Sunday, February 23, 2020

Ep. 30: Pandemic + Financial Collapse = Chaos (podcast script)

This is the script for my Demographic Doom podcast episode (#30) released on 23 February 2020. It may differ slightly from the final broadcast. The final episode is available on major platforms, including PodbeanApple Podcasts and a video version on YouTube. See the description on the YouTube version for possible notes, links and corrections. You can also comment on this episode there. (If you leave comments on this blog post, I might not see them.) The main website for this project is

I’m Glenn Campbell. I call myself a demographic philosopher. I’m looking at life and trying to predict the future through the lens of demography, or the study of human populations.

Today, I’m trying to comprehend the great worldwide social and financial crisis that’s bearing down on us, triggered by the coronavirus out of China, and the bottom line is that I can’t. It’s just too big for anyone to get their head around. It’s like someone in 1939 trying to predict what World War Two will be like. It seems evident that a lot of bad things are coming down, but it’s impossible to predict how they will unfold.

I’m talking to you from a motel room in Laramie, Wyoming, in the early morning hours of Sunday, February 23, 2020. The epidemic in China has been known for about a month and a half. January 10 is when the first official death was reported. As of today, most of America seems to be in denial. I haven’t been outside the US during this period, so I don’t know what the rest of the world is thinking, but here in my own country it’s business as usual. No one seems to be altering their plans or taking any precautions for the coming epidemic.

I know you may be listening to this episode a long time after I record it, so let me summarize this moment in history. Until a week or two ago, the coronavirus seemed like a Chinese problem, but over the past few days, it has become increasingly clear that this is a pandemic involving the entire world. There are now uncontrolled cases in South Korea and Iran and probably North Korea, Italy and a dozen poorer countries that don’t really have the means to test for it. The virus now seems unstoppable. The majority of the world population is probably going to get it. At this point, it is only slow-downable, meaning that with good hygiene and a cooperative population, some countries might be able to slow its spread.

This is important, because survival rates depend on what kind of medical care people can get.
At this early stage, it’s hard to come up with good numbers on the fatality and complication rate, but it’s clearly huge compared to routine bugs like influenza. The best information suggests that at least 80% of the population will have only mild, non-life-threatening. This is good in the sense that most people are going to survive with minimal physical effects. It’s bad, however, in that most people who get the virus probably won’t seek medical attention or take appropriate actions to protect others. It appears that some people can even spread the virus asymptomatically, meaning that can get the disease and spread it to others without even knowing it.

The real danger lies in those other 20%. A significant proportion of people who get the virus will suffer serious complications requiring hospitalization, and some of them are going to die. We have only ballpark numbers now. Maybe 10-20% will suffer serious complications and 1-2% will die. Deaths seem to be weighted toward the old and sick, but 1-2% is still a big thing. It means that someone you know will die—possibly you—and millions will die worldwide. Millions more will require hospitalization or will be struggling to try to get it. This isn't the common cold. This is something no one can ignore.

The1-2% figure depends on people getting good medical attention. If they don't, many of those in the "serious complications" category are going to die. That's why it's really important to slow the infection down, so medical systems have time to respond.

North Korea might become a perfect test case, along with other poor countries. Although officially North Korea has no cases, it is clear that it can't keep the virus out from neighboring China. Here you have a malnourished population with an incompetent government and virtually no medical care. In North Korea, the epidemic will progress in its purest form, much as it might have done in the Middle Ages. In this case, the fatality rate might begin to approach the complication rate of 10-20%.

But the epidemic itself is only one aspect of the worldwide crisis. The other side of it is the coming financial crisis that's certain to result. I want to emphasize that there is no major financial crisis as I record this. In fact, a couple of days ago, the NASDAQ and S & P reached all time highs. This indicates that most investors in the U.S. are in denial. They don't comprehend how bad things are going to get. I don't think anyone can truly comprehend it right now. Even me. I know a lot of bad things are going to happen, but I can't get my head around how those bad things are going to be experienced by myself and others. Humans tend to focus on minutia. They have a lot of trouble grasping the Big Picture. This is understandable, because there are so many threads involved.

Today, we generally understand how World War II or the Great Depression unfolded, but it's hard to see things clearly when you right in the middle of it. It's like you're strapped into a roller coaster, in the dark, and you just have to go where it takes you. There have been no safety inspections on this roller coaster. You don't know how long it's going to last or how bad it will get. You just have to ride it out, doing whatever you need to do to survive.

As I record this, I think the business world and general public outside of China are right on the cusp of recognizing they're in big trouble. I predict the coming week will be a busy one, with lots of news on both the medical and financial fronts. In the past few weeks, the coronavirus has hardly made the front page of American newspapers. The main story has always been Donald Trump and the Democrats trying to unseat him. In fact, the main story has been Donald Trump for four years now, all the way back to 2016. It will take a powerful worldwide crisis to displace him, and so far the coronavirus hasn't managed to do it. Maybe it could happen this week: coronavirus becomes that main story in the American news.

Right now I feel like an ant in an underground colony at a construction site. I know the bulldozers are coming, but I'm too small to understand how things will unfold. I'm pretty sure a lot of people are going to lose their jobs and lose a lot of money in failed investments. I'm also pretty sure that within the next few weeks we'll all be living in deadly fear of a domestic epidemic. The chance of it not taking off in the US and Europe are increasingly slim. I know a great social and financial collapse is coming, but I don't know how it will unfold or how people will adapt. You can't predict it. You can only live it.

The best I can do is point out all the bad factors that are ganging up on us. The world economy is at the peak of an Everything Bubble. The coronavirus didn't create the bubble. It's just the thing that's going to pop it. For many months, I and an number of more reputable experts have been predicting a major economic collapse. To call it a "recession" would be an understatement. The basic problem is that after the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, central banks lowered interest rates, which resulted in all sorts of unsustainable dysfunctions in the economy. Assets like stocks and real estate have exploded in value, while wealth inequality has increased and the lives of average people in developed countries have gotten relatively worse.

It is particularly telling that stock markets have continued to boom even as the news out of China has gotten worse. Even if the virus never leaves China, supply chains are going to be disrupted, and traditionally stock markets are supposed to fall on such bad news. These days, stock markets seem to RALLY on bad news. The reason appears to be that investors expect the central banks and big governments to intervene. They will supposedly lower interest rates and pump more money into the economy to save the stock market. Unfortunately, there's a limit to how much the central banks and big governments can do. Since interest rates are already low, even negative in some cases, they can't lower them much further, and governments can't keep spending themselves into debt without some eventual consequences.

For months, I and the reputable experts have been saying, "This has to end badly," but it was never clear exactly WHEN it would end badly. The saying goes, "Markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent." For months, most investors and economists have said, "There's a recession coming," but the timeframe has been elastic. The most common advice you hear on the business TV shows is that a recession is coming, for sure, but not right away; maybe next year.

Well the coronavirus is guaranteeing that "next year" is actually going to be this year, 2020. This is the year the whole house of cards starts collapsing. There's no way to stop the march of coronavirus around the world. At the very least, the whole Eurasian continent is going to get it, and it takes only one uncontrolled case to bring it to America. Based on countless epidemics in the past, we have a pretty good idea of how they unfold. They happen fast. Just look at how fast the virus spread in China, in spite of all their Draconian measures to stop it. In less Draconian countries, it could spread even faster.

This podcast is supposed to be about demography, and it turns out that the spread of epidemics is a demographic problem. Demography isn't just concerned with counting people and measuring their reproduction rates. It can also be applied to any living thing—like a virus. An infection rate is a lot like a fertility rate. A fertility rate is the number of babies an average woman gives birth to in a given community. If each woman, on average, has more than two children, and all those children survive, then the population will grow. If each woman has less than two children, the population will fall.

It's pretty much the same with a virus. Instead of a fertility rate, a virus has something called an "R-naught", which is the number of new people that each person with the disease infects. In this case, since there are no "males" in the virus community, the cutoff point is one instead of two.  If each person with the disease infects more than one other person, on average, the epidemic will expand. If they infect less than one other person, the epidemic will eventually fizzle out.

In the case of the coronavirus, the R-naught is very high. It's not yet clear what that number is, but it could be anywhere from 2 to 6. There are some people who infect many more than that, like so-called "super spreaders" who infect many. One woman in South Korea infected at least 40 members of her church, which means her personal R-naught is 40. With the high numbers we've been seeing, the infection is certain to expand fast. It's like a ooor country in Africa having fertility rate of 6 babies per woman: You know that over time the local population will explode. It just does it slowly, over years, because it takes nine months to make a baby and about 15 years for that baby to reach reproductive age. In the case of a virus, the "pregnancy" of the virus is only a few days, and it's ready to reproduce immediately.

So what you have with a virus is a real population explosion. The only thing that stops it is running out of victims. Pretty soon, everyone in the community gets the disease. Either they die or they gain immunity, at least to the current form of the virus. That's when the R-naught falls below 1 and the disease fades out.

You can try to erect a wall around your community, but there's a limit to how effective it can be. You can try to build a wall around China to keep the virus from spreading, which is what other countries have tried to do, but if there's the smallest breach in the wall—just a single case—a new community is infected, and the virus will start expanding exponentially there.

