As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, if there’s any system-y description that captures what is happening with the global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s basically that the world is having its bell rung. Traveling conveniently in literally a matter of days/weeks/months (the final answer is still unknown) as far as spread, in certainly a geological short amount of time, the pandemic is seemingly everywhere. Organizations like Yaneer Bar-Yam’s New England Complex Systems Institute, as well as universities like John Hopkins, produce charts of various infection rates, death rates and such, and map these things with little lag (varying in both accuracy and reliability dependent on source) across the Internet.
It’s almost like watching a deadly soccer game. Or more aptly, a big wave surfing competition. The different countries get on waves of different heights, dependent on a variety of factors, and surf down them until the wave dissipates, or they decide to bail off. The absolute score is the % fatality rate, when normalized with population, and there are definite winners and losers. So far, the U.S. is deep into Kook territory, though the Russians aren’t far behind.
In systems dynamics parlance, such an impulse of magnitude is akin to a Dirac Delta, or Impulse function, which is how, when we want to characterize harmonic response of a system, we whack it with a figurative, or often literal hammer. And then we watch how it oscillates, seeing which frequencies die out more quickly or less quickly. Plots of the resonance are made, and the modes of oscillation are constructed.
Underlying all this is an assumption of linearity. But linearity doesn’t mean what most of the public assumes it means. What it means is that each of the independent fluctuations at a given frequency that we see is uncoupled from other fluctuations. There are no meaningful interactions between one oscillating trend and another. When you whack a beam with a hammer, you get a primary resonance at the natural frequency of the beam, which is some combination of length of the beam, how it’s supported, and whatnot. But you also get a resonance at 2x, 3x, 4x in the frequency domain. And here’s the key. Even though these resonances are multipliers, if you damp out one, it doesn’t necessarily change the amplitudes of the others at other multiples. They are independent of each other. Believe it or not, that’s what vibrations people call linearity.
Such is NOT the case with large scale social/psychological/economic systems. The COVID-19 hammer comes down, mostly delivered by our air transport system and a cruise ship or two, and maybe a nightclub DJ. “Bong” goes the system, and the odd advantage of this particular pandemic, in a nation, or really a global system that seems far too unaware that we actually already had problems in multiple areas (like diet, health care, employment security and some such) all of the sudden, the public, via the Internet, is grossly aware of lots of things happening.
The public, networked together via the Internet, is a wildly imperfect sensor network to observe this response. The individual sensors are limited by all the things we normally think of when we pick sensors for far simpler applications — sensitivity, range, temporal scale and spatial scale. Those sensors themselves have frequency response characteristics that in more traditional applications (like whacking beams) we compensate for on the backside.
But we live in a global society, unaware of its deeper structural memetic makeup. And in fact, even bringing that up, outside our tired, tread-worn models of culture, national identity, income and education, are perceived as being positively reprehensible by the sensors, er, people themselves. Such is the curse of the post-modern world. The virus crept up on us without any ability to calibrate. How many people die in nursing homes, anyway? How does the immune system actually work? Answering these and a myriad other questions are happening real-time. COVID-19 has the characteristics of what we call in surfer-ology a Sneaker Wave. Such a wave appears out of nowhere, out of the normal stack of colds, flu, and cancer, and can wash you out to sea.
But back to banging the gong. COVID-19 is profoundly testing the resilience of modern society. And regardless of the sensationalist press, modern society is holding up reasonably well — for now. There are lots of cracks appearing in the infrastructure, and there may indeed be collapse in our future. I’m not ruling it out. But compare modern society and our death tolls to the Bubonic Plague in the 14th Century. There is simply no comparison. We are not dragging people outside the city walls, half alive, to die in the fields alone. We are not throwing hundreds of thousands of bodies into lakes because we cannot bury our dead. None of this means, of course, that what IS happening is what we should aspire to. Far from it. For the means that we have as a nation and a world, we can, and MUST do better.
But doing better can only be done incrementally now, in the middle of the crisis. We can search for opportunities for better care for threatened, immunosuppressed populations. We can make sure people have plenty of food, and employment security. Large-scale system overhaul is going to wait, whether it fits in with our aspirations or not.
And this is where ringing the bell can help. I am proposing a new way of understanding this pandemic, from a deeper structural memetic perspective. We have myriad information streams, that we associate with topical relevance. But these streams actually contain different structures, varying from simple to complex. Understanding their decomposition matters. How, for example does opening up turn into “only money for the rich” as opposed to “support for community business”? What’s the emotional content? How long did it take the complexity to dissolve into our boxes? I just read a paper on baseline memes by Ugo Bardi that looked at simple memetic fragments around Greta Thunberg. Maybe it’s time to get some better algorithmic thinkers than myself involved in quantification of these things.
There are other things to look at. One of the characteristics of nonlinear systems is that cycles of different frequency and wavelength are often coupled together through various nonlinear functions. In my past life, I did extensive analysis of bispectral and trispectral coupling of these types of systems. These types of analyses look at coupled phase lag between different parts, and creates a causal function between two dissimilar parts of a frequency spectrum coming out of an excitation like whacking the system with a hammer. So instead of a peak you see sitting on its own, in isolation, it turns out it’s actually tied to a bunch of other peaks. And if you push down on those other ones, the main one also starts to recede. The time scales are different, and the connection not immediately obvious. But you can still potentially affect the problem you’re focused on from a distance, in another system. That’s the big point here.
One can easily extend this in the information space to the COVID-19 meta-crisis. We are going to be awash with data of all sorts, in all fields, of events and their timing, and their effects on all of our different social systems. It could be a true transdisciplinary endeavor. Every discipline knows about how they collect information. Every discipline could give in a little to create quantification schedules for events and their timing, and watch the various trends rise and fall. It’s more complex AND complicated that just looking at a simple time series analysis that some moke like me might do on a simple mechanical system.
But it could suggest how we explore linkages, and create whole new, more enlightened fields of public policy. These are things that are going to demand rigor, of course. But considering we have such a poor understanding of even basic things — like how diet actually affects health outcomes, or even the way we think — it could be revelatory. Death is terrible — but it’s also hard data.
If there’s a path toward doing this, it’s got to start with understanding ourselves first. I’d argue we really need to understand the DeepOS of how we know on this blog, and look not just at our old, hidebound, and largely irrelevant models. The stereotypes of culture don’t hold up in a modern globalized world. We can look at knowledge structures, and we can start the process of quantizing much of the work that I’ve started on these virtual pages. Instead of constantly, chronically dividing and intersectionalizing, let’s look at ways of finding commonalities and meaningful differences between people. I read anthropology papers about tribal people in various parts of the worlds, along with the authors’ desperate attempts to generalize things seen at the tribal level in modern society. And while I am all down with a groundswell of support for human dignity, there are differentials that make it possible for people to build skyscrapers. We don’t understand that level of social organization at all. Or rather, we gloss over the fact that the effort may have changed us. Even though it clearly has — so let’s map both.
A glossary of concepts regarding nonlinear systems, applied to sociological concepts would also help. There’s a natural tendency in the liberal arts to deconstruct until one gets back to the same set of white guys. It’s all about giving credit, rather than creating insight. I totally believe in learning from the greats in the past. But there is a new complement of tool sets out there. We don’t insult the past giants by standing on their shoulders. I’d like to think they expected us to innovate as well. Correctly using nonlinear systems concepts would be a big step in the right direction. The field is literally only about 100 years old, a babe in the mathematical sense. Let’s do a reframe of our problems.
Finally, let’s not blow this opportunity. I hear lots of people talking about a ‘new normal’ — and the ‘new normal’ that people proposes looks a whole lot like the old normal, except more repressive. I see lots of bright possibilities in the future. But they are going to demand, across all our institutions, and especially the academy, changes toward connection and personal development. The endless fractionation isn’t working folks. It’s time for all of us to focus on growing our empathy.
A better and more rational world awaits. All because we got our bell rung.
Like many of us of scientific persuasion, I’ve been (depending on your perspective) applying my uniquely multi-tooled mind (I have a wide background in nonlinear theory, system science, philosophy, etc.) or become lost down the rat hole (first class kook that thinks he can know something about everything) of the COVID epidemic. When I tell people that I’ve done this in the interest of the public good, for the most part people look at me askance.
