through the smoke

There’s a lot going on. Very little of it actually good. A lot of holding breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. This kind of anxiety is like asthma – you have medication, inhalers, you know what to do if you’re going to Tahoe or going on a plane or what have you; soon as the hills are all on fire and the air quality is 300, though, your regular coping mechanisms are not going to be sufficient and you can either shelter in place or go outside and get hit hard.

The flames aren’t all around us, but there are a lot of flammable goods between us and the fire, and there’s a lot of crossing fingers and hoping the winds don’t shift before we can get some hoses or dig some trenches or what have you. it’s both micro and macro, made worse by the kind of people who always told you “well that could never happen” and then, years after it did, have the gall to say “well that could never happen again.”

One place that apparently didn’t learn those lessons is a little conservative-arts school on the west side of Birmingham. Comes today the news that BSC has to come up with $200 million over the next three years in order to survive, of which they have only raised about $46 million – and want another $37 in state, federal and local money ASAP or they might go under next academic year. There is a very real chance they will commemorate my 30th anniversary by ceasing to exist.

This is hardly surprising. The fool who succeeded Neal Berte as President went frog-sticking without a light, demolishing the athletics program because it was too expensive but adding football and an on-campus stadium, while simultaneously kicking off a wave of building and eating the seed corn to do it – and then came the 2008 financial crisis, and then the revelation of accounting irregularities and the financial hit from that, and then a decade later, C-19. And now all of a sudden the bills have come due and the money isn’t there any longer.

Which is not surprising. In my day, BSC was mostly for people whose daddy owned half of some Lower Alabama county, so they could sit on the front porch of the frat house for four years before going back to take over the business. Most of those people just go to Bama now, I suspect. The balance of the student body was filled out with people who had one thing in common: a rejection letter from Vanderbilt. (Come on – black and gold colors, basketball first, stole the alma mater word for word, lots of red brick – you tell me.) The problem is, BSC was always only suitable for fitting you out for a life in Alabama, and ideally in Birmingham. And if you wanted to be a politician, you were at Bama anyway. If you wanted to be an engineer, you were at Auburn or UAB. If you wanted to be a doctor, you were at UAB or maybe South Alabama. If you were gonna make a preacher, you’d go to Samford. If you were a person of color, you were anywhere else at all. Even within the state, Montevallo (the hated rival) and Spring Hill College were on the cope-up, and there wasn’t a huge delta with any number of other private schools that they would play in football – Millsaps, Rhodes, even Sewanee was a decided step up.

Ultimately, it begged the question: what is Birmingham-Southern College for? I don’t think there’s really an answer for that any more, or at least, not one that would compel people to throw cash in quantity. Might be better off as an adjunct of UAB, the way Peabody became for Vanderbilt or Oxford College is for Emory. Or maybe the plans from the mid-70s will finally come to fruition, and Miles College will finally get its new campus after all. That honestly might be the best solution: a new combined institution, more HBCU than not, fit for a modern 21st century Birmingham.

Something like that might actually get me to claim them again.

Foxx reduxx

Almost nine years ago, I wrote “don’t rely on the fact of a white line to stop a truck.” That was in reference to tech companies doing what was within the law and contract, despite objections based on what everyone thought the cultural and moral guardrails were. And that was in 2014.

Well. That certainly held up.

At this writing, we are on a sixth ballot for Speaker of the House, which is already predestined to fail. With only four or five votes to spare, the Republicans’ presumptive leader keeps coming up 20 votes short of what he needs to formally be made Speaker. And there is no obvious solution to this, because he spent the last two months groveling and offering up his hindquarters to the worst people in his party for the sake of grabbing power – and they still won’t play ball with him.

Some of this is actually structural. When Newt Gingrich tried to make himself Prime Minister of the United States in 1995, he concentrated power in the Speaker’s chair to an extent unseen since the days of the giants like Cannon and Rayburn – and more importantly, took it away from committee chairs and those with seniority. At the time, it was about undercutting the old fogey Republicans who were not on board with the bomb-throwing insurgent approach. Now, almost thirty years on, the bomb-throwing insurgents are all there is, and they are chafing at the authority of anyone who might be able to tell them no. If you felt particularly generous and charitable, you could frame this as an attempt by elements of the house GOP to return to a more committee-centric model where power devolves to individual chairs and members rather than being controlled by the iron fist of a single Speaker.

