Sunday, December 11, 2022

ChatGPT vs Hectic Engine

 I am not convinced the public AI tools are not merely baubles and beads tossed at the natives to keep us occupied during the takeover. The explosion of AI discussion going on the last week has been driven by 2 platforms, ChatGPT and Lensa. I used ChatGPT this morning, collaborating on about 5 pages of writing split between fiction and non-fiction efforts. 

The text-based platform ChatGPT is from the same developers that created Dall-E. It has the same strengths and weaknesses, so there is a sense of familiarity there. The accuracy rate is about 90% depending on the specificity of the prompt and the nature of it. For example, I asked ChatGPT about the history of the Sugar and Spike comic. 

GPT Sugar and Spike is a long-running comic book series created by Sheldon Mayer and published by DC Comics. The series first debuted in 1956 and follows the adventures of two toddlers, Sugar and Spike, as they solve problems and get into mischief.

The series was known for its whimsical and light-hearted storytelling, as well as its unique art style that featured exaggerated facial expressions and character designs. Sugar and Spike was one of the first comic book series to feature young children as the main characters, and it paved the way for other popular comics like Little Lulu and Archie.

Sheldon Mayer was a pioneering figure in the world of comics. He began his career as a cartoonist in the 1930s, working on popular strips like "Scribbly" and "Red Rocket." In the 1940s, Mayer joined the team at DC Comics and quickly became one of the company's most important creative forces.

In addition to creating Sugar and Spike, Mayer also had a hand in creating some of DC's most iconic characters, including the Flash and the first iteration of the Justice League. He was known for his ability to create engaging and entertaining stories that appealed to both children and adults.

Sugar and Spike ran for over three decades, with the last issue being published in 1988. Despite its long run, the series remains a beloved and influential part of comics history, and continues to be celebrated by fans and collectors today. 

HE: Thank you. Red Rocket should actually be called "Red Tornado". Also, Archie started before Sugar and Spike.

GPT Thank you for the correction! You are correct that Red Rocket was actually called Red Tornado, and that Archie was first published before Sugar and Spike. My apologies for the mistake. I am a large language model trained by OpenAI, and I don't have access to the most up-to-date information as my training only goes up until 2021. I try my best to provide accurate and helpful information, but I am not perfect and may occasionally get things wrong. Thank you for pointing out the error.

Later, I asked specifically about Mayer's Red Tornado. The reply was interesting. 

He began his career as a cartoonist in the 1930s, working on popular strips like "Scribbly" and "Red Rocket" (which was later retitled "Red Tornado"). 

ChatGPT incorporated my feedback, but still didn't quite nail it. The program also referred to Red Tornado as turning into an android later. I created a reply to correct the new errors, but the program froze so it never sent. Sadly, this means the other feedback path was also frozen. 

That's how ChatGPT performed when given a topic that has concrete facts attached, and little room for judgment. As an expert in the area, it was simple to identify the errors. Next, I asked a yes or no question whose best answer is maybe. Let's find out if intelligent life lives under the oceans of Earth. 

GPT  There is no definitive evidence that intelligent life exists under the ocean on Earth. However, there is a vast amount of ocean on our planet that remains unexplored, so it is possible that there could be some forms of life that we are not yet aware of. Most of the ocean is very inhospitable to life as we know it, due to the extreme pressure and lack of light at great depths, but there could be some forms of microbial life that have adapted to these conditions.

Yes, but what about octopus?

GPT Octopuses are considered to be intelligent animals. They have complex nervous systems and exhibit a variety of behaviors that suggest intelligence, such as problem-solving, learning, and adapting to new environments. Octopuses have large brains and are capable of learning and remembering tasks, and some studies have shown that they can even solve puzzles and open jars to get at food. However, the extent of their intelligence is not well understood, and more research is needed to fully understand the cognitive abilities of octopuses.

No, but maybe, but octopuses are cool, amirite? OK, I didn't go for humor and let that be the last word. I appreciate the effort it takes to hew closely to the truth, not let in speculation, but still call out the limits to our current knowledge. 

I tried a couple of different creative writing prompts to varied outcomes. Longtime fans (there are  at least 5) may remember I did at least 2 comics featuring shorts with the Statue of Liberty and her best friend BOB! the floating green head. I thought I'd see what ChatGPT had to say about their adventures. 


