Om Malik on the Silver Lining effect of crises on tech innovation

Om Malik, partner at True Ventures, founder of GigaOm, and colleague of mine from the early days of Forbes.com, has written a great piece on the positive impact of recessions, pandemics, and bubbles. Drawing on his first-hand experience in San Francisco’s tech scene after the combination punches of the dot.com collapse and 9/11 attacks, Om celebrates the impact of grim times on entrepreneurs who take the opportunity during dips in the economic cycle to invent the next big thing.

Flickr, web applications like Yahoo and Gmail, social media, tagging, and other fundamentals of the social media revolution all blossomed out of the dark pessimism of the early millennial years. As coders and creators are freed from the tedium of improving old tools — partially by finding themselves out of a job with time on their hands — and the distractions of an over-hyped market where too much money chases too few valid ideas, the result of a depressed techonomy can be the invention of entirely new categories of tools and services.

The crisis has given us a chance to take a step back, and think about what’s possible in the future. The simple fact a third of American workers were able to continue working remotely is a testament to the original vision of the Internet as a military network capable of withstanding a targeted strike. Without the connectivity of the Internet and near ubiquity of broadband home connections, the option to social distance wouldn’t have been imaginable. Smart entrepreneurs look at a crisis — be it a virus or a recession or an act of terrorism — seeking what was revealed, what was missing, and what will persist in the future. The post COVID world won’t be all about on-demand shopping. Instead it could be about resilient on-demand manufacturing that is automated and optimized. It won’t be telemedicine. It will be new bio-sensors and technologies that are in sync with our reality a decade from now.

Why every tech downturn has a silver lining, Om Malik

Malthusian Catastrophes

Pondering Malthus and Koyaanisqatsi

I was hyper-focused on something the other afternoon, half-listening to a playlist of random ambient music on the sonos when Philip Glass’ soundtrack to the 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi began to play.

The word means “world out of balance” in the Hopi language (or as my father would have said: ” Fubar.” It’s a beautiful film, especially when it was first released nearly 40 years ago, a stoner flick to be appreciated after a few bong hits in the dorm before heading to the midnight showing at the local art house cinema.

Reflecting on the present pandemic and its politicization as the world crawls out of quarantine into the future, I have to wonder if this and future pandemic threats to our health and social fabric are symptoms of a world out of balance, where geography and the natural barriers of oceans and time have been rendered irrelevant by technology, where natural processes and systems from the climate to gender roles have been turned on their head by genetically modified crops, wide-body jets, and instant communications which can speed both facts and propaganda as well as an infected passenger in the middle seat in aisle 42 into our lives faster than ever before.

Thomas Malthus was the English economist who posited the theory that improvements to productivity are not used to increase our quality of life, but to expand our population in a series of boom/bust cycles that punish the most disadvantaged segments the hardest. Coming out of an era of plague, such as the epidemic of 1666 that ravaged London, Malthusian economics was summed up by its creator thusly:

“Yet in all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment [i.e., marriage] is so strong that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition.”

 Malthus, T. R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter II,

Malthus observed a boom and bust cycle of population growth and crashes and came to the conclusion that rather than achieve a balanced equilibrium, progress and society tend to use any gains to expand, not improve. Population growth is the top of mind agenda of three significantly wealthy and wise individuals: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros…. all have prioritized population as the focus of their philanthropy. These aren’t cold-hearted eugenicists who advocate sterilizing the poor, or even eating them as Jonathan Swift suggested in his “modest proposal” of 1729.

The COVID-19 crisis is an great example of a Malthusian Catastrophe: an event such as a famine, war, genocide, or epidemic which tend to happen when things seem great but suddenly go out of balance. Famine used to be the great check valve on unbridled population growth, but the Green Revolution that followed World War II and the growing use of pesticides, hybrid strains of grain, and industrial agriculture has diminished the severity of famine save for a few susceptible regions such as the Horn of Africa. It also wiped out the local osprey population until Rachel Carson started the environmental movement with Silent Spring. Now the osprey are back and its nursing home residents who are disappearing.

Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

— Thomas Malthus, 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter VII

Here is Massachusetts, and elsewhere in the country, COVID-19 has hit hardest in the poorest neighborhoods where crowded housing, poor healthcare and nutrition, and other factors particular to the impoverished have caused infection rates to soar far higher than more affluent zip codes. Chelsea, Brockton, Lawrence …. the virus burns hottest for the poorest and thrives on the weakest, the oldest, the sickest. I read last night that 50% of COVID deaths occurred in the counties within 100 miles of New York City. For a person living in North Dakota, where social isolation is the norm, the pandemic is irrelevant. For an elderly Latina with diabetes and COPD in Chelsea, it’s a death sentence.

