The Enemy of My Enemy

2018 photo from the Kremlin website

The malleability of the human mind, and of “popular consensus”, is both fascinating and terrifying. At a time when the last humans who witnessed the atrocities committed with the full consent of their armies’ citizens during WW2 are dying, we have seemingly learned nothing about the process by which popular opinion can be warped through the use of propaganda and misinformation.

The occupation and slaughter of millions of Iraqis in 2003 was possible only because the news media almost without exception parroted unsupported intelligence agency propaganda that Iraq’s government had WMD and planned to use them. Afterwards, few of the media admitted they’d been duped and exploited by “flawed” intelligence, and they pretty much learned nothing from the experience.

Both before and since then, the media have been endlessly conned, in their search for “exclusives” and for “information” that supports their editorial leanings and readers’ and sponsors’ worldviews, into repeating reams of outrageous falsehoods from “credible sources”. And in turn they have conned us. Whatever ideas we may have about what is happening in Syria, in Venezuela, in Bolivia, in Ukraine, in Iran, or in China or a hundred other countries, those ideas are probably heavily influenced by what we have read in media that rely for their information on “the intelligence community” and the vested interests it serves.

This is increasingly so as these media, hemorrhaging from the loss of ad revenues to the execrable “social media”, have slashed investigating reporting and international bureaus. In the process, they have turned into little more than second-hand gossip-mongers and PR flacks, throwing up their hands in “we didn’t know it wasn’t true” denials when their “reporting” turns out to be utterly, criminally (leading to millions of deaths and untold misery) wrong.

And they wonder why we don’t want to “subscribe” to their shoddy publications.

So it’s no surprise that millions of people believe absurd conspiracy theories, such as that CoVid-19 was deliberately manufactured in a Chinese lab with the complicity of Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. After all, unnamed “reliable sources” citing other unnamed “reliable sources” said it was true. And it was “shared” six gazillion times. So it must be true.

The media claim they have to protect their unnamed sources because whistle-blowers, once named, face death and worse for speaking the truth. I’m sure this is so. But that doesn’t mean that the media do not have a responsibility to obtain highly-persuasive evidence that a whistle-blower’s information is correct before they present it as truth, as “news”, in their publications. A mere rumour, even from a “usually reliably source”, is just a rumour, and it is no better than a lie.

And while we’re learning not to expect much from the media, much less politicians, we have come to expect more from the scientific community. Sadly, these days they are letting us down as well. There have been several “research studies” on CoVid-19 that have been retracted, some almost as soon as they were published, others too late to stem the flood of misinformation and conspiracy theory “I told you so” blather in social media that continues, oblivious to the retractions, for years afterwards. Other “research studies” are so strident, so blatantly political motivated or biased by personal, reputational or profit incentives, that they shatter your confidence in anything you read afterwards in scientific journals.

The reasons for this scientific misinformation are pretty obvious: Big Pharma and Big Ag companies and other corporate sponsors will pay you bucketfuls of money for research “results” that promise them a big payday, and they’ll squelch or dis any research you publish that shows them to be charlatans, drug- and addictive-food pushers, and opportunistic predators. There is no money, and no research grants, offered to do research that shows for example the incredible health benefits of eating well and exercising, and the staggering cost of eating what you so love to eat now and of continuing your horrifically unhealthy lifestyle.

Meanwhile, if your self-serving “research” tells people what they want to believe (eg that social distancing isn’t that necessary to prevent CoVid-19), everyone will love you, and the media will rush to promote your “findings”, regardless of their legitimacy, integrity or substance.

And if some researcher beats you to the punch with newsworthy (reputation- and fame-making) research, well, there’s an obvious motivation to criticize it. Especially if you don’t have to provide anything of your own to counter it; just cite your previous credentials, badmouth and undermine the report, and promise that you will soon provide more credible research. Or alternatively, if the ballyhooed research angers the political or scientific establishment, tweak your own research so that it helps the powers that be perpetrate their lies, and you’ll get a ton of publicity and support.

There is, alas, no motivation for doing the hard work of legitimate, objective, investigative research, and publishing the results regardless of whether the recipients want to believe them or not. There is no money or fame in it, and there is enormous risk. There is huge motivation for superficial and sloppy, biased research that results in those consuming it thanking you for confirming their beliefs, whether or not they have any basis in truth.

The latest example of sloppy journalism is this week’s claim that Russian operatives (how many, under whose authority?) offered and paid bounties to Taliban militants (how many?) in Afghanistan for killing American and British troops. The unsubstantiated claim originated with the NYT and was soon reposted in self-congratulatory terms by the WaPo and WSJ, who apparently got calls from the same “sources”.

Caitlin Johnstone had the same response I did:

All western mass media outlets are now shrieking about the story The New York Times first reported, citing zero evidence and naming zero sources, claiming intelligence says Russia paid out bounties to Taliban-linked fighters in Afghanistan for attacking the occupying forces of the US and its allies in Afghanistan. As of this writing, and probably forevermore, there have still been zero intelligence sources named and zero evidence provided for this claim…

The fact that The New York Times instead chose to uncritically parrot these evidence-free claims made by operatives within intelligence agencies with a known track record of lying about exactly these things is nothing short of journalistic malpractice. The fact that western media outlets are now unanimously regurgitating these still 100 percent baseless assertions is nothing short of state propaganda…

All the three [newspapers] actually did was use their profoundly influential outlets to uncritically parrot something nameless spooks want the public to believe, which is the same as just publishing a CIA press release free of charge. It is unprincipled stenography for opaque and unaccountable intelligence agencies…

The New York Times has admitted itself that it was wrong for uncritically parroting the unsubstantiated spook claims which led to the Iraq invasion, as has The Washington Post. There is no reason to believe Taliban fighters would require any bounty to attack an illegitimate occupying force. The Russian government has denied these allegations. The Taliban has denied these allegations. The Trump administration has denied that the president or the vice president had any knowledge of the spook report in question, denouncing the central allegation that liberals who are promoting this story have been fixated on. Yet this story is being magically transmuted into an established fact, despite its being based on literally zero factual evidence.

Why has this happened? Because it feeds our insatiable human need to be reassured that our beliefs are valid. For Republicans (like most WSJ readers), it confirms their belief that the war in Afghanistan was legitimate, and that the Taliban and Russia are enemies that hate Americans because Americans “love freedom”. For Democrats (like most NYT/WP readers), it confirms their belief that Russia is an enemy that would subvert American elections, that the war in Afghanistan was legitimate, and that Trump, who reportedly was briefed on the “bounties”, is in cahoots with Russia. Something in this “news” for everyone to love!

Republican hawks immediately called for a “proportionate response” against Russia,  without so much as a “if this is true” qualifier. Biden immediately jumped on the report, saying “I’m quite frankly outraged by the report,” adding that if he is elected, “Putin will be confronted and we’ll impose serious costs on Russia.”

What are the questions that critical thinkers (including any remaining responsible newspaper editors) should be asking when this kind of “information” is released?

  • How is this different from what “intelligence sources” told us before the Iraq invasion?
  • If it’s untrue, who stands to gain from perpetrating and propagating the falsehood (eg military suppliers and other war profiteers)?
  • Why would the Taliban need to be bribed to attack what they believe to be a foreign army invading and destroying their country? (The Taliban’s response to the “report” was that they are not “indebted to the beneficence of any intelligence organ or foreign country”.)
  • Why would Russian intelligence leaders be so stupid as to offer such bribes to insurgents, knowing they’d be impossible to keep quiet and knowing that their discovery would be very embarrassing to Russia?

I could go on, but you get the idea. Caitlin asks some more damning questions, but I’m inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, and instead try to figure out how and why this happened. Not because I believe it won’t happen again (and again). But because I really do think we’re all doing our best, and I want to know how we all get so easily and dangerously conned by misinformation and conspiracy theories.

The title of this post (the enemy of my enemy is my friend) is an ancient proverb that provides a clue to one answer to this question. It explains how Republicans have become reluctant apologists for Putin, and how Democrats have come to embrace CIA “press releases”. It explains how China, for all its atrocities against its own people, has become an intermittent hero to all sides, and the largest economy and largest creditor (and worst polluter) in the world. When we really want to believe something bad about one “side” on an issue, it is all too easy to become strange bedfellows, for a while, with monsters who share that belief.

So do we just give up seeking the truth, and just believe whatever bullshit theories, unsupported reportage and opinions those in our particular circles uncritically believe? Do we let the “view-from-nowhere” both-sides everything to the point that any kind of moral clarity, and any kind of search for and belief in, fundamental truth is lost?

I don’t think it’s necessary to do that, though I do acknowledge that most people lack the time, access to resources, and (thanks to poor education and propaganda conditioning) the capacity to critically unpack and think through what passes for information and insist on unvarnished truth. I think it’s completely understandable that most are so bewildered by the endless firehose of misinformation and conspiracy theories that they no longer know what to believe, or cease believing that anything is absolutely true, and/or opt for simplistic beliefs that are consistent with those of their particular circles. Even when those beliefs hurt others and lead to massive cruelty, suffering and war.

I think there still is such a thing as absolute, verifiable truth. I have to believe that, because it is the only way I can make confident assertions about our teetering economic “system”, our collapsing climate and ecosystems, and about what seems to be human nature. We may only be able to know and believe things on “the preponderance of evidence”, but that can and must be enough.

It can be enough to enable us to discount, and (if we can wean ourselves off our new addiction to social media) not even expose ourselves to time-wasting, self-interested, and sometimes dangerous misinformation, rumour and conspiracy theories. And when such nonsense infects those we know and care about, all we can do is keep restating the truth and the importance of never giving up the search for it.  And when we find ourselves infected, all we can do is keep challenging what we believe, not to the point of not believing anything, but to the point we know, as best as we can, that what we believe is based on substantiated evidence of the truth, and not on what we fear, or what we ideally would like to believe.

As for the rest of the world, and their beliefs, we cannot hope to influence them, or prevent the tragedies they lead to.

Moral clarity — the kind that finds cruelty, dishonesty, hatred, fear-mongering and racism, and pandering to these traits,  instinctively repulsive — comes, I think, from a combination of our insatiable passion to know the truth, our capacity for critical thinking, and our innate biophilia — our acceptance that we’re all one, all a part of Gaia, and all doing our best. Our responsibility to help the world “do better” starts and ends, I think, with pursuing and helping others find and see the truth, even as we know most of them will not or cannot see it.

Our real “enemies” are ignorance, fear, credulousness and gullibility. They transcend beliefs and worldviews, and are pandered to and perpetrated by social media (and too often, now, by struggling and inept mainstream media), by self-interested politicians and corporations, and by our own hapless, bewildered and overwhelmed peer groups.

They can never be defeated, only worked on, endlessly, a bit at a time. It would be nice if some of the once-reliable media, and the scientists, would get back on board.

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

What I Wanted to Believe

Artwork from the collection of Nick Smith, “possibly by John Wareham”.

At first I wanted to believe that the adults around me were just acting. Surely they didn’t believe what they were saying; surely it was just a big secret joke, a playing of roles in a great play, and soon they would let me in on it.

