Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus – Interlude (III)

Happier times, Longji, Guangxi Province, China

There’s a story associated with the above picture that is insightful and funny, and interestingly relevant in these times.

I was in China, spending time in the Pearl River Delta, where I was visiting various factories in Shenzhen and Dongguan, in an attempt to understand manufacturing changes in China. I decided I also wanted to visit rural China, so I could better understand the demographic changes happening across the country, to understand why people would move to the Pearl River Delta. I had a talk to give in Guilin, which is famous for the upright karst formations and the Lijiang River.

Countryside outside Guilin
Lijiang River — note construction cranes on the edge of this scene

So my guide and I went to Guilin, and planned a side trip to Longji (The Dragon’s Back), in the mountains, famous for its terraced rice paddies. Longji is also in the heart of the Zhuang ethnic minority, people who do not identify as Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in China.

Stairs — always stairs

We stayed in a broken down hotel with little water, and the infamous hard Chinese beds. After we checked into the guesthouse, it was time for a stroll up and down the mountainside. Anyone who’s been to China will tell you that mountainous regions are famous for steps, and Longji was no different.

Longji rice terraces

At various places, there were overlooks. And on those overlooks were young women dressed in native costumes. For a fee (something like $2 US) they would pose with you. There were three on this particular overlook, and two were being pushy. The young woman in this picture, though was holding her peace off to the side.

So I selected her. We had a very fun 10 minute situation where we posed in the standard poses. I bowed and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. She smiled.

I then continued around the rest of the loop, using my bad Mandarin to raise hell with the old women who occupied a different town square up the mountain. “Why are you not wearing a wedding ring?” they asked. “Because I’m not married,” I replied. “But you should be married,” they said. I replied “But I have no money!” They started laughing. “Well that’s why maybe you shouldn’t be married!”

Some humor is truly transcultural.

After the remaining walk, I trundled down to the small bar in the village, ordered up a Tsingtao, and sat down. There was Wifi, and I turned on my computer.

After about five minutes, a beautiful young woman came walking directly toward me, in modern dress (she had a Tommy Hilfiger sweater on,) literally making a beeline. It startled me a bit, as she stuck her hand out. Of course, she was the young woman earlier up on the hill, in the costume.

With the aid of Google Translate, we spent a delightful hour of conversation. She explained to me her life. “1/3 of the season, I am getting a B.A. in Accounting in Guilin where I go to school. 1/3 of the time, I am in the costume, making money for my family and to help pay for school. And 1/3 of the time, I am helping my father behind the Shui-Nyu (the water buffalo) planting rice.”

Lots of shui-nyus everywhere

What she had offered was a view into a transitional society — one moving from Tribal value sets, that were obviously still very strong, to a future where Performance/Goal-based thinking and Legalistic/Algorithmic rule processing would dominate.

Understanding this is vital in communicating with people about the virus. Different Value Sets will be receptive to different messaging, with different complexity. I am writing for the top of the complexity stack in my posts. But if you want to communicate down the stack, you have to realize people can only understand what they are developed to understand.

An example. If I were coaching her on what to tell her grandmother, this is what I’d say. “Nǎinai/Ama, I love you. And now, to honor you, I will take care of you as you stay in this corner of the house and do not go out. One day, you will play with my grandchildren.”

It’s not that hard.

A prosperous historic village outside Guilin – Not Longji


Closer to the Western milieu, for all those that are authorities, I would recommend remember the Little Prince — especially, when the Little Prince visited the planet where the King had set up shop.

From the book, online here (Chapter 10) —

For what the king fundamentally insisted upon was that his authority should be respected. He tolerated no disobedience. He was an absolute monarch. But, because he was a very good man, he made his orders reasonable.

“If I ordered a general,” he would say, by way of example, “if I ordered a general to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not obey me, that would not be the fault of the general. It would be my fault.”

“May I sit down?” came now a timid inquiry from the little prince.

