Reason To Go On A Bike Tour: The AIs Are Coming

Remember those spam emails everyone used to get, with 20 different versions of the same message, slightly different because some of the words have been swapped around?  “IMPROVE the SPAN of your TOTEM!  Only SOME dollars, what a NICE value!”  You may not see many of those emails nowadays, but the technology making them didn’t go away, it just got much better.

It used to be basic substitution:  The human would provide the computer with a sentence, and the computer would swap out words for synonyms.  The resulting sentence wasn’t meant to fool humans, it was meant to fool other computers to make it through spam filters.  It was a war between computers and we got to see the ridiculous consequences of it.  And now the technology is so good that it can be used to fool humans directly.

The idea is the same:  The computer doesn’t come up with an original opinion, is takes a piece of writing and reconstructs it with fresh words, so it looks like someone else is saying the same thing, and there’s a consensus.  You don’t even need a very powerful computer by today’s standards to do this.

Technically, you don’t even need a computer, because this is just a new spin on a very old thing:  Propaganda.  The Russian government still does propaganda the old fashioned way for example, by hiring its own underemployed citizens to write fake opinions on the internet.  Why pay programmers thousands of dollars to write custom software when you can just hire poor people at the equivalent of two bucks an hour to write what you tell them?

Either way – whether the opinions are generated by hired hands or by computer code – advertisers do not need to spend their money trying to change the opinions of real people any more.  They can just change the contents of networks and announce victory, relying on people to believe that the network and public opinion are the same.  Peer pressure bridges the gap.

It’s way, way cheaper than actually trying to convince you directly.  Pay a company like Facebook for metadata to identify your core buyers, or voters, or supporters, or disciples, or whatever, and then crunch it to figure out the best way to get a rise out of them.  Pay Facebook again for your content to “randomly” appear to those people, endorsed by some friend-of-a-friend that they’ll never know well enough to question … And watch the needle move in your favor, or watch your enemies go down in flames.

“Gosh, this must be what’s on everyone’s mind!  I’ve heard about it from two seemingly unrelated sources, what are the chances of that if it’s not huge?  I better investigate…”

Your friends and family wouldn’t deliberately pass you fake information.  (Well, unless they like practical jokes.)  Generally, you can trust that when they swear something is true, they’ve at least verified it to their own minimum standard, right?

Consider the social media feed of any one of those people.  How accurately does it represent what they believe?  Huge chunks of their personality are missing.  Plus there’s additional stuff, that they didn’t technically endorse, mixed into it.  Links to videos and blog posts and other external content, attributed to them, or their friends, or their friends-of-friends.  You barely have to scroll a page before you see something supposedly placed there by a person you barely know — or don’t know at all.

Do you rely on feeds like Facebook or Instagram for your news about the world?  For your entertainment?  Do you read comments beneath videos and blog posts, to get a sense of how a thing is being received?  Do you cultivate a Twitter feed, narrowed down to things that interest you, and track the world from there?  How about on Snapchat?  Reddit?  Tumblr?  Nextdoor?  How about on any website – of any size – claiming to present you with “articles”, curated by “people?”

Everything you see that was not researched and written by someone you know personally, is suspect.  You could be looking at a deliberate distortion of facts, in pursuit of a goal, often a political one.  No paranoid conspiracy theory is required to justify this idea:  It is merely the confluence of money and modern networking hardware.  You honestly do not have any way to verify that the person – or thing – that wrote the words you are reading is who or what they claim to be, unless you meet them in a physical space and ask.  So you act on faith, almost all the time.

We don’t need to be engulfed in dystopian oligarchy, thank goodness.  There are two escape hatches already in place:

The first one is traditional news reporting agencies.  Slowly they are  leaving the dungeon of paper media and finding decent electronic means to support themselves.  Do your best to find an impartial source of news, supplied by real journalists, and subscribe to it.  If you’re worried you won’t be able to tell who’s impartial (and good for you, for having that thought) consider my handy dandy list of three metrics you can apply:

Is this thing:

  1. Hilarious
  2. Inflammatory (making you afraid or angry at an enemy)
  3. Clearly wrong (begging for correction)

If it’s big on any of these three things, you’re probably looking at something that was designed to manipulate you, and perpetuate itself by stoking your desire to share it with others.  (Easily offended is easily manipulated.)  Find a source of information – even if it charges a modest fee – that doesn’t traffic in these three areas, and you’re already ahead of the pack.  The service they deliver will be worth a few bucks a week.

