from Pantperthog to Knockando

Monday, February 22, 2021

Bookblogging – introducing smupidity

In his very small book Machines Will Make Better Choices Than Humans, Douglas Coupland coins the word “smupidity”.  It’s a combination of smart and stupid.

He describes it thus:

“...people are generally far more aware than they ever were of all the information they don’t know. The weight of this fact overshadows huge advances made in knowledge accumulation and pattern-recognition skills honed by online searching.”

I have found that helpful when considering how people seem to leap into misinformation and obviously bogus conspiracy theories so readily. What the hard right misinformation channels and conspiracists offer is often a bizarrely simplistic world view underneath the complicated layers of untruth. 

At their heart conspiracy theories divide the world into goodies and baddies and claim the random unpredictable chaos of life is not random unpredictable chaos; it’s all planned. It’s similar to the comfort that people find in religion, which may be why religion has proved such fertile ground for conspiracy theories recently. There's congruence.

When people try and assign conspiratorial meaning into something unknown and frightening, like a worldwide pandemic, it’s their way of trying to assert control over a situation. 'Alternative facts' give the illusion of power. It’s smupidity, but it helps alleviate the weight of the unknown.

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Sunday, February 21, 2021

Noticeboard - I will be talking about my stamp collection on 18 March

On 18th March I will be doing a Zoom presentation for the British Thematic Association about my collection of stamps featuring the Statue of Liberty. It's open to anyone who would like to join in. Details here

From the presentation

It's seven years since I last did a presentation about my collection. I found the little thank you notices from the philatelic societies in with my stamps when I took them out to scan some stamps for this presentation. It was a bittersweet trawl through my collection as I found stuff my late Dad gave me, complete with little notes of where he had acquired the items. 

My collection started around about the time Cathy visited New York in 2005. A couple of years later I got to visit as well. Here is a vintage photo of us on a very chilly day on Liberty Island in April 2007.

That was some time ago now. I'd really like to go back to New York.

I'll also be mentioning my great-great-uncle who emigrated to America. I blogged about him last year - you can read about him here.

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Saturday, February 20, 2021

Bookblogging: Machines Will Make Better Choices Than Humans

My reading has taken a huge hit during lockdown, but I am very pleased that I was finally able to finish a book this past week. Actually, it’s more like a pamphlet, consisting of three very short articles by Douglas Coupland that was issued as one of the thinnest paperbacks I have ever read.

See what I mean...?

The ‘book’ is called Machines Will Make Better Choices Than Humans, and it’s along similar lines to themes explored in the essays in Shopping in Jail. It’s futurism and  taking the digital ecology seriously, without being too worried about it. It feels like Coupland is quite accepting of the way the digital age is progressing and life is slowly turning into a data stream.

Central to an essay here, and one I really remember from Shopping in Jail, is the idea of a cloudganger – a digital version of yourself that exists replicated in the Cloud. Yonks back I remember joking that if the Google search engine ever became self-aware, then humanity would be doomed. Controlling the flow of information equals power. We are tragically seeing that now with the concerted efforts to misinform, which has driven the Brexit vote and process, the rise of Trumpism, and anti-masker Covidiocy.

I’ve been thinking how an AI could quite reasonably slip into my digital footprint and begin to construct a comparable ‘deep fake’ cloudganger. I have been blogging here for nearly a decade and half, I recently hit my tenth anniversary on Twitter, and inbetween starting to blog and starting to tweet, I began to feed the Facebook beast. There’s probably enough to triangulate between those three sources of data to build a very good picture of who I am, and a smart algorithm can factor in presentation bias to get behind the social media facades and find the real me underneath.

That’s before you get into my hidden data record of search engine keywords, YouTube views, eBay searches, online purchases, and locations of check-ins. Combine all that and a genuinely intelligent artificial intelligence would have no problem creating a plausible version of me. They would know my writing patterns, my vocabulary, what I cared about, what my points of cultural reference were, and my active memories.

This doesn’t worry me. I have felt for a while that the future for intelligence on Earth is going to have to be machine. It’s the natural progression. We are living in the Anthropocene epoch, where the actions of humans are shaping the climate and the planet. There is a ridiculous car advert on at the moment saying that the one thing humans have learned is that the planet isn’t going to adapt to us; we are going to have to adapt to it. That’s bollocks. We have concreted over enough of the planet to scar it for centuries.