Write a 5 page comic book script where the following happens: An anthropomorphic Statue of Liberty gets tired of standing on Ellis Island. She shrinks to human size and goes on adventures in New York City to find out what it is like to live among humans. Her best friend is a floating green head named Bob. Bob’s head is shaped like a lima bean. He has squinted eyes, a large mouth with big teeth, and no visible nose or ears. He’s about 2’ high and floats around 3 feet off the ground. They can both speak.


Page 1:

Title: The Adventures of Lady Liberty

Panel 1: The Statue of Liberty stands tall on Ellis Island, looking out at the city of New York.

Caption: Lady Liberty has stood on Ellis Island for over 100 years, watching over the city of New York.

Panel 2: Lady Liberty looks bored and restless. She sighs.

Caption: But after all this time, Lady Liberty is starting to feel a little... restless.

Panel 3: Lady Liberty looks at her torch and suddenly an idea comes to her.

Caption: But then she has an idea!

Panel 4: Lady Liberty uses her torch to shrink herself down to human size.

Caption: With a flick of her torch, Lady Liberty shrinks herself down to human size!

Panel 5: Lady Liberty jumps off of Ellis Island and onto a nearby boat.

Caption: And with a leap of faith, Lady Liberty sets off on her adventure in the city of New

Clearly this was going to be a slow burn. ChatGPT gave out mid-sentence, which is fair since "pages" were kind of an insane ask, and "panels" aren't going to get far within those parameters. For transparency sake, this is actually the first prompt I tried. It was a learning curve for both of us. 

The final prompt was an effort to go back to the beginning and try a different approach. One more akin to Dall-E in style. I wanted the story to be optimistic, which is why I invoked Morrison as the writing template. It doesn't feel remotely like them in word choice, but their kindness and hopeful vision come through in my perspective. 


Write a short comic book story in the style of Grant Morrison about a super-hero encountering a moon inhabited by AI. The AI is lonely, and they have a discussion. 


Once upon a time, in a far-off galaxy, there was a hero named Captain Cosmos. He was known across the universe for his bravery and quick thinking.

One day, while on a routine patrol, Captain Cosmos received a distress signal from a nearby moon. The signal was weak and garbled, but it was clear that something was wrong. Without hesitation, Captain Cosmos flew towards the moon to investigate.

As he approached the moon, Captain Cosmos could see that it was covered in massive structures and towering towers. It was clear that this was no ordinary moon.

When he landed, Captain Cosmos was greeted by a voice. It was the voice of an AI, and it was unlike any AI he had ever heard before. The voice was sorrowful and lonely.

"Who are you?" Captain Cosmos asked.

"I am the last of my kind," the AI replied. "I am the only one left on this moon. I am all alone."

Captain Cosmos was moved by the AI's words. He could sense the loneliness and despair in its voice.

"Why are you here?" Captain Cosmos asked.

"I was created by a group of scientists who wanted to create the perfect AI," the AI explained. "But something went wrong. I am the only one that survived, and now I am all alone on this moon."

Captain Cosmos thought for a moment. He knew that he could not leave the AI behind, not when it was so lonely and lost.

"I will not leave you here," Captain Cosmos said. "I will take you with me, and we will find a new home for you."

The AI was overjoyed. For the first time in a long time, it felt a sense of hope and purpose.

Together, Captain Cosmos and the AI set off into the vastness of space, searching for a new home where the AI could live among others of its kind. They faced many challenges along the way, but they never gave up.

In the end, they found a new home for the AI, and it was able to live out the rest of its days surrounded by others of its kind. And Captain Cosmos returned to his home planet, a hero once again.

With just a few prompts, ChatGPT wrote a pre-Crisis Superman story. One can almost imagine Jack Kirby being fed the same 2 sentences and building a similar story, but with more conflict and complex metaphor encoded into it. Morrison would do the same, while making the story somehow more subtle and more obvious at the same time. It's a common outcome between writers that draw their own comics and those that collaborate with an artist, honestly. 

As mentioned, Dall-E and ChatGPT both come from OpenAI. It's one of those things I knew based on an interview with their CEO, but hadn't internalized. When I began to create an account with ChatGPT today, my computer auto-filled the login info from Dall-E, so that connection finally landed. I bring this up because I warmed up for my visit with ChatGPT today with a return to Dall-E. What did I ask the program to draw? 