Or you could tell the truth: there are only three kinds of Congressional Republicans. Fascists, Brazilians, and those too weak to stand up to either. the motive force in the GOP are the people who came to Congress to own the libs on Fox News. There is no policy platform, there is only performative ignorance and weaponized redneckery. The one thing that has been accomplished so far is to take the metal detectors away, because this is a party for whom the terroristic mobs of January 6 were righteous American heroes. Every Republican in Congress either believe it or is too chickenshit to say they don’t.

And so now the “you will praise us for standing on your dinner table and trying to piss in our own mouths” caucus is holding Kevin McCarthy hostage with no demands, no counter-arguments, just the endless barbaric yawp of the toddler: “NO”. There’s no obvious solution, because the Republicans have a majority of the House. The sole hope is that there might somewhere be found half a dozen members who would declare themselves independent, caucus with the Democrats and flip the script entirely – because no Speaker elected with Democratic votes will survive in a GOP majority and we’ll be back where we started.

This is only really a problem for two reasons. One is because you need to pass a budget to keep the federal government open, even if it’s just a continuing resolution of the type we’ve mostly relied on for years since the GOP stopped even trying to pretend to govern in regular order. The other is the debt ceiling, a pointless construct that should long since have been eliminated after the shenanigans of 2011 (and would have been but for the Dumb Fuck Twins in WV and AZ). If we don’t have a working House of Representatives by Labor Day, we might have real problems. Well, more than we already do.

This is the natural final result of an entire party that has as its sole organizing principle “I should always get my way no matter what.” Now it’s bit them in the ass, to the cost of everyone else. At some point, the grown-ups have to take charge and put these people outside of power once and for all…because if there’s one thing the United States government has proven since 2016, it’s that no amount of lines of any color will stop a truck.

the mammoth

I don’t know if it was meant to be pejorative or not, but someone compared the state of Mastodon three months ago to LiveJournal. And complained that it seemed very much like it was meant to be a private space for like-minded people, unsuitable for viral activism of the kind that took off in 2020.

Which, at the risk of seeming insensitive: well, duh.

Mastodon was not intended as a Twitter replacement. It was intended as a Twitter alternative. The features it eschewed were specifically those that had been used to harass and troll the sort of people who defected from the birdsite, and it was meant to reduce reach: reduce dunk-quoting, reduce brigading and dogpiling, provide something that would be a safer space while still social. And the interoperability between instances was a bonus convenience – one gets the impression that the main focus was on intra-instance activity, where the specific rules and norms of the instance would prevail.

Phony Stark bought Twitter because that was the only way to build a hugely successful right-wing troll site with plenty of potential victims. As with anything in modern conservatism, the cruelty and domination was the only point, and the failing of Gab or Truth Social or Parker was that potential victims were unlikely to migrate there – leaving them with only their own kind posting pictures of their own feces. So Musk merely bought Twitter and handed it over to the worst in humanity, and did so in a manner so financially unsustainable that it’s tanked the primary business he’s supposedly built his genius on.

but back to Mastodon. It’s not in its final form, and probably never will be. But it started off as a phenomenon built for people who wanted top opt out of Twitter and the prevailing social media, which made it explicitly unlike Twitter. And now that people are trying to reproduce Twitter, it’s becoming apparent that there is a conflict between people who expect thing to work like they used to and those who don’t want that.

There are actually good arguments on both sides. the problem, as with so many things, boils down to the fact that technical solutions for cultural problems are a myth. There’s no way to build encryption that only the good guys can break, and there’s no way to build viral enhancements that allow the public to dunk on assholes without making it possible for assholes to dunk on innocents.

