Wrong, but Useful

One of my favorite essays of all time is “The Relativity of Wrong” by Isaac Asimov.  If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to take a few minutes and click the link to check it out.  A few years ago, my attitudes about being wrong shifted drastically, and it started with that essay.  I used to feel very bad when I was wrong about something, to the point that my ego would kick in and argue that I wasn’t really wrong at all.  This is not helpful to anyone.

There are two other things that really re-enforced this change in my beliefs. One was the short lecture “You have no idea how wrong you are“:

The other is the book “Being Wrong” by Kathryn Schulz.  It turns out, I had been very wrong about what it meant to be wrong.  The consequence is that today, I rarely look at things through the lens of Right/Wrong dichotomy.  These days, I try to consider the usefulness of the thing.

For example, in my previous post, I kind of stretched the definition of what constitutes a “prison.”  That might be distracting to some people, even to the extent that it makes them miss the point I’m trying to make.  But to me, it was a useful way to think about these things, and to the extent that it’s useful, it doesn’t really matter that it’s wrong.

But that can be a dangerous way to approach things.

Whether or not something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is always important, especially because finding something that is ‘right’ is very rare.  We are wrong about practically everything, and we must never forget that.  We can be wrong about something being useful. Those are not static properties.  Something that was useful yesterday can be toxic today.  So the foundation that all these things must be built on is the conscious acceptance that you are wrong about everything, and the most you can hope to achieve is to become a little less wrong.  When you base things on that, it becomes much easier to put your ego to the side and truly consider the merits of something.  It becomes much easier to improve and get better.  And it becomes much, much easier to say you’re sorry.

The Most Potent Prison

The most potent prison is the one where the prisoner doesn’t even realize they’re in it.  It’s relatively rare for a prison to be a room with bars on it.  Much more often, a prison is constructed out of our fears, routines, and culture.  In my life, I find that I’ve build all kinds of patterns of thought that put artificial limits on what I do, with no good reason for them.  These are common prisons in my life:

  • I can’t write a letter to my friend right now, because I don’t have time to write it by hand.
  • I can’t go hiking today because it’s supposed to rain.
  • I can’t start that project because I need this thing before I can start.
  • I can’t go to the thing, because I need to work.
  • I can’t start writing because I haven’t finished the outline.
  • I can’t code this program because I haven’t decided how I’m going to deploy it.

Every one of those is wrong, but far too often they go unchallenged in my brain.  I have literally waited years to do somethings because of flawed reasoning like the above.

As I’ve grown older and more skeptical, it’s very useful to constantly “is that true?”  There is this idea that you should “question everything,” but I we tend to be too limited in what we include in “everything.”  We tend to think that “question everything” is limited to a domain like religion or politics or perhaps business.  But I think it’s most useful in the more mundane and more personal.

When I first moved into an apartment with a dishwasher, I was very happy because I hated doing dishes.  The reality turned out to be different.  I would wait to run the dishwasher until it was full, which might be a few days since I live by myself.  Then it would sit full for a few days, and more dishes stacked up.  This lasted for years through multiple apartments, until one day I realized my life would be much easier if I just washed my dishes after I used them.  It just hadn’t occurred to me to question my dish washing practices, but once I did, I was able to relieve a lot of pain in my life.  I haven’t run a dishwasher in years, and my kitchen is better maintained than it has ever been before.

It might seem weird to call these things “prisons.”  I think of it as being captive to thought patterns, cultures, or customs that are causing you pain that you tolerate because you don’t realize that there might be a different way.

I read a few years ago, though I don’t remember the source and can’t find it now, that the first step to escaping from prison is to recognize when you are in one.  I’m now constantly on the lookout for things that are causing me irritation or pain.  Then I question the assumptions of whatever it is.  I ask myself: what are the things about this I actually have control over. And then I break out of the place I had been.

Story Time, or how I almost died a few months ago, but am probably better now!

I haven’t really spoken about this publicly yet, but I figure few enough people will read this post that I can test the waters a little bit…

For the past few years I’ve been making small changes to improve my life. Eat better, walk around more, things like that. Last march, I decided it was time to add a regular exercise program, so I started Couch-to-5k. C25k is a program where over the course of 8 weeks or so, you work up to running for 30 minutes constantly without a break. The first day felt really good to me, and I was excited. But the good start did not last. I kept pushing hard, but a few weeks into the program, it was clear that I was not getting better. In fact, I was getting worse. I felt like I was hitting a wall where if I put more effort in, the worse I got. The data supported this – I was covering less distance even though I was running for the same amount of time. I decided it was time to see the doctor.

