Categories
books

Book notes: The Hidden Wound

I picked up 6-7 books (and a couple pounds of coffee) from my favorite local bookstore in the height of quarantine to help support them while everything was closed.  Three of them were for me: Hillbilly Elegy, Appalacian Reckoning (notes on those two coming later) and The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry.  I have (and love) several books of Berry’s poetry but the first of his prose I have read.  I will admit to identifying with his work in a way that I don’t with other authors or poets, simply becaise we are both from Kentucky.

I recall having heard the book mentioned in a podcast or something else I had read…but honestly I am not sure what I thought it was about.  When I bought it, I didn’t know it was contained his reflections on race, written orginally  in 1968 with an extensive afterword added in the eighties.

I haven’t looked into other critical reviews of this book, so I don’t know where it fits amongst other more recent books on race issues, nor what may be considered a problem in his views.  That being said, I did find it a compelling read, with a few spots of trouble.  Its rather short, but packs in a lot of ideas.  I’ll only touch on a few of them here.

Berry starts with an extensive telling of his own personal story and two of the black people that were most important to him growing up, Nick and Aunt Georgie.  I got the sense reading this part that he was both trying to establish some credibility, but more so to establish some context for his analysis and reccomendations that come later.  One theme that appears over and over is that whites have also been hurt by our racism (hence the title of the book I believe).  I don’t think Berry is in any way trying to minimize the greater hurt that blacks have and continue to experiences as a resut of racism, but rather to give a reason to white’s to change other than “white guilt”.  Berry builds a really compelling case for diversity, not built on platitudes or virtue signaling, but rather on his own experience of seeing the world through Nick’s eyes:

This much is clear to me: insofar as I am capable of feeling such pleasures as I believe Nick felt, I am strong; insofar as I am dependent on pleasures on the pleasures made available by my salary and the things I own, I am weak.  I feel much more secure in those pleasures for which I am dependent on the world, as Nick was for most of his, than in those for which I am dependent on the government or on a power company or on the manufacturers of appliances.

This is where I felt a bit of unease, concerned that Berry might be heading into some sort of “magical negro” territory or more generally romanticising the poor.  But my read of Berry through the book as a whole is that this is not that.  Berry recognizes that he is better off having had shared, deep experiences with Nick.  Those experiences have made him better than he would otherwise be by letting him see things from another perspective.  I do wonder what Nick might say if asked whether he was better off for his relationship with a young Wendell Berry?

A second theme which stood out to me is Berry’s idea that any solution to racism will start with the individual:

I beleive that the experience of all honest men stands, like these books, against the political fantasy that deep human problems can be satifactorily solved by legislation.  On the contrary, it is likely that the best and least oppresive laws come as a result or the reflection of honest solutions that men have already made in their own lives.  The widespread assumption that men can be set free or dignified or improved by monkeying with some mere aspect of their lives – politics, or economics or technology – promises no solution, but only an unlimited growth of the public apparatus.

This really got my recovering anarcho-libertarian jucies flowing ;-).  From what I can tell, the idea of systemic racism has only recently entered the public conciousness, so I don’t think Berry had anything to say on that idea.  If it he had known about it however, I am guessing from the above that he might see some of the proposed solutions to systemic racism at best as partial remedies.  This is not to say that systemtic racism isn’t a thing.  Rather it is to say that if we want to actually make progress in reducing racism, we have to address both what is in our hearts as well as how we build our institutions.

The afterword outlines four specific problems that Berry sees in actually making progress to resolve racism (with 20 more years of life experience to inform him).  He offers no solutions, rather he hopes to highlight how complicated the problems are so that we aren’t fooled into thinking there are easy solutions.

Since my last post, I have been trying to do more than just read and think and write.  I did march this past Sunday in downtown Cincinnati.  I was motivated by a combination of wanting to see for myself what was going on in these marches and of wanting to do something / anything (more than read and think and write).  I am happy to have done it.  I felt safe the entire time.  I didn’t agree with everything I heard or read, but I got a better (albeit small) sense of what animated those that I marched with.  I also attended a Crittenden city council meeting.  That was less of a life experience, but was still worth doing, simply to see the wheels of government working at the most local and personal of levels.

Reading the Hidden Wound has made me realize that I lack any deep shared experiences or ongoing relationships with anyone of color.  I don’t feel guilty, but rather less than I could be.  I feel blind to an entire way of seeing and experiencing the world.  My instinct to take action kicks in, but I know I need to be careful here – the chance for a mis step seems extremely high.  I am OK with making a mistake, but not with unintentionally hurting someone.  Suggestions are sincerely welcome.

