Duplicitous Duplex

Back when I did Computer Science, one of the first concepts we learned was the idea of simplex and duplex communications. Simplex means the communications can only ever go one way. So if I have a nerf gun and I’m firing little nerf darts at you, that’s simplex. Those darts are only going one way, because I have the gun and you don’t. It’s the one way street of comms.

Duplex communication means traffic can go both ways. But duplex is a little more complex than that. Full duplex means traffic can go both ways at the same time. Most two way roads are like that. A car headed north does not stop another car from heading south. They pass each other by (ideally!) without drama.

But a lot of duplex traffic is actually half duplex – traffic can indeed go both ways, but it can only go in one direction at a time. Think of it as roadworks where there’s only one lane working, so traffic controllers let the traffic go south for a while, then they stop that traffic and let the other side go north.

Video conferencing looks like it’s full duplex. It looks a lot like the person is sitting right in front of you. And the video, to all intents and purposes, is full duplex, because we see each other in (almost) real time. But the sound is actually half duplex. Only one person’s audio is getting transmitted at any one time. I don’t know the technicalities of how the actual traffic works underneath, but the effect, from the user end, is certainly half duplex.

This causes some problems. It’s really easy, when you’re online, to talk over the top of someone accidentally because of the lag between when someone starts talking and when we see & hear it – this is called latency. Latency is simply how long it takes the signal to travel over the network to us. It’s worse the further away someone is, but it can be bad even talking to someone in the next suburb, if the network is overloaded.

When you’re face to face with someone, if you both speak at the same time, you can usually hear what they’re saying even while you’re talking, and it kind of works out ok, especially if you stop quickly. But when you’re on a video call, only half of the audio actually comes through. This leads to all kinds of tangled situations where people think they’ve been heard and have not, or where we think we’ve been ignored when actually no-one realised we had started to speak.

It all means that we have to be concentrating hard when we speak, to make sure we are aware of anyone else starting to speak (remembering that latency means we might both start speaking at the same time, but not see/hear it until a moment later).

Without someone “chairing” the discussion and making sure everyone gets heard in turn, it can be difficult to be sure that you’re neither riding roughshod over others nor sacrificing your chance to be heard.

It’s just one of the many ways in which video conferencing is more exhausting than a face to face meeting. As always, it’s another reason to cut ourselves – and others – some slack, and never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by half duplex audio.

Trapped in my bubble

When I was in my twenties I got sick with a mysterious ailment known as chronic fatigue syndrome. There were few measurable, objective signs, and it was poorly understood by the medical profession. The main symptoms were extreme tiredness and recurrent infections. I could look and act normal for an hour or two, but it would cost me days of being effectively bedridden. For a couple of years I didn’t get out and about much at all.

It sucked. But it also taught me quite a lot about the nature of being human. Because left to myself, without enough to think about, or the energy to really tackle anything significant, I lost perspective. Quite a lot.

Molehills in my personal life became Everests. I overreacted to everything, because my heart and mind had nothing better to do than stew over every comment, every action or inaction, every silence, and every noise. It was a pretty unpleasant place to be.

“Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are…well…human beings.” – Terry Pratchett, Men At Arms.

It was useful, though, because having recognised that, I learned to avoid it. Any time since then that I’ve been stuck at home for extended periods, I’ve arranged plenty of visitors, excursions, and phone calls to make sure that I don’t lose perspective that way again. I always have someone nearby to wield the frying pan of enlightenment when my perspective starts to slip.

Frying pan of enlightenment (a grey frying pan with a lightbulb in the centre)

The combination of lockdown and ill-health, I have to be honest, is starting to put some holes in that strategy. Small setbacks are harder to manage. Reaching out takes more energy, sometimes, than I have. Minor comments take on far more significance than they warrant. I’m starting to analyse my friendships for signs that I matter – one of my biggest red flags. It’s a nasty little habit I learned from my mother that took me years to master. It’s disturbing to see it raise its ugly, demoralising little head.

