Non-plinka gadgetology

My iPad mini is over six years old. Bought on Boxing Day 2013 with ill-gotten money, it was a replacement for my 40th birthday iPad, one of the first retina models. The mini, at 8 inches, fit comfortably in most of my outerwear and was a much more suitable way of splitting the difference between iPhone and laptop – and in essence, it replaced the use of a personal laptop for me altogether. And yet I never took it abroad the way I thought I might. Japan, London, Ireland, Chile, NYC – all done with an iPhone 4.7 inches or smaller and a plain Kindle Paperwhite as a book reader. The iPad was just a little too expensive to be a secondary device in unknown lands, and after I found myself with the almost-six-inch iPhone X two and a half years ago, an iPad with a four year old processor was almost superfluous to requirements.

And so I haven’t gotten a lot of use out of it lately. Now it’s got a processor six generations behind my new SE, it’s already had its last OS upgrade, and I was lucky to get a security patch up to 12.4.6. I don’t expect any more. It looks as though five years is about as much as you can expect for iPad support, which isn’t bad for a device that is supposed to be in the role of a laptop. Which makes me think – what would I even need a personal laptop for that I can’t do on an iPad, even a mini? Some of the multitasking stuff, sure. But notes and writing and Zoom and browsing and reading and watching video – an iPad is better for almost all those things than a phone and in some cases a laptop, given that it can be app-driven. And there’s one other trick: Swift, Apple’s programming language and scripting language of the future, is almost wholly optimized for learning on an iPad.

The only function of Alan Kay’s notional DynaBook that wasn’t available for the original iPad was the ability to program for the device ON the device. It’s arguable that Swift has begun to close that gap. And given that my career is basically dependent on Apple goods at this point, I could make a good case that it’s worth the $400 to have a dedicated personal teaching device, especially if I find myself without my work laptop for…whatever reason. In the meantime, maybe if I learn Swift on the laptop, I could justify doing it on an iPad in some future setting, even if Swift-as-scripting-language is unlikely to be a thing on the iPad anytime soon.

I don’t know. I have an Apple Watch coming in autumn – and come soon Lord, because the Fitbit that I got as a warranty replacement for one with a bad screen now itself has a worse screen to the point I put the first one back on. I need to be shut of them with a quickness, but I have to wait for the Apple Watch that has sleep tracking and oxygen level and that sort of thing. So that’s probably another $500, then throw the iPhone SE (still working a treat) on top of that, and then…an iPad? Do I really want to splash out $1500 this year on Apple goods? Especially when I’m on lockdown and have my laptop and iMac and everything here?

Almost certainly not. But if there’s a new iPad mini coming in 2021…maybe? At this point I think it’s turned into a gadget that I aspire to because I want it as an accessory for the kind of life I want to live, one where video chat with friends is a regular feature rather than a momentary pandemic novelty. One where I need the big display to dash off a little bit of remote work from the Adirondack on the porch overlooking the fog in Galway or Pescadero or the Smokies. It’s my age old story of wanting to need the things I want…and wanting to live in a world where the need for the things I want is both possible and realistic.

from may grey to june gloom

It’s been a hell of a year this week and it’s only Tuesday. The worst forces of the last decade all seem to be coming together at once. In the UK, Dominic Cummings actually has the British prime minister running interference for a political advisor, in a complete inversion of the natural order. In New York City, another middle-aged white woman with a Scarlett O’Hara complex attempted to use the police to call in a hit on a black man, while the police in Minneapolis proceeded to show why she thought it was a viable threat. And today it turns out Facebook has known all along that they’re exploiting hate and disinformation for the sake of profitable engagement and fear of the right, while Twitter tries to sack up and take some modicum of responsibility for what they repeat to the world.

All this hit me in one big pile today as I dug through my old browser bookmarks and tried to clean house. The last ten years show pretty abjectly that we all should have known this was coming. Birtherism, dumb-worship, open appeals to the worst in people – and, foolishly, a belief that 2012 was the last time that a flagrant appeal to white solidarity would be a viable path to the White House. In fact, the bigger lesson should have been not that whiteness as a platform was past its sell-by date, but that for better or worse, candidates who get nominated because it’s their turn tend to lose – even if they get more votes than their opponent. Which makes me worry, because we can’t afford to lose this election – and a good chunk of the people who need to be on board aren’t. The dirtbag left actually hates Democrats worse than anything, and will accept any support from anyone in their eternal quest for righteous purity. This is how Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald end up on the same side as Putin (the fact that Fast Eddie Snowden received asylum in Russia is less a sign that he was complicit than that Putin found him useful). The Russian goal is just to weaken and confuse for its own sake, to stir the shit and devalue any sort of truth, and the Extremely Online Left is very good at contributing to that without ever achieving their own notional goals. And that’s how we get to the cheap and easy social media misery, which fueled the Teabaggers and the rise of Tr*mp and toxic performative masculinity and…Brexit.

