The lineup

Much is being made of the fact that there aren’t the first-day lines for the iPhone like there used to be. And it makes sense. For one, the improvements to the iPhone have been highly incremental – the iPhone 5 got a bigger screen and LTE in 2012, and since then only the larger sizes in 2014 have been an appreciable change. If you had last year’s iPhone, there’s no call to run out for this year’s; the days of leaps and bounds are basically done. But for another, the iPhone X has ruined the iPhone 8’s appeal. The 8 is basically a slightly improved 7; the X is the Next Big Thing (and pronouncing it as “ten” does the 8 no favors either), and since the X doesn’t arrive until November, where’s the incentive to run out and stand in line for an incremental upgrade, especially when Apple manages to drop-ship on launch day so effectively and you can just hang out at home to get it?

I’m more convinced than ever that I’m out on the 8/plus. I reluctantly concede that if someone else (say, work) were to pony up the $1000 for the iPhone X, I would be intrigued just to see what the impact of a 5.8” screen is on my life. Given that my precious Kindle Paperwhite is only a 6” display, and that I could use white on black to limit the battery draw thanks to AMOLED, and that video is probably actually useful on a screen that size relative to a 4” display, the iPhone X would be a legitimate contender as One Device To Rule Them All, even if it’s still a hair bigger than a hair too big. But at that price point, the incentive is still: let somebody else go first.

I still hope against hope for the prospect of an iPhone SE2, with the processors of the 8 and maybe a camera improvement while eschewing the space-wasting of 3D Touch and wireless charging. Or an iPhone X-Minus, with a 5-inch AMOLED display in a package roughly the size of the original Moto X – a hair bigger than the SE but smaller than the 6/7/8 line. Either would open my wallet. But as it is, I’m going abroad again with the SE (and maybe the Kindle for the plane trip). Of which…

Posted in Technology, Travel | Leave a comment

The New Victorians

About five months ago I first kicked around the notion of “distributed servantry.” Then, last week, I heard a couple of very sharp women discussing how the future of retail was in the experience, rather than just the purchase of goods, and they confirmed for me that this was the original department store model in the 1800s. It wasn’t about piling it high and stacking it cheap, it was about the personal shopping and the individual attention to Madame’s interest and curiosity and the refreshments and possibly spa treatments.

And this then kicked me back to the aforementioned distributed servantry. We wouldn’t think twice about trying to hire a cook, a chauffeur, a lady’s maid – but Doordash and Uber and Taskrabbit allow us to do just that. The running gag for years has been “Silly Con Valley invents ways to do what your mother doesn’t do for you anymore,” but the telling bit in that is that in the past, ‘all mod cons’ meant you had assorted modern conveniences to make it easier for you to do the dishes, do the laundry, whatever. Contemporary distributed servantry isn’t about making it easier for you to do these things, it’s about making it easier for someone else to do it for you.

And at that point, we’ve established a split between Eloi and Morlocks. Worse, in a way, because servants had to be housed and fed and generally provided for. Your Fiverr person or Lyft driver is out of your life forever soon as the app closes. No problem. Except they aren’t an employee of the little glowing square on your phone either, so it’s not like they’re guaranteed benefits or even a proper living wage. Permanent hustle, always scuffling to keep up, and the perversion of the Protestant work ethic means that that in America, any leisure moment is a moral fault if you don’t have enough money to enjoy it. 70 hours a week is “worth ethic,” 80 hours a week and loving it gets crossed out for 90, and a woman giving birth in the car-share she’s driving to make ends meet is a story of heroic dedication rather than Dickensian horror.

This all works because of a dirty little secret that a lot of people would rather you did not look too closely at. And that is this: the fundamental ethos of the 21st century GOP is exactly the same as the fundamental ethos of Silly Con Valley, and it’s “I GOT MINE, FUCK YOU.” It is the normalization of the absence of empathy. It’s the moral position that it’s okay not to know there’s other people. Hashtags and pieties are a perfectly good atonement for “we accidentally the election” while the tools of social media continue to feed the Nazis, and “the best cure for free speech is more free speech.” Just like the best cure for a hurricane is more water. Racism and sexism coupled to weaponized ignorance and pushed through the internet as a force multiplier might have bent an American presidential election, but holding Twitter and Facebook to account in any way would be bad for the First Amendment. That’s the kind of thinking that will ultimately cost us freedom of speech, but if it’s not a Y Combinator problem, then it’s not a problem here.

It’s disappointing, because from 1999, it looked like the 21st century was going to be a new and exciting and promising place. Then something went horribly, terribly wrong – and you can see the dry run for glorifying ignorance and dismissing knowledge and experience happen all through the Bush campaign coverage of 2000 – and we wound up with eight years of America being consumed by the stupid, followed by eight years of America fighting like hell to stay consumed in the face of reality. And instead of going forward to the 21st, we’re going back to the 19th. We just have apps now.

