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 think8ng 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…

so tired

One thing I have learned in the last few years is that whenever I blurt out “so tired” to myself, it is actually my way of saying “I am unhappy with the state of my existence in this world as currently constituted.” Could be depression, could be anxiety – although I think we have established that my problem is more anxiety than anything else.Specifically, the reaction to a nebulous threat that I cannot see or effectively game against.

To wit: I expect that the Democrats will lose formal control of at least one house of Congress this coming week. To lose control of the House is more likely and probably to be expected, and while losing formal control of the Senate is bad, the combination of the filibuster and the intransigence of two specific “Democrats” makes as little difference as can be imagined. The bigger issue, honestly, is that loss of either house increases the odds of a default on the national debt, thanks to the Republican willingness to hold the debt ceiling hostage (as exemplified in the near miss of 2011, which cost the country its AAA rating).

The problem is, the Republicans are fundamentally a stupid party. Theirs is a cult that worships stupidity. Hooked up to a lie detector and shot full of sodium pentathol, Mitch McConnell would probably freely admit that a default from debt ceiling failure would be a disaster for the American economy, but the majority of his party does not understand and does not care, and if they did, would probably be confident that it could be pinned on Biden. And the sad thing is, with the incompetent catamites of the press, they are probably correct.

We are at war. We have been at war for eight years now, ever since GamerGate. We are at war with the kleptocracy, we are at war with the Jackpot, we are at war with the manifold arms of international Neo-fascism whether in Brazil, Russia, Israel, the UK or the Deep South and Middle West. We need to be on a wartime footing, economically as well as morally and ethically. We have one party in this country that is an avowed foe of democracy as a concept, and the only moral position is to oppose them at all costs. Maybe it means you have to accept higher taxes. Maybe it means you don’t get a public option for national health insurance. The only thing that matters at this point is that we not lose our democracy to a minoritarian force of bigots defending unbridled wealth.

Losing Twitter is a bit on the nose. A system in which an apartheid trustafarian can simply buy out a major social network is not a healthy system – although it looks like he’s already sinking under the weight of his own incompetence and indifference to law. Would that others of his ilk could be similarly encumbered- the big question of the next two years will be “are we willing to let criminals slide because it would look political to prosecute them.”

It’s a lot to deal with, even in a world where unexpected threats and troubles aren’t waiting to step backward out of the fourth dimension without notice to try to slit your throat. I can hardly be forgiven for experimenting with CBD (which as it turns out is no help whatsoever) and meditative deep breathing (which only works for as long as you keep doing it). Better to try to focus into escape – into Lego Star Wars Castaways, into Watched Walker, into anyplace where reality can be shut out for an hour or four and you can imagine yourself in a world without an unpleasant surprise around every corner.

And yet…Mastodon is taking off. Signal will release Stories publicly within a week or so. Christmas is on the way. The cool and damp and dark of winter are upon us, and for three or four months it will be possible to go into a bar and not worry about still being daylight when you come back out. If I can just hang on until I turn 51, somehow, maybe there will be some hope at the next checkpoint.

Wouldn’t that be something.

what it says and what it isn’t

The spectacle of the last month or so of UK politics has been something else. Liz Truss becomes prime minister, is immediately put on hold for a couple weeks because of the Queen’s death and mourning, and then sends her handpicked Chancellor out to deliver a budget that looks like the wet dream of a Mises Institute freshman at Auburn – and naturally, the markets reacted as any moron would expect. Massive tax cuts financed by borrowing at a time of runaway inflation – for the second time in as many decades, the Tories have looked at an economic crisis and run 180 degrees the wrong way with it.