At some point, there has to be human moderation, and it feels like the Slashdot system needs to be tried again: after a while, random trusted users occasionally receive mod points to boost or bury a reply, and their mods are themselves meta-moderated for correction and future mod privileges. If you do this for replies (and presumably quotes as well), pretty soon you will locate, identify and bury trolls – not with an algorithm, but with the aggregated consensus of the community, randomly sampled repeatedly.

This could be a per-instance thing, modifying posts from other sides – one user repeatedly flagged? Block them. One instance as a constant source of downvoted posts? De-federate them. One person constantly making bad mods? Cut them loose. And by doing it on a per-instance basis, each instance is shaped by those who use it, and you can move around to one that is as freewheeling or heavily mannered as you like. (To some extent, this has happened already, with certain thoroughly racist instances cast into the void to yell at each other.)

Too many people are going for the TELSTAR approach – Terminate Elon, Let’s Start Twitter Again Right – but trying to use Mastodon as the new Twitter is like trying to use your Camry to plow the field. It’s going to take some serious modifications, and at the end of the day it may not be the best tool for the job. I’m getting more comfortable with Mastodon, but it’s not Twitter. Then again, it took years before Twitter was Twitter. I suspect we may speed-run the uptake process this time, but there are a lot of teething pains ahead.

the look

For a brief moment this afternoon, I could almost see a 3D-shadow effect on the white letters on a slate blue background in my laptop menu bar. I don’t know if it’s deliberate, or if I hallucinated it, but I was suddenly put in mind of Kaleidoscope.

Kaleidoscope was a project by Greg Landweber, a Harvard hacker who famously cooked up Greg’s Buttons as a landmark piece of Mac customization shareware. It gave you options to change colors and fonts and the like in the classic macOS in the early-to-mid 90s. But Kaleidoscope was a leap beyond that – originally called “Acid,” it proved to be the fulfillment of something Apple was promising in Copeland: a way to customize the entire windowing system.

System 7.5 was no place to try to tinker with your OS and expect stability, but God knows I was doing by best. RAMDoubler, Speed Doubler, any number of things to try to max out the performance of a PowerMac 6100 on a grad student’s budget. but I couldn’t help customizing the look. He had separate extensions to try to mimic the appearance of the BeBox or of Copeland itself, but I always ended up with something in black and gold or graphite and silver or some other wild combination, and I stuck with Kaleidoscope all the way to the coming of MacOS X.

And then there were the various appearance themes for that, even. Some built in, some less so, but you could use Unsanity’s ShapeShiftter to get similar results, or even find one or two stray Apple beta themes – but those were gone for good with OS X 10.4 and later, it seems like, and that was an end of Mac customization. And nothing of the sort ever appeared for iOS at all, until the coming of iOS 16 and the handful of color and font options for the Lock Screen.

While I’m all for consistency, I would almost rather have some sort of tools for tweaking up the look of the OS than I would an external App Store framework or some of the other nonsense that’s apparently going to be forced on Apple by the EU. I don’t have any intention of opening up my phone to un-gatekept software, if only because every hack of iOS I’ve been aware of depends on jailbreaking and I like being secure. But it would be nice to be able to trick up the look with more than just a bunch of Shortcut icons. Moreso even than the PowerBook of yore, what’s on your iPhone is you. (Although to be fair, I never found anything that really suited my requirements for customization on Android 5 with my Moto X. Maybe it’s different now.)

And you may as well. It’s not like it’s going to scratch the CPU capability. Open iOS to arbitrary third party code and appearance consistency will be the least of your worries, so why not make it official? Then again, whimsical customization might keep me on my mini another year instead of sighing and biting the bullet and buying the iPhone 17 Pro whose smallest size is 6.4” and starts at $1199…and it’s hard not to think this ends with an Apple Watch Ultra on my wrist as the remote control for the ridiculous-size phone I never take out of my jacket…

ghosts of christmas past, part 13 of n

By 2013, I was already making a habit of going up to the city during that break between Christmas and New Year’s. In fact, we generally went up earlier in December, to see the Christmas lights and see the Fairmont gingerbread house and stay in the St Francis like we did on our honeymoon. I could get a drink in the Clock Bar, or Irish coffee at the Buena Vista as we rode the cable car to the end of the line, and when I made my solo trip there would be a drink at Zeki or Fireplace Bar or the Mucky Duck on the way out to an inevitable end at the Riptide, where I could sit by a wood fire and read quietly two blocks from the beach.

