24 July 2012

Is it a healthy sense of caution if you’re constantly envisioning your own death?

I’m on a plane over New Mexico right now (well, not right now right now, when I’m posting this or you’re reading this.  I mean maybe I am.  It’s just a highly unlikely coincidence.)

I’ve been saying to a lot of people lately that I’m not afraid of flying, and I see now that I was so, so very wrong about that.  I thought I was telling the truth.  But sitting on this plane right now, I don’t actually think I’ve gone a whole minute without being fully aware of a pervasive sense that I’m stuck in a poorly ventilated tin can death trap.

Let me give you (future me who’s reading this and trying to convince herself she’s really not afraid of flying) a few examples that I’ve come to realize do not connote a healthy level of fear:

1. As I sent that last-minute text to my husband before I had to turn the phone off on the tarmac, I wondered whether he would think to post my message to my friends on FB when I died so they could know the last sweet sentiment I said to anyone I loved.

2. I’ve repeatedly cycled through all my dozens of plane crash stories, trying to figure out which one best applies to my current flying environment and whether I’d die if any one of a wide variety of malfunction or human-error scenarios occurs.

3. When we lifted off I was looking out the window watching the city get smaller and smaller, and with every miniscule lag in acceleration (typical of even a successful takeoff), I was Zen-preparing myself to watch that ground start to tilt and get bigger again.

4. I was pretty convinced that the drawn-out grinding sound I heard on the ascent was an engine failing.

5. I practically ran back from the bathroom because there was a small jolt of turbulence and I needed to get back to the safety of my seatbelt before a panel ripped off the plane and I got sucked out the hole like that one lady did in that one Cracked article I read that one time.

6. When we landed on my first flight we turned into the airport at an angle, and all I could imagine was the plane barrel-rolling out of control and plummeting into the earth.

7. Whenever we went into a cloud I was ready for the moment another unseen plane collided headlong with ours, and I couldn’t decide just how likely I was to even know what hit me in the fractions of a second it’d take for me to get crushed or exploded to death. (I mean in a head-on collision, our plane and the other plane would each probably be going ~500 mph for an effective speed of ~1000 mph, or 450 m/s, and if our plane was in the neighborhood of 100m long, then at row 25 I’d be dead in about a tenth of a second and it’s arguable whether all of that sensory information could manifest a conscious acknowledgement in that time, although I have a sinking feeling I might get to enjoy a few milliseconds of perfect imminent-death awareness. P.S. that is why you learn algebra, my friends.)

I know that air travel is safe.   I know this.  I know that even if problems occur I’m likely to make it out just peachy.  But none of that matters when you’re dealing with a phobia.  Talking yourself out of a death phobia is pretty useless.

And I still fly.  Regularly, even.  At the beach I still swim out into water that’s probably deep enough to hold great white sharks and I inadvertently do my best injured seal impression trying to stay afloat.  I’m totally willing to drive on the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway even though I’m pretty sure the bridge is going to collapse and I’m going to survive both the impact and the threat of drowning only to be shredded alive by a pack of ravenous alligators.  I sometimes even lean against railings on high balconies, although that just seems foolhardy when I can get the same view just standing near the edge rather than risking death-by-shoddy-railing-craftsmanship.

It’s just I feel nauseous every single time I get on a plane.

02 July 2012

The difference between Necessary and Sufficient, or, Why your emoticons should not have noses

In this crazy new cyber-world we’re living in, the entire rich array of human emotional facial expressions is being reduced to nothing more than a select few humble punctuation marks grouped together to look like caveman scratchings turned on their side.  In social media conversations, these so-called “emoticons” (also called “smilies”, for those of you not hip enough to be up on your “cyber-lingo”) have assumed the vital role normally played by our naturally expressive faces, becoming the sole representation of our emotions toward the people with whom we interact.  This is distressing in and of itself, but it’s not the point of my discussion today.

Correctly typed, the most common standard emoticons consist of virtual “eyes” and a virtual “mouth”, made using punctuation marks.  The simplest of these is the basic colon-plus-end-parenthesis – :) – though many other variations exist:  ;)  :D  :(  :’(

But a deeply bothersome trend has managed to grow and fester deep in the bowels of the emoticon world: the dash-nose.  This hideous abomination has wormed its way into all the great emoticons, a defilement I’ve never abided graciously:  :-)  ;-)  :-D  :-(  :’-(

And today, I finally figured out why that nose bothers me so much.

Humans have a very limited range of physical features they like to monitor during social interactions.  When we see another human face, we attend most to the eyes and mouth because these are the expressive features that move and tell us how we’re supposed to respond to their owner.  But a nose?  No one cares what a nose does.  A nose stays pretty much the same no matter what we’re doing, and outside of augmenting a very select few emotional expressions (e.g. the scrunch of disgust, the flaring nostrils of fuming rage), our noses are practically pointless.

Which brings me to Necessary and Sufficient.  These terms are regularly used in the sciences to describe two unique aspects of how important a certain factor is in creating a given outcome.  A factor that is necessary must be present to produce an outcome, while a factor that’s sufficient is all that’s required to produce that outcome.  So if it’s necessary, you absolutely have to have it, and if it’s sufficient then it’s all you actually need.  (And it is possible for a thing to be both necessary and sufficient – or neither.)

These are both readily testable properties.  To determine if something is necessary for a certain outcome, you just remove it and see if you obliterate the outcome.  To determine if something is sufficient to produce an outcome, you remove everything else and leave only it, and see if the outcome remains the same. 

For example, removing a necessary facial feature will prevent you from recognizing an emotional expression (like a smile), while leaving only a sufficient facial feature present will still allow you to recognize that expression.

Let me demonstrate on myself.  Say hello to me:


I hope you were gracious enough to at least offer a greeting.  I mean look at that big ol’ toothy grin.  That is a smile.  How could you ignore that kind of smile?  And how can you tell it’s a smile?  Well, the corners of the mouth are turned way up, the eyes are happily scrunched, and the nose… yeah, it’s not doing much. 

Now, let’s look at what happens when I take the liberty of altering each of these three facial features (mouth, eyes, and nose) independently. 

Let’s start with Necessary.  Is any of these three features necessary for you to be able to tell that I’m grinning at you?

The truth is, no.  As long as you have any combination of the other two features (eyes and nose, mouth and nose, eyes and mouth), you can tell I’m meant to be smiling at you.  That said, the third smile with both eyes and a mouth present is definitely the most informative of the three faces, in that it looks the most like it’s smiling.  This suggests that the nose is the least necessary component of the smile.

So how about Sufficient?  Would any of these features alone be enough for you to tell I’m still smiling?

Well, how about that?  My mouth and eyes are each sufficient, but my nose does absolutely nothing toward helping you figure out if I’m smiling.  In fact, if that nose picture still looks like I might be smiling at you, it’s only because I didn’t go and doctor the dimple out of that freakishly sculpted right cheek so you’re still getting the impression of a mouth-smile.

So what does this tell you about your use of :-) and :-( and ;-) ? 

It says that the only thing the nose-dash is doing is making you take longer to generate your virtual expression, and making others take longer to observe and evaluate it.  The extra dash adds nothing at all of value.  In fact, if you were to do my same necessary/sufficient experiment with an emoticon, you’d find that BOTH the eyes and mouth are necessary to convey information, but the nose is neither necessary nor sufficient for anything – see how it’s the exact same dash for every emoticon you type? 

The emoticon nose is, in short, a waste of a character.  This could have a profound impact on the quality of your tweets, people.  Think about that the next time you write another, “LOL :-D !!!!1!1!”