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psychology

Odd Lots

  • I got caught in an April Fools hoax that (as my mother would say) sounded too true to be funny: That Tesla canceled all plans to produce its Cybertruck. (Read the last sentence, as I failed to do.) I like Musk; he has guts and supports space tech. About his Cybertruck concept, um…no. It looks like an origami, or else something that escaped from a third-shelf video game. The world would go on without it, and he might use the money to do something even cooler, whatever that might be.
  • Oh, and speaking of Elon Musk: He just bought almost 10% of Twitter, to the tune of about $3B. He is now the biggest outside shareholder. This is not a hoax, and I wonder if it’s only the beginning. Twitter is famous for suspending people without explaining what they did wrong, sometimes for things that seem ridiculously innocuous. A major shareholder could put pressure on Twitter’s management from the inside to cut out that kind of crap. It’s been done elsewhere. And boy, if anybody can do it, he can.
  • Nuclear energy has the highest capacity factor of any form of energy, meaning the highest percentage of time that energy producers spend actually producing energy. I knew that from my readings on the topic. What shocked me is that there is in fact an Office of Nuclear Energy under the DOE. I’m glad they exist, but boy, they hide well.
  • The Register (“Biting the hand that feeds IT”) published a fascinating article about how C has slowly evolved into an Interface Definition Language (IDL). C was never intended to do that, and actually does a pretty shitty job of it. Ok, I’m not a software engineer, but the way to build a new operating system is to define the IDL first, and work backwards from there. C is now 50 years old, sheesh. It’s time to start again, and start fresh, using a language (like Rust) that actually supports some of the security features (like memory protection and safe concurrency) that C lacks. This is not Pascal sour grapes. I’m studying Rust, even though I may never develop anything using it. Somehow, it just smells like the future.
  • Drinking wine with food (as I almost always do) may reduce your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. It’s not taken up in the article, but I have this weird hunch that sweet wines weren’t part of the study. Residual sugar is a real thing, and I’m drinking way less of it than I did 20 years ago.
  • People have been getting in fistfights over this for most of a century, but establishing Standard Time year-round may be better than year-round Daylight Savings Time. I’m mostly neutral on the issue. Arizona is on permanent DST and we like it fine. The problems really occur at high latitudes, where there isn’t much daylight in winter to begin with, so shifting it an hour in either direction doesn’t actually help much.
  • There is Macaroni and Cheese Ice Cream. From Kraft. Really. I wouldn’t lie to you. In fact, I doubt I would even imagine it, and I can imagine a lot.
  • Optimists live longer than pessimists–especially older optimists. Dodging enough slings and arrows of outrageous fortune somehow just makes the whole world look brighter, I guess.
  • Finally, some stats suggesting that our hyperpartisan hatefest online has pushed a lot of people out of political parties into the independent zone–where I’ve been most of my post-college life. 42% of Americans are political independents, compared to 29% who are Democrats and 27% who are Republicans. I’m on Twitter, but I don’t post meanness and (as much as possible) don’t read it. And if Mr. Musk has his way with them, I may be able to post links to ivermectin research without getting banned.

Odd Lots

  • Sandia Labs has invented a way to extract metals from coal ash, including rare-earth metals used in batteries and electronics. Furthermore, they do this using food-grade citric acid, which is relatively benign from an environmental standpoint. The treatment makes the coal ash residue much less toxic, and thus easier to dispose of.
  • It took a few seconds to decide if this listicle item was in fact satire, but it seems to be factually accurate, to the extent that facts are presented. Behold a stack rank of The Most Miserable Cities in America. Arizona has both ends covered: Bullhead City is the most miserable city in the state, but Scottsdale is said to be the happiest city, and Phoenix the city with the greatest job security. The Phoenix suburb of Gilbert has the lowest poverty rate, not just in Arizona but in the whole country.
  • A lot of misery is caused by debt. Here’s another stack rank of our 50 states (it’s a long piece; scroll down to find the full table) this time by debt per capita. Arizona is #42, which I consider pretty good. Wyoming is #50. My home state of Illinois is #4. and, as usual, the king in this wretched wreck of a castle is…skip the drumroll, please–New York.
  • Mary Pat Campbell operates a fascinating site called Actuarial News, which aggregates articles about economics, risk and statistics in many areas, including COVID. She’s an excellent aggregator, in that her capsule summaries save time for me by letting me decide quickly whether a piece is worth reading in full. Highly recommended.
  • Arizona has administered 8,197,928 doses of COVID vaccine as of today. 59% of the population is fully vaccinated, while 69.5% of eligible persons are fully vaccinated, including 88% of the over-65 cohort. Unfortunately, the state does not track breakthrough infections, which are a topic of great interest to me right now.
  • Every new Windows 10 machine I’ve bought in the last couple of years has pestered me to “get even more out of Windows” at boot time. You can’t kill the screen except to delay it by 3 days. Here’s how to kill it so it never comes up again. I’ve done this on three machines so far and it’s worked every time.
  • Antarctica just had its coldest winter on record . Average temp there went down to -61.1C, the coldest ever recorded. Russia’s Vostok station went down to -79C, (-110F) just one degree from the coldest temp ever recorded on Earth. Brrrr! As for fear of the Antarctic ice melting and killing us all, well…don’t sweat it.
  • From the No Shit, Sherlock department comes a revelation that full-fat dairy products do not increase heart disease risk. I’ve been following the high-fat/low-fat issue for 20 years, and this is not new knowledge. Of course, the knucklehead interviewed at the end said that non-tropical vegetable oils are even healthier than dairy fat. To the contrary.
  • A study performed by a Native American health service found that treating COVID-19 patients with monoclonal antibodies was very effective: Only 17% of infected patients treated in the study were later admitted to a hospital, and only 3% died.
  • Here’s another drug to watch for early-intervention COVID-19 treatment: fluvoxamine (Luvox) which is a well-understood SSRI antidepressant that also has anti-inflammatory properties. See this paper published in the journal Open Forum Infectious Diseases.
  • Merck has a new antiviral in testing with “phenomenal” success against SARS-COV-2 . It will cost $70/pill. Why is there a furious war being waged against ivermectin? It’s a well-understood and safe generic that costs $2/pill. Meanwhile, much of the health industry, including hospitals, clinics, pharmacists, and even doctors (who should know better) are standing around watching people die, even as evidence is piling up that ivermectin is effective against early COVID-19. Merck’s new drug may be a gamechanger, but the game is crooked as hell.

