rethinking social

OK, so we accept that Facebook and its employees are the Werner von Braun of Silly Con Valley, and we cannot in conscience continue to use Facebook (good riddance) or WhatsApp (who cares, we have Signal)…or Instagram.

OK, now we have a problem.

Twitter is doing some abortive cleanup work, a day late and a dollar short, but until it finds a way to eliminate all bots, it can never be cleaned up. Not least because there’s not a whole lot of granularity to it. You can set yourself private, and you can have lists to separate followers into certain categories, but I don’t think it has any mechanism for you to tweet privately to a subset of followers without resorting to DMs. And of course the priority is on everything being public. The problem is, this is not how real life works. Nobody wants to put all their business in front of everybody they know all the time. Google+ was kind of onto this, with its circles, but 1) how can you trust an ad company to build a social network and 2) they waited far too long until Facebook had critical mass and “everybody” was already there. But they built on some ideas that SixApart tried first with LiveJournal and then again with Vox – but those were blogging services, not social media as we now understand it.

I suppose it’s conceivable that you might be able to build something like this on top of Tumblr, for instance. It famously tried to split the difference around “microblogging” and ended up becoming famous mostly for porn and millennial fandom, but there’s a simple architecture there. Then there’s a new-ish app called Cocoon, built by ex-Facebook engineers – seems to be an effort at a small private space, no more than twenty participants per instance, with a steady stream for pictures and chat and even simple video calling, just a low-level shared presence. Which isn’t nothing, but it might be a little too private for what I’m thinking; it’s basically a group chat in an app. I still maintain that the group chat is the best current social media, but as opposed to Twitter or Insta, it makes it complicated to maintain multiple circles constantly. Chat is less ambient than social media is supposed to be, for that matter; I don’t get a notification every time someone I know tweets. I want to dip in and out – and that’s another thing, I want to see every post from people I follow in chronological order, not some algorithmic soup of what someone else decided should be floated to the top.

Then there’s a discovery problem. I don’t want reposting enabled, as that’s how you get viral bullshit to propagate. I also don’t want other people’s likes foisted on me; I’m tired of how Twitter dry-snitches on everything you like to your friends. (It goes without saying that the model of viral growth supported by ads is not going to be appropriate here, but I don’t know how you get around that. WhatsApp scaled on a $1 per year membership fee and that might be enough, honestly.) Basically, if I see something, it should be because I asked to see it. You should never see anything from people you don’t follow. But then, here is the problem: the weak-friendship-follow. You can’t build this on the back of something like Signal, because I don’t want to give Kara Swisher or Maciej Ceglowski my phone number but I do want to see what they say. But the model I just formulated doesn’t really have a public-facing vector; it’s all about sharing with your friends.

It’s entirely possible that what we need here is two separate things: a social media “Twinstergram” personal app and an RSS reader for public-facing content, no matter how short or long. (Time to pour another one out for Google Reader, the demolition of which was one of the most gratuitous acts of vandalism in the history of the Beast of Mountain View.) The RSS stream can be for interests and new discoveries; the Twinstergram can be about maintaining the close relationships you already have. It’s possible that something like micro.blog is the tool for that RSS, because it essentially puts the form of a social media stream on individual blog feeds – but of necessity, it’s based on public blogs, not private sharing. It gives blogs the utility of Twitter, rather than actually replacing Twitter. But let’s hang onto that.

I suppose in my life, the personal app would have to have circles for my self-selected family, for my friends in DC, the Bay Area and Nashville, maybe (if the architecture permits) for Vanderbilt stuff or tech stuff. And then, when you want to post something, you tick off what circles you want to be able to see it. So if I have a follower X, I may put X into circles for Bay Area and Nashville and Vanderbilt but not for tech or DC. That’s the difference: Twitter, as far as I know, lets you chop up lists of your followers for who you want to see about what, but not to whom you want to send. If you want to do that, you have to maintain multiple Twitter accounts, which people may or may not know you have, and have separate ones for friends, for sports and for technology, just for starters. In your life, you are many different people to the rest of the world, and as far as Twitter is concerned, each of them has to be a separate account, the end.

I keep thinking back to Path, which was another ex-Facebook spinoff in the era of “all God’s children gotta start an iPhone social app with photo filters” around 2010. Their big solution was to have Dunbar’s number as a cap on how many friends you could have – there was definitely a presumption that this was for keeping in touch with friends, not brands. Path had some of the Foursquare sharing built in to go with its picture filters, wakeup/sleep count, weather status and music logging. Cocoon seems to have a lot of the same built in, albeit with a 20 person limit for each group – and, of course, it’s still not cross-platform. The interesting shit still always seems to be on iOS first. Which in turn begs the question of whether Apple might not be able to put something together with iMessage, Find My, iCloud Photos and maybe even Weather and Music to create some sort of presence-sharing app that comes with security and confidence…but then, you’re leaving out 80% of the world. But after Facebook and (waves all around), you can’t palm off security as a consideration for something this personal.

