Monday, September 28, 2020

Better Mental Health Part 2: Escape Catharsis (Outrage Addiction)

 As per part 1, I am not a qualified psychologist. I'm a fan of clinical psychology, but everything contained below is opinion, based on my experience. Australia has many resources available to it's citizens in support of mental health and I recommend to anybody whether in crisis or not to utilize these resources as our mental health is the prism through which we experience the world.

I'm choosing to address as priority topic number two 'Catharsis' which I am using to refer to a kind of conventional wisdom of 'letting it all out' these are practices like punching a pillow, screaming into a pillow, venting, "bitch-sessions", even complaining to a qualified counsellor about a boss, spouse, sibling, coworker, arresting officer and particularly expressing your dissatisfaction with the state of the world on social media via fb posts, tweets whatever.



The practice is based on an observable fact - once you've 'expressed' your anger, you will feel better.

Take the contemporary experience of reading something in the news that makes you angry, like a political announcement on a tax increase, a murder trial finding the plaintiff not-guilty, or your favorite contestant on the Voice being eliminated. Your affect changes, if you have been doing some mindfulness practice (the subject of part 1 in this series), you might notice tension in your shoulders, an inability to concentrate, maybe increased heartrate, you may feel energized, you feel bad.

You take to social media, and almost on autopilot tap out a message expressing your rage and dissatisfaction, you hit the all-caps to let people know that if they were there in person you would be shouting, and you throw in a couple of '!!!!!' marks to emphasize your point, you hit the button and release it out there into the world.

You may feel some mixture of relief combined with a nervous anticipation in this instance, as you wait for reassurance that you are not alone, you are not the only person that feels this way. Again with mindfulness practice you may be able to literally feel your cortisol levels subsiding, and a dopamine hit as some aquantainence you vaguely know likes your post and you notice yourself thinking that they are obviously more sensible than they gave you credit for.

This process is hopefully a concrete example of what I'm referring to as 'Catharsis'. It and it's variations persist, because it is rewarding, in the immediate to short term. It persists in the same way as alcoholism persists, stress eating persists etc. It has a distinct advantage though, in that it often doesn't involve a financial transaction.

I literally cannot make a better case against the practice of Catharsis than the case that was presented to me, alerted me to the problem with it, and profoundly changed my life and my mental health for the better - The You Are Not So Smart chapter/post on the subject. (David McRaney puts far more effort into research than I do) and if you can't be bothered reading the whole post, plus continuing with this one, the article sites the research of Brad Bushman, a social psychologist who has given a TED talk (Brad Bushman has my favorite accent in the world - effeminate southern, a bit subtle but it's there) but the Penn & Teller segment embedded in the You Are Not So Smart post, is a good brief summary if you prefer watching/listening to reading:

Again, I'd acknowledge the replication crisis is a thing effecting psychology and further Brad Bushman is a recipient of the Ig Noble award in psychology in 2013 for his work about attractiveness of drunk people. (The Ig Noble award might sound like a bad thing to win, but it is awarded to research findings that first make us laugh, then make us think: "The 2000 Ig Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Andre Geim, Radboud University Nijmegen, and Michael Berry, University of Bristol, UK, for the magnetic levitation of a live frog. Geim was awarded an actual Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.")

I find Bushman's research to my satisfaction is robust, and it's worth pointing out that the replication crisis is distinctly applicable to the scientific method or epistemological empiricism, where there is a practical experiment to replicate. It is actually in 2020, highly likely that you accept as true a conclusion arrived at through epistemic constructivism where rather than a practical experiment, the conclusion was determined through a method like literary criticism/movie reviews (yes I'm serious) or in the word's of Big Lebowski 'that's like your opinion man.' only slightly more formal than conspiracy theories. Furthermore, I would personally be interested in research that asks if holding constructivist beliefs correlates with anger, and poor mental health.

All of which is to say, I am convinced by the research and observing in myself, that venting anger to feel better is addictive, meaning that if today something makes me angry, and I express that anger, I am likely to spend tomorrow feeling angry, and expressing that anger.

If you are asking the question - if expressing anger feels good, what's the problem with being angry? Consider by analogy, an opiate addiction. As my friend, a heroin addict told me, 'when every day is dedicated to not feeling sick, it's a bad place to be.' Let's consider that being angry, outraged is the equivalent of withdrawal, and expressing that anger is the equivalent of shooting up. I would invite you to consider Catharsis as a temporary relief from an unpleasant emotional state.

Here I will defer again to Gordon Livingston M.D. who in his clinical practice uses simple questions to extract tremendous value, specifically in this case 'How is that working for you?'

The crucial distinction is the difference between expressing anger (particularly, at a proxy) and addressing the source of your anger.

The value of anger, and how I make sense of the fact we have evolved to feel anger particularly over anti-social behavior is as a signal to engage in reinforcement - positive or negative. 

Having a knee-jerk shouting reaction is probably sufficient to tackle most of anti-social behavior's manifestations throughout history - namely who ate the other chicken drumstick without asking? - but it breaks down when you and a friend disagree as to whether the 2% tax on titanium goes too far, or doesn't go too far enough. If that is a bit too vague or comical, it's more that as societies become larger and more interconnected, and also more productive and efficient, ascertaining whether any given behavior is pro or anti-social becomes increasingly hard.

To transition to options that in my experience promote better mental health, I'll offer two side by side scenarios for comparison.

First, the catharsis scenario: Your boss repeatedly asks you to take dictation, at 4:50pm keeping you back late while he dictates an email to you, that he should in 2020 be capable of typing himself, or using voice recognition software. Given you are a salaried employee, you receive no compensation for this either. You take this home to your partner, a person who has chosen to spend the majority of their leisure time voluntarily with you. You vent your frustration at the selfishness and ineptitude of your boss using phrases like 'He did it again today!' and 'It's just unbelievable that nobody sees a problem with this.' and your partner listens empathetically until your anger and frustration has subsided, and you can then enjoy the latest episode of RuPaul's Drag Race after dinner.

Second, the assertive scenario: Your boss asks you once again to take dictation, at 4:50pm keeping you back late while he dictates an email to you, you say 'I'm here to help, but I would feel remiss if I didn't point out that I find it both stressful and unappreciative of my time to type emails for you this late in the working day. My frustration probably arises from being in the dark as to why this is the best use of my time and skills, and why this task is both a low enough priority to be undertaken at 4:50pm but urgent enough that it can't wait for tomorrow morning. I feel I could better focus on this task and make less errors if I could justify it to myself. Can you help me with that?' and the boss either provides a compelling reason, or presses the issue out of spite while unconsciously noting that this behavior now incurs a cost to him, which is feeling bad/shame/guilt. You obtain a piece of data which is how your boss responds to your complaint, which can inform further action, like voicing your complaint to your bosses superior, (or raising a concern that your boss, does not know how to type and may need training or a software solution like voice recognition, that is cheaper than paying you to take dictation).

You then go home and report to your partner that you addressed your complaint to your boss today, and the resolution. You then move onto discussing other subjects that don't make you feel angry, and enjoy RuPaul's drag race together tomorrow.

In the second, assertive scenario, the source of anger gets addressed, even if it is not an isolated source, but with the passage of time, an assertive person's life will stimulate less frustration and anger, furthermore they will enjoy the benefits of feeling empowered to solve problems for themselves.

The Catharsis scenario can be repeated infinitely. 

For me, a practice of catharsis mainly took the form of 'winning hypothetical arguments' in my head while running. But also while lying in bed unable to sleep, and of course in the shower. In one prominent example for me, I spent a lot of time trying to 'figure out' the ambiguous and frustrating nature of my friendship with a woman I was attracted to. These 'rehearsal' arguments went on in my head for I would guess at least 4 hours a day, for about 3 years. 

I would have the arguments while running, and given I train for a marathon in October most years, I could run for between 1 and 3 hours a day. While cycling, which was roughly 1 to 2 hours a day, and often enough my body would wake me up at 4 in the morning in a state of full alertness while my mind processed circular internal monologues that chased each other round and round.

When I finally broke my situation sustaining habit of catharsis, I made an effort to apologize to all the friends and loved ones I had used as a proxy, to vent my anger and frustration and frankly, impotence at, much like the partner in the above catharsis scenario - who has a cost imposed upon them of my choice to not translate my anger into assertive action that addresses the problem, in favor of catharsis that allows me to continue merely coping with the problem on an ongoing basis.

One response to my apology, that I keep pinned and flagged in my email inbox as one of the peerless emails I have ever received reads thus:

Who are you?

Come on don't need do that, we are always side by side. 

So, love is free to you to give. 

Keep asking me my love to you. 

You can get it as much as you want and whenever. 

Because you did to me to before and you will do so for me, till 100years later too, I know.

I keep it pinned, because it is for me such a potent reminder of the value of hueristics like 'how do they make you feel?' in this case, giving me a sobering reminder of how much energy I invested in somebody causing me mental anguish, vs how much energy I put into somebody who makes me feel incredibly loved and special. And 'how do they treat you when you are in the wrong?' which is probably my number one question I ask for ascertaining the emotional maturity of the people I interact with (somebody who attacks you, when you are apologizing, in my experience has deeper issues of their own at play.)

All of this is to illustrate the costs of catharsis. The longer I engaged in catharsis, the more costly the stimulus of whatever made me feel impotent, frustrated and angry. The longer I engaged in catharsis to cope with my feelings of anxiety and anger, the greater the opportunity cost of the life and relationships I could have been pursuing instead.

Catharsis is an addiction, and I am persuaded by Gabor Mate, M.D. that addiction is most constructively viewed as self-medication. 

(Gabor Mate attributes the pain of trauma as the catalyst for addictive behavior, and his primary clinical question for treating addiction is not 'why the drug?' but 'why the pain?', I am agnostic - open to persuasion - that behavioral genetics may play a bigger role than Mate credits, but I still favor his approach as the most constructive until such a time as CRISPR gives us gene-therapy, better to focus on what we can control) 

It is from him I draw the analogy that addictive behavior is like insulin for diabetics. It relieves the symptoms of the diabetes without curing the diabetes.

Catharsis can relieve the symptoms of a frustration or source of anxiety in our lives, but it does, most charitably, next to nothing to address it. At best, if enough people share and voice the frustration, political pressure might result in some change. I feel obliged however to point out the existence of argumentum ad populum and that reactively venting our frustrations and feeling validated by other people that share that frustration does little to trouble shoot our diagnostic skills. 

An assertive approach, invites mitigating factors, like the boss could relieve our frustration by providing adequate justification for the practice of dictating emails at 4:50pm - for example, how I feel might be greatly altered if my boss were to disclose a diagnosis of dyslexia, or disclose that their intention was to have me learn about the customer and how the boss manages the relationship to groom me to succeed them. etc. 

