Dancing With the Virus

In a recent email to an old friend I described my movements through the world of social distancing:

I continue to go out twice a day for runs and walks. It’s started to feel more like a kind of game, keeping track of who else is out there and adjusting my trajectory to maintain safe distance. Bicycles coming up from behind are the biggest challenge, so I’ve adjusted my habits to looking behind me every 30 seconds or so. I’ve also taken to wearing my Biohazard t-shirt on afternoon runs — it might not serve as fair warning but it seems to cloak me in a kind of absurdist protective psychological bubble. The first day I wore it a passing motorist rolled down his window and shouted NICE SHIRT at me — that’s the spirit.

In reply my friend linked me to a NYT article written by a dancer, who describes the collective maneuvers required to sustain social distancing in public places as a kind of choreography:

In this time of confinement, we have been given one immeasurable gift — the freedom to go outside. In exchange, we must abide by a simple rule: Stay six feet away from others. As choreographic intentions go, that’s not remotely vague. Yet during my runs and walks in Brooklyn over the past few days, I’ve noticed that six feet doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody.

Spatial awareness, like coordination, isn’t a given. Watching the choices people make when they move in public, much less in this time of social distancing, can be shocking, from the much-bemoaned tourist who comes to a grinding halt in Times Square to the woman with a yoga mat knocking people aside to get her spot on the floor. (It’s OK; she’ll still feel good about bowing her head and saying namaste.)

The six-feet-away rule is simple, but it’s a proxy. We’re not trying to dance around one another; we’re trying to dance around the virus — an invisible partner.

A 2007 study measured the distances that breath droplets can travel before evaporating when expelled by breathing, sneezing, and coughing.

Ordinary breath travels at a rate of 1 meter per second, with droplets evaporating within less than 1 meter distance from the breather. Coughing increases the droplet spray distance to around 2 meters, so maintaining a distance of 2 meters (around 6 feet) seems adequate for coronavirus. But what if the breather is walking? At 3 MPH, a walker travels 1.3 meters per second. Add walking speed to breath speed and the walker’s breath droplet precipitation zone extends to 2 meters — still good, as long as nobody coughs or sneezes. What if another walker is walking toward me? Add that person’s 2 meters to mine = 4 meter distancing seems okay. What about a runner? At an average running speed of 6MPH or 2.7 meters/second, the droplet trail extends to around 3.5 meters. A bicyclist traveling at 15MPH generates a breathing droplet trail of around 7.5 meters.

These calcs support the intuitive sense that safe distance is correlated with speed — pretty much like anticipating safe braking distance while driving at different speeds. It’s the game played at level 2, demanding more intricate choreography than the simple 6-foot rule of level 1.

On the trails it’s the bicyclists who make the choreography most difficult, dragging their spray of breath droplets in their wake while coming up at speed from behind. But the walkers tend to stretch themselves in clumps across the entire width of the trail. So I’ve taken to walking and running along the sides of the roads. Drivers of cars are pretty much keeping their breath to themselves. And while cars too exhale noxious fumes, these days it’s a matter of picking your poison. And of course being bumped by a fellow pedestrian isn’t quite the same level of hazard as being bumped by a car.

It’s 7am — time to dance my way through the viral chorus line…

Riding the Corona Wave

According to IHME projections, the daily coronavirus body count will max out on April 16 — 9 days from now — before tailing off as abruptly as it began. Most of those fated to die on April 16 are already symptomatic, having caught the virus maybe a couple of weeks ago. Those who catch the virus today and subsequently die from the disease will likely do so toward the end of April. By then, daily COVID deaths are projected to be about one-third of what they’ll be on the 16th. That means that the rate of contagion — the likelihood of your contracting the virus from an infected person — is today about a third of what it was 3 weeks ago.

Why then the dire warnings not to set foot outside this week, when our highest risk of getting sick was 3 weeks ago? Because the objective of social isolation now is to slow the societal spread to a crawl, so that the current wave of contagion and illness and death stops completely in a month or so. This week’s spiking death rate is being wielded as a scare tactic to keep people sheltering in place, even though our peak exposure to infection has already come and gone. Now we’re sheltering less for ourselves as individuals than for ourselves collectively. If the wave stops then maybe the next one can be managed better than this one has been.

