palms up

Comes now the news that the Palm brand, last seen being ignominiously sold off to Chinese white-label conglomerate TCL along with Blackberry, RCA and who knows how many others, has today resurfaced with a new company whose leadership and creative design team includes…Steph Curry. Yeah, that one. Their product, which was leaked some months ago but dismissed as so out-there as to make no sense, is…a cellphone. The “Palm”, so-called, is more or less credit-card sized with a 3.3” screen, an 800 mAh battery, an electronic SIM that mirrors your existing phone (of which more in a moment), and a bespoke UI on top of last year’s Android that tries to make it easy to work with what is, by 2018 standards, an infinitesimal display. In a world where a 5-inch phone can be called “small” this new thing is absurdly so (not to deny that the iPhone had a 3.5” screen from inception until summer 2012).

So what is this thing for? Apparently it is explicitly meant to be a second phone, of a type I am well familiar with: the shutdown phone, the device you want to have when you want to unplug without being disconnected. The e-SIM lets you ring it with the same phone number as your primary phone – which in a way gets around the issue I’ve always had with a separate device. It’s the same process used by the LTE-equipped Apple Watch…which in a lot of ways seems like a much better way of doing this, since it’s possible to be contacted by Apple Watch but damn near impossible to do the toxic shit like social media or read the news or what have you. But then, if you have an Android phone you probably haven’t got an Apple Watch.

Because for now, this is definitely meant for a very specific group of people: those who are on Verizon and can use an Android device as their failover. Which can be done, if you don’t care about iMessage for whatever reason, and maybe you don’t. I don’t know if WhatsApp or Signal or the like would be cool with two instances on two devices with the same number, although it seems to me like that would play hell with the security model. I’ll probably never know, as I would rather get my cell service from ISIS than Verizon, but that Apple Watch concept is intriguing. Or would be if it didn’t have to be charged every damn night.

I’ve gone two ways with the whole shutdown-device thing. The use of the Downtime function in iOS 12 is actually working really well, if only because it puts a barrier between me and the stuff I ought not be doing (and the use of clumsy two-factor authentication for Twitter makes it even more so, helpfully). I can take the same iPhone X that I use for the workday and go down to the pub on Sunday night, listen to music, read a book, still be reachable on Signal and never have to bother with digging out a second device and making sure it’s topped up, or bringing the Kindle along with that second device, or working up some combination of Kindle and iPod shuffle and…

It’s true that the phone has really become our personal computer. We may still manage our pictures or our music on the PC, and it’s certainly a hell of a lot easier to blog, but I truly wonder for how many people (especially outside Silly Con Valley) the phone has completely displaced the traditional computer as the user interface of their online existence. That’s why, to me, things like Downtime are a huge and necessary thing: if the phone should be capable of being your Walkman and your pager and your Kindle and your camera and your GPS and your record store, it stands to reason that it ought to be capable of being your shutdown phone as well and thus not being all those other things from time to time. And there should be some way of gleaning the benefits of a connected world without having to take the firehose of shit with it.

I mean, think about it. If you want to know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow, it’s not going to drag you down a wormhole or ruin your night to look at Weatherunderground, right? You should be able to see what time is the light rail departing without being sucked into Facebook, right? And I’m sure the people who say “just don’t open those apps” are the same people who say “well just don’t get pulled over” or asinine stuff like that. You do things in this life to make it easier not to do things you don’t want to do, especially if there’s a time and a place when you do want to. But in the grand scheme of things, isn’t it better to have a way of constraining yourself that doesn’t cost $350?

Oh right, I forgot. This little slice of Golden State Warriors techno heaven will cost you $350, plus an extra $10 a month to add it to your Verizon plan. It’s one thing when you can repurpose a phone you already had (and to be fair, the Moto X so long ago was about the same, although it was bought with the hope of using it as a primary phone between jobs) but paying extra money up front to detach sounds…well, quite frankly it sounds like a dream business for extracting money from white people in Silly Con Valley. But the thing I always come back to – even in my own situation – is that nobody wants to manage two phones. It’s just not worth the hassle to have a second device, even when it becomes a Tamagotchi that you’re only tending once or twice a week to make sure you don’t find yourself 29 updates in arrears and two beta versions behind.

