Remains of the Day: Issue 06

The COVID19 bottle episode

As a reminder, I’m Eugene Wei, a former product person at companies like Amazon, Hulu, Flipboard, and Oculus, and I’ve kept a personal blog Remains of the Day since 2001, offering what I describe as “Bespoke observations, 80% fat-free”, though the perceived fat ratio will vary depending on your tastes in technology, media, and all the other random topics I write about.

To be frank, I thought of changing my tagline to 80% virus-free, but let’s be honest, it may be some time before I can think and write about anything that doesn’t orbit COVID-19 in some way. It feels almost insensitive to focus on anything else right now, like bringing up celebrity gossip at a funeral.

I’m no epidemiologist, though, and I am at a loss for what more to add to the pandemic news cycle. On Twitter, I’ve resorted to gallows humor and the occasional retweet of what feels like useful new information on the virus. What I’ll write about here down the line remains to be seen, but this issue, in full disclosure, is heavy on observations of life in a pandemic.


My Chat with Ben Thompson on the Stratechery Daily Update

For subscribers to Stratechery, I appeared on the Daily Update podcast last week to chat with Ben Thompson about the Half-Life of Information. Whenever Ben and I meet up in person, we can talk forever, so it was good to commit one of those conversations to tape, and I hope we can do more in the future.

I’ll write more about the half-life of media in a future post, but if you want to understand the unit economics of any media org, it’s critical to understand the half-life of its content.


The Never-ending Bottle Episode

In the TV business, a bottle episode is the industry term for an episode that is severely constrained in order to be produced as cheaply as possible; usually, it refers to an episode shot entirely in one location, primarily with cast regulars. Without having to move the crew around and relight multiple locations, and without having to pay non-regular cast members, you can shoot the episode on the cheap.

Some shows have organic bottle episodes (for example, some serial killer show may plan for an episode where our lead profiler interviews the serial killer in his maximum-security prison), but more often it’s because a show has gone off-pattern (TV lingo for off-budget). When that happens, the showrunner announces that episode so-and-so will be a bottle episode, and the writer of said episode nods and then wanders to the bathroom to sob in a stall.

Writers usually hate to be assigned to a bottle episode; it’s like having your birthday on Christmas. You just feel swindled compared to other writers who have the budget to use multiple locations and high-profile guest stars. However, as in many creative endeavors, the constraints can summon untapped reserves of creativity. Such episodes often consist of a lot of people just sitting around and talking to each other. The one I remember most, because of what prompted it, was the “Isaac and Ishmael” episode of West Wing, its season three premiere. It was written and shot quickly and aired several weeks after 9/11, a stand-alone episode outside show continuity, consisting of a series of Socratic dialogues on terrorism and how to deal with it.

We’re living through a version of a real-life bottle episode now, many of us isolated at home because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is that emergency episode that falls outside the overarching narrative continuity of our lives. I find it challenging to process how life might be forever changed, that while we were going about our daily lives, we missed the transition to a new season, the dark turn in the plot. Even as I bunkered down and haven’t left my condo for 11 days now, I’m not sure I’ve fully accepted that life might be changed quite drastically for the foreseeable future, if not forever. This isn’t a stand-alone episode, from which we’ll return to the core plot branch next week. This novel coronavirus is woven into the ongoing narrative now, forever.

Once upon a time, you could walk anyone to the gate for their flight, or you could go to the gate to receive someone flying in. After 9/11, that’s now gone, maybe forever. In emergencies, government regimes use temporary fear and panic to grant themselves more power.

The emotional arc of this pandemic reminds me of 9/11, with the difference that this global emergency affects my day-to-day life more directly. The day the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, my first reaction was disbelief. In the few days following, I consumed everything possible. Back then, social media didn’t exist yet, so I mostly browsed news websites and blogs and watched cable news. Mainlining information felt like I was doing something, piecing together some coherent narrative that might render the world legible and sensible again. Then, as it becomes clear answers would take longer to come, a sort of mental fog and fatigue set in.

