Free wheelin’

After the genesis of my last post, Mountain View finally caught up with Birmingham, Alabama by launching an electric bike share. Actually, they launched two bike share programs, one electric (Lime) and one not (ofo) on a six month pilot program. Very strict rules about not leaving them on the sidewalk (like the plague of electrified scooters currently afflicting major cities) and dire warnings about the kind of “forgiveness rather than permission” that has been the hallmark of Silly Con Valley for years now.

Mountain View had a few docks for the Bay Area Bike Share program, which have all since been removed. It was an annoying approach, simply because those bikes were only useful in a dock-to-dock pattern. Great for getting down Castro from the train station to El Camino, for instance. Less great when they put docks at light rail stations…which were connected by light rail already. So the solution, apparently, is dockless bike sharing. Which presents its own set of issues.

See, Mountain View has had an unofficial free dockless bike share for years now, courtesy of Google. The shitty single-speed bikes they have for riding around campus have a way of finding their way off campus and winding up places they probably shouldn’t be, like the end of the train platform or on their side in a parking spot or in the median of Central Expressway. And while you could grab one if you saw it lying about, and even ride it all the way to, say, Murphy Avenue in Sunnyvale behind the pub, you could pretty much rest assured it wouldn’t be there when it came time to ride back.Not a lot of utility in one way disposable transit.

But that drives home the dockless bike problem in general: you take one somewhere, you want to know you can get one back. In China, the solution was just to dump one imperial shit-ton of bikes everywhere, with the result that a lot of companies went big and went bust and left literal mountains of waste bikes behind. Not a particularly good idea. Here, the bikes are being “redistributed” by their vendors (not least because someone’s going to have to make sure those Lime electrics get charged up). Hopefully they’re taking assiduous notes of where the bikes go and where they end up at day’s end and are adjusting the pattern accordingly.

Because here’s the thing: they’re actually quite handy, especially the electrics. If I’m willing to cope with either the problem of two solid upslopes with only a mild electric assist (or alternately take a chance on a surface expressway), I can easily bike home from downtown for only a couple of bucks. If it were possible to take one of these to the next town over, I would gladly go one-way to the pub and catch a Lyft back. And the thing is…the electric bike is just so damn effortless. To the point where I’m looking at one from a UK manufacturer that looks almost maintenance free, belt drive, no gears to mess with, just get on and go, for £1000, and wondering how to get it back here.

Of course, at the same time, Mountain View is considering changing their sidewalk rules downtown. Which is asinine. If it wasn’t safe to put bicycles on the sidewalk before, how is it safe to do it now and throw skateboards and electric unicycle dickwheels and God knows what else out there? At present, there are spaces for cars and pedestrians, and lightly electrified vehicles are in a sour spot where they won’t do well in either space. And God forbid you put them in the bike lane…

Hold up.

Downtown Mountain View is basically unnavigable by car from lunchtime on anymore. Parking is already a disaster, traffic is a mess, it’s hardly worth the effort. Why anyone thinks building office space there is a good idea is beyond me, but they keep doing it. So here’s the answer: take all the street side parking on Castro street and turn it into a physically separated lane for bicycles and electric hipster things. You want to park, go in one of the lots or decks, but Castro is gonna completely separate motor vehicles and pedestrians and everything that’s neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. And to be honest, that’s going to become even more of a problem when the crossing at Central closes for good with the long-overdue remodel of the third busiest train station on the Caltrain line.

And at that point, you’ve made downtown a much easier place to be. You don’t have to keep your head on a swivel on the sidewalk because some techie  who thinks he’s Lance Armstrong or Marty McFly has somewhere to be. You don’t have to worry about getting clotheslined off your Lime bike by a parked car. You don’t have to worry that the asshole on his hoverboard is going to stray in front of your car because he can’t take his eyes off his phone. Easy peasy. And you’ve made it much easier to choose a Lime or an ofo instead of a car for just popping downtown for dinner or a pint or to restock at Ava’s or Jane’s.