Another aspect of anger and mental health I would like to touch on, that I derive from Gabor Mate, specifically his book 'When the Body Says No' about the health benefits of Anger. This is to steer back to a question of emotional competence that was a specific issue for me: how do you tell the difference between Anger and Anxiety?

'When the Body Says No' is a long book that I highly recommend, if for nothing other than interest value, it is probably the most interesting non-fiction book I have read. It very briefly touches on the 7 A's of Healing as a finding/recommended framework that includes as it's 3rd 'A' is 'Anger':

Often times disease and disorder manifests due to one’s inability to genuinely experience anger. We either learn to turn it inward on ourselves, or outward in rage. However, there is an alternative. We can learn to experience and feel anger deeply, and to let it appropriately inform us of our environment or situation. We then are empowered with a choice of whether or not and how to express this anger.

 Setting aside the 'Often times disease and disorder manifests due to' as the premise of the book, we can notice if we are inclined to inquire that in the animal kingdom, expressing anger leads to improved health outcomes.

For example, two dogs come across a fresh animal carcass, one dog is bigger, the other smaller. The small dog is not so small that it couldn't rip out the throat of the bigger dog with it's teeth, but the big dog is more likely to kill it. A violent confrontation is incredibly risky and incredibly unhealthy for both dogs. The big dog raises it's hackles, looking even bigger, and growls at the smaller dog, encouraging it to move on.

Instead of a potentially life ending costly fight for both dogs, expending many calories, the big dog gets the calories from eating the carcass and avoids injury just by expressing it's anger. The small dog also doesn't die.

I don't think dogs do a conscious calculation of expected value (EV), but in this case their biology is doing some version of EV = (Number of Calories from Carcass - Calories Expended in Fight) x (Probability I will win the fight and survive the injuries) and generally we will notice, that one dog will submit and the other will dominate, much more often than we stumble across three carcasses, with two of them the result of a fight over the third.

We are, you will be relieved to know, better than dogs, rarely killing each other over lunch these days. I would not want you to take from this analogy, that if you are a small dog, you should let the big dog be. Please notice how often you find small dogs using barking and getting their throat low to the ground, to dominate dogs that are bigger and more docile than them.

It is healthy, to express anger by being assertive in all of my experience. Whereas Catharsis despite all that has been said about it being the 'venting' or 'purging' of anger, I am open to an interpretation that it is an unhealthy expression of anxiety, as opposed to a healthy expression of anger.

On the grounds that.

  1. The 'anger' is not directed at the stimulus of the anger, but a proxy. eg. a pillow for physical violence, a spouse for vocal expression, social media contacts for verbal expression.
  2. The root cause or stimulus of the anger is avoided, owing to uncertainty of outcome in favor of seeking more predictable, sympathetic proxies.
  3. Avoiding a painful resolution in favor of an ongoing more manageable pain that is unresolved.
I want to make clear that I am not suggesting the healthy option is 'well stop whining to me about how bad the mayor is, why don't you go and assassinate him.'

I am more entertaining that somewhere in America is a person who has spent the last 4 years complaining regularly about the current administration, who will burst into tears of despair if the current administration wins a second term in office AND who won't actually bother to vote, nor speak with friends or relatives that might vote for the incumbent in any constructive way etc. 

And by analogy, I feel this phenomena is more general and common. Other analogies might be someone who posts about Wildfires/Bushfires/Glaciers Melting, demanding action on climate change and then in the next post, asks for recommendations on where to eat the best beef brisket on their trans Pacific flight to Austin.

I wish to also introduce a heuristic that probably is not original, but spontaneous to me: 'We are only ever angry at ourselves' which I adapted from an anecdote shared by Mark Horstman co-host of podcast manager-tools called 'the umbrella story' about an occupant of an elevator that is repeatedly jabbed by the tip of an umbrella tucked under the arm of the occupant in front of them, who is oblivious to what is happening. After the umbrella toting occupant leaves the elevator, the occupant who was jabbed by the umbrella turns to their companion and says 'can you believe that? guy was making me so mad.' and the companion who is possibly a Buddhist sage says 'all he did was tuck an umbrella under his arm, which was poking you. You got mad, all by yourself.'

Indeed, instead of getting mad, the occupant could have taken assertive action like 'Excuse me, but your umbrella is sticking into me.' Running a small risk that the umbrella dude will say 'fuck you, it's a free country' and a great risk that they will say 'I'm so sorry, I had no idea' and will reposition the umbrella.

From my experience, I worked in a call center for close to 8 years. I would estimate I did 4 shifts a week for 48 weeks of the year and spoke on average to 100 members of the public each shift. 

If you cold call, you have to observe and learn, for your own mental health that the anger expressed at you is rarely personal. From this I derived that people are only ever angry at themselves. I would bet money, that the people who bark at call center workers correlate with higher levels of dissatisfaction with their careers, relationships and experience greater financial stress.

If I called you on your honeymoon while you were waiting for your soulmate to finish their post sex shower ready to go out to dinner, right after you had received a call to inform you you had been awarded the MacArthur Genius Scholarship and asked if you wanted to take a 4 minute survey, do you think you would have the same reaction as if I called you when you were sitting in a dorm of a homeless shelter anxiously waiting to hear if your estranged daughter will return your call so you can ask her for a $5,000 loan?

Those might be two ridiculous extremes, but the more usual case is that someone picks up the phone hoping it will be someone they like talking to, and realizing their life has come to sitting at home on a Friday night watching Masterchef while eating a Lean Cuisine and answering surveys, is what they are angry at. They are rarely actually infuriated that somebody has the audacity to ring their phone and introduce themselves and the purpose of their call.

So let's talk solutions to move from an addiction to Catharsis to better mental health:

As per part 1, start with a mindfulness practice. The first step you can take, is paying attention to how you feel at the point of coming into contact with the stimuli (eg. notice your physiological reaction when you watch the news, scroll through your social media news feed) and how you feel when you express your anger - whether it is talking at someone, or posting online. You can probably feel the wave of endorphins or dopamine or whatever flood your brain rewarding you for being an angry dude. Notice how long that payoff lasts, notice whether you engage in a behavior of looking for content to make you angry - like seeking out upsetting news stories or stalking a connection whose posts you generally disagree with.

The second way to apply mindfulness, is to use a guided meditation to actually explore your own emotional state of anger without acting on it. So instead of posting or expressing your anger, use a guided meditation, or unguided to explore with an attitude of curiosity how anger/anxiety/stress/frustration manifests in you. The key point being to acknowledge that you can reserve the right to act on anger or any other emotional state, you are just pausing to assess it better.

Entertain a range of responses, and take note on who you are holding responsible in each, how directly you are communicating and who bears the costs and who receives the benefits.

Moving away from mindfulness, which is a great place to start in terms of availing oneself of options, is to train up and practice assertiveness. I like this video as a good and fairly comprehensive practical framework, as dorky and dated as the production values may seem.

This can feed into how you conduct yourself on social media, as well as in person. The Netflix documentary 'The Social Dilemma' appears to be focused on articulating the structural problems with social media and it's exploitation in part of our catharsis-addicted tendencies.

By happenstance, and perhaps for unflattering reasons, I feel I have managed my own social media use well, in terms of limiting it's negative impact on my affect. 

For one, I just never look at my newsfeed. This has some downsides, once I didn't look at my newsfeed for like 2 years and one of my dearest friends managed to have his second child without me being aware of it at all until we ran into eachother at a social event. I land on my own profile, my own wall on facebook and generally stay there or the 'today's birthday/recent birthday's page' I might check my newsfeed once a fortnight for any important births/death/wedding announcements, but generally I just go straight to the friends I'm interested in and appear to have trained the algorithms to send me notifications when the 4 or 5 friends who reliably make me feel good with their posts share stuff.

I use much of the assertiveness, active listening, socratic method and other communication frameworks when I engage in any political discussions, in part because I feel a personal obligation to employ my privilege to stand up to bullies. I am well situated to not give a shit about pile-ons and cancellation, social ostracism. They still effect me and I don't endorse any of these or other bullying tactics, but relative to someone sensitive to the esteem of their peers, and particularly who has not yet attained secure attachment to a core group of adults, I feel an ethical duty to combat group-think and pluralistic ignorance by challenging popularly held assertions.

So if you must engage someone, what I find helpful is to always come primarily from an angle of curiosity, not anger or aggression. I seek to clarify, am quick to apologise, and also set boundaries on what behavior I will tolerate. I will also call out someone if they allow a third party to pile on and attack me with below the line behaviors like ad-hominem attacks, mind reading etc. It's a cliche, but the step prior to setting and maintaining healthy boundaries is to understand what healthy boundaries are.

Social media in particular remains the wild west, it is still a frontier and rule of law has not been established. Nor have manners. Much like the real world in the absence of rule of law, people's social intuitions often equivocate an accusation with a conviction, disregard burdens of proof, operate double standards and are okay with cruel and unusual punishments - like public shaming, doxing, pile-ons, revenge porn etc. 

If I could convey anything from my personal experience, it's that being angry does not oblige one to act rashly and impulsively, with a narrow focus and a sense of urgency. I may be predisposed to it, but anyone can achieve it, to respond to their anger calmly and rationally after careful consideration and deliberate assertive action.

Tomorrow I will move further from mindfulness and talk more about how I feel I get the most out of clinical therapy, and how to constructively apply cognitive empathy.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Better Mental Health Part 1: Mindfulness and it's Limits

Disclaimer: The first thing I need to be clear on is that I possess no qualifications relevant to clinical psychology, which I hold to be the gold standard, first resort for any mental health issues, followed by social workers, depression help lines etc. I am also not a life coach, but would point out I have all the legal requirements to be a professional life coach, being none, much the same as being a nutritionist or psychic. 

Despite things like the replication crisis effecting psychology in particular, and it's tarnished history particular regarding sexual orientation and conversion therapy but other prominent failures like the suicide of Marylin Monroe. Psychology is still having contemporary controversies like the APA guidelines for practice with men and boys based in part on the research methodology exposed in grievance studies affair; And that like all professions, competency is variable; I still advocate in general that speaking to a qualified clinical psychologist is the first thing to try in devising strategies for addressing mental health issues. The form of treatment to try first before all other alternatives, as the alternatives generally break down to 'here's what I reckon, based on how I feel'.

So everything I say here should be taken as speculation, informed by personal experience. I'm sharing my opinion, I'm not an authority on anything but my own experience. This is what I reckon, based on how I feel though I've tried to read up and defer to experts where I can.

