The Foxx Caveat

“California leads the nation every year in automobile deaths.  We’ve never lost.  Don’t think you’re going to come in from New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and take our championship.  We get most of them in the safety zones. ‘Come on, Martha! We’re in the safety zone!  They have to stop! See those white lines?’ Did you ever see a white line stop a truck?  Those lines are there so the police have some place to start measuring how far your body was thrown.”

Redd Foxx nailed it fifty years ago, though he probably wasn’t thinking about Google and Facebook and the NSA.  People blow through crosswalks and stop signs and cross against lights all the time.  Go down to the corner of Castro and Villa in downtown Googleburg on any given weekday at 5 PM and you can watch America’s stupidest intersection at work: cars blowing through red lights and red turn arrows, people walking across the street on a “don’t walk” just because the light turned green for cars, bicycles trundling down the sidewalk – you name it, and if it’s a traffic violation, somebody’s committing it.  So much for the law.  Why?  Because it’s not that big a deal to people – culturally, there is a sense that abiding by the letter of the law is less urgent than indulging our own convenience.

By contrast, there’s very little to prevent me going around in public with no shirt on.  Convenience stores notwithstanding – and God knows “No Shirt No Shoes No Service” held very little sway in the Jiffy Chek of my childhood memories – I could pretty much walk around downtown Googleburg with no shirt on all damn day and be wholly within the letter of the law.  But I don’t, and the people of Googleburg are probably happy I don’t, and you know why?  Because it’s not culturally appropriate.  Not here, anyway.

Similarly, last week Microsoft apparently went into its own email service to trail down a leak. And on paper, by the terms of their own service, they were completely within their rights and the letter of the law to do so. Yet the backlash was immediate and huge: how dare Microsoft investigate a leak of their own data by searching the contents of their own mail servers?  Put it that way and it starts to looks a little ridiculous – but there it is.  People are outraged, culturally, about something that is technologically and legally 100% legitimate.

That’s the thing about Google and Facebook and the NSA.  What they do to harvest your data is entirely within the letter of the law, most of the time.  And when it’s not, it’s too profitable – or just too simple – not to abide by the letter of the law.  If it takes less effort to scoop up an entire nation’s phone records and search for the target than to single out the target individual’s records, then the law be damned, that’s what the NSA is going to do.  You can opt out of this or that or delete information from your Facebook profile, but what are the odds that data is actually gone?  Nil, because I’ve deleted an item from my profile before and seen it crop back up years later as a recommended thing to favorite.  And not something obvious like “Johnny Cash,” I mean a made-up term of our own devising that I listed as an interest as a goof, which had no page associated with it.  Against the law?  Even if it is, how do you plan to hold them to it?

That’s why the fix isn’t technological, or even legal.  The technology is always running ahead of the law, the law can’t shift quickly enough, and the technology finds its own path.  The only fix is cultural.  We have to decide as a society that exploiting the ease of modern data-mining for commercial purposes without our control is somehow unacceptable, and act on the belief of that unacceptability.  We didn’t stop making jokes about women drivers or slandering “Chinamen” or dressing up in blackface for frat parties because there was a law against it – we stopped because the culture changed to make those things unacceptable.

Add that to the list, and call it the Foxx Caveat: don’t rely on the fact of a white line to stop a truck.

Over My Shoulder

Last week, I attended a bachelorette party (long story) that was largely organized using my rarely-used Google email address.  Sure enough, a week later, I happened to go to the page for Google+ and there was this person being offered up as a new friend for my circles.  Didn’t take much – just two or three emails back and forth.  There’s no other contact I have with this person via Google and there’s no other resource using her real name; in a social life mediated largely through Twitter, you are your call sign and that’s about it.

Here’s the thing that I don’t think I’d really grasped: my non-work email goes through either iCloud or my family’s mail server, pretty much across the board.  The Gmail account which I got ten years ago is largely a spam-stopper and a throwaway address, but there are a few folks still using it.  And for my own edification, I went down the line of my cellphone directory, and through my personal mail in recent days…

Eighty percent of my friends and personal correspondents are on Gmail.

Not an exaggeration.  Google has your email, and as a result, Google pretty much has your life, unless you’re one of these super-Millenial types who’s never used anything for communication but SnapChat and WhatsApp.  Nowadays it’s entirely reasonable that your phone would be the primary source of your personal communications, whether they be text or chat or email or what have you, but in the days of the dot-com boom and the first decade of the 21st century, go-anywhere email meant it was web-based, and from April 1, 2004 on, that meant Google’s offering, with its clean UI and absurd 1 GB of free storage (now somewhere north of 7 GB last I looked).

