Noise, Noise, Noise

Noise is a the foe of any information transmission, yet the total elimination of noise is–counter-intuitively–bad.

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Nature is, from our human perspective, inherently noisy, and this noise is inherent to its beauty. When we try to over-fit a simple order we get something that is, yes, lined up neatly, but also dead.

Nature is not truly noisy, but the mathematics that underlies its order is more complicated than we can easily model (it is only in the past century that we’ve developed the tools necessary to model tomorrow’s weather with any degree of accuracy, for example.) Whether we are drawing trees or clouds, controlled randomness works far better than regular repetition. (If you want to get technical, the math involved tends to involve fractals.)

In photography, dithering is the intentional application of noise to randomize quantitization errors. According to Wikipedia:

Dither is routinely used in processing of both digital audio and video data, and is often one of the last stages of mastering audio to a CD.

A common use of dither is converting a greyscale image to black and white, such that the density of black dots in the new image approximates the average grey level in the original.

…[O]ne of the earliest [applications] of dither came in World War II. Airplane bombers used mechanical computers to perform navigation and bomb trajectory calculations. Curiously, these computers (boxes filled with hundreds of gears and cogs) performed more accurately when flying on board the aircraft, and less well on ground. Engineers realized that the vibration from the aircraft reduced the error from sticky moving parts. Instead of moving in short jerks, they moved more continuously. Small vibrating motors were built into the computers, and their vibration was called dither from the Middle English verb “didderen,” meaning “to tremble.” Today, when you tap a mechanical meter to increase its accuracy, you are applying dither, and modern dictionaries define dither as a highly nervous, confused, or agitated state. In minute quantities, dither successfully makes a digitization system a little more analog in the good sense of the word.

— Ken Pohlmann, Principles of Digital Audio[1]

The term dither was published in books on analog computation and hydraulically controlled guns shortly after World War II.[2][3] 

This mechanical dithering is also why many people play “white noise” sounds while studying or falling asleep (my eldest used to fall asleep to the sound of the shower). As the article notes:

Quantization yields error. If that error is correlated to the signal, the result is potentially cyclical or predictable. In some fields, especially where the receptor is sensitive to such artifacts, cyclical errors yield undesirable artifacts. In these fields introducing dither converts the error to random noise. The field of audio is a primary example of this. The human ear functions much like a Fourier transform, wherein it hears individual frequencies.[8][9] The ear is therefore very sensitive to distortion, or additional frequency content, but far less sensitive to additional random noise at all frequencies such as found in a dithered signal.[10]

In digital audio, like CDs, dithering reduces the distortion caused by data compression (a necessary part of the process of producing CDs). The same process works in digital photography, as demonstrated in these photos:

ditheringCapture
from Wikipedia

In art, dithering allows artists to create a wide range of colors out of a limited palette (this is, of course, how the colors in newspaper comics are created).

There are many different ways to dither, and subsequently many different dithering algorithms, all created with the intention of using random noise to increase the quality of images/sound/readings, etc.

Too much noise is of course a problem, but as photographer Frederik Mork notes:

Don’t forget that noise can also be a creative tool. Especially when paired with black-and-white, high ISO noise can sometimes add a lot of atmosphere to the image. Some images need noise.

Symmetrical faces are supposed to be more attractive than less-symmetrical faces, but this only applies up to a point. Even very beautiful faces are not truly symmetrical, and increasing their symmetricality (by mirroring the left side over the right, or the right side over the left) does not improve them:

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Nicole Kidman

I don’t know where this image came from originally, but I found it in a YouTube video.  There is a literature on this subject, probably primarily related to plastic surgery. The image on the left is a Nicole as she normally appears; the image in the center is Nicole with the right side of her face mirrored, an the image on the right is the left side of her face. Note that the original contains several asymmetries: her hair, her eyebrows, and even the way her necklace lies on her chest.

This post was inspired by a conversation about what it meant to be a “good” musician, and whether one can be a reasonable judge of music outside of one’s own musical tastes. If I love rap but hate techno, can I still recognize which techno songs are considered “good” by some standard other than “techno fans like it”? Is all art subjective, or are some pieces actually better or worse than others?

I am a simple creature, and I do not really understand the depths of what goes into creating music. I can squeak out a few notes on a recorder and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the piano, but deeper theories behind things like “harmonic intervals” and “chords” are beyond me. Music to me is an immersive sensory experience (more so since quarantine has induced a state of semi-zen that has quieted the normally very loud meta and meta-meta narrative in my head). Whether something is good or bad I cannot say in any quantitative sense, but to paraphrase the words of Justice Stewart, I know it when I feel it.

I had very little exposure to popular music as a kid (I listened to a lot of “Christian rock”), and only began listening to music seriously and sorting out what I liked and didn’t in grad school, so whatever arguments you have about people forming their musical taste in highschool don’t apply.

I tend to like music that has a lot of distortion–noise, if you will. (I like music that reflect what I feel, and my feelings look like a Jackson Pollock.)

You might have noticed that my current favorite musician is Gary Numan (the guy who sang “Cars” back in 1979.) I don’t like most of Numan’s early work (like “Cars”); the sound is too simple. It took a couple of decades for Numan to develop the layers of complexity and necessary to create the sort of musical soundscape I enjoy. Compare, for example, his 1979 performance of “Are Friends Electric” to his 2013 performance of the same song. They are the same song, but with slightly different arrangements; I don’t know the technical words to describe them, but I find the 1979 version merely acceptable, while the 2013 hit me like a brick. (That’s a good thing, in this context.)

Or, heck, let’s compare Cars 1979, with Cars 2009 (with NIN). Okay, so the first thing that stands out to me is that 2009 Gary Numan has gotten laid and is no longer afraid to move around the stage, unlike 1979 Numan. Second, Trent Reznor on the tambourine is hilarious. Third, there is WAY more noise in the second recording–especially since it is live and there is a screaming audience–and this does not detract from the experience: I vastly prefer the 2009 version.

One of the things I love about Numan’s music is that you can do this; you can listen to the same piece from different eras and see how his style has changed and evolved.

To really appreciate his new new style, though, I think it’s best to listen to new compositions, rather than covers of his older work, like I am Dust, Ghost Nation, or Crazier (with Rico).

Music, as I understand it, is built from a disturbed mathematical progression of sounds. A sequence of sounds in a regular pattern builds up our expectation of what will come next, and the violation of this sequence creates surprise, which–when done properly–our brains enjoy. If the pattern simply repeated over and over, it would become boring.

I recently enjoyed a documentary on Netflix about ZZ Top, (who knows, maybe they’ll become my favorite band someday). At one point in the documentary the band described the difficulties of their first recording session. They had their song, had their band, had their instruments, but the guy doing the recording just couldn’t capture the right sound. He had microphones all around the recording studio, but just couldn’t get what he wanted. So he proposed that the band loosen the strings on their guitars (or maybe it was just one guitar, forgive me, it’s been a while) to create a slightly out of tune sound. The band’s manager was having nothing of it: the instruments needed to be in tune. Finally the recording studio guy proposed that the manager run out to get them some barbecue, because it was getting on toward dinner time, and conveniently directed the manager to a restaurant across the county line, a good half hour away. With the manager gone for the next hour and fifteen minutes, they untuned the guitars and finally got the sound they were looking for.

(Here’s ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man.)

Is this a “better” sound? It’s a different sound. It’s not the standard sound, and if you’re looking for the standard sound that guitars are supposed to make, this isn’t it. Is it wrong, on technical grounds? Or is it right because it was the sound the band wanted to make?

This whole post was inspired by the claim that Kurt Cobain was, technically, not a good musician. I found this accusation absolutely flabbergasting. Of course, I regard pretty much anyone who can crank out a tune on a guitar as “good”, and anyone who can top the charts as “excellent” by default. If we want to differentiate between top stars, well, I guess we can, but in the immortal words of @dog_rates, they’re all good dogs, Brent.

I’m not a huge Nirvana fan–like I said, I never listened to them as a kid (I didn’t have MTV and couldn’t have told you the difference between Pearl Jam and Oyster Jelly), but I like grunge and Nirvana is part of that.

After some conversation, I realized that my interlocutor and I were using different definitions of “technically,” which is always a sign that you should stop arguing about dumb stuff on the internet and go take a walk, except when you’re quarantined. I meant “technically” as in “actually,” while he meant it in the sense of “the proper way of doing something; by the manual.” His argument was that Kurt Cobain did not play the guitar properly according to the manual for how to play a guitar. Kurt was dropping notes, or not pushing down the strings properly, or otherwise playing lazily and not doing it right. Someone who has taken lessons on “how to play a guitar” will not be able to play like Kurt because he was being sloppy and not playing properly. They will have to learn how to be sloppy.

Naturally, I found this argument baffling. I have no idea how to play the guitar, but my standard for whether a piece of music is good or not is based on how it sounds, not how it is produced. I am listening to Nirvana now and I don’t hear–to my ears–any flaws.

To say that there is a “proper” way to play a guitar that is a standard benchmark against which musicians are judged sounds like some sort of  prescriptivist nonsense. It’s like saying that there is a proper way to paint, and that “impressionism” isn’t it:

800px-monet_-_impression2c_sunrise
Monet’s Impression, Sunrise

An outraged critic, Louis Leroy, coined the label “Impressionist.” He looked at Monet’s Impression Sunrise, the artist’s sensory response to a harbor at dawn, painted with sketchy brushstrokes. “Impression!” the journalist snorted. “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished!” Within a year, the name Impressionism was an accepted term in the art world.

If the name was accepted, the art itself was not. “Try to make Monsieur Pissarro understand that trees are not violet; that the sky is not the color of fresh butter…and that no sensible human being could countenance such aberrations…try to explain to Monsieur Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with those purplish-green stains,” wrote art critic Albert Wolff after the second Impressionist exhibition.

Although some people appreciated the new paintings, many did not. The critics and the public agreed the Impressionists couldn’t draw and their colors were considered vulgar. Their compositions were strange. Their short, slapdash brushstrokes made their paintings practically illegible. Why didn’t these artists take the time to finish their canvases, viewers wondered?

Indeed, Impressionism broke every rule of the French Academy of Fine Arts, the conservative school that had dominated art training and taste since 1648.

The “proper” way to play a guitar is however sounds good, and if it sounds better with dropped notes and imperfectly depressed strings, then that is the proper way to play. This is grunge, and grunge is intentionally high on the distortion.

Whether it sounds good or not is, of course, a matter of opinion, but Smells Like Teen Spirit has over a billion views on YouTube, so I think it’s fair to say that there are a lot of people out there who think this is a very good song. From their perspective, Kurt Cobain is a very talented musician.

There’s a saying that you have to learn the rules in order to know when to break the rules. It applies primarily in art and literature, but I suppose it applies to the rest of life, too. When you are learning to write, you learn the rules of grammar and punctuation. If you become a poet, you know when and how to throw all of that out the window. If you want to be an artist, you need to know how to paint; later you can throw together whatever colors you want. If you want to play music, then you need to learn to play properly–harmonic intervals and all that, I suppose–but when you actually play music, you need to know when to break the rules and how subtle differences in the way the notes are played result in massive differences in the music. Compare, for example, NIN’s Hurt to Johnny Cash’s.

