Remains of the Day: Issue 08

Deus ex Vaccina

As a reminder, I’m Eugene Wei, a former product guy 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 cover.


Outlander: Pandemic Edition

I want to begin with a thought exercise for all my readers. You may be familiar with near-future sci-fi; think of this as near-past sci-fi.

I have a time machine that can send you, or any other single human being alive right now, back in time to Jan 1, 2019. You cannot bring any documents or objects from today back with you, but anything you know today on May 14 you’ll still remember when you exit the time machine back at the start of this year.

From the moment you land in the world on Jan 1, what should or could you do to minimize the number of deaths we have actually seen through today, May 14?

Do you think you could prevent 1,000 deaths? 10,000? 100,000? If so, how? If I receive any interesting submissions, I’ll publish them in a future issue.

At the heart of my thought exercise lies a darker question, a suspicion about our modern world: what percentage of deaths were inevitable given the way the world, and people, are wired today?

If it turns out that one person couldn’t even prevent that many of the deaths we’ve seen, then we have to rethink the way truth is disseminated and processed in this world. One could argue that many people did sound the alarm and were ignored.

[SPOILER ALERT: SKIP NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS IF YOU DON’T WANT THE GRAPHIC NOVEL WATCHMEN SPOILED FOR YOU]

In the classic graphic novel Watchmen, Adrian Veidt looked at a world headed towards nuclear oblivion and decided the only way to head off annihilation was to unite humans against a common enemy.

What is the Veidt strategy with SARS-Cov-2? Is there one? Isn’t a global pandemic precisely the type of common enemy Veidt had to manufacture on his own? Could Veidt have imagined a world in which he dropped the faux alien squid monster, and instead of pulling together to fight off an existential threat, people ended up arguing whether the squid even existed, if it really killed all those people at all, or if hiding indoors from other squid constituted an act of cowardice?

In the brilliant short story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” from his most recent collection Exhalation, Ted Chiang examines one of my favorite topics, the McLuhan-esque premise of how our communication mediums mediate what we believe to be true. The story braids two narratives, one of a missionary bringing the technology of writing to a tribe in Africa, the other centered around gadget which records every moment of your life and summons any moment on demand for replay (a recent example of this sci-fi trope was the inciting concept in an episode of Black Mirror). Both stories examine the impact of these new technologies on the social fabric.

Even before the pandemic, we had been grappling with the impact of the rise of social media as our new dominant communication modality. The title of the Chiang short story hints at one of the troubling things about humans, that the truth of feeling often wins out over the truth of fact when it comes time for us to arbitrate belief. Tribalism, the in-vs-out group dynamic, the absolute pleasure of dunking on our fellow man, real or straw, it’s all a hell of a drug. Feeling part of a group often feels better than embracing the truth. Social media amplifies the incentives to join a herd and the punishment for defecting.

The implication is that as we change the structure of our communication networks, we need to be vigilant as to how that alters the viability of certain beliefs, truths, and norms.

I generally have stopped debating people on social media unless I know the person or have a lot of signal that they’ll argue in good faith because it’s almost always a waste of breath. It’s debate theater. The problem with so many beliefs, it turns out, is the absence of selection pressure.

That is, we need a way to arbitrate differences of opinion. In an evolutionary sense, we need some fitness function to reward beliefs that are true.

A pandemic contains a fitness function: if you don’t believe it exists and go out and behave recklessly, you’re more likely to catch SARS-Cov-2 and become ill and possibly die. This is why this virus has seemed to have a sense of dramatic irony. People who downplay it seem to catch the virus a short while later, from Rudy Gobert to Boris Johnson and so many others.

The problem with this form of selection pressure, though, is that people who behave recklessly can also infect a bunch of other people who were more risk-averse. I’m reminded of the O-ring theory of economic development (PDF), which analyzes the implications of production processes in which a series of sequential tasks must all be completed successfully to yield full value. In that model of production, output quality varies dramatically on the weakest link in that chain. In a pandemic, our outcomes are driven by the behavior of the most reckless people in the herd, not the most cautious.

That’s why this thought exercise is challenging. To save lives, you have to sway people in multiple tribes to take the pandemic seriously.

It’s Jan 1, 2020. You’ve just walked out of the time machine. Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a virus on the loose. Once it reaches a certain point of community transmission, tens of thousands of people will die. How do you make people believe in an invisible enemy?


