Rick Steves on Fascism

Yesterday I watched this Rick Steves Documentary on Fascism after seeing it linked from kottke.org. It’s quite a good, if slightly oversimplified, recount of the rise of Fascism in Europe. While never explicitly mentioning he-who-shall-not-be-named, the documentary isn’t subtle in its comparisons to modern-day Fascist-style “cult of personality” leaders. It’s pretty chilling.

As Kottke notes though, one of the most chilling parallels is the sheer similarity of Mussolini’s mannerisms to 45. Holy crap; who knew these guys were literally stamped from the same mold?

Another somewhat humorous, somewhat sad aspect to this is the number of 1-star reviews on the Amazon version from folks who are very very upset by this documentary’s “liberal agenda”. If you published this 15 years ago it would have been totally un-contentious, but in 2020 some people are really grasping at straws to feel good about the side they picked.

September 15, 2020 Keynote Thoughts

Initial thoughts on the Sept 15 keynote: kinda underwhelming. There were a few notable announcements:

  • O2 sensor was the highlight of the event (and how timely), though we are missing some important details like when it samples in the background and how accurate it is. As with any health-related consumer technology there’s a catchy story and marketing here, but I don’t buy the message until we see some hard science about how well it works in practice.

  • The Apple Watch SE is probably a good move and may end up being the best selling version. Apple continues to cut price and double down on cheaper materials (and adding color) which I think acknowledges that they understand this is mainly going to appeal to customers as an inexpensive fun sports watch, not dressy jewelry. Price still isn’t where I think it should be though; volume will probably turn a corner when they can get this down to $200 or lower.

  • The family + watch stuff is interesting; I can see this being a compelling product for parents who want a timekeeping GPS tracker strapped to their kids at all times. I can’t see kids really enjoying using it though. Siri would be a pain for serious messaging, as would long phone calls talking into your wrist, and there aren’t really compelling apps.

  • Touch ID and Face ID in iPads heralds a potential return of Touch ID to phones as well. I think this could be a good move, given that COVID makes Face ID suck, and there are some security concerns with Face ID as well. It can’t be that expensive to add both sensors at iPhone price points anyway.

But overall…

Maybe I’m just getting bad at drinking the kool-aid, but parts of this keynote were downright cringe-worthy. I could barely stomach the “my watch can do that” ad; this was a total Homer Car moment to me. Shoving an endless number of tiny sensors into a gadget doesn’t make it a good, balanced product. Little moments in the ad focused on the “neatness” of having all these sensors and features, less on why the product as a whole actually exists.

I also raised an eye a bit at the Fitness+ stuff. Apple is offering a service that nobody else can because the hardware is just too locked down and restrictive. It’s almost the best example to date of the kind of stranglehold Apple has on the market, especially with watch (which has such poor third party support that it’s basically only a first party device). Lots of other players like Nike and Strava likely have more interesting products to offer in this space, but they will never be allowed by Apple to compete. This is a shitty deal for consumers, especially during COVID where these types of at-home fitness products could actually make a real difference.

I know I’m often negative about Apple these days but it is really hard to understand what the end game is here. If I fast forward 10 years, is my life just an increasingly-large pile of Apple smart products that I have to charge nightly, that only talk to each other, that only run Apple apps or approved apps? Tied to a pile of Apple subscription services that I pay for monthly? That seems downright dystopian.

COVID-19 is a Trial Run

COVID-19 has killed a lot of people, especially in the US. According to Worldometers.info as of today (August 19) we stand at almost 800,000 deaths worldwide, with the US accounting for over 175,000 of them. There have been around 22.5 million infected, with 5.7 million of those in the US. And that’s just confirmed cases; with under-reporting, real case counts are likely to be much higher.

Looking at the mortality rate hardly paints an accurate picture of the damage this disease does. In those that haven’t died we’re hearing anecdotal evidence of people being sick for months or having permanent heart and lung damage even if they showed no visible symptoms. I think we’re likely to see higher medical costs and lower life expectancy for years to come. That the US accounts for a full quarter of total cases (likely more because of under-reporting) means the US will bear a significant percentage of those future costs relative to other countries. There are economic costs as well; because our closures have extended so long, they’ve caused many businesses to shutter and many people to lose jobs. No matter how you look at it, the US is weaker as a country than it’s been in a very long time.

And yet, COVID is far from a worst case scenario as far as viruses go.

SARS and MERS both have significantly higher mortality rates, as does Ebola which kills about half of the people it infects. However, none of those have spread very well. The trifecta of (1) short incubation periods, (2) low numbers of asymptomatic carriers, and (3) high mortality rates (2 and 3 are likely correlated) seems to be a poor combination for widespread infection. What makes COVID so much better at spreading is just how few people it kills, and in how many people it’s quite mild. The longer asymptomatic period for many people and total lack of symptoms for a few mean that carriers lack the feedback that they’re infected, giving them more chances to spread the disease.