I can imagine there will be some island communities that will hold the virus at bay for a lot longer than a connected continent would. New Zealand comes to mind. It's surrounded by water, so it can control its borders better than, say, France or Italy can. New Zealand already has some stringent border controls in place to prevent the introduction of pests and new invasive species, and I'm sure they're putting into effect some serious controls on visitors from China. If need be, New Zealand could suspend all international flights, which might be necessary if people from outside China are spreading the disease asymptomatically. So far, New Zealand has had no reported coronavirus cases, and it is within their power to keep it that way—but at what cost? What is the life-blood of the New Zealand economy? It is tourism. If you cut off international flights, you cut off the country's economic sustenance. There's going to be a massive recession. People in the tourist industry are going to lose their jobs. Everyone will suffer, even if the virus never gets in.

And it might not even be necessary to suspend flights. Foreign tourists may decide, on their own, not to come to New Zealand. Even if all the firewalls hold and the disease doesn't spread beyond its current locations, 2020 is certain to become a truly horrible year for tourism. Tourism is discretionary. No one has to do it, and if people feel that their lives are at risk, they won't. Think of the passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship. They found themselves trapped on the ship and subjected to a potentially deadly disease. Given how well it was publicized, who in their right mind would book a cruise right now, anywhere in the world?

New Zealand's dilemma is a microcosm of America's. America could be seen as a sort of island state, at least compared to the countries of Europe or Asia. It can close its borders relatively easily, but at what cost? America's life blood, like New Zealand's, depends on international trade. In particular, it has outsourced most of its industry to China. Even if the virus never gains a foothold in Amerca, where are we going to get all the products we need? America is pretty much self-sufficient on food and services, but it seems like everything else is Made in China. Furthermore, America needs China to sell its own products to. If America had to live without China, it might eventually adapt, but in the meantime, the losses are devastating. You can't close factories in China and prevent people there from buying things without huge disruptions across the ocean in America and Europe.

All of this ought to trigger a huge stock market correction. It ought to lead to layoffs and defaults everywhere in the world. So far these things haven't happened yet, but they will. There's no avoiding it.

Things will only get worse if the virus starts spreading within the US. As of this moment, all US cases—officially less than 100—seem to be controlled, but that can change in a minute. Once the virus is known to be spreading domestically, everyone is going to start taking defensive measures. They're going to hunker down. They're going to leave their homes as little as possible, and they'll stop spending money. The greatest vulnerability of the American economy is that very few of the products and services we buy are truly necessary. No one really needs a new car, a new home or meals in fancy restaurants. Once people lose confidence and stop spending, the whole economy starts collapsing in on itself. The collapse becomes a self-sustaining feedback loop when lower spending means more layoffs, which leads to even fewer people spending money.

In the background of all of this is absolutely astounding worldwide debt. Whether you look at governments or corporations or individuals, there's more debt out there than ever before in history. When the economy takes a dive, a significant portion of the debt becomes unpayable. Debtors will default, and the people and institutions who lent the money are going to lose their investments.

As I say, I don't know how it's all going to go down. I only know that it will go down. You can't put the virus genie back into the bottle, and you can't restore a healthy economy if it was unsustainable to begin with. I don't even know how to prepare for this myself. What should I do apart from buying hand sanatizer? My impulse is the same as everyone else: Just hunker down, conserve my resources and wait for the storm to pass.

Unfortunately, hunkering down is the worse thing possible for the economy. For the past few years we've been high on drugs—the drugs of low interest rates and irrational exhuberance. Now we have to experience the downside of those drugs, which is the terrible withdrawl symptoms when you take them away.

Ep. 29: Introduction to Triagism: A Philosophy of Life Based on Medical Triage (podcast script)

This is the script for my podcast episode on 21 February 2020. It may differ slightly from the final broadcast. This episode is available on major platforms, including Podbean, Apple Podcasts and YouTube. This script has not been proofread for publication and may contain typos and minor errors. See the description on the YouTube version for possible corrections. You can also comment on this episode there. (I might not see any comments left on this blog post.) The main website for this project is

I’m Glenn Campbell. I call myself a demographic philosopher. I’m looking at life and trying to predict the future through the lens of demography, or the study of human populations.

Today, I want to talk about “triage”. In a medical sense, triage is the sorting of patients and allocating of resources to save as many lives as possible. If you go to the emergency room at a hospital, triage is the first station you encounter. Here, a nurse will make a quick assessment of your condition and decide whether you need to be taken immediately into the operating room or whether you can sit in the waiting room for a while.

Triage happens to be highly relevant at this moment in history, on February 21, 2020, because it’s an important part of the coronavirus response. Emergency rooms around the world could soon be deluged with more patients than they can handle – as has already happened in China – and somebody, somehow has to decide which of those patients are going to be served and where they’re going to go. That’s literal medical triage, and how well it is conducted has a strong correlation with the fatality rate.

But I am also interested in figurative triage. In fact, I have built a whole philosophy of life around it. I call my philosophy Triagism. That’s T R I A G I S M. Triagism. I invented this term about four years ago, in November 2015, when I made four videos about it. I had forgotten about them until now. You can find my videos by searching YouTube for Triagism as I just spelled it. The basic idea is that every choice in life is a triage decision. You’re trying to choose your own actions in such a way as to maximize certain outcomes or minimize damage.

For example, if you are visiting a new country for the first time, and you’ve only got two weeks to see it all, you have to make some triage decisions about what cities and attractions to see and which to skip, and you’ve got to make these choices in advance in spite have having never been to the country before and having limited information about it.

In this episode I’m going to focus on medical triage because it is easiest to understand and most relevant to the current moment, but I hope you will see by the end how this could turn into a whole philosophy of life.

First I want describe the current moment. I realize that you could be likely listening to this episode months or years after I recorded it, so I want to summarize my current positio in history. Today is Friday, February 21, 2020. The coronavirus has spread across all of China and seems to be on the verge of erupting in several other countries if not the entire world. The growing consensus among disease experts is that the disease will eventually become “endemic”, meaning it will become a permanent disease of humanity, much like the common flu. The difference between this virus and the flu is that it is far more transmissible and deadly. It might kill 1 or 2 percent of the people who catch it, compared to a tiny fraction of that for the common flu.

I already recorded a couple of podcast episodes on the coronavirus, so I don’t want to repeat that discussion here. The most remarkable thing I have observed since my last episode ten days ago is the high degree of denial here in the United States. Virus-related shutdowns in China are already severely disrupting supply chains around the world, yet stock markets like the Nasdaq and S&P have been making all-time highs. This is insane to me, but then again, the markets have been insane for quite some time thanks to central bank intervention. I still believe this epidemic is the Black Swan event that will bring down the economy, but the panic hasn’t yet begun. Don’t worry, it will, and as a denizen of the future, you may already know about it.

The disease experts on TV all “hope” that the virus is contained, but I think most of them know that it won’t be. The big challenge now is not stopping the virus but slowing it down, so new cases don’t overwhelm medical resources. A relatively low fatality rate depends on people with serious complications getting adequate medical care. Even though hospitals have no cure for the disease, there are things they can do to keep people alive, like giving them supplemental oxygen or antibiotics for secondary infections. If people with serious complications can’t get treated, the fatality rate goes way up. If everyone who needs treatment gets it, the fatality rate goes down. Since there are only limited medical resources in any particular country, you want to slow down the rate of infection as much as possible so hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.

When hospitals are overwhelmed, you get into the realm of triage. Triage is the sorting process that takes place when casualties enter a hospital. Someone has to decide who gets treated and who doesn’t and how patients are going to assigned within the hospital.

What happens when a hospital with only 10 intensive care beds gets slammed by 1000 sick people demanding attention? That’s the essential triage problem. How do you decide who gets into those 10 beds? The general goal of triage is to save as many lives as possible, and that means selecting the right patients for treatment.

The default form of triage is what I call “First Come First Served”. The first ten patients who show up at the hospital’s door get admitted, then the doors are barricaded and no one else gets in. The trouble with this method is that not all the 10 people you let in are seriously ill. They might have survived anyway, but now they are occupying a bed that could have been used to save someone in greater need. You might also be admitting someone who is already too far gone. No matter what you do, they are going to die, so your efforts are wasted. The bottom line with the First In First Out method is that it doesn’t save as many patients as it could. It’s an inefficient use of medical resources that might end up saving only two patients when it could have saved, say, eight.

Another form a triage might be bribery. Only the richest people get treated. If you can slip some cash to the guard at the door, maybe you can get one of those precious 10 beds, but the problem here is the same as the First In First Out method: You aren’t maximizing the number of people saved. This method is effective only if you believe rich people are inherently worth more to society than others, so they deserve special treatment.

A third method a triage might be to admit only your own family members and allies. You try to save your clan or the people who you identify with. Everyone else gets locked outside. I can’t say that this is morally wrong. People do it all the time: They prioritize their own kin over others. All you can say is that it’s not saving the maximum number of patients, because some of those family members might not be seriously ill.

The most effective form of triage is something called “yield management”. Someone takes a broad survey of all the 1000 people outside the hospital’s doors and selects the 10 patients who they think will benefit most from treatment. You’re going to ignore the people who are only mildly sick, because they are probably going to survive anyway. And you’re also going to ignore the people who are so seriously ill that they’re probably going to die anyway. Why waste your resources on them? Finally, you might make a judgement about who is going to most benefit others if they survive. For example, if you save the life of a doctor, that doctor might go on to save 100 other lives, so in an epidemic, it is appropriate to prioritize medical personnel.

