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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.
The Fourth Turning is Here

The Fourth Turning is Here

The sequel to The Fourth Turning, Neil Howe’s book The Fourth Turning is Here, was published last month. I was promoting it on social media, but for whatever reason didn’t think to note this milestone on my blog, though I have mentioned in several posts that Aileen and I worked with Neil on the end notes and bibliography. We also did some research for him early on, mostly on pandemics, though I’m not sure if any of of that got included in the book.

I’m very grateful for this opportunity, which is certainly the highlight of my career as an amateur advocate of generations theory. Neil hired me after I submitted a resume to his company lifecourse, when he advertised on Twitter for a research assitant. In my short, quickly cobbled together resume, I included references to this blog and other generations projects I worked on in the past. For a while I got no response, then out of the blue he contacted me and recruited me for the research. Towards the end of the process, he really needed help with the end notes, on which I put in many hours over the course of the early months of this year. They are thorough and, I hope, in excellent shape.

Neil sent us signed copies, but I probably won’t read mine for awhile, or review it, since I read the book in digital form several times over. Let me just say that it’s a brilliant work, and stands alone, so you don’t have to necessarily read any of the books that Neil wrote with William Strauss to get something from it. It fills in the theory from the original Fourth Turning book, and has a lot of great insights into what is going on today. It has predictions that are both ominous and hopeful.

If you decide to read it, I hope you enjoy it, and if you find any issues with the end notes, let me know!

Me shamelessly posting about my signed copy on social media

Off to Beach but First a Movie Review

Off to Beach but First a Movie Review

Here we are at the height of summer, when the days are long and the UV radiation intense. We’re about to vacation at the Delaware shore, where we will be seeing the whole extended family, while celebrating my Dad’s 80th birthday. I’m looking forward to the trip, and to being (mostly) offline for the duration. But first, let me just share some brief thoughts on the Barbie movie, which we saw on preview night.

Note: many Barbie spoilers to come, so if you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to turn back. Go see it – it’s well worth your time – and have a wonderful summer.





You’re still here! You’ve already seen the film, or you don’t care about spoilers.

You’ve probably heard mixed reviews of Barbie. Some say it’s brilliant, others call it a hot pink mess (why can’t it be both?). And you may have heard there is some outrage coming from the political right, who accuse it of being “woke” and “gay,” presumably representing all that is wrong with society today. This outrage sentiment seems to be coming mostly from Millennial men in the alt-right.

It is true that the movie makes fun of men (in the form of multiple Ken dolls), though I wouldn’t say that it’s hateful in any way. You have to consider that the setting of Barbieland is a fantasy world, an imaginary realm of dolls that girls are playing with. It’s Barbie and Ken in this fantasy land, not the other way around. And this place is absurd; all the Barbies are impossibly happy, living in dream houses that are facades, working at jobs that are completely unnecessary because where they live they don’t even follow the laws of physics. And yeah, Ken is secondary (or “beta,” as an alt-righter would put it), but that’s because this is a land of imaginary female empowerment.

Which turns out to be the point of the movie: when Barbie and Ken visit the real world, they discover that women are not, in fact, in charge. Life is messy and complicated, not a perfect dream where happiness is guaranteed, an entitlement that comes from simply existing. Whether you are a man or a woman, whatever your place in society, you will ultimately have to be grounded in yourself, and make the best of an imperfect world.

Barbie might be an inspiration, but no real woman could ever become her. Instead, women must contend with unrealistic expectations in a world of contradictions, as described in Gloria’s monologue, which is the crux of the film. Ultimately, Barbie herself rejects her plastic fantasy life, and decides she would rather become a woman in the flesh, with all that entails, including health issues, growing old, and dying. As powerful of an idea as Barbie is, she would rather be real.

I thought that the movie was, in fact, brilliant when it made its existential points. I mean, I know I’m reading a lot into it, but isn’t coming into imperfect physical form out of the realm of archetypes exactly what it means to be human?

Where the movie was a hot mess was in its plot execution. The Mattel executives with their antics seemed superfluous, and the whole patriarchy wars plot was silly. But I suppose that was the point – this film is self-consciously ridiculous, being a satire of our society as seen through the lens of imaginary play with a line of dolls representing fashionable, feminine, and highly successful career women. I suppose I might come to appreciate the plot more on a rewatch, and just the fact that I would like to rewatch the film says a lot about its quality.

