It finally happened. Someone stole one of our packages before we could go get it.
This is a chronic problem in our area. People have been complaining about it on a daily basis the entire time we’ve lived here. It’s not like we didn’t know it was a thing. It’s even happened in our building before, in a pretty dramatic way.
Earlier this year, pre-COVID, there was a group of young people squatting in the clubhouse of our building. The locks were finally changed in that room and we haven’t seen them around. This may or may not have had something to do with what has happened more recently. A young couple used a key to get into the lobby of our building, stole all the packages, then took the elevator down to the garage, broke into a bunch of cars and stole more stuff, and then finally drove away in a stolen vehicle.
That was a few weeks ago. This is a condo building, and the Board had arranged to have the locks changed, but they were waiting on materials - and last night, it happened again. The only differences are that this time they didn’t steal a car, but they did force open one of the mailboxes, which is a federal crime.
Among the stolen packages was something for me, an anniversary gift: a cardigan sweater for a middle-aged COVID survivor who keeps getting the chills, even in high summer.
Okay, work with me here. Who would even want my frumpy old $34 sweater besides me?
It’s out of stock, too.
This is a minor annoyance for us. It’s not like they stole my antibiotics. That’s not the point.
The point is that package theft is interesting for a lot of reasons.
For people of our social class, petty crime is worse than stupid. There is no object you could steal that could possibly be as valuable as your professional reputation and clean background check. Go to prison and it’s all over - your career, your social network, probably your marriage and your relationship with your kids, and thus your house, retirement, savings, and credit score. You’re done.
For what, though? What could possibly be in these seductive packages?
This is the huge mystery to me. I know from our own orders that these little brown cardboard boxes are full of a lot of inexpensive, random stuff. Volume 5 in a fantasy paperback series. Men’s socks. A parrot toy. A power strip. A case of instant oatmeal. After all these years, surely it’s common knowledge that most deliveries are mundane.
What is the resale value of this stuff? What are the chances that a thief would pick up something they personally found relevant?
I highly doubt the 20-something girl with the glossy waist-length hair from the security video is going to be excited when she opens the package with my missing sweater. Maybe her boyfriend will want to wear it.
Where does it all go?
My husband says they probably throw it all out. Package thieves must spend a lot of energy tearing open boxes and pouches full of stuff they don’t want, hoping for a few categories that they can sell. We can only guess what those might be. Electronics? Prescription narcotics? (Do they even send those through the mail?) Jewelry?
I think he’s wrong. This has been going on in so many cities for so long, there must be an adjacent opportunity.
I’m willing to bet that someone takes all the random junk to... the flea market.
Where else would people go to dig through a weird assortment of towels and dog toys and clothes and housewares?
If I were running that kind of operation, I’d have various kids and elderly relatives opening the packages and sorting and repackaging everything every week.
The thing about package theft is that it’s stochastic. Guaranteed, there are a lot of people who have stolen a package once, when the opportunity struck, only to realize it was a waste of time. The crews who do it regularly only have to change neighborhoods every night and they’re nearly impossible to catch.
Packages on so many doorsteps, day and night, are creating this externality of the appealing opportunity. There are probably dozens or hundreds of people who never would have engaged in petty theft if they hadn’t been walking by at the wrong time. Then there are the organized forces, like the young couple that has hit our building at least twice, hopefully in something other than a Requiem for a Dream scenario. If it weren’t for this widespread availability of doorstep deliveries that they’ve been seeing since they were in grade school, maybe they’d be doing something else.
There is no way this continues for another decade.
Or, will it? My husband has had two bikes stolen since we moved to this area, both from supposedly secure parking garages. Bike theft has probably been a chronic problem since the very invention of the bicycle, which would be over two hundred years. The circle of Hell that is dedicated to bike thieves (the 12th, since you ask) must be pretty full by now.
As a futurist, I often wonder what kind of phase change or technological development would put an end to something that is currently an ordinary part of daily life.
There are a bunch of different things that could happen to put an end to package theft.
The most obvious would be some kind of personalized, secure aspect to the delivery cycle. Either an autonomous delivery bot goes around on a circuit, and the user needs a complicated security key to get the package, or packages are delivered to some kind of coded lockbox. Possibly both. It would be easy to imagine one robot bringing the package to a building, and another taking it inside. Or a drone could drop it off on the roof, which I think is less likely, not that that would stop someone from pitching it to a lot of VCs.
Another obvious way this problem could come to an end would be the advent of inexpensive, reliable 3D printers around the price of a television. People could make their own stuff and the only deliveries would be whatever medium goes into the replicator.
The most likely way would be for package delivery to become prohibitively expensive. Either the fuel costs get too high, or inflation drives up the price of most consumer goods, or fewer people are willing to work in the warehouses and delivery trucks because some other kinds of competing job opportunities become available. Or it simply becomes impossible for consumers to trust that they can ever get their stuff before someone comes along and steals it. The seagull/lobster roll problem.
Another model that might make sense would be to have neighborhood distribution centers around the size and availability of corner stores. In fact that’s almost guaranteed to happen, that wherever the package center was, snacks and drinks would be sold too. These would be like any other convenience store, except that the contents would be more highly personalized.
I remember back to when Amazon only sold books. I also remember thinking it was stupid when they began to branch out and sell other consumer products, like shampoo. And I remember debating whether to buy AMZN at around $600/share - too rich for my blood; I bought AAPL and TSLA instead. Back in the early Nineties, routine package theft was not a problem we thought of, just like social media trolls and cracked phone screens were not problems we thought of.
