Browsed by
Author: Steve

I live and work in the Philadelphia area. I am an ETL software tester by profession but I also enjoy writing, tabletop gaming, reading and thinking about history, binge-watching Netflix, and traveling with my BFF. We especially like going to the Big Apple to catch a show.
What Do We Do to Get through This Crisis?

What Do We Do to Get through This Crisis?

I’ve been thinking about the way the book The Fourth Turning described the Crisis Era and its generational constellation and how, when we reached this era, we would all have roles to play based on our generation and phase of life. Based on this, here is some advice for each generation on how to best live up to that role do now that the Fourth Turning is here. Call them Life Pro Tips for the generational archetypes. You might have noticed the generations already following this advice to some extent.

Boom Generation (Prophet archetype) in elderhood. Be wise, and champion the values that need to be preserved through this Crisis Era. Emphasize the urgency of our need and be willing to make sacrifices for yourself, as well as expecting sacrifice from younger generations.

Generation X (Nomad archetype) in mid-life. Be pragmatic, cutting through process and complication to get things done. Resist the urge to sit back and let the world burn. Use your experience and savvy to lead and guide the Millennial generation.

Millennial Generation (Hero archetype) in young adulthood. Be responsible, and use your hivemind powers to reach consensus and to enforce good conduct among your peers. Have faith that we can make our institutions work again.

Homeland Generation (Artist archetype) in childhood. Be kind and considerate of others. Remind the older generations that love still matters and that we are all in this together.

Some More Rambling About “The Sopranos”

Some More Rambling About “The Sopranos”

We’re still watching “The Sopranos,” and are now into Season 3. This is the season that features the iconic “Pine Barrens” episode. It’s also the last pre-9/11 season, still containing a brief shot of the Twin Towers (in a sideview mirror of Tony’s SUV) during the opening credits. This shot was removed from the credits in the later seasons.

As we watch the episodes, it makes me feel nostalgic for old times. I can’t help but identify with these wise guys and their partying lifestyle. Their camaraderie and their gusto for life reminds me of my circles of friends back in the day, back when I was young and carefree. And a fool, no doubt, though not as dumb as some of the young men on this show who come to terrible ends. I knew the limits.

We didn’t live anything like the characters on The Sopranos, except maybe in our imaginations. I mean, we skirted the law in some ways, and we were rough around the edges. We surely used the same crass language. But some really awful stuff happens on this show; I get that this gangster lifestyle of extortion and murder is not be celebrated. Yet somehow watching these guys evokes nostalgia for the smoke-filled dens of my wayward youth.

Maybe it’s just how well this show represents its social era, with its looser mores, and inevitably takes me back to life then, when I was younger and had different priorities. When I was a bachelor man and spent a lot of time hanging with the gang. Before mid-life hit and everyone moved on. The old groups have scattered; some of us got married and had kids and became responsible. Some of us moved to far away places to pursue new dreams. Some of us died. I sure miss them.

These episodes that we’re now watching were originally broadcast twenty years ago. Twenty freakin’ years ago! Where does the time go? All too quickly it passes by.

Tibetan Buddhism Says: It’s All In The Mind

Tibetan Buddhism Says: It’s All In The Mind

It comes up infrequently on this blog, but I am broadly interested in spiritual perspectives and metaphysics, and have a modest collection of books on religion and spiritualism which has fed my knowledge over the years. Of all the spiritual traditions I’ve read about, the one that resonates the most with me is Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhist philosophy in general is scientific, in that it is based on contemplative study, and is non-dogmatic. Tibetan Buddhism also happens to be the system that most closely aligns with the “science within consciousness” theories of my favorite philosopher, Amit Goswami.

So I was delighted when my partner showed up at home one day with a copy of “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” which she had found at a thrift store. She’s always shopping at thrift stores and when she saw this book thought – correctly – that I would be interested in it. It was written by Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan spiritual master who lived in exile in the West until his death in 2019. It’s essentially a layperson’s guide to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is an esoteric work that is difficult to understand (I know, I have a copy).

Here’s my review of the book on goodreads:

If you’ve ever tried to read “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” you know that it’s much too esoteric a work for the layperson. “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” makes the same teachings more accessible to the ordinary Western reader. The author is a Tibetan spiritual master who was living in exile in the West, and in his writing he adds a personal touch connecting the book to his autobiography and his experience as a spirtual practioner. At the heart of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings is recognition of impermanence and the need to prepare for death. This life is a transitionary stage only, a precious opportuntity to realize the true nature of reality, by encountering the true nature of the mind, the pure state of awareness called Rigpa. As the book puts it, “The View is the comprehension of the naked awareness, within which everything is contained.” (p. 156). This ties into the idea of primacy of consciousness, or monistic idealism, the metaphysical principle behind Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. The book goes into details of how to practice meditation and spiritual devotion, with emphasis on the power of compassion, but also the importance of finding a spiritual master. The book then goes into ways to help the dying. Western society does not connect death to spiritual growth, choosing instead to isolate the dying and prolong their suffering, which is a terrible approach (there is recognition in the book of how the hospice movement is changing this). There is also a detailed description, from the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, of the process of dying, and of the experiences of the “bardos,” or transitionary states between death and rebirth. This is where the book ties into the more difficult to understand wisdom of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”, which is poetic and ritualistic in format. This book explains the Tibetan beliefs and ritual practices in ordinary language. How much of it would be applicable to a Westerner in their life is another question, but certainly the overall philosophy and understanding of the meaning of life and death is valuable. The sincere and hopeful intention of the author, who was expelled from his suffering country at a young age, is heartwarming. This is a recommended work for anyone trying to decipher the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” as well as for anyone looking for an insightful spiritual perspective on the nature and meaning of death.

