Thursday, November 10, 2022


Both town and country people talk to me a great deal. They really think of nothing except their fields and their bits of farms and investments. And look how the tables are turned! They fear the man they used to trust and love the man they used to dread.
—Roman Senator Cicero, writing of Julius Caesar.

The title of this little essay is simply “Thread” because that’s how I did most of my writing in the last couple of years. It also applies to what our Constitutional republic hangs by–a frail little thread of razor-thin majorities and judges with integrity–as we witness the slow, grinding ascent of fascism not only in this country but also around the world.

Hanging by a thread, in more ways than one

There are surely better descriptions for what I want to say today, but I’m trying not to spend as much time worrying about things like titles and footnotes anymore.1 It was freeing not having them available on Twitter; I’d lean back in the recliner and tap away furiously on my iPad for an hour, one chunk of 240 characters after another. The results inspired 6,700 or so people to follow my Tweets.

Mostly, they were warnings about what a dangerous gamble it is to get yourself infected with the SARS-Cov-2 virus. There were expositions on probability theory, engineering analogies, and even a nose-only PAPR device I invented to go to the dentist and feel safe while people coughed in cubicles nearby. Some of them got seen by tens of thousands of people–occasionally more than a hundred thousand. I developed an online friendship of sorts with some of those people, and hope to keep in touch with them. It was fun while it lasted.

But the time for that feels mostly over now. Why? Not just because another narcissist billionaire is infecting yet another public gathering space with his grandiose and fragile ego. Certainly not because of the few pathetic trolls that tried their best to seem like they where the smart ones for making fun of a person urging caution against an airborne respiratory pathogen during the worst pandemic in a hundred years. They were kind of fun to toy with, actually.

What finally got me off Twitter, at least for a while, was the 2022 midterm election in my beloved battered country, the barely-United States of America. As of this writing, I remain among what must be a small number of people who still don’t know the result.

Seriously, I have no idea what happened. The acres of trees surrounding my home remain silent as to the outcome, as does my wife. She’s seen me enter this virtual monastery before. She respects the vow of silence about current events.

I was cloistered here for about a month after the 2016 election, unable to watch one of the worst human beings of a generation take a wrecking ball to the foundations of the country I love. Another visit was in 2020, for a week after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and the country found itself at the mercy of Mitch McConnell’s sense of fair play–entirely absent, of course.

The virtual monastery yesterday evening

It’s a way of giving myself space to process a historical event with an uncomfortably high probability of a disastrous outcome. (We’ve had a few of those lately.) And, as these photos from a walk in the woods yesterday evening demonstrate, it’s a beautiful place to be disconnected.2

What a rare thing it is to simply walk away from all sources of information about the madness of our world! Few are even inclined to try, and for most it’s nearly impossible anyhow. You’ll get some alert on your phone that you feel compelled to check, or Fox News will be playing on the TV somewhere you’d rather not see it, or a friend will ask you about what happened. And then–poof!–your ignorant bliss is gone.

Sadly, a lot of those information sources are easily disconnected for me now. The worst pandemic in a hundred years is still very much underway, contrary to the mass delusion that has taken over the entire world saying everything’s back to normal again. It’s deepened the social isolation of those of us who haven’t been persuaded to go around breathing a dangerous airborne pathogen with a proven track record of causing long-term damage to people’s bodies.

I’m not really looking forward to letting the world back in. There were no surprises upon my return from previous visits to the virtual monastery. Things turned out about as badly as I’d expected. The unpleasant reality is that there is simply no limit to how much the Republican Party will exploit every possible opportunity to seize and retain power.

Let me use this fleeting state of innocence to do a bit of reflection. I am deliberately not going to provide any references for what I say in the next several paragraphs. Another sad reality: Hardly anyone cares about what you put in the footnotes anyhow.3

Hell, hardly anyone even reads anymore beyond the bite-size chunks of social media. If you are one of those rare souls and like what you’re seeing here, please retweet or retoot of whatever and maybe there will be views of this to make it feel worthwhile doing again.

“The mountain is still green today.”

The election is an example of probability meeting reality. The ethereal “could be this, but maybe that” cloud of possibility represented by a random variable gets collapsed into a single established value. Nate Silver’s red and blue poll-analysis diagrams (to which I have not paid the slightest attention this time around) turn into a Congressional seating chart.

This happens on the quantum level everywhere and at every moment. Radioactive elements unleash particles when some wave function finally tunnels past a barrier of the improbable to escape its unstable home in an unwieldy mass of protons and neutrons that had been clumped together for seconds, years, even centuries. Photons end their journeys through space-time and land on surfaces that do not care about double-slit experiments but just get hot in the sun. The RNA of a virus fails to exactly preserve the original sequence of amino acids of its predecessor, switching things around or dropping something old or inserting something new and thus starts the next wave of a pandemic.

Still as they were–for one more season of a hundred

Randomness—which all ultimately traces back to the dice being thrown in a truly unpredictable way down at the subatomic level—is the engine driving the evolution that made us and all the life around us.

When you zoom out from quarks and photons and electron probability clouds, when the instability of interconnected systems amplifies countless tiny inputs in ways that we can’t possibly comprehend, big things happen sometimes and make other big things happen more often. That virus walks out of a lab in the nose of a careless worker or flies out of a cave in a bat (pick whichever scenario you prefer) and three years later tens of millions have had their lives changed or ended by it. An FBI director shoots his mouth off in front of the cameras days before a Presidential election and swings just enough votes in just the right places to infect the Oval Office and then the nation with a disease of cultish bigoted authoritarianism.

