I played Dungeons & Dragons in high school, and I still consider it to be the greatest game ever made.
Magic was one of the many things that made D&D awesome, as it combined well-defined rules, limitless possibilities, and (with a lucky roll of the dice), the ability to turn an otherwise impossible situation into victory.
I want my real life to be cool, too, just like the magic in D&D.
I also want to relocate my family across the Pacific, to the States. This is a big project, perhaps the biggest adventure of our lives.
To meet this goal, income would be nice.
I don’t have to get a job, but it’d be cooler if I did.
But jobs suck!
Or do they? I haven’t looked for a job in twenty years.
Is it possible to make this income transition fun, instead of a burden? If so, how?
My skills and knowledge would be viewed as magic by someone living in ancient times, or even by some older people today.
In a sense, I am a magic user of the modern world.
Okay, that sounds more fun.
So, with that loose chain of logic leading the way, this post is about a temporarily changing the direction with my writing here, getting down and dirty, casting some mean spells. For a couple of months, I’m going to insert some extremely grass-roots tech, the kind of magic I conjure up to bring harmony to the kingdom, and to keep orcs and dragons at bay.
Can I change the direction of this blog? Sure. Why not? I don’t sell anything and nobody reads this stuff anyway. Do they? Probably not, and that’s good. This obscurity grants me all the creative freedom I need.
Right now I’m thinking of doing twenty blog posts in sixty days. My original mission with this blog was to explore ways I could use my tech skills to be beneficial in life, but now is the time for pragmatism and action. My experience in Japan has been rewarding and life-changing on a multitude of levels, but after ten years here it’s time to return to my homeland, the good old USA. I’d prefer a more stable year to return to America, one that did not include a pandemic, protests, riots, soaring unemployment, toxic politics, and impending economic doom. But why not make things interesting? What the heck.
The chaos might actually work in my favor. Schools are closed indefinitely due to the virus, so there’s no hard deadline to get the kids enrolled.
Also, everyone who works in tech is now working from home. After a decade of commuting ten hours per week in Tokyo metro, I’m looking forward to joining them. If there was an emotion stronger than envy then I’d be feeling it now. Working remotely (at least part of the time) is the only way to go, even in the best of times. Work Is Not a Place. It’s great that the IT industry has seemed to hang in there through this weird pandemic / pseudo economic depression we’re in, and doubly great that so many jobs are now suddenly open to remote work. I’ve been preaching the remote work gospel for years and the rest of the world is finally hearing The Word. This pandemic has been great in so many ways.
Working remotely is exactly what I want to do for as long as my corporate citizenship lasts, and it’s looking like it might last a while, with the goal of gracefully transplanting my foreign-born family to the other side of the world, staying solvent at the same time.
The category of the twenty posts in this detour will be “Applied Tech,” unless I can think of something better. Maybe “Applied Magic” would better match the theme. This will be a batch of twenty-plus posts about applying the right kind of magic to get the jobs done – both transitioning my employment situation, and the job of moving my family to the States.
There’s a lot I like about tech. I love learning new things, solving problems, and making tech work for us (as opposed to us struggling with tech). I like working with people – customers, clients, and colleagues alike – but with a certain control over the volume knob that only remote work allows. I’d work with tech even if there was no money involved (and in a way there isn’t, as I’m fortunate to have not lived paycheck-to-paycheck in twenty-five years).
So that’s “why” I’m getting more technical with this blog, to move my family back to the States, in a financially responsible way.
But why am I looking for a job?
This is the kind of question an alien from outer space might ask, an intelligent creature blissfully naïve about the way things work in early 21st Century Earth, sort of like a high school kid who plays D&D. I’ve been asking this question every day since high school, and there’s no reason to stop now.
Health Insurance, I’m Your Bitch
As mentioned, I like tech, but sometimes I don’t want to work with tech every day. Sometimes there are other types of work I’d rather do, work that does not necessarily make good money. My household needs income, of course, but we don’t need the kind of money that an all-encompassing full-time corporate job provides. My ideal work week might involve working a tech job a few days per week, with maybe one day in the office and two at home. The rest of the week I’d work on creative and constructive projects of interest, or devote my time to enriching the lives of my family and community. At this point, money is not as important to me as time.
This dream week of mine would be completely tenable if not for one factor: In America, health care is a life-altering expense. The only way to reasonably afford coverage for a family in the U.S. is health care subsidized by a corporate job. This ends up having a huge impact on quality of life.
In Japan, health coverage for my wife and kids is around US$2,000 per year (it would be free if we were poor). In America, the same coverage, if self-paid, costs ten times as much. (With extremely high premiums it’s possible to get family coverage for around US$4,000 per year in America, but this means hospital visits only for life-threatening emergencies, and no dental.
What are the alternatives?
Start my own business? No health coverage.
What about consultant? No health coverage.
Part-time work? No health coverage.
Gig economy? No health coverage.
With a family to support, it all comes down to health insurance in America, unless you want to roll the dice and hope nobody gets sick or hurt. (This was my dad’s strategy during my teenage years, like twenty percent of Americans today. Somehow we all got lucky, one bone fracture and a sprained ankle notwithstanding – an elementary school misstep that I was obliged to “walk off”.)
I don’t feel that lucky with my family.
Health care, I am your bitch.
So, American health care, you slave-driving destroyer of dreams, it looks like I’ll be working Monday through Friday, fifty hours per week after week after week after soul-crushing week (into infinity), at a job that I won’t necessarily want to be working all of the time. This is a common routine called “The Grind,” and I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years.
Toward the end of a rare one-week break from work I’ve usually shed enough of the psychic trauma to see a glimpse of a future for myself and loved ones outside The Grind, but when starting a new job in America the standard is two precious weeks off per year. PER YEAR! I don’t have that many years left. In a sense, nobody does. Why do we do it? It’s insane.
It’s supremely ironic that I’ll be suffering through all this in the name of health insurance, because this rigid routine compresses one’s vision of the future into two sequential events: more of The Grind itself, and death. (Okay, there’s a slight intermission between the two, the vision of me on my death bed, hooked up to tubes and wires, all paid for by my marvelous health coverage, until the slow beeping of the EKG collapses into a solid tone, and I finally get some much-needed rest.)
The above vision is a delusion, a curse cast by an evil mage. I realize this now, but it’s a constant battle to resist its corrosive effects. For me there are only two ways to make The Grind tolerable, only two incantations that can dispel the curse. The first is remote and flexible work. This is a mandatory requirement for any new job. The second is, well, let’s just say it’s a material component of magic-user spells that will be covered in far future blog posts, when we’re on the other side of the Pacific, settled in the States.
Adventures are not easy. They’re usually fraught with danger, requiring great sacrifice to overcome. I’m ready to take on all the challenges listed above, but there’s no reason I can’t make it fun. What kind of magic will I practice in the journey ahead? I’ll stick with my core bag of tricks, while pushing the boundaries a bit into subject matters I like. If my search could be written into a WHERE clause then it would look something like this:
I’m not quite sure about this syntax, but in plain logic it’s a pretty good picture of what I want to do.
Another thing I want to do with these blog posts is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, which is storytelling with data. I start with a problem statement, something bad happening in the environment, a wandering monster to slay. There are complications, each worse than the last. There’s a catch hidden somewhere in one of the complications, which ends up leading to the solution in the end. The next twenty-plus posts will not be D&D-themed, at least not to the point that it detracts from the tech. However, I do intend to unlock some possibilities and turn an otherwise impossible situation into victory with a few lucky rolls of the dice. Most of all, I intend to have some fun.
At the end of May I took a much-needed break from virus-related psychological stressors at work and spent the week with my family, hiking the wooded hills surrounding our neighborhood and planting some fruits and vegetables at a community garden down the street. On my first Monday back at “work” (the physical set of coordinates where I was required to exist in exchange for a paycheck) I got some tragic news: one of my closest friends had died over the weekend at his home in Dallas, Texas; a victim of depression, alcoholism, and isolation, having been furloughed from his job and locked down for many weeks. The news hit me extremely hard.
In the following weeks I thought a lot about the state of things in America, again comparing the way the virus had been handled in Japan to the way it continued to be handled so miserably in the States. How had wearing masks become a civil liberties issue? This was where the battle lines had been drawn in America’s Coke versus Pepsi existence, and one side got to have their “I told you so” moment. But how did “masks versus no masks” become an issue in the first place? In Japan, masks were not a civil liberties issue because there was no law requiring people to wear masks. There was no law locking people down. Nobody was forced to do anything. For the most part Japanese people wore masks out of respect for other people, not because they were afraid of getting the virus themselves. Even now, in mid-July, everyone in Japan wore a mask. Even if it was acknowledged as merely symbolic support, for the health of the nation as a whole, everyone wore a mask. The Japanese government was equally as incompetent as the American government. But in Japan, the Japanese people stepped up and saved the day.
This kind of civic responsibility was totally absent in America, where it seemed everyone only saw one of two sides, and in this case one side happened to dislike masks. (It seemed that all Americans only saw one of two sides because that was how the media portrayed it, but there were a lot of folks who understood the insanity of framing issues into two distinct choices, when neither choice made sense.)
In America there was no such thing as taking a rational and nuanced approach to anything, which was too bad, because every problem in the world required a rational and nuanced solution. Instead, the American approach was emotional and dogmatic, either this or that, thumbs up or thumbs down, my team or yours. And the kicker? Neither choice was ever totally correct.
For example, on immigration: “Should we build a giant wall separating US and Mexico, OR should we let everyone across the border?” Answer: Neither. None of the above.
Police brutality: “Should we pretend there’s no problem, OR eliminate the police?” None of the above.
Pandemic: “Should we lock everything down OR open everything up?” None of the above.
Every problem always required a “this AND that” solution. Nothing was ever “this OR that,” but that was how advertising worked best. (Thanks, Facebook, for the thumbs up / thumbs down turd you dropped on an already divided Western world.)
This Coke-OR-Pepsi worldview was killing America’s ability to function as a nation, but it was easy to see why the powers that be (and the powers that wanted to be) were intentionally divisive. This was the best way to control people, to get them on one of two clearly defined sides. The power-grabbing was more vicious than ever; in America there were trillions of dollars at stake. This problem did not start with the current American president; he was a symptom of a bigger problem, not the cause.
If American discourse continued to be filtered through this intentionally divisive paradigm then we were in for a very rough ride. The answer, of course, was to reject the divisiveness, and to be critical of how important issues were framed. There wasn’t much difference between Coke and Pepsi anyway. One was slightly sweeter. It just depended on one’s personal taste.
