Virtual Music

Despite its serious and unresolved failings, YouTube has created an amazing and mostly-free platform for musicians of every stripe to share their recordings with the world, and to be discovered without the need to pander to the decrepit music publishing ‘industry’.

It’s also enabled the development of some amazing products that have resulted from the fusion of music, audio and video technology. As a result, over the last ten years, we have seen the capacity for virtual music collaborations explode. It is no longer necessary for musicians to compose or record in the same space, or even to meet face to face at all. We have seen mashups and remixes that are infinitely better than the originals they have copied from (plagiarized, or built upon, depending on your point of view). We have seen the capacity to alter a musical track’s pitch without affecting its timing, and vice versa, a boon to DJs and mix artists.

These advances have become especially useful during the current pandemic. The technology that enables musicians to send master tracks to performers electronically and then perfectly sync the audio and video tracks of dozens, and even hundreds and thousands, of performers, has enabled the creation of music that simply could never be produced in any real-world production space. It’s extremely challenging: syncing the volumes, tones, pitches and timing of many disparate tracks, dealing with ambient and background noise, and also patching together a sync of all of the performers’ videos, requires incredible skill and patience. But it can be done.

The results can be breath-taking, heart-wrenching, eye-opening, or tremendous fun. Most importantly, they open the door to new possibilities in music creation: You can create virtual choirs, orchestras and bands from members performing in different spaces and at different times, including performers who don’t, and don’t have to, even know each other. You can seemingly make deceased performers perform with live ones. You can enrich music in ways that a decade ago couldn’t even be imagined.

Just as CGI is making it possible to have virtual actors, and to create human and other creatures out of nothing and show them on the screen, new music technologies make it possible to ‘create’ singers, players, and entirely new instruments in the studio, without the need for the ‘real’ thing.

Here are some of the most extraordinary recent ‘virtual’ music performances I’ve seen, all produced in the past month, that show just how far we’ve come:

1. What the World Needs Now — cover, by the Boston Conservatory and Berklee College Virtual Orchestra (pictured above)

2. True Colours — cover, by the Camden Voices UK Virtual Choir

3. Griffenfelt, a ‘virtual’ performance by the Folk All-In Band from Sweden

4. Elgar’s Nimrod Variation, performed by a combined Calgary Philharmonic and Edmonton Symphony Virtual Orchestra

5. Toss the Bach — a Celtic/Classical Mashup, by the Touch of Class Virtual Band from Neenah (Wisconsin) High School

6. Don’t You Worry Child — a Swedish House Mafia cover, by the Kaleidoscope Virtual Orchestra from Manchester UK

7. Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra — the 2001 A Space Odyssey Theme, performed by the Opera North Leeds UK Virtual Orchestra

Awesome stuff. Music is especially important in challenging times like these, and performances like these show what’s possible, and how our hearts and souls can be moved by the collaborative efforts of many artists, even if they can’t meet, and meet with us, in person.

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Slouching Towards Bethlehem


Aerial photo of anti-Netanyahu protestors April 19, 2020 in Tel Aviv; photo by Tomer Appelbaum for Haaretz

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

WB Yeats — The Second Coming

Yeats wrote this famous poem on the heels of the first World War, presenting an alternative vision of Christianity’s joyous “second coming”, describing instead a dreadful “beast” seemingly about to be born. He laments the lack of conviction of those deadened and paralyzed by recent events — those who might be able to shift the world from such a course. And he laments the passionate intensity that seemingly remains, then as now, only in the ignorant.

In some recent correspondence, my friend Paul Heft reminded me of this poem. We’ve been talking about what our collective reactions to the current pandemic forebodes for our response to the immensely greater challenges of economic, climate and ecosystem collapse as the sixth great extinction gathers steam.

I thought I’d share some of these thoughts, which Paul prompted with his characteristic skill and thoughtful questions (thanks Paul!), in case my musings are of use to others contemplating the nature of the beast now slouching towards Bethlehem, waiting to be born:

I.   What the Photos Said

I was struck by the utter dissimilarity of two much-publicized protest demonstrations in the past week.

The first, a week ago, featured an angry mob of old white men in Michigan, many of them brandishing massive assault weapons, crowded together on the capitol steps, carrying “end the lockdown” and “Trump|Pence” signs.

The second, two days ago, featured thousands of anti-Netanyahu protestors in Tel Aviv (see image above), carefully observing social distancing rules and mostly wearing masks bearing the words “Crime Minister”.

To me these contrasting images say so much about our different worldviews, and about how we are all struggling in the face of a seeming decline in democracy, tolerance and critical thinking everywhere.

It is easy to mock the Michigan protestors, and to be outraged at the overt white privilege on display on the state capitol steps. (Imagine if these had been people of colour!) It is harder to try to understand what desperation drove them to do what they did, or how powerful the ‘disinformation’ media controlled by vested interests have become that they can goad thousands to do this — and make so many feel so helpless and terrified. And to try to understand how a massive political party (the US Republican Party) has been so cowed that they make excuses for this dangerous behaviour instead of condemning it.

Why do these photos strike such a viscerally different response in us? How could anyone look at these photos and take a diametrically opposite view from ‘ours’, of which protest was justified and necessary, and which was not? And how is it that both photos, each in their own way, ultimately evoke feelings of hopelessness in us?

I’m a joyful pessimist about our future — I think our industrial civilization will slowly collapse over the coming decades, but that that will ultimately be a good thing as it will usher in, of necessity, more sustainable, relocalized and connected ways of living on our fragile blue planet. But now I wonder: What spirit will we see arising from the collective struggle in the meantime — the kind of courage and collaboration that has been so much on display everywhere in the face of the pandemic, or a response that is angrier, more antagonistic and less caring of others, ultimately giving rise to totalitarian states that most of us have never had to experience but which our grandparents warned us about?

II.  Don’t Tell Me — I Don’t Want to Know

Before despairing about the mindless anger, and the lurch to populism, I want to try to understand it. I don’t think it’s because people are stupid (Joe Rogan just said he’d vote for Trump over Biden). I think it’s because people are scared. I think it’s because they think no leader is listening to them or understands them, by which I mean a leader who understands and addresses (or panders) to their fears. As hopeless a president as he was, Obama was a good listener.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think the media are just giving people what they want, which is to be distracted and entertained. They don’t want to be informed (just look at “What’s Trending” on Twitter). They want things to be simple. They want the same thing from Faux News that they want from Reality TV. The media have no interest in promoting particular ideologies or candidates. They want ratings, subscribers. They don’t do investigative journalism, not because they don’t want crooks uncovered, but because it has no ROI. There’s no money in it.

I think (I’m about to go out on a really thin limb here) the best candidate for the Democrats right now (and for 2024) is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She could transcend political ideologies for the same reason Trump has to some extent done so — because she’s beholden to no special interest and doesn’t bullshit. I think she could win by a landslide in 2024. (I also think Michelle Obama would make a hugely popular VP, so pay no attention to what I say.)

I don’t think the Republicans lack principles. Running for office is a lousy way to make money, and most politicians I’ve met, even the ones I’ve loathed, are doing what they’re doing because they think it’s right for their country. I think Trump makes them squirm, but they’re kowtowing because they’re scared that if he goes off on them they’ll lose their jobs and their power to do anything. And they’re right to be scared. They’ll be delighted when he’s gone, but rightfully worried they’ll never get elected again without a populist leader they can’t control.

What spirit will we see rising? A combination of those who are fatalists, realists, pragmatists and plodders (but not slouchers) — but who to stay level headed will appear to be “without conviction”; and those of “passionate intensity”, idealists across the political spectrum fervent in their desire to implant their ultimate solutions in the bloodied soil. Fortunately for us all, in the end, the idealists always lose.

III. We Can’t Change It, But We Can Walk Away

I’ve come to appreciate that systems, including economic systems, don’t really exist — they’re just concepts that people have made up to try to explain (imprecisely, and often badly and simplistically) what is happening, but as David Graeber has explained the whole idea of an “economy” is new, and kind of preposterous, in that it goes against the grain of actual human behaviour. So I can say “the system is the problem”, and in a way it is (it’s not the evil conspiracy of some diabolical powerful elite). But there is actually no system — what happens in our society (or “economy”) is the collective result of 7.8 billion humans’ behaviour, and there is no shared ideology driving that and no one “in charge”. So when I read from career environmental “activists” that “we need to quickly do X”, my eyes glaze over. “We” have never done anything.

I think this is now pervading my thinking about systems and how to change them (or if we even can). Systems are just the brain’s patterning, generalizations and models of what seems to apply, which actually has nothing to do with any of the moving parts, which are partly mechanical, partly random, and partly conditioned. ‘We’ can’t change them because we’re just moving parts within them, and in any case the perception there’s a cohesive ‘system’ at work is just a mental construct. Volition and agency are illusory; we’re all doing the only things we can do in the moment, which includes affecting the conditioning of others who are likewise doing the only things they can do, and which also includes perceiving, incorrectly, that there is a cohesive and coherent ‘system’ at work and that it can be changed through volition.

So I stumble at the idea that we must get rid of capitalism, not because ‘we’ can’t do that but because there is no such thing as capitalism; that’s just a description of what happens when people get conditioned to do things with the expectation that ‘that way of doing things’ will be best for them and mostly everyone else. To say we must all change X, suggests that 7.8B humans have a shared coherent sense of what they’re doing and why, (and can therefore shift to doing otherwise) which they absolutely don’t, and can’t. The Indonesian trader who buys bats from a cave harvester and sells them as a delicacy (or a source of pharmaceuticals) in his daily market isn’t conscious of whether he’s a capitalist or a socialist.

The writings of Ronald Wright and Jared Diamond have persuaded me that apparent ‘systems’ (civilizations, social/political/economic ‘systems’ etc) end when enough people walk away that they lose the appearance of coherence; when almost no one still acts as if they are functioning, they cease to function. Hence apparent systems collapse rather than being reformed, not because people are stupid or ignorant or arrogant, but because you can’t reform an appearance. You can just ‘walk away’ (to use Daniel Quinn’s expression) and when enough do that, it will collapse.