I beg to differ. One of the reasons I fervently believe our current society in the U.S. is collapsing is the loss of noblesse oblige — the idea that those of us that are better off in some definable way should help those who are less fortunate. I view my role as a full professor as one where I am supposed to think about complex and complicated things for the common good, just like a rich person is supposed to build housing developments for the poor.
Mainstream society sort of allows me a small box in which to do this in — in my case, it’s probably design theory. But the idea that I might think broadly is anathema, and people (and other professors — though not all) occasionally line up to insult me to my face without provocation – or rather, about some post where I start talking about something I’m interested in. It’s never about the argument — most haven’t read anything I’ve written. It’s always about my authority to have an opinion. They’re actually demonstrating what I write regarding how the v-Memes make them think. Applying my worldview outside design theory is not “staying in my lane.” In a world where you only get assigned Authority if you have a degree, in their eyes, I must be a chronically unaware, ignorant iconoclast. Knowledge is supposed to be exclusive, disconnected and not generalizable — even knowledge that’s created, like complex system theory, that’s supposed to be generalizable. Talk about a rabbit hole.
And so it is with COVID-19. For me personally, I knew that COVID was going to hit our shores back in early-middle February. The signs were there, and my wife is Taiwanese, so we receive news feeds from Asia on a regular basis. I also have people on the ground to ask — my Chinese godson lives in Japan, and is a successful budding executive type, living in downtown Tokyo. I can get news from the source. So I prepared my own Industrial Design Clinic for going remote (about 70% of the operation already is, because we live in Pullman, and our business partners are mostly in Seattle) and when they closed the campus, we only lost a little paper.
Then the storm — the full force of the pandemic– hit. Or not. Rather, we became aware of the potential, and a range of salutary measures, including lockdowns, social distancing, and such came into play. Originally billed as “flattening the curve” — creating room in the hospital for potential victims of the pandemic, lockdown has somehow morphed into “a cure while we wait for the cure.”
I supported all these things at the start — I think the most important thing to do in a potential crisis is to, at least at the beginning, have social cohesion. Social cohesion, even if it creates short-term wrong answers, allows societies to align all their members, and pivot quickly to do the right thing. If everyone’s fighting out of the gate, nothing good will happen. That means, in absence of much data and information, you’re counting on dumb luck. And dumb luck is a poor proviso for societal success.
What happened next was interesting. Northern (but not Southern) Italy got swept by the virus. Britain thrashed with a “herd immunity” policy. In the US, some governors (like ours) implemented strong prophylaxis, shutting schools, government offices, and most ‘non-essential’ businesses. My older son, ensconced in downtown San Francisco, saw his younger brother make a rescue mission to pull him out of the center of a city that increasingly looked like an apocalyptic wasteland.
The lockdown of the university didn’t particularly change my life. I spend a large amount of time writing from home with my dog, and that didn’t change. I also spend a fair amount of time understanding current events from the perspective of how societies create knowledge, so THAT didn’t change either. Of course, the only part that did change is the COVID-19 has now made this unidimensional. Not even I could think of much else.
And that’s actually OK. I have made the argument that COVID-19 is very much like a Dirac Delta function system input, that resonates all societal meta-frequencies at once. Pick your very particular topical poison, and write about it. It’s all served up.
And I read and respond on Twitter. So it’s not surprising that into this mess strides a very different kind of fellow into my Twitter feed — Ivor Cummins, a Dublin, Ireland resident who runs a health-based podcast. Ivor’s Twitter handle is @Fatemperor, and he mostly writes about nutrition and health. Ivor’s background is one of a chemical engineer. But he’s had a long career before he jumped out of that for the Internet gig. What is most interesting is that he was not only a systems integrator — someone who floats between the different disciplines churning out various subsystems for complex products. He was a “systems system integrator” — where he was in charge of a team of systems integrators. The first-level integration positions are relatively common. Boeing has a whole employment line dedicated to Liaison Engineering, which they pronounce “Lie – a -zon”. The second tier up — not common at all.
It’s not surprising to me that Ivor comes at his Twitter reputation for aggregation of information from the dietary/nutrition camp. I’ve been doing my own dietary research and cross-integrating for a while — my research in chaos theory taught me the peril of doing anything other than postulate the underlying system dynamics, and then wait for the data. And then question even that. But I had never seen such a field fraught with crazy nonsense as nutrition. When my chief collaborator, Ryan Martens, encouraged me to go Low Carb/High Fat, and I lost 60 lbs., I had to do likely what Ivor did — which was dig into the nutrition literature, which is simply about as corrupt a mainstream science as exists. There’s a lot of information, but most of it is fragmented, and biased. I feel a bit uneasy saying it, but the first question I ask any nutritionist any more is if they are a vegan, since it seems to be a key determinant in how they produce research and recommendations.
As a systems integrator, Ivor already had to develop the empathy to read all the different integrators he was placed in charge of, as well as keep a healthy skepticism and attitude of encouragement one level down with the technical silos. Figuring out diet, or rather, engaging in a sense making exercise as far as diet, would be a logical developmental step. And then applying those same practices of mind to the COVID thing completely makes sense.
So where is Ivor on COVID? His trajectory follows mine very closely. I became aware of the virus, its potential impacts, mapped it back to immune response, sensed deep problems with the models, investigated the various responses, supported them all at the beginning, worried a lot about old folks, and so on. I have the record of my blog (dated) to see the progression of my thoughts. I didn’t read them somewhere else, for the most part, and then write about them. I read the descriptions of the phenomenon, and figured it out for myself. And I’d say that Ivor did the same thing.
But as the data is coming in, we are both convergent on both the shortage of data, as well as the deep problems with what’s presented as the reason for believing the obviously incomplete representations of almost everything about this pandemic. The deeper problem is that the data is being now used to justify various interventions, whether they make sense or not. And what is fascinating is that the fuzziness of the data is also being used by others to justify the charge of conspiracy, as well as the intent to weaponize the pandemic. It is quite literally on BOTH sides of the political spectrum in the U.S., at least. Both sides are waist-deep in the water of using the pandemic as a tool for killing the other side. Whether they’re aware of it or not. Neither side has the consistently developed consequential thinking to see to the long end of this pandemic. And so their thoughts and actions are really short-term emergent.
And dependent on the v-Meme spectrum of the accusers, the flavor directly aligns with the value set. If you’re on the Left, you’re busy accusing the folks on the Right of breaking quarantine for a day at the beach, or a beer at the local pub. And restarting the Andromeda Strain as a divine pestilence against all that is good and holy. Not one life should be lost! people cry. So much of this seems like folks in this country are discovering lives are getting lost regularly, whether they were originally aware of it or not.
If you’re on the Right, you queue up the lockdown being enforced with jack-booted thugs, and crushing the economy in a completely unaffordable fashion. Never mind that the Fed printed some $5T worth of dollars and threw them out the discount window. Hard work isn’t what creates money. Governments create money, and as long as there are plenty of goods to go around, folks, there won’t be inflation.
It’s not a case of both sides being right, or both sides being wrong. What actually is going is a collective intelligence data compaction process, similar to taking a complicated function and reducing that information down to a single fact. For those that have a calculus background, such a device is meta-similar to a definite integral, and it’s a pretty good analog of how the brain takes complex thoughts and places them in the hippocampus as a single point limbic trigger. The bad news is our collective intelligence in this country, instead of being nuanced and multi-faceted, has separated so badly that it’s been completely binned out into two categories. And if you’re someone like me, that likes to preserve the complex functional representations for a little while, it means that a complex opinion will make no one happy.
So much of how one perceives this pandemic, and how one wants to discuss it, really depends on where you go when you’re scared. For folks on the Left, it’s no surprise that they’re quick to throw away their agency and demand for some “sensible” rules to be followed — with sensibility assembled from a loose concatenation of facts. Likewise, on the Right, it’s also no surprise that folks want someone to tell them what to do. One of my most popular posts has turned out to be my mask explainer. The Left can look at the engineering-based argument about design trade-offs and rules to follow and be happy. The Right can believe that a professor of engineering should know a little bit about mucus spray.