In confronting the virus, Japan didn’t ponder “mask OR no mask,” “lock everything down OR open everything up,” because only a mentally ill person (or nation) would frame the problem in those terms. The problem required a nuanced approach. If America’s answer had been “none of the above,” (for example, “wear masks AND open some businesses”), then my friend might still be alive.
July 18, 2020
Welcome to Japan’s monsoon season. We’ve had six weeks of more or less continuous rain, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the tomatoes I planted back in May are ever going to ripen. We’ll see.
In the past few weeks Japanese news outlets are reporting an increase in virus cases. As noted in Sickness Begins in the Mind, I’m surprised that so many people seem to take a daily tally of “number of cases” at face value, without really examining what’s behind the numbers, because by itself “number of cases” is a useless number, other than to keep people in line. I suppose if anything “number of cases” serves to encourage people to keep their guard up, reminding them that this thing isn’t over yet, and that’s probably for the best.
Still, “number of cases” annoys me a bit because there’s never any indication of what the number means, other than the obvious, that someone tested positive for the virus. But so what? The meaning of “number of cases” depends entirely on context, right? Were all of these cases people who sought medical attention? What percentage of these cases were hospitalizations? If all of the cases were hospitalized, then that would mean many more unreported cases out there. But what else was new? A couple months ago there was a news story about Japan conducting a nationwide effort to test large numbers of healthy people, for the purpose of detecting antibodies, people who had already contracted the virus, and (I think) asymptomatic cases. I’m not sure what happened to this study, but I’m curious. I’ll try to find out.
Still, there are rumors of another ROCK-DOWN in Tokyo, though I think this rumor may have been started by people who take “number of cases” more seriously than they should. (I love the way Japanese pronounce rock-down, and the way they pretend like emulating America is the thing to do.) There never was an official lock-down in Japan, only advisories, and a docile “state of emergency”.
What the Japanese news outlets never seem to report is number of deaths, because that number might convince people that the virus is nothing to worry about. The number of deaths is effectively zero per day in Tokyo, in a metro area of thirty million, and has reached a grand total of just under one thousand deaths for the entire country since January, a number that is much lower than the death rate of the seasonal flu of any given year.
Well, that was a full month, wasn’t it? April 2020 was a bitch.
My experience with the virus was a mental marathon that I would never forget. To my knowledge I never contracted the virus, but I experienced it twice, in a way, as I lived simultaneously in two very different worlds.
It was no easy trick to maintain mental health during a global pandemic, especially considering our warped means of acquiring truth.
I was never too concerned with getting the virus myself. I may have been high risk to get it, but throughout most of this thing I maintained the audacity to believe I was low risk to die from it. “But what if?” the world whispered a million times from January until now. And therein lay the basis of the great mental challenge everyone faced.
I accepted this challenge, seeking ways to manage the influx of panic from others around me, while grasping for ways to determine whether they or I had gone insane. Of course, thinking too much about the virus would not cause infection, but it could very well cause someone to lose their mind.
From the beginning, my goal with this thing was to apply the right amount of self-preserving negative emotion (fear, worry, anger, or whatever) to the problem at hand. In my professional life I specialized in automation and efficiency, applying the right amount of resources to get the job done. It wasn’t like I had a whole lot of energy to spare anyway, with a busy career and a hectic family life at home.
In the Buddhist tradition there was the “Hear no evil, see no evil” proverb, the gist of which was to avoid unnecessary evil thoughts. This was exactly what I strove to do. There was a fine line between taking something too seriously and not taking it seriously enough. A lack of seriousness could result in physical harm, even death, while too much seriousness could affect mental health (which could in turn have a very real effect on physical health). But what was the right amount of mental energy devoted to this virus? Nobody knew. Or rather, it was too difficult to discern, with every shred of American reality filtered through the carnival fun house of a polarized press. Depending on the source, the virus was Reality One (no big deal), or Reality Two (the end of the world). Of course, as usual, neither of these realities were all true, but what was? One thing that was certain from the beginning: there was a lot of bullshit flying around.
On any given day, most worries turned out to be pointless. There was a famous study in psychology that concluded over ninety percent of energy devoted to negative emotions was a total waste. Either the object of our worry never came to pass, or it ended up being much less harmful than we had imagined. I continually reminded myself: “don’t believe everything you think,” because the stories about myself that spun through my mind were usually false. Things were always much better than they seemed.
At first glance, the “hear no evil, see no evil” proverb may have seemed like superstitious woo, but in many ways sickness began in the mind.
What was my unique experience with the virus, and why did it matter? I saw firsthand how two very different countries handled this thing, and through this comparison some truths were revealed. The virus may have been the biggest news story of the century so far, but to me the even bigger story was what the virus exposed. From afar, America seemed fragile, fragmented, at war with itself.
Japan, for all its many faults, handled this thing pretty well. My home life was in Japan. For me this was Reality One.
Reality Two was work. I commuted every weekday to a gated American community on Tokyo Bay. It was “gated” in the sense that it was surrounded by barbed wire, concrete and guns: the former home of the Japanese Imperial Navy, now headquarters to U.S. Seventh Fleet.
In Reality One, my home life throughout this thing was better than ever. I was lucky to be married to a wonderful, good-spirited woman who maintained a positive approach to life. She ran the household, playing the role of traditional housewife of a bygone era, homeschooling our kids (in two languages, no less).
We were never “locked down” in the Chinese or Italian or American approach to dealing with this thing, nor were any other Japanese. We were part of a close-knit community of family and friends that extended out to a couple hundred people or more, very few of whom would practice any real social distancing.
Japan confirmed its first cases of the virus in early January, and for a month afterwards everyone was keeping an eye on news reports. A few people in our town got it. There was an outbreak originating at a hot yoga studio down the street (appropriately named “LAVA,” which the locals pronounced “RAVA”), an event that made regional news because it was across the street from city hall. Oh dear! RAVA was also on the same corner as the convenience store where I stopped every morning on my walk to the station, and very close to the little café our friends owned. I would continue frequenting both locations with increased vigor as the weeks rolled on, with the aim of supporting local businesses. (This would turn out to be unnecessary, as the café experienced a surge of business from take-out, and the convenience store got more business from people working from home.)
There were a couple other local cases early on, but then things died down. Everyone more or less forgot about the virus until late March, when the U.S. was in full panic mode.
My Own Sickness of the Mind
“…anything that interrupted the endless cascade of workweeks of commuting and existing in a physical space seemed like a sweet oasis, even if it meant getting sick and risking death.”
I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t so concerned with getting the virus. This was true, but not because I didn’t believe there was no risk. While America fought its bipolar insanity, I struggled with my own.
Things were good at home in Reality One. I was a hero to my family. For ten years I had worked in a foreign land to support our household in a beautiful, historic beach community, allowing my wife to meet her goal of immersing our kids in the language and culture of her country. I was home every night for dinner and spent evenings with the family. On weekends we went hiking, attended school events, or went to the beach. Not only had we prospered, but I had saved a substantial amount for retirement and had stashed away enough cash to buy a house in the States. I had published a novel, an accomplishment I’d take to the grave. Everyone in my family was healthy and strong. There was laughter around our house. Looking at things on a statistical scale, I (the high school loser) had never carried any debt, and had somehow risen to the top seven or eight percent for household net worth in America, top three percent in Japan, and top tenth of one percent in the world.
In Reality Two, my professional life, I was exhausted and bored. Despite all my amazing accomplishments, I had a cruel narrative of my own spinning through my head: the story of how I was still a slacker who had never amounted to much.
For the better part of three decades I had been working Monday through Friday, averaging fifty hours or more per week. I didn’t recall a single Sunday night in those fifteen hundred or so weeks when I had looked forward to Monday morning at work. For sure there had been days that I looked forward to waking up to work on my own creative projects. But like many people, since high school I had never possessed the wherewithal, imagination (or whatever was needed) to match my natural talents to the needs of the economic machine.
So I didn’t fear getting the virus because anything that interrupted the endless cascade of workweeks of commuting and existing in a physical space seemed like a sweet oasis, even if it meant getting sick and risking death.
This was my own sickness of the mind, and it was on me to make it better for everyone concerned. In mid-2019 I started looking for a new job, one that would take me and my foreign-born family to the States.
Reality One (Continued)
“Is this an allergic reaction to cedar pollen, or do I have five days to live?”
In the first week of February, a few thousand people aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess were quarantined at Yokohama. At work, I could see the ship with a pair of binoculars from across Tokyo Bay.
Later that week I was on a call with some people from the States (a job interview that I hoped would bring me home), at the conclusion of which they joked, “stay away from that cruise ship over there!” I had driven past the ship a couple of times, like anyone else who had crossed the Yokohama Bay Bridge. Later I made the comment to my wife: “America’s not going to handle this well.” For America, the problem was still “over there,” but for us things were already heating up.
Hokkaido was a natural place for a virus outbreak. We had been skiing there the previous year, and it had seemed that at least half the guests at the Niseko Hilton were Chinese.
A friend of ours went home to Hokkaido during this time, taking advantage of the cheap flights and the deserted ski slopes. This was in line with her character, and we thought it commendable and brave, a display of mental fortitude that would become increasingly rare.
Our family was scheduled to go on our own ski trip to central Japan with another family at around this time, but the other family cancelled on advice of the elderly grandfather enforcing Japanese group-think compliance, in accordance to global health warnings that were starting to come down. I was relieved at the cancellation, not so much because I was concerned about the virus (as stated above), but because it just felt like the right thing to do.
We had also purchased tickets to fly to Hawaii at the end of March for my wife’s much-anticipated fortieth birthday, but of course this would never come to pass.
The second week of February was always my least favorite time of the year, as that was when the seasonal allergy season began. If I was a practicing Catholic I would’ve received an exemption from Lent, because dealing with the allergy season was more than enough suffering, a slow torture that lasted months. In the year 2020 this meant that I had almost all the symptoms of the terrible virus, all the time: congestion, sneezing, scratchy throat, body chills, burning eyes, fatigue. For the first week of this nonsense I woke every morning wondering “Is this an allergic reaction to cedar pollen, or do I have five days to live?” This led to my first attempt at addressing the mental game of the virus, because one could only live in fear for so long. Meditation helped control my thoughts, or at least make me aware of them; but it was a constant effort that I never completely won.
Of course it also so happened that I had major dental surgery in this week, having a steel post drilled into my jaw for an implant later on.