Categories
miscellaneous

Q: WTF is Wrong with Me? A: Perfect as enemy of good.

I broke quarantine last week by taking a walk in the woods with my daughter and 7 trusted friends.  We spent 4 days / 3 nights walking along the Sheltowee Trace in the south of Kentucky, mostly at social distance.  There are many things that I love about long distance backpacking.  One of them is that I am often out of cell range so have no choice but to be completely offline.

As I emerged from the woods on Thursday and started to reconnect, I learned about George Floyd’s murder and the resulting protests (and looting and rioting…all different things).  Welcome back to reality.  I wanted to restock, turn around and head back into the woods.

For the last few days I felt myself falling back into the same pattern as I followed in March, when Covid first entered my reality.  I was on twitter and reddit for hours a day.  Trying to both get a handle on what was happening…and (shamefully) somehow enjoying the images and videos of protests, police retaliation and looting.  Not enjoying it becasue I like what I saw, but because of some detached, self important sense that I was “living through history”.  WTF is wrong with me?

Last night, as I weeded our garden, I listened to the President address the nation.  I didn’t have high expectations, but the staged photo opp after the press conference took me by suprise…and got me really angry.  I am a cradle Episcopalean.  St. John’s, place of the staged photo opp, is an Episcopal church.  I unexplanably found myself getting extremely worked up that the symbols / location of my faith was being used as a backdrop to make some ridiculous political point (Side note: I am not really sure what the point was.  While he might have been playing to his evagelical base…but surely he knows that they are no fans of Episcopaleans with our pro-gay stance?).

Upon further reflection something else, even more disturbing occured to me: George Floyd was murdered by someone charged with protecting him and while that bothered me, it wasn’t the same intesnsty of feeling as I had about where a picture was taken.  Why do I feel more strongly about the symbols of my faith than the basic right to exist of every human being? WTF is wrong with me?

Some of my reaction can be reasoned away because the photo opp was relevant to me – it gave me a place to stand in opposition.  But that’s not enough.  I am white.  I have never been subject to any sort of harrasment or ill treatment from anyone in a position of legal authority.  So at the surface it is easy for me to find no place to stand to oppose where I feel anything in common with George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and many others before and since.  Where do I get off protesting something I have never experienced?  Something that I (not anyone else) can know the whole truth of?

Bu that’s bullshit.  I was missing our shared hummanity.  Before being white or black or brown or purple; before being Episcopalean or Catholic or Jewish or Pastafarian, we are all human.  We are all perfectly imperfect humans with hopes, dreams, ideas, experiences and relationships.  That is my place to stand.  So stand there I will.

And now a final realization that came to me while I was writing this post.  Writing is not doing something.  Or at least not doing enough.  This blog has always been a way for me to organize my thoughts, with the (sometimes imagined) reader acting as a force directing me to be as clear and coherent as possible.  So writing this post has served to help me get my thoughts in order, but thoughts without action are pissing into the wind.  Far too often, I write something here (or worse post something on social media and feel like I did something.  WTF is wrong with me?

I am ashamed of my initial insticnt to slink back into the woods and wish it would all go away, or at least all go away for me.  If everyone like me, who thinks we can and should do better does that, where do we end up?  No place good.  At the same time, I am trying to have compassion for myself because it is really hard to know what’s true, to know what’s really going on.  I really enjoy certainty.  Knowing, for sure, that what I am doing is right and my motivations are well ordered and intentioned.  What would it feel like to not have to know?

This deadly combination of feeling like I didn’t have a place to stand in opposition and not being sure of the “right” thing to do has been paralyzing.  But no more.  I can’t let perfect be the enemy of good.  Here’s my plan:

  • I am not quite sure I am ready to join the protests, but I am supporting those that are by donating to bail funds.  I gave to the Cincinnati, Lexiginton and Louisville funds listed here.   I recognize there is a chance that I might be bailing out someone who might be guilty of more than nonviolent protest, but from what I have seen in my local area, the number of protestors being arrested for vilating curfew is far outnumbering the number of looters that have been apprehended, so I am willing to take that risk.
  • I am going to start voting again.  My politics are complicated, confused and ever changing.  I haven’t stood in a voting booth (or otherwise cast my ballot since 2004 other than one single issue vote a few years back (whether or not the county I live in should be wet or not = sell alcohol) and this past KY Guberbatorial election so I could vote for the Libertarian candidate.  I dropped out of voting based on the extreme position that “all voting is violence”.  I still believe that, but I now believe even more in the idea expressed so well in the quote from Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  This does mean that I will have to spend more time researching candidates, their positions and their records.  I am still not 100% confident that voting is entirely moral, but that seems rather esoteric.
  • I am going to start showing up at meetings.  I loathe adding this one to my plan given my brief experience going to shcool board meetings in what seems like a lifetime ago, but I am adding it because it represents another form of involvement and learning.  I am sure there will be some wastes of time, I know I won’t make all of them, and I am not even sure what meetings I should start attending.  Doesn’t matter.  Google works and I have some time to spend.  What else is more important than getting actively engaged in making things better.

