Apple errrrrthang

Remarkably, for all the talk about Apple’s TV service announcement, we ended up with absolutely no material details. We don’t have a date, we don’t have a list of channels or services, we don’t have a price. All we have is the use of a + sign, which since Google gave it up has become the new hotness (ESPN+, Disney+, now Apple News+ and Apple TV+). In fact, we don’t really have a firm date or price on the Apple Arcade app (not that some of those games don’t look intriguing to me) nor on the forthcoming Apple Card (which if you’re willing to be tied to the Apple ecosystem looks like—)

Time out.

We really are getting into these silos where you have to pick your ecosystem for everything. Apple, Google, to a slightly lesser extent Amazon, to a considerably lesser extent Facebook and Microsoft: time was you would have an ISP and they get you online and provide your email and maybe even some webspace to go with your USENET feed, LOL. Nowadays you buy a phone, and with that phone comes the ecosystem of mail, calendaring, App Store, virtual digital assistant, GPS and mapping application, digital wallet, online document tools and photo storage, instant messaging/text application, streaming music service, digital bookstore, and now – television service AND revolving credit AND AND AND. Although to be fair, once you’re tied to all that other stuff, throwing in HBO and a no-annual-fee Mastercard is basically lagniappe. 

Anyway.

The Apple Card is a mildly attractive proposition, and would probably be even more so if I wasn’t already on three credit cards – one of which I would long since have cancelled except I’ve been a customer for 20 years and can’t do that to my credit rating. But for a college kid who wants no fees, no hidden traps, something smoothly integrated with the phone with easy-to-read billing and actionable information, this is probably a godsend. I know I would have been a lot better off with this at Vandy than with a handful of $500-limit cards that quickly got out of hand.

But it’s that weirdest of Apple events: something that leaves you walking away with nothing in hand but the promise of a bunch of amazing stuff coming Real Soon Now. And in some cases, not even that. Apple is obviously paying over the odds to try to jumpstart a Prestige TV experience and make up for lost time against the Hulus and Amazons and Netflixs of the world (and doing so just as Google appears to be giving up), and appears to be rebuilding the old Newsstand app as some sort of streaming all-you-can-eat solution for curated published print news (which we used to just call “news”), and even seems to be on the same subscription gaming service tip as Google, with their just-announced Stadia platform.

And this is bad. See, we seem to have decided that instead of actually owning anything, you will pay a monthly nut for everything in perpetuity. Cable bill? We’ve whopper-choppered that into separate fees for Amazon and Hulu and Netflix and HBO Now. Music? Apple Music or Spotify, and no more of the Jobsian “you bought it you own it, it’s yours” approach to music. Now we’re gonna pay every month for video games? I know I was an early advocate of the concept of “cash on the freakin’ barrelhead” as a business model for Silly Con Valley, but nobody wants to sell you anything any more. They want to rent it to you, forever.

Which makes sense. After all, as I decried long ago in this space, Silly Con Valley isn’t in the business of selling things that last. Your grandad’s old WWI revolver can still shoot someone dead. Your ’66 Mustang can run just fine. Your peacoat will last you the rest of your life. Close your eyes and think: what is the oldest electronic device you currently use? Phone? Fitness band? DVR? How long did you get out of your last digital watch? The shift to “services” is part and parcel of an ephemeral world, where you will pay and pay and pay for things you didn’t think you could get a monthly bill for.

Gary Shteyngart said it, and William Gibson co-signed it, and I concur: “If only my books came with ejection seats.”

Mueller time

I think the Mueller report was always doomed to be a letdown, because it was an artifact of a different time: an investigative report produced by a respected arbiter which would then be turned over to proper legal channels for appropriate action. This might have worked years ago, but it was never going to function under a 21st century GOP administration, because that sort of process relies on a system that respects process and has room for shame and consequences. That’s not what we have right now.

William Barr – who was hired to do just this, put a “respectable” face on a whitewashed stonewalling – has fulfilled his mandate: filter things in such a way that “exoneration” becomes the cat-toy the press uncritically bats around. Nancy Pelosi knew this, which is why she’s been working to downplay the notion of impeachment for weeks now. She knew damn well that there would never be 67 votes in the Senate, at which point, you do yourself more harm than good. There’s still plenty to investigate, and the report will provide a fine jumping-off point for House hearings on all manner of topics (as well as ones that have been back-burnered ahead of the report), and that will be fine.