The other thing that’s out there, of course, is the whole “roll your own!” of Mastodon and federated instances. All I can say about that is I try logging into my mastodon.social instance about once a year and it’s just an utter !-ing disaster area. Absolute Wild West lawlessness, like Usenet without the structure and authority. And again, the presumption that everything you post is public. Trying to roll your own solution in Mastodon feels a bit like moving twenty miles outside the city walls and saying you’re going to build your own commune there. Mastodon, like Diaspora before it, doesn’t pass the Ed Earl Brown test. You have to get everyone in one spot, it has to be trustworthy, and it has to be private.

The wild card in all this is RCS. Rich Chat Services were supposed to be the thing that brought the advanced features of WhatsApp or iMessage to ordinary text messaging, independent of any particular provider. The fact that the current push is entirely driven by Google’s effort to finally have a working chat app of their own suggests that carrier/platform independence may not be feasible, and there’s also the small matter of encryption – which is table stakes for any viable chat model. Nevertheless, if there were some way to couple public key encryption to RCS and make it platform-independent, that would be the framework on which a bigger tool could be built to organize multiple RCS messages into a sort of social media platform…and there you have it. Like micro.blog, what you need isn’t necessarily a whole social media application, but a tool that will put the appearance of such an app around a series of RCS messages, individual or group, and let you more easily keep them straight and share content among them. It only works if you have encryption built into RCS, but once you do, you can have an app manage that framework without ever needing to see the content itself – arguably doing its work entirely on the device itself. Just as Signal on Android can be your SMS app in addition to secure chat, this app – which, because I am a clever dick, will be called Venn – merely keeps track of your circles as a means by which to send blast RCS messages. The effect is similar to the earliest days of Twitter, which at its dawn was essentially a service for mass-texting a group of subscribers from your primitive 2007 feature phone. You’re sending a message to the group chat, but Venn is basically keeping your lists for you and providing a one-touch way to paste in location data, local weather, or what song you’re currently booming on Spotify.

This would require a lot. It would require RCS to have a viable encryption model, and it would require Apple to go along with it (right now the iPhone does not support RCS and there are no plans for it to do so, given that everything RCS promises has existed for years with encryption in iMessages). And two years after Google decided that RCS was its messaging future, it’s still only really a thing if you use Android Messenger, with no carrier in the US but T-Mobile able to interoperate with Google’s own RCS servers – and forget about an iPhone. 

But Venn, at least, is a first cut at how you might go about replacing the most harmful creations Silly Con Valley ever barfed up with something at a slightly more human scale.

It’s not a difficult question

What everything comes back to is this: “is it all right for police to kill someone who hasn’t been charged with a crime, and go unpunished for doing so?”

Spare me a single word about looting or vandalism or anything like that. This time last week there weren’t people in the streets. Sometimes post hoc ergo propter hoc isn’t a fallacy. This is about whether it’s okay for police to kill a man falsely accused of passing a fake $20 bill. Or whether it’s okay to carry out a no-knock warrant and repeatedly shoot another uninvolved occupant of the house. Or whether it’s okay for a redneck to decide to take the law into their own hands and chase down (with guns!) someone who they think is “suspicious.”

Basically, does white privilege extend to extrajudicial murder or not? Don’t let broken windows and a couple of missing televisions distract you from that question, and don’t come back with “well, but” – because that’s the whole point. Racists are dying for you to be more concerned about a Target than about the fact that the police and their wannabe impersonators are able to do unaccountable murder. A political party that’s spent years of capital on “I fear my government” and “jackbooted thugs” and who could put hundreds of people with rifles in state capitals because they felt oppressed by quarantine should be SHITTING THEMSELVES at the notion that the police can kill who they want and get away with it.

But they aren’t. Ask why not. And pay attention to the answer.

polishing the incoherent musings of day drink Friday

The wheels are coming off of 2020. In a way, this was inevitable – there was no way we were going to make it through this four years without having to face a crisis or disaster, and with a decompensating racist egomaniacal cable TV addict at the helm, there was no way it was going to go well. We’ve watched one death after another without consequence, and wonder why people riot. We’ve watched the mechanisms of pandemic prevention and preparedness be dismantled, and wonder why a hundred thousand people are dead with the numbers still climbing. We wonder how things could go so off the rails even as we blithely observe the replacement of the rule of law with the impunity of privilege.

The very definition of privilege – and most especially white privilege – is freedom from consequence. It’s the animating principle of the 21st century Republican Party: freedom from consequences for white people, escalating proportionally with wealth. Thus the persistent belief at 1600 Pennsylvania that the bloviating fool occupying the Oval Office is an absolute monarch, entitled to deference and praise in all things and whose word is law. Thus the apparent belief in Minnesota that criminal consequences for police misconduct are not required. Thus the belief that two Georgia suburbanites can act as judge, jury and executioner on nothing more than their own belief and recognizance, and get away with it until the video emerges. Thus Trayvon Martin. Thus Sandra Bland. Thus and thus and thus and thus, until we lose track of the names.

