Sunday, March 29, 2020

Bob Newhart

To get the full effect, you need to read the review of his performance at Powerline. I had never seen the toupee scene before

Extending Grace

In our current national argument of You're Panicking vs. No, You're Not Taking This Seriously there is extreme attribution of what those others must be thinking, even to the point of mind-reading the worst.

We have on the one hand Didn't you know you were going to die of something?  Don't you know that all of life includes risk? This carries the undercurrent of You were giddy children who refused to face responsibility, and now reality has overcome you and you can't stand it.  There is an additional argument which says This is much worse for the economy than you are admitting, and people are hurting. The undercurrent to that is You don't really care about them, do you?


On the other side we have This is not like the flu. If we can limit the damage to that of a mild flu season it will still be extra thousands of deaths over and above that. Plus, it could be worse. The undercurrent of that is Can't you people do math?  Don't you know what contagion is? The additional economic argument is We are starting from the strongest economy in world history. We are disrupting the economy but not destroying any physical parts of it, knowledge, or skills. We will recover.  This carries the subtext of Eh, get over it. You'll be fine in the long run.

I have read occasional extremist commenters, and when those show up, the internet is very good at opponents giving them attention, as if they were somehow representative of the people one disagrees with. There actually are those out there who think it's a good thing that we kill off a percentage of our less-productive people, especially as it's their own fault for not taking care of themselves. There actually are those who think it is good that the economy is hit hard, so that Americans won't pollute the earth and exploit other peoples so much.  I don't think either group is numerous.

Extend grace.  I am more on that second side, believing people aren't taking this seriously enough.  Yet I have always been aware that life is risk and I will die someday.  I have been thinking about death since I was a child, so I don't think the extremist accusation applies to me. As to those who accuse us of panic, I don't think many of you are being irresponsible and unsafe in your actions, endangering the rest of us.  Most of you are just raising serious questions about balancing uncertain safety versus more certain economic damage.

Toilet Paper Shortage of 1973




Thank Ya Jesus

We've all been feeling a bit sorry for ourselves recently, having expected that this world was going to lead us from glory to glory, financially, emotionally, and in our health.

This world is not our home.  People who have seen harder lives have a great deal to teach us in these days.


That Rule You Know

If I were to make up words, like ciscalciac or circocalice you would know how to pronounce them, even though the letter "c" is sometimes pronounced as a k, and sometimes as an s. You might have some trouble knowing whether the final syllable of the second one is -iss, -ese, or -ice, but you'd get the c's right.  There is a rule there and you know it internally, even though you may not know it consciously.  Children who are good readers can stumble through words they are less-familiar or even unfamiliar with and get this rule right.  Cerulean and cerise, concatenation and concentration, culinary and currency, they can usually get them right after about ten years old.

Originally all the c's were k-sounds.  Some of them changed to s-sounds. The key is the following letter.  If it is a back vowel, a, o, or u, the c keeps the k-sound.  If it is a front vowel, an e or an i, it moved to the s-sound.  It happened in French before the Norman invasion, and the words came to us after the 11th C. Italian words like cello mess up this rule, but that ch-sound is part of the same process.


The letter C has an interesting history in itself.  Etruscans are involved, turning the Greek gamma, our hard-g, into a k sound, which the Romans then picked up.  A kid could get a good research paper out of that which would send their teacher into rapture. But that isn't why I brought this up.

There is an idea in linguistics about internal grammars, that native speakers intuitively know rules they have never even thought to articulate.  They know the rule, even though they didn't even know there was a rule.  Some things sound right, others don't.  The order of adjectives is another set of internal rules we just know. "Metal ancient five spears" just doesn't sound right, though we understand it well enough. We just know, at some level of certainty, that Five Ancient Metal Spears is the correct format.  In languages with more declensions and conjugations such as Latin, Greek, or outrageously, Finnish or Inuit*, word order doesn't matter as much. Because English dropped those in the great simplifications as Saxons, Vikings, and Normans overran the territory, we went to word-order instead. People like to introduce subtleties and distinctions into their language when they can, to set themselves off from those Auslanders in the next valley, who just don't get it.

Those rules internally understood by all native speakers are the real rules in any language. Rules that you have to teach children as late as high school are not the real rules of a language, not in Mandarin, not in English. Those non-intuitive rules might be extremely useful to teach children, especially minority children who aren't going to get the benefit of the doubt in conversation. But they are not in any sense "more correct."  They are the rules of the prestige dialect of formal discourse, nothing more.  What is prestigious in a dialect varies enormously by context.  If you speak Episcopalian to Fundamentalists and insist your language is correct you are going to offend.