Review of “The Tibetan Book of LIving and Dying” on goodreads.com.

What the Tibetan Book of the Dead is essentially doing is providing guidance on how to prepare for death, and on what to expect in the experience of dying. Part of this preparation is meditation, in order to train the mind to be still, to not grasp at thoughts and be troubled by turbulent emotion, so that you can experience awareness in its primal state. In that way, you will be prepared at death for encountering higher dimensions of the mind, and potentially becoming liberated. Buddhism focuses on the mind, because, as this post’s title suggests, the mind is the universal basis of experience, and all life and death occur within it.

Ideally you should be conscious and in a meditative state at the moment of death. If death is sudden and violent, or if you are in a troubled mental state while dying, these encounters with higher dimensions will pass by in a blip, and you will simply be propelled into a new incarnation. But if you are prepared, you will recognize these encounters, as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

First, at the moment of death, you will encounter the Ground Luminosity, which is described by Sogyal Rinpoche as a self-originating clear light. It is the fundamenal inherent nature of everything, which underlies all existence. It might even make sense to call it “the Supreme Being” – that is, that which is and beyond which nothing else is. You can see what I am getting at here. Should you recognize this Supreme Being and become One with it, then your karmic journey is complete. You’re done with it.

If not, you will next encounter what The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying calls the Intrinsic Radiance, which is like the mind in its purest state. You’re basically in a dream realm now. Within this radiance, the Peaceful and Wrathful Gods manifest, of which there are a large number, and which are all named and correspond to different aspects of the psyche. You might think of them as like Angels and Demons. You actually have a chance of remaining in this realm as an enlightened, disembodied being, but if not – off you go to your next birth.

I make the comparisons to similar concepts in Christian theology because I believe that all religious traditions derive from the same fundamental truths about the nature of reality. That’s why they end up with similarities in their models. Sogyal Rinpoche recognizes this too, and makes an explicit comparison between Buddhism and Christianity, when discussing the different mental realms in Buddhist philosophy.

These realms are the kayas, a word which literally means “body” but which signifies a dimension or field, according to Sogyal Rinpoche. They are the realm of the absolute, the realm of fullness without limitation, and the realm of the finite and relative. The experience at death is like a sudden ascent to the highest realm, followed by a descent into the realm of finitude, and incarnation.

This trinity of realms has a correspondence with concepts in Christianity, as follows.

Dimension of the mindTibetan BuddhismChristianity
dimension of unconditioned truthDharmakayaFather
dimension of fullness, beyond duality, space and timeSambhogakayaHoly Ghost
dimension of ceaseless manifestationNirmanakayaSon (Christ)

Now to the parallels between what Sogyal Rinpoche writes and Amit Goswami’s science within consciousness. I hinted at them in the review with this statement:

As the book puts it, “The View is the comprehension of the naked awareness, within which everything is contained.” (p. 156). This ties into the idea of primacy of consciousness, or monistic idealism, the metaphysical principle behind Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

What Goswami argues in his theories is that consciousness is the ground of being. Consciousness does not emerge from material interactions, as materialists would have you believe, but rather contains the material universe as a manifestation within it. As the Beatles put it, “it’s all within yourself.” This is similar to the Buddhist idea that all experience is within the mind.

Goswami’s argument for the primacy of consciousness is based on the measurement problem in quantum physics. The particle is not there unless it is observed, but if awareness were an epiphenomenon of material (i.e. particle) interactions, then how could observation manifest the particle? Awareness must be fundamental and the particles themselves the emergent phenomena.

In Goswami’s model, the ground of being is what he calls unitive consciousness – undifferentiated and universal. In the words of Erwin Schrödinger, “Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown”. This unitive consciousness is like the Ground Luminosity, or the realm of Dharmakaya.

Consciousness must be unitive to avoid the “Wigner’s friend” paradox from quantum mechanics: how can two different observers collapse the same wave function? What if each observer collapsed it from its probabilistic wave form state into a different particle state? The Universe would be a mess!

Well, the answer is that there are not really two different observers. There is one field of awareness and one consciousness which chooses and manifests reality. The apparent separation of consciousness occurs because in the moment of observation, consciousness identifies with the measurement apparatus itself – that is, with the organism whose sensory systems are entangled in material reality. This creates a subject-object split – a subjective experience of an objective reality.

But really, both subject and object are aspects of the one field of consciousness, of the Absolute. The individuated self is a mirage. Everything, the experiencing self and all the objects it experiences, are encompassed in this one highest realm. As the Beatles put it, “life flows on within you and without you.” This is in concordance with the ideas of Tibetan Buddhism and other mystical traditions.

When unitive consciousness collapses the quantum wave function and manifests reality, there is at first an experience in “primary awareness.” This is akin to the experiences in the higher mental dimensions as described in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and it is possible to directly access this experience though disciplined meditative practice. But ordinarily we experience reality in the “secondary awareness” of the ego, which gives us the familiar subjective sense of self and identity.

Goswami posits that, in addition to the material body which humans possess, we also possess subtle bodies whose forms determine our vital experiences and mental experiences – that is, our feelings and thoughts. The connection between our subtle bodies and our physical bodies is maintained through the entangled manifestation within consciousness. In the words of William Blake:

“Man has no Body distinct from his soul; for that called Body is a portion of a Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”

– William Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The physical and subtle bodies via which we experience reality are thus what we would call “Body and Soul,” and exist within the Sogyal Rinpoche’s dimension of Nirmanakaya, the realm of manifestation. But because our awareness emerges from a higher order, we are able to get a glimpse of higher realms. It is just difficult and not likely, especially if we allow ourselves to be distracted by all the goings on down here on Earth. That is precisely the point of mystical wisdom such as that of The Tibetan Book of the Dead: to teach us about this potential and remind us of its importance, given that our time in the world of manifestation must inevitably come to an end.