This plan of action isn’t perfect.  It might not do much of anything.  I am sure there is still some ego in there.  Some privelage that I am neither sensative too nor understand.  But I can’t just think and write anymore.  I just can’t let perfect be the enemy of good, especially when there is so much that could be better.

Categories
books

Book Notes: Station Eleven

Yes, I read a book about a pandemic during a pandemic. How unoriginal. I heard about Station Eleven on a podcast (forget which one) and it seemed interest and different enough to give it a try. I was looking for some fiction so decided to give it a try. I bought it as an Apple Book (enjoying that platform more and more for my ebook reading) and read it over the course of a few weeks.

Overall it was a good read. Easy to read and the characters were interesting. Mandel uses timeline jumps to great effect, filling the reader in on key background elements from the past immediately before they become relevant to the “main” timeline.

I would say this is a rather hopeful / cheery apocalyptic novel, if there is such a thing. But then again, my baseline comparison is The Road. Not many books more grim than that. Like most good fiction of the genre the story is really about how people relate to each other, in this case using a disease that wipes out 98% of the planet in what seems to be a few weeks, as a backdrop to explore how memory works, why we do/don’t get along with others and the importance of community / tribe.

Since finishing it, I discovered a more recent book from the same author, that uses some of the same characters, but is not a sequel or prequel. Rather she characterized it as an alternate timeline. Reminds me of using the same RPG character in different campaigns. Will have to add Glass Hotel to my list for the next time I am looking for some fiction.

Categories
miscellaneous

A gift from my past self to my present self

This blogging thing is finally paying some dividends. Today comes a bit of perspective. Almost exactly 10 years ago today I was “trapped” in Europe due to an ash cloud that made it unsafe to fly. Reading the post I wrote after I got home brings back a flood of memories. At the time I could sense that it was something I would always remember. I was gald to have John along with me to share the experience. But most of all was the overwhelming desire I had to get back home, specifically to celebrate my birthday.

Let’s think about this for a bit. There I was, at first in Frankfort then in Barcelona, on a company expense account with a free pass to spend whatever was needed. The streets in Barcelona were full night and day with both locals Brits that had taken the one flight back from the US to somewhere in Europe that was still operating. There was plenty to eat and drink. We stayed in a 5 star hotel our first night in Barcelona and then moved to something more affordable…right on the Ramblas! The weather was perfect and John and I even had a local guide from our business that was more than happy to show us around. Yet, every few hours I was calling in to Delta and getting on their website to get home as soon as I could. WTF was wrong with me?!?

Flash forward 10 years and here I am at home on my birthday. I got exactly what I wanted so desperately 10 years ago. Yet I had been dreading today a bit. Not because of the number I’ll hang around my neck for the next year, but rather because I am stuck at home like everyone else. My pre-COVID plans for this weekend were as follows:

  • Friday: Symphony (Mahler) and dinner / drinks with some friends
  • Saturday: Shakespeare (Hamlet) and dinner / drinks with some other friends
  • Sunday: Keenland and lunch and ponies with lots of friends.
  • Monday: Day off from work to recover.

10 years ago I was in an amazing place and desperately wanted to be somewhere else. Today my 37 year old self gave my 47 year old self a present: the ability to see that although I would prefer to be somewhere other than home, it is in fact an amazing place if I would just settle in and enjoy it.

Categories
books

Book notes: The Three Marriages by David Whyte

What started as some good posting momentum at the start of the year has slowed slightly. Pandemics will do that I suppose. I would like to say that I have been journaling a lot, but that would be a lie. At the start of things I spent far too much screen time on twitter and reddit. Not sure whether I was trying to actually determine whether this was the actual end of the world or simply basking in the doomer glory of it all. Probably a mixture of both. Fortunately I was able to break out of that cycle, a testament to how quickly the thrilling (even the thrilling for the wrong reasons) can become commonplace, and was able to get back to reading.

