Holiday Letter 2020

We try to write a holiday letter every year, because it’s fun. Enjoy.

Dearest quarantiners, shelter-in-placers, paper towel hoarders, electoral vote counters, esteemed colleagues, friends, and family,

Well, here we are. We made it. We briefly considered purchasing yellow gold star stickers that say “You Did It!”, but in an effort to spare the trees, we are sending those out metaphysically. It looks great on your laptop.

What is there to say about this year that others won’t? There are observations to be made, from the political to the personal.

We have landed on this: the unavoidable fact that life is short and nothing – no good thing but no bad thing either – lasts forever. But let’s focus on the former, because when those good moments happen, we must make the most of them. The good moments include but are not limited to: Family get-togethers, dinners at restaurants, parties, concerts, elbowing other people out of the way at concerts, stepping out of the office to grab lunch at a restaurant with a coworker, a really good in-person meeting, work conferences at generic hotels, pool parties, children’s birthday parties, adult birthday parties, weddings, and the zenlike solitude of the airport departure gates when you’re surrounded by a lot of people but are alone with your thoughts. You know it’s been rough when you can rhapsodize about the TSA, too.

This year, the list of good moments we enjoy grew to include: scoring paper towels at the grocery store, enjoying a really awesome home-made meal because what else are we supposed to do, outdoor weather that enables a desperately needed but appropriately socially distanced “hangout session”, sending the perfect meme to the right people to address the mood of the hour, a solid video chat with friends or family, and election results finally, blissfully, appearing to go the right way. It is within our power to recognize these moments as they happen, and enjoy them. 

It has been a difficult year (not to speak of the last four), and it could become harder before it gets better. Surviving all of this b*llshit requires (non gender specific) brotherhood and community. We just need each other to have a socially distant drink, to video chat, to gripe and commiserate and panic and stress over vote counts in counties we’ve never visited and share the latest epidemiological news of the day. Normal stuff!

Such is the spirit of this year’s holiday letter. Hang in there. Enjoy the good times. We are safe and lucky and we hope you are too. We hope you have the opportunity to rest at the end of this year with those who are most important to you, and enjoy the holidays.

May you never have to have a Q-tip shoved up your nose in 2021.

Comanches, Quants, Millennials

I was a tragic failure in the “blogging about reading” department this year – although the reading did actually happen.

To close out 2020, here are the other things I read, with some brief commentary. Separately, I am putting together a list of top reads, period.

Empire of the Summer Moon – I love this book. I couldn’t shut up about it for about a month. It’s fascinating, tragic, horrific, and fun (people say the same thing about our great nation! har har). We were headed for a safe, socially distanced getaway in beautiful Amarillo, Texas to go hike Palo Duro Canyon, so I thought I’d pick up some relevant reading to bring the trip to life. Here I thought I was going to have a relaxing vacation read, and about 10 pages in I was having a meltdown over scalpings. Yikes. This book has it all: the anthropological relevance of the horse in North America, the subsequent rise of the Comanche Nation, the brutality of the Texas frontier, the birth of the Texas Rangers, frustrating, aggravating detail of the bullshit, unenforceable or simply unenforced treaties laid out by the United States government and offered to indigenous nations, and the final, total genocide of a people. There is graphic detail of the torturous horrors the Comanches and colonists visited upon one another – my heart still broke when I read about The End – the final face-off in Palo Duro Canyon. Somehow, without a single drop of human blood being spilled, the symbolism of a culture razed to the ground was stark. If you live in Texas, you need to read this book.

The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution This was… fine. If you’re in the industry, it’s a good read and contextualizes the direction of financial markets in modernity. At the same time, as somebody in the industry, it was fairly repetitive. I lost count of the number of times Simons plucked a quirky, brilliant mathematician or scientist from academia to take the models to the next level. They’re super smart and they don’t do it for the money, they do it for the game. I got it. If I’m missing some nuance here, please let me know.

Uncanny Valley – I read this in 48 hours. An exercise in portraiture of Silicon Valley, it’s outstanding, fairly amusing, and frequently cringe-inducing. It’s squarely in the Millennial Memoir genre, a la Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. I enjoyed the narrator’s POV, and in particular her self-deprecating self consciousness about being a non-technical person in a technical person’s utopia, her very pro-analog, Brooklyn-esque rejection of Silicon Valley’s cult of optimization, and her open-mindedness as she looked to unpack this world.