Going back to Ken and his obsession with patriarchy, it’s interesting that at the top of the movie, Ken is the only character with a motivation, an important one from a plot perspective. Barbieland is not a dream world for him, as he is perpetually frustrated in his quest for Barbie’s attention. His obsession with Barbie and with winning her over reminded me of a point that Camille Paglia makes in Sexual Personae, which is that women have power over men because women keep men in a perpetual state of anxiety as they seek women’s approval. This goes all the way back to their mothers and the Oedipal complex.

That’s why men made a patriarchy! To carve out an exclusive masculine sphere of competition and achievement where men can work hard to impress women. According to the Futurama educational video I Dated a Robot, all of civilization is just an effort to impress the opposite sex. At least, that’s the benign interpretation of patriarchy. In the less friendly version of patriarchy, men dominate women with force in order to avoid the pain of rejection, and to control women’s lifegiving power. As Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood puts it, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

Luckily for Barbie, plastic dolls can’t be hurt or killed, and Ken’s patriarchal temper tantrum becomes a comic spectacle that transforms into a thrilling song and dance number. But this is in an imaginary world, of course. In reality, men must develop confidence and independence to become the partners that women need. Which Ken does, in his way, though Barbie leaves him behind in the end.

l can understand why the message of this movie would gall right wingers and reactionary “feminist backlash” young men. Thanks to the successes of feminism, as symbolized by the very existence of Barbie, Millennial women are poised to be the most financially independent generation of women in history. Meanwhile, Millennial men have been falling behind, and young adults are delaying marriage and family formation. This could arguably be interpreted as a sign that feminism has, in fact, run roughshod over the traditional family, which is the gist of the complaint against Barbie as “woke feminism destroying us all.”

So what could have just been a fun summer blockbuster and product promotion movie has turned into a flashpoint in the Culture Wars. I guess that’s what Warner Bros. gets for hiring an intelligent director. Personally, I don’t think the problems facing young people today should or could be fixed by “restoring patriarchy.” I think most people agree with that sentiment, which is why the movie is a smashing success at the box office, and the haters are on the fringes.

The primary reason the young generation isn’t forming families has nothing to do with the culture; it’s because of financial insecurity. Fixing that issue requires reforms to our economic system, with new laws and tax structures. Barbie doesn’t address any of this; instead, it promises that you can find fulfillment in life, provided you are grounded in youself. In a way, it is an apology for the current system, which focuses on the individual as a self-reliant unit, thriving in a consumer economy. This is an understandable worldview for Mattel to promote. After all, they have dolls to sell. But if Barbie is undermining society in any way, it’s not by being woke, but rather by supporting the neoliberal economic regime, which for decades has been eroding away the middle class.

Well there, I’ve probably put way too much thought into Barbie. But hey, if a movie makes you think, then it’s done its job. Aside from its message, the film also has wit, charm, and tremendous visual appeal. I expect it will be awarded for its impressive art design. There are tons of recreations of toys and outfits from the Barbieverse (is that a thing?), plus fun original songs by top pop artists, and sly references to other films.

That’s it from me, soon we are off to beach. Maybe we’ll see Barbie again while we’re there. Stay cool, folks, and remember – you are Kenough.

Stuck in the Big Tech Era

Stuck in the Big Tech Era

The rapid-fire success of Threads as a Twitter substitute is more evidence that in the realm of digital media, this Crisis Era belongs to a limited number of Big Tech players.

After “the Twitter troubles” began, numerous upstart sites attempted to dethrone the platform, taking over its particular social media niche. You may have heard of some of them: mastodon, tribel, bluesky, truth social. None were able to reach the size of the established platforms. Then along comes Threads from Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta company and bam! – instant giant new platform.

The logic is simple. It’s a lot of work for users to lift and shift their social media presence from one platform to another. For example, it took me years to build my tiny Twitter following. Having to start over from scratch on another platform that might fail is not an enticing proposition.

But since Threads is linked to Facebook and Instagram, it lets users start with whatever base of followers they have on those other sites. It comes with the established reputation of those other big platforms. You know Facebook isn’t going anywhere any time soon. So jumping to Threads makes a lot more sense, if it’s really necessary to escape a sinking Twitter.

In previous posts, I’ve reviewed a couple of authors who wrote about waves or cycles in technology, where new disruptive technologies shake up existing monopolies, only to eventually congeal into their own monopolies. It happened with radio and television, which for a good while were dominated in the United States by the “Big Three” networks. It’s happened again with the Internet.

After the cultural disruption that came with the 60s and 70s, the media world became much more fragmented, especially with the rise of the Internet. But once Internet usage became a commonplace, consumers started flocking to major brands, drawn to the convenience and reliability which they provide. Thus, only a small number of platforms for social media and video streaming have been able to thrive. Many of those platforms are consolidated under one corporate conglomerate, such as Google+YouTube or Facebook+Instagram. So, we now live in the era of “Big Tech.”