This is a song that gets its power from our subverted expectations; we expect an increase in tempo that never really comes, creating a tension that stretches out across the song, finally breaking at 4:33 (in Trent’s version).

In these two songs, I think Trent’s version is “better” in the technical skills sense, but Cash’s version is better in the absolute punch in the guts sense. This is simply because of who Trent and Cash are; they each bring their own sense of self to the song: Trent the sense of a bitter youth; Cash the sense of an old man composing his epitaph.

Let us end with some Alice in Chains:

I hope you have enjoyed the songs.

Speculations on Information flow and Covid

Entering speech-to-text experiment. Please let me know in the comments what you think of this and the previous text to speech experiment. Is it any different from my normal writing style with my fingers? Since this is our second experiment, I’ll be in a little better at using this technology. One thing I noticed last time was that I was talking too fast for the technology to really keep up with, and so in the end I had some very garbled paragraphs that I had to completely discard because I couldn’t tell what they were supposed to say anymore. I’m sure the app was doing its very best to figure out what I was saying, but this time I’m going to speak more slowly–I know you can’t tell that on your end, but I do wonder if it does something to the writing process.

Much as I would like to talk about something other than corona, when everyone is talking about corona, well, you talk about corona. Watching how people react to this pandemic has been very interesting to watch (the pandemic itself, of course, is awful). I can’t discuss corona from the point of view of a doctor or an epidemiologist or a virologist because I’m not one of these things. I can discuss it from my point of view as a lay person, watching the the social dynamics unfold. Early on in China, we had a few doctors noticing that there was an unusually bad flu and pneumonia season going on. I believe the first doctor reported on this was actually an ophthalmologist–an eye doctor–not a not an emergency, not a flu or pneumonia doctor. I’m not sure how this opthamologist actually knew that their bunch of pneumonia was going on–he must have been talking to other doctors, maybe some doctor friends of his. This means he wasn’t really the first person to notice that something bad was happening; he was just the first person to try to convey the information more broadly, perhaps because he already perceived it as well-known among people he knew.

He reported this in, I think, a doctor-based chat group he was in and and then, as we know, he was censored. Interestingly, he wasn’t harshly sensor by the CCP. It’s not like some big censoring agency collects all the chat log information and automatically sensors them, or automatically reads everything produced in China. Somebody actually in his chat must have reported him to the authorities. He reported him for being sensationalist, and this report made its way up the chain of command to the police and then they came and had a talking to him and told him not to raise any more alarms. So I don’t even know if the police had actually looked into what he was saying in any substantive way at that time, or if they were just going on the authority of the guy who’d complained about it. “If someone complained about it, it must be a problem,” kind of thinking.

And I’ve seen people even in the US defending the censors. They’ve compared it to yelling fire in a crowded theater–except, the thing is, the theater was on fire.

It’s reasonable to say “don’t yell fire in a crowded theater” if the theater is not on fire, but first you have to make sure the theater is not actually on on fire. If the theater is on fire and you tell people not to yell fire, then everybody dies in a fire.

And this is the situation we have now in Wuhan and other parts of the world: things got way further out of control than they would have if the doctor had been able in the first place to report what he was seeing to the government or to the right authorities. If he’d  been able to get support instead of being told “hey, you’re being alarmist,” then things would have gone a lot better. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to be alarmist to raise an alarm.

I feel like I’ve had the same pattern of conversation many times–take Galileo. We can talk about Galileo’s theories, whether they were right or wrong, but the fact is Galileo did end up under house arrest, possibly for being rude to the pope and for having theories about the way the universe works that the pope didn’t like.

Here’s where people jump in and argue that Galileo’s theories were wrong, therefore he deserved to be put under house arrest. Utter bullshit. You don’t put people under house arrest just because they have funny theories about the tides. (Disclaimer for the confused: Galileo claimed that the tides were proof that the Earth was sloshing around in space. The Earth does move through space, but the tides are not evidence of this.)

If you want to have scientific inquiry, some of your scientists will come up with funny theories, and if you put every scientist who comes up with a wrong theory under house arrest, you will very quickly run out of scientists. Was Galileo a jerk? Was he rude? I don’t know, but we don’t put people under house arrest for that, either. If you want people who can look at the established orthodoxy, who can look at authors like Galen and Aristotle who’ve been revered for about a thousand years, and proclaim that they’re wrong, then I think you have to accept that those people tend to be, by nature, cranky misanthropes.

If you limit your scientific inquiry only to people who are polite and deferential and never in their whole lives are rude to people (especially people whom they think are imbeciles), you’re not going to get a lot of science. And if you limit your alarm system about pandemics to people who can kiss the right ass while never sounding alarmed in any way, then you’re just going to end up dead.

Looking at the way information has spread, it’s been very striking how may “official” outlets were, early on, exceedingly wrong, eg:

Fox News? Wrong. CNN? Probably wrong. My local news network? Useless. Vox? Wrong. Official British medical experts who came up with the “herd immunity” plan? Wrong. CDC? Run by morons.

At least in the early stages, these folks seemed to know less about corona and its spread than, as I put it, random nobodies on Twitter. I know my little corner of the internet is interested in China–I follow a 3D printing account based in China, for example–I think people who are interested in technology are more likely to have contacts in their information orbit who are either in or reading Chinese publications, because there’s a lot of technological development going on in China, not to mention being home to a ton of technological industry. And of course some people are fascinated by autocratic governments like China (or just like the culture), Nick Land, for example, lives in China. It’s not just right-wingers, either: I know plenty of more liberal people who pay attention to things happening in China. I think it has more to do with being interested in technology or culture, and of course diseases.

I used to have some very nice theories about liberals and conservatives being split by their emotional reactions to disease, but the data in this pandemic is not supporting that.

blog_coronavirus_partisan

The NYTimes has this poll, but broken down by state so you can compare how concerned Republicans in New York are vs Democrats in New York, but the result is the same: in every state, Democrats are much more concerned than Republicans.

What’s the big difference between this outbreak and ebola? Speculatively:

Ebola: makes you explode, terrifying
Corona: suffocates you. Slightly less visually graphic, but still awful.
Ebola: Africa. Corona: China.
Ebola: quarantine would affect mostly people returning from Africa
Corona: quarantine affects everyone
Ebola broke out during Obama’s administration, so Fox News hyped it up to show how Obama wasn’t doing enough to protect us
Corona broke out during Trump’s admin, so Fox News has been downplaying it so Trump doesn’t get blamed.

Operating theory: where you get your news from matters. Those of us who get our news from the internet were plugged into Chinese happenings (not just internet racists). Those of us who get our news from the TV, by contrast, were less informed (even the TV racists).

Or maybe normies just aren’t as concerned about disease.

Whatever was going on, for whatever reasons, people on the internet were talking about the situation in Wuhan back in January. It was difficult to get trustworthy numbers, but it was pretty easy to get very concerning reports about things like “entire cities shut down.” At the time, we didn’t know whether China was overreacting or not, and we didn’t know whether the virus would spread or not. We’ve had previous concerning viruses like Ebola, SARS, MERS; these were bad viruses, but they never spread that well. (Technically, Covid is a SARS virus.)

The early stages in Wuhan were concerning because the CCP was definitely reacting like this was a huge deal, and this is coming from a government that has not historically acted like it has a huge concern for human life and well-being (at least from the outside perspective, eg, things like the Great Leap Forward killed millions of people,) but that makes it all the more concerning. If a government that doesn’t normally seem to care whether people live or die is suddenly concerned that people are going to die, you get worried.

(It may be that the Chinese government has changed a lot in its concern for human life since the Cultural Revolution and now puts in more effort to take care of its people, but that’s waiting into the weeds of Chinese policy and I don’t really know enough about China to comment coherently.) My point is just that the Chinese response certainly looked concerning.

It was concerning enough that very online people in the US were starting to plan ahead for the pandemic shutdown back in January. For example, I have talked to people who said they had started stocking up on food gradually, just buying a little bit extra each time they went to the store, a bag of rice here, a few cans of soup there, etc. This is a sensible way to do it, because if corona had turned out to be nothing, they you’ll eat the food eventually, and if there is a quarantine, you won’t be caught flat-footed. But most people simply ignored the news back in January–I think most people weren’t even aware that anything was going on in China.

Meanwhile, the reaction from governments and governmental bodies was much more muted. It’s been amazing to watch official medical folks working for the British government come out with ideas like “let’s just go for herd immunity,” which any idiot could have told you was terrible terrible idea. At that point, we had the examples of Iran and Italy in addition to China, so there’s really no excuse for proposing this terrible idea. Being ignorant about what an absolute disaster the Italian hospitals were at that point seems like almost willful ignorance, which is rather frightening.

Unfortunately the same thing is true here in the US. The CDC completely flubbed its early response to Corona. I’ve read a few of the emails released from the CDC, and I don’t see a lot of malice in these documents; I simply see a slow-moving organization that can’t get its act together and doesn’t realize how fast it needs to act. Some of this is probably because most of the health problems in the US, prior to Corona, were slow-moving problems. Our biggest issues these days are things like obesity and heart disease, conditions that will only kill you after multiple decades. The only major new communicable disease we’ve had is AIDS, which also takes years to kill you and hasn’t been a huge deal since the 90s. (You also generally have to be involved in some specific activities to catch AIDs. You can catch corona, by contrast, just by breathing.) So the CDC has not had to actually deal with a new, fast-spread epidemic disease in a very long time (if ever) and weren’t ready to act quickly. For example, they tried to deploy a digital questionnaire to airports for screening international arrivals, but the questionnaires had major problems, like an inability to save the information entered. Unfortunately, “predicting pandemics” and “coding questionnaires” are two different skillsets.

I think these people working for the CDC were probably watching ordinary TV news, which hasn’t done a great job of getting on the ground information about what’s going on with corna in different countries–CDC employees aren’t magic, after all. They have to get information from somewhere, and most of them are probably ordinary people who watch ordinary sources. If you watch MSNBC and MSNBC is not airing frontline reports from inside Chinese or Italian hospitals, then you have to go on YouTube to see videos of people dying in the hallways of Italian hospitals (maybe that’s not even on YouTube anymore. Maybe you have to go to LiveLeak). If you’re not the kind of person to seek out this information in the first place, or maybe you’re not in a group of people online who are talking about it, then you might not hear about it. It’s possible that maybe these CDC guys really just did not realize how serious this is and how fast they needed to act. They’re watching the media for information, and meanwhile the media is taking its cues from the CDC, and the whole thing becomes a circle with insufficient “official” sources of information.

