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Friday, December 5, 2008

The Pale Horseman Visits

The past several weeks have been really strange. I suppose others go through this with the death of a parent, but it is different when it you, yourself.

I arrived at my father's bedside late on Sunday afternoon. He had been declining over the past several days, and was now semi conscious. I had been told that the last sense to go is hearing, so while my Dad appeared unresponsive, I talked to him and told him I was here, complained about the snowy roads, and asked him if he needed anything. He said softly "No". I think that was his last word.

The next day he was even less responsive. His irregular breathing became gasps with periods of no breathing at all, followed by another set of gasps. The medical care givers said that it wasn't distressing for the patient (and how would they know?). Whenever I or my Mom spoke in the room, his body would shiver, like he wanted to respond, but he didn't. His eyes were shut or slightly open, but not moving or blinking. Each night, a care taker would come and sit with Dad so that Mom and I could sleep; she had instructions to get us up if something was happening.

Tuesday was more or less a repeat of Monday. He still shivered and jerked when talked to, still gasped his breaths and hung on. Each day a hospice nurse would visit my parents and examine my Dad, and talked to us afterwards. He said that my Father probably had less than 24 hours left, and called a minister who came and gave what could best be described as a Protestant Christian version of the last rites, and anointed his forehead with oil, which made him jerk and shiver. My Dad was not to my knowledge religious, except I think he believed in God, because my Mom had said how angry my Dad was at God for the death of my sister aged 13. How he felt and what he thought about being anointed with oil and prayed over is a mystery. My impression was that he was not pleased.

On Wednesday morning, his breathing became very shallow with long halts between breaths. He was totally unresponsive to sound, light or even touch. We both told him that he could go, that I would look after Mom and that she would be alright. There was no reaction.

At 11:40 am, his mouth suddenly closed, his breathing normalized, his eyes opened and he looked up and to the left. Suddenly he was fully present and alert, but couldn't talk or move. What was he seeing? My Mom thought he seemed surprised. I didn't sense that, but it was clear that something was happening. Then he just seemed to fade out, like an old TV turning off with the dot shrinking to the center of the screen.

My Mom tried to close his eyes, thinking he was gone, but they kept opening again. I could see he still had a pulse in his neck, and kept trying to wave her off (I didn't want to speak - I couldn't think what was the right way to say "no, he's not dead yet", especially if he could hear and understand me). We held his hands and waited.

At 11:50 am, his breathing slowed, and stopped, and the carotid pulse became thin and faded out. He was gone. Or had he left his chrysalis 10 minutes before? I had heard that people in a near death experience reported looking down on their body from above. I looked up and around, but could get no sense of him up there. I hope my sister came to get him, and they left together.What did he see when he became lucid? Was it the tunnel of light? Was it a sudden realization that here comes death now, then nothingness? Did he leave his body behind and go somewhere else? Or merge into a universal consciousness?

I am thankful that his passing was not sudden and unexpected from the purely selfish standpoint that I had time to tell him I loved him, and there were no major unresolved feelings or issues left behind (there are always minor ones). I am sorry it was long and sometimes painful for him, and exhausting for my Mom.

I still think, several times a day, "What did he see"?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Death and the Engineer

My Father is on his deathbed. I am up early to catch a plane to NW Pennsylvania to be with him, he is not expected to live out the week. This is hard.

He is 76. Born in England, he lived there until at age 45, following the death of my younger sister Elizabeth at age 13, he and my Mother sold everything and moved to Erie PA. They have been there ever since. His passion in life was always trains. He became an Engineer, and has spent his life designing locomotives and rolling stock. It's nice to be paid for your hobby. Perhaps someday, someone will pay me for flying, which is mine.

What is Death? I am thinking more and more that as the creators of the universe we see, we must ourselves be somehow external to it. This could mean that we become something else and go somewhere else ( a kind of heaven/afterlife), or that we are part of an overall universal consciousness (Nirvana) into which we are reabsorbed after death. I talked with my dead sister in a dream a few weeks ago - was it just a dream, an illusion created by my subconscious to make me feel better, or a connection to another reality? I wish I could remember what we talked about. The location was interesting - kind of like an airport or train terminal - lot's of people coming and going, but no sense of urgency - like sitting at a restaurant at San Francisco airport on a 4 hour layover.

Or Death could just be the end. The machine wears out, or is damaged. Consciousness is just an illusion formed by the mechanical, chemical, electrical and quantum processes in the 2lbs of brain matter in my skull. If so, what a waste. We come into this world knowing nothing, do things in our youth with no experience, and by the time we get wisdom, it's time to go.

My Dad is about to find out.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Time and the nature of now

Time is short. Now is the time. Father Time. We have lots of time.


I have been thinking a few years now about the nature of time. In particular, what is now? As I write this, it is 3:26 pm, and it is the present. Now it is 3:27 pm, and time I wrote the prior sentence is now in the past, and this is the present. What happened? What changed to make the present into the past? How does the future become the present (and then the past)?

