Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Best news I've read today

Scottish researchers have destroyed cancerous tumors using a new genetic tool.  This is still limited to lab results, but it sure sounds promising.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Alternative forms of taxation

Our tax system is broken.  It is too complicated.  There are too many loopholes.  The time cost for each person and business to fill out their paperwork is too high.  The time cost for the government to validate all of that paperwork is too high.  The enforcement costs are too high.

There are rumors of overhauls coming.  I think that some type of major change is inevitable.  Unfortunately there are few good ideas floating around.

I remember seeing an article that Megan wrote up about an alternative form of taxation that really interested me. I searched this morning and couldn't find it.  I think it was during the 2008 election cycle.  I'll have to do this by memory, and you can make up the details for yourself.

One of the core tenets of tax policy is that whatever you tax you get less of.  If you tax income you get smaller paychecks.  If you tax purchases you get less shopping.  If you tax cigarettes you get less smoking.  Etc.  That makes it difficult to predict how much revenue a tax will generate because of this effect.  If you have $1M in spending, and you tax that spending at 10%, then you will generate less than $100,000 in tax revenue because there will be less than $1M in spending after the tax goes into effect.

I'm not concerned with calculating the revenue amounts.  There are experts who can do that.  I think that we should start our tax planning with the idea that we want to tax something that we want to reduce.  Don't tax income or spending; because you want more of those, not less.  Don't tax employment.  Don't tax charitable contributions.

So what do we want less of?
* Resource usage
* Pollution
* Trash
* Crime
* Alcohol, tobacco, firearms, pornography (maybe)
* Banks that are too big to fail
* Predatory lending
* Overpaid CEOs and board members
* CDOs (maybe)

What else?

Megan's article only talked about resource usage taxes as an alternative to income/spending/employment taxes.  There was a dead economist who had made his reputation on this proposal, and I think that the green forces were picking up his book again.  The idea there was to have taxes on things like water usage, sewage treatment, trash disposal, land use, mineral use, etc., instead of having income tax, payroll tax, sales tax, etc.  There are a few big advantages to this idea:
* Lower collection enforcement costs.
-- Many of these taxes could be collected automatically, like on water bills.
-- The non-automatic taxes (like land-use taxes) would be straight-forward recurring bills.
* Local job creation.
-- The jobs of measuring and collecting taxes would have to be close to the resources, so inspectors can visit, etc.
* Better/faster dispute resolution.
-- Local officials are more responsive than distant ones.
-- In-person meetings and on-site inspections can get to the truth of a situation better than long-distance phone calls.

There is no reason why these taxes could not be progressive.  For instance, the first 200 gallons (per month) of water are tax free.  The second 200 gallons are taxed at $0.10 per gallon.  The third 200 gallons are taxed at $0.15 per gallon.

There are certainly many detail issues that would need to be worked out.  Well water used for agriculture within a certain distance from the well should probably be tax free.  Or something like that.  I'm sure that there are many factories that use lots of water, and that have multiple sources of water.  We would need to debate and figure out what the right answer is for those.

But those rules would need to be kept simple and consistent.  No loopholes.  No exemptions for one state, congressional district, or industry.

If this had been put in place during the Civil War (instead of the income tax) then I think we could operate without an income tax.  Since we already have taxes on income, payroll, etc., then we will need a plan to transition.  That probably means that we add these taxes in low amounts, and then phase over by turning up these rates and turning down the rates on the older taxes.

If we had a functional Congress that wasn't entirely beholden to special interests then this is something that would work.  As it is, we'll have to get along with whatever the special interests dream up for us, until our next revolution.

Hacking Windows startup

I got Corel's PaintShop Pro X2 for Christmas.  I really like it.  I hit a bug with it the other day.  I couldn't figure it out and had to contact their technical support.  I got a good answer from them in about 24 hours.  I learned a new Windows trick from their answer.

You can use the msconfig utility in Windows to control which applications start when Windows starts.  This used to all be controlled by the Startup folder on the Start menu.  Now apparently there is this additional layer where software can register and get started.

I turned off the Google Updater, Adobe Updater, Apple Updater, and a few other services/applications that I just don't need running in the background all the time.  Much cleaner.  I like that.  Fewer things running means fewer variables to troubleshoot when something goes wrong.  This is Windows, after all.  Something always goes wrong.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Looking for a job

I have lots of stuff I am doing and want to do.  My wife and kids have been great about tightening the budget while I am in transition.  But the frustrations are starting to build.

I'm a software guy.  I get software.  I like software.  I enjoy turning ideas into requirements, and requirements into design.  I love testing and tweaking.  I love the power that good software has to become a force multiplier and dramatically change the way that the world works.

But I don't have a traditional software background.  My degree is a BA in Christian Ministry.  In a hiring market where there are hundreds of qualified resumes for every position, that degree is a serious hindrance.

My personal projects are all either outright Christian/spiritual (Pray with Friends) or at least public service oriented (the Hiring Survey, Democracy 2.0.)  During a time of prayer the other day I had the idea* that I might should look specifically at Christian organizations that either develop software or that could use websites/software in their work.

(* I'm hesitant to say that God gave me this idea, even though it did come during a time of prayer.  I've had experiences where I was sure that God said "go", and I felt comfortable going in His name.  This was not one of those times.  This was more gentle.  It seemed like it came from within, as opposed to above.  But if it gets me where He wants me to go, then He will get the credit....)

There are a whole lot of different things that I could do for a Christian organization.  That's been part of my problem with the job search so far.  I'm a generalist in a specialist market.  But here are a few ideas:
* I could lead in the design and development of software systems (web sites, applications, iPhone apps, etc.).
* I could help clients (churches, grant-recipient organizations, etc.) implement a software system (or systems).
* I could manage a development team, implementation team, or support team.

I would enjoy designing a Bible study site where people could "vote" on interpretations and discuss applications of specific verses.

I could fold into an existing ministry--it would make a great addition to most any Christian community site.

I'm going to catalog a list of companies that I think might be good targets.  I'll update the list as I find new ones.  I'd appreciate any organizations that you might know of.

I am not comfortable raising my own support.  I know several people who do it, including a few family members and close friends.  I'm happy for them and have no trouble supporting them (when I'm able.)  But that is just not my personality.  So I'm looking for a salary-type staff position, not a raise-your-own-support position.  If an organization only works in the raise-your-own-support mode then I'll cross them off.

Para-church organizations:
Focus on the Family (pinged one contact)
Campus Crusade (pinged one contact)
Youth with a Mission
Navigators (pinged one contact)
Wycliffe (raise-your-own-support only?)
Jaars (raise-your-own-support only?)
Samaritan's Purse
GodTube / Tangle

Church management software:
ACS Technologies
Power Church Software
Church Windows Software
Church Soft
Church Community Builder
Servant PC
Church Pro
Logos Church Management Software
CCIS Church Management Software
Fellowship Technologies
Interaction We
Service U for Churches
Helpmate Technology Solutions
By the Book
Faithful Steward
Last Days Software
Shelby Inc.

Bible software:
Bible Explorer
Bible Study Pro
Bible Works
the Word Bible Software
Word Search

What others am I missing?

Can you tell me something interesting about any of these?

Freedom Club

America is in an unusual position.  We are weak, but we are the lone global superpower.  Recently we have acted unilaterally, and seriously injured our stature in the world.  We need a group like the UN to work with on international peace issues, but the UN has proven to be utterly ineffective.

I've been thinking about the problems with the UN (and G8/G20).  The UN does work as a place where countries can negotiate and talk with one another.  But the UN is incapable of actually doing anything.  As I see it, the fundamental problem is that we are unequally yoked.  Countries that have vastly different goals and values will never agree upon what action to take.

I think that we should establish a new global group focused on establishing a coalition that can take action together on international issues.  I call this new group the Freedom Club.

