A Memorial Day that will go down in infamy

A Memorial Day that will go down in infamy

Memorial Day 2020 will be remembered as the day America blew off the experts and partied with the coronavirus. Reading the news articles about how crowds gathered at beaches and parks, ignoring the social distancing recommendations of the CDC, I can’t help but notice the irony. Memorial Day was instituted as a holiday to honor those who have died performing their civic duty. And America chose to celebrate it by ignoring civic duty altogether.

Maybe it’s just that the definition of civic duty has changed. After all, the President told us just after 9/11 to do our duty by going shopping. As citizen-consumers of the neo-liberal market state, it is our responsibility to sustain economic activity at all costs, even if the cost is the lives of those vulnerable to a contagious new virus.

This could be seen as a consequence of the failure of leadership at the Federal level, with the current President actually touting conspiracy theories. It’s a crying shame that partisanship has split the country to the point that it determines what facts you believe. I get that it’s hard to know what’s really going on, given that even the experts on disease control can only make a best assessment based on limited data. But would it really have been so hard to just enjoy this weekend from home?

Next Memorial Day should be dedicated to those who are now going to die because so many people chose to ignore social distancing and spread SARS-COV-2. Next Memorial Day should honor those who did their duty for freedom, by suffering and dying of COVID-19, thanks to this weekend’s hordes of the irresponsible and ignorant.

Beachgoers on Memorial Day in Port Aransas, Texas
Today’s Workout Music: Wii Fit Music

Today’s Workout Music: Wii Fit Music

It’s been a couple of years since I published a Workout Album post. In the meantime, I swear, I was going to the fitness center in my apartment complex on a semi-regular, albeit infrequent basis. I was listening to my standby electronic music while I exercised – maybe some Shpongle Remixed, or some Hanna Haïs. But that’s all in the past. You see, they won’t let me into the fitness center any more!

So after a month or so of pandemic lockdown I was noticing the ill effects. A whole day of literally no physical activity except for briefly moving from one room of the house to another. It made me realize how much extra activity I was doing before just from commuting to work and walking about at the office. Now I was homebound, and it was often too cold, windy or rainy for a walk, seeing as this is the year of perpetual winter, among other disruptions. My body was getting stiff from inactivity, and my lower back was aching, which is my red flag that I am being too sedentary.

What to do? Luckily, my best friend and partner, in whose home I am quarantining, had a solution. She dragged an old device out from under a bed (I presume) and we got to working out again. That’s right, I’m talking about the Wii Fit. Everyone had one back around 2008, remember? And yours is probably still under a bed somewhere.

My BFF’s son expertly crafted our Miis, we did our body tests (my current Wii Fit Age is 46, BTW), and got to it. And what fun it was! It was a bit of nostalgia trip, re-experiencing the balance board and the different activities. It might not be the perfect exercise system, but it’s solved the problem of complete lack of activity.

I find that Wii Fit’s method of rewarding with credits and encouraging improvement with scores and rankings motivates me. And some of the activities are a lot of fun. I generally favor the balance games, especially the slalom, and the yoga. My favorite aerobics is the boxing, which is a really good workout. We have been fairly disciplined in working out regularly, and it’s having the desired effect. I may not get to the level of buffness of that guy from Hobart, but I am confident that my health is going to improve.

It does mean, however, that my workout music for the forseeable future is going to be the Wii Fit theme music. I don’t think there is anyway to change it. I guess I’ll get back to the Shpongle later.

That’s Mii in the middle.

Ruling the Waves Reviewed, Part II

Ruling the Waves Reviewed, Part II

This is a continuation of an earlier post where I started reviewing the book Ruling the Waves, by Debora L. Spar, specifically attempting to tie the author’s thesis in with saecular theory. In that post I only got as far as the first technological wave, the telegraph. In this post I’ll cover the next two waves – radio and the late twentieth-century advancements in television. First, let’s recap the thesis of Spar’s book, summarized in my first post.

The author has a premise that when a ground-breaking new technology is introduced, it goes through four phases of development before becoming a commonplace part of everyday life on which we depend. First there is the invention phase, involving just a few people, and then the entrepreneur phase, where risk-takers develop the new technology commercially. Next is what she calls a period of “creative anarchy,” when the most successful entrepreneurs battle for supremacy in the marketplace, and finally the rulemaking phase, where those who now dominate the technology application push for a fixed legal structure within which to operate.