I am changing my approach to these posts since I was noticing some resistance to completing them. Rather than a “review” which connotes something of value that I add on top, I am framing these as simply notes – a marker of the books I have read and a few of the impressions I am leaving with.

I first heard of the poet David Whyte on a Sam Harris podcast that I listened to on the way in to work. That should place it in time well enough. I really liked the way he described reality as the frontier that exists between the “self” and the “world” and so I ordered his most recent prose book from my favorite local bookshop and picked it up a few weeks later. Another placement for when I started on this.

The three marriages is not about serial divorce nor polygamy, but rather the relationship one has with one’s spouse, with one’s work and with one’s self. Right off the bat Whyte points out that most people’s first experience of marriage is the one that they interrupt, specifically first children. The images we carry from our childhood of our parents’ marriage stay with us and inform how we see the three marriages throughout our lives.

As a poet, he makes many references to the poetry of others as well as ahis own. In first talking about the marriage to the self, he cites The Prelude by Wordsworth, with whom he shares a particular affinity, calling out the line:

I made no vows, but vows / Were made for me

The Prelude, Wordsworth

to make the point that life comes to find us as much as we go out to find it, but that can only happen if we are awake and aware to the world around us, stopping for even just a minute to pay attention to something besides our selves. He expands on this point is his own work Everything is Waiting for You

To feel abandoned is to deny

the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,

even you, at times, have felt the grand array;

the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding

out your solo voice. You must note

the way the soap dish enables you,

or the window latch grants you freedom.

Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.

Everything is Waiting for You, Whyte

He draws this conclusion about the work we have to do, as well as what is not up to us, in finding a “great work”:

To glimpse our vocation, we must learn how to be sought out and found by a work as much as we strive to identify it ourselves. We must make ourself findable by being seen; to do that we must hazard ourselves and make ourselves available to the world we want to enter.

The Three Marriages, Whyte

This passage struck me since it speaks directly to something I have more and more trouble with as I get older: trying something new and f*(&ing it up. This is an echo of Whyte’s idea from the podcast of reality being a frontier, a conversation, between the self and the world. As I look for great work, as much as I need to learn new skills and new ways of being, I need to put myself in (potentially unfamiliar or uncomfortable) situations even more to let a great work find me.

Whyte touches on the role that worry plays in self discovery, specifically the thing that we I do to battle with worry: make to do lists:

Millenia of worrying under night skies have brought human beings to the point where the complexities of our contemporary societies have almost reached a breaking point. In many ways, our to-do lists have become the postmodern equivalent of the priest’s rosary, the lama’s sutra or the old prayer book – keeping a larger, avalanching reality at bay. Above all, the to-do list keeps the evil of not-doing at bay, a list that many of us like to chant and cycle through religiously as we make our way to work through the commute.

The Three Marriages, Whyte

I totally saw myself in this. When I used to actually drive into the office, “chanting” my to do list was a regular pastime. One of the hidden blessings of CQ (COVID-19 Quarantine) has been my lack of focus on my to do list. There hasn’t been as much to do, and what was on there hasn’t seemed as important. I still check it, check things off and add things now and again, but it is not with the same religious ferocity as “before”. I have not quite arrived at comfort with the “evil of not-doing”, but I can feel myself getting closer. A few more weeks of quarantine and I think I might “arrive” somewhere (which probably means I am fooling myself).

In a chapter on the marriage with work, Whyte takes on the paradox of what seems to be vs. what is about the life of a writer:

From the outside, especially to those that long for a more artistic life, a writer looks to be involved in what looks like an unscheduled imaginative adventure, but what she needs above all else is structure and a goodly amount of space within that structure. It takes a good settled sense of what we are about, first to think that we deserve the time and the to arrange our days so that what we want comes about.

The Three Marriages, Whyte

When I am being honest I know that I am still looking for that settled sense of what I am about and that my to do list is the armor that I put up to avoid not-doing long enough to find it. The hardest part seems to be the feeling that after all this time I should already know what I am about. The sense that I knew once and it either wasn’t real, has left me, or that simply the frontier between my “self” and the “world” has shifted (I like that explanation most of all).

The Three Marriages is gently disturbing. White uses language to point to things that language can’t describe directly. While that is the gift of poetry, the long form of the Three Marriages helped me, who is “poetry-challenged”, to see some things I had been missing and realize some things I already knew.

Categories
miscellaneous

This is not the new normal…yet

Since there seems to be plenty of expert opinion out there on what happened, what is happening and what will happen with COVID-19, I am going to attempt to limit myself to my own experience. What I am thinking about, going through and doing as I live through this once in a lifetime experience.

