The Street Drug Poisoning Crisis

Matthew Schimpky, a volunteer in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Overdose Prevention Society, takes a break from work to look after a resident’s dog. Photo by Sarah Blyth, a founding member and frontline worker for the Society, part of an amazing photo collection in the Tyee.

We have a medical crisis in BC, and it’s not CoVid-19, though the pandemic could yet explode here and become one.

The medical crisis is the deaths of over a thousand British Columbians every year (many times the CoVid-19 toll) from poisoned street drugs. To call it a “pharmaceutical opiate overdose epidemic” is a deception.

We should not be surprised when people, many of whom who are struggling mentally, physically and financially with seemingly endless and insurmountable challenges, turn to street drugs as a means of coping with their distress. Too often, because these drugs are unregulated and often laced with poisons — because it’s cheaper and more lucrative for their producers to make them that way — people who take these drugs die terrible deaths.

Surveys have repeatedly found that 95% or more of those dying from toxic street drugs were never — never! — prescribed addictive drugs. It only makes sense that those looking for respite from trauma and other societal illnesses would prefer to access safe, clean “brand name” drugs from regulated pharmaceutical companies rather than potentially toxic “street” drugs. But as governments have clamped down fiercely on doctors prescribing narcotics (even for patients relying on them for chronic conditions), those with dependencies are left at the mercy of vendors of unregulated products, which may be mislabeled, fake or laced with cheap synthetic fentanyl and other toxins.

You probably know people who, to cope with their difficulties, use alcohol, tobacco, pornography, sedatives, stimulants and other means of escape, and end up unable to properly manage their use of them, potentially leading to dysfunction, violence, and permanent harm to others and themselves. We’re all “addicted” to something, and those dying on the streets from toxic drugs are no different from us. They just have the misfortune of not having a safe, regulated supply of what they use to cope.

Many governments have been conned into believing that a “war on drugs” can be effectively won, and/or that “abstinence” programs and “aversion therapy” work, when all the evidence shows the opposite. A recent study suggests the success rate of even the much-touted “12-step” abstinence/rehab programs is between 5% and 8%. And that “just say no” programs actually produce more drug use than they prevent. These programs unfairly and cruelly blame the victims, making their situation worse, instead of working to eliminate the underlying conditions, and helping those with dependencies to live healthy, comfortable lives.

When the American Affordable Care Act extended eligibility for these failed abstinence, aversion and 12-step programs, unscrupulous operators exploited the prevalent blame-the-victim approaches by opening fly-by-night “treatment centres” that charge obscene daily rates ($1,000 a day and up). These programs cost more than 90% of the population could afford if they weren’t covered by insurance. And these same unscrupulous “entrepreneurs” have opened fake “halfway houses” for those “detransitioning” from drugs to supposedly stay safe, when in fact many of them are run by drug dealers exploiting the system and their often desperate “inmates”. Check out the link above for one man’s harrowing story of this horrific, outrageous, and worsening situation.

Those looking for better solutions have faced threats and fierce opposition from conservatives, religious groups, and the pharma industry, who want all the blame and responsibility to be placed squarely on the victims. Despite this, some governments have courageously piloted different approaches: free (and judgement-free) injection centres, or the provision of safe, free or low-cost drugs.  This allows users to escape the dread and fear of imprisonment, shakedowns, police abuse, street violence, and death-by-toxin that are often ever-present in their lives, so they can once again live fruitful, healthy lives and reestablish and sustain essential relationships with others.

Free injection centres provide those with substance dependencies with free, clean needles, a safe place to take their drugs, a watchful eye in case the drugs they take are bad, and, if desired, counselling and friendly support as well. They reduce the feeling of isolation that “illegal” drug users live with, and are often located in areas where community police have been trained to look out for them, instead of harassing them.

Dr Bonnie Henry, BC’s senior public health officer, even while masterfully coping with the province’s CoVid-19 situation, has called for the immediate decriminalization of the use of all drugs. When the government (facing an election) balked, she used her own authority to require that any registered nurse be allowed to prescribe (and even deliver) safe prescription drugs to anyone asking for them. That move has received international attention, but it’s just the first step.

Our health system, our housing system, our economic/employment system, our political system, our police and legal system, are all seriously broken, and their dysfunction impedes our attempts to deal with this drug crisis at every turn.

What is required is an acknowledgment that those using street drugs, those suffering from addictions, those struggling with poverty and homelessness, those acting out their mental illness — all these people need treatment and healing and help. What they don’t need is more laws, incarceration, arrest and abuse in the streets and in institutions, including ineffectual, unsafe and punitive “treatment facilities” (rehabs, prisons, homeless shelters).

Paternalistic solutions have utterly failed, and, just as a guaranteed annual income has been repeatedly shown to be a vastly better solution to poverty than food stamps and other demeaning regulated programs, so too do those who are struggling with dependencies need their underlying conditions (poverty, homelessness, mental illness, trauma and abuse) addressed. And in the meantime they need simple, nonjudgemental access to whatever means they use to cope with their situation.

The lesson we should have learned from prohibition is not to make wanted products illegal, and hence drive their production to dangerous, underground, ruthless, violent criminal gangs. Instead, we should make these products more available, legally and properly regulated, in safe forms, and get the real criminals out of the business. And, for god’s sake, we have to start to trust our fellow citizens to figure out, with the best help available, how best to deal with the many crises we are all facing. There is no one “right” way to live, and we should appreciate that not everyone wants to live the way we do in any case.

So please, the next time you read about an “opioid epidemic” and “overdoses”, please challenge the deceptive terminology used and the simplistic binary victimizing diagnoses and solutions offered. The people dying are not too stupid or inebriated to manage their doses, and they’re not trying to commit suicide.

Like you and me, they’re just trying to cope with dysfunctional systems out of control and the hardship this dysfunction has imposed particularly cruelly on them. Give them a hand, when you see them, when you hear their stories, when you object to the obfuscation of the problem by politicians, and when you vote. You could easily be in their place right now, were it not for circumstances over which neither of you has any control.

Thanks to Kelly Gavin, a professional psychotherapist who has lived and worked in the Downtown Eastside and other parts of Vancouver, for her thoughtful contributions and edits to this article. 

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What If We Got Rid of Offices?

cartoon by the late New Yorker cartoonist Robert Weber, one of the few cartoonists who worked mostly with charcoal

One of the things that CoVid-19 has made clear is that “offices” for individual workers (and so-called “executives”), and even for groups of “white collar” workers, are in most cases completely unnecessary. That’s not to say people don’t want them, and want to get back to them. It’s to say they aren’t needed — that with a bit of relearning we can do everything from home that we can do in an office, and perhaps more, and just as well if not better.

The immediate benefits would be (a) eliminating an enormous amount of commuting time, (b) drastically reducing commuters’ automobile emissions and expenses, (c) freeing up a huge amount of wasted space, much of it in cities that are desperately short of affordable housing, (d) reducing the demand for space in “prestige” areas of cities that are obscenely overpriced, and hence bringing rents down, and (e) reducing a large portion of the costs of doing business that are passed along to customers, potentially reducing product and service costs to customers.

This wouldn’t change the world, of course. The dangers are (a) that the 1% would simply pocket the savings themselves, (b) that a lot of bullshit “office” jobs would simply be eliminated, much as most secretarial jobs were eliminated a generation earlier, when it was clear they served no purpose, and (c) that “top executives” will still retain their personal offices, making having an office even more absurdly sought-after as a status symbol than it is now (and entrenching and deepening the hierarchy between those “with” and “without” offices — a further gutting of the last vestiges of the middle class). And of course for many, especially the poor and working women, working from home is currently nearly impossible, and they would need to be provided with spaces near their homes where they could work effectively; a challenging but not insurmountable problem.

The argument for having offices and other physically proximate spaces for workers, even when not necessary to produce anything, is that people are allegedly more productive and accountable in an office working alongside peers and bosses (read: bosses don’t trust subordinates), and that physical proximity encourages important consultation and collaboration. But so far little or no effort has been put into either (a) finding out if that’s actually true, or (b) improving tools and technologies that render it no longer true.

I was one of the first “executives” in North America to pilot what was then called the “mobile office”, lugging around my “portable” computer (in those days it was so heavy I developed “PC syndrome” tendonitis); I essentially carried my “office” in my briefcase. I was given the best available technology at that time; in return I gave up my physical office (financially, that was a wash to my employer).

These “pilot programs” were mostly unmitigated disasters. Then as now, if you wanted to talk to someone “important”, or a decision-maker, you had to do so in person. Then as now, “important” people didn’t answer the phone (then, they had secretaries to run interference for them; now, they have voice-mail and email and assistants to automatically delete voice-mails and emails addressed to them). So if you tried to operate without an office, you couldn’t talk with anyone “important”. You had to come into the office to be “visible” and basically wait for an invitation, for them to visit you. Since that could be a long wait, you generally needed to book a “visitor’s office” on the off-chance of being granted an audience that day.

Peers looked upon these “visitor’s offices” with suspicion and denigration: Don’t you dare encourage people to take my office away; I have a “real” office with “my” files and other important things that have to be here, so I have to be here. You might try to jam a lot of visits and in-person conversations into your scheduled visits to “the office”, but no one would cooperate with you — that’s just not how things were (and are) done in “the office”. I could go on, but you get the idea: Becoming a “mobile office” worker was a de facto demotion, in the eyes of both bosses and peers.

Nothing has changed that much. There’s still jockeying for, measurement of, and hierarchy-ranking of and preening over offices. So for many, at all levels of the bullshit jobs codependency, giving up one’s office is unthinkable, and eliminating offices would be considered a grievous and insulting error.

So I’m not naive enough to believe it will happen, at least not until the economy collapses, which may still be a decade or two away. I’m just saying it could happen, with enormous net benefits for just about everyone. Just as you really don’t have to physically shake hands to sustain a healthy business relationship during CoVid-19, you really don’t have to have physical offices — any offices — to sustain a healthy organization. They are anachronisms, like the suit and tie, clung to by the conservative and the fearful.

Imagine, then, what a world without offices would be like — assuming the technology has improved to accommodate this change — cameras and audio quality and screen-sharing that simulate physical presence in a space as much as possible:

  1. Except in those rare places where large numbers of people absolutely have to work in close proximity to manufacture real products that cannot be largely automated, there would be no “rush hour”. Emptier highways, cleaner skies, less road rage and stress.
  2. I think there would be a tendency for people to be evaluated more on how accessible they make themselves to others (fellow workers, customers, suppliers). And perhaps less on the size and trappings of their office, or on their “span of control” or job title, or on their dubiously-computed “contribution” to profits.
  3. I think there would be less capacity and less indulgence for micromanaging, and necessarily more delegation of decision-making capacity to front-line workers. A lot of painstakingly collected and scrupulously ignored research suggests this would be a good thing.
  4. It would be much easier to logically reorganize a company or organization because the physical silos would no longer help entrench the structural ones. That would include more easily breaking an organization into autonomous units that would be more customer-facing and less hierarchical. This would be a huge (and for executives, scary) change, since they have long conned the world into believing the myth that their decision-making is more important and valuable than that of front-line workers.
  5. Trust would of necessity become the currency of business. After trying to establish “check-ins” to ensure remote workers are observing “office hours”, owners would eventually have to give up and learn to evaluate people on the quality and value of what they produced and not how many hours it took to produce it (or whether they were regularly in the office working early or late).
  6. Shareholders and directors, who’ve been conned for years into assessing management on all the wrong bases and entrenching an absurdly disproportionate remuneration and reward system for executives, might have to start looking at value-for-money, value added, real customer and employee satisfaction surveys (not the fake scale-of-1-to-10 fraudulent surveys used now), and measures of organizational innovation and resilience, to assess the quality of their investments and management, instead of using profit growth as the single, universal surrogate. It would start to become clearer, I think, how very equally everyone working for an organization contributes to its success, or failure. But maybe that’s wishful thinking.
  7. Executives would no longer be able to con customers and investors that they were skilled, knowledgeable, important, and worth a lot of money, based on the trappings of their offices, titles and real estate. They might have to demonstrate that they actually do something of value to justify their salaries and patronage.