I spend a fair amount of time obsessing over several topics she touches open but there are two topics which I find myself talking about a lot: 1) : a culture in which your identity is tied up in your job 2) the presumption that societal issues with which people have grappled for decades, if not centuries, can simply be disrupted or coded away. The latter topic is very much a “pick up a history book please” kind of topic, while the former is, in my mind, tied to the journey all human beings must travel. Who are you, and how do you define yourself? Organized religion has served to fill the void for a very long time, but rising levels of non-religiosity and atheism (myself included) mean that people look to ground their place in the world by other means. Sometimes, people choose sports teams. Their alma mater. In my cohort, I see people principally defining themselves by their jobs. This can be wonderful – it can also really, really hurt. If it all goes away tomorrow, are you still the same person? How profoundly does that affect your sense of self?

My theory is that you need to diversify your sources of identity. You don’t want to give any one thing too much power over who you are. If you have a family, spouse, or children – they matter a great deal to who you are, but you are not solely defined by them. Similarly, a job, vocation, profession are defining, and from a raw numbers perspective, a significant tenant in your mind. But nothing is permanent. Everything is temporary. If various sources of identity fade away or disappear – what’s left, and who are you?

Palo Duro Canyon

TJX – the Magician, the Vulture

Normally I write about books I’m reading (to keep myself accountable for my NYE resolution of reading more), but two weeks ago I had a minor procedure and in a drug induced haze decided to write about one of my favorite companies…TJX.

What’s in your PA (personal account)?…finance nerds ask each other. Edgy people answer with crypto. Millennials answer with FAANG. Financial engineers answer with a position on VIX. Geniuses answer with “Vanguard? Is that a stock? That’s what I have.”

Me? Allow me to explain to you, in just two parts, why TJX’s business strategy makes it my favorite stock in my personal portfolio (I have Vanguard indices in there as well, don’t you worry). It is also one of my favorite places in real life, which will surprise nobody. This is what happens in your 30s!

The Magic Trick: TJX has managed to sell luxury goods “off price” without compromising brand value by perpetuating scarcity – a key attribute of luxury.

People are generally aware of TJX’s strategy and status as an “off price retailer”. Their buying strategy relies on sourcing from manufacturers through closeout sales, manufacturing errors, order cancellations, and vendors with extra product. They get limited runs of product and send them to the most appropriate stores. This scarcity of product leads to the much celebrated “treasure hunt” experience that is a cornerstone of the TJX strategy.

In all the conversations I’ve had with investors (mostly male), there is a misconception that TJX is a bargain bin type of experience. Musty… used, even. I’ve realized that they’ve likely never stepped foot inside one of TJX’s properties. They’re not bargain bins – the locations are well appointed, crisp, modular, and the merchandise is generally of reliable quality, frequently premium, and sometimes, if you’re looking carefully, luxury.

I’ll differentiate here between quality and luxury. Quality isn’t necessarily luxury – Costco’s Kirkland brand comes to mind.

Luxury, on the other hand, is not luxury if it is readily available at an accessible price point. Two criteria of a luxury product is that it is 1) available in purposefully restricted and controlled distribution and 2) that it is offered at a price that far exceeds what its mere functional value would demand (this is not the comprehensive criteria, just two attributes).

I’ve seen Chopard, Balmain, Laboutin, Pucci, Cavalli at TJX. Why are luxury brands comfortable with selling to TJX?

TJX protects the “luxury” nature of these brands by perpetuating their scarcity. Even though there’s a price cut, somehow the “treasure hunt” aspect of TJX’s business model makes up for it. There’s only so much product available, and by virtue of TJX’s business model, everybody knows it. 

TJX’s online presence is interesting. They have goods available. However, you can’t shop by brand – that is, filter for certain brands – and this is intentional, in order to protect brand power. Luxury brands don’t want their merchandise listed 20-60% off and easily discoverable online. If you find Chopard, it’ll be happenstance, not by design.

As an investment, TJX is a clever way of getting exposure to a diversified basket of quality and luxury retail.

TJX the Vulture: Feasting on the long, slow death of the department store.

As mentioned earlier, their buying strategy relies on sourcing from manufacturers through closeout sales, manufacturing errors, order cancellations, and vendors with extra product. 