And then I wanted to believe that the kids in my first school were seriously ill; this cruelty, anger, terror, unhappiness and dishonesty they exhibited must be just a mask, an acting out of some horrible trauma they had been subjected to. But so many! And the teachers behaving as if this were somehow normal! Please, I said, let me wake up soon from this impossible nightmare!

Later I wanted to believe that there was just some big misunderstanding about the world of work. Why would so many submit themselves day in and year out, for most or all of their lives, to grinding, meaningless, humiliating jobs? There must be something wrong here; will someone please explain how this ghastly situation arose and when (soon!) it will be corrected?

After that I wanted to believe that there was this tiny number of us, fellow exceptional sensitive and intelligent souls, who understood how outrageous and dehumanizing our supposedly civilized society was, and that together we could find a way to escape it. My anthem: We gotta get outta this place!

And then for a long time I wanted to believe in myself: that with intelligence and effort I could rid myself of the relentless noonday demons, and recognize and heroically remedy what was so horribly wrong with our world. So many, it seemed, were depending on me!

And then after that I realized I couldn’t do it myself, so I wanted to believe I could “find the others” — the group smart enough and imaginative enough (and special and beautiful enough) that, with my help, could really make a difference.

But the more I learned, the more I came to believe that everything was hopelessly falling apart, and that the sixth great extinction of life on earth had been accelerating for millennia and nothing I or anyone could do could slow its inevitable unraveling and ultimate collapse, perhaps even within my lifetime.

Surprisingly, this new belief was liberating, rather than depressing. Though I kept wondering if I believed it only because it let me off the hook.

Recently I’ve found myself wanting to believe that none of these things that all my life I had hopelessly wanted to believe, were actually real. That everything that this brain had invented and seen as real since it first became aware of the strange beliefs of adults when I was a small child, was just an illusion. That what I had been searching for, the explanation of what was intuitively, inexplicably, terribly, impossibly wrong with this world, was a foolish and hopeless search, and that I had not seen, and could not see, that obviously everything was just as it was, already perfect, without substance or meaning or separation, stunningly, wondrously just this, with no need for anything to be found or done. How desperate must one be to want to believe something so preposterous?!

And I understand now that we believe what we want to believe, and that we believe what we want to know to be true. We cannot possibly bring ourselves to believe anything else; we will deny unwanted truths regardless of the evidence. Our beliefs are just placeholders for what we seek to know, what we strive to reassure ourselves to be true.

And yet these hopelessly flawed beliefs drive us; they are the foundation of all of our cultural conditioning, of all the things others, as desperate to believe as we are, want us to believe to be true. They keep us, from that horrible moment in early childhood when we first had to believe — when just seeing what was true was, shatteringly, no longer enough — yoked to the cart of the ultimate belief: that things can and will be, somehow, better, and that what we do and know and believe can and will get us there.

It doesn’t matter that none of these beliefs is true.

So now I want to believe that nothing matters, and that maybe at some point this wretched self, old, now, and so tired of searching, will just fall away, and it will be seen — though not by ‘me’ — that there never was a ‘me’; that all this worry and seeking and suffering were just the useless delusions of a feverish brain. A brain that evolved, tragically, to try at any cost to make sense of everything, even when nothing made sense, and nothing needed to be done or to be made sense of. And that then it will be seen that this apparent Dave-creature is just fine — even better off — without ‘me’ to kick around any more.

But of course I want to believe this. I remain forever tethered to pursuit of the impossible truth that will finally make sense of everything, finally bring an end to the exhausting seeking. I am in a corner, now; I’ve painted myself in after a lifetime of striving to complete the picture, the picture that my latest belief denies the very existence of.

So I sit here with my box of colours, brow furrowed, wondering what this perfectly, tragically conditioned (and only apparent) creature will do next; I have no remaining illusion that ‘I’ have any agency over it (though that may be just what ‘I’ want to believe).

I want to believe that if I’m tired enough, completely exhausted, my self, this lost, scared, bewildered ‘I’ that carries with it a lifetime of questions unanswered, a lifetime of believed truths unresolved, will just let go, set me free from me. I want to believe it, but I do not.

What happens when we can no longer believe what we want to believe, when we doubt that what we believe is actually true? Perhaps we just keep painting, even knowing the picture cannot be completed, that the canvas is just a dream. Like the carpenter with only a hammer, perhaps we keep hammering even when there are no more nails, when we discover, in the endless buzz of cognitive dissonance, that there may never have been any nails. Keep hammering, what we were made to do, and taught to do, and told to do. The only thing we can do.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 4 Comments

Links of the Month: June 2020

screenshot of top of a recent CBC headlines page

A comment on free access to information: Over the past three months, more and more newspapers and other media sources have put paywalls, ad-blockers, compulsory ‘registrations’, article limits and other restrictions on their sites. I appreciate that many of them are hemorrhaging money, but these information blockages seriously threaten public access to essential information and perspectives that are desperately needed to counter the endless barrage of ‘free’ misinformation and propaganda on social media, Faux news and anti-democratic and conspiracy theory websites and publications. Many of the links in my Links of the Month summaries now require sophisticated ‘readers’ and other workarounds to view without having to subscribe and pay. I think this is an untenable situation. Independent, publicly funded media (CBC, BBC, NPR, PBS, Al Jazeera and some local media) aren’t perfect by any means, but at least they’re free, and surveys indicate that their readers believe they are more credible than other ‘free’ information sources. We need to create more of them, funded by taxpayers not by vested interests, and financed by a tax on social media, and put an end to the need for quality journalism to be buried behind paywalls while social media companies earn more money than they can spend vomiting out an endless stream of ‘free’ misinformation and propaganda.  /rant


New Yorker cartoon contest cartoon by Mick Stevens; my suggestion that it works better without a caption wasn’t accepted

Blame these guys and Just do this: We’re starting to see more and more treatises that quite reasonably predict civilization’s collapse, but then leave the poor reader reeling with a blameful diagnosis of how it got this bad, and a preposterous way out ‘if we just all do this’. Latest up are these two (thanks to Sam Rose for the links):

    • Christopher Ryan’s Civilized to Death, the follow-up to his best-selling Sex at Dawn: His collapse culprits are “progress lovers” and his elixir is “divert spending on weapons, redirecting resources into a global guaranteed basic income that incentivizes not having children, thus reducing global population intelligently and without coercion”. Some lovely observations here: “We are the only species that lives in zoos of our own design”, and that “When the authoritarian structures supposedly protecting us from our dark Hobbesian nature collapse into dust and chaos, more often than not, all heaven breaks loose.” But that pat solution, really?
    • Vinay Gupta’s “Simple Plan” calls out co-dependent “webs of corruption” and the rich who are “dirty and cruel”, and prescribes that we all agree to a “trans-ideological consensus” to “stop holding each other’s kids hostage”. If only we could! Again, some fascinating and insightful analysis, but then the compulsion to proffer silver bullet answers. Why is it so hard for futurists to acknowledge that we’re all doing our best, that no one is to blame, and that there is no way to avoid civilization’s collapse?

The Twenty-Fifth Hour: Seventy years ago, when the earth’s human population was just 2.7B and there were no computers, no nuclear power, no portable electronics, and no knowledge of DNA, C Virgil Gheorgiu wrote a prescient tongue-in-cheek Orwellian story about humans who ended up in thrall to their machines. Thanks to John Whiting for the link.

Planet of the Humans, continued: More nuanced reviews of the much-loathed film I discussed last month, from Richard Heinberg and Bill Rees. And a clarification from CASSE’s Brian Czech that none of the aforementioned are opposed to renewable energy, just to the preposterous notion that it can save us from civilizational collapse. If you wonder what good is it then, well, join the cognitive dissonance crowd, and we’ll sign up for solar together.

The death of US oil: A geologist explains why expensive, fracked (and Tar Sands) oil will never again be economically viable. Pre-civilization-collapse, there will now always be cheaper alternatives. Post-collapse… well, never mind.

The collapse of the US dollar: Stephen Roach writing for Bloomberg says that the US dollar is at least 30% overvalued, and explores how the correction might come about. Want to then see what a real race-to-the-bottom looks like?

What is sustainable?: Eugene’s Richard Reese is writing a far-reaching book on our essential human nature and where we’re headed, called Wild Free and Happy, which offers “zero miraculous silver bullet solutions to our slithering multitude of predicaments”, and he has posted much of what he’s written so far on his blog. I particularly like this chapter that reveals our species’ essential purpose: to be eaten. Hear that, salvationists?


image from, original source uncredited

Making sense of the violence and abolishing the police:

Signs of change?: Some see the astonishing pro-protest actions of Flint police, Houston police, Miami police, and white women in Nashville, as evidence of a sustainable shift in attitudes towards systemic racism. Others, of course, think it’s meaningless political expediency or momentary lip-service. I guess we’ll see.


cartoon by Mick Stevens in The New Yorker

The ugly face of empire: Caitlin Johnstone says what I’ve often thought: That the establishment only hates Trump because he shows the ugly face of empire — angry, inept, greedy, ignorant, reckless and incapable of admitting error. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

The ‘liberal’ media’s cowardly passion for ‘both-sides-ing’: The Nation says the obvious: “You don’t have to publish both sides when one side is fascism.” See also Thoughts of the Month below.

Facebook employees reject Zuckerberg’s weaselling: Even Twitter had to react when Trump advocated shooting protestors. But not Facebook. Their feeble leader gutlessly apologized for his platform’s pandering and encouragement of hate-mongering and right-wing violence, on the basis that his company just provides a platform and has no responsibility for its content. That was too much for many of his employees.

Canada the good…: Canada’s PM had the decency to take a knee at the local anti-racism protests, and his 21-second pause when asked whether he would condemn Trump’s ghastly response to the protests spoke volumes.

… and Canada the bad:

Losing the misinformation battle:

    • Nature reports that “communities on Facebook that distrust establishment health guidance are more effective than government health agencies and other reliable health groups at reaching and engaging ‘undecided’ individuals”. Thanks to Bob Frankston for the link.
    • The Atlantic has run a whole series of articles on recent conspiracy theories and concluded: “QAnon is more important than you think.” Thanks to John Whiting for the link.
    • The CBC reports that responsible media outlets are having to devote huge amounts of resources to countering the “misinformation pandemic”.
    • The 538 reports on a Cornell study suggesting the amount of misinformation, and the degree to which bots are replicating it indiscriminately in social media, have more than doubled in four years.


clever FB reply to a recent archeological discovery; thanks to Dick Richards for the link

Your CoVid-19 toolkit: FT’s John Burn-Murdoch reminds us of the tools we have at our disposal to reduce our, and others’ risk, as cases begin to rise again:

    1. Outdoor vs indoor (and ventilate the space well)
    2. Keep your distance
    3. Minimize duration of any close-in activities, especially indoors
    4. Wear a mask (as a supplementary, not primary, protection)
    5. Talk vs shout/sing (enunciate, don’t project)
    6. Avoid all mass events

CoVid-19 updates:


cartoon in the New Yorker by Tim Cordell

Solace in learning: As TH White famously wrote, the thing to do when you’re feeling bad is to learn something new. Like how to play the piano. Thanks to PS Pirro for the link.

