Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus – Part I

Looking out over Hells Backbone, Utah, Grand Staircase/Escalante NP

I haven’t written much on the blog in the last couple of weeks — but I have been writing for the local paper, and thinking of messages that needed to get said. I started preparing my classes for online work about four weeks ago now, and making sure all my students could finish the semester. Being a senior is a big deal, and while they might miss graduation, I don’t think they’ll care as much about that as being thrown out of their apartments (they’re all seniors) without a degree.

But, of course, on a blog about empathy and how people know, there’s a ton of stuff to write about something like the current pandemic. Mostly because we still don’t know, as of this writing, much about it, and the lenses we’ll use to look at the social, psychological and anthropological aspects of it are so weak. How can we reasonably expect to understand our reactions to everything that is happening when we cannot meaningfully understand ourselves?

For what it’s worth, I do believe most of what I read coming from the microbiologists and epidemiological communities. It’s tough to exactly KNOW what they’re saying, however, because so much of their uncertainty tends to get passed through the media’s set of v-Meme filters, and sadly filtered out. It thus turns into mostly catastrophe, because the media is into catastrophe, and to be fair, they’ve been really traumatized by almost four years of Donald Trump. There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned relational disrupting, narcissistic psychopath to use a crisis like this to view this as both an attack on his version of the truth, as well as an opportunity to take down other potential power structures to consolidate his worldview. Damn everyone else to Hell, of course.

But I digress. I’ll give you some reasonable advice, and then I’ll talk about what I don’t know. You can stop with the reasonable advice — if you’re unfamiliar with my work, I’d almost be happy if you did, because it’s the result of spooling up the Hyperdrive for the last four weeks. But if you can handle uncertainty, then read through the rest.

First off, use the precautionary principle in everything that you do. Or better, use the probabilistic precautionary principle. You can’t avoid all social contact or public places, so dole out your grocery store chits a little more sanguinely. Odds are, you’ll be as alright as you can be.

Act as if bad stuff would happen — that’s fundamentally the precautionary principle. But at the same time, do be reasonably positive with those around you. In a crisis, you may indeed die. But odds are EXTREMELY LOW that you’re going to be a victim in this latest pandemic. Even if you’re old. At the same time, like it or not, death is part of the price of being part of this bizarre divine accident of the universe that led to Earth in the first place. But don’t go running around telling everyone that. It means that your last experiences will suck, and let’s face it — experiences are all we really have.

Do ask yourself what your meaningful locus of control is, and act within it. If all you can do is wash your hands to prevent the virus, then wash your damn hands. If you can help others, then help others. Me, I write messages for people to act upon, and lay the groundwork for long-term change. That’s what I’m doing. I also understand that I have the background and cultural/v-Meme filter for understanding global events, because I’ve been damn near everywhere, and can validly ground various theories about different cultures with my real experience.

That’s helpful in many different ways, but mostly now because it helps me relay information from trusted sources around the globe. As an example, I reconnected with a talented reporter from Lewiston who used to cover my timber protection antics over 20 years ago. She happens to be working in Italy now, and is married. She’s writing on the hospital crisis. Bingo — I now have a meaningful, ringside seat to interpret activities in Italy. For this on Twitter, follow @andreavogt. When it comes to China, I’ve spent a lot of time in China, from mountain villages to industrial districts. I know what I can actually believe, as well as understanding how people actually live. I’ve honestly been to wet markets. Here’s some pictures.

Fish, turtles, and frogs

(While I’m hopeful for curtailing the endangered species trade, anyone that thinks that wet markets are going to get banned from SE Asia is smoking crack.)

Do not spread information that you don’t believe is accurate. Now is not the time for your bizarre 5G -turning on virus conspiracy theories. Anyone involved with any engineering effort knows how hard it is to get two pieces of equipment to line up, let alone an entire global network to just “turn on.” Just stop it.

Oh yeah — pat your dog. He or she is very cute. And that’s important. Here’s my pup.

Mac — and yes, he’s very soft.


OK, so now let’s dig into a couple of big questions, that I’ll likely flesh out in a couple more posts.

There is a bunch of stuff that is unknown about the coronavirus. Since posts on this blog hang around forever, my hope is that three months from now, we have hard answers. But we don’t have them now, and so all we’re left with is our ability to take information, and reason through this.

First off is that we DO know that cases of coronavirus can be asymptomatic, or have mild symptoms. Coronaviruses are pretty close to the common cold, and they’re super-common in animal diseases like “insert-your-animal-name-here” diarrhea. The pronounced incubation period is 5.5 days. But I have yet to see any convincing data on how long asymptomatic coronavirus takes to build immunity before receding. We just can’t know that — we haven’t done any wide-scale testing (maybe China will figure this out, since they definitely have had it longer!) and testing has also been limited to people that are pretty sick. If you had just a common cold, you wouldn’t have been tested for it at all.

We do know that it is contagious — very contagious. But what does that mean? If it’s really contagious, then odds are a large number of people will have the virus present in their system, but only a certain percentage will be tested because of the shortage of testing kits, and, well, the whole asymptomatic problem I talked about above — which ALSO may be difficult to capture with the current tests. Some asymptomatic people who have the virus may have a heavy viral load — that happens! But others may just have a little, which will then create the problem of false negatives — having it, but not showing up on the test. Sigh…

But if it is contagious, then where I live — Pullman, WA — may be the place to do the study. Five commercial airplanes from Seattle (as well as a number of business jets) land at the Pullman Regional Airport every day. That means, for the last four weeks, we’ve been dumping a vectored number of carriers from Seattle into our population, and then serving it up among likely asymptomatic, strong-immune-system college students who are famous for crowding together in bars and smooching. Even yesterday, AFTER all the closures, I was outside one of our local coffee shops. Graduate students from my department were hugging and kissing their goodbyes.

