"The virus can be deadly, but so far, it most often isn’t."

February 27, 2020 at 7:33 pm (By Amba) ()

I’m reproducing this bit from The New York Times, unauthorized, because it puts the threat of the coronavirus in perspective. Granted that its effect on any individual is unpredictable (in Iran, an 81-year-old mullah and a 22-year-old woman soccer star have died), what you can probably expect if (or when) you get it is . . . not a whole lot.

The new coronavirus has sown fear and anxiety, with more than 81,000 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths.

But so far, it appears that the vast majority of those infected have only mild symptoms and make full recoveries. And those who get the virus develop powerful antibodies that should protect them from reinfection.

In China, people who have been infected are being asked to donate blood plasma, in the hope that their antibodies can be used to treat sick patients.

The largest study of the virus to date, published by China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, concluded that 81 percent of the 44,000 cases confirmed in China by mid-February were mild — defined by the study’s author’s as involving little or no pneumonia. 

Just under 14 percent were deemed severe, involving shortness of breath, low blood oxygen saturation or other lung problems. Just under 5 percent were critical, involving respiratory failure, septic shock or multiple organ dysfunction.

By Thursday, of the 78,487 confirmed cases in China, 32,495, or 41 percent, had been discharged from the hospital, according to China’s National Health Commission. About 8,300 patients were in serious condition. More than 2,700 people had died, giving an overall mortality rate of 2.3 percent, far higher than the seasonal flu’s rate of about 0.1 percent.

The number of mild cases creates its own complications.

Those with few or no symptoms may not know they have contracted the virus, or may misidentify it as a cold. They may then continue their daily lives, coming into close contact with others and spreading the virus without anyone knowing.

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The Majesty of Collapse

February 21, 2020 at 10:48 am (By Amba)

You’d think this was a contemporary poem. Wait for it.


These grand and fatal movements toward death: the grandeur of the mass
Makes pity a fool, the tearing pity
For the atoms of the mass, the persons, the victims, makes it seem monstrous
To admire the tragic beauty they build.
It is beautiful as a river flowing or a slowly gathering
Glacier on a high mountain rock-face,
Bound to plow down a forest, or as frost in November,
The gold and flaming death-dance for leaves,
Or a girl in the night of her spent maidenhood, bleeding and kissing.
I would burn my right hand in a slow fire
To change the future … I should do foolishly. The beauty of modern
Man is not in the persons but in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.

~ Robinson Jeffers, 1935

The last line gave the name to the Dark Mountain Manifesto. From the beginning:

‘Few men realise,’ wrote Joseph Conrad in 1896, ‘that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.’ Conrad’s writings exposed the civilisation exported by European imperialists to be little more than a comforting illusion, not only in the dark, unconquerable heart of Africa, but in the whited sepulchres of their capital cities. The inhabitants of that civilisation believed ‘blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion,’ but their confidence could be maintained only by the seeming solidity of the crowd of like-minded believers surrounding them. Outside the walls, the wild remained as close to the surface as blood under skin, though the city-dweller was no longer equipped to face it directly. . . .

That civilisations fall, sooner or later, is as much a law of history as gravity is a law of physics. What remains after the fall is a wild mixture of cultural debris, confused and angry people whose certainties have betrayed them, and those forces which were always there, deeper than the foundations of the city walls: the desire to survive and the desire for meaning.


It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality. There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us. After a quarter century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall, the end of history, the crude repackaging of the triumphalism of Conrad’s Victorian twilight – Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis. Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.

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Political Dreams

February 18, 2020 at 12:34 pm (By Amba) (, )

When the public sphere floods your night head you know you are “living in interesting times” and there is no escape.

The New Yorker recently ran an article whose SEO (search engine optimization) title is “How Dreams Change under Authoritarianism.” (I can’t find its print title, so I’ll resist a digression on how the internet sucks all the art and wit out of writing titles and turns them into dull labels.) The article is about an out-of-print book, published in English translation in 1968, called The Third Reich of Dreams: The Nightmares of a Nation, 1933-1939. The author, Charlotte Beradt, was not a psychoanalyst, simply a writer who collected 300+ dreams of apprehension and dread from friends and acquaintances before she made it to New York in 1939.

A small shopkeeper in Vienna dreamt that the lamp in the corner of his room suddenly began to talk, repeating to the police every sentence that he had ever uttered against the Government, every political joke he had told.

