out of hand

In the days of the dot-com boom, the golden strategy was “IPO.” Get those shares to market and cash in big time, watch the stock shoot like a rocket and get filthy rich. In our current era, the golden strategy is to just hang on as long as possible and keep nursing that venture capital sugar tit, get the valuation through the roof without it ever having to actually be marked to market (this is also known as the Y Combinator strategy, as pioneered and supported by Silly Con Valley welfare queen Paul Graham). But in between, there was a plan where the ultimate goal was just to be acquired by one of the right companies. Sell out to Google, Microsoft, maybe Yahoo, maybe Facebook, maybe even Apple or Amazon.

See a pattern here?

Oddly enough, if your entire industry’s whole goal for six or seven years is to be acquired by one of four or five companies, it stands to reason that eventually those four or five companies will have way too much power and stroke over the rest of the industry. Which is exactly what happened. It went especially sideways when Facebook was allowed to spend $20 billion to acquire the two biggest potential threats to its social media hegemony. Now instead of being alternatives, Instagram and WhatsApp are two more mandibles scraping your personal information into Fuckface Zuckerberg’s hideous maw. And sure, you could pay for infinite storage on the Flickr account you’ve had since 2005 and forgotten about, or get all your friends to move over to Signal, but there’s the problem: it’s not enough to move yourself, everyone has to go. The old days when you could use any email provider, host your website anywhere, use whatever browser you have or whatever mail client you download – those are all gone. Maybe a really serious night of work with IFTTT and RSS will let you interoperate sorta somehow, but don’t count on it.

This is a problem. Not just in the sense that some potentially very unreliable actors have the kind of data we’d go nuts thinking about the government using against us – that ship sailed years ago, as I mentioned in this very space at the time. Gizmodo has done a series about cutting yourself off from the Big Five, and how impossible it is to do it all at once because of the ubiquity of Amazon Web Services. (Aside: Apple seems to be in a different space here, because they want you to spend money on their goods and will throw in services for lagniappe, but they make much of how they aren’t monetizing your info for ads or selling it along. More on them in a sec, but there’s a case to make that Apple is a premium product by which you pay not to be reamed.)

And one of the big reasons we got here is because of phones. Not just because of OS vendors; Google and Apple are the duopoly in your hand that Microsoft and Apple were on your desktop. It’s because at the consumer level, most of what you want these days can be done from the phone. Is done from the phone, for most people. I haven’t had a personally-owned laptop for years now, and this blog and its management are the only personal business I have that really calls for a laptop. Most everything else can and does happen on the phone.

And it shows, especially when you see what a colossal pain in the ass it is to sync and back up with iTunes. Easier to just handle everything through iCloud (or to do all your music through Spotify, data service notwithstanding). Password managers like LastPass or the like are a lot more practical now because you aren’t going to be going to cyber cafes or computer labs to enter passwords you can’t remember – all that happens on your phone. We were in the easyInternet on the Strand every day of my first trip to London in 2005; by 2007 we were looking at an iPhone on whatever WiFi we could find instead. The phone is always with you, and the phone is your portal to the cloud where everything actually lives, and if you crush your phone in the motorized seatback in first class, you can go to the Apple Store after you land and within six hours your new phone will be as your old one was.

But that’s just me and my iPhone. Which has exactly one Google app on it total: Street View, for use with the Cardboard when I want to feel like I’m going down Highway 1 on a foggy day. It has exactly one Amazon app on it: IMDb, which is not logged into. It has exactly one Microsoft app: Translate, which is never opened. And it has one Facebook app: Instagram. Which is a problem. I don’t use WhatsApp anymore. I haven’t used Facebook in years. But Instagram keeps me from cutting the cord completely with that bunch of assholes in Menlo Park, because deep down, that’s where my friends are. I don’t have the FOMO and influencer bullshit issues of Gen-Z and millennials, and I’ve done a pretty good job of just making sure that this is where I post behind a locked account for the people I like. But I don’t trust Facebook at all, and if I had an alternative, it would take me about 30 seconds to delete my Insta and never look back.