And ultimately, that’s kind of a thing. If you have reliable access to reliable electric bikes point-to-point, you never have to worry about wrestling your own bike onto transit (and using up space that could be earning ticket revenue). If the light rail runs every fifteen minutes or more, you never have to cut things short and time your outings to make sure you won’t be stood around the platform in the dark for twenty minutes. I basically never needed a car for the last four years I lived in Arlington, Virginia – because the job and the bar and the mall were all on the train, and the train and the other mall and the grocery store and two drugstores and a movie theater were all walkable distance. If you want to make a place walkable and bike able and reduce the traffic, you have to reduce the need for traffic. Dense housing without dense everything else is 180 degrees the wrong direction.

We’ll see how long it takes the geeeeeeniuses of Silly Con Valley to figure that one out.

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not going home again

My whole life, I had the feeling that Birmingham was specially cursed to die for the sins of the South. Atlanta got a free pass because they were “too busy to hate” – not too Christian, not too decent, not too kind, but just didn’t have the time. And for that, Atlanta got the pro sports and the subway and the airport and the Southeastern headquarters of everything. Meanwhile New Orleans got to be New Orleans. Florida turned from a swamp into Miami and Orlando and Disney World and South Beach and god, even Jacksonville got an NFL team. Memphis had the blues and got the NBA and turned into the Oakland of the South, culturally. And then there’s Nashville.

It’s impossible to dispute that pretty much anything about the South that’s actually good or cool or desirable were either created by, perfected by or inextricably bound up in the African-American experience. Barbecue and grits and greens. Gospel music, blues, rock and roll, Dirty South hip-hop. Family reunions and small-town familiarity and half or more of the players that make college football any good. So start with that. Then consider that Nashville didn’t have a population of color on par with other Southern cities, so didn’t have nearly as much Civil Rights drama as other places (not to deny Z. Alexander Looby and Diane Nash and James Lawson and Perry Wallace their rightful place in the constellation of the righteous). But beyond that, Nashville was always a thing apart – Redneck Hollywood, the Protestant Vatican, the origin point for the white South’s Saturday nights and Sunday mornings alike.

When I went back to Birmingham in 2012, or 2013, or 2015, I would look around the coffee shops and tapas restaurants and craft beer bars and Railroad Park and ask myself where are the black people. And as a rule, they were there. Maybe not in proportionate numbers, but coming from Silicon Valley, where you can’t remember the last time you saw two African-Americans, it was enough to be reassuring. Now before I make my point: I do not believe Nashville has done this deliberately, any more than I think Taylor Swift actually tried to cultivate an image as an Aryan princess. But sometimes through no conscious fault of your own you get tangled up in stuff that you weren’t expecting. And I feel like Nashville – with its endless bro-country patriotism and Insta-fueled murals and bach-and-brunch food scene – has accidentally fallen into being Red America’s new Baptist Vegas. All the excitement of a glamorous getaway party town without the hassle and inconvenience of people who aren’t Just Like You.

It’s not purely my imagination. Jefferson County, Alabama (which includes Birmingham and many of its white-flight suburbs) is 42% African-American. Metro Nashville (which is to say, the Nashville-Davisdon County hybrid entity that has existed since 1963) is 28% African-American. Hell, at the time of the merger in 1963, it was under 20%. This is in no way meant to imply deliberate action by Nashville or pin the blame on them. Honest, it isn’t. Nashville felt like home to me on day one in a way that Alabama never did, that DC didn’t, that even NorCal didn’t. But I suspect that Nashville has inadvertently become a desirable destination for a certain demographic in a way that, say, Birmingham is not – and could not be.

