By Max More
Perfection. The greatest seduction. And the enemy of progress in cryonics.
For the dullest among us, perfection may take the form of a simple vision: perhaps an other-worldly realm where there is no struggle, no suffering, no conflict, only immaculate submission to a perfect higher power. (In a variation of the same vision, this might include the provision of numerous virgins, apparently without will or rights of their own.) Or perhaps it takes the form of a different kind of higher power: a worldly power—whether an embodiment of the people’s will (as classically exemplified in Hegel’s and Marx’s view of the State) or of the “pure race” or some other seductive fantasy. For the more intellectually sophisticated, it frequently takes the form of certainty in our own knowledge of what is right and correct and proper and rational, accompanied by a sure belief that everyone else is obviously a moron, or a dupe, or evil.
Perfectionist thinking of this kind entails rejecting tradeoffs. It involves fixating on a vision (sometimes arbitrary or ungrounded) of how things ideally ought to be while ignoring the costs of attempting to reach that ideal. Outside of pure mathematics and logic, perfection is not attainable in the real world. Even the flawless achievement of one goal means giving up another goal of inferior but substantial value (the economists’ concept of “opportunity cost”). And achieving some aspects of a desired goal will mean giving up others. You may want a car that gets excellent gas mileage, but that will probably mean giving up the level of performance you hoped for. You may want to delay having children until you’ve accumulated more wealth and experience, but your fertility level may decline.
Tradeoffs clearly exist in cryonics, although you wouldn’t know it by listening to most critics. We would all like cryonics to be perfect, but we know that gains come at a cost. We would like the costs of membership dues and cryopreservation charges to be lower. We would like the quality of cryopreservations to be higher. We would like everything to be run by medical professionals at low cost and with total commitment. We would like to be certain that a new employee of a cryonic organization will not lie and steal and betray us.
Think about cryonics for a little while and you will quickly compile a list of tradeoffs. For instance: better cryoprotectants such as M-22 cost more compared to cheaper glycerol; charter jets or air ambulances for fast transport of patients use up money that could be devoted to patient care or research or supporting operations; more money going into the patient care trust fund to strengthen it means less for continuing operations; rapid access to major blood vessels in transport causes damage but may reduce ischemic time.
Some particularly vicious critics use perfectionist thinking (either honestly-but-foolishly or dishonestly) to attack our fees while simultaneously blasting us for using imperfect equipment and for not being fully staffed with extremely expensive medical professionals. They pretend to want to perfect cryonics by adding more government regulation, when they know that the additional regulatory burdens could destroy cryonics organizations. We already comply with numerous regulations, including OSHA and workplace regulations, local regulations, shipping regulations, and so on.
The way these critics brandish perfectionism is similar to the way critics of technological progress and economic growth wield the “precautionary principle”. The precautionary principle commands us, in essence, not to allow the introduction of any new technology or productive method unless you can prove that it is perfectly safe. This principle – unlike my alternative Proactionary Principle – turns a blind eye to tradeoffs while raising safety to the level of an absolute value. [http://www.maxmore.com/perils.htm]
Critiquing the pernicious effects of perfectionism should not be an excuse to languish in current conditions. Every tradeoff should be probed in an effort to overcome its terms. Any particular tradeoff may be based on an assumption that no longer holds. Factors that were once fixed may become uncoupled due to new technologies, techniques, and organization. Institutions take on a life of their own. Assumptions based in current reality can get baked into the organizational culture. When conditions change, hardened assumptions may remain, the people in the organization being blind to how tradeoffs have shifted.
I’m still quite new at the helm of Alcor, so I may be able to root out and challenge assumptions about tradeoffs that no longer apply. As time goes on, I may become increasingly vulnerable to “hardening of the orthodoxies”. No perfect solution to this exists. However, as a pancritical rationalist in both philosophy and personality, I remain open to alternative views and outside inputs.
So, yes, it’s important – no, crucial – to challenge assumptions behind tradeoffs. But neither can the real factors behind tradeoffs be ignored. That only leads to demoralization and even disaster. Relentless criticism of current cryonics practice, based in a standard of impossible perfectionism, is more likely to lead to despair than to improvement. The best alternative to perfectionism is continual improvement, or what the Japanese call kaizen. My commitment to all Alcor members for as long as I’m here, is cryo-kaizen. We will never achieve perfection, but we will continually improve, learn from mistakes, improve our technology, our processes, and our organization.
Member privacy: We hope to see you at the Suspended Animation conference in May, in which Alcor will be participating. You should have received a brochure in the mail on the event. One member asked how she came to receive a brochure since she had not given SA her mailing address. In case anyone else is wondering the same, please note that Alcor did not and will not give out member names and mailing addresses to other organizations. SA sent us the brochures and we mailed them out (a mailing paid for by SA)
Upgrades: We continue to build up Alcor’s capabilities. Top of my priority list for upgraded capabilities are standbys and personnel capable of carrying out cryoprotective perfusion. Our primary post-transport perfusionist, Hugh Hixon, has been the only person who fully understood the operation of our custom-built perfusion equipment. That has left us vulnerable in the event of his illness, absence (not a common occurrence), or – goodness forbid – his own cryopreservation. My thanks to Hugh for agreeing to train two people to bring up their existing knowledge and skills to the level needed to take over if necessary. Even if Hugh stays around for many years to come, it would be good to free him from some activities to preserve his time and energy for the numerous other projects only he is able to pursue.
