Category: life

Contagion! Global Pandemic! And of course, life goes on

An era for the history books

How quickly things can change. I have this Wall Street Journal issue I have from mid February, on the state of the US and global economy due to the Coronavirus in China. Let’s note that at this point, this was considered a polarizing pessimistic take by many, and the Dow and S&P would hit all time highs in the following weeks:

China’s coronavirus outbreak will likely dampen U.S. economic growth in the first quarter, according to a survey of economists by The Wall Street Journal.

The monthly survey of economists found 83% of economists expected the coronavirus outbreak will have a small impact on U.S. gross domestic product growth from January to March, or less than 0.5 percentage point. Just 5% of forecasters expected a significant reduction of more than 0.5 percentage point off the quarter’s annual growth rate, while 10% expected no impact.

These brilliant minds were collectively dead wrong

Now in mid-April, it’s been about a month since the entire state of Washington, and billions around world at large, has gone into a social distancing lockdown with effective shelter-in-place orders for months on end (until the end of May here in Washington). This period has created considerable stress for a large number of service workers who are finding themselves out of work for months on end. Massive economic levers are being pulled by policy and political change makers to prevent the economy from collapsing during this period, and for the moment in the US, it seems to be working. But we’re talking about unemployment in the 10-20% range, with a considerable contraction of the US economy for several quarters at a time.

I can’t quite say what the markets are doing, but in the two months since that publication, a recession a given and a depression being seriously discussed as a possibility as the full reopening of the US economy could be 18 months (!) or more. Tens of millions are on unemployment in an effective universal basic income, hundreds of millions of Americans are under legal quarantine and generally buying into the need of it to prevent mass deaths among the population.

Some key sobering moments have encouraged an honest take here — the British PM contracting the disease was quite an episode, with him being admitted to the ICU, it was rather dramatic. I was touched by the relative unity of the political scene there in stark contrast to what we’ve been seeing on the national state in the US.

Beyond that though, daily life has seen some changes. Notably, masks are far more accepted and in some places (and mandatory in others).

Life has also been altered

Travel is completely gone; airline traffic is down 96%, parks are closed, social events of more than a few people are not only cancelled, they are illegal (depends on state, but it is in Washington state). Overall I’ve been okay. I can work remotely. Life goes on. There are lot of things around the house that I needed to do anyway; I’d say I’ve been keeping quite productive. I’m thankful the world has internet; without it, I think it would have gone down very differently.

That it’s happening in 2020 instead of years means a few unique things:

  • Air travel and global integration allows for rapid spread of contagion, but also rapid international cooperation.
  • Major crises like this can elicit strong reflective reaction from policy makers, but a rational health policy based on statistics and measurements is critical to mitigate the harm.
  • With the recent rise of wealth in China, a great deal more has entered the middle class and have been occupying the airwaves. Based on how bad COVID19 is getting in the West, if there’s any basis in reality to Chinese statistics, it seems then that it’s incredibly impressive how quickly they were able to lock down, contain, and restart the economy.
  • The internet. It’s not even worth capitalizing the I anymore. Whatever it was before, it’s ever more critical now, to everyone.
  • Mobile work is possible for many if not most information-tech occupations; and it works for many. Working from home comes with it’s own set of pros/cons. More later.
  • Non-essential service sectors are nearly completely shut-down. The role of central governments and banks couldn’t be clearer in times of crisis.
  • It does seem that the US total deaths due to COVID19 will be far less than the worst case scenarios of widespread infection. Those had numbers of Holocaust like 3-5 million dead thrown around. Based on the latest projections (as of April 17th, this being a moving crisis), it seems like the numbers may peak around 60-70 thousand. Still horrific, but a fraction of the scar that a full 1-2% of the US population would have been. Whew.
  • The political fallout will be interesting. This is an election year after all.

So there’s too much to be said, and this isn’t meant to be a research blog. For me personally, life goes on. I happen to be able to work remotely, and it’s been an interesting test case of how to get people working across the world still able to function during this time.

I do think there are some positives that remote work offers. For one, there is is no commute. This for many saves hours off one’s day. I had a light commute of 20 minutes, and it was forced source of exercise. I’ve found myself needing to be more deliberate with habits that a workday builds in. Things like a commute, breakfast and lunch are all things that revolve around a cadence.

The explosion of video calling for work has also brought millions of people onboard, including folks from my own family. We’ve been putting Zoom and others to good use:

There’s also like… no traffic anywhere. Except that time in Seattle when that guy jumped off the I-5 and blocked the I-5 — I passed by what looked like a body in a blue tarp and confirmed yeah… some guy did something. (H showed me a later picture that was far too graphic to show here) I should have listened to Google Maps that day.)