Dominic Cummings is just the latest in a long line of hustlers like Atwater, Rove and Bannon – people who think they split the atom by discovering you can apply a patina of intellectualism to the reification of the status quo. The point of their act is to put a candy coating on racism and sociopathy, where it turns out that they have amazingly found that reason, science and logic prove that the way things used to be is actually the best of all possible worlds. It’s the same sort of “dark enlightenment” bullshit that propels everything from Silly Con Valley assholes to Gamergaters to shitposting podcasters to Brexit and Tr*mpism. And worse, it’s the above-referenced sort of self-sustaining internal stupid that foreign powers can easily whip up and agitate for their own purposes to undermine us, through the cheap and easy medium of social media. The right in this country has no problems profiting by that, because the GOP believes in one thing: unlimited power to get what they want, propelled by stupidity and enabled by the flaws in the system – and by the fact that their enemy cares. The Democrats always try to save everyone, and the Republicans use that. That’s why government shutdowns, debt limit showdowns, and Supreme Court stonewalling happened – because the Democrats will always try to wrench the car back away from the cliff. They try to govern, whereas the Republicans have spent a decade demonstrating that they care for nothing less than actually doing the work. Losing the House meant nothing as long as they kept the Senate, which they will keep as long as they want at this point. Even with full control of all three branches of government, they couldn’t actually do a damn thing, which in some ways might have been a blessing.

The only solution is to capture the Senate – somehow – and break the filibuster, and then if necessary don’t shirk from using the judiciary to un-rig the work of an illegitimate regime. And it’s going to be a lot to un-rig. Getting rid of Dolt 45 is not going to be enough, because we’ve known for ten years that this is where the GOP has been going. It began with “the troops” as the answer to any question of the Bush regime, then spread to the conflation of “the troops” and “the police”, and has basically escalated to “we are the cops”. The old gag about how white people think 911 is customer service was never truer than when Amy Cooper basically tried to use the NYPD as her personal armed response to being asked to abide by the rules – proof, if any were needed, that the Boomer generation thinks rules are for other, poorer, browner people. And they aren’t dying off fast enough to be pushed out of their leverage – it’s going to take a full mass mobilization of everyone under 40, this November and every November afterward. It’s the only way to achieve containment.

We empowered the worst in America. It’s got to be undone, and it will be slow and it will hurt and we won’t all make it. But it’s the only way forward.

networking

Social networking compels us to disclose all manner of things, because we’re only telling our friends. Well, that’s what we’re meant to think. But anything we tell our friends, we’re also telling Facebook, or Twitter, or Foursquare, or Google, and at some point the VCs and angel investors will demand some sort of return on their capital – at which point these entities will find it necessary to use your personal information to make money. Yes, I do continue to use these things – but when I only have maybe half a dozen friends on Foursquare, Buzz, Whrrl, and Gowalla combined, what’s the ratio of communicating with friends vs. preparing a detailed demographic survey to be sold for big bucks in a couple of years?

The problem with these services is that they promote lock-in. Everyone’s on Facebook, because everybody is on Facebook. It’s Metcalfe’s Law run riot – as long as these systems are closed, there can be only one – the more there are, the less likely you are to use them all. Friendster begat MySpace begat Facebook, with each one being effectively killed by its successor – because who wants to update three different social network sites? If there were some sort of interoperability system for social networking, you’d at least have the security that comes with distribution – imagine if email were simply one great big bulletin board with a few rudimentary privacy filters. As it is, I’m getting more and more uneasy every time I check in.

-March 31, 2010

 

Nailed that, didn’t I? I would ultimately only last about a year and a half more on Facebook, even tangentially, because nothing it brought to the table was worth what it took off. And while I’m sure Twitter didn’t help with the shithole the 2010s were, it wasn’t a patch on how bad things would have been exposed to the Facebook firehose.

But then, go back and look at the alternatives. Heaven knows how much location info I’ve put into Foursquare in the last decade in the name of remembering where I’ve been. All my “private” conversations have been in Signal, which is far less likely to be acquired or go south on us quickly, but who knows? Facebook has never yet been contained, and now with the acquisition of Giphy they have a service integrated into almost everyone else’s chats or social media, which they intend in turn to integrate into…Instagram. The one social media service I don’t seem to be able to live without. 

I’ve tried at diverse times. There have been things like app.net, Peach, micro.blog, Cocoon – all of which seem like the hottest new social network of the afternoon at launch time, but none of which get traction. In the modern era, the only truly reliable social network is the group chat – which in the modern era depends on WhatsApp or Signal or iMessage, which means getting people to download a new app or only having friends with iPhones or again being dragged into the orbit of Facebook, which is neither safe nor reliable. But then, everyone in the rest of the world is on WhatsApp…which Facebook bought without so much as a sniff from antitrust watchdogs, and which is central to their future strategy in a world where the “blue site” is toxic for anyone under 30 and lumped as the 21st century’s AOL by anyone under 60.

