Monday, September 14, 2015

The Cattle Barn

They tore down the cattle barn. Nobody asked my permission.

Not that permission would have been mine to give. I was a twelve year old kid who couldn’t be said to own much of anything. But the barn had belonged to my family for years and years, standing tall on our acres of rolling hills that were covered in forest and meadow, sprinkled with creeks, ponds, and sink holes. Until Grandpa had a another heart attack, and had to sell the farm to strangers.

He’d given my father a small corner of the property to build on a few years back. I would tiptoe over across the ravine sometimes to play on the “neighbor’s land”, even though I wasn’t supposed to anymore. I figured nothing had changed but the imaginary thing called “ownership”, and nobody could see you from the house in most places anyway. I trusted the deer not to tell.

I hiked over, down the ravine and up the other side, to sneak around back of the cattle barn. I crowned the steep hill panting, thinking of climbing hay bales behind the barn.

And it was just gone. Where the barn should have been, there was solid nothing. A hundred cubic meters of it, gaping wrongness ripped out of space and time. They might have seen me from the house, but I couldn’t care. I couldn’t breathe.

I staggered into the wreckage, chest tight and cheeks hot, burning with betrayal. Dust puffed up around my bluejeans as I fell to the earth and sat in stunned silence, breathing hard, surrounded by the shattered remains of memories a century older than I was. My throat ached, and water filled my eyes, blurring the lack of walls or feed troughs, as the reality of my loss swam into view at last. A sudden deluge.

I thought of the Middle Meadow, where the absent cattle had grazed. God, that meadow was drenched in sunlight, like nothing else I’ve known. The smell of morning dew rising from freshly cut hay, soaking into my socks around my ankles. Honeysuckle wafting down from the hills no matter which way the breeze was blowing. Sweet tartness of wild black raspberries well worth the bite of multiflora rose thorns, which always seemed to guard them. Lying in the sun on a pillow of grass, like nothing could ever change but the shapes in the clouds.

I thought of the creeks, bubbling up from icy springs, where Dad taught me to hunt for fossils. Plunk-splash of a heavy boulder lugged into the swimming hole. Shocking turquoise on black of a skink’s tail, scurrying beneath a new rock for cover. Wet grit washing from my hands into clear water. Damp and earthy musk of the ancient oak that gradually decomposed, having fallen across the stream before I was born. Its rough bark under my bare feet as I ran across, sat, and stretched onto my back, limbs spread over its solid enormity, gently expanding my torso on curved surface. Lazy swaying of the younger branches above us, rustling their leaves, whistling and creaking in the gusts. Gurgling water falling in a dozen pitches, echoing in deep hollow caverns or tinkling sharp against shards of shale and limestone.

I thought of the forests, feeding fertile soil, reaching up toward the sun. High call of the redtailed hawk who’d nested in the tallest tree at the top of the tallest hill since Dad was sixteen. Tracing the lines in the scarred bark at its the base where his initials, and those of his high school crush, proclaimed their love. Spongy crack of a morel mushroom plucked from beneath its leafy mayflower umbrella. Tag with my brother, dodging and climbing, swinging from thick grape vines. Smoke in the cold evening seeping into our clothes as we traded ghost stories and laughter around a camp fire. Singing folk songs in harmony above the symphony of crickets and spring peepers. Warmth of the fire at my feet as I burrowed deeper into my sleeping bag, just my nose poking out chill in the open air. Stars twinkling through the treetops. The grownups speaking in hushed whispers, pretending not to know we only pretended to sleep. The scent of Grandpa’s pipe.

My right hand shifted, and I felt the prick of a splinter. The ground was covered in shards of wood, everywhere I looked. I imagined gathering them all up, carrying them home, and gluing them back together, one by one. Restoring the whole from every sacred piece.

I pulled the splinter from my hand, and pocketed the shard it came from. Then I stood, wiped my face on my sleeve, and walked back across the ravine for the last time.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Mirror Dance Dilemma

[Mild Vorkosigan spoilers]

In the Vorkosigan saga, wealthy people can buy clones into which they transplant their brains when their original body is about to die of old age. The clone's brain, which stays with the body for the first 14 or so years, is destroyed at the time of transplant. There are no alternatives for indefinite age extension. In the novels, this is portrayed as terribly evil, and some of the plot involves saving the clones.

This business model gives me the willies, as it's meant to.

But upon reflection, I'm not sure my reaction makes much sense. Let's assume the clones spend their 14 years having a pretty good time. That assumption isn't quite in line with the book. But for the thought experiment, assume everybody's having fun.

Here are the possibilities.

  1. If we don't create the clone in the first place, some old man who would otherwise have paid for the clone lives 80 years and then dies. Total of 80 life years.

  2. If we do create the clone but then someone rescues them, taking them to a different planet to live their own life, then the old man that paid for the clone lives 80 years and then dies, and the clone lives 80 years and then dies. Total of 160 life years.

  3. If we create the clone and everything goes as planned, an old man lives 80 years in body number 1, a clone lives 14 years in body number 2 and then dies, and the old man lives another 66 years in body number 2 and then dies. Total of 160 life years.

Preferring 1 to (2 or 3) is pretty straightforwardly silly, unless the wealthy old man uses his money to support a brand new human non-clone that would not otherwise have existed. (This looks straightforward to my reasoning parts, not my emotion parts.)

There are two obvious-to-me reasons to prefer 2 over 3.

The first is probably the one that's responsible for most of the willies: "Someone who only lived 14 years didn't live long enough, and a life cut short is worse than no life at all". I don't buy that objection. Dying after 80 years is also cutting a life short. The only reason it seems sort of ok is that as things stand, people lose quality of life just before dying because their bodies wear out. If I wouldn't prefer a lack of life to a healthy life cut short at 80, I don't think there's a principled way for me to prefer a lack of life to a life cut short at 14.

The other reason to favor 2 over 3 is "I value multiple experiences of the 80 year version of the human life process more than I value the 146 year version". And I don't buy that one either. I think people get better at using life years as they accumulate experience. In fact, I think I heard in a psychology class once that there's strong evidence that older people are happier, that people keep getting happier as they get older until they start having big problems with their aged bodies. Brief Googling supports that. So actually, I think someone who's had 80 years to figure out how to do awesome things with human experience, and who had to go through a whole 80 years of life to get things as figured out as they've got them now, is going to turn the next 66 healthy years into more awesomeness than a person starting the same 66 healthy years at age 14 could. The person starting the 66 years at age 14 begins with the same total lack of having-figured-things-out-ness we all remember from age 14, and doesn't reach the wealthy old guy's level of proficiency at life until the end of the 66 years.

I feel a little bit of pull from "but there's something valuable in the learning process of growing up from 14 to 80, and preferring 3 to 2 means that process happens once instead of twice", to which I respond "I becha there's something valuable in the learning process of growing up from 80 to 146, and preferring 2 to 3 means that process happens zero times instead of one".

The main problem with the clone business, then, is not that it exists, but that it isn't designed to maximize the children's enjoyment of life. They don't torture the children, but they do lie to them and focus mainly on keeping their bodies in spectacular health, paying fairly little attention to their minds. I think I'd fight for reform in the clone business, rather than fighting to shut it down.

Facebook discussion here.