But what their strategy really relies on is the long, slow death of the department store. 

That is, the department store model. TJX’s buying strategy is a derivative of 1) the decline of traditional distribution networks for retail and 2) the fashion bubble. These two components are related.

Most people are aware of the decline of the department store. Even pre-pandemic, malls of a certain class have been in decline. Anchor tenants were fading away. Partly ecommerce, partly due to broader secular trends about leisure time. 

But what I personally was less aware of, or perhaps just couldn’t articulate, was the fashion bubble. 

This outstanding article dives into that fashion bubble, but the long and short of it is this – the seasonal “collection” model and distribution doesn’t make any sense and hasn’t for a long time. 

Manufacturers and designers have been on an accelerating production line of collections and shows, and department stores have been desperate to push that product to try and revive their top lines – and then they’re desperate to get rid of product when it doesn’t fly off the shelves, so they start marking it down in order to make room for the next round of product which will, of course, outperform the previous run of product… yikes. 

In particular, Return to Vendor policies are nuts. An excerpt from the article:

R.T.V. stands for “return to vendor,” which is what it sounds like: If a collection — the one that the store has asked you to pad out with novelty and exclusives — doesn’t sell, the retailer can return it and ask for its money back. According to Nutter, as stores struggled, the terms of this deal got worse. In some cases, stores asked designers to sell on consignment or to share costs if a certain percentage of the collection didn’t sell at full price. So let’s say a store decided to mark the collection down early: You now owed it for those losses...

…In order to protect exclusivity, stores had to commit to even larger buys, ordering more clothes than they could possibly sell. Then, when they couldn’t move the stuff, they’d return it. Thanks to the rise of fast fashion and the luxury market’s simultaneous attempt to keep up with its impossible pace, it all started to feel disposable. So detrimental was the cycle of overproduction and discounting to luxury goods that in 2018, Burberry, the British label, revealed that it had been burning — not metaphorically but literally: burning — $37 million of worth of merchandise per year to maintain “brand value.”

The timing of it, the way the inventory is managed – none of it makes sense anymore, particularly in the dawn of a D2C world. With the pandemic, the bubble appears to have popped. There are mountains of inventory sitting in warehouses around the world that are going to have to get offloaded, pushed a year, or literally destroyed. This makes it a feast for TJX. There’s likely plenty of high quality stuff that was intended for department stores and will now wait to be rescued. 

In the long term, as traditional retailers and department stores go out of business, TJX will have somewhat less department store bloat to consume. But as Sears has shown us, it’s a very, very long tail to feed on (I previously had a white-haired coworker who said that Sears had been going out of business since he began his career).

But there’s another flavor of bloat for TJX to potentially feed on: the rise of ecommerce is creating a glut of returned product.

Ecommerce brands are not handling returns well. It’s not really a place with a home in terms of a department: customer service handles it at the front end, then it’s an operations problem, but those responsible for the top line generally don’t care and integrate returns data into their work – they’re generally tracking net, not gross sales post returns.

So – there’s more retail bloat out there for TJX to consume, but I can’t figure out with certainty whether or not TJX purchases returned product. My searches have not yielded a lot of answers. My hunch is that they do, but don’t talk about it publicly…

Returned product gets triaged. The good stuff gets returned to shelves and sold at original pricing (or, possibly, sold to TJX?) . The other stuff goes to an ecosystem of second-hand buyers. And some stuff goes, unfortunately, as mentioned by the article above, literally gets burned to ashes.

In conclusion, and just for fun, here’s performance of TJX vs. the SPY vs. a luxury ETF vs. a retail ETF:

TJX is in white.

SPY is in green.

Luxury ETF is red.

Retail ETF is purple.

Interestingly, TJX has performed closer to the luxury ETF than to broader retail. If you’d like to dig in to constituents of these ETFs, here are the top 10 for each:

And yes, the SPY outperforms TJX. Like I said …geniuses own Vanguard indices.

Entangled Life

If you’ve interacted with me at all in the last month or so, I’ve likely found a way to mention the fact that I’m reading a book about fungi, it’s awesome, and everyone should read it too.

There are so many incredible passages in Entangled Life: How fungi make our worlds, change our minds, and shape our futures. It was really a transformative read in a time when it’s hard to feel a sense of wonder.

