Special Edition

A year on, I look at the other things around the cheap-phone space. I only paid $300 for my Moto X in 2014, so any replacement Android device needs to be no more than that. And the thing is…it’s not there. Nothing else at that price point has an AMOLED display AND has NFC AND takes the same size SIM care AND comes in at a comfortable one-hand size. Never mind the crapsack cameras that come with Androids at that price point or the virtual guarantee that you’ll never see more than one major OS upgrade (if that). Sure, it seems nice to have the promise of a 4000 mAh battery(!) in the Moto C Plus, or completely unbranded Android in the Nokia 5 (hopefully with the fit and finish we expected of our old pals from Espoo), but there’s always some kind of compromise.

And then there’s the iPhone SE which I bought cash on the barrelhead last year for $500. Although in a way it was actually kind of free, because it was completely paid for by my share of the court settlement over Apple, Google, etc conspiring to restrain employee movement. In any event, it was the first cell phone I put on a credit card of my own since 2014, and only the second since 2010. So it had to be something special to make it worthwhile, especially since the iPhone 6s was the first iPhone I found less desirable than its predecessor.

After one year of use, the SE has proven to be special indeed. I have bopped back and forth between phone cases, and I’ve still pulled out the Moto X on nights or off-days when I needed to be more fully detached without giving up connectivity altogether (read: I want to see Instagram and I might get a Slack message from Kazakhstan). And I still greatly prefer to use my Kindle Paperwhite for reading, because the SE’s display is indeed a little narrow for everyday use (but serviceable in a pinch). But after a year of everyday use, I took the phone to an Oakland A’s game last weekend, and never needed to pull out the external battery despite six hours of Slack, Instagram, text messaging, taking pictures, paying for beer and generally carrying on out and about with friends.

It fits in a pocket. It fits in one hand. It plays nicely with the car’s integrated CarPlay console or with my new Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones (and I can walk to the fridge and back at work, leaving the phone on my desk, and be just fine). It took a prepaid EE SIM in London and was just as useful on every frequency band as in the US, and it took a prepaid T-Mobile SIM in San Jose and gave me top signal at a California League baseball game and a fishing boat off Santa Cruz. It takes amazing 12 MP pictures that no point-and-shoot I’ve ever owned would take. It has NFC for payments and a fingerprint reader to unlock it, it works for airplane tickets and baseball tickets and concert tickets alike. And because it came out in the spring of 2016, it probably has a good three years of OS updates ahead of it.

And this one doesn’t belong to work, and isn’t locked to a carrier, and isn’t hobbled by a contract. This phone is all mine, stem to stern, and I could quit work tomorrow and pop my T-Mob SIM in there and carry right on until I settled on a long-term deal with them or with Cricket to carry me forward for less per month than I ever paid before abandoning my own AT&T foundation account in 2012. I can wait for phone makers to come around to the fact that yes, there are people who want something that doesn’t need a purse, and not everyone needs a 5-inch display.

Two phones I’ve bought since 2010. Neither has ever given me any reason to regret them.

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For the culture

(Mind wandering in the cause of distraction.)

For some reason, I am a person who completely missed on what is commonly thought of as “geek culture.” In my life, I’ve seen maybe three episodes of MST3K. I saw a good few episodes of Star Trek – both original and Next Generation – but never really got into them aside from the Borg cliffhanger in 1990, which in my mind was still a better Trek movie than any of the Next Generation-featuring ones. While I was drawn into Doctor Who in my youth, it’s sort of gone by the boards lately. I was into comics for exactly four years between 1983 and 1987, and into tabletop RPGs maybe 1982 to 1987 tops. I was a Star Wars obsessive, obviously, but that just made me a kid in the 70s. I never got much further into the Expanded Universe than the original Thrawn trilogy (and missed very little, by all accounts; the other EU books I did read were pretty much crap). I’ve still never seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a single episode of Red Dwarf or Babylon 5, or any of seasons 1 or 4 of Blackadder. I’ve read one Discworld book and don’t remember that much of it and my sci-fi literary canon basically begins with Connie Willis and ends with William Gibson.

I didn’t have a computer at home until I went off to grad school, aside from the times over Christmas break when my dad would bring one home to noodle around on (never to any great effect). I never did online gaming other than at work, in the days of Quake and Unreal and original-flavor Call of Duty. I bought a PlayStation 2 mostly as a DVD player and owned exactly two games for it (NCAA Basketball ’04 and Arena Football, neither of which I played more than twice). My first BBS membership was in 1994. And while I was on Slashdot in the late 90s, I’ve never had an account on Digg or Reddit or anything similar. I don’t even follow Wil Wheaton or Felicia Day on Twitter.

In short, while I did hit some of the most obvious markers and am broadly conversant in the lingua franca, I never really bought into capital-letter Geek Culture. It’s possible that there just wasn’t that much of it accessible in exurban Alabama in the 1980s, or that the pre-Internet world made it a lot harder to find and connect with things. Or maybe it’s just the same pop-culture blind spot that I still have to this day (a short list of current hings I’ve never seen an episode of: Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Stranger Things, House of Cards, Veep, The Walking Dead, Justified). But a healthy grounding in geek culture was something that was necessary if you were going to fit into the people at my undergrad that didn’t fit in, so…well…there you go.