And vase versa




I have made reference to inequality of intelligence here many times, because it is a neglected topic in the national discourse.  Yet we are remarkably equal in intelligence in so many ways, and one of them is language.  Native English speakers of many home dialects have remarkable convergence in understanding the real rules of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

You speak English well, whatever your mother-dialect was. There is no logical position that declares otherwise.  However, you might have to bend your dialect in the direction of prestige in service to social approval and advancement.  If that seems unfair, understand it has been that way in all languages as far as the eye can see.


*That legend of the Eskimos having 200 words for snow?  That comes from the many combinations of possible endings in agglutinative languages.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Prediction at the First Turn

I said very early on that if drastic separation and quarantine measures were successful and we had fewer deaths than expected, a lot of people would conclude we were never in much danger.  See? We got all worked up over nothing!  Why, it wasn't even as bad a a regular flu season! 

This is already occurring. I suppose there is no way around it. We believe we deserve our good fortune and it was destined to happen anyway.  Failures are interruptions, attributed to a few unlucky breaks.

via GIPHY

Blood

I have put out the reminder before, and know that some of you have very solid reasons for not donating blood.  But those who can should get back into the habit.  You can save time by doing Double Red, which is every 112 days instead of 56 so all your travel time and filling out forms averages out to only half as much.  The actual time sitting there bleeding in is twice as long, however, because you are donating twice as much and they are replenishing your fluids after each batch.

It's even better now that there are podcasts and headphones and you don't have to listen to the music or watch the TV that they think is least offensive to the group.  Pioneer Woman cooking show is pretty frequent here.

Counties

I wonder if differing states of lockdown could be used for different population densities.  Coos County in NH, the nearly empty one that is the top third of the state, has 0 cases of C19. It borders areas of Vermont, Maine, and Quebec that also have no cases.  Perhaps churches, restaurants, retail, and bars could open there safely, with appropriate warnings.  Cheshire and Sullivan Counties have only two cases each. They border areas of Vermont with somewhat higher concentrations, but still low*.  That may be a touch more problematic, as the former also borders Western Massachusetts, and it might encourage a higher-risk population to enter a lower-risk area. Still, it's a pretty good drive from Springfield to Keene.

I have not heard that governments are even considering such arrangements, though I have read a few people on the internet (especially Chicago Boyz) suggesting that different areas of risk should be treated differently.  Nothing within two hours of NYC, I wouldn't think. Has anyone seen any discussion of this that goes beyond the simple question-asking and superficial considering I've done here?

*The knuckleheaded first case from NH who was told to self-isolate but went to a party in Vermont attended by lots of people at the Dartmouth business school affected Windsor County. But most of VT's cases are in Burlington, predictably.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Trail to Martin Gardner

Perhaps the route is interesting anyway.

I had a question in mind from listening to my long series of podcasts on the History of English, because of an interesting discussion about the compound words in Anglo-Saxon poetry, specifically in Beowulf. As the word "walrus" was mentioned, I though of Tolkien, who had done many entries in the early W's for the Oxford English Dictionary, including walrus specifically.  I did a search for articles about that, which led me eventually to the OED site.  That there was an entry for Oxford English Dictionary for Kids was the basis of my recent post on that topic, as it struck me as odd that the OED would be that informal.

Reading about the etymology of walrus led me to Lewis Carroll, which led me to Martin Gardner. How long has it been since I thought of Martin Gardner? Good gravy, he was my hero in high school, and I have completely forgotten him. I read his mathematical recreations column in Scientific American faithfully, had a few of his books on mathematical games, and enjoyed his Annotated Alice In Wonderland greatly in college.  I kept the book until just a few years ago, when it became clear that none of my children were ever going to be interested.

Reading about Martin Gardner leads everywhere else in the known universe of knowledge, it seems. It may have been Gardner who led me down the primrose path of believing I might be a mathematician, because I so enjoyed the recreational math topics he introduced me to. I was not and am not a mathematician, but there have always been a few things I enjoyed, and I found many of them again reading the Wiki summary.

I should have kept up with him.

Saved Links. Genetics and Related

We have not talked much about genetics recently.  These are people who know a great deal, but may not fully share your values.

