When The Supply Chain Issues Hit The Office

Several years ago, our office went from the old-fashioned Bunn coffee maker that made entire pots of coffee to Flavia coffee machines that make one cup of joe. The Flavia machines use little packets of coffee, like those pictured above, that you insert into the machine to get your brew. My coffee of choice is the Pike Place roast. It’s a medium roast coffee that Starbuck’s describes as follows: “A smooth, well-rounded blend of Latin American coffees with subtly rich notes of cocoa and toasted nuts, it’s perfect for every day.”

And I do, in fact, drink it every day when I’m in the office. Multiple times every day, in fact.

Yesterday we ran out of the Pike Place, which caused me to experience a momentary flutter of disquiet. Later in the day, the guy who fills our coffee stopped by to refill the supply of our Flavia coffee packets. I was relieved to see him and told him I was sorry I had guzzled so much of the Pike Place. He shook his head sadly and explained that there was no Pike Place to replenish the supply on our floor. He noted that our firm was totally out of the Pike Place, and when he called the warehouse to see why our order of Pike Place wasn’t delivered, he was told that the local warehouse was totally out of it, too. He then put up a hand-lettered sign above the coffee machine to explain the situation in hopes that it would prevent Pike Place drinkers from rioting in the hallways.

We’ve all heard of the supply chain issues that the country is experiencing, post-pandemic. I had not heard of coffee being affected, but apparently I wasn’t paying attention, because there have been stories about the coffee supply being affected by the weather and shipping delays, and shipping snafus caused by congestion at ports have compounded the problem.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things a shortage in one particular coffee packet isn’t the end of the world; I can just shift to Cafe Verona or even (horrors!) decaf in a pinch. (There always seems to be a very ample supply of decaf, doesn’t there?) But the tale of Pike Place coffee packets in one office in one city shows just how precarious the supply chain can be.

The Great Crypto Crash

I frankly don’t get the whole cryptocurrency concept. I don’t understand how it works, or how it can have value. It seems like the most volatile, unpredictable possible investment. And the fact that it is the preferred form of ransomware payment required by computer hackers doesn’t exactly give it a veneer of legitimacy, security, or credibility, either.

In short, I’ve never invested in a cryptocurrency, and I can’t believe that will ever change. After this past week, I’m glad I’ve taken that conservative stance. To be sure, the stock market has been taking a beating recently–the S&P 500 is now down 18 percent since the end of December, and the Dow is down 13 percent over that same time period–but that is chump change compared to what has just happened in the crypto world. MarketWatch described last week as a “bloodbath” for cryptocurrency, with multiple different crypto currencies losing huge chunks of their market value. One crypto trading firm said last week represents “the largest wealth destruction event in the short history of the crypto markets.”

The abrupt valuation changes for some of the crypto firms is truly shocking. MarketWatch reports that one cryptocurrency, LUNA, was trading at about $80 in early May, only to fall “nearly to zero.” Another cryptocurrency that had been pegged at one to one with the U.S. dollar fell to as low as six cents. In all, it is estimated that the crypto market lost $400 billion in value over just seven days. Those are sudden and catastrophic losses on the same scale as the stock market crash in 1929. Imagine being one of the people who bought a cryptocurrency at $80, only to see their investment vanish within a week!

The crypto market has had some tough times before, but has rebounded. Will it bounce back this time–or will people begin to wonder whether getting into crypto is just too risky? One of the reasons the American stock market keeps its value, even during difficult economic times like the present, is that millions of American workers have a portion of their paychecks invested in the market through their employers’ 401k plans. That constant infusion of money is a nice little support mechanism that the crypto market just doesn’t have. When the big players decide that it’s time to get out of crypto–as they apparently did this past week–there is no safety net to absorb the shock.

Investing In A Nuclear Era

The war in Ukraine goes on, and since it began Russia has absorbed a series of embarrassing defeats and setbacks, including most recently the sinking of one the ships in its Black Sea fleet. The stout defense of Ukrainians is heartening for those who oppose evil aggression and the slaughter of innocent civilians, but it also has raised the possibility that Vladimir Putin might be tempted to do the heretofore unthinkable: launch some kind of nuclear weapon. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warns that the world should be prepared for precisely that inconceivable scenario.

