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A Reply From the Masks Petition

That’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve had a reply like this from a UK parliament petition before:

Dear Martin McCallion,

You recently signed the petition “Make it mandatory to wear a face mask in public during Covid-19 Pandemic”:

The Petitions Committee (the group of MPs who oversee the petitions system) have considered the Government’s response to this petition. They felt that the response did not directly address the request of petition and have therefore written back to the Government to ask them to provide a revised response.

When the Committee have received a revised response from the Government, this will be published on the website and you will receive an email. If you would not like to receive further updates about this petition, you can unsubscribe below.

The Petitions team
UK Government and Parliament

That’s from the one I linked to a week ago.

It’ll be interesting to see if we get anything more back. In the meantime, it’s still at just over 14,000 signatures: keep signing.

And keep wearing a mask.

The Monster (Wear a Mask!)

Dr Sayed Tabatabai writes beautifully about the horror of working in an ICU at the moment.

Sometimes when people sound quieter and calmer during a respiratory issue it’s a sign of impending doom.

You can’t make noise if you can’t breathe.

Go read. It’s a Twitter thread. Only 22 tweets. ThreadReaderApp doesn’t seem to be working.

And please: start wearing a face covering if you ever go out.

The Cold War Never Ended

Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt and Michael Schwirtz, writing in the New York Times:

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.

The Cold War continues. And Trump’s on the Russian side of it:

The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.

Tell Them to Tell Us to Wear a Mask

The government has already replied to this petition, but it’s still worth signing if, like me, you think people should be wearing masks in public:

Make it mandatory to wear a face mask in public during Covid-19 Pandemic

My mask protects you, your mask protects me.’ It’s the public-spirited thing to do, but most of the public aren’t doing it. The least the government could do is to encourage it.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Books 2020, 15)

This has won all the awards, and rightly so. Or not quite all: it’s a finalist for the Hugo novella award. At the time of writing, we don’t know whether or not it will win.

Unless I’ve travelled downthread and found out.

It’s a novella, which may be the perfect length of story, in some sense. It’s a love story across time and space and multiple parallel existences… It’s pure dead brilliant.

The actual nature of the war, of the sides, even of the protagonists, Red and Blue, is ambiguous at best. But that doesn’t matter because the writing is so exquisite.

The Wikipedia article describes it as an epistolary novel. That’s only partly true, and not just because it’s a novella. The letters are there, and are fundamental, but I feel that to be truly ‘epistolary,’ the whole story must be told in letters, and that is not the case here. But that doesn’t matter.

One minor oddity I alluded to above: The future is referred to as ‘downthread’ and the past ‘upthread.’ That seems the wrong way round to me, but maybe it reflects the fact that, normally, we can’t stop sliding down into the future.

Go. Get. Read. VVG. They’re adapting it for TV. I can’t quite imagine what that will look like, but I’m keen to find out.

Friday by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 14)

Friday Baldwin is genetically engineered ‘artificial person.’ Indistinguishable from a conventional human, she nonetheless is psychologically constrained by the way her society discriminates against her type.

That’s pretty much her only constraint, though. Her engineered nature also gives her enhanced strength, reflexes, sight, hearing, and smell, as well as genius-level intelligence. She starts out as a courier and soon becomes a fugitive.

This stands up pretty well, all these years since I first read it. The fragmented, Balkanised future North America is interesting. Easy travel everywhere by ‘tubes,’ which are presumably underground trains, and suborbital rockets. Corruption so pervasive that the characters don’t even notice it. You hand over your passport with ‘the appropriate squeeze’ folded inside it, and are waved through.

You Are Your Thoughts (I Think)

Quiet Thoughts

Colin Walker links to a post by Julian Summerhayes1 about silence:

You see, I’m missing the silence of early lockdown.

No, I’m really missing it.

I can’t say everything’s back to normal but as soon as I step outside, BOOM, there it is! That infernal, torrid background noise, cars everywhere (the air smells dirty) and it’s like nothing ever happened.

I can relate. I haven’t noticed the increased noise yet, but I have been enjoying much about lockdown, and the general quietness of things, especially when I sit out in the garden, is part of that. As is the cleaner air here in London.

Unthinkable Thoughts

But Julian goes on to say something that just seems so bizarre, so alien to me, that I can scarcely comprehend it:

But when you realise that you’re not your thoughts, notwithstanding the apparent hold they have over us, and see that they flow naturally much like my beloved River Dart and there’s nothing we can do to orientate them one way or the other, life becomes a lot easier.

Emphasis very much mine. We are not our thoughts? I can’t help but think that there’s a missing pair of words in that sentence: ‘nothing if’:

… you’re nothing if not your thoughts…

Now that makes a lot more sense to me. If we are not our thoughts, then what are we? If our thoughts are not us, then who is doing the thinking?

People sometimes use phrasing like, ‘My brain told me to…’, which raises the same question: you are your brain, surely? If not, then what? We are our whole bodies, certainly, and perception and experience encompass all of our physiology, not just our brains. But the brain is the seat of consciousness, and we are conscious beings.

Perhaps — just possibly — people are making a distinction between brain and mind. Maybe that would make sense for the latter formulation, but I’m not convinced that’s it. And certainly it doesn’t explain Julian’s concept of thoughts. Because whether thoughts happen in the physical organ we call brain, or the somewhat more metaphysical and amorphous mind: thoughts are what we are.

In Other Heads

Or so it seems to me. But I shouldn’t dismiss alternative perceptions. Over the last few months I’ve heard several conversations on podcasts, and read a couple of articles, about the different ways people’s brains/minds/psyches/consciousnesses work.

There is aphantasia, which names the fact that some people do not form images in their minds. They have no ‘mind’s eye,’ in effect. Just yesterday I read an article about it and severely deficient autobiographical memory, or SDAM, which seems to be related.

There has also been talk about whether or not we think in words. That can get confusing when people with different experiences discuss ‘the voice in your head.’ One will ask something like, ‘Whose voice is it?’ The answer — from my perspective — is that the voice in my head is my thoughts. That’s how I think. Hmm, except when I think in pictures, as I’m not aphantasic (aphantastic?)

It’s hard to talk about these ideas in ways that someone whose experience is dramatically different will understand. And I find it surprising that we are so different. I wonder if we are just hitting the limitations of language (of English, at least). Maybe people’s experiences are not that different, but it’s just so hard to describe what goes on inside your own head in a way that is meaningful inside someone else’s head.

Or not. After all, some people do hear voices in their heads which appear not to be their own. We generally categorise those people as having a mental illness, and sometimes medication changes their mental experience. And of course psychoactive drugs cause us to have experiences in our own heads that are different from our normal state, so it’s clear that thoughts and perceptions are at least partly chemical.

This is all both fascinating and confusing, and I have no conclusions about it.

  1. And fascinating to learn that someone is still using LiveJournal. Good to know. 

Assignment in Eternity vols 1 & 2 by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 12 & 13)

I should probably start a special tag for all this Heinlein rereading I’m doing (I have another one in progress). These books are so short that they hardly count as one novel between them, never mind each, but I’m counting them as two because I have two physically separate books.

Plus they’re not only not one novel, they’re not even two. They are, in fact, four stories — the longest no more than a novella — loosely connected by the idea that humans don’t use all of their brain power, and we could do incredible things if we did.

Oh, and an early analysis of what it is to be human, and whether human rights should be accorded to uplifted intelligent animals.

All in all, a good enough, if slight, set of stories.