The price of “free”

There are two companies in Silly Con Valley who are still invested in the model of “cash on the fucking barrelhead in exchange for goods and services” – one is Apple and the other is Amazon. Everyone else is pushing “free at the point of use.” (To some extent, even Apple is doing this, although it’s hard to quibble with the notion that the Steve-Jobs-as-Scarlett-O’Hara DNA is still in the Cupertino bloodstream, what with the desperate need to never be dependent on Google or Microsoft or anyone else for critical services. Plus selling the phones is the big ticket; my 99 cents a month for extra iCloud storage is peanuts.)

We’re starting to see some of the limits of this. The biggest one is that when you don’t pay for a service, you have no recourse. I don’t know what the legal implications of this are – lack of consideration generally means there’s no contractual obligation, or so I was led to believe – but it certainly seems to me that the combination of “eternal beta” with “free at point of use” means that the service can change in any way at any time and if you don’t like it, tough shit, you paid nothing so don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. 

Problem is, this means you also have no leverage at all. If you quit using Twitter, which has richly earned the label of “a honeypot for assholes,” you’re not taking a penny out of their pocket. If you stop using Google’s Gmail offering, it does you no good, because 4/5 of the other people you email are using it and your content is just going to be parsed and data-mined same as if you were using it. You can bail out of Facebook, but they have half a billion other people willing to keep churning away. It would take a complete collapse of the online advertising market to put a hole in these companies, and for the likes of Google and Facebook, they essentially are the online advertising market.

Meanwhile, while we weren’t looking, Amazon essentially became the Internet’s Wal-Mart, a monopsony buyer which can ruin suppliers by leaving them off the site or demanding they meet a price point or just by moving into their market with their own-label goods. Wal-Mart was a bad company, sure, but the destruction of brick-and-mortar retail means that there aren’t going to be local jobs created by Amazon other than at fulfillment centers. (I suppose they could get into the delivery business themselves, if UPS and USPS aren’t enough. Maybe staff it out to Uber and Lyft, who knows.)

But that’s Amazon. If you’re willing to just go to a store – assuming one is handy – you can avoid that. Problem is, “social media” is pretty much entirely in the hands of Facebook or a handful of others (and don’t get it twisted, WhatsApp and Instagram are both Facebook and both doing everything they can to snipe other services like Snapchat). Trying to keep up with friends without using one of Facebook’s products is damn near impossible at this point unless you’re prepared to round up everyone you know to use something like Slack, or roll your own listserv, or convince everyone to use some other app suitable for group texting (even if it just ends up being shared SMS).

That’s the increasing problem: the Internet is maximizing the worst of humanity, but the only practical solution as an individual is to opt out. I guess I’m just lucky to be part of the last generation that knew you could have a life that wasn’t online, even if that online life got me to where I am now. But it’s reaching a point where depending on the vicissitudes of social media is a fool’s errand. Of which.

The next up

It’s kind of alarming to think about, but if you knock off standby and talk and audio playback time (which any phone can handle these days) and look at the browsing times, the current iPhone 7 Plus – the big one – doesn’t represent that much of an upgrade over the iPhone SE. Nor did the 7 represent that much of an advance over the 6S, which had to have more efficient internals just to make up for the fact that it packed a smaller battery to make room for 3D Touch. (Which begs the question – what would happen if you made the phone thick enough to contain the camera nub, ditched 3D Touch, and used all the created space for battery? But I digress.)

While there are certain phone makers who will go for a huge battery occasionally (as Motorola still attempts in the mid-market), most premium phone makers seem to have thrown up their hands and gone all on in “THIN THIN THIN MY GOD CAN YOU BELIEVE HOW THIN LOOK HOW THIN IT IS OH YEAH IT CHARGES QUICK YOU CAN CHARGE IT BACK UP IN A SECOND BUT LOOK HOW THIN” which is…okay, whatever. I mean, if you don’t have a charge cable at your desk and leave it plugged in whenever you’re there I don’t know what to tell you, but much good that does you when you don’t have a fixed location and aren’t driving to work with the phone on the charger. The fact that Apple still makes the external battery pack for the iPhone 7 is all the proof you need: even they know it’s not enough.