It’s a frightening time, for sure. And yet, things haven’t been as panicky as you might have thought. No one is hiding under the bed or encamped in their home fallout shelter. People live their lives and go to their schools and jobs, the economy bumps along, we worry about inflation and gas prices and shortages, and stocks continue to be traded. In fact, when you think about it, the stock market is pretty weird right now. Frightening times typically are bad for the stock market, which always reacts badly to uncertainty–and yet the market has held its own, even as concerns about the Russia-Ukraine conflict escalating to the nuclear level are raised. Why is that?

Paradoxically, it might simply be that the possibility of nuclear war is just too scary to really affect the markets. It’s too colossal a risk, and far outside the normal issues that affect trading in securities. If you’re worried about inflation, you can adjust your portfolio and trading patterns; if you’re concerned that equities are overvalued due to irrational exuberance, you can shift into fixed income investments. But there is no plausible investment strategy that can protect against the devastating impact of a nuclear exchange.

That’s why some analysts are encouraging their investors to stay bullish on stocks, even in the face of the risk of Putin launching nuclear weapons. One Canadian firm, BCA Research, recommends staying in the equities market for the next year, reasoning that financial risks are immaterial in the face of a potential existential risk. One article quotes BCA Research as saying, bluntly: “”If an ICBM [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile] is heading your way, the size and composition of your portfolio become irrelevant.”  

If you were searching for evidence that financial analysts are cold-blooded, look no farther! But, in a strange, counterintuitive way, this apocalyptic approach to investing makes sense in the current circumstances–and it may be why the market hasn’t plunged into Black Friday territory. The BCA Research approach might seem like the caterpillar approach from the fable of the ant and the caterpillar, but what else can an investor do? In such extraordinary times, the best approach may be to keep your head down, follow your investment strategy, and hope that Vladimir Putin keeps his finger off the button.

From The Ground Up

Some of the things we can do these days are pretty amazing, when you stop and think about it. Here’s an example: earlier this month an astrophotographer took a picture of astronauts performing spacewalk maneuvers around the International Space Station–from the ground. That’s the photo, above.

Dr. Sebastian Voltmer took the photograph on March 23, as astronauts Raja Chari (from NASA) and Matthias Maurer (from the European Space Agency) were in the middle of a seven-hour spacewalk. Dr. Voltmer took the picture just after sunset, from Maurer’s hometown of Sankt Wendel, Germany. You can see the two astronauts in the photo–which Dr. Voltmer considers to be a “once-in-a-lifetime image.”

What’s amazing is that the ISS orbits the Earth at an average altitude of 227 nautical miles, or 420 kilometers. Dr. Voltmer says he used a Celestron 11-inch EdgeHD telescope on a GM2000 HPS mount and an ASI290 planetary camera to take the photo–which means you probably shouldn’t attempt this with your new iPhone.

A clear photo taken from the ground of astronauts working on a space station, 227 miles up? I guess the future is here.

Richard II

I’ve finished Richard II, the first step in my Shakespeare Project, in which I aim to read all of the Bard of Avon’s plays, sonnets, and poems. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second was the fifth of Shakespeare’s history plays and was written in or before 1597, as he was rising to prominence in the London theater scene. The play also is the first of a series of historical plays, written by Shakespeare at different times, that tell the turbulent story of British kings and can be read in historical chronological order from Richard II, through Henry IV, V, and VI, to Richard III. That’s why I’ve chosen Richard II as my starting point.

I had not read Richard II or seen it performed before. It’s an interesting and emotionally compelling play that shows why Shakespeare was becoming the master of the British stage, both in terms of its dramatic structure and its otherworldly writing. The play begins with scenes showing a haughty and greedy King Richard acting with absolute authority as he banishes Henry Bullingbroke in the wake of his dispute with another British nobleman. But Richard was feared to be running England into bankruptcy and ruin, and when the king rashly decides to go to Ireland at a time when Bullingbroke’s father dies and Bullingbroke returns to England to claim his inheritance, the British gentry rally to Bullingbroke’s cause. When Richard returns from his Irish adventure–one which left him seasick as well as devoid of significant support back in England–he learns that he has effectively lost the monarchy and is forced to abdicate, imprisoned, and eventually murdered.