In the final week of February the Japanese government closed all schools nationwide with a resounding gong. This may have been the biggest shock we experienced in Reality One. All classes and graduation ceremonies were cancelled or postponed. (The Japanese school year ended in April, so effectively the government was giving kids an extra-long spring break that would eventually extend into the summer. This turned out to be the best year ever for kids. For moms, not so much.)
Early on, and even months later, Japan’s strategy to combat the pandemic seemed to be “no tests, no cases,” like the proverbial monkey covering his eyes. Much of this was focused on trying to keep the 2020 Tokyo Olympics alive. But curiously, the Olympics seemed to be under assault from as early as January, when there were a string of news articles critical of the decision to hold the Olympics due to risk of radiation (the real risk was zero, but any mention of the word “radiation” made the perception of risk very high). There was continued pressure from one particular Japanese news source to curtail or contain Olympic events, until finally they hit pay dirt with the virus, and the rest was history. This would probably be forgotten in time, but it was weird witnessing increased criticism of the Olympics, which of course was more of an economic event than anything else. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it was noteworthy indeed.
The Japanese group-think efforts to combat the virus were at times unintentionally adorable and even downright illogical, with the end result being inexplicable success.
Japanese wore masks anyway in February due to the vicious combination of seasonal allergies and the regular flu, but it was funny to see how many only put the mask over their mouth and not their nose. Some pulled their mask down all the way to smoke! Every day, the train was filled with commuters with nervous, narrow eyes peering above tightly-fitted masks, grabbing the guardrail that scores of other people had grabbed with their bare hands. Did they not realize viruses were also spread by touch? Families walked down the street, half wearing masks, half not. Parents wore masks while their kids played without masks in the park. Didn’t they realize it was an all or nothing thing?
For most Japanese the masks were a compliance thing. In group-think societies everyone did the same thing. The rare individual who assessed her personal risk to be low wore a mask anyway, as a symbol of her support. This compliance, if anything, probably saved the country’s ass. If you asked the typical Japanese why she was still wearing a mask in May she would probably be confused. “This is what we do.” The Japanese would keep wearing masks generation after generation for the next thousand years without question, until some official word came down to take them off. They’d all wear Santa Claus caps forever if that was what it took. If anyone wanted to understand Japan in five words, it was “This is what we do.”
To sum up the first half of my bipolar experience with the virus, the effect on my daily life was close to zero. There may have been some travel advisories and some restrictions on movement throughout the country (that amounted to mere suggestion), but these things went unnoticed by me, as I never went anywhere besides work and home. Despite the jolt of school closures, the cancellation of the Olympics, and the usual fierce allergy season, the mood from our corner of Japan was very good.
The setting for the other half of my experience with this virus was “work,” a building in the gated American military community on Tokyo Bay. (Although, as I noted in several other essays, I had never considered work to be a place.)
As someone who had worked effectively for ten years as part of a remote, virtual team, this was something I could never forget. In fact it made all the inefficiencies of being in an office all the more obvious, especially in a government office, where I was a private sector contractor paid to do the actual work of those who slept at their desks.
By the second week of March the U.S. seemed to finally grasp the idea that the virus was an actual thing, even though Japan had been dealing with it for six weeks. For me this was where the narrative got weird, tragic, and bizarre, because in one half of my existence, Reality One, it “felt” like the virus was done. Later stats would prove this to be true. But in America (and by extension my work life), things were just heating up. As I had predicted, it didn’t go well. America was already so polarized, stressed out, depressed and psychologically fragile that any bit of bad news was going to cause Lady Liberty to soil her shorts.
In Japan, news of the virus was reported with a barely audible exhale that Japanese do right before they’re about to say something disagreeable or unpleasant.
In extreme contrast, the news of the virus broke in America with the madness and fury of a pro wrestler, neck veins bulging, blood pressure supernaturally high, fueled by steroids and cocaine, eyes popping out, foam shooting from his mouth as the sound of a fog horn erupted from his vocal cords. It was the most hideous sight in the world, but impossible to not watch.
In the third week of March I had two promising, possibly final interviews with a couple organizations that could deliver me and my family back to the States. As if the virus hysteria wasn’t bad enough, a major earthquake struck the location of the interviewers (Salt Lake City), and both orgs put the jobs permanently on hold. Later the postings would be cancelled. It seemed I’d be stuck with my current employment situation in Japan for a while, if not for years.
Meanwhile, the virus hysteria reached alarming levels at my work location of Little America on Tokyo Bay, even though my home life remained normal as could be.
To my surprise, a follow-up appointment for my dental surgery was cancelled. What was going on? This was a U.S. panic we were experiencing, not Japanese! I came to find out that my Japanese dentist had closed on advice of the American Dental Association (ADA), as many of her customers were from the U.S. Navy base.
For a couple of weeks the hysteria on the base seemed to be purely a reaction to what was happening in the States, totally out of whack with what was actually happening in Japan. Then there came actual risk.
First there was the well-publicized virus outbreak on the USS Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier returning to Guam from Vietnam. Hundreds of sailors were infected. A commanding officer got fired. The Secretary of Navy resigned.
Then, close to home, it was announced that a sailor had returned from the U.S. to Japan on March 15th to the USS Reagan, an aircraft carrier parked a few hundred meters from where I worked. Ten days into quarantine the sailor had gotten sick, testing positive for the virus. There were over four thousand plus sailors on the Reagan, all living in packed living conditions, breathing the same air, touching the same surfaces every day. For a week or more, all of these thousands of sailors had been moving about freely on the base where I worked. By the second week of April there was a confirmed outbreak on the ship – and perhaps all over the base, in my office and everywhere else. Who knew? In typical military fashion, there was zero transparency about what was going on, or how serious the situation had become, which made the panic even worse. If the pro wrestler with the fog horn voice of doom could get any louder, it just had.
This meant extra stress at work, as we were part of the overall effort to keep these carriers operational in the Pacific. From a global political standpoint, this left East Asia unguarded in the seas, with an emboldened Chinese carrier fleet sailing unopposed between Japan and Taiwan. China was a hungry Kung Fu Panda, and Taiwan was a delicious, steamy dumpling, just out of reach. In terms of the virus, Taiwan had disbelieved the WHO’s (China’s) advice from the beginning, and, along with Singapore and a few other East Asian hot-spots, had conquered this thing early on. Part of the reason for Taiwan’s continued independence was diplomacy, but the U.S. Seventh Fleet was a powerful symbol, whose mission was to back up the talk.
With both Far East carrier fleets down due to the virus outbreak, the alert level reached a fevered pitch. Extreme lock-down measures were enforced on the base.
Combat readiness was one thing, but many of the measures made no sense. It was almost like they had to maintain a level of stress and inconvenience, for lack of anything else to do.
In the spirit of taking this thing seriously, I was asked by my employer to continue maximizing my exposure to the virus by leaving my peaceful, disease-free home each morning and returning to the place where I was required to situate my physical meat mass in exchange for money, taking trains used by thousands of people each day, commuting to a virus hot spot where everyone had an elevated sense of fear – all after having clearly demonstrated my ability to connect and fulfill my responsibilities from home. It was a classic “hurry up and wait” situation, except for me it was “shelter in place and come to work”.
It had always seemed like a huge chunk of my job was to endure massive volumes of ridiculous bullshit, but now the bullshit had reached heights I had never before seen.
At first all this was infuriating and demoralizing, but I would come to appreciate many of the end results. Crew members were confined to ships. “Non-essential” staff (redundant government bloat that comprised eighty percent of my organization) were told to stay home. With all those loud-mouthed fake job holders out of the office, I could finally get some work done.
As someone who was told to shelter in place without being given the option to do so, my last remaining challenge during this thing became maintaining my psychological well-being in the face of other people’s fear.
It sucked, but what were my options? I could quit, but then what? Join the muddled mass of forty million Americans unemployed? Living the life of a creative person was the tempting, “I’ll be there one day” daydream, like Maximus in the movie Gladiator, running his hands over fields of golden wheat on the farm he’d never see again.
No, quitting was not an option. There was no Plan B. It was time to get tough. I made a second effort to double-down on the mental game, fully accepting my fate. Going forward I had a three-prong approach to maintaining my mental health.
A) I took reasonable precautions, washing hands, wearing a mask in crowded places like the train.
B) I faced my own mortality. This sounded pretty deep, but early on I accepted that this could be how I exited the world. I got all the paperwork together, the will, passwords, access to bank accounts for my wife. I thought a lot about maintaining dignity and grace in the face of danger.
My seventy-nine year-old dad worked as a supervisor at a Veterans’ Administration (VA) hospital in the American West. If he had one talent in life it was making other people feel good about themselves. His positivity was dauntless, at times even absurd. But it served him and everyone around him well. Things got slow around the hospital where he worked when the virus peaked, as non-essential appointments had been cancelled, and they never saw the surge of patients they had expected. Even so, this was how he chose to face danger, and by extension, death.
The American Panic
c) The third prong of my strategy to maintain mental health during this thing was to encourage others at work. There were very vocal people around me whose brains were securely tethered to social media and other sources of mind poison, and their fear was spreading unchecked. It wasn’t just the virus that was contagious; thoughts were contagious, too.
Encouraging people was a delicate task. Sometimes it took the form of calling out bullshit, but nobody liked to be told their fear wasn’t justified. It was the same thing as being told you’re a coward, or insane. For much of the month of April I dealt with a bit of both. Even considering the uncertain situation around my worksite, the American approach to this thing seemed way out of whack.
Beginning in March there were constant rumblings about how bad things were getting, lots of what-if’s, and “it’s worse than you think”. People became obsessed with numbers: number of cases, number of tests, number of deaths. Early on I decided that numbers were useless when it came to assessing personal risk. Most of the numbers were inaccurate or misleading anyway. Plus, we human beings were incapable of processing even the most accurate numbers when fear and self-preservation were involved.
In mid-April someone at work told me with a shaky voice that America had half a million dead already, and there would be millions more. A quick check at a more reliable source online set this guy straight.
The crew of the USS Reagan was devastated, the ship incapacitated for months, someone else predicted.
Another office story: “all you have to do is show a mother who has lost five children. FIVE! And you know how serious this thing is!” This guy was so emotional that I wasn’t sure whether to shit my pants or burst out laughing. Afterwards I frantically searched online for this story but couldn’t find anything. I had heard the virus didn’t affect children as much, if at all. But who knew?
