Billy Graham

The Baptist Pope, dead at 99. 

Everyone gets safe passage across the river, but I will say that for evangelicals to see their highest figure eulogized by Donald Trump is pretty much what the evangelical movement in America deserves in 2018.

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Seen it coming

My stress is induced by those who don’t follow the rules. Dirty dealing Confederates. Obnoxious users. Shitty drivers. All rooted in the fear that in the end, playing by the rules gets you nothing. Reason and logic get trumped by fear and force. virtue is unrewarded, and those who do wrong get away without consequence. In the end, my stress and depression is rooted in the fear that I too will die having done right for nothing.

Consider the “libertarian” – the redneck apotheosis, the essense of “no one can tell me what to do” – the complete rejection of any sort of collective responsibility. Pure animal law of the jungle. I got mine, fuck you. And thanks to a soft media, we have a situation where the little man goes along with the big mule – not even because he thinks he might be a big mule himself someday, not because he has any hope of being on top at any point, but he will vote against his own self-interest because he has somehow internalized that he wants to be like the big mules, so he will vote with them and support them and defend them, even at the cost of his own good…

The whole concept of “media bias” only arose with television, when it was possible for the news to show you things you didn’t want to see. Actually being challenged with images of their worldview was too much for the South to take, and coupled with Nixonian paranoia it became possible to cast as “biased” anyone who broadcast anything that infringed on what you already believed. The massive runaway success of Fox has come from their talent for telling the Confederates what they already think they know – which also bears out why they tend to be so misinformed…

And because we validate dumb, we get dumb in charge. And now people are making political decisions based on what they think they know – which is the farthest thing from the truth. Stupid should hurt – but their stupid is going to hurt us…

-21 June 2011

 

At the risk of self-aggrandizement…fucking nailed it.

I think the most amazing thing, looking back at this, is how after two and a half years working there it didn’t even occur to me to put Palo Alto cyclists on the list of those who can’t follow the rules. More proof that it really wasn’t an issue until late 2012 or so. Would that the political issues were of similar vintage, but then, we’ve been on a steady slide to this point for twenty-five years. The GOP could have stood up to Trump, but they didn’t, because “vulgar ignorance” is too big a chunk of the base to risk alienating. But honestly, where else were the necks going to go? What would have been lost to the GOP by telling Trump to go screw, by rolling out Jeb Bush or John Kasich or somebody who would have given business 100% of what they wanted, and holy rollers 80% of what they wanted, and probably not activated the Democrats to “resistance” or the North Koreans to the point of ballistic missile false alarm issues?

Maybe the election, sure. Maybe not. It’s pretty abundantly clear that as long as Hillary was convicted of being Hillary, the press was going to grease the skids for anyone else, and Kasich probably could have pulled the same trick just as slick and possibly even won a popular vote majority into the bargain. You have to think that every white nationalist vote you forego puts another grave Very Serious Centrist suburbanite back on the table. It’s not like Hillary’s coattails were ever going to flip either house of Congress.

And now, as Ed make clear, matters are worse. You can put Democrats in control of Congress for maybe four years before the New York Times does its patented mournful po-mouth routine and validates the rednecks right back into power. You can elect a Democratic President and Congress watch as the Washington press corps demands to know why they won’t capitulate to the teabags in the name of bipartisanship, especially after the Democrats wouldn’t just capitulate to a GOP majority government in the name of bipartisanship. Meanwhile, the damage to the guardrails continues apace and the institutions continue to suffer and our ability to stand against the likes of Russia and China in the wider world deteriorates and the defense of liberal democracy is left to whatever Germany can muster while the UK and US collapse into their own sphincters. Maybe we end up with a multipolar world. Maybe we end up with the United States of Alabama, hoping that Tencent and Alibaba and Baidu will open up facilities here instead of Vietnam or Nigeria or Poland. 

But between climate change, political instability, routine mass killings, Russians working our elections like they had one hand up the puppet’s ass, the increasing likelihood of renewed inflation that wipes out my retirement savings and just the general health burden that comes of living on the edge of a knife all the time – and I’m white – I’m not sanguine about the prospect of those golden years that were supposed to be hanging out there in the future for the previous generation. When they write the legacy of Generation X, it’ll read “first to fall to the Great Screwing.”

