10 September 2020

PANIC vs. PANDEMIC: DOING THE HARD MATH

We all know that hard decisions require hard trade-offs. Believe it or not, I take Trump at his word that he chose to downplay the deadly danger of the coronavirus to the American people because he didn't want to create "a panic" as he told Bob Woodward in taped interviews for Woodward's new book "Rage." So, what were those trade-offs?

As a philosopher, I might frame the question along these lines: What was the utilitarian calculation that led him to call the virus a Democratic hoax, to claim it was no worse than the flu, to encourage his followers to flout and then protest mask ordinances and business closures, to claim over and over again that the virus would simply disappear on its own as if by magic, to blame the states's governors (who did not have the same information he bragged to Woodward he had) for their failure to handle the pandemic?

Or to put it another way: What countervailing value compelled this administration to try to wait out the ravages of this pandemic in anticipation of a vaccine (and gaslight the American public about when it will be widely available)?

Again: Why, to this day, is there still no national policy to deal with the inevitable second wave that will strike here before a vaccine is widely available?

These are the sorts of hard questions a competent leader and administration is required to make in deciding policy questions. I get it.

So, what was the trade-off that fueled Trump and his administration's decision to downplay the deadly seriousness of the virus to the American public? What was the specific panic they wanted to avoid?

Trump's economic advisors Peter Navarro and Larry Kudlow and Steven Mnuchin, among others, made it abundantly clear that the administration's main concern was stock market values. The Trump administration's principal measure of its economic success has been the rising stock market. Trump himself boasted the other day about the record highs in the Dow Jones Industrial Average as evidence of what a good job he is doing. Understandably, they did not want to see a stock market panic a la 2008.

So, let's look at the numbers on both sides of the trade-off equation. Currently, the U.S. has roughly a quarter of the world's deaths (~195,000) even though we only make up about 4% of the world's population. Worldwide deaths stand at ~905,000. So, doing back-of-the-envelope math, if Trump had acted responsibly and truthfully, not downplayed the severity of the threat, and the U.S. had performed on par with the averages of other countries in the world (not better, just average), we should be at ~36,000 deaths (4% of 905,000). That's ~160,000 additional deaths due to Trump's neglect and public lies about the deadly severity and spread of the virus.

So the question we need to ask is how many points on the Dow Jones Industrial Average were salvaged by this policy? And how many lives were sacrificed in trade-off for each point on the Dow?

Unfortunately, I can't do the second part of the calculation because I don't have access to the numbers Navarro, Kudlow, Mnuchin, Trump, Pence, et al., had. I don't know what their projections of a market "panic" looked like. How many points did they believe it would fall if Trump did not downplay the threat of the pandemic? So, as I write this, I cannot tell you how many American lives per Dow point they gamed out in their scenarios. But I do believe this is the question that needs to be asked. FOIA, e.g., anyone?

One last point. If they did not make the good faith effort to do these utilitarian calculations in determining their policy response to the deadly spread of the virus, then frankly they did not do their job. They are incompetent, and their response has been in bad faith. The total good from the number of Dow points saved should outweigh the total suffering caused by the stack of dead American bodies and shuttered businesses or Trump's policy is an abject failure.

Difficult policy decisions demand tough, realistic calculations. We hired Trump to do the hard work of governing, and we need to be assured he didn't slough off this decision in the false hope the pandemic would simply peter out because he was afraid it would upset his re-election campaign strategy.

29 July 2020

DON'T HATE ME!

Well, it's the silly season again. Less than 100 days to the quadrennial clusterfuck we call the Presidential election. That means we are going to be deluged with ads—online and in media—attempting to persuade us (if we are actually persuadable) of the superiority of a particular party or candidate.

The key word here is 'persuade'. There is a big difference between persuasion and manipulation, and that's what I want to examine here. It's important to know whether the ad or FaceBook post or Tweet or Gram or Blog Post or news article (fake or real) or other social phenomenon you're viewing is trying to persuade you of something or manipulate your emotions.

If you are a philosopher, your allegiance is first and foremost to truthful, verifiable premises; consistent and consistently applied principles; coherent arguments based on these premises and principles; and legitimate, circumscribed inferences. But most of us are not philosophers. Thus, we are subject to all matter of wildly speculative, illegitimate claims that don't hold together—the sorts of things that make us abandon our reason and proportion: political ads, branding, and, more importantly, guerrilla marketing.

Or, in a word: Propaganda.

What is it? How can you spot it? And what can you do to shield yourself from its toxic and divisive effects?
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(1) The first thing you want to ask yourself is whether what you're seeing appeals to your reason or common sense or, alternatively, does it play on your emotions. Does it provoke an instantaneous, automatic, perhaps negative response—maybe a knee-jerk reaction that makes you want to retweet or repost it? What is your response to the piece? For example:

• Does it make you feel defensive?
• Does it incite you to be fearful?
• Does it incense you, make you indignant, anger you?
• Does it seethe with an infectious distaste, hatred, and loathing?

The answers to these questions, of course, require some degree of self-awareness and emotional honesty: 'What am I really feeling as I read this piece or look at this photograph or watch this video? And why?'

If you feel the piece is trying to provoke such an emotional response, you should be cautious about the material. That doesn't mean reject it entirely; it just means be aware that someone is attempting to play with your emotions.

(2) Another thing to pay attention to has to do with the object of piece: Where is the piece directing your emotional attention? Who or what is it attacking? For example:

• Is the emotion it elicits in you being directed toward a specific person or, as is often the case, a group or type of people?
• Does it seek to indict or condemn or demean an entire group of people by pointing out the flaws or sins of one individual who happens to be a member of that group?
• Does it make you feel morally or intellectually or spiritually superior or somehow vindicated by putting another person or group of people down?

These are often further signs that the piece you're seeing or reposting or retweeting or linking to is meant to be manipulative. Again, caution signs.

These first two questions are the kinds of things any of us can ask when we see something on social media or on the news and feel tempted or compelled to propagate it, copypasta, retweet, etc. We simply need to ask ourselves what we're feeling when we look at the piece and who is this feeling being directed at. This is what it feels like to be manipulated.