The problem is that because COVID-19 is truly novel, ringing that bell, while it may daylight the various ills of society, it also at the same time obscures responsibility for all the various ills society has manifested on all its various members. I have a whole essay, almost written, on the meatpacking plant fiasco, which is really more of a damning indictment of how we treat people at the bottom of the economic ladder than the COVID-19 crisis. For those that want the short version — we keep them trapped in low wage positions with no geographic mobility, with undocumented status, and poor education so they have no choice but to continue their jobs. COVID-19 is just an afterthought.
What’s more important to understand about this pandemic, at least with what I can shed light on, is how timescales inside people’s brains trigger action, and how that actually aligned with what the virus was doing. There is now lots of information that the virus showed up earlier than we thought in the U.S. — middle of January is a good guess, but maybe earlier. One thing I think we do know and agree on is the virus is a rapid spreader, and it rapidly became epidemic, if not immediately symptomatic.
That’s when the real physical clock started. But that’s not the start date for the deep memetic clock — the way we understood, or continue to understand the virus and its effects. That’s the collective intelligence clock, and that clock also matters, because dependent on awareness of different folks inside our own network, our own thoughts and actions are triggered. The various governmental officials’ awareness, from Dr. Fauci to Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington, started running their own thought processes through their social network later — some MUCH later.
The problem with the mismatch between the virus’ clock and the memetic clock is that physical control actions, like lockdown, have to be started in the minds of the people who could effect them. But you’re also running up against reality. Actions have to be started on the virus’ timetable first and foremost. In the case of lockdowns, the mismatch was so large that they unfortunately started far later than actually could have had an effect. Lockdowns might have worked if we started them when we could have represented our country as a couple of points of entry, instead of the continental ecosystem it naturally is. Once the virus was inside, you can only have limited control inside such an ecosystem — much further along than people wanted to recognize — as opposed to an island ecosystem, where the combination viral/social system could realistically be represented as an island, and infection controlled through locking a couple of gates.
One of my favorite quotes from Zen Buddhism is relevant here:
“If you understand things, things are as they are. If you don’t understand things, things are as they are.”
The problem with all of this is that one then gets tethered to the timescales for physical actions that must be linked to the v-Memetic development of the people both making the decisions, as well as the people subject to the decisions. And this mismatch is where things inevitably go off the rails — especially for preventative action. Both primary actors and the general population become linked in time-lagged ways that the virus inherently ignores. In my own small town, lockdown came fast and furious right before WSU’s spring break — well after I believe the virus was circulating in students, with all the hugging, high-fiving, and kissing that characterizes a college town.
But the lag that wasn’t talked about was this. After the order was issued, people precipitated our own super-spreader events, like buying toilet paper at Costco. I had anticipated, and successfully missed the chaos that followed the announcement. But others lined up with their endless stack of TP and paper towels, shoving and waiting in closed spaces in lines in the various stores, all aspirating and breathing, very likely, COVID-19. No one was wearing masks at all, needless to say, nor was there any social distancing.
And lockdown itself — other than closing barber shops and beauty parlors, restaurants and coffee shops, didn’t mean much inside the retail climate of Pullman. The large hardware store remained open, Walmart of course, was open, and the grocery store, of course was open. It wasn’t until last week — almost the middle of May! — that people started wearing masks to shop at the grocery store, and we got up over 50% at the Safeway, which I’d consider the more upper-crust grocery store in town. The unwashed masses were still mostly stumbling around, unmasked. And the young? Are you kidding?
Here’s the thing. The virus simply doesn’t care if we figure it out or not — it continues to propagate. And what that has really meant inside in Pullman, a community of likely 15,000 without the students, is, well, not much. Last time I checked, we were at 18 total cases (this was four days ago.) And the local hospital shut down all its special coronavirus hotlines and testing center yesterday, sending everyone back through their primary health providers. Like it or not, the virus has been in Pullman already for the past three months. We are, in the virus’ timescale, saturated.
Because at the university, we are both subject to the authority of the state government, and our own authority-driven chain-of-command cognitive lag, we are so far behind the 8-ball as to be likely irrelevant in almost all our actions. We sent away the students after they had already spread the virus. And while it might have been smart to not have them come back after spring break, enough of them did return that if this thing had been really bad, we would have been screwed.
And we continue to prepare for mixed classes in the fall, though for the life of me, I can’t believe that we’ll be closed in any way, shape or form. The administrators are looking at the numbers and realizing the financial disaster that awaits us if we don’t re-open. They’re down in the Survival v-Meme, and exercising maximal neuroplasticity. Yet this remains challenging for a good hunk of the professoriate, who dutifully stayed inside during the entire lockdown. Their survival is tied into their v-Meme structure, which mostly has made some kind of weird Faustian bargain. If they stay inside and don’t complain, they won’t die. When I try to tell them that they wouldn’t have died from COVID-19 even if they had come out, instead of being squirreled up in their homes, the usual response is to attack the messenger. And if there is any message for the educational caste, it’s screaming about getting sent back to their jobs before a vaccine, a line that as of now is the official policy of our governor. It reinforces my reputation the perennial leper at the cocktail party. Wired with the authority-driven social structure, their v-Memetic lag is not driving much except fear-based thinking.
I still support, of course, protection for immunosuppressed populations, and I dutifully informed my own colleagues that I thought we would have to process a larger than usual disability requests from immunosuppressed students — we are going to have to continue to make content available online. But I’ve also learned a fair bit about COVID-19 deaths, and much of what I said at the beginning of all this is still true.
Except now I have some statistics — the most glaring is the large mortality in elder care homes WITHOUT COVID-19. 53% die within six months. When I talked to my wife, a trauma psychologist about this (I was skeptical) she said “oh, at least that.” She has a number of clients in their 70s and 80s — one that she visited today, with a flower, outside her window, maintaining her client’s quarantine. “They all do an intuitive scan on anyone getting admitted to the facility, because they know that most of them won’t last long. They don’t want to get attached to someone they know will die in a few months.” To reiterate — this is pre-COVID-19.
The reality of all this chaos and confusion, as I stated above, is that it could be a ground for a culture war. Left and Right, binning their respective facts, could completely convince themselves that the other side is adamantly trying to kill them. But the short version of the long story is that the virus did what it did, which was be a virus. I read a quote from Harvard virologist Mark Lipsitch comparing the virus to a soliton. In reality, it’s more like a wildfire. I actually used to do wildfire modeling, and the short version is that wildfires are what we call a wavefront propagation problem. Once they burn through an area, they leave behind either folks that are immune, or folks that are dead. And what one wants to do is do rate control. Rate control in the context of the virus, as I’ve made the case before, facilitates building asymptomatic cases which are likely now a combination of developed antibodies (I’m guessing ~20%) and heightened T-cell production (the other 50% we need to get up to 70%, which is that ‘herd immunity’ threshold so often discussed.)
But that’s challenging to do when people are dying — even if, for some reason, they’re dying because they didn’t die because we had a mild regular flu season. So much of the conflict now requires us learning about what the virus actually is doing, as opposed to the models that are more the creation of our values, fears, and scraps of extreme case information fed to us by a sensationalist news media. Yes, some people might get COVID toes. Or severe respiratory distress. But we are a nation of 320 million people. The conceptual hurdle we seem to be having is accepting that this thing is not the Andromeda Strain, while at the same time approaching activities with some level of restraint. I’ll still wear my mask out, and I won’t be singing in public any time soon. I’m still convinced it’s not a great idea to hold mass sporting events, but with the advent of hot weather, I’m guessing those will be fine if held outside. If folks want to go to the beach, they should. The Vitamin D will do them good. We know now that healthy immune systems can handle this virus. So let’s continue to do immune system prophylaxis. The short version – there is no reason to have a culture war over this virus. We’ve already had that in spades in the U.S., and we are not better for it.
One final thought — I realize this blog, at least at this point, is built on esoterica and a theory of understanding that, to put it mildly, is not well accepted into the mainstream of thinking. Fair enough. That means most of my persistent readers will be ahead of the curve, and will have started crunching through many of the same signals I have. For those that disagree with my conclusions, I understand that this is a controversial topic. Respond to arguments I’ve made if you so desire. Questioning of authority is, well, tedious. Remember that I get the last word — this is my blog.