During the course of these events, Richard starts as a money-grubbing and ungrateful tyrant, but ends as a sympathetic (and indeed, pathetic) character. As Richard laments his unhappy fate, we learn that there is more to his character–including the fact that he loves his queen, and she loves him–than we initially understood. Eventually Richard seems to discover the graciousness of spirit and understanding that would have helped him to be a better king when he wielded absolute power . . . but of course it is too late.

And Richard is not the only character of interest in the play. Henry Bullingbroke, who eventually is crowned Henry IV, is presented ambiguously, leaving the actor playing the great latitude to interpret the character. Bullingbroke could be presented as a schemer with designs on the crown from the outset, as a loyal subject who is wronged by the banishment and returns upon his father’s death to be buffeted by events beyond his control to the throne, or as something in between. While Richard’s character stands center state and is sketched in great detail, Bullingbroke is kept in the shadows, and shaded. One of Bullingbroke’s few human moments comes when he seeks to advise his son of events and instructs his aides to look in London taverns for the young man–presaging the plot of Henry IV, Part I, the next play in the chronology that is dominated by the antics of Prince Hal and his foil, Falstaff.

There are lots of passages in the play that attest to Shakespeare’s genius. One favorite for me is this familiar passage about England:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

What’s interesting is that this beautiful, ringing language is not spoken by a proud and boastful man, but instead by the sad, dying John of Gaunt (Bullingbroke’s father) who laments that, thanks to Richard’s unwise and profligate spending, Gaunt’s “dear, dear land” is “now leas’d out–I die pronouncing it–like to a tenement or a pelting farm.” The plot could have been served by a much simpler statement by Gaunt, but part of Shakespeare’s unique brilliance is his ability to convert a passage conveying a basic plot development and turn it into the stuff of art and legend, forever to be known as some of the greatest words ever written about England. How long, I wonder, did it take Shakespeare to write that passage, and did he labor to construct it, or did the words simply flow from his pen?

The same effort to reach for poetic heights rather than settling for easier wording is shown throughout the play, and even in the more explanatory, context-setting, and transitional scenes. A good example comes at the end of a scene where two of the King’s few remaining supporters are discussing the Duke of York, who is charging with maintaining the order in the face of popular unrest while the king is in Ireland. One of the characters says: “Alas, poor duke! The task as he undertakes is numb’ring sands and drinking oceans dry. Where one on his side fights, thousands will fly.”

Another favorite scene occurs when the despondent Queen learns that Richard has been deposed by overhearing a gardener talk to a servant. In Shakespeare’s hands, the garden becomes a metaphor for England itself, and the gardener ruefully recognizes that Richard has missed his chance:

Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight:
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
Go thou, and like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.
You thus employ’d, I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.

The servant responds:

Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin’d,
Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?

The wise gardener responds:

Hold thy peace:
He that hath suffer’d this disorder’d spring
Hath now himself met with the fall of leaf:
The weeds which his broad-spreading leaves did shelter,
That seem’d in eating him to hold him up,
Are pluck’d up root and all by Bolingbroke,
I mean the Earl of Wiltshire, Bushy, Green.

When the servant asks if those supporters of the king are dead, the gardener responds:

They are; and Bolingbroke
Hath seized the wasteful king. O, what pity is it
That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself:
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have lived to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty: superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live:
Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

Richard II is full of great stuff like this, and well worth a read–especially for the gardeners among us. Now, it’s time to return to more familiar territory: Henry IV, Part I.