And the problem now is that anything you’re likely to use is a service. This isn’t like email, which is distributed and independent and where you can spin up your own server and interoperate with anyone else. Everything we use in the 21st century is a unitary service that can go down at a moment’s notice – as we have seen repeatedly with Slack or Instagram or Snapchat. Having your activity bound up in a service – not email, not a series of websites, not interleaved RSS feeds la micro.blog – basically means that someone else owns your data and you are at their mercy for the security and stability of the whole son of a bitch. Then again, if your email server goes down, you’re screwed. If Slack goes down, all of Silly Con Valley is screwed at once – but everything stops until it’s up.

And so we look at the Giphy thing again. If we had a real FTC and DOJ, none of this would be happening, but we don’t have haven’t had in some time. Facebook is buying a significant piece of the underpinnings of contemporary social media, and by doing so gaining entry into the systems of competitors in a way that they have openly leveraged in the past for competitive advantage (with their bullshit “VPN” apps). It’s not going to end well – and we’ve already proven that Facebook is a bad actor that tolerates other bad actors in the name of continued growth and profit. 

At some point, the only solution left will be to nuke Menlo Park from orbit.

flashback, part 110 of n

I’ve written before about that fatal first week at my undergrad school, but I skipped over an important part. I don’t know what I expected when I trudged down the hill to the chapel on Sunday morning, the second day of my college experience. I guess I had some kind of guilty conscience, or just force of habit, or…I don’t know what. It’s not like I was eager to be at church, not after an adolescence in a Southern Baptist congregation leading the charge on the fundamentalist takeover (which was just about complete by 1990), but I threw on something presentable (presumably not jeans) and picked up a Bible and trudged into the chapel…

…which was tall, and brick, and round. Largely monochrome stained glass at the four compass points, red and blue and yellow and green (their significance would be explained later), and a round altar in the middle with a round wooden rail around it. The whole thing was a circle. And the chaplain explained that this was an unusual day for them, and service was usually held on Monday nights at 6 PM. The service was liturgical, my first real experience of that other than a Christmas service long ago at the Episcopal day school where my brother spent two years beating the age requirement to start public school. I suppose it was Methodist, broadly speaking, but denominations never really got brought up – I assume a Methodist school had a Methodist chaplain, but the words were never spoken.

All I knew is that everyone was welcomed to come up and take communion, which was patiently explained as “take the bread and dip it into the cup” for those of us brought up on shot glasses of grape juice and tiny dry squares maybe four times a year on fifth Sundays. And a surprising number of people were crossing themselves, something I had noticed and been aware of in the wider world but which was definitely not a Baptist practice. And the chaplain was welcoming. There was warmth, there was reassurance, there was empathy for the anxiety and uncertainty about stepping off into a wider world, and I think that’s where I first heard it said that “college IS the real world. It’s just not the WHOLE world.” And the closing hymn was a slow acoustical rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”, which was about the last thing in the world I would have expected.

It was the first church service I’d been in for years that didn’t feel wrong somehow. None of that weird dichotomy of somehow being both a persecuted minority and a silent majority at once, no hellfire and brimstone, no thinly veiled political subtexts. And I told the chaplain after, in a typical blurt of the age for me, that I’d been held prisoner of war in a Baptist church for years and this was the first time I could remember feeling better at the end. And I promised to be back the next night when regular service resumed. And I was. I made that a priority my entire first semester, and while everything else slowly sank into the abyss, I had that one moment a week where for about 45 minutes I could feel welcome and feel like I belonged.

And then, the Honors Program classes moved to Monday nights, 5-8 pm. I went to my academic advisor for only the second time ever and she suggested disinterestedly that the Easter season would probably mean a different liturgical calendar so I might not miss that much, and I was not yet at a point where I was willing to tell my academic advisor “you don’t get it”, and so I missed Chapel in the spring semester. I also missed the Dean’s List in the spring semester. Every after, I tried to shape my calendar to avoid those Honors seminars on Mondays from 5-8 – and ironically, there was also pushback from other students because most of the fraternity and sorority pledge meetings were Mondays at 7, so I think it budged eventually – but attendance at Chapel was spotty and irregular, and I definitely needed those nights when they would randomly do an extra service at 11 PM by candlelight.

In four years at that god-damned school, nearly everything seemed calculated to make me feel like I was less than everyone else. The only thing that ever said to me “no, you aren’t less” was Chapel at 6. It stands out in my mind that I didn’t need that at grad school, because – for the first year, anyway – I felt as though I belonged and I was welcome at Vanderbilt, so I didn’t need a lifeline or a refuge in the same way. There would be times over the decade following that I would feel compelled to slip off to church, as often as not by myself, and it was almost always Episcopalian. But when I went through my whole conundrum of seeking out a church in 2006 or 2007 or so, I didn’t settle on it – or on anything, really. And only in the last couple of years did I get it: I wasn’t looking for a faith community, I was looking for an identity. Church in the 21st century had become another attempt at belonging, a search for an adjective I could make apply to myself. 

As useful as that might be – and I think there’s a non-zero chance that deep down I am quietly Episcopalian – I don’t know that I actually want church as something to belong to at this point. I need to be able to drop in at noon on Thursday, or 6 PM Monday, or whatever, make some kind of contact with the divine and feel commonality with other people and be affirmed as a human being, and then slip out the side door quietly. Maybe the old Baptist impulse of “this is between you and God and nobody in Rome or Canterbury or Houston or Nashville has any part of it” is too much to overcome. 

