Friday, January 31, 2020

Pandemic Prophylactics

If there is one bright spot in the 2019 Coronavirus news it is that this disease does not as adversely impact younger people with healthier immune systems as did SARS and Swine Flu. The mechanisms for this anomalous behavior are disputed, but it seems that it is partially on account of the body's own immune system believing it is attacking a different pathogen that it already recognizes, and this leads to the immune system to damage the bodies' own cells/organs. Luckily, this coronavirus follows the logical path, which is that if your immune system is healthy - then you can stop being concerned about yourself and start being concerned about the others' around you with less healthy immune systems or those who are older.

The problem with being neurotic though, is that one's anxiety and negativity can weaken one's immune system. So during this outbreak, I have taken a few concrete steps to ensure that I am able to do my best in avoiding being anxious about the Coronavirus. Aside from the classic tips of washing hands, not touching your face, running at full clip in the opposite direction whenever you see someone cough or sneeze, these are some tips that I take to keep my immune system in tip-top shape.

 Although of course, if one is sick there are old conventional wisdoms stating "feed a cold, starve a fever" and then more recent science trying to address this claim by assessing how diet composition (ratio of fats:proteins:carbohydrates) can be used when afflicted by a bacterial or viral infection. Even down to specific classes of foods being pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory which are not necessarily opposing forces but play critical roles in ramping up bodily response to infection and slowing it down. All this to say, this is by no means a solved problem (and I'm not a doctor, just a concerned neurotic citizen), so all I can give advice on is what you should do when you aren't sick and want to make sure if you get sick, it's as mild as possible.

-Avoid added sugars
-Do eat fresh leafy greens every day
-Do eat Blackberries/Blueberries a few times a week
-Do eat nuts/seeds every day
-Periodically eat probiotics such as kimchi, sauerkraut, etc.
-Keep snacking to a minimum - if needed snack on cheap fruit like bananas/apples
-Eat many different colored vegetables every day.

-Get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise per day (I like running)
-Lift weights a few times per week.

-8 hours of sleep
-Meditate and Deep Breath each time you feel any anxiety

This advice does not prevents virus' from spreading, but it does reduce my anxiety which will both help my immune system and help me deal with the turbulent times ahead.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

"Fear Itself." (Or why the coronavirus scare reveals that our biggest enemies are ourselves)

"...let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself,"
Fear has kept us alive for as long as man has walked this Earth. We are hard-wired to be scared of the dark, to be afraid of creepy-crawlies, to be afraid of heights, to be afraid of pain. In times of fear, we seek to others for comfort and guidance. When we were hunter-gatherers, each time this instinct fires, it was to protect ourselves from some kind of immediate danger. So we retreat, seek shelter in larger groups, acquire information, and hopefully regroup for tomorrow.

When we were alone, fear was good; something nice to have to keep ourselves alive. But in today's interconnected society, if fear grips a majority -- not even that, just a significant percentage of the population -- our society breaks down. 

The city of Wuhan (it's still a city of 11 million people -- bigger than any American cities. In fact, bigger than New York and Chicago put together) has been under quarantine for the past week. The number of people infected with the virus keeps rising, and people are still overcrowding hospitals where workers were already working to the point of exhaustion. The Chinese tradition for colds and flus is to visit hospitals earlier than their American and European counterparts, and exacerbated with an actual flu, the number of people seeking comfort in hospitals and nurses out of panic -- when they currently are not in serious danger -- is overwhelming existing resources.

It's not supposed to be this empty. Photo attributed to GanYuke_ on Weibo.
 Our infrastructure and public resources are built upon the assumption that everything is going "okay," with a little bit of leeway. Have you seen a hub-and-spoke wheel map for airlines? It is the precise reason why hundreds of flights are delayed elsewhere when severe weather rips through a major hub city.

