The Great Pause Week 2

Speculation, geomancy, and fantastical myth-making need to step aside for the moment, please. Systems thinkers please stand up.


ately, I have been recalling the concept of fault tolerance in engineering.

Fault tolerance is the property that enables a system to continue operating properly in the event of the failure of (or one or more faults within) some of its components. If its operating quality decreases at all, the decrease is proportional to the severity of the failure, as compared to a naively designed system, in which even a small failure can cause total breakdown. Fault tolerance is particularly sought after in high-availability or life-critical systems.


Within the scope of an individual system, fault tolerance can be achieved by anticipating exceptional conditions and building the system to cope with them, and, in general, aiming for self-stabilization so that the system converges towards an error-free state.


The human body‘s fault-tolerant design allows for novel coronavirus cells to invade our airways and capture lung cells and then blood phages respond to kill the threat. The viral material is removed from the cytoplasm by forming enclosed autophagosomes and then fused with lysosomes to be degraded. Unfortunately, this CoV, as was predicted by virologists ten months ago, induces and exploits autophagy for the purpose of viral propagation.

Schoeman, D., & Fielding, B. C. (2019). Coronavirus envelope protein: current knowledge. Virology journal, 16(1), 69.

Engineering has designed us to have a second lung in case we should lose the first, but in this case, the virus attacks both at the outset, as well as the other parts of the respiratory tract. We have many redundant lung cells, but the virus multiplies rapidly once it’s hit its target. The body’s only defense, unless aided by an externally introduced serum designed to hunt and kill infected cells, is to wait for our immune system computer to correctly identify, by trial and error, the virus-infected cells and then to neutralize them. Older model biocomputers (to use John Lilly’s term) and those already tasked with other work may find they lack sufficient available computing power to perform this chore before the lungs are compromised beyond recovery. Pumping oxygen with a ventilator can sometimes extend the time to complete the task and thereby permit survival and recovery. Sometimes, though, you can recover from the virus but not from the ventilator.

Dorothy Bates (1920–2003)

I pause here, struck by the memory of my mother, in the hospital ICU, and in her final days with pneumonia. She had grown very tired of the intubated ventilator and then the doctor told her that having been on the device this long, any chance of her getting off was pretty unrealistic. She made a hand motion, extended arm, palm down, then a swoop up. We knew what she meant. She was ready to die. With tears, we gave that permission.

When Death Comes

by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Society can engineer better systems of medical care to have enough ventilators and protect its ICU staff to successfully defend against pandemic attacks, or it can rely upon social engineerings, such as quarantines, stay-at-home orders, distancing, and hand-washing to flatten the curve and reduce the damage in an epidemic. It seldom anticipates, however, “multiple fault” scenarios, whereupon other events choose this inopportune moment to arise.

So, for instance, in the midst of the pandemic response, a natural disaster such as wildfire, flood, tornado, hurricane, earthquake or volcanic eruption occurs. It can lay waste or further overburden hospitals and caregivers. It can completely disrupt any social distancing and hand-washing strategy. It becomes a force multiplier for the virus.

We have been lucky so far with respect to these multiple faults, apart from the obvious political ones, but the longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely we will witness such intervening cascades.

Today a lady iguana showed up in my yard. Sandra tells me she is pregnant. I have not seen iguanas here for more than a decade, although they were once common. They make the effort of gardening more challenging, but I welcome their return and hope her pregnancy carries well. Now I want to see the return of soft shell blue crabs that used to build holes under the foundations of my palapa.


In fact, it’s Dougie’s growing conviction that the greatest flaw of the species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth. Single biggest influence on what a body will or will not believe is what nearby bodies broadcast over the public band. Get three people in the room and they will decide that the law of gravity is evil and should be rescinded because one of their uncles got shit-faced and fell off the roof.

The Overstory

My holistic goal is to live long and prosper.
That means not catching this killer flu.

“Wash your hands. Don’t be complacent. This will be going on for a while. You have to be disciplined.”

— Andrew Cuomo.

I created a Coggle chart to show three scenarios for the island in the months to come, once the shit really hits the fan in Mexico.

