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Through eyes of madness

To be sane is to think and act in accordance with consensus reality.

But there’s very little consensus and an awful lot of reality.

Empty blah

“There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”A.J. Muste

It seems the world’s most powerful nuclear armed nations have pledged to ‘avoid’ nuclear war. That’s reassuring. But I’d be a bit more reassured if they hadn’t spent the last half century refusing to follow the leads of China and India and pledge ‘no first use‘ of nuclear weapons.

What the US, UK, Russia and France have just said is “We promise to avoid nuclear war but we don’t promise not to start one”.

While nuclear weapons still exist any pledge to avoid using them is empty anyway. If they break their promises there will be no-one to hold them to account.

Twisting the tales of the blind

Has Ishiguro spoiled it for me?

I’ve always loved the stories of unreliable narrators. Those who tell you what they cannot tell themselves.

Gregor Samsa, who would rather be a bug than a resentful human doomed to an inhuman existence. Humbert Humbert concealing his predatory cruelty in a fog of helpless romanticism. Pi Patel hiding his trauma and loss in a child’s adventure with animals. Patrick Bateman numbing himself to the psychopathy of neoliberal consumerism with lurid fantasies of slaughter.

But the master of telling stories by not telling them is Kazuo Ishiguro.

By scrupulously circumlocuting their own stories Ishiguro’s narrators slowly construct truth in the negative space of the reader’s subconscious. Then the fateful metaphor. Windblown plastic trash snagged in the branches of a lonely tree. Unbidden tears bursting from a stoical face. The hidden story was never the extraordinary life of an unlikely character, but the human condition. As with the uninked skin of Bradbury’s Illustrated Man, the emptiness in the picture is a mirror. The tragedy is ours.

Has reading Ishiguro forever spoiled my enjoyment of unreliable narration?
Has his brilliance paled all others into insignificance?

In We Were Liars Emily Lockhardt uses the unreliable narration of an amnesiac teenager to hide what is clearly meant to be a shocking plot twist at the end. Lockhardt’s sparse, carefully crafted sentences make the novel much easier to read than the pompous verbosity of The Remains of the Day. The cliche of the tragic adolescent romance set within the confines of a wealthy, dysfunctional family is no more banal than the science fiction themed ‘Bunty’s School Days’ of Never Let Me Go. But rather than the shock of self-recognition at the end of Ishiguro’s novels the reader is alienated from the narrator as We Were Liars reveals itself as a heavy-handed morality tale.

We know from the start Cadence is an unreliable narrator struggling with post-traumatic amnesia, but Lockhardt tries to veil the twist by making her even more unreliable and her family even more perverse than we previously suspected. However, as the shadows in her past are slowly dispelled the structure of the plot signals the final reveal by leaving few possible options for the inevitable climax. With only the darkest shadow remaining there is only one event dark enough to be lurking there. At least it isn’t quite as cliched as discovering the tragic romantic heroine is a ghost, despite the false clue Lockhardt leaves in a reference to Wuthering Heights.

There’s insight in Lockhardt’s observation that self-righteous virtue can be a projection of unacknowledged guilt, but by driving it home with a sledgehammer in the epilogue she almost blames Cadence for her own suffering, turning We Were Liars into a story of retribution without redemption. If We Were Liars had ended at its final plot twist it would have been a better story; one that shows its moral rather than telling it.

It’s unfair to compare Emily Lockhardt’s young adult fiction with the genius of a Nobel prizewinner, but Ishiguro’s writing and my own perfectionism have left me little choice.
Will unreliable narratives be forever overshadowed by the work of the master?
Perhaps I could do with a touch of amnesia myself.

In time

Lately I’ve been thinking about determinism and free will. In particular I’ve been thinking about this essay by Alan Watts in which he offers an alternative to the idea the present and future are causally determined by the past.

Watts offers an analogy whereby a scientist is sitting in his garden looking through a gap in the fence at the block next door. There’s a snake living there which regularly passes the gap. He sees its head, followed by its body and finally its tail. Then he sees it again. And again.

Being a fan of inductive logic he develops an hypothesis to explain his observations. As he always sees the head, followed by the body, then the tail, he concludes the head causes the body which in turn causes the tail. He tests his hypothesis with further observations and eventually considers it proved.

We can see his mistake. The snake’s body and tail don’t causally follow its head. But they do logically follow it. Snakes don’t slither backwards.

That’s the difference between causal determinism and logical determinism. It’s possible for one thing to follow the other by necessity without the former causing the latter.

But that’s just pedantry, right? There’s no real difference between the two.

