Get well Boris

We wrote some pretty mean things about Boris Johnson during the course of the Brexit crisis (remember when that was the biggest thing we had to worry about?), but that doesn’t lessen our dismay at the news tonight that he has been admitted to intensive care, due to complications resulting from Covid-19.

The general sympathy and concern being expressed across the political spectrum is a reminder that we are fortunate enough to live in a country where ideological disputes rarely escalate to the level of wishing for the physical liquidation of one’s opponents (though such excesses are, sadly, not entirely unknown).

Even if one were unconcerned by Johnson’s personal fate, one would have to recognise that the national morale would be severely dented if the Prime Minister – a middle-aged man, in reasonable health, presumably receiving the best care the NHS can offer – were to succumb to the plague stalking the land.

The data, such as it is, suggests that the survival rate of coronavirus patients who end up in ICU is around 50%, which are not good odds, but the figures are almost certainly skewed by higher death rates in the older sections of the population, so Johnson can probably be expected to make a recovery, though he might be out of action for a while longer. How much difference this will make to the government’s response to the epidemic we will have to wait and see. In the meantime we will add our best wishes to those already sent to Johnson, and everyone else who has been laid low during these difficult times.

Isolated musings

One might think that our current circumstances, while clearly troubling, would at least provide some encouragement to bloggers, especially those inclined towards philosophical speculation, as the enforced idleness allows plenty of time for writing, and the situation naturally inspires commentary on all sorts of deep topics, like the nature of society, the limits of scientific knowledge, or the ultimate meaning (or meaninglessness) of life.

And, who knows, perhaps some bloggers are seizing this opportunity to compose memorable posts, but, as readers may have noticed, I am not among that number. I’m actually a good bit busier than usual, as the health service gears up to meet the challenge of the anticipated wave of infection. I’ve been redeployed into the sort of forward position that I haven’t occupied for a couple of decades, so I’ve spent the last week or so furiously refreshing my basic skills, which has at least kept my mind engaged. I’m glad to have the routine of work, which gives me an excuse to get out of the house, keeping me anchored to some sort of normality, though it also allows me access to information indicating that we are not quite as prepared for the coming storm as the the government would like the population to believe, which makes me think the immediate future may get quite rough.

So, it might be difficult to find time to post much over the next few weeks, but I guess I should try to make the effort, because these are the kind of times that’ll I’ll look back on in the future, and be glad that I recorded my contemporaneous impressions. Perhaps, if I live through this, I may even produce my own version of La Peste.

A plague on all our houses

I was going to comment that recent events had made the light-hearted tone of my last post on this topic look rather inappropriate, but then it occurred to me that, as our Chinese readers might point out, the only aspect of the Coronavirus crisis that had really changed since I last wrote about it was that people in Europe had started dying too, so asking for my previous comments to be excused, on the grounds that I didn’t know how bad it was going to get (for us), would only compound my appalling insensitivity.

If there was any sort of cosmic justice I would now be struck down by a particularly unpleasant case of pneumonia or something, but the one part of my last post that was accurate was the observation that I, shielded as I am by several layers of privilege, am unlikely to experience any serious adversity as a result of the pandemic. I have had to cancel my spring vacation, and I’ll probably have a few days of mild discomfort when the virus catches up with me, but beyond that I’m unlikely to suffer much. There’s an outside chance that I’ll be drafted in to help treat victims of the outbreak, which would be penance of a sort, though if the health service collapsed to the extent that they needed me on the front line then we’d be only a couple of steps above a Mad Max style apocalypse, so hopefully things won’t get to that stage.

I like to think that I’m not too parochial in my outlook, but events like these remind me that I have more progress to make in that regard than it’s comfortable to admit. However this situation works out, if it encourages people to start thinking a little more globally, then perhaps we’ll be in a better state to deal with the next pandemic that comes around.

Viral concerns

Despite the occasionally gloomy tone of this blog, I am by nature a basically optimistic person, aided, no doubt, by the fact that, as a older, white, male, I can be reasonably confident that society is arranged to minimise the chances of anything really bad happening to me.

I am thus unsure that I am treating the looming Coronavirus pandemic with the requisite degree of seriousness. I live in an advanced, industrialised country, with a freely-available, high-quality health service; everyone I know who works in public heath is pretty sharp, and well able to handle this sort of situation. The city where I dwell, while not completely off the beaten track, isn’t particularly cosmopolitan, and is geographically situated in such a way that it would be fairly easy to control people coming in and out. Personally, I’m in good shape physically, and not in the age range that seems to be most at risk of serious complications. All things considered, I probably shouldn’t be panicking, despite all the alarming stories on the news, with scenes of hazmat-suited personnel quarantining entire neighbourhoods, and the ever-lengthening list of countries where cases are cropping up.

And indeed I am not too worried; my biggest concern at the moment is whether my spring holiday travel plans will be disrupted. I guess that this complacency may come back to bite me, but one can’t live life fretting about things that one can’t control. If people start dropping dead in the street then I might consider wearing a face mask and using hand sanitiser, but until then I’ll keep calm and carry on.

Cleaning up

We’ve received three emails over the last couple of weeks from Barbara Dunn at haiwatch.com, encouraging us to share the following message with you, our esteemed readers:

As you may be aware, hospitals still have a lot of work to do to put an end to the ongoing – but solvable – problem of Healthcare-Associated Infections (HAIs). To help achieve this goal,  Kimberly-Clark Health Care launched “Not on My Watch” (www.haiwatch.com), a website that provides tools and information to help facilities eliminate HAIs.

Ms Dunn is evidently labouring under the misapprehension that we are running some sort of serious health-related website here, but since she’s right about the problem of hospital-acquired infection I feel we should do our part to support this campaign, which I’m sure Kimberly-Clark are backing for purely altruistic reasons, with no commercial agenda at all.

So I’ll encourage anyone who is curious about HAIs, or just wants to know how to wash their hands properly, to head over to the HAI Watch News site, for up-to-the-minute information.

That’s the end of the Public Service Announcement, we’ll return to our normal programming soon…

Reoccurring Dreams

There was a lively debate amongst the commenters at Botgirl’s blog over the last week or so, concerning that perennial preoccupation of the SL intellectual elite, the question of identity in virtual environments.

I must have listened (and occasionally contributed) to this discussion dozens of times in the last three years, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything that was a significant advance on what Sherry Turkle was writing about fifteen years ago.

The particular facet of the issue that we (for of course I couldn’t resist chipping in with my two cents’ worth) focussed on this time around was the significance of choosing to represent oneself in Second Life with an avatar that differs substantially from one’s corporeal incarnation, especially with regard to gender.

How dishonest is this? Moral relativist that I am, my answer to that question is “it depends”; upon a lot of things, but mainly the expectations of the parties to the interaction. In the discussion parallels were drawn with other media, such as written fiction or cinema, with the point being made that no one feels deceived when they discover that, say, Robert De Niro isn’t really a taxi driver. This is true to a degree; for books, plays and movies there are commonly accepted cultural norms that define when it’s OK to make stuff up and when it’s not, and people do feel cheated when the rules are broken.

There is much less consensus regarding online interaction though, and, crucially, in a space like Second Life there is no easy way to communicate the extent to which one is using the platform as a vehicle for personal reinvention, as opposed to expressing one’s everyday self (which of course opens up the question of where one’s “true” identity really lies, or if such a thing even exists).

I’ve noted before that the research evidence suggests that it’s harder than one might think to create a new personality in a virtual world (certainly my avatar is boringly similar to my mortal form, in appearance and character), so in theory it should be possible to get to “know” someone just by interacting with their SL alter-ego. I suspect that there are not many people who could be bothered to put in the work required for this though, and there is always the (mostly unconscious) drive to project one’s internal object-relations on to the virtual relationships, which further muddies the waters.

With all this going on it’s hardly surprising that miscommunication and unhappiness can occur from time to time. I don’t think that there’s much to be done about it; it’s the price we pay for access to the creative possibilities of the medium,  like Cézanne being poisoned by Emerald Green.

Like I said though, none of this is new, or particularly profound, except insofar as it sheds some light on that other topic that has launched a thousand SL blog posts; “Why blog about Second Life?” Why make the same points about the same issues over and over, when we could be turning our minds to something more productive? I can only answer for myself of course, but I think (as, unsurprisingly, I’ve said before) that SL blogging is essentially just another form of role-play, a chance to imagine oneself as a heavyweight intellectual commentator, without all the tiresome business of actually having to think too much about what one writes.

It keeps me amused anyhow. And I get to link to some cool music.

Zombie Bites

Further to the mathematical analysis of zombie infestation, here’s some more undead-themed academic enquiry:

Dr. Steven C. Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has written a paper on zombie neurobiology. It turns out that zombies have exactly the brain lesions one would expect in an ataxic, insatiable cannibal with impulse-control problems and poor social skills – underactive frontal lobes, a dysfunctional anterior cingulate cortex, cerebellar/basal ganglia problems and a misfiring hypothalamus.

Some time ago I offered a brief psychoanalytic interpretation of zombie-phobia; for more in this vein read “Saving Ourselves: Psychoanalytic Investigation of Resident Evil and Silent Hill by Marc C. Santos and Sarah White. Through a Lacanian deconstruction of the games’ dynamic the paper analyses the role of the player/avatar in maintaining symbolic order in the face of the “impossible, cataclysmic infinity of existence”, represented by the zombies, with their “near-sexual drive for consumption a constant reminder of the discursive construction of our own desire”. The authors conclude that “Resident Evil establishes a more conservative (Freudian) position that Silent Hill playfully (Lacanian-ly) problematizes”

There is more psychoanalytically-informed zombie literature around than you might think – “Zombie Trouble: A Propaedeutic On Ideological Subjectification and the Unconscious”, for example, or “Legacies of Plague in Literature, Theory and Film”. If you like all this undead-psychoanalysis stuff, why not make your own Zombie Freud?

Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis wrote about his experiences with the Vodou practitioners of Haiti in his 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow. Davis’ theory that zombies are created using a powder containing, among other things, tetrodotoxin is not widely accepted, but his account of the hidden power structures of the Vodoun secret societies is certainly fascinating.

Columbia College in Chicago runs a course on “Zombies in Popular Media“; the reading/screening list is a good starting point for further zombie study.

And finally – Let me tell you ’bout the way she looked…

Paging Dr Galt

I’ve worked for the National Health Service in various parts of the country for just about all my adult life, and the whole time I’ve felt that I was doing a good thing, helping troubled people get better without worrying about whether or not they could pay me.

Now it turns out that all these years I have in fact been in the employ of an evil state-sponsored killing machine. Who knew? All those patients who tell me “Thanks Doctor, I feel much better now” are just spouting Orwellian Newspeak – what they really mean is “Curse you, you enervating quack! Ayn Rand was right! Your concern for my welfare is sapping the essence of my humanity!”

Well, now that I’ve been enlightened, I’m going to change my ways. No more ensnaring the unsuspecting poor in the corrupt web of socialised medicine. Only Objectivists who can pay on the nail will be getting my attention from now on.