There is something very wrong with this country. There has been, for years and decades and centuries. The anomaly was the roughly fifty year interval in which it was felt to some degree that wealth, or whiteness, or a Y chromosome, were not inherent and insuperable barriers around the course of life – that opportunity and accountability should be distributed in equal measure. It never completely happened, obviously, but we were trying, dammit – not as fast or thorough as we should have, but we were trying. There was a belief that the effort had to be made. And we got a little way with it. The wealthy had tax rates concordant with their wealth. Black people weren’t made to drink out of separate water fountains and sit in the back of the bus. Women could get a credit card in their own names, not their husbands’. We plucked the low-hanging fruit and thought we were done. 

And then we quit. Because one political party selected the South as its base and model, thought that the reification of white privilege was a better anchor for its future basis than free trade or individual liberty or any of the other things that the GOP used to be known for. And the tribalism of the South became the sole animating spirit of the party, as every other consideration was slowly stripped away. To borrow Will Satelan’s turn of phrase, the GOP is a failed state. Trump is its warlord. And the country is being governed on that basis, with predictable results. It makes you wonder about the future.

The future…

I’m still trying to teach myself to program. I’ve had three or four attempts at starting to learn Python, through all sorts of media – streaming class, in-person class, workbook, online tutorial – and it just won’t take. Now I’m making an effort with Swift, hoping that the rumors are true about how Apple plans to make it not only the development language of choice but the scripting language of record in macOS 10.16 and beyond.

And yet, it’s something I have to do. I don’t want to do it. There’s no itch to scratch, no particular joy in figuring it out or achieving competence. I am told that achieving mastery is one avenue to a sense of fulfillment…but then, it would have to be something I enjoyed. I used to enjoy the piano, but then twelve years of lessons took the fun out of it and probably prevented me ever achieving any sense of mastery. If I could have been in a band that lasted more than one gig, or learned to play some proper jazz or blues or stride piano…but that wasn’t on offer in my world. Trombone was ultimately more satisfying than piano – not that I achieved anything approaching mastery, I was never as good a trombone player as a pianist at my peak, but then the trombone got me college course credit, a tiny stipend and mandatory access to basketball games.

I suppose in a similar fashion, the programming is meant to be a means to an end – but only to add to my skill set. I’m not going to become a developer at age 48, not when there exist entire subcontinents churning out more talented coders with lower wage requirements. “Learn to code” is the eternal slogan of those who believe the one thing they know is the only thing worth knowing, but they tend to overlook the importance of the other things. The network engineers, the documentation writers, the support staff that resolve the trouble tickets – this is a place that buries all of them in the handwaving behind The Coder. Irony of ironies, a twenty-two year career in Information Technology turns out to be the kind of thing that isn’t really considered important in Silly Con Valley.

I don’t like my job. This is not a secret. I don’t particularly care for where I live these days either, although it remains to be seen whether the economic downturn will burst the bubble and dry up the venture capital sugar tit that has kept unicorns afloat for years without the hassle and inconvenience of a business plan. When all the hustlers and chancers have to go back to Brooklyn and Austin and Wall Street, maybe we’ll be left with an actual technology industry in the most beautiful part of America again. But given that a 40 year old in the Valley is a senior citizen and a 50 year old is the walking dead, and in light of the changing attitude toward remote work and the growing realization that maybe Silly Con Valley doesn’t have to be physically tied to the Peninsula, it does force one to contemplate whether it might be possible to go elsewhere, find a more humane scale of life, and open the possibility of cheaper living to the point that actual retirement is back on the cards.

Birmingham, Nashville, New Orleans, Chattanooga, Mobile…there exists a modern urban substrate where I grew up, where my friends went, in places where I never would have considered looking ten or fifteen or twenty-five years ago. Sure, I might have to give up on transit outside New Orleans, but so many of the other things – bike share, quality broadband, craft beer, old architecture, affordable downtown living – are there, along with cozy minor league sports and decent barbecue and what is ostensibly my culture and heritage.

And yet.

They’re all still in Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, the South. And that culture and heritage is one that takes more off the table than it puts on it in the 21st century. I grew up there, I marinaded in it, I was diminished by it. Atticus Finch vs George Wallace. Benoit Blanc vs Joe Exotic. I didn’t even get the non-rhotic drawl that still has some frission of cool, I got the hard-R that got used way too often for way too long by way too many. If you get my drift.

We craft a mythology around the South because the reality is too uncomfortable to live with. The land of my upbringing is a prisoner of its demography, and containing the white Southern Boomer will be slower and more difficult than anywhere else in America, because the lag time on attitudes and opinions means that mine is the generation that has to die out before the South can move forward. Everything that propels our political nightmare today will last longest and die latest in the place where I was born and raised, and going back means having to find even more of the belonging I never really found the first time around.

I could have been part of that if I’d stayed. The Bitter Southerner, Lee Baines and the Glory Fires, Jason Isbell and Good People Brewing and a biracial uprising of youth and modernity and an unwillingness to be drowned in the bullshit of moonlight and magnolias any longer. But I left. I didn’t have it in me in 1997 to stick around and stick it out. I didn’t have my blue dot. What I had was an opportunity to start fresh somewhere else, and I took it, and I have paid for it, and I don’t regret it at all. It saved my life. But it did rather leave me with the expat’s dilemma. I am here, in a place where – given my age and station – I am a poor cultural fit all around. But I’m a poor cultural fit where I came from, and the racism and humidity are far more pronounced and frequent there. Birmingham is still in Alabama. Austin is still in Texas. Nashville is still in Tennessee.