Fungus and Selfhood

Just using language to discuss fungi is challenging. It’s a singular entity but made of a multitude. It’s an it and a they at the same time. When we say “it”, we generally refer to the mycelium, yet mycelium is an entity made of a multitude of threads called hyphae, and we discuss “their” behaviors.

It’s a true network based life form. The multitudes wander out and about, and when hyphal tips wander in the same place, they’ll recognize each other. Hyphae fuse together when they recognize one another from the same mycelial network. If they are not of the same multitude, then any number of other interactions can happen – exchange, competition.

The swarm of hyphae are comparable to ants, bees, termites. Individually, these animals can’t figure out very much, but as a network they survive and thrive. (Similarly, no single neuronal connection in our brain is intelligent.)

“Fungi, like plants, are decentralized organisms. There are no operational centers, no capital cities, no seats of government. Control is dispersed: Mycelial coordination takes place both everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. A fragment of mycelium can regenerate an entire network, meaning that a single mycelial individual—if you’re brave enough to use that word—is potentially immortal.

What if we were to lean a little more in the direction of thinking of ourselves as a singular multitude? How would we treat other people, if we felt that each of us was a carrier of all of humanity’s collective accomplishments, ambitions, discoveries, and desires? Maybe we wouldn’t treat each other like we’re expendable. I’m passionate about my own individuality, and the selfhood of individuals, but recently it feels like we have veered dramatically in the direction of brutal individualism at the expense of others. You catch my drift.

Softening Vexed Hierarchies

The English language is reductive in discussing fungi, an “it” and a “they” at the same time. There are implications to this:

“…these organisms don’t look like us or outwardly behave like us – or have brains – they have traditionally been allocated a position somewhere at the bottom of the scale. Too often, they are thought of as the inert backdrop to animal life. Yet many are capable of sophisticated behaviors that prompt us to think in new ways about what it means for organisms to “solve problems,” “communicate,” “make decisions,” “learn,” and “remember.” As we do so, some of the vexed hierarchies that underpin modern thought start to soften. As they soften, our ruinous attitudes toward the more-than-human world may start to change.”

Are network-based life-forms like fungi or slime molds capable of a form of cognition? Can we think of their behavior as intelligent? If other organisms’ intelligence didn’t look like ours, then how might it appear? Would we even notice it?

The English language centers human beings. We put ourselves at the apex of intelligence, of survival, of evolution, and of importance. Our way must clearly be the best way. But if we can soften these “vexed hierarchies” and consider the ways in which other beings survive and thrive, perhaps there are things we could learn. Perhaps we would consider the selfhood of other beings as vital as our own, and subjugate the planet a little less aggressively than we currently do.

How we define intelligence and cognition is a question of taste. For many, the brain-centric view is too limited. The idea that a neat line can be drawn that separates nonhumans from humans with “real minds” and “real comprehension” has been curtly dismissed by the philosopher Daniel Dennett as an “archaic myth.” Brains didn’t evolve their tricks from scratch, and many of their characteristics reflect more ancient processes that existed long before recognizable brains arose.”

Man, Machine, Fungi

Finally, particularly since I work in the field and sometimes the techno-centrism and sometimes techno-supremacy as the way to save the world is a bit too much, this excellent passage to really ground things:

“The wood wide web is a no less anthropomorphic term. Not only are humans the only organisms to build machines but the Internet and World Wide Web are some of the most overtly politicized technologies that exist today. Using machine metaphors to understand other organisms can be as problematic as borrowing concepts from human social lives. In reality, organisms grow; machines are built. Organisms continually remake themselves; machines are maintained by humans. Organisms self-organize; machines are organized by humans.

Machines are made by man, thus machines reflect our convictions about organization, collaboration, communication, learning, and decision-making. If we can soften our convictions about how these things happen, perhaps we can discover new models. I like to imagine what an internet with the behaviors of fungi underpinning it might look like.

Other great stuff in this book: a chapter about truffles for foodies, a chapter about medicinal use of fungi, discussions about why it’s difficult to get funding for fungal research, and more. There’s so much here.

Also Reading:

The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution – This is fun, but a little repetitive. How many next level geniuses are there!? Anyways, I’m halfway through.