Back then, there was no Beast of Mountain View.  There wasn’t any iPhone vs Android, there wasn’t any Facebook vs Google+, the great menace of the technology world was still Microsoft and Google was our friend and ally in building a life that didn’t depend on the Beast of Redmond.  I mean, my God – Google’s guys were up there at the iPhone launch talking about what a great implementation of Google Maps they had on this new device.  Then again, the Yahoo! guys were up there talking up their push email for the iPhone too.

How things change.

Here’s the fundamental problem: I’m paying Feedbin for my RSS feed, Apple Maps is now good enough to use routinely, the default search engine on the iOS devices is Yahoo and there are plugins on the browser for DuckDuckGo and – as it stands right now, I’m detached from Google’s goods and services in everything except for the Moto X experiment (which has its own separate Google account from the one I’ve had these last 10 years).  I don’t need to use Google for anything.  But if 80% of the people I correspond with are using Gmail, that means that 80% of my mail is going through Google anyway. At that point, why bother?

Flash back to September 7, 2008, when I predicted the future:

The “heavy hand of government tyranny” is coming back, too. Nothing will actually be different, but the “essential tools to fight terrorism”, the surveillance and monitoring and put-your-shoes-on-the-belt horseshit that’s vitally important to the War on Terror, and if you’re not guilty you don’t have anything to hide? All that will be replaced on January 20th with a sudden outrage at the prying of government’s jackbooted thugs, the wailing at how Obama’s trashing the Bill of Rights, how a bunch of federal stormtroopers are out to violate your home and castle in the name of some evil regime that hates your liberty…Most of all, though, Obama inherits everything. All of it. Think back to 1992-93, when Bush the Elder took it upon himself to deploy troops into Somalia after he’d already lost the election. Does anybody remember that? No, all anybody remembered is how “Clinton screwed the military in Mogadishu”…

There you have it.  If you want the big reason why the tech sector is shitting nickels over the NSA, it’s because anything that leads people to have greater concern for privacy – and that makes them want better control over their own data – is quite literally taking money out of the pocket of Google and Facebook.  And yet, as long as Google and Facebook collect this data, they can be subpoena’d for it or otherwise compelled to hand it over by whatever legal instrument exists.  Therefore, Google and Facebook have to kneecap the NSA as quickly as possible – not because the NSA is a flagrant violator of the rights of citizens, but because they’re ultimately the competition.

The surveillance society arrived five or six years ago, and we all signed up for it without thinking too hard about what it meant.  Now you get to spend the rest of your life either deciding you don’t care and it probably won’t affect you, or otherwise looking over your shoulder…forever.

Two’s a trend

The New Republic has picked up on the youth complex of Silicon Valley.  On the one hand, I am quietly delighted that there are guys out there who feel they have to get Botox to succeed in business, and I’m sure more than a few second-wave feminists are chortling into their Tab this morning.  But on the other hand…here I am, forty-two years old, and while I don’t have any kids, I also have seventeen years in desktop support and a hairline that’s stopped receding and started retreating.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the entirety of the perfect resume these days seems to be “dropped out of a prestigious university.”  That’s the Facebook meme now, once removed from the Bill Gates idea, with the caveat that Microsoft was 11 years from Harvard dropout to IPO.  If you were in the Valley in 2003, you’re a fossil now.  Just our luck as GenXers – stuck on the one side with a bunk of Stanford brats who think thirty-two is ancient and on the other with parents who are still forwarding chain emails about Obama’s sinister Muslim takeover.  Great time to be in technology, huh?

A lot of this isn’t new, of course.  Silicon Valley’s always relied on the absence of work-life balance to drive things (flashback to thirty years ago and the “80 hours a week and loving it” shirts at Apple that were marked up to read 90 instead).  And now you can get free food at work, run around shooting each other with Nerf guns at work, get somebody else to do your laundry, take the bus back and forth…it’s been years since I clubbed the whole “re-juvenile” phenomenon in this space, but damned if they didn’t win.  It doesn’t help matters at all that this time out, the nerds have been enhanced and supplanted by the kind of Wall Street-seeking douchebros who will almost certainly be the focus of “The Wolf of Market Street” twenty years from now.

And make no mistake, it’s a bubble.  $2 billion for Oculus Rift…from Facebook?  Hot on the heels of spending a billion on Instagram?  $19 billion on WhatsApp?   Snapchat is out there turning down billions from Facebook and Google, and meanwhile, only Apple and Amazon are left in the business of selling goods and/or services for cash on the freakin’ barrelhead rather than relying on advertisers as the monopsony buyer of your personal data.  The lunacy around Bitcoin should be enough to clench it – not to deny the potential of digital currency for some uses, but when Bitcoin knockoffs are raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for NASCAR sponsorships?

