On the train

I rode Caltrain to work this morning for the first time in months. There was a new feature that I haven’t experienced: someone’s phone alarm was going off for almost the entire ride. Presumably they were asleep and the alarm was not efficacious, but it was annoying as hell. Which is par for the course these days on Caltrain. I specifically take a train that overshoots my destination and take a different shuttle back rather than use the most logical combination of station and shuttle, because that station and shuttle are overcrowded beyond reason – they’re at capacity and it’s not enough.

This wasn’t a problem in DC. Well, it was, during tourist season – but you could generally avoid that if you played your cards right, and besides, it’s entirely permissible in DC to plough through people who stand in the doorway or on the left of the escalator. God, I miss the East Coast. But more than that, there were two factors in the commute:

1) It was about a 10 minute walk from my apartment to the Metro, between five and ten minutes from the Metro to work at the other end, and about 10 minutes on the train in between. One train, running every 12 minutes. If it was absolutely last-refugee-train-out-of-Paris packed, you could always wait and hop another one in 12 minutes (or less, because the packed one was probably late and the chaser behind it would be less so).

2) There was a certain measure of commonality there – you could be standing next to a homeless guy who was next to an two-star Air Force general in service dress who was next to a very attractive GWU co-ed, and all of them in a good mood because the Skins beat down Dallas yesterday. Everyone, regardless of age or station, was taking the Metro. 

I don’t get that here. The proliferation of company shuttles, “ride share services” (read: unregulated cabs) and lack of a central target have all combined to make it impossible to have a service that everyone’s using in the morning. For one thing, instead of everyone coming into the center from outlying spokes, everyone’s shuffling back and forth on one line. No counter-commute (there are very few major roads that even have a counter-commute anymore) and to be honest, precious little actual service. Not every train stops at every station, and if you’re starting from a particularly outlying one, you might have only one or two chances per hour to get on Caltrain. God help you if you want to go from, say, San Antonio to Hayward Park, because you literally cannot catch a direct train at rush hour. You have to change somewhere.

Make no mistake, the changes are what kills you. Instead of one train and a walk, I’ve got light rail-to-Caltrain-to-shuttle bus, which means you’re guaranteed to stand around waiting twice. The vehicle time, strung together, is around 20 minutes, but the waits push it closer to 40 unless you’re willing to take a chance that VTA won’t be too late in the morning to meet the Caltrain, or the bus won’t be caught in too much traffic to make the train on time in the afternoon. And if somebody takes a wrong turn down the track instead of the road or tries to beat the crossing in their SUV, all bets are off.

In DC, there was an additional disincentive to drive – no way could you get from home to work in 30 minutes. Yes, it’s five miles, but it’s going to take at least half an hour and there’s an $11 parking fee when you get to the office. Here’s it’s drive in 20 minutes, park for free and catch the 10 minute shuttle over to the office, and you’ve still made it as quick as you could have on VTA-Caltrain-shuttle. And you’re not crammed into a standing-room-only train or dodging bikes in the tunnel at University Avenue or sitting for fifteen minutes waiting for the light rail to pull out. You have air conditioning and satellite radio and your phone is charging, not draining.

And now we aren’t going to get Caltrain electrification – which might have updated the dreadfully-aged rolling stock and enabled more frequent service – because we are governed by monkeys whose only thought is to throw their own shit at anything someone else thinks is a good idea. The one thing that could have made a dent in the misery of train commuting, the money already allocated previously, but we gave our country’s steering wheel to the oldest, weakest and stupidest among us. But anyway.

Here’s the thing about mass transit: it has to go places you want to go, when you want to go there. What we have isn’t transit. We’ve got a commuter rail that pretends to be transit. If you only have one train an hour at rush hour to get where you want to go, that ain’t transit. If it only runs between 10 AM and 6 PM every half hour, that ain’t transit (sorry, “Mountain View Community Shuttle”, you’re merely a feel-good bandage for Google). And if it’s a freakin’ car, that ain’t transit. Eat shit, “Uber Pool.”