On another occasion I overheard someone say that Tom Hanks had tested positive for the virus. The news was delivered in a quiet, somber tone, as if Hanks had just died. I reminded this person that getting the virus did not equal automatic death, even for someone over the venerable age of sixty.
In another discussion some jackass asked how positive my attitude be when I held my dead child in my arms. This was about as worse as things got. I let it slide.
To add to the mental challenge of encouraging (or confronting) others there was the never-ending “poor me” voice in my head, that sickness of my own mind, whining about the unnecessary psychological suffering I endured. Why was I there? What was the meaning of all this? At home with my family I would’ve never had to deal with this kind of bullshit. Having worked from home for a decade, it was impossible to ignore the stupidity of a physical presence requirement for my work. I had already proven my ability to fulfill all of my obligations of my current employment situation by working remotely. If the virus was an actual risk then why was I being asked to put the health of my family and community in danger, for no reason at all? Now, forced to interact with fearful people whose minds were securely tethered to the fear-mongering news outlets from the other side of the world, every week became a battle for my own sanity in which I was forced to defend my positive stance.
I had a sense that everything would be okay despite the non-stop negativity around me at work, but still it was just a sense. Could I back up my positivity with facts? Every day I walked down to the USS Reagan, looking for signs that it was getting under way. Under normal conditions I questioned the usefulness of an aircraft carrier in modern times. If things ever got really serious the ship could be taken out in one second with a single tactical nuke. The annual maintenance cost of a single carrier fleet probably could’ve paid college tuition for every American student for a year, and America had eleven fleets. On the other hand, there were thousands of people aboard the Reagan, and I wished them all the best. They had been originally scheduled to deploy at month end, but with the virus outbreak this date seemed out of reach. Still, I checked the ship every day for signs they were leaving. Their on-time departure would be a vindication of my faith.
“In an age when the sum of all human knowledge was available to everyone, it was impossible to know anything for sure.”
It was one thing to have faith, but how did I know I wasn’t a fool? There were a few news stories on virus-doubters who were now dead, Dead, DEAD, all because they had been virus heretics. They had disbelieved the dogma, and they had paid the ultimate price. The message was “this can happen to you, too, man, so watch your step!”
“Yeah, but I’m not a virus doubter, I just…”
“Shut up. You either believe in the danger or you don’t. Do you want to die? Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
This was how it went with all information about the virus. It was how it went with every issue that America processed as a country. Things were either this or they were that. There was no in between. Was it really a yes or no question? I wanted accurate information, but who could I trust?
Even the official health agencies got this thing wrong from the beginning, at first downplaying the seriousness. The CDC advised that people could avoid wearing masks. We got a good laugh out of this at work. The Japanese wore masks during this season, even in the best of times. A couple weeks later the word was: “Wear masks! Wear masks!”
In an attempt to justify my absurd optimism I turned to the most horrible institution known to humanity: American news. The quality of American news media had been spiraling into oblivion for a couple of decades, starting with cable news. It got considerably worse after 2009, when Facebook implemented the “like” button. This single seemingly innocent feature had transformed the minds of hundreds of millions of people, so that everyone now thought of everything in binary ways. The intentionally addictive nature of the platform led to Facebook dominating the way hundreds of millions of people saw the world. Every issue was either this or that, thumbs up or thumbs down.
Most of journalism had been reduced to click-bait opinion pieces. As WIRED magazine put it, all journalists were now sharecroppers on the Facebook farm. Facebook had completed the bipolar insanity begun in the previous decades. Even in the best of conditions American news was too nauseating to behold. Now, with the virus, it was off the hook.
Ideally, I liked to imagine my mind as an exclusive club into which only the purest and most vetted ideas were allowed entry, but of course this was impossible when it came to world events. It went without saying that I abstained from all forms of social media. I was more likely to drink a glass of diarrhea than use Twitter or Facebook. As for Big Media, I considered most of the major outlets to be too biased to take seriously, but I had to start somewhere.
I was very careful to keep my research well-rounded, but there were always two sides. Add a global pandemic and economic collapse to an election year, and the result was a shit storm unmatched.
Getting accurate information was like being a kid in a bitter custody battle between a schizophrenic mom and an overbearing dad. Both parents twisted the truth around, just to get you on their side.
With the exception of one journalist, Fox News was more or less a sounding board for whatever crazy / crazy-sounding thought that shot through the mind of the POTUS (to be fair, not all crazy-sounding thoughts were actually crazy), while the other side (i.e., practically every news organization that was not Fox), reacted (OUTRAGED!), fact-checked, decried.
CNN had seemed weak, biased, and unscrupulous for a couple of decades. MSNBC was the Anti-Fox, propaganda wing of the Democratic National Party, maybe even the CPC.
Twenty years prior I might have trusted the New York Times for unbiased, quality reporting. They still had talented, insightful writers, but after 2016 they had become the anti-POTUS paper, every story slanted toward dethroning the king. I didn’t blame them. The POTUS had always been the villain New Yorkers loved to hate, and in general he wasn’t easy to like. But in order to combat the POTUS, it was necessary for the Gray Lady to don a cheap spandex suit and get down and dirty with the king in a prime time wrestling spectacle from which no one walked away clean.
With the virus, the New York Times became doubly unhelpful, as they portrayed the worst possible impact, both as a way of hurting the POTUS and because they were experiencing the worst possible impact first hand. The NYT would have better served a local readership during the virus outbreak. Outside New York metro, hospitals weren’t getting pounded, morticians weren’t making rounds through neighborhoods yelling “bring out your dead”.
One of my favorite pod-casters, someone who I had held my highest respect for his objectivity and intellect over the years, declared that it was better to fear-monger the hell out of this virus for the purpose of getting the POTUS out of office, especially considering their opposing candidate was weak. I was alarmed by this declaration on a couple of levels. If this was the Left’s strategy then it seemed risky, if not downright idiotic. Would those forty million unemployed Americans blame their plight on the POTUS who was trying to “re-open” the country and put them back to work?
In addition to the political motives there was also the usual fear-mongering for the purpose of selling mouse-clicks or papers. Some were hilarious. The Sun (UK) had a graphic of the US titled “virus deaths per state,” with a label for each state on the map, so that the word “DEATH” appeared in bold caps fifty or more times, a graphic of DEATH. The only thing missing was the death metal guitar solo.
Perhaps this whole media mess was unavoidable, a tragic evolution of communication during our times. In an age when the sum of all human knowledge was available to everyone, it was impossible to know anything for sure. For someone like me who was just trying to get the straight scoop on what was happening with the virus, news wasn’t much help at all. In the end I stuck with what the CDC was saying, and seasoned my thoughts with a variety of podcasts and positive story opinion pieces to keep hope alive.
I wanted to remain positive for the purpose of keeping my mental space clean at work and I wanted all of us to get through this thing okay. So I continued encouraging others and dispelling pointless panic when it raised its stupid head.
In a bizarre twist of philosophical orientation I became the recipient of criticism from friends and family, accused of being insensitive, ignorant, naïve.
It sure didn’t help that initial advice from the POTUS had been dangerously optimistic, or that the line had been drawn between continuing to enforce a lock-down in America and opening the country back up. Now even optimism had been politicized, and I was on the “wrong side”. I had taken the same attitude with the Swine Flu back whenever that had been. I couldn’t even remember who was president at the time. Why did it matter? I didn’t have a side. I just called it like I saw it, and from my point of view things weren’t that bad.
The Japanese Copycat Panic
In the month of April it seemed like Japan began copying what America was doing, enforcing soft lock-downs (in real effect, doing nothing), with no hard evidence that things were getting worse than they were in February. Many people worked from home. As a symbolic show of support everyone wore masks.
In our city there were daily announcements from the mayor, speaking over loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles in every neighborhood. As far as I knew these public announcement systems existed in every city in Japan. The up side to them was emergency preparedness, like in the case of a tsunami or typhoon. At 5 PM every day a chime reminded children when to return home for dinner. A couple times per month the community was alerted that an old person with dementia had escaped her care-giving captors and was roaming the streets, lost. If anyone saw her, they were to call city hall. There was always a follow-up announcement to let everyone know she had been captured and returned to old folks’ jail.
Despite the occasional usefulness of the announcement system, it felt very much like Big Brother yelling into our house. In April they began announcing news and reminders about the virus, as if there was anyone who didn’t already know there was a pandemic going on out there. In our city the messages were vague, like “don’t go out unless you have to, and please take care”. This was very annoying to all the moms who had to stay home, and to the kids. One day our four-year-old asked, “When is that guy going to shut up and give us some ice cream?” It was amusing to imagine all the twelve-gauge buckshot that would be blasted into these loudspeakers if the system had been implemented in the States. This was a key difference between the U.S. and Japan.
All the small businesses in our town remained open except for Starbucks and Patagonia, who were apparently abiding by American lock-down rules. A friend of mine worked for Patagonia. My envy spiked to new heights when he said that Patagonia was paying all its employees to stay home. (The Patagonia store in our town would permanently close in May.)
The MacDonald’s and KFC near the station remained open for take-out only. Funny, the KFC Colonel Sanders sign in front of the store held a sign that pleaded its customers “Stay Home,” while inside the empty store bored employees pleaded for customers to come in and order take-out food. Every restaurant, hair salon, and pet shop stayed open. Except for Starbucks and Patagonia, no businesses closed.
Some of our Japanese neighbors enforced “shelter in place” on themselves, but it was never mandatory in our prefecture or anywhere else in the country. The so-called state of emergency was whispered in a practically inaudible voice. In theory people weren’t supposed to move about, but what were the police to do? Would they form an economic analysis on every person to determine whether their actions were essential or not? A couple moms in our group of friends chose to isolate their kids when the American panic came back around to us, but what was the point? All these kids had already been hanging out together outside of school for months. Throughout the whole thing there was not a single day that my family sheltered in place. Believe me, I envied the hell out of those who were lucky enough to stay home – not because I was afraid of the virus, necessarily, but because so much of my precious energy was wasted on the commute to work.
Japan’s Accidental Success
For sure the lock-down strategy had done a lot of good in some places like China, Western Europe, New York, and a few other big cities in the States. Japan implemented a “state of emergency,” which was effectively a word of caution. People were left to do what they wanted. Japanese typically admired places like Italy and New York for their individualism and freewheeling excitement, but it became apparent that during states of emergency the “exciting” places of the world were not the places to be.
Aside from Japan’s group-think advantage, they also had in their arsenal a set of cultural norms that kept people healthy in jam-packed conditions.
Japan valued social distancing in the best of times, and for centuries they had been a much cleaner place than the West. They bowed, and never shook hands. They didn’t kiss cheeks or hug.
