flashback, part 86 of n: the new world

Ten years ago today, my guys were among the first ones lined up outside Caffe Macs to head up to the meeting room where the iPhones were stacked up to hand out. We were all employees, and we’d all been watching the internal meeting a month earlier that Steve finished by telling us everyone would get an 8GB iPhone, gratis. So the $500 I’d been accumulating on my dresser drawer was suddenly turned into free cash, because the iPhone – the iPhone, first of its name, the mythological device made real – would be placed in my hands for nothing more than having turned up to work the last two years as a staff employee.

I was ahead of the game – I’d brought a laptop so I could quickly activate, and my existing Apple-provided phone (at the time a Nokia flip, the last of a half-dozen desperate attempts to get some kind of signal in our long-since-demolished offices) so that I’d have a live SIM card ready to ride. And sure enough, I was the first of our guys to be activated, and spent the next hour or so going between helping other guys get live and marveling over this thing, this slice of the future that rested in my hand.

It was metal in back and glass in front. It didn’t have 3G or GPS, but I hadn’t any data service on my work plan to that point (the data package was automatically added when the iPhone arrived) so I didn’t have any sense of not having those things. It was not too big, not too small, just right. I’d impulsively bought a SonyEricsson P800 four years earlier and sold it just as quickly a year later (at a significant loss), because it was too big and too bulky – and replaced it with a Nokia 6620 with similar issues. So while I’d technically had a smartphone, and even attempted to install things like Opera Mini on it (or on my parade of imported unlocked devices for that matter), I’d never had anything that just worked like this did.

No high-speed data. No location services. No cut and paste. Not even support for MMS. (I suspect that Steve thought email would rapidly pummel MMS as the preferred way of sending. Guess not.) No App Store, not even a way to bookmark sites on the home page at first. Just a list of URLs for AJAX-based web apps for instant messaging, or for Twitter. There was a brief vogue for sites that began “i.example.com” rather than the WAP-style “m.example.com” so you’d get the iPhone-optimized form of the site. We were trading new “app sites” every day. We had to activate VPN to use it to get our AAPL corporate mail over the wireless at the office, and it would work with the free Google wi-fi in Mountain View but not the secure wi-fi version, and it definitely wasn’t compatible with the third-party iPod integration in my new Rabbit.

None of that mattered.

Because it was the future. It really was. Real email in my pocket, no more scrounging for ways to check webmail on the road (or worse yet, ways to try to ssh into my personal email). A proper keyboard for texting, after a fashion, but one that disappeared to give you more space for the map or the browser window. All the services my prototype iPod offered me, music and video (and full-screen wide-screen video!) I’ve told the tale before, but in first grade, my friends and I would fold up a sheet of loose-leaf by thirds, then fold the resulting long strip by thirds, and use our pencils to make it into a combination of badge, comlock, tricorder, blaster, what have you. (In 1979, Star Wars was huge, but Star Trek and Space:1999 were on the television and there was more than one of them.) It was the all purpose sci-fi device, a complete flight of fancy that we could make into anything we wanted. Holding that first iPhone, you could see the path we’d stepped onto, and it was hard not to feel like a little piece of my childhood imagination was coming true thirty years later.

Ten years on? Never mind piffle like MMS and cut/paste, the App Store really kicked things off. As did GPS. And LTE. By 2013, the iPhone and its spawn had destroyed the market for standalone cellphones and pagers and PDAs and point/shoot cameras and camcorders and digital media players and GPS devices. It had created apps and products like Foursquare and Uber and Instagram that not only didn’t exist before the smartphone but couldn’t exist without the smartphone. Twitter isn’t what it is now if it still relies on web browsers and texting 40404 to work. I walk into the Sunnyvale Fry’s and it’s a shell of what it once was – the combination of the Amazon bomb and the smartphone consolidation has rendered brick-and-mortar consumer electronics stores merely showrooms for products that perform a function that can’t fit in an app in your hand.

