Help! I’m Trapped In A Filter Bubble

Help! I’m Trapped In A Filter Bubble

So, sometime between 2016 and 2020 we went insane.

I’m not talking about the relentless stream of misinformation and deception propagated by the cult of personality currently wielding power.  Yes, the absence of government in a pandemic and climate apocalypse is troubling, and yes, the number of formerly responsible legislators mindlessly kowtowing to craven corruption is appalling, but beyond even that formerly unthinkable expanse of brain death is the screwball conspiracy hot line working around the clock to warn entirely unregulated militias of the threat of the Satanic child eating deep state, demonic possession made flesh in Joe Biden, the Clintons, Tom Hanks, and Mark Zuckerberg.

Remember Pepe, the frog meme that wandered from comic slacker on My Page to emblem of white supremicist neo-Nazi alt right bullies?  From a distance, the flap about Pepe seems far less significant than the observation that we’re talking about Nazis, but the hijacking of a goofy image is connected with a reality I can barely understand.  I’m a dinosaur, barely able to manage the complexities of my phone, stymied by the concept of cloud storage, dependent on print journalists to bring me any sense of what is happening around me.  I wrote a college guide back in the ‘90s emphasising work being done at Redlands University in Geographic Information Science, developing applications of the then highly protected Global Positioning System, available to civilians but scrambled so that enemies might not use GPS with precision.  Just to drive the point home, we’ve had unscrambled GPS for ten years.  Seems like it’s been around forever, right? 

In those same early 1990’s we paid an ungodly amount to grab an hour on Gopher, the system developed by the University of Minnesota at the same time as the World Wide Web, less sophisticated but easier at the start to use.  By 1995 Microsoft, Ebay, Yahoo, and Amazon were magically providing services I had not imagined, and smartphones and cat videos were on the horizon.  

In the next decade, as I was still fumbling with Google Maps, the digital snake pit opened wide. Like Alice, I tumbled down rabbit holes, following one compressed snippet of information to the next, and the next, until the dawn’s early light. What I had not realized and even now cannot fully appreciate are insulating algorithms, filter bubbles, echo chambers.  I get “click bait”, slightly misleading or tempting links that pull the undiscerning clicker into websites shilling one dubious product or another – maybe more than one, as there at least five sites eager to tell me what Amazon doesn’t want me to know.  Fool me once, and so on.

The insulating algorithm, however, is the device that drives a user into a self defined universe of information or opinion.  Once filtered, once trapped in an echo chamber, the user’s world shrinks to a complement of sources sharing the same political, social, or cultural views.  Identified as likely to follow accounts of conspiracy foisted on an unprotected nation by a cabal of liberal elitist sex-predators, the user is directed to every post dropped by an anonymous source such as “Q” first at a website such as 4chan, then by more accessible social media – Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and TikTok.  The anonymous “Q” purports to be an insider in the Trump administration who not only reveals the depth of depravation practiced by the pedophilic Satanists operating within the deep state, but promises the culmination of Trump’s secret war in a Great Awakening or The Storm.  When the storm arrives, Trump will snag the filthy conspirators and jam them in cells at Guantanamo Bay.  The danger to Trump is constant, as reports of the attempt to shoot down his plane attest.  Anonymity allows “Q” or any who take the handle to create a tent big enough for a plethora of conspiracies, contrived horror stories about vaccination and alien landings.

QAnon, the movement spawned in these isolated algorithmic echo chambers, is estimated to have grown by more than 120% in the last year, although movements operating with such ferocity defy quantification.  I’m not one to argue against the reality of conspiracies; we’ve got a dandy unfolding as we learn just how deliberately agents of the administration conspired to politicize the pandemic.  There are and will be reasons to question events in our midst.  On the other hand, conspiracy has long been a favored pastime of the untethered mind, and in a time of real cultural upheaval, as the isolating algorithms of social media operate at peak efficiency, as dangerously irresponsible thrill seekers spread fear and hatred because they can, as Russian troll farms pump out misinformation to drive the nation toward civil unrest, as the rabbit holes serve racism, misogyny, anti semitism, nativism, and homophobia, the impact of baseless, contorted conspiracy has become a significant factor in determining the future of democratic institutions.

