01 May 2015

State of Affairs

Well, it's official.  I am now a government employee.  I have just started my job as a Regional Network Specialist for the Texas Health and Human Services Committee.

It's not as fancy as it sounds.

I can't say much about my job.  It's not a federal job, so I would't have to kill you if I told you anything, but it's a state job, so I could be fined and go to prison, depending on what I said, so I'll be careful until I get a feel for this place.

In the mean time, I know I promised more LifeHacker articles, and yes, they will come.  The next one will be on overcoming procrastination.  I know it seems ironic, but this time I honestly haven't been procrastinating.  I've gone back to school, working on my next degree, and that's a full-time "job", but I've also desperately been searching for work, which is also a full-time "job", so I've been genuinely busy.  And now, I have a fur-realz full-time job, so that plus being a full-time college student means that I'm geunuinely busy, so I'm not really procrastinating.

BUT... I shall, nevertheless, publish an article soon regarding overcoming procrastination.  And yes, there's more to it than just "do it now".

Oh, did I mention that I'm testing a mobile app for creating and editing blog entries?  Let's see how this works out.

07 April 2015

That's So Meta

So, I was sitting at my computer, which was, at that time, temporarily located in a public space.  I was pondering the concept of metahumans.  My aforementioned friend Jean entered the public area to acquire a snack.  I turned to her and said, "So, I've been pondering the concept of metahumans."

She turned to me and said, "This is why we can't have adult conversations."  And she walked out.

Anyway... what Jean didn't understand, and still doesn't, is that I was being completely serious.

So we come to the crux of this particular article.  (Isn't that cute?  How I called my blog entry an "article", as if I'm a journalist?)  What I want to ask is this... Do metahumans exist?

The answer is... "Weeeellllll.... it's complicated."  I'll simplify this answer later, but first let me unsimplify the answer.

First, what is a metahuman?

The term "metahuman" originated in the D.C. Comics "Invasion" miniseries.  It has since been stolen by everyone else.  Simply put, it refers to someone who's human, but somehow more than human.

Superman doesn't qualify, because he's not human.  (Sorry, Lois.)

Iron Man doesn't qualify, because he doesn't really have superpowers.  Just a really cool suit.

Jimmy Olsen doesn't even begin to qualify... he's just a part-time crossdresser with a camera.

BUT... but... The Flash (in some versions), Spiderman, The Hulk, Barack Obama, Professor X - These have all been labeled as metahuman.  Whether they are, and what, exactly, are the criteria for being labeled a metahuman, are matters of debate amongst comics enthusiasts.

And believe me, you don't want to start a debate amongst comics enthusiasts.  Do you know how things get whenever a Los Angeles sports team wins, loses, or schedules a game, and suddenly half the city is on fire, cars and buildings are smashed, and the governor has to declare martial law?  Well, it's like that.  Only without all of the civil discourse.

But, again, I digress.  The point is... these are examples of metahumans in comics.  But my thoughts here aren't just about comics.  Or are they?  Do you see any pretty pictures of well-drawn characters?  No.  No, you don't.  Because this isn't about comics.  Not really.

This is about real life.  Do metahumans really exist?

Let's explore the word just a bit more.... The prefix "meta" means "more than" or "outside of".  Essentially, a "metahuman" is someone who is "more than human", or a human whose capabilities are outside the scope of what humans can do.

This is where it gets interesting.  Obviously, those people out there who can lift cars with their minds, and who can fly, and who can communicate telepathically with animals, those people are keeping well-hidden.  And who can blame them?  Between a government that's reputed to dissect curious specimens and religious groups that want to burn everything at the stake, exposing ones self can be dangerous.  But what about people who aren't so secret?

When I turned 30, I got my first-ever eye exam.  Don't judge me.  Anyway, the doctor was flabbergasted by the quality of my vision.  He said, "You know those people who get Lasik and then their vision is better than 20/20?  Well, your vision is way better than theirs."  Of course, it didn't last, and now I have two pairs of glasses, one for reading and one for driving.  But at one time, my vision wasn't just good, it was beyond exceptional.  And that's just plain ol' me.  What about better examples that we KNOW are genetic?  (Some purists will argue that to be a true metahuman, one has to actually have the genes for one's abilities, not just have the abilities themselves.)

In Germany, in 2000, a baby was born with a mutation that boosts his muscle growth.  At the age of 5, he had twice the muscle mass and half the fat of other children his age.  His mother was a professional athlete, and some other members of her family were found to be unusually strong, so this could be a dominant gene.

Some indigenous people in Siberia were found to have a gene that boosts their ability to handle cold temperatures.

Tibetans have a greater lung capacity than people from lower altitudes, allowing them to take in more oxygen from thinner air, and they have other adaptations that help them survive long-term.  Sherpas, similarly, have better blood flow to their brains, protecting them from problems with the thinner air.

