The semiotics of the blazer

The blazer first became a thing in high school. I’m sure it was required for church for years before that, at diverse times, but my first recollection of the blazer being A Thing was in 1988 when I went to the county Scholars Bowl tournament for the first time. Almost immediately, that single-breasted blue blazer became a regular part of my life – paired with jeans, a white Oxford, and a necktie that reached to the belt buckle. Not the greatest look, if I’m honest, but it was essentially my uniform, as much as any football jersey. It was not only Scholars’ Bowl, it was Constitution Competition and scholarship interviews and anything that required me to pass as a grown-up.

Maybe that’s where it started. I didn’t have a lot of utility for coat and tie in undergrad, not being in a fraternity, but as soon as I was accepted to grad school, I went out and stacked up three or four new blazers. As often as not they were remaindered from TJ Maxx, but there was a vaguely linen-look thing that suggested Miami Vice, a brown woolen thing that looked like an old professor coat, a grayish pattern that wasn’t quite tweed. Put it with jeans, a button-up, no tie at all, and I looked like the junior faculty I was aspiring to be.

And then, for a long time, nothing at all. We wore ties for my first year at National Geographic, but if we had any outerwear on it was for weather not fashion. I had a blazer for weddings and funerals, and that was about it; all my jacketology at the time was about functionality and climate, and I was more likely to top a shirt and tie with my Indiana Jones leather jacket than a blazer.

Things only shifted in 2012, when we were in New York City, and for some reason I was moved by the spirit to purchase a $30 cotton blazer from Uniqlo – and the look worked so well I bought another one immediately without even leaving the store. One blue, one white – definitely casual, but the sort of thing that you could throw over a T-shirt and immediately feel like you’d stepped it up ever so slightly. The blue one immediately became my chosen instrument for travel – Japan in 2015, London in 2016, Ireland in 2017 – and when it came up missing, I took the white one to Chile in the southern-hemisphere summer of 2019. Meanwhile, I was given the long-desired Harris Tweed blazer in 2016 and picked up a casual linen number at Muji in 2019 right before it closed and bought a seersucker one from Uniqlo for hot weather.

And then, out of nowhere, a month or two ago, I bought an Eddie Bauer Travelex travel blazer. Two, actually, one in blue and one in black – a little synthetic and a little static-y, but full of pockets and rumple-resistant. Those, at least, I understand – something that looks presentable while still turning rain and giving you a zippered alternative to the money belt for your passport and phone while running through the back alleys of Neal’s Yard or Bankside.

Maybe that’s part of it – the blazer has come to be identified with travel. But there’s more to it than that. I’d come to think of it as “Vandy mode” just because of the seersucker, but also because I’d be up in the city at one alumni event or another, and the blazer is the shortest route to feeling like a grown-up. It contains the imposter syndrome, somehow makes me feel more like I’m actually as I present myself. I wouldn’t go to a Vandy game without one (and honestly, haven’t, not since 2012; it’s practically expected of me). I can be slouched around the house in jeans and a T-shirt, and as long as they’re clean, all I have to do is throw on the canoe mocs and a blazer and suddenly I’m a functional adult who can absolutely be trusted with your Jamf instance or your cell phone decision making or your choice of stouts and porters.

And part of the problem, honestly, is that I’ve lived the last sixteen months in t-shirt and jeans and plastic Birkenstocks, with the occasional flannel shirt or work shirt for the rare cool moments. I need a blazer right now not at all, and maybe that’s a conceptually complex piece of information given everything above.

game reset

Well, here we go again. San Mateo County has just restored the mandate for masking indoors in public places. The Delta variant has become the dominant variant nationwide, and while the vaccinated are testing positive – and in some cases symptomatic – the bad sickness and deaths seem to be reserved for those who have refused the vaccine. To the point where the Enemy establishment feels compelled to tell people that the vaccines are good and they should get them – albeit sandwiched between conspiracy theories and reassurance that you’re a very good person to refuse it.

