flashback, part 116 of n

I suppose any sort of campus that has a lot of buildings probably has some network of utility tunnels or corridors underneath, for pipes and conduits or for moving freight around or just to keep the gnarly stuff out of the public eye. They’re the stuff of legend at places like MIT, but in my college and grad school years, I never managed to spelunk my way into one. In DC, though, they were an essential part of our operation, and not just because of our desire to get around without being seen (thus the affinity for freight elevators wherever possible).

In my current employment, I didn’t really grasp that I could make use of those tunnels until 2016, when they sort of emerged in my consciousness as a response to the release of Act IV of Kentucky Route Zero. Given that the whole act takes place on a subterranean river with its own community and various stops along the way, it made sense that I would seek a little reflection of that in my own life as the world steadily slouched toward collapse – and when it finally all imploded on November 9, being underground was suddenly an enormous comfort.

It would be another couple of years before my office got relocated to the basement – by a management that said at the time that they didn’t want it to feel like they were sticking IT in the basement – but I was frequently in that space to leverage their coffee machine, and would then duck out and troll up and down the corridors. Here, a set of double doors that led to a short passage which opened on an atrium – underground, but with four or five stories of office rising up to the skylight above, a very weird sensation. Here, a turn that led off to a taqueria and coffee spot that inexplicably stocked lots of weird European candy bars. There, off another turn, an elevator all the way to the third floor balcony with Peet’s. But mostly, just quiet hallways with abandoned equipment or stray freezers plugged in or the occasional single restroom, a realm where you could be assured of being left alone and going mostly unseen.

It’s remarkable to think about how much of the last fifty years has been spent looking for a hiding place – under the bed, under the bleachers, off to the side of the backstage, in a forgotten basement laundry room, behind a protective wall of Pelican cases, or just unnoticed in plain sight at the pub. Like trying to make a deal – I promise to leave the world alone, and not meddle in its business, if it will only be so kind as to return the favor. Going back down those corridors this week has just reminded me how badly I needed that deal – and how little the world holds up its end.

the church thing

OK, I guess it’s time to talk about it.

I was first really alienated from the church of my upbringing about the time that the youth group was ordered into a multi-week course called “The Fundamentals Of Our Faith.” It was rapidly apparent in the late 1980s that something was not the same as it has been. An innocent childhood question of “wait, are we the Pharisees” was pretty clearly being answered “yes” as we were hammered with one thing after another about the evils of rock music (without a single example from the past ten years) or anti-abortion propaganda that I think was more meant to scare us out of having sex than to warn us against terminating a pregnancy. And then, when the old church responded to an instance of youth suicidal ideation with a film about a prisoner who converted, it became apparent to me that the Southern Baptists had lost their way.

I’ve said before how Chapel at 6 was, with basketball, one of the two worthwhile things in my four years of undergrad. And yet, it wasn’t enough to keep me seeking out the same experience once I was free of that institution. The occasional dabble into the Episcopal Church began in the mid-90s and carried on for a while, whether splitting the difference with my Catholic girlfriend on an occasional Sunday evening during the Vandy years or popping into a 5 PM service in Arlington, Virginia in the early 2000s. But at that point, the Irish Catholics of my acquaintance had made me ethnically Catholic: Irish nationalist, Celtic supporter, sympathetic to Notre Dame, the works. And a couple years of Catholic adult education and attending Catholic services with my family in California made me feel…well, I don’t know. It felt right, but it also felt like more of an intellectual and historical engagement than anything spiritual.

And at some point, as the Obama administration wore on and the enemy showed its hand and its true colors, it became very difficult to reconcile what I had been told Christianity was growing up with my actual experience of it, and at some point – probably in my cups after being overserved at a Super Bowl party or something – I had to admit that in my heart of hearts, I didn’t believe in God any more.

And I was right. Because I didn’t. Because I was still stuck at some level on that Southern Baptist Old Testament version of God – a God who owned the only factory in your small town, where the pastor was the foreman and was very good at telling you just what God wanted you to do without you ever hearing it directly from God. And that’s a God I didn’t, couldn’t believe in any more. And I still don’t, and can’t, and won’t, because that God doesn’t exist – that’s a God that man created in his own image as a club to beat brown people with. That’s not snark, that’s not my own prejudice, that’s history.