The brilliant Steve Hsu over at Information Processing talks about an article in The Economist concerning embryo selection. November 2019.

 Here is that article from The Economist Modern Genetics will improve health and usher in designer children. November 2019

Legal studies paper by Gail Herriot on school discipline policies. June 2019 

Only some genetics in this last one. Scott Alexander over at Slate Star Codex, who Steve Sailer called the greatest public intellectual to emerge in the 2010s, talks about what intellectual progress he made during the decade. He started way ahead of me and I think has lapped me a couple of times since. A stunning variety of topics. January 2020.

It Is Well

 

New Deaths

Today's US news is good.  Few new deaths.  Let's hope the numbers stay down.

Yup.  Looks like a blip.  About 250 new ones just today. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Sacrifice

Louie complained "My wife says if we want our marriage to thrive we'll have to make sacrifices."

"That sounds like a good idea," I said.

"I agree," Louie nodded.  "I've already picked out a goat."

Unanimous

Just on general principles, I get worried when legislative decisions are unanimous, as the Senate bill was today.  I am not offering any specific criticisms that I think they have overlooked.  It is unanimity, in and of itself, which makes me nervous.

I have heard, though can't verify in a quick search, that large rabbinical courts such as the Sanhedrin had a practice that if a vote was unanimous it was considered defeated, because it was likely to be impulsive and ill thought-out.  It would have to be introduced again at the next gathering. Even one irrascible opponent on either side would make me feel better about this.

Speaking about either side, half of the very few conservatives where I work are not entirely happy with what Trump is doing at present, while a surprising number of liberals have said (unbidden, not working around me enough to know that I am emphatically not liberal) that while they don't like Trump much, they have been impressed with what he is doing in this crisis.  With all the emphasis on how divided this country is ever since, oh, the 1998 elections, worsening every year, I have to consider that people's ability to move off entrenched positions is in and of itself a good thing.

Momdad

I won't tell you the route by which I got to this. The route has no general instructive application, and while it is fascinating to me, I can stand back from it and see it is unlikely to be fascinating to anyone else. The post itself may fascinate, however.  Notice how many likes it has received.  For those of you who think Titania McGrath or the Babylon Bee is often over the top, I submit that they are nowhere near that top.

Two things occur to me. #1 How does it feel to turn out to be about 95% wrong in your prediction about Trump, and #2 What would an unsafe space look like, in your telling?

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Song For a Confirmation

In the first hour of dawn    by the huge oaken door
A bright jewel of light      lies soft on the stone floor
of gray
Where the stained glass leaves it

Dressed in new armor    made bright by his father
And a new linen robe    made white by his mother
who took
Such care to weave it.

Night greets the day

From a full year of study     and a full night of prayer
The squire quickly walks     to the king who waits there
by the throne
And the dim light shares them

He can scarce draw a breath     eyes drop as if shamed
He kneels as a boy     but he gets a new name
as strong
As the love he bears him

Ch: Now the road is a hard one and the enemy devours
But the cost of the kingdom is your years more than your hours
For the ancient sword that's been carried from the tower
Makes you a knight    in the kingdom's sight

As the boy kneels before him     he sees the king's arm
From the sleeve to the wrist      runs a long jagged scar
still new 
And the boy's eyes widen

With a lift of the blade     his lord bids him rise
As he covers the wound    a face stern and wise
half smiles
And the burden lightens

Knight greets the day

This day to be sent           to a world cruel and wild
And the evil of men         we don't send a child
unarmed
My wound goes with you

With a wild surge of joy   th'squire's hand grasps the sword
From a king strangely calm.  He salutes his fair Lord
and hears  
My peace I give you.

Ch: Now the sword is a sure one    And a strong one come what may
And the joy of the kingdom   is in life along the way
For the ancient sword which touches you this day
Makes you a knight    in the kingdom's sight

Masks

Remember that a bad mask is much better than no mask. Don't let the good become the enemy of the best.

When All You've Got Is A Hammer...

...everything looks like a nail.

The Environment Editor at the Guardian quotes the Environment chief at the UN.

I think you can predict this before I print it.

Coronavirus: 'Nature is sending us a message’, says UN environment chief

The accompanying photograph has the caption " A tree stands alone in a logged area prepared for plantation near Lapok in Malaysia’s Sarawak State" which is clearly a C19-related item. Darn those loggers!

James Barr tweeted back: In Medieval times people believed that the plague was divine retribution for their sinful behavior.