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You don’t fucking care

Stop pretending you do. If you didn’t care when a bunch of elementary school kids were shot down two weeks before Christmas, you don’t care now and you’re not going to care. Miss me with your thoughts and prayers and go back to watching the necks suck off their guns.

I mean, we aren’t gonna do anything. We couldn’t do it after Sandy Hook when the Democrats still had the Senate and the White House, what makes you think a party bought and paid for by the NRA will lift a finger to reduce gun deaths?

There’s a lot to it. There isn’t a simple fix. Banning assault rifles wouldn’t have stopped Fort Hood or Virginia Tech or Killeen. Banning handguns wouldn’t have stopped Sandy Hook or Las Vegas or today. There are all sorts of angles and complications and nothings going to sort everything out quickly, not least because there are literally hundreds of millions of guns in the wild and they don’t expire or go bad or self-destruct. And the official position of the GOP, as explained by feckless human scrotum Marco Rubio, is that since you can’t stop every attack you shouldn’t lift a finger to stop any of them.

Funny thing…there used to be a lot more drunk driving deaths. It used to be the stuff of Dean Martin or Foster Brooks routines. Hell, George W. Bush got popped for it in the 70s, at a time when the officer was most likely to say “now you get home carefully.” And then we changed our mind, because people were dying and we realized it could be prevented. And we jacked up the penalties – not just for killing somebody, but for doing it at all, for putting yourself or someone else at risk. We changed the law around who can buy alcohol, we changed the contents of driver’s ed, we predicated federal money on tougher laws. We didn’t outlaw booze. We didn’t outlaw cars. But we did bring down the death rate from DUI by a substantial amount.

You can start somewhere. You have to. Maybe start by slapping a hard limit on magazine size; ten rounds for everything and no grandfathering. You’re gonna hand in the old ones, because we’ll criminalize possession. Then charge whoever provided the gun used in a crime as a full accessory as if they pulled the trigger themselves. Parent who gave it as a gift? Accessory. Grampa who didn’t lock his arsenal up? Accessory. Neighbor who sold it off the books? Accessory. The NRA loves to say “people kill people” so let’s get all the people involved in the process. Failure to manufacture your long gun without a bullet button or a fixed magazine? You’re liable for any wrongful death caused by more than five or ten rounds fired. And speaking of rounds, never mind background checks for guns, background check and waiting period for bullets. Maybe you can club someone to death with your M4gery, but you’re gonna have a hard time getting into double digits.

But most of all, it’s time to stop allowing gun policy in this country to be dictated by the rich inner fantasy life of people who want to need guns, whose Red Dawn masturbation dreams demand ever more guns in circulation and ever more ability to have them to hand at all times. The worship of firearms cannot and should not be the cornerstone of a modern society. It isn’t, anywhere else in the Western world. At all. And yet, six of the ten deadliest mass shootings in American history have happened in the past five years, at a time when firearms ownership has become its own form of identity politics. 

And here you see the toxicity of the GOP: you daren’t offend gun worshippers, because that’s the base. Blame video games. Blame toys. Blame “mental illness” (but not if it means cracking down on abusive behavior or toxic masculinity). Blame the victims for not rushing the shooter, or their teachers for not coming to class strapped like a Matrix movie. Blame anything but the holy precious guns.

When next the Democrats get the opportunity, half-measures won’t do. Strike hard and strike sure, and stop waiting for God to stop the bullets. 

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Bits and bytes

It’s going on three months with the iPhone X now, and I had a realization over the weekend. Namely, I’m too stuck into the features of the iPhone X to comfortably give it up for the SE. I like having the AMOLED screen and no bezels, and I like having the top of the line camera. It’s still just a little too big to be a little too big, and the display of the SE doesn’t feel too small for anything but Kindle reading, but it’s like my old NGS boss said all those years ago: at the end of the day, you don’t want two phones, you want one phone. I suppose I should just be grateful that my employer hasn’t gone down the road that most of the rest of this Valley has: not only do they not provide a phone, they don’t even compensate you for the business use of your personal phone. So I may as well milk this while I can.