You already pay that much to keep parasites off your dog.  It’s worth at least that much to keep parasites out of your mind, right?

The second part is, people are learning to be skeptical of any online comment or editorial from anyone they haven’t met face-to-face at least once.

(Something written by a stranger and merely “liked” by someone you know is not enough; in fact it’s almost worthless.  The government of Finland recently realized this skepticism was so important they began teaching it in their schools.)

In this new age, a comments board on a website that appears to be full of lively discussion may not necessarily be the product of living beings.  It is possible to manufacture something just like it, in the guts of a computer, in less than a second, all the way down to the typos and the jokes, and even grow it dynamically as real people interact with it, and it’s all about as authentic as a hunter’s duck whistle.  Knowing people personally is your only sure escape from this madness.  So, when you do meet a new person and manage to get a conversation going, ask where they get their news.  It’s a fine opportunity for you to gather a source.  You’ll learn something however they answer.

And now we arrive at the way this ties into bike touring.  (I bet you thought we’d never get there!)

More than any other method of travel, bicycling gives you a way to meet new people – curious and active people – face to face in new places, and gives you the time (and an excuse) to talk to them.  It’s faster than a run, but way more accessible than a car.  Less confined and more independent than a boat or a train or a plane.  Even with just a short trip and a little bit of moxie you can have a hundred conversations, and learn about events near and far, from real people.  And not just people concentrated in large cities either, but people everywhere.

A journey is always a perfect subject for a new conversation, and when you’re standing next to a bike loaded with gear, it’s obvious what you’re doing.  You’re a curious sight, and you’ll invite questions.  Even if you don’t, you have important reasons to practice connecting with new people:  You need ground truth information.  What’s the best place to eat, for a good price?  What’s the best way across town?  Do you know where I can find a clean public bathroom?

You don’t need to “pull over” and roll down a window.  You just put your feet down and you’re there, ready to talk.  You could turn to your smartphone for advice, and most of the time you probably will, but there will come a time sooner than you think when it will drift too far from ground truth.

Seirei no Moribito, translated

When you finish your questions, you pedal the bike for another half-hour, and there you are with a fresh crowd.  More practice.

A world-touring cyclist wrote on his blog that one of the key things he learned on his epic journey was to ask people for whatever he wanted, no matter how outlandish the request felt.  He’d just been wrong so many times about how generous people could be that he stopped trying to be skeptical.  Instead he learned that people would often provide food, shelter, hardware, or advice in exchange for a couple of hours telling stories about his time on the road.

That personal connection, and that first-hand view of the wider world, is a universal human currency.  The more you exchange it the more authentic your life becomes — and the weaker the computer-manipulated phantoms of the internet become in turn.  They automatically become less real and less relevant as you refresh your humanity.  That stress you feel when the online world seems to be in chaos, full of hate and fear — it fades away.  Social media is not the truth of the world.  It’s something happening in a series of tiny little containers.  Good thing you’re not stuck in there, huh?

Ghost In The Shell Arise

Despite what the science fiction of the 90’s promised us, the future of humanity is not spinal cords drifting in tanks full of holograms.  That would be the future of something less than humanity, without breath or heat or texture, without the sense of place or limited life, without the danger.  Humanity is anchored to this “middle world,” where all truly real phenomena reside.

Outside this middle world, perhaps there is another universe, or heaven, or nothing.  Inside the middle world, there is virtual reality, social media, and altered states of mind.  No matter how amazing and intricate those other things become, the middle world will always anchor us.   It’s not a simulation (despite what you may have heard from some wacky industrialist) and it’s not merely a container for simulations.  We all live our one real life within it, until we cease being human completely.