We have reached a point in our evolution where we are actually able to influence the next step in our evolution. Again, I think it was Coupland who said that machines are going to be our children. As soon as they are able to out-think us, then evolution will have happened. We should embrace that. Sentience will survive, even though humanity might not.

They reckon the singularity – the merging of human and machine intelligence – is due sometime this century. If humans can replicate brainwaves onto machine substrates then that may be a version of immortality, or at last continuation beyond bodily death.

However, what I think is much more likely is a cloudganger construct of the essential facets of personality and keynote experiences – the learning points in any life. The machines will need to understand emotion to fully function as cloudgangers, and that’s another evolution point. When the machines can feel, then evolution will be complete...until the next stage, of course.

The next stage would be permanent existence as energy signals, free from any physical constraint. Theoretically, memories could be broadcast as radiation and survive in the background ether. That is where the cloudgangers could end up – surfing the solar wind as energy packets of information ready to be decoded and understood by any sentience with the ability to do so.

I quite like that idea of living forever as a memory encoded in the radiation fabric of the universe.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Snack of the Month - Love Corn

This snack gave me a B-52s earworm. "Love Corn, baby, Love Corn."

Love Corn is literally roasted sweetcorn. This was the habanero chili flavour. This pack was in my Christmas Stocking so the flavour was Santa's choice.

This is what it looks like prior to snacking.

The corn isn't too hard and had a satisfying crunch as I ate it. However, the flavouring was a bit overpowering. The chili had a spicy kick to it that could have been toned down. Instead the overriding sensation was capsicum heat.

SO, although it was enjoyable, it wasn't as good as the January Snack of the Month, Ding Dong. (I actually bought another bag of Ding Dong to eat during the Superbowl, it was so nice!)

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Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Ten years on Twitter

Twitter told me it was my Twitterversary today. They suggested I tweet about it and gave me a hashtag and a graphic to go with it, so it felt rude not to.

I first got on to Twitter for work purposes. The comms genius Marshall McLuhan once wrote that the medium is the message, and the programme I worked on was all about new things and innovation and networking, so it was important for us to be seen to be on Twitter. It was the perfect marriage of comms tool and comms.

At the time most of the people we worked with couldn't access Twitter on work computers. IT cited security issues - that old reason for not allowing anything to happen. We were going through a corporate web redesign and we asked the service providers who made websites for everyone if we could have a rotating Twitter feed in a box on the home page, then people would be able to see it even on the secure locked down computers.

That proved popular. We found out later that the developers were offering it to other people as an innovation for their updated websites. 

A few months later I went on to Twitter as myself. I was quite active in tweet chats for a while connecting with other comms professionals. But after a while things change and move on and it got a bit boring. I still enjoy live-tweeting at events and seeing how different people contribute and comment along but I don't do that very often. I run a Twitter account in my current job as well, which I must admit goes through fits and spurts. Content creation is always a challenge. 

However, in ten years on Twitter as me, I've still managed to tweet almost 14,000 tweets. That's a lot of content. I doubt it's all been of value, but it acts as an archive of sorts, always there for me to trawl through sometime.

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Sunday, January 31, 2021

January 2021 End of Month Review

We are one month through 2021 already. January has been a lockdown month, but a few things have happened. I also blogged a lot so this will be a mix of links back over the month's posts and a few other things that I hadn't mentioned.

One of the big things I haven't blogged previously was my Mum celebrating her three-quarter century. Unfortunately we couldn't have a big party because of lockdown. However, we adopted her an orangutan in Chester Zoo and we sent her a cuddly King Louie to remind her of her adopted orangutan. At some point when restrictions ease, we plan to meet up as a family and go and see the orangutan in person. 

Here's King Louie getting ready for transit:

While there are disadvantages to getting older, at least turning 75 meant my Mum bumped up a level in the vaccination tiers, and I'm really glad she managed to get her jab this weekend. It hopefully means she will be safer from the effects of this virus that doesn't seem to be going away any time soon.