It’s a tough one. On the one hand you want to reject that there’s any qualitative difference between, say, Tolkien obsessives and Auburn fanatics. But on the other hand, you don’t want to reject caring about everything and anything. But on the third hand…I suppose on the third hand, I’ve rejected a subculture that I was entirely fit for, except inasmuch as it hits the mainstream of American life and not always then. (I mean, I own almost every Marvel Cinematic Universe film, but I’ve still never seen the 2008 Incredible Hulk.)

Then again, it’s not like I was in the mainstream of popular culture…ever. I’ve never seen an episode of Three’s Company or Miami Vice, of Mad Men or The Big Bang Theory (to go opposite ends). Never saw Dallas or Dynasty. Never watched past the first 20 minutes of Lost (starting on an airplane might have been a mistake). Never seen a single minute of a single Shonda Rimes show.  These days, my television viewing consists of Silicon Valley, Agents of SHIELD, Tiny House Hunters, House Hunters International, maybe Graham Norton and/or Top Gear, and an occasional smattering of rugby, Premier League soccer or the Oakland A’s. Plus reruns of California’s Gold, of course. And that’s about it. No interest in professional sports on TV otherwise, and precious little college sports aside from bowl season or March Madness. And since you can’t really participate in American sports culture if you’re punched out of the NFL…

I was listening to a podcast about expat life for Americans abroad, and apart from the fact that every single one complains about the dearth of decent Mexican food in France or New Zealand or Germany, one comment stuck out, when someone said that as an expat, she felt kind of lost – not a part of America anymore, and somehow different when back here, but not really a part of her now-home country either. And that struck home with me, largely because it fits so well. I still don’t feel wholly Californian (though I am determined to make the effort more than ever these past six months) but wouldn’t feel right returning to the DMV or Nashville.  I definitely didn’t fit in whilst in undergrad but didn’t fit in with the subcultural alternative either. Somehow, I have managed to make myself fit nowhere exactly, which isn’t always a bad outcome. But it dovetails neatly with the “broad but not deep” which has characterized so much of my life…of which, blah blah blah.

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I/O and all that

Whatever. I don’t think I saw one thing in the livestream say it was available today other than maybe that Google Photos book printing function…which we had in 2010 and before through iPhoto.  The words “soon” and “later this year” and “in the coming weeks/months” were used enough that as one Tweeter said, “if you had a drinking game you’d be dead.”

You ain’t shit ’til you ship. Real artists ship. Google is trading in vaporware again, when they aren’t taking their second or third bite at the same apple (pun kind of intended). Android O will finally be the one that sorts out the battery life issue (which Lollipop was supposed to fix in 2015) or the update issue (which the Android Mobile Alliance was supposed to fix in 2011). Android Go will put viable non-sucktastic low-end hardware in the hands of developing-world customers, just like Android One was supposed to. The biggest upset was that we didn’t get Yet Another Google Messaging Application, although I suppose the inexplicable Super Chat in YouTube might count.

These days, I look at Google and I see Hooli: the tech company equivalent of a guy who thinks that because he made a lot of money at one thing, he is a genius at everything and qualified to be anything. Apple is a lot more circumspect about it – they don’t actually release their self-driving technology or their virtual reality play or their home voice computing setup when it’s obviously beta-grade, Siri jokes aside – but they’re at no less risk of getting high on their own flatus and disappearing up their own collective ass. Microsoft is yesterday’s news. Amazon is Wal-Mart with a website and a power-wash. Yahoo is a zombie with two legs missing. Facebook is a gigantic data-miner profiting off the most underreported bait and switch in the history of technology, speaking of guys who got rich at one thing and think it makes them a genius.

What does that leave? The broadband companies are pure evil. Most of your third-wave tech companies are some mundane function laundered through an app and enough regulatory arbitrage and loophole-bending to keep lawyers farting through silk for eternity, and almost all of them are losing money and burning venture capital to build market share in hopes they can get rich before they get exposed. Right now, there’s a collection of basic bros with a news site, a co-working room and some rudimentary event planning who have convinced people they’re a VR startup to the tune of $4 million (and a scorching-hot sexual harassment case which they will certainly lose).

More than ever before, there are two tech sectors now. One is plugging along at things like security, back-of-house software, power management engineering, the things that are actually important in getting things done. The other is bending rules and breaking laws to get you everything your mother doesn’t do for you since you graduated and trying to serve up some tits on the side. One of these is getting media and money and being made the harbinger of our modern economy, and it’s the wrong fucking one.

Silicon Valley is where your future is coming from. You won’t like it.

 

ETA: looks like the Google Assistant for iOS did ship today, which is a bit of a conundrum: I’m curious whether it can work with your non-Google email or text or such, or if it’s basically just a voice-activated hook into your Google ecosystem for your non-Android device. But since I don’t have much of a Google ecosystem other than what I test on the Moto X, it’s probably not for me anyway. Which is worth noting – everything is about getting you plugged deeper and deeper into the Google data ecosystem. Apple wants you to buy their gadgets, Google wants to have your information. One is a lot more alarming form of lock-in.

