Boosterspice

I wrote this short story over the summer for a writing course.

Boosterspice

In the media room of their modest estate, Stephen and Jane sat watching the news.

“Another spice riot. Just what we need: poor people complaining about things that aren’t any of their business.”

“What I don’t understand is the idea that the booster treatment is a God-given right. Just imagine if we gave it to everyone: they keep copulating, but don’t die themselves. We’d be overrun!”

The TV showed a news anchor.

“The biggest discussion of the century is still ongoing in Washington: should the prohibitively expensive treatment known as boosterspice be included in the Medicaid program? Advocates are claiming that current research indicates the treatment is capable of extending a person’s life for up to forty or fifty years; some are even claiming it could let a person live forever. We have with us here a researcher from Kurzweil Technologies to explain the latest breakthroughs in his lab.”

It transitioned to a scientist.

“Well, as you know, the boosterspice treatment was designed almost eight years ago. It uses a fairly common drug, but the method of deploying the compound into patients using nanobot boosters is a radical advancement. So far, in human testing, we’ve seen powerful regenerative cycles. As far as we can tell, most cellular processes are refortified with almost 100% effectiveness. Essentially, the procedure restores the subject to the vitality they were experiencing around age forty.”

The anchor returned.

“The Medicaid inclusion movement suffered a major setback last week when the Catholic Church officially denounced boosterspice…”

The noise faded into the background when Jane spoke up, “Oh, Stephen, did you call Mark yet today?”

“Yes. He and Kathy are meeting John and us tomorrow at the hospital. I don’t know why he’s coming to the intervention. It’s not his dad. It should just be Kathy, John, and me.”

“Well, I’m coming.”

“Yes, but you aren’t bad news. I still can’t understand why Kathy married Mark of all people.”

“Just be polite to him. Remember that we’re there for your dad.”

* * *

The group of five sat in the waiting room, praying. Last week they had met and compared speeches, decided on a tone. Now an attendant came, showed them the room.

On the bed lay William Rowe, father of Stephen, Kathy, and John. A photo of Christie, their late mother, stood on the bedside table.

Kathy began. “Dad…”

Stephen stepped in, “This is an intervention. We want you to take the boosterspice treatment.”

William looked at his children, and then broke out in a wheezy laugh, which turned to a convulsive cough. He finally settled back down, but his face still glowed in amusement. “What the hell are you going to do to me if I don’t? Kill me? Stop paying for my care?” And he laughed again, this time more of a giggle to avoid straining his lungs.

Stephen looked to John, who looked down, with nothing to add. Kathy looked to Stephen. Stephen just stood there, flapping his mouth. They hadn’t really thought this through, Stephen realized. This entire venture was ill-conceived and even worse planned. Jane stepped forward, putting her hand on Stephen’s shoulder, and said to Bill, “We just want you to be happy.”

“I’ve lived a full enough life, and now I want to spend eternity with my wife. I wouldn’t blame you for taking the treatment, but as I’ve said many times before, I won’t.”

Stephen took over again. “But we haven’t lived full lives, and we want you around for as much of it as possible.”

“Sorry, son, everyone dies eventually.”

Kathy muttered, “Not anymore.” But the group turned and started shuffling out of the room. Stephen stayed behind, and heard Kathy explode at Mark in the hallway. “Why didn’t you speak up?”

“Well, I never really found a good time to intercede…”

Jane glanced at Stephen and left as well. Stephen knelt beside the bed. His eyes kept falling to the oxygen tube running into his dad’s nose.

“You won’t reconsider? Not for anything?”

“A new age is dawning, son. But I don’t want to be there for it. I belong in the past.”

Stephen put his hand on his dying father’s shoulder and left. In this day and age, nobody should have to be dying. A thought like that used to be entitled, or naive. Now it was… fact.

* * *

Later that day, Stephen was having coffee with two friends.

One of his friends said, “Those boosterspice riots are a pain in my ass. I had to drive twenty minutes out of my way to get around the mob.”

“It’s kind of ridiculous for people to demand it,” agreed Stephen.

“It’s ridiculous for them to block the streets. What, like we’re gonna pay for them after they get in my way?”

The second friend butted in. “400 million treatments. I really don’t think they understand the magnitude of that order.”

“The only order they understand is a double cheeseburger with fries, am I right?” Stephen’s two friends chortled.

“Maybe they wouldn’t want it if we told them they couldn’t have kids anymore,” Stephen suggested.

“Or jobs. No, I guess they can have one: kids or jobs. But not both.”

“Well, they already don’t have jobs.” Again, the friends chuckled.

Stephen coughed after a vaguely uncomfortable pause. “So, are you guys going to get the treatment?”

“Well, yeah, of course.”

“It would be wasteful not to.”