I titled this issue Deus ex Vaccina because it feels like the U.S. plan, for now, is so to shrug our shoulders until a vaccine drops out of the sky. That might very well be years from now. Some will break the lockdown, either out of fatigue or economic necessity, or both. Many already have. The more risk-averse and well-off will huddle indoors, hibernating until they get a clear signal it’s safe again.

This current lockdown won’t last. Something will give long before a vaccine is widely available, but stronger federal leadership now on communicating a roadmap for the rest of this year would allow many more people and institutions to do medium and long-range planning.

In a pandemic, when so much of what we plan to do is tightly coupled with what others will do, leaving everyone in the dark increases coordination costs to the point where you have what we have now, a sort of mass paralysis of action. This is some prisoner’s dilemma of our government’s making; in the absence of guidance, people will just randomly defect if their worldview supports it.

A bottoms-up re-opening won’t save our economy if most people are still too scared to go out. Serving one or two customers a night isn’t viable for restaurants or small businesses. Shaming those who choose to stay sheltered won’t coerce them outdoors.

In any organization, trust reduces coordination costs. America needs a mass infusion of trust to restart our economy. The most critical near-term injection of trust would come from much wider availability of testing. We need enough so that we can start testing people to show that they don’t have the virus, rather than hoarding our limited test capacity to confirm which symptomatic people have it.

Without more widespread testing, effective isolation and contact-tracing aren’t possible. It should be some reporter’s job every day to check up with key companies in our Covid-19 testing supply chain and to provide a regular update on our progress towards whatever testing capacity we need to bring our economy out of this coma. Are we a few weeks away from that? A few months? I have no idea.


Butterfly Effect

As to why it’s been hard to predict the specific course that the virus would take through different regions of the world, I found this visualization of a series of pandemic simulations helpful. What you gain, as you watch the ripple effects of tactics like social distancing, closing borders, or isolating sick patients, is an appreciation of how wide the volatile the outcomes can be in even a simple SIR model of a viral outbreak. If you just tweak a variable here or there, the results can swing wildly.

Then consider that the real world introduces all manner of local variation—viral mutation, differences in urban density and in the volume of interaction in enclosed versus open-air spaces within those urban landscapes, variances in respiration and airflow in confined spaces, the scattered distribution of super-spreaders, geographically disparate traffic patterns, variations in genetic susceptibility, distinct age distributions, the prevalence of comorbidities within the population, among hundreds of other variables—and you understand why the pattern of the outbreak from one region to the next has varied to such a degree.


Virus Vision

I doubt this is even remotely feasible, but one of the greatest superpowers in the world right now would be the ability to actually see the SARS-Cov-2 virus fomites in the world. Imagine a pair of AR goggles that would highlight the virus in your environment as glowing red dots or something like that. You’d see it on surfaces, drifting through the air, on people’s hands and faces.

At crime scenes, investigators can spray a chemical and detect the presence of blood using a blacklight. I wish some similar technology existed with this virus.


Pandemic Cultural Consumption and Recs

Some thoughts on some of what I’ve watched or read during my shelter-in-place.

Severance, written by Ling Ma in just 2018, was just fantastic.

A passage, so you can enjoy the language:

By us, I guess she meant the other girls who worked in Art. The Art Girls, for they were all invariably girls—colt-legged, flaxen-haired, in their late twenties, possessors of discounted Miu Miu and Prada, holders of degrees in Art History or Visual Studies, frequenters of gallery openings, swishers of pinot, nibblers of canapés—carried themselves like a rarefied breed, peacocking through the hallways in Fracas-scented flocks.

Another:

Who knew what was true. The sheer density of information and misinformation at the End, encapsulated in news articles and message-board theories and clickbait traps that had propagated hysterically through retweets and shares, had effectively rendered us more ignorant, more helpless, more innocent in our stupidity.

This is a good description of my Mandarin:

I had been six when I left China, and my Mandarin vocabulary was regressive, simplistic. I used idioms that only small children would use; my language was frozen in time. I could carry on a casual conversation for ten minutes. Any longer, and I was like a shallow-water dog paddler flailing in deeper ocean waters.

Whew:

The past is a black hole, cut into the present day like a wound, and if you come too close, you can get sucked in. You have to keep moving.

Two passages on New York, both right:

New York has a way of forgetting you.

I have always lived in the myth of New York more than in its reality. It is what enabled me to live there for so long, loving the idea of something more than the thing itself.