And maybe that’s the thing that keeps me hanging onto that Barons jersey and buying the new hat and clinging to a 205 Ruben Studdard jersey and a 205 prepaid cellphone number. Because there is a Birmingham in there that I would claim, that I want to claim. Fred Shuttlesworth and AG Gaston and Frank Stitt and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires. The Tired Texan and Rickwood Field and Good People Brewing and Railroad Park. City Stages and Celestial Realm and Dave’s Pub. Five Points and Pepper Place and the Botanical Gardens, McNolia’s and Charlemagne Records and Special Dogs and Legion Field and Grapico and Buffalo Rock. Willie Mays and Jerry Wolak and Carson Fulmer and Jerome Bechard and the GAS Line and the UAB Blazers (and a certain two-time NAIA champion, once upon a time). Dr. James Andrews and the Jimmie Hale Mission and Yeilding Chapel and 16th Street Baptist Church. The Alabama Theater and the McWane Center and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Negro Southern League Museum.

But hovering over all of that is Alabama. Bull Connor and George Wallace and Selma and four little girls dead. A state that went 2-1 for Trump and elected a holy-roller publicity hound and likely statutory rapist to the the state Supreme Court twice and almost put him in the US Senate. Paul Finebaum and Harvey Updyke and SEC headquarters. Gardendale First Baptist and Scott Beason and “Go To Church Or The Devil Will Get You.” The Cradle of the Confederacy. The Heart of Dixie. The most crimson of red states.

Austin gets a free pass for being Texas, whether it deserves it or not. Nashville is getting toward a free pass for being Tennessee, for better or worse. I don’t know that Birmingham will ever get a pass for being Alabama. I don’t know why it shouldn’t; most everyone who tries to keep it Alabama has already fled to Hoover or Trussville or Gardendale. You can get better local craft beer or electric bike sharing in downtown Birmingham than you can get throughout Santa Clara County in the heart of Silicon Valley. But nobody seriously thought for a hot second that Amazon would ever site its second headquarters in Birmingham. Nobody is out there trumpeting Birmingham as the new “It City.” Even as mild an appellation as “Redneck Portland” is probably more likely to get turned to Nashville or Chattanooga.

And yet…the problem with moving away is you don’t get to see things shift, you only perceive the change as a sudden slam from what was to what is now. And I left for good after 1994 – back only at summers, then only at holidays, then not at all. So even if I was born there, even if I went to school there, even if I was stuck almost entirely in its orbit for twenty-two years – I couldn’t claim a hand in its revival even if I wanted to. My school isn’t there any more. I don’t have any college friends. The relations are tenuous at best.  Sure, now they have stuff just as good as we have here, but I’m already here.

Maybe the facts on the ground are different. Maybe the city of Birmingham really is going blue-bubble instead of just tiny bits here and there. As long as my mother is alive or Trump is President, though, I don’t think I’ll ever be there long enough to find out for myself. Which is a shame. It would be nice to have a past before 1996 or so. Of which.

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cloud cover

It was about halfway through undergrad that I formulated the notion of “the black cloud.” I don’t know if it was related to weather – the cold, humid, rainy winter of the Deep South might have lent itself to that – and I certainly didn’t have the toolbox to characterize what I now recognize was a gigantic banner hung out to say “DEPRESSION HERE”. All I knew is that there was something in the very air and earth of the place that reverberated with a constant refrain of “this place is not for the likes of you.”

That, ultimately, was the difference between my struggles at National Geographic and the late struggles around Silly Con Valley. Make no mistake: NGS had some really rough stretches, and I did rage-quit more than once (only to turn up a day or two later and resume as if nothing had happened). But if DC and Northern Virginia were never the “home on day one” the way Nashville felt, they certainly never radiated “you don’t belong here” the way my undergrad did…or the way Silly Con Valley would come to after 2012. And I had my gang around me shoulder to shoulder. There were bleak times, there was grief, there were challenges and difficulties and some problems I would never get to solve, but there was never the black cloud.

