Bird Stories

Bowen Island causeway — photo by my friend Judi Gedye in the Undercurrent

Monday has become my day for what I am calling “mindless wandering”. The term is a bit of a spoof on the absurdity of “mindfulness”. My objective is rather the opposite: To stop thinking and just pay attention. To open all my senses and take everything in, without labelling, judging, or expectation. The human self can of course never accept anything just as it is; we have to make sense of it, conceptually. My goal in mindless wandering is to try, instead, to just sense it perceptually, to notice the colours and shades, and tones of light and scent and sound and touch.

Perhaps one day I will graduate to coddiwompling.

Quite often I wander by the Bowen Island causeway, a heritage structure that crosses the divide between the freshwater creek and the saltwater ocean, while allowing lots of space beneath for the creatures that migrate between them. It is frequently full of birds, both seabirds and inland birds. Following are three short anecdotes about what I’ve noticed there lately.

I. First Follower

There is a flock of perhaps 50 seagulls, that fly almost as one, back and forth between the two sides of the causeway. As they alight on the freshwater side, one of them ducks underwater, seemingly grasping for a fish or other underwater delicacy. The action goes unnoticed or unremarked. Then the gull does it again, and there is a pause, and then a second mimics the behaviour, and immediately thereafter the whole pack starts diving underwater.

And then there is calm for a few moments. And then one of the gulls takes wing and flies over the causeway. A moment later it returns, landing in a different part of the flotilla of birds. And then a minute later a different gull flies up, passes over the causeway, and as it does a second gull flies up and follows it. And immediately the fifty birds take off in a flurry, landing well out to sea on the other side.

This behaviour has been described in humans, and it is called the first follower pattern.

Ornithologists have also studied bird movements to ascertain how high up you need to be in the flock’s apparent hierarchy to get the rest of the flock to follow you. Their astonishing, painstaking discovery is that the process is entirely democratic. Anyone can make the first, or, apparently, the second, move, and it’s treated with the same gravity, or lack thereof.

II. Our kind don’t do that

There are three ducks on the edge of the lagoon, on the freshwater side, preening in the sun. Two crows sit nearby, perched on a branch lodged under a rock above the causeway, watching. Suddenly one of the ducks begins splashing noisily in the water, flapping its wings furiously and ducking its head underwater. In short order the others do the same.

And then one of the crows dives into the shallow water and mimics the behaviour. It is incredibly clumsy, falling over and upside down, and splashing, alternatively, ineffectively, and then too much, flipping again and falling underwater.

The second crow calls out to it, wildly, loudly, bobbing its head furiously. The first crow again watches the ducks, and again tries to mimic the behaviour, with the same hilarious result. The second crow again calls out noisily, staying above the splashing.

And then, baths seemingly over, the ducks settle in, two of them curving their heads around to sleeping position, while the third swims around near them, vigilantly.

I follow its gaze as it notices the first crow flit quietly along the edge of the causeway. And then the first crow, now unobserved by its murdermate, again practices the splashing motions, quietly, carefully, over and over.

III. No means no

There are three mallards in a row on a gravel patch just above the causeway, a female in between two males. One of the males is sleeping, smartly poised on one thin leg. The female is preening, and the second male starts doing the same. Then the second male sidles over, a few inches at a time, towards the female. And the female turns to him with a loud squawk and snaps at him until he returns to his previous place.

This drama is repeated three times, with the sleeping male seemingly unperturbed.

And then as the second male again starts to sidle over, the female launches herself towards him full bore, squawking and snapping. The admonished male takes to the sky in flight, but the female follows, repeating her annoyed cries, until the fleeing male is out of sight. As she flies back, she continues squawking, more quietly, perhaps to herself, or anyone who might be watching or listening.

Posted in Creative Works, How the World Really Works | 2 Comments

Links of the Month: April 2021

Well, what can we say? Biden continues to bomb and starve millions of women and children in Yemen, through its corrupt Saudi proxies. Israel tries to sabotage Iran’s nuclear facilities, again, to try to foment a US-Iran war. Biden sabre-rattles and warmongers against China, reading CIA- and defense-industry-scripted propaganda without batting an eyelash. Conservative governments roll back pandemic protections just as variants we don’t know anything about are soaring. And carbon emissions are “roaring” back to accelerating pre-CoVid-19 levels. What could possibly go wrong?

This month, for those without the time or patience to wade through all my links, I am *** highlighting in yellow the three or four I think are most worthwhile checking out.


A mother and her son, migrants from Honduras, walk after crossing the Rio Bravo river to turn themselves in to U.S Border Patrol agents to request for asylum in El Paso, Texas, U.S., as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, March 29, 2021. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido TPX in The Atlantic, whose Photos of the Week are well worth checking out

“We are all going extinct”: Deena Metzger writes: “The animals know this and now all humans know this as well. Sensing the imminent death of all species, the cellular understanding of our common fate is making us ill. Our nervous and physical systems cannot bear this terrible knowledge. The growing understanding of the reality of the human caused 6th Extinction is resulting in Extinction Illness… And so, we, entirely crazed, become a species that commits ecocide even as we die of it.”

*** All we have left unsaid: Kristina M Anding, writing in the extraordinary women’s cooperative ecocollapse journal Dark Matter: Women Witnessing: ”

At schools, libraries, summer camps and my home studio, I encourage participants, particularly the children, to engage their active imaginations and really feel what it would be like to be these [endangered] animals: how they move, swim, fly, how they occupy their habitats, how they raise their babies. While we might have a group discussion before or after the activity, while we are painting, we mostly say very little to each other. We are listening to the animals and speaking back to them with each sweep of the brush. It is a chance to move beyond “awareness” of the overwhelming issue of species loss to personal connection with these beings as relatives, sensing their likeness to us. And we do this together. When people do speak during painting, they often quite matter-of-factly express grief…   This is what matters.


a murmuration of thousands of starlings briefly takes the form of a giant bird; photo by James Crombie on Loch Ennell, Eire

Illness as metaphor: Zeynep Tüfekçi explains how, and perhaps why, we have often treated illness as a sign of weakness or failure (eg lung cancer ~ stupid, weak smoking, and lately CoVid-19 illness ~ obesity, poor life habits, and “reckless” behaviour). This of course touches not only on the issue of whether we have control over our lifestyles, but also on addictions and free will. Her message, of course, is that not only is victim-blaming unfair, it doesn’t work.

*** I spent my life consenting to touch I didn’t want: Melissa Febos’ harrowing and courageous confessional describes how our culture subversively and systemically forces women, their whole lives long, to consent to unwanted predatory male behaviours, and actually enables and encourages such behaviours in males. An astonishing and disturbing wake-up call for us all. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Why most effective activism is local: The always-insightful Andrew Nikiforuk interviews Ian Gill of Salmon Nation, a Pacific Northwest collaborative that coordinates local activism in the Cascadia region, on what works and what doesn’t in building resilient local economies.

The remarkable discoveries of Cecilia Payne: Snopes investigates Cecilia Payne’s discoveries, a century ago, about the nature of matter in the universe, many of which were attributed to male scientists. She passes the investigation with flying colours, and with an appreciation of the additional nuances, actually proves to be an even more extraordinary scientist.

Forgiving the world’s debts: Ty Joplin outlines the compelling arguments for a massive global “Jubilee” of debt forgiveness. Unfortunately, since the wealth would have to come from the wealthy to make it happen, it’s not likely to happen.

Work from anywhere: The Nationwide building society (a UK member-owned credit union-like financial institution) is telling its workers that, even after CoVid-19, they can work from wherever they think they can best achieve their objectives. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link, and the one that follows.

Reparations for Linnentown: The struggle for recognition and compensation for the victims of forced expropriation and eviction in Athens, Georgia is finally paying off.


now that the disturbed RFK Jr has been banned by FB and other sites due to his endless barrage of misinformation and discredited conspiracy theories about CoVid-19 and vaccines, he is seemingly relying on the once-lucid Charles Eisenstein to be his shill; really sad to see 

Using the Uyghurs as hostages: Just as alleged atrocities against Kuwaitis were used to justify the first war against Iraq (the reports were later found to be false, a scripted PR stunt by Hill & Knowlton), now alleged genocide against Uyghurs is being used to threaten war with China. And once again, the reports are false. And the group behind them turns out to be known neocon extremists fronted by a fake university. Nevertheless the media ran with the reports without checking their facts. Thanks to Caitlin Johnstone for the link. Caitlin provides a mind-blowingly scary quote from Biden in response to the reports, that is absolutely Trumpian:

[I have] made it clear that no American president, at least one did, but no American president had ever backed down from speaking out of what’s happening in the Uyghurs… So I see stiff competition with China. China has an overall goal, and I don’t criticize them for the goal, but they have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch because the United States is going to continue to grow and expand.