The interesting thing about futurism is that, while we’ll surely be wrong whenever we try to imagine one specific thing about the future, we’ll also be wrong if we assume that the future will look like today. Package theft is going to quit being a problem one day, but why exactly?
And when? I sure wish I had that sweater.
Doomscrolling is that thing where you keep flicking your phone, reading scary news, and you can’t seem to stop, even if you’re already in bed and tired and you know you’d be better off sleeping.
One of my heuristics is to ask myself what the opposite of something is. It can often be pretty funny. For instance, if my natural reaction to something is to think “I hate it here!” I can pause and ask, what would be the opposite of hating this right now? One day, the answer might be to get a burrito, while another day, the answer might be to talk to my brother.
Obviously when I think of doomscrolling, I’m going to have to ask myself, what is its opposite?
Assuming we don’t want to simply engage in another activity, what if there were another kind of ‘scrolling’ that was not full of doom and gloom and dread?
This is part of what led me to doing my tech newsletter.
There isn’t a name for it yet, although don’t worry, I may come up with one before this is done, but I guess what I’m doing is more like optimism-scrolling.
I think that for some weird reason, we have collectively decided to ignore all the fabulous things that have been happening in favor of all the crud. As an historian, this is confusing and strange. I know too much about the past and the daily lives of early people to have any interest in reverting to any of that. This is what drives my interest in futurism.
What I see is that we have vast amounts of knowledge, resources, and talent that could easily be put to work replacing our most pressing problems with amazing things -
Quick example: turn unemployed people into a (well-compensated) labor source for massive infrastructure upgrades, something I thought we would have been several years into by now -
And that doing this work would quickly return positive reinforcement, adding momentum as we start to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to sit and watch as the world falls apart, witnesses to systemic collapse. There are things that we could be doing.
Guess what? Of course it turns out that there are plenty of people doing constructive things while the rest of us are scrolling our way through the dark of night.
I get just as wound around the axle about politics and current events as anyone else. Perhaps more so, since I have that degree in history and all... I only share my bleakest projections with my nearest and dearest, because nothing says ‘I love you’ like ‘gather nigh while I proclaim my grim forecasts.’
The best way I have found to deal with this is to gradually crowd out the current events with what I think of as Future Events.
In other words, innovation.
For instance, there is an entire sub-thread about engineers donating their time to make custom prosthetics and special mobility devices for disabled children. This is beautiful stuff.
It turns out that most people will bend over absolutely backwards to do something altruistic for someone, if they know how. This is even more true if the recipient is a total stranger to them. This is another sub-thread that I follow, call it Acts of Heroism, and there is news in this category every day. A few days ago I watched a video of a man pulling an unconscious man out of a burning car on the freeway while his son watched. Everyone emerged unscathed and now the two men are entering a mentoring relationship.
Are they getting a reality TV show? No? Why not?
Passively absorbing the doom and gloom is unavoidable, sure. I mean, it’s hard to do anything constructive to help if you have no idea what the problems are that need solving. But again, letting your morale be crushed and destroyed by things you feel that you have no control over? How is that constructive in any way?
I often think of stories from my reading in Acts of Heroism when I need a boost. I think, if that man was brave enough to risk his life rescuing someone from a fire, why am I not brave enough to at least make this phone call/send this email/tell someone how I feel? It’s aspirational. I hope that if the moment ever comes, I’ll do more than stand around flapping my hands and screaming. Moral rehearsal.
Doomscrolling is an intervening opportunity. If you’re like me, you have this device with you almost every minute, and sometimes you open it and don’t even remember why, or you set out to do one thing and forgot and started doing something else. Probably you made no conscious decision to start doomscrolling. Probably it was not your intention. Yet it seems to keep happening??
We rarely set as many clear intentions as we could.
Once upon a time, I used to spend hours a day on Facebook. This was before I read the research that about 30% of people’s “friends” are people they follow because they enjoy being annoyed by them. I would post all sorts of articles that interested me, maybe 5% of my total reading, and I would then get pushback from people who would have been better off unfollowing me. I never would have known. Come on, though. Isn’t it more fun to upbraid, chastise, and admonish people who irritate you than to just focus on the people you like?
I took all that energy and put it toward something else. I had this deep desire to connect with people over all the exciting things I was reading, and quite honestly, I wasn’t going to find them anywhere on Facebook. Instead, I started putting together what became my tech newsletter, and that got me my new job, and now a bunch of people with PhDs read it and discuss it with me. For money.
Doing the opposite of whatever can be a fun thought exercise. It can also change your life.
There are an infinite number of things you can do with your time besides doomscrolling - sleep is just one of them - and if you write up a list, it may remind you that you used to do all sorts of great stuff with your time. If you do like reading on your phone for hours, though, try to target your reading time more toward your personal interests and less toward disaster, doom, and gloom. Who knows what you may find?
The numbers freaked me out today. Maybe it’s my academic focus, I dunno, but I see things on a trend line. What keeps standing out to me is how every time there’s a prediction about the coronavirus, reality exceeds it. Whatever you think about numbers or public policy or “love over fear,” surely you can remember that sort of thing over only a six-month period?
When my husband and I decided to “prep for the coronavirus” back in February, we felt really smart about buying a month’s worth of freeze-dried food, an extra 6-pack of toilet paper, and extra shampoo and cleansers.
We assured each other we weren’t being too crazy, that it was okay if we had go-bags and a month of prepper food, we weren’t having a paranoid meltdown.
