COVID-19: Sing alone, if at all

Screenshot anime MomoKuri

“I’ve disinfected my hands.” Unfortunately, disinfecting your hands may not be enough, or even the most important thing this time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has entered its second wave here in Europe. In much of the Americas and some other parts of the world, the first wave is not even over. Ironically, a vaccine seems to be only a few months away. If only we could keep it away a brief time longer!

At least we know more about how it is transmitted now. Or at least some of us know. So I thought I should say a few words about that. (A few words, hah.)

When the pandemic was new, we were in the strange situation of having its entire genome but not knowing for sure how it spread. This has never happened before, and it may have caused some of the jumping to conclusions that made the first wave so bad. See, the genome showed that the virus was fairly closely related to the original SARS virus from 2002. In fact, the new virus was named SARS-CoV-2 and still is. So it seemed a reasonable assumption that it spread similarly. Not quite the same way obviously, but perhaps that way too.

The original SARS was infamous for spreading by indirect contact. Its first “shock and awe” episode was when several people died after touching the same elevator button as a patient. As a result, some of the first advice was to wash your hands thoroughly and for a long time with soap, disinfect door handles and other shared surfaces, and not touch your face. (Leaving alone the stupidity of telling people to not touch their face, which even the health advisors continued to do at the press conferences where they told people not to do it, it is actually only the eyes, nostrils and mouth that needs avoiding even with surface contamination. Unbroken skin is very resistant to virus infection, even when it is thin.) People were also encouraged to wash perishable food (but not with chemicals!) and disinfect packaging, and let non-perishables stand untouched for three days to let the virus die.

Today we know that while this “hygiene theater” is mostly harmless, it is also mostly useless when it comes to COVID-19. The virus is mostly airborne, and resides in droplets that come out of people’s mouth and occasionally nose. Larger droplets fall to the ground after a distance of around 6 feet or close to 2 meters. But it has gradually become necessary to admit that a main pathway – perhaps THE main pathway – of transmission is aerosols,  or micro-droplets if you will use a more understandable name. These are so small and lightweight, they can float in he air for hours. And they are expelled even when breathing, particularly through the mouth, even more so when breathing heavily or talking, very much when talking loudly, and excessively when singing.

The great “shock and awe” episode of COVID-19, at least in the western world, was when a large part of a choir died after singing together, despite keeping the recommended distance and not facing each other. Similar but lesser episodes have happened elsewhere, among other places in Sweden where a local outbreak started after a song gathering. Here in Norway, a severe outbreak started in a Muslim community and spread to many schools after a festival.

Unlike some virus, the severity of this one seems to depend somewhat on how much virus you inhale, if you have a functioning immune system at all. Inhaling just a few virus seems to not cause infection at all in most, while inhaling a small dose will usually cause a mild disease except in the very old or sickly. Conversely, health workers who are exposed to massive doses of the virus often get critically ill and sometimes die, even when young and healthy.

In this situation, you would expect teachers to die like canaries in a coal mine, given how ubiquitous singing is in especially primary school. But there is one thing that comes to their rescue: The amazing ability of children to infect everyone around them with every germ that comes to town.

A Swedish study showed that in a control group who had not had COVID-19, about 1/3 still had T-cells that reacted against the virus. It is believed that these had been exposed to other corona-virus which cause common cold. (Please note that there are many different virus that cause “common cold”, which is merely a set of symptoms and not a particular species of virus.) There are at least four common colds that come from corona-virus, the latest one having split from bovine corona-virus around 1880. It is possible that the current pandemic will eventually join this crowd and become a recurring but mostly harmless cold, but for now it must be taken much more seriously. The good news is that most kids and their teachers probably have some resistance to it already because they have been exposed to related virus.

That said, if at all possible, singing should be suspended for the duration of the pandemic, or until a vaccine or effective treatment is widely available. Locales should be aired as much as feasible, and any activity that can take place outdoors should do so. Outdoors, the micro-droplets will rapidly disperse: Even if there is no breeze, convection and Brownian motion will quickly remove them from face height. This would explain why the large demonstrations in many countries this summer had minimal effect, while weddings and birthday celebrations are pure murder, since they tend to be held indoors in whole or in part.

For more reading, not by me, Elemental has an article on this topic, partly overlapping with mine but with a different focus: The most likely way you’ll get infected with COVID-19

COVID-19: Be like Norway, maybe?

“Be like Sweden” they said. “It will be fun, they said.” (Image from the Swedish course on Duolingo.com.)

Since I am still alive (surprise!), I should probably write this. It is still a time of confusion for many, and a time of uncertainty even for me. How long I shall remain in the world of forms is literally up in the air. But at least I am still alive as of writing this. And living in Norway may be a big part of that.

“Be like Sweden” say homemade banners from people who are not usually big fans of the Nordic social democracy. Social Democracy is generally grouped with Socialism among those who have no education in the field beyond hearsay and rumors. So what did Sweden do to summon forth this sudden love? It allowed a few thousand people to die for the economy, it seems.

I should make it clear that we are not talking about “Hey, we have too many old people here, let’s kill some of them off for the good of all of us, except the ones who are dead.” Nope, nothing like that. More like “Some of you are going to die, probably, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.” Obviously, with COVID-19 being a brand new disease, nobody knew for sure how many might die, but optimism prevailed. It was thought that children were immune and also could not spread the virus, and that maybe 95% of those infected never developed the disease at all, or not beyond a common cold. Hey, seriously, people believed that for a while. So much like any drunk driver, Sweden took the chance that it would probably be fine. Well, they were kind of right, in that only 5000 have died so far (officially at least) out of 10 million. Of course, those who died might have seen it in a less positive light.

My native Norway, Sweden’s smaller brother to the west, was || this close to taking the same path. But our female Prime Minister chickened out and slammed the emergency brakes. As a result Norway could open up again around the time Sweden realized that things were not really going as well as expected.

