Short lived insect, often less than a day, it flies along the river, mates, lays eggs and dies.

On the river Hypanis in the Cimmerian Bosphorus, about the time of the summer solstice, there are brought down towards the sea by the stream what look like little sacks rather bigger than grapes, out of which at their bursting issues a winged quadruped. The insect lives and flies about until the evening, but as the sun goes down it pines away, and dies at sunset having lived just one day, from which circumstance it is called the ephemeron.” Aristotle, History of Animals, Book V, Chap. 19.

Like mayflies, we fly too between the previous darkness and dusk. During the fly, besides eating and mating, we can contemplate , delighted, the buildings below, the trees, the shapes of clouds in the sky, conversation with other mayflies, listen to birds singing, or a radio broadcast.

Certificate of life

A year ago, by All Saints, I posted about Death Certificates, the last document of our administrative life that began with an annotation at the register office. The Certificate of life is another document, one that confirms that an individual is still alive. I may be required in case of payment of pensions and it can be obtained producing a proof of identity to a civil servant or trusted entity.

To be “legally alive” is to be “not legally dead” and this means, basically, to check that air is entering our lungs and our heart is pumping blood trough our arteries and veins. Otherwise we would be clinically dead. Progress in life support techniques enable to maintain those functions even in case of irreversible loss of brain function and the concept of legal death has been extended to consider brain death. Remember that Death Certificates stated the immediate and subjacent causes of death according to the ICD standards; and we could track for the remote causes such as health habits, for instance, dying by a heart attack because of a sedentary life, unhealthy diet and heavy smoking.

What would it be if we were to do something similar with the certificate of life? What if the civil servant had to fill a form about the cause that keeps us alive? The immediate cause is that we breath and out heart is beating, and this means that our basic needs of food and shelter are met. In case of children or disabled people there is a subjacent cause that someone else takes care of them, whether it is family or a public welfare. What for the rest? What makes people struggle to survive finding food and shelter, whether a hunter gatherer in a Borneo forest or jumping from bed every morning to commute by subway to attend the office for a salary? What makes us feel alive (what do we say we want in social media)? In other words, what keeps us from desisting and committing suicide? If the ICD classifies the causes of death, how would one classify the subjacent causes of life?

Let’s try an educated guess.

A first group of causes is mere inertia. As biological organisms we are wired to survive and fight to overcome difficulties. Most of humankind is so exhausted just by surviving that there is no extra energy to get depressed or ask for the meaning of life. As social subjects were are programmed to follow the script or routine of the role we have been assigned or that we have chosen. And eventually, perhaps we go on living because we do not dare to commit suicide.
A second group of causes is to be useful to others, to be for other people. To take care of children, to serve a humanitarian cause, to support a political, religious option, or follow a sports team.
Another group could be “to be trough other people”, to be loved, admired, appreciated, respected, feared, to have many followers at twitter or ‘likes’ at facebook.
Of course, it could be that we want to live because we like it, because it is a rewarding experience. Some will be happy with their ordinary life, others will be frustrated if they don’t get the exceptional, the most awarded restaurant, the highest mountain, the most exclusive trip. The curious ones are going to be fascinated by exploring the world, a new kind of bug, a distant galaxy or a 17th century text.
And finally there would be those who cannot survive without the help of some chemical substances, prescribed drugs, legal drugs such as alcohol or tobacco, or illegal ones, like those who cannot live through the day without their heroin dose.

Quite probably, everybody will have a mix of all types. The Certificate of Life Causes form could be something like this:

Mark if independent and if not who is in charge
( ) Independent
( ) Dependent
    ( ) family or friends
    ( ) public welfare
Mark if it matters (1 low – 5 high)
12345 Survival instinct
12345 Social routines, follow a script, a mission
12345 Fear of suicide
12345 Taking care of someone, children, family, community
12345 Making a difference, saving the world, health research, politics
12345 Belonging to a political or religious group, supporting a sports team
12345 To be loved
12345 To be appreciated, admired, envied, desired
12345 To be respected, feared
12345 Just ordinary life
12345 The exceptional, the foodie, the fashion victim, extreme sports, exotic traveler
12345 Curiosity, exploring the world and culture
12345 Use or abuse of prescribed drugs
12345 Use or abuse of legal substances, alcohol, tobacco
12345 Use or abuse of illegal drugs

Wishes, dreams, goals in social media

Makeawish is an american association that since 1980 tries to “grant the wish of every child diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition”. Others have appeared elsewhere. Some children would like to become a policeman, a dolphin monitor or an archaeologist. Others would like to meet someone famous, athletes like Messi, singers like Justin Bieber, actors or TV celebrities. Others would like to experience  something , travel to some place, walk on snow, board a helicopter. Some would like to have something, a pet, a piano. There are wishes that move us because they are dreams, but it is a bit sad when we see that the most cherished wish a child can imagine is just what is most popular in TV or social media. Perhaps it cannot be otherwise and no one can tell whether the scope of the imagination would have been much wider when it was grounded on books and novels rather than on TV or internet.