...and that was true
Not three weeks later, I was exposed. Our employer sent everyone home on the Friday and I contracted COVID-19 on the Sunday morning, not even 48 hours later. All of that was before anyone in the US shut anything down, if you can remember back that far.
This is why I went to work for them, because they have continued to have a better and more effective action plan than any entity in the country besides Apple. That’s my gauge for when it’s safe to come out: when the Apple Store opens at our local mall and our company calls everyone back in to work at our desks.
Everyone else, including me and my own household? We keep getting it wrong, shrugging, and getting it wrong again.
April 8: coronavirus death projection revised down to 60,000 [passed that on 4/30]
April 17: “Experts think 50,000 by the end of April” [actually 4/24]
May 15: “pass 100,000 by June 1” [actually 5/28]
...but then, strangely, it seems like death projections aren’t really in the headlines anymore? Hmm, I wonder why?
When I got sick, I was like “it’s airborne, I got it from someone who was sitting 10 feet away.” Of course in April 2020 that made me sound like I was either exaggerating or had no idea what I was talking about. How does it sound now?
When I got sick, I was like, “I know what day I was exposed and I didn’t start getting sick until the 16th day.” My doctor was like, “yeah, whatevs” until another week of symptoms, at which point he graciously apologized.
When I got sick, nothing I had was on The Official Symptoms List (tm). I kept having to tell people that my symptoms started with sneezing fits and itchy eyes, just so they would know not to talk themselves out of it.
My attitude is always going to be, whatever the mainstream idea is of something, I will be more cautious than that. I drive the speed limit (or at least, I used to before I canceled driving in my life). We save half our income. Ever since I dropped my keys down the elevator shaft I’ve been just that little bit extra careful.
(Except, that is, for the day I decided to go to brunch after prepping for what I recognized as a dangerous pandemic and then immediately contracted a deadly illness THE ONE TIME I WENT OUT).
That is the only reckless thing I’ve really ever done besides remarrying after a nasty divorce. But that was a risk that paid off.
Okay, so, by Jessica’s Rules everyone should assume “allergy symptoms” might actually be COVID, distance a minimum of 10 feet, and quarantine three weeks, not two. Not impossible. Not insane. Just - cautious enough not to get the dang thing the way I did.
For whatever reason, everyone else’s baseline assumptions seem to be to keep assuming that cautious people are overreacting and that their worst guesses can’t possibly happen. Even though all those estimates keep proving to be excessively optimistic.
Now, let’s talk about optimism for a minute.
I am an incurable optimist. I mean, seriously. I believe that pessimism is profoundly lazy, an abdication of the power to just keep on troubleshooting and persist in reframing for more options. Humans were born to solve problems and invent things. That is why we can use tools and recognize patterns.
On the other hand, as an historian I have to admit that default mode for humans is an endless tidal wave of BS. One problem followed by another problem followed by a double-up of problems, just to keep it interesting.
Optimism doesn’t mean we pretend that bad things aren’t going to happen, and a wicked lot of them. It means we believe that we can find a way to get past those bad things. We handle them. We figure out how to deal. We don’t ignore things, we confront them and wrestle them down.
Possibility thinking works best when we consider the widest possible array of potential issues, as well as good outcomes. Facing up to the worst risks, not just the most likely ones, can sometimes reveal much nicer solutions. And then we collectively feel that much more impressed with one another because we’ve done something on a larger scale.
This is part of how to make a strong marriage, by the way. Shared adversity. It works with family too, and that’s why every time I visit with my family we laugh so hard we fall over sideways.
We could be doing that together, as a nation. Or at least as a neighborhood. Here in Corona Cove CA I keep being less and less impressed with my neighbors every single day. A crisis is no time to be coughing and spitting on people and shouting at people while they’re just trying to do their jobs. Pull your socks up, geez.
This is what I think, as a futurist. I think that the rest of this year is going to be very, very bad for the United States. For whatever reason, a lot of people are very busy trying to deny how this thing has been working out so far. They’re going to be awfully depressed when they finally clue in to reality and the three-week lag time on the data.
Once we finally snap out of our collective delusion and start getting pragmatic, we can put our famed Yankee ingenuity into effect.
In World War II, we increased our production of airplanes by two orders of magnitude in only five years. 265 planes and a cargo ship every day. We know how to make things! We know how to make things fast!
When we feel like it, that is.
We’ve done a lot of underestimating this year. We’ve underestimated the nature of the enemy over and over again. (If you need reminding, “the enemy” is a vicious little human-hating virus that looks like a dog toy from hell). We’ve underestimated the sheer rudeness of people under stress. We’ve underestimated people’s emotional commitment and willingness to die (and kill) to preserve their notion of personal autonomy.
I think we’ve also underestimated our ability to pull together and work as a community. I think we’ve underestimated our ability to harness patriotism to fight this thing. I think we’ve underestimated our centuries-old core of inventiveness. We kick butt at a lot of things, and logistics, supply chain management, and R&D are a few of them.
If we can get Hot Cheetos to every convenience store in the land, if we can have 24-hour drive-thrus, then surely we can get swabs and vials. If we can teach each other to play Candy Crush and Angry Birds practically overnight, then we can teach each other how to avoid an airborne virus.
I believe in the American ability to get things done, and I believe in our ability to scale up testing, continue to test more and better treatments, and most especially, invent better-quality masks and filtration systems. If we’re going to win this battle, we’ve got to do it the same way we won WWII, with industry and with hustle and with innovation.
This is not a black swan event, and everybody needs to stop claiming that it is.