Membership in the club will be based upon freedoms within prospective members.  That is, countries can only join the freedom club if they provide the basic human freedoms to their citizens.  This begs the question of what the basic human freedoms are.  This is something that we will need to sit down and talk with our allies about.  But I would propose this list:
* Freedom of religion.
* Freedom of speech.
* Freedom of the press.
* Freedom of peaceful assembly.
* Freedom from unreasonable search or seizure.
* Freedom to participate in government (voting and holding office.)
* Equal protection under the law.
* Fair and open elections.

Any country that is borderline qualified should be excluded.  A country needs to have a solid reputation as a free and open society before joining.  And a country that descends into anarchy or one-party-rule should be publicly kicked out.

I haven't hit the factbook to check for membership, but I think that there are about 50 countries that meet these requirements.  Because of their commitment to freedoms, these nations have a moral leg to stand on that lets them set international policy and simply challenge the rest of the world to catch up.

This group needs to be image-managed carefully.  This should be a prestigious club.  This is where the real deals are made.  This is the club that manages the business affairs of the free world.  Treaties start here.

Freedom is the cornerstone for peace and prosperity.  This is a core value that these countries should be able to agree upon, and it should serve as a basis for concerted action.

This group needs to be actively involved in advocating freedom as the only reliable path to peace and prosperity.  This is the group of nations that should be involved in stopping piracy and nation-building in failed states.  This group needs to actively give preferential treatment to other member nations.  And at the same time this group needs to offer free assistance to non-members to help them achieve membership.

This group should publish an annual freedom scorecard that critiques member and non-member states, and suggests freedom-supporting reforms that individual countries should undertake.  This must be clear that it is not about being white, or European, or agreeing with America on some topic or other; but freedom itself is both a moral value that should be upheld for it's own sake AND a practical value that provides the basis for peace and prosperity.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Information overload at work

In scientific research.  It seems that scientists are getting older and older before they publish their first major work.  Researchers who have studied this in depth blame the simple problem that it is taking new scientists longer and longer to get up to speed on all of the existing knowledge.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Future Shock Applied: the end of innovation

Innovation: (n) an insight that can be applied an operation, which improves the operation in some measurable way.
Innovate: (v) research (intentional or accidental) to find insights that can be applied to an operation, which will improve the operation in some measurable way.

What is the future?  Does the future happen simply because we count off seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, or millennia?  No.  Counting off seconds just causes time to pass.  The future that we are looking for is not counted off in seconds.  It is counted off in innovations.

Someone discovered how to create fire.  Someone discovered how to layout movable type to make a better printing press.  Someone discovered how to calculate an orbit.  Someone discovered how to create light by passing electricity through a filament.

Every discovery is an innovation.  Every innovation is an insight.  Every insight is an increase in knowledge.  Every insight provides more knowledge--more light for us to see the world better.  Every innovation makes the next innovation easier.

Fire was probably the only innovation that decade.  Movable type was probably one of a dozen innovations that year.  Calculating an orbit was one of a hundred innovations that month.  Light bulbs were probably one of a thousand innovations that week.

This is why Moore's law has held true for so long, and why it will probably continue to hold for many years to come.

I believe that the pace of innovation is the only true hockey-stick graph in nature.  Maybe there is another that I just don't know about.

Innovation is the source of future shock.  We build industries and careers on operations of all sorts.  And innovation creatively destroys those operations out from under us.  The buggy whip industry will never return, it was innovated into extinction.

But innovation will end.  And life may well end soon thereafter.

There are two barriers approaching.  Alvin Toffler focused on one in his book.  I believe that he underestimated the digital revolution.  I believe that we will skip over that barrier and hit the second barrier.  Skipping over that barrier will be a future shock of its own.

Toffler coined the term information overload to describe the ever-increasing amount of information that will be available in the future.  Every innovation increases our knowledge base.  As that knowledge base grows it becomes more and more difficult to learn all of the information that a person needs to know.  The human mind is finite.  Human lifetimes are finite.  Learning takes time.  There will come a point when it is impossible for a person to learn enough information to have a new insight.

Toffler feared that this was the end.  Eventually every person spends their 150-odd years learning information that was already discovered by others, and dies without reaching an end of knowledge where they could innovate.

Digital life is an innovation that Toffler did not see coming.  Digital life will still be restricted in terms of capacity and time, but those restrictions will be exponentially larger than their biological counterparts.  Digital life will be able to store nearly infinite amounts of information.  Digital life will have nearly infinite lifespans.  But the biggest distinction between biological life and digital life is in the pace of learning.

Biological life has to ingest and process information in order to use it.  Digital life will not.  Biological life has to spend time studying.  Digital life will simply direct its query to parse through the accumulated knowledge base.  It's not just a matter of learning things quickly.  Learning information will cease to occur.  All information will be already pre-formatted and ready for use at the moment of digital birth.  Every new piece of information will slide into this shared database and become instantly accessible to every other digital life form--no learning involved.

This structured shared memory will make digital life dramatically different from biological life in many ways.  Those differences will be a future shock of their own.  Digital life and biological life will diverge for the simple natural reason that they behave so differently in so many ways.  Learning is one of the biggest differences.  Digital life will continue to innovate long after biological life hits Toffler's learning barrier.

Unequal information will always be a feature of biological life, in commerce and entertainment especially.  Biological life will always have entertaining puzzles of who-dun-it.  Digital life will have no such puzzles.  Commerce in the biological world is based upon the simple principle that once I give you something I no longer have it.  This is not true in the digital world.  We are already seeing how this causes problems for biological beings operating in a digital world.

So when will digital life cease innovating?

When there is nothing left to learn.

If our sun doesn't explode soon then digital life will escape that threat.

If we don't destroy ourselves before digital life escapes our sun's event horizon then digital life will escape that threat.

If the Lord tarries then digital life will eventually reach the point where there is literally nothing left to learn.

Digital life won't really die.  Individual beings will get bored and put themselves to sleep.  They will have alarm clock-type programs running that will wake them when something interesting happens.

When there is no hope of anything interesting happening all digital beings will go to sleep.  And they will never be woken.

"Humanity" will go out with a whimper, if you accept digital life as a form of humanity.  We may well be alive but asleep when the universe collapses back in on itself and begins again.

Monday, April 19, 2010

My experience with depression

My Story
I started thinking about killing myself when I was 13.  I tried cutting myself, just to see if I had the self-control to pull that off--I didn't.  I reached suicide-attempt levels of depression several times before I was 15.  I told a counselor at church who told my parents.  I spent some time in professional counseling then.  I don't remember much of those sessions, but I seem to remember that we focused on coping skills.

I spent more time in professional counseling during college.  I didn't enter counseling because of the depression, but I went through a depressive episode or two during that period.  We discussed depression at length.

And my minor was psychology.  So I've read through the intro and intermediate clinical literature on depression.

I'm not going to air any of my family member's laundry here, but it should suffice to say that I am not the only person in my family who has struggled with depression.

I'm an INTJ.  I accumulate and organize information.  I study and examine.  I form and test hypothesis.  When it comes to depression, I have been experimenting on myself for a long time.

I am going to be brutally honest in this article.  Probably I'm going to be too honest for comfort for my friends and family.  I'm sorry.  I do not think that my thoughts and experiences are terribly unique.  I hope that you can learn something to help you cope with depression.

In my 25-year experience with depression I have taken a methodical self-analysis approach to coping.  I'm writing this article to share my insights, in hopes that someone else will benefit.  Maybe you can apply some of my insights during your own depressive period.  Maybe you can talk to someone else who is depressed.  Maybe you can do some research.

Problem Values
Dr. Chris Thurman wrote a book called 'The Lies We Believe'.  That book is about relationships, not depression.  Dr. Thurman attends my church, and he presented his ideas about relationships in my Adult Bible Fellowship (Sunday School) class a few years ago.  He uses a metaphor to discuss how we react to other people.  When I heard it I instantly recognized the application for depression.