I am having trouble keeping track of what’s changing. I think it was only last Monday that Kentucky and Ohio closed all of their restaurants. While that may be chronologically true, my sense of the amount of time that passed since then makes it seem a month ago or so. My experience of time passing is directly tied to how much of what goes on I have experienced before. None of this has happened to me before, so it seems to pass much more slowly, with more packed in to each day.

I am noticing that the thin veneer has started to wear off at work. Some of the things that were important a few weeks ago don’t seem so now. I notice this in my own ability to pay attention and in the focus, energy and effort that others are bringing to the endless zoom meetings that we are having. I have decided to view this as a good thing – this can be a chance to “burn off” some of the project chaff and focus on what really matters.

I am thankful for the technology that I have access too. I can’t imagine going through this 20 or even 10 years ago. It’s true that I wouldn’t be so agitated/distracted/consumed by media, but I also wouldn’t be able to maintain some sense of normal through virtual happy hours, meeting up with the folks from my gym for a workout from home, and something to watch that the whole family can get into.

I am also thankful for the wake up this has provided me and those around me. While it’s uncomfortable to think about, which is why we don’t, the fact is that living is inherently a risky adventure. Every time I used to leave the house in my car, dine out, or get on a plane, it might be the last time I do that. Those are all risks I’ve accepted and so don’t think about too much, which helps my psyche, but doesn’t really force me to live in the moment with any urgency. This is all a great reminder that now is really all I have so I best make the best of it.

I am thinking about William Bridges transitions model. I have read a lot about “the new normal”, but I think that is misleading. What I am experiencing now is not sustainable, so by definition it can’t last = be the new normal. What I think we are in now is the luminal stage between an old normal and a new normal. I have experienced the grief and pain of letting go. Not going out to eat on Friday’s with the family. Cancelled plays, symphonies and summer music festivals. Putting another trip to Europe on indefinite hold. Now I am in between. A place where I know that the old is gone, but that the new hasn’t quite taken shape. Bridges points out that there is great power and opportunity in this in between space. It’s a time for questioning old assumptions and trying on new ways of being. It’s a time for patience and not rushing to the new normal. If I take my time and sit comfortably with “not knowing” I can use this time to explore many options for what a new normal could look like before settling into one that I prefer. I am slowly settling in to not having to know.

Categories
miscellaneous

Happy 21st and 19th

Categories
miscellaneous

COVID-19: what I’ve learned and what I’m doing / not doing

What a difference a week can make.  In the last week, COVID-19 has gone from somewhere in my top 10 list to a solid number 1, both in terms of wat I spend time thinking about and in terms of what I spend time doing (and not doing).  Here’s a rundown of what it’s taught me, about myself and people in general as well as what I am doing…and not doing (or at least attempting not to do).

What I’ve learned about myself specificall

  1. As much progress as I feel I’ve made through mindfulness practice (journaling, meditation, etc) I still get caught up in my thoughts far to easily when under stress.  I did “catch myself” clicking into that next news article, staying up later than I should have reading / watching, and waking up earlier than I needed to with my mind immediately “spinning”.  Everything is a teacher and the next few weeks is a great time for me to test and improve my practice, holding myself with compassion when I fail (which will undoubtedly happen).
  2. I noticed some feeling and reactions I’m not so proud of.  For example, I was elated when the market dropped 10% on Thursday.  I felt excited and self satisfied for being on the side lines.  Another example: my kids college’s both went to at least tempory remote instruction within a few hours of each other this past week.  While I am glad to have them home, I was also immediateley worried about them bringing the virus along with them.  Perhaps I have more shadenfreude and disgust reflex than I would like to admit.
  3. My first reaction is still to do something.  At first it was read all I could.  Then it was stock up on a few things (thankfully for me this was Monday).  Then it was tell everyone I cared about how bad it might be and that they should limit travel and prepare.  Then it was to help keep things moving at work and with my church.  I still haven’t been able to make myself sit with this and just let it be.
  4. I’m actually a little more “socialist” than I thought I might be.  COVID-19 hasn’t caused me to sudenly support massive government interventions since I still believe that the only real power that we give to a government stems from a monoploy on violence.  However, I do actually care about the health and wellbeing of others, even those I don’t know far more than I might let on sometimes.  I’m doing / not doing most of the things listed below not because I think I am in any real danger, but because I think it’s the best thing I can do to slow the spread.  As I read somewhere in the last few days (it all runs together so sorry for lack or attribution): going out in crowds because you’re not worried you will get sick is like driving on the sidewalks since you know you won’t get hurt.  Sometimes its not about you.
  5. I still don’t like “not knowing”.  I really liked the question “what would it feel like to not have to know” since I first read it in Reboot a few months ago.  However I recognize I am still not good at being comfortable in a place of not nowing.  I want testing availalable for everyone now so I can know the real numbers.  I want a complete decontamination procedure so I can know I am safe in my own home.  I want leadership that seems in touch with reality and has a clear idea what we should do so that I can know what the next few months will be like.  These things are just not for me to know right now.