***

On March 12, the Norwegian government declared the most severe restrictions in peacetime ever. (Arguably the most severe ever, since we’ve only been in war once after our independence in 1905, and then it was the German occupation force that introduced the severity.) Schools and kindergartens were closed down, as were one-on-one services like hairdressers or physical therapy; gatherings of more than 5 people outside the household were forbidden, and travel was severely restricted even inside the country while the borders were closed almost completely. Health personnel were forbidden from leaving the country, and others who crossed the borders were required to quarantine on return.

Groceries and supermarkets were kept open and it was made clear that they would remain so. This prevented most of the hoarding seen in some other nations. Actually, my local supermarket had a sale on toilet paper at the time when lack of toilet paper was a recurring headline in many other countries. There was some extra sale of dry and canned food. (I had shopped that a month or two in advance, since it was glaringly obvious already in January that the pandemic would hit us like a giant wave.)

I had also worked from home for a while when the order came for all office workers to work from home wherever possible. Mass transit was ordered to leave every other seat marked as unavailable. Like that would be enough, as one person sneezing in a bus will reach at least half the bus if not all of it. Data so far imply that mass transit has been the main scene of transmission along with shared workspace, so sending most office workers home was probably the single most effective move, far more than some of the more draconian restrictions.

By the end of April, the first wave of the pandemic was fast receding in Norway, and society began to open up.

***

The re-opening of Norway started with kindergarten, as one could expect since it is quite rare to have stay-at-home parents here, of either gender. If you’ve ever seen pre-school children awake, you probably can imagine what having them around would do for productivity at the home office. Even grade school kids tend to get restless pretty quickly if they don’t get attention (especially if they don’t have the good luck to be born introverts). So a week after their smaller siblings, the first four grades of primary school were off to class, followed by the rest in early May.

Also in early May, gatherings of up to 20 people were allowed, or 50 for formal gatherings in public spaces. Recommended distance was lowered from 2 meters (yards) to 1.

In May, the rapid fall in new infections stopped and the disease stabilized on a very low level, typically 10-20 new cases registered per day, in a population of 5 million. For some reason everyone seems happy with having rolled the boulder almost to the top of the hill and leaving it there, ready to roll all the way back down again, rather than end the threat more definitely. One reason for that can be seen by looking over the border to the east: Neighboring Sweden still had a raging epidemic, even though the top of the first wave had been passed even there. The top was far higher though, and the decline slower. Eradicating the disease in Norway was perhaps pointless if anyone sneaking across the border could set it off again from the start.

***

It is now late June, and contrary to my expectations, we have not had a second wave. The number of infections has increased marginally, occasionally rising above 30 new cases per day. We also know that there are some unregistered cases, because we get new patients who have no idea where they were infected. There are probably some asymptomatic carriers, or people with so mild symptoms that they can’t be bothered to get tested, as well as people who avoid health personnel or anything resembling government for personal reasons. The testing capacity is far, far higher than needed, although there are occasionally unnecessary wait times for results. Mostly just a couple days though.

Norwegians have been encouraged to vacation in Norway, meaning evidently that they are supposed to travel to other parts of Norway on vacation instead of staying at home as would be the sane thing to do. Now they are going to throng together at the popular tourist spots (one of which is right here where I live) and we can expect local outbreaks.

***

Speaking of local outbreaks, one reason the topic came to mind again was that a shop worker sneezed right by me this past Friday. Nobody here wears face masks – by ancient tradition, only criminals wear masks outside certain parts of hospitals – so now I’m waiting to see whether I got COVID-19 or not. A bit of excitement in everyday life, since I’m in a couple risk groups. That said, there’s been like 1 registered case in this province so far in June, so if I get COVID-19 from this episode I think we’ll have to chalk it up to Divine intervention. Which admittedly seems to play a pretty big role in my life, looking back on it, but usually for the better. Starting with the amazingly great fortune of being born into Norwegian citizenship, which is already like winning a lottery.

Mighty judgment coming

Sceenshot anime Tokyo Mag 8

In the anime “Tokyo Mag 8”, a girl writes an angry text, wishing that the world would just break. Right after she sends it, the city is hit by a devastating earthquake. Even in the anime, she is not the reason for the disaster, but it still has to feel pretty bad looking back on it.

I live in Norway, but most of my online friends and acquaintances are American. Among the Democrats there circulate some “funny” memes like “Godzilla 2020” or “Giant Meteor 2020”. The meaning behind this is that even a horror or a natural disaster would be better than the current Trump administration.

Rejoice, then, for your cries have come before the ears of the LORD. A new coronavirus has emerged that preferably kills elderly men, although it will attempt to devour also others who are elderly or sick. It seems to leave children and the young mostly untouched, so far, and is rarely severe in those under 40 and rarely (so far) deadly in those under 60. When this spreads in the USA, it should thoroughly decimate the Republican voter base, where the elderly and men in particular are over-represented.

Are you happy now? Of course, as such things go, it won’t spare your own friends and relatives, or yourself if you are in the risk group. But at least it is a more “surgical strike” than the disasters you mockingly invoked.

(I should probably note here that of course I don’t literally believe American Democrats have some kind of divine backchannel that lets them unleash death on the patriarchy. Just that, like the girl in the anime, it is not really something I think they will be happy about when looking back. Not that they don’t sincerely think of the current government as a disaster, since thousands of real lives could have been saved if the US had a Europe-style health care system. So it is easy to think that the wealthy old men presiding over the system could deserve to taste their own medicine, or lack thereof.)

Now you may say that I’ve grown bitter,
but of this you may be sure:
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor,
and there’s a mighty judgment coming…
but I may be wrong.
You see, you hear these funny voices, in the Tower of Song.

-Leonard Cohen, Tower of Song.

I don’t look forward to this one myself either. I’m 61, with moderate exercise asthma and paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. I’m in the “maybe die, maybe struggle for breath a couple weeks” category. My brothers are all older than me, but seem to be in better health, long may it last. Whether any, some or all of us will survive this year is all up in the air now. More than usual, I mean.