I’m on board; I’m staying home.


Corona Modeling: The Present as Past Projected Into Future

Yesterday I found out that my lease on ficticities.com was automatically extended for another year, and that my credit card was billed for the extension about 3 weeks ago. So I guess in celebration I’ll write a post…

As of right now the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the US stands at 356,653 (a palindrome!). But the actual number of cases is probably 10 million or more. Back-of-the-envelope math:

It takes an average of 5 days for a person newly infected by the virus to become symptomatic. Another week or so goes by before symptoms get bad enough for the infected person to go to the hospital, which is when the COVID diagnostic test is usually administered in this country. Maybe 5 more days go by before the test results come back from the lab. So the person who shows up as a confirmed case today likely got infected 5+7+5 = 17 days ago. The present total case count measures a reality that’s two and a half weeks in the past.

To arrive at today‘s actual number of corona cases, you have to take the 17-day-old past numbers and project them forward 17 days into the future. Lately the confirmed case rate has been doubling every 6 days. So, over a 17-day span, cases would be expected to increase nearly 23 — let’s call it a seven-fold increase. Take the 357K confirmed case count from 17 days ago, multiply it by 7, and you get around 2.5 million cases.

But wait. The 2.5 million includes only those cases that are likely to progress to the point where symptoms become severe enough for testing a couple of weeks from now. My best estimate is that, for every case that eventually get tested, there are around 4.2 cases that never get tested. So: multiply 2.5 million by 4.2 and you get around 10.5 million total cases. That’s pretty close to rigorous epidemiological models., which forecast that 5 percent of the US population, or around 16 million people, will be infected during this first wave, expected to crest in the next week or so.



Living the Part

You may play well or you may play badly; the important thing is that you should play truly,’ wrote Shchepkin to his pupil Shumski. To play truly means to be right, logical, coherent, to think, strive, feel and act in unison with your role.

If you take all these internal processes, and adapt them to the spiritual and physical life of the person you are representing, we call that living the part. This is of supreme significance in creative work. Aside from the fact that it opens up avenues for inspiration, living the part helps the artist to carry out one of his main objectives. His job is not to present merely the external life of his character. He must fit his own human qualities to the life of this other person, and pour into it all of his own soul. The fundamental aim of our art is the creation of this inner life of a human spirit, and its expression in an artistic form.

That is why we begin by thinking about the inner side of a role, and how to create its spiritual life through the help of the internal process of living the part. You must live it by actually experiencing feelings that are analogous to it, each and very time you repeat the process of creating it.

— Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, 1936


Degrees of Ficticity

A vendor scatters the placid wasps as he scoops candied peanuts from a black kettle, pours them into a paper cone, and hands them to the walking man in exchange for a few coins. A monkey, perched on the shoulder of a veiled woman, chatters insistently as it points toward the walking man, who now holds the cone of peanuts in his hand. The woman approaches him, her attitude of supplication accentuated by the kohl-darkened eyes. Suddenly the monkey screeches and twists its head to the right. Agitatedly it jumps up and down on the woman’s shoulder as it points away from the walking man. The woman stops a meter in front of him, then abruptly she changes direction. Popping a few of the nuts into his mouth, the walking man resumes his linear trajectory through the plaza.

This text is realistic enough, describing a sequence of interactions linked together into a dynamic scene that could conceivably happen someplace in the real world. The narrator simply recounts what he sees and hears, without interpretation. It’s an episode in a novel I wrote about ten years ago. Yesterday I read a new online essay that brought my fictional marketplace scene back to mind. In that essay David Leavens, a comparative psychologist, describes an interaction he had 25 years ago with Clint, a captive chimpanzee:

One day, I came back to Clint’s cage and saw him point with his index finger at a grape that had fallen on the floor, due to a technical problem with the automated reward-delivery system. The grape was out of his reach, and he pointed to it, making loud raspberry sounds (like a Bronx cheer), looking back-and-forth between me and the fruit. Now, you don’t need a PhD in experimental psychology to be able to interpret this signalling behaviour, right?