Posted in Politickin', Technology | Leave a comment

Victory Or Die, or, twenty years and fightin’

This is how raw I was: the night before my first day of work, I finally got hold of a real map and realized I didn’t have to take the Orange Line to Metro Center to change for the Red and get out at Farragut North – I could in fact just get out at Farragut West, walk across Farragut Square and save ten cents each way. Not a minute too soon, because on that day – September 15. 1997 – I started my first day of work at the National Geographic Society.

First, though, jet back: five months earlier, mid-April, I was still with my girlfriend of three and a half miserable years. Trying to keep her sane and do what I thought was my duty had left me three weeks out from my prelim exams with no realistic hope of passing. If I bombed out, my options were basically to go back to Birmingham, tail between my legs, and see what kind of life if any I could piece together. In all likelihood, I would have wound up staying there, trying to spin a temp job into a permanent office gig, maybe somewhere in the bowels of SONAT where I might even now find myself only five years out from a Rolex – or a suicide attempt. But that tale has been told before.

No, this began in a one-bedroom apartment in Arlington, with a boom box and an air mattress and a week’s worth of clothing, and my computer set up on top of a pizza box with a hole cut in it for ventilation. On the first day of work, I was introduced to the guys, and they took me in without hesitation. In fact, before the day was over, the ranking contractor had pulled me aside and handed me two 32MB SIMMs to take home and upgrade my computer from 24 MB of RAM to 72, and a disk to install Mac OS – was it 7.6.1 or were we on 8 by then? Work was still standardized on 7.5.3 rev2 and would be for months. 

I was issued a pager, which was handy as I couldn’t afford to turn on the cellphone I insisted on buying and carrying anyway. If I got a page that said 4663, that means FOOD and it was time to check in with the guys. In those days we were most likely going to see the King, walking down 16th Street NW to the Burger King in a crowd of six or seven. And at the end of the day, about a week on, I was given a P5-90 Pentium Gateway PC with the ticketing software and Quake installed so I could hop on the two-hour LAN battle that seemed to close every workday – and then train home on the Orange line Metro in plenty of time for Monday Night Football. We weren’t close – well, they were, but I wasn’t yet. But it didn’t take much time. After a week of shadowing the other Mac software guy, I solved my first ticket on my own – predictably, a weird printer issue – and once I’d demonstrated that I could and would do the job, we were off.

The big layoffs the year before had left us with a bunch of people waiting out their retirement and a bunch of young feisty guys just happy to still be there. Contractor reductions continued apace – it seemed like someone had a leaving lunch every Friday for most of the fall. There were maybe two women in the IS department that I ever came into contact with in those early days – one was my notional grandboss, trying to navigate the waters around the new VP, and one the office admin and sister of my boss, who bonded with me over women’s college basketball and our shared loathing of the Tennessee Lady Vols, and who was always there with Red Vines or a dab hand altering the time card to preserve my tiny increment of sick leave in a pinch.

It became obvious that we were in a challenging environment. All the VP wanted was for the calls to go away, and once there were no tickets we wouldn’t need desktop support, so contractors were ruthlessly purged to the point where two staff techs were handing all PC software support calls for a user base of 1200 – in a world where some had NT 4 and some had Windows for Workgroups, some had Token Ring and some had Ethernet, some had BeyondMail and some had Lotus Notes and TCP/IP access depended on what floor you were on – and there was a nine business day wait between tickets, which meant we had to escort these guys to lunch like Red Tails or Secret Service. The remaining contractors started showing me the ropes on Windows, getting familiar with NT and Ghost and the things I would need to do to contribute.

And then, one day, a server administrator – who was a server admin only because he had been a mainframe guy, and the Towers Perrin study said he had the salary of a server administrator, so you’re an NT admin and here is a book – came down to take possession of our server. Our NT box that was used as a repository for quickly-needed files, and incidentally our Quake server as well. And the contractor who administered it barred his way, said it wasn’t a server, it was an archive, and hastily typed a line to show up on the screen saver:

EUS_Archive

End User Services. That was our group. Technically it would become more like an English football firm, or maybe an Irish mob. As the ranks were thinned above us, our lead found himself reporting directly to the VP, who was out to get rid of him. But he fought back like hell on a daily basis. Beneath him, a couple of the guys acted as consigliere and caporegime to the rest of us, who were basically under orders to be a quart in a pint pot – do the impossible, but thread the needle in such a way that the powers that be would know we didn’t have enough people and couldn’t run at 275% of maximum forever.

One new bigwig after another was brought in to tame us. A new director. A new manager. Every one tasked with managing our boss out the door and somehow ending help calls in the meantime. In one of the last conversations I ever had with my father, I described the nonsense, which recalled the chaos of his own last year or two in the workforce, and he sighed and told me “well, just do the best you can and don’t be a horse’s ass.” And I’ve lived by that ever since. Most days I was a lot better at the first than the second. And there in the foxhole – hiding our contractors to keep them out of sight and out of mind, training a callow Mac tech with two poli-sci degrees to add printers on Windows NT and switch Token Ring cards for Ethernet and troubleshoot a Netware connection – we changed. We weren’t doing these things for a paycheck, or for the greater glory of the National Geographic Society, we were doing them because we depended on each other and nobody wanted to let down the guy beside him.