To paraphrase PJ O’Rourke, the Internet now allows more people to make bigger and stupider decisions than anything in human history, with the exception of car keys and Irish whiskey.  Now we just have to wait around for the dumb to shake itself out and hope we don’t get wrecked along the way.

Truth, of the uncomfortable sort

The SEC was a dumpster fire in men’s basketball this year. Just godawful in almost every respect. Florida’s 18-0 conference run was considered suspect (but not enough to deny them the #1 overall seed). It just wasn’t pretty, and a whopping 3 SEC teams got into the big dance. Only thing is, all three of them made it to the Sweet Sixteen, including the Gators, 8-seeded Kentucky, and the 11th-seeded Tennessee Volunteers, who were stuck in a First Four play-in game on Wednesday and were by definition one of the last teams added to the tournament.

And in the past five days, Cuonzo Martin has led the Vols to as many wins in the NCAA tournament as Kevin Stallings has coached for Vandy in the last decade combined.

In 2007, Vanderbilt got to the Sweet Sixteen as a 6 seed behind Derrick Byers and Shan Foster, among others. Since then…

2008: 4 seed, lost in the first round to Siena.
2010: 4 seed, lost in the first round to Murray State.
2011: 5 seed, lost in the first round to Richmond.
2012: 5 seed, beat Harvard in the first round but lost to Wisconsin after.

10 years. 5 tournament appearances. Three total victories, and three consecutive first-round eliminations by a double-digit seed.

This is why Kevin Stallings should only find his seat slightly cooler next year. The circumstances of this year, leading to a conference schedule played out by seven scholarship players, two walk-ons and a student manager with a uniform, were ridiculous – any success of any kind meant extra credit. We still finished 11th, right where we were picked when we looked like having nine scholarship players instead. So I guess we overcame the adversity of losing McClellan and Hendo, for what that’s worth.

Next year? Dai-Jon Parker and Shelby Moats are our seniors. We have no juniors, because they all flew the coop after their freshman season, but Siakam is a redshirt junior and Kedren Johnson (assuming he comes back) would be a junior for eligibility purposes. I don’t know where Hendo fits in, depending on whether he gets some kind of NCAA waiver for medical hardship, but given the track record I’m not banking on getting a whole season out of him. Luke Kornet and Damian Jones, our twin towers of terror, are true sophs, and we supposedly have three freshman guards on the way. So for the next two seasons, we never lose more than two seniors per season and we should be well-tuned to the point that the 2015-2016 season should absolutely feature an NCAA tournament run. A run, mind you, not another one-out.

Because at that point, assuming we don’t sneak into the dance next year, we’ll be looking at one tournament win in the last nine trips. The SEC tournament title in 2012 was an unmitigated triumph, make no mistake, but it also camouflaged a squad that absolutely underachieved in the postseason. Stallings can recruit talent, and he can make the best of a bad situation, but unless he learns how to make the best out of a good one, it’s going to be time to look elsewhere.

Where The Valley Is Going Wrong

First, read this.

No, all of it.

Done?  Good.

It’s real, and it’s discouraging.  I noted online today that when you factor in the bus that picks you up in the morning, the free snacks, the open-plan space with everyone around their shared table – the major Millenial contribution to Silicon Valley is turning it into kindergarten. But it’s not like it was in the late 1990s – when Po Bronson could strike up a conversation on the sideline of a rec-league soccer game and almost instantly be asked “do you want a job?” Employers are still being picky about who they hire, and employees are being picky about where they want to go, and in the meantime, Zuckface takes time out from bitching about the NSA usurping his exclusive right to violate privacy and lobbies both sides for more H1-B visas so cheaper foreign talent can alleviate runaway salaries…

There is a holiday on December 25 called “Christmas” that is the observation in Western Christianity of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  There is also a holiday on December 25 called “Christmas” which is a heavily-Americanized secular celebration of the end of the year and the coming of winter, heavily leavened with consumerism and a general sense that we should take a couple of minutes to pay lip-service to the idea of being nice to people.  A lot of confusion and conflict comes from people who conflate these two holidays and think they are the same thing.

By the same token, there is a Silicon Valley tech sector that dates back to the aerospace/microprocessor days of the Wagon Wheel era and has gone from military-industrial electronics to personal computing to the Internet to a revolution in digital media and communication.  There is also a “Silicon Valley tech sector” whereby the dream is to drop out of Stanford at 20, Tinkertoy together some APIs with a kicky interface and a whimsical name, host the whole thing on a cheap AWS instance, collect $20 million in VC funding and ultimately sell out to Google or Facebook within a year.  And too many people have come to conflate the latest get-rich-quick scheme for arrested adolescents with an industry that still has a lot of problems to solve more complex than a better way to get that co-ed to send you topless pics.