I won’t lie; I’ve been tempted by the notion of a larger screen. The 4.7” of the original Moto X was in a form factor that worked perfectly, but those days are gone. The Great Mentioner is convinced that the iPhone Pro, so-called, will have a 5-plus inch AMOLED display with no bezels in more-or-less the form factor of the iPhone 7 – which is nice if true but still just a hair too big especially once you get a case on it. And at this point, it’s got to be at least a 5 inch screen; I went from the iPhone 6 to the SE and never looked back so 4.7 isn’t going to get it done anymore.

Thing is – what do I really want with a bigger screen? Kindle reading, maybe, it reduces the number of flicks – but as long as you have the Paperwhite, why not use that and save your battery? The wife found the London flyby in the Maps app, and that was pretty sweet, but is it worth buying a bigger phone? There’s always video, I guess, but I don’t watch video on my iPhone SE in the first place and I doubt I’d watch more on a bigger device. For a generation who has YouTube and Netflix in place of television, the incentives are probably different, but I’m getting by OK.

Here’s the thing, though: if the battery life isn’t getting any better from having a bigger phone, and I don’t need the bigger screen, what do I need another phone for at all? I can’t be the only person willing to stretch their device for three years or maybe more, especially one that has suited me as perfectly as the iPhone SE. (Not even the Apple Watch has been as perfect a companion. I don’t take it abroad, I don’t bother with it on days I know I won’t be at work and won’t get the exercise in anyway, and that Ion-X Glass can scratch just fine, thank you. And when the phone is small enough to use one-handed, you don’t need a remote control to avoid fishing it out of your pocket.)

If I need a larger phone at all, it’s as the shutdown device, the alternate-reality Android that I only use for a few hours at a time and never for anything more than a half-dozen apps. Kindle, Wikipedia, Foursquare, Instagram, Slack, perhaps some sort of streaming audio from London or Ireland or baseball, and that’s about it. It’s possible that something like the Amazon-discounted Nokia 6 or Moto G5 would be a replacement once the faithful old Moto X is no longer suitable for Tuesday or Sunday night unplugging and getting away from it most. And it would give me a crack at Android Oreo (is this really the most apt time for Google to push a product that’s got a lot of brown to look at but is all white at the core?) for whatever that’s worth.

Or, you know, this could be it. I could finally be down to one phone, personally owned, just the SE for all things with the knowledge that there are two or three viable prepaid service options if ever I ditch work. And that’s the thing with the iPhone Pro: if you’re going to drop a thousand dollars on a damned phone, you better know up front that you’re getting value for money for years. At that price point, it has to have a laptop lifespan, not a phone lifespan. Two and done is fine for $200 Shenzen screwdriver-jobs with Qualcomm guts and no upgrade path. From Cupertino, I need better.

Fair warning, Auburn man and limey prick: don’t screw this up.

Where to go and what to do

I don’t talk much about Vanderbilt football in this space anymore. Nor in the space where I used to publish weekly during the season. The exhilaration of the Brigadoon era crashed and burned once our best success in a century got strip-mined for the benefit of Joe Paterno’s squad, and so far, we’ve proven we can hit the non-Brigadoon highlights since 1982: beat Tennessee, win six games, go to a bowl (and despite the loss, we might be the first SEC team happy to go to Shreveport…ever, really).  The question is, can we beat that? Many have tried, but only two non-Brigadoon coaches have made it even to six wins since that Hall of Fame Bowl in 1982, and one promptly lost the bowl game while the other crashed and burned, going 1-5 down the stretch before the punter made MVP of the bowl and preserved a winning season.

The aspirational model for what our football team could become definitely seems to be Stanford. I mean, we went out and hired their DC and everything. But apparently in 2016, Stanford didn’t sell out their 50,000 stadium. Not once. And they’re raising ticket prices. Now, in fairness, Stanford has gotten themselves into a situation where their two biggest-drawing opponents are in the same year (Cal and Notre Dame) and the other biggest attractions at present (UCLA, Oregon) are in the same year as well. When USC is the only remotely interesting home game, it’s probably a tough sell anyway. But this is a program that’s gone to MULTIPLE Rose Bowls in recent memory, its the beneficiary of unlimited slobber-worship by the college football media, and has a benefactor who showers the athletic department with literally millions of dollars a year. They can’t fill 50K.

There are those who argue that Vanderbilt football is a sleeping giant, a Stanford-esque overnight sensation waiting to happen, and all that we have to do is build a new modernized stadium and mysteriously winning will breed winning and we’ll find ourselves going head-up with Alabama and Florida and battling for a playoff berth every year. These people are insane. The cost of catching up with the rest of the SEC – in facilities, in mindshare, in media coverage – can’t be measured in dollars and cents. It would require a cultural change on campus, it would require a complete transformation in the college football media, and it would require years of repetition before people got in their heads that Same Old Vandy was gone for good. And if you don’t believe that, look at what happened in 2014, when it only took the first half of a weird and rain-delayed game for the world to proclaim that things were back to normal on West End.

So there’s a spectrum. At one end, we drop football altogether as a sport. At the other, we do whatever it takes to keep pace with the giants of college football, irrespective of the cost or impact on the university. Right now, the two factors that are orbiting one another are stadium location and conference affiliation. While Vanderbilt is a peer and competitive member of the SEC in every sport other than football, only one thing matters in the Southeastern Conference and it’s the one thing at which we happen not to be a competitive peer. Meanwhile, the plan appears to be that instead of spending the money on a new on-campus stadium or a massive refurbishment of the one we already have, we’ll borrow someone else’s off-campus stadium and wait to see what happens, not least because an on-campus stadium is a huge chunk of property and they aren’t making any more of that.

At this point, I don’t think we’re ever going to see a larger stadium for Vanderbilt than what we have now. There’s simply no percentage in it. By the same token, I can’t think of anyone in major college football playing their games in an off-campus stadium other than the LA schools, and that represents special circumstances as neither UCLA nor USC has ever had an on-campus facility in the modern era (they shared the Coliseum until the 80s and UCLA has been at the Rose Bowl ever since). So look at Tulane, which is the poster child for a school that bailed out of big-time athletics – and even they have built a new 30,000 seat stadium, on campus, at a cost of $75 million. Now we have a dollar figure to play with. Probably safe to assume that any rebuilt Dudley Field will cost roughly similar. At that point, you have to think the powers in Kirkland Hall are looking at this notional MLS stadium and thinking “that’s $75 million we don’t have to spend, never mind the potential use value of getting the Dudley land for something else.” I get that. I don’t like it one bit, but I totally see how they get from here to there.

So. Are we going to chase the rest of the SEC no matter what? We are a founding member of the SEC and a competitive peer in every single sport we participate in…except for one, and that one happens to be the thing that defines the SEC and all it really cares about. We can continue to power our way through in baseball, in tennis and golf and cross-country, and possibly even in basketball behind CBD and CSW, but the price of doing that is bashing our football into the rest of the conference every year with one hand tied behind its back. Can that be done? Hell yes, we’ve done it for decades. But it’s unlikely to build a fan base or bring in additional revenue apart from our one-fourteenth share of the TV and bowl money. It’s also worth noting that Brigadoon aside, our baseline improvement is largely a function of playing twelve games a year rather than eleven; those five-win seasons in the Dinardo era would probably have been six in the 21st century.

That’s really the only question. If we don’t chase the SEC, and nothing happens to separate football from the rest of college athletics, we’ll almost certainly end up somewhere else – Conference USA, the Sun Belt, some lower division altogether. I don’t think Vanderbilt will dump football as a sport until football itself goes away, though, and as an example I offer good ol’ Birmingham-Southern College, which in 2006 abandoned its several-year experiment as a Big South Division-I school and reverted to D-III. The first thing they did in D-III? They ADDED football – which they hadn’t played since 1939 – and committed to building an on-campus facility for it. The whole point of leaving Division I was supposedly financial, yet they added the most expensive sport a school can play.

