On ‘Among Us’ and honesty.

On ‘Among Us’ and honesty.

How is the mobile game Among Us like Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction?

I appreciate the premise of both. They’ll help you learn to get what you want.

But I doubt I’ll play again.

#

When people write to Pages to Prisoners, they request all kinds of books. Fantasy, thrillers, sci-fi, horror, romance. How to draw, how to start your own business, how to build a home. How to speak Spanish, or French, or Italian. The history of ancient Egypt. UFO books about aliens building the pyramids.

Most people write and tell us a few topics that they’re interested in, then we comb through our collection of donated books and put together a package that the person will (hopefully!) be happy to receive.

Are you interested in self-help and philosophy? Here’s a package with Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist! Are you interested in games and comics? Here’s a package with a Dungeons & Dragons manual and some freaky zombie books!

We try to give people what they want. Nobody should have their entire life defined by their single lowest moment.

When people write to us requesting a specific book, usually it’s the dictionary. Seriously, that’s our top request. Despite their miserable circumstances, a lot of people caught up in our criminal justice system are making a sincere effort to improve themselves. To read more, learn more, and be better.

If I had to guess what our second-most requested book is, though, I’d say Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction.

Which seems less helpful than a dictionary if your goal is to become a better person.

#

I attempted to borrow The Art of Seduction from our local library. We only had an audio version, though, so I can’t quote from it directly. I listened to the first third, I believe.

And Greene made a remark that I appreciated: because so many of us feel unfulfilled in life – our work might be dull, our achievements might fall short of our ambitions – we would enjoy being seduced. After all, we spend buckets of money on booze, movies, and games. We like beautiful illusions.

Perhaps a seducer isn’t the person whom they’re pretending to be – so what? Greene suggests that we’d still enjoy an evening in which we take on a role in that person’s play – we can pretend to be loved by someone dazzling, someone who at least postures as rich, friendly, a scintillating conversationalist.

In my classes at the jail, I’ve met a fair few men who seem to have studied The Art of Seduction and other such pickup guides. Although their conversations are incredibly engaging at first, they quickly become repetitive – they have a few timeworn routines that they trot out again and again, the same slew each week. If you met this person at a party, he’d seem fascinating! Meet him at three parties in a row, you’d be hearing all the same skits.

As long as we anticipate this dissipation, maybe it’s okay. When we drink, we know that sobriety is going to catch up with us in the morning – sobriety, and a headache. We let a film transport us even though we know that the house lights are coming on two hours later.

If I were talking to someone who was playacting as a brilliant conversationalist, and we were both having fun, I don’t think I’d mind that their stories were invented. When guys in jail spin tales about their lives, I always take them at their word – even though I know that much of what people say in there is bullshit.

Sometimes we have to bifurcate our minds to get the most from life. Immerse ourselves fully in a role and enjoy it for what it is. Nobody playing Dungeons & Dragons believes that she’s really a level nine elf wizard, but she can still enjoy the thrill of saving the party with her powerful spells.

The major flaw with The Art of Seduction, from my perspective, is that it discusses the people being seduced as objects. The guide uses the language of battle and conquest, as though pleasure is something that the seducer takes from the seduced.

If, instead, the guide simply wrote about how best to entice others into joining you for mutually-pleasurable roleplay – in which pleasure is shared as you both pretend to be, and thereby become, scintillating lovers – well, then I’d salute Greene for doing his part to make the world a better place. Couldn’t we all use more love, pleasure, and excitement in our lives?

There are lots of ways to dance the dance. To play games. I simply prefer the honest ones – in which everyone is privy to, and pleased by, the illusions.

#

My brother recently gathered a group of ten of us to play the mobile game Among Us.

Among Us is a social deduction game, like Werewolf, Mafia, or Secret Hitler. Each player is assigned a hidden role at the beginning of the round – are you townsfolk or the werewolf? Are you a liberal or a fascist?

In Among Us, you’re an interstellar scientist or an alien.

The two teams have opposed goals. The scientists are trying to complete a set of mundane tasks – dumping the garbage, stabilizing the engines – so that they can return home. The aliens are trying to kill the scientists.

The graphics are charmingly reminiscent of early Nintendo games. And the pace of the game is excellent – at times your character wanders a map, trying to do chores, at other times play is interrupted by a meeting in which everyone tries to solve the mystery of who could’ve killed their teammate. Catch someone without an alibi and you can vote to fling them out the airlock, saving your crew from further tragedy.

Unless you were wrong and you accidentally ejected one of your helpful friends. Then the aliens are that much closer to victory.

#

I’m quite earnest.

Yes, I love the shared illusion of games, and I can appreciate that Among Us asks two players from each group of ten to playact as evil aliens. Those players are required to be deceptive, but it’s within the safe confines of a game that everyone in the group has chosen to play. There’s deceit, and there’s total consent.

But also, I’m terrible at this sort of game.

We played for several hours – a dozen, maybe two dozen rounds? I was given the role of the evil alien only once. And I attacked my second victim while standing right out in the open. Taylor walked past, saw me, and promptly called a meeting.

“Oh my God,” she said, “I just walked in and Frank totally killed him right in front of me.”

In retrospect, it’s clear what I should have said next. The scientists’ mundane tasks fill up the entire phone screen – I could’ve claimed to be working on one, that I’d been interrupted by this meeting halfway through it and hadn’t seen what happened, but then accurately described the place where I’d been standing. Yes, this would have seemed suspicious – I’d admit to standing right where the body was found – but the other players might think that Taylor had come into the room, killed someone without me noticing, and then tried to frame me.

We played with a team of two evil aliens, so this would’ve been quite helpful to say – even if the other players voted to eject me from the ship, they’d remain suspicious of Taylor and might eject her later, bolstering the chances of my alien ally.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t recall what the nearby chore was supposed to be. I learned that, if you haven’t played Among Us very often but are given the role of the alien, you should slay your victims near chores that you know well. So that you can convincingly describe what you were doing if someone stumbles across your misdeed.

Instead, I laughed and voted myself off the ship.

#

Among Us was fun, but the game has its flaws.

Each round is ten or twenty minutes, but a few people are eliminated right away. If you were playing, you’d definitely want a book nearby or a TV show to watch, just to have something to do during the times when your character gets eliminated first. Except that the players are still expected to complete their vaguely unpleasant chores – clicking a set of buttons at just the right times, or dragging illustrated leaves across the telephone screen to clean an air filter – even after they’re killed and can no longer participate in the discussions or votes.

I’d definitely prefer if a deceased player’s chores were automatically completed at steady rate.

For about a decade, Jonathan Blow, creator of the fantastic puzzle game Braid, has been an outspoken critic of unethical game design. In a 2007 lecture, Blow described his qualms about World of Warcraft – players are forced to complete mundane, unpleasant tasks in order to progress in the game. To balance this unpleasantness, the game keeps players engaged with tiny pulses of dopamine – even though it’s not particularly fun to slay each tiny goblin, the game rewards you with a jingle of dropped gold or a gambler’s rush of wondering whether this unidentified treasure will be a good one.

By forcing players to sink time into mundane tasks, World of Warcraft makes their lives worse. “The meaning of life in World of Warcraft is you’re some schmo that doesn’t have anything better to do than sit around pressing a button.”

The chores in Among Us need to be sufficiently challenging that they introduce a cognitive burden for most players, but there are ways to do that without making them tedious. Simple logic puzzles would accomplish the design requirements of Among Us and help players get more out of each game.

The more dire problem, from my perspective, are the ways that repeat play with the same group shifts your optimal playstyle.

#

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game in which two players choose either to cooperate or defect. Then they’re sent to jail for various lengths of time depending on both players’ choices.

The Prisoners’ Dilemma is a very different sort of “game” from Among Us – I assume nobody would want to download an app for it. Your team wins! You only go to jail for two years each!

If both players cooperate, the pair will be imprisoned for the least total time. But also, no matter what the other player chooses, you can reduce your own time in jail by defecting.

And so the “game theory optimal” play is to defect. When both players do, they both wind up spending more time in jail than if they’d both cooperated.

In Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett discusses ways in which human evolution – which bestowed upon us emotions, a tendency to blush or bluster while lying, and a willingness to endure personal suffering in order to punish non-cooperators – may have solved the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

When evolution gets around to creating agents that can learn, and reflect, and consider rationally what to do next, it confronts these agents with a new version of the commitment problem: how to commit to something and convince others you have done so.

Wearing a cap that says “I’m a cooperator” is not going to take you far in a world of other rational agents on the lookout for ploys.

According to Robert Frank, over evolutionary time we “learned” how to harness our emotions to keep us from being too rational, and – just as important – earning us a reputation for not being too rational.

It is our unwanted excess of myopic rationality, Frank claims, that makes us so vulnerable to temptations and threats, vulnerable to “offers we can’t refuse.” Part of being a good citizen is making oneself into a being that can be relied upon to be relatively impervious to such offers.

Emotions can solve the Prisoners’ Dilemma – cooperating because you’d feel bad about hurting the other person – and so can repeated play.

When you’re faced with the Prisoners’ Dilemma once, the “rational” choice is to betray your partner. But if you’re playing with the same person many times, or with groups of people who know your reputation, the optimal strategy is to be kind. To cooperate unless you have ample evidence that a particular partner will not.

The Prisoners’ Dilemma is a game where playing more makes you a better person.

By way of contrast, Among Us teaches you to behave worse the more you play.

This is a feature common to all social deception games. If you were playing Secret Hitler once – and only once – and were assigned to play as a liberal politician, your optimal strategy would be to be scrupulously earnest and honest. The players assigned to roleplay as fascists must lie to succeed, but the liberal team doesn’t need to.