And if you need authority, I encourage you to watch Ivor’s latest interview with Michael Levitt, a Nobel prizewinning biochemist. I align with Prof. Levitt’s views on the biological aspects of the pandemic almost exactly. I suspect if Prof. Levitt had access to some of the social understanding tools, he would agree with my analysis as well.
What’s even more fabulous is I actually know Buddy, and have had a beer or two down through the years with him. I met him through my primary kayaking partner back in my younger days — Pat Harper. The advantage that gives is I can more deeply understand Buddy’s perspective.
Buddy also happens to be an adjunct professor of English at WSU. But what Buddy really is is an anachronism — an adventurous, world-traveling bon vivant, fond of great food, boisterous and funny. He followed my friend Pat around the world in a series of Eco-Challenge races — those brutal races where teams of athletes would take extended treks across amazing, but harsh wild landscapes. What this means to me is Buddy is an observer — he’s not so very political. And his books reflect this — riveting narratives of great treks. You can be relatively confident he’s describing what he’s seen. Though it’s obvious that he’s done his research, he’s not thinking so much about the implications of the story — he’s just telling a great yarn.
Why does this matter? If you read his books closely, there are lots of descriptions of interesting phenomena not often discussed that have direct relevance by giving inadvertent historic perspective on current issues. In his book River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon he describes the scene of Orellana’s amazing trip down the Amazon, which includes densely populated villages of Indians all the way down, with tons of human activity. Not exactly the trackless jungle one thinks of. Reading this for me, it was a moment of hope for restoring the Amazon, which is often consigned to the “hopeless sacrifice” pile of human activity.
In a similar way, Conquistador, the other book’s predecessor, reveals many things about the Spanish, their inherent fractiousness, and the crazy gamble that Cortes took when he burned his ships on the Caribbean coast and began the trek to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, to meet Moctezuma, their leader, and capture and convert to Catholicism, the entire Aztec empire.
The actual story is long and convoluted — it’s a terrifying read, beyond the imagination even of someone like Quentin Tarantino. But there are two aspects of the Aztec story arc which are known, but not well understood.
The first is that the Aztecs were large-scale, systemic cannibals. Through their campaigns of terror against neighboring tribes, they had set up what can only be described as a “factory farm pipeline” of humans from surrounding conquering tribes to be sacrificed and fed to the Aztecs. How they got to that point in their culture has been a topic of discussion — from protein deficiency in the highlands of Mexico, to what I think is more likely — a ritual that over time got completely out of hand, sowing bountiful seeds of trauma that inevitably capped the rulers’ ability to see anything that did not suit their worldview. And that led to their undoing.
Levy’s book describes great plenty in the food supply of the Aztec capital. There were plenty of game fowl, and deer. But I suspect that the lack of large animals to sacrifice drove the magical/authoritarian hierarchical society of the Aztecs, along with an inherited legacy of human sacrifice from their predecessors, to normalize the process on a daily basis. Aztecs sacrificed victims regularly to make sure the sun would rise and set, as well as almost every other reason imaginable. That is never a good feedback loop to make. Once a society institutes Divine Rationalization justifying any depravity, the end is near.
What such constant, chronic sacrifice certainly did was destroy empathy, and create a massively dissociated nation. Levy describes various rituals where specific individuals were raised as sacrifice victims, living like kings for a year, and then pumped full of drugs, carried up the pyramids, and had their hearts cut out. What is interesting is that such treatment of people, both within, and very much without their society, destroys the ability of a society to have more evolved empathy. The last thing you would ever want to do is connect to someone having their heart cut out and then subsequently decapitated.
And to maintain such a distorted, ungrounded view of the world — that the sun and moon rose on a society solely because of sacrificing other humans — would stop complexity development in its track. The book does an amazing job describing the art and layout of the Aztec’s capital city. Such behavior does NOT stop the development of sophistication. The empathy-disordered can, and still are capable of fabulous art, architecture, and literature, which is why I inherently chafe at the idea that empathy can be solely learned from books or poets. But it freezes in time a magical milieu.
And that did not serve the Aztecs well. Part of the reason the Aztecs were initially so easily defeated by the Spaniards was the fact that the Spaniards had iron and steel weapons, for which the Aztec obsidian spears were no match. But the reason the Aztecs had focused so much on these same obsidian spears was because they had completely subjugated their neighbors, to the point where ambassadors from the Aztec nation could expect tribes like the neighboring Totonac to line up their sons and daughters to be marched off to the Aztec capital to literally be sold as slaves, or sacrificed and eaten. And the purpose of the obsidian spears? Only to wound their enemies, so they could also be taken back alive for sacrifice. To look at the Valley of Mexico through a pure, technological lens, with no differentiation in empathetic developmental stages, there would be no reason to think the Aztecs could not come up with equivalent weaponry. Tenochtitlan was generally agreed to be the largest city in the world at its time (200K people, sitting within a larger metro area of 1.5M-2M inhabitants.)
Yet instead of being future focused, the psychopaths in charge created an entire civilization run off the rails by trauma. The key here to understanding this is not that chronic, cross-societal trauma makes everyone sad. On the contrary — it creates a social system that can only feed (quite literally) on that trauma as a positive thing — that suffering of large out-groups of people was necessary for the society to thrive, and if they were quite literally eaten, that was a good and beneficial thing. But there is no way that watching humans who look identical to you, save some marginal cosmetic difference in jewelry, won’t affect the way literally hundreds of thousands of brains were wired. Through promotion of a class of highly sophisticated psychopaths who could both manage, exult in and design the grisly daily rituals of suffering and death, unmoored from their obvious consequences, should serve as a warning to all of us. Current Wall Street dynamics, anyone?
There was a passage in the book about one phase of the campaign where the Spaniards were recruiting allies, and had gone out in defense of the Otomo people to recruit them for their broader campaign against the Aztecs. They came across an abandoned parcel of roasted baby parts from Aztec allies that they had defeated and killed. Such things were so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine that such an incident was really very useful as far as propaganda. After all, the Aztecs were marching up any Spaniards up their pyramids and sacrificing, skinning and eating them in plain view. This blog typically does not talk about moral justice in all of this. But it’s very hard to argue that the Aztecs didn’t have it coming. Something we might think about when we have our own version of sacrificing the poor as morally justifiable in order to keep our civilization running. What is the end game here? What can history teach us?
The other fascinating takeaway from Conquistador, as directly applicable to the current COVID-19 crisis, is Levy’s description of the smallpox epidemic that was part of the reason the Aztec empire was defeated. The disease was brought to Tenochtitlan by one of the Spaniard’s African slaves, Francisco de Eguia, who was quartered in a household in Cempoala, close to the coast. Though it took a couple of months, by that October of 1520, the disease reached the Aztec capital, after Cortes had retreated. It killed upwards of 40% of the population, brutally, to the point where the Aztecs took to throwing dead bodies in the surrounding lakes, because there was simply no way to keep up with ritual cremation. Social practices that were ingrained in Aztec culture, such as ritualistic steam baths, and communal washing, also directly helped exacerbate the spread.
And not surprisingly, the disease spread to allied tribes of the Spaniards as well, taking out leaders and peasants alike. It was an unmitigated disaster to the Indians of central Mexico, in that it also wiped out leadership cohorts as well. The complicated and sophisticated, yet deeply crazy-irrational society that counted on its endless authority-driven hierarchies was almost decapitated. When you combine that with food shortages from devastation in the peasant ranks, which were also well-documented, there is no question (as described by both Levy, and Diamond’s research) that disease was a key factor in the Aztec Empire’s collapse.
But the interesting thing to my mind — not attempting to appear cold-hearted about this — is that 60% of the population survived the initial epidemic. Native tribes with smaller villages exposed to smallpox often suffered losses of 90% of individuals, and the 90% number is often used to talk about depopulation of Native people in the Americas after the Columbian exchange.