The other problem is that we don’t have any data on diseases like Influenza-A in our small community. I found this graph from New York City, posted by Chris Hayes from MSNBC. I’m not a huge Chris Hayes fan, FWIW — but this kind of information (supposedly gathered from NYC Emergency Rooms) is likely reliable and valid.

ER Data from NYC

Information like this is super-valuable, because that second peak is likely not from the flu. I’m betting it’s from the coronavirus. It’s similar (well, meta-similar) to the work that Abraham Wald did, on what you don’t know might be what is killing you. Wald was famous for his work on B-17 bomber survival in WWII. He figured out examining the planes that came back to see who made it was equally important to understand what planes DIDN’T come back. Short version — don’t put more armor on the bullet holes you can see. Put more on the clean spots on the returnees — because the planes that didn’t come back likely had bullet holes there.

Notice the second peak. I can easily easily believe that’s when coronavirus started becoming more widespread – March 1. I’m writing this 15 days into this from Seattle, which has been called the “Wuhan” of the US. So it obviously makes me exposed even before that March 1 peak in NYC.

Why is this a great example of a plot you can believe, without all those false positives, OR negatives? Symptoms recorded in an ER are awesome. Doctors and PAs can see them, and odds are the hypochondriacs just get booted out of the system. But when we rely on hastily constructed tests (not that we shouldn’t use the “best we’ve got”) we also struggle with statistics. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of all of this, but look at this article for an idea about false positives. It doesn’t talk about the whole issue of false negatives, but these numbers are not encouraging.

Why does this matter? Every localized epidemic is going to transition from exponential growth, to logistic growth after a while, as basically everyone in the population gets it. This is an awesome video that explains this concept. Basically, if a population is constrained, the virus saturates in that population, and then goes away as immunity of everyone in the system builds. That’s one of the things the Chinese government did in Wuhan — prevented the spread of the virus to other, untouched provinces. That will be hard to do in the U.S., where anyone and everyone flies all the time.

The problem about sussing all this stuff out for a new (novel) coronavirus is that the first round is likely to be the worst as far as spread. No one has any immunity for sure, and so it’s game on from the minute the virus shows up. But because we’re humans, and have some ethics, we can’t run the experiment over and over on different populations and intensively watch. We have to guess, and go from there.


Understanding the virus by spreading the peak, through ‘social distancing’ and such, is something that other people have written about, like this piece. I understand it intrinsically, and support it, but don’t need to write about it. Read this for more detail.


One of the things that has not been examined in too much detail is the existence and extent of mutation variability in the coronavirus. DO correct me in the comments if I’m wrong. I’ve often wondered if, like cowpox and smallpox, there are two differentiated varieties in play here, and if you draw the short straw, you get the bad one. For those that have forgotten their smallpox history lesson, the smallpox vaccine came from observing that milkmaids got ‘smallpox-like’ pustules on their hands, but never came down with the disease. Edward Jenner became famous for taking this insight and creating the first smallpox vaccine. Cowpox is annoying. Smallpox kills, in the most terrible way possible.

Finally, while there’s more to write, I’d caution people against assuming the next mutation is going to be more deadly to humans than the current strain, which we really don’t know much about. Viruses aren’t on some path to extinguish us — unlike how we feel about viruses! The next mutation might be worse. But it might not affect us at all, in which case we wouldn’t notice. Viruses that kill their hosts are NOT very successful viruses over the long haul. I have a number of friends who are veterinarians, and they’ll be pleased to tell you that animal diarrhea is often caused by the coronavirus. One of the large animal vets I work out with at the gym, after having his hands immersed in calf poop his whole life, feels he’s likely immune.

Of course, he can’t know, and that’s the problem — he doesn’t want to get shot up with the latest viral version to find out. But diseases have been jumping around from animals to people, and likely back again for as long as humans and animals hang out together. It was, as Jared Diamond informed us in Guns, Germs and Steel, the thing that enabled us to extinct off most of the Native American tribes in the New World during the Columbian Exchange.

If there’s a deep complexity/empathy message here, it’s this. We have to embrace metacognitive uncertainty, while still picking paths that bring us closer to keeping most of us alive. And those are social actions, keyed to the extent of the development of the people around us. That’s the next thing I’ll be writing about. What won’t work is assuming we know and dismissing the threat, or throwing up our hands and saying we should do nothing. Neither of those paths will work well in the current situation.

It’s a personal/empathetic development problem. Our collective organism will survive to the extent we maximize grounded/truthful information flows, regardless of what level of development we’re at.

Quickie Post — Drugs, Enlightenment, and Nazis (Oh My!)

One more year, and the gang’s all here…

Just so you know, I’ve never been a Kool Kid. That does not mean I haven’t smoked some dope — I have — and I even did a hit of LSD once when I was about 18. It was supposed to transform my life, but instead it did absolutely nothing, even while all my fellow trippers were freaking out around me. That probably says more about my brain than anything else. Keeping it real is my core ethos.

So I guess I’ve always been Old School about enlightenment in general. I do know Kool Kids, some of whom are dear friends, who tolerate my general attitude of sardonic stoicism. And it seems like a couple of years back there were more than a few taking the Shaman trail down to South America to take ayahuasca or some such icks. It just doesn’t interest me — and while I like to drink wine (I’m up for a bicycle tour of Austria’s Wachau Valley!) I’m definitely more of a Wim Hof kind of guy — get high on my own supply.

I always find it interesting when a new wave of various activists (not going to mention names here) start promoting some version of a new brain drug to raise consciousness. I do believe in the medicinal benefits of nutrition, so I’m not dismissing this stuff out of hand. My own green tea pills I take definitely make me more clear-headed. But once you get beyond that realm, I’m most definitely a nay-sayer. I’m more in the camp of the old Buddhist masters. You want enlightenment? It ain’t free. The brain has 4.5B years of evolution honing its emergent possibilities. The odds you’re going to hack yours up another level is extremely likely to be BS — or long-term damaging. I’d rather take a dunk in freezing water. And I do.