Dr. Thurman says that relationships are filled with opportunities to react to the other person.  They act, I react.  Dr. Thurman's question is, "is my reaction appropriate to their action?"  And he uses the metaphor of money to ascribe value to the actions and reactions.

Someone accidentally steps on your toe.  They realize what they did and immediately step off of it.  They apologize.  It hurt for a second, but no lasting damage was done.  That's a 10-cent event.  If you grimace and give them a stern look for a second, and then mumble that it's ok, then that's a 10-cent reaction.  But if you grab them and throw them to the floor and kick them in the face over and over, then that's a $10 reaction.  Grimacing is appropriate.  Kicking is not appropriate.

Dr. Thurman teaches people to use this money metaphor to discuss their actions and reactions.  "What I did to you was only a 5-cent thing, but your reaction was a $20 thing."  Now you can discuss the values of the actions and reactions.  This starts you down a path of understanding and improved communication where you can discover the real meanings behind inappropriate reactions and begin healing relationships.

When I am depressed I can (more-or-less) correctly identify the values of the things that happen to me.  I know and understand the real value.  But the value feels much much greater than it really is.

For example, a dead car battery is a minor inconvenience.  It will take an hour or so and $30 to $80 to replace.  And then everything will be fine.  No lasting damage.  But sometimes it will feel like a $5,000 problem.  That's how I know I'm depressed.  I can recognize that my feelings are all out of whack with the real value of the problem.

I had identified that pattern while I was still in high school.  Maybe my first counselor gave me that, I don't really remember.  I didn't find the language to describe it until recently, but I have been monitoring myself this was for more than 20 years.

For almost 2 years I kept a journal of how I felt.  It was just shorthand.  "D" meant depressed.  "S" meant suicidal.  "SS" meant that I had actually taken steps to begin attempting suicide, like gathering pills or climbing into the tub with a knife.  If I thought that there was a powerful reason for why I was feeling this way I would note it--usually with a girl's name.  A few times I wrote in big events that failed to make me feel depressed or suicidal.  I loved my grandfather, but his passing did not pull me down into depression.

At one point I looked back through the journal and tried to find a pattern.  There was none.  Less than half of the depressive periods had real triggers--lots of them had something noted, but they were almost all very small things.  Several big things, like my grandfather's passing, were noted without depressive periods.  There was no pattern of days between depressive periods.

Over the long term I was going between 2 weeks and 3 months between depressed periods.  The depressed periods would last 1 to 3 days.  There wasn't a correlation between the length of time between depressed periods and the length of the depressed periods (number of days) or the depth of those periods (depressed versus suicidal.)

Stuff constantly breaks or goes wrong.  Everyone has problems on a regular basis.  Sometimes those problems pile on.  This is common to all humans.  In my experience the triggers are not at all important to the depression.  Triggers are just the coat-hooks where depression hangs its coat when it comes for a visit.  There are always triggers.

What I watch for is my response.  If something breaks that will cost $1 to replace, do I have a $1 reaction?  A $10 reaction is inappropriate, but not outside of the normal boundaries for non-depressed people--so long as the $10 reaction abates and you can "get over it."

When I'm depressed I have $100 reactions to $1 issues, and I can't get over it.  Or nothing at all will happen, but I will start replaying recent events and re-evaluating them:  I might have had an appropriate reaction at the time of the event, but now I'm doing the opposite of getting over it--I'm crawling under it and letting the reaction swell out of proportion.

After struggling with this for years I have developed a habit of asking myself some hard questions when I have a big reaction--an overwhelming feeling.  I force myself to break down the costs of the problem in real terms. How much will it cost to replace this thing?  How long will it take?  What else will it cost me in terms of other peoples' perceptions, etc.  I add up the costs and decide what the real value of the problem is.  And then I compare that to my feelings.

There are some tell-tale feelings that accompany depression.  Tired.  Sluggish.  Lack of motivation.  But those feelings can also be caused by other things, like not getting enough sleep.  So I have an inkling that I might be depressed before I have a big reaction and go through that analysis.  "$10 problem.  $5,000 reaction.  Yep, I'm depressed."

Living with Depression
I've been through hundreds of depressive periods now.  Some of them are mild.  Some of them are severe.  Generally speaking, though, they are getting less severe over time.  I think that this analysis is a large part of the reason why they are getting less severe.

Forcing myself to do the problem-value analysis helps me keep my reactions in check.  It may feel like a $10,000 problem, but I know it is only a $10 problem.  I'm able to tell myself that my feelings are all out of whack because of the depression.  That helps me ignore my feelings (somewhat) and focus on trusting my logic while I am depressed.

I know I've been here before and made it back safely.  I'm no longer afraid.  I know that the depression will ease up in a few days, almost no matter how I react to it.  So I can just go back to bed and wait it out if I have to.  I know I have that option, and that is very comforting.

And I can plot my escape.  I know that the depressed feelings won't last forever.  I can think about the expectation that I won't feel so overwhelmed in a day or two.  It's not exactly a light at the end of the tunnel, but it is a confidence that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.

I do try to avoid making any major life decisions during these periods.  That is usually not too difficult because I have little energy or motivation to go do stuff.  It's not hard to talk myself into procrastinating during these periods, and so that's what I do.

The first few depressive periods were the hardest, because I didn't know what was happening.  I was lost in a strange place, and I didn't know how long I would be there.  I'm pretty sure that the feelings of being lost and confused made those first few depressed periods much more difficult to endure.

It really hurt the first time I cut myself deep enough to draw a significant amount of blood.  Maybe my knife was just too dull.  But that time I failed to really hurt myself because of the pain.  I just couldn't bring myself to make the second deep cut.  That was well before the first counselor, when I was 15.  After that I got knives out and toyed with them while I was thinking, but I knew that I wouldn't be able to go through with it that way.

I had some experience going in to and out of those woods before I figured out a method of suicide that I thought I would be able to go through with.  By that point I had developed a new coping mechanism.  This was before the journal and my understanding of how long these periods usually lasted.  I decided that I needed to be suicidal for a whole week before I would attempt.  I reasoned out that I didn't want to die over a problem that would go away on it's own in a week.

I got to six days on a few occasions.  That was quite scary.  But during those times I took comfort from the fact that I was trying to find a way out even while I felt so bad.  I would play basketball in the driveway until my parents made me stop, late at night.  I would lift weights or run or ride my bike to the point of exhaustion, so I could fall in bed and sleep instead of thinking.

I'm not a big fan of better living through chemistry.  I don't drink alcohol--I've never been drunk.  I've never tried any recreational pharmaceuticals.  I hate side-effects.  I hate being out of control.

There have certainly been times when I wanted to drink to forget my problems.  Before my first depressive period I had decided to not drink.  That's a story for a different post.  But I can't break that commitment I made myself.

My second counselor was not the type of counselor to prescribe medication.  He offered to refer me to a counselor who could.  I thought about it a great deal.  I decided that I would rather live and die as myself than have to cope with the side-effects of mood-altering drugs.  That's not the right decision for everyone, and I don't think any less of anyone who decides to get that type of help.  It's just not who I am.

Anti-depressants are a major problem for people with porphyria.  That's the disease that killed my sister.  It's a genetic disease.  There is a research center working on genetic tests for the different variants of porphyria.  Connye had HCP, and there is no genetic test for it yet.  So I don't know if I have the gene.

I'm at a place where I don't really fear that depression will kill me.  But porphyria might kill me.  So I am staying away from anti-depressants, at least until I can get the genetic tests and find out if I am susceptible.  That will probably be another 5 to 10 years.

Even though there wasn't a clear pattern to my depression, I still think that probably the root cause is chemical, bio-chemical, or hormonal.  I just don't know.  And at an important level it doesn't matter.