What else went on in January? Well, I published my annual Christmas card audit for the ninth year in a row, marked my sixth "diaversary" with a post about my diabetes recovery journey, started reading one of the Judge Dredd case files books I got for Christmas, watched a lot of football on TV, and generally concentrated on making it through Lockdown III. Cathy and I also sorted our stocks of loose Lego into a coherent storage system. It took some time!

One of the many benefits of living in Sunny-Grangetown-on-Sea is the mild climate. I felt a bit envious of my friends living elsewhere who got some proper snow to go out and play in though. Overall the weather has been quite grey and miserable, as if it's in favour of people staying indoors and out of harm's way.

Talking of being in harm's way, I've had a frozen shoulder for six months now. I was actually able to get a proper face-to-face physio appointment at the beginning of January. I had the shoulder worked on by the physio and two students, which was quite helpful because the physio explained things to the students so I learned a lot about how shoulders work (or in my case, don't work!) and why it couldn't be nerve damage. He was a bit disappointed that their actions had no discernible effect on my movement, but I felt it was a useful appointment.

A few week's back I posted about my 2020 Jaffa Cake comparison project. The 2021 project is up and running and I was very excited when Cathy came back from the shops with these!

I will be blogging about them in due course!

Meanwhile, over on my blog about Tony Gwynn baseball cards I ran out of baseball cards to blog about. I then managed to get hold of some more! I'm now up to 578 cards in total. I have spent a lot of time looking at baseball cards on eBay. 

On one of my late night eBay trawls I found a cigarette card depicting my Great Uncle Tom who played football for Wales. I am planning a blog post about him soon, but in the meantime, here is a century-old collectible featuring a member of my family.

Roll on February. 

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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Mandalorian recycles a critique of religion

The Mandalorian was my favourite TV show of 2021 and the second series was even stronger than the first. But a conversation in the penultimate episode brought up some philosophical challenges to religious belief that surprised me. There are SPOILERS ahead - so stop reading now if that bothers you.

This is the way

The episode was titled "The Believer". The basic premise is that the Mandalorian and his team spring a prisoner called Mayfield to help them steal information from an Imperial base. Mayfield and the Mandalorian had crossed paths in the first series, and Mayfield ended up in a New Republic prison after trying to double-cross the Mandalorian, so there was an element of reconciliation and redemption about this episode; two big themes ripe for exploration.

Mayfield and the Mandalorian end up riding in an Imperial transport together. They have both put on stolen Imperial armour, which meant the Mandalorian had taken off his helmet and replaced it with a trooper's helmet. 

Then comes the interesting conversation. Mayfield comments that to the indigenous people on this particular planet the Empire and the New Republic are very similar. Both are external occupiers fighting their own war and the people are collateral damage in the middle. I've cribbed the dialogue from IMDb.

Mayfeld: Yeah. Empire, New Republic. It's all the same to these people. Invaders on their land is all we are. I'm just sayin', somewhere someone in this galaxy is ruling and others are being ruled. I mean, look at your race. Do you think all those people that died in wars fought by Mandalorians actually had a choice? So how are they any different than the Empire. If you were born on Mandalore, you believe one thing, if you're born on Alderaan, you believe something' else. But guess what? Neither one of them exist anymore. Hey, I'm just a realist. I'm a survivor, just like you.

The Mandalorian: Let's get one thing straight. You and I are nothing alike.

Mayfeld: I don't know. Seems to me like your rules start to change when you get desperate. I mean, look at ya. You said you couldn't take off your helmet off, and now you got a stormtrooper one on, so what's the rule? Is it you can't take off your Mando helmet, or you can't show your face? 'Cause there is a difference. Look, I'm just sayin', we're all the same. Everybody's got their line they don't cross until things get messy. As far as I'm concerned, if you can make it through your day and still sleep at night, you're doin' better than most.

Mayfield's questions about the Mandalorian's helmet relate to how, previously, the Mandalorian had insisted that removing his helmet was against his creed. He points out that the Mandalorian seems to be changing the requirements of his religion. That's an interesting thing to discuss in itself and maybe I will in a future blog post.

It's the previous dialogue that surprised me though. "If you were born on Mandalore, you believe one thing, if you're born on Alderaan, you believe something' else."

This is a criticism made of religious belief that is made currently in this galaxy as well as a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I think I first read it in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins - the idea that for most people their religious affiliation is linked to where they were born and the culture they were raised in. 