From my last 3 minute dunk in the Clearwater River, IDchilly (5 degrees C for my rest-of-the-world readers!)

If drugs work in any real way in the brain as far as accelerating function, they’re far more likely in accentuating the v-Memes and knowledge structures your brain already has in it. Accentuation MIGHT give you an edge in creating some more branching. But if you see yourself jump up a significant level, it’s far more likely that it’s made part of your brain mushy, giving you temporary neuroplasticity in the short run. And that might be a good thing — sometimes we just have to shake things loose.

But as a chronic practice? More likely that your brain starts deforming after a couple of cycles, like a bad run of thermoplastic polymer. It’s not long until your brain starts resembling the half-melted candles from that last Hippy Party you went to. You can redline your car engine also. Get back to me on how that affects long-term reliability.

As far as general enlightenment, you really have to put on the blinders to believe this. I’ve written earlier about the Nazis and drugs, here’s the Guardian’s take, and here’s another fun, short piece with similar insights. Published in the online journal, Psymposia, there are a welter of examples of exactly the kind of “bad stuff gone wrong” with contemporary Nazis that possess eery parallels to history. The past didn’t go anywhere.

I’m all about self-improvement, up to some narcissistic limit. But I’ve never found another path to enlightenment, or status as an übermensch, outside of experiencing, thinking or not-thinking. So if you ask me, you want the good stuff — get out on your bicycle, cut sugar out of your diet, and take a cold dunk every now and then. Get high on your own supply! And for me, I’ve never found a better place to both ponder and meditate than on a 30 mile ride, on a no-car bike path. Perfect.

Fanciful Flights for a Sunday Morning – Gene vs. Meme Wars and does the Universe have a sense of humor?

Braden’s first CS Mentors – on the pier at Santa Cruz

I’ve been dialoging with the AI community a bit on Twitter lately. It’s only marginally productive for me, though I’ve had a couple of killer thoughts. The biggest thing is that the brain, for the most part, stores everything IN THE END, as linked narratives (thanks, Carlos Perez!) Parts basically float around in the (mostly) left side of the brain until they pass through the hippocampus, which serves kind of like a spinning wheel. It takes those fragments of memory-wool, and essentially creates the thread of autobiographical experience, and stashes that, wrapped on a little spool, on the right side of the brain.

The key takeaway is that experience may be the real generator of knowledge — but if you don’t have any fragments, you can’t expect much on the right side. This maps well with the stuff I’ve unpacked in the trauma literature. And yeah — I’ve been told that I need to check out Iain McGilchrist’s work. It’s next on the list.

One of the things I digested in my attempt to empathize with the AI world was looking at this video of a presentation, from the Kidd Lab (pun intended, or I certainly hope so!) where the researchers had tagged a laser to an infant’s head in an attempt to learn how a baby acquires information. It seems reasonable — the child points that laser around, kind of in ever-increasing circles, and that’s the way they expand their awareness. In what I would call a meta-linear fashion.


The director of the lab, Celeste Kidd, seems to be popular on the AI circuit, with her theories attempting to being harnessed by AI researchers in figuring out how to program AIs and ML algorithms.

I just watched one presentation, so maybe I’m just full of it. But nowhere in that presentation was there any mention of the intense learning environment a baby gets when interacting with its primary caregiver. Maybe it’s in another part of their work. But it sure wasn’t in that presentation. It’s that academic “empathy as a blindspot” thing. And considering an infant might look around for a fraction of the time it spends interacting with its mother/father, wouldn’t one think that the dominant mode be at least a little related to time spent?

And we do know what happens to the brains of babies that don’t get that caregiver interaction. They simply go bonkers. The videos I’ve seen of places like Romanian orphanages, with the babies standing up and rocking themselves, attempting to gain synchronization of their inner clocks without a caregiver are simply too depressing for me to go searching for.

Watching videos like this get me going, more along the lines of “why is this so hard?” — namely, why wouldn’t the researchers even mention empathy? Why is it such a blind spot?

Since it’s Sunday morning, I’ll be a little indulgent. What we’ve actually got going on is a universal conflict in coding information for complexity. In our world, we have two primary modes — genes and memes. Genes are interesting things, in that they’ve produced all sorts of cool things over the 4.5B years we’ve been on the planet — everything from Therapsids to Dimetrodons to T-Rexes to humans, and all sorts of weird monkeys the world over. Not to mention octopuses and squids. I could go on.

But genes count on information being expressed in ways that the individual carrying them has very limited agency in understanding. Genes are all about automatic choices. If you’re a cis-guy and you see a beautiful woman, you’re going to find a way to talk to her. And this isn’t a gender thing — I’m sure Brad Pitt gets lots of attention every time he walks through an airport. That behavior is naturally emergent, and while we may create elaborate justifications for it, its origins come from deep within our code. Partner selection and fitness runs the show for reproduction. And the bottom line is a person’s physical appearance. Much has been written on this — everything from quality of someone’s hair to whether they look like daddy,

But the genes have a vested interest in you NOT being aware. They’re the hardware, and they don’t want you to jump cross-platform to a new computer. They just don’t want you to know that you could. They’re COUNTING on keeping you in the dark. It takes a lot of reverse habituation to stop this behavior. Look at Follower counts on Twitter. If you’re a pretty woman, it’s not that hard to get your numbers up. Content be damned. Duh.

There are whole fields genes have devoted to themselves, besides the obvious ones. Sociobiology, for one, says the genes completely run the show. And E.O. Wilson was no dummy. There’s a 1000 examples of genes making us do stuff, compared to that one example where they don’t. And whole disciplines (here’s looking at you, anthropology and sociology) have devoted themselves to the idea that bonobos are the reason we do everything we do.