I've decided to begin with Mindfulness. Here is why, I am a fan of the books of Dr. Gordon Livingston M.D. who in 'Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart' defines mental health as 'requiring freedom of choice'. Eg. Someone in the grips of psychosis cannot choose to not be experiencing psychosis. One cannot choose to opt out of auditory hallucinations, nor choose to ignore the symptoms of clinical depression. Even (to my limited understanding) with a condition like OCD, PTSD or Generalized Anxiety Disorder that might be treated through Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) programs, one might be able to train oneself out of a habitual response to stimuli, but cannot simply choose not to have intrusive thoughts, implicit memories, anxiety responses.

Looking more at ordinary psychology though, and in my case reinforced and in part informed by Stoicism (which Darren Brown claims influenced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) I follow the general rule that: it is better to act, than to react. 

Excluding fight or flight type circumstances, or drinking water when thirsty etc.

Meditation is a good place to begin in obtaining the ability to choose to act, rather than react. Without mindfulness we are unlikely to be able to 'flip the script' or do something different, particularly in how we relate to others if we aren't conscious of what we are doing.

As my High School Principle repeated ad nauseum: 'You'll always get what you've always got, if you always do, what you've always done.' somewhat inline with the meme 'definition of insanity: trying the same thing and expected different results.' the inverse of which is the basis of the gold standard of epistemological soundness: empiricism

So meditation has been (to my layman satisfaction) demonstrated empirically to improve concentration, attention, awareness, stress-reduction etc. Claims I have seen like 'heightened creativity' I'm more skeptical of.

But for me and my personal experience the direct benefits were in order of significance:

  1. Stopped my practice of Catharsis, permenantly (the subject of the next post)
  2. Immediately realizing that I am not the author of my own thoughts, I am but a witness.
  3. Better aware of my emotions as and when they arise, and increased ability to identify the physical state of a given emotion.
  4. Calibrating down, what I require to feel safe.
  5. The ability to temporarily stop my own internal monologue for a few seconds at a time.
  6. Improved listening skills.
  7. The emotional state of boredom is now permanently optional, if my train gets cancelled/delayed I can choose boredom, or to meditate.

These benefits, for me, qualify a practice of meditation as a tool for better mental health in my own case. 

You may not for example, have no problem with catharsis, but it was the most significant beneficial change I noticed. It completely transformed permanently my relationship with running, something I've done since my early teens. I no longer run 10kms having an imaginary argument in my head addicted to anger and it's expression. I would guess across the board, benefits 2 downward are more universal, and more frequent.

Meditation is a path to getting an emergency break on our minds, so focusing on benefit 2 above, this is for me profound because it is a benefit that is immediate it just requires the simple experiment of trying not to think for a period of time. As Sam Harris puts it, you will notice that thoughts emerge unbidden in your conscious. You have agreed with yourself that the point of the next 5 minutes is to stop thinking, ruminating, introspecting, daydreaming etc. 

Unless you are Ron Swanson, you should discover, very quickly, what for me was the counter intuitive conclusion that thinking is automatic and not thinking requires effort, effort your mind at first may feel too feeble to make. The persistence of thought is what makes meditation difficult, and I'll describe the (I feel) very accessible practices I tried later. For me though, this is counter intuitive because 'thinking' sounds grammatically similar to 'walking' and walking requires conscious effort, I don't find it difficult at all to stop walking.

Steering back to achieving better mental health through availing oneself of choices, mindfulness is a probably path to buying precious seconds between an automatic response like 'oh my god she's going to leave me...' and having the awareness of the present moment to choose an alternative response, and action instead of a reaction like asking yourself a question 'is she going to leave me, or is she just asking me to pick up my laundry and put it in the laundry basket?'

Reactions I would define (a personal, rather than general definition) are by nature a process of leaping almost instantaneously to a conclusion. A positive action to take is to ask a question - generally 'what is actually happening right now?'

That general form question is applicable in scope to emotional states. As in, what is actually happening right now is that I am going into a fight, flight, freeze or appease state, which will both impair and inform my thinking and behavior, for better or worse. Hence the 3rd benefit I listed. 

Just a brief comment on sex differences or the lack thereof - my assessment of the sum total of my interactions is that emotional competence is rare. I am not very good at it, but if one verbalizes (communicates?) a judgement about someone's emotional state and how it is effecting them the most typical response regardless of gender, sex etc. is defensiveness. eg. 'you're being emotional.' 'NO I'M NOT!' and secondly when I learned more about and accepted my own problem of emotional competence and started asking people 'what emotion are you feeling right now?' when I notice changes in affect, the question stumps most people I talk to across the board.

Better mental health, in my opinion should not be focused on others, but on yourself, so I make the above point just to entertain that the stigma against 'being emotional' is widespread and in the cultures I have access to, most people regardless of gender are susceptible to the same beguiling illusion I am, that I am being rational and reasonable when in fact, it is likely that I am being emotional.

So mindfulness as a practice, helps, mostly by making me more familiar with my own mind and body, and crucially buying me space. To literally stop my thoughts though, I find much simpler than most meditation practices to simply touch the tip of my tongue to the roof of my mouth and maintain the contact. 

In an incredibly flawed experiment, I'll do that now, and since it works to the extent that it prevents me from even counting, I'll run a timer on my phone and stop it, roughly when I have a concrete intelligible thought - 12.98 seconds. I rarely need that much time to arrest an impulsive thought chasing after the one before it.

Here is where I would like to switch to touching on the limits, in my experience and subsequent opinion of meditation.

Meditation has many benefits, but it is by no means is it a panacea, and it is having a moment right now where I worry about oversubscription. It also carries a lot of spiritual baggage and that is always a risky baggage to pick up for anyone with weak critical thinking skills. 

I would offer as a schema the following analogy: you have finished a stressful day at work, and returned home from a stressful commute. To 'take the edge off' you pour yourself a stiff drink, the alcohol gets into your bloodstream and clogs the receptors in your brain, depressing your cognition and relaxing you in a pleasing and intoxicating way. Benefits include the pleasure of drinking itself, the relief of stress and anxiety, calming affect and more relaxed disposition, less inhibited and more open and creative communication style.

Then the next morning, you are sober, and you still have your stressful job, and your stressful commute. Alcohol relieved the symptoms of your stressful life, but did nothing to cure them.

Similarly: you have finished a stressful day at work, and returned home from a stressful commute. To 'take the edge off' you do 15 minutes mindfulness meditation, it punctuates your day, lowers your heart rate and cortisol levels and whatever other stress hormones, it helps you be aware and center your thoughts that you are in your home environment and not at work, nor behind the wheel of your vehicle in traffic. Benefits improve relief from stress, more relaxed disposition and better presence in home life communication.

Then the next morning, you still have your stressful job, and your stressful commute. Meditation relieved the symptoms of your stressful life, but did nothing to cure them.

Meditation is in my opinion, clearly a superior form of self medication than alcohol. It should also be noted that while one is generally not allowed to drink and drive, or drink on the job, you can meditate in bumper to bumper traffic, or anytime in the office you are not in conversation or deep in an excel spreadsheet.

My personal prejudice is, that evolution by natural selection is non-arbitrary, and mindful of the naturalistic fallacy I am not persuaded that the environment has changed enough, even with the advent of smart phones + social media, to say that introspection has no value.

I do not share a view that the 'ideal' is cessation of thought. That is to live permanently in the present moment, as big a fan of capital 'C' Cynicism (lit. dog-like) much, for me, as the ideal of nervous health is to be unable to feel hot, cold, pleasure, pain, itchiness etc.

Given that for me, I do not find the company of my own mind unpleasant, I made the individual decision to drop my regular practice of meditation. Running I tend to use breathing exercises, and there's certain sections of trails that prompt me to still my thoughts and be present. I use the tongue touch technique to gradually arrest my thoughts if my thoughts are chasing themselves around in circles, overstimulated, in a manner similar to ABS breaks. I also will from time to time chuck on a guided meditation on youtube.

I am happy enough, even in the current world, with climate change, political polarization, economic mismanagement, radical 'social justice' etc. going on that I do not need to escape the company of my own mind. 

I can think about even the most distressing topics, reasonably comfortably in part because I know I have recourse to meditation should I become too distressed. But much of the heavy lifting is all the work I have done on my mental health that addresses the things that meditation is too limited to address. This will be the subjects of subsequent parts in this series.

Meditation, builds brain muscles to enable that primary choice though that at any given moment you can choose to have a distressing thought or not.

That is the end of my case, I'll now for the interest of anybody who has never tried mindfulness, or is just curious as to what I practiced and why, detail my practices and influences. 

I hope this has given you some ideas as to how to pursue better mental health through meditation, please consider speaking to a qualified clinical psychotherapist to devise a more personal strategy. The above is just my unqualified opinions.

[pause]

A little background to my experience: Half a decade back a had two significant events cascade into each other over the space of a few weeks. My young cousin died accidently, and I got myself ostracized from my then-best-friends life by criticizing her life decisions, and passing judgement.

For me this was tragedy stacked on tragedy, and it took me some time to connect the two events. My cousin's death had made me angry, and I wasn't aware I was angry when I then criticized my friend. I (eventually) diagnosed myself as having low emotional competence - the ability to recognize my own emotions as and when they arise. Any self diagnosis I would generally advocate running-by someone qualified, I do not want to live in a society where people diagnose themselves and act thereon. This is my usual practice but at the time of the events, my best friend and I shared a psychologist and given my ostracism I chose not to see my psychologist so as not to compromise my friend's therapy sessions or trust in her therapist.

In all seriousness, up to that point I didn't really think of myself as getting angry, ever, it was a part of the emotional spectrum I didn't bother with.

Unaware of my emotional states I was operating under a delusion, that I was motivated by pure altruism and thinking rationally. My behavior in hindsight was motivated by misdirected anger, and channeled into rationalization - or motivated reasoning, starting with the conclusion of my critique and working backwards attempting to justify it.

This was unsettling for me, being 'out of control' even in the context of sitting and writing a carefully thought out critical email, doesn't sit well with me and why I generally prefer sobriety to intoxication.

As a result, I adopted a regimen of 30 minutes meditation every day. I kept this up for something like 100+ consecutive days, mostly using guided meditations off youtube as the easiest way to maintain the discipline. I typically did my meditation laying on my bed, but sometimes would do so sitting in my chair at my desk. 

If you haven't tried a practice of meditation, Sam Harris' (whatever you think of his political and philosophical views) is a good place to start, I find it particularly insightful as to the nature of consciousness. The Honest Guys Youtube channel is the one I most frequented, and sometimes nowadays return to, good for guided meditations to aide with going to sleep.