People ask all the time what we can do to improve Silicon Valley transit. I’d say the best improvement would be to actually get some. I’m in favor.

“Wait, I’m at the PLACEBO march? FFFFUUUU–“

The fact that we even need to have a march for science is absurd. It’s like having a march for mathematics, or a march for language – these are things that we kind of need to have a functioning modern society. And yet here we are. It was officially non-partisan, and rightly so, but let’s face it: we didn’t feel like we had to have this in 1987, or 1992, or 2001 or even 2008. There’s a reason people feel like they have to be in the streets. 


Let’s not forget that the famous “we create our own reality” interview was in October 2004, before Dubya was elected the second time. In fact, let’s have the block quote, which is generally understood to have come from Karl Rove himself:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Basically that’s taking a shit on the entire concept of empirical fact. That’s pissing directly in the face of the Enlightenment. That’s an argument that says we can believe whatever we want and you can’t stop us. It’s the functioning basis of Fox News, of Glenn Beck and Alex Jones, of five straight GOP Presidential campaigns. It’s not a Trump phenomenon, it’s not even Tea Party. It is what the Republican Party has stood for now for over a decade: who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?

This is why there has to be a reckoning. This is why Obama was wrong to try to work with the GOP, to try his whole “come let us reason together” shtick, to desperately try to negotiate with the other side. You don’t negotiate with a five year old having a tantrum. You don’t negotiate with a lunatic screaming on a street corner. You act quickly and decisively to put them out of harm’s way – their own and others – and carry on having an adult society while doing what you can to see that they get the help they need.

The mythical white working class needs help. But so do a lot of other people. And the MWWC frankly needs to be made to sit out politics for a while, because they’re only going to hurt themselves worse. And that means breaking the GOP. The Republican Party has to be read completely out of power as a political force in America.

They have nobody but themselves to blame. Nobody made them take sides against reality.

Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Destroying the Ubermensch

So it turns out Apple could have destroyed Uber in a heartbeat two years ago. Because Uber was implementing tracking methods that Apple doesn’t permit, and conniving to hide them from Apple. And Tim Cook let them off the hook. BARN CHEATIN PAWWWWWWWWWLLLLLL. But it should hammer home the point that Uber might well be the worst company in all of Silly Con Valley, barring neither Facebook nor Theranos.

Really, though, Uber should be destroyed for so many reasons. Privacy violations, underhanded business practice, turning “get forgiveness instead of permission” into a business strategy. But mostly, Uber should be destroyed for its role in proliferating the so-called “gig economy,” where you work for a company without actually having the status of an employee. “You can work as much or as little as you want” is basically a reversion to piece-work of the type more associated with the era of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Because make no mistake, this is a reversion to Gilded Age economics. In fact, the gig economy is basically about facilitating “distributed servantry.” People who would balk at employing a butler and a chauffeur and a cook and a footman have no problem using Uber and Taskrabbit and Fiverr and Doordash and Instacart and Amazon Prime (yeah, I went there) to have things done for them. It’s like the My Weekly Reader vision of sixty years ago where we’d all have robots doing our menial labor – but instead of robots, it’s people, at $5 a pop or $10 an hour or whatever the market will bear. And if you’re not willing to work for that little, somebody else probably is. It’s why the powers that be aren’t bothered about structural unemployment, because structural unemployment means continual downward pressure on wages.

We’re past the point at which we need to start thinking about the changing nature of work. If a freakin’ magical-realist podcast can get this, anyone should be able to: automation and technology means productivity. Better health means longer lives. More people living longer with more automation means fewer jobs. And Ed at Gin & Tacos nails it: when blue collar manufacturing gets replaced with 30-hour part time retail, and Amazon and self-checkout stands at Safeway have nuked retail, what’s left to take? Silicon Valley wants everyone to code, but how many coders do you need? And how many can you make out of people who spent the last twenty years turning a wrench or pushing financial records? In a world where we value human beings first by wealth and then by work, what happens to people who don’t have either one?