Except bonobos don’t build skyscrapers, and they likely never will, no matter how friendly they are. (And for those that have forgotten, bonobos are the VERY FRIENDLY ape…)

But to build skyscrapers, you don’t need genetic evolutionary information, other than as a scaffolding. You do need a computer/brain. But after that, it’s software all the way.

And if you believe me, that’s where the structural memetics come in. You need increasingly complex forms of changeable information architectures — and by changeable, I mean in the next couple of hours after you run that stress calculation again. You can’t wait a million years to find out.

It makes sense that genes have our back when it comes to awareness, or rather, very limited awareness. It actually DOESN’T PAY genetically over the long haul to let us have our own minds. Better to jump quickly and not over-think that snake in the tree, or lion in the grass. Or ponder Deleuze with your meta-modern friends. Run like hell back to the band, or you’re about to join the food chain in a less-than-eloquent fashion. And become a part of someone else’s genetic fitness experiment.

And it would strike me that genes would like brains that DON’T have the ability to know that they’re up there, capable of thinking their own thoughts and making their own decision. And carrying this even further, the last thing a genetic brain would want is an awareness of connection. JUST DO IT if it makes sense.

But for memetics, we need to understand how we connect, or we simply can’t unpack how we should reassemble. And while memetics loves the idea of laying out a master plan, the genes are screaming the fundamental unknowing of this, kind of like a monkey clinging desperately to your hat. It’s why mindfulness is so hard, and so few of us practice this in any meaningful way. We’re happy to tell others we meditated, but how many of us are really willing to admit some of the darker drivers to our personae?

It’s a cosmic war — genes vs. memes. Of course, both have their place. But we’re about to see, with this global warming thing, which one is going to win out. We’ve already seen the weakness of the genetic game the last time an asteroid hit 70 million years ago. Memetics have been sneaking up across the world for a while. And this Internet thingy is really giving genes a run for the money.

Maybe. Pop popcorn. It’s only going to get more interesting from here on out. I’m not one to anthropomorphize the Universe too much, but it certainly seems that She has a sense of humor.

Dreamland — A Quickie Review

Sea kayaking, off the coast of Espiritu Santo, La Paz BCS

I’ve written a little about my upbringing in a modest size community in southern Ohio — Portsmouth. For the most part, my family lived in Portsmouth while I was growing up – there’s a more complicated trajectory of the reasons why we moved, from inside the city, to a small hobby farm outside, which did matter in the development of my mental perspective. Living in Portsmouth was largely a classic suburban existence, albeit far more violent than most people in the US in that socioeconomic class typically experience. Living in the countryside, though, broadened dramatically my exposure, and understanding of rural poverty in Midwest America. It was hard-core Appalachia outside the city limits, and there was more than one night riding the school bus home after dark where kids would be having sex in the rear of the bus.

At any rate, the confluence of conditions of a profound lack of opportunity in my hometown, coupled with my desire to live in the western U.S. and pursue whitewater sport, caused me to leave Ohio when I was 20. After working at J&L Steel in Cleveland, I moved to North Carolina and Duke University, and really never look back. That was in 1983.

Just because you leave a place, though, doesn’t mean it decides to freeze itself in time. And Portsmouth, even in the mid ’70s, was an iconic community starting the process of unraveling. Never known for its social cohesion, railroad strikes were known for boxcars off the tracks and burning police cars. Empire-Detroit Steel Corporation, with their antiquated open hearth furnaces, and wire and rail mills, started the process of collapse through major closures of parts of the mill around 1976. And it never did get better — the shoelace factory closed, and the shoe factory, and so on. They were never replaced, but created one of the first post-industrial landscapes in the U.S.

And though we were north of the Mason-Dixon Line (Kentucky was just across the river) there was no let-up in the chronic racism that African-Americans experienced. De facto segregation corralled almost all the black folks in one part of the city with a swath of public housing, and the black kids had their own pool to go to as well. I can’t remember the name of that pool, but it wasn’t the one where I worked as a lifeguard, courtesy of a family friend and swimming instructor.

That pool was called Dreamland, and it was a big one. It was a nexus of the white trash community, and I have many fond memories of hanging out with single moms watching their kids playing in the water, and 13-year-old girls. By this time, the idea of 16-year-old girls hanging out by the pool all summer had already faded into the sunset. To be a teenager in Portsmouth meant summer work in a fast food joint, or laboring on a garden or road crew. I supplemented my own lifeguard earnings with literally backbreaking labor throwing hay on nearby farms, mostly at my parents’ insistence. I didn’t want the money (the pay was $2/hr.) but the farmers were friends and needed the labor.

It was with a certain fascination that I picked up Sam Quinones’ book ‘Dreamland’ — a book about the opioid epidemic. I knew that Dreamland, the pool, had long been filled in and ceased to exist. But I was tied to this place — and while I maintained some friendships with old high school classmates, largely, I had left.

Why should anyone interested in the topics on this blog read Quinones’ book? Because it is an amazing piece of generative complex systems adaptation after social collapse. Or rather, it documents what happens during a process of social collapse, as ingrained information regarding functioning social structures morph and change to adapt to new norms.

The short timeline behind all this is as follows. The factories providing revenue from outside the community fold. That lack of money/energetic support ceases to exist, and formerly proud and effective social structures also start collapsing. The center of the town is abandoned, replaced by some version of Walmarts, which then form the new nexus of economic activity.