But there is no planning or designing or substituting another economic system — that’s just an idealist’s dream. What appears to be the new ‘system’ will be a localized relatively simple subsistence life (probably better than civilized life as we know it for most, and probably not so terribly different, so not too hard). Over time, complexity may re-emerge to the point there appears to be a ‘system’ at work, but it’s just our imagination. We’re all doing our best, and what you see is what you get when that happens.

No one is to blame. Not even for Trump. He will probably be re-elected, and no one will be to blame. The best we can do is roll with it, and hope that the sense of helpless fear of collapse doesn’t (as it did before all the biggest wars) enable people who have no choice but to be psychotic autocrats to make the situation even (for most) unimaginably worse. That may well happen, especially when the autocrats have all the money and most of the military power.

But it may also happen that collapse will be a relatively timid and stretched-out affair, with most of us trying to help each other out, the autocrats and their friends suddenly discovering that their paper wealth is now worthless and hence they can no longer buy or maintain power, and society dissolving, like a million plague-afflicted communities realizing we’ve been completely left to our own devices, discovering we’re better at self-management than we thought — and that no economic system is actually necessary.

Walking away is neither an act of conviction nor an act of passionate intensity, to return to Mr Yeats. And that is probably a good thing. For those who have lost the conviction that we can control our future or our trajectory, and who lack the passionate intensity to proffer and work for a renewed, reformed, or other ‘new and improved’ society, our job now is to watch, to pay attention, and to know when and how to walk away, and to show others the path. Not a path forward, not a path back, just the only path left, the difficult path away from what no longer works. There is no purpose trying to follow, or to kill, the beast slouching towards Bethlehem.

There will be no second coming. Nothing is coming. Instead, sooner or later, as everything falls apart, we are all leaving.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments

10 Surprising Things About CoVid-19 You Probably Didn’t Know


Cumulative deaths by country, plotted against number of days since 10th death occurred; graphic by John Burn-Murdoch for UK FT.

This is the fourth in a series of articles about the current pandemic, drawing on the best available science and data we currently have at our disposal. The previous articles:

  1. What’s Next for CoVid-19 (a snapshot at Mar 29, 2020 as deaths started to soar)
  2. CoVid, Complexity & Collapse (the larger context as at Apr 5, 2020)
  3. The Least We Can Do (what we’ve learned and what we can do, as at Apr 15, 2020)

This article updates the above by describing some new learning about this virus that might dramatically change what happens now, and the courses of sensible action open to us. Sources include former infectious disease expert Dr Michael Greger’s videos, and summaries from recent science journals.

So here we go: Ten things even most experts didn’t know a month ago:

  1. The mortality rate for the virus, so far, looks to be more like 0.2% of those infected than the 1% experts initially expected. [EDIT: May 14th: Now it appears the mortality rate is closer to 1.0%; see follow-up here.] The reason for the large error is that we didn’t realize how many were actually, apparently, contracting the disease asymptomatically, and how many would recover without treatment or not even show symptoms, thanks mainly to a near-global lack of testing capacity that led to utter uncertainty about the mortality rate and who was infected. We now have a slightly better idea, principally from the number of deaths and hospitalizations (still a very rough number, but much more useful than positive tests when so few have been tested and so many are asymptomatic). The consequences of this 0.2% rate, if it’s correct (and some small-scale intensive testing studies suggest it is), is that this virus in its first wave will probably kill only about 1-2 million worldwide, which is about three times the annual number of deaths from “regular” influenzas in recent years. It also suggests that five times as many as suspected have actually contracted the disease, perhaps 10% of the global population, and perhaps twice that proportion in Europe and North America, without serious incident. That still leaves the vast majority vulnerable to infection when containment measures are relaxed, and to the next wave(s) of the pandemic, but still means five times as many people have acquired or have natural immunity than most experts expected.
  2. There are six coronaviruses known to affect humans, of which four are endemic “common cold” viruses. You’ve almost certainly had them. The problem with these coronaviruses is that, unlike HxNx type flu viruses, these coronaviruses only confer immunity on those infected for an average of 45 weeks [EDIT May 3rd: This originally read 45 days, but it appears this was a misreading of the data by the data analyst], after which you can get them again. So the hopes for eventual permanent “herd immunity” to CoVid-19 may be wishful thinking; we might see cases recur and spike until a reliable vaccine has been developed and almost universally given to humans. This is a highly contagious disease, perhaps five times more than we’d thought, and a small minority un-inoculated could wreak havoc.
  3. Infection with coronaviruses can have serious and lasting, debilitating effects on its victims, even those who seem to have fully recovered. These viruses, and our immune systems’ “cytokine storm” reactions to them, can leave tissues and organs severely damaged and susceptible to later organ failure or other infections, and to neural, psychological and brain damage. We may not know for years.
  4. There has not been a single confirmed case of anyone getting CoVid-19 from delivered groceries or other packaging. That’s not to say there is no risk, but compared to the risks of shaking hands or being near a cough or sneeze, they are hardly worth worrying about.
  5. Masks work, but not so much to prevent the virus from being transmitted to the wearer; they do significantly reduce the risk that you, if you are unknowingly infected, will transmit it to others, or that you will touch your eyes, nose or mouth with an infected hand, and hence give the virus its needed passage to your own throat and lungs. For the same reason, gloves are less important than masks in preventing disease spread (they can carry the virus much as your hands do).
  6. You are most infectious before you show any symptoms. That’s why our lack of preparedness, and hence shortage of test kits, allowed the disease to spread so far so fast. In most countries, you couldn’t even get a test, and were assumed uninfected, unless you showed symptoms.
  7. Although the science is not yet certain, so far it seems unlikely that you can contract the virus through skin lesions (or otherwise through your skin) or through sexual or anal transmission. However, since the virus can pass through to feces and end up in aerosol spray from flushed toilets, you should close the lid before you flush public toilets.
  8. Pangolins, a kind of anteater and the likely intermediary for the coVi-19 virus from bats to humans, are the most trafficked animal in the world. They have been hunted nearly to extinction both as a ‘delicacy’ for humans and as a source for ‘cures’ in ‘traditional Chinese medicine’. China has now banned their consumption but not their ‘medicinal’ use.
  9. There is no need to use hot water when washing your hands for 20 seconds or more with soap.
  10. It bears repeating that the second wave of the 1918 influenza, in some reckonings the biggest killer of humans in history, resulted from a fast and dramatic mutation that shifted the most vulnerable victims from the old and immune-suppressed, to the young with the strongest immune systems (who mostly died due to ‘cytokine storm’ responses from their own immune systems). Average age of victims shifted from about 60 (first wave) to about 30 (second and most virulent wave).

It should also be noted that vaccines are not panaceas — as I’ve written elsewhere, viruses are not our enemies, but essential parts of every ecosystem. And vaccines don’t guarantee 100% immunity. As we continue to crowd farmed and exotic animals into ever-more confined and crowded spaces, and then eat them, the recent explosion of new viruses and mutations is very likely to outstrip our capacity to develop vaccines (as is already starting to happen with ‘regular’ influenza vaccines).

What’s more, there will always be a horde of rabid anti-vaxxers ready to sabotage vaccine programs any way they can, and refuse to inoculate themselves, to everyone’s peril (read Eula Biss’ brilliant book On Immunity for the full extent of this challenge). Viruses are particularly adept at mutation, and we could soon find ourselves in a never-ending and hopeless race to try to keep ahead of the mutations, precisely when they are getting cleverer, as we provide them more fertile breeding grounds, at adapting to our vulnerabilities.

For a brief but comprehensive summary of everything we know right now, please read this.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

The Least We Can Do


The latest from the notorious British street artist Banksy. Photo circulating on FB and elsewhere, source not cited. For non-Brits, NHS is their National Health Service.

It appears the first wave of this virus has peaked in much of the world, though the quality of data everywhere is so poor it’s hard to tell. New York, with the stroke of a pen, added about 4,000 deaths to its tally (upwards of 30%) today, including for the first time deaths listed by coroners as “probably” CoVid-19 related on the death certificate, even if they weren’t officially tested. That suggests that even in jurisdictions where there is no political pressure to suppress death counts, the actual death toll from the virus could well be much larger than the official numbers.

Even two months into this pandemic, the answer to most of our questions is still “We don’t know.”