Shen Fever, the fictional disease in Severance, is one of nostalgia. Those infected are doomed to repeat some rote routine of daily life until they eventually expire. As such, it’s not a story about pandemics in particular as much as it is a metaphor for how to break out of the routines that we use to imprison ourselves.

Still, it contains enough echoes of our current predicament to feel eerily prescient. The wearing of N95 masks. The shutting down of offices. The emptiness in our public spaces. The way an outbreak flips from some bit of news you discuss at parties and social gatherings to a pandemic that locks down the world seemingly overnight.

I’m almost done with The Origin of Wealth. So far so great. About economics, but will likely influence a lot of my product thinking moving forward.

Yes, the premise at the heart of the TV series Devs is implausible. There are two types of viewers in this world, and one will nitpick plot plausibility and script structure to death, uploading 40-minute rants and breakdowns to YouTube, stringing together all the issues with the plot.

Though I can nitpick plot structure with the best of them, I’m of the other school of viewer, the type that judges movies and television on how they make me feel. I’m more a right-brain viewer than a left-brain viewer, to use an old distinction that might not even be valid anymore. Evoking feeling is something the medium of motion pictures does better than other art forms; it’s the comparative advantage of a high bandwidth medium.

The design and mood of Devs pressed down on me like a gravity blanket, and I gave myself over to its emotional heft. On Hulu.

Normal People - Hulu is really on a roll with its originals lately. I’m about six episodes into this series. It takes potentially difficult material and just nails it (the irony of film is that while it’s a medium best suited to making the viewer feel, it’s a difficult medium in which to convey people just feeling things; the worst type of first movie from a filmmaker is often a semi-autobiographical story in which the stand-in for the director is a somewhat mute guy who is just feeling things, thus the invention of the deus ex manic pixie dream girl to try and force the protagonist to emerge from their emotional cocoon with a higher EQ).

I’m so starved for human intimacy, for a hug, even just the brush of a shoulder on a subway, that living young love vicariously through the leads of Normal People feels like some VR experience to stimulate my atrophied emotional receptors. The most emo soundtrack of all time and I’m there for it? What has the world come to? I’m like a mopey 16 year old again.

I gritted my teeth and powered through the latest season of Westworld, and I’m trying to keep going through the latest seasons of Killing Eve and Billions, but all three are a reminder of how hard it is to sustain a story that that blew through natural endpoints in earlier seasons. I’d be fine with more shows of this sort just coming out an hour and a half long Christmas special once a year rather than trying to add more and more full seasons.

It’s impossible for me to give an unbiased opinion of The Last Dance. I grew up in Chicago during the Jordan heyday. One of the most treasured gifts in my life was the first pair of Air Jordans my mother bought me, and once a year on my birthday, she’d scalp me a ticket from a broker so I could see Jordan play at the old Chicago Stadium. The most memorable of those birthday games was in 1997, the famous Jeff Van Gundy “Con Man” game. The Knicks coach had said in an interview that Michael Jordan conned other players into thinking he was their friend off the court so they wouldn’t compete as hard against him on the court.

It could very well have been correct though that never mattered to Jordan, the master of turning slights both imagined and real into motivation. He dropped 51 on the Knicks that night to lead the Bulls to a 1-point victory, and after he scored his last bucket, he turned and screamed at Van Gundy. I screamed a lot that night too. Jordan turned every NBA game into an opera of competitive melodrama.

The documentary does struggle somewhat between whether it wants to be a Jordan documentary or a story of that final Bulls championship run. I have that entire timeline memorized, but for the casual viewer who didn’t live through it, all the jumping back and forth in the chronology must be disorienting. It’s not always clear that there is a real link between one of the earlier points in the timeline and some moment in that final season, making some of the time-shifting feel arbitrary.

Still, just to access so many hours of archival footage, including clips I’ve never seen before, from the legendary Dream Team scrimmage, to even the Space Jam summer league games, is such a get. Every documentarian dreams of capturing a moment where their subject bares their soul, as Jordan does in the interview clip that concludes episode 7, the one in which he explains why he was so hard on his teammates and coaches. A moment when the witness you are cross-examining breaks and screams “You’re damn right I ordered the Code Red!”

Some directors have been known to push actors through take after take of a scene to exhaust them to the point where any artifice falls away, leaving only raw emotion. You can’t pull that with a Michael Jordan, but whatever the context of this clip, they managed to get him there. At that moment, you see a man speaking unapologetically, defiantly, yet breaking down under the full realization of what it cost him in friendships.

A few people have cited Steve Jobs as another leader in this mold, but there are numerous examples of leaders in tech and other fields who are this way. I’ve met more than I can count. I couldn’t work for someone like that anymore, and I don’t think it’s the only successful model of leadership. However, in my experience, there’s always a price to pay for choosing greatness, even if we aren’t conscious of all the costs because some of them are born by those around us.

Fleishman is in Trouble by the great celebrity profile writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a woman’s jiu-jitsu on the Updike/Roth middle-aged man midlife crisis novel. At first, it reads like a modern version of just such a book. Then, suddenly, Brodesser-Akner switches perspective and turns it into a Rashomon tale of how a marriage succumbs to resentment. Sounds high concept, but it never feels like a gimmick.

Sea Fever is a low budget suspense film that holds contains many infection plot arcs that we’ve all become too familiar with: a mysterious outbreak, the diagnosis of the source of the infection, the need to quarantine, people revolting against being locked down. If you haven’t seen The Thing, watch that John Carpenter classic instead. Sea Fever isn’t as good, it is a beat too lean on the bones, in both character interiority and VFX quality, to haunt the same way the Carpenter film does, but it never lost me, either. I’m a sucker for thoughtful horror, and this one is low on jump scares for those who aren’t up for that.

I’d never watched any of the Purge films until this pandemic, and now I’ve seen the first two. More than a bit relevant to the current pandemic, the franchise pokes at that uncomfortable wound opening between essential and non-essential workers during this lockdown. [The decision to divide us into two groups named essential and non-essential seems ill-considered. Essential workers feel drafted into duty without protective gear, sacrificial lambs to the pandemic, while non-essential workers feel belittled to be dubbed, well, non-essential. Maybe critical and non-critical?]

There’s a lack of fussiness in Blumhouse productions that appeals to me at certain times, and the Purge films slot right in. One day each year, most of society lock themselves in for safety. Meanwhile, for those 12 hours, all crime is legal, including murder, and some choose to maraud the streets with weapons, murdering their fellow citizens.

I believe a later installment reveals that the whole idea of the Purge to be some plot of the wealthy to reduce the population of the poor or something of the sort. That dark streak is reminiscent of our current pandemic, in which the wealthy can shelter-in-place in luxury while the less fortunate are forced out into the world to face possible death at the hands of a virus or financial destitution, or both.

The first installment is a bit rough around the edges, the second better-crafted.


Back Catalog

Now for some older film recs.

Someone tagged me into some Twitter challenge to name five perfect movies, or something of the sort, a while ago, and I can’t find it. That’s such a difficult question because perfect carries such a specific connotation.

Instead, I’ll offer up some films I love for deeply personal reasons. In a pandemic, I’m subsisting on nostalgia, summoning feelings from my memory reserves to fill the emotional void in my day-to-day life.

I wouldn’t promise these films are perfect, but they are like family to me. Sampling any of these has a higher probability of rocking your world than binge-watching some high-gloss trash like Tiger King.

Best of Youth - A 4-part, 6-hour Italian miniseries, turned into two 3-hour films when released in the U.S. I watched both 3-hour installments back-to-back in one marathon afternoon at an arthouse theater in Manhattan. No matter what, make sure you make it to the end of the first half (three hours in). The film hinges on what happens at that moment. It’s a history of a nation told through the lives of one family. I felt like an adopted Italian by film’s end.

Chungking Express - Several of Wong Kar Wai’s other films, like In the Mood for Love or Happy Together, are more immaculately wrought start to finish. The first chapter in Chungking Express isn’t as strong as the second. But Chungking Express is the first of his films I watched, and it so perfectly captured a sense of yearning that is simultaneously universal and yet specific to these characters in Hong Kong. I sometimes just have this film looping in the background while I work.

The Conversation - okay, this one isn’t obscure. It qualifies as perfect. What’s the cost of surveillance, and how much can we really know about another person?

Do the Right Thing - okay, this one is perfect, too. You’ve probably seen it? If so, watch it again.

The Apartment - an exemplar of classic Hollywood. People under-estimate the craftsmanship of the Hollywood heyday. I’ve been watching a lot of classic cinema during shelter-in-place, perhaps because it feels like a form of self-care.