But the fact that it’s still not easy for me to talk about – or even to type about – itself seems like a significant and complex piece of information.

flashbacks, part 109 of n

It was sometime in Black October 2004 when the streaming audio shifted in our workspace in the secret squirrel building somewhere in Cupertino. As we moved dozens of pallets of shrink-wrapped computer gear around and desperately tried to cut into the backlog, we would play various things. Here streaming bluegrass from DC, there a sports-talk station from Iowa. But at some point, we happened upon Virgin Radio UK, which was playing mostly contemporary British guitar-pop stuff. And then, out of nowhere, something called Party Classics with someone called Suggs. And it went a lot farther back, to 50s rock and roll bangers and New Wave classics and not a little bit of Madness.

I didn’t realize who Suggs was at the time. But I soon figured it out, and soon came to the realization that this was absolutely the best part of the week, musically. The show started at 6 o’clock UK time, which meant 10 AM for us, and by the end of it, it was past lunchtime and past time to be doing any serious work. In a way, we lurked there for Dave Edmunds’ “Here Comes The Weekend” and the cacophony of klaxon-siren-horn that signaled the start to the Great British weekend. And it became a standard of the work week for our team, for the rest of my time at Apple. Before long, Suggs had expanded to Saturdays as well, and then ultimately to a pre-recorded “Afternoon Tea” show five days a week that led at least one wag to crack wise about “Suggs FM”. (He goes on about this in his biography, how the shows were largely pre-taped and how a cabdriver once mistook him for going to the studio at 5:55 on a Friday and broke every London traffic regulation to trip to deposit him in Golden Square on time.)

And it fit. It made sense. I’d go to London for our honeymoon and find myself playing Virgin in the background at work for most of the rest of my time at Apple. Ben Jones, Martin Collins, Leona Graham, Geoof Lloyd, Christian O’Connell, but at the heart of it all, Virgin Party Classics with Suggs. Nothing felt as right and proper as having my local radio come from London as I worked away in Cupertino on the leading edge of the future. And at some point in 2007, it occurred to me to record entire episodes of the various Suggs shows with the cunning use of a couple different apps on the home Mac.

Good thing, too, because it all came crashing down pretty quickly. I left Apple at the beginning of October and Suggs left Virgin at the end of November. And in retrospect, I think that as much as anything opened the floodgates to depression as one more thing that was important to me disappeared into the black hole behind me. If nothing else, I’d like to have gone by and paid my respects in London during Thanksgiving 2007 (which I did manage for Geoff, Annabel and Tony, at least). But the height of that era – 2005-06 – was absolutely a high-water mark in my career. Not so long gone from National Geographic, on staff at the most exciting company in the world, and promoted from the drudgery of filling shipping cases to an actual desk job with an office and responsibility and the approval of my management. 

I broke out one of those recordings today to go with Day Drink Friday, here in the blight of the ‘20s, and I was reminded that once upon a time, the future was fresh and Silly Con Valley was a fun place to be. Hopefully, someday, that will be the case again.

flashback, part 108 of n

One of the things I’ve found myself doing the most with my new iPhone 9 is a game – apparently an indie, although who knows anymore – called “It’s Literally Just Mowing.” I paid $5 to get rid of the ads, because things cost money, and wound up with a very simple game. You control a riding lawnmower with a cartoon avatar, going door to door, mowing yards (or parks, or soccer fields, or sometimes vacant lots with artwork in their grass beneath). The mower turns very tight and you don’t actually have to get out the Weed Eater to trim the flower beds or edge up, and the grass shoots out behind and fades so you don’t have to worry about whether you go clockwise or counter-clockwise and making a pile of blown clippings to get your blades hung up in. 

But damn, how the memories roll in.

I started being tasked with grass-cutting at the age of 12. I had taken the old yellow Cub Cadet around the vacant lot across from our house more than once, because it had some uneven terrain but nothing you had to move around. No trees or flower beds or mailboxes or anything like that. After a few months, I had it together enough to inherit the position of Neighborhood Kid Lawn Mower To The Local Dentist/Mayor/City Councilman, which at the time paid I think $15 a cut twice a month. And so, for the next four summers or so, I was the presumptive cutter of grass for our front yard, our back yard, the vacant lot and the Mayor’s grass.

My hay fever wasn’t that bad yet. I mean, I noticed when I got in a sneezing fit, but it wasn’t the debilitating allergy it would be in college (or worse, in grad school and in DC). And I wasn’t wearing contacts at first; it would be 1986 before the eyes would become a problem (and by then, my little brother would be in on the game and we had a couple more neighborhood yards to look after. He wound up running his own landscaping business for a decade in his 30s. But I digress). This was 1985, when fifteen dollars would keep me in Marvel Comics for a month with money besides for twenty-five cent cans of ginger ale or draft style root beer from Piggly Wiggly’s store brand. I hadn’t really discovered girls yet, although there was a blond sax player a year older than me who seemed strangely interesting somehow. I had finally discovered pop music, and had a slew of mix cassettes dubbed off of Kicks 106 and I-95 (always cut off at one end or the other or with some other song or DJ chatter over top) in my fairly cheap knockoff Walkman.