And there you have triage in a nutshell. It is simply the judicious allocation of resources to maximize final gains. The basic concept isn’t hard to understand. Triage is difficult only in its real-world implementation. For one thing, you usually have to reject more people than you select. If you choose 10 people for treatment from the 1000 outside your door, the other 990 people aren’t going to be happy about it. They might rush the hospital, ram down the doors and lynch all the doctors, in which case no one gets saved.

I’ve been thinking about triage since around 2009, when I first wrote a one-page essay about it. You can find it by Googling for “Triage Kilroy Café” That’s Kilroy K I L R O Y space C A F E. The essay is called “Triage: Doing What You Can With What You Have.” Although I hadn’t invented the word “Triagism” then, I pretty much captured the essence of it. Every decision is a relative one based on the goals you are seeking and resources actually available. There will always be more needs than resources, so you have to judiciously apply those resources to maximize outcomes.

I’ve always thought of triage in abstract philosophical terms. Everything we do is an exercise in triage. But the coronavirus pandemic means that triage is now being practiced in pragmatic medical terms. Triagism isn’t just academics discussing things. People are living and dying based on this philosophy.

Prior to the outbreak, if you went to a hospital emergency room in North America or Europe, you knew you were going to be treated. You would still see a triage nurse upon entering the E.R. but this only determines how long you wait. In wealthy countries not yet in crisis, there are usually enough medical resources to go around. The people who are shot up with bullet holes get wheeled into the operating room right away, while others may have to wait for a while, but ultimately everyone gets served and an optimal number of lives are saved. In more of a battlefield situation, like a pandemic, Triage decisions have a huge effect on who lives and dies. In this case, the triage nurse may actually have more power than the doctors in determining how many live and die, because they are determining who gets treated.

In a modern emergency room not in crisis, every patient is evaluated in isolation. The nurse takes them into an exam room, assesses their symptoms and decide what the best practices are for this kind of situation. There are all sorts of rule books and procedures for this, and a triage nurse can take pride in making the optimal decision for every patient. In a battlefield situation, you don’t have the luxury of looking at each patient in isolation. You have to have a broad overview of all the patients who are vying for medical attention. The decisions you make when the ICU has plenty of beds are different than those you make when beds are at a premium and only a limited number of patients can be served. In this case, you have to look at all of the patients and select the few who are going to benefit the most from treatment.

Medicine in wealthy countries usually has the luxury of treating every patient equally, at least in the emergency room. It doesn’t matter who you are or whether you deserve treatment; when a doctor sees you, they are going to make the best decision for your particular case. This is true even in the United States, with a notoriously screwed up insurance system. If you turn up at an emergency room full of bullet holes, a doctor is going to treat you, and they are not going to discriminate against based on your ability to pay or whether you’re a gang-banger who deserved to be shot full of bullet holes.
Doctors, in fact, face great legal liability if they discriminate against a patient for any reason. If someone comes into the hospital with cancer and they’re 90 years old, the doctor is obligated to offer them the same costly treatment they would give a 25-year-old – assuming, of course, that they both have health insurance. The doctor can’t say, “I’m not going to treat you because you’re too old and are probably going to die anyway.” That would be a breach of his Hippocratic Oath and could get him in trouble.

Things change when you’re in a pandemic situation and you’ve got all ages and conditions scrambling for medical attention. The triage nurse might have no choice but to discriminate. It’s not a discrimination based on skin color but a discrimination based on the probability of survival. If you have two patients with the same life-threatening condition, one is thirty years old and the other is eighty, the triage nurse might select the thirty year old for treatment, because they have a better chance of survival.

I want to emphasize how hospitals and medical personnel in the United States and elsewhere aren’t set up for this kind of triage. Triage in America means directing a patient’s treatment. Triage in a crisis might mean denying treatment altogether. Every medical professional has been trained to pursue the best practices of each individual patient. They haven’t been trained to balance the needs and prognosis of one patient against those of another. They haven’t been trained to look at 1000 people and pull out the 10 who can most benefit from treatment. They haven’t been trained to ignore some patients and let them die. This is the sort of triage decisions that a battlefield medic had to make in World War One, but I don’t think modern medical staff are prepared for it. They have been trained to give optimal care to everyone who comes through the door. They haven’t been trained to balance the needs of the entire community to maximize overall survival.

Consequently, I don’t think modern healthcare systems in democratic countries are going to handle a pandemic well. I think the kind of triage they will use, at least initially, will be the First Come First Served method. All the hospital beds will fill up with the first patients who come in the door, then police will be called; the doors will be bolted, and no one else will be let in.

That’s not to say that non-democratic countries will do any better. Right now, in February 2020, no one outside of China has a big-picture view of how well the epidemic is being handled there, but I would wager it’s being handled poorly. China famously built a hospital in about 10 days, but that doesn’t mean they have competent staff to man it or that they’re using the facility effectively to save the maximum number of people. At every hospital, there is an entry point where choices have to be made about what happens to each prospective patient. Will this patient be admitted to the hospital, and if so, where will they go? Do they go to the Intensive Care Unit? Do they go to an isolation ward? I doubt China is making these decisions well, because they weren’t prepared. No one is.

Even in the United States, the health care system is finely tuned for the mix of patients we have now. A hospital might have its cardiac ward and its cancer ward, and most of those beds are already filled with routine patients. It might have only ten ICU beds available for emergencies, because that’s the number of emergencies they normally have. If they get slammed by a thousand virus patients demanding to be seen, they’re going to fill up those 10 beds on a First Come First Served basis, and they won’t know how to deal with the rest.

When and if the virus invades the U.S. Authorities might have to do what they did in China: set up temporary hospitals to deal with the influx. Gymnasiums can be turned into makeshift hospitals, but then how do you staff them? All the doctors and nurses are already occupied at their own hospitals, so who is going to man the new makeshift hospitals? What is prevent these makeshift hospitals from turning into pandemonium? Everyone is crying “I’m dying, please help me!” but there’s no one to help and no system in place for effectively distributing resources.

Our only real hope lies in slowing down the spread of the disease to give us more time to prepare. This means educating people on how to avoid infection. People WILL pay attention if they know their lives depends on it. If you can limit the number of new infections each day, then you give your country more time to develop new systems to handle them. Unlike the medical systems we are used to, these systems are going to seem imperfect and brutal. You can no longer say, “We’re going to save every patient.” When the system is overburdened, you have to say, “We’re going to save as many people as we can with the limited resources we have.” This is a brutal philosophy because it means many people are going to be denied care, and those people won’t be happy.

This is the essence of triage, and it extends to all aspects of life. In everything you do and every decision you make, you are engaged in triage. You’re not going to be able to go everywhere and do everything, just like you can’t save everyone during an epidemic. You have to parcel out your limited resources to the options that offer the most gain, which means denying your resources to many noble causes.

I hope you can begin to see how the concept of medical triage can morph into a whole philosophy of life. This is what I tried to do when I invented Triagism back in 2015. Maybe it’s time for me to reactivate that project. Triagism. How do you get the most you can from the limited resources you have? I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunity to think about triage in the coming weeks. Everyone will be thinking, “If I catch the disease, what is going to happen to me?” What happens to people when they go to the hospital and there aren’t enough beds. In country after country, we’re going to start putting this question to the test.

I didn’t start this epidemic, and I can’t control its spread, but if its going to happen, at least I can use it for something. It can help me refine this philosophy that I had forgotten about. Assuming you and I survive, we might come out of it with some new tools for dealing with life.

The main lesson of Triagism is that there are no perfect solutions. There are only solutions that are relatively better than others. It all depends on your resources and how you choose to divvy them out.

[Note: Episodes prior to this one (#1-29) and earlier videos were recorded without scripts.]

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Agency: The Ability to Initiate Actions

I have identified a personality trait that doesn't seem to be discussed much by psychologists: agency.

In general use, agency is defined as "action or intervention, especially to produce a particular effect."

My own definition is more specific: Agency is "a persistant trait exhibited by individuals where they frequently and consistently initiate constructive actions deviating from a fixed pattern."

The opposite of agency, in my view is reactivity, or the ability to respond to outside events.

A simple example: If I throw a ball at you, and you catch the ball and throw it back, you are not exhibiting agency. You are exhibiting reactivity. You are reacting to the actions of someone else. On the other hand, if you see a ball, pick it up and throw it at me, you are exhibiting agency. You are no reacting to any outside event (apart from seeing the ball). You are initiating your own independent actions.

Another word for agency is initiative. Some people display a lot of initiative; some show very little.

Everyone is capable of reactivity. Something happens to you, and you respond. Not many people exhibit agency, at least on a consistent basis.

If a gunman walks into a school and shoots the place up, he is exhibiting agency in that particular instance. He hatched the plan all by himself and put together all the elements to make it happen—buying the gun, stockpiling ammo, etc.. This does not necessarily make him a high-agency individual because keys parts of my definition aren't met: "frequently and consistently initiates constructive actions." Shooting up a school isn't constructive for either the students or the gunman, and it isn't frequent or consistent. This is probably the first time he has taken such an action. If you look at the gunman's life, you will probably see a persistant pattern of passivity, where he doesn't take much action to address the problems of his life. The school shooting is an explosive reaction to all the pent up frustrations caused by his passivity.