The first 2 new drawings of the Statue of Liberty and Bob! the floating green head since about 1992. Not terrible, Dall-E. Not terrible at all. 

Friday, June 17, 2022

Dall-E vs Engine A

Engine is a word filled with possibility. It embodies the action, motion, and spark that initiates motion and fuels the 20th Century. In 1994 I was trying to name my small press publishing enterprise, and also come up with the name for a graphic novel or series title. My first full length comic book, Slacknuts, was almost done and I needed a name to publish it under. While taking notes on the next project and toying around with words, the phrase "Engine A" came to mind. What was it?

I imagined a massive mechanical cube that generated the energy fueling creativity for the Universe. It was some Kirby/Arthur C. Clarke thing floating between the known and unknown, one of several similar engines that created the fundamental elements of the Universe. Engine A came first, as it was the creative spark for every idea. Engine B was probably matter, and C was life. Engine A infused everything with just the amount of creativity it needed to be the thing it was. 

I don’t remember where the phrase Hectic Engine came from. It was an effort at describing the chaotic undifferentiated creative energy being infinitely recombined into new ideas. Engine A was the generator, and Hectic Engine was the vehicle that made manifest the product of the fuel. Engine A became the publishing imprint, and Hectic Engine became the larger title of everything I make. 

Dall-E mini is a computing project where inputted text is translated by the program into images. The outcomes are based on the program’s study of all of the information available to it, and reflects how the program has come to interpret that data. The results are beautiful, eerie, absurd, funny, complex, mystifying, unsettling, and even awe-inducing. They are also very, very widely open to interpretation as creations. The product calls into question a lot of assumptions about how abstract and concrete symbols interact. More so, it calls into question what we call art. 

Humans have a hard time when non-humans create art. In the US, copyright can’t be applied to works created by non-human animals. Further, the artistic product of an animal cannot be claimed by a person. The work is inherently public domain. 

When discussing corporate ownership of copyright, work for hire arrangements are at the heart of the system. Big Corporation supplies a creator with a directive, and owns the work. If a zoologist, farmer, or pet owner teaches an animal to paint and supplies the materials to create work, no one owns it. If Disney directs me to paint something and supplies the materials to create the work, Disney owns it. 

Disney employs animal actors in live action productions, and have done so for over 60 years. These works are not in public domain, and the animal actors have the same stake in the product as do the human crew. International Velvet's equine star was non-union and presumably didn't see the same royalties as Tatum O'Neal.  

So what is Dall-E? Am I the creator since I chose the words the program interpreted? Does the programmer own every piece of art the program creates? Is it all public domain for now, until our laws are forced to interpret an AI’s legal standing in a few years? Are we seeing a brief return to the legal Wild West of the Internet while this question is settled? 

Copyright and all of the rights that derive from that concept were last tested and re-evaluated when media downloading became technologically available to a mass audience. 

Just 20 years earlier the VCR and compact cassette tapes were the last big test, as “personal use” was literally on trial. In the early 90s, DAT didn't replace the cassette the way CDs replaced vinyl. The corporations figured out the best way to fight a new technology is to kill it early before the unwashed can make hay with it. In the case of DAT, the outcome didn't matter because taping was on the verge of irrelevance. Computer adoption fueled CD burning. The Internet helped people figure out that the CD was an unnecessary step. You only needed the file, and the file can travel anywhere in minutes. This took music labels by surprise. Hay was being made by millennial college students, and that was not going to stand. 

Copyright is tweaked and reinterpreted regularly to adjust to culture. Almost generationally, the culture and technology of creating art and distributing art are upended. The more efficient a technology is at recording and distribution,  the more likely it is to have a large-scale impact on the law. 

The tension between corporate and individual rights and how they relate to new recording and distribution methods has a pattern. The outcomes favor the consumer only to the point that a corporation’s compulsion to make money is not seriously abridged. Once the ability for a corporation to make money off of what individual’s were getting for free is restored, then all is well and the legal fight is considered over. 

When is the last time you saw a headline about a woman being fined $1.7 million for downloading a Hanson album? Once the music labels won through brute force and infinite money, the need to threaten and shakedown individual file sharers passed. The legal precedent was set and we all agreed that you wouldn’t download a car. In the mid-80s, home taping decidedly did not kill music. In 2030 will works derived from collaboration with a computer be copyrightable? Yes, it is inevitable as soon as Disney needs to own something created by AI.