But these also are poorly supported, and the area and its inhabitants fall into depression. This depression creates the need for a caregiver community to start prescribing (and exploiting) the population using opioids. This legal channel works in combined ways, some bad, but not all, until it grows to the size the exploitation is so bad, it must be stopped. A few doctors build amazing fortunes on providing the drugs — Margie Temponeras, one of the doctors not mentioned in the book, but a literal next-door neighbor whom I grew up with. She was recently convicted and sentenced under federal drug trafficking laws for singularly providing millions of pills from her pain clinic in Wheelersburg, an adjacent town to Portsmouth by about six miles. What Temponeras did was terrible and inexcusable– but I also have to wonder about the lack of empathy toward her victims, and the trauma roots of all this, as her brother was killed working under a car around the time we were in high school.

Even after reading Dreamland, it’s unclear exactly to me when the legal pills stopped distribution in Portsmouth, and the black tar heroin dealers from the state of Nayarit in Mexico started flowing. There was obviously a parallel confluence of the two sources. But the system dynamics are unmistakable. What happened with the Nayaritos, in the face of a community living in depression and pain, was they evolved a parallel economic ecosystem involving dispensation of black tar heroin in small balloons, containing .1 g of heroin, throughout Portsmouth, as well as ‘underserved’ communities across the Midwest.

What was different about the Nayarit strategy was that instead of having a centralized drug house, where people who might be addicted would have to go to buy their hit of drugs, the bosses put clean-cut Mexican young men in nondescript cars, like Toyota Corollas in a decentralized distribution system pre-dating Uber Eats by almost two decades. If you wanted your fix, you’d page one of them on your pager, and they would bring the hit to you. If you were out of money, they’d understand, and front you your fix until you found the money.

And if you couldn’t find the money, well, the Nayaritos would have a list of goods you could steal for payment. From Walmart — to the point where if there was a disagreement with your drug delivery boy, you both could call Walmart for a price check. This phenomenon blossomed to people specializing in stealing certain categories of goods. Some folks might specialize in baby clothes, or stereo equipment, and even set up these types of stores in their apartments. The demand for American goods was strong back in Nayarit, and the mercantile ecosystem of thievery would adapt. Quinones writes in unflinching detail about all of this from a true complex system perspective. It is mind-boggling.

After reading the book, some of it was so unbelievable I had to start calling old friends to find out how much was hyperbole and how much was truth. The sad reality I was exposed to was that many of my high school friends’ kids had also been victims of the epidemic and gotten hooked on opioids — either the legal or illegal varieties. Any “it couldn’t happen to decent people” thoughts were quickly disabused by my old friend, who will remain anonymous, as she listed the various people that I would know that had to deal with this crisis. I subscribe to my hometown news feed, and while there is some positive news every now and then, most of the region reels under the crisis of naked addicts writhing around in parking lots, and an unusually high number of chronic petty thefts and automobile accidents. It’s like the whole area has St. Vitus Dance, the Appalachian name for Huntington’s Disease, where the hapless victim shakes themselves to death quietly.

If there’s any lesson from all of this, especially in a time where more and more of the country is experiencing this kind of economic dislocation, is that mirror systems will appear regardless of protestations of morality from others saying to withhold aid. In the case of Portsmouth, the Nayaritos provided the social care system in the absence of a more formal, prosocial variety. Nothing gets better, of course, because it can’t.

It’s not like the drug dealers, nor the cops on the take, nor the last newspaper editor running anti-Muslim propaganda on his own Facebook page have a bigger view of the world. And so one sees a distorted web woven of dysfunctional relationships springing up, alternately making new modalities of functioning, like methods for quick mass theft of goods from Walmart, coupled with legacy modes borrowed from the past — like setting up a store with indexed pricing of stolen consumer goods. Like pictures I’ve seen of the webs woven by spiders exposed to psychedelic drugs, the long-term evolutionary characteristics are doubtless nonviable. But they work well enough in the present so that the spider can catch a few flies.

My recommendation? Quinones’ book, which has received accolades from many quarters, should be high on anyone’s list who cares about the fate of our country. Liberals in particular need to read this book, and realize that many of the forces that put Trump into power have not gone away. And short of secession, we are going to live with the legacy of places like Portsmouth’s collapse for a long time. Because people will adapt to their circumstance. And it won’t be pretty.

A tip of the hat to my wife, Chia-Chu Hu, for the insight that when you don’t set up a social services system, one will basically become emergent and find its way for people in need. And those people may be heroin dealers from Nayarit.

Quickie Post — Young Prodigies Usually Do Not Turn into Paradigm-Shifting Geniuses

My swimming partner — a 30′ whale shark, La Paz, Baja California Sur

A nice, bio-sketch piece from the BBC came flying across my Twitter feed from fellow educational pioneer, John Hagel (tip of the hat — John goes through a TON of content, sorts it, and posts it on Twitter!) This one, titled Child prodigies: How geniuses navigate the uncertain journey to adulthood, narrates the journeys of a number of prodigies who mostly either finished college early, or in other ways became known at an early age for musical performance. The piece was probably spurred by the recent mini-controversy over Laurent Simons, the Belgian prodigy who looked to break the record for earliest college graduate (his major was in electrical engineering) at the age of 10. He was, depending on your perspective, thwarted/didn’t cut the mustard/whatever! by the university he was enrolled in. And in light of that, his parents yanked him out to attend school in the United States.

The more interesting part of the piece is really NOT the idea that a 10-year-old can graduate from college, or play concert-level violin. Neuro-differentiated youngsters, possessing brains that run at the functional computer equivalent of increased clock rates, are going to show up on the tails of various intelligence measure distributions. They’re going to finish college faster because their brains in isolation are going to run faster.

What’s more fascinating is that they, through the process of their innate capacity, along with learned specialization, usually do NOT turn into creative geniuses. As I’ve discussed extensively on this blog, empathetic interaction is far more likely to yield creative solutions that leaving one, ungrounded person with their own thoughts. So it’s no surprise that these young people specialize in things requiring knowledge sophistication — and race through universities, also dedicated to exactly that same type of thought pattern/value set. Creative genius is almost always cross-paradigmatic, borrowing from different perspectives, than the narrow, parthenogenesis of further refinement that happens inside universities.

Here’s the picture I’m fond of using showing the difference between evolution and complexity, and sophistication, for your reference.

Evolution vs. Sophistication in Knowledge Structures

If you key into one part of this graph, consider the “reliability vs. validity” aspect. A prodigy violin player can practice over and over a particular sequence so they play it perfectly — thus emphasizing reliability. But even the best young player requires coaching from a master in order to deliver nuance in their playing, or communicate through their music moods expressed in the composition, such as loss of a loved one, or Alexander Nevsky beating the Livonian Order on the ice in Prokofiev’s masterpiece. A young person simply doesn’t have the life experience, and must rely on mirroring empathy. Their master must provide the grounding validity.

Limiting cases, such as these talented young people are especially useful for generalized insight into sentience. Not because of their externally validated accomplishments, like graduating from Oxford early. But because what they cannot do points to ways we must change, and establish behavior reward. The future, if we are going to have one, and the answers to the big questions are going to rely on connected thought, across disciplines and people. It will be empathetic.

Making Ethical AI and Avoiding the Paperclip Maximizer Problem

Sea Lion craziness, off Isla Espiritu Santo, Baja California Sur

On my Twitter feed, there are multiple threads going at any one time regarding ethical AI. While the work is specific and sophisticated, it lacks any larger framework, like Spiral Dynamics, that actually shows how values evolve, or are placed in sets. And true to the social structure of organizations that create this kind of knowledge — mostly Legalistic/Authoritarian hierarchies — it’s no surprise that we have lots of esoterica flying around about specific mathematical strategies, as well as ad hoc philosophical solutions.

As I’ve said before, there is absolutely nothing morally wrong with this kind of thinking. But one can’t expect any of it to be complete, or perhaps better said, cover the value space. You can’t attempt to cover a space that you don’t know exists. If you’ve got a bunch of Dead White Philosophers in your secret ghost army to support your hypothesis, odds are you’re thinking you’re going to protect Minas Tirith from Sauron. But more likely, you’re going to just end up in some chaotic version of one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, like Curse of the Black Pearl, that I just happened to watch on the airplane.

Yesterday, in the middle of some Twitter discussion, with Thought Grandfather, Mel Conway, he brought up the AI thought puzzle called Paperclip Maximizer. The short version of this trope is this:

  1. We create an AI whose goal is two-fold — maximize the number of paperclips it has created, and give it as well the job of improving its ability to maximize the number of paperclips it CAN create.
  2. We turn it loose, and in the process, it potentially kills us in its desire to fulfill the inexorable demands of its objective function.

It all SEEMS like a reasonable problem, and in his book, Human Compatible, Stuart Russell, noted Berkeley computer scientist reasons around this by making AIs pleasantly subservient to humans through individual adaptation to their masters — kind of a riff on the Communitarian value set.

But there’s a better, and more systematic way to get at all this. How? By understanding the Value Set of our Paperclip Maximizer, and then making sure we have provided enough scaffolding in the programming of our AI to make sure that it doesn’t make paperclips out of the entire world. Naturally, this is predicated on the assumption that Sentience is Sentience is Sentience, a classically unprovable postulate, though I’m issuing a friendly challenge to anyone showing some thought or piece of knowledge actually lies outside some construction from the canonical knowledge structure set in this piece.

To start, what is the Value Set/V-Meme set of the Paperclip Maximizer — let’s call him Mr. Clippy –in the first place? If Mr. Clippy is solely concerned with a.) its survival, b.) its emotional state of fulfillment upon making more paperclips, and c.) utilizing some developing heuristic set of methodologies to make paperclips, it’s pretty much all on the ‘I’ side of the Spiral. Here’s a handy little diagram that makes this point.

The Basics

Of course, one can think of more behaviors that would be generated by the different value sets/v-Memes — and if Mr. Clippy is more diabolical, we’re likely to see higher v-Meme borrowing. But the basic fact is that Mr. Clippy is egocentric, and given an objective function that prioritizes his own success through measurement of paperclip production, it’s entirely possible that he’ll dream of world domination and offing his human creators. And that will be dependent on the sophistication AND evolution of his learning strategies.

Fascinatingly enough, we now might start to see how empathy and its development play into Mr. Clippy’s development. With limited or no empathy (let’s assume that Mr. Clippy has access to mirroring strategies) — if he sees another AI — Ms. Clippy? — making more paper clips than him, he may indeed be able to copy her. But he’s pretty limited on getting any feedback on his obsession, and it’s not long until he’s what I’ve called “collapsed egocentric” — which means he’s on his way to full-on psychopathy, with fuzzy, or limited boundaries between the consumption of the world and his desires.

The social structure of his creator also starts showing up. Mr. Clippy may be able to collect data and form new empirical relationships and laws — classic Legalistic/Absolutistic value set knowledge formation. But if Mr. Clippy is tied to his objective function by his creator, he’s going to lack the agency to evolve. Remember, he’s got to keep making clips, and while he can sort the various algorithms and potentially change algorithms to make clips faster, he can never question “Why” he’s making the clips in the first place.

And since he’s disconnected from all other realities except the metric of increased paperclip production, he simply CAN’T evolve. His objective function has frozen him, or rather his sentience, like a bug in amber. He can’t connect, and as such, unless there are some explicit overrides in his program to gather information and interact with others, he is simply incapable. The computer-y way of saying all this is he has no access to, nor ability to change other agents’ states. He has no developed empathy.

What if Mr. Clippy had empathy, and as such started receiving feedback from other AI agents (like Ms. Clippy) or humans out there? One can start seeing that Mr. Clippy might start developing longer timelines of actions — especially if he was equipped with a longer term memory. Mr. Clippy might whack a few humans on his way to higher paperclip production, but perhaps one of those humans he whacked might have held a secret Mr. Clippy discovers later to have the ability to up his paperclip production even more. Now Mr. Clippy might start reflecting on the wisdom of whacking humans, as that would interfere with his Prime Directive. And so on.

By adding value sets/v-Memes on the ‘We’ side of the Spiral, we can start seeing that connection really matters. And Mr. Clippy has to start also being aware of his own actions, and how they affect others, or else we’ll be back in the “Mr. Clippy as Pennywise the Clown” trope once again. Most importantly, we can start understanding how to add scaffolding to Mr. Clippy’s objective function so he can make more paperclips, as well as prevent killing off all humans. Maybe Mr. Clippy will end up setting up supply chains! Who knows?

Scaffolded Mr. Clippy

I could go on with this, of course. But hopefully, if you’re interested enough in SD, this has made you happy. And if you’re into AI, but haven’t heard about SD, there’s enough to pique your interest.

But before we leave Mr. Clippy behind, and the larger issue of coding value sets and behaviors, let’s just take a minute and back up and consider who wrote about Paperclip Maximizer in the first place? The fundamental thesis of Mr. Clippy is that, given an objective function and NO deep understanding of value sets and how they work, this thing is gonna make paperclips and run away and kill everyone. Because it’s SO SMART.

Yet any performance grounding from around the world tells us basically all manufacturing items rely on complicated supply chains for efficiency. These supply chains have negotiated contracts and commitments to specialization for all supplies, from zinc-covered wire, to bending machines and such. Where we’ve REALLY been had is by Mr. Clippy’s creator, who obviously is an Authoritarian, and believes that even with a single objective metric, # of paperclips, that the best way to do it is to be an obsessive psychopath.

SD and understanding value sets can help us with ethical AI. There’s no question about that. And yeah — there might be a runaway paperclip AI that with little evolution, destroys the world. But maybe our real problem is a lack of understanding where we get these stories in the first place. Maybe the real moral of the Mr. Clippy story is that we’re not going to have very advanced AIs until we understand intersubjective understanding and independent agency. In other words — we better bone up on empathy, if we really want complexity.

Why do The Gods only Talk to Some of Us?

That’s me in the little blue boat… 2019

One of the things that has always bothered me about any developmental theory is that inevitably, it gets coopted by the status-conscious as a way of justifying their ostensible superiority. What happens next is an outflowing of the usual bile from those claiming the mantle of enlightenment — “those people” don’t love, they don’t care, or have feelings. And THEN the next action, at times in history, has been to kill them. Any theory of the übermensch has the dark problem of highlighting human superiority turning into a tool for psychopaths. It’s no surprise to me that Crazy Uncle Friedrich (Nietzsche) would wax operatically about the Spartans, whom I’ve written about before. It makes my mind reel to think people would wax heroic about a nation based on pederasty. Sorry.

I’ve told amalgamated friend Hanzi Freinacht that what we need to do is move to a stage-based theory that embodies instead of a hierarchy of status, a hierarchy of responsibility. If you’re more enlightened, well, that’s all well and good. Now here’s a big, old serving of duty for fixing what ails the world.

The Zen Buddhist monks got all these concepts in spades. One of my favorite stories, from Paul Reps’ curated 101 Zen Stories is below, that captures this sentiment.

Soldiers of Humanity

Once a division of the Japanese army was engaged in a sham battle, and some of the officers found it necessary to make their headquarters in Gasan’s temple.

Gasan told his cook: “Let the officers have only the same simple fare we eat.”

This made the army men angry, as they were used to very deferential treatment. One came to Gasan and said: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers, sacrificing our lives for our country. Why don’t you treat us accordingly?”

Gasan answered sternly: “Who do you think we are? We are soldiers of humanity, aiming to save all sentient beings.”

The bottom line of all this is that all people (at least those without broken brain circuits) feel things like love and attachment, or sorrow in loss of love. It is unfair to say that a poor person, or a person from a different culture, doesn’t feel some version of love. But the way, and the triggers for that emotion, naturally vary wildly dependent on that person’s background culture, as well as stage of development. I remember reading an account of the Coptic Christian massacre by Daesh/Islamic State in 2015, where IS killed 21 construction workers in the name of revenge for an alleged failed conversion of a Copt woman to Islam. A reporter had traveled to the town in Egypt, where many of the workers were from. Expecting to find a devastated community, instead they found families honored by their sons’ martyred sacrifice. So there is indeed range in human response — but it’s important to understand that the joy and pride were a response to their love. Not an abnegation of it.

Another great example I’ve used to build my empathy, that maps really well to the development of humanity, is understanding the characters in the documentary about the construction and filling behind the Three Gorges Dam — Up the Yangtze , by director Yung Chung. Chung covers the plight of the poorest of the poor — a farmer and his wife living along the banks of the river, and soon to be displaced by the rising flood waters backing up behind the dam. Their material condition is extremely poor — you have to watch the documentary to appreciate it, and I was raised in the hills of Appalachia. Yet there is an obvious bond between the old farmer and his wife. I find myself working to understand their bond — what constitutes, to the wife, the idea that she married well, and as such, serves as a devoted partner to her husband. Instead of doubting that those different from us feel emotion, it’s a useful point of growth.

But back to the main question. If we’re fundamentally all the same, yet different through some lens of personal development, why do the gods only talk to some of us? They certainly don’t talk to me. Is there an evolutionary reason that we can understand why the gods don’t talk to me, but do talk to others, that’s explainable in the four dimensions we have in the here and now?

With a tip of the hat to Carlos Perez, who writes extensively on AI, and recently covered my concept of Structural Memetics as a route toward understanding AI development, I’m obviously not the first person to consider this question. What I’m going to discuss is Julian Jayne’s Theory of the Bicameral Mind. Written in 1978, Jaynes argued that consciousness is a learned behavior, and in the long context of human history, relatively recent. Ulysses of the Odyssey really WAS told what to do by the gods — in particular, the goddess Athena, who was said to resemble him the most in that she was also the goddess prone to tricks.

We both know tricks, since you are by far the best among all men in counsel and tales, but I among all the Gods have renown for wit (metis) and tricks.1

Ulysses is not the only mythic, or semi-mythic figure trotted out with a thin version of a conscience. He did end up in Dante’s lowest level of the Inferno for a reason. For those of Abrahamic religious persuasion, it’s worthwhile to note that Abraham himself was told to sacrifice his oldest son, Isaac. He was just about to do it until Yahweh issued a stay of execution. In lots of places in the Bible, especially when the Hebrew pastoralists were cruising around in the wilderness, Yahweh does some serious talking. As well as producing some artifacts that have large-scale consequences, like the stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. It is both metaphorically, and oddly enough, v-Memetically fitting that in The Raiders of the Lost Ark, after the Nazis are melted by opening the Ark of the Covenant, attempting to access magic they had no deeper birthright to, the whole Ark is then buried deep in a bureaucratic nightmare of government storehouse. The Legalistic v-Meme can even suffocate the power of Magical Divine Authority.

But back to development. Unlike others, like Kegan and Piaget, I’ve posited two axes for increase of neural complexity — either complicatedness/sophistication, and complexity/evolution.

And here’s the key. In order to evolve, one must develop enough agency through self-examination and development of empathy to self-separate from other’s imposed reality. That means you recognize that other’s interpretations of reality is outside your noggin.

And you then cross-reference your own neural inputs and sensations through your experiences to spin all those parts through a reflecting hippocampus to create autobiographical narratives. That little hippocampus spinning wheel in your limbic system seems to be key in creating those narratives that are assembled from lots of different parts floating around our brain — but most importantly, in your prefrontal cortex (PFC). And certainly one of the threads that gets woven into all this, IF you have this self-separation from other’s emotional reality, is the idea that you have a unique voice in all this — that your free will and agency actually matters, at least a little bit.

So as you go through life, this grounding wire through your PFC feeds important information back into your system as far as both paying attention to your world, as well as the people in your world, realizing they have an important role in creating your own narratives. And as you add people to your world, your grounding feed grows, and grows — through developed empathy.

But what happens if you don’t have that grounding wire through other people, and your PFC? What happens if you don’t have that large network of others’ realizations, as well as a conscience and the time to know yourself?

It IS possible that your brain might get frozen in time, and you just stop growing. But now it’s informative to return to the notion of how other emotions might grow in lieu of an experientially-based relationship. Just like the farmer’s wife, other modes of developed attachment from cultural and other symbolic vocabularies might reinforce your experience. In short, that little voice in your head just might be your God talking to you. With some serious external, cultural reinforcement — like sacrificing your favorite pet goat.

But here’s the key thought. That grounding wire, instead of reaching out into a data-driven world, instead remains locked, self-referentially, through your limbic system. It keeps feeding back the same beliefs over and over into your stories, reinforcing whatever fixed mental models you have. No wonder its turtles all the way down. All you’ve got are those damn turtles.

And as you turn more and more cycles in the old CPU, those thoughts become part of the larger, threaded narrative of your life. And your view of the world becomes a more magical place. Coherence is generated through more and more complicated connections, flowing from the same iconic symbol set. Ravens show up and get hooked to everything. Or owls. Or crosses.

What’s interesting is that the larger irrational perspective might have, historically, fueled innovation and global change, before we were all actually connected with any real information. All you have to do is read a couple of conquistadors’ stories, and you might just start believing that God wanted you to show up on Atahualpa’s (the Incan leader at the time of collapse) doorstep after a major military defeat. Stranger things have been perceived.

And now we can loop back around to some things I’ve said about how social structures low on the empathy scale also are pretty poor in metacognition as well. You don’t get to be a leader of the faith by saying “I don’t know.”

But all of it is one crazy way to innovate — by sailing off across the ocean convinced everything’s just going to be alright. A little blind faith might not be a bad strategy for the holiday football pool – or sailing to the New World in 1492. But it’s a concept worth reconsidering and re-evaluating when it comes to tipping points for global warming.

For me personally, while I can appreciate, and sort of embrace Jayne’s bicameral brain, I’m still not going tell you the Universe has any particular plan for me. There’s been no god of any sort talking to me. I’ve always figured I’ve gotten this far by saying “I don’t know.” That metacognitive survival strategy has worked pretty well up to this point.

What’s the takeaway? At some level, other people in our life help figure out which pathway we’re going to use. If they’re all like us, with the same belief sets and mental models, all we need is that warm fuzzy feeling to feel safe, and our PFC remains relatively dormant. The world doesn’t change much, there isn’t much reckoning for getting stuck, and we also get to tell people that over time, we’re closer to whatever god we’re granted by our church, our family, or NASCAR racing team. And the devil literally take the hindmost if someone attempts to change our mind. A self-referential limbic loop makes that basically impossible, though our thinking will lead to a more sophisticated view of our deity. It becomes our touchstone.

But if folks are different, we have to start paying attention — with cognitive empathy. Which then rakes our PFC into the brouhaha, which gets us wondering, maybe a little, whether we heard them right, or something, so we can connect to them. And so, as we march through our lives, building both consciousness, an independent conscience, and a larger, diverse social network, our PFC gets one helluva workout. And then it has to reckon with all the empty space in there. Which leads to wisdom.

As we relate, so we think. Who woulda thunk?