People can be evaluated based on whether they exhibit high agency or low agency. Most people life their whole lives taking very little initiative. In fact, some highly successful people can have very low initiative. In school, assignments are given to them, and they complete them. When they go to work, they do the same. They join a company; assignments are given to them, and they are evaluated based on their reactive performance. People who do well are promoted. Their life disintegrates only when the structure around them goes away and they are forced to come up with their own assignments. Low-agency people can't do it. They fall back into a pattern of repeated acts that aren't usually very constructive.

Choice is not the same as agency. If ask you to choose between Coke and Pepsi, and you take Pepsi, you have made a choice, but you haven't exhibited initiative. I set up the assignment for you, and you simply fulfilled it. Agency requires thinking outside the box and coming up with your own assignment. You may be prompted by a outside event, like seeing a ball on the grass, but the impetus for action is coming from inside you, no from an outside force. The ball on the grass isn't pushing you to do anything. It is you who turned the inert ball into action.

People with low agency tend to be followers, while high-agency people often become leaders, but the fact that someone is in a leadership position doesn't make them high-agency. Many people who have been placed in leadership roles are in fact very passive. They follow the direction of their advisors and take few proactive actions. A certain President of the United States appears to exhibit high agency. He is always tweeting things to upset people. This is certainly a frequent and consistent behavior, but it it not constructive—for the country or himself—and it doesn't deviate from a fixed pattern.

Busy activity is not the same as agency. Doing a lot of stuff according to a pre-existing pattern does not imply initiative. It would take initiate to deviate from that fixed pattern and do things differently.

Meth addicts and manic-depressives may exhibit agency during their manic phase, but it isn't consistent and it usually isn't constructive. They may initiate a lot of actions but they rarely complete them. If we are treating agency as a personality trait, we have to look at their behavior over time. The manic phase of stimulant use or bipolar disorder is balanced out by the depressive phase, when the person initiates few actions.

I observe that habitual drug use of any kind tends to result a loss of agency. The stereotypical pothead lounges around the house, watches TV and does nothing new. He may hold down a job but he isn't particularly motivated to improve himself. I am not a drug user myself—Only caffeine has tempted me.—but watching friends and acquaintances fall into various drug habits over the years, I have seen them transformed from Go-Getters to Do-Nothingers. They may still be nice people, and if you throw a ball at them they'll throw it back, but the won't pick up the ball and throw it themselves. This suggests to me that there is a specific brain structure involved in agency that gets burned out by drugs.

Unpredictability does not imply agency. A lot of people try their best to be outrageous in everything they say and do. They may get a lot of tattoos or dress flamboyantly or need to be the life of the party. They want attention above all else, and they try to get it be constantly breaking the mold, but even breaking the mold can become a tired pattern after a while. Liberace, for example, was always trying to be outrageous. Each new outfit or sequin-encrusted possession was more over-the-top than the last. At a certain point, however, he became a caricature of himself: completely predictable in his unpredictability.

The key to constructive agency is foresight: looking ahead to try to predict and improve the future. Doing outrageous things doesn't necessarily improve your future. Your life is improved by anticipating future problems and trying to prevent them before they happen. Someone with genuinely high agency is always playing a chess game with their future, trying to anticipate the game many moves ahead. On the surface, their actions may seem inexplicable, but internally they are motivated by a long-term plan.

High-agency people tend to be more successful than others, but it depends on how you define "success". Many materially successful people have very little initiative, while many with high initiative have few rewards to show for it (like yours truly). There are ways to define success other than material reward. Something easier to observe is the prevalence of self-destructive acts. Because they can solve problems pre-emptively, high-agency people are less likely to engage in actions that hurt them in the long run.

Agency is difficult to change in others, if not impossible. You can't just tell a pothead to take more initiative. You can force them to react—say, by stealing their pot—but you can't force them to take new actions at their own initiative. They either have this ability or they don't.

Cultivating agency in yourself is a different matter. You can take initiative to take more initiative. If you are lying on your couch and you realize there is something you should be doing, you can either (a) put it off until later, or (b) get up and do it now. If you choose (b), you are exhibiting agency. If you repeat this pattern of behavior often, it strengthens the pro-initiative connections in your brain. It's like exercising a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

I consider myself a high-agency individual. When I woke up this morning with an idea, I could have filed it away as an interesting thought and gone ahead with my plans for the day. Instead, I decided to stop everything else and write this essay. No one assigned the essay to me; it was entirely self-motivated. It would have been a different if I was a journalist and my editor had assigned the job to me. In that case, I wouldn't have had anything interesting of my own to say. The best I could have done is call up some experts and get their opinions. The resulting article might have been interesting, but it would not have been original.

In general, the best people to have in your life are high-agency. You want people who take initiative and solve problems pre-emptively. If nothing else, high-agency people tend to be more fun, since you never know what they'll think of next. On the other hand, high-agency people are hard to hold down. A employer may hire someone because they are a Go-Getter with a lot of initiative. They may perform well for a while, but if a better offer comes along, they are likely to jump on it.

That's the peril of Go-Getters: They get up and go.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bifurcated Breeding and the Fate of the World

By Glenn Campbell

In an opinion piece in today's New York Times ("The Cost of Relativism"), David Brooks discusses the growing divergence between the college-educated and the non-college-educated in America. An excerpt...

The article goes on to discuss the things the author feels must be done to reverse this disturbing trend.

But what if it isn't reversible? What if this is the permanent fate of America and the world? Maybe there are now two breeding stocks: the Upper Class that breeds only with the Upper Class, and the Lower Class that breeds only with the Lower Class. It isn't fashionable to talk about Upper and Lower classes in America, but that doesn't change what is happening. If you have ever had a chance to dwell among the unwashed proletariat, as I have, you realize how intractable their dysfunction can be and how it goes on and on, generation after generation. No government program can keep up, because they won't stop having babies.

It is unfair to judge people based on their educational attainment. It is not education or lack thereof that is causing this division. Lack of education is more a symptom of household instability, which reflects, in turn, many generations of self-reinforcing dysfunction. You won't fix these families just by giving them better access to college. I contend, in fact, that you can't fix them at all. The underlying problem is that the dysfunctional classes breed so quickly and haphazardly that social services are always stretched to the breaking point.

The organized Upper Classes, living in nice suburbs or cushy countries like Norway, breed more deliberately and cautiously. They tend to choose their mates wisely from members of their own strata. College professors breed with other college professors, are more likely mate for duration of child rearing and tend to limit their breeding to the few children they can responsibly care for.

To simplify things: You have dumb people mating with dumb people and producing large numbers of offspring they can't care for, and you have smart people breeding with smart people, producing only as many offspring as they can responsibly raise. Over time, this has to lead to a splitting of lineages. The lower classes become more and more chaotic, while the upper classes become more organized and insulated from the lower classes.

I have just invented a name for this process: "bifurcated breeding." As the Times piece points out, many graphs show a "scissors" phenomenon where the two groups diverge in just about everything. Unless some miraculous social policies reverse this trend, the groups will grow further and further apart until you have two distinct classes not unlike the traditionally separated classes of old, the Brahmans and peasants.

As long as there have been large civilizations on Earth, mankind has had a bifurcated breeding system. The leadership class of kings and gentry bred only with each other, sometimes going to other countries for mates within the same class. It was unthinkable for the nobles to mate with commoners for most of human history. It was only in the 20th Century that modern societies began to think of themselves as classless. I contend that this apparent classlessness is only a short window in history and that it is rapidly disintegrating before our eyes.

This growing division essentially means the smart get smarter while the dumb get dumber. Meanwhile, the population of smart people remains relatively constant, while the dumb classes expand rapidly in size. There is no appetite in any democratic country for any kind of government mandated birth control program. Having a child—or ten—is perceived as an inalienable right. Given this privilege and no outside control like predators or disease, the undisciplined and chaotic are always going to out-breed the disciplined and deliberate.

And then they vote! The growing numbers of the undisciplined mean that their representatives increasingly come to control government. Dumb voters tend to prefer populous leaders at the extreme right and left of the political spectrum. Either they are voting to cut off all social services to people like themselves (the arch-conservative agenda) or voting to nationalize everything and destroy the capitalist structures that keep society alive (the arch-liberal agenda). Undisciplined voters make undisciplined choices, and their huge numbers mean that the disciplined and rational voters in the middle of the road are overwhelmed at the polls.

No one in the Western world seems eager to abandon democracy, and for good reason. The alternatives always seem to turn out worse. But you still have a growing crisis within democracy itself: dumber and dumber voters consistently voting against their own best interests. I am not trying to offer solutions like the Times author. I don't think effective solutions can be deliberately instituted by any government because it is too big a problem for government to handle and in the end you have ever dumber voters calling the shots.

Things were different throughout most of human history. While breeding was bifurcated, it was the upper classes that were the more prodigious breeders. They had better access to resources, so more of their children survived. In the lower classes, dumb people bred with dumb people, but getting too dumb had a way of killing people off. Today the opposite is true: the lower classes are now the major breeders. Universal health care assures that nearly every child survives, so the haphazard breeders are obviously going to produce more than the disciplined ones even without the resources to safely raise them.

Bifurcated breeding is a phenomenon of both Nature and Nurture. It is foolish to believe that dumb people mating with dumb people isn't going to draw down their stock. You breed a dumb dog with a dumb dog, and you are more likely to get a dumb dog than a smart one. At the same time, you have deteriorating social conditions—violence, drug abuse and instability passed down from generation to generation. No matter what a child's innate talents are, little be achieved in an environment of chaos.