Thing is, too, now that the Kindle app has been updated, there’s more text on the screen of the iPhone X than there is on my actual Kindle Paperwhite. Which is still the preferred device for shutdown night and plane travel and the like, but especially when I can use white text on a black AMOLED display, there’s no great drop-off in functionality using the iPhone X as reading material instead. Which is great for those early morning bus commutes (and how grateful am I that I can commute to and from work, however slowly, without resorting to Caltrain now?) or anytime I’m left with time to kill and no desire to bleed my battery out refreshing RSS and the Twitter accounts I should really kill.

Of course, the flip side to the Kindle and its app is that you’re pot-committed to Amazon. Which is the way of things. Platform lock-in is the entirety of the Silly Con Valley business model these days. By way of making up the difference, I’m trying to do my best to get away from Amazon for buying atoms. Bits, I can reluctantly live with, just because I don’t want to keep accumulating things in the house – but actual physical stuff? One, I don’t need that much more of it, and two, I’d rather obtain it by patronizing an actual brick and mortar business. I came to it too late to be a proper New Year’s resolution, but maybe that’s the goal for after my birthday.

Because the problem is, Amazon has sort of become Google for stuff. Because the web and search engines aren’t particularly good at actually digging through shitposts and scam sites and the detritus of an unregulated environment, it’s just easier to go with The Everything Store. It’s not only Amazon, either; if you try to buy a new cap from the SEC Store or the San Francisco Giants store either one, you’ll just find Fanatics.com as the backbone for both of them. And ironically, if you actually want that New Era 5950 Low Profile cap, you’ll find more options there than you will on New Era’s own shopping site.  The easiest thing in the world is to just open Amazon, search for whatever thing you want, and check the box to filter for “Prime eligible”.

And yet…two day shipping for any old thing? Is it really better to spend the fuel and the cardboard to send one pack of razor blades than to just walk into CVS? Especially when, more and more, it seems like Amazon’s employment model is “Wal-Mart, but less generous”? Is it possible to add Amazon into the list of avoidables? I can mostly get through life without Google…except I need that burner number in Google Voice, and everyone uses YouTube to distribute video. I could divest myself of Amazon…except the Kindle basically has the e-book market by the nuts. I’m shut of Facebook…except for Instagram as my main social media outlet and WhatsApp for international cross-platform communication since everyone else uses it. (Seriously, look at the likes of Path or Peach or app.net or Diaspora or micro.blog if you want to see the prospects for wooing people into a second social media outlet.) And to be shut of these other things, I have to go all in…with Apple. Who at least deals in cash on the barrelhead for goods and services and doesn’t make their money whoring out your personal data…for now.

So for the time being, I’m gonna sit on the SE just in case a trip abroad appears out of nowhere in 2018 or something goes seriously pear-shaped at work, but I suspect it’s not going to see a lot of use other than to make sure it stays updated. But if a newer, better SE drops, it might be hard to resist. And if an X-Minus drops…that’s happening. Somehow.

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counterfactual

So let’s say Clinton sunk like Gary Hart in ’92 after the Gennifer Flowers thing (woman can you not even spell your name right, what the fuck) and the Democrats rolled out Paul Tsongas or Jerry Brown or some such again. The big question is, does Ross Perot feel the need to jump in again, and I’m guessing he probably does, because a Texan with money will always think he knows best about everything.

Thing is, I firmly believe and will to my dying day that the Perot voter is at heart a Trump voter, wanting someone who is not a politician and who knows about running a business so obviously he knows about government (which is like saying your car mechanic can fix a Porsche so obviously he knows how to do your open heart surgery, duh). I strongly suspect that at least 2/3 of Perot’s support would have gone to Bush in the end had he dropped out. And he did at one point, presumably because he thought the Democrats represented enough change, but then jumped back in, and I can’t even remember all the nonsense. But the thing is, Ross Perot is batshit loon ball head trauma crazy and he got 19% of the vote in 1992 and still got 9% in 1996, in case you ever wonder how Trump happened.

Anyway.

I think Bush beats Tsongas or Brown straight up, thus leading to another four years of “omg why do the Democrats keep running all these Yankees out there to get their asses kicked,” but I don’t think Bush shifts the Congress at all. In a three-way fight with Perot and Bush and $YANKEE_DEM, I think Perot might have had a plausible claim to be the only real change candidate since $YANKEE_DEM is just another Mondale or Dukakis, but I don’t think it’s enough to tip the balance back to the Democrats.