I hear some objections that “serendipitous encounters” in the office are essential to networking, to collegiality, and to innovation. If you think so, please show me the evidence that these even occur in most organizations, let alone that they produce useful results. Middle managers hope to have such encounters with executives to make their presence known and possibly move up the ladder.

But my observation is that this is mostly just dreaming and projection. There are very few organizations where promotion has anything whatsoever to do with merit — it’s about connections, family, and image. Just look at the political “leaders” in any country and you’ll see a public demonstration of what it takes to get “to the top”. Water coolers, even when they existed, served only as a means for peers to gossip and hobnob and for executives to pretend they cared about occasionally mixing with the minions.

There has been considerable “cultural anthropology” work done that shows that the presence of offices and departments in an organization is more of an impediment than a help to cross-sectional interaction and communication. The sheep of one kind are all placed in one pen so they’re easier for their shepherd and their sheepdogs to herd, not so that they can commune with other sheep.

The sheep aren’t going anywhere — if they’re still working in large hierarchical organizations they’ve imbibed the corporatist kool-aid and believe that theirs is the only way to succeed (or even survive) in business. (Sadly, because of the criminal imbalance of wealth and power in our global economy, they’re now probably correct.)

But the corporate elite could easily let them do their bullshit jobs from home — it wouldn’t make any difference and would provide the five benefits noted above. And this elite might even dare to get their fellow executives to give up their offices too — it would make zero difference to anything that matters, and some of them might actually get to spend some time with their families, if they dared.

I know this sounds bitter and over-the-top, but in all my years of business with many organizations, I’ve just found it to be more and more true. Our economy is built on many myths, most of them completely untrue; the myth of the importance of offices is just a minor one of these.

Pollard’s Law of Complexity asserts that:

Things are the way they are for a reason. To change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex (and it usually is), success at truly understanding and changing it is unlikely, and developing workarounds and adapting to it is probably a better strategy. Complex systems evolve to self-sustain and resist reform until they finally collapse.

Offices evolved for reasons that are in part anachronistic and in part to demonstrate power and to simplify command and control over employees. None of those once-important reasons still applies, so the system is continuing, much as the wearing of suits and ties continues, because of inertia. For the last 30 years those of us weary of these dysfunctional remnants of old paternal industrial culture have been working around them. Perhaps now is as good a time as any to encourage them to collapse before they do so naturally.

The implications would be far-reaching, and extend beyond the politics and economics of corporatist hierarchies. It might start to dawn on us that appearance (and citizenship, and lineage) have nothing to do with someone’s capacity, intelligence, creativity, values, or value to society. And that wealth and power are inherited things, passed usually from father to son, and that they have absolutely nothing to do with either merit or effort (even if you believe merit or effort entitles you to an obscene share of the world’s wealth and power).

And, on a closer look, it might dawn on us that most of the expenditures that are built into the things we struggle to buy — expenditures on executive salaries and perks, on the wages paid for bullshit jobs, on advertising and PR, on litigation against potential competitors and uppity customers, and on acquisitions and share buy-backs — that make up in many cases 80-90% of the “cost” of what we buy, are completely unnecessary, and result in products costing an order of magnitude more than they need to, even if we were to halt the offshoring of labour and materials to struggling nations.

I think that in time, we will realize this sad and outrageous truth, this gargantuan $47T dollar theft from workers by corporatists and their shills, from the rest of us. I think most of us have at least started to realize that capitalism, as it’s been practiced over the past two centuries, is just an elaborate boondoggle to funnel wealth to the ultra-rich from the rest of us.

Like the desolating and ruinous global industrial growth economy that sustains it, this boondoggle is teetering and will soon come crashing down, no matter what we do. If it takes a while we may yet obliterate the half of the world’s natural wealth and biodiversity that isn’t already gone, and accelerate even further the destruction of our air, water, soil, food, lands, oceans and resources that have led to the sixth great extinction of life on our planet. Perhaps if we gave a little push to this one little domino — offices and what they represent — it might start something in motion that would precipitate something more profound, and at least spare future generations some of the consequences of our folly.

But just watch the resistance from the plutocracy if this starts to happen. They know what they have to lose. And if they decide they need fewer offices after the pandemic, you know whose offices will remain untouched.

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CoVid-19: Let’s Admit We Still Don’t Know

This is the 13th 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.

Throughout the current pandemic, there have been ‘experts’ of all kinds trying to build a reputation (political, professional, social) by badmouthing what the world’s public health officers have been saying, doing, and urging the public to do, in the face of CoVid-19.

Some of these have been conspiracy theorists and their repeater-drones, who are not worth wasting further effort engaging. But others are seemingly well-meaning, intelligent, mentally balanced people. There is a propensity I think in most of us to challenge popular wisdom: “Everything you thought you knew about X is wrong:”. In many cases, when that skepticism is based on reason, research and reasonable doubt, such challenges can be very useful, even essential. But in other cases (as with the climate collapse skeptics) they can cause harmful confusion and delay, and destroy the morale of people doing important work, especially in a crisis.

I’ve been critical of the anti-mask professionals (“There’s no definitive proof they do any good”), and the anti-social distancing and anti-shutdown advocates. Our society has suffered immensely from our seemingly inherent incapacity to exercise the precautionary principle, even in times of crisis. The majority’s collective global response to CoVid-19 to date has been a rare positive signal that we can exercise this principle, and this discipline, when we have a mind to do it. If we can, then there’s hope for resilience in the crises to come.

What the “until there’s unequivocal proof I won’t accept it” argument leads to is the antithesis of resilience. It leads to resistance to change, inability to adapt, and refusal to give others, and perilous situations, the benefit of the doubt. Whether it’s spoken by doctrinaire conservatives or doctrinaire libertarians, in sufficient numbers it can paralyze our capacity to deal effectively with complex situations of all kinds. It leads to dithering, backsliding, and denial that there’s a problem — the kind of thinking and emotional responses that have been so much on display among the political leaders of the US, UK and Brasil in particular in the face of CoVid-19 and all the other crises that have arisen recently and will become more and more commonplace in the years ahead.

Public health leaders have been saying for decades that we need to be prepared to take drastic, immediate, global action to deal with the threat of pandemics in our ever more crowded and ever more mobile world. Except in a small handful of countries that have breezed through the current crisis, they have been largely ignored.

What the latest group of nay-sayers are now proclaiming is that the mortality of CoVid-19 is evolving to be much lower than was thought or feared, and as it moves more aggressively through younger populations around the world the death toll will prove to be much lower than the 0.68% IFR (translating to 50 million global deaths) that scientists and public health experts have been computing it to be, and assuming, in the absence of better estimates, it to be. It is possible they are correct. It could be as much as five times lower (0.13%, translating to only 10 million global deaths at most).

In a typical year a half million globally die of influenza viruses (50,000 in the US); most of those who die are old and/or suffer from complicating medical conditions, and for that reason the ’cause’ of death may be complicated and hence the numbers are very imprecise). So if the upper limit of global CoVid-19 deaths is 5 million a year over a couple of years, that’s only 10 times the normal influenza rate, and it’s only half the number of people who die each year from cancer. Still a pandemic, and awful, but not the historical catastrophe many feared.

What this group then goes on to suggest, however, is that public health experts and politicians knew this to be the case, and have used the “pandemic” as an excuse to grab executive power and throttle civil liberties. This implication is IMO dishonest, dangerous, and an insult to our public health community and the health care professionals dealing with the disease.

If it turns out that CoVid-19 is only, at worst, ten times as bad as a normal flu season, the obvious questions are (a) how could we have been so wrong, and (b) if we’d known, what would we have done differently?

For a start, we really have little way to know what the actual infection and death toll numbers are. Data collection methods in most places are crude to non-existent, decisions on what ’caused’ a particular death (especially with other preconditions) can be all over the map, and there was (and still largely is) no accurate method to detect who is infected and who is infectious, though we’re getting better at it. So estimating the IFR is a wildly imprecise and ever-changing exercise. Due to lack of testing there were early estimates that IFR could be as high as 3-4%, though opinions varied by as much as an order of magnitude. We are still wildly behind in processing what little credible death data we have, and will never know how many CoVid-19 deaths we missed, though several studies suggest that we’ve missed at least a third of them in our reports in most affluent nations, and 90% of them in some struggling nations, based on excess deaths data. Even with the benefit of hindsight, estimated deaths from the 1918 H1N1 pandemic still vary by an order of magnitude, from 10 million to 100 million — the 50 million most often cited is really, still, just a crude guess.

The data from the SARS-1 and MERS coronaviruses, the two most recent “novel” coronaviruses (novel in that they’re not “common” like the many common cold coronaviruses), suggest that they had terrifyingly high IFRs of 10-50%, but fortunately were not very easily transmitted, so keeping the number of infections under tight control (isolation) allowed the death toll to be reduced to a tiny proportion of what might have occurred if it had had the transmissibility of CoVid-19.

So when China announced CoVid-19, there was understandable terror that this might be “the big one” that epidemiologists worldwide had feared. The combination of high virulence (IFR) and high transmissibility is a nightmare, with the potential to lead to a repeat of 1918 or the global plagues of much earlier times, or worse.

It should therefore be no surprise that the world’s public health leaders, with the best available information, strenuously recommended lockdowns, social distancing, and (in some cases) masks to mitigate this risk. The explosion of deaths, overloaded hospitals and huge positivity rates in March and April did nothing to ease these fears. Some surveys in several countries suggested that the IFR looked to be about 1%, while others suggested it was between 0.2% and 2%. Public health advice was based on the 1% assumption, which seemed consistent over several months — the best guess at the time.

More recently we’ve discovered that many people contract the disease asymptomatically, and including them in the case count lowered the best guess of the IFR to about 0.68%, which  is the estimate that is still being used by health authorities as more data comes in. As noted above, a 0.68% IFR in a highly transmissible disease (ie where everyone will be exposed until a herd immunity level where around 70% of the population has been infected and is hence immune, is reached) translates to a potential death toll of 0.68% x 7.8 billion = 50 million, less whatever proportion is not affected due to herd immunity, and barring an effective vaccine. That’s less than the potential 80 million deaths that a 1% IFR could have produced, but it’s still in 1918 range in total numbers killed, and two orders of magnitude more than “normal” annual influenza deaths. Worth a lockdown? Most people thought so.

By the end of September, the global reported death toll was more than a million, with estimates of global actual deaths averaging closer to twice that number. Reported deaths for the past four months have been very consistent at about 180,000/month, and reported cases and positivity rates in several early-hard-hit areas have been spiking upwards again. More troubling, even though the reported newly infected were much younger and expected to die in much smaller numbers when infected, CoVid-19 hospitalization numbers in the US and some other areas jumped back up to record levels in the late summer. But reported deaths did not rise nearly as much, causing some to question whether more people had actually been infected without incident than earlier thought (although models already suggested that as few as 10% of infections had actually been reported). Could the underreporting of cases be even more extreme than thought, and could the IFR be much lower than what the data so far had been pointing to?

That’s where we are now. The biggest challenge is that our tools for testing who has been infected are still limited, and not terribly reliable. Antigen tests until recently had suggested that even in the hardest-hit areas, only 20% of the population had been infected (far below herd immunity levels), and that worldwide on average only about 2% had been infected — still supporting the 0.68% IFR (2% x 7.8B x 0.68% = 1 million global deaths).

It was strange, therefore, to hear the head of the WHO suggest recently that as much as 10% of the world’s population, five times as many, had been infected. This suggests they believe that the actual IFR could be five times lower, about 0.13%, and that we’re looking at a maximum of 10 million CoVid-19 deaths, not 50 million. Indeed, assuming that the current reported deaths continue at a 180,000/month rate, ie 2 million a year, then it would be a surprise to hit even 10 million deaths before a vaccine is perfected, even assuming a third to a half of CoVid-19 deaths remain unreported. And indeed, some studies in India, which has many CoVid-19 deaths but surprisingly few deaths per million people, suggest that as many as a half of the people in parts of that country have been infected.

