistakes that soon snowballed into something gravely serious. The accident was a result of the complexity of the system, our difficulty predicting how various factors can interact in ways that lead to failure and is something we can expect as systems become more and more complex.

And increased automation does not eliminate this problem. No, quite the opposite, it compounds the problem by adding another layer of management that clouds our ability to understand what is going on before it is too late. In other words, with automation, not only do you have the possibility of mechanical failure and human error, but you also have the potential for the automation itself failing and failing in a way that leaves the human operators too perplexed to sort through the mess of layered systems and unable respond in time. As the list of interactions between various systems grows so does the risk of a complex failure.

[As a footnote, nuclear energy is cleaner, safer and far more reliable than wind and solar farms. And, in the same way, that it is safer to fly than to drive, despite perceptions to the contrary, the dangers of nuclear are simply more obvious to the casual observer than the alternatives. So, again, with the fierce opposition to nuclear power by those who are unwittingly promoting less effective and more dangerous solutions, the human capacity to make good decisions when faced with the ambiguous problems created by the interaction of various complex systems does certainly come into question.]

Has modern life become dangerously complex?

There is no question that technological advancement has greatly benefited this generation in many ways and few would really be willing to give up modern convenience. That said, this change has not come without a cost. I had to think of that reality over the past few weeks while doing a major overhaul of how we manage information at the office and considering how quickly years of work could vanish into thin air. Yes, I suppose that paper files, like the Library of Alexandria burned, are always susceptible to flames or other destructive forces of nature. But, at least fire (unlike the infamous “blue screen of death“) is a somewhat predictable phenomenon.

Does anyone know why the Bluetooth in my car syncs up sometimes and not always?

Or why plugging my Android phone into the charger causes my calls in Facebook Messenger to hiccup (I.e., disconnects and reconnects multiple times) sometimes but not always?

I’m sure there is a reason hidden somewhere in the code, a failed interaction between several components in the system, but it would take an expert to get to the bottom of the issue. That’s quite a bit different from the times when the problem was the rain and the solution was cutting down a few trees to create a shelter. That was also true in the early days of machines as well—a somewhat mechanically inclined person could maintain and repair their own automobiles. However, the complicating factor of modern electronics has put this do-it-yourself option out of reach for all but the most dedicated mechanics.

Life for this generation has also become exponentially more complex than it was for prior generations when travel was as fast as your horse and you were watching your crops grow rather than checking your Facebook feed updates every other minute. It is very easy to be overwhelmed, as individuals, by information overload. The common man is increasingly over his head in dealing with the technological onslaught. We have become increasingly dependent on technology that we cannot understand ourselves and fails spontaneously, without warning, at seemingly the most inopportune times.

Advanced modern technology represents a paradigm shift as much as the invention of the automobile was a revolution for personal transportation. We have gone from analog to digital—a change that has opened a whole new realm of possibilities and also comes with a new set of vulnerabilities as well that go beyond the occasional annoyance of a computer crash. We really have no idea how the complexity of the current system will fare against the next Carrington Event (a solar storm that caused widespread damage and disruptions to the electric grid in 1859—a time of very basic and sturdy technology) nor are we able to foresee the many other potential glitches that could crash the entire system.

It is easy to be lulled into thinking everything will be okay because it has been so far. But that is a false security in a time of complex systems that are extremely sensitive and vulnerable. As when a pilot of a sophisticated airliner fails to comprehend the inputs or like the flustered operators of a nuclear reactor when the alarm bells ring, our civilization may be unable to respond when the complex systems we now rely on fail in an unexpected way that we could not predict. It is not completely unlikely that a relatively small glitch could crash the entire system and lead to a collapse of the current civilization. That is the danger of complexity, having systems that are well beyond our ability to fix should they fail in the right way at the wrong time.

The last human invention will be too complex to control and could be our demise…

Computers far exceed the human capacity to process information. We’ve come a long way from Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov in the 90s and the gap between man and machine continues to grow wider after our best representatives were surpassed. Yet, while vastly faster in their abilities, computers have long only been able to do what they were programmed to do and thus their intelligence is limited by the abilities of their human programmers.

