Enjoying the Streaming Age of Video

Enjoying the Streaming Age of Video

The rest of the family is on vacation at Knoebels this week. I would have joined them, but I couldn’t afford to take the time off; not with another vacation coming up in July. So instead I will work, and at the end of the day get back to binge-watching The OA on Netflix.

If you subscribe to streaming video, which you probably do, and if you live in a family, which you might, then you are familiar with the following pattern. If you start to binge-watch a show with a certain subset of the people in your family, then you can’t continue to watch episodes until all the people in that particular group are together again. So you end up with one show that you watch with one family member, a different one to watch with another family member, and a third show that you watch when all three of you are together.

And then you have series to watch when you are alone, or everyone else is busy. For me, it’s been The OA, an imaginative and drawn-out sci-fi/fantasy thriller. It has a little bit in common with the mini-series Maniac – what is it with Millennials and shows about being experimented on? It’s basically a genre – fantastical sci-fi where Millennials are tested, evaluated, rated, categorized – going all the way back to Harry Potter. Is this really how they’ve felt their whole lives?

Another kind of show you might have is one with short episodes to watch while enjoying a meal. The convenience of the streaming format really shines in this context; you’re home from work, you’re eating dinner, you want a 20 minute episode to watch, and there’s practically an endless supply of them available. For me lately, assuming it’s just me, the show I’ve been watching at dinner has been Rick and Morty. The girl has no interest at all in it, and the boys have seen all the episodes multiple times already.

That show is on Hulu. Yes, I pay for both Hulu and Netflix, and then of course there is Amazon Prime. I’m amazed that I am able to keep up as well as I do with which show is on which service. Even paying for all three still costs less than cable. And there are no ads. Who wouldn’t cut the cord?

Finally, there is another mode of binge-watching which you might have experienced – re-watching a series with someone who hasn’t seen it so you can enjoy their reactions to it. I remember how much fun it was to re-binge-watch (that’s a word now) Stranger Things with my mom and sisters during a weekend visit – just because they hadn’t seen it yet. And the girl and I have binge-watched old TV shows from her childhood that I missed – Dark Shadows for example. And I do mean the 1960s version – another awesome thing about the streaming era is how much old film and TV is available.

All of this just goes to show that I watch too much TV. I watch it like I’m running out of time, but as the girl reminds me, there is no way I will watch it all before I die. But I will try at least to watch all the sci-fi. 😀

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Sci-fi Has the Best Anachronisms

Sci-fi Has the Best Anachronisms

I’m re-reading one of my old sci fi books that was published in 1972. There is this xeno-anthropoligist on another planet that was colonized by Earth, and he is looking for the original humanoid lifeforms that were supposedly on the planet but no one has seen for a few generations. But what’s great is that when he is inventorying his equipment as he sets out on his expedition, he includes tape recorders. And film for his camera.

Because the author did not predict that neither tape nor film would be used any more in the near future, long before humans ever colonize another planet. Assuming we ever do, though I suppose I shouldn’t make any assumptions there. Who knows what technological change awaits us, and how different our world will be decades to come? After all, no one predicted the ubiquitous smart phone, at least not in the form that it exists today.

Science fiction ends up with these fun kinds of anachronisms because of its efforts to extrapolate the unknown future from the known present. It ends up overconfident about some trends, and misses others completely. My favorite anachronism from sci-fi is from the movie A.I. which is set in a future after the ocean levels rise. In a scene where the main characters fly into the submerged city of Manhattan, the World Trade Center twin towers are visible, jutting out of the water.

Because the film was released just before the destruction of the twin towers. That’s something that actually happened, though the oceans have been slow to rise up to the point of submerging our coastal skylines, if they ever do. There is even something of a double anachronism in this depiction, in that the short story on which the film is based was published before the twin towers were raised, and so would not have been a part of the story originally. They appear in the movie as a strangely out of time anomaly.

For more ruminations on this, check out this older blog post of mine. Meanwhile, I will keep re-reading my old sci-fi books, and enjoying the anachronistic details. Which honestly are incidental, since sci-fi is really about humanity confronting itself, trying to understand its place in time.

Growing Up in Crisis America

Growing Up in Crisis America

When one reads in online media about the generations that are alive today, it is most typically a story contrasting the Baby Boomers with the up and coming Millennials. Sometimes my generation, Generation X, gets a mention. In other blog posts, I have referred to the Silent Generation. You may even have read about the post-Millennial Generation Z, usually said to have been born starting some time in the late 1990s.

