PLINKA PLINKA HEEEE HAWWWW redux

Proving once again that their messaging apps are the Silly Con Valley equivalent of the Spinal Tap drummer, Google last week announced their plan for something called “Chat” – which basically means unifying the competing standards for Rich Communication Services (RCS) around a single profile and getting carriers to adopt this. So instead of backing a specific app, Google’s plan is to take a ten-year-old standard and try to get carriers to actually standardize on it and adopt it and then just support that in Android rather than trying to compete with the message solutions that are out there.

In theory this is not a bad idea. RCS is supposed to be a clean-and-clear standard for the sort of things that messaging has evolved into since SMS took over the world outside the US. It’s a data service like MMS, not carried on the control channels of the GSM implementation, but since all cellular service is basically just data now that’s less objectionable than it might have been. RCS is meant to incorporate standardized support for file sharing, video calling, group chat, presence and location info – all the stuff that you expect now from a mobile messaging app like WhatsApp, only you could (theoretically) use any manner of application to communicate using RCS.

But.

Every major company has at least one white whale that it chases forever with no success. With Microsoft, it was digital music. With Google, it’s social media. With Facebook, it’s mobile, although Zuckface finally learned his lesson and just bought companies that did mobile better than he did. It’s not coincidence that I use both Instagram and WhatsApp, despite their Facebook ownership, because each was independently developed to do what they do and do it well. Instagram – assuming you’re not a FOMO-crippled twentysomething measuring yourself against a Kardashian – is far less obnoxious and awful than Twitter or Facebook. WhatsApp, meanwhile, delivered what RCS promised: a data-based featureful chat standard that works across platforms and national borders alike. If I want to talk to someone in, say, Norway or Kazakhstan or Australia, and they’re on an Android phone, WhatsApp is the only real solution. And not least because everyone on those countries is already on WhatsApp. America didn’t go in big on WhatsApp because the iPhone’s own implementation – iMessage providing multimedia and read receipts and extended services between iPhones and SMS/MMS for everything else – made additional apps superfluous for most users. 

It’s also encrypted end-to-end. The one huge red flag that’s missing from the RCS spec is encryption. In 2018, that’s a massive hole in the spec. Five years ago, when RCS was being branded as Joyn and just starting to roll out in parts of Europe and South America, that might have been less of a big deal. But now that Signal is the gold standard for consumer secure messaging, and now that WhatsApp has become the dominant presence as a cross-platform solution using Signal’s encryption, it’s hard to make the case for an open standard that has no encryption offering of its own and no obvious way to piggyback one on there.

But then, just letting WhatsApp be the answer for everyone isn’t a big help either. Yes, it’s featureful and cross-platform and encrypted and used everywhere in the world except China (of which more later, probably), but it’s also a wholly owned and operated subsidiary of Facebook, the world’s most untrustworthy tech company. They were doing pretty good and actually charging money for their service, a slick $1 a year, but now they apparently have no clear plan to monetize…although you know Facebook isn’t going to let that lie. 

So what happens? Now we have an open standard – albeit one being driven heavily by a single company trying to patch its one big flaw – but missing the thing that makes it most reliable. But having an standard-based approach not controlled by a single company – even if it’s Apple or OpenWhisper – is far more desirable. But encryption is indispensable in 2018.

If ifs and buts were bros with nuts we’d all be running vasectomy clinics.

Speaking of things kept safe in the groin region, this is where I reluctantly admit that while the iPhone X has been mostly successful, and capable of displacing most every other device, it’s still just too unwieldy to use without both hands. Which is annoying. Until the iPhone 6 was foisted on me in 2014 to replace a thoroughly-compromised Verizon-spec iPhone 5 (never ever get a mobile phone from Verizon, the end), mobile phones meant a one-handed device, even my bulky Nokia 6620 or SonyEricsson P800. But the iPhone 6 was just a hair too big, which is why I raced to the SE as soon as I could and never looked back. A one-handed phone means you don’t need the Apple Watch for a remote control; it’s small enough that you can pull it out for ApplePay and notifications and such. 

And now my attempts to wish an iPhone SE2 into existence seem to be coalescing – right now, today, the Great Mentioner seems to think the iPhone 7 chipset (complete with no headphone jack) will find its way into the body of the SE. Same camera, same TouchID, same 4-inch screen. Maybe more waterproof. Maybe (MAYBE) wireless charging. Almost certainly a larger battery. Almost certainly no FaceID or 3DTouch or Animoji. The battery life from the 6S to the 7 was about the same, so not expecting any great improvement there, but the SE had fabulous battery as is. A price point a little higher is being kicked around – maybe $500 or so, maybe by Memorial Day sometime.