I loved Italy, but it was easy to see how the virus could spread quickly through Rome. One time, on a crowded bus in near Termini Station, some young ragazzo sneezed without covering his mouth, coating my face in a fine sheen of snot. Perhaps coincidence, but by the end of the trip I was sick.
New York may have had hygiene levels similar to Rome. I was no expert on NYC, but compared to Tokyo it didn’t seem like a very hygiene-conscious place. This became apparent when news stories appeared to remind Americans of the proper way to cover their faces when sneezing, or how to wash their hands.
I had always washed my hands the proper way because it made common sense, just as it made common sense to remove my shoes when I entered a house. The Japanese had standards for cleanliness that were superior to the West centuries ago, and they were still superior now.
The Japanese had much higher life expectancy than Americans anyway, and seemed healthier overall. Generally speaking there were almost no fat people in Japan, and this may have played a part in their success.
A week ago there was another adorable news article in the Japan Times: “ICU Filling Up!” Early on in the article it was revealed that Saint Luke Hospital of Tokyo had only one bed left in its ICU, and all the others were occupied by victims of the virus. The twist to the story was that Saint Luke Hospital had only eight beds total in its ICU, laughably inadequate even in the best of times. Nearly every hospital in the U.S. and the U.K. had made emergency preparations to receive an anticipated influx of hundreds or thousands of additional patients, but not Japan.
Disease experts would continue to be baffled by Tokyo’s seemingly accidental success for many years to come. Every week since January there had been a doom-and-gloom article in the news about how Tokyo would get hit hard, but it never came to pass. Why not? Tokyo had equal if not greater population density than New York, and more smokers per capita. For sure Tokyo had more old people. Japan had the oldest population in the world. Hell, the average age of Tokyo home owners was sixty-five!
I saw some stories blaming socioeconomic differences and limited access to health care in New York. These things were surely problems, but it wasn’t like the wonderful Japanese health care system had attended to everyone’s needs to win the war against the virus. The hospitals just weren’t filling up (except for the one that only had eight ICU beds).
The Japanese government was generally inept at handling the virus. (As a symbol of their ineptitude we would finally receive our two tiny “Abe masks” from the government, weeks after the state of emergency ended.) The government got lucky with the “no tests, no cases” approach. There was no cover up, just accidental success on the part of the government. It was the Japanese people who would save the day. In the case of a state of emergency, it was a real luxury to live in a society with group-think compliance, respect for community, and cleanliness standards superior to those in the West. As of May, in Tokyo there were a few hundred deaths out of thirty million in all twenty-three wards.
Who Stayed Sane?
At work (and in America), the masses were still in full lock-down mode at the end of April, minds securely fastened to what was happening in America. After nearly four months of stress over this thing I decided to take the Japanese Golden Week off to enjoy the beautiful, uncrowded comfort of our beach side town.
There was talk of a resurgence of the virus, and a few lingering “what if’s,” but I continued to ask: what if something good happened instead?
On the Friday before my holiday I walked down the street from work to check on the USS Reagan one last time. Both sensor arrays were spinning. I jogged back to the office in high spirits. The Reagan was getting under way. (By early next week the Reagan would be doing engineering trials on the open sea, and the Roosevelt was preparing to deploy.)
Our city was a popular tourist destination for people living in Tokyo. Every year we get a couple hundred thousand extra visitors for the national holiday in the first week of May, called Golden Week. Yes, a surge of people greater than the population of the city itself all visited in one week. This was a miserable time for us locals, who found it hard to get around town due to all the visiting dopes, who I referred to as Golden Weakers. This year, however, the wonderful virus turned this mass of humanity away. There was an announcement from the Mayor on the first day of Golden Week, this time not vague at all: “If you are a tourist, go home. Do not surf. Do not go to the shrines. Please. Go home.” The wife and I had a good laugh over this. I took the week off and it was the best Golden Week ever, although I did wear a little sticker on my shirt that stated “I am not a tourist,” to ward off the evil eyes of old ladies at the supermarket.
It had been a rough spring but things were starting to look better. I got my tooth fixed, and my seasonal allergies cleared up. After the holiday I would resume the job search, to assuage my own sickness of the mind.
The Reagan getting under way was a symbolic vindication of my faith, but what were the facts? Had I been a justified optimist, or a fool?
As of May things still looked good in our city on the Shonan Coast. As mentioned, we saw some cases in January and February but it never spread and it didn’t look like it ever would. I walked by a hospital every day to and from the station, and the place still looked sleepy as could be. The lobby was usually empty. Sometimes a nurse would be sitting outside reading a book, enjoying the sunny spring day.
Closer to home, our densely-populated prefecture (Kanagawa, adjacent to Tokyo) had recorded over nine hundred cases by the end of May. Kanagawa had a population of over nine million people, so something like one out of nine thousand got sick after months of viral onslaught, or 0.01%. Of those thousand people, there were fifty-six deaths.
To put into perspective, this would be like filling three World Cup stadiums to capacity, and from those crowds, one person dying. (This would have been one out of one hundred and sixty thousand.) In some countries it was safe to assume that at least one person died on the way home from a World Cup match anyway, and this went unnoticed by the population at large.
Even closer to home, there had been a total of forty recorded cases in our city of 178,000 people, or 0.02% of the population. This was a little higher percentage than the overall prefecture, perhaps because our city hosted many visitors from out of town. There was no record of deaths (either because there were no deaths or because city hall didn’t list them), but it was presumed to be zero.
I had been in the midst of a couple large-scale global disasters, one of which killed twenty thousand people in ten minutes. (Somehow, a large number of people dying suddenly was perceived as more tragic than the same number of people dying slowly over the course of months.)
Recently I realized I had been born in the midst of a worldwide disaster. In October of 1968 the Hong Kong Flu hit America. According to the CDC it killed over one hundred thousand people. The population of the U.S. was around two hundred million at the time, so it was accurate to say the Hong Kong Flu killed more Americans per capita than the Wuhan Flu (around a quarter of a million, in proportion to today’s population). There was no “number of cases” statistic, because people had more important shit to worry about in 1968, like a pivotal presidential election, an unpopular war overseas that would kill over fifty thousand Americans, the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, widespread civil unrest, and multiple nationwide riots. (The similarities between 2020 and 1968 were fascinating, but one thing was clear: things were much, much better in the current age.) Despite killing more people per capita than the current virus, the Hong Kong Flu barely made the news. Nobody wore masks. There was no lock-down. There was no economic impact. Recently I asked my mom if she remembered a pandemic the year of my birth. Of course she didn’t. Nobody did. Lucky them.
By the end of May, the CDC would update its statistics on the current virus, showing a mortality rate for people under fifty to be less than the regular flu. Their best guess at asymptomatic rate was thirty-five percent, which brought the morality rate way down. In the rare cases where seemingly healthy people had been tested en masse (like on the USS Roosevelt), the asymptomatic rate was as high as seventy percent.
In reality, the virus of 2019 might have been the least dangerous global disaster I had ever seen, even less dangerous than so-called normal life. The self-imposed socioeconomic aftershock would be a different story, however, and I was anxious to see how the next few years would play out.
Over the course of the past four months my optimism had been smacked down with responses like “let’s see how positive you are when you get the virus”. Indeed, this was exactly the point. Eventually, every one of us would get the virus, or a virus, or something that killed us dead. Forget all the numbers floating around. For every one of us, the chance of dying was 100%. The point was how we chose to face this fact, and the virus exposed that most of us Americans did not handle it well. Informed optimism was always the best attitude in a disaster. Sickness may have begun in the mind, but so did health.
NOTE 1: Throughout this essay I’ve referred to the virus as “the virus” and “this thing” because even the name of it had become politicized, and I wanted to remain neutral. Just like the Hong Kong Flu in 1968, it seemed logical to call it the Wuhan Flu.
NOTE 2: There was something about the phrase “stay safe” that bothered me. This had become a common sign-off for many Americans during these times. Why not “stay healthy,” or “stay strong”? “Stay safe” sounded like the motto for helicopter parents, coddling the weak and afraid. The phrase had a “please take care of me,” “I’m a victim” feel to it. Oh you poor thing.
NOTE 3: I chose to write this in past tense because for me this whole thing was over by mid-March.
The benefits of remote work are obvious and overwhelming, for both employer and employee. So why did so many employers resist this opportunity to cut expenses, benefit the environment, and boost human health? Inertia likely played a big part. Old customs die hard. Before March, 2020, many organizations were still resisting. It took an act of god to force the religion to change. There will be many beneficial results of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic, and the general acceptance of remote work as “normal” will be at the top of my list.
Employees can also resist remote work, too, with insecure
thoughts like “if I work from home then isn’t that proof that my job can be
easily outsourced?” Those of us who work with security clearance and-or
sensitive data are more immune to out-sourcing. But either way, if you
contribute real value then the answer is “yes,” you’d be better off working
Another reason for the resistance to teleworking could be there isn’t enough knowledge work out there to sustain all the jobs our economy needs, so the theater must continue, and the office is the stage. There are entire industries that are useless in terms of improving the human condition or increasing quality of life. In these settings everyone must play the part and act like they’re doing something useful, so they fill up the day churning up more useless nonsense and doing pointless busy work to keep the boss satisfied. The boss in turn does the same thing for her bosses, and on rolls the giant parade of nonsense on up to the board of directors and investors.
The Golden Rule of Sniffing Out Bullshit in the Office
For knowledge workers, the need to be present in a traditional, brick-and-mortar office setting is proportional to how useless the job really is. The stronger the need to be present in the office, the more likely the job is fake. Everybody knows who these people are. The meeting organizers. There’s zero impact on anything if they disappear, except maybe for an uptick in productivity for everyone else. There’s nothing like working remotely to reveal whether a particular job is fake. If there’s no measurable output, then it should become obvious in the first week.
In the IT sector of knowledge work, there has been a
decades-long, non-stop effort to make our services cost-effective, automating
and outsourcing the work. Many of us work hard each week to slowly put
ourselves out of a job. Eventually these jobs become fake, too. And when the
economy crashes, it’s a private sector clearinghouse for fake jobs.
Government jobs are another story. If all
the blubber was boiled away there’d be nothing left. But this never happens.
These jobs exist to prop up a fake economy, in a way. It should be no surprise
that the US Federal government has more people on its payroll than any other
organization on Earth. The US Defense Department by itself is the largest
employer in the world. “Work” has become a kind of adult day care for a massive
chunk of the workforce, millions of people who do not fit easily into the system
we’ve made. For better or worse, government’s answer is a kind of social
welfare system disguised as employment. Most of these jobs are fake.