Stephen nodded and followed up, “My treatment is in a few days. Actually, it’s gotten me thinking about death. Now that we’ve cured it, it’s even scarier–”

“Well… nobody is certain that the treatment ʻcuresʼ death.”

The other friend jumped in. “All they can predict now is that it extends life by forty or fifty years. Maybe it works indefinitely.”

“You can still get diabetes and blood clots from lifestyle choices after the treatment.”

“And prostate cancer. Although it’s less likely.”

“And obviously it doesn’t protect against bodily harm. It doesn’t make you invincible.”

“But even so, it’ll still stagnate the economy, et cetera, et cetera,” Stephen replied.

* * *

It was ironic, considering the state of things, that as Stephen’s car accelerated onto the freeway, time slowed down and Stephen glanced sideways out the window to see Death looking back at him. To the serenade of screeching rubber and twisting metal, Stephen’s eyes watched the sky vanish and a tractor trailer spin by, seemingly miraculous and counter to all worldly physics, passing Stephen again and again. Finally the sky ceased to be a blur and became concrete. Upside down, next to a twisted guardrail, Stephen passed out.

He awoke slowly, painfully. He was in a hospital room, a bandage across his midsection. How much time had gone by? A vague dream, or memory, of waking in Intensive Care, with a tube down his throat. Stephen’s stomach roiled. The only thing he could think about was how close to death he had come. Internal bleeding, concussion, rib fractures: the works. Miraculous that he had survived. Was it miraculous that the accident had come days before his boosterspice clinic appointment?

When Stephen arrived at his home again—after furiously protesting his being driven home on account of a newly developed fear of cars—the first thing he did was reschedule the appointment to the next open slot: the following week. For the interceding days, Stephen kept off work with sick-leave and refused to depart the house. Often he stayed in the bedroom, away from the stove and stairs. He paced the room for exercise, wary of catching pneumonia or having his muscles atrophy.

Jane tried to reason. “There’s no point in living longer if you’re just going to spend that life hiding here.”
But Stephen would have none of it. He took the bus (the safest form of transportation) to his first boosterspice treatment. He wore a surgical mask on the bus. At the appointment, Stephen sat before a desk, with a paper in front of him, and a doctor talking to him.

“The actual application of the process is fairly extensive and time consuming. We’ve performed all the necessary pre-tests. This is your point of no return. If you sign this, we will move you into our care facility and perform the treatment over the course of the next 12 days. Afterward, your natural lifespan will grow by at least 45 years with your current lifestyle. The decision lies fully in your hands at this point: do you want to receive the metabolic retro-senescence treatment?”

Stephen rocked slightly in his chair. He looked at the paper. The signature line stared back. For the first time in weeks, Stephen really thought. Stephen thought about his father. A lifetime of memories began to come to him, of good and bad times with his parents. Then Stephen thought about his wife. About the terrible car accident. About the hospital, about his job, and about his lack of children. It was his life. His life. No matter how he felt, the accumulation of events is what composed the entity known as Stephen.

In all this thinking, Stephen entered a world of imagination. A world of undying people, afraid of death. Liability was no longer the drive behind safety measures. This world had rounded corners (too easy to hurt oneself on a sharp edge), no fallible machinery. A world abandoned by the adventurous, who would escape to humanity’s frontier among the stars. Such a world would succumb to a slow death by fire, or poison. Centuries of climate change and overpopulation would slowly choke the planet to death, because the inhabitants couldn’t look farther ahead than the dangers of today. Ethics would become twisted, and humanity would become a shell of itself. There would be no war, no violence, only inevitable decay from the relentless march of entropy.

“I’ve decided to forgo.”

* * *

Stephen entered a bagel shop, accompanied by two of his buddies. He ordered and pulled a third chair up to a round table.

“Wow, it’s been a while, Stephen. What, a little over a year since your big accident? How has it been going?”

“It was rough for a while. The car crash and my dad’s death did a number on me. I was in therapy for six months, I think.”

“And then the divorce… wow. When was that?”

“Three months to the day.”

“How are you holding up?”

“Fine, you know. Jane didn’t want to be with a ‘purist’. It would get awkward real fast with her taking boosterspice. I thought I might have trouble letting her go, but she’s dead to me. Rather, I’m dead to her. In my mind, she’s already faded into the mists of the future.”

“Stephen, that’s a little messed up.”

Stephen shrugged amiably, and rose to claim his order. When he sat back down and the group started in on their food, the conversation paused for a moment. One of his friends idly asked, “So you really gave up boosterspice?”

“I’ve come to believe in purity more than anything else.”

“Think of it: last year, nobody even dreamed of purists. There were the initial rejects, but certainly no culture. Now… it’s crazy. No offense.”

“I don’t care about that. It’s the philosophy, not the culture.”

The conversation continued.

