There is a small space.

Its carved out from both time and the contours of the universe. Its a small spherical volume that erected at any point in time and any point in space. The coordinates can change according to whim and chance or spiral around a specific location and time of day carved out by habit and force of will.

The space is a small, Perhaps it is clean. Perhaps it is well lit. Perhaps it is not.

In times past you could venture into the world and mark it out with a package of cigarettes on a rented table. You paid rent in the form of coffee or cake or a glass of wine. Then you smoked. You smoked to demarcate the boundaries of the ritual space. It was summoned from a cloud of ash and the geometrically increasing probability of a foul death. You smoked to push other minds away and their nasty, uncouth bodies. You smoked and drank coffee and tried to forget about your own body.

Today the cigarettes are forbidden and more of an invitation than a ward against strangers.

Still, we go out and try to find that space. In the world. Outside the place where we have a lock and a key and more control. Going out into the world and finding that place where only our own gravity exerts its pull is a challenge but one we imagine to be pleasant.

Artist’s rendering by Nicolle Fuller/National Science Foundation

For women its far more difficult. Despite every sign and signifier, despite every unsubtle demand for others to fuck off and die, others persist in violating the boundaries. I am not a woman so I can only believe what they say. Many say this and they say it often so I have no reason to doubt.

In the time of plague we are not given the option of going out into the world. The feeling of your own gravity is punctured by a microscopic entity that claws into the center of your body. I cannot find the space away from others as they exhale a probability of infection. Clouds of swirling risk. Even walking feels like moving through these unseen miasmas. Its no place to find refuge.

I’ve spent half of my adult life living alone. Its more difficult to find the space when you have possession of a key and a door and a certain square footage all to yourself. Perhaps that why we go out among others to find our own gravity. It requires an awareness of the presence of others to find your own space. You cannot define boundaries in a void. The walls and door defined the edges of the void. There was no place to be found within it. No other minds. No other gravity to exert your will against

We still need to find that space. Alone or overwhelmed by our equally entrapped family. That small sphere where you can only feel your own gravity. Find an hour where time is yours. Eat pickled herring on garlic toast. Feign demonic possession. Take a bath and glue the door shut. Do what you need to do.

I’m sitting here with my glass of tea, engaged in a battle of will with the cat. The 11 pound ball of fur, fangs, and indifferent needs for attention pushes against my sphere. Even the pale yellow eyes of the cat provides enough of an other presence to make the boundaries of my space clear.

 

Meat processing plants across the country are shutting down as employees fall victim to the plague or stop showing up due to fear of catching the plague. The close working conditions and general lack of concern shown by the owners towards the health and well being of their employees make it hardly surprising this has occurred. That a single workplace was responsible for over half of a state’s COVID infections does not bode well for the continued operations of other meat processing plants.

The scale of meat processing as an industry is horrifying when one looks into the numbers. The South Dakota plan was responsible for between 4 and 5 percent of the nation’s pork supply. Seeing that the per capital consumption of pork in the US was 51.2 pounds in 2019 makes the plant responsible for around 683 million pounds. As the factory turns out 130 million servings of pork per week (6.7 billion per year) that number seems reasonable. At an average of 285 pounds per pig, that means 2.4 million pigs per year meet their fate in South Dakota.

Pork, the wheel of destiny: Joseph Pennell 1917

With the plant shutting for an unknown period of time, this means there’s a backup of about 46,000 pigs per week due to a single plant shutting down. Other meat processing plants are facing similar outbreaks and must shut down. With limited capability to store carcasses in a frozen state this means the farmers are faced with animals they cannot move off their farms.   Animals will be in transit and will be stranded.  The smooth chain which lead from birth to death to a plastic wrapped portion is broken. Nothing in the current system allows for any disruption in the food supply chain.  A massive cull seems to be impending.  

The scale of death will go beyond even the largest of modern religious animal sacrifices. The Gadhimai festival is performed to gain favor from a goddess and the carcasses are then sold and used. It is also only held every five years.  Nothing will be offered from this killing.     

Tens of thousands of animals killed every week. The bodies left for the crows or burned. The scale of animal sacrifice will be enough to rip open a rift in the ether.  A new god will ooze out of the slit. Panting and tearing at its birth cowl in the middle of a field of dead pigs. Pigs slaughtered not for the table but because the gears of modern agriculture cannot stop spinning. It will be an offering to the complete unraveling of our own cleverness when a single thread is pulled away. 

What is this new god to make of all this?