My fear – the one that makes me toss and turn even when my shoulder pain can be brought under control – is that for all that California is, it’s still in America. And there’s nowhere left to run. The events of the weekend have proven that – the 1963 Birmingham police are everywhere now, the cops have become the biggest gang with the baddest weapons, and the scenes you’d expect to see in Birmingham are in Minneapolis and Cincinnati and Atlanta and New York City.  It’s the natural progression: when all terrorists are Magneto, and then all criminals are terrorists, and then all suspects are criminals, and you decide that all cops are troops, you get exactly what we have in 2020. Even if there were somewhere to run, there are far too many people who can’t run.

So what comes next?

Non-plinka gadgetology

My iPad mini is over six years old. Bought on Boxing Day 2013 with ill-gotten money, it was a replacement for my 40th birthday iPad, one of the first retina models. The mini, at 8 inches, fit comfortably in most of my outerwear and was a much more suitable way of splitting the difference between iPhone and laptop – and in essence, it replaced the use of a personal laptop for me altogether. And yet I never took it abroad the way I thought I might. Japan, London, Ireland, Chile, NYC – all done with an iPhone 4.7 inches or smaller and a plain Kindle Paperwhite as a book reader. The iPad was just a little too expensive to be a secondary device in unknown lands, and after I found myself with the almost-six-inch iPhone X two and a half years ago, an iPad with a four year old processor was almost superfluous to requirements.

And so I haven’t gotten a lot of use out of it lately. Now it’s got a processor six generations behind my new SE, it’s already had its last OS upgrade, and I was lucky to get a security patch up to 12.4.6. I don’t expect any more. It looks as though five years is about as much as you can expect for iPad support, which isn’t bad for a device that is supposed to be in the role of a laptop. Which makes me think – what would I even need a personal laptop for that I can’t do on an iPad, even a mini? Some of the multitasking stuff, sure. But notes and writing and Zoom and browsing and reading and watching video – an iPad is better for almost all those things than a phone and in some cases a laptop, given that it can be app-driven. And there’s one other trick: Swift, Apple’s programming language and scripting language of the future, is almost wholly optimized for learning on an iPad.

The only function of Alan Kay’s notional DynaBook that wasn’t available for the original iPad was the ability to program for the device ON the device. It’s arguable that Swift has begun to close that gap. And given that my career is basically dependent on Apple goods at this point, I could make a good case that it’s worth the $400 to have a dedicated personal teaching device, especially if I find myself without my work laptop for…whatever reason. In the meantime, maybe if I learn Swift on the laptop, I could justify doing it on an iPad in some future setting, even if Swift-as-scripting-language is unlikely to be a thing on the iPad anytime soon.

I don’t know. I have an Apple Watch coming in autumn – and come soon Lord, because the Fitbit that I got as a warranty replacement for one with a bad screen now itself has a worse screen to the point I put the first one back on. I need to be shut of them with a quickness, but I have to wait for the Apple Watch that has sleep tracking and oxygen level and that sort of thing. So that’s probably another $500, then throw the iPhone SE (still working a treat) on top of that, and then…an iPad? Do I really want to splash out $1500 this year on Apple goods? Especially when I’m on lockdown and have my laptop and iMac and everything here?

Almost certainly not. But if there’s a new iPad mini coming in 2021…maybe? At this point I think it’s turned into a gadget that I aspire to because I want it as an accessory for the kind of life I want to live, one where video chat with friends is a regular feature rather than a momentary pandemic novelty. One where I need the big display to dash off a little bit of remote work from the Adirondack on the porch overlooking the fog in Galway or Pescadero or the Smokies. It’s my age old story of wanting to need the things I want…and wanting to live in a world where the need for the things I want is both possible and realistic.

from may grey to june gloom

It’s been a hell of a year this week and it’s only Tuesday. The worst forces of the last decade all seem to be coming together at once. In the UK, Dominic Cummings actually has the British prime minister running interference for a political advisor, in a complete inversion of the natural order. In New York City, another middle-aged white woman with a Scarlett O’Hara complex attempted to use the police to call in a hit on a black man, while the police in Minneapolis proceeded to show why she thought it was a viable threat. And today it turns out Facebook has known all along that they’re exploiting hate and disinformation for the sake of profitable engagement and fear of the right, while Twitter tries to sack up and take some modicum of responsibility for what they repeat to the world.