The existence of hub cities save airlines a lot of money because planes can always be routed and repurposed going through a major hub, like Chicago, instead of flying back and forth in between smaller cities - like Des Moines and Madison. But if a snowstorm sweeps through Chicago, passengers in a nearby city waiting for the plane to come in from Chicago could see themselves impacted until hours after the storm has passed. This is the effect of a little bit of strain on a local part of the system, now imagine if the strain was in multiple places, and the cause was a panicking population.

Delta Flight Routes as of 2020-01-30. Note the major hub cities.
 It's not hard to see the effects in Wuhan already: supermarket shelves are being cleared out and some vendors raising prices based on supply and demand are fined tens of thousands of dollars. Masks are in short supply. The city is virtually shut off from the outside world as whole industries like airline and tourism suffer from the effects of the lack of travel.

And this is just one city, in one country. Imagine if the virus broke out in Thailand and in India at the same time (there are already at least one confirmed case in each country, and with the sheer population density. The resource drain with the panicked population all of a sudden clamoring for at least several weeks' worth of food could set a nation's economy back. Yes, the corona virus is here, and yes, it is a serious concern. But I think the bigger concern at this stage is the millions upon millions of other people who will severely test the limits of state resources as they suddenly find themselves quarantined and not knowing what comes next.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Gaze at the stars before it's too late

Even if you are prepared for a global catastrophe and an economic collapse and society falling into disarray by storing non-perishables and stashing ammo and having a bug-out bag, you've probably given the scenario some thought and concluded that generally, life is going to be more difficult post-collapse (if it weren't, then more people would be living the vagabond life!). But I think there is one thing that a post-collapse situation can give back to us, it's this:

The dark sky.

I think everyone should have the opportunity to see the sky as the earliest men saw them. Thousands upon thousands in the sky; blinking; unfiltered. People of the same tribe sitting around a dimming campfire, looking up at the endless possibilities of the universe and coming up with different stories about the constellations. Ursa major and Ursa minor: the bears; Cancer the crab; Orion the hunter. We gaze up upon the stars and something so peaceful and serene about it causes us to feel that we are meant to do something here on Earth. That we are a part of a bigger plan. 

Elon Musk's Starlink Satellites Threaten To Fill The Night Sky

Recently, Elon Musk's aerospace company SpaceX launched the first batch of satellites connected with the Starlink effort. It's an ambitious, entrepreneurial endeavor I think - he plans to send up to 42,000 satellites to space so that Internet signals could be bounced and beamed to almost any remote location on Earth. One could think about all the endless possibilities this could bring: from increased competition against traditional broadband Internet companies like Comcast and Centurylink, to commercial applications like providing wi-fi access to planes and cruise ships, to better exploration of remote areas and reduced chance of something getting lost or stranded. 

However, check out a video by Dr. Marco Langbroek, where he saw a "train" of Starlink satellites passing through the telescope lens. In order to reduce space debris, Elon had publicly said that the satellites would be even lower in the Earth's orbit than other similar satellites. It's hard to imagine seeing 42,000 of these all over the place when you look into the night sky!

If you haven't had the chance yet, I encourage you to use the Dark Sky Map to find a place closest to you that has good visibility into space and doesn't have too much light pollution. It'll be easier for you if you live in the midwest or if you live on the west coast, since there are many places around the Rockies and generally in the Mountain Time Zone that is relatively free of artificial light. If you're on the East Coast, it may be a little more difficult for you, but there should still be pockets of darkness that you can plan out a specific day with your family for. 

Find a day when the moon isn't very visible, and drive to one of the dark-sky places. Turn off the car lights and give your eyes as much as 30 minutes to adjust to the darkness, and marvel at the wonders of the universe before it's filled with artificial machines.

Mountains Beyond Mountains: Loneliness of the Bargain-Bin Intellectual

The difficulty with modern society, as I've alluded to in previous posts is the difficulty with finding your niche. This was an indirect allusion which I described in my previous article "My Life as an NPC", where I outline how I believe I am doomed to a life of toil and mediocrity. That comes off as more doom and gloom than I would have originally intended it to. The goal now is : in light of this knowledge, how do I cope with being absolutely mediocre?

