Will Americans Ever Be United?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 30, 2020

We might be the United States, but we’re hardly a united people. Hasn’t the melting pot of the world produced a particularly unhomogenized population?

If you pick any year in our history and study it, divisiveness is the norm. This has got me to wondering, are there topics of agreement that we mostly share?

For example, if we pass a law that means we want 100% of the people to abide by the law. Yet, a law can be passed by only a fraction of the population. Does it really make sense for 50% of the people to say how 100% of the people should act? But we’ll probably never get 100% agreement on anything. So, shouldn’t we think harder about what percentage of the vote equals a proper majority?

Would it be fair to require an 80% majority? That would still mean 20% of the population would oppose the law and would probably be unhappy. But it would also mean 80% of the population would be happy.

What we have is a happiness v. unhappiness ratio. Right now, we have a 50/50 ratio, which explains why our society is so polarized. Wouldn’t America be somewhat happier with a 60/40 ratio? And even happier with a 75/25 ratio?

We’re never going to have a 100% happy society. But shouldn’t we try to reduce the unhappy portion of the equation? My guess if we agreed to make 60% the required majority to win any vote, we’d see a shift in the contentment of the nation.

Ideally though, we’d eventually need to increase that to 75%, but right now that would be an impossibility. Just developing a 60% consensus would take a tremendous effort, mainly in learning how to make compromises.

Expecting the Unexpected

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 23, 2020

“The future is everything I never imagined” is a saying I created for my personal philosophy long ago. That doesn’t stop me from trying to predict what will happen. For example, Friday I have to go to my urologist about my prostate. I keep imagining all kinds of scenarios. By Thursday night I’ll have imagined dozens. After I leave his office on Friday it will be obvious that every situation I fantasized beforehand was a waste of time.

Before I retired in 2013 I imagined all kinds of goals to accomplished with my free time. None of them have been achieved. I have pursued a lot of activities, but none that I imagined before retiring. Isn’t that weird?

Fantasizing about the future comes in two kinds. Daydreaming of things you want to happen, and nightmaring things that will. The Covid-19 pandemic is nothing I ever expected or imagined, and I’ve read dozens of books about plagues. But then why would anyone picture a pandemic where everyone has to stay inside, with millions losing their jobs, and the economy going into a tailspin? All those consequences are so obvious with hindsight.

I do have a microscopic ability to predict a tiny way into the future. Whenever I have to go anyplace new I look it up on Google Maps and plan my route. Sometimes I even use Streetview to see how things will look. This generally works out and I easily get to my destination. I like how I feel when my effort to plan a small event works. I’m also pretty good about imagining what I want to buy at the grocery store. I even picture contingencies where one store won’t have something and where to go next to find it. Like I said, my ability to predict or plan the future is teeny-weenie, but it does feel good. I can also imagine writing a blog and then writing it.

This implies the near future can be imagined to a limited degree. What’s really hard is expecting the unexpected — like Covid-19. But would we even want this power?

I’ve found it philosophically amusing that I didn’t expect all the psychological changes I’ve undergone since I retired. I assumed my non-working years would be rather static and stable. And yes, day-to-day life is rather routine with a great deal of sameness. I even delight in my rut and habits. But I have to laugh at myself for the mental changes I’ve undergone in the last seven years.

What was unexpected is how much I would change in how I felt about things. I figured after a lifetime of being me, that I’d continued being me with boring consistency. And for the most part that’s true. The unexpected changes have been subtle, and very hard to explain. But aren’t emotions and feelings always ineffable? Maybe one way to explain this is to say I thought I was an 8-color box of Crayolas, and then I discovered I really had 16-colors. I should expect the unexpected and wonder if I’ll eventually be 32-colors. But I just can’t imagine that.

It’s obvious now, that I wouldn’t do what I imagined doing seven years ago. That should have been expected, but it wasn’t. I should have expected the unexpected since that’s what experience has always taught me all along.

I have just over a year left in my sixties. I shouldn’t even try to imagine my seventies or eighties. Death is always unexpected, even though it’s certain. I’m always observing older folks trying to get hints about the future, but I realize now that I can’t extrapolate how they feel from how they look. Whatever being 75 or 85 feels like is nothing I can ever imagine. It will be as unexpected as Covid-19.