But more to the point: since that day in 2007, I have bought a burner Nokia for $20 and a Moto X, and my wife has bought a burner Nokia abroad. Every other penny our household has put on mobile phones in these ten years has gone on one iPhone or another. And that’s where the ecosystem lock-in gets you: either Apple or Google controls the OS through which we mediate our conduct with the modern world. But once you pick your side, for the most part you can get at the same stuff: Uber, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Waze, Citymapper, Foursquare – apps that don’t even make sense before the consumer smartphone is a reality. None of those make sense before the iPhone, because if they did they would have existed. Consider Foursquare – it was a derivative of Dodgeball, a service by the same developers to do check-ins via SMS on your phone, released in 2003 and bought by Google in 2005, out of sight by 2007. Because it was complex and convoluted. In 2009, Dodgeball took off like a rocket – because it was a smartphone app, in a New World where Apple was responsible for at least the Santa Maria.

So ten years on – what now? I still maintain that the smartphone effectively crossed the finish line four years ago. We had fingerprint ID, NFC, decent RAM and screen size and storage and LTE and in some cases even decent battery life, all by the time of the iPhone 5s and the Moto X. Right now, aside from a little faster processor and a few more pixels in screen or camera, what’s out there that would make me lay down the iPhone SE? Most vendors seem to think it’s virtual or augmented reality, and Apple certainly seems to be loading up iOS 11 as their play for the AR world – but does that really need a new phone? And if it does – one with high-contrast AMOLED and a home button fingerprint reader under the screen and no bezels and A BATTERY THAT DOESN’T SUCK OUT LOUD, JEEZ O FLIP APPLE – is it going to be worth laying down an extra $1200 when the phone I’ve got is everything I need and nothing I don’t?

Because a bigger screen gives you two things: easier media consumption and a bigger battery. The problem is avoiding that sour spot where the iPhone 6 and 6S landed, where the phone is bigger enough to draw more power but not bigger enough to have an appreciably larger battery. You can either go real big (and pricey) like the Plus line, or cozy like the SE. In eschewing the larger screen and the (frankly Samsung-esque) gimmickry of “3D Touch”, the iPhone SE combined performance and user experience and pricing into the perfect package. This year’s processor, all-day battery and fit in one hand? That’s as close to the original vision of the iPhone as you could ask for.

So now we wait to see what Apple does next, and whether they drop some special super donkey collider phone that overshadows the notional 7S/Plus and wounds the goose that lays the golden egg. If this is the end of the line for the iPhone Decade, though, you have to say that it’s been ten world-changing years. I can say that I was there on the day it happened for the two biggest events that shaped the 21st century so far – and Cupertino on the day the iPhone landed was a hell of a lot better than Washington DC on September 11.

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A Bitter Deal

I don’t see that much in the “Better Deal” from the Democratic leadership today that is in any way orthogonal to what HRC was running on at this time last year. Still overly focused on the middle-class, still a little too much don’t-scare-the-big-business, and most offensively, the notion that “Democrats have too often hesitated from taking on those misguided policies directly and unflinchingly – so much so that many Americans don’t know what we stand for.”

Horseshit.

The Democratic message has been pretty much the same for a decade or two: the notion that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to have a successful middle-class American life. Nothing here is substantially different. All that this amounts to is an attempt to articulate it in a way that will get some attention, because when HRC was the candidate, all anyone cared about was EMAILS EMAILS EMAILS – the complete failure of the press to examine her policy positions, or anyone’s policy positions for that matter, was not because she didn’t have them, it was because it was easier to hold the camera on the Trump train wreck and offer no challenge to whatever his trained catamites in cable media said.

In a way, you can make a case that HRC was a fatally flawed candidate from the beginning, not because of any fault or flaws of her own, but because she would never be allowed to be anything but HILLARY, the nightmare caricature that the GOP and its amen corner at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (that’s right I said it) and Fox and AM radio had piñata’d for a quarter-century. HRC was a fine candidate, albeit one with Al Gore disease: the terminal earnestness of the smartest kid in the class who doesn’t understand why the monkey-boy who pours milk over his head and steals out of other kids’ lockers is considered an equal candidate for class president. And who then loses to the monkey even though the monkey didn’t get as many votes as they did.