Criticism of Big Tech and concern for the dangers of allowing them their consolidated power abounds, and that criticism is warranted. Big established corporations are motivated to stifle competition. They have the ability to manipulate public perception to favor their interests (did you know that Western Union helped decide the 1876 Presidential election?). They can operate freely outside of the processes of democratic government, but with as much or more power as government has, unless democratic government can be brought to bear to restrain them. But that is so very, very hard to do. It’s so much easier to just check the terms of agreement box and join up with everyone else.

Face it, Big Tech is here to stay, for at least a generation. So maybe it’s best to ride the current monopoly wave, and like and share with the rest of your network, knowing that some disruptive new technology will come along – eventually – in the future.

Summer Update

Summer Update

And just like that, it was halfway through 2023.

I am over three months into my new remote job, and things are going swimmingly. It’s interesting because I get to work for a new kind of company (agricultural sector as opposed to finance), and also pick up on a new corporate culture. The IT department there isn’t very mature, in part because it has been expanding rapidly (how I got the job, essentially), so I get not only to prove my chops but also to help the folks who aren’t as seasoned as I am to understand the software development lifecycle. It’s very gratifying that my experience is being put to good use, and to know that despite my advanced years I am still relevant in the workforce.

Aileen, meanwhile, is working on the summer Arts Bubble musical, which this year will be City of Angels, a satirical noir comedy (not to be confused with a Nic Cage movie of the same name). As usual, she is committed 100% to all aspects of the production and putting in tons of work. Equally committed is our son, Tiernan, who is cast in his first lead role, as the hard boiled private eye from the movies. I hope you will be able to come see it (many friends and family already have confirmed they will, thank you all). The show dates are July 14-17; message me for details if you want to attend. But note that opening night is sold out. Woo hoo!

Our other son, Lionel, has just come back from a month in France, where he took a French immersion course with his University, and had a taste of life in another culture. This included going clubbing and he had some interesting stories there. He’s becoming such a worldly young man. Back home, Gavin continues his relentless work maintaining the region’s water infrastructure. He is a wizard with programming PLCs, which are these logical circuit board thingies that basically hold our entire civilization together. Aileen goes over to his house more often these days, since that’s where the best computer is, which is great for Potato, the cat who lives there, since it means she gets more attention now.

There is still a big hole in our heart and home that used to be filled by our sweet kitty, Sashimi, our magical girl. Aileen made this portrait of her after she died. It’s hard to believe it’s already been almost two months. Have we really moved on?

Is it ok to move on?

Is it ok to die?

We all will. Already this year two FB friends have died from cancer. Another, a very dear friend from back in the day, is sick and currently hospitalized. The clock is always ticking, ticking away to midnight.

Last night we watched a video on YouTube that informed us that the Doomsday Clock is the closest it’s ever been to midnight: 90 seconds away. The war in Ukraine is not helping here. The video we watched was actually about how scarily sophisticated A.I. is getting, and speculated on whether it might just decide to destroy the human race. It really terrified Aileen and gave her nightmares. I tried Stevesplaining to her that A.I. chatbots aren’t sentient beings with a will, just really impressive pattern-seeking algorithms, but I don’t think I reassured her.

In any event, just because A.I.s are “merely” computer programs doesn’t mean they won’t be put in charge of everything and then God knows what will happen. And if that doesn’t get us, we just might end up cooking to death anyway when Earth turns into a Venus-like planet. All we can do is carry on with our usual business while the summer broils us.

Oh dear, sorry to end on such a heavy note. Here’s a poem about cats by Jane Hirshfield to hopefully lighten your mood. Have a great summer, everyone, if you can. And come see our show!

You Really Should Read “The Self-Aware Universe”

You Really Should Read “The Self-Aware Universe”

In multiple posts on this blog I have referenced a theory of unitive consicousness as the best explanation for how it is we are alive in the Universe. If you’re interested in learning more about this theory, the place to start is the book below, which I summarize in this brief review.

“Consciousness is the agency that collapses the wave of a quantum object, which exists in potentia, making it an immanent particle in the world of manifestation.”

Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe (1993)

This simple and powerful idea is at the heart of the book The Self-Aware Universe, in which physicist Amit Goswami proposes a monistic idealist interpretation of quantum mechanics, and connects science with mysticism and religion. He explains the physics in simple terms for the layperson, with ample figures to help with understanding. His proposed theory does away with the paradoxes of quantum physics which arise when a purely materialistic theory is applied. It also reintroduces meaning and morality to existence, huge problems for materialistic science to grapple with and a major reason for the rift between science and religion, a rift which is so damaging to society.