There’s no such thing as a totally lean
workforce. If all fake jobs were eliminated then unemployment would be thirty
percent or more. Something must be done for these people, or the cost comes
back around to those of us with so-called real jobs.
This touches again on the idea that “the
inter-subjective experience becomes real”. It’s something along the lines of what
Harari writes about in his book Sapiens.
We have to be careful when talking about fake jobs and fake economy, because
all our systems are fake if we look at them through a certain lens. There’s
nothing real about money, religion or state. These are all concepts we’ve
agreed to accept as reality, and the agreement itself makes them real.
If we agree on positive concepts and social
structures then the world becomes a better place, but with negativity machines
like social media driving cultural and political polarity, this becomes a steep
challenge to overcome. Most internet memes probably start off only partially
true, if they have any truth at all. We mistake popularity with truth, and many
false ideas become accepted as truth over time. We become what we imagine,
whether good or bad.
A lot of good can happen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fiasco in the States. As with the aftermath of 911, it all depends on how the cards are played. The acceptance of remote work is one positive change that is sure to come, and it’s long overdue. But we can expect other big picture changes, too. What else will be exposed as obvious and overwhelming as a result of this fortunate act of god? In America, the crippling costs of health care, housing, and higher education enforce a wage-slave system, and this needs to change. (Higher education needs a separate post titled Education Is Not a Place.) We’re entering into a time when everyone knows our traditional systems are outdated. Everything needs to be rebuilt. Let’s start with rethinking the way we work, and embrace the beneficial technology of Virtual Private Networking (VPN).
A few principles of the Second Law of Thermodynamics serve to prove the irrefutable superiority of remote work for knowledge workers:
1. natural processes are irreversible
2. concentrated energy is more efficient
3. entropy reduces efficiency
The human body is basically a system with a finite amount of
energy that is tasked with accomplishing work. In the case of knowledge workers,
electrochemical energy (brain power) is burned to produce actual work in
exchange for money.
As with any system, energy in the human body varies greatly
with the environment in which it operates, and this includes the mental
framework. Efficiency can reach dizzying heights in a remote-work
environment, but it’s not automatic. It requires a disciplined mind and a
renewed dedication to actual work, from both manager and employee.
What is the finite amount of energy at our disposal? The eight-hour
workday might be a good baseline for manual labor, but for creative work, five
hours of peak productivity per day is around the most we can expect from anyone
(assuming chemical intake is caffeine and not something stronger like
Adderall). This is supported by research, my practical experience, and general
common sense. The remainder of the requisite eight-hour day can be spent doing
tasks that are less brain-intensive, like research, revision, and the
inevitable administrative work.
Remote work allows for maximum efficiency, like some
zero-loss, theoretical energy source recovered from an alien spacecraft
marooned on Earth.
By contrast the physical office environment
disperses the concentration of energy and limits efficiency to somewhere
between zero and thirty percent, which just happens to be the range of
efficiency at which an internal combustion engine converts old-school
petrochemical fuel into forward momentum. In this work arrangement energy is
wasted on non-work activities in the effort to get to (and exist!) in the place
where we’re paid to think.
1. Natural processes
Business objectives must comply with the laws of physics and
human nature, not the other way around. In an average work week the employer
owns a set amount of the employee’s energy, and the employee agrees to devote
that amount of time to the working process. All the effort devoted to work that
does not involve actual work gets decremented from the total in terms of output
no matter what, regardless of the quality of employee. When the limit is
reached, productivity takes a dive. On the outside the employee may appear to
be working and this might give the manager a warm feeling; but warm feelings do
not contribute to the bottom line. On the inside her bullshit meter is beyond
the threshold and she’s turned off. Employee energy is a currency, and it’s the
employer’s responsibility to spend it wisely. Spending the energy wisely results
in success for the organization, and this starts with providing the right
environment for its employees.
energy is more efficient.
How is the knowledge worker’s finite energy dispersed by the physical presence requirement of the traditional office?
First, there’s THE COMMUTE. For me the actual work is not so
bad. Generally speaking I like what I do, and I’d do it even if I had all the
time and or money in the world. What bothers me are the thousands of little
actions that comprise the stupid routine to get my meat mass to the work site,
exist there for nine plus hours, and then get back from there, when there is no
logical reason for me to be there in the first place. Sure, I usually make the
best use of my commute time, but I’d rather be focusing on actual work,
fulfilling my actual obligations to my employer, and then getting on with life.
True, it is my responsibility to commute
from home to the work site, but as noted above, it doesn’t matter. Natural
processes cannot be reversed.
Most people have it much worse. I devote
the absolute minimum time on wardrobe and hygiene, and then I take it easy on
the train, reading a book or planning my day. Most U.S. workers have to deal
with the hellish nightmare of rush hour traffic in a motor vehicle, which
luckily I have not experienced in twenty-plus years. How productive can an
employee be if he just spent the past hour screaming his intent to murder the
mothers of people who cut him off in traffic? Recently I calculated that one of
my friends had driven around the world over six times in the past ten years, in
terms of mileage driven back and forth to work. Somehow, to him this was not
just normal, but commendable. To me it’s insane, a wooden board cracked over
The commute has a massive impact on the
environment and long-term health issues. Of course there is zero energy loss
with teleworking. The commute is zero. Food prep is zero. Clothing prep is zero.
All these things can be done during breaks in the work day. Impact on the
environment: zero. Let’s stop this harmful, masochistic routine once and for
3. Entropy reduces
Then there are all the continuous, idiotic distractions that
only an office can produce. OH THE HUMANITY. People invade your space and force
you to listen to their stupid jokes, gossip, opinions about world events.
There’s always some guy in the next cubicle over who just won’t shut the hell
up. Some days the senseless meetings are non-stop. For me, tendency to produce
actual work is much greater when working remotely, as there has to be some
measureable impact of my work. In the office I tend to slack, simply because
being seen and heard is perceived (wrongly) as equal value to actual work.
The importance of written communication
often goes unrecognized in the physical office. It’s not unusual to spend time
crafting a clear description or explanation in an email reply, only to have the
recipient run to your cubicle for an offline follow-up, leaving others out.
Email is asynchronous for a reason. There’s real value in taking time for
deliberate thought. It’s also not unusual to verbalize the same information to
many different people in different ways in addition to writing about it. This
is because interpersonal, verbal communication just feels better, especially to
those people whose job only job is to appear important. Even if people have no
idea what you’re talking about, they smile and nod because they feel better
hearing your words, and they feel better knowing that you’re working in a
professional environment with them, wearing similar “business casual” clothing,
looking polished, professional and smart. None of this has anything to do with
the actual product or service that we’re paid to provide, but we’re all dancing
the same stupid dance, and in this way the
inter-subjective experience becomes real. Communication in an office
setting typically requires triple the energy than is actually necessary to
convey thoughts and ideas.
In the very best case scenario THE PHYSICAL
OFFICE environment is not as good as what you have at home. Does anyone have a
cubicle at home? The answer is “no,” unless you’re hopelessly locked into the
wage slave mentality. People are not meant to sit in boxes. A bad physical
environment drains energy and dramatically decrements the bullshit tolerance,
as well as other human needs like comfort, fun, and hygiene. There are very
real studies that show how bad lighting and cold air, for example, reduce
The “existing there” part is currently the
most challenging for me, as it’s the extreme opposite of what I used to have. By
contrast, in my old teleworking job I used to proactively invent improvement
projects and find work to do when things were slow. I don’t do this anymore.
All I’m thinking about all day is getting the hell away from that place.
In a typical week I drop about thirty hours on the above three items (the commute, the humanity, and the physical office). This might seem like a lot, but when you factor in all the water-cooler chats, the distractions, pointless meetings, meat-mass transport, navigating distance to nearest vacant toilet seat, or availability of suitable places to sit down and eat lunch, the time adds up. So I’ve burned about three-quarters of the energy I’ve agreed to devote to the job, and this is before any actual was has been done. If there’s something urgent to do then I’ll do it, but my finite energy level and my business sense are telling me that I’ve only got a total of ten hours of productivity left to give.
At the end of the week in my old
teleworking job, I had accomplished a solid thirty or forty hours of actual
work, which, if people are absolutely honest, is a heck of a lot of brain work
in one week for any job. My bullshit meter almost never got pegged, as energy
spent was at or around the forty-hour limit. I was happy, engaged, and
consistently returned to the company very high efficiency on hours logged.
As an added bonus to the organization I
never called in sick in over ten years of working from home. Why not? Because I
never had to serve my time in the virus distribution center called “The Office”.
I still worked even if I was sick, and nobody suffered because of it. I never
felt like I had to take long breaks from work. So the end result was win-win.
Remote work offers employer and employee the most efficient expenditure of human energy and the highest productivity in terms of actual work produced. Never mind the opportunity to eliminate the massive cost of maintaining the bizarre circus of bullshit called the physical office.
In the next post I’ll wrap up a few mind-tingling thoughts.
A quarter of a century ago, a new, beneficial tech promised to boost knowledge worker productivity and save employers loads of cash. Virtual Private Networking (VPN) allowed employees to work remotely, cutting back on carbon emissions and the senseless waste of time getting to and from work. But for many employers, their management styles and conservative business practices did not mesh with the new tech. It took a global pandemic to make those old-school laggards see the light.
If you’re able to work anywhere and you’re serious about
getting the work done, then working remotely is the only way to go. It’s a
win-win for the employer and employee, no matter how you look at it. I can
attest to this truth as an eleven-year veteran of remote work who transitioned
to an organization with a strict physical presence requirement. The new job
offered a few nice perks, but the change was like stepping into the past, back
to a time when it was common to confuse “being there” with doing actual work.
Or, put another way, it was like jumping into an Idiocracy future, where stupidity reigned supreme.
Teleworking is the most productive work environment because it offers the unique opportunity to maximize work and minimize the ceremonial bullshit that does not matter. Many people who have always worked in an office don’t understand this idea because stupid office customs have been so deeply ingrained and accepted as a normal part of work. People commonly label their bullshit as “work” and brag about how much of it they do. Mandatory physical presence requirements for brain workers are nothing short of an assault on the intellect (and possibly on physical well-being, in the current environment of COVID-19).