History doesn’t repeat itself, not exactly, but it does rhyme. What we’re seeing right now is all stuff that we’ve seen before. Not only that, but it’s stuff we were actively warned about over and over again.
Let’s pause and talk about what a black swan event is, and then we can get into the action.
The phrase was popularized by Nassim Taleb, who first began writing about it in 2001. His 2007 book The Black Swan made him famous because he anticipated the financial crash of 2008. A “black swan” was a proverbial example of “something that does not exist” for something like 14 centuries - but then explorers found real live black swans paddling around in Australia.
It would be a little like people saying “when pigs fly” and then someone actually finds a flying pig. Or, “when Hell freezes over,” and... let’s not explore that one because there is too much left of the year 2020 for my comfort.
For something to qualify as a black swan, it has to meet three criteria. 1. It has to be a huge surprise; 2. It has to have a major effect; and 3. In hindsight, everyone sees signs and believes the event could have been predicted.
That’s the tricky part here. The third point is where it would be really easy to get hung up.
Let’s talk about some other surprising historical events and whether they qualify as black swans or not.
The first one that comes to mind for me is the JFK assassination. I think we can all agree that people were pretty darn surprised by that. Anyone who was alive at the time will tell you that it felt like a major watershed, that it changed everything. They can still remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when it happened.
A couple of other events of that magnitude were the Challenger explosion and 9/11.
Notice any differences between them?
There are tons of conspiracy theories about both the JFK assassination and 9/11, but Challenger? Not so much.
I asked my husband about this, assuming correctly that they studied the Challenger explosion in his aerospace engineering classes. “Nothing about space should qualify as a black swan. It is inherently dangerous. We have an expected fatality rate of 1 in 500 launches.”
Everyone knows space is hard; we won’t be able to recognize patterns or predict events in space news for decades, maybe centuries, so it doesn’t mess with our heads as much.
In engineering, there’s a process called ‘root cause analysis’ which should be followed by ‘corrective action.’ You dig down to find out what went wrong, and then try to fix it so it won’t happen again. This is part of why, say, commercial air travel keeps getting safer. It’s also why relatively few people die in structure fires, which were extremely common in the 19th century.
Every time a disaster happens, there is an opportunity to take notes and try to plan around avoiding it the next time around.
It isn’t really possible to avoid black swan events. They arise from whatever conditions existed at the time, but they aren’t necessarily caused by those conditions.
This is the opposite of a persistent problem like traffic fatalities. People die in car crashes every day, and nobody is surprised at all, because awareness of this fatal flaw is built into our system. Under automobile supremacy, people and animals will be routinely killed by cars and everyone will shrug and accept it. The first time an unsupervised autonomous vehicle does it, everyone will get upset.
There are other areas where we acknowledge and accept consistent amounts of property damage and/or loss of life, such as continuing to rebuild homes in a floodplain, and these disasters are influenced more by higher-level policy decisions than we usually realize. I don’t know all that much about floods, but I can guess that there are potential policy changes in zoning, insurance, building codes, and mortgage lending that could have a significant effect on whose house is destroyed in a flood 40 years from now.
This is where we start getting around to talking about public health, and pandemics, and economics, and science denial. Note, sometimes when a disaster happens, like a fire in a nightclub* in 1942, society reacts with major, rapid, and systemic infrastructure updates. Other times, like with seatbelts or cigarette smoking, those changes are gradual and take a long time to reach begrudging consensus approval.
How we react, as individuals and as a society, depends on what disaster we’re facing and what decisions we’ve made about how predictable or acceptable it is.
What we’re facing right now, the situation that everyone keeps referring to as a black swan, is really a “gray rhino.” It’s highly probable, high impact, and you can see it coming a long way away. That is 100% true about COVID-19, and it’s 100% true about the economic crisis that is barely getting started, and it’s probably 98% true about the mask refusal as well.
The last time we went though a very serious pandemic, H1N1, people blamed it on lightbulbs. (Now they’re blaming COVID-19 on 5G). There were public protests about mask mandates, and one dude even got shot. Quarantines literally always result in people violating them and/or running for the hills, carrying the disease to other cities. That’s the entire plot line of the Decameron. All of this has been going on for a long time, far more than the century that has passed since our last reminder.
COVID-19 is so not a black swan that even the specific virus family coming from the specific animal was predicted as a pandemic risk back in 2013. A SARS vaccine that might have worked against COVID-19 was in development back in 2003, but the team ran out of funding. A crisis simulation in October 2019 ran the scenario of a pandemic killing over half a million people. (We passed that number on July 18).
WE WERE TOLD
“Hey, we should make a vaccine against SARS.” (Ignored for 17 years)
“Hey, horseshoe bats grow coronaviruses that can infect human lung cells, so we should probably stop hunting and eating bats in China.” (Ignored for 7 years)
“Hey, we should probably plan around a deadly pandemic.” (3 months’ notice)
There actually was a pandemic preparedness plan, circa 2005, direct result of SARS and how scary that was. We had a playbook. This is where I stop talking, because whenever people sense material that challenges their political beliefs, they lock down.
Viruses do not care about human affairs.
The question is how much we care about human affairs. It is a huge mystery why our attention is captured by certain things, like the debunked idea that vaccines cause autism, but why we are totally bored by other things, like tuberculosis or malaria killing over a million people a year.
What is being revealed about group psychology is that people consider certain things inevitable and unavoidable. It becomes a kind of Stoicism, this idea that we just have to endure pain and suffering - from some sources but not others.