Staying late for Quake turned into staying late for Quake and then going to grab prime rib any way for $9.99 on Thursdays at Sign of the Whale. Prime Rib led to attempts to holler at the girls in the Channels International office and things like hookah lounges and karaoke bars. Solidarity took us to paintball courses and softball fields. One new bigwig after another, brought in to tame us, found themselves taking our side and defending us. And every time I wanted to go ballistic, to take the fight to the enemy in a major way, my boss would take me aside and give me the same advice Patrick Swayze gave the coolers at the Double Deuce: “I want you be nice. Until it’s time to not be nice.”

The Y2K remediation finally gave us all the personnel we needed, some of whom we marked out and made sure to bring into the fold as staff as soon as the opportunity presented itself. And that led us to a public house in Cleveland Park, and for four and a half years, anything that mattered in our lives either happened at or was celebrated at Ireland’s Four Provinces. Then, on September 11, 2001, we lost a friend of the program, the director of the travel office, who was on the plane that hit the Pentagon. And on September 12, 2001, with armed troops in the street and Humvees on every street corner, we reported in for work bang on time. Every. Single. One. Of. Us.

When my father died, they were there to cover my calls and doctor my timesheets. When my then-girlfriend needed a job after moving to DC, they slid her into the org chart and made a tech of her, then a help desk manager. When I broke up with said girlfriend, they were there to load my stuff into a van smelling of garbage and unpack the TV first so we wouldn’t miss the Redskins game while we emptied the rest. When I had a rotten Christmas at home in Alabama, they were waiting on December 26 with a table at the pub and pints of Guinness on the way. And seven months after I’d left and moved to California, when it was bachelor party time, they were there with a house for a poker party and a van to Atlantic City and a shady rented-out resort for us to crash in, and all thirteen of the traveling party came back at least even-money if not up over a thousand because they stood on 12 at blackjack.

The callow kid who started that job twenty years ago tomorrow had not one day of professional Mac support experience. The one who left seven years later was the senior Mac technician, Apple-certified, running the rollout of new machines and acting as the in-case-of-energency-break-glass tech of last resort. And I was able to take that resume to Cupertino and get a job at Apple without so much as a by-your-leave from anyone else, no references or inside help or shady okeedoke, because those guys in DC rebuilt me from the ground up as capable, confident and willing to do whatever it took to finish the job. My life has always been existentially iffy at best, but those last three years in DC, I never once questioned who I was, what I was doing with my life or whether I was any good at it, because I knew.

They took a man barely alive, and rebuilt me faster, stronger, smarter, funnier, in every way better than I was before. The Tara harp superimposed over the yellow rectangle on my shoulder will for the rest of my days be the marker of what they accomplished. I will always be grateful to those guys, because in every way that matters, they saved my life and made me who I am today. We few, we happy few…

Deeds not words, brothers and sisters. The password of the EUS is forever victory or die.

Posted in Flashbacks, Technology, Travel | Leave a comment

Reverse Angle

So after seeing some of the commentary online, I’m trying to rethink the whole iPhone announcement from yesterday. There are a couple of particular things that stick with me as a result of trying to look outside myself and think how other people are using this device, which is something the rest of this Valley could stand to do once in a while.  Therefore:

* Yes, $1000 is a crazy price for an iPhone. I’ve been fond of saying “that’s laptop money.” And then, consider this: what do I do at home on a regular basis that happens on the computer rather than on the iPad? Not much. And if I’m doing these things on an 8” iPad, how many could be done just as well on a 6” iPhone? There’s a very real case that for some people, the iPhone X (or other phone) is their home computer in every way that matters. At that point, $1350 for 256 GB of storage and two years of AppleCare for your sole computing device is a number you wouldn’t think twice about if it were a MacBook and not a phone.

* The accessory ecosystem is starting to make a difference. The phone is the hub, you get the audio through your synced AirPods, you get the notifications on your arm, and – at some point, mark my words – you look at the AR world through some sort of glasses that can be lighter and less obtrusive than Google Glass because all the heavy lifting of processing is staffed out to the phone in your pocket rather than balanced on your earpiece. The old argument of the Mac as the hub of your digital life is replaced with the iPhone (and iCloud) as the hub from which everything else runs. And if you have a television and an Apple TV, all you need is a Bluetooth keyboard and you’re able to bang out these very blog posts just the way you’d do it on a laptop. Apple has inadvertently (or not) made the personal computer more personal than ever, and all these various bits contribute to the sublimation of computing into a presence around you rather than a thing you do at a desk.