Naivete, hope and appeals to logic versus performative redneckery weaponized in bad faith. Welcome to 2021. Actually welcome to the 21st century in general. I don’t know why anyone is surprised at this point; every time the Enemy loses, the response is to double down and go even harder on delusion and fascism. In 1998, the GOP was batting around impeachment, got their clock cleaned at the polls, and rammed through an actual impeachment while they still could. In 2009, after America looked at Sarah Palin and chose Team Obama instead, the GOP elevated Palinism to its only belief system. And now, with Trump decisively thrashed and his followers discredited by an actual attempt by force to derail the transition of power, the Republican party has nailed its colors to the mast as the party of Trump. 

This would be different if the Never Trump GOP would accept defeat, accept that they cannot ride the tiger any longer, and supply the votes to rebuke Trumpism at every turn until it’s dead and buried at midnight with a stake through its heart. That appears to be too much to ask of anyone in office other than Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, though. It also appears to be too much to ask the American news media to call a spade a fucking spade, but then, the New York Times’ self-loathing is always enough to green-light another safari of the “economically anxious.” 

Why is this? Why are we stuck with this seamless garment of bullshit as the Republican shibboleth? Part of it is the inherent reflexive loathing of “politics” – the only field where people seem to think amateurism is the most desirable state. Do you want a pilot who’s never flown a plane of any kind? How about a surgeon who’s never handled a scalpel? Hell, most people wouldn’t go to a mechanic that had never lifted the hood of a car, but “not a politician” is supposed to be a positive endorsement for a candidate for high office? We don’t want to acknowledge that politics is the process by which we order our society, and so people lie and call themselves “independents” and swear they vote for the man, not the party label (always the man, though) – and that’s why Democrats almost invariably have to produce the most centrist-looking white male they can churn up, because anything darker or more X-chromosomal causes the dullard masses to recoil at “politics”. And then things get worse, because Republicans will ride the Trump turd bomb to the ground, but Democrats bail out the second their feelings are hurt.

None of which is a consolation. We’re hanging onto the Senate by our fingernails, and if you can’t shift the moral defectives in Arizona and West Virginia – and you can’t, especially in West Virginia, where a Democrat-in-name-only is the only kind that can win – then you don’t have the votes. The main thing at this point is just to ensure that they don’t either, because if the GOP suddenly gets 51, the Biden administration is over. So get what you can, now, as quick as you can, and hope against hope that maybe you can change the picture a little in 2022. Diplomacy, especially in the Senate, is the art of saying “nice doggie” until you can find a rock.

Nothing has changed in our politics. We wrenched the nuclear button out of the hands of a weak, senile, stupid man, but his followers are unbudged from where they were five years ago, and we have done nothing to make them anathema or circumscribe them from political power. “Trump voter” needs to garner the same public reaction as “child molester” and until it does, we will be cursed. All we’ve done is pull the knife out. We haven’t stopped the bleeding at all. I don’t know how we can unless people agree that what happened since 2016 was wrong and they’re willing to accept a mild tax increase or two to fix it.

But if you had hope after January 20, it’s probably time to think about wising up.

Social Media Ruins Everything

Vice my previous musings about sports, one of the things that occurred to me is that sports is made worse by social media. You are connected to your fandom…half of whom are probably reprehensible. You’re connected to all the other fandoms…half of whom are definitely reprehensible. You’re exposed to the effects of social media, which magnify the worst in society and amplify their path to your door. And ultimately the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.

I take no small stick from my wife about not being on Facebook and thus having to hear about distant friends from her. But it’s a conscious decision based on experience. The fact is, I don’t have enough people I’m close enough to in order to make it worthwhile to be there, and I’m willing to accept hearing nothing in exchange. Social media in general – and Facebook properties in particular – slide down the slope from a chronological timeline, to an algorithmic timeline, to dry-snitching things from your friends’ timelines, to ultimately serving you content you never asked for and prioritizing it over that of people you follow. And then, there you are, wading through two hundred feet of horseshit in hopes of maybe finding a pony.

