From zero to one

I’ve challenged myself to write a post from scratch two hours before the deadline, and this is what came out. Consider yourself warned πŸ™‚

I am a programmer by trade. That means I deal with algorithms for a living. What is an algorithm? Google says that an algorithm is defined as

a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.

So, a set of rules for problem solving. Sounds familiar? Isn’t it what we all use in our daily life, consciously or not? We sure do. Only sometimes those algorithms we use go awry. If you are talking about a computer, you refer to those algorithms that fail to do what they ought to as buggy. If you are talking about a human, we tend to refer to their behavior as dysfunctional, i.e. failing to perform the intended function. And if the buggy behavior is severe enough, we label it as mental illness. If you are feeling uncomfortable to be considered an algorithm, I can understand that, reality is often uncomfortable. Whenever I mention this to DS, she starts talking about free will, the human element, and other words than are intended to make us feel good about not being reducible to a collection of zeros and ones stuck into a piece of warm wet mush inside our skulls. Yet we most definitely are, unless you believe in immaterial souls that are our essence.

So, whether you want it or not, you are an algorithm. A moist robot. So am I, of course. And everyone else, if this makes you feel better. From this point of view, mental illness can be seen as buggy code in your mind. Maybe you see or hear what is not there, maybe you perform actions that significantly impair your quality of life, maybe you are stuck in an internal mental anguish while everyone else is seemingly performing those daily problem solving calculations successfully. Maybe you feel like a buggy console game where the character you control invariably ends up in a lava pit no matter what you do, because the old hardware has developed a glitch after years of use.

You are an algorithm. With lots of bugs, too. Some of them you are aware of, others are completely invisible to you, but obvious to those around you, and some are not noticed by anyone ever. Or not until it is too late. You interact with other buggy algorithms around you, some are very much like your own, others noticeably different, yet others so different, you cannot begin to comprehend the logic behind their actions. Often what you think is a bug in their algorithm is, from their point of view, a feature. Narcissists and psychopaths are like that.

Image result for volkswagen bug feature

And sometimes what you think is a bug, others see as a feature, for better or for worse.

So, with that long-winded introduction out of the way, what would count as recovery? Well, successful debugging, of course! If some of the most pervasive and pernicious bugs are removed, and the intended problem-solving ability is restored, then the newly debugged algorithm can be counted as recovered. Sadly, human brain and mind are rather poorly designed. Not intelligently at all. An intelligent designer would follow the best practices of algorithm development and build in some security features against malicious modification attempts by hostile sources, backups the original algorithm can be restored from if needed, and clearly documented source code for ease of authorized modifications. Then recovery would be a breeze. Just hire an expert brain programmer, let them do their magic and voila, you are well on your way to functioning the way you want to. But alas, that’s not how evolution works, or what it cares about. Not that it cares about anything, the blind force of nature that is so often anthropomorphized.

So, the buggy algorithms that we are, what can we do to effect recovery? Well, there are no magic solutions, but there are some moderately effective tools in some cases, like medication and therapy. A good therapist or psychiatrist can be compared with an expert programmer, knowing not just how to find the bugs, but also how to use the limited tools in our disposal to mitigate or even fix them. Most of the time though we try and fail grasping and looking for something that may or may not be there, like a novice programming summer student told to find and fix a bug in a sprawling software system like Windows, with many many millions of lines of code, and without any guidance.

And sometimes the bugs are obvious, but nearly impossible to fix, like a that glitchy console that keeps throwing you into the lava, and all you can do is watch helplessly as the doom approaches. Some mental illnesses are like that.

Still, with some luck, and having learn some self-repair skills, there is a chance that even the worst bugs can be mitigated, for a time, and one can enjoy a bona fide recovery. And if you are struggling with mental health issues, the algorithm inside my head hopes that you can be one of those.


  1. May More

    Brilliant. I so appreciated this as I have a programming background too.
    The mental health “bugs” u mention particularly remind me of a program someone else had written and I had to maintain.
    Each time new info had to added or an error was found I had to add/amend the necessary code.
    After a while this program became very complicated to unravel. So even when I had “advanced” past the stage of maintaining it would still be thrown at me to sort out, as apparently I was the only one who understood it’s intricacies.
    Eventually I moved on but I often wonder if that particular program ever did.

    1. Post
      Master's Musings

      Some programs definitely can go nuts πŸ™‚ I can relate to being stuck with maintaining one of those, because no one else can. I mean programs. Definitely. Nothing else.

    1. Post
      Master's Musings

      Scott Adams has a dry and sarcastic sense of humor. He went off the rails politically after his prediction of Trump’s presidency came to pass, but there are quite a few memes he coined, some on his blog, some on his Dilbert cartoon, that have aged quite well.

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