For me, my guided meditation black diamond run is this Body Scan Guided Meditation. I generally lose consciousness reliably at some point into it, though I find it extremely useful to pay attention to my ability to move my conscious attention around my body at will. It is an excellent exercise.

I guess at this point I should point out that meditation is a practice that comes in many flavors, and not just with the advent of a content explosion on Youtube. Loving compassion meditation is a traditional practice, you can meditate on forgiveness, or use meditation to envision your guardian spirit, chakras, or other visualization exercises.

I have also over the years come across what I am tempted (and will) charecterize as a kind of meditation snobbery, the same consumer behavior (I have a marketing background) that causes amateur joggers to buy the same running shoes and gear as Eliud Kipchoge uses. Which is people going on 13 day silent meditation retreats, and while I believe testimony that the experience itself is profound, in my experience I am thoroughly unimpressed that it delivers any significant long term benefits to take meditation this seriously. These observations that 10x the meditation with a diet of lentil gruel while wearing roughspun cotton garments does not yeild 10x or even 1.1x the benefits that using guided youtube meditations do. 

Furthermore, I'm tempted to entertain, that such consumer preferences regarding meditation, yoga, spiritual practices could be used as a diagnostic tool as to whether people are high in neuroticism and suffering from having their esteem being contingent on being esteemed by their peers... yes, to say that meditation practices could be equivalent to image crafting on fb, or even part of imagecrafting. Nobody escapes my all judging behavior scrutinizing eye! 

The basic practice though is generally to sit in a chair in a quiet place and pay attention to your breath. Feet flat on the floor, sitting upright but not tensing hands in lap and breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, counting up to 10.

Thoughts will arise in your consciousness unbidden, Jonathon Haidt puts it well I feel 'Consciousness thinks it is the Oval Office, when in fact it is the Press Secretary.'

By the end of my hundred consecutive days of meditating 30 minutes, I tested my progress by quieting my mind while running. Between the ages of 13 to 31, running had primarily for me been an exercise in catharsis (the subject of Part 2 in this series) I simulated arguments with people I was frustrated with in my head such that I could run 14, 21, even 50km on occasion without noticing the time. 

My biggest windfall from my meditation practice was it ended my catharsis practice. I will justify this as a benefit in the next post, but instead of running with the illusion that it cleared out my head and caused my anger to subside (catharsis), I gained the ability to clear my head by clearing my head. (bare attention)

The practice of meditation is not the brake itself, it builds a brake for your thoughts that is probably the hippocampus or some other piece of brain anatomy. 

Eventually my chain of days of meditating broke, and I've never really picked up a regular practice again. 

Running I find breathing exercises easy and effective, and time saving because it doesn't require me to spend time each day meditating on top of the time I spend running. The one I've used and tried is from Matt Kama's youtube video, that not only arrests cathartic thoughts, but improves my running performance.

The tongue trick to the roof of the mouth I learned from a book called iBrainmap recommended to me by my dear friend who is a social worker. My girlfriend tells me she was taught this in yoga, so apparently it's out there.

The explanation from the book though is that when we think, our tongue does a lot of sub-vocalizing, it is twitching around making muted versions of the shapes and contortions it would if we were speaking audibly, kind of like when you scratch a dogs belly and it's hind leg kicks involuntarily. By arresting the movement of your tongue, I at least can stop my thoughts.

And of course, when I have the presence of mind to notice how nice it is outside, or flowers are in bloom etc. I'll sit down and just meditate with my eyes open to soak up the scenery.

Friday, September 25, 2020

On Celery

 A few years back now, I wrote a post 'On Housing' where I declared my hypothesis (probably actually just a notion, lacking the rigor of a testable hypothesis) that the average Australian knew nothing about housing. This is a post where I explore the notion that the average Australian knows nothing about celery.

This is hyperbolic of course, I'm not referring to the subsets of knowledge like: it's a vegetable, country of origin, calories per 100g, soluble vs insoluble fibre ratio, how to make ants-on-a-log. etc. 

I'm talking mainly about how celery functions in our economy. That is where I suspect the average person knows almost nothing, by way of saying the average person has at best a functional knowledge of celery in the economy (money can be exchanged for goods and services) and perhaps an intuitive understanding at best. 

I have somewhat arbitrarily picked celery to make a point about the implicit assumptions of our economic paradigm, and it's all to the point I hope to affect that a bad system can persist (or even a reasonably good system can persist in not improving) due to the immense complexity standing in the way of reform. I hope what I say here can be abstracted out into asking the deeper question of 'what the fuck is it all for?' and it could be regarded as a preamble or supplementary material for a forthcoming post of mine 'It's Not The Economy...stupid'

So let's get into celery.

The cheapest way to get celery I presume is to plant some seeds in soil. Now forgive my ignorance but I'm not much of a gardener, certainly have never cultivated a vegie patch or anything, but packets of seeds for varieties of celery are around $1.25 for 45-300 seeds. Because I'm so ignorant, I am assuming that a pack of 200 seeds would yield somewhat less than 200 celery plants (stalk, root and all) as some seeds will fail to germinate, competition for space between sprouts etc. Something like 1 in 5 to 1 in 10 maybe.

A quick google search says that seeding-harvest is between 130-140 days. I would guess someone with access to soil would have limited space to grow celery, maybe a max of 6 stalks and if they are like me probably consume less than a whole stalk of celery (per person) a year.

So 200 seeds might last a single person with access to a community garden, or a backyard with a veggie patch or planter box somewhere between 20 and 200 years for $1.25 in today's money, and given the forecast that interest rates and inflation are going to stay low or close to 0, today's money is about as good as tomorrows money - meaning there's not much opportunity cost between spending $1.25 today and earning interest on it in a savings account. This is a digression, but I suspect inflation is actually closer to negative (particularly in regards to food) meaning that the primary incentive for saving is that a dollar will buy more stuff in the future, rather than compounding interest... compounding deflation?

Opportunity cost for growing celery is enormously complicated, so I'll just allude to it. A quick google of the median price of a square meter of land in Melbourne has at Nov. 14th 2019, $1,892 per square meter. Celery is a pretty big plant so the land used to grow it carries an opportunity cost of $1,892. That cost is paid by someone, nominally the landlord, I don't know about a community garden. Often a landlord in Melbourne has a negatively geared property, meaning they pay more in their mortgage than they can obtain through rental income, which in Australia is considered an investment strategy so wise and valuable that the difference (losses) can be deducted from the landlord's taxable income exempting them partially or possibly totally from contributing to the upkeep of healthcare, education, law enforcement, the judicial system, infrastructure, public utilities, pensions, unemployment benefits, the NDIS, foreign aid, the arts etc.

Owner occupiers it's all imputed, in that effectively the landlord is the tenant and they are paying rent to themselves to contribute towards paying off the mortgage, but there's no transaction so it doesn't show up, meaning they are neither negatively geared (getting tax deductions under current law) or positively geared (having to report taxable income) because for owner occupiers it needs to be regarded as a saving on the rent they would be paying elsewhere.

Just picking an example suburb Coburg in North Melbourne has a median buying price for a 3 bedroom home of $1.03 million, which translates according to the government moneysmart website to $1,086 per week in Mortgage repayments, compared to the Median rent in the suburb for a 3 bedroom home of $560 per week. So setting aside capital gains from property speculation which is the main incentive for property 'investment' a person would save $526 per week to rent a whole 3 bedroom house in Coburg rather than buy and occupy that same house, for the period of 25 years until the mortgage is paid off. So with owner occupiers, the opportunity cost of growing celery on a square meter of land is born by them, whereas a landlord with sufficient other taxable income to transfer the losses to the community via negative gearing tax exemptions, the opportunity cost is born by the community.

All of which is to say, there are very complicated things going on behind the scenes of your vege patch, and as of Nov. 2019 the landlord/community is paying an opportunity cost of $1,869 to grow celery, that price per square meter is based an assumption of the best value use of that land. This is probably going to be subdividing the property to build apartments, which stimulates construction, where all the expenditure on the apartment construction generates income and revenue via wages, purchases, legal fees, compliance costs etc.

In brief, your landlord could sell that land to a developer instead of letting you grow celery and it would probably be to their financial benefit to do so, to the tune of $1,869.

Bringing us in to the domain of most urban people's experience of celery - grow it on much cheaper land, namely a farm or greenhouse and ship it in. 

From the perspective of Gross National Product/Gross Domestic Product (GNP/GDP) when you buy a packet of celery seeds for $1.25 and use it to fulfill your celery demands for 20 years that shows up as GNP once when you purchase the seeds for $1.25 plus shipping. It also deprives the economy of the GNP of using that land for construction of high-end apartments and everything that comes with it - GST on everything, Stamp Duty, increased land tax where the basis of determining rates is Capital Improved Value (a lot with an apartment complex on it pays more in land tax than the same lot with the apartment complex demolished) banking services, banking profits etc.

Where, if you buy celery from the supermarket at a rate of 1 stalk per year for 20 years that shows up in GDP growth 20 times for the going rate as of writing of $3.50 per stalk.

So here is the crux, a major point about the economic project we are all engaged in, a large part of why we vote in and out our leaders. A way to achieve significant GDP growth is to get people to stop growing their own celery, and buy it from a supermarket instead.

Buying celery from a supermarket boosts the construction industry, government revenues etc. by generating more transactions and higher value transactions. Arguably it is your patriotic duty and responsibility to your fellow man to not grow your own vegetables and have somebody else grow it for you. Next time your friend tells you excitedly about their new vegie patch, you should spit in their fucken face for what they are doing to GDP.

But, it's not as simple as that. Celery is my grocery nemesis. I use celery mostly in what the Italians call 'sofrito' the French call 'Mirepoix' but the only French dish I cook is French style Lasagna with B├ęchamel sauce...that and steak, but I don't use celery in steak.

Celery is such a pain in the arse for me to buy for cooking because my options are 'way more than necessary' or 'more than necessary' for my purposes 1 to 2 stalks, roughly the equal volume of a decent carrot is all I actually need in a dish I cook at most once a week, and currently less than once every two months.

So lets start with buying a whole stalk. the same applies for growing your own celery which will come at as a stalk, possibly with a celeriac bulb attached as the root of the plant. I'm going to guess that a whole stalk of celery weighs something like 600g, of which I need about 60g. So 1/10th of $1.25/50 seeds in the case of growing my own in the backyard, or 1/10th of $3.50 as the going price from a retailer. 

This is tremendously good for GDP, because I only need 35c of goods (or a conservative 0.0025c if I grow my own - excluding opportunity cost to the landlord) but I've generated $3.50 for the economy. Bringing us into spoilage.