All this hit me in one big pile today as I dug through my old browser bookmarks and tried to clean house. The last ten years show pretty abjectly that we all should have known this was coming. Birtherism, dumb-worship, open appeals to the worst in people – and, foolishly, a belief that 2012 was the last time that a flagrant appeal to white solidarity would be a viable path to the White House. In fact, the bigger lesson should have been not that whiteness as a platform was past its sell-by date, but that for better or worse, candidates who get nominated because it’s their turn tend to lose – even if they get more votes than their opponent. Which makes me worry, because we can’t afford to lose this election – and a good chunk of the people who need to be on board aren’t. The dirtbag left actually hates Democrats worse than anything, and will accept any support from anyone in their eternal quest for righteous purity. This is how Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald end up on the same side as Putin (the fact that Fast Eddie Snowden received asylum in Russia is less a sign that he was complicit than that Putin found him useful). The Russian goal is just to weaken and confuse for its own sake, to stir the shit and devalue any sort of truth, and the Extremely Online Left is very good at contributing to that without ever achieving their own notional goals. And that’s how we get to the cheap and easy social media misery, which fueled the Teabaggers and the rise of Tr*mp and toxic performative masculinity and…Brexit.

Dominic Cummings is just the latest in a long line of hustlers like Atwater, Rove and Bannon – people who think they split the atom by discovering you can apply a patina of intellectualism to the reification of the status quo. The point of their act is to put a candy coating on racism and sociopathy, where it turns out that they have amazingly found that reason, science and logic prove that the way things used to be is actually the best of all possible worlds. It’s the same sort of “dark enlightenment” bullshit that propels everything from Silly Con Valley assholes to Gamergaters to shitposting podcasters to Brexit and Tr*mpism. And worse, it’s the above-referenced sort of self-sustaining internal stupid that foreign powers can easily whip up and agitate for their own purposes to undermine us, through the cheap and easy medium of social media. The right in this country has no problems profiting by that, because the GOP believes in one thing: unlimited power to get what they want, propelled by stupidity and enabled by the flaws in the system – and by the fact that their enemy cares. The Democrats always try to save everyone, and the Republicans use that. That’s why government shutdowns, debt limit showdowns, and Supreme Court stonewalling happened – because the Democrats will always try to wrench the car back away from the cliff. They try to govern, whereas the Republicans have spent a decade demonstrating that they care for nothing less than actually doing the work. Losing the House meant nothing as long as they kept the Senate, which they will keep as long as they want at this point. Even with full control of all three branches of government, they couldn’t actually do a damn thing, which in some ways might have been a blessing.

The only solution is to capture the Senate – somehow – and break the filibuster, and then if necessary don’t shirk from using the judiciary to un-rig the work of an illegitimate regime. And it’s going to be a lot to un-rig. Getting rid of Dolt 45 is not going to be enough, because we’ve known for ten years that this is where the GOP has been going. It began with “the troops” as the answer to any question of the Bush regime, then spread to the conflation of “the troops” and “the police”, and has basically escalated to “we are the cops”. The old gag about how white people think 911 is customer service was never truer than when Amy Cooper basically tried to use the NYPD as her personal armed response to being asked to abide by the rules – proof, if any were needed, that the Boomer generation thinks rules are for other, poorer, browner people. And they aren’t dying off fast enough to be pushed out of their leverage – it’s going to take a full mass mobilization of everyone under 40, this November and every November afterward. It’s the only way to achieve containment.

We empowered the worst in America. It’s got to be undone, and it will be slow and it will hurt and we won’t all make it. But it’s the only way forward.

networking

Social networking compels us to disclose all manner of things, because we’re only telling our friends. Well, that’s what we’re meant to think. But anything we tell our friends, we’re also telling Facebook, or Twitter, or Foursquare, or Google, and at some point the VCs and angel investors will demand some sort of return on their capital – at which point these entities will find it necessary to use your personal information to make money. Yes, I do continue to use these things – but when I only have maybe half a dozen friends on Foursquare, Buzz, Whrrl, and Gowalla combined, what’s the ratio of communicating with friends vs. preparing a detailed demographic survey to be sold for big bucks in a couple of years?

The problem with these services is that they promote lock-in. Everyone’s on Facebook, because everybody is on Facebook. It’s Metcalfe’s Law run riot – as long as these systems are closed, there can be only one – the more there are, the less likely you are to use them all. Friendster begat MySpace begat Facebook, with each one being effectively killed by its successor – because who wants to update three different social network sites? If there were some sort of interoperability system for social networking, you’d at least have the security that comes with distribution – imagine if email were simply one great big bulletin board with a few rudimentary privacy filters. As it is, I’m getting more and more uneasy every time I check in.

-March 31, 2010

 

Nailed that, didn’t I? I would ultimately only last about a year and a half more on Facebook, even tangentially, because nothing it brought to the table was worth what it took off. And while I’m sure Twitter didn’t help with the shithole the 2010s were, it wasn’t a patch on how bad things would have been exposed to the Facebook firehose.

But then, go back and look at the alternatives. Heaven knows how much location info I’ve put into Foursquare in the last decade in the name of remembering where I’ve been. All my “private” conversations have been in Signal, which is far less likely to be acquired or go south on us quickly, but who knows? Facebook has never yet been contained, and now with the acquisition of Giphy they have a service integrated into almost everyone else’s chats or social media, which they intend in turn to integrate into…Instagram. The one social media service I don’t seem to be able to live without. 