And for all their talk about job creation, Uber’s long-term plans don’t involve human drivers. They’re counting on self-driving vehicles, to the point they’re willing to steal from Waymo to do it. Steal from Google, lie to Apple, ignore regulators, break laws. Uber is leading the way in allowing the Eloi to abstract away the Morlocks and call it “disruption” and they’re playing dirty as hell to do it. They need to be made to pay the price, but the Feds won’t do it. Somebody has to, and Apple could have been the heavy – yes, they’re going to accuse you of being a bully and dictating the marketplace and etc etc schwa schwa schwa whatever. You can’t win either way if you’re Apple, so as long as you’re going to catch hell anyway, why not do the right thing?

But that may be expecting too much of an Auburn booster.

Time’s a wastin’

Some folks are out of joint because the next iOS release, 10.3.2, will supposedly not include support for the iPhone 5 or 5C. In other words, we’re finally moving to 64-bit-only iOS, four years after the iPhone 5s shocked the world with a 64-bit processor. I don’t know that it’s a big deal to cut off a phone that was new in 2012 (or 2013, for the 5C) – that was the phone with iOS 6, so it’s had four major releases since.  By contrast, my Moto X was first dropped in summer 2013 (I got mine in February 2014) and hasn’t had an OS version update since late spring of 2015 and hasn’t had a security update of any kind in a year. In a world where you can never count on getting the latest Android OS – or ever getting an upgrade – I think four years worth of support is pretty good for phone hardware.

It’s necessary, too, because absent the two-year upgrade cycle dictated by American phone contracts, it no longer makes sense to upgrade your phone every two years whether you need it or not. The iPhone SE I bought almost a year ago had six-month-old innards when I got it, but absent something truly amazing – an AMOLED-based iPhone with the screen size of a 7 in the body of a 5 and 2000mAh battery, say – there’s no compelling need to get another phone. The SE is 64-bit ready, compact, amazing battery life and has already proven itself abroad – and will almost certainly be called upon to do so again.

Still not the case for the Apple Watch, though. Nice to have when it’s on my arm but I don’t miss it when it’s gone – especially since that usually means I’m traveling somewhere, if only to fish off a charter boat in Santa Cruz (notice I don’t say catch. That’s not a mistake. It was a rough weekend). Plus, apropos of my last musings on this topic, the Apple Watch means another charger to carry and another thing to top up overnight, whereas my mechanical watch can be wound once and left on my arm pretty much until the day I die.

International travel has also given me a use case for WhatsApp, because that can easily move between phone numbers – even internationally – and give me cross-platform chat compatibility with people on both sides of the Atlantic. As with so many things, it’s all about having a use case. (And I find it singular that of the social media and messaging products I actually use, two are owned by Facebook without actually being Facebook apps. They figured it out – if at first you don’t succeed, buy someone who did.)

But it’s spring 2017. We’re going on four years since phones added something you really need. We had 64-bit processing, NFC payments and fingerprint ID in 2013; everything since is just screen size and battery life issues (and this SE, almost a year old, still gives me over 7 hours of screen time between charges. Try that with a modern Android). If you want me to buy a new phone, make it one I need.

In the air

Air travel was already annoying as hell. But it’s gotten progressively worse in recent years, what with the consolidation of airlines and elimination of duplicate routes. Everything has been about squeezing out excess supply to put a floor under prices. And then there’s the parsing up of all the different levels of service, of boarding, of perquisites and privileges that used to be bog-standard. United’s “Basic Economy” is the latest – the baseline is now no early check-in, no seat assignment, and no use of the overhead bins. Literally everything that was free fifteen years ago is now an extra charge: checked bag, overhead bin, in-flight snack, even knowing what seat you might be in.