And I think I would go for it, probably trading in my existing SE for credit and just eating the rest. Warranty refreshed, probable lifespan of updates refreshed – it’s all about the promise of needing a one-handed travel-ready phone able to go off to London or Bangkok or Geneva at the drop of a hat, a phone that needs to have WhatsApp and Signal enabled and work with Oyster card readers as readily as the touchless payment terminal at Boots. It’s another artifact of the life I aspire to have, someday, when there’s actual retirement and ready money. Which makes it a figment of my imagination, obviously…but it’s a figment I can actually purchase and pull into the real world, like my Ricksons or the Ebbets Field cap.

So…I’m gonna.

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The Timeline

So I spent the better part of an afternoon working on the timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Amazingly, almost everything fits on a relative scale and is pretty easy to figure out, but connecting it to an actual chronological date is a tougher lift. 

More or less, it looks like this, where variable X is the year in which Avengers takes place: 


(X – 1.5) Iron Man 

(X -1) Iron Man 2, Hulk, Thor 

{X-1 to X?} Doctor Strange – before Thor: Ragnarok, possibly before CA:CW?

(X) – Avengers –  Before Christmas 2012

[(2012) Iron Man 3 - after Avengers]

(X+1) Thor: The Dark World – after Avengers, before both CA:WS and GotG

(X+2) CA: Winter Soldier 

[(2014) Guardians of the Galaxy]
[(2014) Guardians of the Galaxy 2] 

(X+4?) Avengers: Age of Ultron – between CA:TWS and Ant-Man

(X+4.5?) Ant-Man – between AoU and CA:CW?

(X+6)  Thor:Ragnarok – 2 years after AoU (Hulk has been Hulk for two years)

(X+???) CA: Civil War (see below)
  
(X+8) Spider-Man: Homecoming –  3-6 months after CA:CW

(X+8)   Black Panther – after CA:CW

 

So here’s the thing: 

1) Despite when it came out, Doctor Strange has to take place fairly early on. For one thing, Stephen Strange is mentioned as a person of interest by Jasper Sitwell in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and one arrogant neurosurgeon with nothing else interesting about him probably wouldn’t rise to that level. For another, it defies logic that he could go from wrecking his car to Sorcerer Supreme in a year. My theory: the “powered armor accident” mentioned on speakerphone toward the beginning of the movie is the guy who wrenched himself (but survived!) in the video shown during the Congressional hearing in Iron Man 2.

2) Right now, we have at least a two year window between Ultron and Civil War. There are statements in the movie that make things very confusing – General Ross says “for four years you’ve had no supervision” which suggests four years since Winter Soldier (thus making it X+6), but Vision says “in the eight years since Mr. Stark revealed himself as Iron Man” which makes it X+6.5…but Spider-Man: Homecoming explicitly says it’s eight years since the Battle of New York, thus X+8, meaning that even with the most generous math Civil War can’t be less than X+7.75 or so.
 
3) The only hard dates we have are Iron Man 3, which takes place ~13 years after Y2K Eve (so Christmas 2012), and both Guardians of the Galaxy movies (which both take place in 2014 at separate times). Iron Man 3 has to happen after Avengers (so Avengers is definitely early 2012 or before), and Guardians of the Galaxy has to happen after Thor: The Dark World because of the Collector connection (so before 2014). 
 
Here’s my thinking: you can probably finesse Civil War as X+7. Vision is rounding down, Ross is rounding up, and the intro of Homecoming is just skipping ahead a bit. This makes things interesting because there’s at least a two-year and possibly three-year window between Ultron and Civil War, in which Ant-Man is able to do whatever he does but isn’t yet an Avenger and there’s no SHIELD investigating the weirdness in San Francisco (I mean, where would you start). You also need to allow for at least a year between Avengers and Iron Man 3, maybe more, because otherwise when does Tony have time to clandestinely manufacture 35 new suits of ever-increasing complexity? 
 
So that puts Avengers somewhere around summer 2011. Which means Fury’s Big Week (the meat of Phase 1) happens in 2010, which means Tony himself was first kidnapped and created Iron Man in 2009. If X = 2011, that means that Thor: The Dark World is roughly concurrent with Iron Man 3 and that Winter Soldier happens after Tony has “destroyed” all his suits. Age of Ultron happens in 2015, Civil War sometime in late 2017, and Spider Man: Homecoming and Black Panther in the fall of 2017. Which means we’re right on time for Avengers: Infinity War to take place as it comes out. That also lets Vision’s “eight years” statement work as well as Ross’s “four years without supervision” and kiiiiiiinda lets Homecoming still work if you round up to 8 years.  That was probably a botch on Kevin Feige’s part and should have been 7 years, but what can you do. It also suggests that the Guardians of the Galaxy have been a team for four years now, that the Avengers have only been dispersed for a year or less, and that we’re going to have some serious re-framing to do around Ant-Man and the Wasp.
 