Yemen slides further into famine and chaos: Heavily funded and armed by Canada, the US and the EU, the Saudi proxy war with Iran in Yemen gets ever-worse. The country is largely in ruins, with 3/4 of its 30 million people now suffering from malnutrition and beginning to die in huge numbers of starvation and rampant diseases. The photos, of a country that has “fallen off a cliff” are gut-wrenching. And still it goes on, barely reported in the corporate-owned media across the political spectrum.

When economists don’t understand what wealth is: The textbooks that underlie modern economic thinking are still simplistic and formulaic, and out of touch with how the world, and the economy, really work. No wonder market fundamentalists get everything so often, and so completely, wrong. “They do not realize that, the greater the inequality, the less true it is that ‘the price someone can afford to pay’ constitutes ‘the relative value they place on the item’.” Thanks to Jae Mather for the link. On a similar note, Caitlin Johnstone explains how money is simply an agreement that can be changed quickly to redistribute wealth more equitably, if only there was political will to do it.

Trevor Noah on the Atlanta mass shooting: A short and moving video explains that “we should have seen this coming”. Canadian viewers have to watch this link instead. Because of bewildering IP laws, those in other countries will have to Google it, since YouTube now blocks TV programs that are not domestic. Thanks to Kelly Gavin for the links.

Catching the US tax cheats: The IRS estimates that well over a trillion dollars in taxes are not being collected because (mostly extremely wealthy) taxpayers are simply not declaring over half of the income that is not tracked on 1099 forms. The NYT editorial board proposes that all banks be required to submit 1099-like forms on the net inflows to all accounts, and that rich taxpayers identify any non-taxable inflows and pay tax on the rest. Of course, with IRS funding and staffing less than it was in the 1950s, and money pouring out of the country to tax havens, that will only go so far to solving the massive tax fraud that is exacerbating wealth inequality in the US.

Biden restarts the “War on Drugs”: Biden has called for immediate resumption of massive aerial spraying of most of Colombia with the toxic and environmentally ruinous carcinogen glyphosate (Monsanto RoundUp) in a reboot of Bush’s “war on drugs”.

Biden signals support for Israel’s continuing occupation and annexation of Palestinian lands and apartheid: As usual, using “anti-semitism” as an all-purpose sledgehammer against any critics, Israel has pressured western nations to support its blatantly apartheid administration and its occupation and annexation of most of Palestine. The doddering Biden has now fully given his “ironclad” support to this continuing malfeasance.

A little experiment in (unconscious?) sexism and misogyny: Two co-workers who share a corporate inbox and whose identical jobs require them to deal with customer inquiries and complaints via email, decided to swap identities for a while to see whether customers’ behaviour changed based on their perceived gender. The results were revealing. Thanks to Bob Lasiewicz for the link.

Planet farm: New research suggests we have not entered an anthropocene age as much as an era of Planet Farm, with most of the habitable planet given over to industrial agriculture, with disastrous consequences. “Deforestation and development are increasing the rate – and taxonomic scope – of pathogen spillover from wildlife to food animals and the labourers who tend them… Intensive operations are so inundated with circulating avian and swine influenza that they now serve as the primary reservoirs for new strains… in industrializing meat production, global agribusiness is also industrializing the pathogens that circulate among its livestock and poultry.” Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

Canada’s misogynous military: A series of scandals of long-standing, large-scale sexual and other abuse by leaders and members of Canada’s military and police forces against women in their ranks, has tarnished the image of the wannabe feminist Prime Minister. It’s pretty clear he’s known about it all along, just not wanted to.

Canada’s other disastrous megaproject: If the tripling of the cost of building the ill-designed, unneeded and environmentally ruinous Site C hydro dam in BC wasn’t lesson enough, now a research study suggests that the half-built Kinder Morgan pipeline the federal government foolishly paid billions for a few years ago, will also cost more than twice what it was supposed to cost to complete, and it’s also unneeded and environmentally ruinous. But we never learn.

Nightmare at the US/Mexico border: Cecilia Muñoz, Biden’s choice to clean up the immigration mess made by Trump, has acknowledged that “our immigration system is broken from top to bottom“, that it will take years to undo Trump’s damage and recreate the immigration management infrastructure Trump dismantled, and that there are “unrealistic expectations among immigration opponents and immigrant advocates alike”. In other words, it’s going to get much worse before it, hopefully, starts to get better.


cartoon by Mick Stevens in The New Yorker

Gambling on vaccines: As I wrote earlier, North America and Europe have seemingly gone “all in” on expecting high vaccination rates to keep CoVid-19 hospitalization and death rates at politically acceptable levels while hastily dismantling safety restrictions. The new variants might well make that a really bad gamble. With the additional problem of vaccines being extremely unfairly and unequally distributed, the needed major clampdown to reduce new variant spread is simply not happening. Even areas that managed the second wave reasonably well have badly fumbled response to the third, with cases in many areas at record highs. And studies have shown we continue to do inadequate surveillance and testing, fail to follow and test plans, respond too slowly and tepidly, underestimate risks, fail to enforce mandates, and provide inadequate alerts. Bottom line: When the next pandemic hits, we will again not be ready and again rely on vaccines to “fix” the emergency.

Still unmasked indoors: Research overwhelmingly indicates that CoVid-19 cases correlate precisely with the degree of lengthy, indoors, unmasked activity of the populace. Yet still governments, pandering to pressure from right-wing voters, are opening their jurisdictions up to more and more such activities.

You can’t compromise with a virus: Excellent CBC summary of how well-intentioned politicians, trying to walk the line between pandemic control and citizen freedoms, have produced a compromise that is in some ways the worst of all worlds. Applying political solutions to public health problems is simply a recipe for disaster.

The latest on excess deaths: For the first six months of the pandemic, in most jurisdictions the number of reported “excess deaths” (total deaths from all causes less average total deaths from all causes in recent years) was running about 50% higher than reported CoVid-19 deaths. Partly because of “catch-up” reporting and partly because of better reporting and awareness, it’s now estimated that actual CoVid-19 deaths are only about 20% higher than reported deaths. Very approximate, but useful to know. In fact that’s close to the 17% number IHME has been adding to its “global” death counts to account for known undercounting. I should also note that the NYT continues to have excellent CoVid-19 maps and charts, though they are sadly and infuriatingly buried behind a double paywall/subscription wall that is getting ever-harder to work around. The fact that this important data isn’t shared freely and easily during a pandemic is shameful.


Iceland volcano last week, source not cited. Here’s a live video of the volcano (though camera just went dead 23h Apr 11th) 

Skateboarding in a pink dress: Six-year old Paige Tobin has been skateboarding for half her life. She also surfs. Girls are tough in Oz. Thanks to Alice MacGillivray for the link.

*** Why animals don’t get lost: Kathryn Schulz deserves another Pulitzer for this staggeringly informative and fascinating study of the world of animal migration, navigation and place-finding. It’s long, but contains a book’s worth of new and surprising knowledge, ideas and insights. Grab a glass, settle in, and enjoy.

The right to protest and offend: Jonathan Pie passionately explains how well-intensioned laws that prohibit us from offending others are innately Orwellian forms of (almost always unreasonable and stifling) censorship.

From thought, to idea, to thing in the real world: In which Hank Green contemplates how important things get done.

Ralph Fiennes to tour one-man show of Eliot’s Four Quartets: Damn I would like to see this. If you’re in the UK this summer and catch it, tell me what you think. I think Ralph has just the voice and intonation to pull this off. Imagine learning it all by heart! Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

Beaverton headlines of the month: (ask a Canadian if you don’t get the joke)

    • Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, unveiling new Creationist curriculum, insists dinosaurs belong in government, not in the classroom
    • Canada to distribute remaining vaccines through “Roll up the Rim to Win” contest
    • Netflix adds ‘movies set in New York but it’s obviously Toronto’ category
    • Jordan Peterson is back after someone mistakenly fed him after midnight


cartoon by James Norbury

Best radical non-duality talks of the month:


image from many places on the Internet; original source unknown

*** For women who are difficult to love: The brilliant Warsan Shire reads her stunning poem For Women Who Are Difficult to love, and it’s masterful. Her ability to parse the words and phrases, her voice tone, her pauses — this is what great poetry reading is about. The video captions the words, one phrase at a time, which adds to the momentum. It’s a great poem with an important message, and definitely not just for women.