It may still not be too late to make a vaccine and distribute it, but there probably isn’t enough time to prevent at least some degree of disaster. The latest reports from China say that the virus incubates for up to 14 days, but transmits during part of that time. That means screening at airports is pretty much a waste of time and money – patients with the virus will go undetected for days, go about their lives, interact with friends and families and coworkers and door knobs. This puts the virus squarely in the pandemic class, unlike the previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS which could be quarantined once authorities took them seriously. It is more like the swine flu, only (so far) without the vaccine. And much more deadly.

Looking at the current stats from China, with 56 dead and 2000 sick, it does not seem particularly lethal. Until you realize that those 56 dead are people who were hospitalized when there were 500 diagnosed or less. And of those, there are still some – or many, we don’t know – who are going to die in the days ahead.

The World Health Organization originally wrote it off as a Chinese problem rather than a global one. I hope they are willing to admit their error and allocate any available resources. The virus is already in the United States, there is nowhere in the world it can’t reach from there, and quickly. It is time to hide your kings, presidents, prime ministers and supreme court judges. There’s a mighty judgment coming… but I may be wrong. Let’s all hope so.

We are stupid and ignorant

Screenshot anime Aho-girl

Let’s enjoy our idiot lives together! From the aptly named Aho-gaaru, or Idiot Girl.

One thing that most of us will never fully grasp is how stupid and ignorant we are, simply because we are human. And being human, while great fun at times, is being very very limited. As I have said before, “life is not only short but also very narrow”.

I used to be a genius. Not Nobel Prize level – that takes hard work too, and I hate that – but I used to effortlessly be one of the best at whatever school I went to after puberty. (I matured slowly so in my childhood I was not particularly bright.) I have remained curious since then, learned much and understood much. And the more I know, the more I realize that I don’t know and will never ever know in a human life.

As I said, I’m on the brighter end of the scale, even if not sensationally so. And I say with absolute certainty that even if I could relive my adult life a thousand times over, I would still not learn all that my fellow humans know and can do, let alone what none of us can. I don’t here talk about the origin of the cosmos or the relationships between the fundamental forces of nature. I mean things like building a house, repairing a car, growing various crops, raising children, preparing food that is both tasty and beautiful, programming an operating system, engineering a bridge or a tunnel, herding reindeer, growing bonsai trees, landing an airplane. All that jazz, including various musical instruments.

No, literally, a thousand lifetimes would not be enough to master every skill that someone has today. Probably not even enough to dabble in them all. But dabbling and mastery are not the same, although the dabbler may think himself a master until he learns enough to realize how little he knows. Most people who work in a field for decades, don’t become really awesome at it. They stop at some intermediate level that is good enough. They get paid, they don’t get fired, people even speak well of their work, finished, case closed. People speak well of my work as well. They are horribly wrong. I am terrible at what I do, even though I like it, and every workday is another day of despair about the fact that I not only know almost nothing about what I do, but can’t find a way to learn it within my remaining lifetime.

Yes, each workday is a day of mental pain, shame and regret. And I doubt it would be different in any other trade. In fact, helping people with software problems is probably one of the things I am best at. If I could go back in time to my younger body at an earlier age and take a different path, I doubt I would end up much better, and quite likely worse.

There is something called the Dunning-Kruger effect: People who are really ignorant, tend to even be ignorant of their ignorance. The Bible tells us so. OK, it actually does, but Dunning and Kruger verified it by controlled, repeatable test, and so it is named after them rather than some wise king in Jerusalem. (I am a big fan of divine wisdom myself, in principle, but my experience is the same as that of Johan Oscar Smith, founder of Brunstad Christian Church: Rather than gaining insight into the beasts of the Revelation, divine wisdom showed us the beast within ourselves. Not a pretty sight.) Anyway, sometimes ignorance really is bliss. Or at least absence of a certain form of pain.

On the other hand, ignorance and stupidity bring their own pains. No matter how convinced you are that it is all other people’s fault, reality doesn’t budge all that much, and being stupid and ignorant, you can do even less than you otherwise could have done to dodge the mule-kicks of fate. Not that even the brighter and wiser of us can avoid them all, far from it. But it is kind of nice not to have HIV for the rest of your life just because it seemed like a good idea to have sex with some friendly person. Or to not sleep in a prison bunk because you took a chance and it didn’t work out. Not have a lifelong mountain of debt and no job because you borrowed a little now and then, including from your employer without asking, because you were sure you would win the big jackpot one day. So yeah, being at least moderately non-stupid is a blessing as well.

But being smart enough and having enough life experience to know how little you know and how little you can do, that brings its own pain as well.

There is a saying that God must love mediocre people since he made so many of them. Yeah, or maybe it is an act of divine mercy, that so many people are bright enough to survive but not bright enough to realize how little they can know and do.

Life in the zeroth world

Screenshot from Finnish TV program

Screenshot from Finnish TV program. Contrary to what some may think, healthcare and education are not so much expenses as investment. If you think it is expensive to have a healthy and well educated population, you should try to have a sickly and ignorant one. Actually, perhaps you have. In that case, you are likely to be stuck in the Third World for some time.

I am old enough to remember that the phrases “first world” and “third world” meant something different from today. Today, they refer to standard of living. Back then, these were geopolitical descriptions: The USA and its allies were the First World, the Soviet Union and its allies were the Second World, and the unaligned nations were the Third World.

America and western Europe are still referred to as first world countries, and Japan is also usually included. For a while, it was thought that Japan would surpass the western economies, but this did not happen. On the other hand, a number of small countries have surpassed the USA in income per capita or at least in standard of living for the average citizen, sometimes both. If the USA is the standard of the first world, maybe we should refer to nations like Norway and Luxembourg as “zeroth world countries”?

***

I live in Norway, and I am well aware that I am super privileged to live here. Obviously a lot of countries feel like the best country in the world to those who live there, and surely this is a good thing. But when compiling statistics, Norway tends to float to the top because it is near the top in so many good things, and far from the bottom in the rest. The other Nordic countries have a lower nominal income per person, but their standard of living is still very high. We could perhaps refer to all these too as “zeroth world countries”. Life here is quite good in many ways. But it is probably very different from what you imagine if you live in the “third world”.