* In a world where people watch everything on Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime and listen to everything via Spotify and SoundCloud and Apple Music, you don’t need that much storage on the phone. I suspect a lot of folks will be more than happy with the 64 GB option, which is the max available on most of the Android phones in the “good enough” space. So you don’t really need to splash out the extra hundred bucks or more for the sake of carrying more around.

* In a world where everything is streaming – including visual media – you stumble into needing the bigger phone, just for the battery. Yes, a 5.8” screen is better than 4” for watching the new Spider-Man on the plane, but when all your audio is streaming and going over Bluetooth headphones, every extra mAh you can pack into the phone is crucial. So the big battery plus the fast-charging (50% in 30 minutes? For serious?) means you should be able to make it through the day fairly easily.

* If you’re going to pay $800 for an iPhone 8 Plus, may as well splash out the extra $200 for a bigger screen in a smaller package. The counterargument: pay $200 less for the same processor and back camera and charging, better battery life, proven TouchID and let somebody else go first testing Apple’s new hardware. Plenty of people have been arguing for the 8 Plus on those grounds, and given the opportunity to have it from work, I might well consider it knowing I still have the SE to fall back on (but I may also stick $500 back just in case some notional SE2 should ever appear).

So…is there a valid use case for these phone? Yes, yes and yes. I am not in the demographic pool for the lifestyle choices for which they appear to be optimized, but I still have my old man phone, and I love it. As long as Apple stays willing to produce a phone with a screen smaller than 5 inches, I can get by. Once that paradigm goes…things will be more difficult.

Posted in Technology | Leave a comment

Not Enough

So we have the iPhone 8 and Plus instead of 7S and Plus, which means a new form factor. In this case, it’s back to glass, literally, as we have a glass back of the sort last seen on the 4S. And with that we get…wireless charging using the Qi standard. Which is nice…but…

Then we get the iPhone “X” (pronounced “ten”) which has the simultaneous effect of insuring the civilians will be calling it the “echs” forever AND making the just-announced iPhone 8 seem wildly out of date already. And it has a new OLED screen with no bezels and uses facial recognition for unlocking. Which is nice…but…

The thing that stuck in my craw was that Phil Schiller, my old hockey-shit-talk nemesis, used that same Gretzky quote about skating to where the puck is going to be. And yet the existence of facial recognition in Android, or OLED displays on Androids for literally years, or Qi as a standard for Android wireless charging…it kind of puts the Stu Grimson to his Gretzky quote. Apple can’t claim to be on the cutting edge here. All they can claim is that they’re implementing these things right, somehow. Or that the addition of the Apple Watch, AirPods, ARkit and CoreML somehow makes the Apple ecosystem more advanced and out on the cutting edge as a collective implementation.

But ten and a half years on from being one of those first people to gasp at the original iPhone, there was nothing there today – at all – that made me loosen my grip on my iPhone SE, even a little bit. Processor is faster, camera is better, fine, these are basically the same incremental improvements every year since the iPhone 4S finally delivered point-and-shoot camera performance and 1080p video recording back in 2011. Wireless charging is okay, I guess, but when you already have the cables everywhere and would just end up plugging a pad into them, the use case is basically “put your watch and earbuds on the same pad and save an outlet.” Which is dearly to be desired, sure.

Apple – and not to pummel them exclusively because every other maker of phones is in the same boat – is still coming to grips with the fact that the smartphone crossed the finish line in 2013. For four years, we’ve had endless incremental improvements, marginal gimmicks, and constant attempts to overlook the fact that nothing is more important than battery life. And my phone, the thing that steers my life, is a year-and-a-half-old upgrade of a 2013 design, just a little better processor and a little better camera and Apple Pay built in is all.

Apple really has gone full Tesla. Cutting edge technology married to a luxury experience, and if you have to ask don’t bother pricing it. Yes, the iPhone “X” is big and without bezels and with OLED that may – may – give it plausible battery life, but I’m still waiting for the killer app that makes it better to have than a 4-inch pocket phone that doesn’t require me to set down my drink to use or take off my sunglasses to unlock.

Tim Cook is an Auburn man, so I trust he will understand when I say: Apple has gone frog-stickin’ without a light. They may be sorry they did.

Posted in Technology | Leave a comment

“I’ll see you in twenty-five years.”

(OBVIOUSLY ONE IMPERIAL FUCK TON OF SPOILERS FOR “TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN” FOLLOW)

 Three years ago, when we found out there was going to be new Twin Peaks, it was the most inconceivable thing imaginable. The notion that after all this time, we’re headed back to that tiny town in Washington – well, what did I say when I rediscovered the series a year before the announcement? 