At Mt Auburn Cemetery: An astonishing new poem from Robert Pinsky:

Walking among the graves for exercise
Where do you get your ideas how do I stop them
Looking for Mike Mazur’s marker I looked
Down at the grass and saw Stanislaw Baranczak
Our Solidarity poetry reading in Poznan
Years later in Newton now he said I’m a U.S.
Liberal with a car like everybody else
When I held Bobo dying in my arms
His green eyes told me I am not done yet
Then he was gone when he was young he enjoyed
Leaping up onto the copy machine to press
A button and hear it hum to life and rustle
A blank page then another out onto its tray
Sometimes he batted the pages down to the floor
I used to call it his hobby here’s a marble
Wicker bassinet marking a baby’s grave
To sever the good fellowship of dust the vet’s
Needle first a sedative then death now Willie
Paces the house mowling his elegy for Bobo
They never meow to one another just to people
Or to their nursing mother when they’re small I
Marvel at this massive labelled American elm
Spreading above a cluster of newer names
Chang, Ohanessian, Kondakis joining Howells,
Emerson, Parkinson and here’s a six-foot sphere
Of polished granite perfect and inscribed Walker
Should I have let him die his own cat way
Bruce Lee spends less on a stone than Schwarzenegger
The cemetery official confided what will mark
The markers when like mourners they bow and kneel
And topple down flat to kiss the very heaps
They have in trust under the splendid elm
Also marked with its tag a noble survivor
Civilization lifted my cat from the street gave him
A name and all his shots and determined his death
Now Willie howls the loss from room to room
When people say I’m ashamed of being German
Said Arendt I want to say I’m ashamed of being
Human sometimes when Bobo made the machine
Shoot copies of nothing I crumpled one he could chase
And combat practicing the game of being himself.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End, Radical Non-Duality | 1 Comment

Gaslit at Every Turn

from by Hugh Macleod   In his comment on this cartoon, Venkatesh Rao wrote: “Organizations don’t suffer pathologies; they are intrinsically pathological constructs. Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.” 

This week two of my favourite journalists, Zeynep Tüfekçi (writing about missteps in managing CoVid-19) and Caitlin Johnstone (writing about the media’s endless parroting of pro-war military-industrial complex propaganda and talking points) have both been riffing on the subject of gaslighting. The more I think about and witness this behaviour, the more I begin to see it as the definitive pathological behaviour of a civilization in collapse.

A key part of it is denial of wrongdoing or of a problem, on the part of the gaslighter, but accompanying that is misinformation or disinformation designed to provoke doubt (in others) that that denial is misplaced or simply wrong. So for example:

  • Climate change deniers will argue using faked “research” by fake “experts” that shows that climate change isn’t happening, and they will confront all your arguments by asking why you are denying or dismissing “their” “research”.
  • CoVid-19 deniers, same deal: they will argue using faked “research” by faked “experts” that shows that CoVid-19 is a fraud/conspiracy/exaggerated, and they will confront all your arguments by asking why you are denying or dismissing “their” “research”.
  • People in authority, including disingenuous “experts” or “leaders” in positions of trust, in denying that they seriously fucked up (politicians, health leaders, corporation execs, cops, lawyers, consultants, marketers, PR spinners, banksters, coaches, gurus, cult leaders, celebrities, media “personalities” and all the other sociopaths in the diagram above) will shrug off responsibility for their heinous errors by saying that at the time, that was accepted, or the best that we knew then, or that they were misled or misunderstood, or that that’s not what actually happened at all, to shift responsibility to others or suggest nothing wrong has been done. Or they’ll even blame their abused, manipulated, misled, weak, vulnerable, gullible, clueless followers and victims for somehow “asking for it” or ignoring their advice.
  • Racism deniers will belittle evidence of, and outrage over, systemic racism using statements like these (collected by Jacquelyn Ogorchukwu Iyamah):
    • If you protested peacefully, more people would listen
    • What I said/did wasn’t racist, it was…
    • Racism doesn’t exist anymore; it’s not like when…
    • It was just a joke, calm down
    • _____ people are racist, too
    • Why is everything always about race?
    • Are you sure that’s what really happened? Maybe…
    • Just to play devil’s advocate here…
    • In my opinion, they weren’t being racist; I think…
  • Sexism/misogyny deniers will use these same statements, just substitute the word “sexist” or “misogynist” for “racist” in the examples above.
  • Spousal and child abuse deniers will ascribe justifiable reasons for their actions, shift responsibility/blame to their victims, and deny what actually happened (the facts, not just the rationalizations for them), suggesting that the victim didn’t remember what happened correctly.
  • Substance dependency deniers, same deal: will ascribe justifiable reasons for their actions, shift responsibility/blame to someone else, and deny what actually happened (the facts, not just the rationalizations for them), suggesting that the witness didn’t remember, or the person dealing with the consequences wasn’t told, what happened correctly.
  • Those denying the atrocities of imperialism/capitalism will invent atrocities in nations not under imperial control (eg the trumped-up “genocide” of China’s ethnic Uyghurs) to divert attention from imperialist atrocities (eg the killing and starving of millions of Yemenis). They will shift blame (eg to previous administrations), deny the facts (or, since they have the power, suppress the facts). They will invent facts (eg the bounties Russia allegedly gave the Taliban to kill Americans in occupied Afghanistan) and use their control of the gullible media (the most “clueless” of all) to perpetrate them. And if you get bullheaded about imperialist/capitalist atrocities, they’ll accuse you of coddling and fraternizing with “the enemy” (as in “if you like them so much, why don’t you move to China/Russia/Iran/Venezuela/Cuba/Bolivia/Syria etc.”).

These are all forms of deeply mentally disturbed behaviour — sociopathy. And it’s behaviour that our modern culture has incited, tolerated, encouraged, reinforced and even rewarded. The biggest (and possibly most heartless) business failure in the entire history of human civilization was rewarded by being elected (and almost re-elected) president.

Let me reiterate, at the risk of being really annoying, that I don’t think anyone is to blame for this state of affairs. We do what we are genetically and culturally conditioned to do, and this has been the result. Georgia’s voter-suppressers will go on denying they’re racists. Biden will go on denying, as Obama did, that he is commander-in-chief of the most murderous government by far of this century, and is dangerously escalating the threats and violence on many fronts. Misogynist professors will keep on attracting adoring crowds of mentally disturbed young male incels while insisting their arguments are all about freedom of speech. This is what they’ve been conditioned to do.

We can become more aware of it, but we’re not going to change it. You can’t open up the minds of 7.8B people who are not well, and pour some magical healing salve on each of them, and end sociopathy. No one has that power, and the ones with the most power are the sociopaths.

And we are all sociopathic, even those of us who have been merely clueless all of our lives (doing our best “within the system”, like me), or the losers (as Hugh points out, he means ‘loser’ in the sense of having lost out on power, wealth, and opportunity their whole lives, and is not saying they’re stupid; in fact they may be smart for keeping their heads down and just doing what they’re told, without thinking too much).

The clueless and the losers are merely an order of magnitude less sociopathic than the real sociopaths who, according to their nature, have clawed their way to the top (or been anointed by their sociopathic parents or ‘leaders’), and who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the atrocities and damage that is rapidly collapsing our civilization.

But we had no choice in the matter. We are all doing our best.

So how did this come about? Well, let’s take a look at the prototypical narcissistic sociopath, be s/he organizational leader or just garden-variety big-fish-little-pond abuser. One source says they probably have developed these personality traits:

  • They think they’re unique, gifted, more ‘right’, and more important than other people
  • They obsessively and constantly crave appreciation, admiration, attention and power
  • They can’t handle criticism, losing, or not being in control
  • They actually have fragile egos beneath the uncaring veneer and are easily hurt, angered and humiliated
  • They take everything personally
  • They are inflexible in their beliefs and values and not open to different views or ideas
  • They show, and have, no empathy for others, since they find such feelings painful and useless; as a result they tend to dissociate from reality, and lash out at or distance themselves from people with whom they disagree

If this sounds like someone you know, it’s probably because, to some extent or other, these are the hallmarks of what I’ve called Civilization Disease (what Deena Metzger calls Extinction Illness), that afflicts us all. We are not well. You have to be crazy to survive in this culture.

But so what? So what if our culture systemically engenders and rewards sociopathy? What difference does it make in our efforts to avert climate and ecological catastrophe, or to overthrow the imperialist, globalist hegemony that hoards all new wealth and destroys ecosystems and societies in the process? What difference does it make in our efforts to cope with, and prevent recurrences of, pandemics, family abuse, systemic racism and misogyny, obscene inequality, conspiracy theories and cults?

Here’s a chart showing what gaslighters do, for example, to deny, refute and undermine policies and programs based on actual science:

image from wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 4.0

Zeynep’s article, linked above, explains how much damage has been caused by this gaslighting about what we actually knew, a year ago, about CoVid-19. That’s on top of all the challenges we’ve had to face dealing with the known and unknown unknowns. The latter are inevitable; the former have resulted in millions of additional deaths. That’s why, even though we can’t blame the gaslighters for their mental illnesses, their gaslighting is such a tragic and devastating problem.

We’re facing the same challenge, and devastation, from climate and ecological collapse deniers, and from those who deny that the Biden administration has actually ramped up the atrocities of global imperialism (notably the horrific and continuing war in Yemen, the spraying of toxic chemicals on crops in Colombia, the dangerous escalation of warmongering and deceit about China, etc). Read Caitlin’s blog for that never-ending saga.

And these are problems we can’t “fix”. The systems of our civilization will continue to engender and reward sociopathy, and they are so vast and complex that only civilization’s collapse will, eventually, bring an end to them.

So what, then? You know I offer no answers or “solutions”, since there are none. But those of us predisposed by our conditioning to at least know what is going on, may just learn how gaslighting works — with such devastating effectiveness — and make ourselves less likely to be victimized, propagandized or bamboozled by it. And perhaps become more compassionate for its victims, and maybe even its perpetrators.