Thus Instagram, which Fuckerberg et al are intent on turning into TikTok For Olds when it’s not being repositioned as the replacement for the electric Nazi ranch he currently operates. I still haven’t reinstalled the app, and while I have one more pic posted than last time, I’m beginning to realize I only ever see content from four or five people I might miss if I bailed out altogether. The real life folks I miss don’t do enough to make it worth digging through the cruft.

The problem is, the only “social media” I’ve managed to make work is a locked Twitter account, mediated via Tweetbot, which means I have no ads and no unsolicited content other than friend retweets and a chronological timeline. It’s not much, but it’s enough to let me pretend I have a bustling group chat of my own without hounding all my pals into Signal. The abortive attempts at an Insta alternative last year proved that sort of thing doesn’t really work for fast casual interaction where people don’t want to be inundated with notifications.

Cocoon hasn’t really worked out. Slack is…fine, for the one group that uses it, but I only have one group that does. I have never yet taken to Snapchat – I’ve downloaded it three times and every time deleted it within a half hour. Nobody checks Flickr any more. Tumblr is kind of flexible and is part of WordPress now, but it’s also a decade old and mostly associated with porn and the squealing side of fandom. I don’t need much, honestly, and at this point, I can make Twitter work…for now. I don’t know how long that will last.

But there’s every possibility that in a globalized world, where the people you care about are scattered across multiple time zones if not continents, this is just the price of keeping in touch. You can either swim in the sewer in hopes of finding the occasional gold nugget, or you can try to do the impossible and try to make some new old friends.

sports

I don’t much care for sports.

Not like I used to, anyway. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the decade of the 90s, my sports fandom was the defining characteristic of my identity. It was less all-encompassing in the DC era, especially after the turn of the millennium, but still present. And it underwent some evolution after moving to California, but things have changed a lot in the last five or six years.

First off, Cal football has gone by the boards. After the debacle of the Sonny Dykes era, it just wasn’t worth it to make the haul up there for games, not least because season tickets mean you’re giving up every other weekend of the autumn to spend a long time on public transit, have a drive back and forth to get to said transit, a big vertical climb and uncomfortable seats and if you don’t have a tailgating crew to call your own, it’s hardly worth the effort.

And to be honest, the joy being sucked out of college football is real, and it’s gone. There’s a lot you have to gloss over – unpaid labor, rampant sexual misconduct, and especially down South, a barely-literate fanbase who latched onto it because it’s the most violent thing the Scotch-irish can affiliate themselves to without going to jail – and it’s a lot to take and a lot to swallow in exchange for the opportunity to sit in the sun for four hours and watch your brains get dashed in by fans and players that will overlook anything up to and including felony rape if it means they have a shot at some terrible made-for-ESPN bowl. Thus did Vanderbilt football go by the boards, because membership of the SEC is an obstacle to ethical competition – and while I hope Clark Lea will make a good fist of it, I’m realistic about what can be accomplished by anyone in that league trying to be a school with a football team and not the other way around.

So what about the rest of Vanderbilt sports? Well, the brief wave of the 2010s was great, and baseball is apparently good to stay – and is playing for a national championship as I write this, and I’m not watching, because the joy of victory is never as great as the pain of losing when you’re on social media and surrounded by the kind of illiterate Q-bags who went batshit loonball as soon as NC State was disqualified for half a dozen COVID positives and unable to field a squad. At this point, the easiest way to watch Vanderbilt baseball is to turn on a major league game and watch the alumni, who are plentiful especially around here – guys like Tony Kemp and Mike Yazstremski, the sort who take a knee for Black Lives Matter with their backs ramrod straight and cap held over heart just like Tim Corbin coaches.