When only a few people on Twitter were panicked about the stories of the new virus blitzing its away through the population of the Hubei region of China, it was easier to filter the signal from the noise in my feed. Most people were still carrying on as if nothing was happening, so those sidewalk preachers proclaiming the arrival of the pale horse stood out like a sore thumb.

Last week, most of the media and pundit class all converged to a narrow band of concern, even Fox News, who were lagging for a while per the cues of Trump (or perhaps the causality there is reversed, it’s hard to find the head in a feedback loop). By bringing all the characters in the story back to one location, it was inevitable that the tribal battles would break out again. Mob films always seem to begin when rival gangs intrude on each other’s turf, someone has likely written a Girardian analysis of this.

Because of the influx of prophets and tribal border skirmishes, coverage has degraded into chaos; I have a harder time picking out the signal from the noise. Living in a house where adults are screaming at each other in the next room from dusk until dawn chips away at the membrane of one’s inner peace.

When most people weren’t even thinking about COVID-19, the occasional generalist signal boosting data from epidemiologists or others on the front lines of the battle was helpful. Now that everyone’s posting every next preprint paper and article, the noise floor is so high it’s just a din. Too many waiters, not enough chefs, and all the waitstaff or just delivering the same reheated dishes over and over again. More and more of the information is simply adding to the fog of war, and some shoddy graphs of all sorts of really varied data sets and cohorts aren’t helping. Our social media doesn’t have the epistemological structures and processes needed to cope with the explosion of theories. Only the ongoing progression of time seems capable of converging these debates.

On the other hand, relying on our centralized gatekeepers isn’t that reassuring, either. I made the mistake of watching a few of Trump’s press conferences live, and it was the closest thing to exercise I had for a few days, pushing my heart rate into at least Zone 3 or 4. Like the betting markets with the Democratic primary, the gatekeepers we turned to the most in America have seemed a step behind the whole way. This pandemic may finally be the moment we stop ceding so much authority to them. For all the chaos on Twitter, some of the smarter voices there still strike me as the most sensible ones.

The broader issue, though, is that we may just have caught up to the frontier of knowledge about what’s going to happen from this point forward. Without improved telemetry on the spread of the virus through greater testing, and without the time to develop reliable serological tests that can help us get a handle on the sensitivity and specificity of the tests we are running now, we’re fully into the speculative casino phase of prognostication. Armchair epidemiologists are drawing straight lines with any two data points, and the variety and dispersion of scenarios are all over the map now. I don’t see much way to capitalize on that volatility; the moment-to-moment ups and downs just make me seasick.

So we sit and watch, virgin apocalyptic hoarders, waiting to see when and if the invisible enemy burns itself out. Like a scene out of a science fiction plot, we’ve essentially put our economy into a medically-induced coma, stopped its heart, put it in a cryogenic freeze, to try and halt the spread of the contagion coursing through its body, until we can find a vaccine, or until it dies out enough to allow us to wake the patient up. If you have the means to spend money right now, on local businesses, to support workers living paycheck to paycheck, please do. You contribute some circulation that keeps key limbs of the patient from going necrotic.


Until more people started taking this pandemic seriously, a few people experienced that feeling of being Cassandra, the woman from Greek mythology, blessed with the gift of prophecy but cursed to never be believed. Climate change activists have felt that over longer periods; the Cassandra cycle for COVID-19 played out over just two months.

As an investor, it’s usually ideal to be disbelieved, then to have everyone come over to your view after enough of a time lag to allow you to be first money in. Being right about a pandemic is more bittersweet. You might be ahead on your toilet paper and hand sanitizer balance sheet reserves, and maybe you even made some profit trading the VIX. But you’re still living in a pandemic where the strength of your immune system is only as good as the most reckless person in your network, who might be some horny coed who won’t sacrifice their meager chance of some casual sex in Florida over spring break.