Really, the only success for a Democrat running for the White House, not an incumbent, has come in times of trauma. 1976, 1992, 2008. You have to go back to 1960 to see a non-incumbent Democrat get elected in what is a reasonably prosperous economy. Maybe $YANKEE_DEM can pull it off, but I severely doubt it. Don’t forget, the Democrats of today got here because of Clinton winning, the impact of the DLC, and eight years of pushing back against Bush and the Iraq war, and twenty years of pushing back against a Confederate GOP. At this point in history, the Republicans are using South as prescribed on the package, not taking a couple extra to get high. A big chunk of the South in Congress is still reliably Democratic, mostly with plenty of mileage and veteran experience.

Which brings up the question: does the GOP still take the Congress in 1994? I think not. Sixth-year gains are almost impossible to make, and while there would certainly be casualties from the House Post Office scandal and the like, you also don’t have the “we are running against Clinton” effect to nationalize the races. Consider also that the right-wing radio of the time was as likely to take shots at Bush for his lack of efficacy; you didn’t have the unified monolithic Mighty Wurlitzer of conservative media that would be forged by the time Fox News broke on the scene in 1996 or so. So maybe you end up with a wash: the GOP gets stronger, maybe tips the balance in one house, but unified control doesn’t happen, especially not in the Senate. If the House does flip for the first time since 1954, you suddenly have Newt Gingrich as the firebrand making things tougher for Bush, and the 1996 Democrat can run against him just the way Clinton and Gore did in reality.

And then…what? You need a Democrat in the White House in order to unify the GOP post-Cold War, because especially as they increase their dosage of South, they need a devil. Clinton was easy, because he came with moral baggage and a second-wave feminist wife, thus teeing up an easy mark for the Talibaptists. Maybe in 1996, your Democrat is…Al Gore. Solid, studious, beyond reproach. Military service, divinity school, impeccable pedigree, Southern accent, and a wife most famous for crusading against dirty lyrics in rock music. Probably going up against the likes of Dan Quayle or Bob Dole, either of whom he could beat in a walk after sixteen years of GOP control of the White House and, let’s face it, an economy that’s probably as stultified as it was in 1992 given that you won’t get the kind of tax package Clinton made happen in 1993 to calm the markets re: inflation and deficit control.

And there’s no Fox News yet. There’s no Mighty Wurlitzer to push the “sighing lying Al Gore” meme. Hell, the whole “invented the Internet” thing couldn’t get legs in 1996 because most voters were just getting around to figuring out what the Internet was. There would be shots, there would be obstacles, but in the grand scheme of things, solid stolid Al beats “P-O-T-A-T-O-E” Quayle.

So in 1996, Al Gore fills in that last line on his resume and becomes President. Probably appoints Hillary to be Secretary of HHS, in all likelihood. Maybe the Congress completes the Southern flip anyway by 1998, but it’s not bloody likely there’s something to impeach him with. Probably gets re-elected in 2000 off the back of the Internet boom, probably doesn’t toss away the daily brief on August 6, 2001 with the “all right, you’ve covered your ass” dismissal, probably don’t get the same caliber of attack on September 11 as a result, and as a result, don’t get an endless war in Asia. But more importantly, the Republicans are deprived of Clinton, of impeachment, of an eternal September 12, of the panicked patriotic rallying behind a President who wasn’t all that different from Trump in anything but style.

The contemporary GOP was built on the tripod of Clinton hating, flipping Congress and 9/11. Take one of those away and everything changes. Take all three away and who knows? Gore is likely to generate about as many scandals as Obama, and it’s a hell of a lot harder to build nightly outrage on the prospect of his being a secret Muslim born in Kenya. Fox News viewers may have a lot tougher time building the rage for someone who looks and sounds like they do if they don’t have an obvious peg to hang the evil on.