However, if you plan to play Secret Hitler several times with the same group of friends, your optimal strategy includes a fair bit of caginess and trickery even when you’re playing the role of a liberal. Otherwise, the contrast between your behaviors would make the game impossible to win during the rounds when you’re assigned to roleplay as a fascist.

Similarly, Among Us rewards deception even when you’re assigned the role of a scientist. Otherwise, you won’t be able to win during the rounds when you’re assigned to play as an evil alien.

Although the optimal strategy for the team of scientists might seem to be extreme forthrightness, repeated play cultivates a basal level of dishonesty.

#

In The Biggest Bluff, Maria Konnikova describes her journey from poker novice to professional – the book jacket lauds her $300,000 in winnings.

She frames this journey as a quest to understand the whims of chance – how can an appreciation for randomness buoy her spirits during the hard times of life?

And the biggest bluff at all?

That skill can ever be enough.

That’s the hope that allows us to move forward in those moment when luck is most stacked against us, the useful delusion that lets us push on rather than give up.

We don’t know, we can’t ever know, if we’ll manage or not. But we must convince ourselves that we can. That, in the end, our skill will be enough to carry the day. Because it has to be.

It’s a beautiful message. We let ourselves believe that we’re in control, because if we lost that belief, we might give up.

And yet. Almost unmentioned in the text of The Biggest Bluff are the mechanics of where money comes from in poker. Poker doesn’t produce wealth – instead, a large number of people pay to enter a game, and a small number of people receive the money at the end.

Because Konnikova was fortunate enough to be instructed by experienced players, and wealthy enough to invest a lot of time and money on learning, she was eventually able to deceive and bully other people well enough that she could take their money.

Poker is consensual. Everyone entering a game know that the other players are attempting to take their money. Some people must play with full understanding that they’ll lose – maybe they think the entry fee is a fair price for the enjoyment of the game. But most people, I’d assume, are hoping to win. And – because poker doesn’t produce anything, instead redistributing wealth from the many to the few – most don’t.

Playing many games of poker would teach you skills that can be used to get ahead in the world. An appreciation for chance. An ability to negotiate. An ability to tamp down or hide your emotional responses to adversity or triumph. An ability to manipulate those around you.

Some of that sounds good, some doesn’t. On the whole, I don’t think I want the traits that poker would help me develop.

Similarly, The Art of Seduction promised to teach valuable skills. I, too, like cuddles! My spouse bought me a cute little “polyamorous” pin to wear on my jacket label. But I wouldn’t want to follow any advice recommending that we deceive potential romantic interests, or treat them as objects.

And I don’t want the traits that Among Us would help me develop, either.

Deception is a valuable skill. More often, we’d get what we want. But at what cost?

#

When I played Among Us, I had fun. I was often laughing during the meetings when we discussed whether we should eject someone from our ship. Sometimes we did, and we felt so sure that we’d eliminated an alien because that person had seemed suspicious the whole game, but then we’d lose and realize that we’d doomed a fellow scientist.

Whoops!

Again, I’d laugh.

But the ability to enjoy Among Us comes from a wellspring of privilege.

My spouse can’t play social deduction games. She grew up with a paranoid schizophrenic mother – in order to stay safe as a child, she learned to lie. For many years, my spouse then lied compulsively. Pervasive lying came close to wrecking her life.

She resolved that she wouldn’t lie anymore. Recognizing that it would be an easy habit for herself to slip back into, she won’t lie even in a game.

Our children know that there’s no Santa Claus. That’s okay – I think that the Santa story is a starter conspiracy theory, and, even if Santa were real, our family would probably be against elf servitude.

Our children know that there’s no Tooth Fairy. My spouse and I dress up fabulously and dance through their bedroom when we replace their teeth with quarters – I wear a glittery skirt, angel wings, and a light-up tiara, all rescued at various times from neighborhood trash.

Another of my close friends joined us to play a single game of Among Us. She hated it. She, too, had a traumatic childhood. For someone who grew up around adults with mercurial swings of violence and rage, it feels awful to be lied to by your friends. Even within the consensual confines of a game.

#

After each game of Among Us, I wanted to play again. Despite the nuisance chores, despite my near-total inability to lie, despite knowing that I might be eliminated from the game within the first minute, I wanted to play again.

And yet, having written this essay, I doubt I ever will.

On conspiracy.

On conspiracy.

We are wearing masks. At school, at work, at the grocery store. I jog with a bandanna tied loosely around my neck, politely lifting it over my face before I pass near other people.

Slowing the spread of a virus from which we have short-duration immunity is dangerous, as I’ve described at length previously, but one consequence of universal mask orders is unambiguously good – the herd immunity threshold to end the pandemic is lower in a world where people always wear masks around strangers.

We all want to get through this while causing as little harm as possible.

Covid-19 is real, and dangerous. Some of the data are complicated, but this much is not: to date, ~200,000 people have died from Covid-19.

Covid-19 is extremely easy to transmit. Because our behaviors so readily affect the health of others right now, we must decide collectively how to respond. My county has decided that we should wear masks. And so I do.

Only those with whom we are closest will see us smile in person. Family. If we’re lucky, a close group of friends.

We share the same air.

During the pandemic, those we love most are our conspirators.

Our conspirators are the select few whom we breathe (spirare) with (com).

On the moon landing, and who benefits if you believe it was faked.

On the moon landing, and who benefits if you believe it was faked.

If you’re worried that you don’t feel enough stress and anxiety, there’s an easy chemical fix for that.  Habitual methamphetamine use will instill intense paranoia. 

In our poetry classes in jail, I’ve talked with a lot of guys who stayed up for days watching UFO shows on TV.  A few were also stockpiling military grade weaponry. One man used strings and pulleys to link his shotgun’s trigger to a doorknob, ensuring that anyone who tried to enter the house would be rudely greeted. 

They’ve dismantled dozens of computers and phones: sometimes out of suspicion, sometimes because there are valuable components. Although they were rarely organized enough to hawk the proceeds of their dissections.

Suffice it to say that, deprived of sleep and dosed with powerful stimulants, their brains became tumultuous places.

Which is why we spend so much time talking about conspiracy theories.

I’ve written several previous essays about conspiracy theories – that the Santa myth teaches people to doubt expertise (children learn that a cabal of adults really was conspiring to delude them); that oil company executives have been conspiring to destroy the world; that, for all the ways Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow probes at the undercurrents of truth beneath government conspiracy, the text blithely incorporates metaphors from a Disney-promulgated nature conspiracy.

But, with the fiftieth anniversary coming up, the men in my class have been talking more about whether the moon landing was faked.

There’s only so much I can say.  After all, I, personally, have never been to the moon. 

One of my colleagues from Stanford recently conducted molecular biology experiments on the International Space Station, but that’s only zero point one percent of the way to the moon … and she and I were never close enough for me to feel absolutely certain that she wouldn’t lie to me.

Visiting the moon does seem much easier than faking it, though.  Our government has tried to keep a lot of secrets, over the years.  Eventually, they were leaked.

But that line of reasoning is never going to sway somebody. The big leak might be coming soon.

Instead, the strategy that’s worked for me is to get people worried about another layer of conspiracy.

“Let’s just say, hypothetically,” I say, “that we did send people to the moon.  Why would somebody want to convince you, now, that we didn’t?”

When NASA’s project was announced, a lot of people were upset.  Civil rights activist Whitney Young said, “It will cost $35 billion to put two men on the moon.  It would take $10 billion to lift every poor person in this country above the official poverty standard this year.  Something is wrong somewhere.”  (I learned about this and the following quote from Jill Lepore’s excellent review of several new books about the moon landing.)

During John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, he argued that we needed to do it anyway.  Despite the challenge, despite the costs.  “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.

We did reach the moon. But, did we use that knowledge to benefit the rights and progress of all people?  Not so much.

A lot of the guys in jail went to crummy schools.  They grew up surrounded by violence and trauma.  They didn’t eat enough as kids. They’ve never had good medical care.  They’ve struggled to gain traction in their dealings with government bureaucracies … we’ve spent years underfunding post offices, schools, the IRS, the DMV, and, surprise, surprise!, find that it’s arduous interacting with these skeletal agencies.

To keep these men complacent, the people in power would rather have them believe that we didn’t visit the moon.  “Eh, our government has never accomplished much, we faked that shit to hoodwink the Russians, no wonder this is a horrible place to live.”

The fact that people in power are maliciously undermining our country’s basic infrastructure would seem way worse if you realized that, 50 years ago, with comically slapdash technologies and computers more rudimentary than we now put into children’s toys, this same government sent people to the moon. 

Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”  And he was in a position to make his words true – he was the government, so all he had to do was be incompetent.  And then people would hate the government even more, and become even more distrustful of anyone who claimed that good governance could improve the world.

Needless to say, 45 has taken strategic incompetence to a whole new stratosphere.  Beyond the stories of corruption that pepper the news, there’s also the fact that many appointments were never made; there are agencies that, as of July 2019, still don’t have anybody running them.  These agencies will perform worse.

If people knew how good our government used to be, they might revolt.  Better they believe the moon landing was a sham, that the faked photographs are as good as anybody ever got.

Our one and only.

On the water-fueled car.

On the water-fueled car.

“I heard there was, like, a car that runs on water … “

“Dude, no, there’ve been, like, six of them.  But oil companies bought all the patents.”

A lot of the people who attend my poetry class in jail believe in freaky conspiracy theories.  Somebody started telling me that the plots of various Berenstain Bears books are different from when he was a child, which is evidence that the universe bifurcated and that he’s now trapped in an alternate timeline from the path he was on before …

old hat(New printings of some Berenstain Bears books really are different.  Take Old Hat New Hat, a charming story about shopping and satisfaction: after the protagonist realizes that he prefers the old, beat-up hat he already owns to any of the newer, fancier models, a harried salesperson reacts with a mix of disgust and disbelieve.  This scene has been excised from the board book version that you could buy today.  Can’t have anything that tarnishes the joy of consumerism!)