Goswami attempts to heal this rift with his new approach to science which acknowledges the reality of consciousness. He explains his philosophical approach with reference to past philosophies, and cites experimental results which support his view. He goes into dense discussions of the experimental data and how best to interpret it, but also has light-hearted mock encounters with historical philosophers to provide background.

This book is a must read for anyone serious about understanding the nature of reality, and their place in the Universe.

An excellent synopsis of Goswami’s theory of the self-aware Universe can be found here:  The Self-Aware Universe Synopsis.

Opening the Heart for a Healthy Life

Opening the Heart for a Healthy Life

When Aileen and I first reunited, she gave me a book about heart disease, written by Dr. Dean Ornish. It is titled “Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease.” She had already given it once before – to her husband, Gavin, after he developed heart problems. Based in part on the advice from this book, he switched to a vegetarian diet, which helped. He also took pharmaceutical drugs, and after much medication management is now back to eating meat. It’s not like he necessarily followed Ornish’s program exactly, but reading it and heeding some of its advice was a help.

I read the book when Aileen gave it to me, and while I also have not followed the program exactly (or much), I certainly valued what I learned. Mostly the program for treating heart disease is just common sense advice: reduce stress, get exercise, absolutely do not smoke tobacco, and eat a proper diet. In fact, nearly half of this book is healthy recipes.

What I really valued about the book was its many anecdotes of individuals reversing heart disease, and the way their path to healing was tied to the bigger picture of their life. It wasn’t just about making physical changes, but also changes in attitude and in their emotional life, even in their spiritual life. It was about how beliefs and feelings affect physical well-being.

Ornish calls his program “opening the heart.” He specifically discusses opening to one’s feelings, to the needs of others, and to a higher purpose. What I got out of it is that heart disease, whatever its physical manifestations, is a result of closing oneself off. It is a disease of isolation.

The idea that the key to reversing heart disease is “opening” the heart ties to the concept of chakras, which are the centers where vital energy flows in alignment with physical organs. Charkras can be open or closed (“blocked” is also used), and when closed or blocked, disease will result in the corresponding organ(s).

The chakra aligned with the heart is the seat of emotions and love; that is why you have that feeling of your heart expanding when you experience intense love. This can even happen when you vicariously experience love while watching a mushy romantic movie. You are experiencing your heart chakra opening, blossoming even (think of how chakras are often depicted to look like flowers). Watching mushy movies is good for your heart!

But walling off your emotions, being unwilling or afraid to care about yourself or others, will close down your heart chakra. The vital energy aligned with your heart will be blocked, and the organ itself will begin to show signs of disease. Emotional isolation – loneliness, or anger and fear directed at others – leads to an ailing heart.

As the name of Ornish’s program implies, opening the heart (chakra) is the key to maintaining heart health. He does not specifically mention chakras, either because he discounts them or because he does not want his book to seem like it supports alternative medicine. But I think that the similarities between his medical program and the concepts of chakra medicine are no coincidence. A deeper truth about the nature of human life is being revealed.

How can it be that there is some kind of vital energy, and how could it possibly interact with our physical bodies? There is no measurable quantity of physical energy associated with our feelings of vitality, feelings like what I described above, when your heart expands with joy and love. But those feelings are real – our experience of them is direct evidence of this vital energy.

The best explanation of how our vitality – our aliveness – is connected to our physical forms lies in the the primacy of consciousness model of reality. I have brought this model up before, in a post on “mind over matter.” There, I described how my mental experience manifested in parallel with events in the physical world, mediated by unitive consciousness.

A similar phenomenon occurs in vital experience, which manifests in parallel with our physical bodies. The correspondence of the chakras of our vital bodies (there are seven chakras total) to specific parts of our physical bodies is mediated by unitive consciousness, which is the agency which keeps us alive. Our experience of our vital bodies is internal and private; it is our feeling of being alive, not accessible to others, who can only see our physical bodies. Other people will notice when consciousness ceases to correlate our physical bodies with a correpsonding vital body, of course – that is when our physical bodies become lifeless; that is, when we die.

That, anyway, is the theory of life based on the primacy of consciousness model of reality, a model on which I have expounded here in several posts. How this model can be applied to the life sciences, and to medicine and health, is covered in an excellent book by Amit Goswami called “The Quantum Doctor.” I’m currently rereading it, but I’m sure at least some of what it says lines up with what Dean Ornish wrote in his book on heart health. Per Goswami, our beliefs and feeling affect our physical bodily health because they are all connected through the agency of consciouness. Ornish might not have said so quite as explicitly, but he was on to the same thing.