The Limits Of The Law

Today the International Court of Justice, the highest court in the United Nations hierarchy, ruled by a vote of 13-2 that “the Russian Federation shall immediately suspend military operations that it commenced on 24 February 2022 in the territory of Ukraine.” (The Russian and Chinese judges dissented.) The majority opinion concluded that there was no evidence substantiating Russia’s stated reason for the invasion, which was that Ukraine was committing genocide against Russian-speaking peoples in eastern Ukraine.

Under the UN Charter, the Court’s rulings are binding on the parties, and the Court has stated that they create “binding legal obligations” on the parties. The article linked above notes, however, that Vladimir Putin is nevertheless “unlikely” to abide by the order and cease the murderous invasion of Ukraine, and the Court has no standing army it can hurl into the fray, or any other means of enforcing its ruling. It’s entirely predictable that the Russians will ignore the order and undoubtedly will issue propaganda seeking to undercut the credibility of the Court and depict the judges as stooges of the imperialist West.

Presumably everyone understood this at the outset, and the Ukrainians nevertheless thought that the effort was worth it, if only to further evidence the barbaric and lawless actions of the Putin regime. I’m not sure that the decision is a very positive thing for the ICJ, however, because it is not good for courts to issue orders that they know will never be enforced or enforceable. A record of unenforceable orders undercuts the credibility of the court and can only serve to encourage noncompliance with other orders in the future. The Russian actions in the Ukraine are so heinous that the ICJ apparently decided to go ahead and issue the order, regardless.

The situation reminds me of an incident I learned about in law school. In 1832 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Worcester v. Georgia, issued a decision about Georgia’s rights with respect to Cherokee tribal lands. President Andrew Jackson strongly disagreed with the decision and famously stated: “John Marshall (the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” Because both the President and the state of Georgia basically ignored the ruling, it had no effect, and the terrible “Trail of Tears,” in which Cherokees were forced to relocate to Oklahoma at the cost of thousands of Native American lives, was the ultimate result. It took decades for the Court’s credibility to recover to the position it now occupies, where the public outcry if an American President ignored a Supreme Court ruling would quickly make the President’s position unsustainable.

Unfortunately, Russia is not the United States, and the ICJ does not have the same implicit authority in Russia that the U.S. Supreme Court has in our country. The ICJ’s ruling today is undoubtedly correct, and it provides another reason to steadfastly oppose Vladimir Putin’s egregious activities in the Ukraine–but it will be up to history to determine whether the impact of Putin’s flouting of the order on the International Court of Justice’s credibility, and on parties’ compliance with its future orders, was worth it.

Putin’s Bad Gamble

We’re now at the two-week point in Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and it’s safe to say it hasn’t gone well for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the architect of the invasion. If you believe the news reports, Russia expected a quick win, and Russian soldiers expected to be welcomed with open arms. The reality has been the exact opposite. The Russian forces have encountered fierce resistance and are mired in the mud, and the Ukrainian people have shown great grit and determination in resisting the Russians at every turn.

That’s what happens when you overestimate your capabilities, and believe your own faulty propaganda.

But the consequences for Putin are a lot more significant than just doing worse in a war than he expected. He’s shown that the Russian military isn’t nearly as fearsome as people thought it would be. He’s galvanized and unified the West in a way that hasn’t been the case in years, and encouraged countries like Germany to reverse their policies on defense spending and energy dependence. He’s isolated the Russian financial sector and put the fortunes of the Russian oligarchs who supported him at risk. There are reports that the Russian treasury might be bankrupted by the war and may be forced to default on debt. And in the process, Russia has become a kind of global pariah in way that wasn’t even the case during the heyday of the Soviet Union.

And what might be bugging Putin the most is that this war has exposed him in a way that goes to a core personal issue. Putin has always seemed highly conscious of cultivating a macho image, and carefully orchestrates photos of himself riding horses without a shirt and going hunting. But if Putin were really the bold, studly guy he’s been trying to portray, we’d be seeing him out in the field with the Russian generals and soldiers. Instead, he’s staying in the office–a guy with a bald spot sitting at the end of a ridiculously long table, as if he’s afraid to even get close to his own aides. It’s pretty safe to say that, even if Russia “wins” the war in the Ukraine, people will never see Vladimir Putin in quite the same way again.