Refresh your humanity, not your browser.

And by the way, it’s not my intention to shame anyone who cannot get out there and ride because of a physical limitation or because they are too buried in work or in caring for others.  But insofar as people have a choice, I hope they choose to spend their free time interacting with the outside world and other people directly, rather than punching smartphone buttons and arguing with digital ghosts.  The online rabbit hole doesn’t lead anywhere, it just keeps going.

The road outside, though — that leads everywhere good.

Seeing Things Clearly

I have an obsession with clarity, or at least with a kind of clarity.  I think about how much of my world is constructed in shorthand and stereotypes, and I want to fill in those gaps.  I want to try, at least, even though it’s probably like patching a leaky roof with sponges.

If I look too closely, the number of gaps in my knowledge becomes overwhelming.  It feels like even basic communication between people about simple ideas is impossible, and we’re all stumbling around alone in a permanent fog.  But that’s not so!  We manage to connect with one another, with imperfect language and limited time, and carve out a common experience — a place where that permanent fog is not so thick.

And we do it in such an improbable way:  By flapping our mouth parts!  And wiggling our fingers on keys!  Somehow it gets the job done.  Dialogue is amazing.

Of course, dialogue also takes time, and our lives are full of concerns.  We have to budget the dialogue, so the connections we invest in are useful.  It makes perfect sense to work hard to clearly see the people in our immediate neighborhood, in our families, at our workplaces, et cetera.  They matter to us and affect us.  But if everyone is solving that equation the same way, that means we probably all have common gaps in our knowledge — common blind spots, filled in with handy assumptions that no one bothers to question.  Those gaps are limits, like a moat around a castle, or the walls around a housing community.

That leads to the reason I’m writing this:  Long range travel is an opportunity to challenge my stereotypes, and fill in gaps that I might not notice when confined to my own community.  I want to know just how much I am failing to see things clearly; perhaps how much my whole community is failing.  I expect it’s a lot.

A Map Of The Gaps

To do this right, I need to document what my outlook is before I make a big journey, even before all the research I will inevitably do as I’m planning it, since that’s research I probably wouldn’t do otherwise.

First, the basic landscape:  I’m not dumb; I don’t think people in China walk upside down, or that everyone in France wears a beret.  Actually I think I’m pretty enlightened about what people are like elsewhere in the world.  But … of course I think that, right?  How would I know otherwise?

I’m going to make descriptions by country, since that’s the main way I compartmentalize the wider world.  I’ll go in roughly the order I might be traveling.

Perhaps these descriptions will sound eerily familiar, even like the whole truth, if you’re a person with demographics similar to mine. Or even better:  You can probably make a good guess at my time, location, appearance, age, gender, and so on just by pondering what things I’m ignorant of and comparing them to your own.

Are you trying to prove something?

In conversation with myself.

This is one of my all-time favorite comics.  Credit to Nathan W Pyle

Do you think that a bike tour is the gateway to a more interesting life?

Do you think that the interesting things you can see from the seat of a bike make up for all the time you spent at your job, staring at screens, shut inside yourself? Staying up late because you felt unsatisfied at the end of another day spent working, saving up money so you can have an adventure?

Sure there is adventure, and good conversation. Stories to tell, fresh air, exercise, good food. Always a new thing rolling down from the horizon. There’s no denying that a bike tour could bring happiness. But why this particular choice? Any why persevere, through the hard parts — the inevitable rain and cold and hunger, the long empty patches of road where there is no one to talk to, nothing to chew on but your own curious thoughts — and the times when you’re deeply uncomfortable, when you wish for the chance to simply stop and put down roots somewhere, with an urgency that belies it as a human need like food and company… What compels you to spend your limited time on Earth doing this thing?

Is it ego? Are you trying to prove something to yourself?

Imagine you’ve already met your goal; made your journey, and you’re back home in your daily routine again. What have you proved except that you can exploit the available technology in a somewhat unconventional means, to go on what most everyone around you will see as a weird extended vacation? One that most people would not choose for themselves, and would not be able to relate to? Because really, people do not like riding their bikes as much as you do. They will not get it. You seem like a nut-job more than an adventurer, placing yourself in danger on the road, especially when everyone around you is “getting there” faster in a car.