Mexico, like Russia, Brazil, or the US, really got caught napping back in January when China first alerted WHO to the power of this novel coronavirus. At the risk of overreaching with a Hitler analogy, most war college historians would agree that Hitler lost a war that was Germany’s to win because of ideology, not available military skill and resources. There are many examples of Hitlerian intervention to the detriment of generalship — his reckless invasion of Russia, his “no retreat” orders, taking Churchill’s bait to blitz London while sparing RAF air bases, and more.

I say this because it should by now be obvious that like emperors who surrounded themselves with astrologers and soothsayers, the POTUS has a pathological tropism to place cultish ideology above scientific realities. Call it Murdochracy. But physics is real.

The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is the only world leader widely believed not only to have Covid-19 and to have lied about it but to have knowingly spread it to untold numbers of his followers…. Under quarantine after his return from the US — 25 members of his entourage have been infected with coronavirus, making Bolsonaro the center of the largest initial cluster in Brazil — the president broke out of his motorcade to shake hands and high five those calling for the government buildings to be burnt to the ground.


Bolsonaro’s approach to Trump is monkey see, monkey do, so the day after Trump floated the idea of an early return to work, against the advice of leading military figures, Bolsonaro went on national television to announce that (in his experience?) coronavirus was just ‘a little flu’, and that since old people rather than children were dying in other countries, Brazilian children should return to school and young people should return to work. Businesses were to reopen, since the politics of quarantine was ‘a thing for cowards.’ According to the speaker of the lower house, Rodrigo Maia, Bolsonaro was under pressure from investors after the market in São Paulo crashed, losing 52 percent of its total value between 17 January 17 and 20 March — the biggest drop in the world, according to Goldman Sachs.

In addition to the number of coronavirus cases and deaths (as of 26 March, 2915 and 77 respectively), Brazil is also leading Latin America in capital flight: Mexico has lost $2 billion in foreign investment; Brazil has lost $12 billion. The real, meanwhile, has dropped to a new low of $5.02 to the dollar. The economy minister, Paulo Guedes, who studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago and at the University of Chile under Pinochet, warned Bolsonaro that Brazil could not afford to quarantine beyond 7 April; the country was already in recession before Covid-19 arrived. To informal workers, who make up four-fifths of the economically active population in urban settlements (favelas), where at least 13.6 million people live, Guedes is offering 200 reals in vouchers, which will not be enough to keep them from having to work to survive.

— Forrest Hylton, “Brazil Undone,” London Review of Books, March 27, 2020.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is on day 6 of his fever and is in quarantine at 10 Downing St. His chief medical advisor is also in self-imposed quarantine. Same kind of thing as Bolsonaro: Lots of back-pounding and hand-shaking, taking his cabinent, staff, and advisors with him on his jet, etc.

As yet there are no cases on my island but the CoV-19 can incubate in carriers and be spread for 2 weeks before the carriers show symptoms. This is why it can be more dangerous than Ebola or SARS. There are cases in Cancun and there is daily traffic of food suppliers and others between the island and there, so we cannot say it is not already actively spreading here. We have to regard each personal encounter with utmost care, touching nothing, breathing no-one else’s air, social distancing. I’ve learned to squint and regard everyone as a White Walker. I have been masking for two weeks.


I never used to lock my doors and windows here. Where would you go if you stole from me? But things have changed. I have to step up my vigilance. Many who were in tourism-related jobs are now out of work. There is no money coming in but it leaves here with every trip to the grocer or utility bill. Desperation will grow. I can teach permaculture and organic gardening, but these things take time. So I have reluctantly begun to lock up when I go out. I’ll also need to vary the pattern of my comings and goings to be less predictable.

I really have very little to steal, but losing this laptop for me would be catastrophic.

My friend Danny Manicolo wrote a nice song for #stayhome’rs, “I know I am safe and protected. Bob is safe and protected. We are safe and protected. Living out here free.”

Another friend, Bobby Klein, threw the ‘ching:

Your action in the situation at hand
Must be accomplished with mindfulness
And a gentle hand;
Any other way misses the point.