Meanwhile, the organized classes sequester themselves in isolated suburbs that the chaotic classes can't easily reach. This isn't deliberate segregation, but everyone wants to live in a better, safer neighborhood if they can. Every wants to find a mate who is more like them. Over time, this is naturally going to lead to greater practical segregation of gifted from the ungifted. It is not segregation based on race or ethnicity, per se, but on discipline and talent, whether innate or trained. In the modern world, unlike the ancient one, talented members of the lower classes now have the opportunity to rise into the upper classes and be accepted on an equal footing with anyone who was born there. Unfortunately, as they are doing this, they are further depleting the genetic and cultural stock of the lower classes.

What happens when someone in Nigeria shows extraordinary talent, say in music or science? Of course they move out of Nigeria to someplace like Germany or America where their talents can be better used. This further depletes Nigeria of talent, be it genetic or learned, and Nigeria becomes more and more ungovernable. This same sort of brain drain is happening within countries. The best and brightest move out of chaotic or deprived environments as soon as they can, leaving those neighborhoods even more chaotic and deprived.

Is there any hope for humanity? Sure! You still have smart people breeding with smart people on protected islands away from the chaos. These people will continue to lead humanity in science and the arts. They will man the starships of the future and go out into the cosmos as Earth's representatives. Democracy aside, humanity is largely defined and propelled forward by its organized intellectual elite, not its seething masses.

The main risk is the growing time bomb the seething masses represent. If they control democracy, then some dangerous leaders are bound to emerge (and already have). Give these leader control of the nuclear button or any other environmental bomb and they could very well destroy the world.

And the suffering of the seething masses never ends. As the world population grows from 7 billion to who knows how many billion, things are going to break. The organized classes will seal themselves in protective bubbles as chaos swirls around them. More and more of the world will become like Nigeria. The population will keep growing and growing, mostly among the chaotic classes, until something happens to stop it.

What will that something be? I have no idea. I only know that it probably won't be a democratic something. It won't be a conscious decision by world leaders to follow a disciplined plan, because world leaders have never agreed on anything of that scope and never will. World population growth will be stopped only by a great catastrophe, or perhaps a series of them. Pressures will build until something breaks. Bureaucrats in western nations may try to head it off, but what power do they have when the rest of the world is growing uncontrollably and their own voters are working against reason?

What solution am I offering? None, really. You and I don't have the power to change the world any more than we can change the course of the stars. We can protect ourselves and perhaps our neighborhood and cast our one vote against the legions of idiots, but in the global scale, you and I are powerless. We can observe, record and analyse, but we can't tell someone in a chaotic environment to stop having babies. If you have a workable plan for population control, I'd like to hear it, but you can bet that the very people most damaged by uncontrolled breeding are exactly those who will vote against any such controls.

The dumb people have God on their side, and God told them to "go forth and multiply."

Friday, January 16, 2015

As If You Had Only a Year to Live

By Glenn Campbell

My alter-ego the @BadDalaiLama just tweeted:
This is a variation of the old adage, "Life each day as though it were your last." I'm just extending the timeframe a bit. Living solely for today tends to be hedonistic. What can any of us accomplish in a day? You can make others around you a little happier, but that's about it. Living for the day neglects the most important human skill: planning ahead.

But if you plan too far ahead, you tend to get lost. If your main goals are 5, 10 or 20 years down the line, it is easy to put things off. Timeframes beyond a year don't convey much urgency. You figure that even if this year is a waste, you have plenty of time to make up for it later, and this attitude goes on year after year.  If your goals are too far ahead, is easy to lose sight of how fragile and temporary life is and how quickly it is already slipping away.

If you are always planning for a one-year lifespan, you may be pleasantly surprised to see it extended, but the satisfaction of "a life well lived" shouldn't depend on having more time. You can have tentative backup plans for 5, 10 and 20 years, should they come to pass, but a single year, looking forward from today, should be your primary focus.

Longer term plans are notoriously unreliable. Many a 10-year plan has been mucked up by unforeseen circumstances, and even if it isn't, your life a decade hence is never quite what you thought it would be, so it is best to keep the planning period short. One year seems like a good compromise between prudently planning ahead and over-planning what you cannot realistically foresee.

A lot of things change when you have only a year to live instead of decades. All of those 365 days become more valuable. The urgency of everything you do is sharpened and enhanced, leading to many changes in strategy.

You have to work with the resources you have. Resources are the skills, time, money and other construction supplies available for your projects. Over the course of a year, you can't count on having more of them, so you have to carefully manage what little you have.

The most valuable of these resources is time, so you've got to stop wasting it right now! Your time should only be used for things that are worthy of a person with only a year left on Earth. You know what I'm talking about. As soon as you sit down in front of the TV, you have broken a rule. You have unconscionably wasted time when you have so little of it left.

One year is arbitrary, of course, but five years would make you lazy. In a practical sense, if a project can't be completed in a year—or at least safely turned over to someone else within a year—maybe it isn't one you should engage in. If a novel takes you five years to write, there's always a chance you will die before it is done and the whole thing will be worthless. A project completed within a year is a little safer.

It is fine to engage with others in open-ended projects lasting more than a year—like the long-term survival of humanity—but your personal contribution shouldn't be essential beyond that time. If it is, you may be doing others a disservice, because when you do step away they won't be able to get along without you. Your job on Earth is not to make yourself indispensable. Your job is to plan for your own demise, so that other can take over when you are gone. Either you wrap up each project on your own, or you give others easy handles to continue it for you.

Your goals over the near year have to be modest. You can't expect to save the world in that time. Frankly, you can't expect to save the world even in 100 years, but a shorter schedule helps you dispense with that delusion more easily. You can't say, "Someday, I'll become a billionaire and then I'll do great things." On a one-year schedule, you can only expect to do relatively simple things with the resources you have.

What matters at the end of your life is what you leave behind. There is a record of your presence in the systems you have built. If you built a house, the house will stand long after you are gone. You just want to build something more meaningful than that.

Unfortunately, I can't tell you what you should build. That's the $64,000 question. I'm only saying that working on one-year timeframe—as though you had a year to live—is better than kicking the can down the road and pretending you have forever.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Istanbul Protests: My Eyewitness Report

By Glenn Campbell, writing in Santorini, Greece, June 12, 2013

A few days ago, on June 6 & 7, 2013, I visited Gezi Park in Istanbul, the epicenter of huge ongoing anti-government protests. (See my photos and video.) I have the feeling I was a witness to history, and I want to set down my impressions while they are still fresh. In a few days, I will pass through Istanbul again and we will see what has changed.

My visit on June 6—arranged before the protests—happened to come during a lull in the violence when police had withdrawn and protesters had taken control of Gezi Park and adjoining Taksim Square. The protesters were peaceful and had no weapons apart from huge numbers. At the time of my visit, to call it a "protest" was almost too strong a word. It was more like the Turkish version of Woodstock or Burning Man—more a spontaneous cultural festival than a traditional anti-government demonstration. Any organization with a progressive or counter-cultural message set up a makeshift booth to hand out flyers. Street vendors moved in to service the crowds. There were even vendors selling gas masks, hard hats and Guy Fawkes "V for Vendetta" masks.

Rather than describing the scene, take a look at my Facebook photos and video. The gathering was entirely peaceful, involving people from all walks of (non-conservative) Turkish society. From appearances, it could be a urban cultural festival anywhere in Western Europe, except for a complete lack of visible police.

To clarify the geography: Taksim Square is the central crossroads in the newer part of the city, Beyoğlu, which is far removed from the old quarter and tourist sites like the Hagia Sophia. (I actually made a video in Taksim on my first arrival in Istanbul three years ago.) Before the protests, Taksim was a major crossroads, but once the protests began around May 31, it was taken over entirely by pedestrians, essentially extending a long pedestrian-only shopping street, İstiklal Avenue. Although Taksim seemed central to traffic on my previous visits, the blocking of roads there turns out to have very little effect on the rests of the city. Traffic has simply rerouted itself around the blockage, and the life of the rest of the city appears unchanged. It is certainly not true that Istanbul is burning down. You would have to be close to Taksim to see any obvious change in daily life.

Taksim is a big open plaza, ideally suited to big rallies. Adjoining it is Gezi Park, a greener and more confined space with trees and a bit of grass. The protests began when bulldozers moved in to demolish the park and a handful of activists blocked them. This lead to clashes with riot police that involved liberal use of teargas and water cannon. It is clear that police created the bigger protest with their harsh attempt to dislodge the original protesters. Soon there were thousands and then hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of whom had never taken part in a protest before. Gezi Park was the rallying point for hundreds of divergent cultural, liberal and anti-government forces who previously had no common ground. Even if they couldn't agree on anything else, everyone could agree on saving Gezi Park and a nearby cultural center, and everyone was opposed to police oppression.

I walked through Gezi Park about six months before the protests, before I even knew the small park had a name. It didn't strike me as a particularly interesting place or a frequently used park. It was almost empty when I was there, and I would guess that few of those who are now protesting the demolition have visited it within the preceding year—if ever! It is mainly a symbol. For the generally secular and Western-leaning protesters, unilateral demolition of the park was seen as the final straw in the steady erosion of civil rights under the 10-year rule of conservative Islamist Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. If Gezi Park had not been the spark that set off the protests, something else would have.