I don’t know where things started to change up. The Trump years were no time to revisit Christianity, certainly not as is conceived of in America – because the mainline Protestants have long since abandoned the field. In the American mind – especially the East Coast media mind – there’s Catholicism, there’s “the black church,” there’s various permutations of Islam and Judaism and Mormons and such, and looming over it all is the Southern Baptist Convention at the head of a whole fundamentalist-charismatic-whatever blob that has displaced the old mainline denominations. Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, all gone, and the ancient depiction of the Episcopalians as “the Republican Party at prayer” is wholly inoperative in the 21st century. And while there’s plenty of religion around in Northern California, there isn’t any in Silly Con Valley, other than the unbridled worship of bullshit backed by venture capital. People around here love to tell you that they’re not religious, they’re spiritual. Which…what the hell does that even mean? I believe in some kind of woo-woo thing that just happens to coincide with what I believe already? I have some vague sense of be-good that doesn’t really actually require anything of me? I just want to seem deeper than you? All horseshit.

I think the switch really flipped for me on the day that I conceived the blog post about how God is the name we give to the idea that no one is above an ass-kicking. God is huge. God is abstract. God is not anthropomorphic At All, no matter what the telephone-game-translation “created in the image of God” might mean to you. God is too big and too much to get a handle on, and we can only get a handle on God through a glass darkly.

And that’s where the whole Jesus part comes in. Baptists have a thoroughly illogical grasp on this. Jesus is the son of God. Okay, concede that point – so then what? It would stand to reason that the thing would then be to ask what Jesus said to do, and then do that. Instead, the Baptists go running straight to the original mansplainer, Paul, who probably didn’t even write half the letters that Baptists rush to to tell us are what Jesus actually meant and never mind those words in red in the pocket Bible the Gideons gave you. So my thought was, bugger that, I will read the Gospels. And then I didn’t. And then it took me a year to make the effort to get all the way through Mark (generally accepted as first), and then Matthew and Luke (which interpolate both Mark and the “Quelle” source that was found in Nag Hammadi as the Gospel of Thomas or something), and I haven’t even looked yet at John (which seems to be the artistic-interpretation version).

And what I have come to is this: God is very much beyond our comprehension. Jesus is providing the toolkit by which we ascertain what it is God wants from us. And what God wants from us is of a piece with what we owe to each other. Thus is the first and most important commandment on which all the law and the prophets hang: “Love God with all your might and love your neighbor as yourself.” And that is genuinely challenging. God does not have it for the rich, for the powerful, for the wealthy. God wants you to provide for others. God wants you to give it away. God wants you to reject the ways of the world and care for others, radically.

This is a lot. This is challenging. This requires you to forgive a lot. This requires you to move the difficulty setting off “easy.” This requires you to extend to others the same grace God has extended you, including people who absolutely do not deserve it. But deserve doesn’t enter into it. That’s how grace works.

I don’t know when exactly I started playing the podcast from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. It was before the pandemic, certainly. I think at some point, the despair of the Trump years made me look for something, anything that would give me some kind of light that we weren’t just doomed in every respect. And…slowly I began to find things out. Like how the Episcopalians were formed with the help of Scottish bishops only too happy to lay hands on American bishops who refused the authority of the crown of England. And how the apostolic descendants of those bishops consecrated women as priests in the 1970s and dragged the church along with them. And how despite threats – and with a bulletproof vest under the robe – they elevated a gay man as bishop. How the entire thing starts from a premise of “you are loved by God and therefore you are loved by this church, and you begin from being a valid and worthy creation of God.”

That’s a lot. That is a hugely significant data point. When you come up through the hellfire of the Southern Baptists who seem to hate everything, even their own youth group, and who start from a premise of “you are lost and damned until you get saved”, it’s unsettling and transformative to reject all of that, start over from first principles, walk into a church and begin by hearing that you are welcome and affirmed and worthwhile. And after watching the presiding bishop of that Church say just those things while marrying the Duke of Sussex to an American actress, it occurred to me, maybe I should give this a look.

So I reached out tentatively to an Episcopal priest, one of the ancillary participants in the Vanderbilt tailgate crew of which I myself am ancillary at best, and she was encouraging – but I still needed an actual church. I would Zoom into hers in Nashville periodically during the pandemic, but when she was exploring an offer to become rector of one of two different Episcopal congregations in easy driving distance, I decided that wherever she landed, I’d start attending and give it a try. And then she wound up at St Mary the Virgin up in the city, which…was not close.

But one evening, while listening to the Grace podcast down the pub, the priest at Grace mentioned his former parish – and I hadn’t even realized it existed, let alone that it was an easy five to seven minute drive from my house. And after some hemming and hawing, in a moment of existential despair (right around Election Day 2022), I just decided to show up at 8 AM and see what happened. Small crowd, short service, get in and get out and see what it did.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the church was a smell. It was the same sort of old-books-and-time-lost smell I remembered from Yeilding Chapel in college. The second thing I noticed were the enormous floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows, which called to mind the four cardinal windows in different colors in Yeilding Chapel. And the third thing I noticed was the rector, a woman younger than me, who spoke movingly of her own struggles in college in a way that rather made me feel like I’d been pinned in at right angles. I got out as quickly and politely as I could at the end without my voice breaking, sat down in my car, and said “okay, you win. We’re doing this.”