If there are no life-threatening diseases and you are an adult, it will be up to you to fulfill your wishes. Probably, when wishes and dreams have to become concrete goals, they will have to be adjusted. What do adults want to achieve? Facebook has compiled its user’s new year’s resolutions. They are grouped in 7 categories:

  • 30% Mental. 53% want to be a better person / be nicer 30% want to live life to the fullest 14% want to stay positive / don’t stress.
  • 20% Physical. 37% want to get fit / exercise more 22% want to lose weight 20% want to eat better / cook more.
  • 19% Other. 59% are not making a resolution 26% shared an inspirational quote about resolutions 10% already broke their resolution.
  • 15% relationships. 47% want to be closer to family 35% want to spend more time with friends 18% want to fall in love / get married.
  • 10% timemanagement. 60% want to clean more / be more organized 25% want to practice old skills or hobbies or learn new ones 9% want to spend less time online.
  • 2% professional. 45% want to get a job / keep a job 31% want to do well at school / graduate / go to college 25% want to read more books.
  • 1% financial

Basically it’s about feeling better both physically and mentally. The New Year’s resolution approach does not favor the expression of dreams, like the experiences children wanted to have, the things that make us feel alive. We could find some of this on the website 43things which closed early 2015. Users shared their projects and dreams. From the last report available I’ve collected the top 25 and tried to group them in 5 categories (in brackets how many people wanted to achieve this goal) :

1 Travel the world. Take a Road Trip. See the Northern Lights. (108233)
9 Kiss in the Rain. Go Skydiving. Swim with the Dolphins. (50781)

Job, future
2 Get a Job. Get out of Debt. Save Money. Buy a House. (74303)
7 Stop Procrastinating. Get Organized. Finish what I Start. (53720)
13 Figure out what I want to do with my life. (28461)

3 Learn a Second Language. Spanish, French, Japanese. (65764)
15 Design and Get a Tattoo. (35130)
16 Learn to Play Guitar or Piano. Write a Song. (32154)
11 Write a Book. (41939)
14 Read More. Go to College. Never stop Learning  (35445)
18 Take more Pictures. (15361)
19 Learn to Drive. (16431)
20 Learn to Sew. (12138)
21 Learn to Cook. (9952)
23 Learn to Surf. (8104)
25 Learn to Dance. (7131)

Health & wellness
4 Lose Weight. (60506)
8 Get in Shape. Run a Marathon. Practice Yoga. (51808)
10 Drink Water. Eat Healthy. Worry Less. Sleep More. (45066)
22 Quit Smoking. (9238)
24 Stop Biting my Nails (7309)

Relationships, self realization
5 Fall in Love. Get Married. Have a Baby. (54576)
6 Be Happy. Be Confident. Love Myself. (53864)
12 Make New Friends. Be a Better Friend. (39357)
17 Make a Difference. Volunteer. (16592)

More examples can be found, for instance in twitter. Everybody would like to feel better and at peace inside, and look more attractive outside.
What we dream, want, intend and, eventually, undertake is, to some extent, what determines  –self-determines- our life. This is human causality. The point where we are now is the result, partly, of the choices we made in the past. And those choices were the product of dreams and desires we projected into the future. The imagined future shaped the past.

Often, the point in the future where we end, is not the one we intended. And when it is, it can happen that it’s not what we expected. Be careful what you wish for, it might come true! Some mid-life crisis are related to this. Literature has examples about wishes gone wrong, from King Midas to Perrault’s Three wishes tale.
Depending on what we wish for we will get disappointments and frustration, because we cannot achieve what we want or because, even if we do, we are not satisfied. We will never be slim and attractive enough, we will never have enough money, we will never be praised enough for our professional, artistic or sports achievements. A good part of the different moral attitudes available aims at educating how we desire, from Epicurus ataraxia to the buddhist training to stop craving things.