The thing is, Twin Peaks in its time tended to parallel my life. It started with a bang in the spring of 1990, when I was through with high school and anxious to get on with my future.  I even bought the cassette single of the theme, deliberately thinking to myself “you know, this would make a fine song with the new girlfriend which I will undoubtedly meet once college gets going.”  And then, when the show came back in the fall, it slowly deteriorated until petering out in April…which is just about how my freshman year went.  One long slow deterioration until by April, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to save this bird from a hard landing.  And just like my college career, the series didn’t have a happy ending either – just a cliffhanger with no obvious hope for how things could be saved.

Twenty-five years on and eighteen episodes later, it turns out – surprise – everyone got old. It’s jarring to have gone from the original series straight into the new one. Everyone got older, everyone got tired, you could see the weight of the years on every single person in that town of 51,201. Hawk especially struck me – hair gone white, moving slowly, connected to a dying friend who maybe only he understood. Special Agent Albert Rosenfeld, gone from incisive snark wielder to just-hanging-on veteran agent with the sort of world-weary hangdog look normally associated with Tommy Lee Jones characters. Big Ed, Norma, Nadine, Dr. Jacoby, Shelly, Bobby – everyone’s older, everyone’s put on weight or gotten gaunt, and if you were already in the workplace back then…well, guess what, you’re probably doing the same job. I was off to college when Twin Peaks came out, and in some ways, I’m still there myself. There’s no question of picking up right where you left off, and when you haven’t seen these people in forever, they certainly aren’t going to look like you remembered.

It’s definitely dated, I admit.  The pacing isn’t quite as bad as you’d expect of an 80s prime-time soap opera – and make no mistake, that’s what this is – but then, some of the slowness could be camouflaged by the abiding weirdness David Lynch brings to the table every time out…So many plots and story lines that went nowhere, seemingly. Anything with the Packard Mill got boring in a hurry – Piper Laurie’s scenery-chewing bitchery seems much more suited to something like Dynasty.  The switch from the plot being driven by the expanding Renault crime organization to being propelled by Windom Earle seems fairly abrupt.  And James off with his mysterious woman served no purpose whatsoever.  No wonder it went off the rails – there was just too damn much to keep track of.  Lesson learned: you can be complex without being complicated…  

The pacing sure didn’t change. If anything it got worse, and you wonder what the show would have been like if it had stuck to the original order of only nine episodes. And the hanging threads – worse than before, if anything, including having no idea what’s the story with some of our most beloved characters. This is one you definitely have to go back and watch from the beginning to see if it starts to make any more sense after the fact, but I’m not a hundred percent sure it will. And in some ways, that’s OK. This isn’t really about driving the plot to its conclusion, it’s about the setting and the atmosphere and the presence of a strangeness that you will never understand or see the end of. Like, well, life. We’ll never know why Sarah Palmer was like that. We’ll never know what happened to Audrey. We’ll never know if that was really Laura or what kind of world they’re in or when or where. There’s every chance that this whole thing is some sort of Owl Creek fever dream in Coop’s dying moments somewhere in Philadelphia in 1989.

Oh, and Josie Packard’s never getting out of that drawer knob, I guess. 

The look is equally dated, although once again that could be partly Lynch and possibly just an affinity for the era. Let’s be honest; I was 18 and pretty much every one of the women on the show still holds up… Norma in particular is still lovely, although she (and presumably Big Ed) are younger then than I am now, which is kind of disturbing to think about.  I’m still rooting for those two, of course – it’s tough to be with the one you love when one has a spouse in prison and the other has a superhumanly strong one with an eye patch and a drape-runner fixation.

The feel was dated, and deliberately so. Lynch is committed to his surreal 1950s horror beneath the surface ethos, although nobody does black-and-white better. But so were the actors dated. Many others have said it, but this show didn’t shy away from the brutal fact that we all get old, we all die, and not everyone gets a happy ending. In so many ways, the payoff was in episode 16, when Dale Cooper wakes up, pulls out the IV, is back in the suit, crisply demands a revolver and a flight to Spokane, and says “I AM the FBI.” That’s what we all want to imagine it could be like – that we wake from the dream, somehow, and are fresh and ready to go, capable and confident, with the opportunity to take care of that unfinished business. And just like Coop, the dream of unfinished business runs headlong into the reality that time runs one way, you can’t go home again, and everything that happened really happened with no undoing it. The notion that you can always proves to be an illusion. Always.

But that said, I’ll say this, spoiler free: if you didn’t jump off the couch screaming and punching the air triumphantly at the 10:00 of episode 15, you don’t have a soul. If that’s the only payoff from the original that we ever get from this series, it’s the one I would have wanted. And it’s proof that sometimes, rarely, you get that piece of a dream you hadn’t thought would ever come around again. 

It wasn’t the old Twin Peaks. It never could have been. But it was enough.