The Dark Forest – Damn good science fiction! The translation leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s worth the thrill. Part 2 of a trilogy. You have to read the first one or else this will be a very odd read.

And this is not a book, but it has stayed with me for a few months now.

Happy reading.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds ...

Gamification & Americana

I am way behind my cadence here, but there are reasons! Namely, trying to keep up with life as we keep barrelling forward at hundreds of miles per hour.

In fact, I’m only somewhat behind my cadence, because I wrote up a brief piece for my employer based on a book I read over a month ago. (Gamification, by Yu-Kai Chou).

Please enjoy my thought piece on building communities in software. #content 😏

This was an enjoyable book to read; I have a hard time imagining anybody who wouldn’t get something out of it. If you work in software and particularly in product, there will be familiar concepts about human-centered design. (There are a lot of models for this kind of thing – Chou’s is one of many).

If you don’t work in software, you should read this book anyways. It will help you understand how programs, apps, and games are designed to engage you (and in worst case scenarios, addict you). There are plenty of great anecdotes about all kinds of games that I have never heard of, and Chou appears to be a very likeable gaming nerd (and a fellow UCLA Bruin!).

One thing that struck me was how difficult it is to create something that is fundamentally fun.

“The harsh reality of game designers is that, no one ever has to play a game. They have to go to work, do their taxes, and pay medical bills, but they don’t have to play a game. The moment a game is no longer fun, users leave the game and play another game or find other things to do…

Many corporations and startups excitedly tell me, “Our product is great! Users can do this; users can do that; and they can even do these things!” And my response to them has been, “Yes, you are telling me all the things your users can do. But you have not explained to me why the user would do it.””

This applies to both games and software tools for the workplace. Human beings are the same everywhere – at home and at work. If it’s not fun, the likelihood of using that tool is lower. Period. It doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles and computing horsepower it has under the hood.

Here’s a paragraph that screams iOS:

“Beyond improving one’s ranks and obtaining badges, a very important type of emotional accomplishment is to “feel smart.” We all like to feel capable and competent, and feelings of being incompetent or powerless can create some of the most scarring moments of our lives. A product that makes users feel stupid, no matter how great the technology, is often a failing product. From my experience, if a user spends four seconds on an interface and can’t figure out what to do, they feel stupid and will start to disengage emotionally.”

Check out my full post here.

And on a completely different note, I also read Last Night at the Lobster, a little nugget of Americana. It was a sweet reminder that there are great managers and leaders everywhere, in the humblest places, making life better for those around them. No MBA, no fancy credentials, just compassionate, patient people making good decisions.

(I’ve also realized I really like books about restaurants, mostly for the portraiture. The last one I read was Sweetbitter – it was a bit cold and impersonal, and I didn’t quite understand what it was trying to say – but the characters were intriguing and it’s a nice way to eavesdrop into a little community for a while. I’ll take recommendations if you have them!)

Hang in there, everybody. Keep those masks on. And #blacklivesmatter…

Your Pandemic Garden is CyberSecurity

You're Not Scared Enough About Sandworm

It was June 2017 when notPetya brought global trade and shipping to an absolute standstill. From the relative safety of my world in Austin, Texas, I read everything I could about this cyberattack. My morbid fascination has not abated, because I have been waiting for Sandworm to come out for months in order to read more.

The hacks are incredible, mortifying, horrifying. It dives in just enough to the technical side to give you some terms to Google, but stayed accessible enough that I (a rube) could enjoy it. I don’t think everybody I know would enjoy it, but if you have a passing curiosity with cybersecurity and/or the modern Russian state, you will. Read this excerpt of the book from Wired and I think you’ll get a good sense of it.

Most of the book is a portrait of the hacks. The “so what” really comes together at the end. The Russians (the state proper) are behind the most destructive, chaotic cyber attacks in recent memory.

These hacks don’t move the ball forward, from a military perspective. They capture nothing, advance nothing, besiege nothing. They are asymmetric attacks from a country with a tiny economy and few resources. They seek to disrupt, to demoralize, to scare the shit out of us.

They used to be someone. Now they’re not. Knocking out a power grid or taking down the Olympics is a reminder, a shout, that they still exist and they can do some damage if they feel like it.

But we can bring power back online. We can use pen and paper. There are ways of being resilient. The book closes with a chapter about the head of In-q-tel (a cybersecurity legend), who lives somewhat off the grid.