Like most Melbournians I obsessively watch the new infection count every day. Today we went down nearly 100 compared to yesterday, but the delight of that is tempered by the cautious awareness it will almost certainly be higher tomorrow. We have three weeks left of Stage 4 lockdown, but no guarantee it will end as scheduled. That depends on the numbers, so we doom scroll constantly, looking for clues, or even random speculation, that might tell us what the numbers will do, even though it’s pure fantasy. We just want some certainty.

It would almost be better to know we won’t be back to normal for two years than to have no idea when it might be. I’m a control freak. I want to know how this progresses, what we have to deal with, so that I can make plans, figure out how to deal. But 2020 doesn’t merely laugh at plans, it cackles evilly.

Some days are good. Usually on those days the sun is shining and we manage a walk to the local cafe, obsessively sanitising and trading off human contact and exercise against infection risk.

Some days are beyond challenging. And sometimes there’s no obvious reason why one day is worse than the next. A song triggers intense longing for a distant loved one. A flower brings back memories. Recently a character on a tv show hugged someone and I burst into tears. Hugs. I remember them.

We carelessly built lives that joyfully intertwined with people all over the world. We might not have been able to afford to see them regularly, but it was always a possibility. An escape hatch. A holiday to plan. Now loved ones in the next state might as well be on the moon and I realise how precarious our existence really is.

I want my life back. I want the hugs and kisses I took for granted. The blissful sitting on the couch with cups of tea moments that are suddenly not merely out of reach but actively dangerous. I want to look into their eyes without a screen and a flickering, wibbly wobbly nbn between us. I want to share a bottle of wine, or make my friends a coffee. Without the pauses, the awkward talking over each other because of the lag. Without the network freezes and the dodgy microphone “what was that?”s. I want to breathe them in and feel their arms around me. I want to see, feel, and hear them clearly.

I want to feel part of the world again, not locked into a shiny bubble where my thoughts and feelings they curve back in on me, inescapable. Bouncing around like a broken echo of my heart.

My coach tells me I need to think of the upsides, and the biggest upside of all of this is that I am clearer than ever before on who matters, and how much I need them. And when this is over each and every one of them will need to brace themselves, as they get hugged to within an inch of their lives.

It’s time to act on climate

With covid19 we’ve had a clear and graphic demonstration of the difference between acting on science and expert advice, and acting on bravado and ideology. One saves lives. The other kills. We have the same choice with climate science, but we’re making the wrong decisions.

My 17 year old daughter wrote the following essay on climate change for school. She gets it. Kids get it. It’s time we acted.

Guest post from Zoe McIver

Anthropological climate change is real; and it will be disastrous and ultimately fatal for both the planet and humanity unless we take action now. Despite this, the Australian government flatly refuses to take the problem seriously. They continue to endanger Australians and people all over the world by not only ignoring but actively worsening climate change. The vast majority of people impacted by climate change are women, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor, making it not only an environment issue, but a social justice issue. Ultimately, it is the government’s responsibility to guide and regulate both individuals and corporations to avoid national and global crises like this one, and they have done it in the past, so why not now when it is more urgently necessary than ever.

The Australian government is putting Australians in danger by accelerating climate change through the introduction of new fossil fuel initiatives. All over the world we are seeing more and more extreme weather – flash flooding, record breaking frosts, increasingly destructive hurricanes, and record setting maximum temperatures. According to CRED – the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, globally in 2018 there were 10733 deaths and over 60 million people impacted by and/or displaced by climate change related disasters. In our own backyard, bushfire season is worse every year as we saw in January, killing more people and destroying more homes, infrastructure, and vital habitat, and yet our PM won’t prioritize climate action. In fact, he recently met with Trump instead of attending a UN summit on climate change.

Former NSW fire brigade deputy commissioner Ken Thompson says that despite more and more extreme fire seasons warranting a new fire danger rating called “catastrophic”,the Australian government handles climate change the same way the US government handles gun massacres – by ignoring the problem and hoping people forget about it.
The number of climate change related deaths and illnesses is only increasing. According to studies by the World Health Organisation and reports from CRED, air pollution, mosquitos, water borne diseases, and deaths as a result of climate change are steadily increasing and will only continue to do so unless we take drastic action, and soon.