And so I have. It was mostly the 8 AM service until we went off on our sabbatical trip last spring, after which I added the 9 AM adult education class on top of it for a few weeks – which was dealing with the history of the church in general, the Episcopalians in particular and Christ Church more specifically, and was basically the prerequisite class for eventual confirmation. In the last couple of months, it’s switched to the 10:15 service, with hymns and music, some of which is familiar from Catholic services and some of which actually draws on stuff I know from childhood. And hearing it re-contextualized in this setting is…not nothing.

Because the Episcopalians hold to the formula that the misdoings of an individual clergy doesn’t invalidate the sacrament. No matter how far out of pocket the Baptists are, the baptism in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit I experienced in July 1983 is still held canonically valid. Even though I have rejected the wrong track I was on, the aspects of my upbringing that were true and right are still true and right and count for something. Which means that the things I believed in childhood are still valid, and there is a thread of continuity there. That’s not nothing.

Here’s the thing, the point of all this: this feels right. Sunday morning at 10:15 feels like the thing that’s been missing from my schedule. It’s the possibility of community. It’s affirmation. It’s an opportunity to step out of time and set aside the things of the world for eighty minutes or so. It’s a chance to meet people (a couple, close enough to walk over for dinner, a few years younger than us and of eerily similar background – proof that this is the right path for me to be on and that what I am is not alien here). It has reached equal standing with the Sunday night pub simulation as the thing I look forward to during the week that will give me an escape from my worldly cares and concerns and let me unwind. It’s something to do that I’m interested in and doesn’t feel like a waste of time or a pointless exercise.

There isn’t an endgame here. This is not “achievement unlocked, move on to the next thing.” It means confirmation and membership, and from there, who knows – but it ticks so many boxes that I didn’t realize were part of a God-shaped hole in my existence. And now that I’m getting a look at that space and figuring out how to fill it properly this time, I feel better for making the effort. Because no one is making me do this. There is no social expectation that I will do this and quite a lot that I won’t, actually. Every grown-up in that sanctuary at 8 or 10:15 is someone who wants to be there. And now, so do I.

a third of a life

This blog turns 17 on Friday, which means I have officially chronicled the last third of my life on here. And the sad thing is, the more I think about it, it’s hard not to think of the early days of this blog as a high-water mark. I was 34, everyone around us was alive and in reasonably good health. A lot of bad things hadn’t happened yet. I wasn’t years removed from DC, the 4Ps was still open and alive, we had plenty of local friends, we were moved into our new house. I was still happy to be at Apple (and with an office of my own!), and while the government was still a Republican trifecta, it was obvious to everyone that it was taking on water and the pleasant surprise of flipping both houses in November would mean a spike in hope for the future.

Sure, 2007 would be a bad one, made worse by bad decisions, and then…well, time would happen. It’s not that it’s been unending misery since 2006, because it hasn’t, and I’ve achieved things and found things that would have been inconceivable back then (iPhones? The MCU? An electric car parked in the driveway of our house with a yard that’s walking distance to the local beer-and-burger spot? Three weeks in London and adding two new continents to my resume?) – but we are also hitting the age where life starts taking away things it gave you. And when one of those things is democracy…that’s unsettling.

I can’t really think about this post for next year. I think there’s a real chance I will be on meds, curled into a ball and unable to function for the last two months of the campaign, unless Biden is healthy and sitting on about a 10 point lead. I need a 1996-style “outcome never in doubt” situation, and I don’t even know if that’s possible any more. As soon as Trump won at all, even with fewer votes and a loophole, the minute it was possible for him to lose fewer than 49 states is the moment at which you could stop pretending things would ever be OK again without constant vigilance.

Because the Adversary is so big, so amorphous. There’s all the traditional backbone of private-business-owners who want to be lords of the manor in their podunk Midwestern towns, all the realtors and car dealers who managed not to be arrested on January 6. There’s all the Wallace voters who swear they vote for the man (always a man), not the party – but always the same party somehow. There’s the libertarian tech-holes of Silly Con Valley, the bros who don’t think the government should be able to do anything that interferes with their self-actualization or ability to remain fourteen years old forever. And of course there’s the stochastic terrorists, the message board warriors who go out with an AR-15 to shoot up the gays and the colored and anyone who committed the horrific indecency of being different from them.

My biggest fear is that Biden will drop dead, because there’s no way America will put itself behind a woman of color at the top of the ticket when there’s a white man on the other side. My second biggest fear is that Trump will drop dead, and be elevated as a martyr while someone just as bad takes his spot and the media falls about themselves to say “Trump is dead, why you bringing up old shit” while someone with the identical positions coasts to victory. I know worry means you suffer twice, and fear is just another way of dying before your time, but we live on the edge of a cliff, and it is very difficult to go about your business with a blithe whistle while the cliff crumbles a little every day out of the corner of your eye.

