Thursday, May 16, 2013

How Healthy Is Modern Life?

Technology has made some aspects of life better. Some would say that one of these aspects is our health. I would disagree.

The Modern Diet
The modern diet consists of way too many calories usually in the form of carbohydrates and in particular refined sugars and starches which have a very high glycemic index. This is in ironic contrast with most of human history in which not getting enough calories was the problem. The modern diet also includes many unnatural chemicals which may or may not, depending on which studies you believe, have strange and undesirable side effects. Pioneer families like the Ingalls never had to understand, let alone pronounce, things like methylchloroisothiazolinone.

The dangerous effects of preservatives and other unnatural chemicals aside, even just the refined sugars and starches are enough to kill us. When you eat things like donuts or even the supposedly healthy cereals like Shredded Wheat you are sending way to much sugar into your blood stream. Sugar is necessary for your body to function, but too much sugar in you blood can destroy your blood vessels. The Insulin reaction, our bodies way of trying to save us from the dangerously high amounts of glucose in our veins, causes us to get fat by making the fat stay in our fat cells so the hungry cells can burn up the sugar first.

Today, mostly due to globalization, there is a greater number of fruits and vegetables available at your local supermarket. Unfortunately most of them are full of pesticides and contain far less nutrients than they used to decades ago. Similarly with vitamins and supplements, there is a greater variety and availability, but you wouldn't need most of them if you just had nutritious food at every meal.

Physical Exercise
Before the industrial revolution all work was done by either humans or animals. This naturally required large amounts or energy from food. For the average working stiff getting fat was not a concern. Today because of desk jobs and a generally more sedentary lifestyle most people are concerned about being overweight.

Sure we have gyms on every corner and even inexpensive exercise equipment at Walmart and if you live in a relatively safe neighborhood you can always take a walk, but most of us find it hard to make the time to get enough exercise to keep a healthy weight. If you are burning calories as you are making a living that time crunch goes away. So I would say technology doesn't make up for the much more accessible exercise as you work method of the past.

Stress has been a part of the human condition ever since our first parents decided to leave the safety of their creators protective headship. There has always been crime, poverty and war, but the level of stress felt by most, whether living in a developed country or the third world is much greater than it has ever been. Obviously things like drought, famine and civil war are stressful. Africa and Asia have seen more than their share of this. Like wise corruption and narco gangs are a terrifying specter to live under, just ask anyone from Mexico or much of Latin America. But its also no picnic living under the corporate oppression and economic uncertainty in the U.S.

Technology has not helped in this regard. Modern life in the U.S. and other developed lands has generally been made more stressful by technology. In fact much of our stress comes directly from technology, such as the constant interruptions and demand for our attention that the proliferation of media and communications affords.

A more indirect effect of technology is the way it allows us to be independent and live almost anywhere. At first this sounds great, but then there is the natural consequence that most of us live amongst strangers. Our family members live far away and most of us don't know all if any of our neighbors. This also contributes to stress and for some depression and a sense of disconnectedness.

While its true that much technology has been devoted to safety, its also true that much of it wouldn't even be necessary if it wasn't for some other dangerous technology. A perfect example is seatbelts & airbags. Great ideas and I'm glad they were invented, but they are only necessary because automobiles are the sixth leading cause of death in most developed countries.

Then there are the obvious hazards found in modern industrial places of employment where chemicals, heavy equipment and other dangerous activities cause many to loose life or limb. Some times in the case of a person working with hazardous materials like asbestos or carcinogenic petrol chemicals it takes years for the affects to manifest themselves. Other times its instant death or dismemberment such as in the case of oil rig operators and electric linemen.

Finally there is war which has been made exponentially more deadly by the invention of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and there oh so efficient delivery systems. Man has always put great effort into finding more effective ways of killing his neighbor. Now. however, he has the ability to kill all his neighbors.

Heath (Sick) Care
Advances in medicine, particularly over the last 100 years, are nothing less than awe inspiring. What used to be a death sentence is now often a simple trip to the pharmacy for antibiotics or an out patient surgery. Our knowledge of how the body works and how we can tweak it to cure disease or repair damage saves and improves lives.

There are some blunders in modern medicine too be sure. Things like drug interactions, blood transfusions, or deadly cures like chemotherapy. Also the general dependency on drugs and the focus on treating of symptoms rather than finding the root of the problem and curing it. Of course It could be argued that these are problems that arise from human nature and attitude rather than technology, so I think maybe this is one area where technology helps more than it hurts.

So, as I usually find to be the case, technology giveth but it taketh even more. I much prefer a quiet life free of frankenfoods, dangerous jobs and weapons of mass destruction to a modern life of deadly convenience.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Codist

A treatise on the oft misunderstood and much maligned programmer.

To most non-programmers the art of making a computer do something can seem like black magic, but its really just a mixture of art and engineering. To be sure programmers, especially if they are good, are a special breed. They usually have certain aptitudes and abilities that can't be learned. Of coarse this in no way discounts the part that experience and hard work play in making an excellent coder or application architect, but just as is true of great artists, athletes or scientists there is an element of raw talent that must be there.

This aptitude is usually accompanied by certain personality traits. Its as if the same hard wiring that imparts the mental ability to code also creates a certain kind of personality. Perhaps this accounts for some of the stereotypical traits of a programmer such as being aloof, less able to communicate with non-programmers, irritable when interrupted, working alone in long stretches of 12-14 hours while paying little attention to normal human activities such as eating properly or bathing. For the record I shower regularly and do not subsist on Twinkies and pizza, although I do often appear aloof and prefer to work without interruption for long stretches of time. However there is another reason why programmers exhibit these traits: The task of designing and coding an application requires you to work in just such a way.

What I mean is a computer program is often very complex and requires the programmer to load and hold in his mind all its moving parts at once. This takes time and the slightest interuption can cause you to loose that mental model and have to start all over loading each class, method and variable into your brain. For those who aren't programmers and don't have experience with this imagine you're building a house of cards one card at a time, you've built it five layers high and someone comes along and bumps you and the whole thing comes tumbling down. If that was your job, you'd be in a basement, away from others where no one could interrupt you too.

The creative aspect of designing and coding an application can also require long stretches of uninterrupted time thinking about or examining different approaches to a problem domain. Like an artist or a scientist, programmers are often deep inside their heads even when they are surrounded by others. This can make them appear aloof to others. I've even noticed in my own experience some people becoming offended or irritated believing I was intentionally ignoring them, when in reality I was just so consumed with the creative idea I was exploring that I was barely aware of their presence.

The truly great programmers and designers are driven people. They can be bold and daring. They also tend to be extremely honest and unrelentingly logical. As such they may not consider others feelings to the degree they should and are sometime perceived as rude. They may also appear to have a one track mind. Seeing the problem they are working on from all angles draws their full attention, as a consequence everything else in their life can become neglected, even the a fore mentioned eating and bathing. All these traits though they may make them a brilliant engineer can often estrange them from the general population.

Because of being so focused on whatever project they are working on they can often lack skill in social situations simply because they have neglected to exercise such skills. After a period of time, especially if they are not around people who understand them they can become uncomfortable and just choose to avoid such situations all together. When this happens you end up with the stereotypical nerd, geek or whatever epithet society gives to the intellectually gifted yet socially inept.

Not all programmers fit this stereotype, in fact no one fits any stereotype exactly because we are all individuals with free will and a complex personality that emerges from both our genetics and our experiences. However understanding why some of these traits exist in programmers or by extension artists, scientists, mathematicians, etc. helps us to see them for who they truly are and not just who the seem to be.