Conspirituality

I’ve set aside part of my evenings the past few weeks practicing ink drawing mostly in an attempt to regain the patience I used to possess before my brain got fried by too much internet. While I draw (slow, poorly and painfully) I listen to old Art Bell shows from the 90s through the aughts from a large mp3 data dump. If you don’t know who Art Bell is he was a talk show host who devoted several hours every night, broadcasting solo from a desert compound in Pahrump, Nevada. His topics were a grab bag of the paranormal, everything from aliens, to Bigfoot to ghosts to bottomless pits.

I’ve been struck by just how innocent Art’s show now seems. It was just good fun, like the newspapers of the 19th century that could mix the news of the day with a few stories about flying bat people or underground lizard men. As a listener to Art’s show you knew that you weren’t supposed to take it too seriously, rather, you should just let Art’s voice lull you into a dreamland where the humdrum laws of the universe didn’t apply. Art’s show only makes sense in the deep, irrational darkness of night.

But this same paranormal and parapolitical material no longer seems so innocent in the age of Alex Jones and QAnon. This month I’ve witnessed someone fall deep into a QAnon hole as well as a homesteader on YouTube go full Militia LARP. What once could be appreciated as a paranoid if creative imaginarium now has real world consequences. People have been shot and bombs have detonated. Art had a brush with real world consequences when the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide after listening to a segment of his show but that’s a long way from January 6th’s Q-Shamannacht.

Silicon Valley’s predatory capitalism, with its feedback loops and addictive algorithms have led many down the Q Shaman’s bottomless pit in recent years including, unfortunately, many members of the “wellness” community. This is especially worrisome at a time when we need people to get vaccinated to stop this horrible pandemic. Here in Los Angeles there’s been so many Covid deaths that they’ve suspended air quality rules so they can deal with the cremation backlog.

But do you lead people out of conspiratorial, anti-vax movements? Successful rhetoric, in my opinion, doesn’t involve belittling people or telling them they’re stupid. This is one of the reasons I find most “skeptic” type science popularizers unhelpful. They’re just preaching to the choir at a time when we need to find ways to talk to people we have differences with.

The Conspirituality Podcast offers an thoughtful alternative to snarky skepticism. It’s hosted by Derek Beres, Matthew Remski and Julian Walker who describe themselves as, “a journalist, a cult researcher, and a philosophical skeptic” who get together to, “discuss the stories, cognitive dissonances, and cultic dynamics tearing through the yoga, wellness, and new spirituality worlds.” What I like about the show is that it’s done in a compassionate and civil way that, I think, has the potential to speak to people who might be heading down a self-destructive path. It respects the positive parts of the wellness movement while taking a critical look at the unhelpful parts.

They are much better at this sort of communication than I am. Early in the pandemic I got triggered by Charles Eisenstein’s promotion of some dubious ideas about vaccinations. Rather than get angry, the hosts of Conspirituality had Eisenstein on their show to model both civil discourse and to challenge his post-modern relativism. Their long two part discussion (part 1, part 2) is well worth listening to as both a model for productive dialog and if you have doubts about the vaccine.

If any of you listen to this show I’d love to hear your opinions, specifically if you think it speaks outside the choir.

Let’s Pedal Together in this New Year

“The end of history is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” – Mark Fisher

The older I get the less I tend to observe any New Years rituals. The boundaries between years seem more about human concerns than any effect of the sun’s course in the heavens. As proof I offer 2021, which kicked off with some crazy 2020 vibes. I’ll defer the hot takes on yesterday to people smarter than myself. Let’s just say I spent way too much time doomscrolling (coupscrolling?) over the past 24 hours.

When I finally went downstairs to the woodshop around 3 pm yesterday and turned on my makeshift mp3 player, the random shuffle served up weirdo Morrissey’s song “Spent the day in bed” which has the chorus, “Stop watching the news, because the news contrives to frighten you.” As if yesterday wasn’t frightening enough, we got news this morning that a close relative has tested positive for COVID.

In the past week my great desire was to get back to my urban homesteading/appropriate technology lane. A journalist called me on Tuesday to interview me for an article on urban homesteading in a pandemic. She asked me what I thought of as the most important activity in the homesteading tool basket. I said that it’s not growing vegetables or canning things it’s getting to know your neighbors and forming communities of mutual support.