Sogyal Rinpoche doesn’t know about Goswami (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying came out well before Goswami’s publications), but he does bring up one physicist whose theories connect to Tibetan Buddhism. That physicist is David Bohm, whose ontology of an implicate order and an explicate order to explain the mysteries of quantum physics can be likened to the different realms of mental experience which Sogyal Rinpoche describes. This correspondence is given in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and I’ll just add to it here, from Goswami’s model.

RealmDavid BohmAmit Goswami
Dharmakayasuperimplicate orderThe bliss body of unitive consciousness
Samboghakayaimplicate, enfolded orderThe formless body in the archetypal realm
Nirmanakayaexplicate, unfolded orderThe limited body of experience in the realm of manifestation

I hope this introduction to spiritual science has been illuminating. It’s a subject which has intrigued me for a long time, though I tend to study it more from an intellectual perspective than as spiritual practitioner. I know I should meditate more, but the world of manifestation is always beguiling me with its fascinating goings on.

Here is the wisdom of the Beatles to close off this post. May you see beyond yourself and find peace of mind!

Ruling the Waves Reviewed, Part III

Ruling the Waves Reviewed, Part III

This is the last of three posts where I review the book Ruling the Waves, by Debora L. Spar. This actually took me nearly two years to do, which is not my usual pattern at all, but this was as much a research project as a good read.

The goal of the project was to relate the thesis of the book – that ground-breaking technology goes through four phases of development before becoming commonplace – to the cycles of four turnings in Strauss & Howe generational theory. In generational theory, alternating patterns of generational archetypes lead to a pattern of social eras with first decreasing, then increasing degrees of social order. And since Spar’s work describes a pattern of an unregulated market transforming into a well-regulated one, there might be some correlation.

Spar breaks her narrative up into the stories of different specific technological waves: the compass/age of navigation, the telegraph, radio, satellite/digital television, cryptography for the masses, PC operating systems, and finally digital music. What I found and related in the first post of this series is that the story of the telegraph actually lined up pretty well with the turnings of the Civil War saeculum. In the second post I related that the next waves – radio and television – had happened on more compressed timelines, and so didn’t line up with the roughly 80 year period of a saeculum. Instead, they sometimes fit entirely within one decade! Part of this reflects, I speculated, a greater sophistication on the part of corporations and government entities in responding to technological change.

Finally, looking at the personal computing/Internet related waves, we see similarly that they occur within a tighter timeframe. But here we must also face the fact that Spar’s book was published in 2001, and the whole issue of how these technologies would be regulated wasn’t necessarily fully resolved yet – in other words, the pattern isn’t complete. This is where Spar is using her thesis to provide guidance about what might be coming in the future (from a 2001 perspective).

What I will note about the last three technology waves is that the Boomer generation is predominant in their stories, in both the initial invention phase, and the subsequent entrepreneurship phase. Let’s start by looking at encryption. The inventors of public-private key encryption were all Boomers: Whitfield Diffie (b. 1944), Martin Hellman (b. 1945) and Ralph Merkle (b. 1952). So were the inventors of the RSA algorithm: Ron Rivest (b. 1947), Adi Shamir (b. 1952) and Len Adleman (b. 1945). And the guy who put these together to give us the popular PGP software used by the masses on the Internet is also a Boomer: Phil Zimmermann (b. 1957).

The invention phase of encryption started in the recent second turning (in the 1970s), and continued into the third turning (the 1980’s and 1990s). The entrepreneurship phase began in the third turning with the rise of the Internet, as Zimmermann developed PGP in the early 1990s. At the time of Spar’s book’s publication, the legal status of PGP was up in the air, but today it is accepted by government in the US and EU, and is widely used. It’s also open source, meaning that Zimmermann, though he’s the entrepreneur in this story, has not become obscenely wealthy because of it. I see this particular story as a great example of the Boomer generation’s role in computing technology’s transition from being used solely by big corporations to becoming a technology for the masses.

This is, of course, the story of the personal computer. The Boomers who are most associated with this tale of the empowerment of the common man are Steve Jobs (b. 1955) and Bill Gates (b. 1955). The latter figures prominently in the next wave of which Spar writes – the PC operating system. But it should be noted that the inventors in the first phase of this wave were other men. The first hobby PC was the Altair, invented by Ed Roberts (b. 1941 – Silent), and the OS which Bill Gates famously licensed to IBM was based on an earlier operating system called Q-DOS, invented by Tim Paterson (b. 1956 – Boomer). These inventions happened in the last second turning, in the 1970s.

Gates was the entrepreneur in this technology wave; you might even call him the chief entrepreneur. He did get to be one of the wealthiest men ever, after all. His famous arrangement with IBM, which made him wealthy, happened at the end of the second turning, in 1980. Throughout the third turning, his dominance of the marketplace only grew, to the point that his company, Microsoft, was being called “the evil empire.” At one point, it was challenged by another technological development, which Spar covers in the same chapter: the web browser, an alternative platform for information access that might have derailed Microsoft’s control over software applications on its system.