(To think that we complacently invite just such “talking lamps” into our homes—Alexa!! It’s not even a stretch to imagine them put to work as household spies surveilling and betraying us. They already keep dossiers of our consumer choices and personal vulnerabilities. Only that last hook-up between the tech corp and the government is unfinished . . . and Zuck is working on it.)

Learning more about this book led to the discovery that there is a Museum of Dreams in London, Ontario, “a hub for exploring the social and political significance of dream-life.” Its founder, Sharon Sliwinski, published her own book in 2018 called Dreaming in Dark Times. Her conviction is that dreams can (again, as they did for our tribal ancestors) reveal truth in times of confusion and denial, and provide insight and guidance not only to individual dreamers but to the community:

[T]he disclosure of dream-life represents a form of unconscious thinking that can serve as a potent brand of political intervention and a means for resisting sovereign power. 

How about that! Show me yours and I’ll show you mine and we can call it Resistance!

Reading the dreams of people under the rising Nazis makes you realize that comparisons of our situation to theirs are still hyperbolic. But does anyone really doubt anymore that “it could happen here” (and has, if you’re not white), that we are on a road that leads there for many more of us if we don’t get off it ASAP, and that we’ve trusted in institutions to protect us that are far weaker than we thought they were?

I’ll show you mine, and maybe you’ll show me some of yours in the comments. Maybe we can get a read on the truth of our predicament.

This dream of a grove of tree trunks with their branches and leaves (and the sky) sealed off by a crude concrete ceiling, cemented out of sight—trees painfully choked off from their own upper reaches—seemed to me a political dream though there is nothing overtly political in it. I still don’t know how to “read” it. Any thoughts?

Yesterday Twitter was flooded with posts on the hashtag #PresidentWarren, a vigorous pushback against the media’s “erasure” of candidate Warren. Like most such tweetstorms, it was clearly orchestrated and coordinated, yet some unknown proportion of the participants also seemed sincere. It’s hard to tell the operatives from those who are there in all innocence. Anyway it was effective in blasting Warren back onto the radar and creating the perception that she still has lots of ardent, enthusiastic support. (This morning there’s no sign that the mainstream media noticed.) (UPDATE: One day later, they noticed.)

So I dreamt of a cityscape that looked like a Maurice Sendak children’s-book illustration—something like the city skyline of baking soda boxes in In the Night Kitchen, in cozy brownstone colors. In this cityscape, Elizabeth Warren’s already largish figure was to be cut out, made larger still, and reinserted into the scene so that she would stand out more—if not quite bestride the city like a colossus, a political Godzilla. I was somehow to be one of the participants in this effort, or at least an implicated bystander, and I was very confused about whether it was a good thing or not. Clearly you could do that, you’d better do it if you wanted to be visible at all . . . but should you, really?

My best political dream to date, in terms of giving me heart, was more than a year ago, maybe even two. I thought I wrote about it, but that was probably on Facebook.

I was out shopping, carrying some bundles and a paper cone of flowers, and I had to pee. I stopped in a deserted corner of some mall or train station or bus terminal or Starbucks and went into one of those big one-person, all-gender, family-and-wheelchair bathrooms. Sitting on the john and reading a magazine, I fell asleep in the dream.

I woke up and Donald Trump was looming over me.

He had on a cheap-looking royal-blue suit—it could have been an expensive suit but it still looked cheap—and a red tie. His face was flushed (or blushed), his eyes were a hot blue and his expression was challenging and overbearing. There was no iota of a #MeToo situation. His intent was simply to intimidate.

I was not intimidated. He was ridiculous. I would have burst out laughing if I weren’t so annoyed at the intrusion and incredulous at his rude bloody nerve. I rolled up the magazine and started whacking him with it, shouting with every blow, “GET – OUT – OF – HERE! . . . GET – OUT!!”

I kept on whacking him until he slunk out the door.

I woke up lighthearted, freed from the burden of fearing or even hating Trump. He is a joke. I remain very afraid, but not of him—of the forces that are filling him like a poisoned Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon and using him (as long as he’s useful) as the front and figurehead for their takeover.

(Credit where credit is due: this dream may have been enabled by Nancy Pelosi, at one of their early meetings, shaking her finger in his face.)

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February 15, 2020 at 10:43 am (By Amba) ()

This subtle skewering of Yuval Harari, by Ian Parker in The New Yorker, is making me laugh out loud and congratulate myself on my instincts in avoiding reading Sapiens, which had felt guiltily like shirking a cultural duty.