And most of all, the tide isn’t rising. The money isn’t getting spread around.  Unless you do a huge deal while you’re still small, the big acqui-hire dollars are going to the engineers and the CxO-level staff and the VCs who funded you.  If you’re a secretary or a QA guy or the IT support, don’t count on the massive upfront equity position – in fact, the only time you’re going to get equity up front is if they don’t have cash on the barrelhead to pay you.  And there are people out there complaining about it, but in classic Valley fashion, they’re doing it in the most tone-deaf ignorant-ass way possible.  Sigh.

Basically, the “Silicon Valley tech sector” is the latest version of the Wall Street of the 80s.  It’s a double-bubble economy; the economic bubble grows on the back of lucky guesses, personal connections and VCs and investment banks with more money than sense hoping one of the darts strikes gold, while the participants exist in their own bubble away from, you know, reality.  Live in the Mission or Marina, take the sealed bus to work without ever dropping off the Wi-Fi, get your dry cleaning done on campus, borrow an electric car to drive home if you like, enjoy the free food everywhere, never grow up, never grow old, and don’t think about how the ride can’t last because obviously Candy Crush will be popular forever and a $7 billion IPO is only sensible.

Meanwhile, the startup mentality goes haywire everywhere in the Valley.  So now we all get to sit in the big open-plan offices, we all get to answer our work email 24/7, and we all get our projects managed in the style of ready-fire-aim, and never mind that an organization of thousands of employees doesn’t work like your eight-man social-app company upstairs at Red Rock.  Everyone is chasing the “tech sector.” In the meantime, the actual tech sector suffers by it.

Any wear

Android Wear has landed.  One of the worst-kept secrets in the Valley is now out there – Google Now is coming to your wrist, this summer, voice-driven and paired to your phone.  Pretty much what I and a million other people predicted.

This is actually potentially interesting.  For one, it lets Google leverage a lot of what they’ve learned from Google Glass in a less obnoxious package.  For another, it gets you away from the biggest cause of battery drain: the screen.  The modern smartphone uses more power on its display than anything else, which is why the constant make-the-phone-bigger race is a false economy in Android and why phones like the Moto X, with its emphasis on dialing down the specs race in the name of battery preservation, are pointing the way forward.

I’m still holding out until the notional iOS device, but wearables are going to happen – at this point, it’s just a question of who gets it right first.  On the face of it, Google appears to be closer than Samsung…

Final impressions

Not final, certainly, but for the time being, the Moto X is not going to be the everyday phone. Partly because I’m still having my iPhone wholly paid for by work, obviously, but also because I think we’ve finally got the battery issues under control – and because if I’m packing a second device it’s going to be the iPad mini.

Android 4.4.2 is fine. It’s not tangibly worse than iOS and there are some things about that Moto X that I really like. But the email client is awful, and since I don’t use Gmail or Google Calendar, the utility of Google Now is diminished quite a bit.

I think if I had to use the Moto as the daily driver, the rough edges could be filed off with a quickness. Or at least with some alacrity. Press and doubleTwist are solid and the Twitter client doesn’t suck nearly as much as it used to, and things like Instagram or Evernote work a treat. So it’s there if ever I need it, which is awesome.

But for now, I think I’m gonna dance with the one what brung me.

Lawd Jesus It’s A Fire, NSA edition

“We’ve had tremendous intelligence failures,” Snowden said, “because we’re monitoring the Internet, everybody’s communications, instead of suspects‘ communications, and that’s caused us to miss leads that could have helped us.”



Well, my days of not taking Fast Eddie Snowden seriously are certainly coming to a middle.  In today’s SXSWI knob-slobber, a bunch of paste-eaters went crazy for a line that basically conveys the same sensibility as the middle-aged white women who were flabbergasted at being asked to take their Manolos off going through the security line at BWI in October 2001.  Why are you searching us?  Search the brown people!  Search the foreigners!  Search the terrorists!

But setting aside the propensity of well-to-do white nerds for profiling-based solutions to crime, Snowden’s other argument falls flat too – which is that there is a technological solution to technological surveillance.  That’s where he’s flat wrong.  There’s not.  Oh, sure, you can run GPG on all your mail and never connect except through Tor and eschew iOS and Android for some sort of hand-crafted phone you build yourself from an Arduino-clone, but it’s the same thing that keeps glibertarians with nine assault rifles thinking they can somehow stand up to the federal government.  The asymmetry is just too great.  What’s going to save you from the evil eye of Big Brother is not shooting back or building a better cloaking device.  You’ll be saved when Big Brother is no longer socially acceptable.