The doctor listened to me and started running tests. Blood workup was first, and the doctor told me to continue exercising, which I did. The lab here in WA is very fast, and I had the results the next day. Everything we normal, except for elevated White Blood cell count. An infection could explain my symptoms, so the next round of tests was ordered. We ran more blood workup looking for proteins related to muscle degeneration, and there was a chest xray and sleep lab appointment scheduled. I was nervous about the xray, because I knew the differentials with a positive result on that test were not pretty at all. The results were negative.

This all took a couple of weeks, and over that time, my symptoms were getting worse. I started getting these episodes where my heart would feel like it was racing. I would just be sitting at my desk, or on the couch, and my heart would feel like it was trying to burst out of my chest. I would feel like I *should* be out of breath, but I wasn’t. It got weirder when I tried to measure my pulse. It would look perfectly normal – 70-80 bpm. A few times, it was even very slow – in the 40-50bpm range. I didn’t know what to make of this, but the feeling would pass after a few minutes.

At my next doctors appointment, the nurse had trouble for a moment taking my pulse. She asked me if I was “afib.” I didn’t know what that meant, but it’s a type of irregular heart beat. I said no, but combined with my new symptoms, focus turned to my heart. An EKG at the doctors office showed normal, but a stress test was scheduled a month out – the earliest available appointment. The doc told me to keep exercising, so I did.

My symptoms continue to get worse. The racing heart episodes started happening every other day, and then every day, and then multiple times in a day. When I was jogging, it felt like I was working against an inverted gear. The harder I pushed, something pushed back even harder. It felt wrong, but in a way that is very hard to explain. It felt like impending doom, as though something very bad was just about to happen, but hadn’t happened yet. I started experiencing sudden fatigue while biking, where I wouldn’t be able to lift my leg to peddle. These things really scared me.

I was getting frustrated with the lack of information about what was happening to me. I started looking at EKG’s online to buy, so that I could get readings at home, when I was actually experiencing an episode. It turns out, they are not complicated devices, so I was able to build a three electrode EKG out of an arduino. After some tuning, I was able to get a good reading at home, and my hear looked normal. I waited for another episode to happen so I could catch my heart in the act.

This turned out to be more difficult than I thought. This was because the episodes only last a few minutes, and it takes that long to get the device all connected up and a good read. Plus, I had to put the electrodes on and calibrate it each time, all while feeling like I had just ran a marathon and was about to die. The first time I got what I felt like was a good reading, I was very puzzled. Heart rhythm looked completely normal. Heart rate was fine, too. I wondered if I was experiencing panic attacks. I started thinking that perhaps my symptoms were just psychosomatic, so that made me feel better.

The last day I exercised was a few weeks before my stress test. I was sure that the problems were all just in my head, so if I just push hard, my body would just fall in line. So I pushed hard, and then I couldn’t push at all. I couldn’t lift my legs, and in fact I couldn’t support my body. I was laying on the ground feeling like my heart was about to explode and completely sure that I was about to die.

But I didn’t. About five minutes later, I had recovered. I was able to stand up, and then I started the long and very slow walk back to my apartment. I had no idea what to do next.

My symptoms progressed rapidly. The episodes occurred more frequently, but I felt like all I could do was wait for the next test to happen.

I was super excited for the stress test. I was finally going to get some more information, and I could push myself in a controlled environment, which helped to counteract my fears of suddenly falling over dead. If you don’t know what a stress test is, they hook you up to an EKG and then stress your heart. This is usually done by running on a treadmill, though can also be done chemically. I was going to go for the treadmill. They record your EKG throughout the test, take blood pressure measurements every minute, and there are pauses where they take a sonogram of your heart. All that data is then sent to the cardiologist for analysis.

They hooked me up to a twelve electrode EKG and get some base readings. I watched my heart pattern very carefully, and I started to notice that there was a blip every once in a while. A heart beat that didn’t quite work right. I tried to correlate it to something I was feeling, but it was difficult, and I couldn’t be sure that what I was feeling was actually due to the blip or to my observation of the blip.