This time is well represented by the Hermit card in the tarot, which signifies that there is a guiding light on your path, but you are walking it alone. It is a time to be solitary, to meditate, organize, and find the truth in your heart. During this time of solitude, feelings of agitation or frustration will arise. No worries, no blame. These feelings will pass as you deconstruct them and shift the fear to love. Clarity, understanding, and enlightenment await you on the journey. Give your mind a break and relax into this in-between state.

On the bright side, the coronavirus has proved that very large movements by the entire global society are not impossible — that people can act with uncommon courage in an emergency when they understand that it threatens their lives. What we have seen defies the usual excuses for climate inaction. Huge government, academic, and corporate offices completely modified the ways they operated, overnight. It suddenly became socially acceptable to shame people into changing their habits. The economy, for once, took the back seat. Jamie Margolin, an 18-year-old Colombian-American climate justice activist, wrote:

[T]he way the coronavirus disproportionately affects older people is the exact way the climate crisis disproportionately affects young people. … This pandemic has brought business as usual to an official halt. When the worst of the illness has passed, instead of rushing to return to “normal” — the old, comfortable pattern of destroying the planet — we can take this opportunity to restructure our economy and society in a way that will ensure today’s children can live.


Prepping for pandemic goes on even while the pandemic spreads. At its full extent it requires complete lockdown, so if you aren’t in that yet, you can still be making preparations. I am buying more than I need this week on each trip to the grocery or pharmacy but not making a big stockpile, just gradually extending my margin of safety.

I went some distance away to a hot spot for a YouTube Local Futures interview then went to bike home and had a flat rear tire so I pushed it to the bike shop. That was closed but I passed by the home of another bike repair guy and he agreed to help. He and his son put on their aprons and took half an hour to find and patch the leak then only wanted 20 pesos (90 cents US). I gave them 50 pesos and my gratitude. Good people. Then I saw some friends who said the fresh vege markets were all going to close tomorrow so on the way home I stopped and loaded up on potatoes, tomatoes, chiles, and onions. Willy’s is changing to only allow one shopper through the door at a time, or you can come to the door, give your list, and they will bring stuff out to you. That is better for the elderly. The aisles there are very narrow and it is difficult to social distance. Still, some people don’t respect distance in the queue at the door.

The checkpoint at the port of Chiquila has been taken down and the one in the nearby town of Solferino has been strengthened. Some Holbox government authorities were not allowed to pass without better reasons than to visit family or shop in Cancun. The region is now blocked at the Solferino frontier, but we should be able to resupply with fresh produce from within this foodshed. You cannot take the ferry to this island unless you are a resident. I hear they will still try to expel some foreign tourists who are hiding here but I do not feel threatened. When I was at the outdoor market I heard an old woman say she was grateful for the blockade because it will keep out robbers and drunks.


I first visited this place November 8, 2004. I had been scouting locations somewhere midway between Argentina and Alberta where our 20 ecovillage regional delegates could meet for a week. Maria Ros told me her permaculture center in Solferino would be willing to host, so at her urging, I went there for a look around. At that time her village of 200 had only one phone, and if you called Maria, they would send a child to look for her. I could see this place lacked any of the amenities required for an international business meeting, but Maria was not giving up. “There is a place down that road,” she said, pointing. “It has hotels. You have to take a ferry to get there.”

So began my love affair with Isla Holbox. Stepping to the dock from the ferry after a 45-minute crossing, I discovered streets of sand, a total absence of cars and motorcycles, and the charm of brightly muraled tiendas, hoteles, and comidas. Some of the restaurants were such gastronomic attractions that they had led truly world-class chefs to depart Italy, Sweden, Argentina, Switzerland, or France to come open informal, cozy spaces where the seafood came fresh from the beach. I struck up a chat with the owners of an off-grid eco-hotel and they immediately wanted me to come teach permaculture and solar power systems. I was smitten. My overnight stay lasted a week.

