Life’s Little Warning Labels

As they say, there’s Freedom, Security, and Convenience – pick any two.” – David Geer

I recently warned my friends that 2017 is going to be the year when I will be the guy asking inconvenient questions about their digital security. I’ll be asking you, too, and think about that statement above for a moment: which two would you pick? I’ve been trying out several different methods of increasing my security, ranging from the ridiculously easy but mildly inconvenient (using a passcode on my iPhone) to the ridiculously arcane and totally unworkable (configuring my own Virtual Private Network on a Raspberry Pi3 and discovering that it would require an entirely new router for it to function).

At some point I’m going to reach a level of equilibrium…and that will either prove to be enough, or it won’t. Likely it will make me slightly less likely to have my identity stolen (too bad, it would be nice to put those student loans on someone else) but if it ever came down to what a friend called “me vs. a Nation-State”…well, they’re going to get me one way or another.

That’s the thing about life; there are people who have installed expensive home security systems, drive the safest cars, and eat and work out in the most healthy ways – but if an earthquake happens (and they do) that’s not going to mean much.

Does that mean that we don’t do those things because they won’t matter? No, not at all; it simply means we do those things with the awareness that it might not matter.

Choose Your Own Adventure

“For every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.” -H.L. Mencken

I was going to try and extend that whole “pick any two” metaphor into something including ideas like “mindfulness” and “peace” and “happiness” – but it fell apart after just a few paragraphs. Which is much like another thing Mr. Geer referenced in his talk, calling them “the Four Verities:”

Most important ideas are unappealing
Most appealing ideas are unimportant
Not every problem has a good solution
Every solution has side effects

While he was talking about cybersecurity and government, I think that these are wonderful things to keep in mind when we look at our lives. I can tell you that I find broccoli quite unappealing, but I love finding new list-making apps on my watch. I also am pretty sure that any of the choices in the past election had some serious flaws for close to half of the country, but I’m also certain that the solution that was chosen will have side effects that will ripple down the decades if not centuries.

Getting away from the political, though, let’s focus on the personal. When you are faced with a problem, there is a desire for a simple and clear answer – but the wanting of a thing does not make it so. And if there is an important change that needs to be made – such as improving your blood pressure – you need to remember that change is uncomfortable, and often the more important the change, the more extreme the discomfort.

Read the Fine Print

It’s too bad that there’s not an FDA for life decisions. You could get a label that says something like

“Taking this job is intended for financial security, health care, and social capital. Possible side effects include (but are not limited to) loss of sleep, neglect of your personal aspirations, stress caused by forced proximity to people who annoy you, and an unhealthy dependence on a system that regards you as immediately replaceable.”

But we don’t get that. Instead, we just have to do our best with what we got – and that’s what things like meditation and mindfulness help with. It first helps us notice the side effects – and then, usually, we fall into the trap of thinking we can predict them. Sometimes we can, but that is no guarantee of actually being able to change them.

Eventually, though, when you pay attention enough, you realize that it’s not about changing the side effects – it’s about not minding them as much, and maybe even making some choices that have some nifty side effects instead.

“A zygote is a gamete’s way of producing more gametes. This may be the purpose of the universe.” – Robert Heinlein

Then again, “nifty” and even “side effect” are pretty loaded questions. What is a side effect for one person may be a prime motivation for someone else. Or your motivations may change over time even as you’re doing the same actions, over and over.

The main thing is to pay attention. Because, as we’ve been shown so many times in 2016, you never know exactly when that roller coaster will come to a stop. Enjoy it while you can!

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