I have also been dissatisfied with the number of people who we can reliably call on for remote standbys. While we have local teams with people of varying levels of training and experience, it has only been Aaron Drake and Steve Graber who have gone out from Alcor Central on standbys. We have already added two additional people to the Scottsdale-based standby team, and will continue to add to that number.
Earlier in this update, I emphasized the reality of tradeoffs. I also noted that, sometimes, existing tradeoffs can be overcome. Happily, we have recently improved our capabilities (or are about to) while also saving money. For instance: Thanks primarily to Steve Graber and Randal Fry we have a newly-designed portable ice bath that (unlike the previous one) is within both size and weight limits for commercial flights, saving us a substantial amount of money over time. We’ve also purchased a dozen drug pumps for use in the field at a 90% discount (thanks Aaron!), which make it easier to administer a couple of meds that cannot be given all at once.
Many of you will fondly remember previous major pieces of Alcor literature, such as Reaching for Tomorrow. Fine as those overview books were, they became outdated. The value of such comprehensive and clearly explained books remains. I’m supporting and will assist Mike Perry with his project to revise cryonics literature and make it available to those intrigued about cryonics.
Documentation: Another project I’m pushing is to improve the degree of documentation of crucial processes. This will make it easier to train additional people and to provide existing people with clear procedures to follow. Among the processes whose documentation are to be checked, improved, or created are: construction of tubing packs; supply inventory maintenance; procurement of chemicals, including custom-made chemicals; solution preparation; mixing perfusates; filling dewars; field blood washouts; cryoprotective perfusion; cryoprotectant perfusion equipment maintenance and troubleshooting; cryoprotectant perfusion equipment operation during cases; and cooldown and encapsulation operations.
Building Improvements: Visitors to Alcor cannot help but notice changes. One of the less obvious but important one is that OR cleanliness has been improved by the addition of tacky mats by the door and skirts and weather-stripping around both doors. More obvious improvements include a much quieter kitchen fan; painting of chipped base boards (underway); painting walls in the conference room (completed), entrance area (underway), and some offices (planned); moving Steve Graber to a renovated office nearer the workshop, freeing his current office for the new MCD position (done); and removal of some front cubicles and the creation of a better reception area (planned). We are also replacing the large number of framed pictures of patients in the conference room with a dynamic electronic display using LCD frames. This not only looks much better but is a scalable solution as our patient population grows.
Alcor 104th patient: As you will have read elsewhere, On Friday March 25, after a field washout by Suspended Animation, Alcor member A-2478 was transported by charter flight to Scottsdale (most of the cost of which had previously been covered by a relative), arriving shortly after midnight on Saturday March 26. Surgery and perfusion were performed without major incident. The patient has been transferred to long-term storage at liquid nitrogen temperature. This was my first time overseeing a cryopreservation. As a result of the experience, I have added to the Emergency Checklist, created a more comprehensive Emergency Contact list, and developed a better understanding of the indications and contra-indications for field washout. We are also developing more and better options for mortuaries and charter flights.
Talks: As part of a renewed effort to inform and inspire new audiences about cryonics, I will be giving a talk at the May 14-15 Humanity+ @ Parsons conference, titled “Designing Death: Reframing and Refusing the End of Life”. [http://humanityplus.org/conferences/parsons/] The conference—organized by today’s leading transhumanist organization and a leading design school—features a rich roster of speakers and, we hope, an audience open to exploring the possibilities for changing “death” from an unchosen end into a new beginning with a fresh body and open future. As previously mentioned, the following weekend I will be representing Alcor at the Suspended Animation conference. Then, in August/September, I’ll be speaking on cryonics at Aubrey de Grey’s fifth SENS conference in Cambridge, England.
Boosting growth through communication: Alcor membership has been growing slowly in recent years (despite an uptick in April). It’s time to focus on boosting growth so that we can maintain and improve our technical capabilities. I am starting to do this through two measures. The first of these, already underway, is to give more talks on cryonics and Alcor to potentially interested and open groups. In addition to the three conference talks already arranged for this year, we will be looking to secure the services of a speaker’s agent or bureau. The second initiative is to make use of Web video by posting short (no more than 5-minute) videos on YouTube and/or Vimeo, answering common questions, refuting common objections, and addressing misconceptions. We will also look into other forms of targeted social media.
Visitors: On a Saturday in late February, we had some eminent and influential visitors. Many of the staff came in to join in the tour. Many penetrating questions were asked, and it seems very likely that we will have new members as a result. (I hope we will be able to reveal their identities at that point.)