I’ve tried at diverse times. There have been things like app.net, Peach, micro.blog, Cocoon – all of which seem like the hottest new social network of the afternoon at launch time, but none of which get traction. In the modern era, the only truly reliable social network is the group chat – which in the modern era depends on WhatsApp or Signal or iMessage, which means getting people to download a new app or only having friends with iPhones or again being dragged into the orbit of Facebook, which is neither safe nor reliable. But then, everyone in the rest of the world is on WhatsApp…which Facebook bought without so much as a sniff from antitrust watchdogs, and which is central to their future strategy in a world where the “blue site” is toxic for anyone under 30 and lumped as the 21st century’s AOL by anyone under 60.

And the problem now is that anything you’re likely to use is a service. This isn’t like email, which is distributed and independent and where you can spin up your own server and interoperate with anyone else. Everything we use in the 21st century is a unitary service that can go down at a moment’s notice – as we have seen repeatedly with Slack or Instagram or Snapchat. Having your activity bound up in a service – not email, not a series of websites, not interleaved RSS feeds la micro.blog – basically means that someone else owns your data and you are at their mercy for the security and stability of the whole son of a bitch. Then again, if your email server goes down, you’re screwed. If Slack goes down, all of Silly Con Valley is screwed at once – but everything stops until it’s up.

And so we look at the Giphy thing again. If we had a real FTC and DOJ, none of this would be happening, but we don’t have haven’t had in some time. Facebook is buying a significant piece of the underpinnings of contemporary social media, and by doing so gaining entry into the systems of competitors in a way that they have openly leveraged in the past for competitive advantage (with their bullshit “VPN” apps). It’s not going to end well – and we’ve already proven that Facebook is a bad actor that tolerates other bad actors in the name of continued growth and profit. 

At some point, the only solution left will be to nuke Menlo Park from orbit.

flashback, part 110 of n

I’ve written before about that fatal first week at my undergrad school, but I skipped over an important part. I don’t know what I expected when I trudged down the hill to the chapel on Sunday morning, the second day of my college experience. I guess I had some kind of guilty conscience, or just force of habit, or…I don’t know what. It’s not like I was eager to be at church, not after an adolescence in a Southern Baptist congregation leading the charge on the fundamentalist takeover (which was just about complete by 1990), but I threw on something presentable (presumably not jeans) and picked up a Bible and trudged into the chapel…

…which was tall, and brick, and round. Largely monochrome stained glass at the four compass points, red and blue and yellow and green (their significance would be explained later), and a round altar in the middle with a round wooden rail around it. The whole thing was a circle. And the chaplain explained that this was an unusual day for them, and service was usually held on Monday nights at 6 PM. The service was liturgical, my first real experience of that other than a Christmas service long ago at the Episcopal day school where my brother spent two years beating the age requirement to start public school. I suppose it was Methodist, broadly speaking, but denominations never really got brought up – I assume a Methodist school had a Methodist chaplain, but the words were never spoken.

All I knew is that everyone was welcomed to come up and take communion, which was patiently explained as “take the bread and dip it into the cup” for those of us brought up on shot glasses of grape juice and tiny dry squares maybe four times a year on fifth Sundays. And a surprising number of people were crossing themselves, something I had noticed and been aware of in the wider world but which was definitely not a Baptist practice. And the chaplain was welcoming. There was warmth, there was reassurance, there was empathy for the anxiety and uncertainty about stepping off into a wider world, and I think that’s where I first heard it said that “college IS the real world. It’s just not the WHOLE world.” And the closing hymn was a slow acoustical rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”, which was about the last thing in the world I would have expected.

It was the first church service I’d been in for years that didn’t feel wrong somehow. None of that weird dichotomy of somehow being both a persecuted minority and a silent majority at once, no hellfire and brimstone, no thinly veiled political subtexts. And I told the chaplain after, in a typical blurt of the age for me, that I’d been held prisoner of war in a Baptist church for years and this was the first time I could remember feeling better at the end. And I promised to be back the next night when regular service resumed. And I was. I made that a priority my entire first semester, and while everything else slowly sank into the abyss, I had that one moment a week where for about 45 minutes I could feel welcome and feel like I belonged.

And then, the Honors Program classes moved to Monday nights, 5-8 pm. I went to my academic advisor for only the second time ever and she suggested disinterestedly that the Easter season would probably mean a different liturgical calendar so I might not miss that much, and I was not yet at a point where I was willing to tell my academic advisor “you don’t get it”, and so I missed Chapel in the spring semester. I also missed the Dean’s List in the spring semester. Every after, I tried to shape my calendar to avoid those Honors seminars on Mondays from 5-8 – and ironically, there was also pushback from other students because most of the fraternity and sorority pledge meetings were Mondays at 7, so I think it budged eventually – but attendance at Chapel was spotty and irregular, and I definitely needed those nights when they would randomly do an extra service at 11 PM by candlelight.

