Thursday, April 6, 2017

On the Left

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it                                                                                               Evelyn Beatrice Hall
I lied earlier, in “Everything Wrong with College”. There’s another bad thing about the higher education system in America that I failed to mention: it is the rapidly metastasizing home of the regressive left.

It's frustrating, because I don’t know where the left went wrong. Hopefully I’ll find it along the way.

I’m a “capital L” Liberal, and if pushed will readily slide towards “small s” socialism. I think that people have an obligation to society, and that society has an obligation to its people. It’s a fundamentally beneficial relationship, whereby people engage in work and enterprise that does not actively damage society (predatory economic activity, selling poison, etc.) and in return, society ensures a base level of comfort for all its people (food, housing, medical care, education, etc.). Marx is heavy-handed, but “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is basically the ideal.

There are implicit underlying assumptions: all human beings deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and have the right to swing their fists around as long as they don’t hit anyone else’s face. And yes, I am aware that this is a point of some contention.

So let’s restate it, as this is intro Tzedaka-level stuff; as long as there is basic economic justice, the vast majority of laws should essentially function under a “live and let live” system (aka the golden rule). The idea that economic justice is inextricable from social justice is not new:

"But we must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It's more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality."             Martin Luther King, Jr.

And this is where the left lost their way, I think. Somewhere along the way we stopped caring about the “War on Poverty” as much as we started caring about micro-aggressions, pronouns, who gets to go in what bathrooms, and a dozen other things that are essentially irrelevant to ensuring we live in a just society.

I covered the following pretty well in my first college post, but one of the basic problems and/or features of college is in enforcing and maintaining class boundaries — both economic and social. I’ve been to a number of (private) colleges in my life, and while I am sure there are ones that do not fit this mold, they seemed to be universally comprised of a diverse tapestry of rich people. Which is, I can only assume, how you get nonsense like this. And this. And this. And this. I could go on, there are many, many more examples.

It’s all pretty exhausting, because we’re, at least nominally, all on the same side. I don’t like “injustice” any more than they do. I’ve talked about the futility of protests before in “Trump: Still Bad”, but I want to be very, very clear. The end does not justify the means. You cannot fight illiberal behavior by engaging in it yourself. Like Ok, I get it,  you don’t want someone “racist” to come speak on your campus. But who exactly is being benefited by a disruptive protest? Free speech is an important right, the “right to not be offended” is not a right at all.

When you shout down alternative views, you’re saying that you can’t beat them in an argument. You make them the heroic underdogs, and yourselves the puritanical establishment. Censorship is not a sustainable goal in a world overseen by Google; ideas, even offensive ones, must be addressed with more subtlety. Clearly, yelling about them hasn’t made a whit of difference to the current political climate.

And, honestly, I can understand why someone like Curtis Yarvin would call the pseudo-puritanism of modern college campuses “the cathedral”. I’d provide a more detailed picture of his beliefs, but I’m not really interested in reading 100,000 words of Moldbug, so you’ll have to excuse me (this is not an out of place hyperbole — doing any more than scratching the surface requires an enormous amount of reading).  

This isn’t a sin from only one side, but it’s especially out of place from the left. Stop telling people what to do. Stop telling people what to think. Stop telling people they can’t say something. Stop pretending that having the moral high ground means you can do things like this. I don’t understand why this is such a difficult concept, and I don’t understand why people keep enabling terrible behavior. Free speech is more important than being offended, even if they’re wrong, even if they’re mean, even if they’re trying to offend you. You don’t get to choose when to apply your moral principles, and if you want something like free speech, free assembly, freedom from harassment, then act like it. (Re: “On Tribalism”)

Now can we please go back to fighting for things that matter?

Monday, April 3, 2017

On Monocultures

Out of the accumulations of his tilling came civilization. Civilization is the agricultural surplus.                                                                                                                                      H.G. Wells
It’s a strange quirk of modern life that food should cease to be a concern. Obviously there exists hunger and want in the world, but the planet is currently capable of feeding its population. It is quite recent, that most people no longer need to till the fields, with automation making it possible for a bare handful to feed a city. This capability is more precarious than people realize. So, let’s talk about monocultures. Let’s talk about Rust.
Plant rust. It's a fungus, not oxidation.