In other words, Typhoid Mary was so devastating precisely because she lacked symptoms. We have a whole country of Typhoid Marys now.

Other countries have solved this problem by aggregating information about positive tests and population movement, allowing them to predict a positive test before symptoms necessitate a need to get tested (if they ever even manifest). This of course is what we call contact tracing, which the US does not do because of its invasiveness. However, invasive as it is, it’s hard to argue with its effectiveness.

Other countries have also been willing to close borders and mandate business closures, mask usage, and distancing at a level the US has not been able to attain. That’s also been quite effective.

Now, hypothetical time: imagine a virus similar to COVID but with a longer incubation period and a higher mortality rate. You wouldn’t have to bump either very much; a doubled mortality rate (I won’t cite COVID’s as the number is contentious, but let’s say it’s a single-digit rate north of 1%, so doubling will be a number north of 2%) plus a few extra days of incubation time on average would likely kill an exponentially higher number of people. We should actually be grateful that COVID-19 is so mild! With a different virus might be burying millions of corpses in the US alone by now.

But I think it’s only a matter of time before we are facing that virus, and we are burying that many corpses. Evolution is just a large number of dice rolls; as we see a higher world population with more people traveling internationally than ever before, the odds begin to get a little more stacked against us because the dice are just rolled more often. And when a dice roll produces something bad, it has that many more chances to spread. I’m not even going to touch engineered viruses here, but that’s a thing that may be on the horizon as well.

COVID was a warning shot. But the next shot might not be a warning shot, and it might not be so forgiving to a country that feels it has the luxury of such silly indulgences as debating the inconvenience of wearing a tiny piece of cloth over a tiny percentage of ones body (if it even has the manufacturing strength to produce enough masks in the first place). “But the government telling me to do this thing infringes on my individual freedom!” you say. The next virus may not care that you feel bad by having to wear a mask, or that it’s inconvenient to be able to go wherever you want in your city at all times for a few weeks or months. It may just kill you and a bunch of people you care about anyway. Viruses are like that; they don’t care about your freedom. They aren’t an enemy you can shoot with your stockpile of guns. America’s notion of enemies is dated: the government, border-crossing Mexicans, or dark-skinned Muslims in a faraway land where as Disney says, “they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. American’s notion of enemies doesn’t include a tiny pathogen that you cannot even see.

And that really is the lesson we need to take away from all of this. We are now at war, and that war is against things like tiny pathogens. Or clever Russians who know how to manipulate how you think by presenting you with a steady stream of innocuous-looking articles that don’t seem bad but are secretly chock full of misinformation that changes how you think without you even realizing. Or any number of things. A ton of Americans are geared up for a fake hypothetical war to defend their land from the government (and the entire US military if you can believe it). And our military is all geared up for proxy wars in faraway lands over oil deals. But those kinds of wars aren’t real wars we’re facing, and we have few defenses against the actual wars going on right now. In those real wars and against those real enemies we are piddling and defenseless. America is weak, and our chances of survival depend on adapting and rising to the occasion. Without that, defeat is the only possible outcome, and the only question is when that will happen.

Time for a revamp

So, after leaving a crappy web 1.0 html page here for far too long, I’ve decided to revamp things a bit. I’ll be posting some hopefully-thought-provoking medium-form content here, with a focus on technology of course, since that’s what I spend a lot of time doing (turns out after 20 years in this field I have some opinions).

I have a kind of a strange and skeptical view towards high technology these days. While some technological innovation has been absolutely transformative:

  • smartphones and the access to information and resources they provide, especially for people in poorer countries
  • the growth of Linux and high quality open source software

…some technological changes have been more dubious:

  • Facebook and the movement of social interactions to platforms whose primary drivers are to capture ad revenue at any cost to user happiness
  • Uber and the movement from transit infrastructure as a human right to transit infrastructure as a commercial enterprise
  • The use of surveillance technology to spy on and track people, either by governments (China) or by companies (Google)

(These are just examples; the list goes on.)

What we’ve seen is that while many technological changes are good for humanity, not all are. In fact nothing inherent in the creation of new technologies guarantees that they will be good ideas or forward progress. As both individuals and a society it’s left to us to answer the question of what is good or bad, what do we want to adopt and what do we want to avoid or change. I’m hoping to explore some of that here, to help both myself and others be more conscientious of what technologies we use, what those technologies enable for us, and what they take away.

Remember, the purpose of technology isn’t to have fancy gadgets or do something in a cool way that’s never been done before; the purpose is to make our lives better.