So ultimately, the challenge now for the Democrats isn’t the message – although it’s at the point now where it’s easy to get frustrated and dispose of anything that suggests the DLC in the least, and push really hard for a left-populist vision, and I’m not saying that’s wrong – it’s having the messengers who can sell it. Maybe Chuck Schumer is that guy. Maybe it’s Kamala Harris or Cory Booker. New fresh faces that aren’t carrying the baggage of decades of Republican slime. But the biggest fear is that once again, they’ll decide it’s going to take another white Southern male who doesn’t scare off the hillbillies who aren’t going to vote for him anyway. And that Crazification Factor crowd? There’s no reason to fish in that pond. They’re dying and the ones who aren’t won’t ever vote for a Democrat. Go where the votes are. Throw it where the action is. Get your voters enthused and excited and get them out to vote, and make it happen the right way.

But stop wasting time shooting the wounded. If anyone needs forgiveness, it’s not HRC, it’s a party that couldn’t produce a less-tarred and more-exciting candidate with four years’ advance notice.

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Hope

So why on Earth did I spend the money to order myself a Stars and Stripes 4th of July edition Birmingham Barons hat?

It's not like I'm gonna wear the thing that much. It's not like I feel particularly compelled to represent my hometown at the best of times, and certainly not at the moment. And I need another hat like a hole in the head. And there aren't any more Dores in the White Sox farm system as far as I know, now that Carson Fulmer is on indefinite AAA duty at Charlotte. So why throw $35 that would have just as well filled two jugs with Ironwood Dark Ale?

Hope, I guess. Hope that someday, 205 will be someplace I want to claim again. Someplace I'm willing to visit again. That I'll be able to say "Birmingham" and instead of dogs and fire hoses, or Jeff Sessions, or Alabama fans and Finebaum callers, the first thing to people's minds will be fine dining. Or craft beer. Or classic 20th century architecture repurposed into 21st century retail and housing. Or electric bike share and urban green space. Or the kind of "it city" reaction Nashville gets now.

It can be done. God know Austin is laundered squeaky clean despite being unrepentantly Texas. Athens, Georgia caught it inside out in the 1980s. New Orleans has always had its own special status, and Memphis is starting to go national with the Grizzlies' brand of grit-and-grind, and Atlanta is reinvented as the capital of Black America. So I guess the question is – how long before Birmingham is manages to outrun Birmingham was?

It might be a long wait. Not everyone held out, and some of those who did are getting tired of waiting for it to happen. You still have to have a bubble, to all accounts, and I have enough difficulty building that bubble in places where it shouldn't even be necessary, never mind a place fraught with memory and peril at every turn.

But maybe. Maybe someday before I die, it'll be something I can be proud of. And if the day ever comes, I'll be ready for it.

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Metaphor

So the Washington Redskins are going to let Kirk Cousins play out the year under the Franchise tag and then either go as a free agent, or tag him for a third year – and for a third consecutive year, he’ll be paid the average of the top five QB salaries in the league. Which means on current projections, it would be a one year, $35 million dollar deal.

This is, simply put, insane.

The problem, though, is illustrative of the NFL’s way of thinking generally. Namely: Kirk Cousins was a 4th round draft pick, Robert Griffin III was the #2 overall pick in the same draft, and if R-G-3-and-13 is out of football, how can Cousins be worth a long term contract? Maybe there are other owners who are bright enough not to think like this, but the brain trust in Ashburn is not that bright, never has been.

There’s a free agent quarterback out there who could be picked up for pennies on the dollar, who’s actually taken a team to a Super Bowl. Won’t cost anywhere near $35 million. Sure, he’s a read-option QB at a time when the vogue has passed, but what’s your alternative? Colt McCoy, last seen being  eaten alive without salt by the Alabama defense on the grass of Pasadena? Nope, the former Niner is hands-down the only realistic option if the Skins don’t want to play Kirk this year and pay him thereafter…

…but he is Not An NFL Guy. Which means: not white. Not country. Not stand-and-salute shallow patriotic. Not the kind of guy who suits a league full of beer, truck and erectile-dysfunction advertising. Colin Kaepernick said no to the NFL, and now the NFL has closed ranks and affirmed: no place for you.

Garbage team, garbage league. Getting away from that nonsense as anything but point-and-laugh spectacle was the best decision I ever made in sports.  I hope Kirk goes to New York and wins a Super Bowl, or else signs for $50 million in Washington and never plays another down.