But I don’t. Because these things only work when you either have open standards or when you can get everyone to move. I didn’t have a lot of friends using WhatsApp, and they were all willing to run Signal as well, so that was actually doable. But for groups greater than n = 7 or so, that’s an awfully big ask. For Instagram, it might be impossible. It would be different if we all had RSS, or if we all still checked Flickr, or if Insta had somehow managed to turn down a billion dollars. But if buts and ifs were memes and GIFs we’d all be Internet assholes. And that’s why I can’t get rid of Insta anytime soon, any more than I can blow up the one locked Twitter or the unlocked one with a thousand followers. Most people stay on social media for the convenience, but I have to stay because I can’t bear what little connection to other people I can maintain.

Of which.

On Fyre

So we watched the Netflix documentary on the Fyre Festival a while back – you know, the one produced by one of the companies responsible for producing the festival in the first place, in an attempt to get themselves out ahead of a more incisive documentary on Hulu that might implicate people other than just Billy McFarland (or noted Rhodes scholar and neurosurgeon Ja Rule). It was every bit as appalling as you’d expect – basically a shit ton of money thrown at “influencers” to inflate a bubble of unreality that survived right up until people started showing up, despite the gigantic flashing warning signs that DANGER, COLOSSAL FUCK-UP AHEAD. And the thing is, this simply wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet. In fact it wouldn’t have been possible without Facebook’s platforms, which appear to have been the principal means of advertising and driving this fiasco.

Which drives home the biggest problem of the social media era: it has almost completely removed the guardrails. In the early days of the Internet, there was a lot more self-selection, because you had to be competent to sort out your TCP and your SLIP or PPP and work your way around USENET or Gopher or whatever. The effect of freely available wide-open social media has been to flatten information and remove gatekeepers – but without considering whether those gatekeepers might have served a useful function sometimes. If Billy McFarland had to go through the usual promotional channels to put on his festival, he couldn’t have gotten nearly as far as he was able to by just giving money to Instagram “influencers.” Bullshit candidates like Morry Taylor or Steve Forbes got weeded out of the GOP primaries quickly and easily – none of the GOP’s nominees after Bob Dole would have made good Presidents but at least they weren’t completely off the map until 2016. The re-mainstreaming of white supremacy would have been impossible before the Internet because the valid channels wouldn’t do it and the channels that were available tended to be badly mimeographed and poorly spelled – at a time when that was still a signifier.

There are many things the Internet has brought us, but “utter bullshit now lives on an equal footing with reality” almost makes it all not worth it. Removing mediators sounds good until you realize those mediators were there for a reason and performed a vital function – and if it was imperfect, the thing to do was fix and repair, not abandon completely. But that’s the boomer ethos with the rules, and their rich kids got it too: rules are for suckers, rules are for other people, and so are consequences.The one bright side is that if you got rooked on Fyre Festival, you could probably afford it, and maybe it’s God’s way of telling you that you’ve got more money than brains.

Would that there were more suck reckonings in the offing.

plinka hawwww

So here we go. The new-old-stock iPhone SE (code name “Side Piece” and loaded with iOS 11.3) arrived and has been set up on yet another SIM from US Mobile (your absolute best bet for minimal-usage low-cost SIM service). I successfully dumped my entire music library to it and still have room left over, which is nice, but the real appeal to having a 128 GB phone is that if I do have to relinquish my work phone, all I have to do is restore its iCloud backup to the SE and I’m good to go.

I didn’t restore from the backup of the old SE, of course. This was a clean setup, and the only apps I put on there are all for audio streaming or facilitating going down the pub. No social media (other than Signal, if you count that), no Slack or other work apps, and not one byte of code from Google or Facebook (I did install the Kindle app, but only because one of my Siri shortcuts calls it and I didn’t want it to break; this isn’t a reading device). I didn’t even put an RSS reader on there. Given that Slack, Insta and Twitter usually are among my top-5 battery burners, I’m hoping this phone’s battery life will be appreciably better.