As I’ve joked, early on you could have gotten better information from some random guy on Twitter named something like AnimeNaziTits999 than from the official government websites, but the CDC obviously can’t go getting its information from random anons. I can, because I’m just a random person with a blog, but the CDC has to get its information from official sources, or at least sources that don’t have really embarrassing names. The way some information sources are designated “official” is interesting, too. Sometimes that works–sometimes you really need to go to the official experts. For example, if you want to know about quantum thermodynamics, it’s really best to find an actual professor or read a real textbook on the subject, rather than listen to random lay people. People who haven’t put a lot of effort into learning quantum thermodynamics tend not to know anything about it (I don’t know anything about it, either), but there’s a ton of feel-good woo bullshit on anything related to “quantum.”

By contrast, there’s clearly no official route to get information from Wuhan, China, (or Italy) to the CDC–or if there are official routes, they have numerous choke points where people are suppressing information.

It’s not just China that’s suppressing information. I noticed the official news here in the US, until very recently, has had very little coverage of what’s actually been going on at the hospitals. I understand why we didn’t get much information about what was happening in Wuhan hospitals, but what about Italian hospitals? Our media can bring us a drone footage of migrants marching through Mexico, they can get into the front lines of refugees trying to cross from like turkey to Greece, they can even get embedded in military operations in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, but they couldn’t get into an Italian Hospital.

I don’t believe that for an instant.

I think somebody didn’t want this information getting out. Not necessarily because they’re evil, scheming people, but for the same reasons that the police didn’t want that doctor talking in China: they didn’t want people to be alarmist. Or they just weren’t set up to write articles on the subject. Clearly the New York Times was ready to write articles about Catholic highschool students who smiled awkwardly at Native American activists, but they weren’t ready to write articles about pandemics overwhelming Italian hospitals.

So we end up with very strange reports. We get told that in Spain they’ve commandeered ice rinks to store the bodies. That’s pretty graphic, but the net effect is like a media blackout on was actually going on in hospitals in the US.

Or perhaps the doctors don’t want things to reflect badly on their hospital, or are too busy to go pursuing media contacts. As an acquaintance pointed out, it’s very normal for employees to not be allowed to speak directly to the media about their jobs. So in China they have centralized censorship and in the US we have decentralized censorship. Great. Huge improvement.

But even if doctors can’t say much, you’d think media personnel who pride themselves on their investigative journalism heritage as the descendants of Woodward and Bernstein would say, “screw non-disclosure, I’m taking a camera down ER.” Folks who could get themselves embedded in a war ought to be able to manage an Italian ER, but I guess not.

We needed to know just how bad this was back in January. We needed to be making plans in February. At that point, people were still playing games and writing articles about how the flu was a bigger deal than Covid. The CDC needed to be raising the alarm and going on full alert, yelling that this was going to be a huge problem, but I don’t think they realized just how bad it was going to be, because they didn’t have the right information because their information chain, while normally good, wasn’t going through the right people and there were too many people with choke points on crucial information. We’ve got too many HR managers, too many PR guys at the hospitals telling people not to talk with the press, and too many people in the press saying that random anons on the internet are not valid sources of medical information (even though many of these folks on the internet are actually epidemiologists, virologists, doctors, etc).

An this has been happening in tandem with attempts by different organizations like Google, Twitter, and Facebook to crack down on the “invalid” information sources. Censorship, basically. Google has changed parts of their search algorithm to decrease results from blogs and increase results from more official websites, for example (before you run off to Duck Duck Go, I don’t think my blog is even indexed on Duck Duck Go). Shortly before corona really blew up, the social networks were debuting a beta program for identifying “fake news.” We can just imagine in a case like this where there has been a lot of incorrect information just because it’s a developing situation and we don’t know what’s going on yet, (we may never know how many people actually died in Wuhan) many legitimate news stories could get censored. Trying to weed out all of the fake news puts a damper on the real news and too many real things will get labeled as fake because we don’t know they’re real, yet. The real is in the future; it’s still developing. We don’t know what it is, yet. Too many real stories will sound, like the ophthalmologist raising the alarm in Wuhan, like a guy yelling fire in a crowded theater when the theater is actually on fire.

This is why I am against censorship and in favor of letting people run around saying dumb things, like that the tides prove the Earth. Yes, Galileo was wrong–and yet, the Earth moves.

Finally some Good News: Tibetan DNA

Hey, we take our good news where we get it.

Ancient mitogenomes show plateau populations from last 5200 years partially contributed to present day Tibetans:

Here we successfully sequenced 67 complete mitochondrial DNA genomes of 5200 to 300-year-old humans from the plateau. Apart from identifying two ancient plateau lineages (haplogroups D4j1b and M9a1a1c1b1a) that suggest some ancestors of Tibetans came from low-altitude areas 4750 to 2775 years ago and that some were involved in an expansion of people moving between high-altitude areas 2125 to 1100 years ago, we found limited evidence of recent matrilineal continuity on the plateau.

Congratulations to the authors. I enjoyed this paper and hope they have more in the works.

Skipping past some of the technical discussion, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of what it all means:

The haplogroup networks and haplotype–haplogroup sharing demonstrated to us that there was partial matrilineal continuity in Tibetans from 5200 years ago.

That means modern-day Tibetans descended from a mix of peoples, some of whom have been there for over 5,000 years, and some of whom arrived recently.

Under this continuity, some people spread from low-to-high altitudes 4750 to 2775 years ago and some expanded within high-altitude areas 2125 years ago. The timing revolved around the high-altitude agriculture transformed by barley, which appeared 5.2 ka near the northeastern edge of the plateau and moved into high altitudes by 3.6 ka [2].

Farmers. I wonder how difficult it was to get barley to grow up there. Tibet seems like a pretty harsh environment.

That said:

However, based on the 16 haplogroups that have a frequency in Tibetans (a subset of 21 unique haplogroups), D4j1b and M9a1a1c1b1a would represent about 13% (2 out of 6) as the footprint of that event. Thus, our findings did not favour a substantial migration of lowland farmers to the high-altitude areas.

So, farmers did expand into Tibet, but not a ton of farmers (or at least, not a ton of farming women.) Probably because Tibet is a really harsh place–both for people and barley strains that aren’t adapted to living there.

An explanation for the surplus of unaccounted maternal lineages could be that there were earlier waves of populations who settled into higher altitudes and underwent isolation by distance [26]. The earlier settlers were potentially hunters and gatherers who left behind no human fossils, perhaps connected to the blade tool assemblages or fossilized handprints and footprints dating to as far back as 40–30 ka [27] or 13–7 ka [28]. Our results could support a recent diffusion of plateau populations into an otherwise stable population continuous with previous high-altitude populations. A similar point of view has been made from analysing the whole genomes of present-day Tibetans [29].

What would being a hunter gatherer in Tibet have been like?

I figured there was probably some ancient population that has contributed to the modern Tibetan population both because of the aforementioned environmental difficulties, and also because the Tibetans show adaptations to the area, which take time to accumulate. Among those adaptations, Tibetans have some DNA they appear to have picked up from the Denisovans, and Denisovans probably haven’t lived in Tibet in a very, very long time.

Take care and stay healthy, everyone.

The Cost of Escape

While making plans for what looked like a looming corona-pocalypse, I thought back (as I often do) over the many disasters of history and what they must have looked like, before-hand, to the people caught in them.

What did ordinary Poles think on the eve of WWII? We know they did not expect war to arrive so furiously on their doorsteps, because if they had, the entire nation would have converted every scrap of wood and metal they had into boats and poured into the Baltic long before the Germans arrived. One in 5 Poles died in the war, a death rate that makes almost any risk worth taking. Almost no one expected this ahead of time; certainly many expected war, but only the most paranoid imagined tragedy at this scale.

And what did the average Jew expect? Certainly Hitler said some very unpleasant things about them, but again, no one expected cattle cars and gas chambers.

Wealth is tricky. You need money to buy your way out (few people can just walk or kayak their way out of a country,) but it is rarely kept in easily portable gold coins under the mattress. People tend to invest their money into houses or productive enterprises, which are difficult to liquidate quickly. If you realize that you need to get out fast, you can sell your house, but may only get half of its true value. (When Isaac Bacirongo had to flee the DRC in Still a Pygmy, he had to sell his house overnight; he got about half its value.) Even worse are degrees and certifications that you’ve spent years of effort and money to earn that are only good in one country. Having money is better than not having money, but moving money fast is difficult and requires significant losses–and people who’ve put a lot of effort into making money in the first place don’t like taking huge losses on the chance that something might go wrong in the future.

And it only gets worse if you have a family. Pull your kids out of school? Convince your wife’s parents to come with you? Leave your brother and sister behind?

Even if you think, “Things are going to get bad,” well, how bad? Enough to sell everything you own, take massive losses, and take your chances with the sharks?

The time to get out is early, when things are still good, but at this point, there’s no reason to get out. What are you, paranoid? The worse things get, the more obvious it becomes that you need to get out, but the worse things get, the harder it becomes to liquidate your assets and run. In other words, costs–while always high–are lower when risk is low and higher when risk is high.

So who gets out? The paranoid, the prescient, and the peripatetic (that is, those whose lives are already optimized for moving).

I’m sure insurance companies have an extensive literature on the subject.

It’s only in retrospect that we have the luxury of saying, “Boy, things sure did get bad! Here’s exactly when people should have gotten out!” Then we can tsk-tsk the ones who didn’t, the ones who didn’t see the writing on the wall or who weren’t willing to pull up stakes and run. In reality, though, you don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens.

I was worried enough about ebola to buy a big bag of rice and another of beans. There’s no harm in rice and beans, as I see it, and a lot of good if I need them. Thankfully ebola never became a big deal in the West–while it is awful and horrible and makes people basically explode, it is still difficult to catch if you don’t come in contact with the body and have things like modern sewer systems. Whew.

After that false alarm, should I be worried about corona? Certainly it has been a big deal in China, but will it peter out like SARS, and MERS, and ebola? Or will it spread out of control? Again, for me, preparation was not a big deal. I still had some of the rice and beans, after all; I already homeschool my kids. But this is obviously not true for everyone else. Most people have had difficult decisions to make. Few were prescient enough to make really hard ones in the weeks before the government started shutting things down and taking official steps to contain it. To most people, corona simply wasn’t a “real” threat when it was merely overseas; things only got real when the government declared it so. To many people, corona still isn’t a real threat, and won’t be until–or unless–thousands die. Of course, by that point, it’s much too late.

Containment strategies are best implemented early, before you know if the disease is a real threat or not. If they work, then the disease never turns into a problem–and if other countries do the same, then you have the difficulty of not knowing what would have happened had you not tried to contain the disease. You will know how much it cost you, but you don’t know how much you saved. Maybe the disease wouldn’t have been a problem anyway.

Let the disease spread, and if bodies start racking up, then you can implement containment strategies–but it will be too late for thousands of people.

People can calculate normal risks.

Calculating exceptional risks, though, is much harder.

The history of civilization is the history of plague

 

coronaweather
Map of coronavirus outbreaks vs temperature, from Razib’s article, “CoViD-19 and its Weather Dependency”

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SARS-CoronaVirus-2, aka SARS-CoV-2, aka Coronavirus, aka Corona Virus Disease, AKA CoViD-19, is only the latest in a long list of pandemics to travel the Silk Road from Asia to Europe (and back again).