It doesn’t have to be like this, and it wouldn’t be if there was a lick of competition. But it’s the age-old story: few enough players in a market with a high barrier to entry, and they’ll divide and conquer rather than compete. It’s why your only broadband choices are either your cable company or your phone company, assuming your phone company hasn’t decided it’s not worth the effort to compete. And it’s why one of the unsung heroics of the Obama-era FCC was their refusal to allow AT&T to purchase T-Mobile in 2011. Without that, there’s no Un-Carrier, there’s no push back toward “unlimited” data, and there’s probably not much in the way of MNVO options, since most of the BYOD prepaid SIM-sellers seem to be backboned on T-Mob. And with only one GSM-based carrier and only two 850Mhz options per market (plus Sprint’s bad bet on WiMax), you’re back to an effective duopoly.

I don’t know if the free market naturally trends toward monopoly, but too much of our modern life is dependent on things where there are inherent limits – spectrum, airline gates, or just the ability to dig up the street – and yet, we allow the fact of two options to let us say “competition!” (Or worse, decide that your cellphone is competition for your home broadband. I’m surprised these airline mergers didn’t raise the danger of Amtrak competition.) The funny thing is, this isn’t as much of a problem elsewhere; Ireland (the size of Alabama) has three cellular carriers and rates half what gets charged in the US. This is all down to a government dictate that GSM would be the standard; by letting the US divide between TDMA and CDMA and GSM, we were condemned to incompatible standards and an inability to move between carriers that has propped up prices and limited real competition to this day. Little bit of regulation – explosion of competition. 

But we’ve had forty years of acting as if the corporation is to be run for the benefit of the stock traders, not the shareholders or the employees or the customers. It’s how we got bloated CEO compensation and three-month profit goosing by layoff and the general casino atmosphere of business. And our business has evolved to match, in case you hadn’t noticed the spray-money-throw-a-dart approach to Silly Con Valley. Seriously, the very “gas delivery” service that was a punchline on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia in 2008 got $3 million in funding in 2015. Just to service Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Redwood City, of all places.

Of which.

It’s only creeping fascism if it creeps

It took less than 24 hours after the Twitter storm struck United that the Louisville Courier-Journal came to the carrier’s defense, with an article detailing the passenger who was physically beaten off the flight. Apparently his medical practice had been dodgy in the past, and he didn’t go to med school in the US, and only resumed practicing a couple years ago, and blah blah blah whatever who cares NONE OF THAT MAKES ONE FUCKING BIT OF DIFFERENCE.

This is 1000% on United, because any reasonable human being would assume that once you’re on the bird and seated with your seat belt fastened low and tight across your hips, you’re going to be taking a trip. If United needed to deny boarding to four passengers, the time to deny boarding was BEFORE THEY BOARDED. As soon as you let the people on the plane, that’s on you. But that’s not why we’re here today. We’re here today because of the avalanche of people, including a truly discomforting number of media, who jumped on the meme of “well he should have cooperated” and “he shouldn’t have fought back” and the kind of “he had it coming” normally associated with coverage of black people who had the temerity to be near a cop or reply to a cop or just look shady in the eyes of some fuck with a concealed carry permit.

This is what fascism means. Das innere Schewinehund, the bastard within. Obey. Submit to authority. Produce your papers. Supply your passwords. Unlock your phone. Do as you’re told. Never, ever, ever stand up for yourself. If you’ve done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear. What are you trying to hide? You know – the exact sort of big-government tyranny that conservatives supposedly stand foursquare against, the very menace of Obama and Hillary and the UN and the New World Order that all their MREs and stockpiled ammo and bottomless supply of borne arms are supposed to keep Free Men from enduring. And yet these selfsame dicks with their black helicopters and jackbooted thugs are always the very first off the mark screaming BLUE LIVES MATTER and defending the right of law enforcement – or anyone with bloused fatigue pants, jump boots and a Chinese-made MA-1 knockoff – to administer a summary beatdown to anyone who looked suspicious, because they wouldn’t look suspicious unless they’d done something wrong, right?