This is why it’s important to talk about black swans, gray rhinos, and strategic forecasting in general. The more we can get these ideas into pop culture, the more likely we are to reach the threshold where we refuse to tolerate predictable and preventable risks. Human ingenuity is definitely powerful enough to build fixes around these obstacles.
* Cocoanut Grove - the reaction to that nightclub fire in 1942 led directly to innovations like EXIT signs, doors with crash bars, fire codes, smoke detectors, fire drills, and evacuation floor plans. Those legal standards have probably saved millions of lives and prevented billions of dollars in property damage. Nobody argues with fire so there don’t tend to be mass protests against fire extinguishers.
“Many of us are done with this,” said one of my neighbors on Nextdoor, following a demand to “stop policing people.” Okay, fine, cool, thanks for making this decision easier on me and my household.
I’m staying inside until 2023 and getting a head start on the new supernormal.
Possibility thinking is not the same thing as optimism. For it to work as a strategic planning tool, possibility thinking has to include *all* possibilities.
At least in my region, there seems to be a pretty broad consensus that there is nothing to worry about. I read that 1 in 5 Brits believe that COVID-19 is a hoax, and it’s probably not too different here in Southern California. This makes me feel some kind of way, as you can probably imagine.
“I ate there and got food poisoning” NO YOU DIDN’T
“I got a speeding ticket along that stretch of highway” YOU LIE
“Attempted break-in on our street” NEVER HAPPENED
*shrug* okay, so I guess we’re done with the concept of social proof. I would really prefer that nobody else in our galaxy go through what I went through the entire month of April, but have it your way. My experience isn’t real to you, all right. Noted.
I feel no desire, need, or motivation to associate with people who feel that way... especially not in their physical proximity.
How am I going to deal with this emotionally, mentally, socially?
Reset my expectations.
Cases are rising in at least 18 states? My county has roughly half of the cases in my entire state, and more than half the deaths? Coronavirus is active on six continents? There may be a separate strain now that takes longer to show symptoms?
I don’t see this thing going anywhere any time soon.
Therefore, I don’t see myself doing what I used to do for fun, anytime in the near future:
Going to the airport, getting on airplanes, staying in hotels, going to live shows
Hanging out in restaurants, cafes, or movie theaters
Wilderness expeditions - will I ever be well or strong enough to do that again??
Everything else about my family, social, and commercial life can be done online, in some cases with more fun and greater efficiency.
Do I miss my family and friends? Yes, of course. Would I ever forgive myself for picking up COVID again and exposing them to it? No. Especially if any of them ran up massive debt in the hospital, or died.
We will meet again and we can hug it out when it feels obviously, finally, conclusively safe.
In the meantime, what are we going to do with ourselves?
We’ve doubled down with our quaranteam buddy. We’re helping her move to a new apartment this week, where we’re already planning a small shared garden. We’re teaching her how to pack a go bag and working on a team evacuation strategy for wildfire season. She’s our literal ride-or-die friend now.
I cut my husband’s hair for the first time. It actually turned out fine! He can’t stop raving about it and running his fingers through it. I give it... an 80%. I’m doing my own split ends and feeling glad I wear mine long. QT and I agreed to color each other’s hair, and maybe we’ll tentatively try a trim, in the back where it doesn’t show on webcam. With videos and practice... maybe it just becomes a thing and we all save hundreds of dollars a year.
We learn a few new artisanal skills, our cooking and baking improve, we expand the ways we support and care for each other, we develop a new group video call etiquette.
It’s up to us to decide - first as individuals, second as households, last as a society.
Or several adjacent societies?
I fear for those who are struggling to live in the reality-based community. It seems like an awful lot of people have lost the plot as far as what sources to trust, what is objectively testable or verifiable, and how to make decisions. Most people aren’t all that great at long-term planning or strategic positioning in the best of times, and when a crisis hits, we often begin to act less rationally than we did before. Clearly there are some issues.
One of the first things I’m personally working on is a quick vetting process. When I meet people (virtually) or see them (physically) how do I size them up? Who gets a shot at being in my social bubble and who would probably find it annoying and unsatisfying anyway?
Another thing we’re working on, as a quaranteam, is speculating on business and investment trends. Not in the “let’s gouge people for PPE” way but in the “what will the world look like in 2025” way.
Even *I* think this pandemic will be over by 2025! Though I have already made permanent policy changes, especially for travel, that I will carry forward. Reason: there are no rules about pandemics! We could have several new ones every year, which is one of the reasons why a COVID vaccine is, for my purposes, a moot point.
I got a new job while I was sick with COVID-19, as I mentioned. They’re WFH-mandatory right now, and it’s possible that most positions will remain that way because they’re already seeing higher productivity. My Plan A is to absolutely crush it at this job. Rather than mope around wishing I didn’t have to isolate, I’m going to pretend the outside world doesn’t even exist, and I work in an alternative arrangement.
Antarctica? A fire watch tower? Spacecraft to Mars or elsewhere? Emily Dickinson’s trance medium? Could vary from day to day or month to month?
As part of my job, I’m determined to get a few software certifications. There is a modest tuition reimbursement. I’d like to get a master’s degree, maybe an MBA too. I’ll have nothing but time and no particular reason to delay. It’s not like we’re going anywhere...
It would be easy to spend the next few weeks or months exactly as tense and anxious as the last few. It would also be easy to go out ONCE, like I did back before the shutdown orders, and get sick, and not even know for two weeks. Those are the default options. As a general rule, whatever is the default is uninteresting to me.
