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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.