Many are not convinced. The IHME continues to use the 0.68% IFR and projects that by the end of January global reported deaths will hit 2.5 million, and the daily death rate will be 16,000, three times the current rate, which, if it continues unabated, would lead to 6 million more deaths next year until and unless an effective virus is implemented. Without sustaining at least some social distancing and masks restricting the spread, they say, the daily death rate will soar to 50,000 by January, an annual rate of 18 million more reported deaths. On this basis, it is easy to understand why public health experts feared that as many as 50 million might die without restrictions in place, if an effective vaccine was still years away.

But suppose they’re wrong, and the analyses that supported the 0.68% IFR were flawed, which is possible for a host of perfectly understandable, benign reasons. Suppose the antigen and other tests done to date have missed most infections, and that as the WHO is now proposing, 10% of the world’s population has already been infected and the actual IFR is hence only 0.13%. Suppose too that an effective vaccine will have been universally administered by December 2021. And finally, let’s suppose that by the end of this year, with death rates flat and hospitalizations manageable, pandemic fatigue has set in and we allow the disease to more or less run its course, continuing to ease restrictions in most of the world.

If herd immunity cuts in at 70%, that would mean the final death toll is likely to be 0.13% x 7.8B x 70% = 7 million deaths. That corresponds to about 300,000 deaths in the US and 35,000 in Canada. If the 0.13% is correct then that means already nearly half the US population has been infected, so it would be 2/3 the way to herd immunity. It would mean that about 20% of Canadians have already been infected, so it’s less than 1/3 the way to herd immunity. Another 25,000 deaths may well be unacceptable to Canadians (only 10,000 have died here so far, mostly in Québec), in which case the US may shrug and return to business as normal, while Canadians may well keep restrictions in place.

But if we do reach a consensus that this disease spread five times faster and farther than we thought, and is hence much less lethal than we thought, what does that mean for our assessment of public health’s performance to date, and what to do next?

To the conservatives and libertarians who think the whole exercise was overreach, the knee-jerk reaction is that the economy was shuttered unnecessarily, and putting public health in charge of decision-making, instead of the usual corporatist clowns, was a mistake. I think most public health leaders and organizations (except in the US, where absurd underfunding and political interference has seriously undermined the credibility of most of its public health institutions) has performed masterfully throughout this crisis. If you look at the chart at the top of this post, you can see that they were led (by the best data available at the time) to believe that the choice was between scenarios (1) and (2) shown in blue — ie between a “herd immunity” strategy (1), with 20 or 50 million likely to die, or a severe restrictions strategy (2), with a worst-case outcome of around 8 million deaths. Their choice was obvious, and responsible.

But suppose we now find out that the IFR is actually 0.13%, one fifth of what everyone thought it was, and that nearly half of Americans (except in isolated places like North Dakota, which this month has the highest daily death rate per million in the world) have already been infected? In that case we set scenarios (1) and (2) aside and look instead at 0.13% IFR scenarios (3) — “let herd immunity stop it” — and (4) — “let’s keep the restrictions on to save unnecessary deaths”. That’s a 7 million versus 3.5 million deaths choice. I know what my choice would (still) be. A lower IFR would be great news, and it would change nothing insofar as what should have been done and what we should continue to be doing.

I’d like to go further and see masks made mandatory everywhere — not as a criminal offence for the non-compliant but as a global social convention, a small sacrifice to tell the world we care about each other’s health and lives more than we care about a minor physical discomfort. That could save another million lives, and if it were universally accepted it might well stop this disease cold in its tracks — new cases reduced to zero, virus extinct — in a matter of weeks or at most a few months. Would that ever be a lesson for when (not if) the “big one” (the pandemic that is both highly virulent and highly transmissible, with deaths potentially in the billions) inevitably hits us. If we’re not careful, we now may end up becoming more complacent about pandemics if this one turns out to be “not so bad”, and that could prove disastrous in preparing for and addressing the next one.

A few other points that I’ve made over and over that still bear repeating:

  1. We still don’t know how this disease kills and sickens us. We’re still too busy fighting the fires to address how much damage they’ve done — how much damage the virus has done to our lungs, brains, hearts and other virus-susceptible organs. Even asymptomatic infected people have shown signs of concerning organ damage whose long-term effect is unknown. In a recent study 88% of CoVid-19 patients hospitalized showed permanent “lung abnormalities” and 75% were still struggling with serious symptoms three months after admission.
  2. Viruses can mutate, and new ones thrive among overcrowded breeding grounds like our cities and residential institutions (like prisons), especially when the inhabitants are chronically or acutely unwell. The second wave in 1918 did far more damage than the first, despite preparedness, and it mostly killed the young and healthy. We must be much better prepared for the viruses to come. It’s not that expensive.
  3. Pandemics were rare before 1918, and back then depended on ignorance and unsanitary conditions. They are common now, for three reasons we show no willingness or capacity to address — (1) factory farming, which has been the likely breeding ground for most recent “novel” virus strains, as well as being the source of poisoned, toxic foods that cause many times more human deaths and chronic diseases than pandemics; (2) the plundering of the planet’s last wilderness areas, which house untold numbers of viruses and bacteria to which humans have zero immunity; and (3) the exploitation, for food and quack medicines, of exotic creatures (like bats and pangolins) with very different immune systems from ours, which likewise expose us to all the viruses and bacteria to which they’re immune, when we “consume” them. Until we deal with these causes of pandemics, we had better damned well be ready to sacrifice convenience and profit to deal with their consequences.
  4. Much has been made about the “trade-off” between health and economy. In case anyone hasn’t been paying attention, our industrial growth economy is killing our world, poisoning and exhausting its life forms, its soils, its air and its water, to the point it’s precipitated the sixth great extinction of life on earth. And all of it — all of it! — accrues to the benefit of the richest 1%, simply to keep their stocks, land, products, options and bonuses growing in value. A temporary halt to that madness isn’t a sacrifice; it’s a chance to take stock of whether the way we live our lives is part of the solution or part of the problem, and hopefully start to remedy it.

Our public health and health care workers are doing their best under terribly trying conditions, and using very, very imperfect information. Let’s please give them the benefit of the doubt and stop with the blaming and shaming and second-guessing of ulterior motives. Nobody knows what’s going on. We’re just trying to figure it out, with everything we’ve got.

Thanks for reading. Please vote — British Columbians Oct 24th; Americans Nov 3rd, if not before.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

Is the Self a Mental Defect?

Image from wikimedia by Nick Hobgood, CC-BY-SA 3.0

“Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.”       — Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight – brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”  — Rust Cohle – character in the TV series True Detective

It’s easy to make up theories about prehistory and about how things came to be the way they are. Nothing can be proved. We don’t know what happened in our distant past, even vaguely. And as Rachel Syme explains in her article about the podcast series “You’re Wrong About…”, we believe, when it comes to history as in all things, what we want to believe is true. (There I’ve said it again; this might soon become Pollard’s very unoriginal Third Law.) I’m no different from anyone else, so this article is probably about what I want to believe about the evolution of the self, but at least I spare my readers the academic pretentiousness and cheesy citations to support my unsupportable theory.

My exploration of the theory of the self began with Julian Jaynes’ 50-year-old classic The Origin of Consciousness, which was essentially the writer’s sole published work beyond academic circles, and the result of a life’s work. He starts with a question — why were the earliest known societies with written language so preoccupied with spirits, gods and demons, and why does the tenor of their writing seem so different from even the closely-following works of the late Greek culture?

His hypothesis is basically that about 3,000 years ago, the human mind evolved from a “bicameral” sense-making device, to an integrated, synthesizing one. He argues that both language and the evolution of the capacity for synthesis of the brain’s bicameral processing were necessary preconditions for what he calls consciousness — essentially the awareness of one’s self as a separate thing with agency, and commensurate awareness of others with the same attributes.

Before that, while there was lots of cognition (which many living creatures have to a greater or lesser extent), there was no consciousness. Humans back then acted on impulses (“hallucinations”, the voices of the gods) that arose in their sense-making brains, as much as they acted in accordance with the autonomic instructions of their biological and experiential conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment. The result was chaos.

It’s an interesting theory that does offer an explanation for his questions about “pre-conscious” humans prior to about 3000 ya. It may also be right — there have been few compelling alternative suggestions in the 50 years since it was published, though that may be because most people probably don’t care how or why “pre-conscious” societies were different from ours.

Julian starts with a thorough review of various models to explain the nature of consciousness that had arisen by the time of publication in the 1970s. To me the most interesting and compelling (because it’s the one that I want to believe) is what he calls the “helpless spectator” model:

The [helpless spectator] doctrine assures us consciousness [aka the ‘self’] does nothing at all, and in fact can do nothing. Many tough-minded experimentalists still agree with Herbert Spencer that such a downgrading of consciousness is the only view that is consistent with straight evolutionary theory. Animals are evolved; nervous systems and their mechanical reflexes increase in complexity; when some unspecified degree of nervous complexity is reached, consciousness appears, and so begins its futile course as a helpless spectator of cosmic events. What we do is completely controlled by the wiring diagram of the brain and its reflexes to external stimuli. Consciousness is nothing more than the heat given off by the wires, a mere epiphenomenon. Conscious feelings, as Hodgson put it, are mere colors laid on the surface of a mosaic which is held together by its stones, not by the colors. Or as Huxley insisted in a famous essay, “we are conscious automata.” Consciousness can no more modify the working mechanism of the body or its behavior than can the whistle of a train modify its machinery or where it goes. Moan as it will, the tracks have long ago decided where the train will go. Consciousness is the melody that floats from the harp and cannot pluck its strings, the foam struck raging from the river that cannot change its course, the shadow that loyally walks step for step beside the pedestrian, but is quite unable to influence its journey.

Julian doesn’t choose a favourite among the five models; he’s more concerned about how and why consciousness arose than by what it is.

If the helpless spectator model is correct (and we can and will never know), then the question arises: What good is consciousness and why hasn’t it ceased to be the way humans apparently are if it doesn’t actually help us to survive and thrive?

A possible answer to this is that nature just tries things out, when they’re possible, to see if a “better fit” can be identified for species within Gaia, one that would make all-life-on-earth tick a little better. Most of what’s in our bodies has no discernible purpose, and much of it was probably the result of abandoned evolutionary experiments; Gaia’s work is never done, much to the dismay of anthropocentrists.

So why hasn’t consciousness ceased to be the human condition if it is just a helpless spectator, if the creature in which consciousness presumes to reside is unaffected by it? The obvious answer to this is that it’s only been around 3,000 years, a blink in the cosmic eye of time. And the sixth great extinction we have precipitated may be nature’s way of doing just that — though, sadly, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Perhaps planetary annihilation is nature’s way of continuing its successful experiment with cognition, while jettisoning the useless excess cognition we call consciousness.

Or, if Julian’s theory is correct, perhaps the mental illness of the too-big-for-its-own-good early human brain and its “hallucinations” was a problem for Gaia even before the emergence of consciousness. Or perhaps the evolution of consciousness was an attempt to correct the likely-dysfunctional “hallucinations”. We can never know, and it doesn’t matter much. My take from all of this is that the helpless spectator, the consciousness or illusion of apparent separateness and selfhood, was an evolutionary error, a form of mental defect or illness that has now infected almost all of the humans on the planet.

The social brain hypothesis of Robin Dunbar and Michael Graziano takes Julian’s ideas a step further, arguing that language and consciousness evolved in humans not so much in order to create a model of self, but rather to enable us to create a model of others — as social creatures, we benefit from insights as to what motivates others of our species to do what they do.

Michael explains that a forerunner to consciousness was the attention-focusing mechanism of the body. If you’ve watched birds whose heads bob continually as they move, you may know that that movement is (counter-intuitively) energy-conserving for the bird, and that the bird brain has to create a model of what its sensory perceptions represent, by compensating for this constant movement of the head and eyes. All creatures’ eyes have mechanisms for focusing attention on what’s evolutionarily likely to be important — they automatically focus on outlines between apparent objects so that eg the yellow tiger can be quickly differentiated from the surrounding camouflage.