In four years at that god-damned school, nearly everything seemed calculated to make me feel like I was less than everyone else. The only thing that ever said to me “no, you aren’t less” was Chapel at 6. It stands out in my mind that I didn’t need that at grad school, because – for the first year, anyway – I felt as though I belonged and I was welcome at Vanderbilt, so I didn’t need a lifeline or a refuge in the same way. There would be times over the decade following that I would feel compelled to slip off to church, as often as not by myself, and it was almost always Episcopalian. But when I went through my whole conundrum of seeking out a church in 2006 or 2007 or so, I didn’t settle on it – or on anything, really. And only in the last couple of years did I get it: I wasn’t looking for a faith community, I was looking for an identity. Church in the 21st century had become another attempt at belonging, a search for an adjective I could make apply to myself. 

As useful as that might be – and I think there’s a non-zero chance that deep down I am quietly Episcopalian – I don’t know that I actually want church as something to belong to at this point. I need to be able to drop in at noon on Thursday, or 6 PM Monday, or whatever, make some kind of contact with the divine and feel commonality with other people and be affirmed as a human being, and then slip out the side door quietly. Maybe the old Baptist impulse of “this is between you and God and nobody in Rome or Canterbury or Houston or Nashville has any part of it” is too much to overcome. 

But the fact that it’s still not easy for me to talk about – or even to type about – itself seems like a significant and complex piece of information.

flashbacks, part 109 of n

It was sometime in Black October 2004 when the streaming audio shifted in our workspace in the secret squirrel building somewhere in Cupertino. As we moved dozens of pallets of shrink-wrapped computer gear around and desperately tried to cut into the backlog, we would play various things. Here streaming bluegrass from DC, there a sports-talk station from Iowa. But at some point, we happened upon Virgin Radio UK, which was playing mostly contemporary British guitar-pop stuff. And then, out of nowhere, something called Party Classics with someone called Suggs. And it went a lot farther back, to 50s rock and roll bangers and New Wave classics and not a little bit of Madness.

I didn’t realize who Suggs was at the time. But I soon figured it out, and soon came to the realization that this was absolutely the best part of the week, musically. The show started at 6 o’clock UK time, which meant 10 AM for us, and by the end of it, it was past lunchtime and past time to be doing any serious work. In a way, we lurked there for Dave Edmunds’ “Here Comes The Weekend” and the cacophony of klaxon-siren-horn that signaled the start to the Great British weekend. And it became a standard of the work week for our team, for the rest of my time at Apple. Before long, Suggs had expanded to Saturdays as well, and then ultimately to a pre-recorded “Afternoon Tea” show five days a week that led at least one wag to crack wise about “Suggs FM”. (He goes on about this in his biography, how the shows were largely pre-taped and how a cabdriver once mistook him for going to the studio at 5:55 on a Friday and broke every London traffic regulation to trip to deposit him in Golden Square on time.)

And it fit. It made sense. I’d go to London for our honeymoon and find myself playing Virgin in the background at work for most of the rest of my time at Apple. Ben Jones, Martin Collins, Leona Graham, Geoof Lloyd, Christian O’Connell, but at the heart of it all, Virgin Party Classics with Suggs. Nothing felt as right and proper as having my local radio come from London as I worked away in Cupertino on the leading edge of the future. And at some point in 2007, it occurred to me to record entire episodes of the various Suggs shows with the cunning use of a couple different apps on the home Mac.

Good thing, too, because it all came crashing down pretty quickly. I left Apple at the beginning of October and Suggs left Virgin at the end of November. And in retrospect, I think that as much as anything opened the floodgates to depression as one more thing that was important to me disappeared into the black hole behind me. If nothing else, I’d like to have gone by and paid my respects in London during Thanksgiving 2007 (which I did manage for Geoff, Annabel and Tony, at least). But the height of that era – 2005-06 – was absolutely a high-water mark in my career. Not so long gone from National Geographic, on staff at the most exciting company in the world, and promoted from the drudgery of filling shipping cases to an actual desk job with an office and responsibility and the approval of my management. 

I broke out one of those recordings today to go with Day Drink Friday, here in the blight of the ‘20s, and I was reminded that once upon a time, the future was fresh and Silly Con Valley was a fun place to be. Hopefully, someday, that will be the case again.

flashback, part 108 of n

One of the things I’ve found myself doing the most with my new iPhone 9 is a game – apparently an indie, although who knows anymore – called “It’s Literally Just Mowing.” I paid $5 to get rid of the ads, because things cost money, and wound up with a very simple game. You control a riding lawnmower with a cartoon avatar, going door to door, mowing yards (or parks, or soccer fields, or sometimes vacant lots with artwork in their grass beneath). The mower turns very tight and you don’t actually have to get out the Weed Eater to trim the flower beds or edge up, and the grass shoots out behind and fades so you don’t have to worry about whether you go clockwise or counter-clockwise and making a pile of blown clippings to get your blades hung up in. 

But damn, how the memories roll in.