Aside from the basic and bizarre battiness of the Qscape though, here’s the observation about the QAnon phenomenon that is most puzzling to me:  The absurd allegations directed at those outside Trumpville are vile, but with the exception of the “Save The Children” activists, the “Q” t shirts, “Q” rallies, “Q” memes, “Q” slogan (“Where we go one, we go all”, compressed as wwg1wga), present quasi merriment, folky horseplay, jollity as fists are raised.  These are not townspeople with pitchforks; they’re having a great time roiling in their conspiratorial miniverse.  Some conspiracy theorists think the current groundswell of enthusiasm most closely reflects Live Action Role Playing (LARPING), hunting for clues to the coming of the storm like squirrels looking for acorns.

I’m not having much fun as QAnon finds a place in Congress and in the political mainstream.  This movement is no joke, and it’s hardly likely that true believers will reconcile themselves to an election outcome that does not serve the storm.

Fire is consuming much of the West, Miami and New Orleans will soon need scuba gear to direct traffic, the administration’s best idea in facing covid is to let millions catch it and die, and I’m worried about a few hundred thousand people who think I’m keen on drinking the blood of children?

Yup, I am.  

Not In Control

Not In Control

My wife and I and our two dogs are living in a room offered us when we drove away from fire and our home.  We are gratefully living in that room and very much aware of the desolation many others less fortunate than we face today. Many have lost everything. Fires continue to burn. We’re still in a pandemic. Shops and restaurants have folded. Differences of political opinion have become fraught with danger. Oh, and the entire state is suffocating as the smoke turns the sky yellow, orange, or brown, if sunlight penetrates at all.  

There’s nothing funny about it, but the standard measurements of air quality no longer really apply.  For example, there’s no problem at all with pollen today, that’s good news, but the little mascot/logo that delivers the degree of toxicity is a beaver wearing a mask and a miner’s helmet, eyes crossed, screaming It’s Really Bad!!  We’ve had serious smoke issues in the valley before and have developed shorthand for the degree of discomfort in breathing.  The index of air quality has been described as a thermometer that offers a range of 0 (Fabulous) to 500 (This Is Really Bad).  The air quality in my town this morning is 596.

When all of this has fallen away and my sense of humor is fully restored, I may write about the disconnect between conflagration and the local news channel’s decision to run a trivia contest rather than cover the progress of the fires.  The trivia question?  “What do women spend 11 minutes doing every day?”  The crack news team debated the issue for fifteen minutes before I finally snapped and shut it down.  So, now not only was I without essential information, I had that moronic question rattling around as well. I reacted with even less grace to a novice weatherman rattling off the sort of trite pablum that does not land particularly well in the moment.  “There’s a plan for everything.  It could be worse.  It’ll get better.”

I was better off thinking about the 11 minute obligation facing women.

Until two very different voices got through.  

The first, and most unlikely, emerged in the middle of a television show we had watched just before the winds started to blow.  An endurance athlete in the midst of a series of soul crushing tasks admitted that he had taken on these challenges to find out who he was when exhausted with work left to do, and further, to find out if he liked the person he saw.  

The second arrived in an article asking what philosophers might have to offer us in these hours of uncertainty. The author of the article found particular connection with Seneca and Epictetus, as they reminded him of two observations I admire but forget on a daily basis.  Seneca, did not have an easy life or an easy death. Facing the sort of dislocation we are experiencing, he suggested that well being does not come from possessions or pleasures, but in pursuing a life of virtue, knowing the right thing to do and then doing it.  Epictetus had a life that may have been even tougher than Seneca’s in that he was born into slavery, but in describing, stoicism,  the philosophy that he thought of as a way of life, he touched on two principles that I ought to have tattooed on the back of my hand.  The first is  that many things are out of our control, and the second that what is under our control are our thoughts and actions.

Let me be clear.  Without instruction and frequent jogging of memory, I would be shouting that everything that is happening around me is unacceptable. The more graceful response is not, “It is what it is,” but what does all that is happening around me allow me to see who I am in this moment.  Do I like the person I see?  What is mine to do and what is beyond my control?  What right thing can I do ?

We are now under Red Flag warning.  If the winds carry embers, the valley has fuel enough to feed another fast moving fire.  We’re packing up as if the next evacuation is likely.  Right now, it’s what is in our control.

