entry_171Thousands of fake lives were at stake, and I’d dropped the ball. Actually, I’d selected the wrong menu item, and as a result the jukebox uploaded the wrong telemetry tape. I was a rookie, still in training, but to my authoritarian instructors I was nothing more than a liability. My supervisor was playing terminal jockey in the pit next to me until I figured out the process. As he snatched the light pen from my hand he said, “You load the wrong tape, you compromise the mission. What if we’d been live?”

The technicians worked to reset the scenario as I searched for the right words, which hadn’t yet been invented. “I’m sorry,” I said, inviting the worst. “I thought the-”

“You made a mistake,” my supervisor interrupted. His very being seemed to exist solely to point out my erroneous state, like iron filings standing up around a magnet’s field. “You can’t make mistakes when you’re feeding the Console.”

There’s always been a flaw in my character that is triggered when people tell me things that are already apparent. It makes me want to do irrational things, and it’s as seductive as the desire to press the soft spot on a baby’s forehead with my thumbs. Come to think of it, that’s probably another flaw in my character.

In this case I merely responded to my supervisor, which was at least a highly inefficient use of our time. “It was a mistake,” I said, “so I can only try not to do it again.”

He looked confused. It was the same look he might have given to his father’s fists when they failed to pummel him one night for daring to speak his mind. Now was not the time for commentary. “No. You can’t try not to do it again, you have to not do it again.”

I didn’t waste a moment. “Well if I did something wrong again then that would be, again, a fresh mistake,” I said.

“Don’t do it,” he said.

“Well you’re assuming… See, I didn’t mean to do it to begin with. It was a mistake, so by its definition it’s something that happened when my intent was to do something else.”

He blinked at me. “You do what you’re supposed to do and don’t do anything else. No mistakes. You’ll be more aware from now on, so keep your eyes open and do it.”

“You’re missing my point,” I said. “Even if I did the exact same thing again, it would be a new mistake. Because the first time I made the mistake it was the first time I’d learned it, so the lesson was simply a naive sense of ‘don’t do it.’ But now, if I did it again, it would be after having learned about the mistake once before, so the lesson would be more about realizing how this mistake can happen in spite of all of my previous learning, and then incorporating that data into my actions going forward. You know, countermeasures.”

My supervisor slapped his palms on the table and bleated, “look, I’m not interested in a philosophical debate!”

“I was just kidding,” I said. Cherry on a sundae.

Still, it was a long while before I gained confidence in that procedure. A big part of that has to do with the way my mind works, which is incorrectly. In any given situation one may expect a fair chance of eluding blunder. It is rare, in fact, for situations even to seem matters of right or wrong. But, given the choice between making a right decision or a wrong decision, I will invariably choose in the wrong, even after I’ve backtracked to take the right path. This is partially because experiencing wrongness leaves much more of an imprint on me than any meager chemical reward for doing right. “Don’t do that again,” is hardly sufficient to guard against making a mistake.

It plays out like this: I realize that I’ve done something imperfectly, so the next time I come to that branch in the path all I can think of is the horror I felt the first time. And since that was the first time, it stands to reason that I must have relied on instinct… which would dictate that I do the opposite of what my instincts tell me to do this time. So I compensate in the opposite direction, and it all cancels itself out, and I end up making the same mistake again. It just reinforces my predisposition the next time, until I can do no right except through accident.

In fact I’m highly reliable if you look at the situation in the wrong way. My compass needle just faces South. If you know that then you can compensate and still get where you need to go. But don’t take my word for it.

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