I am very thankful that our neighbor Jennie, several years ago, started a monthly neighborhood happy hour. When we can all safely gather together again I strongly suggest you consider starting a regular neighborhood gathering as well. Drop an invite in your neighbor’s mailboxes and throw a potluck. Not everyone will come but, hopefully, enough will to form a network. Focus on just having a good time. Don’t worry about organizing something formal. Just hang out and have fun. If you live in an apartment get everyone in the building together. If you don’t feel like hosting all the time have the gathering rotate.

Post-pandemic we transitioned our happy hour to a once every other week Zoom meeting and an email and text thread. On the email thread a neighbor a block over said that it really means a lot to him to know that he has neighbors who care and support each other. I completely agree. We’re not just neighbors, we’re friends and I take great comfort when I go asleep at night knowing that I’m surrounded by people who know and care about each other.

Post pandemic we aren’t going to return to the old normal. I’m hoping that the new normal will be that we wake up from the nightmare of separation and work together. That work begins over cocktails and food by simply enjoying each other’s company.

In the meantime let’s all stay safe. The next few months will likely be challenging.

Pfizer Vaccine Trial Update

The Pfizer vaccine trial I’m a part of went up for review yesterday before a review panel of outside experts convened by the Federal Drug Administration. The panel recommended that the vaccine be approved. Odds are the F.D.A. will grant approval later this evening.

This comes at a very dark period in which we’re seeing an exponential increase in cases and deaths here in Los Angeles and the rest of the country. As more than one panelist noted yesterday, we’re looking at many hospitalizations, deaths and a strained hospital system in the days and weeks ahead. In short the virus is out of control. The vaccine will take many months to roll out and things aren’t returning to normal anytime soon.

Chart of side effects of the Pfizer vaccine from their presentation.

The good news is that the Pfizer vaccine is very safe and 95% effective. Before I decided to participate in the third stage of this trial I carefully went through the results of the first stage as well as the release forms that I had to sign. I’ve since closely followed the results of the third stage and can assure readers of this blog that it’s safe and that side effects are mild to moderate. I’ve heard similar good results from the other mRNA vaccine being developed by Moderna. Yes, there have been a handful of allergic reactions, but those incidents have been exceedingly rare. Your chances of getting Covid are much, much greater than any side effects from the vaccine. Most importantly, by getting the vaccine we express our love and solidarity with health care workers and respect for our elders, the two most vulnerable populations to this disease. Nobody should have to spend their last moments saying goodbye to their loved ones on an iPad especially the doctors and nurses who take care of us when we get sick.

Screen shot of TrialMax app.

My participation in the trial involved a checkup, two blood tests and two injections. This is a placebo controlled study so there’s a 50/50 chance of getting the vaccine or a saline injection. Each week I check in with an app to report if I’ve had any symptoms such as fever or sore throat. The study is projected to last for two years and I will, periodically, go in to have blood taken to monitor for antibodies. The study is blind do I won’t know the results of the antibody tests.

Both the FDA and Pfizer are considering what to do with the placebo group since it would be unethical to ask those in that group to stay un-vaccinated. Some in the F.D.A. suggested keeping the study blind and giving the vaccine to the placebo group and giving the placebo to the already vaccinated group. Pfizer balked at the cost and logistics of doing this and countered with simply vaccinating the placebo group and continuing the study to monitor for long term effectiveness of the vaccine. If this happens the study will no longer be blind and will lose some safety data, but will still yield results on long term effectiveness.

I’m going to guess that Pfizer will get their way. Pfizer proposed vaccinating the placebo group in the order that everyone else in a given state or municipality is vaccinated. This would start with health care workers, who make up around 20% of the third stage trial as well as nursing home residents. Judging from my lack of side effects, I think I’m in the placebo group and I’m more than happy to stay a part of the placebo group until my turn comes up for vaccination. I don’t think I should get special treatment and jump ahead of the line just because I’m in the clinical trial. Right now we need healthy nurses more than we need healthy bloggers (Is their anytime that equation is reversed? Probably not). Pfizer suggested that those of us in the study would jump to the head of the vaccination line within our respective age/need groups as the vaccine becomes available.