The biggest plague in recorded history, often referred to simply as “The Plague,” was the  Black Death or Bubonic Plauge, caused by the yersinia pestis bacterium. Pestis killed over 200 million people, most of those during its famous European Tour between 1347-1353, but was actually still killing millions of people even in the early 20th century. The Third Pandemic, as the most recent outbreak is known, began in Yunnan, China in 1855, killed 10s of millions in China and India, spread to California (yersinia is now actually endemic to the fleas that infest prairie dogs in the American West,) and Africa, and was only declared over in 1960, when casualties dropped below 200 per year.

The bubonic plague ended because we can kill it with penicillin. The plague began in stone-age farming communities near the Black Sea, known as the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture, around 5500-2750BC. This was a lovely region with some of the world’s largest concentrations of humans and animals:

The majority of Cucuteni–Trypillia settlements consisted of high-density, small settlements (spaced 3 to 4 kilometres apart), concentrated mainly in the SiretPrut and Dniester river valleys.[3] During the Middle Trypillia phase (c. 4000 to 3500 BC), populations belonging to the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture built the largest settlements in Neolithic Europe, some of which contained as many as 3,000 structures and were possibly inhabited by 20,000 to 46,000 people.[4][5][6]

The culture thus extended northeast from the Danube river basin around the Iron Gates to the Black Sea and the Dnieper. It encompassed the central Carpathian Mountains as well as the plains, steppe and forest steppe on either side of the range. Its historical core lay around the middle to upper Dniester (the Podolian Upland).[2] During the Atlantic and Subboreal climatic periods in which the culture flourished, Europe was at its warmest and moistest since the end of the last Ice Age, creating favorable conditions for agriculture in this region.

As of 2003, about 3,000 cultural sites have been identified,[7] ranging from small villages to “vast settlements consisting of hundreds of dwellings surrounded by multiple ditches”.[16]

The inhabitants were involved with animal husbandryagriculturefishing and gatheringWheatrye and peas were grown. …

Their domesticated livestock consisted primarily of cattle, but included smaller numbers of pigs, sheep and goats. There is evidence, based on some of the surviving artistic depictions of animals from Cucuteni–Trypillia sites, that the ox was employed as a draft animal.[31]

In short, the Cucuteni-Trypillia are the most important culture you’ve never heard of:

Although this culture’s settlements sometimes grew to become some of the largest on earth at the time (up to 15,000 people), there is no evidence yet discovered of large-scale labor specialization. Their settlements were designed with the houses connecting with one another in long rows that circled around the center of the community. …

Although trade was not likely necessary, archaeological evidence supports the theory that long-distance trade in fact did occur. One of the clearest signs of long-distance trade is the presence of imported flint tools found at Cucuteni-Trypillia settlements.

Indeed, the Cucuteni-Trypillia saltworks located at the brackish spring at LuncaNeamţ County, Romania, may very well be the oldest in the world.[5] There is evidence to indicate that the production of this valuable commodity directly contributed to the rapid growth of the society.[6] This saltworks was so productive that it supplied the needs of the entire region. For this to happen, the salt had to be transported, which may have marked the beginning of a trade network that developed into a more complex system over time.[7]

The Cucuteni-Trypillia people were exporting Miorcani type flint to the west even from their first appearance. The import of flint from Dobruja indicates an interaction with the Gumelniţa-Karanovo culture and Aldeni-Stoicani cultures to the south. Toward the end of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture’s existence (from roughly 3000 B.C. to 2750 B.C.), copper traded from other societies (mostly from the Gumelniţa-Karanovo culture copper mines of the northeastern Balkan) began to appear throughout the region, and members of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture began to acquire skills necessary to use it to create various items. Along with the raw copper ore, finished copper tools, hunting weapons and other artifacts were also brought in from other cultures.[2] In exchange for the imported copper, the Cucuteni-Trypillia traders would export their finely crafted pottery and the high-quality flint that was to be found in their territory, which have been found in archaeological sites in distant lands.

The Cucuteni-Trypillia farmers lived on the edge of the Eurasian Steppe and interacted with the Yamnaya, nomadic herdsmen otherwise known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans. No one knows exactly why the PIEs decided to go on a rampage (perhaps a drought), but eventually they did, conquering (and probably absorbing) not only the Cucuteni-Trypillia, but also almost all of Europe, Iran, and India.

The important thing about the Cucuteni-Trypillia people is that there were a lot of them, living in close proximity to each other, with their animals.

Humans can live with animals, as the low-population density Mongols have traditionally done, without too much difficulty. Humans can live in enormous cities, like the 200,000 citizens of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, without too many problems (well, other than the cannibalism and human sacrifice). But cram humans and animals together, and you get diseases. Add in trade routes, and you get pandemics.

Rome
Source

In the year 1 (there was no year zero, despite what the graph says,) Rome was the capital of an empire with a population of almost 1.5 million people.

Between 169 and 180 AD, the Antonine Plague ravaged Rome, killing 2,000 people a day at its height. The Antonine Plague may have begun a few years earlier in China, but it was definitely brought back from the near east by soldiers returning from campaign. It spread across the Empire, killing approximately 5 million people. We think it was smallpox, but it might have been measles. Epidemiology wasn’t great in those days.

The Plague of Cyprian struck the Roman Empire between 249 and 262 AD; at its height, reports say that it killed 5,000 people a day in Rome. The effects of the plague can be seen clearly in the graph.

In 324, Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople (now Istanbul), ending Rome’s status as a major city for the next fifteen hundred years.

In 541, Yersinia Pestis made its first major debut with the Plague of Justinian, killing 25-50 million people in the Byzintine and Sasanian Empires. It most likely began in western China, was transported by nomads or merchants across central Eurasia, and then blasted through the civilized world.

Unfortunately, human complexity creates the conditions in which diseases breed.

Even without pandemics, the disease burden of early modern Europe was extremely high: most cities had grown much faster than their ability to dispose of waste and keep their inhabitants clean. The same trade networks that allow for the dispersal of new ideas and technologies (and what are technologies but ideas in action?) allow for the dispersal of pathogens. Indeed, their dispersal patterns are so similar that it is sensible to model ideas and diseases as the same thing, hence our much beloved “memes.”

Unfortunately, the spread of memes is now so rapid that humanity needs to stop and increase its technological ability to cope with the increased spread of disease.

Stay safe, stay clean, and stay healthy.

Love in the Time of Corona

30294e9d0f11ab46c91a6ef2ae833be1Sorry for the late post, guys. I’ve been voluntarily quarantined at home and lost track of the days. I was a little worried at first: would I start to feel antsy after spending multiple days indoors? Would I get bored? But never fear; I have adapted to the burrowing mole lifestyle with remarkable ease. Aside from milk, which is difficult to buy in bulk, we have enough food, books, games, and cleaning supplies to last for a good while.

How are the rest of you doing? Are you holding up okay?

I’ve been following the progress of covid-19 since news started emerging in China, but didn’t want to say much about it because I am neither a doctor nor a virologist, and don’t want to contribute to misinformation on such a serious topic. I am naturally prone to worrying about diseases and I have played those infection simulation games where you try to create a virus that infects the world, so I have been trying to find good reasons not to spend all of my time worrying for the past couple of months. Maybe China will get the virus under control, maybe there is something special about the Chinese that makes them prone to it, maybe air pollution or smoking are a big deal, maybe population density or sanitation are issues, etc. After all, ebola was plenty worrying (it seems to make people explode,) but never managed to spread in the first world because of our decent hygiene standards. (Pro tip: don’t explode in the water supply and don’t drain your diseases relatives of fluids prior to burial.)

But the news since January, as I’m sure you all know, has not been good. Whatever excuses we might make for Chinese death rates don’t particularly apply to Italy (or Iran). I’ve heard enough stories of people in their 20s and 30s needing to be intubated or put on ventilators to consider this a quite problematic virus.

The reactions of different countries (and people) to the virus have been interesting. We’ve lived most of our lives in a period of relatively low infectious diseases. Sure, HIV was terrifying in the 80s, but once they got it out of the blood supply, it was actually pretty hard to catch. If you’re older, you probably remember polio, and if you’re in my grandparent’s generation, you may remember measles, mumps, and rubella. But we’ve had many decades of relative infectional peace, unlike the accounts I’ve read of life before.

If you loved the Little House books as much as I did, you’ll remember the time the family caught malaria:

In the daytime there were only one or two mosquitoes in the house.  But at night, if the wind wasn’t blowing hard, mosquitoes came in thick swarms.  On still nights Pa kept piles of damp grass burning all around the house and the stable.  The damp grass made a smudge of smoke, to keep the mosquitoes away.  But a good many mosquitoes came, anyway. …

In the morning Laura’s forehead was speckled with mosquito bites…

Laura did not feel very well.  One day she felt cold even in the hot sunshine, and she could not get warm by the fire… She was tired and she ached.

“I ache, too,” Mary said.

Ma put her hand against Laura’s cheek.  “You can’t be cold,” she said.  “Your face is hot as fire.”

Ma called Pa, and he came in.  “Charles, do look at the girls,” she said. “I do believe they are sick.”

“Well, I don’t feel any too well myself,” said Pa.  “First I’m hot and then I’m cold, and I ache all over.”…

Ma and Pa looked a long time at each other and Ma said, “The place for you girls is bed.”

Since the whole family was affected at once, none of them was able to care for the others; it was up to Jack, the family’s bulldog, to seek help:

An arm lifted under her shoulders, and a black hand held a cup to her mouth.  Laura swallowed a bitter swallow and tried to turn her head away, but the cup followed her mouth.  The mellow, deep voice said again, “Drink it.  It will make you well.”  So Laura swallowed the whole bitter dose…

Next morning Laura felt so much better… She lay and watched Mrs. Scott tidy the house and give medicine to Pa and Ma and Mary.  Then it was Laura’s turn.  She opened her mouth, and Mrs. Scott poured a dreadful bitterness out of a small folded paper onto Laura’s tongue…

Then the doctor came.  And he was the black man.  Laura had never seen a black man before… She would have been afraid of him if she had not liked him so much.  He smiled at her with all his white teeth.  He talked with Pa and Ma, and laughed a rolling, jolly laugh.  They all wanted him to stay longer, but he had to hurry away.

Mrs. Scott said that all the settlers, up and down the creek, had fever’n’ague.  There were not enough well people to take care of the sick, and she had been going from house to house, working night and day.

“It’s a wonder you ever lived through,” she said.  “All of you down at once.”  What might have happened if Dr. Tan hadn’t found them, she didn’t know.

Dr. Tan was a doctor with the Indians.  He was on his way north to Independence when he came to Pa’s house.  It was a strange thing that Jack… had gone to meet Dr. Tan and begged him to come in.

“And here you all were, more dead than alive,” Mrs. Scott said.  Dr. Tan had stayed with them a day and night before Mrs. Scott came.  Now he was doctoring all the sick settlers.

You probably also remember when Mary went blind from scarlet fever: “Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma all had scarlet fever. Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary’s eyes and Mary was blind.” Though Mary was probably actually affected with meningoencephalitis–scarlet fever doesn’t make people go blind–scarlet fever was plenty fearful, with a case fatality rate of 15 to 30 percent (in the 1800s).

A CFR of 15-30% puts something like coronavirus, with an estimated CFR of 1-3%, in a bit of perspective. People used to die a lot. In the early 1800s, childhood mortality was around 45% (globally.) In the 1950s, childhood mortality in western Europe was still above 10%; today, even Africa is below 10%. (For sources, read here; lots of interesting data.) This implications of this change in mortality rates are quite under-discussed (among other things, it has probably contributed to our lower fertility rates, since families don’t need to have as many children to be confident of raising a few to adulthood.)

Our ancestors had little choice but to accept that death as a constant specter that haunted their lives. We, on the other hand, don’t. Whether our current approach is the correct approach, of course, remains to be seen–and unfortunately, we burned a good month and a half of advanced warning on petty bickering to score political points and asinine bureaucratic red time that I’ve been saying is the  devil for a decade and a half.

Stay in if you can, stay healthy, and take care.

Politics and the Modern Religion

Today I’m using a speech-to-text app for this post because I want to see if my conversation style is different from my normal writing style. I normally have many interesting conversations here at home which I then try to write down as the posts you read, so let’s see if I get nice flow going here or if the text to speech program is good enough to actually capture what I’m saying.

Today’s topic is religion and politics. I’ve been thinking about this over the weekend–just read last Friday post about religion and politics if you need to catch up–and I think this is an important, overlooked aspect of our electoral system.

Now, EvolutionistX is officially apolitical: we try not to do it much on the day-to-day workings of politics or politicians unless those workings happened to illuminate some broader idea or concept like fear or anger, energy use or demographic change, etc.

Politics are a good way of looking at human structures, but it’s very easy to get bogged down in the details of “this program has a 2% interest rate of 1% interest rate with a delayed API” and similar such things, so you have to be careful not to let yourself get sucked in.

One of the founding concepts of this blog is that there are some very basic, foundational patterns to life that show up over and over again. They show up in nature, they show up in society, they show up in the cosmos. They are part of the basic structure of the universe because they have to do with the way energy works the way atoms and electrons work and ultimately how math works. Like they say, math is the language God used to write the universe. So, take something like the Fibonacci numbers. The Fibonacci numbers show up over and over in nature. They show up in sunflower seeds, they show up in pine cones, in the reproductive patterns of rabbits and bees, in the spirals of galaxies and in our DNA. Why?

Basically, the Fibonacci sequence (and spiral) show up so often because it’s a very easy way to build numbers, and the ratios between them are very efficient:

Some of the pictures you see claiming to be Fibonacci spirals or Golden Ratios really aren’t, because people like to claim they’re everywhere, but they’re still very common, because they’re a very simple mathematical process that can be used to build complex objects.

When we’re looking at larger scale things, like organisms or societies, the same basic rules apply. Energy is energy, no matter how big you are. Space is space. So when I look at things like politics, I’m looking more for the universal, I’m looking for the mathematical, not the day-to-day. I want see the underlying structure of the thing and what motivates that structure: Is it energy? Is it math? Is it is a geography?

(I didn’t mention geography before, but sometimes there is a river and you’re not going to cross it and that just becomes your border, and sometimes the river is easy to cross so your people live in that River Valley and the whole valley becomes the cradle of your culture.)

When I look at the electoral politics, I don’t care as much about the day-to-day workings this policy or that person. I regard that as kind of gossipy. It has its good parts and is sometimes important, but long term, most of the day-to-day political news turns out to be totally irrelevant.

I think if you really want to understand American politics you need to step back, stop thinking about the policies, and realize that what we’re looking at here in America are two or three main ethno-religious groups.

What do I mean by ethno-religious groups? The ethno-religious group is a group of people that sees itself as a coherent ethnic group that all believes the same religion. Really, religions are ethnic groups because people tend to marry people who have the same belief structures as they do.

Let’s discuss ethno-religions a bit, because some people get really tripped up by the concept (and some people already understand it because they belong to an explicitly structured one. The rest of us, like fish, are often unaware of the water we swim in.) The American perspective traditionally has been freedom of religion: that religion is a matter of conscience. Free people are allowed to freely chose what they believe in, and people use their mental faculties–intelligence, logic, reason, etc–to pick the beliefs they think are most correct. Taken philosophically, this gets into the Free Will versus Determinism debate. People like claim that they use their free will to pick their religion, but do we really believe the entire population of Pakistan chooses every single generation to be 99% Muslim? Certainly Islam is the law of the land, yet if you asked them, I doubt the majority would say that they feel compelled to be Muslim. They would say that they actually believe their religion and that they believe any rational, thoughtful person who considered all of the alternatives would simply come to the conclusion that Islam is correct. And if you asked a Christian in Inquisition-era Spain the same question, they would also tell you that any rational person, using their faculties, would come to the obvious conclusion that Christianity is the correct religion.

And yet, of course, all of these people are really just following the religion they were taught by their parents when they were children. (This was the realization that turned me into an atheist.)

Religion is a funny thing like that, but once you believe a religion, you tend to marry other people from your own religion and you tend not to marry people who have radically different beliefs. Now, you might say “oh I like the Episcopalian Church but I’d be okay with Methodist or Lutheran,” but effectively there’s no difference between a Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans in modern America they. They are the same religion with very minor aesthetic differences. By contrast, if you believe God is a very harsh fellow–he doesn’t like gay people, smites people who disobey him with plagues, and wants women to wear burkas–and I believe God is a hippie guy who loves everyone and wants to hug all of the trees, our relationship might not work out so well.

People tend to marry into their own religion because they marry people with the same belief systems as themselves and because religions functionally define the boundaries of our communities and proper behavior.

If anything, the American experiment in which you can pick any religion you want and it’s assumed that people pick religions rationally is very unusual, historically speaking. Going back, every community used to have their own, tutelary deity. Athens was guarded by Athena. Poseidon, Apollo, and Aphrodite guarded Troy. And of course there are many ancient stories of people trying to score a military victory over their opponents by first stealing the statue of their tutelary deity.

This is why not making sacrifices to the local deity was considered a capital offense in the ancient world. If people turned against the deity would turn against them. Without the deity’s protection, the city (or country) would fall in battle and be destroyed. This is why Socrates was executed by Athens: they thought that Socrates was leading the citizens, the young people, into atheism, and if they became atheists then they wouldn’t make sacrifices to the city’s deities, and then the deities would abandon them and they would get conquered.

We see this sort of idea over and over

Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield. When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the Lord bring defeat on us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh, so that he may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.”

So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, “What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?”

When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid. “A god hasa]”>[a] come into the camp,” they said. “Oh no! Nothing like this has happened before. We’re doomed! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!”

10 So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. 11 The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

And in the Greek/Roman tale:

In Greek and Roman mythology,[1] the palladium or palladion was a cult image of great antiquity on which the safety of Troy and later Rome was said to depend, the wooden statue (xoanon) of Pallas Athena that Odysseus and Diomedes stole from the citadel of Troy and which was later taken to the future site of Rome by Aeneas. The Roman story is related in Virgil‘s Aeneid and other works. Rome possessed an object regarded as the actual Palladium for several centuries; it was in the care of the Vestal Virgins for nearly all this time. …

The arrival at Troy of the Palladium, fashioned by Athena[5] in remorse for the death of Pallas,[6] as part of the city’s founding myth, was variously referred to by Greeks, from the seventh century BC onwards. The Palladium was linked to the Samothrace mysteries through the pre-Olympian figure of Elektra, mother of Dardanus, progenitor of the Trojan royal line, and of Iasion, founder of the Samothrace mysteries.[7] Whether Elektra had come to Athena’s shrine of the Palladium as a pregnant suppliant and a god cast it into the territory of Ilium, because it had been profaned by the hands of a woman who was not a virgin,[8] or whether Elektra carried it herself[9] or whether it was given directly to Dardanus[10] vary in sources and scholia. In Ilion, King Ilus was blinded for touching the image to preserve it from a burning temple.[11]

During the Trojan War, the importance of the Palladium to Troy was said to have been revealed to the Greeks by Helenus, the prophetic son of Priam. … The Greeks learned from Helenus, that Troy would not fall while the Palladium, image or statue of Athena, remained within Troy’s walls. The difficult task of stealing this sacred statue again fell upon the shoulders of Odysseus and Diomedes. Since Troy could not be captured while it safeguarded this image, the Greeks Diomedes and Odysseus made their way to the citadel in Troy by a secret passage and carried it off. In this way the Greeks were then able to enter Troy and lay it waste using the deceit of the Trojan Horse. …

According to the Narratives of the Augustan period mythographer Conon as summarised by Photius[12], while the two heroes were on their way to the ships, Odysseus plotted to kill Diomedes and claim the Palladium (or perhaps the credit for gaining it) for himself. He raised his sword to stab Diomedes in the back. Diomedes was alerted to the danger by glimpsing the gleam of the sword in the moonlight. He disarmed Odysseus, tied his hands, and drove him along in front, beating his back with the flat of his sword… Because Odysseus was essential for the destruction of Troy, Diomedes refrained from punishing him. …

According to various versions of this legend the Trojan Palladium found its way to Athens, or Argos, or Sparta (all in Greece), or Rome in Italy. To this last city it was either brought by Aeneas the exiled Trojan (Diomedes, in this version, having only succeeded in stealing an imitation of the statue) or surrendered by Diomedes himself.

An actual object regarded as the Palladium was undoubtedly kept in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum for several centuries. It was regarded as one of the pignora imperii, sacred tokens or pledges of Roman rule (imperium).

And in the tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris, Orestes arrives at the island of Tauris with the intention of stealing the local deity in order to make the gods like him again:

O Phoebus, by thy oracles again
Why hast thou led me to these toils? E’er since,
In vengeance for my father’s blood, I slew
My mother, ceaseless by the Furies driven,
Vagrant, an outcast, many a bending course
My feet have trod: to thee I came, of the
Inquired this whirling frenzy by what means,
And by what means my labours I might end.
Thy voice commanded me to speed my course
To this wild coast of Tauris, where a shrine
Thy sister hath, Diana; thence to take
The statue of the goddess, which from heaven
(So say the natives) to this temple fell:
This image, or by fraud or fortune won,
The dangerous toil achieved, to place the prize
In the Athenian land: no more was said;
But that, performing this, I should obtain
Rest from my toils.

The tradition continues, though in the more moderate form of college students stealing each other’s mascots before major football games.

Of course, being an ethno-religious group doesn’t mean a group doesn’t have policies. The ancient Athenians had plenty of policies and political debates, many of which have been preserved and can still be read. Ancient Israel had judges and laws and political disputes. So does modern Israel; so do modern Palestinians, but the conflicts between them aren’t over “policies”, they’re over each group’s right to keep living in the area, drinking the water and tilling the land. After all, these are the things people need to survive.

Anyway, Old Stock Americans who believe in the Old Stock American religion are generally whites who arrived before the 1965 Immigration Act and live outside the Northeast/major cities. They are your original colonists, settlers, pioneers, prairie migrants–the Oregon Trail type people. They all started out from different European countries: England and France, Norway and Sweden, but over here they mixed together and quickly lost those original identities they just began calling themselves “whites” in contrast with the other major groups in the US.

American Christianity is not just Christianity that happened to be practiced by Americans. The founding belief of the Puritans and Pilgrims is manifest destiny: that America, the land itself, is a gift from God to the pioneers because they were righteous people.

And the early pioneers had good reason for this belief. When they arrived, yes, there were already people here, but those people seemed to just be fading away before them. People understood that diseases like Smallpox were killing the Indians, but they didn’t understand why Smallpox was so much more deadly for the Indians. All they knew was that it was.

The Pilgrims were essentially religious refugees who crossed the ocean to escape persecution, and when they got here, they found fertile, empty land. They saw in this the hand of Providence. So American Christianity in its basic form is a lot like early Judaism, which was founded on the story of Moses leading the people out of slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea and into the promised land. And American Christians knew that. For example, the town of Salem, Massachusetts (of witch trial fame) was named after Jerusalem.

“Salem” itself means peace, but it’s also the name of the tutelary deity of Jerusalem, Salim, which you might notice is not YHWH. “Jeru” means foundation or founding stone, so the city’s name translates to “foundation of Salim” or “city of Salim” but over the years, people have opted to interpret salim as “peace,” so that it is the “City of Peace.”

But anyway, these American pioneers saw themselves as founding the new Jerusalem, the new Zion, the new Shining City on the Hill that would be a light and a beacon to all nations. And I think the ultimate expression of this American religion is Mormonism, which replays the whole narrative again, with people escaping persecution, trekking across the wilderness all the way to Utah and then building Salt Lake City. And unlike the rest of us, the Mormons have their own prophets, their own book (a new new testament) and came up with theological explanations for the existence of Native Americans. It’s really interesting how they managed to do that, just as we came to the era of mass literacy.

Apotheosis_of_George_Washington2Now for the rest of us, as we were discussing last week in response to World’s Greatest Dad’s interview in Parallax Optics, the era of mass literacy makes iconogenesis–the creation of new deities or cult figures–difficult. If you go back to the 1800 and look at the pictures people used to paint of George Washington, he is near deified: there are beautiful paintings of Washington ascending into heaven surrounded by angels. If you read a modern biography of George Washington, certainly he was an impressive man who lead an impressive life, but you probably wouldn’t conclude that he was on the level of Elijah the prophet. But in the popular imagination–or at least when people needed to paint him for national buildings–he approached the level being taken into heaven in burning chariots.

People had this attitude back in the 1800s that the Founding Father’s were something like the Patriarchs of Israel, that the pilgrims and later Brigham Young and his followers were something like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and wandering in the wilderness.

By the way, we’ve all heard the story of Squanto and the first Thanksgiving, but I think people leave out a little bit that makes him such a miracle from the Pilgrims’ perspective: he spoke English.

Why on Earth would any Native Americans in the area speak English? Sure, Squanto helped the settlers plant corn, but the really important thing he was able to show them how to plant corn because he was able to communicate with them. Squanto knew English because he had been picked up by a previous group of colonists (probably some folks in Virginia,) learned English from them, and then dropped off around Massachusetts. From the Pilgrims’ perspective, this was an absolute miracle that there happened to be a guy who spoke English right where they needed him, who saved their lives after that horrible first winter killed so many of them.

American Christianity started with the Pilgrims, but oddly, their modern descendants don’t follow this religion anymore. Their religious descendants, as I’ve said, are mostly the Mormons, Southern Baptists, and similar groups. It’s very curious how that happened. (And of course I don’t mean that Mormons and Southern Baptists are exactly the same, just that they share this Old Stock American belief in manifest destiny, of going out into the wilderness and conquering the place.)

Any time people move into a place, they need some belief structure to organize their claim to the place. So Judaism makes a good model religion for a belief system based on invading the wilderness, conquering it, and saying “yes, this is the place that I own because God said so.” This is an expansion of your people rather than an expansion of ideas, so all you have to do for the religion to flourish is for your people to flourish.

On the other hand, what happens to a religion that is already established, so that after years of living in an area 400 years and the area is basically filled up? You no longer have a wilderness to expand into, and sometimes you even start talking to the people your ancestors used to fight and discover that they’re pretty decent.

As a model religion, early Christianity took Judaism, and added the concept of original sin to convince an existing population of people to convert to it. Judaism has the story of the serpent and the fruit in the Garden of Eden, but this sin was not hereditary. Christianity introduced the idea that you needed forgiveness for this sin, so its spread at least partly by convincing you that you had this sin and they could cure you of it.

We see this same pattern in modern Progressives, who have introduced the idea of an incurable original sin into the American founding mythos. If American Christianity is manifest destiny, persecuted religious group crossing the Wilderness, crossing the ocean led to their New Zion, the founding myth of Progressivism is slavery and racism. We see this in things like the 1619 Project, and if we had functional iconogenesis, the founding fathers of Progressivism, their new deities would be Saints MLK and Abraham Lincoln.

President Trump and Vice President Pence visit the MLK memorial, Washington, USA - 20 Jan 2020
Photo by ERIN SCOTT/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10531417p) US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, USA, 20 January 2020. (It’s hard to tell because the statue is so big, but that is the MLK statue.)

And we are very close to that, in fact. Why else would the President place a wreath at the feet of MLK’s statue? Statues don’t care about wreaths, but deities–and the people who believe in them–do.

(I hope this speech to text experiment is working. It is definitely very different from my perspective. When I write with my fingers, I can pause, sometimes I have to think hard about what I want to say and how to organize it. Right now I’m trying to figure out what I want to say on the fly, and I admit I feel untethered, unmoored. I’m not used to working like this and I hope it works.)

Anyway, when you get a new religion sweeping through the populace, it’s pretty normal for the new religion to go on a crusade of smashing up the idols of the old religion,  a la Abraham and the Taliban smashing up the Bahmian Buddhas. These old deities are often deemed “devils” and “demons” in the new religion. In the US, this process involves tearing down monuments to Confederate Heroes and generally insulting the memory of the old religion’s heroes, like Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Columbus. It’s a typical process of smashing the old religion’s symbols.

But I want to get back to you the election, because people won’t shut up about it. It was more fun back when we had a dozen or so people on the primary stage. Then everyone could find at least some perspectives they liked. But now we’re just down to the last few candidates: Warren, Biden, and Sanders. People have been trying to analyze why Biden is the front runner from a policy perspective, and I think this is basically the wrong approach. Of course you have policy differences between them, and they have to be personable enough that people want to vote for them–a truly boring candidate would have trouble motivating voters to head to the polls on election day.

But I think Biden’s popularity comes not from his support for particular policies, but because he represents the Democratic establishment. He was VP under Obama, so people who liked Obama and want more of the same aren’t really rejecting Warren or Warren’s policies so much as embracing their party’s core leader. If Warren had been Obama’s VP, then I think she’d be the front runner right now.

Sanders does have different ideas from the others, and as such he is the party’s “outsider” candidate. Even if people like his ideas, he is still, from a tribal perspective, slightly outside. If we look at the most tribal voters in the US–that is, the voters who vote along the strongest ethnic lines, it’s black voters. Blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic–something like 90, 95% of them voted for Obama. In elections where there weren’t any black guys running, blacks still vote around 85-90% in favor of the Democratic candidate. Whites are more split, voting about 55/45 or 60/40; Hispanics are in between, at around 60-75% voting for the same party. I’m pulling these numbers from memory, so don’t drag me if they’re slightly off.

Point is, the more tribal your voting pattern is, the less you are voting for “policies” and the more you are just voting for the guy who represents your side, not some outsider trying to swoop in and change things. And that’s how politics works in a multi-ethnic systems. Ethnic groups vote pretty much on party lines and just hope that their guy will enact policies that benefit them.

Just like the substantive claims of our religions, (eg, “Jesus rose from the dead,) we like to think that we actually believe the policies we claim to believe, but people can be convinced to change their opinions if someone they respect tells them otherwise. For example, the year before Trump came onto the electoral scene, my mother was in favor of helping “unaccompanied minors” coming over the border from Mexico. After hearing a few of Trump’s speeches, she decided we should build a wall. People who were telling me that Coronavirus wasn’t a big deal a couple of weeks ago have been changing their minds after seeing some of the information coming out of Italy, and people who thought it was a big deal decided it probably wasn’t after hearing Rush Limbaugh say it’s no more than the common cold.

Much of what people believe comes from the other people around them, so political beliefs get bound together in these weird packages. Like, someone starts out uncomfortable with homosexuality, and from there they go on to decide that the second amendment is really important and yay bump stocks, even though these two issues really have nothing in common except that they are both thought to be important by the same tribe of people. Likewise, someone who is gay will likely come out against racism and Islamophobia, even though there’s not only no connection between the two, but Muslims are actually not terribly friendly to gay people. That’s tribalism for you.

 

And that’s the end of my text. I hope this experiment worked; I’m feeling a bit feverish, so let’s hope it’s not coronavirus and take a break. You all stay safe, stay indoors, don’t hoard the toilet paper, and don’t cough on each other.

Take care.

Thoughts on modern religion

I was thinking about Japan, which from all of the accounts I have heard is a pleasant country that has entered the modern age without losing too much of its traditional charm. How does a country manage that?

Quoting WGD’s interview in Parallax Optics:

If I had to pin down a definition for iconoclasm that works, it is rapid, intentional, intergenerational change. That is, it is any intentional change that creates a discontinuity between a father and his sons. Progressivism is a cult of iconoclasm. We have had more unintentional change in the last two centuries than at any other point in human history, and progressivism has ridden that change into social disintegration, which has allowed will to power to overwhelm social restraint. To clarify, iconoclasm is a natural instinct, and is a useful tool in the right context. Divorced from its appropriate context, iconoclasm is a spiritual cancer.

I think the solution is having a countervailing cultural sense that opposes unnecessary changes–that is, a sense that some things are sacred.

If we start from pure animism and progress to today, we have an infinite supply of divine loci reducing down to one (or none). Each successive bout of iconoclasm was a valid coup, whereby the new, less idolatrous elite replaced the previous elite within the same ingroup. … What makes today special is that the postmodern sociopathic status maximiser has no ancient and powerful elite iconography to push off of and looks for anything that resembles divinity.

The difficulty, if you’re an American, is that so much of our “culture” is now created by corporations (were the favorite stories of your childhood the ones your parents made up for you, or did they come from Disney?) that it’s hard to find anything worth declaring sacred.

Within this context, the traditional American religion (Protestantism) has been lost. Church membership is plummeting across the board. Meanwhile, Progressivism has stepped into Protestantism’s shoes, replacing the original sin of fructal disobedience with the original sin of slavery and racism. An like all new religions, Progressivism can no longer stand the icons of its predecessor.