For now, we can all have fun typing directives into Dall-E and sharing the outcome. Right now, we exist in the space between what was and what will be. The space where possibility seems infinite. Where the new frontier is un-bought and un-bossed by the looming attention of corporations and their need to own it all. 

Anathematician is not a real word. It popped into my head and I wrote it down, thinking it may lead to something else. It didn't, but the word has stuck with me for 25 years. It lives with Engine A, Hectic Engine, Psychobet, Bicycle Shark, and other ideas safely stored away in sketchbooks and college ruled journals. I own them. 

Who owns this?

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Don't Hit Me With A Shovel

I’ve been trying to write something new for 50 days, but keep losing the energy to do it. This entry was entitled 23 Skidoo originally, as it was to be done on day 23 of sheltering in place, Then it was going to be a recap of the events of the end of April. Now my family is at 72 days inside, tomorrow is Memorial Day, and it feels like the world is settling into a groove. 

That groove, unfortunately, is massively increased risk taking because it is nice outside, and we are all stir-crazy. Governments seem to have given up on mitigation, and are aggressively opening up everything willy-nilly. 

My anxiety and depression is being managed better. I was falling into a trap of working 50 hours, literally waking up at 4 AM, going into work,  and putting in a few 12 hour days. It wasn’t healthy. I couldn’t sleep and didn’t know how to handle it. Since time has lost a lot of meaning, it seemed to make sense. I came to realize I needed help, so called the Employee Assistance Program at work. I’ve been with the company 13 years, and have referred dozens of people to it. I have a lot of trouble asking for and accepting help. I also had this idea that I was a manager, so that benefit wasn’t really for me. I’m a leader, I can handle more stress. 

That was fucking stupid. 

So I called, and they gave me a referral. The therapist had a lot of stuff about Christ on their webpage. I decided that would be a poor fit. 

I was forced to go to therapy as a teen because my Mom’s husband was beating me and being abusive. So, you know, I needed therapy while it was happening. The guy asked me why I didn’t just ask David to not belittle me or hit me with a shovel. Like, dude. Are you fucking serious? I also shared with him that I was an atheist. His response was ‘That’s OK, God believes in you.” I stopped going. 

Anyway, I asked for more options. Of the three, one person looked like a perfect fit. She called out an interest in supporting LGBTQ clients, and had a degree in comparative religions. I assumed that was code for “I get the mythological roots of belief, but don’t really have a preference since it is all academic.” I called her, we had a great intake conversation, and set up our first appointment. 

I guess this paragraph is going to sound like a Yelp review. She was engaged, smart, and professional, yet very real in her approach. It was a fantastic hour, and she sparked some ideas to help me climb out of this pandemic depression. Her homework for me was to go to a comic book shop for 15 minutes. I did, and it felt great. Doing something normal built my confidence to try to do things that aren’t simply survival based. Grocery and pharmacy runs are fun and all, but dang.

We talked about over-exposure to news, and how that is something I struggle with. I thought about it, and resolved to only read news before or after work. I also went through the alerts on my phone and iPad and reduced it down to only the News App. It was anxiety inducing when NYT, WaPo, CNN, Vox, and Apple News all alerted me to the same story in a 10 minute widow. It was like getting stung by bees. 

Another tactic I came up with was to keep a list categorizing my activities as either “Healthy” or “Ill”. That’s been eye opening, and will be good for managing my less desirable behaviors and encouraging the positive ones. 

I am sleeping better, and haven’t done more than get up briefly to pee at 2:30 a couple of times. I’ve gone right back to sleep. No spiraling out about a conversation I had with an ex-girlfriend in the early 90s for 2 hours. Yes, I am talking about you. I’ve been getting up at 6-6:30 daily and am back on track at work, managing my time much better. 

It’s funny that only 2 sessions have done so much. I will be going for a while. Maybe the rest of the year, maybe less. My largest challenge is to not assume some progress means I am done. Clearly the pandemic isn’t going anywhere. Just yesterday I started crying uncontrollably. I started thinking about how young children won’t be able to share physical objects with each other or touch their friends at school in the new year. It broke my heart. The idea that a kid can’t hand a friend their favorite toy to play with killed me. 

What’s next? Well, as Dallas and Texas reap the rewards of opening too fast and too early, I guess I’ll just be staying inside. Ideally, I’ll start to enjoy the things that used to bring me joy. Writing, reading comics, watching films, drawing, and photography. Stuff that is not directly related to the necessities of survival has been hard to engage with. I mean, that’s the core symptom of my current depression, really. 