  • Since we’re talking about diseases, I’ll throw this in: Certainty is a disease. An interesting piece from Inc explains how certainty is a key element of the Dunning-Kruger effect. My own views go like this: Certainty and competence are inversely related. The more certain you are, the less competent you’re likely to be. Many years observing humanity suggests to me that the more you scream about how right you are, the more likely you are to be wrong.

Rant: If It’s Not Aliens…Then What Is It?

If you’re anywhere in the greater nerd universe, you’ve doubtless seen recent reports of Navy pilots spotting objects zipping around the sky and sometimes diving into the ocean. The Feds have declassified three videos of unidentified thimgamajigs doing their airborne calisthenics in the vicinity of US Navy fighter pilots.

So what is a reasonably sane person supposed to think about this?

UFOs as a phenomenon are not a new thing. It’s older than I am, and I’ll be 69 in a few weeks. Early on, the mythos crystallized around the theory that such objects are spacecraft (or aircraft) created by and piloted by intelligent beings from some other star system. There was (and still is) big money to be made on alien-based entertainment. Independence Day is one of my all-time favorite movies. The aliens myth (and I’m speaking in a Campbellian sense of the word “myth” here) is strong. I’m an SF writer. I should be a big aliens guy. I’m not.

I’m actually a Rare Earther. There are so many possible terms to the Drake Equation that I’m pretty sure we as a species are a vanishingly unlikely fluke. There are either hundreds of millions (or more) intelligent species in the universe, or there is only one. I reviewed an excellent book on Enrico Fermi’s question and its possible answers. It’s definitely worth reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the question since I read that book back in March. So what I’m going to do in this entry is list all the possible explanations for the Navy sightings that I can come up with, irrespective of their likelihood. Note well that I don’t “believe” in any of them. I offer them as hypotheses. And yes, some of them are batshit nuts. I’m an SFF writer. Batshit nuts is just one more thing we deal with every day.

Buckle up, kids.

Tonight’s question: What are those things the Navy pilots caught on film?

My hypotheses fall into three general categories:

  1. They really are made and piloted by aliens. I cite this for completeness only. I have reason to think it’s not the case, since I have a hunch we are alone in the universe. I won’t discuss this category further. It’s long since been discussed to death.
  2. They are made and piloted by Hungarians. (This is an inside joke. Look it up.) What I mean by it is that the objects were created right here on Earth, as a result of top-secret research into novel physics. (Ok, here’s a cheat.)
  3. They are the result of…weirdness. Patience. I’ll get there.

So. It’s possible that the objects are in fact aircraft of some sort, piloted or drones, created in somebody’s lab somewhere under truly deadly secrecy. Physics is not as complete and airtight as physicists would like the general public to believe. The big glitch in physics currently is dark matter and dark energy, about which I have some quibbles, but set those aside. Darkstuff (my coinage) may be a telltale of novel physics, novel enough to give us “thrusters,” that is, engines that don’t depend on action/reaction; e.g., throwing stuff backwards.

If that’s the case, the apparitions may simply be a show of force by whoever developed the thrusters. Let’s hope those developers are American.

That’s the entirety of Category 2 in a nutshell.

So let’s take a look at Category 3. This is the fun stuff. I’ll give you another list, of explanations that seem absurd on the surface…keeping in mind that we as a species have been wrong before, and we will doubtless be wrong again.

1. They are aircraft from Earth’s own future, piloted by human beings who have figured out time travel. I like this one, as there is a whole series of novels buried in the premise. (Somebody may have already written them.) As I understand the physics, time travel, while difficult, is more possible than faster-than-light travel. It may require some of that darkstuff to make it work, but however it works, those Tic-Tac travelers could be somebody from a few hundred thousand years in our future. What they’re up to is unclear. Maybe they’re just testing their machinery. Maybe they’ll announce themselves eventually. Maybe they’re trying to stop us from making some really bad mistakes. (If so, they should have set their meters to 1900 and prevented us from creating Communism, which killed 100,000,000 people in the 20th century and is still killing them.)

2. They are glitches in the simulation that we here on Earth call The Universe. Glitches–or beta tests of new features. Maybe bugs–rounding errors, or off-by-one errors. Reality-as-software is a scary notion to anybody who’s done any significant programming. Supposedly we could determine if we are in fact existing in a simulation, but I’m skeptical of that claim.

