A year of muddling through: things learned from the pandemic

You can’t waste time. There is always more of it. You might not be in it, but in that case you won’t be around to complain.

You can’t spend time, as if it were a commodity to use in a value exchange. You can’t spend it because you have no control over it.

For the same reasons, you can’t use time, wisely, foolishly, or any other way. To use a thing, you first have to grasp it. Try to grasp time, and it disappears.

It is possible, however, to feel you don’t have enough time while simultaneously feeling overwhelmed by its abundance. You can feel pressured and bored all at once.

The mind is like a huge muddy prairie, full of boundless wonder, but easy to get bogged down in. Even if you keep moving, you leave behind deep ruts for the return trip.

Hindsight is rarely 20/20. It’s a haze of excuses and misplaced or unrecognized priorities. Luckily, you can just make out reality if you squint.

Memory is the vapor trail you leave behind in the turbulence of your passage. Look at it long enough, and you can see all kinds of fanciful shapes.

Work is anything you do for other people; play is anything you do for yourself. The problem is that they often mix, and it’s hard to keep them straight.

Some things you crave only because you can’t have them. Other things you crave even though you already have them.

No amount of worrying has ever determined the future, which happens with no regard for your plans. Then it becomes the past, which no amount of regret has ever changed.

The meaning of life is like a knife that’s all edge and no handle. Go ahead, try to grasp it.

You need people more than you think, even if only in the background. Just sitting in a room full of other people is healing.

Nothing will keep you from dying.

Love is not all there is, but it is all that’s worth anything.

You, me, and the holoverse

We sit here, somewhere in the vast and trackless thing called reality, thinking ‘Jeez, am I just a computer simulation? Do I even exist?’

Yes, you do exist, of that you can be sure. In fact, as Descartes pointed out around 500 years ago, it’s the only thing you can be sure of. Only, this you that exists could just as easily be a computer simulation as a physical organism, or the dream of a big blue turtle for that matter. To be perfectly frank, it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is you are, it’s real.

The good news is that none of this affects the most interesting question, which is ‘Why me?’ That’s the great mystery. How did you, or I, end up as the conscious center of this – whatever it is? Here sits an individual, discernable entity like a huge fat spider with its web buzzing with variable vibrations which the entity perceives as information about a reality outside and separate from itself. For all practical purposes, the deepest meaning of reality is that there are only two things in it: you and not you. How is it that the barrier seems so clear, psychotropic drugs aside?

Don’t even think about the odds against you existing at all; they are astronomical. A chance encounter, a condom, an interruption, and a completely different sperm might have gotten through the defenses of a completely different egg, even assuming that the same two people who generated you are involved. Little wonder that some people have invented a God who created your soul and just stuffed it into whatever embryo was handy.

And isn’t this computer simulation theory the same thing slightly altered for a more secular aesthetic?

The death of satire

Let’s invent a fictional character. Let’s give him a name, say, Tod Croz, and then let’s make him a United States senator.

Let’s say his father, born in a foreign country, entered the US through Canada with his American wife and 4-year-old Tod, who had been born in Canada.

Let’s say that in spite of that background Tod fiercely opposes foreign immigration to the US.

Oh, and let’s throw in a part about Tod once shutting down the entire US government in a failed attempt to keep a bill providing medical insurance to everybody in the country from becoming law.

Just to make things clear, let’s have him thoroughly despised in the government he’s a part of, even by members of his own party. Let’s have one of his colleagues say that no one would be convicted if they murdered Tod in the senate.

Then let’s say that not long ago, Tod ran for president, and his opponent belittled, bullied and slandered him, and called his wife ugly to boot. Just for fun, let’s also say that his opponent accused Tod’s father of being complicit in the assassination of a sitting US president. In spite of all that, since his opponent’s subsequent election Tod has been his staunchest supporter, some would say acolyte. In fact, Tod is one of the most vocal supporters of the enormous lie that election fraud cost his erstwhile opponent the most recent election, and even is seen urging a mob to storm the very chambers where he and his fellow senators are soon to meet.

Oh, and a deadly plague has descended on the country, and Tod spends his time not only opposing, but ridiculing any attempts to deal with the plague based on scientific evidence.

Then –stay with me here– Tod’s home state suffers a terrible natural disaster in the middle of the grinding plague, and instead of using his powerful position to help, he decides to go off to a sunny beach in Mexico.

This, understandably, causes a huge uproar, and Tod rushes back, claiming the whole thing was the idea of his pre-teen daughters, so he can’t be held accountable for it.

However, our character is still seriously considering another run for the presidency, and his party sees nothing wrong with that.

Well, what do you think? Is this character believable? Should I go with him in my new novel?

