Follow the neurotic

In recent years I was drawn into the comic book community as they discussed various characters and their depictions in print and movies. I vaguely recall a phase of my youth where I spent my spare money on comic books. I think at the time I was selling newspapers and it provided enough to get a book or two a month. I do remember buying them, but I don’t recall the characters I purchased, let alone their stories in those books. Seared in my mind, though, were the advertisements.

That’s to say I was not a serious fan, but I did have a desire to get new ones. I don’t think it was because I was trying to mirror my friend’s interests. I don’t even think any of my friends were interested in comics at all. Typical for me, I was probably exploring alternatives just to be different. Again, I have little confidence in my memory of that interest, but I imagine was more drawn into the creation of comics. I do recall at least dabbling into trying to draw my own comic, and I definitely was interested in writing stories that better fit with the comic book presentation as opposed to a novel. I liked the sequence of action and dialog. I liked the visual illustration alternative to descriptive prose.

It was later in life when I heard about graphic novels. When the term became popularized, I was not in the mood to read them, but I do recall my initial impression that this is just another word for comic books. I later realized my mistake. A graphic novel often is a full novel, a full story, that plays out graphically. I never got around to reading one, but I can imagine myself buying one while browsing through a bookstore, if that ever happens again.

In the recent interest, I came up with my own superhero concept. I don’t have a catchy name for him, but his super power is being able to run complex simulations in his brain. He is very observant and has a good memory so he has access to a decent amount of information. His peculiar skill is to be able to imagine the future sequence of event that will follow from the current situation, and he is able to trace his prediction to specific observations.

Lots of people can do this to some extent. The problem with this character is that he can’t stop doing this. He experiences every moment as what will happen later instead of what is happening at this very moment. He is incapable of living in the present.

Recently I wrote about the concept of a zero value man being someone whose skills or potential are inaccessible to any part of society. In that discussion, I described the example of someone who deliberate hides his skills that he knows he can use. I described the example of the solitary criminal master mind. A recent example of a zero value man is someone who is sophisticated enough to infiltrate a major industry and activate an ransomware attack where the ransom payment is untraceable to him. Such a zero value man is fully competent at living in the present, he just doesn’t advertise it.

My new character is unable to live in the present in any way that would be useful to others. He can do basic things like dressing himself, but don’t ask him to help carry something heavy and bulky. His mind is stuck in imagining what could happen later. Even if that is not related to the current task, his mind is not on the current task. He will stumble or drop the object.

The simulation man is able to project from current observations to a future outcome with accuracy and speed that rivals many computer simulations. Compared to computer simulations, he uses different algorithms and uses less data but with observations that the computer does not have. Certainly there are simulations far more capable than he is, but he applies his simulation ability to everyday experiences and he does it constantly.

The challenge for this character is that his simulations always focuses on the negative. This comes from my personal experiences where the most rewarded simulation efforts studied some type of catastrophe. One example was an extensive study of an actual event but to simulate with different assumptions that fill in for missing information. Another example was an analysis of a current system to show that it would eventually fail unless something was changed.

I have done a lot of simulations of happy consequences. They simply did not gain as much attention and recognition as a simulation of a bad consequence. As a result, I would be drawn to spending more time on simulating the bad consequences.

As an aside, I recall a publicized example involving the Cassini Huygens’ probe. While the probe was still on its voyage to Saturn, someone reviewed the radio design and realized that while it accounted for doppler shift on the radio frequency, it did not account for the doppler shift of the data rate. As implemented, the receiver would not be able to read the data from the probe. They found the problem in time to change the trajectory so that the signal would have far less doppler shift. The point is that the simulation and subsequent confirmation test predicted a failure unless something changed. I don’t know what happened to the person who discovered this problem, but I imagine he was well rewarded and recognized. The story turned out well.

A counter example would be the prediction that cold O-rings would eventually lead to the Challenger space shuttle catastrophe. The prediction did not prevent the catastrophe.

I imagine that the person or people who made this prediction were not as well rewarded as the person who predicted the Huygens probe problem. Predicting a future catastrophe is only valuable if something is done to prevent the disaster.