Because we were never going to be let off the hook for this. There’s no get out of election free card. There’s no undo option. The only way we are going to end this is at the ballot box, by a big enough margin that it can’t be bent or played off or rigged. Infinity Stones aren’t real, there’s no going back through the quantum realm, we have to ride this turd all the way to the ground and hope we survive the splatter.

second impressions

The Charge 3 has one minor flaw: it’s a little too secure. By which I mean I keep having to re-enter the PIN to enable Fitbit Pay more often than I thought I would. Other than that, it seems to be getting the job done in multiple ways. I do get notifications on the arm almost all the time – I think it might have dropped one or two, but so did the Apple Watch, honestly, and it’s a hell of a lot better than what I was getting from the Alta. The NFC payment has actually worked most places (although because of Lent I haven’t tried it on vending machines, which is where it was usually an attractive nuisance). The breathing exercise only has settings for 2 and for 5 minutes, but that seems to be fine, and in fact the efficacy of the vibrating alarm is such that I now have alarms set for breathing exercises morning and night. 

And best of all, I don’t have to plug it in every night or take it off to shower. Although I will take it off to shower if I’m already over my 10,000 steps for the day so I can top it up, and as a result I haven’t even got close to running out of juice yet. And that is a singular accomplishment.

In a lot of ways, in fact, this feels like the final form of the Pebble that I first bought this time four years ago. The Pebble was a bit experimental (and in a lot of ways, was meant to be the methadone to keep me off the Apple Watch until my heart rate got out of control during the stress-meltdown of 2015), and like the Apple Watch was still bumping around the question of what is a smart watch for? The Charge 3 has refined that down to the same thing as everyone else: notifications and fitness tracking, and maybe payments. Anything fancier than that is right out – hell, even the Apple Watch’s music controls are superfluous to requirement if you can just hit up Siri through the headphones–

Hold up.

The new AirPods dropped today, same price as the old ones, with the option to have wireless charging in the case (or to just buy a wireless charging case to use with your old ones). The biggest difference in the new ones, aside from a new chipset and slightly better battery life? Is the “Hey Siri” function always on. Which is big. Because now you don’t have to take your phone out of your pocket. You could have one bud in and say “Hey Siri” and there is your virtual assistant ready to skip ahead or play a different playlist or give you directions, possibly. That is another huge step toward the JARVIS future.

I’m tempted by the AirPods anyway. I know there’s still something to worry about with all the Bluetooth through your dome piece, and I’m not insensitive to that, but there is a utility to the AirPods that I don’t have with any other wireless headphones I’ve ever owned, and it is this: the thing will charge in its case in your pocket. Which is to say, if I walk out the door in the morning, I know I would be good until I got home at night. I can take one out, top it up in 15 minutes, switch ears, top the other one up, and go all the way through – whereas with my BeatsX, I know if I don’t juice them up around 2 PM, they won’t go until bedtime, which is no small consideration if you think you’re going to be taking the train up to the SF Giants on a semi-regular basis this year.

My only concern is I don’t know for sure if the AirPods are going to fit my ears and stay there comfortably. It’s not a small ask, and it’s a big fail if you lay down $160 for something that doesn’t fit. And I like how low-key the BeatsX are, except the battery life is starting to suffer. But small practical steps toward a more wireless future…if anything happens to the BeatsX, I know what the first option is going to be, cashflow willing.

But in the meantime, the Charge 3 has almost everything I need and absolutely nothing I don’t, for half the price and five times the battery life of my old Apple Watch. That’s a good get.

state of play: 9 days to doomsday

So apparently the EU has had enough to know they have had enough. They will not countenance a delay that goes past May 29; any longer than that and Britain must elect European Parliament members and then you have the spectacle of Britain as a participating member while still negotiating their exit, a circumstance which opens the door for all kinds of shenanigans.