I prefer to move forward, through this intense time when we are all in the Place of Uncertainty, in a direction of my own choosing. To the best of my abilities, I’d rather come out of this in better shape than I went in. I have the power, as do we all, of determining my own attitude and my own behavior. I’d like to emerge in three years better than I am today: like myself, only supernormal.
Futurism is such a solace in times of trouble. Most people like to think back to some supposed golden era, when times were supposedly simpler, but crisis always makes me think of historical versions of the same type of crisis, and that’s never good. When I heard that COVID-19 had been given a name, the first names that came to my mind were “Justinian” and “Boccaccio” - which, if you don’t already know what I mean, should at least be an interesting half-hour of web browsing.
I studied history just long enough to know that I don’t want to live there!
I think forward. I mean, someone has to. Why do images of the future always turn out so dystopian? Because 1. we lack imagination and 2. we fear change. As a species. The individual ego dies but humanity as a whole carries on, smarter and more sanitary every time.
This is what I picture.
Urban people live in personalized pods that are sanitized by UV light. Almost all possessions are digital, including music, books, movies, games, and artwork. It’s possible to 3D-print objects like a new toothbrush or pair of socks, and then just toss the waste material back into the machine to be remade into something else.
All city food is inspected, cleaned, chopped, prepared, and served or delivered by robots. The only human hands that touch it are yours, when you eat it.
Sanitation is built into restroom fixtures, water fountains, railings, and other surfaces.
Everyone is wildly bored because there’s nothing to do but passively be entertained and waited on. It’s like being on a space shuttle without actually going anywhere.
Actually I don’t think that’s true at all. I think in a world like this, some people would adore it and others would run off to become Amish. Some, like me, would be urban most of the time and go off to the wilderness part of the time to recharge. It’s so much more interesting when it’s wild enough for the top-tier predators to come back.
We still want wildness, even when it tears into the tent, clamps its jaws around our head and drags us into the underbrush.
Why do we continue to find the past so hauntingly attractive, even when it’s demonstrably so grubby and smelly? When the plague could come and kill 30% of the population or wipe out an entire city? When for decades the leading cause of death was not heart disease, stroke, cancer, or war but tuberculosis? When a paper cut could give you tetanus and kill you in three days?
We’re squeaky clean compared to earlier humans, no offense to any particular century or culture but it’s true. We have incredible sewers and water treatment plants, flush toilets, running water, automated soap dispensers, and even better, we have vaccinations. There is now a vaccine for a common childhood disease that killed my first cousin once removed about 60 years ago.
In the future, there will definitely be new and improved vaccines. I’ll bet a flat green American dollar that they will be free to all comers. Quite probably there will be a universal flu vaccine and a universal rhinovirus vaccine and a universal coronavirus vaccine. And, equally probably, there will be refusers and deniers and scoffers just as there are today.
The more common the vaccine, the less people care. They take herd immunity for granted. Dude, I have close relatives who have been taken down by mumps, by scarlet fever, by tuberculosis and even by chicken pox. We can largely ignore most epidemic illness because of the concerted effort of health professionals and the scientific community throughout the Twentieth Century.
We live the dream of every parent who ever cried over a child’s deathbed, “Make it stop!”
This is why I think the biggest deal about the future will be better and better health care, because that’s always been our first priority. It’s the main thing people will bankrupt themselves for. People will risk their lives to care for other people when they are sick. Others will work day and night, hunched over in a lab, trying to develop treatments or vaccines or anything at all that will work.
I think what will change is faster communication, cheaper and faster diagnostics, and cheaper and faster vaccine and drug development. As we get better at research and better at logistics, better at crisis response, there will be parts of the world that get by mostly epidemic-free.
And, in response, at least for now, more intellectually lazy people contributing to one of the all-time great tragedies of the commons, abdicating on herd immunity.
I think in the future we’ll be marginally better at public service announcements and understanding the psychology of the refuseniks. Probably we’ll also get better at isolating people.
What is more likely to save us is the innovation curve of the service industry. We’ll go on smearing our greasy fingerprints all over everything, only institutional changes will gradually adapt around our behavior. We’ve all been taught incrementally to do things like wait in line, use tablets to place our orders, read the signifiers on little sauce packets, and sort our trash. A lot of the sanitation and trash hauling is transparent to us as we go about our business.
Mostly, we buy what is available in the form factors that are presented. We quickly adopt innovations like voicemail or seatbelts or drive-thru windows, and we learn to understand new icons in a way that may even be accessible to habituated wildlife.
We’ll be cleaner and healthier in the future because decisions will be made above our pay grade. For instance, right now industries from airlines to banks to coffee shops are making adjustments, as much to keep the money machine humming as to protect their customers and employees. Commerce only works for the living.
Ten years from now, we won’t even remember exactly how it happened. We may only realize how much things have changed when we try to look backward, just as it’s hard for me to remember what it was like before smartphones + internet access + GPS. I remember the specific day I learned how to do a Boolean search, but I have trouble reconstructing how I used to think before that day. It’s going to be the same with the near-term future.
Right now, we can order quite a lot with the touch of a button. In the future, it just won’t be a physical button and we’ll be subliminally discouraged from touching anything at all.
We keep forgetting that we’re living in the future. It’ll probably take about two generations before we start to figure it out.
This is the argument that I use when setting policy with my husband about our domestic arrangements and mental bandwidth. How would this be different if it were automated? If it were engineered out of existence as a problem? Offload it, sure, abdicate it, absolutely. Tell Siri, though, not me.
We’ve had a lot of success with delegating household chores to “the robots,” as we call them, and now I’m trying to teach him to do it with the administrative stuff.