What I’ve learned about people (including me)

  1. We are really bad at math, science, logic and pretty much everything else that the Enlightment gave us. I’ve seen so many posts about how few people this has killed compared to the flu which proves we are bad at understanding exponentials. I’ve seen an equal number of posts claiming that drinking hot water (or worse bleach) are a cure which proves we are bad at science. Reason and logic are not everything, but they are a tool that can help understand and even solve some things. Viral pandemics happen to be one of those things.
  2. We have made a mess of our sense making apparatus. It’s a strange twist of fate that a technology that was supposed to bring us together has seperated us so deeply. We seem to have lost any way to come to a common idea of what is real. We used to have institutions, norms and trust in expertise that could help tease out, hopefully in public, what was real, at least a local / operational sense. All that seems to have evaoprated and as a result we can’t seem to make any effective collective decisions. Democracy is a reasonable (least bad?) way to make decisions, but it requires something that is outside of it to come to consensus reality. One reason that China seems to be “beating us” in their response to this threat is that our political mechanisms are no longer based on any common sense making aparatus.
  3. We will do anything to feel in control. Why else would TP be sold out everywhere?
  4. We are less “socialist” than I thought. Despite the seeming popularity of socialist ideas and leaders, when push comes to shove it seems we are all much more about the one than the many. I expected this from the Me generation (Boomers), but must say I am suprised seeing this in Millenials. I know its a lot to process, but I would have thought they would be rather ready stop going out for a few weeks to save us all. Us in Gen Z are just going to sit in the back with our anxiety and let those two generations kill each other I guess.
  5. We really are bad at recognizing new situations. I can’t help but connect this to System 1 / System 2 errors from Thining Fast and Slow. The basic idea is that System 1 operates most of the time. It is the “real time” system and given out limited capacity to take in everything, it operates on assumptions, stereotypes and hueristics. It’s fine when things are “normal”, but it can lead us astray when they are not. Another part of the work talks about these heuristics, or biases and how they can lead us astray. One bias that seems obvious in the last week is normalcy bias, which keeps us from noticing when things are not normal…and causes us to over react when we notice that they aren’t. Another is recall bias, which substitutes the likihood of something happening by the eas at which we can recall something happening. It’s been interesting to see this one in action on those that are on opposing sides of the reaction spectrum. Those that are in the “it’s just the flu” camp can’t ever recall a global pandemic killing 2% of the population, so they default to the closest thing they can recall. Those that are buying all the TP are deep into some sub-reddits that allow them to easily recall the death rates from the 1918 spanish flu for 10 major metropolitan areas as well as which one had the worst time of it in the second and third wave…so they buy all the TP. Even when we do recognize something new, we seem to react in the old way. Preparing for this like we would a bad snow storm.

What I’m doing

  1. Staying put mostly.  This is the big one.  Since Sunday I have left the house twice.  It’s the intersection of wanting to have control and trying to do what I can for others.  I had a slight concern that I might have had it – I attended a conference a few weeks before it was a thing that several other people that were in attendance have since tested positive.  That’s nearly 3 weeks in the past now, so it seems I would be showing some symptoms by now.  So staying put now is mostly about doing what I can to slow the spread and being a good example to others.
  2. Reading.  I’ve got a huse stack of books that I’ve been looking for an excuse to read.  Excuse delivered (although I would have much prefered to have won the lottery or even to have been fired as the excuse).
  3. Cooking.  Since we’re not going out much, we’re cooking a lot more.  This is a good thing, mainly since we already know how to cook (I can imagine it would be less so if that weren’t the case).  Of course cooking means that we get to eat, but its also something for us to do together and gives us something to do that we know is taking care of us and others.  Another way I am taking care of myself (since I am eating what we are cooking) is exercising ;-).
  4. Helping.  I’m mostly trying to help my church stay conected through the next few weeks, but also helping local businesses by buying gift cards through their websites as a way to get them cash as their business drops.  I’d donate if they’d let me.  Our church is closed to gatherings for the next few weeks, so I am helping out there by getting them setup to live stream a service and putting together tech guides and support for lay leadership to continue to do their work while we are practicing social distancing.
  5. Working.  While my backlog of to do items is getting a little thin, I am “going” to work each day (translation: chaning from PJs into clothes and going to my home office in the basement).  I do understand that it’s a tremendous privelage to be able to continue working AND to stay at home that not everyone has.  I am grateful for it but don’t feel guilty.

