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.

The Bear Comes Home

The Bear Comes Home

The culmination of years of events has finally come to pass – I am now officially moved in with my BFF in Morgantown, PA. Depending on how much you have followed my blog and whether or not you know me IRL, you may have been watching the story unfold.

First, she came to visit me from Pennsylvania while I was living in North Carolina. Then we started visiting each other frequently and travelling together, and a new phase of our lives began. I went up and met her kids for the first time; they were boys age 10 and 13. She came down and met my tabletop gaming buddies. She even brought the kids with her sometimes, and they all joined me at gaming conventions.

Sometimes I would go up to see her, and sometimes she would come down to see me. And we went on a lot of fun trips together. She took me on my first trip to New York City, and to my first Broadway show. We’ve seen so many shows since then; I’ve basically become her theater buddy. And since she’s a director, I got to see a lot of her shows. I became her number one fan.

We travelled to Chicago every summer for G-Fest along with the boys’ Dad, who is also my friend. This was a tradition with them since the boys were even younger, and my joining them was part of the process of being enfolded into their family. But I wasn’t completely enfolded yet, since I was still living in North Carolina. The distance between us was kind of fun at first, since it was exciting to see each other again after an absence of a couple of weeks. But the travelling got tedious. It was a seven hour drive between our houses. Flying was an option, too, since we could get cheap tickets on Frontier Airlines, but even that has its inconveniences.

Then, a few years ago, some Water Spirits came and trashed my house, teaching me a lesson about the relative importance of material things, but also helping me to realize what a spoiled bear I am. Some months later my job in North Carolina came to an end. It was starting to look like the Universe was sending me a message. I went up into the mountains to watch a solar eclipse and ponder my next course in life.

I started looking for work in Pennsylvania, so that I could move closer to my BFF and her family. I enjoyed my last months in North Carolina boardgaming with my buddies and performing with my choir. Then I landed a position in Wilmington, DE and in a whirlwind five weeks got an apartment in West Chester, PA and moved on up. My recently renovated house quickly sold, and I’m pretty sure the buyer re-did all the work that the insurance company paid for.

The apartment was expensive and the commute to Wilmington was a pain. It made sense for me to eventually move in with her family, though I would have to find a new job first that would put me closer to her house. I have to admit I was dragging my feet. I have a lot of stuff and I like to control my personal space. It would be a big change for me to move in with someone for good, after more than a decade of living alone.

I did get a new job, which took care of the commuting problem. And then along came a little thing called the novel coronavirus. Suddenly I was working from home, and it only made sense for me to be doing this from my BFF’s house. I brought my essential things over and hunkered down with her. The apartment languished, unused.

As we got used to the routine of living together and sharing her house, it was obvious that I should just complete the move. There was a little wrangling over how we would use the space and where my stuff would end up. I mostly fought to have a place to shelve all my books and boardgames – that carefully curated collection I’ve built up over my many years. Figuring out how to share space is just part of the hard work of building a lasting relationship.

The big move happened last week, and all that’s left now is to clean up the apartment and collect a few final possessions. The lease expires soon. As for my new commute – well, I’m not sure when that will start up. Pennsylvania is loosening coronavirus restrictions, but I haven’t heard anything about going back to the office. So I’ll be here in Morgantown for the foreseeable future.

It’s been a long trip to get to this stage of my life. Along the way I’ve done a lot with my BFF, and our relationship has bloomed. I’ve joined her family and I’ve watched her boys grow up – her eldest is in college now, and has a car, a job, and a girlfriend! And it’s good that I’m living with her now, considering that she needs support at a time when her industry – theater – is so troubled.

It’s also good that we got so much travelling done during the past six years, considering that we’re likely to be homebound for a long while to come. I’m just glad that home is here now, with my girl.