And so “Money For Nothing” and “Get It On (Bang A Gong)” and “Wild Boys” and excerpts from the Miami Vice soundtrack played through cheap headphones as I wheeled around in tight turns, making sure the clippings were evenly sprayed from the right-hand side as I made my counterclockwise revolutions of one yard or another, edging ever so tight against brick or tree to minimize how much I’d have to use the damned Weed Eater. (I hated that thing. HATED it. You had to wear jeans to protect your legs, a horrifying prospect in the Alabama summer sun, and its shitty two-cycle engine never wanted to start without about a hundred squirts of starter fluid and a thousand yanks of the pull-starter. My right arm was overdeveloped for completely different reasons than most thirteen year old boys.) And there was nothing more satisfying than drawing a bead on a giant fire ant mound, gunning the engine, and hearing the growling WHOOMP as the whole thing was vaporized in a brown cloud jetting out from under your right hip. Take that, you little bastards.

By the summer of ’88, I had more remunerative employment than $20 every other week (oh yes, the price went up as I got older) could afford me. But I would still occasionally hop on the mower and do our own front yard, or the lot, just to pass the time and clear my head on a summer day while home from school. Even as late as that last summer in ’97, I’m pretty sure I cut the grass at least once on an idle weekend waiting for my life to start again. I must have done, but I don’t remember for sure, and I definitely didn’t think that was the last time I’d ever sit on the lawnmower. But sure enough. Twenty-three years later, I’ve only ever cut the grass exactly once since, because I’ve only ever lived one place that needed grass cut. (It was way too tall to be cutting with an unpowered old-style push mower, and I did it in a rage after the Skins lost to the Cowboys on an overtime kick return, and I blistered my hands so bad that I invited the neighbor kid to take over in future. $30, for something half the size of that Mayor’s front yard alone in Alabama. Inflation, you know.) But in the last twenty years, I’ve never lived anywhere with a yard to cut at all. 

It doesn’t seem like the worst chore, looking back. As long as you don’t have to trim. Three acres or so on a riding lawnmower and an ice cold beer in the shade after? That’s the sort of dream they write country songs about.

final impressions

It’s working fine. I haven’t touched the iPhone X in the two weeks since I wiped it. I haven’t touched the old iPhone SE since the new one arrived. A big part of that is because I don’t want to be temped by the smaller size, but this is still manageable. I carried a phone this size for a year and half, for crying out loud, I can deal. Everything that needed to migrate did without a fight, and it runs everything I need it to run perfectly well. 

With one exception: the keyboard. Which isn’t any worse than it was before, not by a long shot, and is more usable than on the 4” screen, certainly, but the fact remains that the keyboard has never really been the same since Jony Ive declared that all must be flat and translucent and that anything remotely skeuomorphic was anathema – especially drop shadows and visual cues. Somehow, some way, the keyboard went to shit and never recovered. But being stuck at home, I find myself typing more than I ever expected on the iMac, which despite being four years old is still suitable for everything from iTunes management to Zoom calls with virtual backgrounds to finally allowing for blogging on a more regular basis.

The new phone doesn’t feel like a life-changing event, but it feels ready. When it’s time to quit this job, all I do is flick the SIM across the room and walk out. When it’s time to go abroad, all I do is scan the QR code to light up the e-SIM and we’re off to the races. It feels like control is back in my hands, a tiny little amount. And that’s nothing to sneeze at in this present world. And with the rumblings about the dumbing down of the 5.4” iPhone 12, it’s just as well that I bought this when I did – everything I need and nothing I don’t for $450 plus AppleCare and a good 3 or 4 years of service in a world where FaceID isn’t going to be reliable for a long time.

A good purchase, well made, and now the only new Apple tech I need is the Series 6 Apple Watch, soonest. Maybe only four more months, if I’m very very lucky. But if I can choose where I spend my luck, I’d rather go somewhere else first with it…

flashback, part 107 of n

The first bourbon I bought was Early Times. 

Obviously, growing up in a teetotal household in Alabama, I had very little knowledge of whiskey in general or bourbon in particular, aside from the occasional reference in a country song. I honestly thought the good ol’ mountain dew that Willie Nelson was singing about was the vaguely urinary soda until probably grad school era. So I don’t think I actually imbibed any whiskey until undergrad, and when I did, it was as likely as not some rail-brand Scotch at a sorority function. But there we were, a week after the biggest blizzard in the history of Birmingham, about to get on a bus for a 16 hour drive to Kansas City, and I was recently of age, and so with twenty minutes to go before the bus left, I dashed to Mr. Bottle Stoppe and bought a 2-liter of Coke and probably a plastic split bottle of Early Times for $10 alltogether. By the second hour of the trip, it had permanently been re-christened Easy Times, and by the time we got to Kansas City, I was over Easy Times forever. 