JWH

 

 

What Is Your Specialty in Life?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Do you have a specialty in life? (Doesn’t everyone?) A subject you love more than anything else. A topic you want to share with others. An area of interest you always think about? I tend to believe everyone has one, but they don’t always reveal it. I’m not sure we know what interests our family and friends, what warms their heart of hearts. I don’t talk about my specialty with most of my friends because I know it will bore the crap out of them.

And of course, our specialty changes all the time. What fascinates us in our teenage years might be completely forgotten by our thirties. Or what we dwell on during work hours might be ignored nights and weekends. Or even what we think about waking up might not be what we dwell on before bed.

I know during my middle years I was obsessed with computers. I began computer school in 1971 with mainframes. They were interesting but not exciting. Then in 1978, I got obsessed with microcomputers, and until I retired in 2013 I spent most of my time at work and at home thinking about PCs and what they could do. I spent decades programming dBASE, FoxPro, HTML/ASP/SQL Server. I thought after I retired I would continue to program, but I haven’t. I planned to get into Python and artificial intelligence as a hobby. I keep thinking I will still, but it hasn’t happened in six years.

I’ve often wanted my specialty to be something other than what it actually was. I don’t think we have any free will over what fascinates our minds. I’m not even sure we can explain where our specialties originate. For some reason, our neurons are drawn to highly specific aspects of reality. Often, with no rhyme or reason.

Being retired is somewhat like living in limbo before dying. I love being retired, but it’s not like growing up when we were expected to study, or the work years, when we were expected to be productive. I suppose retired people are expected to have a good time in their waning years, and I do, but they are lacking in future goal thinking. When we were little, we prepared to grow up and become what we thought we wanted to be. When we worked, we prepared for the freedom of retiring and doing exactly what we really dreamed of doing when we were kids. What’s our real future goal now? Preparing to die? I guess if you’re Christian you can plan your heavenly years in eternity.

It really helps to have a specialty in retirement. The only thing is I never imagined the specialty I’d end up having in my retirement years. My current specialty is science fiction anthologies. My dream before retiring was to write science fiction, but I can’t make myself do that. If I had free will, if I had mastery over my domain, I’d be writing science fiction. I have all the time in the world to write science fiction, I just don’t.

What I currently like doing and thinking about doing is collecting and reading science fiction anthologies. I’m even in a Facebook group of 187 people that share the same specialty. Although there are only three of us that seem to have this as our major, the other 184 people probably only pursue it as a minor. Still, my specialty is what gets me up in the morning, and keeps me working all day long. When I’m too tired to do anything else, I try to watch TV at night, but I’m finding that hard. I can’t really focus on the shows. I wish I had the mental energy to keep reading science fiction anthologies or writing about them. I have to accept that specialty.

What’s yours?

JWH

When Will This Be Over?

by James Wallace Harris

All my friends bring up the same topic: When will this be over? It’s also a popular topic on social media, for newspaper columnists, and talking heads on television. Of course, no one knows the future, but we all want too.

Since the pandemic began I’ve become a news junky, compulsive reading dozens of Flipboard articles each day, The New York Times, even adding new TV sources like local news which I’ve avoided for decades, and on some occasions even checking to see what’s being reported from the Bizarro World of Fox News.

Everyone is betting all their hope on a vaccine, and the consensus seems to be it won’t be available for 12-18 months. However, I have read reports that throw doubt on that. First, we might not be able to develop a vaccine for coronaviruses like we do for influenza viruses — remember, we don’t have vaccines for colds (rhinovirus). That’s pretty scary, but dozens of research sites around the world are working on a vaccine, some even claiming they will have a vaccine ready by this September. However, I have also read that a vaccine for SARS turned out to have harmful side-effects. I’m quite anxious to get vaccinated. I get the flu shot every year and let my doctor load me up with any other vaccine she thinks I should have. But in this case, I might keep sheltering in place and following social distancing until I read they have done extensive testing on a coronavirus vaccine.

To further cloud the vaccine hope, I read the fastest they ever developed a new vaccine was four years, and usually takes 10-20 years. However, we might be seeing a Battle of Dunkirk miracle because over 70 research sites are working on a vaccine to rescue us, and that might produce extremely fast results.