When fire arrives

When fire arrives

Before this week, we knew a thing or two about fire. We’ve lived in the west for more than twenty years. We’d felt the hot breath of the Santa Ana winds, predictably whipping through our section of California in autumn, the devil winds that added a sixth season to the calendar: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fiesta, and Fire. Some years the dry downslope wind was just a sand blasting hurricane, tearing leaves from trees and trees from their roots.  A mess and scary.  In the Sierras, a Santa Anna roared through Mammoth at more than 175 miles per hour.  As the region experienced year after year of drought or near-drought and the temperatures rose to hellish extremes, the winds were almost certain to fan flames, as they did in the terrible Camp Fire in northern California, just below our new home in southern Oregon.  

And, I’d long been transfixed by reporter Timothy Egan’s account of the Big Burn, also known as the Devil’s Broom and the Big Blow Up, a conflagration that torched more than a million acres in Montana, Idaho, Washington,and British Columbia.  That fire in 1910 played a significant part in the development of the US Forest Service and the National Park System.  I even used the book in a class offered through our local university, inviting regional experts on wildfire to add perspective to our conversations.  

All of this was very interesting and of absolutely no use when a hot dry wind swept through our valley overnight, leaving debris widely scattered, and carrying a wall of fire lashed by the winds, gorging on dust-dry vegetation, creating its own microclimate and pushing wind speed to even greater extremes up the Greenway, an overgrown trail running through Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, and Medford, .

We irrigate our pasture and dog agility field on Tuesdays, dragging pods to every corner the hoses can reach, hoping to keep the fields alive.  I’d been messing with hoses, picking up tree limbs scattered during the night, and trying to get ahead of the plums and pears falling untended from the few fruit bearing trees on our property when the air around us changed.  We’d been working in the heat every day for weeks, but had never felt everything but heat drop away.  The sky in three directions was deeper than blue, a cerulean blanket so thick that it seemed artificial.  On the eastern side, grey and black plumes of smoke stood still for moments then bowed and sprang like the ubiquitous inflatable man, growing fatter, and taller.  The air grew heavier still, and we heard the thrum of fire in full flight, followed by a hollow boom that came as flame found the 76 Gas Station about two miles from our home.

It was in the next ten minutes that everything I thought I knew about living with fire proved to be wishful thinking, a pleasant but absurd fantasy. We shoved the dogs in the car, grabbed leashes and kibble, whatever clothing was immediately at hand, razor, deodorant, toothbrushes, and with perhaps two minutes to spare, grabbed the computers, the case of important documents, a few photos from the wall, one photo album, and my Martin New Yorker parlor guitar.  

I stood in the middle of the living room surrounded by things I treasured, many of which were connected to people I love.  No time to say goodbye or thanks.  No time for regret.

I don’t know why I thought fire would announce itself, give fair warning, and take its time moving through a valley. It doesn’t and it didn’t. I don’t know why I thought we were ahead of schedule in leaving before evacuation warnings had been delivered. Within minutes of leaving our driveway, we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic facing bumper-to-bumper traffic heading the other way. Had we waited even five minutes longer, many of the roads away from the fire would have been closed or blocked.

The Egan book is terrific, and the account of the fire of 1910 is told with immediacy and power.  In teaching an adult-ed class, using the book as the primary text, we talked about fire as an essential and natural part of the environment in the west.  We townspeople argued that it had been folly to encourage incursion and extensive buiding into the wilderness in which fire was bound to occur.  Million acre fires happen in forests.  

As I write this piece, more than a million acres in Oregon have burned, and fire still rages across the state.  Our home is safe, so far, and we were able to evacuate without injury.  We are among the 500,000 people who have been evacuated in the last week, many of whom were barely getting by and now have lost what little they had.  

In the three minutes since I began the last paragraph, we have been advised that the fire has changed course. We thought we were moving on to clean-up and restoration.

We thought we knew something about fire.

GOP Platform

GOP Platform

The Republican Party has opted not to present a platform this time around, which would seem a serious tactical error in any other season, but in this curious chapter of the nation’s history is not even a blip on the screen.

 “Platform?  We don’t need no stinkin’ Platform!”

And, in fact, they don’t.  