3. They are evolved but not intelligent organisms, originating in our solar system if not necessarily on Earth. (This is a variation on Category 1, but I put it here because it’s way weirder than canonical big-eyed Aliens.) If exotic physics yielding thrusters are possible, they could emerge via evolution from conditions that could be radically different from what we have on Earth. Who knows what could cook itself up in the atmospheres of Jupiter or Saturn? What I mean here is something like an animal, not self-reflective, but posessed of the means to cross interplanetary distances. Maybe they thrusted their way here, zipped around for awhile sampling the local environment, and finally decided it’s not fun and went home. It’s humbling to admit that they may not have noticed our presence at all while they were here.

4. They are poltergeist activity. (Hey, don’t zone out. I warned you!) This is tough to describe, but it’s a scruffy box into which we could place all sorts of “paranormal” phenomena–some of which look suspiciously like reactionless motion. Telekinesis, psi powers, all that stuff. A friend of mine was confronting poltergeist activity fifteen-odd years ago, and Colin Wilson has written about it extensively. Objects fly around the room, appear and disappear, with no known force behind any of it. Peculiar mental powers seem to exist. I’ve experienced a couple of those things that I still can’t explain. But they happened. (I can’t go into any of it here.) Maybe our UFOs are just astral travelers, out for a ride without having any suspicion that they can be seen or perhaps any clear notion of where they are.

5. They are irruptions from the collective unconscious. Some might choose to toss this in the poltergeist box as well, at least those who think poltergeists are irruptions from the collective unconscious. I don’t. I’ve read extensively about Marian apparitions like Lourdes, Fatima, Zeitoun, and many others. There is something called the White Lady archetype in Jungian thinking. Humans have a thing for luminous women popping up in odd places. (The white is their overall color, not their skin color–I have to say that in this race-nutso era.) Christianity shaped that archetype into the Mother of God in Christian visions. However, white ladies were originally a pagan archetype and are still being seen all over the place in contexts without any religious framework at all. Seeing odd things moving around in the sky is also an archetype. It gained strength in the first half of the 20th Century as popular culture embraced predictions of space travel and people from other worlds. In 1947, assisted by movies and TV, the archetype got legs. Note that these aren’t purely mental glitches in the minds of the Navy pilots. These are disturbances in the physical world that generate/reflect light and can be photographed.

6. They are intrusions from higher spatial dimensions. Now, this hypothesis could also be tossed in that scruffy box with the poltergeists, but I mean it in a more rigorously geometrical way: If there are in fact more than three spatial dimensions (I’ve heard people talk about as many as nine) then suppose some four-dimensional being is poking at our planet with a stick. Imagine Flatland here, with a 3-D being poking at the surface of the plane or sphere or whatever 2-D surface you like. Moving that stick will appear to the denizens of Flatland as a cross-section of the stick moving around without any apparent cause. The cross-section of a four-dimensional stick would be a three-dimensional lump. Its motive power would be off in hyperspace where we can’t see it. All we would see are the cross-sections of 4-D objects moving around like crazy, unimpeded by Newton’s laws. Why? Who knows? Maybe it’s the hyperspatial equivalent of skipping stones on a quiet lake, done simply for fun. Again, it’s possible that whatever entity is holding the stick has no knowledge of us at all.

That’s what I have so far. If I had to choose one to hold as most likely (and I don’t) I would choose an application of novel physics by human scientists and engineers right down here on Earth. Secrets of that sort are very hard to keep, and I wonder if the leaks have begun, and the Feds are feeling their way toward eventual disclosure of the technology. It would be perhaps the most wonderful “unsettled science” ever discovered, as it would open the solar system to human exploration and habitation.

Remember that this is a rant, and I have my SFF writer’s hat on. I embrace Haldane’s Law: The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine–and I can imagine a lot.

The Numbers Game

COVID-19 is a numbers game. Trouble is, we don’t know what any of the numbers are. Yes, we can tote up test positives and deaths, but that tells us surprisingly little about the things that matter in this case: How contagious is the virus? How many people are infected but don’t know it? How many people had it but thought they had the flu? All of that matters.

None of it is known.

We’ll learn more as new tests are devised, particularly for antibodies. Knowing how many people have caught the virus but threw it off would put a number of things into perspective, especially the critical issue: How close are we to herd immunity? That’s the most important known unknown in a big greasy sack of mixed unknowns.

In the meantime, people worry. I’m one of them. I’ve read others online. The worried ones tend to be older folks. And yeek! It was a little disorienting to internalize that I’m an older folk. I’ll be 68 in two months. I don’t care if 60 is the new 40. We have decent stats on whom the virus is taking out. And that curve heads for the sky at age 60.

As an aside, there’s the complicating factor in that anybody who dies with the virus in their system tends to be counted as a COVID-19 fatality, even if they had heart disease or stage 4 cancer. Sometimes the corpses aren’t even tested for coronavirus. If it looks like the virus, coughs like the virus, or kills like the virus, then…they write COVID-19 on the death certificate. That may be unavoidable in some cases, but it certainly does not help in our current numbers game.

This may all seem obvious, but I’m not done yet. The country has to open up soon. People are burning through their savings trying to keep the lights on and food on the table. (Alas, the people who are keeping us under house arrest never miss any paychecks.) Businesses are failing. My local art supplies store has closed forever. A lot of restaurants are not going to make it. Smithfield closed its ginormous pork-packing plant in Sioux Falls, SD, and the firm is supposedly working with the CDC to determine how and when the plant will reopen. Too much of that and we’ll have food shortages.

We’re not there yet. My local groceries have fresh meat again, at least. My hunch is that the hoarders have already filled their chest freezers, at least those hoarders who can find their chest freezers behind the mountains of toilet paper piled up in their basements.

I recognize that there will be a cost in letting people go back to work, particularly in monster cities like New York and Chicago where getting around is mostly done on jam-packed buses and subway/commuter trains. More people will be infected. Additional people will die. Those numbers can’t be known yet. (Computer models riddled with unknown parameters are utterly worthless.) Being my ever-hopeful self, it looks like the numbers won’t be nearly as bad as early models suggested. The big upside is rarely mentioned: Herd immunity happens because people catch the virus, develop antibodies, and throw off the virus. Some of that has happened already. It’s happening. More needs to.

We’re a ways off from a vaccine, though one will happen. In the meantime, we need to consider any drug or drug combo that shows promise through clinical experience. The media seems…peculiarly…opposed to hydroxychloroquine plus zinc and an antibiotic. Still, observational studies are being ramped up as quickly as possible, and early clinical experience looks good. If I suddenly got hit hard, I would ask for that first. When you’re looking death in the eye, you may not be as insistent on bureaucratic niceties.

People like me will probably have to stay home for awhile longer than those younger and not yet retired. I’m willing to do that…to a degree. Carol and I walk in local parks. If we need something at a store, we mask up and go. How effective are the masks? Nobody knows. But it’s worse than that. No matter how much you wear your mask, a virus or seventeen may land in one of your eyes. The mask reduces the likelihood of catching it. But it never reduces the likelihood to zero. The same goes for cleaning surfaces, which is harder now because the hoarders have snapped up all the cleaning supplies. Miss something with that soapy rag (you’d use alcohol if you could find some) and you could pick up the virus. Less likely, but possible. No matter what measures you might take, your chances of catching COVID-19 will never go to zero. And your chances of dying will never go to zero. We do not and cannot and will never know. Carol and I have had our family trust and wills together for awhile. We take whatever protective measures we can. That’s about the best we (or anybody) can do.

Irrepressibly perky gonzo optimist that I am, I do see something to be optimistic about: Evolution is a thing, and it works. Viruses that immobilize/kill their hosts quickly eventually lose out to related strains that infect and cause fewer and less severe symptoms. Over time, newly discovered viruses mutate toward more innocuous forms. It worked that way with HIV. It will work that way with our current coronavirus. It’s already working that way, even if we can’t measure it. How long will it take? No one knows. Get over it.

It comes down to this: Whether you like to gamble or not, you’re damned well gambling, and you will never know the odds. Come May 1, if we don’t begin opening up our economy, the virus could well become the least of our worries. Those odds are greater than zero. Greater, in fact, than you may think.

Friday Night Locust Report

Carol was running out of cottage cheese, which she eats every day for breakfast. We shopped last weekend and forgot to get it, so I cruised up 64th Street to Greenway, where there are two supermarkets: Fry’s (the local Kroger chain) and Safeway. We were also out of milk, and since we still have half a box of corn flakes I figured I’d get a half gallon, which would see the corn flakes through to their final destination. We generally shop at Fry’s to get their gas points, with Safeway as a (rarely used) backup. (For certain things we go to Costco, if not as often.)

Well. Fry’s was a madhouse. I had to bring a cart with me from the parking lot. The store was busy when we were there a week or so ago. Now it was insane. I went to the back of the store to the dairy case, dodging frantic suburbanites with carts piled high with sodas, bagged rice, canned goods, crackers and chips, booze, and Kleenex. Nobody had any toilet paper in their carts, because there was no toilet paper in the store. There were a few packages of paper towels. No bleach. And (oddly) no vinegar.

There was no real milk. There was 1% and skim, which I don’t consider real milk. And there was almond and soy milk in abundance, but that is really not milk. There was no Daisy cottage cheese. So I picked up a bottle of the sugar-free creamer that we like, plus a pint of the expensive organic cream, with which we dilute the sweetness of the creamer.

The produce department was pretty bare. No fruit. Some potatoes and onions, plus plenty of certain vegetables that I’m not sure people ever actually eat, like squash.

I did not look for hand sanitizer. We have plenty of hand soap, and hand soap, being an emulsifier, is a better antiviral than alcohol.

There was plenty of meat, but our supply is still reasonable, and the last thing I want to be seen as is a hoarder. I needn’t have worried; I was surrounded by hoarders. The line for the do-it-yourself checkouts was long, but the lines for the real cashiers were considerably longer, I think because the carts were all piled eyeball-high with what their purchasers doubtless considered survival goods.

I still wanted milk. So after checking out at Fry’s, I went across 64th to the Safeway. Safeway is usually pretty quiet; so quiet that I’ve sometimes wondered why the store is still there. This time, it was–you guessed it–a madhouse. Same deal: Shoppers with carts up to here, the paper products aisle bare, most of the produce gone, and although there were some eggs, most of the cartons had been badly handled and had one or more broken eggs in them. However, they still had the fancy organic whole milk for $5.79 a half gallon. The cheap milk was gone. Surprisingly, they had at least the small cartons of Daisy full-fat cottage cheese. I grabbed one. I was tempted to grab two, but there were only four or five left, and I’ll be damned if I’ll be a hoarder. There are plenty of actors in this production of The Tragedy of the Commons. I refuse to be one of them.