It’s not a secret that industrial-scale agriculture has changed how and what we consume. Just compare an actual fresh tomato to whatever is you can buy in average supermarket. The details of mass-scale food transportation are interesting, fruits and vegetables are picked unripe, shipped, and artificially ripened later. The necessity of the process informs the available varieties, and the non-existence of others. It’s interesting stuff, but a non-surface level summary is beyond the scope of this post. At this point, an extraordinary majority of food consumed is of only a few different cultivars.

Imagining a counter-example, where every single edible plant in the supermarket was like buying apples (Granny Smith, Mcintosh, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fugi, Honeycrisp, Empire, etc.). Apples are an example in another way, as there are thousands of distinct apple cultivars, but just 15 varieties account for over 90% of production. Most of our plants do not have as many commercially viable cultivars, and so most people know only the one.

But let’s get to the meat of this thing, let’s talk about the banana. Specifically, the Gros Michel banana.
Unlike most people with the initials DK, I do not enjoy bananas.

Gros Michel bananas were the banana, with wide commercial planting (ref. “Banana republics”), the subject of popular song(s), and widely agreed to taste more “Banana-y” than the Grand Nain bananas we currently enjoy (the artificial Banana flavoring tastes more like a Gros Michel than a Grand Nain). The only reason they replaced them with these other, inferior, bananas, is because they had to.

In the 1950s, Panama disease destroyed the commercial production of Gros Michel bananas. It’s a fungus, Fusarium oxysporum, it attacks the roots of the plant, and can live in the soil for up to 30 years. It’s everywhere and, like the current Grand Nain cultivar, Gros Michel bananas are highly similar genetically (most banana plants are clippings, they’ve been bred to have no seeds). So, a highly infectious fungus capable of taking down one can quickly and easily spread.

I think you can see where I’m going with this. The current monoculture of banana is under threat from a slightly different fungus, though at present quarantine has been effective at preventing it from interfering with central American banana production.

If this was a problem localized to bananas, I wouldn’t be writing this, because I do not like bananas. You can lose them all, as far as I care. Unfortunately, many if not most of our food crop strains at significant risk for fungi and other diseases.

Nor is the Gros Michel the first example of a lost food staple. Just a handful of decades earlier, the American chestnut tree (of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” fame) became functionally extinct following the accidental introduction of an Asian fungus. Billions of enormous trees, a fixture in the American landscape, and a central ingredient in American cuisine, rotted and died within decades.

Fungi are hard to fight. The spores are airborne, can live in the soil for decades, and can grow (harmlessly) on other plants. Even if you had an American chestnut, you couldn’t grow it. Even today, newly planted saplings only get a few meters high before the fungus takes them.

Another historical example is the Irish Potato Famine, which was caused by (surprise!) another fungus. Modern growers still struggle with the blight, as it is difficult for potatoes to develop immunity. Fungicides are used, though as I’ve previously noted with antibiotics, they are at best a temporary solution.

I know I’m belaboring the point, but realize that this is not meant to be as alarmist as some posts. The potato famine was a unique situation, where 2/5ths of the population were completely reliant on a single crop. The west, at least, is extremely unlikely to starve if one or more of the major world crops fail.

It’s just frustrating that we’ve even put ourselves in this situation. What happens if rust takes, say, coffee? Or wheat? Sustainability is one of those nasty buzzwords, but in this case, it’s important. We’ve needlessly threatened our food supply, and at the current rate of population growth, we may run into Malthus eventually, even without fungal assistance. (Though environmental contaminants can accomplish similar outcomes; New York and London used to be oyster towns until the pollution killed them off)

At this point, I’m assuming everyone comes here for doom and gloom, so I’ll throw in a little something extra: the troubles we’re having with monocultures is a rounding error compared to what will happen if we lose the bees.
This was a little harder to read than I'd like.
The top left text says "number of honey producing bee colonies"
and the other says "Parasitic mites introduced into U.S"

But even this isn't all bad, despite some species bee-coming endangered, it would seem like beekeepers are managing to stay ahead of colony collapses, which is encouraging news.

So, good news, I was definitely reaching on this one; it is not a threat on par with some of the others I’ve written about. It’ll be uncomfortable, sure, but even if commercial agriculture fails, the bees go extinct, we fish out the ocean, and all the monocultures rust away... even if we all end up eating nothing but yeast, humanity will still be alive. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

On Living in the Real World

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.                Carl Sagan
The dot in question
As usual, I’ve skipped past the obvious. I’ll be honest, I got some responses to my post about Virtual Reality that I did not anticipate, and I think they’re worth addressing in their own post.