It’s not a huge step from there, Michael argues, to imagine that this attention-focusing brain might pause between tiger sightings to ponder what it is that is focusing its attention. The Attention Schema Theory posits just that, as the origin of consciousness — an awareness simultaneously of “other” and of “self”. Such awareness is unnecessary to escape the tiger, of course, but it’s useful in manipulating others in one’s tribe to do things one thinks should be done. Large brains are capable of “covert attention”, focusing on what it is not immediate and demanding. They are capable of imagining what cannot be directly sensed, which requires the invention of time and space to accommodate.

And with that enormous imaginative capacity comes its consequences — the ideas of agency and responsibility and the gamut of negative emotions — anxiety arising from ordinary immediate fear, shame and guilt arising from ordinary immediate sadness, blame and rage-sustained violence and enduring hatred arising from ordinary immediate anger. These “secondary” emotions need the illusion of consciousness and a separate self to claim them. If “we” conscious selves are indeed helpless spectators, these secondary negative emotions could be enormously destructive, self-damaging, and self-traumatizing. Just as hallucinations can affect our conditioned behaviour even though they are not real, the negative emotions claimed by the traumatized separate conscious self may affect how we apparently behave (wars, depression, neuroses and psychoses) even though that self is an illusion, a mental illness, a defect in the brain.

The obvious question, in the unlikely case you buy what I’ve said so far, is — can it be cured? If agency and selfhood and separation are just illusions, and if the radical non-dualists are right that consciousness and self are completely unnecessary to the successful functioning of the totally conditioned (given the ever-changing circumstances of the moment, so nothing is predetermined) character, could we “fix” the brain to rid it of the self and sense of consciousness and separation? The radical non-dualists assert we cannot — there is no “path” to losing the mental defect of the self; the illusion will either cease in one’s apparent lifetime or it won’t.

Others are not so sure. Long-term meditators have been found through fMRI scans to have different mental patterning processes and to be less prone to the secondary negative emotions that seem to accompany the emergence of the self, separation and consciousness. (It is ironic that many meditators claim to seek/find a “higher consciousness”, when perhaps they should be striving to lose their conscious selves entirely, and perhaps meditation leads in part towards that.)

Michael Pollan’s new book talks about the “default settings” in the brain’s neural pathways that seem associated with the sense of self, which temporarily cease to fire under some hallucinogens, and which apparently fire less often in those who’ve meditated for decades. It would be fascinating to do an fMRI scan of Tim Cliss‘ or Tony Parsons‘ brain and see if these pathways no longer fire in their brains. If so, although it would seem a long way away, I wonder if it might actually be possible to develop a genetic or surgical therapy that would permanently disrupt these pathways, essentially ending the sense of self.

Could the mental defect that has plagued us for at least 3,000 years one day be cured by a simple surgical excising of the neural pathway that lies behind it? That would be real liberation! I’m dubious — we know so little about the brain and its workings — but the seeker in all of us never ceases looking for the end of separation’s anguish. What if, instead of a path to liberation, the way to it is by shutting down a false, illusory, stressful and useless path that already exists in our brains?

Human brains are already shrinking — we don’t need to be as smart to survive imprisoned by the terrible knowledge of cities and civilizations. But we will never be healthy as long as we have the civilization disease that would seem to stem from the mental defect we call consciousness.

Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Galápagos — about the last surviving humans in a post-civ world, in which the survivors evolve into small-brained furry sea-lion like creatures, free of selves, will turn out to be prescient. (The story’s narrator says “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain.”) Nature will bat last, and she has a wonderful sense of humour.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 5 Comments

Links of the Month: October 2020

cartoon by Reza Farazmand at

In my dream you were beautiful, backlit, noble. In the low light of the window you were leaning on the edge. The high rises and billboards for perfume and call girls, the steam above the dark road, the smoke around your head. And I knew you by description, the tall tales, the pictures, your short hair and your lipstick, the smell of coming rain. And I wanted to remain there, a voyeur, a stranger, below you in the night air, just waiting to be changed. And eyeliner and nylons, the calm upon your face drawn, revealing next to nothing, and a deal you don’t believe. A bible in the locked drawer, the past you gave it up for, the hymnal and the comfort in exchange for living free. And lined up with the laundry, your slacks and all your stockings, silk jacket and the soft things you dance in when you dream. And the neighbours never mention the woman they see leaving is the man who works the morning shift selling gasoline. In my dream you were stone still, shadowed, half filled, a masterpiece of pure will just waiting on the world. To gaze upon your body, a razor on a rough cheek, a blaze of burning beauty, the saved and the worth saving, a hallelujah waiting to raise the heavy curtain, a play with no good ending, a prayer that never mentioned that the glory of the question and the answer is the same.  —  Anna Tivel, The Question


cartoon in the New Yorker by Jeremy Nguyen

Biodiversity on the verge of collapse in one fifth of world’s nations: The collapse of biodiversity and the collapse of stable climate are two of the main elements of ecological collapse, the accelerating great extinction of life on earth. A new map shows where biodiversity collapse is happening first, and now. The Guardian gives the highlights of where collapse is happening; the map showing collapse areas in red is here. These areas include most of Australia, India and the Mideast; much of China, central Asia, southern and Saharan Africa, central US, Mexico, eastern South America and the Arctic.

Yet another unheeded indigenous warning:Your civilization is killing life on earth.”


photo by William Smith from the Frans de Waal Facebook page

The new faces of old growth activism: Profile of the heroes risking their health and safety to fight the BC government’s outrageous continued logging of BC’s last old growth forests. Both of BC’s largest parties in the upcoming election continue to support the practice. Time for some new faces and new voices.

Bonnie Henry acts on fentanyl poisoning as government does nothing: After furious pleas to the BC government to address the street drug poisoning epidemic that’s killed three times as many people this year as CoVid-19, BC’s senior public health officer went ahead on her own and authorized nurses to prescribe safe alternatives, a bold move to try to stem the crisis that has received international attention. She has also called for decriminalization of all drug possession. Neither of BC’s largest parties has agreed to do this, and the reactionary BC “Liberal” party pledges to replace the paltry existing public health programs dealing with substance dependence with “abstinence-based” programs, which will make the situation unimaginably worse. If only we could have real leaders like Dr Henry making all our laws.

David Graeber on the bold experiment of the Syrian Kurds: Amidst the chaos and bloody civil war in Syria, its stateless Kurdish citizens try an anarcho-feminist solution, and it works brilliantly until the Turkish army marches in and slaughters everyone.

Roger Hallam is in jail: The UK, which continues to imprison and torture Julian Assange, has arrested and is indefinitely holding the brilliant and inspiring XR founder Roger Hallam. The British government apparently doesn’t like freedom of expression any more than it likes freedom of information. Roger, Julian and Edward Snowden are all showing the world what we will have to face if we want to speak truth to power.

Something to hold on to: A moving short video by novelist John Green, whose suffering from OCD is particularly excruciating as CoVid-19 endures, explaining how he manages from day to day.

The difference a smile makes: A project on how we project ourselves, and how that is received by others. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link, and the links in the two items that follow.

The magic of “steward-ownership”: A new form of business organization protects people-over-profit enterprises from corporate takeovers. It might prevent takeovers like the sell-out of Canada’s beloved MEC Coop, to a private US corporation connected to military ordnance, no less. (PS: Unincorporated community-run initiatives can be part of the solution too.)

Preparing to stop a coup: If you’re worried about the US election being stolen,  here’s how you can be properly prepared if it is. And the Atlantic describes how such a coup might come to pass.


cartoon from the New Yorker by David Sipress

Will incompetence destroy the NYT?: The venerable paper is still reeling from a seemingly endless series of mind-boggling errors, mostly around current management’s insistence on “both-sidesing” issues to the point it has, among other things, published right-wing screeds full of misinformation encouraging violence against protesters and defending racism. It is seemingly relying more and more on sensationalizing and muckraking, the kind of attention-grabbing it has long criticized the tabloids and Faux “news” outlets for. More and more of its headlines are from the same un-cited “US intelligence sources” that used misinformation to stir up support for the outrageous Iraq War, and are now stirring up anti-Russia paranoia. Now, a brave article published (astonishingly) in the paper itself by reporter Ben Smith reveals that much of the paper’s coverage of ISIS in recent years, notably its signature series Caliphate, was absurdly exaggerated or completely fabricated, largely due to the irresponsibility of reporter Rukmini Callimachi, who relied enormously on a Canadian “ISIS informant” now arrested in Canada and found to be a fake “terrorist” who invented his entire narrative and has never even been in Syria. Ben wonders aloud if the newspaper can credibly survive this latest blunder.

Why the fires are burning: Contrary to the regurgitated forest industry propaganda, most of the ghastly Oregon fires this fall occurred in clear-cut areas, not “under-managed” forests. The cause of the fires is climate change, compounded by an unprecedented sudden shift in winds from west to east that burned areas that would normally never be threatened by high-altitude mountain fires. Here’s a thread with a more complete explanation of what has produced this year’s catastrophic fires. Thanks to John Abbe and Peter Kaminski for the links.

More David Graeber, on why the US dollar benefits from wars and US-caused crises: A fascinating and irreverent explanation from 2017 of the corporatist intrigue between real estate and financial interests in the US and Europe. Want to know about how and why economic and regulatory decisions are made, watch this, probably a couple of times because in this video David talks fast. Also a great perspective on 45: “Even though he’s an evil racist bastard, if anyone is going to be able to dismantle the [corrupt and dysfunctional] American empire, it would have to be a right-wing populist.”

Anti-environmental witch-hunt commissioner says he doesn’t have time to fact-check: A disgusting campaign to discredit and disrupt environmental organizations, propagated by Alberta’s lunatic-fringe premier, has run into problems, because, and I’m not making this up, the commissioner says he needs more time and money if he’s expected to actually fact-check what people are saying to him. In the same vein, in the US, Faux News lawyers have successfully argued that their news mouthpieces can’t be charged with slander because they’re in the entertainment business not the information business — no one should believe anything they say is credible, so it can’t be slander.

The sorry state of BC politics: With an election two weeks away, and (see items in previous section) the two leading parties both in the pockets of corporate/ development interests, the alternative left has completely imploded. After a federal Green Party campaign to replace the incompetent ditherer Elizabeth May blew up (with two strong leftist candidates disbarred at the last minute and other disasters), the party lost what little credibility it had left after it had purged, in 2017, all its leaders who dared to support (along with 85% of its party members) sanctions against Israel for its atrocities in Palestine. The Federal Green Party ultimately voted for meddling Elizabeth May’s hand-chosen conservative successor over any of the truly leftist candidates. That left only the new BC Ecosocialist party’s Stewart Parker standing. He explained how the complicity of BC Greens (which he once led) in fracking and the Site C mega-dam were completely contrary to the party’s own platform. But — it gets worse — he was then charged with being transphobic for his support of JK Rowling’s position on women-born-women’s right of association and assembly, and forced to resign from his new party. Utter madness.

Banksy mural, from the XR website

NIH PR official secretly works to undermine NIH and badmouths Dr Fauci: In the “hard to get good staff” department, it would be hard to top the story that Bill Crews, while taking money as a salaried NIH exec, used a pseudonym on social media to criticize his employer and promote CoVid-19 conspiracy theories.

The US white supremacy fascists are getting ornery: In addition to attempting a kidnapping and coup in Michigan, right-wing nut-groups also planned in advance to create and foment violence in Portland, including using bats, mace, frozen paintballs and stun guns, and plotting assassinations.

The $47T heist: A new study suggests that if US tax rates had stayed where they were in 1975, the 1% would have paid $47T more in taxes since then than they have — $47T that should have gone into the pockets of the 99% and into public services for everyone’s benefit.