For instance, perhaps you imagine that if you lived in a rich country like this, you would have many servants, like rich people have in many third world countries. But “servant” is not actually a meaningful word up here. It is an old-fashioned concept that is mostly found in history book. It is extremely rare for a family, even a rich family by our standards, to have a cook or a full-time gardener, let alone a butler or maid. People may go out to eat and may rent some services if they have jobs that leave them with little free time; but mostly it is seen as a matter of pride to be self-sufficient in your own home. Having something like servants is seen as morally dubious and conceited. On the other hand it is fine to save time by using robotic vacuum cleaners, robotic lawnmowers and all kinds of intelligent electronics in the house.

Perhaps you think that if you lived in a rich country, you could afford to go to the university for many years and get a great title, perhaps become a doctor. Yes, this is very common. But after you finish, you don’t use that title except perhaps briefly in academic journals. Students refer to their professors by first name, the CEO of a large company signs his emails by first name, and even the Prime Minister – arguably the most powerful person in the country – is usually referred to by her first name. If you tried to demand that people refer to you as “doctor”, people would look at you like you were on the wrong drugs, like someone wandering around in sandals and a toga in the middle of winter muttering to themselves.

Perhaps you think that living in a rich country, you would buy a big luxury car or wear lots of gold rings and jewelry. Well, there are some pretty nice cars around, Tesla in particular are fairly popular. But luxury brands are quite rare, and not because of crime, which is fairly low here. Rather, it is seen as vulgar and crude to display your wealth with extreme luxury. Sure, buy high quality and keep up with the neighbors, but don’t go over the top, or others will laugh at you behind your back and say that your head has become a balloon and you are flying in the skies. The same goes for excessive jewelry, especially gold. Traditional folk garb that is now used for festive occasions can be decorated with quite a bit of silver, but gold should always be displayed in moderation, and jewels even more so.

Of course, there are other ways to signal that you are well off. A common use of money is to vacation in faraway places. “Oh, you went to Bali? Yes, I hear there have been quite a lot of people going to Bali lately. Me, I was in Myanmar this year. Fassscinating place! Hardly a tourist to see. I’m thinking of seeing Nepal next year. I hear it is really difficult to get in there.”

In addition to their house in or near the city, most self-respecting families have a cabin (“hytte” in Norwegian). Originally a simple wood structure without electricity and water, usually in a remote location in the mountains or by the sea. In recent years these have become larger and more convenient, and there are whole villages of them.  It is increasingly common to have two, one in the mountains for winter skiing, and one by the sea for bathing and sunbathing in the summer. Normally the cabin is close enough that you can drive there on weekends. The cabin is also used by teenagers who want to have sex without their parents listening, or just to get to know each other better. Even though many people outside the city center have a free-standing house owned only by their family, it is generally frowned upon to have a huge manor, plus it is a lot of work since you don’t have servants. It is better to have a normal-size house and then a cabin or two.

(Me, I am barely even working class, so I have none of this of course. No house, no cabin, no car, no boat, no vacation travel. I rent the house and take the bus if it is too far to walk. People would pity me if they thought of me at all. “What’s wrong with that guy? Does he have a lot of kids he is paying child support for, or is he not right in the head?” Well, the last part is not too far off, I guess, by local standards. But I still work full time, thanks for asking.)

***

Speaking of people who are not right in the head, these make up a significant portion of the truly poor here. It is not like everyone is living in luxury. Some people are unable to work because our workplaces are very demanding, especially on the mind. Due to the high salaries, you are not employed at all unless you can add significant value to the workplace. Public sector is a little easier in that regard, but it is still pretty intense these days. So a number of people are on disability pension, and many retire early. Still, pensions are usually enough to assure a comfortable life. Those who experience abject poverty are usually those who struggle with mental illness or substance abuse, and who are therefore unable to handle money in a reasonable way.

One result of this is that helping the poor is not something you can or should try to do impulsively. Unless these are old friends or relatives (and sometimes even if they are), you may need to be a trained professional to know for sure whether they can tell you apart from the orcs and aliens that haunt their inner landscape. And if you don’t know what you do, you could bring great harm to yourself, to them, or to random bystanders.

The sane poor generally get help from the government in various ways, and consider this a right rather than some kind of gift, charity or pity money. Many of them would indeed take offense at random gifts or offers of help. That said, there are charitable organizations that make life easier for those of limited means, such as the Salvation Army which sells used clothes and furniture without racking up a profit. (I have a nice living room group that I bought from their outlet. Good enough for many more years.)

***

I hope this gave you an interesting glimpse of life in a “rich country”. As you see, it is not so much that everyone is like the rich people in a poor country. It is a completely different culture and way of life.

Incels and other in’s

Screenshot anime 3D Kanojou

In general, people like me will never be taken as a partner. (And the other way around.) 

I am still alive, long may it last! So I should pay my due to humanity by sharing my wisdom with the world, right? Well, there is pearls before swine, but I like to think that fairly few swine find their way here. (Not counting the repeated Google searches for “anime babes” and such. I don’t think they stay long.)

Recently I learned a new North American word, “incel”. It is a shorthand for “involuntary celibate”, and evidently in recent months some of those folks have decided that this is sufficient reason to rape, murder or just be a public nuisance. And of course giving a bad name to celibate men everywhere.

So, let us look at this from a place far above the dust clouds of the news media.

***

Of course there are many men who are involuntarily celibate, and this is pretty much normal for much or all of your life. We know this because if we look at the human genome, you have roughly twice as many female ancestors as male ones.

Wait, that can’t be right, can it? After all, you have one father and one mother (dead or alive), two grandfathers and two grandmothers, four great-grandfathers and four great-grandmothers. In each and every generation, it take exactly 1 man and 1 woman to make a baby.

True. But once you start looking back through your ancestry, you will find male names popping up in more than one place. It may take some time, but if you have a large and complex map of your ancestry, this will increasingly happen as you go back in time. And a map made from genes will show more of this than one made from church books. The reason for these duplicates is that this guy had kids with his wife, but also with his servant girl (or slave, or prisoner of war, or some other woman he had power over). These kids, when they survived, made their own branches of your family tree, and after some generations they forgot that they were related to the main family (if they even knew).