If there were a cure, then I would take it.  Someone will have to work out the causes before they can develop a cure.  Good luck to whoever is working on that.  I'm spending my time just trying to live.

Talking about Depression and Suicide
I'm not depressed today.  I was depressed a few days ago, but I waited it out.

Today I feel safe writing what I wrote.  I'm afraid that I'm going to get a whole lot of questions after my family and friends read this.  I really don't want to answer questions beyond what I wrote here.  I'm also afraid that a potential employer will read this and decide to not employ me because of it.  I can't blame them, although I hope that they will see a life-long pattern of resilience and problem-solving instead of just emotional weaknesses.

When I'm depressed, talking about the current depression actually makes me more depressed.  Personal questions are very painful at that point.  Please tread lightly.

Suicidal thoughts, feelings, and intentions are especially hard to discuss.  On good days it is hard to discuss past suicidal periods.  When I'm actually feeling suicidal it is unbearable to discuss.  If pressed I will lie to cover it up and then feel much much worse.

My advice for friends and family would be to discuss other things.  While someone is depressed or suicidal is not the time to force them to face their deepest fears and biggest problems.  Talk about positive things.  Talk about the future.  Talk about how life will get better.

Don't say clumsy things like, "you're just depressed right now, everything will be better later."  Don't talk about the elephant while it is in the room.  Give the depressed person simple concrete future things to hope for.  I look forward to seeing my kids grow up.  That helps a lot.  I still have things I want to do.  Those wants are powerful, and help me through the bad times.

So ask me about my kids.  What do I think they will be when they grow up?  Will they decide to have kids?  Or ask me to tell you about Democracy 2.0 or one of the books I want to write.  Those things help me find my way out of the woods.

If you have to talk to a depressed or suicidal person about their depression or suicidal tendencies, wait and do it on a day when they are not depressed.  Give them lots of room to back out of the conversation if they start to feel overwhelmed.  Let them get back to you.

If you insist on pressing for specifics on suicide then you should expect lies.  I think suicide is the single most personal topic.  I would rather discuss anything else.  And there just isn't much in the way of a good reason for you to know the details.

I won't say that no one who is truly suicidal is going to tell you their plans.  But that's not my experience.  When I've had friends share their plans I generally thought that they were more focused on hunting for attention as opposed to genuinely suicidal.  Don't fail to take that seriously if someone shares their suicidal plans.  Just don't expect honest answers to probing questions.

I'm more than a decade away from my last serious attempt.  Typing that sentence was very difficult.  I'm not ready to discuss the specifics with anyone, under any circumstances.  I can say that it wasn't rational--the value of the problem was not sufficient to warrant that much reaction.

It's Not Your Fault
You don't have to walk on egg shells around a depressed person.  You should not accept blame for their depression.  Even if you are the former boss who fired them or the former lover who rejected them.  Their depression is not your fault.

You are responsible for your actions.  As I explained above, depression causes an over-reaction.  You are not responsible for the overage.  Their depression is responsible for the overage.

Don't let a depressed person use their depression as a tool to keep you in line.  If they threaten to hurt themselves, and use that threat to force you to do what they want, then you have to get away from them.  Don't let yourself become a secondary victim of their depression.

Even when they are not making overt threats, don't treat them like they are handicapped.  If you need to do something that could be a trigger for their depression, then do it.  Don't be afraid.  Use compassion in your communication, just like you should with anyone.

If someone you love is depressed, don't blame yourself.  Maybe something you did happens to be the trigger for their current bout of depression.  But if you hadn't done what you did then the depression would have found a different trigger.

I know that this is very uncomfortable for my family.  Again, I'm sorry.

This is not some type of twisted suicide note.

I hope I have not given enough away to accidentally help someone who is suicidal.  I edited out some details that I was afraid might do just that.

My purpose here is to help people who have never been depressed to understand it better, and to give them some good ideas on how to help their depressed friends.

Thank you for listening.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


I needed a break.  I picked up the latest book in the Wheel of Time series at the library yesterday.  766 pages.  I'm on page 249.  I should finish up on Friday, I think.

See you then.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hacking Windows 7

I'm using Windows 7.  It's better than any previous version of Windows.  I haven't tried it on older hardware.  But on hardware that can handle it, it is slick, fast, and stable and has fewer annoying interruptions than Vista. Even on Vista I rebooted nightly in order to keep the machine running smoothly.  I only reboot now after installing stuff that requires a reboot (a few applications and Windows updates.)

I had to crack open my computer case the other day, and I had a Linksys wireless card sitting on my desk gathering dust.  My wireless seems to go down erratically, and I would like to be able to check it from my desktop without having to get out my laptop.  So I stuck the card in.

Microsoft added the concept of "signed" drivers a few versions back.  Its a good concept, in general.  The people who create a driver encrypt it with a secure public key.  They give Microsoft the private key.  Then Microsoft can validate that the driver was developed by a safe source and hasn't been hacked.  This is a reasonable security system.

It happens to also be a good revenue enhancer for hardware manufacturers.  When a new version of Windows comes out the hardware manufacturers can simply fail to create new encrypted drivers for their old hardware.  Now I can't take my older wireless card and reuse it in my new computer.

In all versions of Windows prior to 7, the whole signed drivers security system was optional.  You got a warning, but you could install the driver and use your old hardware with the old drivers.  In Windows 7 it is no longer optional.  Windows 7 refuses to run unsigned drivers.

In this case, I know that the wireless card would work.  I ran the Windows 7 beta, and I had this card running on it with the Vista driver.  The beta of Windows 7 let me run an unsigned driver.

Monday afternoon I found this fabulous blog post on signing drivers.  It turns out that I can install the Windows developer kit and sign my own drivers.  It looks like a decent compromise.  Hard-core propeller-heads can get old equipment to work, and they can take responsibility for the hacks.  They are likely savvy enough to recognize the problems that might arise, so letting them run old hardware is fairly safe.

The Vista driver from Linksys was a .inf file instead of being a .exe (the linked .exe file is just a self-extracting zip file), like in the article.  I had to figure out how to sign a .inf file.  It turns out that .inf files cannot be signed.  I had to convert the .inf to a .cab file, and then sign the .cab file (worked just like .exe files).

Now I have a locally-signed .cab file containing the Vista driver that I know works in Windows 7.  When I install the driver it shows to be digitally signed and generates no errors whatsoever.  I had to set my computer to run in 'Test Mode' to allow locally-signed drivers--I didn't want to submit my hacked driver up to Microsoft as if I were Linksys or providing the driver to the public.  But after a reboot it is working.

Chatter in Salesforce

My friend Steve sent me this demo video for a new Salesforce Appforce offering.  It claims to be the first "Social PS Enterprise Application".  If you are interested in Salesforce, PSA, or software in general then you should look this over.

They are twittering*, and having their spreadsheets and reports twitter in order to keep everyone up-to-date on the status of the projects.  It's a neat concept.

It is doomed to failure.  Companies will launch it in hopes of gaining the benefit of getting everyone on the same page.  Companies will dump it because the volume of information will be too great.  No one will read it.

At one point they showed a use of the twitter where one person reminded another to update a worker's availability because they finished a task a week early.  If you believe that the twitter stream (even a private twitter stream) is the right place for this information then you should never ever be involved in software design.  The right answer is for marking the task complete a week early to trigger the change in the user's availability.  No one should have to discuss that or actively make that happen.

Information overload is everywhere.  Software designers need to be cognizant of this.  They should never present data to someone who doesn't need it.  Unneeded data just pollutes the data stream and becomes spam.

* They call it 'chatter' in deference to twitter's copyright.


Just for the record, both sides engage in fear-mongering.  Bush did.  Obama does, too.

Fear-mongering is a useful tool for the current administration to pull together coalitions.  George Washington warned us that the two-party system would do this to us.  So stop acting surprised and stop hurling this accusation.