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We might don’t come back from this

First, the obvious: no matter how much liberal conspiracy theorists want to fantasize about “sealed indictments” or their heroic Wikileaks suddenly coming through for them or The People Risen or whatever, let’s get one thing straight: the only way Trump doesn’t serve out his entire term through 2021, barring divine intervention, is if the Democrats can take BOTH houses of Congress in 2018, unearth SOMETHING that rises to the level of impeachment, and take enough of the Senate that a few wavering Republicans might jump ship (because without 67 votes in the Senate, there’s no removing a President, and the most anyone’s had in my living memory was the Democrats with 60 for about three months in 2009 between when Al Franken was finally seated and Ted Kennedy dropped dead).  

And when you consider what this GOP is willing to swallow for a President whose approval rating is a record low and a Congress whose approval rating is somewhere around syphilis, don’t expect McCain and Collins and Murkowski and the like to suddenly discover their inner statesman. And don’t forget: sitting behind Trump is a Vice-President who is “what if you replaced all of Trump’s Sex Pest with Holy Roller”. The system is already broken. It was broken before Trump ever arrived. Dolt 45 isn’t the car wreck, he’s the spark hitting the gas tank after the car’s already sloughed through the guardrails, through a telephone pole and into a tree. The accident has already happened – happened in slow motion for twenty years before he ever took office – but it’s only now that you get the explosion and inferno that suggest we might not make it out alive.

Because look at the damage that has to be repaired. Health care will almost certainly need to be put back together somehow. Just reverting to the Obamacare status quo ante won’t get it done, because insurers will shift and shake to whatever the rules are now and turning them will be another agonizingly slow process; don’t forget it took five years for all of Obamacare to come into effect and even then, large numbers of redneck states opted out of the Medicare expansion which broke the model.  At this point, realistically, the goal ought to be Medicare For All and to hell with it, and that might be simplest, but “simple” is a relative term here. Look at our relationship with our allies, who now know we can’t be trusted with moral leadership or sensitive intelligence or to cooperate with multilateral agreements. The best case scenario at the end of this is that we’re Italy or Israel, and we’re more likely to be Russia with Hollywood than anything else.

Then there’s aging. Social Security isn’t enough, even if it holds out for another twenty years or so. Pension funds are underfunded and drying up. Retirement plans that depend on 401(k) and the like can be wiped out with a major stock disruption. All it takes is another global-level credit crunch like 2008 and you’ll see your savings for your golden years done by about half. Maybe in time to come back from, maybe not. If the stock market goes directly into the shitter on your 59th birthday, you’re probably going to be faced with working until you’re 70 or worse. And consider this: there are members of Congress explicitly talking about cuts to Medicare. Not Medicaid, Medicare. The thing that everyone over 65 relies on for health care in this country, because geriatric care is inherently too expensive to insure in the open market. If you’re Generation X, it’s time to start grappling with the possibility that you’re going to get put on an ice floe and shoved out into the sea to die. Better hope your house can sell for a shit-ton of money and your kids (if any, ha ha) are willing to take you in. Or that you saw an episode of Tiny House Hunters with everything built on one level. Or that you have a knack for finding the tastier cat-food varieties. But that’s just the economic side of things. I’m not trying to be funny, but that’s important. But it’s not the whole story.

Go back up and look at that bit about “the system is already broke” again. Since 1992, we have had a newly elected Democratic President twice. Both times, the Democrats had control of both houses of Congress. Both times, the GOP ran a scorched-earth opposition in Congress which flipped control to them two years later. And both times, that Democrat served two terms only to be succeeded by a Republican WHO GOT FEWER VOTES THAN THE DEMOCRAT HE RAN AGAINST. Miss me with the Electoral College loophole and how it privileges smaller states and makes the one-cow-one-vote territories look like a landslide on a map. More actual American voters cast their ballot for both Al Gore and for Hillary Clinton. And neither one got to put their hand on the Bible on January 20.

Also in that time, we’ve had three government shutdowns. Hard shutdowns, with a GOP Congress seeking to blackmail a Democrat in the White House. We’ve had a near-default…by a GOP Congress. We’ve had that filibuster of a Supreme Court vacancy for almost a year, by a GOP Senate, just to run the clock out and ensure that the other side would get to fill it – using a candidate who it turns out fewer voters wanted. We’ve had one side outright refuse to participate in governing, aided by partisan cover in the Supreme Court, with the aim of crippling a Democratic President and his signature initiative. Obama never got a budget passed in regular order once the GOP got in. There was none of the usual back-and-forth and legislative fix-work to the Affordable Care Act because the GOP refused to take part even after being put on the study panel that produced it.

Long story short: yes, maybe we can mitigate the damage a little in 2018, but we’re gonna have to ride this Trump train to the end. Because even if the Democrats could take over Congress, all they could do would be the same sort of finger-in-the-dike stuff that they did in the last two years of the Bush administration. Could they keep a maniac off the Supreme Court? Maybe. Could they somehow use the threat of shutdown or default to try to extract concessions the way the GOP tried to? Maybe, maybe not. 