We decided not to host the meeting there but I returned for a two-week stay in December, and then visited again and did some house hunting in January/February ahead of a Global Village Institute board meeting in Mazatlan. A full season of workshops, apprenticeships, and lectures on four continents took up the rest of my year, but in August, Maria Ros came to visit me in Tennessee. We spoke of my love of Holbox, and when I returned there a few weeks later she bought Casa Coco for $25,000. At that time it was ejido land and I was not permitted to own, being a foreigner, but she could, and I had a standing invitation to stay whenever I wished.

Since then I have made it my winter home. Over the past 15 winters I have written ten books there, 6 for print and 4 more digital. It is my Hemingway machine.

In late October of that first year, the island was visited by Wilma, the most intense tropical hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, and the second-most intense tropical cyclone recorded in the Western Hemisphere (after Hurricane Patricia in 2015).

Wilma … escalated from a tropical storm to a category five hurricane in 24 hours — the strongest hurricane ever to have gestated in the Atlantic. It passed over the island of Cozumel and moved north, taking with it most of Cancun’s 24,000 hotel rooms and almost all of its beach. A hurricane like this would typically be expected to last around four hours. Wilma lasted 64.

And yet there was not a single death. This is the most important point about Wilma’s assault on Mexico: though 62 deaths were reported after Wilma in Cuba and Florida, none were reported here. In a country whose pride is often wounded by the superiority complex of its northern neighbor, the response to Wilma stands in crucially stark contrast to that of the US government to Katrina, which caused almost 2,000 fatalities.

Although Wilma gathered strength with unprecedented speed, the Mexican government was prepared. Everyone in the region was evacuated; shelters were ready; President Fox ordered the military to be on hand with helicopters and food. The Red Cross was there with first aid. The electrical company was sent down in advance in order to repair the damage as quickly as possible once Wilma was over.

— Gaby Woods, Cancun gets back on its feet after Wilma (25 Jun 2006)

Maria and her partner Hector sheltered from the storm in the upstairs room of their house in Solferino. The downstairs was completely flooded and she would lie awake at night listening to the screams of animals being washed out to sea. People later spoke of the darkness day and night, of putting headphones on their children to silence the ‘devilish roar’, and the scene ‘like a war zone’ when it was over. Eighty thousand hectares (309 square miles) of jungle was leveled and would later burn away in wildfire.

I returned to Holbox on November 21 to find the island already recovering very rapidly. There was still no power and the Navy had to bring food and water, but in the evenings people gathered in the town center to play guitars and sing. Casa Coco had lost one wall and everything in its yard. There was a waterline mark three feet above the floor inside. There was a diagonal stripe on the refrigerator to mark the angle it had assumed as it floated around the room. Three coconut trees had bent over backwards and protected the thatch roof, the same one still on the house today. Plugging my iBook into a portable solar array, I wrote The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook (New Society Publishers 2006), using illustrations from Dr. Strange comic books and photos of local kite-surfers.

“They also surf who only stand on waves.”

— The Silver Surfer

My daily routine these days is not very different from then. Like Hemingway, I write best in the morning, so I may take a spin on the bike for 30 minutes then come back for coffee and sit down to write. Later I will bike to the beach for a sunset swim, usually getting a quarter to a half-mile of open ocean workout, depending on wave height. If I need to shop for anything, or visit with friends, I may do that on the way home. In the evening I will dose myself with current news such as the excellent March 29 Crazy Town podcast with Nafeez Ahmed.

Writing for The Atlantic on March 24, Zeynep Tufekci observed:

Many will be tempted to see the tragic coronavirus pandemic through a solely partisan lens: The Trump administration spectacularly failed in its response, by cutting funding from essential health services and research before the crisis, and later by denying its existence and its severity. Those are both true, but they don’t fully explain the current global crisis that has engulfed countries of varying political persuasions.

As it turns out, the reality-based, science-friendly communities and information sources many of us depend on also largely failed. We had time to prepare for this pandemic at the state, local, and household level, even if the government was terribly lagging, but we squandered it because of widespread asystemic thinking: the inability to think about complex systems and their dynamics. We faltered because of our failure to consider risk in its full context, especially when dealing with coupled risk — when multiple things can go wrong together. We were hampered by our inability to think about second- and third-order effects and by our susceptibility to scientism — the false comfort of assuming that numbers and percentages give us a solid empirical basis. We failed to understand that complex systems defy simplistic reductionism.