So I came home with cottage cheese, milk, cream, and creamer. Four items. Now, Carol and I don’t eat much, and the fridge is reasonably full. I’ll probably visit Fry’s again this coming Thursday, and get some ham steaks if the locusts haven’t cleaned them out. We’re OK with toilet paper for awhile, because we get it in quantity at Costco, and picked up a big package about two weeks ago before this whole business blew up.

Which leads directly to the question: How long will this go on? The answer is pretty simple: It will go on as long as our wretched media continue to incite panic. Panic sells clicks. Panic turns ordinary Americans into hoarders. In other words, panic pays.

We don’t know the mortality rate of coronavirus. We can’t know it, because we don’t know how many people have it. Dividing deaths by confirmed cases may yield a worst-case percentage, but until we test almost everyone (which won’t happen) nobody will know the true mortality rate. Three quarters of the deaths in the US are from a single nursing home in Washington State. Fatalities are mostly people over 70, and among those largely over 80. Now, at 67 I’m edging into that demographic, but I’m a lifetime nonsmoker with no pulmonary issues and a strong exercise regimen. Carol and I are washing our hands a lot, and avoiding crowded places. There’s not a great deal more we can do.

What we will not do is panic. Nor will we hoard. Nor (I think) will we ever watch or read mainstream media news again. I’m smart enough to know when I’m being played for a…locust. Not gonna happen.

Rant: The War That Nobody Dares Explain

HarryDuntemannArmy1917-adjusted-500 wide.jpg

Armistice Day. I call it that in this entry because 100 years ago today, The Great War (now called World War I) ended. We’ve broadened the holiday to all those who have served in war on our behalf, but until 1954, the day was named after the armistice that ended WWI.

My grandfather Harry Duntemann served in The Great War. (See the photo above, from 1917, location unknown. He was 25.) I never got to talk to him about it because he died when I was four, or I would have asked him what caused the War. I’m not entirely sure he could have told me. Degreed historians have been unable to tell me. I’ve read a pile of books about it, but as close as I’ve come to an answer is simply that Europe’s leaders were about ready for a war, and when the assassination of a second-shelf political figure provided them with an excuse, they went for it. Four years and sixteen million deaths later, the armistice was signed, Europe was rearranged, Germany thoroughly humiliated, and all the pieces put in place for an even greater war a generation later.

Bad idea, top to bottom.

Here’s my theory, which I offer as speculation based on a view from a height: WWI was a pissy argument among Europe’s ruling elite, made deadly by industrialization and technologies that hadn’t been dreamed of during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Certain members of this insufferable boys’ club took offense at other members’ reaction to crackpot Princip’s terrorist attack, leading to others taking offense at their offense, leading to a wholesale loss of face among the elites, who threw the inevitable tantrum and leveled half of Europe in the process. They’re still digging up live ordnance in places a century later. Lots of it. Sometimes it explodes. In terms of casualties, WWI has never really ended.

The common element here? Inbred ruling classes who cannot conceive of being wrong about anything. In 1914, they were elite by virtue of aristocratic birth, or sometimes having risen through the local equivalent of civil service. That era was the transition from “the King can do no wrong” to “the government can do no wrong,” which was perhaps a step in the right direction, but…

…we still have ruling classes, and they are dangerous. Graduate from an Ivy and you’re set for life. Along with the diploma you’re given the impression that you’re just…better…than people who go to state schools, or who eschew college altogether. This leads to a pathological inability to doubt your own view of the universe, and in most cases, your own expertise. Given too much power, such people can, have, and will continue to destroy entire nations.

Self-doubt is an essential personality trait. I consider it the single most reliable indicator of people who are high in both rational and emotional intelligence. A modest amount of self-doubt among Europe’s elites could have stopped WWI. Stopping WWI, furthermore, might well have stopped WWII.

I don’t honestly know what one can do about ruling classes. Not supporting political parties would be a good first step, because political parties are mechanisms that make the elites rich and keep them in power. But you know how likely that is. Redistribuing power (not wealth) would be another good step. Again, this would mean broadening access to the Ivies (ideally by some sort of entrance lottery) and limiting the powers of government far beyond the degree to which government would allow itself to be limited. (I have a good political novel on the subject in my notes that I won’t write, because political novels are depressing.)

And even that might not work. Once again, we run up against the primal emotion of tribalism, from which most of our current troubles emerge. That’s a separate topic, but not an unrelated one.

My advice? 1. Shun the ruling classes. You’ll never be one of them (no matter how much you think you deserve to be) and fostering ordinary people’s desire to be among the elites is how the elites keep ordinary people under their control. 2. Limit government power at every opportunity. The less power our elites have, the less damage they can do. 3. Read history. Granted, I read a lot of history about WWI and still doubt whatever understanding I thought I gleaned from those books…

…but let me tell you, I understand the Jacobin mindset completely.

/rant

Odd Lots

Scary Mary and the Bicameral Mind

Well, the bookshelves got themseves full, and I still had three boxes to empty. So once again (I don’t know how many times I’ve done this!) I emptied piles of books onto the floor and flipped through them, in part for charge slips used as bookmarks, and in part to decide what books just had to go. Found a lot of charge slips, business cards, promo bookmarks, and other odd (flat) things tucked between the pages, including a small piece of brass shim stock. I built a pile of discards that turned out to be bigger than I expected.

One thing that went were my Scary Mary books.

Twenty years ago, I was very interested in Marian apparitions, and did some significant research. There’s a lot more to Marian apparitions than Fatima and Lourdes. The Roman Catholic Church approves only a tiny handful of apparitions. The rest don’t get a lot of press, and for good reason: The bulk of them are batshit nuts. The reason I was so interested is pretty simple: Perhaps the most deranged of all Marian phenomena occurred in Necedah, the tiny Wisconsin town where my mother grew up. Although she moved from Wisconsin to Chicago after WWII, she used to go to a shrine in Necedah (not far from Mauston and the Wisconsin Dells) light candles, and pray. She bought the full set of books detailing the Blessed Mother’s conversations with a woman named Mary Ann Van Hoof that began in 1950. As best I know she never read them. (My mother wasn’t a voracious reader like my father.) That’s a good thing. There was enough heartbreak in her life without her having to face the fact that Mary Ann was obviously insane and increasingly under the influence of a very shady John Bircher type named Henry Swan. From standard exhortations to pray the rosary and live a moral, Christ-centered life, the messages became ever more reactionary and eventually hateful. Some were innocuously crazy; Mary Ann dutifully reported the Blessed Mother’s warnings against miniature Soviet submarines sneaking up the St. Lawrence river. But many of her later messages described a worldwide conspiracy of Jews (whom she called “yids”) rooted in the United Nations and the Baha’i Temple in Chicago. Oh, and the Russians were planning all sorts of attacks, most of them sneaky things like poisoning food, water, and farm animals.

The local Roman Catholic bishop condemned the apparitions in 1955, and soon after issued interdicts against Mary Ann and her followers. Still, Mary Ann stayed the course, and continued writing down Mary’s messages (with plenty of help from Henry Swan) until her death in 1984.

The first thing I learned about Marian apparitions is that the Lady gets around: There have been lots and lots of them, most occurring in the midlate 20th Century. This is the best list of apparitions I’ve found. (There was even one here in Scottsdale in 1988.) For every apparition approved by the Church as acceptable private revelation, there are probably fifty either ignored, or (as in Necedah) actively condemned. The second thing I learned is that they’re almost always warnings of dire things to come if we don’t straighten up our acts. The third thing I learned is that the craziness was not limited to Necedah, though Henry Swan did his best to make it a cultural trope. The late and lamented (but still visible) suck.com did a wry article on the topic in 2001, highlighting the Blessed Mother’s ongoing battle against communism. The apocalyticism got utterly over-the-top at some point, with warnings against “three days of darkness” during which devils would be released from hell to scratch at our doors in an effort to steal our souls.

At that point, I figured I knew all that I cared to know, and the Scary Mary books went back on the shelves, where they remained, mostly untouched, until we packed our Colorado Springs house in 2015.

So what’s going on here? There’s a very good book on the subject by an objective outsider: Encountering Mary by Sandra L. Zimdars-Swartz . Most of her discussion centers on approved apparitions, but she does touch on the crazy stuff, including Necedah. She takes a sociological approach, is very careful not to be judgemental, and never implies that we might be dealing with psychopathology here, even in the crazy phenomena like Necedah.

I won’t be as courteous. I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with the mechanisms of charismatic religion here, which can be fine until a certain line is crossed. I have a theory about the crazy ones that as best I know is original to me: Visionaries like poor Mary Ann Van Hoof are indeed high-functioning schizophrenics, but more than that, are relics of an age described by Julian Jaynes back in the 1970s as the age of the “bicameral mind.” Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousnes in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is a slog but still worth reading.

It’s complicated (what isn’t?) but Jaynes’ theory is that until around 3000 BC, human minds worked differently than they do today. The left brain was somewhat of a robot, with little or no sense of itself, and the right brain was where everything important happened. The right brain gave the left brain orders that took the form of voices heard in the left brain’s speech centers. Primitive humans first thought of the voices as those of their deceased relatives, and later as disembodied gods. In a sense, Jaynes is claiming that humans evolved as schizophrenics with a much thinner wall between the two hemispheres of the brain. At some point, the left brain became capable of introspection, allowing it to take the initiative on issues relating to survival, and the wall between the hemispheres became a lot less permeable. According to Jaynes, ego trumped schiophrenia in the survival olympics, and the bicameral mind was quickly bred out of the human creature.

I won’t summarize his arguments, which I don’t entirely accept. I’m looking at it as a potential gimmick in my fiction, which is the primary reason I read in the category I call “weirdness.” However, the similarity of Jaynes’ bicameral mind concept and what happens in many ecstatic visions (in Christianity and other religions) struck me. We still have schizophrenics among us, and we may have individuals where schizophrenia lurks just beneath the surface, waiting for a high-stress event to crack a hole in the hemispheric barrier and let the voices come through again. The key is that Marian apparitions are almost always crisis-oriented. Mary never just drops in to say “Hi guys, what’s going on?” In a Marian context, the crises are almost always moral and sometimes ritual, warning against the consequences of abandoning traditional beliefs and/or sacramental worship. The occasional gonzo apparitions (like Necedah and another at Bayside, NY) plunge headfirst into reactionary secular politics as well. A threat to the visionary’s deepest beliefs can trigger apocalyptic warnings through voices that the visionary interprets as Mary, Jesus, or some other holy person.