Posted in Flashbacks | Leave a comment

Locking the barn after it’s burned down


Ultimately, the thing is this: at some point the Google Now-like service has to be something that does all its data mining and processing locally on the phone itself. Independent or at least agnostic of service provider, able to get useful info out of your work email without compromising your security in doing so and able to leverage whatever personal email provider you use without relying on Google’s technology.  In a way, that’s already present in iOS – for instance, if you get email with a tracking number from UPS or FedEx and tap on that tracking number, you’ll see “Track Shipment” as an option, irrespective of whence came the email.  Apple Data Detectors – a technology that Apple first rolled out in 1997 then largely ignored until two or three years ago  - can do that right now, already parsing out addresses to be sent to the address book (or soon to Maps) or dates to be sent to the calendar.  So the technology is there and it doesn’t take much to suggest that it could be extended to include things like flight confirmation numbers or  the like.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that I fully expect an Apple watch before long, and I expect it to rely on the functionality of iOS 7 to deliver a thin but satisfying slice of data to a glorified wrist-bound FitBit.  And in doing so, obviate the need for the phone itself to do a lot of the heavy lifting that currently makes it difficult if not impossible to use the iPhone itself as your fitness/presence tracker (see: the battery-slaughter of Saga or Human or Moves).  Anything that can be staffed out to something with its own separate battery is good for your phone.

So now we wait.  Every man his own Big Data.  It’s coming.

- 4 Sept 2013

 

I think I might have been onto something. Four years later, this is more or less what Apple is pitching with CoreML.The promise is that all the processing of your data, all the heavy lifting of sorting through your information to find the patterns and tease out the useful interactions, can be done ENTIRELY on the phone without ever exposing your information to offsite processing. Do I buy it? Maybe. The fact of the matter is, though, Apple is the only vendor in this space explicitly touting the privacy and security of their solution. Amazon pays it lip service, and Google…well, Google has never made any secret of the fact that you’re the product, not the customer. (Another reason I try to avoid their products at all costs, and mostly succeed – except for occasional use of YouTube or text messages to a Google Voice number, or the old Moto X experiment.)

The problem is, there’s just so much that goes to the cloud anyway now. It’s not just storage – Apple had the 100 MB iDisk product as part of the original iTools in 2000, which is probably why Steve Jobs dismissed Dropbox as a feature rather than a product – it’s processing. Try using Siri offline. Doesn’t work. That external processing is mandatory for parsing voice commands. Signal is only slightly above battery in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Modern Needs. And then there’s the whole bit about how the Big Four kind of have you stuck. Only Apple isn’t really doing much with services beyond what is needed for independence from the others for email and music and the line – Google, Amazon and Facebook all have the ability to reconstruct fairly detailed profiles of your interest and behaviors.

And that’s before taking into account the fact that their information is probably not dissimilar to what the big credit bureaus have, and Equifax just demonstrated how well protected that is. The majority of American adults now have their golden-ticket personal ID out somewhere for the use of nefarious types, to the point that we may have to institute credit-freeze-by-default as a security measure. Which they don’t want, obviously, because they make their money providing your information to others. And before saying “that’s different”, consider that the use of Facebook and other social media in credit ranking is already out there.

We’ve poured our lives into the Internet with no thought of security. Facebook in particular got away with the greatest bait and switch in history, offering a walled garden in exchange for your real identity before dynamiting the walls. Throw in the whole “we accidentally the election” and Fuckerberg deserves to be in Gitmo trading cigarettes, not acting like nobody notices him running for President.  Too many companies have spent too much time and made too much money off our data without protecting it. A genuinely populist movement would be pushing back against that. Hard. But we don’t have populism in this country, just redneckery dressed up as populism by the kind of assholes who assume that “people” means “white.”

Meanwhile, get as far off Google and Facebook as you can. Maybe you can keep secure and unprobed. I doubt it, though.

Posted in Politickin', Technology | Leave a comment

Misuse it and lose it

It’s basically impossible to argue that the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is past its sell-by date. Written at a time without standing armies, when the militia consisted of a state mandate of authority and training over every able-bodied man with a gun, and at a time when a gun was something you could fire once a minute if you were lucky, when a large city was measured in the tens of thousands – it’s almost impossible to make a case for ownership of military-style weapons in a 21st century urban environment.

After all, what is the point? Sporting use? Most states won’t let you use the NATO-standard 5.56mm cartridge for hunting because it’s too light, so that AR-15 clone has to scale up to something heavier, and besides, how many shots do you need to take at the deer without reloading? Two? Three? Unless that deer manages to return fire, anything over five is bullshit. OK, so how about the ever-popular “bullet box” as last resort of freedom? The United States has a standing army, and it’s huge even before you add in the Navy, Air Force and Marines. Consider things like Ruby Ridge, Waco, and contemplate the words “tactical airpower”. The people who want to need the guns don’t seem to grasp the level of asymmetry a modern government can bring to bear. Don’t forget, at the end of Red Dawn, all the boys were dead.