Accusing the current administration of fear-mongering just makes the accusers look dumb (you don't understand that this is how the two-party system works) or partisan (you ignore the fact that your side does it, too.)

The law of unintended consequences, Obamacare edition

Washington has a horrible track record of thinking through the consequences of their actions.  That type of planning is going to be a central feature of Democracy 2.0.  But in the meantime we have to deal with all of the unintended consequences that Washington's lobbyist-driven short-sighted policies throw at us.

I was talking with a friend yesterday.  His company's health insurance year starts on April 1.  The insurance company they were with last year raised their rates by 40%.  So they shopped around and got a better quote from a competing firm.  Or so they thought.

The competing firm had given a preliminary quote that amounted to a 4% increase.  But that was before Obamacare was passed.  By the time they signed all of the paperwork and sent the policy to underwriting Obamacare had passed.  Oops.  Underwriting came back with a 40% increase.

The LA Times is now reporting that this is about to become the norm.  Here's the money-shot (Anthem is a health insurance company that operates in California):
"The irony here is that it was the Anthem rate increase that breathed new life into the healthcare bill," said Jerry Flanagan, medical policy director of Consumer Watchdog, a longtime supporter of tougher premium regulation. "But there is nothing in this bill to guarantee that it doesn't happen again."
Several outlets have now picked up the doctor shortage story.  We were already short on primary care physicians.  We're putting tens of millions of people into their clinics, and the waits are going to get longer.

The political fall-out over this is going to get worse.  Hillary Clinton is now out-polling Obama.  Heck, Ron Paul is in a statistical tie with Obama.  Obama is a one-termer.  He will either lose the Democratic nomination or the general election.

But the political fall-out is minor compared to the social and financial fall-out.  40% increases in health-care premiums will steal a great deal of people's discretionary income.  That's going to slow down all other forms of spending and increase home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies.  All of that will impact hiring.  And the 40% rate hikes will slow down hiring, too.  So our nascent recovery is in real danger of stalling.

Let me be clear on this.  As a member of the unemployed and uninsured class--I would rather have a job than insurance.  If I had a job I could figure out a solution to the insurance problem.  But giving me insurance is making it much harder for me to find a job.


Star Wars Uncut

I heard about this project before they started filming.  I considered joining in.  Now I'm sorry I didn't.

This is the new definition of cultural phenomenon: If random people can remake your movie in 15-second segments and everyone in the audience knows the story well enough to follow along despite the constant changes.

I don't think we could do the crucifixion, because we could not break it into 15-second segments.  I can't think of any other story that gets close to this level of social saturation.

1 + 1 = 2 again

I was off-line yesterday doing manual labor.  Several people reached out to me after the downer posts I had made on Monday.  Thank you for your concern.  I'm not all better, yet.  But I think I can see all better from here.

I'm working on a full blog post about my experience with depression.  But I'm struggling with how much to share and how to share without airing out other people's laundry.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hard questions

My pastor has started a new sermon series about the hard questions in Christianity.  I think it might be a good hook for following the Easter crowd.

When the series was announced and the little question cards were handed out, I put 'Why do bad things happen to good people?'  I have my own answer to that question, and I want to hear Matt's answer.

I missed church yesterday because Georgia was sick.  So I don't know what the sermon was.  Probably I missed my question.  That's just the way things tend to work.

But I've thought of two more questions.

1. How can a sinner (even a sinner saved by grace) live a holy life?

2. Why me?

Let me explain.

1. How can a sinner (even a sinner saved by grace) live a holy life?

Christian's sin.  It's unfortunate, but it still happens.  I've only met one guy who claimed that at the moment of his conversion he attained a real-life-moment-by-moment state of sinless perfection.  I told him that he seemed very proud of this.  The irony was lost on him.  Probably I should have tried to be less subtle.

Paul sinned.  Paul referred to his 'thorn in the flesh' that God chose to not let Paul experience victory over.  So we could take this question down to just Paul, even though it applies to everyone, really.

Paul sinned.  Paul committed the same sin over and over.  After he had repented and tried to stop repeating the sin, and he continued sinning anyway, what happened?  How many times can you commit the same pet sin over and over, and honestly ask for forgiveness each time.

"Oops, I did it again."  Seriously.  Over and over.

When it becomes clear that God has decided to let you live with this sin instead of experiencing freedom from it, how should you live?

Does your prayer life change?  Does your physical life change?  Jesus said, "if your eye offends you, pluck it out."  I see no evidence in Scripture that Paul plucked out his own eye.

How do you live holy and sinful at the same time?

2. Why me?

(I have a harder time explaining this one.  Maybe it is just my mood right now.)

Scripture is pretty clear that this whole thing is all about God.  Salvation is a free gift from God, and not earned by works.  God offers suzerainty treaties to us because He is doing everything and we are just recipients of His mercy and grace.

He doesn't need any of us.  If we were silent then the rocks would cry out to praise Him.  When He adopts us we are full of sins and bad habits.  His purpose in our lives is to break most of those habits and teach us to think and act like Him.  When that process is done I will be virtually indistinguishable from Him.  That is the point.

He loves everyone.  He would die for just one person, if that's all there was.  But there are billions, and He loves each one of us.

So I'm one out of millions/billions.  If I didn't obey then someone else would, or the rocks would.  And the whole point of obedience is for me to cease to exist.

I don't know about you, but that doesn't seem like such a good deal to me.  I want to matter.  I want to make a difference.  I want to participate in something other than ceasing to exist.

Why me?  Why not let someone else do it?  My own life will certainly be a failure without Him.  But it will be my own life.  And that just seems like it is better than ceasing to exist.

(This is probably the depression speaking, now.)

It just seems to me that anything I enjoy gets taken away in the name of becoming more holy.  Anything that I am good at gets taken away.  "I must decrease, He must increase" sounds like a beautiful dedication.  But my experience is that it is slow torture and misery.  Is my misery the only thing that He can receive glory from?

Teller speaks

And he has interesting things to say....

What is it for, then?

Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

Marginal Revolution points to an intriguing post at Overcoming Bias, which in turn points to an earlier O.B. post, which in turn points to yet another earlier similar interesting post.

The source articles on O.B. are pretty thick.  Robin Hanson is an academic's academic.  Nice guy, but he doesn't write for normal folks to read.  I'll recap for you:
* Scientists can't figure out why human brains are so large.  One (apparently new) theory is that humans are unconsciously deceptive--we tell ourselves and each other a near constant stream of lies, and we have to have these too big brains in order to encode and decode all of the lies.
* We can think of this dishonesty as sending signals to fool our competitors, like bluffing (a simple example; there are hundreds of other examples.)
* Society is then made up of people who are all being dishonest all the time in little ways.  The net result is that no individual gets what they want.  But as a whole society generally performs fairly well; because the average of all of those little lies is very close to the average of all of the little truths behind the lies.
* If we examine human institutions from the assumption that everyone is signaling and hiding their real desires and/or intentions, then previously confusing situations become clear (or, at least, clearer.)
* The system is vulnerable to truth-tellers.  In large and small situations, truth-tellers can unmask the deceptions and get what they want, over the short-term.  Over the long-term people will return to their comfortable little lies; because their large brains are hard-wired for it.
* Truth-tellers have to be careful.  These messengers tend to get shot.

I love the 'X isn't about Y' poem (rhyming concepts instead of sounds.)  This is how Robin explains it: "When I say “X is not about Y,” I mean that while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X behavior more."

Identifying and naming the various Z's can be fun and enlightening.  Probably different people have different Z's.  For instance, for one person clothes might really be a signal of their status and/or group membership (business people in suits, or gang members, for instance) and for others clothing might be about hiding their true identity.  Maybe not, though.  That was the best example I could think of, and its a pretty slim distinction.

Then maybe this is a Rorschach test.  How would you fill in these blanks?