But then, there was no black cloud here either. Not at first. My first eight years in NorCal varied from highly adequate to quite awesome to absolute perfection, and while the second-biggest mistake of my life did put me down a hole for a couple of years, it was still a work problem and a worry over my future rather than the kind of existential crisis the black cloud implied. And I battled through the obstacles and kept going best I could. And then the black cloud returned with a vengeance sometime around late 2012, such that by the time work turned to shit three months later and stayed there, it was easy to be swamped, be overwhelmed, wonder how it was ever going to be possible to escape my job, escape the Logan’s Run atmosphere of Silly Con Valley, escape a place and a time that rejected the notion that there were, you know, other people. And I was just getting close to sorting that out and digging out…and then the election happened.

So it’s been a long time getting out from under this particular cloud. Over five years, if I’m being honest, and five years where I struggled to grow as a person. Five years of running to stand still, five years on defense, five years just trying to stay alive. But not all clouds are bad, as I learned during one of those cognitive behavioral therapy exercises where you breathe in the good color and exhale the bad one.  And I was purging all that bad orange by breathing in…gray. Fog. And visualizing myself being quiet and safe and at peace…on the cliffs above the Pacific shore. And I realized that all I want from the black cloud is to replace it with the gray one.

The gray cloud has many advantages over the black one. The gray cloud is shelter, keeping away the harsh light and prying eyes. It’s a blanket, cozy in all directions. It’s cool temperature encouraging my new favorite wardrobe with the heavy work shirt and the slubby T-shirt and the wool flannel ball cap. But it’s not just climate, it’s a mindset. A way of thinking that approves of one long Imperial pint of ale nursed all evening. Or quietly assembling the pieces of the meal kit to more-or-less cook dinner. Or to move all the social media apps off the phone and take time to just read books, and listen to podcasts, and try to learn the patience that’s required when you can’t just set the world to rights. The gray cloud rewards quiet, patience, calm…baseball instead of football, the minors instead of the majors. Empty bars, quiet pubs, nighttime walks. Early mornings before the crowds arrive. A compact phone, without work or social media apps, and a monochrome Kindle, both with ridiculous long battery life, and a mechanical watch that isn’t doing notifications or fitness tracking or asking to be charged every night.

The gray cloud reminds me of being in Ireland, or England, or some place with a long view of history and a more human scale. A pace and a perspective more suited to being mindful of the world around you, yet equally suited to leaving the world beyond your grasp safely out of reach and not letting it intrude. The sort of thing that makes me think that when I go, maybe reduce me to ashes and then scatter them somewhere on the San Mateo coast in the fog belt where it can be 56 degrees with marine layer…forever.

Wouldn’t that be something.

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After the finish line

My wife just replaced the battery on her iPhone 6s. She got it shortly after it shipped in 2015, replacing an iPhone 5s whose camera had gotten a bit dinged up. I don’t think she cared much for the extra size, she never used the 3DTouch, and I’m sure she would have just as happily taken the iPhone SE had it existed at the time (and to this day she finds the 5-series form factor preferable for most everything except maybe movie-watching at the gym.) A combination of age and work MDM did for the existing battery, which was famously smaller than the one in its predecessor to make room for the gimmick 3D Touch technology (which I am almost certain she has never used and neither have I.)

Thing is, that phone is pushing 3 years old. But if you look at what is out there to replace it in the Apple-sphere…what is there that’s worth spending more than $29 for a battery replacement? Moving to the 7 from the 6S gets you…slightly better processor, water resistance, and no headphone jack. Hardly worth it. Okay, so spend the money and move up to the 8? That gets you…the same as the 7, plus wireless charging and a glass back, so now you have twice as much to shatter if you drop it. Okay, so move all the way to the iPhone X, and pay $1000 for…the same as the 8, plus Animoji and no TouchID so you actually have to pick up the phone and stare into it to unlock instead of just absently resting a thumb on it. And yes, AMOLED screen and a bigger battery, but is it really worth paying a thousand bucks for all that instead of twenty-nine?

