Cosmic Horror, Pandemics, and Allergies

A few days ago a YouTuber Brian David Gilbert posted a video called Teaching Jake about the Camcorder, Jan ’97, which I’ve embedded below. This video has been sitting with me since it came out. In the video BDG plays a father teaching his son how to use an “expensive” camcorder, it feels like a fairly generic period video. However, when Jake, which given the perspective of the video is the viewer, rewinds or fast forwards Father changes facial hair. Some times his affect changes, but most of the time he does an excellent job maintaining the illusion of the same repeated video, as if Father has forgotten that he already taught Jake how to use the camcorder, by saying the same things. Similarly, Jake follows the exact same actions. Eventually, Father talks to Older Jake, the viewer, directly through the camcorder asking him to stop, that he’s gone. Then the figure appears. It’s more of a negative of a figure. It’s an unmoving void of where a figure should be. Given the context it’s safe to assume this is a stand in for whatever killed Father. Later the Father screams at what Jake can only assume to be a stuffed bunny. Father eventually walks out of the room and then out of the house, ending the video presumably to meet his fate.

That figure and the impotence of the Father has sat with me. Partially, the whole creepiness of it. Will I open a door and that figure be there? However, that’s not really why I’ve been thinking about it. There’s an air of inevitability with the piece. It’s happened and seems to be still happening. It’s repeated so perfectly that it fits with how our lives have been during the pandemic. Personally, it hits even closer for me, though. Given my allergies and that every single vaccine has reported allergic reactions. Some severe. It’s always reported, to me anyway, jauntily, that despite the reactions no one has died. Yet.

There’s a dread that creeps in. That figure, that silent absence screams at me. I know I will have a reaction. It’s inevitable. The only question is what will that reaction be like? Will it be like the last time I had ginger? Where my vision constricted within a minute of eating it. Where I started to pour sweat out my pores. Where I could barely talk as I groped for my Prednisone. Eventually going to the ER for shots of Epinephrine and Benadryl.

Would be the tamer almost constant reactions I have to perfumes and chemicals like the Shea Butter lotion my wife used the other day that gave me a slightly tightened throat and a bit of a cough when I smelled it. Or will it be the last time I had Tooth paste where I had a tightened throat, swollen lips, and numbness in my tongue?

Regardless, that void of a figure will be there. I have to step out side to greet that emptiness that unknown. I know the pandemic, that lurking horror hiding behind the stuffed bunny just out of sight, will likely kill me if I get COVID-19. I’ve struggled the past year and a half to express how I’ve been feeling with these allergies during the pandemic. So, despite the horror and fear of my impotence of that empty figure, I must confront it. But like the father, I can do it on my own terms.

Grief, Depression, and Loneliness

When I was in High school, I was always drawn to The Offspring’s song Gone Away I never really understood why, considering I’d never lost someone the way the narrator had lost someone. Certainly not someone that was close enough to me that I’d want to switch places with them. In a similar vein, I recently read Gideon The Ninth and Harrow The Ninth both by Tamsyn Muir. The first book, Gideon, was suffused with a sense of loneliness, loss, and otherness. There was loss everywhere, it felt like the entire world was dying and decaying in front of the protagonists eyes. While in the second book, Harrow, a direct sequel, it was jarring because the narrator was so unreliable that it’s clear that they were intentionally disassociating rather dealing with her grief.

The music I’ve been listening to during the pandemic has a similar haunted feeling to it. Specifically, Riverside’s Lost (Why should I be frightened by a Hat?) and The Depth of Self Delusion both of these songs are sparse, mournful, and have a strong sense of loss about them. Other songs, like Turn by Magna Carta Cartel describe the anger the futility can days just slipping away.

I got to thinking about these things last night when I read an article in Psychology TodayThe Loneliness of Unshared Grief” which talks about the grief of surviving alone (even when you’re with your family) in the pandemic. The loss of the sense of normalcy. The loss of daily interactions with strangers and of other routines. These, as my therapist has pointed out to me over the past year or so, are normal things we should be grieving. We’re grieving the loss of who we were. In some cases we’re grieving people that we love and care about that we lost. We’re grieving the loss of a sense of safety.

It’s ok to grieve.

You aren’t alone in grieving.