The Democratic Party does have a platform with all the usual pie-in-the-sky, socialistic, crime inspiring, nation crushing blather about protecting Americans from Covid-19, building a stronger and fairer economy, achieving universal health care, reforming the criminal justice system, combating the climate crisis, creating a 21st Century immigration system, providing quality education to every zip code, renewing America’s leadership in global affairs, and healing the soul of the nation.  Not in the actual platform, but pretty much a given among most Democrats is the expectation that the party still believes in science, the First Amendment (and it may have to be said, the entire Constitution), adherence to the laws of the land, and not colluding with foreign powers for personal or political gain, and in governing the Republic.

 Apparently just not very interesting.

The wrinkle, perhaps, is that when one candidate holds nothing back in promoting himself as a strong man willing to eat those who fail to knuckle under, the other candidate, acting with moderation and the sort of composure we used to expect from those who spend a lifetime in pubic service, is made out to be sleepy.  It’s a tough sell. We like bright shiny things, sparkle, glitter and tinsel. Fireworks. Oh, and train wrecks. 

So, just to level the playing field, here are five unstated policy initiatives that flamed between the lines at the RNC Convention.

  1.  The formal establishment of the Trump family dynasty begins with reelection in 2020, the repealing of the 22nd Amendment (sets term limits for the presidency), and coronation at the end of the fourth term, at which point, Trump will be 86 and still the most physically fit president of all time.
  2. New Cabinet departments acting in the executive branch of government will include Director of Media Punishment, Director of Hotel and Resort Reservations, Director of Athlete Behavior, Director of Hair and Makeup, and Wall Czar.
  3. The creation of a National Task Force on the use of Cleaning Products as alternative to universal health care.
  4.  Creation of National Bureaus of Anarchist Investigation (NBAI), Bad People Investigation(NBBPI), and Democrats Eating Babies Investigation (NBDEBI).
  5. Federal mandate against the term “Climate Change” and conscription of Smokey Bear and Woodsy the Owl in campaign to end climactic speculation. The lyrics of “The Ballad of Woodsy Owl” will have to change of course, but the crack team of presidential advisors is already hard at work on revision- the current and proposed versions are presented below:

“Smokey Bear has got a pal who is always on the prowl

Woodsy is his name, you know.

he’s the anti-pollution owl.”

To be replaced by:

“Smokey Bear is mining coal

to beat those solar blues

and Woodsy’s brand new pipeline

goes right through Santa Cruz.

Even the most thoughtfully crafted party platforms tend to get lost in the frenzy of the first months following an election, but in this case, the unarticulated may have more punch.  Actions carry considerable force in an era of alternate facts, ok, alternate realities.  Let’s just wait and see.

New Trump pandemic advisor pushes controversial “Herd Immunity”

New Trump pandemic advisor pushes controversial “Herd Immunity”

Round ‘Em Up, Knock ‘Em Off

The advisor is Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist … ok, let’s pause right there.  The choice of pandemic advisor might include an epidemiologist, which is to say, an expert in the study of epidemics.  Mais non, mon ami.  Atlas is one of the Hoover Institution conservatives who thinks the business of America is business and that getting on with post-pandemic life is a hurry-up proposition.  There are some interesting observations a neuroradiologist could make after seeing Coronavirus survivors, as we’ll see in a moment, but that does not seem to be part of Dr. Atlas’ expertise.

The premise is that the best way to calm a pandemic is to let people get sick, develop immunity, and allow a return to normal (economic) life. 

One obvious caveat is that infected people would have to survive.  The proponents of herding admit that there would be loss of life, manageable, they argue, if we keep an eye on vulnerable people.  I’m no epidemiologist, or neuroradiologist for that matter, but most of the folks who have spent time looking into the Covid-19 pandemic seem to be saying that we have no real idea how this thing works, who it targets, or what the likelihood is of re-infection.

Which is to say, while we are aware that those particularly susceptible to any contagion are at risk, we actually don’t know who is vulnerable.  Grandparents?  Grandchildren?

Ah well.