Now, back to Doctor Strange. They mention the Avengers as a point of comparison when protecting the world from supernatural threats, so the Avengers are known by at least halfway through the picture. I’ll guess that Doctor Strange does start about six months before the Battle of New York and that the battle takes place while he’s in Tibet. Since most of the action is either indoors in the Sanctum Sanctorum, walled away in the Mirror Dimension, or else subject to rewind by the Eye of Agamotto, it’s plausible that it went unnoticed with all the shit that had just gone down in New York. Which means that Stephen Strange is a person of interest in time for SHIELD (and HYDRA) to have him on the radar during Winter Soldier, but also has enough time to really become the Sorcerer Supreme by the time Thor turns up looking for his father. And in between, the only thing that might have drawn his attention would be Sokovia, but there’s no reason he would have known in time to be of assistance and no reason he ever would have contemplated registering under the accords, because by his lights, he’s not a superhero, he’s just the watcher on the wall against mystical threat.
 
So there you go. I feel a lot better about having solved for X, because I am a gigantic fucking nerd and having an all-everything Marvel team-up movie is something I waited 30 years to see. Two weeks left.
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Tipping the Scale

So Zuckbot 3000 has gone before Congress to attempt to impersonate a human being, and after two days of testimony it’s hard to shake the impression that some kind of regulation is coming sooner or later, if nothing else to ape the EU’s new requirements. Good, and long overdue. I’m still trying to think of a good reason to hang onto my barely-used Facebook account other than the fact that it’s probably the only means of contacting people from high school or the NGS days. I went nuts locking it down back in 2011, and that looks like a good move in retrospect.

People are talking about paying for an ad-free version of Facebook, which I don’t see happening for one simple reason: that would impede growth. Free shit propagates much more quickly than paid versions, and attempting to pay for the use of a social network – whether it be app.net or micro.blog – isn’t a valuable option when everything depends on how big that Monthly Average Users delta is. This was at the heart of Facebook’s original sin – offering a walled garden in exchange for your real identity, and then tearing down the walls to monetize it at the first opportunity.

But then, part of the problem is just scale itself. Take Ireland, for instance, which was a lovely country that I would go back to in a heartbeat…and where there were only two towns bigger than Mountain View. Or the San Jose Giants, the Advanced-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, with their WPA-era park that seats a few thousand and discounts beer by half when the Beer Batter strikes out. Or any cozy alley dive bar anywhere.

Or consider representative democracy, where we have 435 Congresscritters in the House. (Never mind the Senate, the least representative body in the Western world, and I include the House of Lords in that metric.) At current population, every member of the House represents roughly 800,000 people. Up from 565,000 when I was younger, and the staff hasn’t grown to match. Full time staff for a Congressperson is 14 (up from 9) plus four part-timers. To update PJ O’Rourke, you’d think a company with 800,000 customers would have more than fifteen full time employees. And that 435 number was fixed at a time when the US population was just over 92 million, so every notional representative has quadrupled his or her area served.

Scale.

The problem that most social media options use – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – is that eventually the stream is too big to keep up with, so they start using algorithmic methods to show you what you need to see instead of just giving you the firehose in order. Because of course the stream will be too big to keep up with, because you have to add everyone. It’s not just friends, it’s friends of friends, or sports teams, or beer brands, or things your friends choose to repost, or eventually just things your friends liked. And then they decide what you should see “in case you missed it”.

There was a time when there were horses for courses. Twitter was basically a blast group text. Instagram was a mobile photography solution designed to make the best of the shitty cameras on early smartphones. Facebook was a cleaner version of MySpace or Friendster, which themselves were basically blogging solutions with nothing but a profile page. And Twitter added faves and retweets, and Facebook added the News Feed, and Instagram got bought by Facebook and somehow managed to avoid some of the stupidest modifications while being repurposed into a part-time Snapchat ripoff, and we got to where we are now. Every couple of years someone tries to roll out Path, or Ello, or Diaspora, or Peach, or whatever that thing was last month that was basically a Russian-flavored Zack Snyder promo, but nothing ever takes. Because we’ve got Facebook and Twitter and Insta already, and nobody wants to move to another service when everybody’s already on one.

And the thing is, Facebook grasped this, and then went out and bought the next thing. Which is why they have Instagram and WhatsApp now. Any sane solution to getting Facebook under control would force them to divest those two apps – engineering, advertising, they don’t have to be sold off but they have to be firewalled as if they were. Ideally, though, the Facebook fix involves portability of data and the ability to federate it. The web wasn’t a single company’s product. Neither was email. They were a set of standards that could be implemented in interoperable fashion. I’ve ranted about this before, and now it seems more obvious than ever: you can’t let your data be dependent on a single company, whether it’s Facebook or Google or Hooli or whatever comes next. No regulations meant unlimited consolidation meant imperatives to drive growth meant base emotional manipulation meant “we accidentally the election.”

So maybe that’s the solution. The urgency to grow, the need to achieve scale at any cost, has driven most of the bad behavior at Facebook and elsewhere. Google might have become the dominant email provider, but it doesn’t stop you using Hotmail or Yahoo or iCloud or your ISP’s service or your brother-in-law’s secure IMAP server. Nothing prevents you popping up a website or a blog on any number of free services which anyone with a web browser or RSS reader is free to access, to syndicate into a feed. Microblogging options like Tumblr or Typepad Micro can be thrown into Feedbin or Feedly. There are ways to do this by separating publishing tools and reading tools and hosting service. We did it for years, if not decades. We can do it again. We should do it again.