There are fixes, and reasonable ones. We have gotten so hung up on how things used to be and the idea that our ways are set in stone that we won’t even adjust to other people. Are they breaking the unwritten rules that the President should be the person who gets the most votes? How about we expand the House of Representatives for the first time in a century? There’s no reason we couldn’t have an elected legislative body of 3600 Representatives, each one representing only 100,000 people and thus closer to the people they represent. Gerrymandering becomes impractical, the prospect of multi-ethnic representation goes way up, we have the technology to make it work in ways we didn’t in the First World Way era, and it would basically destroy any possibility of the Electoral College being an issue again once the population advantage of small states was shattered. Hell, start allocating EC votes by individual district like Nebraska or Maine, and you’ve probably guaranteed it.

The old ways are broken. You can’t go back. You have to make the best of what you have in front of you, and make the changes necessary to continue to survive and thrive going forward rather than being tethered and drowning under the weight of trying to keep things the way they used to be.

Year 18. Onward.

the accent problem

So a couple months ago I was down the pub, minding my business, and suddenly I hear a loud guffaw in an accent I know all too well. Sure enough, there’s a couple of guys down at the other end of the bar and one of them is braying away in The Accent. You know the one. The hard-R Southern accent. Not the Foghorn Leghorn-Howell Heflin accent, the “economically anxious” one.

I have a big problem hearing my native accent out here. I shouldn’t. God knows I sound like a bowl of grits drenched in Jack Daniel’s, especially on third down, so it is a Hell of a thing to say for me to say that the Southern accent is like nails on a chalkboard and makes me think a stranger is immediately suspect.

But when you think about it, that’s the shibboleth. The South has become an affirmative indicator in red land, a signifier that you are on Their Side. Just look at the guy who whipped up a quick bigoted ditty and got propped up on Twitter overnight – just paint yourself as a pore ol’ rural white man being oppressed by the existence of all them Others and there’s gold in them thar downloads. Hell, the entire sport of college football is currently being reduced to basically the SEC and Ohio State because that’s what ESPN and Fox are willing to pay to broadcast, and if you’re west of the Rockies you’re gonna have to hitch a ride with the rednecks.

I’ve said it before and I stand by it: the only place I’ve ever experienced people making assumptions about my racial and political attitudes as a white guy with a trace Alabama accent is in…the South. Because in my experience, the rural white South assumes anyone who sounds like them is like them. Which, writ large, is how a Queens property hustler who cites things like “Two Corinthians” gets to be held up as God’s miracle plan for America. He thinks a wishbone is something you get out of a turkey and couldn’t distinguish sweet potato pie from sweet potato casserole, but he’s right about What Really Matters, and that is that he hates the same people they do.

And so, I turned my earbuds up as loud as they would go without damaging anything and tried to lose myself in SomaFM Thistle Radio. But there it was, an annoying buzz underneath all night. Finally, after hearing the mention of Arkansas, I stopped by on the way out the door with a “Woo Pig” and passed a small amount of conversation. He was an electrician, out on a job with his buddy from Colorado. And, sure enough and sadly enough, he was exactly as his accent pegged him.

the implosion

It’s all the fault of Texas, really. Once the Big 12 insisted on treating them as the most special boys with the biggest share of money and their own cable TV network, everyone else began looking for a way out. For Texas A&M and Missouri, it was the SEC. For Nebraska, it was the Big 10. And for Colorado, it was the PAC-12, where they finished above .500 in football twice before choosing last week to flee back to a Big 12 that had the dual advantages of no more Texas and a TV deal in hand to the tune of $31 million a year.

Because Texas decamped for the SEC. Which then gave the B1G room to do a deal with U$C and UCLA to keep up with the 16-team standard, and made the Big 12 more attractive to Colorado – and now the Big 12 is at 13 and eyeing Utah and both Arizonas to reach that new magic number of 16. And all of sudden, the PAC-12 is the PAC-9 and the wolves are at the door, and the commissioner doesn’t have a better TV offer than a streaming deal with Apple.

The problem now is that the ESPN-Fox duopoly already has everybody. They are already paying for all the football, and there’s not something out there that will compel them to offer more money (witness the foolishness of Florida State, trying to get the ACC to give them a Texas free-roll when their media rights are tied up through 2036 and all the places they’d go are already ESPN leagues – why would ESPN pay out an extra $40 million a year for the same thing they already have?) – right now, the peril is that the PAC-9 has no TV deal and no obvious dance partner, and a lot of schools that are leveraged to the hilt.