However, we are on the cusp of development of this technology and the implications far beyond the finite capacity of the human mind to grasp. We could very soon couple the processing speed of a computer with a problem-solving ability similar to that of a human. Except, unlike us, limited by our brain size and relatively slow processing speed, this “machine learning” invention (a video on the progress so far) could continue to expand its own intellectual abilities.

Machine learning is a massive paradigm shift from the programmed computers we currently use. It would lead to super-intelligence beyond our ability to fathom (literally) and, any more than a monkey can control us, could not be stopped. Imagine something that is always a hundred steps beyond any scenario we could imagine and has less in common with us (in terms of raw intelligence) than we do with an ant—would it have any reason not to treat us better than bacteria?

There was a time when I would not have believed that artificial intelligence was possible in my lifetime and a time after that when I would’ve thought it is something we could control. That was naive, artificial intelligence would, at very least, be unpredictable and almost totally unstoppable once the ball got rolling. It could see us as a curiosity, solve cancer simply because it could in a few nanoseconds—or it could kill us off for basically the same reason. Hopefully, in the latter case, it would see our extermination as not being worth the effort and be on to far greater things.

It remains to be seen whether artificial intelligence will solve all of our problems or see us as a problem and remove us from the equation. This is why very intelligent men, who love science and technological advancement, like Elon Musk, are fearful. Like the atomic age, it is a Pandora’s box that, once opened, cannot be closed again. But unlike a fission bomb that is dependent on human operators, this is a technology that could shape a destiny for itself—an invention that could quite possibly make us obsolete, hardly even worth a footnote in history, as it expanded across our planet and into the universe.

Whatever the case, we will soon have an answer…

Neural nets, the key component to artificial super-intelligence, are already here…

In fact, it is in your smartphone, it enables facial recognition and language translation. It also helps you pick a movie on Amazon by predicting what might interest you based on your prior choices.

Artificial intelligence technology could be our future. It could be that last invention that can finally manage all of these dangerous complex systems that modern convenience is so dependent upon and allow us to return to our simple pleasures. Or it could be a dangerous complexity in and of itself, something impossible to control, indifferent to our suffering and basically (from a human perspective) the greatest evil we ever face in the moments before it ensures our extinction.

Artificial super-intelligence will be complexity beyond our control, a dangerous complexity, and comes with risks that are humanly unimaginable. It could either solve all of our problems in dealing with disease and the complexity of our current technology—or it could make our woes exponentially greater and erase our civilization from the universe in the same way we apply an antibiotic to a pathogen. It is not ridiculous or absurd to think a little about the consequences before flipping the “on” switch of our last invention.

Should we think about simplifying our lives?

It is important, while we still reign supreme as the most inventive, intelligent and complex creatures on this planet, that we consider where our current trajectory will lead. Technological advancement has offered us unique advantages over previous generations but has also exposed us to unique stresses and incredible risks as well. Through technology, we have gained the ability to go to the moon and also to destroy all life on this planet with the push of a button.

Our technologies have always come as two-edged swords, with a good side and bad side. Discovering how to use fire, for example, provided us with warmth on a winter night and eventually internal combustion engines, but has often escaped our containment, destroyed our properties, cost countless lives, and creates air pollution. Rocks, likewise, became useful tools in our hands, they increased our productivity in dramatic fashion, but then also became a means to bash in the skulls of other humans as a weapon. For every positive development, there seems to be corresponding negative consequences and automation has proved to be no different.

The dramatic changes of the past century will likely seem small by comparison to what is coming next and there really is no way to be adequately prepared. Normal people can barely keep up with the increased complexity of our time as it is, we are already being manipulated by our own devices—scammers use our technology against us (soon spoof callers, using neuron networks, will be able to perfectly mimic your voice or that of a loved one for any nefarious purpose they can imagine) and it is likely big corporations will continue to do the same. Most of us will only fall further behind as our human weakness is easily used against us by the use of computer algorithms and artificial intelligence.

It would be nice to have the option to reconsider our decisions of the past few decades. Alas, this flight has already departed, we have no choice but to continue forward, hope for the best, and prepare for the worse. We really do need to consider, with the benefits, the potential cost of our increased dependence on complex systems and automation. And there is good reason to think (as individuals and also a civilization) about the value of simplifying our lives. It is not regressive or wrong to hold back a little on complexity and go with what is simple, tried and true.