There is certainly a connection between human behavior and human diseases.  I don't think that qualifies as actual news. I think it is important that we ask people who are telling us how to live our lives and have some influence over making that happen to make a tighter connection than the broad category of "human behavior."  I give them credit that they did call out wet markets. I doubt this will be a big focus of the Guardian lecturing the Chinese going forward, but they did at least mention it once.  The second time, they will get called racist.

Dancing Queen

Okay, now I am convinced that this was a 1920's song that ABBA covered. Lot's of fun.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Kids

When I was a boy, elementary school teachers would shudder with disapproval if you used the word kids. "Kids are baby goats," they would say. You would have to start your sentence again and use the word children instead. This seems ridiculous and artificial to us now. It seemed so to the children even then. Kids did not seem to be slang.  It was at worst less formal. Predictably, as the teachers aged out of the system and hordes of new kids kept coming along, the language changed. Only in very formal writing, such as a research paper, would anyone insist on the use of children at this point.

We think to ourselves that the teachers were wrong, but this is not necessarily so. The language changed away from what they thought correct and in our self-centeredness we think "See? It wasn't important.  Just like I thought back then." Yet when it came into general use in 16th-18th C's it was indeed considered low slang and no instructor would have tolerated it in class or in writing.  Over the course of the 19th C it became more acceptable in speech, but still would not have been used in a newspaper or magazine, let alone a textbook. Teachers of the time believed the point was to teach every child a more formal English that made them sound educated and intelligent. The theory is sound.  It is good to be able to speak the most formal dialect of your language with ease. The specific rules they got caught up on were a mixed collection of excellent disciplines that enhanced clarity and pure bunkum that had been artificially imposed on English a century or two earlier by pompous pettifoggers, but the idea was sound.

Somewhere there was a crossover area between the days when kids was low slang requiring correction and century later when it was obviously ridiculous.  There is even Oxford English Dictionary Facts For Kids now.

There was a nuanced version which they could have advanced, explaining "That word might be entirely acceptable while speaking with your friends, but when speaking with adults, and especially in the classroom, one should use children."  Grammar school teachers didn't think that way then, and likely they should not have tried.  Not one child in ten would have understood and fewer still would changed speech because of it.  Still, they liked to make us be very precise then according to their fashion, so I will hold them to a similar standard now. The Kids Are Alright. 

Government Spending

A quick reminder. We get irritated at the junkets, expensive dinners, and bigwigs patting each other on the back, because they offend our sense of justice.  How dare they?  Yet that is not the bulk of the money being thrown away.  The growing army of ever less-useful government employees, who earnestly believe that the world needs more of their tribe to be hired to do similar things is a bigger problem.  Many of these programs reinforce each other, of government advocacy for more “awareness” about a topic, which will lead in turn to the government doing more about it.  The ratchet moves in only one direction. 

Then, over all, are the promised monies called entitlements, very difficult to remove because the people on them have qualified for them by law.  That’s what “entitlement” means – you met the criteria for a program and you are entitled to it. People get irate when the bill comes due because they believe they never wanted that to happen, but that’s not quite true.  We did want it to happen.  All those things sounded like a good idea when we were ordering off the menu.  We just don’t like the bill for it. But now it’s the law.  To back that off is going to involve changing the laws, not just finding some money under the seat cushions.  Still, we can at least try to stop increases as our first step. The electorate will find that painful enough.

Correspondence

I have had correspondence with a woman whose family left our church recently.  I wrote to express that I missed them and hoped they had landed in a good place. They have landed in place I know a little about, and most of what I do know is not good.  They were very big on being nearly a King James only church, allowing other translations for devotional purposes, "but not recommended for study." They had a scandal of badly mistreating an underage girl who had had sex with one of the pillars of the church (a deacon? a pastor?  I don't recall), so that she ended up being blamed equally with him, and over time, more than him. I have known about a dozen people who went there - more than half of them were quite decent folks, but four were difficult, accusing sorts who could find no good in any congregation but their own, and not much of that.  Hectoring sorts.

That data is all a decade old or more, so perhaps things have moderated there. She did make a comment much like one I have heard for years.  "They really get into the Bible there during service, not just reading it off the screen in front." (Our current church puts the scriptures for the day up on the screens.)

Ah yes. The preacher says at those churches.  I WANT you to bring your Bibles to church.  I WANT you to look up the verses that I'm using so that you know we're not trying to deceive you here. You'll see that we are only preaching what it says right there in Scripture.  You can see it for yourself. I expect to be held to account. 

