The problem with democracy

“You are American?” 
“I think it must be a difficult time to be American.”

-William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003)


In 2000, Al Gore lost a Presidential election with more votes than George W. Bush, who won it.

In 2003, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives held a 15-minute vote open for three hours and twisted arms on the floor of the House until they got enough votes for a bill they wanted passed, and passed it.

In 2007, the GOP shattered the record for filibusters in a session of Congress, and smashed it with every subsequent session until they regained control of the Senate in 2014.

In 2016, the GOP refused to even hold a committee hearing – let alone a vote – for a Supreme Court vacancy that opened in February, and kept it vacant until after their candidate won an election (again, with fewer votes than his opponent).

Against all that, the Senate trying to push an Obamacare repeal bill that doesn’t exist and hasn’t been written yet – never mind things like committee votes or hearings or CBO scores or the actual text of a bill to read – can hardly be counted as surprising. The amazing bit was that they actually wanted to pass a bill that the House would then reject so they could go to committee and do…something. So the pitch was “we will vote for this bill only if we have assurance it will not become a law.” Asinine? Insane? Dumber than fucking dogshit? Keep going. The amazing thing was that the Senate’s biggest drama queen finally switched his vote, and that one of the po-faced reliably-caving-at-the-end Senators from Maine stood in the gap and said No at every turn.

The rules of the Senate and the composition of the Electoral College means the Republican Party can get its way without having the most votes in a way the Democrats simply can’t anymore. They could have, maybe, in 2009 – but they were still constrained by norms and traditional practice and “the way things are done.” The Republicans have the advantage of not caring about that in the least, which is of a piece with the way that party has worked for a quarter century. Twenty-five years of AM radio and cable news and being led around by the nose by carnival barkers and rodeo clowns and circus freaks. Twenty-five years of being told that it’s not enough to have your own opinions, you’re entitled to your own facts. And if they don’t square with reality? You’re entitled to your own reality. You can believe that 10% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid and that your Affordable Care Act insurance is more virtuous and entitled than the Obamacare those brown people have and that there’s some secret Democrat child sex ring spiriting kids to Mars as slaves. 

It’s a tough time to be a small-d democrat in America. Much of our economy is in thrall to an authoritarian power – either as manufacturer or potential market. Twice in the last twenty years, a leader has been selected who received fewer votes from his countrymen than his principal opponent – and has then gone on to diminish the stature of the United States in the world abroad. The norms and practices of federal government have been broken almost past the point of repair. And looking around at one’s fellow Americans, a majority of the voting-age public is either supportive of outright fascism, willing to countenance it for political gain or sufficiently disinterested to participate.

On the face of it, American democracy is not having a great run. And yet, in many ways, America doesn’t practice it at all. The will of the majority has been continually thwarted these last twenty years, by obsolete institutions like the electoral college or misused institutional practices like the filibuster – and in some ways by the very design of the American system. Abroad, the Westminster parliamentarian model seems to have carried the day – most countries either have a multiparty system to drain the extremists away from the levers of power, or else have a center-seeking system that makes it difficult to swing too hard too fast one way or the other. America used to have that, until we sorted our way into having a parliamentary politics with a divided-powers system. Now we just have gridlock – and since gridlock suits one side just fine, that side gets what it wants by default.

Our system was not divinely ordained, not handed down from Olympus as some timeless model of perfection. It was conceived in iniquity and birthed in sin, reserving power to the male, the white and the landed. More than one person has pointed to the various amendments in the ensuing 240 years as proof that the American struggle is ultimately toward giving everyone the participatory power that the Founding Fathers reserved for their own kind. But it isn’t working any more. 

We’re broken. We’re not going to be able to fix this, because the people who could have – the people who needed to stand up and say “look, I disagree with the Democrats but this is horse shit, there are no death panels, foreign aid is a rounding error compared to your Social Security, Sharia law is not a thing that is happening in this country, the President is an American citizen born in Hawaii and a practicing Christian” – those people sat on their hands and kept their mouths shut so they could reap the partisan advantage, and it got us to this point. Between the hilljack yokels, the ones who mined their ignorance for electoral profit, and the ones who can’t be arsed to take part, there aren’t enough people left to reliably redeem the country.