Speaking with my former self: Julie Nolke visits her former self to explain how CoVid-19 and other events will change everything. Brilliantly done, including the sequel. Lots of copycats online now, but Julie did it first.

Tash Sultana rocks: The Aussie multi-instrumentalist’s one-woman tour de force rocks South Africa (pre-pandemic).

Hammock bears: You just have to watch.

Trump explains the White House wall: From Andy Borowitz, of course.

Read blogs instead: Ugo Bardi explains why you learn more from blogs than other online reading sources. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

Does our body chemistry make us inherently xenophobic?: Interesting speculation on the role of oxytocin in promoting social bonding and the distrust of outsiders. Thanks to CASSE for the link.


I’ll continue to post my favourite new videos, articles and quotes on this subject in my Links of the Month, not so much because they will be of interest to most of my readers, but because if their message is true it really makes most of everything else I write about moot. So if I suddenly stop writing on this blog, you can blame (or thank) the radical non-dualists.

Andreas Müller on radical non-duality: The message of radical non-duality is utterly simple but impossibly difficult to explain in language, but Andreas (pictured above) does an exceptional job of trying. He’s put up hundreds of hours of his Q&A discussions on YouTube, and he’s become IMO one of the most articulate speakers on the subject.

Kenneth Madden chats with Frank McCaughey: In one of his first videos since he “lost himself”, Frank talks with a long-time friend and they compare notes about what is seen “now” vs what was presumed to be real “before”. “Seekers” who resonate with the radical non-duality message will probably find this as intriguing as I did. (Full 55-minute version is only on Frank’s Patreon, for now.)

Jeff Foster, pre-“enlightenment”: Fascinating old video from Jeff Foster before he disavowed radical non-duality as dissociative and instead espoused “mindfulness”. He clearly “got” the message, but then walked away from it. Makes me wonder if people who are very emotional sensitive might be allergic to the “hopeless, uncompromising” radical non-duality message. Thanks to Caitlin Johnstone for the link.


cartoon by Cartoon Collections founder Bob Mankoff

From Journalists of Color, in an open letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.

From Wesley Lowery, a Black journalist who who left The Washington Post after he clashed with the paper’s white executive editor over issues of “journalistic integrity”:

American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. … We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.

From Texas photographer Sharon Wilson:

We can and must do better than going back to normal. Normal is the problem.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End, Radical Non-Duality | Comments Off on Links of the Month: June 2020

Why We Don’t Call

Ten years ago some futurists were predicting that voice-only phone calls would soon be extinct, since video calling was becoming so easy, and since it added a dimension to the communication, and was no longer constrained by low bandwidth, so image quality had greatly improved.

But there were others who said it would never catch on. They were, mostly, right.

There’s been some suggestion that Zoom, being free and almost ridiculously easy to use, along with the constraints over face-to-face communication brought on by CoVid-19, might change that. Nothing gets people to change behaviours faster than not having any alternative.

Yet still there has been no radical change in behaviours. We still put off calling people we know we should call, even if we kinda like talking with them once we do. We still prefer, most of us, to communicate in text (via chat, and/or email depending on our generation) rather than by the much richer medium of video. It’s just easier, and less demanding. Some of us even prefer written/text communication over face-to-face, and this is nothing new either — anyone remember ‘pen pals’?

What’s holding us back from embracing Zoom and its kin for almost all our communications? This came up in a recent conversation I had with my friend Michael Dowd, so I decided to do a bit of research to see if there were plausible answers.

A recent article by Jeremy Rosenberg suggests these reasons for our reluctance to use video for our communications:

  1. For some, video is too much an invasion of our privacy, or out of our comfort zone.
  2. Some still find the technology intimidating.
  3. Video inhibits us from multitasking while we converse — we  may appear rude to others in the conversation if we’re simultaneously looking at something else.
  4. Depending on light and location, the video image we see of ourselves may be unflattering. As long as we can’t see ourselves during our conversations, we can imagine that we look just fine, but with Zoom, we can see every hair out of place.
  5. It requires us to dress and to clean up the background behind us before the call, which is an extra chore, and which discourages spontaneous calls.
  6. It creates an eerie feeling of need for constant eye contact with the others on-screen in the conversation, that we don’t feel in-person conversations, where it’s fine to look down, away, or around the room — as long as we appear to be listening.
  7. It creates hassles over where to position the camera and where to look, which is never quite ideal or natural.
  8. It’s exhausting, for a variety of reasons.

And yesterday, Ali Drucker in the NYT also wrote an article on the subject, acknowledging that there was never any real excuse for not staying in touch by video with those we care about who live far away, but that CoVid-19 has provided both more time for such ‘frivolous’ chat and a longing for more connection for many due to the isolation that restrictions have imposed. Will we dispense with our Zoom accounts when the pandemic ends as quickly as we hope to jettison our masks, or will there be an enduring behaviour shift? Ali asks:

So why, actually, are so many of us only just now making video calling a habit? Did I really not see my parents’ faces for months on end, even over a screen, simply because I had the option of socializing with my partner and nearby friends instead? Was I actually “just super busy” or did I want to avoid confronting how much I missed them? How I was quietly nursing the loneliness of feeling like I might not truly know the people I can’t see in person anymore.

There are of course many (mostly under-30s) who immediately took to this new richer way of communicating with friends, colleagues and loved ones right away, but many of them had also been using video less and less until recently.

My sense is there are three groups of people we could be connecting with via video much more frequently than we do:

  1. Far-away (or quarantined) family members and loved ones;
  2. Friends we used to be close to but now rarely connect with; and
  3. People we’ve rarely or never communicated with face-to-face but with whom we’ve exchanged a lot of written correspondence, usually on some subject of shared passion, affinity or expertise.

The reason we don’t, or at least haven’t, connected with them is probably a bit different for each of these three types of circles.

The chart above is a somewhat whimsical graphic recapitulation of what I’ve called over the years Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour. It should probably be called a Conjecture rather than a Law, but I’d be willing to bet it would stand up to scientific investigation:

Humans have apparently evolved to do what they must (the personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then do what’s easy, and then do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are seen as merely important.

I think we largely subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) maintain a list of all the things we think we could or should or want to do in the near term, and then our conditioning automatically does triage, according to this Law, to determine what we will, moment to moment, actually do. If we hate the thought of tackling a big urgent task we don’t enjoy, we will tend to procrastinate (if that is our nature) until it becomes so urgent we can no longer put it off, and then we ‘cram’ it in. When we’ve done something urgent that isn’t easy or fun, we’ll rationalize that we deserve to do something easy or fun as a reward for our efforts, so we’ll convince ourselves that nothing else is really urgent, and go ahead and do something easy (yay! checked three things off my ‘to do list’ in 15 minutes!) or fun (bingeing behaviour, often), before acknowledging that those other things really are urgent and we have to get back to them.

This is almost entirely, I would argue, conditioned behaviour. While clearly what everyone considers urgent is different (and that is in itself a cause of endless familial and work arguments), once we’ve got in our heads what we believe to be urgent, and what we thinking to be easy and/or fun, the die is cast: we really have no choice over what we’re going to do.

Melissa Pierson has explained how thoroughly conditioned we are in every aspect of our lives, and that some of that conditioning is biological and some of it is social. I would argue that our decision on what’s urgent is driven principally by adrenaline — when we get cranked up or filled with dread just thinking about something that “urgently needs” to be done. And I’d guess that our decision on what’s easy and/or fun is driven by dopamine — a more positive rush, but one we physically can’t resist giving in to, whenever we can.

That leaves social conditioning as the driver for deciding what’s important even though it’s not obviously urgent, and not easy or fun — like coming to grips with climate collapse or other less immediate, but intractable crises that we simply can’t put off addressing forever. Of course, an emergency like a pandemic, an extreme geological or weather event, or a social uprising like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo or Occupy or Climate Marches, can quickly make something we’ve believed was ‘merely’ important, into something urgent. But once the apparent ’emergency’ has passed, most of us soon reclassify these essential issues as important-but-not-urgent, and only social conditioning still pushes these items onto our agenda. And social conditioning doesn’t ever seem as compelling as biological conditioning — it hasn’t got the chemical kick behind it to drive (and addict) us to devote time to deal with it.

And that, I think, is why we don’t, most of us, call far-away loved ones on Zoom, or on the phone as often as we think we ‘should’. The social compulsion to do so (even though we know it’s important, and that we will almost certainly enjoy the contact once it’s been initiated) just can’t compete with the biological compulsion to finish our work or school homework (urgent — the perceived cost of not doing it now is just too high), empty our inbox or indulge in a favourite hobby or guilty pleasure (easy and/or fun). The social compulsion to eat better (important) just can’t compete with the biological compulsion to grab some chips or cheesecake (easy and/or fun).

Of course, if the far-away loved-one has an accident or illness, contacting them quickly becomes urgent, and in that case connection will happen for sure. But could we make contacting people in any of these three groups more often and more deeply either easier or more fun? Physically and technically and financially it’s already easy, but psychologically it’s not. The longer we put off contacting someone we think we ‘owe’ a call to, or would really like to talk with but feel awkward or uncertain or uncomfortable initiating the call to, the harder it gets. And the eight impediments that Jeremy describes definitely make it harder and less fun.

Perhaps what we need are more stories like the ones Ali describes in her article: The ‘virtual’ celebrations (and who doesn’t love the opportunity to celebrate something?); the ‘virtual’ resumption of old hobbies and activities with people we used to share them with when we lived nearby; ‘virtual’ happy hours with those we have some affinity with (eg alumni) but have never really chatted with on a personal level. All ways of creating meaningful connections that are not dependent on physical proximity.

Making these connections easier and more fun (because there will be no enduring behaviour change otherwise) will obviously be different for each of us — just as what each of us thinks of as urgent is different, so are our definitions of what is easy and fun. But perhaps by asking some questions we might find a way to make them easier and more fun in ways that work for us — as close as one can get to reconditioning one’s behaviour. Questions like:

  • What would it take to make it easier for you to initiate regular calls with far-away loved ones, friends you’ve lost touch with, and people you know only vaguely or through written correspondence and would be curious to explore deepening your relationship with? A regular schedule with reminders? A list of people (with contact information) who are in your circles but who you couldn’t quite call ‘friends’, though you’d like to? A compelling Invitation to send to each of these three groups of “wish we talked more” connections that would make it easier for either of you to initiate the call once it was acknowledged?
  • What would make such calls more fun for you and those you’re looking to Zoom with more often? A photo album you could screen-share with them? A game you could play together that works as easily (or better) on Zoom than face to face? A shared online event you could watch together and chat as you did? (There are excellent Shakespearian plays just released on YouTube featuring some of the world’s best companies. And there are some excellent UHD travel videos that take you through famous museums, art galleries, ruins, trails and city walking tours.)