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After the funeral

I have described last November’s election, and its aftermath, as being like a death in the family. It’s not an idle comparison, the way my father passed: you knew he wasn’t in perfect health, but certainly there was never a reason to think his life was at risk, and then suddenly he’s in the hospital, and sure that’s not good but it’s not time to panic, and then all of a sudden they lead you into the dimly-lit room with the only decent furniture in the place, because that’s where they sentence your loved one to die. And then…it’s happened. You cope, you endure, you do what you have to do to get by. But there’s no undoing it. He’s never going to not be dead. It happened and you have to live with what comes next.

The current firestorm around Junior Trump’s shenanigans has illuminated what should have been obvious all along, if only by providing some necessary date and time coordinates. There’s a clear demarcation from which it becomes obvious that there was some sort of collaboration between the campaign and nefarious forces, collaboration that already rises to a pretty clear level of criminality, from which you can then ask Howard Baker’s legendary question and be pretty sure the answer won’t reflect well. From there, assuming the GOP is willing to allow it to happen (or the Democrats have somehow wrestled back the Congress), you have the prospect of an impeachment – and, for the first time in American history, the actual removal of a president short of resignation a la Nixon.

Set aside the chaos that follows from that – or the fact that a Pence administration won’t be materially different on one single policy position, and in some cases may be worse, and would get the additional media cover provided by “look we got rid of Trump, why you bringing up old shit” – and reflect instead on the fact that it happened at all. That a singularly unqualified person, with no political experience whatsoever and criminally compromised by a foreign power, received the nomination of a major political party and was able to engineer an Electoral College win in the absence of a plurality of votes. We got perhaps the worst candidate for national office in recorded history and put him in office with fewer votes than his opponent got.

What that says is that our system is broken. In some ways it always was. It was conceived in iniquity and birthed in sin, with its “three fifths” nonsense to appease the South, and was not intended to handle a strong central government whose authority would have to routinely supersede that of its member states. And now it’s made it possible for one side to win the White House without the most votes, repeatedly. This is a flawed process, one that would be under fire constantly from the other side were it not working to their advantage. A Senate Majority Leader who denied so much as a hearing to a Supreme Court nominee for over a year, whose party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, is braying about “unprecedented obstruction” – if there were a God, He would have struck Mitch McConnell in the heart with a streak of lightning 932 times, so that argument is settled. But anyway.

So what happens now? Even if Trump bites the dust and the GOP is turned out of office across the board in a manner recalling 1974-76, what are we left with? We have a political party still in existence whose members have been radicalized to believe anything they are told by their trusted leadership – which largely consists of conspiracy-mongering media. We have an electoral process that was compromised by bad actors in and out of government and which was swayed by a foreign power, and a nuclear one at that – what do we do about that? We have the precedent of a President elected while stonewalling any effort to explore his finances, his foreign ties or his past conduct – why should any future candidate not do the same? We have net neutrality crucified on behalf of Comcast and Verizon – how do we return to a regulatory framework robust enough to ensure actual competition in broadband and get us within shouting distance of what the rest of the world has? And – most of all – how do we convince the rest of the world that our leadership and our global role can be given any more heft than, say, Italy? Or Russia? Or any other country with a corrupt and compromised political leadership and a public unable to check or contain it?

There’s also something of a Y2K problem – people today roll their eyes and say what a bust the whole Y2K threat was, because millions of people around the world busted their ass to make sure it wouldn’t be a disaster. Right now, there are thousands of people around America and around the world busting ass to contain the damage we inflicted on ourselves – and if they succeed, people will say “oh Trump wasn’t that bad” and never correct the problem. So at this point, the deed is done – either we get the disaster, or we get a glide path to the next one because people wouldn’t see the disaster for what it was. But they don’t get it. We don’t get to just go back to being America. We don’t get to go back at all. I don’t think a lot of people grasped this before last November, and I know there aren’t enough that get it now. The toothpaste doesn’t go back in the tube, the bell can’t be un-rung, maybe you can rebuild the barn but it won’t be the one that burned down…and you may not care for the barn that gets rebuilt.