Gezi Park just happened to have all the elements needed to make it go "viral" in social media. Essentially, this is a social media revolution because all the mainstream media in Turkey have turned into fearful puppets of the regime. (The local CNN affiliate famously ran a documentary on penguins during the initial violence.) However, there seem to have been no significant attempts to suppress the internet or cellphone coverage in Istanbul. In fact, you will see in my photos and video that Vodaphone had set up mobile cellphone towers to serve the crowd, just like they would for a big sporting event. As long as the internet is available in Istanbul, the protests will continue and be coordinated in ways that the government has no control over. If internet users can't get reliable news from the major media in Turkey, they can certainly get it from the overseas media and from increasingly sophisticated social networks in Turkey.

When I was there, the protesters were continuously occupying the park with the aim of keeping the government from demolishing it. When I say "occupy", I mean that virtually every available spot of grass was covered by a tent or other encampment. The gathering of humanity here was truly massive, especially in the evenings when people came here after work. After 8:00pm on June 6, the crowd was so thick in the park I could hardly move (and I would not have been able to shoot a video like I did in the afternoon). The symbolic message of the crowd was, "To demolish this park, you have to dislodge us first."

Although the level of fervor my vary, the number of people involved was staggering! This was probably the biggest spontaneous, unmanaged rally I have ever attended and probably ever will attend. By "unmanaged", I mean there were no clear leaders and absolutely no police in evidence anywhere. New Years Eve in Times Square is probably a lot bigger, but in that case the crowd is carefully managed by a huge police presence. Gezi Park was self-managed and extremely orderly. Although a lot of people were chanting political slogans and many were openly painting graffiti on every available surface, I saw no other hint of conflict or lawlessness. There were families with children in the park, and I myself felt absolutely no danger there, even knowing no Turkish.

Clearly, this benign situation could not continue indefinitely. Either the government would crack down, or the gathering would go sour on its own. Imagine if Woodstock had gone on for weeks: Sooner or later there would be some sort of disorder, crime or major accident, but no authorities to respond. Sooner or later you need police and a credible government to maintain the functioning of society. (There was volunteer-staffed MASH-style medical compound in Gezi, and municipal services were picking up bagged trash, but there were no other services like restrooms.)

I predicted at the time that the stalemate would go on for a long time. Apart from the huge crowds, the park was crawling with international media, and any police response would be instantly and widely reported. Now that the police had withdrawn, the government wouldn't be so stupid as to bring them back to do battle with this huge force of peaceful citizens. I figured the police would wisely stay away, and the protest movement would slowly disintegrate from within.

I was wrong! From what I read tonight in the news, the police have now cleared Taksim Square by force. This is relatively easy, as this is a flat and open square that riot vehicles can easily move into. Gezi Park is more of a problem, as it is naturally fortified by trees, stairways and sunken courtyards—a sort of Helm's Deep for the protesters. As of last report, protesters are still occupying the park, and I assume the police have them surrounded. Since the protesters are unarmed, how long it takes to remove them depends on how much force the police are willing to use. They could move in by force or simply wait the protesters out.

Any government in any real democracy would do the sensible thing and back off from the park—let the protesters win and suspend the construction project. That is the best way to deflate the symbol. Erdogan, however, has chosen the hard-line and stupid route. He has apparently chosen to attack the symbol the protesters have laid before him. When the police gain control of the park, I predict that Erdogan will do the despotic thing and immediately demolish the park. It is like turning your opponent into a martyr. "Remember Gezi Park" will be the new rallying cry—much more powerful than holding the park itself.

I actually see this as a blessing for the protesters. If they had continued to hold the square and park, their protest movement would have eventually lost steam and disintegrated from within. Demolishing the park will just make the protest even bigger and push it to a more sophisticated level.

Erdogan seems to have firm control of the government, and there is no credible political opposition to challenge him. This is actually a problem for Erdogan, because it means he has no one to negotiate with. The protesters are essentially a leaderless group, so there isn't anyone to imprison who will make a difference. Erdogan has essentially created his own perfect opponent. He can jail opponents and journalists, but he can't imprison the whole internet or half the Istanbul population. Turkey is still fundamentally a free democracy, and Chinese-style censoring of the internet is far beyond the government's means. (If nothing else, all the internet talent is on the side of the protesters.) The government can only unplug the internet altogether—which Mubarak tried unsuccessfully to do in Egypt.

Slightly more moderate elements of the government have called for "dialog" with the protesters, but there is no one to have a dialog with! There are no recognized leaders in this movement, only hundreds of thousand of highly motivated citizens with smart phones. Every act of oppression just forces them to get more creative.

Istanbul is fundamentally different than Syria or Egypt, although they may look similar on the news. This is overwhelmingly a safe and peaceful uprising. As of the latest reports, "only" five people have been killed, which is a remarkably low number given the hundreds of thousands of people involved. In Syria, the government is using real bombs and bullets, and in Eqypt there is real anarchy and lawlessness. In Istanbul, there has been remarkably little bloodshed, but what there has been has been videotaped and instantly broadcast. Istanbul looks like Syria on the evening news only because every explosion and act of violence is being recorded by a hundred cameras.

Who are the protesters? Since I don't live in Turkey and don't have to be polite, I can state things bluntly. The protesters are all the smart people in Turkey—all the lawyers, all the doctors, all the professionals, anyone who regularly uses the internet, everyone with half a brain. Erdogan's supporters are all the dumb people in Turkey—the farmers, the laborers, the traditional religious believers, the simple country folk who fall for his populist rhetoric. As in every country, the dumb people outnumber the smart people, which is why Erdogan is in power (and why America got George W. Bush). Unfortunately for the dumb people, they are dumb and can't handle new technology like the internet. They can only try to suppress opposition the old-fashioned way: by force. This just pushes the smart people to become ever-more creative and clever in their opposition.

This is a relatively safe and lively uprising, more a blossoming of culture than a civil war. I compare it to America in the 1960s. Back then, opposition to the Vietnam war brought people together and created, for a short time, a movement of flower people and free love. It couldn't go on forever, but it was fun while it lasted.

STOP PRESS!!!!! New update on June 14!!!

I wrote the above last night, but I wasn't happy with the conclusion. It turns out I am not a neutral observer of the Turkish situation. I actually have a horse in this race! My first "real" book was published in Turkey! The Case Against Marriage was published in Turkish translation months before it came out as an English ebook. It is still my only physical book published by an outside publisher. Arguing against marriage may be routine in America but it is much more risque in a traditional culture like Turkey.

Like it or not, I have become part of the counterculture in Turkey.

Right now I am in Santorini, the perfect peaceful Paradise, but I have been here for five days, and Paradise is beginning to wear thin. As the news heats up in Istanbul, it occurs to me that I need to get back there. I was planning to pass through there in a week, but maybe it should be earlier.

I just changed my reservation. I'm heading back to Istanbul by ferry and plane over the next two days. I'll be there for the Saturday Night Riots. I won't put myself at any risk, but Istanbul seems a lot more interesting right now than any dumb Paradise.

Maybe then I can come up with a more meaningful conclusion about the protests.

Update: Much Later

I did return to Istanbul, just in time for a big crackdown in Taksim Square. I could write a whole book on this experience, but, alas, I just don't have the time. You'll have to make do with the photos....


Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Phobia" - a treatment for a short film

"Phobia" is the treatment for a short film of 5-10 minutes. I had the idea on May 19, 1023 and finished writing the treatment on May 23, 2013

The complete 12-page treatment is available here as a PDF file.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Spark of Life: What Makes a Great Work of Art?

By Glenn Campbell

What makes a great movie—one you enjoy watching and want to see again? Is it budget, special effects, star power? If it were any of these things, then every big budget movie would be a hit and would be remembered for years. Fact is, plenty of movies made with endless resources are simply not pleasant to watch and are forgotten as soon as the publicity machine is turned off. They lack something simple and elemental. I call it the "spark of life".

The spark of life is what animates every great work of art in any medium. It's hard to describe exactly what it is, but you either got it or you don't.

The spark of life is an emotional connection you make with your audience. It is a simple observation of humanity, tinged with irony, that teaches us something about our own life. The whole purpose of art is to convey these messages. If these messages are compelling, the artwork sings. If these messages are missing or lifeless, the artwork is dead in the water.

In any medium, you have thousands of competent technicians but only a few great artists. The artists are those who can look beyond the technical aspects of their craft to what the audience is actually experiencing. There are plenty of musicians who can string notes together, plenty of painters who can render a scene and plenty of people who know the techniques of film, but most of them just don't get what the audience is seeing. The audience doesn't care about technicals. It wants to connect emotionally with a human character or situation and learn something about themselves in the process.

I went to a big-budget superhero movie a couple of nights ago: Iron Man 3. On the surface, it was just an attempt to capitalize on the success of the previous two movies.  The special effects were over the top. The credits included hundreds of technicians and a few highly paid movie stars. The plot was absurd and full of internal inconsistencies—yet I thoroughly enjoyed myself!

What I went to see were the quirks, defects and chutzpah of Tony Stark. Like the rest of the audience, I see in him some of myself. Tony and his personal humor are all that matters. I don't care about the special effects. They are just a vehicle that let's Robert Downey do his thing. His character brings the spark of life to the movie.

What gives life to a movie are the little ironic nuances of the character and script, not the monsters or explosions. In Ironman 3, there are too many of these clever observations to name (and it would be a spoiler if I told them to you). A character says or does something ironic and unexpected yet totally human and authentic. We laugh because we understand this element in ourselves. Those moments are what make the movie. Those are the things I take with me out of the theater. I leave behind the plot, the special effects and all the defects of the film.