I have no idea how we will then live with ourselves. When it really makes no difference who we vote for, what groups we belong to, or what we do (beyond the very local level) as activists, what is the point in becoming a little less clueless?

Perhaps there is none. But those of us conditioned to want to know, no matter what, will, at least, know a bit more. As we all become chroniclers of civilization’s collapse, that, too, is the best we can do.

Perhaps we need a little symbol we can signal or send to each other that means “We are being gaslit“, that we can send each other as an expression of caution or compassion, and that can attach to all the mis- and disinformation we encounter from all sides. Maybe something like this?:

Maybe add this to the ten symbols for the types of science denial/disinformation shown in the earlier graphic, and let us use them as emoji-type labels we can append to articles as a kind of shorthand warning. Gaslighters are pretty merciless in their methods to manipulate us; perhaps we could use this shorthand to fight back.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

I Still Don’t Want to Hear Your Story

conversation by pam o'connell
painting “In Deep Conversation” by Irish artist Pam O’Connell

Seven years ago, I wrote a post called Why I Don’t Want to Hear Your Story, describing why bios, OKCupid profiles, and other mostly ‘past-tense’ stories of what you’ve done, are not very interesting. And why likewise, aspirational stories describing what you plan/hope to do in the future (or, in the case of OKCupid profiles, who you hope to do it with), are, to me, mostly uninteresting.

Neither past-tense (historical) nor future-tense (aspirational) stories tell me about who you (think you) are, and what you really care about, right now. That’s what interests me. That’s what I want to talk with you about. We can’t relate that information (presuming we’re even self-aware enough to know it) by telling a story. And since we’re story-tellers by nature, conveying that essential but non-linear information to each other is awkward, unintuitive, and unpracticed.

So in the previous post I suggested six “leading questions” that might evoke some kind of useful sense of who someone is and what they care about, right now, and possibly assess whether the person you’re talking with might be the potential brilliant colleague, life partner, inspiring mentor or new best friend you’ve been looking for. These are the questions:

  1. What adjectives or nouns would you use to describe yourself that differentiate you from most other people? When and how did these words come to apply to you?
  2. Describe the most fulfilling day you can imagine, some day that might realistically occur in the next year. Why would it be fulfilling? What are you doing now that might increase its likelihood of happening?
  3. What do you care about, big picture, right now? What would you mourn if it disappeared? What do you ache to have in your life? What would you work really long and hard to conserve or achieve? How did you come to care about this?
  4. What is your purpose, right now? Not your role or occupation, but the thing you’re uniquely gifted and inspired to be doing, something the world needs. What would elate you if you achieved it, today, this month, in the next year? What would devastate you if you failed, or didn’t get to try? How did this become your purpose?
  5. What’s your basic belief about why you, and other humans, exist? Not what you believe is right or important (or what you, or humans ‘should’ do or be), but why you think we are the way we are now, and why you think we evolved to be where we are. It’s an existential question, not a moral one. How did you come to this belief?
  6. What’s your basic sense of what the next century holds for our planet and our civilization? How do you imagine yourself coping with it? How did you come to this belief?

These are not easy questions, and asking them might prove intimidating or even threatening to some people, which is why in the last post I suggested volunteering your own answer to each question yourself first, in a form such as “Someone asked me the other day… and I told them…”. It’s also why there are supplementary questions to each, to get the person you’re asking started. And the last supplementary question in each group lends itself to telling a story, since that’s what we’re most comfortable with. Even then, some of these questions will stop many people cold, which might tell you something about them right there.

But I don’t think they’re unfair questions, even for the young, though the last two might be a stretch for some. I don’t claim to know my grandchildren well, but I’d be fascinated to hear their answers to these questions. And I’m guessing I’d suddenly know them a lot better than most people in their circles ever have, just for having heard them.

I am rehashing this seven-year-old article for two reasons.

The first is that it’s brought me some realization about what underlies my rather deep-seated and unfortunate misanthropy: I don’t actually like most people very much. Part of that may be that I’m somewhat antisocial by nature; I really do enjoy my own company. But I think the more important part is that I can’t really care about people’s stories — about their past or perceived current situation and their judgements and feelings about them, or about what they hope to do some day. I can care deeply about them, and love them to death, but that has nothing to do with their stories, their “stuff”.

No one can really know what it’s like to be another person, or how they felt or are feeling. And every story is a fiction, just an invention to try to make sense of what we have no choice or control over, so it can never really make sense. I don’t expect you to care about my past or hopeful future story; really, and please think about this if you believe I’m being callous, Why should you, would you, could you care? It’s all a charade, a heavily socially conditioned one, that we should presume to know or care about someone else’s past, or situation, or judgements and feelings about them, or expectations for future change in them. I care about you, now, damn it, and that is all.

The second reason I’m rehashing this article is that since I wrote it just seven years ago (and my situation, my ‘story’ has hardly changed at all since then), my own answers to these six questions (which I volunteered at the end of the earlier article) have completely changed. I am, clearly, not the same person I was seven years ago, and not just because every cell in my body is different.

And one of the things that has changed is that I’m not going to write my ‘new’ answers to the six questions out this time at the end of this post. Though I have given them a lot of thought. And I’d be pleased to talk with anyone about them, on zoom or chat or phone, if you’ve thought about your own answers and are willing to reciprocate.

As long as you promise not to tell me your story.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

Notes From the Rising Dark, Pt 1

Cathedral City CA
subdivision in Cathedral City CA; aerial photo by Damon Winter in the NYT

An Imagined Letter from COVID-19 to Humans (by Kristin Flyntz)

Stop. Just stop. It is no longer a request. It is a mandate. We will help you. We will bring the supersonic, high-speed merry-go-round to a halt. We will stop the planes, the trains, the schools, the malls, the meetings, the frenetic, hurried rush of illusions and “obligations” that keep you from hearing our single and shared beating heart, the way we breathe together, in unison. Our obligation is to each other, as it has always been, even if, even though, you have forgotten.

We will interrupt this broadcast, the endless cacophonous broadcast of divisions and distractions, to bring you this long-breaking news: We are not well. None of us; all of us are suffering. Last year, the firestorms that scorched the lungs of the earth did not give you pause. Nor the typhoons in Africa, China, Japan. Nor the fevered climates in Japan and India. You have not been listening.

It is hard to listen when you are so busy all the time, hustling to uphold the comforts and conveniences that scaffold your lives. But the foundation is giving way, buckling under the weight of your needs and desires. We will help you. We will bring the firestorms to your body. We will bring the fever to your body. We will bring the burning, searing, and flooding to your lungs that you might hear: We are not well.

Stop. Just stop. Be still. Listen. Ask us what we might teach you about illness and healing, about what might be required so that all may be well. We will help you, if you listen.

The restrictions under CoVid-19 have again raised issues about what legitimate authority the government (supposedly comprised of people elected to represent our collective best interest) has to overrule what many consider their personal rights and freedoms.

It’s always a balancing act, and especially so when there is no reasonable compromise between the best interests of the collective and that of private individuals, or between private individuals. Our Canadian government has prided itself on being a government of compromise, so it’s not surprising that on issues like pandemic mandates, feminism vs trans rights, and the right to die, their waffling and half measures have understandably pissed off both sides and ended up doing a great deal of harm in the process. You just can’t “both sides”, or strike a middle position, on every issue.

A major dilemma many of us are now facing, or will soon face, is when to stop adhering to mandated or “recommended” pandemic limitations (on masks, indoor activities, travel etc) once we have personally been inoculated. As has been happening throughout the past 14 months, we have all been effectively lobbying our governments, through statements and letters and up/down-voting, to impose more, or fewer, restrictions. Governments, particularly those of the gutless variety, try to walk that line (unless their lawyers advise otherwise), and will continue to do so, even though a more radical Go For Zero strategy would have been, and still would be, in everyone’s best interests.

Everything we do with others, one-on-one and in groups, is a negotiation, an agreement. That is the nature of social, political, economic and cultural relationships. These agreements are constantly in shift, being renegotiated overtly (“asking permission”) or tacitly (“begging forgiveness”). They recognize the realities of different interests, individual and collective, and also reflect the balance of power, authority and responsibility.

Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste lays out how our societies, and our tacitly and explicitly negotiated relationships, align with the implicit castes to which we each belong. These caste distinctions are subtle and complex, and hence so are the agreements that exist within and between castes. We judge quickly and perhaps subconsciously what caste we believe others belong to.  You’ve probably heard stories where someone who’s being discriminated against or patronized, turns out to be a renowned celebrity, or someone of a different caste entirely, and the embarrassment, confusion and rationalization that follow. We don’t like having our unstated prejudices called to account.

Our caste assessments, and power dynamics in different situations, have evolved over a million years, and anthropologists tend to believe they did so primarily as a shorthand (to save us time making decisions) and as a means to discharge tension between us (“we disagree, but that ape is higher in the hierarchy than me, so I will defer to its judgment”).