So here’s what we do know, or what seems most likely to be true at this point:

  1. Hospitalization rates in Europe and North America are generally slightly past peak, suggesting that roughly half the people who are going to die of the first wave of this virus have already done so. The models suggest that the total “official” first wave death toll in the US will be about 60,000 – 80,000 people (depending on how many others follow New York’s lead and start including the tens of thousands who died in the past two months but could not be tested because of the massive shortage of testing kits and testing centres). The actual CoVid-19 related death toll there is likely to be at least 120,000, plus or minus 50%, with the additional numbers ascribable to uncertainty of cause of death, data errors, long delays in testing, certification and reporting, and data simply missing from those who died in non-hospital institutions and at home. That’s a total of about 0.04% of the population. For Canada, where our data-keeping and behaviour record is only marginally better, the actual death toll is likely to be at least 3,000, plus or minus 50%. That’s about 0.01% of the population. For the world, it’s anybody’s guess, since judging from Putin’s own statements and unofficial reports from Moscow the actual numbers for Russia are probably a couple of orders of magnitude greater than the official numbers, and that’s likely true in many other countries. For Europe including the UK but excluding Russia, the actual first-wave death toll is likely to be 200,000, plus or minus 50%. That’s about 0.03% of the population. That would make the expected global CoVid-19 first wave death toll somewhere between one and two million. In most jurisdictions, these totals are about three times the “normal” seasonal influenza death count.
  2. The original guesses at the mortality rate of the disease converged on around 1% of those infected. That means if, as the numbers above suggest, between 0.01% and 0.04% of the population dies in the first wave, then the percentage of the population infected during the first wave was about 1% (Canada), 3% (Europe), and 4% (US) respectively. The variations are attributable to a mix of population density, population mobility, timely and careful social distancing, culture, and dumb luck. But what this means is that between 96% and 99% of the world’s population has not yet been exposed to the virus in sufficient quantities to contract (test positive for) the disease, and hence has no immunity to the disease thus far. Of course, this is only a wild guess. If the mortality rate is actually only 0.2% of those contracting it, then five times as many might have tested positive and might now have immunity to it (and only 80-95% of the population remains without immunity). The only way to find out is by either a massive increase in global testing, and/or the use of serology (blood tests for antibodies), once those tests have been reliably developed and introduced (which is likely to be sooner than a vaccine can be developed). Hurry up please! [EDIT: May 14th: Now it appears the mortality rate is close to 1.0%; see follow-up here.]
  3. It would be an insane gamble for us to start to relax social distancing and other restrictions until we know what percentage of our population has been infected and hence what proportion now has immunity to the disease, and therefore what the actual mortality rate is. If in fact 96-99% of the population remains vulnerable and 1% of them, if they contract the disease before there’s a vaccine, dies as a result, then we’re looking at up to 3 million US deaths, 300,000 Canadian deaths, and 6 million European deaths (and potentially 75 million deaths worldwide). While this is probably a worst case scenario, even if the mortality rate is much lower, the number of deaths in many jurisdictions could approach these numbers due to health systems being overwhelmed and little or no hospital treatment (which has clearly dramatically reduced death tolls from what they would otherwise have been). So the least we can do is pour everything we have into ramping up testing (starting with a 100-fold increase in testing supplies and resources, which would still be surprisingly inexpensive), drastically improving data collection and the availability of personal protective equipment (masks, gloves, screens, sanitizer etc), so we’re ready for what comes next: the next wave, the next mutation (which could be much more lethal, or attack a completely different demographic than the first wave version), or the next one of the million-or-so viruses in mammals, birds and fish we eat, to cross the species barrier and become the next pandemic.
  4. The number of “novel” viruses (viruses crossing the species barrier for the first time, and, what’s unprecedented and especially scary, sometimes through mutations that draw on RNA combined from more than one host species), has absolutely skyrocketed in the first two decades of this century — far more than in any previous time period. This is entirely attributable to the way we raise (factory farms) and consume (bushmeat and exotic ‘farmed’ meat) animals, and to the rapid development of areas (rainforest, tundra etc) that harbour exotic species and their ‘native’ viruses, viruses humans have no natural immunity to. We must quickly end factory farming and other crowded farming practices, exotic animal farming and consumption, and the development of remote areas of the planet that are allowing viruses to propagate and mutate rapidly and be released in areas where there is no immunity to them.

This is the least we can do.

We know what causes pandemics. We know how to prevent them, how to prepare for them, and how to mitigate the damage they inflict on us. We have received a remarkably gentle warning, and the vast majority have reacted in the moment intelligently and courageously. But if we don’t act to prevent future infections, and to be ready for the ones that will inevitably occur, next time we are unlikely to be so lucky.

Yet I’m not so sure we’ll do any of this. It’s seemingly not in our nature to prevent or prepare for crises, or even contemplate them until we are in the midst of them. That certainly seems the case for our response to climate change, to our teetering global economy, and to the growing storm of biodiversity loss and the sixth great extinction.

And even now the “let’s get back to business” ideologues, misinformed and full of bravado, are urging us to open the floodgates while the flood — or the fire — is still raging out of control just outside our door. And we don’t even know how big it is.

But one way or another, we will soon find out.

Thanks to all those putting their health, their sanity and their lives on the line for all of us in these challenging times. When so many of our leaders have so horrifically and completely let us down, it’s good to see true leadership and courage on the front lines.

Stay safe, everyone.

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

We Don’t Want to Kill You

image from Wikipedia, public domain from Mikael Häggström (2014). New and missing: Ebola virus and Marburg virus (hemorrhagic fever), the new SARS CoV-2 (CoVid-19) virus, New Flaviviruses (yellow fever, dengue fever, West Nile, Zika virus), Human Monkeypox, and BSE/Mad Cow, caused by a viral relative called a prion.

Sorry for the inconvenience, folks. It was all an accident, really. We were just happily going on with our lives, here inside the bats and the pangolins and some of the other creatures who have these amazing immune systems that allow us to coexist joyfully with them, and then suddenly we found ourselves inside a human, and all hell broke loose. We have no idea how that happened. Maybe you can figure it out.

You probably know that there are over 100,000,000 different types of virus on the planet, including over a million that live in mammals, birds and fish that you humans, and your pets, at least occasionally eat. We’ve been around for billions of years, but only in the last half-billion did we first appear in animals, which is lucky for you humans, as we kill almost all mosquitos before they can create massive swarms and totally upset ecosystems. You needn’t thank us, though. It’s just what we do.

In fact, it’s really not in our interest to kill any of our hosts. After all, we depend on them — including you — to live and reproduce. It’s notoriously difficult for us to get from one creature to another, so best for us to hang around where we are until our host dies of more natural causes, and then we hitch a ride with whatever eats its body, and hope for the best.

But your species is rather a challenge. In the first place, you humans eat almost anything, which is not especially healthy for you, you travel all over the planet and gather in huge numbers, which can move us to places we’re not particularly well suited to, or spread us to hosts who have no natural immunity to us, in which case we end up — accidentally I assure you — killing our hosts, sometimes in short order and in large numbers. Really unpleasant when that happens, and no good for us at all.

Back in 1918 when you were moving armies of people all over the place crammed tightly together, some of us mutated into a new human-specific form that inadvertently killed so many humans we ran out of hosts and ended up killing ourselves. Though we’re pretty flexible — we managed to mutate into yet another form that didn’t kill humans, just let us hang around in them and cause discomfort to our hosts. Hope you’ve learned that lesson!

Most of all there’s just so damned many of you, which is great for us, especially when you tend to gather and stay in huge unnatural concentrations, and confine your food in similar huge unnatural concentrations. That helps us spread easily and experiment with a whole slew of different mutations. But surely you know that is unhealthy for you, and for your confined creatures? Everything needs space and freedom. Part of what we’ve evolved to do is to restore that balance in every creature on the planet, by exploding along with overpopulated species until enough have died that each has enough space and freedom and healthy food to thrive again. You do understand that, right?

We have no wish to kill you. We’re just doing our job here, and we thought with your big brains you’d have figured it out by now, and used the technologies you obviously have, to limit your numbers to what balances with all the other creatures we both have to coexist with, spread out so you have enough space, food and freedom to be healthy, and give the rest of the species on the planet a break.

But you know, we’ve been around a thousand times longer than you and your kind, and we’re pretty patient. We’ve seen lots of creatures that couldn’t get the knack of fitting in with the rest of the planet’s life, come and go. Your species won’t be any different.

It’s just really unpleasant to go this way, when you didn’t have to. It’s created and is creating a lot of suffering for many, many species.

So please. Get a clue. Don’t make us have to ask you again. We just want to get along. And with you or without you, we will.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments

We Make Zero


image from MaxPixel, public domain, CC0

“We Make Zero”. When I saw that headline on a recent CBC article about the economic impact of CoVid-19, I thought it might actually be a recognition of how very little of western economic activity is actually involved in producing anything useful.

I was disappointed. It was just a quote from a guy in the tourist industry saying how much his company was expected to earn this year. Tourism is one of the industries hardest hit by the disease, so it’s hard not to sympathize.

But I keep dreaming that at some point we’re going to wake up and realize that a very large percent of so-called economic activity on this planet — activity that is substantially destroying the air, water, land and soils and rendering the planet unable to support life for all species — is of absolutely no value to anyone. This activity is measured by GDP, which really measures nothing more than the despoilment of our planet, and certain not the welfare of any species including ours. Despite its calculation, it is substantially just a surrogate for resource use — a chart over any time period tracking GDP against the amount of resources we extract from the planet, the vast majority of them non-renewable, shows a perfect correlation. GDP has nothing to do with economic or social wellbeing; it is simply a measure of the rate at which we are plundering the earth.

As the first wave of this pandemic flattens, there is much discussion about how severe the economic impact of our curtailment of “Work” activity in the interest of social distancing will be. There is essentially no discussion about whether all this “Work” activity was or is necessary in the first place, and whether it really produces much of value. When it comes to producing things of enduring and essential value to the planet or even to members of our own species, the CBC headline pretty much says it — We Make Zero.

But surely, you are probably saying, we couldn’t just stop doing all this economic activity without a disastrous impact on human welfare. Remember the Great Depression? It was ghastly. People would starve. Institutions would crumble.

Such is the compelling Story of Work, which is essentially the Story of Progress, that we tell ourselves. Indeed, this myth is so powerful that many retirees’ lives — rid of the sense of tremendous importance of their Work — are filled with depression and feelings of worthlessness and boredom. It is so powerful that some would be prepared to let 1% of the planet — 80 million people — die horrible deaths, rather than drastically reducing economic activity through social distancing to prevent it.

It is so powerful that those who are unable to find, or convince themselves that they have, Meaningful Work, are actually getting sick, getting addicted, and, as Atul Gawande movingly explains, dying of despair, in the millions.

Because the myth is so powerful, and almost universally believed, it is very likely that we will have one, or a whole series of, severe economic recessions in the coming months and years. This is because things are worth exactly what we think they are worth, and when people think stocks are worth a multiple of current annual profits, and that real estate values will plunge because there will be less money to spend on it because less Work is being done, stock prices and real estate prices will plummet, and those whose net worth is completely dependent on their investments, pensions, and the value of their homes — notably the Working poor — will find themselves suddenly with a negative net worth, no money to repay their mortgages and other huge debts, no job, and quite conceivably no home, and no food. Meanwhile the rich will mostly keep their jobs, and suffer huge short-term paper losses on their investments, but not really suffer at all.

