Innumeracy and the Crisis in Memetic Understanding

Labor Protest, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2012

One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed in educating thousands of engineering students, that has directly led to evidence for my thinking on memetics, is the inability of my students to grasp the significance of all forms of data.

Just so you realize, this belies their education, as well as the constant, chronic chattering of STEM education reformers about kids needing more math classes. My students have HAD those classes. They’ve often gotten ‘As’ in those classes. They’re not stupid kids either, so don’t go down that route.

And it’s not like classes in calculus, statistics, and such don’t help. They can indeed. But there’s more going on under the hood that is extremely poorly understood in how people think about numbers. And frankly, while it may have something to do with the numbers a bit, that’s really not the deep problem.

The deep problem is a lack of ability to reason with numbers. That requires a number of things — the ability to make connections, as well as the ability to frame things consequentially, and project into the future. Add on to that the ability to read something like a graph, and then connect that graph to a physical instantiation of action. Now we’re talking.

That’s a lot of verbiage that makes sense to me, but likely doesn’t make sense to most of the readership. Here’s an example.

One of the things we beat kids in engineering education over the head with is the idea of a mass-spring-damper. Mass-spring-damper (MSD) systems make up a ton of mechanical systems — they’re a simple oscillator, a car suspension system, a building swaying in the wind. Anything that vibrates can be approximated with an MSD system. Here’s the basic block diagram.

Basic Mass Spring Damper System

The mass is, well, a mass, the spring is a spring, and a damper is something that takes energy out of the system as it goes up and down in the direction ‘x’.

Let’s say you pull this thing up, let it go, and watch it wobble. If you plot ‘x’ over time — the vertical displacement, you get a curve that looks like this:

Decaying oscillation

There is math involved in getting these results, of course — the graph above can be predicted using things most folks would find “fancy” — differential equations — but you don’t need to know all that to think about what I’ll say next.

I put up the picture of the MSD system. Then I tell them — the decaying oscillation (a sine function) is what happens when you displace the mass. NOW everyone stand up (I’ll often ask for volunteers) and physically demonstrate WITH THEIR BODIES how the graph says you should move. This is a deep, intrinsic understanding — reading the graph, and then actually demonstrating that you can translate the numbers on the graph into a motion your body executes.

Virtually none of them can do it! Occasionally, I’ll have a more evolved student who will get it. But most will either a.) have no idea whatsoever, or b.) think there’s a catch in all this and I’m trying to humiliate them.

Of course, I immediately start jumping up and down appropriately, and it’s fascinating to watch the concept slowly seep into their brain. I put up numerous graphs, with different types of behavior, and repeat the exercise.

That’s innumeracy — the deep variety. The inability to take numbers and have them make sense to yourself. It has nothing to do with practicing algorithmic thinking, which these students have done in their differential equations class, a form of calculus. ALL the students that sit in front of me have had the math I haven’t discussed in this piece drilled in their heads over the course of the semester. It’s just that none of it “made deep sense” to almost all of them. And if it doesn’t make deep sense, it’s meaningless.

The real problem (if you’re here on purpose, you know likely what I’ll say next) is agency development, and that’s hooked to empathy. They have little ability to have complex, consequential thoughts that they construct. So the idea that they would pull a graph a professor writes on the board and embody it within their own experience is something that they can’t do. They have to be TOLD what it is — and then that opens the doors for more problems. Without embodiment/internalization, and appropriate agency development, it becomes one more semi-useless fact that floats around in their brain, and is soon forgotten. Reasoning with the concept? Are you kidding? Think Charlie Brown in the classroom, with the teacher’s voice going “BLAH BLAH BLAH”.

In my advanced “capstone” design class — the last class they will take as an undergraduate — I work directly on this problem. How? Through having students do estimation of physical systems with equivalents. That’s a fancy way of saying I have them take something they have a “feel” for — like how hot a lightbulb might get — and then reason through some estimate for a physical system they might be designing. I started doing this after noticing students studying thermodynamics would invariably do a calculation where they would estimate the heat in a lighted match of being something like 1M BTUS. A BTU is the amount of heat required to raise 16 oz. of water 1 degree F. Students would invariably make a mistake somewhere in the calculation, then write down a preposterous answer. Their own fact-checking circuit in their brains was disabled.

I give the example I like to use — “how many table saws would it take to drive this large machine?” I am fond of table saws, or power drills, or angle grinders, because I use them all the time. Students often have drills or grinders themselves, and most folks do know the factoid that 120VAC comes out of the wall, and can look up the amperage on Amazon for a given tool. By forcing them to find meaningful ways to reason with numbers, they make far fewer mistakes.

I like table saws because I build furniture — an oak dresser I recently completed

Understanding equivalences matters much in fighting innumeracy, because once one can do that, one can scale one’s reasoning appropriately — as well as ask, when given an inappropriate equivalence, what the hell that has to do with anything.

And the problem is this kind of innumeracy has been coming fast and furious with the COVID crisis. How many people have heard the equivalence “We’ve lost more people to COVID than we did during all of WWII”? This factoid is actually true — we did lose something like 250K troops in fighting in both the European and Pacific Theaters. But it is a meaningless, manipulative equivalence. Approximately 7.7K people die every day in the US under normal circumstances (more than 2 9/11s! if I wanted to be histrionic) — but it’s a meaningless statistic. It counts on the preying on the fear, and distorting the response of the person subject to it. In all things that matter — national sacrifice, governing mood of the populace — comparing COVID to WWII is a psychopathic manipulation, whether intentional or not.

And we have a media culture that is fond of this — on both sides of the aisle. What it does is makes any statistic a weapon to advance a worldview, instead of triggering a thoughtful approach to understanding where and how a number might be related to meaningful policy. I was on Twitter the other day, and a person, a respected leadership consultant, was informing us that they couldn’t leave their house because the death rate in their community was 3%, and they were certain that their 2 young children and themselves would be infected and likely die.

I immediately went to the COVID deaths page — that person had taken the population in their town, and divided it into the total number of COVID deaths in their county of over 3M people.

COVID deaths in the entire county/Actual population in their town ( the actual population of the town was ~ 1/60 the actual population of the entire county) — this would have been a national news story if true!

The actual COVID death rate for their county was around .05%, which is typical for a healthy population at this point in the pandemic

One might think this as an innocent mistake, save for the fact this person had been stuck inside the house with young children, not daring to venture out, for eight months. The deeper truth was that numbers had no real meaning — they were a tool for reinforcing fears, and no questioning was possible for their fears — they only thing they felt they had agency over.

It’s easy to go to the fallback from Mark Twain — “lies, damn lies, and statistics” but once again, the problem is different. More illustrative is considering how a person interprets numbers will directly link to how they ground their own knowing — through using numbers and correlating, or using causal reasoning — to establish validity — how true something can actually be. Or to listen to an authority and just take whatever they say carte blanche. And that involves empathetic development.

The real problem is not just the techniques of learning.

Don’t take this the wrong way, folks. Math classes CAN help. One of the amazing things about math, once you get into it, is that it delivers a range of mental models and cognitive concepts that you can use in your own reasoning. Mathematical concepts like nonlinear systems, chaos, and fractals permeate the very fiber of this blog. My whole system of complexity understanding is based on understanding canonical sets. They are valuable scaffolding for some of the not-so-simple ideas I explore in other posts.