I’ve been messaging a lot with my friends in China, Singapore, HK, and Taiwan the past month, trying to learn what their lives are like. Those are countries that have tried varied approaches to flattening the curve of the outbreak in their countries, and in some ways, they now live in the future (per Gibson, the future has arrived, it’s just not symptomatic everywhere yet). They’re widely cited as countries that have had the most success halting the spread from what we can tell given the possible error bars in reporting accuracy.

One reason the virus is inescapable is that it is, at so many levels, its own best metaphor for discussing it. It’s not just that viral memes seem to have infected every channel of online life. As an example, the relative success of countries like South Korea and Taiwan in dealing with this outbreak seems like a function of having been hit harder in recent history by SARS. That is, they developed institutional and process antibodies from having survived previous pandemics.

In the U.S., in contrast, the risk of a novel coronavirus pandemic may have felt academic and abstract. There were studies like this or this that indicated that we were underprepared for just such an outbreak, but they now exist merely as proof of America’s institutional indifference in the leadup to this pandemic. That whole Winston Churchill quote “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing...after they’ve tried everything else” might be more precise if restated as “You can count on Americans to do the right thing...but only after they fail to do so and the problem bites them in the ass.”

I often speak of the opposite in tech, where institutional trauma from failed efforts lead to companies not having the will to jump back into a space when the timing is finally right. Meanwhile, some entrepreneur who’s never failed in trying to solve a particular problem steps in and makes it work. Timing is everything in tech, but it helps to have a short memory or to lack one. It’s almost the opposite with a pandemic, where the reward curve is reversed; instead of unlimited upside and limited downside as in tech entrepreneurship, you have unlimited downside and the best case is simply maintaining the status quo.

Life in Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore now feels like a preview of what life in the U.S. might be the next time we face a pandemic like COVID-19, or perhaps what awaits just a few months ahead. Perhaps we’ll be quicker to self-isolate, better about washing our hands. Perhaps the social norms will favor widespread use of masks, rather than as an exception for the sick. Maybe we will have temperature checks everywhere like they do at airports and public places in East Asia. We will spin up widespread testing, and because of that, we’ll know who is in the clear and who must be quarantined. We’ll know that going out in public and mingling with others is a gift reserved for those who’ve tested clean, that such stratification of social privileges is part of the social compact, the unstoppable force that finally loosens the immovable object that is Western individualism.

Last weekend, my friend living in Singapore now said you wouldn’t have been able to tell there was a pandemic there if you had been flown in a time machine. People were out at restaurants and malls, as usual. Behind the scenes, work hours were staggered, people declared their temperatures twice a day, and travel was heavily restricted. I nodded, reading that note on a computer screen in my self-isolation, and filed the image away as a once unthinkable and now quite possible future.


When Time is a Flat Circle

One of my favorite theories around time dilation is based on information theory. That is, our subjective experience of how quickly or slowly time passes is based on how much our brain can compress our memory of that event.

The reason it feels like driving somewhere takes longer than driving home from that destination, even if both trips take the same amount of time, is that our “attention gate” is wider open on the way there because the directions are unfamiliar to us. We’re looking more carefully at road signs and landmarks to make sure we don’t get lost. On the way back, as we near home, we can flip to autopilot since we’ve done that trip so many times. Our attention gate narrows and our senses absorb less information. The memory of the return trip ends up as a smaller file in our memory banks.

The reason you might look back on a long and monotonous stretch of repetitive workdays and feel like it was just a blur is that our brain can run an efficient version of some compression algorithm on what is a very consistent daily routine of going to the office and sitting at your desk, the way a JPEG algorithm can do wonders with an image that consists of large blocks of the same color.

This past week felt like a long one not because I was working from home but because my attention gate was wide open processing every next piece of news on the pandemic. In hindsight, having Twitter open from dusk to dawn on an intravenous drip probably wasn’t the healthiest of routines for my stress levels.