My old mate Rob Watson (who interviewed me on a street corner in Georgetown 17 years ago when we both had hair) has said that there are three options for Parliament: 1) pass the May Deal, which has been rejected twice and cannot be brought up again in this parliament without material changes, 2) revoke Article 50 and call the whole thing off, or 3) crash out on the 29th with no deal. He also cheekily mentions option 4: “try to think of alternative to 1-3”. Which mode of wishful thinking has really been at the heart of Brexit all along: the idea that somehow Britain can build a wall and the EU will pay for it and pay more to go through it.

Because no one knew what Brexit meant. Formulations like “Brexit means Brexit” only show the caliber of glib indifference that has driven this whole process. A majority of MPs knows this is a bad idea with worse consequences, and they are paid to know better, but Theresa May cannot stand up to the know-nothings in her own party. Neither could David Cameron, who scheduled the referendum for fear of defections to UKIP. The Tories made the same mistake the GOP made in the US: they countenanced ignorance as a pillar of support and are now paying the price. The honorable thing to do would be to do a deal cross-party, call it off with Article 50 altogether, and call an election with the notion that the parties will seek a mandate for what is to be done. Or at the very least, to arrange the simpler steps of a Norway-esque membership of the EEA and customs union and pass it with Labour votes and then fall on the sword.

Not that Jeremy Corbin has covered himself in glory. He could probably get the general election he wants by doing that Norway-Lite deal with his own MPs and waiting for the implosion across the aisle, but the general election is the priority and is a good example why the Democrats need to steer well clear of Bernie Sanders this time out. No one in the Cabinet, government or shadow, has been willing to de-prioritize the political requirements long enough to save the country, and it is for this reason that I am more convinced than ever that a no-deal Brexit on March 29 will be the final outcome. 

Theresa May doesn’t have a plan beyond finding a way to have Parliament keep voting on her deal over and over and over until it passes. There weren’t enough votes, so she pulled it, then she put it through anyway and got clobbered, and then she made some facile changes to the deal and got clobbered again, and now in all likelihood intended to use the alternative of no deal at all to blackmail Parliament into passing the deal at the eleventh hour – until John Bercow stood up for Parliament and refused her a second (or third, or arguably fourth) bite at the same apple. 

The votes are there for a soft Brexit. They were there a year ago. This could have been a piece of piss, but Theresa May had to do this all within her own party and thought she could bring her nutters around rather than stand up to them. Which just goes to show she didn’t look across the Atlantic at all.

state of play update redux

So this is kind of a big deal: John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has invoked rules dating back to the 1600s and said that Parliament may not consider the same bill twice in a session. Which means that Theresa May’s apparent strategy of just bringing back her EU deal over and over until it passes has been kneecapped for good. Ten out of ten for the colorful Speaker (or should that be colourful?) making sure everyone plays by the rules, but this makes things very complicated very quickly.

May’s deal, heretofore known as the last best offer from the EU, is deader than fucking fried chicken. It would have to be modified “substantially” to be allowed back before the house, but it’s plainly not going to tilt any more toward Britain than it already does. The only substantial concessions that could be made are toward the EU and back in the direction of a more Norway-like arrangement, with a customs union and free movement and no say in matters, and that will drive the hard Brexiteers insane. But it’s also in the direction of what Labour claims to have been kicking around, and looks like the outline of something that could conceivably pass if the choice is between that or a hard Brexit.

Because we are 11 days out. On March 29, Britain crashes out of the EU, and on present form, that looks like happening. Parliament said they don’t want it, but that was an advisory vote, and there would have to be another bill to cancel Brexit outright because it’s not at all clear that the EU can or will countenance another extension at this point with no idea what it would be used for. So right now, the options before us seem to be down to these, in ascending order from least to most probable IMHO:

 

1) Parliament revokes Article 50 and cancels Brexit, to start over at a later date.

2) Parliament slams through the soft-Brexit bill with mostly Labour support and a rump faction of Tories, which almost certainly means that Theresa May will have to quit and call elections immediately thereafter.

3) The EU offers an extension based on renegotiation around something like 2) above, with an indeterminate timeframe that is probably long enough that Britain is obligated to hold MEP elections in May.