With the World Wide Web, the invention phase was very fast, occurring in just a couple of years in the early 1990s. The inventor was yet another Boomer, Tim Berners-Lee (b. 1955). The entrepreneur whom Spar singles out for her narrative is a Gen Xer, Marc Andreessen (b. 1971). He developed the first highly popular web browser, Mosaic, later Netscape Navigator. Depending on your age, you may or may not have used it. Microsoft tried to muscle Netscape out of the business by bundling their web browser with their operating system, precipitating a famous anti-trust lawsuit, U.S. v. Microsoft.

So this technology wave actually gets to the rule-making phase in the narrative. The rule-maker in this case is a judge, Thomas Penfield Jackson (b. 1937 – Silent). His ruling was that Microsoft was indeed practicing monopoly, and would have to break into two separate units, one to produce the operating system, and one to produce other software components. But in a settlement after appeal, this was rescinded. Spar’s book was published before this settlement, so her narrative misses this plot twist. And what was the final result of this attempt at regulation? I would say that Microsoft remains a powerful monopolist, but in a field where new monopolists have arisen, with the coming of yet another technology wave which this book could not predict: smartphones, which come with their own OS, and the application platforms on them, which completely circumvent the web.

The last technology wave discussed in Spar’s wonderful book is digital music, specifically the MP3 format. This was invented by committee in the late 1980s and 1990s, a committee of mostly European peers of the Boomer generation. The entrepreneurs of the next phase are Gen-Xers who, in the 1990s, leveraged MP3 technology to build music-sharing empires which made them money, but were of dubious legality and sparked legal wars with established music labels, and many of the music artists as well. These are Sean Parker (b. 1979) and Shawn Fanning (b. 1980) of Napster, and Mike Robertson (b. 1967) of MP3.com. Their companies didn’t survive the legal battles ultimately, though at the time of Spar’s book publication, the rule-making phase was only just underway, with the formation of the Secure Digital Music Initiative, which was attempting go come up with standards for digital music usage that would satisfy all stakeholders.

In the end the SDMI got nowhere, and other standards were developed for digital rights management. These are in use today in the age of streaming music and video, which gives consumers access to huge libraries of content for an affordable price. The old content owners, and the artists, probably, have lost out in this deal. But it’s the way the market ended up regulated: in a way that could meet the huge consumer demand which digital encoding inevitably wrought. I discussed this in a review of another book; the streaming model provides what people want, and allows them to get it in a way that is fair and legal.

It’s too bad that Ruling the Waves left off in 2001, and didn’t get into the smartphone and social media era, and the rise of the now dominant Big Tech companies. To my knowledge, the author has not continued this study approach with any other technology waves. But I think that if she did look at developments of the past twenty years, she would agree with this assessment of the dominant tech corporations today – Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and yes, still Microsoft: they are the winners of the once dynamic competition, during the early days of the Internet, among different information technologies and platforms.

The world standardized on Big Tech’s platforms and technologies because they provided the best experience, or because it was just easier for everyone. As with Western Union and the telegraph, they are the monopolists who emerged from the free wheeling creative anarchy phase to become the rule makers. As with the story of the telegraph, this happened during a saeculum’s fourth turning, which in the case of the current saeculum began in 2008. And as was the case with Western Union, the Big Tech companies are resented for their monopoly power.

Conclusion

Debora Spar’s Ruling the Waves is a remarkable book, with a brilliant insight about the history of technology and the patterns of technological change. The idea that technology comes in waves, with different phases of development, from a period of loose rules to a period of tight rules, reminded me of the similar idea with respect to social norms in Strauss & Howe generational theory. Both theories tie into the concept of enantiodromia, the principle of things or states tending to transform into their opposites. That is why I embarked on a review of Spar’s book through the lens of generations theory.

What I found is that, as is generally the case with these high level theories, the patterns are not perfectly there. But where they are there and do line up, it is striking that the periods of greatest technological innovation and development of markets for new technologies which Spar identifies match the social era from Strauss & Howe theory that has the greatest degree of individualism and tends to be focused on commercialization and free markets. This suggests a clear relationship between social eras and the degree of technological innovation, and means that some generations, by dint of their location in history, are more strongly associated than others with technological change.

I should note one caveat: half of Spar’s examples are from recent history; they are digital technologies developed at the end of the twentieth century. So of course they are all stories from the same social era, meaning there is sample bias in the survey. It would be wonderful if Spar’s principle were applied across a great many of the major technological developments of the past few centuries – would we find that technological innovation is clustered in particular social eras? It would also be wonderful to hear Spar’s take on the developments in digital technology over the past twenty years. How different the world of the Internet looks today than it would have to a professor of business writing at end of the “dot com” era!

To the best of my knowledge, however, this book is the only example of this line of research. It took me two years to read it, and nearly two decades after it was published to boot, but I still found it insightful and a great read.

YOLO through a Pandemic (You Hope)

YOLO through a Pandemic (You Hope)

When the pandemic started last year, I posted this dire warning about how the fun was all over. Financial markets and supply chains were in deep trouble; Generation X could kiss their 401Ks goodbye. I guess I really thought we were in for some serious hell. I mean, doesn’t everyone remember the toilet-paper shortages? Didn’t it seem like we were doomed?

I don’t mean to be glib. 2020 was a terrible year for many – either because loved ones died of Covid-19, or because of economic hardship. And on top of that, politics in the U.S. hit a new low. But for many of us – those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home, those of us who didn’t lose family members – the lockdown turned out to be a boon.

For one, we spent less money. I keep a pretty close watch on my budget, and I know from having done so for years that the three things which eat up the most income are housing, healthcare, and food. Well, it turns out that not eating out ever means spending a lot less money on food. I know this was bad for the restaurant industry, but I’m telling the 2020 story from my perspective here.