There are people with resistance to HIV.  The gene which, when received from both parents, causes sickle-cell anemia will, when only received from one parent, confer immunity to malaria.  People with mutant feet adapted to climbing trees, eyes that see better under water, and people who can eat all the bacon they want without suffering from heart disease.


The list is pretty extensive.  There are seven billion people in the world, and there are lots of mutations happening, and sometimes a gene pops up that convers an advantage.  Ain't evolution grand?

My point is, these people have characteristics which, in the D.C. universe, would qualify them as "metahumans".  They have abilities that place them outside what's normally considered possible for humans.  And it's not through hard work, lightning strikes in chemistry labs, nor magic potions.  It's built in, hard coded.  So, are these metahumans?

Yes.  Or... are they?  Consider this....

Now, to offend any creationists who might stumble across this blog...

Are we apes?  Let's consider.  I'm not a chimpanzee.  I have the same number of fingers and toes, but my toes are shorter (and cuter).  We have the same general shape at birth, we have hair follicles all over, but my follicles are less active, and I'm taller as an adult.  I'm also physically weaker.  But about 99% of my DNA is identical to that of a chimp or bonobo.

If you think that's crazy... 50% of your DNA is shared by bananas.

Long ago, animals happened.  Some of these became vertebrates, but they were still animals.  Some vertebrates became mammals, but they were still vertebrates.  Some mammals became apes, but they were still mammals.  And some apes became humans, but humans are, like it or not, still apes.  Every characteristic that defines an ape still applies to humans.  Face it.  You're a monkey.  Or at least a great ape, with lots of monkey DNA.

So... humans are still apes.  Extend that.  Eventually, humans will have evolved.  It's difficult to say what we'll look like in 500 million years, because evolution isn't a path, just a process, but we'll definitely look different.  But we'll still be humans.  And apes.  And mammals, and vertebrates, and animals.

Unless we leave our bodies behind and become godlike beings of pure energy.  But that's for another article.

So... Do metahumans exist?  Yes.

But they're still human.  And therefore not metahuman.

See?  It's complicated.

And... regarding the incident with Jean...

It should be noted that, not five minutes later, I was walking past her home office, and she shouted, "Hamcat!"  I stopped, backed up, and looked into her office, and she said to me, "Hamcat.  HAMCAT!!!"  Then she went back to whatever she was typing.

This is how I know I need to move.

29 March 2015

Features of Habit

habit /ˈhæb ɪt/ [noun] - 1. an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.

Welcome to the first article in my new Lifehacking series.  It's taken longer than I anticipated to publish this first article, but please bear in mind that I haven't yet written the one on how to stop procrastinating.

So... habits.  We all have them.  The word "habit" has taken on negative connotations, lately.  We think of habits as being something akin to addiction.  Often, one hears  phrases like "bad habit", but rarely, if ever, does one hear of a "good habit".  But habits are part of us.  We're wired to develop habits.  And there are very good reasons.

I won't go into it here... consult your local evolutionary psychologist... but simply put, habits are like computer macros.  When you develop a habit, your hindbrain can take over that function and free up your forebrain for more important tasks, like reading blogs.

Think about it... do you drive?  If so, you probably don't think much about HOW you go about starting and stopping.  Do you have to think each time about which pedal is the brake pedal?  If so, perhaps you should purchase extra insurance.  How about walking? We know we walk, but we don't think much about it.  When you drive, do you put on your seatbelt?  If so, do you keep a checklist handy that includes the seatbelt, or do you simply use the seatbelt because it's a habit?

Note: as habits go, wearing your seatbelt is a very good one.

Our lives are full of habits that help us get by.  You might get into the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street... feeding your children... locking your car doors when a brown person walks by.

I mention that last point to acknowledge that yes, there are bad habits, and they must be addressed.

The point of this lifehack is to take control of your habits.  There are two pieces to this...

  1. The adoption of positive, helpful habits
  2. The elimination of negative, or "bad" habits
To the first point, it would be nice if we could just develop helpful habits whenever we want, just by doing them, right?  Right?

Well, we can.  No, seriously.  Developing a good habit is as simple as doing the thing.

Well, maybe not quite that simple.  But that's most of it.  Pick a thing that you want to do habitually.  Do it each time it's relevant.  If you forget to do it, backtrack (where practical) and do the thing.  The point here is to build pathways in the brain.  We learn to do things by building neural paths.  Repetition reinforces those paths and makes them stronger.  The act of consciously taking the time to do the extra thing that you want to do actually builds the extra circuit in your brain that, over time, makes the thing happen without you thinking about it.

For example, if you've been driving without a seatbelt, and you want to get into the habit of wearing your seatbelt (good for you!), then the first step is to start bucking up every time you get into your vehicle.  I find it's best to do so before starting the vehicle.  Mostly because my vehicle makes a nasty noise if I don't.