I’ve written about conspiracy theories previously, but I think it’s worth re-iterating, in the interest of fairness, that the men in jail are correct when they assume that vast numbers of people are “breathing together” against them.  Politicians, judges, police, corporate CEOs and more have cooperated to build a world in which men like my students are locked away.  Not too long ago, it would have been fairly easy for them to carve out a meaningful existence, but advances in automation, the ease of international shipping, and changes to tax policy have dismantled the opportunities of the past.

Which means that I often find myself seriously debating misinterpretations of Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” theory (described midway through my essay, “Ashes”), or Biblical prophecies, or Jung-like burblings of the collective unconsciousness.

Or, last week, the existence of water cars.

In 2012, government officials from Pakistan announced that a local scientist had invented a process for using water as fuel.  At the time, I was still running a webcomic – one week’s Evil Dave vs. Regular Dave focused on news of the invention.

dave062.jpg

When scientists argue that a water-powered car can’t exist, they typically reference the Second Law of Thermodynamics (also discussed in “Ashes”).  The Second Law asserts that extremely unlikely events occur so rarely that you can safely assume their probability to be zero.

If something is disallowed by the Second Law, there’s nothing actually preventing it from happening.  For an oversimplified example, imagine there are 10 molecules of a gas randomly whizzing about inside a box.  The Second Law says that all 10 will never be traveling in the exact same direction at the same time.  If they were, you’d get energy from nothing.  They might all strike the north-facing wall at the same time, causing the box to move, instead of an equal number hitting the northern and southern facing walls.

But, just like flipping eight coins and seeing them all land heads, sometimes the above scenario will occur.  It violates the Second Law, and it can happen.  Perpetual motion machines can exist.  They are just very, very rare.  (Imagine a fraction where the denominator is a one followed by as many zeros as you could write before you die.  That number will be bigger than the chance of a water-fueled car working for even several seconds.)

When chemists talk about fuel, they think about diagrams that look roughly like this:

graph.PNG

The y axis on this graph is energy, and the x axis is mostly meaningless – here it’s labeled “reaction coordinate,” but you wouldn’t be so far off if you just think of it as time.

For a gasoline powered car, the term “reactants” refers to octane and oxygen.  Combined, these have a higher amount of energy stored in their chemical bonds than an equivalent mass of the “products,” carbon dioxide and water, so you can release energy through combustion.  The released energy moves your car forward.

And there’s a hill in the middle.  This is generally called the “activation barrier” of the reaction.  Basically, the universe thinks it’s a good idea to turn octane and oxygen into CO2 and H2O … but the universe is lazy.  Left to its own devices, it can’t be bothered.  Which is good – because this reaction has a high activation barrier, we rarely explode while refueling at the gas station.

Your car uses a battery to provide the energy needed to start this process, after which the energy of the first reaction can be used to activate the next.  The net result is that you’re soon cruising the highway with nary a care, dribbling water from your tailpipe, pumping carbon into the air.

(Your car also uses a “catalyst” – this component doesn’t change how much energy you’ll extract per molecule of octane, but it lowers the height of the activation barrier, which makes it easier for the car to start.  Maybe you’ve heard the term “cold fusion.”  If we could harness a reaction combining hydrogen molecules to form helium, that would be a great source of power.  Hydrogen fusion is what our sun uses.  This reaction chucks out a lot of energy and has non-toxic byproducts.

But the “cold” part of “cold fusion” refers to the fact that, without a catalyst, this reaction has an extremely steep activation barrier.  It works on the sun because hydrogen molecules are crammed together at high temperature and pressure.  Something like millions of degrees.  I personally get all sweaty and miserable at 80 degrees, and am liable to burn myself when futzing about near an oven at 500 degrees … I’d prefer not to drive a 1,000,000 degree hydrogen-fusion-powered automobile.)

Magnificent_CME_Erupts_on_the_Sun_-_August_31.jpg
Seriously, I would not want this to be happening beneath the hood of the family ride.

With any fuel source, you can guess at its workings by comparing the energy of its inputs and outputs.  Octane and oxygen have high chemical energies, carbon dioxide and water have lower energies, so that’s why your car goes forward.  Our planet, too, can be viewed as a simple machine.  High frequency (blue-ish) light streams toward us from the sun, then something happens here that increases the order of molecules on Earth, after which we release a bunch of low-frequency (red-ish) light.

(We release low-frequency “infrared” light as body heat – night vision goggles work by detecting this.)

Our planet is an order-creating machine fueled by changing the color of photons from the sun.

A water-fueled car is impractical because other molecules that contain hydrogen and oxygen have higher chemical energy than an equivalent mass of water.  There’s no energy available for you to siphon away into movement.

If you were worried that major oil companies are conspiring against you by hiding the existence of water-fueled cars, you can breathe a sigh of relief.  But don’t let yourself get too complacent, because these companies really are conspiring against you.  They’re trying to starve your children.

On the dangers of reading.

On the dangers of reading.

During most of human evolution, children died regularly.  In some cultures, the risk was so high that children weren’t named until they’d survived their second birthday.

But the advent of modern medicine – vaccines, antibiotics, sterile technique – has dramatically reduced childhood mortality.  Wealthy parents in the U.S. expect their children to survive.  And yet, this expectation can increase anxiety.  Families are smaller; children are less replaceable.  Parents pour so much of themselves into children’s early years that we’d be devastated if something went wrong.

And so modern parents hover.  Rather than letting children roam free, comforted by the thought that out of six kids, surely one will be fine, wealthy parents in the U.S. strive to control the development of their one or two offspring.

In the book On Immunity, Eula Biss describes how difficult it can be to relinquish that control.

CaptureI already practiced some intuitive toxicology before my pregnancy, but I became thoroughly immersed in it after my son was born.  As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory.  Caught up in the romance of the untainted body, I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time.  “Unclean!  Unclean!” my mind screamed.

Because I didn’t breastfeed my child, I glossed over this passage when I first read it.  Even early on, I sometimes used water to dilute the milk that my partner pumped at work – when my kid was thirsty, I needed to offer something.

But I found myself thinking about this passage recently, when our eldest learned to read.  Our family loves books – we’ve probably read to our children for an hour or more each day, and they spend more time flipping through the pages on their own.

When I read to my kids, I reflexively alter texts.  In our version of James Marshall’s Fox on the Job, Fox had a bicycle accident while showing off for “his friends,” not “the girls.”  In Fox is Famous, a character bemoans the challenges of baton twirling by saying “I’m just not good at this yet,” that (unprinted) final word used to convey a growth mindset.

Go_dog_go_hat.jpgAnd our kids would probably be puzzled by Raquel D’Apice’s essay about Go Dog Go because the voices I’ve used while reading led them to assume that the pink poodle was a fashionable male asking a female friend for advice (“Well, maybe he doesn’t have a mirror at home,” I explained when N was curious, “Why does he keep asking that?”).

I could control the stereotypes that my children were fed.

But books are dangerous!  At the beginning of summer, our eldest learned how to read.  A week later, I hid all the Calvin and Hobbes.  She loves these!  So do I.  But four is too young to really understand concepts like “irony” or “anti-hero” – her behavior promptly tanked in mimicry of Calvin.

About a week after that, I hid the Peanuts.  And Garfield (“He shouldn’t kick Odie off the table, right?  Just like you shouldn’t have hit your sibling”).

She loves comics, but the only books we kept out were good, wholesome Mutts by vegan artist Patrick McDonnell.

021217-600x202

And I hid others, like James Howe’s Howliday Inn (too scary – she could hardly sleep that night).  We look over the front-page headlines of our local newspaper before deciding whether it can be left on the table.

Like Viet Thanh Nguyen, I’ve felt a little sad to see my child venture off into the intellectual world of books without me.  I still worry what she’s ready for.

For much of human history, the paternal impulse to restrict access to books was blatantly evil.  The medieval Christian church was reticent to use local languages because then poor people could interpret religious precepts for themselves.  And the written word was considered exceptionally dangerous in the U.S.  It was illegal to teach literacy to the people who were being tortured on sweltering plantations.

I’d like to think that my motivation for wanting to sculpt my child’s library is more benign.  More akin, perhaps, to the scientists dismayed when the untrained general public dabble with misleadingly curated excerpts from research journals.

On Immunity documents the efforts that Eula Biss made to learn about vaccination.  She writes that:

vaccinationUnvaccinated children, a 2004 analysis of CDC data reveals, are more likely to be white, to have an older married mother with a college education, and to live in a household with an income of $75,000 or more – like my child.

The mothers I knew began debating whether or not to vaccinate our children against the novel influenza virus long before any vaccine became available to us.

Another mother said that her child had screamed frighteningly all night following her first vaccination and she would not risk another vaccination of any kind.

Although many of these women have received extensive schooling in the humanities, and clearly care deeply for their offspring, they are putting lives at risk, including those of their own children.

It’s possible to remain ignorant even after extensive schooling.

Cattle_herdWhen my son was six months old, at the peak of the H1N1 flu pandemic, another mother told me that she did not believe in herd immunity.  It was only a theory, she said, and one that applied mainly to cows.  That herd immunity was subject to belief had not yet occurred to me, though there is clearly something of the occult in the idea of an invisible cloak of protection cast over the entire population.

In Biss’s social circle, people doubted demonstrable principles.  Herd immunity, like the theory of evolution, is not only correct, it is the mathematical implication of uncontroversial assumptions.  In the case of herd immunity, that viral diseases are communicable and that severe symptoms tend to make a virus more contagious.  In the case of evolution, that the DNA replication process producing gametes has a non-zero error rate, that heritable DNA gives rise to traits, and that individuals with different traits might have different numbers of offspring (perhaps because one critter was eaten as a child, whereas the other survived).