In addition, because we were suddenly never leaving the house, I ended up moving in with my BFF. So housing costs also went down for us. Add in the money saved by not travelling, and our savings grew. Frankly, it’s also really nice not to have to commute. It’s hard to imagine now that I used to spend two hours a day driving to and from work – whatever for? Staying at home means an easier pace of life, with no rushed schedule and more time for family.

The icing on the cake: because of the measures to avoid infection by the coronavirus, we didn’t get sick from anything else either. Normally we catch a few colds each year, what with the teenagers going to school and the girl doing her theater work. But not in 2020.

It all just seems like the next level in the steady progression of my fortunes over the years of the Crisis Era. Literally, from 2008 on things just keep looking up for me. I know I’m not the only one having this experience. It’s like for some Gen Xers, the pandemic lockdown was the perfect situation.

We’re even seeing this idea now of the YOLO economy: workers ready to quit their jobs and pursue their passion, now that they have savings and have had a taste of what it’s like to *not* drive to work every day. Should I resign from my FinTech job to become a full-time blogger?

Now I couldn’t do that without first consulting with my partner. And for her, 2020 was a different story. She’s basically a gig worker in the theater industry, so the pandemic was a disaster for her from a work perspective. All of the gigs she had worked hard to line up just evaporated. So I’d better stick with my job that pays well.

Another story we’re hearing is that retail businesses are struggling with a hiring crisis now. Essential workers are better off on unemployment benefits than going back to their low wage jobs. It makes you wonder why they are deemed “essential” but then not compensated very well. Perhaps an improvement of the conditions of the lowest paid workers in our economy will be a lasting effect of the pandemic. Pandemic relief (“stimulus payments”) is sort of like basic income, after all.

Now that restrictions are being eased, my partner has actually been able to find gigs again, and I can tell she is excited to get back to work in 2021. But are we really out of the woods in terms of the pandemic? One of my projects this year has actually been research on pandemics throughout history, and from what I’ve learned I’m not feeling too easy.

Just take a look at this list of the worst pandemics in history. One pattern you’ll see here is that the more recent large scale pandemics are caused by ineradicable viral pathogens. The older ones chronologically are typically bubonic plague or cholera, which are controllable now thanks to improved sanitation and antibiotic medicine, or smallpox, which has been eliminated through vaccination.

But some viruses cannot be wiped out by immunization, both because they can reside in non-human hosts (waiting to infect the next generation of non-immune human hosts), and because they can mutate (nullifying previously acquired immunity). These include the influenza virus and the SARS coronavirus. We’re stuck with them, barring some next level development in medical science.

A pandemic like the Covid-19 pandemic, the eighth deadliest in human history according to that list, should be a once-in-a-lifetime event. But you never know. So enjoy your time on Earth, because as they say, you only live once.

A Lesson from History: Be Responsible and Get Vaccinated

A Lesson from History: Be Responsible and Get Vaccinated

This year I’ve been involved in a project, doing research on pandemics. As part of that, I’ve been reading this interesting old book I dug up. I like reading old books because the dated perspective and language is illuminating. It is like seeing into the past in a way that you won’t get from reading a history book written in current times.

The book is called “Epidemics Resulting From Wars“, by Dr. Friedrich Prinzing, a German doctor and pioneer in the field of medical statistics. It was published in 1916, under the auspices of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stemming from a conference held in Berne, Switzerland, in August 1911. There is a sad irony in knowing that as this was being written, the Great Powers of Europe had already abandoned International Peace in favor of other ambitions.

In the introduction, the director of the Endowment’s Division of Economics and History has some hopeful comments about how, in the case of the Great War underway, advancements in medicine might mitigate the risk of disease that in the past always accompanied armed conflict. In that naïve and hopeful start-of-World-War-I way, he seems to believe that, thanks to modern science, at least that deadly facet of warfare can be eliminated. It is also a sad irony to read this knowing that an influenza pandemic, the second deadliest pandemic in human history, is just two years away from this book’s publication.

In this blog post, I wanted to highlight one part of the book. The eighth chapter is titled “The Franco-German War of 1870-1, and the Epidemic of Small-pox Caused by It.” In discussing this smallpox epidemic, time and again, the subject of vaccination comes up. As you probably know, the smallpox vaccine was the first vaccine developed, in the late 1700s. By the 1800s, German authorities were attempting to vaccinate their populations, but encountering resistance. Here are a couple of quotes from the book.

“In Württemberg, where vaccination had been compulsory since 1818, but had been frequently evaded in the ‘sixties in consequence of the agitation of the anti-vaccinationists, an epidemic of small-pox raged in the years 1863-7, causing, all told, 804 deaths.”

Dr. Friedrich Prinzing, “Epidemics Resulting from Wars,” p. 260

“The kingdom of Saxony experienced a very severe epidemic of small-pox in consequence of the Franco-German War. The wide dissemination of the disease is attributed by Wunderlich to the fact that vaccination, in consequence of the wild agitation of the anti-vaccinationists, was insufficiently practised; prior to the year 1874 vaccination was not compulsory in Saxony.”

Ibid., p. 269

I find it interesting that anti-vaxxers were around a century and a half ago. Their presence in society today is nothing new. And frankly, I can understand being wary of vaccination. I am actually wary myself. I don’t want someone injecting something into me if I can help it. But the point is that, under some conditions, you can’t avoid the need. The reason is there in the statistics – for example, as recorded in this book:

“A particularly good idea of the protection against small-pox afforded by vaccination is given in the Chemnitz statistics for the years 1870-1. Of 53,891 vaccinated persons 953 (1.8 per cent) contracted the disease in those two years and seven succumbed to it, all of whom were more than ten years of age ; of 5,712 unvaccinated persons, almost one-half contracted the disease (2,643 or 46.3 per cent, to be precise), and of these 243 (9.16 [per cent] of those taken sick) died.”