We may be creatures of our conditioning, but by answering questions like these, and using some imagination to figure out how to make these calls easier and more fun, we might well find ourselves with more appointments on our calendar for conversations that we’re actually looking forward to, and also find ourselves more inclined to make spontaneous, unscheduled calls (in situations when such surprises are likely to be welcome, of course) just to deliver a heartfelt greeting, or a piece of good news, in a way that a text or social media posting could never come close to matching.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | Comments Off on Why We Don’t Call

The Perpetual Growth Machine

This is a bit of a Straw Man thought experiment. It suggests that economic collapse might only occur when we can no longer keep generating more and more cheap energy, rather than when we realize that the current global mountain of debts can never be repaid, or that profits cannot possibly increase forever. It is probably a deeply flawed argument, and I’d love to hear what economists think about it.

Alberta Tar Sands, soon to cover an area larger than NY State; its toxic sludge ponds alone are large enough to be visible from space. Photo by Dru Oja Jay, Howl Arts Collective, for The Dominion CC-BY-2.0

So here’s the thing. Your argument about economic collapse being inevitable and overdue shows that you just don’t understand just how fictional the economy really is. It’s really just an agreement, mostly among those with wealth and power, on how that wealth and power is to be distributed. Like any fictional movie, it never has to end. We just keep adding sequels, upping the ante.

You say there are limits on how much debt can be accumulated before the economy collapses. That’s only true if the psychology of the market is such that those with money believe that the debts cannot be repaid, and therefore no one is willing to advance any more money, credit dries up, buying dries up, business dries up, profits plunge, and so on.

But the point is, the debts don’t ever have to be repaid. For those of us who have wealth — the 10% of us who have 80% of the net physical assets and 90% of the net financial assets — we’re content to just let those debts ride forever. Just keep rolling them over. We don’t even care if they’re worthless, as long as we, the 10%, agree not to call them in. After all, the Fed lets us borrow as much money as we want at 0% interest, so it’s not like we need the cash. We’re actually getting a pretty good ROI on what we’ve loaned out — an average of 16% when you weigh in the unsecured lines of credit, the 30% credit card interest, the car loans, the second and third home mortgages. So even if half of that interest is defaulted on, we’re still getting 8% on the money we lend out, which we borrowed from the Fed (essentially, the taxpayers) at 0%. What a great time to be rich!

And it’s the same with stocks. We own 90% of them, so we basically dictate the market price of them. We’ll never panic, even if the P/E ratios soar to 100 or more, which they’re at for Apple and Tesla and most of the other ‘prime investments’ we’re into. Because as long as we agree that the shares are worth that, they’re worth that. The peons can panic and sell, and their 10% won’t even cause a blip in the market. What else are we going to invest in with all our money, more Jaguars?

If the P/E seems to be a bit too high for comfort, we’ll just borrow some more money at 0%, and use it to buy back a bunch of the shares, until the P/E is back in an acceptable range again. No problem. A simple accounting trick and the prices are primed to climb again. And you won’t hear a peep from the peons about this. After all, while their 10% of the market is just a pittance, for most of them it’s their entire life savings, their retirement, their pension, their kids’ university fund. They’ll cheer when the price goes up, even if it makes no sense.

Yeah, I know, you’re worried about them drowning in debt. They’ve been drowning in debt for 30 years now, getting ever deeper into it. The median net worth of a family in this country is less than zero. They’re used to it. We’ve changed the laws so they essentially can’t declare bankruptcy anymore, so they’re just on the hook, for a lifetime. For their descendants’ lifetimes. Two incomes instead of one, now, per family, and longer and longer hours for (real-inflation-adjusted) less and less money per hour, every year. Deeper and deeper. We won’t let them go under; we just want to keep their shoulders to the grindstone, and not think about anything except the next thing they want to buy to feel a bit better about themselves and their situation. They may have a negative net worth, but they’ve all got two cars now, and a bigger house, so they think they’re better off than when they had equity, and savings, and only one of them had to work.

And why in the world would they ever aspire to have savings? To invest it to earn 0%, or worry about investing it in real estate or stocks whose value they have no control over? Nah, they’re happy. Well, they’re not happy that they have to work so hard, and they’re not happy about having no security, and they’re not happy about social and political and ecological collapse, but we just have to keep pitting them against each other over how to deal with those things, and then we can pretty much ignore them.

It was a bit of a challenge through the ’80s and ’90s to adjust the economy to keep the profits growing, I admit. We had to basically outsource and offshore all the labour costs and all the manufacturing, so we could cut out all those annoying costs and stop worrying about unions and environmental regulations. Now the only asset we have to worry about managing is the Brand, so the only costs we have to monitor are marketing costs —keeping all those peons salivating for the newer, faster, sexier everything. As long as they keep spending like good little consumers, we’re laughing. And everything we sell now — speed, sex, salt, sugar, both types of oil, drugs, escape, lifestyle, self-esteem, entertainment, thrills, self-gratification, 15  minutes of fame, creature comforts, more, more — is totally addictive, so we hardly even have to market. They sell each other on the next thing they need to buy, on social media, with just a little prompting from us.

Yeah, I know, because we got rid of all the decent-paying jobs (except ours, of course), it’s taken some work, and a lot of strong-arming of the politicians and preachers on the whole it’s-your-fault-you’re-poor/unemployed/sick thing, the whole responsibility-to-look-after-your-family thing, so that the peons sighed and agreed to do the really boring minimum wage service jobs just to eke by — often two or three jobs, part-time, with no costly ‘benefits’ for us to have to pay. But look at all the paper-shuffling jobs we’ve created that pay modestly more than minimum wage, that the peons can aspire to. Hundreds of thousands of jobs working for the HMOs alone. Millions more working for the banks, the insurance companies, the courier companies, and of course our latest bit of genius, “security” jobs. Instead of job security they have security jobs. Funny, huh?

You think they’re going to get fed up and revolt? On what basis? They’ve never known anything else. And it’s not like the education system’s going to wise them up. They’re not starving; in fact, thanks to the malnutrition caused by our Big Ag businesses, they’re overweight and feeling like they have no right to complain, and they’re too sick with diabetes and heart disease and cancer and depression and all the other stress-triggered diseases our various enterprises have given them to think straight anyway.

Yeah, I admit, there’s a bit of a problem there. They’re so sick they’re clogging up the hospitals and dying on us before they’ve finished their consumer lifecycle, and then they try to declare bankruptcy when they can’t pay the medical bills. Kind of a fly in the ointment there. But you know, we have a few tricks up our sleeve yet. After decades of telling them there’s no such thing as a free lunch, we’re going to give them one. We’re going to give them free medical care. We’ll have to have a flat tax to pay for it, of course. But are they going to be grateful! Even though we’re giving them what most of the affluent nations already have, they’re going to think we’re the most generous people on the planet.

And if they can’t pay the flat tax, we’ll allow them to take out reverse mortgages on their homes, or reverse loans on their cars. No, not so we can repo their assets when they die, are you crazy? The kids just take over the debts. We don’t care if they’re ever repaid. We have assets backing them, so we just borrow the money from the Fed — from the peons, really, if you look into it — fully collateralized, and we have all the cash we need.

You’re worried about the virus, aren’t you? You still don’t get it. We can fund that as well. It’s not as if they were doing anything of value before they lost their jobs anyway. The only reason we didn’t automate, or just “make redundant” most of their jobs, is because we need to keep the engine going. We need consumers, consumers with cash to buy more and more stuff to keep revenues and profits growing. Grow or die, my friend. The consumers are the hands that feed us, so we don’t want them starving or permanently unemployed. So we have kept all these Bullshit Jobs so they don’t feel ashamed to take money for doing nothing; we have to leave them their pride. And every penny we pay out for these jobs comes right back to us as soon as they get it. Gotta get that addictive spending cranked up again.

It astonishes me that the rabble among the peons have been calling for a guaranteed annual income as if this were a revolutionary and unthinkable thing. We’ve already introduced it for most of them with all the Bullshit Jobs, all that seemingly important work by the flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters that’s actually completely expendable, but which we’ve maintained so the peons can keep their sense of self-worth. We’re perfectly willing to introduce it for everyone else; after all, the money we pay them is going to come right back to us anyway. We just need to introduce it in a way that it won’t seem ‘unfair’ to the Bullshit Job workers, and so it’s not taken as some kind of shameful ‘welfare’, though that’s what it is.

The recent riots have given us some ideas. What if we reinvent the police forces as the Social Mediation forces, for example? We’d have to find something to do with all the extra armaments of course, but we could let the peons create unarmed Citizen Councils where each community would take over collective, consensual responsibility for the social wellness of the community. Maybe they’d even find some way of managing addiction, family violence, gangs and some of the other problems of the chronically poor, homeless, physically and mentally ill, unemployed and underemployed. You know, the people the police have to deal with now. They’d have the complete police budget to work with. And we could throw in some more money if they could actually succeed at reducing the costs of homelessness, illness and despair. Hardly rocket science. Everyone not otherwise employed would get a guaranteed minimum wage job with the Citizen Council. They could sort out who does what.

So they’d have this sense of more local power, whether it was actually real or not. They’d have the pride of doing seemingly useful work to earn a living. They’d get to know each other better. They might even solve a bunch of problems and pay for themselves, and maybe even reduce our philanthropy costs.

And the wonderful thing is — for us in the 10%, this wouldn’t change anything at all. We’d keep raking it in same as always. Every penny earned comes right back to us. The peons stay in economic thrall, working like hell to buy more and more of what we sell them, and ignoring all those big nasty issues like ecological collapse and the end of cheap energy.

‘Cause I know you were going to get around to that, my friend. Yes, those are the two issues that we actually don’t have a solution for. We’ve been stalling them off for more than fifty years now, but ultimately you can’t deny that, unlike our economy, which is just a fiction, the physical world does have limits to growth. The virus has probably put off the energy crisis another few years, but there are only so many frackin’ rabbits we can pull out of that hat. Growth is dependent on ever-increasing extraction of cheap energy; every barrel of oil does 4.5 person-years of work, producing stuff that generates revenues that generates profits that keep the growth cycle going. And make no mistake — what we call the ‘economy’ absolutely depends on continuing growth, which in turn depends on continuing increases in production and consumption of oil. If we can’t afford to extract it, we’re fucked. Eight billion humans we can handle, my friend. The end of cheap-to-extract energy we cannot.

And yes, we’re well on our way to ecological collapse. We can’t handle that either. But the interesting thing about humans is that we will believe what we want to believe, no matter what. And just like us, the peons don’t want to believe that the Human Experiment on this planet is inexorably coming to a ghastly and miserable end. At least not before they finally get theirs!

So the world is on fire, but no one wants to recognize it. So we can keep dancing. Until it doesn’t matter, to any of us, anymore. You want to get off, go ahead. I got mine, and I’m riding it to the end of the line. Too much to lose to stop now. No matter what the stakes, I’m all in.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

CoVid-19 Update #8: By the Numbers

The numbers above are my own second-guessing of published data on CoVid-19 as at June 8th, 2020. For reasons explained below, they may be wildly inaccurate, but they’re my best guesses at this point, based on the sources cited.