And now, after a round beating, the much-reviled Jeremy “Rhymes With” Hunt (as he is known to half of Parliament) ones on as the new Chancellor, basically to serve as Acting Prime Minister while Truss sits quietly in the corner, saved only by the fact that yet another leadership contest – the second in a year and third in three – would be a calamity. Projections right now suggest that if there were to be a general election tomorrow, it would be an extinction-level event for the Conservative and Unionist party, with a real risk that Labour would have over 500 members and that the official opposition would be either the LibDems or the SNP, numerically speaking. In short, Liz Truss has shat the bed so hard and fast that it created a sonic boom.

And yet, there is no accountability for at least one year and maybe two. No general election is required before the end of 2024, and by rule, the Tories can’t challenge the leadership for twelve months – although that rule can certainly be changed. Which points up the fact that Truss was chosen not by the electorate, but by the membership of the Party – which is to say, a country and economy the size of California had its new leader selected by the population of Sunnyvale.

This is no way to run a democracy. Which is a Hell of a thing to say coming from a country where the Senate is inherently undemocratic – a place where 41 Senators from states with a combined population of maybe a fifth of the country can sink anything they don’t like beneath the waves, where 58-42 is a loss for the 58, where a state with a smaller population than San Jose can have more Senators than Representatives. Never mind the ways the Senate has been used to corrupt the Supreme Court almost beyond recognition, or roadblock the policies of a duly elected administration – the only window in which the Democrats have been able to work their will in the last two decades without resorting to reconciliation was a tiny window in autumn 2009 when they had sixty Senators. And even then, you’re limited by what will pass one guy from Nebraska.

This is no way to run a democracy. The rules are supposed to be “one person, one vote”, and that is what the 14th amendment more or less dictated and the Voting Rights act tried to enforce. The enthronement of the states as individually sovereign facilitated gerrymandering for centuries, and as it becomes apparent that the current model of bigotry-defending-wealth Christian nationalism does not enjoy popular support, we are watching in real time as its adherents in the South and elsewhere work to openly bend the rules to preserve their power in the face of popular opposition.

The late Jean-Bethke Elshtain, who I had the privilege of studying under at Vanderbilt however briefly, wrote a book while I was there called Democracy On Trial in which she decried the evolution of politics from opponents to enemies. Once can practice politics with opponents, she argues, but only war with enemies. The events of the last 30 years have basically served to put American – indeed, global – democracy on trial, as everyone from China to Russia to Hungary to Donald Trump makes a case for oligarchy, for prejudice and racism harnessed in the defense of the wealthy and powerful, and we are losing that fight. Badly.

There is only one issue on the ballot. Do you want to live in a democracy or not? If you do, vote for a Democrat. Vote for all the Democrats. Any other choice, in 2022, is a white flag in the face of the enemies of democracy.

The new laptop

It took a couple of Lego Star Wars games and a work policy modification to make me realize the extent to which the iPad has become my personal computer. The security configuration was changed to allow Universal Control to work at last, with the result that there is no personal anything on my work computer any longer – my RSS, Slack, Twitter, etc etc are all on the adjacent iPad mini and I can just mouse over. Then, after hours, it’s Lego Star Wars Castaways, which is a simple MMO probably aimed at a younger audience, but which hits all the marks for me.*

The thing is, this is such a more useful combination. I could have the 6.1” iPhone, a hair bigger screen than my iPhone X was, but it’s too much for a phone and not enough for an iPad. Instead, the iPhone 13 mini is perfect for everyday carry, but the iPad mini is ideally suited to travel in a way an an actual laptop would not be. I can do desktop-style browsing on it, up to and including actual work (I have done things from a tiki bar that prevented having to run right home, or worse, try to muddle it out on a 5.4” screen). And in a pinch, it fits into many of my jackets, and that ain’t hay.

The main thing, I suppose, is that I don’t pull up the laptop after hours. And I mostly don’t take the phone out on the couch either. I said a while back that it feels like the iPad has become Apple’s default solution, with the iPhone a subset and the Mac a superset that adds the command line layer – and lately, it feels like the iPad is the computer in a way that fits the same future-feel as the electric crossover in the driveway. Not for nothing, I can’t remember the last time I needed to get on the old iMac to do anything at all. (Having the ability to print wirelessly from the iPad is a significant thing.)