But the people making ignorant decisions in Biss’s social circle certainly don’t think of themselves as ignorant.  After all, they’re trying their best to stay informed.  They aren’t scientists, but they read.  They look up information, ingest it as best they can, and try to make good decisions.

When people read (and spin) articles in scientific journals without putting forth the effort to understand what the data really mean, they create an incentive for scientists to hide their findings.  Sometimes there are caveats to the truth.  For instance, each year’s flu vaccine is often much less effective than other vaccinations.  Some years, the flu vaccine is dramatically ineffective.

I read that report – then went and got my vaccination.

If people are using papers like this as propaganda, though – trying, for whatever reason, to convince people not to get vaccinated (you want an evil conspiracy theory?  Vaccines are cheap, and they prevent deadly, expensive illnesses.  Are wealthy imbeciles recommending you forgo vaccination simply so that you’ll need to pay for more medical care?) – it stifles scientific discourse.

Every scientist knows that vaccines are helpful.  They write papers about the rare failures in order to make vaccines even more helpful.  But nobody wants to provide fodder for the ignoramuses to distort.

Roald Dahl wrote an open letter urging parents to have their children vaccinated.  He describes his own family’s tragedy – before a vaccine was developed, his seven-year-old daughter died of measles.  He thought she was getting better; he was wrong.

Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious.  In twelve hours, she was dead.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach.  That was when she was still alive.  The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles.  You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books.  And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

image-20160802-17177-6ogm1s

 

On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

Our daughter wants to visit dungeon-master Santa.

This isn’t as scary as it sounds – the local mall Santa happens to be a developer for Dungeons & Dragons.  Unfortunately, our daughter has a bit of trouble with impulse control.  I’ve heard that this is normal for three year olds.

santa-2990434_640“What would you say to other kids about Santa?” we asked her.

“I’d tell them that Santa isn’t real.”

“But, remember, only their parents are supposed to tell them that.”

“Why?”

“Well, you should know that we will always tell you the truth.  If we’re telling you a story, we’ll let you know that it’s a story.  But some other families are different.  They want their kids to believe the dungeon master lives on the North Pole with an army of elves.”

Why?”

“I … I dunno, dude.  But don’t tell the other kids, okay?”

I’ve written previously about the harm in conspiring against children – belief in one conspiracy theory makes people more likely to believe in another.  People who believe that the government is covering up evidence of UFOs are also more likely to believe that vaccines cause autism, fluoride in the water enables mind control, and the Earth is flat.

And, sadly, we start our citizens early.  The Santa story is a vast conspiracy, a large number of authority figures (grown-ups) collaborating to keep the child in a state of ignorance.  A local philosophy professor told me that he felt the story was valuable as a measure of intellectual development – at first the child believes, but then begins to notice flaws in the story.

“Uh, if it takes two minutes to deliver presents, it would take a thousand years to visit everyone in the United States, or two million Santas on Christmas Eve – but not every house has a chimney!”

8236362941_3fa1316511_b

I think it would be cynical to lie to children as a developmental metric.  This measurement changes the child (which is not Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, f.y.i.).  The experience of uncovering one conspiracy will train children to search for conspiracies elsewhere.  Perhaps a child is supposed to realize that there’s no Santa at seven years old, that there are no gods at eleven, that the moon landing was faked at thirteen, that JFK is smoking blunts in the Illuminati’s underground lair at seventeen.

After all, the Santa story isn’t the final time we conspire against children.  In my school’s health classes, all sexuality outside of marriage was described as fundamentally bad.  Even if we somehow dodged pregnancy and disease, disrobed physical affection would break our hearts and leave us feeling guilty and ashamed.  Recreational drug use was described in similarly bleak terms (by a teacher who drank coffee every morning).

Students grow up, get laid, drink beer, smoke pot.  Grown-ups were hypocritically hiding the truth.  Sex is fun.  Drugs are fun.

What else were they hiding?

(Have you seen all those children’s books with pictures of happy animals on the farm?)

A lot of the guys in jail believe in conspiracy theories.  Despite a plenitude of dudes with Aryan tattoos, I’ve never heard anybody on a full-tilt ZOG rant, but I’ve been told about Nostradamus, Biblical prophecy, the CIA (to be fair, I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about MK Ultra, too).

To an extent, I understand why.  The people in jail are being conspired against by judges, informants, and the police.  With lives in thrall to the overt conspiracy of our criminal justice system, covert conspiracy seems probable, too.

And so, in preparation for this essay, I took a few minutes at the beginning of class to say, “There’s an administrator at the local school who thinks the Earth is flat.  Says so to kids.  You guys hear anybody talking about that?”

flatearth“Oh, yeah, there was this dude in A block!  He was talking about it like all the time!”

“Now he’s in seg.”

“It’s like, has he never seen a globe?”

And the guys wondered what that administrator was doing inside a school.

“Cause kids go there to learn, right?”

Kids do need to learn critical thinking.  They should question whether the things they’re taught make sense.  I’ve heard plenty of teachers make erroneous claims, and not just in Indiana’s public schools – some professors at Northwestern and Stanford didn’t know what they were talking about either.  Even so, I think it’s unhelpful to train children by having them uncover the Santa story.  That experience is a step along the way to thinking your sensory experience has primacy over abstract data.

After all, the planet feels flat enough.  It looks flat from most human vantages.  And it would be cheaper to deceive people than to send spacecraft to the moon (a former colleague recently went to the International Space Station for some incredibly expensive molecular biology experiments.  This was a huge undertaking – and she was only 0.1% of the way to the moon).

If you take a kid for his MMR vaccine, and shortly after vaccination he seems to regress into autism, that narrative – which you watched with your own eyes! – is more compelling than a bunch of medical statistics proving there’s no connection.  If you comb the Bible and find lines mirroring current events, that narrative also must seem more compelling than the thought that history is chaotic.  Physicists from Einstein till the present day have been dismayed that quantum mechanics feels so unintuitive.

It’s tricky to find a balance between our own senses and expert opinion.  It’s even harder in a world where numerous authority figures and media outlets have been caught spreading lies.

And so, while I try not to judge others’ parenting decisions, please, take a few minutes to think about the holiday stories you tell.  If you’d like to live in a country where the citizenry can agree on basic facts, lying to your kids might be not be the way to get there.

On idle time, coincidence, and Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar.’

On idle time, coincidence, and Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar.’

One night last September, I returned home after teaching in jail and realized that I’d lost my keys.  I’d promised our daughter that I would take her swimming at the YMCA that evening, but K drove by the jail first so that I could dash in, search the waiting room for my keys, and ask the guards to check the lockers (I’m allowed to bring only paper and pencils inside, so anything else I’m carrying has to be crammed into a small metal basket near booking) and the classroom upstairs.

No luck.

Because there’s such a short turnaround between the end of K’s school day and the time my own classes are scheduled to begin at jail, I strap the kids into their car seats each afternoon and drive to the high school, where I slide to the passenger side and K drives me to jail.  I hurry in, often a few minutes late, teach a class, then walk the three miles back to our house.

Which meant there was one more promising place I could check for my keys.  The jail is at the bottom of a hill – the inmates whose work we just published were living in a windowless underground space since the building extends into that hill – but K lets me out of the car at the top of the hill, a block and a half away, before turning toward home on a one-way street.

On that September night I told K, “Can you loop around and pick me up?  I wanna jog up the hill to look one last place.”

Indeed, my keys were there, lying in the grass alongside the curb.  They’d lain unmolested from 4:08 till 7:30, perhaps because they were attached to a camouflage-patterned lanyard.  It was fourteen years old, that lanyard, one of the only two physical objects given to me by the woman I dated through most of our sophomore year of college (the other being a copy of Frankenstein riddled with her previous semester’s marginalia).

I felt triumphant, standing in that patch of grass.  I hoisted my keys toward the sky.  Finding things that were lost outside always seems magical – so much could have happened during the three hours my keys lay there.

I know, of course, that magic isn’t real.  Neither is luck.  But knowing is different from believing.

I continued feeling lucky for almost ten minutes.  That’s when I started to think that K was taking an awfully long time to circle the block and pick me up.  I’d expected to wait a while because this was the first night of Lotus Festival, an international music festival that Bloomington hosts every year, for which many streets are closed downtown and the remaining few stall with crawling traffic.

Standing beside the street, waiting in the waning light, my mind began to wander.  I had nothing to do … nothing in particular to think about … which is dangerous.  Suddenly every coincidence seemed a portent.  Going through my head was the thought: what if luck is finite?  What if I used my up on the keys?  What if I found my keys but lost my family?

I know now that this sounds ridiculous, but at the time I was standing alone in the waning light, rhythmically blinded by the headlights of passing cars – then the speculation felt reasonable.

1024px-Ambulance_Toronto_March_2010Suddenly, after twelve minutes of waiting, I heard an approaching siren.  A fire engine and an ambulance turned toward me, passed, and strobed off in the same direction my wife had driven.  Music festivals are full of drunks … our town is full of drugs … what if they were in a car crash?

I stood, feeling crushed, for a moment more … then started sprinting, chasing the flashing lights.  I followed for half a mile before I lost track of the way they’d gone.

Then, of course, I worried whether my family had driven by the spot where I said I’d be during those minutes I spent chasing the ambulance.  I dashed back.  I waited again.  I grew worried again.  Back and forth I skittered around town, compelled by the vagaries of my unmoored imagination.

By nine o’clock I wound up in a grocery store.  Wild-eyed, I asked if there were pay phones anywhere – no, not anywhere anymore – then asked at the customer service desk if I could make a local call and tried K’s number.