The thing is, like a lot of people, we each have a smartphone in our pocket. Along with all the many other features of these incredibly powerful computers, which are far and away better than what was used to get the first rocket up to the Moon, there is a voice assistant. It can do stuff, and, arguably, it should.
Check the weather
Read off lists
Probably a million more things that we haven’t realized it can do
We both grew up with moms who were traditional in most ways. We both had the kind of mom who did most or all of the cooking and housework, the kind of mom who knew how to sew and make Halloween costumes, the kind of mom who basically ran the household while the dad did the fix-it stuff. We both had a certain internalized expectation that the woman of the household is also the secretary and receptionist of the household.
But then, we met each other in the workplace.
I literally WAS his office assistant.
It literally was my job to take notes at his meetings, sort his mail, make his photocopies, and copyedit his technical documentation. (He was one among a staff of 75 others).
This probably helped when we got married years later. It helped to make clear that certain types of tasks were PAID and, thus, valuable. As an engineer, my husband understood full well exactly why these low-level administrative tasks are delegated down. It’s a silly drain on the mental bandwidth of a professional who has more interesting things to do.
He gets it that if these random and small interruptions keep popping up for me to handle, then it interferes with the headspace I need as a writer.
I can either be a full-time stay-at-home spouse, maintaining the perfect household and cooking great meals from scratch, OR. Or I can be something else, something more interesting and fulfilling that also generates a higher income. Both are valid paths to lifestyle upgrades for both of us. One is depressing, boring, and annoying (for me at least), and the other is awesome.
More to the point, why should a human (including me) do something when a robot or an artificial intelligence can do it?
Back to the robots.
We have a Roomba and a countertop dishwasher. We also have a robot mop, but we currently aren’t using it because our kitchen floor is about the size of a beach towel. Once upon a time, we had a washer and dryer. We “start the robots” before we go to the movies, and we come home to a clean apartment. The only things “the robots” don’t do (yet) are to knock down cobwebs, dust surfaces, clean the bathroom, put away laundry, and make the bed. We sort laundry by having a hamper with two detachable bags, one for lights and one for darks. That’s not robotic, but it is based on principles of lean engineering.
This is the premise on which I am building my empire, my Kingdom of Mental Bandwidth.
The goal is for both of us to have as much high-quality uninterrupted System 2 thinking time as possible. I’ve made my case for how much I do to support him as he works on his third patent, and he appreciates that this takes care and focus. This has helped me make the case that I, too, need help protecting my thinking-cap time.
As an engineering principle, our household should be as well-maintained as possible with the least amount of effort as possible. This is known as “low-side compliance.” It’s extremely important in engineering, because an engineer’s time is expensive, and even an extra hour putting in an extra feature might blow both the budget and the production schedule. Low-side compliance helps avoid “scope creep,” which is what happens when the specifications of the product keep expanding. Scope creep makes everything more expensive and complicated, and also more vulnerable to failure.
Running a household is the classic example of scope creep. It’s also a stupid place to put that kind of cognitive and emotional focus.
Together, we’ve worked out a way to automate, systemize, or eliminate as many household tasks as possible. This includes chores and errands. The next step is to automate more administrative tasks like ordering dog food, scheduling appointments, and booking travel.
Another horizon would be keeping track of where things are. I have what amounts to a 3D mental hologram of every object in our home, as well as several other homes of family and friends. My superpower does not, though, make me responsible for keeping track of other people’s stuff! One day, an AI will have this ability and then it will make sense to interrupt *it* instead of me.
Since this function would be so valuable in manufacturing and inventory management, it WILL eventually arise and become widely available.
The household of the future will run itself. It will clean itself, schedule its own maintenance, stock itself with supplies, and track the location of objects, maybe even uninvited insects. With 3D food printing, everyone can have a personalized meal on demand, including guests. The house and the computer will effectively merge. Household chores and errands will become as antiquated for the average suburban family as churning butter and trimming lantern wicks are today.
We’re already at the point where commonly available software can track our budgets, order groceries and other household supplies, schedule appointments, and even suggest entertainment options. Not that far into the future, there will be nothing left to argue about except whose job it is to give the cat a pill, unless of course it’s a robot cat. We might as well get started on figuring out what to argue about next, and maybe the voice assistant of tomorrow can mediate.
***NOTE: I formatted and scheduled this post on Saturday, January 13, 2018. BTC was trading at about $14,100.***
I thought it was 2014, but I went rooting around in my Sent folder and found the email trail. My husband and I seriously considered getting into Bitcoin in November of 2013, and decided against it. It had jumped that month from about $200 to about $600 the week we considered it. As I write this, in January of 2018, a BTC is valued at nearly $15,000. We could have made 24x on our investment!!! Right?!?!? The natural emotional response of most people who looked back on this kind of decision would be deep regret. “The one that got away.” We stand by our decision, and in some ways we’re even more confirmed that we did the smart thing.
The short version is that I had an extended conversation with a good friend of mine who was a Bitcoin miner. She and her husband had been into it for a couple-few years, and they had already made a bunch of money. Technically, kind of literally they had “made money,” in the sense that they were creating new Bitcoins. I already knew what Bitcoin was. Through this conversation I grasped the premise that we could set up an extra computer in the office and, over time, it might generate a tiny amount of this speculative figment called cryptocurrency.
I went home and told my husband about it, which I will discuss three paragraphs from now.
Then I went into a research black hole.