Suddenly Stephen rocked in his chair and pressed his palms to his forehead. A wooziness, cold on his insides, pulsated. He felt his sense of direction go.

His body fell to the floor; his mind seized for tense, terrifying moment, and then it seemed to drift away. For a split second, his mind was in a timeless ether. Then he returned to consciousness hours later, in his own body, in the hospital. Stephen hated hospitals. The décor always threw him back to the night of the crash.
The doctor came in eventually. He took some readings before breaking the news.

“You are suffering from kidney failure. The waiting list is too long. The only viable option is to have the boosterspice treatment applied as soon as possible. It will rejuvenate your body long enough to receive a transplant. I see you were initially slated for a dosage last year, but you rejected it. Are you morally opposed to the treatment?”

“I’ve become a purist—” the doctor wrinkled his nose at the term “—as a result of that time in my life.”

“But do you reject the treatment as a medical procedure, rather than a cosmetic, non-essential measure?”

Stephen hesitated, just a moment. It had been a long time since the belief system he had built up around himself had been questioned.

The doctor interceded before Stephen could work out a response. “I’ll check back tomorrow. You have until then to make up your mind.”

Stephen had come to accept an existence without immortality. When a person comes to terms with a reality that may scare them at first, it becomes a building block of their life. If Stephen accepted the miracle drug back into his life, it would wreck the philosophical barriers he had constructed to protect himself. Tomorrow he would deliver his answer to the doctor: no.

* * *

During visiting hours, Kathy and John showed up. Stephen eyed them. The family had fallen out of touch after Bill’s death. John, with a newly acquired air of sureness, approached Stephen.

“This little experiment of yours has come back to bite you. I told you it would never work out. That you would come back to your senses after a while. You’re a fool for not getting the procedure done earlier. If you had gone much longer, you could have died before anyone diagnosed–”

“John!” Stephen broke his brother out of it before a rant precipitated. “I’m rejecting the treatment.”
Kathy started. “Wait, what? Stephen, how can you do this to us? Also, how can you do this to yourself? If you don’t get the treatment, you’ll die!”

“Yes. I know. That’s the point. Look, I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

John stepped forward, jaw high and imperious. “I know you took dad’s death hard, and that you’re somehow punishing yourself for his death, but you need to think about this.”

“I see you’ve been going to those ‘make the most of an endless life’ seminars. Too bad those don’t teach you how to use your brain. Death is a choice now, brother. You’ve decided one way, and I’ve decided the other. It’s as simple as that.”

John snorted, stood up, and walked out.

Kathy also turned and began walking out. She paused at the door.

“You are unbelievable, Stephen.”

* * *

That night, he woke up in pitch black. The lights from his bedside monitors were out. The hospital must have even lost its backup generators.

The light in his room flicked on. His father stood in the doorway, the pall of death bearing heavily on his face. “Stephen,” his dad spoke. Stephen was hanging, held upside down by the thousand tentacles of a nightmarish seatbelt. He hung above a beach of shattered safety glass. Beyond the walls of his world sat a semi and a guardrail, both clinging to the ceiling of the universe. William Rowe crouched down by one window, dressed in his finest Sunday clothes, fresh from the coffin.

He began to speak, slowly and deliberately. “When you have time, you may decide that you don’t want immortality. But when you are stuck with the hard choice between death and life, you always choose life. You think of that one lifetime activity you never got around to: swimming in bio-luminescent algae right after sunset, nobody around for miles; parachuting into the Grand Canyon; having the love and respect of all your neighbors; raising a kid who goes on to be wildly successful and happy. Procrastination turns out to be the ultimate life-saver.”

The world rotated and hardened into the topography of a hospital room. The doctor stood before Stephen. “Oh good, you’re awake. Now, have you made a decision about taking the boosterspice treatment?”

Stephen groaned a long, hard, satisfying groan into his hands. “Yes, fine, I’ll take the treatment this time.”

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The Parabola of Technology

Today I completed the February USA Computing Olympiad. If you have any coding interest, you should check it out. It has three divisions: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. If you do well enough in Bronze, then you are promoted to Silver for the following competitions, and then similarly to Gold. You have 3 hours to complete 3 problems; the Gold problems require pretty advanced knowledge of algorithms and a quick coding skills. Contests are held monthly.


The Growth

I’ve always thought of human progress as a parabola or exponential curve. That is certainly true for population:
graph of world population
The human race has made so much technological progress recently, especially taking off after the Industrial Revolution. Starting in the 17th century, the intense competition between Western countries (and then all industrialized countries) has advanced knowledge and created an infrastructure in which that knowledge can be used. Every piece of knowledge allows us to learn more, every invention allows us to learn faster. Then, in the 19th century, politics was overturned and industrialization began. Near the turn of the 21st century, technology has taken off. We are looking at an unprecedented age ahead of us. Today, some of the things we can do seem like science fiction. Yet we are still using 19th and 20th century frameworks. This restricts our ability to use the new technologies.