There’s some evidence that before the modern industrial era, the legitimacy of hierarchy, rank and power was rarely challenged. And when it was, the challenge usually came not from the most oppressed caste, but from an educated middle class caste.

Because hierarchy in highly stressed environments can give rise to narcissism, displays of violence, and resultant trauma (remember Robert Sapolsky’s baboons), much of human history has been replete with abuse of power, and a propensity for “might makes right” thinking. It is seemingly only very recently that there has been any serious thinking about the entire notion of the fairness and equity of power. Along with this has been a cynicism about how power corrupts and therefore skepticism about whether governments and other “powerful” forces will ever have the interests of the collective, or the interests of individuals who are marginalized or oppressed, in mind when they make decisions. Even some socialists are increasingly skeptical, and want power decentralized, the opposite of the neoliberal globalization that has permeated our economies, politics and cultures for the past century at least.

The particular crisis we face right now is that everything is changing so fast, and being reassessed and challenged so profoundly, that our well-established, slow-to-change belief systems are unable to cope with the siege. This is perhaps symptomatic of any culture in its death throes. Consider how our “old stories” are dying, without compelling new ones to replace them: The myth of perpetual (if sometimes punctuated) progress is dying. The belief in the “American Dream” (that anyone can do anything if they set their mind to it) has been shown to be a lie. Our belief in democracy, in the idea of absolute moral rights and wrongs, in the idea that the collective interest outweighs that of the individual, and in the bizarre and extreme form of capitalism we have come to worship (as well as all the other -isms, especially humanism) has been rocked to the core by evidence of their abject failure. And it’s not only that these ideas and systems aren’t working now, but that they never really did. We just really badly wanted them to.

What can we believe when every belief we’ve ever had is in doubt, or no longer credible at all? How do we re-create a viable worldview when all its frames and beliefs are in tatters? What happens to a world that, having lost faith in everything it once believed, now chooses to believe only what it wants to believe, and facts and evidence be damned — since that at least helps us cope, and hope?

There have been “existential earthquakes” before in our history — notably during the regimes of Hitler, Mao and Stalin, and during our gravest pandemics and deepest depressions. But, nearly always before, there was a better future to believe in, even against all odds, and to work towards. What can we believe as we come to realize there is no future for our civilization, and no way to salvage one?

We can say we like to “challenge everything”, but there always remains some set of beliefs, some worldview, that we hold above challenge. For an increasing number of us, that stance is no longer tenable. We have seen the folly of our ways, and of the beliefs that underlay them.

And so we return to how we make decisions on what to do and how to be, when there is no bedrock of consistent, credible worldviews, hopes or beliefs on which to build them. If our civilization is ending and there is no imaginable future for our societies, why should we, for example, be fair about sharing vaccines with the poor and weak nations of the world? Like rats in an overcrowded cage, as the social fabric breaks down, each of us is left to look out for ourselves. It’s a time of unprecedented chaos, and it may take millennia before it settles out.

Is it still possible to have a worldview and a tentative belief system, one agile enough to adapt to constant revision and review?  My concern is that few of us will have the luxury time, health, skill and capacity to develop this agility, this “anti-fragility“,  in a way that will serve us acceptably well as collapse deepens.

No matter what, we will do, each of us, what we have been conditioned to do, including doing a lot of things that probably no longer serve us well either individually or collectively. This is what system collapse looks like. It has taken us a million years of evolution to plod to where we, the last generations of a brief, failed, global human experiment, are now, and there is no deus ex machina that will evolve us to where we’d have to be to endure this blink-of-an-eye catastrophic final human century in any “sensible” way.

All around us, creatures that have existed for millions and billions of years are going extinct, unable to adapt to the staggering transformation, desolation of ecosystems, and resultant accelerating climate collapse of the past two short centuries.

If we humans are to avoid extinction ourselves, it won’t be because of our ingenuity, our abstracting brains, or our technology. As Kristin’s poem at the top of this post reminds us, We are not well. If climate and civilizational collapse are like CoVid-19 writ large, we humans, stripped of our erroneous and fervent beliefs, our future, and our ancient knowledge of how to survive in a non-prosthetic world, are like the CoVid-19 patients in ICUs on life support. We might have avoided this situation, if only we’d acted sooner, if only we’d known. Our healing, and the planet’s, are now beyond our control. It’s up to the gods now.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 3 Comments

Borderline Madness

Pity the poor futurists, especially those who make population forecasts. Nothing like seeing your colossal mistakes saved in internet amber for all time, attracting the derision of those with 20-20 hindsight.

In 1990 (that’s just 30 years ago), the US Census Bureau gleefully forecast that in its “best estimate”, the US population would peak at 295 million in the year 2040, and would thereafter decline. Of course, the actual US population soared past that mark just 15 years later (even ignoring the uncounted), and shows no signs of decline in this century, even according to “low estimates”.

So in 2000, presumably aghast at how they could be so wrong, they actually looked at how migration was shaping population everywhere. By that time, next door in Canada, the entire increase in population each year was now attributable to net immigration. And, thanks to a slightly more humane immigration and refugee policy here than south of the border, Canada was admitting twice the proportion of new Canadians each year as a percentage of its population. The Canadian forecasts were likewise constantly and dramatically underestimating population increases because they assumed that people in the country on “temporary” work and student visas would go back home within a year. But the large majority of those people actually just keep re-applying for “temporary” visas until they get approved for permanent residency. Who could blame them? In many cases, they would do almost anything to avoid having to return to the ghastly, impoverished, dangerous and hopeless situation in their home country.

I am sure you are tired of my repeating this but I’m afraid I must: No one is to blame for this situation. We have desolated the planet exactly as our population and wasteful use of resources have both risen to several times our planet’s capacity to accommodate them. Poorer nations have had much of their wealth and resources stolen from them, mostly by colonial occupiers and international corporations, and saddled with unrepayable debt loads. Their countries, many of them, are environmentally ruined by pollution and reckless development, depleted of soils, minerals, trees and water.

The new president of El Salvador has courageously apologized to his people and the world for the fact his people have no choice but to make the harrowing and often deadly journey to try to reach a country that is not ruined beyond repair. His people, and those of a hundred other nations, are the first wave of what could be as many as two billion climate refugees, people whose only remaining choice is and will be to try to sneak into a safer, less destroyed nation, with their families and essential possessions, or die in the attempt.

But someone, it seems, didn’t tell the population forecasters. Or else, perhaps, the population forecasters didn’t want to ruffle the feathers of the politicians or the citizens. For whatever reason, they continue to hugely underestimate the impact of immigration, and desperation, on populations around the world. The economies and ecologies of much of Latin America, Africa and Asia are already collapsing. Where do the forecasters think they’re going to go?

It is interesting that some of the forecasters in struggling and impoverished nations are now forecasting that their populations will cease their steep increase, for two reasons. One reason is that they hope and believe that as women gain education and power in more and more human societies, they will choose to have smaller families, and their choice will be respected. But a larger part of their slower-growth forecast is the presumption that millions will leave their country for other, more affluent nations. But the forecasters in those affluent nations haven’t assumed that that massive exodus will come to their country. 

Except, curiously, for the US Census Bureau forecasters in 2000. After their 1990 forecast proved catastrophically wrong, they changed their model, and in 2000 seemed to have incorporated an expectation for a continually growing number of immigrants and permanent residents into their estimates. So in 1990 they’d forecast US population to be level at 290 million in 2050 and fall to 245 million by 2100 (yellow line in chart above) — note that it’s currently 335 million and growing at just under 1%/year. But in 2000 their new “best” forecast was for US population to rise to 400 million by 2050 and 570 million by 2100 (solid blue line). And their “high” forecast said it was possible that the population could rise to 560 million by 2050 and 1.2 billion by 2100 (dotted blue line).

Clearly, their bosses weren’t happy with these numbers. The majority of Americans of both the Tweedledum and Tweedledee parties want immigration reduced, not ramped up to deal with the escalating humanitarian crisis. So last year, the forecasts went back to head-in-the-sand, falling immigration models, forecasting just 390 million Americans by 2050 and 450 million by 2100 (orange line).

In comparison, Canadian forecasters have been slightly less naive (or less in denial). Their short-term forecasts continue to be absurdly low — Canada’s population is growing at nearly 2% per year, almost all of which is net immigration, much of which is logged as “temporary”, and no amount of assuming that millions of “temporary” residents will soon pack up and return home, so their numbers will stabilize, can disguise that. But Statistics Canada is more sanguine about the longer-term projection, which is that Canada’s population could essentially double from its current 38 million to just over 70 million by 2100 (red line, right scale, drawn to scale vs US — contrast the slope of the red lines to the blue, orange and yellow lines). Or even triple to over 100 million by 2100 under the “high” forecast (red dotted line).