Why did 60% survive, in what was an urban area, where only 10% survived in native villages? It’s worth considering in the context of the current epidemic in how social structure influences epidemic trajectories. My take is that if you get sick in a small village, everyone comes into contact (and likely helps take care of) the symptomatic patient. Someone erupting with smallpox sores is by the very definition a super-spreader of the virus. Soon, everyone in the smaller circle gets the disease symptomatically, which is almost always a killer.
But in an urban area, especially the largest in the world, not everyone knows everyone else. Areas of the disease likely got flagged, and people would avoid them, as the plague burned through geographical nearest-neighbor areas. That gave the disease far longer to spread asymptomatically, through small exposure, that Edward Jenner, our modern father of vaccines, would use with cowpox. And the practice of spreading immunity through low dose exposure — Jenner’s forbears already had used the residue of smallpox pustules to give immunity — was ingrained across cultures. The Chinese had been practicing this, called variolation, since the 15th century.
The Wikipedia page linked is a fascinating read for everyone interested in understanding viral spread. Part of the intractability and terror we feel in the face of COVID-19 is that we think we ought to be able to control it. Yet the reality is that societies without vaccines faced broad-scale pandemics in the past, and attempted to manage them — especially after the devastation of the bubonic plague, which lasted most of the 14th Century. All the current issues with any kind of immune issue are covered, including relapse, or fading immunity with time, or lack of development of immunity in certain individuals. It would serve as profound journalistic context for modern reporters. Variolation proved to be their best bet, absent meaningful treatment or vaccines, which didn’t even intellectually exist.
We might consider the lessons of variolation and apply them to the problem of asymptomatic spread in the current context. Note, as I’ve said in earlier pieces, I’m NOT advocating things like “virus parties” or intentional variolation. But the reality is that background processes in pandemics, because of their broad exposure potentials, are always in play, and affecting end-game outcomes, regardless whether we like them or not. All pandemics end, one way or another.
The overall messaging from political leadership is that they know the deep ‘Why’ of how actions work, as well as their inherent dynamics — even in the face of obviously shifting, inaccurate testing data. That somehow they KNOW how to end this pandemic.
The deeper, more uncertain truth is that in the absence of a vaccine, this one will end as well — once exposure and background immunity take over the governing epidemic dynamics. The notion of isolation of the symptomatic — a key element of any quarantine strategy — only makes sense on the broad scale, once the genie is out of the bottle (spread is so broad as to be uncontainable) if it is understood in the context that lower level, background processes like asymptomatic spread are in play, and delivering some level of herd immunity. In short, there is plenty of history that dose size matters — and creating strategies that build that into the governing ethos behind actions must be done if we are serious in ameliorating population damage or unnecessary death.
There are lots of lessons to learn from history — and you’ve got to do something with those late evening hours. So grab a copy of Buddy’s book. Pour yourself a glass of whiskey or cognac. And start doing some thinking. Not all the answers are there, of course. But it will help in the inevitable bullshit sort we all need to do about what’s happening in our current situation.
One of the things I’ve noticed since I’ve started writing about asymptomatic COVID-19, which has implications that the pandemic may not be nearly as bad as we think it was going to be (numbers-driven here, folks — the death toll re: our models has been continually revised downward, and I’ve been seeking to understand why) is that this is one of the most upsetting things I could write for a number of people. Note — for any of the people reading this that thinks this is about them, well, there are lots of you. COVID-19 certainly isn’t the flu, but it’s also not Ebola, or smallpox, or any of a number of diseases that have swept through populations in the past.
What it is, from a systems perspective, is a Dirac delta function. And what is that? A Dirac delta, or impulse function, is a bell-ringer, what we use in systems dynamics to excite all the modes of a given system at once. It’s better than metaphorical in this context, when applied to social systems. It’s a value set resonator — it showed up relatively quickly, across the globe, transported by our air transport system. And the response actions we’ve seen are indicative of the value sets/v-Memes of the respective countries. It really can’t be otherwise. Adoption speed of any given tactic is going to be directly resonant with the empathetic development of any society. It was easy to implement something like contact tracing in a country like Taiwan, dominated by its deep Survival v-Meme fear of its northern neighbor. A real epidemic could endanger the survival of the country itself, and Taiwanese didn’t take the individual testing and quarantine policing as persecution of any one citizen. Rather, it ran its societal interpretation through its Legalistic/Communitarian filter — we care about each individual Taiwanese citizen, and because of this, we’re going to make sure every individual is safe (very Communitarian!) But you’ve got to follow our rules (Legalistic) and the Taiwanese largely have.
At the same time, in the U.S., as I wrote before, we have a far more incoherent society — a true Precariat — where no one is actually sure they’re going to make it through all this alive. A Survival state can be alternately a powerful good value set to have — it can make one become far more rational than they normally would be. But as with all Survival v-Meme situations, the risk of trauma is real, and unfortunately ongoing.
And that messes people up. People with lesser developmental perspectives (down there in the Authoritarian value set) are going to respond to their authorities when dog-whistled. They’re going to be quick to assume that the elites, who can afford to sit in their houses for an indeterminate lockdown, are once again at best inured to their pain, or attempting to finally starve them out and terminate them.
But it also messes up the response of the more stable. Because there’s really no part of American society under the mean income of $90K/household that actually is. To be middle-class in America today means you feel entitled to NOT live in the Precariat — even though there’s no real grounding that indicates you’re in a safe boat on a slow river. And this confluence of emotional violence is a sad, and scary thing. Whether you have money or not, you’re confronted on a daily basis with loneliness and isolation, which just drives home the vulnerability you had been suppressing for the longest time anyway.
The other thing that it does is open up the use of lots of more sophisticated thought-tools for justifying one’s fears. I see this especially prevalent in my friends that are single parents with children under the age of majority. It’s honestly terrifying thinking about your children becoming orphans, because what would realistically come of them? We’ve destroyed the social safety net of the extended family. And becoming a ward of a primarily dysfunctional state is no option at all. At least some of those single parents have been through messy divorces, and don’t trust their ex-spouse in the least. A smaller percentage have been down the rabbit hole of Child Protective Services, and know intrinsically how deeply flawed that process is. It is a perfectly rational response, therefore, to be afraid of any COVID-19 mortality.
And when we have fears, if we were raised in the context of a rational paradigm, we have an extended ability to go hunting reasons for those fears. There is no black-and-white, of course — the research and understanding of the disease is too limited. It’s not like cholera and dirty water. But probabilities are real, if not constantly shifting and you can find some authoritative source to tell you either that we’re past the peak of this pandemic, or just ramping up to mass death. All you have to do is ignore a few small facts as inconsequential parts of the narrative to believe, rationally, that the Angel of Death is coming soon to a neighborhood near you. My brain may indeed be attempting to piece together long-term narratives of epidemics and their effects across continental or island ecosystems. But it’s no surprise to me that that’s beyond unsettling to most, and the only way my perspective can be explained is through logical monstrosity and a collapse of empathy — the very thing I write about.
From where I see it, though, the way one approaches coronavirus is strongly indicative of how we, as a country, have vanishingly little experience with unexpected death. But lived trauma? We’ve got that in spades. It hasn’t killed us. But it hasn’t made us stronger. We do have experience with the threat of poverty and devastation. Medical bankruptcies are a constant reminder of the fact that we live in a country that has devolved to the point on not caring about basically any of its residents, save those at the very top. And that does not facilitate a longer, potentially happier worldview when we come out of this.
The coronavirus also opens up our rationality to any scale of fear we wish to pursue. I’m fond of saying most people are rational, all the time. What varies is the temporal and spatial scale. If you rest your hand on a hot stove, regardless of your value system, your hand will take in the data and pull back from the heat. That’s rational. The spatial scale is small — the length of your arm from your hand to your brain, and dependent on how hot the stove is, the time is in fractions of a second.
But what happens if someone else is in the room with you, and they’re pointing a gun at your head, threatening to shoot you if you take your hand off the stove? Now, the scales for rationality have changed. You may not automatically jerk your hand back (time scale has gotten longer) and obviously, your spatial scale now includes how close the threat is (if he’s across the room, you might take a chance and roll!) This is an extreme example, of course, but it makes the point well. You’re going to act rationally within the context of your tool set, and at some level, take in enough data, coupled with enough tools in your mental possession (maybe you’re a Navy SEAL with a Glock tucked into your belt!) to make a decision – at some timescale from automatic to carefully reasoned from your prefrontal cortex.