Responses like “If billions retreat into virtual reality and stop reproducing, what does it matter?”, “Why is wireheading a bad thing?”, “Why do you care if people prefer not to live in the real world?”... And oh man, does that open a can of worms. I’ll do my best to answer, but be forewarned, I am not a trained philosopher, just a guy with a blog.

I’ll be the first to admit that I might have an unhealthy obsession with epistemic truths. I think it is fundamentally a mark of poor character to prefer a comforting lie to a hard truth, and I am (clearly) the kind of person who goes looking for these truths.

There’s a fuzzy concept I want to talk about, and that is meaning. Importance, emotional weight, and so on. I don’t tend to focus on abstractions very much, but examples abound. A dog is just an animal, until it’s your dog. It matters to you.

I worry that I’m doing a wretched job of explaining it. Words are just sounds, but a story has meaning. Here is my argument, shaky as it is: Humanity makes things have meaning. Mars is just a rock, but it means something to us, so it’s important. But Mars isn’t important by itself. If every human on earth was dead, Mars would no longer matter. Its existence, or non-existence, would have no meaning. There must be an observer to notice, or care.

I’m aware that I’m arguing in circles, trying to prove a tautology. I wonder if this is what faith feels like. I’m defining a concept based on the existence of humanity that is tied to the existence of humanity. Still, I can’t help but feel it. A brand-new city matters less than an old city, and even if it’s just in our heads, people have cared about old places for longer. The history matters.

In the end, it comes down to stories. A piece of metal becomes a crown, slab of rock becomes a gravestone, grain becomes a birthday cake. I have no way to satisfactorily prove this, except for my insistence. Cogito ergo sum.

This is somewhat related to the issue of consciousness. It is easy to imagine a frightfully intelligent machine, capable of performing complex tasks far above human cognition, and yet entirely lack a self. Arguing for anything even close to dualism makes me feel dirty, but there seems to be something to the human experience that is not mindless reaction, cold cognition, etc. The meat is alive, and aware. It knows itself.

The argument is wildly anthropocentric, but the universe means more with humans in it. If humans go to mars, live on mars, then mars will matter. And so on for the rest of the universe.

But if, instead, humanity retreats into a virtual world of its own creation, then that world will matter, but the real universe will never be able to. The Great Filter will get us, and humanity might live very happily in our virtual world on our one planet, until the sun swallows us up.

We’ve got all our eggs in one basket. If humanity is important, then it’s imperative that we avoid disaster and figure out a way to get ourselves in a position where one awful event won’t spell the end for us. (The precise natures of the possible disasters are varied, my Cassandra series, I hope, will eventually comprise a comprehensive list)

So that’s why I care. Because humanity matters. Going into a virtual world means never seeing the real one... which inevitably means the end of humanity, and the end of everything in the universe that matters.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Everything Wrong with College

You must never let schooling interfere with education                                            Grant Allen

College is an enormous waste of money and time.
It's not about money, it's about getting an education
I have spoken of this before, but if the opinions of my family and every hiring manager I've ever met are at all representative, this is a deeply unpopular conclusion.

This is, of course, not an original idea (I doubt I’ll get much further in this piece than summarizing Scott Alexander’s Against Tulip Subsidies), but I’ll do my best to persuade.  

If the opening quote didn’t set the tone clearly enough, I’ll be explicit: the educational system is fundamentally unconcerned with education. I recognize that saying it in this way carries a strong whiff of newspeak, so let’s approach it by means of a counter example: Medical School.

Medical School follows the basic trade school model, wherein the students are taught everything necessary to practice a craft. Medical schools are famously grueling, but in the end about 80% of them graduate and go on to become doctors. They also graduate with an average debt of over 160 thousand dollars, but we’ll get back to that.

But, ignoring the financial cost, medical schools are reasonably effective at creating doctors. Likewise, I assume, for Electrician/Welding/Mechanic/Air Conditioner Repair schools. If they didn’t teach a skill, no one would bother going. Let’s hold on to that thought, while we consider the high school diploma.

Please raise your hand if you know what, exactly, a high school diploma is supposed to teach. Because frankly, I don’t have any idea. I know there is a circular answer involving the completion of selected coursework and the passage of state-mandated exams, but I am completely and profoundly confused as to the purpose of it. I’m looking at lists of jobs and careers that don’t require a high school diploma, and a list of them that do, and I’m not seeing any indication that the knowledge learned in high school is at all relevant.