Clearly some generation must follow the Millennials, but I have my doubts about the Gen-Z concept. In the generational theory which I study, the next generation, still in childhood, is called the Homeland generation. This name was coined early in the century, around the time that the Department of Homeland Security was instituted in response to 9/11. The name evokes the idea of a country entering protective mode, and of a generation that is sequestered within it.

With the first birth year of the Homeland generation being 2005, the oldest of their members are just turning 14. What can we say about this child generation and their experience growing up in an America in crisis?

The Homeland generation has clearly been the beneficiary of the restoration of the American family that began when Millennials started being born in the 1980s. The era of rising protection of children has reached its apex; children are now completely ensconced within the family unit. You can see it online in social media with the endless stream of posts of happy families headed by Gen-X parents – and, increasingly, by Millennial parents.

Protective child nurturing has reached the point that there is are hints of concern that overprotection has gone too far. But despite memes extolling the free-wheeling child rearing of days past, there is little sign of the protection relenting. Instead, in a shift away from the way that Millennials were raised, Homelanders are being taught not so much that they are special and unique, as that they must learn to fit in and to get along with others. It’s a trend propelled by concern for the perceived negative consequences of being a social misfit in a time of rising suicide rates and mass shootings, or of standing out in an era of social media scrutiny.

Homelanders, in fact, are the first generation to have their entire lives documented on social media. It starts when they are still in the womb, with sonograms posted by excited expecting couples. Then comes a flurry of adorable toddler posts, capturing every precious moment. Once they hit school age, there is a mandatory start of the school year portrait for every grade from kindergarten on. My favorite indicator on social media of the centrality of family in American life, and the Homelander generation’s comfortable place within it, is the themed costume group photos that come out every Halloween.

It seems to me like Homelanders are always on exhibit. If not as the trophies of proud parents and grandparents, there are two prevalent ways in which Homelanders are put on display. One is the viral video featuring a toddler in some moment of discovery or precious and adorable behavior. Follow this link for a great example.

The other prevalent way that Homelanders are put on display is in the role of victims, as object lessons about the failures of our society. Movies like The Florida Project and Beasts of the Southern Wild portray young children in trying circumstances, on the economic fringes American life. Another example, What Maisie Knew, warns of the follies of the affluent and the damage that divorce and neglect do to a child.

The Homelanders who are truly on the fringes of American life are the undocumented migrants – their status raises doubts that they even belong to the homeland at all. The political left has made ample use of images of their tribulations to protest immigration policy. One photo of a crying toddler being processed by immigration authorities has become an iconic representation of these suffering innocents, caught on the edges of a fragmented society that is, with difficulty, trying to group itself back together.

In conclusion, the Homelander experience is reflective of the needs and priorities of their Gen-X and Millennial parents – to restore family stability, and to provide a controlled and safe environment for child nurture within a society that feels out of control and unsafe. With these goals in mind, children are being taught that rather than stand out, they should fit in. Rather than express emotions, they should manage emotions.

This is the opposite of how Generation X was raised half a century ago, at a time when family stability was not a priority, and parents sought to provide a free environment within a society that felt overly controlled and limiting. The reversal is a response by Gen-X, conscious of the failings their generation has faced as a consequence of lax parenting. Today’s parents will surely make there own mistakes, as all parents do, taking on what is the most difficult of all human endeavors. They will take things too far, and so set up the course corrections that will lead to another shift in how children are raised, for a new generation yet to be born.

To end this post on a positive note, here is a wonderful example of an adorable young Homelander viral video. These kids are our future.

Crisis as opportunity

Crisis as opportunity

I posted more frequently than usual the last couple of months, but then sort of stalled out. I’ve got some more generations posts planned, but I have been much too busy, at work and at home, to finish them up. So here’s a quick post with some thoughts about work.

Since the year began we have been involved in a massive undertaking to transfer about a dozen years of historical data to a group of data scientists modeling credit risk. It’s a big chunk of work that leverages my skills with ETL and database. Don’t ask me what the modelers are doing exactly, they are all way more educated than I am.

This leads me to think on how I have been employed in the financial sector for my last few gigs. First I worked for a mortgage services organization, basically at ground zero of the housing crash, for a company that purported to be the good guys helping struggling homeowners who were delinquent on their bills. Then I worked for an investment firm, on a project that modeled counterparty risk. And now for a consumer bank.

In both cases where I’ve worked with risk modeling, it is financial institutions directly responding to the GFC, and the implication of what another debt crisis could do. The response is both voluntary and imposed by government regulation – that is, institutions are complying with regulation, but also pursuing their own risk mitigation strategies. The Global Financial Crisis was a Big Chill for the financial sector.