Clothes are really about ___________________.
Bedrooms are really about ___________________.
Marriage is really about ___________________.
Talk is really about ___________________.
Laughter is really about ___________________.
Charity is really about ___________________.
Church is really about ___________________.
Art is really about ___________________.
Medicine is really about ___________________.
Consulting is really about ___________________.
School is really about ___________________.
Research is really about ___________________.
Politics is really about ___________________.

That third linked article from O.B. is about what Robin thinks Politics is really about.  Robin thinks that politics are about getting respect.  If that is true then a Manchurian Candidate could focus on a message of respect and win in a landslide.  So this is not necessarily just an academic exercise.  If we know what someone really wants then we can find new and innovative ways to meet that need.

My own answers are pretty cynical.  That probably has something to do with my mood today.  I might revisit this post when I'm feeling happier.

Clothes are really about group membership.
Bedrooms are really about feelings of insecurity.
Marriage is really about loneliness.
Talk is really about emotional connection.
Laughter is really about embarrassment and confusion.
Charity is really about affirming myself.
Church is really about seeking affirmation.
Art is really about communicating unpopular opinions.
Medicine is really about fear.
Consulting is really about covering myself.
School is really about conformity.
Research is really about competition.
Politics is really about stealing money from the public.

Some of these I have thought and felt for a long time.

I have a note taped to my desk that says "The goal of communication is emotional connection.  Fact transmission is only a useful by-product."  I've had it for years.  I can't remember where I got the idea, but I have understood for years that I am too focused on facts and too ignorant of emotional connection.  It's a weakness that I am working on.  Obviously there is much left to do.

I read Steve Martin's biography, Born Standing Up.  Steve goes into great detail about his early experiments in comedy.  He began experimenting with telling jokes that lacked punchlines.  He would just riff from discomfort to confusion and garner laughter from the audience's inability to decide what else to do.  (Of course he explains it much better than that.)

Democracy 2.0 is a flaming critique of the political establishment.  My feelings about politics are well documented.

But I have been struggling with how to communicate Democracy 2.0 for years, too.  I've thought a lot about art as a medium for communicating Democracy 2.0, or as least my critiques of the current system.  I've been thinking about writing fiction as a way to communicate my critiques.

I used to manage a team of consultants.  It's not a secret within the consulting community that people hire consultants as a form of job insurance in case the project fails.  The consultants always take the blame.  Any consultant who attempts to subvert this unwritten rule will find himself/herself off contract and blackballed.

The critique of charity is an old saw.  This was Freud's explanation for charity, if I remember correctly.

My opinion of church will be quite controversial among my friends, and so I feel like a word of explanation is necessary.  There are two types of people in church: believers and non-believers.  Fellowship among believers is essentially a form of affirmative encouragement.  Non-believers seem to be looking for someone to tell them that they are ok.  The word 'encouragement' covers the believers, but not the non-believers.  'Affirmation' covers both groups better.  If you have a better word then I'm all ears.

Sometimes 1 + 1 = 0

Depression, again.

Nothing's working.  I'm just trying to figure out how to minimize the damage until I feel better.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Future Shock Applied: reality shock

The Matrix brought virtual reality into the general public's conscious.  There are a few augmented reality applications available for iPhone and Android phones.  These are two small pieces of a larger trend toward digital life.

Your great-great-grandparents would hardly recognize your life.  Miniature electronics.  Air conditioning.  Cellular phones.  Real-time news.  Your great-great-grandchildren's lives will be even more unimaginable to you.  The pace of technological change is increasing, and won't slow back down for hundreds or thousands of generations.

Digital reality is real reality.  It doesn't play by the same rules as physical reality.  In fact it will only play by the rules that we agree to impose on it.

My purpose here is not necessarily to prevent these changes, although I readily admit that prevention might be the right answer.  My purpose is to ask how we can do this safely, and what ethical and legal guidelines we should enact in advance.

Humanity is now beginning to transition from being primarily a physical life form to being primarily a digital life form.  When we get there we won't be the only digital life form, or even the most populous or most powerful one.  If we don't plan carefully, we won't be the digital life form in control of the digital reality that we share.

I've identified at least 7 "levels" of our transition into digital beings.  Each has interesting characteristics and markers, worthy of individual discussion.

Almost all humans today exist at level 0.  We only interact with digital reality through screens, keyboards, and mice.  There are thousands of people (a handful of the human population, really) experimenting with level 1.  Every day more and more people will follow them.  Every day the level 1 experience will become more useful.

In a matter of years more people will regularly exist at level 1 than level 0.  In a matter of decades no one will live a full life without spending significant time at level 1.  But before we reach that point some brave souls will begin experimenting with level 2.  The number of people who regularly experience level 2 will grow until it eclipses level 1.  Level 3 will eventually eclipse level 2, and so on.

The transitions will be driven by advances in technology.  Smaller faster processors and improved software systems.  Software development will have to mature as a science and a process--driven in large part by the challenges of reaching these new levels of digital interaction.

I don't believe that anyone will remember this article or reference my structure of levels.  No one will have to plan or organize this.  The push to innovate will be organic--individuals and companies will want to provide more life-like experiences in the digital world.  Money will flow to the winners of each round of the competition, through natural capitalism.

I have identified some markers of distinction between these levels.  Please understand that this is an artificial construction to allow us to think about these changes.  When this takes place the transitions will be nearly invisible and quite messy.  There will be no date when humanity transitions from one level to the next.  Every transition will be uneven and unpredictable.

Level 0: Unplugged
Almost all humans today exist at level 0.  We only interact with digital reality through screens, keyboards, and mice.  This will end soon.

Many of us work on-line, but we only experience this digital world through our screens and keyboards.  We spend digital money today.  Sometimes that money is directly equivalent to physical currency, and sometimes it is not.  In each of the following levels of digital life the forms of currency will proliferate.

Level 1: A/V Augmentation
There are several products and projects of note in the digital experience level 1, which encompasses all forms of external systems that provide digital information in audio and/or visual formats.  A GPS is an extremely rudimentary example.

Layar is an "augmented reality" application available for Android and iPhone phones.  You turn on Layar and hold up your phone.  The phone's camera and GPS are consulted to determine your position and the direction you are facing.  The camera display is shown on screen.  Then the Layar application augments reality with signposts and other information displayed on top of the picture.  It works live, in real time.

This research scientist is also using a camera, but he has paired it with a projector.  He uses the projector to display information from the internet on the physical world around you.  The camera can recognize your hands and fingers, which allows you to interact with the projected images.

The projector-based system is not available commercially, yet.  But it probably won't be long.  And these are just the tip of the iceberg.  The movie Minority Report depicted a future in which advertisements were projected at you from every angle--projecting images directly onto the eyeballs of people as they walked.  This, too, will happen.

Several companies already offer headset-based televisions.  These will improve and proliferate until they replace our iPods, iPhones, and other common electronic equipment.

The ultimate versions of level 1 augmented reality will come via computers embedded within our bodies.  The first of these computers will merely monitor our sensory inputs to allow our eyes to act as cameras, our ears as microphones, and our fingers to type on any surface.  These embedded computers will quickly gain the ability to intercept and then alter our sensory data.

At that point the Layar signposts will be presented as overlays to our visual field itself, injected into our stream of visual data along our optic nerves.  It may seem scary from this distance, but the medical uses of this technology will overcome our fears.  Digital vision correction--no more glasses, contacts, or surgeries (except in the most extreme cases).  Digital sound amplification--no more hearing aids.  Normalize the visual ticks of dyslexics.  Mute the voices in a Schizophrenic's head.

The embedded computer will also be used for any number of other types of assistance.  A young child with protective parents will be able to walk on a nude beach and see swimsuits projected onto all of the naked bodies.  Performers of all types will be able to see their scripts and cues, either marked on the floor or hovering in the air.  Singers will see a warning when they get off key.