It’s also been a stark reminder of how much routines mark out the days of the week in my head, how it’s easy now to lose sense of what day it is when your calendar is just a never-ending series of Zoom meetings, most of which could be moved around with little urgency.

Without a weekly routine, it’s difficult to even remember what day of the week it is, illustrating just how much of our awareness of the passage of time is encoded in ritual. When you’re working, you’re acutely aware of Monday. If you’re a parent, you know exactly when the weekend arrives because of the spike in time with your children. Fridays are often demarcated by a happy hour at the end of the workday.

Sometimes our bodies in motion are the closest thing to a clock. If you usually go for a run on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, then halting that routine removes one of your physical clocks. If you aren’t sitting at your desk at work, you’re missing one of the most obvious cues that it’s a weekday. If, instead, you’re at home 7 days a week with your kids, everything blends into a temporal run-on sentence.

I’m constantly looking at the menu bar of my laptop to see what day it is. Who knew that flattening the curve also meant flattening the dimension of time.


Pandemic reading

One of the books I finished during self-isolation so far is Weather by Jenny Offill. Though it is about some impending but unspecified climate change disaster and not a pandemic, its examination of how people telescope from end-of-days anxiety to the mundane bothers of everyday life reminded me of our current moment.

Some of the lines I highlighted:

“These people long for immortality but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee,” she says.

I thought of this while watching interview clips with kids in Florida on spring break.

In some Zen monasteries, gossip is defined as talking about anything not directly in one’s gaze.

Almost all of us at home chatting online about coronavirus on Twitter are just gossiping about the pandemic.

The thought of having to be with someone else long enough to deserve it again. That’s what feels impossible. Because the part where they are charmed by you, where you are every good thing, and then the part later—sooner, maybe, but always later—where they tire of you, of all your repetitions, of all your little and big shames, I don’t think I could bear that.

Just as investors everywhere have been fleeing to capital liquidity, the emotional calculus of relationships changes when your time horizon shifts. I’ve written about the circadian rhythms of tech before, but in long stretches of quarantine, one can’t help but reassess the allocation of one’s emotional portfolio. The older you get, the more they tell you to shift from equities to less volatile assets. In a pandemic, one gravitates towards the familiar. Shares in nostalgia are trading higher.

A man is having terrible dreams. In them, he is being chased by a demon. He seeks counsel from a therapist, who tells him he must turn around and confront the demon or he will never escape it. He vows to do this, but each night in his dreams, he runs again. Finally, he manages to turn around and look straight at the demon. “Why are you chasing me?” he asks it. The demon says, “I don’t know. It’s your dream.”

If we could measure the index of all the dreams in the world, would we see a rise in volatility, in anxiety?

Finally...

Q: What is the difference between a disaster and an emergency? A: A disaster is a sudden event that causes great damage or loss. An emergency is a situation in which normal operations cannot continue and immediate action is required so as to prevent a disaster.

I guess we’re in an emergency and trying to prevent a disaster?

Next up in pandemic reading, Severance by Ling Ma. Some people look for relief from pandemic dread. As you can tell, I lean into the darkness.


Movie of the Week: Contagion

Since everyone is cueing this film up again, I thought I’d point out two things that stood out to me on my rewatch last week.

The first is that the editing rhythm in this film is swift and unsparing, mimicking the speed with which contagion spreads. There are no lulls in the action to serve as emotional breathing room; the pace of the film is insistent, and what it tells us is to not grow attached to any one character because a pandemic is global, faster moving than humans can comprehend, and, in the case of the virus in Contagion, particularly lethal, with an R0 and CFR higher than the estimates for COVID-19 so far.

[SPOILERS ahead; skip to the next section if you want to avoid those]

Gwyneth Paltrow, still an A-list actress at the time, goes from a cough in the opening scene to lying cold and stiff on a coroner’s table having her scalp peeled back during her autopsy. I guess those Goop magic crystals didn’t work on the virus.