Many people will no doubt be tempted to enjoy some schadenfreude at Putin’s problems, but a little caution is in order. This colossal strategic mistake by Putin may just force a reduced and depleted Russia to turn to China for financial and other assistance, which would materially alter the strategic balance in the world. I think Putin’s bad gamble is going to make the world a much more dangerous and volatile place for the next few years.

Further Befogging The Fog Of War

On Friday Russia enacted a new law that makes it a crime for foreign news organizations to intentionally report “fake news” about Russia’s war in the Ukraine. Violation of the new law is punishable by sentences of up to 15 years in prison.

Western news outlets reacted promptly, and with obvious alarm, to the new law. The BBC’s director-general said the law “appears to criminalise the process of independent journalism,” and the BBC reacted by announcing that it would temporarily halt its reporting in Russia. CNN and CBS said that they would cease broadcasting from Russia, reporters for Bloomberg News and the Canadian Broadcasting Company in Russia also stopped work, and other news organizations removed the bylines of reporters stationed in Russia who were filing reports on the war in Ukraine. Still other networks and newspapers are figuring out how to respond. Obviously, no news service wants to risk the possibility that the accurate reporting of news that is at variance with Russian propaganda would be deemed “fake news” by repressive authorities and result in reporters being jailed.

We’ve often heard about the “fog of war,” in which participants and observers are enveloped and left floundering in a decisional murk because they can’t get accurate information about what is really happening on the ground. One of the concerns about the war in Ukraine is that we are not getting the facts, and therefore are at the mercy of propaganda from both sides. Russia’s decision to put western reporters at risk of prison time for their reporting activities will just make the “fog of war” even thicker for those of us in western countries.

But I suppose it is also fair to draw inferences from Russia’s decision to enact its new law. If the war–and activities on the home front in Russia–were going really well for the Kremlin, there presumably would be no need to criminalize journalism. Russia’s desperate effort to control the bad news therefore might actually make the fog a little less dense.

Fighting On The Financial Front

The Russia-Ukraine war may be the most sprawling, multi-front conflict in history. There’s brutal fighting on the ground, of course, and also in social media and in cyberspace. And a another new front has been opened in the financial sector, where an allied group of countries are throwing haymakers at Russia’s economy, with the goal of crippling Russia’s ability to sustain the conflict.

The current set of financial sanctions that have been brought to bear against Russia may be the most sophisticated and extensive in history. A group of countries that include the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada have cut off Russian banks from SWIFT, a global financial messaging service. Even the historically ever-neutral Swiss have joined in the sanctions and frozen Russian assets. The U.S. also banned U.S. dollar transactions with the Russian central bank. The overall goal is to prevent the Russian central bank from accessing the reserves Vladimir Putin was expecting it would be able to tap to finance the conflict.

We’ve come to expect economic sanctions to take a while to work, but that hasn’t been the case here. The assembled sanctions caused an immediate drop in the value of the Russian ruble, as shown in the chart above that shows its value against the dollar. You don’t need to be a financial whiz kid to recognize that any data that shows the value of a nation’s currency tumbling off a cliff isn’t good news for that country. A ruble is now worth less than a penny. The sanctions also caused a run on the banks by everyday Russians who are afraid the purchasing power of their savings will vanish as the ruble crashes and inflation takes hold. And the sanctions also caused Russia’s central bank to raise interest rates and halt any trading on the Moscow stock exchange, which also aren’t positive signs for the Russian economy.

Financial sanctions can be effective against some countries, but not so much against others. Countries without advanced economies, or that are willing to become pariah states like North Korea, or that have secret benefactors that might help them skirt sanctions are better equipped to withstand the impact. Russia doesn’t really fit into any of those categories. In fact, the prompt and devastating impact of the sanctions is causing some people to wonder whether they might be too effective, and back Putin into a corner that might cause him to entertain doing the unthinkable and escalating the conflict to a nuclear stage. We’ll have to hope that other, rational forces in Russia prevent that.

