Syncopated Systems
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Common Threads: Media, Science, Technology, and Other Magic

May 2020: The COVID-19 Chronicles

Pandemics and Recessions

In late 2009, when I lived in central Texas, I was sickened and bedridden for about 11 days with what I believe was the swine flu, which was at the time a pandemic.

When I reached out to my county’s health department, I was somewhat appalled to find that it seemed completely uninterested in having me tested for the disease so that it could have public health surveillance.

I was further appalled to learn that Travis County does not operate its own hospital, but instead gives tax revenue to a local Catholic hospital that denies its patrons certain services based on its religious objections. Because I graduated from a Catholic (specifically Jesuit) university in Austin, Texas, I really can’t fault Catholicism or the hospital for being Catholic. However, this conflict of interests should be plain and completely unacceptable to every taxpayer.

At the time, I worked for someone whom I admired while doing a job that I loved, teaching computer game development as an (adjunct) assistant professor of computer science at Austin Community College.

Unfortunately, during only my second semester, my father had a major heart attack. This made me realize that it was time to move back home to California where I could spend more time with him, which I did after I completed my obligations for the academic term.

I left Texas in December 2009, six months after the official end of the Great Recession, which brought the greatest peak unemployment since the early 1980s, the greatest decline in gross domestic product (GDP) since the Second World War (WWII), and the longest period of economic recession since the Great Depression.

Why Texas?

Early in my career, a soft economy and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 caused the United States to enter a recession lasting until March 1991. This looked like it could have gotten worse, like the “double-dip” recession that had started about 10 years earlier with the 1980 recession and was followed by the 1981–1982 recession, or the even-worse 1973–75 recession before it. (See a list of recessions in the United States.)

In early 1993, I participated in an economic revitalization project called Joint Venture: Silicon Valley. It continues today (without the colon in its name). Originally, it was organized as a set of eight meetings, each targeting a different segment of our local economy.

I learned from many local political and business leaders including (sitting in front of me) the mayor of Santa Clara and (a few seats to my left) Jerry Sanders (born 1936), who in 1969 left Fairchild Semiconductor with seven others to found Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), where he remained chief executive officer (CEO) until 2002. The other participants debated what they thought made and makes Silicon Valley successful, and how other areas attempt to duplicate and attract this success, including in particular Austin, Texas, where AMD had been migrating its operations.

Geographic divestiture from Silicon Valley is nothing new. Some notable extensions include the following:

Hewlett-Packard (founded in 1939)
expanded into many divisions including Germany (1959), New Jersey (1959), Colorado (1960 and 1962), Boise, Idaho (1973), and Corvallis Oregon (1976)
Litton Industries Inc. (founded in 1947)
Charles Litton (1904-1972)—who had worked at the Stanford University vacuum tube laboratory started by Frederick Terman (1900-1982) in 1925 and Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York City before returning to California to start his own vacuum tube company in 1947—had in 1954 moved his machinery manufacturing division into a new facility in Grass Valley
Grass Valley Group (founded in 1959)
a major creator of equipment for television production and broadcasting founded after Litton convinced his friend Dr. Donald Hare to move to Grass Valley
Intel (founded in 1968)
by the 1990s had started production in suburbs of Portland, Oregon and Phoenix, Arizona
Advanced Micro Devices (AMD, founded in 1969)
in 1979 began production in Austin, Texas (and in 1981 began construction in San Antonio, Texas)
Atari (founded in 1972)
in 1973 purchased Cyan Engineering in Grass Valley, which created Atari’s popular Video Computer System (VCS) video game console and—considering its proximity and similarity of technology—I speculate had at least a tangential connection to the Grass Valley Group
Apple (founded in 1976)
in 1992 expanded into Austin, Texas (apparently only after the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce negotiated with American Airlines to establish in 1992 its daily nonstop service between San Jose and Austin, quickly dubbed the “nerd bird”; in contrast, Intel operates its own fleet of small jet aircraft); in 2010, Apple acquired Austin-based Intrinsity (which was across the hall from where I worked in 2001, as I designed the power supply subsystem for the Newisys 2100, which AMD had codenamed Beachhead, and was the first computer with AMD’s first 64-bit processor, which was codenamed SledgeHammer and K8 as is now known as Opteron)

What appealed to me about Austin was the promise of better quality of life through lower costs for housing and electricity (with a municipal electric utility), lower taxes (no personal state income tax), more major colleges and universities through which I could continue my education and my company could find educated workers, relatively easy air travel connections with Silicon Valley, and a political climate that appeared to embrace education and equal rights—embodied by the charismatic governor and former teacher Ann Richards (1933-2006).

In addition to being where my family and other social roots are located, I returned to and remain in Silicon Valley because it attracts people who are smart, educated, hard-working, and ambitious, and the State of California better protects the health and the privacy of its residents, educates its students better and with less waste, better protects its workers from exploitation, and collects its revenues through a more equitable balance of taxes.

Although California has its problems, it still does many things better than other states. Where I see areas in need of improvement, I have reason to think that California will make more progress than other states.

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