All because of a myth that has been relentlessly hammered into all of us our entire lives. One that is simply untrue. There is more than enough food in this world, though the vast majority of it is factory-produced, unhealthy, massively ecologically destructive, horrifically cruel, and the cause of most of the debilitating, awful chronic diseases that kill 90% of us and are increasingly shortening our healthy life-spans and bankrupting our health care systems. There is more than enough of everything. And, even more incredibly, to those who buy the myth of Progress, there is no need for anyone who doesn’t want to, to have to Work.

So let’s take a look at this myth.

Suppose you want to set up and run a bank. You get a charter, which prevents too many competitors also setting up banks in your area, and indemnifies you from personal liability for just about any consequences of your bank’s activities. You also discover that if you really screw up, provided you get big enough that people and companies depend on you, you will be fully bailed out by government.

Now, you get to take people’s deposits, and pay them 0.5% interest on them. With your charter, you get to loan out many times your deposits (the government has your back) to people and corporations. You’ll probably only get ten times your interest cost with your corporate loans (the government has their back too). But you’ll earn an average of 16%, that is a 3200% profit multiple, on what you’re paying your depositors — on personal loans ie mortgages, consumer loans, care loans, lines of credit, and credit cards. This is entirely legal, and thanks to new laws that make declaring bankruptcy almost impossible (you can go after the families and will beneficiaries of anyone who doesn’t pay promptly), it is essentially risk-free.

You would have to be a complete moron, or a delirious psychopath, not to make scads of money as a banker. So the cash is piling up. Maybe you’re feeling a bit guilty, with your 7 or 8-figure income, dividends, bonuses and stock options. You expand of course, and your new bank towers in the most expensive locations in major cities do eat a bit into your cash flow, but they’re pretty solid investments as long as the economy keeps growing endlessly. You diversify into trust, securities and insurance businesses, which similarly are substantially guaranteed by the government as long as you are big enough. You really do have a licence to print money. You start to hire prestigious people with salaries close to your own because it looks good (especially to your shareholders) to have investment bankers, hedge fund managers, vulture capital experts, currency and commodity traders and other wheeler-dealers on your payroll. Not to mention armies of lawyers, accountants, auditors, advisors and consultants, with huge staffs of menial workers supporting them.

All of this counts as GDP in the myth of Progress. What does it actually produce of value to people? Zero. These are all what David Graeber calls Bullshit Jobs, which he lists, somewhat sarcastically, in five categories:

  • Flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g., receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants, drivers
  • Goons, who act aggressively on behalf of their employers, e.g., lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists
  • Duct tapers, who ameliorate preventable problems, e.g., programmers repairing shoddy code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags don’t arrive, online and telephone “help” desks
  • Box tickers, who use paperwork or gestures as a proxy for action, e.g., performance managers, in-house magazine journalists, leisure coordinators
  • Taskmasters, who manage—or create extra work for—those who don’t need it, e.g., middle management, leadership professionals

My experience in the corporate and government world suggests that these five categories are just the tip of the iceberg, and that most “senior executive” jobs are also Bullshit Jobs created by the self-serving rich to justify their mostly arbitrary, misinformed and utterly unproductive “executive decision-making” activity. A huge proportion of menial low-paying jobs have not been eliminated solely because employers and governments intuitively understand the need to keep the Working class — the Precariat-become-Unnecessariat — distracted and in thrall to the economic system. The bloated and utterly dysfunctional health care and education “industries”, which are among the largest providers of Work in our society, are hence needed to support the physical and mental malaise the entire system creates, and to baby-sit the children whose struggling nuclear parent(s) can’t look after and teach them because they have to Work. And don’t even get me started on the even more useless security and incarceration “industries”.

It would be nice to believe that this pandemic would give us the chance to rethink our myths, once we start to discover that most of the Work we’ve had to stop doing to socially distance ourselves really wasn’t economically or socially necessary in the first place. But we won’t, of course, rethink any of this. We’re too busy planning how to get everyone back to Work before the “economy falls apart” and another Great Depression sets in.

But we can dream. What if we could take this not-so-golden opportunity to eliminate all the Bullshit Jobs? Here’s what I think would have to happen:

  1. First, of course, we’d have to have a guaranteed annual income for everyone, at a level that would allow anyone to live comfortably without having to Work. We would have to jettison the Puritan Work ethic that suggests (without evidence) that no one would Work if they weren’t “forced to” and that large financial incentives are necessary to “encourage” people who aren’t Working to Work.
  2. Then, there would have to be a great reckoning on wealth. Incomes and levels of wealth of more than, say, ten times the guaranteed annual income are probably not affordable under this new system. That means pay cuts of 90-99% for the 1%, or else taxes to achieve the same end result (90% tax rates are not at all unprecedented and historically have not “discouraged” people from Working). Still, the 1% would be far from hardship.
  3. There would likely have to be a huge and recurrent debt amnesty to reset the majority of citizens’ balance sheets to where the guaranteed annual income would suffice thereafter (and likewise reset the majority of nations’ balance sheets via the IMF). This would probably be the most contentious adjustment, though in David Graeber’s book Debt he outlines several historical precedents, sometimes called “Jubilees”, for it. It would of course be seen as “unfair” to those who had stayed free of debts, and to “creditors” whose careful investments would suddenly be worthless (though their might be tax credits or other adjustments to compensate those for whom this “balance sheet rebalancing” caused particular hardship).
  4. So then, only those who wanted to Work would do so, for which they could be compensated to a maximum of perhaps 10 times the guaranteed annual income. Who would do so? I think you’d be surprised. I think there’d be an absolute explosion in the volume of small entrepreneurial and volunteer activities. Completely non-hierarchical, and necessarily small-scale and local. Because the end of Bullshit Jobs would free up an astonishing amount of people’s time, and because people like to do things for themselves and each other. I imagine much of this time would be contributed free and much of what was produced would be given away or sold at cost (driving down the prices of comparable high-markup “brand name” goods and services). I imagine the role of money, credit, and investment in our day-to-day lives would become marginal, because there would be relatively little need for it. There would be less “innovation”, but to the extent that’s about hugely expensive cures for exotic diseases, or self-driving cars, I think that’s a reasonable sacrifice.
  5. I’d bet that energy use, for doing Bullshit Jobs and driving to, from and for Work, would plummet. I’d bet that the skies would get much clearer and that carbon emissions would drop substantially. I’d bet that with time freed up to learn (eg how to garden, how to cook, how to make things yourself), and time freed up to think, we might well see the end of factory farming, and a sharp decline in chronic illnesses caused by our dysfunctional food system.

This is, of course, just a dream. Human systems, and human beliefs, don’t and won’t change just because there’s almost certainly a much better way of doing things. But in these crazy times it’s sometimes useful to imagine how things might be, just to keep everything in perspective.

My thoughts are with all those struggling especially hard in this extraordinary time. We’re all doing our best (even the bankers, lawyers and politicians); the only thing we can do.

Stay safe, everyone.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

CoVid-19, Complexity & Collapse: The Long Game


poster by Spanish cartoonist Miguel Brieva, reproduced in the Tyee

Last week I summarized what I thought were the likely short-term developments with the virus, and thus far the models that have been developed have proved to be surprisingly accurate. They basically say that by the beginning of June, with continued social distancing, death rates will have plunged and most of the danger, at least for this wave of the pandemic, will be over.

There are of course a whole bunch of “ifs” and unknowns in these forecasts. There are likely to be additional waves of the virus. To the extent they result from loosening social distancing rules too soon, they will likely (but not certainly) be isolated and short-lived, with many fewer deaths. If some major government (eg US, UK, Brasil, Indonesia), or some large or concentrated religious group decides to recklessly abandon social distancing, then additional waves could be comparable to the first wave, killing another (rough estimate) 100,000 Americans, and two million more worldwide. Or even more. Some of the models, unlike the UW/IHME one I’ve been following, actually assume this will happen and that it will take two years and multiple waves before this is behind us. Their estimates of total deaths are 3-10x higher than the UW model, from what I can gather from public information about them.

So, for example, interpolating from the UW model in the US, we might expect about 1,000-1,500 deaths in Ontario, Canada from the first wave of the virus, peaking in late April and almost all occurring by the end of May (there have been 146 deaths there so far to April 5th). But the three models just released by the Ontario government forecast 3,000-15,000 deaths there in multiple waves over two years. They may be right. I think with continued diligence and good luck they will prove unduly pessimistic. But no harm erring on the side of caution.

The other great unknown, which I referred to in the previous article, is the risk of a radical mutation of the virus. Most of the deaths of the 1918 flu virus were in the second wave, which happened not so much because distancing and other restrictions were eased too soon, but rather because the new mutation was much more virulent and attacked a completely different demographic (young people with strong immune systems). We can’t prevent this. Viruses mutate easily and quickly, and our modern crowded mobile civilization is hugely vulnerable. The microbes will have the last word. If not this year, it will happen when the next novel virus crosses the species boundary. It will not be that long.

But if we learn our lesson now, we can be prepared, even for that. Specifically we have to equip ourselves now to follow the model that Taiwan has set:

  1. We have to manufacture test kits, masks, gloves and plastic shields, enough for everyone on the planet to have all they will need, free of charge. This sounds like a huge deal, but its cost would be absolutely minuscule compared to the economic costs we have already suffered from not having them. Organizations capable of manufacturing these should be under ongoing national emergency orders to produce them as needed instead of whatever they normally manufacture.
  2. When an outbreak occurs, everyone in an exposed or infected area needs to be tested at least every two weeks until the danger has passed, and those infected must self-isolate until the disease has run its course.
  3. Everyone in an exposed or infected area needs to wear a mask and use a plastic shield when eating in a public place, until the danger has passed.
  4. When a new novel virus arises, everyone needs to be vaccinated for it as soon as a vaccine is available.