Unfortunately, the sanctions will cause the most pain for the ordinary Russians, who had nothing to do with the decision to invade Ukraine–but one of the ultimate political goals in any war is to crush the resolve of the enemy population so it will sue for peace. That’s what the allied fighters on the financial front are hoping to achieve.

The Return Of Baghdad Bob

Many of us recall “Baghdad Bob,” the Information Minister for Iraq whose press briefings during the Iraq War in 2003, and confident declarations that the Iraqi forces were pulverizing the enemy, were laughably divorced from reality. Baghdad Bob’s willingness to lie to the press, even as invading tanks rolled past behind him, was so complete that the photo of him, above, has become one of the standard internet memes that is used whenever someone is trying to present reality in a way that is contradicted by the obvious truth.

Speaking of Baghdad Bob . . . how is the Russian media presenting the war in Ukraine and the protests that have sprung up in some parts of Russia?

Not surprisingly, it’s been a struggle, and the truth has been hard to find. The tone has been set at the top, where Vladimir Putin has tried to convince the Russian people and Ukrainian military forces that the Ukrainian government consists of a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” And the Russian media has tried to play along and support the Putin regime by broadcasting patriotic programming and attacks on the Ukrainian leaders.

The problem for Russia is that its people have cell phones and computers and multiple ways of communicating without resort to the traditional media, and that decentralized, personal communication technology is changing the way war can be presented on the home front, just as it is changing how war is conducted on the battlefield. Patriotic programming and outright propaganda lose their force if you can flip on your cell phone and see video recorded or forwarded by your contacts of anti-war protests happening across the country and Russian police breaking up spontaneous demonstrations against the war.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll see footage of a Russian spokesman assuring the world that the Russian people are united in their support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, while in the background an anti-war protest marches through the streets–and a new “Moscow Mel” meme will be born.

War In The Internet Age

Like everyone else, I have been following the events unfolding in Ukraine, and hoping like crazy that the courageous Ukrainians continue to stand up against the Russians and make them pay for starting a brutal and totally unnecessary war. In the fog of war you never know what is actually happening, but it looks like the Ukrainians, and their President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, are putting up a fierce fight–according to some reports, at least, much more fierce than Vladimir Putin and Moscow expected.

I’m also fascinated by the new issues that modern technology are introducing to the harsh realities of war. Two stories in particular are helping to illustrate how the internet is changing the paradigm in ways that Sun Tzu, von Clausewitz, General Lee, General Patton, and other experts on war could never have anticipated.

First, consider Ukraine’s President. He has been extraordinarily deft in using modern communications tools to rally his citizens and his troops, using his cell phone and other technology as a kind of tactical device. After the fighting began, President Zelenskiy made a broadcast, using his cell phone, in which he was posed in front of a notable landmark in Kyiv. In the screen shot above, Zelenskiy looks like a guy taking a selfie on a visit, but his broadcast had an important point: refuting Russian propaganda that he had fled the capital. Zelenskiy’s immediate, selfie response exposed the propaganda as fiction, undercutting Russian credibility (to the extent there was any) and fortifying the resolve of Ukrainians who saw with their own eyes that their leader was standing firm. Zelenskiy, who was an entertainer before becoming President, clearly has a command of modern technology and an intuitive understanding of how it can be used to his advantage. His videos make Zelenskiy look like the future and Putin look like a Cold War relic–which he really is.

Second, consider the many reports that, as they invade, sex-starved Russian troops are using the Tinder apps on their cell phones to try to line up liaisons with Ukrainian women. And consider further the contentions by some that, knowing of the Russian practices, Ukrainian intelligence operatives are posing as women on Tinder and other social media apps to gather useful information on where the Russians are, how they are equipped, and where they are heading. Thanks to the lack of discipline of Russian troops and the anonymity of some social media apps, Ukrainians can collect real-time data about troop movements–the kind of information that is extraordinarily valuable in any war.

One admonition in the United States during World War II was: “loose lips sink ships.” The new saying might be “Tinder apps help lay traps.”

Whatever may happen here, war will never be the same.