I’m obviously most concerned for Cal, whose best days in football are a decade behind them and who can’t seem to crack the 8-win plateau after wasting years in the cul-de-sac of a Sonny Dykes Air Raid pastiche. How Golden Bears fans don’t climb Sather Tower with a high-powered rifle I’ll never know – first the burden of $300 million to stay on campus in their own stadium, then two years’ delays by filthy hippies, then economic collapse, then footballing futility and a decade of not getting over on Furd, then the pandemic and its aftershocks, and now, to add insult to injury, the warrior poets of the B1G extend the life raft to the SoCal schools and then Oregon and Washington.

But it’s not just the sturdy golden bear in a pinch here. Stanfurd’s longtime sugar daddy is deceased, and the Arillaga money every year may or may not be replaced by a young donor base more consumed with crypto and NFTs and AI startups than the fate of the Axe. And spare a thought for Oregon State and Washington State, which basically everyone has consigned not to the Big 12, but to the WAC or Mountain West alongside the Boise States and Colorado States of the world. And now if you go through and do the math, we are getting perilously close to the 64 teams-and-pull-the-ladder-up for the Super League – or worse yet, a weird mutant relegation system with the SEC and B1G as the Super League and the ACC and Big 12 one step below as a sort of second division, then everyone else scrambling, and promotion and relegation determined every five years by what kind of TV deal you can do.

Spencer Hall famously made it clear in “God’s Away On Business”: there is no one in charge in college football and there likely never will be. That’s why we have the professionalization of NIL and wide-open transfer without any sort of salary cap, salary floor, cost controls or (most important) player unionization, just free market narcocapitalism. Vanderbilt played for decades as the one stripper actually putting herself through college, only to find out that suddenly the club is twice as big and there’s a price list on the wall and they’re bringing in donkeys and if you don’t like it, the Sun Belt is over there. Geography is meaningless in a league where UCLA will play Maryland. Tradition is meaningless in a league that somehow combines Boston College, Pitt, Miami and Louisville. A third of the “original” Big 12, including the one no one wanted to be around, has been inexplicably grafted onto the SEC, because somehow Texas and Oklahoma are valuable brands to draw eyeballs and not because they are materially better at football than programs like TCU or (spit) Stanford that have turned out superior results in the same interval.

And now, because of a decade of chasing some kind of golden goose of casual fan eyeballs, the wheels are coming off. Now your options as a college football program are basically 1) be Alabama, 2) be willing to pay the money and make the compromises to pursue Alabama, even at the expense of other sports or the mission of your institution, or 3) go play intramurals. And if you are not a member of a conference that is shelling out $60 million a year in TV revenue, 2) may not be open to you no matter what you’re willing to do. Nothing that happened before has any value any longer. And that is toxic, because the value of what happened before is what separates college football from the XFL. It’s the tradition, it’s the rivalries, it’s the family connections, it’s Eli Gold on the radio or Keith Jackson on the game of the week, it’s names that don’t mean anything to anyone else but can take you back decades, and the play flashes before your eyes at the mention of “Van Tiffin” or “Thomas Rayam” or “George Teague” or “Patton Robinette”.

College football was the original and greatest form of the sport because of all the things you couldn’t put a price on. It will die, and die badly, and die ugly, because someone tried to put a price on them anyway.

flashback, part 115 of n

In some ways, 1997 was the last summer. I had finished school in May and had nothing lined up before September at the earliest. I took a job, then lost that job by spending a month and change in Ohio waiting for a different job to happen. It was the last time there was an open-ended period of summer without the daily obligation of doing something.

It was a transitional state, not unlike the summer of 1990, which in a way was even more thoroughly the last summer. I didn’t have a job that summer, because I was content to live off my graduation money (especially once I got my car stereo installed) and I was just killing time until the dream began when I started college. The big difference was that in 1990, I had an open-ended future full of possibility to dream of. In 1997, I was confused and bewildered and clinging to a thin reed of hope that the guy I kinda-sorta knew from the Internet would throw me a lifeline.

In retrospect, it feels like I must have been insane. I was flat broke, twelve hours drive from home, biding my time until I could hear back from my one job application in a completely different career field in a completely different city. I could no more do that now than I could fly to the moon under my own power, for all sorts of reasons – mostly revolving around the requirements of a mortgage and an unwillingness to abandon 26 years of experience to start from scratch in something else. But back then, with the entire past fallen down the chasm behind me and nothing to lose as the ground crumbled under my feet, I was willing to close my eyes and leap.

I guess that’s the problem. Everyone knows I hate my job, but I have reconciled myself to it. Or rather, had. Now they want me in the office again, and have offered no concessions on the prospect of five days a week – not the flexibility of a couple of work from home days that we had prior to the onset of COVID, not the possibility of relocating to an office that actually has people I routinely collaborate with and would profit by proximity to, and no sign whatsoever that my work is even noticed, let alone valued. It’s a one size fits all setting, and I’m the wrong size.

