In Memory of My Mother

My mother died last week, at her home in her sleep, probably from aftereffects of her Boston Hospital visit that I described in an earlier prophecy. But I concede that old age may have had something to do with it also. She was 102 years old.

The funeral was lovely and her friend Yo-Yo Ma played at her graveside. My mother was a lifelong pianist, whom Ma described as “a precious archive of all the forgotten techniques of continental piano.”

During this last week of family time, my Daily Prophecies have deteriorated into old interviews transcribed from the audio by computer systems. As we know from information theory, voice-to-text systems can chiefly capture predictable, low-entropy communications. So my last five prophecies were mostly unreadable. I apologize abjectly to my readers.

Some of my readers may recall my earlier reflections on my mother’s experience with “safety-first” medicine in the COVID era. I return to my observations here.

My mother was suffering from a stomach cyst that was crowding her other organs and causing discomfort. According to her physician, it was a “watermelon” sufficiently liquid to be deflated by simple suction without general anesthesia.

I steered my Ford Fusion along the Charles River in Cambridge, where runners outdoors in Massachusetts still have to wear masks.

As we drove along the river, where I have run for thousands of miles during my life, I saw that nearly all the runners were dutifully masked. As a lifelong runner, for whom free breathing of the air is the point of the exercise, I find this rule beyond comedy. I burst out laughing, explaining to my mother, “We’re in Maskachusetts!”

I proceeded on under the Prudential Center and down Huntington Avenue past the elegant contrarian cautionary cathedral of the Christian Scientists, who deny the very existence of illness. Having a number of Christian Scientist relatives, and noticing their tendency to die rather young, I have remained a skeptic. But their plaza on Huntington Avenue is magnificent, and in the face of the lockdown-laughables surrounding it, I had to admit that the Christian Scientists may have a point.

Then I pass the monumental Boston Museum of Fine Arts, empty as a cenotaph, and on into the belly of the beast near Harvard’s School of Public Health. This establishment has been an important source of epidemiological counsel used in the COVID-19 crisis.

According to most of the advice received by Governor Charlie Baker and his ilk, the key to meeting the crisis is “safety first,” imposed by detailed top-down rules, such as the four-phased opening up now very tentatively and timorously under way and frequently reversed as a result of proliferating tests that predictably yield increasing numbers of “cases” and an epidemic of viral new-mania.

I believe in the contrary rule of the venerable Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet protocol that pervades all our networks. Bob’s rule is “Safety last.” I note that it is my third rule of the Cryptocosm: “Unless the system achieves its desired goals, safety is irrelevant. Requiring the system to be safe at every step of construction, results in a kludge: a machine too complex to use.”

The safety-first regime reliably engenders such complex rules that the resulting systems become unsafe. For example, the MAX737 Boeing airliner was rendered dangerous by its mechanism for preventing a pilot (or putative terrorist) from taking manual control when the software malfunctions.

Similarly self-defeating is the US and other English speaking countries’ COVID-19 “lockdown” program — which according the UN, ultimately threatens some 260 million people with starvation.

At the hospital where I brought my mother for the allegedly simple procedure the rule was “safety first.” My then still 101-year-old mother was tested and probed so persistently and often by a series of masked doctors and nurses that she suffered a heart arrhythmia. She did not even notice it. But that development prevented the minor surgery that might have relieved pressure on her heart and other internal organs.

I was not permitted in the building, but before picking up my mother to bring her home, I called the nurse in charge from the street outside. She informed me that they now were taking some blood samples. “Don’t worry,” she said, “we are taking all precautions to make your mother safe.”

“Safety first” ultimately meant that the procedure could not be performed.

That is the lesson of this prophecy. Any action entails risk. If we attempt to have an entirely safe economy, we will produce an immobilized economy. Equilibrium is death.

Today’s Prophecy

Those are excerpts from an earlier prophecy that I wrote myself. It was not interpreted by a machine.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence used to transcribe voices can faithfully reproduce obvious words with no surprisal. But if you want to capture actual contrarian insights and surprisal, you need human minds.

AI will work best when it is devoted to enhancing human minds rather than trying to usurp or replace them.

Even I am learning this lesson again.


George Gilder
Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy

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