In addition, some men also had children with other men’s wives, but this is actually less common than I expected – it seems that women are not more likely to have extramarital sex during their most fertile days, despite predictions by evolutionary biologists that this would make up almost all of their fence jumping, while they would have sex with their beta husbands the rest of the month to keep him paying the bills (or chasing away cave bears, in our distant past). Turns out women aren’t usually that focused on getting the “alpha” genes for their babies, to the big surprise of theoretical biologists.

Going further back than the last few generations, there is rather a lot of slavery and servitude and serf-i-tude with the slave owners, the rich and the nobles having a field day with the women who served them. That’s when we don’t have outright polygamy, which was common in the Bronze Age and for some time afterwards.

There was a brief interval in the 20th century when monogamy was seen as so much of an ideal that a higher proportion of the men were married than today, but the servant girls still got pregnant with their masters (or the master’s son). They just weren’t supposed to talk about i.

Anyway, being celibate whether you want it or not is perfectly normal and a fairly larger percentage of the male population will be in this situation for years on end, and some for life.

***

Labeling yourself as “involuntarily celibate” when you are 19 is about as ingenious as calling yourself “involuntarily poor” when you are subsisting on student loans. You aren’t supposed to get everything right away. Sure, all the guys in your high school class were going on and on about the awesome sex they had with named girls pretty all the time. But you know what? Unless you live in Scandinavia or some such, a lot of them lied. Possibly even there. You really ought to know that: After all, unless you were seriously God-fearing, you probably did the same yourself. Boys lie about how many girls they’ve slept with, and girls lie about how few guys they’ve slept with. We know this because if we interview enough men and women about their sexual history, the numbers don’t match up at all. Even in anonymous surveys, there is still a substantial difference.

***

Once you’re a working adult, we can start talking about being involuntarily celibate. But then, we can talk about a lot of involuntary things. Like involuntary poverty, for instance the couple billion people who can’t eat whenever they want to or wear shoes whenever they want to. But you don’t compare yourself to them, do you? You compare yourself to the rich and famous. After all, a thousand advertisements have told you that you deserve the best, even though the objective fact is that you aren’t the best, far from it. How about you compare yourself to the involuntarily blind, the involuntarily deaf, the involuntarily wheelchair-bound, the involuntarily missing fingers and broken spines. I guess involuntarily stupid can be combined with incel, though. So there is that.

***

“Involuntary sex is no worse than involuntary lack of sex” is a valid hypothesis. But as always in science, you need to run tests of  both scenarios. I am sure going to jail as a rapist will help you test out your hypothesis right quick. Being a whiner in prison should be a good way to attract involuntary sex, at least in America. And involuntary violence as well. It can’t be worse than involuntary lack of violence, can it? If someone wants to fight with you, why should they have to restrain themselves? After all, it is fun for them, so they would be suffering if they had to concern themselves about other people’s feelings. Lack of pleasure is suffering now, evidently. Such a terrible suffering that the world needs to know.

***

Basically, we are all suffering involuntarily in many ways. As the Buddha said (loosely translated), “life is suffering”. There aren’t many things we know for sure, but some things we know for sure: We will all lose our youth, our health, our family, our friends, our belongings and our life. Some will lose them one by one, others will lose them all at once. Me, I am involuntarily mortal, and it bothers me a great deal. Celibacy not so much. Definitely less than involuntarily not playing City of Heroes. Luckily, if I stay alive till December, I should be in on the Ship of Heroes beta, which is widely expected to be better than sex. (Your sex may vary.)

Others can’t self-help you

Screenshot anime Aho-girl

Even death can’t cure idiocy! Well, I am not eager to try that. But self-help books have been tried by many people and the effect is sporadic and moderate.

I sometimes say that if self-help books worked, I would be surrounded by demigods, or “weakly godlike superintelligences” as my old comrade in cerebration (and more recently, published author) Alistair Young sometimes says.

Clearly, most of us are not surrounded by that kind of amazing people. Occasionally there is an amazing person, or at least I have met some fairly amazing people. Some of them are not even relatives. One of my coworkers on my old team is fairly amazing. I suspect he is smarter than I am, as he thinks more quickly and accurately within our shared fields of expertise. That said, it is hard to compare since he is a more proactive person by nature and surrounded by experts, while I am deeply introverted and working in isolation. Still, I suspect he may be more intelligent than me. I hope so. We are not spiders, the stronger spider eating the weaker. I have nothing to lose by having smart coworkers, smart friends, and smart relatives.

It would be wonderful if the people around me could simply buy a self-help book and read it, then instantly (or at least quickly) become more intelligent. Or if not more intelligent, then better at using their abilities in their work or in their interpersonal relationships. It would be good also if they could benefit from the books about how to become healthy, or even happy. All of those things would benefit me even if that was not their purpose. When an individual improves, it benefits his or her allies, even if the alliance is remote and accidental. So I wish that all those around me would become healthy, happy, intelligent and productive.

In reality, the world is more like a hospital run by the patients alone, searching in vain for a doctor or even a nurse to help lessen their pains. Even in Norway, where most of us are rich by world standards, and where money is well distributed and there is good health care and education available, there is so much lack and want. People are lonely and insecure at heart, they crave love but often feel disappointed. And when they get more things, they crave even more, their eyes always on something ahead, like the headlights of a car always staying ahead of you no matter how fast you drive.

***

When someone is very successful, he (or occasionally she) always seems to know the reason. But the reason seems to vary from person to person. It is rarely something obvious, like: “I had good parents who gave me smart genes and a wise upbringing.” Actually, I had that, but it makes for a very short and lousy self-help book if that is all you can think of. “I was born white in a good family and had good teachers” is also pretty poor food for self-help books. Instead, people tend to credit certain decisions they made or habits they built.