It’s as if some hypothetical person who knew nothing about our
world was introduced to the concept of work for the very first time, and on his
first day in the office somebody walked up to him and cracked a two-by-four
over his head. His boss would say, “Oh yeah, you might want to wear a helmet
tomorrow,” and every day for the rest of his career the guy gets hit in the
head with a board, accepting it as completely normal.
There are only two reasons an employer could enforce physical presence during a time like this. One, the employer is sadistic, immoral, and cruel to their employees and society as a whole. And-or, the job in question is fake. The fake job phenomenon exists more often than we might like to admit. There are whole industries that are fake. I’ll touch on this later. For now, the point is that people should get paid for actual work – not for getting hit in the head with a stupid lumber stick.
Before a discussion of teleworking can even begin, it’s
necessary to re-examine the most basic concepts of work, because its true
definition has become blurred in the modern age. First there is the concept of
a little something we can call “actual work,” the measurable service or product
an employee produces in exchange for getting money.
The second basic concept is “energy,” the finite life force
that employees are capable or willing to devote to actual work in a given
period of time. After the energy is spent, the individual might show up, but
they’re a disabled meat sack, existing but not producing. Energy levels are
very real factors in economic output. The Ford Motor Company was the first to
standardize the forty-hour work week – not for humane reasons, as is often
cited, but because they determined this to be the economic sweet spot to get
the most out of their manual laborers. Countless studies have supported this
number, and even lower numbers for those doing strictly brain work. Any effort
after these limits produces short-term diminishing returns, and long-term negative
returns. Employees take time off for sick leave – either because they really
are sick, or because their bullshit meter is pegged in the red.
Working remotely eliminates the wasteful, customary bullshit
of the traditional office, freeing up time for real work (and more importantly,
life). It’s unfortunate it took a global pandemic to remind some organizations
of a single, blatant fact. For many of us, “work” is not a place.
Last Saturday we packed the kids
into the minivan and navigated the highways, bridges, and tunnels of the most
populated metro area on earth, destined for Chiba, home of Tokyo Disney, but we
wouldn’t be visiting the Magical Kingdom again today. Our destination was an
indoor vertical farm called MIRAI. The only problem was that I still wasn’t
A few weeks earlier I had contacted Spread, near Kyoto, operator of the largest indoor farm in Japan, but they had turned down my request for a tour. By some miraculous coincidence my wife knew the CEO of Mirai from her university days, a gentleman named Nozawa Nagateru. I was surprised and elated when he agreed to give me (us) a personal tour of their Chiba farm. I would’ve preferred to go alone; but I needed my wife there for introduction and translation, and with her came the kids.
The drive from our place on the Shonan coast was an hour and
a half. My eyes were burning with seasonal allergies. Spring was the season of
suffering for many people in Japan.
As we crossed the Yokohama Bay Bridge, I caught sight of the
cruise ship that had been in the news. There were some people with COVID-19 “Corona”
virus on board.
Mirai grew produce in clean room environments, where workers
wore full body suits and breathing gear, sanitized in an airlock before going
in. It was better quality control than whatever they were doing to contain the
virus on the cruise ship. A day or two in that clean room and my allergic
reactions would also subside.
Entering Tokyo, the kids slept and I got the head space to
think about what I was going to ask Nozawa-san. How would represent myself to
him? Why was I visiting an indoor farm? I wasn’t a journalist. I wasn’t a horticulturalist.
I didn’t know anything about growing plants. Never mind the fact that I didn’t have
a business card, the obligatory prop of any professional engagement in Japan. At
least we were bringing souvenirs from our hometown of Kamakura, and a paperback
copy of my book. I had worked in information technology for most of my life,
and I was the author of an unknown novel that happened to feature a character
who abandoned his corporate gig for a life of helping people and growing things
indoors. If anything I was an otaku
(geek). There were otaku obsessed
with everything from Pokémon to bullet trains, so why not vertical farms?
Either way, I was going on a whim and a dream, armed only with the desire to
work with beneficial tech.
The Mirai farm consisted of a couple of tidy, non-descript
warehouse buildings tucked into the midst of an industrial zone. A mob of uniformed
workers from a nearby factory smoked cigarettes outside the convenient store down
the street. If anyone had to pick the most unexpected place to find tens of
thousands of vibrant green plants, this was it.
We parked in front of the main building and Nozawa-san met
us outside. We exchanged greetings Japanese-style and he ushered us to the side
of one building. Inside and upstairs, we entered an observation room
overlooking a vast space containing rows of illuminated towers ten meters high,
each containing thousands of plants in various stages of growth. Monitors on
the wall displayed graphs of data points collected from the farm below, as well
as from other facilities, both local and remote. “Mirai” meant “future” in
Japanese, and they lived up to their name.
Nozawa-san poured green tea into paper cups and we sat down at
a table to talk. His company was one of the early pioneers of indoor farming
technology, with over fifteen years in the business. Their unique, data-driven
approach to cultivating perfect produce could be described as precision
farming, focusing on the balance of over two hundred growing factors. Like all
vertical farms, their main selling points were steady, reliable production of
perfect produce, at a fair price. Of course their products were free of
pesticides and GMO’s. Best of all, their vegetables tasted great. We sampled fresh
romaine lettuce and basil from a platter on the table. Each plant was
ninety-five percent edible, with minimal stalk to throw away. Their produce was
clean at harvest time. No need to wash.
Aside from the Chiba facilities, Mirai owned and operated a
lab and another large farm in Tagajō, Miyagi prefecture, the area hit hardest by
the Great Tōhoku earthquake of 2011. I asked if this lab was built in response
to the doubly-whammy natural and manmade disasters there. Yes! Absolutely, he
said. They chose this site to help the area recover, and to demonstrate the
benefit of their tech. Sendai wasn’t too affected with fallout from the
Fukushima meltdown, but I guessed their clean room facilities would be immune
to radioactivity, as well as to pollen, vermin, and disease.
Mirai sold their design and built farms in numerous
locations that were hard-pressed with resource issues and-or harsh weather
conditions, with successful operations in Antarctica, Northern China, Mongolia,
and Russia. Nozawa would soon visit Norway to consult on the construction of a
farm there. Mirai was a leader in urban farming, too, having built farms in cities
like Tokyo, Shanghai, and Beijing.
Mirai’s yield is up to one hundred times more resource
efficient than traditional farming, using just two percent of the water and a
fraction of the land. Their primary expenses were electricity (for the LED
lights, the pump, cooling, and control systems) labor, and insurance.
Not knowing anything about the business, I asked the most
common sense question on my mind: what would it take to make Mirai more cost-efficient
than traditional farming? Sure, their product was of the highest quality and
healthier on every level, but at what point would it make more economic to grow
produce with the Mirai method as opposed to traditional farms? It turned out to
be a good question. Mirai’s solution was in the size of plant. By growing
bigger plants they could essentially get more bang for the buck. It wasn’t as
simple as that, of course. Other operations, like Spread, got more bang for the
buck by growing smaller plants and harvesting quicker. It was a complicated
equation of precision farming, taking into account numerous factors of resource
usage, output, and time.
Next I asked Nozawa-san what he thought of the impending
world food crisis, and how Mirai might play a role. He was of course aware of
American vertical farm marketing campaigns, but he answered flatly: “starving
people don’t want lettuce”.
Excellent point. Poor countries facing population explosions
and resource deficits needed protein and grain. The best answer to this problem
was the kind of work done by George Kantor, Senior Systems Scientist with
Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, Farm View project, whose work focused
on using technology to accelerate the efficiency of traditional farms. CMU was
working on tech that didn’t require radical change; it could be plugged into
existing, traditional farming techniques. Even the trillions of data points
collected by start-ups like Plenty
seemed only applicable to growing plants indoors, so it still wasn’t clear how
vertical farming would save the world.
There was only so much to keep our young kids entertained in the observation room. They were getting unruly to the point it was impossible to concentrate, and it was a natural time to go. Nozawa-san also had two boys, too, so he understood. We decided to call it a wrap, taking a couple of photos and presenting our gifts. Nozawa was impressed with my novel even if he couldn’t read it in English. He asked why I wrote. I shrugged and told him it was the kind of work I wanted to do. I think he assumed my reason for the interview was research for my next book. Who knew? Maybe it was. Later it occurred to me that this was our first family outing in nine years dedicated to something I wanted to do. I didn’t stray far from the path between work and home. My visit to Mirai was a real treat. It may have been unclear how I could contribute to the business of indoor farming, but the fact that this was how I chose to spend my first real “me” time in nearly a decade spoke loud and clear. I was drawn to beneficial tech. It was work I wanted to do.
This New Jersey startup has received tens of millions in funding in the past fifteen years. They’re based in New Jersey, but the skyline in the animated graphic on their spectacular homepage is most definitely Dallas.
What did they do with all this funding? Their big farm is in Newark, measuring THIRTY THOUSAND square feet. And remember, this is a vertical farm. They should list the size in cubic feet.
Aero’s website is impressive and inspiring. It advertises the same noble message I’m seeing on every vertical farm website: by 2050 there will be 9 billion people on the planet, with less arable farm land than there exists today. To solve the world food shortage crisis, Aero grows 390 times more crops per square foot than soil-based farms. As expected, they grow the freshest greens with no pesticides and no GMO. Their produce is nutritional and “bursting with flavor”. I’m starting to see that “nutritional” and “bursting with flavor” are interrelated selling points for vertical farms in general, and that there might be some genetic reason for this link that dates back to humanity’s hunter-gatherer days. Either way, I’m sold.
Still, something about this impending world food crisis doesn’t make much sense. It’s fantastic they’re trying to avoid or solve a very big problem that could affect a good chunk of the world’s population, but I’m wondering: how are the places that need food the most going to afford a fancy, data-driven vertical farm run by robots and AI?
The overpopulation and food scarcity won’t be happening in the
rich countries that can afford this high-tech farming gear. People are living
longer in America but the fertility rate is below 2.0. Japan’s fertility rate
is so low they’re expected to lose
fifty million people by 2050! (I got this stat on population pyramid dot net.)
So what is Aero’s plan to save the world from going hungry? Do they propose to
grow produce with robots in rich countries and then ship it overseas? If so
that eliminates the “hyper-local” factor. I’m making a mental note to ask them
Their website also has an image showing how the growing
process works. It looks like they use a cloth barrier to hold the plants above
the growing solution, and in at least one of the growing stages there is an
aeroponic barrier instead of liquid nutrient solution. I’m guessing these must
be technical trademarks.
I wrote them via their website contact form with questions
about their software, and about their strategies for saving the world; but a
week later and no response.