It was different back then. There were half a dozen cocktail establishments I wanted to frequent – Bourbon and Branch, Local Edition, Rickhouse, Swig, you name it. There were places I aspired to shop – Wingtip, Unionmade, the little shoe shop in Noe Valley where I kept eyeing the steel-toed Blundstones I wouldn’t buy until 2017. The search for American-made wardrobe was still in its early days, and I hadn’t been gifted the Aldens or turned over my entire daily wear to American Giant above the waist and LC King below. Hell, I’d only just settled on an actual surplus peacoat to replace the ill-fitting Gap one.. A surprising amount of my outerwear – the Filson, the Rickson, the tweed, the M-65 and all the AG work shirts – were still in the future.

The city was different back then. The Valley was different. We hadn’t fallen into the bottomless dumb-money pit that made this place the new Wall Street. Maybe it was because I hadn’t quite turned 40, but I was not yet overrun by the sense that this place was no longer for the likes of me. Could have been wishful thinking on my part, or it could have been that the city was scratching an itch that was going unsatisfied after the Europe trip and not realizing we wouldn’t be abroad again until 2015.

Or maybe there was something there I just wanted to connect with by staying at our friend Doug’s place in China Basin and getting around entirely on MUNI before going home on Caltrain. Even in DC, my experience was more genuinely suburban than urban – living in Ballston was more like life in the Avenues, if we’re being honest, and my upbringing was far more vehicle-exurban than I ever realized at the time – and to live in San Francisco, however briefly and temporarily, felt like picking up on a bit of the road not taken.

I don’t know exactly when the wave broke and rolled back for good – maybe in 2015, when Santacon pursued me all the way up on the train and then all the way down the California line when I’d rather have been watching the Army-Navy game in front of a fireplace with a maple old fashioned. Or maybe in 2016, when we began the new tradition of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus matinee Christmas show in an attempt to push back against the encroaching dark. But the combination of layoffs (and an end to the winter break) and the ensuing pandemic put paid to it for good – there are no random galavants around the city after January 2019, because the opportunity isn’t there any more. It’s a pity, but that’s the size of things when the 4 rolls over to a 5.

Eject

I bailed off Twitter today. I announced my departure and where to find me on Signal, Insta and Mastodon, and yanked the ripcord.

It’s transparent at this point. GamerGate, the alt-right, the whole Trumpiss ecosystem is all of a piece. There is no daylight between QAnon and Elon Musk and antivaxxers and the whole miserable miasma. And I am tired of being even tangentially complicit.

I’m down to only about half a dozen people I don’t really have available in another social media. It sucks, because the friends in my phone have been the bulk of my friends in recent years as everyone moves away. And it doesn’t feel good to go back to Insta, even protected by the mobile web interface. But what Twitter brings to the table isn’t worth what it takes off any longer.

It’ll suck, it’ll be difficult, but at some level it also feels like my soul just took a three pound shit. And now we wait to see what happens – because the future survival of Twitter depends on what people are willing to countenance and what comes of their willingness. At this point, though, it’s safe to say it will probably be necessary to destroy Twitter in order to save it.

what comes next

So now we are exploring the next wave of social media life. Twitter is about three weeks from going full $8chan. Instagram remains as compromised as ever by Facebook’s ongoing attempt to cram it full of ripoffs of everything they couldn’t buy. And yet, when most people announce the diminution of their Twitter presence, they point to Insta to find them. Not Facebook or Snapchat, not Mastodon, not any other legacy service or quickly-promoted alternative. And it drives home the point that six years ago, as I recoiled from the arrival of revanchist Confederacy, Insta was the only social medium that felt safe or desirable.