 

One of the more curious features of the ongoing plague is the shocked response of landlords towards the assertion on the part of their tenants that they would not only be unable or unwilling to pay rent but actively want to see their property holding guts being used for bunting at the Peasantcore Spring Hoedown and Chili Cookoff.

Hans Lützelburger: Fighting Peasants (woodcut) Early 16th century

We’ve hit an event horizon in the merie land of unabridged capitalism.

The near future employment prospects for people working in service jobs are dire. Even before shelter in place orders were issued, many businesses had already been closed by the state to prevent the spread of the virus. Unemployment for lower income workers who are already burdened or severely rent burdened means they’re extremely unlikely to be able to afford their rent, if not this month, then by next month. The forthcoming $1200 stimulus payment is just not going to cut the mustard for carrying people through the next few months despite what the Treasury Secretary might think. The immediate conflict will be over rent. This puts tenants and real estate investors at each other’s throats even as larger trends in economic fuckery are at play.

We’ve been here before.

Tensions between serf and lord, landless and landed, laboring class and gentry, union and bosses, are well known and play out in various ways in our history and literature. Even as we gain a greater perspective than our medieval forebears through the availability of news, our conflict will still be with our most immediate points of contact. For the tenant, that would be their landlord who claims the lion’s share of their income each and every month. Let’s explore the idea of a landlord as our modern incarnation of the medieval miller.

Medieval marginalia of a woman setting fire to a miller

The miller and contemporary landlord hold similar positions in society. They provide an essential service (grinding of grain or providing housing) which is very difficult to obtain otherwise. For the medieval serf, the quern was both illegal to own and extremely inefficient which cemented the miller into the community. Landlords provide rental units which for many people is the only form of housing available. There are substantial financial barriers to home ownership, especially in urban areas, which provides property investors with a captive market.

Miller and landlord both are ultimately investors. Their rational self-interest lies in extracting the maximum amount of revenue from their customers. Both operate at a distinct advantage over their customers due to their monopoly on providing an essential service. This does not create a relationship where trust or affection flourishes.

Millers were generally considered to be thieves and users of false measures. This attitude continued to be expressed in song and story from some of the earliest literary sources in English up through the American colonial period. Its not difficult to find contemporary examples of similar sentiments being expressed regarding landlords. Given the diametrically opposed interests of the land owning and tenant classes friction is to be expected at the best of times. This is not the best of times.

As record numbers of people are filing for unemployment, the conflict will only grow. Already rent strike is a hashtag on twitter. A frequently shared reddit thread exposes the tensions between tenant and landlord. With the United States currently unwilling to provide sufficient income for unemployed workers this is just going to continue to blossom.

Why mention the miller?

Richmond Bread Riots 1863

They were often targets during food riots of the era. They were distrusted and most importantly, accessible. Its easy to forget that food riots were very common everywhere until relatively recently. The civil war saw bread riots across the South. There were riots in several American cities in 1917 due to rising food prices. The targets of ire were grocers who had raised prices sharply. The US has not seen food riots for quite some time but food insecurity is high and now housing will be added as a flashpoint for widespread discontent.

As seen in the linked reddit thread above, the amount of contempt between landlords and tenants is considerable. Rentable properties have been very good investments for passive income as rent has been increasing well ahead of inflation over the past 60 years. The past two decades have seen a massive increase in value for even marginal properties in urban areas as rapid population growth in urban centers has widely outstripped supply. As a result the percentage of tenants who are rent burdened or heavily rent burdened (paying over 30% and 50% of their income respectively) has exploded. The reasons for this increase are not the fault of any individual landlord, but they have become the human face for an exploitive system by participating in the front lines.

The landlords participating in reddit communities like /r/realestateinvesting and /r/landlord most likely are smaller property owners as larger landlords, corporations, and institutional investors have lawyers to answer their questions. They quite likely are as they present themselves, small investors caught between tenants who provide the entirety of their income and their own masters, the mortgage lenders.

When the torches and pitchforks start getting handed out, this is not going to make them any less of a target. They invested and participated in an industry where the cost of a human necessity was leveraged upwards so far that the majority of their customers were living month to month and were not in a position to save any significant amount of money for an emergency. In a crisis like this one where a large number of tenants are no longer able to work and have no savings, its going to very quickly come to a head.

This is not likely to be pretty. If tenants default without support, there will be a mass of evictions once cities allow the housing courts to open up again, dumping huge numbers of people into the streets. If there’s a rent strike, smaller real estate investors are likely to default on their mortgages which means the institutional investors will snap them up and continue to consolidate their holdings on the US rental market. The tenants will have the pleasure of dragging their landlords into bankruptcy with them.

A debt jubilee is as unlikely as widespread temporary income support from the federal government. Its a shitshow in the making and we’re cruising right into it.

Shall we give our attention to the performative aspects of the bunker?

The bunker promises a place of refuge when the world spirals into chaos. Descend into the earth, pull shut an iron door, and seal yourself away from the world. Sealed away in a small microcosm of your own design. There you can wait for the disaster to run its course before emerging again into the world.

Every family can be a Noah in their own ark out in the wilderness. They had listened and prepared where others had scoffed. Their faith in reading the signs of coming disaster will be rewarded by their survival. Where others will perish in the deluge, they will remain sealed away for 40 days and 40 nights.

Then those motherfuckers will rue the day.

The bunker provides the illusion of invincibility. That by rolling up to your South Dakota fully furnished bunker you will be able to weather any storm. There is the flight from The World and an entrance to a liminal space sheltered from the violence of the outside. Once the threat is over, there will be the return to normal life.

In a way it can be seen as a pilgrimage. But one that does not grant any wisdom or merit. The wisdom is in foreseeing the calamity and fleeing from it. Your reward is to survive where others suffer.

The string of military bunkers from the Cold War which are now being redeveloped for civilian use was its own set of stages.

For the military this was the promise that it could keep the “mutually” in mutually assured destruction. Send a flight of missiles at us at 2:00 on a Thursday afternoon and Moscow will be vaporized before happy hour. Enough of our command infrastructure will survive to punch back. To any outsider this looks like two scarecrows threatening each other with torches in a hayloft.

Civilians could play along. Their version of community theater promised that the family could survive in place. Go into your bunker when the sirens blare and thirty days later emerge into light. There you can smugly survey the remains of your neighborhood as rats eat the remains of your less prepared fellow citizens.

At least until the radiation leaves you vomiting blood out of every orifice.

Which is the problem. If the bunker presents the promise of a return to the womb with its safety, warmth, and nourishment, there must be a rebirth. The bunker allows the owner to stop their world by retreating from it. But the world will not be stopped. Those who flee and close the doors of their bunkers have cut ties with their community and chosen to leave them to their own devices.

We’ve decided as a culture that pulling up the drawbridge and sheltering within the your walls as others suffer outide is a dick move. How can you return from that?

Pinche pendejos muttered the former Bronx bodega cat to herself as she watched workers dragging hoses out of a mismarked van and into the townhouses under construction across the street.  What manner of substance would soon flow through those hoses was anyone’s guess but it was involving a great deal of racket.  This was not the usual jackhammer annoyance of a gasoline powered compressor, more of a sucking and spitting noise.  The van shuttered with each inhale and exhale from the engine hidden in the back.

It did not seem natural noted the cat.  But then again, so little did these days.

A sunbeam parted the curtain of clouds and sent a delicious beam of golden warmth through the window.  Adjusting the angle and inclination of her body to maximize the absorption of photons with an accuracy that would make the manager of any radio telescope array soil themselves in envy she slipped back into slumber.

 The engine within the mismarked van coughed politely then continued its rhythmic work.

There was that book that began with the line about best of times, worst of times, age of wisdom, douse liberally in raw uncut stupidity, put into a hot oven and bake for 90 minutes. You get the idea.

That book was published in 1859 and was set in 1775. Its now 2020. Things have not appreciably improved.

As a species we’ve been developing a theoretical and practical approach regarding How to Know A Thing for a few thousand years. Its well past time that a gut feeling was acceptable for any decision making process.


A few years ago the buzzword coming out of the IT industry that no one understood but everyone kept talking about anyway was “big data”. Originally meant to refer to having to deal with extremely large amount of data it eventually mutated into analysis of people doing shit for the purpose of figuring out what they’re likely to do before they do it. Primarily this is used by people who sell awful cake to put cake in front of people at the moment they are most likely to want some cake because at that point people are more likely to eat cake no matter how horrible it is.

I worked in big data for some time.

It was a pleasant time for me. My life involved commuting to work on a ferry, working 6 hours, and returning to my island home on the same ferry. I spent the time on the ferry gaining a rich understanding of how difficult drawing is by committing crimes against realism in a small sketchbook. In the evening I would usually enjoy a small bag of popcorn from the ferry’s galley and continue with my pencil driven atrocities against form, shadow, light, and clear observations of all three.

Between my lessons in failure I built dashboards which allowed someone somewhere to slice huge amounts of data into human sized chunks. This involved some fairly complex database work on top of a graph creation package that was depreciated. For those unfamiliar with the usage of the term, it means that the company that wrote the application has washed it hands of it and turned their backs on it.

Still, a small number of developers were involved in producing business intelligence applications for an unknown user base who needed to dip into the mysterious world of Big Data. They merrily churned out requested upgrades, drank their company provided beer on Friday afternoons, and between teriyaki takeout and coffee kept the mill grinding the rough grains of raw data into a more palatable form.

Then six months later the unknown user base that was responsible for looking at all the charts and graphs somehow managed to lose a major customer for their business intelligence business and half the developers were sacked after being forced to listen to management talk at length about how difficult their job is and how agonizing these kinds of decisions were for them.

This included me.

I had suspected for a long time that no one was using our painstakingly crafted software. At least no one in a position to make decisions based on that data was paying any attention. Ignoring data does have consequences. Unfortunately those consequences are usually not felt by the person responsible.


The more idealistic among us continue to hold onto the belief that the Truth Will Set Us Free. By showing reasoned arguments backed by relevant data, those in power will set upon the correct course of action. Being told the truth will uplift the masses and pull them out of ignorance. A single shining thread gives them a way out of the darkness.

Naturally, this is not a thing.

When Prometheus carried the fire down the mountain they kicked him in the nuts and pissed all over the torch.

Bringing truth, or at least facts to the masses doesn’t solve problems. In these degenerate times it feels like a waste of time at best. I’m unsure of the value in continuing to work with data.

Perhaps its just the hope that a more reasonable future will find it. I’ll be dust. But perhaps the stack of information will find its way toward that uncertain future. In one shining moment it will be found and marveled at.

Someone will finally know we weren’t all that fucking stupid.

(Ovid in Exile: Ion Theodorescu-Sion)

Exile was handed down.

We were not stripped of our property nor our employee ID. Our email was not terminated by an indifferent sysadmin gently coaxing the crumbs of their lunch from their luxuriant beard with one hand while the other provided an official ending to the employee’s existence per Management’s pleasure. Instead a gentle and artfully worded decree was distributed.

Those who could live in exile were to do so. The lunch room would fall silent. The coffee pot would sleepily burble to itself no more. Conference rooms would it empty, their Post-It notes and blue scribbled white boards marking a span of time in the past. Those who forgot to wash out the Tupperware their lunch came in would be very, very sorry when they returned.

Only the office manager and one of the bearded syadmins would gently walk through the mausoleum to our shared efforts. The computers would continue to perform their duties even as dust accumulated. They may need a gentle nudge when they stray from the customary operations but otherwise they continue their silent occupation of space.

The office becomes a kind of performance art piece. The Modern Office After Vesuvius. The office manager becomes more of a curator to our office cultural project. Each workstation a small piece of environmental art. A display of personality that the worker as they wish to display it within the highly constrained interaction of the workplace. The clusters of desks and line of offices a stage waiting for the actors to return.

There is the promise of return. In the indeterminate future the space returns to use.  The assumption is that we will resume the daily cycle of rising early, grooming ourselves, traveling to the appropriate location, remaining there for most of the day, then returning home to find a few hours remaining that must be split between the necessities of housework, family life, and then a small sliver of time for one’s personal life.  

I would prefer to remain in exile.

The office does not represent a gain in efficiency. Instead, working from home has been shown to be slightly more productive and provides a considerable amount of worker satisfaction. For people in jobs that require intensive concentration the modern open office is an equally well studied detriment to their productivity.  I’m better off investing in a better office chair and remaining home.   I get more work done this way.  

Exile is removal from the center.  Life on the periphery is thought to be devoid of influence, cut off from culture, seeing opportunities for advancement wither on the vine, a removal from all the pleasures that the center of power and influence offers.  It just smells like vanity.  As they say, don’t threaten me with a good time.  

Retaining proximity doesn’t hold any value for me.  I practice a trade.  I perform my work well, I receive my wages, I go home and live my true life.  Climbing the hierarchy doesn’t interest me.  I can see the shape of the pyramid and have decided that its not worth the climb as the way grows narrow and most will not advance.  I don’t need to be close to the apex, it holds no value for me.  

Fractures like our current plague show different ways of doing things.  I can only hope that those who want a quiet life can remain where they wish.  

 

Panic Buying And You

The shelves are rapidly emptying themselves in the local grocery stores.  Soon the shelves themselves will fade into the ether having suffered an existential crisis.

I am a shelf. I hold things up. What becomes of me when there is nothing to hold? Is there meaning beyond my Sisyphean struggle against the force of gravity in the service of my corporate retail master? I am Atlas on the dole, finding himself without purpose. Is there any reason for my continued existence except as an indication of negative space?

I now only signify a lack. Specifically, of bum fodder.


Faced with the sudden loss of a common commodity we begin to forget. What was the use of it? What was its shape? Why is it lost to our memories? It was present in our minds just a short time ago. The utility seemed certain at the time. There was true utility in this object? Not just vanity and fear placed into our minds by the advertising industry?

Perhaps in the long run this calamity will teach us to give up on certain commodities. Toilet paper. Processed pork products. Scented hand sanitizer.  Cleansing wipes.  Strips of paper to remove the evidence of errant sauces.  Fluids that promise to cover odors with other odors which were designed to invoke the memory of a life that only existed in the imaginings of a punch card operated computing device.  

This feels like a tipping point. We’re being forced to examine the objects we would consider a basic necessity when an endless wave of suburban goblin hordelings armed with shopping carts eliminates its presence from our lives. They have been ripped out of our hands by screaming yellow id of every hordeling and stored in the personal vaults of the detached single family home dweller.  

We must say adieu to these things.  They are lost to us.  

This endless stream of SUV’s leaving the parking lots of Costco with their rear suspension creaking under the weight of the pre-moistened sanitary wipes, frozen chicken taquitos, toaster pastries, cans of lightly pressurized sugar solution, and sundry agri-industrial products must be driven by more than the simple calculation of need.   These products are being acquired in quantities that even the most risk averse chamberlain preparing for a siege would find excessive.  I doubt fear alone is driving these people.  There must be greed and avarice in their hearts.   The desire to possess more than their neighbor.  The pleasure of having three when others will have none.  

The only opportunity for vengeance is in exterminating the value of these things.  Find an alternative.  Share.  Evolve.  Let these degenerates wallow in their garages packed with excess.  An excess of the more ordinary kind.  It only holds value when it means an absence of what is truly needed in another’s home.  Try to fill that absence.  Fuck the goblins.  

 

 

Now is a good time to eat your feelings.

For those feeling a bit bold, nailing them screaming to a bamboo cutting board and slicing them from stern to bow like a writhing eel is always good for a dramatic appetizer. Slide the skin off in one measured pull, feeling it smoothly separate from the flesh. This is not a dish for those with a tender heart or insufficient levels of alcohol in their bloodstream.

Once skinned and gutted, chop into bite size pieces, thread on brass skewers, and grill them over white hot charcoal while basting with a rich, sweet soy based marinade.

Eat quickly feeling the tiny bones crackle against your gums. A single tear will roll down your cheek. Tender and soft.

But never be ashamed of a simple preparation. Baked, broiled, or fried your emotions are always a toothsome treat. Be gentle as you handle the gross output of your neurons being tickled and taunted by glandular secretions.  Touch it with care and tuck it tenderly into its roasting pan.  Then with infinite patience, slide it slowly into the oven or its lively bath of stock or oil. 

Tracking down a loaf of sourdough is worth the effort for a fine dinner time companion to sop up the savory juices.

Be sure to push yourself back from the hearty repast and feel the sliver of nothingness. That flicker of satori.  That momentary fragment of peaceful oblivion before they claw their way back into your consciousness.

 

The Plague Begins

We’ve been banished from the office. 

The glass door has closed behind us as we stand in the hallway clutching our cell phones and rapidly cooling mugs of coffee with clever nerdy slogans on them. We have been cast out of the questionable yet familiar comfort of the khaki world of our semi-open office into the bright mystery of daylight.  

The higher authorities of our organization who dwell in the tall tower two blocks away have read the portents in the excel sheets and see that the birds of the air have more to speak.  They have summoned the corvid thanatologist to observe the patterns the crows are making on the rooftops.  She gazes through the glass and mutters, “flaming fuckballs”.  

The higher authorities blanch and mutter among themselves.  The thanatologist is rewarded with silver and an extra-large soy mocha per the ancient custom and dismissed.

Some time later an email is dispatched.  The doors open, we are herded through them and they close behind us.  

Return to your homes they tell us.  Return to your homes and avoid the unwashed.  Cleanse yourselves.  Seek shelter.  The crows have spread their fine tablecloths upon the high places expecting a feast.  Your labors shall continue as shall your wages.  But be not too enamored of gold for it will not comfort you in your time of isolation.   

Netflix on the other hand will be your friend. 


We return to our homes. 

Whispers of a pestilence from beyond our western shores had been circulating for some time.  There is an easier time when the whispers are distant, now they appear in our own city.  We had heard that the elderly were touched by this disease and very close by.  There just wasn’t enough information, we didn’t know the shape of the thing or its reach.  

There is no guidance beyond being clean.