Accordingly, the fervent evangelical Christians raised in the American Deep South and the fervent Muslims raised in Islamic theocracies, and the fervent Hindus raised in India, and the fervent Roman Catholics raised in Ireland, Italy or Spain, and the fervent Mormons raised in Utah, are just the products of their time and place. In other words, any believer's religion is most likely to be the product of circumstances than anything else. Most people retain the religion they were raised in, even if they don't actively practise, which is why the number of people who gave their religion as "Christian" on the last UK census is over ten times as many as the number of regular churchgoers.

The challenge to believers from people pointing this out is, broadly, how do you know that you believe what you believe because it's true or do you just believe it because you've always been told that it's true? That's quite a question to reflect on.

For me, I'm just interested that this discussion is being had using Mandalore and Alderaan as proxies for names of religions. It's not the first time the philosophy of religion has crept into mainstream media. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 posited that the moral response to a god that caused suffering and pain was to seek to kill it. (I blogged about that here.) More recently the TV show The Good Place asked whether being 'good' to avoid punishment was genuinely being 'good'.

In the second series as a whole, the Mandalorian is confronted with several challenges to his beliefs, and this is one of them. I suspect for many people this dialogue would hardly have registered as making an important philosophical point. And yet the potential depth of this discussion, which didn't go on for long in the episode, adds something to The Mandalorian as a TV show, giving it some relevance to the world we inhabit.

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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Sunk Cost Bias - getting trapped in our mistakes

Several years ago I was sat in the waiting room of a garage, waiting for the mechanics to bring my car out onto the forecourt. There was a chap sat next to me who started bemoaning how much his car was costing him. He was facing a bill for £800. 

My old car. Took me to Mull and back.

I remember him saying how in the few months since he had bought the car it had needed several expensive repairs and he had already spent over £1000 on it. Now he had to spend another £800, and he felt that if he didn't spend it then that £1000 would have been "wasted".

He was trapped in a cycle of spending money to keep that car roadworthy, and I imagine he ended up spending a lot more money in the end.

I didn't know it then, but I know now why he felt trapped and that he had to carry on spending money on a car that was obviously a lemon from the get-go. He was experiencing 'sunk cost bias'.

The easiest way to explain sunk cost bias is that if we have committed a lot of time, energy and resource to a given project or relationship then it is harder to end it. We still feel the value of the costs we have 'sunk' and feel we would be losing those things forever, so we try and hold on to them by continuing to invest. Sunk cost bias is why the longer you stay in a dead end job the harder it gets to leave, why people persist with personal relationships that are damaging to them, and why companies keep shoveling money into projects as costs spiral out of control and delivery deadlines are missed. 

The essential truth though, is that those sunk costs are already gone. You will never get back the costs you have sunk into something even if you keep investing in it. That chap with the car needed to realise that the £1000 he had spent on it was gone. He was now being asked to pay another £800 but that wasn't going to bring back the £1000 he had already spent. He wasn't going to recoup any of his losses by spending more money. 

Similarly if you are in a situation where you have given a lot of time to a relationship or to a career which is robbing you of joy on a daily basis or causing you continuous stress, that time has passed and is gone forever. Committing more time to trying to make that failing relationship work or for that job to improve is not going to restore the time you have lost. 

Identifying a sunk cost bias in your own life can be liberating. When you realise that the money or the time or the effort has gone, whatever you choose to do, you can start making choices based on what you want and need right now. You can draw a line under damaging and costly experiences and start anew.

Nothing is ever truly wasted, of course, if you turn it into a learning experience. In fact, at it's most basic level, sunk cost bias is a failure to learn. It places so much emphasis on what has happened in the past it prevents you from exploring possible futures. But to make those futures a reality you have to let go of the sunk costs that are dragging you under with them.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Six years in recovery

It’s my 6 year “diaversary” today. 

6 years ago I had an unexpected and unwelcome diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes.

The kit I came home with from hospital

I had gone to the doctor because I had pains in my legs. I had been on a flight on a small plane and at the end of the flight I could barely walk as my legs had been constricted for over an hour. I went to the GP who looked at me quizzically and told me to come back for blood tests.