Obviously, the things taught — math, science, literature, history, etc. — have plenty of implicit value. But frankly, they aren’t something most people use on any regular basis, and certainly not at work. And while work is not the only aspect of life where people can benefit from education, it does seem like an important focus.

Now the purpose of education is a debated topic, to say the least. But from the broader economic standpoint, if the goal is to “provide for the fullest possible development of each learner for living morally, creatively, and productively in a democratic society”, it does not appear to be functioning as intended. (That quote comes from the ASCD)

Ignoring high school for a moment, it is a matter of historical record that university enrollment has increased dramatically. Charts like this one aren’t so surprising.
But more striking, I think, is this one:
Peak attendance was in 2009, but this second graph functions fine without it. The most important fact I took away from this chart is just how recent college education is. People went to college, sure, but it was only after the G.I. bill that enrollment really took off. One can, without too much oversimplification, label the baby boomers as the “first” modern college generation. And their children were even more serious about going to college, you can see the sharp uptick at around ’91 on the first graph. 

But, great, right? More people going to school, learning. All that jazz. Seems like a pretty fantastic thing, an unalloyed good, etc. If only it were true.

It’s not a pleasant conclusion to reach, and one that requires a bit of explanation. Which is why I started talking about high school. Consider this graph:
The number of high school graduates (as a percent of the population) has remained fairly stable since the 70s. They made a fuss last year, because we recently got a record high rate of graduates: 83%. And while I’m very happy for those students, it cannot be said that it constitutes significant improvement.

That’s obviously not ideal, but it looks very bad next to this:
The current national average spent per pupil is about 11 thousand dollars. Basically, that line just keeps going up diagonally. I have a more straightforward explanation for this: we hit peak graduation rate back in the 70s.

Now I don’t know all the details behind the various state examinations, but I would be incredibly surprised if they had gotten significantly more difficult since the 70s, especially in the face of No Child Left Behind and “teaching to the test”. The more reasonable assumption is that some (fixed?) percentage of people simply cannot handle the academic work needed to pass the test.

The problem is only exacerbated in college. Some non-trivial percentage of the people going to college are fundamentally incapable of producing college level work. This would not be as big of a problem, were it not for the fact that college degrees are becoming a necessary pre-requisite for any job.

The reason, if I had to guess, is that we’ve passed some sort of unfortunate societal tipping point. At some point, everyone needed a high school diploma, and if you didn’t have one, you were unemployable. Stanford professor David Larabee seems to think that the role of the educational system is to ensure class stratification, and learning is merely a side effect. He tracks history farther back than my graphs, but the results are the same. Apparently, high schools were originally the elite schools of the rich, while everyone else just went to primary school for a few years. Eventually people demanded parity and government-run high schools, and the rich subsequently decided they needed universities. And that same thing, I fear, is happening with college.

Ignoring the future non-existence of work for the time being, we’re shutting out some large percentage of people from jobs, simply based on the lack of a mostly useless degree (I’m being deliberately vague with these numbers, because I refuse to be derailed into a nature/nurture/IQ debate). This would be a horrific shame, even if it didn’t leave people destitute and suck up many years of their lives.

I’m not going to provide a graph, because it’s not news to anyone that a college education has become exponentially more expensive. It’s hard for any of my contemporaries to imagine, but a few short decades ago, you really could pay for college with a summer job. Today, students graduate with an average debt of over 30 thousand dollars. I’m trying not to let my emotions leak excessively onto the page, but this is really fucking upsetting on several levels, so it’s worth taking the time to figure out how we got to our current financial situation. Unfortunately, I think I know: government subsidies.

The problem is, in any (relatively) free capitalist system, the market will try to correct itself. When the government spent millions of dollars to send the G.I.s to university, they added an outside incentive into the system. It has only gotten worse since then, as the number of universities has increased dramatically, both as a response to student demand and the existence of free government money.

This is not a unique viewpoint, but the concern isn’t merely academic, the 1.4 trillion dollars of student loan debt accounts for more than 7% of the national GDP. It cannot continue. This is another unfortunate case of unintended consequences, and we are all (literally) paying for it.