I will say that this is an endless struggle which I face on a daily basis. If you are someone who is content with a simple job, Netflix, video games, and the same meaningless conversations with faceless people in real/online interactions you need not apply. But if you desire and crave to come up with ideas of your own, but have accepted you lack the talent to do anything of significance, perhaps this article is for you.

The key to being happy despite one's mediocrity is to choose an activity at your level. If you choose to study abstract algebra for fun, you will end up hating yourself if you are already aware you lack the capability for complex math. For me, I choose reading novels and language learning. These hobbies afford me an endless bath of hours of activities which are mentally stimulating at a level that I can handle. The most important part of these activities is that they can be done alone. While some people are mentally healthy enough to realize that they are/will never be 'the best' so comparing themselves to anyone is a fruitless struggle, I am not mentally healthy enough to do that. So, I must put guardrails around my thoughts to a further extent than other people.

Do not read online about your hobby. The more you read online, the more you will see people bragging about what they've accomplished in a hobby in X number of months, years, etc. This will invariably lead to lower self-esteem, but the purpose of being an autodidact is to improve one's self-efficacy and faith that we are capable of doing things. It takes very little effort online to find some "protagonist" with a 3-5 sigma advantage over average on some skill getting off on being superior to others. While it is true that they may in fact be lying, the more prescient piece of intel is that they are quite likely to be telling the truth.

As we slice and dice a population further and further in a binned social network like Reddit, it is more likely that as our specificity of topic increases so is the likelihood we find those truly talented people discussing things normal people either like the fluid or crystallized intelligence to comprehend. The more specific questions we ask of Google, Reddit or any search engine, the less empowered I tend to feel. I always feel like I am punching above my weight class, in perpetual deference to these wunderkinds light years ahead of me. So, when I pursue my hobbies, I pursue them. Nobody else can interfere or tell me I'm doing something wrong, because I wouldn't listen anyways. That process of self-discovery is the skill I'm learning. I cannot change that I am not special, but I can learn to limit the information input I have. It's better to live in a delusion where you believe you are useful because of an artificially small population of those around you who have the same skills as you do, than to acknowledge the cold truth that there are likely tens of thousands of people better than you at everything, and no matter how hard you try it will come to nothing.

Sometimes, rediscovering truths that greater minds figured out is much more pleasurable than learning that something is true from these greater minds directly. By taking shortcuts and reading this curated knowledge , you may be wasting the opportunity to re-invent the wheel and enjoy building your own knowledge/theories. There is no purpose to gaining knowledge other than how it makes us feel. Work is finite, and you may as well enjoy this process, so the most efficient way to learn about a new domain by re-treading others' steps may lead to more efficacy in the real world, but that's for people that more less inert, unlike me.

By ensuring I follow these steps I can spend my free time in a way that builds self-esteem, and also prevents me from comparing myself to others.

1. Engage in a solitary intellectual activity
2. Do not talk about this with others too much to avoid comparisons with other people.
3. Do continuously question how you best learn/how to be more efficient (work on metacognition).
4. Never search forum posts/ask Google complex questions about your hobby

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

What makes the coronavirus so scary?

SARS Coronavirus; C.S. Goldsmith, CDC

...Like, it's just a cold, right? The flu comes and goes and we never get used to it because from my limited knowledge, the flu tends to mutate so our bodies never recognize the virus the next year it shows up. The regular flu also has a chance to wreak havoc if left untreated, especially on infants and the elderly. The World Health Organization says it kills up to 650,000 people each year.

So what makes the Wuhan coronavirus so concerning?