What I’m not doing

  1. Hoarding.  I am enough and I have enough.  My last trip out on Monday was for enough to let us stay put for a couple weeks (and included no TP…we already had enough of that…and there wasn’t any).
  2. Panicing.  I am finding a way to be vigilent without being anxious.  I am finding a way to pay attention to what’s going on without obsessing.  I am finding a way to notice what is new without assuming that everything “normal” is out the window.
  3. Wallowing.  I don’t think this is the end of the world.  I do think this is a time we will talk about as “before” and “after”, but we’ve had those before (9/11, financial crisis) and made adjustments and moved on.
  4. Watching sports.  Since there isn’t any.  While I support the decision 100%, a small tragedy in all of this is that we won’t get to spend our time watching March Madness.  I do think there is a huge opportunity for EA Games to do a massive e-sports basketball event, having the teams play each other online. I’d watch.
  5. Going out.  This may seem obvious since I am mostly staying put, but it is one that I have to keep in mind since I do really enjoy going out (to dinner, to a show, to a bar, etc) and honestly its the one that makes me feel most like I am over reacting. I am refraining from judging others that are going out in the hopes that they will respect my choice as well.

This is where I am today.  I used to write here in search of some ineffible truth.  Now I recognize that all I can do is capture the state of my mind as it is.  My hope is that I will read this in a few months and laugh at most of it as serious over reaction.  Time will tell.

Categories
miscellaneous

Quality over Quantity

This article in the most recent Atlantic was perhaps the most disturbing article I have read in a long time. Mind you I am writing that when there is no shortage of extremely disturbing articles to read between acute topics like Corona and systemic topics like income inequality. McKay Coppins starts the article by describing a personal experiment, creating a fake Facebook account, following Donald Trump and then anything else that was recommended. A few weeks later they noted:

I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.

This should be alarming to everyone that understands it. Here we have a person who was fully aware of what they were doing, most likely had oppositional (or at least neutral) political leanings and while not being convinced to “go to the other side” had their basic ideas about truth and reality fundamentally challenged. They lost touch with their sense making apparatus. This is what the strange combination of post-modern politics and social media technocracy is doing to us all.

Former Ethics chief at Google, Tristan Harris (who’s position remains unfilled AFAIK) is fond of saying that every time you go online you should know that you have an AI pointed at your brainstem. While there is much ink spilled over what the coming AI boom will mean to our humanity, we don’t need to imagine it. It’s happening in our politics right now.

This doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with direct foreign interference in our elections, but it seems to have at least a “genetic” relationship. Again from The Atlantic article:

 The Kremlin has long been an innovator in this area. (A 2011 manual for Russian civil servants favorably compared their methods of disinformation to “an invisible radiation” that takes effect while “the population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon.”) But with the technological advances of the past decade, and the global proliferation of smartphones, governments around the world have found success deploying Kremlin-honed techniques against their own people.

This mirrors what Gary Kasparov has said in numerous outlets, the most recent I heard being the Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein. The point of these activities is to achieve exactly what Coppins experienced: an inability to make sense or to figure out what is real. Rather than shutting down new media, political operatives have figured out how to create noise and confusion that they can take advantage of.

My initial reaction to all of this was to call for some sort of regulation and not the “sunlight” policies that Zuck is trying to pass off as transparency in a bid to avoid regulation:

To bolster his case, Zuckerberg pointed to the recently launched—and publicly accessible—“library” where Facebook archives every political ad it publishes. The project has a certain democratic appeal: Why censor false or toxic content when a little sunlight can have the same effect? But spend some time scrolling through the archive of Trump reelection ads, and you quickly see the limits of this transparency.

The campaign doesn’t run just one ad at a time on a given theme. It runs hundreds of iterations—adjusting the language, the music, even the colors of the “Donate” buttons. In the 10 weeks after the House of Representatives began its impeachment inquiry, the Trump campaign ran roughly 14,000 different ads containing the word impeachment. Sifting through all of them is virtually impossible.

