Silent of the Year – Joe Biden

Silent of the Year – Joe Biden

The Silent Generation (b. 1925-1942) is known for never having produced a United States President. Every other generation older than the Millennials has, even mine, Generation X (b. 1961-1981). There have actually been more Silent candidates for Vice President than for President – 7 vs. 5, and that’s counting Ross Perot (b. 1930). The Baby Boomers (b. 1943 – 1960) reverse those numbers. Now I suppose you could consider Dick Cheney (b. 1941) to have been the power behind the throne in the Bush era, but even that demonstrates how Silents like to influence the world – from 2nd place.

Rather than being in the forefront of public life, the Silent Generation has preferred to work behind the scenes, in the role of helpmate or enabler. Early in their collective careers they served an older generation, the GI or Greatest Generation (b. 1901-1924), refining the powerful institutions created in their elder’s climactic World War II-era coming of age. Later in their careers, they mentored the younger Boomers, joining their energetic juniors, in a guiding role, in the mission of transforming the values of American society.

The last time a member of the Silent Generation was a major party nominee for president was in 2008, when the late John McCain (b. 1936) ran against GenXer Barack Obama. To find another example, you have to go all the way back to Michael Dukakis (b. 1933) in 1988. That’s not to say that the Silent Generation isn’t politically powerful; as I noted in an earlier blog post, they are still prominent in the U.S. Legislative Branch. They just don’t tend to take on the role of Chief Executive.

Joe Biden debating that other guy

That takes us to Joe Biden (b. 1942), who has already served in the executive branch for eight years, in the background during the Obama administration. I have to admit that I wasn’t excited when he announced that he was seeking the Presidential nomination, and even made fun of him a little. That was way back when the field was full of candidates, some of whom aligned closer to my beliefs. That feels like another age (it was, what, January?)

But here we are, near the end of 2020, the most traumatic Crisis year in almost everyone’s living memory. Most of us, including me, are disgusted by the callousness and corruption of the incumbent President. We’re ready for someone to restore duty and honor to the office, and Joe – a man who has known loss and grief – is just the right guy to lead a traumatized nation.

For stepping up in our time of need, and for possibly becoming the first member of his generation to be elected to the highest office in the land, I hereby declare Joe Biden to be the Silent of the Year.

Ridin’ with Biden

Ridin’ with Biden

In my post about moving in with my life partner I did not mention that her house is on a busy main street. It’s not exactly my favorite thing about the house, which is a very fine house in many other ways. The traffic annoys me when I wake up in the morning and when I’m trying to work. But as with all things in life, you get used to it.

Now, given these times we are in, we have, for the first time in our lives, put signs on the lawn endorsing a Presidential candidate. That would be Biden, of course; the only sane choice. But where we are – Morgantown, Pennsylvania – there is a lot of support for the other guy and we wanted to show that it’s not 100% support, and maybe even encourage neighbors who might be hesitant to show their support for Biden, the only sane choice. Yes, that’s what it’s come to in this country.

So now all that traffic driving by every day is a wonderful thing! So many people are seeing the signs. We are standing up for sanity here in Twin Valley, PA – a place that desperately needs it. I’m hoping the signs don’t get stolen or vandalized, but if they do – we’ve got backup. Go Biden!

Covid-19: The Tempering Test of the Market State

Covid-19: The Tempering Test of the Market State

I wanted to exposit a bit on some of the points I made in my last blog post about the dilemma that Covid-19 presents. As many commentators have observed, the pandemic has disrupted our economic system and starkly revealed its defects. In particular it has exposed the risks to a bulk of the population who live on marginal income and can barely, if at all, afford health insurance. But of course these were known issues already, it’s just that Covid-19 is shining a harsh spotlight on them.