It is a deceptive practice.  I am not doubting the sincerity of the preacher in saying this. He in all likelihood deceiving himself as much as his hearers. Yet no one has ever questioned for a moment that he might be switching the words around or putting in verses that aren't there. I daresay he has never been to such a church nor heard a credible report of one. The issue is that what he believes is "just what the plain meaning of Scripture is" is in fact the product of a hundred assumptions he does not know he is making. While having people follow along might spark their attentiveness and cause them to notice what they otherwise might have missed, I think it more often dulls this sense.  The mechanics of getting to the page and verse, of listening and reading at the same time, and the automatic brief reflection on what has just been said conflicting with paying attention to the current sentence all work to prevent objective thought.

At the very moment when the listeners are most at the mercy of the preacher the preacher is telling them they are most independent of him. They have the illusion of checking his work when they are in fact swallowing it whole. He might as well ask them to prove his doctrine by checking his spelling.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Square Foot Gardening

It's all the rage now, but my wife was on Square Foot Gardening almost forty years ago when it was new and hot.  We were very much into trying to be back-to-the-land then, putting in a vegetable garden in what turned out to be the trash bin of the first owners, complete with old bottles of patent medicines.  We had had wonderful years of our own sweet corn, cutting our own firewood and Christmas trees from our tiny forest, and a variety of vegetables for canning.

Yeah, that's a lot of work when you are both working full time, taking in foster children, have reading addictions, and are volunteering at the church, y'know?  Especially as neither of us were emotionally gratified by physical labor, as some folks are.  That granola phase gradually went away, but Tracy hung on with that Square Foot idea for a long time.  We gave up on the corn and eventually the strawberries, but the tomatoes and sugar snap peas lasted into the 2000's.  Then one day, long before Marie Kondo got rich off the idea, my wife decided that vegetables didn't bring her joy anywhere near as much as flowers did, and it's been decorative plants here ever since. Green beans are cheap, after all.  Why pay yourself $.23/hr to grow them, unless you like the various parts of ordering, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, and canning for their own sakes?

We can give it the recommendation that the basic idea works even if you are in a triple decker apartment.

Buddy Hackett

That's a lot of YouTube in a row.  I guess the heavier thought and C19 pieces got to me.

Kisses Sweeter Than Wine

Nice version. I like the style where the performer sings harmony above the audience. Kiss me, Tracy.

More Iditarod



Aliy Zirkle is not only a favorite of people from NH, but of the whole sled dog community.  She is the one who went back for her friend near the finish a few years ago, depriving herself of a chance of winning.

The places still look familiar to me and carry some nostalgia, even though I was only there for a week two years ago. I hope my son and his family move to Anchorage and I never have to see it again, though.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Scrooge McDuck In Reverse

Perhaps this is the time to teach, or at least keep as an example, how an economy works, to those who believe that rich people got there by taking money that could have gone to a poor person in a fairer system.  We are in a situation where money is being lost, and it isn't going to anyone.  Some people are not much affected, if whatever their income is based on is not interrupted.  I am considered "essential personnel" and have work.  I'm not sure I actually am essential, but they have to draw the line somewhere, and danger increases if the hospital as a whole does not do what it does. There may be a very few businesses that do better - online entertainments, delivery services.  I can't think of much else.

There will be some pent-up demand that comes upon businesses as restrictions are eased, as folks want to buy cars or go out to restaurants.  But some of the non-buying today occurs because people now do not have jobs that are paying them, and they don't have money to spend.  The restaurants and car dealerships are not going to make that up later.  The money is just gone.  You can frame that as being lost or as being never created, but either way it's just not there. It is relatively easy to destroy value.

I hope the lesson can be turned to show that it is difficult to create value.

Reducing Exposure

It occurred to me today that I should reduce exposure at the grocery store by going to only one, rather than bouncing between the many I might go to, depending on where other errands take me.  Each has some things the others do not, or has better produce or lower prices for one item or another - but now there are no other errands. I should also go less often. 

Yes, I might by sad misfortune pick the one which is most infected of all my choices and re-expose myself there, but that future is impossible to see.  I probably should glove as well as bringing wipes or sanitiser in the truck.  Should we begin to mask?  The South Koreans are doing that and their containment is the best in the world at present.  Putting on a mask has a humiliation factor, because then everyone expects that you must be sick and  looks at you darkly for coming out.  Still, humiliation in a good cause is a reasonable sacrifice.  It's also better than making your neighbors sick, if you are an asymptomatic carrier.