Now, this part is important... if you find yourself starting your vehicle and realize that you haven't yet put on your seatbelt, stop the engine, and then buckle up and start the engine again.

I know that this can place extra wear and tear on your engine, but it's not much, really, and you know what else costs even more than vehicle maintenance?  Getting your face sewn back together after putting it through a windshield.

Sounds simple, right?  Well, it isn't.  Or it is, but not quite as much as I've made it out to be... there's one important detail... forgiveness.  This information actually came from a study about procrastination, which I will read, when I get a chance, but it's important in areas like this... apparently there's a quirk in the firmware of the human brain.  If you beat yourself up about something, that prevents you from actually overcoming it.  So if you forget to do the thing you intend to do, don't feel bad, and don't punish yourself.  Just back up (if you can) an do it.  Move on with your life.

Now... the second part... overcoming bad habits.  This is a bit trickier.  It's not about building new pathways in the brain.

Or is it?

It can be.  One popular method of breaking a bad habit is to replace it with a different, less-bad habit.  It's similar to the method used in 12-step programs such as AA/NA.  Have you ever been to one of those meetings?  They set out to replace your drug habit (and yes, alcohol is a drug, by definition) with something else.  Usually, that involves replacing the drug with a deity (although the term "higher power" is used by those groups that want to continue receiving government money and having people sent to them by the court system), although most of the attendees also take up smoking.  Have you ever been to one of those meetings?  I've fought oil fires (military training) that produced less smoke.

I want to point out here that the success rate of 12 step programs is exactly the same as the success rate of people who just decide to quit on their own (Dawson, et al.), and while the evidence regarding whether such programs work is as hazy as the meeting rooms, the fact that such programs teach you to give up one type of dependence and replace it with another doesn't sound like the most ideal outcome, to me.

But I digress.  The point is, yes, you can overcome bad habits by replacing them with other habits, but that's not the only option.

The brain is quite malleable.  Not just in the physical, silly putty sense, but functionally.  Studies into neuroplasticity (no, that's not in your spell-check dictionary, but yes, it's a real word) have shown that the brain can adapt to almost any situation.  People have lost as much as 80% of their functional brain matter and still managed to graduate at the top of their classes.  Stroke victims who lose the ability to walk and speak are often able to relearn those skills.  After some therapy and hard work, the functions previously filled by one part of the brain can be taken over by another part.

Is this relevant to overcoming a bad habit, or is it just some really cool information?  BOTH!  The fact is that, although old habits are a function of paths burned into the brain, those paths can be destroyed.  And not just by smoking and praying for help.

It's not just a matter of willpower, which is essentially your will fighting against your will.  There are many suggestions and methods for accomplishing this, but it breaks down fairly simply...

  1. You have to want it.  If you don't want to stop doing The Thing, you'll keep doing The Thing.  You have to earnestly want to stop doing The Thing.
  2. Be aware of your actions.  Often, we continue to do The Thing because we don't realize we're doing it.  A future lifehack will discuss self awareness, but essentially you need to become aware that you're doing it so that you can stop.
  3. If you normally do The Thing as a step in a particular process, doing the process multiple times, while intentionally skipping The Thing can help.  This builds and reinforces pathways in the brain that don't include The Thing.
  4. This one is important... forgive yourself.  Yes, this unexpected yet key component to learning a new habit is also key to losing an old habit.  If you slip up, if you forget yourself and accidentally do The Thing, don't punish yourself or lose sleep over it.  Forgive yourself and move on.

Again, you might ask.... can it be that simple?  Well, yes and no.  It looks easier than it is.  But over time, it works.  And less time than you would think.

A note about my examples above... I know that I used drugs and addiction as examples of bad habits.  Yes, there are physical components to some addiction, but essentially, many drug addictions are psychological, and involve brain pathways not unlike those of habits.  I don't pretend that overcoming addiction is a matter to be taken lightly, nor do I pretend that drugs are bad just because that's what Ronald Reagan, patron saint of the Republican Party, told me when I was a vulnerable young child.  I simply used that example because the information is compatible, and many people can relate.

Notable habits you can learn to your benefit:

  1. Seatbelts.  Did I mention seatbelts before?
  2. Taking your medication when you eat (especially for diabetics)
  3. Unsupervised physical therapy (for sports and similar injuries)
  4. Daily personal hygiene (I'm looking at you, Albert Blastin)
  5. Eating breakfast
  6. Allowing for extra travel time when attending a scheduled event
  7. Reading bedtime stories to your children
  8. Checking the gas gauge on your car (and also glancing at the tires before driving somewhere)
  9. Making sure you have your keys before locking your vehicle door
A special note about this last problem... Tired of locking my keys in my vehicle, I intentionally got into the habit of locking my car doors using my keys, rather than using the controls.  I've never locked the keys in since, although I've had friends (I'm looking at you, Giordi), who have locked the keys in multiple times when borrowing my car.

And for crying out loud... wear your seatbelt!