So, baseball then? Sure, I suppose. I do watch the Giants more now than I ever did in the first half-dozen years of living here, but it’s not necessarily an every night sort of thing. I also have the ability to watch all televised minor league games, which in a way are even better: you can barely worry about competition over the year in the minors, because your best players could get snatched up at any moment by the parent club, so all that really matters is: are you going to win tonight? And that doesn’t even matter that much in the end, because there are a hundred twenty other games just like it. The long slog of the baseball season is actually good for the emotional content.

Similarly, I watch a lot more Premier League soccer than I used to, mostly on weekend mornings when it’s a cozy thing to put on and pretend you’re somewhere else. While I’m notionally a Fulham fan, their departure from the big league doesn’t really have that much impact; I officially support almost half a dozen soccer teams with no real interest in how they’re doing or where I can see them. Fifteen years ago, we were watching Celtic and Newcastle United regularly on Setanta or Fox Sports Channel and knew the players and were pulling for Champions League results, and now, if Birmingham Legion wins a game I might go back and watch the replay on ESPN+.

Basketball is long gone. The Warriors were a rocket ride until they signed Kevin Durant, at which point it became the same joyless death march to a championship that Alabama football has become under Nick Saban. I’d rather watch the Santa Cruz Warriors, honestly, and they do have a lot of games televised…when they’re playing, that is. The NBA as a wider phenomenon is cool, and I appreciate it, but I’m not stuck in. And the NFL and NHL have long since disappeared from my sightline; I don’t even remember for sure if I snuck in a ride-around for Washington last season. And even that’s not interesting, because the entire old radio team has turned over and their replacement were themselves turfed out because the Organization Formerly Known As Deadskins were every bit as sexist, corrupt, incompetent and indifferent to human life as any college organization.

And behind most everything is the ever-present and unavoidable ESPN. Oddly enough, the baseball and soccer? Mostly come through something other than ESPN. But the endless bullshit of the Narrative is ESPN’s core practice and if you don’t have a part in the Narrative, you don’t fit. So we get endless Lebron and Tebow and Jeter and Duke and U$C and Yankees-Red Sox and the NATIONAL. FOOTBALL. LEAGUE. and cookie cutter bullshit announcing and talk show bloviation and none of the kinds of stuff that made Sportscenter at 11 PM in 1996 appointment television.

I’m tired of being stressed. I’m tired of being superstitious. I’m tired of the social media shitstorm. (Of which more later.) I’m tired of being told how excited I am and how American this is and that I care about the Super Bowl or Trevor Lawrence or Tom Brady. The only things I care to bother with are baseball and soccer that I don’t follow too often or too closely. Emotional engagement with sports no longer sparks joy for me. This would have been an obvious statement about myself at any point in my life until I graduated high school (except for Bama football, obviously) but probably sounds insane to anyone who has met me since, but there it is. Given the choice, I took two episodes of Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary over an actual College World Series game by Vanderbilt – not because I take getting there for granted, because any Vanderbilt sports fan never takes any success for granted, but because the actual competition is too fraught with anxiety and mental conflict to actually be enjoyable any longer.

I guess it’s a good thing I took up the Woodrow.

game reset

“POOTS OUT” is the obvious and hilarious tabloid headline, but there it is: after only three weeks in office, Edwin Poots – stalwart religious conservative head of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland and effectively the leader of the Protestant movement in Ulster – was defenestrated by his party for, apparently, failing to derail the Northern Irish government over All This Nonsense.

Back up.

The Tories called the Brexit vote in an attempt to quell the Eurosceptics in their ranks. It backfired massively. And despite Scotland and Northern Ireland voting decisively against Brexit, they got dragged along for the ride, two years after Scotland narrowly turned down secession because it might cost them membership of the EU. Brexit immediately brought up the issue of a hard border for goods and people on the island of Ireland – something that had been finessed away by membership of the EU and the Good Friday Agreement. And then, out of nowhere, Theresa May called a snap election and blew her other one off, resulting in a confidence and supply agreement that made the DUP the pivot point of the Tory majority in Parliament.