Too big to fail? Facebook might be too big to let live.

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The Southern Thing, again

Maybe it would have been different if I’d left sooner. Maybe it would have been different if my dad hadn’t died. Maybe it would have been different if I had gone away and gotten to see what the world had to offer from a position of strength, and then come back to see high school friends and indulge in a city slowly growing into modernity. 

But the chain of events was wrong. I stayed for college, the biggest mistake of my life. When I left, I was still anchored to the bad stuff in Birmingham, and when my world fell apart, I started over from zero in a faraway place, and was rebuilt as a different person. And Birmingham wasn’t home for him, could never be home for him.  As it stands, half my heart is on the Orange Line Metro at 9 AM Monday morning, and the other half is watching the sun set on San Gregorio beach from the shoulder of Highway 1. Alabama doesn’t enter into it.

And yet.

Set me down on I-65, with puffy white clouds in the sky, somewhere between Montgomery and Huntsville…and I feel something. I don’t know how to describe it. It feels familiar, like something from another life, maybe the set of a movie I saw once, like another world that a previous incarnation lived in. Not deja vu exactly, because I know I’ve been there before, but it’s not really what I remember. I think the apt comparison is to Vanderbilt: I’m a fan and a supporter, but everyone concerned is completely different than when I was there and I haven’t had any contact since graduation with the people who were there when I was. Similarly, there are a handful of people in and around Birmingham who might remember me from way back when, but my family is a mess and what friends I had are scattered. And what makes Birmingham attractive now? Railroad Park, the new Barons stadium, half a dozen local breweries and a thriving foodie scene and Revelator Coffee and electric bike share?

I mean, think about it…that which makes someplace the “it city” is usually a smear of some kind of gritty authenticity on which is suddenly plopped a melange of craft beer, bike sharing, artisan bakeries, Instagram-friendly scenery (ALL THE MURALS), that sort of thing. And the “authentic” things of the place slowly get overrun by their commercialized imitators. Saw’s instead of the Tired Texan. Hattie B’s instead of Joe D’s Hot Chicken Club. Sure, there are great things to see in Birmingham, but do the list – local craft beer, like Good People or Avondale? Bike sharing? Neighborhoods with their vintage architecture and business street intact? And old theater with a Wurlitzer organ and old movies? Foodie dining? What is there in Birmingham that wasn’t already long established in Silicon Valley before the iPhone was invented? I’ll tell you: special dogs, Dreamland ribs and the Civil Rights Trail. That’s the list.

Again, there is an edit that sends me away for undergrad – not even necessarily to Vanderbilt, but maybe to Tulane or Columbia or Brown or Stanford or UCSD – in which I don’t even go to grad school, because I don’t need to launder my undergrad experience. And because I got out of Birmingham for college, I can go back home, instead of already being “home” as the black cloud grinds it into a fine misery. It’s tough to go back when most all the things that make it worth going back to are things you already had in 2006 where you live now.

I just don’t have the draw. I can make my own barbecue, I can drive three miles to Popeye’s, I struggle to get good collards but they never cooked collards in my house anyway. I don’t have the sidewalk alumni crowds that turn my college sports into a religious practice. I’m the only member of the family still carried on the rolls of our ancestral church, whose doors I haven’t darkened in twenty years. I can’t stand the humidity, there’s no one around that I’m legitimately close to, and you have to change planes to get there.

God bless whoever stayed in the blue dots, holding them down and trying to build for a better day. Whatever it is they found, whatever it is they have there, is something I just don’t have and maybe never did. And if that were ever going to happen, it would have happened by age 46.

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San Jose

It’s the tenth-largest city in America, but the scope is basically like Birmingham. It has workable transit with buses and light rail, and I can go straight home on the light rail without changing modes or agencies. It has cathedrals, Catholic and Protestant alike. It has a baseball team with a perfect minor league feel, and a professional soccer team with its own ultras and cozy stadium (itself now more transit-accessible than ever). You can fly direct to London from the airport. There’s a Fairmont hotel with a lobby bar suitable for cocktails. There’s a train station from which you can catch Amtrak to San Diego or Seattle or anywhere in between. There’s high-rise dense living if you want it and rambling old neighborhoods if you don’t. There’s a well-regarded local paper, there’s a state university that sends a lot of engineers to Apple, there’s a nearby Jesuit college, there’s a super high end mall if you really need that sort of thing (which you don’t) and a super-plebian mall if you need that sort of thing (which you might).
 