The science is clear on the matter – health can be influenced from above, by intention and emotion, as much as from below, by chemicals (drugs) and surgeries. Keep all of that in mind to live a full, healthy life.

Still May the Dark Brandon Come

Still May the Dark Brandon Come

“Who is this gray patriarch?” asked the young men of their sires.

“Who is this venerable brother?” asked the old men among themselves.

-Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Gray Champion,” 1835

Who, I ask, is this Dark Brandon?

I know you know of him. He arose from the meme wars on social media like some dark avenger, deflecting attacks from the MAGA armies. They tried to stop him, to undermine him with mockery. “Let’s go Brandon,” they cried, meaning it as an insult, but he just turned it around on them.

Wearing his cool sunglasses, he is unflappable. When he removes them, he reveals laser eyes, like some superpowered X man. Somehow, even though we live in such contentious times, he is able to get shit done.

Dark Brandon is this fascinating Internet construct, an alt-persona of the sitting President, Joe Biden. Biden has been in the U.S. government for decades, as a Senator for over thirty years, and then as President Obama’s VP for eight more, before being elected President in 2020. Over the course of his long career, he has never really stood out, just sort of always been there, part of the background, but also an important player in much negotiation and passing of legislation. This fits the archetype of his generation, the Silent Generation (Biden was born in 1942, and is the oldest President in U.S. history).

But how did he become Dark Brandon, a much more impressive and ominous figure than career Joe Biden?

In the U.S. domestic partisan conflict, fought primarily through memes in media and by gaming the political system, each side needs solidarity and consensus to prevail. I’ve blogged about this before, describing the polarization between a conservative red zone and a liberal blue zone. To maintain solidarity, each side needs to rally around their leaders, to support them no matter the circumstances. That is why it is so hard today to take a leader down by pointing out their moral failings; no one cares any more in the raw struggle for power.

The red zone has done very well mobilizing around their main leader, The Former Guy. This red zone leader is so fearsome that blue zoners like me can’t even say his name, as though he were a corrupt wizard from a fantasy universe. The blue zone needs someone to mobilize around like that, but in 2020 they chose the safe path of electing the Vice President from their last administration, who is kind of a holdover from the old neoliberal regime and a representative of the status quo. He was a strange choice for an inspiring leader.

Granted, as an old school neoliberal politician, Biden is effective. He is willing to negotiate with anyone in good faith, and while he does participate in the partisan conflict (warning against MAGA Republicans, for example) he doesn’t seem to take it personally. He doesn’t seek the limelight, and why would he? He’s been in the room where it happens throughout his whole long career. In a way, he’s fulfilling the archetypal role of his generation, tempering the passions of the younger generations and working out compromises between them, even if the end result is to delay an inevitable reckoning by continuing the endless mortgaging of the future (I refer to the debt ceiling crisis, of course).

But, as I already mentioned, the blue zone needs an awe inspiring leader, to sustain their morale in the ongoing sociopolitical conflict. And so they’ve crafted one out of the materials at hand. They’ve taken Joe Biden and memed him into a larger than life superhero they call Dark Brandon, a truly impressive guy you can really get behind.

In their theory of generational cycles, William Strauss and Neil Howe invoked the idea of the “Gray Champion,” based on a character from a nineteenth-century story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This archetypal figure is a mysterious old man who appears when a society is in crisis, to rally the people and restore their sense of national pride and purpose.

According to generational theory, the Gray Champion is of the Prophet archetype. The examples from history that are usually used are Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today the Prophet archetype is embodied in the elder Baby Boomer generation. Thus, Trump actually fits the bill, and if you think about it, in his own ham-handed way he is indeed trying to restore national purpose, or at least “greatness.” Here’s Neil Howe considering the matter back in 2017:

So what about Joe Biden? He was born just a bit too early to be a Baby Boomer, being instead a member of the Silent Generation. Wrong archetype. That explains his cool demeanor and his skill at negotiation. He’s so good at negotiating, in fact, that he outsmarted the House GOP in the budget process, or at least that what the blue zoners claim. But negotiating is not what the Gray Champion does. The Gray Champion rallies the people behind a cause, and you fight for that cause, come hell or high water. There is no negotiating involved.