So yeah, one device that can be made to do (and NOT to do) whatever you want. Of which more in a bit.

Flashback, part 100 of n

I would go back to my bench, which was at the other side of a huge pile of…everything. Returned equipment, new equipment, etc etc. I re-arranged that stuff for a while until I had a clear space around the bench, barricaded in by walls of cases and boxes and etcetera, easily six and a half feet high all the way around…the only way in or out was a passage just wide enough to slide a roller case through – less than 3 feet wide at best – and was blocked by a pallet jack loaded down with 600 lb of desktop machines, so I could easily pull up the drawbridge…I sat there, no sound other than the tinny streaming radio from the UK and the occasional chime of a rebooting system, and churned out laptops for eight hours straight. Sometimes nine or ten. It was mind-numbingly dull…but it wasn’t customer-facing, it wasn’t physically strenuous, I could sip on a Dr Pepper and hear some music in the background…basically, all the alone-time I needed.

Man alive, what I wouldn’t give now…not to be customer-facing, and to be able to just build up the wall and get to work…

– 21 May 2008

 

The first entry in this series was looking back less than four years. That was over a decade ago. The days are long but the years are quick.

During the process of recovering from the Thanos-strike on mine host’s servers, I stumbled across other things I’d written down and stashed during that same era. December 2007, January 2008, when I was first coming to grips with bottoming out on depression and the realization that I’d made a huge mistake leaving Apple (arguably the second-biggest mistake of my life, in retrospect). And I was thinking about what I’d like my life to be like if things ever got better, and why it wasn’t doing so…

 

I’m depressed by the prospects of staying at this job, with its poor prospects for growth and its crap leave policies, because I am afraid that it will keep me from being able to do what I want. The problem is, i don’t know what it is that i want…. I want a job with people I can be friendly with, with the ability to work from home occasionally, with actual leave and maybe free coffee in the mornings and not lifting hundreds of pounds a day. I know damn well these jobs exist – because almost everyone else I know HAS ONE.

-7 Jan 2008

 

I made a list of the things I wanted to talk to the shrink about: the drama and trauma of my family back in the old country, my dismal view of a political culture that just kept getting more stupid and backward, my constant abiding fear of making the wrong choice, how much I miss having somewhere to belong, and my inability to stop wishing for a better past. And ten years on…there we are, just like always, except I may have finally stopped that last thing. 

In fact, some of the other concerns have gone by the boards. I’m now in a job where I can listen to audio all day (even if it’s podcasts and not streaming now) and do have free coffee and don’t have to pick up anything heavier than money, and I can go out of the country for three weeks at a time and work from home when I get back. That’s not nothing, and even though it took a long time and a lot of misery to get here, I’m here. I dealt with the problem of supporting a bunch of crap football teams by…getting out of college football for good, more or less. We eventually made a decision on having kids, and although I’m sure I’ll have regrets someday, in retrospect it was absolutely the right call to make. And my need for a pub or coffeehouse was pretty much sorted out by the use of the big recliner downstairs, a 20 oz Yeti tumbler, a stream from RTE and a set of headphones.

I adapted and performed, in other words. There were a lot of things I couldn’t and can’t change, but I’ve managed to (slowly, eventually) wrench my own life into something I can live with. And when I look back at Black October fourteen years ago, I think of all the things the guy skulking behind the Pelican cases had yet to see: London. Ireland. Japan. A surrogate big sister. A goddaughter. A long-lost cousin who more than anyone knows What It’s Like. An iPhone or nine. A new-age Rabbit and a hybrid Malibu. Vanderbilt bowl games and San Francisco World Series trophies. Giants in San Jose and Warriors in Santa Cruz. Steel toed Blundstones and Alden boots and plastic Birkenstocks. Twitter and Instagram and SBNation. And a world gone horribly, horribly wrong in ways that were inconceivable even from the political depths of 2004.

Life happened while I was busy making other plans. 

