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Years are arbitrary abstractions
Some personal reflections on 2020
This is the second New Year’s Eve I’ve spent alone.
I rang in 2020 at my parents’ kitchen table. I had spent the previous week dealing with the worst respiratory infection of my adult life, had missed all the usual Christmastime activities as a consequence, and was generally wreaked physically. Things kinda went downhill from there.
2019 was a pretty tumultuous year. I had moved out of Chicago and spent the second half of the year on a mobile sabbatical across the US and Europe to figure out what my next project would be. At the time it seemed like three way tie between doubling down on the consulting operation that gave Ohlogen miles upon miles of reliable runway at the cost of making it very hard to become a Real Product Company, prepping the new programming language I had written* for public consumption so that we could yank Ohlogen back to the world of pure product development, and shifting gears to work on the various problems faced by people relying on outdated software systems to manage realspace infrastructure like electricity distribution, water handling, and security provisioning.
I was also gearing up to move to New York City; settling there seemed like a good way to bookend my vagabondism, a big port city where the whole world just shows up on your doorstep has a lot of appeal when you’re somebody who need constant stimuli to keep from going insane.
None of this happened.
Rumors of a bad pneumonia outbreak in central China had been floating around the OSINT community watching the unrest in Hong Kong since mid December of 2019, but the first concrete English-language news came in the first week of January. I spent a big chunk of January on the east coast, first doing a buzz through DC, then apartment-hunting in NYC for a few weeks. I’ve always traveled with a few N95 masks because you never know when they might come in handy, and this was one of those times. I started masking up in DC, right around the same time all the people of Asian extraction did.
While I was in New York, I wrote an article about the supply chain risks presented by the spread of covid in late January. It was bounced by an editor for being too alarmist. The editor was and still is a good guy with a strong bullshit detector. I had hoped he was right, but I knew that he wasn’t. Everything in the article came true over the following months.
Smart people were nervous, but not panicking quite yet. I met up with friend who has a better sense of humor than mine; he suggested that we put a mask on the “Fearless Girl” statue outside the NYSE building as an awareness-raising practical joke, but we thought better of it since at the time masks were racist and we were supposed to be worrying about the flu. Somebody eventually did it, and it was called an “unsettling sign of the times” by ArtNet, which also noted that “as the Centers for Disease Control have been making clear, these masks are only necessary for health-care workers and those who are already ill”. I wish we had done it, it would have been pretty funny.
My next stop was California, where I spent much of February. I stood in a wedding in San Diego. It was a wonderful time. I haven’t gathered in person with more than a handful of friends since then, and it weighs on me enormously.
February was when the smart people started panicking. All but a few of my meetings in San Francisco were cancelled. I started drinking beer exclusively out of bottles to avoid contaminated glasses; thankfully that turned out to be a bit paranoid. The warm weather was nice, even though was thick with the stench of social collapse. When you grow up in Lower Canada you learn to take sunshine when and where you can get it.
I spent most of 2020 in Chicago. Technically I live in Michigan; I’ve changed addresses frequently enough over the years that made sense to start getting my mail up there. It gives me a good excuse to go see my mom and dad, which is nice. That said, Chicago is more home to me than any of the places that I grew up, because I affirmatively chose it. It’s been hard to see it get crushed.
By early March it became clear that things were really hitting the fan. I moved out of an overpriced apartment Logan Square after less than a month, opting for a sizeable brick fortress with bad plumbing and worse heating on the north side of the city, right by the lake. The real estate mantra may be “Location! Location! Location!” but I’ve found that “Last updated in 1970! Not compliant with fire code! Right next to a loud bar and a sex shop!” is a heuristic that works better for me. The oven is genuinely dangerous and the hot water isn’t hot, but the rent is a steal and my electrical bill is bundled flat rate. I’ve been running my printers a lot as a consequence, but I haven’t spun up a bitcoin rig yet, which seems like a mistake.
Somebody put up signs that said “We’re all in this together!” in big, bold letters all across town in the late spring. We obviously weren’t and aren’t - ask the people living in the growing tent cities - but it probably seemed like a nice gesture to whatever junior marketer that had the idea. Trite aphorisms that nobody actually believes are a staple of authoritarian propaganda, whether it’s produced by the party itself or by the party’s subcontractors working behind tabs of Zoom meetings and Slack channels. I’m left wondering if it would have helped us to be “in this together”, or if that would have constrained the public’s ability to respond to the insanity even more.
I got an early start at anti-establishment activity when I put a mask on, snuck under a security camera, and dismantled a barrier that the Chicago police had put up to block an entrance to the city’s expansive lakeshore parks, which were deemed unsafe due to covid. I was loudly applauded by a gaggle of little Jewish grandmas powerwalking down the path. My revolutionary slogan is “Si, pasarán!” now.
We started the mask thing in early March and worked 80 hour weeks on it until June. My dad was issued one filtering respirator per week while he intubated people in the ICU. My mom did psych evals in the ER with a cloth face covering. This wasn’t acceptable to me and lots of other people. N95 masks are not hard to make, at least not from a technical perspective, so we decided to find a bunch of motivated people on the internet and give it a go.