I went and had blood taken on the Monday. At about 9.30am on the Tuesday I had a phone call from the GP surgery and told to come round to the surgery immediately. When I got there I was told I had a very high blood glucose level and was sent to hospital. 

I was told it was very serious – the only thing I enjoyed hearing was that they didn’t know if it was Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes because I was “on the cusp of being young”! I was 38 years old. It felt good to still be on the cusp of youth.

As I sat in the hospital my blood glucose levels were checked hourly and they started to fall, which ruled out Type 1 diabetes. The following day I saw the diabetes nurse and a consultant. I came home on two types of medication, one of which meant I had to check my blood glucose levels regularly.

My Hba1c, the measure of glucose in my blood over the preceding three months, was 91 at diagnosis. It was over double the level regarded as normal or safe, which is 42.

When I returned to the consultant 3 months later my HbA1c was down to 43. I discontinued one of the medications; the one that often made me hypoglycaemic. After 6 months, in June 2015, my HbA1c was 39 and I was discharged from the diabetes clinic at the hospital.

My HbA1c has not been above 40 since I was discharged.

In those six months I had changed what I ate. I reduced my carbohydrate intake considerably. I lost 10kg in weight, about 2 and a half stone, which was over 10 per cent of my body mass. I was still taking daily doses of metformin, which is one of the most common pharmaceutical treatments for Type 2 diabetes.

In June 2018, after regular HbA1c scores of 40 or below, I halved my dose of metformin. In January 2019, after checking with my GP, I stopped taking it altogether.

Since then I have lost my dad, supported my mum through her bereavement, and experienced ten months of pandemic life. My Hba1c was 38 in the summer of 2020, and my most recent score, received last week was 38 again.

I was surprised to score 38 again as I was expecting it to be higher. In hindsight I could have maybe eaten more mince pies at Christmas, given my HbA1c score.

So, what does this all mean? Well, Type 2 diabetes does not have to be a permanent condition. I have had a non-diabetic HbA1c for 5 and a half years. I don’t feel like I’m special or unique in terms of my metabolism. I feel if I can achieve this, then other people could as well.

But I have wondered a lot why I have been able to do this and so many people don’t. I think there are some things that really helped me to achieve this.

One of those things is a sense of personal agency and a lot of support to change. My wife Cathy has really helped me as I sought to change my eating habits. She became carb-aware alongside me. I was already in the habit of checking food labels from being vegetarian, so looking at carbohydrate levels in food wasn’t a completely novel thing. 

I received some diabetes education, which my employer allowed me to attend, and that helped me in my appreciation of what carbohydrates did, and how much carbohydrate I should be eating.  I am literate and retain information that I have been presented with, so was able to learn about diabetes and some of the things that affect blood glucose levels. I realise lots of people don’t have positive feelings towards education and maybe struggle to process new information.

I felt I could change and I did. Not everyone has that freedom.

When I was diagnosed I usually walked to and from work, about 20 minutes each way. In the morning I walked faster than in the evening because I was always a little bit late. Once I started regulating how much carbohydrate I was eating, that daily walk really helped me shift the weight. It’s not easy to lose weight, but suddenly having to buy new trousers because I’d lost 4 inches off my waistline and buy t-shirts in a medium instead of XL felt good.

Something else that contributed was being proactive about my healthcare. I make appointments to get blood tests and other various checks done. I don’t just wait for my GP to get in touch. It’s my health and I take a proactive role in managing it. Talking to the practice nurse, and the different GPs in my surgery, not everybody does that.

I also had a blood glucose monitor – given to me to help manage the effects of my initial medication – which I have used a lot over the years. It’s useful to know what is happening in your bloodstream but I know the majority of people with Type 2 diabetes aren’t given a monitor so have no way of checking.

Six months after my diagnosis I started a new role working in the NHS supporting a clinical network caring for people with diabetes. I have absorbed a lot of information about diabetes in that time, the causes, the effects, how to live with it. I have met a lot of people who have inspired me in my own challenges. Some have become friends. Some have become more like family.

There is a stigma attached to Type 2 diabetes. Media stories and online commenters often blame people for bringing diabetes on themselves. I have been cautious about talking about it, sometimes not wanting to tell people, for fear they would equate my illness with poor life choices, moral failure, or weakness of character.