Leavens and a colleague devised a series of experiments to demonstrate convincingly that Clint’s pointing was in fact an intentional communicative gesture signaling his desire for the human to give him the fruit. As they were writing up their findings — this was back in 1994 — Leavens discovered that they’d been scooped in a newly published journal article by Call and Tomasello entitled “Production and Comprehension of Referential Pointing by Orangutans.” I’d been reading Tomasello’s 2003 book Constructing a Language around the time I wrote the marketplace scene in my novel, so it’s not too surprising that a pointing monkey would come riding through the imaginary scene perched on a woman’s shoulder.

But that seemingly direct transport from a psycholinguistics text into a novel loses sight of a series of transformations the pointing primate passed through in its voyage from nonfiction to fiction.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the English word “fiction” first appeared in the 15th century as ficcioun, “that which is invented or imagined in the mind,” derived from 13th century Old French ficcion, “dissimulation, ruse; invention, fabrication,” from the Latin fictionem, “a fashioning or feigning,” originally “to knead, form out of clay.”

The world humans occupy isn’t solely a matter of matter; it’s also constructed, invented, crafted in complicity with the imagination, populated by mowed and weeded lawns, automobiles and traffic lights, financiers and schoolteachers, TV programs and fast-food restaurants. In short, we’re thrown into a world where nature is fashioned by fiction.

The humans who occupy this partly fabricated world, this “ficticity” — aren’t we too partly fictional, partly products of others’ imaginations, and of our own imaginations as well? What about the pointing nonhuman primates — aren’t they too becoming partly fictional even before they show up in my story? Revisiting the transformation of Tomasello’s pointing real primates into my imaginary ones, how many degrees of separation can be traced from the natural world into the fabricated world, from facticity into ficticity?

* * *

Ficticity Degree 0.  Primates living in the wild, rarely if ever pointing as an intentional communicative gesture.

Degree 1.  One species of primate — Homo sapiens or an earlier ancestor — invents what Tomasello calls a “joint attentional frame,” in which one individual intentionally calls a second individual’s attention to an object of interest by pointing at it, while the second individual follows the trajectory of the pointing finger from the pointer’s perspective toward the object of interest. The joint attentional frame occupies physical space, but the framing context is an imaginary one, a function of intention and goal-directedness and gesture and perspective-taking — capabilities that require both participants to engage the material world in immaterial ways. Intentional finger-pointing is a key evolutionary predecessor to the acquisition of language.

Degree 2.  Members of another species of primate — chimpanzees in Leavens’s work, orangutans in Tomasello’s — are introduced to the artificial environment of a psychology research laboratory. Through exposure to humans these domesticated primates learn the pointing technique, occupying joint attentional frames with the scientists studying them.

Degree 3.  Human researchers, having observed the primates’ pointing, devise experiments to test whether the pointing gesture is an act of communicative intent. The experimental setup, apparatus, and protocol establish an artificial environment, a kind of theater in which the primates are immersed, interacting with the actors and props, watched by the researchers sitting in the audience.

Degree 4.  The researchers collect and compile primate pointing data, run inferential statistics on the data, test hypotheses via statistical inference, construct an empirical mathematical model abstracted from the flow of actual entities performing actual behaviors.

Degree 5.  The researchers document their findings, the write-up is published as an article in a journal, the article is summarized in a book — abstract intentional pointing through the medium of symbolic language.

Degree 6.  Joint attentional frames are established, virtually and abstractly, between writers and readers who never occupy the same physical space and time together, focusing mentally on beings and objects and places that the readers have never actually seen with their own eyes. I’m one of those readers.

Degree 7.  Reading a text documenting primates’ intentional communicative pointing during the daytime, I go to sleep and conjure a pointing monkey in a dream.

Degree 8.  I assign the contents of my dream to a fictional character, who describes it to another fictional character in a scene I’m writing:

“It’s midafternoon. I’m riding a city bus – not this city; someplace almost familiar. I’m scheduled to meet with a man who went to college with my husband – Leth and I are still married in the dream. Somehow I fail to get off at the right stop. I hop on another bus, but quickly I realize that it’s taking me even farther from the rendezvous point. I call my husband and tell him to let his friend know that I won’t be making the meeting. Already I am way off course, and my poor sense of direction means that I probably won’t be able to find my way at all now. Eventually I get home. As I recount my navigational failures to my husband and son I start getting weepy. I try to explain. I tell them that it’s like I have a sad little monkey perched on my shoulder pointing the way to go, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Immediately I start feeling better, happier. I smile. Then I wake up.”