Technicians and investors can't grasp these human moments. If the movie doesn't work they think, "We need more explosions!" Business people think that if you have a problem, you just need to throw more money at it, but art doesn't work that way. Art is an intimate observation of humanity that has nothing to do with budget.

A thousand people may be involved in the special effects of a movie, but creating ironic human observations is a private effort involving, at most, two or three people. If you have too many cooks in the kitchen, it becomes a committee, which inevitably kills the spark. In the case of a movie, you have an actor, director and maybe a scriptwriter working together to create an ironic nuance. In most other works of art, you have only one artist in charge. Individuals and partnerships can build nuances; committees can't.

Committee and teams can create special effects extravaganzas, no problem. They just carve up the work into smaller units and farm them out. Many a big-budget movie has failed because it consisted only of special effects designed by a committee. It lacks the core human observations that power the whole thing. This essential humanity is something fragile that committees can't put together.

Most individual artists can't do it either. In music, for example, there are countless great technicians and virtuosos, capable of working with instruments and putting musical elements together, but there are few great storytellers, capable of connecting with the audience. You listen to the work of the technicians and it seems to have all the basic elements of good music, but it lacks human life. In focusing on their instruments, the technicians have lost touch with what the audience is experiencing. In certain sense, most professional musicians lose their hearing. They don't hear their music as the audience does, and no amount of resources or technical skill will give them this gift.

Many musicians hit the sweet spot by chance. These are known as "One Hit Wonders". They produce one memorable song, and on the strength of that song they are given all the resources they could want to product another, but they can't do it. They never understood the spark they were dealing with, so they can't reproduce it.

In any medium, there are only a few great artists who understand what gives their work life and who reproduce it year after year. Only a tiny subset of artists can see what the audience does and understand what the audience needs. It is such a simple skill, yet it is a fragile gift that is easily lost.

Much of this skill lies in the strength of knowing that special effects don't matter. Budget and publicity don't matter. It is the message that matters. What matters is capturing a quirky, essential and authentic little element of humanity and playing it back for the audience.

That's what makes art resonate.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Glenn Campbell Cultural Mafia Interview Regarding Marriage

An interview with Glenn Campbell regarding his new book, The Case Against Marriage. This is the original English version of an interview conducted by email with a Turkish publication, Kültür Mafyasi (Cultural Mafia) in Feb. 2013 (published in March) shortly after the release of the Turkish edition. I don't speak Turkish, so I don't know what was actually printed, and I have edited this version slightly to correct some minor errors. ~Glenn Campbell, 5/2/13.

Q: What did your own marriage teach you?

A: My marriage and divorce were incredibly painful, but in retrospect it was a valuable experience. It was like living through a war. It got my life focused in a way that war often does. You could say that before marriage I was a child who lacked direction, and after marriage I was a grown-up who knew a lot more about who he was and what he wanted to do with his life. I have about ten unwritten books inside me that are inspired by the things I learned during my marriage and divorce, so I can’t say that the experience was all bad. It gave me inspiration and made me who I am today!

The most important things I learned concerned boundaries. There are natural borders between people, and when you cross them you get in trouble. For example, when you try to help someone solve a problem that they really should be solving themselves, you are crossing a boundary and both of you are going to be hurt by it. The danger is the person begins to become dependent on you and loses their motivation to solve their own problems.

I think that’s the key issue in the marriage debate: Where should those personal boundaries be? How far should you go in merging with someone you love, and where should you stop?

Can you describe more about what a “boundary” is.

I think a natural boundary is managing your own finances. You go to work, earn money; the money goes into a bank account and you pay bills with it. As I see it, each person is responsible for balancing their own budget and deciding how to spend their own money. This is the main boundary that marriage erases. As soon as you are married, the financial boundaries between the two of you vanish, at least in the eyes of the law. You no longer manage you own checkbook. You have to negotiate with someone else even when spending the money that you earned.

As far as the law is concerned, marriage has nothing to do with love. It is a merging of the finances of two people into a single corporate entity. You find at the time of divorce that this is mainly what legal marriage is—a financial partnership. The main challenge of divorce is how to disentangle these merged finances, which is much harder than merging them.

I say this financial merge is a violation of the natural and healthy boundaries between people. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you should combine your bank account with theirs.

Have you been thinking on this subject before you went through the marriage and divorce process. What caused you to think on marriage?

Before I got married, I really had no strong feelings about marriage one way or the other. I thought it was a silly social convention that wouldn’t really change anything. I knew there was nothing magical about the ceremony, but I didn’t anticipate how marriage itself would actually make the relationship worse. I certainly would not have written a book about marriage before I was married, because I had no experience. It would be like writing a book about France when you have never been to France.

How did you develop the idea of writing a book?

I was studying Family Court in Las Vegas, which is the place you go to get a divorce. After my own divorce case was over, I continued to visit the courthouse because it was fascinating entertainment to see other people’s divorces in action. I was seeing all the same dramas played out over and over, and I began to see the common threads in every divorce. It may sound silly, but the root cause of divorce is marriage! People go into marriage with delusional beliefs, with totally unrealistic expectations, and sooner or later you have to pay the price for that.

I began to see that the problem in my own divorce wasn’t just a bad marriage or a crazy spouse, but my own delusions going into marriage. I began to see that whole institution of marriage was fundamentally flawed. Once it became clear in my own mind what those flaws were, a book seemed the natural way to express them.

You’re putting love and marriage in the same category in the book and evaluate them together. Isn’t it unfair to love?

I certainly didn’t intend to! I consider love and marriage to be two completely separate things. I am not arguing against love, only against the this public social and legal contract—marriage—which I think gets in the way of love. If you really love somebody, they your love alone should keep you together. Why should you have to announce anything to the world? Why does it matter what you aunts and uncles and parents and siblings think? You are the one who has to live in this relationship, so you and your partner should be the sole moderators of it. Every day you decide anew what your relationship is. You shouldn’t have to declare it for a whole lifetime.

It seems so simple: If you love someone and get along with them, then you are going to stay together. If love fades or you start having conflicts, you pull apart until you can solve those conflicts. What is wrong with that? The problem with marriage is that it forces you to be together when you shouldn’t be. It erases too many boundaries between you—mainly the financial ones—so you don’t have the opportunity to pull back and renegotiate when you need to.

True love should not have to be publicly declared. True love can exist only when it is freely decided, day by day. If you try to cage love, try to mount it on your wall, then you are going to kill it.

You’ve been observing the cases of Family Court in Las Vegas for years. Is there any interesting story that you would like to share with us? For instance, could you tell us about the most problematic divorce or the funniest one that you have encountered with so far?

Well, there are always funny stories about the trivial things people fight about in court, like pets or children’s toys, but I was never interested in those stories. What was most interesting to me is how the basic patterns of divorce are so often the same. You can’t predict exactly what divorcing couples will fight about, but you can predict that they will fight about something. Most of the terms of the divorce may be decided, but when there is only one little issue left, that’s when they dig in for a battle. It’s like they don’t want to let go.

The great mystery to me was why divorces are always so nasty. Why can’t people just graciously give up and move on? I think the answer is that people are still attached to each other at a primitive emotional level—or at least one party is still attached—and fighting over something trivial is a way to keep the relationship going. That’s why some ex-spouses become stalkers. The relationship has failed, but they are still emotionally attached, in the deepest part of the brain, and can’t let go.

While your marriage lasted for 6 years, the divorce process lasted for 8 years. What was the reason for the extension on divorce, was it the system or was it about your relationship?

The actual legal divorce took about a year—that is, from the time I stopped living in the home until the time the marriage was legally ended. Most of this was my own reluctance to seek divorce. I tried every conceivable solution to try to save my marriage. Once I decided divorce was unavoidable, it took about six months to go through the legal process.

When I say the divorce process lasted 8 years, I am referring to all the complications and continuing financial entanglements mainly involving children. I have no children of my own, but I had taken on a parental role with my wife’s children, and I felt that I could not completely abandon them. As every divorced parent knows, you are never really divorced if you have children together. I was able to cut my financial ties with my ex-wife only after the last child left her home.

Do you have married friends that you keep in touch with?

Oh, sure, plenty of my friends are married, some of them very happily. I certainly don’t try to push my opinions on them, and I am not saying these people should get divorced. Once you are married, you have to deal with the situation you have, and as long as it is working there is no need to change.

My only advice for married people is that if you ever do get a divorce, do it fast. Don’t drag it out like I did. No one benefits from that.

Let’s assume that I am about to get married in couple of months, what would you suggest me?

I have never been successful in dissuading someone from getting married who had already announced their plans to the world. At that point, they are already committed. I think my book is more for people who haven’t committed to it yet. If you have already announced your marriage, the only thing I can do is urge caution on those additional commitments that seem to follow shortly after marriage, mainly real estate, debt and children. Marriage alone is relatively harmless and reversible, but people don’t feel they can stop with that. Soon they are committed to a 20-year mortgage and a 20-plus year commitment to raising children. Those are the things that really trap you.

You don’t have a settled life. How does Glenn Campbell live?