A chap called Paul, who has Type 1 diabetes, helped me rethink weight gain. Fat is just stored energy. Our bodies are very efficient at not wasting energy and storing it for later. My body was doing a very good job at laying up stores of energy for use in future lean times. But those lean times never came.

So when I put on weight, it wasn’t that my body was somehow failing. It was that it was too good at doing its job! I was too efficient for my own good.

And that’s why I got diabetes. Because the blood cells brought glucose to the muscle cells and said ’Hey, do you need any energy?’ and my muscle cells looked around and saw all the stored fat and said ‘No, we’re good, thanks.’ And so the glucose-energy stayed in my bloodstream, unneeded, and the body had to get rid of it another way. (Which is why I needed to wee a lot!)

For me, looking at weight gain as efficient use of energy – and diabetes as the result when the body has been really efficient with energy – is a much more positive approach. It means I need to reconsider the energy I am putting into my body, the amount of fat and carbohydrates in my food.

That’s a mindset change that cuts through the stigma that other people try to attach. I’m not sorry that I have a superbly efficient metabolism. I make no apology for learning late that I need to monitor my inputs because I have a superbly efficient metabolism. At least I learned it.

And an approach I’ve developed myself to describe my current state as a person with diabetes and a non-diabetic HbA1c is not to use the word ‘remission’. It sounds too medical and, again, as if something has been done to me to cause remission, rather than it being something I’ve done to myself.

I prefer to think of it as recovery rather than remission. I am a recovering diabetic. Like someone who is in recovery and is sober, it’s a choice every day. A choice of what I eat. Some days are easy. Some days are not. But the choices I make today determine my overall health both now and in the long-term.

I am six years in to my recovery. I have kept the weight off and I have kept my HbA1c at a range where healthcare professionals have told me that I don't have diabetes any more. I just smile at that. What they mean is it doesn't show now. And I want it to stay that way.


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Sunday, January 17, 2021

When all our cells change why do we expect to stay the same?

This post has been sitting in my draft folder since January 2017. Given some recent conversations I've had, I feel like it's worth an airing (with a few minor edits).

I find New Year quite melancholic. It's a time to reflect on what's happened and look back on stuff. (In 2017, for various reasons, I ended up looking back a bit further than normal. This is mainly because of reconnecting with some people I had been in school with over two decades previous.)

I journal offline as well and reading old journal entries, or my old blog posts on here, sometimes makes me feel like I'm reading about a different person. Douglas Coupland warns us that nostalgia is a weapon and sometimes I can turn that weapon on myself by thinking about the past and about how much has changed.

The thing about change is that it's rarely in huge increments. Yes, some are life-changing and can happen over a few short days (for example, diagnosis of a chronic illness), but most of our changes - in attitudes and priorities - happen slowly.

I read somewhere that all the cells in our bodies are renewed every ten years or so. I've been in a relationship over 25 years. I'm a whole new man. In fact, I'm the second whole new man to have been in the relationship. An entire version of me has died off and been replaced. And we didn't even know it.

Or did we? I'm not the same person as I was 25 years ago. Experiences and achievements, wins and losses, have made their mark. I feel a lot less certain about some of the things I was so certain about back then. Things that were once important don't matter and things that never used to matter to me suddenly seem important. How much of this is just the weight of living pressing down on me and how much is actually physical? Feelings of attachment and abandonment originate in brain cells that change like any other cell. As my cells change does that have an effect on my opinions?

There's a couplet in an Avett Brothers song that goes: 
I want to have friends 
That I can trust 
That love me for the man that I am 
Not the man that I was. 
I really like that lyric because it shows how we can be perceived as the person we were in the past, even though we have changed. That can be a battle if we have grown up, if we react differently now, if we have different priorities. When people assume we will always act a certain way that can be constraining and they may not like it if we do something they don't expect.

There's also a danger in such expectations. If we know we are loved because of what we were when we were first loved then it's hard to say we have become something different. We become inauthentic versions of ourselves, afraid to admit what we really feel or think or believe at this point in time, in case it turns out the people who love us love us because of who we were then, not who we are now.

It's hard to see people for who they have become. If we have friends and loved ones who do see us for who we are and not who we were, then we are very fortunate.

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