And here’s the kicker: what happens when the rednecks run into reality? The kind of reality that can’t be reconciled with the old “the universe is 4.5 billion years old six days a week and 6000 on Sundays”? The kind of reality you can’t wish away? The kind of reality that doesn’t care what Alex Jones told you because that cancer isn’t going to respond to peach pit extract and your insurance won’t cover you anymore? What happens once these Trump voters all realize they played themselves? Are they prepared to live with the consequences? And since the answer is almost certainly hell no, who are they going to take it out on? And how? And what are we prepared to do about it?

Two heroes

The two names you need to remember, if last night was the night that the “kill Obamacare” plan was broken for good:

1) Susan Collins. There was a lot of wiggle and wobble around Murkowski and Capito and a few random white guys who pretty much all folded in the clutch at one point or another, but throughout this whole thing, Susan Collins has been a hard No. No on the motion to proceed, No on every half-assed plan. No on the asinine prospect of passing a bill, asking the House not to pass it and trust that it would go to committee where [FILE NOT FOUND]. No on basically destroying any semblance of how the Congressional system is supposed to work. I was lucky to be exposed to the same experience at age 17 that Senator Collins had many years before me, and for the last couple of weeks she has been stalwart in defending what the Senate ought to be against those who have spent years if not decades trying to turn it into the House of Representative with a bath and shoes on. Hero.

2) Chuck Schumer. As Josh Marshall said, he had to hold the line among 48 Senators who run from Joe Manchin to Bernie Sanders, which is no easy task at the best of times. The Senate rewards individual action, and the DC media rewards nothing so much as someone taking a shit on their own party. Nancy Pelosi is a fucking superstar, but the House Minority Leader has very few tools to work with other than press conferences. A Senate Minority Leader can actually have an impact – but they have to hold their team together and hold the line when it counts. Not one Democratic vote leaked through this entire process. Not. One. Chuck Schumer got the job done in the clutch. Hero.

What happens now? Who knows? Because now the Republicans are faced with the simple fact: they don’t know how to govern. They know how to sling shit and go on TV and wail and slander and pout and throw tantrums, but when it’s time to actually legislate – to craft a bill, round up support, hammer out deals and pass something – they are lost like babes in the tall grass. When your entire ethos is that government is bad and horrible, it gets a lot harder to actually wield the tools of governance.

I don’t think this is over by a long shot. I’m sure they’ll be coming for Obamacare again and again in every way they can. And we’ll fight them again. We’re actually starting to get pretty good at it.

Sic transit gloria iPod

The iPod is done.

If you click the link on the store, it redirects you to the iPod touch – and only the iPod touch. Which, let’s face it, isn’t an iPod so much as an iPad nano, an iPhone without the phone bits. The 128GB version is $100 cheaper than the 128 GB iPad mini, so there you have it.

The iPod transformed digital music. Yes, there were MP3 players before the iPod, I owned a couple of them, and they kind of sucked. Too much money for not enough storage, spotty performance (I once had to return one because it was bricked by a poorly ripped version of Roy Orbison’s “You Got It”), all kind of weirdness around how to sync…and then…

“No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.” The dismissive announcement from Slashdot is the stuff of legend for a reason, because the Creative Nomad Jukebox had a full-size hard drive for 20 GB of storage and was impossible to carry, never mind the “wireless” which was good for approximately nobody outside hardcore hobby enthusiasts and Slashdot gladiators. The iPod was 5 GB – “a thousand songs” – and would sync and charge over Firewire for optimal speed. It worked with iTunes, which Apple had produced from the code of SoundJam MP to create an app that would provide a unified interface for digital music – and now, instead of burning CDs from your stock of music, you could just dump everything to the iPod and be off with yourself.

It hit at about the worst time to be rolling out consumer goods – October 2001 – and I didn’t get one myself until my future wife gifted me one out of nowhere in May 2002. But it was transformative. All of a sudden I had all my music all the time, in a smaller package than any Walkman I’d ever owned, and instead of picking just the right fifteen songs for any given day to squeeze into some rebranded Diamond Rio, I had my entire digital music. Every MP3 I had acquired in the last three years now lived in the same space in my hand.