220px-18891109_arsenic_complexion_wafers_-_helena_independentTo be clear, even people who call themselves “Protestant” are, today, mostly Progressives. Progressivism grew out of Protestantism, yes, but its memetic immune system no longer recognizes itself as such, hence its attack on its own ancestral religion.

Just as advertisers will try to convince you that you have a problem you had never noticed before in order to sell the cure, for religions to spread, they also have to convince you that they have the cure to the problem you didn’t realize you had. (By contrast, already established religions only have to convince you to stick around and have children–which wasn’t all that difficult before the invention of birth control.) We are currently in what amounts to a religious frenzy which demands that we interpret even the most mundane events as evidence of man’s continued sinfulness, eg:

One of my kids thinks pasta is disgusting, and she expects her students to be okay with bat soup? This isn’t racism; this is a normal human reaction to unfamiliar foods–and she’s crying over it. God forbid she should ever have a disabled or autistic student with actual food restrictions.

What I’m for is formalising our faith into a more enduring religion. So many people have been so far below replacement for so long that they really do see the end of the world looming (their genes ain’t carrying on into the future), but for the rest of us, we need things to pass to our children – and more importantly their children – and connect them to what came before.

A lot of our problems probably stem from being in this historically unusual state of so many people having so few relatives around.

Underneath this is the level of machine language, completely inaccessible to normal humans, and largely inaccessible to even the most motivated. Humans generally do not belong on this level. Nobody really understands the Matrix as the Matix, but some (like Yarvin, imo) can understand it with some focus. Those who are able to comprehend reality on this level find it difficult, if not impossible to persuade others who cannot see what they see.

This is of course both the “red pill” and Plato’s allegory of the cave.

It is really distressing to look into reality and feel like suddenly you see all of the parts underneath, the things casting the shadows, and to yell at everyone that “hey, look, that’s not a dog, that’s a guy making his hands look like a dog!” and have most people just look at you like you’re crazy. Or to give a real life example, I see people arguing over this or that Democratic candidate’s policies as though they mattered when really, most voters will just vote for whomever gets the nomination, and the nomination will most likely go to whomever seems most establishment. All of this worrying over policies is meaningless drama.

That’s why I’ve got 1,000+ posts on this blog, after all: trying to explain my thoughts so I can communicate with others.

I’d still like to know WGD’s personal mechanism for decrypting the Real, even if necessity forces it to be framed in language that doesn’t sound sane.

On Rituals and Meaning

WGD recently gave an interview on Parallax Optics, On Orthodoxy, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm. It’s a dense piece that could easily stand to be 10x longer, but I think the point is basically about how we understand the world.

WGD talks about the cycle of iconogenesis/iconoclasm, particularly in the context of modern politics:

Iconoclasm is therefore the elimination of local faith loci (I often use the term “intermediaries” when discussing divine loci, because the infinite creator is ineffable, and our minds seem to require a compiler). In Judaism this is largely precluded by preventing the formation of these loci (although the Black Swan is pretty impressive when one does form), but progressivism has no pre-emptive measure, creating an iconogenesis/iconoclasm cycle that moves at the speed of information. …

Progressivism is, in some senses, the willingness to destroy or route around a locus. In our modern times, with any meritorious loci destroyed as quickly as it is discovered, progressivism is forced to turn iconoclasm itself into a locus. …

Progressivism is a cult of iconoclasm. We have had more unintentional change in the last two centuries than at any other point in human history, and progressivism has ridden that change into social disintegration, which has allowed will to power to overwhelm social restraint. To clarify, iconoclasm is a natural instinct, and is a useful tool in the right context. Divorced from its appropriate context, iconoclasm is a spiritual cancer.

My basic reaction:

The universe is real, but much vaster than we can really comprehend or deal with in any practical manner, so we have to divide it into useful chunks. The chunks we happen to chose are not arbitrary; they are only useful inasmuch as they are real, and are useless if they are not real.

A dog, for example, is a real thing. It is different from a cat or a wolf. A dog is a real part of the universe.

Words, however, are arbitrary. They’re random collections of sounds we ascribe meaning to. It doesn’t matter that “dog” has the sounds d-o-g in it. It would work just as well if we used the sounds c-a-n-i-s or p-e-r-r-o to denote a domesticated canine. But we use “dog” because we have a common, agreed upon understanding that this collection of sounds signifies something.

Being arbitrary in sound does not make it arbitrary in meaning.

Words are arbitrary, but the things they refer to are not. We have words for the wider dog family, including foxes and wolves: canines. We have a word for general domesticated animals that live with people: pets. We do not have a word for “the set of things that includes only dogs and dinosaurs,” because this is not a useful category: it does not refer back to a real set of things.

Words are the smallest unit of meaning. Cultures build up layer upon layer of meaning through things like a common stock of songs we’ve all heard and literature that we’ve all read and can allude to (“Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him well”). This accretion of meaning allowing us to increase the conceptual density of communication. I don’t even like Shakespeare that much, but we have hundreds of years of culture and communication built on him, so we can’t just toss him out in favor of a “non dead white male” without losing something important.

Removing these arbitrary cultural norms (on the grounds that they are “arbitrary”) leaves people unmoored. We end up with idiotic things like corporations referring to “people who menstruate” instead of “women” because they are afraid of offending the screeching masses who want disassemble language. These people object to the conceptual density of “woman” and so insist on breaking it into its component parts, but this makes communication much more difficult. Language forms symbols and layers of meaning naturally and attempting to pull that apart is unnatural and damaging: 

Culture goes well beyond language. We have clothes and games, rituals and holidays.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry gives the best explanation I have seen of the importance of rituals:

It was then that the fox appeared. …

‘Come and play with me,’ suggested the little prince.’I’m terribly sad.’

‘I can’t play with you,’ said the fox. ‘I am not tame.’

‘Oh! I beg your pardon,’ said the little prince. Then, after a moment’s thought, he added:
‘What does “tame” mean ?’ …

‘Something that is frequently neglected,’ said the fox. ‘It meam “to create ties” … To me, you are still only a small boy, just like a hundred thousand other small boys. And I have no need of you. And you in turn have no need of me. To you, I’m just a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you shall be unique in the world. To you, I shall be unique in the world.’

‘… My life is very monotonous. I run after the chickens; the men run after me. All the chickens are the same, and all the men are the same. Consequently, I get a little bored. but if you tame me, my days will be as if filled with sunlight. I shall know a sound of footstep different from all the rest. Other steps make me run to earth. Yours will call me out of my foxhole like music. And besides, look over there! You see the fields of corn ? Well, I don’t eat bread. Corn is of no use for me. Corn fields remind me of nothing. Which is sad! On the other hand, your hair is the colour of gold. So think how wonderful it will be when you have tamed me. The corn, which is golden, will remind me you. And I shall come to love the sound of the wind in the field of corn…”

The fox fell silent and looked steadily at the little prince for a long time. ‘Please,’ he said, ‘tame me!’

‘I should like to,’ replied the little prince, ‘but I don’t have much time. I have friends to discover and many things to understand.’ …

‘You have to be very patient,’ replied the fox. ‘First, you will sit down a short distance away from me, like that, in the grass. I shall watch you out of the corner of my eye and you will say nothing; words are the source of misunderstandings. But each day you may sit a little closer to me.’

The next day the little prince came back.

‘It would have been better to come back at the same time of the day,’said the fox. ‘For instance, if you come at four in the afternoon, when three o’clock strikes I shall begin to feel happy. The closer our time approaches, the happier I shall feel. By four o’clock I shall already be getting agitated and worried; I shall be discovering that happiness has its price! But if you show up at any old time, I’ll never know when to start dressing my hearth for you… We all need rituals.’

‘What is a ritual?’ said the little prince.

‘Something else that is frequently neglected,’ said the fox.

It’s what makes one day different from the other days, one hour different from the other hours. There is a ritual, for example, among my huntsmen. On Thursdays they dance with the village girls. So Thursday is a wonderful day for me! I can take a stroll as far as the vineyard. If the huntsmen went dancing at any old time, the days would all be the same, and I should never have a holiday.’
So the little prince tamed the fox.

Not all rituals are good or important. Of course not. We can make a very long list of terrible rituals humans have come up with over the years. But that does not mean that all rituals are bad. Indeed, most rituals humans have come up with are probably good.

The rate of technological change in modern society is such that we have been forced to give up a good many of the rituals that we used to find pleasant or comforting. This is not all bad–we have gained a great deal of nice technology in exchange–but it takes time to build up new, functional rituals to replace the old.

Anyway, it’s an interesting interview, so I encourage you to read it.

Why people believe wrong things, pt 1/?

In our continuing quest to understand why people believe wrong things (and how to be better judges of information ourselves,) let’s take a look at this article: ‘I brainwashed myself with the internet’: Nearly 45 weeks pregnant, she wanted a “freebirth” with no doctors. Online groups convinced her it would be OK.

Not exactly the catchiest title, but still worth a read.

Long story short, Judith, a first time mom-to-be, started listening to homebirth and “freebirth” podcasts on her way to work and decided that giving birth at home, with just her husband and maybe a couple of friends (but no doctors, midwives, or other trained medical personnel,) sounded like a good idea.

Unsurprisingly, there were complications and the baby was stillborn, a month late.

Birth is hard. Childbirth has historically been one of the major killers of women (and their infants). Modern medical care does not remove all of the risks of childbirth, but you are still significantly less likely to die giving birth in a hospital than alone in your bathroom.

I don’t want to spend this post criticizing Judith (there’s enough of that already out there.) I want to examine what could possibly possess a woman intelligent enough to have a job and drive a car to trust her life and her infant’s to… nothing at all? What made her think this was a good idea?

The article blames three things. First, Judith blames herself (naturally). Second, the author blames “algorithms,” the modern scare-word for “the internet is run on code.” And third, the “freebirth” and similar communities themselves fall under scrutiny.

I think one more person deserves blame: Judith’s husband, who supported his wife’s decision to forgo medical care during childbirth and didn’t intervene on behalf of his child.

1. Let’s start with the algorithms. We’ve seen a lot of scaremongering lately about “algorithms.” Supposedly the dark magic of the internet can lure unsuspecting, innocent people deeper and deeper into the depths of political conspiracies, creepy kids’ videos on YouTube, or straight up flat-Earthers:

With a little help from algorithms that nudged increasingly questionable information and sources her way, Judith had become a part of the internet’s most extreme pregnancy communities. …

Social media has come under fire in recent years for amplifying extreme views and employing algorithms that connect users to these potentially dangerous echo chambers. Although much of this criticism has focused on political extremism, experts and lawmakers have also pointed to extremism fueled by health misinformation as a threat to individuals and the public health at large.

“Things can get a little dicey,” said Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies the social media behavior of alternative health communities. “Not to demonize all of the groups, but when women start diagnosing and crowdsourcing health-related issues, they can end up getting bad medical advice that can be pretty dangerous.

“We’re in this weird time, like a new digital Wild, Wild West,” Koltai said.