But what are the alternatives? Find a remote job somewhere else? No one in this valley is hiring people to do what I do, as far as I can tell, and the ones that are want to hire remote workers all right – in Seattle, or Atlanta or Dallas or somewhere considerably cheaper. Which means finding a remote job in another part of the world is going to mean a pay cut that I can’t really afford. So either way, stay or go, it means back to an office and a commute.

And then we’re back to my oldest friend, the devil I know — and the fact that right now I still know how to do the job, have institutional knowledge, and still get enough vacation to try to live the life I want outside the office. And maybe I can use the downtime and the slow days stuck in a cube to actually study and pursue other work, instead of distracting myself with the laundry and the dishes and the trash and recycling and the occasional errands.

I don’t know. The dream of wiring remote goes back to the very beginning of my career, on a drive through New England when it occurred to me that the combination of home broadband and UNIX might make it possible to work from home somehow. Work from home was a key desire by ten years later, and last year, it caused me to turn down a contract offer that would have paid more money even though the daily commute was barely ten miles round trip. I’m not fool enough to count on the possibility of retirement, but for the last three years, I’ve been able to get close enough that I can live with it.

So much in this life is open-ended uncertainty. I’m waiting to hear back on the recall of my car. I’m waiting to hear back on the part for the new hot tub we’ve never been able to use. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop on a legal matter that has been in limbo for eight months with no prospect of closing the book. We might not even live in a democracy by this time two years from now. All I want is the basic assurance that I have been doing a good job for the last three and a half years, and will be allowed to continue doing it as I have done on the condition that I keep doing a good job. That doesn’t strike me as an exceptional, outrageous, privileged or extravagant ask.

But that’s not how the world works any more.

ding dong

I supposed the witch is dead, for what it’s worth. After twenty-five years, Dan Snyder – the boy wonder who took a heritage NFL franchise and reduced a 30-year waiting list for season tickets to dead last in attendance, who never managed to luckbox into 11 wins in a season once in a quarter century of modern NFL parity scheduling, who took the one thing that bound the DMV together and make it into a laughingstock leavened with criminality – that son of a bitch is gone, and $5 billion richer for the investment.

Thieves get rich and saints get shot and God don’t answer prayers a lot, as the saying goes.

I don’t think I’ve done a ridearound since the onset of the pandemic. Sonny Sam and Frank are long gone, and the broadcast team that succeeded Sonny Sam and Frank are all gone now, and the team doesn’t even have the same name – the problem wasn’t that they changed from an old name, it’s that they changed to a stupid XFL-assed name when they had the quiet badassery of just Washington Football Team and the slogan “NO NAME BUT TEAM”. Never mind that the NFL is slick garbage, one giant foaming slop bucket of Narrative and performative jingoism. The only professional football I’ve watched a full quarter of in the last five years is the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL.

For that matter, the last college football game I watched all the way through was probably Army-Navy the year Army broke the streak, and that was on DVR delay. Football is starting to seem like the problem – basketball is quicker, baseball is more relaxing, soccer is at least different. George Will’s slur about “violence interrupted by committee meetings” has never been more apt. But that’s not the thing that grates on me the worst.

It’s that it used to be a tie to the old days, a common thread to that old Saturn cruising down Old Georgetown Pike with two large Dr Peppers and a double bacon Whopper, windows down, cigar between my fingers and good ol’ Sonny Sam and Frank calling the action. The days when everything on autumn Mondays depended on the results of the day before, and the homeless guy was high-fiving the 2-star general who was high-fiving the GWU co-ed on the Orange line because we beat Philly or Dallas. It was enough to get me out the door at 9 AM on a Sunday on the bus to Dan Brown’s Lounge, where I’d repose under a painting of Sonny Jurgensen and drink with Bobby Mitchell’s son and despair of whether Jim Zorn was any kind of replacement for Gibbs 2.0. It was that happy moment of being parked on the street with the game on the radio, furiously Tweeting and texting everyone as RG3 completed the last truly exciting season and made us feel like there was a future.

It’s been a long, long time since it felt like there was a better future coming. I am finding more and more than after 50, it’s mostly about figuring out how to keep most of what you have, minimizing the steady loss and just learning to live without what you lost. Getting rid of that Shetland asshole is less about making “Commanders” football something I can live with again and more about settling accounts, about proving that there’s some kind of judgement for wrongdoing – even if it’s the kind of wrongdoing that lets you walk away to live in London with $5 billion in the bank. They punished the little bastard by giving him all I ever wanted. Which I guess is just how America is, now.

the breathtaking blue

Our gal in Oslo came through for me this morning, and I entered and successfully created a Bluesky account. It’s been months since I first added my name to the wait list, and I suspect there’s a real chance a code got eaten by the spam trap, but we’re going to overlook how long it took me to get onboard and celebrate that I arrived.