Please don’t take this as a denigration of education. Far from it, I think learning is an important lifelong activity, and that people’s lives are immeasurably enriched through it. But in a world where everyone has access to Wikipedia, and you can learn advanced calculus on YouTube, the argument for formal education becomes much weaker. And while there are plenty of individual exceptions, it’s not abnormal to see people party through college, coast on an easy degree (buoyed by grade inflation), and then get a normal job in a field unrelated to their studies.

Looking at it from this perspective, it’s hard to see it working any other way. The students get money from the government (or from their parents or loans), and the universities get money from the students. Under such a system, the incentive on the university side is to keep the students as happy as possible. Everything else is just a way to improve the college’s perceived value, allowing them to charge higher tuitions, enroll more students, and get more money.

Clearly, the individual actors in this situation (the professors, the students, etc.) are not consciously behaving in this way. It’s Moloch, or, more specifically, a coordination failure inherent to the system. The momentum may have started by a desire for social stratification, or an excessive influx of money, but regardless it is now barreling forward on its own. And that’s how you end up with doctors being forced to endure 14 years of schooling. Hard to open a little family practice and provide cheap care when you’re 160 thousand dollars in debt.

Understanding the full scope of the problem is necessary, otherwise you get very well-meaning people endorsing free college for everyone. Which is a nice plan for making college more affordable, but only exacerbates the problem in the long term (and ensures that the bachelor’s degree will carry as much weight as a high school diploma). I’m not usually one to advocate for a freer market, but you can’t just ignore the disconnect by fiat. We’ve produced more college degrees (and Doctoral degrees, for that matter) than the market requires. It’s a classic bubble, and I don’t know what society will look like when it bursts.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

On Being a Cassandra: Virtual Reality

Previous Cassandra posts: A.I. — Global Warming — Antibiotics — Pandemic

Today's terrifying existential threat looks like this:
The headset, not the guy.
That's right, the threat is that you will look like a doofus. Truly blood-chilling.

But give me a chance to lay out my latest chicken-little argument, and soon you too can recoil at the thought of virtual reality.

Now while some mainstream publications have difficulty looking past the obvious initial problems of motion sickness and tripping on wires, my focus is on a more insidious problem.

Fair warning, this is more or less uncharted territory, and I’m going to be drawing from speculative fiction. Many of the ideas in here have been laid out better in “The Unincorporated Man” and, to a lesser extent, in the various horror stories written around “Friendship is Optimal”.

Let’s start at the beginning, with what I’m going to call “Axiom 1”: the world sucks.

I know, I know, but really, it does. More specifically, it is… not optimized for human happiness. This is not a new idea, and anyone with a passing familiarity with Judeo-Christian mythology will recognize the parallels with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden:

Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
  It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
   By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.

Blame entropy, blame the devil, blame whatever, but the fact remains: the world has things in it that people wish weren’t so. Now philosophical views differ on the benefits of pain, suffering, and discomfort, but I’m going to just leave the existence of them as an established fact. Axiom 1.

Axiom 2, people prefer pleasure to pain. Not especially groundbreaking, but worth mentioning in this context. Willpower is a finite thing, and people often get caught in hedonistic wells and/or addiction spirals, where they actively seek positive stimuli such as food, sex, drugs, or feelings of personal accomplishment. Even pleasure with net negative externalities are difficult to avoid, just ask the next cigarette smoker you see if they’ve ever tried to quit.

Which leads us directly into Axiom 3: People will seek out pleasurable feelings. It’s just how our brains operate, since feeling good is how our body tells our brain to keep doing that thing, and pain is something we shouldn’t do. Humans are animals, and animals fundamentally follow their base urges and instincts. These are not all first order operations, plenty of people feel good helping others and contributing to society; Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is instructive here.

Invented worlds, i.e. worlds designed by humans to maximize human pleasure, lack many of the limitations of Axiom 1. They can be more exciting, more fulfilling, and just better than the real world.

Clearly there is already substantial addictive behavior regarding our use of electronics, and the effect is far more pronounced in children who are growing up without knowing anything else.

At present, the world as it stands now has no significant virtual competitor and, isolated examples aside, no one is forsaking this world for an artificial one. If the predictions in my previous posts on Artificial Intelligence hold up, we are looking at a society where the majority of people have nothing to do, and no way to meaningfully contribute. Best case scenario, assuming there are social services to provide physically for these people, they will be healthy, fed, and intensely bored. The real world will have little to offer them, outside of basic sustenance — Maslow is a cruel master, and man cannot live on bread alone.