We can do this, annoying as it may be. We have gotten used to annoyances in airport security as a result of novel threats, and we can get used to this. We can even solve the massive privacy and personal liberties issues this way of handling pandemics brings up.

There has been much debate about masks. There is no debate that they are advisable whenever either (i) you think you might have a serious virus, or (ii) you are in close physical contact with someone who might have a serious virus. The catch-22 is that because we were (and are still) not equipped to test everyone often, we have absolutely no idea who might have the virus, and we don’t have anywhere near the number of masks that would therefore be needed for essentially everyone to wear until we knew (and recommending them to everyone would put health care workers at risk of running out of the short supply of them). Once they’re freely available, we’d better get used to them. The good news is that if we follow this protocol the length of time we’ll have to continue it will be greatly shortened, and we can get back to business as usual, or at least to the ‘new normal’.

The other immediate preventative action we need to take now was what I identified in my previous post: completely ending the three sources of the recent (last 30 years’) upsurge in viral epidemics — (1) disturbance of the last wild places on the planet that harbour viruses for which there is no natural human immunity, (2) the bushmeat trade including domestication of “exotic” species for food, and (3) factory farming. Ending factory farming (which breeds exotic viruses which result in the miserable death of tens of billions of farmed animals from disease, as well as viruses that then are eaten by humans or mutate to cross the species barrier), will require an enormous shift in our entire food system. But doing so will not only radically reduce pandemic risks, it will also powerfully reduce some of the main drivers of climate change and biodiversity loss, which are also existential threats to all of us. (Not to mention reducing our grotesque inhumanity to other creatures.)

There’s a lot we can learn from what’s happened already. It’s evident that the regime in China completely botched the containment of the SARS CoV-2 (CoVid-19) virus when it crossed the species barrier there from bats or pangolins, and then only barely contained it through cruel and draconian measures. But we’re not going to reform the Chinese regime (or the WHO, which has proved to be completely, perhaps criminally, inept in their handling of this outbreak).

There has been some suggestion that our economy cannot possibly recover until everyone has been exposed to the virus and either died or developed immunity, so we should just expose everyone to it and get it over with. This was clearly the philosophy of some of the advisors to the so-called leaders of the US, UK, Brasil and some other jurisdictions. It was also touted in the early days of some other pandemics in history. Just to put this mad idea into perspective: Best guess is that 1% of those who contract the disease will die from it (varying from 0.1% of young children to 15% or more of those over 70 and those with compromised immune or respiratory systems). Social distancing strives to ensure that, for this pandemic, at most 3% of the population contracts the disease (though many more will be exposed to it). A death rate of 1% of the 3% of the population contracting the disease is 2,200,000 people worldwide. For the US it’s 100,000 people (the number of deaths the UW model currently projects there for the first wave). Those numbers are awful, and these deaths, mostly from suffocation, are ghastly, but they’re only about twice the number that ‘normally’ die from ‘regular’ influenza (which targets the same demographic).

If we exposed everyone to the virus and deliberately allowed everyone to contract the disease, then the global death rate would most probably be 33.3x higher, ie 75 million people, and the US deaths would be 3.3 million people. Ghastly, suffocating deaths, leading to an inevitable collapse of overloaded health care systems’ hospitals and health care workers. And likely riots and murders over access to hospital care and equipment. While there are risks of recurrent waves with any social distancing program, they are obviously worth taking to avoid such an outcome.

There is no question that this disease is going to wreak havoc (it’s already begun) on both global and national economies. We are going to see, first, a large number of business failures, including many household names in vulnerable industry sectors (energy, transportation, hospitality, insurance, real estate & construction, and of course banks). Governments will not be able to bail out all of them, so we’ll see some consolidation, and in most countries some inevitable nationalization. The problem is that, with stocks so ridiculously overpriced, and interest rates so low, corporations have been encouraged to borrow money (called “leveraging”) and use it to buy back their own shares, increasing their vulnerability to profit swings. With the market collapse, many people’s and companies’ investments have lost much of their value, meaning there is less to spend on new activities, and a need to ‘cover’ losses from savings or through new borrowings, which only exacerbates the problem. Like dominoes, we are likely to see business collapses, collapses in energy/minerals exploration and development, employment collapses, price and wage collapses, collapses in credit availability, and then governments going bankrupt (as tax revenues dive) and currency collapses. And with them, there will be a collapse in international trade.

The economy is built on trust, and the whole Ponzi scheme of stock values and real estate values was already teetering before the current crisis. The question will be, after so many of the pillars of our economy have been cracked or weakened, when and even whether people will ever again trust their money to the public markets. This crisis could just be the straw that breaks the back of the fraudulent bubble economy.

For a more detailed discussion of the fragility of our economic system in the current context, check out this excellent interview with Nate Hagens. And this article by Evan Fraser (thanks to Jay Sage for the link) explains the fragility of our food system, all in the interest of “efficiency” and maximizing profits. (The average city has a three-day supply of fresh food for its residents.)

While it may be political gold for a government to be seen to be writing cheques to each one of its citizens to get them over the hump, it is in many countries political suicide to acknowledge the need for a permanent ‘handout’ to every citizen every year. It suggests (quite correctly) that capitalism simply hasn’t worked. It suggests that governments and public services and institutions, which the mainstream media puppets of powerful private interests have been badmouthing and undermining for decades, are not only worth sustaining but absolutely essential to the economic and social health of the country and its people.

I’ve been writing about collapse for about 16 years now — specifically about the unsustainability of, and interconnection between, (affordable) energy, our growth-dependent industrial economy, and our stable climate and viable ecosystems. My research has convinced me that they will all come to an end in this century, but in fits and starts, leading to the end of what we know as our modern global civilization, and a chaotic period of adaptation by all creatures on the planet facing the conclusion of the sixth great extinction. My argument is that these systems can’t be reformed to make them work; and that after they collapse what will take their place will be unimaginably different from (and, I think, in the long run, better than) human societies as we know them today.

Is this the first domino in that collapse? Is this a timely wake-up call to alert us to what is to come and what must now be done? Will nothing ever be the same again?What does this all mean for the longer-term situation for our struggling planet and its human civilization?

The poster at the top of this post summarizes some of the fervent hopes that have arisen out of this crisis. Might we finally have free universal health care for all? And perhaps even a guaranteed annual income for everyone?

My sense as a student of history is that, even if CoVid-19 turns out to be much worse than hoped, we won’t learn much from the experience, and any changes that are made will be temporary.

I’ve listened (thanks to Janaia Donaldson and others for the link) to Nafeez Ahmed talking with Asher Miller about these questions, and have read all the books on systems collapse they refer to in their introduction. I’ve read (thanks to Tree Bressen for the link) Ian Paul’s fascinating Premises for a Pandemic. I confess I don’t share their optimism. They perceive the global crisis response to CoVid-19 (as many did during the Great Depression) as a (potentially) permanent shift in culture, values, programs etc, whereas IMO it is only a short-term reaction that people will forget as soon as possible and shrug off as an unfortunate, embarrassing and temporary aberration.

We haven’t learned from previous pandemics, even the most recent ones. There’s no reason to believe we’ll learn from this one either. The kind of holistic systems thinking that they prescribe as needed to deal with these crises is simply not human nature. All of our specialist/silo-based institutional structures and systems show this. We devalue generalists and radical creatives, and distrust not-invented-here solutions. This crisis has made us more xenophobic, not less.

If we could get out of our idealistic, humanistic, ‘progressivist’ bubble I think we would see that most citizens won’t blame Trump or Johnson for the excess deaths the models indicate might have been avoided, no matter what these clowns do, just as they have not blamed politicians in power for all the needless deaths in recent and ongoing wars and bombings, haven’t blamed the industrial food and other industrial systems for the untold suffering and death that our encouraged and addictive bad eating habits and unnatural food supplies have incontrovertibly produced, and haven’t blamed capitalism for our ghastly, deadly inequality and the destruction of our planet’s life systems.

The writing on the wall has been plain to see for at least a decade now, and most people have refused to look at it, not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t like the message. Most of us are “all in” invested in the stories of hard-won progress and inevitable suffering we’ve been told all our lives, and cannot hear any other story. (Trump’s MAGA and Biden’s Restore the Soul of America are identical, reactionary messages, just seen through different worldview lenses.) We will listen to the demagogues who say this is someone else’s fault, this is temporary, an unfortunate aberration, that this was unavoidable, that this is life. And most importantly, we will listen to promises that we can get back to the way things were. Even those who can hardly remember when things were even OK.

So my sense at this stage (I hope to be proved wrong) is that nothing will change in terms of human behaviour, processes, systems and infrastructure, except temporarily. Our valiant, struggling, suffering species is and has always been concerned with the needs of the moment. We only change when we believe we have no other choice, and that point has not yet come.

Nate (in the video linked above) explains how he sees humanity/Earth/Gaia as a kind of super-organism: “Right now the super-organism has been checked into the hospital and is being treated for a virus. The question is, when it’s discharged from the hospital, which might be in a couple of months, or a couple of years, will it listen to its ‘doctors’ or will it go back to its gluttonous ways?… As individuals, we can choose to live differently, but once this is over, when the cost of energy is so low, our collective default will be to try to go back to the old system.”

Just as we have become used to removing our shoes, at airport security, and at friends’ houses, we may get used to putting on masks, and other seemingly excessive and annoying actions. But we won’t give up our dream, of how things are and should be and must be, so easily.

Nate is saying, however, that unrecoverable economic collapse is coming, probably starting over the next decade, and that, not CoVid-19, will likely be our real, way-too-late, wake-up call. That seems about right.

Stay safe, everyone.

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

Signs of the times: Zoom Edition

 

Translation: We can hear you eating, slurping, whispering, muttering, talking with others in the room, and/or making other unpleasant and disruptive bodily sounds, even over the sound of the person speaking.