And that’s the point I’m at myself: work bought the iPhone X, but if they took it back and Apple fails to replace the iPhone SE, I’m going to put a new battery in mine for $29 and ride that bomb to the ground. Apple had to make a bigger phone, because the market demanded it. But the iPhone 6s that dropped in 2015 had a 4.7″ display,  NFC payment capability, 2 GB of RAM, could listen for voice commands and shoot HD video or take double-digit-megapixel pictures – just like the original Moto X two years earlier. And since then, Apple’s “improvements” have either been the sort of gimmicks we mocked Samsung for, or else decisions that actually make the phone more difficult to work with. More glass to break, fewer useful ports, unintuitive UX modifications – and to what end? Higher margins and flat unit sales.

Apple is content to become Tesla. And that’s a problem, because the only other game in town on smartphones means letting Google have free rein to gallop through your privacy and personal data while you accept that the version of Android that came with your phone may be the newest one you ever get. But then, if the best use of your money is to replace the battery in your three-year-old iPhone instead of wasting twenty times as much on gimcracks and reduced compatibility, you may not have that many more iOS updates to look forward to either. How well do you expect iOS 12 to run on an A9 processor, given that my iPad mini 2 and its A8X struggle like hell with iOS 11?

I say all that to say this: it’s past time for Apple to decide what it wants to be. If the plan is to disappear up Jony Ive’s asshole, then go on and do it so I can figure out what plan B is.

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Flashback, part 96 of n

The first time I remember seeking out actual caps was in my senior year of high school. Because you wanted to represent your future college, or at least that’s what I was thinking of at the time. I had a white cap from The Game, with their standardized circle-logo, for Vanderbilt – which got tossed to the back of the closet and replaced with the bar-style logo for my undergrad. Then, after I discovered sports, the floodgates opened. I accumulated four or five Redskins caps, at least two of which I still have. I bought a Braves hat, my first foray into fitted hats. An Alabama cap or two.

Then things really jumped off and I started buying stuff like a teal Florida Marlins hat or a red and black Atlanta Falcons hat, teams I didn’t even like. I had to have the latest Barons hat every year. I bought a 1938 Hollywood Stars cap from Ebbets Field Flannels. I finally got my mitts on an actual fitted undergrad baseball team hat and thought “this is the final hat”…until I got to Vanderbilt and hit reset. And they just piled up and up and up.

Then in my second year at Vanderbilt, I got a decent haircut for the first time. Cheri at SalonFX was able to use the scissors in such a way that people would stop me to tell me how good it looked. And that was mostly it for caps, not least because once I hit the real world and had to work for a living, the ball cap was no longer a viable item of clothing. The heat and humidity of Washington DC seven months a year was enough to keep me away from them for a long time, even as I occasionally picked up a Boston Red Sox batting-practice hat that became the de facto lid for softball or a cheap $3 replica Washington Senators cap that barely fit.

And then, like a harbinger of things to come, I bought a black-on-black Cal cap at Pier 39 in San Francisco to cover a sunburnt scalp. A couple of years later, whilst dating the inspiration for the purchase of said cap, I bought a Giants batting practice hat. And then, in 2005, when I finally gave in and chopped all my hair off, a cap suddenly went from a style choice to a functional necessity in the nine months of sun in NorCal. A year later, with the full embrace of Vanderbilt, a Vandy hat of some kind became the go-to, with occasional allowances for Cal or something to pay tribute to DC. And then…

The rise of Vanderbilt baseball meant a rise in Vanderbilt alums going to the bigs. And a rise in the amount of attention I paid to baseball. And suddenly I needed a new Giants hat. I needed an Oakland A’s hat. I needed a San Jose Giants hat. I needed to avoid orange in two of those three, and obtain black and gold where I could. And then the A’s had a retro throwback that was just a plain solid gray 5950, low profile, size 7 5/8, and I bought a box of them for future use. And then Vandy switched to a Nike Dri-Fit cap suitable for warm weather. And then it became possible to easily get a St Patricks Day themed cap, or a 4th of July themed cap. And then, and then, and then.

