The herd perspective

I had a testy conversation with a good friend of mine the other day, and you guessed it—the topic was Covid-19. My friend thinks our reaction to the pandemic has been way over the top. We risk turning our economy into a runaway train on a track leading to the edge of a cliff, he says. The steps we’ve taken to stabilize our economy will turn our workforce into a pack of foot-shuffling snivelers with their hands out to the government, and effectively mortgage our future to a crushing debt load for generations.

imagesAnd for what?: an illness where the chances of exposure are low outside the hotspots like Italy, Iran, Spain and increasingly the United States. Even if you contract the disease, he says, your chances of dying from it are miniscule. Take me for example: as a non-smoking male in my late 60s, my chances of survival are about 96.4%. Pretty good odds even if we are betting against death.

My friend has a point. Everything he said is true. But the problem is, he’s still thinking about the problem from an individual’s perspective— not from the perspective of the herd. When we persist in risky behavior, our chances of avoiding adverse consequences are good, but we increase the overall risk to the herd. As time goes on, the health of the herd declines, and the risk for individual members rises. In other words, we need to think about how our actions affect everyone—not just ourselves. The healthier the herd, the better off we are as individual members.

downloadThe recent spate of panic buying provides a good illustration of how this works. Suppose you go to the store to buy some hand sanitizer, and when you get there, you find only two bottles on the shelf. You buy them both to protect yourself for a longer period of time. However, someone else in your herd now has no protection at all. Your chances of exposure actually increases because now there’s more potential to spread the disease within the herd.

I believe Covid-19 is coming at us at a key juncture in our social evolution. Like it or not, we’re living in Trump World right now. The herd is divided along many different fault lines: rich and poor, powerful and disenfranchised, young and old, black and white, winners and losers, and so on. But to survive the existential threats that we will soon be facing—climate change, natural and bioengineered pandemics, nuclear war, artificial intelligence, robotic military, and other things that we haven’t even thought of yet—we will need to work together. We will need to do what’s best for the herd.

Hopefully, we can learn something from this pandemic that will carry us forward to a more certain future. We need to see our world as a single integrated ecosystem, supporting one human species sharing one planet. If we can’t see our world that way, we are already doomed. 

 

A Valentine for Carole

I made a video valentine for my wife Carole this year, and I decided to share it here on my Blog. It was so much fun to create because it brought back so many memories and reminders of how lucky I am that she decided to share her life with me. I can only imagine the barren landscape my life would have been had she not been a part of it.

Cover photoIn North America today almost half of marriages end in divorce, and sometimes that’s the only ending that makes any sense. But sometimes too, with a little effort, you can get past the rough spots. I hope our story will be an inspiration for people to take a little time to appreciate their partners on Valentine’s Day.

An Evening with John MacLachlan Gray

Celebrated author and composer, John MacLachlan Gray, will read from his 2013 best seller, The White Angel, at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 28th. The evening, which kicks off the fall season of the Sunshine Coast Arts Council’s Annual Reading Series, may also feature some sneak-previews from John’s current project tentatively titled Vile Spirits.

John Gray2One of the most versatile and multi-talented creative artists in Canada, John’s storied career includes stints on the stage, TV, film and radio both as a playwright and a composer. He is probably best known for his landmark of Canadian musical theatre, Billy Bishop goes to War, which he wrote and composed with Eric Peterson in 1978. Gray received both the Governor General’s Literary award and a Golden Globe for the musical, which was produced on and off-Broadway and released as a feature film in 2011.

In later life, John turned to books as his preferred mode of expression and has published in both fiction and non-fiction genres. The White Angel, John’s fifth mystery-thriller, is a riveting fictional account of one of British Columbia’s most notorious unsolved crimes: the murder of Scottish Nanny Janet Stewart, who was found dead of a gunshot wound in the Vancouver home of her employer in 1924. Vile Spirits is set in the year following, and like White Angel is based on true life events and features some of the same characters.

Walking Dead: A Metaphor for America.

I hesitate to admit to a guilty pleasure I have managed to keep secret for almost a decade. My name is Glenn, and I am a Walkaholic. I am irredeemably infected with the special juice that causes aficionados like myself to devour broadcasts of the Walking Dead, show after show, season after season. I have seen every minute of every episode of the AMC series since it first aired on Halloween night in the year of our Lord 2010, and I expect that I will continue watching until they stop making the show, or I die.

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But that is not the news here, fake or otherwise. It’s my reason for watching, I believe, that sets me apart from my fellow addicts. For me, the Walking Dead is the perfect metaphor for American society and, because of the close geographic and social proximity of the United States, for my own small corner of the world—Canada. The central premise of the Walking Dead is the idea of the other, and the show revolves around the dilemma of how best to protect ourselves from their bloodthirsty intent.