I went into a martini phase almost directly my senior year began, mixing gin and vermouth in the afternoon to watch Moonlighting reruns at the honors house, and pretty much stayed there for hard liquor until spring of ’95, when we went to my eponymous bar in the Village and I ordered a Manhattan on the spur of the moment, which a colleague (female, of course) said made me look like someone with nothing to prove. And thus began a twenty-year relationship with the good old brown liquor. Naturally, being grad students, we were getting through a lot more Red Dog than hard stuff, but if there was occasion to order a cocktail, it was a Manhattan. 

Flash forward to the spring of ’98, when my then-girlfriend was in a wedding in Louisville. I sat at the back of the church at the rehearsal for about five minutes until a little old lady seized my arm and said “you look lost, come with me” and led me across the street. Turns out the bride’s Aunt Pat had taken it upon herself to collect all the significant others and look after them, and that’s how I was introduced to Maker’s Mark. I vaguely remember Maker’s being the well whiskey at the reception, but given that my only other memories of the reception are a rendition of “Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” and the DJ finishing the night with the theme from the Love Boat, my recollection may be hazy. But I now had a brand of whiskey I called my own, and that was significant.

Because this was the era of Paul Harrington, the Alchemist, cocktail columnist for Wired magazine, the 90s era revival of swing music and cigars and proper cocktails. Maker’s Mark was a sort of shibboleth – a bourbon that was quality without being outrageously expensive or unobtainably rare, something any decent bar would have behind the counter but also the sort of thing that could be served on the rocks in any establishment where you didn’t want any guesswork from whatever swizzle-jockey was on duty. It was simple, it was reliable, it seemed like the ultimate in nothing-to-prove, and it stayed with me. I might sample Irish whiskey when pressed, I might taste Scotch on the honeymoon, I might down Jack Daniel shots at a wedding, but when in doubt, it was always Maker’s, rocks.  I was gifted a huge bottle of Maker’s from the staff of National Geographic Television months after moving west. I finished the last bottle of Maker’s at the Park Lane Hotel in London on the second night of our honeymoon. I was granted a Makers Mark Ambassadorship which I probably still hold and got one random yet welcome Christmas gimmick from them every year for a decade or so.

I think the simple devotion first began to slip, ironically enough, at a place called Bourbon and Branch, a San Francisco speakeasy on the cutting edge of modern mixology in the latter half of the first decade of the twenty-first century. I can’t remember when I first darkened their door – probably a Vanderbilt event, possibly in 2008 – but rows and rows of exotic bourbons under dim light against brick wall backdrops left a remarkable impression on me. There were names from antiquity – Four Roses, I.W. Harper – and names I’d never heard of, with labels that evoked something that might have sat in the attic for sixty years. And that’s when cocktails suddenly took priority. And I was in an ideal place for it. Well, close to one, anyway – San Francisco had, apart from Bourbon & Branch, such dispensers of adult libations as Swig and Rickhouse and Local Edition and the Comstock Saloon and the Burritt Room and the Clock Bar in the St Francis Hotel. And then closer to home there were places in San Jose like Paper Planes or Singlebarrel. Or Martins West in Redwood City. Or the British Bankers Club in Menlo Park. What need whiskey on the rocks when there was a cornucopia of flavor and sensation to be had almost anywhere you turned?

Then, in 2016, it abruptly came to a halt. I may have just caned it too hard the entire month of January and needed to dry out a little, but it was as if a switch had been thrown. I was 44, and it was time to sit in the pub and nurse an Imperial pint or three and call it an evening. And that’s how it went. And stayed that way. I began filling growlers even when it wasn’t Christmas. I found more than one place to fill up from. I found myself ending up in bars that had thirty or more drafts on tap, always gravitating toward Smithwicks or Boddingtons or something that approximated the British pub ale experience. And I stayed there, comfortably, and didn’t think any more of it. And that’s how I came to the realization that I haven’t bought a bottle of bourbon in two years, and the one I bought then – a 375ml split of Clyde May, the official spirit of Alabama – has maybe an inch missing off the top in those two years.

I suspect society has a lot to do with that. You can have yourself a nice leisurely pint at home without comment, but if you’re drinking bourbon at home by yourself, you’re either a retired Confederate colonel or something is amiss. Bourbon seems to call out for someone to drink with, a condition that prevailed at home a lot more a decade ago when we had steady boarders (all of whom have moved away). The days of an Old Fashioned as the just reward for having emptied the sink of dirty dishes are long past. Things being how they are, more than ever, “the pub” is not a place but a state of mind evoked with the cunning use of a recliner, a 32 oz growler, a Yeti tumbler, an iPhone with AirPods and a stream from RTE Raidio na Gaeltachta. 