So could Biden possibly be America’s Gray Champion, like Lincoln or FDR? There are some causes that Biden has championed, notable the defense of Ukraine, to which purpose he can be credited with rallying NATO, after the alliance was called into question by the previous administration. And he stands up for the values of the blue zone faction in the Culture Wars, arguably rallying his people to uphold the establishment of a diverse, inclusive version of the American nation (in contrast to what MAGA represents).

If in his demeanor or his personality Biden doesn’t quite fit the archetype of the Gray Champion, could he possibly grow into the role? There is a danger here of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some theory predicts that a persona will arise, so we go looking for it. We see it where we want it to be.

But consider that the Dark Brandon meme arose on its own. Almost certainly, it did not originate with people who were familiar with generational theory and trying to revive a particular generational archetype. Rather, the meme came about naturally because of a deep-seated need by a political faction to have a leader who is strong and resolute. One they can have faith in and follow confidently into a dark and foreboding future.

In other words, today’s living generations are primed for the return of the archetypal Gray Champion. When you need one, you need one, even if you have to invent one in the form of Dark Brandon.

His hour is one of darkness, and adversity, and peril. But should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invader’s step pollute our soil, still may the Dark Brandon come…

-Nathaniel Hawthorne, perhaps

Hawthorne quotes are from his short story “The Gray Champion,” which can be found here:

Some Gave All

Some Gave All

This Memorial Day, I’d like to take a moment to honor the many, many Americans who have lost their lives to mass shootings over the years.

Does it make sense to think of the victims of domestic mass shootings as casualties of war? Well, it might, depending on how you define “war.” Let me make an argument.

In the aftermath of the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was a proctacted period of low-level violence perpetrated by enemies of the U.S. regime who were trying to thwart its efforts to maintain order. I mean “low-level” in contrast to the “shock and awe” that had just come before, when U.S. forces admitted themselves into the country. The long insurgency that followed the invasion was the “mission not accomplished” phase of the Iraq War, and became known as “post-conflict stabilization” in the prominent strategic theories of the time, which imagined the U.S. toppling evil dictatorships and spreading democracy around the globe. Those were the heady “sole superpower” days when neoconservatives dominated U.S. foreign policy.

This gist of these theories was that governments which controlled powerful militaries needed to become adept at fighting much more poorly equipped enemies who used “asymmetric warfare,” which used to simply be called guerilla warfare. Great Power war was out, because of U.S. hegemony and/or strategic nuclear weapons, but now there were these new “small wars” where the battlefield wasn’t strictly defined and encompassed civilian spaces. “Superempowered individuals” exploited open networks to wreak havoc on civilians and undermine the authority of governments, as happened in the U.S. in the September 11 terrorist attacks, and then happened over and over again in Baghdad, outside of the “green zone” where the occupying forces maintained their headquarters.

In those days there was this sense that such violence and instability were only a problem “over there,” which we lucky First World Americans witnessed from a distance, except in rare moments such as 9/11. Somehow, terrorist attacks on our nation were the result of malcontents who hated our freedom, which is why we were obligated to go deal with them on their territory. This poem by Alicia Ostriker expresses the sentiment brilliantly.

The Window, at the Moment of Flame

And all this while I have been playing with toys
A toy power station a toy automobile a house of blocks

And all this while far off in other lands
Thousands and thousands, millions and millions—

You know—you see the pictures
Women carrying their bony infants

Men sobbing over graves
Buildings sculpted by explosion

Earth wasted bare and rotten—
And all this while I have been shopping, I have

Been let us say free
And do they hate me for it

Do they hate me

-Alicia Ostriker

We gave up on all that, and now it seems that our own government is suffering from stability issues right here at home. The partisan divide is so deep that many Americans fear there could be another civil war. We almost didn’t have a successful transition of power in the last Presdiential election.

After January 6, I wrote a blog post suggesting that the United States now faced the thorny problems of small wars and post-conflict stabilization on the domestic front. National guardsmen holding down the Capitol building just looked so much like there was a green zone in Washington, D.C. itself.

What does this have to do with mass shootings? Mass shooters have many motivations, sometimes completely inscrutable, sometimes plainly laid out in manifestos or evident from their background and social media posts. Undeniably, one motivation is hatred and anger stirred up by interactions in online networks and by the spreading of divisive messages and misinformation.

Mass shooters, even teenaged ones, also have ready access to powerful firearms, despite majority support for stricter gun control. This is because we do not have a functional democracy, in which the majority viewpoint can prevail in law.