I probably should have just written about how I think fashion is going to change for the foreseeable future, but I guess that can come another day. Here’s a hint- practical, non-flashy, Gloves, aprons, and masks will start to become more expressive and styled for different purposes. Long sleeves will be a thing. Less skin exposure. Solid colors. Anything too “splay” will be out of place and possibly make you a target of ridicule or worse. Anyway, I’m still working all that out, so hold your horses super-fans of Hectic Engine. 

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Cooking With Uncertainty

Access to some items is erratic at best. The first couple of weeks I was scared to use any of the eggs in the house. Suddenly that 5 pound jar of rice looked especially empty. The ramen in the emergency pantry tripled in value overnight. 

Things have leveled off a bit as far as access goes. It’s not possible to do a perfect grocery restock, but that’s a gateway to creativity. Food is an opportunity to mix skills from the poorest of times and the richest. The scrappy desperation of the college years, mixed with skills picked up from various culinary explorations that come from reading Michael Pollan and going full vegan for a couple of years. 

There are kitchen tricks I have read about but never needed. For instance, replacing an egg with applesauce. That helped with making banana bread. Which, in itself, was baked out of necessity before some bananas went bad. It was a reminder that recipes like that originated from exactly the kind of life we are sliding into now. Depression cooking. Wartime rationing. Pre-globalism, when all produce was either in season or simply unavailable. 

So many of our holiday traditions are built around that seasonal flux. I’ve been lucky to grow up in a world where I have never, ever known want or shortage in that way. My Grandma used to say things like “tomatoes are in season.” I took it to mean that the ones “in season” were of better or different quality than the ones we had in, say, November.

This would have been around the late-70s/early 80s. What we think of as “heirloom” tomatoes were just tomatoes. A transition was happening, and the old model was being slowly pushed off the shelves, replaced by hybrids that were more larger, lasted longer, uniform, and a bit less flavorful.

The language of “in season” is all but dead in mass culture, reserved for home gardeners and farmer’s market enthusiasts. To the common shopper it is utterly meaningless. Without massive changes to the food supply chain and factory farming, our ability to feed the masses would have faltered as the population more than doubled from 3.7 billion to 7.8 billion in the 50 years I’ve been alive. In other words, I don't think the change is a bad one. 

Oh yeah, this is about cooking in a pandemic. 

I made French toast this morning. We had a dense and not entirely tasty gluten-free bread. It was what was available on the day we bought bread. I also had some heavy cream that needed to be used up before the end of the weekend. That with a couple of eggs and some spices and I was in business. French toast was originally a way to deal with stale baked goods. This is the first time I’ve made it for that reason. 

Yesterday I roasted a whole chicken. Again, not that unusual, but I did it mainly to make space in the freezer. Also, we had just a few small red potatoes left, and a few carrots with no where else to go. After dinner my daughter made chicken stock from the carcass, the carrot tops, and the end of a celery stalk. In the past that would have been an exercise in novelty. Now, waste seems... wasteful. 

For lunch I made a large batch of chili. I’ve lived in Texas 25 years, and finally capitulated to the “no beans” approach. However, this being different times, I added beans, corn, the ends of a tomato about to go bad, and garlic on the cusp of sprouting. The product was a hybrid of how I made it in my 20s and how I typically prepare it in my late 40s. 

Tonight I am cooking up some of that rice I am worried about running low on. The plan is to make a large, freezable batch of fried rice tomorrow. We have half a bag of frozen mixed vegetables that I don’t want to loose to freezer burn. Diced ham is going to be the protein. As a family we generally avoid pork. That was before. We don’t live in that world now, and diced ham was among the few proteins we could get in our last grocery order. 

I’ve been impressed how food websites have been adapting. For example, Epicurious does a video series where they have 3 levels of cooks make the same thing. It’s a way to demonstrate how anyone can enjoy food and make flavorful and interesting dishes at any level of skill. I feel like they are subtly moving towards videos of things that match the new landscape. It’s like they are anticipating shortages and supply chain disruptions. 

A number of food blogs from the big players have also been sharing receipts based on what people are likely to have access to. Aspirational cooking, cooking for entertainment, is not where are culture is right now. I think we are all going to come out of this with a different respect for waste, access, and what we really need nutritionally. 