What should we wish for? What makes us feel alive?

Motenda, the design

I made a tent that at the same time works as a backpack, the “motenda”. This was the design process.

1. A light backpack and tarps?
Back from hiking the Pyrenees with a 2,250 g backpack and a 1,600 g tent I started looking for lighter equipment. There were ultralight backpacks and some people used tarps instead of tents (floor and cover). But backpacks weighed less thanks to thin and light fabrics that were easy to tear in case of touching a tree branch. However, this backpack would contain a resistant floor tarp! This was a contradiction, the stronger fabric should be the one outside.

2. Tarp and Rain Poncho?
I thought I could use the floor to wrap the contents of the backpack and the use the rain poncho as cover to form a shelter. I liked the idea because it removed the backpack and I only had to carry the floor as wrapper and a rain poncho. But this solution was not feasible as hiking the Pyrenees means cold nights, even in summer. Sometimes it rains, or there are no convenient trees to attach the ropes. I went back to the idea of a traditional tent. Perhaps I could assemble the floor and the rain poncho to form a proper tent.

3. The tent is the backpack!
I studied if I could join the floor to the cover with zippers or Velcro. But it was complicated, the size of the cover did not correspond with a rain poncho, it would be painstaking to attach every time I was going to assemble the tent. Should I cut an opening through the floor fabric to access the backpack? If I didn’t wrap things well, could things drop? The eureka moment was when I realised that the tent could work as a container and become a backpack when folded. Nothing could drop and I could use the tent door to access the inside.

4. Studying the folding and straps, integrated mat
Now I had to find a way to fold the tent in order to become a box with a 25×35 cm base and 60 cm height. I had seen that some backpacks incorporated the mat and also that some mat models were shorter to save weight. I picked up the idea, the mat would be integrated with the tent floor and when folded, the box would be sturdier.
Next step, find a way to hold the wrapped tent between two «lids», and study how to attach the necessary straps without interfering with the mat.

5. Structure
How would the tent stand up? My former tent had two crossed arches freestanding, one arch at the end, and ropes front and back. I wanted to have a freestanding structure, with no ropes. While exploring materials in a kite shop I discovered twisted fiberglass rods, that can recover its shape after being folded. Ithe cross with to arches was selfstanding I could support the whole tent with three crosses. I built a model with three crosses and an axis, and the result was ok, very light but resilient.

6. Rain poncho / vestibule
I still wanted to have a vestibule like the one in my old tent, and intended to do it with the rain poncho. But it couldn’t find a way to adapt its shape neither to hold it without ropes. Finally I tried to use a rod as a guide for the base, tightened with a strap. The other part was to be hold with Velcro to the tent cover. The pegs are not compulsory but I decided to include 5, 4 for the tent and one for the vestibule.

The stage of drawing and modeling finished, I ordered the materials, bought a sewing machine and and there followed months of work, full of mistakes and corrections, some of them forgivable, many completely stupid. But eventually the 1,850 g tent-backpack was finished. I show the result in this page with an imperfect guide for those who might like to build their own.

All Saints 2014. Death Certificates

From the perspective of bureaucracy and administrative documents, our life begins registering a birth at the register Office and ends with a death certificate. In an excellent article in the New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz uncovers the story of death certificates and the list of death causes, from around 81 in the 17th century, to 14.000 in the latest WHO list. With a mortality rate of 7.89 per thousand, in 2014 there will be around 50 million deaths with 25 million death certificates issued where a cause will be specified. Schulz points that this death bureaucracy is the consequence of modern democracy, “if everyone counts, everyone must be counted”.

Certificat de defunció

The antecedent of modern death certificates are the Bills of mortality, weekly lists of the plague deaths. By 1629 parish clerks were ordered to report deaths from other causes than plague. In 1662, John Graunt, a pioneer demograph, published ”Natural and Political observations made upon the Bills of Mortality” where he analized the mortality rolls in order to prevent bubonic plague from spreading. He compiled a list of 81 causes classified in four categories, “chronic diseases, epidemic diseases, conditions that killed children and outward griefs”. In 1893, an international commitee leaded by Jacques Bertillon would enlarge the list up to 161 causes classified in 14 categories following anatomical criteria. Today the list is managed by the World Health Organization and codes around 14.000 causes classified in 22 groups following anatomical criteria.