Sic Transit Plus

So it turns out that Google+ is going to live on a nice farm in Petaluma where it can run and jump and play with Google Reader, Google Buzz, Google Wave, Orkut, iGoogle, Google Fiber, Google Wi-fi…only thing is, the reason it’s getting murked is because it was leaking data for years, and Google covered it up rather than fix it.

This is surprising not at all. Shall we go back in time nine years?

Microsoft had your desktop. Google has your data. And the only thing standing between your data and a reign of terror that would make Bill Gates look like Winnie the Pooh is the vague promise “Don’t be evil.” Is Google evil? No more than any other company. Certainly not more evil than Apple, for instance. Far less evil than your typical cable company or baby Bell. But knowing what the world is like, and knowing where virtue ranks among American business metrics, are you prepared to hang your online livelihood on “don’t be evil”?

-30 July 2009

Well, if you had any hopes that the Beast of Mountain View was a safer or more responsible custodian of your personal information than Facebook, abandon them. At either end of 101 between Routes 84 and 85 lies a company that makes its wealth through the harvesting and resale of your personal data, which they will gladly whore around to all and sundry with no concern for the impact this has on your personal safety or risk of identity theft or misuse of personal information. 

And the most telling thing is that rather than fix the problem, rather than take responsibility for what they did wrong and try to remediate it, Google’s response is to shut the product down outright. As with all things, once it doesn’t work or has flaws or just can’t be turned into another money-spinning data crop, Google lives by the ethos “if at first you don’t succeed, quit.” And so far, they’ve gotten away with it, not least because people have painted Facebook as the devil of Silly Con Valley without seeming to notice that Google does the exact same thing.

Buy an iPhone. Dump WhatsApp for Signal. Share your pics in the group chat instead of Insta. Use ProtonMail instead of Gmail, use Vimeo to post what you would have put on YouTube, delete Chrome from EVERY DEVICE YOU OWN, do your web searches in DuckDuckGo and keep all the tracker blockers enabled in iOS 12.

Only a moron trusts Google any more.

This Was Inevitable (reprise)

Maybe the committee vote is today, and the Senate vote is over the weekend, but make no mistake: this was decided on November 8, 2016. Everything else is just chicanery. The GOP majority in the Senate can put whomever they want on the Supreme Court, because in the final analysis, the Snowes and Collinses and Flakes will always fold. Let me repeat: they will always fold. No Republican is willing to be the one whose vote causes the party to lose.

This election was always going to be felt hardest and longest in the Supreme Court. This is what the GOP has campaigned on and fought for since the time of Earl Warren: the prospect of getting a permanent unelected majority who can deliver both political decisions like Bush v Gore and economic ones for the business donors. Who knows, they might even apply death by a thousand cuts to Roe or Obergefell – not so much that Trump’s mistress can’t get an abortion or Cheney’s daughter can’t get married, but enough so that if you live below the Whiffle Line, you’ll be bound by their will. If anything happens to Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the next two years, or if Trump gets reelected in 2020, you can expect a redneck-conservative majority for the rest of our lives.

Something’s got to give, when voting doesn’t matter. Nixon got elected with a minority in 1968, but he had the most votes – more than Humphrey, more than Wallace. Bill Clinton never had a majority, but he had the most votes – more than Bush or Dole or Perot. They both got to be President. Gore had more votes than Bush, but it availed him nothing, and Hillary had a bigger margin of the popular vote than that – and it availed her even less. Setting aside all the other nonsense around how we got here with Trump, the simple fact is that the second-place finisher now has gotten to put as many people on the Supreme Court in two years as Obama did in eight. A democratic political system cannot survive minoritatian rule. It just can’t. It will break, and then either be repaired or you’ll get something else. Which you may wish you hadn’t.

I swear I thought we were past this in 2012. Every election since 2004 has been increasingly stressful because it’s felt like we were fighting off an enemy that somehow got more powerful every time they lost the White House, and every mid-term has been increasingly stressful since 2010 because they always gained more power in the meantime. I mean, Bush never broke 50% approval from the moment he was re-elected, so how did he get re-elected? Trump was a figure of fun right up to election day, he shouldn’t have been able to catch Hillary with a motorcycle, and yet? Now…I don’t know. If the Democrats can’t capture at least one house of Congress in November, it’ll be time to start looking really hard at what you can buy your way into through the Malta Sovereign Wealth Fund, or see what the residency requirements are like in Ireland, or hope there’s someplace in Australia that isn’t hot as balls.