I went through several iPods in the ensuing five-plus years. I borrowed a gold iPod Mini from work at Apple, my favorite of all the ones I ever had. I had the use of a preproduction model for a while, which I obtained simply because it was roughly the same size as the forthcoming iPhone and I wanted to test the pocket-feel. I was gifted two iPod Shuffles and lost them both. I was working a trade show in Chicago on the day the iPod nano was announced, and our booth – showing off high-end layout and text and printing solutions – was inundated with people who wanted to see the new flash-based player.

And then the iPhone arrived.

In the ten years since it did, the only time I’ve ever used an iPod in any meaningful way was twofold: once in my old Rabbit, where the 2006 car stereo wasn’t ready for an iPhone and thus an iPod nano, occasionally updated, was the only digital music. And once with an iPod shuffle, bought to contain music for when I was done with the day’s podcasts and only needed to have some music in the meantime. It was a battery saving device for a time when I couldn’t count on being able to plug my phone in for any meaningful duration, and it’s still potentially useful for something like a seven hour flight in steerage when I need relaxing music or best-of podcasts but still need my phone at full charge when I land.

But nowadays the phone is your music provider – even more so in an age where everyone under 30 is steaming-first. And the backup to the phone, if you have Bluetooth headphones, is now the Apple Watch, with the potential to hold as much music as a Shuffle on your arm in case the phone goes before your watch and your cans do. Maybe not practical, but if you want to go for a marathon without your phone, you can.

Apple blew a hole in the universe with the iPod, and then blew another hole in the universe with the iPhone, and the iPod of necessity went down that second hole today. But the iPod proved Apple could be more than a computer company, and it was the iPod’s hole that the “computer” part of Apple Computer ultimately fell down. Nicely done, iPod.


“In modern Japanese slang, the term otaku is mostly equivalent to ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’, but in a more derogatory manner than used in the West. However, it can relate to any fan of any particular theme, topic, hobby, or form of entertainment. ‘When these people are referred to as otaku, they are judged for their behaviors – and people suddenly see an “otaku” as a person unable to relate to reality.’”

There have been times I probably met the Wikipedia definition of otaku – although it implies a degree of specialization I haven’t often been capable of. Yes, I was nuts for Star Wars in 1978, but so was basically every kid in America – and frankly there wasn’t that much to be nuts over. One movie, another tie-in novel, a Marvel comic that I didn’t read – it didn’t even have the depth of canon of Star Trek with its three seasons and cartoon and seeming endless supply of novels. Come to think of it, I seem to have a vague recollection of the 70s – and into the 80s – that all sci-fi got lumped together, to the point where one bookstore downtown advertised “Star Trek/Wars” goods. But anyway.

I had other nerdish interests after that – there was a run of comics, mostly Marvel, from about 1984-88. There were TSR role-playing games, of course, Dungeons and Dragons from 1981-84 and Star Frontiers from 1984-85 and then Marvel Super Heroes from 1985-87 to the exclusion of everything else…and then all that just blew away around 1988. Probably because the Scholars Bowl team was sucking up all my stray CPU cycles for general-knowledge brainpower that might otherwise have gone for a focus.

I suppose you could say “sports” in the 1990s but I wasn’t any more obsessive than your typical American male, especially as I was catching up and making up for the 1980s. I suppose you could say “politics” but grad school proved that wasn’t nearly as much of an interest as I thought, and at root it mainly consisted of just a heightened awareness of my surroundings rather than genuine interest. And my wife will attest that I was something of a phone obsessive for most of the first seven years or so of our relationship, but the arrival of the iPhone put paid to that pretty much for good.

The thing is, as I cast about looking for hobbies and whatnot, is that the otaku mode is sort of the new default in fandom. Even in things I used to follow closely and don’t anymore – not having been raised on Madden, I can’t discuss the merits of defensive patterns and the virtue of four-verts offense, so I’m on the outside of a lot of college football talk. But then, I start looking around at other things…I have an incomplete on the MCU. I still haven’t seen Spider Man: Homecoming or the 2008 Hulk movie, it took six months for me to catch up to Doctor Strange or Thor: The Dark World, I still haven’t seen the Iron Fist series and don’t have any particular urgency for Inhumans or The Defenders. Never mind the thirty years of actual comic books I’ve whiffed on. I went out and got myself a Ravenclaw scarf from Platform 9 3/4, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any Harry Potter movie more than once and I couldn’t swear I’ve actually seen all eight. I’ve certainly not tried to sort myself via Pottermore or anything like that. 

