Everything changed so fast

Everything changed so fast

Time moves fast in a Crisis.

I remember back when 2019 was coming to an end, and everyone on social media was posting retrospectives of the 2010s. There was this exciting sense of being there for the end of an era. I even participated by Tweeting a list of my favorite streaming shows, since I saw the rise of streaming on-demand television as the decade’s big story in the media and entertainment space.

When 2020 began, I had plans already lined up to hit the many travel destinations I like to visit periodically. I don’t know why, but I felt this compulsion to do it all as soon as I could. It was like I wanted to start the new decade right.

I went down to North Carolina, where I used to live, and attended a gaming convention with my BFF. That was in January. In February, we went to Washington, D.C. and visited my mother and sister. We also went to New York and saw two shows, as well her best friend from high school days. By then, the novel coronavirus was in the headlines.

At the very end of the month, I went down to Virginia to play Magic: The Gathering with old friends that I have been playing with since the 1990s. It was a fun get together after a year apart. We were making jokes about the coronavirus.

As March began, I looked forward to the high school theater season starting up, since my BFF and I attend performances as part of the Philadelphia Independence Awards. By then, the severity of the novel coronavirus contagion was becoming apparent. There was talk of shutdowns. The company where I work had a WFH day as a drill.

We ended up seeing one Independence Award show, and it was a dress rehearsal because the actual performances were cancelled. The last large gathering we attended was a funeral. We thought about maybe not going, but we wanted to pay our respects to a friend who had died tragically at too young an age. The funeral was attended by hundreds of people.

Since then we’ve been in lockdown, only leaving the house for grocery runs, or to go on walks in the neighborhood. Everyone at my office is working from home. I know that I am very lucky to have that opportunity, because many others are out of work and with no prospects.

All that travel and activity in the recent past seems like it might have been too risky. Especially the trip to New York. We actually came down with colds when we got back from there. Did we have it? I don’t think so, but we can’t be sure.

What now? The future looks ominous. I had all these ideas for blog posts lined up, but now they don’t seem relevant. Everything changed so fast. I’m glad I got all that travelling in at the start of the year, since it looks like that might be the last of it for the year. Personal, private life will be slower for awhile, even as events in the outside world move faster and faster.

Exactly what you’d expect in a Crisis Era.

Silent of the Week: Anthony Fauci

Silent of the Week: Anthony Fauci

My most recent Silent of the Week posts featured Democratic politicians, as the two stories that dominated the beginning of the year were impeachment and the Democratic primaries. That’s all on the wayside now, with the COVID-19 pandemic taking over news feeds. The crisis has thrust numerous leaders into the limelight, with some reputations faring well, and others not so well.

Most of these leaders are Boomers or Gen-Xers, but there is one notable member of the Silent Generation who is in the limelight now. That would be Anthony Fauci (b. 1940), director of the NIAID and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

A highly credentialed physician and immunologist, Fauci has had a long career in the Federal government. He has been at the forefront of government policy and research involving epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola, as well as bioterrorism. He has been in his current role as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since the 1980s, serving under many Presidential administrations.

A long and distinguished career as a specialist mark him as a member of his generation, whose legacies include expertise and working within the system. Another legacy of his generation is acting as a tempering influence on the volatile personalities of the Boomers who came after them. And boy does he have that work cut out for him now, as evidenced by a recent meme of him face palming during a task force press conference.

For giving us hope that there is at least someone intelligent with expertise working within the White House in this most desperate time, and for valiantly continuing his long service under this most feckless of administrations, I name Anthony Fauci my Silent of the Week.

A Book about a Crisis Era

A Book about a Crisis Era

Some time ago I started reading Citizens, by Simon Schama. I finally finished it and posted a review on Goodreads, as part of my reading challenge. Here is the review reproduced for this blog, as well as some additional thoughts on what lessons the French Revolution might have for our own time.

First, the review.

At 875 pages (not counting the bibliography and index), Simon Schama’s Citizens looks like a formidable work to tackle. But his eloquent prose and touching, personal approach to history make for an easy read. There is certainly enough to write about the French Revolution to fill 875 pages, covering the span of time from the Revolution’s origins in the Enlightenment Era, up to the dramatic events of Thermidor and the fall of Robespierre. I enjoyed it all; this book is, as they say, a real page-turner.

