state of play update

So as I understand it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the scam

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

-from @webdevMason, 12 Mar 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

play ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

doing without

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

And in my rage, I deleted the Instagram app.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. That.

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

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

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

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

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

First impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is a pretty good present.

The bullshit farm

So apparently this week the New Yorker made the amazing discovery that Fox News is nothing but the propaganda arm of the Trump administration, setting the agenda and delivering marching orders to the goggle-eyed faithful while keeping things at fever pitch. Not one meaningful revelation in the whole article that wasn’t agonizingly obvious to anyone paying attention ten years ago. This is a huge part of why I finally gave up on the New Yorker subscription after two decades plus: it got old reading other people discovering and recapitulating what everyone already knows. I don’t need to wallow in it.

Because this is how it’s worked for a quarter century. The history of the GOP in the 21st century can be described in a single sentence: ignorance, stupidity and fear harnessed in the service of safeguarding wealth. That’s it and that’s all. All the racism, all the perpetual outrage, all the made-up inflammatory garbage to ensure that the dull-eyed yokels will reliably and religiously pull the lever for the people who will ensure that big money stays protected and that the awful socialist conditions that prevailed in (checks notes) the 1950s cannot return.

I mean, how many times do we have to go over it? The top marginal tax rate in the Eisenhower years was 91%. One-third of the working population belonged to a union. But whenever people talk about going back to the good old days, it’s alway the cultural ones – the 1950s where you didn’t have to acknowledge the existence of anything but white, mostly Anglo-Saxon, mostly Protestant (hell, the Irish and the Italians were slur-able ethnics in the Rat Pack era) culture. And the perpetual cry of the assholes from George Wallace to his modern heirs has always been the same: “we can go back to how it used to be.”

This didn’t remotely begin with Trump. It was obviously in play from the beginning of the Contract With America era, but because the South was still plausibly able to select Democrats, had several in office (including in the White House) and the media Wurlitzer wasn’t fully in place, it took time before it could really get rolling. By the end of 2001, though, you had GOP control of Congress (effectively), a chucklehead Southern Republican as a pliable White House occupant, and the promise of a new wartime milieu to varnish racism and authoritarianism as the only true American way. And after that, it’s just a chase scene.

Thing is, this is unsustainable. Demography and geography are at cross purposes, and we are reaching a point where the ability to govern America is being handed out on the basis of acreage rather than votes. The Senate is no longer viable as a parliamentary body, and the Electoral College is a worthless appendix infected to bursting (arguably has already, when you get right down to it). I don’t have an answer right now that doesn’t involve migrating to Ireland and living out my days in a shack on the coast.

But if it meant I would be five thousand miles from the bullshit farm, it might be worth it.

the weekend

My wife gets it.

If you look at the last few months and years, where are my happy places, my comfortable spots, the things that relax me? The coast. In the fog. By the fireside. Craft beer, good books, low-stakes baseball, no alarm set. And thanks to the Marriott-Starwood merger and a surfeit of accumulated points, she was able to put us up at the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay for the night. Complete with a fire pit and two Adirondack chairs outside our sliding-glass door. And a s’mores kit for the big fire pits outside next to the bar with the local beer, as the bagpiper played down a sun you couldn’t see for the marine layer. And dinner at a local brewery on the quiet-to-empty main drag of a a quiet downtown, with Vandy’s own Tyler Beede pitching two innings of spring training ball for the Giants on the overhead TV and a hazy IPA so loaded with citra that I took it for an orange juice-based drink at first. 

It turns out my most fully realized state – drink, phone and hotel bar – works just as well out on the patio monitoring a Vandy baseball sweep. Or roasting marshmallows and interrogating another guest’s 10-year-old about a new VR-laser tag experience. We used to go to the Ritz a lot more, just for drinks and the fire pit hangout, and I hosted a couple such birthday hangs there (in 2010 and 2014, if memory serves) but it’s been off the radar for an awfully long time for one reason or another.

But she thought to couple it with an excursion to go see the seals at Año Nuevo, and we managed a 24-hour getaway that felt like we’d just taken yet another trip. And it was the perfect antidote to the gloom – not of turning 47, which is materially indistinguishable from 46, but of the inevitable reflection of where you’ve gotten to in life and whether you’re on course to the kind of life you want. And if I were able to retire with her in another ten years or so to the nearby senior-living trailer park, walkable to the Ritz for drinks or electro-bikeable to downtown for dinner, that might be just about dead solid perfect.