Yes, there is a case for sporting weapons and certain personal-defense options. The necessary tools for that basically peaked around the mid-20th century, and they’re just as effective as they ever were. (The sidearm of Marine Force Recon, for instance, was designed originally in 1911.) Time was, you could enforce the law just fine with a heavy revolver and a pump shotgun. Probably still could, probably still should in a lot of cases. But in the last fifty years, the net result of the Second Amendment has been to flood the country with endless semi-automatic weapons and bottomless magazines of ammo that have as their intended function the killing of troops on a battlefield. The time to stand up for the Second Amendment was when people were ignoring the “well-regulated militia” part of it and using the rest to legalize M4-geries and SKS imports and 100 rounds in a clip.

This is of concern not because of the Second Amendment, but because of the First.

The First Amendment absolutists are coming out of the woodwork in defense of Nazis. White supremacists, anti-Semites, racists and bigots have somehow managed to become a larger, louder, more cohesive force in American life than in the last fifty years combined, and almost 100% of that can be put down to the use of social media and electronic communication. Infamously, the first email spam I ever received – over twenty years ago – was some sort of white nationalist screed, at a time when it really took some effort to deploy spam over email rather than just saturation-bombing USENET groups. In the ensuing decades – and especially with the rise of Facebook and Twitter – it’s become incredibly easy to find like-minded people, and in a lot of cases, to rally them to attack unlike-minded people with the same tools. 

The “freedom of speech” argument in the First Amendment was made at a time when speech was just that: speech. Or written letters. Or published books or newspapers. You had to go pick up the printed matter and read it, or speak to the person, and if they wanted to force their speech on you, they had to follow you around yelling at you – at which point, things being how they were in the 18th Century, you could probably take a swing at them and be just fine. Now, though, technology means that if you are on social media at all, it is possible for literally thousands of people to bombard you with their speech 24/7/365, and your options are either to get offline or make a career out of blocking them. As it stands, most of these companies – Twitter and Facebook most egregiously – have gone to great lengths to paint themselves as “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” and view this kind of amorphous perpetual harassment as merely the price of doing business.

Which is insane.

Back in the day, that kind of harassment was simply impossible. If a person comes up to you and starts spewing racist invective, they’re right in front of you to confront and deal with and be known to you. Now, the opportunity cost for tens of thousands of people to target you, personally and directly, is effectively nil. If it has been possible for the entire population of Philadelphia in 1787 to materialize in Ben Franklin’s house, masked and anonymous, to abuse him as a Francophile libertine pervert who spent all his time laying pipe on old broads, and vanish as soon as he looked at them only to continue the moment his head turned, I suspect there would have been a slightly different conversation around the Bill of Rights.

If you want to defend free speech, fine. If you want to say the cure for abuse of free speech is more free speech, fine. But you’d better have a plan for allowing free speech without facilitating abuse, harassment, and physical violence, and mitigating them when they do happen. The alternative is the risk that after years and years of a surfeit of utter libertarianism-without-consequence bullshit, the First Amendment will prove itself as obsolete as the Second.

Posted in Politickin', Technology | Leave a comment

On the eve

I don’t really watch college football any more. I think the disaster of 2013-14 beat it out of me, to be honest. Cal gets a new coach who takes them to 1-11, proving once and for all that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the Air Raid to win meaningful games. Vanderbilt has a horror show incident in the offseason, somehow matches its best win total with eight plus a bowl victory. And then the coach, who spoke endlessly about how great the program was and how recruits should build a tradition instead of renting one, took many of them to do just that and provide life to a program whose “punishment” was to have the same record as our highest. And then we got our most desired candidate, who proved to be in over his head, and we crashed right back down to 3-9 and a poor 3-9 at that. By rights we should have been 1-11 as well in 2014, and the world was quick to proclaim that things were back to normal.

College football is the worst sort of mirror of the real world, because it’s just like the real world. Them that has, gets. Them that’s on top, stays on top. What you do, what you achieve at any given time, is unimportant relative to everyone else’s perception of what you are. If you can sustain excellent for maybe a decade, you can alter perception. Maybe quicker with a compliant media and a personal megaphone. But unless you can get immediately better, hold that for five years and crown it with a national title, the first slip means you’re going right back to the basement irrespective of the merits.

At least the Pac-12 is kinda sorta trying. There are a lot of well-regarded schools there, not least the #1 public university in the world. There are a lot of things they do beyond just football (they basically run the Olympic sports, not to put too fine a point on it) and as we were recently reminded, they gave the world Jackie Robinson (for which UCLA has gained a lot of karma over the years). In the Pac-12, football is not the entirety of your university’s identity unless you pull a USC and make it so, and even then, people will always bring up the film school. There’s balance, there’s rounding, there’s a smidgen of actual perspective.

And then there’s the SEC. 13 football teams surrounded by varying degrees of college. 13 organizations driven and supported by people who never set foot on campus except for gameday. 13 teams who have no problem with the notion that the only thing that matters in evaluating a program is how good you were in your parents’ era. Never mind academics, never mind other sports, never mind simple matters like not breaking the law – thirteen autumn Saturdays are the sum and substance of what you are as a university.