Ibid., p. 256

Simply put, a vaccinated population is less susceptible during a disease epidemic. Rates of infection and of mortality go down if vaccination is widespread.

So think about what that means for the current epidemic today. Maybe there is some risk to getting vaccinated. It could be inconvenient and uncomfortable since you might get sick for a day. We’ve even heard about potential problems with the J&J vaccine. And we’ve heard there’s a chance you could still catch COVID anyway.

But if a large portion of the population resists getting vaccinated, then there will be more sickness and more death. It’s unavoidable math. It’s the logic of a replicating virus.

Getting vaccinated isn’t really about protecting yourself. Vaccination is another measure to flatten the curve (flatten it way down), just like wearing masks and social distancing. You are asked to take a very small risk to prevent a great deal of suffering and death among other people in your society. That makes it a civic duty.

What I Got Out Of “The Sopranos”

What I Got Out Of “The Sopranos”

An episode of The Sopranos always begins with the opening credits scene. It pulls you in immediately with a compelling rock song – a little bit funky, a little bit hip-hop. It’s a song for the ’90s but it reminds you of the ’70s. The song goes…

You woke up this morning
Got yourself a gun
Your mama always said you'd be the chosen one
A shot from the opening credits of The Sopranos.

A serious looking middle aged man is driving on the highway through an industrial section of northern New Jersey, smoking a cigar. He definitely could be a 70s tough guy. The song goes…

When you woke up this morning
All that love had gone
Your papa never told you
About right and wrong

He exits the highway and proceeds through lower class sections of the city. You see buildings that will become familiar as you watch the show, which promises to be urban and gritty. The song goes…

You woke up this morning
The world turned upside down

Suddenly he’s in a much nicer neighborhood, pulling into the driveway of an upper middle class house. The grim look on his face as he exits his SUV suggests a lot of serious business on his mind. What has he had to do, and to put up with, to get to this large automobile and this beautiful house? The scene ends as he closes the car door. He’s come home.

That’s what this show is ultimately about; coming home. It’s about family, the bedrock of American life. And in the grand tradition of American fiction, it’s about aspiration, about wanting to rise in wealth and status, and maybe even become the boss.

And, of course, it’s about crime. Because Americans do love a good crime story. Via character dialogue, the show even unabashedly compares itself to The Godfather and Goodfellas, the two iconic movies which define the modern era’s obsession with Mafia-related entertainment. Some of the characters on the show aspire to achieve the celebrated fame of those movies, though others, wisely, prefer to stay in the background.

But the real point is that these characters are part of the modern era. Organized crime, like the rest of society, has had to adapt to the times. The show famously starts with mob capo Tony Soprano in a therapy session with a psychiatrist. He’s there because he’s having anxiety attacks; even a tough guy has trouble coping in this world turned upside down.

Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions are a wonderful contrivance for looking into the psychology and the moral perspective of someone who makes a living as a criminal. Through these sessions, he is humanized, and we learn that he has the same problems as any other middle-aged family man. He has to balance work and family life, maintain his marriage, and raise his children, all while overcoming the baggage from his own upbringing. In some ways, he’s just like the rest of us.

But, of course, he also has his unique work-related problems, the exact details of which he cannot reveal to his therapist. In other words, he’s not like us at all. As the story develops, we the audience get a tantalizing look into his world. This is why we come to these kinds of shows; his life is far riskier and edgier than ours, and we want the vicarious thrill of living it through his eyes. We want the excitement of transgressing moral boundaries, but not the consequences.

Which just goes to show the moral dilemma that this show raises. If we enjoy this story, and even identify with its protagonists, are we not condoning their behavior? These guys murder people, then go to their favorite restaurant for some wine and pasta, like us when we leave the office for a night out at Olive Garden. If they’re so much like us, then are we like them? Do we accept, even celebrate, a world where crime pays?

I think that question troubled the creator, David Chase, which is why he famously ended the show without resolving the chief protagonist’s story arc. But to be fair to the television audiences of the time, crime has always been a popular subject in TV and film, and has often been glamorized. What makes The Sopranos different is how it places this subject in the context of the social era at the time of its premiere in 1999.

In the 1990s, crime rates were high, the Culture Wars were heating up, and there was a pervasive sense of society coming apart. Baby Boomers were in mid-life, parenting Millennial children. David Chase (b. 1945) is a Boomer, and I think he was exploring his generations’ experience of the era – including that question of how much moral looseness a society can and should tolerate. While not all of the actors are strictly Boomers by birth year, some being just a little too old or too young, I think the mid-life characters are meant to be. Tony Soprano clearly is, based on flashback scenes of his childhood in the 1960s.

In one scene, when Tony’s teenaged daughter uses language which upsets him, she defends herself with the statement, “this is the 90s.” Tony retorts, “out there it’s the 1990s, but in here it’s 1954,” pointing first out the window, then at the floor of the house. Tony is a moral reactionary, despite his chosen profession. His Millennial daughter is what we would call “woke” today, and might even have reacted to her father with an “OK Boomer,” though that is an expression well ahead of her time.