Not least because, quite frankly, I didn’t want an app for anything I can do on a web browser. Refreshing Twitter and RSS don’t tend to make my life any better. Slack isn’t terrible on a personal level, but it’s also the worst battery hog you can put on your phone short of the Facebook app itself. If I want the Gaelic-language version of RTE radio, or BBC4 for the shipping forecast, or minor-league baseball audio streaming, those are fine, but with all the iTunes songs local I can pop it into airplane mode and survive for days between charges. 

But for most daily use, even on the weekends, I’m going to try to live on my iPhone X. Water-resistant, a screen that lets you use it as a Kindle, haptic vibration, big battery (even if the AMOLED screen chews through it, you can at least ameliorate that slightly with dark modes), better cameras front and back, wireless charging, and it’s got all the bits and bobs on it for work so I can actually do my job from it sometimes. And hopefully if I go back to setting up and using Downtime, I’ll actually be able to wall off the bits I don’t need to be overdosing on. And when I pull out the SE, it’ll be because I really am getting away from it all, and hopefully for more than just an hour and a half.

hot and cold

Torres del Paine is billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. The national park is full of mountains and glaciers, after a long ride from Puerto Natales through steppe country bordering on tundra. Guanacos, rheas, black-neck swans and pumas roam the sparse lands right up to the mountains’ edges and the glaciers sit like a luminous blue warning that we might not get away with this one. And in the middle of summer, a mile walk out from the lodge will take you to the confluence of two differently-colored rivers while an extraordinarily cold rain soaks through your jeans. 

There’s not much in Chilean Patagonia by way of population. Even the indigenous population didn’t spend much time there and their numbers were always few, because this is not a particularly hospitable land. For the most part, it’s all about sheep ranching on huge estancias that can have tens of thousands of sheep on tens of thousands of acres. It’s what I expect Montana or Wyoming are like: just plain ol’ wide open spaces. The sort of place that requires sturdy boots and a shearling coat, not to mention the Buff.

The Buff is a fabric tube that can be worn half a dozen different ways – headband, snood, scarf, bandana rag – and it turns out I already had one, bought in a moment of abstraction at the clearance sale at the National Geographic shop back in the spring of 2004. I didn’t bring it, which was a mistake, but I won’t make that mistake again. I bought one there, in a Patagonia flag pattern, and ordered a merino wool version which was waiting when I got home. But it’s odd that I was prepared for the trip fifteen years before I took it, and didn’t know it so I wasn’t actually prepared. But the new Buff is staying in my jacket pocket now.

And then, the whiplash: from wintry cold in Torres del Paine to over ninety degrees in Santiago. Not much to say about the capital city: it’s a world capital of seven million and we were only there for a day, so there isn’t much to add beyond “yeah it’s a big capital city.” Like maybe New York or Tokyo rendered into Spanish. But it was sweltering, which made for a good adjustment as we took a flight to Polynesia that could have easily been the San Francisco-Honolulu route. Only in our case it was Santiago to Rapa Nui – known to the West as Easter Island. 

Easter Island’s permanent population is about 8000 now. The native population was as low as a hundred at the end of the 19th century, and there’s no 100% native population left; everyone is some percentage of mix, but you need at least some native blood to own property, which appears to be an attempt to try to make good on a couple centuries of exploitation. This is a recurring problem for me: much as I love love LOVE Polynesia, it’s always difficult not to feel like an intruder. It’s why I don’t object to staying in the containment zone in Waikiki – I’m willing to stay in my allotted space and let the locals make the money without needing to barge any further into their spot. Of which more later.