Wow, “algorithms” sound really bad–except that all these algorithms actually do is recommend things similar to things you already like. It’s the same thing that happens on Amazon. If you search for slime, Amazon will show you a bunch of other slime-related products bought by other people who searched for slime. If you listen to your favorite folk band on YouTube, the suggestions bar will be filled with more folk bands listened to by people who also listened to your favorite band. Judith searched for freebirth, so she got recommendations related to freebirth.

A well-functioning algorithm does nothing more than try to recommend more of what you’re already interested in. If it works, you find something you want, like a new song or the perfect slime. If it doesn’t, you’re frustrated. 

If you join a bunch of Facebook communities about “natural birth” and “free birth,” you’ll get recommendations for more of the same. But there is nothing that compels people to click on these links, join these communities, and uncritically believe everything they read in them, any more than people are forced to buy “related items” advertised on Amazon. (And, by the way, no one is forcing you to watch weird porn on YouTube. “The algorithm made me do it” is the most pathetic 14-year-old-who-just-got-caught-watching-porn excuse I have ever heard.)

Judith didn’t just click recommended links–she actively sought out communities that would support her decision to ignore her doctor and midwife:

Judith also checked in with a local midwifery collective but ignored the gentle, constant advice that she induce.

Judith found a second opinion on Facebook. …

Searching the hashtag ‪#‎43weekspregnant‬ led her to a Facebook group called “Ten Month Mamas,” made up of a few hundred women who knew what she was going through. Judith joined.

Maybe, without the algorithms, she wouldn’t have known that there was more out there or thought to search for #43weekspregnant, but since she had just seen her doctor and midwife, she could have just as easily searched for information from doctors or real medical papers on the risks of being 43 weeks pregnant. Sweden did a whole study on this, but canceled it when 6 babies died at 42 weeks, so that information is definitely out there. (Thanks, Swedish friend, for the information.)

There’s been a push recently to blame “algorithms” for all of the bad stuff on the internet, whether it makes sense or not, as part of a wider push to make certain kinds of information more difficult to find. But the problem here is not the algorithms. (I, too, have been pregnant, and I have researched my options and even encountered freebirth advocates, but I didn’t try to give birth unassisted in a yurt because the idea never appealed to me.) The problem was the things Judith wanted.

You can’t change the overall algorithm to stop people like Judith from finding the information they want without breaking the algorithms for everyone. You might be able to build an algorithm that automatically detects certain types of behavior, like trolling or pornography, but “bad advice” is much harder to recognize (otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation). Communities like Judith’s would basically have to be shadowbanned or deleted on a case-by-case basis, which is both a lot of work for Facebook and an intrusive level of censorship. Yes, freebirth communities are clearly advocating something dangerous, but what about communities devoted to homebirth? Midwives? People who just really hate c-sections? Drawing a line between what is and isn’t “clearly dangerous” isn’t easy.

Finally, I would just like to note, in response to Mrs. Koltai’s comment, that millions of women (and men) have gotten excellent, life-saving medical advice online, much of it from non-professionals.

2. More credible blame lies, of course, with Judith and her husband. Judith chose her podcasts and sought out communities of like-minded people for support. She admits that she effectively “brainwashed” herself.

Why were these more appealing to Judith than regular medical advice?

Remember the old X-Files tagline: I want to believe?

Judith wanted a healthy pregnancy, uncomplicated labor, and a healthy baby–like almost all pregnant women–and if she’d had that, her freebirth would have gone off without a hitch. (Unfortunately, even the best of pregnancies can go wrong, rapidly and unexpectedly, once labor begins.) I think Judith wanted a healthy baby and uncomplicated labor so strongly that she refused to take seriously any information to the contrary. 

“43+1 today, politely declining hospital induction. … I really feel like this baby wants a home birth too but we are definitely being tested. What would you mamas do?”

This is a big red flag. Obviously fetuses cannot “want” anything. They are fetuses. Even babies do not “want” anything beyond the basics of infant care, like feeding, sleeping, and not being hot or cold. Do breech babies “want” to be born via c-section? Do ectopic pregnancies “want” to be implanted outside the uterus? No. This is magical thinking. You’re deluding yourself into thinking that “the baby wants” what you actually want, when it shouldn’t be about what anyone wants. It should be about what’s healthy.

When we want something to be true so much that we are willing to ignore evidence to the contrary, we experience cognitive dissonance. And we all do it. We all have things that we want to be true. Could our favorite politician really be a scumbag? Could our most cherished political solutions actually make things worse? Could our spouse cheat on us? Could we be not as smart as we think we are?

Sometimes I can feel cognitive dissonance–it’s this uncomfortable sensation in my head when trying to think about specific topics, like “presidents” and “people who are prettier than me.”

One sign that you are lying to yourself is that you have to hide what you are doing or thinking from the people who love you. Judith knew her relatives, aside from her husband, wouldn’t approve. She knew they would be afraid for her health or her baby’s health, but instead of listening, she hid what she was doing.

Unfortunately, merely wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true, in politics or real life, but these birth communities Judith had joined focused on the kind of magical thinking that leads people to believe that they can influence reality just by wishing hard enough:

“Birth is not a medical event but a spontaneous function of biology,” Free Birth Society instructor Yolande Norris-Clark says in the welcome video. It isn’t luck, Norris-Clark, an artist and mother of eight in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, breathily offers, but education, mindset and love of your baby, that hold the keys to successful freebirthing.

Education, love, and mindset have nothing to do with it. There are completely uneducated sharks mindlessly having bunches of healthy babies they’ll never love or care for out in the ocean and deeply loving, educated women with degrees in obstetrics and midwifery who need emergency c-sections due to ruptured uteruses.

Young people, especially, are used to having a fair amount of control over their lives, especially their bodies. They aren’t old enough yet to have been betrayed by hips, backs, or failing memories. They know that if they exercise they can lose weight or gain muscle. If they drink coffee they can stay up all night. They are used to thinking that with enough willpower, they can make their bodies do whatever they want.

Then comes labor. Labor is out of your control. You can no more “willpower” your way out of a bad labor than out of a failing kidney, and anyone who tells you that you can is lying. It can be deeply shocking.

3. The freebirth podcasts sold Judith a story–literally. She paid $300 for the freebirth society’s guide to how to have a baby at home, even though the process is literally “Wait until you go into labor. Try to find a comfortable position. Keep doing this until the baby comes out.” It’s a beautiful story, full of candles and yurts and beautiful thoughts and soaring spirits, but it’s still just an extremely expensive story.

The doctor will get sued if you die in his care, so the doctor has some incentive not to let you die. The random lady on the internet who sold you a $300 video about using your dog as a midwife will not, because who the hell trusts a dog to be their midwife?

Beware of people selling you a beautiful story who will not be impacted if you are the one who dies. They have no skin in this game.

These people sold Judith the idea that the magic of wishful thinking would get her a healthy baby and uncomplicated labor, and Judith wanted that healthy baby so much that she bought into it.

The actual claims of the “freebirth” and “home birth” communities bear investigating.

The course paints expectant mothers as warriors — and experts, doctors and midwives as the enemy.

In the video, Norris-Clark warns against induction, calling any procedure to bring on labor an “eviction from the womb.” …

Judith said the podcasts fanned her unease with doctors and medicine into a hot distrust, a common refrain in the freebirth community, in which hospital births are largely spoken about as traumatic experiences — harried medical teams rushing, poking, strapping women down to beds and pumping them full of drugs that confuse the mind, strangle the hormones responsible for love and push them into procedures that they didn’t feel they needed. Terms like “industrial obstetric tyranny” and “rape culture” are often used.

In general, you shouldn’t trust anyone who uses the phrase “rape culture” for anything that doesn’t involve actual rape. Prisons? Rape culture. Epidurals? Not rape culture.

Many people talk about women having “more control” at home than at the hospital. This is true, in a sense: you certainly won’t get an epidural if you don’t want one. It is untrue, though, in an emergency: you have far fewer options at home. If you need a c-section, well, you’re out of luck.

Doctors are not always right. Doctors are human; they make mistakes. Certainly people need places to talk about medical issues, get second opinions, and discuss what they should do if they disagree with their doctors’ opinions. But this kind of emotional language (“enemies”) is ridiculous and should be a big tip-off if you encounter it.

4. Let’s talk about these communities themselves. Obviously some of the people running them are absolute scum, making money off of other women’s suffering and their dead babies, but most of the people in them are good-hearted and well-intentioned. They are people like Judith herself, who really do want healthy babies.

The problem with these communities–and as a mom, I have been in many parenting-related communities and seen these problems first hand–is that they are always structured as “A supportive community for [activity X]” rather than “A supportive community for moms.” Activity X–whether it’s freebirth, breastfeeding, cloth diapering, etc–becomes the the focus, not the actual humans involved in them, and saying anything negative about the activity is forbidden.

So if you’re in a breastfeeding support group, you can’t give anti-breastfeeding advice like “Hey, sounds like this is really not working for you, maybe your baby would be better off on formula,” even if that is actually what someone needs to hear.

“43+1 today, politely declining hospital induction. They think I’m crazy,” Judith posted in Ten Month Mamas in January 2019, along with a list of the midwives’ concerns, including the baby’s larger size, her decreasing amniotic fluid and the integrity of her placenta, the organ that carries oxygen and nutrients from mother to baby. “… What would you mamas do?”

The comments rolled in, more than 50 per post.

“Trust your body.”

“Your baby isn’t ready to come out!”

“I would do exactly what you’re doing!”

“Keep going mumma, listen to your baby and your instincts — you got this.”

You only get positive comments on these sorts of posts because any negative comments get deleted and negative commentators get kicked out. Any time you are not getting at least some negative feedback, you have to ask why.

Yes, there is the argument (presented by one of the moderators) that these communities exist to allow discussion of a certain topic and if you want to discuss things that are not this topic, you can go literally anywhere else. The problem is that this is not how people actually operate. While you don’t want your group or message board to turn into 100% “Why this topic is wrong” posts, any discussion of a topic that doesn’t involve both sides is incomplete. Normal messageboards (take writers’ forums) have dedicated spaces for off-topic conversations, complaining, rants, and debates. Scientists and doctors welcome (at least in abstract) people who come up with new ways to test, falsify, and disprove theories, because this is how science and medicine advance.

If your advice is within the bounds of REALITY then you do not need to fear reality coming in and saying, “Hey, this is not for everyone. Some people need to do something different.”

If you can’t tell a woman in your community that maybe at 43 weeks she needs to get her ass to the doctor right away before her baby dies, then you have a PROBLEM.

I am not sure if this problem is specific to female-run communities, because I haven’t been in that many all-male ones, but I think it is. I think it is kind of a failure mode of how women prefer to interact, by removing points of view they don’t like from the conversation so they won’t have to interact with them rather than engaging directly.

So let’s try to summarize what went wrong:

  1. Algorithms: not that big a deal
  2. Wishful thinking: huge deal. We all do it, at least sometimes. Watch out for it.
  3. Sociopaths selling a beautiful dream: they want your money.
  4. Emotional language: interferes with logical thinking; big tip-off.
  5. Getting your information from communities that don’t allow for dissent or won’t tell you when you’re doing something dangerous.