Based in New York City, Bowery Farms
looks like the archetype for “Urban Farming”. They cater to upscale restaurants
that distribute their produce to select, local grocery stores within short
driving range of their farms. Like many vertical farm websites, their message
is positive. They “believe a better future is possible,” and “set big, bold
goals”. They also “practice radical candor” and “say hello when (they) walk
through the door”. On the surface “Radical candor” sounds like the kind of
place I’d like to work. Saying hello when walking through the door seems like
basic human nature, but maybe that’s something you have to remind New Yorkers
As for what systems they use: “BoweryOS, our proprietary
software system, uses vision systems, automation technology, and machine
learning to monitor plants and all the variables that drive their growth 24/7.”
I can’t imagine there are too many job postings on Indeed.com asking for
experience with BoweryOS. Still, it sounds interesting. I’d have to guess it’s
a collection of home-grown apps running on a Linux-based OS.
Bowery boasts some high productivity stats: “Bowery farms
use zero pesticides, 95% less water, and are 100+ times more productive on the
same footprint of land than traditional agriculture.” Good for them.
Founded in 2011, this New York-based
startup has accepted $113 million in funding so far to “pioneer the future of
local, low-impact farming.” To be accurate, Bright builds horizontal farms. As
the name might suggest, they use natural light to grow greens. There’s not a
lot on their website about the tech they use, but they build greenhouses, so
that eliminates the most expensive part of a typical indoor farm operation:
electricity for lighting. I could be wrong about this, but their op appears to
be low-tech compared to vertical farms. There’s no sign of robots or AI. They
build, own, and operate greenhouse farms that create permanent green-collar
jobs. Sounds great! When can I start?
These people might be based in NYC, but they design structures
that can be built anywhere. From their website: “Yes, we grow salads. But we
grow a lot of other things, too. Like, big ideas and positive attitudes, jobs
in communities across the country, sunny greenhouses, and accessibility to
fresh, delicious produce. But most of all we grow trust – your trust – by
delivering clean, fresh, safe, and delicious greens.” Kudos to their marketing
people. What a great message. It’s great to see such inspirational messages
that are so low on BS. Their product is so obviously good. It requires zero
spin. There are so many companies and whole industries that could never be so
honest and positive about what they do.
Bright’s message about building green jobs sounds fantastic.
This is a nice break from “robots are taking our jobs”. How can I get involved?
Founded in 2009, this Brooklyn
startup has taken in around $45 million. Gotham also builds greenhouses,
growing plants with natural light, like Bright farms. As usual there’s not as
much detail as I’d like to see on their tech, but according to their website: “Our
latest greenhouses are advanced, data-driven, climate-controlled facilities —
the most efficient production systems available today. These greenhouses are
some of the highest-yielding farms around, and use less energy, less land and
less water than other farming techniques. Plus, advancements in machine
learning and data analysis allow us to monitor our crop’s health and progress,
so we can deliver a fresher, more delicious product. Happy greens make happy
Sounds great! Way to go, NYC.
Next week I’m going to get a first-hand look at a vertical farm in Japan. I can’t wait.
If I could do any kind of work, I’d devote a good part of my week to working at a vertical farm. (Or building one myself.) A couple years ago I wrote a novel called TOKYO GREEN. It’s about a guy who abandons his high-paying job in Silicon Valley to live a more natural, beneficial life. The MC ends up in Tokyo, where he builds an indoor farm for a bunch of retirees, with the help of a rogue AI. At the time of writing the novel I didn’t know much about vertical farming. I still don’t know much about it now. But I do know I want to get involved. I’ve worked twenty-plus years coding and automating systems, and I have a rough understanding of how machine learning works. This was the knowledge I brought to writing the book, and it’s the knowledge I could bring to vertical farming today.
I’m thinking about this now because I got an invitation to
visit a vertical farm in Chiba, Japan (near Tokyo Disney) in a couple of weeks,
and I want to have some informed questions for them. In particular I’m
interested in the computing systems and software they use, as this is the most
likely way I can contribute my current skills.
In general it does not seem likely that vertical farming will offer many job opportunities, as the technology that makes these operations economically feasible is also the technology that is eliminating the need for human work. Still, I’m imagining my contribution to beneficial technology starting with the question “what kind of work would I do if I could choose anything?” I’d write, of course, but vertical farming is at the top of the list.
Vertical farming is a sustainable, cost-effective method of
Controlled-Environment Agriculture (CEA). It combines tech like aquaponics,
hydroponics, robotics, and machine intelligence (analytics) to grow plants
indoors. I’ve also seen “urban farming” and “low-impact farming” used to
describe this kind of AGTECH, but these are general terms. Vertical farming
refers to the particular way of growing plants in tower racks or even sideways,
on a wall.
Hydroponics is all about growing plants without soil, in a
nutrient-rich solution, and one way to get those juicy nutrients is through the
age-old techniques of aquaponics. There is something very appealing about
creating a cyclic, sustainable ecosystem of plants and water-dwelling creatures
and organisms. For example, the hydroponics system might drain its water into a
catfish tank for re-circulation and watering the crops. It reminds me of when
I’d siphon fish poop out of my fish tanks and use it to feed the plants. Aquaponics
takes it a step further, completing the loop.
How is vertical farming beneficial? It produces fresh, hyper-local,
inexpensive greens with superior flavor, using sustainable techniques. The very
nature of Controlled-Environment
Agriculture means the product is free of pesticides and GMO. What could be more
beneficial than that?
These indoor farms are also far more productive than
soil-based farming, growing thirty or more crops per season, and they use a fraction
of the resources. Some common stats cite up to 100% less water, 100% less land,
and 100% less shipping fuel than field-grown produce that’s delivered to stores
in far-away places. It would be interesting to know the net carbon footprint of
a big vertical farm operation, considering the electricity it sucks off the
grid. (In TOKYO GREEN, the MC
uses solar panels to run his farm.) Some indoor farms use actual sunlight,
further reducing the need for electricity.
Vertical farms are on the rise. I read somewhere that the
industry has grown from near nothing to US$3 billion invested in the past three
years. Even if those numbers are off, the industry promises to grow even more
in the coming years.
The recent ascension of vertical farming is made possible by
certain technologies that have become robust and cheap enough to make this
method of food production economically feasible. These technologies include
perception devices (cameras and sensors used to monitor and measure plant
growth), machine intelligence that processes the data produced by the perception
tech, and robotics that carry out the instructions of the AI.
According to this
article, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has developed an integrated
system called ACESys (Automation, Culture, Environment) that powers vertical
farming, but the only thing I saw on the CMU website about this system was an
implementation of it in a vertical farm in Taiwan in an effort backed by
University of Illinois. There’s nothing about what the system is on a technical
level, or how it works.
CMU is doing a lot of great things with robotics and AI,
with a particular focus on AGTECH. Their mission is to avoid a world food
crisis by the year 2040. By “world” they mean what used to be referred to as
the third world, as that’s where populations will explode. CMU is developing
soil-based, high-tech farming that will enable existing farms to produce all
the food they need while reducing resource usage by half or more. I’d love to
dive deeper into what CMU is doing, but for now I’ll focus on vertical farming.
In the next week I’ll take a look at what various vertical farms are doing
around the world.
I’m tempted to write the title of this post with a question mark, as it’s not always clear that corporations are good. On the macro level, corporations have been a huge boost to elevating human quality of life. Governments can be slow, incompetent and wasteful. Corporations move fast. They’re good at raising capital and achieving big things. They can also do great harm.
I’ve been employed by corporations for the past couple of
decades, yet I still don’t consider myself “the corporate type”. Very few
people do. It’s the safest way to go if you live in America and have to pay
health care for a family of four or more. If solvency is your thing then somebody
in the household better be getting that subsidized health insurance as part of
a corporate plan. It would be nice if working for a corporation was the safest
and the most ethical way to bring home the bacon. I’ve never worked for an
organization that benefited the greater good, but in the next five years I’d
like this to change.
What qualifies as beneficial? I’ve thought about this before and I’ll think about it again. A search for “beneficial corporations” brings up the usual lists of “best companies to work for,” and the companies deemed to have the most social responsibility. Topping these lists are the likes of Facebook and Google. This should raise an eyebrow. One could argue that Facebook and Google are among the least socially responsible companies of all time, as they maximize advertising effectiveness by unleashing uncontrolled psychological experiments on the entire civilized world.
Tech companies are always cited as being the best to their employees, but they also work their employees to death. If you work for a Silicon Valley company then chances are you’ve kissed that work-life balance goodbye. You might’ve even found yourself crying alone in your cubicle as you miss your daughter’s dance rehearsal … again.
Work-life balance is a term that should not even exist. It implies
that work is not good, a contrast to life. In reality work is an integral part
of life. But the kinds of work people do these days can be anti-human,
unnatural. I know that words like “human” and “natural” can be ambiguous, but if
a term like “work-life balance” enters the common vernacular then something’s
Even if work-life balance at a company is excellent, the
benefits these companies provide to the world is usually limited to whatever
perks they give their employees. Some companies seem to have a guilt complex
In the past decade or so it has become popular for
corporations to ask (demand?) that their employees volunteer their time to a
charity, to “give back” to the community. This is one way to define social
responsibility. However, the term “give back” is suspicious. To “give back”
implies something was taken, probably without consent. If a corporation pays
taxes and fulfills its legal obligations, isn’t that enough? Why are these
reparations to the community necessary? If the organization was doing something
beneficial in the first place then all of this mandatory volunteering would not
One peculiarity of our economic system is that really beneficial jobs don’t pay good money. If you hear about someone helping someone else then you’re going to assume they’re not getting paid. Childcare, elderly care, teaching, farming: they’re all essential to maintaining or quality of life, not to mention our survival. These jobs are often thankless, the most difficult and the least lucrative. Some (like stay-at-home mom) don’t pay anything at all. On the flip side, a hedge fund manager, a corporate lawyer, even an engineer working as a cog in the military industrial complex, all of these are worthless (if not harmful) to society, but the money is nice.
What if there was some way to accurately measure and qualify the value of helping people? What if this became the new currency? Why can’t we have a system that incentivizes the pursuit of excellence while also taking care of our own?
I’m still not sure what qualifies as a beneficial
corporation. I’m refining the definition as I go. Maybe it’s enough for a
company to take care of its own employees and leave it at that. For me, it
would be an awesome step in the right direction to help people and get paid. I’m
going to keep an eye out for opportunities. My next employment situation will
be with an organization that’s doing some good.