“We thought you were meeting us at the library.  We waited for fifteen minutes but then we had to go home … the kids need to go to bed.”

An idle mind can be a terrifying thing.

#

Dollarnote_siegel_hqIn jail, conspiracy theories run rampant.  Everyone’s mind is idle there.  People inside have nothing to do but sit and think and try to make sense of what is happening.  The lights are off for only four hours each night, which exacerbates the problem.  So I’ve heard a lot about assassinations, and faked assassinations, and the secretive groups that plan them.  The conspirators are presumed to be far more competent than I’ve found most government employees to be.  I once nodded sagely for twenty minutes straight while a former construction foreman explained the significance of the prophetic phrase “hewn stone.”

We built a kingdom of brick, but the bricks have fallen.  After the twin towers fell, we had to rebuild.  We’re building a wall.  This time it’ll be hewn stone.

Certain numbers take on inordinate significance.  The people inside search for whatever patterns arose during their own lives.  They draw elaborate historical charts to determine whether the year of jubilee should be the forty-ninth or the fiftieth.

Apparently Yahweh told his people to celebrate jubilee after every seven cycles of seven years, during which festival all slaves shall be freed, all debts forgiven, all prisoners pardoned.  If the people choose not to celebrate jubilee, they will be punished by another curse.  Jubilee has never been celebrated.

The former foreman argued that jubilee should have occurred during 2016, and that the 45th is our curse.  Again I nodded sagely.  What does one say?  People inside wait, and wait, and wait.  Dreadful are the ruts that idle time allows a mind to dig.

Although … in the men’s defense … people are conspiring against them.  Judges and PDs and prosecutors often seem to act in concert, pressuring a dude together to just take the plea, keep it out of court, wrap it up nice and neat with twelve years suspend four for a level three … which gives the men more fodder for their numerology.

#

In jail, the mind’s idleness is enforced.  We punish people for poverty: they can do nothing but sit and wait.  When lucky they might be allowed to visit the jail library, but the schizophrenic guy in seg constantly kicking his steel cell door makes it difficult to read.  And the books on hand are those that other men in jail have left behind, about Knights Templar, UFO, ESP, prophecies.

The men sit and wait … sit and think … sit and believe …

Great wealth can accomplish the same.

jacobsenIn Phenomena, Annie Jacobsen discusses the history of research into paranormal activity.  The design flaws in most of the experiments are glaringly obvious.  Some, like the recent efforts to demonstrate precognition, torture data with unnecessary statistical manipulation.  Others simply presume the effects under study to be real, eliminating necessary controls.  Sometimes this was justified by claiming that the presence of nonbelievers would negatively effect psychic ability.  Sometimes psychics would be put into unusual situations, like a Faraday Cage or outer space, to determine which environs best bolster their (nonexistent) powers.

But researchers received steady funding, allowing their ill-conceived experiments to continue.  In some cases the money came from the U.S. government:

One of the CIA’s early programs sought to develop a truth serum, an age-old quest that touched upon ideas of magic potions and sorcerer’s spells.  In consort with U.S. Army scientists at the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Maryland, this classified program was first called Bluebird, then Artichoke, and finally MKULTRA.  For these and other programs like them the CIA hired magicians, hypnotists, and even Sybil Leek, Britain’s famous white witch.

At other times, funding came from the idle rich.  The wealthy of southern California have long squandered money on healing crystals, orgone chambers, and the advice of smooth-talking gurus; they also fueled paranormal research.

Among those in attendance who were enchanted by Puharich’s Theory [that brains radiate energy, allowing for telepathy, telekinesis, and more] were two wealthy benefactors, Joyce Borden Balokovic and Zlatko Balokovic.  Joyce was a primary shareholder of the Borden dairy fortune; Zlatko was a world-renowned Yugoslavian-born virtuoso violinist who owned one of the world’s largest collections of Guarnerius and Stradivarius instruments.

[Joyce] suggested Puharich create a research laboratory in Maine dedicated to the study of the Puharich Theory.  She and Zlatko would be happy to donate, she said, and so would many of their friends.  To demonstrate, Joyce introduced Puharich to a friend she was certain would also want to become a benefactor, Alice Astor Bouverie.

Alice Astor Bouverie was an heiress, a philanthropist, and the only daughter of John Jacob Astor IV, of the Astor dynasty.  Alice was just ten years old when her father, one of the richest men in the world, died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  Astor left his daughter $5 million, roughly $120 million in 2017.  Like Joyce Borden, Alice was interested in ESP, and in mental telepathy in particular, a notion she learned about from her father.

A third female patron was introduced to the growing circle: Marcella Miller du Pont, of the chemical and weapons production conglomerate.  Like Joyce Borden and Alice Astor, Marcella du Pont was passionate about ESP and willing to finance Puharich’s research efforts in this area.

While waiting for the next dinner party, or the next trans-Atlantic flight, why not sit and muse over the possibility of bending spoons with thought?

#

What does the germination of supernatural belief look like?

Vivek Shanbhag provides a beautiful illustration in his novel Ghachar Ghochar, translated by Srinath Perur.  An industrious uncle launches the narrator’s family into the upper echelons of wealth; with nothing to strive for, the rest of the family slips into decadent sloth.

shanbhagIt’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us.  When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.  Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.

The narrator’s sister marries.  Insufficiently pampered, she returns home.  The uncle sends a set of bodyguards to intimidate the former husband and reclaim her dowry.

The narrator marries, too.  An eligible woman is found, a wedding is arranged, and, during the honeymoon, he feels that happiness is within reach.  But for some reason his new wife expects him to do something with his time:

After speaking about her family’s routine through most of breakfast, she went quiet as we returned to the room.  Perhaps she was thinking of how her day would change after we returned home, how it would have to reshape itself to accommodate my workday.  Then, as I unlocked the door, she asked me how much leave I had taken from work.

We entered the room.  I closed the door and encircled her waist with my arm.

I’d take permanent leave to be with you,” I said, trying to brush the question off.

No, I’m serious.  I really want to know.  Tell me how much leave you have,” she said.

I just told you,” I said.  “It’s the truth.  I’m on endless leave now that you’re here.”

She asked again, but I managed to make light of the matter and leave it at that.

I don’t know all that [my advocate] had said while the marriage talks were on, but I believe she was told I was the director of Sona Masala, [the family’s spice packaging company].  Which was, of course, true.  The fact that I didn’t have anything to do with the running of the business is another matter altogether.

Soon he finds his wife’s presence intolerable.  She is too honest.  She has too much integrity.  She treats the mobster uncle with insufficient deference.  She remarks on the petty misbehavior of everyone in the family.  The narrator’s only refuge is a nearby coffee house, where he convinces himself that a waiter’s trite clichés contain deep insight.

When the narrator’s new wife takes a week-long trip, the family celebrates her absence by discussing local gossip … of a particularly morbid type:

The whole town knows Manjunath killed his wife.”

You’ve got to hand it to Manjunath, though.  He’s managed to get away with it without any consequences …”

There’d been a report in the newspaper about a woman who had died two years ago of burns resulting from a gas leak in the kitchen.  It had been proven that her husband’s family had planned the accident.

But in court they claimed it was all an accident and that the police forced a confession out of them.  They were all released …”

These days murder has become commonplace,” [my uncle] said.  “People go ahead and kill someone, but then they get caught.  Remember that techie who recently killed his wife  He was caught because of his overplanning.”  He laughed.

What are you people saying?” [my father] asked.  He looked upset.  “You’re talking as if it’s all right to kill someone when it suits us.”

[My uncle] sighed.  “Coffee King is living in another age,” he said.  These things are not as big a deal today.  I haven’t brought it up before – but do you know how much I pay as protection money on behalf of Sona Masala?  Everyone else does it, too.  You never know when you might need these people.  It’s practically a collective responsibility of businessmen now to ensure they are looked after …”

Now it’s Tuesday.  Anita hasn’t called since she left.  Going by the ticket I booked for her, she should have been back yesterday afternoon.  I haven’t returned home since I left yesterday morning.  Haven’t been able to summon the courage.

Instead of returning home, he visits his beloved coffee shop:

As Vincent placed my coffee on the table, I said to him distractedly that I hoped his family was well.  He nodded, and with a faint smile said, “Blood is thicker than water, isn’t it, sir?”

I began to shiver at the mention of blood.  Whatever the meaning of the saying, why should he bring up blood at a time like this?  He was at least kind enough to pretend not to notice my discomfort.  He went away without speaking another word.

#

If we assume in advance that each word carries deep meaning – that each happening is a portent – we can always contort our interpretations to make the world’s coincidences fit a prophecy.

I’m sitting here, waiting anxiously.  For what, I don’t know.  The phone rings.  I grab it and look at the screen.  An unknown number.

I answer: “Hello?”

A voice at the other end: “Hello, Gopi, is that you?”

No, it’s not.

Wrong number,” I say, not very politely, and hang up.  My mind is in a whirl.  Why today of all days must I receive these useless calls?  First the insurance agent, now this.  Could it be a sign?

Maybe Anita hasn’t returned from Hyderabad.  Or maybe she’s back and hasn’t called because she’s still mad at me.  Could she have had an accident on her way from the train station?  What if a lorry slammed into her as she got out of the auto-rickshaw outside our house?  Or could something have happened to her after she came home?  What if she’s killed herself?  Everything she might need is there.  A roll of rope, electric current, sleeping pills.  A tall building not too far away.  Two women to goad her – what agent of death is as discreet as words?

Enough of this madness!  Let me go home now.  I reach for the glass of water in front of me.  It shatters in my hand.  Vincent comes running, folds up the tablecloth, making sure none of the water falls on me.  He seats me at the next table and brings another coffee without my having to ask.