The silver lining to any crisis is that it forces us to do things once deemed not possible. A crisis, of course, can be exploited for good or bad. My hope is that one of the lessons we will take from this difficult period will be a sense that we all need to work together. The press tends to focus on anti-maskers and Covid deniers but I think, at least where I live, most people know that the reason we take precautions is for the sake of other people, particularly those who grow and deliver food as well as health care workers who take care of us when we get sick.

Happy Cranksgiving

What air travel looks like as of the publishing of this blog post on Wednesday at 5pm PST.

Thanksgiving? Current mood is Cranksgiving, that feeling when you type out three angry blog posts, think better of it and fail to push the publish button. So rather than that one belabored and cranky post I offer up a few fragments longer than an aphorism but just short for a proper rant. Here we go:

It’s Never Time for Brunch
We seem trapped, in this country, between two heads of the same neoliberal hydra. One party that denies the reality of the pandemic and another party that demands that people stay home (which, to be clear, we need to do) but offers no help to those who can’t work. We need to pay people to stay home. It’s not fair to bail out wall street but kick workers and small businesses to the curb.

Covid Denial
Why do people deny the reality of Covid? Because, counter-intuitively, it’s rational to do so. If your organizing principle in life is the pursuit of personal happiness, which is what we were all brought up with, then it makes no sense to change your lifestyle to prevent the spread of the virus . Most of us are unlikely to get coronovirus and if we do odds are we’ll recover (though, I have to say I sure don’t want to take the risk–I’m just trying to imagine why some people don’t seem to care). The problem with this kind of selfish thinking is that if I get coronovirus I’m also likely to spread it to other people who will then, possibly, bring it into the household of a multi-generational family, a nursing home, a hospital or a prison where it will grow exponentially and kill a lot of people. But unless I’m a health care worker, odds are those deaths will be out of my sight. Another problem is that if I do behave well and take precautions I’ll never see that my actions had an effect. Since Covid denialism is ideological and baked into our culture, I don’t think we should blame individuals for espousing it. Rather we need to focus our energy on changing the systems that promote toxic individualism. Let’s tell stories about solidarity instead. Not me us, in other words.

Stats, stats, stats and more stats
I never studied statistics. Most people never studied statistics. This is probably why there are so many statistical errors in the media. If I’m spotting them it must drive the mathematically inclined insane. Most of us seem to be especially bad at appreciating exponential growth in something like, say, a communicable disease.

Junk Science
This pandemic is also a reminder that, as research has shown, at least half of all science studies are junk. Unfortunately the press has a bad tendency to uncritically report on junk science. The crappy New York Times repeated a easily discredited study this week that purported to show that masks don’t make a difference. The very basic problem with this study is that the virus is spreading in households where people don’t wear masks, which this study failed to account for. We have better editorial standards here at Root Simple than they do at the Grey Lady and we’re pretty sloppy. Makes you wonder what else they’re getting wrong . . .

Good Science
A study in India shows how Covid is spreading: children and young adults are bringing the virus into multi-generation households. So, unfortunately, it looks like putting kids in school right now isn’t a great idea. Most schools in this country closed for the 1918 flu epidemic so this isn’t a new situation.

Covid Theater
I was perusing our local health department’s new closing guidelines and came to the conclusion that they are just making stuff up on the fly. Some things are open and some closed and it’s obvious that the decisions aren’t based on any research since their probably isn’t any. When you see a multi page list of directions for “model airplane facilities” you know they are winging it. Again, the solution is simple. In a surge like we’re having right now, close everything except what we need to survive and pay everyone to stay home until we can get the numbers down. Do this periodically until we get vaccinated.

Let’s Cancel Thanksgiving Permanently
Capitalism, as Mark Fisher often noted, is great at causing anxiety and then selling solutions. Think of the way women are made to feel body anxiety and then sold beauty products and plastic surgery. The same applies to the holidays. Make people anxious and then offer a Butterball hotline. How about we skip this particular holiday permanently? Who’s in (or out) on the cancel Thanksgiving idea? At least this year, a pandemic seems like the perfect excuse not to fly somewhere to eat dried out turkey.

My New Hustle
I was joking with a friend about writing a book called “Rhetoric for Families: how to have an argument at the dinner table.” Talk about creating an anxiety and selling a solution! Who wants this book?

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing or not doing, Root Simple wishes you a happy holiday season. Please stay safe. If you’re bored check out this flight tracking website and be thankful you’re not traveling.