But yes, other than that, there’s hardly any traffic on the road or in the skies.

Work is also changed

With everyone, from new hires to CEOs needing to dial in remotely, VCs are an interesting leveler of the playing field of meeting dynamic and team hierarchies. Nobody can have the ad hoc conversations that happen around the office, and every interaction has to be much more intentional. So I’ve found it a reason to be more bold. I happen to have a set up I consider relatively enjoyable, though I still find myself talking a lot of walks around the house before/after/or during stretches of meetings.

A couple weeks ago, a coworker of mine came by the house–quite the surprise, especially since I hadn’t seen almost anyone from the office with my own physical eyes in a month or more. It was nice, able to connect in person again. Social distancing is still good to enforce; just in case, but I think after this period, perhaps normal life will be more appreciated.

Stay safe world!

In the meantime, be inspired by an awesome live performance of the Civilization VI theme Sogno di Volare by Christopher Tin.

30th Anniversary of the June Democracy Movement in South Korea

Democratic consolidation: The process by which a new democracy matures, in a way that means it is unlikely to revert to authoritarianism without an external shock. – Wikipedia

Today marks the 30th anniversary of democracy protests in South Korea–known as the 6월 민주항쟁 (the June Democracy Movement)–that led to democratic consolidation in the South Korea. While so crucial to the identity of Korea today, and even having learned about it in school, its significance wasn’t in my consciousness until much later as an adult when I had gained a greater appreciation of the human fight for progress (which continues today!) across centuries, especially recent decades.

(Aside: Much of that recent appreciation came via a Democratic Development MOOC on Coursera, taught by Stanford professor Larry Diamond. The movement in Korea itself is part of the greater context of a democratization wave (1960s-1980s) across Asia, worth learning for those w/o contemporary Asian history context)

As I started the appreciate the historical relevance that happened in the span of my family’s lifetimes, the need to be proactive in dealing with today’s challenges is also clear, as the fight for democracy continues across this world.

The background of the Korean protests are fascinating and worth reading into (I won’t go into them here), but despite much uncertainty, they ended peacefully, with concessions from the then-authoritarian government to rewrite the Constitution and established the Sixth Republic of Korea, leading to the following promises being implemented:

  • Direct participation in upcoming presidential election for all citizens over age 20
  • Freedom of candidacy and fair competition
  • Amnesty for Kim Dae-jung and other political prisoners
  • Protection of human dignity and promotion of basic human rights
  • Freedom of the press and abolishment of the restrictive Basic Press Law (see: Media of South Korea)
  • Educational autonomy and local self-government
  • The creation of a new political climate for dialogue and compromise
  • Commitment to enact bold social reforms to build a clean, honest, and more just society.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Korean_presidential_election,_1987

I had just turned 2 at the time, so I have no recollection of the actual protests, but my parents do remind me that it was only months before we moved to the U.S. in late 1987. By the time we moved back in 1995, it had only been a few years since the events, but indeed, at least what I observed and felt like a functioning democracy.

Through the eyes of history, these events are seen as the Asian component of the Third Wave of Democracy, which also includes similar movements in Philippines and Taiwan. As most of the world knows, these transitions from an authoritarian rule to democracy are often messy, with the principle characters being young people (students) against the various proxies of authoritarian regimes.

And not all of these movements succeed or remain peaceful, as sadly, we we’ve seen recently in the Middle East after the much anticipated Arab Spring, and when things go wrong, horrible things can happen like the ongoing tragedy in Syria.

And with major disruptions in stability, the temptation of authoritarianism when facing crises real, or amplified by the political climate is ever present. One notable rollback of liberal democratic norms has been in the Philippines, which despite their history of democracy, we are seeing with the current administration, a steep decline in the rule of law, and a sharp rise in populism, supporting a distinct shift toward an authoritarianism. For someone like me, who focuses on trends, this is not encouraging, and across the world, we’ve seen with a rise in those willing to fan the flames of populist resentment. Not in Korea though, and with the newly elected center-left president, Korea’s execution of democracy moves forward.

Still, advocates for democratic development can take hope in the one more recent event in South Korea: the overwhelmingly peaceful civil protests that ultimately led to the impeachment of President Park (a constitutional process that hasn’t even (yet) happened in the U.S.). With this and the subsequent peaceful transition of power to an opposition party president, it is clear that despite the chaos, it was a test and a win for the rule of law, democracy as a principle, and the people at large.

I actually remember when I was younger, seeing a US official address a crowd of students in Korea. Referring to the idea of “national stability” — he said something along the lines of, “In Korea, if you had an impeachment, the country would tear itself apart.” Glad to see that wasn’t true.