When something ignites my curiosity, there’s no stopping me. I will open two dozen tabs, read 800-page books, speed-listen to podcast episodes on 3x, talk to anyone and everyone to find out what they know, and basically let the topic eat my brain. Sometimes this goes on forever, and other times I find out enough to satisfy me in a few days or hours. In the case of cryptocurrency, it went on my news radar and stayed there in the background.
One of the constant themes my husband and I have in our conversations is “Walking Dead Future vs. Star Trek Future.” Cryptocurrency definitely fell on that track. I can and do research and make my own investments, and if I had wanted to go into Bitcoin alone, I certainly would have. I knew my husband would be interested in it, though, because he’s a numismatist. That means he’s extremely interested in coins. In fact, he makes museum-quality replica hammered coins. Anyone with that level of fascination in the history of money would obviously take note of cryptocurrency. Would we jump on the bandwagon, though?
First, we looked over the extra computer equipment we had sitting around in the office gathering dust. We quickly figured out that it wasn’t robust enough to generate any BTC. If we wanted to do this at a serious level, it would cost us nice flat green American dollars to upgrade our computer setup. There is little short-term risk in this kind of investment, because if we wanted out, we could either use that rig for something else or we could sell it and recoup part of the cost. (Until three years went by and the whole lot of it became laughably obsolete). Digging a little deeper, we learned that people were already dealing with the problem of dispelling the extra heat from their rooms of dedicated Bitcoin machines. Getting started as miners would cost us a lot of real-world money, and we’d be competing in an ever-escalating computing arms race.
At that point, we pivoted. Mining wasn’t a strategy for us, so what if we just speculated and bought some BTC?
The reason we passed was that in 2013, Bitcoin couldn’t buy anything. We couldn’t pay our rent with it. We couldn’t make our car payment with it. We couldn’t buy groceries with it. All we could really do was to save it and hope it was worth more one day, and that at a certain threshold, mainstream retail establishments would start accepting it. To my knowledge, that has not yet happened at even one single business entity where we routinely make transactions.
In 2013, we were still catching up financially. I married a man in recovery from a disastrous divorce settlement, and he married a woman with student loans. (Well, two in a row, actually). We had a guaranteed 16% rate of return from continuing to pay off our credit card debt. We had money in the market that we weren’t even remotely planning to pull out, which is great, because we did well between 2013 and 2018. We had everything to gain from continuing to earn, spend, and invest traditional US dollars, and only a dim future to imagine with Bitcoin.
Then I kept doing research and waving my mental antennae.
There were more potential pitfalls with cryptocurrency than we had realized at first blush. First off, cryptocurrency most likely will be a key player in the AI-flavored, robotic, Space Age near future. The question is, which cryptocurrency? There’s been significant drama among the people who run the Bitcoin show. What if the real winner winds up being Dogecoin? Second, international fiscal policy and potential currency manipulation. Third, the wallets. There was no guarantee that the company we trusted to store our BTC would continue to exist a decade later. I also read stories of people being hacked and robbed, and you know you’re living in a libertarian paradise when there’s no legal enforcement and nothing anyone can or will do about it. Fourth, loss. Lost BTC is already legendary; even Elon Musk has lost some.
Hold that thought, because what Elon Musk does is highly relevant to the way my hubby and I make strategic decisions. Study hard, work hard, create value, create the future. Don’t act like Elon; think like Elon. But I digress.
The funniest thing about cryptocurrency is that so many of the players seem to be worried about that Walking Dead Future I mentioned earlier. Um, what are you going to do with your BTC when the power goes out and stays out? Seriously! Might be better off at that point trading bottle caps.
The thing about the history of money is that it’s gone through a lot of very weird phases. What we’re looking at with the dawn of cryptocurrency is just like the early days, in Colonial America, when people issued their own competing currencies and scrip. Many cultures and eras have produced cool museum artifacts in the form of “money” that is only “worth” anything due to its status as a rare collectible. Exactly, exactly like postage stamps.
Stuff is only worth what someone will pay you for it. Or the use you get out of it.
If you believe in the Walking Dead Future, build your physical stamina, work on your wilderness survival and food preservation skills, and put the bulk of your effort into learning communication and leadership. If my game is Get Allies and your game is Anarchy, I’m going to be your new queen. You may kiss the ring. Guards, deal with him. If you believe in the Star Trek Future, what makes you think money is going to be such a big deal anyway? Part of why my husband and I still deal in ordinary American dollars is that we’ve already lived through the beginning of the Information Age. We remember when long distance phone calls were very expensive, and now they’re virtually free. Pretty much the same thing happened with minimum viable food and clothes. Next it’s going to be electricity, wi-fi, and transportation. This isn’t the post for the full gamut of my futurist predictions, but they’re relevant to why we passed on Bitcoin.
We’re not really skeptical about cryptocurrency. Of course it will be relevant in the future, of course it will! (Which one, though?) Still, we’re glad we didn’t buy in back in 2013. We would have made anywhere from $15,000 to maaaaybe $45,000. We paid off our credit cards and increased our earning power significantly in that time. We also realized far larger gains in US money with our strategy than we would have by using it to speculate on BTC. Also, how would we know when to cash out? What would be the point of a virtual wallet that was only “worth something” as long as we left it in there? What about the transaction costs? What about a false sense of security? If we’d bought BTC four years ago, I’m sure we’d be squabbling right now about whether we’re in a bubble (probably) or whether it’s just a hockey stick. We’ll have a better idea about that in another four years. In the meantime, we’ll continue to focus on building our real-world earning and survival skills, as well as our real-world financial wealth.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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