When I got on the treadmill, they told me my goal was to reach 160bpm on the heart. I knew from previous exercises that my symptoms could be triggered by getting my heart rate to 120-130, so this was great. The treadmill started, and things seemed just fine to start. But pretty quickly, the EKG started showing an erratic heart beat. At first, it was just one or two, but that grew and then it was 10 or 12 or more in a row, and the feeling of impending doom returned. But I kept pushing, because I wanted to get the most data possible. But they stopped the test before my heart rate even hit 130.

Regular Hearth Rhythm

Regular Hearth Rhythm

Irregular Heart Rhythm

Irregular Heart Rhythm

I didn’t know what that meant. I was sitting there and very confused. I felt like we hadn’t got the data we needed. One of the nurses asked one of the others if we had reached 160, and was answered with a very quiet shake of the head. I was feeling as though something had gone very wrong. Then they asked me if I had a scheduled appointment with the cardiologist to go over my results, and I said no. The test had been ordered by my GP, and I assumed I would follow up with him at some point yet to be scheduled. They told me to go wait in the lobby.

About ten minutes later, they told me that I had an appointment with the cardiologist later that day. Clearly something was wrong. I let work know that I wouldn’t be back until much later after all, and found a coffee shop to kill a few hours in.

The cardiologist showed me some of the results of the stress test and told me that something was definitely wrong with my heart. He didn’t know what, but we would start with some more tests. Given the tests that had been done, he felt pretty sure that it wasn’t Coronary Artery Disease. My lab results were all green, and I was so young. But Due Diligence says we need to take a look, and if that didn’t work out, we’d take a look at electrical issues. We scheduled a cardiac catheter procedure. Because of scheduling, it was a month away.

My symptoms began having a big impact on my life. Any movement for more than a minute or so would trigger it. I began to walking very slowly. I dreaded moments at work where I need to walk with other people, because I wasn’t able to keep up at all. Something would trigger it even while I was sitting still reading. I visited the Jet Propulsion Lab during this time, and while I was able to see the highlights, I wasn’t able to see everything and had to leave early.

I was really looking forward to going through the procedure at the hospital. I was going to get more information about what was wrong with me, and I figured it would be a nice little adventure. I was feeling pretty depressed and it gave me hope to think that some progress would be made. I arrived and got prepared. The cardiologist stopped by to take a look at my right arm artery where they would be inserting the catheter. Everything looked great and he gave me some encouragement. He told me that he thought it unlikely that we would find anything specific, but it would be a good test and was the next logical test. I was very impressed by the cath lab when I first entered.

It seemed that time stopped while I was in the lab. I don’t know how long I was in there. There was a lot of preparation, and they gave me some pills that would help me relax but not fall asleep. I was aware, but things didn’t really register. Things happened. I could feel the catheter snaking up my arm, but was surprised to find that it didn’t bother me. My mind wandered until I felt a tugging on my arm from the cardiologist. He said that they had found something and that they would try to fix it so that I wouldn’t need open heart surgery. I thought that was a great idea. I heard them doing some planning, but not understanding the details. Then they were done. All in all it took a few hours.

They explained that they found my left anterior descending artery was occluded almost completely. They called it 99% blocked. They placed three stents and opened it back up. Everything looked good again, and I was a 34-year old with a diagnosis of coronary artery disease. I didn’t understand what they were saying exactly. I accepted the facts, but didn’t understand the why. And I was cold – the coldest I think I’ve ever been. I think it was a bit of shock. My teeth were chattering so hard I couldn’t think, but they wrapped me in these amazing warm blankets and it got better. They kept me at the hospital over night, and I decided it was indeed an adventure, and one I never want to experience again.

Heart stents are magic. I was immediately seeing results. Once I got through the 48 hours after the procedure, I was feeling fantastic. The best I’ve felt in years. I could walk without trouble I spent that weekend just walking around. They told me not to do anything but walk, and I followed directions. It would be a few months before I could jog. I entered a cardiac rehab program.

Cardiac rehab is great. It’s data driven exercise. They hook you up to an EKG while you work so they can see if something is wrong. They take you blood pressure at certain points to make sure it’s looking good. They adjust your program as things get easier to make sure you keep pushing yourself. It last 12 weeks. I finished the program during the first week of September.