Waste is fantastic for GDP, because it measures consumption, so if you consume more the economy grows. Furthermore, food waste is a big contributor to Greenhouse Gas Emissions, which currently is what Economists would call an 'externality' meaning someone else has to pick up the bill of climate change (communities effected by climate change, future generations etc.) so economically speaking in the duristiction of Australia, my buying a whole celery stalk, using one tenth of it and throwing the rest out to rot is simply fantastic.

However, on the subject of how I waste it, there's different options still - if I'm to compost it in my back yard then I am circumventing the whole waste management sector of the economy, I am taking away from the demand for things like landfill, collection, etc. the less waste I generate the more I hurt the economy, even from the perspective of paying council rates anyway so I may as well chuck my celery leftovers in the bin and not the garden, over time my reduced demand for waste services is going to effect the rates at which the waste management industry expands. Less land for landfill, less collection runs, less staff employed, slower increases in council rates, wage rises etc.

It's incredibly selfish of me and to the detriment of GDP and subsequently the happiness of all, to simply compost my waste.

Likewise, if I were instead to chop up the stalk into pieces and use what I need in the immediate recipe and then put the rest in a plastic container to preserve it, chuck that in the fridge, I am hurting the economy. It is much better for GDP if I were to buy 10x the amount of celery I desire each and every time I want to put 60g of celery in my pasta sauce, then throw it in the bin.

Now, let's look at the impact of household size on GDP, before circling back to celery waste. If 4 people live in separate disparate apartments, they are more likely to buy a celery stalk each, generate more waste. If they lived together though, a person could buy celery and in an incredibly anti-social move (from the perspective of GDP) let their housemates use the celery they don't need, fulfilling 4 people's demand for celery with only one transaction.

Let's make it worse (for GDP) and imagine someone in a sharehouse with a backyard has grown a stalk of celery, where they use the leaves and base (normally offcuts thrown away) to make a soup or stock, they divide up the stalks in pieces between them feeding more people with more meals, and refrigerate or freeze the rest.

I can hear you saying, wow, it's all so simple and straight forward. But you may recall earlier that I mentioned two options 'way too much' and 'too much'. Buying a celery stalk is way too much for my needs, and I'm one of these selfish horrible people that resents my patriotic duty to pay $3.50 for something that I only need 35c worth of. Fortunately, I can buy 300g of pre-cut, packaged stalks from the same supermarket for only $4.50. 

Now it might seem strange to you, on an intuitive level, that even excluding the parts of the celery stalk we are supposed to waste like the base and the leaves, that it is more expensive to buy less, almost half the amount of the product.

We could look at it as a kind of philosophical tax on shortchanging GDP. Most likely we think of this as economies of scale, though usually in economies of scale things get cheaper the more we consume of it. For example if a candy bar is $2 or 2 for $3. This is not (and a lot of people miss this because statistical intuitions are generally bad) the equivalent 25% off, while it may seem the same in both cases each bar is $1.50, with the bulk buy special you have to buy 2 candy bars to get the savings where a straight discount means you save money just purchasing one. It's hard to put into prose, but it's the difference between 1 candy bar for $1.50 and 2 candy bars for $2 and $1 respectively.

That's economy of scales in the usual practice. I hear you 'tohm, tohm, everything up to this point was so clear and coherent and easy to follow, but we were talking about celery and now you are talking about candy bars? How do you expect me to follow when you jump around like this!'

It's all to say, that usually economies of scale is 1 for $2 or 2 for $3, not 1 for $2 or 2 for $1. Where the buyer is effectively paying you to sell less. Now there are situations in the economy where one may actually pay for less of something or to avoid a service. I recall being stuck behind a pedestrian on Swanston st who was offering to freestyle rap for a gold coin donation, and fighting down the temptation to say 'you got your business model all wrong homie, you need to ask for a gold coin donation to not freestyle rap.' but I in turn didn't want to get my face punched in. Skip hop is terrible.

But celery is a good not a bad. Why pay a premium for less? From my perspective, I'd rather pay more and waste less. Now I'm sure that no matter how much celery you buy, you are paying as a consumer for waste. Some accountant will have done the sums to figure out how to make the required profit on celery if they only sell x amount of a total n celery purchased, and a bunch of celery winds up in the skip out the back. So the waste gets built into the price of the celery that does get purchased, and if there's a sudden celery craze (say because Kim Kardashian declares it her favorite snack, or Donald Trump says he's hearing from many smart people that it cures Covid) then the supermarket just makes inordinate profits if their wasted celery stock is reduced.

But they are making profits in the normal times when half the celery they purchase doesn't get sold on to end consumers. The point is, I know in my heart of hearts that when I purchase a 300g pack of celery for $4.50 over a whole stalk for $3.50 though I am reducing my household celery waste, part of the premium I'm paying is for a Coles employee to throw the celery stalk I didn't purchase into the supermarket dumpster. You're welcome freegans.

But the price premium is probably more explained by value-added. Or convenience. You may have noticed the same pricing behavior with Coca-Cola where 600ml from 7-Eleven costs substantially more than 1.25l from the Supermarket. The price in part is consistent with the great economic project, not only am I aiding GDP by spending $4.50 instead of $3.50 (and even better for society than growing my own celery than purchasing my own stalk) I'm paying for the low density polymer that wraps the top of the also petrolium based tray, or the low density polymer sealed plastic bag aka the packaging. That's a whole other industry, an extra shipping stop, extra logistics, extra wages fueling extra income. I'm paying more truck drivers and more factory workers, enabling them too to consume more celery and produce more waste.

And the fact that I have spared myself something like 5-10 minutes of knife work, by having the stalk pre-cut into pieces for me is another crucial point about GDP. A major point. Doing things for yourself is bad for GDP. With one important caveat, that I will flag now but come to at check out (hint hint).

Even better than a punnet of celery sticks wrapped in plastic is a plastic cup of diced celery. Why they might even be able to charge me $5.50 for 150g of diced celery, over $4.50 for 300g of sticks of celery.

I know in some places, specifically a supermarket Chef John of Foodwishes went to in San Francisco USA he could purchase a sealed cup of diced celery, onion and carrot. Now that is convenience, and the fundamental underpinning of why GDP is used as a proxy for consumption and a proxy for wellbeing. The richer we get, the less tears we have to shed over onions. We can pay someone else to chop our onions for us, and isn't that what happiness is all about?

Let's go further, because I am being incredibly anti-social by walking to the shops and buying the goods. I am effectively paying myself to be a grocery delivery boy. It is so much better for the economy if somebody gets paid a wage to deliver the groceries to me. If you care about the economy, a better way to volunteer would be to stand on the footpath of supermarkets with billy-clubs and tell anyone who tries to walk into the store to go home and order online.

Walking is the worst (from GDP perspective) driving is better, you are consuming petrol, also depreciation, insurance, registration etc. Even better than that is having someone else drive to the shops and back to get your groceries, because it's all of the above + paying them a wage...

I need to put a pin in that thought, because stupid, stupid, stupid. Why are you cooking for yourself at all? We are all much better off (from GDP perspective) if we get our meals from restaurants. Why am I making bolognese? Where do I get the FUCKING nerve, to not buy an instant Bolognese or Lasagna packed meal for $4.00 for 300g. I mean the price says it all, I could spend $4.50 to buy 300g of celery, $7 for 500g of mince, 50c for a carrot, same for an onion, $1 for a garlic bulb, $3 for tomato paste, $1 for tinned tomatoes, $2 for a pack of spaghetti... when I could buy a frozen meal and cook it in my microwave for $4.

Of course, with all the separate ingredients I could feed four people or myself 4 portions, so it's like $20 worth of ingredients vs $16 for 4 meals. It's still like the economy is trying to tell me, somehow incentivise me to not cook for myself.

And indeed, cooking for myself is wrong, what you may not expect is that buying pre-prepared meals from the supermarket is also wrong. We should be buying our meals from restaurants, that is our patriotic duty to bolster GDP.

Before I go to restaurants though, I just want to finish off the outstanding business of the extra people I employ by buying a packet of celery sticks over a whole stalk. You may have seen petitions to stop the 'excessive' packaging of vegetables at Coles and Woolworths (the two major players in Australia).

What this fails to consider is that without single use plastic, there would a) be less plastic consumed which hurts the plastics manufacturing industry, the oil industry etc. and b) without plastic in the ocean then we wouldn't have all the GDP consumption of the clean up process, extraction etc. which would also hurt GDP if there was no pollution to clean up. You might remember Gary Oldman's speech from 'The Fifth Element' where for some reason, he is portrayed as a bad guy.

A third c) that the petition fails to consider is... who get's the income. The income generated by consumption of celery and it's packaging. In recent years Supermarkets in Australia have implemented self-serve checkouts. Now I don't have access to the numbers on these, but here we see an apparent contradicition - if GDP doesn't want us doing things for ourselves, why are we checking out our own groceries?

Well because it saves on what were known sexistly and colloquially in Australia as 'checkout chicks' one employee paid say... $20 serving one customer every 5 minutes is less productive and profitable than one employee standing in the self-serve bay serving 8 customers every 5 minutes. Time is literally money, and one thing that gums up the works, is people dithering and dicking around trying to look up fresh produce codes. It could generate a situation where one person at a traditional checkout who has memorized most of the codes of fresh produce could be 10x faster than an octogenerian at a touch screen trying to figure out if shallots are under 'O' for Onions or 'S' for Shallots. But you can solve this by wrapping the vegetable in plastic and sticking a bar code on it. 

When I look up a piece of fruit and weigh it at a self serve check in, as opposed to scanning the bar-code on the tiny sticker, I'm slowing down the throughput of check out, customers behind me are waiting longer, increasing the temptation that they might opt for non-self serve and driving up the cost of labor on a per-hourly basis by having to roster on more staff to cope with peak traffic.

But surely that's good for GDP? Isn't that job creation? Well to throw a spanner in the works, our law is unambiguous. There are more than one kind of income, depending on the factor of production. Labor earns wages through salary, (not to be confused with celery, I'm sorry) Capital from dividends, and Land from rents. 

What we need to keep in mind is that income = consumption. Now two sources of income are in opposition, the staff at the supermarket and the investors who own the supermarket. The law is unambiguous, companies are to be run in the interests of the owners, not the staff. The Supermarket is legally obliged to maximize profits for it's shareholders or face serious penalties. If it can save $20 an hour by increasing staff productivity and reducing total staff then that saving can be passed onto either - the consumers through price cuts, that they may consume more and produce more waste, or to the shareholders, the owners who can use it to buy their own pre-packed celery.