But they do one no good without empathetic development and appropriate agency. The innumeracy we see is really just the tip of the iceberg of a lack of personal growth. And until we fix that, teaching our students advanced logic and statistics will not get us to where we need to be. Instead, we’ll see the raw exercise of manipulation from those conscious, or semi-conscious individuals looking to control how we think. They will be acting out of their lesser natures — according to the v-Meme stack in their social structure. And considering we’ve set up most of those in low-empathy hierarchies, don’t expect the results to be pretty.

What’s the Bottom of the Knowledge Structure Stack Look Like? Dan Everett and the Pirahã

A quiet morning with the pigeons — Cordoba, Spain

Instead of dooming your brain with more COVID analysis, I’m going to write about a very interesting New Yorker article from 2007, that happened to be recommended by someone I’d say is one of the smartest people on Twitter — and certainly by far, the most insightful young person by a long mile -@noampomsky. Check Ava out. She’s awesome.

The article, called The Interpreter, by John Colapinto, is about Dan Everett – a true adventure linguist, who, gifted with a facility to analyze languages from basically nothing, underwent religious conversion, became a Christian missionary, and lived with one of the most linguistically primitive tribes on the planet, the Pirahã. Intending to convert them, he found they had no interest in Jesus, since he was no longer alive. In fact, they had little interest in anything that wasn’t immediate. One of the only tribes to avoid assimilation from the larger Brazilian culture, they are still hunter-gatherers with an extremely sophisticated knowledge base on how to survive in the jungle.

The article mostly maps Everett’s struggles with attempting to apply Chomsky’s recursive grammar theories to the Pirahã language. Which fail utterly. They communicate in a distinctly tonal, almost animal-chirpy form of language, and have little interest in relating anything to anything else. The article goes to lengths to explain they are not some anomalous tribe of mentally deficient humans. In fact, their knowledge of plants and animals is encyclopedic. They just don’t care about tomorrow.

And they even have poor object permanence, or rather people permanence. When a person is out of sight, they are profoundly out of mind.

The example of their exception is a profound dismantling of the notion of language as a precursor to humanity. And if one believes my own theory of Structural Memetics, which basically states that social structure creates knowledge structure, there is simply no rationale to believe language, as a designed/created product, should come first. There is no question that language does participate in the feedback loop that creates human consciousness – as well as itself. But when it comes to the “chicken and egg” problem — it appears that the chicken came first.

What’s uniquely fascinating is that the Pirahã are likely the only extant example of humans dealing with solely the bottom of the knowledge structure stack. There are not even tribal creation myths to contaminate their thinking, though it is fascinating they manage to maintain a sense of identity without them.

Are they low empathy? Well, they’re certainly not practicing much connection or empathetic development with anyone outside their in-group. The article notes that they extensively use prosody, the sing-song tonality that mothers and fathers alike use to soothe infants. And they call the language of everyone on the outside of their world speaking “Crooked Heads” — here’s the pull quote from the piece.

Everett turned to me. “They want to know what you’re called in ‘crooked head.’ ”

“Crooked head” is the tribe’s term for any language that is not Pirahã, and it is a clear pejorative. The Pirahã consider all forms of human discourse other than their own to be laughably inferior, and they are unique among Amazonian peoples in remaining monolingual. They playfully tossed my name back and forth among themselves, altering it slightly with each reiteration, until it became an unrecognizable syllable. They never uttered it again, but instead gave me a lilting Pirahã name: Kaaxáoi, that of a Pirahã man, from a village downriver, whom they thought I resembled. “That’s completely consistent with my main thesis about the tribe,” Everett told me later. “They reject everything from outside their world. They just don’t want it, and it’s been that way since the day the Brazilians first found them in this jungle in the seventeen-hundreds.”

One thing to think about when reading this piece — what does it really feel like to live in the moment? The Pirahã have answers. But they’re likely not what you thought. As we relate, so we think can go backwards as well. And might not be as emotionally satisfying as one might think. Complexity and evolved love might just go together.

Naturally, the article written in 2007 doesn’t include Dan’s latest work. I wrote him on his contact page. We’ll see if he writes back. A cursory look at his blog indicates he’s still fighting the Chomsky-ites. Maybe he’ll appreciate a fresh approach.

Quickie Post — COVID’s potential to shove influenza to the side for this year

Braden landing a coho, with Les’ help — Columbia River Delta

One of the more interesting phenomena to watch this respiratory illness season (we historically call it ‘flu’ season) is what will happen now that COVID-19 is essentially endemic across the country. Because of the various reinforcing memetic cascades, COVID-19 is somehow treated in the human overmind as a unique illness, instead of the potentially severe, but usually mild respiratory infection it actually is.

And to be fair — COVID is, like all illnesses, somewhat unique. Just HOW unique it is could be characterized in a number of ways, of course. One could look at RNA differentials, which family the virus occupies (obviously a coronavirus, etc.) And all of this typology will make some virologist’s (or group of virologists’) careers. All the more reason, in status-driven social structures to declare COVID as unique. That’s what happens in the science-naming wars.

But here’s a different thought on how to characterize COVID’s actual uniqueness. Why not look at how unique the human immune system’s response is to the virus? Certainly the percentage of cases where we actually see COVID-19-specific antibodies might not be a bad measure. Once we understand the idea of an immune system stack — T-cells, B-cells, cross-reactive coronavirus immunity, and super-mucosal response — and others I likely don’t know about — then the COVID part that actually matters is that antibody response, since they are unique to the virus.

But the other responses are NOT unique to the virus. They’re what happens when any respiratory virus shows up on the scene. And here’s where what appears to be somewhat unique to COVID actually matters.

COVID is, without question, highly infectious, and contagious. We’ve seen this with regards to cruise ships, prisons, and night clubs. Someone who is a super-spreader shows up, and with the right combo of ventilation, humidity, and such, that sucker goes everywhere quickly. One week on a cruise ship, and everyone, essentially, is infected.

But what happens next is interesting. Not everyone may develop COVID antibodies by catching COVID first. But COVID, precisely because it is so contagious and infectious, will trigger that other range of non-specific immunities first, before the other viruses have a chance to party.

What that means is that the other respiratory viruses that show up will be Johnny-Come-Latelies to the respiratory infection wars happening in your system. COVID may indeed be worse in larger context, because of its affection for the immunosuppressed, and trigger other symptoms. None of that is off the table. But the activated immune systems, with their other nonspecific mechanisms, will tear up any influenza virus that shows up. COVID will effectively replace (at least for this year) most influenza viruses in your respiratory virome.

I already went ahead this year and got my flu shot. I still think if you have low reactivity to vaccines, you probably should go get stuck. But knowing that COVID is loose may, in this crazy, upside-down world of viruses, prevent you from catching another respiratory infection. Especially if you’ve displayed symptoms and tested positive.

Stay tuned. It’s going to get interesting.

How Did We Get So Polarized? Memetic Power Law Dynamics

Newest member of the family — the borzoi Thorondor

I’m writing this at the end of our election season, and starting on Friday, November 6. For what it’s worth, it appears that Joe Biden has won the Presidency, Donald Trump is declaring victory and tantruming (as of course, a narcissistic psychopath would be expected to do) and the Senate seems to be in limbo. It does look like the Ds will hang onto the House. While it’s not clear there will be deep change, at least a tired nation can get a bit of a reprieve from chaos. The gangs, Antifa or Proud Boys, didn’t show up storming the polling stations. There were no crazy gangs in the streets. It’s November, for chrissakes, and cold across most of the country.