Bourbon, aside from a cheeky julep in the spring when mint is readily available and someone else makes syrup, has become a very specific thing. It implies patio furniture, maybe a fire pit, and the presence of friends you haven’t seen in a while or have just met, from Half Moon Bay to Asheville and anywhere in between or beyond. At my age, it probably implies the use of a Pepcid beforehand. If I’m in Nashville, it might mean Gentleman Jack, in deference to middle Tennessee’s own original spirit. But friends, ice, and a bottle of Maker’s Mark as the sun sets…feel free to go ahead and put that on my wish list for The After.

neither here nor there

So I was listening to a podcast in which the hosts were discussing movies based in Los Angeles, and that LA is something of a muse to the Coen brothers (this was in the context of Hail, Caesar) – they then brought up The Big Lebowski (which I have never seen) and said that it was a love letter to a specific stratum of Los Angeles which is outside the entertainment industry realmAnd this resonated with me, not least because I have found myself drawn to LA in recent years (maybe as part of the whole solidarity-of-California-exceptionalism of the Tr*mp era) and look at that the same way as I look at my whole issue of loving NorCal and despising Silly Con Valley. And then I looked back…

It occurs to me that you can go all the way back to grad school and find the same pattern: I live and work and exist in places where I am outside the sphere of what defines the place. Three years at Apple notwithstanding, I have spend a third of my life living in this godforsaken Valley and working with tech but not in tech. Before that, I was seven years in the DMV and not at all associated with the work of government, nor anything that exists in the orbit of government (unless you want to argue that the confluence of the National Geographic Society and PBS helped summon Discovery Communications into existence and make DC a lodestar for documentary programming, which is probably a reach). My DC wasn’t the cut and thrust of Hill legislation and agency lobbying (apart from all the softball teams we played), my DC was Metro commutes and the Sports Junkies and the 4Ps and Hail To The Redskins.

And before that, Nashville, where I managed to go to the Ryman for a musical once, to the Bluebird for open mic night once, and never set foot at the Opry, or the Exit/In, or Rotiers (until 2013) – where I lived two blocks from Sixteenth Avenue and never once took a turn down Music Row or headed to Gilley’s. I still haven’t been to the Country Music Hall of Fame, never went to CMA FanFest, never darkened the door of Robert’s or Tootsie’s or even the Wild Horse Saloon. In short, I managed to live in Nashville for three years almost completely unengaged with the music industry at all. (If you want to be snarky about it, you could also say that I lived four years at undergrad without engaging with the Greek system, its principal industry, but it’s whatever.)

The point of all this is that by some instrumentality, I have managed to spend more than half my life in places where what I do is not within the parameters of what drives that place. That seems to me to be an exceptionally complex piece of information that probably deserves further excavation. But it also goes back to my thoughts about what it would be like to leave here and try again somewhere I used to live. Everywhere I lived was of a certain time and place. Nashville isn’t remotely the same place I left twenty-plus years ago, and even if it were, I wouldn’t just be going back as an outsider to the music business, I’d be largely an outsider to Vanderbilt and an outsider to the kind of Baptist Instagram Vegas it is now. My identity in the DMV was bound up with National Geographic in ways that would make it tricky to return, even if sixteen years hadn’t gone by and the old gang wasn’t scattered to the four winds. And Alabama…

Hold up.

First off, this isn’t happening for a long time, if ever. I have over 650,000 reasons not to go back to a state that could almost elect Roy Moore to the US Senate. And humidity alone means I’m 89% positive I couldn’t live there again. But there’s something going on in Birmingham – a city that is reaching for the modern urban life while remaining unapologetically black, unapologetically African-American Southern. A city with craft beer and professional soccer and downtown baseball and bike share, on a small and human scale. And if I were dropped down there…do I have any cultural affinity at all? I left twenty-six years ago with no thought of ever coming back unless there was a holiday, a wedding or a funeral concerned in it. But if I didn’t have certain relatives to contend with any longer, and the only option for moving somewhere that would make it possible to live off the retirement savings was to buy a loft in Southside…I’ll be honest, if you frame it as retirement in Birmingham at age 60 versus trying to find a new job in Silly Con Valley at age 60, it gets a lot clearer real quick.

And really, that’s been a big part of the takeaway from the last couple of months. If I’m only ever going to see friends over Zoom, if I’m going to stay in the house where it’s air conditioned, if clothing and electronics are something you have shipped to you and work is something that happens on a laptop over the wifi from your guest bedroom…if you’re not going to have the opportunity to avail yourself of the transit and the fog and the proximity of San Francisco or Santa Cruz or Disneyland, what does it really matter where your bunker is…especially if you don’t have to work from it at all any longer?

And I guess the biggest question of all: am I Alabama enough to have a place there when I almost never did in my first twenty-two years?

As I said, it’s an exceptionally complex piece of information that probably deserves further excavation.

this !-ing world, part 2

So Alex Stamos is apparently kind of a big deal. He’s been with info security at Yahoo, at Facebook, at Stanford (is this supposed to be a list in his favor?) and is the guy chosen by Zoom to try to help them launder their way out of having the street find its own use for their technology and along the way exposing it as one step above malware. In any event, he was on Kara Swisher’s podcast talking about Zoom and Facebook and misinformation in the context of life in the hell mouth of 2020, and he made the case that you don’t want Facebook to be in a position to decide about speech.