To Start, Let's Look At Mortality Rates

Pulling data right out from, influenza has a death rate of approximately 2.0 per 100,000 for the U.S. population, as well as an oddly-specific 6,515 flu-caused deaths in 2017. A slightly more informal website, WebMD, gives approximately 5%-20% of the U.S. population that will get the flu. A quick back-of-the-napkin calculation gives:
  • Approximate U.S. Population: 327 million
  • Assuming flu death rate of 1 in 50,000 (2.0 per 100,000): Approximately 6,540 deaths per year. 
If you happen to get the flu, which is around 30 million of the U.S. population each year, give or take, the chances of you dying from the flu is around 0.0002, or 0.02%. Obviously age and health plays a large factor in this - your chances of surviving the flu are higher if you're healthy and in college than if you had just celebrated your 90th birthday, but the disease is common enough in the United States that we can begin to talk about generalities.

The Coronavirus Family (SARS, MERS, and Wuhan)

The first thing to know about the Wuhan coronavirus is that it's only a sub-strain in the coronavirus family. It's like saying, "The Asian Elephant" when other families, like the African Elephant, exists under a common Elephant family. The coronavirus is actually a catch-all term for a family of viruses because the shape of the virus looks vaguely like a crown, or Corona. Nothing to do with the beer brand.

My Life as an NPC

Something had always been gnawing at me. The idea that I am not something which is tied to a specific identity. In a coarse sense, I am somewhat like a mathematical function, taking some input and generating an output. Like every function, there is a domain (available inputs) and range (available outputs). As life in one's twenties crystallizes and converges to a more stable state, I would like to explain what my domain and range are - for they inform more than the behavior of the function is, but perhaps of all functions in general. My domain:  is a fixed path, a life of routine, everyday exactly the same, almost like waiting at the ready for the protagonist to interact with me and use what meaningless talents I have for some inconsequential task which is a subset of some even more pointless cog - in an unceasingly rotating wheel. My world becomes so small the days blend together and nothing new emerges out of it.

My range: anxiety, depression, picking mental needles out of haystacks and repeatedly pricking myself with them. The difficulty with such a limited output is it throws the proportion of good feelings to bad feelings horrendously out of whack. So, one could try to inject this black box function with new experiences hoping to bias it to new points in the range of outputs. I believe this cannot nor will not happen. As a staunch believer in the simulation hypothesis, I have come to the conclusion that I am an inert being. I have found the walls of my container like a firefly in a jar, my orbits are bound from the start. But, I will keep drawing out fluorescent shapes until the fuel runs out. This is of course a self-fulfilling prophecy or an irrelevant argument altogether (if free will doesn't exist), but I think the reason for suffering is that this simulation I am living in is most likely not mine

While I feel I am a complex organism with thoughts of my own, it is plausible that in a simulation game built for someone else, I am merely an AI following a prescribed path which was determined by drawing my attributes from some laundry list of random variables and plopping me wherever I landed. This is why I conclude I am most likely an NPC. Anyone who isn't at least 3 sigma better than everyone else at something, is likely an NPC. Even if you don't take my words literally, it is true that we are just following the footsteps of greater minds, never quite going past the surface of the most complex ideas, appearing very primitive and weak compared to the truly rare. These people, who are unbeknownst to us or them, protagonists, are the exceptional ones. We merely are meant to flesh out the playground for those people. It is possible that my purpose, if one could concretely say there was one at all, is that I am to brush across an NPC at some  low point in their game and this will lead to their turning around their mindset towards the game based on what I say or making them feel better by direct comparison, etc. True alienation would be you are just necessary for other drones which is a unit contribute to some minuscule event in the protagonists' storyline.

So this fixed prescribed path, the suffering, the anxiety and depression was all predestined from the luck of the draw, but unlike poker I cannot fold and draw again. We must accept our lot in life because the idea of opposition to something that much greater than ourselves is pointless. The bright spot in all this, is that perhaps there was a consciousness of 99.9% similarity to mine who is a protagonist. Exploring another world, and that "being" is a dynamic one, a brave one, a useful one. In my weakest moments, I comfort myself with the pathetic valediction before returning to the regularly scheduled programming : "If only I was the same - but different".