The world could be like a old time movie reel. The whole story is actually already filmed, and in a can. The characters in the plot don't know they are in a movie, as each frame is displayed, they experience a "now", and have the illusion of free will - the ability to make decisions, and see the results. But since the future (the frames yet to be shown) is just as real as the past (the frames that have already been shown), their sense of freedom of action is not real, from the viewpoint of a "super-time" resident outside of the can. In Christian terms, this is a form of Calvinism, as practiced by Presbyterians and Baptists (although most don't know that is their doctrinal belief) - a belief where the future is fixed, and some are born to be saved, while some are born to be damned. I suspect Islam has similar view - "God's will be done", but I'm not as familiar with Muslim thought.

In physics, there are lots of equations that include "t", standing for time. Some don't, for example "F=MA", Newton's 2nd law, which says that a force acting on an object of mass "M", will create an acceleration in equal proportion. No time there, except as implied by acceleration, which is the rate of change of velocity over time. but extending the concept gives us "v=u+at", which says that if you apply an acceleration over a time period ("t"), you will get a change in velocity in addition to the starting velocity ("u"). So "t" is a range of times, say 10 seconds.

It doesn't say if that 10 seconds was last week, 3 billion years ago, or 2 years in the future. It doesn't say "the time between 09:10:23 EST on Tuesday October 7th, 2008, and 10 seconds after that". These equations (and all others in physics that I have ever seen) take no regard of the present (or past, or future), only a period of time, indistinguishable from any other, and to an observer in the same inertial frame of reference (nod to Einstein and relativity), always passing at the rate of 1 second per second, 60 seconds per minute, 60 minutes per hour, 24 hours per (Earth) day.

I think we get the closest to an answer from quantum mechanics. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle says that that for a particle, the values of position and momentum, cannot both be known with precision. The more precisely one variable is known, the less precisely the other is known. This is not a statement about the limitations of a researcher's ability to measure particular quantities of a system, but rather about the nature of the system itself. In other words, nature itself is fuzzy, and it takes a conscious act of observation (measurement) to resolve the fuzziness, but the more you know (or tune in to) about one attribute, the more fuzzy (out of tune) everything else becomes. It's not just you - the universe is actually itself "fuzzy".

The Universe (at a quantum level at least) is unresolved until an observer measures it. By measuring, I don't mean with a yardstick or scales - simply seeing or feeling something is enough. Schrondinger's cat illustrates this nicely (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schrodingers_cat). Schrodinger envisaged an experiment, where a macro event (whether a cat lived or died) is tied to a random quantum event, such as the decay of an unstable radioactive atom. According to quantum theory, the cat is both dead, and alive at the same time, until the experimenter checks to see if the cat is alive or dead, at which point the quantum uncertainty collapses into one of the two possible states, and we know that the cat either lives, or is dead. Leaving aside all the cosmological interpretations of this (e.g. Everett's Many Worlds theory, vs. the Copenhagen (just follow the math) interpretation), this might start us on the road to understanding what is Time, and what is Now.

I think Now is best defined as "the moment the quantum uncertainty is resolved through observation". I don't think it necessarily means that this Now is any different from all the other "nows". Our conscious brains give the illusion of things happening in a particular way and order, but it is more like the movie reel - only one frame is the Now, but all the other frames are equally valid and imminent.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yesterday, Barak Obama won the election to become the first "African American" president of the USA. Expectations are so high, it is inevitable that there will be dissappointment. He won't even be president for another 12 weeks....and frankly, I am afraid of the right wing crazies, racists and Dick Cheney - will they do something to prevent him from being sworn in?

My state (Texas) went the other way - not unexpected, it's Bush country. McCain lawn signs only slightly outnumbered Obama signs in the lawns of North Dallas - perhaps representative of the 55-45 split in the state - closer than I thought. I heard 2 older guys at a high school football game talking about how Obama was the anti-christ, and that "people have to wake up!". Of course, since the Bible says that no-one will know who the anti-christ is, by definition they must be wrong........... After the Rapture, perhaps I can get some of the vacant good seats at the 50 yards line.

Blogging is harder than I would have expected. You've got to have something to say, something that others will hopefully find interesting. Or is this more like a diary? I tried keeping a diary when I was a teen - it lasted about a week. If I didn't find my life interesting, why should someone else?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

D.B. Cooper and The Blog

My name is not D.B. Cooper. I have never jumped out of an airplane carrying bags of cash. As a private airplane owner, I find the costs of flying inevitably cause me to get into my airplane with lighter pockets than before. All love affairs are like that - they all take time and money.

I live and work (most of the time) in Dallas, Texas. Big Sky country, thermostat turned up and set on "Broil". This is my second time living here, each time by choice, so I can't complain really. My employer, which I shall call BFN Co. (or Big Flaming Network Company), is not based here, and does business around the world. I work in product marketing for a very technical wireless (cellular) networking product, so my job takes me all around the world.

My wife ("Sally"), and two children (Thing 1 and Thing 2) live with me in suburban Dallas. Thing 1 is in 8th grade, Thing 2 in 4th. More about them another time.