But here’s the thing: there is no reckoning. Nothing happened to the GOP after they went Party Of No on Clinton, or weaponized impeachment to try to undo the 1996 results. Nothing happened to the Electoral College when Al Gore got screwed under shaky circumstances. Nothing happened when the GOP turned the filibuster into a daily process and snowed the catamites of the media into normalizing the idea that “the Senate needs 60 votes.” Nothing happened when the Republican Party nailed its colors to Donald Fucking Trump. And right now, despite all the shit hitting the fan, despite a partisan firing of the FBI director and blood-curdling breaches of national security and patently unconstitutional actions, nothing suggests that the GOP will bend or buckle as long as they think having this fatuous publicity whore in the Oval Office can still deliver them tax cuts and Supreme Court seats.

There are two sides sitting at the gaming table in America. One is trying to win the game and the other is trying to burn the house down so they can run off with the silverware. This is patently unsustainable. It’s the dog humping your leg: it’s in his nature and you can’t blame him for it, but eventually, you have to cut his balls off. And that’s exactly what has to happen to the Republican Party, because as long as this version of the GOP can continue to operate, we cannot function as a country. The last time we had this problem, the Democrats chose to cast off the South and stake their future on the old children’s hymn: “red and yellow black and white, they are precious in His sight.” And George Wallace, Kevin Philips and Richard Nixon, Lee Atwater and George Bush were all ready and waiting to scoop up those who replied “no they’re not.” And then the GOP made them the base of the party in 1994 and it’s literally been downhill ever since. From January 1995, the opening of the 104th Congress, you can date the shutdowns, the impeachments, the near-defaults, the political witch hunts, the propaganda parade on cable news, and the tribal politics of “you’re entitled to your own reality.”

We’re going to keep limping through, with Democrats trying to slap on salve and bandages where they can and Republicans normalizing the notion that there is no such thing as society – just them that has and them that can suck it. In a world where a millionaire apartment developer can tell millennials they could afford a house if they just gave up avocado toast – while Silly Con Valley housing prices skyrocket 20% every year – the Republican meme is that everything bad that happens to you is your own fault, from illness to poverty to skin color to just not being able to keep up with the cost of living. And now the Baby Boomers will pull up the very ladder they used, with affordable college and available housing and defined benefit pensions, and everyone else can go screw.

Which is why it’s time to start thinking about how America will look if we survive. Because this is unsustainable. Our system of government, our entire political culture in the 20th century, depended on certain norms and unwritten rules and cultural guidelines which have all gone out the window, almost entirely of Republican doing. And if they’re committed to their tribal project, there’s no way to prevent them from continuing to vote – we’d have to just make some kind of pact that everyone else will vote for the same person every time to ensure they can’t get in. At which point you’re right back in Alabama, where the party primary decides the statewide result (and has for basically all but three or four statewide elections in the last century). And Alabama is a broke, dysfunctional system of government whereby people only get by because they’ve had the Feds holding a gun to the state’s head.

There’s no one to hold a gun to our heads now. God’s away on business. Send lawyers, guns and money: the shit has hit the fan.

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About that avocado toast, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Pitbull

To quote Lifehacker:

The median house price in the US right now is $196,500. If avocado toast costs $22 a serving, and you currently eat it twice a week, skipping those meals will allow you to save enough for a 20% down payment in just 17 years! You’ll probably lose some weight in the process, too.

“The median house price” in my neighborhood is $1.5 million. (Ours is not worth that, and when we bought eleven years ago, it was for almost half its current value at what we thought was the top of the market.) The median home price in my town has gone up 20% year over year since last year and has gone up over 100% in the past five years. In other words: if you cut avocado toast out from the time you are born, then at age 64 you will have accumulated enough money for that 20% down payment, assuming the housing prices never go up after 2017.  In other words, assuming current growth patterns, you can eschew avocado toast forever for your entire life from birth to death and no matter how long you live, you will die before that saves you enough for a down payment.

This is what I mean when I say “home ownership, children, financial stability: pick two.” And the way things are headed, pretty soon picking two might be a luxury if you live in Silly Con Valley or New York or Washington DC or anywhere else that geography and attractive zip codes combine to artificial choke how many people can be stuffed in a spot.

This makes me think about Pitbull.

When I saw Rent for the first time, it was the early 2000s. The mid-90s were a long time ago. The dot-com boom had made it rain on a lot of people who might never have gotten tech money otherwise, and I know this because I was one of them. Retroviral cocktails had made it possible to keep pushing out the HIV/AIDS deadline another year, and then another, to the point where by 2017 it became feasible to live your entire natural lifespan with HIV. So when Benny wanted to replace an artist squat with a cybercafe, my instinct was “am I not supposed to be rooting for this guy?” And when all these broke-ass Bohemians were down at the Life Cafe clamoring for “BEER AND WINE” my thought was “why the hell are you going out if you’re that broke?”

