So is this pretty much where we’re at now? I think I captured it.
It’s a day to stay in, sheltered from the cold and feeling sickly. The perfect album for this quiet afternoon is 50 Words for Snow, from Kate Bush, released in 2011 and to date her latest studio album. Like her previous release, Aerial, the album reflects the maturation of the artist’s style, which has become more contemplative, and deeper in meaning, even as her voice has lowered with age. It’s slow and calm, heavy on the piano, with long-playing songs that take their time to develop, building to gentle crescendos and expressing subtle emotion. You almost need the muffled stillness of a snowy day to truly appreciate the music, and I always look forward to listening to it when such a day comes along.
Here is an excerpt, but do yourself a favor and listen to the whole album.
I wrote this story. I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!
A Star Above
Not Quite a Christmas Story
Millions of years ago, in a time long forgotten, the shape of the land was not the same as it is today, and the Earth was ruled by the Saurians.
And it came to pass, one winter’s season, that a bright star shone in the sky above. It was so bright that the Saurians were certain it was a portent. So they asked the wisest among them what the star might signify.
The most wise of all the Saurians had a vision, and told it unto the others. “This star signifies that a child is hatched! A child who heralds a new age to come!”
“What will come in this new age?” cried the other wise ones.
“A new hope, and an end to the wickedness of our kind.”
“It is true that many Saurians are wicked,” agreed the others. “What shall we do now that we know of the meaning of the sign?”
“We must journey to where the child is hatched. If we follow the star it will guide us there.”
So the wisest of the Saurians, as well as two others who were fairly wise themselves, set out on a journey, walking across the great land, keeping the star ahead at all times.
“I think it is growing brighter,” said one of the three wise Saurians, one who had a large posterior and a long, sinuous neck, and came from the swampy regions.
“Yes, it must be nearing the time of the child’s hatching,” said the wisest of the three Saurians, who stood on two legs and could run very fast, and was from the grasslands.
“Is the time of the end of wickedness arriving? What should we do?” worried the last of the three, who had a shell, and a horny head, and was from the rocky places.
“Let us bring gifts to the hatchling,” said the wisest Saurian. “Do we have anything to bring?”
“I have these weeds from the swamp that I like to eat,” said the long-necked Saurian. “They smell real good.”
“I have some shiny rocks that I have collected,” said the horny-headed Saurian. “I think they are very pretty.”
“They are perfect,” said the bipedal Saurian. “We shall bring the fragrant plants and the shiny rocks as offerings to the hatchling who portends the dawn of a new age.”
So they walked on, carrying their gifts, following the star, which grew ever brighter in the sky above. At last they came to a place where a herd of Saurians grazed on the grassy hills.
The wisest Saurian spoke to one of the herd, “Have you heard of a child who is hatched, and portends a new age, as signified by the bright star above?”
“Yes,” said the other, “many of us have gone to visit the child. But it is not hatched.”
“Not hatched? It is still in its egg?”
“The child is born, but not of an egg.”
“A child born not of an egg!” cried the three wise Saurians. “Truly this is a miracle!”
So they went together to where the child was born, and saw it in a little nest, where other Saurians stood around, bowing in awe before it. It was a creature not like a Saurian, tiny and covered in fur.
“That is – different,” said the wisest of the Saurians.
“Yes,” said the other. “It is not a Saurian like us, but a Mammal. And it portends a new age.”
“We have brought gifts for the Mammal child.”
“You can just put them over there.”
And the star above grew ever brighter, and then fell to Earth, and the Saurians and their wicked ways were ended forever. And the Mammal and all of its kind came to rule the Earth in their stead, as they do to this very day.
In Turnings theory, one characteristic of the era we are currently experiencing is that the young adult generation benefits from a renewed focus on improving the workplace. This continues the pattern from their childhood of being protected and nurtured more intensively than the generation that came before them. The Millennial generation in childhood was the benefactor of “Zero Tolerance” policies to keep drugs and violence out of schools. The recent uproar over sexual harassment in the workplace can be thought of as this same spirit of zero tolerance following the Millennials, as they age, into a new sphere of life.
We could think of each generation’s experience with sexual harassment when they were young adults entering the workforce as tracking the changes in the social era. For the Silent generation, sexual harassment was out in the open and normalized (think Mad Men). For Boomers, there was a push back in a new age of feminism and women’s rights. When Generation X was young, sexual harassment went underground, but was tolerated for the sake of career advancement.
Now, in the Millennial young adult era, the harassment of the past twenty or thirty years is being exposed, to the ruination of the careers of many powerful older men. There will be no more tolerance of it during the rise of the new young generation, in which our society has invested so much.
I have always loved music. It touches the soul. As the ancient Greeks theorized, the harmonic structure of music reflects the order and harmony of the Universe. And so the joy experienced when listening to or performing music is transcendent – you really are reaching out to heaven!
I wanted to be more engaged with music, to do more than just listen to endless Spotify playlists, so last year I joined a choir. I had been in a choir in junior high school, so I figured I could jump back in (“back after a 40 year hiatus,” as they say). Of course it has been a lot of work to get up to speed on how to sing again, but it has also been tremendous fun.