It feels like a throwback – not least because I immediately connected with the various denizens of the EDSBS Cinematic Universe, most of whom I have had very little contact with since 2016 and the dissolution of my main public Twitter account in the aftermath of the election. It’s not lost on me that I may be letting myself in for a rough year next year, but we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it. Not only did I see a bunch of those folks again, I found a surprising number of people have already made the jump.

On paper, this is a step in the right direction, because it is being what Mastodon cannot and Threads won’t: a drop-in replacement for Twitter. No algorithmic timeline, no ads, no auto populated firehose of influencer and celeb accounts. It has some interesting features: self-verification via a domain name as account handle, customizable algorithmic feeds to make sure you surface material relevant to you without forcing it into your chrono timeline, and the prospect of federation and account migration in future.

Unfortunately, it also seems to have failed to go to school on some of the simplest practices of moderation and safety. The fact that they hadn’t established deny-listing of racial slurs in user names suggests a fairly privileged group of developers who failed to ask the first question for any new product in 2023: “how will Nazis abuse this?” I got the impression they may be speed-running the steps to get to a better solution, but they don’t have Instagram’s existing moderation apparatus. Of course, neither does Mastodon, and until this morning everything I heard suggested Bluesky has been a superior experience for nonwhite users. So who knows. It may be that you just have to pick the level of unpleasantness you can live with.

And right now, Bluesky has some obvious advantages. Unlike Threads, it is not “what if Twitter but Instagram” and I am not being force-fed a diet of influencer bullshit and journalistic self-importance. Unlike Mastodon, it has people I know on it and they are willing to use it. And unlike Twitter, it’s not owned by a ham-faced racist yarpie who should be ground into meatloaf for the homeless and his assets liquidated as a down payment on reparations. These are all nontrivial advantages.

Not to mention…Twitter is kind of dying. There are maybe half a dozen people there for whom I have no other way of following them. Brands and teams can be had via Threads, and hopefully followed from my private Mastodon account before long, which would complete the realignment. Threads accounts for reading, Bluesky for socializing, Signal for private chat and personal contact, with special use cases for Slack and iMessage.

Of such things is our new social world built. But tonight, I have a functional social media outlet that isn’t in hock to Phony Stark or the Zuckbot 3000, and that is a blessing I have long looked forward to.

running away from the cops speed

Sometime overnight, Threads broke one hundred million users. This was always going to be a possibility – the advantage of an existing login and friends list is so overwhelming that Threads hasn’t even launched in the EU because those advantages open it to stupefyingly huge fines for anticompetitive behavior – but the fact that it has hit 50% of Twitter’s MAU in under a week is significant.

How it is? Well, Threads shows you exactly why I only log into Instagram through a browser rather than using the app: it’s optimized for the same endless streams of meme-tastic shitposting that originally made Facebook unusable, and if your friends don’t post enough, you’re going to just end up in an endless scroll of algorithmic garbage. But that said, being in the gunsights for their misconduct over the last seven years has made them sufficiently gun-shy that the kind of alt-right garbage for which Twitter is currently optimized has not got traction.

Algorithmic pink slime firehose notwithstanding, Threads does have some things that make it less of a hassle than Twitter. No trending topics prevents giving a megaphone to bad stuff, no DMs cuts down on a major vector of harassment, and there seems to be a conscious effort among the user base that it’s going to be different this time. Of course, that means the same sort of middle-of-the-road Minion-inspirational NBC prime time mediocre bullshit in carload lots, but it’s better than outright fascists, racists, and tech bros just riding Elon’s nuts.

And nuts is apparently just what Elon is going, which is a delight to watch. This fool literally proposed a dick-measuring contest with Zuckerberg. I sure hope for her own sake that Linda Yaccorino got paid up front and in cash, and if she didn’t, well, that’s her own goddamn fault. Facebook, currently trading as Meta, is not your friend and is not to be trusted and has no future for me – but as someone wisely said on Threads, “you may not like Godzilla but you need him to fight Mechagodzilla.” Threads only has to be out there long enough to torch Twitter, and then it’s off to Mastodon or Bluesky or wherever.

