Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Charlie Stross on why he'd rather be alive now than in the past--and, presumably, why he'd rather be alive in the future than now:

Autopope! - On being born in the past : Every so often, someone asks me: "given the choice, what period of history would you prefer to have been born into?" Let's interpret this pedantically and evaluate my survival prospects, given what we know at present about my physical characteristics. (If they'd asked, "given the choice, what period of history would you prefer to have been born into, and as whom" the answer would be different.)

  1. Born any time prior to 1942: I die before the age of 5. (I was peculiarly susceptible to bronchitis as an infant, and would have died around age 2-4 without the ready availability of antibiotics.)

  2. Born prior to 1950: I inherited weirdly thin retinas (my maternal grandmother had macular degeneration when she died, aged in her mid-sixties). By 18 I had some retinopathy in my right eye; at 25 I sprang a severe retinal detachment in my left. Microsurgery was required, but because this happened in 1989 the operation was successful. If it had failed I'd have been down to maybe 20-30% of a full visual field by the time I was 26. As you wind the clock back before the 80s, eye surgery grows progressively more primitive. I'm fairly sure that if I'd been born before 1950, I'd have been carrying a white stick or relying on a guide dog.

  3. Born prior to 1940: Even if you assume I could have survived the bronchitis in infancy, I also inherited hypertension via the maternal line, serious enough to kill if untreated. Today, I've got a wide range of medication -- ACE-II antagonists, Ca-channel blockers, and so on. Prior to 1980, however, the most widely used antihypertensives were diuretics (which I do not get on well with).

Upshot: if I had been born at any time prior to 1900, my life expectancy, assuming I survived infancy at all, would be 40-45 years -- the latter 20 of which would be rendered miserable by blindness. Between 1900 and 1940 I might have made it to 60. Only the fact that I was born as recently as 1964 has allowed me to live a comparatively normal life.

Hopefully this explains why the question "given the choice, what period of history would you prefer to have been born into" annoys me so much. There's a big difference between being interested in or nostalgic for a specific historical period and actually wishing you lived in it.

Nor are medical issues the only reasons for not wanting to live in the past. The legal rights of an English woman circa 1930 were in most respects weaker those of an Iranian woman today; if you look at the rights of women in the 1870s a comparison with Afghanistan under the Taliban is more apposite. To be a gay man in England prior to 1968 was to be a member of a legally persecuted out group. To be black in England prior to the late 1970s was likewise to be exposed to racist abuse with no legal recourse. Today we take for granted liberties hard-won by our elders; it seems to me to be almost obscene to wax over-nostalgic for the past, or to want to set the clock back.

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