I sit there trying to compose myself, sipping the coffee with some determination.

As he’s passing by on his way to another table, Vincent says, “Sir, you may want to wash your hand.  There’s blood on it.”

I freeze.  What is happening?  What have I become entangled in?  There must be some way out of all this.  The words rush into my head of their own accord: ghachar ghochar.

Ghachar ghochar.”  A nonsense phrase invented by his wife’s family, meaning entangled, chaotic, irremediably ruined.  Idle time let his mind roam free; with this freedom, he could imagine only doom.

Although perhaps the narrator is right to worry.  Looming over him, a otherworldly deity – an author – pulls the strings.  Within a novel, no coincidence is innocent.

On Lisa Randall’s ‘Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.’

On Lisa Randall’s ‘Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.’

When you aim a telescope at the night sky, you can see a lot of stars.  You have to look harder than if Edison hadn’t been such a persistent tinkerer, but they’re all still out there.

From the colors of light emitted by each star, you can estimate its size.  And there are big whorls of gas, too.  These clouds also interact with light in a predictable way.  By looking up at the sky through a telescope, you can make a guess as to the total amount of stuff is out there.

But your guess would be wrong.

Milky WayThere’s another way you could guess: our solar system is spinning around the center of the Milky Way galaxy, held within its orbit by gravity.  Since we know how fast we’re moving, we know how much gravity there must be.  If there were more, we’d spiral inward to our doom, if there were less, we’d careen into space.

We’re held in place by more gravity than you’d expect if the only matter in our galaxy were stuff you could see.  Unseen stuff must be tugging us, too!  “Dark matter” refers to whatever is creating all the excess gravity we feel that can’t be accounted for by what we see.

“Dark matter” was discovered using logic very similar to Gabriel Zucman’s in The Hidden Wealth of Nations.  Dark matter is invisible when we look through a telescope, but we can identify where it must be when we look at clusters of stars that could only have their current shape if held together by a lot of extra gravity.  Similarly, money in illegal tax havens is invisible when we look at each nation’s tax records, but we can identify when it must exist when we look at all nations collectively and see strange absences of money.  In Zucman’s words (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan):

GabrielZucman2015238x363.jpgThe following example shows it in a simple way: let’s imagine a British person who holds in her Swiss bank account a portfolio of American securities — for example, stock in Google.  What information is recorded in each country’s balance sheet?  In the United States, a liability: American statisticians see that foreigners hold US equities.  In Switzerland, nothing at all, and for a reason: the Swiss statisticians see some Google stock deposited in a Swiss bank, but they see that the stock belongs to a UK resident — and so they are neither assets nor liabilities for Switzerland.  In the United Kingdom, nothing is registered, either, but wrongly this time: the Office for National Statistics should record an asset for the United Kingdom, but it can’t, because it has no way of knowing that the British person has Google stock in her Geneva account.

As we can see, an anomaly arises — more liabilities than assets will tend to be recorded on a global level.  And, in fact, for as far back as statistics go, there is a “hole”: if we look at the world balance sheet, more financial securities are recorded as liabilities than as assets, as if planet Earth were in part held by Mars.  It is this imbalance that serves as the point of departure for my estimate of the amount of wealth held in tax havens globally.

Of course, in the case of tax havens, we know what the invisible stuff is.  Money is money.  I mean, sure, it’s more likely to be stocks or stakes in hedge funds or the like than big bundles of dollar bills, but you get the idea.

Whereas, dark matter?  No one knows for certain what it is.

In Lisa Randall’s Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, she describes several of the prevailing theories for what this unseen stuff might be.

Before I say more, I should include a disclaimer: I’ve studied a lot of physics, but only for objects atom-sized or larger, planet-sized or smaller.  Which might sound like a wide range, but it isn’t wide enough.  Randall’s book builds toward a hypothesis involving extremely small particles agglomerated into clouds more massive than stars.

RandallRandall says that her primary motivation in writing the book was not to advocate for a link between the arrangement of dark matter in our galaxy and the asteroid collision that killed the dinosaurs.  She described her aims in a letter to the New York Review of Books, but it’s a strange letter — it puzzles me that she’d be so ardent about a distinction between the words “invisible” and “transparent” when several proposals for dark matter described in her book would indeed be astronomically invisible but not transparent, and when she herself uses the words interchangeably in chapter titles and the text through the latter half of her book.

But that dino tie-in was why I wanted to read the book.  I assume it’s why you’re reading this review.

So I think it’s worth describing why I thought it was so bizarre that she wrote a book about this hypothesis, even though I did learn some interesting facts from the first half.

Large_Underground_Xenon_detector_inside_watertankOne of the favored explanations for the nature of dark matter is that it’s made of “weakly-interacting massive particles,” or “WIMPs.”  Giant detectors are being built to test this.  Big vats of xenon buried deep underground.  WIMPs are postulated to interact through a short-range nuclear force, but not through electromagnetism.

It doesn’t feel good to type a sentence like the one above and know that it’s both essential to an explanation and likely to sound like gobbledygook.

So, electromagnetism?  This underlies the physics of our world.  “Electromagnetism” means, roughly, interacting with electricity and light.  It’s why we tend not to fall through floors or walk through walls.  Electrons repel each other, similar to the way two negative-ended magnets will squirm when you try to push them close to one another.  All the atoms of your body, and all the atoms of the floor, are slathered in electrons.  And so with every step you take, the electrons in the floor push against the electrons in your feet, keeping you afloat in a sea of mostly empty space.

But if dark matter doesn’t interact with electromagnetic forces, it could pass right through you.

Which might sound goofy or ghostly, but this much seemed reasonable to me.  After all, seemingly solid matter has been shown to be permeable repeatedly in the past.  I don’t just mean the loppered sea, the unnavigably thick waste thought to surround the known world during the Middle Ages.  Do you know about the gold foil experiment?

Ernest_Rutherford_1905The gold foil experiment was designed to test: are solids solid?  Particles were blasted at a sheet of gold foil.  If the sheet was solid, the particles should bounce off or get stuck.  Maybe rip holes in the foil.  But if the foil is mostly empty space, most particles should zip right through.

Helium nuclei were launched at the foil.  Most passed right through.  Only a rare few struck something solid and ricocheted.  The sheet of metal — which would seem solid if you touched it with your finger, because electron density in your skin gets pushed away by electrons in the metal foil — was permeable to “naked” nuclei, tiny balls of protons & neutrons not slathered in electron density.

Randall explains this with the analogy of parallel social networks.  Alternatively, you could think about the behavior of animals.  If a foreign squirrel comes into my yard, the squirrel who lives in our big tree will chase it away.  But rabbits can hop through without being harassed by that squirrel.

Because rabbits and squirrels don’t compete for food or mates, they can pass right through each others’ territories.

squirrel
Image by Nicole Nicky on Flickr.

(I hadn’t realized until recently that rabbits are also very territorial.  It took a lot of yelling before I was able to convince our pet rabbit Kichirou, who fancies himself something of a warrior, that he didn’t need to urinate on the bed & belongings of a dear friend when she came to visit.  He thought she was usurping our home.  She wasn’t!  She just wanted to nap, eat ice cream, & work on her art!  Silly rabbit.)

A squirrel, running toward another squirrel’s territory, might appear to ricochet.  The resident squirrel will launch into action, intercept & chase away the intruder.  But a rabbit can travel in a straight-ish leaf-nibbling line.

In the gold foil experiment, alpha particles (another name for those naked helium nuclei) pass right through electrons’ territory.  But they ricochet off other nuclei’s territory.  Dark matter could pass even closer.  It might share zero interactions with ordinary matter other than gravity, in which case it could travel anywhere unmolested, or it might have only the “weak nuclear force” in common with ordinary matter, in which case it would still have to pass very close to another nucleus before it bounced or swerved.

Electromagnetic forces kick in earlier than the weak nuclear force.  You can compare this to human senses.  If you’re out for a stroll at the same time I’m jogging with our pitbull Uncle Max, you can see us from farther away than you can smell us.  Even though Uncle Max still smells very pungently bad from the several times he’s been skunked this year.  Dude needs to learn that skunks don’t want to play.

IMG_5319.JPG
Yes, I’m smiling, but let’s be clear: he smells bad.

I think that’s enough background to give you a sense of Randall’s hypothesis, which begins with the following:

  • Maybe our planet has been periodically bombarded with asteroids — as in, most of the time few asteroids hit, and every so often there are a bunch of collisions.
  • Maybe the time interval between these collisions is approximately 30 million years long.
  • Maybe our solar system wobbles up and down across the central plane of the Milky Way as we orbit.
  • Maybe the time interval for these wobbles is the same 30 million years.
  • Maybe traversing the central plane of the Milky Way is what increases the chance of stray asteroids hitting us (if the likelihood does periodically increase).
  • Maybe not all dark matter is made of the same stuff.
  • Maybe some of the dark matter (not that we know what any of it is), in addition to interacting through gravity, has a self-attractive force that it uses to cluster together.
  • Maybe dark matter, if the right fraction of it had this property, would form a big disc across the central plane of our galaxy.
  • Maybe the up & down wobble of our solar system (if it occurs) causes it to cross that disc (if it exists) every 30 million years or so, which is why asteroid bombardment increases at those times (if it does).

This long string of conjectures is the main reason I thought a book-length treatment of this hypothesis was premature.  To my mind, it is a disservice to the general public to cloak hypothetical storytelling in the trappings of academic science.  I think this passage Randall wrote about Occam’s Razor really demonstrates why I have qualms:

Both casual observers of science and scientists themselves frequently employ Occam’s Razor for guidance when evaluating scientific proposals.  This oft-cited principle says that the simplest theory that explains a phenomenon is most likely to be the best one.