The point he utterly missed (and god bless Kara, she is the last Spartan in the pass at Thermopylae, but she missed it too) is that ship has sailed. Facebook’s already deciding. Has been, for years. So has Twitter. So has Instagram. So has YouTube. Every time the algorithm surfaces one post and not another based on who knows what. Every time you see content from someone you don’t follow only because it was liked by someone you do. Every time you see social media content other than a chronological list of every post from everyone you follow, something was decided. And once you decide, you are responsible for that decision. Facebook and Twitter can blather all they want about free speech, and certainly people can type whatever they want into those geysers of awful, but when that content gets surfaced to you without you choosing to seek it out, that’s 1000% on them. Because their systems made a decision. The fact that they want to deny responsibility for that decision says more about the kind of person in positions of power in Silly Con Valley in 2020.

(God, let me not get started on Elon Musk, who somehow managed to grow up fabulously wealthy in South Africa yet leave in 1992 and never go back, bought himself a foundership at Tesla as a condition of funding, and apparently spends all his time getting higher than giraffe testicles while blathering galaxy-brain contrarian horseshit on Twitter and periodically tanking his stock, while coming up with one grandiose solution to urgent problems after another – none of which is ever actually a solution, as it happens. Phony Stark is mostly useful as an existence proof that taxes aren’t high enough in America.)

Elon and Facebook and Twitter and the whole ecosystem is complicit in a kind of normalization of a maelstrom of bullshit – fake news, deliberate misinformation, ideological rantings and astroturfed protest – that has defined the 21st century. When I was in college, the militia movement was small, atomized, organized mostly through the mail and mimeographed flyers and late-night talk radio and the occasional USENET spam. Now, the same sorts of people who were tiny clusters in the era of the OKC bombing can be rallied up in a couple of days to storm the Michigan statehouse complete with loaded weapons (which begs the question, why aren’t most of them in body bags on the sidewalk? Who the hell is handling security in Lansing?) because social media will gladly maximize and amplify the kind of stuff that was difficult to run across in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1980s, of all places. And the thing is…I don’t remember hearing about this kind of thing being chockablock on MySpace, or Friendster, or LiveJournal, or Vox (the REAL Vox, back in ’06). Poor social media decisions are making it worse, but I don’t remember it being as big a thing in the first few years of the 21st century, oddly enough…strange that it jumped off once we had a black President.

Postwar America had a sense of solidarity, that we’re all in this thing together, right up until the early 1960s when “all” began to include black people. Then it started to break down, especially (but not exclusively!) down South. And then it flipped on its head throughout the 1970s. Before long, by the Reagan era, the “anything goes, i am an individual” had suddenly gone from being a politics of the left to one of the right, and has stayed there ever since. And the notion that you know there’s other people became a political quality of the left. Smarter people than me have classified this as “white socialism” – the GI Bill and Social Security and a 91% top marginal tax rate were fine as long as the principal beneficiaries of that were white people. But there was a clear divide between people who were willing to countenance “y’all means all” and people who would rather be starving on a slab of cardboard under an overpass so long as the colored people next door didn’t even have cardboard. This pandemic, like September 11, delivered a short sharp shock that caused us to instinctively pull together for a moment in the confusion…and then, as soon as the shock was over, it became yet another source of fear and resentment for those who thrive on exploiting such things. And the same sides wound up in the same places: one saying “come let us reason together and brave this out as one” and one saying “the blacks and the poors have to be willing to die because I want my business open and my wife wants to get her hair done.”

And now we pay the price. Without a vaccine, we need solidarity. Because the people who go around braying about “herd immunity” haven’t done the math – 60% baseline for herd immunity, with a mortality rate of even just 1%, means almost two million dead. More than the city of Phoenix, more than the city of Philadelphia, more than every American military casualty death in the history of the United States combined, just for the sake of not having to take any precautions or change your lifestyle in any way. Assuming, of course, that you survive, which everyone always takes for granted they will. And so we’re about to have the usual suspects – the ammosexuals and the anti-vaxxers and the truthers and the birthers and the entire Axis Of Stupid-Worship – all denying that they have to account for the existence of others, with tens of thousands of lives hanging in the balance.

Rest in peace, Lars-Erik Nelson: there is an enemy, and it is bullshit. Bullshit is the common threat that links Elon Musk and Alex Jones and Glenn Greenwald and Wikileaks and the anti-anti-pandemic marchers and Fox News and Peter Thiel and the dirtbag left. The common ideology, if you can call is that, is a resolute belief that nothing matters and the truth is whatever you demand it to be, irrespective of whether other people accept your version of the truth. Karl Rove’s dismissal of the “reality-based community” in 2004 should have been a fucking tornado siren, because creating your own reality and denying anything you don’t want to admit the existence of? That’s it. That’s the endgame. That’s Gaventa, level 3, for the whole world, in a way that our traditional frameworks simply can’t cope with.

Maybe it’s better I washed out of political science. Either an install package deploys, or it doesn’t. The device connects to the network or it doesn’t. There’s no room for opinion, and no matter how hard you believe you’re on the WiFi, if you aren’t, you aren’t.  I worry if I’ll ever again live in a society with that much of a grip on objective reality. I don’t know how a society survives without one.