Enter, Virtual Reality. A simulated world designed from the ground up to entertain and provide for human needs, intended to supplant and replace the increasingly inhospitable real world. A world far more pleasurable and exciting than our own. Axiom 2, people will prefer this world, and Axiom 3, they will seek it out. If the choice is between a boring world of basic subsistence where everything of consequence is done by machines, or an exciting virtual world where you can be important and valued, the choice will be an obvious one. We are beginning to see this trend already.

There is an obvious counterargument that I want to address. Namely, “People won’t do that. The real world is going to be better because it’s real”. Unfortunately, I have to disagree, and I’ve got the science to back me up.

There is a landmark book of psychology: Niko Tinburgen’s “The Study of Instinct” (1951). In it, among other things, he talks about the concept of supernormal stimulus. There are dozens of animal examples, of instinctual preferences and behaviors going off the rails, birds preferring to feed fake chicks with wider, redder mouths, instead of their own offspring. Butterflies preferring to mate with brightly colored fakes. There are others, many experiments have verified that there is no natural limit to instinctive behavior and preferences. This is also demonstrably true in human beings as well, with males consistently preferring breast shapes that are only possible with augmentation, to say nothing about facebook, junk food, pornography, opioids, and other deliberately designed super-stimuli.

To put it bluntly, there are no guardrails. Humans do have higher cognitive abilities, so all hope is not lost, but most of the time when instinct and reason fight, reason loses. People eat more candy out of closer bowls, and it is really difficult to eat just one chip. It is not so farfetched to imagine an advanced VR system that connects directly to the sensory sections of the brain, wireheading a generation.
In this case, the worry is that we’d put ourselves into the pods voluntarily, Adolus Huxley-style. I can imagine the blue pill being a very popular option, when the choice is between a pleasurable, super-stimulating human-designed Matrix and a painful world where humanity is all but obsolete. The question isn’t “How many will plug in?” but “How many will be left?”

Monday, March 20, 2017

On the Void

I’m sorry. 

I don’t do this on purpose. I’d like to write about nice things, positive things. I wish people could read my blog and come away happy, entertained, and enlightened.

But I can’t. 
Thank you DeviantArt
There’s a famous quote by Fredrick Nietzsche. In English it’s usually translated as: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” 

I’m not sure it applies here. Maybe it does.

One of the more interesting things about depression is the way it changes how you think. Everything spirals back around to feeling bad. Because (in a non-existential sense), experiencing happiness is entirely dependent on the chemicals in your brain. If your brain can’t (or won’t) release the right chemicals, then no matter what happens, you won’t be happy.

This tends to manifest as a search for the grey lining of every silver cloud. It’s easier and more comfortable to feel bad about something concrete, than to focus on the void itself.

These days, there are lot of things to feel bad about. I wrote about this a bit in an earlier post, but there was something almost empowering by the widespread depression and anguish following Trump’s victory. But because when you spend your life expecting the worst thing to happen, even if you don’t like the thing, you’re ready for it. The crisis becomes manageable. You can make a plan and follow through

One of the main treatments for depression is cognitive behavioral therapy, which assumes that depression is as much a consequence of negative thought patterns as it is a physical condition. Which is very likely true, the brain is a powerful organ, as the placebo effect clearly demonstrates. By replacing negative thought patterns with positive ones, people can break out of the depressive spiral.
This comes up when you Google "depressive spiral". It's a little on the nose.
But a counterpoint, and this is going to sound like an unhealthy embrace of depressive thinking, but why? Not just “why bother?” but “why do this thing?”. I’ve talked about the optimism bias several times, but it bears repeating. “Normal” thoughts and thought patterns are consistently and provably wrong, people live their lives with a surplus of optimism, constantly biasing thoughts and behaviors to place themselves in the best possible light, and generally assuming things will all work out ok, even in bad situations.

Frankly, it makes me very frustrated. And maybe I’ve stared too long into the void, but I don’t want to be that way. If things are bad, I want to believe things are bad. The world doesn’t hinge on my beliefs, but as my Cassandra posts so distressingly explain, there are many reasons to feel pessimistic. The world just isn’t a happy place right now, and while I wish it were otherwise, I have to tell the truth.