This is my eighth and likely final update on what we know and don’t know about the first wave of the CoVid-19 pandemic. Those of us who’ve been following the numbers are getting increasingly disenchanted with the quality of data reporting, and it’s looking as if our wild guesses on how it’s proceeding will only get wilder as the data gets more and more suspect.

Spain, for example, presumably eager to jump-start its collapsed tourist industry, has essentially just stopped reporting new deaths. So has Brasil, a little more blatantly. And even in countries that have tried hard to report accurate data, much of what’s happening now is what in the wooly world of accounting is called “prior period adjustments” — jurisdictions reporting higher cumulative death totals but asserting that almost all the recent deaths actually happened a week or two earlier so there are almost no “new” deaths to report. Of course, given delays in reporting, this seemingly good news will give rise to further restatements a week or two hence, when today’s deaths are likewise revised sharply upwards. This has definitely “smoothed” some of the numbers for past months, but it dramatically understates some of the actual daily death totals for the most recent days, giving unwitting cover to those proclaiming that the risk has passed and that economies should be fully reopened.

Here’s some of what does seem to be true, however:

  • The mortality rate for CoVid-19 Wave One continues to look to be around 1.0%, based on retroactive data on excess deaths and on serology tests that estimate the proportion of populations that (symptoms or no) have been infected with the virus. The chart above, as of today, takes a stab at what the final actual Wave One death counts will be in various jurisdictions. Sources of the data for each column are shown, and as you can see some of them are pretty wild guesses, but it’s doubtful with the current obfuscation that we’ll end up with anything much more accurate in retrospect.
  • The actual likely deaths from the virus are continuing to average about 50% more than official reported figures even in the most diligent jurisdictions, for several understandable reasons I’ve mentioned in earlier posts. In countries with less advanced monitoring and reporting, it’s likely, as some reports have suggested, that actual death tolls could be as much as ten times official reports. The worst offenders are not necessarily the usual suspects however. There is some compelling evidence that China actually did, with its draconian measures, essentially halt spread of the virus so that only 0.1% of its population was infected. And while Russia is likely understating its numbers, its low male life expectancy means that less of its population is in the most vulnerable age groups; and Russians travel less than Western Europeans so we would expect less exposure to the virus especially outside the big wealthy cities. India’s data is a big question mark as well, with its young population less vulnerable to the virus, low reliance on the hospital system, and few funerals. And Brasil is anyone’s guess: Latin America (and Latino Americans in the US) seem especially vulnerable to the virus.
  • Probably about 3% of the world’s population will be infected by Wave One of the virus by this summer; but that number hides some huge variations both between and within countries. It’s likely that over 20% of people in some big cities will have been infected, more than twice the infection rates for the rest of the country. (Highest proportion is 57% in Bergamo, Italy’s hardest-hit city.) And in some places in these same countries infection rates are less than 0.5%; and less than 0.1% — under one person in a thousand — is likely still infectious. Therein lie the hazards of early relaxation of restrictions. Nowhere is the number who’ve been infected (and presumably are now immune) anywhere near “herd immunity” levels.
  • According to a report today from the WHO, research now suggests “it seems to be very rare that an asymptomatic [infected] person actually transmits [CoVid-19] onward to a secondary individual”.[EDIT June 9th noon: the WHO just walked back this assertion, saying it was inaccurate to say this was “very rare”; these guys just can’t seem to get their act together. Here’s a taste of the staggering damage this reckless WHO statement has done in just a few hours]. That means almost all transmission is from people visibly suffering from symptoms of the disease, which reinforces other evidence that this disease is less infectious than we thought, and more deadly when it is transmitted than we thought. And reinforces that, alas, the vast majority of us have zero immunity if the relaxation of restrictions leads to new spikes in cases, and to the next wave.
  • Anthony Fauci reported today that, even when a vaccine is developed and safely introduced, “it likely isn’t going to be a long duration of immunity.” The level of rigour needed to vaccinate everyone not just once but regularly is going to be an ongoing challenge. Some coronavirus research has suggested we may all need to be inoculated more often than once a year.
  • Two new as-yet-not-peer-reviewed articles pre-published today in the journal Nature say it’s likely that (imposed and voluntary) restrictions on contact have already reduced the number of cases by more than half a billion in just six nations studied, including 285 million in China and 60 million in the US. With a 1% mortality rate that’s five million lives saved. The second study says three million lives have been saved in a dozen European countries (an 82% overall reduction in cases and deaths), equating to a reduction of 300 million infections in those countries. At least eight million lives already saved in fewer than 20 countries studied; probably worth the social and economic sacrifice, no?
  • A group of 511 epidemiologists surveyed about their personal plans for the next year said the following activities are off the table for them until at least next year:
    • attending weddings, funerals, church services, sporting events, concerts or plays
    • going out with people they don’t know well
    • hugging and handshaking
    • not wearing a mask when not social distancing
    • the same group will mostly also not do the following at least until the fall: dinner parties, picnics, camping, day care, play dates, buses, subways, airplanes, gyms, dine-in restaurants, shared office spaces, visiting elderly relatives, visiting friends in their homes
  • Those on the west coast of North America who were feeling a bit smug about their low infection rates relative to the rest of their countries might be chagrined to know that it appears most of the west coast cases are genetically closer to the European variant of the virus than the Chinese variant. That suggests that despite some very early first reported cases in California, Washington and British Columbia, the virus probably made its way from east to west, so west coasters actually had a few extra days to shut down and social distance relative to hard-hit New Yorkers and Québecois, rather than the other way around. More possible evidence for just how effective the Asian actions and preparedness were compared to the rest of the world’s.
  • And though it probably needn’t be repeated, it’s still absolutely true that we don’t know how CoVid-19 kills us. And we also don’t have any idea why some countries with big crowded cities (Sri Lanka, Lebanon), lots of travel, lots of old people (Japan), lots of poverty (Haiti), and few restrictions (Cambodia) have largely been untouched, while others that have locked down early (Peru), whose people travel relatively little (Dominican Rep.), have low poverty levels (Belgium), have young populations (Ecuador), and are less densely populated (Bolivia), have been hammered. It has to be more than luck, and perhaps the next wave will be an equalizer, but I’m not so sure: there must be a reason.

I got passionate about this when I worked with a group of epidemiologists for a while after the SARS virus emerged. I realized then (and wrote about) how great the danger was and how unprepared we were for it. I wish I’d been wrong. I still think this is just a test run; it could have been, and eventually will be, much much worse. Ready or not.

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

Under No Illusions

This is a work of fiction. Really. 

chart by LA Johnson for NPR

“You don’t want to have this discussion.”

“Yes I do. I want to understand why you aren’t joining the protest today.”

“I’ve told you. I don’t believe the system can be reformed. What you’re protesting is just a well-embedded part of a large self-perpetuating system that hasn’t worked since it began centuries ago, and is now in the final stages of collapse.”

“What system?”

“Civilization. Industrial Capitalism. The Modern Human Enterprise. Whatever you want to call it.”

“This is about a particularly odious part of that system. A part that kills people.”

“Lots of parts of the system kill people. Industrial agriculture and medicine. Air, water and soil pollution. The entire military complex. It’s inherently competitive, zero-sum, violent, destructive, ignorant of externalities, and has accelerated the sixth great extinction of life on the planet. Including human life. And it’s all discriminatory. Whether you live or die in this system, and how pleasant or painful that life is, depends almost entirely on the cards you’re dealt when you’re born. The system kills people, unequally.”

“You’re the one who says there is no system. You said it’s just a concept made up to try to make sense of things.”

“It’s the collective behaviour of eight billion people each desperately struggling to survive and to do the best they can for themselves and the ones they love. System is just a name for that. The collective result of all those behaviours is chaotic, unintended and uncontrolled. It’s utterly unfair. It’s racist, sexist, nationalist, ageist, and discriminates violently against the poor and unemployed, who are blamed for being lazy, and the sick, who are blamed for not taking care of themselves and for eating badly. Eight billion people looking for someone or some groups to single out to blame for our ghastly global human collective failure. It’s all collapsing, thankfully. But I’m afraid it’s going to get a lot more challenging as it does, and as the blame game accelerates. I’m kind of sorry you have to live through it. When you were born, your mother and I both believed things could be turned around. We were mistaken.”

“Mom’s coming with me. Why don’t you come? You might learn something.”

“I’m sure I would. Or will. I’ll come if you want, but if I do it’s because I’m worried about your safety, not because I think it will accomplish anything.”

“How can you be so sure? You used to be a protester. You stopped some pipelines and dams from being built. You ended a war. Maybe we can prevent some people being killed.”

“We delayed the pipelines and dams; we didn’t stop them. And the war was ending anyway; nobody wanted it to go on. You might cause enough people to pause, for a little while, and maybe save some lives. But then it will resume. New warmongers have been and will be elected and new wars launched. You can get attention and affect short-term behaviour for a while. Occupy did, for a while. The many antiwar protests have worked, for a while. #MeToo got people’s attention, for a while. Climate marches got prime ministers to declare emergencies and join in, for a while. But once the placards are laid down and the media goes away, everything resumes. You can’t change the trajectory of eight billion people. We will do what we will do, including killing people, including protesting, including destroying the planet we depend on for our lives.”

“How can you be such a defeatist, and at the same time be so equanimous most of the time? You get upset by the news — I can see it in your face, in your whole body. How can you be at peace just letting it all happen?”

“Not at peace. Resigned. I know how blessed I am, how much worse most people have it, through no fault of their own.”

“So come out and demand that something be done to allow those who are particularly oppressed to have it better, to at least live without fear of being killed.”

“Demand it of whom? You think someone is actually in control of all this, that some group can pass some laws or introduce some new regulatory group that is going to substantially change anything? The whole system is collapsing; every part of it is in crisis, and even when you can get people to stop and focus on any particular set of outrages, you’ll get about 10 seconds of their time, they’ll sympathize, most of them, and then they’ll get on with their lives and it’ll all be forgotten. We’re all doing our best to cope with a civilization in free fall collapse, even those that’re in denial of that fact.”

“So you’re saying it’s OK for racist cops to kill with impunity.”

Nothing’s OK. Police forces can be riddled with traumatized, mentally ill people who signed up because they felt angry and helpless at the world and wanted some feeling of power. So can the military. So can the C-Suites of corporations. So can governments. Train any group that it’s us-against-them and teach them to cover for each other no matter what, and give them authority and arms, and this will be the result. Those who believe crime is rife, that everything is black and white, that life is like violent Hollywood crime movies, that everyone’s a potential bad guy, that what’s needed is more exercise of authority, shock & awe, are going to self-select into these professions. On top of that they limited training in peacemaking, and a lot of them probably don’t think that’s part of their job. And then we dump them out into the streets and expect them to deal with all the shit that stems from grinding chronic poverty, boiling-over anger, addiction, physical and mental illness, rage, fear, grief, despair and hopelessness. No one can do that job, especially not cops. That’s not an excuse for targeted violence of any kind; it’s not at all OK, but it’s a symptom of a system that’s made everyone ill, and which is falling apart, leaving everyone desperate and on edge as a result.”