Actually there is. Causal determinism doesn’t admit the possibility of free will. If the entire history of the universe is determined by unbreakable chains of cause and effect you can’t really choose one way or another. Your choices are bound by the laws governing causality. You only think you have free will (because you have no choice but to think that).

Logical determinism however allows the possibility of free will, even though you can’t freely choose anything other than that which you must choose by necessity. So how can it be free? Let me explain with this story.

Peter receives word that his father, an amateur experimental physicist, has died and left him everything. That includes the family home, all his father’s meticulously kept diaries, notes and records and a half-finished project on a desk in the laboratory. It also includes a beautiful but mysterious chest in the cellar which has been there since his father bought the house. It’s locked, there’s no key and it’s never been opened because it’s so beautiful no-one has had the heart to break into it.

Going through his father’s diaries and notes, which give detailed accounts of every day of his his adult life and all the important decisions he’s made, Peter learns his father was working on a time machine when he died. The plans for the machine are complete and Peter decides to bring his father’s final dream to fruition.

The work takes several months. Shortly before completing it Peter is browsing an antique shop where he spots a beautiful box identical to the one in the cellar. The key is in the lock and Peter opens it. There’s nothing inside. He buys the box and takes it back to the laboratory, putting the key in his pocket.

The next day Peter finally completes the time machine. He puts all his father’s papers in the box, locks it and puts it in the time machine, setting the position controls to the cellar and the time controls to the day before his father purchased the house. He pushes the send button and the box disappears. He then goes down to the cellar, takes the key out of his pocket and opens the box that has been there since before he was born. Inside are his father’s papers.

The whole time Peter’s father was living in the house there was a box in the cellar containing details of everything he would do and all the decisions he would make.

Did that make him any less free?

Should we learn to love Omicron?

Don’t rush out to get this season’s fashion in plague disease. Yet.

The short answer is it’s too early to say. But there’s reason to hope. There’s plenty we don’t yet know about the Omicron variant of Covid-19, but a picture is beginning to emerge from the clouds of our ignorance.

Researchers were initially alarmed by the number of mutations on the spike protein, fearing it would have greater transmissibility and ability to evade the immune system than earlier variants. Their concern seems to have been vindicated. Omicron has rapidly become the dominant strain of Covid in the areas it’s taken hold, displacing earlier variants in the same way Delta displaced Alpha and Beta.

There are also fears existing immunity will offer little protection against Omicron. While there’s not yet enough data to draw firm conclusions early indications are that this is also true. Many of those infected with Omicron have been double vaccinated or recovered from earlier strains. It’s possible these infections are the result of naturally waning immunity – like its coronavirus cousin, the common cold, Covid immunity in humans seems to be short-lived, with sharp drops in antibodies from around five months and probable drops in B and T-cell mediated resistance a few months later – but the number of immunised people contracting Omicron suggests it’s able to shrug off both vaccine induced resistance and resistance gained from infections with earlier variants.

The big question is how dangerous Omicron is and so far the news looks hopeful. Although hospitalisations are rising in the areas where Omicron is spreading most rapidly, as of this writing there is yet to be a confirmed death from the new strain. This is no reason for complacency. Omicron detection is in its infancy. People could have died without receiving a confirmed diagnosis. Perhaps the disease takes longer to develop and we’ll see a spike in fatalities in coming weeks. Perhaps the ‘long Covid’ form of Omicron will be particularly debilitating or it will leave behind cellular or organ damage that will increase mortality and morbidity among survivors for decades to come. We just don’t know yet.

We also don’t know whether specific groups will prove more susceptible to the disease. The elderly? Children this time? Certain ethnic groups? The immune compromised? Those with comorbidities?

But ignorance hasn’t prevented anointed experts from making unfounded claims about the new variant that are amplified in the media.

We’re told Omicron emerged because of low vaccination levels in Africa. That it probably initially evolved in an immune compromised person – such as someone with untreated HIV – before spreading to the general population. These claims have no evidence supporting them and there’s good reason to believe they’re false.

Omicron seems admirably adapted to thrive in the systems of those with a robust immune response to other variants. Its mutations have given it an evolutionary advantage in such environments. That would be unlikely to be the case in the bodies of people with no immunity to Covid. It’s far more likely that Omicron developed in someone whose body was mounting a reasonably effective immune response to the earlier variant Omicron mutated from. Its resistance to that response gave it a natural selection advantage that enabled it to overwhelm its ancestor variants and dominate its human ecosystem. From there it spread to new frontiers in other people and the rest is history. It’s unlikely to have emerged the victor of a struggle in which its immunity evading mutations gave it no advantage.