Edit: An addendum. The author is not wallowing in a depressive spiral. This is meant as a partial defense of coping mechanisms and thought patterns wrought by depression, and should not be taken as an endorsement of depression. It is extraordinarily difficult to live life without some delusions of optimism, and it is extremely unwise to try. If you or a loved one are suffering from depression, you should know that they have fantastic chemicals that will really help. Please do what is necessary to acquire them. Thank you.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

On Being a Cassandra: Pandemic

C’est les microbes qui auront le dernier mot.
Louis Pasteur

Previous Cassandra Posts: A.I.Global WarmingAntibiotics

Continuing on my public health kick on the heels of my antibiotics-themed Cassandra post, I’d like to talk about another terrifying future threat:
Probably not
Now, apologies if I start shamelessly channeling Richard Preston, but it’s important to remember that diseases are one of the built-in controls on population growth. In many ways, disease acts on animal populations the same way predators do.

The point to keep in mind is that diseases are natural. And as the population density increases, so does the density of diseases, and the higher the chance for the disease to spread. Obviously humans are not the only animal whose numbers are similarly controlled, Hoof and Mouth disease in bovids comes to mind. I’m sure epidemiologists know more.

I’m assuming everyone is at least somewhat familiar with the history of the bubonic plague, aka “The Black Death”, but on the off chance that you’re not: in the mid 1300s, the plague spread throughout Asia and Europe, killing anywhere from 75 to 200 million people. Records are inconsistent both because it was 700 years ago, causes of death were harder to ascertain (or deliberately misrepresented to avoid quarantine), and the fact that over one third of the population was killed off (with some estimates as high as 60%).
There's a lot of bad-ass Black Death imagery to choose from
This is a staggering statistic to imagine, and really makes the people who thought the plague was god’s wrath and/or the end of the world seem a lot more reasonable.

The other important thing to remember is that disease and plague were a fact of life. If it wasn’t the black death, it was smallpox, and if it wasn’t smallpox, it was cholera. Or a hemorrhagic fever. Or any number of things. The black death was not the first and although the peak was in the mid to late 1300s, outbreaks (of varying sizes) continued to occur in Europe until the late 1800s, and still occur in many places around the world.

Obviously, the death tolls are not what they once were, even the worst modern outbreaks tend not to claim more than a few hundred lives at a time. Mainly because we’re better at quarantine, killing the fleas and rats that carry it, and we have various treatments for curing and preventing it. (Though, tying back into “On Being a Cassandra: Antibiotics”, there is serious public health concern about the possible spreading of an antibiotic-resistant bubonic plague. Luckily, at present only a few antibiotic-resistant strains have been observed.)

But while exotic tropical diseases like Dengue and Ebola are certainly exciting, from an epidemiology standpoint, they’re not the plague you should be most worried about. What you should be worried about is influenza.
JPEG artifacts are not a symptom of influenza
Now, there’s usually quite a bit of a fuss each year about bird flu, or swine flu, which I imagine is fairly puzzling to people who associate the flu with spending a few days feeling shitty in bed. So, let’s talk about the 1918 flu pandemic

In the span of a year, 500 million people were infected, and somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of them died. This amounted to about a 3-4% reduction in the worldwide population, and was at least three times the number of people who died in WWI.

Obviously, most flu strains are nowhere near as virulent as that one, and the flu is “incentivized” not to be that dangerous, as killing the host makes transmission more difficult. But, there is no reason why this year’s flu was not as dangerous, other than the fact that most flus aren’t that dangerous. That’s why the public health officials get so spooked when the latest H1N1 strain appears and kills a few thousand people, because a sufficiently virulent strain could do much worse damage. Also to note, the flu vaccine is not particularly effective against these pandemic flus, as they tend to be new and unaccounted for mutations.

Regardless of which disease you choose to concern yourself with, the simple fact is that our society is massively overdue for a pandemic. Our population is incredibly high, and incredibly dense in most places, with a shocking amount of interconnectedness (due to people traveling around via trains and planes). Not only is our society due for a pandemic, we are drastically unprepared for it. This is more than simple alarmism, according to the report I just linked: “the commission's own modeling suggests that we are more likely than not to see at least one pandemic over the next 100 years, and there is at least a 20 percent chance of seeing four or more.”

Nor are natural pandemics the only concern, just recently Bill Gates addressed the Munich Security Conference, warning of the risk posed by bio-terrorism. But whether natural or unnatural, if you’re looking for more things to worry about, don’t hesitate to add pandemics to your list.

P.S. Quarantine may be ineffective with certain dangerous diseases, as they are capable of drastically altering human behavior. See this study for more information.