I’m not a scientist so it’s hard to completely understand all the news stories I’m reading. But I have read that SARS-Cov-2/Covid-19 is already mutating into different strains. And I keep reading about people who have experienced the disease, recovered, and then tested positive for a second time. WTF! But remember we sometimes get multiple strains of flu each year, and flu shots are sometimes aimed at multiple strains. It’s a real crapshoot. What if they develop a Covid-19 vaccine, everyone feels safe, starts socializing, return to work and school, and then catches a new strain? That’s going to be depressing. Then there’s all that talk about a Second Wave.

Now that coronaviruses are in the human population, will we have to worry about new strains every year like the flu and colds? If only China could have eradicated Covid-19 like they did SARS. Now it’s probably permanently in the human population. Like the flu, every strain of coronavirus will be different. SARS was deadlier but didn’t spread as easily as Covid-19. What if the new normal is always having to worry about the latest strain of a coronavirus? The cold/flu/coronavirus season might become the norm.

Scientists don’t know if coronaviruses will be seasonal, or even if it is affected by hot weather. It was spreading to countries in the southern hemisphere this winter. There are plenty of diseases that always exist in the human population that aren’t seasonal.

I read another article, which I fear to mention because it might inspire reckless action. There are people who have gotten and recovered from Covid-19 who are already back to work and are socializing. Some have even said they feel guilty because they can go out, but they also said they feel invincible. As more people get the disease and go back to work and socializing, I worry many people will be tempted to just catch the disease hoping to gain natural immunity. But that’s playing Russian Roulette. Too many young healthy people are dying.

Until we know how long immunity lasts and how often new strains will pop up, depending on natural immunity is not yet practical. It could take years for humans and coronaviruses to adapt to each other and we have an understandable relationship with the coronavirus like we do colds and flues.

My worry is this won’t ever be over. Not in the sense we can go back to the way things were. My guess is we’ll develop a new normal. We’ll start getting tested all the time, we’ll develop high-tech infection tracking after hashing out privacy issues, and hopefully, we’ll have a variety of vaccines to take each year. But wearing masks might become standard, and people at risk will become extremely wary of socializing. We might completely revamp society to avoid all kinds of diseases. We should not forget that global warming is causing tropical diseases to move north. And many drugs are becoming impotent at curing old diseases we once controlled.

We may find massive travel and massive social events to be impractical. We might have to move away from the trend of massive urbanization. Human societies are becoming the perfect culture for diseases. We need to solve the problems of global warming, pollution, and overpopulation. They all interact with each other to create a lethal environment for humans. What if the next outbreak of SARS or Ebola isn’t contained and spreads like SARS-Cov-2? What if HIV/AIDS had been airborne infectious? What if Zika spreads worldwide? We might want universal healthcare to maximize the health security of everyone. Ultimately, there won’t be any place the .1 percent can fly or sail to avoid the contagious.

We need to consider if this current pandemic might be a wake-up call that normal is no longer practical.

JWH

 

Lessons From Black Swans

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 18, 2020

We always learn something from black swan events, such as the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 financial collapse. First, we’re always shocked by changes that many predicted and see the obvious warnings in hindsight. With the current pandemic, we’re now realizing just how many books and movies imagined an event like this one, and we asked ourselves “Why weren’t we prepared?” There were those who warned us about terrorist attacks and economic bubbles but we didn’t listen to them either.

Basically, people are hopeful. Or at least, they need to turn a blind eye to fear of the future. After the black swan lands, we become so fearful of another similar landing that we become paranoid for decades. We’ve spent trillions on worrying about terrorism since 9/11, and whenever Wall Street got the sniffles we’ve freaked out worrying about another giant economic downturn. Singapore was better prepared for COVID-19 because it had already experienced a SARS outbreak. We do learn, it just takes a big kick in the head first. On the other hand, some groups like Boomers and the Faithful are still living in denial about the current black swan. And preppers are having a big “I told you so” moment.

It now looks like this pandemic will hurt more Americans than terrorisms and wars, and damage the economy far more than any shenanigans of big business. We hope the coronavirus will clear up in weeks, but it could change the country for decades, just like other black swans. Events like this pandemic will also identify the grasshoppers and ants in society. Aesop’s fable told us not to always party and put away for tomorrow. This plague is going to sicken more people financially than medically. Far from everyone heeded the advice to set aside six months of living expenses, but really, how many ever imagined they would be told to stay home for months? I expect the lessons learned from surviving this pandemic will affect how people live for decades to come. And that too could affect the long term economic outlook. And I bet getting vaccinated for everything offered will become a lot more popular.