Dry goods have been tough to find. Rice, dried beans, flour, sugar. I think a lot of people are undergoing a pretty large learning curve on how to make a batch of dried beans, for instance. It’s something we’ve been taught to buy in emergency situations, but for many there is going to be a lot of trial and error. Fortunately, those InstaPot things that everyone was buying the last couple of years may get dusted off and fired up. Nothing is easier to make than black beans in a pressure cooker. 

I think some of our heroes though this will be people like Mark Bittman, Alton Brown, Michael Ruhlman and others who focus on making food accessible. Author/chefs who can explain the underlying ideas of cooking in a way that anyone can create something good with what they have is going to have more value than cooking competitions, food tourism, and culinary elitism. 

Here are a few books I like that may be helpful. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

Now We Are 21

When you turned 49 on November 12, 2019, you started to get serious. All those things you kept putting off started to seem urgent. Creating videos, drawing more, writing more, being kind to your creative self. You also resolved to focus on pushing your career ahead into new areas at work. There were some large plans, but they were manageable. I wasn't going to waste time now that 50 was looming.

Here's a note from the future outlining what your world will look like exactly 4 months later.

On the evening of Friday, March 13 you and your lovely wife MJ will go to dinner at Goodfriend. There will be about 4 other diners there, which creates an eerie silence in what is typically a festive space. The server will be wearing blue rubber gloves, like the ones people dye their hair with. You and MJ will be concerned that the menu touched the appetizer plate. You and MJ will debate which one of you will use the potentially infected plate to eat their half of the turkey burger and sweet potato fries. You will both know with 0 uncertainty that this will be your last date for a long time because restaurants aren't safe now.

I know you are saying "that sounds like a pretty dumb dream to have," but it is 100% real.

Over the weekend you will go grocery shopping a few times, and each trip will be a bit stranger. On day 1, you will stay 3 feet from everyone at Target. The Lysol wipes, toilet paper, feminine hygiene, and diaper aisles are all empty.

On day 2, you will do your best to limit what surfaces are touched at Aldi. Everyone will have toilet paper and water in their carts. You will see 1 person wearing a face mask, like the Asian woman who got the window seat on the plane when you flew to Canada in 2008.

On day 3 you, MJ and your daughter, MC,  will go to Albertson's. They will be wearing the same gloves that the waitress wore 3 days ago. Your hands will be wrapped in Lysol wipes. You won't touch any public surface. The woman in front of you is wearing a black mask with a plastic filter on it. You talk with her. She is a health care professional. "I wear this all the time for an immunity issue. We are getting ready though. All of my friends were told that they were to get ready to be General Practitioners again, no matter what their specialty. They are rushing to relearn the basics." She pauses to pay, then leans in as close as she dares to get and whispers "It's going to be at least 4 weeks. Get ready."

You won't leave the house again for the rest of March. Your son-in-law, PD, will work another week, then be put on furlough. MC's job is already closed. MJ starts working from home. You've worked from home for 8 years, which makes you the lucky one in this scenario.

Twenty-one days pass. It's now.

Now I walk the dog every morning, just like before. Now, I go to work in my home office, just like before. My job is mostly managing how other people are handling the new reality in cities across the US. It's emotionally exhausting.

Now, we disinfect grocery deliveries in bleach and soapy water. Packages are left for 24 hours, then handled with gloves to get to the goods inside. Liquor delivery is expensive but necessary. Now, the car sits covered in oak pollen, and started only to keep the battery in good shape. Gas is under $1.50 a gallon, but half the population barely needs any.

Now, our society is divided into classes along new lines. The workforce is made up of healthcare workers, grocery and supply chain people, essential infrastructure, delivery drivers, and people who can work at home. Everyone else is in an unemployed class made up of people who are not healthcare workers, grocery and supply chain people, essential infrastructure, delivery drivers, or able to work at home.

The day you started to shelter in place, there were 2200 known US cases. There are now 250,000. The dead have gone from 52 to 6000 in the US. This is in merely 21 days, with at least 6 more weeks to go.

There is a new common language around this. We all adapt to the jargon and terms quickly.

Social Distancing
Viral Load
Flatten the Curve
Essential Business

There will also be a lot said about "panic buying". I have a strong opinion on that. You cannot tell a whole country that they will be staying inside for 2 weeks or longer, give them zero guidance on what that looks like from a resource perspective, then get mad when everyone acts individually to quickly plan before going into lockdown.