One thing I love about choir is that it brings all the generations together – this is a hobby that doesn’t appeal to one particular age group only. We have choir members from every generational archetype. Yes, that’s right, we have Millennials, Gen-Xers, Boomers and at least one Silent. He told me himself – he was born in 1940 and even identified himself as a member for the Silent generation.
We are called The Singers for Goodness Sake, and are non-profit, performing mainly in retirement communities. Tonight is the last performance of the season, and then I will take a break for the summer, when traveling will take priority. I’ve feel like I’ve come a long way in the eight months since I started singing, and like we’ve come a long way as an ensemble. I look forward to making more music with friends of all ages.
I listen to audio books in the car, on the premise that I spend so much time driving (either commuting or travelling) that I should at least be into a book simultaneously, especially since I will not live long enough to read all the books I’d like to, even if I live to be a hundred and twenty. My commute is 20-30 minutes each way; that is a lot of time frittered away if I am not also doing something else!
This latest one should fill in a good deal of that valuable time:
To save valuable money, which is also time, I borrow audio books from the library. The Wake County library system has an excellent collection of books of the types I like, which is mostly history. And that’s right, this one has 26 discs!
It’s The Great Upheaval by Jay Winik, and unsurprisingly there is much to be said about this particular time period (late 18th century). I’m sure I will learn a lot, although there is one slight disadvantage to audio books – sometimes I space out and miss bits. This is not a problem with the written word, since the words are still there where I left them after I return from a reverie.
Still, it will be nice to have something to look forward to while I am slogging through traffic. Why aren’t you people all telecommuting?
Nearly ten years ago, in late 2007, after about six months of unemployment, I started a job as a software tester on a data warehouse team in a corporate IT department. I had just enough database experience to bluff my way through the interview, though I had never worked with data warehousing before. So I started reading Data Warehousing For Dummies (I did not bring it to the office) and went to work. When I joined the team it was me and three Indians. I found it hard to understand their English, but despite difficulties communicating and my lack of subject matter expertise,I became productive.
I remember posting on a now-forgotten social media site (yes, it was MySpace) how glad I was to have found work, and how I now had two tasks before me: to learn data warehousing, and to learn to understand English spoken by Indians. Fast forward to 2017, and I have become an expert at both skills. I am on my third data warehouse gig since then, and in all three companies there has been a preponderance of associates from India. Where I am now, I would say about 50% of the staff. I bring this up in consideration of the tenor of the times, with Indian engineers now feeling unwelcome, even endangered in this country.
Personally, I’m happy to work with anyone, as long as they’re not a complete jerk – I don’t care where they are from. Are companies in the U.S. abusing the visa system to depress labor costs? Honestly, I’m not involved enough in the hiring process to know. I will say that I have heard one person who was hiring for a position say that they wanted to hire American, but most applicants are from India. And an American I know has said that when he looks for work at contracting sites, he feels overwhelmed by the competition from Indian engineers. I think the truth is that India has a huge population and has focused on training an entire generation of workers in IT skills – and that’s reflected in the make-up of the IT labor pool.
Can the new administration’s “Hire American” order alter the IT labor force by fiat? I guess from where I sit I can let you know, in time. But what keeps people out of skilled labor is not having the skills or experience in the first place – not a problem which hiring restrictions will solve. Training is a better idea. I do have one piece of advice for any young person who wants to join me in IT adventuring – get your work experience as soon as you can, preferably while in school.
Meanwhile, I’m sure I can keep developing in my field and stay employable; companies will always need people to manage their data. Automation doesn’t worry me because software automation just expands the possibilities of what people + computers can do together. I expect there will be more corporate campuses in my future.
Last night I attended an Eastern Orthodox Pascha celebration, right here in central North Carolina where I live. I have always been fascinated by this branch of Christianity, so long in pedigree, but not what I usually encounter in the Southern United States. A friend of mine has been attending their services, and I asked if I could come along, and he verified with the priest that I was welcome.
So at about 10pm we drove to the church, which turned out to be a small, squat building along a woody roadside, as common a structure as you will find in the South. We were warmly greeted by a couple of gentlemen at the front and ushered in. So then came my first surprise – the church was dark! There were no lights on, and it was hard to see anything. People helpfully guided us to where we were to take a thin, tapered candle from a box, and then we found some seats in the back.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could just make out the depictions of Jesus Christ and of the Madonna and infant Jesus, in the classic Byzantine style. The altar was actually separated from the congregation by basically a gate, a significant difference from the Roman Catholic church. The scent of incense was heavy in the air.
From behind the gate the priest started chanting, and was joined by deacons in front. They read from ornamented liturgical books, but in plainchant. Sometimes the congregation would respond, also chanting. The whole ritual evoked the ancient past – here was a way of worship that went back over a thousand years, almost unchanged, except that the participants were modern Americans and spoke/chanted in English. In the dark, the only distraction was the fussing of small children.