“Sapiens” feels like a study-guide summary of an immense, unwritten text—or, less congenially, like a ride on a tour bus that never stops for a poke around the ruins. (“As in Rome, so also in ancient China: most generals and philosophers did not think it their duty to develop new weapons.”) Harari did not invent Big History, but he updated it with hints of self-help and futurology, as well as a high-altitude, almost nihilistic composure about human suffering. He attached the time frame of aeons to the time frame of punditry—of now, and soon. . . .

He spends part of almost every appearance denying that he is a guru. But, when speaking at conferences where C.E.O.s meet public intellectuals, or visiting Mark Zuckerberg’s Palo Alto house, or the Élysée Palace, in Paris, he’ll put a long finger to his chin and quietly answer questions about Neanderthals, self-driving cars, and the series finale of “Game of Thrones.” 

Is it possible that I’ll never ever have to choke down this book-length TED-talk smoothie? Ahhhhhh.

UPDATE: I have to hand it to him, though: Harari is a tireless advocate for animal welfare, and he considers industrial agriculture possibly “the greatest crime in history.” That’s the book of his (not yet written) I’ll read.

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Concrete R vs composite D

February 8, 2020 at 9:35 am (By Amba) (, )

Reading this article this morning, after watching that lamentable debate, I got the sinking feeling that Michael Bloomberg is going to be foisted on us. He and his backers banked on (pun intended) the emergence of that void we saw last night. While the Republicans are a phalanx (of white men in suits), Democrats are a gaggle. Their diversity is their disunity. So by default they are going to hire a proxy, their own white man in a suit with a fortune, who represents none of them. It’s a weak position.

For some reason I started thinking of it in terms of construction materials.

Republicans are the “rump” of the old, white, Christian America that had three TV networks and 16 baseball teams and the AFL-CIO and a Fourth of July picnic cuisine, garnished with a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving banquet. Note that I’m nostalgically exaggerating the unity of that lost America, just as its embattled fetishizers do. In reality that America was always riven by “the narcissism of small differences” between Christian denominations and European immigrant groups contending for assimilation, and patrolled by vigilant contrast with those it would never take in because they would freckle its complexion and relativize its religion. Still, it had a unity, a mass, an aspirational uniformity. It was an identifiable substance, Americanness, homogeneous as Wonder Bread and solid as concrete. Its remnant is like an old pillbox bunker on a sea bluff. Weatherbeaten, shrinking and eroding on the outside as it loses chips and chunks to the elements, at its core it is still uniform and, if nothing else, it still coheres.

Democrats are everyone else. They are—someone in construction please help me out with the terminology here—like an amalgam or composite with insufficient binder. It hasn’t yet fused into a substance with enough consistency and alignment to hold a shape and have tensile strength. It keeps crumbling back into its components. When you look at the Democratic field of candidates, they embody this. Each is a different piece. None is the binder that can hold it all together.

The Democrats and the coming-to-be America they attempt to represent have never recovered from the assassinations of April and June, 1968.

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An important and scathing article

January 21, 2020 at 8:37 pm (By Amba) ()

about doing politics vs. just talking about it. Point taken. Shut up and deal.

In reality, political hobbyists have harmed American democracy and would do better by redirecting their political energy toward serving the material and emotional needs of their neighbors. . . .

[C]ollege-educated people, especially college-educated white people, do politics as hobbyists because they can. On the political left, they may say they fear President Donald Trump. They may lament polarization. But they are pretty comfortable with the status quo. . . .

Our . . . treatment of politics as a sport incentivizes politicians to behave badly. We reward them with attention and money for any red meat they throw us…Rather than practic[e] patience and empathy [as organizers must], hobbyists cultivate outrage & seek instant gratification. . . .

[The Democratic Party harbors] “a tension between those who…seek empowerment and those who have enough power that politics is more about self-gratification than fighting for anything. Only if you don’t need more power . . . could you possibly consider politics a form of consumption from the couch.”

Of course many of us political couch potatoes are riveted to the news not for entertainment and outrage, but out of anxiety. But the remedy for anxiety is action—on behalf of the people we purport to care about who will be hurt worse than us.

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A rant about the phrase "most Americans"

January 21, 2020 at 7:40 pm (By Amba) (, , )

is live on The Compulsive Copyeditor:

“A new CNN poll shows that most Americans want the Senate to remove Trump from office (51 to 45 percent), most want to hear from the witnesses that Trump blocked from testifying in the House (69 percent), and most believe that he abused the power of the presidency (58 percent) and obstructed Congress (57 percent).”