Probabilities become realities. Sometimes, the improbable nonetheless occurs, and then the random walk we are all on collectively lurches abruptly this way or that. A Supreme Court can collapse with the ceasing of a hubristic old woman’s heartbeat. Lingering disease becomes the commonplace and even accepted outcome of daily life visiting stores, restaurants, or friends. Democracies wither and die.

One day you’re waving at the neighbor guy, and ten years later he’s standing at the edge of a pit with a rifle pointed at your head. Do not delude yourself into thinking it will never happen again. It will, and in many parts of the world even now, is.4

I’ll know about the election outcome tomorrow or a day after. The trees aren’t talking, but I won’t stay this isolated for long. My wife or one of the kids will say something offhand, or I’ll see some email whose subject line breaks the news.

It’s fascinating, though, this not knowing. For me, personally, the photon is still going through both slits simultaneously; the wave function has not yet collapsed into a detection of this discrete outcome or that one.

As with most things that have potentially terrible outcomes, like a SARS-CoV-2 infection or marrying into a MAGA family, the probability of badness seems to follow a log-normal distribution. This is because our perception of how bad things are tends to be logarithmic rather than linear.

When your body can walk half as far as it did before you brought the virus home from that concert, it’s bad, but only being able to walk a fourth as far doesn’t seem four times worse. You move to the right, toward the long tail of the log-normal curve. You have to get quite a ways out there before you can rest assured that nothing so bad will happen to you.

Sitting down for an unmasked dinner at Denny’s probably won’t get you bedridden for the rest of your life; if it did, even a society as careless and stupid as ours would be taking this virus seriously. But it is happening, and for those it happens to, it’s the end of their life as they knew it. The log-normal curve is a tricky deceptive thing; it piles up the not-so-bad outcomes down on the left and fools us into thinking there’s no long tail out there to worry about.

Well, I’m sorry, but it’s there, and it grabs people and nations and even planets, and sometimes never lets go. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold, as Yeats wrote in his immortal poem.

Beware the log-normal probability distribution

The happiest scenario A, not as likely as it would have been even ten years ago, is an uncontested loss by the party seeking to deny election results they don’t like, further dismantle the public commons and any semblance of environmental protections, roll back the last forty years of progress in women’s rights and stop people from loving and marrying consenting adults of whatever their preference.

Mitch McConnell would call Joe Biden and offer his congratulations, promising to respect the will of the people and work together with a solidified Democratic majority. A chastened Supreme Court realizes that it’s not an imperial star chamber and gets busy following precedent again.

Yeah, right.


In scenario B, the Democrats manage a convincing enough win. No Turkish grifters, anti-Semites, or brain-damaged serial cheaters manage to win high office. The GOP complains, Mitch remains a royal pain in the ass, but the health of our representative republic remains intact–perhaps stronger. Joe Biden might even decide to finally fire Rochelle Walensky now that he doesn’t have to pretend Covid is over.

This also feels unlikely. Sure, I hope it’s what happened, but there’s a lot more area under the curve to the right.


Scenario C is at the mode of our log-normal distribution, though not at the mean or even the median. If you were to ask what is the single most likely isolated outcome, that’s it, but, critically, it is not yet at the point where half of the time things will turn out better. It’s a narrow win or stalemate, where things aren’t really worse than they were before the election but we can sort of stumble along for a while. Maybe a Democrat with charisma, integrity, and a few decades of remaining life expectancy might win the Presidency in two years. Maybe.

But here is where I have some bad news to share, regardless of whatever news you might be wishing you could tell me right now, if you’ll excuse my abuse of the language: Things can get much more worse than they can get much more better.

Much better than now isn’t some paradise where everybody lives in blissful abundance and harmony. It’s just a functioning democracy where both sides respect the outcome of elections and aren’t trying to wreck the planet or other people’s lives. That doesn’t seem like much to ask, but we weren’t there the last time I looked at the news a couple of days ago.

This random walk we’re on now is as likely as not to take you to far worse places. And if you wind up there, you’ll be facing a whole new log-normal probability distribution that is centered on how bad things have become, complete with its own long tail farther to the right.


Scenario D is the Democrats winning, but not by much, and the GOP engaging in an all-out cold civil war of trying to cheat or bully their way to victory.

Pretty much the same probability is the scenario E, with the democrats losing–also not by much, but it doesn’t matter. The GOP will take any sort of victory as a massive mandate to tear down what’s left of the country and keep marching us on a random walk toward fascism. I wish I were more optimistic about that bunch, but I’m not.


Scenario F is the Democrats losing by a lot, and G is them losing by a little and the GOP being even worse about it than my wildest expectations.

Neither of these are things I choose to dwell on this evening. May I be proven a pessimist this time. I’ll take scenario B with all the humility it brings, and gladly.


  1. Still, it feels irresponsible not to provide a few. The epigraph was quoted in Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire by Simon Baker. “In Rome,” Baker says, “Caesar’s enemies were thrown into a fit of panic. They had hoped that the respectable classes in towns throughout Italy would rise up as one in defence of the republic against the invader. But as Caesar waged his blitzkrieg without significant opposition, they quickly realized that they had hopelessly misread the majority view.” Sounds all too familiar. 

  2. All but the first are from yesterday. You can click on any of them to see the high-resolution versions. 

  3. When I self-published my first book An Examination of the Pearl ten years ago, I was proud of how carefully it documented the historical and doctrinal problems with the fundamentalist Christian cult in which I was raised and spent the first 40 years of my life. But the rigor of providing footnotes and references and context for quotations now feels like a lost art. Many of the same people who complimented me on that and expressed relief at someone finally standing up to church authorities now seem eager for unconstitutional authoritarian rule of the whole damn country. 

  4. My pessimism in this department might be the result of generational memory. See, for example, In Memoriam: Kurt Stein written in honor of my uncle who was shot by firing squad for refusing to fight in Hitler’s army.