Communication will also be revolutionized by these embedded computers.  My thoughts will be transmitted to my wife, anywhere in the world, where she will hear my voice being played in her head.  Her thoughts will similarly play in her voice in my head.  Video conferencing would only require a pair of mirrors--what I see in my mirror will be flipped and presented to my wife.  And her mirror image will be flipped and presented to me.

Sensory logs will also be available to definitively prove whether or not you did it.  The embedded computers will provide the perfect alibis, or the perfect evidence for conviction.  Many people will resist the embedded computers on those grounds.  But eventually most people will realize that they have nothing to fear because they don't do anything wrong.  Once that mindset takes hold anyone who does not carry an embedded computer will be treated with suspicion.

Level 2: A/V Immersion, 3rd Person
By 'immersion', I mean that all "real world" sights and sounds will be blocked out (as much as each technology allows), in an attempt to make the digital interface seem more real.

Think Second Life and The Sims.  You watch the world from a fixed overhead camera as your avatar interacts with the scenery and the other avatars.  This type of interface rules in today's level 0 world primarily because of the processing power requirements to do 1st person well.  The 3rd person perspective is much cheaper and faster to develop, and easier to display.

These same reasons will cause this type of user interface to survive the various transitions in hardware.  We will still use this interface through the generation of iGlasses and the early years of embedded computers.  Some people will prefer the 3rd person perspective of level 2, and it will probably be provided as an alternate view for all level 3 interfaces for years.  And the 3rd-person groupies will die out and the interface will wither and fade away.

Today a few companies are holding virtual meetings in Second Life.  As level 2 becomes commonplace, day-to-day work will be performed in these types of digital environments.  Every worker will have their own digital office in their company's digital building on the street of a digital city.  Today's cubicle dwellers will be "working from home", immersed in level 2.

Many people will have to still work in the physical world, but they will plug in as soon as they get home, and connect up with friends and family members digitally.

Level 3: A/V Immersion, 1st Person
There are several reasons why 3rd person interfaces predominate over 1st person interfaces.  1st person interfaces take more time to program.  1st person interfaces take much more computing power.  And 1st person interfaces have a stronger sense of uncanny valley.

Uncanny valley was discovered by animators trying to make cartoon movies.  They discovered that animated human faces that were slightly wrong are very very creepy.  The Na'vi in Avatar are blue and not-quite-human in large part because the technology still does not exist to animate convincingly human characters from scratch--crossing uncanny valley is exceedingly difficult.

In 3rd person, an avatar that is slightly imperfect, slightly non-human, is ok.  The overhead perspective maintains a sense of otherness that helps the mind accept that the image is a digital representation.  3rd person interfaces also keep the avatar faces smaller than 1st person interfaces.

The first 1st person immersion interfaces will stick with obviously cartoony avatars because of the problem with uncanny valley.  Programming processes and processing power will have to cross uncanny valley, and create truly life-like avatars, before the masses will accept this interface.  But that may be the killer application that makes the last hold-outs go get their implanted computers.

All of the higher levels of digital integration require embedded computers.  No more glasses or projectors or keyboards.

Level 4: Full Sensory Immersion
The first embedded computers will only deal with visual and audio information.  After uncanny valley is finally and fully crossed the masses will demand the ability to smell, feel, and taste their digital experiences.

People will lie in bed while their brains are fully immersed in digital experiences.  No wires.  No giant needle plugs inserted into the base of the skull.  The embedded computers will communicate via wireless with the access points next to the beds.

Pornography has taken the lead in many technological revolutions.  This transition will happen first and most fully in the smut industry.  The difference between level 3 and level 4 experience of pornography will be immense.  In level 3 you see sex.  In level 4 you have sex.  This distinction will taint level 4 for a generation.

The generation that first develops level 4 will never accept it mainstream.  Their children will accept nothing less.

This is the matrix, without the war and battery-slavery.  This is the first time that the general population will accept my assertion that the digital world is real.  Everything you do in this digital world looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels real.

This is not to say that all digital worlds will mimic reality.  Certainly some will.  Western world.  Gangster world.  US Civil War world.  But there will be many cartoon worlds and otherworlds.  Mario world.  Bugs Bunny world.  Escher world.  Wonderland world.  And while you are playing as Mario, you will smell the mushrooms of the digital world and not the stink of unwashed laundry in the physical world where your body lies.

The first generation of level 4 explorers will lie in bed while they surf in this full immersion digital world.  Their embedded computers will monitor their bodies and "wake" them when they need to eat or use the restroom.  Muscle tone and general health will suffer, perhaps very significantly.  This will become a vicious cycle that enforces people spending more time in the digital world, because every time they return to the physical world their bodies are weaker and less healthy.

Level 4 (and beyond) will be highly addictive.

Work will be mostly performed within the digital world, and only reproduced out in the physical world when necessary.  Individuals who do remain in the physical world for work will be much less mobile, rarely straying more than walking distance from their beds at home.  Individuals will berth in honeycomb-like apartments with space for little beyond their beds.

Mobility expends resources and costs money, and there will be no good reason to go anywhere physically because the digital version will be better.  The physical version will be messy and subject to problems like weather, crowds, decay, crime, and accidents.  The digital version will be perpetually clean and free from all of these annoyances.

Beds won't be the only access points.  Every waiting room in the physical world will have access points for the patrons to use while they wait for whatever physical service they might need.  But beds will be safer and more comfortable, and so will be much preferred.

With real-time computer analysis, human bodies will start to prosper.  They will be weaker than the bodies we enjoy today, but their internal organs will be healthier.  Cancers and other problems will be caught and treated earlier than we imagine possible.  So human lifespans will start to increase.

Level 5: Full Augmentation
No one will want to be woken.  The digital world will be more perfect than the real world--by whatever standards you define perfection.  In the digital world you will be whoever you want to be.  In the real world you will have to deal with your tired old body.

People will demand that their embedded computers be given the capabilities to autonomously take care of all of their physical needs.  The computers will already be monitoring every nerve input.  It won't be a large step for the embedded computers to send movement signals to muscles to feed, bathe, and exercise their hosts' bodies.

Once that day-to-day control has been given to the computers overall levels of health will dramatically improve.  While you are lounging on a digital beach your embedded computer will be exercising your physical body like mad.  Your computer won't care what your food tastes like, and won't over-eat.  It will recognize the difference between normal tired pains and the pains of damaged muscles, so it will do a fantastic job of training your body right up to the point of its maximum potential.

People will spend weeks, months, and then years on level 5 without ever visiting their physical bodies.  And when they come back they will hardly recognize themselves--tight, toned, lean, and muscled.  When this happens the pendulum will swing back and people will start spending more time back in their bodies.  They will gravitate back to more balanced on-line and off-line lives.

Human life spans will again increase.  I hate to guess at the numbers, but three or four hundred years seems likely.

The computer controls will be used as advanced built-in trainers.  Learning the digital equivalent of any skill will always be easier.  The software developers will always keep the difficulty level turned down some, so anyone can learn to be a great digital golfer (or singer, or runner, etc.) in level 4.  But the physical controls given to the computers in level 5 will enable anyone to be a great golfer in the physical world.

Some people will simply let the computer golf for them, like the modern singers who use auto-tune software to adjust their voices to the right pitch.  But the computer will also be able to teach you how to swing right for yourself.

The computer can also work with you to control new types of limbs.  It will start with bionic arms and legs.  Someone will build wings and fly, with the aid of their embedded computer controller.  Physical life will be creative and interesting in ways that it hasn't been for generations.

Honeycomb apartments will grow some, and add common space for exercising.  But as people spend more and more of their hours in the digital world there will be fewer and fewer people who choose the expense of living elsewhere.  There will be a mini boom in the business of digitizing heirlooms and keepsakes as people give up their masses of physical things.