And that’s the thing: we as a society privileged catching the horrible evil superhuman Magneto terrorists above little things like privacy, and we did it for years.  There was one vote – one – against the PATRIOT Act when it passed, and that Senator has long since been turfed out of office in favor of another paint-by-numbers Teatard.  People don’t care about privacy.  If they did, Facebook wouldn’t still have a half-billion users despite whoring your data out as if it were Miley Cyrus.  Doctors who constantly hear about the legal peril of HIPAA data loss wouldn’t still be forwarding their mail into Gmail for convenience. AT&T would have paid some sort of price for the revelation eight years ago that they were routinely sending everything to the NSA.

I know that everyone at Nerding Man is convinced that they are the next wave of human evolution, and God knows I think I’m superior to 99% of the human race, but guess what?  The rest of the human race still exists and votes.  It’s not enough if everybody on your client is in favor of strong encryption and robust privacy protection if Ed Earl Brown doesn’t give a shit.  And right now, he doesn’t, because he doesn’t think he has anything to hide and he wants terrorists to be killed, and the fact that he doesn’t see it working isn’t going to make him think we have to pull the plug.

It should be obvious, but apparently it’s not: you can’t fix cultural issues with technical solutions.



Now comes one of the weekends where it’s a great time to be in San Francisco.  Burning Man is one.  The other is South by Southwest Interactive, a.k.a. Nerding Man, the tech-annex of the hallowed South by Southwest music industry festival.  SxSWi has somehow become the tail wagging the dog, the opportunity for all the hipsters in SoMa to hop a plane to Austin, that sainted paradise on Earth…

…hold. Up.

Texas.  TEXAS.  George W. Bush and Mack Brown and Ted Cruz and Rick Perry and Aggies and the Dallas Cowboys and the entire spectrum of Southern pathology.  Just as Atlanta got to be “the city too busy to hate” (not too decent, not too Christian, they just couldn’t find the time?) and wound up with every Southern branch office and pro sports team, Austin somehow gets to be the get-out-of-jail-free card because they have bands and beer and basically nothing you wouldn’t find in Boulder or Tuscaloosa or Nashville…except bats.

And of course there’s the great Texas economic miracle, by which regulations and taxes race to the bottom while the roads turn into moonscapes and kids graduate high school thinking Jesus rode dinosaurs.  Kind of a shitshow, actually, but then that’s at the heart of the great Southern economic experiment: make yourself a third-world equivalent and you can get all the business to move South.  Right before it decamps to Shenzen.  It’s how southern Alabama became a textile capital in the mid-20th century and a ghost land at the end of it.

And then I look at the article in the Verge last week, about the Googleburg-ing of Mountain View, and it occurs to me that we’re missing a hell of an opportunity here.  Google has about 11,000 employees in Mountain View.  Half of them drive alone to work, which explains some of the traffic (more is explained by the horrific geographical coincidence of where Google is located; the placement of the ‘Plex puts it on the wrong side of 101 from every other freeway in the area and too far to walk from any train system).  The buses are controversial and don’t carry as many people as Google asserts; even if they did, discontinuing them doesn’t necessarily mean single riders (it’s equally likely that half the bus riders would move somewhere closer to work). Google itself doesn’t generate nearly as much tax revenue as one would expect; with most of its employees eating on campus (tax-free) and living somewhere else and not really selling much product, very little flows into the local coffers – in fact, there’s a good case to be made that Mountain View would be just as well off if Google decamped somewhere else.

So why not Birmingham?

Seriously.  Birmingham is fifty years removed from police dogs and fire hoses.  The state is still suffused with racism and pig-ignorance, as should be obvious to anyone who was watching the opening session of the state Legislature, but the city of Birmingham has artisanal coffee and amazing Beard-award-winning restaurants and a spectacular new downtown ballpark – and a rent and tax climate that would allow Google to do its business almost without paying a nickel.  If the state was willing to grant ridiculous tax incentives to Mercedes to build a plant in 1993, how much more would they go nuts to attract the biggest Internet company of them all?

And Google’s business is on the Internet.  They don’t have manufacturing plants to work with.  They don’t have factories to operate.  The whole promise of the Internet is that you can do stuff from anywhere.  Lay down the fiber, clear some open-plan loft space, and boom, you’re off to the races.  Why not?  If Google feels insufficient love from the people of Northern California, why not head for the Heart of Dixie and start a new revolution outside Silicon Valley?

Let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you know damn well why not.  But why not put their money where their mouth is and see what happens?