Tony clearly wants to return to the “father knows best” social order of the good old days. You can tell that all the old gangsters do. They even complain about the breakdown of morals in their own organization. Drugs have had a corrosive influence. You can’t trust the gangsters today, who turn state’s evidence instead of doing their civic duty and serving time in prison. You just know that any of these guys who surivived to see 2016 would be sporting red MAGA caps at a Trump rally. They certainly wouldn’t survive today’s cancel culture, being too blatantly racist and sexist and homophobic.

The Sopranos stands out as an artifact of its place in history, the Bush era transition into the 21st century, with the Cold War receding in the rearview mirror, and all of these new concerns coming down the road. With its frank maturity and uncensored sex and violence, it also helped inaugurate the television noir age we enjoy today. In many ways, it did it better than any show since. It’s so well written, acted and directed, that you might even say it achieved Peak TV.

That last statement, I suspect, is controversial, but it really was the first thought I had when I recently started rewatching the show. And I have a lot of shows fresh in my memory; I’m a man who watches way too much television, a mid-lifer in a new era of staying at home with endless streaming video. In the great trove of video content available online, The Sopranos is a real gem from what already seems like a fading time.


This post is the second in a 2-part series about The Sopranos, following up on an earlier post.

How I Started Watching “The Sopranos”

How I Started Watching “The Sopranos”

On June 10, 2007, I was on the road, and spent the night in a hotel. I don’t remember where I was going or why, and I only know the date because I looked it up; it’s the original air date of a certain television episode.

What happened was, that night, I decided to watch a little TV before going to bed. The hotel had HBO, which I did not have at home. At home, we had satellite TV, but my roommates paid for it and I did not ever make demands of what programming they should get. Since the hotel had a channel I did not normally have access to, naturally I chose to check it out. As it turned out, The Sopranos was about to come on. Of course, I had heard a great deal about this show, which was a cultural mainstay of the era, but I had never watched an episode. So I gave it a go.

(mild spoilers follow so if you don’t want any at all just don’t read the rest of this post)

I liked what I saw. Even though I had no back story at all, other than knowing that James Gandolfini portrayed Tony Soprano, I could follow along, kind of. The guy’s son was rebellious and annoying, and there was some kind of gang war or something happening. There was some threat to the family. They went to a diner, and this guy came in – maybe he was a bad guy? – and then suddenly the show just stopped. The screen went blank for a bit. Then the credits came on. It was some kind of glitch; probably the hotel’s fault. I didn’t think much of it, and went to sleep.

The famous last scene of The Sopranos.

The next day or so, I went online and checked the news feeds (I was already getting my news exclusively via the web by this time). I learned that I had watched the series finale of The Sopranos. The first episode I ever watched was the last episode of the show! And the final scene had intentionally cut abruptly to black, which was generating a big hubbub online. The creator, David Chase, had apparently mystified everyone. What I gather now is that he chose not to provide a conclusive story arc for the main character, which would have resolved the show’s fundamental moral question – can a guy who steals and kills for a living really be just an American guy, with all the same problems as the rest of us? And why did America spend nearly a decade celebrating this professional crook?

Now, it might be for the best for me that there was no resolution, because even though I watched the last episode first, it really wasn’t a spoiler. Nothing had been concluded and my appetite was simply whetted. I ended up watching the entire series a couple years later, by renting the discs on Netflix. Yes, I mean the physical DVDs, mailed to me periodically. That was how it was done in the 2000s, before streaming took off.

I enjoyed the show tremendously – it’s well deserved of the many accolades it has received. In my mind, it is the show that inaugurates the more hard-hitting, stark, and mature age of television that we live in today – though I know the trend was underway throughout the 1990s. It’s also a show that culturally defines the Bush years, along with another one which started in the same year of 1999 – The West Wing.

This blog post was inspired by the fact that the family is now rewatching (adults) / being introduced to (teens) the show. What happened was, we wanted to watch the premiere of Godzilla vs. Kong, but without going to a theater, since it’s pandemic times. So we got a subscription to HBO Max. Well, there was The Sopranos thumbnail staring at us from the screen, and since we like to have something to watch together on evenings when everyone is free, we decided to make it our new show. And personally I am enjoying it the second time around as much as I did the first time.

I have more to say about The Sopranos – a review of sorts – but I’ll publish that in a follow-up post.

The Red-Blue Identity Crisis

The Red-Blue Identity Crisis

This will probably be my last political post for a while. I’ve been hashing out the Red-Blue partisan divide for many posts now since the last election cycle, and wanted to leave a final thought. With the attack on the U.S. Capitol nearly three months behind us, it feels to me like things are settling down. The partisan divide is still there, no doubt, but it seems the conflict has retreated to the shadows. I thought there might be further escalation following the January 6 riot, but now I’m not seeing it. This could just be because of my personal social media bubble, of course.

My last thought on this is that, if partisanship has hardened us to the point that the two political parties can’t possible work together, then politics truly has left the realm of policy debate and become entirely about group identity. This is not unprecedented and it could simply be part and parcel of life in a Crisis Era. So what our political conflict comes down to is a choice of identity for the United States of America. Are we a conservative, “traditional American” society, dominated by whites and Christians (the red zone)? Or are we a progressive, diverse society, accepting of all races, creeds, and orientations (the blue zone)?

Ask yourself: doesn’t this surely describe the choice faced in recent elections? What substantial policy differences have really been on the table, that are not framed in terms of these values differences?

And couldn’t other Crisis Era conflicts be described as identity crises? In the 1860s, Americans faced the choice of defining themselves as primarily agriculturalists dependent on slave labor, or as industrialist capitalists and abolitionists. In the 1770s, Americans faced the choice of defining themselves as loyalists to the King, or as patriots of an independent nation. The winners of the great conflicts of those eras determined the identity which prevailed.