People smile and say “that sounds cool,” and sincerely wish you luck. But make no mistake: They don’t relate. What you’re doing isn’t cool.

Likewise, you can’t be in it for the rebellion, for the “coolness points” of doing something different that sets you apart from others. There’s no happiness in competing for novelty — only a caustic version of pride. No matter how interesting your bike tour actually becomes, there are people all over the Earth who have spent their time doing far more interesting things, far more often, and being so dang humble about it that you don’t even know they exist unless you blunder into them and talk awhile. You will probably meet a bunch of them as you go.

No, if happiness does emerge from this journey, it comes from meeting your own personal expectations.

What do you expect?

What sets those expectations? You weren’t born with them, you learned them. Where did they come from? Consider your personal history.

You grew up playing adventure games, traveling far away in your imagination — and surrounded by the redwood forest, deep and quiet, blurring the line between your imagination and real places. You grew up riding a bicycle, and have come back to it in adulthood, integrating it with your daily life, working against the car-focused environment and economy surrounding you. Visions of far away lands have been brought to you by the internet, and a flood of practical information as well. This age of scientific wonders, and the accumulated toil of countless generations before it, has knit the world together with roads and airlines and shipping routes, and the gear to explore them is affordable. It’s all there, visible online.

You see a goal within reach, but not too close, like a mountaineer scheming to reach a summit “because it’s there.” Just how far could you ride? Just how far could your mind range? You calibrate your expectations and your happiness based on what’s available. You make it up as you go along, and perhaps you’re even conscious of how arbitrary that is.

It feels like these threads have been converging over years, over decades even. How much of your life, in retrospect, has been about this idea?

But then again, how much of this is just selective remembering — a story you’re making up about your distant past to justify your actions? A lot of it, probably. Why make up the story? Maybe it’s not your past but your present life that holds the answers.

Lately you’ve been spending way too much time immobilized behind a desk. That desk is the centerpiece of a routine you follow almost every day. It goes: Get up, ride to work, stare at screens, talk about programming and science with nice people, eat some food – hopefully something nourishing – spend a little time with loved ones, read a book or watch a film, run a few basic errands, and then go to bed for a night of unquiet dreams. Then start the routine again.

It’s not a bad routine. In fact, it’s a routine that most people on Earth would happily assemble and roll with for their entire lives. There are undeniably good things about it; things you cannot pack up and take with you on two wheels.

But it’s still a routine. And there’s no doubt you would break this routine if you started a long bicycle trip. If you picked yourself up out of your home, moved thousands of miles outside your comfort zone, dropped down in an unfamiliar land with some hardware and a map, and had to contend with the elements and interact with the locals to move yourself across the globe, your routine would be totally demolished. It’s impossible to stay in one place while riding a bike, so a desk is out of the question. (Same with computer screens. Only the tiniest of screens fits on a bike and if you stare at it for more than a few seconds you fly into a ditch.)

You would be forced to witness the world, rather than think about it abstractly like you have for too many years. And perhaps that’s exactly what you want. Maybe it isn’t happiness you’re seeking, or the execution of a grand plan; maybe it’s an intervention. Life in one place has gotten too easy, and you used to have expectations for how it would all arrange itself, but life outmaneuvered and outlasted your expectations, and now you’ve drifted into this weird place nobody warned you about, and been seized by this weird idea as a means of escape.

What do you want?

Is this a “midlife crisis?” What’s your crisis; being bored? If you did exactly what you’re doing now but you were 20 years old, even motivated by the same sense of boredom, would you doubt yourself? Would others?

“Go out there and explore!” they would say. “You’re young, you don’t need to think about anything permanent at your age.”

What about now? Instead they would say, “You’re old. You’re supposed to be settled into something and know what you want out of life.” And “settled in” means, among other things, staying in one place.

You’ve been settled before. More than once.