There’s a Japantown, a Little Italy, a Little Saigon, a vintage adobe, a history of people of all backgrounds. There’s an Irish bar with live sessions on Tuesday night that sound like Galway, and an English pub with no televisions and cask conditioned ale in a leather chair by a potbelly stove. There’s a huge arena and the concerts it advertises are as likely to be Tejano or K-Pop as hip-hop or country. The city bills itself as the Capital of Silicon Valley, and it still is, in a way, because all the companies that insist on locating in San Francisco tend to be the 21st century Silly Con Valley ones. It even once had its own Mob family separate from San Francisco and its own rudimentary music scene which included Skip Spence and the Doobie Brothers.
 
San Jose, in other words, is a place where you can turn your head and squint just a little bit, on a slow Tuesday morning with nothing to do all day, and see something that looks kind of like what you wish the whole real world looked like. Cosmopolitan without being alienating, sprawling yet navigable without a car, plenty to see and do without being overwhelming, contemporary without disappearing up its own ass. No one is out here comparing San Jose to “Florence during the Renaissance”. You can go around San Jose without being overrun by gingham shirts and Allbirds and hoodies and electric unicycles. If you want an unfiltered fresh IPA, fine, but you can also get a Modelo Especial or a Coors Light or just a plain ol’ Guinness.
 
The question has come up lately of whether I could be happy if I moved back to Nashville, and I think it’s a solid “no” but not for the reasons you think. The whole “it city” phenomenon around Music City is kind of ridiculous, but it means you can probably get street tacos (which you could in 1994 at La Hacienda) and craft beer (which, Jack Daniels Amber Lager was kind of? Also Gerst, that was good stuff) and live music (hello, it’s NASHVILLE, that was never a problem anywhere from the Bluebird to Exit/In to Robert’s to the Opry).  The problem with Nashville isn’t the tourists and hipsters, because those were always with us. It’s the exact same problem you have in Austin – once you step one toe outside the cultural cool bubble, you’re back in a virulently red state surrounded by orange-clad UT fans, a Confederate state government and the worst humidity on the planet. And while Nashville is doing a good job obtaining the same kind of hall pass for being in Tennessee that Austin gets despite being Texas – and is no more undeserving than Austin is, certainly – it doesn’t change the fact that you’re still in The South, and not the kind that reads The Bitter South and listens to Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires.
 
So here I am, aspiring to go out for a quiet pint or maybe two in DTSJ. It’s accessible, it’s not unreasonable, it’s in California. It might not have the cool factor of an Austin or a Nashville or a Portland, and that’s probably good. As long as San Jose remains resolutely uncool, it’ll still be possible to get around and get along and enjoy California’s third largest city in an unsophisticated, unpretentious, unmistakably pleasant way. In fact, forget I ever said anything. Nothing to see here. Move along.
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Flashback, park 95 of n

March 1985. I put my birthday money into two purchases: a paperback copy of The Hobbit (so I could stop taking the one from the school library over and over) and TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game. The original yellow-box edition. I had only really gotten into comic books in any meaningful way the year before, as Star Wars faded from view after the third movie (with no eminent prospect of more), and I was already well-versed in Dungeons & Dragons and Star Frontiers, so to have a full-on role-playing game for Marvel stuff? Count me in.

The really attractive thing about it was that it offered a much more flexible mechanic than the other RPGs. You could actually run a more D&D-style setting, or a more Star Frontiers-type setting, because it’s comic books – so you have to have all the elements of fantasy and sci-fi and magic and all sorts of stuff. It was more than a game, it was an organizational framework for my own creative impulses. And it let me create my own characters – naturally, the most horrifyingly awful Mary Sue creations imaginable, as befits a frustrated 13 year old gifted kid – and actually write about them. Badly, and usually more a matter of assembling things cribbed wholesale from that month’s comics or TV reruns or what have you, but you have to start somewhere.

Thing is, though, I became trapped by the system. I had to make things work in the framework of the rules, or find some loophole that would let me bend the rules, because I couldn’t just go off and make up whatever I wanted. It had to make sense, it had to fit the system, and I think buried deep in there is the fullest expression of my Enneagram 6-ness, because I had a lot more flexibility of imagination when I wanted the game and was privy to some of how it worked but hadn’t actually purchased it yet.

In retrospect, I think that may be how I gravitated to sports so readily after high school. Sports have rules, and while their interpretation may be cause to cast aspersion on a ref’s visual acuity and carnal knowledge of sheep, they are pretty reliable – a touchdown is always six points, a free throw is always one, and a ball that goes over the fence on the fly is always a home run. You have statistics and can pretty reliably gauge one player against another, one team against another. And while I rarely if ever actually played any of these RPGs with anyone else – I can’t think of a single gaming session with MSH that ever occurred with more than two people involved – sports were something that allowed, nay demanded a communal experience. Thus my enthusiasm for going off to college, where everyone would be attending football (except there wasn’t any) or basketball (except few people actually showed up) or baseball (except even fewer people showed up).

But back to MSH. At one point, there was a canonical reference book, the Ultimate Powers Book, which contained every single documented super-power in the Marvel Universe and how it worked in the game. And I. Wanted. It. But with no dedicated gaming store anywhere in the Birmingham area, it was impossible to find at a time when I actually had cash money in my pocket. My parents certainly weren’t going to buy it for me, not in a world where the Baptists had thrown Dungeons & Dragons into the same Satanic pig-pile as heavy metal and horror movies and feminists and all the other stuff that suddenly becameHorriBadAwful after 1980.

And the thing is, for twenty years that book haunted my dreams. One of my most common recurring dreams was that I found it somewhere and was unable to buy it, or lost it again, or couldn’t read what was in it, or some such – probably because at some unconscious level, I was thinking that somewhere there must be rules for this life that I could use to crack it if I could only get a chance to read and learn them. And that dream kept after me for literally two decades…until one day at Apple, in an idle moment surfing around in my office, I stumbled across the whole entire book online as a PDF. Which I downloaded and backed up in about six places, because it’s a rare thing that something comes back from the black hole.  And then, the next year, they released an actual live-action Iron Man movie…and you know the rest.

I don’t know what the point of all this is, aside from maybe “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood”, but thirty-three years on, it’s nice to remember that liminal moment before I cracked the box, before the rules and processes were laid down, when everything was still protean potential. As spring returns in force, it’s good to believe that sort of thing is still possible.

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Flashback, part 94 of n

Remember the 90s?

It’s been long enough and far enough that I can finally comprehend the decade of my (mostly) 20s. As you would expect, it’s a pretty broad scope to go from a high school senior sipping champagne for the first time to ten years later, having two degrees and working in DC in an unrelated field and standing on the Mall near the Washington Monument as the millennium rolls over. But there’s a feel and a vibe there that is recognizable even now.

For one thing, it was bright and colorful, grunge notwithstanding. The early years of 90s hip-hop culture – with In Living Color and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Cross Colors and the like – were vibrant and bold and complex (at least until everyone decided to do an NWA pastiche). There were things like Frutopia and OK Soda and Crystal Pepsi. Every sports team had teal or purple to go with their black, it seemed like (teams that wore or adopted teal/black/purple in some combination of 2 out of 3: San Jose Sharks, Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Florida Marlins, Colorado Rockies, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Toronto Raptors, Arizona Diamondbacks…)

And there were so many more teams. Major League Baseball expanded – twice! The NFL expanded for the first time since 1976! The NBA and NHL added teams hand over fist, as everyone raced to 30 teams or more. Sports splashed into popular culture in a bigger way than ever. ESPN Sportscenter was must-see TV – not just as sports news or news generally, but as entertainment. The NBA hit heights it’s only recently regained, in the era of Michael Jordan and the Dream Team and NBA JAM. Speaking of which, home video games really took off again and permanently displaced the arcade (I myself had a Sega Genesis with three games: Bill Walsh College Football, NBA JAM and NHL ’96).

And you had the mainstreaming of the pager – from a tool for doctors and drug dealers to something so ubiquitous you could get one for free by sending in ten Mountain Dew labels. And from the pager to the cellphone, which finally shrank from shoe-sized to something you could at least slide in a jacket pocket. And then…the Internet. I might be one of the last people to go through four years of college without ever once having had access to the internet; I think it was in the autumn of 1994 that my undergrad began setting up email (through some weird UUNet connection) for every student. Mosaic was finicky and Netscape was a beta, and things like USENET and Gopher were state of the art (and telnet was still a plausible connect tool). There was still a cyberpunk feel to the whole process of getting online, and there were things like PGP and Linux on the desktop that were just a couple years away from the mainstream.

And if you remember those AT&T “You Will” ads? Shit, most of them came true. You wouldn’t fax from the beach when you could email, and Siri isn’t going to be a lot of help getting you those playoff tickets, but almost everything else came to pass (even if AT&T itself didn’t exactly make it). Every so often I have to take out this slab of glass and surgical steel that acts as an extension of my arm and marvel at how I can shoot feature-film-quality video, DSLR-quality pictures, chat halfway around the world or store every piece of music I’ve ever owned along with the entire ninth Star Wars movie.

I think the thing I keep coming back to is that it felt like the world was moving forward. Bob Packwood and Anita Hill kicked off an awareness that you’ve got to treat female coworkers as human beings, Rodney King made it obvious that cops could do the incredibly wrong thing and needed to be made to play by the rules, Arsenio Hall proved you could have an African-American late night host that could dominate the water cooler space, new technology could emerge and make our lives better, global warming and climate change could be recognized and taken seriously…and then, on December 12, 2000, we decided that we weren’t going to bother having the 21st century after all. And nine months later, we clenched it. Things that were a horror and an outrage like Rodney King or Columbine are now barely enough to get people’s attention any more. The weather’s getting worse and the sea levels are rising and you have to argue the facts of something happening before your eyes in a way that wasn’t necessary ten years ago.

I suppose it could be nostalgia for youth, but it’s really hard to shake the sense that something really did shift and that things really are getting worse in a lot of ways. And that reversing the trend is going to be difficult as long as we have to fight people who feel entitled to their own reality and those willing to enable them for the sake of votes, or ratings, or money. The biggest thing is going to be to make those people radioactive enough that the latter won’t want any part of it any longer and then contain the former until they die down to acceptable levels of nuisance. I thought we’d come close to that, but apparently not. It’s time to patch the holes.