If you look at the current refugee crisis at the US southern border, or the huge backlog of Central Americans trying to get into Canada, you can see the early signs of a brewing catastrophe that no one wants to talk about. There are only two ways out: Bullets or opening the doors. Latin America already has far more people than it can support, perhaps twice as many as it can sustainably support, and their numbers are growing, despite lower birth rates. Most of its nations are hopelessly in debt, their resources almost entirely depleted, and the ravages of climate change just starting to take their toll. My estimate is that, before our global economic and ecological systems have completely collapsed at the end of this century, at least 300 million Latin Americans will have no choice but to flee, and they have nowhere to go but north, to the US and Canada.

If the US chooses bullets as the answer, to protect their own “homeland” as its economy and ecological systems also teeter and fall in the coming decades, it will be the bloodiest border war in the history of the planet. And for all their blather about walls, it’s a war they might well lose. And there will be similar wars on Europe’s borders, and possibly in the Far East as well.

And if the US chooses, uncharacteristically, to yield to the inevitable flood and open their borders to anyone who wants to come, it will create a strange and tense new world to a nation that has of late shown great reticence to change anything (they still haven’t adopted the metric system). I think it would, or will, be fascinating — every aspect of life will have to shift to cope with this “invasion”.

It is probably worth studying other places which have faced a complete social transformation because of overwhelming numbers of people flooding across their borders in a short time, both in the distant past and more recently. The rubbing together of cultures has always had a kind of magical (not just abrasive) impact on everyone caught up in it, as each learns new things from the other.

Just as millions will have no choice but to embark on what I’ve called the Great Migration, millions of us receiving them will have no choice but to adapt, to teach and learn, to accommodate, and to change everything we do. In some parts of “Northern America”, the parts most vulnerable to climate change and ecological collapse, the locals will have no choice but to join the northward migration themselves. For some, that migration will be a lifelong journey. Canadians are accustomed to welcoming Americans and Latin Americans fleeing their homelands, and we have no delusions that we could keep them out if we wanted to.

Conservatives are not going to be happy. And I suspect a lot of self-described progressives are going to struggle to hold to their values (and overcome their denial about the magnitude of the crisis) with so much in turmoil. CoVid-19 will pale by comparison.

Interesting times ahead.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 5 Comments

Headline Silliness

Canadian Borg, different versions in various places on the web; original source unknown

I‘ve always wished I were funny. Humour is a craft that seems to come easily to some, and for others seems almost impossible to pull off. And of course it’s highly subjective. I happen to like puns, but I choose to limit them mostly to my posts about crosswords, a world where they are accepted.

Recently I’ve become a big fan of satirical ‘news’ sites that post headlines that are made up, but somehow (to me at least) extremely funny. They’re the ultimate one-liners — the punch line without the joke. I guess I admire their brevity. Sometimes the authors try to write a full satirical ‘news item’ to go with the headline, but they are rarely as funny as the headlines, and occasionally overkill. Occasionally they need an accompanying photo to make their point.

To me, the masters at producing these are the folks at The Beaverton, Canada’s answer to The Onion. Canada seems to be the source of a disproportionate number of funny writers and actors. Perhaps you need a sense of humour to live here.

Some of these mock headlines will only be understood if you’re a Canadian, or for some unknown reason read Canadian news, but with that caveat here are some of my recent favourites:

  • Canada approves another vaccine that you won’t get for like six months
  • Trudeau pledges to vaccinate at least eight more people by end of September
  • Ontario scrambling after discovering vaccines need to be actually administered to population
  • Alberta removes education from school curriculum
  • Trudeau clarifies that Saudi Arabia isn’t an ally, just an acquaintance we sell a fuckton of weapons to
  • Amber Alert issued by Edmonton police for Alberta premier Jason Kenney who is nowhere to be found. The 52-year-old has the accountability of a five-year-old and suffers from delusions of being stalked by evil environmentalists.
  • Canada searches for new country to compare ourselves to now that U.S. is too sad
  • COVID replaces racism as #1 thing Canadians think they handle better than the States
  • Canadian doctors warn vaccines may contain high levels of immunity

For readers who aren’t amused by the above, here are some of my favourite Onion headlines, with a more US/international flavour:

  • Florida GOP introduces ballotless voting In disenfranchised communities
  • Georgia amends voting law to allow people in line to be hydrated with fire hoses
  • Capitol security review reveals that Mike Pence is still missing
  • Government lobbyists call for members of Congress to play a little harder to get
  • ‘I am under 18’ button clicked for first time in the history of the internet
  • World death rate holding steady at 100%
  • Giuliani to be first guest on “Lou Dobbs’ Total Landscaping”
  • Defiant Marjorie Taylor Greene creates own House committee on Semitic aerospace weaponry
  • Experts worried students will fall behind after spending past year in US education system
  • Inspector General reveals CIA has mistakenly been using black highlighters that obscured millions of pages of critical intelligence information for 50 years. “Almost invariably it’s the most crucial passages” that are rendered impossible to read, the report says.

No? I’d like to see you try! This is hard work. Here are my own mock headlines, most of them appropriately Canadian and obscure to those who aren’t. Warning: They aren’t in the same league as the Beaverton’s or Onion’s. But it was fun trying:

  • Oil price jump has increased value of the Canadian Dollar to the point it is worth almost as much as Canadian Tire money
  • Canada to reimburse US for 4 million of its surplus vaccine doses by sending them 8 million Coffee Crisp bars
  • Canada proposes to legalize kerfuffles, provided it’s OK with the US
  • After environmental review, BC’s Site C Dam to be renamed Site D-minus Dam
  • Celebrity charity leaders shocked to discover Armani suits don’t qualify as a deductible expense.
  • After discovering the Canadian national anthem was plagiarized from Mozart, the government proposes to replace it. The three finalists are Elton John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Saddest Word”, Timbaland’s “Apologize”, and Feist’s “So Sorry”. The government has conveyed its regrets to the Holy Roman Empire for the theft.
  • NHL insists its new official hockey pucks bearing the American flag are “as Canadian as British Columbia”.
  • Canadian telecom plan prices “not exorbitant” says Minister. “Why, I spend more than that just for my monthly flight to Buffalo to get my MRI test”, he said.
  • Think tank decries claims Canada lacks a “national identity”, insists “We’re not like that at all”

I tried to think up funny headlines that spoofed Canada’s insanely high housing prices, Canada’s lame new right-to-die law, and BC’s awful record addressing fentanyl street poisonings. But I suspect nothing can make these subjects actually funny.

What do the best joke headlines have in common? While I know better than to try to explain a joke, here are some of the qualities they may have:

  • Exaggerates or lampoons something or someone (often an unpopular or falsely popular public figure or government) that is frustrating, incompetent, or borderline absurd
  • Skewers duplicity, dishonesty, pomposity, false modesty, stupidity, narcissism, privileged behaviour, incompetence, procrastination, lack of self-awareness or hypocrisy
  • Uses one-up, double-down or ditting (“you think that’s bad, ….”) to exaggerate (kind of like a caricature but with words)
  • Takes shots at icons (people and symbols) by exaggerating their behaviour or significance
  • Uses self-deprecation (poking gentle fun at some quality of your own affinity group or country)
  • Absurdly recharacterizes something bad as being somehow good
  • Uses double-entendre, irony, clever word-play (but not puns) and surprise turns (two jokes in one)
  • May use “in” expressions or colloquialisms so reader relates to the humour
  • Surfaces a behaviour that the reader hadn’t recognized, as it mocks it (as we’re learning, humour can sometimes be more educational than ‘news’)
  • Avoids being mean, provoking anger, belabouring, exploiting the oppressed, and being manipulative (some popular TV ‘comedies’ notwithstanding, these are not characteristics of good humour)

If you have other examples of funny mock headlines, I’d love to read them.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

CoVid-19: Known and Unknown Unknowns

This is the 16th in a series of articles on CoVid-19. I am not a medical expert, but have worked with epidemiologists and have some expertise in research, data analysis and statistics. I am producing these articles in the belief that reasonably researched writing on this topic can’t help but be an improvement over the firehose of misinformation that represents far too much of what is being presented on this topic in social (and some other) media.

cumulative CoVid-19 deaths/M people, as at March 26, 2021, from OWID

I‘m less than two weeks away from my first vaccine shot, and, like most Canadians, have been told that my second shot could be as much as four months away. What I’m watching now is the rate of new cases, which has never dropped back to the low levels it reached last summer, rising again, despite a dramatic drop in testing, along with a commensurate rise in the percentage of new cases attributable to new variants.

In some places the new variants now prevail and daily deaths are again soaring (in Brasil to over 3,000 deaths a day). In most places cases are rising but deaths are falling. We have no idea whether that’s a time lag issue (it takes on average about 3 weeks between reported infection and death, for those who succumb), or whether it’s the relative mix of variants, or whether it’s because the average age of the infected (and hence the Infection Fatality Ratio of deaths-to-reported-and-estimated-unreported-cases — the IFR) is lower for this “wave”.