In the first episodes of the show, the role of the other was played by the zombies—salivating hoards of rotting undead, fixed on the relentless, though somewhat clumsy, pursuit of uninfected human flesh. When they did manage to bite someone, they turned them into slobbering zombies like themselves, and the cycle continued spreading the mysterious zombie virus throughout the world.

The Walking Dead metaphor works on so many levels. For Millennials on the verge of adulthood, it is easy to see the zombies as members of established society sleepwalking their way through life, oblivious to the real-world wonders all around them. For Americans who fear the coming influx of people from other parts of the world, the zombies can be seen as a threat to their way of life and their deeply-rooted reluctance to embrace fundamental social change.

But it is in the more recent shows that the Walking Dead metaphor so clearly analogies the fork in the road that currently lays before the American people. In the later shows, the uninfected survivors splinter into rival tribes as they struggle to survive the inhospitable world brought on by the rise of the zombies. It is the members of rival tribes that have become the enemy—the other. The key question that the survivors face is ‘are we safer living together with the other tribes, or are we better off on our own?’ It is stunningly similar to the choices facing the citizens of Donald Trump’s America: What is the correct path forward at this key juncture in American history? Are we better to go it alone with people like ourselves who we know we can trust, or should we join forces with the other to tackle the big problems that threaten the whole world?

That’s why I have to keep watching, and I’m talking here about both the Walking Dead and the trials and tribulations of my good neighbours to the south. I have to find out what happens.

Simple Plastic Bottle Re-Use

IMG_0976Here’s a simple way to protect the gyprock wall in your garage from water leaks and save a plastic bottle from the landfill at the same time. Choose a wide-mouth plastic bottle and cut away the bottom half on a diagonal leaving the mouth intact. Unscrew your hose and slide the bottle onto the tap. Replace the hose, and voila. Now, drips from the tap will run down the bottle to the floor instead down your wall.

N.S. Beach house may help save planet

On the west coast of Nova Scotia in the tiny community of Meteghan River, sits a tidy little beach house that just might help save the planet from the coming ravages of climate change. The brainchild of Dave Saulnier and Joel German, the beach house is one of those elegant approaches where problems are re-defined as opportunities.

Beach houseLike many coastal communities, Meteghan River will face severe weather in the decades ahead as the climate worsens. Sturdier shelter that can withstand severe storms is urgently needed, especially on the east coast of North America where hurricane-force winds are becoming an annual occurrence. At the same time, unwanted plastic is piling up in our landfills and littering our beaches. The solution? Use the unwanted plastic to build more durable shelter.

With a $109,000 repayable loan from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Saulnier and German, built the demonstration home using 612,000 recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. Reduced to pellets and injected with a gas to turn them into foam, the bottles were re-constituted as building panels to assemble the beach house.

The result is a structure that can resist moisture, fatigue, corrosion and rot and is 2.3 times more energy-efficient than homes built using traditional methods. However, the real eye-popper is the ability of the panels to withstand windstorms. At Exova testing facilities in Mississauga, Ontario, they withstood 326-mp/h (524-km/h) sustained wind force, which is twice the strength of a Category 5 hurricane.

Through their company, JD Composites, Saulnier and German hope to export the technology to countries in the Caribbean and South America, as well as into the United States. Many of the processes and methods used actually come from the boat building industry in which the two partners have worked for many years.

The beach house is currently up for sale, but if it doesn’t sell, Saulnier and German say they’ll list it on airbnb to help spread the word.

 

Ghosts in the graveyard

So it turns out my first cousin, once removed, Alexander Brebner Millar is buried in Seaview Cemetery near Gibsons. I had no idea he was here when I first moved to the Coast. My wife, Carole, found out. She’s kind of a genealogyIMG_0943 super-sleuth, so she knows about that stuff.

Anyway, we decided to go visit Alex and as we drove in through the gates, we realized the graveyard is a lot bigger than it looks from the highway. There’s an awful lot of graves in there.

“This is going to take forever,” says I. “Why don’t they bury them in alphabetical order?”

“… because then they’d have to die in alphabetical order,” says she. “Just park and we’ll start looking.”

“Where should I park?”

I didn’t ask the question out loud. I just thought it in my head, and that’s when the spookiness started. Someone, not Carole, answered:

Up ahead, by the tree, in the shade.”

It didn’t come to me as a voice. It wasn’t even communicated in words, although the meaning seemed pretty clear. It was more like, I don’t know, a vibration maybe, a chill breeze from the beyond, a gentle nudge from the other side. I did as I was told, because that’s what you should always do when you get messages from the hereafter. I parked the car up ahead, by the tree, in the shade. Then I got out of the car and walked over to the first gravestone I saw. Sure enough, it was Alex, my first cousin, once removed.

“Here he is,” says I.

“What? You found him already?” says she, and she walks over to check the stone. “That’s amazing. How did you do that?”

“I had a little help.”

Thanks for the directions, Alex. Rest in peace.