You’d think we’d start learning how to handle black swans. We’ve known for a very long time that if some people eat bats in China or monkeys in Africa diseases that previously only existed in animal reservoirs would jump the dam to dwell in us. We’ve had decades of experience containing these pathogen breakouts, knocking them back, and knowing if we failed the disease would become part of our regular lives. Every year cold and flu viruses flare up and travel around the world because so viruses are entrenched in us. If we don’t contain the coronavirus it could house itself permanently in Homo sapiens and either become an annual flareup or a chronic problem like TB. We don’t know enough yet, to say which.

For the year 2017, the CDC said these were the leading causes of deaths in the U.S.:

  • Heart disease: 647,457
  • Cancer: 599,108
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 169,936
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 160,201
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 146,383
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 121,404
  • Diabetes: 83,564
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 55,672
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50,633
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 47,173

If the coronavirus isn’t contained, and it looks like it won’t be, it could become another regular item on this list. The $64,000 question is where it will rank. Until we develop herd immunity and the experience of many years of living with mutated versions of the SARS/coronavirus, we won’t know. Eventually, it might become no more deadly than the other annual influenzas. But if it is truly ten times more deadly than the flu, it will come in at #3 behind heart disease and cancer. To handle that will require a complete transformation of our medical system. My guess is coronaviruses won’t be that deadly once humans develop natural and vaccinated immunities, but it will rank above Influenza and Pneumonia, or it will expand that category greatly.

What we have to do now is learn how to avoid COVID-19 until a vaccine can be developed. That means avoiding people for the next one to two years. I’m not sure we’re prepared to do that. But it also means learning to live in a new way — a much more germ conscious way. Should we allow so much airline travel if it confers such potential danger? So many economies depend on tourism. China has already announced bans on eating wild animals, but can they make hundreds of millions of people give up a multi-billion dollar industry that people have relished for centuries?

Can we invent personal bunny suits that protect us from diseases? Ones that are reusable, machine washable, and even fashionable? Can we invent vaccines that anticipate new diseases? Do we really need to congregate by the thousands? Will we just accept a certain level of death in society for the activities we love? We embrace cars knowing that 1.25 million people are killed by them every year — so maybe we’ll embrace gathering in sports arenas for ball games and rock concerts and just accept the related fatalities. Who knows what we will decide.

At first, I thought we were overreacting to the coronavirus. Everything is shutting down in my city which has only two infected people. I worried that thousands of people will be crushed financially. But the more I read about how European hospitals are being overrun by pandemic patients, and what it’s like to need a respirator to survive, that I now worry that we’re not panicking enough. I also assume if political leaders are freaked out enough to do all the things they are doing, then it’s probably going to be much worse than I feared. Political leaders aren’t known for quick action.

The die has been cast. Our society has committed to sheltering in place. Some people are thinking it will be for three weeks, but I don’t see how that’s possible. If the disease disappears with summer, I can see us getting a reprieve until next winter, but that means we need to hunker down for three months. Then we can run around for four months before taking shelter again. The goal is to wait it out until a vaccine is tested and distributed. Can we shelter in place for that long?

What if vaccines aren’t ready until Fall 2021? It means we have to learn a new way to live. How do we do our food shopping? How do people work and get paid? How do you go to the dentist or get your car repaired in the middle of a pandemic? If you need non-critical cataract or prostate surgery do you still go? It’s not going to be as bad as living through the Blitz in London or surviving Stalingrad, but it might be as challenging and inconvenient as living in America during WWII.

That’s the shocking thing about black swans — normalcy is suddenly disrupted — but we adapt. At least the people in history have. I’m already skilled at staying home for days at a time, so I don’t see learning to do it for weeks or months being a problem. But I do know most people might go crazy with cabin fever. And I worry about all my single friends. Sheltering at home for long periods by yourself might be deeply psychologically damaging. Many of my single friends also sneer at Facebook, but it might be a great social outlet during the plague months.

I’m lucky Susan moved back home last year after working a decade out of town. I’m also lucky that I have a wide-ranging set of internet friendships to keep me socially active. And I’m further lucky in that I have a long list of things I’ve been meaning to do. I generally ignore my to-do lists in favor of socializing, so maybe I’ll actually get some of the things done from those lists.

The most fascinating thing is we don’t know how this will change us. It’s another black swan about to land.

JWH