I mean, yes, you can say there’s always something. John Kerry got cut to ribbons over his Vietnam service and his response to it. But that was after the machine had a decade to hone itself. I have no doubt that had he stayed in the Senate and never been VP or run for President before, an Al Gore race in 2004 would have looked equally bloody. And thus we get to the point of this whole counterfactual: it’s not enough to win at the polls so long as the machine is in place, because the Mighty Wurlitzer is the party now. The GOP is a wholly owned and operated subsidiary of the Newscorp Hate Machine. Winning the race will only go so far until you can break the machine, and given the median age of the Fox viewing audience, it’s only a matter of time before it fractures. The question is, can we hold the world together until then…

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flashback, part 91 of n

I think I can pin it down to my birthday in 1994, the morning after I got the call to let me know Vanderbilt was offering me their most prestigious graduate fellowship for grad school. My then-girlfriend joined me in ditching class and driving up to Nashville, where I promptly ram-raided the bookstore for all manner of hats and t-shirts and car stickers and assorted swag. And then we decamped to the Sucker District, where I had my first visit to the Old Spaghetti Factory and my very first encounter with the Italian Cream Soda. Club soda, raspberry Torani, splash of whipped cream on top. And for whatever reason, I was immediately captivated.

And the good thing was, in the early 90s, the emergence of second-wave coffee sellers in the South meant that an Italian soda was as close as Barnie’s Coffee and Tea, or any number of other spots. It was probably less sugary than Dr Pepper, which was my principal carbonated vice from 1986 til then, but it also had something else going for it – mostly based on timing. It was spring, and I was young, and the prospect of Vanderbilt was like a country record played backward. I was going to get a fresh start, I was going to get to leave Alabama, I was going to finally get to do what I’d always wanted to do: study politics to the exclusion of general-education requirements and ancillary electives, with a bunch of people equally devoted to the topic and focused on the classroom instead of fraternity rush and sorority meetings. And along the way, I’d get to take in actual SEC athletics and swipe my ID in Coke machines to pay for drinks and learn a new set of TV and radio stations.

It was a new start, and of all my new starts, it was the only one where I was happy to push the past down the black hole behind me never to be seen again. And a delightful new beverage was the perfect synecdoche for making myself over into a new person. And if only I’d had the presence of mind and lack of responsibility to cut one more tie along the way, things might have turned out very very different indeed. Or maybe not. Irrespective of my poor relationship choices, I was going to grad school to launder the choices I made in undergrad, which is the last reason to go to grad school. So there’s no lead pipe cinch I would have made it out alive anyway even without a bad girlfriend anchoring me down.

But it was spring, and my car was less than a year old, and the dashed dreams of four years earlier had been successfully unearthed and brought back to life. And I could relax on some notional veranda of the mind with my raspberry Italian soda and gaze across the horizon of a glorious future unfolding. And to be honest, that might have been the last time in my life where spring meant something other than “pollen and heat are coming.”

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tweed

It was a Christmas gift a couple of years ago. A Harris tweed sport coat. Two button, double vent, no elbow patches, in a neutral sort of tweed between tan and brown with colorful streaks through it. 

It feels like something out of another life, or maybe another time. Like something I would have worn as an asssistant professor in the late 90s, or something my dad had when I was younger. The lapels especially have a thick and rough feel to them that almost suggests upholstery somehow. There’s the thought that if you wore this out in a heavy rain, you would stay dry but it would smell like a wet sheep. 

It feels almost too nice for daily wear. It was an artifact of a time when I was trying to buy things that would last the rest of my life, and in its way it’s a perfect match for the Alden Indy boots I got for my birthday some years earlier. In both cases, a function piece of working apparel, recontextualized by time and economics in a world where workwear is churned out quick and cheap in some distant country’s factory for pennies a day. Where craft and care and durability have been sidelined by the imperative to stack it high and sell it cheap.

Like so many things in my life, it’s an aspirational artifact. I want to live in a place and in a way that this is a climate-appropriate and practical garment. The same way I want my iPhone SE to be enough as a general computing device capable of going around the world, or the way I want my mechanical watch to be all the timepiece I need without calendar reminders or two-factor authentication. The same way the Moto X was an artifact from a world I wished I lived in.  Time was, I wanted to need the things I wanted. Now I just want the things that will let me pretend I’m living the life I want. And there really aren’t that many left. Here a work shirt, there a Nerf pistol, and I’ll find an excuse for something if I fly over an ocean be it a sweater or a pair of flip-flops, but always in the service of the same thing. A world where I can eschew contacts or socks, or where I need a global timekeeping standard and an international chat app, or whether the fabric of 19th century gamekeepers is the perfect outerwear solution for my place and time.