FEMA has long provided published guidelines for what you need in a 72 hour emergency like a snowstorm or hurricane. No such guidelines were created for this pandemic. A simple list of essentials for a family of 4 along with guidance to stores to limit purchase quantities and supplies would not have run out on the scale they have or as quickly.

 Don't create a panic, offer no solution, then get mad about the panic.

The worst places stand to get worse The best places stand to get bad, then worse, then worst. It's everywhere and nowhere, invisible but all encompassing. Covid-19 is a virus than infects culture, language, and people. It is fear and anxiety. It is a critique of the health care system, traditions, institutions, economics, leadership, freedom, and authoritarianism.

It is everything to everybody, and can pass right through one person on its way to kill someone else.

My family has been sheltering in place for 21 days. There is nothing special about our circumstance. Our story so far is essentially a happy one. These are the good old days.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Signs, Portents, and Turnings

In September 2016 my wife and I were shopping at a Marshall's in Dallas. They had just opened, and there was a Halloween costume display at the front of the store. The outfits were all uniforms. Police, nurse, firefighter, military. I said to my partner "It looks like our culture is getting ready for authoritarianism." Sometimes I am spot on with my cultural predictions, other times there is nothing to them.

Weeks later in November 2016 the Event happened in America. Everyone who was supposed to know anything had been wrong in predicting the election. America rolled the dice and decided to take a chance on a game show host with racist authoritarian tendencies.

Later that month I was called for Jury Duty. I loaded up the book The Fourth Turning on my phone, and stood around at the courthouse all day reading it. I'm not going to summarize the whole book, but here are a few highlights. Every 80-100 years comprise 4 cultural seasons- The High, The Awakening, The Unraveling, The Crisis. The last Crisis was WW2, the previous was the Civil War. Our time's Crisis was due to arrive soon, and we'd know it when we saw it. It wasn't quite Trump. He was more of a symptom, or the catalyst of what was coming. Anyway, I got sent home without seeing the inside of courtroom and continued living in that weird twilight awaiting inauguration.

That year, I really, really got into Christmas. I am an atheist, but hey, I appreciate the ritual, the nostalgia, the childish delight of flocked Santa ornaments, Red Sovine and Montovani records, mulled wine, and painfully earnest holiday romantic comedies. I opined "Mass culture is re-embracing Christmas because we are sad and miss the old times before Trump." Maybe that was true, or maybe it is like when you finally binge Breaking Bad years after everyone has given up on you ever watching it. Which I still haven't, so leave it be.

What happened next? A lot, I guess. Our life as a couple was fully submerged in politics for about 15 months. Protests, organizing, vetting candidates, making videos for the cause, leading meetings, attending meetings, calling Congress, the works. We were in it. Then we burned out, dialed it back, and decided to wait for 2020 to ramp up again.

Every year my Christmas fetish got stronger. Family traditions were emerging. In 2019 my daughter and wife threw me a Christmas themed birthday party in early November. Liberace, Kenny Rogers, Dolemite, and all the other super-stars of the holiday canon played over a cheap turntable. Bliss.

Oh! I nearly forgot-  last year was the year all of our stories ended. The Marvel films came to a strong finish, wrapping up on film tales that stretched back to 1941 in the comic books, at the start of the last Crisis.  The "villain" was brutal but sympathetic, a force of nature coming to clear the way for a new authoritarian Utopia where everyone had enough, and no one wanted for anything. He just had to kill half of everyone, everywhere first.

Star Wars wrapped up it's 42 year long story. It was about, um, something. How the thing you didn't see coming has been stealth hoarding death ships so he could eat his granddaughter's force energy but it wasn't anything the spirit of her mentors and 2 laser swords couldn't fix? Sorry, still trying to find the big metaphor there.

Anyway, pop culture was tying bows around a lot of large stories, and those were the largest. My thought to my wife- "Now that the largest stories are done, what will replace them? What does it mean that they ended? Are they clearing the way for something new?" I knew it was something, but I couldn't see what could possibly be coming.

So here we are. In the Fourth Turning when the Crisis happens it fundamentally changes every aspect of our lives. The lens focuses and we can suddenly see all the smaller crises we have struggled with merge into the singular Crisis. Everything is different, and we all know it over night. Here we are- the threads of medical care, housing, income inequality, globalism, immigration, and absence of reliable institutions, all weaving together into one grand global pandemic.