And the 8-inch display is big enough to be immersive. I’ve watched television on it without a fight. It’s easy to read with or without the glasses. It is the home pub night device for sure, with all the music and reading options available without the temptation and distraction of the phone. All by itself, it obviates the need for the phone and the Kindle and the scratch pad in one awkward heap.

So yeah, this was a good present. From London to Pismo to Disneyland, it’s gotten the job done and I’m grateful for it.

* Castaways is a Lego Star Wars game that takes place in what can only be described as a seaside village on a beach planet, in which you can run around doing simple tasks or play recreations of major settings in the original Star Wars trilogy – and you can do it alone or with ad-how groups, rather than needing the laborious “this is just a second job!”-type stylings of Work of Warcraft. You can’t beat two or three forms of escape at once, especially when it’s free with your Apple One subscription.

The gold watch

In the summer of 1997, after flunking out but before getting a permanent job, I had a temp gig at a large fossil fuel company in Birmingham, Alabama. One of my duties was to walk to Bromberg’s, the most prestigious jeweler in Birmingham, to collect a paper bag that contained Rolex watches for presentation to employees who would be marking their 25th anniversary with said company that month.

A couple of months later, after a sojourn in Akron, Ohio of all places, I found myself in my unfurnished apartment in Arlington, Virginia, on the night of September 14, 1997. And I looked at a map, and realized for the first time that I didn’t have to take the orange line to Metro Center and change for the red line for Farragut North, I could just get out at Farragut West and walk one extra block and save fifteen minutes and ten cents. That’s how clueless I was on the eve of my first day of work as an IT professional at the National Geographic Society.

I don’t know where I expected to be after 25 years. As early as a month before actually starting the job, when it was still a wisp of hope, I thought about the prospects offered by Apple’s acquisition of NeXT and the move to a net-centric computing world, and fleetingly thought that maybe some day I could do my job by remote control from a laptop in the woods somewhere. As it happens, my first attempt only took five years, and for the last 30 months I have done my entire job from a laptop in my house. So that much, at least, came to pass.

I hadn’t thought that far ahead, really. Just as grad school happened because I didn’t know what else to do after college, once I had the first permanent job, I didn’t think about where the next one might come from. it certainly never occurred to me that it would be Apple itself, let alone in Silicon Valley. But then, it never occurred to me that I’d spend a decade in the same employer only to find myself reset, laid off and rehired for the same job by a different payroll operator, and then be functionally abandoned during the pandemic.

I know no one stays at the same job for 25 years any more, but I look around at other people my age who have managed to stick to only a couple of jobs, who have risen to be managers or directors or vice-presidents or best of all, indispensable individual contributions who are compensated accordingly. I have no idea whether my employer values the work I do at all, and ample reason to think it hasn’t occurred to them one way or the other, and that in a pinch I could find myself unemployed as an accidental reflexive shrug of cost-cutting by someone who hasn’t looked at what the line items actually do.

It’s times like this that I regret not having completed the PhD. A masters’ degree is largely a waste of time because it doesn’t really come with any sort of recognition. If you have a doctorate, people are obligated to at least take that seriously, which explains why the hucksters and con artists are always rushing to show off their degree-mill credential. If I’d accrued some sort of military rank, or had a title of nobility that didn’t come via mail order from Sealand, or at least had the eye and ear of the CEO and the gushing approval of their assistant, I might feel like I was on more solid ground and that my work was worthwhile.

As it is, it feeds the Enneagram 6-ness of it all. “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE! (I am, right?)” as the gag went in DC, where I never once questioned who I was as a person or how I was doing professionally. Even when it was unheralded by the powers that be, I knew I was doing a Hell of a job, as was my crew. Now, who knows. When the only people who get recognition are the same half-witted service desk phone operators who can’t read a knowledge base article or remember a procedure for three days running, you begin to wonder if maybe you’re not the one who isn’t up to snuff somehow.