Maybe if I have all the stuff I need, it’s time to do the things I want with it.

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flashback, part 90 of n

I didn’t say much about the project as it was happening, partly because I generally avoided talking about work business on here and partly because there just wasn’t time.  But it was just exactly this time last year that everything really went sideways and pear-shaped, and my conflicting urges – to be a stupendous badass and to be left alone – really got me deep in the shit.  I avoided punching this particular tar baby for as long as I could, but I wound up stuck worse than Br’er Rabbit ever did, and there wasn’t any briar patch to beg my way into instead.

It was a combination of every single work trauma I’d ever had to that point: excessive-to-the-point-of-actual-pain physical labor, arbitrary deadlines, an ill-defined project with incompetent leadership, tons of extra bodies of the “now does anyone hear speak Windows, with some difficulty?” variety (including, famously, one contractor who just wandered off after I explained the process and decided he would do something else). Not to mention ridiculous hours, horrifyingly bad nutrition, and severe inattention to personal maintenance (i.e. a hipster neck beard of the sort I’d normally shoot myself in the face rather than wear).  Normal duties, which of course I was still on the hook for, fell further and further behind. My shoulder, which two rounds of steroid injections had mostly sorted, was soon hurting worse than ever…

- Feb 12, 2014

 

It was five years ago that I got dragooned into assisting with what is now recalled to memory as “the encryption project.” I don’t think I grasped at the time how much of a pivot point that would be in my life. It was like I’d coasted on one year of borrowed time after turning 40, but then everything went to shit at once. The exodus from the Bay Area of all my local friends kicked into high gear, my physical health hit the wall, and that was about the time I first started to notice that Caltrain was becoming an untenable way to get to work. (Not least because I found myself going between the third and second busiest stations in the system and then having to take a 20-minute shuttle bus ride each way to boot.) My recurring shoulder pain, my disillusion with Shallow Alto specifically and the Bay Area in general, the rise of the bicycle menace, the rapid-onset depression about my career path and future opportunities – it all started spinning out of control in late January, 2013. 

I honestly didn’t use to be this way. As late as 2012, when there was still a coffee cart at the Caltrain station in the mornings and I basically never saw anyone riding right down the VTA platform past the “No cycling, skateboarding or rollerblading” signs, I was blogging about how much I enjoyed being up in the city and filling my “what have I enjoyed in my life in this year” list with notes about drinks on Polk and chasing fog through the Avenues and checking out one craft cocktail place after another and spending weekends in a borrowed apartment on King Street near the ballpark. By 2014, I didn’t really have anything I enjoyed in the city anymore. This Valley turned hot and it turned nasty and it turned ever more dickish, and it was pretty obvious that I was on the wrong side of what counted. And I’m white, and male, and reasonably well off. If turning 40 is all it takes to put you on the outside of Silly Con Valley looking in, how much worse is it if you’re female, or the wrong ethnicity, or not even tangentially inside the tech bubble?

In a way, it worked out for the best. Three years of abject misery eventually turned into a make-good with more money for less work while retaining the same sort of “dare you to fire me” job security. I’ll never get rich, I’ll never get options or stock, but there’ll be plenty of vacation and I can do a hell of a job with 66% effort. And as I age into the back half of my career – knowing full well that retirement isn’t really on the cards anytime soon, if ever – I’m taking the off days now, taking the vacations now, making that conscious effort to build my life on something other than work because I know the rifles of the EUS aren’t walking through that door and finding another place isn’t going to be the miracle cure. I don’t know how many fresh starts I have in me at this point, and I don’t know how many I’m up for undertaking – I’ve had a couple fresh starts too many for building continuity and the kind of community and base I wish I’d developed by now.

Instead of hitting the reset, make the best of what’s in front of you, or else be prepared to deal with the enormity of pulling up sticks to move to Ireland. I guess that’s the lesson at this point.

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Unthinkable

It’s remarkable to look at the world twenty-five years ago. We were just coming off the end of the Cold War, the end of the war in Kuwait, the end of wondering when the nukes were going to fall. Anita Hill had us paying attention to sexual harassment. Rodney King had us paying attention to police violence. Al Gore had us paying attention to climate change. And for the first time, almost anyone could get to the “information superhighway” that was going to transform the world.