I liked having a future. I’d like it again.

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The new look

If you’d told me almost a quarter-century ago (say, anytime from March 1994 on) that Ebbets Field Flannels, the legendary Seattle manufacture of period-accurate museum-grade reproductions of vintage baseball wear, was making a throwback Vanderbilt baseball cap? I would have lost my mind. As it is, a couple of weeks ago, when this news was conveyed to me at Anchor of Gold…I lost my mind. And rushed to take advantage of a 20% off code on the last day. And came into work on a Saturday to collect the package.

A vintage-look wool flannel Vanderbilt hat, American made and low-crowned, has been pretty much the Holy Grail of my headgear aspirations ever since I started wearing hats on a regular basis again around 2006. While you couldn’t prize the hats off my head throughout most of my higher-ed career, they quickly went by the board in DC, and didn’t come back until I finally cut all my hair off the autumn after the wedding (and in California, with nine months of direct sunlight a year, you need something covering your scalp). Even though I have gotten away from my American-made and workwear obsessions, I have inadvertently stumbled into fulfilling them.

See, my wife gave me American Giant’s work shirt for Christmas. I had plenty of US-made T-shirts and aloha shirts, but that was all. This is a long-sleeve jacket-shirt with snaps, made of the same fabric as their famous hoodie – but with the detailing of an actual button-up shirt. It’s something you can wear out of the house in most any casual setting once the temps drop below 70, and it’s the sort of thing you can wear for a week at a time as long as you change the T-shirt under it. It is heavy and overbuilt and thoroughly comfortable, the perfect dream of a shirt for four days in Tahoe or a week off at Christmas or the first weekend of the NCAA tournament at home in front of the TV.

So stack it together. The Vanderbilt hat from Ebbets. The AG work shirt (and T-shirt under), over top of my LC King jeans. Some kind of footwear, ideally that doesn’t require lacing, like my Blundstone boots or my plastic Birkenstock sandals. And then, the real twist in the tale: my throwback glasses from Warby Parker, the ones that make me look like I stepped off the set of Apollo 13 (or Mississippi Burning). Stack it all together, and it’s a completely new look, radically different from anything I had in DC (or most of the time in California, to be honest). And it’s something that given the opportunity, I might just wear almost every day as long as climate permits.

It looks right on me. It feels right on me. It’s not something I was necessarily trying to craft, but I’ve fallen into a look that is effortless and easy without being unspeakably slovenly, and which doesn’t incorporate a single hoodie or V-neck t-shirt or skinny pair of jeans. I look my age, to be blunt about it, and I’m okay with that. The only thing keeping me from wearing it every day is that after four or five days, you can whistle for the shirt and it’ll jump up on your back, which is not compatible with going among people in a society.

Might need to save up for another one.

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Life After Facebook

Well, Zuckerberg, now you’ve climbed up there it’s a hell of a lot higher than it looked, ain’t it dumbass?

With that out of the way, let’s look at what happens now with “social media.” I’ve said previously that the high-water mark of my own “social media” experience was probably around 2006-07, when Vox was still a thing and Twitter was just emerging as a “mass text” service, for lack of a better description. The last social media app I was genuinely excited about was Foursquare in its original form, partly because of its utility as a social tool (for people younger and more social than I could admit to being, to be honest) and partly because it was the very definition of something that wouldn’t have been possible before Smartphone Time. Obviously there was some concern with someone having a record of where you’d been all the time, but Foursquare was its own thing, not part of Google or Microsoft, so it’s probably okay, yes?

(Key omission there was Facebook. This was before we grasped just how bad it was going to get.)

Flash forward to 2018. What am I using as “social media” now? Twitter, against my better judgement. Instagram, which is probably my go-to even though it’s part of the Facebook empire (at the very least, though, there’s nothing to tie it to my existing Facebook presence). Slack, surprisingly, which has become a collaboration tool inside and outside work alike. And the other group chats – iMessage (for almost everyone I know in the States) and WhatsApp (for almost everyone I know abroad, on Android or both). And that pretty much covers it. Never been on Snapchat (not likely to), Facebook is kept at arms length (and locked down to a fare thee well; I would probably delete it outright if I didn’t want the birthday greetings), and…

Hold up.

The original three Internet programs were telnet, mail and FTP. Everything since then is just some combination of those three functions: connect, message, transfer files. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll throw in another one: RSS. Because when you get right down to it, blog syndication is the root of every social media service. A stream of posts, text or files, from individual sources, showing up in a single feed. I’ll throw in another one: SMS, the primeval mobile text chat solution. Hell, even Twitter was built around the character limit of SMS.