I do remember that about a month in, I told a group of students at the University of Iowa that my job was as easy and rewarding as picking up money in the street. There were harder days for sure, days and weeks where I swore I was going to quit, and all because everyone above my manager was lined up attempting to vanquish him, me and us – despite the fact that the CEO and almost all the users swore by us. but for seven years, we were the lords of the earth, and we feared no evil.

In some way, everything I’ve done professionally since has been an attempt to capture some of that again. I’m way too old for running tickets, in a world where desktop support can be done from the end of a phone unless the computer is on fire, but I still need to be The Man, still need to prove that I do know what I’m doing and you should listen to me and afford my crew and myself the respect and consideration we’ve earned.

But I can say this: I’m definitely not five years away from being able to retire, which is something I absolutely would have believed in at the time. Not even ten years, and I would have sworn I would be able to hang it up at age 60 after a long and distinguished career at…something.

I’d hate to think I’m going to end up doing 25 years at this place.

The end of the 20th century

That’s what it is, honestly.

Elizabeth II came to the throne in the aftermath of the Second World War, burn into an era where the British Empire bestrode the world like Colossus, linked by the Red Line telegraph and the undisputed master of the seas. She leaves a United Kingdom that barely rates the name, where Scotland and Northern Ireland are both edging toward the door, where Brexit has severed the links to Europe, where the 52/48 dynamic and twelve years of ossified Tory rule has combined with plague, economic distress and political upheaval to produce a sense that this really is the end of the line.

The Queen was a coelacanth of an earlier era: an age of deference, respect, tradition, where she knew from a young age that she would spend her entire life as the main employee of Monarchy LLC. Her greatness came from the fact that she faced her duty without complaint or shirking, something that is unimaginable in the modern era. It’s something her heir was unable to manage – the divorce and the death of Diana was arguably the greatest peril for the institution of the Royal Family since Oliver Cromwell, and as for Charles—

Actually, spare a thought for Charles, who finally has the job he never wanted and had to train and wait for his entire life, and has to assume it at a moment of utter grief in how he got it, and whose history – the outspoken opinions, the troubled personal life, a life in tabloids – suggests that the Crown under his rule will not enjoy the same residual respect his mother clung to from the war era. Indeed, it’s hard to see anyone bringing that sort of gravitas any longer in the 21st century.

This is a hard blow for the UK, to be certain, and it might be a diminution they don’t come back from. It’s going to be a very tough winter – real 1970s style – and the confluence of so much at once does rather shake the foundations. The 21st century has finally fully arrived for Britain. They might not be happy it has.

Oh by the way

If anything an even less consequential Apple event than the year before. Like the iPad mini last year, though, the one thing that I might be in the market for in future was shown: the Apple Watch Ultra. It’s not something I need right away, by far, but when the time comes to get a new Apple Watch, why wouldn’t I go for the biggest screen and the biggest battery by far? Especially given how battery life has always been the Achilles heel of the Apple Watch.

Other than that, nothing of consequence. The non-Pro phones have the same base processor as my beloved iPhone 13 mini, so there’s no incentive to upgrade whatsoever. If the only options are 6.1” and 6.7”, you may as well get the Pro at this point. The AirPods are an incremental bump, one unnecessary since I got my warranty replacements in London in March. When you have a mature product line, improvements are incremental at best.

The nice thing is that four months on, I still love my iPhone 13 mini. I even love the silicone case. It’s the perfect device, my favorite phone since the original SE six years ago. If I had it to do over, I’d’ve bought it in time for London, but as it is, I intend to ride it directly into the ground, especially if the notional SE4 turns out to be based on the iPhone XR as is threatened.

Now all I need is for Apple to integrate Announcements ™ into Messages sooner than later, if Signal isn’t gonna shift Stories in 2022…