The ICD10 (the 10th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems) lists the following diseases groups: (I) infectious and parasitic diseases, (II) Neoplasms, (III) Diseases of the blood, (IV) Endocrine, nutritional and metabolic diseases, (V) Mental and behavioural disorders, (VI) Diseases of the nervous system, (VII) Diseases of the eye, (VIII) Diseases of the ear, (IX) Diseases of the circulatory system, (X) Diseases of the respiratory system, (XI) Diseases of the digestive system, (XII) Diseases of the skin and subcutaneous tissue, (XIII) Diseases of the musculoskeletal system, (XIV) Diseases of the genitourinary system, (XV) Pregnancy, childbirth, (XVI) Conditions originating in the perinatal period, (XVII) Congenital malformations, (XVIII) other non classified.

External casues are listed in (XIX) Injury, poisoning and certain other consequences of external causes (by the way, an excellent source of inspiration for crime fiction writers) and (XX) External causes of morbidity and mortality. Other codes are (XXI) Factors influencing health and (XXII) other codes for special purposes. In Catalonia, the most common causes are tumors and heart diseases, which add up to more than 60%.

The question “why” we die or “from what” we die is not easy to answer, particularly if we want to identify, not only the “immediate cause” such as rupture of myocardium, but also the “underlying cause” which would be Atherosclerotic coronary artery. Reporting the underlying cause is difficult, and not only because lack of training but mainly because in most cases, the rellevant information is not available. Schulz goes on discussing the issue quoting Harvey Fineberg from the Institute of Medecine: “if someone dies of a heart attack, you don’t say he died of high cholesterol, sedentary life style and a forty-pack-year history of smoking”. And, notwitstanding, a 1993 paper by Foege and mcGinnis, showed that half of all deaths in US in 1990 could be attributed to nine causes not included in death certificates: tobacco, diet and physical activity, alcohol, microbial agents, toxic agents, firearms, sexual behavior, motor vehicles, and illicit use of drugs. Omitting them is not without consequences as health policies can be focused to new drug research instead of promoting healthy habits.

If the question that interests physicians is about the “cause” of death, the question that the bereaveds pose is “how” someone died. We want to know if “a loved one suffered or was at peace, or if her death was meaningful, or wheter we could have prevented it”. About this, Katrhyn Schulz concludes,  the death certificate can’t say anything, it is not Auden’s elegy for Yeats. “We die because we were born; because we are mortal; because that is, after all, life”.

Pocket Poetry

I wish I had exercised memory more, and be able to remember by heart some poems I have read. Since I have not, I have looked for a way to carry poetry in my pocket.

Let’s assume that we have copied some poems in a Word processor. Most of them can export files in PDF format.

There is a tool that, among other things, can convert a 16 page PDF file in a two-sided A4 sheet, so that when folded it will become a booklet that can fit inside a wallet. The original document should have a large enough font size in order to be readable when reduced 8 times (ex. Garamond 26).
It can be downloaded at: http://multivalent.sourceforge.net

The file multivalent.jar is copied in a directory. In the command window type:

c:javapathjava.exe -classpath c:multivalentpathMultivalent.jar tool.pdf.Impose -verbose -page 1-16 -dim 2x4 -layout "1l,8r,16l,9r,13l,12r,4l,5r,7l,2r,10l,15r,11l,14r,6l,3r" file_name.pdf

this command means:

  • Take the document’s  16 pages (-page 1-16)
  • And put 8 origin pages in each target page, 2 columns and 4 rows (-dim 2×4)
  • Following this layout (“1l,8r,16l,9r,13l,12r,4l,5r,7l,2r,10l,15r,11l,14r,6l,3r”) :
    • 1st page rotated left
    • 2nd rotated right
    • 16th left
    • 9th  right
    • etc.

Of course it’s easier to have the command in a bat file and just change the document name when needed.

To convert a text to an ebook format (mobi for Kindle, epub for iphones), there is the excellent program Calibre. Besides managing your personal ebook library, Calibre can convert most text formats (txt, rtf, odt, doc, html) to ebook formats. So, they can be transferred to a reading device like kindle or use a read app in our smartphone (fbreader  supports most formats without havint to convert them).

This way we will have always available the poetry we like and read it whenever we feel like to. For example during boring meetings at work, we can pretend to check email while actually we are enjoying a sonnet!

Here, some picks of poetry (in catalan) in pocket format. (Espriu, Maragall, Vinyoli, Màrius torres, Guerau de Liost, Salvat-Papasseit and others).