I moved away from Alabama about as far as America would let me. If we land in the United States of Alabama, no matter who’s President, I don’t think I’m going to want to stay very long.

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Cashing in

A month ago, I was up in the mountains, with virtually no internet connection – at my tent-cabin, there was none. Just me, a cooler of beer, a zero-G chair, and a Kindle. Paradise. Only problem is, I managed to lose the Kindle somewhere in the woods. So I took advantage of Amazon’s self-created holiday and bought a replacement. Kindle Paperwhite, as good a single-purpose device as you could ask for. Everything you need, nothing you don’t, sorted. But like the original, I went for the one with “special offers.”

Because right now, you can’t get anything else. They offer the Paperwhite – the cheapest one with built-in illumination, all I really require – for $120. And it comes with advertising, on the lock screen and in a banner at the bottom. Not particularly intrusive, not particularly interesting, mostly for Kindle-original content (which tends toward the self-published, far as I can tell) – but the kicker is, you can pay to turn off the ads. It will cost you a slick $20, one time. Apparently, somewhere in there, Amazon has calculated that the lifetime value of you seeing their ads is $20. But then, you don’t see them very much.

By contrast, look at what Amazon has done since the tremendous bust that was the Kindle Fire phone. (Seriously, Jayne Mansfield didn’t have a bust like the Fire phone was a bust.) Now instead, they have a slew of low-cost Android devices, which can be bought by Prime members…with special offers. The version without the ads will set you back an extra $50. Given that my original Kindle lasted me approximately six years, and that most people keep a phone from two to three, but that you’ll see the lock screen of your phone a LOT more than the lock screen of your Kindle, that’s probably a rough equivalent. We’ll stick with 2, because low-cost phones don’t hold up as long as flagship models, but consider it: if you are a Prime member, it’s worth $25 a year for Amazon to have that eyeball space.

Which makes sense. You paid $99 a year to be on Amazon Prime and have that free shipping, so it’s worth kicking back $25 of that as an annual phone discount to show you more things that your Prime membership is, in turn, likely to speed you along to purchasing. Amazon has the same appetite for data as a Facebook or Google, but it’s very single-minded: Amazon wants all the data you can generate about buying stuff, because they want you to buy more of their stuff. It’s bits in the service of atoms.

When you get right down to it, Amazon and Apple are the only companies who deal in atoms anymore. Apple is largely agnostic about what services you use – one gets the sense that they run their own services out of some atavistic Scarlett O’Hara impulse to never be hungry again after Steve led them back from the brink, but let’s face it, most folks have Google email and probably do streaming music through Pandora or Spotify rather than Apple Music and they’re all using Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat. And as long as you laid down the $650 for that iPhone, that’s fine with Cupertino. (Of which more later.) Microsoft is kept alive partly by Xbox gamers but mostly by the fact that every major business still relies on Microsoft Office (even when it runs on a Mac or – heavens! – an iPad). Google and Facebook don’t even have a physical product to sell you, unless you count the slender market for the Pixel or the Chromecast or maybe the abortive $1/year charge for WhatsApp. Those are paid for entirely with your eyeballs.

Amazon has its dubious side, no doubt – mostly because it’s laundered the Wal-Mart monopsony for the digital era and the upper-middle-class market – but in this, at least, it seems straightforward. Amazon will feed you ads for other things Amazon can sell you, much like Sirius XM’s 40s Junction channel will never advertise anything but itself and other SiriusXM stations. But for other companies and other applications, that advertising is everything. Because they sell your eyeballs along to other takers. It seems like almost every new app that comes down the pike on the iTunes App Store is free and then charges you…to remove the ads. 

So I have to ask myself again: how much would Google have to charge you for their services – or Facebook, or anyone else – before it would be more profitable than just selling advertising against your data? And since they don’t charge…is it valuable enough they can’t? And at that point, how well off am I not using Facebook or Google products? And then I remember that Facebook owns Instagram and that 80% of the people I email with use Gmail…and maybe my goose is cooked no matter what. And that’s when you need regulation. But that’s a story for another time.