In his narrative, Schama focuses on the individuals whose stories comprise the overarching epic of France’s transformation from floundering Monarchy to militant Republic. These are his titular citizens, and theirs is a shared journey through the gates of history, in which their identities shift from that of their prescribed roles in the old regime, to that of free and equal members of a common fraternity, devoted to the fatherland. And woe to those whose devotion was found insufficient, as conflict and violence swept through French society like wildfire.

The brutality of the violence and the fervor of the mobs which challenged the authority of every French government of the period, monarchical and Republican alike, is the most startling aspect of the Revolution. Schama disavows the idea that this was class warfare brought about by the disaffection of France’s poor and underprivileged. Not that there were no disaffections; these were famously written down in the lists of grievances presented to the King at the fateful convening of the Estates-General. But the impetus for change came from all levels of society. Many aristocrats and episcopalians were pushing for reform; for a Constitutional Monarchy in line with the ideals of the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man, inspired by philosphers like Thomas Paine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They did not anticipate that in a few short years their King would be dead and they would be fleeing the Terror of the radical Republicans.

Schama’s narrative shows a society consumed by a kind of madness for a new political identity and national rebirth. The French Revolution wasn’t a mechanical process of adjustment to modernity, driven by material circumstances. It was a conscious, creative effort of the human spirit. Material circumstances merely limited the scope of the change that Revolution could effect, particularly in economic conditions. And it was the limits of the human psyche itself that prevented the rapid succession of governments from ever establishing political order, without ultimately resorting to totalitarianism and mass murder, in an awful premonition of the horrors to come in a later century.

In this fascinating story of a nation’s struggle to redefine itself, we can detect lessons for our own time. In particular, the saga of the French Revolution warns of the dangers of partisanship, extremism, and the demand for ideological purity – all of which can sweep through a people like a tidal force, and drag them toward an unavoidable fate. It’s a warning we should well heed today.

Now for some additional thoughts on parallels between the French Revolution and our times.

There are two obvious rhymes between our time and that distant time in French history. One is the effects of extreme partisanship – how it creates an unbridgeable gap between the two sides, limiting people’s thinking to conform with their particular partisan view (we call it the “echo chamber” today), and how it completely disempowers political moderates (good luck, Joe Biden). The other effect, related to the first, is how easily misinformation spreads. The rumors that spread through French society, causing massive fear and anxiety, way back in the late 1700s, are no different than the “fake news” of today. As they say, the first casualty of war is truth.

As for the terrifying levels of violence, mentioned in the review, I will say that it is my great hope that we are past that. It was a more violent time back then. Life was cheap. But certainly there are violent, extremist elements in our society today, lurking in the background like the spectre of dangers past. And we are in dangerous times.

We are in a Crisis Era, like the one that France was in during the Revolution. Our society will – indeed, must – transform, just as France’s did, though it will not be the same kind of transformation. We have a mature Republic, not one that is or has just been formed, and though it is straining, it is still intact. Now we are in a great test to see if our institutions can adapt to the challenges of the 21st century – if we can muster our own spirit to face the great difficulties ahead.

It was fun while it lasted

It was fun while it lasted

With the outbreak of novel coronavirus COVID-19 shocking markets and threatening supply chains, it seems like we might finally have hit the crisis moment that breaks the old order for good. I don’t think any bailouts can help us now.

Of all generations, Generation X is the least well positioned for it. Silents and Boomers are on their way out and will witness the end in their final years. Millennials are still young and have enough time to bounce back. But Gen X will watch their 401Ks evaporate along with any possible opportunity to recover in time for their elder years, which will be spent in poverty.

At least, that aligns with one prediction from Strauss & Howe generations theory, which I can’t help but mull over as I watch the headlines.

Silents of the Week: Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.

Silents of the Week: Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.

Well, after all that, the Democratic primaries have come down to two members of the Silent Generation. I’m a little disappointed in the Democratic party electorate; I was really hoping they would go with someone younger, given all those choices. I know that sounds ageist, but it’s not that I’m against old white men (I plan to be one some day). I just think the Democratic party needs to represent transformative change; it needs to look to the future. Rallying around a politician from the oldest living generation, who served in a previous administration, is looking to the past. It speaks of an electorate that is afraid. I can understand why people are afraid, but don’t we remember that fear is the killer? That fear itself is the greatest danger?

At least Elizabeth Warren, my personal choice, although she is 70 years old is at least a Boomer. That’s the generation that should be providing us with a champion on the left to fight against the reactionary politics of the Trumpian right. But alas, it is not to be.