4) Nothing happens, everyone runs around like decapitated chickens but can’t get something together in time, and on March 29, Britain is cast out of the EU and all hell breaks loose.

 

Based on the world in the last three years, I’m betting heavily on #4.

state of play update

So as I understand it:

* Parliament today voted that Britain should not leave the EU with no deal.

* This is functionally meaningless, as right now, Britain WILL leave the EU in 16 days if no further affirmative action is taken. The default, if nothing else is passed, is to crash out with no deal at all.

* Parliament has now rejected Theresa May’s deal twice in succession.

* Any extension to the March 29 deadline would require the unanimous consent of the other 27 EU countries, whose patience has reportedly been taxed to breaking. 

* While the UK could revoke their Article 50 declaration and stop the entire Brexit process dead in its tracks for good, this would require a vote of Parliament – which does not appear any more likely to come through than previous votes on the topic.

* So: they don’t want to leave with no deal, they don’t want to leave with the deal that was negotiated, but they still want to leave, and if nothing is done they WILL leave in the most uncomfortable possible manner in two weeks and change.

* After saying that the vote on the no-deal option would be a free vote, an amendment modified the bill to say that the House would stand opposed to a no-deal Brexit for good, not just on the 29th. After this, the government immediately revoked the free vote and began a three-line whip AGAINST the bill. From Wikipedia: “A three-line whip is a strict instruction to attend and vote according to the party’s position, breach of which would normally have serious consequences. Permission not to attend may be given by the whip, but a serious reason is needed. Breach of a three-line whip can lead to expulsion from the parliamentary political group in extreme circumstances, and even to expulsion from the party.”

* There were actual cabinet ministers who abstained from the critical vote. Let me say that again: THERE WERE CABINET MINISTERS WHO ABSTAINED FROM VOTING UNDER A THREE LINE WHIP. In normal times, if a Cabinet minister refused to vote under a three line whip, the Prime Minister would have that Minister dismissed, probably expelled from the party, and possibly fistfight them in the street after.

* If the sun rises tomorrow at 6:17 AM in London and those ministers are still ministers, it can be said with absolute certainly that the British parliamentary process is broken and that the government of Theresa May is not fit for purpose. Which, well, she did grasp the nettle at a difficult moment when David Cameron ran like a chickenshit from the mess he made, so full marks for being willing to step up to the plate. However, given that the referendum was basically the Great British public voting to blow its own balls off with a shotgun, she can hardly be lauded for delivering a plan after two years that amounts to “we’ll blow them off one at the time” instead.

* You know who wouldn’t have this problem? Prime Minister Nancy Pelosi. Because if there’s one thing Pelosi gets, it’s the old adage about politics as the art of the possible. Once something isn’t possible, it’s not on the board anymore for Our Nancy, and that’s why she blew off impeachment as a realistic goal (but made sure to do it in the most insulting fashion possible, because she’s not going to refrain from taking a wide-open shot). 

It should be obvious at this point, but it plainly isn’t: institutions are no defense against the wrong person at the helm. Theresa May’s best hope is that enough of the credit for making this shit sandwich will land on David Cameron that people forget about her dropping it on Britain’s collective shirt.

the scam

“Y’know, the fact that some of these parents had to buy their kids 400+ points over their real scores on the SAT but were evidently unconcerned that they might not hack it at an Ivy really ought to tell us something about how this whole higher ed thing works”

-from @webdevMason, 12 Mar 2019

 

Twenty-five years ago – closer to thirty now, sheesh – I was in a comparative education class discussing how systems of education around the world differed from the US model. One thing that stood out was that in much of Europe, there was some means by which you got tracked into different high schools depending on what your likely career path was, making sure you got trained in something useful if you weren’t going to college. And the other thing was Japan, where the model was apparently “bust your ass to make sure you get into one of the right six universities – extra training, cram schools, late hours, do whatever it takes – and once you’re there, it’s coasting because you’ve already done the important thing, which is get that name on your resume for future purposes.”

It’s very difficult to feel like that isn’t where we’ve landed in the USA. The difference being that everyone has to go to college now, of some sort, no matter what. You have to get a 4-year degree “if you want to have a future” (my god, have you not seen what a plumber gets for coming out on Christmas Eve), even if that means you start life $100,000 in debt. It reminds me of the old Star Wars role-playing game from West End in the 80s, where a new character of the Smuggler class had a ship (which you kind of needed) but also started out 25,000 credits in debt to a nameless crime boss.

I can’t remember where I heard this or I would credit it appropriately, but I remember hearing someone say that scandal isn’t about people trying to make a better life for their kids — this is about trying to put a floor under them and ensure they don’t slip down the socioeconomic ladder. Once you’ve established a firm grip on the Whiffle Life, the last thing you want is for your kids to suddenly fall back into a world of consequences. Which sort of shoots the whole “meritocracy” thing in the face. If meritocracy were a real thing, we wouldn’t have legacy admissions, or added weight for big donors, or (if we’re being brutally honest) athletic scholarships. Although you could almost argue that football is there to provide a back door shortcut to school for people whose parents can’t afford to throw tens or hundreds of thousand of dollars at bending the rules.

And if you talk to faculty these days, it’s remarkable the extent to which many colleges and universities are consumed with setting up the country-club life. Luxurious dorms, lazy river in the rec center, yogurt bar in the food court. I don’t know when this became a thing, because it sure wasn’t when I was in school, but there is an increasing sense that the hard bit is getting into college and the ensuing four years is a sort of WASP rumspringa so you can enjoy life and network your way into whatever job you’re going to get (insert here the Silly Con Valley cliche about how most startups only hire from five schools: Harvard, MIT, Stanford, CMU, and wherever the CEO or primary VC went).

The first half of what I learned seemed ridiculous, elitist, unhelpful. Tracking kids based on age 11 tests or something like that, and routing their future accordingly? Seems profoundly undemocratic, right? And yet, what have we done but move the age and the test? We give everyone more or less the same education until age 16 or 17, and depending on their test results (and parental influence and whether they can get free in the open field) route them to whatever higher-ed institution they fit. You can go to the posh private school and switch to glide, or you can maybe go to a big state school and be routed into some great middle, or you can wind up in trade school or community college or some sort of online for-profit thing and hope for the best.

And yet, here’s the thing: I know very few people who actually use the degree they got. I have friends and loved ones who majored in marketing, psychology, environmental science – and my own two degrees in political science – and not one of us is involved in those fields because we’re all in high tech in some form or another. You can argue that college is as likely as not getting you the same sort of general education to underly your first job, after which you’ll build job on job with experience rather than be gauged on your college work (unless you apply to Google, obviously). Which sounds an awful lot like how high school worked until the 1970s or so.

So what we’ve done is to create this new paid layer of gatekeeping. Not particularly rigorous, not exactly essential (I know of an IT director at a corresponding institution who started with a high school diploma and a couple years of undergrad and has long outstripped my rank), but suitable for keeping out those who can’t afford it and burdening those who can with a semi-permanent limp. We are long overdue for a comprehensive rethink of what college is for and what it should be for in this country. And I would say so even if I hadn’t made such a hash of mine.

play ball

I was vaguely aware of baseball growing up. Didn’t watch it on television, didn’t hear it on the radio, didn’t play it other than an electronic baseball game (and at first I thought three strikes was out but four strikes was a walk somehow) and wasn’t really aware of it in the wider world. I remember hearing that Fernandomania was a thing, I remember hearing that the 1985 World Series was an all-Missouri affair, I knew of the Barons – but as late as high school I didn’t glom on to why the baseball highlights appeared in two different segments on the late news (AL and NL) or know why it was such a big deal that the Red Sox blew that game against the Mets.

I say all that to say this: I came to baseball late in life, and not through the traditional fathers-and-sons route. The first time I remember swinging a bat at a live ball was in a batting cage with some high school friends, and the first time I put bat on ball in a competitive game was grad school softball. My dad was far more into Alabama football than any amount of baseball, and while I came to the NBA first in pro sports in the late 80s (through the finals, obviously) and then the NFL my first year of undergrad, it was the summer of 1991 before I latched onto the National Pastime.

Part of it was my gradual discovery of Sports As A Thing, this whole area of life that I’d not really been aware of until late in high school. Part of it was an attempt to connect to the soul of my deceased paternal grandfather, supposedly a huge fan of all baseball. And part of it was just the reliable promise of something to watch every night for six months. Owing to a weird fluke of circumstance, my first college girlfriend immediately adopted the Braves as well, and so it became the one sports thing I could be assured of consuming without the kind of hassle that went with wanting to attend our own school’s basketball games or watch Bama on the weekend.

Ironically enough, baseball went on the back burner when I was at Vanderbilt, because the other college girlfriend wasn’t into it and it felt like I’d sort of discharged my family duties when the Braves finally broke through and won a World Series. It was still flitting around the corners of my consciousness, and I still attended every Barons game I could with my old high school buddies through most of the 1990s, but I didn’t plug back in until I started dating a girl with a serious baseball fixation – which led to attending one World Series game, one ALCS game, and increasing my total of “major league parks visited” from 1 to 7.

When I started dating the girl I would marry, I remember visiting her group house in Silicon Valley and seeing the A’s on TV, that year when they actually showed OPS and other moneyball numbers on the lower-third instead of batting average and HR and RBI. And then we toured Pac Bell Park (as it then was) and I decided that between the two teams in the Bay Area, I would lean Giants, and bought a batting practice hat and hung around outside the stadium with her during the World Series in 2002, and picked up occasional games in person the years to come. But I wasn’t watching it on TV much, except for the occasional novelty of a game on local TV on Friday night – something that felt different and special because it meant I was in a real baseball town. This wasn’t Washington making do with the Orioles on HTS or Birmingham tuning into the Braves on TBS, this was the local team on channel 11.

Honestly, what brought me back was two things. One was Vanderbilt baseball – suddenly #1 for most of the year in 2007, then finally reaching the College World Series in 2011, which opened the promise of Vandy guys reaching the major leagues. And the other was being re-introduced to minor league baseball through the San Jose Giants, as laid back and easygoing and small-town baseball experience as you could ask from America’s tenth-largest city. Three victories in the World Series in five years for the Giants were cool, but they led me to adopt the A’s as my preferred team for the better part of four years, even after the Giants brought up Tyler Beede for an abortive stint in April of 2018 (and screwed up his throwing motion so badly with “instruction” that he dropped twenty-two spots down the prospect list).

And now, two things have brought me back to the Giants. One is the Ballpark Pass – a flat fee every month for access to the part for any home game. No seat, just a spot on the rail or in the bar or along the back side of the yard to hang out and catch some baseball. And the other was Ken Burns’ Baseball, the landmark 18-hour documentary from 1994 tracing the history of the game from the pre-1840s to the eve of the strike – something that threw into sharp relief the fact that when the NFL’s oldest team was founded, the Giants had already been playing in the National League for thirty-six years. Professional baseball is 150 years old this season – no other American sport comes close.

And so I’m hoping that catching Caltrain up to the ballpark on random days after work will become a thing, that regular National League attendance (in what is likely to be a ghastly season) will bring back those halcyon days of “methadone New York” that the city felt like fifteen years ago, that I might even learn to tolerate a little bit of orange around the interlocking SF of a ball cap. That having aged into a space where I need a nice leisurely pace and the knowledge that any given night is just one of 162, baseball is right there when I need it.

doing without

I snapped two days ago. The rage at Mark Zuckerberg’s road-to-Damascus conversion to encrypted small-group communication as the future was enough to see spots. It’s not even a week since we found that Facebook is using 2FA phone numbers for search and advertising. Yesterday, we found out Facebook Messenger was shot through with holes. The number of flaws, hacks, and deliberate misuses of personal data strongly suggest that it would be smarter to let R. Kelly manage a Chuck E. Cheese than to let Zuckerberg’s company administer “privacy.”

And in my rage, I deleted the Instagram app.

That’s not nothing. A Yubikey let me dump Google Authenticator. I still have IMDb, but it’s never been logged into, and I could use it on the web as easily. StreetView and Translate were tossed until and unless I need them again. Without Instagram, my phone is suddenly completely 100% free of any Google, Amazon or Facebook code. And it felt like a tremendous relief. The underlying accounts still exist, of course, but they can be cleaned up at leisure, and if I’m not logged in and using them, they can’t collect any more than they already have.

Only problem is that “already have” is a big item. Instagram for about seven years, I suspect. Facebook largely from 2009-11, I suspect. Google, well, who knows, even if I mostly eschewed their services after about 2008 or so. In a lot of ways, the horse is out of the barn and the barn has burned down, and I’m just walling off the ashes. It might feel good for a moment at a visceral level, but it may not be sustainable in the long term…because of Instagram.

There are three categories of people I see on instagram. One are the handful of businesses or famous people (in whatever measure of fame) who don’t follow back, which is fine, whatever. I don’t think I’m going to miss any of those. Another are the people tangentially swept in through Twitter or as incidental friends-of-friends, who are all right, but not germane to this part of the discussion. Then there actual friends. People I know in person. People I’ve met, people I’ve got drunk with in New Orleans or Anaheim or London, people who would be friends of mine with or without the Internet…if they lived within 50 miles.

But that’s the trick. The list of people I know well enough to count as my own friends who live within less than an hour’s drive is not a very long list. Seeing the people commemorated in my tattoos almost universally means flights, not driving. The circumstances of our place and time mean that everyone who used to be part of our loosey-goosey dining club twelve years ago has moved to another county altogether, if not to another state or another continent. And when I say everyone, I mean literally every single person I followed on the original Vox without being married to, every person who was on the original blogroll of this site – I can name one human being from that era who still lives in or adjacent to our town outside my own house, and she might well be on the move herself soon.

What I missed the most in the seven year black hole that served as “college” was the social bits. I had a girlfriend – two, in fact, and my life would have been richer for having dumped either of them within the first couple months – and for the most part my social life was mediated entirely through them. There were abortive attempts at bonding with the guys on the 4th floor of the dorm in my freshman spring, there was exactly one postgame basketball party ever sometime in my sophomore or junior year, there were times that first year when I would go around visiting other people in their rooms between 3 and 5 of an afternoon, and in grad school there was actual esprit de corps and an incipient team-hood…that ran on the rocks because I had to keep driving back to Birmingham every weekend. The thing I wanted most out of college since the age of 5, the prospect of belonging, didn’t happen. And by the time the smoke cleared, I’d been to school for seven years and left with zero friends to show for it.

So for the last twenty-some-odd years, it’s mostly been done over the internet. I’ve known people from my DC years since before I moved to DC, because our prior acquaintance was what got us all to DC in the first place. We’re scattered all over the country (if mostly still around the East Coast) but we’re still in touch, and our community has migrated from listserv mail and a command-line chatroom to LiveJournal in the early oughts to…well, here you have the problem. It’s impossible to get away from Facebook when it has become the default mechanism for remaining in touch with people you don’t physically see. We have a Slack instance, and that works fine as a replacement for the old chat space, but it’s not everyone and it’s not everything. Even Instagram wasn’t comprehensive. There are people I want to stay in touch with, people I wish I was more in touch with, and yet short of committing the 21st century’s unpardonable sin of picking up the phone and demanding time for synchronous communication in a busy world? It’s not 1989. Sitting on the phone for hours is right out. Personal blogs, IM, alternative services have all gone by the boards.

If you want to keep up with your old friends, you have to be on Facebook.

This is where the back end of the most recent season of The Good Place hits me – the notion that there is no way to get to the Good Place, that it is impossible to live ethically under late capitalism, that pace Kashmir Hill there is no way to use the Internet in 2019 without paying a toll to the mega-giants. If you can live with AWS on the back end, you can use Slack and Signal and maybe get by. If you can deal with Verizon (still), your Flickr account is probably still there from 2005 and you may even have a few friends still populating their feeds via IFTTT from Instagram. But trying to get everyone to use something other than a Facebook property is impossible, because everyone is on Facebook. Everyone. I’m trying to think of a single person in my life who I know is not on Facebook – even my relations in Alabama – and I don’t think I can.

More to the point, where were my old friends on the Internet anyway? Where are the people I knew in DC, or locally during the Apple years? Mostly not on Instagram, actually. Very few on Twitter, in any participatory fashion. A lot of them were on Flickr, as it turns out, and their last posts are so far distant that the site actually says “ages ago” rather than parse a period of time longer than 119 months. Their personal blogs return error messages when I click old bookmarks. Unless you’ve kept in enough touch to have them in a personal Slack, or in some group chat within Signal or iMessage or (cringe) WhatsApp, your only option for contact is…

Yeah. That.

Which is the problem. I can sort of put together maybe the people I knew through a combination of Instagram and Twitter and other personal stuff onesie-twosie, but I still don’t have everybody. And when most people have jobs and children and lives, how much easier to just have a one-stop app for everything? It may be the worst app in mobility, one that crushes your battery and has a terrible UI, and the service in back of it may be harvesting your data and selling your identity to anyone who wants it and could be undermining democracy and facilitating murder around the world, but that’s where the baby pictures are.

And look back at that bit about work and kids and the like. At age 47, you largely meet new people through work or through your kids. I don’t have kids, and I have made serious choices about keeping work in a box separate from my real life, and…how do you meet new people at this age when you’re married and settled? The article I keep going back to on this topic hammers home the point that the easiest way to make new friends is to rekindle your relationships with the old ones. But how are you most likely to reach the old ones when they live over the hill, or in another state, or on another coast? When they aren’t on your street, or in your town, or in your metropolitan area?

And here’s the dagger: what good does it do to stand up to Facebook? It’s well documented that even if you never created an account, never logged in, they probably still have your data, gleaned from your friends who let their contacts be uploaded and have the app still harvesting data from other sources. You can cut the cord, wall yourself off, deny yourself access to the Beast of Menlo Park and all its pomps and all its works and all its empty promises…but it still has access to you.

So that’s where we end up. Your choices are to stay and participate, and be mined for your information and have your privacy whored out to any entity willing to pay, and be inundated with Russian bots and fake news and whatever the algorithm decides and maybe even have your view manipulated so Facebook can experiment on you, and never just be able to see a linear chronological timeline of your friends’ posts, and basically be treated with a slot machine that will give you a moment of human connection one pull in ten. Or you can eschew Facebook, be exploited anyway, and not even have the one-in-ten chance of remaining in touch.

Welcome to 2019. You can stand up to the monster, or you can have friends, but if you know how to do both, comments are open.

First impressions

For my birthday, I received a Fitbit Charge 3 SE. It’s been on my wish list ever since I got the wife one for Christmas to replace her aging and flaking Charge, and I was immediately taken with it for several reasons:

* It was under $200, in a world where a current Apple Watch will set you back at least twice the price of a Charge 3.

* It features NFC payment, so I have the same caliber of easy pay that I would get from Apple Pay on the watch.

* It can get notifications from apps, unlike most previous non-smartwatch Fitbits, so messages from Slack or Signal show up as readily as texts. This is huge, you have no idea. Now if only it supported Duo Push for 2FA…

* It’s waterproof, so no need to remove it to shower, and the battery life is supposed to be seven days. Which means it only has to come off once a week for a couple hours.

* It gives me everything my Alta HR did in a package not much larger and with a far more reliable touch-button instead of relying on a million taps that don’t actually turn the vibrating alarm off in the morning.

In short: everything I need and nothing I don’t, other than the 2FA bit for work. Problem is, on my Series 0 Apple Watch, the differentiating features like Siri never actually worked that well. Remote control for the audio, whether iTunes or Downcast or whatever, was always kind of iffy. And you had to take the damned thing off every night to charge, which meant sleep tracking – the thing I need more than almost any other health feature – was off the cards. 

I think there may still be a future for me with the Apple Watch, as we move toward a more verbal call-and-response model of mobility computing. If I could reliably get conversational information from Siri (especially reading back messages from Slack or Signal) and count on the watch lasting three or four days between charges, that would be interesting. If it were an LTE model and could do all this while the phone sits at home a couple train stops away, even better. But for now, it is again possible for me to leave my main phone upstairs as soon as I get home and putter around on a stripped-down device knowing that the stuff I really need to see will come to my arm.

Which is a pretty good present.