Yet two factors undermine the authority of Occam’s Razor, or at least suggest caution when using it as a crutch. … Theories that conform to the dictates of Occam’s Razor sometimes similarly address one outstanding problem while creating issues elsewhere — usually in some other aspect of the theory that embraces it.

My second concern about Occam’s Razor is just a matter of fact.  The world is more complicated than any of us would have been likely to conceive.  Some particles and properties don’t seem necessary to any physical processes that matter — at least according to what we’ve deduced so far.

I disagree with this sentiment… especially in a book targeted toward a popular audience.  It’s true that the world is sometimes very complex.  But we need Occam’s Razor because elaborate explanations can always fit data better than simple explanations.  This is why conspiracy theorists are able to account for every single detail — look at that man shaking an umbrella!  It’s a signal! — whereas a simpler explanation — it was a lone crazy with a gun — leaves much unaccounted for.

In science, the problem is called “overfitting data.”  If you have ten dots on a chart, you might be able to draw a straight line that passes kinda close to all of them… but a squiggly line could be drawn right through every single point!

Occam’s Razor suggests: stick with the line.  Unless there’s a compelling reason to believe a more complicated explanation is correct, you shouldn’t try to account for every single detail.

Similarly, if Randall thought there was compelling astronomical data that showed our solar system wobbling up and down at the same times that asteroid strikes increase in frequency, she ought to propose that these phenomena are linked.  But, given that these data are already nebulous, why complicate the proposal by saying that a dark matter disc underlies the link?  Why say that a particular fraction of dark matter needs to have a certain type of force in order to form a disc of that shape?

Yes, storytelling is important.  These wild explanations have a vital role in science — they inspire experiments to test the ideas.  If some of the experiments yield positive results, then it’s worth telling the story to the public.  But the initial speculation?  That part isn’t science.  It seems unhelpful for a Harvard professor to promote it as such.

I was also thrown off by some of the pop culture references that pepper the text.  Most seemed unnecessary but innocuous, like “WIMPs [weakly-interacting massive particles], unlike Obi-Wan Kenobi, are not our only hope, though as far as these detection methods are concerned, they are in many ways our best one.  Direct detection works only when there is some interaction between Standard Model and dark matter particles, and WIMP models guarantee that possibility.”  Mentioning Star Wars didn’t seem to accomplish anything other than an are you paying attention? nudge in the ribs, but the allusion didn’t impede my understanding.

Worse was a metaphor that misrepresents the history of economic injustice in the United States without elucidating the physics Randall is describing:

Camden_NJ_povertyAnother proposed explanation for the paucity of observed satellite galaxies and sparser-than-expected inner galaxy cores is that supernova explosions expel material out of the inner portions of their host galaxies, leaving behind a far less dense inner core.  The resulting dark matter distribution might be compared to that of an urban population in its densest inner city regions, where — in the aftermath of unrest — explosions of violence have stemmed the growth to leave a depleted core.  The inner galaxy that has seen too much supernova outflow doesn’t grow in density toward the center any more than would a sparsely occupied inner city.

Analogies often are the best way to explain science to a general audience.  Take something unfamiliar, show how it’s similar to something people know.  And no analogy is perfect, obviously.  There will always be differences between the unfamiliar scientific concept and the everyday experience you’re relating it to.

But it can hurt understanding when an analogy is used incorrectly.  Perhaps there are climates where rabbits and squirrels do compete for food, in which case my earlier analogy for the behavior of non-interacting particles might confuse someone.  If such a climate exists, a person living there might think, What’s he talking about?  I watch squirrels chase rabbits all the time!

Regarding galaxies that have low density near the center, I think the comparison to urban unrest doesn’t work.  In cities, violence usually follows a drop in population; violence doesn’t cause the drop.  Here’s Matthew Desmond’s description from Evicted:

desmondMilwaukee used to be flush with good jobs.  But throughout the second half of the twentieth century, bosses in search of cheap labor moved plants overseas or to Sunbelt communities, where unions were weaker or didn’t exist.  Between 1979 and 1983, Milwaukee’s manufacturing sector lost more jobs than during the Great Depression — about 56,000 of them.  The city where virtually everyone had a job in the postwar years saw its unemployment rate climb into the double digits.  Those who found new work in the emerging service sector took a pay cut.  As one historian observed, “Machinists in the old Allis-Chalmers plant earned at least $11.60 an hour; clears in the shopping center that replaced much of that plant in 1987 earned $5.23.

These economic transformations — which were happening in cities across America — devastated Milwaukee’s black workers, half of whom held manufacturing jobs.  When plants closed, they tended to close in the inner city, where black Milwaukeeans lived.  The black poverty rate rose to 28 percent in 1980.  By 1990, it had climbed to 42 percent.

After poverty came squalor.  After squalor, violence.

To me, it sounds disquietingly like blaming the victims to claim that violence drove people away, when in reality the violence only began after the middle class & most of the decent jobs had left.

Not that I know of a better analogy for the low-density interiors of galaxies.  The best I can think of are the ring-like structures of bacterial colonies — they end up that way because early generations deplete all the nutrients from the center and fill it with toxic waste — but that isn’t a good analogy because many people are equally unfamiliar with bacterial growth patterns.

Nobody’s gonna suddenly understand if you compare an unfamiliar concept to something else that’s equally unfamiliar.

All told — and despite the fact that I learned a fair bit from the first half of the book — I can’t think of anyone whom I’d recommend Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs to.  The idea is interesting, sure.  If you’re an astronomer, maybe you should think about experiments to test it.  But working astronomers wouldn’t need all the background information presented in the book — they would want to read Randall & Reece’s article in Physical Review Letters instead.  You get the hypothesis and some supporting data in just five pages, as opposed to 300+ pages for the hypothesis alone.

That leaves general audiences.  But, this isn’t science yet!  This is storytelling.  Toward the end of the book, Randall even mentions that there’s enough speculation underlying the hypothesis for the whole thing to be illusory:

What astrophysicists were really saying was that there was no need for a dark disk.  Given the uncertainties in densities in all the known gas and star components, the measured potential could be accounted for by known matter alone.

I think it’s situations like this that really demonstrate the value of Occam’s Razor.  Our knowledge of the world is imperfect.  One way to acknowledge our ignorance is to prefer simple explanations: instead of accounting for every single detail, we accept that some details about what we think we know might be incorrect.  The man was shaking an umbrella because of an inside joke?  You mean, he had no idea the president would die?  That’s an awfully big coincidence, don’t you think?

Why write an entire book — with such an attention-grabbing title! — when all the data you’re accounting for might be measurement uncertainties?

On paranoia, virology, conspiracy theories, & lemmings: my experience reading ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’

On paranoia, virology, conspiracy theories, & lemmings: my experience reading ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’

gravitys rainbow at whitney

Shortly before I turned sixteen, I read an article in the Indianapolis Star describing a piece of artwork temporarily showing downtown. Fred Tomaselli’s Gravity’s Rainbow, as inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s book. The description in the paper was rapturous. Beautiful, deep, dark, mysterious. A giant canvas with covered in fluorescent parabolas of … pills?

Street drugs, pharmaceuticals, and fakes, all strung vibrantly together.

I was enthralled. After a week of pleading, my parents took me to see it. And… well, sure, I was disappointed. I was just a kid. I hadn’t read the book. Just like Marcel when he finally saw La Berma, I felt let down because I didn’t have the background needed to see as much in the artwork as the article implied.

But I did resolve to read the book.

Alexandre_Cabanel_Phèdre
I’m not sure what image best illustrates the opera performance of a fictional character, so here’s Alexandre Cabanel’s Phedre. This is the role Marcel first saw La Berma perform, at which point he felt disappointed by her apparent lack of artifice. Good acting means acting naturally??

At the time, my hometown library didn’t have a copy. The only bookstore I frequented was Half-priced Books, which has very haphazard inventory. Later, when I didn’t have an influx of babysitting money supporting my habit, I became even stingier and only shopped at library booksales. Paperbacks for a quarter! Hardbacks for fifty cents! The only problem being total inability to predict what you’ll find.

5628951142_cc4759b4dc_oLet me tell you: if you’re hunting for a mammoth, oft-discussed-but-rarely-read cult novel, you’ll have to visit a whole lotta library booksales before you’re likely to find a copy. Over the years I’ve found V and The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice and even a guide purporting to demystify Gravity’s Rainbow, but never the book itself.

Of course, now I live in a town with much better libraries than where I grew up. The library here has a copy. We even have an audio version in case you’d rather spend thirty-eight hours listening to it in your car than sit down and read the thing.

The book follows, among numerous others, the travails of ex-military man Slothrop, a paranoid drug-gobbling sex criminal (I could’ve used fewer gleeful paeans to pedophilia, but I can’t expect every author to cater to my reading whims) who feels himself to be — and perhaps is — enmeshed in a dark conspiracy that spans decades, transcends nationality, and takes precedence over even the war.

The evocation of paranoia is charming. Indeed, within novels, it’s often the case that everything really is connected, that even the most outlandish coincidences were inevitable. Excepting works like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s serially-published & sketchily-planned The Idiot, novels are sculpted by an all-powerful author dictating the course of action. Slothrop is right to be afraid… of Pychon, if no one else.

The novel reels through numerous “Proverbs for Paranoids,” but to my mind the most chilling passage is the following:

The basic idea is that They will come and shut off the water first. … Shutting the water off interdicts the toilet: with only one tankful left, you can’t get rid of much of anything any more, dope, shit, documents. They’ve stopped the inflow / outflow and here you are trapped inside.

. . .