I’ve categorized this post as “Strategy Review” because I want to think of this problem with one of the strategic theories I’ve reviewed in the past in mind. That would be Philip Bobbitt’s conception of a newly evolving constitutional order called the “market state.” Here’s a key quote from the linked blog post:

the familiar nation state of the 20th century is giving way to what Bobbitt calls the “market state.” A key difference between the two orders is that whereas the nation state serves the welfare of the nation through public services and social safety nets, the market state maximizes economic opportunity for its citizens, while protecting them from environmental degradation and network-infiltrating dangers such as infectious disease and terrorism. The state’s role has evolved from managing the system for the benefit of the people, in competition with other states with different ideologies (the Cold War status quo), to protecting the system’s perimeters while allowing the people to manage themselves in a loosely controlled consumer marketplace of global extent 

The Covid dilemma as it relates to this constitutional order is this: if the market state is supposed to protect the citizen while maximizing opportunities, what does it do when these goals are mutually exclusive? Simply put, an endemic disease that is highly infectious and lethal entails restricting economic activity in order to save lives, but that necessarily reduces economic opportunity. This is especially problematic in the United States, which has a flavor of the market state which Bobbitt calls “entrepreneurial” – meaning that it favors individual over corporate responsibility for well-being.

Hence the quandary the U.S. is in, with its fraying social safety net, and too many people living on a thin margin. Gig economy workers are suddenly in an environment in which there are no gigs. Unskilled laborers have become “essential workers” and are expected to endure dangerous workplaces with no extra compensation, and rudimentary protection measures.

At least the public at large has shown a willingness to follow one simple, minimally disruptive safety measure – the wearing of face masks. I believe that the broad compliance with this mandate shows that society is ready and willing to cooperate and take collective action. The desire is there. But there is a political problem of extreme partisanship and incoherent national leadership.

So this pandemic has become the tempering test of the emerging market state. Can it survive as an ordering principle, or will it break under the strain and need to be replaced? One way to help think about this question is to consider the state in relation to the strategic environment, a key feature of Bobbitt’s line of thinking.

In Bobbit’s model, the nation state prevailed in a particular security environment, which pertained to the World War and Cold War eras. The rise of certain technologies – weapons of mass destruction, advanced computing, telecommunication networks – altered the strategic landscape from that in which the nation state was successful. For the new market state to be successful, it must be able to counter security threats in this new environment.

Threats primarily intrude on the order of the market state by exploiting open networks. In the quote above I explicitly mention infectious disease as a network-infiltrating danger. I had in mind SARS and H1N1, which have turned out to be the preludes to Covid-19. Other potential threats include computer hackers, social media disruptors, and smugglers of WMDs.

The best strategies against these kinds of threats are defensive; think of tower defense casual games, where an infrastructure is built up against ongoing waves of enemies trying to get past a perimeter. Hence the pandemic related shutdowns and other measures – limiting mass gatherings is a defensive strategy against an airborne virus. Surveillance is also crucial (you have to detect the network infiltrators), which is why nations which implemented intensive testing and tracking programs are the ones that have been the most successful at mitigating against the coronavirus.

So you can see the fundamental problem the United States has, with its “entrepreneurial market state.” It is just too open of a society. It is large in extent, and its citizens are used to free travel and a high degree of autonomy. Which is why so many are railing against the measures (though I still think the majority accepts the need for them).

Not only that, the ethos of the independent, self-made American (the “entrepreneur”) means there is resistance to the concept of public assistance, which is another useful defensive measure. The government is calling what pandemic aid has been given “stimulus” money, a complete misnomer. If the economic recession were on the demand side, meaning people didn’t have money to spend for goods or services, then the term “stimulus” would make sense. But the recession is supply side, meaning that businesses can’t deliver goods or services because of the shutdown measures. The loss of income to these businesses is the problem being alleviated, so the money is relief money, not stimulus money. But we can’t call it that, lest we admit that we aren’t a purely capitalist society.

Have other societies, with more of a “managerial market state” (Bobbitt’s term) fared better? Those would mostly be other developed countries of the West – in Europe, for example. I’m not sure of the answer, though it would be interesting to go over Bobbitt’s work, identify his taxonomy of states, and then see how each has done in the 2020 pandemic. There may be a pattern. It would be a bit of lengthy task, but might be worth the time.