I hope one of these two guys is up to the task. I’ll choose Sanders in the primary, and whichever one wins the nomination will get my #NeverTrump vote. And for coming out on top on Super Tuesday, and showing that their generation just won’t quit, I name Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden the Silents of the week.

A common practice

A common practice

I’ve finished another book, a relatively quick read, taking me to 2 out of 20 books completed in my 2020 reading challenge. I just might get it done!

The book was Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson, a brief treatise on innovation. I left a short review on Goodreads. but wanted to blog about something interesting I learned during my read.

A commonplace book from the mid 17th century

As part of the history of genius inventors, and of how information is organized and shared among them, Johnson covers the history of the commonplace book. This was a way for private individuals to compile knowledge, particularly popular in the early modern period. It was basically a loosely organized collection of notes. Typically it would be one volume, but it might take a lifetime to fill it, becoming a kind of jumbled encyclopedia with a personal touch.

There were even methods devised for the best way to organize the information, so that it could be found easily, but wasn’t too restrictively compartmentalized. The idea was that a freer arrangement could help reveal connections between different subject matters, allowing new concepts to emerge.

I realized that I have actually been following this practice my whole life. I’ve just been keeping smaller notebooks, to the point that I have piles of them now. Inside there are notes from reading books, as well as ideas for stories and games and world settings, all jumbled together. Sometimes I go back through them to revisit old ideas and ruminate more on them.

Some of my “commonplace” notebooks.

So that was a cool thing to get out of this read, the knowledge that I have been following a time-honored practice shared by scholarly types of centuries past. In fact, nowadays, most of us probably do, if only in the form of bookmarked web pages! So much to know about the world, and yet so much that remains undiscovered.

Inside one of my notebooks.
Silent of the Week: Michael Bloomberg

Silent of the Week: Michael Bloomberg

I’ve written in the past about how the Silent Generation (b. 1925-1942) has held onto power for a long time in the United States, and how their influence has contributed in many ways to the kind of slow burn that characterizes our current Crisis Era. The old political regime, with its special interests and its money corruption, is associated with this generation and its long tenure. There are even two members of the Silent Generation running for President…

Oh wait, make that three! Almost as if to rub the corruption of politics by money in our collective faces, along comes Michael Bloomberg (b. 1942) to crash the Presidential race. He’s the 9th richest human in the world (Donald Trump is only the 715th) and a hero of 9/11, so why shouldn’t he flex his muscle in this era of populist strongmen? So what if he’s been a little racist and sexist in his past – that didn’t stop the current White House inhabitant from getting where he is today.

If you haven’t cut the cord, then you are probably going to see a lot of ads for this guy’s candidacy in the months to come. And you are also probably old, which means you might be in the demographic that Bloomer is trying to reach. That Sanders guy might be too scary radical for you, and Biden – well, that whole Ukraine thing…

Personally, I hope Bloomberg’s candidacy turns out to be history’s most expensive flash in the pan. But I have to give him this one post just for the sheer chutzpah of what he is doing – shoehorning his way into the wrong primary (since his party is a cult now) to try to transmute his personal fortune into political power, and prove to us that oligarchic plutocracy is here to stay. Money can’t buy you love, but it just might be able to buy you a Presidency.

For his thrilling debut on the stage of the Democratic debates, and the promise of much more media coverage to come, I name Michael Bloomberg the Silent of the Week.

So many books, so little time

So many books, so little time

I’m way behind on my reading challenge so what do I do? I pick up a new book to read, of course. Actually, there is some logic to this decision – I tend to read ponderous works of nonfiction which means it takes a long time to get through a work. So I am adding a short piece of fiction to my list, which should increase my odds of finishing a book soon.

The fictional work is the novel Freedom Road, by Howard Fast. I didn’t know this before, but he is the same author who wrote the novel Spartacus, on which the film was based. And Freedom Road was also made into a TV mini-series, starring Muhammad Ali. So I’m going to look for that on streaming video once I’m done with the book.

I have small paperback edition I can carry with me at work in this odd little bag I bought, to read during my lunch breaks. Now that’s progress!

My Old Site Is Back Up

My Old Site Is Back Up

I have actually had my mindspring.com email since the late 1990s. You see, I have this stubborn resistance to upgrading tech or adopting new tech. I didn’t get my first smartphone until 2014 and I don’t even own a smartwatch now. I even continue to maintain an old flat HTML web site like it was still 2002 or something.