Monday, January 27, 2020

The reality pizza

There are many ways we slice and dice reality. One which pops up in the news recently is in regards to the 2019 Coronavirus which originated in Wuhan. If you're a little bit neurotic like me, the only thing that quiets you is some type of reassurance in your head. When I closely monitored the cases in early December I thought, "it's not even in Shanghai or Beijing yet", when it reached there. I said it's not even in my half of the world, I can still go on as normal with perhaps a more solemn vigilance and gratefulness at the relative peace I had been living over the past 10 years. When it first hits your country, the anxiety leaks in ; yet, there is still solace, for it's not in your state, not in your town, not on your street, not in your house. But as we further refine the grid of our concern and we see it reach somewhere very near us, it is far from an abstraction anymore. Sometimes, this reveals in us a truth we were blind to all along, and sometimes the fear is absolutely realized. It would be unethical to speculate on the course of this virus - but what I can speak to is the oil-soaked virulence of anxiety and the ceremony each morning waiting to see if there are sparks.

Coronavirus Recap 2020-01-27: Let's Hope Asympomatic Transmission Is A Myth

CDC Map, updated January 27, 2020.

Mayor Says "5 Million" may have fled Wuhan before City Shutdown

In a statement, the mayor of Wuhan said that due to a "combination of Chinese New Year's travel and coronavirus-related reasons," 5 million Wuhan residents have left the city before travel restrictions were placed. This news is very worrying because previously, Chinese officials have stated that it's possible for the virus to transmit before symptoms appear. If this is indeed true, then there are many, many more opportunities for the virus to pass on from one person to another and to mutate and became either deadlier or easier to transmit. Right now no other country has reported a severe outbreak of coronavirus infections yet, but we will wait for the numbers to come in the next few days. 

We search for meaning because we've exhausted our answers

Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.
- Saint Augustine
There are times when I'm engrossed in a book or a TV show. Not something where you can watch out of order like episodes of "Seinfeld," but maybe a crime procedural or something with a fair amount of suspense, where the viewer cares about what happens to the main character or the story arc. Something like "Game of Thrones." 

And I might come across an innocent spoiler somewhere in the corners of the Internet. Bruce Willis was dead all along! The message would say. I'd read it, immediately realize that I've made a mistake in reading it, then try desperate to forget it while all at the same time digesting the ramifications of the spoiler in my brain, and then finally...

...lose all interest in the book I'm reading or the TV show I'm following if the spoiler indeed came to be true. I find the answer - the answer I've been looking for the entire time! - but because I didn't find it myself, the journey loses meaning.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

In the future, we'll all live in the past (Annotating Mind Drips)

We welcome Mind Drips to our blog! In his first post, he talked about AI and a human's sense of the self. I wanted to write a blog post to annotate and react to some of his words and really start a Socratic dialogue. An exchange of ideas, if you will. Ha!

To start, let's look at his introduction, which makes use the concept of the Simulation Hypothesis. It's a thought that we are all living in a computer simulation run by sentient beings many times more intelligent than our current capabilities. Currently, we need an enormous cluster of home computers to even simulate a few moments of protein folding, so imagine just how much computing power is needed to simulate the entire observable universe, down to the interactions of each and every atom. It's a very popular theme in science fiction, with the most famous possibly being The Matrix.

In The Matrix, kung-fu, like almost everything else, is trained in a simulated reality.

The working assumption is that something like the simulation hypothesis holds true. This is the idea that we perhaps are living in some simulacra of some other universe of which the rules of such a universe which were preordained we are not quite privy to. Our attempts at objective truth through science and experimentation could in fact be grasping at straws at what the "creator" had intended for the universe. Though this could in essence be anthropomorphizing  the actions of some AI algorithm beyond any of our puddle-deep consciousnesses, so I do not mean to ascribe some new-age psuedo-religious technobabble to the fore.