When you break it out like that, it becomes apparent that it wouldn’t be that heavy a lift to build a theoretical framework for an open social networking system, merely by everting it. Instead of everything flowing into one centralized service, have individual services feed back in a standards-based fashion. And here’s where I point to micro.blog, Manton Reece’s project to build an open and interoperable social network alternative. The idea there is that micro.blog provides a simple feed (“timeline”) of posts from a WordPress blog (“followed users”), truncated to 280 characters if longer than that (“tweets”) but otherwise capable of containing all the content of any other blog post. Basically no different than following any number of blogs via RSS, but it’s essentially a tool to facilitate putting them into a Twitter-like framework and thus more easily use it the way you would a social media service.

And in theory, this shouldn’t be difficult at all. You pick your service. WordPress, Movable Type, Tumblr, whatever you’re comfortable in, or even roll your own (as I am contemplating here). At that point, all the micro-blog service is providing is a handy list of posts and an @-name framework to help facilitate replies and threading, and even that could be associated with a more email-style name for additional granularity and decentralization. The second app that goes along with micro-blog is called Sunlit, and it isn’t a service at all, merely a tool for organizing pictures (and if desired, location data) to be more easily posted into your chosen micro.blog source. But the data always lives on your servers. Nothing gets aggregated by micro.blog at all. It’s the thinnest possible skeleton on which individual users then hang their data.

Something like this is going to be a really hard sell to the Muggles, at first. So was social networking in general. But if enough early adopters and technology (spit) influencers were willing to take a hard look and blow up their Facebook and instead work on making the tools to help facilitate this decentralization, it would almost have to trickle down over time. And consider the precedent of not only personal web sites, but email – you can get it from your ISP, or from Google or Yahoo, or from Geocities or Angelfire or just build your own if that’s how you roll, but it doesn’t matter, because anyone can interoperate with anyone else’s.

This can totally be done. It’s just that there’s no money in it, because it doesn’t involve doing for tech bros what their moms used to do for them with a side helping of “send them nudes tho”. But there’s no money in keeping the roads paved and the power on either, yet we find a way to do it, because it’s what you need to get by in a society. As people realize the value of privacy and retaining control over their own data, they might just be willing to put up the money for both.

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Flashback, part 93 of n

Spring of 1995 was my second term at Vanderbilt. I squeaked out of the first semester with a 3.25 GPA, not realizing that a B in grad school is like a D- anywhere else, and then promptly struggled with some poor choices. The only course I clearly remember taking was one on Pragmatism in the philosophy department with the legend John Lachs, which I finished with an incomplete. Which was a nuclear alarm red flag, except I wasn’t clued in enough to realize it. 
 
I remember hay fever, worse than I’d ever experienced, so bad that the drugs they gave me for it induced an actual blackout. I went to drop off a paper at 4 PM and woke up on my apartment floor the next morning with no idea what happened in between. I remember walking past the library in the morning and feeling like I was going to school on the back nine at Augusta. I remember wondering how exactly I was going to deal with not having internet access when I got home, given that my only connection was via a Geoport Telecom Adapter and an Apple Remote Access dialup to a campus number. 
 
I remember happy hour out on the front patio at a now-defunct Hillsboro Village sports bar, wearing my glasses and a button-up shirt, holding a Manhattan in a rocks glass, and one of my colleagues telling me that I looked like someone who didn’t have to prove anything. Which became more or less my life’s aspiration from that moment forward and shaped me ever since. Not only the look of nothing to prove, not only the fact of nothing to prove, but the additional bonus of having a peer group  to join out on the deck at happy hour on a sunny spring afternoon.
 
But something else shaped me that spring. I remember hearing the Cranberries’ “Ode To My Family” driving down the back side of campus one warm spring night, and hearing Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” for the first time, and seeing that the campus cinema was going to show The Graduate as the last film of the year, in keeping with tradition. And I distinctly recall wishing I’d had that tradition the year before. And then wishing I’d had any tradition at all in undergrad. And then…
 
If I had to pin down an exact moment when I saw the black hole open up behind me, that would be it. A realization that I might have made a huge mistake thinking that grad school would launder my college experience, and that I wasn’t ever going to be able to make up for what I missed. I’d had fleeting bits of that the week before I graduated from my undergrad, but they’d been washed away in the euphoria of actually marching and knowing Vanderbilt was on the way. This time, though, in the spring of ’95, I began to realize that somehow I’d managed to throw away my shot, that college had already happened for me and wasn’t going to happen again.
 
And I tried to make up the difference instead of moving on to the next thing – and it would take over twenty years for me to let it go. And that’s been the biggest breakthrough of the last six months. Partly because age 46 is too old to still be tearing up at “I Wish I Could Go Back To College” when you’re old enough to be sending a kid off that way, partly because I managed to create some of the same things out of a patchwork of Nashville and DC, and partly because I’ve managed to wall myself away at work and stop letting myself be constantly reminded that I could have been on a different path that led me to a better version of where I am now.
 
I wasted most of the 1990s. Of which more later. But if there’s a lesson I finally learned, it’s don’t waste now.
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