It’s far more likely Omicron developed in a vaccinated person than in an unvaccinated one. Even before Covid emerged it was known that ‘leaky’ vaccines – those that promote resistance but don’t prevent infection – are likely to result in more virulent strains of viruses emerging. All currently available Covid vaccines are leaky. And because coronavirus immunity is short-lived and varies in strength between individuals there will always be people with partial immunity to offer ideal environments for the evolution of new variants.

So should you avoid Covid vaccination?

Absolutely not. While they don’t prevent the spread of the virus they do reduce it – at least for pre-Omicron variants. More importantly they make infection more survivable and less likely to land you in hospital or an ICU. If you don’t want to die of Covid, get vaccinated. If you don’t want to infect your loved ones with it, get vaccinated. There’s no guarantees here, but for the vast majority of people vaccination will probably help protect them, their families, their communities and the health systems where they live.

The fact that pro-vaccine ‘experts’ often lie doesn’t mean anti-vaxxers are telling the truth. They’re not; though many have the defence of <i>not knowing</i> they’re lying. Vaccines may not be what they’re cracked up to be, but they’re way better than nothing.

But why should we love Omicron?

Well, I don’t know that we should. But the way pathogens co-evolve with their hosts makes it possible Omicron is just the variant we’ve been waiting for.

It’s not in the evolutionary interest of pathogens to destroy their hosts any more than it’s in the interest of the human race to destroy its ecosystem. Some symptoms, such as the coughing and sneezing common among respiratory diseases and the increased genital sensitivity caused by some STDs, help to promote transmission and ensure the pathogen proliferates. But anything likely to take the infected person out of her community – whether through isolation, disability or death – reduces the ultimate survival chances of the disease.

When the coronaviruses we call ‘the common cold’ first began infecting humans back in the mists of prehistory they were likely much more lethal pathogens than the ones that makes us feel miserable for a week in winter. But the nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes who were wiped out by them failed to pass them on, so both the hosts and the viruses were eliminated from their respective gene pools. It was the people most suited to living with the viruses and the variants most likely to allow their hosts to live that survived. Both us and the current common cold viruses are descended from those who successfully adapted to life with each other.

Probably the reason humans have such short ‘immune memories’ for coronaviruses is because there was little point developing life-long immunity to the common cold. Doing so not only increased the metabolic load on the immune systems of those anticipating defence against a relatively benign infection – potentially weakening their response to more dangerous pathogens – it also would have encouraged the emergence of even more virulent variants of the cold in those unable to mount fully developed immune responses. Those variants would have eventually learned to evade the defences of healthier people and spread through the population with consequences potentially more severe than those of existing cold viruses. Better that we accommodate the virus and the virus accommodates us. Better the devil we know …

So should we be complacent about Omicron? Should we attend Omicron parties to encourage the spread of the new variant?

As I said, the facts aren’t in. It would be irresponsible to adopt either of these approaches until they are.

Researchers say it will be several months before vaccines targeting Omicron have been developed. By then we’ll know a lot more about it. But it’s now widely understood we will never eradicate Covid. Even if we’re able to eliminate it from the human race there’s many wild and domestic animal reservoirs that would result in reinfection – with all the dangers that come with cross-species transmission. Just because your cat gets along well with its version of Covid doesn’t mean you will.

But once the Omicron facts are in and Omicron vaccines are developed we will need to think hard about whether to roll them out. Leaky Omicron vaccines would promote the emergence of yet more variants of Covid. Some may be far worse than Omicron.


Update 18-Dec-2021: According to the Guardian the NSW government may have adopted a strategy to let Omicron spread through the community to produce herd immunity. This is what I’m suggesting may be the best strategy for dealing with Omicron. But if authorities are doing it now they’re criminally irresponsible idiots.

The post above has many caveats centred on how little we currently know about the Omicron variant. Despite the very low fatality rates registered so far it’s entirely possible serious longer term consequences are yet to emerge. Even if a very small proportion of those infected with Omicron develop severe illness allowing it to run rampant in a disease naive community will almost certainly result in a spike in patients requiring hospitalisation.

It’s currently the festive season, which always puts a strain on hospital resources. People are gathering together for family celebrations, flocking to retail outlets and entertainment venues, partying and traveling long distances. Conditions are ideal for a surge in infections that will leave hospitals unable to cope with the usual seasonal uptick in accidents, violence and drug and alcohol overdose. Even if no-one dies of Omicron there will be avoidable deaths from other causes as medical services are overwhelmed by the additional load.

Now is the time to reimpose measures aimed at slowing the spread of Covid, but the NSW government is relaxing them instead. Such policies will deliver many NSW families the worst of Christmas gifts.

