Miss American Pie

The great mysteries of human existence are two—life and death.

Of the two, life is by far the greater one for me, for a couple of reasons: the first is the biological basis for life, and there’s no greater wonder than biology. The second is because I am agnostic, which means I don’t know (a gnosis).

You can use that word in several contexts—like the terms ecosystem and DNA, which I see used in business and marketing—I still cringe when these two terms are used out of their core context, but I’ve come to comprehend that the general use of words such as virus means science becomes more mainstream, which is a good thing.

But agnostic, used by itself, denotes a religious context—many people think it means you don’t believe in God—in Islamic terms you’re a kuffar. This is incorrect—if you’re agnostic, you’re not sure, so I view death as the end of the mystery.

When life goes out of you, everything stops working against a gradient and descends into a state of randomness. What were once organs, tissues, and cells are reduced to molecules—going down that road releases energy—making money requires work, spending it doesn’t.

In that sense, life is a complex word—it stands for all the things that make you a living organism, which, as you know from grade school biology, are seven: growth, respiration, nutrition, excretion, reproduction, movement, senses.

I see these simple concepts from my childhood have graduated into more complicated definitions, such as ‘have complex chemistry’ and ‘are made up of cells’. So do antibiotics and prisons, and I don’t see a need to overthink it—when you teach kids, simple is best—they’ll have plenty of time for complications.

This cartoon from ourworldindata.org shows us how small we really are.

Humans only make up 0.01% of the earth’s biomass—jellyfish are almost double that. So it would be fair to say that practically no one on this planet has any concept of death—no other animals on god’s green earth (there’s that agnostic thing) know they will one day die.

Unless you’re ill, mentally or physically, you don’t typically have a death wish—and as we live longer, and understand better the forces in play between life and death, we start to wonder if it would be possible to know when that fateful day will be.

That raises the metaphysical issue of whether you want to know, or whether you prefer blissful ignorance. If you know you’re going to slip and break your leg tomorrow, how will that change your today?

Even if the other organisms, from bacteria to chimpanzees, were aware that they are finite, most species on earth fit somewhere along the food chain—at some point, these guys are going to get eaten, but neither a Brussels sprout nor a springbok knows when.

I may be destined to die in a plane crash, and if so I can’t predict when—although I’ve stood on the tarmac in Tangier and Tete and wondered if it was smart to get on that particular tin can.

But when it comes to dying ‘naturally’, whatever that means, there are quite a few predictive tools out there.

Governments, life and medical insurance companies, employers, and the military are some of the clients that come to mind.

Whoever manages you, or manages the risk of you, has a vested interest in knowing when you’re expected to kick the bucket. Back in the day, basic actuarial tables did the job—then mortality curves for a population began to be decomposed, if you excuse the pun, into men and women, black and white, rich and poor, fat and thin, tall and short, gay and straight, rural and urban, married and single, even happy and sad.

As soon as that much data are available, statisticians go into orgasm mode—you can calculate the probability of death of a short, gay guy who smiles a lot while feeding the chickens.

Death predictors are of course available on the internet.

Now, I caution you about this for two reasons. First, because I am specifically suggesting you don’t use them—although I did, since in order to write this article I needed a guinea pig—moi. Second, because I’m pretty sure the sites I tried harvest and share my data, including my IP, or internet location, which is unsettling.

If you search for ‘lifespan calculator web’, the first link you come across is, surprisingly enough, called Lifespan Calculator.

Amusingly, it tells you that how long you’ve lived is one of the best predictors for how long you may live. Note the may. If you tell them you’re forty-five, then the predictor knows you’ve lived at least forty-five years, which is pretty informative. I don’t suppose folks who’ve not lived that long go on the site much…

The calculator is run by Northwestern Mutual, an insurance company. I did pretty well on my run, or at least according to what they showed me. No nasty questions on cancers or Alzheimer’s to ruin it all, but a couple of questions on my driving record—I suspect those go straight to the motor insurance dept.

I also played around with a British site called Ubble. Their ‘longevity explorer’ politely enquired as to my cancer record, but didn’t give a damn about my BMI—they too seemed optimistic about my longevity, and estimated my age as anywhere between eleven and six years younger than the true number.

On the whole, my survey results made me suspicious—a pessimist is an optimist with experience.

Ubble has some cool stuff—they use a set of ten categories and their respective indicators. Categories include for instance early life factors and psychosocial factors. Some questions are better (usual walking pace) than others (number of days per week of moderate physical activity) at predicting death within five years. And some variables are better correlated with age (weekly usage of mobile phone in last 3 months) than others (salt added to food).

There is one way to solve the mystery of death, and perhaps of life itself—cryogenics. To explore those possibilities, I found my way to the Life Extension Foundation.

Alcor will freeze your body or your brain for a fee. Their focus is the United States and Canada—if you’re Chinese they charge an extra fifty thousand bucks—maybe they know something we don’t!

It’s not cheap to get frozen, and of course once they defrost you we’re not sure whether you’re destined for the oven or the barbecue.

Two hundred grand for the body, eighty grand for the brain. The inference is that your body will be pretty fucked anyhow when they bring you back, so you will literally need reincarnation—the word comes from the Latin carne (flesh)—buddy, they’re gonna re-meat ya!

So, when all that happens, you’ll find the answer to the second mystery. Do you have a soul, where is heaven, and what is hell.

For now, I’ll stick to the classic definition. Hell is a place where French are mechanics, Americans are lovers, and the English are cooks.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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