“So because you conveniently think it’s hopeless, you think it’s fine to do nothing, to just let atrocities happen.”

“I’m not a humanist like your mother. We’ve been through this discussion; you’ve read John Gray so you know what I think of humanism — It’s idealistic and delusional. Humanists are just the latest flavour of salvationists, and there is no salvation, and never has been. There is no progress, not in the larger scheme of things. So by all means be an Activist — say, with your eyes wide open, that it’s hopeless but you have to do something anyway, that even if it only improves things on a tiny local scale for a very short time it’s worth it to you. I respect that. Or be a Chronicler — hold a mirror to the world to show just how awful the system is, so even if the system can’t be reformed we can at least do less to prop it up, and let it collapse a little faster. I respect that. And I will love you even if you’re a humanist or a technotopian or any other flavour of Salvationist, though I will work hard to disillusion you.”

“I’m going now. I’m not under any illusions. And I have to do this.”

“I know. Please be careful. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“Hah! Yeah right, says the hippie anarchist radical. Mom told me what you did when you were younger.”

“Hey, before you go: I made you a placard.”

“Nobody calls them placards any more Dad. If they ever did. Wow. List of Black Americans killed by police in the past decade. But do you think it’s appropriate for me to carry such a sign, or any sign for that matter?”

“That depends on why you’re going. If you’re going out of a feeling of shame or righteous indignation, probably not. If you’re going in solidarity, or to bear witness to what is happening, I would think it’s probably OK. Ask your Black friends. And if they think it’s inappropriate for you to carry it, offer it to them.”

“So does that make me an Activist, a Chronicler, or a Salvationist?”

“When we marched for #metoo, and for Fridays for Future, what were you then?”

“Hmm. All of them, I guess. Do I have to choose?”

“You don’t even have a choice.”

“Hey — what are you doing?”

“Coming with you. I don’t have a choice either. You have your mask?”

“Of course.”

Posted in Creative Works | 4 Comments

A Continuous Reassemblage of Model, Meaning and Reality

yet another article on Radical Non-Duality

image of human cortical neurons and glia from Zeiss Microscopy on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

So here’s what I think happens:

When a baby is born, there is no separate ‘self’ there. It is just part of everything. There are things autonomically happening inside and outside the baby’s body. Everything is just atoms and molecules and cells doing what they do. This ‘way of things happening’ has evolved over billions of years, following an apparent set of rules we call ‘evolution’.

Part of this ‘way of things happening’ is the evolution of an autonomic capacity for preservation. The tree and its mitochondria seemingly work to protect them both from being harmed by pests, and the tree’s evolved capacities include the ability to capture the water and energy and nutrients it needs to survive and grow, and to propagate additional trees. The seeds it uses to propagate are used by other creatures for their preservation in turn. Everything is connected, and follows an apparent set of rules for the preservation of an interconnected diversity of life-forms and environments, that in the theory of the same name is called ‘Gaia’.

Although we can argue about definitions, there is no requirement in the theory of evolution or in Gaia theory for there to be ‘consciousness’ or ‘self-consciousness’. Evolution and Gaia have worked for billions of years without any need for them. There does not need to be a reason or purpose or meaning for evolution or Gaia, or for anything to happen or exist, any more than there needs to be a reason or meaning for the stunningly-beautiful, complex fractal growth of ice-crystals on a rock’s surface in freezing weather. Or for the motions of the planets and stars.

Let’s go back and look at this preservation in action. Imagine you’re looking at an aphid or a silverfish dashing to avoid a predator. Why is ‘it’ doing this? It’s a moot question — there is no reason to believe or require that there’s an ‘it’ there, somehow separate from ‘everything else’, with ‘volition’ to preserve ‘itself’. What we call an aphid or silverfish is just an evolved assemblage of atoms and molecules and cells. This complicity of atoms and molecules and cells has been conditioned — by their collective genetics and experience — to run and hide in certain circumstances. Because of that evolved conditioning, there are still aphids and silverfish on earth; without this conditioning, there would be none — they would be extinct. There is no ‘reason why’ they exhibit this behaviour. It is just the rules being played out.

Similarly, there is actually no aphid or silverfish ‘separate’ from everything. Atoms and molecules and cells have tried out trillions of possible combinations with trillions of random variations over billions of years, and the complicities that endured, as the rules played out, have remained, and those complicities that did not, went extinct. That does not mean there is any significance to the ‘skin’ or ‘bark’ or other set of atoms, molecules and cells that seem to ‘bound’ or ‘contain’ some atoms, molecules and cells and exclude all others. In fact, that ‘container’ is a mirage — other atoms, molecules and cells are continually passing through the ‘boundaries’ of this container, coming in or out, their success depending on random and conditioned events and on the rules being played out. And there is an entire additional, invisible environment enveloping each aphid and silverfish and tree, just outside its ‘skin’ or ‘bark’, containing yet other atoms, molecules and cells essential to the aphid’s or silverfish’s or tree’s survival and evolutionary success.

So there is not really anything ‘separate’. There is not really any such thing as an aphid or silverfish or tree, and that’s not just semantics or sophistry. There is just this ever-changing ebb and flow and evolution of atoms, molecules and cells, in accordance with an apparent set of rules. This is the case not just for what we call ‘living’ forms, but for rocks and planets and stars and galaxies as well. Everything in the universe, just playing out in accordance with apparent sets of rules.

This universe is not, however, deterministic. There are an infinite number of variables at play, and every part of the chaos is affecting other parts in unpredictable ways. A bird eats the tree’s seedling just as it was starting to germinate, and soon after eats a fruit that contains a fungus that sickens the bird. But while it’s not deterministic, it’s not ‘progressing’ or ‘purposeful’ or ‘intentional’ or ‘meaningful’ either. Things can be wondrous, and can be staggeringly, breathtakingly beautiful without any reason or purpose.

So back to the baby. It’s born, and atoms and molecules and cells inside and outside it do what they do, and there is no border, no essence, nothing of consequence between what is inside and what is outside. Even before it’s born, those atoms and molecules and cells have already been genetically, evolutionarily conditioned to autonomically respond in ways that enhance the preservation of the entire collective (the fetus-within-Mom-within-Gaia) — it ‘knows’ not to bend its arms to the extent of dislocating its shoulder, and not to kick so hard it damages the womb.

The baby has genetically evolved to cry and to appeal to its mother immediately after birth, just as a baby of any other species does. It doesn’t ‘recognize’ its mother; there is no reason why it should have to (‘recognition’ is way too complicated a process to depend on in a newborn). Immediately the complicity of atoms, molecules and cells of the baby and those of the mother begin to condition each other, to complement the genetic conditioning that has already primed the mother to feed and care for the baby. Nothing special here.

The baby’s brain, a part of its complicity of atoms, molecules and cells that evolved to serve the needs of the rest of the complicity, as one of its pattern-detectors, feature-detectors, and sense-makers, grows quickly and starts to do its job (or it doesn’t, and the complicity ‘dies’ and its elements are reabsorbed into other complicities). It ‘learns’ how to condition its mother to provide for it, autonomically (this is not, at least at this stage, an intellectual process; it doesn’t ‘recognize’ its mother, or anything else, including itself, as separate from anything else). Similarly its mother conditions it, usually with positive reinforcement, but sometimes with negative reinforcement or punishment. The complicity has evolved to respond accordingly. Still, there is no need for the baby to perceive of anything as separate, including itself.

So the baby’s brain hums along with its bewilderingly difficult task of trying to make sense of everything. There are of course no such things as colours, sounds, smells or tastes — these are all the brain’s imaginings, recreations, its way of making sense of the signals reaching it from the sensory organs. It remembers what colours, sounds, smells and tastes signify pleasurable rewards, which signify the threat of pain, and which signify neither. This brain creates a complex mental model of the world, just as the brain of any other baby creature does. But this still does not require it to give up the wondrous perception that it is just part of, and one with, everything.

But then, prompted and encouraged by the mother and then by other humans, the baby’s capacious brain adds another element to this complex mental model — itself.  This is an astonishing addition to the model, but one which immediately seems to make sense. And the instant it invents the concept of itself, the brain must immediately and necessarily invent the concept of other, of everything else. Apart. If its self is separate, everything else must be separate, too. And as soon as this happens, positive reinforcement from others conditions it to accept that this new addition to the model is correct, that this perception of separateness is real. “Look!,” says the mother, “she’s recognizing her hand as her hand; she’s recognizing herself in the mirror; she called me her mama!”

Now the mutual conditioning of mother and baby moves to a new level. When babies laugh, or cry, it’s to condition the mother and other caregivers to tell them this was a pleasant, or an unpleasant, surprise, and to encourage its repetition or discontinuance accordingly — just like a kitten’s purr or hiss, or a puppy’s wagging tail or growl. And of course adults, convinced their selves are real, condition the baby, or the pet, in return. This mutual conditioning is a successful evolution, and has no need of consciousness of separateness or identity to “work”. But once the construct of separateness and identity has been created, and reinforced (as it will be for the rest of the baby’s life), it shifts the entire nature of our conditioned behaviour.

Or more precisely, it shifts what we believe to be the entire nature of our conditioned behaviour. Suddenly, we begin to perceive (and to be told) that our separate selves somehow have control and agency over, and responsibility for, the bodies they seemingly inhabit. This is both exciting (“Look what I’ve discovered — my self!“) and terrifying (“Ooh, not sure I like this responsibility, and I don’t trust these others — can’t we go back to just being part of everything?”) But there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.

So this self-that-believes-itself-separate then spends the rest of ‘its’ life (generally, the life of the body it believes it resides within) trying to “get back to where it once belonged”. It senses that life shouldn’t be this difficult, and it ‘remembers’ when it wasn’t. But now, conditioned to a fault, it wakes up each morning and immediately reassembles its self, reconstructs the separateness and continuity of itself, and prepares to assume control and responsibility. The self is, entirely and solely, a continuous reassemblage of model, meaning and reality. An invention not just of the brain but of the whole complicity of the body. A psychosomatic experience; a constant, self-created hallucination invented in the interest of making sense of everything. The hallucination only endures because it seems to make sense. Just as it seems to make sense that the sun rises and sets and revolves around the earth — until we learn that this is just an illusion.

Let’s imagine that these oversized human brains were not quite smart enough to conceive of separate selves. Would anything be any different?

I have met and befriended quite a few who no longer have a sense of separation or selfhood (they had no choice in the matter; for no reason, their sense of self and separation just suddenly ceased). Friends and family members who knew them back when they still had this sense of being separate selves say there has been no significant change in their behaviours or beliefs since the ‘loss’. That resonates with ‘glimpses’ that have happened here, where there was suddenly no ‘me’, nothing separate, just a wondrous sense of everything, ‘perfect’ and obvious and eternal and already everything emerging out of nothing, for no reason. Most of these glimpses happened ‘before’ I had ever heard of non-duality; I just didn’t know what to make of them back then, once the separate ‘me’ had come back. So ‘I’ just wrote them off as vivid, pleasant dreams.

So it seems we don’t need to have this sense of everything being separate, in order to function perfectly well in the world. And the reason is not because our characters’ operant conditioning continues whether we have the perception of having separate selves or not. It’s even more outrageous than that — our sense of self was never real to begin with; we, our ‘selves’ have never done anything. Our ‘selves’ are ghosts conjured up in overactive brains. (You might say that we have just not yet discovered that the world doesn’t revolve around our selves.)

The loss of this sense of self and separation is, I’m told, in many cases agonizing, and seemingly takes considerable time, even when the one involved claims to have been longing to be free from their selves for a long time. I’ve never been able to understand how the loss of a hallucination, a completely unreal invention, could be difficult, so difficult that those going through it felt they were going mad or dying (and I suppose in a way they were). By contrast, glimpses, or the experience of loss of self while under the influence of some psychedelics, seems for most very simple and pleasant. What’s the difference, besides the seeming ‘impermanence’ of glimpses and acid trips?

As Gabor Maté has explained, one of the fundamental human drives is for authenticity — to be connected with and aware of ‘who we are’, including what we believe and value and our sense of identity. Even if one is, like Kafka’s Metamorphosis creature, deeply dissatisfied with one’s life and its apparent drudgery and meaninglessness, what must it be like to suddenly face the realization that everything one believed, everything one valued, and one’s entire sense of identity, was a lie, completely untrue?

The sense of “free fall” that is sometimes described when the self seemingly disintegrates and an unimaginably different reality emerges would understandably be terrifying, and unwanted. But none of this terror would be particularly visible to friends or family of those going through this. It’s not something one can describe or talk about with others, or ‘work through’ with the help of others who’ve been through it. Because it’s obvious no ‘one’ has been through it.

Perhaps it’s more like (and this is just a metaphor) waking up and finding oneself falling through space, with no parachute or other control mechanism, except one isn’t ‘oneself’ and there isn’t any real time or space to fall through — there was only ever falling, of no one, and there never was any control, and there is no thing to fall ‘to’, so there is no thing to fear. But that must be terrifying at first, and must take some getting used to!

So if (perhaps like Neanderthal humans) the brains of our species were incapable of imagining separateness, absolutely nothing would change. If your self were not to awaken when the body you presume to inhabit awoke tomorrow morning, not only would no one notice any difference, but you (or rather your ‘character’, that complicity of atoms and molecules and cells that has always been and will always be conditioned to do the only thing it could possibly do every moment) would not notice any difference, because there would be no ‘you’ to notice. There might be troubling memories of seeming past anxieties, but since it would then be seen that nothing is separate, and that nothing has substance or meaning, they would soon dissipate, like old, bad dreams. Unreal.

Although the enduring illusion of self and separation isn’t real, it can still, like the hallucinations of one going through a bad drug reaction, or the paranoid fears of a conspiracy theorist, evoke terror and trauma in the character. When the illusion ends, there is nothing left to sustain the fear or the reaction, so the anxiety and trauma slowly ebb and cease.

Then there is no longer the continuous reassemblage of model, meaning and reality. The exhausting work of connecting what the ‘self’ believes and does and imagines and expects in every tiny moment, with what it believes and does and imagines and expects in every other moment, is done, over, no longer needed.

Because the self believes it is real, as John Gray writes, in describing what he calls The Deception, “We labour under an error. We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not.” The self cannot bring about the liberation from the illusion of itself.

I suspect there are probably many walking around among us who have no sense of self or separation, and whose conditioned characters are unaffected by its absence. Characters who aren’t noticeably different from anyone else, and who aren’t inclined to talk or proselytize about it. After all, why make anything of it when it’s obvious?

Unless, perhaps, the character that remains when the sense of self is gone is, by its conditioned nature, intrigued by science and insatiably curious and mystified by the paradox of why when there was seemingly a self everything seemed much harder than it should be. And that character hears others talking about the tragedy of having selves that futilely seek for their own undoing and the end of the impossible burden of grief and responsibility that comes with having selves. And there’s a remembering, that just might be fun to talk about (though not for any important reason).

And if and when they do talk about it, there’s a sudden resonance among those who can vaguely remember glimpses that were exactly like that — completely free and empty and wondrous and without responsibility or shame or grief or fear. And a resonance among those who’ve loved science all their lives but are dissatisfied with what science can’t make sense of, who’ve just intuitively sensed that there’s something wrong with the way their selves perceive and conceive of the world, that surely with all the creatures in the world navigating it so effortlessly it must be easier than their selves make it out to be.

Then who knows what might happen? Imagine the impossible — a world of humans still doing the same apparent things, but liberated, unburdened from the horrible responsibility of utterly impotent, useless, endlessly dissatisfying separate selves.

Over time, though nothing would apparently seem different (if it were even possible to have an ‘outside’ observer to notice), but, I think, humans would gradually become less anxious, less neurotic, less driven to do things to “make things better”. Dare I say, humans might become much like every other animal on this apparent planet — mostly at peace, accepting, adapting, connected, just being a part of the meta-complicity of Gaia, rather than fighting to control it, to know it, to conquer and diminish it.

This is of course only a dream — our species’ selves long ago achieved herd immunity from the truth of our inseparability and a-part-hood with everything. We cannot undo the playing out of the set of rules that, without intention, seem destined to intensify and accelerate the sixth great extinction.

But had a few minor differences in variables played into what is apparently happening — a cosmic accident, an innocuous error in the replication or mutation of a strand of RNA — this play, which is eternal, already over, just nothing appearing wondrously as everything, might have followed a very different plot line. This play, in which the atoms and the molecules and the cells and the stars are all unwitting players, getting their lines a second before they are spoken, might have been a comedy instead of a tragedy, at least in this retelling.

Fortunately, this playing out, this appearance, is only a story, outside of space and time, for no one. Without meaning. The play never starts and never ends, and the plot doesn’t matter.

One day, perhaps, like the ghastly Copernican truth of our planet’s cosmic insignificance in the music of the spheres, this, too, will be seen. It won’t change anything, but it would be a delicious plot twist. Exeunt omnes. Curtain!

Posted in Radical Non-Duality | 1 Comment

Some More Wild Guesses on CoVid-19

There has been a lot of second guessing recently about the optimal timing for shutting down and reopening the “non-essential” components of our economy in order to minimize death from CoVid-19 without causing economic hardship disproportionate to the direct suffering from the pandemic that is avoided by these measures.

Mostly, we still (still!) have no idea who is and is not infected and infectious with this disease. Our testing was and is woefully inadequate, even pathetic, and everyone’s ducking for cover when this fact comes up because no one wants the blame for our utter lack of preparation for this inevitable outbreak laid on them.

If we knew, like a few countries have and do, precisely and promptly who was infected and infectious (through frequent and continuous universal testing, tracing, isolating and other things libertarians fear and loathe) then we could reopen everything immediately and just focus on the very few who are contagious (which is and has almost always been less than 1% of the population). In fact we wouldn’t have had to lock everything down in the first place, and we could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But we don’t know who is infectious. We have, mostly, no idea.

We can, however, start to make some educated guesses as to how many are infectious. It’s a very poor surrogate for who is infectious, when making lockdown and reopening decisions, but it’s better than the whims of politicians currently governing these decisions. I decided to come up with such an estimate, which is shown in the chart above.

Here are the very uncertain assumptions that underlie this chart:

  1. The mortality rate is somewhere in the area of 1.0% of those infected. This could change yet again (initially it was estimated to be 3%, then 0.2%, now 1% or a bit higher). It’s based on a growing series of serology (antibody) tests of broad populations, giving us a rough idea of how many have actually been infected, from which the mortality rate can be measured.
  2. Infected citizens are infectious to others for about 14 days. There’s a lot of uncertainty about this, but it still seems to be the consensus of the medical community.
  3. Those dying of the virus die on average 21 days after initial infection. Again, this seems a reasonable assumption, but there’s still great uncertainty about it.
  4. The actual number of deaths from the virus is 50% higher than the official reports in most developed countries with competent, open reporting systems. The “excess deaths” research to date suggests it could be considerably higher than this, and there’s endless debate about how many “excess deaths” were avoided by reduced travel and hazardous work and how many of the “excess deaths” were due to people being afraid or unable to go to hospitals, but these other factors may balance out, so the 1/3 under-reporting statistic seems reasonable.
  5. Future deaths will be close to those currently projected by the UW/IHME model. It’s been off in both directions, usually underestimating, but it’s the best we have to work with.

If any of these assumptions turns out to be significantly off, it will significantly affect the chart above, and I will make changes to it accordingly, at least for the next month or so (after which hopefully it will become useful only in hindsight).

So I started with the reported and UW/IHME forecast cumulative deaths on each day, and increased all these numbers by 50% (assumptions 4 and 5). Then I divided these by 1% (ie by 0.01) to estimate the number of infected-to-date as of 21 days earlier (assumptions 1 and 3). Then I computed the number currently infectious each day as the difference between the computed infected-to-date on that day, and on the date 14 days earlier (assumption 2). Those are the numbers plotted on the chart for Canada and the US above, shown as a percentage of the latest census numbers.

The daily number of deaths peaked much earlier in the US than in Canada, and was much more pronounced. That suggests that infections likely did likewise in the several weeks before the peak deaths.

One recent article suggested that politics, not hesitation, was behind the delay between California’s lockdown and New York’s. Another study, from Princeton, suggested that US deaths might have been halved if lockdowns had occurred even four days earlier, and reduced by 80% if they had occurred two weeks earlier. This would seem to jibe with the chart above — note the steep slope in the chart in the week between the California and New York/most-of-US/Canada shutdown dates. The likely number of infectious citizens doubled in both countries in that week.

What is notable about the chart above is that the current rate of decline in the number of infectious people has been much more gradual than the earlier rate of increase. This was seemingly part of the problem with earlier optimistic forecasts of an almost ‘normal’ curve of deaths. It also really shows the dangers of reopening so soon, especially when we still have no idea who is infected and who is infectious.

Of course, the percentages on this chart are just averages. In many areas, it is likely that no one within miles is infectious, while in others, especially in areas with vulnerable local populations, as many as 10% could be. We just don’t know. At any rate, it seems reasonable to suggest that in early April about 1.5% of all Americans were infectious (ie had been newly infected in the last 14 days), and, at the end of April, about 1% of all Canadians were likewise infectious. Can you imagine what would have happened without lockdowns and social distancing?