You need things to look forward to.

gray 47

I guess I’m good, really. There aren’t things I want – anything that piques my interest for under $20 I’m probably just going to buy, whether it’s a pen or a Nerf gun or a bomber of milk stout – and if you gave me actual wishes for my birthday, I’d probably spend them all on family health and regime change (unless I could sneak an iPhone X-Minus in there at the end, of which etc). I mean, there are absolutely things I wish had gone differently in the past, but wishing for a better past is pretty much the textbook definition of insanity and I’ve finally gotten better at avoiding it. Just to have pleasant weather, snuggled sleep-ins, road trips, baseball, pints, the chance to wear comfortable footwear without socks…

That would be enough, wouldn’t it?

-Feb 28, 2018

February is plainly a time to be down in the dumps, it seems. As far back as this blog goes, February is when I mourn for the old days in DC, when I fret over aging and the slowly curdling future, when I resolve that what I need is just some peace and quiet with no phone or internet for four hours, two pints and one book. This year, events have conspired to sort of slap me out of it a little – the problem being that while it’s kind of solipsistic to be complaining about your sprained ankle when someone else has a broken leg or worse, it doesn’t make that ankle any easier to run on.

I don’t recall my birthday being that big a deal for most of my adult life. Certainly not in college, when it was just a reminder that I didn’t really have friends or a crew of my own. Absolutely not in grad school (I can’t even remember having any birthday celebration in the whole Vanderbilt era). I did birthday things in DC, mostly going down the 4P’s, but I don’t remember any particular birthday at the pub standing out aside from the first one in 2000 (site of the Jameson vs Bushmills taste test and “I can whup EVERY man in the house”). After all, for the most part, birthdays are for kids to eat cake and tear into presents and go nuts in the bouncy house or whatever. It’s not for grown-ups, unless you’re hitting some milestone.

20 and 30 were uneasy years, because I was wary of the odometer rollover and felt like I was losing something I hadn’t made the most of, but I wasn’t old enough to be freaked out about it the way I was seven years ago. 21 was supposed to be a milestone but ended up with me in the emergency room with an ear infection, stone cold sober (and with no friends to celebrate, it was kind of pointless anyway). And then, for the last decade or more, it always seems to coincide with some kind of depression, whether work-related (2007-08, 2013-15) or political (2017-present) or relative-based (2011). And I wonder about the causality there…am I naturally getting depressed because I’m getting older, or do I subconsciously work myself into a lather because I know my birthday’s coming up? Given how well I cope with the bloody “dads and grads” season, I wouldn’t be surprised if my head is working against me. Again.

Because this is a milestone year in its own way. Thirty years since going to the mountaintop and looking over on the other side, only to stumble back hard. Twenty-five since thinking I was getting a second chance in grad school. Twenty years since the dot-com boom was supposed to be heralding a new millennium. Fifteen years since pulling up stakes in DC and moving to California. And ten since taking this job that I didn’t plan on having for ten years, feeding the kind of permanent black cloud I used to only associate with undergrad…but which I have reconciled myself to because it doesn’t take that much effort and has a lot of vacation time, and that’s what I need at this point in my life.

What do I want for my birthday? An Irish passport, an iPhone XS-Minus (or at least an SE2), a pied-a-terre in the west end of Galway, fifty million Euro in unmarked bills and not to have to wake up from it all. Okay, what attainable would I like for my birthday? I’d like my car back from six weeks in the dealership service and I’d like to stop having night terrors and stress dreams. If I could just spend the rest of 2019 in peace and quiet before all hell breaks loose…that would be something.

flashback, part 103 of n

Birmingham went crazy to try to attract the World League of American Football. It had been one of the USFL’s best markets before a moronic property developer from Queens tried to go head-on with the NFL, and that debacle was only five or six years in the past, so the notion of pro football in the spring was still a fresh and attractive prospect. After all, Birmingham had finished on top of both seasons of the abortive World Football League in 1974 and 75. More to the point, this was an era when the NFL had only 28 teams and hadn’t expanded since 1976. Monday Night Football was still a network broadcast and a big deal, and the only games other than Sundays and MNF were the Thanksgiving double-header and a handful of Saturday matchups in December. Preseason games were still a traveling attraction (including Washington-Atlanta in 1988 at Legion Field).