You’ve managed to work your way into plenty of situations that seemed ideal at the time – jobs, relationships, living spaces – and moved on from them eventually. Your only regret each time was not doing it before things got as bad or as boring as they did. Not everything requires escape of course; some things just require difficult adjustments, and then they continue in another way. But to pursue this particular crazy idea – a long-range bike trip – you are taking apart things in your life that are good as well as bad. That’s obsession. And probably stupidity as well.

People all over the world struggle mightily just to claim a fraction of the resources and connections you have acquired and kept during your life, let alone things that you have accidentally or deliberately wasted. If the extreme good fortune of your position is not apparent to you now, it will be apparent soon, because this journey will put you in close contact with many of those less fortunate. How will you feel then, about what you left behind? How stupid will you look to the people you meet, when you try to explain yourself?

But on the other hand…

What if you don’t have a choice?

Life is full of contradictions and it should not be surprising that something that seems like a really bad idea also seems like a really great one.

You’re well into your forties. By all accounts your life is more than half done. Way more, if you think of it in terms of the aging of your mind and memory. What kind of joke would the back half of your existence be if you spent years on the cusp of a journey that you could quite easily have taken, only to turn around and creep back into your house, close the door, and keep taking the paycheck and eating the fat meals?

Even if it’s a difficult journey to finish, it’s trivially easy to start. Just get on the bike and keep going. People have bicycled all around the world hundreds of years before you were born, and (you hope) thousands and thousands more will during your lifetime and long after. If they can do it, so can you. Do you really need a reason? Ego, identity, change, intervention, escape… Why are you so worried about it?

It doesn’t matter. Possible answers to the question of “why” erupt like weeds – fresh ones every day – and you pull them up, inspect them, and throw them in a pile. The only thing you are certain of is the obsession itself. Unprompted, irreducible, and stubbornly refusing to fade. You’ve spent so long thinking about it, outlining scenarios and testing hardware and saving money, that at this point if you didn’t do it, you might not have much of an identity to fall back on. You’d be some vague person with a job and a house and some good relationships who thought about something really hard for years to the point where it began to seriously interfere with and alter their life … and then dropped it.

Are you afraid of what you’ll learn?  Are you afraid in general?  For how much longer are you willing to put up with the cognitive dissonance of simultaneously preparing to go and planning to stay? The world is absolutely flooded with opportunities to miss. There is no shortage of them, only a shortage of time. Past a certain level of preparedness, the days you spend preparing turn into their own thing. Are you more comfortable with preparing than you are with actually doing? Are you comfortable in purgatory, and questioning your motives so you’ll stay?

Get on with it. Whatever happens – good or bad, or even just boring – it will be your choice. You’d better be okay with it.

Age, sickness, and the new normal

Just after Christmas I visited my father. I only had a handful of days before work started again, so the schedule was tight. I drove for nine straight hours into the Oregon mountains, through forbidding white walls of fog and lashings of rain, and spent the next two days with him and his wife in their cozy home, sharing stories and looking through photo albums, and tag-teaming crossword puzzles. He’s not as mobile as he used to be, but he sure can murder a crossword.

During the visit I realized that I had reached a strange milestone. Just a few weeks ago I celebrated my 42nd birthday, and now I was exactly half my father’s age. I pointed it out to him while I scanned the crossword clues.

“Congratulations,” he said dryly. “Feel any different?”

“Well, … starting to feel a bit old,” I said.

“Hah! Just you wait,” he said, and snatched the crossword back for another go.

Of course it was true. However old I felt, I had nothing on him. I could take all my aches and pains and multiply them by two – no, five – and throw in misbehaving bowels and Senior Moments, and I’m sure it still wouldn’t match the sheer annoyance of being 84. I would just have to wait. (And hope to make it that far.)

But on the 9-hour drive back out of Oregon, something happened that gave me a shot at real perspective: I came down with the flu. By the time I was back in Oakland I could tell it was going to be a really nasty one.