I started being tasked with grass-cutting at the age of 12. I had taken the old yellow Cub Cadet around the vacant lot across from our house more than once, because it had some uneven terrain but nothing you had to move around. No trees or flower beds or mailboxes or anything like that. After a few months, I had it together enough to inherit the position of Neighborhood Kid Lawn Mower To The Local Dentist/Mayor/City Councilman, which at the time paid I think $15 a cut twice a month. And so, for the next four summers or so, I was the presumptive cutter of grass for our front yard, our back yard, the vacant lot and the Mayor’s grass.

My hay fever wasn’t that bad yet. I mean, I noticed when I got in a sneezing fit, but it wasn’t the debilitating allergy it would be in college (or worse, in grad school and in DC). And I wasn’t wearing contacts at first; it would be 1986 before the eyes would become a problem (and by then, my little brother would be in on the game and we had a couple more neighborhood yards to look after. He wound up running his own landscaping business for a decade in his 30s. But I digress). This was 1985, when fifteen dollars would keep me in Marvel Comics for a month with money besides for twenty-five cent cans of ginger ale or draft style root beer from Piggly Wiggly’s store brand. I hadn’t really discovered girls yet, although there was a blond sax player a year older than me who seemed strangely interesting somehow. I had finally discovered pop music, and had a slew of mix cassettes dubbed off of Kicks 106 and I-95 (always cut off at one end or the other or with some other song or DJ chatter over top) in my fairly cheap knockoff Walkman.

And so “Money For Nothing” and “Get It On (Bang A Gong)” and “Wild Boys” and excerpts from the Miami Vice soundtrack played through cheap headphones as I wheeled around in tight turns, making sure the clippings were evenly sprayed from the right-hand side as I made my counterclockwise revolutions of one yard or another, edging ever so tight against brick or tree to minimize how much I’d have to use the damned Weed Eater. (I hated that thing. HATED it. You had to wear jeans to protect your legs, a horrifying prospect in the Alabama summer sun, and its shitty two-cycle engine never wanted to start without about a hundred squirts of starter fluid and a thousand yanks of the pull-starter. My right arm was overdeveloped for completely different reasons than most thirteen year old boys.) And there was nothing more satisfying than drawing a bead on a giant fire ant mound, gunning the engine, and hearing the growling WHOOMP as the whole thing was vaporized in a brown cloud jetting out from under your right hip. Take that, you little bastards.

By the summer of ’88, I had more remunerative employment than $20 every other week (oh yes, the price went up as I got older) could afford me. But I would still occasionally hop on the mower and do our own front yard, or the lot, just to pass the time and clear my head on a summer day while home from school. Even as late as that last summer in ’97, I’m pretty sure I cut the grass at least once on an idle weekend waiting for my life to start again. I must have done, but I don’t remember for sure, and I definitely didn’t think that was the last time I’d ever sit on the lawnmower. But sure enough. Twenty-three years later, I’ve only ever cut the grass exactly once since, because I’ve only ever lived one place that needed grass cut. (It was way too tall to be cutting with an unpowered old-style push mower, and I did it in a rage after the Skins lost to the Cowboys on an overtime kick return, and I blistered my hands so bad that I invited the neighbor kid to take over in future. $30, for something half the size of that Mayor’s front yard alone in Alabama. Inflation, you know.) But in the last twenty years, I’ve never lived anywhere with a yard to cut at all. 

It doesn’t seem like the worst chore, looking back. As long as you don’t have to trim. Three acres or so on a riding lawnmower and an ice cold beer in the shade after? That’s the sort of dream they write country songs about.

final impressions

It’s working fine. I haven’t touched the iPhone X in the two weeks since I wiped it. I haven’t touched the old iPhone SE since the new one arrived. A big part of that is because I don’t want to be temped by the smaller size, but this is still manageable. I carried a phone this size for a year and half, for crying out loud, I can deal. Everything that needed to migrate did without a fight, and it runs everything I need it to run perfectly well. 

With one exception: the keyboard. Which isn’t any worse than it was before, not by a long shot, and is more usable than on the 4” screen, certainly, but the fact remains that the keyboard has never really been the same since Jony Ive declared that all must be flat and translucent and that anything remotely skeuomorphic was anathema – especially drop shadows and visual cues. Somehow, some way, the keyboard went to shit and never recovered. But being stuck at home, I find myself typing more than I ever expected on the iMac, which despite being four years old is still suitable for everything from iTunes management to Zoom calls with virtual backgrounds to finally allowing for blogging on a more regular basis.

The new phone doesn’t feel like a life-changing event, but it feels ready. When it’s time to quit this job, all I do is flick the SIM across the room and walk out. When it’s time to go abroad, all I do is scan the QR code to light up the e-SIM and we’re off to the races. It feels like control is back in my hands, a tiny little amount. And that’s nothing to sneeze at in this present world. And with the rumblings about the dumbing down of the 5.4” iPhone 12, it’s just as well that I bought this when I did – everything I need and nothing I don’t for $450 plus AppleCare and a good 3 or 4 years of service in a world where FaceID isn’t going to be reliable for a long time.

A good purchase, well made, and now the only new Apple tech I need is the Series 6 Apple Watch, soonest. Maybe only four more months, if I’m very very lucky. But if I can choose where I spend my luck, I’d rather go somewhere else first with it…