The problem with COVID-19 is that no one really knows the time or spatial scales. Or rather, you can find the evidence you need, if you’re traumatized, to justify whatever action you think is appropriate. And if you’re threatened at the core level — your child being orphaned, which is about as intense a Survival feeling you can have — there’s no way your empathy — especially that part working higher up on the pyramid and making you rational — isn’t going to suffer. Those couple of hundred right-wingers out there screaming to re-open Baskin Robbins are an existential threat. So, irregardless of the actual size of the action, or the fact that they’re basically out there seeking approval from Big Orange Daddy in the White House, they’re in the Out-Group, and they’re coming to kill either you or your child.
This is especially challenging for me to talk about, largely because in so many aspects of my life, I’ve moved beyond that fear. The How and Why of getting past it all are really bottled up in my chosen sport — whitewater kayaking. I’ve been boating now for at least 40 years, and it’s been a fascinating journey. As I age, I’ve had to reflect back on how it’s affected me — and it most definitely has. Andrew Embick, a famous Valdez, Alaska doctor and river explorer famously said “the beauty of whitewater kayaking is it gives one the opportunity to die in a beautiful place.”
Death, and the places it occurs, as well as the modalities by which one dies, are well-known. Everyone who has seriously practiced the sport has had a bad swim. There are even rituals around those swims (drinking a booty beer) and after each one, one must make a choice — do you keep kayaking, or do you quit? The sport could kill you — you just received a reminder of that.
Yet we look at the odds, or even the places where a friend may have drowned, and you sack up and go again. Reducing the odds of death, if you practice the sport at the highest levels, is part of it. Working out, improving your mental clarity, practice that roll, develop better team rescue technique. I can still remember my first real kayaking whitewater trip on the relatively benign Lower Youghiogheny river in Pennsylvania. The run is essentially a Class III carnival ride, with rafts and kayakers bouncing down through the fun rapids. In a time even before widespread neoprene wetsuit use (I had the bottom half of a SCUBA wetsuit on) I swam three times. The water was a crazy chilly 55 degrees, and I emerged at the end shaking and hypothermic. A choice appeared. “This is going to kill me,” my brain said. But instead of next saying “I have to quit,” my brain said “you’ve gotta learn how to roll.”
There may some part of it that is a young man’s attitude of “death can’t happen to me.” But for any of us that have participated in the top end of the sport (now so relative with the next generation of paddlers out there) there was a consistency of practice, and an awareness of odds. I think that having probability beat into my brain in the company of friends, in some of the most beautiful places on the planet, has helped me navigate life. It’s certainly made me realize that I can trust, within limits, all sorts of people. Degrees don’t mean much on the river.
One thing it has done is force me to take data, and make a consistent narrative of actions and potentials as I’ve gone down the river of life. It is pointless to think one can run a rapid through magical thinking. If there’s a death trap, you better make sure you can miss it. And you better make sure that when you show up above it, you’re in the right place in the river, and in your boat. If you can’t, you better be carrying that sucker. As I’ve aged, I’ve been forced to reflect on my own personal calculus. Because if you don’t clearly assess what’s going to happen, as well as who you are, on that day — not who you were 30 years ago, the river will gladly run the audit.
For so many of my single parent friends, it’s the first time that any potentially unexpected, knowable statistic of death has shown up on their door. And considering the catastrophe of your demise, I want you to understand that I do get the balance given between risk and consequence. But it really depends on how we draw that circle. I’m not making light of smaller fears to note that an asteroid could be heading toward us and ending all of us, coronavirus included. It’s just that we live in a risk-laden landscape.
It might be nice if we emerged out the end of this thing determined to create a social system that at least attenuated some of the elements that are so deeply anti-evolved human in the first place — like the notion of chronic isolation in the name of individualism. It’s not just bad in the U.S. In Japan, I read an article that old people had taken to committing petty crimes so they could live in prisons, because they found the loneliness of their apartments too much to bear, and they would rather pass their remaining years in a cell block than go back to the normative alternative.
I’m honestly at a loss on how to end this piece, considering what I do know about the personal pain so many people are feeling during this time in crisis. I do want people to know that who you are, as well as your value set/v-Meme structure is driving your behavior, whether you accept it or not. None of us are really in our conscious minds, no matter how we try. If you think all those Authoritarians out there are following lockdown to the letter, you’re wrong — that’s you’re law-abiding value set responding. And as I’ve said before, all actions dictated are leaky sieves. You can take this as a dismissal of an existential threat to you and yours. But it’s not meant to be. It means that any action we take resonates on many different levels — social distancing and mask wearing included (and I’ve advocated for both.) Coronavirus is whacking the entire bell. There’s a lot of stuff we just can’t know.
But we can know that most of you will make it out the back side of this whole mess. As well as your kids. And we’re going to need to get busy with the real lessons. Which are going to take evolution of everyone in our country — not just those in our respective in-groups. It’s going to require a big shift from hierarchy of status, to what I’ve taken to calling a new “hierarchy of responsibility.” You call the line, maybe you go first — and everybody ought to be better off at the end of it.
But hey – don’t worry about who will go first. I’m getting in my boat. I think I can make that first move. Haven’t done that one, but I’ve executed a bunch of similar sketch. Watch – and hang on. I’m counting on you, too.
That picture is probably not going to end up in the Patagonia catalog, needless to say.
FWIW, I’ve had some serious misgivings about even writing anything that goes against the official narrative of how to deal with COVID-19. Mostly because I believe that the official actions — lockdown, social distancing — are likely the best we can do in this critical circumstance, at this time. That will change, of course — because things always change.
The alternative is people being total idiots and acting like their actions don’t matter. I don’t care if your holy place is your church on Easter Sunday, or the beach. At this point in the pandemic, if you bunch up, and you’re in an area that hasn’t had exposure, your loved ones are going to die. Or maybe you will.
If, however, you’ve been in a place where this wee beastie has been hanging around for a while, all bets are off whether you, or your loved ones will be affected. That’s because we don’t know a lot. Our global statistics are mediocre at best, and our US statistics, other than folks getting toe-tagged, are pure bullshit. I used to teach sampling theory, and any statistician who has had a high-level undergraduate class in lot sampling will tell you that is NOT what we’re doing procedurally, correctly, with any of the data we’re collecting.
The best example of random sampling that I’ve seen is celebrity COVID testing. Why? Because all of us, by this point immersed in the media stream, have to be a little paranoid. And in the U.S., in the land of the Divine Right of Money, at least randomly paranoid-selected celebrities get to indulge that same paranoia, and send their fixer out to either find a doctor who can get a gray-market test, or find someone to indulge their fetish, or both. Money might not be able to buy you love. But I guarantee that it can get you a COVID test if you have enough of it. And I think that we should be duly grateful toward our celebrities who are willing to have a swab shoved up their nose, for the good of the order. Or whatever. John Prine died, and I liked him, so there is some evidence that the virus doesn’t recognize celebrity status. I’m not so sure I’m reassured by all of that.
The point of all this is the COVID-19 is a modern challenge, and while I wouldn’t call it a real wake-up call (that’s reserved for the fact that we’re bleaching the hell out of the coral that makes up the Great Barrier Reef) it’s definitely a shot across the bow. The thing about a sharp kick in the ass is that, if well placed, it makes you hurt in all sorts of places. That’s the nuance part of it. And we need more, not less, of that. Both sharp kicks, and the sympathetic pain they might produce.
And it’s not because I want to sit in some smoky bar in Berlin, and argue with a bunch of Scandinavian intellectuals about what Deleuze might have thought about this, while Weimar-era cabaret music plays in the background. Actually, that sounds pretty cool. I love me my Scandinavian intellectual friends. And maybe even some Edith Piaf.
It’s really more because, at least for those of us that decided to have kids, we made some choices about not opting for the end of the world. And that is going to require some appreciation of the finer details, and quirks of fate of how all this will play out. As well as some fundamental humility that we should sit, wait and learn a little before acting.