That is, I was maintaining it until EarthLink (which bought MindSpring) took it down; I guess they were tired of supporting free web sites for their email users. Whatever. I finally got around to scrounging up some basic hosting and put the old clunker back on the interwebs. It wasn’t too much of an ordeal, though there was quite a bit of search and replace of hardcoded URLs.

Divesting myself of the old email address might be a bit more of an effort, since it is linked to so many services. So let’s see if I can keep it alive for another decade or two.

My old site has been resurrected at http://stevebarrera.net/

Where on Earth has Steve been?

Where on Earth has Steve been?

You may have noticed I haven’t been blogging much lately. My new job keeps me very busy and drained of energy. I’m sure you are familiar with the experience; after work all that you are up for is some TV and then going to bed, and your hobbies suffer as a result. My eyes are tired all the time since I computer all day at work anyway and they just need a rest. I’m feeling old.

Ok, enough complaining.

Now, it’s actually possible that the real reason I haven’t been blogging is that I have been lost in virtual reality. Yes, that’s right, last Christmas the family got a VR system. It was a gift for the eldest son, but of course we’ve all played around with it a bit.

It’s an early model HTC VIVE that we got used on ebay for 500 bucks (that includes tax and shipping). At that price, it wasn’t something extravagantly out of reach for a middle class family. That’s basically the price of a smartphone, which everyone in every economic class has today. That suggests we may well be on our way as a society to a Ready Player Onestyle corporatist oligarchical dystopia where we all spend as much time as possible escaping our drab reality for a colorful virtual world where everything is possible.

Oblivious to the horrors of my nightmare society, I am lost in a reality of my own making.

Oh wait, we’re probably already there.

So anyway, the system we got consists of a headset, two controllers and two cameras that are mounted on very tall stands. We had to clear out a space in our computer room and then calibrate the system to establish the physical play area that maps into the virtual space. It’s not really enough space to move around in, but the VR apps don’t actually require walking about anyway. Movement within the worlds is always handled by some mechanic involving the hands or controllers.

The technology isn’t advanced enough (not at 500 bucks, anyway) to create any kind of pseudo-realistic experience. The experience is fully immersive, but only in a world that is abstract and cartoon-y. And I find that it is difficult to read text in the VR display, which is annoying, but that’s my old and tired eyes. I’m sure that the text is readable if you have better vision than I do.

So far my favorite games are Beat Saber, where you slice at flying cubes with light sabers, and Job Simulator, which is a satire of modern working life. There a lot of combat, FPS and RPG-type games that the boys like, but that is not for me. And yes, every app we have is some kind of game. The one exception would be Google Earth.

You’ve probably experienced Google Earth on your computer screen, but let me tell you, it’s much better in the full immersion of VR. You can pick up the globe and turn it around, or zoom into it and fly around all over the planet like you’ve always wished you could do in reality. It actually can be a bit disorienting when you zoom in too fast and are suddenly perched on a mountaintop.

In the close up the view is actually rendered graphics, not satellite imagery. I assume this is for software performance reasons. Again, not a hyperrealistic simulation. But you can still go into the street view, at which point you are in slideshow mode. Even here you are limited to what actual photos the Google Earth crew assembled together, but it’s still an amazing experience to wander the streets and roads of the Earth, anywhere you want.

I wanted to check out places I’ve lived as a child, so I got a set of coordinates from my Dad. I found that even immersed in the VR, there was only a vague sense of remembering the locations. They probably have changed a lot in the many decades that have passed (WP: Google invents time travel so they can expand their maps feature into the fourth dimension). But I’ll say, there was some inkling of a memory.

Even revisiting places from just twenty years or so in my past, it was hard to tell if I remembered them. Part of it might be that the perspective (I mean the actual visual perspective) is a bit different in street mode in the VR than it would have been in real life. And you can’t move around and look at anything closely; as stated earlier, it’s a slideshow.

The greatest familiarity that came with a strong sense of nostalgia was in visiting Blacksburg, Virginia, where I went to college. This is a place that will always be close to my heart, because I spent so many formative years there. I also got a strong emotion out of visiting my old neighborhood in North Carolina, where I had a house for ten years. But that is a very recent memory, and connected to a big change in my personal life.

Other than that, I don’t know, it’s just as much fun to wander around in the countryside of New Zealand (which I’ve never visited in “meat space”) as it is to try to recognize places which I did visit long ago. So if you’re wondering why I am not knocking on your door, it’s probably because I am off exploring strange lands in a virtual space. Someone please check on me every once in a while to make sure I’m not badly dehydrated.