Meanwhile, it’s plain to see one thing that has suffered in reputation in light of the pandemic: globalization. It is, in fact, globalization, with its increased access to markets and increased movement of goods and people, that is the reason new viral diseases keep popping up and rapidly spreading around the world. This latest one, Covid-19, seems to have put the brakes on globalization for some time to come, probably for at least a generational cycle. It had already lost its popularity among anyone except economic elites anyway.

What will happen to the market state? I’ve already noted in previous strategy review posts that we will not simply revert back to the nation state. Time isn’t reversible, for one thing, and the changes in the strategic environment – the nature of threats to the security of society – remain. We still need a state capable of countering danger in a complex, networked world.

It’s not just communicable disease that exploits networks. What about dangerous ideologies, spread on social media? If you’ve seen the Netlfix documentary The Social Dilemma you know what I mean. Given the deep political trouble the United States is in, there may be even stronger fires for the market state to endure before it is strong enough to rule in the twenty-first century.

The Covid dilemma

The Covid dilemma

This sign sits in front of a strip mall in the area where I live. If you visit the site listed you might get the impression that it was created by some of the same people I’ve blogged about who denigrate the Pennsylvania governor’s Covid strategy. I get it; I do. If you are a small business on a thin margin, how can you survive an extended shutdown?

It all comes down, I suppose, to the trade off between freedom and security. Between protecting lives and maximizing economic opportunity, both of which we expect our government to do. But what happens when the two goals are mutually exclusive?

One option is to take a defensive approach, and provide supplemental income to those in need while restrictions are imposed to mitigate against an infectious disease. But to some, that smacks of welfare and is undesirable. No handouts, they say. Just freedom.

These times are clearly testing the resilience of our system. We want openness, but a virus is exactly the sort of thing that exploits an open network. But with little in the way of a social safety net, closing the network inflicts pain. That is the dilemma.

Some kind of plan at the national level would really help out here…

Book Review: Appetite for Self-Destruction

Book Review: Appetite for Self-Destruction

One would think, now that we are in lockdown, that I would be making better progress on my 2020 Reading Challenge than I am. I’m actually very busy at work, what with my info tech WFH privilege, and aside from that there are duties to household and family. Not to mention all the streaming video to keep up with. Nonetheless, I have been reading when I can, and generally reviewing every book that I do finish.

I recently finished Appetite for Self-Destruction by Steve Knopper, published in 2009, about the crash of the record industry. I thought I would reproduce my Goodreads review here, and add some thoughts. First the review:

It’s interesting to read a book about the music industry that was published just as the smartphone and subscription streaming services were taking off. Reading it after ten years have passed is like looking back at a distant era. There actually was a time in the misty past when music publishers made tons of money selling plastic discs to eager consumers, and there were even brick and mortar retail outlets dedicated to just that product. It was the most lucrative period in the music industry’s history, running from the mid-1980s through the 1990s. And then it all went up in smoke with the introduction of mp3s and the easy sharing capabilities provided by the Internet. But even the days of ripping CDs and building libraries of music files seem distant, when today we plug our earbuds into our phones to access vast musical archives for a low monthly fee.

Knopper’s book is full of personal stories from entrepreneurs and business leaders in both the music and technology industries, much of it gleaned from interviews. You get a nice history of both of those industries, focusing on the years from the death of disco in the early 1980s to the end of 2008. Some of the stories told are one-sided, because important players declined to be interviewed, and so their perspective is missing. There is some sensitivity regarding the decisions made and the issues at stake. But what you get is well written and informative; Knopper is a Rolling Stone editor and brings his journalistic talent to bear in telling the tale of the implosion of the music industry.