I’ve been doing a lot of grieving myself. Not just from the pandemic, but also my allergies. I have lost most of freedom of movement because I don’t feel safe walking outside. Wood smoke sends me into anaphylaxis. I used to love to walk at night. The calm and quiet would let me work through whatever I was feeling. It was a way that dealt with some of my depression, my grief of nightly parental strife – that loss of emotional safety at home. When my nephew was living here, I used daily walks to help him work through his anxieties and stress from school and family. I can’t do that with him any more.

I am grieving over the loss of food. I have a diet of about 6 things. Well, I’m sure I can eat more than that, but I feel so unsafe eating them that I simply avoid them. I’ve learned that this is something of an eating disorder, I mention it in my Book Review: The End of Food Allergy by Kari Nadeau, I’m scared of trying food I used to love because it might “attack me.”

I’m grieving of all these things. I’m also grieving about the pandemic.

It’s cathartic to read or watch videos that make you feel grief. It might help you process your grief. To give a name to what you’ve been feeling. The reason why you’re angry. If you like video games I recommend playing Gris, because it’s definitely about a woman going through the stages of grief and is a gorgeous game.

The Insurrection…

It isn’t over yet. The insurrection will not be over until we’ve address the source of the wound and eliminated it. This was a violent planned assault against our democracy. One that attempted to destroyed the results of 50 legally certified elections. They planned to hang Mike Pence they were hunting Nancy Pelosi and we were lucky this didn’t turn into a mass casualty event.

So, let’s take a step back. How is this different than the Black Lives Matter protests. Those had violence too. There was a police precinct burned down. In Portland, they were assaulting the Federal Building! These are all true. However, the goal of the protest was mostly to work within the system to change the system. If you look at Portland, the courts deemed that the city was being overly violent and starting much of the violence rather than the protesters. They were ruled to avoid using tear gas, then it was turned into law. The protest were actually dying down until Trump inflamed them by sending in unmarked vehicles into the city.

Sure, you might be saying, but that doesn’t excuse the violence. You’re right, Straw person. Violence isn’t excusable and the city of Portland is experiencing some serious tension between the people of the city, the businesses in downtown, and the city officials. One thing we need to look at, is that many of these larger businesses are part of the larger system that drives the prison pipeline.

In Minneapolis, the Target that was burned down, was trialing a specific AI based tool to determine if someone was shop lifting. It was often wrong. So Target itself was a source of an increase in false arrests and increase of interaction with police.

Furthermore, the BLM protest was a protest against state violence against a specific set of people. Which didn’t stop during the Pandemic. The data indicates there is a racial bias against people of color, specifically black men, in police stops. See the YouTube video below.

So, in the case of BLM protests, it is the protest of the oppressed against the oppressors. The state has a bias against a group of people and those people are trying to make it clear to everyone involved they are being oppressed. The violence against them is an effort to keep that power over them. That’s why the state rejects these efforts so violently.

What we saw at the Capitol is something different. It is the dominant group, losing their position of dominance or at least perceiving the loss of Donald Trump as the loss of that dominance. The system was working as intended. Republicans, in general, turned out in massive numbers. The Democrats, just came out in larger numbers in many areas. Trump lost by a landslide, but has been lying about his loss. He’s made a decision that he wants to stay in power and a group of white supremacists have decided they want to keep him in power.

Furthermore, many elected leaders, like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz (among 120+ members of the house) have decided to keep Trump in office or use this as a chance to win election in 2024. These leaders primed the mob to actually do something about the election results. If you have any doubt about that, please read this twitter thread, digging into the propaganda of Trump’s speach.

So, now that we know this was a planned event to illegally overturn the election results through an insurrection, what do we do next? We need to learn from our failure during the Civil War reconstruction (see my blog on White Rage) where we, as a country, completely failed to prevent a long slow cold Civil War. The other places we should look are at other countries that had mixed success dealing with their coups, like Japan.

Given that we’ve already had reports of additional events, supposedly today (1/10/21) in NYC, events on 1/19/21, and likely 1/20/21 to disrupt the inauguration, this insurrection isn’t over until it’s either successful or we put it down for good. That may require structural change to how we think about the United States including meeting some of the demands of BLM protesters.

In Cabinet Picking, Play Politics

Here’s a thought on how Biden should go about picking his cabinet. In making my argument, let’s look at some facts. First, let’s look at the Merrick Garland fiasco. Obama decided to put forth a moderate candidate for Supreme Court Justice. The Republicans painted him as too far left to fill a right-wing seat. So the seat went unfilled for 8 months.