My body felt like it had been run over by a truck — one of those harvester trucks that creeps through an orchard in first gear while the farmers fill it with fruit. I could almost feel the way the tires had rolled up my chest, and pushed every joint of my body into the ground. I kept thinking that a few hours rest would make it stop, and I kept being wrong. Go for a bicycle ride? Forget it. Do a load of laundry? Forget it. Eat a hard-boiled egg and go lie down? Okay, let’s give that a try – but no promises.

(The most I managed to eat in a day was half a bowl of noodle soup. I set it down on the counter and wandered off, and the ants got the other half.)

For the next week, the limit of my mental capacity was playing video games and petting the cat. Forget working — even answering emails. I couldn’t read more than a few lines without forgetting where I was. Part of my brain was floating overhead in a balloon, doing its own thing, and there was no way it could participate in waking life. To keep the few appointments I had – one with a contractor, one with a mechanic – I clutched my phone like a spool of thread in a labyrinth, and set a dozen alarms.

I needed hot water bottles to stay warm, and it took every ounce of my concentration to avoid burning myself with the tea kettle. The act of filling them was usually so exhausting that all I could do afterwards was go back to bed, where I would sleep for two or three hours at a time and make hideous patches of sweat on the mattress. The week passed in a myopic, pointless haze. I might have felt depressed over the waste of time, if the feeling could ever get strong enough to displace the massive indifference that filled me like sticky tar in a railroad tie. Every ambition beyond mere existence was gone. In a way that was a blessing because if I tried to do anything ambitious, I’d probably cause an accident.

Partway through this ordeal, while laying semi-comatose in the bathtub, an idea occurred to me that was so alarming I had to say it out loud to the empty room just to get some distance from it:

“What if this is normal?”

What if the ambitious, lucid person I remembered being a week ago was just a shell, and I got so sick that it broke? What if I don’t just magically get that part of my personality back when I’m feeling better, and instead it’s in little pieces that I’ll never find? What if my brain’s been permanently cooked by fever, and my chance to do anything complicated with it is gone?

I felt panic, but even that feeling was weak. I couldn’t manage a strong feeling of any kind. My heart was already racing just from disease, so no change there. But as I shambled around the house, slowly recovering, the idea kept jumping out at me. My feeling of alarm grew in parallel to my recovering strength, and became a kind of motivation. “If I’m ever going to do big things,” I told myself, “I better do them while I have the ability – and the desire. I just hope I get them back…”

It was sobering to know I could so easily lose the ability. It was appalling to know that I could also lose the desire. … Not just for specific things, but for everything. Take my current state of health, and instead of corrupting it with the flu, corrupt it with time instead; add ten or twenty years … Where’s that line, between attempting something really ambitious and surviving it, and screwing it up and freezing to death over some dumb mistake or losing concentration at the wrong moment and getting mangled in a ditch? How long before I put a huge plan together and then have to tell myself, “No, I better just stay home,” and how long before that becomes my preference anyway?

I don’t want to wait and see.

As I worked on my recovery – cleaning the house, washing my sweaty laundry, hocking up the remains of the flu – I tried to reset my perspective.

42 isn’t old age. Well, it isn’t these days, at least. If I were living in 19th-century England, I’d probably be dead and buried by now, and have several sets of grandkids scratching around in the fields, but in this modern world I can probably go another 42 years, and retire to a cozy house in Oregon sometime in the middle of the century if that’s what appeals to me.

No, I can’t be in tip-top physical shape any more, but how much does that really matter? With the passage of time I’ve been exchanging that physical ability for improvisational skill and situational awareness. My position in this modern world depends on knowledge and connections – things older people accumulate – rather than my ability to dig trenches and chop trees all day. Plus, I’m better at distinguishing between stuff that will permanently injure me and stuff that will just be annoying. And I’m a lot less afraid of dealing with strangers.

Yes, I can do things. I just need the will.

My little pep-talk to myself dropped into the background as my flu symptoms vanished, and I was grateful to see my sense of ambition return. Old is definitely a state of mind, and I felt very lucky to leave that state behind. Maybe I’ll end up there some day just from sheer wear and tear. But dammit, not yet!!