Befuddled politicians, for whom all of this is too complex and all that matters is the next election, are justifying reckless reductions in restrictions on the basis of the recent trend to lower death rates. This is guaranteed to ensure that cases will stay too high almost everywhere to allow test-track-isolate protocols to work — it’s impossible to keep up with new cases rigorously when there are more than 10 cases/day/M people. It was below that level in Canada last summer, and has almost never gone above that level in countries (Taiwan, Australia & New Zealand notably) that have dealt with the pandemic responsibly from the outset.

But now the rate in Canada is 112 new cases/day/M people (and 3% positivity rate) and in the US, where testing is down 50% from January levels, it’s 186 (and 7% positivity rate, suggesting they’re now catching a much smaller percentage of the new cases due to reduced and inadequate testing). In other words, after more than a year, the pandemic is still out of control here. And still we’re lessening restrictions when this is exactly when we should be tightening them — until at least 70% of the population is inoculated.

We’ve gone “all in” on vaccinations, and are counting on them, especially for older and high-risk populations, to keep the IFR down to politically acceptable levels before the new more transmissible variants spiral out of control and inevitably lead to a spike in new deaths. Will that strategy work? We have absolutely no idea. We are still, after a year of uninterrupted botch-ups in 95% of the world’s nations, absolutely clueless.

And now there are three huge mysteries that we also have absolutely no idea about:

  1. The IFR in most of Africa and Asia appears to be only about 1/10th what it is in the Americas and Europe (see chart above showing deaths/M people, a rough surrogate for the IFR). That is unprecedented in a global pandemic, and the modellers have had to scramble to slash forecast deaths for Africa and Asia to 20% of what they originally forecast. A part of this difference is due to demographics (a younger average age). But most of it seems attributable, as best as we can guess, to healthier immune systems due to better diet (and hence much lower rates of obesity and chronic “lifestyle” diseases) and much more exposure to other viruses in Africa and Asia. If this is the case, we can probably expect future pandemics to follow a similar pattern. If so, thank the western industrial food system, our obsession with putting antibiotics and other antimicrobials on everything, and our lack of plant nutrients and proper exercise; we are ripe for the picking. But we really don’t know.
  2. The Case Fatality Rate (ratio of deaths to reported cases three weeks earlier) seems to have suddenly spiked in California to levels only seen in parts of Latin America that do very little testing (see chart above). Throughout the US, the CFR has been flat at 2.0% in the US for months now (in Canada, which did much less testing proportionally than the US in 2020, it’s converging on 2.5% but still declining). This suggests that the US has caught about a third of actual cases to date, and Canada about a fourth (most of the undetected cases were likely asymptomatic or very mild). But in California, over the last two months the CFR has suddenly jumped from 1.5% to 3.5%. While a part of this could be attributable to less testing, is it really reasonable to assume the state has suddenly gone from catching 40% of actual cases, to only 15%? Seems highly unlikely. Or perhaps they’re just now reporting “catch-up” deaths that actually occurred in prior months? More plausible, but so many, and why suddenly now? Or perhaps it’s a conspiracy to suppress case counts to cover politicians’ asses? Uh, OK, I doubt it. What is interesting is that California has the highest proportion of CoVid-19 variants (>75% of all cases) in the US. Though these are predominantly the B.1.1.7 variant, the NYT reports that the US is not yet screening for the P.1 variant that is ravaging Brasil and reinfecting and killing those who had recovered from the original virus and even those who had been vaccinated. The proportion of new cases attributable to variants is estimated to be doubling every ten days. So maybe the soaring CFR in California is due to unscreened variants, soon to be seen everywhere else? Possible. We just don’t know.
  3. The third mystery is the degree to which the vaccine protects us and others from various degrees of infection to the virus and its variants. The tests done to qualify use of the various vaccines have only tested efficacy at preventing any infection from the virus. The numbers of deaths and hospitalizations among those test recipients of the vaccines is so small that a statistically significant conclusion on morbidity cannot be made. We know the risk is very low (among the hundreds of rigorous phase 2-3 vaccine trial recipients, it is possible that there have been zero deaths), but we don’t know how low. It is likely that the variants, which are of three main types but dozens of sub-types, with new ones emerging quickly, present a higher risk of death or hospitalization, but we don’t know how much higher. And we don’t know whether some of those receiving the vaccine could still be mildly or asymptomatically infected and hence potentially “shedding” viral particles and infecting others.

The result is what Zeynep Tüfekçi calls confusing “absence of evidence” with “evidence of absence”. How long does it take, she asks, before the absence of any evidence that the virus is transmitted on contact with surfaces, becomes evidence that such transmission is extremely unlikely? We passed that point at some point in the past year, but we don’t know how or when, and it’s impossible to come up with tests that could produce useful statistics. Eventually, we just conclude, on the basis of absence of evidence, that outdoor activities, socially-distanced, are probably very low risk, and that it’s unnecessary to clean surfaces as long as you wash your hands after touching surfaces that have been “very recently” used by the public. Or perhaps it’s unnecessary to clean surfaces at all, given the lack of evidence anyone has ever been infected that way? The problem is, we just don’t know. There is no simple scientific process that can consider the millions of variables that can arise that lead to an infection, or the absence of one.

This is all leading to what vlogbrother Hank Green has said is a very worrisome sign for the rest of this year. We tend to believe what we want to believe, which means that, in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, those (like me) who are convinced (want to believe) there is still likely a significant risk to themselves and others, are going to continue to wear masks, avoid non-essential travel and indoor public activities (like restaurant dining and bars), and generally continue to behave as we have until the local data on cases and deaths has dropped to the kind of levels seen in Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand. And those who are convinced (want to believe) that vaccines confer absolute immunity and the pandemic was overplayed anyway, will quickly and enthusiastically go back to their pre-pandemic behaviours, if only to prove to themselves and the world that this belief is correct.

What Hank is concerned about is that this will result in what might be called “Mask Wars” for the rest of this year. Our mask, or absence thereof, will be seen by “the other side” as a political statement, and as a judgement of “the other side”, provoking the kind of visceral reaction that could conceivably lead to the kind of violence and animosity that other “symbols” like certain clothing, haircuts and body markings, and in-your-face T-shirt and hat slogans, have occasionally produced.

I know that, long before CoVid-19 arose, when I would see people walking on the streets of Vancouver wearing masks, my reaction was, I’m ashamed to say, judgemental and not positive. It made no sense, but it struck me, on our clean, healthy streets in the old days of 2019, as a kind of political statement of my city and its people. So I kind of “get” the anti-maskers’ reactivity, and the potential for it to get nasty as the pandemic wears down, and wears us down.

This will be especially hard on us mask-wearers, since the trend will, inevitably, be in the other direction, and the smaller a minority we become, the more threatened we may feel (and be).

But perhaps Hank and I are needlessly worried about all this. Maybe we’ll just be viewed as quaintly out of style. Maybe the approaching end of the pandemic will bring relief and healing instead of increasing the anger and division.

We just don’t know.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

Completely Irresponsible

photo: CC0, from pixabay

The greatest challenge in shrugging off the belief that humans have free will, is how to reconcile that with the feelings of responsibility and blaming that are so deeply conditioned in us.

The cognitive dissonance is unavoidable. At least half of my recent blog posts implicitly assume that someone is being irresponsible, or could act more responsibly, and implicitly assigning blame for the consequences of ‘bad’ behaviour. The other half assert that there is no responsibility or blame for anything that happens, since we’re all just acting out our conditioning, and since most of what is happening (like climate and ecological collapse) is outside the control of anyone or any group anyway.

The result is writing that is a bit schizophrenic, and I’m far from the only one exhibiting it. Many of my favourite writers (on my collapse blogroll and in my links of the month) are angry, and their writing is full of accusations of irresponsibility, evilness and blame. Are they ‘justifiably’ angry? That’s what I’ve been thinking about of late.

The most notable of these wonderful writers and thinkers is Caitlin Johnstone, because not only is she extremely angry and blame-y, but she often writes about non-duality. On the one hand, she writes about the evil global empire of wealthy corporatists who control most governments, most parties, and most of the media. They have to be called to account and overthrown, she asserts.

You have to give her credit for not falling for the euphoria, amnesia and ignorance that underlies the coverage of, and leftists’ accommodation of, the neoliberalism of the Biden regime and other faux progressive governments. The ongoing atrocities in Yemen, which all western nations are funding and supplying weapons to, and the stepped-up, dangerous belligerence of the west towards Russia, China, Iran, Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and the other usual western neoliberal elite’s whipping-boys, are just two examples of this horrifically biased and incompetent reporting and unwarranted militarism.

On the other hand, she writes about non-duality, reminding us that we are all one, inseparable, and that there is nothing stopping us from becoming aware of the western imperialist propaganda and military insanity that is wreaking havoc on the planet (and which is simultaneously ignoring, beyond lip service, the actual urgent priorities our world faces), and rising up and overthrowing it or just walking away from it and refusing to continue to acknowledge and fund its legitimacy.

Yes, and yes. But — that assumes we have free will, and that it is only a kind of voluntary, wilful ignorance that is keeping us from creating a more functional and less irresponsible and destructive world. We can free each other from the propaganda, and from the war-mongering, planet-destroying elite that propagates it, she says. “The good news is that we can always wake up”, she writes. You get the cognitive dissonance I feel here?