But Rapa Nui is most famous, of course, because of the moai, the huge stone heads that were carved as representation of ancestors who had passed on up until the 18th century. And at some point, not long after the time the first Europeans showed up, the Rapa Nui decided they didn’t believe in the ancestors any more (although overcrowding and scarcity of resources could also have been a factor). So when you walk around the quarry where all the stone was hewed, you see some abandoned moai that were never transported and that have been half-buried by the soil in two centuries, and some that are only half-carved from the stone. To stand there in a gray drizzle, gazing at a a half-emerged stone profile that will never be completed, is an unexpectedly poignant experience. You wonder whose ancestor this was meant to be, and what their life was like that they merited this sort of commemoration – and what happened to prematurely cut it off. And you contemplate everything that “losing my religion” actually entails.

Three full days in Rapa Nui is probably about enough to get the important bits. I saw the church, I saw the markets, I ate a whole pineapple in hand like it was an ice cream (they peel it and you hold the leaves like a stick, and it’s soft and juicy enough to eat it core and all). I saw and sympathized with the protest signs all around the resort, although a bunch of ragged black flags on sticks are too genuinely badass as decoration to convey a disruptive message. And I did perversely enjoy the experience of driving five minutes from the hotel to the airport, going through The Door, checking in at The Desk, going through The Security Checkpoint and then sitting out at The Gate before boarding a stretch Dreamliner on an airstrip once designated for emergency Space Shuttle orbiter landings. And then 27 hours home on three flights, and thank goodness for Global Entry. It takes me longer to get through the self-checkout at Safeway than to get back into the country. All hail Platinum Plus Preferred Citizenship.

So that was the big trip. Now we have to wait and accumulate enough leave for two weeks off, enough money or points for international business class round-trip, and enough of an idea of where we go next. But it’s entirely possible that this is my hobby now, and that everything I do in life is to kill time until the next free Rusty Nail in the VIP lounge waiting for my Dreamliner to take us to The Next Destination. 

Wouldn’t that be something.

The Return Of The Perfect Phone

 

So there I was, groggy and half-asleep in international business class on a Dreamliner somewhere between Miami and Santiago de Chile, trying to bring my seat up so I could force down some breakfast. And I tugged at my headphones to retrieve my trusty iPhone SE, my chosen travel phone for three years, so I could stop the music that I’d been trying to lull myself into rest with. And it wouldn’t come out, and that’s when I realized I’d pinned it in the seat. And crunched the battery case so badly that I’d actually bent the side of the phone.

On day one of a 17-day trip to the other end of the world.

Fortunately, the camera worked, and despite some weirdness with the screen (un-cracked, all hail Gorilla Glass) and the problems with satellite-backed WiFi in the wilds of Patagonia, I was more or less able to get by. But I was already resigning myself to the notion that at long last, the ungainly iPhone X from work was going to be my only smartphone, once and for all. And then, mirabilae dictu, what should appear on Apple’s clearance website but the iPhone SE, in 128 GB size.

So why spend $300 on a phone that comes pre-aged 3.5 years? Let’s see:

1. A 128 GB model means that for the first time ever, I could have literally all my music on it with plenty of room for backup content, photography, movies to cast to AppleTV, etc.
2. Every leak around the current Apple roadmap indicates pretty adamantly that there is no smaller iPhone coming. Much like the Moto X mk 1 was my last chance at a US phone, this is probably my last opportunity to own a one-handed phone. The key thing being that with 2 GB of RAM, it’s probably safe through iOS 13 and may be OK for iOS 14 depending, so two more years for $300 is pretty good.
3. I don’t have to use it right away. Indeed, it’ll probably sit in the box for a couple weeks while I experiment with living full time on the iPhone X. It doesn’t have to be the main phone unless something goes wrong or I leave work.
4. It’s insurance. For going abroad, against losing my work phone, in case shit generally. And it’ll be nice to have one with less wear and tear on it generally, never mind having being pinched in the seat. The cosplay dream phone is alive and well, a talisman of the life I wish I led, and a vote in favor of the proven and reliable over the flashy and new.