The origin of myth

Once, long ago, before the world became round and full of rocks, Noman and Nowoman were sitting around talking.

“Why don’t we have any myths?” said Noman.

“What’s a myth?”

“I don’t know, but it seems like we ought to have at least one, if not more.”

Nowoman pondered this for a long moment, or what would have been a long moment if moments had been invented.

“Well,” she finally replied, “let’s say you’re right. How do we go about getting one or two if we don’t know what that is?”

“We’ll go and look for it. When we find it, we’ll know.” said Noman. Nowoman looked at him like he was crazy but held her tongue.

And so they set off in all directions at once, since there was no time to define things like that. But as they walked, Earth formed beneath them, and in their footsteps, water and all the mysterious things that live in water, and green sprouted all around them. And all that they gazed upon in wonder became stars, and their love of these things the sun, so terrible in its warmth and light that a moon was needed to share the day with.

“I don’t know,” said Noman. “This stuff is so good, maybe we don’t need a myth.”

But Nowoman shook her head. “Now that we’ve started we have to go on.”

And so they did. The earth shook and trembled, and water fell from nowhere, which was called the sky, with clouds so soft they could kill for no reason. All at once they noticed they were not alone. Small things, large things, fuzzy things and hard pointed things, all moving along with them. Some they loved and some they hated, some they fed and some they ate. And from their bodies came the bodies of the wild and the tame alike.

Finally, after a time so long there could be no one to remember it, they got tired for the first time ever. They sat down at the rim of the world and shed sweat and tears into the vastness, and this was the ocean.

Noman was discouraged. “I thought we could find a myth, but we haven’t.”

But Nowoman said, “We have a sea to sail, and a story to tell.”

They looked at each other in surprise, and suddenly knew they had their myth. They laughed so long and hard, that all the birds joned them, and they still sing the myth of beginning.

“Well, that was fun,” said Noman. “Now what?”

“Love?”

“What’s love?”

And Nowoman smiled the most beautiful smile he had ever seen.

Thorns, odds, and the impossible

A few years ago I was walking on a disused path in some woods near where I live, when I noticed a small branch that seemed to have attached itself to my foot. When I looked more closely, I saw about an inch of thorn sticking up through my boot just in front of the ball of my foot.

This was a genuine official hiking boot with about an inch and a half to two inches of combined Vibram outsole and orthotic insole, and a Gore-Tex and nylon upper. Needless to say, I was dumbfounded. How had a thorn managed to penetrate all that? More to the point, how had it penetrated my foot without my feeling it?

I pulled out the thorn; it was easily four or five inches long and almost a quarter of an inch thick at its base. A honey locust, I figured, although I hadn’t seen one with thorns quite that big. As I tossed the branch away from the path, it occurred to me that I’d better get a look at my injury before too long. A little way further up the path I found a convenient log, sat down, and gingerly removed the shoe, fully expecting to see a slowly expanding patch of red where the thorn had come through. When I looked, I realized why I hadn’t felt anything.

The damned thing had passed precisely between my big toe and its neighbor as far back as it could without hitting flesh. When I say precisely, I mean there was no evidence of its passage whatsoever — not blood, not broken skin, not so much as a minor scratch.

What, as they say, were the odds of that happening? Well, I maintain that, since it had actually occurred, the odds must have been 100%.

You could calculate the odds as a hypothetical exercise, taking into account such variables as the average number of dead branches small enough to go unnoticed on a disused path, the percentage of those likely to have huge thorns, the probability of such a thorn lying at the precise angle required to use the force of a footfall to penetrate a sturdy shoe. You’d also have to take into account the width of the path, the length of my stride, the size of the shoe, the total area of the sole, and so on. Then you could come up with some number, which would surely be vanishingly small.

And yet, it happened. You might be familiar with the concept of the black swan, popularized in a book of that title by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’m not interested in the failings of statistics which do not take all of the significant variables into account; it may be true that probability calculations can be improved by using the proper data. My point is that even when all knowable variables are taken into account, you can still end up on the wrong side of the conclusion.

Why is that? It’s simple. Statistics are descriptive, not predictive. They describe in detail past events in similar contexts to the one you’re interested in. In the end, any conclusion you draw is based on inductive reasoning, which by its nature is vulnerable to data gaps. When an event actually occurs, such as my adventure with the thorn, it becomes data, and statistical inference is irrelevant to it. The question, “What are the odds of that?” is pointless.

Does that mean that judging risk on the basis of probability is useless? Not at all. But it is why the severity of a negative outcome is so important in the decision process.

If I have a 10% chance of spilling wine on my shirt, that’s not going to stop me from drinking some. But if I have a 10% chance of dying if I get Covid-19, that’s a different story.