Certainly, habits contribute a great deal to the outcome of our lives. But a habit can be good for one person and bad for another. For instance, many highly successful people sleep only 4-5 hours a night. And in some cases, it is even true. Scientists have found a gene that let these people thrive with much less sleep than others. When transplanted to mice, that gene caused the mice to also need less sleep. Mice don’t read self-help books, so it is a safe bet that it was the gene. If you try to sleep less without the gene, you will lose willpower and clarity of mind, you will make more errors, your health will worsen and you may fall asleep at the wheel and kill yourself and others. So what brought success to one person brought ruin and death to another.

What I generally see is that even if a very successful person shares the secrets of their success as objectively as they can and in enough detail to fill a book, very few of the people who read the book become successful, and almost never to a high degree. Certainly many of the highly successful people learn from other greats, but usually they adopt useful practices or principles from different sources and keep those that fit, rather than copying one other person in a kind of “apostolic succession”. Even when working together in a direct mentor relationship, it is rare indeed for the disciple to become like his master.

***

I am not opposed to self-help literature in principle. It makes up some of my favorite literature, and works that made an impression on me. Arguably works like the Dhammapada, the Tao Te Ching, and the Analects can all rightly be called self-help books. Improvement of the reader is also a stated goal in much of western religious literature, included holy Scripture. Indeed, the New Testament blatantly aspires to make its followers perfect, in that exact word. Perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect. So not just “weakly godlike” even, but strongly godlike. But alas, those who are surrounded by Christians will probably agree that this has not generally been highly successful. (Although I had the pleasure of spending some of my best years with Christians who had a very positive outcome from their Bible study, which is certainly not something you can take for granted with every denomination. And it still took an almost unimaginable dedication.)

It is said that against stupidity the gods themselves fight in vain (“Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.” -Schiller) and it certainly looks that way when we look at the wider religious communities. So it is no wonder if today’s heroes of thought, from pop psychologists to billionaires, also fail spectacularly at improving the overwhelming majority of their readers.

In the first place, I think most of those who want self-help do not actually want to help themselves but rather to be helped by others. In a metaphor, they want the fish, not learning how to fish. They want the apples, not learning how to grow an apple tree. Those who achieve success usually do it not because they seek the trappings of success (wealth, fame, power) but rather they are desperately dedicated to accomplishing something greater than an ordinary life, even greater than themselves. They want to make the world a better place, or at least a sizable subset of the world. And they want it desperately, to the point that they make sacrifices for it on a regular basis, and make those sacrifices without tears and as a matter of course.

I am not like that, and most likely neither are you, or you would not waste your time on an overly verbose online journal written by some mostly unknown person who, by his own admission, is not entirely neurotypical. But perhaps you see some things more clearly when reading some of my posts. I know I do. So at least I self-help myself. ^_^

Grandmothers speak, autism not so much

Screenshot anime Amanchu, ep.1

Even when autism speaks, people don’t understand it… 

There is reason to think that the human race did not really come into its own until the evolution of the grandmother. I do not know which came first, speech or grandparents, but the two go particularly well together, and the combination made our ancestors superior to every other creature under the sky, including other human races.

But before we travel into the deep past where fossils lie, let me take a quick stop by my old grandmother. She once told me that she believed her son, my uncle, was brain damaged due to the long and hard birth. He was not her firstborn, in fact there were two girls before  him and two after him. But unlike them, he never learned to talk, and whenever I saw him he was simply sitting there rocking back and forth. I grew up thinking he was an idiot. Much later I realized he was almost certainly autistic. And even much later I realized that most likely so was I. A surprising trait often seen in autistic children is that their brain grows faster during their first three years, and in some cases this starts before birth. That would explain the hard birth of my uncle. There is no significant difference is adult brain size though. This implies that if autistic people were a separate race, they would mature faster than mainstream humans, at least in some aspects. But what if autistic people once was a separate race? A race of humans without grandmothers? Let me tell you why that makes sense.

***

We do not know how long humans have been talking. Some think it was related to the sudden spread of humankind all over the world, and the appearance of advanced weapons and art. In old books this is often described as happening as late as 40 000 years ago. This date has been pushed backward with ever new discoveries, which imply that African humans were universally making elaborate weapons and tools at least 65 000 years ago, and there are signs of elaborate tools in some places much earlier. In other places in Africa there are signs of trade (tools made from stone that only exists far away) and symbolic art. Then again, it seems that Neanderthals also had simple art, cared for sick family members, and even sometimes buried them with flowers. This implies symbolic thinking, which is usually associated with speech.

Recent reconstructions of Neanderthal throat and head show that they were physically capable of speech, although not with the same sounds that we use, and they would sound strange to us. The common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans lived half a million years ago, probably a couple hundred thousand years longer than that again. This is attested not only by the fossil record but also the genome, which has been sequenced. If the common ancestor of Neanderthals and African humans was capable of some degree of speech, maybe that was not the magic ingredient after all. Perhaps our ancestors knew how to speak, but only spoke about boring things for hundreds of thousands of years. “Groo kill deer.” “Groo eat now.” “Groo want mate.” Half a million years of Facebook posts, until Heaven had mercy and let creativity descend on humankind.

Be that as it may, advanced speech made grandparents very valuable. Even when you were too brittle to hunt down animals, you still knew where they lived and what they did, because you had decades of hunting experience. You could tell the grandkids all about it so the first time they set out to hunt, they knew exactly what to expect. You could also tell them where to find edible plants, and not least how to avoid the poisonous ones. Suddenly a long childhood wasn’t such a terrible waste of time, because the elders of the tribe basically functioned as a school and a library, teaching you everything you needed to know and a lot you didn’t.

Humans are not entirely unique in having grandparents live to an old age, but it is pretty rare. Elephants have them too, but they tend to stay strong and healthy longer and lead the family. (Elephant blood was recently found to contain some kind of chemical that can overcome infections that antibiotics can’t. Hopefully we will find out what it is before the last of them is killed by poachers.) But the rule of thumb is that parents die pretty soon after they are no longer needed for their own children. Fish and squids basically give up on life once their eggs are hatched, if not before. Mammals need to be around a while to provide milk and protect their young, but that’s it: Menopause is quickly followed by death. Humans, on the other side, live a lot longer, often enough to see their grandchildren grow up unless some unfortunate event occurs. This makes perfect sense given their role as teachers. Only when dementia sets in do they wander off in the night and die in the snow or get lost in the jungle.