Knopper lists a number of mistakes the major labels made as digital online music took off, but marks the big one as instinctively going after Napster instead of making a deal with them, at the very end of the 1990s. Even worse, they went after consumers – their own customer base – suing individual filesharers for copyright infringement. There were other fumbles and missed opportunities, and the irrestible conclusion is that the generation of leadership at the labels just wasn’t ready to make the leap from the tried and true model of selling individual records in the millions at high profit margins, to the new models that the Internet and compressed digital music formats were making possible. They missed the boat, and it sailed on without them.

Some additional thoughts: I don’t think consumers as a whole wanted to play the role of renegade pirates during the decade or so that file sharing was a big thing. It was just too easy to do; and people saw how much more music they could have access to that would have cost a fortune to purchase in CD form. But once an option was provided that was both legal and affordable – subscription services like Spotify or Pandora – consumers flocked to that. People in general want to be honest and play by the rules.

I suppose you could even think of the transition from the the filesharing era of the early 2000s to the streaming era of the 2010s as part of the transition from the Gen-X driven pre-Crisis era to the Millennial driven Crisis era. It’s an early example of the formation of a new institution; we may not have the new order figured out completely, but at least we have the soundtrack ready. Something to listen to in our earbuds while the apocalypse is raging.

On a final note, I still buy CDs. I like owning the discs with the liner notes and the art, and like collecting particular artists. I dig up obscure singles available only in Japan and pay 30 bucks for them on Amazon. Drives my girlfriend up the wall. And then I rip them to my laptop and shelve them. You know, for looking at. But my .mp3 player sits in a drawer, along with my digital camera, because now the smartphone does everything. Times, they are always a changin’.

The Emojis of Our Discontent

The Emojis of Our Discontent

Recently, I posted about the DNC on Facebook and one of my Trump supporter friends (friend-in-the-Facebook-sense) responded with the Haha emoji. That’s the laughing face one, appropriate for silly videos and jokes but also available for mocking someone’s beliefs, which was the intent, I think, in this case. This person proceeded to respond to every subsequent comment with the same emoji, was scolded for behaving rudely, and subsequently unfriended me. However, their comments and reactions remain for posterity.

I bring this up not to hold a grudge but only to note how the Haha emoji is sometimes used to express dissent. I guess you could say it substitutes for a dislike or downvote, which Facebook does not provide. The only other choice is the Angry emoji. Either way it’s going to come across as emotionally charged, so maybe we were unfair to my friend-in-the-Facebook-sense, who kind of got mobbed. But that’s the consequence of posting an unpopular opinion on social media, where people of like belief tend to congregate. Very, very few of my friends-in-the-Facebook-sense are Trump supporters.

I’ve seen the Haha emoji used in other contexts, clearly to express dissent. The typical case is when the Governor of my fine state of Pennsylvania posts a declaration regarding his administration’s response to the pandemic. There are generally a few thousand reactions, of three kinds: Like, Haha and Love. I take that to mean: supports, does not support, and supports whole-heartedly. The ratio will be something like 67%/23%/10%. I find comfort in knowing that there is 3/4 support for the Governor among Facebook users, since I think he is doing an excellent job and want him to keep at it.

I see this pattern of minority objection on other social media platforms as well. Now it’s quite possible that I am not getting the whole picture because of some kind of social bubble effect. But I am reminded of the religious faction in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri game, protesting against their society’s mad rush to a technological utopia. Today’s pandemic deniers tag Facebook posts with Haha emojis like they are spraying “We Must Dissent” graffiti. And as the majoritarian viewpoint emerges, they are getting pushed into the shadows.

Trump supporters may actually be too large a minority to be relegated to the lurking in the shadows status of a renegade faction in a science fiction game. But it is my partisan hope that as this era evolves, that is exactly where they will end up in the next era. In the mean time, I can only express my dissent at the outrageious social injustice and criminal conduct of the Trump administration using the Angry red face emoji. It gets used a lot these days. The Sad crying face emoji is also available for expressing a kind of pitying dissent, as if to say, “what a pathetic species.”