And then, when she couldn’t square the circle of “need to leave the EU but also need to maintain the Irish status quo”, she was herself defenestrated in favor of Boris Johnson, who has never been overly burdened by the demands of reality, and who promised to “get Brexit done” with no consideration for what that entailed. And then…well, his solution was to leave Northern Ireland in a customs union with the EU, thus preserving the movement of goods on the island of Ireland…and slapping down a hard border in the Irish Sea.

See, that’s the dirty secret of the Conservative and Unionist Party in the UK: that second bit is just there for show. Brexit was a paroxysm of English nationalism; what happened to Scotland was of no concern and what happened to Northern Ireland completely out of mind. The Brexit bunch could not give thruppence about Ireland. While the Unionist movement in Northern Ireland nails its colors to the mast as more British than the British – and for its trouble finds itself sawn off at the knees. Now Boris tries to use the specter of sectarian discontent to prise open the EU rules and have it both ways, while the EU says “hang on, this is the agreement YOU gave US last year” and Uncle Joe Biden, who is as Irish as a plate of boxty, telling Boris “knock it off with this Protestant shit or it’s ring a ding ding for you bozos”.

And in the meantime, former Taoiseach Leo Varadker – him being the openly gay medical doctor and all – says publicly that he anticipates reunification in his lifetime, while the head of Sinn Fein concurs – and well she might, because her party has the most votes of any single Northern party at the moment (and any single Republic party, come to that) and has brushed by its Catholic nationalist roots to advocate for equal marriage and European integration and the sorts of things the young care more about than the tales of Sean South and Bobby Sands and the problems of agricultural adversity in Victorian-age rural Athenry.

It would be the height of irony for Sinn Fein to be the party that leads the North into the 21st century at the ballot box, but the imp of the perverse has a way about himself and Loki is generally undefeated in such things. All it takes is a few more young Norn Iron who want to be on the upside when things shake out. The Tories are unlikely to fight very hard to keep them, because after all, England will be just fine, and then you wonder whether they will look the other way as Scotland goes because that would basically end the Labour threat for all time. And then – Irish unification, Scottish independence, and the functional end of the United Kingdom brought to you by the right-wing defenders of Imperial Britain.

Wouldn’t that be something.

the tube

One thing that has come of being shut in the office for 15 months or so is that I have finally found a use case for YouTube. The vintage-2016 iMac on the desk, which normally sat idle as a repository for iTunes content and TurboTax, was repurposed as the Zoom device so I could work on my laptop while on a call – and then, as the window to some background video. It only began in earnest once I figured out how to stop interstitial ads from interrupting the flow of the video, but once I did, suddenly I was able to put on one of those weird mallwave videos and idly not-watch it while on the job. The ethereal weirdness of seeing the era of my adolescence repurposed as hipster nostalgia porn was a good fit for the unreality of the early days.

Then, in June, I discovered that between two different users, most of the old U-Verse Showcase videos had been uploaded. The old demos for HD service on U-Verse were some of my original relaxation material in 2013 and beyond, to the point we called it the Prozac Channel and would have it on from the time I got home til I went to bed, to the exclusion of regular television. It soon became my primary distraction during the day, and calming enough during the dog days of summer.

Then, in a fit of madness one weekend while attempting a fasting-mimicking diet, we needed distraction and found it in Watched Walker, the videos of a fellow called Paul who just literally walks around London filming as he goes. Closed captioning has the descriptions and whatnot. It was as good a substitute for travel as I could have hoped for down the stretch in the back half of 2020, and if it seemed too frequently around Soho and the West End, it was more than made up for with the early mornings and rainy days and the occasional dalliances with the South Bank or Richmond or as far afield as Bath.

