Monday, May 27, 2013

Edith and Ben - How I used to be

[Originally posted at Ana Mardoll's Ramblings.]

"What were you like back then?" I asked. It was hard to reconcile the girl about my age I was talking to with the vampire more than a hundred years old she said she was.
She sighed. "I was a worse person."
"Uh..." that didn't give me a lot of information. "How so?"
"You know how sometimes you think about how you used to be and you're embarrassed by yourself and you wonder how you could have been so stupid?"
"I guess..." truth be told I had a habit of thinking that about things I'd done the day before or earlier in the same day. Sometimes earlier in the same sentence.
"It's like that on a larger scale." She paused and I thought she was done talking. Then she sighed again. "For example-" she hesitated and I thought she'd decided not to give the example, then she quickly said, "I was a racist."
I didn't have anything to say to that, and an awkward silence hung in the air.
Edith eventually added, "The year after I became a vampire my home town was the site of a major race riot. I couldn't care less." She paused. "The concerns of non-white people were not my own." Another pause, "My mother --Caroline, not my human mother-- was better. She'd learned what old age eventually teaches those who are willing to learn. I hadn't yet."
"What's that?" I asked.
"That you're always wrong," Edith said. "You work to improve, to become more right, more perfect, but you never get there. You can never stop and be satisfied. What's the status quo today will be horrifically unthinkable tomorrow.
"It is at once disturbing and a source of hope that if I live another hundred years I'll look back on how I was today with embarrassment, disgust, and possibly horror.
"Disturbing because it shows how wrong I am today. But a source of hope because it means that in the next hundred years I'll be that much better.
"That's what old age teaches you, if you're willing to learn --and most aren't-- that being a good person means always striving to be a better person today than you were yesterday and always hoping to be a better person tomorrow than you are today.
"It teaches you that if you want to be a good person you can never stop moving forward, you always have to be on the lookout for the next issue, something that wasn't even on your radar before but now, it's hour come round at last, can be fixed if enough people are willing to work for it. Fixed even though yesterday you didn't realize it was broken."
I thought about that for a while and then I said, "So, you don't like talking about the past?"
"That's not it. I love talking about the past, and the future, and the present for that matter. I don't like talking about how I was back then. I don't like talking about it because I don't like thinking about it. I've learned my lesson, I know that I have to constantly strive to be better, I have no desire to dwell on when I was worse."



  1. Is self-improvement an exponential, linear or asymptotic process?

    1. I need a new internet cable because the broken one I have keeps disconnecting at the moment of trying to post and deleting everything I write. I need a new computer because the wireless on this one is borked forcing me to use the broken cable. I need money so I can get these things. I need magical powers just because.

      Where was I?

      I suppose that what you'd want is for perfection to be a finite upper bound and then have the improvement start out exponential until it reached a maximum speed of increase, and then as the proximity to perfection caused diminishing returns have it slow down so it never quite reaches that upper bound which functions as a horizontal asymptote.

      You'd want this because it would mean that while perfection is still unattainable you can at least get within spitting distance of it.

      What Edith describes is asymptotic with a rising line. It starts out gradual, and then speeds up and speeds up and probably initially appears exponential, but at some point you can't do much more to improve your rate of improvement so after that the improvement is roughly linear (the line it approximates being the asymptote.)

      Here perfection is equal to infinity meaning that you never get within a reasonable neighborhood of it and can never be satisfied that, "Well I'm still not perfect, but for my chosen epsilon..." Instead you have to constantly strive to keep on improving.

      This is all, at best, an approximate description of a complex and hard to quantify phenomenon, of course.