Because right now, Trump is as popular as the clap, and the GOP is doing everything he wanted (which is basically everything Fox News ever wanted, because Trump is just as smart as whatever the TV tells him), and a majority of the country is against that. If that majority can’t find expression at the ballot box, the alternatives are not pleasant. I would just as soon not be around for them.

Downtime

I wish I could remember exactly when I said that the Golden Convergence was going to happen not in your living room, but in your pocket. Time was, there was the thought that the PC would be your computer, your answering machine, your entertainment center, the focal point of your smart-device Internet life. And then, the iPhone kickstarted the new world. The phone has pared down everything, even stuff that replaced other things – the iPhone X does for the iPad mini, the Kindle, and the paper notebook in the hip pocket, never mind the pager and iPod and point-shoot camera and GPS. Now the question becomes: could it be the One True Device in a 5” size? I rather think it could be, but we’ll never know at this rate, will we?

The problem is, when this phone is everything, you have everything happening to you all the time. At least email was asymmetrical; with the coming of Slack and its ilk, you’re now potentially in the office whenever the phone is on. And given how many companies expect you to provide your own phone, you can’t go out with your friends (or at age 46, sit at home in the recliner with a quiet pint) and have the soupçon of connectivity you do want without opening the floodgates to everything you don’t.

Until now.

With the coming of iOS 12 and the proper use of the new Downtime tools, you can limit the phone to be just what you want. You can lock out Slack, Outlook, messaging apps, social media, anything you don’t want distracting you – limit it to music and streaming radio and Kindle and maybe a note-taking app, and you obviate the need for everything I might take down the pub – no need for a separate Kindle or Moleskine and pen or a whole different phone with a different SIM and a different number. The daily phone has become its own shutdown night device, and if I like, 6 PM to 9:30 every night can be cut down to not let in any more of the world than I can cope with.

The smartphone, in its way, was a bait and switch of the same sort as Google or Facebook. It was awesome until you looked down and realized it had too much of your life – and was letting too much in. This is a very necessary and very welcome step back in the direction of reclaiming our time, of rebuking a world that wants to shovel shit at us 24/7, of pushing back without having to master some absurd fan dance of app arrangement or notification bonsai or just turning off and giving up all of it at once. I want to read books, hear RTÉ in Gaelic, look up fleeting thoughts in Wikipedia and be spared intrusion without simultaneously having to block all notifications and delete Slack, Instagram, Reeder and every messaging app.

Just three hours to have a quiet pint and pretend that things are all going to work out OK eventually. Is that too much to hope for?

coping

…you have to wall off the stupid. You have to reduce it to the least possible background roar. You have to let your mind slip off of it to something else, make sure you don’t have a chance to focus on it.  That’s where the books come in handy. Or some really engaging television. That’s why pulling the plug on Twitter is crucial, and having pared down the RSS to just what you need to be informed without tipping the balance into wallowing in the misery.

You have to try not to think about how you left Alabama because you didn’t want to live in a place that venerated stupid, that made its decisions based on what stupid people thought was smart, that thought you were the problem because you “didn’t have any common sense,” as if failure to adopt everyone else’s inculcated prejudices was a shortcoming or as if you should have learned all the cues and clues of a social system that ejected you as soon as you could read in complete sentences ahead of time. You left all that. It wasn’t supposed to follow you. It certainly wasn’t meant to gain executive power over the country…

-21 March 2017

This Was Inevitable

You can blame this on the Tea Party if you like, or you can point to Sarah Palin as the wellspring of it all, or you can go back to Newt Gingrich and the predictable consequences of pairing a Southernized GOP Congress with an amiable dunce from Texas in the White House, or you can go all the way back to Lee Atwater running a Wallace campaign on behalf of a patrician New Englander with a Houston hotel suite. But really, it all goes back to Nixonland, and the explicit decision that the reactionary forces of 1964 could be combined with a rebellious South to build a new engine in the national GOP. This was the inevitable result of fifty years of nurturing the worst impulses of this country, and for the GOP establishment and its amen corner in the national press to suddenly look up and decry what’s happening to the Republican party is risible in the extreme. In the immortal words of Chris Rock, that tiger went tiger.