One of the side effects of the Internet is that it’s enabled this degree of otaku specialization, and in doing so raised the threshold for fandom – or even for what might be considered more than just general interest. The running gag online is “oh name three of their albums” but it’s kidding on the square: casual fandom is almost impossible and there are issues of belonging and authenticity around everything, especially things with a canon of knowledge and any sort of historical depth.

In other words, it’s hard out here for a polymath. Of which.

flashback, part 86 of n: the new world

Ten years ago today, my guys were among the first ones lined up outside Caffe Macs to head up to the meeting room where the iPhones were stacked up to hand out. We were all employees, and we’d all been watching the internal meeting a month earlier that Steve finished by telling us everyone would get an 8GB iPhone, gratis. So the $500 I’d been accumulating on my dresser drawer was suddenly turned into free cash, because the iPhone – the iPhone, first of its name, the mythological device made real – would be placed in my hands for nothing more than having turned up to work the last two years as a staff employee.

I was ahead of the game – I’d brought a laptop so I could quickly activate, and my existing Apple-provided phone (at the time a Nokia flip, the last of a half-dozen desperate attempts to get some kind of signal in our long-since-demolished offices) so that I’d have a live SIM card ready to ride. And sure enough, I was the first of our guys to be activated, and spent the next hour or so going between helping other guys get live and marveling over this thing, this slice of the future that rested in my hand.

It was metal in back and glass in front. It didn’t have 3G or GPS, but I hadn’t any data service on my work plan to that point (the data package was automatically added when the iPhone arrived) so I didn’t have any sense of not having those things. It was not too big, not too small, just right. I’d impulsively bought a SonyEricsson P800 four years earlier and sold it just as quickly a year later (at a significant loss), because it was too big and too bulky – and replaced it with a Nokia 6620 with similar issues. So while I’d technically had a smartphone, and even attempted to install things like Opera Mini on it (or on my parade of imported unlocked devices for that matter), I’d never had anything that just worked like this did.

No high-speed data. No location services. No cut and paste. Not even support for MMS. (I suspect that Steve thought email would rapidly pummel MMS as the preferred way of sending. Guess not.) No App Store, not even a way to bookmark sites on the home page at first. Just a list of URLs for AJAX-based web apps for instant messaging, or for Twitter. There was a brief vogue for sites that began “” rather than the WAP-style “” so you’d get the iPhone-optimized form of the site. We were trading new “app sites” every day. We had to activate VPN to use it to get our AAPL corporate mail over the wireless at the office, and it would work with the free Google wi-fi in Mountain View but not the secure wi-fi version, and it definitely wasn’t compatible with the third-party iPod integration in my new Rabbit.

None of that mattered.

Because it was the future. It really was. Real email in my pocket, no more scrounging for ways to check webmail on the road (or worse yet, ways to try to ssh into my personal email). A proper keyboard for texting, after a fashion, but one that disappeared to give you more space for the map or the browser window. All the services my prototype iPod offered me, music and video (and full-screen wide-screen video!) I’ve told the tale before, but in first grade, my friends and I would fold up a sheet of loose-leaf by thirds, then fold the resulting long strip by thirds, and use our pencils to make it into a combination of badge, comlock, tricorder, blaster, what have you. (In 1979, Star Wars was huge, but Star Trek and Space:1999 were on the television and there was more than one of them.) It was the all purpose sci-fi device, a complete flight of fancy that we could make into anything we wanted. Holding that first iPhone, you could see the path we’d stepped onto, and it was hard not to feel like a little piece of my childhood imagination was coming true thirty years later.

Ten years on? Never mind piffle like MMS and cut/paste, the App Store really kicked things off. As did GPS. And LTE. By 2013, the iPhone and its spawn had destroyed the market for standalone cellphones and pagers and PDAs and point/shoot cameras and camcorders and digital media players and GPS devices. It had created apps and products like Foursquare and Uber and Instagram that not only didn’t exist before the smartphone but couldn’t exist without the smartphone. Twitter isn’t what it is now if it still relies on web browsers and texting 40404 to work. I walk into the Sunnyvale Fry’s and it’s a shell of what it once was – the combination of the Amazon bomb and the smartphone consolidation has rendered brick-and-mortar consumer electronics stores merely showrooms for products that perform a function that can’t fit in an app in your hand.