My simulation man learned these lessons. He spends all his time imagining the potential looming catastrophes if things continue as they are. To be valuable, he has to take action to assure that something is changed even if that requires him to drop whatever he is currently working on. What sets the simulation man apart from normal anxiety is that he has a record of being right and he can trace his conclusion to a large variety of verifiable observations.

The comic book stories would show him saving the day in both small and large ways. Each time he acts in a way that appears irrational and irresponsible at the moment, but later this proves crucial in keeping a bad situation from becoming much worse. The early stories would show the events reaching the point where the looming danger is apparent to everyone so they can appreciate the relevance of the earlier actions of the simulation man. Later stories would have the simulation man solve problems so well that the problem never reaches the looming danger point and thus no one will recognize the simulation man’s contribution. At that point, they would see only a man who acts irrationally and irresponsibly in terms of the present.

Just like in the progression of other comic book characters, the successive stories will steadily escalate. The early problems involves solving some small issue between a few people in a specific place. The later problems escalate to the ultimate pending doom for the universe. As the problems escalate, the actions of the simulation man become more irrational and irresponsible in the present. After all, to save the universe, he has to stop things from getting to the point where that threat is looming.

I would not go that far. But I would escalate from very neighborhood level problems, to community level, to city, to state, to country, etc. As he solves problems at higher levels, his contributions become less recognizable and his daily actions become more unreliable.

The simulation man ends up being indistinguishable from someone with severe anxiety disorder or a severe neurotic. I imagine him walking down a sidewalk and then rubbing disinfectant on his hands each time he reaches the middle of a block. He will hesitate crossing a street when other pedestrians are nearby even when there is an adequate gap in traffic or adequate time on the count-down timer for his safe passage. He would predict that the later people would follow him and they would not have enough time.

In other cases, he may ignore an obvious case where someone needs some assistance and he is close enough to assist because he sees the interruption as potentially more dangerous in the long run.

The public would see the simulation man as a neurotic that needs help. Instead of following him, they would be trying to encourage him to overcome his neurosis, or they would force him to act against his neurosis.

In reality he is more often than not in his predictions of some larger calamity. To save the day, he has to dispel the illusion of being neurotic. He has to have an alter ego where he pretends to be living in the present like everyone else. He has to pursue his solutions covertly. He becomes the zero value man.

The simulation man story is a metaphor for something real that is happening. Instead of there being a single man, although in cases it may come to just one man, there are entire scientific disciplines.

Astronomers are telling us with certainly there will come a time when a very large asteroid will strike the Earth and the only solution is to find some way to divert its path as early as possible, perhaps many decades before the predicted collision. Climatologist are warning us of certain global warming with catastrophic consequences unless we do something. Ecologists are warning us of the catastrophic consequence of using single-use plastic straws. Epidemiologist are warning us that there will come a pandemic that will kill off a sizable portion of the population unless everyone starts wearing masks.

There are many more examples, and each discipline offers a large number of different looming catastrophes. We pay attention to each proclamation and even celebrate their prognostication accomplishment. We may even demand action from the government to do something about this one thing. The problem is that there are too many to solve, and the potential solutions contradict each other. Trying to perfect space travel to the point of being able to divert an asteroid from its collision course would exacerbate the global warming and the pollution problems, and take resources away from producing personal protective equipment and ventilators for the next pandemic.

In my last post, I described the positive feedback that happens when government funds most of science. The funding provides incentives for analytic science to focus study on things that can go bad unless government acts. The funding provides incentives for the engineers to produce something that will stop some bad thing from ever happening. The two sides of science ally with each other. The synthesis needs to confirm the analysis, and the analysis needs to defend the synthesis. Over time, government keeps expanding to include even more sciences.

We have long past the point where we give credence to science that is not funded by government. The only acceptable independent science is that which confirms or reinforces the government’s science. Any contrary finding to government funded science is defined as misinformation that needs to be kept from public dissemination.

This current state of government science is like my simulation man. It is striving to solve ever larger problems, and multiple such problems at the same time. To solve all these problems, the entire system behaves neurotically in context of what is needed to live in the present.

This is happening because there is a tightening relationship between science and government. We have moved from a democratic republic where the representatives must follow the electorate, to a scientific republic where the representatives must follow the government-funded science. The government funding encourages the science to become ever more neurotic. The neurotic science forces the government to act more neurotically.

Ultimately we get to the current state where we are now obliged to be led by the neurotic. This inverts the past practice where we were needed to lead the neurotic.

Living under a neurotic government conditions the population at large to become neurotic. The neurotics are arresting any expressions of bravery, independent critical thinking, and individual risk taking. We live with stores with signs pasted to sidewalk pavement, reminding us to stay six feet apart, especially in areas where people congregate.

Over my lifetime I have noticed a trend where the government is increasing its promotion of preparing for looming catastrophes. I recall it becoming widespread advice during the lead up to the turn of the new millennium when every feared old software would start to miscalculate dates. We were told at the time that everything could come to a halt for a while. To prepare, we should stock up our private homes with supplies that will last us for at least a couple weeks, but ideally a couple months. This stock would be of food, water, fuel, and any other consumable including toilette paper.

Although the predicted calamity did not occur, there were multiple other disasters did occur during new millennium that also provided us an explosion of information. We live in an time when were a descriptions of any individual experience can quickly spread to the entire population. We see the single unfortunate case and how they are struggling because either they have failed to prepare or they failed to secure their preparation from floods, building collapse, or fire. This reinforced the need for the public at large to pay more attention to preparing for their own future catastrophe, but they need to take steps to secure it from the effects of the catrastrophe.

Most people do no live in places that can accommodate that quantity of storage. The televised depictions of a successful prepper is within a very spacious home and property. While there are many factors that lead to the trend where all new houses must be large houses, one factor probably is the need for space for storing multiple months of supplies in case there is a disaster.

Certainly, have some preparation for a period of shortages is valuable. I think it is a luxury to have that kind of space available. I think of the local area where there are multiple adults or even multiple families sharing small apartments. They do not have the space for stocking their own store to meet their needs for even a few days.

Nonetheless, everyone is thinking about their need for prepping. I think this obsession is stronger in the present than it was a century ago. I do recall my childhood a half century ago thinking about the need to prepare. In particular, the context was for setting up underground fall-out shelters in the event of a nuclear war. By my time, this was the end of that fad even though the threat of the war was perhaps even higher.

There came a time when it became apparent that old shelters were falling apart and the stored supplies were no longer usable. To be practical, it is necessary to cycle the stores. People needed to design their daily menus around things with long shelf lives so you can consume the soon-to-expire products to make room for the more newer products. People realized they preferred to eat fresh food, or the more recently preserved products. The initial neuroticism about the need to wait out a fall-out event gave way to a courage to live in the present. They accepted the risk of nuclear war, they just decided to not let it define their lives.

The other development for the response to the nuclear war threat was the realization that there was little point of sheltering in place. There would be nothing habitable waiting on the other side of shelter when the radiation subsided or the supplies were exhausted. There would be no place to get new supplies. Gardening would require waiting for the appropriate season if arable land existed. Hunting would not last very long with a large number of starving people, and unsheltered wild animals would not have survived to be hunted. Again, the population did not dismiss the threat of nuclear war, they just decided that the better option was to live in the moment. The chose courage over neurosis.

I think the government and the national spirit at the time encouraged this preference of courage over neurosis. I also think the government has changed to invert this preference. The government itself is neurotic, and by its example, the population is behaving neurotically.

Last decade’s passage of the Affordable Care Act is an example of government encouraging neuroticism in the population. The law forced everyone to buy health insurance that was of the more expensive variety with no pre-existing condition exemptions, and no lifetime caps. The coverage included a free annual wellness visit and other free preventive screenings. Due to the cost involved and the popularization of healthcare, people felt they needed to get these checkups and screenings. Implicitly, this placed the thought in their mind that they may have something that isn’t discovered yet. They became a little more neurotic about their health. Also, their investment into health made them more defensive of the health care system.

When the pandemic started, people immediately responded favorably to the plea to protect the health system by adopting social distancing, mask wearing, and frequent hand washing lasting at least 30 seconds each time. They responded this way because they needed to protect the health care system so that it will be available when they will need it themselves. There is a certainty now that each of us will find ourselves in hospital in some desperate condition. We need a functioning health care system for that eventuality.

Similarly when the pandemic started, people immediately responded with certainty that this will be the pandemic we always feared would come, one that would rival the 1918 flu or even the medieval black death plague. My point is that there was very little hesitation to jump to this more dire prediction. This was a neurotic response.

They exhibited this response most notably by emptying out all the supermarkets. Their houses would have enough stuff to last for months confined inside their home. This included stocking up on perishable goods, and I have no doubt many did perish before they were consumed. The consequence was the image of empty store shelves. This lead to subsequent raids on stores the moment they managed to restock.

More neurotic behavior and had the consequence of some people not getting anything because the panic collapsed the distribution system. The government encouraged this behavior in spite of the expectation that it should have predicted it. I am confident that the government knew this would happen but encouraged it any way. Having some people inconvenienced of a meal or two is an acceptable cost for the greater good of averting the next black death plague.

The most notorious example of the panic buying was the hoarding of toilette paper. Most people probably had supplies at home that would last at least a week. They were going out and buying entire shopping carts full of paper, enough to last a year in some cases. There were videos online of people showing their houses with new dividers constructed of toilette paper. Toilette paper has an indefinite shelf life and in that sense is a good investment. Eventually it will get used. Also, in case the economic collapse gets real bad, toilette paper makes a good currency to barter for more useful things. People may be willing to exchange some food for some toilette paper, and toilette paper has a long shelf life in terms of its value.

The rush on toilette paper thoroughly exhausted the entire supply chain. The result was that the entire aisles for paper products were empty for many months, at times only displaying a couple items at a time with lots of empty shelf space. Now a year later, I still notice things lacking that I used to always find. This was entirely predictable. Toilette paper itself is not an essential commodity, but the obsession illustrates a neurotic behavior. People were expecting not to get to a store for many months, even expecting a future economy where it would be necessary to have something to barter in order to get some food.

We were reliving the 1950s fall-out shelters, but where the shelter was the comfort of the usual home. Like the fall-out shelter, there was an acceptance that people will need to stay inside for a long while. I think the current neuroticism will last for a decade, similar to the peak of people’s attention toward building and stocking fall-out shelters. Eventually, people will decide that living and enjoying the present does not need to be sacrificed for this threat that remains as real as ever before. Courage is better than neuroticism.

Recently, we replaced the toilette paper obsession, with the obsession of filling our cars with gasoline. A major pipeline shut down leading to drastic slower delivery of gas to stations. There were immediately reports of some unfortunate gas station having a sign of being out of gas, probably because its normally scheduled replenishment was delayed. This lead to people going to top off their tanks, just in case. Then there were the reports of cars lining up for long distances to get their gas. Soon a good fraction of all gas stations had depleted tanks and this statistic became the news.

While there was a slowdown in delivery, the overall system could maintain the normal daily distribution of gas for some time. The reason why the gas disappeared was because people behaved neurotically in thinking that gas will be hard to get for a long time so they needed as much as possible in their tanks. This thinking was self-fulfilling even after the pipeline is restored, because there is not enough supply trucks and drivers to refill all the tanks. I expect people will continue to top off their tanks for several weeks. Like with the toilette paper situation, I expect to still find empty gas stations several months from now.

The news of the cause of the pipeline was known immediately. It was an information technology issue and even though it was difficult to solve, the infrastructure itself would be ready when it is solved. The appropriate response would be to expect that the experts would figure this out and get things back to normal soon enough. In the mean time, be a little more cautious about using the fuel. Instead what happened was a dire expectation that this will last a long time. This expectation was coming from the government, or at least the government was doing little to reassure otherwise.

I am sure there is some analysis somewhere that predicted that the harm done would take a very long time to solve. Due to that time, there would eventually become a complete collapse of the economy for a major fraction of the country. The government must act on preparing for this eventuality. It is important to get everyone’s tanks topped off because this will last a while.

Curiously absent from this analysis is the expectation that the experts would competently solve the problems quickly.

That is the ultimate failure. Science itself is saying we can’t trust the application of established science. Every problem must require a new practice or technology. We no longer trust that existing practices and technologies can successfully solve a novel situation. The ultimate conclusion is that we need to be neurotic all the time and about all things.

Panic buying is rational when we trust the neurotics.


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