Politics aside, kudos to Korea for demonstrating how democracy is done! It is something the country should be incredibly proud of. What had been still on formation while growing up, as of today, I’d say that it is one of the few true democracies in East Asia, along with Japan and Taiwan.

Looking back at the last 30 years, I think it’s important to remember the active role the citizenry must play in fighting for and preserving democratic norms and values. The global push and pull of nationalism and internationalism has never been so readily apparent, and in this joined mission, we must realize that the universal principles and norms of liberal democracy must be fought for and the battles, and heroes, remembered.

The specific date of the anniversary does celebrate one particular incident — a democracy movement protester that was killed by a police tear gas grenade. That event is considered crucial to bringing public awareness to the authoritarian regime’s violent crackdown of the protests and is considered a pivotal moment in public sentiment. From that shift, ultimately, the government conceded to the demands of protesters seeking democratic reforms.

Today, Korea remembers this day to remind itself of how freedom from authoritarianism must be won, and to remember those who fought in that struggle.

Awesome Game: Screeps!

I’m here to briefly rave about this game I’ve been playing called Screeps. This real-time MMO AI programming strategy game has managed to get me to spend the last 4 hours writing and tinkering with my own game AI, code, which is deploayed into a substantial persistent universe populated with every other player in semi-competition. A brilliant concept, made by these dudes in Russia.

It’s the best experience I’ve ever had playing around with JavaScript (which, I’ve actually been wanting to work with again for my next project… the last one having been a simple WinJS app back in the WIndows 8 days…). and like software development, a highly satisfying experience when things just work, and an agonizingly annoying one when things don’t work. But whatever your JavaScript skills are today, this game will make you better. (The “CPU” and “memory” quota limitations imposed by the game encourages efficient code.)

Out of my time with this game, I hope to practice development patterns for autonomous agents and to start working with swarm AI behaviors. And of course, as a side benefit, practice JavaScript, which I’ll be using with node.js in a future project! At some point, I hope to apply some of what i learn here in practice in the real world, possibly as we develop drones for defensive purposes.

Now, onto the game…

Simple interface, but insane freedom

The game itself features a simple 2D GUI that can be run in a window or from the Screeps website, where it renders in a browser. You can actually view the world without being a member, but to participate in the persistent universe, there is a paid subscription of around $8 / month (I haven’t decided if I’m going to continue after the first month). It’s cheap though, and as long as it provides me entertainment, I’ll continue to play. The game in the browser scales incredibly well – I even managed to get it loaded on my phone, though the touchscreen didn’t lend to a good experience.

Since you don’t control the units via the GUI, but rather, through code, the bulk of your time is going to be spend in the IDE, tinkering around with your unit and colony behaviors via Javascript code. Finally putting my Game AI programming concepts to use!

I’m pretty proud of my little colony so far; it’s like managing my own colony of ants. Brings back old memories of playing SimAnt as a kid.

The competitive aspect is perhaps the coolest part; very evident even within our own group of “novice” players that there those which are more engaged than others. While their code isn’t visible to you, being an open world MMO RTS, you can see every other player and room. For a few of the more advanced empires, I’ve been trying to reverse engineer useful behavior algorithms to see how to create a general purpose empire expansion code base. AI programming indeed!

Procedurally-generated rooms, mostly. Some substantially better than others. Each symbol denotes a different player’s territory. Because We’re in the “green” novice zone, the massive empires looming just outside can’t touch us. Yet…

I’ve always loved learning with an objective, and the framework of this game is an excellent way to focus on logic. The survival element encourages experimentation, and though I’m still early in the game, I decided to break the peace and send out a few of my “defender” units. You’re competing with every other player in real-time–basically your code vs. theirs, so I figured that I’d want to hone my little empire’s abilities to eventually advance beyond it’s “novice” borders. I went into the nearest player’s base and annihilated their walls, workers, resource storage, and “spawn” (which is where new units are created). This leaves the control point to slowly decay, until my own colony units area able to take over.

Attack!

Such slaughter is the cold work of empire building, though, it looks like, to survive, I’m going to need to know how to fight and grow beyond my own box.

AS for the scale of the game’s persistent univserse, so far, it is massive. The below screenshot is just a tiny segment of the scroll-able space, so it’s a huge amount of virtual territory, though of course, it would have to be, since it includes every other player in this single instance. I can’t tell how much further it will scale though, since right now, the game seems to crawl at around 5-10 seconds / tick. They’ve shared their infrastructure details, which is actually a fascinating read, though, perhaps, they could do something to speed the game up, maybe 2-3x.

My “empire” is but a tiny colony among a massive ocean of empires. Better get coding..

Great game. I will post more about it as I play further! 🙂