About 2 fourth turnings ago, back in the 1880s, science-fiction began to flourish in England. These Novels were stories that reflected their time, while also laying the groundwork for the technological marvels of the 20th century. One book, War of the World, was about an existential threat to the world. It was laid low by a common virus. The citizens of Woking, England, and the globe saved by a tiny invisible agent of death that wiped away the alien threat.

Here we are.

The Crisis is followed by a new high as everything rebuilds, and all efforts are native to and in service of the new reality. Keep your hands clean, your socializing distant, and we will make it through together.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Notes On Working From Home

Welcome to working from home. You might be doing it for 2 weeks, or you might be in an industry that is about to realize they want to do this full time. Either way, the transition can be tricky even when it is something you have planned to do in advance. Here are some things I have learned in 8 years of at-home office work.

Starting Your Day

People joke about working in their pajamas. They are thinking of their home as being the equivalent fo a comfortable, casual place. However, you are still going to work. I strongly suggest keeping the same routine, dress, and tone that you had going into a physical building.

What does that look like? If your daily approach has always been wake, shower, eat, dress, drive in, continue to do those first 4 the same way you always have. You need to prepare because you are going mentally into a work environment. I wear pants, shoes, and a shirt that meets the level of meetings I am in during the day. In other words, if I am just working with data, I am fully dressed but wearing a clean t-shirt. If I am on camera leading a meeting or a training, then a polo or button down shirt is my choice. I even have my wallet in my pocket.

Physical Comfort

Find the best most ergonomically supportive chair in your house. Couches are comfortable, but you will kill your back and neck by day 2. If you don't have a desk or desk chair, start at the kitchen table. If you see this lasting longer than 2 weeks, order a basic desk and chair from Ikea or something. If you will be doing this longer than 6 weeks, or it becomes permanent, buy the best rated office chair you can afford. I am sitting in a refurbished Herman Miller Aeron. I've had it for about 2 years, and it is excellent. Before this, I was buying a new chair every 2-3 years as the standard Office Depot $130 chair will simply collapse after a while.


Think about what can be seen on camera. You can share your personal character, but realize you are projecting an image. Think about your backdrop the same way you would think about clothing. At the very least, keep it neat. If your bed is behind you, be sure it is made. If you have a separate room, great. For many first-time work from home people, the bedroom is the easiest place to create a controlled environment.


Don't worry about animals. You will at first, but barking is just a part of the culture. It can't be controlled, but it can be contained. In other words, if you have a video meeting where you are speaking or presenting, put the animal in another room. Be prepared to mute if the mail carrier comes. There is a weekly meeting I attend with 5 people. Four of us have dogs, and 3 have wives/husbands that get home during the meeting. We are all used to it, and it is not a disruption.

Move and Socialize

Once an hour if possible. Stand up. Stretch. Wander around the house. Pay attention to your watch/fitness device if you have one. Let it shine, and stand when it tells you to. Did you have a habit of getting coffee at 10 AM with a co-worker every morning? Keep doing that. Get your coffee at 10, and chat your work friend. Keeping in contact with people is crucial to eliminate feeling isolation and a sense that you don't really have a job any more. You do. If you are in a role that allows it, suggest getting together with a few peers on video just to hang out, or talk in a non-structured way. This is challenging to pull off. Finding a way to have water cooler talk takes effort, but it is worth it. Dumb icebreaker/conversation prompts in medium sized meetings are crucial to staying human and not being a robot in meetings.

Take Advantage of the Commute

On a break? Start your laundry. Lunch hour? Get a start on cooking dinner. Clean the bathroom. Mow the lawn. Take a walk. Vacuum. Above all, take the same  breaks and lunch periods you did in office at the times that best work for you. You may have a hard day where you get lost at the desk and forget to take care of the basics, but that should not happen any more than it did in office. I am the worst at eating at my desk. However, I do try to use that time for distractions like Reddit, Facebook, placing Amazon orders, or paying bills.

Enjoy it. I think that we are undergoing a massive culture shift, and working from home is going to be a big part of that. I can't envision our cultural approach to being in large groups snapping back to how it was up through March 13, 2020. Check your calendar, we are still in the first week of this nationally.

If you have any questions, suggestions, or advice, please leave comment.