Degree 9.  The other fictional character interprets the dream, transforming it into a source of meaning that’s not intrinsic to the dream content itself:

“I like that dream,” Stephen told Mrs. Dervain as he reached for another mint. “I wish I had more dreams like that. So, you feel that you don’t know the way toward the rendezvous point – toward your destiny, your becoming-Nephilim. You give up, go home. But…in describing your lack of direction you realize something, and it makes you happy. Maybe…you don’t find your destiny by steering toward predetermined coordinates. You need to follow the sad little navigation monkey who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Walk by instinct and chance, not schedule and plan.” Stephen sank back in his chair feeling a bit more pleased with himself.

Degree 10.  The dreamstate monkey is transformed into a metaphor within the fictional dream itself:

“Yes, that would be fine,” Mrs. Dervain began. “Live in the moment, follow your passion, and so on. It would be fine if in the dream I actually had a navigation monkey perched on my shoulder pointing the way. I didn’t. It was just another little speech I was making. It was not a monkey; it was like a monkey. I fabricated a precious little comparison in my dream. Things that happen in dreams: often we interpret them metaphorically, or at least we try to. I’m interpreting my dream experiences in metaphorical terms while I’m still dreaming. It’s as if I’m still awake, watching myself dream.”

Degree 11.  The fictional dreamer’s fictional interlocutor interprets the meaning of the metaphorical dream monkey:

Stephen shrugged. “Who says what a dream is supposed to be like? This dream of yours: maybe it’s unfolding out on the very frontier you’re looking for. A dream where you interpret your own dream experiences. Not a waking dream, but dreaming wakefulness. Not a lucid dream, where you control what happens in your dream. Dreaming lucidity. And what does it mean when your dream self starts speaking metaphors? What if your dream self starts to interpret your waking life metaphorically?”

Degree 12.  In the next chapter of the fictional text I write a passage disconnected in place and time from the main narrative — a kind of mythic, fugue-like voyage in which a monkey points at a character identified only as “the walking man.” It’s not clear whether this voyage is “really” happening or if the narrative has entered into an alternate dream reality:

A vendor scatters the placid wasps as he scoops candied peanuts from a black kettle, pours them into a paper cone, and hands them to the walking man in exchange for a few coins. A monkey, perched on the shoulder of a veiled woman, chatters insistently as it points toward the walking man, who now holds the cone of peanuts in his hand. The woman approaches him, her attitude of supplication accentuated by the kohl-darkened eyes. Suddenly the monkey screeches and twists its head to the right. Agitatedly it jumps up and down on the woman’s shoulder as it points away from the walking man. The woman stops a meter in front of him, then abruptly she changes direction. Popping a few of the nuts into his mouth, the walking man resumes his linear trajectory through the plaza.

I suppose that, by embedding the pointing monkey into this structured sequence of departures from the actually existing world of primates in the wild, I’ve entered into a Degree 13 Ficticity. Degree 14 began to take shape when you started reading this post…


I Think I Remember That Guy

My fiftieth high school reunion is coming up(!), which as you can probably imagine has stirred up some ambivalence. The website dedicated to the event includes a section where members of the class of ’69 can post a personal profile. I just put mine up:

I’ve explored alternate selves and alternate realities. With a few notable exceptions, things haven’t turned out the way I expected.


I Re-Upped the Ficticities.com Domain Name

On the last day before expiry I walked it back from the brink by anteing up $18 to WordPress. I’m  not sure why — mostly it’s ambivalence about what to do next.

But also I’m outraged by the domain name reselling industry. If I let ficticities.com lapse, some reseller might have scooped it up for a buck or two, then offered to sell it back to me for a couple hundred. Most likely resellers rely mostly on sellers’ remorse — people like me who let their domain names lapse and who later, wishing they hadn’t, pay the ransom.

So I’ve gone ahead and re-rented the name, along with WordPress’s hosting service, for another year.