Yesterday afternoon, I ran for 2 miles straight in 33 minutes.  I am full of gratitude for the people that have helped me out along the way: the doctors and nurses at Virginia Mason here in Seattle. They saved my life and have set me up to have a long life ahead of me.  I look forward to what that future might hold.

Be Kind

Being kind isn’t the same as being nice. It isn’t about superficial praise. It doesn’t mean dulling your opinions. And it shouldn’t diminish the passion with which you present them.

Being kind is fundamentally about taking responsibility for your impact on the people around you. It requires you be mindful of their feelings and considerate of the way your presence affects them.

This article hits a little close to home.

Martin Luther King Jr. on Riots

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

– Martin Luther King Jr.

Full Speech

Sources for Positiveness

Sometimes I just need some positiveness in my life. Sometimes it’s for affirmation and motivation. Sometimes it’s for inspiration. Here are three that I like:

  • NEDA Feeding Hope (tumblr). I’ve been supporting NEDA for several years now, but only discovered this blog in the last year or so. I don’t know when it was launched. Since it is focused on helping people with Eating Disorders, those issues are prevalent there, but there is more general positiveness as well.
  • Daily Pep Talk from a Best Friend. I heard about this on the Stuff You Should Know podcast. Every day something to get you going
  • /r/GetMotivated. One must be careful with Reddit. You’re going to see both the best and worse humanity has to offer there. /r/GetMotivated is one of the good places on reddit (for the most part)

And here is a piece of positiveness from me to you:

This is Sahalie Falls.  It has been cutting through hardened rock for thousands of years to create something beautiful.  It is a force of nature. You are also a force of nature.


It’s Tuesday morning, and I have a two hour meeting.  This is a horrible meeting, but it’s not because of the length. It’s because of the people in it.  Two hour meetings can be productive.  If you’re in sync with the other people, and things are happening, two hours can fly by.

This meeting is never like that.  People show up unprepared.  They talk about irrelevant things.  They show up late and have people go back over what’s already been discussed. The same decisions are rehashed and remade every time. People go over their task list in detail.  In short, nearly every rule you’ve read about “how to have a good meeting” is broken.  The only thing we really do right, as far as I can tell, is end the meeting on time (mostly).

I don’t run this meeting. I don’t really have any power in this meeting other than sharing the information that’s needed.  The only thing I can do is set an example.  I’m there a few minutes early.  I have an information sheet handout for all the participants that contains only the information that they need to know.  When it’s my turn to speak, I don’t wander off on tangents or bring in unrelated things. My parts of the meeting tend to go very smoothly and quickly.

So off I go, to waste two hours of my life in a meeting that could be conducted in half an hour because people can’t be bothered to care.

100th Post Kind of…

According to WordPress, this will be my one hundredth published post on this blog. This is not my hundredth post though. Not by bar. Saved on this instance of WordPress alone is over a hundred and seventy posts. It’s just seventy of them are unpublished.

Most of those have previously been published, and then retracted. About two years ago, I went though an unpublished a whole lot. Most of the ones I unpublished had to deal with my deconversion from Christianity to Atheism. It was a tough experience, I wrote about it extensively, mainly very negative things about Christianity. I don’t feel the need to talk about my religion publicly any more, so I unpublished them. It’s just easier.

My political beliefs have gone through a similar radical transition, from conservative, to ayn rand libertarian, to liberalism now. I don’t feel the need to really talk about those things publicly. I just don’t see much point. Most people are unwilling to change their minds on it, and I find that very frustrating, especially given how much I’ve changed my own. I can talk about it in small groups under careful circumstances, but it really doesn’t come up that much.

There are some other things. Silliness that made sense to me in the moment, but doesn’t any more. Moments of uncomfortable introspection and self-reference. I love self-reference a lot, but I’m beginning to think that too much self-reference is kind of dangerous.

Part of me things I should just own all these things. For good or bad(mostly bad), they are a part of my history. They are a reminder of where I’ve come from, and documentation of what I thought. But you don’t need those things. Only me. So there they’ll stay.

Happy 100th Post!