The problem is, now it’s a junk heap. Way too many ads, algorithmic timeline, a constant effort to force their TikTok ripoff on you now that they’ve given up on trying to make their YouTube ripoff happen and their Snapchat ripoff has become table stakes for everybody…and honestly, that ripoff as table stakes in Signal has inadvertently created just what I wanted. Cross-platform, ephemeral, no ads or algorithms, just stuff from your friends…the only problem becomes getting your friends to install Signal and then to use the Stories feature. So far, I think I have maybe two other people posting to Stories and at most maybe three or four more even looking at it.

This is the problem: we use social media for different things. Thing one is to keep up with friends – the group chats in macro. This is what Stories is for, what original recipe Insta did better than anything, and once you limit it to friends and not influencers or celebrities or what have you, it can still do the job. So could Signal, or maybe even Pixelfed, or iCloud Photo Sharing, or…the problem, as always, is getting all your friends to that one thing, and it’s been a decade since it was possible to get everyone on something new. But let’s put a pin in that and come back.

Second thing is entities you don’t know but want to follow. I’m thinking mainly of sports teams here, and not big ones – the San Jose Giants or Santa Cruz Warriors, or my second division Scottish football club (Mon Ye Ton!), or the community of Vanderbilt fandom that I fell into a decade ago. It’s almost the sort of thing you could replace by piping their Twitter feed into RSS, because you don’t necessarily interact as such…but then, you don’t want to open your phone on Saturday lunchtime and be hit with 120 unread tweets in your RSS either.

Then there’s the news. Like it or not, the media lives for Twitter and as such, it’s the first stop for rip-and-read on anything that’s happening. Sometimes this is amazingly fun, especially when it’s of the “from the jaws of Hell will we get these jokes off” variety. Sometimes it’s just depressing AF. And it can go from one to the other very quickly (e.g. the Best Of Dying Twitter account) but rarely goes the other way.

And this is where I run into the problem with Mastodon: it’s way too much of door number 3, none of door number 2, and not nearly enough of door number 1. My friends aren’t there. Oh, some of them have accounts, and some even post, but they aren’t there as the primary social media outlet. There are some people I could keep up with in a satisfactory fashion just from Twitter, or just from Insta, or even just from Signal (barely) but right now, maybe one person I know is pig-committed to Mastodon, and that’s not enough.

Thing is, the ship has sailed on Twitter. I wasn’t kidding about s4ep5 of Man In The High Castle: the war is over. We lost. The Nazis are in control, and they literally own the battle space. The only question left on Twitter is how bad it has to get for you to leave for good, and I guess we’ll find out in the next few weeks. But in the meantime…who’s going where? Tumblr is owned by the same folks as WordPress and more people have it than remember, although I haven’t posted there in literally years and I don’t know if ActivityFed would be enough to make it viable again (maybe? It always seemed like the natural replacement for LiveJournal, with options for long form text or quick posts or pictures or all manner of microblogging). Instagram is mostly almost viable if you go through a browser rather than the app, although it’s a pain in the ass to post that way. I’m spreading the good news of Signal to almost no avail, and I’m still too old for TikTok or Snapchat…

I guess at some point I need to make a list of who I really need to keep up with, where they are, draw the flowchart, and then try to press people into just a couple of things. It might be a fool’s errand, but then we have established what kind of fool I am.

four weeks in

If anything, it’s gone just about as stupidly as one could imagine. That might be a good way of predicting the course Phony Stark will take, much like his political equivalent: assume the stupidest possible outcome commensurate with the facts.

Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter, accomplished at great expense, has resulted in massive personnel losses that have exposed him to technical debt and legal liability in multiple companies. His decisions on who should be allowed on the platform – coupled with his own 14-year-old brain – have caused advertisers to flee in their droves, while the Usual Suspects chortle and lavish praise on their ham-faced god. Things have not utterly collapsed, but there is a sense that the whole thing is held together with bailing wire and bubble gum and that it would only take one mighty blow to cripple everything.