The man who refused to spy: This is chilling: The FBI tried to recruit an Iranian scientist working in the US as an informant. When he refused, he was threatened, abused, blackmailed, deprived of due process, and repeatedly jailed on trumped-up charges, and finally deported. No one has been charged for the multiple crimes committed against him. And they wonder why so many people are nervous about visiting the US!


original source unknown

The key to the pandemic is super-spreaders: This is precisely why I said we all need to keep our eye on Zeynep Tufekci. This woman is not only extraordinarily brilliant, she has a stunning capacity to see patterns that few others can see. I’ve had a hunch that there is more to super-spreaders than we thought — the disease occurrence has Pareto written all over it. I think identifying super-spreaders may be as important as finding a vaccine. The fact that one woman in Korea infected 5,000 others during one megachurch gathering, almost a quarter of all the reported cases in Korea, should have been a wake-up call. Thanks to Tom Atlee for the link. Excerpt:

In study after study, we see that super-spreading clusters of COVID-19
almost overwhelmingly occur in poorly ventilated, indoor environments
where many people congregate over time — weddings, churches, choirs,
gyms, funerals, restaurants, and such — especially when there is loud talking or singing without masks…  prolonged contact, poor ventilation, [a] highly infectious person, [and] crowding — as the key elements for a super-spreader event. Super-spreading can also occur indoors beyond the six-feet guideline, because SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen causing COVID-19, can travel through the air and accumulate, especially if ventilation is poor.

More bungling and outrages by underfunded and politically compromised US public health authorities: Last month we had the announcement and retraction of the CDC bulletin (ghostwritten by the incompetent HHS) discouraging testing for the asymptomatic. This month we have the CDC reporting, and then retracting, a claim that airborne transmission of CoVid-19 is possible at distances well beyond six feet. Since this is not news to anyone following the science, the retraction was clearly the result of more political interference. And then we discover that Michael Caputo, a Trump-appointed exec at HHS with no health background or experience whatsoever, is taking a “leave of absence” after reports of his attempts to “take over and muzzle” CDC CoVid-19 releases, and a video he made on his personal Facebook page warning that scientists are “conspiring” against Trump and that there will be “shooting” on November 4th. Maybe he can get a job working with Bill Crews at NIH (see earlier section).

“Test, trace and… what?”: Things aren’t much better in the UK, where the grossly-underfunded NHS is doing its best under trying conditions, but when it comes to the UK’s citizens, “adherence to test, trace and isolate behaviours is low… identification of COVID-19 symptoms is also low”. What this report says is that fewer than half of British citizens interviewed know the symptoms of the disease well enough to even roughly self-diagnose, and fewer than one in five contacted as possibly infected are actually adhering to assigned test, trace and isolate behaviours essential to keeping outbreaks in check. But apparently they have “good intentions” to do so in future.


New Yorker cartoon by Kendra Allenby

Living under totalitarianism: Legendary Canadian interviewer Eleanor Wachtel talks with the extraordinary Masha Gessen about what it’s like living in a totalitarian state, what it was and is like living in Russia, what Vladimir Putin is really like, the struggles of non-binary people, and why she predicted Trump would win the 2016 election.

The seventh great extinction?: The Carnian-Pluvial event 233 mya is now being considered as coinciding with a sixth great known historical extinction of life on earth, so that the current human-caused one might now be more accurately described as the seventh. The extinction seems to have resulted from massive volcanic eruptions in what is now Alaska and British Columbia, causing sudden global warming that wiped out much of life on earth and ushered in the age of dinosaurs.

Been around a long time: On the heels of the discovery of interbreeding between Andean and Polynesian peoples 30,000 years ago, and Indigenous Australian art that dates back 100,000 years, comes the new discovery of Mexican settlements that are more than 30,000 years old. We are just starting on a journey that I think will completely demolish the established story of human origins and migration paths. (And no, no UFOs are involved, just parallel evolution.)

Macro/Micro Worlds: Stunning nature photography, close-up and close-in.

Robert Sapolsky on Free Will: Scientific American talks with the neuroscientist and biologist about the biology underlying our behaviour, about free will, and about the folly of prison as punishment. If you like it, read his wonderful new book Behave.

Ani DiFranco reminds you to vote: Ani’s joyful new song “Do or Die” will have you dancing all the way to the polls.


The flight, photo by Simerpreet Cheema on Pixabay

Julian Jaynes on the epiphenomenon of consciousness and the self: From his book The Origin of Consciousness:

The [helpless spectator] doctrine assures us consciousness [aka the ‘self’] does nothing at all, and in fact can do nothing. Many tough-minded experimentalists still agree with Herbert Spencer that such a downgrading of consciousness is the only view that is consistent with straight evolutionary theory. Animals are evolved; nervous systems and their mechanical reflexes increase in complexity; when some unspecified degree of nervous complexity is reached, consciousness appears, and so begins its futile course as a helpless spectator of cosmic events. What we do is completely controlled by the wiring diagram of the brain and its reflexes to external stimuli. Consciousness is nothing more than the heat given off by the wires, a mere epiphenomenon. Conscious feelings, as Hodgson put it, are mere colors laid on the surface of a mosaic which is held together by its stones, not by the colors. Or as Huxley insisted in a famous essay, “we are conscious automata.” Consciousness can no more modify the working mechanism of the body or its behavior than can the whistle of a train modify its machinery or where it goes. Moan as it will, the tracks have long ago decided where the train will go. Consciousness is the melody that floats from the harp and cannot pluck its strings, the foam struck raging from the river that cannot change its course, the shadow that loyally walks step for step beside the pedestrian, but is quite unable to influence its journey.

Frank describes nothing and everything: Frank McCaughey, the guy who interviewed dozens of people who had apparently lost all sense of themselves being real and separate from everything, somehow finally lost himself this year (just a coincidence that it was shortly after he interviewed me, though my self is still infuriatingly around). Here’s how he now expresses the radical non-duality message. Excerpt:

There is a communication available. Its words appear to describe something radically alternative to the story of me, my life and becoming a better me… This description suggests that there is no you doing or choosing anything… No you and no me… No you that can feel less anxious. No you that can become a better you… This communication suggests there is no time, no location, no place, no here or there. Just what is. And in this what is, all the stories can unwind and what’s left is ‘something appearing to happen’. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, anything and everything appearing to happening… This alive heart-thumping communication can be heard as horrible, boring, dull, disgusting, nihilistic or utterly liberating. It’s heard how it’s heard. The suggestion is, there is no one doing that hearing or that reaction. Just the reaction… ‘What is’ cannot be avoided, negotiated with or accepted. What is cannot be lost or found. What is cannot be owned, bargained with, exchanged, shared or even explained. What is cannot be attained or a state that can be held on to. And yet any of those attempts is also what is. It’s this. Already. In, of and as what is happening.

Nothing needs to happen: Ryan Otis interviews Jim Newman.


Lana Finck’s brilliant Literoji from the NYT. Click on image for larger size and zoom in; it’s hilarious and well worth exploring

From 45, in a widely-reported recent ABC interview asserting CoVid-19 will soon disappear even without a vaccine:

“It would go away without the vaccine George,” he said speaking to ABC journalist George Stephanopoulos. “With time it goes away. And you’ll develop like a herd mentality. It’s going to be herd developed, and that’s going to happen. That will all happen.”

Next Links of the Month will be after both the US and BC elections. Please vote, even if you have to hold your nose while wearing your mask.

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

Ten Tips For Dealing With Complex Predicaments

Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework

This is a bit of a screed against really bad “strategic” plans, which is to say most of the documents that go by that name. Most written plans these days are means to achieve a particular set of objectives, and most of those objectives have to do with complex situations. If the situation or problem were merely complicated, anyone with appropriate training and basic analytical skills could solve it; there would be no need for an involved plan.

Whether it’s an organizational goal (like coping with CoVid-19 or with a competitive threat), a social one (like combatting racism), an economic one (like reducing inequality), or an ecological one (like dealing with climate collapse), chances are it’s about dealing with complex predicaments, not (merely) complicated problems.

As I’ve explained in my “Complexity 101” posts, the difference is night and day. As the Cynefin chart above shows (Cynefin, pronounced “kuh-nev’-in”, is a wonderful Welsh word that means something like “the place from which your identity and understanding arises”), complicated problems can be analyzed methodically and pretty-much solved, such as  in the design and construction of a building. A complex predicament on the other hand can never be fully or even thoroughly understood — there are too many variables at work — so the best that can be hoped for in addressing it is a collective appreciation of it and some ideas to accommodate, adapt to and/or work around it.

That doesn’t mean that dealing with that competitive threat (or other complex, dynamic socio-economic or ecological challenge) is hopeless. It just means there is no way to reliably “fix” it. You might find ways to outwit the new competitor, but if you succeed it will be more good luck than good management; rewards or punishments for your success or failure are likely to be inappropriate in any case. You will likely not even really know whether your ultimate success or failure had much of anything to do with your actions. The thing about complex situations is you can never know.

So if we can’t “fix” a predicament, what are some of the best ways to “appreciate, accommodate, adapt to and work around it”? And how can we get the oblivious command-and-control psychopaths most of us have worked for to appreciate the intractability of predicaments, stop asking us to “fix” them, and let us get on with doing our best at what we do?

My philosophy on this differs from that of most of the complexity theorists who get paid for helping their clients deal with complex predicaments. If they want to continue to get paid, they need to offer the client more than “it’s a complex predicament so there’s no solution”. They will suggest ways to intervene (in a way they’re offering a kind of corporate therapy for what is in fact an untreatable condition).

I’m not much for therapies that suggest that you can fix what you can’t. Call me a defeatist (you won’t be the first) but I think there’s a lot to be said for acknowledging what we don’t know, what we can’t predict, and what — no matter how gargantuan and powerful we might grow to be — we really can’t hope to change. Pollard’s Law of Complexity says (sorry for those tired of hearing it):

Things are the way they are for a reason. To change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success at truly changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy. Complex systems evolve to self-sustain and resist reform until they finally collapse. That is just how they work.

What we can do is to learn more about the complex predicament, and about our own situation (personal and community) trying to deal with that predicament. And we can try some things out, some of which (unpredictably) may seem to work, to some extent, at least for a while.

When I talked to clients about complex predicaments (I’m long retired), I tried to keep in mind that people dealing with such predicaments are a lot like squirrels facing a squirrel baffle blocking their access to a birdseed container. The squirrels have no control over the situation with the baffle, which may suddenly change in unpredictable ways. All they can do is explore it, experiment, and try to work around it. Humans dealing with complex predicaments are really no different.

Here are ten things that I often tried to do during my career helping small enterprises tackle big challenges — things that we can do to explore and learn more about complex predicaments that we can never fully know or understand, and to experiment with them, work around them, and adapt ourselves to them as the situation changes:

  1. Do primary research: As contrasted with searches on the internet (secondary research), primary, face-to-face conversational research gives us context for the knowledge, perspectives, and insights of those who’ve been dealing with this predicament already, about what they’ve learned, and what they’ve found to work, and not work, and why. It gives us a chance to go deeper than lazy online reading and data collection (based on conclusions that support the author’s view and reputation, validly or not) can ever hope to offer. Ideally those conversations should be recorded and/or transcribed so that each collaborator can draw their own conclusions and insights from them, and then the group should apply collective sensemaking to assess what all this research means.
  2. Get all the voices in the room: Many causes tend to attract like-minded people who are at the same point in their exploration of a predicament. The “wisdom of crowds” demands a diversity, at least of knowledge, backgrounds and perspectives, and ideally of experiences and competencies, of collaborators. And of course it requires actually listening to those diverse voices, attentively, thoughtfully, and without judgement, Bohm- or Schmactenberger-style.
  3. Surface the misinformation and myths: It’s amazing how often dogma — about why things are the way they are, or about what works and doesn’t, or about what’s been tried and hasn’t, about whose knowledge and insights are most valuable, and about what’s possible and what really isn’t, and why — prevails over what’s really true, often just because it’s repeated the most by those who a group or culture trusts the most. We all have blind spots; we all think we know more than we really do. When you start with presumptions that are incorrect, stories that are compelling but untrue, and facts and ideas that you want to believe but shouldn’t, that faulty foundation is bound to let you down.
  4. Capture stories not just data: Stories, provided they’re true and not dangerous myths, are powerful because they’re memorable, they suggest trajectory not just current state, they capture the imagination, and they’re more engaging than the most persuasive facts and charts. Military campaigners don’t just study the data on past conflicts; they study the stories of success and failure to appreciate why and how things turned out as they did.
  5. Be modest in your expectations: There is no “fix” for complex predicaments, whether they be marital breakups or global poverty. Such predicaments can be explored and can sometimes (usually unpredictably) be influenced, but they cannot be “solved”. For that reason, “safe-to-fail” and “fail-fast” experiments are more valuable than large-scale gambles. Workarounds are often more effective than trying to blast away an obstacle. Most of all, it’s important not to take the credit — or blame — when things turn out perfectly, or much better or worse than expected, since your intervention probably had little to do with it! (In any case, people who don’t care who gets credit for their good ideas, suggestions and work generally accomplish much more than those who do.)
  6. Iterate: Conversations are inherently iterative, back-and-forth exchanges leading towards understanding, clarity, and appreciation. In general, iterative work recognizes that the understanding of a complex predicament co-evolves with the understanding of possible approaches for dealing with it. Design purists tend to dislike iteration — it’s often inefficient and involves a lot of rethinking and starting over. But it’s how we learn, individually and especially collectively. In complex situations where knowledge is inevitably incomplete and evolving, it’s how we learn best.
  7. Avoid the safe way: Goethe said that boldness has genius and magic in it. Having the courage to try something radically different that has been carefully thought through does not mean foolhardiness; rather, it means having the collective will to take a path that is not the safest or least risky when both the potential success and the likely danger of failure are higher. I’ve seen tragic situations where at the last minute a group backed down from a potentially magnificent, radical initiative, in favour of a more timid, lower-risk, lower-potential one. In many cases, that timidness leads to failure.
  8. Beware of “magic” technologies: Mars colonies; hydrogen energy; geoengineering. Our fascination with fantasy and sci-fi grooms us to want to believe that technology can fix everything. Yet every technology ever invented has created challenges at least commensurate with its benefits. Whatever your predicament, a database or an app is unlikely to be the solution.
  9. Objectives are not strategies: When you read, in a so-called “strategic plan”, a “strategy” in the form: “Develop a plan to produce [end result]” it is simply not a strategy. A strategy describes specifically how you are going to achieve an objective, almost always including what you are not going to do (any more, or instead) to free up the time and resources to pursue this particular strategy. If your “strategic plan” is mostly just objectives, it makes sense to set most of them aside and develop an actual strategic plan to actually achieve a few of those objectives.
  10. Chunk it: Just as you can’t solve a (merely complicated) Sudoku puzzle by taking it all in at once and simultaneously filling in all the numbers, you can’t effectively address a complex predicament without breaking it down into manageable “chunks”. The key is all in how you chunk it. If you break the task down by roles and assign people to each, you’ll lose the benefit of collective wisdom, and, since you also have to iterate, probably have to do many things over and over again to consider and incorporate new discoveries, ideas and learning. Techniques like visual recording and systems diagrams (which may also change as knowledge and collective wisdom evolve) can help a group assess what are the logical “chunks” — things to work on together, and in what approximate order. Like most complex predicament work, it’s an art, not a science.

gif of chess master Patrick Wolff from a post on chunking when dealing with complex situations, by Richard Maltzman

There’s a propensity among the lazy and idealistic (speaking as someone who’s inclined to be both) to put unrealistic “placeholders” in place of practical actions, to make apparent great leaps forward in achieving one’s objectives in grappling with predicaments, when those placeholders are dependent on some factor that is actually beyond your group’s control. So it’s important that your plan avoid steps that depend on:

    • changing people’s minds (ad industry hype notwithstanding, it rarely happens)
    • achieving a “culture change” (which generally only occurs when a generation dies off and a new one takes power, and often doesn’t even occur then)
    • finding needed resources (the ultimate excuse for not being able to proceed)
    • some future event happening (it rarely does)
    • “we all need to…” type statements (ie magical and/or wishful thinking)

If you’re reading an analysis or proposal or plan that includes such dependencies, please stop wasting your time. If you’re writing plans that include such dependencies, it’s time to stop kidding yourself and your client or audience and get real. Recognizing the current situation and its constraints isn’t defeatist — it’s honest and pragmatic and can liberate you to start focusing on things that you can actually control and accomplish.

Squirrels trying to beat the baffle know these things. They know to watch other squirrels try, and learn from them; that collaboration works better than solo effort (I once watched two raccoons, one on the shoulders of the other, unbolt and completely dismantle a bird feeder with a squirrel baffle in under five minutes, including carrying off the metal baffle); that it’s important to overcome misunderstandings and preconceptions about the system they’re studying; that the reasons for success and failure are usually complex and not straightforward; that small successes are better than huge failures; that approaches need constant tweaking to improve their likelihood of success; that sometimes they need to be bold and take a chance on something scary and risky; that the tools at their disposal are usually limited in how much they can help them; that really wanting something badly is rarely enough; that good strategy means giving up doing something that wasn’t working; that it’s often best to break a tough challenge into more manageable smaller ones; and that sometimes it makes sense to give up and move on to another, less intractable, objective.

So you might do yourself and your collaborators a favour by thinking like a squirrel next time you or your group are dealing with a complex predicament like:

    • the healthcare system in your country, or how it’s handling CoVid-19
    • dealing with a family or organizational break-up
    • how to best look after elderly or dysfunctional family members
    • coping with poverty, addiction, inequality, racism, a fragile economy, and runaway climate change
    • most socioeconomic and ecological “system problems”
    • issues with the human body and other organisms

As for how to deal with self-obsessed, arrogant bosses who are clueless about how to actually, effectively deal with these kinds of situations, I have no real suggestions, other than to find better work. Now that‘s a complex predicament.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Working Smarter | 3 Comments

Jim Newman at the Nothing Conference

Here are some lightly edited excerpts from Jim Newman‘s intro and Q&A, hosted by Emerson at the recent Nothing Conference:

So this message is really a response to the individual’s not wanting to miss something. It has no answers to the need of seeking. It doesn’t offer anything. It responds to that need to know more, by pointing out that nothing is needed. The need is an illusion. Nothing needs to happen for this to be the unrecognizable freedom that it is already.

The experience of the individual is that to find something there has to be a certain process. The past has to be worked out. Realizations have to happen. There’s nothing that needs to happen for this to be what it is already.

This message is incredibly frustrating. But when there’s an openness, something else might be heard, beyond that need for something to happen.

There isn’t a you. That knowing experience is never true. It’s a dream. Part of that dream is that you have free will and choice, to avoid or not avoid negative or painful experiences. There isn’t anyone “in there” that makes a choice, whether or not to have negative or painful experiences.

There is never an experience of having “no free will”. But there is the revelation that only the individual, through its experience of knowing or feeling it knows what’s happening, feels like it has the choice to do one thing or another. It’s a dream. That experience falls away when the experience of knowing what’s happening falls away. The end of the experience of knowing what’s happening isn’t a “state of unknowing”. It’s just what’s apparently happening, without rules, or limit, or need to be one way or another.

What we’re pointing to is something that can’t be known. So this, what’s happening, what seems to be going on, can’t be a knowing experience. That is just the imposition of the illusory sense of separation. When that illusory separation falls away, what’s revealed, in contrast to the experience that this is conditional, is that really everything is unconditional, unknowable, unspeakable.

The individual thinks something needs to happen to bring about what’s longed for. That’s just a part of the dream of the individual, that this isn’t what’s longed for. That whole experience of separation is a dream. The idea that it has to “go away” is just a part of that dream experience. When it does “stop”, it isn’t really happening. It doesn’t fit into the individual’s need for something to happen. It’s the end of that need, revealing that nothing is happening.

It makes total sense to doubt what’s being said here. The separate experience is without choice; it will either believe or not believe what’s being said. Because this message doesn’t fit the model of the experiencer who feels that knowing, the only currency it has, will be the solution to its experience of what’s happening, the message is dissatisfying.

“Understanding” the concepts of this can lead to a certain ease and be in some ways relaxing. But what we’re really pointing to isn’t an understanding; understanding is superficial to what we’re suggesting.

There is no real past. It’s just this appearing as that. There isn’t a now. There is no real point in time to compare it to. There is just what arises. We’re talking about the end of what appears as “real”.

The story goes that there’s a contracted energy that arises in the body out of which the illusory “I am” arises. Then around that, a belief system is built up. When the “I am” seems to arise, so does the sense that it has meaning and purpose. So “my” journey is then to find and fulfill that. And to do that, I (without any choice) build up my beliefs, about what’s right/wrong, good/bad, and they are built up through experience as “my” path to find what “I” feel is missing, and the meaning and purpose of “my” life. But there is no individual, there is no “my life”, and the appearance has no meaning or purpose. It is already unconditionally free.

“Empty fullness” cannot be described. It’s not really “empty fullness” or “unconditional love” or “unrecognizable freedom”. This, what is, can’t be described in words, and can’t be known or owned. It is everything, completely unbound. To call it anything is just to put a label on it.

When you stub your toe, the sense of it being “your” toe, comes from the experience that there is something real inside the body, so there’s an experience of ownership of what’s happening. It doesn’t actually arise in the body; it arises within everything. So everything that is happening, or not, is claimed as “mine”. It’s happening to me, or not — that’s my story. That’s ownership; the individual is the owner of all experience. As long as the dream continues, there’ll be that experience of ownership. When there’s no one left, it’s obvious that there’s just stubbing the toe. Of course there’s still pain, but it’s not yours. (Ouch!)

What advice can be given? To whom? About what? There cannot be advice about how to find what is already. The individual’s in a story of becoming. The question of advice presupposes that something really needs to happen — generally a better experience so at some point there’ll be enough knowing. There is no advice. Nothing needs to happen. Nothing could be done to bring about what is already.

Continuity and predictability are the dream of the individual. The knowing energy that imbues what the individual sees, makes it feel dead, so it seeks something else. To the individual, everything is no longer the aliveness and anarchy that it is already. But “you” don’t know what is happening. Predictability is just anarchy appearing as predictability. Predictability assumes there was a last moment that leads to this and then the next moment. That’s the dream. There is no continuity. This is an immediate, singular, unrecognizable, unknowable happening.

“Awareness” is just a form of knowing. Awareness, consciousness, attention, “I am-ness”, are just contracted senses in the body that are forms of knowing, and teachings are all about knowing. Nothing needs to be known or can be known, or taught.

“Falling away” isn’t a real happening, and really isn’t worth mentioning. It never would be mentioned if there wasn’t a separate experience asking about itself. There’s nothing to say about it really.

The self can’t accept that there’s nothing to do. The suggestion here is — there’s no one to do it. And nothing needs to happen. That doesn’t mean there’s someone there who now doesn’t have to do anything. There’s just no one there.

Experience is separation, a subject-object relationship. That can only happen if there’s a real happening, and a real “I am” to experience it. There is no real happening, and no “I am”.

This is doubtless. There’s no certainty, and no doubt. There’s no position. Just what’s arising. This message is not about an achievement, or coming from an authority. This doesn’t know anything. This message comes out as the end of the need for this to be anything other than what it is.

This is a paradox. What appears both is and isn’t, simultaneously. That’s not two separate things. It doesn’t function in the world of the individual that “knows” what’s being said. And that is all there is.

There are no real relationships. Nothing really exists. There is no real here and now. And there is no reason for anything. Everything is anarchy already. There is no self, no realization. There is only what’s happening. Waiting for the “me” to fall away is the experience of knowing, waiting for another experience. A circle of looking for something to happen. What is longed for is what is already. That can’t be found, because it can’t be lost. There can only be the illusory experience that it’s not this.

The individual’s search to get something else can run into the recognition that there is nothing to get. That the situation is hopeless. But this message will never be widely accepted. It has no practicality whatsoever. Somebody who comes to it looking for something else will quickly move through and reject it. Only a few will ever have an openness, a readiness, to hear something beyond the individual’s need for something else.

Nobody knows this, but to everyone it is in some way already obvious. It can’t be known, but everyone “knows” (not the right word) it. When there’s a readiness and openness, the message just goes in like butter. That there only is what’s appearing. And that it is not dependent on anything happening. That there is no need for it to be any way or for anything to happen or to “know” what this is.

The end of the individual is the individual’s worst nightmare and fear. It doesn’t want this. This isn’t going anywhere. It has no intention. It’s not missing anything. It’s not waiting for anything to “become”. It is already what is. Questions about it are mostly about getting somewhere, because this is not satisfactory to the individual. There is no way out for that discontent, no answer for it.