Climate change is a social justice and a feminist issue, as well as a logical and scientific one. The poor are at the greatest risk of suffering due to climate change, and, according to Oxfam, women and girls make up 70% of the world’s poor. This is one major reason why politicians and the media don’t give climate change the attention it deserves – because it mostly impacts women, elderly and disabled people, and the poor; three already marginalised and forgotten groups of people. Not themselves (rich white men), or their rich while, male, friends. Although it will soon become unavoidable without immediate intervention.

The United States has seen a drastic increase in the severity and number of natural disasters in the last 18 months, and yet it has not been reported beyond the 72-hour news cycle because it mostly impacts marginalised populations, including people of colour, women, and disabled people. The majority of the dead after a natural disaster are women, poor people, elderly people, and people with disabilities – the people who could not afford to relocate, or even shelter in place sufficiently.

According to CRED, up to 80% of people impacted by and/or displaced by climate change are women. These issues are deeply systemic and intertwined; the people with the most power to act on climate change are those who benefit from inaction, and those most heavily impacted by inaction, are those with the least perceived ability to do anything about it.

Our government needs to act. Regardless of their personal contribution to climate change relative to other people and corporations, it is their job to guide and regulate individuals and corporations purely to avoid national crises like this. That’s why the government exists, when something is even found or even thought to be dangerous or create issues, the government regulates it to make the country safer, unless that means reducing the amount of money in their pockets.

There are countless examples of this regulation throughout history, from cigarettes – they cause cancer, and so are now heavily taxed, banned in schools, cafes, and restaurants, and far less common than they once were – to seat belts being made mandatory.
Other examples include the creation of the Montreal protocol to phase out the use of chemicals damaging to the ozone layer, and the introduction of emissions trading in the US – to incentive corporations to lower the amount of emissions they release.
The Australian government has done this in the past; the introduction of the carbon tax in 2012 was successful in dramatically lowering the greenhouse gas emissions of large corporations, but when the Abbott government repealed it, they unraveled all the good done by that initiative.

Many people think it doesn’t matter if we reduce our emissions in Australia, because ours are insignificant on a global scale. This is simply not true. Our emissions may only make up 1.08% og global emissions according to a report by the european commission, but per capita ours are some of the worst in the world. We have less than 0.5% of the world’s population, which means that our emissions are more than double what is to be expected of a country our size.

Those emissions figures don’t include our main export – coal. This contributes massively to emissions on a global scale, which means that we have the perfect opportunity to create significant change. We have a high global standing, many countries look up to us, and we are typically some of the first to act innovatively in situations like this, we were one of the first countries to regulate cigarettes, and to date have some of the most progressive laws in the world. History has shown us that when we act, other countries follow suit, and we have an incredible opportunity to lead the way in climate action.

We have an enormous capacity for harvesting renewable energy via solar and wind power, as well as hydro power. We could be using this to phase out coal and other fossil fuels, and switch to using and exporting renewables instead. This not only lowers our carbon footprint as a country, as well as that of our national and persuades other countries to do the same, it would be great for our economy to not only become global leaders in the renewable energy market, but to also switch out of coal before other countries phase it out and our exports suffer. If we started spending money on wind and solar farms,and hydro-power stations, instead of spending more and more of our taxes on new coal mines which do little for the community and destroy and deplete natural resources and ecosystems, then we could start to see real climate action with real impacts today.

Climate change is an undeniable tragedy of the commons, already beginning to have devastating, lasting effects. Despite being fully aware of this, our government continues to ignore the issue and actively worsen the situation, putting global citizens in danger. This toxic behaviour is systematic, as the vast majority of people impacted by climate change are women, people of colour, disabled and elderly people, and people living in poverty, which is one of the many factors in the government’s apparent inability to act on this urgent issue.