So just as a recap, better than growing your own celery and using it all in multiple meals to feed multiple people that you prepared yourself without paying a wage to yourself, is to go to the shops and buy celery for multiple meals for multiple people without paying a wage to yourself, better than that is to buy celery from the shops for a single person for multiple meals < (less than/not as good as) single person, single meal < to get celery delivered for single meal, single person < to get packaged celery delivered for single person, single meal < get a pre-prepaired instant meal in package delivered for single person, single meal <  get a restaurant meal delivered for a single person for a single meal.

The curve ball I've thrown is that income going to Capital is legally enshrined as better than income going to workers. So incorporating this better than having a family restaurant with a Nonna in the kitchen consuming celery in the preperation of the Ragu that will feed me and 100 other bachelors when put in a plastic sealed container and handed to an uber driver or deliveroo cyclist to bring to my door is a meal I purchase at the same price prepared by a robot and delivered by a drone. Similarly, better if my celery is diced up by a machine in a plant than by a person on a line. This is the great project of the economy and the bright future of celery should all be working towards if we wish to be happy.

And to think, there are arseholes out there who grow their own wild celery in their backyard and use it from root to tip to feed themselves and family and neighbors multiple meals and are so fucking deluded that they feel good about that...

This is a disaster for the great project of Economic growth. Australia's bright and shining future where we are all happier thanks to increased consumption, requires us to live in expensive apartments by ourselves, throwing out as much celery as possible.

I hope by now, I've pushed your brain to saturation and now let me place the final straw on the camels back. (or stick of celery).

The reason we want to save on wages and maximize profits in return for Capital is because the asset owning class are more likely to invest their income not in mere consumption but in more assets that grow the economy.

I'm just guessing here as to what the big picture is, but say I save $10,000 a year in growing my own food and preparing it myself, that saving is non consumption of goods and services that become income for others. I'm unlikely to do anything but sit on that $10,000. Worse, and this is where I'm a truly horrible person, I might use my savings to buy a foreign currency and live for a year in Mexico because I can consume more there than I can here, betraying my nation by contributing to the GDP of Mexico and not the GDP of Australia.

I might tell myself that when I purchase Mexican Pesos with Australian dollars I put upward pressure on Mexican Pesos and downward pressure on AUDs, which helps the celery farmers of Australia compete with the celery farmers of Mexico in exporting celery... and after all if the celery is imported from overseas then that's better for GDP because the transport costs of exporting internationally are greater than those of domestic consumption...

But the shareholders of Coles, or the owners of Restaurants, what they would do with the $10,000 if I spent it on getting robot prepared and delivered meals shipped to my door is leverage it. They would go to the bank and say 'I have $100,010,000 in cash assets, how much money can I borrow?' and the banks would probably say 'A bajillion dollars at 0% interest! what are you going to do with it?'

And they would say 'I'm going to buy up the land currently used for vegie patches and community gardens and build studio apartment blocks that I will sell off the plan.'

To which the banker would say 'Wow, not only will that fuel consumption and borrowing in the construction industry, build consumer confidence, increase consumer debt, put upward pressure on housing and rents, increase the cleanup costs of climate change thus increasing GDP growth into the future... but it will increase celery consumption... it's beautiful. You sir, are a great Australian, yes I will lend you a bajillion dollars at 0% on the basis that you have so much money you could just spend without borrowing anything kind of like Apple and Google in the US who have vast stockpiles of cash they don't know how to invest but borrow money at 0% from the Federal Reserve and purchase their own stocks, because everyone will be happier if they would just waste more celery and have less job security.'

Now the camels back is broken, let's keep piling on some more celery.

The uber driver delivering your uber eats might be under the impression that they are making money, because they haven't factored in the depreciation costs of their vehicle, the insurance costs, rego, etc. they may be classed as a private contractor rather than an employee, even though as their own business they have no right to refuse business etc. and subsequently are not provisioning for tax, leave or superannuation. They may, depending on prices be going financially backwards, robbing Peter to pay Paul so to speak. Earning $200 from their pet Elephant who eats $400 worth of celery. The driver delivering your meals may be paying you for the privilege of delivering your spag bol. Which again is still fantastic for consumption, it's just a complexity about how the income derived from celery might be distributed.

 Also on income, there's dicing your own celery versus having someone else, or a robot do it. On this point I myself must confess I am confused, and this is my point of confusion. Say I earn $20,000 per year, and someone else earns $200,000 a year. Their time, is at market rates worth 10x mine. So in a workplace, like a restaurant, I the kitchen hand should absolutely be dicing the celery whereas the accountant should absolutely be balancing the books or whatever. George Calombaris' restaurant business didn't go under because of celery dicing, it went under because of book-keeping. So that's why at work the accountants get the big bucks and the kitchen hands get the small potatoes (another vegetable I'm sorry, I swear that's the last one).

Where I'm confused is when you aren't at work. As I was taught, labor markets particularly participation is constrained by a tradeoff between income and leisure. So in theory this says that you might be able to work 38 hours a week for $20 an hour, because that leaves you enough leisure time to feel happy and balanced, but to work 50 hours a week, you would need to be paid far more than the additional $20 for each of the additional 12 hours. In theory it might require some kind of 'penalty' rate to work that 'overtime' like 1.5 times the hourly wage, because leisure time gets more valuable the less of it there is. 

To quote the great Yogi Berra 'In theory, theory works in practice, in practice, it doesn't.'

It is well documented for example that people in salaried positions work a lot of voluntary overtime. Also in my experience, people in casual positions are rarely able to be like 'I'm only going to work 16 hours this week, 17 hours next week, I'll do a 3 hour shift today and a 4 hour shift tomorrow, and maybe 2 hours the day after that.' Which is to say, people in Australia at least are rarely in a position to do this calculus of a tradeoff between an hours leisure or an hours work. People rarely can set their own hours, and thanks to things like having rent and mortgages and living expenses that exceed the social security payments they could receive if unemployed, workers tend to have really weak bargaining positions such that employers can say 'we need you to work a minimum of 20 hours a week or forget about it.' or 'you have to do at least one mandatory 8 hour weekend shift.' etc. 

So given that very few people have a choice between work and leisure by the hour so much as employment or unemployment, I'm genuinely unsure if an accountant's leisure time is worth more than a kitchen hands leisure time since the option may not exist to actually convert that into wages. Nobody will pay the accountant an extra $200 because his salary is his salary, to stay behind at work an extra hour, and order a meal delivered and the shift simply isn't available for the kitchen hand to work an extra hour for an extra $20.

Presumably one of the reasons for employing robots instead of people, is that robots don't want to play videogames and watch pornography instead of dicing celery. So the living expenses of our leisure time are probably priced into the wages market. 

At either rate, I don't know if a poor person needs to feel less bad about cutting up their own celery. The opportunity cost is smaller compared to a rich person. What is undeniable is that rich people consume more and thus are better for GDP. That's why we should give them more free stuff, tax exemptions, lower interest rates, subsidies, perks and benefits so they'll be even richer to consume even more and thus make us all happier because income = spending = consumption = happiness under the GDP paradigm.

So I've hit my limit, I'm exhausted. I'm sure I haven't fully explored the economic complexities of celery. The point is not to point out how little you know about celery, but probably how little you know about GDP, and why GDP growth is good, and why we should get angry that the economy is hurting, or vote out politicians. 

I could have written a much simpler post about how it's great if a bushfire destroys your house and all the memories contained, because it's better for GDP to build two houses than one. Curiously though, our regulators don't encourage us to build the most expensive, least durable, most flamable houses to improve our wellbeing via greater consumption of housing.

Almost like, GDP growth is, if not an outright terrible proxy for wellbeing, at the very least a woefully inadequate one.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

On Melbourne's Waves

I'm going to take Ghandi's advice and be the change I'd like to see in the world, specifically: I'm going to make clear from the outset that I'm speculating on limited data that I have. This is speculation. Opinion. I do not know for a fact whether this is the case, and that should shape your confidence in accepting my interpretation. 


I feel that is important to make clear, because everyday I awake to greater clarity that we are living in an age where people hold incredibly consequential beliefs having never bothered to investigate those beliefs. I also had the tremendous privelege to work on a nationwide longitudinal survey for some 8 years speaking to thousands of Australians during the Julia Gillard years where I was able to observe for myself, that the press is incredibly influential in shaping people's opinions. There are an alarming number of people who outsource their opinion forming wholesale to the Editorial staff of their local tabloid paper.

There's a line in 2014's 'Pride' said by Bill Nighy in his role as Cliff:
I don’t believe what they say about
us, Lee. Why should I listen to
what they say about them?

Which I feel confident, is a statement of incredibly uncommon sense. It defies confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. These I suspect is actually how news is scrutinized - what we want to believe. 

Thus I am simply attempting to form my own opinion by making sense of the data, I received, which was all publicly available. 2020 has not impressed me as to the role and function of journalism, appearing to me as a kind of middle man that actually diminishes value. This is probably how I would satire the function of the press as current:

1. source appears in live public press conference. Source: 'I disagree with my opponents position because of X'

2. Journalist at press conference asks question of source. Journalist: 'If you had a million dollars to give every person in this city, when could we expect it?'

3. Source answers question. [no matter how irrelevant or transparently motivated the journalists question, the content of the source's answer is almost always irrelevant no mater how rational, reasonable or data backed.]

4. Front page headline/leading news story of headline's publication/channel: '[Source] SAYS YOU'RE A CUNT WANTS TO RUIN YOUR LIFE!' 

Chomsky is known for his concept of 'manufacturing consent' I these days am feeling much 'manufactured dissent' and it reminds me of the Gillard years. The press is impressing upon me some kind of industrial scale Iago to the general public's Othello. Things didn't work out for Othello. (The Iago I'm referring to is not the parrot from Aladdin.)

So with all that, I'm doing the same thing as much of the press that I read. Constructing a narrative. I am not an epidemiologist, I do have a bachelors degree in Economics, I don't have privileged access to the data.

I was prompted somewhat to write this because of a talk I listened to by Nicole Gurren on the very separate subject of Housing Affordability. It's a good example of narratives being constructed with no reference to any data, no factual basis and dominating the conversation - specifically housing affordability is best solved by > increasing the housing supply by > slashing the project approval red-tape. We tend to accept things, because we've heard them. I'm sure I could lose consciousness before I ran out of examples of this phenomenon.

The First Wave

Australia's first wave was worst in NSW, next worst in Victoria, where Victoria whose capital city Melbourne, has a population greater than that of the nation of New Zealand, and statistically on a per capita basis Victoria outperformed NZ up until the Cedar Meats outbreak which for my speculation is an important data point.