Two To Too Tutu

First thing yesterday morning Kish pointed out that it was 2/22/22, a “palindrome date.” (Or, if you live in a part of the world where the date precedes the month, the even more palindromic 22/2/22.) The fact that it fell on the second day of the week led some people to call it “Twosday.” And numerologists and those who are sensitive to the significance of this kind of thing contend that it was an auspicious day for reflection on relationships, good fortune, cosmic karma, Zen, and other highly spiritual things.

I therefore hope you all had a lucky, happy, spiritual, relationship-building Twosday.

My mind went in a slightly different direction, however, thinking instead of how the “two” sound, by itself, forms multiple words with totally different meaning. “Two” is a number. “To” connotes motion in a particular direction. “Too” reflects excessiveness (as in “eating too much”) and is also synonymous with “in addition.” And “tutu” is a specific kind of outfit for a female ballet dancer. No doubt the linguists among us could trace the distinct roots of each word to explain how they all developed with exactly the same sound.

Whatever their roots, I think there must be something that people particularly like about that “two” sound that would cause it to produce so many different standalone words. And it is not just true of English, either: in French, “tu” is the familiar form of “you.” Part of the attraction of yesterday’s palindrome must therefore simply lie in repeatedly making the “two” sound–which admittedly is pretty satisfying if you try it.

I also think that I am glad that I learned English as a kid growing up and assimilated all of the different “two” words as a matter of course, without giving it much thought. If you were someone who needed to learn English as a second language, trying to figure out what the person you were speaking to meant when they made the “two” sound might leave you flummoxed.

The Population Implosion

I was born in 1957, the peak year of the American “baby boom.” I grew up in a world where families routinely had three, four, five, or more children, and where population growth was a huge concern for some futurists, giving rise to scary depictions of future Earth in grim movies like Soylent Green and books like The Population Bomb.

As a result, it’s very weird to see people expressing the opposite view now. Social scientists and politicians are worried about population shrinkage, not growth–because in many parts of the world human beings simply aren’t reproducing at a rate that would even replace those who are dying. The signs of the issue are everywhere. In 2020, for example, Michigan had more deaths than births. In China, the world’s most populous country–right now, at least–the fertility rate fell in 2021, for the fifth straight year. China’s population issues are so significant that the country reversed its long-standing “one child” policy in 2016 and is now encouraging families to have more children, as well as restricting the ability of Chinese men to receive vasectomies, which once were mandated. (The Chinese about-face on children obviously is a pretty strong indictment of large-scale governmental planning of modern societies, but that’s a blog post for another day.)

China and Michigan aren’t alone. Across the world, many countries are falling far below the fetility rate needed to simply replace their current population, which is 2.1 births per woman. In America, the fertility rate in 2020 was 1.64, well below the replacement line. Many countries are so far below that rate that they will commonly see years like Michigan in 2020, where deaths outnumber births. And that trend will create clear social and economic problems in those counties, going far beyond the presence of “ghost cities” in China–like the one shown above–because there just aren’t enough people to fill them. The problems are very basic. If most of your population is aging and retired, who is going to work and produce the income that produce the taxes that support the retirement social apparatus? And who is going to care for all of those older people?

The “why” of this development is impossible to figure out. Are people having fewer children because they are concerned about bringing new lives into a troubled world? Or do they think that having a large family will be an impediment to their lifestyles? Or are they more focused on living virtual lives through their computers, or concerned at the impact that humans have had on the world and its environment? Deciding whether to have a family is an intensely personal decision, and there are undoubtedly a huge range of reasons for the decline in birth rates, but what’s interesting is that it seems to be happening everywhere, in virtually every culture, at the same time.

What does it mean for us? It means immigration becomes a lot more important as a means to fill the worker gap caused by the falling birth rates. It means that states like Michigan are going to have to figure out how to lure workers from other states if it wants to survive long term. And it means that robotics are going to become an increasingly common way of replacing the human workers who just aren’t available. Over the next few years it seems likely that we’ll see a shift to a much more automated, machine-oriented world because there just won’t be any choice. That’s not exactly the future people were expecting.