***

I don’t know the family structure of Neanderthals, but recent research does not really support the theory that autism comes from Neanderthal genes. It is a bit early to say, but autism seems to be common enough among African-Americans. Admittedly slave owners tended to take sexual liberties with their women slaves, so Neanderthal genes could have come in that way, but there should still be noticeably less of them. It is hard to say how common autism is in African countries, because very few black African countries have enough health care resources to deal with more than the most acute threats to life and limb. This is improving rapidly in the most peaceful countries, though, so we might soon find out how the status is with autism in Africa.

But a more likely hypothesis is that autism has been with us much longer, and may have been inherited from the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals, Homo Heidelbergensis. While the early Heidelberger man had smaller brains than most of us today, a later variant of the species was visibly larger than modern man both in body and brain. We don’t know the timing of the life cycle of this race, but it seems that Neanderthal children had an early growth spurt which implies that they matured faster than their African cousins. Sounds familiar? It should.

In a world where speech was less important, if it existed at all, you needed to grow your brain quickly, you needed to observe details so you could do the same things you saw your parents do, without them explaining it to you. Being autistic would not be a big deal in that kind of human life. It might even be the default. And with your large brain came acute senses: Being able to hear sounds that modern humans don’t notice, register small changes in the light or details in touch or taste. All of them abilities that are common on the autism spectrum.

But at this point we are well within the realm of speculation. There is no proof or even widespread belief that autism is something we have carried with us from interbreeding with an older race of humans. The common view, I think, is that it appeared as some kind of mutation very long ago. Whatever the case, autism has been preserved in the human race for tens of thousands of years at the very least, since it is found across the world. The reason why it was preserved is surely that it has some positive survival value. Probably not in high dose, as in my low-functioning autistic uncle. I doubt he would have lived long on his own. But take a small dash of autism mixed with the normal non-autistic human, and you get someone with unusual abilities. Perhaps unusual disabilities too, so we don’t usually qualify as supermen. But having that one person who notices an unusual sound before the rest of the tribe? That can be a big help that one time when there is an attack by an enemy tribe or a dangerous beast. And the high-functioning autistic tend to have higher intelligence than the average, possibly because of combining two slightly different sets of brain genes.

Eurasian people do after all still carry around about 2% Neanderthal genes, not a lot but still noticeable. These genes do cause some trouble (like autoimmune diseases) but also add a larger arsenal to our immune system to face new pathogens. It is not unthinkable that we may carry genes from even further back, genes that are not present in everyone but that are needed for humanity as a whole to function at its best. It would be a shame if organizations like “Autiism Speaks” (surely that must be meant ironically) succeed in eliminating autism completely from the world. Because that would not just make people like my uncle disappear, but also my grandmother and me.

Smart privilege

Screenshot anime

“When I grow up, I’m going to be an art club.” Not every aspiration is realistic. (From the anime fittingly named “This Art Club Has a Problem”.)

“Everything has its limit — iron ore cannot be educated into gold” said Mark Twain. Salman Khan seems to disagree: Anyone can become anything, it just takes longer time. Or that is one of the two main points of this TED talk: TED Talk – November 2015.

His first point should be uncontroversial: You don’t start building the first floor until the foundation is finished. If you have teams building at different speed, it makes no sense to tell them to move on to the next phase after the average amount of time has passed. Those who work fast would hang around with nothing to do, and those who work slowly would make a house that would likely fall down before it was even completed. So why are we doing this in school? It is a very good point indeed, and one that Khan himself has struggled to solve by giving students more tools to improve their skills, particularly in math and related disciplines, in a systematic and slightly game-like way. Khan Academy.

Now if people fail algebra because they did not understand basic arithmetic well enough, or fail calculus because they did understand algebra, it makes sense to conclude that there is nothing within the human realm that you cannot master if you just master all the steps leading up to this. Khan makes a comparison between literacy in the time before public school, and imagines asking the literate people of that age how much of the populace could learn to read given the opportunity. He assumes that the answer would be less than twice as many as those who could already read. (I am not sure this would actually happen, but I agree that most likely the answer would fall well short of 100%.) Now if you ask people today how many could become a cancer researcher, the answer will also be fairly modest. So Mr Khan leaps to the conclusion that, in a hypothetical future where robots do most other things, anyone could actually become a cancer researcher if that was what we needed.

This is what I call “smart privilege”. You know, like “white privilege”, “male privilege”, “straight privilege” etc. By all means feed the phrases into Google or one of its inferior competitors if they are unfamiliar to you. It can be quite eye-opening. But the same part of the political spectrum which most fervently embraces knowledge of all these privileges, is generally allergic to the notion of smart privilege.

***

Smart privilege: I have it. I was born with it, although it did not unfold during my childhood, except for my hyperlexia, basically the opposite of dyslexia. But otherwise my brain actually grew up more slowly than other kids my age, just like the rest of my body. As such I had plenty of years in which I was mostly mediocre, unlike my genius brothers. It was a learning experience of sorts, although I was too foolish to learn from it until later. At the time I stuck to my conviction that my early reading skill was a sign of being inherently superior. It is not quite like that, but luckily for me my brain (and the rest of my body) continued to mature for a couple years after my classmates had stopped. And so  from high school onward, I could reliably get top or near top grades simply by listening in class and doing mandatory written homework. I did not need to read, and when I had to read, I could grasp all I needed from a book by reading it straight through once.

Now there are others who are closer to average. They may need to read a book several times, underline, write in the margin, take notes, make mindmaps, reflect on what they read, repeat it later and ask others to explain parts of it. But if they do this, they will understand it just as well as I do, and perhaps it will stick better because of the effort they put into and the time they spent on it. For these, Khan’s statement is perfectly valid, and a good point.