Of course, it was all an illusion, because “we’re going to” means nothing. The worst verb in the world is “will.” We will take care of the environment, we will get a fair shake for people of color, we will make sure women enjoy full equality in society. Because when you say “we will,” you get to drop back and punt and let the future take care of it. And then you get Ferguson, and Sandra Bland, and Harvey Weinstein and Walter Scott and Kevin Spacey and Mark Halperin and Twitter bots and Facebook frauds and a ballistic missile alert in Hawaii and above all, the racist grandpa who got to sit in the White House without the most votes. In twenty-five years, if anything, we’ve gone backward.

Because we didn’t really believe in consequences. We said “this is wrong” but forgot to mention “unless you’re powerful enough to make it hell on anyone who calls you on it” and “we all know Hollywood and CEOs and powerful people are Just That Way and what can you do.” And when the Internet became a thing, it started off as rare and different and exotic and ended up being shaped exactly the same as everything else. Them that has, gets, and them that has more gets more. Silicon Valley in 2018 is functionally indistinguishable from Wall Street in 1986, except Y Combinator has replaced Wharton and Stanford is the new Harvard. Same big swinging dicks, same get-rich-quick scam artists crowding out actual product, same firehose of wealth pointed at a narrow sliver of white or proper-sort-of-Asian dudes from the same half-dozen schools. The money assholes moved to the Peninsula and metastasized, and just kept enabling more horrible assholes to be more horrible than ever.

Because the Internet gave us a data revolution and let us slice and dice and find people. We thought that it meant a gifted kid in Alabama would never have to be lonely, without thinking that a horrible racist in New Jersey would be empowered and enabled in the same way. It unleashed all kinds of power with absolutely no control or judgement of whether this was a good idea or not. Why? Because that’s how society already is. It’s how society has always been. Don’t believe me, book a flight on a commercial airplane. Look at your seat classes and your boarding groups and your TSA Pre and your CLEAR and the fact that bags cost, snacks cost, choosing your own seat costs…somewhere back there we managed to decide that we could charge extra to treat people like human beings and slice that into tranches of its own so people would pay more for the privilege of not being veal-boxed across the country. And then technology gave us the ability to add dynamic pricing to that, so now everything is a game of chicken designed to squeeze the most out of every salable good from airline seats to baseball tickets to advertising. 

We’ve taken the internet revolution and run 180 degrees the wrong way with it. With every advance, our choices get smaller. We used to have hundreds of dialup ISPs. Then we had a handful of DSL providers. Now, you pick between your cable company and either your phone company or doing without, because fiber isn’t there for most people. There were a dozen significant phone manufacturers in 2006. Now it’s Apple and Samsung literally accounting for every dollar of profit in the mobile handset market, plus a few other players trying to find their way. We started with Yahoo and Hotwire and Excite and Altavista and Webcrawler and we wound up with Google. How many people in your address book have personal email accounts that end with something other than @gmail.com?

We thought the Internet didn’t require regulation. We actively avoided it. These were not laws of nature, they were deliberate choices. Letting Amazon walk on sales tax for a decade or more gave them an economic advantage that catapulted them to the top of the marketplace. Letting Facebook accumulate real name information and suddenly tear down the walled garden without consequence, and then purchase Instagram and WhatsApp, gave them a critical edge on making themselves the universal address book – and the ability to sell it out to anyone with cash. Letting Twitter become a honeypot for assholes and a free-fire zone for bots and racists so their DAU numbers could stay higher was just plain fucking stupid. But for whatever reason, the kind of scorn we gave junk-bond traders and algorithmic banking hustlers just never got turned on the likes of Dorsey and Zuckerberg and Bezos and the Googlers and Y Combinator.

I don’t know how it was that we decided that “everyone should code” and that “the most important skill you can learn is being able to code” and all that sort of nonsense. There’s plenty enough in Silly Con Valley that doesn’t rely on code, and I guarantee you none of the names above have made a significant contribution to their company’s Github in years. Because it’s not really about code, and it’s not really about everyone knowing how to code. It’s about establishing “code” as a shibboleth for the technical elite and “coders” as inherently special people who deserve an exalted place, as if system administrators and technical writers and support agents aren’t equally critical in making the Valley go.  It’s about collecting and consolidating privilege. It’s like the parable of the man who thinks the one thing he knows is the only thing worth knowing. And it’s of a piece with Gibson’s character of Cody Harwood in the Bridge trilogy: a person who wants a new world while ensuring that he will retain the same power and privilege he possessed in the old.