I wasn’t expecting this book to have any possible connection to what’s happening in the world right now – but strangely, it does. We are learning a lot about ourselves right now. When major systems are disrupted, like our supply chains, how resilient are we?

What skills do you and I have to survive, if push comes to shove? What if the power goes out for a long time? What if certain products become unavailable? What… if?

I don’t think anybody anticipated testing these questions in the context of a pandemic. It’s somewhat of a brutal sandbox to find out whether or not our infrastructure is cyber-attack resilient.

The US has refused to draw any lines in the sand, because we want to reserve the right to use the kinds of cyber attacks described in the book on our enemies (and we already have, when a few years ago we destroyed thousands of Iranian centrifuges at their nuclear project, a project started by Bush and enhanced by Obama). If we won’t refuse to condemn cyberattacks that disrupt civilian infrastructure, there’s nothing holding back the global arms race.

Incidentally.

So way to get ahead on that vegetable garden.

Trust, the Media, & Some Rays of Hope

Week 2. It’s only Week 2 (for my family and my community in Austin.) I’ve dropped the pretense of having this blog be about reading, although I am reading something fascinating that I’ll get around to writing about eventually.

Below are some graphics from a newsletter sent by a market research firm called Gradient Metrics. It’s an excellent newsletter so far and I highly recommend subscribing.

The graphics leave no room for misinterpretation. Based on someone’s political stripes, they are perceiving the news with dramatic difference. Never has this been more relevant than in the face of a global pandemic. The bottom line is this – Republicans are more likely to believe that the media is exaggerating the severity of COVID19. This gulf in understanding collapses once COVID19 actually arrives to a community – evidenced by the gap reduction in Washington state.

The second graphic, which outlines trust of various institutions with regards to COVID19, shows a 50/50 split between aggregate trust/distrust of Trump and of the media, reinforcing the conclusion of the first graphic.

Clearly, the media was not wrong about COVID19. This is not mass hysteria. This is real. And if half of the country was led to believe this was a lie, or an exaggeration, then there’s clearly a reason why we have failed so badly in our response. If people don’t believe there’s a problem, they aren’t going to shelter in place, or work from home, or take necessary precautions to socially distance.

Will a global pandemic be enough to force people to ask themselves whether perhaps their information is wrong? Whether they have been misled, lied to, and manipulated for years?

Most people are unwilling to reevaluate their current position or opinion based on new information. What if they take a trip to the ICU? What if a loved one has to be intubated? What if someone they love dies? Is that enough? What does it take to free people from the grips of this monstrous clown?

Okay, some rays of hope. Here we go:

A little library in my neighborhood, converted to a food pantry
Our local gas station owner rising to the challenge. Normally, he hosts craft beer tastings on fridays.
Violated my daughter’s privacy and took a picture of her quarantine journal, because it’s hilarious.
She is so dramatic –
she has been entertained and having the time of her life.
My little pearls! 😍
My mother, at the end of her wits… dinner is a gin and tonic and a pear.

Stay safe. Send memes. Wash your hands.

La Quarentena

My elderly family in northern Italy is on the edge. It could be curtains for them. I try not to dwell on it. In a twist of fate, the word quarantine has Italian roots – sailors used to wait forty days (“quaranta” is forty in Italian) before they could disembark.

So here we are, waiting it out in our individual ships, looking longingly at a disembodied shore. What is normal, again?

We, like everybody else, are trying to move through it all. Limiting our news diet. Staying active. Working quite a bit. But we are only one degree away from people already feeling the pain – so we feel it too.

It’s going to be bad. It is bad. We have to accept it’s going to be bad, to lessen the shock. This is only beginning, and if testing capacity expands, the numbers are going to climb. It is an inevitability.

In a parallel universe – specifically, in France, Macron delivered an outstanding speech. It is inspirational. I encourage you to read the full transcript. [I am cheating and that is the recommended “book” for this post.] My mother translated it for me out loud, and it was lovely. I have some portions of it poorly translated by Google below:

Let us demonstrate deep solidarity and a sense of responsibility. Each of us must at all costs limit the number of people with whom we are in contact each day. Scientists say it is the top priority. 

Read, and remember what is essential in life. I think that it is important in this moment we are living. Culture, education, meaning are important. 