“I order you to do so,” the king answered him, and majestically gathered in a fold of his ermine mantle.page28image3814125184

But the little prince was wondering… The planet was tiny. Over what could this king really rule?

“Sire,” he said to him, “I beg that you will excuse my asking you a question−−” “I order you to ask me a question,” the king hastened to assure him.
“Sire−− over what do you rule?”
“Over everything,” said the king, with magnificent simplicity.

“Over everything?”

The king made a gesture, which took in his planet, the other planets, and all the stars.

“Over all that?” asked the little prince.

“Over all that,” the king answered.

For his rule was not only absolute: it was also universal.

“And the stars obey you?”

“Certainly they do,” the king said. “They obey instantly. I do not permit insubordination.”

Such power was a thing for the little prince to marvel at. If he had been master of such complete authority, he would have been able to watch the sunset, not forty−four times in one day, but seventy−two, or even a hundred, or even two hundred times, with out ever having to move his chair. And because he felt a bit sad as he remembered his little planet which he had forsaken, he plucked up his courage to ask the king a favor:

“I should like to see a sunset… do me that kindness… Order the sun to set…”

“If I ordered a general to fly from one flower to another like a butterfly, or to write a tragic drama, or to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not carry

out the order that he had received, which one of us would be in the wrong?” the king demanded. “The general, or myself?”

“You,” said the little prince firmly.

“Exactly. One much require from each one the duty which each one can perform,” the king went on. “Accepted authority rests first of all on reason. If you ordered your people to go and throw themselves into the sea, they would rise up in revolution. I have the right to require obedience because my orders are reasonable.”

Here is hoping that our authorities remember that their subjects are under stress, and ask what is reasonable. Empathy is the cornerstone.

Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus (II) – What Societies are Capable of in Crisis

Sinterklaas.. a sunny day in Delft, NL 2008.

Note — for those new to my writing, here’s a couple of things to know.

  1. I write about how the full stack of empathy — from mirroring all the way to conscious prediction — connects us as humans.
  2. That leads to important insights on how humans, or more specifically, how human networks create knowing and knowledge. It doesn’t all come from Dead or Alive White Guys. This COVID-19 epidemic, and how we understand it, is really about how our society is connected together and forms understanding of how the epidemic is proceeding.
  3. Synergy in knowledge comes from empathy in exchange of information between actors. If you can’t empathize, you’re unlikely to synthesize your understanding between you and other people. As true for scientists as it is for others.
  4. Empathy (which does include the more familiar “feeling empathy” people recognize) is the information coherence function between two people. This leads to all sorts of interesting phenomena, such as predictable (canonical) knowledge structures we all use. Specific knowledge may be different, but the structure of the knowledge can match — especially if we come out of the same social structure (hierarchy, tribe, social net, etc.) When you deeply connect, odds are, you’ll walk away from the exchange with the same message.
  5. Two punchlines : 1.) As we relate, so we think — if we practice rational relationships, we’ll likely be rational people; 2.) We aren’t going to solve complex problems without the wisdom of an aware crowd. Everyone has to be a sensor and a contributor.

OK — here we go. This is the good stuff that people who come to this blog expect in times like this. This post will cover “how can we gauge a priori the efficacy of any given action to control the virus?” If we understand this post, then we can also understand what we likely, or not likely can pull off. Things that work in China may or may not work in the U.S. Things that work in Taiwan may or may not work in the U.S. Regardless of country, though, there are tons of lessons out there. And this pandemic is providing a palette of actions and responses that we will be learning from for a long time in the future. Because there WILL be a future.

To start, here is the maxim that I will discuss:

Societies will maximize their efficacy in confronting the virus if a.) they understand their stage of development they are at, and tailor realistically their strategies for the stage of development they are at, and the matching average v-Meme of the population they’re attempting to manage. Their stage of development will dictate what messages can be received and understood. Less evolved individuals will have to be told/forced into doing given preventative activities. More evolved individuals can handle greater complexity in strategies, tactics, and immediate actions.

Here’s a start at the developmental values stack, along with their concurrent knowledge structures. You don’t have to read the fine print if you don’t want — here’s the gist.

Authoritarian societies are going to do best being told what to do, and forcing individuals to do it.

Legalistic societies are going to do best creating rules for people to follow, communicating why, and enforcing rules.

Performance/Goal-based societies will use the the two above strategies, along with clearly identified goals, and some notion of data tracking (whatever that is — we’ll explore.)

Communitarian societies will have access to everything above, as well as customizing response based on the individuals involved, and synthesizing advice from different fields to create specific locale/crafted strategies.

Here’s the unvarnished Knowledge Structures slide:

The knowledge structure stack

So, let’s pull apart a couple of strategies, and understand them in the context of societal and empathetic personal development – their ability to utilize in a society both self-identify (agency/self-empathy) and connect with others (traditional empathy.) My wife, a trauma psychologist who is also Taiwanese, wrote up these five points for Taiwan, that adopted an immediate border closing and test policy. Here are her comments:

5 reasons relevant for understanding Taiwan’s experiences — 

1. The majority of people in Taiwan are a homogeneous group with similar Legalistic and Authoritarian Value-Memes (e.g., Willingness to follow the rules even though they bring you inconvenience. Consideration to others rather than just taking care of self. Effective top-down hierarchical crisis management). Even though there was a heated presidential election in November 2019, there is actually no major diversity of life style to split this island. 

2. “Nerdy” professionals are valued in Taiwan and are leading the policies & actions of fighting COVID-19 based on professional medical knowledge with advanced-technical support.

3. There are not enough “otherness” groups in Taiwan to become a significant “target of blame.” Don’t imagine that there is no discrimination or micro-aggression in Taiwan, it’s just that there are not enough diversity to create diversion. 

4. Even though Taiwanese people know that COVID-19 mostly targets physically vulnerable population, they are willing to take actions to protect the elders. Senior citizens are valued and respected because of the traditional Asian culture. 

5. As an island living through so much trauma and disasters, Taiwanese have a lot of resilience from the chronic adaptation to Traumatic Stress.

My wife’s analysis illustrates exactly the background societal dynamics that explains Taiwan’s success. Taiwan is largely a Legalistic society, with some Communitarian tendencies. They tend to be rule-followers, there is still lots of stress and emphasis on young people to sort with entrance exams, and to accept one’s fate if one doesn’t cut the mustard.

There is also a strong Authoritarian bent in Taiwanese v-Meme make-up. Being a professor, even in a very capitalist economy (Taiwanese are extremely entrepreneurial!) is a high-status, sought-after position, even though the pay is mediocre. The virtue associated with the position means that their best and brightest aspire to becoming a scholar. That helps in times like this, when you actually need experts with a strong sense of national identity to help out.

Taiwanese universities also have legitimate shared governance. The couple that I’ve visited had elected Rectors/Provosts/Heads of the Academic Food Chain, as opposed to the appointed system of Presidents/Provosts/Deans in the U.S. This matters in the bigger picture. While status matters, there is far more emphasis on your responsibility to larger society than in U.S. universities — at least that I observed. All the professors also have served time in the military, because EVERYONE has to. Most have shot a gun, and the older faculty I’ve talked to were part of the largely symbolic artillery barrage directed against China. This has stopped, but is interesting in how people form “We” group identity.

Finally, the last interesting part is that Taiwanese, by virtue of their national history, are trauma survivors. This goes back a long way. Taiwan was occupied by Japan during WWII, and when the Kuomintang fled mainland China, needless to say, they had no illusions what the CCP would like to do to them. What this means from a psycho-social perspective is this: they know they can die, and are easily triggered to act. They don’t assume any kind of exceptionalism, like we do in the U.S., regarding their ultimate fate if they don’t prepare. Taiwan is a reasonably religious country — Buddhist shrines are everywhere, and there is a large Christian presence – 6% of the population. But they aren’t like the U.S., sitting around whispering “thoughts and prayers.”

And this epidemic is NOT their first rodeo. They got a bit surprised by the SARS epidemic of 2003. But it is mostly definitely “never again”.

One of the interesting things about Taiwan is the diversity puzzle. Taiwan consists of three main ethnic groups — Hoklo/Han Chinese, the original Taiwanese people, and Hakka people, also of Han Chinese descent from southern Taiwan. They DO differentiate — but their differentiation is not so great as to cause major conflict. A huge part of the problem with racism in the United States is a lack of basic life services, so discrimination matters in one’s ability to survive. Taiwan has essentially 99% coverage of the population with health services, and economically, everyone can work who wants to work — a combination of national safety nets, as well as a strong work ethic.

All these things form powerful forces for social coherence. You do have an internationalist class that feels some obligation to the country’s survival as a whole, and has the opportunity for greater intellectual sophistication (which is prized) and empathetic evolution. Yet since even the peasants are taken care of (and there are many people in Taiwan at the tribal level) everyone shares a reasonably strong national identity, which is super-important regarding cooperation in levels Legalistic and below. In a national crisis like a pandemic, they know most all of them are going to be fine. So they’ll do what the authorities tell them to do.

So what exactly did Taiwan do, that mapped into their truth-based self-awareness development? This timeline is taken from this piece, but also maps well to how my wife and I followed the handling of the pandemic, with information from her father and mother.

  1. When China reported out a cluster of pneumonia cases on Dec. 31, they started watching, monitoring people visiting from Wuhan, CN.
  2. They backtracked shortly thereafter, monitoring everyone from the area who had arrived at or before Dec. 20.
  3. Mid-January, a team from Taiwan visited Wuhan and gathered even more information.
  4. By late January, they had established a centralized Epidemic Control, and banned flights from Wuhan.
  5. They cracked down on mask and sanitizer hoarding almost immediately thereafter, and made sure that everyone had a supply of masks (2/day) to use. They distributed some 6.5 million masks to schools and after-school institutions.
  6. They had already installed an infrastructure of broad-scope temperature testing of individuals at airports and other points-of-entry.
  7. They tracked people who were tested once, parents reported their own children’s fevers, and they re-tested as necessary. They did not engage in cordons or lockdowns, other than control at the borders.
  8. Public service announcements regarding prevention and containment were played on the hour, mandated on radio and television statements. I don’t have information on what they did with dissenting voices, if there were any — but they certainly didn’t allow any of this kind of crazy bullshit.

Effective prevention of the COVID-19 outbreak took advantage of Taiwan’s culture and social structures. Individuals were treated individually (Communitarian v-Meme) when appropriate. Individuals were also supposed to bear responsibility for not infecting others, and did not assume that they would be discriminated against. There were lots of rules (Legalistic v-Meme) for everyone — but the government, through pretty radical transparency, made sure that people understood the “why” of the rules.

And finally, the government had a larger coherent narrative that was consistently broadcast, and not allowed to be corrupted by disruptive forces. I don’t know the amount of histrionic media in Taiwan, but I’ll bet there wasn’t a lot. It wasn’t their first rodeo, and so the idea that this was some kind of plot by the government to “seize control” was just not a popular lede. And because everyone in the society would be taken care of, people were invested, regardless of their education or social standing, in following the rules, with stories told to them so that everyone could understand what was demanded of them.

Contrast that to the situation in the U.S. currently. The mind reels.


Now let’s look at what China did to contain the coronavirus.

A couple of things before we dig in. China is, without a doubt, an authoritarian society. My old Chinese girlfriend, when we discussed the “We” nature, a popular lede in U.S. cultural studies, laughed. She said “Oh, it’s a ‘We’ society for sure. One guy, the leader, runs in one direction, and everyone follows him!” If you’re differentiated outside the dominant group, and happen not to be an external, high status sub-group (trust me — as a White Male Professor, I have SERIOUS white privilege when I visit China) you’re in a world of hurt. I don’t want to get into the whole Uighur situation right now, but the West has a very distorted view — both positive and negative — of how China actually operates.

Some 95% of Chinese society is Han Chinese. There are ethnic minority groups, and the ones closer to the population centers are less differentiated from the larger body than they might admit. Here’s a picture of me with a Zhuang tribeswoman, who I had a lovely fascinating experience with in Guangxi Province.

Zhuang Woman (and BS accounting major) Longji, Guangxi Province

So what did China do to manage COVID-19 when the outbreak occurred in Wuhan?

Initially, when the outbreak occurred, local city and provincial governors lied about the extent. That quickly changed, however, and the Beijing government ordered a lockdown on 60 million people in Hubei province. At the same time, they started building hospitals to treat the inevitable overflow of capacity. Severe travel restrictions were implemented.

And while China did develop testing capacity, in no way could they pursue individuals like Taiwan did. Statistics from China may be large compared to other areas, but there are a lot of people in Wuhan. Travel bans stopped the flow of cars, and universities and industry were shut down. Simple messages/ classic Authoritarian fragments were repeated over and over (wash your hands!) But some residents were also nailed/welded inside their apartments to control the virus, and discontent from the measures is widespread.

And then there is the issue of viral outbreak again as China reopens Wuhan. There is still no vaccine for a mass vaccination program. China has trumpeted their success through their official propaganda organs, but lots of people aren’t buying it. A gratitude re-education campaign by one Wuhan party official was roundly denounced on social media.

Since I’ve pretty much relied on my own experience in China, along with Western media, I think I have a reasonable grasp of actual events. But it’s still hard to figure out the extent and severity of dissent in China. That said, what China’s response shows is what an Authoritarian system would do in this circumstance, when it can’t rely on individual responsibility and agency because it simply hasn’t been cultivated. The overall grounding dynamics of illness and death forced the hand of first the regional authority, and then the national government — they couldn’t deny that people were dying. Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who was the persecuted whistleblower on the epidemic, died, and served as a turning point in information on the epidemic. If they wanted to maintain order, they had to be truthful with their population.

But you can also see that Authoritarian societies have very limited toolkits to deal with this kind of situation. People already half-assume the government is lying to them, so soft means of control have to be implemented. I’m also willing to bet (and time will tell) that people held a dichotomous perspective on the situation. First, they thought the government was likely underestimating the damage, to maintain the air of authority. But secondly, because Authoritarian systems are built on cultivating a depressed, low responsibility underclass, people realized their survival was up to them, and fell little or no allegiance to higher Authority in the crisis. They had never been responsible — and they weren’t going to start feeling that way now, when their immediate family was threatened. And China most definitely value family. The entire background culture is built on it.

Contrast Taiwan to China — and now one can see the advantage of higher social evolution in effectively containing and controlling spread of something like COVID-19. Empathetic Taiwan still has the same risks of spread since they controlled their outbreak, and didn’t let the virus create herd immunity. And here’s the Deep Empathy angle — by utilizing every individual as a sensor, Taiwan stands a far better chance of holding COVID-19 at bay until a vaccine and related campaign (which is actually an Authority-driven solution — everyone is subject to it!) can be developed.

What about the U.S.? Unfortunately, the U.S. response is essentially a mess, and the sign of a country under relational collapse. It’s so crazy-quilt out there as of this writing, I don’t feel like I can say much of anything. Ostensibly a Performance-focused Communitarian society, we have none of the lower v-Meme scaffolding to support an advanced empathetic culture. We have recognition of individuals as different, yet we have no common origination stories any more that would bind us together in a crisis. As a result, people are out in the streets celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. A huge hunk of the country south of the Mason-Dixon line celebrates an insurrection that killed more people than any external war. And both sides of the news cycle (though Fox is by far the worse) drives either false or hysterical narratives. Our information coherence functions in the society have been hacked by a deeply disruptive memetic virus — the result of no federal safety net, including public health care, as significant regional economies collapsed over the last 40 years.

As of this writing, there is marginal ability to impose even location restrictions to contain spread — let alone implement a more Communitarian program where people might phone in health conditions so we could both contain potential virus spreaders, while also offering services that will assure their health. There aren’t really any significant testing resources of this date, so everyone with a brain knows the actual infection rate is grossly underreported. Either this thing is contagious or not, and if it is, far more people have it than have been tested, which as I wrote in an earlier piece is oddly good news in the places that have been infected for a while, like Pullman. I have no hope of getting anything like a surgical mask, and I’ve been getting ready to get on my sewing machine and make some.

Practice makes perfect

And there is precious interest at the top of the Federal Government in doing anything except attempting to prop up the stock market. We are a complex information system with severely broken complexity links. We’ve let a Performance-based, nominally Communitarian society decay up and down the class scale. And that’s exacerbated problems with racial and gender equality already extant in our society. Even our school kids attend grade and high schools that resemble prisons, with buzzing doors and search, so they won’t get shot up by the next mass shooter. When you live in fear of your child being shot on a daily basis, how can you generate a functional society?

Our ability to generate individual wealth is still unparalleled in the world. But it has come at tremendous social cost. I have seen no other photos of other societies rushing stores to clean out shelves like in the U.S. The problem is that it is a rational response to our current predicament. When you can expect nothing from your neighbors except viral spread, in a hyper-individualized society, it’s stock up or die. Money is the hammer, and every problem we have is a nail.

The problem is that it reduces the temporal and spatial horizons of the thinking parties — independent of party affiliation. All of us sink – and become more stupid. I know, for myself, that I have been calculating probabilities of stores running out of goods and services that I might need. Fortunately for me, I have an expansive understanding of supply chain dynamics, and know that certain items (like food) are unlikely to run out. But if you’re not me, and can’t just pick up the phone and talk to the head of R&D at the major food manufacturing equipment company, it is certainly terrifying. I think I’m going to be sitting in this chair for a while typing, so I’m pondering buying a new accordion. Others are obviously not so lucky.

There are some hopeful stories around the world, about people coming together, empathizing, and creating shared solutions. Long-term, that bodes well in creating people capable of handling different problems of complexity. Our empathy muscle is only as good as we practice. But in the short run, we’re in a tight spot. Stay tuned. There’s more to this story. As for me, I’m thanking the Universe this bug is only 10x as lethal as the flu.

Imagine if it were 100x.

Quickie Post — Why Guessing about Asymptomatic Coronavirus Cases is so Hard

Blue Helicopter Jesus — on the edge of the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness, after arranging a successful heli-vac

This is a geek post, and if you’re familiar with my work, you might love it. If you’re not, well, good luck. You’ve been warned.

Why do we have such a hard time knowing at this time what the real rate of COVID-19 deaths are, as well as what the real infection rate is? NOTE — it looks from preliminary evidence to be 10x the flu, and if you get the disease with complicating factors, a terrible way to die — that we DO know. So don’t take this post as some odd minimization. It’s not. DO the right things!

The problem is that at the current time, we are attempting to understand this using people in hierarchical social structures (in this case, academic and industry virologists) whose main tool in the arsenal is algorithmic rule processing, which turns into our well-known empirical science. What that means is that they’re going to do some tabulation, a little data analysis, maybe plot things on an axis and make some guesses. That’s what folks have pretty much done. Work is improving — I liked this piece, and you can check this out. Make no mistake — while I talk about some of the science with questions, I HONOR our uber-geeks who are pouring themselves into this crisis. That’s one of the vectors to get to answers.

The truth is that this kind of thing works GREAT with what I call “closed systems” — where you can isolate a given population, subject them to a clinical trial of some sort, where you control the inputs, the population is also homogeneous, and there’s a start-and-end date that makes sense.

None of those things are present in the current problem. What we have here is an Open Systems problem — a society is infected from an unlikely source — a virus that has jumped from bats (we think) to humans (I actually think the evidence for this is reasonable) and is now exploding. We can’t draw any meaningful system boundaries YET on this, because we don’t really understand the system. We can guess on vagaries (animal -> human transmission, consumption of the virus through purchase at a wet market, etc.) but we just don’t know. And when I talk about system boundaries, I’m not just talking about the obvious ones — Wuhan city limits, Hubei province boundaries, etc. I’m talking about all the potential inputs and feedback loops present.

For example, we also don’t know a ton of other stuff about the impact to human health of people regarding their environment to resiliency against this virus. China’s air is absolutely execrable in most of the big cities. I have been in Beijing where the pollution fog is as thick as the dense fog that sometimes settles in on the Palouse — except ours is water vapor. And there are other open system factors that no one knows about. Chinese people smoke cigarettes. And they also have adopted about half of our own awful, sugar-based diet. I maintain, as a lone voice in the wilderness, that many of our problems are inflammatory-diet-related as far as overall health, psycho-social shift, etc. Especially in an epidemic. Here are a couple of pix — the daytime one is not so great showing the air — visibility was low, but trust me that the nighttime one is just air pollution, and you can see this through the lights. People had on masks and such.

On the Bei-Da Campus
Next to the Olympic Stadium. Yep, that’s Pirate Minnie.

What that means is we have a respiratory-handicapped, immune-compromised population who have watched this sweep through their population. And we have statistics associated with the virus, functioning under a combination of these exacerbating factors, along with age-related mortality. These things, at this time, are impossible to uncouple. Scientists may come up with a vaccine in a few months. But they will take years to untangle this mess.

What this means is virologists are observing a new phenomena with few guiding principles (up there in the Knowledge Structure stack) and a poor ability to guess at how exactly the virus messes you up. It is true that one can see the dynamics of transmission, and we can do things like count patients and symptoms, and make guesses based on intuition that vary on the guesser’s and their field’s past practice. Interestingly enough, it’s the virologists’ past experience with epidemics that really drives insights. Experience assembles tons of multi-dimensional data into complex narratives, and gives insights that are simply impossible to extract from a standardized data set. The brain’s demands for coherence from an expert lens can often drive insights that would be normally unavailable.

But it’s a tricky business (confirmation bias and all!), and as amenable to hunches as anything. It’s not that I don’t trust the virologists — actually, I do. But the public, and especially the media, like certainty. And we just aren’t going to have that for a while. As I said in the previous piece, you should act like this is the Big One. And hope that it isn’t.

Most important to understanding this whole deal are the people who got the virus and didn’t get sick at all, or only got moderately sick. But those people can’t meaningfully AT THIS POINT be included in any of the analysis. (This piece is an early attempt.) Later, down the pike, we might be able to do this with certain populations. Wuhan, China, has a population of 8.5M people, and Hubei province, where Wuhan is, is up around 58M! The different cordons that were drawn around these areas will, with intensive research, show the permeability of these boundaries and how it all works, as well as who actually likely got infected. Rapid contagion and fatality can go hand in hand. But there are also reasons why viruses like Ebola burn out quickly, and don’t go on to devastate countries.

But for now — with the knowledge structures we have — we just can’t know. And the best thing we can do is follow the precautionary principle (especially with the potential for hospital overload) and DO YOUR PART . But also realize that outcomes as far as pandemic deaths will likely be less than the straight multiplicative estimates we are seeing. That means your odds of surviving this pandemic, especially if you are in one of the low-impact groups, are extremely high. And the best course of action is to calm down, and think about how you might help others. That’s the empathy thing. We are all in this together.

Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus – Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fish, turtles, and frogs

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

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

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

Mac — and yes, he’s very soft.


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

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

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

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

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

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

ER Data from NYC

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreamland — A Quickie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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