And there are many directions it could come from. EU regulation. US copyright law. Criminal investigation of the financing in search of foreign influence. Or Apple could just decide that the risk is too great and kick it off the App Store, much as they failed to do with Uber when they had the ability to kill a dickhead VC baby and failed. It’s a good thing everyone’s TWTR was bought out on generous terms, because one can only imagine it would be sinking like TSLA.

Oh by the way – the CEO of Twitter is ostensibly the CEO of Tesla, which has hemorrhaged literally tens of billions of dollars of market cap. He is also the CEO of SpaceX, a company that has the federal government as its primary customer. Neither is a business that will do better for having a mercurial adolescent as CEO – although the consolation might be that Twitter is enough of a honeypot that Musk might leave SpaceX to Gwynne Shotwell’s leadership in all but name (which many commenters think has already happened) and let someone else do the boring work at Tesla (which many commentators have clamored after for years).

Elon Musk is not a genius. He is not even particularly bright. He is a fortunate investor who is good at playing a credulous media like a fiddle, and who is aspirational to the armies of the mentally and emotionally defective created by indifferent parenting, unlimited internet access, and absolutely no paradigm for what it means to be a man in the 21st century. And Twitter is now their shit-flinging playground. It’s not going to be a place worth sticking around.

The moral of the story is that anyone who has money enough to buy Twitter isn’t paying enough taxes. It would be remarkable what would be possible in this country with confiscatory levies on unearned wealth.

the making of

“Director By Night” is a documentary about composer Michael Giacchino’s Werewolf By Night, the first Marvel Special Presentation. It’s a fine enough bit of entertainment, a sort of grayscale Twilight Zone episode that stands as proof of what Marvel’s willing to try in the post-Snap era with a whole streaming service to play around with.

The thing about “Director By Night” is that it’s filmed by Anthony Giacchino, Michael’s brother, and includes some truly hilarious and relatable footage of his parents not understanding what the MCU even is (“Batman’s not in it?”). it also includes a lot of old footage of the childhood movies they made with their friends – because they were making films, doing stop-motion animation, laboriously scratching 8mm film with an XACTO knife to make “laser blasts” for the action movies they shot on the loading dock of what’s now apparently a mall.

And I saw all this after watching Light and Magic, the story of ILM, and…it’s no wonder we got Star Wars and the films that captivated GenX. Because these guys were out there making their own movies with handheld cameras, special effects one frame at a time, trying to figure out how to make squibs out of firecrackers and a block of wood and a packet of ketchup. Your average person can take an iPhone they bought on the $32 a month plan and make far, far, far more convincing movies at higher quality than these guys were wishing together out of chicken wire and M-80s. But they wanted to make movies that badly. And when they got the chance…well, we get what we have now.

In some ways, the Disney empire feels like the belated triumph of GenX – we won’t ever have political power, we won’t ever be catered to the way the Boomers or Millenials were, but by damn, cometh the hour, cometh the nostalgia, and we’re going to turn Spider-Man and the X-Men and Star Wars into billion-dollar properties that drown out everything else and YOU WILL SIT THERE AND TAKE IT, BOOMER. Back when you only got a Star Wars movie every three years, you’d watch any old load of crap. Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, old Space:1999 episodes, just trying to get a buzz. now we have an embarrassment of riches, especially since Star Wars is finally getting some distance from the Skywalkers and telling the stories of the rest of the galaxy.

But the big thing these documentaries have done is make me feel like I missed out. I didn’t go to school in my home town, never did. I didn’t know any kids in my neighborhood. I didn’t have the feral childhood celebrated in Stranger Things; I only started to come into my own once I had a driver’s license and was not at the mercy of being able to get a ride (and I lived so far the wrong direction, there was no opportunity to hitch a ride with a friend). And once I could do that, I finally started to blossom.

The Internet has been a mixed bag. Social media was clearly a terrible idea. But the opportunity to keep up with your friends at a distance, to collaborate and do things without having to rely on physical proximity – there’s something there that really matters, even if it’s been tarnished by how easy the Internet made it for the worst people in the world to link up and multiply their influence.

Of which more later, as the shaggy herd trumpets (toots?) in the distance…