Erosion of Self

The fundamental question we face in the coming years in my opinion is whether or not we succumb to certain forces which aim to entrap us into abstract categories. AI will begin to break us into demographics and categories and create music for us to listen to. Even creators themselves will find their own creativity being warped by the fundamental shift from search to selection. Many problems in computer science as well as in everyday life and creativity are at heart issues of search. Crossword puzzles are search problems, poems with a predetermined structure, wording to a large extent , and so on all involve search as the primary mechanism of action. Speaking as an amateur, an artist finding their sound is a navigation through a search space indelibly colored with emotional streaks. It is a process of finding yourself through music - or at least what sounds optimal to you. I know as a writer I find reading and writing to be such an iterative process, with each book I read I gradually accumulate a sense of style - a preferred tempo- modes of  building tensions & resolution, expression, etc.

Now that AI music systems exist which allow you to put all known "ideas" and their abstract structure in a blender , you are now as an artist able to take away that manual process of shooting in a straight line through a million-dimensional hypersurface by yourself and pinballing your way betwixt myriad dead ends. So , the conclusion is that all that time is wasted, and AI has now liberated humans from another meaningless task. I would make a simplistic argument in opposition to ceding this sacred land over without questioning it. Because we have indeed ceded over a piece of our consciousness already to Google by eliminating our own "crowd-sourcing" manual search features within our long term memory stores and the (admittedly) looser "rat king" brain we form with the consciousness' around us. It is unknown at this point what (if any) ramifications there are on long term memory based on all knowledge being easily accessible. As an overly simplistic, cautious mind I would say that creativity is a subjective, intuitive process which works on a subconscious level to "cross wires" between different long term memories. By taking a piece of our long term memory and storing it in a place we do not have consistent, high-bandwidth access to (such as Google), we are sacrificing an ability to connect deeper with these seemingly trivial pieces of knowledge we may never know we need.

On the inevitability of solipsism (How I Stopped Worrying and Love AI)

The working assumption is that something like the simulation hypothesis holds true. This is the idea that we perhaps are living in some simulacra of some other universe of which the rules of such a universe which were preordained we are not quite privy to. Our attempts at objective truth through science and experimentation could in fact be grasping at straws at what the "creator" had intended for the universe. Though this could in essence be anthropomorphizing  the actions of some AI algorithm beyond any of our puddle-deep consciousnesses, so I do not mean to ascribe some new-age psuedo-religious technobabble to the fore.

In my view, an inevitable consequence of the simulation hypothesis which I rarely see discussed is the idea of selfishness as a byproduct of moving through "levels" of a simulation. It is plausible that humans once replaced with AI will need an outlet for all of our needs : material, sexual, metaphysical, and many more commonplace ones such as a sense of belonging in a community perceive we belong to : such as a shared sense of identity. The advent of AI and the inevitable collapse of capitalism as the prominent paradigm pushing our global economy will eventually diffuse these broad swathes of wealth outward like dye in water.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Thing About Tracking Disasters and Staying Calm.

Yes, I like disasters, and probably do a lot of other people.

I totally understand the weird looks people give me when I tell them, "hey, I just like tracking and staying informed about disasters, okay?" Then I sometimes notice their eyes on me get just a little bit narrower as the words "disaster fetishist" form in their minds. The conversation usually ends up with me having to catch my words before I go on too long of a spiel about the Wuhan Coronavirus when my acquaintance just wants to talk about something less ominous, family and hobbies and what-are-your-plans-this-weekend, that kind of stuff.

There's definitely a market for the mass consumption of disaster scenarios out there. People like going to cinemas, spending money on tickets, drinks and popcorn, and watching a multi-hour experience of the world falling apart around them. Just in recent memory, we've had movies like 2012, Cloverfield, Oblivion, and I am Legend, along with a spate of other similar films with apocalyptic premises getting good results at the box office. Even disaster films that have taken some liberties with on-screen effects like The Day After Tomorrow (race into the library before the cold snap gets to the door like you're trying to outrun a rolling boulder!) made money. 

Get to the Library before the cold gets there!
So no, it's not just me that likes disasters; I think there's a healthy number of Americans in general that love the thought of them, too. 

The Tree of Liberty

DEAR READERS, I would like to address the rumors surrounding my identity. They are true. I am writing under a pseudonym. My full name I have...