But more to the point: since that day in 2007, I have bought a burner Nokia for $20 and a Moto X, and my wife has bought a burner Nokia abroad. Every other penny our household has put on mobile phones in these ten years has gone on one iPhone or another. And that’s where the ecosystem lock-in gets you: either Apple or Google controls the OS through which we mediate our conduct with the modern world. But once you pick your side, for the most part you can get at the same stuff: Uber, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Waze, Citymapper, Foursquare – apps that don’t even make sense before the consumer smartphone is a reality. None of those make sense before the iPhone, because if they did they would have existed. Consider Foursquare – it was a derivative of Dodgeball, a service by the same developers to do check-ins via SMS on your phone, released in 2003 and bought by Google in 2005, out of sight by 2007. Because it was complex and convoluted. In 2009, Dodgeball took off like a rocket – because it was a smartphone app, in a New World where Apple was responsible for at least the Santa Maria.

So ten years on – what now? I still maintain that the smartphone effectively crossed the finish line four years ago. We had fingerprint ID, NFC, decent RAM and screen size and storage and LTE and in some cases even decent battery life, all by the time of the iPhone 5s and the Moto X. Right now, aside from a little faster processor and a few more pixels in screen or camera, what’s out there that would make me lay down the iPhone SE? Most vendors seem to think it’s virtual or augmented reality, and Apple certainly seems to be loading up iOS 11 as their play for the AR world – but does that really need a new phone? And if it does – one with high-contrast AMOLED and a home button fingerprint reader under the screen and no bezels and A BATTERY THAT DOESN’T SUCK OUT LOUD, JEEZ O FLIP APPLE – is it going to be worth laying down an extra $1200 when the phone I’ve got is everything I need and nothing I don’t?

Because a bigger screen gives you two things: easier media consumption and a bigger battery. The problem is avoiding that sour spot where the iPhone 6 and 6S landed, where the phone is bigger enough to draw more power but not bigger enough to have an appreciably larger battery. You can either go real big (and pricey) like the Plus line, or cozy like the SE. In eschewing the larger screen and the (frankly Samsung-esque) gimmickry of “3D Touch”, the iPhone SE combined performance and user experience and pricing into the perfect package. This year’s processor, all-day battery and fit in one hand? That’s as close to the original vision of the iPhone as you could ask for.

So now we wait to see what Apple does next, and whether they drop some special super donkey collider phone that overshadows the notional 7S/Plus and wounds the goose that lays the golden egg. If this is the end of the line for the iPhone Decade, though, you have to say that it’s been ten world-changing years. I can say that I was there on the day it happened for the two biggest events that shaped the 21st century so far – and Cupertino on the day the iPhone landed was a hell of a lot better than Washington DC on September 11.

A Bitter Deal

I don’t see that much in the “Better Deal” from the Democratic leadership today that is in any way orthogonal to what HRC was running on at this time last year. Still overly focused on the middle-class, still a little too much don’t-scare-the-big-business, and most offensively, the notion that “Democrats have too often hesitated from taking on those misguided policies directly and unflinchingly – so much so that many Americans don’t know what we stand for.”


The Democratic message has been pretty much the same for a decade or two: the notion that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to have a successful middle-class American life. Nothing here is substantially different. All that this amounts to is an attempt to articulate it in a way that will get some attention, because when HRC was the candidate, all anyone cared about was EMAILS EMAILS EMAILS – the complete failure of the press to examine her policy positions, or anyone’s policy positions for that matter, was not because she didn’t have them, it was because it was easier to hold the camera on the Trump train wreck and offer no challenge to whatever his trained catamites in cable media said.

In a way, you can make a case that HRC was a fatally flawed candidate from the beginning, not because of any fault or flaws of her own, but because she would never be allowed to be anything but HILLARY, the nightmare caricature that the GOP and its amen corner at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (that’s right I said it) and Fox and AM radio had piñata’d for a quarter-century. HRC was a fine candidate, albeit one with Al Gore disease: the terminal earnestness of the smartest kid in the class who doesn’t understand why the monkey-boy who pours milk over his head and steals out of other kids’ lockers is considered an equal candidate for class president. And who then loses to the monkey even though the monkey didn’t get as many votes as they did.