Melancholia - no movie helped me understand what depression feels like more than this one. Director Lars von Trier suffers from depression himself, and he poured it on the screen here. Way to sell it, huh? It’s also as gorgeous a film about the end of the world as you can imagine. If you’re more into filmmaking craft, the von Trier to seek out is The Five Obstructions, whose format should be adopted in reality competitions in other creative fields.

Le Samourai - my first Melville film. Watching anything of his is like knocking back a tumbler of liquor neat. A sort of spiritual antecedent to all of Michael Mann’s men of action films. Everything is as lean and sharp as the cut of Alain Delon’s trench coat.

Hard Boiled - John Woo has long wanted to remake Le Samourai, a film that inspired his classic The Killer. Hard Boiled, however, was my first Woo film; my first and forever platonic image of a double-handgun-wielding Chow Yun Fat. No hitman ever had more of a heart of gold.

Drug War - god I love myself some Johnnie To, and he’s so prolific I don’t know where to start. He directs the way I wish I could write, just with reckless abandon and love, like a man slashing through a forest with a machete, his hair on fire. Start here for a taste of his style. Someone could teach a masterclass on camera movement using just his filmography.

Show Me Love - the original Swedish title was Fucking Amal, the English title is milder if more accurate to the theme. If you watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire and thought “I need to watch more lesbian romance films” then this may be the Lukas Moodysson film for you.

[Incidentally, there are so many great lesbian romance films. Forbidden by society at large for so long, these romances don’t so much unfold on screen as they build up like a pressure cooker and then just explode, tearing your heart open. Blue is the Warmest Color is another one, though the extended and heated sex scenes make this one you shouldn’t watch with your parents.]

There is a musical cue in Show Me Love that is just perfect; you’ll know it when you see it. When I saw it for the first time, I nearly stood up and pumped my fist and screamed when that moment occurred, it’s so cathartic. If you want something more depressing, Moodysson’s Lilja 4-Ever will flatten you.

[By the way, you’ll notice if you click through on any of these links that many of the DVDs of these are either out of print or selling at exorbitant prices. That’s a good sign!]

The Leopard - When Burt Lancaster gets on his knees and gives a speech to the heavens near the end (if you watch the English dub, it’s his voice, and if you watch the Italian soundtrack, it’s some Italian actor voicing the lines for him), I cried. I couldn’t even explain exactly why, I was just sitting by myself in some arthouse theater in New York, still in my twenties, and yet I felt in that moment what Lancaster’s character felt, a world passing him by. At that moment, when it’s time to hand the world over to the next generation, will you do so with as much grace and self-dignity?

Also, Claudia Cardinale is an all-time silver screen crush.

Cure - this was the first film of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s that I ever saw, not to mention my first exposure to the great actor Koji Yakusho. I caught this at the Seattle Film Festival back when I was working at Amazon. It was one of the first film festivals I ever attended. Cure set me off on a long J-horror phase, though this is more a suspenseful psychological serial killer thriller than the ghost stories Japan is known for. Renewed relevance for me in a world where gurus are programming other people’s minds from afar, through YouTube and networks like that.

Audition - if you are a fan of horror, Audition is a must. Maybe the best and most perfect J-horror film, a disturbing look at the relationship between the sexes.

All About Lily Chou-Chou - If I were to pick one Shunji Iwai film to recommend, it would probably be this one or Swallowtail Butterfly. I saw this one first, so that’s my pick here, but the latter is a bit more action-packed for those so inclined. To be honest, I don’t remember All About Lily Chou-Chou as clearly as I remember that it made a big impression on me. Now I need to see if I can find my old DVD copy of it to refresh my memory.

Don’t Look Now - Which Roeg film to pick? This is the one that’s haunted me ever since I saw it. The editing of the sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie is something every editor has studied, but the dissection of the difference between intuitive and logical models of understanding the world has eternal relevance.

Let me know if you enjoy any of these.


This pandemic has been so grim that I attended my first webinar.


The beauty of scale

In what feels like a decade-long reverence of the artisanal, this pandemic has come along to remind us of the importance and, dare I say it, the beauty of scale.

As a part-time, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, eternally aspiring creative, I hold the artisanal in high regard. Every work from an individual artist is a sort of small-batch miracle.

Yet I find the low regard in which we hold scale to be deeply concerning. In our culture, we’ve come to associate mass-production of goods with dehumanization and homogenization. Some of that is a justified suspicion of how those goods are produced, and that deserves never-ending scrutiny.