A lot of money is being spent on all this analysis and reporting. It is basically overhead from the perspective of financial companies. Is it really going to do any good? I would say the answer is a clear maybe. Still, it hardly makes sense not to incur the cost. It is better to attempt some oversight, however uncertain its benefit, than none at all.

And for me, and others of my ilk, it’s clearly a great opportunity. All that regulatory overhead is paying my bills. It is part of the story where my life has only gotten better since the crisis started. So I guess I should be looking forward to the current administration’s trade wars destroying the global economy. Who knows what opportunities that will bring?

The Machine Stopped

The Machine Stopped

As a software tester I get how difficult software development is, and why software technology so often fails us. The problem space of testing for all possible scenarios is too vast to traverse within the time frame of a fundable development project. It’s likely that some scenario will be missed in the journey from design concept – which always look great on paper – to actual implementation – which often fails to meet expectations, usually because the expectations are not accurately communicated.

Therefore I was not surprised to learn that two recent Boeing 737 plane crashes were the result of software failure. This article by a former crash investigator explains it a bit, even comparing the software that aids airplane pilots to the software you use on your mobile phone. If you’ve ever been frustrated using your phone, imagine how airplane pilots must feel, operating their software-laden fly-by-wire systems. The stakes are obviously much higher for them when those devices fail.

As the article points out, there is a paradox where reliance on safety technology sometimes makes us less safe. Relying on computer software, which is bound to be error-prone, seems insane. It’s only possible because our genius system of corporate capitalism deflects liability away from individuals and underwrites risk through insurance payments. But take it from someone who has been testing software for most of his adult life: all of those automated and networked computer systems that pervade our lives are full of bugs. You won’t see me getting into a self-driving car any time soon.

The Hashtag Queen

The Hashtag Queen

Last weekend I watched The Baldwin School’s production of Marie Antoinette. It was a challenging play for a high school to put up, and they did so brilliantly.

The script covers the Queen’s life from her early years in the French court up until her fateful end, focusing on her character and attitude, and her reaction to how her adopted country perceived her – which is to say, in an unflattering light. Marie Antoinette was the victim of scurillous slander at the expense of her virtue, and scapegoated for France’s problems, particularly the country’s financial troubles and food shortages. She was blamed because, as an elite living in a bubble, she was unwilling or unable to appreciate how her actions looked to her poor and desperate subjects.

Marie Antoinette was known as the Butterfly Queen, but she might have been called the Hashtag Queen instead, as she was victimized by the same kind of mobbing that happens today on social media. Back then, they used word of mouth and the printed page to transmit information, instead of the Internet, but the effect was the same.

In fact, from what I’ve read about the French Revolution, there are many parallels with our time. France was divided into partisan factions, each seeing the other as a threat to society. The extreme left and right (the terms originate from this era) each enforced their own version of political correctness, making centrist politics untenable. Fake news was as much of a problem then as now, with rumors spreading across the country, inciting the factions against each other. Does it really matter how information is spread? It’s not about the technology, but about the social predilection.

The production I saw reminded us of current events, by dressing the revolutionaries and prison guards in yellow vests. How bad could it get today? I do think that the French Revolution was more violent than we are likely to experience now because the people then were so desperate – France was struggling to emerge from the feudal period, and people were literally on the brink of starvation, meaning they didn’t have much to lose.

In France during the time of Marie Antoinette, everyone eventually got tired of the extremism and just wanted law and order. That was how they ended up with Napoleon. How things will all play out in our time I cannot say, but it is always prudent to reflect on history.

Silent Joe

Silent Joe

I just wanted to weigh in with some thoughts on the news stories surrounding erstwhile and possible future Presidential candidate Joe Biden. Biden was born in 1942, which according to Strauss & Howe generations theory puts him in the last birth year of the Silent Generation. This generation was actually first recognized and named in the early post-war era, in an essay in Time magazine.

The Silent Generation were too young to fight in World War II, and came of age after peace and prosperity had been secured. With all the battles won, and the social order locked down, they became careful conformists, with an easy future laid out before them. They developed a reputation for technical expertise, for nuance and respect for process, and for a sense of fairness and compassion.

These are the very qualities which are getting Biden into trouble today. On the political side, he’s been accused of helping Republicans, voting with them or endorsing them. In positive terms, his behavior might be called “reaching across the aisle” – after all, isn’t working with the opposition party one of a politician’s duties? Well, maybe not so much in an age of hyper-partisanship, where there is no room for compromise.

The other problem the world has with Joe Biden is that he is physically affectionate with people. This has exposed him to the “me too” outrage movement on social media. Biden is a sensitive guy – so much so that he released a video apologizing for being insensitive to the new social mores surrounding the expression of sensitivity. You could say he was being meta-sensitive, or perhaps simply that he has the misfortune of being empathic in an age that has rejected empathy.