And people go for it. Not just Fox News commenters and Twitter eggs and AL.com commenters. Huge swaths of the population are prepared to make the case that United was legally in the right, and if you’re in the right, then it’s nothing at all to drag someone bloody and unconscious off an airplane because either you go along with what you’re told or your life is automatically forfeit without trial. And that, boys and girls, is what is meant by fucking fascism.

This is why you can’t pin it on Trump. This is the result of fifteen-plus years of a country that saw itself hit by the luckiest terrorists of all time, someone flopping the nuts on the river card, someone betting the whole stack on 00 at roulette – and instead of seeing where the fault was and remediating it, deciding as a nation to shit itself in fear and light its civil liberties and political culture on fire and run to Daddy for salvation. Airlines have to charge you $25 for checked bags and take away the free snacks, because A Terriss. Barney Fife and the rest of the local PD needs armored vehicles and automatic rifles and tear gas and 75 rounds of ammo each, because A Terriss. The police and the armed forces are above criticism and must never be questioned, because A Terriss.

America didn’t used to be a country that shit its britches in panic. But then, we might not be America anymore.

Oh yeah – I’d rather swim to Ireland than set foot on a United bird again. But because we let airlines and cable companies divide the pie among themselves rather than compete, I might not be able to make that stand up. Just like I might not have a choice other than Comcast if I want to get to the federal definition of “broadband” in my neighborhood. But that’s for another time.

Paying to be human

So a few years back I revisited a topic that comes up every so often: the hollowing out of the middle class, and the fact that the hollowing keeps reaching ever further up. Helaine Olen has hit on this elsewhere but it’s worth reconsidering in light of the United incident over the weekend, where a paying passenger was physically beaten and thrown off the flight by law enforcement after United told him he’d been selected to miss the flight in favor of staff who were flying.

Now, I have a little experience of this – I owe my marriage to the pre-Sept 11 use of United’s Friends and Family travel vouchers. One of my future wife’s family friends was a retired mechanic at United who gave us the vouchers to fly standby for five cents a mile. And $120.95 for a direct flight from Dulles to SFO? That was too good to pass up, even if you did have to dress up and accept that you’d need an empty seat on the bird before you’d get to travel. That was good enough for me, though – I even got bumped to first class once – and without “Uncle” Dwayne, we would have had a much tougher road to where we ended up. Rest in peace, and thanks.

But here’s the thing: it was made abundantly clear that you would flap your arms and fly to San Francisco under your own power before they’d bump a paying passenger. Overbooking is a way of life with aircraft because if the bird doesn’t take off with every seat full, the airline is probably losing money. (When is the last time you didn’t hear “we have a completely full flight today” as you board?) So it’s not surprising that they’d overbook a flight. The bit that I find singular is that they offered a couple rounds of incentives…but they let everyone on board first. You might ask “why the actual fuck would you let too many people on the plane?” That’s easy: because if they can bait you into making a scene on the plane, they can have law enforcement bodily drag you out as a danger to the flight, and they are 100% legally off the hook in doing so. It’s absolutely reprehensible, and yet United may be able to completely skate under the terms of the law as currently written.

And apparently, the bulletproof way to make sure this doesn’t happen to you is…be in first class. Or business. Or anywhere but coach. And maybe you’re less likely to get “re-assigned” if you checked in bang-on 24 hours before boarding. But the point is: the more you paid, the more likely you are to be treated like a human being. In the meantime, all the special measures that had to be taken to financially save the airlines after September 11 are apparently permanent now, whether it’s bag fees or charging for refreshments or making you pay for the in-flight movie.

But that’s not the point of all this.

The point of all this is to go all the way down to the bottom: free. Which is to say: if you don’t actually pay for a service, what is your recourse when things go awry? Is it conceivable that this is the way Twitter or Facebook or Google want it – because they’re a private company, and they aren’t charging you, so when they rearrange the timeline or sell your personal info along…so what? Or to offer another example: there is a university in Palo Alto that we’ll call Hellmouth A&M. They run a shuttle service that’s free of charge and goes around campus and to certain outlying areas for the benefit of employees and students. And for about a year, one of those shuttles was re-routed down El Camino Real past California Avenue, and as such was suddenly very useful to people wanting to take Caltrain to the CalAve station and then come onto campus.