This takes me to another strategic theory, the concept of a “hybrid war,” which combines conventional military means with cyberwarfare and with social network attacks spreading “fake news,” inciting “stochastic terrorism,” and interfering with democratic elections. This is a kind of warfare favored by Russia; in fact, Putin’s infamous Wagner Group of mercenaries is headed by the same guy who ran the Internet Research Agency that interfered with the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. It’s not really a stretch to say that the U.S. has been in a hybrid war with Russia (with Ukraine as a proxy) since the late 2010s.

In this “informational market state” in which we live (pardon me for dredging up more theories), security threats come primarily from individuals exploiting open networks. Clearly, young men who are radicalized on the Internet and can easily acquire an AR-15 at the corner gun shop are just such individuals. So long as government remains paralyzed and individual rights are triumphant, the threat of mass shootings will remain.

To whatever extent these factors are tied up in a global market state conflict pitting alternate ideological camps against one another, you could say we are in a state of war. Call it World War III, the hybrid version. Call it Cold Civil War II. It hardly matters. Perhaps it makes more sense simply to consider that, through our choices, we have made our society into an active war zone. And so the victims of mass shootings are casualties of war.

So let us pause on this Memorial Day and reflect on the lives of the many Americans who have been gunned down going about their daily business, as our government flounders, unable to gain any traction on control over access to deadly weapons, even as firearms have now become the leading cause of death for children. Let us remember their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of the many more schoolchildren, shoppers, concertgoers, church and synagogue attendees, and other ordinary men, women and children, going about their ordinary business, who will give their lives in the years to come. They are paying the price of freedom.

I conclude this post with a thougthful poem by the late Muriel Rukeyser.

Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

-Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)
R.I.P Sweet Princess Sashimi, the Light of Our Lives

R.I.P Sweet Princess Sashimi, the Light of Our Lives

Our sweet sunshine kitty, Princess Sashimi McCulloch, reached her last midnight. It was sad to see her soul leave her body, where she struggled so hard to stay these past weeks. I’m glad her suffering is over, but I will miss her so very much. She was the most perfect of all cats, and the beating heart of our household.

She was such an integral part of our daily lives, especially since the pandemic began and I moved in with her family, that it will be hard to get along without her. It won’t be the same after this.

She used to fuss in the evenings, to get everyone together for TV time. It was her favorite time, I believe – when the whole family was in the living room, including Gavin who lives next door, and she would sleep contentedly on the reclining couch at Aileen’s feet while we sat mesmerized by the flashing box. She did not approve of us scattering about with our own agendas, especially if it meant she was alone in the house. The end of lockdown may have been a blow for her.

Sashimi came into Aileen’s life as a Mother’s Day gift from the Universe. Aileen was wanting a cat in her life, since her previous cat had recently died. On Mother’s Day 2010, while she was rehearsing at her theater, there was a thump at the door. Someone left a box there, which contained two kittens. One of them was badly hurt, with a broken hip and, as it turned out, a dead tail.

The vet recommended putting her down, but Aileen refused. With her son Tiernan’s help she nursed the kitten back to health. Her tail fell off, and for her whole life Sashimi had no tail, and a bit of a crooked back which gave her an awkward gait. She had a little bald patch on her lower back too. She was so beautiful and so precious.

She outlived her brother, who died around 2015 from a perforated stomach. Once I moved to Pennsylvania in 2018, and then into Aileen’s house in 2020, Sashimi became much more a part of my everyday life. She would keep Tiernan company while he did his schoolwork, and once Aileen started leaving for work again, Sashimi would rush to greet her at the door every day when she came home.

She had a way of requesting affection where she would go to the floor mat in front of the door and scratch it. If she did that, it meant she wanted to be petted. It was a habit Aileen had trained into her using a scratching post when she was a kitten. She also had this super-adorable thing she did where she would fall to her side to be stroked and petted. We called it “flumphing” when she did it. She would even let you rub her tummy.

At the end of the day she needed everyone upstairs before she would come up too. When I was the only one still up, puttering with last minute chores, she would come downstairs and pace about until I finally went up to the bedroom where I belonged. She would sit at the top of the stairs like a sphinx, guarding us. In the morning, she would be back downstairs to supervise the making of the coffee and request her cream. It was like she ran the household.

She was pure love and I know it was love that kept her with us for as long as she could manage after her cancer diagnosis. Aileen asked her to please stay at least until Mother’s Day, her foundling day. It was a struggle and it was so sad to watch her grow weak as she lost her ability to eat. When she managed a flumph on occasion it was a thrill for the family, a victory for life. She was so brave and so dignified to the end.

