“Jacob,” he said, imploringly. “Old Jacob Marley, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Jacob!”
“I have none to give,” the Ghost replied. “It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.”
Hello there and good morning, so to speak. It’s another Thursday, and therefore, it’s time for another of my blog posts. QED.
Much seems to be going on in the world outside, though I suspect it’s not that there’s more going on than usual, just that there’s a more unified nature to what’s most being talked about in the news and in rumor and in office chitchat (for those whose offices are still open) and online. But honestly, there’s not much real information being shared, as far as I can see. Most of what I’m reading and seeing has more to do with pigeons in skinner cages developing stereotyped behaviors because they think those behaviors lead to food being dispensed than with real, thinking people taking real, considered action.
Not that I should hold this against people. Humans are primates, and we react to stress the way primates do, only more so. There are exceptions, of course; a modest percentage of people really do make a difference. And certainly, a few of the actions many people take are beneficial. I’ve spoken of them before, and they haven’t really changed. But much of what people are doing beyond basic, consistent recommendations is as effective as hanging horseshoes and flicking the sign of the evil eye. And as with such things, if people come out well on the other end of events, they’ll consciously or tacitly attribute their success to having performed their arcane actions instead of mainly to luck coupled with the few reasonable things they do and to the general work of the medical community and the various support people and services who truly do make a difference.
The toilet paper manufacturers, at least, are surely doing very well out of all this, as are the makers of various “wipes” and related items. It would be nice—as I think I’ve noted before—if people took from this situation an increased tendency to wash their hands more frequently and more thoroughly, to cough and sneeze into appropriate places, and so on. And, of course, it would be nice if people took forethought into what they made their governments do regarding ongoing healthcare, scientific research, social safety nets in place for disasters, and so on. But I strongly suspect that this will not happen. Nature has not shaped us to be good at rational prioritization. We are much better at following our whims and then performing amazing feats of sophistry to justify our actions after the fact. We’re very good at telling those stories.
It’s may seem unfair of me to complain about storytelling, but at least I openly admit that my stories are fiction.
One ironic thing about this all is, of course, that my workplace is still functioning, since it is a small office of only a few people that doesn’t interact physically with the general public. I do our records and payroll, so I’d be working in any case. Conveniently, at my office, we have an actual doctor (me) to give coworkers recommendations and advice, which they promptly—sometimes instantaneously—ignore to instead do the equivalent of rubbing their crystals. Meanwhile, I’m not allowed to do the work for which I trained, and at which I was really quite good, in providing actual healthcare to some of the many people who need it.
It’s a bit of an irony, and one I bemoan, that people with loved ones with whom they share their daily lives, and to whom they are important on a daily basis, and with whom they interact, and on whom they mutually depend, are at significantly increased risk of infection, and thus of a small but nonzero chance of acute mortality. Meanwhile, extraterrestrial weirdos such as I, who could be plucked from the surface of the world any time, with nary a momentary ripple to show that I’d ever existed, are relatively protected. I suppose I could feel irritated that people are horning in on my act with all their talk of social isolation, but it’s not an act and I don’t recommend it except when it’s a necessity.
This is, oddly, a case where I feel something akin to jealousy of the people who suffer and die from this virus. It’s not the first such situation. And it is jealousy, rather than simple envy, because I really would like to deprive others of their illnesses, if that’s the proper word, and would happily take them all upon myself to do so. It would be an excellent exchange, to great mutual, net benefit—I can only suffer and die once, after all, not millions of times over. And it would be so nice to be so useful, and at the same time get what I want. Regrettably, this kind of sympathetic magic does not work in the real world. Physics is an implacable, intransigent bastard.
It would be nice to be more generally inspired by people’s reactions to global events, to feel moved by heroic individuals who rise to the occasion to help change things for the better. I’m certain that those people are out there. But they are a woefully small minority, and sometimes I think they’re doing a disservice by helping everyone else to survive when they really have no good excuse for doing so, beyond the inherent biological drive that nearly all living creatures have to stay alive. Very few humans have ever thought seriously and critically about whether life is truly worth living.
There are precious few inspiring humans in the world, and humans are more inspiring than any other creatures on this planet. The Earth’s history really is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Speaking of tales told by idiots, Unanimity continues to go well. I’m nicely into the penultimate editing run-through, and it continues to be fun to read, for me at least. If civilization survives—and/or if I do—then the book should be coming out sometime this year. I’m not sure if those contingencies are ones to which to look forward or to dread for all of you. I have a personal bias, and I’m betting that you can guess what it is, if you’ve been paying attention. But it’s not for me to decide such things for you.
I more or less completed the final mix of my song Schrodinger’s Head by last weekend, and it does sound better and clearer than the original. I just haven’t felt the urge to share it yet. I suppose I probably will at some point. I’ve been having more and more difficulty finding enjoyment in things that used to engage me, even my old fail safes. I’m losing my patience even for nonfiction, science and math reading, let alone for fiction, and even audiobooks are hard to bear. The blogs I used to enjoy are all so tediously overwhelmed with politics and pandemics in recent months and years, that I can’t bring myself to sit through a single whole episode. Even music is mostly just an irritant. I envy those who are able simply to sleep in their spare time. Perchance, to dream.
I encourage all of you to keep being careful, if your value your lives and health and those of the people around you, but you don’t need to panic or otherwise go nuts. Just follow the simple rules of handwashing, appropriate cleanliness, appropriate respiratory hygiene, and “social distancing”. If you want help with the latter, I’m more or less an involuntary expert, so I can give you some thoughts on it.
It helps to cultivate a conviction that you are not only inherently valueless on any serious scale of being, but that you are actually a burden and a chore to the people around you, a detriment and an unfair load on the shoulders of anyone kind but foolish and deluded enough to care what happens to you. If you’re able to do this, then trying to interact with others will soon become actually painful—even if you wish to do it—since it will make you feel guilty, anxious, and ashamed. Because these feelings will be aroused by the presence of and each interaction with others, you will come more and more to dread such interactions, and even to hate them, however much you wish it were otherwise. If you can arrange for those whom you love to despise you, or at least to find you unpleasant and uncomfortable and not to want you around, that can be very useful.
You can probably see how easy that is. Familiarity breeds contempt, for we humans are prone to recall and dwell on the noxious far more readily than the soothing…for good, sound, biological reasons which all but guarantee that each life will have more subjective suffering than joy. Creatures that are content and joyous and readily satisfied do not tend to survive to leave nearly as many offspring as those driven by the internal prods of anxiety, pain, longing, and insecurity. Obviously, too much of these things can be debilitating, and can impair biological success. Biology has to leave just enough of a carrot out front to make an organism decide that it’s worth moving forward at all, but short-term thinking combined tiny and transitory rewards accomplish that nicely. We overestimate the size of those often-illusory gains, while responding only too well to the many blows of the stick, and ensuring that the area under the curve of suffering is maximized across all life.
It’s rather akin to the dynamics of a viral contagion. A virus that kills too high a proportion of its hosts kills itself off before it can spread very far. A virus that spreads easily, producing symptoms that encourage its spread, like coughing and sneezing, and which only kills a modest few of its hosts, can maximize itself. Of course, host immunity in those that survive may suppress it before long, especially if those hosts can take active measures. But a good virus—like the flu, for instance—mutates often enough and is varied enough that developing lasting resistance to it is extremely difficult. It’s not a sprint, after all, it’s a marathon.
Wait, am I talking about viral epidemiology or about the nature of suffering in general? I suppose it’s a bit of both. They certainly overlap each other.