Donald Trump is busy ranting away, to the point where the various news organizations have decided to censor him. He’s claiming voter fraud (of course) and twisting small circumstances into vast conspiracies that have deprived him of key states, which are largely down to the wire as far as vote tallies. I understand this deeply — in a world of lower v-Meme knowledge structures, conspiracy, as I’ve explained before, is your friend. My retort is simple — if you were going to fix vote totals, couldn’t you have done a little better than just a 2000 vote total separation? How would any conspirator even guessed that things would have been that close? The pollsters once again vastly struck out in predicting election outcomes. Most Ds were talking about a “Blue Wave” that never materialized.

This now turns into a layered DeepOS conversation. Why didn’t the Blue Wave ever materialize? Or even better, why did people believe that it would? What has changed in public information aggregation directed toward popular opinion that has made the tools available so unreliable? And why are they not only unreliable, but invalid as well? What has happened to the information system that has destroyed reproducibility (the core of reliability) as well as whether the situations discussed are actually true? (Validity, and grounding of opinion.)

For us to understand this, I want to first disabuse you of the notion that this started with Donald Trump, and is a function of one person. There is credit, though — Trump actually was a pioneer in all of this, and his intrinsic mastery of Authoritarian v-Meme, low empathy, limbic-based fragmentation messages, harnessed to his Twitter account, is noteworthy. But Trump is just a disruptor, albeit a defective one, in a world ripe for disruption.

How is the world ripe for disruption? As much as anything, it is the structure of modern society that has basically disallowed time for anything but work. If you’re looking for formal studies about how much time people spend at work, they’re out there. But I will anecdotally report that I have lots of students in Seattle, but few students living in the Seattle area that have commute times less that 30 minutes. And most close in on an hour, with some outliers having commute times close to 1.5 hrs.

Such commute times, because of housing prices in the Bay Area, have been de rigueur even since the ’80s. I can remember working in Sunnyvale, CA, at NASA Ames, and taking weekdays off to kayak the Tuolumne River, outside of Modesto, CA, and watching the lines of “super-commuters” — driving sometimes 2.5 hrs. to work in the Bay Area, just so they could own an affordable house. That leaves very little time for friends and family, to say the least.

Even worse, as the late David Graeber reported in his book, Bullshit Jobs, much work in most jobs has no purpose. It’s more to establish status and authority, which inherently works through Authoritarian networks to establish control. Often using labyrinthine rules, some 38% of employees end up chasing their tails. That leads to fragmentation and depression of the workforce. No one can avoid breaking at least some rules, in which case they will live in fear of disciplinary action. That leads to a decline in employee conversation, save for bands of ostensible co-conspirators.

Into that fragmented mess of humanity, where more and more Americans lack meaningful pro-social connection, came social media. People can and will find ways to connect. And social media, with its inherently limited empathetic bandwidth (short messages with a handful of emojis,) filled in the void.

Let’s back up a bit and understand the prior assumptions used by polls in general. Underlying everything is the assumption that people’s opinions may be clustered (there are ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ geographic areas that are well-recognized, if not profoundly inaccurate) and somehow those opinions range along some Gaussian meta-distribution, with partisans on the tails, and the majority of the body politic in a hump in the middle. Politicians have used this characterization literally forever. Nixon and Reagan both talked about the “silent majority”, for example. Politicians have used in their verbiage some leverage to push the peak of the bell curve toward one side or another. But that idea of statistical independence, characterized by intrinsically isolated geographic clustering, has dominated the idea of how polling should be done. Washington is a Blue State, Idaho is a Red State, and never the twain shall meet.

Gaussian distributions, with varying spreads, CC license Wikipedia

I am not going to claim to be an expert on polling techniques — but the problem is that this is an enormous blind spot. Yet the evidence is there — with the simplistic notion of Red States/Blue States dominating. Even on the face of it, one could roll with a less incorrect paradigm of Urban/Rural geographic opinion propagation.

Yet other factors are profoundly in play. I can buy Italian mortadella at the Fred Meyer in Spokane, WA — a conservative city with strong Scandinavian roots. How did such a food get there, or the demand to stock it in a local grocery store? Certainly not from local culture. There are signals everywhere.

The implicit assumption in the polling is this — disposition is determined by nearest neighbors. And those nearest neighbors are a function of geography, and to a lesser extent, population density. And these clusters are isolated — statistically independent — from the whole.

Anyone reading this realizes that it is obviously false. The major news networks no longer dominate the 6:30 PM time slot in people’s lives for an uptake of what is happening in the world. Instead of geography connecting people, it’s social media. And in a world where you can stay in touch with your high school friends in Ohio, even if you move to Washington State, as well as expand your network to Swedish intellectuals, and talk to Italian chemistry profs on a regular basis. (I’m talking about myself here) the real characteristics of message development will now no longer be anything close to statistically independent. They will be a function of larger connection.

And how does that connection work? With Facebook, it’s the number of friends you have in your network, which has evolved from people you actually knew, to people around the world who join the same Facebook Groups you do. I have meaningful conversations with people in Italy or Ireland far more than I do in my own community. Though there are exceptions (hi Nils!), members of my own community, connected only through simplistic interpretations of localized reality, are far more likely to attack my viewpoints than support them. And trust me — they do.

And here’s the rub. Strongly connected networks lead to power law dynamics, whether it be “the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer” or “vaccines are deadly.” One can find enough connection, with people of enough status (Robert F. Kennedy Jr., anyone?) to temporarily validate whatever opinion they need.

And when people are mostly functioning in the status-driven, belief-based, limbic v-Memes of Authoritarianism and Legalism, grounding to the truth doesn’t happen through individual, data-driven self-experience. It happens through following higher and higher status individuals, who now have ranking systems to show their number of followers. Though Roger Martin was talking about the phenomenon in terms of economics in his latest book, When More is Not Better — Overcoming America’s Obsession with Economic Efficiency, with America’s tendencies toward economic monopolies, the reality is that one sees the same emergent behavior in public opinion monopolies, controlled by fewer and fewer people as well. Your Twitter followers tell you thus.

That means instead of the benefits of a distributed, sensing, high empathy collective intelligence, working through that empathy to converge multiple signals toward a more broadly applicable, nuanced truth, one gets a monolithic presentation of what is very likely the product of distorted, dichotomous, thinking. And if that thought leader who is responsible for pronouncing the truth is empathy-disordered, it’s likely to be layered with splitting — the tendency to see things only in distorted black-and-white. And biased for their own egocentric ends. I’ve written about Trump’s pathological narcissism multiple times. But if you think it’s only extant with Trump, or existing only on the Right, you’re dead wrong.

Those viewpoints come about with power-law, or Pareto dynamics. For those that have forgotten what a Pareto distribution looks like, it’s the old 80/20 rule (80 percent of the problems are caused by 20 percent of root causes.) Now rinse and repeat.

Pareto Distribution — CC license from Wikipedia

Opinion inherently ends up concentrated on one side, or the other of the political spectrum. No longer geographically bound, the intensity is subject only to the power of the Internet.

How do we end up with two sides, both distorted in their own ways? Entering the stage is now the news media. With a lower-development level population, media stars accumulate tremendous power through their respective channels. Though media actors may portray themselves as absolutists seeking only the truth, the reality is that journalists exist in a status-driven hierarchical stack. That means they, too, are also fundamentally belief-based, and prone to distortion. There are indeed some that are worse than others, but status as a journalist is directly connected to access to higher and higher status sources. You’re not going to become particularly famous in the political world if your only source is Ben down at the local hardware store. You, too, have to compete in a status-driven arena to land that career-making interview with a Cabinet official. And considering the stakes to your own success, you had better mind your Ps and Qs, until it finally becomes status in and of itself to cast yourself as the antithesis of a potential target. Judith Miller, anyone?

And so, in that process of antithesis, one starts another side of the Pareto distribution. With the same, incumbent social physics multipliers — lower v-Meme, fragmented messages, designed to be emotionally resonant, and typically fear-based. Happiness tends not to reinforce the Authoritarian v-Meme from whence they have sprung.

Don’t believe? Look at the reportage on COVID-19 deaths. COVID-19 is super-complex, with a virus likely driven by immunodeficiency issues, even in the primary death cohort of people over 70. The minute a virus starts messing with the immune system, all sorts of scientific construction problems start popping up in understanding it, in that other causal factors will likely amplify the effects of the virus.

Yet when reporters report on COVID deaths during this pandemic, they tend to only do this on a day when numbers are particularly bad. I’ve been tracking the Montana data for a while now, in part of a friendly disagreement about COVID lethality and its effects with friends in Bozeman. Even recently (like last week) there has been one day with only 1 death in Montana (Nov. 1.) Yet The Missoulian, the paper of record in Missoula, is more than happy to beat the fear drum when they have a day of excess deaths — such as the previous day, when deaths numbered 29. One might argue “well the day with 1 death wasn’t newsworthy.” Why would that be true, in a pandemic where intensity of the pandemic matters greatly?

And what does that say about the various arguments someone in the media might make about such reporting? “Well we need to keep the general public following health guidelines,” might be a typical argument. The implication is that the population is inherently low-responsibility, incapable of making decisions themselves, and should not be allow to express their agency. It’s just Authoritarian v-Meme turtles all the way down.

So here we are. There’s no question that the country is divided, and there is inherently bimodal power law dynamics in play. There’s also no question that having Donald Trump as President both exacerbated and accelerated the situation, in that he took a languishing press corps, and through full-frontal attacks on it, fertilized the seeds of divided rhetoric that were already present. I do lay some blame at his feet. But the consequence is that we have a memetically broken information system in our country, where it’s literally impossible to know what to believe. Let’s hope moving Donald Trump off the main stage can start the process of opinion differentiation again.

At the same time, we have to address the deep, root cause of the division in our country. If we do, empathy, in the absence of a relational disruptor, can grow again.

But any expectation that we are going to return to a public opinion evenly spread on a Gaussian distribution seems woefully naive. The networks are there already, and the allegiances have shifted.

But there is hope. I’ll confess that I’ve always been a Bernie Sanders supporter. And while I do find Sanders to be the most charismatic grumpy man in recent memory, I think his vision for progress, based primarily on economic wellbeing, is the way back from the brink. As I started this piece, I’ll end it. We have enormous problem in this country with the meaning of work. Our economic system is simply not working in providing either life meaning, or basic well-being for the majority of its citizens, which then starts the original Power Law behavior. And people will find ways to aggregate and tell their stories to each other, connected across this nation. Because social media isn’t going anywhere — no matter how much people think they can regulate it.

Postscript — in that they simply can’t get enough

In the absence of any really bad news regarding Biden’s election, other than Trump’s tantruming, CNN continues to practice Power Law narrowing and fear propagation. Look at the right side — in a list of people’s comments largely dedicated to being happy over a Biden win, CNN chooses the most provocative as a headline.

Look at the right side — there’s no peace possible with the current medias structure

The Lords of Memetic War

Secesh River, Central Idaho

Of course, I realize that it’s been going on forever. But ever since Ruth Bader Ginsberg died on September 18, it’s been heating up so much that it’s basically intolerable. It’s been going on with COVID-19, as I’ve written about, for a while. But with the elections almost here, the cacophony has gotten so loud, you really have to shut down in order to maintain your sanity.

What I’m talking about are the Memetic Wars on the L/R divide. And not just in the United States. I follow on Twitter Ivor Cummins (@Fatemperor) who is a COVID pandemic analyst, as well as a nutrition specialist, and the wars are really waging everywhere one can exploit an In-group/Out-group divide with the fear of existential death, be it from COVID or economic collapse.

Accompanying Ginsberg’s death, at least in my e-mail Inbox, has been wave after wave of funding requests. Since I’m obviously a Lefty and a registered Democrat, the asks are all about giving money to this, that or another Democratic candidate. I’m sure if you’re on the Right side of the political spectrum, it’s similar. And while I’m not going to dig around on that stream of BS, I’m sure that their stream doesn’t look that different from mine. Likely the same reason (RBG’s replacement, now Amy Coney Barrett has been nominated and just passed through Senate Judiciary Committee hearings) but the same/opposite-side ask. “Give us money so we can destroy the other side.”

It’s easy enough to get a handle on the amount of money spent on the entire election season — or rather, it’s easy enough to Google and get some dollar estimate on how much money goes for ads. Here’s a guess at $11B. The tragedy is, of course, that after the election, or even right now, most of that money has just gone up in smoke. Or rather, has been funneled to the respective large media companies. You can pick whichever one you hate. But likely, you opened up your wallet and gave nonetheless. I gave quite a bit of election money before the general, but I finally tired of it. No new bridges will be built with that $11B. Flint, MI, will still have contaminated water. Children will still be hungry. And all of us will be quite a bit poorer in spirit, and frazzled in brain.

All of the craziness reminded me of one of my favorite movies of all time — Lord of War, made by, and starring Nicholas Cage. It’s an amazing movie, tracking the rise of a young immigrant, Yuri Orlov, into the ranks of one of the largest arms dealers in the world. I can’t recommend it highly enough. He is pursued throughout his rise by an ostensible Interpol agent, Jack Valentine, played by Ethan Hawke. And at the end, even after he is nailed down, he manages to walk away from any prison time in a stunning conclusion.

What was equally interesting was the documentary of how the movie was made. It is a MUST WATCH.

The short version is that it was cheaper to buy AK47s and film tanks in actual arms deals than pursue the construction of props. If the movie blew your mind, wait until you watch this.

A large part of the movie profiles the relationship between Nicholas Cage’s character and “Andre Baptiste”, played by Eamonn Walker, representing Liberia’s crazed leader, Charles Taylor. It is he who names Nicholas Cage the ‘Lord of War’ in this intense scene.

And so it is with the media companies – our contemporary version of the Lords of War. For what it’s worth, I am a strong Free Speech advocate. Whenever one starts messing with rules regarding speech, inevitably truth suffers and we are worse off.

But the seemingly endless money flowing from both sides of our current memetic conflict has created a media engine that cares little about the people it serves. We see this in the larger new social media empires, like Facebook, as well as on either side of the Fox/CNN aisle. They all make money off the conflict, and have little incentive to see anything end. This piece in particular blew my mind — 7 Ways to Stay Healthy this fall. You’ll notice nothing exceptional in the content. But what’s fascinating is what’s NOT there — no tips or commentary on boosting your immune system. In a piece ostensibly written to give you agency, most of it is dedicated to increasing your social isolation. No word about Vitamin D, sunshine, or eating foods that can help boost your immune system. Why? That would go against the memetics of the platform. Increasing agency is not in the interest of the platform. But increasing trauma and depression, through constant repetition of frightening messages, is.

It IS true that Trump has exacerbated the problems inherent with our current Memetic War environment. Trump is a narcissistic psychopath, and a classic relational disruptor. He early on decided to take on the media as chief foil. And they have responded in kind, discarding the standard low v-Meme techniques of “he said, she said” and “whataboutism” journalism to focus on calling him a liar.

But the elite success strategy of any relational disruptor is to NOT be wrong all the time. If you bat for 50% accuracy, you dramatically increase your impact. Trump at least intuitively knows that his enemies will get things wrong as well, and that strengthens his case.

Needless to say, this increases the severity of the memetic disease our country is suffering. It’s just terrible to watch. It fires up the traumatized and the relational disruptors on the Left as well, and makes it virtually impossible to attempt to thread a more nuanced path through any current issue. I read an article that more white, liberal middle-class women, when polled, knew about QAnon than the supposed target audience — conservative lower working class white folks. How’s that for a boomerang weapon?

And while I am loathe to use the go-to reason for money as a raison d’être in most things, the money that the media companies — our Lords of War — are making in all this is mind-boggling.

There are no easy answers in any of this. I am not advocating that one does not give money to political campaigns. But we are going to have to figure out how to get money out of politics, or we are well and truly fucked. We have to destroy the divisive tribal incentives that drive dollars, and crazy side-stories, as well as destroy any chance we have of increasing empathy in our overall population, or complexity in our solutions. They are inherently linked.

Because, when coupled with a tool as powerful as the Internet, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.

Boom Aero and the Memetic Promise of the Future

Conor at Satan’s Cesspool, SF American River, the Gorge Run

One of the more interesting things to roll across my desk recently is the announcement of roll-out of the XB-1, the supersonic demonstrator aircraft created by Boom Aero — a startup dedicated to creating the first supersonic transport after the Concorde — literally 60 years later. This is their promotional video around this event.

And it is interesting indeed.

OK — some ground rules here, folks. It is very annoying to me to immediately engage in “gotcha” type thinking. I know it is a promotional video. No, I don’t believe all their claims. Yes, I know that supersonic flight is fraught with many perils, not the least of what it does environmentally to the high stratosphere 60k feet off the ground. Yes, I am deeply familiar with the noise problems of the Concorde. If I had a nickel for every time I had to explain wavefront shock propagation to people that believed planes just went up, “broke” the sound barrier, and that was the end of it, I could have a very nice meal indeed.

But the video is worth the watch. Not because they talk about sustainability, or all sorts of the other selling points they consolidate. For example, they talk about recycling the airplane. Trust me, the problem with supersonic flight is not in the recycling. It’s the lifecycle impacts during the use phase that are the real problems. And those are sticky and harder to address. The engines are designed to optimize performance for biofuels, but those very biofuels require petroleum at this point to grow.

What is more interesting is their discussion of their work practice, and how they apparently structured their high-performance teams. In order to get off the ground (pun intended) with supersonic flight, they required far more synergistic blending of the physics, as well as manufacturing and customer participation. And that requires far more empathetic development of technical teams than in the past.

Additionally, the XB-1 is their prototype aircraft, and there is tons of empathy built into the cockpit design, with massive amounts of feedback from their test pilots. The final plane, named the Overture, and scheduled to fly in 2030, will use the data from the testbed to deal with all the deal-killers associated with Concorde. It is unclear if they might cut the sonic boom problems enough to fly overland — but it is clear that they are taking aim at an economical solution to business travel.

Boom may succeed, or they may fail. I don’t know at this point, and I suspect that there will be many unknowns that emerge that dictate success, not the least competitive meeting technologies, such as holographic projection. But one thing for sure, is that when travel times are literally slashed in half, and jet lag is eliminated, it is going to create a certain sophistication in people who normally jet around, as well as the incumbent negative “bubble” effects. While creating a new, super-empowered global elite (I’m sure Jeff Bezos will have his own aircraft) who CAN know how tightly interconnected the world is, it also has the potential to create even more walls between the rich and the poor.

And more interestingly, the social tech. at Boom needed to develop such an aircraft has the potential to dramatically influence the work practice of super-high, or perhaps hyper-high tech around the world. Promising — but scary. Because that means if we can’t figure out what they’re really doing at Boom memetically, there is huge potential for whole professional work classes to be left behind.

Should we support the focus on a plane primarily aimed at the rich? I’ll tell you this. Projects like this create new groups of people, and sustained supersonic flight, because it is so charismatic, is a complexity magnet. The lessons learned may (and I emphasize ‘may’) bubble over to other problems that will require technical complexity to solve, like fusion research, or AGW. That means the memetic gap between the complexity “haves” and “have-nots” is going to have to be understood. Here’s to reframing our mental models so we really understand how tech. development will really change our brains.

The Memetic Wars Have Truly Begun – Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus

Needless to say, even I am envious of this turtle right now.

Recently, I had the pleasure of doing a video podcast with two very interesting people — Adam Townsend, and John Robb. Adam is a successful stockbroker, and John is a pundit/futurist/analyst with a background in dropping into houses in Iraq and rescuing Americans in bad situations. It was Adam that brought us together, with the tagline of listening to two of the Matrix’s key characters. John was Neo — he has amazing front-line stories. And I was the Keymaster — the person who basically understands how the Matrix is structured. Here is the video.

John has the very interesting, and memetically correct perspective on what is globally happening as far as world organization. As people’s loyalties to nation-states diminishes, and culture recedes as anything resembling a coherent, geographically oriented notion, people are organizing themselves in a myriad of new ways. John calls them Networked Tribes, and that’s all fine and good. But the problem is that in any given tribe, there are no binding ties created. What that implies from a Knowledge Structure perspective is that all these people really have to tie them together are shared, recently generated myths. QAnon is a great example, with superhero Donald Trump battling a secret war against the Deep State, filled with cannibals and pedophiles.

What happens when you have the functional vanishing of national, cultural identities is that people gravitate to other like-minded, or more correctly, similarly brain-wired individuals, now accessible across the country at a minimum, and often overseas. I read recently that Germany, for example, even has a QAnon chapter. There’s also larger movements, like ISIS/Islamic State, that built their movement on mythic foundations of Islam, and justified child rape and slavery in their ranks based on 8th Century precepts.

But while it’s fun to look at extreme examples that are easily rejected in the eyes of modern global culture, is that far less radical, situationally, worldviews also sort out memetically. In the United States, we’ve particularly devolved through the Presidency of Donald Trump. In true Julian-Jaynes-fashion, Trump has managed to install himself in the heads of many of his supporters as an alternative god telling them what to do. Once understood, it’s perfectly in line with how a narcissistic psychopath would operate. Tear down ego boundaries through broad-scale relational destruction, and get everyone to line up in the In-Group around the capricious views of Dear Leader. From the INSIDE of their noggin.

And though I’ve maintained that many Trump voters have not had one of Jaynes’ Old Gods installed in their head — they are voting out of desperation that their legitimate needs might be addressed — the last week has shown exactly how that works. One could find no better example than Trump contracting COVID, and then forcing the Secret Service to drive him around the crowd of his cheering supporters outside of Walter Reed Hospital.

What increases the violence of reaction to all this, which the Left seems to not be able to recognize, is that Trump has installed himself in THEIR heads as well. One need only to open up one of the big memetic/v-memetic amplifiers of our current age — Twitter — to see the wave of nonsense reactions to his crazy behavior. The general theme is “The Republican Party Should Force Trump to Resign!” or some such icks, over everything from Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s replacement, or the potential circumstance that Trump gave everyone he knows COVID. It’s not that I support in any shape or form Trump’s response to his infection. I emphatically DO NOT. Do you really think your caterwauling for Trump to leave office early is going to go anywhere?

One would also be remiss to not note that Trump was literally one of the last leaders in the ostensible Free World to catch COVID. It was literally only a matter of time. The “good guys” got it (Merkel and Trudeau’s wife, who doubtless gave him an immune reaction) as well as the “bad guys” (Johnson and Bolsonaro). That’s because of the literal physics of the situation. The virus is ubiquitous, and these people meet hundreds, if not thousands of people a day. How could they NOT get it? The Left has created a myth around mask-wearing, as if wearing a mask was the equivalent of Captain America’s shield. But the science, which I have written about (positively for those that don’t want to click through) indicate masks as a statistical measure. If you run the experiment 1000 times, sooner or later, your number is going to come in.

But understanding that involves higher-level, complex knowledge structures (Performance-based and up) and there’s no complexity in thought nowadays. Hence, Robb’s “Networked Tribes” remains right on the money.

Moving off of Trump to COVID, I wrote previously about the beginnings of the Memetic Wars between scientists like Michael Levitt, the Nobel Prizewinning cell biologist that took up the cause of investigating COVID after initial predictions of mass death, and the mainstream epidemiological community (such as the group at the University of Washington) the palliative measures, such as lockdown, turned out to be wildly off. It is true that Levitt, like myself in our analyses missed a couple of things. Neither of us predicted the low-latitude Southern US wave (and to a lesser extent, the green-field wave going through the thinly populated High Plains states) but those errors were small compared to the chronically inflated estimates coming out of the University of Washington. They are now predicted doubling of COVID-19 deaths between now and Christmas.

This is utterly mindboggling, and an indication of some bad modeling at a minimum. That means in the US, we’d have to have a couple of peaks in the next two months that would dwarf the well-defined Northern latitude and lower latitude peaks we’ve already seen.

Current COVID death curve for the USAnote the 1 day spike in the middle is probably a statistical reconciliation error

I find myself staring at this, and wanting to ask the UW scientists “how would that even work?” Needless to say, they don’t answer back on Twitter, and I’ve given up. But how would that work? The pandemic didn’t begin yesterday, and there would literally have to be a scene from Monty Python to make it happen. Remember this one?

A classic

How do you double the casualties from the pandemic, in the waning months of the year? Even with accentuation from a flu season?

I think it’s easy to say that perhaps the scientists are politically motivated — making the case that the US response toward even delaying the effects of the pandemic would be an easy one. Since the Republican tribe is running the show, and it is an election year, one could easily level the accusation against those potentially Democratic scientists.

But it’s very likely NOT what’s going on. What’s really going on is that the v-Memetics of the situation are dominant. Scientists exist in Legalistic-Authoritarian hierarchies, and the modelers simply can’t backtrack on their positions, without at least some handwaving toward larger social and societal parameters.

Wearing masks, for one. And how crazy is that? As I’ve said earlier, wearing masks does work as a damper in the larger system. Social distancing as well delays, to some extent, viral spread, especially during the early days of any pandemic. But we’re late season here, folks. And here’s the real rub. I don’t even want to address the dismissal of the pandemic by the Right Wing, who operated with little information or consequentiality. That goes without saying. What’s more distressing is that the Left, under the banner of Science is screaming “these Right Wingers aren’t wearing masks!” Yet, at the same time of the inevitable waning of the virus, they will be the ones screaming “it’s because people wore masks!” I’m reminded of a child screaming at the tide (or Aztecs sacrificing people on pyramids to make the sun come up) as what we’re going to hear instead of Christmas carols.

The retrograde wing of the conservatives in the country are counting on divine providence, and honestly, that kind of belief in Godly interference is incredibly persistent with a poorly understood phenomenon. But the Left is going to have to reconcile to coherence that “we hate you because you won’t wear a mask/we’re saved because everyone wore a mask” when double the numbers of people don’t die by Christmas.

While the United States is mired in truly Networked Tribes/Tribal v-Meme politics, battling to either completely Jaynesian-assimilate into Trump’s mind, or raging to get him out of their heads, the rest of the world staggers forward in fits and starts. One of the interesting meta-phenomena that is occurring in places across Europe is as those nations, like the US, have gotten their testing acts together, is a dramatic increase in positive COVID tests. I haven’t dug deeply into whether these have been the PCR or antibody tests, but they have prompted the memetic wars across the Atlantic. On the one side is the very clear evidence that the pandemic was basically over in June for high latitude countries, and since Europe is fundamentally high latitude, the death curves show classic epidemic shaping. Here’s France.

France COVID death curve

Or even better, Ireland.

Irish mortality

Because of the renewed case counts, though, there is a war going on between the government and National Public Health Emergency Team, (NPHET) their version of the CDC about shutting the entire country down. It’s easy for me to get the inside scoop in Ireland because I follow Ivor Cummins, Twitter handle @Fatemperor, who lives there. The rigid hierarchy inside their advisory group, the NPHET, even in the face of basically no deaths, are calling for Level 5 lockdown — a near-total lockdown of society, for deaths that never come.

Ivor has implemented a hashtag — #WhyAreTheyDoingThis as he doubles down on his far more Global Systemic v-Meme sense making of the pandemic. Ivor — they’re working from their Authority-driven v-memetic structure, which at this point has no interest in the loss of status from admitting they’re wrong. Ain’t gonna happen. And as long as there are no short-term consequences for their profound lack of validity-grounding — the term I use for people being forced to reconcile their v-Memetic narrative to reality — they simply won’t give up. That’s their emergent behavior. They’re NOT thinking about 3 years down the pike. Trust me on that one.

And the problem is – the memetic explanation is the only narrative that explains this circumstance. One of the tropes making the rounds in the more evolved reasoning circles across the West is that the reason epidemiologists are endorsing this is because they hope to be recruited by Big Pharma for a position on one of their boards and make a lot of money. I don’t doubt that there are some bad actors in any community — epidemiology included.

But once again, the old question “how does that work?” can debunk that. Does anyone really believe that an epidemiology graduate student, slaving away in some lab, making models, or shuffling samples, is thinking, “boy, I can’t wait to issue a bunch of bullshit when the next pandemic comes in and make a ton of money!” Really? But the memetics still drive the solution, forming that governing DeepOS that say “in order to gain status, never admit you’re wrong.” Ivor — #WhyAreTheyDoingThis — you’ve got to get a new model for your own understanding. I’m happy to help. But I’ll tell you this — your NPHET committee has never been more important, centered, and receiving narcissistic supply as ostensible “defenders of the people” in their life. And top that off with a large victim complex when people like you emotionally beat them up over their histrionics. The circuits in their brain couldn’t be more happy. And here’s the downside. If they can find a way to get you, they will.

The final part of the Memetic War that is so interesting to me is that, at the beginning, as I’ve said in posts going back to the beginning of March, I was a lockdown/radical action adherent as well. My wife is Taiwanese, and we watched the wave of COVID come out of China — the Taiwanese are always on top of everything in China — and I prepared my own classes.

But things started not adding up, global coherence-wise, pretty quickly. We dealt with Tomas Pueyo’s ‘Hammer and Dance’ nonsense, and as data came in, I started the process of re-sorting all the valid evidence, to come up with the worldview I hold now. And I always thought I was alone. The rest of the epidemiological community doubled down on the simple ‘Andromeda Strain‘ explanation of COVID, and I felt pretty isolated — a true voice in the wilderness, subject to the wrath of some of my peers, screaming at me to “stay in my lane!” as a mechanical engineer — not the complex, multi-dimensional thinker I have become.