We’re all getting used to using Zoom and similar services in place of face-to-face get-togethers of every kind. It hasn’t taken long for a new etiquette to begin to emerge among regular, and even irregular, users of these tools.

A while ago, some organizations introduced small card decks with useful messages that could be held up to inform the current speaker of technical problems, or how they could improve their presentation. They include “unmute your mic”, “louder”, “not so loud”, “faster”, “not so fast”, “you’re breaking up”, “be right back”,  “I have a question”, “I have a concern”, “thumbs up”, “thumbs down”, “thank you (or applause)” and of course “ELMO” (“enough, let’s move on”). I’ve used them to quietly communicate to the speakers on several Zoom calls, and they really work. Just print each of ’em on an 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper in large font, and even in large groups they’ll be visible when you hold them up. The one I’ve used most? “Not so loud, please.” — especially for older users who tend to think they have to shout to be heard on a microphone — a bad habit picked up from cell phones I think.

I thought it would be fun to come up with messages for the more unruly, less skilled (trying to be polite here) audiences that you’ll find in some Zoom conferences. The message at the top of this post is an example. Here are a few more:

Translation: This is for those who think they can play video games, answer e-mail, talk on the phone, clean their laptop/house/car (yes I’ve seen this), brush their teeth, pick/scratch their…., make disparaging or disconcerting faces, change their clothes etc and because someone else is speaking and they’re muted, that no will will notice they’re NOT PAYING ATTENTION. We notice. So does the speaker. Upload a still photo of yourself and “mute” your camera if you must do something visually distracting during the meeting, please.

Translation: It’s polite to sign in 5-10 minutes before the meeting starts, so you don’t miss anything. This is for the people who are either chronically late, and make people repeat what was already said to the punctual, and the people who only pay attention to their own voice, so they ask questions or post comments or concerns that have already been discussed. If you’re late, precede comments with “Sorry I was late; if this hasn’t already been covered…”

Translation: Share the airtime fairly, don’t interrupt, tell the moderator, using a chat message, that you’d like to say something rather than cutting in whenever there’s a silence. This message sometimes even works on narcissists (and some old white males) who will otherwise often try to hog airtime (more so with really big audiences). Good moderators will keep a “queue” of who’s next to speak or ask a question. And another hint: Say “that’s all” or “thanks I’m done” to signal the moderator to cue up the next speaker.

Translation: This message is better communicated by the moderator in the chat at the start of the meeting rather than in a held-up message, but it’s really important. Photographers know that portraits are best with the bright light in front of the subject, never behind, and that some light is needed in front of you. It’s really disconcerting when people can’t see you (as if you’re wearing a mask). And fake ‘backgrounds’ with friends & family are fun, but distracting in most settings (especially if the Getty Images watermark is visible on your background — true story).

 

Translation: This is another subtle but important ‘unintentional body language’ learning for online newbies. Sit too far away and people will think you’re disengaged. But sit too close and they’ll think you’re ‘crowding’ them. Trying to get everyone the same distance from the screen can make people feel more at ease and more like ‘equals’.

Translation: This is another tricky one, analogous to the improper use of ‘reply all’ in email. Zoom lets you send 1-to-1 messages to any participant in the ‘chat’ window, but you have to take care to reset the recipient before each chat message you send. Not terribly intuitive but valuable learning to keep the ‘chat with all’ messages free of clutter, and to avoid embarrassing messages inadvertently sent to all.

Translation: This is probably the most important message to keep in mind. It can be tempting to laugh when someone says something unintentionally foolish or rambles on incoherently, and with your screen on Gallery setting, that laughter can be infectious. Nothing ‘s scarier than seeing a bunch of people laughing or shaking their heads at you, even when the sounds are all muted. We’re all doing our best.

 

Translation: Here’s your chance to show off your unique sense of humour. These are crazy days, and laughter is great medicine. Come up with 1-2 silly, funny, short, inoffensive signs for each Zoom session, and then hold each of them up just for a couple of minutes during the session (not at critical moments though) to help the group cut through the tension of the times.

A note about children: If it’s a family & friends meeting, of course children are welcome to come and go and participate. But if there’s serious stuff being discussed, as difficult as it is, it’s really important to keep them occupied and off-camera (and mic) unless they’re really quiet and unobtrusive. A message I saw on a recent Zoom call was “Yes your children are adorable but geez.” That about sums it up.

A note about pets: As unfair as it may be, the above caveat does not apply to pets. I’ve observed on several occasions that the quiet appearance of pets walking in front of the camera seems to be a universally delightful distraction — a reminder that in the current time of crisis there are creatures equanimous and oblivious to what is happening, and wouldn’t it be nice if we could take it all in stride as well as they seem to.

You’ll notice in the images above I appear to have my eyes downcast. You’ve probably noticed the same is true of most Zoom participants. This is because the built-in camera is above the centre of the screen which most people focus on. There’s no easy fix for this, but it’s something for computer and webcam designers to focus on. You can prop your computer up on a box so you’re looking up at both the screen and camera, but that can be awkward, especially with laptops. And you can position an external USB camera at mid-screen height to the left or right of your monitor, but then you’ll usually seem to be looking to the side of the camera (better, but not great).

And in every group, it seems, there is someone who cannot resist trying the “screen sharing” button. Best for moderators to turn this facility off for everyone to avoid the temptation, and only turn it on in rare circumstances when screen-sharing is actually of value.

You may not agree with all of the above, but I hope you find this all useful.

Finally, for those of you who understand the story of Passover, you might appreciate this bit of Zoom humour by poster eitzpri on Reddit:

The Torah Speaks of Four Kinds of People Who Use Zoom:

The Wise
The Wicked
The Simple
The One Who Does Not Know How to “Mute”

The Wise Person says: “I’ll handle the Admin Feature Controls and Chat Rooms, and forward the Cloud Recording Transcript after the call.”

The Wicked Person says: “Since I have unlimited duration, I scheduled the meeting for six hours—as it says in the Haggadah, whoever prolongs the telling of the story, harei zeh ‘shubach, is praiseworthy.”

The Simple Person says: “Hello? Am I on? I can hear you but I can’t see you.”
[Jerusalem Talmud reads here: “I can see you, but I can’t hear you.”]

The One Who Does Not Know How to Mute says: “How should I know where you put the keys? I’m stuck on this stupid Zoom call with these idiots.”

To the Wise Person you should offer all of the Zoom Pro Optional Add-On Plans.

To the Wicked Person you should say: “Had you been in charge, we would still be in Egypt.”

To the Simple Person you should say: “Try the call-in number instead.”

To the One Who Does Not Know How to Mute you should say: “Why should this night be different from all other nights?”

Take care, everyone.

Posted in Creative Works, Working Smarter | 1 Comment

What’s Next For CoVid-19: Some Wild Guesses

Forecasts April 9th, 2020 (shortly after this article was first written):

[EDIT] Updated Forecasts May 4th, 2020:

Current CoVid-19 deaths for North America West Coast jurisdictions to [EDITS: updated to April 9th & May 4th] per the nCoVid2019 Dashboard, and projected most likely (95% confidence intervals: +/- 50%) total deaths to the end of this wave of the pandemic for each jurisdiction per U of Washington IHME projections as at [EDITS updated to April 7th and May 1st]. Interpolations of this data for Canadian jurisdictions in the top chart are mine. Click on images for larger versions.  Download the latest version of this Excel chart and data. (I plan to keep it current until at least June 1.)

Caveat 1: I am not an expert in this subject, and these are only my wild informed guesses, subject to drastic future change and possibly great retroactive embarrassment. But I thought I’d try to summarize how it looks to me at this pivotal point, based on my experience and research.

Caveat 2: The above IHME April 7th projections are much more optimistic than just a week ago (1/3 fewer projected total deaths); [EDIT] the updated May 1st projections are nearly twice what was projected just a week earlier. These projections assume no further waves and no slackening of social distancing until either (1) resources exist to do exhaustive ongoing testing, or (2) an effective vaccine is fully implemented. The top chart early predictions have already been exceeded, and in my opinion death totals 40-60% higher than even the upward-revised (lower chart) projections are likely once unexplained excess deaths have been factored in.

The most important things to keep in mind right now IMO:

  1. CoVid-19 deaths in North America are going to skyrocket by an order of magnitude over the first two weeks of April. That doesn’t mean the disease is out of control; in fact the rate of infection and death is already starting to decelerate and will likely continue to do so per the charts above.
  2. While high and tragic, the projected death rates are astonishingly low for such a pandemic. This is due to (a) relatively rapid implementation of social distancing (“flattening the curve”), which has likely reduces death rates by a factor of 10-20x, [here’s why: thanks to Tree Bressen for the link]; (b) learning from the Chinese early hospitalizations about timing of use of invasive ventilators in serious cases, which may well halve the death rate here; and (c) our good luck — this strain seems to have a relatively short and fragile life before it dies unless it finds new hosts, and a relatively low morbidity rate. [EDIT: May 14th: Now it appears the mortality rate is closer to 1.0%, a lot more than originally thought; see follow-up here.]
  3. If the American president relaxes social distancing, isolation and travel restrictions before the summer, all bets are off: Death rates more than an order of magnitude higher could then be entirely possible unless saner governance is put in place. (Same is true for other dangerous populist national leaders.)
  4. There may well be more waves of this virus, perhaps with wildly different human vulnerability profiles and morbidity rates. The first wave of a pandemic is not always the worst.

LEARNING FROM PAST PANDEMICS

When I worked 12 years ago with the Ministry of Health with a special group hired to learn the lessons of SARS so there would be no repetition of the mistakes made then, we studied the epidemiology not only of SARS (CoV-1) but of various bird flus (H5N1, H7N9), swine flus (H1N1), and the 1918 pandemic (“Spanish flu”, also an H1N1). 