Someday I hope to make a living with my writing, but for now I work mainly as a long-distance driver in the U.S. I have no stable home but travel continuously, staying at motels and hostels. Everything I own fits in a small suitcase and a backpack. I write on my laptop wherever I happen to be. It is a lifestyle I enjoy, because it keeps my life efficient and gives me a lot of time to think and write, but this certainly wouldn’t be possible if I was married.

I am grateful, in a sense, that divorce took everything away from me, because it gave me a chance to re-invent my life from scratch. It is like starting over as a 21-year-old again, except that I am a lot wiser and more experienced this time around.

You started a research on UFOs in 1990, quit your job in 1993 and settled in the town of Rachel in the deserts of Nevada. You uncovered a military base where there was high-tech war weapons like robotic aircrafts as a result of your investigation in “Area 51” where there were rumours of UFOs passing by. How was this experience for you? What did you learn from this period?

This was back before I was married. I become interested in UFOs, and Area 51 was supposedly a place where you could see them on a regular basis. I moved to this remote desert area and set myself up as a researcher and guide. I gained a lot of media attention and became a little famous as an expert on the base.
The trouble is, the UFOs never performed for me. When other people looked at a light in the sky and saw a UFO, I would see a military aircraft or something else that could be explained. I must have been giving off too much negative psychic energy, and the aliens stayed away from me! So I never got any closer to the solving the UFO mystery, but my experience in Nevada was educational in many other ways. I learned a lot about human psychology, government and media. I never met an alien, but I met a lot of interesting humans.

Do you believe in UFOs?

I neither believe nor disbelieve. I am agnostic. The only thing I believe with confidence is that aliens are not relevant to our life on Earth. If aliens exist and have visited Earth, at least they are keeping a low profile. They aren’t interfering in our lives in any obvious way, which is all you can expect from responsible aliens. Until they decide to show themselves, I am going to conduct my life as though they didn’t exist. I think this is another boundary issue, like marriage. We shouldn’t expect aliens to help us with our problems. Any problems on this planet were created by us, and only we can solve them.

In fact, you could say people getting married are like people looking up at the sky for flying saucers. Both expect this magical force to come down and save them. The reality is, no one can save you. If your life lack meaning, marriage won’t give it meaning. It will only make your life more complicated.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Pickpocket Mind Games in Las Vegas

By Glenn Campbell

Last night I misplaced my iPhone on the Las Vegas Strip. It appeared I was targeted by a sophisticated pickpocket at the Luxor casino. The incident was a powerful lesson in human perception and how it can be easily lead astray. This story has many layers and a surprise ending. What I learned may be more valuable than the price of any iPhone.

I was shooting video in the Luxor casino, in the Egyptian-themed entertainment areas away from the gambling floor, when I was approached by a man in tourist clothing who asked me what I was filming. I had already noticed him watching me and had already pegged him as plainclothes security, but I was annoyed by the intrusion. It was obvious that I was photographing the fake Egyptian statues at the front entrance of the casino that were deliberately placed there to be photographed.

I responding rudely. "Who are you?" Although I assumed he was security, there were no visible signs that he wasn't just a tourist. I wanted him to prove himself.

The man was slow and careful in his response. "My name is Scott."

"I'm just photographing this stupid tourist shit," I said. "You're in my space, Scott."

"I saw you at the top of the escalator and was wondering what you were photographing."

"Who are you?" I repeated.

"My name is Scott..." Then after a pause: "I am with the casino."

I accepted this claim because I had already seen him watching me, following me and acting security-like, even though there were no outward proof of it. (I had already checked for an earphone in his ear and didn't see one, but it could have meant those devices were just getting smaller.) I didn't get any less rude, however. As a photographer, I have developed a complex set of protocols when people don't want me to film. Sometimes, I back away gracefully and sometimes I'm an asshole. This situation, I felt, called for assholiness.

"Do you want me to leave?" I said.

"That isn't necessary," he said.

"Do you want me to show you my photos?"

"That would be good," he said.

I recalled the last video I shot and played it for him on the back of my camera. It just showed me moving past some smaller Egyptian statues to focus on a bigger one. No people or gambling areas were visible in the video.

This seemed to satisfy him. I asked if he wanted to see the rest of my photos, but he said that wasn't necessary. He withdrew, and I continued with my filming.

What I didn't realize at the time is that, in that moment I was showing him the video, he was within my "personal space"—that is, in close proximity to my body in a zone when one doesn't normally allow others to approach. In theory, he was within reach of my back pants pocket where my iPhone was located. I felt nothing and recall no sensation of being touched, but after two hours of intense filming on the Las Vegas Strip, my iPhone was missing.

I do not normally keep my iPhone in my back pocket, where it is more vulnerable, and not using my iPhone in the space of two hours is almost unthinkable, but this was a photography expedition, and I was totally concentrated on my camera. My iPhone was in my back pocket because all my other pockets were filled with batteries and camera gear I do not normally carry. Thus, my senses were disoriented. The pressure in my front pocket that I normally associate with my iPhone was actually a camera battery.

I noticed my iPhone was missing only after I had returned to my rental car and driven away from the casino. When I first got back to the car in casino parking, I was exhausted and dumped all my batteries and equipment from my pockets onto the passenger seat. I assumed my iPhone was there, but when I got to my destination, I couldn't find it. It was night, but I searched the crevasses and seat cushions of this unfamiliar car as best I could. No luck.

In my frantic state (ISA = iPhone Separation Anxiety, a common modern affliction), I finally put two and two together. I had no specific memories of my iPhone since putting it in my pocket as I first left my parked car, and this "Scott" was the only person who came close enough to me to take it. During my film shoot I was constantly moving and never even sat down, so I felt the chances of anyone else stealing it or it falling spontaneously out of my pocket were slim.

A few weeks before, I had read an article in the New Yorker about a "theatrical pickpocket" who lifted people's personal items as a sort of magician. He would tell people he was going to pick their pockets, so they would presumably be on their guard, but he would still have no trouble lifting watches, pens and other personal items off of them without them noticing. He even did it to other magicians like Penn Jillette.

The slight-of-hand artist in the article perfectly fit the profile of "Scott"—quiet, self-effacing, polite but annoying. I now figured the whole "with the casino" bit was a ruse to get close enough me to lift whatever was in my back pocket. He couldn't know it was an iPhone, but he might have seen that it was accessible.

This guy was smooth! First, there was the problem of getting close enough to my body to take anything, but he was also operating in a Las Vegas casino, probably one of the most intensely monitored public spaces on Earth. The article, however, made me see that it was possible. I also knew from living in Las Vegas that most casino security is focused on the gaming areas where money is changing hands. Relatively little attention is given to the public areas where no casino assets are at risk.

I felt that my iPhone was lost forever. If "Scott" was a professional, he would have left the Luxor immediately and moved on to another casino where I had no chance of finding him. I checked my photos and videos, but he wasn't on them. (He must have been smart about that as well.) I ran through all the damage control I would have to do to protect my data, and I added up the cost of the forced upgrade to a new phone.

Do not weep for me about any lost equipment. As a perpetual traveler, theft and loss happens to me frequently. I have had numerous computers and cameras stolen. I narrowly avoided a pocket-picking on the Paris Metro (and got photos of my assailant). I even had my passport stolen in a foreign country (if you call Canada "foreign"). I had an earlier iPhone stolen on Miami Beach when I went for a predawn swim. Each incident taught me something and trained me to arrange my life so thefts are no big deal. Every physical object in my life is replaceable, apart from a few key internal organs.

I refer to electronic thefts as the Forced Upgrade Program. Whenever I lose a camera, computer, or phone, it is just an excuse to upgrade to the latest technology. Alternatively, it can sometimes be a good excuse to let go of technology for a while and get back to the basics. In any case, the loss of a cellphone is hardly news in my world, but this incident was different. This was a mind game! Virtually all of my previous thefts were crude crimes of opportunity by criminals I assumed were drug addicts. This was different. If this was real, it was a smooth crime by a sophisticated criminal.

My iPhone was gone. By process of elimination, "Scott" was the only person who could have stolen it. There was no chance of getting it back, I figured, but at least I could do my civic duty by reporting the crime. I drove back to the Luxor to at least tell their security about it. I knew they would take it seriously, and they do have plenty of video cameras in the place. I didn't think I would recover my own cellphone, but at least they would be on the lookout for this guy in the future.

I knew Luxor would be especially concerned because this guy was claiming to be "with the casino". At least I would get a clear answer to what happened to my baby. If the casino did not have an employee named Scott working plainclothes security at the time I was there, then it was obvious that the fake "Scott" was a professional pickpocket and took my iPhone.

Luxor security was very responsive. I want to the security desk and filled out a form (shown above). A security officer came out to talk to me. He asked intelligent questions and took notes. Then he said he wanted to talk to his supervisor, and he asked me to wait.

When he came back, he had some surprising news: The casino DID have a plainclothes officer named Scott matching my description working in my area at the time of the alleged incident. They were concerning about my filming and had been watching my activity on video.

The officer said he didn't know how much of my encounter with Scott was on video, but they could probably call it up if they needed to. Would I like them to do that?

I laughed. "No, that won't be necessary," I said. "This has been quite an education."

The officer said he could still take my written incident report if I wanted to give it.

I said that wouldn't be necessary. I would take it as a souvenir.

I returned to my car, realizing that the only con artist was me. This New Yorker article had sensitized me to pickpockets and had made me believe anything was possible, even in a well-monitored casino.

Sure enough, with daylight the next morning, I found my iPhone lodged in a narrow crevice of my rental car.