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.