Now… how to re-arrange numbers again? This certainly buggers my streamlining plan…

the other side of the world

There are a lot of things I could talk about – the strange prevalence of English-language 80s covers as the ambient airport music, the unnerving little trash can in every bathroom stall with warnings about not flushing paper down the toilet, the casual companionship of street dogs, the acute self-consciousness at my utter inability to speak Spanish or even fake it convincingly, doubly embarrassing for someone trying to be a naturalized Californian – but all the details are less important than the settings. And boy, does Chile have settings. There were three towns in particular that struck me, in increasing order of appeal.

First was Puerto Varas, a town of just under 40,000 in the lakes district. Despite being largely settled by German immigrants in the mid-19th century, my own German skills availed me naught (until Easter Island, but that’s another story). But PV was a town that reminded me of Hida, Japan: old world small town architecture, volcanic mountains, sprawling lake. It felt more like South Lake Tahoe than anything, because it was obviously the jumping-off point for all manner of young backpackers and hikers and international party types. I am not athletic or young enough for any of that sort of thing, but there were plenty of folks around who were and they gave every impression of having a fine old time of it. This was the starting point, and it was a great one. Riding through the rural hills to this ranch or that market, seeing the occasional tiny grocery at roadside with a Coca-Cola-sponsored sign out front,  it was possible to squint your eyes and imagine yourself in the backroads of rural north Alabama – and there was one place where we had a feast of pit-cooked shellfish that had so much carefully cultivated hydrangea and painted-tire planters that I would have sworn we were at my Mamaw’s house.

Punta Arenas, on the other hand, felt exactly like what it was: an Old World town of a hundred thousand that just happened to be plunked at the end of the world. It felt like a frontier, rather like I expect St. Louis felt when the Mississippi was the border of “real America”. It is the springboard for many Antarctic expeditions, so much so that it is under the ozone hole itself, and so far south that the landmass across the water on the horizon? That’s Tierra Del Fuego. You’re at 53 degrees south latitude and seven thousand miles from home, and I could feel every one of those seven thousand miles out on the square at sundown. You’d have to go back to Budapest in 1992 to find the last time I felt so far from home – and I’ve been to Ireland, Switzerland, Paris, London and Tokyo in between.

Two and a half hours northwest, though, is Puerto Natales, the capital of the province of Ultima Esperanza – Last Hope – and really the only town there. The population is barely 19,000, mostly supporting tourists headed for the Torres del Paine national park and its mountains and glaciers. It feels like a small town in the middle of nowhere, the sort of place where you expect to see Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman riding into town on motorcycles – or Clarkson, May and Hammond on whatever they could buy for a million pesos (about $1500). The sky was gray and overcast, the air was clear and cold, the wind wasn’t quite at Punta Arenas levels (no hurricane gusts here) and the first hotel in town had its latitude prominently displayed and looked like it had been bodged together from 2-TEU intermodal shipping containers. And yet, the hotel bars were thoroughly equipped and there was a gourmet food and wine shop that was very generous with their restroom and their craft beer selections alike, and a brick-oven pizza place with an Italian-language Swiss Consulate sign out front, and glowing-green Branca Menta served with ice and lime at only 25% ABV.

And it hit just the right note. This is away from it all. This is Patagonia, the wild wild south. This is rural and isolated and you’re two hours drive from the only city of 100,000 to be found for a thousand miles or more in any direction. And yet, you have cozy accommodations and plenty of places to get a beverage and perfectly good wifi and cell coverage (and, one assumes, satellite TV under the DirecTV brand, judging by the dishes on every house). And in Punta Arenas, I was reminded more than anything of the hotels on my first trip in 1992 in Eastern Europe: the feeling that you were far from home and on the edge of the known world, only with a refreshing glass of Fernet con Coca instead of making poor decisions around Campari or beers I’d never tried before.

It felt right. I said to my friends that being sat in a hotel lobby bar with a drink in one hand and my Signal-equipped iPhone SE in the other was my most natural state, and this trip did nothing to dissuade me of that notion. And we haven’t even reached the extremes yet, about which another post will soon follow.