Rewatching the film, when a doctor tells Matt Damon, her husband in the film, that she has passed away, his initial disbelief and shock are also mine.

“Okay, can I go talk to her.”

“Mr. Emhoff, I’m sorry, your wife is dead.”

“I mean, I just saw her. We were just at home. We had dinner, she had pizza,” he says, calmly, still trying to process what the doctor has now told him twice.

On his drive home from the hospital, he receives a phone call. He rushes home where his nanny is watching his son, and the film cuts to a closeup of his son’s face, pale, dried vomit around his mouth, eyes open and unblinking. He’s dead.

Kate Winslet, another of the star-studded cast, seems for a long time like one of the main characters, an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer trying to trace the outbreak. In a more conventional Hollywood pandemic movie like Outbreak, she’d be the hero who helps to triangulate the origin of the disease, buying society the time needed to develop a vaccine. In Contagion, she contracts the virus. While lying in bed in a temporary quarantine facility, she sees the patient in the bed next to her shivering. She tries to offer him her blanket, despite her feverish state. Smash cut to the next shot, and we see Winslet enclosed in a body bag. No swell of music, no dramatic escalation of her coughing, no colleague holding her as she passes and utters some inspirational hokum like, “You don’t stop until you beat this son of a bitch.”

Not every subplot in the film works. Jude Law plays a sort of Alex Jones media shock jock in a style that feels out of place in this otherwise serious-minded procedural. The Marion Cotillard kidnapping feels a bit sensational. Yet the dizzying pace of a sprawling plot does a better job than most films of conveying the way a pandemic amplifies every personal ordeal into melodrama of the utmost urgency. Watching the film reminds me of how I felt scrolling Twitter when Tom Hanks announced he had caught the coronavirus and then the NBA suspended its season. An unending cascade of realizations that don’t resolve, instead piling up all around us.

The other thing that struck me on watching this film after having absorbed a lot about COVID-19 is how we’re all now familiar with some of the terms and pandemic tropes that didn’t stick with me at all the first time I watched this film back in 2011. R-naught. Social distancing. The idea of a large centralized federal agency telling local labs to stand down, and one such lab employee ignoring those orders.

In the final scene, a flashback, a bat in Asia flies off when a bulldozer razes the tree it’s hanging from. The bat drops a piece of banana while flying over a pigpen, and a pig eats it. That pig is sent to a slaughterhouse and is next seen on a cutting board in a restaurant kitchen where its blood gets on the hands of a chef preparing it for casino guests. That chef then comes out of the kitchen to take a meet-and-greet photo with Gwyneth Paltrow, shaking her hands.

I didn’t remember this is how the film ended, but the danger of bats as coronavirus carriers and the deadly transmission surface that is our hands will be hardcoded in my mental hazard manual for the rest of my life.

The only question is why the film didn’t take hold in our collective imagination the first time around. Some things you just have to live through, I suppose.

[NOTE: Invisible Man, which I recommended in the last issue, is also available to rent for home viewing now. In invisible man horror films, defeating him usually requires that you make him visible somehow. Maybe you throw a blanket over him or pour some opaque liquid on him. It’s a metaphor, of sorts, for how we must deal with COVID-19. We have to test widely so we can see where it is and where it’s moving. If you don’t, and your enemy remains invisible, we all end up like Elizabeth Moss, spinning in every direction, waving a chef’s knife, every space and surface a threat.]