Which actually is itself of a piece with things like the so-called dark enlightenment. Or the Six Californias nonsense of Tim Draper, or the New California nonsense of whatever Infowars deviants cooked that up over the weekend. It’s about saying that the present system needs to be changed in such a way that I will automatically enjoy greater puissance under the new regime than I presently possess…which means removing power from anyone I don’t like. Women, Democrats, brown people…come to think of it, this is all of a piece with the assorted VRA shenanigans and “voter fraud” suppressions that Conservative, Inc has been flogging for twenty years.

And we’re back to the early 90s. I’m pretty sure that history will record 1994 as a nodal point, when the South managed to get astride the American future and scream “STOP” while simultaneously signaling that “do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Two decades of a culture explicitly bending toward the notion that you don’t have to know or care that other people exist. Two decades of making sure we don’t get any further than we were. Two decades of ending up right back where we started from. Actually, in 1995, we at least had a reasonably capable human being in the Oval Office and didn’t have to worry about ballistic missile alerts. I don’t know what I’d give just to be back where we started, instead of going in reverse.

If there’s a lesson from the last year – or the last twenty-five years – it’s that you should never say something is unthinkable, because everything is possible. And things can always, always get worse.

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Saturday morning

On January 7, I woke up with an accelerated heart rate because of something that hadn’t happened in almost thirty years: a stress dream about a nuclear attack. I dreamed I was at Disney World, there was an impending nuclear attack, I couldn’t find my ID or my phone, and didn’t know what to do other than wake up with my chest pounding and take a couple of really deep breaths before cursing out sixty-three million assholes and rolling over.

Six days later, we’re walking down the sidewalk on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki Beach when the phones start making that Emergency Broadcast System noise. Both phones showed the same message: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

So there you have it. The nightmare of your entire lifetime for every Gen-X kid who grew up on The Day After and Sting’s “Russians” and knowing you could be wiped out with the click of a button. Here we go. What happens now?

Maybe it was because of the dream, or maybe it’s because I lived through the surreality of working in Washington DC on September 11, but something about it just didn’t feel right. Everything was mostly focused on “okay what is next” and my mind never wandered for more than a couple of seconds to things like “I hope the people who promised to cuss out my mother if this happens come through” and “you know, even if we survive we’re probably never going to leave this island”. It was more like “okay, go in this hotel. They don’t have a basement. OK, let’s get back to our own hotel, that’s where our meds and phone chargers are.” And all the while, “need more data. Need more data.”

Because Hawaii’s a big place. Yeah, Honolulu is probably the A target, but maybe not, and can we narrow down where the thing is? Are we talking multiple warheads? (Probably not, I doubt DPRK could build a proper MIRV-based ballistic missile.) What are the odds the thing can hit what it aims for? More to the point, why are all four local network affiliates still running normal programming and why isn’t this on any of the cable networks yet? Even if CNN is late to the party, the local stations should be breaking in at least as much as they do in Alabama for a tornado warning, if not more.

And in the back of your mind, you’re thinking about Stanislav Petrov saving the world from a false alarm in 1983. Or all the stories about a weather balloon or a goose or the rising moon being taken for a missile. And you’re at a point in your life where you don’t trust anything you hear from anyone about anything except for when your wife says she loves you; everything else needs a minimum of two witnesses. And you just sort of decide that until you see a bang and a flash, you’re going to keep on living and see what happens. Make them bury you; don’t do it for them.

And then Tulsi Gabbard tweets out “false alarm”, and because of the above paragraph, you wait for someone else who’s maybe a little less cuckoo, and then the Hawaii EMA office tweets out “false alarm”, and then it’s a crawl on Everton-Spurs, and you can relax and exhale for a minute and then maybe the panic seeps out just for a second where you had it in a subconscious headlock before.

And you add it to the list, with the tornado near-misses and the September 11 attacks and the DC snipers and the quakes and the wildfires and the mudslides, and you start to think that maybe it’s just you. But that picture of you holding up the local paper with the huge “OOPS” headline? That’s definitely going on the Christmas card this year.

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