Now I’m used to being the proverbial societal leper, so I wasn’t cowed. But I couldn’t figure out the v-Memetic consistency of the epidemiological community. Were they all ungrounded, rigid Authoritarian/Legalists, willing to augur the nation’s death if we didn’t cease all activity to follow their agenda — regardless that consistency of conformance to measures was incredibly poor that I observed, without consequence to infection or death rates? My v-Meme categorizations are statistical, folks — they always have outliers. And there ought to have been more systemically oriented people popping up.

And of course, there were. People like the trio that have started the movement behind the Great Barrington Declaration. Dr./Prof.s, all, Martin Kuldorff of Harvard, Sunetra Gupta of Oxford, and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford have all started a Global Systemic/Communitarian v-Meme campaign to push back against the Authoritarians. The Declaration is recruiting other scientists to sign and support a plan called Focused Protection, which basically lets the low-vulnerability students get it while those over 60 are protected. In a couple of months, the pandemic will have already run its course (it likely has in many places anyway) and then life can resume.

But naturally, these distinguished scientists/doctors, were not prepared for what is really a memetic backlash against their proposal. The last thing the Authoritarians in the health sciences want to do is let go of the best thing they’ve had going for power and control since the hogs ate grandma. This video of the three is a must-watch.

I had found Dr. Gupta’s work a while ago, and started to feel far less a leper at a cocktail party than usual. I discovered Dr. Kuldorff very recently, and had not attempted to contact Dr. Bhattacharya at all.

All three professors are essentially unaware of anything memetic, and act like they can’t believe the virulence they’ve experienced since they came forward with this plan. They are, of course, as professors from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, members of a very privileged class and their own elite bubble. Yet they all have maintained a large sense of awareness and empathy, and make no mistake — I want to thank them for it.

It is Dr. Gupta, though, who in the course of this video, starts the process of realization that she’s in The Matrix. You can see it in her face as she starts to push back and describe the toxicity of the debate. As global thinkers, they’re at least three v-Memes apart from their Authoritarian peers, which means they’re suffering from serious v-Meme conflict — in particular, what I call the Insanity/Barbarism conflict. Their lessers think the trio is utterly insane advocating for what is essentially an evolved version of Sweden’s strategy. And they have to view their lesser evolved members of the community as barbarians. Gupta alludes to this, in the same way Jim Carrey in the Truman Show starts pushing back against the walls of his made-up world to find the real world outside. It is WILDLY fascinating. Watch their faces. It’s great empathy practice.

Of course, the reason I hadn’t heard of them wasn’t because they likely had an epiphany on how this pandemic worked and suddenly lined up with my views. They’re all super-intelligent, and potentially came to the same conclusions I came to earlier than myself. The reason once again is memetic. The v-Memes of the press corps sync identically with the short-time-window Authoritarians in this debate, and the palpable fear also stoked the media. That amplified all the fragmented, limbic messages, far beyond anything the deeper thinking crowd could combat.

And when coupled with easy lockdown messages such as Pueyo’s “Hammer and Dance” (resonant information fragments from another Silicon Valley entrepreneur, backed up by impressive graphics) a more complex, higher v-Meme message didn’t stand a chance. I had written earlier about Karl Friston coming up with the same tagline as my own complex messages. But we didn’t stand a chance against the devolutionary, fear-driving fragments. As well as their receptivity in the Tribal politics being engaged across the Western world. Fragments telling you someone else wants to kill you will win every time.

Well, until they collapse your society. Or really, collapse the society for a good portion of your citizenry. There has been a tremendous transfer of wealth during this pandemic upwards, making the wealth gap far more pernicious than ever before. Still maintaining my position in the middle class, I’ve experienced the privilege of sitting at home and doing pretty much what I always do — teach, and write. But others are suffering profoundly.

That doesn’t matter to any low empathy Authoritarians, who are fond of borrowing rules to enforce fear, or manipulate traumatized people deep inside it, and keep kids out of schools and such. They’ve got one piece of empathetic weaponry they’re willing to use — “don’t you care about people dying from COVID?!?” served with a heaping scoop of moral outrage. Talking about other issues with them, and their complex interconnections just isn’t in the cards.

But just because talking about complex interconnections isn’t in the cards, doesn’t mean those linkages still remain. The physical world is a bear. And we better wake up — become more aware, just as the three Good Doctors above are attempting to urge us to become. Because we may act out of our v-Meme sets unawares. But the Real World is still the Real World.

And though I expect I’ll hear nothing from Drs. Gupta, Bhattacharya, and Kuldorff, I’m here to help. And behind you 1000%. Think of me as the Keymaster.

Quickie Post — Tim Ferriss and his Childhood Trauma Story

North Shore, Big Island, Hawaii

If you’re looking for a podcast to ponder, I just finished Tim Ferriss’ Sept. 14 podcast titled ‘My Healing Journey After Childhood Abuse’. Tim talks honestly and frankly about his dissociative episodes that happened through adulthood until he finally unearthed his trauma using psychedelic medicines. Sharing the episode with his friend and counselor Debbie Millman, host of Design Matters podcast, they share a synergistic view of their experiences and run through the long list of potential treatments, including pharmaceuticals, talk therapy and friendship.

Tim cites some crazy high statistics regarding abuse, and I think that is well worth pondering. Tim’s sexual abuse was unusually severe, and it’s well worth noting how much of his life it consumed until he came to terms with it. He discusses his near-suicide, which I think is especially noteworthy, where he was barely rescued by his family through a mis-sent postcard on a library book.

As I’ve written about before, there are enormous collective societal impacts in societies that do not prevent child abuse. I’ve discussed some of these in the historical context, from Sparta to the Aztecs . I’m happy that Tim is making a dent in the world through sponsoring empathy-enhancing substances like MDMA. Drugs can indeed be a lifesaver, and we need pharmaceuticals that can really help people unpack their sadness, so they can see a more profound path out of the darkness.

From an empathy/sensorimotor perspective, Tim makes the point in his discussion with Debbie about his feeling of profound isolation and disconnection from others, and mentions books by Peter Levine and Bessel van der Kolk, including The Body Keeps the Score one of my favorites, as van der Kolk makes the point of the need for sensorimotor retiming, and I extend into the core of mirroring empathy. I think this is especially important to understand from the larger, collective viewpoint on the need for connection. If you, as a cell in the larger collective simply doesn’t have this, your brain programming essentially shuts down, and tells YOU to shut down as well.

This is poorly understood, needless to say. But it sheds deep light on how these collective networks really act as a larger, holobiontic organism. John Donne said famously ‘no man is an island’ — and while Tim doesn’t use this phrase, mostly concentrating on his self-healing with friends, here’s hoping that this shout-out inspires him enough to reach back to me. Childhood trauma is not just an individual trauma — it affects our entire civilization in the people it creates, and their ability to connect. As well as our need to create more individuals that can face the complexity of problems our world has.

Quickie Post — Spool up the Hyperdrive re: Evolution

Conor at 13, digging in – Snow Hole, Lower Salmon, ID

I’ve been having some interesting dream-driven thoughts about evolution lately, and I thought I’d get them down — consider them thought-problems for your own thinking!


Friend and fellow collaborator Ugo Bardi had an amazing perspective on Darwinian evolution that deserves far wider circulation.

“Evolution is not survival of the fittest. Evolution is non-survival of the unfit.”