That's skipping to the end of the story of the first wave. My father was working in Mongolia in a climate-disastrous fly-in-fly-out arrangement, when Covid-19 was just an epidemic in Wuhan China. He flew back to Australia on a flight via Beijing where everyone was wearing face masks on the plane but took them off to eat their in flight meals. He flew back to Mongolia a fortnight later, Wuhan was locked down, Beijing was being locked down. By the time he was due to fly back to Australia, he could no longer travel via Beijing, he had to take a route from Mongolia to South Korea, transfer from one Airport to another in Seoul, then fly home.

My mother reported to me that their dinner group of friends from Shepparton one of Victoria's regional centers were unwilling to come to the dinner party my parents were due to host, owing to my father's travelling from Asia. My mother and I were of a consensus that they were being paranoid hypochondriacs. My attitude for the next week or so was 'Don't people remember SARS? Swine Flu?' 

Then South Korea had it's outbreak, and the WHO declared a pandemic. We discovered for the most part, most conuntries had no real plans in place. It all felt very reactive. To the credit of the leadership at every level of government in Australia, it appeared our leaders got briefed up very quickly. This was the bizarre week were time compressed, and we began to go into lock-down. Each day, the risks we were taking the day before seemed callous and stupid to me, so I should say the risks I'd been taking.

I had no idea if I was already Covid-19 positive, that was the main thing. I could have been asymptomatic, it was already here. I could be inadvertantly killing grannies just by breathing air. 

This was for me, the story of the first wave. We knew almost nothing, some seized on this to go into upbeat denial, or defiant denial, conspiracy theories. Those people are still around, though I assume there's an increased chance in my state, that some of them may now have caught Covid-19, and may have been confronted for the first time in their lives, that an objective reality exists.

There was a contingent I knew of that were overcautious. They didn't leave the house, they washed everything they touched, they disinfected their bananas before peeling them. They left as little as possible to chance, these are the people so desperate to survive, you wouldn't want to wake up in one of Jigsaw's games chained to them.

I feel that the first wave is largely forgotten, or that we have not yet found the time to reflect upon it. The first wave in Victoria was the rich man's wave, the middle class wave, the upper-middle-bogan wave. It was waves of people being disgorged from planes returning from ski trips on Italian slopes, Aspen-Colorado slopes. People returning from destination weddings and cruises. Holidaymakers. International holiday makers. Taking long haul flights across the Pacific Ocean, the South-East Asian Island Chains, the Indian Ocean, breathing recycled air and then walking straight through customs and out into the community.

I recall looking at the Department of Health's daily Covid updates during the first wave, once I had actually learned the nature of the situation, seen what was happening in Italy and New York and subsequently accepted the counter-intuitive seriousness of a tentative 2% mortality rate aerosol spread respiratory disease. The best represented demographic for case numbers nationally was females 20-29. Something like 7% above males 20-29 and 30% bigger than the third largest age-cohort.

My prejudice instantly kicked in, and I was all like 'it's those fucking hipster-bali tourists getting their cheap flights to Osaka and Tokyo via Jetstar. Those incredibly venal twenty-something women that think they are broadening themselves...' Unlike the WHO who transparently archive their situation reports it's a bit harder with the Australian website but here's one from late May that is the statistical picture I referred to and am referring to. You can see in the bar graph bottom middle the demographic breakdown. Anyway, I noticed my own prejudice kicking in, no doubt agitated by tourism Japan's add campaign specifically targeting young women to come live their Samurai experiences in 'authentic' Japan, oh how it bugs me... and caught myself. 

The most probably explanation for this demographic phenomena was that women, particularly young women are most at risk of community transmission because they are no doubt over-represented in jobs like Nursing, Waiting, Receptionist... proud of myself at having arrested my tertiary educated, Murakami reading specific misogyny and gotten to what was no doubt the truth, my rationalization soon deflated. 

That narrative doesn't square with the data being presented, in the first wave there was little to no reports of healthcare workers contracting it. The great success of the first wave if anything was that our healthcare system avoided becoming the hotbed of transmission and fatalities like Northern Italy and New York. Indeed, I can recall things I thought about in the first wave - one of which was during the panic buying epidemic, I actually thought about the prospect of people invading my home for toilet paper in a supply shock driven breakdown of society. Another was my being drafted into a medical career I never wanted simply because the doctors and nurses were dying off and I eventually would be forced into a medical school basic training draft, much like my Grandfather was called off to fight Germans and Japanese interrupting his dreams of being a con-man or doing a dentistry apprenticeship or something.

There was also a complete lack of news coverage of restaurant outbreaks, or hospitality industry outbreaks, or event outbreaks. To date, I don't think there's been any community transmission that has taken place in a Supermarket. 

Thus, I conclude the Victorian, and Australian wave stories are stories of demographics. The first wave was the international holiday demographic. People who can demonstrably take time off work to go overseas for a couple of weeks.

I distinctly remember as Victoria's first wave was winding down, and there was (what I considered then) irrational agitation and public pressure for the restrictions to be released even as the Cedar meats cluster was ballooning, I was riding along a trail feeling constantly frustrated by the demonstrable lack of public understanding of 1.5m physical distancing that I the very concrete sentiment formed in my head 'If we have beat this thing, it is not owing to Victorian public.'

The first wave was manageable because it was among a demographic of people that are largely retired and wealthy, who have no income to lose that isn't rent from property they own, or dividends from shares. Or they were young people, who may feel like battlers, but lockdown for them meant they could no longer go on Tinder dates, a demographic that has some 80% of their social contact invested in the 3 people they take their break with at their casual jobs while they go through Uni. A demographic that sublets the room in their sharehouse for 6 weeks while they go to Japan, New York or Berlin to get authentic food for their Instagram stories, and cheap good quality cocaine to tell their friends about in the break room.

This is a demographic that Jobkeeper and Jobseeker are sufficient to secure. I suspect there's a high correlations between taking month long cruises and being retired, and possibly a high correlation between taking international trips over the (Australian) summer and having a job that can be tele-commuted, or school or University course. I suspect there's a correlation between taking international trips, having a salaried office job with paid annual leave and being able to telecommute that job.

The carriers of the First wave might visit their family once a month, or once every two months, or their family live scattered across the world, where they have taken various roles as social media monitors for firms in different cultural hubs. It's the wealthy, in other words, who on aggregate don't spend much time in their community as they are time poor cash rich. The elderly retirees go travelling to alleviate boredom and 'spend the kids inheritance' where their children were/are preoccupied with their self-diagnoses of 'social anxiety' as an excuse to only interact regularly and in close proximity with 1-5 friends. The demographic that sees pre-drinks as mandatory prior to a party, but showing up to the party that necessitates the pre-drinks is not mandatory.

The state and federal government shut down the key contact point for this internationally jetsetting demographic - school and work, and with that, their social lives and communities naturally shift online. They put up the welfare payments to prevent civil unrest (for the most part) and we rode out that first wave. Bringing us to...

The Second Wave

I have opinions about the second wave that I would acknowledge upfront, mainly to get them out of the way. I feel, quite strongly that they are wrong to fixate on. Specifically:

  • Almost certainly the state government (The Andrews Government) made the wrong decision, aka a mistake in allowing our quarantine hotels to use private security firms to maintain the quarantine, when the Australian Defense Force (ADF) had been pledged as available to oversee this task by the Federal Government.
  • The initial reaction to the outbreak of community transmission that would become our second wave, of locking down specific postcodes was doomed to failure (emphasis in my opinion) because the outbreak had been traced back using genetic sequencing and through positive Covid tests to the Quarantine Hotels, a set of data that told me, that if people who literally 'had one job' couldn't be trusted to contain the virus, then some 100,000 people in a set of suburbs with incredibly porous, arbitrary and conditional (eg. 'essential' workers could leave the locked down suburb) boundaries - if this was page one in the 'suppression strategy' playbook that whole playbook can be thrown away.
  • The lockdown of the public housing residential towers was a fucking nightmare for all involved.
I believe it wrong to fixate on these, because the quarantine hotels using private security worked perfectly right up until it didn't, this is the kind of mistake leadership has to be able to make if we aren't to live in a 'demeritocracy' (quoting myself there) ie. we ostracize anybody who isn't perfect despite having nothing but imperfect alternatives. 
It also, creates a problem of hypocrisy for people agitating for early or immediate reopenings on the grounds of damage to the economy. Because that would be the exact line of reasoning to use private security firms instead of ADF personal. The ADF are government sector spending, spending that I assume goes on whether they are training on a military base way out Woop-Woop somewhere or guarding the corridor of a Hotel. 
Whereas, the Hotel's repurposed for quarantine are private sector extracting government funds to offset the lost tourist trade owing to the lockdowns, I would be amazed if part of the decision the Andrews government made wasn't informed by an essentially identical but specific argument about the need to protect the economy by not using ADF personal and instead paying the Hotels to hire private security, Hotel managers that in part or accross the board stuck to the old economic paradigm of maximizing profit by having marginal costs = marginal revenue. In layman's terms, to cut every corner possible without losing the government contract to keep international arrivals in 14 day quarantines.

As to the 10 postcode lockdown, my harshest criticism would be my usual suspect of making a decision that disregards ordinary human psychology. Particularly the propensity for people to feel it is unfair, like if the news said their were 40 active cases yesterday, and you were one of 10,000 people living in a suburb that was now locked down and you shared a supermarket with a suburb that is not locked down, most people aren't going to adopt the 'take one for the team' mentality but gravitate towards the 'why me? it isn't fair. I didn't do anything wrong' mentality. 
In my experience most people lack the cognitive empathy abilities to overcome prisoners dilemmas, tragedies of the commons. When they are thinking 'I'll escape to my beach-house/cousin's house/visit my mum interstate.' I doubt any sufficient number pause and think 'I probably don't have Covid, but this is exactly what someone with Covid is thinking right now in this suburb, and they are going to flee the lockdown and that's exactly how this will spread...' 
So while it was doomed to fail though, I don't think it was pointless. Governments everywhere are observing governments everywhere trying to figure out a) what the best approach is and b) the best approach they can afford logistically and politically.
The suffering under lockdown, is somewhat mitigated by the knowledge we now have that locking down postcodes doesn't work. From now, anybody who tries this in the event of an outbreak, is 100% liable for escalating the situation, because they had every opportunity to learn from the Victorian example.

Getting to the Residential Towers. I've had the fortune to have friends that lived in towers like the ones that were placed in the most severe lockdown nationwide. They have been described as vertical cruise ships. Having an outbreak in one of these towers is just a fucking nightmare. Locking them down in quarantine is a fucking nightmare. It was the right call. I saw the people demanding on humanitarian grounds that they be released, and though I'm sure they are well intended, non of these demands gave me the impression the people advocating had any fucking idea what they were talking about. 