If you are worried this “falling away” might lead to indifference [or nihilism], it’s because you think you have free will and choice, and that you’re really doing something now, so that if you’re not there, you won’t be able to control things any more. But you’re not controlling anything now. You’re a reaction to a reaction to a reaction, having the experience of being in control. It’s a dream.

The individual is threatened by emotions, by strong happenings. When there’s no one left feeling they have to be in control, there’s simply what’s happening. So there’s sadness, or loss, or extreme happenings, but they aren’t happening to anyone.

This is meaningless, valueless. There is no “here” or “there”. “All is one” is the dream of an individual that it will find what it’s looking for. This can’t be understood, so the individual imagines they understand what is being said, and thinks they can bridge the apparent separation as an experience and then “know” themselves as “one with all other things”. “You” will never find “oneness”. There is no separation already.

Intuition is something that arises and is somehow narrowed by the individual’s separate experience. When that falls away, intuition seems to blossom.

There is no solidity, no “real-ness” to the appearance. There is nothing behind it. It’s not really coming from anywhere or going anywhere.

The only illusion is the “me”, the knowing experience that what’s happening is real. Everything else is neither real nor unreal. It’s apparent; it’s indescribable.

The dream and the dreamer are the same thing. No one “wakes up” from the dream. There is no one to wake up. When the dreamer ends, the dream ends, and nobody wakes up.

If you’d like to hear more, Jim’s latest meeting video is excellent.

Posted in Radical Non-Duality | 1 Comment

CoVid-19: Making Sense of the Numbers

This is the 12th 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.

We’re about 7 months into this pandemic, and we’re still, despite what some politicians are saying, in wave one. There have been surges in various places but that’s because the disease has never really been under control. If there’s a wave two, it will be when it morphs into a new, mutated virus, that might be much more or much less lethal than the variants we have seen thus far, and might, like the 1918 wave two, affect a completely different demographic than the mainly-senior victims of wave one.

So taking the summary chart above, line by line, here’s where would seem to stand now:

  1. IHME has started reporting on data in the seven WHO global ‘regions’ shown in the columns above, with their populations, in millions, shown in row 1 (I have broken out Canada because it’s where I live and because its situation is very different from the US situation).
  2. Row 2 shows reported deaths to date as they soar past the one million mark. For the past five months now daily reported deaths have moved in a very narrow range between 4,000 and 6,000, and there is no evidence that it will vary in the foreseeable future. 5,000 deaths a day is a million reported deaths every six months between now and when an effective vaccine is globally administered. Actual CoVid-19 deaths, according to many “excess deaths” studies, continue to be 50% or more above reported figures. Note that the Americas and Europe (which includes the former USSR nations) follow the Pareto ratio — they have 80% of the reported global deaths with 20% of the world’s population. This raises lots of questions for which we still have no answers: Why, for example, when Nigeria has a larger and more concentrated population than Brasil, and a similar demographic, does it have only 1,000 CoVid-19 deaths while Brasil has nearly 150,000?
  3. Row 3 shows the cumulative reported deaths per million people which shows, for reasons we can to some extent only guess at, that the four regions with 80% of the world’s people have less than a tenth the per capita deaths of the Americas and Europe.  Limited international mobility, a much lower average age (shown in row 18), stricter lockdowns, and a more government-compliant culture, account for some of this difference, but not all of it. Will their turn come, or are they just less susceptible?
  4. Row 4 shows the 7-day moving average of reported daily deaths as of this week. It’s rising in Canada and Europe, falling in Latin America, and flat in the US, but on balance still tracking the same global average as it has since May.
  5. Row 5 shows the current rate of daily deaths per million people. IHME believes that until this rate reaches eight daily deaths/million in any particular city, country or area, no significant additional restrictions will be imposed. I think that’s an unduly pessimistic assumption, even with pandemic fatigue; more on that below. 
  6. Row 6 shows the % of the population that is estimated to have been infected (including asymptomatically), the proportion that is presumably, hopefully, immune to reinfection, at least for a while. In some areas of the Americas (eg New York) and Europe (parts of Italy and Spain) it’s as high as 25% but still nowhere near herd immunity levels. (Although in some parts of the US it’s apparently nearing “herd mentality” levels.) New infections in NYS have been remarkably low for months, but are now starting to rise again, so we should soon have some sense of whether actual infections-to-date are much higher than current best guesses, or not. Both WHO and IHME are now basing infection assumptions on a 0.65-0.70% IFR.
  7. Row 7 shows current reduction in traffic to businesses, workplaces, and public areas versus previous years’ “normal” levels. When infections were at their worst in late March-April, some of these numbers were closer to -80 to -90%.
  8. Row 8 shows commensurately the increase in the use of masks as less social distancing is done in most areas. On average these percentages have doubled over the past couple of months; more details are in the map below.
  9. Row 9 shows the current “positivity” rate (% of tests with positive readings). In some areas doing little testing, these are meaningless, but in Canada and parts of Europe where they have recently doubled or tripled from very low levels where the pandemic seemed to be sufficiently under control that testing & tracing programs would work, this might soon no longer be the case. In the US & Latin America there’s hardly any point in having such programs, since with one of every 200 citizens currently infectious, it would be impossible to trace and isolate everyone in contact with the infected, even with a high level of cooperation, which is often lacking due to shaming and privacy fears.
  10. Row 10 shows the % of the population that is estimated to have been infected in the last 14 days ie the percentage that is currently infectious. Note that because of utterly inadequate testing in most jurisdictions this % is between two and ten times higher than reported cases over the past 14 days.
  11. Row 11 shows the number of tests done to date in each region, in millions.
  12. Row 12 shows the % of the population that has been tested, assuming about 20% of the tests given are repeat tests. 
  13. Row 13 shows that just over 150 million people worldwide are estimated to have been infected, just about 2% of the world’s people, of whom about one in ten is still infectious today. That compares to just 34 million reported cases globally. The data suggests that 80% of cases were never identified and reported, and even with increased testing today less than half of new cases in most areas are identified and reported. So while trends in reported daily cases are important, the raw numbers are so understated as to be close to meaningless.
  14. Row 14 shows IHME’s projected deaths over the next three months (by December 31), a 150% increase to 2.5 million compared to the current million. Their assumption is that until reported daily deaths reach 8 per million people the toll will be allowed to rise without new restrictions. But as the charts below suggest, my guess is that action is often taken when daily deaths reach 3 per million people, and the very fact that people are aware of increases in cases and deaths causes behaviour changes that prevent cases running out of control the way they did in March when we didn’t know any better. My estimate of 266 thousand American and 10 thousand Canadian deaths by that date compares to IHME’s much more pessimistic estimates of 372 thousand and 16 thousand deaths respectively. We’ll see who’s right. IHME was previously estimating 415 thousand US deaths by December 31, so I think they’re starting to get closer to an accurate estimate. Though much could change by then.
  15. Row 15 shows IHME’s projected daily reported deaths on December 31. Compared to the prevailing 4,000-6,000 daily deaths since May, I think their forecast of 33,000 daily deaths by December 31 is off the mark. Pandemic fatigue and incompetent governments or not, I just don’t think the world’s citizens will tolerate that kind of death toll. Even in Brasil, whose unpopular and unhinged leader denies the pandemic is a serious matter, far more than half the population say they always wear masks outside home. I’m prepared to admit if I am proved wrong, but I just don’t see it getting six times as bad as it is now. 
  16. Row 16 shows the projections in row 15 computed as daily reported deaths per million people. Contrast that to the current situation in row 5. 
  17. Row 17 shows the % of the population that will be infected and hence hopefully immune as of December 31 if IHME’s projections are correct. Contrast that to the current situation in row 6.

Only in the US is self-reported mask use, in some areas, declining. As cases spiked in Victoria state even Australians are starting to use them. In almost every area, increased mask use in an area follows a spike in cases and deaths in that area. But in most of the world, they’re keeping them on even as cases and deaths ease.

The above data, from the CoVid Tracking Project, shows what I think we’re likely to see in much of the world as the pandemic continues — a general flat-to-slowly-downward trend in actual cases (even as reported cases trend flat-to-upwards due to more testing), and in hospitalizations and deaths, but with recurring upswings in different areas due to a combination of complacency, relaxing standards prematurely, seasonal variations (as we move indoors for the winter and face regular influenza as well as CoVid-19), and just plain bad luck. There’s no reason to believe these trends won’t continue for at least another year or until an effective vaccine is available globally. Prepare for a long, thick, and irregularly shaped tail to this pandemic; it’s happened before.

This chart shows the difference between a pandemic under control (Canada, blue) and a pandemic out of control (US, green). The difference is due to a combination of good luck and good management. Note that the Canadian data uses the right scale, which is 1/9 of the left scale, the same as the relative population proportions. Canada tried to flatten the curve, with more success than the US but not dramatically so. And then suddenly in June the curves diverged wildly to the point the daily deaths in Canada (under 10, ie 0.3/M/day) were as much as two orders of magnitude smaller than the US daily death rates (over 1,000, ie 3.0/M/day).

Because reported cases in the US are now flat at about 150/M/day, however, while reported cases in Canada have recently more than doubled from 13/M/day to 30/M/day, this enormous per-capita gap will likely narrow from 10:1 to closer to 3:1, with Canadian deaths doubling to 20/day (0.7/M/day) compared to a steady 750/day (2.3/M/day) in the US. The pandemic will remain out of control in the US, but may not stay in control in Canada. The IHME is forecasting a much worse situation by year-end, with US deaths quadrupling to 3,000/day (9/M/day) and Canadian deaths soaring by a factor of thirty to 300/day (8/M/day). I’d be very surprised if these alarmist predictions come to pass.

This chart, from Our World in Data, conveys a similar message — the per-capita death toll in the US, which has been 10x higher than Canada’s, is likely to move closer to 3:1 as the positivity rates converge. Still a large divergence, but worrisome for Canada’s situation, which is mirrored in several European countries where positivity rates have suddenly spiked above 5%. Testing and tracing just aren’t manageable when the positivity rate is more than about 3%, which translates into about 0.1% of the population being currently infectious, one out of every 1,000 people. Too many people to track.

Here’s the first of three charts showing the situation on North America’s west coast. In each case these are reported deaths per million people per day. You can see when peak deaths hit each jurisdiction — Washington and BC first, then the east coast of the US, then Eastern Canada (the eastern states’/provinces’ infections came from Europe, and then worked their way west again), and much later California and Oregon, and just now Hawaii. The forecasts are mine, based on current reported case counts, adjusted IFRs, and behaviours after past case spikes. IHME is projecting these death counts to go off the chart in December (close to or over 10 deaths/M/day except in BC and Hawaii), with no action taken until rates cross the red line near the top of the chart. I don’t agree, but my track record to date hasn’t been any better than theirs.

These two charts show, top, the reported cases per day per million people, and, below, IHMEs (with some minor adjustments by me) estimated actual cases per day per million people, based on “working backwards” from subsequently reported daily deaths. They tell very different stories. Peak reported cases in the US came in July, while in the Eastern US and in Washington state the actual case peak likely came back in March. Daily reported cases in all jurisdictions are now (end of September) at or near record highs, while in most jurisdictions estimated actual daily cases are nowhere near their earlier peaks.

Again, the projections are mine, as IHME’s much more pessimistic forecasts have estimated cases soaring off the top of the charts by the end of December.

Long bumpy ride ahead. But all pandemics end, and few of them last for years. Barring a second wave that kills the young and healthy like the second wave did in 1918, or unexpected problems with vaccines, I’m guessing a year from now we should be back doing most of the things we could do last year, though there will likely be some new, permanent or semi-permanent inconveniences.

But don’t get too comfortable. The chances of additional pandemics are high, and we’re not taking any of the steps needed to reduce their likelihood. And we still have basically no idea what the virus has done to our bodies that will affect our health long-term.

And if you think pandemics are a major inconvenience, just wait ’til you see what ecological and climate collapse will do to our unsustainable lifestyles in the years ahead.