I mean, what did you expect?  You spend years if not decades telling people to live in fear, that everyone to the left of John Kasich is Joe Stalin and that the government wants to grind them all into free meatloaf for Mexicans, that they are the true salt of the earth and their racist impulses are to be indulged rather than overcome…this is not an accident, this is not a fluke. The Tea Party is the GOP. This has been the Republican party for the last 20 years. This was the plan all along. This is a designed play. A vast plurality of ignorance, racism and outright stupid, providing automatic response in reaction to constant stimulus from TV, radio and a million “Fw:fw:fwd:FW:FW” emails isn’t a bug, it isn’t a feature, it’s the whole goddamn operating system.

The thing that scares me most isn’t the necks, it’s the people who look sorrowfully on the mess that’s made and still pull the GOP lever anyway. Sure, these hayseeds are all gun suckers who think the country is at risk of Sharia law from ACORN-organized illegal immigrants, but Al Gore is fat and Hollywood liberals are dumb, so vote Republican. That’s exactly how we got here, and it’s the biggest scare going into 2016: that the likes of Donald Trump could wind up in the White House because enough people realize he’s a loudmouthed business failure who spun an ego into reality stardom, but they’re tired of Hillary, so whatever…

-Oct. 29, 2015

 

When I’m wrong, I’ll tell you, but I haven’t been wrong yet.

27 Sept 2018

“My friend and I talked for a while about drug therapy and whether it was better to send the kid off to East Butthole, Minnesota, to dry out or put him on methadone or cut his allowance or what. And it wasn’t until I’d hung up that I realized what we’d been saying. My friend’s kid didn’t need to suffer any consequences, not serious consequences, anyway. After all, addiction is a sickness and he needs treatment. Besides, he’s got personal problems and comes from a broken home. It’s not like he’s a criminal or anything. If he were a criminal, he’d be poorer and darker skinned. My friend’s kid lives in a well-padded little universe, a world with no sharp edges or hard surfaces. It’s the Whiffle Ball again. The kid leads a Whiffle Life, and so does my friend and so do I….In the meantime, if people like me-rich, white, privileged, happy-cannot even bother to abide by the legal standards of their freely constituted society, of a society that has provided them with everything a civilization can be expected to provide, then those people deserve their drug problems and everybody else’s drug problems, too…”

P. J. O’Rourke. Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government (p. 121-122). Kindle Edition. Grove Press, 1991.

 

It applies to one hell of a lot more than just drugs.

strange things

We finished both seasons of Stranger Things in one huge binge a few months ago. It was as it has been described: a pitch-perfect recreation of 80s media with a generous splash of era-appropriate nerd culture. Things like Radio Shack, Dungeons & Dragons, video arcades (oh the indignity of plunking 50 cents into Dragon’s Lair and not making it across the damned drawbridge to start!) – and, to the never ending awe of post-Millenial Gen-Z kids, a world where you could go do whatever after school without your parents hanging over you or your whole free time scheduled to an excruciating fare-thee-well.

Except it wasn’t really like that for me, because I had the misfortune to live in a completely separate town from where I went to school. I was in day care because both my parents worked, so I was at the mercy of whatever was on offer there – as often as not, bad 4 PM syndicated TV like Gilligan’s Island or the Brady Bunch instead of 3-2-1 Contact. And since it was usually the Baptist church day care, forget about Dungeons and Dragons. You had to keep shit like that on the low.

Thing is, that day care afternoon really screwed everything up. You can say what you like about the misfortunes of latchkey kids, but even if you weren’t left completely to your own devices, most kids growing up had friends in the neighborhood. I had one. Who was a little older than me and almost certainly a little tougher than my parents would be entirely comfortable with, and I don’t recall ever seeing him again after about sixth grade. All my social life was carried out at school, in day care, or on the phone one person at a time. (Not that there were a bunch of people; it was mostly the three-years-older BFF from day care who was the principal D&D aficionado.)

So it required a lot of imagination. I mean, our video games didn’t exactly have plot and backstory and character development, so you had to make it up. RPGs were nothing if not pure imagination. We got one Star Wars movie every three years, and sci-fi on TV meant the random episode of Star Trek or Space:1999 (or, for a couple of years, Battlestar Galactica – which conflicted with Sunday night church – or Buck Rogers if the SAG strike didn’t take it out). You had to make shit up. Which was tough in a time and place that tended to treat imagination as something you’d hopefully grow out of when you got old enough to notice girls. Speaking of which, that last scene in season 2 gave me a bit of a flashback pang. I didn’t want a girlfriend when I was 12, I didn’t need to be kissed or anything – I just wanted some older attractive woman to acknowledge I was a valid human being and that I was on the right track. Some kind of fairy godsister who would give me a wink and a scatter of pixie dust and set me on the right track to a brighter future.

It’s not a nostalgia thing for me. I have absolutely no desire to be 10 or 12 or 16 again, unless there was some way to set me on course to a different college experience. I don’t want to go back to a time when you were limited to landline phones with call waiting, or throwing a letter in the mail and hoping for the best. And I definitely don’t have any desire to be in a small town without benefit of a driver’s license or the ability to buy beer and lock my doors at night. I appreciate the show the same way I appreciate Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow, or the WWII Memorial in DC – as a modern attempt to create a pitch-perfect artifact of the past. The Spielbergian DNA is all there. It’s on a par with Goonies or E.T. or the like. I guess it’s just nice to find that all of a sudden, my generation’s nostalgia is worthy of indulgence, after fifty years of boomer shit.

off the path

So Path has pulled the plug. Its roots were in the “all God’s children gotta start a new social media platform” era around 2010-11, when Google Plus was replacing Google Buzz and Instagram was still mainly an alternative to Hipstamatic and people were just getting the notion that maybe Facebook was a little too big and might not have your best interests at heart. The unique selling point on Path was that it would be limited to 150 friends (the famous Dunbar number) so that you would have actual friends on there, not acquaintances or brands or randoms.

It was a good idea, I suppose, and we dutifully signed right up, but it was tough to get traction – for one thing, everyone was also staying on Facebook and Twitter and Foursquare and Instagram and whatever else, so it just became one more thing to check or cross-post to. For another, Path had some serious privacy issues that made it untenable after a while. And it ran into the same issue as every other app like Peach or Diaspora or app.net (and which Mastodon and micro.blog will soon have to reckon with) – no one seems to be willing to dump Facebook and Twitter altogether. Getting your friends to all adopt this new service is damn near impossible to do; I would migrate my Twitter and Insta presence to micro.blog tomorrow and never turn back except that I can think offhand of maybe maybe three other people who would give it a try as well.

Path was nice, though, at least at first. The pictures all had the “phone cameras suck so let’s filter the shit out of everything” aesthetic in retrospect (it was 2012, there wasn’t any getting around it), it leveraged Foursquare’s database for locations, it was possible to post just a status update, and the whole thing was optimized for mobile at a time when Facebook was incapable of it. All in all, it was a reasonably solid package, and the sort of thing I’d like to need, but it just didn’t work out.

Which is the thing. Right now, I try to push my primary Twitter almost entirely through micro-blog first, with varying degrees of success, and obviously I can’t read other people’s Twitter through that. I’d love to have a private instance of Mastodon and be able to read other people via federation, but that’s an awfully heavy lift. Deep down, the one indispensable social network these days continues to be Instagram, and I’m just waiting for Facebook to fuck it up beyond recognition – and I’m grateful that I’ve never taken step one to integrate them or even provide a way of connecting them (aside from possibly MAC address or UDID logging, in which case we’re all hosed).

But looking at the list of non-Chinese “virtual community” networks, it’s discouraging – Facebook owns four of the five largest and Google owns YouTube. Trying to avoid those two companies is like trying to avoid Standard Oil in the 1890s, or Microsoft in the 1990s – it can be done, but it’s not going to be easy or pretty. I can try to carve my own path with self-hosting and RSS and Signal and the like, but will anybody else come along? Probably not. Is it a social network if there’s no network?