One of the defining experiences of my intellectual development was the entirety of high school social studies, two years of which I spent with somebody who has shaped my thought the most critically. There are people who show you facts, there are people who teach you how to do something, but then there are people who draw out the latent constellations in your mind, spinning them up into stars whose brightness cannot be quenched, who for a lifetime afterwards draw all subjects of interest into their gravitational pull. This somebody was that rare breed of the latter; I’ve really only had two people like that in my entire life, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had even one.

Privilege must be owned. When the metric is formal education, I, and a large number of those in my peer groups, form the top 10% of the Canadian population. Generally, a number of pinholes have to align to permit an educated populace: a quality public education system, generous social services, a capable and inspiring teacher workforce, a stable society, etc. I say generally, because Canada has none of these things for everybody. I find myself in this 10%, not only because of the grit that Western society says is in each of us, but also because of the gravity of history that pulls on our every atom. Relatively few people lead easy lives, born as we are into systems with purposes and mechanisms both accidental and systematic. Many of us undergo adverse childhood experiences that leave us craving what was not provided, searching lifelong for a substitute when we don’t even know the original, living in a world that never ceases to dislocate whatever angels are in our nature. I have had many such experiences, as have many people I know; yet, it was either not enough, or the die was rigged, for consequences even more severe.

Persons who had experienced four or more categories of childhood exposure, compared to those who had experienced none, had 4- to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempt; a 2- to 4-fold increase in smoking, poor self-rated health, ≥50 sexual intercourse partners, and sexually transmitted disease; and a 1.4- to 1.6-fold increase in physical inactivity and severe obesity. The number of categories of adverse childhood exposures showed a graded relationship to the presence of adult diseases including ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease. The seven categories of adverse childhood experiences were strongly interrelated and persons with multiple categories of childhood exposure were likely to have multiple health risk factors later in life.

It is a strange kind of fortune.

Alan Chan
Alan Chan
PhD Student

I’m a PhD student at Mila, where I think about AI safety. I’d be happy to have a chat!