Because our brains are going to be the thing that gets us out of this. I promise — for the real masochists that read this blog, I’ll write down the more complex version of how collective intelligence is shifting and poking, and moving all those v-Memes around. I guarantee that if you don’t have at least a Masters degree in system science, you’ll be reaching for your Wikipedia. But the short version is that we all better do some serious thinking and listening. And think some more — about what is real, and what is created in some wacky corner of our minds.
If I leave you with one final thought, it’s what I’ve always found to be true. Nuance, and surprise, are beautiful. My mind can create many things. But there’s no greater thrill it gets than being shown that it hasn’t completely figured the world out. Because, like Hamlet said so famously, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” If we can’t maintain our sense of surprise, what’s the point in keeping on living?
Disclaimer — this piece is intended as an exploration of the Deep OS of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is hoped that by more deeply understanding the dynamics of how humans process knowledge of the pandemic, we will more quickly and effectively restore civil society.
As we are now a solid six weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, we still have a poor idea how all this is going to end. To read the papers, as well as listen to many experts, all of them are predicting 12-18 months, with most of this spent in lockdown. Essentially until a vaccine, which they also will predict will take 12-18 months to develop, is tested and deployed. This is a safe scientific position, predicated on past practice.
This is also a perilous socio-political position to take, because there is almost no way that a society, regardless of how you feel about the virus (conspiratorial scourge, or deadly threat,) will stay locked down inside our houses for that amount of time. What such predictions actually do is increase the potential of a loss of authority of government, where people will do whatever they think they should regardless of the consequences. This is ALREADY happening with more extreme elements of right-wing groups, like the Bundy family, who already faced down federal agents with guns over grazing rights adjacent to their land in Nevada. And I do believe that the impact of the pandemic will be far worse without coordinated action.
Additionally, I do believe that if we understand the dynamics of the pandemic, and how societies achieve larger herd immunity, we can manage impacts as we move along. One person who will continue to read the public mood will be our pathological narcissist-in-chief, who will pronounce whatever he feels needs to be announced to maintain his status with his base. As I’ve written before, narcissistic personalities have a super-radar that enables them to read the national mood. And while Democrats might feel ennobled sticking up for people like Dr. Fauci, and rational people SHOULD listen to him (I do) , with draconian timelines, there is a strong possibility that the Democrats will essentially throw the November election to Trump.
The correct, higher-level strategy to create has to leverage two things. One is a deep understanding of viral epidemics, and how populations achieve herd immunity through asymptomatic filling of populations in general, as well as this one in particular. The second is the need to adopt an Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA Loop) strategy for particular actions in uncertain times. While it may appeal to offer short-term gain by announcing long-time reopening strategies — that they offer care and concern for citizens — the reality is that such long-term strategies actually offer lots of avenues for long-term failure and embarrassment. We are learning about how our modern society reacts to this type of situation as we roll along. And our top political figures need to learn how to embrace this. The minute we lose the ability to incorporate new knowledge along a moving timeline, not only the virus will beat us — but we’ll likely get four more years of Trump. And that would be disastrous on many fronts, especially for those of us wishing for a more coherent federal narrative.
There are many reasons for more optimistic timelines in reopening our society. People like Bill Gates are building simultaneous vaccine factories. There is the possibility of a better combination of anti-viral medications. But the biggest is the timeline of systemic evolution of the virus itself. And the largest part of that systemic evolution is our understanding of how populations with asymptomatic characteristics evolve immunity over time.
Why should you care about asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers? One thing that is coming to the fore, that I discussed in this past piece, is the effect of dose on whether one gets the full-blown Death COVID experience. A far higher percentage of health care professionals get the bad COVID and die. That we know. We also have immunocompromised individuals who also, when they get the disease, are far more likely to die. All this makes sense inside a larger narrative. Healthy people need a bigger dose to overwhelm their immune systems. Unhealthy people need a lesser dose.
What consists of a dose? No one can answer that question at this time. But once again, there are things we know. Coughing and spraying creates droplets that contain the virus. The bigger the droplets, the larger the number of viruses inside the droplet by a volume/cube law. What that tells us is that virus spreaders are primarily NOT asymptomatic. They’re coughing and spraying. And while you can certainly pick up stuff on your hands (wash your hands!) you’re far more likely to get this if you’re in the room with someone coughing. All of this stuff is probabilistic at this point. But there are obvious ways of decreasing your odds. Part of this is things you can do (avoiding exposure and dose.) Part of this are things that other people can do (wearing homemade masks.)
In the last couple of days, we have seen some very early, encouraging data-driven results regarding asymptomatic statistics for COVID-19. First one I saw was results from a Lombardy Italy blood bank that showed 70% COVID antibodies in all blood collections. Of course, this is anecdotal — but in general, people will not give blood if they think they are sick, or have been sick. Another paper here showed a preliminary retrospective on China that showed 80% of people were asymptomatic. I was sent another paper on influenza asymptomaticity — there, the numbers ranged from 18-25%, to a more likely 65-85% — the difference being the larger numbers were indicative of a more diverse/heterogeneous population.
Asymptomaticity, if the methods of spread are from aerosol or fluid droplet transfer, once again, are reasons to be optimistic. It means that the virus, much like cowpox inoculated against its more deadly variant, can spread and deliver immunity. And indeed, this is how many vaccines work. A weakened form of the virus is injected in a person, whose immune system kicks into gear and delivers protection.
Interestingly enough, this is not the first virus to deliver some level of immunity in a larger population after a death spike. I just finished reading Buddy Levy’s book, Conquistador, that documents how Cortes conquered the Aztecs. In the middle of the fight for the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, a Spanish slave carrying smallpox into an Indian household was the vector for the disease, which Levy and Jared Diamond document the plague as killing approximately 40% of the population. It is hard to pin down the exact percentage dead (Diamond says 40%) but the reality is that there were plenty of Aztecs left to wage a protracted conflict against the Spaniards. What that also means is that one of our deadliest scourges — smallpox — in an urban population, managed also to burn through a population, both symptomatically and asymptomatically, and deliver immune individuals out the other side. Enough to disrupt the dynamics of the epidemic. Asymptomaticity is a real thing.
That said, asymptomatic spread of immunity is NO reason to have chickenpox parties, or participate in anti-vaxxer nonsense. Rather, we need to understand asymptomatic behavior through a different lens — the physicists’ notion of Dark Matter. For those that don’t know what Dark Matter, it is the stuff the universe is made of that is relatively undetectable, but shapes, through gravity, our galaxies and star systems. And just like Dark Matter, asymptomaticity is out there, and we’ve done a poor job of measuring it. But if we understand it, we can use it to shape strategies for reopening our societies, in an incremental, OODA-loop manner.
First off is how social distancing and flattening the curve actually benefit spread of larger, society-wide immunity. On the surface, social distancing is cut-and-dried. You stay 6′ away from everyone, and regardless whether you have the virus, or someone else does, you’re 6′ away and can’t get the virus from them.
This was not always the case. During the week before Spring Break at my university (around the beginning of March) COVID was starting to rear its ugly head. We were called into a faculty meeting and told explicitly we were not allowed to tell any student displaying any COVID symptom to exit our classroom. By that time in my own classes, I had built enough social capital, and discussed the pandemic enough, that no sick students came to class. Yet it was eerie, even for me, as students started dropping out of my class — one that always had close to 100% attendance.
What social distancing actually does — causing quarantine of victims displaying active symptoms — is two-fold. As mentioned above, one is isolating high dose individuals from the population. But the other thing is that low dose individuals are far more likely to continue to circulate — and it gives them MORE TIME to do so. Asymptomatic individuals do indeed continue the spread of the virus. But as people wear masks, and wash their hands, it inherently reduces the dose of the virus they receive. That gives their immune systems more time to adjust and combat the virus.