Still, is it right that we extol some boutique cupcake shop over the corner McDonald’s? I don’t like cupcakes, and I don’t eat at McDonald’s much, but I’m more impressed with the latter’s ability to feed billions of people across the globe with Big Macs of remarkably consistent taste.

It’s in a pandemic, when we need hundreds of millions of N95 masks to protect our front-line medical workers, that the ability to produce a lot of the same thing with a high degree of precision becomes a matter of life or death. Every ventilator we can make now that works exactly as promised is one more patient who can draw breath.

I was reminded of the beauty of scale when listening to this episode of Planet Money, “The Race to Make Ventilators.”

In this episode, the CEO of Ventec, a small Seattle-area company that usually manufactures about 200 ventilators a month, recounts the moment he calls up GM and asks them to help him with sourcing and manufacturing critical components from across the globe. Hearing about what happens when GM spins up the full power of its supply chain management know-how gave me goosebumps.

For all the horror that is the worst public health disaster in my lifetime, the efforts of so many people across the globe, many of which aren’t being publicized, to scale up production to meet this crisis with the full force it requires, are awe-inspiring.

Sometimes, more often than we’d like to, size matters. Or rather, scale matters.


Institutional Amnesia

With many diseases, people who are infected and then recover develop antibodies and immunity. How long that protection lasts can vary. Sometimes they’re granted immunity for life, sometimes for just a season, and sometimes not at all. For example, we tend to have immunity from the common flu only for a season given how quickly that influenza mutates.

It is an apt metaphor for institutional memory. Human memory seems particularly sensitive to experience. One of the few positives from SARS-CoV-2 may be that an entire generation of Americans will now have an indelible recall of the grave impact of a pandemic.

The same applies to our institutions. Many East Asian countries dealt with this outbreak better because the battles to contains SARS and H1N1 were still vivid in the memory of their institutions and people. They had scripts, ready to run. The U.S. was not hit nearly as hard by those outbreaks (or Ebola or MERS). As a result, it seems to have had less operational immunity in place. The federal government had playbooks, but not the energy and will to execute them. Global supply chains broke when other countries became supply-constrained due to the worldwide surge in demand for critical medical equipment and drugs.

The value of information or slack in a supply chain is a product of both its existence and its accessibility at the relevant moment. Information is useless if you can’t summon it when you need it.

In the same way, I’m always stunned by how poorly companies remember lessons from their history. This is especially true of Silicon Valley companies. As a region, Silicon Valley has a sharp memory. An investment and entrepreneurial class trying to craft playbooks based on past successes will spend plenty of time on navel-gazing and pattern recognition. Within any individual company, however, documentation and historical record-keeping are so meager it almost constitutes a form of corporate amnesia. Knowledge walks out the door in the minds of employees all the time.

Join a big company and ask for what they learned from some project from years past. If the people who worked on it are no longer around, or if you can’t get time on the calendar with those who were, what are the odds you’ll find a thorough post-mortem to flip through? Given the short lifespan and high mortality rate of tech startups, it’s understandable that keeping good history isn’t a top priority. For companies that survive and thrive, though, this amnesia is a travesty.

It doesn’t help that many companies that die take their secrets with them to the grave. It is said we learn more from failure than success, but if so, we spend way too much time listening to history recounted by the winners. We need an internet archive of documents and emails from companies that went under; maybe we agree to release them only after a grace period of some sort, 5 or 10 years or something.

While memory loss in corporations isn’t surprising, even if it troubles me, I can’t excuse America’s bumbled response to this pandemic. It’s not our first rodeo, as they say. This pandemic has been a reminder of how infrequent events pose such a challenge for our institutions with short memories.

In Japan, the Ise Jingu shrine is torn down and rebuilt every 20 years just so the skill necessary to do so is stored in some subset of its populations, like a memory bank of flesh and blood.

Lest you think the memory of how to do something can erode in just two decades, I point you to this video.

Some people who watched this saw it as an indictment of those children, but to me, it’s just another sign of how many levels of abstraction we’re privileged enough to live with in modern times. I probably couldn’t start a fire if abandoned in a forest today, whereas some of my caveman ancestors could easily do so.

Few of us living through this current pandemic will forget what it was like, and we’ll be, I hope, better prepared the next time. Fewer of us will employ a just-in-time toilet paper supply strategy, perhaps. But more than that, let’s hope our government isn’t caught flat-footed and empty-handed when the next pandemic hits, whether it’s an influenza or a coronavirus.

It’s only a matter of when, not if.