Immigration didn’t bring the virus to America. During the Ebola scare in the late summer of 2015 conservatives reacted with great paranoia over the “jet age” effects of a single infected person flying from the west coast of Africa to New York, politicizing the disease in their ongoing agenda of restricting free immigration and opening America’s borders. Their calls for a cordon sanitaire then are not being repeated now, as critics of the shutdown ask why governments and public health organizations tanked the economy to avoid a pandemic that seems to pick off the elderly and the poor the most. For a college student in Fort Lauderdale in early March, it was worth sacrificing granny a few years sooner than expected so the wet t-shirt contests could go on.

Society is fracturing into two camps as it comes out of hiding, two camps who have dug in to embrace very different realities. For the conservative segment, the issue is about freedom and free markets as the best system to distribute wealth and regulate society. For the progressive wing, it’s about protecting the weak and sacrificing some growth and profit to improve the lot of the most vulnerable. But in the end the virus doesn’t care, neither does the next crop blight or typhoon. We’re all just passengers on the boom-bust roller coaster and destined to do to ourselves what our ancestors did to themselves — waiting for the next Malthusian catastrophe to remind us our world is indeed, our of balance.

“I see!” said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw.

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Corona Project:  build an outdoor shower.  Gas powered post hole diggers are like riding God’s own corkscrew down into the earth and hanging on for the ride. At one point it got away from me and did it’s own thing for a few out-of-control revolutions before bashing into the side of the house long enough for me to regain control.

Me and carpentry is like watching the apprentice clown ring in a three-ring circus. The clown car arrives and I do nothing but walk in tight circles constantly looking for pencils, tape measures, bubble levels, spuds. finish nails, driver bits, countersinks, chalk lines, t-squares, and my mind.  Patting my pockets, digging into my pants, checking my phone. Sometime aphasic while I have a brain fart and get dyslectic in front of the miter saw. Kneeling, crouching, standing up  are accompanied by grunts and crepitus. Tape measures hide from me.

I think about building a boat as I chop up the red cedar. But I know if this shower could float, it wouldn’t. My joinery skills are self-taught from YouTube. Who knew a Skil saw could cut dadoes? 

 

An expert opinion on cutting away the masts during a shipwreck

Last November, just as I started writing the first draft of The Wrecks and War of Bethuel Handy, I made a pilgrimage to Mystic Seaport to spend some time aboard the last surviving whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan.  I pestered the docent who was standing by the ship’s wheel with all sorts of questions about the restoration project that resulted in the Morgan making a cruise up the New England coast  during the summer of 2014. I was in Provincetown  when the ship came into the harbor under sail and was in awe of seeing such a mythical ship alive again.

I watched a few videos about the restoration and the cruise, and paid close attention to the words of the Morgan‘s captain, Kip Files, as he described the process of wearing ship, or tacking.

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Captain Kip Files and the Charles W. Morgan, via Mystic Seaport

A few weeks ago I hunted him down on LinkedIn and asked him, as the only living captain of a whaling ship, what he thought of Bethuel Handy’s options as the Phoenix went ashore on Elbow Island in the Sea of Okhotsk during a mid-October blizzard. He kindly replied and asked for more information — which I pulled together from my research and sent to him last night. Here’s what he had to say about Bethuel’s options at 4 am on October 11, 1858 off the coast of Siberia:

“Interesting story. Very tuff situation.  There is no true way to get off a lee shore. Every time would be different as the shore, waves, current and wind would hardly be the same. It is something an experienced captain would take all his years of knowledge of sailing and his particular vessel to give it a try. having only one anchor made his job more difficult. . There would be no helm ( steering by rudder) until the vessel had some way on. Even then in those seas it would be a miracle if it responded at all. you would need lots of movement by the rudder for it to respond.

 Cutting away the mast. I do not think there would be time. Desperate move not knowing were they would fall. They are built to stay in place just cutting them might force them thru the deck. I have never known anyone to do this but it is possible. I am going to read this again. Hard to get what is going thru the captains mind. Logs don’t reflect it well as they show no emotion on purpose.  Do you have the lat and long of were this happened? I might have a better feel for what was happening.  I do know that the class of whaling ship are pretty handy. They sail a lot better than shore side experts give them credit. 

Kip

I’m really looking forward to his reaction after he reads the sailing instructions for the Gulf of Uda and the Shantar Islands.  It sounds like sailing in hell to me.