Which brings me to what I interpret to be, the real story of Melbourne's second wave, again a story of demographics. Because the question is: Prior to the introduction of mandatory quarantine in designated hotels for international arrivals, planes were just disgorging carriers out into our community, we had a prominent news story of a Doctor that flew back in late Feb/early March feeling sick with flu-like symptoms that saw some 60 patients at his clinic before he bothered to get tested and test positive. Including two patients at a nursing home in Malvern. Why didn't this complete lack of quarantine and self-isolation protocol result in the kind of numbers we saw in the Melbourne second wave?

The crucial thing, by my synthesis is the demographics of who got infected. About a week ago, it was confirmed that a quarantine security guard that was infected, infected her housemate an aged care nurse this only explains 2 cases at one facility, which is unsurprising because it's very direct.

What came out in the wash, in dribs and drabs over the past 6 or so weeks are the headlines that get buried in the dumpster fire that is the media coverage of the daily press briefings. Things like the hotel security being hired via Whatsapp and paid $18 an hour (the current national minimum wage is $19.49 per hour, or $740.80 per 38 hour week, which x2 is $1480 where the current unemployed benefits stand at $1124 per fortnight) so guess who's taking that job? People who really have to.

It also trickles out, that people were getting tested after one shift at one work sight (where in Australia you are instructed to self-isolate until you get your test results) and then doing some uber-eats runs after the test, then going to work at a different job sight.

I was fortunate enough to have a friend testify to her direct experience of working as a nurse, having to pick up rosters at quarantine hotels and then hospital wards and working across multiple sites. The media and government appears to have uncovered this also in their inquiries.

The ADF were brought in to door knock and make sure people who had tested positive were self-isolating, apparently 1 in 4 people weren't at home when they had tested positive and been instructed to self-isolate for 14 days. I suspect the natural response when hearing a statistic like this is moral outrage.


Let's try and exercise cognitive empathy though. The above screenshot is from the aforementioned in the pre-ramble talk about Housing Policy Red-Tape. The slide appears thus far into Nicole's talk if you can't read the screenshot it says 'Healthcare workers living in group households 2016 - source ABS...'

from the transcript: 'This is just a map of our low-paid healthcare and social assistance workers who are living in share group households in 2016. I hope they’re not still living in share houses now, but work also by my lab shows that the informal rental market is alive and well right now in the middle of the pandemic, similar to the remarks that Emily made at the start of this evening’s talk. Much of that stock, unfortunately, is overcrowded and some of it is downright dangerous.'

So the second wave, the crucial, to me, characteristic is that we basically got the first wave spreaders under control, because they were wealthy people who can telecommute their office jobs, have leave entitlements, have relatively secure housing etc. I described it all above. We got them under control through hotel quarentine, then we introduced them to a different demography...

A demographic that works in essential services - nursing and security, for near minimum wage, with little job security, no housing security etc. People who can't afford to take sick days, people who needs so badly to earn $365 above the Jobseeker payment a fortnight, that they will work full time standing in a corridor telling people to get back in their rooms for 38 hours a week over the next best option of doing whatever the fuck you want all day for $1,124 just $365 less.

It also appears to turn out, that the kind of person that takes this job has a large family, a large family that might have religious observances and large family gatherings, possibly language barriers, almost certainly a greater sense of felt filial piety. This low income, low job security, low housing security demographic appears to be the crucial difference in the second wave, they stand in stark contrast to the demographic of the first wave.

Just going by the 10 postcode lockdown, and the public housing tower lockdowns, the second wave was very much a North and Western suburbs wave, whereas in our first wave, the 'hot-spot' was squarely in the South and East, particularly the Mornington Peninsula. For those unfamiliar with Melbourne, the South and East are the well-to-do suburbs, the North and West are the working class.

Would you be willing to bet the farm, that a similar analysis of ABS census data for Melbourne won't show that the Hotspod, super-spreader suburbs aren't characterized by Low-income aged care and security workers correlating with low home ownership rates, in informal share-houses, room share etc? That it will turn out that the people that lift your Nan in and out of bed and change her diapers, are incredibly well paid homeowners from small families with tertiary educations and are just incredibly selfish pricks?

This is what the data screams to me, and it frankly, must be ignored. Because nobody likes to discuss why it is that we pay a Fund Manager $120,000 a year plus bonuses to underperform an index fund as they allocate Superannuation, or a Social Media 'Expert' for a Boutique Interior Design business is paid $50,000 per year with 20 days annual leave and 8 days sick leave benefits, but someone, who if they fuck up cost the economy $6 billion a week, is paid $18 an hour and can't legitimately get their name on a lease.

We know plenty of fund managers are well compensated to lose money. We know plenty of social media experts are well paid to... well it's hard to tell whether they are doing anything at all. And we know, that if someone does quarantine security right, they can save us $6 Billion dollars over... 8 weeks and counting. We know an aged care worker, if they turn up to work sick can kill any and all of their residents.

That's the market, and the economy we are supposed to be in a rush to reopen. I'd also suggest, that because there's likely to be a high correlation between working an actually hard but essential job for minimal compensation and being a first or second generation immigrant, that many people don't wish to discuss this narrative because of the inevitable racist vitriol that will be directed at the people willing to work harder than us at work worth doing for people unwilling to pay them a cent more than they are obligated to.

To be clear, I'm not anti-immigrant. I'm anti-slum lords, I'm anti-corner cutting old economic paradigms of how to profit off government tenders. As I infer from the fact that the quarantine hotels appeared to in many cases shirk their obligations to clean and feed the tenants

If somebody screws up their one job, when they are hired at $18 an hour via Whatsapp and provided no training, I'm not angry at them. I'm angry at the recruiters and the management.

Certainly, certainly the decision to not use the ADF and to instead use private security was a catastrophic fuckup. Was it however an error of commission or omission? It appears, and it makes sense to me, to simply be an oversight. An act of commission would require evidence, including testimony surfacing where somebody advocated for private security - I'm agnostic, waiting for such evidence to appear.

An act of omission, an oversight squares up with other facts - like it was fine for the first wave, the Government appears to have learned 'as it goes' that people were testing positive and still going to work/refusing to self isolate because of economic pressures, and they made adjustments like offering payments and getting the test result turnaround time down. 

Think if you will, of Covid like fire, and the South and East suburbs, for Socio-economic reasons are like wet green foliage, tertiary educated, home-owning, white collar workers with declining birth rates. The North and West are dry tinder stacked on oily rags swept up against old newspaper collections, job insecure, housing insecure first and second generation migrants with large intersecting families, religious observances and community events with high birthrates and multiple siblings. Suppression might work out East, down South. 

Not West and North though, once the fire was there it went up in flames quickly, and we failed in our obligation to protect the vulnerable. Even if ultimately absolved of responsibility, these essential workers are going to have to live with 'to make rent I wound up killing 2 people/6 people/12 people.' for the rest of their lives.

These people aren't thought of victims though if you pick up a paper. The victims are cafe owners, gym owners, restaurant owners, landlords both residential and commercial, event coordinaters, footy fans etc. The real victim is the Economy.

The too oft escaped algebra of Covid however is that transmission rates increase quickly, it's non-linear, and it takes a relative age to bring them back down. It takes 15 minutes of exposure to aerosol droplets of Covid-19 to catch it, about 4 days for symptoms to show up, and 2 to 3 weeks to recover, and some 2% of people don't recover.

Now this suggests, that the way to handle outbreaks is to lock down movement and contact fast, and release these measures gradually. Fast in, slow out. This runs counter to public sentiment, the situation needs to escalate to scarily close to out of control before lockdowns are acceptable, then as soon as numbers appear to taper or start decreasing, the public demands to know when restrictions will be eased.

If you think of this behavior as an individual, it would be like a person testing positive refusing to isolate until they have given it to at least two other people, and then demanding to leave isolation the moment their fever reduces rather than after they are deemed non-contagious and recovered. Given that in a community, there will be many people who never contract the disease, perhaps the better analogy to the body would be the hands and knees agitating for release, because all the symptoms are in the lungs, head and toes.

I actually know the 3 degrees of separation between myself and George W Bush, it's possibly just 2 degrees of separation with a middle man that could be cut out. Given that he's (as of writing) a living President and all the living Presidents know each other, I have 4 degrees of separation which is to say, I know a guy who knows a guy who's dad knows George W who knows Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Donald Trump who certainly knows Mitch McConnel and Nancy Pelosi and I have 0 influence over any of them. I have little enough influence over people I know directly, it's a lot of effort to get them to turn up to one of my exhibitions or even respond to an email.

I have little enough influence over myself, when it comes to procrastination, eating right, exercising etc. I often don't follow my own advice.

Except that san travel bans and movement restrictions, it's possible that a virus I have could infect past and present leaders of the free world. Through collective incompetence I could play a role in the death of Jimmy Carter. Some resident of Wuhan whether they were a floor mopper in a Wet Market selling Bat soup or a lab technician that fucked up protocols (we'll probably never know who patient 0 was) hospitalized UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and infected Brazil's President Bolsanaro. 

This is a virus, that can get into clubs I never could. Yet, I live a lifestyle to-date more secure against Covid than the Prime Minister of England, The White House and President Bolsanaro. 

I also feel, now that the curve is flattening in Melbourne's second wave, that the public does not consider the position of the state Premier and the respective position of the press, particularly tabloid newspapers like the Herald Sun. 

The newspaper can and has agitated and riled up the public for quicker easing of restrictions, they've been heavily critical of the Premier's Roadmap out of lockdown. Now I imagine that if the Premier capitulated and released lockdown measures so people in Metropolitan Melbourne could have dinner parties of 5 people, and travel across town and stay at their beach house etc. and cases were stable for a whole week before, hypothetically, spiking again into a new outbreak of triple figure daily cases, and the stage 4 restrictions were put back in place...

I don't see the Herald Sun running a front page apology 'We were wrong, Gov was right.' I don't think they'd take any responsibility for their editorials. I think they wouldn't even blink before they blamed the premier for backflipping on his roadmap and coming out of lockdown too early. I can't imagine them saying 'well after criticizing him for not being conservative enough to post the ADF on the quarantine hotels, then urging him to be optimistic about releasing restrictions, it seems we don't know what we are talking about and have failed to inform the public and serve the public interest.'

That's my interpretation of the data available. The First Wave could be referred to as the 'First Class' wave and the Second Wave the Second Class. It's a story of demographics and vulnerabilities, one that echoes around the world on multiple scales.