It is ultimately the government’s responsibility to regulate corporations and individuals alike, to avoid crises like this, as they have done in the past, so why won’t they now, when action is urgently needed? We have the power to stop this dangerous and destructive behaviour, and encourage other countries to do the same, and the first step is to declare a climate emergency. The Labor party and members on the cross bench have joined the Greens in fighting to declare a climate emergency, but it won’t happen without the support of the coalition and the prime minister. We need to make our concern known, and convince our politicians to feel it with us, and we need to do it now before it is too late.

I guess that’s why they call it the blues – lockdown style

I can’t believe it’s August. Normally at this time of year I am dragging myself through the winter with the promise of a day long open house birthday party in September, full of boundless love, hugs, laughter, and cake.

This year will be different. The three members of family that I live with will, no doubt, treat me with all the love and affection they can muster, but however boundless their hugs and love, they can’t be all of the people I’m missing. There’s a difference, though it feels ungrateful and slightly shameful to say it, between hugging one person 50 times and hugging 50 people once each (though, oh! It was rarely just once).

And I guess that’s why they call it the blues
Time on my hands could be time spent with you
Laughing like children, living like lovers
Rolling like thunder under the covers
And I guess that’s why they call it the blues

I guess that’s why they call it the blues. Elton John

In lockdown the year is flying by and dragging painfully slowly, at the same time, which is a mind melting contradiction. But time is weirdly amorphous. There are no milestones. There is nothing to look forward to. No events to await with almost unbearable glee. None of the dinners out, the catch ups, the casual “hey, are you free tonight?”s that we took so casually and carelessly for granted.

I saw that someone had named all the days of the week “Blursday” and that’s an excellent description. Every day melts into the next, and there is only fleeting relief in sleep. I want to sleep all the time.

I watch my interstate friends lead lives that are almost normal – going out, having friends over for dinner, ACTUALLY GOING TO WORK (how is that suddenly a beacon of hope?) – and it gives me joy and painful burns at the same time.

Today was grey and wintry, but I managed to meet an old friend who lives nearby for a socially distanced walk. I could only see his eyes, between hat and mask, and we never got closer than 1.5m, but it was still a miracle of intensity to be together apart like that.

In my house we’re managing this lockdown much better than the last. We’ve got better at expressing our needs and drawing boundaries. Taking care of our own and each other’s mental health. But I feel my far flung loved ones receding ever further out of reach with every day’s infection tally.

Some days I am productive and cheerful, and I feel like we will get through this. And then a song comes on the radio that I associate (for no apparent reason) with a beloved friend interstate, and suddenly I am sobbing.

Oh, why you look so sad, the tears are in your eyes,
Come on and come to me now, and don’t be ashamed to cry,
Let me see you through, ’cause I’ve seen the dark side too.
When the night falls on you, you don’t know what to do,
Nothing you confess could make me love you less,
I’ll stand by you,
I’ll stand by you, won’t let nobody hurt you,
I’ll stand by you

I’ll stand by you. The Pretenders.

In lockdown Part 1 I held myself together by imagining spectacularly heartfelt reunions. In Part 2 that became painful. And here in Part 3, with masks, curfews, and a tight, 5km band around our lives, I find myself imagining not making it to the reunions.

I become paranoid about moles that seem larger than they were and picture them breeding silently while I am too afraid of covid to see a GP. (just me?) Or I imagine catching covid, going into ICU, and never coming out. What would they say at my funeral? That’s daft, there wouldn’t be one, of course.

I feel guilty for not helping my friends more, for not lifting others up, but some days it’s all I can do to stand upright.

I see poignant pictures of major Melbourne roads at night, unthinkably empty. If you could send those photos back in time 10 months, we’d assume they’d been faked. But it’s weirdly meaningless, because I haven’t seen those roads in forever anyway.

Tomorrow will be another day, and we’ll find a path through. We’ve got it pretty good, for all of the pain we’re feeling. Each moment we survive is surely a moment closer to a vaccine. A moment closer to hugs and kisses and a life outside this house. We’ll get through this.

Meanwhile, some days, the sun comes out, and there are flowers. And cats in washing baskets. And when looking up at the horizon hurts too much, looking down at a cat works pretty well.

ruffled pink camellia flower
Black cat in a white washing basked

Positive Spin

This is a tough time for seeing the best in people. From our so called leaders prioritising the economy over lives and health, to people violating public health measures intended to protect us from covid19, there is much to be appalled by. Certainly if you spend any time with mainstream media you will see tales of people doing the wrong thing and everyone else being outraged by it.