Whether all or even the greater part of Jaynes’ theory is correct, it’s pretty likely that there are mechanisms in the brain that we have evolved away from, and these “voices of the gods” may be one of them. The right brain is a powerful engine, and it doesn’t have much in the line of communication channels to the left hemisphere right now. Writing can be one of them. I’m what they call a “pantser” on the fiction side. In fact, I’m a “gateway writer,” meaning that I write whole complicated scenes without a single bit of planning aforethought. I don’t outline my novels. I vomit them onto disk, jumbled in spots but mostly whole. How does that even work?

And what else could we do if we could crack that valve a little wider?

My gut (which is in fact my right brain) whispers, “Nothing good. The left brain evolved to protect the right brain from itself. Evolution knew what it was doing. Not all of those voices were gods.”

Was 2016 Really That Deadly?

John Glenn. Carrie Fisher. Debbie Reynolds. Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gene Wilder. Lots, lots more. OMG! Worst year evah!

I wonder. And because I wonder, I doubt it.

It’s certainly true that a lot of famous people died in 2016. However, we didn’t have any plagues or natural disasters that would raise the death rate significantly, so we have to assume that these deaths are unrelated to one another, and that we can’t finger any single cause or groups of causes. First, some short notes on mortality itself:

  • Plenty of ordinary people died too. We had one death in our extended family. Several of my friends lost parents this year. A quick look back shows such deaths happening every three or four years. There was a peak circa 2000-2010 when extended family in the Greatest Generation were dying. Those individuals were in their 80s, mostly, which is when a great many people die.
  • There are a lot of Baby Boomers, and Baby Boomers are hitting a knee in the mortality curve. The oldest Boomers are crossing 70 now, and the curve goes up sharply after that.
  • Basically, there are lots more old people now than in the past, and old people die more frequently.

All that is pretty obvious, and I list it here as a reminder. Humanity is aging. That’s not a bad thing, if living longer is better than dying young. In truth, I thought Zsa Zsa Gabor died years if not decades ago. She lived to 99, so she stood out in my mind, as does anyone who lives well into their 90s.

Which brings us to the issue of fame. There are different kinds of fame. Three types come to mind:

  • Horizontal fame falls to people who are very famous and generally known to the population at large.
  • Vertical fame falls to people who are well-known within narrower populations.
  • Age cohort fame is vertical fame along a time axis: It falls to people who are generally known but by people in a narrower age cohort, like Boomers or Millennials.

John Glenn had horizontal fame. Zsa Zsa Gabor had age-cohort fame: She had been out of the public eye for quite some time, so while Boomers mostly knew who she was, I’ll bet plenty of Millennials did not. Vertical fame is interesting, and I have a very good example: David Bunnell was a tech journalist, so as a tech journalist I knew him (personally, in fact, if not well) and know that he was well-known in tech journalism and very much missed. The fact that another well-known and much-loved tech journalist, Bill Machrone, died only two weeks later, gave us the impression that tech journalism had a target on its forehead this year. The fact that both men were 69 at the times of their deaths just made the whole thing stand out as “weird” and memorable in a grim way.

Most people have a passion (or several) not shared by all others. We can’t pay attention to everything, but all of us have a few things we pay attention to very closely. I’m not a medical person, so when Donald Henderson (the man who wiped out smallpox) died, I had to look him up. Those in science and healthcare probably recognized his name more quickly than people who focus on music or NASCAR. The point here is that almost everyone falls into some vertical interest bracket, and notices when a person famous within their bracket (but otherwise obscure) dies. This multiplies the perception of many famous people dying in any given year.

The proliferation of vertical brackets contributes to another fame issue: We are making more famous people every year. Vertical brackets are only part of it. With a larger population, there is more attention to be focused on the famous among us, allowing more people to cross the admittedly fuzzy boundary between obscurity and fame.

The key here is mass media, which creates fame and to some extent dictates who gets it. The mainstream media may be suffering but it’s still potent, and the more cable channels there are, the more broadly fame can be distributed. I doubt we’re producing as many movies as we used to, but the movies that happen are seen and discussed very broadly. I confess I don’t understand the cult of celebrity and find it distasteful. Still, celebrity and gossip are baked into our genes. (This is related to tribalism, which I’ll return to at some point. I’m starting to run long today and need to focus.)

Over the past ten years, of course, social media has appeared, and allows news to travel fast, even news catering to a relatively narrow audience. Social media amplifies the impact of celebrity deaths. I doubt I would have known that Zsa Zsa had died if I hadn’t seen somebody’s Twitter post. I didn’t much care, but I saw it.

There is another issue that many people may not appreciate: More people were paying attention to news generally in 2016. Why? The election. The profound weirdness and boggling viciousness of this year’s races had a great many people spending a lot more time online or in front of the TV, trying to figure out what the hell was actually happening, and why. I think this made the celebrity deaths that did happen a lot more visible than they might have been in a non-election year.

Finally, averages are average. There are always peaks and troughs. In fact, a year in which celebrity death rates were simply average would be slightly anomalous in itself, though no one but statisticians would likely notice. I’m guessing that we had a peak year this year. Next year might be kinder to celebrities. We won’t know until we get there.

To sum up: This past year, for various reasons, more people were paying attention, and there were more ways to pay attention. These trend lines will continue to rise, and I have a sneaking suspicion that next year may also be seen as deadly, as will the year after that, until the curves flatten out and we enter into some sort of new normal.

Grim, sure, but not mysterious. There may well be reasons to consider 2016 a terrible year, but thinking rationally, the number of celebrity deaths is not among them.