And then there’s Vanderbilt.

People are up in arms at the thought we might move off campus, and I agree with that – college football ought to be played on campus, always, that’s why it’s called college football. But the early returns suggest that to rebuild and repurpose our stadium would cost somewhere in the high eight figures. And at the end of it, we’d accommodate somewhere between thirty and forty thousand people, in a conference where four of our thirteen “peers” can hold over 100,000 in their gladiatorial arenas. When the day comes for the Great Powers of College Football to break the chains of the NCAA that hold them to the barest lip-service of student-athletics, at least ten of those schools will make the jump, and all thirteen will want to.

And then there’s us.

This is why I can’t follow college football anymore. I wish nothing but well to Vanderbilt and Cal, I wish nothing but ill to Stanfurd and Tennessee and Auburn and Texas and a host of others, but my favorite sport from earliest memory for forty years is not something I can engage with any longer. It means overlooking lawbreaking, overlooking exploitation, overlooking an activity that we can no longer pretend doesn’t have serious long term health consequences. It means emotional investment in the most rigged game in the casino. It means being the bull in every bullfight, in a world of outrage at your temerity to maybe try to use your horns before your inevitable demise. It means knowing that every Saturday there’s a 2-out-of-3 chance that it will end badly, in a sport and a world that gives you no credit whatsoever for doing your best or doing things “the right way.”

Maybe it would be different if we really had “peer” institutions. If Alexander Heard’s Magnolia League had come to pass, maybe we’d be playing Duke and UNC and Tulane and SMU and Rice and hell, maybe Navy and Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. Maybe if we’d decamped from the SEC with the Yellow Jackets and the Green Wave in the 1960s we’d be in the ACC and facing down a slightly less trying road in a conference with several private schools already present. Maybe when the football teams break off we’ll be left behind in the SEC for all other sports and can play our football in the Southern Conference or whatever you want to call it. Maybe this ends with the Commodores as the bully of the Southern Athletic Association, pushing around a bunch of religious colleges with enrollments under two thousand in non-scholarship Division III.

But in 2017, the last thing I need in my life is another losing cause, something else where you have to put your face to the grindstone over and over for no apparent reward other than the nebulous promise that someday things will be better. There’s enough of that going on now without inviting more of it into your life. Once, college football was a joy and a delight. Now it’s just a different flavor of misery. And unlike most of the others, it’s one I can choose to do without. So I’m gonna. Sorry, guys. Best of luck. Anchor Down. Go Bears. Maybe someday.

Posted in Cal Football, Sports, Vanderbilt Football | Leave a comment

The slot machine

Tweetie was the first iPhone Twitter client worth having. Loren Brichter started out on the iPhone team at Apple, and after it shipped, he started his own company and produced Tweetie – which included a landmark innovation. By scrolling to the top of the page and continuing to scroll, the “rubber-band-“ effect would do more than just be a visual marker: it would actually trigger a reload. All you had to do was keep flicking, and you could constantly reload the Twitter stream to see new content. And just to put too fine a point on it, if you dragged far enough, you got a sort of slot-machine wheel that would pop up three birds.

Loren’s on-the-nose Easter egg has come to sum up the Twitter experience for me. This time last year, I had six distinct Twitter accounts with their own functions and purposes. Of those, one is defunct and another is rarely touched. Two of the others have been deleted outright. I have a “public” account, a “professional” account that links to my real identity, and a “personal” account which is locked down tight.

But more to the point, I don’t use them as much. When I blew away those two Twitter accounts, with them went a couple hundred mutual followers and the bulk of my day-to-day socialization. I rarely do much with any account but the “personal” one, which has maybe two dozen followers, and while I like being able to keep up with people, it’s such a firehose of everything in the world I want to avoid that barely a day goes by where I don’t have to log out and quit the browser to try to forestall going back and looking again and again and getting even more out of sorts.

Twitter really is the slot machine, the gameification of attention – at any given moment, if I load Twitter and scroll through it, I have roughly a 20% chance of seeing something I’ll be glad I saw, a 30% of seeing something I’ll be angry I saw, and a 50% chance of something of no interest. That’s bad arithmetic, and it’s happened even after weeding down two or three times to get to a tightly curated private group with only the things I’m likely to want to see. And the problem there is – you can’t even control for those things, because there’s so much to be outraged about, there’s no escaping it short of tapping out altogether. People speak ominously about a “filter bubble” and yes, it’s problematic when people only get a drumbeat of their preferred propaganda rather than any sort of factual news, but at some point you have to balance being informed against being driven insane. Right now, Twitter is a piss-poor tool for achieving that balance, and that may be sullying the good name of piss.

But then, Twitter – and Facebook, which I resolutely refuse to use on a more than bimonthly basis – have a lot to answer for in general. Of which.

Posted in Politickin', Technology | Leave a comment