There’s a post primed in my head about the whole “disbanding the police” controversy going on right now in Minneapolis, that’s a perfect example of Value Set/Meme filtering, and what you do with organizations that have effectively turned into what I call Vampire Colonies, but my brain just can’t take the B.S. Anyone thinks that a decentralization effort means total abolition is not going to be receptive to anything resembling what will actually happen, nor the trajectories possible. And yeah, it just makes my brain hurt.
So let’s talk about something a little lighter-hearted — in the afternoon hours, after writing and tending to the usual Industrial Design Clinic business, I’ve been methodically sorting through a true, Agile MVKB — a Minimum Viable Kitchen Box. I’ve even drawn up a downloadable Check-off List (in pdf form) that you can put in yours to make sure you’ve got everything you need. For those unfamiliar with car camping, though all these objects seem obvious, there seems to be hidden magic in getting them all together, in one place!
I also have a large aluminum dry box that I use for longer rafting trips, that has all sorts of additional things in it, because it’s large, and things have become accreted over time. There’s also stuff to fix the raft, which one doesn’t necessarily need for a long weekend.
The box itself is about 24″x18″x16″ and is a cheap tote. It fits nicely in the back of my Subaru Outback, which is the point. I want to upgrade this box a bit, but that will have to wait until the next trip to Lewiston, ID, which is about 35 miles away, and the North 4D — this is a true Hillbilly Heaven fantasy store, for my international readers. We don’t eat a lot of pasta, so for my kitchen box, I don’t have a big pot to boil spaghetti. I know that this must seem sacrilegious to some folks – not to eat spaghetti on a camping trip, but that’s the deal with a keto-ish diet. I do have a big frying pan. Bacon and eggs are part of the morning in my camp!
Here are some pictures.
A kitchen box should be lift-able by the smallest functional person in the group (I’m not talking about your 6 year old nephew.) It’s also nice if you can sit on it (the one in the picture, eh, not so much.) I’ve separated out the list with replenishable items, and permanent fixtures. The other advantage of the list is that, for me, I can put all the items back IN the big metal dry box, for a longer raft trip, and then quickly repack the Long Weekend Kitchen box. These boxes are virtually indestructible. They’re also very expensive.
I’ve attempted to build some redundancy into core systems. I have a good, old-fashioned Coleman two-burner stove. Yes, I used to have a white gas stove, but over time, I’ve become convinced, for as much as I camp (not as much as I used to) the gas isn’t worth the hassle. One or two propane canisters is all you need for the most cooking-intensive long-weekend camping trip.
But I always take along my backpacking stove and a butane container. For those curious, I recommend (and have) this MSR product.
One thing we are very particular about is dishwashing and keeping E coli out of our systems. There’s nothing worse than folks getting sick from food-borne infection (no uncooked chicken on my camping trips!) so I use a three dishpan system of wash/rinse/bleach sterilize to keep everyone healthy. I also recommend getting a hanging dish drainer. These are great things that also work fantastically for keeping bad bacteria at bay.
When I go camping with young children, I ALWAYS make sure to have a hand wash station, made from those big white paint buckets. But that’s a story for another time. This one’s a fancy one from Northwest River Supplies, who have been patrons of mine since forever — but you can make your own out of two buckets, some hose, a little tubing and an outboard gas pump for about $25. That will be another post. With adults, I assume that they get the hand washing thing and carry some hand sanitizer. You have dish soap to wash hands with at camp, plus I’ve also included bar soap and hand sanitizer on the list.
There you have it! I’d guess the total cost of everything in the box, with the box included, (sans the backpacking stove, which really isn’t that expensive) with a two-burner propane stove, is around $200. Probably less, and all available at Walmart. Amortized over a couple of trips, it’s gonna be about the same as four trips to the pub. If that sounds like a lot of money, and you’re that broke, you’re probably already camping — under a bridge!
Leave any additions you like in the comments! I’m sure I probably missed something. But nothing that a little whiskey couldn’t cure!
One thing about being a bona-fide Space Alien is that, an any given time, I can hop on the Close-to-Light spaceship and see what’s going to happen in the future. If I could fix my FTL drive, I’d just get off this rock. But this is actually less fun than it may seem, because what it also means is I can’t get those years back (time dilation only works in the forward direction, which is why the original Planet of the Apes movie was such a bummer!) and it ages my brain.
Thus it is with the coronavirus, which is declining pretty dramatically across Europe, and in most of the early infected places in the U.S., following a similar pattern. Yep — functionally off-the-beaten track places in the U.S. will continue to see rises, but you’ve heard it here first. I’m giving solid odds that there will be no vaunted Second Wave, and while COVID-19 will function at some endemic level in our population, it will fade as a political driver. If I’m wrong, well, I’ll be shown to be wrong pretty soon — the mass demonstrations across the world for Black Lives Matter certainly had potential for super-spreader status, considering that combo of crowds and jail cells.
What we’re also going to start to see in the next couple of weeks is a crescendo in conflict between scientists, who enlightened folks are telling us we should believe. “Believe science!” is the battle cry, and as a scientist myself, I am supportive. Believing science, even at its most rudimentary, is more appealing than believing astrology, and for those that follow this blog for any length of time know, I am not into magical thinking of any stripe, other than understanding it as narrative scaffolding for how we live our lives. For that, if you need to believe “don’t mess up the environment because the Mountain God will whoop on you!” I’m down. But for using Magical Thinking problem-solving complex scenarios in the near-term, eh, not so much.
The problem is that I’ve also spent an entire career in the Science Sausage Factory, and after that, well, like any sausage factory, you’d be a little less sanguine about consuming the prospect. Lots of stuff goes into “science” from all the different knowledge structures, and I’ve written about this here, among other places. Short version, empirical measurement-based science does great when you can draw a hard boundary around the problem, and set up controlled experiments. That fits perfectly within the context of the Legalistic/Authority-Driven Relatively Rigid Hierarchy that such science functions under. When you match methods (complicated algorithmic processes for data collection and transformation) with the social structure (a closed hierarchy, which scientists are always beating on you to recognize as the only source of knowing!) you’re creating knowledge in, you can be sure the results are as coherent as they can be. And if you’re collecting data from the real world, there is a natural validity/grounding that also occurs. Short version — the data is reliably collected, the problem is closed, the scientists are trained, and IMPORTANTLY — the phenomena has already happened.
And here is the thing. For those circumstances, none of the higher thought processes of empathy are really required. You aren’t required to link outside of discipline, no agency for the researcher collecting the data on a small scale is required, no judgment calls, no synthesis with other fields, or lay audiences, and heaven forbid any reflection. That’s not going to make it through peer review. We even have a name for this in the Sausage-Making business — “turning the crank.” Which is exactly what you do when you make real sausages.
I think it might be useful to lay out that last paragraph as a quick list with the different Knowledge Structure Levels here so you can see how useful some of that work is. Kinda “it’s my blog, and I’ll cry if I want to!” NOTE — this is for closed systems!!!
No link outside of discipline (driven by Authority value set)
Collect that data properly and follow the rules! (driven by the Legalistic/Absolutistic value set)
No agency for the researcher (no Performance/Goal-Based thinking values)
No synthesis with lay folks or other disciplines (no Communitarian value set!)
No reflection (Yellow- Systemic thinking value set!)
Short version — you’re trying to know something that you can know, within the context of the structural memetic system you’ve set up. Perfect!
But here’s the rub. It gives you poor predictive ability if the exact same closed system, albeit with different parameters, isn’t what you’re trying to figure out the next time. Which is EXACTLY what COVID-19 is. And to make matters worse, if you’re an epidemiologist, you’re stuck in an open system. And THAT open system is continually changing. Big time. To the point where even history (like the Spanish Flu) is a very poor guide to how these things work. Last time I checked, there were no Boeing 777s criss-crossing the globe in 1918. Short version — you’re stuck in a closed social system (they don’t call it the Ivory Tower for nothing!) that’s poorly equipped to give you projective ability for larger, open system problems.
But scientists, organized in those Legalistic (at best)/Authority-driven (typical) hierarchies DO manage to converge to the truth. But it takes a while. It usually happens, in happier times, through a process of subdivision micro-specialization, and endless bickering (some folks call it ‘peer review’,) which is how those hierarchies create knowledge. The ladder of subdivision goes down, and down (think about those particle physicists, blasting apart atoms with higher and higher energy!) until finally synergy is reached through overlap. We lock smaller and smaller hunks of stuff inside colliders until our need for seemingly infinite precision yields a God Particle. Or something.
For those, though, that can’t blast, they create models using mathematics. I wrote a longish Twitter thread on this — how scientists create models, which are what they do when faced with a real world that can’t be captured and measured. Now we start seeing problems. Scientists get trapped outside of their Ivory Tower, uh, I mean v-Meme, uh, I mean social structure. You get the picture. And as I’ve alluded before, some do it better than other. Now their discipline requires metacognition — knowing what they don’t know — which is what their social structure absolutely sucks at. For those that doubt me (almost always academics) stand up in your next faculty meeting and watch what happens to your status when you tell your colleagues you don’t know. Not pretty. (Yes, I’ve gained tons of insight into social systems in faculty meetings!)
How those models come into existence now matters a lot. They, too, are based on given Knowledge Structures, and dependent on the social structure that creates them, they map. There’s a ton to write on this, but the short version is the list below:
Deterministic models based on fundamental principles. These are what we use, for example, to figure out asteroids running into the Earth, or stress concentrations in airplane wings. Same meta-class. We know the physics well, and can model the physics using various numerical techniques, and simulate on a computer
Semi-deterministic models based on parametric estimation (usually from some data set out there that ostensibly describes the phenomenon.) Basically all the epidemiological models fall into this category. There’s some physical assumption about how the virus is spread and how fast (this is the whole R0 thing you hear about) and then people take data sets, and estimate parameters. Various people receive chops for fads, like using Machine Learning (Artificial Intelligence has to be more intelligent!) and the circus continues.
Monte-Carlo simulations based on running probabilistically generated trials for various scenarios. These are often done for looking at performance efficacy of a given system — I used to do this back when I helped hunt submarines and pioneer new radar detectors.
One of the interesting things about my career as a bona-fide aerospace engineer is that I’ve used all three of these things. The first involved the basic research I did for my Ph.D. The second was an extension I used of my Ph.D. work that led me into attenuating helicopter noise using signal processing techniques called wavelets. And the final was my Master’s degree work on signal detection theory (radar and sonar) that gave me a toolkit to combine all these things into looking at wavefront modeling of forest fires.
It was arguably the first that taught me the limits of the other two. As one of the folks working some 35 years ago to understand how chaotic dynamics worked, I got taught early on the power of metacognition — knowing what you didn’t know, and realizing what you couldn’t likely know. How? You’d run a given simulation one way, and get an answer. Then you’d change one thing one teensy-tiny bit, and the answer that would come out would be totally different. This phenomenon (short version for the scientifically adept — sensitivity to initial conditions) was poorly understood at the time. For me, wanting to finish my Ph.D., it became a stern master in my fundamental ignorance. If anything, it taught me that Yellow v-Meme Reflection thing. Alone in the lab, running simulations (remember, this was 35 years ago, and we didn’t have iPhones that could do this stuff in their sleep!) I was forced to ponder my deep inadequacy in completing the work I had promised my advisor, who was (and is) an awesome human whom I did not want to disappoint.
Fast forward to understanding how the street-fighters, uh, I mean ‘respectable scientists’ are lining up regarding the COVID-19 predictions, and how, and importantly when, the pandemic is supposed to end. On the one side you have the standard immunological/epidemiological established community (“Believe science!”) crowd who originally, with their models (some mix of all 3 archetypes, but heavily weighted toward #2) lined up and broadcast 10x-100x greater fatalities/spread/whatever than actually occurred.
As time has passed, their models have gotten more precise as far as predicting things like death totals. No question. But that’s also mostly because when you’re doing Type 2 modeling, you’re really working on principles of interpolation, which ALSO really means you’re forcing the model to be more like a closed system. So of course, more data would lead to better paradigmatic estimation. The curve would fit tighter.
But you’d still be stuck in your Legalistic social structure, and your v-Meme. Which would mean two big things.
Because life as an Authoritarian/Legalist means that everything ought to be perfectly predictable, your sense of consequentiality would still be shit. You wouldn’t be able to predict what things might come along to mess up your model. And you wouldn’t be particularly happy to see that happen, either, since the accuracy of your model isn’t tied to the Guiding Principles (still evolving) of the pandemic. It would be tied to increasingly accurate schemes of parametric estimation. And here’s the rub — you’d be super-comfortable with that, since you’d be satisfying that “way your brain is programmed Legalistic v-Meme itch” in how your psyche works. “Extensive testing is proving me right!” you’d holler! Well, yeah — because extensive testing is finally feeding your parametric estimations so your model doesn’t look totally awful.
You would be openly hostile to anyone from any other discipline giving insight, especially at a higher level, on why your model is wrong. You’d argue that you’re the REAL scientist, operating only on what the known information (that awful COVID-19 data) is. And because you’re stuck inside a social structure that whomps you on the head if you say you don’t know, you’re far less likely to stand up and entertain that there are “Invisibilia” — factors that you just don’t understand — are screwing up the highly refined model you’ve just staked your reputation on. Trust me that all those Ph.D. students who helped you build it aren’t gonna utter a peep. They want to graduate.
#2 is the reason far too many scientists are stuck on what I call Intellectual Flatland. And the COVID-19 pandemic is a great exemplar of how that works. From a virus perspective, without a vaccine (which is a tool for building uniform herd immunity, FWIW) we are stuck with naturally generated “herd immunity” like it or not. And because our Legalistically organized hierarchical epidemiologists are stuck with the brains they have, there’s only one way that can manifest (that’s that whole dichotomous thinking thing that comes out of the social structure) and that’s with measurable antibody counts. Either you’ve got ’em or you don’t — and if you don’t, because all we’ve got is hindsight, and the awful data, well, the virus must not have continued to spread, because those seropositive antibody counts have to be up about 60-70% of the population in order to really have it.
Never mind the observable phenomenon that even in places like Lombardy, Italy, or New York City, places so obviously saturated with COVID-19, are displaying antibody counts around 20-25% of the population (that are detectable.) There aren’t any other options, according to this community, and that’s that. Because they’re the experts. Never mind the fact that they were wrong last week. T-cell immunity? What’s being now called ‘Denatured/Barriered, or Innate/Cleared’ (from Ivor Cummins podcast) which basically means you make so much snot than the virus can’t get through, or the second, your immune system is so bad-ass the virus doesn’t even cause a ripple — doesn’t exist. As well as the obvious hypothesis testing ‘False Negative/Miss’ flaw. Mistakes, even small ones? They’ve got those under control.
And here’s the critical thing — we are SO conditioned to believing that independent subject matter must all be processed through different parts of our brains, there simply can’t be overlap — we can’t believe that our brains would use the same circuits, using domain-independent knowledge in similar ways. We CAN’T believe that whole ‘As we relate, so we think’ thing this blog harps on constantly. THAT messes us up with understanding this pandemic. Because, well, it’s not just my personal affectation. It’s true.
How does this manifest itself with our Legalistic/Authoritarian epidemiology friends, who now have major reputation stakes riding on being right? They’re going to start insisting on actions that flow naturally out of the v-Meme were ALSO major factors in stopping the spread of the virus.
What actions map out of the Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Memes? First off, they have to be low-agency, meaning individuals only help the situation if they listen to the boss, or follow the rules. Individual health or immune response really can’t come into play. And because these folks know what they’re doing, those might be the reason the virus finally dies out. Certainly not factors that they don’t understand. And true to the dominance of Externally Defined Relationships in the social structure, only Externally Defined Factors can really make a dent in this virus.
How this manifests is fascinating. Here are some examples.
The coronavirus is receding because increased sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere is KILLING more coronavirus. (External) This as opposed to people’s individual immune systems are being strengthened by Vitamin D levels increasing because of their own ability to strengthen their immune systems in the summer.
Lockdowns HAD to work, as opposed to social distancing. There’s no more powerful command and control than having everyone stay in their houses. Being courteous and not coughing in other people’s faces is NOT something the Value Set trusts you to do.
Asymptomatic cases are perilous (Authorities operate out of a limbic, fear-based perspective,) because they can unwittingly contaminate other people with the virus and cause them to die (empathetic, agency-based relational contact is not something the social system tolerates at all!) as opposed to entertaining what I’ve promoted — a dose-dependent understanding of spread that says appropriately managed asymptomaticity is actually what is building immunity across a population.
Of course, there is nuance to all of these, and the larger picture is assembled by understanding the larger guiding principles, and weaving together a tapestry of how the virus functions across the entire planet. Lockdowns may indeed have been effective, as I have argued, linked with asymptomatic spread, because it shunned people who were coughing (high dosage spreaders) from going out for any reason. Sunshine may indeed kill more coronavirus — remember, we started this pandemic with the belief that the virus was an invincible killer, virus- wise (something that also would lock into the fear-based modes of Authority-driven systems) — but we’re still not around to the point of disaggregating populations and understanding the very real effects on dramatically more impacted communities, like African-Americans. We can’t even bring ourselves to address the effect of our obvious metabolic/immune system crisis and how that might affect spread.
But enough about the epidemiologists. What is really interesting is that there are other heavy-hitting scientists that are wading in the fray. The main point here is that these individuals are OUTSIDE the In-Group (the epidemiologists) analyzing this situation.
I’ve written about Michael Levitt here, a Nobel Prizewinning scientist, combing through the data with a much greater humility than the mainstream epidemiology community. His background is in structural biology — far afield, really, from immunology — and the epidemiologists have been screaming for him to stay in his lane. His secret weapon, though is really just a greater metacognition. Yep — he is a thorough scientist, and relies on empiricism. But he also questions modes and mechanisms, and is searching for alternate mechanisms to explain immunity. It’s arguably easier to do this when one has a Nobel Prize hanging around one’s neck. No one’s going to call him stupid, and he’s not got the crazy tag that a couple of other Nobel Prizewinners have.
And because this problem is big enough, you also have more far-afield folks wading into the battle. Chief among these most recently is Karl Friston, a famous German neuroscientist, who, with his research team, is apparently doing a more first-principles modeling effort. Not surprisingly, his viewpoints and mine about the modeling efforts (and eventual outcomes) align. This dude is even using my Asymptomaticity as Dark Matter tagline! His quote from the Guardian piece:
How do the models you use differ from the conventional ones epidemiologists rely on to advise governments in this pandemic? Conventional models essentially fit curves to historical data and then extrapolate those curves into the future. They look at the surface of the phenomenon – the observable part, or data. Our approach, which borrows from physics and in particular the work of Richard Feynman, goes under the bonnet. It attempts to capture the mathematical structure of the phenomenon – in this case, the pandemic – and to understand the causes of what is observed. Since we don’t know all the causes, we have to infer them. But that inference, and implicit uncertainty, is built into the models. That’s why we call them generative models, because they contain everything you need to know to generate the data. As more data comes in, you adjust your beliefs about the causes, until your model simulates the data as accurately and as simply as possible.
I’m absolutely NOT accusing this dude of ripping me off (you can check the dates — I didn’t rip him off either — but my blog has had these concepts out for months.) Rather, there is a convergence of value set that would cause us to generate similar insights, from similar value sets. This is what I talk about in this piece about the value of values. They serve as container sets for generation of similar, more complex information.
What IS interesting is that we now have the scene set for a major structural memetic war. Two camps, set firmly in their representative v-Memes, three v-Memes/value sets apart, at least tool-wise, aren’t going to reconcile any time soon. All three have a large (un?)healthy dose of Authority-driven Red Value Set in them — As a side note, I’ve written multiple Tweets to both Levitt and Bergstrom at the University of Washington, who could fairly be tagged as representing the mainstream epidemiological community. They don’t write back, though they will respond to snipers who are obvious trolls. Classic Authoritarian v-Meme – someone like me is, in their eyes, an unimportant authority. And Friston is utterly unreachable.
What this means — especially when you have Authority-driven personas, using toolkits from different value sets (Guiding Principles/Reflective for Levitt, and Legalistic/Absolutistic-Algorithmic processing for the University of Washington crowd) is you’re going to have both structural memetic conflict as well as a good old fashioned donnybrook.
One thing I can guarantee. Both (or all three) will argue ‘Science!” They will all claim the Holy Quest for Absolute Truth as their driver. But the reality is that it will be the v-Memes that will be doing the talking. We may start out with the Marquess of Queensberry rules. But trust me — this one’s gonna degenerate into Fight Club.
From the air, on a late spring day — North Fork Clearwater – photo by son Charles Conor Pezeshki. The bird is likely a cliff swallow
I had a request from a Twitter friend, Dr. Cameron Sepah, (@DrSepah) an executive coach, and Professor of Psychiatry at UCSF, for perspectives on the term toxic masculinity – a term coined in the academy, but seeing widespread usage in today’s editorial milieu.
Dr. Sepah is now leading a consumer health start-up, Maximus, with the intent of providing positive reframing of masculine mental models, with content, community and clinical support, along the line of what he’s named Tonic Masculinity.
In the piece below (tentatively Chapter 3 of the book I am writing) within the empathy framework that I have written about, I show that actually the term “toxic masculinity” is misleading, but also a product of low empathy perspectives. With a more evolved perspective, where we integrate social structure, trauma, and personal development, we can see paths out of negative behaviors.
With that introduction, below, I’ve pasted the piece.
Chapter 3 — The Power of Empathy On the Oil Platform Ursa
No man is an island.
Dateline June 17, 2016
In a story by Hanna Rosin, for the National Public Radio show Invisibilia, Rosin looks back at a case study on Shell Oil Company’s initial foray into deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, on the state-of-the-art platform Ursa. Developed in 1997, to the tune of $1.45B, Ursa was a breakthrough effort in petroleum exploration. Designed to go much deeper, and pump more oil than any offshore platform to date – Ursa was designed to drill in over 3000’ deep water – the complexity, energetics and systemic integration massively exceeded any effort to date.
Manning any offshore drilling platform was, and is still hazardous duty. Rosin tells a story of one of the co-workers on a crew pre-Ursa who was picked up by a loose wrench tensioned by a large pipe. He was picked up and spun about 80 times before he stopped, smacking his head on a post that was tragically adjacent. The man’s head was turned into a bloody pulp. His co-workers watched this happen, with all the trauma that would be entailed. Yet they only gave themselves 15 minutes to mourn before going back to work.
“In about three seconds, it spun him around about 80 times,” Chreene says. A few feet from the man was a post, and “his head was hitting that post like a rotten tomato.”
They got 15 minutes to mourn after watching their friend and colleague die, but that was it. “I mean, that hole cost a lot of money,” he says. “We got to go to work.”
And scaling up the operation, with more people, and even greater system energetics, was likely to increase the safety risk even more. The C-suite at Shell knew that things had to change in the work culture of offshore oil exploration to have any hope of operating such a large platform safely. But they had no immediate answers.
Then an unusual event happened. Shell was contacted by a leadership development firm, headed up by a Holocaust survivor, Claire Nuer. Nuer was a former Werner Erhard EST participant and devotee, and insisted that what really needed to change was that the men needed to get in touch with their feelings. She insisted that the code of conduct on the rig was one of hidden emotions, and that would not allow them to move forward as a unified team until the necessary work was done in daylighting the stresses the men encountered together.
The result of Nuer’s facilitation was an upward trajectory of bringing the oil platform group into a successful, high functioning team. Adoption of similar team-building exercises across Shell led to the accident rate dropping an incredible 84% company-wide, and allowed productivity on all the company rigs to soar.
The success attracted academic attention as well. Dr. Robin Ely of Harvard University, and Dr. Debra Meyerson of Stanford concluded that having the men get in touch with their feelings was key to peak performance. From their Harvard Business Review paper:
“What can managers in white-collar firms learn from roughnecks and roustabouts on an offshore oil rig? That extinguishing macho behavior is vital to achieving top performance. That’s a key finding from our study of life on two oil platforms, during which we spent several weeks over the course of 19 months living, eating, and working alongside crews offshore.”
“Their altered stance revealed two things: First, that much of their macho behavior was not only unnecessary but actually got in the way of doing their jobs; and second, that their notions about what constituted strong leadership needed to change. They discovered that the people who used to rise to the top—the “biggest, baddest roughnecks,” as one worker described them—weren’t necessarily the best at improving safety and effectiveness. Rather, the ones who excelled were mission-driven guys who cared about their fellow workers, were good listeners, and were willing to learn.”
Both Ely’s and Meyerson’s paper, as well as Rosin’s piece, focuses on the ostensible culture of macho behavior, and how what Ely calls ‘toxic masculinity’ created a corrosive work environment that had led to the safety problems in the first place.
But there are signs of other insights. Rosin, at the end of her story, noted that information flowed far more freely and accurately across the oil rig, and though there was lots of commentary about gender roles, and ‘girly’ behavior in the analysis, she did notice the difference.
All well and good – sort of. But how do we take the analysis from both the academic side, and the radio reportage and as a cutting-edge, performance-based leader, move forward? Ely has this comment from her paper:
“If men in the hypermasculine environment of oil rigs can let go of the macho ideal and improve their performance, then men in corporate America might be able to do likewise. Numerous studies have examined the costs of macho displays in contexts ranging from aeronautics to manufacturing to high tech to the law. They show that men’s attempts to prove their masculinity interfere with the training of recruits, compromise decision quality, marginalize women workers, lead to civil- and human-rights violations, and alienate men from their health, feelings, and relationships with others. The price of men’s striving to demonstrate their masculinity is high, and both individuals and organizations pay it.
But perhaps the most interesting comment, reported by Rosin, came from one of the oil rig roughnecks themselves.
“Horn says that after his stepmother’s funeral, his son told him, ” ‘It could be a total stranger. I’d still cry for them. I have empathy for those I don’t even know.’ So where did he learn that? You know, instead of all this tough-guy stuff that you’re raised with in the South. Did he learn that from me? I don’t know.”
Let’s transplant ourselves for a minute, and put on our manager hat. How can we understand this situation from a place in the modern office, or on a software development team? Should we arrange a training with Claire Nuer’s firm, and watch as it terminates with every man on the team giving each other foot rubs? What happens if we take people in non- life-threatening work environments and attempt to get them to open up to each other, disgorging themselves of whatever ostensible toxic masculinity they have? What is toxic masculinity anyway, and is it a genetic predisposition? Are men fundamentally, biologically wired to behave in the way prior to training by a French Holocaust survivor? Should we just let women run the show?
There is another way. If we can move past the labels and stereotypes (understanding exactly why Rosin and the researchers perceive this situation this way will have to wait until Chapter 5,) we can understand the oil rig workers and their transformation from how their system moved information before the training, to the new instantiation afterwards. One of the meta- road maps developed in this book regards how observer’s perspectives influence outcomes and plans of action. It’s not that the insight from both Rosin, and the researching professors, is completely invalid. But if we understand both Rosin’s, Ely’s and Meyerson’s perspective, we can understand the narrative they’re constructing, and what tools they have to do this with. No one in this picture is without a perspective that influences the construction of the road map.
What does a different, empathy-based information flow version of how Shell drilled deeper, with higher productivity, as part of their pioneering efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, look like?
In the past, oil platforms were staffed in a low empathy, authority-driven fashion, with a crew boss who gave the orders, and underlings expected to follow the orders. Talking back was not allowed, and if you were told to do something, you had better do it or you’d be fired.
Work on the rigs was obviously dangerous, and often unsafe. Terrifying accidents happened with astounding regularity, to the point where in the minds of many of the workers, it wasn’t whether an injury-causing accident might happen to them. It was only a matter of time. As a result of the chronic hypervigilance, many of the underlings, as well as the crew bosses themselves, were trauma survivors suffering from a variety of trauma-related conditions, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The authoritarian power structures that organized work on the rigs tapped into many of the edicts of the surrounding culture of Southern males – exploited them, actually – and seemed to work well enough, considering that the value of people’s lives were relatively low, and how disconnected the communities were. Death on the platforms was an accepted risk by both women and men in those communities, and both genders had adaptive cultural behaviors that normalized that risk. When on the job, the fear on those platforms was profound, to the point that the men had developed a low/no empathy survival culture to deal with the trauma they and their friends experience on a regular basis. Those that didn’t run away, or fight against those working conditions were ones that the system naturally selected for. That left behavioral ‘freezing’ as the only operative mode persistent for men working on the rigs, which were literal islands off the coast, only joined by helicopter transport.
Pay, however, was high, for the educational level the men possessed, and the status and security of the work offset the risks, however tenuously, among the ones who survived the working conditions. Besides that, when people were regularly injured, the short react and response timescales evolved by trauma inside people’s heads were short. There was no point in thinking much about tomorrow when a.) you had minimal control over what work you were assigned, or b.) the reality that thinking about tomorrow might distract you from the now, and that level of distraction would get you killed. No one was really watching out for you but yourself.
Into this mess walked in someone who could relate – a Holocaust survivor, Claire Nuer. Possessing a powerful personality, with experiences in trauma that few could match, Nuer had also followed an authority-based, emotionally dysregulated path to some level of healing – Werner Erhard’s EST training. EST involved extensive harangues directed in a positive direction regarding confronting ones’ lack of developed relationship with self. The pressures from the training forced the frozen survivors, those whom the natural circumstances of the situation had selected, through extreme emotional pressure, to connect first with their own thoughts and emotions.
Nuer, through her own power and authority, also created a safe space for the men manning Ursa, to open up to their co-workers about the experiences on the rig, and also facilitated the development of coherent, shared meaning of the experience. The techniques Nuer used were crude, and did not work with all participants. One of the managers suffered an emotional collapse and had to be hospitalized. But by starting the process through first self-empathy, and secondly, emotional empathy with fellow co-workers in the same in-group, much good was done. Just as in those that had managed to survive the Holocaust, undoubtedly, Nuer knew that her methods would work. But she also expected casualties.
The men evolved empathetically through the process. Along the way of the various exercises, they learned how each would react and process the various experiences they had seen. Up close and personal, they learned how to read each other’s body and facial cues, to maximize their ability to handle shared risk. All had a survival stake in the game. By developing larger, shared narratives of their experience, they also learned that sharing the outcome of everyone finishing work alive united them. Emotional empathy – the ability to read and share emotions triggered by the stressful work environment they all participated in– evolved even further with repetition, and led to rational, place-taking empathy emerging – knowing what each other would do in a given stress-saturated environment.
The difficult work that Nuer led, and the men completed, knit together their social network, making them appreciate not just as isolated actors in a perilous world, but humans bound together in a dangerous environment. Because information exchange and reach mattered, they started deeply realizing that they were all sensors for different aspects of all situations on the larger platform. As they practiced both self- and other-knowing and understanding, their trust in their new information exchange capacity rapidly increased as well. Now, instead of each person locked down and frozen on their small, hypervigilant piece of turf, both spatial and temporal, they had full situation awareness of any variation in performance in the much larger arena of the Ursa platform.
As the crew boss learned of the advantages of having a distributed, duplex communication network model for his crew with regards to platform performance, instead of a fragmented authoritarian power structure, he supported the changes in work practice. The newer, more egalitarian social structure started paying off with rapidly falling accident rates, and soaring productivity, making it easier to evolve his perspective on appropriate management culture away from the hidebound model he had been raised. Plus, being deeply connected with the men, they became an extension of his own self. Because of that connection, he actually cared about what happened to them.
These benefits were felt off-rig by all the men as well. Once unfrozen out of their trauma-dissociated state, they were able to regain their long-term thinking abilities and rational faculties, and necessarily started thinking about the future. The emotional regulation and empathy-development skills learned in training to recognize gestures and unspoken needs became transferred to the world outside the rig, almost automatically, reframing the men’s perspectives with regards to their wives, children and larger community. When you are connected, you care.
And instead of a culture dictated by embodied harsh, low empathy authority-driven power structures that had dominated the men’s lives, with toxic In-Group codes based on the more regressive aspects of Southern culture, they began to pay attention to the changing world around them. They became a community. And with that larger, communitarian perspective gained on their work crew on the rig, other parts of their perspective were also modified to include a larger responsibility to others inside their social community.
New social development tools were also mastered. The process of reflection and connection that Nuer had introduced became institutionalized in the work practice on the rig. Much more empowered, and valuable to their own selves, the men could now look out into a world where others’ lives had value, as well as their own. And through the process of reflection, they could also learn to look backward at how they had been raised, and change themselves for a brighter future for themselves and their children.
For most readers of the management literature, the above description of the situation and the change dynamics on the oil platform Ursa will seem different and unfamiliar, even if the larger narrative resonates deeply. After all, allegations of toxic masculinity have been made by a noteworthy radio journalist, as well as a professor in the Harvard Business School. Toxic masculinity is a belief framework that many in academia are invested in.
But even on the surface, it faces what we call (and will discuss later) a validity challenge. Masculinity fundamentally implies behavior isolated to men, and toxic masculinity some moral value judgment about men’s behavior. Yet one would have a very difficult time keeping a straight face and denying that women of all cultures have an inherent ability, just like men, to be cruel and ruthless. There is the famous lyric from Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, The Young British Soldier.
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!
Talking about toxic masculinity passes what we’ll call the reliability challenge. It’s a mental model, a map, that many people will identify with, and be able to describe. But it’s fundamentally a status assertion that doesn’t lead very far – maybe to another set of trainings on diversity. If it fixes your productivity challenges, it’s only because the diversity trainer was also cogent enough to work on the other failings of empathy. And fundamentally invalid mental models will only get you so far. As Mark Twain so insightfully said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
By understanding the deeper psycho-social dynamics of the situation on the oil platform, instead of the status-based mental model of toxic masculinity, the empathetic manager can see paths forward for both the employees AND the crew boss. Trauma and a lack of social evolution had limited uniting everyone in shared performance goals. By appreciating how sharing information in a high-risk, high-energetic environment could make a difference, management could structure physical means, as well as important social ones in the org chart, so that the org chart wasn’t working cross-purposes with the larger goals of both drilling for oil, as well as having everyone finish their shift safely.
Empathy matters. The men developed empathy for each other, and their evolution spread beyond the boundaries of the small group of individuals in the work crew. The quote,
‘It could be a total stranger. I’d still cry for them. I have empathy for those I don’t even know.’
Is particularly insightful. Once developed to a certain degree, empathy creates emergent behavior in the people possessing it, in ways that a priori may have been unpredictable.
But there’s more going on here than meets the eye. The narratives above offer evidence how all the men changed and evolved on a personal level. But other things changed as well. Social structures and communication patterns altered the fundamental way the social network operated on the oil rig, from a pattern of fragmentation to richer mode of shared awareness and knowing.
That’s a huge change in perspective on the events in the Gulf. To understand that change, as well as understanding that the core change had to start with empathetic development, we’re going to need some more theory.
Note: If this is your first time visit to my blog, thanks for coming. That said, this is not a place where the typical reasons are advanced for current events, nor typical theories supported. What this blog strives for is a larger coherence in actions of large social networks and their occupants. In no way, shape or form does this mean that everyone else’s opinions are wrong, and mine are right. Many people can give excellent insights into what is going on in the world. The unique contribution of my writing is attempting (!) to show how all these things are linked together with stages of societal and personal evolution.
This involves a trip into The Matrix. But the Matrix isn’t some weird world where humans are plugged into some bizarre stack and serving as batteries while the few Woke individuals heroically fight for the Truth. The Matrix is our combo tightly-coupled/loosely-coupled social network of people, surrounded by circumstance, that creates our impulse to act.
How that impulse to act works is keyed largely to your own level of personal development — your agency and level of identity that has been shaped by a variety of forces. Of course, this includes your family background, the background culture you grew up in, your education, gender, class and so on. All these are comfortable models we’ve been taught that discriminate our “Why” for action. But there are other things — often more profound — that dictate our more powerful drivers for our behavior. Experiences and relationships with others shape our minds. And travel, the social structures, with their inherent dynamics, incentives and penalties, all condition us on a daily basis. Trauma as well is a powerful force, and often hides under layers of assumed virtue in the face of others — as well as offering a ladder to higher behaviors we may not believed that we have in us.
Through all this is one very important thread — empathy. Empathy is explored extensively on this blog, and it is far more than just giving someone a hug. It involves a stack of neural functions, ranging from mirroring, to emotional connection and attachment (the familiar definition), through conscious and larger connection with others. Though the intensity of empathy waxes and wanes in all our interactions, it is always present. It is not something to be turned on or off — its base function is deep in our brainstem and automatic function. But the higher, more complex forms can (and must!) be cultivated.
Empathy matters because it serves as the information coherence function for one’s connection to their social network. We all know that words are not enough to convey all the information necessary in any conversation/interaction. Yet capturing how much information is lost is something that is really poorly studied by academics, who we count on to figure out such things. The reasons are not particularly simple — but the main one is that academics exist in low empathy social structures, and don’t get much practice with it. So they mostly ignore it. This blind spot is profoundly hurting our society, because the practice of empathy is how we wire our brains. We don’t understand much of how we know. Instead, what is granted as a substitute is an increasingly fine-grained surface-level portrait of an increasingly complicated landscape.
And when we don’t understand the deep “How” of what we know, then, well mistakes, misrepresentations and such happen. But it is more perilous than that — we leave ourselves open to manipulation from others. We grasp for surface-level photos of representative markings — from black masks, to swastikas, to Hawaiian shirts. All these are poor indicators of anything, because if someone wants to lie, it’s much easier to change out your mask color than rewire your actions and intents.
In simpler times, with far fewer people in far greater spaces, these types of things DID indeed come into play — but with lesser consequences. Skin color, accents, clothing were, and still, to some extent, indicators for particular groups existing inside our culture and the world. But in today’s hyper-connected world, where much habit-based mixing is allowed, they are all poor indicators. You’re as likely to find a vegan right-wing fascist as a meat-eating left-wing communist.
Though even those two terms (fascist and communist) are really relatively meaningless. They describe philosophies that exist as convenient labels, and tell you very little about the people whose actions are being prescribed. Most people couldn’t even tell you what most of these terms mean any more. And if they could, they couldn’t begin to tell you how to set up a government that might implement them. Separate most people from the majority of the labels they use and they will rapidly become angry. It’s what psychologists would call a boundary violation — where you’ve denied them a part of themselves that’s deeply rooted in their core emotional identity, it doesn’t make them happy. Those labels do not exist on a conscious level. They don’t dictate actions that a person might take, though that is what matters — especially in crisis.
And academics, by and large, spend almost all their time on label refinement. It’s not totally a useless exercise. But as sophistication and fine-scaling grows, as a guiding principle mode of thinking, everyone gets lost in the details. Very few people pause, put their hand on their chins, and say “What would Karl Marx do in this particular circumstance?”
What happens instead is what I call ’emergent behavior’. It’s what your intuition tells you to do. It’s not solely from your gut, either. If you’ve practiced slowing down, looking at certain key indicators, and self-calming, your intuitive action can be surprisingly rational. This is a transcultural understanding, and you can read anyone from Plato to Bruce Lee to find specific examples. But most people don’t do this. Acting quickly and within the context of how we feel — how our limbic system tells us to act — has helped our genes from getting eaten by tigers for hundreds of thousands of years. Act now, analyze later, if at all.
We need a different way, especially in these crazy times, of analyzing our situation. And that’s where understanding empathy and connection comes in.
Let me tell you a little bit about me. I have been a teacher (professor, TBH) for over 36 years. I run a large, successful program where undergraduate seniors receive exactly the kind of education, if you’d ask anyone on the street, you’d want them to receive in engineering. They design products for companies, very loosely supervised, and with vanishingly minimal intervention from me. They are amazingly successful. They, of course, have their knowledge scaffolded out by my colleagues teaching them various subjects, that they usually forget. Then they are placed in environments where results are emphasized, as well as justification of results. They love me, for the most part, and I love them as well. But they really think I’m an idiot, because I’m always cracking some stupid joke, or looking away when they ask a hard technical question. It takes the average student of mine 10 years of latency before they figure out what happened to them. Then they come back and give me money for the next generation of students.
I rarely lecture, though I do deliver soliloquies on why things matter. I learned a long time ago that if you lecture — deliver information in an Authoritative/Authoritarian format, only at best about 20% gets through. What typically happens is the information is tagged out with one of my stories, and promptly forgotten. For people to really learn something, I have to create conditions for emergence — where students, with some given background, placed inside a circumstance, through relating to each other and specific actions they determine — come up with the answer themselves.
The first step involves having them learn to trust themselves, in both their choice of colleagues, as well as their own abilities. As they struggle, they learn calibration. And they learn to read their friends as well. That exercise creates nuance in their thinking. Not all people can be trusted to do a particular set of calculations well, or machine a part. But over time, students working together must evolve those abilities or they will not achieve their own goals.
It is NOT a conscious process for most. But it expands how they perceive the world. Now, instead of this small part of the world being viewed in black or white/knowing or not knowing, there are shades of gray. These changes take time, of course. But this is how we wire the brain — through that connection/experience process, with some facts sprinkled in to make the cake more tasty.
Contrast what is described above to most of the education students received. Now you have an insight into why we are having a meta-crisis. Instead of building agency and independent thought, we’ve coasted on our laurels and occupied more and more of student time with attempts to program them. The problem is, without that mix of relational interaction, it simply doesn’t work.
And three things come to the fore as part of our meta-crisis.
Because we do not practice with empathy anticipating what others will do in safe, controlled circumstances, we lose the ability to project what others will do, given data, in larger circumstances. We lose a larger sense of consequentiality.
Because we practice fragmentation of how we know — assorted, scattered facts, not connected in any mode of deep history, mostly arranged to satisfy some complicated negotiated knowing — we never develop the ability to back up and see the big picture.
Because we educate individually, in a competitive environment, to the exclusion of almost everything else, we feel comfortable sorting all sorts of people into categories and classes, deserving and undeserving due to a fragmented moral sense, and we simply cannot understand others’ circumstances, nor, more importantly feel their pain.
Loss of anticipation, learning through fragmentation, and inability to feel others’ pain. These are the three lessons we burn into students’ brains. They all create a crisis of lack of empathetic development.
All are curable and fixable in the context of any stated religious belief system. There is no stated moral conflict with any written codex of belief. But if we are not aware of the other side — the higher road — we will act emergently with these low-empathy principles in mind. Our knowledge can be used against us. And we won’t even know it’s happening.
There are no easy paths out of complex and complicated situations like the current rioting over George Floyd’s murder under the knee of a police officer in Minnesota. But there is, using an understanding of empathy, an easy way to sort people who would plunge this country into a civil crisis or war that will destroy the lives of many of us.
Relational diversification, or relational disruption is the separator. Relational diversification is a necessary component of higher level empathetic behavior, and more evolved societies. The more, diverse, different people you know, with more experiences different from yours, are the necessary ingredient for wiring your brain to handle complexity.
That ability to handle complexity matters in modern society — and if it seems modern society is more complex than when you were growing up, it is – by the day. My own children are products, and programmed by global culture. My oldest son loves Japanese anime, Korean soap operas and BBQ. My younger son has taken tennis lessons in Vienna, Austria, programs computers, and is training to run a marathon.
All fine — but what empathetic complexity really allows us to do is process the information necessary to live in that complex society without emotional confusion and anger. It doesn’t delete a moral code that allows individuals to turn a blind eye to others’ suffering. It is not a sop to post-modernism. At the same time, difference and novelty do not confound — they mostly complement, and create conditions for us to draw healthy boundaries between us and our environment. We are less a label, and more a person.
What it really does is allow increased population density, as well as increased productivity necessary to feed and clothe all the people that live here. Without it, without that ability to connect across to others, we simply cannot maintain modern society.
If we don’t choose the path of societal and social empathetic evolution, what that means is that lots of people will have to DIE. Or rather, be KILLED. Simpler, lower empathy systems cannot maintain the populations nor the population densities we have on the planet.
Many people dysfunctionally fantasize about this type of global crisis, because across the world, regardless of nationality or location, the last part of the 20th Century has largely been free of mass killing. Yes — there are examples otherwise. But compared to centuries before and the long view — all things considered, the world has not done so badly. I read (or actually listen to) many long-history books on my bike rides, books like Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads, which is large breadth view of history from China to the Near East. Stacking dead bodies is something that humans have done, with regularity, from time immemorial.
If you want to return to those forms of governance and development, you simply have no idea of the horror and suffering involved, or you are disordered. We’ve had a little glimpse into what it means to return to the 9th Century with ISIS, Syria, and the entire situation in the Middle East. We often focus our attention on slavery on the tragic conditions of African-Americans in the United States. But slavery has a much longer history than that. People have been taking slaves ever since humans organized themselves into tribes, probably over 20,000 years ago. Mostly a product of conquest and capture, slavery became popular when certain tribal winners could afford to keep slaves. One can read about the story of Cabeza de Vaca, a failed Spanish conquistador, for more insight. It takes a certain level of sophistication to have slaves, because, for the most part, you have to feed them if you want stability. And you, of course, must have power and the ability to control. Often material, in terms of weapons and such, there are other ways of controlling people, asking them to forfeit their agency completely to the needs of their overlords.
Here is the insight — what slavery also requires is traumatic psychic destabilization of the slaves. Trauma isn’t a bug — it’s a feature. While there might have been some rare number of “kind” slaveholders, that’s really not the way the social system works. One must decide that the slaves are non-human, which requires suppression of the ability of the slaves to conceive of themselves as part of humanity. But it also requires derailing empathy in the slaveholders. You must deny the flood of signals coming from your empathy detector, into your brains that the people whom you are beating or killing, are humans.
And that fucks YOU up.
This traumatic destabilization reduces coherence in how your society thinks. The dissociation, emergent from the trauma, and necessary for short term mental survival, drives other bad stuff. When you start denying your core neural programming — that you’re connected to a living thing that looks like you save for superficial differences — you mire your own thinking at the Magical level. And that ungrounding has far-reaching consequences. I wrote here about the Aztecs, who had basically convinced, through savage warfare, neighboring tribes to send them their young people for both slaves and to serve as a reliable food source. An otherwise sophisticated society became hooked on the belief that the sun and moon literally rose on their actions (think about that from a perspective of egocentricity!) which involved regularly killing, eating, and enslaving people. Coupled with disease, it was that loss of grounding reality that caused their utter collapse and destruction by a literal small handful of Spaniards, who managed to reach out across the Aztec’s historic enemies and destroy them.
The point is that their practice as a society created the conditions for leaving reality behind with that magical viewpoint. When you leaven society with trauma-as-practice, you may survive for a while at the developmental level that you’ve arrived at. But by denying the need to evolve, you’ve also created the circumstance for civilizational collapse. You need to not only traumatize your source of slaves in order to keep preying on them. You also need to create scripts that intrinsically traumatize the rulers as well.
And that destroys your resilience. Something comes along, disease, climate change, or the death of George Floyd. And you come undone. That is what is happening now.
The idea that these things happen because of large scale disturbance is weak. For sure, famine can be a problem. Big things can matter. But the inherent fragility in the system means that small things can turn into big things relatively quickly. A rag-tag army of Spaniards that would have had no chance of survival had they shown up on a united Mexican mainland would have been killed relatively quickly. But because of the fantastic disconnection from reality engendered by the culture of trauma of the Aztecs, one crack led to the downfall of an empire.
The continued maltreatment and traumatization of our African-American brothers and sisters, along with undocumented immigrants, is not only perpetrating trauma on these populations (children in cages at the border, and my own damning favorite — 25% of all African American children will experience eviction before age of majority.) It also keeps both the victims and the larger perpetrators locked in a magical trauma cycle. Yes, it is true — some manage to climb out of the cycle. But a large majority — large enough to polarize our nation — are not climbing out.
And it’s not about the money. The rich in this country overwhelmingly make their money off of money. An entire sector of our economy is dedicated to squeezing out value out of instruments like the stock market through minute differentials in timing of buying and selling. This creates no value, and much fragility. The Fed prints $6T dollars in a day to save the stock market. This is NOT about the money.
But there is really only a very weak movement to change things. And that is the real first thing that has to change. Yes, the movement, indeed, must be inclusive, and listen to African-American voices. There is simply no way to gain insight into the complexity of how specific laws and rules, some well-intentioned, some far less so, play out without listening and understanding to the affected cohort of people.
But at the same time, more listening is not what is needed with regards to moving on basic needs. Who can argue that people need basic health care, housing, and food? You don’t need to be African-American to understand those basic things. Ignorance and a lack of empathy should not be a dodge for privilege.
There is excellent research out there that looks at some things like our policing systems, and how they need to change. We should use specific research to drive change. At the same time, we need to develop far better and agile “test and adapt” cycles to public policy. That will involve evolving the consequentiality of thinkers up and down the governmental scale. None of this is easy. We have created too many people through our educational system (that must also change) with the three flaws.
With regards to our current crisis in protest, I do not particularly care whether people promoting violence are Antifa or white supremacists. Their goals are the same — relational disruption. Both parties believe that relational disruption will lead to better things. For the first, it is collapse of what they believe is a capitalist system that offers no quarter for anyone who isn’t an already designated winner. For the second, it is some magical concept of holy homeland for the white race — whatever the hell THAT is.
But the empathetic physics also tell me that in the context of the disruption people will have to die — lots of people, because there are simply so many of us. And in order to get back to the homogenization of population, or back to dramatic traumatic suppression of an entire group of people, there’s got to be killing. That alone should send shivers up everyone’s spine.
The problem we are facing with the current protest movement goes far deeper, though, than Antifa, or White Supremacists. The protest movement itself is extremely unevolved. One can be for police reform, for example. But that has to mean something, and right now I can’t seem to figure out what particular policy anyone is championing. Getting rid of the police isn’t an option — every place where you put in civilian militias ends up with a certain percentage turning into Death Squads. Though they may exist in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s legislation docket, there is no proposed national legislation that is regularly reported on. This is likely a failure of the media. But activists are supposed to get out there in the public eye and inform.
And this has been the history of all Trump middle-class protests. Turn-out is good, but inevitably, it’s a crowd. No one collects contact info, the social network cohesion is low, and all you have to do is show up with a sign or a pink hat. I’m ON the side of women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, and most of the anti-Trump sentiment. I see it as many of the labels issued in the protests.
But building a better world doesn’t happen through jingoism. Better worlds are built through understanding systems and how they function — especially in a crowded world, with the crazy amount of income inequality that differentiates lived experience and destroys empathy. Better worlds start when we understand how the game of money is increasingly rigged to disenfranchise large segments of the population through meaningless work, as well as trapping large segments of the population, through a loss of opportunity and advancement, in jobs that no one wants to do. It may not be as bad as the Aztec’s concept of haute cuisine slavery. But it is still destructive of the soul, and the human potential present.
One need look no further than the current COVID-19 outbreaks in the meatpacking industry . The real story of the COVID-19 meatpacking outbreaks wasn’t the virus itself. When one looks at the numbers for mortality or harm, they were about average for the population. Sad, for sure. People died. The real story was how abysmal the workers’ situations were, and how little hope they had for change. Undocumented, uneducated, and trapped by a legal system designed to slap those that might protest, companies like Tyson or Smithfield know what will happen if they pay their workers more. They’ll leave.
Large protest movements like the ones current in society can be a start for people to meet like-minded people and start the process of larger change. But at this point, they are also open to disruption because of the lack of organization. And crazily enough, part of the reason for the lack of organization is social media. Social media can be a powerful platform for getting the word out, or getting everyone to show up at a particular city square at a particular time.
And that denies the people involved in the movement from getting the experience necessary to evolve people who can create real change. When what you need to do is come up with the most inflammatory messaging to get people to turn out, that may pump up your numbers. But getting people emotionally excited, and then teargassed, doesn’t make for people with both the evolution and sophistication to parse the circumstances that created the misery in the first place.
As we’re seeing, it’s also giving the relational disruptors on both sides an opportunity to get their licks in. Where I sit today, I am still hopeful that this latest run at the machine will die down after a while. Things still have not reached Ferguson-level violence. But I could be wrong.
It is useful to contrast our current protest efforts with what is happening in places like Hong Kong. I’ve written about this here. The short version — Hong Kong protestors don’t have access to social media, because the government won’t allow it. But the result is that they’ve had to evolve far more agile and responsive methods of protests. People are identified by their physical, as well as organizational abilities. Grandmas sit on the edge of crowds, feeding water to the younger males and females in the middle. Messages are passed between cell phones via AirDrop. All this makes such protests much harder to disrupt. And it also makes people count on relational cohesion. You can bet good money there are Chinese disruptors in any protest crowd in Hong Kong. But just like viruses that can’t get their R0 on, their effect is tremendously limited.
Will the Hong Kong protestors prevail against the Chinese government? At least they’re giving them a run for their money. Part of the Chinese government also realizes that there is a long empathetic game to be played over Beijing’s control. They could send in their troops and have a massacre in the streets, as Donald Trump has alluded to doing with our own protests. But they also know that such tactics inevitably backfire, and lead to one’s own undoing.
What are the challenges moving forward? There are historic systems of oppression and power that have been in charge of this country forever. Anyone that denies that is smoking crack. But the DeepOS of these systems largely lie buried. They may have front men at the police station, and it is true that those systems need to change. But more than anything, they are deeply rooted in the maintained ability of the system to not care about the fate of large sectors of the population — including those that are not African-American. Those systems, while not colorblind, look to maintain poverty levels, and lack of education, through indifference and neglect — both emergent reactions — as well as any act of racism. Those are the systems clapping for ‘essential workers’ during the pandemic, while denying people the wages necessary to feed their families. They are a manifestation that simply appears as the result of the social system. And they leave behind increasingly larger sections of the white population as well. I come from one of those areas myself.
And we live in such an economic system of abundance, there is simply no need for any of it. My privilege is barely (if at all) affected by anyone else’s transition into a stable living condition. For the last three months, the COVID-19 outbreak has shown us demonstrably that there is more than enough food for all. There can be enough housing for all. And if we evolve ourselves with empathy, we will no longer tolerate an educational system that creates people that inherently will NOT create an inclusive, nurturing society. Because of COVID-19, colleges have even taken baby steps, setting aside the various entrance exams (SAT, ACT, etc.) that are used to gradate entrance. This is far from enough — I have worked with underrepresented minority populations for almost 30 years, and the idea that someone is going to come out of a traumatized background and suddenly excel in college is not backed up by the larger statistics. This is not to take away from those that do. But we must change our minds and start thinking in terms of populations, as well as statistics, in a compassionate and empathetic manner.
There are African-American voices speaking profound truths at this very moment. I have always been a fan of Reverend William Barber. Killer Mike, giving his speech just a couple of days ago, nailed it. Today on Twitter, I discovered Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Caleth O. Wright. He nailed it. Cardi B — nailed it. There are many voices. I have local ones that show up on my FB page who say smart and wise things all the time. We should listen.
At the same time, it is important not to discount our own voices — not just in terms of expressing incomprehension of someone else’s experience. Speak for yourself regarding your ignorance — I’ve worked on these issues for years. By forfeiting our own voice in deference to how to fix some of these problems, we also look for absolution of responsibility. It’s not enough to express guilt for White Privilege. Lots of people have lots of expertise to solve lots of these problems. Listening is important. Synthesizing even more so. The ability to assimilate new information and change one’s mind? That’s the killer app. That’s the empathy thing.
I could go on. But this is enough. The path forward is to recognize the role of connection, the people that this connection will create, and the solutions that they in turn will create, as our main road to fixing our deep problems. It is time to realize we cannot cast things in terms of Left or Right, or these easy characterizations that have fooled us for so long. The only path forward is to do the hard work of Enlightenment. With everyone. This is a contrived crisis, that exists to maintain the mental models across the status quo.
The road ahead is more obvious than we think. We have to grow up. The answer is to get real. Let’s do it.
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