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Wonder

DC couldn’t have gone about this more ass backwards. First movie: a Superman reboot, less than a decade after the last Superman reboot – which flopped because 1) the only Superman you need was made in 1978 and 2) Superman is the least interesting character to tell a story about. Okay. Second movie: Superman again, plus Batman but a different Batman than the one who had three movies in the last decade or the one who had four between 1989 and 1997 or the one from the TV show. And he’s fighting Superman for some reason. And let’s throw in Wonder Woman, and a bunch of hooks for the team-up movie with a bunch of heroes we haven’t met yet. Third movie: let’s forget the first two movies happened and remake the Dirty Dozen with a bunch of villains no one has heard of (except the Joker) and not really hook it into anything we’ve seen thus far other than the idea that the Joker and Batman have a past, which anyone could have told you already. And then…the Zack Snyder Grimdark Murderverse is a critical disaster area and an emerging box of flop? Send the girl.

At least Marvel waited to put identifiable characters in its studio ident until they had some. (Green Lantern? That was on purpose?) If there’s a criticism to make of DC, it’s impatience and incoherence. Marvel took four years and five movies to get to Avengers, they eschewed Yet Another Origin Story for the Hulk (the only MCU character who any person on the street could have named in 2007), and every leading character – Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America – was introduced and on the radar with their own picture before Avengers. Even Nick Fury and Phil Coulson had three or more appearances to build things out. Yes, Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman need no introduction – which is why they should go last, not first. But if you’re going to go first, why wouldn’t you start on the lowest difficulty setting?

I mean, count it up. Four Superman movies between 1978 and 1987, plus reboots in 2006 and 2013. Seven Batman movies with four different actors from 1989 to 2012, including a major thematic reboot halfway through. We know the deal with Superman and Batman. Wonder Woman was an unbelievable opportunity: THE female superhero, a character that everyone knows, but whose origin story is nebulous and malleable and whose only mass-media portrayal was an admittedly-iconic TV show in the late 70s. You simultaneously get an A-list character and a tablua rasa. It should be the easiest kind of movie to make – all the pop-culture recognition of Star Wars or Superman and none of the existing continuity baggage to weight it down. So…

Wonder Woman was – and this sounds like damning with faint praise and it sincerely is not meant to be – a perfectly good superhero movie. It’s hands-down the best DCEU movie yet and there is not a second place finisher; it’s literally the only one worth paying to see. But you can see it struggling against the freight of the ZSGDMV – the fight choreography and color correction just suggest 300 or Watchmen way too much, especially once you put the Mediterranean armor on everyone. I half expected Princess Buttercup to shout “AMAZONS, WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION” at one point. And it doesn’t help that some of the WWI elements came across as a Captain America: The First Avenger pastiche, with the kinda sorta Howling Commandos and the heroic self sacrifice of Steve to prevent a plane full of doomsday weapons destroying a major world city. I realize that Wonder Woman’s canonical origins involved meeting an American man who brought her into a World War, and that’s as may be, but nothing required the second and third act to be quite that on-the-nose. And the pre-existing storyline means we’ve basically put her character on ice for a hundred years, so all those supporting characters (including a criminally underused Lucy Davis as Etta Candy) get wasted on a one-and-done. (In fact, Patty Jenkins got handed Gal Gadot rather than doing casting herself – and it works out splendidly, even Lynda Carter says so, but it does feed the “backward in heels” aspect of having to make this picture fourth.)

But it was World War I, not II, and that was a very good decision to make with the whole Ares angle. The war to end wars and the debut of industrialized warfare on a continental scale, aerial bombing and gas attacks and machine guns and the endless murderous stalemate that traumatized a generation and set the stage for everything after? It gives Diana both a reason to show up and a reason for her to give up for a hundred years after. (That 100 years is a convenient way of pointing up the whole “immortal daughter of Zeus” thing and also making it a bigger deal that now the stakes are high enough for her to come out of hiding in a way that even freakin’ Nazis apparently weren’t.) Which is good, because DC/Warner/Snyder/Johns have done absolutely naff all to set up the villain of Justice League – I assume it’s Darkseid, but one painting that’s supposed to be suggestive of a character no one has heard of is fan service, not exposition.