If this chart is at all accurate, reopening businesses, stadiums, and other high-density meeting-places, as is starting to happen all over the US and Canada, seems premature and perilous. But I guess we’ll see. If we see an uptick in daily deaths 3 weeks from now or so, we’ll know.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Comments Off on Some More Wild Guesses on CoVid-19

Links of the Month: May 2020

(Reza at poorlydrawnlines has a new book)

Last month I led off the monthly links post with the lyrics to “When’s It Going to End?” So maybe I’ll lead this one off with another song about bewilderment and uncertainty, Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man:

You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked and you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard but you don’t understand
Just what you will say when you get home
Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
You raise up your head and you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says, “It’s his”
And you say, “What’s mine?” and somebody else says, “Well, what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God, am I here all alone?”
But something is happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
You hand in your ticket and you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you when he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel to be such a freak?”
And you say, “Impossible!” as he hands you a bone
And something is happening here but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
You have many contacts among the lumberjacks
To get you facts when someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect, anyway they already expect you to all give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations
Ah, you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well-read, it’s well-known
But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you and then he kneels
He crosses himself and then he clicks his high heels
And without further notice, he asks you how it feels
And he says, “Here is your throat back, thanks for the loan”
And you know something is happening but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
Now, you see this one-eyed midget shouting the word “Now”
And you say, “For what reason?” and he says, “How”
And you say, “What does this mean?” and he screams back, “You’re a cow!
Give me some milk or else go home”
And you know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
Well, you walk into the room like a camel, and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket and your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law against you comin’ around
You should be made to wear earphones
‘Cause something is happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?


What would a real green new deal look like?: Megan Seibert lists what we would really have to do, immediately, to have any chance of bringing a halt to the sixth great extinction of life on earth. It’s an inspiring list. It’s also totally impossible. But good to know. Thanks to Michael Dowd for the link.

The coming Greater Depression: Nouriel Roubini predicts a slow “U-shaped” recovery from CoVid-19, followed almost immediately by an economic depression longer and deeper than any we have ever seen mid-decade. Payback time. You can watch the video or read the article.

The end of the “human climate niche”: Even with prosthetic technologies, humans (and their food crops) can only survive, in any numbers, in climates with an average annual temperature between about 11º and 15ºC. Given current temperature rise forecasts, that means between 1.5 billion and 3.5 billion climate refugees by 2070.

Planet of the Humans: I haven’t watched Michael Moore’s latest film, because his blame-y, in-your-face style grates on me. But I’ve read enough foaming-at-the-mouth criticisms and reviews by both sides to know that despite its oversimplifications and obsolete assertions, its fundamental arguments — that we can’t innovate (with “renewable” energy) our way out of climate collapse, that an immediate and drastic reduction in consumption, a massive redistribution of wealth, and a coordinated effort to humanely reduce human numbers are absolute preconditions for even mitigating collapse, and that capitalism has completely coopted the “environmental movement” — are sound.


cartoon in the New Yorker by Teresa Burns Parkhurst (if you don’t get the joke, look again)

Exit, stage four: PS Pirro relates our responses to CoVid-19 to the notorious five-stages-of-grief model. Republicans are still at stage 1 (denial) and 2 (anger), and progressives are mired in stage 3 (depression) or 4 (bargaining). Pretty much where they stand on climate collapse, too. Peggy, ever the wise poet, gets it exactly: “Covid is just the guy with the broom at the end of the cartoon, sweeping the dust from the stage.”

A coping strategy: An acquaintance, April Rinne, describes a process of internal self-examination and self-awareness:  challenging our assumptions (and hence our fears) about the future, focusing on our collective rather than personal opportunities for improving things (and accepting our responsibility to the collective), and taking advantage of the current slowdown to, well, slow down, to deal with current and looming crises.

Never going back: Canadian E-Commerce firm Shopify, which recently (and improbably) became the highest valued company in Canada (such is the mad state of the stock market), has decided that it’s going to make its new work-from-home processes its permanent default. So has Twitter, apparently, though there there’s a catch: a pay cut.

Mayors are doin’ it for themselves: Forty mayors of the world’s most progressive large cities, responding to the absence of national and state leadership, have coalesced to produce a joint recovery task force and framework. They’re using Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics model as a guide, which is great. Thanks to my Municipalities in Transition colleagues for the link.

And so are some small cities: Maricá, Brasil is using the pandemic to deepen and advance economic reforms under the Solidarity Economy umbrella: guaranteed annual income, support for the poor, education reforms, a local currency, and support for workers and collective production. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Gut resistance: If you want your body and immune system to be able to fend off disease, you might consider switching to a whole plant-food diet.

Going the distance: If you have irresponsible neighbours, now might be a good time to practice social, economic and political distancing.

Food for thought: Liminal offers up concise (30 min), novel podcasts with some of the world’s brightest and most creative thinkers.


cartoon by Dave Granlund

The wacky US mercenary plot to kidnap Maduro: As if politics weren’t strange enough, apparently the Venezuelan opposition leaders signed a contract with a bunch of mercenaries in Florida to abduct Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as part of a coup. But the hired Rambos botched the job, and now the Venezuelan opposition is pretending they didn’t know them. Still, Western leaders refuse to stay neutral in this horrible mess; we will never learn.


cartoon in the New Yorker by Adrian Tomine

Why are we really in lockdown?: Jemima Kelly writes a great exposé on the life and death politics of CoVid-19. The moral calculus we employ in balancing death with economic depression includes: how many of the dead would have died anyway, and how soon (provisional answer: not many, and not soon); what the “excess deaths” really died from (provisional answer: mostly but not all CoVid-19 related); the economic and social consequences if the hospitals are overwhelmed to the point of chaos, health worker walkouts and dieoffs, and massive death tolls (provisional answer: too high to risk); and the economic ‘value’ versus ‘cost’ of preserving and prolonging life (too complex to provide any provisional answer on); the “rule of rescue” (that we’re mostly and illogically willing to pay a lot more to save someone from imminent death than to prevent the need to save them from arising); and how we innately care about one stranger in peril right in front of us than a thousand or a million in peril we don’t see. The majority’s answers to these questions will likely determine how we will deal with the immense moral questions we will face as we shift into the second wave. Well worth a read, and a ponder.

Meanwhile in the CoVid-altered-for-now world:


natural materials sculpture by Sophie Prestigiacomo (thanks to Jae Mather for the link)

The company meeting: Idled sports commentator Andrew Cotter, renowned for his lockdown-era commentaries about the ‘sports’ his two dogs engage in, now has his dogs playing the roles of staff members in his corporate Zoom meeting. Really funny.

The great disappointments: The Onion interviews a man disappointed to discover that being idled by CoVid-19 hasn’t jump-started his creativity. Thank to Tree Bressen for the link, and the one that follows.

Social distancing vs baby foxes: Authorities had to erect fencing and screens to prevent a family of foxes and an adoring audience from admiring each other in Toronto. They claim to have used modern “conditioning theory” to ensure the creatures did not get too habituated to close contact and consequently become dependent. They were apparently referring to the foxes.

The Aurora Australis in Antarctica: Stunning video showing a full Aurora and the Milky Way at the same time.

Jelle’s marble runs: For five years Nederlander Jelle Bakker has been running and videoing a series of “races” of marbles, including courses modelled on Formula One tracks and 120m-long outdoor sand tracks. If you’re like me (or author/Vlog brother John Green, or humourist John Oliver, or any of the million plus subscribers) you find these things addictive to watch. Here are samples of my favourite indoor and outdoor series, but he has hundreds.

The ultimate conspiracy theory: Satirist Andy Borowitz starts the rumour that enemies of the US developed Trump in a lab.

I got a cat: Gabrielle Bell’s cartoon strips are beautiful, raw, and alternately charming and disturbing. Her newest one describes her bonding, sort of, with a new cat.

Learning about viruses and pandemics: If you’re like me and one of your coping mechanisms is learning everything you can about a challenging subject, here are some useful links to information on past pandemics, and a website that lets you simulate their spread:


Calvin & Hobbes cartoon by Bill Watterson

Now that there is no longer, apparently, a self named Frank McCaughey, though there never really was, the things that that character is saying and writing are seemingly very different from what they were ‘before’, such as:

Then, there is a suggestion, that there is no you, now nor ever,
doing that feeling of apartness.
No you seeking.
Only that sense arising. And Falling.
In everything. For no one.

More empty than yesterday’s dream for tomorrow
and full to the brim of all that appears to be happening.

This ‘you’
that seeks to be at ‘one’ with ‘everything’
is everything being that.

Already. You are not.
this is nowhere.

Otherwise ‘Frank’ is the same as ‘always’. Meanwhile Tim Cliss is doing weekly Zoom videos for now, and I feel almost like part of his ‘family’. Or perhaps it’s more like a support group. Frank is also ‘hosting’ Tony Parsons’ Zoom meetings now; this one is especially good at conveying the Radical Non-Duality message. Jim Newman’s next Zoom session is June 7th.

If any of this is of interest to you, email me and we can chat about it. Not trying to sell anything, but I find it fun, and strangely calming. Even though it’s hopeless, and meaningless, and there is no path.


New Yorker cartoon by Christopher Weyant

From an unknown author, cited by Marj Plumb on Facebook (thanks to Alison Rose Levy for the link):

If a medically-informed response to a pandemic creates economic hardship so serious that the economic impacts are more deadly than the virus, you change your fucking economic system not your response to disease.

And from US health journalist Alison Rose Levy herself, on Facebook:

I’d like to see the health community signing on for Medicare for All. I’d like to see a prominent spokesperson promote that. Once the health insurance companies are out of the way, we can talk about health promoting strategies. Until then it’s just a lot of hot air leading towards the perpetuation of an unjust two-tiered health system. If you won’t take some basic steps to protect others, just take a seat. 

From New Jersey (on “loan” from Minnesota) emergency ICU health-care worker Kristen Martins (thanks to Paul Cienfuegos for the link):

My message to those protesting the stay-at-home orders in Minnesota, Tennessee, Washington, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, California, Arizona, Montana, and any other state & to Trump:

Come take a step into my daily hell. Come tell me to my face that “fear is worse than the virus!” Come walk into the trailer full of dead, rotting humans, and I will pick out a spot for your body, since it is “your body, your right”. If “Jesus is your vaccine”, tell me why I am taking the rosary off my patient’s lifeless body?

Anyone protesting should forfeit their rights to receive any medical care. NONE. You are putting the lives of anyone you come into contact with because of your boredom and selfishness. You are putting every single healthcare worker’s life not only at an increased risk, but your disrespect for humankind because of your ignorance and stupidity is beyond appalling. 

From Chinese poet Li Po (thanks to Georgette Rudigoz for the link)

On Drinking Alone by Moonlight

Here are flowers and here is wine, but where’s a friend with me to join
Hand in hand and heart to heart in one full cup before we part?
Rather than to drink alone I’ll make bold to ask the moon
To condescend to lend her face the hour and the scene to grace.

Lo, she answers, and she brings my shadow on her silver wings;
That makes three, and we shall be, I ween, a merry company.
The modest moon declines the cup, but shadow promptly takes it up,
And when I dance my shadow fleet keeps measure with my flying feet.

But though the moon declines to tipple, she dances in yon shining ripple,
And when I sing, my festive song, the echoes of the moon prolong.
Say, when shall we next meet together? Surely not in cloudy weather,
For you my boon companions dear come only when the sky is clear.

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