I suppose Trump supporters have their criteria for what makes them Angry or Sad, but I don’t see them so much. I live in a different bubble from them. A society split between two bubbles of likeminded people, each group clicking icons on scrolling digital feeds in their own patterns, may be the saddest thing of all.

Watching You, Watching Me

Watching You, Watching Me

Outside she goes, to explore the planet of the Covidiots. They volunteered her because she’s such a good observer.

***

I worry when she’s gone. The world is plague-ridden and full of hostiles. But at least I have a tracking device with which I can monitor her progress from headquarters.

***

The device in question is our Android smartphones running Trusted Contacts, which lets us always see one another in Google Maps.

***

I had long resisted getting any kind of tracking software for my phone, counting on loved ones to report their location if ever needed. But then my partner got a job as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. Knowing that she was going out and knocking repeatedly on strangers’ doors, in a country that has suffered an implosion of trust (and never much trusted in government, ever), changed the equation. Suddenly getting tracking software became an imperative.

First we tried Waze, but found the interface difficult. Not to mention I couldn’t see her on the map even though I connected to my Facebook contacts. The app isn’t really made specifically for tracking individuals. But then her son suggested Google’s Trusted Contacts, which integrates easily with our Google accounts, as well as Google software like Maps. It requires mutual agreement between two account holders, and then one can see the location of the other in real time.

Now I can see her as she moves about the area. Since her profile picture on Google Accounts is a sunflower, I see her as a flower floating about town. It’s reassuring to watch her moving in the expected pattern, because I can take that to mean everything is fine.

To her, I would just be a floating head at home base, since I am a privileged stay-at-home worker, not an essential worker like she is. From where I sit, life is safe and comfortable. She is out braving the dangers of post-apocalyptic America, but at least I can keep an eye on her.

***

So I wait into the evening, watching her on my screen. And have dinner waiting for her return, to her one safe haven in this ravaged land.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

Rise Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

It’s more contagious than other deadly coronaviruses we have encountered, like SARS. And it’s far deadlier than other very contagious viruses, like H1N1. That is what experts are telling us about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the respiratory disease Covid-19. To reiterate, the virus is both very contagious and much more lethal than the flu. That is why mitigation is warranted.

The current case fatality rate is around 6%, according to this dashboard. That is like, if you get the disease, you roll a d20, and on a 1, you’re dead. Do you like those odds? Do you want to be infected by this virus, or have someone you know become infected? I would hope not. So why don’t you just wear a face mask in public? And avoid crowds? Why is this so hard?

I think about this whenever I see the viral videos of beachgoers or partyers ignoring all social distancing recommendations, or of the crowded hallways of a just opened school. I think about it when I drive by a restaurant and see people out on the tables dining, or even when I walk up to the Post Office and see them gathering at the ice cream place that’s up the block, standing in line or sitting on the benches without wearing masks.

I mean, seriously, it’s that important to eat out? You know you can get takeout, and all parties involved, both the customer and the vendor, can be masked, right? If it’s really that you’re trying to support the restaurant business, you could get takeout but tip like you were dining in, and just forego being waited on because, you know, pandemic.

But apparently it’s all too much for an impatient country, restless from months of being stuck at home. A country with failed national leadership and no cohesive plan for dealing with this disease. A country that bases its beliefs on the science of the pandemic on political partisanship, so that whether or not to wear a mask depends on being blue-zone or red-zone.

So we almost flattened the curve, early on there, but then pent-up energy and sheer orneriness overcame us, and back up it goes.

I feel like we’re at the beginning of some weird apocalypse movie trilogy. I call the current installment Rise Of The Planet Of The Covidiots. I see them everywhere – the anti-maskers, the plandemic conspiracy theorists, led by the Covidiot-in-Chief. Now I’m just waiting for the inevitable sequel. Lord knows what madness comes next.