Books and games waiting to be unpacked in the office.
Silent of the Week: Lesley Stahl

Silent of the Week: Lesley Stahl

Last night we watched 60 Minutes, on regular broadcast television. Yes, I mean through an antenna. We don’t have cable or satellite so it’s either that or streaming (which is my preference).

We’ve started making a habit of watching this show every Sunday evening, in part because we have a family member who likes doing things the old-fashioned way. It’s like a throwback to another era – you actually have to watch the show at the scheduled time, instead of whenever you feel like it! I’ve been getting my news off the Internet for years, and it’s refreshing to go back to this old format.

One of the segments was an interview with the Minneapolis Chief of Police, about the George Floyd killing, protests and police reform. The interviewer was Lesley Stahl (b. 1941), who has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991. You could say she is the last of the old guard, certainly one of the last of her generation still prominent in journalism.

Stahl’s career took off when she covered the Watergate scandal as a young reporter. She’s been at CBS most of her life, and for most of that time with 60 minutes – the sort of career longevity that characterizes the Silent Generation, in contrast to younger ones. And she’s certainly in her element, lending gravitas to a profession that in many ways has been hollowed out in an age of sensationalism and misinformation.

You can watch the interview here: https://www.cbsnews.com/video/minneapolis-police-chief-medaria-arradondo-geroge-floyd-killing-60-minutes-2020-06-21/#x

The Peaceful Protest Movement and the Last Days of White Nationalism

The Peaceful Protest Movement and the Last Days of White Nationalism

The consensus is growing that police reform is needed in the United States. The conservative media is joining in, or at least the intellectual branch of it is. As this article from National Review points out, “The present round of protest is different. The participants are people of every race, ethnicity, sex, age, and religion.” Even the President is recognizing that he can’t ignore the issue.

Protests aren’t just happening in major cities with diverse populations, but in small towns where all or almost all of the participants are white. I can confirm this from my own participation in small protests in Twin Valley, Pennsylvania, where, for the most part, passing motorists honk in solidarity with the protestors.

Unfortunately, there has also been hostility from Trump supporters here, including counterprotestors showing up with firearms. What is it with this need that Red Staters have to sport their weapons in public? There is nothing that threatens them except an opposing political view that favors diversity. Are they ready to go to war over this?

It’s worrisome. It’s like they need to find a use for the expensive arsenals that they’ve gone to so much trouble to acquire. I think about the scene from His Girl Friday, where Hildy Johnson convinces a prisoner that he must have been inpired to shoot someone by hearing about the doctrine of production for use.

I can even see how the preponderance of military equipment owned by police forces accounts for the militaristic response to the recent BLM protests. Were they supposed to not use all those grenades and bullets they were given? I’m sure the tension was insanely high, with police lined up facing large crowds of protesters, and everyone full of pent-up energy from weeks of COVID lockdown.

I wrote about the protests in my last blog post and linked to some of the many viral videos of violent encounters that occurred. But as disturbing as those incidents captured on video are, the overall level of violence has actually been less than what was experienced during the infamously riotous late 1960s, or even the 1992 Los Angeles riots. This is all the more remarkable considering the size and nationwide extent of the movement.

I do believe this peaceful protest movement marks a critical turning point in the evolution of our current Crisis Era. The divisiveness of the Culture Wars that has persisted and been called a ‘cold civil war’ seems intractable. But we have actually gradually come to a consensus on many Culture Wars issues, such as gay rights and cannabis legalization. And now it is happening with reform of the justice system.

Back in May 2016 I attempted to identify an emerging new values consensus, and marked the recognition of the need for criminal justice reform as part of that consensus. But then I amended my list after the election, indicating that it was less clear that this was so, given Trump’s victory. But Trump’s hold on power is weakening, and his poisonous white nationalist ideology losing credibility in the face of massive public outrage at the evils it perpetrates on racial minorities. A fair and equal justice system will come as part of a new civic regeneracy, and the days of white nationalism are numbered.

Black Lives Matter protest in Twin Valley, Berks County, PA