So ultimately, the challenge now for the Democrats isn’t the message – although it’s at the point now where it’s easy to get frustrated and dispose of anything that suggests the DLC in the least, and push really hard for a left-populist vision, and I’m not saying that’s wrong – it’s having the messengers who can sell it. Maybe Chuck Schumer is that guy. Maybe it’s Kamala Harris or Cory Booker. New fresh faces that aren’t carrying the baggage of decades of Republican slime. But the biggest fear is that once again, they’ll decide it’s going to take another white Southern male who doesn’t scare off the hillbillies who aren’t going to vote for him anyway. And that Crazification Factor crowd? There’s no reason to fish in that pond. They’re dying and the ones who aren’t won’t ever vote for a Democrat. Go where the votes are. Throw it where the action is. Get your voters enthused and excited and get them out to vote, and make it happen the right way.

But stop wasting time shooting the wounded. If anyone needs forgiveness, it’s not HRC, it’s a party that couldn’t produce a less-tarred and more-exciting candidate with four years’ advance notice.


So why on Earth did I spend the money to order myself a Stars and Stripes 4th of July edition Birmingham Barons hat?

It's not like I'm gonna wear the thing that much. It's not like I feel particularly compelled to represent my hometown at the best of times, and certainly not at the moment. And I need another hat like a hole in the head. And there aren't any more Dores in the White Sox farm system as far as I know, now that Carson Fulmer is on indefinite AAA duty at Charlotte. So why throw $35 that would have just as well filled two jugs with Ironwood Dark Ale?

Hope, I guess. Hope that someday, 205 will be someplace I want to claim again. Someplace I'm willing to visit again. That I'll be able to say "Birmingham" and instead of dogs and fire hoses, or Jeff Sessions, or Alabama fans and Finebaum callers, the first thing to people's minds will be fine dining. Or craft beer. Or classic 20th century architecture repurposed into 21st century retail and housing. Or electric bike share and urban green space. Or the kind of "it city" reaction Nashville gets now.

It can be done. God know Austin is laundered squeaky clean despite being unrepentantly Texas. Athens, Georgia caught it inside out in the 1980s. New Orleans has always had its own special status, and Memphis is starting to go national with the Grizzlies' brand of grit-and-grind, and Atlanta is reinvented as the capital of Black America. So I guess the question is – how long before Birmingham is manages to outrun Birmingham was?

It might be a long wait. Not everyone held out, and some of those who did are getting tired of waiting for it to happen. You still have to have a bubble, to all accounts, and I have enough difficulty building that bubble in places where it shouldn't even be necessary, never mind a place fraught with memory and peril at every turn.

But maybe. Maybe someday before I die, it'll be something I can be proud of. And if the day ever comes, I'll be ready for it.


So the Washington Redskins are going to let Kirk Cousins play out the year under the Franchise tag and then either go as a free agent, or tag him for a third year – and for a third consecutive year, he’ll be paid the average of the top five QB salaries in the league. Which means on current projections, it would be a one year, $35 million dollar deal.

This is, simply put, insane.

The problem, though, is illustrative of the NFL’s way of thinking generally. Namely: Kirk Cousins was a 4th round draft pick, Robert Griffin III was the #2 overall pick in the same draft, and if R-G-3-and-13 is out of football, how can Cousins be worth a long term contract? Maybe there are other owners who are bright enough not to think like this, but the brain trust in Ashburn is not that bright, never has been.

There’s a free agent quarterback out there who could be picked up for pennies on the dollar, who’s actually taken a team to a Super Bowl. Won’t cost anywhere near $35 million. Sure, he’s a read-option QB at a time when the vogue has passed, but what’s your alternative? Colt McCoy, last seen being  eaten alive without salt by the Alabama defense on the grass of Pasadena? Nope, the former Niner is hands-down the only realistic option if the Skins don’t want to play Kirk this year and pay him thereafter…

…but he is Not An NFL Guy. Which means: not white. Not country. Not stand-and-salute shallow patriotic. Not the kind of guy who suits a league full of beer, truck and erectile-dysfunction advertising. Colin Kaepernick said no to the NFL, and now the NFL has closed ranks and affirmed: no place for you.

Garbage team, garbage league. Getting away from that nonsense as anything but point-and-laugh spectacle was the best decision I ever made in sports.  I hope Kirk goes to New York and wins a Super Bowl, or else signs for $50 million in Washington and never plays another down.

After the funeral

I have described last November’s election, and its aftermath, as being like a death in the family. It’s not an idle comparison, the way my father passed: you knew he wasn’t in perfect health, but certainly there was never a reason to think his life was at risk, and then suddenly he’s in the hospital, and sure that’s not good but it’s not time to panic, and then all of a sudden they lead you into the dimly-lit room with the only decent furniture in the place, because that’s where they sentence your loved one to die. And then…it’s happened. You cope, you endure, you do what you have to do to get by. But there’s no undoing it. He’s never going to not be dead. It happened and you have to live with what comes next.

The current firestorm around Junior Trump’s shenanigans has illuminated what should have been obvious all along, if only by providing some necessary date and time coordinates. There’s a clear demarcation from which it becomes obvious that there was some sort of collaboration between the campaign and nefarious forces, collaboration that already rises to a pretty clear level of criminality, from which you can then ask Howard Baker’s legendary question and be pretty sure the answer won’t reflect well. From there, assuming the GOP is willing to allow it to happen (or the Democrats have somehow wrestled back the Congress), you have the prospect of an impeachment – and, for the first time in American history, the actual removal of a president short of resignation a la Nixon.

Set aside the chaos that follows from that – or the fact that a Pence administration won’t be materially different on one single policy position, and in some cases may be worse, and would get the additional media cover provided by “look we got rid of Trump, why you bringing up old shit” – and reflect instead on the fact that it happened at all. That a singularly unqualified person, with no political experience whatsoever and criminally compromised by a foreign power, received the nomination of a major political party and was able to engineer an Electoral College win in the absence of a plurality of votes. We got perhaps the worst candidate for national office in recorded history and put him in office with fewer votes than his opponent got.

What that says is that our system is broken. In some ways it always was. It was conceived in iniquity and birthed in sin, with its “three fifths” nonsense to appease the South, and was not intended to handle a strong central government whose authority would have to routinely supersede that of its member states. And now it’s made it possible for one side to win the White House without the most votes, repeatedly. This is a flawed process, one that would be under fire constantly from the other side were it not working to their advantage. A Senate Majority Leader who denied so much as a hearing to a Supreme Court nominee for over a year, whose party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, is braying about “unprecedented obstruction” – if there were a God, He would have struck Mitch McConnell in the heart with a streak of lightning 932 times, so that argument is settled. But anyway.

So what happens now? Even if Trump bites the dust and the GOP is turned out of office across the board in a manner recalling 1974-76, what are we left with? We have a political party still in existence whose members have been radicalized to believe anything they are told by their trusted leadership – which largely consists of conspiracy-mongering media. We have an electoral process that was compromised by bad actors in and out of government and which was swayed by a foreign power, and a nuclear one at that – what do we do about that? We have the precedent of a President elected while stonewalling any effort to explore his finances, his foreign ties or his past conduct – why should any future candidate not do the same? We have net neutrality crucified on behalf of Comcast and Verizon – how do we return to a regulatory framework robust enough to ensure actual competition in broadband and get us within shouting distance of what the rest of the world has? And – most of all – how do we convince the rest of the world that our leadership and our global role can be given any more heft than, say, Italy? Or Russia? Or any other country with a corrupt and compromised political leadership and a public unable to check or contain it?

There’s also something of a Y2K problem – people today roll their eyes and say what a bust the whole Y2K threat was, because millions of people around the world busted their ass to make sure it wouldn’t be a disaster. Right now, there are thousands of people around America and around the world busting ass to contain the damage we inflicted on ourselves – and if they succeed, people will say “oh Trump wasn’t that bad” and never correct the problem. So at this point, the deed is done – either we get the disaster, or we get a glide path to the next one because people wouldn’t see the disaster for what it was. But they don’t get it. We don’t get to just go back to being America. We don’t get to go back at all. I don’t think a lot of people grasped this before last November, and I know there aren’t enough that get it now. The toothpaste doesn’t go back in the tube, the bell can’t be un-rung, maybe you can rebuild the barn but it won’t be the one that burned down…and you may not care for the barn that gets rebuilt.