We are at war, health war, of course: we are not fighting against an army or against another Nation. But the enemy is there, invisible, elusive, advancing. And that requires our general mobilization. 

We will get there, my dear compatriots, by being united. I ask you to be responsible all together and not to give in to any panic, to accept these constraints, to bear them, to explain them, to apply them to yourself, we will apply them all, there will not be a free pass, but, there too, do not give in, neither to panic, nor to disorder. We will win, but this period will have taught us a lot. Many certainties, convictions are being swept away, and will be called into question. Many things that we thought were impossible are happening. Let us not be overwhelmed. Let us act with strength but remember this: the day after, when we have won, it will not be a return to the day before. We will be stronger morally, we will have learned and we will have drawn learnings from the consequences, all the consequences. 

Let us rise individually and collectively to the height of the moment. 

The world will be different when arrive on shore. And if we are not also different, if we are not also changed by this existential experience, then we will have wasted the most tremendous crisis since the last world war.

I will add one more thing: We need humor. We can’t be miserable every single day. We need to honor those who have suffered or will suffer by making the most of every day, to the extent that we are able. To that effect, I offer a picture of my COVID19 shopping style. You’re welcome. Stay safe out there, send memes, and wash your hands.

Blindness

Two weeks ago, my mom and I went to Costco to do our COVID19 run, before the panic had descended in the US. Frankly, her life experiences have been extremely useful in preparing for a black swan event like this. She grew up in Chile in a time when there really was no toilet paper available for weeks at a time, and frequently, no food. Anyways, she was really in her element, identifying which foods would be best to stick in a cardboard box in storage “just in case”.

It’s two weeks later now, and the hordes descended, clearing out the toilet paper and the frozen foods.

I feel like I’ve aged ten years.

It’s incredible to me that people wrote this off so effortlessly – or so callously. Either they’re too young to care, or they claim that people are inflaming unnecessary panic, or the baby boomers (or older than that) who claim they are just fine and don’t need to worry.

People will show us who they really are. I’m not sure what we do with that information – it’s kind of like finding out somebody voted for the current president – but it will certainly give us a better idea of where we all stand.

If we’re a high trust society, with high regard for others outside of our immediate family units and “tribes”, we’ll survive this. The hoarding of toilet paper isn’t a great leading indicator, but at the same time, I’ve seen a fair amount of people on my neighborhood’s NextDoor app offer to do grocery runs for the elderly and immuno-compromised people. So, that’s something.

Needless to say, we are reaping the paltry harvest of the systematic dismantling of relevant agencies and bureaucracies over the past few decades, an effort championed by the right and meekly enabled by the neoliberal left. If you keep repeating that government isn’t the solution, and that government isn’t here to save us – guess what? Eventually it’s a self fulfilling prophecy, because we haven’t invested in relevant agencies and bureaucracies, and here we are, hoping that major retailers will run drive-through testing stations. Christ.

Democracy takes work. You want it to work? Do the work. I wish it were easier, but it’s not. There are forces that are conspiring to make things not work, because they make more money that way. They want you to not engage, to give up, to say “politics isn’t my thing”, “they’re all the same”, “I’m too busy”. Don’t let those words make a home in your mind. Inform yourself. Trust experts in their field. Understand their incentives. Engage in politics – it’s difficult and humbling – but you must. We must. We cannot stop. We are, unfortunately, being given a dramatic opportunity to re-frame the way we want this country to be run. The case for the right to govern is paper-thin, at this point. There are alternative ways to run a country, driven by principles as shocking as compassion for other human beings and the conviction that policy-making should generally be informed by data-driven evidence and experts in the relevant field.

But the quarantine. I’m at home in the middle of two generations – my parents, who are fairly healthy 60 year olds, and two kids (7 and 8) and a baby (6 months). I’m making the kids keep a quarantine journal – we’ll see how long that lasts. At this point, they’re primarily concerned with keeping the quarantine journals *private* from one another. It’s nice to have them around, in contrast with some unnamed adults who read too much news (me).

Since the theme of this blog was to write about books I’m reading… I’m cheating and recommending Blindness, by Jose Saramago, which I read a couple years ago. Maybe don’t read it now. Read it when this is over, and hopefully it’s not relatable…

Be safe out there. Wash your hands.