Me Versus Depression

Popcorn, M&M's, and Coca Cola

I tried relaxing tonight with some M&M’s, popcorn, and a movie.  This week has been a long one, and I thought I would take the time to unwind a bit. I thought I would watch a movie I thought was brilliant the first time, The Fifth Element.  But I didn’t make it very far.  I just wasn’t feeling it tonight.

I’m experiencing what I would call a mild depression.  I’ve been trying to figure out whether I should say anything about it publicly.

I shared this story with a friend yesterday, but I’ll share it with you now.  I was watching a short video a few days ago where Leonard Bernstein was talking about what it takes to compose music.  He said there is a falsehood many people believe that a composer writes what they’re feeling.  He gave an example of a sad piece, and said that people believe that the composer wrote it when we was very depressed, but that they’re wrong.  If you’re depressed, he said, you’re in bed.  You’re not composing music.

This really struck a chord with me.  I’m a creative person.  There are things inside of me that I need to get set free.  It might be music, or a computer program, or some writing, maybe a poetry.  But when I’m feeling depressed, those things are more distant.  They take more effort to bring forth.  Depression silences my inner muse, if I can call it that.

Recognizing that, it makes me angry.  This last week, most mornings I’d rather stay in bed than go to work. I’m not excited to go out and explore.  If I’m completely honest, I just want to lay down and sleep for a month. I don’t want to do things that I normally find fun.

In other words, I’m not me.  When I think about that, I feel defiant, and I’m hoping that’s a good thing.  I have things to say, I have things to write, I have things to create.  And I need to push through it and keep going.

Tomorrow I’m going to go to the beach.  I actually don’t want to, which I can’t believe, but it’s true.  I don’t want to do anything tomorrow.  But I’m not going to let myself do that.  I’ve got to push.  I’m going to go.

It will be sunny and bright, and with the breeze on my face, the sun on my back, and my feet in the sand, life will look better.  Life will be better.  Tomorrow I’m going to the beach, and after that, I’m going to push through the next thing, whatever that is.

And maybe talk to my doctor.

My Personal Site


I’ve had some form of personal website since 8th grade.  I started it as one of my ‘personal projects’ in a computer class in school.  We needed two.  One of mine was playing Zork Zero, which I absolutely loved.  The other was creating my own simple webpage.  The instructor would push out my updates to the library web server, and I could pull it up from home!  It even has a CGI counter that I copied from somewhere.

Not long after that, I learned about tripod and geocities and quickly moved my page to one of those.  I really regret that I don’t have a copy of those sites any more.  I don’t remember much about the site except that I spent hours searching for midi files that I could put up, and javascript games, once that was a thing.

In college, I gained access to free web server space, and so I started over.  I called it JMCNET, and I had it looking very stylish:

JMCNET - reconstructed

JMCNET – reconstructed

I still have the content and the markup for most of this site. Unfortunately, UMKC ran windows servers, and FrontPage was their thing, so that’s what I used to create the site. I don’t think there is a server anywhere that can run this site.  The earliest blog posts on this site were first published here.

Not long after that, I learned about using photoshop to create templates for websites.  This blew my mind, so I set about to redesign jmcnet again:

jmcnet2 in photoshop

jmcnet2 in photoshop

Got to love those gradients!  I was quite proud of this at the time.  The mixture of “flat” and gradients, maybe we’ll see this type of thing return in the future, right?  Right…

In 2004, there was a web hosting company that was giving away two years of hosting for some reason, and I jumped on that opportunity.  That’s when I moved over to linux hosting and started learning php.  Those early sites iterated fast.  I bought the domain joshuamcharles.com.  This was the coolest thing ever for me.

But over time, the technology became very repetitive, and I didn’t want to spend as much time building the site.  I started using wordpress, and then moved to another hosting provider, buying the sudolife.org domain.  I still used a separate “home page” though, and it began to reflect my appreciation of minimalism:

Early sudolife.org.  It hung around for four or five years.

Early sudolife.org. It hung around for four or five years.

And now we’re to the present.  Having a personal site has always been an intersection between learning, playing, and experimentation.   It’s been a blast, but I don’t really think of my personal site as a project any more.  It’s not that interesting to me.  Now it’s a place to talk about my personal projects.  It’s a place where I document my thoughts, my progress, my ideas.  It’s my life, but not really.  It’s my pseudo life.