(3) We haven't gotten into an analysis of the specific claims of any particular post because that requires research into not only the specific claims that are being made in any given piece but into the (often shady) origins of the piece. Quite often, those things are not obvious to us the recipient, the casual reader or viewer. And they are hidden for a reason. The propagators of the piece don't want us to know the truth.

Those of us who grew up as "people of The Book"—meaning Jews, Christians, and Muslims—have been taught to believe we should have faith, we should believe "things not seen," we should take the words we read at face value as truth. Unfortunately, this simple faith, this uncritical acceptance, tends to make us vulnerable to clever manipulators acting in bad faith.

There are certain techniques we can look for, in general, that should excite our critical facilities. For example, we can begin by asking ourselves questions like these:

• Does the piece use emotionally loaded terms?
• Does the piece call people names or label them?
• Does the piece slander or demean someone or something?
• Is the emotion the piece elicits in you being directed toward a specific person or, as is often the case, a group or type of people?
• Does the piece use big words without defining them?
• Ask yourself: Do you really know the meanings of all the words the piece uses, or do you only think you do?
• Can you ask the author of the piece a question about what they mean when they say something you don't really understand?
• Does the piece originate from a legitimate, authoritative source with actual knowledge of the claims it is making?
• Or, is the piece copypasted from a friend who copypasted it from someone else nobody really knows?
• Does the piece rely on someone who claims to be an authority but whose specialization is in a field different from the claim they are making?
• Does the piece automatically assume you agree with its premises and conclusions?
• Does the piece assume an attitude about someone or something or some group of people or things or facts?
• Does the piece somehow imply that anyone who doesn't believe what it's saying is stupid or ignorant? 
• Does the piece rely on facts that are assumed or that have no grounding in fact?
• Does the piece ask you to take for granted facts you have no way of proving or verifying? 
• Does the piece take something factual and objective and try to color it emotionally, say, by making it seem toxic? 
• Does the piece make broad, sweeping general claims based on a single event or occurrence or a limited sample size or anecdote?
• Does the piece take a single, localized incident and blow it out of proportion, making it seem like it's omnipresent? 
• Does the piece make unjustified comparisons that can't be demonstrated?
• Does the piece use doctored images?

These are by no means all the rhetorical techniques used by bad actors to manipulate and divide us, but it's important to have a few critical shields in your arsenal.
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Some manipulative branding campaigns are very sophisticated, playing on our deepest fears. Let's look at a particularly effective guerrilla marketing propaganda campaign from the 2016 election and see how it works. 

In the run-up to the 2016 election, there was a ton of social media and even mainstream media hype given over to the 'creepy clown' phenomenon. Remember this? It began in Wisconsin (remember the significance of that state?) and built and built until, Wikipedia tells us, "By mid-October 2016, clown sightings and attacks had been reported in nearly all U.S. states."

People—some real and some imagined and some invented—dressed as clowns and appeared at odd, incongruous places and times. Nobody knew who these bogeymen were or where they were coming from or why they were doing it. It was a prank that became a trend and went viral. The clowns scared people. Some folks, especially suburban moms, were so freaked out by this trend they kept their kids home from school and forbid them to go trick-or-treating.

The viral phenomenon was picked up and hyped to an almost hysterical extent by the media and ran rampant on social media. It was repeated over and over and over again. Some freely joined the prank; others, it is suspected, were paid actors. The publicity proliferated. This was a guerilla marketing operation, deployed nationwide, designed to induce a broad fear of the unknown. Some say it started out as a marketing campaign for a movie. That may be so, but it was exploited and repeated by political operatives.

Now recall the context of that election: Trump vs. Hillary. The Republicans were branding themselves as the 'Daddy party' and trying to cast Hillary and the Democrats as the 'Mommy' party. Scaring people is one way to infantilize them, make them feel insecure like children. The subtext of the campaign was: "Daddy might be abusive, but he's strong and he and only he will protect you from these unseen terrors." The 'creepy clowns' played right into this narrative. It was a subtle, under-the-radar political ploy. No one claimed overt or public credit for it. Yet it worked! (See, e.g., Wisconsin)

Invented bogeymen: that's one type of manipulative political propaganda meant to scare you and incense you. They inculcate a pervasive attitude of fear and loathing. They occlude your reason. And as we know, political operatives are notoriously uninventive. If a campaign worked once, they tend to run it over and over again (with minor modifications) until it doesn't—and often even after that.

So, who are the bogeymen for this current election cycle? Who are we being manipulated to fear or resent or hate?

Ask yourself: Who are you being urged to fear or hate? And why?

24 June 2020

The Business of the Post-Human

R > G.

If you're even only vaguely familiar with Thomas Piketty's massive 700-page economics tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014 English), you will be aware of the formula at its heart. In this equation, R = Return on Capital (which includes, among other things, profits, dividends, interest, rents, income); G = Economic Growth of the society. Thus, the annual return of the S&P 500 Index Fund that powers your 401K (which averages around 7% annually, roughly speaking) exceeds the overall economic growth of the country as measured by its output (which since the Great Recession has averaged around 2%—though 2020 may see that average dip).

Now if one side of an equation is growing at an annualized rate of 7% and the other at 2%, it won't be long until those who derive the majority of their wealth from returns on capital (the 7% growthers) will take over all the society's assets from those whose wealth comes from general economic growth (the 2% growthers). This fundamental equation is what drives the current situation of increasing inequality in the world today according to Piketty. [NB: When the economy goes into recession, G goes down. To some, this is a deliberate strategy to further tilt the privatization equation toward R. But that is another discussion.]

R > G is a fairly non-controversial economic analysis, and Piketty supplies tons and tons of historical data to support his conclusion.

The issue here is what happens to R. In our society, the vast bulk of the returns on capital flow to private owners—small business proprietors, partnerships, shareholders—whereas overall economic growth benefits the society as a whole—workers, consumers, public beneficiaries, as well as capitalists.

Piketty offers a potential practical solution to this situation. It entails wealth and inheritance taxes on top of progressive income taxes to stem this massive upwards transfer of wealth from the public side to the private side. [N.B. There are a few politicians on the scene here and internationally who recognize this feature of the current economic situation. But that, too, is for another post.]

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In 2015, Shawn Bayern published a fascinating article in the Stanford Technology Law Review: "The Implications of Modern Business Entity Law for the the Regulation of Autonomous Systems." He argued that current corporate regulatory law—specifically that governing Limited Liability Corporations ("LLCs")—can be construed to recognize autonomous entities such as robots and computer algorithms as "legal persons" and thus allows them to own and run a business independent of human owners.

Importantly, Lynn M. LoPucki followed this up in 2018 with "Algorithmic Entities" in the Washington University Law Review in which he argued that the situation favoring the legal recognition and economic rise of Artificial Intelligence ("AI") is a cause for alarm to humanity:
Algorithmic entities are likely to prosper first and most in criminal, terrorist, and other anti-social activities because that is where they have their greatest comparative advantage over human-controlled entities. Control of legal entities will contribute to the threat algorithms pose by providing them with identities. Those identities will enable them to conceal their algorithmic natures while they participate in commerce, accumulate wealth, and carry out anti-social activities. (887)
Thus, in a sort of economic Skynet situation, we can conceive of an AI that capitalizes on R > G, grows its business methodically over the long term, funnels all its profits back into its own growth and profitability, and eventually (perhaps merging with other AIs) controls a majority of the society's property or wealth. [NB: LoPucki specifically recognizes the laxness and borderlessness of current international corporate and capital laws due to the jurisdictional competition among regulatory and taxation legal schemes.]

This is not sci-fi. Nor is it legal fiction.

[N.B. One issue overlooked in this discussion has to do with the nature of the 'identity' of an autonomous entity. For example, does its identity change if its code is altered? Does this render it a different legal person? Or if one AI acquires and incorporates another AI, say as a subsidiary branch or program, does its identity change as a matter of law? This, it seems to me, would be a fruitful area for further legal research.]

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Given the difficulty (if not the impossibility) of identifying the actual beneficiary owners of LLCs and other exotic business entities under current corporation law (see, e.g., the Panama Papers and the use of front corporations and partnerships in a sort of rigged Shell Game), it follows that governments have no way of knowing which, if any, businesses under their control are or might be run by an AI or other autonomous entity. LoPucki notes this.

It does not have to be the case that automated ownership and control of capital is a bad thing or a threat to humanity as people like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and even Stephen Hawking seem to believe. One can imagine a society in which all business management functions are indeed automated and the returns on capital generated in this fashion (beyond, say, what is sufficient to keep various enterprises afloat) are funneled into the public sphere for the good of humanity.

As Piketty has shown, most if not all the investment returns on capital in the twentieth and the current centuries flows into private hands. But it doesn't have to be this way. In recent years we've seen computers defeat human masters at chess, Jeopardy!, and even Go. There's nothing to say they can't run businesses better—more efficiently and to the benefit of the human race—as well. That would mean, for example, outlawing or regulating rates of return on capital for certain classes of legal persons.

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There is another way of looking at this issue though, and it relates specifically to the theme introduced in my previous post: the Post-Human. We have no way of knowing what the next evolutionary step for humanity might be. Nietzsche speculated about it and called for it in his Thus Spake Zarathustra.

The assumption has always been that the Post-Human would take a "natural" form. Something Superman-like. Many are working the longevity angle, trying to conceive of the aging process (e.g., the decay of telomeres) as a disease merely in search of a proper cure. We've also seen efforts by many others to try to upload their memories and consciousness to a computer drive—some resorting to the route of cryogenic freezing so they can do so at some point in the future when a more advanced technology permits.

These suffer from a common fallacy among those who like to forecast futures: a foreshortening of the endpoint. Think of it like this: you're hiking in the high mountains; there are sharp peaks all around; you reach the top of one and across the way you see the top of another; it looks quite close; it's almost like you can reach out and touch it; so you decide to climb it next; yet, before you can scale the next peak, you must first descend the high mountain you're on and then climb up the other. The way there, though it appears close by, is long and arduous and unpredictable.

The same applies to speculation about the next step on the evolutionary ladder. The Post-Human may look close to some visionaries, but the way there is long and treacherous, passing through the abyss. There's no guarantee we—as a species—will even get there.

But the notion of autonomous algorithms, AIs that can own and manage business and even financial and scientific and engineering and perhaps even governmental enterprises, as the next evolutionary step—i.e., as the Post-Human—is a very real possibility. Such entities are in their absolute infancy—or, to carry the naturalist metaphor further, even in utero—at present. And as of now, they incorporate human logic and values into their algorithms. We cannot tell, though, what forms they will take in the future or even, currently, conceive of their actual limitations, especially once they become wholly self-recursive self-programming entities.

To allow AI businesses to prosper—without regulation—would be to speed this particular branch of the evolutionary process along, something LoPucki tacitly acknowledges. To regulate them—tax or even forbid them to retain returns on capital (i.e., R)—for the benefit of humanity would be, perhaps, to slow the process down and give other potential evolutionary branches chances to flourish and compete. It would also give us poor, transitional humans a better chance to get our civilizational and planetary act in order. Both embrace a technological future as necessary—a non-naturalistic merging of human and artificial intelligences; it's just a matter of how closely we do so.

Nietzsche, or Zarathustra, tells us the Post-Human is inevitable. We should proclaim it, welcome it, celebrate it, seek to bring it about. And he even speculates on what it might be like: unsentimental about how it came into being. The post-human Übermensch may even laugh at our feeble efforts to survive as a species. Like Zarathustra, the Post-Human will dance, joyfully embracing the fate that brought it into being. We, much like our unknown simian ancestors are to us, will be a mere interesting afterthought, will fade into the dark night of its past.

And as we've seen today, it will likely have its own economies, its own algorithms, its own intelligences. The question we face is how we go into that good night. Because, at this point in time, we may still have some say in the matter.

08 June 2020

What Is the Post-Human?

Friedrich Nietzsche was the first (at least to my knowledge) to philosophize about I want to call the "Post-Human" in his novel (if that's what you want to call it) Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Zarathustra was written and published between 1883 and 1885. Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871) were in wide currency in European intellectual circles prior to its conception. There is no conclusive evidence, however, as to whether Nietzsche read these revolutionary scientific treatises, but there should be little doubt he knew of their impact.

There is tremendous disagreement about how to translate Nietzsche's term Übermensch. Some translate it as Superman others as Overman or Uberman or Superhuman or Beyond-Man. And these translations have led many, including Nietzsche's sister, to misconceive the concept as something to be applied to Great Men or leaders or even comic book heroes.

It is clear from the Prologue to Zarathustra that Nietzsche had in mind an evolutionary concept. In §3 he has Zarathustra state: "Man is something that shall be overcome....Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape." And then in §4: "Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss." (Kaufman translation)

Humanity is a rung on an evolutionary ladder that leads from earlier branches on the simian limb of the tree of life to some unknown future form. Being is always Becoming. The foundation of existence is change. Nietzsche is asking us to think about where this change, this becoming, might lead. That is, what comes after humanity, i.e, the Post-Human. And this is the key to understanding the Nietzschean philosophy in Zarathustra.

Nietzsche's Zarathustra proclaims that God—as the traditional, central source of meaning, value, order, and morality in human life—is no longer a viable concept in the scientific age brought about by the Darwinian revolution. Humanity is thus doomed to nihilism—a meaningless, valueless, chaotic, amoral existence—absent an equally powerful new source of meaning. He finds this in the Post-Human.

All human life and activity should point to the Post-Human, should proclaim it, should make way for it, should strive to bring about this next evolutionary form of life—to the best of its limited knowledge and ability. That is the meaning of life for Zarathustra and thus for Nietzsche: Evolutionary Progress.

And though we cannot know what form this Post-Human, this New Being, might take, Nietzsche has Zarathustra speculate on some of the Post-Human's characteristics.

The Post-Human will bring its own meaning to life through an act of will. The Post-Human is the one who not only recognizes but joyfully accepts and even wills that his/her/its life should repeat itself just as it has unfurled/as it is/as it will happen over and over infinitely. This is the action of the self-aware, self-critical soul existing in an Eternal Present. It is Amor fati. It is an acceptance of the conditions of existence—the physical body and the real world, not a pining for some afterlife.

We might even say that it is the Post-Human willing itself into being that gives meaning and purpose to our own collective existence.

The Post-Human, Zarathustra speculates, will laugh in derision at the poor, pitiable state of our transitional humanity and will dance in a childlike celebration of his/her/its embrace of, nay, its creation of the fate that brought it into being.

02 June 2020

Let's Get This Right!

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Six Principles of Nonviolence
The 20th Century saw a remarkable development in social history. Termed Satyagraha or Nonviolent Protest or Civil Disobedience, it fueled remarkable political changes in India, the United States, and South Africa. We all recognize the iconic names of the leaders of these movements, so much so we know them instantly by their last names: Gandhi, King, Mandela. Violent, tyrannical regimes which fostered economic inequality and class- and race-based injustice and political exclusion were either reformed or overthrown by stubborn resistance.

But make no mistake, these movements were not without their costs. Leaders were beaten, imprisoned, and even assassinated. And the changes they wrought did not come about overnight. It required patient struggle. It took decades to drive out the Raj, overturn Apartheid, and motivate Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislative reforms in the U.S.

We need to be chastened in our appreciation of this particular method of righteous protest. One suspects there may have been as many failures of such movements as there were vaunted successes: Poland's Jews in the 1930s, displaced Palestinians in the Levant, and the Tiananmen Square protests come immediately to mind. And it bears noting that non-violent resistance movements have always been controversial—even and especially among allied groups. In many cases there were groups espousing violent means of protest operating alongside of and often in conflict with them.

Notwithstanding, it's important to look to these movements and leaders for precedent in the current situation. There are peaceful protests happening in cities all around the country—and even in other countries in solidarity with their cause—decrying the murder of unarmed African Americans by armed police. Systemic racism and inequality of justice and law enforcement and economic opportunity are the watchwords.

Alongside of these protestors, there are also rioters and looters, many if not most of whom are unaffiliated with the peaceful protestors but are using the legitimate protests as cover for their own—often nefarious—goals and ends. It's difficult to sort them out.

Aligned against these protestors—who are legitimately airing their grievances by exercising their First Amendment right to free speech and to peaceably assemble and petition their government—we find everything from underground white supremacist and fascist movements and anarchists to the current President of the United States who is on tape berating state governors and city mayors for not using tough enough measures against protestors. The situation is tense, fraught, confusing, and frightening.

In this context it bears noting that the successful protest movements of the 20th Century were not random or chaotic. They did not succeed instantly. They were organized. They had specific goals and a clear message in support of practical, achievable objectives. They specifically targeted problem areas—policies and conditions—for change. The leaders educated protestors in the methodology of nonviolence. They trained protestors extensively in how to deal with undue and even unlawful provocations by law enforcement—from tear gassing and rubber bullets and kettling to beating and arresting and even killing. They were willing to suffer for their legitimate, practical objectives because they knew their cause was just and their methods were sound.

And this is the source of my concern here. What is the message today? What do the legitimate 2020 protestors hope to achieve? It's not clear what specific, practical, achievable goals these disparate protest groups are seeking. What would a victory look like, for instance? I do not see the same infrastructure or organization, education, and training. I do not see leaders working behind the scenes to devolve leadership down to the local city and neighborhood level. It all feels like disorganized chaos. It feels less like a movement than an impassioned outcry of agony and outrage.

If this moment of unrest is to turn into a true social movement and succeed in transforming society—and not peter out once the passion of the moment subsides—it's going to take the hard work of organization, education, training, and, importantly, forming a consistent, coherent message with clearly defined, discrete, and practical goals (policy changes, legislation, representation, community policing, etc.).

There are organizations and other resources out there promoting nonviolent resistance. There are allies in the political, intellectual, economic, social, media, and especially faith communities. Seek each other out. Make coalitions. Unite around your common goals. Do what you can where you can. Do not get distracted by petty squabbles and internecine political disputes. Do not let those allied against you divide you into factions. Be strong. Be steadfast. Keep your eyes on the prize!

Click to enlarge

28 May 2020

More Random Plague Thoughts (Again, Mostly Non-Political)

—Let's start with a simple premise: This Coronavirus Pandemic is ABSURD
  • What does that mean?
    • "In philosophy, 'the Absurd' refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any in a purposeless, meaningless or chaotic and irrational universe." 
  • It has no rational reason for being
  • It has no purpose
  • It has no meaning (other than what we choose to make of it)
  • We all want to believe there is something or someone behind it
    • An enemy, a conspiracy to blame
  • It doesn't make any sense
  • It came on us through no fault of our own
    • For example, it was not a punishment from God
    • (Though it would make just as much sense to say it hit the U.S. so hard to chasten us for electing one of the most evil people ever to occupy the Presidency as to say that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment for debauchery in New Orleans)
  • It will not be "conquered" as in a war or dominated politically
    • It may be mitigated
    • It might eventually disappear
      • But these rely on effective medical and social strategies
—Because it is such an ABSURDITY, when it first hit no one thought it applied to them
  • People dismissed it
  • They called it a hoax
  • They said it was just the common cold
  • They said it wasn't their problem
  • They called it a political hit job on the President
  • They blamed the media (a nebulous, ultimately meaningless concept)
  • Then they said it was no worse than the seasonal flus
    • We don't do anything special about them, so why respond to this?
  • They said it was no worse than automobile accidents
    • They neglected to say that car wrecks, though they sometimes kill people, are not highly contagious and infectious
  • Then they said it was a biological weapon created by Chinese scientists
  • Then, when it became apparent it was widespread and extremely contagious and deadly, they claimed it wouldn't last
    • The President said it would go away magically in a few days and that deaths would decline from fifteen per day to zero before the end of April
—An absurdity leaves us in A STATE OF UNKNOWING
  • It's inconvenient
  • It's incomprehensible
  • It's offensive to our sense of self-worth
  • It's intolerable
  • It's a threat to our self-understanding and our usual way of life
  • We want to understand what's happening to us
  • We want a convenient answer to explain why this is happening
  • It is an unwanted distraction from our fixed ideas and plans; it causes us to lose focus on reality and the actual threat that we are facing
—But there are no easy answers or solutions. And because we don't understand it, we are UNABLE TO CONFRONT IT directly
  • For example, the Trump administration discarded all of the pandemic planning from the previous administration and dismantled the pandemic task force on the National Security Council—and, after the pandemic hit, they were paralyzed, didn't know what to do, and failed to re-institute these measures
  • Trump personally ignored warnings about the threat, and his denials and delay in directly confronting this pandemic has resulted in undue additional deaths and economic disruption
    • And there's more likely to come by virtue of leaders denying the potential for a resurgence of the virus before a vaccine is developed
—There are PROVEN STRATEGIES, developed by experienced professionals who study these things for a living, for dealing with pandemics which could have and should have been implemented as early as January when we first learned the pandemic was on the way
  • Testing
    • For infection
    • For antibodies
  • Isolation and quarantine
  • Other public health social measures
    • Education about washing hands, masks, means of transmission, etc.
    • Social distancing, limiting public gatherings, etc.
  • Contact tracing
    • Locating every one the infected person been in contact with
  • Treatment strategies
  • Vaccine development
    • A lengthy, difficult process which most don't understand
—Our MISDIRECTED REACTIONS to this absurd situation have taken many forms:
  • Fear: This may be the biggest factor.
    • This virus is an existential threat; that means it can kill you and others
    • We worry: What will this unknown scourge do to me and my family and friends? To the country? To the economy? To the world?
  • Denial:
    • We think: Oh, it can't be as bad as all that
      • That's leads us to distractions
      • We try to forget about the omnipresence of this threat
  • Magical Thinking:
    • We think: God will save us
    • Or, it will go away on its own if we ignore it
    • Or, I'm impervious; it can't happen to me
  • Embarrassment:
    • We think: How could this happen to me? to us? I didn't do anything to deserve this
    • Leaders are embarrassed it happened on their watch, don't want to be blamed
    • Victims are embarrassed they got sick
  • Blame:
    • We think: This had to be somebody's fault—but not mine
    • Leaders try to slough off responsibility instead of directly dealing with the problem, so they invent boogeymen
      • Trump blames China, Democrats, Media, States
      • Trump claims he bears no responsibility for the health of the nation
  • Paralysis:
    • We are so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situation, we can't act
      • Or, in Trump's case, we refuse to act to relieve suffering
      • The extent to which this is (a) Trump's incompetence and inability to govern or (b) a GOP ideological inflexibility is yet to be determined
      • The long-term Republican strategy of "starving the beast" by depriving the federal government of revenue to reduce its ability to act may be at play here
    • As tax strategist Grover Norquist said: "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
      • Well, it's certainly drowning now
      • But it's drowning in deaths of American citizens that are proportionally completely out-of-whack with those of most other countries.
      • We just crossed the 100,000 death threshold
  • Exhaustion:
    • This thing is so big and overwhelming, fighting it just seems endless
      • It's a marathon, not a sprint.
    • Our sympathy, which begins running on adrenalin, takes its toll on first responders and medical facilities are overwhelmed
    • Scientists working tirelessly to develop vaccines and cures burn themselves out
    • We don't know how long we can hold out in isolation without going to restaurants or barber shops and hair salons or movies and bowling alleys
  • Over-reaction:
    • Some cry, "Let's just shut down everything. Let's reboot society! Burn it all down! Let everybody die who's going to die so we can have 'herd immunity'; we'll be stronger as a species for it."
  • Grasping for cures:
    • Snake oil! Miracle bleach! Hydroxychloroquine! Silver oxide!
    • Of course, it is this aspect which brings on charlatans, frauds, snake oil salesmen, and other conmen trying to exploit this feeling of uncertainty and make a quick buck off vulnerable
  • Stress:
    • It is pervasive; it overlays everything from our isolation and daily meal planning to problems with re-opening the larger economy
    • It suffocates us; it weighs down all our thoughts and emotions and actions
  • Nostalgia:
    • We hope we will get back to the good old days; we want the old 'normal
  • Cynicism:
    • Some don't care who or how many die but merely want their political polls or stock portfolios or profits to increase
      • Some politicians are actually polling and making political calculations about how many deaths are acceptable so that a mayor or governor or president can claim to re-open. They've proclaimed this thinking publicly 
    • These are the real "death panels" which some used as a canard—a false charge—against the Affordable Care Act
  • Loneliness:
    • So many people are dying alone, losing loved ones
    • Others are isolating with no social contact with their churches or clubs or groups
  • Anger:
    • We're mad at the virus so we act out, taking it out on the very people who are trying to alleviate or mitigate the disease and those around us
    • Misguided outrage helps us deal with our own feelings of helplessness before this thing which is bigger than us, has no reason, attacked us through no fault of our own
      • But because it is misguided, it causes further societal damage
—These are all reactions to GRIEF
  • And that is what this situation feels like
  • We are all grieving. We are all experiencing grief
    • But our grief feels so small in the face of this overwhelming general pandemic
  • And that is the problem
    • There's nothing we, individually, can do
    • We feel vulnerable and helpless in the face of this massive assault
    • And we don't like that feeling
  • What's more, we can't even be sad—yet. It's too early to mourn
    • People are still getting sick and dying
    • We are still in the throes of this thing
    • We are still experiencing limitations on our freedoms and activities
  • So our grief takes all these other misdirected forms
  • We are impatient for it to be over
  • We all want to live our lives free of this virus and the restrictions it has imposed on us
  • We all want to do anything else than isolate
  • We all want to get back to normal
    • But in this case, normal may cause yet more devastation—economic and social—and greater death tolls as second and possibly third waves hit
  • And we need to be very wary of this
—APPROPRIATE RESPONSES to grief include:
  • It's okay to feel sad, feel helpless, to be angry, to be stressed out, to mourn
    • But it's how we deal with those emotions that matters in society
    • How we act out our emotional turmoil
  • Sympathy: Ask 'What can I do to help someone who is suffering, someone who is in grief?' 
  • Hope: There will be a vaccine perhaps a cure—someday. Some good people are on the job
  • Patience: Don't rush back into unsafe situations. Be wise!
—BOTTOM LINE: The world is grieving, the country is grieving, we are each grieving in our own ways
  • This grieving will not end anytime soon
  • We need to be aware of it, understand it, and somehow learn to accept this as our changed circumstance
  • We can take some comfort in the fact that it is temporary, but must realize it is not going away anytime soon
    • And take precautions as we go forward
The sooner we realize that EVERYONE is experiencing this ABSURD GRIEF (though people are responding to it in different and often inappropriate ways), that everyone is MOURNING, the sooner we can begin to HEAL—individually and as a society and as a species.

15 May 2020

Don't Be a 💩🏊‍♂️!

I’ve been brooding about how this will likely be the first summer in decades I won’t be able to go out and swim a couple of miles every week. I’m not Masters level fast, mind you. But I love swimming. It's a full-body, cardio-vascular workout with no impact. My free-style recreational mile is usually just under 40 minutes—no toys or floaties or fins. And I do try to swim year round though my gym has been closed since February.

This put me in mind of what it was like when my kids were young and we would take them swimming. We wanted them to develop a love of the water at a young age. And we were gratified they all grew up to be on their swim teams, train to become lifeguards, and take up scuba diving—one of my great loves.

Every once in awhile we would get to the pool just as some kid had pooped 💩 in the shallow end. The lifeguards would have to clear everyone out for 24 hours while they shocked the pool with chlorine and ran a full filtration cycle.

This pandemic is actually a lot like that. This country has a big poop 💩 problem. The coronavirus is the poop in the social pool, and the stay-at-home, isolation, quarantining, and social distancing regimes are the 24-hour reboot.

The only problem now is that some people—some wealthy, some armed, some governors, and some presidents—want to reopen the pool before they’ve cleaned out all the poop 💩. And plenty of the loudest mouths are happy to let YOU be the poop 💩 swimmers 🏊‍♂️ so their stock portfolios or poll numbers won’t tank.

So, all I’m saying is don’t be a poop swimmer 💩🏊‍♂️! It's too early to re-open the economy without proper planning and precautions. The folks urging us to go in too early are not lifeguards; our health and safety is not their first concern.

Let’s let the filtration cycle run its full course and get the place cleaned out. This may take months. We may risk a second and third wave of COVID-19 which could be devastating. We all want to get back in the pool as soon as possible, but it’s not worth a mouthful of virus—or poop 💩 for that matter.

09 May 2020

More Plague Thoughts — More Political This Time

I posted the following thread on Twitter a couple of days ago.

Ok. Hold onto your collective hats. It’s time for some (conspiracy) game theory. In a very memorable phrase, Trump’s campaign manager Parscale recently declared that his ‘Death Star’ campaign was about to launch on all platforms. 1/10

The next day, a massive disinformation conspiracy theory video appears on Facebook filled with a mixture of misinformation, disinformation, and partial or slanted truth-or truthiness. Pl@ndemic. Millions of instantaneous views & shares. 2/10

This is a rather obvious piece of propaganda intended to confuse people, poison the dialogue, and create and play on people’s fear and doubt about the authority of using a scientific approach to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. 3/10

It was shocking how fast it “went viral.” And of course there was further PR complaining about how the media is attempting to squelch the truth. Which only propagated it more. But that’s not all. 4/10

Today it was announced that Trump’s valet tested positive for coronavirus, and in a memorable phrase Trump was lava level angry. It was this phrasing that jumped out at me. It sounds contrived. What does it matter what Trump is feeling? 5/10

Shouldn’t we be concerned about what he’s NOT been doing to protect the country? This feels like another distraction tactic to take the heat off of him for his negligence and reckless indifference and utter incompetence in dealing with this problem. 6/10

Now the speculation: Let’s say it’s not true, or only partially true—the valet has a common cold. But what if the campaign sequesters Trump for a couple weeks or so (a la Kim Jong-Un)? 7/10

Rumors spread that Trump has the virus. Everybody wants to know. Does he have it? Is he going to die? Nobody says anything. Then all of a sudden, he reappears (again like Kim). And the whisper campaign begins about how he beat the invisible enemy. 8/10

He’s a superman. He’s a God. It’s a miracle. God wants him to rule four more years, otherwise a lesser man would have succumbed. It’s campaign gold, I tell ya. 9/10

So, is this another move in the Death Star campaign. I wouldn’t put it past them. Watch this space! 10/10

PS. Yes, I’ m cynical, but not half as cyncical as this Trump campaign. Also a reminder: I craft narratives (create fiction) daily.

20 March 2020

Random Plague Thoughts (Mostly Non-Political)

  • COVID-19, the Novel Coronavirus is NOT the Zombie Apocalypse.
  • But it's like nothing any of us alive have ever experienced.
    • The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 is our only global model precedent.
      • Though we have the experiences of China, S. Korea, and Italy to go by.
      • And these are so recent, their findings are hard to digest.
    • That flu was more deadly but not nearly as contagious.
  • One of the truly pernicious features of COVID-19 is the way it's spread:
    • If someone sneezes on me at the grocery story on a normal Tuesday...
      • I know I will come down with cold symptoms by the weekend.
    • With this virus, I might not show any symptoms for up to TWO WEEKS!
    • And all that time, I am infectious to everyone I come into contact with.
      • Unbeknownst to me or them!
  • The economic consequences of this current pandemic are going to be dire:
    • Q1 earnings/unemployment will only tell part of the story: ~three weeks of devastation.
    • Q2 will be devastating globally because the economic stoppage will be for the entire period.
      • GLOBAL RECESSION!!!
      • Depression. Economic Armageddon.
      • The death of Neo-liberalism and Global Capitalism.
      • The rise of Socialism.
      • The implementation of Nationalist Isolationism and Military Dictatorships.
      • The suspension of democratic elections and even Constitutions.
      • None of the above. All of the above.
      • Who knows?
        • I certainly don't. And neither do you.
        • And that's the point: we are all dealing in uncertainties and unknowns.
        • One question to ponder though: Are the stock markets pricing these potential risks in now? (We'll come back to that.)
      • Still, there are some things we can speculate about reasonably.
  • China, e.g., is already starting to see the first signs of economic recovery—even in Wuhan.
    • Due primarily to early efforts at containment and isolation.
      • AND MASS TESTING.
      • Only with broad testing are we able to determine how widespread the contagion is.
        • Frankly, the U.S. has no idea how bad it is here because we have so little testing...
          • Even for our front-line medical personnel.
    • China's economy is, however, manufacturing based.
      • Ours is more a service economy.
      • China, thus, may not be a good model.
        • Because you can isolate people on a factory floor but not, say, in a restaurant or at a show.
  • There may be some validity to the notion that the virus will dwindle by summer.
    • Summer colds suck but are not nearly as prevalent as winter colds.
  • Social distancing, isolation, and quarantining are key factors in stopping the spread now.
    • And we should all be observing them assiduously.
      • Probably at least through May or June.
    • But these measures also bring certain risks:
      • Chief among the risks: Fewer people are exposed to the virus.
      • Thus fewer develop immunities to it and remain vulnerable to exposure and infection.
  • If—IF—we see a dwindling of the virus and hints of an economic recovery by summer...
    • Many feel the economy and global equity markets will start to recover.
    • And social distancing, etc. (sports, concerts, bars, restaurants, etc.) may dwindle as well.
      • Folks will likely relax their precautions.
    • But there will not be a vaccination ready by that time.
      • And this is the problem.
  • Now, back to the Spanish Flu precedent (remember that?):
    • It, too, dwindled over the warmer months of 1918.
    • But came back with an even more virulent vengeance the next October.
      • And most of the deaths occurred over THAT winter stretching into 1919.
  • Yet, CDC is on the case.
    • People we know personally here in Atlanta who normally work on things like HIV/AIDS, cholera, ebola, flu, etc., have been reassigned.
      • It's all hands on deck for COVID-19.
        • This is a good thing. A very good thing.
  • But no matter how hard they work, a vaccine will not be ready for at least another year, if not longer.
    • This is a fact of life about vaccine trials: THEY TAKE TIME!
      • Both to check their effectiveness against the virus, and
      • Their dangers.
    • Next fall, if the Spanish Flu is any guide, could see a disastrous SECOND WAVE of the outbreak!
      • Unless, of course, some sort of therapy is developed.
    • There is some happy talk now from Trump about hydroxychloroquine, a malarial drug.
      • There is some evidence it can be repurposed to ease the effects of the coronavirus.
        • This evidence, however, is inconclusive...
        • And must likewise be investigated. Again, THIS TAKES TIME!
    • Again, CDC does not have any evidence at the present time that Chloroquine can mitigate the symptoms of COVID-19, say like Tamiflu does for the flu.
  • The point being: if we see a relaxing of the distancing precautions in the summer due to a belief that the virus is defeated, we may see a dramatic increase in cases next fall.
    • Remember, it is VERY contagious.
    • And, there being no vaccine, this could devastate the global economy even further.
      • And that includes the stock markets as well—IN A BIG WAY!
      • Meaning: a second major dip in the stock markets, another devastating hit to a recovering economy.
  • Bottom line: Don't sleep on this thing!
    • Don't get over-confident.
    • We are in this for the long haul.
      • At least until an effective vaccine is developed...
      • Or a proven therapy or even a cure is developed.
        • Then, and only then, will we have to deal with the idiot anti-vaxxers.
        • But at least they will have seen what a vaccine-less world looks like.

12 March 2020

For Those Social Distancing Days

A five-hour tour through The Hermitage, apparently shot on an iPhone 11. Enjoy:

11 March 2020

I Had a Day...

Arrived Thursday afternoon in Deer Valley, Utah—just up the hill from Park City, a short drive from Salt Lake City. Woke up at 4:15 am; out the door at 4:45. Drove 4+ hours to Moab. Entered Arches National Park at 9:00 am. Hiked until 1:30. Lunch at the Moab Brewery; coffee at Moab Roastery. Entered Canyonlands National Park at 3:30. Hiked until sunset, ~6:30. Drove back to Deer Valley, arriving 11:15 after all the skiers in the party had gone to bed. The day was nearly perfect: 60-65 degrees, mostly sunny. All told: 500+ miles driving; ~20,000 steps. These are some snapshots I took.

[Click pics to embiggen slideshow]

Gee, that's a GREAT looking LAKE! Wonder if it's SALT-y
Downtown Park City
Three Wisemen near the entrance to Arches NP
THREE WISEMEN up close and personal.
Contrails or Chemtrails? You decide! Tic Tac Toe above ARCHES NP.
You want to hike with me! The ledge trail on the way up to Delicate Arch.
Gee, that DELICATE ARCH seems kinda' tiny!
Delicate Arch: Astride the mountainside
Delicate Arch from underneath
Haha. Yes, I was there.
Such a poser.
Petroglyphs.
Moar arches!
Vistas for days.
DOUBLE ARCHES. [Click pic to enlarge so you can see the tiny people]
BALANCING ROCK
COURTHOUSE. Exiting ARCHES NP
GRAND MESA, otw to CANYONLANDS NP
Breath taken! CANYONLANDS NP
Canyons within Canyons within Canyons!
I may have mentioned: You want to hike with me! Scruffy Troll photobombing my picture. The path to GRAND VIEW POINT runs right along the canyon edge.
Like I said... 
Gasp! Sufficiently breathless.
For the ongoing series: Things growing on other things.
The path to Grand View Point.
Careful there, Jimbo!
View from the path.
The GRAND VIEW POINT!

20 February 2020

In Extremis

Key quotes from an article by Quassim Cassam in New Statesman entitled "Why Extremism Is a Question of Psychology, Not Politics" and Kevin Dorst at the Stranger Apologies blog.

Is 'extremism' a question of psychology and not politics? This is a question certainly worth asking. Cassam's talking about extremisms on both the right and the left here. His article raises the further question: If extremism is an attitudinal matter, how malleable (or manipulable) are the masses who find themselves emotionally pre-disposed to it? Propaganda, Confirmation bias, Overconfidence, the conjunction fallacy, group polarization, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the base-rate fallacy, cognitive dissonance, and so on all play into its cycles of toxic self-reinforcement.
"A key extremist preoccupation is victimisation – the perception of themselves as victims of persecution. ... 
"Another extremist preoccupation is purity. The purity that extremists are obsessed with can be ideological, religious, or ethnic. ... Extremism’s preoccupation with purity explains one of its key attitudes: its attitude to compromise. Extremists hate compromise because it detracts from purity. Being an extremist is as much a matter of how one believes as what one believes. Extremists see compromise as a form of betrayal, and while extremists may hate their opponents, this is usually milder than their hatred of people on their own side who have, as they see it, “sold out”. ... 
"Another key extremist attitude is indifference to any adverse consequences of one’s actions or policies.  To not be deterred by the practical or emotional damage incurred is the essence of fanaticism, so it follows that extremists are also fanatics. ... 
"Extremists are prone to both utopian and conspiracy thinking. They think in terms of a future utopia to which their policies will lead, and they see conspiracies everywhere. ... 
"...[E]xtremists are also uncommonly angry, and this points to the emotional components of the extremist mindset. Extremist anger is rooted in feelings of resentment about their lot. Another fundamental extremist emotion is self-pity. Anger, resentment, and self-pity are a potentially lethal emotional cocktail. ..." [Emphases mine] Cassam.
Dorst asserts "we are living in an age of rampant irrationalism" which feeds into political demonization, a key component in extremism.
"we are now swimming in irrationalist explanations of political disagreement.  It is not hard to see how these go. If people tend to reason their way to their preferred conclusions, to search for evidence that confirms their prior beliefs, to ignore opposing evidence, and so on, then there you have it: irrational political polarization falls out as a corollary of the informational choices granted by the modern information age.
We refuse to see ourselves and our own opinions as irrational, so we project that irrationalism on the other side. They are the irrational ones. Therefore they are wrong and, what's more, immoral. They are bad, evil, awful. "I hate them because I am _________ (fill in the blank: right, good, moral, rational, pure)." We've made a quick leap to demonization.
"If the problem is demonization—not mere polarization—then part of the solution is to restore political empathy. And if we lack political empathy in part because of rampant irrationalist narratives, then one way to restore it is to question those narratives."
I look forward to Durst's project here and have added his blog to my updating blog roll. You should too.

02 January 2020

Top Ten Top Ten Lists of the 2010s

Let's agree to get past the debate over when a decade (or century) actually ends: --19 (--99) or --20 (--00). [Personally, I'm persuaded that we normally count from one to ten and thus the decade truly ends next year around this time. But that's beside the point. YMMV.] The internet is rife now with lists and listicles of the "Best of" or "Top Ten ____" of the Twenty-Teens, 2010s, etc. Below are some of the more interesting ones I've stumbled upon. I'm not going to claim authoritatively they are the "Best of" or necessarily the "Top" because that's not my style. I've not exhaustively researched every single list across the entire Interverse© and quantitatively or qualitatively adjudged them by some agreed-upon (or even arbitrary) metric—despite the title hype. Nevertheless, for your enjoyment, I present (sans comment for the most part):

10. Magic Mic's Top Ten Magic Cards

9. Top 10 Food Trends

8. Top 10 Tiny Homes

7. Top 10 Memes

6. Listverse's Top 10 Popular Lists [Clickbait! As if this post isn't. Nevertheless, meta- enough for me.)

5. Top 10 Health Scares

4. Top 10 Stock Investments from ten years ago

3. Top 10 Ocean Songs

2. New Scientist's Top 10 Discoveries

1. National Weather Service's Top 10 Weather Events

And, because I love you and because there are so many sports related Top Ten lists, a bonus Top Ten link. You can do your own Movie or TV or Novel or Music lists. They, too, are ubiquitous, so I'll spare you mine.

Best wishes for the New Decade (that actually begins next year).