Some of the best people I know did incredible work under great pressure, often putting their own jobs at risk to spend hour after hour doing things like compiling lists of every known North American producer of meltblown polypropylene. I wish we had more to show for it.
We live in a license raj with rotten institutions that suck the life out of any commercial or humanitarian activity they find, and precious few people in positions of wealth or power have the spine to really stand up to them. I’ll write this whole thing up eventually, but not today. I get sick to my stomach just thinking about it.
When George Floyd got choked to death by that jackboot in Minneapolis there was this window of about three days when everybody seemed ready to say “yes, the fucking cops are out of hand, this needs to be fixed”. The people of Minneapolis extracted an asshole tax from the murderer’s employer by burning down a police station. This was probably justified. The Autozone, less so. Was all this an appropriate reaction to being shat on by agents of the state for decades with no real recourse? Was it understandable? You be the judge.
But damn, did that set the jackboots off. The feds and National Guard rolled in and wreaked havoc, shooting at people on porches, bulk-collecting all the telco traffic and bragging about it in press conferences, and otherwise being exactly the kind of thugs you read about putting down unrest elsewhere. America may be exceptional in some respects, but state-sponsored gangsterism is not one of them.
It got really bad in Chicago for a few days. Not “there’s some gang activity on the south side” bad, more like “active race war between Black and Latino organized crime with well-organized opportunists robbing everything in sight” really bad. The Chicago Police Department and Lori Lightfoot made no attempt to stop anything. They withdrew to fortified positions in the Loop, pulled the bridges up, and let it burn out. The state doesn’t like peaceful protest, so whenever peaceful protest happens they cut everybody else loose as punishment and brand whatever happens as part of the protests. This is a very effective strategy as it terrifies normies while also driving out a bunch of the poor people with dark skin by trashing their neighborhoods. Two birds with one stone.
The unrest contagion is global, but the issues that make people restive are always local and complex. The revolt of the public isn’t legible in the 20th century nationalized frame of reference. The anti-lockdown protests and the George Floyd protests were the same thing, people in positions of economic and social precarity acting out against antiquated state structures designed to keep them docile. It’s the same in China and Chile too. It might be chaotic, but the revolt of the public is a good thing on net. People deserve to be free of tyrannies both large and small.
Next summer some bastard with a badge will shoot somebody for no good reason and people will get mad and take to the streets. I’ll be right there with them when they do.
I fell in love. She didn’t. I said that I was ready to put in the work to build something with her. She said that I should get a dog if I need companionship. She’s as autistic as I am and didn’t mean it the way it came off, but that just made it worse. We still talk sometimes, but that also makes it worse.
Martial law is scary at first, but after a little while the shock of cops and soldiers holding strategic corners and using requisitioned dump trucks to randomly close off major roads devolves into the kind of disgust you get when you realize that the point of your occupier’s actions aren’t just to suppress you, but to humiliate and cow you.
I knew COIN was dumb, sure, but I never realized how insulting it is in practice until some schmuck at the Illinois fusion center decided that Chicago deserved the Baghdad treatment. Cue the aforementioned dump trucks at intersections, the cops LARPing in camo, the late night shows of force rolling down residential streets at five miles an hour with full lights and sirens. It worked for a little while, especially after things popped off in Kenosha, which is basically a suburb. It won’t work next summer because people know what to expect. And they’ll be even madder than before because nobody is actually collecting their trash.
I thrive in crisis, it’s the stasis that gets to me. Despite all the changes that appear to be happening around us, we live in a time of stasis. Returning to stasis seems to be the primary objective of our ruling class, who ignore the fact that prolonged stasis is a reliable formula for crisis.
The election was stupid enough that I actively ignored it. Trump is the worst kind of scum. He never had my vote, but that had a lot more to do with his profound stupidity and ineptitude than anything else. I’m used to more competent scum. Biden lost my vote when he kowtowed to well-known crimes against humanity facilitator Kamala Harris, so I logged yet another protest vote for the Libertarian.
My family and I filled out our ballots a few weeks before Election Day, and I even got to drop all of them off at the township office, which was neat. Before I left to drop them off we had an argument over which of the highly qualified and thoughtful locals we should vote for in the school board races, which resolved into a very warm and fuzzy feeling of civic virtue over having actually spent more than ten seconds actually considering the implications of a downballot vote. Schools may be profoundly fucked up mechanisms of social control, but at least we got to vote for a few competent people to supervise it all. More people should have this experience, casting real votes in local elections is a nice cope to balance out the charade further up the ticket. Maybe we could restructure our entire system of government around that in the next few years. It should be pretty obvious at this point that what we have right now isn’t working.
My little brother jammed on the guitar the entire Saturday after Thanksgiving. I thought back to all the time we spent together in the hospital while he soaked in a stew of misery. Seeing him play provoked a lot of emotion. I cried for a while. I can’t think of anything I’d like to hear more on my deathbed than him playing.
Tonight I’m alone again with my thoughts, like many other times this year. I don’t have a satisfying conclusion to all this post, largely because I don’t have any satisfying conclusions about this year. I’ll leave you with this:
Life might flow with the calendar most of the time, but life isn’t ultimately decided by calendars. Years are arbitrary abstractions, but the human experience is not.