So what we’re experiencing is an identity crisis, as we try to figure out as a society if we are going to let the red zone values regimes prevail, or the blue zone values regime. I see a parallel between our times and England in the Tudor era, which see-sawed between Protestant and Catholic identities under different monarchs. Bloody Mary’s reign was a Catholic interregnum between two Protestant regimes, just as Trump’s was a MAGA interlude between the progressive Presidencies of Obama and Biden.

And just as England emerged from its conflicts as a decidedly Protestant nation, I believe the United States will ultimately affirm itself as a blue zone nation. Why do you think the red zoners complain so much about the “mainstream media?” The blue zone, with its progressive identity, is the mainstream!

In the end, the Red State, already exiled from social media and the butt of joking memes, will be consigned to an “alt-” existence on the fringes of mainstream society. All that their politicians can do now is do their best to suppress the vote. But in the long run, they cannot prevail. They we will be left as troublemakers, and dissenters from the mainstream view.

Which isn’t to say that they will be entirely in the wrong or that the mainstream view will be ideal for society. That’s just the way we are headed right now, as far as I can tell. Of course, some major event could prove me wrong. But barring that, I don’t think I have much more blogging to do on this subject.

The Last of Us Watch

The Last of Us Watch

When I was young man I played computer games. A lot. That was so long ago that being a computer gamer put me in a minority, part of the maligned “nerd” subclass of Generation X. Today’s Millennial gamers are much more of a mainstream group. Nowadays, being a young man who plays video games is pretty basic.

Now, when I was a young man (so very long ago) we would sometimes get groups of guys together for a computer game. We typically would play what is called a “hot seat” game – there is one personal computer (PC), and everyone takes separate turns in the game. When it’s your turn, you sit in the chair that is in front of the PC, hence “hot seat.”

Another way to do it way back when was a LAN party, where everyone brings their PC to a common location and you play multi-player on a local network. This was done because you couldn’t play a graphics intensive game over the Internet. No one had the bandwidth; people were still using modems to get online. Going to a LAN party was a bit cumbersome since you had to cart your PC to someone else’s house and set it all up, and I never got into the practice. But some people did, and LAN parties were a feature of Gen X computer nerd culture back in the 1990s.

One thing about these Gen X approaches to group gaming is that everyone gets to play. It was unusual for someone to be willing to come hang out where everyone was gaming, but not actually play in the game.

Around this time, console gaming was starting to pick up. That particular format had actually suffered a drought following the failure of the Atari console, which had come out in the youth of early-wave Gen Xers such as myself. But then came the rise of Nintendo, which accompanied the youth of late-wave Gen Xers and the childhood of Millennials. It’s all documented in this great book called “Game Over, Press Start to Continue: How Nintendo Conquered the World.”

With console gaming, you start to see this pattern of people gathering, and some people just sitting and watching while others play. After all, there are only so many controllers. It wasn’t something I was ever hugely into, and in fact I have never owned a video game console. But I went to a few parties where the console was the center of attention.

For the Millennial generation, watching others play video games has become a common practice. In fact, it’s a whole culture; there are live streaming sites like twitch that are dedicated to it. There are YouTubers who make a living sharing streams of their games with added commentary. As in, very popular YouTubers who have become wealthy doing so.

As a mid-life Gen Xer, my computer gaming has shifted over to games that simulate board games, rather than the more active and real-time type video games. I honestly was never heavily into first person shooter or arcade-style games; I prefer strategy games instead.

But what I have done is watched my Millennial stepsons play video games. Specifically, this really cool post-apocalyptic game called The Last of Us. They sit us old folks down around the TV, and then play the game on a Sony PlayStation 4 while we spectate. It works really well with this particlar title because the game is story-driven, with programming that railroads the player throught a plot (in contrast to “open world” games where you can just wander about and do whatever).

The visual design of the game is stunning, even though you can sometimes spot a video glitch which briefly interrupts the cinematic experience. These glitches don’t really matter because the setting is so artfully rendered, with contrasting visual landscapes of urban ruin and beautiful overgrown nature. The sound design is brilliant as well, with music that builds the tension as the characters get into dangerous situations.

It is a combat game, so there is graphic violence, as well as grotesque horror elements. But it’s in the context of a very well-written and poignant story, featuring complex characters and difficult moral dilemmas. Our sons see it as its own genre of cinemtic story-telling, even better than film or television. I can see why they do, and as computer graphics improve the genre could become even more immersive and emotionally intense.

As they play the game while we oldsters watch, our sons are essentially taking on a directing role. They have already played the game through before, so they know all the places to go in game, as well as actions to take, so that we get the complete story as efficiently as possible. They also take us on little “side quests” to see the less important but still interesting stuff. Since it is a game, there is some amount of collecting resources and spending them to upgrade the characters’ capabilities. This video game trope, while “unrealistic” in a sense, does not in any way detract from the story telling or aesthetics of the experience.

Watching the game all the way through took us many, many hours. We watched both the original game and Part II. It was the same as binge-watching multiple seasons of a good streaming TV series. Would it have been as much fun in TV format? I guess we may find out, as rumor has HBO is making a TV show based on the game.

I’d like to thank the boys for sharing this experience with us. It really is a new way of experiencing cinematic story telling. It shows how far the video game medium has evolved since the days I sat in my parents’ basement playing Tunnels of Doom on a TI-499/A (I’m not even kidding). For the new generation, it’s become much more immersive, and grown into a communal experience, and a part of everyday life.