Elitism Vs Populism


We are supposed to be against the elites and for the people these days.  It’s the trend. It has been a longstanding argument in American politics and it is best that we understand that sometimes the popular sentiment was a better path and sometimes elite opinion was what saved us.  It’s the tension between them that has worked best for us.  Elites go wrong when they believe their expertise is general, like the doctor who pontificates about politics, taxation, or the Bible in his I’m-a-doctor voice. We have had a couple of generations of clergy with too many members who believe they understand economics from a moral perspective because of picture-thinking and anecdotes.  You can take my personal word that many social workers make pronouncements about culture and character judgement of public figures. Most recently, people who have gotten rich in high-tech fields believe they know how to make the whole world work.

Even within their actual fields of training and experience elites can go wrong by following a particular fad or groupthink. Our intelligence agencies know an enormous amount I do not, nor can I even buy a clue. Yet they have gotten things deeply wrong about countries, regions, conflicts, and individuals. Somehow, they still think of themselves as elites because they know the capital of Azerbaijan and who the major players are there, and you don’t. Questions of class, of education and connection more than family and upbringing, lurk beneath

Still, they often do know things.  They often are good at some things, sometimes very good.  Better to know something than to know nothing.

Which leads me to the populists.  Populism does not have a strict definition, or rather, it has too many strict definitions that do not agree with each other. Sometimes it means that the understanding of “the people” is collectively greater than the understanding of “the elites.” A second meaning is that the moral behavior of the Regular Folk is superior to the corrupt and self-serving morality of the elites. You can zip just about anything into the blanks – and people do.

There is so much that can go wrong here.  There is first an attitude that comes from so identifying of oneself with the group that a man comes to believe in his own personal wisdom or morality contrasted with the elites, rather than the collective wisdom or uprightness. You will note that this is a variation of what the elites do, in each thinking well of his own wisdom in general. There is second an attitude that is reflexively against whatever “they,” the elites are for. This also doesn’t work well. Sometimes people really are experts and got to their position by working harder and smarter, and just being right more often. American history is littered with examples of when the popular wisdom was a fad and plain wrong.

Three pictures, plus a fourth:  The populism of the left prefers a description of the 99%, which they believe should all have common cause against the 1%, who are ruining what could otherwise be a sweet deal for everyone. Careful observers might notice that paranoiacs believe something like this as well, though they usually have different solutions.) The populism of the right thinks they might have the support of 60 or 65% of the people if the institutional playing fields of media, unelected government, and academia were only level. The populism of the center sees itself as the 80% of sensible people in the middle harassed by the lunatic 10% on each side. The fourth picture grows out of the first.  It has been standard leftist rhetoric even before the Russian Revolution to portray the struggle as between a minority of revolutionaries who understand what is really happening and must be done and that 1% in power who control everything.  The rest of us are viewed as uninformed, uneducated, unintelligent, un-everything, who must be awakened to the struggle. If it seems a contradiction that they should view themselves as both a huge majority and tiny minority, it is. It allows them to claim they are the voice of the people, what the people would won’t if they only knew better.  It is a quite delicious set of beliefs to live inside.

Have I given away my solution to how we navigate such things? I think the question of populism versus elitism is more moral than intellectual.  Humility is the only road out of either. We need the self-observation that realizes we might be fools.

Panic, Anti-Panic, and Anti-Anti-Panic


I notice that there are lots of commenters over at Maggie's Farm who are strongly in the we-are-overreacting and even the this-is-not-that-big-a-deal camps. One of the main contributors at Instapundit is as well.

Years ago there were Tavistock weekends, where people would sign up to come on site and be assigned to groups. The assignments were arbitrary, and no directions were given about what to do next. Even though there were no tasks, the groups would create structure.  They would form working groups to discover from the organisers what they were supposed to do.  They would have meetings with other groups to see if they had any ideas, or would send delegations to confer. As the weekend progressed there would be arguments over leadership within the groups, or competition and resentments between groups. These could even get quite heated.  Even after the late Sunday discussions that confirmed there never was a purpose and it was all an exercise in learning about the underlying structure of inter and intra-group behavior, people would still carry anger away.
As an aside, it did not help if people went on repeat weekends where they knew the premise.  Everyone still got involved in rescuing, harmonizing, attacking, undermining and all the rest. There seems to be some common patterns of group behavior. We are not utterly predictable, and seemingly insignificant events can move us from one pattern to another.  But there seem to be consistent ruts in human behavior.