Now, when looking at the telegraph, it was fairly easy to align the development of the technology with the turnings of the Civil War Saeculum. The invention phase happens at the end of the second turning, the entrepreneurial and market free-for-all phases during the third turning leading up to the Civil War, and then the rule-making period comes with the rise of Western Union during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

The next two waves, as described by Spar, are a little more compressed in time. The story of radio comes in two halves. The first one is dominated by the best known figure in the history of radio, Guglielmo Marconi (b. 1874 – Missionary peer). He was not just an inventor, but also an entrepreneur, and managed not only to make radio a feasible technology, but also to completely control the market via his patents during the 1910s.

But Marconi’s dominance was undermined by two factors. The first was nation-state governments, which recognized the security implications of wireless communication and used their authority to constrain Marconi’s monopoly power. The second factor was the development of the next generation of radio technology. Marconi’s system used spark gaps to generatate pulses of electricity and transmit signals in Morse code – it was essentially wireless telegraphy. What was really wanted was a way to send signals on continuous waves. Then sound, even music, could be transmitted. It would transform radio into wireless phonography, which is how we experience it today.

This is the second half of the radio story, a sort of mini-wave of its own. The invention phase was primarily the work of an engineer named Reginald Fessenden (b. 1866 – Missionary), and occurred at the same time that Marconi’s creation was prominent. The entrepreneurial/creative anarchy phase took place in the first part of the 1920s. It was kicked off by an important development, the formation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1919. This was an innovation of its own in the commercialization of communications – RCA was an organization that controlled radio stations without controlling the technology of radio. This was the beginning of the broadcasting industry. Marconi’s system became obsolete and his patents worthless, and his empire crumbled.

In the first half of the 1920s, radio was in a period that definitely matches Spar’s creative anarchy phase in technology develoment. Small stations operated by amateurs – “radioheads” – sprung up everywhere, broadcasting whatever music they could get their hands on. This became too chaotic to be tenable, since by their very nature broadcast signals interfere with one another. Order came with laws passed in the late 1920s to regulate bandwidth, and with the emergence of broadcasting corporations which controlled networks of radio stations and could operate them in a coordinated fashion. The first of these was the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), and before long ABC and CBS came along – the Big Three which moved on to the world of television broadcasting and which are still prominent today.

So Spar’s entire cycle of four phases of technology development can actually fit into the space of one decade. The fact that radio’s story is ensconced within the third turning of the Great Power saeculum fits that era’s heady, fast-paced reputation. The subsequent development of television takes place in the next first turning, but Spar actually skips over that entirely. Her example from the history of television specifically relates to the rise of satellite and digital TV.

This is another fast cycle, and takes place within the third turning of the current Millennial saeculum – in the 1990s, the last decade before the publication of Spar’s book. It starts with the rise of SkyTV, powered by the relentless ambition of Rupert Murdoch (b. 1931 – Silent). The new techonology in question was satellite broadcasting, and the key to SkyTV’s takeover of the British market was the fact that Britain’s tight television regulations did not cover this particular type of broadcasting.

By taking advantage of this regulatory gap, Murdoch was able to penetrate the British television market with a unique brand, one that threatened Britain’s conservative and cultured self-image with trashy “American-style” content. SkyTV quickly got into financial trouble, which Murdoch handled by bringing in legendary executive Sam Chisholm (b. 1939 – Silent peer). But no sooner had Chisholm straightened things out, than SkyTV was hit by a new wave of techonological innnovation and forced to adjust to that.

This new wave was digital broadcasting, which basically reimplements signal encoding in such a way that far more channels can fit within the same bandwidth of electromagetic radiation. Consequently, providers can offer more content and choices, to presumably leverage for more profit-making. You may remember this transistion, which for consumers was disruptive since it meant their old analog systems were going to become obsolete. You may remember complaining and a sense of consumer powerlessness in the face of inexorable progress. It’s a done deal now, but at the time that Spar’s book was published was an ongoing process of negotiation and new rulemaking.

What’s interesting about these different techonological waves is that as they progress across the twentieth century, “ruling the wave” becomes as much a matter of navigating the regulatory environment as of pioneering a new techonological application. This comes with the growing sophistication of both corporate enterprise and government oversight. But even as the focus of the stories has shifted from individual inventors and entrepreneurs to giant corporations and milestone regulatory acts, there is still room for strong personalities to exert their influence.

The last part of the book covers computer and Internet technology. I will finish reading it and conclude these reviews in a future post.