What was so remarkable about this work is that most of what we would ideally like to know/learn about these diseases we could not learn, for a number of reasons — mostly about how incredibly little we really understand viruses and how they proliferate, but also because the history is still unclear. You would think, for example, that by now we would know where the 1918 pandemic arose, but we remain utterly clueless, with at least 3 major theories, all of them somewhat suspect.        

We also can’t yet agree on how many died from the 1918 virus, with estimates varying by more than an order of magnitude. 

Nevertheless, there is much to learn from that pandemic, and I’d commend this New Yorker video to you — an interview with John Barry, a writer who’s spent much of his life studying it.

 Some things that we did learn, that now seem to have become lost in the shuffle:

  1. Flu pandemics come in waves. The severest wave in 1918 was the second, not the first. And it wasn’t (so much) because people got complacent and eased restrictions when the first wave abated; it was because viruses can mutate incredibly quickly, and the second wave arose from a much, much more virulent strain.
  2. Unlike most flu viruses, including the first 1918 wave virus, the second wave 1918 mutation struck almost entirely young people. It did this by inciting what is called a cytokine storm in the bodies of its victims. It wasn’t the virus or any side effects of the virus (like pneumonia) that killed the second wave victims, it was the victims’ own immune systems. So those with autoimmune disorders (hyperactive immune systems) were devastated, while those with suppressed immune systems were almost entirely spared (fewer than 1% of second wave victims were over 65). 
  3. There were several waves of the 1918 virus after the second one, but a peculiar paradox made them much milder: The second mutation essentially ran short of available hosts, and had to mutate to survive. The second mutation was simply too potent for its own good, and essentially eradicated itself by mutating into a much milder form. 

MODELS OF WHAT TO DO NEXT TIME

The economic impact of this virus, due to our unpreparedness for it, will be staggering. There is a significant risk of a long and deep economic depression (more on that in a future article). But this didn’t have to be.

Some jurisdictions have been largely spared both the health and economic costs of this virus, notably Taiwan. Lessons from their experience and preparedness:

  1. A process must be in place to enable rapid and repeat testing of every citizen, to quickly isolate the disease. The cost of being ready with swabs, masks, sanitizers, protective shields and test equipment pales in comparison with nationwide economic shutdowns, and such shutdowns are needed only because we have no idea who has the virus now. It is very likely that actual positive cases (if we had the tools to test for them) would be about an order of magnitude (10x) the current “official” figures, which have resulted from testing only those who already exhibit strong symptoms.
  2. In Taiwan, spreading fake news, hoarding, price-gouging and other actions that exploit and inflame the situation are indictable offences and considered shameful, not shrewd, behaviours. There, businesses and schools and restaurants are re-opened and life is nearly normal, and there’s been very little effect on the national economy.
  3. The town of Vo, in Italy, had the luxury of having the equipment and political will to test and retest every one of its 3,300 residents and isolate those who tested positive, even if asymptomatic. Their experience is a model for every community in the world to follow, if we’re willing to learn from it.

PREVENTING PANDEMICS IN THE FIRST PLACE

While the above models can dramatically mitigate the impact of pandemics when they first occur, it would be even better if we were to prevent them happening in the first place. When Dr Michael Gregor was working in epidemiology a decade ago, he published his findings on the history of human pandemics and their causes. He revealed that virus transmission to humans only became possible with the domestication of animals 10,000 years ago, and all known human viral infections (poxes etc) have their origin in domesticated animals or the consumption of bushmeat — without it there is no way for viruses to move from their endemic animal hosts to humans who have no immunity to them (hence leading to pandemics).

Two centuries ago pandemics became more prevalent again, commensurate with the intensification of “industrial” agriculture. Then with the development of vaccines, infectious diseases were almost eradicated from the planet by the 1970s, causing some health leaders to predict that such diseases would never again cause pandemics. 

But then suddenly there was a third huge upswing in novel infectious diseases, starting just 30 years ago.  This corresponded with the order-of-magnitude increase in CAFEs (factory farming) of both domesticated and “exotic” birds and mammals for human food. Pangolins may the source of SARS CoV-2 (the current coronavirus that is expressed as CoVid-19). 

There is nervous laughter around the room when Michael says, at the end of the 2009 presentation linked above, that “we could well face a situation in the near future where every American might have to shelter in place for as much as three months to prevent spread of a global lethal pandemic”. 

It is to be hoped that, along with all the other learnings from this current horrible outbreak, we take to heart that only by completely ending the three sources of the recent upsurge in pandemic risks — (1) disturbance of the last wild places on the planet that harbour viruses for which there is no natural human immunity, (2) the bushmeat trade including domestication of “exotic” species for food, and (3) factory farming — will there be any chance that situations like that we are currently facing will not become increasingly frequent and dangerous.

But I would be surprised if there’s even an acknowledgement of this cause, outside an increasingly censored and silenced scientific and medical community.

MORE INFO

  • The charts at the top of this post came from IHME projections, and the underlying data is available here if you want to make your own or track the accuracy of them. They’re especially useful if you’re in a state that will likely face severe hospital bed, ICU or ventilator shortages and hence excess preventable deaths: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Michigan, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, Vermont and Massachusetts.
  • The IHME used in its modelling information on other countries’ death rates after the number of deaths and infections reached a certain base level (“trajectories”). Our World in Data is maintaining excellent charts on trajectories. So is John Burn-Murdoch for the UK Financial Times.
  • The data suggest that the mortality rate, on average, is converging on a rate of 1% of those infected [EDIT: Update May 4th: mortality rate now looks to be closer to 0.2-0.5%]. But the number of people testing positive (due to drastically limited testing stemming from unavailability of test kits and testing resources) is wildly underestimated (the actual number of those who would be testing positive if everyone had been tested is likely 8-20x the reported numbers). That means, if the projections pan out, that only 1.5-2.5% of North Americans would actually test positive at some point during the current wave, if the test were available. Without social distancing, it was estimated that 25-50% of the population would eventually contract the disease. This is the power of social distancing: It is almost certainly saving tens of millions of lives worldwide. It is these tens of millions of lives saved that we must weigh against the horrific economic cost of this pandemic, which is only beginning to emerge.

WHAT TO DO NOW

  • Depends on your situation, of course. If you’re needed in the food, health care and other essential fields, thank you for continuing to do what you do. If you have things you can give away safely to people who would benefit from them, of course please do so. If you’re in financial peril as a result of the economic shutdown, the resources available to help differ in each jurisdiction.
  • [Edit: Added Mar 30] If you can, please get involved in the various “mutual aid networks” that have sprung up since the pandemic started. Here’s a summary of how they work. Here’s a US directory. Here’s a global directory. Most communities have something like this going for peer-to-peer support, as governments are often overwhelmed, too distant, underprepared or in some cases in denial. [Thanks to Kevin Jones for reminding me about this.]
  • If you’re like most of us, the next few weeks especially will bring a lot of anxiety, and feelings of anger, being trapped, feeling shameful etc. These are all manifestations of grief (thanks to Maureen Nicholson for the link). There are many online resources on coping psychologically with this. Here’s one (thanks to John Graham for the link) that I find useful.
  • Keep up the pressure to sustain social distancing on your government, if it’s dragging its heels or proposing to relax the rules. Here are the worst offenders globally. Likewise if your peers are flaunting the rules (the link above also has a tab on citizen behaviours, which largely parallels their governments’). Millions of lives are at stake.
  • Limit your time on useless social media and other media that are mostly or entirely unsupported opinion, useless information and misinformation. If it’s not actionable, and doesn’t give you any sense of comfort that you’re doing the right things by being overcautious, and that it’s going to be OK, then there’s really no benefit in reading it.

And for the vast majority of us, it is going to be OK.

Next articles here will be on the economic fallout, which is likely to be longer and deeper than the health impact, but was overdue to happen anyway, and on why this horrible event may be a useful wake-up call that might get us started addressing some of the more profound and permanent challenges ahead.

Stay safe, everyone.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 7 Comments

No Choice But to Misbehave

In my now decades-long exploration of what it means to be human, some things now seem quite clear to me, while others continue to puzzle me. Some of the things that are clear, though I once thought them preposterous:

  1. After decades of arguing that we absolutely have free will, I have to confess it now seems almost incontrovertible, based on discoveries in various sciences,  that we do not.
  2. Likewise, I am now persuaded by other scientific discoveries and by the arguments of radical non-duality that there is no real ‘self’ — the illusion of the self is a recursive mental construct that arose in complex brains modelling their perceptions (as large brains are inclined to do) and needing something to put in the centre of the model.
  3. The issues of determinism and compatibilism now seem to me irrelevant and moot, if one buys (as I am inclined to do) the radical non-duality position that there is no causality. There may be causal models (eg laws of physics, Gaia theory, theory of evolution) that seem to describe or represent what we perceive to be real, but they are only interesting models. The map is not the territory. Once it is acknowledged that time and space and separateness and the self are just mental constructs, there is no ‘room’ for causality, so nothing can be caused or ‘determined’ by anything else. The models that ‘predict’ or ‘determine’ relationships are just more mental constructs, the apparent brain’s furious patterning to try to make sense of its perceptions. All is just appearance, out of nothing, for no reason or purpose. Nothing nihilistic in that — far from being deterministic, it is absolutely free to appear as anything.
  4. One outrageous corollary of the above is that ‘we’ actually don’t do or affect anything — the illusory self merely rationalizes what apparently happens in the apparent body, after the fact, as being ‘its’ volition.
  5. A second equally outrageous corollary is that everything (ie nothing appearing as everything, beyond space and time) is perfect just as it is. It cannot be otherwise. It is ‘already’ everything.
  6. A third outrageous corollary is that no one is to blame for anything, and no one deserves ‘credit’ for anything. There is, after all, no one, and no volition, no agency, so no responsibility for what, to the illusory ‘us’, seems real and controllable but is merely an appearance, eternal but insubstantial, weightless.