And at some point, I stumbled onto the world of lo-fi relaxation video – first coffee shop simulations, then quiet rooms in big cities with rain or snow or lights outside, then pub-like surroundings, and it became yet another mode of escape. I totally get how you would put this on your 32” TV and let it run all night, a window to someplace else when you’ve been too much in this world. A view from a Kansas City penthouse, snow piled up outside a city coffee shop, rain dripping off the eaves of a tiki hut while the waves crash under the moonlight out the window…it’s not much, but when you’ve spent a massive chunk of the last year confined to your own county and not leaving the car, it’s not nothing.

So now the question is: will it be possible in the next phase of my life to just cast this stuff up to the TV from the laptop and leave it running all through a pub evening at home? It’s not the worst idea, and if it’s the one good thing I get to keep from this pandemic, I’d have it…

agency

I had a discussion a while back with someone who had moved from San Francisco to New Orleans and was appalled by the open racism she encountered. I posited that I could not go back (see the header of this blog) and she countered that there’s just as much racism in the Bay. Which I concede without hesitation, certainly; history and circumstance bear that out. So what is the difference? People in Alabama will tell you how racist people are in Chicago while hanging out their Confederate flags, and I don’t know if the intent is to say “they’re more racist than us” or just “everyone else is just as bad so we should be allowed to do whatever.”

But there’s a material difference. There are plenty of Confederate flags in the Central Valley of California, and plenty enough racist-adjacents in the ranks of Silly Con Valley tech-bro-dom, especially among the Thiel and Musk contingent. But I don’t think you’re going to see an avalanche of bills in California demanding an end to early voting or restricting mail-in balloting, or banning “critical race theory” (a phrase that has become as meaningless as “woke” or “politically correct”), or protecting Confederate statues and symbols from removal. And that gets back to something else I have come to realize: I could never live in any place where the sticks have got the upper hand on the city.

Think about it. Austin perpetually (and inexplicably imho) gets a pass for being in Texas. Nashville is not being tarred with Tennessee (though maybe they should, given the extent to which paste-eating Twitter conservatives are moving there as their safe space). Atlanta – the capital of Black America, by some accounts – does not get lumped into Georgia, which is otherwise Mississippi with paved roads. New Orleans…well, that’s a unique case all the way around. But it’s not even a Southern thing. Consider some place like Kansas, or North Dakota, or Idaho or Wyoming, where there is no city to speak of and no “urban” presence and hell, precious few non-whites altogether and arguably nothing to “fear”. Nevertheless, there you go, same sort of nonsense, same catering to one-cow-one-vote wingnuts and their fever dream of reality.

By contrast, consider the Pacific coast. California does not want for red state nutballs; Red California is by rights an enormous state all on its own (as Tim Draper has repeatedly attempted to manifest). Oregon is famous for its anti-spotted-owl mania and has its very roots as a state in racism. Hell, the entire Pacific Northwest was ground zero for the militia and skinhead movements of the early 90s, in case you forgot about WAR and the Metzgers and Ruby Ridge and the like. The FBI had a branch office in Coeur D’Alene for years. But nobody thinks Washington or Oregon, let alone California, is about to tip into neo-Confederacy at the state government level, and that’s because Seattle and Portland and the Bay Area and Los Angeles have so many people that the sticks can’t get over. Without an electoral college and unequal state sizes to protect them, the QOP cannot carry its unfair federal advantage into states where it can’t work up a majority of voters.

I’m not asking to end racism. I wish we could, but I’m also realistic. What I want – and what should be entirely doable – is to eliminate the agency of racists. That’s what happens when you have a functional Civil Rights Act, a functional Voting Rights Act, a state with a Democratic lock on government and an unwillingness to bend the rules on behalf of white people outraged that their ferret-haired messiah lost fair and square for a second time. At least in a place like California, we were being driven toward the blades at a less acute angle for four years. Same deal with Biden – thanks to the intransigence of West Virginia and Arizona, we cannot have hope of improvement, but we can at least have a measure of relief; the millennium might not be upon us but at least the forces of the executive branch aren’t bent on making our country over into the United States of Alabama.

The Enemy will always be with us. As long as they are helplessly mewling, the dogs barking while the caravan proceeds, they are no more than a nuisance and can be dealt with. But when a dog won’t stop barking – or humping your leg – you have to cut his balls off. Our focus should be less on the bark and more on the balls – and we shouldn’t shirk from the snip.

darksaber

I hadn’t paid any attention to the Clone Wars animated series when The Mandalorian arrived on Disney+ toward the end of 2019. But when I saw the last scene, and immediately saw “Darksaber” trending on Twitter, it was time to hop on Wikipedia. And this thing has an interesting history. It was the original saber of the first (and only) Mandalorian ever to become a Jedi, and how it wound up with a shaped blade – especially a black one crackling with white energy along the edge – has not been explained to me in any way. The interesting thing about it is that it’s more a symbol than a weapon: the wielder is probably not a Force user and of necessity will not be able to use it to deflect blaster bolts or summon it to their hand, and to be honest there’s a non-zero chance they will chop off a limb trying to wield it. But it’s a mark of authority, of the person who has done what is necessary to take charge and be responsible for leadership.

I hadn’t planned on owning one. I already have two lightsabers – one built myself almost two years ago in the first week of Galaxy’ Edge at Disneyland, and one replica of Mace Windu’ saber that was a wedding gift from my lovely bride. But after escaping from a First Order star destroyer – twice – and successfully purloining four containers of coaxium fuel from under the nose of the Empire, I waved one around in Dok Ondar’ Den of Antiquities and reluctantly concluded that while intriguing, I couldn’t justify it. At which point, my wife slapped down a few hundred credits and bought it for me anyway.

I am not a Jedi, despite my best efforts since 1978. A saber that is specifically for a non-Jedi seems more my speed, not least because the blade looks vaguely cutlass-like – appropriate for Vanderbilt. A black blade is a good pair for my gold one. And I’ve spent the last three weeks at work making a bit of an ass of myself in the cause of trying to wrench myself and my team out of a fatal nosedive led by people incompetent to make the decisions they’re forcing on us. More than once I’ve wondered whether I am engaged in a resume-generating event, and decided that if they fire me I’ll thank them for making it easy on me.

We are at a nodal point. Our life has shifted under us in ways we did not expect. Our living arrangements are soon to change; we’ll probably be moving house and if we don’t, we’ll be taking on new residents. Family caretaking has come to a conclusion, painfully so, and various family dilemmas have been resolved one way or another. And as for Alabama – well, to coin a phrase, I have to give people the opportunity to be their better selves. Especially if I want to be true to the value system with which I’ve emerged from the last five years or so. My habits have changed too – while I smoked a cigar on the birth of a new relative, I didn’t have any urge to follow it up with another. Despite the consumption of a lot of Coke Zero from the 7-Eleven in 2020, I definitely prefer iced tea and warm coffee to keeping more soda in the house. I’m still drinking non-alcoholic craft beers weeks after Lent ended. And my hat choice is a cotton twill adjustable if it’s not fog weather, and it’s as likely as not representing Birmingham or San Jose rather than Vanderbilt.

Maybe this is what 50 means. You know who you are, you know what you want, and you have a simple bill of requirements for how you’re going to live your life. After all, when the doors start to close and life starts taking more than it gives you, it’s not the worst thing to know that the main thing you want out of life is wrapped up in an Adirondack chair by the backyard fire pit at sundown, with baseball on a screen or speaker somewhere and a full Yeti in one hand and your sweetie in the other chair.

This is the way. Or at least, it is now.

off the gram

I gave up Instagram for Lent. I haven’t put the app back on my phone. I haven’t posted at all since Mardi Gras, save for twice: a memorial for my mother-in-law and a birthday accolade for my wife. I’ve gone through the web client, in Firefox, in private mode, and mostly just liked and commented. I don’t take as many pictures, and the ones I do post go to the family Cocoon instance, or a Signal chat, or rarely to Flickr or Twitter. 

And the thing is…I could probably cut about half my Instagram and not miss it. There are brands. Food trucks, sports teams, things other than individuals (and frankly, a lot of people who are only in my life as Vanderbilt football-adjacent). I suppose that’s part of what has made it surprisingly easy to stay away: unlike five years ago, when Instagram was the only “safe” social network, my tightly curated personal Twitter actually feels like a less annoying space now, because it is with only a couple of exceptions composed entirely of people I have met in person (or would like to someday) and I’ve been able to stop retweets into my timeline from others. And I’m using TweetBot which means a chronological timeline and no ads.

All this does is drive home how the future of social networking is the group chat. The people talking about how Apple is on the verge of turning iMessage into a social network, well, look behind you. In effect, the group chat – whether in iMessage, Signal, WhatsApp, Slack or what have you – is the private social network we all wanted, and gives up only outside discoverability. Epic accuses Apple of leaving iMessage exclusive to Apple for lock-in? Well, duh. When your business model is selling ads, you want everybody on your product. When your business model involves selling goods and services for cash on the fucking barrelhead, you want to make those goods and services attractive enough to pay for with money.

Apple could do this. Easily. You’ve got chat already in Messages. You’ve got photo storage already. You’ve got location sharing already. You’ve got GameCenter, which is sort of a social network as it is. You’ve got Clips, which provides all the filters and backgrounds of Insta or TikTok without having your data pillaged by the Chinese. You’ve got an account system and a payment structure and the accumulated commercial potential of over a decade of apps and music and media sales. And you’ve got the only aspirational brand in all of tech that is equally associated with privacy. 

But there are two big problems. One is, well, social media. If you don’t want to be Facebook, you have to commit to a privacy-oriented solution without brands, without sponsored posts, without advertising and without platforming the kind of people that Zuckerberg relies on to drive engagement. Apple might not mind going into the Nazi-punching business, but the slapdash management of the App Store suggests they’re not prepared for content management at scale like this. The other is, well, not everybody has an iPhone. My cousins in Nashville are on Android – and part of that is because one of them came to the marriage from Not America. Apple may have 2/3 of the US market but it’s an Android world in personal mobility, and WhatsApp is the messaging solution of record for anyone whose country code isn’t +1. Any solution exclusive to Apple is going to have a hard cap in how big it can be – and maybe that’s for the best; not everyone needs to be big enough to foment insurrection in the United States and genocide in Myanmar. Still, there is a digital divide concern there.

And honestly, does everything need to be in the hands of one of the Big Tech monsters? Is it possible to have a broadly-acceptable social networking solution that isn’t Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Amazon-based? Foursquare was onto something, long ago, and sort of lost their way. Tumblr is still out there, having been spun off of the Verizon Oath clusterfuck and owned by WordPress with some capability for multi-media posting and an easily-mobile UI. But you have to convince everyone to use these other things. You have to make it easy to jump, and desirable to jump. And to be blunt, the only way you’re going to shake the foundations of Facebook in a speedy manner is to offer people a safe and secure alternative that comes with their phone and is built right into the OS.

Then again, if Apple launches a Facebook competitor at this moment in history, who knows what happens from a legal standpoint, Then again again, nobody likes Facebook, so it’s possible the Feds would look the other way. If Amazon could build their own tablet and App Store, if Google could build their own messaging solution parade (“Google messaging app” is the Silly Con Valley equivalent of “Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher”), if Facebook could buy Instagram and WhatsApp and then rip off every app they couldn’t buy, why shouldn’t Apple just lightly knit together the services they already offer and call it a day?

The one thing that gives me a flicker of hope for all this is that whenever Apple was showing off the new privacy controls for data sharing between apps, the sample app was something called “Pal About.” If that actually turned out to be a product…wouldn’t that be something.