It’s a good movie. Possibly a great one. But it makes you wonder what Patty Jenkins could have done if she hadn’t been painted into a corner. I think if this had been the first DCEU movie, rather than the fourth, and not had to service the storyline of the first three, you could have gotten a masterpiece and a solid foundation from which to build the DCEU. Instead you merely get a first-rate summer blockbuster that makes you ask “was that so hard, guys?” And while it’s probably too late for Justice League to go to school on it, maybe it’s not too late for the GrimDark MurderVerse brain trust to say “more like Wonder Woman next time.” Which would be a win all around. 

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Years ago and time gone by

I know today is the 10th anniversary of the iPhone launch, but I didn’t get my company-issued one for almost a month, so rather than reflect on how I was onsite for the two moments that shaped the 21st century, I’ll look back a little…because I finally got with the times in modern geek/political culture and saw Hamilton yesterday.

I think the obvious thing is: had I seen this twenty-five years ago, it would have changed my life. But like Rent – which I saw for the first time in 2003, after retrovirals and the dot-com boom and HIV as a suspended sentence rather than a death warrant – time and events have moved me out of the target demographic. I think the ideal audience for this show is a young American of any age, background or station who hasn’t yet had the opportunity of a shot, let alone the chance of throwing it away. (Had I seen this show twenty years ago, rather than twenty-five, it would have been a lot harder to take, and I can’t vouch for what would have been my reaction even two or three years ago.)

I have said elsewhere that this show reminded me of the iPhone, or more precisely, the iPhone 4: the craftsmanship, the materials, the weight of it and the feel of it. Lin-Manuel Miranda has taken such simple phrasing as “it’s quiet uptown” or “that would be enough” and freighted them with enough emotional heft to add them to a list of things that will probably be tattoos on theater majors for years to come. Not that “I am not throwing away my shot” and “young scrappy and hungry” and “WHO LIVES WHO DIES WHO TELLS YOUR STORY” won’t be up there with “defying gravity” and “no day but today” and “the Internet is for porn” (okay, maybe not that last one). But you can see every dollar, every hour, every drop of sweat up there on that stage. This was not something some genius randomly shat out, this was a work, a labor, and if it looks effortless in the telling you can see the effort that made it. Like Willie Mays, Miranda put in the hard hours to make it look easy.

The thing that grabbed me most about that show, though, was the liminality of the moment. Nothing was predestined for the United States of America. Nothing was on rails that said we would inevitably become a superpower. Those early days, those first arguments about how we would regard our allies or how we would finance our government or who would have the upper hand between the agrarian rural lands and the swelling urban districts – those are the same fights we’re having two hundred forty years later, over the disproportionate power and influence of the South or the relative righteousness of the sweat of the brow versus pushing papers.

We write rules, we make laws, we throw everything into that black box and agree to abide by whatever emerges from the room where it happens – but like Gibson’s cyberspace, it’s really a shared consensual hallucination. We have norms and behaviors that are only that way because we agree that’s how it’s going to be. And then when we disagree – what? When we decide that we just don’t have to do what we always did? When we can use a Senate rule – not a law, not a Constitutional process, a mere point of debating order – to shut down majority rule? To deny one branch of government its role in another? When we decide that we need to know a candidate’s finances, until he says “no you don’t” – what then? When a full house beats a flush and the guy with the flush says “no it doesn’t” and scoops for the pot – what then? What are you prepared to do? Never mind if you don’t have the votes – what if the votes aren’t enough?

Hamilton and his friend and his foes gave us enough of a government and a nation that we grafted this Founding Father nobility over it and took it for granted. Maybe we can keep it. Maybe not. And nobody knows what comes next. And contra Angelica, Eliza, And Peggy, you’re not always lucky to be alive when history is happening.  Of which.

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Irony

Look, there’s nothing shocking or tragic here. If we’re willing to shrug off two dozen kids shot dead at school two weeks before Christmas, then a bunch of Congressmen getting sprayed is just the price of doing business. And it’s not like one political party has gone to the verge of incitement to protect the guns. Or like major network news gives airtime to those spreading lies and slander for the sake or protecting the guns. Oh wait.

Lie down with pigs, you’re gonna get shit on you. Make your highest political value “No Gun Left Behind” and eventually someone’s getting shot. Might be time to change how we think…but we won’t. 