Update 20-Dec-2021: now has a petition calling for the NSW government to reverse its irresponsible course of removing measures aimed at slowing the spread of Covid. Naturally the government has its eye on the commercial desires of its corporate overlords rather than the health and well-being of its constituents. It’s not about to reimpose restrictions until the seasonal celebration of consumerism is over, regardless of how much illness and death that causes. But I’ve signed the petition anyway, to try to alleviate my own feelings of helplessness in the face of corporate greed and official bastardry.

Update 23-Dec-2021: Looks like some of my pessimism was unwarranted. In the face of record daily Covid infections and a chorus of outcries from public health experts across the country the NSW government has relented by reintroducing some restrictions in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease. Unfortunately these don’t include what would be very unpopular bans on movement around the state, so over Christmas we can expect infections from hotspots like Newcastle – where I live – to spread to regional areas which lack the public health infrastructure needed to deal with them.

In the meantime NSW Health has offloaded responsibility for dealing with ‘low risk’ Covid patients to already overstretched private GPs as the Federal government revisits its cock-up of the vaccine ‘stroll-out’ by insisting it’s the personal responsibility of all eligible Australians to get boosters while failing to make sufficient vaccine doses available for them to do so. The waiting list for booster shots here in Newcastle currently stands at 3-4 weeks. The NSW government is considering cutting the post-vaccination eligibility period for boosters from five to four months, but without enough doses available that would mean the privileged and advantaged would get their boosters sooner while the disadvantaged and vulnerable would have to wait even longer. The NSW Health minister has floated the idea that the unvaccinated should be forced to pay for their own healthcare (which very few could afford), earning him widespread condemnation from medical ethicists. This circus is being run by clowns.

The way home

It’s all or nothing
The inner is the outer
though paths may differ


Our contempt looks good
We practice in the mirror
better to perform

Contemporary Cassandras #1

[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words ‘nigger’ and ‘kike’ will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

– from ‘Achieving Our Country‘ (1998) by Richard Rorty

Spiritual but not religious?

I’ve heard people describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’.
What do they mean?

1. I have a practice or metaphysical/ontological outlook which gives my life meaning, purpose or an ethical framework but it doesn’t match anything I’m aware of that’s promulgated by traditional religions.

2. I can be deeply moved by aesthetic, mystical or emotional experiences that I don’t attribute to supernatural causes.

3. I believe in the supernatural or paranormal but not in gods or demons.

4. I don’t think science, reason and rationality can explain everything, but I’m not buying what they preach in church.

5. I don’t believe in God or heaven but I think something of my essence will survive the destruction of my physical body.

6. I practice individual, not communal, means of personal development.

7. I don’t follow any recognised religious text but I subscribe to certain New Age or ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ beliefs.

8. My belief system is a work in progress not bound by doctrine.

If you’d describe yourself as “spiritual but not religious” but don’t feel any combination of the above statements fully and fairly expresses what you mean by that I’d appreciate hearing from you in the comments.

I also encourage anyone who feels they have a clear definition of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ to tell me what that is and perhaps say something about your cultural background. I’m not going to judge or argue, I’m just trying to learn whether there’s any consensus as to what those terms mean.


Postscript 26-Jan-2022: Writing in The Guardian, the University of Connecticut academic Ruth Braunstein has just alerted me to another reason people – especially Americans – might refer to themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’.

“One can also imagine a narrower, more targeted, backlash against the religious right itself, in which people do not abandon religion altogether but rather migrate to more moderate or otherwise appealing religious groups. Evidence of this form of backlash abounds. It can be found in rising numbers of people who identity as “spiritual but not religious”. These individuals are not rejecting religion altogether; they are embracing a new category of religiosity, one viewed as unpolluted by its association with radical conservative politics.”

I guess I should have thought of that myself. For most of my life I was comfortable calling myself an atheist to indicate that I reject the exclusivist, authoritarian form of Christianity that dominated religious discourse in the education system and Scouting movement of my youth. I eventually abandoned the atheist label in part because multicultural Australia had come to understand there was more to religion than the Christian Bible and the bigotry of the bully pulpit, but mostly because of the rise of the New Atheists. I didn’t want to be lumped in with the ignorance, arrogance and authoritarian scientism espoused by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.

So if I’d been raised in the US, caught between the rock of the religious right and the hard place of New Atheist arrogance, I’d probably be inclined to call myself ‘spiritual but not religious’ too.

uninspiration #15

Better to embrace one’s ignorance than to mystify it into false wisdom.

Oops. Is that what I just did?

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