Because to all accounts, I may be only ten days or so away from possibly getting a Bluesky invite. Despite their slow-crawl invitation system, they’ve still built out a user base comparable to Mastodon’s, and the buzz elsewhere is that non-white and non-tech folk are having a better time there than on the ‘Don (which is not surprising; as I’ve said before, Mastodon was never meant to be a drop-in replacement for Twitter and what it does is not exactly suitable for people who are not running a specialized community of interest). I’m following about a hundred people on Twitter, but only a dozen or so post routinely. Similarly, I’m following 67 on Threads, but only 28 follow me and it’s too soon to see how many people are posting routinely. I don’t have a problem following three times as many people as follow me, as long as those people are putting up stuff I want to read. I actually have just over 200 followed and followers alike on my main Mastodon account, but fewer than half a dozen are people I actually know, and none are sports teams with updates or the fistful of celebs I actually want to keep track of.

The dream scenario at this point, honestly, is a Tapbots app that can feed both federation protocols, and being able to follow the SJ Giants or Greenock Morton on Threads via ActivityPub in a Mastodon account while keeping my friends on Bluesky and still seeing the ones who just settle on Threads and call it a day. It might take a while for all this to come together – I genuinely don’t know that Threads will ever adopt ActivityPub, especially if it can grow to nine figures in a week all by itself and has no obvious way to monetize federation (and the Fediverse does not want them there, plainly) – but after three or four years of “the hottest new social network of the afternoon,” we finally have something exciting happening in the space, and not a moment too soon. Now that ham-faced yarpie son of a bitch climbed up there, it’s a Hell of a lot higher than he thought, ain’t it?

was that fast? I thought that was fast

Three days later, we’re live. Threads officially launched for public consumption about five hours ago, give or take, and already has over two million users. Clearly it’s easier to get people to sign up for something new when they already have an account and a friends list.

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

* The default timeline when you first sign on is an avalanche of shitposters, clout chasers, and the sort of algorithmic garbage you get when you use the Instagram app. Which is hardly surprising, but the Instagram app has the option to flip to a list of the people you follow. THIS DOES NOT EXIST IN THREADS. There is no way to confine your view to just the people you asked to see, and if you have the misfortune of refreshing your timeline while looking at a post from a friend, it will vanish and be replaced with more pink slime content.

* That, coupled with the fact that you can mute or block someone and still see more of their posts, gives the distinct impression that Threads didn’t ship because it was ready, it shipped because Twitter had a really bad weekend and Bluesky has hit an inflection point on mindshare in the last seven to ten days. It’s not available in the EU, because they can’t clear GDPR, and it’s missing some fairly rudimentary functionality, which suggests that the last six months have basically been “how do we fit the Insta authentication system into the Mastodon code?”

* I mean, maybe? God knows that until Phony Stark rolled up, Mastodon was famous mostly for furries and for having its codebase used to bootstrap far-right websites. What else would you call Facebook? Not to mention…

* By adding a text update posting service to an Instagram app which contains everything else they’ve ripped off in the last decade, the Facebook machine has now produced a laundered New Facebook which is just two or three apps in a trench coat and doesn’t have the stink of your Trump aunt’s racist Minions memes on it. It took forever, but they finally have all the bits in place.

* Here’s the thing: all I want, all I *ever* wanted, was Twitter from 2012 and maybe Instagram from the same time. No Snapchat, no TikTok, no ripping off YouTube, none of that. Right now, based on what I’m hearing, the best shot I have of that is Bluesky. There are already lots of people there I would follow, it doesn’t have a firehouse of algorithmic shit to all accounts, and while it does have that hipster dumb fuck Dorsey on the board, it’s not in hock to a Big Five Or Six tech company and it’s produced at least as viable a product as Mastodon or Threads.

* Is it harsh to be judging a product on its first five hours? Not this product. They’ve had six months and all the resources of Facebook to make this pop off, and it’s being held up as the great challenge to Twitter. So no, it’s not unfair in the least, and miss me with that lil-ol-Clemson bullshit, when you add two million users in the first four hours you better be ready to play in the big leagues.

* As of the end of last year, Twitter had somewhere under 400 million users, and Instagram had three times that. Insta’s MAU is quadruple Twitter’s, and that was before the assorted shenanigans by which Donald Frunk has chosen to sandbag his investment over the past six months (capped by this weekend’s rate limiting). It will not take very much at all for Threads to be a viable alternative to Twitter for a whole lot of people, because if your friends go, there’s no reason not to.

* There is a scenario whereby Threads replaces Twitter, but thanks to ActivityPub, I can base myself in my Mastodon account and still follow the people I want to follow (and the entities like the SJ Giants or Greenock Morton who are statistically unlikely to ever show up on Mastodon). That would be a very agreeable state of affairs for me personally, but it would require Facebook to commit to building out ActivityPub support in Threads, which (surprise surprise) did not make the 1.0 release. I guess we’ll see what happens.

* Musk is Trump, but Zuckerberg is George W. Bush: it’s his damn fault we got to this point in the first place. I have no problem leveraging the lesser of two evils, but I thrill to the prospect of being able to kick them both to the curb for good.