We joke about my wife’s accumulation of scarves, but it’s nothing compared to my hat collection starting to resemble Tony Stark’s wine cellar at the climax of Iron Man 3. There’s a Chicago White Sox BP cap, suitable for hot weather, a salute to Carson Fulmer and Barack Obama and thirty-plus years of Barons who went on to the bigs. There’s a gray Yankees cap, for Sonny Gray’s inevitable rise to glory in New York. There’s a Brooklyn Dodgers cap, because the farm system is chockablock with Vandy boys and there’s the legacy of Jackie Robinson but I’ll be damned if I put an LA on my dome. There’s a Boston Red Sox BP hat, both as a salute to David Price and a memento of those days in the late 90s when I had a shelf full of books about the Sox and identified with the hard-luck tradition. And also because Vanderbilt baseball is Fenway South, from the Green Monster in left to “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” and “Sweet Caroline” during the same and a Yaz patrolling the outfield.

There’s my 1960 Vanderbilt cap by Ebbets Field, too warm for summer but the final triumphant Vanderbilt hat for good. There are Irish and American-flag Giants caps, and a red-white-and-blue Barons cap against the day I want to be from Birmingham again, and there are so many Vanderbilt caps I can’t keep them straight. There are at least a couple boxes worth of caps with sentimental value that I’m unlikely ever to wear but will never get rid of, like the Tired Texan BBQ gimme cap or the one from my dad’s old hunting club or the 2014 College World Series hat or the 2012 SEC Champions hat or…

I think it’s starting to become apparent that in addition to the horses-for-courses hat for every occasion, the drive for the One True Hat is of a piece with my eternal quest for identity. Magnum had the Tigers cap. Indy had the brown fedora. The Bear, of course, had the houndstooth. I think the parade of hats is a trail of breadcrumbs toward being content with who I am and needing a signifier that yeah, I arrived, I made it. 

It’s good to hope.

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Before we start…

I never cared for Captain America. Ever. I was always an X-Men guy, not an Avengers guy, and I was as surprised as anyone else when Marvel Studios spun a world-beater out of the latter after selling off the film rights to the former. Even among the Avengers, I was definitely more in the Iron Man camp than anything else (it was 1985, I figured I’d have my own armor within thirty years, right?) but Captain America was a big red white and blue Boy Scout who seemed like the most likely cop/narc/whatever to a teenage mind that identified far more with mutants than the government’s sanctioned superhero team.

The MCU portrayal softened that a lot, to be honest. I wrote about how seeing Cap starting his life over in DC as a man out of time rang true to my own experience. I appreciate the difficulty that comes with seeing things crumble under you and finding out that people – and employers – are not what you thought they were, or worse. I get it. I’ll buy it.

And then along comes Civil War. In which Steve Rogers somehow manages to take the eulogy for Peggy Carter – in fact let me just block-quote the whole thing, because this is what made me snap:

I asked her once how she managed to master diplomacy and espionage at a time when no one wanted to see a woman succeed at either. And she said, “Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, ‘No, *you* move’.”

So…what Steve Rogers manages to do is take a riff on how tough it was to be a pioneering woman in a male-dominated field and fight for your own worth, and turn it into “I’m going to do what I want to, in the face of opposition from my friends, my teammates, and the government and country I was pledged to defend, and instead I’m going to substitute my own judgement for the law and my obligations as an Avenger.”

What. A. Dick.

Seriously, Tony Stark has some pretty major personality flaws, but he’s seen the results of his arrogance, and paid the price, and realized that there have to be controls and checks on what he and his fellows do. He’s reacted out of a place of fear and trauma, and paid the price for doing so, and been humbled as a result. It’s a reckoning that should be coming for Steve Rogers, but I don’t know if it’s going to. I don’t know how much Captain America is meant to be an allegory for the country as a whole, but damned if they didn’t nail just exactly that. And now, with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance, it might be time for Steve to take a seat and let someone else do the heavy decision-making for a minute. Because I don’t trust him at all to think of anyone but himself.

Right now? Giant purple strength coach threatening the world? Put me on Team Tony.

Now…let’s see where it goes.

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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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