So it’s good policy always to have the toilet valve cracked a bit, to maintain some flow through the toilet so when it stops you’ll have that extra minute or two. Which is not the usual paranoia of waiting for a knock, or a phone to ring: no, it takes a particular kind of mental illness to sit and listen for a cessation of noise.

paranoiac_by_adricarra-d6val00
Paranoiac by adricarra on deviantart.

This passage is frightening because it sounds so reasonable — maybe secret agents would take precautions to keep you from destroying evidence — yet only someone with a totally hyperactive connection-seeking mind would actually thinking to monitor the trickle of a leaking toilet, fully expecting the noise to someday stop.

The human mind evolved to find meaning in the surrounding world, but to my mind the root of schizophrenia, more dire than sounds perceivable to no one else, is the tendency to find meaning too often. So much is happening every second that connections and coincidences will always be there, if you demand them to be.

In the paranoid world of Gravity’s Rainbow, even World War 2 bombings were planned for, and were necessary to enable devious machinations. This sounds deranged, and yet it’s actually very similar to something that happens in nature.

Take influenza. The influenza virus can’t reproduce until it enters a host’s cells. But the viral protein that latches onto cells, in its standard form, doesn’t work. The virus is produced with a “fusion-incompetent precursor.” Only after the viral protein is attacked by its host — chewed on by a protease that’s attempting to destroy the virus — does it become functional.

3-dimensional-model-of-influenza-virus
Hemagglutinin molecules — blue pegs on the outside of this model — need to be severed by a host endoprotease before the flu virus can dock & conquer.

Influenza is harmless … until the host fights back. If you’ll excuse me a touch of anthropomorphism here, influenza is so devious because it knows the host will fight back, and plans for that, and uses the host defense as part of its own strategy.

The paranoiacs in Gravity’s Rainbow fear that weapons facilities were constructed the same way. That bombings were anticipated, and planned for, and the structures assembled precisely so that the bombings would activate the facility:

Zoom uphill slantwise toward a rampart of wasted, knotted, fused, and scorched girderwork, stacks, pipes, ducting, windings, fairings, insulators reconfigured by all the bombing, grease-stained pebblery on the ground, rushing by a mile a minute and wait, wait, say what, say “reconfigured,” now?

There doesn’t exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you’re afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away — there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding. This serpentine slag-heap he is just about to ride into now, this ex-refinery, Jamf Olfabriken Werke AG, is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only waiting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on … modified, precisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of a plan both sides — “sides?” — had always agreed on …

These musings must strike most people as deranged. The likelihood of a single organization willfully orchestrating World War 2 is pretty low. But this idea isn’t dramatically more bizarre than other common conspiracy theories.  Large numbers of people believe that the moon landing was faked, that the CIA killed JFK, that the mass shooting at the Batman film in Colorado was planned by the U.S. government …

The United States is rife with conspiracy theorists. With X-Files back on air, perhaps there’ll be a resurgence in the number of conspiracy theories involving extraterrestrial life — those seem to have faded in popularity since the late nineties.

suspicious mindsA few books have been published recently examining why so many Americans believe in conspiracy theories. The latest (that I’ve noticed) is Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, which examines the way quirks in our brains promote belief in conspiracy theories.

For instance, pattern-seeking: it makes sense to assume that individuals best able to look at their surroundings and see patterns — This berry patch has a lot to eat every spring! Everybody who’s gone to that water hole at twilight has been eaten by a tiger! — would’ve been most successful through evolutionary time. The only drawback is that our brains are so good at finding patterns that we often see them when they aren’t there — In our last three games, my team won both times I was wearing these socks, and lost when I wore different ones… I’ll never take these socks off again! — letting us ascribe deep meaning to random happenstance.

Honestly, believing in happenstance can be terrifying. If you believe that bad things happen to good people because a watchful god is angry, you can make overtures to appease that god. Maybe the suffering will stop. But if the universe is a chaotic, value-less place, then there’s nothing you can do to stave off random disaster.

When I read Suspicious Minds, I felt like Brotherton left out a potent explanation for our abundance of conspiracy theories. Yes, evolution seems to have molded our minds to readily believe in nefarious conspiracies. Brotherton cites psychology research into the nature of these beliefs, suggesting the propensity is innate. In addition to all the usual caveats you should keep in mind when reading pop psychology, it’s especially important to recall that most study subjects for this research come from the same culture … and this culture actually trains young people to believe in conspiracies.

The basic structure of most conspiracy theories is that the standard explanation for something — Barack Obama was born in the United States, vaccines don’t cause autism — is a lie, and a cabal of authority figures is working hard to prevent people from uncovering the truth.

santa and his cauldronIn the United States, many people go through this same experience as children. We’re taught to believe in Santa Claus, for instance, and over time might notice adults winking at each other as they discuss the flying reindeer, or the cookies he’ll eat, or presents he might leave… until one day it becomes clear that the authority figures were making the whole thing up. It was Dad eating all those cookies!

It becomes a rite of passage. At six, you learn that your house wasn’t actually visited by Santa Claus. At eight, maybe you learn that there is no Easter Bunny. Seems like every kid’s favorite pizza topping is pepperoni until one day a slightly-older kid on the bus leans over to whisper, “Do you know how they make pepperoni?” So why would it be strange for people to grow up and think, at twenty you learn that there was no moon landing? At twenty-five you learn that the feds have been putting mind control reagents into childhood vaccines?

Moreover, sometimes there really is an attempt to hide the truth. Researchers employed by cigarette companies tried their darnedest to distract from the various ailments caused by smoking. Researchers employed by oil barons are still trying their darnedest to distract from the planetary ailments caused by combustion.

Or, in matters slightly less dire, there’s lemmings.

4612944852_62af0dbb36_o

Lemming imagery shows up repeatedly in Gravity’s Rainbow, like the farmer depressed by all his pigs “who’d rushed into extinction like lemmings, possessed not by demons but by trust for men, which the men kept betraying”, or the Europeans befuddled by an African tribe’s apparent desire to fade away together rather than die off one by one, “a mystery potent as that of the elephant graveyard, or the lemmings rushing into the sea.

Given that so much of the book is about paranoia and blind trust and suicide, it makes sense for lemmings to have a star appearance. The main character, Slothrop, the Harvard-educated pedophile, even takes a moment to explain why lemmings kill themselves the way they do:

Well, Ludwig. Slothrop finds him one morning by the shore of some blue anonymous lake, a surprisingly fat kid of eight or nine, gazing into the water, crying, shuddering all over in rippling fat-waves. His lemming’s name is Ursula, and she has run away from home. Ludwig’s been chasing her all the way north from Pritzwalk. He’s pretty sure she’s heading for the Baltic, but he’s afraid she’ll mistake one of these inland lakes for the sea, and jump into that instead —

“One lemming, kid?”

“I’ve had her for two years,” he sobs, “she’s been fine, she’s never tried to — I don’t know. Something just came over her.”

“Quit fooling. Lemmings never do anything alone. They need a crowd. It gets contagious. You see, Ludwig, they overbreed, it goes in cycles, when there are too many of them they panic and run off looking for food. I learned that in college, so I know what I’m talking about. Harvard. Maybe that Ursula’s just out after a boy friend or something.”

IMG_3821
Lemmings by Tao Lin on Flickr.

And the reason I bring this up in conjunction with conspiracy theories? It isn’t true. Lemmings aren’t the suicidal little furballs that I, for one, always believed them to be.

In 1958 Disney released a documentary film, White Wilderness, that showed lemmings committing suicide. The voice-over explained weren’t actually suicidal, but that they single-mindedly launch themselves into the water to drown because they assume they’ll be able to swim across:

It is said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the Arctic, and as often happens in Man’s nature lore, it is a story both true and false, as we shall see in a moment.

What the audience then sees are close-ups of lemmings jumping off a cliff into the sea. Except… well, because this doesn’t really happen, the filmmakers instead trapped a few lemmings on a big slippery snow-covered turntable and spun it in order to fling the poor critters over the edge.

Lemmings do migrate, and like most migratory species, when venturing into unfamiliar territory they sometimes die. Their occasional deaths are more reminiscent of the unlucky members of the Donner Party than the folly I was trained by Lemmings (the computer game) to believe in.

The original lemming myths seem to have been caused by humans seeing huge numbers of lemmings, noticing that some were migrating to less-populous areas, and then finding that the population had plummeted to almost nothing. Where did the others go? Maybe they committed suicide!

Well, no. Their population booms and busts, like those of most prey species, seem to be caused by the population density of their predators. It’s the predators who mindlessly exploite abundant resources.  When lemmings are plentiful the well-fed predators breed profligately, certain they’ll be able to support their brood, and then the overpopulous predators eat the lemmings nearly to extinction, at which point the unlucky predators will starve, their population plummets, and the lemming population can rebound.

Book_of_Genesis_Chapter_41-6_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)Humans are very similar to most other predators this way.  A bit foolish, we are.  We live large in the good times. Genesis 41, in which Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams, is so striking precisely because few humans would have the foresight to plan for seven years of drought and famine. Indeed, in the contemporary western United States, we divvied up water usage rights during particularly lush years and are now squabbling over who should actually get water when there isn’t enough to satisfy everybody’s usage permits. The human population is still rising — indeed, many religious leaders still purport that their followers have an explicit directive to “go forth and multiply” — despite the fact that we’re already taxing the planet near its limits.

So it goes.

The point being, at the moment, not that we’re all doomed… who knows, maybe we’ll come together and shape up our act? But that the abundance of actual lies — why would anyone even feel the need to lie about lemmings? — makes it that much easier for people to believe in nefarious conspiracies. We’re trained from youth to believe that the authorities and experts — our parents — are hiding the real truth. Why would we expect politicians or scientists to act any differently?

In related news, I’m trying my best not to lie to my kid. The world is already plenty strange — I think she’ll still have fun despite a healthy dollop of truth.