I moved away from Alabama about as far as America would let me. If we land in the United States of Alabama, no matter who’s President, I don’t think I’m going to want to stay very long.

Cashing in

A month ago, I was up in the mountains, with virtually no internet connection – at my tent-cabin, there was none. Just me, a cooler of beer, a zero-G chair, and a Kindle. Paradise. Only problem is, I managed to lose the Kindle somewhere in the woods. So I took advantage of Amazon’s self-created holiday and bought a replacement. Kindle Paperwhite, as good a single-purpose device as you could ask for. Everything you need, nothing you don’t, sorted. But like the original, I went for the one with “special offers.”

Because right now, you can’t get anything else. They offer the Paperwhite – the cheapest one with built-in illumination, all I really require – for $120. And it comes with advertising, on the lock screen and in a banner at the bottom. Not particularly intrusive, not particularly interesting, mostly for Kindle-original content (which tends toward the self-published, far as I can tell) – but the kicker is, you can pay to turn off the ads. It will cost you a slick $20, one time. Apparently, somewhere in there, Amazon has calculated that the lifetime value of you seeing their ads is $20. But then, you don’t see them very much.

By contrast, look at what Amazon has done since the tremendous bust that was the Kindle Fire phone. (Seriously, Jayne Mansfield didn’t have a bust like the Fire phone was a bust.) Now instead, they have a slew of low-cost Android devices, which can be bought by Prime members…with special offers. The version without the ads will set you back an extra $50. Given that my original Kindle lasted me approximately six years, and that most people keep a phone from two to three, but that you’ll see the lock screen of your phone a LOT more than the lock screen of your Kindle, that’s probably a rough equivalent. We’ll stick with 2, because low-cost phones don’t hold up as long as flagship models, but consider it: if you are a Prime member, it’s worth $25 a year for Amazon to have that eyeball space.

Which makes sense. You paid $99 a year to be on Amazon Prime and have that free shipping, so it’s worth kicking back $25 of that as an annual phone discount to show you more things that your Prime membership is, in turn, likely to speed you along to purchasing. Amazon has the same appetite for data as a Facebook or Google, but it’s very single-minded: Amazon wants all the data you can generate about buying stuff, because they want you to buy more of their stuff. It’s bits in the service of atoms.

When you get right down to it, Amazon and Apple are the only companies who deal in atoms anymore. Apple is largely agnostic about what services you use – one gets the sense that they run their own services out of some atavistic Scarlett O’Hara impulse to never be hungry again after Steve led them back from the brink, but let’s face it, most folks have Google email and probably do streaming music through Pandora or Spotify rather than Apple Music and they’re all using Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat. And as long as you laid down the $650 for that iPhone, that’s fine with Cupertino. (Of which more later.) Microsoft is kept alive partly by Xbox gamers but mostly by the fact that every major business still relies on Microsoft Office (even when it runs on a Mac or – heavens! – an iPad). Google and Facebook don’t even have a physical product to sell you, unless you count the slender market for the Pixel or the Chromecast or maybe the abortive $1/year charge for WhatsApp. Those are paid for entirely with your eyeballs.

Amazon has its dubious side, no doubt – mostly because it’s laundered the Wal-Mart monopsony for the digital era and the upper-middle-class market – but in this, at least, it seems straightforward. Amazon will feed you ads for other things Amazon can sell you, much like Sirius XM’s 40s Junction channel will never advertise anything but itself and other SiriusXM stations. But for other companies and other applications, that advertising is everything. Because they sell your eyeballs along to other takers. It seems like almost every new app that comes down the pike on the iTunes App Store is free and then charges you…to remove the ads. 

So I have to ask myself again: how much would Google have to charge you for their services – or Facebook, or anyone else – before it would be more profitable than just selling advertising against your data? And since they don’t charge…is it valuable enough they can’t? And at that point, how well off am I not using Facebook or Google products? And then I remember that Facebook owns Instagram and that 80% of the people I email with use Gmail…and maybe my goose is cooked no matter what. And that’s when you need regulation. But that’s a story for another time.