Trump has been ceaselessly calling Biden a socialist, which has really worked to rile up his base and create solidarity on the right against Biden. Furthermore, this paints the Republicans as a much more centrist party than they actually are, they are a far right party. In fact, the GOP has more QAnon Congressional members than Black Congressional members.

Biden is center right, or centrist at best with his politics. To highlight this, Biden should work with a few potential cabinet members that are very far to his left. Like maybe even include Bernie Sanders or AOC as potential picks. However, work with them and plan for them to actually withdraw their candidacy for that office before the Republicans ever actually vote them down. Before they have to do anything like, resign from their seat. Put the boogeyman out there as a real candidate.

What this will do is create an anchoring point that the media can latch on to. That Republicans and Democrats can latch on it. A clear comparison between the first candidate(s) and whoever Biden would actually want in the role. This will work even better, if the next person they offer as a candidate CLEARLY has votes that are to the center of the original candidate. This will make it significantly harder (but of course not impossible) for the Republicans to paint them as Socialist. Democrats can point to their records and say, “No, this person is a center candidate and the republicans are simply upset that we aren’t installing republicans in these posts.”

If Biden offers moderate or even center right candidates for the office, the Republicans will try to pull Biden even farther right. The anchor that everyone will latch onto will be in the actual center, not the center between Republicans and Democrats.

There is a strong possibility that McConnell will do everything in his power to reject every candidate offered by Biden. He will do this unless Biden offers up someone far enough to the right to make McConnell happy. So we need to lay down the groundwork to show that Democrats are trying to meet McConnell closer to where he wants. We need to make him look ridiculous. We need to make it obvious to other Senators that these candidates are viable. They are not socialists and they are, in fact, centrists.

Biden is going to face an uphill battle to getting the people we want confirmed for the roles in government. Using anchors and decoys is smart politics.

Book Review: Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book builds on the research in Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism and Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, so I definitely recommend reading those two books first. I’m not alone in that, in one of the talks I’ve watched Benjamin give, she explicitly mentions those books as influencing her. I really enjoyed this book, it brought together ideas from my own master’s degree, including the complexity of how technology is used. In one class we specifically discussed the Moses’s bridges in New York (despite this being taught in the Netherlands), which were designed to exclude the poor by preventing buses from crossing the bridge. In this book she discusses this bridge and how it can pull in the very people that were expected to benefit the bridge design (basically a bus full of rich white kids went across after they came back from a trip to Europe, the driver hit the top of the bridge which resulted in 6 people getting seriously injured).

She modernizes these examples by describing how algorithms are created to approximate details about people, such as determining their ethnicity to provide “targeted services.” Due to historical redlining, the practice of creating white people only enclaves in suburbs and portions of the city (a Jim Crow era set of laws), the zip code has become a reliable indicator of ethnicity and race. She gives the example of Diversity, Inc., which creates ethnicity or racial classifications for potentially hiring companies. They will look at the names of people and assess their ethnicity, however due to the history of slavery, many African Americans have white sounding surnames, like Sarah Johnson, to “correctly” identify the ethnicity of Sarah, the company uses her zipcode to assign her race.

Overall, I found a lot of examples in this book very illuminating. Benjamin finds the approach to Design favored in Silicon Valley wanting and excluding, primarily focused on empathizing for making money, which in many cases is empathizing with whiteness. Furthermore, Benjamin argues that empathy can lead skewed results, such as body camera video providing empathy for police officers even when they are killing Black people for crimes which aren’t capital offenses or no crime at all.

As an engineer, I took this book as a warning. That we need to understand how data is impacting those around us. That we need to understand how data that might seem harmless to me, could cause serious harm to someone else. That algorithms that seem to be doing good, could instead be quickly turned into something bad. Facial recognition is a great example. Facebook tags people in photos without consent and this can be exploited by law enforcement. Furthermore, since facial recognition software is so inaccurate, it can misclassify a person as the wrong sex, the wrong person, or in extremely bad past cases, as an animal.

Furthermore, engineers have the responsibility to ensure our work is used to create more equity in the world. Benjamin offers a few different organizations that are working to ensure justice and equity for everyone. Maybe it’s time that software engineers/developers have a responsibility for this the same way a civil engineer must ensure a bridge is safe.

I recommend that anyone that works at a social media company read this. Anyone doing work for algorithms in banks, insurance, hiring, and housing really understand the fact that algorithms aren’t objective. They are as objective as our history. Our history hasn’t been objective nor equitable. We must change that.



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