When we started to hear stories out of China about C19 there was not much response at first.  People were curious, a few made dire predictions, and there were explanations offered that were derived from what people knew, or thought they knew, about conditions in China, Chinese markets, Chinese laboratories, or Chinese politics. As the news grew and the virus spread to Italy people showed more concern here. I wondered if there would be panic. I reasoned that if there were panic, people would exhibit their pre-snowstorm behavior, the default emergency setting. A month ago I bought toilet paper and all those food items you now can’t find on the shelves now.  I overlooked disinfecting wipes, but otherwise have a spare food collection I could isolate with by moving upstairs.
 
I wondered if governments and medical officials were panicking about the virus, and if Trump had acted precipitously in his progressive closing of borders.  I now think a few days earlier would have been better.  Thinks that look like panic in the moment can turn out to be reasonable caution.  There has been an escalating series of interventions at all levels.  California has been shut down.  At the micro level, when I get a cup of coffee at the hospital cafeteria, I cannot take sugar, lid, or stirrer for myself.  I request them and am handed those items by a gloved worker. Will we look back and say such things were ridiculous overreaction?  Perhaps.

We are now entering a stage of anti-panic.  This rebound was entirely predictable. Some of us quite naturally consider contrary positions to whatever is most popular, especially if the government is involved.  Others dislike any inconvenience and are looking for an excuse not to have our actions circumscribed.  Others have jobs or businesses that are going to be harmed or even fold, who would be willing to endure a great deal more personal risk in order to feed their families. Still others are very concrete, believing what they have seen in their own lives over what others tell them.  It’s supposed to be this big crisis and everyone’s running around waving their hands.  But hardly anyone is dying.  I’m getting tired of listening to it. That is common in NH, where we have few cases. There is also the predictable phenomenon that groups and individuals will try to use any crisis for their own ends.  People observing that create another large anti-panic group: those who suspect that much of the crisis is being held aloft by those who would take advantage of it. All of these are tricky. 
 
I will break here to echo Tom Bridgeland’s comment that this is not true panic.  Those who go to the grocery to pick up a few common items only to see stripped shelves are tempted to say those other people are “panicking,” but that’s an overclaim.  However, I will continue to use the word for its simplicity, asking only that the reader will keep in mind that we have not seen true panic, and are not likely to.

Returning to the group behavior lessons of Tavistock, neither panic nor anti-panic tells us much about our real danger. Our own human responses drive a great deal of our behavior.  Those partly align with our actual levels of danger but are not reliable indicators. It is best to assume that “panic” occurs for reasons which are at least partly good, and anti-panic is likewise founded in both inherited wisdom and our own intelligence. There are two large confounding factors in attempting to discern what is real here.
 
First, most of the world can’t do math and science all that well, and in the case of a novel virus, the math and science is elusive and uncertain anyway.  Even the wise are walking through the swamp at night searching ahead with their feet for drier ground.  I am in no way qualified to help any of us here on that score.  I can do math and I understand science, even having read recently about plagues and epidemics in history, yet am still not an authority who should be listened to.

Second, there are those many who do not care for your well-being or mine who are attempting to use any crisis to increase their power (or wealth, or prestige).  The best I can say about this is that our anger about this is natural but likely to impair our judgement.  If we see that the Peace and Justice coalition is in favor of Senate Bill C19 we are in danger of thinking to ourselves “Those bastards must have some selfish reason for this.  I resolve to make sure that bill never passes.” But SB C19 might be fine. Seek other opinions.
 
There has been some interesting place-switching here that I think is healthy.  I have read Trump supporters who think he is overreaching on this measure or that, and Trump haters who are acknowledging that they think he is handling some other aspect quite properly. While this is good news in and of itself, it also doesn’t tell us much whether he is right or wrong. We have to try and sort that out on more objective grounds.

Yet where to find objective grounds? I think attending to the medical professionals has one large advantage.  They have a lot of skin in the game.  They do not agree and the usual pride and obstinacy of human beings does apply to them as well. They may get this wrong.  In fact, we can be sure we will get some things wrong and strive to learn better for next time. But those who are watching patients get sick and die should be assumed to at least have the good motive of desiring less death. That is true of all of us, but less certainly. People who run hospitals are taking this very seriously.

Math: