What Concerns Me About Coronavirus? The Long Term

Obviously, the immediate concern regarding the coronavirus is preventing deaths right now. As I wrote in another piece though, it concerns me that the general approach to the coronavirus has been essentially week-to-week. Warnings about the virus came as early as last November, so there are few excuses for why we were so unprepared. Better preparation would have saved lives.

Despite official statements to the contrary, the coronavirus is not going away anytime soon. As political leaders failed to plan for the beginning of the pandemic, I fear they are not planning for the rest of the pandemic and its aftermath either. There are many, many bad things that can happen as a result of poor pandemic mitigation. These are the three that concern me the most.


Children in one of the Syrian refugee camps in the Beqaa region, Lebanon. Source: https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/2230156/mobilization-restricts-movement-syrian-refugees-lebanon

There are so many vulnerable populations that are going to be devastated by this virus that I could write an entire post about it. For now though, I want to focus on two groups: Black people and refugees.

I’ve already talked about the challenges Black people are facing now from the coronavirus. In the long term, my big fear is that coronavirus is going to persist in the Black community for decades, in the same way that HIV/AIDS continues to plague us. Coronavirus is here forever now, and so is racism. When the pandemic is “over,” we’re still going to be dying from this.

I have the same concerns about refugees, with an additional worry- refugee flows can destabilize entire countries and change governments. We’ve seen this already happen in Europe as a result of migration. When coronavirus starts ravaging refugee camps and migrants (which is a matter of when, not if), there’s no way to predict the long-term political and social consequences. The best thing governments and leaders can do is to rapidly improve conditions in refugee camps, commit the resources necessary to prevent spread and treat the sick, and respect the humanity of people already in incredibly difficult situations.

That seems very unlikely though.


I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again- Donald Trump is not going to concede the election if he loses. If he loses the immunity of being President, then he gets indicted by the state of New York and most likely dies in jail. All of his incentives are to stay in office as long as possible.

I believed that to be true under the best case scenario, with a clear, decisive win by the Democratic candidate. Barring some kind of miracle, we are not going to have a best-case scenario election in November. It will take place as people continue to die from COVID-19 and weigh whether they want to risk voting or not; or it will happen with mail-in voting; or it will be in the middle of a second wave; or it will happen in some condition we can’t imagine today. And there will still be the matter of Russian (and probably every other country’s) intelligence services fucking around with election stuff.

Suffice to say, it will not be ideal, and will give President Trump plenty of fertile soil in which to contest the results. After what we saw yesterday with armed white men storming a statehouse, I don’t think we should take ANYTHING for granted about how Election Day and the weeks after could go.

At least, that’s what I think is going to happen. My nightmare scenario, though, is that elections are postponed or, in the craziest outcome, cancelled. A second wave of coronavirus could absolutely lead to postponed elections (especially because Republicans have already made it very clear that they’re going to fight mail-in voting). In fact, states are already postponing and canceling elections. The convergence of the coronavirus and political expediency could even incentivize the postponing of national elections, especially as Republicans grow more concerned about their chances of holding the Senate.


Source: https://en.wikinews.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_China.png

The rhetoric about China from politicians and other leaders has become more and more bellicose over the last five years. As I’ve written about before, many people in government and other fields see China as a great power competitor, and have shifted their thinking from cooperation to competition.

That thinking has experienced a major acceleration since the coronavirus pandemic. There have been proposals to limit Chinese students entering the United States, “decouple” our economies and bring supply chains home, and to “make China pay.” The anti-China statements are not exclusive to the right by any means; Joe Biden released an ad where he accused Trump of “rolling over for the Chinese,” and even our own Chris Murphy has written about Trump’s weakness on China as the reason for him targeting the World Health Organization. The implication is clear: where Trump has been weak, the Democrats would be strong. Both parties sound dangerous here.

But not to be outdone, Trump took it to the next level last night when he said that he’d seen evidence that the virus originated in a Wuhan laboratory. That’s quite a claim to make, especially when almost everyone else is saying it’s unlikely the virus came from a lab (even the intelligence community).

This is perhaps the part of this essay which risks sounding the most histrionic, but we’ve all seen the potential catastrophes that can result when the President lies about intelligence. With the already tense environment even before the pandemic began, I think my greatest concern is the continued deterioration of the China-US relationship.

These are all major challenges, and again, they are just a few of the ones facing us. I didn’t even mention the economy, because that’s so fucked I don’t even know where to begin expressing my worries. Our leadership failed to prepare for the virus, and the result has been 60,000 deaths (and counting). My fear is that if leaders don’t start planning instead of reacting, the result may be hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of deaths.

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How Bad is this Pandemic?

I’ve been really down since all of this started, like many people. This pandemic is bad. But part of my anxiety comes from not knowing how bad the pandemic is- that makes it difficult to plan for the future, and allows my imagination to go to some dark places regarding all of this.

That anxiety is compounded by the fact that different authorities are presenting wildly different information. I don’t mean discrepancies between this death toll count and that one; that’s understandable, and the numbers are still in the same ballpark.

I mean things like Vice President Pence saying that the pandemic may be largely behind us by summer, while Dr. Igsby of Johns Hopkins University is saying we could see between 58,000-110,000 Americans die in the next month. This is the same timeframe. Both of these statements cannot be true.

What does the data say? I’m not a doctor, but I think I know how to read a chart. First, I went back and checked the date that Connecticut’s stay-at-home order went into effect, which was March 23rd. There were 415 cases and ten deaths in CT as of that date. As of Sunday, 04/26, Connecticut stands at 25,269 cases and 1,924 deaths.

Below are charts to illustrate the rise in both cases and deaths in Connecticut over the last month. Remember, all these tests and deaths happened after the quarantine started here (many of the exposures may have happened before):

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in CT. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map
Deaths from COVID-19 in CT. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map

At first, I was confused by these charts, because I keep hearing on the news that we may be “turning a corner” or that “the worst is behind us.” But I realized that flattening the curve means exactly that- you flatten the curve, but the curve continues to rise.

For comparison, here are the confirmed cases and deaths for two other states that have been in the news a great deal. Here’s New York:

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in NY. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map
Deaths from COVID-19 in NY. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map

And here’s Georgia:

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in GA. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map
Deaths from COVID-19 in GA. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map

Again, all of these increases happened during quarantines and social distancing.

The story is the same nationally. I checked the number of Americans who had died from COVID-19 on March 23, thanks to Yale’s School of Medicine. There were 40,000 infections and 473 deaths on that day. According to the CDC, yesterday we stood at over 900,000 confirmed cases and over 50,000 deaths. That’s 50,000 people killed in a little bit over a month:

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map
Deaths from COVID-19 in the United States. Source: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/us-map

Like i said, I’m not a doctor. But these charts show me a consistent increase in the number of cases and deaths over the last month, even with social distancing. Where in this data is the support for opening? Again, I’m only looking at charts, but they don’t seem ambiguous or confusing. If I had to guess who will be closer to being right about what things are going to look like in June, I think Dr. Igsby’s statements are closer to what the charts say than Vice President Pence.

Which begs the question: why are elected officials telling us things are going to be better? I think that’s the most depressing thing out of all of this, because more people are going to die. That’s a fact, even if we did everything perfectly. The far-from-perfect way things are going now assures that the number of people who die will be higher than it needs to be.

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Where Am I On the Political Spectrum?

My friend and writing partner, Jamil, just published a piece about where he sits on the political spectrum. He came out as pretty far left-libertarian according to The Political Compass. He talked for a bit about how he doesn’t see himself as libertarian, but it’s good food for thought.

Naturally, his piece got me thinking about my own place on the political spectrum. I often comment that I don’t feel really comfortable anywhere in the standard discussions of politics. When I vote, I virtually always vote Democrat, which would put me kind of center/left. But, I don’t vote Democrat because I agree with all, or even a majority, of their positions. I vote Democrat because it’s the only pragmatic, and ethical, option.

I decided to take the same Political Compass test that Jamil took. I got

Economic Left/Right: -5.63
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.82

personalised chart

I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s probably true that I’m economically left, but I don’t blame capitalism for all of life’s woes. In fact, I think actual socialism is silly at best, so I’m probably close to OK on the left/right ranking. But, this scale put me at way more libertarian than I think of myself.

I know it’s not talking about the Libertarian political party, or even the libertarian ideas that have taken hold in the main-stream Republican party, but, in general, I’m not a big freedom guy. I’m all for big government and strong regulations. I think governments are the only way to tackle issues like the environment, public health, transportation, and education. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think of myself as authoritarian either. I just thought I’d be a lot closer to center on the vertical line of the chart.

Jamil said that his piece was an exercise in self-understanding. That’s certainly a worthy goal. I just don’t think this particular exercise helped me that much. It does suggest a project for me, though. I can try to explore the political terrain more and see if there’s anywhere I feel comfortable. Kind of an, “If I got to design a political party, what would it look like?” type of exercise. I think I could really learn something from that.

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How Far to the Left Am I?

The inept federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the needless deaths of thousands of people, have gotten me back into writing about politics. My first piece back was about Bernie Sanders. While I still think it needed to be said, I don’t want to be negative all the time. This is a time where any idea, from any corner, could save someone’s life.

To better understand how I can help, I should probably better understand my own position on the political spectrum. And what better way to gain insight into oneself than an online quiz! The quiz is The Political Compass, a fairly well-known political test. In describing itself, the website states

Our essential point is that Left and Right, although far from obsolete, are essentially a measure of economics. As political establishments adopt either enthusiastically or reluctantly the prevailing economic orthodoxy — the neo-liberal strain of capitalism — the Left-Right division between mainstream parties becomes increasingly blurred. Instead, party differences tend to be more about identity issues. In the narrowing debate, our social scale is more crucial than ever.

Source: https://www.politicalcompass.org/about

People of good faith can disagree on this point, but I’m fine with accepting this premise to take and use the test. Enough preamble though, on to the results!

Pretty far to the left as it turns out! But I was very surprised that I scored so close to the bottom of the chart- so far, in fact, that my test results put me into the “Left-libertarian” category. I’ve never thought of myself as a libertarian (although a good friend has been trying to lead me down the path- you know who you are!), although I suppose the title could apply to my social views. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, I don’t care what anyone does. I mean that in the most apathetic sense of the phrase. I just don’t care about other people’s sex lives or anything else.

I don’t have any real antipathy towards government authority though, which seems to be a requirement for political libertarianism:

Libertarians want people to be able to live peacefully together in civil society. Cooperation is better than coercion. Peaceful coexistence and voluntary cooperation require an institution to protect us from outside threats, deter or punish criminals, and settle the disputes that will inevitably arise among neighbors—a government, in short. Thus, to criticize a wide range of the activities undertaken by federal and state governments—from Social Security to drug prohibition to out-of-control taxation—is not to be “anti-government.” It is simply to insist that what we want is a limited government that attends to its necessary and proper functions.

Cato Institute: https://www.cato.org/blog/are-libertarians-anti-government

I don’t have a problem with the federal government expanding its authority beyond what’s written in the Constitution, through Congress. I think it has to because it’s so difficult to amend the Constitution. Yes, I have complaints about federal authority under President Trump, but no dislike for government’s authority in general. In fact, I would support the government expanding its authority in this crisis to save lives; I’m not sure how compatible that is with libertarianism. I also support ideas like the government paying for all healthcare.

This quiz isn’t the end of the journey simply because it gave me a label. The next step is to understand it. I’m going to read the whole left libertarian wiki page. Then I’m going to learn about some other labels, and see if maybe they fit me a little better. The point is to ground myself in some actual ideas so that I’m not only writing about what I don’t like, but more about what I do like and what I think will help.

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Star Trek

I’ve been a Star Trek fan my whole life. My mom was a fan in the sixties and we used to watch the original series together on reruns when I was little. I watched The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 faithfully. When Voyager came out, I tried to watch when I could, but it was on a new network, UPN, and I didn’t have cable at the time, so I missed a lot. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, it was just circumstances. By the time Enterprise arrived, I had cable and watched it faithfully. Since I’ve gotten streaming services, I’ve watched the animated series, Discovery, Short Treks, and Picard. And I just finished watching all seven seasons of Voyager, so I’m caught up. I’ve now watched every episode of every series that Star Trek has aired. It feels like an accomplishment, so I thought I’d write a rambling, unfocused post about Star Trek in general.

Since everyone likes rankings, I guess I’ll start there. Deep Space Nine is my favorite and Sisko is the best captain. The original series is a close second. Then, I think I go with Voyager, followed by Enterprise. TNG comes next. Bringing up the rear are Discovery, then Short Treks, then Picard, and, finally, the animated series. I understand that I’m not being completely fair to that last group. Three of them are just getting started, and the animated series feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon than a Star Trek. I tend to think of the original series, TNG, DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise as core Trek.

Some readers might have noticed something odd about my rankings. Of the core Trek shows, I ranked The Next Generation last. I actually surprised myself when I was thinking about it. I’m not sure anyone ranks TNG last. People usually talk about it or the original series as being the best. But, as I was thinking about it, I realized that the first season of TNG is abysmal. And the second season isn’t much better. Three, four, and five are great. Six is hit and miss. And seven is pretty spotty. The highs may be higher than any of the other shows, but the lows are way lower than any of the other shows, and there are quite a few lows.

That being said, I really like The Next Generation. Patrick Stewart is all kinds of awesome and so is the rest of the cast. Everyone talks about the Trek captains, but it’s the engineers and doctors that make the shows. Laforge and Crusher are fantastic. The theme music is also fantastic (I find it disappointing that TV shows don’t have themes anymore). And, as I mentioned before, when it was great, it was really, really great.

Enterprise probably has the worst reputation of the core Treks, but I don’t know why. Tripp is a great engineer, and Phlox is a fun doctor. The Xindi season was excellent. As was the final season (Except for the finale. Why they decided to make the last Enterprise and episode of TNG is beyond me.) I like the way the last season was almost entirely made up of two to three episode story arcs. Other shows had the occasional two-parter, but this felt more like a purposeful, story-telling device. It’s something that The Clone Wars picked up on a few years later, but that’s mixing Star Trek and Star Wars in one post, and that’s probably a no-no.

Voyager is a bit of a weird one for me. If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said it was the worst of the Treks. But, now that I’ve watched it from beginning to end, it’s really grown on me. I’m amazed at how many episodes I had missed. I think it seemed lesser to me because I hadn’t seen more than half the episodes. I missed a ton of character development and general nuance the first time around. Like most people, I think the show improved when Seven joined the cast. But I don’t think that’s the character herself as much as it is the writing. I don’t feel like the writers ever knew what to do with Kes. The were more confident with Seven. I think B’Elanna Torres and The Doctor are the standout characters, once again the engineer and the doctor. I’m so glad I finally caught up.

The new series are still works in progress. Discovery, at this point, is the type of Sci-Fi that’s fun, as long as you don’t think about it too much. The cast is very likable. I was nervous about the production values as the first Trek to be exclusively on a streaming service, but it looks great. In some ways, it almost looks too good. I think it was a mistake to set it ten years prior to the original series since the technology on the Discovery puts Voyager and the Enterprise D to shame. One thing I have to say about this show is that it burns through plot like nothing I’ve ever watched before. The first season started with Starfleet’s first mutiny, then the Klingon war, then Michael’s liberation from prison, then the spore drive craziness, then the mirror universe, then back to the Klingon war, then the double agent, then the end of the Klingon war, then the captain being the mirror universe doppelganger, and the reintroduction of Georgiou. It was crazy. Plus, I’m probably forgetting some plot points. And it didn’t slow down in the second season. I think it’s a good thing that they’ve jumped the setting into the future after the events of all the other Trek properties. One of the bummers of Discovery is that the doctor is barely a character. The engineer is fine, though. They’re even in a relationship with each other, there was so much potential, but the doctor never got developed. It’s not in a class with the core Treks, but it’s entertaining.

Short Treks is all over the place. Each one is a stand alone ten-ish minute episode. There’s no real continuity with characters, settings, plots, or anything else. Some of them, like the one where Spock and his new first officer get stuck in a turbolift, are lots of fun. Others, like the one where two school-age children learn that their parents were killed on Mars, are pretty bad. But, at only ten minutes a piece, I can’t complain too much.

Picard only has one season in the books, but man, oh man, was it a frustrating season. Patrick Stewart is still awesome in the title role. He could probably read the phone book and make it entertaining. And some of the nostalgia was nice with Riker and Troi. But it made a ton of mistakes. First and foremost was taking the destruction of Romulus from the JJ Abrams movie and using that as a starting point for the series. That whole movie was a mistake and just put the series on shakey narrative ground. Then, add the fact that the whole season could have been done in an episode and a half, and things get really messy. Basically, the plot of season one was the same as the two-parter from season seven of Voyager, Flesh and Blood. The only difference is that instead of holograms rising up against organics, it’s synthetics (basically androids) doing the same thing. It was better on Voyager. There were also a lot of weird annoyances. Why would you bring back Icheb only to kill him (in a far too gruesome fashion for Star Trek) without him doing or saying anything? The character deserved better. And Seven’s character was awfully different. I know she’d been on a quest to explore her humanity, and time has passed, but it felt more like a reboot than growth. And what happened to her relationship with Chakotay? The best I can say is that it wasn’t as bad as the first season of TNG, so I’ll keep some hope alive for season two.

Since I mentioned the movies, a quick side note. I’ve also seen all the movies. The three newest ones are a complete waste of time. Wrath of Khan is the best, with First Contact a close second. I thoroughly enjoyed The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home. The others are all varying degrees of fine. Certainly watchable, but not essential.

Now, back to TV and the core Treks. I like basically everything about the original series. McCoy and Scotty, the doctor and the engineer, are awesome. So are Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu. Even Nurse Chapel and Yeoman Rand are pretty cool. These are some of my earliest childhood memories, so in a lot of ways, the original series taught me about story-telling and allegory and science fiction and all that stuff. It’s my benchmark. The City on the Edge of Forever, The Trouble With Tribbles, and The Devil in the Dark are still some of my favorite hours of television.

Finally, we come to Deep Space Nine, which is simply the best. I can’t figure out how anyone could disagree with me about that. I could write pages on this show alone. Bashir and O’Brien are the best Doctor/Engineer combo you can find. I was always disappointed that they never made a DS9 movie, but I think they could have made at least three buddy comedies starring these two that would have been great. The show had a huge, sprawling cast, and they were all pretty great. Even characters like Nog and Dumar and Kai Winn had actual character arcs. When they went for funny, they nailed it. Just look at The Magnificent Ferengi. When they went for intensity, they nailed it. Just look at In the Pale Moonlight. They even nailed period drama with Far Beyond the Stars. There are more great episodes than I can list here, but I do want to mention Trials and Tribbleations and Take Me Out to the Holosuite as two favorites.

The thing that really set DS9 apart was the writing. The show came out at a time when TV reset itself every week. Deep Space Nine changed that all up. The show was heavily serialized. They knew what was going to happen in the last episode when they wrote the first episode. That’s become somewhat common on TV, but it was revolutionary at the time. I still think it did serialization better than mostly any other show. You can watch almost any random episode of DS9 and enjoy it on its own. But watching in sequence makes everything so much richer. The original series might be my benchmark, but the writing on DS9 makes me jealous.

That’s probably more of my Star Trek opinions than anyone needed, so I’ll stop now. But if anyone out there is new to the Trek universe, I want to encourage you to jump in. It’s great in here.

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Why I Didn’t Support Bernie Sanders

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/49624954238/

After reading Joe Biden’s unimaginative, business-as-usual op-ed in the New York Times, I wondered, “How has the progressive left come to this?” In the end, it was Bernie Sanders as the progressive representative against Biden, and to be honest, I disliked both of these candidates equally. My dream candidate, Stacey Abrams, didn’t run, and my top choice, Elizabeth Warren, dropped out. I just couldn’t bring myself to support Sanders though.

After giving it some thought, here are the main reasons I didn’t support Sanders. Please, I DO NOT WANT people trying to convince me that Sanders really is awesome or that I was mistaken. The man has been running for president for five years- I have a pretty good idea of what he’s about from my perspective. This is simply why I did not support Sanders, if you want to know.

1) Back in 2016, both he and Hillary Clinton came to CT during that year’s primaries. Bernie held a large campaign rally, while Clinton visited the Wilson-Grey YMCA in Hartford. Clinton’s decision to visit my neighborhood was a gesture that spoke to me more than images from Bernie’s rally. That secured my Clinton vote in 2016.

2) Elizabeth Warren didn’t endorse him, which is a huge deal to me. It’s not only because she was my preferred choice, but because they were extremely similar in many policy ideas, and STILL she wouldn’t endorse him. I think it’s because Bernie was an asshole to her (see his comments to her about a woman being unable to win), and that makes me worry about his ability to actually build coalitions. As I noted above, I’m not that impressed by Bernie’s speeches. I would like a president who can actually get things done.

3) He had a heart attack. I was surprised that the media skated by that fact so quickly.

4) He’s still an old white man. Perhaps the craziest part of this entire election to me is that the right, the center left and the progressive left all ended up being represented by 70 year old white men. I keep being told that Bernie is going to be different, but that’s not what I see. What I see is that the progressive left is made up of young people, people of color, women and others who passionately care about the issues of the progressive left. I’ve seen them working hard since President Trump’s election. And in the four years since 2016, the same old voice was elevated. Again. I’m personally past the point of believing, “This guy is different! You’ll see!” as a matter of faith.

There really are more reasons, but I wanted to stick with the main ones. I just want to try to explain that people have actual reasons for why they don’t support Bernie. 

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Philosophy Phridays – Philosophy of Humor

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Philosophy of Humor.

Finally, one of these random entries is on a topic I’m legitimately interested in. I’ve actually read a good chunk of the pieces in the bibliography. I’m lacking a little with the anthropology of humor, but I feel like I’m on pretty solid ground.

The article starts with the sad truth that humor isn’t something that philosophers have spent much time with over the centuries. It’s a glaring hole in the literature. Humor is such a vital part of our everyday lives from the time we’re infants until we die that you would think it would have been analyzed to death. Sadly, that’s not the case.

A good guess as to why it has been largely ignored is that, up until the 18th century, the philosophers who did talk about humor mostly presented it in a bad light. Like a lot of things, we can blame Plato for that. Plato wanted humor to be strictly regulated for two basic reasons. One is that laughter can lead to a loss of control. It causes an imbalance in the soul by supplanting rationality. The other is that a lot of humor is based on feelings of superiority (I’ll talk more about this later). This is what we call making fun of someone or something. Plato viewed it as a type of attack, and therefore a vice.

The Christian scholars took these ideas and ran with them (Aquinas was a notable exception. He saw value in humor.), making laughter sinful. I guess it matches with the worldview that was common for thousands of years that anything pleasurable is sinful. It must have been miserable living in medieval Europe, though. Finally, in the eighteenth century, some other views of humor started to emerge. This has continued until we, in the modern world, tend to view humor as a positive.

There are four basic theories of humor in the literature: The Superiority Theory, The Relief Theory, The Incongruity Theory, and Humor as Play. The superiority theory goes back to at least Plato. From the article, “Simply put, our laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people or over a former state of ourselves.” In other words, we laugh at those that we see as foolish or ridiculous. It’s a way of looking down on others or ourselves. Some laughter obviously does fit this theory. I think everyone can remember a time when they have been a victim of this kind of humor. And most of us can also remember a time when we’ve made fun of others. Unlike Plato, I don’t think this is necessarily bad. There’s a long tradition of people bonding through putting each other down. And some people deserve to be taken down. But, it’s also not the highest form of humor. It’s surprising that the superiority theory was dominate for so long because there are obviously other types of humor.

The relief theory came from Lord Shaftesbury’s essay “An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor” (This is also the first written example of the word humor being used in the modern sense). Freud elaborated on it and gave what is probably its most influential treatment. The relief theory basically says that laughter is like a release valve for pent up nervous energy. Freud said it was a way of dealing with repressed feelings. Again, on one level, the relief theory is obviously true. We all have laughed when nervous or stressed. At the same time, it misses a lot of things that we find humorous.

The incongruity theory is the most popular among modern philosophers. It says that what we find funny is when something is incongruous. When it goes against our expectations or normal patters. This does cover a lot of humor, from wordplay to stand-up comedy to satire and farce. Look at one of the oldest jokes in the book, “Take my wife. Please!” The set up creates expectations, that the joke teller is going to tell a story about his wife. Then, the punch line goes in a different direction and forces the listener to reevaluate what was meant by the set up. In this case, he wasn’t setting up a story about his wife, he was ordering the audience to take his wife. It’s when you understand the thwarted expectation and grasp the new meaning that you “get” a joke. It’s almost like solving a puzzle. As I said, this does cover a lot of what we think of as humorous. But, I think, it clearly leaves stuff out. There are tons of “inside” jokes among friends and families where the punchline actually reinforces the expectations. If there is a friend in your group who hates change, you can probably get a laugh when a change happens by asking, “What does Jane think of it?” and having someone answer, “She hates it.”

The last major theory is humor as play. This idea has been pushed by the people looking for evolutionary reasons for humor. And, again, in some forms of humor it is obviously true. The idea is that humor comes from the same kind of impulses that get us to play games and sports. It’s a way for us to develop skills and experiment with our capabilities in a safe manner. Riddles might be the clearest example of humor as play. We frequently turn riddles into a game. However, like the other theories, this leaves out important aspects of humor. A lot of satire is far too serious to be called play.

This brings me to something that has always bothered me about the philosophy of humor, and the idea of general theories. Supporters of each of these theories of humor act like they can, and should, be able to explain everything about humor. That has always struck me as absurd. As I’ve pointed out talking about each of the theories, they are true in some cases, but not in others. We laugh for many, many different reasons. There’s no good reason to think all of them can be covered by any one theory.

The article ends with a discussion of the similarities between comedy and philosophy. It points out that both philosophers and comedians pay close attention to language, that they both look for the unexpected in ordinary life, and things like that. There’s a quote from Wittgenstein that, “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” I’m surprised the article didn’t use that quote, but that’s the main point of the end section.

So, that’s a bit about the philosophy of humor. It’s a fascinating subject. I hope more philosophers take it up. I, for one, would be happy to read their ideas.

Morreall, John, “Philosophy of Humor”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/humor/>.

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The Debate About Voting Has Gotten Really Weird

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The Democratic nomination of Joe Biden is basically settled. Realistically, it has been since the beginning of March. But many states, including my own, still have primaries upcoming. In some cases, there are still primary races for non-presidential contests. For most of us in these states, though, we have been disenfranchised from the primary process. My state is both late-voting and small, so I’m pretty used to being disenfranchised. It never stops annoying me. But that’s not really what I’m here to talk about.

There has always been a lot of debate in the U.S. about voting. For the past fifty years, it’s basically played out that Democrats, and those on the left generally, want every person who can to vote. And the Republicans, and those on the right generally, want to restrict the number of people who vote. That’s a big part of the reason that it’s been morally unconscionable to vote for a Republican in my lifetime. Of course the Republicans don’t openly admit to what they’re trying to do. They mask it in terms of fraud and racist dog whistles, but they know their positions are not broadly popular, so they wouldn’t win if everyone actually voted.

Some of the tried and true techniques the Republicans use to suppress voting are closing or moving polling stations, changing dates and times when voting will happen, and last minute changes to the voting process itself. These methods create confusion, which ensures that some people won’t bother voting. Plus, these methods will make some of the people who try to vote do it incorrectly, so their votes will not count. And, of course, the people who are most likely to be tricked out of their votes with these methods are the poor, non-native English speakers, the uneducated, and people with difficult schedules.

Since coronavirus has taken over the land, there’s been a shift. Now it’s the Republicans who are insisting that polling places be open at their regular times and places while Democrats are trying to make last minute changes and delays. Republicans are trying to stick with the traditional methods of voting while the Democrats are trying to introduce new processes at the last minute. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!

It’s not that people’s ideologies have changed. The Republicans simply realized that if elections happen while everyone is panicked about the virus, turnout will be low. Democrats, panicking about the virus, have decided that any attempt at normality during a public health crisis is too big a risk. We’re left with a lot of chaos and finger-pointing.

None of this should be an issue. It’s 2020. It’s the future for Pete’s sake. The fact that we don’t have safe, reliable online voting is crazy. It’s even crazier that many parts of the country don’t have safe, reliable mail in voting either. It’s because the Republicans have been so successful in their voter suppression over the last fifty years, but it’s still shocking. It seems like it’s too late to get anything implemented that would help this primary season. I honestly don’t know if it’s possible to get anything implemented before November.

And now we’re stuck in a situation where everything seems wrong. It’s not that I don’t understand where the Democrats are coming from, but the idea of delaying or cancelling an election terrifies me. My state already delayed our primary. It was supposed to be at the end of April and now it’s going to be at the beginning of June. That shook me, a lot. I can’t believe more people aren’t upset about it. But, the other option, implementing a new voting system mere days or weeks prior to an election, is also pretty terrifying. Trust is vital to any election. I don’t see any new system having the trust of the people unless it is carefully planned and thoroughly tested. I just don’t know how that can happen for this election.

I guess this is just a long winded way of saying that everything is messed up. I wish I knew what to do about it. I’m pretty sure we’re all screwed when it comes to the 2020 election, but I’ll try to hold out hope that life is somehow back to normal by November and we can all vote like we’ve done in the past. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than not voting at all.

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Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

When the whole coronavirus lock down started, I thought I would get a lot of writing done. It’s kind of the perfect conditions. I can’t go anywhere or do much of anything. I’m by myself most of the time. Instead I’ve found myself with a severe case of writer’s block. I can’t even get started. I don’t have any ideas for things to write about. I even missed my March story for the 12 stories in 12 months challenge.

Part of the problem is that I really don’t want to write about the virus. There’s more than enough hot takes and bad opinions out there. I don’t want to add to that. But, the virus has so completely overwhelmed everything else in society, that it’s hard to think about anything else. I’ve thought about a few things, like complaining about the first season of Star Trek: Picard, or complaining about Bernie and writing something about how glad I am that he’s out of the race, but complaining doesn’t feel like the right thing to do.

I have managed to write a few things that are virus-adjacent. They haven’t been what I want, though. So, I thought I’d try a little experiment. I’d like you to help me with my writer’s block. You pick the topics, you tell me what I should write about. No topic is off limits. I’ll even complain or write about the virus if you want me to. Let me know what you want to read about while the virus has you isolated and I’ll give it my best. Just leave a comment on the blog, or on Facebook, or Twitter, or any other way that you have to reach me. Thanks in advance.

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Epidemic and Pandemic

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We have been hearing the words epidemic and pandemic a lot recently. I am not a doctor or a biologist or an infectious disease expert. I’m not anything that can really be called a scientist. So, I only vaguely knew what these words mean. I knew they had to do with a disease and its spread. I knew they were alarming. But I never knew what made a specific incident of a disease an epidemic or a pandemic. I assumed there was a specific definition, like if a disease infects x% of a given population, it is an epidemic. Or if an outbreak infects people across y square kilometers, it is a pandemic. It turns out I was wrong.

I am a writer and very interested in language. I like to understand what words mean, both connotatively and denotatively. I like to understand how words are used, both literally and figuratively. Since I’ve been hearing epidemic and pandemic so much recently, I started doing some investigating. I went to www.merriam-webster.com (because where else would a good Nutmegger go?) and looked up epidemic and pandemic. According to Webster, an epidemic is, “affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time,” or, “an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time.” And a pandemic is, “occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population,” or, “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.” I found the definitions for both of these words to be a let down.

So, I tried looking the words up in a medical dictionary. For epidemic I found, “The occurrence of more cases of a disease than would be expected in a community or region during a given time period,” and for pandemic I found, “An epidemic (a sudden outbreak) that becomes very widespread and affects a whole region, a continent, or the world due to a susceptible population.” Those aren’t any better. I also tried WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, and a bunch of other sites. None of them provided a better definition. From what I can find, it wasn’t my understanding of the words that was vague. The words themselves are vague.

If I understand these definitions (and as I said before, I’m not a doctor, so I might be misunderstanding something), almost anything can be an epidemic or a pandemic. If a disease normally infects one in a million people each year, but this year it infects three in a million people, that is an epidemic. It’s a sudden and sharp increase in the number of people infected. And if those people happen to be spread out geographically, that epidemic is a pandemic. They just don’t feel very scientific in the sense that they are not easily quantifiable. And they aren’t necessarily the same for everyone. It’s entirely possible that China calls something an epidemic, and the United States doesn’t, and they are both right. It’s possible that Africa calls something a pandemic, and Europe doesn’t, and they’re both right.

There would have been some comfort in specific, definite definitions. Instead, the vagueness makes these words more alarming than I found them before. It almost feels like that is their main point, to scare people. The word epidemic sounds threatening. The word pandemic sounds cataclysmic.

One lesson that I learned when I was very young was that panic is bad. Panic makes a bad situation worse. Since all the words epidemic and pandemic seem to do is invite us to panic, perhaps we should use them less. I’m not trying to minimize the current situation. We should try talking about the actual data instead. Then, we should put the data in context. And we should do it calmly. Things are scary enough without our word choices making it worse.

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