What is great about this is that it really is a v-Meme reframe of the very egocentric perspective that’s often the root of Darwinism applied to social theory. Instead of “I’m going to kill everyone and that’s gonna prove that I’m the winner,” we get a far more metacognitive boost to how we think about evolution. If we see something that is indeed surviving, we are forced to think “how does this fit into the broader environment, and how does it utilize/exchange resources with other living creatures and the biosphere in ways that are not intuitive, or prima facie obvious. Of course, this maps well with Ugo’s ongoing fascination with holobiontics, and our conversations on how all this couples with our social systems, and how our own empathetic development frames how we perceive these systems.

It is ALWAYS good (I use that phrase rarely!) to step back and ponder what it is we don’t know, and how our perspective limits what we don’t know.


I’ve been listening to quite a few thinkers over the years about what drives evolution, and there’s the usual litany of ‘tool use’, ‘brain size’ etc. There’s no shortage of theories, and naturally, there is a kernel of truth in each. One can trot out examples that prove any given point.

But most of the examples don’t offer much of a pan-species perspective. Save for one — the generalized subject of this blog.

Evolution is primarily driven and structured by how a species handles inter-agent coordination.”

What this means is that species that are large tend toward giantism and low-functioning coordination (think bears, which are very solitary, or cows, that practice a simple set of herd behaviors), species in the middle, especially predators, tend to optimize brain size and inter-agent strategy and coordination (that’s the empathy thing) and species that are small accept they’re going to be food for other things and reproduce like, well, rabbits.

Intra-species coordination creates behaviors that are often extremely similar, regardless of a given species, and as such, we end up with my “sentience is sentience is sentience” argument. The same rules are in play, regardless, of goal setting and management of spacing and timing. The same meta-circuits get used, whether one is running, flying or swimming — and looking at the fossil record, it is one of the oldest problems in the book. These Cambrian Eurypterid critters ( from the this website) likely swam in schools. Check out that fossil!

This leads to one of my favorite self-developed pictures, where I borrowed Frans de Waal’s empathy pyramid and created some human-removed insight on how all this works. We move up from mirroring, to state-matching, to sub-conscious/conscious data-driven prediction, to intentionality.

The modified Empathy Pyramid

Natural emergence favors automatic behavior, and a lack of consciousness of action.

This is a big idea — we are unaware of exactly how our stomach works, for example. We don’t ponder digestion, unless something just isn’t working. All the functions that keep us alive are essentially automatic, and can only be modulated through extensive conscious practice. You have to really reach down, for example, to even slow your heart rate. And the ability to throttle past the point of ‘slow’ to ‘stop’ is something only a couple of super-gurus (not me!) can do.

As such, it makes sense that empathy would also serve as one of our final blind spots in self-knowledge. We take for granted the stream of signals coming from other beings as we exist primarily inside the unaware self. And social structures, like rigid hierarchies, that depress or work to eliminate empathy, aren’t particularly keen on driving emergent behavior that recognize its overarching effects.

The challenge we face in today’s society is that we no longer have the luxury of biologically available timescales to evolve to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world. We have to do it consciously, and rapidly — and we have to do it together. And in order to do it together, we have to have a connected social network with some shared calibration of set points on reality. How we perform what I call “validity grounding” is totally a function of development — whether we need a leader to tell us what reality is, or whether we have enough evolved people to share relatively correct information between themselves and each other and form larger synergistic pictures.


One can see the deep problem that having Donald Trump as President for the past four years is, and the problems with having a President that lies chronically. It’s not Trump’s policies per se that are immediately causing havoc, though many of them are reprehensible to me. The meta-problem is that the larger social system simply can’t ground itself with anything that is a coherent reality. We end up with what Ugo and I call a memetic brain disease (propaganda), which is one of his ten ways the world ends. And when faced with a problem like COVID, the system regards anything where life-and-death matters as an existential threat – whether the numbers support it or not. And thus limits discussion and assembly of a more complex worldview, that we really need to handle the pandemic and minimize its actual effects.

My fervent hope, though, is for our body politic to realize how we ended up with the circumstances that brought us Trump in the first place. Relational disruptors emerge when the institutions that have evolved to support a certain level of societal development and function are breaking down. That level of societal self-awareness seems still to be lacking. As the old Bedouin saying goes “Some people fear the future. But I fear what has already passed.”

Quickie Post — COVID’s Balance between Seasonality and Sociality

Fields of sunflowers — adjacent to the Neusiedlersee, Burgenland, Austria

One of the fascinating elements lacking from the discussion regarding COVID-19 is its obvious seasonality. I think it’s a fair point to say at the beginning of the pandemic, researchers really didn’t have enough information to say much about the coronavirus as a seasonal phenomenon. Plus, it WAS novel, and who knows? It might actually be the Andromeda Strain.

As time has rolled on, it’s certainly proved NOT to be, though there are still lots of government officials in both Europe and the US who are desperately clinging to the notion. Low v-Meme folks gonna low v-Meme, and that means manipulating people into a frothy limbic panic about their loved ones dying, while offering no nuanced, long-term perspective (as well as individual remediation) for the threat posed. As I’ve written earlier, instead of the holistic discussion we really need about how we can come together around an issue of public health, we see instead intense “binning” into Left/Right perspectives, as well both sides playing Tweetle Beetle paddle games with their respective, preferential tools. See diagram below in case your memory needs refreshing on this Dr. Seuss classic.

Self-explanatory — by Dr. Seuss

But there ARE interesting — and important things to understand regarding COVID – namely the effect of the balance between seasonality and sociality in the spread of the bug. Seasonality — well, we can’t do much about that. But sociality definitely can matter, though exactly how much, we can’t be sure. There is no way to run a real, controlled experiment on people with viruses. So we rely on our unintentional “experiments” , like cruise ships and prisons. With regards to appropriate sociality and seasonality, we do know when these two things come together, COVID spreads literally like wildfire — even if the consequences are not as dire as many have portrayed them as.

It’s in that spirit that I offer up this thought experiment — what does this graph of COVID deaths in Nevada tell us?

Nevada COVID deaths history

Nevada’s a fascinating state. First off, it is relatively high elevation — the Great Basin does indeed have some low spots (Nevada is adjacent to Death Valley, which is below sea level!) but most of it is medium-high plains desert. It doesn’t get more empty than the Great Basin’s version of the Big Empty along US 50. At the same time, most of its population is concentrated into urban areas, where the effect of that concentration can create meaningful, significant (but of course, tragic) data.

As such, the latter part of its COVID deaths track the shape of other high elevation US locations, like South Dakota and Montana. Starting around the middle of June, we see the classic seasonality shift toward a summer respiratory season that exists in other locations. Here’s Montana, for example. A light, seasonal COVID season — but well-pronounced as far as that High Plains pattern.

Montana COVID deaths

So here’s the thought exercise. I’m guessing that Nevada’s COVID death curves give some representation of a balance of sociality and seasonality of the pandemic. Las Vegas was certainly the start of COVID deaths that led to that hump in March and April. Sociality mattered, and drove heavy, continual dosing of Las Vegas from around the US and gave us that first part — meaning that for a green field pandemic, sociality can matter.

But nothing can really match the power of seasonality. When it’s time for viral spread, you get it. That would be the second hump. High, dry climates aren’t conducive to viral spread anyway, so we see low overall percentages of deaths relative to other parts of the U.S. And Nevada has no super-spreader system like New York City.

It’s worth spending some time with the Google COVID death tool and see how your state, or country is faring — and then apply your own intuition. The results are surprising.