Widespread asystemic thinking may have cost America the entire month of February, and much of what we’d normally consider credible media were part of that failure.

I am biking to the beach for my sunset swim when I stop at Veronica’s house and she has a look like she has seen Mictecacihuatl. She says, “You need to get off the street.” She goes and gets her phone and reads me the notice from the Director of Health. All foreigners with tourist visas are herewith expelled from the island. I am here on a tourist visa.

Shit just got real. My position here in Mexico has suddenly become quite tenuous. If I close Maria’s house and pack a jump bag, there are only limited ways to get to Cancun. Borders are closed, even around towns, most hotels and hostels are closed, and Cancun and Merida are hellholes of people camping at the airports, there are almost no flights, and no assistance from US consulates. I am very worried for my health if I venture out into that, as I have, at 73, issues of heart and lung that predispose me to the worst effects of this virus.

I skip my swim and bike home, taking only the back streets. As I pass people they turn and look at me differently than they normally do. They are not smiling.


First day in hiding.

I spoke with a friend who owns a hotel here and we had a frank discussion. Late last night he posted this to the Yo Amo Holbox facebook group:

Holbox y los extranjeros….


Holbox and foreigners …. it is in conditions like these where you can show the best or the worst of yourselves. While Cuba sends doctors to Italy and receives foreign patients with Covid 19, the United States refuses them entry and tries to steal the development of German vaccines for their exclusive use. In this crisis you decide if you are proud of having been supportive or selfish without empathy. On the island there is not a single type of foreigners; there are those who have been working here for years, those who have been here several months, and the gigantic majority have been here for more than 15 days, so they are not a contagion factor. We have known that medical services have been deficient on the island for years, but no population in the world has the number of respirators necessary for a possible pandemic. It is not something specific to the island. The 10% with serious symptoms should go to Cancun, whether foreign or national. There are almost no flights and many borders are closed when someone is expelled from the island they are unnecessarily exposing them. It is likely that a year from now a large majority will have had the virus, some without realizing it. Protect your loved ones at risk, take responsibility for your own health with better food and exercise, and we will come out with our heads held high. Come on Holbox, don’t let fear stain your essence.

The post had 53 comments and 344 likes before the site removed it. All of the comments were supportive.


After a town meeting to hear the protests, and some trending social media with hashtags like #holboxhuman and #holboxsolidario, the Secretary-General of the Municipality of Lazaro Cardenas issued a new directive. Instead of expelling foreigners from Holbox, they were merely “advised to leave.”

Masked as usual, I biked over to the ocean and had a swim and then a cup of coffee with Sandra and another chat with Veronica. Then I stopped for groceries on the way home. For the time being, we are almost back to “normal.”

Thomas Friedman had an interesting Op-Ed in The New York Times. He wrote:

“…it is vital that we keep in mind just how much more destructive climate change could be for all of us…. Because there is one huge difference between the coronavirus and climate change: Climate change doesn’t “peak” — and then flatten out and then maybe dissipate or be permanently prevented by vaccine — so normal life resumes…. There is no herd immunity to climate change. There are only endless impacts on the herd.”

I recognize that my situation here is better than that of many. I can barely imagine what it must be like to be confined in a cell with a number of other prisoners who are coughing, sneezing, fevered, and unattended. I would dread being in a squalid refugee camp somewhere and hearing those same sounds coming from everyone around me, and not even having soap to wash my hands. And yet, that is the kind of world we find ourselves in.

This has been a very long post, and for that, I apologize to diligent readers who have come this far with me. The theme this week, if we can discern one now, seems to be that system design thinking could have been applied long ago and would have likely avoided much of the suffering now being experienced and still expanding exponentially. Preparation is everything. Speculation, geomancy, and fantastical myth-making need to step aside for the moment, please. Science-based design and antifragile, regenerative, healing approaches need to step forward.

Back from my morning swim and bike on the beach. Smiles all around. Nobody is leaving.

Be safe out there, y’all. Wear a mask. I protect you, you protect me, and together we are both safe.

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