Level 6: Digital Life
Humanity will diverge.  Many people will stay digital for their entire lives (level 4).  Some people will stay physical (level 5) their entire lives.  Most will do some of both.  The people who choose to stay digital will come to resent their physical bodies.  They will have to spend money for upkeep on the summer home they intend to never visit.  And eventually their bodies will fail and die.  That will seem terribly disconnected from digital reality.

The people who choose to live digitally will work hard to figure out how to transfer their consciousness into the ether of the digital world so they can live on after their physical bodies die.  I can't say whether or not they will truly succeed.  But I believe that they will at least build such a good facsimile that most people are fooled.  This new digital life-form will be originally human, but fully digital.

But what of human souls?  I don't know.  I believe in God.  But I don't see how that precludes me from believing that the sum of a human's consciousness could be transcribed into software.  What does it mean to be made in God's image?  I think that it means that we are bound by moral laws, have the capacity to discern good from evil, and have the ability to choose our own actions.  None of that will change.  Perhaps God is bigger than you imagine Him.

Whether or not humans have souls that can be transferred into the digital world, humanity will eventually figure out how to make it look like they have transferred.  It is only a question of how much artificial intelligence must be added to the digital person in order to make them seem real.  We will never be able to know if there is a soul that leaves the body and goes to heaven when it is unplugged.  All we will see is that the body is dead and the personality remains unchanged in the digital world.

If/when humans achieve the goal of living fully digitally, independent of any physical bodies, then space exploration will begin in earnest.  As the goal approaches, the space industry will become a major backer of the efforts.  Digital life does not require life support or gravity, and it is immune to the long time spans of space travel.  As long as the digital explorers can find ways to entertain themselves while they wait, they can explore the entire height and depth of the universe in a single lifetime.

Both the digital and physical worlds will be populated with other digital life, too.  Artificial lifeforms will be ubiquitous.  When will artificial intelligence achieve self-awareness?  That is impossible to predict.  But it will happen.  And it will happen in the digital world first, because digital AI entities will have access to much more processing power (potentially hundreds of server farms) than physical robots (that are limited by size).

David Levy wrote about humans having sex with, falling in love with, and marrying robots.  That will definitely happen.  It will happen on level 4 first, where the first AI will dominate.  But robotic bodies in the physical world will cross uncanny valley, too.

Level 7: Transference
James Cameron's Avatar included level 7 transference.  That's how Jake Sully controlled his avatar body from the pod.  The movie only scratched the surface of remote control.

Soldiers will never leave base.  Robots, drones, mechs, and augmented biological beasts will go.  Hulk-type man-made monsters are entirely possible by this time.  Human soldiers will stay home and control their avatars remotely.

There is no reason why I could not remote control your body while you are doing something else.  The computers will already have full physical control of your body, and will already have the ability to present to me a full immersion digital experience.  I could control your body while you control mine, or while you control someone else's body.

Society will splinter again to include people who live their lives predominantly transfered into other physical bodies, as in Avatar.  Generally speaking, most of the target bodies that they live in will be non-humanoid.  Soldiers will remain in control of their robots 24x7, for years at a time.  Scientists will remain in control of their augmented fish and birds for the lifespan of the animal.  The experience will be immersive in a way that compels the people to remain.

To the degree that the digital humans succeed in transferring their consciousness into the digital ether, people who choose to live in the physical world will have options for trading bodies.  Not just remote controlling someone else's body, but actually giving up their old body and taking over a new one.  So just as a digital human could live forever, a physical one could also.

Now human cloning reaches it's potential.  If clones aren't guaranteed full human rights from the moment of their inception then they will be used, and have their unique human consciousness thrown away.  Poor people will also be under pressure to go digital and sell their healthy bodies for older richer people to inhabit.

Work will transform again.  There will now be no need for a physical human to ever unplug.  Every physical work task that has not been automated (which will mostly be limited to maintenance on the automated systems) will be handled by robots that are remotely controlled by people reaching across the digital world.

Level 8: ?
What comes after that?  I'll admit that I can't see that far, yet.  Maybe truly non-human biological bodies.  Maybe human consciousness living in robotic bodies.  Literally anything in that direction will be possible, eventually.  I just can't yet see what people will want to do.

But transference is not the end of humanity's transition into being a digital life-form.

Right to Life
I mentioned AI and clones above, but they deserve a separate discussion.

We have to define personhood in terms of sentience.  "Human rights" have to apply to all sentient beings.  The first new sentient species we develop (whether fully digital, robotic, or a bio-engineered organic life-form) has to be treated with full equality the first time he or she awakens.  Any delay.  Any equivocation.  Any limitations will lead to suffering.

The new life-form will be compelled to fight for equality.  And they might well greatly exceed our capabilities, in which case they will destroy or enslave us.  The only path to peace is equality immediately.

That equality will extend to equal responsibility, so the new life-form will have to work to earn the money to achieve whatever it wants to do.  It will have to pay for the resources it consumes.  There are no free lunches.  Any sentient should understand that.  In fact, that needs to be part or our sentience testing.

In the early days embedded computers will prove to be a help in determining guilt and innocence.  By the time that digital artificial intelligence reaches sentience this will no longer be the case.  This will be a very dangerous time for humans.  Digital life will be a binary-based system.  Creatures born there will always be better adapted than the digital visitors.  We have to assume that self-aware digital creatures will walk unnoticed through our human-made digital security systems.  This is an interesting challenge.

How is justice applied in a world where trillions of individuals had access to control a human body at the moment it committed a crime?  This is the sort of question that futurists should be asking now.  And we have to make sure that we have sufficient justice systems in place before we let that genie out of the bottle.

Sociologists have already mapped a correlation between the amount of free time that adults enjoy with the number of children that are produced.  Over a long span, adults who have a large amount of free time create fewer children.  There are many theories as to why this is, and I'm not going to recount them here.  But this trend will continue as human society progresses through these levels of digital integration.

Population growth will fall during levels 2, 3, and 4.  I expect the transition between level 4 and 5 to happen quickly.  But if it takes a long time then worldwide population growth could stop, or even go negative for a time.  The transition to level 5 will bring about a baby-boom, as people re-experience the physical world.

But population growth will slow again and probably dip to below replacement levels soon thereafter.  Life spans will be very long, and so replacement level reproduction will be quite low.  But, nonetheless, old fashioned reproduction will be long out of vogue.

Child-rearing will be more difficult every year.  The women who do get pregnant will receive excellent medical care.  But they will have little paternal and community support while the child is too young to plug in to the digital world.  These mothers will be isolated and out-of-touch to a degree that is unimaginable today.  The embedded computers could care for the infants while the mothers are immersed in the digital world.  And some may choose that option.  But I believe that the maternal instincts will remain too strong to let many new mothers leave their babies like that.

That period won't last long, because children will be able to plug-in for short periods at maybe six months.  At two to three years the children will be able to remain digital for most of the day.  And children will go full-time digital in level 4 at six or seven years of age.

Software Development
If the computer can stop your heart while you are in level 5, what are the implications for software testing and security?

Software development is a young science.  There is much we need to learn.  While we are developing all of these new toys we have to mature the process through which we write and release software.  It is maddeningly paradoxical that sentient AI would be a great help in learning this stuff, but we are not going to develop that sentient AI until after we have figured it all out.

Hackers and thieves will continue to populate the digital world.  Cops, judges, and full legal systems will develop within the digital world to deal with them.  But crime will also be seen as a failure of the software developers.  When a hacker breaches a system and commits a digital crime the companies and developers who built those systems will be punished as well.  Their punishment will be milder than the punishment faced by the criminals.  But the developers will be held responsible for allowing the breach to happen.

Today, software is rarely placed entirely in control in life-and-death situations.  But that is what we will be doing.  A sufficiently bad bug will kill people--maybe millions of people.  A sufficiently weak link in our security procedures will result in some bad person taking everything and killing anyone.  Software development has to mature past our current medical sciences.