Well, in the course of the Great Schedule Rejiggering of April 10, 2017, when basically every form of transit in Santa Clara County blew up its schedule and tried something else, Hellmouth decided to move that shuttle back to its original route, which takes half as long and doesn’t go through the middle of campus or past CalAve anymore. And apparently some of the riders are PISSSSSSSED. But…the problem is, they don’t pay anything to ride, and the shuttle is operated by Hellmouth. If they work for Hellmouth they could complain, but I can assure you that Hellmouth’s shuttle service is impervious to complaint, because a lot of people were very unhappy over a year ago when they started running that ECR/CA route and making the trip twice as long and the response from Hellmouth was…silence. So the people posting “LETS FIGHT THIS” on Post-it notes on the advisory notices are advised to wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which fills up first.

Because when you’re accepting a freebie, you have no leverage at all. None. At least with cash on the fucking barrelhead, you are a customer and in some sort of implied relationship. If you’re passing all your mail through Gmail, though, or letting Facebook be your social outlet, you’re…kinda screwed, in the long run. And yet, we’ve already established that The Potential For GROWTH is all Wall Street cares about, or else Tesla wouldn’t have a higher market cap today than Ford or GM despite the fact that Ford’s F-150 sales alone dwarf Tesla’s revenue and just one of those pickups probably represents more profit than all of Tesla made last year.

One part shell game and one part “please sir can I have some more” – that’s the world we’ve made for ourselves. If you’ve made it a little bit, you better seriously consider that your common cause should be made with those who have less, not those who have more – because the latter want your bit too, and they care for you no more than they care for the former.


I finished the S-Town podcast earlier this week, before the GOP finished killing the filibuster in the Senate and the continuing parade of “do everything we threatened Obama over” entered the bomb-Syria phase. All of which I expected. Last year, I said that this was unprecedented, the biggest blow yet to the established norms of American politics, and that it might not redound to the benefit of the GOP if the Democrats could make people aware of the consequences. Unfortunately, making people aware of the consequences would have required a media brighter than the average schnauzer, and here we are.

Because make no mistake, this is a bell you can’t unring. The GOP filibustered a Supreme Court vacancy for almost a year to prevent a Democrat filling that seat, and then destroyed the filibuster to fill it themselves. If there’s one thing you can say about the 21st century, say this: this is when the Republican Party realized they could take over politics merely by ignoring the unwritten rules. In Republican-World, it’s okay to steer the Titanic directly into the iceberg if you can be captain all the way down, and your opponents will blithely assume “nobody would actually steer into an iceberg” and just let you do it.

Which was in the back of my head the whole time I was listening to this podcast.  See, there are things they tell you in the old country. Things about God and Jesus and how you treat your fellow man, about how important it is to do well in school, about how good it is that you’re smart. But that matters less than the unwritten rules: God is for whatever everyone else already believes, you don’t have to treat colored people the same as white ones, and – most importantly – never let your smart get in the way of being just like everyone else. Because the worst thing you can be if you want to participate in the South is different.

And now here we are, after twenty-five years of the Southernization of national politics. The new unwritten rules are simple: our side wins no matter what and anything goes to make it happen. As one person put it, the Democrats and Republicans were playing a boardgames, the Republicans lit the house on fire, and the Democrats are still trying to win the boardgame. One side does whatever it wants, and fuck you if you think you can stop it, while the morons of the news media stare slack jawed and make goo goo eyes at cruise missile footage and say “BUT HER EMAILS” over and over as if they understood anything they were saying.

We might don’t make it back from the next four years. If we do, we might not recognize what we get back. But it is extremely crucial to understand one thing: the old ways are gone. There’s no going back to how things used to be. How we deal with that will determine what kind of a country we have in 2020, if any.