On her last day, the Monday after Mother’s Day, she could barely move, but she held out until Aileen came home from tech, and then let Aileen hold her on the couch, her frail body wrapped in a blanket. Aileen set her down in her usual spot and we all dozed with the TV on, keeping vigil. Sashimi had held out until she was in her favorite place, one last time. Shortly after midnight, she let go.

Goodbye, sweet Princess, and until we meet again, I will miss you so very, very much, and the huge service you did to our family, providing its emotional core.

Very Excited About Our Tulips This Year

Very Excited About Our Tulips This Year

In front of our house there is a little round planter area which is full of tulip bulbs. They’ve done really well this year, as you can see from the picture to the right. They’ve created this lovely riot of pink blooms, with some red thrown in for highlight, which you can admire every time you step out front.

They reminded me of this book I read a while back, called Tulipomania, about the infamous tulip bulb market bubble in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The book starts with a history of the tulip, which originated in the steppes of Central Asia, coming to Europe via the Ottoman Empire. It’s a very hardy plant, able to tolerate extreme cold and dry weather. We certainly don’t put any effort into caring for ours; it’s like they just obligingly come up every spring to give us a show.

As for the tulip mania of the 1630s, well, it’s possibly the best known example of a market bubble in economic history, though there have certainly been others. As the book explains, a market bubble occurs when a good is artificially priced much higher than its actual worth. Supposedly, according to economic theorists, markets will naturally adjust prices based on supply and demand. These theorists are assuming that people behave rationally, and pay for stuff based on its worth to them, relative to other options. However, it might not be correct to assume that people are always rational, as a survey of history will reveal.

A rare tulip of the sort that set off tulip mania.

The story of tulip mania is an interesting one. It seems that before the bubble, and after it as well, there was a market for rare bulbs that produce exquisitely beautiful, multicolored tulips. The variegated patterns on these flowers are the result of a virus, which can be preserved in a bulb when it is propagated by division. So it was possible, though very difficult, to breed these rare tulips, and tulip connoisseurs were very interested in acquiring these bulbs; hence their high prices. They were like luxury tulips.

Somehow, when the general public got wind of how much these bulbs were selling for, they decided they wanted in on the racket. Of course, they couldn’t all buy these rare bulbs, since by definition there aren’t many of a rare thing, so they just bid up the prices of the common tulip bulbs. You know, the boring red and yellow and purple ones that you can see filling fields in the Netherlands if you do a quick image search. These shouldn’t be worth a whole lot of money; they’re a basic commodity, like potatoes. But somehow the Dutch masses convinced themselves they were all tulip bulb brokers and these common items soared in price. It was a classic case of “irrational exuberance.”

The bubble didn’t last too long, because the fundamental value of the ordinary tulip varieties simply did not justify the high prices. That’s what makes an asset price bubble a bubble; sooner or later the exuberance wears off, and the holders of the asset who bought it for its inflated price can’t offload it for a profit. Demand for the asset drops sharply, and pop! goes the bubble. The asset owners are stuck “holding the bag,” as they say. They get wiped out.

What stands out about tulip mania is how plainly it is an example of a price bubble, since it involves a basic commodity, and the price inflation was so disproportionate to what one would think was a rational expectation. I mean, surely the farmers who were selling their bulbs at these inflated prices knew they were ripping off the speculators, right? Were they being immoral? Arguably, they were being rational – any given farmer would know that if they didn’t sell their bulbs to someone willing to pay so much, some other farmer would. Any given speculator knew that if they didn’t buy and flip some bulbs, some other speculator would, and reap the profits. It was a case of herd psychology, everyone just playing along with the madness.

A similar herd psychology is at work in the kinds of bubbles that most commonly affect our lives, which are in the stock market, such as the dot-com bubble, or in real estate, such as the 2000s housing bubble. When credit is easy and exuberance is high, everyone just kind of goes along with the trend of rising valuations and carefree spending. No one wants to spoil the party. If you’ve seen the movie The Big Short, you know that the guys who saw that the housing bubble was going to burst were going against conventional thought. When the bubble did burst, it was hard to pin the blame on anyone. I mean, you could single out obvious actors, like the credit rating agencies in the case of the 2000s housing bubble, but can you prove they were guilty of fraud, and not just of herd mentality? No, you can’t.

I think this kind of mania is possible because, ultimately, money and the value of stuff is a fiction in our collective heads. If we all agree that a digital coin is worth ten thousand bucks, that’s what it’s worth. If later on we all agree that it’s worth a hundred bucks, it becomes worth that much, and too bad for you if that’s all you’re invested in. We could even all agree that the tulip bulbs in our front yard are worth ten thousand bucks apiece! Just venmo me and they’re yours.