But just like there are some of us who are outliers in one direction, there are others who are just as far on the other side. They can still learn, but it takes much longer time. They may need to work not five but ten times as long with the matter before they “get it”. Sure, in the end they get there. But here’s the thing: Until we discover a way to extend the human lifespan greatly, there just isn’t enough time for these people to come far.

***

Back when my friend “SuperWoman” studied medicine in Germany, there was one guy who just wouldn’t give up. He had no chance of getting into the medicine study in Norway, where the entry requirements are super high. (At the time you need pretty much perfect grades.) In Germany you could start with less, but he had still needed to retake many classes to qualify even for starting, so he was noticeably older than his classmates. Then he failed in university too, so he had to retake each year at least once. But he would not give up. He was firmly decided to become a doctor, whatever the cost.

This is an attitude that we generally praise in our society, and Hollywood assures us that people like this will eventually reach their goal. But was his goal a good one? As “SuperWoman” asked: What about the patients? Even if he eventually got his degree, this was actually only the beginning. The degree would not magically confer upon him the same cognitive capacity as his peers. He would still fail half the time, only now his failures would cost human lives and human suffering. You cannot retake those. You don’t always get second chances.

This guy was not stupid. He was just an ordinary man with an extraordinary aspiration. But there are others who are still less gifted. This does not make them bad people, but it makes them a bad fit for work that requires lots of learning and lots of thinking and the ability to quickly grasp the essence of new situations and solve new problems. There are limits to how much of our life we can dedicate to learning something. The most obvious is lifespan itself, but in practice unless we are born into riches, we will also have to reap the financial rewards of our education at some point. If you go to school for 40 years, there will not be a lot of time left for your career.

For those who are just a bit less privileged with regard to cognitive capacity, there are things we and they can do. Education can be improved. (The science of learning has improved by leaps and bounds in my lifetime, I have written about some of this over the years.) Free time can be spent catching up. We can and should encourage these to stretch that little inch further to reach their goal. But there are others who simply cannot reach their goals by stretching or jumping or climbing. Perhaps some day we will find other ways for them to catch up. Perhaps there will be safe drugs that improve the brain function, or other technologies. (Brainwave entrainment seems to work but only to a modest degree and not equally for all.) But for the time being, telling ordinary people they can be whatever they want to be is SMART PRIVILEGE. It is blaming the victim of circumstance.

Limits of book-happiness

Screenshot anime Hackadolls

We came here to advance you… with books!

Looking back on my entries from around 2010-2012, I can’t help but notice how upbeat and optimistic and confident they (and I) seem to be. A number of things came together to cause that emotional boom. And those things were not of a very personal nature, either.

For some years earlier, I had felt very unique. I was sensing in a shadowy way a great outline of a spiritual reality, or at least a reality of the soul, a pattern beyond the static of everyday flailing and busy-ness. It baffled me that nobody else was seeing this. I felt like when I am passing through town and suddenly see a bright rainbow in the sky. I stop and look at its beauty but at the same time I am aware of the hundreds of people around me who just hurry to their next destination or watch their smartphone or for any other reason never lift their eyes. I guess when they come home, if they were asked about their day, they will say: “I made progress on the contract”, “I had a difficult customer”, “I missed you”; while I would say: “I saw a beautiful rainbow”. So it is not either of us is lying, but we are looking at different things.

But then I found some people who were looking in the same general direction. First only New Age people, and … well, they did not strike me as the brightest candles on the menorah. Kind of positive in a Golden Retriever way, so not bad company but not like me. But then I found One Cosmos, the blog (and the book, which is pretty good actually) and this psychiatrist trying to look at spiritual experiences with fresh eyes, taking them as a primary experience of reality rather than trying to explain them away as being some kind of side effect of something else. But most interesting to me, he was a voracious reader and recommended a number of books on the topic. The books were kind of hard to read, although the more I read his blog, the easier it became to read the books he read. But something else happened at the same time.

I discovered the Japanese new religion Happy Science, founded by the remarkable genius Ryuho Okawa. At the time he had already read thousands of books and also experimented with various forms of contact with the spirit world, and synthesized this into a new religion. Eventually he kind of came the conclusion that he was God, something I found deeply disappointing. (I’ve seen people come to the same conclusion over in the New Age society, and it generally doesn’t end well. As I have said before: I have seen a number of guys say “I am God”, but I have never seen a woman say “My husband is God”. Sure enough, Okawa divorced a while later.) But before then he had written a number of very interesting books, and I was rather shocked to see that he described very clearly many of the things I had seen as if through frosted glass.  There were so many things I recognized when reading about them.

After having read the luminous prose of Mr Okawa, it became easier to read the heavier books by various saints and sages and the people who love them, and I was building myself a “Bookshelf of Happiness”. I had this grand dream that simply by reading enough books, I would become transformed to a higher being. Well, it felt like this process had begun at the time. Nor was it my first experience of that sort. When I met the Christian Church of Brunstad, popularly known as “Smith’s Friends”, I had my first and most important influx of spiritual understanding, in which the Bible came alive to me. (This kind of faded once my income grew, as the Bible had foretold.)

There were a lot of good books, some of which are referenced in my writing during those years, but eventually this phase of my life began to fade. Gradually I started to suspect that reading Books of Timeless Truth and doing Brainwave Entrainment was not enough to transform me into a weakly godlike superintelligence, as I had hoped. There is still this small, dark, noisy, seething little ball of selfishness, the ego or small self, which self-identifies as me and does not want to give me up.

It could certainly be worse. I live a decent life by human standards, but that is not what I was hoping to live and die as. As long as I remain at this stage, I am at great risk of disruption and unraveling, like any mortal. I am protected day to day from great calamity by the undeserved kindness of the Light, like a village idiot being gently but sometimes firmly turned away from danger. Well, that is pretty much the best possible human condition, but I had not expected to end my days as a human.

“I said: You are gods, all of you are children of the Most High. Nevertheless you will die like men, and fall like one of the princes.” -Psalm 82, verse 6-7.