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“…oh that’s a huge botch”

Theresa May had a slim but viable Tory majority locked in through 2020 in Parliament. Owing to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act the Conservatives passed to protect their LibDem coalition back in 2011, even the change of leadership and the chaos of Brexit meant they could still hang on without having to call a new election. But she decided to call an election in 2017 anyway, thinking that her party could extend its grip on government and have a mandate to push ahead with Brexit.

Whoops.

The Tories no longer have a majority at all. They are dependent on a right-wing Northern Irish party for a majority, one that some Tories are already pushing back against. The Conservative backbench has already gotten the heads of May’s advisors as the quid pro quo for not turfing her out with a leadership contest which would almost certainly send the country out for another election. And oh by the way, EU negotiations over the terms of Brexit are scheduled to start a week from today – and the mandate for a hard Brexit has been blown into a billion pieces as it becomes increasingly clear that the Great British public would kind of like a do-over on the mistakes of 2016.

So say we all.

If there’s a recurring theme in 2017 politics worldwide, it’s that people are puking up the populism they were over served in 2016. In France, an explicitly pro-EU technocrat crushed Yet Another LePen in the election for President – and the pundits said “well he won’t have his own party in Parliament, he’s going to struggle, that’s the real election” right up until Macron’s new party won a landslide majority in Sunday’s voting. Angela Merkel, who some thought might be on the rocks coming into 2017, looks to be shaping up well as the new Leader of the Free World. And oh by the way, the American President is now down to a -20 split on approval rating.

This is the problem with American government: we have parliamentary politics but a divided-powers form of government. It yields a huge structural advantage to a party that wants to undermine the role of government and a party that bases itself heavily in small, rural, overly-white states. When the two dovetail, you wind up with what we get now: the United States of Alabama. While the majority of the country would like to be rid of it – after all, a plurality voted for the other leading candidate, not the winner – we don’t have a lot of options for solving this thing in the near future. Probably not until 2020, if we’re being honest.

Because here’s the thing: we’ve had three impeachments of a President in American history. None resulted in a guilty finding at Senate trial. The most recent one was an explicitly political act to try to undo what the GOP couldn’t accomplish twice at the ballot box, a ginned-up perjury trap formed from a six-year fishing expedition. The secondary impact was to utterly tar impeachment as a political process and effectively undermine its legitimacy for the future – maybe as revenge for Nixon, who knows, but the point is this: we’ve never actually removed a President that way. Nixon resigned rather than go to trial in the Senate. There are no circumstances right now under which this Senate could muster the votes to convict a Republican President.

And what if they could? Bear in mind that even if “the system works” as the goo-goos like to say, think of the implications around what it would take for half the GOP to turn on their incumbent. Something really really bad would have to have happened, and that means that sure, he’s gone, but we’re also reckoning with the consequences of whatever thing made it possible for the Senate to do the deed – collusion with foreign powers, massive abuse of authority, a dead girl and a live boy, whatever – along with, in all likelihood, the activation of a rump faction that has spent decades now dying for an excuse to want to need to use their guns. People hoping for a neatly-timed assassination are asking for a world of nightmares – if you thought the country went seven bubbles off plumb after September 11, and it did, try to conceive of the world of shit that would be unleashed if someone took a shot at the President and succeeded. Hint: you don’t want those problems.

The time to sort this thing out was in 2016. We don’t have the same sort of puke-and-rally mechanism a parliamentary system comes with. Right now is the time to work on flipping the Congress in 2018 to further mitigate the damage, but thinking we have an escape route in less than three and a half years is a fool’s errand. In the meantime, there’s a perfectly usable political party and institutions of government, and the thing to do is use what we have right in front of us instead of trying to magic up some sort of miracle-erase undo solution.

Because no matter how things turn out – even if Kamala Harris has her hand on the Bible on January 20, 2021, looking at a 350-seat Democratic House and 70 seats in the Senate, and the land of milk and honey and fried catfish is at hand – we’re never going to have not elected Donald Trump. That’s something we have to deal with, not wish into the cornfield. And there are a lot of implications to that. Of which…

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