Homelanders React – Seeing Our World through Younger Eyes

Homelanders React – Seeing Our World through Younger Eyes

There’s a good chance that you’ve encountered “kids react” videos on YouTube, where children are recorded while they listen for the first time to music from past decades. There’s even other kinds of things they react to, for example obsolete technology like rotary phones. These videos are a lot of fun, and are a reminder to older generations of how far away we are in time from the culture of our own childhood.

Here’s a great example, suggesting the timeless appeal of certain pop culture icons-

Another example involving icons from a couple decades later, who perhaps are a little harder to connect to-

I like to think of “kids react” videos as an artifact of the Homeland Generation, even though, given the ages of the children, many of them are late-wave Millennials (I guess you can safely say they are all from “Generation Z.”) I think of this as a Homeland generation phenomenom because, as I’ve blogged before, they are the generation that has had its entire life documented on the Internet – older generations, who cherish them and, through viral videos, want to see the world through their eyes. In other words, being doted on in this way is part of the whole Homelander experience.

Of course, the react format can be flipped around, to see the generation gap from the other side. For example, here’s some Boomers encountering the music of kids these days-

The media company that makes these videos, FBE, was founded by two brothers on the GenX-Millennial cusp. They have a great YouTube channel filled with all kinds of content, including different kinds of react videos and other participatory format videos featuring a diverse set of people of all generations. It’s actually quite a fun, wholesome place on the Internet.

The react video is such an engaging format that other YouTubers have picked up on it. Check out this channel – it’s basically two Gen-Zers who took it upon themselves to make their own version of this kind of video. Who says pop culture can’t unify us?

To close out this post, here is one of my favorite examples of a cross-generational video. It’s from yet another channel and features three Homelanders meeting a G.I. (Greatest Generation). That’s quite a gap! Check it out to see what surprising things these kids learn about life way back in the early 1900s. And to feel the heartwarming connection that any two people can have, no matter how far apart in age they are.

Space Force: A TV Show for the Age

Space Force: A TV Show for the Age

The family and I really enjoyed watching the Netflix comedy series Space Force. It’s a great vehicle for Steve Carell, with his gift for playing lovable losers. Though in this show he is not so much a loser as “the man for his time and place” who “fits right in there,” to quote a mysterious stranger. In the case of Space Force, the time is now and the place is at the head of a brand new branch of the United States military. And Carell’s character, General Mark R. Naird, has the right stuff for this challenging job.

One thing I like about the show is that it is very topical. It is the only consciously Trump Era fictional television series of which I know (still waiting for a COVID-19-conscious sitcom). The President is even a character, though we only know him in the form of texts and Tweets from “POTUS.” General Naird has just the right mix of sincerity and guile to handle this unpredictable boss, as well as his peers in the other military branches, and the competitive space efforts of America’s great rival, China.

To balance against Carell’s typically understated performance, John Malkovich provides a more animated supporting character, Chief Scientist Dr. Adrian Mallory. If you are a fan of Malkovich, which we are, you will enjoy him in this role. Since this is on streaming video, there is ample opportunity for him to exploit his propensity for foul language. Just another example of how TV has changed since my childhood. The rest of the supporting cast also provides solid performances.

Space Force is completely farcical and makes no effort to be realistic in terms of the science or engineering of space exploration. There’s an irony to the depiction of the easy accomplishments of this fictional organization, in contrast to the actual state of the U.S. space program. It’s like the show is satirizing what the ignoramus-in-chief thinks the Space Force is capable of doing. Like it’s set in his imagination.

I suppose you could argue that the TV show Space Force normalizes the current administration and its feckless ways. Maybe it’s even a little sympathetic to it, so as not to alienate Trump supporters, who surely make up a substantial portion of Netflix subscribers. Arguably the show also normalizes the idea of inevitable Sino-American conflict. These are dangerous times, and perhaps we shouldn’t be making fun of these things.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that no one has announced a new comedy TV series set in the COVID-19 era. But I would welcome one. Humor is cathartic, and helps us to process the difficult realities of life.

So check out Space Force and enjoy the show. One season is available on Netflix, with no word yet of a second season.