Subreddit of the week: Schizophrenia Rides

Subreddit of the week: Schizophrenia Rides

In the movie Forrest Gump, about a Baby Boomer who is there for all the iconic moments of the Baby Boomer life course, there is a scene where the main character plays a part in the story of the rise of the bumper sticker.

It’s a fun moment that ties into the movie’s theme of touching on the milestones of late twentieth century history. And the proliferation of bumper stickers and window decals as a form of personal expression was indeed such a milestone. It coincided, I believe, with a parallel proliferation of personal expression on the fronts and backs of T-shirts. It came with an era of rising individualism.

The heyday of the bumper sticker was the 1980s and 1990s, right after when this scene from Forrest Gump is set. It was a time when people proudly displayed their opinions, attitudes, political affiliations and cultural preferences on the rear ends of their automotive vehicles – in colorful, and sometimes confrontational or offensive ways. A drive on a crowded highway would have given you ample opportunity to learn about the beliefs and personalities of the other drivers all around you.

In the 2000s the bumper sticker frenzy started dying down. In particular, displaying political support on one’s vehicle has become passé. It was still done in the 2000s; there was “W” to show support for President Bush, and “Hope” to show support for President Obama. But since the 2010s, it has become very rare. I think people have gotten fearful of displaying partisan loyalty in public, as the rancor of partisanship has gotten worse.

Some iconic stickers still linger. “Coexist” marks you as a believer in diversity, and “Salt Life” as someone who likes the beach lifestyle. A set of decals on the rear window identifying one’s family members remains popular. But these days, you will find that most cars either have nothing displayed, or innoffensive badges of loyalty to sports teams, schools, churches or civic organizations.

And then, there are vehicles like the one below, which can be seen driving around in the town where I live.

These days, if you plaster your vehicle with bumper stickers, it may end up featured on the subreddit /r/SchizophreniaRides, dedicated to showcasing and making fun of drivers the Internet assumes must be a little bit insane. I mean, what is going on in the mind of this car’s driver? They don’t like liberals and Democrats, support the current President with one gigantic sticker, but also champion strippers and sport a rainbow flag? I guess it shows how much values have shifted and what an – uh – interesting coalition the current administration has behind it.

It’s not just bumper stickers that will get you featured on /r/SchizopreniaRides. Any ostentatious display on your set of wheels will do it – the more out there on the fringe, the better. Here are a couple more examples from my neighborhood. I guess there must be something about Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Freedom of expression is a wonderful thing. There is nothing wrong with displaying your opinions on your car, so long you don’t incite violence, and you can pass a safety inspection. But these days, personal expression has moved out of the public space in real life, and onto the Internet. Online, people can remain anonymous if they like, or confine themselves to a safe space of likeminded others.

If you do insist on sharing your worldview in the old fashioned way of twenty years ago or more, well, kudos to you for your bravery. But just keep in mind that you might get featured on /r/SchizophreniaRides.

Just Call Me A Zoomer

Just Call Me A Zoomer

It’s been six weeks in lockdown. Except for cashiers at the grocery store and a few curbside pickups of take out food, I haven’t interacted face-to-face in real life with anyone other than family. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t socialized. Like many of us shuttered in at home, I have videoconferenced – both for business and pleasure – using the software that has suddenly taken over our lives: Zoom.

So far I’ve attended a couple of hangouts with old friends, one of which was a surprise birthday party. I’ve been to happy hours with my work colleagues – and yes, we are welcome to have a drink. It’s nice to see the faces of my coworkers after a week of working online from home. I’ve also particicpated in a couple of script-readings for the eldest son’s script analysis class (put together by his attentive mother), including one where we were Zoombombed by professional actors.

Ok, we weren’t really Zoombombed, because the participants were invited. Ok, at work we actually use different software. I just mean to stick a label on this phenomenon where our socializing has abruptly moved into the digital space, as the Internet proceeds to the next phase of its complete takeover of our lives. We’re all Zoomers now.

It’s been fun figuring out the finer points of Zoom. Gallery view is best for a general conversation, but active speaker is good for the script reading. If you have a lot of participants, you can scroll through them to catch late arrivals, and make sure they get welcomed. And don’t forget about the chat option!

I do find that an online video hangout satisfies the need for social interaction. It feels like a change of scenery, and it alleviates the cabin fever. Good thing, because we don’t want this Sim’s mood to drop too low. Now if I could just get my virtual background to work…

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.