What a lot of today’s pseudo-intellectuals (Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris et al) have been saying is that, when it comes to free will, we can have our cake and eat it too. We have a “sort of” free will, enough to do what Caitlin would have us do (wake ourselves up etc), but not “absolute free will”. We can’t just accept that we have no free will at all, Sam Harris has written, or the world would quickly degenerate into nihilistic despair and anarchy.

I don’t know where this well-entrenched bafflegab comes from. Perhaps it’s a lingering loathing for BF Skinner and the absolute terror that might come to the intellectual elites if they had to acknowledge that it was just dumb luck and genes that were responsible for them being rich and famous and having a bajillion adoring Facebook fans, rather than being penniless, unhoused, and peeing in back alleys like some of their (at least) intellectual peers.

The acknowledgement of our lack of free will is a great leveller, and hence it is hugely threatening to those with wealth, power and popularity. Perhaps instead of being revered for what they do and say with their immense privilege, they should be despised for not giving everything they have to those less fortunate, through no fault of their own, and working night and day to rectify that obscene inequality. I’m not advocating that, but it would bring me a smile, and a lot more respect for these poseurs than I have for them now.

So let’s look at the full-on, Sapolsky-strength denial of the existence of free will and see where it might lead us.

Robert Sapolsky has said, for example, that there is no moral or other justification for our system of prisons, incarceration and other “penalties” for breaking the law. If we lock someone up, he says, it should be with the understanding that they did what they were conditioned to do, under the circumstances of the moment, and could have done nothing else. So we can justify locking someone up not as punishment or with the objective of changing their behaviour, but only as a means to prevent them repeating violent acts. That means restricting their freedom without punishing them.

So here’s a test for you. The two clowns who killed 18 people between them this month — should they be punished, or merely restricted to ensure they cannot repeat their dangerous, mentally-disturbed behaviour? What if they turn out to be incels provoked by anti-woman university professors, or if they were on anti-psychotic medicines for anger management and, for whatever reason, stopped taking them? Should we also punish the professors (and other media blowhards) and the shrinks?

Not easy, this belief in no free will. In addition to converting our prisons into mental care facilities, we would have to acknowledge that the most despised members of the military-industrial complex (corporate execs with Facebook, Monsanto, Purdue, Exxon etc, PR and advertising “consultants”, politicians and media mouthpieces on the take or just too gullible to see they’re being used) also had no free will but to do what they have done. The horrific state of our world and no one is to blame? No wonder Sam and Daniel and others get cold feet. They would lose all their followers if they admitted no one has free will.

I spent most of my life raging against behaviourism and the belief that we have no free will. I’ve embraced them recently, improbably, because my conditioning has been such that the intellectual appeal of the arguments for Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s behaviourism and Robert Sapolsky’s no-free-will thinking was presented to me at exactly the time I was open to being reconditioned by these arguments, and I had the time and energy to explore them. I have no choice but to embrace them, and you have no choice, I would guess, but to suspect or reject them.

I still get enraged, terrified and grief-stricken by corporatist ‘misbehaviour’, and cheer on well-written and well-spoken rants. But now I see them, at least a bit more, for what they really are: theatre. My rage/fear/sorrow is the same rage/fear/sorrow that arises when something happens in a well-written play or story that instinctively evokes a sense of outrage, fear, or grief. (Provided, that is, it is not manipulative; I have no use for most movies/shows/novels that exploit our emotion triggers to get a rise out of us, and am now extremely particular about what forms of fiction I subject myself to. And that includes most of the ‘fiction’ in both the mainstream media and the hate/social media. We are all being ‘played’.)

There is a reason most of the mental hospitals in the western world have closed down over the past generation or two, and it isn’t because we’re all mentally healthier. In part it’s because these facilities were built on false premises and promises of ‘healing’ that never worked — they were, and are, like modern psychiatry, completely dysfunctional. But dysfunction alone hasn’t been enough to bring down any of the other types of institutions that we struggle with today (most hospitals, seniors’ homes, ‘twelve step’ institutions etc.)

The real reason is that we simply, in our overextended, fragile, bubble modern economy, cannot afford them. We have so mortgaged our futures to pay for today’s excesses that we have nothing left for social services of any kind. That’s one of the reasons why Republicans and other fear-driven ideological groups want social services shut down and privatized. These systems are all teetering on the edge of collapse, as we spend money instead on corporate jets, wars, bribes and other unaffordable luxuries.

So while Robert may be right in his radical penal reform proposals, there is no money to even begin to do what he suggests. We are fully invested in the existing dysfunctional systems, and in the belief systems necessary to justify them. This gives most people even more reason to deny the absence of free will.

Perhaps I’m unusual in my conditioning, but while I accept all this, and the inevitable and ghastly collapse of our global industrial civilization in this century, I am not driven to depression, thoughts of suicide, or bouts of abject nihilism by these beliefs. On the contrary, it is enormously freeing to acknowledge that we’re fucked, and there’s nothing we can do, provided you’re ready to part with your particular religion or other salvationist beliefs. It is liberating to shrug off the self-inflicted and culturally-inflicted mantle of responsibility to do something, anything, everything, to make the world a better place. Call me irresponsible, but I’m not buying the ‘if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem’ bullshit any more.

My conditioning may change in the future, but for now it seems to me quite clear, based on everything I’ve studied and learned, based on science and evidence: We have no free will, no control or choice over what we do, or don’t do. Not even “kind of” free will. No one is to blame for anything. We are not responsible for doing the only thing we can possibly do each moment. And there is nothing that could, can or will be done to prevent civilization’s near-term collapse and all the hardship and radical changes to every aspect of life on earth that will entail. And that’s perfectly fine. The truth can sometimes really set us free.

It’s the adventure of a lifetime. It’s a play that has an unbelievable, cataclysmic ending, or perhaps no ending at all. Hold on to the edge of your seats. The actors are all getting their lines and instructions just seconds before they have to deliver them. Anything could happen. We, the dogs in the stands barking furiously on behalf of our characters on the stage, might even find ourselves part of the play. No one knows. No one has any choice, any control, any responsibility, or any free will over what will transpire next. And it will do you no good to remind yourself “It’s just a show.”


Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 14 Comments

Our Post-CoVid-19 Behaviours

The Vlogbrothers, John & Hank Green, have to be two of the smartest and most creative people on the planet. They’re both extraordinary authors, and world-class science and culture journalists. They can also be disarmingly funny, and even outrageous.

Hank recently invented something he calls the Post-CoVid Behaviour Change Alignment Chart. It depicts all the things we do since CoVid-19 that we didn’t do before, and all the things we used to do before CoVid-19 that we don’t do now. Each activity is placed on a 2×2 matrix (Hank’s is shown above) depending on how seriously you want to go back to pre-CoVid-19 behaviour (top of chart) or how seriously you want to retain your new behaviours once CoVid-19 has ended (bottom of chart). Alignment on the left/right axis indicates how unlikely (left of chart) or likely (right of chart) you’ll get your wish to do that.

This is the kind of brilliant invention we’re used to from the brothers Green. It can help you set your intention for future behaviours and priorities, instead of just following the crowd back to pre-CoVid-19 “normal”. It can help you understand why you’re struggling (if there are lots of things at the topmost area of your chart). It can help you see just how much your behaviours have, and have not changed, over the last year. It can show you how resilient you are (if your stuff is mostly at the bottom of the chart rather than the top). It can help you challenge unthinking decisions of others to get you to go back to “normal” (eg going back to the office, or to school) which may be both unnecessary and not in your best interests. And it can also show you what you really care about (stuff at the very top or very bottom of the chart).

It’s also a brilliant invention because it pretty much says it all. You don’t need a lot of thought to fill it in or to interpret it, even if it’s someone else’s chart. In fact, seeing similarities between yours and another’s chart could be a conversation-starter, or the start of a friendship.

I even wonder whether it could be adapted for other purposes, like ice-breaking in new groups or even dating: Maybe put the things/activities you love the most and loathe the most on one axis, top-to-bottom, and the things that occupy (too) much of your time versus those that you never have time to do on the other axis, right-to-left.

My situation is different from Hank’s. I’m retired and he’s not. I live in a place that is sufficiently remote that it has no home delivery, and in a country that does not allow voting by mail. And unlike Hank, I don’t really like most people, or crowds, all that much. So my chart doesn’t look much like Hank’s:

It tells me, in a way I hadn’t thought about, which of my behaviour changes in the past year have been temporary (above the line), and which are likely to be permanent (below the line). It also gets me thinking about the things to the left of the line, things I’d like to do again, or keep doing, that (either because of my own reticence or because they won’t be available after the pandemic) I probably won’t do, or be able to do. Maybe that will prompt me to find some way to do them after all.

Here’s a blank chart, from Hank, if you want to have a go at your own. And here’s Hank’s video where he talks about his invention. Awesome stuff.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | Leave a comment