And then 15 years on, after surviving George W. Bush and the financial meltdown and two stagnant “recoveries” and the Bay Area real estate market, someone gave me a mix CD with Pitbull featuring Ne-Yo, singing “I knew my rent was gonna be late about a week ago/I worked my ass off but I can’t pay it though/But I got just enough to get off in this club/Gonna have me a good time before my time is up.”

And I thought to myself, yes.

The game is rigged. It has been, for years and years. If you have an average middle class upbringing and a four-year degree from a decent school, how long will it take before you can get married and have a couple of kids on one salary? How about never? Unless you stumble into something amazingly remunerative and live somewhere with cheap real estate, you and your spouse will both have to work to make ends meet, in which case having kids means the expense of child care on top of the expense of having kids in the first place. And you have to send those kids to college, because we’ve systematically destroyed all the jobs that gave you the prospect of a living wage with just a high school diploma. Neither of my grandmothers ever worked a day outside the home in their lives. One grandfather was a carpenter, the other was a subsistence farmer turned steelworker. I myself had a stay-at-home mom for about four years, my brother for two. By 1979, it was pretty apparent that one single middle-class income wasn’t gonna get it done anymore.

So now look at the prospects for a young person graduating high school this year. If you want a shot at a decent job, you now have to have some degree, any degree, which means you go four years to whatever is the best school you can afford – and still, in all likelihood, two-thirds chance you graduate owing around $30,000 before you even get a job. Now you have that nut to make, on top of rent and whatever else you have.

“This the last $20 I got/But I’m gonna have a good time ballin’ or not/Tell the bartender line up some shots/Cause we gonna get LOOOOOOSE tonight”

$20 a week, every week, is $1040 a year. In fact, let’s assume you’re gonna be sick one of those weekends and probably stuck visiting family another (or maybe it’s your birthday and your friends treat you, why not). That’s a thousand bucks a year. Look back up at that median home price in the US. 20% down payment divided by $20 a week means thirty-nine years and fifteen weeks to accumulate that down payment. If housing prices somehow freeze, if you graduated at age 22 from East Roast Beef State, that means you’re probably sixty-one years old.

Four decades of austerity. Four decades of paying the bills on time and servicing that student loan debt and having no mortgage interest deduction on your tax and no equity on whatever rental property you got. Never mind the question of whether you could even afford to have kids.

Frank Sinatra once famously said “I’m for whatever gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniel.” I’m with Frank on this. I’m done throwing shade at anyone who gets high, anyone who got that new smartphone on an AT&T $25/month payment plan, anyone who scrounged under the couch cushions and smashed the piggy bank and found a $20 in their winter coat pocket and heads for the bar.

If home ownership takes four decades to reach, if the Baby Boomers used their ladder and then pulled it up behind them and then throw the blame on you for not having access to their ladder, if the American Dream is a luxury good? Then fuck it and fuck them. Tomorrow isn’t promised to you, because that feeble-brained tomato they elected could nuke us all tomorrow. This is not the time in history to defer any joy you can get out of life. Drink something. Smoke something. Unbutton that extra button. Kiss that person who gives you the eye. If you can find a way to cope, if you can unearth happiness in front of you now and make your life worthwhile instead of saving for two thousand weeks for something you may never catch up to, then fuck the olds and fuck the haters. Live your life and don’t apologize for it.

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Interoperability

This article in the Boston Globe is excellent, because it looks at two different ways of considering interoperability. On the one hand you have NATO, which relies on standardization agreements – and thus you have half a dozen different national rifles but one cartridge and one magazine type, and thus troops can all go into battle together with shared resources. On the other, weather forecasting works because we have a common shared temperature scale, common measurements of barometric pressure and standards for sharing data.

A lot of people are comparing the current state of political affairs to Watergate, and that’s an obvious comparison at this point, but this administration has an advantage Nixon could only have dreamed of: twenty-five years of crafting a media ecosystem in which your loyalists have your own sources of information and feel entitled to their own opinions AND their own facts. Between the velvet coffin of the Fox News bubble and the ironclad gerrymander, the House GOP can hold the line for Trump a lot longer than it ever could – or would – for Nixon.

And that’s without taking this House into account. Consider: 75% of the Republicans in the lower body have only been there since the 2010 elections or later. Their entire Congressional career has not only been post-Fox, but post-Tea Party. They have never passed a budget in regular order, never had to confront the world outside the axis of Breitbart. They’ve been part of two government shutdowns and the unprecedented near-default of sovereign debt. They’ve voted over fifty times to repeal Obamacare. Their entire MO is tribal loyalty and their entire range of issues is Benghazi-birth certificate-EMAILS, and they’ve never had to actually govern. And now they are the frontline troops for an accidental amateur President. When Trump says he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his followers would cheer? The ones he means are the ones in the Capitol, because those are the only ones he needs. And they don’t know how to do anything but moo for their side.

Ultimately, this was a big part of where Obama went wrong. He should have looked back at 1992-94 and seen a GOP in opposition that went scorched-earth on any Democratic initiatives. He should have heard the rumblings about the biggest GOP goal being to make him a one-term president, heard Rush Limbaugh openly rooting for his failure, heard about the famous Inauguration-eve dinner where the Republican leadership pledged itself to one long unceasing NO for as long as it took, and he should have adjusted his strategy and tactics accordingly. Maybe he didn’t think he could. Maybe he had more belief in the American public than that.

But Hillary Clinton had been there and done that, and no chance she would have let things slip away by relying on the willingness of Confederates to come reason together in a spirit of harmony. She’d lived through the 1990s. She knew better. But now her watch has ended. In a world where people will argue with a straight face that Lebron James is the greatest basketball player of all time – as if Magic and Michael and Dr. J never happened – it’s not surprising that people don’t respect a past further behind them than night before last.

Left, right. Past, present. Sense, sensibility. When nothing interoperates, the parts start to break. And you know what comes next.

Of which.

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Out here in the fields, or, 20 years and running

I lost my life on May 8, 1997.

That was the day of my second prelim exam of the spring. I think that was the political theory exam, the one I was taking for the first time. I’d taken the American exam on Monday for the second time after failing it the previous September. In theory and on paper, I should have taken one or both of them at the end of the second year, so I was already well behind where I should have been. I suppose in a way you could say the day was Monday May 5, because either fail was enough to end my time, but May 8 was also the day I broke up with my second college girlfriend, the one who arguably cost me my career as an academic. 

Although to be honest, I don’t know how well I would have done even without her in the picture. I went to grad school with the explicit intention of laundering my college experience, and that is the last reason anyone should ever go to grad school. At no point did I ever have any plans for what was to come after Vanderbilt. All the whys and wherefores didn’t matter by then, though. Two days later, I was back in Birmingham and single and unemployed, with no idea what I would do next beyond signing up for a temp agency and hoping that maybe something could be worked out.

I had my room at home, and its contents, and my Saturn – already with over 125,000 miles on it in four years – and six thousand dollars in credit card debt that I’d managed to keep from my parents. Because I was too ashamed of how things had worked out to face my crew in Nashville – some of whom wouldn’t make it back either – and because I literally had zero friends from undergrad that I hadn’t just broken up with, my sole lifeline was a three year old Power Macintosh 6100 with a 33.6Kbps modem and a dialup PPP account. 

At the other end of it was an internet community spun out of a TV show. It included among others a girl in Akron, Ohio, who was technically my third college girlfriend, I suppose – it’s strange to think about, like Joe Namath with the Rams or Conan O’Brien on the Tonight Show, but there was a span of maybe a week or so that we were technically a couple while I was still enrolled at Vanderbilt. I’d driven from Nashville to Cincinnati to meet her halfway for lunch, once, and that was the whole relationship on which my world was hanging by a thread. In retrospect, I don’t know how anyone could think that relationship wasn’t doomed from the start.

Because when I say I lost my life, it’s not really an exaggeration. No friends. No job. No idea what my future would hold, nothing coming tomorrow but $7 an hour in the bowels of a natural gas company’s HR department. That was the point at which you could say with a straight face than I hadn’t made it out, that Vanderbilt was a three year holiday from destiny and here I was back in the same small pond of Birmingham. And not that big a fish, and certainly not with any similar fish around to speak of. And no prospects for the future of any kind.

But that mailing-list-with-a-chat-space-at-one-end gave me a lifeline to some people who became friends, and who threw me a second lifeline, and I seized that one too, and precarious though it was, I found myself pulled up by it by September. I was still bewildered and befuddled and holding a sack of credit-card debt and indentured to a dubious relationship, but I was doing it from inside the Beltway at a full-time staff job with a reasonable income. I was still protean, to say the least. And it was those people, online and in person, who combined to rebuild me anew over the next seven years. A job, a new career, ultimately a wife and the opportunity to move to California, all spun out of that tenuous lifeline made out of a listserv and a MUSH and the RJ-11-connected phone wire into my grad school computer.

It saved me, if I’m being honest. There’s not a great track record for Southern intellectuals consumed with the Southern thing and being stuck in it. There’s a podcast you may have heard of that you can listen to if you want to see what happens when you’re stuck in the sticks with more brains and less need for them than anyone around you. But for someone who’s made a two decade career out of rescuing people one way or the other, this was my moment where some people appeared out of nowhere and said “we’re gonna get you out of there,” and did. And I will always be grateful, because I literally owe them my life.

It would take over a full year before I bottomed out fully with the death of my dad and almost another year after that before I surfaced again, and in that time, the world transformed completely. I went from cassette mixtapes to MP3s, from a pager and a cell phone I dared not leave on to unlimited roaming and free long distance, from I-65 between school and home and work to…well, cross-country by plane and freeway. Chicago and Kansas City and Boston and Vegas and San Diego and Cleveland and Hollywood just by Labor Day 1998, and that doesn’t even count the fact of an apartment in Arlington and a job six blocks from the White House in a field I had never considered working in when I crashed out of grad school.

In a lot of ways, to be honest, I was flung so far and so fast from the explosion of my academic career that I didn’t stop moving for a good nine years or so. You could arguably look at my life and say I didn’t really hit a dull moment until 2006, when I finally had a new wife (!) and a new house (!!) and a promotion at Apple (!!!) that set me up with employee stock purchase and a company cell phone and credit card and two offices with doors, and a new surrogate big sister to smoke cigars and watch soccer with. But that’s where a different story starts.

But nothing in the last twenty years, not one bit of it, was remotely visible from sunset on May 8, 1997. Which just goes to show you never can tell.

 

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On the road

My grandmother never drove.

From 1910 to 1994, she never got behind the wheel of a car, not once. After her husband died, the last 20 years of her life saw her being driven by friends, family or maybe some sort of senior van service. Or maybe she just walked, depending. Or caught a taxi. Which is not always easy to do in a town of under 30,000 in the South.

The problem in Silicon Valley right now is traffic, because the traditional forms have been inverted. Instead of bedroom communities surrounding a central city where everyone goes to work, the jobs are spread all along the peninsula from San Francisco down to the South Bay. And instead of relocating as they get bigger, these companies tend to stay put. Which is why the tenth-largest city in America, San Jose (population 1,026,908) is inexplicably considered some kind of backwater afterthought by young millennial techies as they commute from their residences in San Francisco (pop. 870,887) to such business hubs as Mountain View (pop. 77,846), Palo Alto (pop. 66, 6420), Cupertino (60,189) and Menlo Park (pop. 33,309).

Many people will tell you the problem in Silicon Valley is housing, and that’s true – ordinary people who aren’t filthy rich or making high-tech money are being priced out of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties altogether. But the problem with building more housing – even affordable housing – is that those people then need a way to get to work. Or to the store. Or to church. Or school. Or down the pub. And that means a vehicle. Unless you’re a weightlifter or have one of those huge Dutch cargo bikes or live right over the store, you probably need a car to bring your groceries home. Unless you’re Lance Armstrong, you probably aren’t taking your bike all the way to the office thirty miles every day down jammed streets. (You definitely shouldn’t be taking your bike home from the pub after seven pints. A DUI is a DUI no matter what kind of wheels are under you.) 

To make matters worse, people keep building offices. Apple just bulldozed a bunch of empty HP buildings to build Apple Park, which will house far more employees than the HP campus ever did – and they’ll all be taking the same two or three exits off I-280 in a one-mile stretch. Google went through all kinds of shenanigans of dubious ethics to get their huge plot of land on the bay side of 101 in Mountain View, which is served by…101. Facebook took over a bunch of old Sun offices in Menlo Park, right by CA-84 and the Dumbarton bridge. What do these locations have in common? None of them has any kind of rail service; it’s all freeways with one exit right nearby and another to come in the back way if you’re lucky, all on routes that right now don’t have counter-commute at rush hour anymore.

The solution everyone here preaches about is Uber. Or Lyft. Or something else, like the car-share service called Gig whose founder claims takes seven cars off the road for every one of theirs. What he doesn’t seem to have clued in on, unfortunately, is that one car on the road seven times as long isn’t any less traffic than seven cars on the road once – and that his car can only replace one other car at a time. Car-share programs are not new (I had a discount on one when I was still living in greater DC thirteen years ago) and while they and the “ride-share” cab services in disguise (is that why Lyft cars had that mustache?) may eliminate the need for car ownership, they take precious few actual net cars off the road.

So what’s the answer? Part of it is rail, certainly, although this nation’s feeble-minded have ensured that the Caltrain electrification project that would double its capacity is dead in the water, and that doesn’t even directly serve any of those companies. (To make matters worse, a great restaurant in Menlo Park got knocked down so they could build a new high-rise office building right next to the tracks for ease of rail commute. Which might not be such a smart plan for a train system running at 120% capacity at rush hour.) Santa Clara County has light rail that gets weekday ridership around 30,000 but doesn’t go anywhere you need to go outside San Jose other than at rush hour, unless you want to go from Mountain View to San Jose or back in an hour. 

The really interesting thing is that you’re starting to see ride-share services built around pooled use by multiple people, running on a scheduled timetable of sorts, operating on a designated route. I’m not trying to be funny, but I’M ALMOST POSITIVE THAT’S JUST A BUS. Which is not necessarily a deal-breaker. Nothing wrong with a bus. It fits a lot more people than a car, it’s easier to power with electricity or natural gas, slap some Wi-Fi on it and you’re as good as sat in your own living room.  But the catch there is that a bus has to go on…a road. Which is presumably as jammed up as anything else. The “express” bus down El Camino Real, from the Palo Alto train station to the Whole Foods at the intersection with Showers Drive in Los Altos, will take you 20 minutes in the afternoon during rush hour according to Google Maps. To go four and a half miles. It may be transit, but at 13.5 miles an hour, it sure as hell ain’t rapid transit.

The thing is, when you have this kind of traffic and this kind of headache, it’s usually because of some kind of geographic obstacle. The Bay and the Pacific surrounding the Peninsula even before the mountains hem it in further. The Potomac in DC. The island of Manhattan. Artificial constraints, bridges and tunnels and space squeezed to the point where you can’t move things around at all. But in most places, the city is the central focus, and you can build in some mechanisms. Subways, grid systems, high-rise offices and high-rise tower blocks of apartments and condos and the like. Instead,every peninsula city I mentioned up there has seen population growth of 10% or more just since the dot-com bust – and that’s just population growth with limited or no housing development, never mind the additional volume of job growth. Google was a startup in 2000. Apple was just coming back to life on the back of the iMac. Facebook didn’t exist. The smartphone – the basis of Silicon Valley in 2017 – existed as a weird European concept with no uptake to speak of in America. There is no precedent anywhere else in the world for this caliber of massive, massive industry growth – in suburbs.