The things that continue to puzzle me fall out of the above — no manner of sense-making seems able to even come up with a credible model or theory about them, and they don’t seem to ‘fit’ with the assertions above:

  1. If only humans are burdened with the illusion of being separate selves, how do we account for behaviours of other animals that appear selfish, self-aware, self-ashamed, and self-conscious?
  2. If our ‘selves’ are purely illusory, how can they seemingly cause selfish and neurotic behaviours in the bodies/characters they presume to inhabit?

Some interesting possible answers to these questions emerged from a book published four years ago ostensibly about the training of dogs and other non-human creatures, Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Secret History of Kindness. Melissa previously wrote (along with books about women’s innate love of horses, and motorcycles) the exquisite The Place You Love Is Gone, a searing treatise about how “we have become a generation weighed down by a sadness we don’t know we feel”.

In The Secret History of Kindness, this brilliant woman once again pursues and grasps truths far profounder than the titular subject of her book, and disarms you with them. Her latest book is actually (or additionally) a rigorous revisiting of behaviourism, the radical theory that in the 1960s so overwhelmed the social sciences that whole branches of universities were bent, perversely, to the advancement of an utter distortion of what BF Skinner was actually saying, and thence to such a violent reaction to the (misunderstood and misrepresented) theory, especially by Noam Chomsky and his followers but also by libertarians, compatibilists and conservatives, that the resulting hatchet job and character assassination essentially ruined Skinner’s life and career and rendered all of his work anathema for decades. I remember a group of us in university playfully “shunning” people who dared to want to even talk about his “reductionist Pavlovian theory”.

The fundamental principles of behaviourism, as BF Skinner explained them, and as they apply to all creatures including humans, are:

  1. All behaviour is a conditioned response, based on previous experience, in the attempt to maximize valued (to that individual) resources and minimize threats to those resources. Those valued resources include material ‘goods’, intangibles like freedom, safety and love, and also relationships and places that in past experience have provided these valued resources or reduced threats to them. There is no cognitive decision-making involved in these conditioned responses, and thinking is merely an attempt to rationalize or make sense of the response — a “retroactive narrative”. Melissa writes: “The same law of behavior affects all creatures’ actions: we do something, it produces pleasure or it produces pain or it produces nothing, and the result determines whether we continue doing it, stop doing it, or do it differently, and these are the only options. The bedrock rules of behavior function to our preconceptions much like the swallowing of that yellow and red capsule.”
  2. “Consciousness is a social construct”, Melissa writes, describing her understanding of BF Skinner’s discoveries. “It never would have taken conceptual shape if people hadn’t talked about it with one another. It did not cause us to reflect on it. Rather, our reflection on it caused it to appear to exist. The absorbing search for the “self” is really a search for a Creator. Which makes cognitive psychology the Creationism of science. Words bound to anger many, even if true.” Especially if true.
  3.  We can be conditioned by positive or negative reinforcement, or by (two forms of) punishment. Human culture has evolved to be almost entirely coercive (ie built on negative reinforcement and punishment as motivators for behaviour) — there is a well-entrenched belief that negative reinforcement and punishment are the only effective conditioners of behaviour (though the opposite is actually true, as Skinner and his successors have exhaustively demonstrated). Hence government and hierarchy are “narrowly defined, the use of power to punish”. Likewise our penal systems, our work environments, our educational systems all operate and sustain themselves based on their power to threaten to withhold or remove things that we value if we don’t do what we’re told. Why is this so, and why have humanist efforts to replace our processes and institutions with others that positively reinforce behaviours that are most ‘fit’ for our culture failed so abjectly? The irony is that power and punishment actually provide strong positive reinforcement feedback loops to those who administer it (bosses, corrections officials, armies and their celebrated ‘leaders’, and, yes, dog trainers delighted to see the ‘success’ of choke collars, electric shocks and worse, as they remain ignorant of the astonishingly greater and faster success that properly-learned, properly-timed positive reinforcement would yield. But taking the effort to actually see this opens us up to the enormous shame of having, almost gleefully, unnecessarily imposed suffering and misery through coercive means. Paradoxically our addiction to coercion (negative reinforcement and punishment) is created by the positive reinforcement for the punisher, the one with all the power, that results from its use.

Melissa concludes: “If it’s all about resources, we’re the last to know about it — and Skinner might very well be right, that our behavior is always acted upon by forces outside of ourselves, up to and including the creation of a sense that we are not being acted upon by forces outside of ourselves”.

This theory, which might be possibly the theory most thoroughly corroborated by overwhelming scientific evidence in history, led Skinner to the “certainty” that a better world is possible by awareness of, and use of, solely positive reinforcement, through bottom-up redesign of our entire culture and all its institutions. Walden Two was its envisioning.

More recent research, by scientists such as Robert Sapolsky, has added credence to Skinner’s arguments by explaining the role of dopamine as a driver of human behaviour. There is now compelling evidence that dopamine release, dopamine addiction, and aversion to dopamine suppression, drive almost all behaviours, and that positive reinforcement (and even the anticipation of reward it stirs in us) produces far more dopamine to the reinforced (though not, sadly, to the reinforcer) than coercion (negative reinforcement or punishment). Positive reinforcement, rigorously and skillfully applied (which means the reinforcer must be aware of and set aside their biases and judgements and really work at learning it — no small feat) simply works, brilliantly, in almost every conceivable situation.

Sounds good, if terribly idealistic. But perhaps you caught the fly in the ointment in the above description. It’s the same dilemma, the same problem, that underlies the complete failure of cognitive therapies (beyond a temporary placebo effect) despite our desperate wish to believe they work. Just as we can’t “wilfully” cure our addiction to dopamine and the often-horrific behaviours it leads us to, through mind-over-matter techniques, we can’t create a new positive-reinforcement society from the ground up, because we have no free will to do either. Everything we do is dopamine-driven, based on experiences that have, through positive reinforcement or coercion, dictated our entirely ‘unconscious’ behaviour since we were born. There is no ‘us’ somehow apart from these evolutionarily conditioned animal bodies, to intervene to do things differently.

So those inclined to try positive reinforcement to train their dogs were already inclined to do so when the opportunity arose, based on how they had been conditioned before. Those who still (like the cruel “dog-whisperer” Cesar Millan and his zealots) negatively reinforce and savagely punish their bewildered, ground-down dogs into terrified “obedience”, and who furiously ridicule and refuse to contemplate better methods (what horrific dopamine-suppressing shame such an acknowledgement would produce in them!), have likewise been conditioned to behave as they do. And they will accept that terrible shame only if the dopamine rush from actually trying this preposterous positive reinforcement method exceeds the ghastly dopamine suppression that accompanies their shame. Don’t hold your breath.

Melissa’s book has much more in it than I have tried to superficially cover here, and it’s really worth a read, whether you’re an animal trainer, a child-rearer, or someone trying to understand how our language — what we say — has absolutely nothing to do with our concomitant behaviour, or want to learn about the horrible problems that arise with even slightly “delayed or premature reinforcement”, or why pets value us precisely for what they represent to us in valued resources:  “This is the basis of my dogs’ storied love for me, their one and only. Only I know the real truth. It is not this Melissa they love. If they bark menacingly at someone who approaches, they are not doing it to ensure my safety. There is but one thought in their minds: do not harm this person, for she is my most valuable possession. My large Swiss army knife, the one with all the extra attachments.”

The upshot of Melissa’s message is, of course, what I have been quietly and reluctantly saying for years: It’s hopeless. We cannot change who we are or what we do — our trajectory has been locked in from birth (and even before: our genetics). We can no sooner kidnap all the world’s children, brought up mostly coercively with lives often filled with trauma, abuse and endless instilled fear, and ‘reprogram’ them in coercion-free environments using positive reinforcement, than we can intervene with them before they learn the lie of the free-willed self, personal responsibility and ‘self-consciousness’, and spare them that ghastly, fatal affliction.

We have, all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, thanks to the toxic combination of brains too big for our own good and a ruthless and self-addicting body chemistry, no choice but to misbehave.

The bad news is hence that, as EO Wilson said “Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth”, and that, as Ronald Wright said of how humans may be perceived after we’re gone: “Letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea”.

The good news is that, and I have to believe this (either because of my conditioning or because the alternative is too awful to bear): Nothing is really happening. It’s all an appearance, for no purpose and with no meaning and no effect. Our sense of everything being anything other than perfect, timeless, already everything the only way it can appear, is horribly misguided, a cosmic psychosomatic misunderstanding, a cruel and tragic and unintended joke. We are like dogs in the stands of a theatre, barking anxiously at the seemingly egregious and inexplicable unkindnesses being acted out on stage. We have no choice but to misbehave because there is no us, no choice, and no misbehaviour.

Not helpful, I know, but there it is.

PS: It’s interesting to think about all this in the context of the seemingly endless grey cloud of anxiety over COVID-19 that has enveloped the world these past few months. Given our dopamine-conditioned passion for what we think of as ‘freedom’, was there any real doubt that we would refuse to surrender it (to untrusted, erratic, coercive governments) when told it was for the greater good? A recent study reveals (no surprise) that long-term exposure to stress and adversity alters our dopamine chemistry and lowers our resilience in the face of short-term stressors (like the virus and its uncertain trajectory). The constant bad news of the anxiety scroll (horizontal on TVs, vertical on laptops) cannot help but shrink our dopamine receptors like cold water on genitals. Melissa writes:

A rat who is working for food suddenly hears a warning signal followed by a shock he can do nothing to avoid. After it stops, he goes back to working for food. But soon, even the sound of the signal is enough to stop him from seeking reward. Even though he could continue painlessly during this interval to obtain food, he seems crushed by the anticipation and now “crouches tensely, trembling, defecating, urinating, hair standing on end.” The animal is, in scientific terms, scared shitless. He can do nothing to control his fate, and that is untenable.

Sound familiar?

photo above is of Chelsea, who patiently taught me in her all-too-short time with me far more than I could ever learn online or from books

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 6 Comments