Behavioral Rigidity and TAM

Self-isolation from COVID-19 may be causing a decline in streaming on Spotify per an article from Quartz. This chart from Music Business Worldwide shows the drop:

It may be that overall Spotify streams are not down, despite the streams of top 200 singles being down in multiple countries. Perhaps Lil Uzi Vert doesn’t feel like the appropriate soundtrack for the end of days and people have started listening to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and other apocalyptic back catalog fare.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if Spotify streams really were down. When we speak about the total addressable market (TAM) for products, we don’t speak often enough about the behavioral or habitual TAM. But it matters.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some analyst at Spotify, looking at the listening patterns by time of day, realizes that many people are no longer doing long commutes to and from work, no longer popping in their favorite pop playlist for a session at the gym, because they’re all cooped up at home. Because of that, a chunk of time they had been allocating to listen to Spotify has been subbed out for whatever it is people do when they’re at home and not commuting or working out.

In theory, we’ve created a surplus of consumer attention which you might hypothesize to be a rising tide for all media boats. You might say that since Spotify can stream over your phone, it’s TAM is almost all your waking hours. In actuality, it’s not, and understanding the behavioral overlay of TAM on one’s daily routine matters as a product manager.

To take the Spotify example, understanding which contexts people listen to music in helps prioritize efforts like integration with car radios, helps to anticipate the effect of devices like AirPods and self-driving cars on their usage volume and frequency. I mean, Spectacles from Snapchat have mostly been a dud to date, but I can at least understand the impulse to shift the Snapchat camera from the phone onto one’s face to increase behavioral market share.

When you analyze the rise of YouTube vloggers and TikToks shot in the bedrooms of teens across the U.S., you won’t have a complete picture of the TAM without understanding just how much discretionary time teens have each night in their bedrooms.

I often speak of the behavioral rigidity of humans, how much we’re creatures of habit. Analyze enough human behavior at large enough sample sizes and we look like ants marching in formation in our predictability. For example, here’s some trivia. This is the Google Trends graph for a search term in the U.S. over the past 7 days. You can look at it over any 7 day period and it looks like this, with the peak search volume occurring at 1 am PT, 4 am ET, without fail. What search term is it? Answer in the next issue, or you can email me your guess.

At an Amazon all-hands meeting decades ago now, someone asked Jeff Bezos what change in the world at that time would most boost Amazon’s business. He gave an answer that I’ll always remember because it was so bizarre: “an always-on computer.” Computers at that time, he noted, took too long to boot up. This was the late ’90s when most people ran Windows on their personal computers. Many kids today don’t remember a time when you’d turn on your computer and then go do something else for a few minutes while the thing booted up. If the world had a computer that turned on instantly, like a light switch, more people would spend time online, Jeff noted, and that would mean they’d shop more with Amazon.

At the time, I thought that was quite a stretch. In hindsight, he was just asking for the iPhone, the always-on computer which I seldom turn off. It did change the world. Can you imagine if, to check Instagram or Twitter, you had to wait a minute or two for your phone to boot up? Bezos had a sense, even then, of the magnitude of impact reducing some level of upstream friction might have on the business.

If you’re a product manager whose business has seen a big shift in usage during this mass self-isolation, dig into the numbers by time of day and location and try to understand what happened. It’s rare to have such a mass natural experiment in shifting human behavior, it will be a gold mine of insight. Let me know what you find!


Recommended reading

Byrne Hobart launched a paid newsletter called The Diff. I give it my full-throated recommendation, even if my respiratory function might be slightly compromised (since I can’t get tested here in the United States, it’s unclear if my light cough is just spring allergies or the black lung). He and I met what feels like a century ago via Twitter when he pinged me because I happened to mention I was in Manhattan. I only knew him as some random smart person on Twitter, but we grabbed lunch and hit it off (well, you’d have to ask him what he thinks, I enjoyed it). Remember when people still went outside and met up in Manhattan? Gather round, children, and let me tell you about the age of socializing in Manhattan before COVID-19...

I’ve always enjoyed mixing up my inputs. Byrne and folks like Matt Levine help to fill out the finance side of my mental diet, in a way that doesn’t feel like reading incomprehensible research reports. For the cost of a coffee and croissant breakfast with Byrne, I’m happy to peek at his brain cache regularly, until that glorious day, someday, when the two of us can catch up in the real world again.

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