Posted in How the World Really Works | 2 Comments

Inequality and the Death of the Arts

painting by Bowen Island artist Jeanette Wrenshall, from my own collection

My island community is full of artists — one of the largest proportions in the country. They came here, mostly, for sanctuary. It’s an incredibly beautiful and relatively undeveloped place, yet still a short ferry ride from a progressive city. Many came here to avoid personal abuse, unhealthy relationships, unbearable stress, and/or financial hardship (home prices here were, until recently, much less expensive than in the city). But for the last two decades, prices even here are way too high for a modest or single income earner, and because we are an island almost everything has to be trucked here, so foods and materials are even more expensive than in the city.

And even before CoVid-19, things for artists were tough here. Home prices have actually soared during the pandemic. Excluding wealthy retirees and executive commuters, who buy relatively little on the island (there’s more selection and lower prices in Vancouver), the turnover rate here is high, and it’s almost always involuntary. Many of my friends here cried when they left. Housing is unaffordable for those trying to live and work here, and there is little rental housing or subsidized housing.

We are, both in the grim situation of our artists and in the prevailing economic trends, a microcosm of what is happening in the rest of the world. Specifically, we’re seeing the rapid death of what remains of the middle class, as salaries and investment income for the dominant caste (ie university-educated white males) soar, while for everyone else they stagnate or decline. Paradoxically, this means that because the dominant caste are the only ones who can afford to buy land, homes and investments, that caste’s obscenely excessive wealth is driving up the price of these commodities, making them even more unaffordable for everyone else. Only a small minority can afford to live in the city; the rest have to drive from farther and farther away each day to find work. And in many cases they now need, and have, two or three jobs each to pay their rent and grocery bills.

So they’re working themselves to an early grave in constantly precarious, stress-filled lives, and the government, which chooses to see what reflects well on them, says that unemployment is down, the stock market is up, and real estate is booming — so the economy must be great!

Of course, it is nothing of the sort. Real unemployment, including those who have given up trying to find reasonable-paying jobs, or are so physically and psychologically stressed by their situation they cannot keep them, is soaring. Real inflation, not the fake numbers that count Big Macs as food but not healthy produce, is in the double digits, especially for the multitudes whose health care needs are increasing due to the epidemic of chronic diseases (mostly ascribable to a combination of poor nutrition, ignorance, insufficient time to prepare healthy meals, and endless stress).

As I’ve written elsewhere, the government is buying time by deliberately suppressing interest rates far below inflation levels, and encouraging the non-privileged castes to get deeper and deeper into debt to feed their families. This is of course completely unsustainable.

The soaring inequality of wealth (and political power) hits the artist several ways. First, they have no power to elect representatives who will look out for their interests; the laws are increasingly written to favour the dominant caste that politicians mostly belong to and (because they rely on their campaign donations) listen to. Secondly, with their living costs soaring, they need more and more income just to tread water. Meanwhile their income is dropping — their customers are mostly middle class citizens who are struggling as much as they are and reducing their “discretionary” spending.

Even worse, the gross inequality of incomes is now reflected, thanks to big tech firms and arts “intermediaries”, in the pay scales for artists, too. The dominant caste bids up the price of limited “collectors'” art to the millions of dollars, as it’s a good investment for them. The music, publishing and film “industries” reward the 1% of elite performers with over 80% of the total artists’ fees, leaving almost nothing for the rest. This makes sense to them because their incremental cost of one more movie ticket, one more streaming music play, and one more e-book, is essentially zero. So the 1% of top-billing artists can be given most of the revenue that all artists collectively earn, and profits of agents and publishers soar. They can argue that every book, song and ticket costs the same, so this is “fair”, but it’s absolutely devastating to all but the 1% top-earning artists, who end up obscenely overpaid (like the top 1% in every other sector of the economy), while everyone else receives a pittance, and has to wait tables (CoVid-19 permitting) for a living.

So now artists are reduced to begging on Patreon, Kickstarter and YouFundMe sites to continue their work. Their donors are not philanthropists, but rather others, formerly in the disappeared middle class, themselves struggling to make ends meet.

Hua Hsu, in a recent New Yorker article on how we might provide artists with a reasonable income, points out that part of the problem is the middlemen — the agents, publishers, lawyers, ISPs, tech platform operators and other parasites who take a hugely-outsized cut of the “arts dollar” for doing almost nothing. We are starting to see co-operatives striving to replace them and their grossly unfair business models, but that will be only the start. As William Deresiewicz says in his book on the subject, The Death of the Artist, these middlemen often promise struggling artists “exposure”, but for an artist, “exposure is a synonym for nothing”. William goes on:

[Artists] do deserve to get paid for doing something you love, something other people love… Wanting to get paid does not mean that you’re a capitalist. It doesn’t even mean that you assent to capitalism. It only means that you live in a capitalist society.

Hua’s review criticizes the naive and muddle-headed talk of a new “creative class” championed by hack evangelists like Richard Florida, pointing out that the imagined idea of this supposedly wealthy and successful class merely provided cover for rich, greedy real estate developers promoting “gentrification”, and a bullet-proof haven for dubious “arts” investments by “philanthropists”.

Much research has shown that there’s a near-perfect correlation between inequality in any geographic area and violence in that area. Those who have fallen out of the middle class as it’s disappeared (since 1980, 100% —  the entire increase in wealth and income — has gone to the dominant caste). For the rest of us, real wealth and income have fallen steadily since then as the economy is offshored, outsourced and consolidated to our detriment. And that’s true even using the government’s fake understated inflation rates.

If the problem is inequality, what can be done about it? The answer, of course, is interventions in the market, which the conservatives and dominant caste in power want no part of. Or at least they won’t until they realize they can’t sustain their wealth through sales to each other, and through massively increased debts at artificially suppressed interest rates (though for those in the Two Income Trap, those “low” interest rates don’t accrue to them either). You can’t borrow your way to financial health, at least not sustainably. And even the dominant caste needs to be able to sell something to the rest of us, which means they need to ensure we can afford to buy it.

So the obvious answers: a guaranteed annual income, massive debt forgiveness, free education and health care and other essentials, a radically graduated tax system that taxes all forms of income, a wealth tax to catch unrealized income, and end to tax shelters at home and offshore. Nothing new about this; it’s affordable, and it would not be hard to institute, if there were the collective will to do it (including dumping the politicians vigorously blocking all such measures).

My sense is that it will take a political upheaval to achieve it, and that such an upheaval is inevitable, even if it’s stalled off for a while by totalitarian right-wing governments with a very different agenda. Then, and only then, will we see a rebirth of the arts, and the realization of the promise that technologies can empower, rather than starve, our artists.

Posted in How the World Really Works | 1 Comment


faked “bible burning by BLM protestors” video produced by RT, a Russian propaganda agency, rebroadcast by Trump Jr and others

I got holy children to show me the light, singing “hallelujah, brother how about you”?
Yeah, we got holy scriptures here that prove us to be right,
in believing out loud what we wish to be true.

I got stoned out neighbors to take me in tow, singing “close your eyes”, singing “open wide”.
Watch the world fall away below, let the winter wind blow,
and where will we hide when it comes from inside?

— James Taylor, “Hymn”

Much has been written about the role of craven, manipulative misinformation, disinformation, and fabricated conspiracy theories, in election results, and on a larger scale in the seizing, consolidation and protection of political and economic power.

Such deceptions have long been essential to the functioning of our societies. Advertising, marketing and PR are, in essence, the art of using misinformation and propaganda to persuade consumers that crap is better for us and worth far more money than is actually the case. That crap now includes political candidates, their parties, and their positions.

Without them, stocks and real estate would be worth a small fraction of what they are valued at now, and most “consumer product” companies and politicians would be out of business. Without them, many wars, including the Cold War, that cost millions of lives and trillions of dollars could never have been successfully launched or sustained. Having invited misinformation to the party more than a century ago, we cannot now say it has no place in a healthy society. Though it has no place in a healthy society.

In a recent article by Joshua Yaffa in the New Yorker, the Russian correspondent analyzes what effect Russian propaganda has had on US elections, and on Americans’ political beliefs in general. Basically he concludes:

    • There are concerted efforts by Russia, China and other governments to influence political opinions, debate and elections in other nations, though they have had on the whole a rather negligible effect. Just as the decades-long messages of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe and similar US propaganda agencies and programs have had a negligible effect on other nations. It’s mostly wasted money done mainly to impress the propagandists’ domestic bosses.
    • Deliberate and unintentional domestic misinformation campaigns, sites and programs have been far more effective in playing on citizens’ fears, unsupported beliefs and biases. Though mainly they have entrenched beliefs among the ‘bases’ already inclined to believe what they do, facts and truth be damned, rather than convincing the unpersuaded one way or another. They may get those already inclined to drink bleach as a CoVid-19 cure to do so, but they won’t persuade others, not so inclined, to do so. “To activate anything, [misinformation has] to hit at preëxisting tendencies and pathologies in society: disaffection, inequality, prejudice, aggression”, Joshua writes.
    • There is of course the danger that such polarization will produce more violence among and between different factions of citizenry. Taken to an extreme, if enough of the population is incited to violence, it could produce civil war.
    • The ability to use technology to create very convincing fake audio and video amplifies this polarizing power of misinformation.
    • So the cleverer foreign powers focus their misinformation on trying to seed their lies and nonsense to domestic dupes, which is often not hard to do, and let the domestic dupes do the heavy, and more effective, lifting.
    • It would be essentially impossible to regulate media and social media to significantly reduce domestic misinformation. That genie’s long ago left the bottle.
    • There is a long history of deliberate misinformation that predates modern and social media. The obfuscation of the truth to sell products, politicians and wars is not new. What is new is the democratization of the capacity to obfuscate, so now it’s not only rich and powerful liars, shills, haters, warmongers and psychopaths who have the tools and resources to exploit our ignorance and propensity to believe misinformation. Any fool can do it.

There are no simple solutions to this very old problem. Misinformation in the form of advertising and doctored research is, after all, the cause of our ingesting the many toxic products of modern industrial agriculture, which directly cause the vast majority of deaths and chronic illnesses in this world. If we’re OK with propaganda that kills most of us and causes almost everyone horrific suffering, all 7.8 billion of us, why would we not be OK with a bit of nasty political obfuscation, especially if it helps us engineer more profitable wars and more ‘defence’ spending on which our economy now depends, or helps “our side” win an election we deserve to lose?

“The real solution lies in crafting a society and a politics that are more responsive, credible, and just”, Joshua writes. Yeah, and how’s that going? Who exactly has the power to “craft” a whole society and politics? Us, collectively? IMO that’s just as naive as a lot of the proffered “solutions” to climate collapse.

Joshua cites US Cold War architect George Kennan (who coined the term “political warfare” in the 1940s) as saying that the only defence against “foreign” propaganda is a “healthy and vigorous” domestic society. That may be correct, but it’s cold comfort.

What we can do, and probably the only thing we can realistically do now, is to work to undermine the advocates of personal violence, and the means to incite violence, where it is unproductive and detrimental to the health of the domestic society. Arresting the perpetrators of personal violence against their perceived “enemies” after the fact just makes them martyrs and gives their advocacy even more publicity.

What we can do is disarm them before they can inflict death and suffering — give up trying to change their minds and instead disrupt their armed confrontations and other acts of violence in the streets, ideally at the planning stages but if necessary by standing between opposing groups and disarming them of guns, knives and other weapons, and safely decommissioning bombs, poison letters, and other instruments of public violence. This is what “homeland security” is supposed to be about, and why they supposedly need so much intelligence and money. It’s time they did their job, instead of just serving as recruiting agencies for racists, white supremacists and other right-wing white male hate-mongers.

As for the rest of us, we can only hope that, over time, our societies will become more “healthy and vigorous” and more “responsive, credible and just”. Dramatically reducing inequality of wealth and power would help. The outlook for that happening is, I think most would agree, dim. But it has happened before, when things got bad enough that governments had no choice but to intervene to support the poor, powerless and oppressed. If history is correct, it’s at least as possible as descent into civil war and fascism. We are all doing our best, after all, and there are some good signs that we’ve had just about enough misinformation overload.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment