"It's easy to stay grounded. The ground is very close. And we walk on it every day."
- Keanu Reeves
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April 8. I need a break from writing about Coronavirus, and especially from writing about American politics, a toxic subject. But I have a little more to say about body intelligence.
First, on the subreddit, this post has a link to video about breathing. She says it's bad to force deep breaths, and good to pay attention to your breath while letting it go its own way. But I find it really difficult to do both of those at the same time, especially when I'm sitting still. The harder I'm exercising, the easier it is.
I was wondering: can the body be neurotic? My first thought was no, only the brain can. But when I think about it more, the body can totally have habits of constricting muscles for no good reason, and the brain needs to sort those out.
At the same time, focusing on the body is really helpful for settling down bad patterns of thinking. Yesterday I walked around testing a bottom-up hierarchy of attention: so the highest priority is the soles of my feet, then my center of gravity (thanks Eric for the idea), then my breathing, and brain last.
The word "thinking" means so many things. Most people think in a combination of language and pictures, but for some people, it's only one or the other. Then there's completely inside-the-head thinking, which can either play with stuff that's already inside the head, or create new stuff. When I'm trying to fall asleep, chasing ideas can keep me up for hours, but creating images puts me right out.
Then, when the head looks to the world, it can either look for surprise, for stuff that challenges its internal models, or it can look for recognition, for confirmation of its own models. I have a new theory of collapse: that a culture, or an individual, is in danger of psychological collapse, when inside-the-head thinking and confirmation thinking start echoing back and forth, not anchored by enough model-testing thinking.
Related: Tips From Someone With Nearly 50 Years Of Social Distancing Experience. He lives alone in a Colorado ghost town, and his first tip is to keep track of something, like snow levels or birds. So I'm thinking, most of the things that normal people keep track of, are either unreal or depressing.
April 4. Yesterday's post was a bit dramatic. It's hard to not get caught up in this stuff. It's like in Star Trek, when they come to some messed up planet, and they're just supposed to observe and not intervene. Except none of us have a starship -- the reason we can't intervene is that we have no participation in power.
Linked from weird collapse, an interesting argument about comparative competence under Coronavirus, that there's a strong correlation between countries that are handling it well, and countries that have been recently destroyed: Vietnam, Korea, Germany, Japan. "The first generation builds, the second generation manages, and the third generation wastes and takes it for granted because they've never known anything else."
I'm so tired of being serious. I'm sure I'll get back to it next week, but for the rest of the weekend, here's a fun video: Doctopus - Wobbegong.
April 3. I keep thinking about how Trump is more popular than the media. Neither one of them are doing their job. Trump's job is to manage the federal government in the interests of the American people, and when you look at his actions, he's doing everything he can to help Coronavirus kill as many of us as possible, while remaining popular enough to keep destroying America for a second term.
I'm not saying he's wrong. Maybe America needs to be destroyed.
Meanwhile, the job of the media is to give us the information to make our own decisions, and what they're doing instead, is treating us like sheep, preaching at us about what to do, with the goal of saving the most lives.
But that's not their decision to make. I wonder how many of us are secretly cheering for the virus. How many of us cheer for earthquakes and hurricanes, even when they're nearby? They make life more interesting, and maybe they kill you, and either way you don't have to go to work tomorrow.
I'm envious of the countries that have handled this well, like Taiwan and South Korea. As an American, I can't imagine what it's like to have everyone put trust in public institutions, and have them earn that trust. Matt writes:
I wonder what it will take for the people of the United States to stop seeing the British Empire in their own government. Our founding mythos is steeped in rebellion and so there's a tendency, I think, for Americans to define themselves in terms of the rebel. If you think of yourself as a rebel, then there has to be a shadow king.
April 2. I was planning to take the day off, but I just wrote some stuff over email that I think is worth posting. Yesterday, when I said Utopia doesn't have the concept of freeloading, I didn't fill in any details. But that's actually been done. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers mentions tribes where some people do no productive work their whole lives, and nobody cares. The reason they don't care is, their society is built completely out of activities that people find intrinsically enjoyable. Obviously not every tribe has done it, but even if it's just one, that tells us that it's possible. Then our challenge is to do it at a high level of technology.
This is not something Bernie Sanders can do -- it's hundreds of years in the future, or thousands. It requires a system built from the bottom up with zero coercion, so that jobs that nobody wants to do don't exist in the first place. But I think a UBI would move us in the right direction, by giving workers more leverage to make their job environments more enjoyable.
New subject. Coronavirus polling shows that most Americans approve of Trump and disapprove of the media. I see only one way to make sense of this: most Americans would rather feel confident through a million deaths, than feel scared through a thousand. Trump's supporters think empathy is something you reserve for people you know personally, and the president's job is to maintain the mystique of authority.
April 1. Following up on economics, I mentioned Piketty and Graeber, two guys who are good at explaining the larger context outside of what the present economy takes for granted, to its ruin. Here's a Thomas Piketty interview with some thoughts on Coronavirus, and a review of his new magnum opus, Capital and Ideology. The key quote:
The discourse of meritocracy and entrepreneurship often seems to serve primarily as a way for the winners in today's economy to justify any level of inequality whatsoever while peremptorily blaming the losers for lacking talent, virtue, and diligence.
And a blog post about David Graeber's ideas, Bullshit Jobs in an age of Coronavirus. The author doesn't explicitly support an unconditional basic income, but it's pretty clear, if "bullshit jobs have turned into a sort of 'workfare' for the educated classes," then it would be better to just give money to every class, so we can at least do useless stuff that we enjoy.
Also, linked from the weird collapse subreddit, a piece about collapse from the bottom: "Collapse of this kind means that we are undernourishing and impoverishing the weakest things around us... But that is exactly what capitalism and neoliberalism say we should do."
A nice trick for understanding economics is to factor out money. An economy is just a bunch of people doing stuff that keeps the system going. The strength of an economy is the overlap between what's necessary to keep it going, and what people want to do anyway. By this definition, a weak economy has to threaten people with hunger and homelessness to get them to do their jobs, and at the other extreme, Utopia doesn't even have the concept of freeloading.
Then it's just a matter of distribution, getting stuff to people who aren't making stuff. Communism tried it through central management, which didn't work, and capitalism is trying it through money, which is now also failing. I think the failure of capitalism is a slip between two functions of money: 1) a mechanism of exchange, and 2) a source of the meaning of life.
The problem is, money is zero-sum. If you hang meaning on it, then meaning is zero-sum, and it gets sucked up by people at the top. The poor become NPC's in the quests of the rich.
That system is now breaking down. Human motivation is the most powerful force on the planet, and as the economy collapses, there is more and more human motivation languishing, waiting to be tapped.
March 30. Today I want to skip past demographics, and economics, to psychology. I've seen fringe theories in both directions: that China is hiding millions of deaths, revealed by missing cell phone numbers, and that shadowy elites are cheating science to leverage an above-average flu season into economic collapse.
Any story that says other people are telling the wrong story, has to contend with the hospitals, which don't see any story except who's about to die. As hospitals overflow, COVID skeptics are, at best, arguing semantic details, and at worst, no better than flat earthers, who are basically showoffs: stage magicians seeing how big of a real thing they can make disappear.
With the situation on the ground changing so fast, it's good to practice changing your mind, and I'm already doubting my statement that cults are a pre-apocalypse phenomenon. If we define a cult as a community united by a motivational belief, which only survives by heavily filtering the outside world, then cults could increase in uncertain times, because people who can't stay on top of reality need stories to cling to, like rafts as their ship goes down. I'm wondering if the trend of squinting your eyes to make the data fit your story, is just in its infancy, if flat earthers are the first drop of rain in a storm.
I actually do have a conspiracy theory. I think there is a human collective consciousness, like a brain whose "neurons" are not the minds of individuals, but the subconscious minds of individuals. When it decides to do something (or is influenced) then lots of people have strong feelings that don't make sense, and history seems to ride a groove.
Where the right sees Trump as a strong leader, and the left sees a narcissistic grifter, I see an agent of fortune, the Trickster, first making a farce of American elections, then mocking its top-level justice, then sabotaging its defenses against an invader that targets precisely the people who support him the most.
Conspiracy folks love the Emperor's New Clothes myth, because they're innocent. The myth I see is the Pied Piper leading the innocent to drown. I see a Greek tragedy, or probably a comedy, where CNN is the chorus. I see the Tower of Babel, as if the collective consciousness took a psychedelic, so the Machine Elves can do a strip-down.
March 28. Looking at last Saturday's predictions, my big miss was China. Everyone is saying they really have controlled the virus, with the exception of returning travelers. This bodes well for human life -- but not politics. I look forward to some future crisis that hits authoritarian states harder. Anyway, I feel like I can make some long-term predictions, although inevitably I'll have missed something.
April will be the month of doom. For the next few weeks, every week will be worse. At some point, which will vary from place to place, the COVID curves will turn, and each week will be better, as medical workers recover, medical supplies catch up with demand, and we have better testing.
Quarantines will be eased, people will mix more, and there will be second waves, which vary in timing and severity from place to place. If your second wave is worse, somebody messed up. There will be third, fourth, and fifth waves, going all the way through next winter's flu season, unless the virus mutates into something milder, or until we get a vaccine.
Then it's a question of the long-term economic effects. The stimulus is not going to save every business, and you can't just create trillions of dollars out of thin air and not have some kind of blowback. That's beyond my understanding, and I don't trust mainstream economists either. I'm curious what David Graeber or Thomas Piketty will say.
I don't see how Trump can win another term, since he barely won last time, Biden is way more likeable than Hillary, and the virus is deadlier to Trump's base. But he's a classic trickster, and fate seems to like him. Wouldn't it be crazy if it was Trump who gave us Medicare for all, or an unconditional basic income? That might be something that only a Republican could get away with.
March 26. I'm not smart this week. Here are some stray thoughts that I can't put together into a full post.
Coronavirus might be the most serious threat the modern world has yet faced, that's not human. It doesn't care what we think about it, and no amount of social intelligence, no inspiring story, can change the nature of the threat. That's why politicians have to listen to scientists to know what to do.
Every time there's a collapse, people want to build, from the scraps, some world they dream of. But that's not how it works. Utopia doesn't come down from utopian visions. It comes up from a million tasks that people feel intrinsically motivated to do. There's no way to know what those are. Even one individual will dream of a life, achieve it, not like it, and end up enjoying a life they didn't expect. So if Coronavirus leads to a better world, it will be by creating space for us to get a better sense of what we actually like doing.
Some of us are using the quarantine to do more drugs. Last week I did a synergy experiment, with roughly equal moderate doses of mushrooms and cannabis edibles. The launch was impressive, better than a triple dose of either substance. But the plateau was a dud, just bland numbness for hours. So I won't do that again, but if numbness is what you're looking for, it's probably a good alternative to opiates.
And posted today on Weird Collapse, a compilation of coronavirus art. My favorite is Operation Isolation by Yuliya Pankratova.
March 25. Taking a break from Coronavirus, some good news links on other subjects. Lasers etch a 'perfect' solar energy absorber.
Down on the Farm That Harvests Metal From Plants.
And a quiet roadside revolution is boosting wildflowers.
March 24. Nothing heavy today, just some links. Tips for the Depressed is an excerpt from a new book, with lots of ideas and realistic advice that might be useful with everyone stuck at home.
Also reposting this from last month, Boredom is but a window to a sunny day beyond the gloom.
Funny, eight years ago it was illegal everywhere, and now Pot Shops Called Essential Infrastructure As Commerce Shuts For Coronavirus.
And a beautiful song from 2010, Jenny and Johnny - New Yorker Cartoon.
March 23. Comment from Dublin:
What I find most incredible is all the concessions the ruling class are making out of nowhere. No more rent, no more evictions, no more debt! It's happening everywhere. I read that Spain has nationalised the all of its private hospitals. I read that the State of California is buying up hotels and motels just to get homeless people off the streets to stop them from spreading this. Sick pay for everyone. Even US Republicans are calling for universal basic income! Everyone can work from home. Or even just not work at all.
I don't think people are going to forget about all these "temporary" measures when it the time does come to go back to normal. All the things we've been told are impossible, it turned out they were possible at the drop of a hat all along. I mean, we've been talking about housing crises for years - now we see that the state could end that overnight if it wanted? It was that easy to just get rid of rent and buy up all the hotels for homeless people? Even look at how much emissions have fallen in this time. We've been screaming about a climate emergency for decades and the powers that be have acted like there's nothing we can do. Nobody will be able to believe that anymore.
To be fair, if the government tried any of this stuff without a pandemic hanging over us, there would be a revolt. Ordinary people want to be busy, and they want people who don't want to be busy to have a low standard of living. When this is over, there will be more homeless people than ever, and emissions might be a bit lower than they were, because some people keep working from home.
When the quarantines came down, I was thinking, when the infection rate drops, life will go back to normal, and the virus will rise again. Where I was wrong was thinking of this as a failure. This article on New Zealand's strategy explains how it's actually a good way to manage the pandemic, by breaking it into smaller waves. As long as hospitals are not overwhelmed, we should call it a win.
On a personal note, this reddit thread on mental health under quarantine is full of self-identified introverts who suddenly crave going out and doing things. I have not reached the bottom of my introversion, and don't ever expect to. I used to fantasize about solitary confinement, but one thing I've learned from this is that I need to walk in nature, so now I fantasize about living at the edge of some wilderness, and having everything I need delivered, so walking in nature is the only reason I go outside.
March 21. A long-time reader has a request: "Would you be able to focus on 7 days in the future, what you think will be happening at that point of view." Sure, that's a short enough time that I won't be far wrong, so I'll try it.
In seven days, the infection and death curves will still be rising. Almost every US state will have a "shelter in place" order. Nobody will believe China saying they've contained it, and there will be talk of the looming disaster in Africa. From Italy, we'll have a better sense of the very important no-hospitalization death rate. Thanks Italy, for taking one for science.
Medical workers will be getting sick, and hospitals will be filling up and running out of supplies, but not catastrophically in most places. There will be stories about young people dying, to scare young people into staying home. There may be a run on Amazon, as they stop stocking their warehouses with certain items. And we'll start to consider the hard questions around what jobs are actually important.
Eventually, there will be a good article on the social effects of long-term quarantine, titled "Covid's Metamorphoses". The first aspect of this to hit the media will be rising domestic violence. The worst families are in danger of suicide and murder-suicide. And yet, I wonder if the overall suicide rate will go down, because our problems are more real. From a reddit thread on quarantine upsides:
I have two teenagers and life pre-March 2020 was feeling a little out of control, like we were speeding to the end of parenthood at a million miles an hour. Most of my life lately has been driving everyone everywhere and the lack of quality time was starting to feel like a real loss. So having this pause has been really nice, to spend time playing card games, watching old favorite movies, etc. Watching them trying to find the positive when they're facing significant teenage losses of prom, grad ceremonies, AP exams, etc. As they've moved from their own self-absorbed losses to concern for their community, friends and family - it's like watching them grow up in a significant and profound way.
March 20. I'm already burned out on making predictions. As a teenager, I used to go the horse races, and when I had a few winners in a row, I would think, "I've figured it out, I'm smarter than these people, I could make a living doing this." Then I would have a bunch of losers and realize that I had just been lucky. So don't get full of yourself if things happen to go the way you thought they would.
They say, when you're dying, you see a highlight reel of your life. The same thing is happening on ESPN. With no new sports, they're showing the best of old sports. As a specialist on women's soccer, I recommend the 2016 NWSL semifinal, where the dominant Thorns faced the up-and-coming Flash.
Also, if you want to buy some music, today only Bandcamp is giving all the money straight to the artists.
March 19. Over on the Weird Collapse subreddit, there's a nice quarantine open thread. Yesterday I had time to lay in the grass by the river for almost an hour. I'm sure that extroverted go-getters are going crazy, but this is like utopia for lazy introverts.
A thread on the psychonaut subreddit, The corona-pandemic is like a psychedelic experience for globalized society. History might look back at this as the time when humanity turned inward and reconsidered its values.
Some doom. Are hospitals near me ready for Coronavirus? Here are nine different scenarios. Six of them are pretty bad.
And some good news. Coronavirus has caused a bicycling boom in New York City. On the trails where I walk, I'm seeing more people mid-week in March than I usually see on summer weekends.
As toilet paper flies off shelves, bidet sales go boom-boom. I've been using a $30 bidet for several years now. Think of it this way: if your hands were covered in poop, would they be cleaner after spraying them with a jet of water, or wiping them with toilet paper?
And (thanks Tom) As Italy quarantines, swans and dolphins appear in Venice canals.
March 18. Just five days ago I was thinking this was the "raise awareness" virus, which would "immunize" society against something worse in the future. Now I think this is it, the big one.
To measure how dangerous a contagious disease is, there are three important numbers. First is how easily it moves from person to person, which is about average for Coronavirus, not as high as smallpox (source). Second is the death rate -- not the actual death rate, but the hypothetical death rate in the absence of hospitalization. Because after the hospitals fill up, that's the number you're looking at. For Coronavirus, that's 10-20%, at least a hundred times worse than normal flu.
Third is the percentage of the infected who get such mild symptoms that they go about their lives normally. That's also unusually high, maybe 40%. I can't think of any disease in history that's as high as Coronavirus in the mild symptoms rate and the death-without-hospitalization rate.
I still don't think it's a threat to civilization. The most important thing is to keep everyone fed. The danger is not just starvation -- all kinds of violence are strongly correlated with people not having enough to eat. The unsung heroes of this crisis are supermarket cashiers.
March 17. We all come at new events with pre-existing filters and biases. One of mine is that modern culture overvalues quantity of life relative to quality of life. So when changes are made in the name of prolonging saving lives, especially when it gives more power to central authorities, my first instinct is to take the other side.
In this case, when you crunch the numbers, heavy quarantine does turn out to be the right move, mainly because the death rate in the absence of hospitalization is way higher than 1%, high enough to still crash the economy.
I expect, when the number of infections and deaths starts to decline, quarantines will be eased. From the article: "We are looking at these social curbs through to July or August - and even when the brakes are taken off, they may have to be slammed back on again." The 1918 Spanish flu came in three waves, and the second was the worst.
Ideally we'll find the right balance, where just enough people are getting sick that the medical system isn't overwhelmed. But at that rate, it will take years for most of us to get immune. Probably, the only way for life to go back to normal is several billion vaccinations, which according to this article, will take "at least a year to 18 months."
We can use math to predict what a disease is going to do. The economic effects of a prolonged shutdown are harder to model, and the social changes are so complex that we'll probably only understand them in hindsight.
March 16. Yeah, my post from this morning is probably wrong. From a reader email:
The death rate depends heavily on availability of fairly sophisticated medical care. 10-20% of patients get very sick and need medical support. 5% are critically ill and need ICU care in order to pull through. So if the virus is allowed to "pass through us" without social distancing, quarantines and lockdowns, what you naturally end up with is a huge number of severe cases hitting the hospitals in a short period. Where those medical systems are strained to breaking, you can assume the death rate would be at least 5% and could potentially get as high as 10-15%
I saw a study, among Americans, that my "let it ride" attitude is typical among Republicans, while Democrats want to make any sacrifice to save any life. Which is ironic, because it's mostly old people, who mostly vote Republican, who are in danger.
March 16. Finally I'm afraid -- not of coronavirus, but of such a heavy quarantine that it's illegal to go for a walk. Some places have already done it.
You'd think a few countries would say fuck it, we're going to live our normal lives, let the virus pass through us, and move on. Instead, every country in the world has chosen to carry the maximum number of survivors through economic collapse.
People are saying this is a war. But in what kind of war do you lock down your entire army, and burn through its supplies, to prevent 1% of the troops from dying? A war against death, the one enemy we can never defeat.
When I think of my own death, or the deaths of people I know, or don't know, it feels like getting off work early. Being alive is a heavy burden. What keeps me going is, first, that certain moments make it all worthwhile. Also, I don't want to let down the people who depend on me, the same reason workers at crappy jobs still try to do the jobs well.
I just finished the Philip K Dick novel We Can Build You. The first half is good sci-fi, and the second half is about the narrator's descent into insanity. At the end, he goes to a mental institution, and they cure him with strong psychedelics, under which he lives fragments of an entire imaginary life.
I think that's what this is. This world is a mental hospital that reflects our own insanity back at us. If we die, the one part of us that has to survive, is the part that's out of balance, to move on to the next cure.
March 14. Yesterday I did some apocalypse scouting. I walked around Wal-Mart, not looking for products, but looking for empty shelves, and reading them to see what they used to hold. By now everyone knows that the first thing off the shelves is toilet paper. Also paper towels, and of course disinfecting wipes. The emptiest food shelves were all starchy staples: flour, pasta, and rice. I'm impressed that the flour was gone. That means people still know how to bake.
Good interview, The Man Who Saw the Pandemic Coming. He backs up my initial hunch, that we could be playing whack-a-mole with coronavirus all summer, and it will rise again in next winter's flu season.
Everyone seems to be assuming this will be over in six weeks. Maybe I'm missing something, but I see only three ways for life to go back to normal. 1) Manufacture and distribute fifty billion test kits, enough for most people in the world to test themselves multiple times. 2) Make a vaccine and give it to most of the world. 3) Most of the people in the world get coronavirus, and thus become immune.
I don't see any of these happening soon. Another thing the interview mentions is that the virus is likely to mutate. If it becomes more deadly, it will be less transmissible. If it becomes less deadly, it could stay around as part of the background.
March 13. In this cartoon, Coronavirus, Spanish Flu, and Black Death are sitting in a bar. Coronavirus says, "My vision is not to kill people, per se, but to raise awareness around access to public health." Black Death says, "Fucking millennials."
For the last few years I've been thinking that pandemics are no longer a threat. Now that we understand how disease works, have instant global communication, and the political tools to impose quarantine, nothing bad will escape containment. I was wrong because I failed to consider political factors.
But now I'm even more certain that pandemics are no longer an existential threat to civilization. Coronavirus will take its one percent, and the global health system will be "immunized", and deal more skillfully with the next virus.
Why has the USA been less competent against coronavirus than the rest of the first world? Because we've been so prosperous and powerful, for so long, that we've become insulated from the consequences of our own stupidity. America has been able to build levels of stupidity that other countries can only dream of.
After yesterday's post, I've been thinking about cults. A cult is a social organism that looks primarily inward, at its own value system and its own model of reality. A cult looks outward through a heavy filter, designed and tested to maintain internal coherence.
Postapocalypse fiction is full of cults. I think they've got it backwards. Cults are a pre-apocalypse phenomenon. They thrive in societies that 1) are prosperous enough that people can afford to distort reality, and 2) fail to make people feel like they belong.
If we ever get a hard crash, the social groups that survive will be pragmatic. They might be violent gangs, but they'll be violent gangs with a realistic understanding of the world they live in.
March 12. This is a simplification: there are two kinds of intelligence. You could call them "people" intelligence and "thing" intelligence, but I want to call them in-human and out-human intelligence, where in-human is the human social world, and out-human is everything else -- including human biology.
I'm framing it this way because our culture tells us that social intelligence is good, and everything else is less good -- but the more power the human social world has over everything else, the more the human social world becomes a bubble, defined by its ignorance.
To get power in the human social world, in-human intelligence is necessary, and the more power humans have over non-humans, the less necessary it is to have any other kind of intelligence.
Power corrupts on the level of attention: we use power to not have to give attention to what makes us uncomfortable.
Trump's first reaction to coronavirus was to call it a hoax: he was interpreting an uncomfortable threat, from outside the human world, as a comfortable threat from within it. The first reaction of Chinese power-holders was exactly the same. When medical workers tried to warn the public, they were punished for "rumors", and the virus spread unchecked for three weeks.
Trump's latest take on coronavirus is to frame it as a foreign invasion. That's why he's banned travel to the USA from everywhere except the UK, the nation most culturally similar to us. It's ridiculous, but it makes sense if Trump is simply unable to wrap his head around anything outside the human social realm. You live by the bubble, you die by the bubble.
The good news is that coronavirus, and at a slower pace, climate change, are revealing the limitations of in-human thinking, and giving leverage to out-human thinkers, to bring human cognition into balance.
March 9. I've made a minor breakthrough in meditation. Eastern ways aren't always better than western ways, even in meditation, but in this case they are: A reader cites John Michael Greer, that "western traditions of meditation focus on the willpower, while the eastern focus on emptiness." So lately, instead of trying to hold a border wall against thoughts, one breath at a time, I just try to repeatedly create emptiness in there, and it works. I don't even have to focus on my breath, because if I do a good job of generating emptiness, the breath is the only thing left.
March 6. I just made a video: Ladytron - International Dateline (doom edit)