And it would be possible to say “look this is growth, this is just how the world is” – except for that tenth-largest city in America right down the road, ten miles from Mountain View, perfectly amenable to high-rise construction and new development, with light rail running right through the middle of it and heavy commuter rail from three different directions and an airport right at the edge of town with direct flights to Tokyo and London. A town that’s been billed for twenty years or more as the Capital of Silicon Valley.

And yet, every flagship company in this stupid valley would rather stay right where it is, in a town one-tenth the size, and force it to play global metropolis with a five-digit population. At least when kids these days stay in their parents’ basement, it’s because they can’t afford to move. What’s Google’s excuse?

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Lesson to learn today:

There are no “moderate Republicans.” They will bemoan and furrow their brows in grave concern and talk a lot of shit, but when the rubber hits the road, they will all get in line and support their party in a way that Democrats, when in the majority, are simply not capable of. If they were, maybe we wouldn’t be in this position, but the Democrats were negotiating with Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson while the GOP stayed together on “NO NO NO NO” and Susan Collins and John McCain and all the other mavericks and moderates went right down the line.

There are no “good Republicans.” Not anymore. Not in 2017. If you want to have the kind of representative democracy we had for two hundred years, it’s going to have to be without the GOP.  And if you think “well the Senate will take care of this,” consider that the Senate has already blown up the filibuster for one function in the last 90 days. They could easily do it again, and there are fifty-two Republican senators. Who fall in line.

And so your healthcare is in jeopardy again, no matter how well off you are or how good your employee benefits are, so that the Confederate party can exult in how they stuck it to the colored boy at last.

Fuck. You.

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Flashback, part 84 of n

Last night I went out for ice cream. Well not ice cream – as I am currently on a restricted diet keeping the dairy away – but I was pulling into the parking lot outside Baskin-Robbins for Daquiri Ice at about 9 PM, and it was still unpleasantly warm out, and I had the windows down, and Axl Rose was singing “all we need is just a little patience” on the 90s satellite station, and it felt for just a moment like walking around in the surveillance footage from twenty-five years earlier.

Undergrad lasted almost ’til Memorial Day weekend, basically, not like grad school at Vanderbilt where you were done by the first weekend of May. So down the stretch in late April into May there were a lot of overly warm nights when you just wanted to get away. There was a Baskin-Robbins down US 78 in Forestdale or thereabouts. If you kept going, there was a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Jasper that was open 24 hours. A drive, someplace open, something to do at stupid o’clock at night at a time when I was just beginning to keep proper vampire hours in a way that wouldn’t end until I moved to California.

My first car – the Monte Carlo I pushed from high school all the way through the end of my junior year – had glass T-tops, which seem like a good idea until you realize that 1) they’re hell to remove and put back quickly 2) they get stolen easily so you need locking handle covers which make things even worse 3) they basically make your car a greenhouse. So it was a lot more pleasant to take the car out when the sun was down and the velour seats weren’t holding the sun’s warmth any more. Aftermarket car stereo plugged into the same shitty factory speakers, girlfriend – whenever possible – left to her own devices, whatever they were. By spring, neither of the college girlfriends were the person I wanted to be around.

So off we go. Jamocha almond fudge ice cream, two scoops, sugar cone. Examine whatever new Super Soaker variant had arrived for the summer. Reflect on the fact that I wanted to have the water guns in case a battle broke out in the dorms, knowing one never had and one never would, and laying the seeds in my mind for contemplating “wanting to need the things you want” or realizing I’d botched the college thing for good. Look and see what kind of wacky soda variants were starting to crop up in the gas station coolers. Fill the tank for $20, when such a thing was still possible.

1993 and 1994 were different, though. In 1993, there was the promise that something different was on the horizon, that undergrad would be done this time next year, that there was the possibility of something else, that this – whatever this was – wasn’t forever. And in 1994, the prospect of going away to Vanderbilt, getting a fresh start, basically punting everything for the last three months of college because my fellowship was stitched up and all I had to do at this point was not lose my mind trying to deal with a certain nut job. Better days guaranteed coming, if I just hung on.

In retrospect, I didn’t appreciate that like I should have. Better days guaranteed isn’t something that comes along very often in life. I was blessed – not in the modern hashtag Instagram #blessed sense, but in the fact that I had been given something that in retrospect I really didn’t appreciate and probably didn’t deserve: a second chance. A make-good on four years of blight. The opportunity to know that I could drop the keys in the mailbox and walk away without consequence into a better situation. Not the right one, as it would turn out, but that would come later and for many reasons. But in 1994, I could perch on the new leather upholstery of the Saturn SC2, drum my fingers on the wheel, and imagine a bright future at the end of the road.

Plus, the melting ice cream was a lot easier to wipe off the leather.

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