Benefits of Virtualization: Online Clamming License Renewals

Hats off to the Town of Barnstable, in particular the Harbormaster and Department of Natural Resources for embracing online renewals and payments for things like dinghy permits and clamming licenses.

While I used to consider my mooring renewals to be one of those annual chores that had to be performed in person lest I lose one of my precious moorings, there’s something to be said about finally being able to tick off the nagging little things like clam licenses without driving down Capt. Phinney’s Lane to the Harbormaster’s office to hand over a check and get a laminated permit and a red license holder. Now I can just hand over a credit card online, get a PDF of the permit and store it on my phone with Evernote. If I need a physical copy — which I do — I’ll just print it out at home, laminate it myself, and keep a hard copy in my boat bag along with my Mass Audubon card for access to Sampson’s Island, my boat registration, and the other ephemera I need when I’m on the water.

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License to Clam

Governments have been a bit slow to embrace online payments, but now with everyone looking for a way to transact essential business without infecting themselves or others, it appears the coronavirus pandemic has forced the issue and motivated various public services from tax collectors to the state’s registry of motor vehicles to move as many transactions online as possible. My driver’s license expires in two weeks, and alas, when I went to renew that online I got rejected and will have to make an appointment to show up in person to get a new picture taken. But other than that, the Harbormaster in particular has really made a difference for me this spring by moving more of its permits and payments online.

 

Foreword to The Wreck and War of Bethuel G. Handy

Here is the foreword to my book about Bethuel Gifford’s and Thomas Chatfield’s adventures. A download link for a PDF version of the first chapter — the wreck of the whaling ship Phoenix is at the bottom of this post. Enjoy. Comments and criticism most appreciated.

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The shoreline of an island in the Shantar Archipelago

Foreword

I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.                                                            Herman Melville, Moby Dick

 

They were the sort of  men who clubbed baby seals, tattooed their faces during drunken benders, spread syphilis throughout Polynesia, and carved pornography into the teeth of dead sperm whales. They were fugitive alcoholics shaking in their bunks with delirium tremens,  greenhorn farm boys keen for an adventure, negroes and Wampanoags and descendants of Hessian mercenaries stranded by the defeated British Army.  They were controlled by acerbic mates from bleak Cape Cod villages who kept to themselves, mostly brothers and cousins, nephews and uncles, and were fast with their fists to keep the scum from rising up from the mephitic stench of the forecastle to mutiny on the high seas.

The first thing that happened to them when the pilot was sent ashore and the ship cleared Gay Head was the collection of their knives so the captain could snap off their points in a seam of the deck, blunting them to reduce the number of stabbings. They were divided into watches and picked by the mates in a quick draft to sit in one of the five whaleboats. The Captain had one, the chief or first mate another, and so on down to the fourth mate. Each whaleboat carried six men. The mates and captain steered. The other five pulled an oar. The harpooner pulled the bow oar because he did his work from the prow of the light boat, bracing his knee in a semicircle cut into the thwart, reaching behind to his right to lift a harpoon from its split oak crutch.

Once a whale was struck, the harpooner and the mate swapped ends, rushing to pass the other and take their place while the whale ran, sounding deep and taking fathoms of line with it. Then the harpooner took the tiller and became the boatsteerer and the mate lifted a long lance and prepared to kill the leviathan by stabbing it in the heart and lungs until it expelled a geyser of dark red blood through its spout.

They were butchers who could cut up a whale and convert it into oil. They worked in gore, slipped on decks marinated in fat and blood, and lost their sense of smell  as the fishy stench of whale shit and blood festered out of the woodgrain in the tropical heat. If they fell from the rigging, dislocated a shoulder, or sliced themselves open flensing blubber from a whale they had to heal on their own. If their muscles ached and their teeth became loose then they were scorbutic and began to die in the absence of fresh fruit and vegetables, barely subsisting on a diet of salted meat and dry crackers.

They were men who voyaged into the void of the ocean for three years at a time, self-contained in their 100-foot ships, self-sufficient with enough rations and water to keep them alive for months without going ashore. They sailed into the blank spaces on the charts, to places no hydrographer had surveyed, coming upon indigenous people who gawked at the tall ships cruising into idyllic atolls and Arctic straits, corrupting them with bottles of rum and firearms, then inevitably fighting them and leaving them to die with some new pestilence.

They sailed  to the antipodes where they could be beastly men far from the judgment of those they left behind.