Anger Kills

Anger literally killed my grandfather. I mean literally literally here, not figuratively: My grandfather Harry G. Duntemann got furiously angry, and he died. This is one reason I’ve tried all my life to be good-natured and upbeat, and not let piddly shit (a wonderful term I learned from my father) get me worked up. This worked better some times than others. (Once it almost didn’t work at all. I’ll get to that.) Practice does help. However, in the wake of the election, a lot of people whose friendship I value are making themselves violently angry over something that may be unfortunate but can’t be changed. This is a bad idea. It could kill you.

Consider Harry Duntemann 1892-1956. He was a banker, fastidious and careful, with a tidy bungalow on Chicago’s North Side, a wife he loved, and two kids. One was a model child. The other was my father. Both he and his son were veterans of the World Wars, which is one reason I mention them today. My grandfather, in fact, won a medal for capturing two German soldiers in France all by himself, by faking the sounds of several men on patrol and demanding that they come out with their hands up. They did. He played them good and proper, and nobody got hurt.

He had an anger problem. Things bothered him when they didn’t go his way. Family legend (which I’ve mentioned here before) holds that my father comprised most of the things that didn’t go his way. His anger isn’t completely inexplicable. Harry worked in a bank, and was for a time the chief teller at the First National Bank of Chicago. You don’t get to do jobs like that if you’re sloppy, and if you spot errors, you track them down like rats and kill them.

Harry was the sort of man who really shouldn’t retire, but retire he did, at age 62. He bought a lot in tony Sauganash and had a fancy new house built. I honestly don’t know what he did with his time. He golfed, and taught me how to do simple things with tools when I was barely four. He worked in his garden and his vegetable patch. My guess: He was bored, and what might not have bothered him when he oversaw the teller line at Chicago’s biggest bank now preyed on his mostly idle mind.

One day in August 1956 a couple of neighborhood punks vandalized his almost-new garage, and he caugfht them in the act. He yelled at them, and they mocked him. He yelled more. They mocked more. Finally he just turned around, marched into his house, sat down in his big easy chair…

…and died.

He was healthy, a lifetime nonsmoker, trim, not diabetic, and not much of a drinker. I suspect he was more active in retirement than he had been during his working life. He had no history of heart disease. He had no history of anything. Anything, that is, but anger.

I ignited a smallish firestorm on Facebook yesterday when I exhorted people who were angry over the election to just let it go. Most of them seemed to think that “letting it go” meant “accepting it” or even condoning it. Maybe in some circles it does. I don’t know. To me it means something else entirely, something that may well have saved my life.

As my long-time readers know, I lost my publishing company in 2002. It didn’t die a natural death. I can’t tell you more than that for various reasons, but Keith and I didn’t see it coming, and it hit us hard. I put on a brave face and did my best. Once I was home all day, though, it just ate at me. I was soon unable to sleep, to the point that I was beginning to hallucinate. To say I was angry doesn’t capture it. Depression is anger turned inward, and I became depressed.

I had a lot of conversations with Bishop Elijah of the Old Catholic Church of San Francisco. He was getting worried about me, and in late 2002 he Fedexed me a little stock of consecrated oil, and told me quite sternly to anoint myself. I did. (After I did, I laughed. Would Jesus haved used FedX? Of course He would. Jesus used what He had on hand to do the job He had to do. Catholicism is sacramental, but also practical.) Elijah diagnosed me pretty accurately when he said: You’re hoping for a better yesterday. You won’t get it. Let it go.

It took awhile. It took longer, in fact, than Bishop Elijah had left on this Earth, and I struggled with it for years after he died in 2005. The company wasn’t piddly shit. It was the finest thing I had ever done. How could I let it go?

I thought of my grandfather Harry every so often. And eventually it hit me: Those little snots didn’t kill him, as I had thought all my life. They played him, and he killed himself with his own anger. “Letting it go” cooked down to protecting myself from myself. I’ll never get my company back, but I can now see it from enough of a height to keep my emotional mind from dominating the memory. I learned a lot as a publisher. I made friends, and money, and reputation. I supervised the creation of a lot of damned fine books, and won awards. Losing it was bad, but life around me was good. (Carol especially.) I could choose to obsess, and probably die before my time, or I could recognize the damage my anger could do and turn the other way. I’m not sure how better to describe it. It was a deliberate shift of emotional attention from my loss to new challenges.

This isn’t just a theory of mine. Anger kills by keeping the body awash in cortisol, which causes inflammation of the arteries. The inflammation causes loose lipids to collect in arterial plaques, which eventually block an artery and cause an infarction. Plug the wrong artery at the wrong time, and you’re over.

Anger is a swindle. It doesn’t matter if it’s “righteous anger,” whateverthehell that is. Anger promises the vindication of frustration and disappointment, and delivers misery and early death. When I’ve seen people online turning bright purple with fury the last couple of days, that’s what I see: Good people being played by the desire for a better yesterday. It won’t kill most of them. It may well kill a few. It will lose them friends. It will make other people avoid them. It may prompt them to eat and drink too much. It is basically making them miserable, to no benefit whatsoever.

When I say “let it go” these days, I mean what I said above: Protect yourself from yourself. Call a truce between the two warring hemispheres of your brain. Turn to something else, something you can change, something that may earn out the effort you put into it with knowledge, skill, and accomplishment.

Believe me on this one: There is no better yesterday. Don’t go down that road.

You may never come back.