More to the point, the WLAF was a league run by the NFL. In a world where the Colts and Cardinals had both moved cities since 1982, and where Birmingham and Memphis had been promised first consideration for the next NFL expansion after finishing out of the money in 1976, the thought was that an NFL-sanctioned developmental team was the first step toward Birmingham in the NFL. Don’t forget, there were no Titans or Jaguars at this point – an NFL team midway between Atlanta and New Orleans made perfect sense to some people, even if it wasn’t actually midway.

In retrospect, the placement of the teams should have been a bit of a warning. The usual suspects were there: Orlando, San Antonio, the running mates we’d all come to know well in the eternal quest for successful off-brand pro football. There was a team in New York, because of course there was, and inexplicably there was a team in Raleigh-Durham and one in Sacramento. But there were also teams in Montreal, London, Barcelona and Frankfurt. And to have Birmingham in that mix was heady indeed.

The timing couldn’t have been better, though. I had just really discovered sports after a life of being aware of Alabama football and basically nothing else (aside from the NBA Finals in high school), and a completely new league with a hometown team was an immensely attractive proposition even before factoring in that it would play less than a mile from my dorm. I was all in. I had a hat, a jersey, even a clipboard from their merchandise store in Five Points South. I appreciated that the rules were much closer to college rules (a 2-point conversion and one foot down, for starters, not to mention a non-sudden-death overtime rule) in an era when the NFL hadn’t really changed anything since the AFL merger.

The Fire were pretty crap that first year, then were good enough for the playoffs the next year, and then the NFL pulled the plug, because they were having trouble monetizing what was pretty clearly a minor league operation. The WLAF would return as NFL Europe and last over a decade abroad, mostly in Germany, and I did wind up with a Rhine Fire hat thanks to my brother’s choir trip, but that would be it for anything approximating the NFL in Birmingham. In the years to come, there would be the Canadian Football League (one season), the XFL (one season), af2 minor-league arena football [sic] which would amazingly hang on for seven or eight years, and now…

Now we have the Birmingham Iron. Yet another fairly explicit minor league not seeking to compete with the NFL, but one that has made rules changes which I would gladly see adopted wholesale at all levels of the game. No more kickoffs, just set the ball on the 25 and go. No more extra point kicks; you go for two every time. No more onside kicks; you get the ball 4th and 12 at your own 25 and have to convert to keep going. And in the case of Birmingham, a hard-nosed defense averaging almost three takeaways per game that thinks nothing of busting you square in the snotbox, which combined with their matte black no-logo no-name uniforms gives an effect reminiscent of Goldberg’s unbeaten squash-match streak in WCW.

The usual suspects are in this league. There’s a team in Memphis (duh), in San Antonio (obviously) and Orlando (WATFO) but also in San Diego (recently robbed of an NFL franchise) and Salt Lake City (uh OK). And there’s a pair of teams from current NFL towns: one in Phoenix and one in Atlanta. And that’s how, for the first time in my life, after 47 years, I finally got to see a Birmingham team meet an Atlanta team on the field of sport. And Birmingham slobber-knocked them in the second half and won handily, 28-12. Somewhere my great-aunt is smiling (and spitting snuff into her dip cup).

Now is a different era, obviously. Birmingham is a five hour drive or less away from three of the NFL’s 32 teams, and the odds of the big league ever coming to the city are minimal at best. Hell, an actual G League team in 2020 (paired with New Orleans, a longtime natural fit) is a huge step up, as would be a move for the Barons from AA to AAA someday (especially with Nashville, Memphis and the Atlanta suburbs already there). And that’s probably about all you can expect at this point in history. Major League Baseball isn’t coming to Birmingham in my lifetime – indeed, they’re probably fixed for good at this point unless someone gets a wild hair to move the Oakland A’s to Nashville or Portland. The NFL will never add a fourth team square in the middle of three more, even if I wanted them to. The time to get in on the NHL was when the Birmingham Bulls were just a hair too good to get first pick in the dispersal draft of the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers, which would have netted Wayne Gretzky (maybe could have had five Stanley Cups in Birmingham by now).

I don’t know what kind of future the Alliance of American Football has. On the merits I’d say it’s in as good a shape as any of the others who have taken a flyer on spring/summer pro football in my lifetime, which ain’t saying heaps. But it does suggest an era of fresh possibility, when great things might be afoot and the future is loaded with potential.

Wouldn’t that be something.

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.