I think we need something with teeth, first amendment implications be damned. I recognize the hypocrisy is the previous statement given my firm and consistent support for the second amendment and the individual right to keep and bear arms. Why should I get to have as many guns as I want, but Facebook can’t run as many micro targeted ads the fundamentally change the nature of our democracy? I’ll be honest: this is one I am still working out, but it seems to me that if there is a difference it’s wrapped up in the coincident ideas that corporations aren’t people and force asymmetry.

I’ve had an on again, off again relationship with Facebook, going back to when I created my account in Oct of 2007 (which was the same day I established a presence on Twitter). There are lots of real friends that I am only connected to there. Much of the dates, places and pictures of the last 10+ years of my life with my family “lives” there. But I think I need a bit of space. I’m not deleting my account or anything, but I’m not going to “hang-out” there until at least the election is over. Three reasons:

  • I haven’t voted in the last few elections as a form of protest against the whole enterprise, but I am re-evaluating the maturity of that position and want to avoid as much manipulation as possible. Or at least subject myself only to manipulation that I can at least have a reasonable chance of seeing coming and understanding.
  • I find that liking things my friends post gives me a sense that I am doing the work of building relationship, without actually doing it. As a recovering introvert, I don’t need anything that keeps me away from this important work. Similarly, I find that sharing things (especially since they make it so easy) keeps me from doing any real thinking on my own. “I’ve said my piece by sharing that meme” leads to the lethargy of pretend thought and actionless action.
  • I find that scrolling through my feed, I put my friends (and those that are left are mostly people I have a relationship with outside of Facebook) too easily into neatly defined categoeries, thinking that the meme or post they shared completely expresses their view with no reason to explore further, closing off an opportunity to have an interesting discussion, learn something and/or deepen relationship that could happen in the real world. No, none of these thing are possible in Facebook comments ;-).

I’ll continue to write and share things here. I know it means that far fewer people will see me in their feeds. I’m going for quality rather than quantity.

Categories
miscellaneous

Praying I am bad at math

Update: @LizSpecht does some similar math projecting the implications on the healthcare system.

I like to think I am pretty good at math. Day to day stuff like calculating tips in my head, but also more obscure things like calculating surface areas of 3D objects, doing basic calculus and developing basic math models to fit data. I’m still in awe when someone on the academic team I coach evaluates a quadratic integral with a log thrown in in less than 5 seconds, so I am by no means extraordinary, but pretty good. And yet, I am absolutely terrible at statistics. I have gone as far to say that since I am pretty good at math and bad at statistics, that statistics must not actually be math, which is no doubt some taxonomical form of the fundamental attribution error.

I suppose I can take some solace in the fact I am in good company – or at least there are a lot of other people equally bad at statistics. I would argue one the main points of Thinking Fast and Slow (still one of the best books I have read in the past 5-10 years) is that many of the problems we face, both personally and communally, come from the shortcuts we create because we are bad at thinking statistically.

Remembering that I am bad at statistics, it seems to me that we are all suffering from a bit of being bad at statistics in some of the discussions that are going around about COVID-19 / Corona Virus. I’ve seen a few posts from credible sources that are trying to downplay the potential impact of a COVID-19 pandemic by stating how many people have died from the seasonal flu vs how few (comparatively) have died from COVID-19. I’ve even seen a few (from perhaps less credible sources) that are making comparisons to the number of people that have died from cancer, diabetes and even car crashes.

In one way, these sorts of arguments are doing some good in that they are fighting against one of the heuristics that Thinking Fast and Slow mentions: since we are such bad statistical thinkers, we substitute the ease that we can recall something from memory as a proxy for how likely it is. With all of the news coverage we are likely all overestimating the chances of dying from a raging case of Corona.

What these arguments miss is the population size. While its true that the total number of people that have died from seasonal flu is much greater than the number that have died from Corona, it’s equally true that the number of people that are infected with seasonal flu is also much higher…for now. What matters here is the rate, which a real statistician would argue is barely statistics, but we still seem to be getting wrong.

There are two rates that matter: The infection / transmission rate and the mortality rate. The latter seems to be hovering between 1% and as high as 3.4% depending on which model you use, which is between 10 and 20 times more deadly that seasonal flu. The former is what seems to be the big question. Infection rate depends on things like virulence, how quickly and how often symptoms show and actually mortality (if it kills you more often / quickly, it is less likely you will transmit it to others). If we have an infection rate that is 10 to 20 times less than seasonal flu, then statistically we will get the same number of deaths as seasonal flu. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case so far with some officials stating that between 40 to as much as 70% of the worlds population ultimately destined for infection. If the low end of both numbers are right that’s 30.8M people dead by the time this is all over. Let’s really hope I am as bad at statistics as I think.