At one point we all lit our candles, starting with the priest, who then passed the flame to two worshipers in the front, who then passed it along. Then we processed out of the building, and around a path lit by luminaries, which we circled three times, and when we got back to the building, there proceeded a theatrical ritual of the priest requesting admittance, and being rebuffed. When eventually we were admitted, the lights were on inside.
The liturgy continued. I noticed a boy started crawling under the chairs, and I thought, my, he is rambunctious. But then I saw that an elderly man was tucking him in with a blanket! I saw that other children were now lying under the chairs, snoozing, and concluded that it must be that they were allowed to because of the late hour. The ritual was very long. The worshipers stood or sat as they wished; I realized that there was no formal requirement, although at certain points everyone stood.
In the later part of the ritual, the priest would say “Christ is risen!” and the response would be “Indeed he is risen!” Then he would repeat the phrase in a few other languages, and get some responses. I assumed one of the languages was Greek, but I didn’t know. In the end there was communion, a familiar rite to me from my Roman Catholic background. The priest blessed us with holy water, and also blessed a basket of red-dyed eggs.
The liturgy finished after over two hours – it definitely takes dedication to properly participate in the Orthodox church! But it felt like we earned the feast which followed, in tables set up in a separate space. Everyone had brought baskets full of food and wine. They were very welcoming of me; I sat with my friend next to a Romanian couple (they moved to the U.S. in 1980) and partook of food and conversation.
As the night wore on and the crowd thinned, we ended up in conversation with the priest and some of the deacons, all of them bearded and sporting wedding bands (no celibacy requirements for priests in this church). I learned that the building was only recently purchased, and is the second Orthodox Christian church in the county. I learned that the other languages spoken were Romanian, Arabic and Spanish (how did I miss that!) to reflect the languages spoken by congregants. I learned that the normally the liturgy begins at midnight (April 16 is the date of Pascha this year) but that a special dispensation had been received to begin at 10 pm from the Metropolitan – the Archbishop who presides over all of America and Canada.
We were up talking and drinking wine until well after 3:00 am. Luckily, it was a short drive to my friend’s house to finally sleep. I met some very cool people and am grateful for being welcomed to the celebration.
The idea of parallel worlds or alternate timelines is a compelling source of endless entertaining science fiction stories. It is also taken seriously in theoretical physics as a possible interpretation of quantum mechanics, that bizarre empirical phenomenon in which matter loses its substantiality at sub-atomic scales, particles become waves, and reality becomes probabilistic – until the moment when an observation is made. An observation precipitates the so-called “wavefunction collapse” and restores the familiar objective world of classical physics. In the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, it is assumed that the wavefunction simply describes all the possible versions of the Universe, and when we make an observation, we don’t collapse the wavefunction, we just determine which version of reality we are currently in. It’s an appealingly simple interpretation, which saves us from having to resolve the paradoxes of wavefunction collapse; it is a theory that has been jokingly described as “short on assumptions, long on Universes.” And now it has been updated with the many interacting worlds version, with its tantalizing possibility of being verifiable experimentally.
I remember reading a short story by Larry Niven, All The Myriad Ways, in which a corporation had figured out a way to travel among the many worlds, discovering all the possible timelines, and demonstrating to all that, indeed, the Universe does split into different versions every time a choice is made. This ends up prompting a wave of casual crimes – including suicides, murders, and rapes – as people process this knowledge to the extreme logical conclusion that there is no reason to consider the consequences of actions. After all, if I kill someone, what does it matter, since there is some other Universe in existence in which I didn’t kill them?
I wouldn’t hold out for a dimension-hopping corporation to come along and sell us souvenirs from alternate historical timelines, though. The best interpretation of quantum mechanics is the Von Neumann–Wigner interpretation – consciousness causes collapse. This interpretation neatly resolves the paradox of wavefunction collapse by accepting its salient property – it occurs at the moment of observation. Through the vehicle of consciousness, the Universe comes into being, one timeline unfolding according to our choices. This is why our actions are rife with moral significance: each choice fatefully fixes the storyline, and dispenses with the alternatives.
So Niven’s story can be seen as a parable about the nature of moral choice – it is meaningful because there is one world, limiting us with its physical laws, shaping our destiny as we travel through time. Parallel realities make for compelling television entertainment, but they are not actually going to let us escape this one. This life is your one chance, and the stakes are real.
When I write about the Zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, it is frequently in the context of my favorite theory of social cycles, the generational or turnings theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe. In this theory there are recurring social eras, each characterized by a particular mood, depending on whether the individual or group is elevated, institutions are strengthening or weakening, and more. There’s a bit to it, and the best way to learn about it is just to read the books by the authors.
Their web site is here: The Fourth Turning.
Here is a summary that I wrote for an old blog: Background on Generational Theory.
You may have come across this theory recently, because it is now associated with the current U.S. administration, thanks to a particular advisor’s interest in it. Here author Neil Howe discusses this matter: Where did Steve Bannon get his worldview? From my book.
Here’s a brief interview as well: The book that shaped Steve Bannon’s worldview.
I post this in case it helps with understanding my language, since I tend to look at life through this particular, uh, Weltanschauung.