Hardcover Blindness Book

The Future is History

I really know how to pick a book. While COVID19 has been ramping up, I’ve been at work finishing The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Fun!

I read it thinking that it’s important to study history so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Honestly? Our government is such a disaster at the moment that I don’t feel any threads of commonality with what I just read and what is happening at the federal level.

There is no order. There is no structure. Our current leadership is a disaster on so many levels. For a while, I was grateful there was a complete absence of any managerial skills – more policies and projects that I oppose could be implemented if this was a competent administration.

But now we’re in a position where we can’t even be grateful for their incompetence. We are paying the highest price.

Anyways, TFIH an outstanding book, highly readable, and an absolutely fascinating portrait of a national identity. I have pulled out some passages and added some of my own narrative below. If you want to escape the current global pandemic and spend some time in another environment, observing others fight for their humanity… let’s dive on in!

Every totalitarian regime forms a type of human being on whom it relies for its stability. The shaping of the New Man is the regime’s explicit project, but its product is not so much a vessel for the regime’s ideology as it is a person best equipped to survive in a given society. The regime, in turn, comes to depend on this newly shaped type of person for its continued survival.

In TFIH, the Soviet person is an empty vessel without any strong convictions, aside from doing what they must to survive. The state told them what to think and what to be. They played along for as long as they had to, even though ultimately they were powerless to the whims of the state and those that represented it.

There was a game called “Work,” and one of the most-often-repeated Soviet jokes described it perfectly: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” There was a game called “Care,” in which “they”—the state—pretended to take care of the citizenry, which pretended to be grateful. What made this simple-sounding game instantly complicated was that it was not all pretense: the state indeed controlled the citizen’s fate, and the citizen could be said to owe his continued survival to the state. In this sense, the game of “Complicity” was similar: Homo Sovieticus pretended to participate in the affairs of the state, and this made him complicit in everything the state did…

Homo Sovieticus was not indoctrinated. In fact, Homo Sovieticus did not seem to hold particularly strong opinions of any sort. His inner world consisted of antinomies, his objective was survival, and his strategy was constant negotiation—the endless circulation of games of doublethink…

Homo Sovieticus was caught in an infinite spiral of lies: pretending to be, pretending to have, pretending to believe, and pretending not to.

Gessen cites a string of sociological surveys from the time that revealed how Russians felt about themselves and about others, from the transitional period of perestroika and in the 1990s. They weren’t feeling aggressive pre-perestroika (measured by “what should be done” with members of deviant groups), but they did feel humiliated when they saw the huge gap in living situation between themselves and western democracies, even as their own condition had materially improved. They observed and subsequently felt that others were better off and that, frankly, it sucked to be Russian.

Russians were distinctly tired of thinking of themselves, and their country, as inferior. So what did they see as the innate positive qualities of Russians? This open question elicited, on the basis of 2,957 surveys, three leading qualities: “open,” “simple,” and “patient.” The ideal Russian, it seemed, was a person without qualities. It was clear to Gudkov that this was the blank mirror of the hostile and violent regimes under which Russians had long lived…

If “open” and “simple” described the undifferentiated nature of a Russian, then “patient,” as Gudkov read the responses, referred to Russians’ tolerance for violence…

In contrast to the imaginary European, all of whose qualities described agency, the respondents saw themselves as subjects of a regime that ruled by force.

Ultimately, the post Soviet years were a vaccuum, a pause, in which Russians saw what was happening in the rest of the world and it looked significantly better than what was happening for them. They felt second class on the world stage. They didn’t like it… and then Putin emerged.

National identity is powerful. I underestimated it until I had my own personal reckoning in my 20s. My parents are foreigners and for a long time I felt like I was straddling two identities. It wasn’t until I felt like a stranger in my parents’ country that I understood – or perhaps decided – I was American. Something recalibrated inside of me and I felt a sharper commitment to the national project.

To borrow a concept from Yuval Noah Harari, nations are mass hallucinations. They’re not real in as much as we make them so.

What is it like to feel humiliated, trod upon, defeated, as a matter of national identity? What things would we support? What leadership would we want? How closely is our sense of self intertwined with the fate of a nation?

Well – if conditions conspire to make you feel this way, whether it is warranted or not, you choose somebody like our current Dear Leader.