~ Teresa Hanafin, “Fast Forward” (Boston Globe newsletter)

I’m sorry, but no matter where you stand on Trump, the Senate, impeachment, or CNN, 51 percent is NOT “MOST” Americans. It is, for all practical purposes, half.

Read the whole thing.

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Strange tree dream

January 21, 2020 at 8:21 am (By Amba) (, , )

A grove of tree trunks is standing deathly silent and still in a dim, shadowy place that is somehow indoors. I don’t see beyond the trunks, but the feeling is undergroundish, like a parking garage or deserted warehouse. The trunks are close together, and the darkness thickens between them. They’re a deep brown, very straight like pillars, more than twice as thick as my arms would go around, with regular, vertically grooved bark. Thinking of it now they could be redwoods, but in the dream I thought of them as elms.

My brother is with me and I’m calling a report back to him. I find myself climbing one, or find that I have climbed it. At first I thought of grasping the grooves, but it’s easy to shinny straight up because the bark is almost sticky, not in an icky way but in a pleasant, textured way, like rough fabric (burlap? corduroy?) with a rubbery coating, conferring on me the sense of having sticky pads for fingers like a lizard. It welcomes climbing; it has a gravity-canceling effect, so that climbing is almost effortless and feels safe.

But before I can climb up into any spreading branches, I am stopped. The upper part of the tree has been sealed off by a badly made cement (concrete?) ceiling that closes in tightly around the trunk. I can see cracks and nails and corners in it, it’s not form-fitting—made with brutal indifference—but no light or air or sight can squeak through. And it’s certain that as the tree continues to grow the cement will press into it.

Above this ceiling branches must still spread and wave, there must be leaves to feed each tree and air and sky, but all that is sealed off from the trunks. It’s been done with the assumption that trees don’t “know” or “care,” but how could they not?

Other than having been surprised to read in the course of work that robust sequoias are dying, and that there are elms in coastal wetland forests being inundated by salt water from sea level rise—they were the trees of my childhood street and I thought they’d all been killed long ago by dutch elm disease—I have no associations to this and no idea what it “means.” But it feels like life now, public and private, they can’t be separated.

UPDATE: Speaking of trees, Republicans want to plant trillions of them. See, says House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, “we care.” In the words of one of his colleagues from Arkansas, “Trees are the ultimate carbon sequestration.”

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I wrote about gender and 2020

January 20, 2020 at 6:22 pm (By Amba) (, , )

on Cloven Not Crested.

The picture is chaotic and infuriating, ruled by a nasty mix of timidity and calculation. Progressives think a centrist is not electable; centrists think a progressive is not electable. Significant numbers of each group seem prepared to make their prophecy self-fulfilling by staying home or casting a protest vote if a candidate from the other group wins the nomination. Many women who say they would welcome a female president are so sure that the majority of their fellow Americans wouldn’t that they are hedging their bets by supporting a (white) man. . . .

(Whether or not Bernie Sanders [shares that view] I will leave to your speculation. I am quite sure he believes a woman would be capable of serving as president. I am not so sure he is immune to the widespread worry that America is not capable of electing one. But that’s a subtle distinction long since trampled by the wildebeests of propaganda.) 

Read the whole thing.

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Amazing Stuff 3

January 20, 2020 at 3:38 pm (By Amba) ()

© George Kuo-Wei Kao / Ocean Art

These undersea photos are past amazing, they’re astounding—for the beauty and strangeness of the creatures, for the technical brilliance of the photographs and the excruciating patience it must have taken to get them, and in a sadder way, for the evidence of our impact in every part of the ocean—the plastics that creatures cannot avoid breathing or swallowing, the strangling nets. Photographers no longer seek out the illusion of “untouched” nature. We’re forced to admit there is no such thing.

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell . . . ~ Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur” (1877)

The rain bore a brand; it was a steer, not a deer. And that was where the loneliness came from. There’s nothing there except us. There’s no such thing as nature anymore. ~ Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (1989)


Smithsonian Magazine lets you scroll through the eons.

We once had orange skies and bright-green or blood-red waters, says Ferris Jabr, exploring the evolution of Earth’s palette.

The Ultimate Emotional Support Animal . . .

. . . if you consider the trope, “How do porcupines make love?” “Very carefully.”

Where the census begins, and why.

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