Education and Infrastructure

For instance, our education system is archaic. Now, that statement may seem radical and uninformed to you, but bear with me. The education systems of industrialized countries are designed for industrializing agricultural societies. The majority of people (farmers and factory workers) would only go to school through elementary grade levels; they don’t need much education to work, but they do need to be literate. Accountants and other people who are going to work white-collar jobs would continue on to high school. Judges, lawyers, doctors, and professors would go on to a university.

Now, there has been educational inflation. College degrees have gone from rare to necessary. If you want a job which pays even moderately, you need a degree. And they are becoming less valuable even now. With the Computational Revolution, we no longer need a large amount of factory workers or farmers. Most of all, we need people to produce content; we need people with creativity and ideas. Yet the school system still focuses on a core of math and science. It progressively excises creativity and focuses on particular learning conduits. For years, schools have been preparing people for a past that is obsolete in this future. This fundamental failure of the educational system is partially responsible for the huge system failure we have seen over the past few years and will see in the coming years. Even though people have realized that the school system is inadequate, our current social infrastructure lacks the capability to facilitate such a major change.
(Inspired by this TED talk)

Restructuring

Why are we still burning fossil fuels? Why are we still digging up metals from the Earth when we could be sustainably mining them from asteroids? The answer lies in our industrial infrastructure. As much as I hate to say it, the capitalist structure we use right now may not be sufficient in the coming age. Certain technological switches, such as those regarding energy and raw material acquisition, may take time and money to complete which makes them seem immediately unattractive. However, their eventual gain over current methods in regards to sustainability makes them desirable in the long run. It seems that the only way to make the switch is to wait for cheaper technology or to rely on buying power independent of market forces, like a government. Unfortunately, our government is doing the wrong job. It isn’t really doing a bad job, just the wrong one. 19th century political changes have established government obligations those of welfare and public works. Bank regulation is necessary as well. Ensuring a certain level of public education must be necessary. But is the government’s bureaucratic grip slowly suffocating the education system? Probably. The government just isn’t built to deal with things like the Internet, which has decreased communication times so much that ideas are being synthesized faster than ever. The government can’t respond quickly enough to the future. Without even looking at other areas of our infrastructure, we already see problems in the educational set up.

If the government can’t do a good job giving education, should we leave it to private enterprise? Private schools are too expensive for everyone, although they often give quality education. That leaves us with two options: a mass-migration of education onto the Internet, or a fundamental restructuring of the educational system. Let me give you my takes on both of these options.

Online Education

Education on the Internet has seen a small trial with things like the Stanford AI Class, which is exclusively online and open to everyone. The interesting about that and their upcoming follow-up classes is that it took place in a set time, with homeworks and tests. In terms of static lectures, which teach non-interactively, you can look at MIT OCW (open course ware) and Khan Academy. Then of course there are classes which you can pay for (usually a couple hundred), in which you are with a class of other people online, and you periodically read notes, have debates, and turn in homework. Overall, I’m not sure how much online education is going to play into education in the future. Will online courses supplement public education? That is certainly an interesting idea. It would allow schools to focus purely on the most fundamental parts of the education, and people who are further interested in a specific subject could learn more about it online, perhaps within a mini-course, and then get a credit for it. That would allow people to make the most of their education and focus only on things that interest them. Similarly, people could build a “mini-degree” that consists of small courses based on an underlying concept, such as studying human-machine interaction or social networking and its effects on the market.

The Guild System

One idea I’ve been kicking around for a while is that of guilds. Instead of educating people around a core of math and science, we could limit and individual’s education to one field, such as biology, physics, computer science, business management, economics, material engineering, electrical engineering, etc. Which guild you belong to would be determined either by birth or at a young age after essential low-level education. Guilds would control all of the experts in the field, and could lend them out to other guilds or to joint-research projects. They would also have access a large of amount of knowledgeable teachers. They could even make teaching mandatory after retirement. Companies could lease teams of experts.

More over, retirement would be pushed back. Currently, an average person spends half of their life producing. That means the other half is spent passively consuming. Roughly speaking, from 0-20 a person is soaking up resources. From 20-60, they are working. From 60-80, they are retired and again consuming. So unless you can produce enough during your working years to sustain your consumption years, you need to either work longer or die sooner. On the same thread, retirees should not receive welfare from the government. If either a company, foundation, or descendant isn’t willing to pay for an old person, they are a needless burden. While harsh, it is the most logical course of action. Even if this was put in place though, people would adjust. New insurance companies would take the place of government welfare agencies.

Anyways, more to come. Food for thought.

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