The problem is that outrage is a weirdly satisfying emotion, because these are scary times, and it’s much easier to rant about some idiot putting everyone at risk than it is to sit and feel that fear and helplessness. If we believe there are people to blame, we can regain a little bit of emotional power. If circumstances are beyond our control and we can’t even scream at someone about it, what are we supposed to do?

This has been an amazingly fortuitous time, then, to be reading Humankind: a Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman. Bregman forensically dissects all of the “evidence” we’ve built up about how awful people are – how selfish, how mean, how cruel – and builds a case for what he calls “Homo Puppy”, a name for Homo Sapiens that highlights the superpower that he says really made us a successful species able to colonise the whole planet.

That superpower is our ability to cooperate. Being sociable, friendly, and collaborative, Bregman argues, is what makes us successful. Sure, there are some downsides here and there, but we are actually much nicer than we’ve been led to believe.

Love can make you weep
Can make you run for cover
Roots that spread so deep
Bring life to frozen ground
Something so strong could carry us away
Something so strong could carry us today

Something So Strong, Crowded House

Of course, given the times we are living in, I spent a lot of time thinking “Well sure, but how do you explain…” and listing examples from the daily news, from my facebook timeline, from the world. Bregman has answers for all of them, and as I obviously can’t summarise the whole book in a single post, I urge you to read the book, or at least watch any of the numerous videos out there where he talks about it.

But the thing that struck me as the most crucial thought right here in these scary, divisive, and isolating times, is the idea that expecting bad behaviour from people can literally cause it. Fortunately the reverse is also true – if we expect the best, we’ll get more of it. This is a direct lesson for how we choose to cope during lockdowns, waves of infection, and worldwide crises, because if we spend our time focusing on the lockdown breaches, the selfish behaviour, and the risky decisions, we will make ourselves both miserable and more selfish.

I’ve been feeling so much older
Frame me and hang me on the wall
I’ve seen you fall into the same trap
This thing is happening to us all, yeah
Something so strong could carry us away
Something so strong could carry us today, yeah

Which is actually really good news, because it also means that if we focus on the positive, we can make ourselves – and each other – both happier and kinder. We know that kindness is contagious. Random acts of kindness have been proven to spread.

Social and mainstream media both benefit from outrage. They want clicks, they want ranting, they want us upset, scared, and angry. They’re not interested in pointing out that positive actions outnumber negative, or that most people are basically decent and kind.

They’re not interested in exploring why people do things, or whether there might be a valid reason. They’ll share pictures of people without masks just to fan the flames of outrage, without pausing to find out whether those people have a medical reason why they can’t wear them. The truth doesn’t generate enough outraged clicking, so it is casually tossed aside.

This means that every time we indulge in a rant over the latest story of someone doing something dumb, or share an article about it, we boost the profit model of mega-corporations benefiting from crisis, and we make everybody around us a little angrier, more miserable, and more vulnerable.

But, by the same token, every time we do something thoughtful for someone, share a story of someone helping others, or even share pictures of cute pets, we make our whole circle a little happier, and a little more resilient.

We need to resist the pressure, and our own natural bias, that wants us to pay more attention to all of the negative stories that are swirling around us, and choose to focus instead on the positive. We need to spread kindness rather than anger, compassion rather than fear, and humour instead of sadness.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about how we’re feeling – empathy is also incredibly important, and talking about our own emotions can be hugely comforting to others who feel the same.

But we have a choice. We can construct the kind of world we want to live in, with an emphasis on kindness and compassion. Or we can feed our rage and misery.

Check in with your friends and neighbours. Share kindness and compassion. Have virtual coffees and connect with your friends. And when you hear about something terrible someone has done and you’re tempted to share it, ask yourself whether this is something the world really needs to focus on, or whether you could share a funny raccoon video instead. You can’t have too many funny raccoon videos.