This is not to say that Joe Biden couldn’t be a competent President. I mean, just look at how low the bar has been set. But unfortunately for Biden, he is not a man for the times. The personal qualities which served Biden well in his long career and not what the electorate is currently seeking in a Presidential candidate, and should he make a bid for the Democratic nomination, Biden will have a tough time competing in an already crowded field. In fact, his cohort Bernie Sanders (b. 1941) stands a better chance, precisely because he goes against the grain of his generation, with his radical ideas and firebrand attitude.

Lunch in the land of opportunity

Lunch in the land of opportunity

Someone at work left the company, which means the mandatory going away lunch happened. I remember at a previous position I was invited to a going away lunch in my first week on the job. It was just assumed that I knew that guy who was leaving. It was a strange way to start a gig, but of course I went along with it.

Anyway, at my current job, you may realize if you are following this blog that I work almost exclusively with Indians. So we all go to an Indian restaurant (which is one of my favorite cuisines) and enjoy the excellent buffet. The men sit at one table and the women at another. I am the only non-Indian present.

At the end of the meal, the guy who is leaving, who is at a somewhat senior level, gives a little speech. He very graciously thanks everyone, and then advises us all to always be working on our skills. That is the best way to ensure we will have confidence in ourselves and our careers will go forward.

I can’t help but think that India – or at least this man from India, or these Indians with whom I am lunching – has embraced the ethos of the neoliberal market state. That may be an over-analytic or pigeon-holing way of thinking, but these are just the kinds of thought that pop into my head. Here is this group of professionals, all in the United States on work visas, who clearly fit into the structure of a globalized, meritocratic labor force.

Meanwhile, young Americans are being told – or internalizing – a different message. Skills will get you nowhere, the economy is stacked against you, it’s better to vote for free college or universal basic income, we just gotta pry control of government out of the hands of the billionaires. I can’t help but wonder if my current situation represents an economic mode that is about to end, or one that will survive – even be vindicated – in the times ahead.

Basically Millennial

Basically Millennial

In an earlier post I mentioned Millennial angst about being “basic” – a slang term for ordinary or conventional. Here’s a couple of satirical videos that make fun of this idea, from the College Humor channel.

So there’s a contrast between being a “basic bitch” versus being a “bad-ass bitch” – that is, a regular girl versus an interesting or stand-out girl. Now, for the last generation which was similar to the Millennials – the GI or Greatest Generation – being a regular guy or gal was something to be proud of. And I think that for Millennials, satire like this video is cover for a heartfelt desire to just be basic – to enjoy acceptance without having to take the risks associated with trying to stand out apart from your peers.

The male version of the above video.

You can see in these videos what Millennials have done with customs which for previous generations were marks of rebellion, of a break from the bland culture of postwar America. Customs like yoga, astrology, and tattoos, which once defined the counterculture, have now been appropriated into mainstream culture. And these videos make fun of them for being the new definition of bland and unimaginative. Even down to the backward baseball cap.

Those young adults who do push the limits of style and behavior may be admired to a degree, but for most Millennials it’s OK to stick to basic conventions in personal expression. How much more is there really left to explore in that sphere? As the zeitgeist moves away from the inner world to focus on the outer, Millennials will save their collective energy for bigger things.

The Circle of Life

The Circle of Life

This past weekend I traveled to Washington D.C. to celebrate my sister’s birthday. I stayed at my mother’s house. It was comforting to walk up the stairs to her familiar front door, a door which has welcomed me for nearly three decades of visits. A fixture in my life, anchoring my wandering soul.

I slept in the basement, which Mom uses as an art studio. The furnishings in there are older ones, including some that I remember from growing up. Again there was a sense of comfort from seeing these things; their material fixity reassuring me of the constancy and immutability of the past. For all the changes over the years, these things remind me that the past experience which made me who I am today is definite. It cannot be erased.

As William Blake put it: nothing lasts, but nothing is lost.

Of course the fixity of these material things is an illusion; they will all crumble away into nothingness in the due course of time. What is important to us in life is not stuff but our loved ones, and the relationships we have with them. That is why in all my wanderings, I keep circling back to the family in which I was born and raised.

We gathered for the celebration in a cheery restaurant – siblings and friends and relations all together again for the first time in a few years. There have been many changes in that short time – moves from one state to another, jobs lost and gained, marriages, divorces – but still we remain a family. So happy birthday again to my sister, and may we never forget our true and perfect home, in our hearts.