Today’s cautionary note arrives after having seen CNN’s Chris Cuomo interview a “Long Hauler” like himself, a young woman who is struggling with lingering issues following survival of Coronavirus. Cuomo was quick to identify himself as fortunate to have survived, but like his guest, a former physical trainer who has lost feeling in her legs and is in pain throughout the day, Cuomo’s continuing symptoms include both physical and mental disability.  An article in the NY Times on July 1, 2020 describes physical problems survivors have presentedThey include: lung impairment, blood clotting, shortness of breath, muscle weakness, nerve damage, and … wait for it … cognitive impairment. 

Here’s a more inclusive range: Fogginess, emotionality, muscle weakness, loss of sensation, hair loss, headache, mood disorder … ok, now moving into the truly terrifying symptoms – structural changes to the heart, heart attack, delirium, hallucination, stroke, psychosis, dementia.

Cuomo has been ridiculed by critics who use his admission of “mental fogginess” as permission to ridicule him and discount his acuity as a journalist; he anticipated that sort of response and has been reluctant to discuss his own infirmity while allowing others to describe their own struggle.  He’s pilloried for adding what he can from his own painful personal experience.  That seems unkind, but kindness is at a premium as the economy limps further into distress.

What is clear is that there are virtually no certainties in assessing the probable outcome of herding the population of a nation in a pandemic involving this virus, no telling who will be affected in what way.

Wait,  just for old folks, right?

Uh, no.  

“One study* examined the cardiac MRIs of 100 people who had recovered from Covid-19 and compared them to heart images from 100 people who were similar but not infected with the virus. Their average age was 49 and two-thirds of the patients had recovered at home. More than two months later, infected patients were more likely to have troubling cardiac signs than people in the control group: 78 patients showed structural changes to their hearts, 76 had evidence of a biomarker signaling cardiac injury typically found after a heart attack, and 60 had signs of inflammation.”

*Outcomes of Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Patients Recently Recovered From Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) – Journal of American Medicine

OK, but, like just a very few people?

“We would say that perhaps between 30% and 50% of people with an infection that has clinical manifestations are going to have some form of mental health issues,” said Teodor Postolache, professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The “Herd Experiment” killed 40% more people per capita in Sweden where it was introduced in order to prevent damage to the economy. Oh, and it did not prevent damage to the economy.

Round ‘Em Up, Knock ‘Em Off. Not the best idea yet.



No, not just the President, although this morning the daily propaganda mill brought these assertions from the Gaslighter General:

  •  A planeload of “thugs” in dark uniforms were headed to the RNC to do “Big Damage”.  
  • A peace officer shooting an unarmed man in the back is roughly the same as missing a three foot put.  He used the word “choking”, which given the practice of neck kneeling seems insensitive, shall we say?
  • The 17-year-old shooter in Kenosha was defending himself against the dark forces fomenting a riot
  • Firing paint balls into the face of protesters is relatively benign
  • People in “dark shadows” are controlling Joe Biden
  • Corey Booker is in charge of the Democrats plan to destroy the suburbs
  • The pandemic death toll remains overstated
  •  The Big One!  Protests against police brutality were actually a “secret coup” trying to take down the President

I don’t know what term best describes inciting violence against the citizens of the United States.  I’ll go with treason today and leave it at that.

No, today’s screed is directed toward any Republicans who have vestigial backbones.  Mitt Romney can’t be the only Republican who knows that self-serving lies have already cost lives.  

The most recent estimate is that roughly 145,000 lives would have been saved had we followed the course of action taken by most European nations.  Not Sweden, by the way, which adopted the “herd” response and which reaped 40% more deaths per capita than the misguided and globally mocked United States.  Oh, and had no expected economic bounce back. This experiment ought to have ended discussion of the strategy, but … you know.

Willful obstruction of information (lying) during a pandemic is pretty bad.  Frenzied fear-mongering which includes fomenting violence against political adversaries is essentially the same crime against the same citizens, only up-close and in the hands of the deluded.  Both perpetrators and victims are simply props in managing a political campaign; like the hundred thousands unnecessary deaths from Covid-19, they are just political  collateral damage. 

To each Republican Senator and Congressperson:  Silence in this moment is a betrayal of the people you were elected to serve. Silence in this moment is shameless. 

Some of you are among the deluded, drinking presidential Kool Aid; most of you know in your heart that reckless fear-baiting can only bring tragedy.

This is not about an election; this is about the courage to prevent chaos.