They were whalers and they were fortune seekers a hot for a dollar as any prospector or ambitious American. They were the operators of the most complicated and highly engineered machines in existence: tall ships built to survive the caprices of the sea.  In those ships they prospered, and many died. In those ships they explored lands as alien as the planets they navigated by.

They were equivalent to  astronauts as they explored the blank spaces around the edges of the known world. Their space capsule was made of oak and pine; tar,  hemp and canvas; 100-foot, three-masted abattoirs that announced themselves by their stench wafting on the wind long before the emerged over the horizon.

They guessed where they were all the time, sailing with only a rough  idea of where they were and where they were going, but never exactly  sure until they sighted a known landmark. They existed as lost men lost in the void of the true blue sea.

They lived with doubt whenever they sailed. They rarely stopped, only going ashore and anchoring in ports where water and food could be found or bought,  and oil and bone could be sold. If they stopped then some would run away, undone by the constant anxiety of the endless blue water passages through doldrums and cyclones. They fled and hid until the ship sailed away, emerging from their hiding places to stand on the beach, new men becoming shuffling, sun-burned beachcombers and Crusoe’s beneaped and stranded  far from home.

The ones who stayed aboard placed their trust and lives in the abilities of the aloof figure who stood alone and unapproachable at the windward shrouds by the wheel. He was the only man aboard other than the mate, who had  the knowledge and the tools to find and measure the angles of the  sun and the moon and the stars. He was the only man who could calculate and note  in the ship’s log, with the shaky confidence of a scientist who doubts his tools — his hand wound chronometer gimballed in a box, the fogged, cracked glass of the  eyepiece of his spray warped    wood and ivory quadrant – the daily position of the ship. That made him the Master of the ship, the diviner of the celestial mysteries, the holder of the knowledge that made him king of the floating kingdom and kept his three dozen illiterate subjects obedient and at bay in their miserable lair under the deck of the ship’s bluff bow.

They were fugitives from justice, raging alcoholics, Wampanoag Indians in debt to English merchants, runaway slaves, green farm boys, and romantic dandies flunked out of college. They lived like scorbutic  troglodytes in narrow bunks, the walls of the ship oozing green mold in the tropics, stinking up the fug filled stagnant air with their coughs and their flatulence. They never bathed. Knowing how to swim only prolonged their agony should they fall overboard because the ship never stopped, and even if they were lucky enough to grab a line trailing astern, there was no way they could pull themselves back aboard. They deserted the first chance they could;  preferring to take their chances ashore with cannibals than remain aboard another day. They fled the ships  if their captain was foolish enough to come into a port and give them an option to run away but  most captains were too short-handed to offer them that temptation. So they stayed at sea for months at a time, never sure of where they were, depending on the captain’s incantations and formulas to There were no drugs to soothe the constant anxiety of life aboard a wooden sailing ship with no EPIRB beacons, no radios, no GPS plotters, not even charts of the oceans because in some cases they were the first men to visit the strange islands of the South Pacific or the desolate barren coasts of the arctic.

They drank out of desperation to numb themselves long enough to endure. They persevered if they didn’t desert and rode out the will of the sea and the temper of the captain until their ordeal was finally over and they were lucky to walk away with a sliver sized  share of the profits, barely enough to pay off their debts to the ship and to pay for a bender in a New Bedford brothel. They found themselves aboard again the following fall for lack of any other place to go in the society of the land.

These were the sort of  men that  Bethuel Gifford Handy, Jr. — 29 years-old and the eldest son of the Handy-Nickerson clans of Cotuit Port —  was in command of in the spring of 1858, on the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix, as she tacked back and forth off the shores of Honolulu, her first captain going ashore all worn out and ill and incapable of command. Handy had shipped out two years before as the first mate of the Phoenix.  Now, on only his second whaling voyage, he was in command of 36 men desperate to follow their former captain ashore and be free from the fear of the summer ahead in the Russian Sea of Okhotsk, the worst waters on the planet, a sea covered by ice three-quarters of the year and fog the rest. A  bitterly cold stark place with rough shores with no ports, no charts, no brothels, nothing but sullen natives, deranged Russians on the edge of civilization, and vast herds of right whales congregating in the kitchen of the Pacific to feast on tons of microscopic plankton. They wouldn’t be alone. There would be hundreds of other ships, identical to their own, all of them  three-masted, tall ships painted black with sheer sides and blunt bows, floating factory ships designed to hunt, chase, kill and butcher the largest animals on the planet.

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Download link for Chapter One:

Chapter One The Wreck and War of Bethuel Gifford: The Wreck