The Lost World Of Two Sleeps

We tend to think that the basic elements of human lives–things as fundamental as sleep patterns–have forever been as they are now. I’ve always assumed, without thinking much about it, that sleep means going to bed and sleeping straight through until waking up in the morning. The BBC recently published a fascinating article about research that squarely refutes that assumption–and shows instead that our current approach to sleep is inconsistent with the accepted practices that prevailed for many centuries.

According to the BBC article, humans used to have “two sleeps” as a matter of course. The “first sleep” would last for a few hours, until about 11 p.m., followed by about two hours of wakefulness–a period known in medieval England as “the watch”–after which people would return to bed and sleep until morning. This pattern was confirmed by sworn testimony in court records and multiple references in literature, and the research indicates that it was followed across different countries and cultures dating back to classical times, during the prolonged period when life was much more communal than it is now and it was typical for multiple humans to share beds or other sleeping quarters.

What did those who awakened from their “first sleep” do during “the watch”? The research indicates they did just about everything from the exalted (it was viewed by some as a good time for quiet religious observances and reflection) to the productive (peasants completed some of their many daily chores, stoked the fire, and tended to animals) to the mundane (the newly roused typically answered the call of nature). The BBC article also reports: “But most of all, the watch was useful for socialising – and for sex.” People would stay in their communal bed and chat with their bedmates, and husbands and wives, refreshed from the day’s exhausting labors by their “first sleep,” might find a place for some alone time before “the watch” ended and it was time to hit the crowded sack again.

At some point, the practice of “two sleeps” ended and our current approach of seeking one, uninterrupted “good night’s sleep” became the norm instead. But, as the BBC article points out, a sleep research experiment from the ’90s suggests that it wouldn’t take much for people to be nudged back into the world of “two sleeps.” A careful look at some remote cultures also indicates that the practice of “two sleeps” still prevails in some areas. And of course, in some cultures where an afternoon siesta is commonplace, a different form of “two sleeps” is practiced.

What would the world be like if humans still followed the practice of “two sleeps,” and what would they do during “the watch”? I would guess that they would do just about everything that their medieval ancestors did–although with modern technology I imagine that many people would take “the watch” literally, and use the break in sleep to catch up on the latest offerings on streaming services.

The Bad Guys Out There

Every day, at the office, I receive multiple obviously fraudulent emails, and our IT department regularly sends out notices to advise us of still other phishing attempts that are being sent to our attorneys. And the fraud attempts aren’t just limited to my email, either–it seems like at least once a week I get a phony text, or a phony Messenger message, or a phony friend invitation from an unknown person or former Facebook user who I know for a certainty has passed to the Great Beyond.

In short, my own personal experience teaches that there’s a heck of a lot of fraud out there. Fortunately, most of the fraud attempts are easily detectable if you are just paying attention to the basics of sound data security practices–don’t click on whatever random link you might receive, be suspicious of email from people you’ve never heard of, watch for misspellings and weird language choices, and so on–but still, there is a lot of it.

This regular confrontation with attempted criminal activity is weird, when you think about it. Many of us don’t have any contact with crooks in our daily, non-electronic lives. But now, thanks to the technology that often seems to dominate our existences, new virtual doorways exist that might allow the bad guys to enter and bilk us out of our hard-earned money, steal our personal data, or even take our identities. Every day, on our devices, it’s as if we are walking through dark alleys with unknown people lurking in the recesses and shadowed doorways. And we know they are there, because every day they are sending us those messages that affirmatively remind us of their nefarious existence and criminal intent.

Are there more criminals out there than there once were, or do electronic processes allow the crooks to reach out and touch more people than could occur in the pre-electronic era? My guess is that it is a bit of both, and that a lot of what we are receiving comes from anonymous fraudsters in countries so far away that we never would encounter them but for the internet. Whatever the answer might be, it’s up to us to stay on guard, be vigilant, exercise good judgment at all times, and clutch our data tight when we walk through Internet Alley. It adds a new element of stress to the modern world, where a fleecing may be only one click away.