This notion of measuring what isn’t there has confounded statisticians in the past. The best example in history of this involves one of my heroes — Abraham Wald. Wald was given the task of increasing bomber survivability for raids over Germany. People originally were looking at B-17s, and arguing for increasing armor over bullet holes in returning planes. It was Wald that argued a metacognitive opposite — we needed to look at the areas on the returning planes that had NO bullet holes, and armor those spots, as it was likely that the planes that had been shot in those areas were the ones that were NOT coming back. The problem with epidemiologists, similar to my hero, Abraham Wald’s work, with B-17 bombers in WWII, is that we have to reframe our efforts to measure the percentage of people who display no symptoms, instead of our current situation where we test people who already quite obviously have the disease. This also leads to the notion that the most important testing priority we can have has to be shared between active testing for the disease, as well as antibody tests to determine asymptomatic percentages.
What does this information inform? When confined to specific populations (like the police!) we can understand when population saturation of the pandemic has occurred. NYPD officers are reporting 20% of their population have active symptoms. What this really means is that, if the asymptomatic percentages are to be believed, that functionally every cop has COVID.
Such information is simply invaluable, because now we can create strategies to deal with people in our population who suffer from the fate that any dose is too large — the immunosuppressed. When you accept that every cop has COVID, one now generates protocols and testing for both the cops, as well as the immunosuppressed, to make sure, regardless of the circumstance, the disease is not spread to those it will kill. Needless to say, there are other subpopulations we can monitor within the context of protecting the immunosuppressed. And then this also leads us away from large-scale population monitoring for an indefinite future. Testing of the sick will still matter — there will still be a need for an “all clear” for a person coming out of quarantine. But getting a clean bill of health for most nominal circumstances (health care workers will still need to monitored somehow for dosing limits, which is NOT happening now) will allow a pretty dramatic reopening of society.
It also informs the weeks necessary for state-wide social distancing. Asymptomatic rates at a given level could then be mapped to herd immunity requirements, and then interdiction of individuals with the virus could be scaled back.
In a world without resource constraints, we might be able to have a meditative retreat for 12 months in our home. And if some of the more hyperbolic narratives are to be believed, the minute we come out of lockdown, the virus will explode again — so we have no choice but to wait for the one past fix we know can work — a vaccine.
But that then asks to sideline much of what we actually know about spread of the virus — that it mostly floats in aerosols and droplets. We also would have to realize that masks would make no difference — even though there is much evidence in a variety of countries that they do. And I’ve written this piece on the whole evidence stack for masks.
Until we have extensive antibody testing (Taiwan has already developed the test and is scaling production) we are stuck with the tools we have. But now, it may not be so stupid to stop travelers who display a high fever at the border, or in an airport. The deep insight of what was going on might not have been part of the decisionmaking process regarding COVID initially in Asian countries. But it turns out that luck was on their side.
And the other part of this — adapting an OODA-Loop philosophy — is also something we should consider. Singapore went back into lockdown a couple of days ago, with the intent of it lasting only a month. Yet at the same time, the Prime Minister of Singapore announced larger exemptions for critical industries. All lockdowns are not equivalent, and there is evidence Singapore is acting far more strategically — in line with the kind of logic I discussed regarding police above — than a “one size fits all” solution.
The political language then also has to change — from one of surety, which we most certainly do NOT have — to solidarity — we are all connected together, and we share a common fate. And we will manage this thing together so that the maximum number of us come out the other side. These are not strategies that necessarily require a vaccine. But they require the one thing we must strive to evolve to — a greater sense of empathy and connection in our population.
And if we focus thusly, we might find that other problems we struggle with greatly in our society may start to recede. We can’t know everything about an uncertain future. But we can know that we share a common future — as well as a sense of community and love.
PS — One of my favorite poems — advocating for an OODA perspective toward life and crisis, by Edgar Lee Masters — The New Spoon River
One of the things that I’ve discussed in the context of the COVID-19 epidemic is that it is primarily a disease of our immunosuppressed. That tells you a lot about how we need to view the disease in terms of how it actually works, and how we need to frame our discussion going forward. I’ve been Tweeting about this all week — that viral DOSE matters. Why? Two populations are getting hit pretty hard. One, of course, is the immunosuppressed. But the second is our health care providers. And believe it or not, the physics of what is happening to both groups is remarkably similar.
What matters in the context of viruses like COVID-19 is the viral replication rate, as well as the immune response rate — how fast viruses manage to make themselves (modeled, once again, by the ever-popular exponential curve) and how fast the immune system scales up the various antibodies and white blood cells that form the main line of defense. The fact that multi-celled organisms exist is a sign that we’re better at this in the long run than single-celled organisms, like bacteria, or those super-small strands of encapsulated DNA that make up viruses.
But that’s cold comfort to someone suffering from COVID-19, in a major way.
So let’s break this up into the three cases, and take the broader view of what’s happening.
Case 1 – viral replication rate >> immune response rate
In this case, the body doesn’t stand a chance. You get infected, you’re the perfect petri dish, the virus overwhelms your immune system, and you die. Viruses like Ebola, with potential death rates of 90%, operate under these principles.
Why aren’t there more of these? Well, viruses that do this kill off their host. And unless they can survive living in a buzzard’s gastrointestinal tract, you rot on the ground and that virus is not successful. Humans encounter these types of viruses, they flare up, and then an outbreak ends relatively quickly, because the transmitter is, well, dead.
Case 2 — viral replication rate << immune response rate
In this case the virus doesn’t stand a chance. The poor, hapless virus floats into your system, tries to grab on, and then the immune system reacts/overreacts and pulverizes the virus. Dosage — how much of the virus you get into your system — matters. If you don’t get any kind of dose, you won’t see any kind of symptoms at all, as your mean immune response will likely take care of this in no time at all. This is the kind of thing we see with a common cold, typically a rhinovirus. A few symptoms, followed by a cessation in a day or two. And if the cold isn’t particularly virulent, or you don’t get a big dose, you likely will never know that the virus entered your body.
This kind of virus isn’t a whole lot more successful than the first, as it gets wiped out relatively quickly. It has to have someplace to go hang out until conditions (temps./humidity) are ripe for it to come out again.
Case 3 — viral replication rate ~= immune response rate
This is where things get interesting, and COVID-19 seems to fall into this category. Are there signs (without an intensive study) that this points to? Absolutely. A 5-14 day incubation period, before symptoms are shown, are a sign that the virus is slow to warm up to virile levels. The fact the disease itself runs some equivalent 14 day period is more evidence that there is a triggering that occurs. The fact (as we know it) that the virus kills 1% of its patients (terrible, but not so terrible) or the fact that you can even beat back the virus if you’ve got pneumonia is more evidence.
What this means also is that immunosuppressed people have more of a sliding window of rate with respect to their immune systems, that diminish the immune systems’ rate constant (the exponential factor) and make the infection worse if your immune system is indeed impaired. Not good.
What it also shows it that viral dose matters — how big a hunk of the virus you get into your system from exposure in the first place. That’s why masks matter. And experts are starting to chime in — see this opinion piece in the New York Times by Rabinowitz and Bartman from Princeton, who coincidentally happen to be in chemistry and genomics — not infectious diseases. I’m sure they’re using similar logic. A larger dose means that the virus, in this sliding window world, gets a bigger head start, and so can get to the point in more cases where it can overwhelm health care providers’ immune systems. So if they had some smaller weak point, even if they were younger, they could get knocked out of the fight. Or even die.
Understanding this mental model, though, is still in our favor. Instead of being afraid of sub-microscopic invaders, we can now start using more macroscopic notions, and cross-disciplinary ideas. Radiation and how people handle dosing says “shield the user” and it doesn’t always mean wearing lead-lined clothes. Placing appropriate barriers between people also helps, especially because we know that the virus is droplet-spread. Different jigs in high traffic situations will make a statistical difference. Here’s a great piece on a simple acrylic box that doctors in Taiwan are using during intubation. You can imagine how messy that is, if someone has pneumonia in both lungs.
The other thing that can really help is understanding the need to cycle various health care providers out of front-line exposure roles. There is a whole new playbook that we can use. And we should use it — especially in convincing health care professionals who have not yet been hit at epidemic levels. We need to understand that these populations are people under stress, and likely to be reaching for familiar solutions — “More PPE” which really means “more of what I’m familiar with.” But if those gowns aren’t available, or are even rationed, we need to introduce a deeper understanding, with hopefully some collaborative problem-solving. And as dissemination of novel techniques starts bearing fruit, more will clamor for these different approaches. And we need to be ready to help.