So what now? The optimal scenario: play elsewhere for free until we can figure out what the future of Vanderbilt football looks like, then build accordingly on campus as required. But that leaves too many variables in the hands of others, and the uncertainty will do nothing for the team, the fans or the perception of a program that already gets Hillary Clinton levels of media regard. At last call, the future for a Vandy supporter is the same as it’s always been: unknowable but grim.

flashback, part 87 of n: ten years after

In retrospect, the trouble really began when I yielded to one of my co-workers, who had just gotten married and needed to visit Germany with his new bride before her pregnancy got too far along. Which was fine, I didn’t begrudge him that in the least – but it meant that not only did I go on vacation, I found myself instead covering his job in addition to mine. 

And that’s when the knee really started to give me trouble. It had always been a bit dicky, ever since my brother took the post-hole diggers and made a hole that he lured me across, stepping knee-deep and miraculously not breaking anything. But for whatever reason, it was worse than it had been before, probably from the wear and tear of dockwalloping for two years plus. I hadn’t had to do as much of it lately, but going back to it made things worse, and eventually I was referred to a doctor who recommended surgery to clean it up.

That was the point at which a smarter person would have gone to his boss and said “I need some kind of accommodation.” And had I any inkling of how things would turn out, that’s exactly what I would have done. But I didn’t feel like I could, because our group had trouble in the past with a lead who always said “I’ll come back this afternoon and help you out,” which meant that there would be no help and there might not be an afternoon. So I had to do my usual desk work and then come back and do my share of the forklift jockeying and box moving. And when I got done backfilling for my one colleague, I had to start backfilling for another one who was constantly being re-tasked to assorted secret squirrel projects – which left me doing three jobs, none of which was particularly technical. The dock work could have been done by anyone with a strong back, the scheduling could have been done by a well-crafted piece of javascript if we’d had more competent programmers working with us, and the third job was deadly dull but just as deadly serious, packing out the special kits for sales staff working special events, and it was all your fault if anything went wrong irrespective of how.

So I panicked. I was terrified that if I didn’t get back into the technical side of things, I would be doomed. I was a troubleshooter, I was a problem solver, and I wanted to be solving more impressive things than how to get an education rep to take ten iPods instead of forty for whatever podcasting demonstration they were going to put on in the Grange hall in Dubuque. And ultimately, that was the foolishness – the notion that I somehow had to stay technical, that I would be in trouble if I didn’t.

Had I stayed, there’s a chance I could have eventually moved into the sales-engineer side of education or government sales. I was known and liked by people in both areas (even if others in EDU hated my guts) and I was building professional connections – the lack of which remains my Achilles’ heel in an industry and a part of the world where your next job almost always comes from a call from a former co-worker. Had I stayed, I was in line for a raise that would have handed me the same salary I got in my next job as a government subcontractor – and with actual benefits, unlike the subcontract gig.  Had I stayed, I could have worked through the incipient depression from a more fortified position, rather than off the back of what I rapidly realized was a catastrophic mistake.

2007 was also when I tried to leave the internet behind and embrace the real world. I signed up for RCIA, but it didn’t go anywhere, partly for want of anyone who would make a viable sponsor but largely because I didn’t feel I could convert to only 60% of a religion I wasn’t raised in. I signed up for a men’s a capella chorus, but as the youngest one there by twenty years, it didn’t really do anything for me socially and took four hours a night for rehearsals. I signed up for a Java programming class at the local community college, only to realize that I have absolutely no interest in programming. And in an attempt to get into the real world, I abandoned my LiveJournal presence in any meaningful way. Which didn’t work out that great, to be honest. 

In short, 2007 was a slowly gathering existential crisis which climaxed with me in a cinder block office in December, working what were functionally two part time jobs without benefits, bereft of whatever psychic gain came from being associated with Apple or National Geographic, without any meaningful support structure that wasn’t a continent away or borrowed second-hand, and convinced that my entire past was crumbling into a black hole behind me as I desperately tried to stay one step ahead. It was enough, eventually, to drive me to medication and a fourth try at some sort of therapy. I’d like to say it worked, and I suppose by summer of 2009 I was sort of okay – but it wasn’t back to normal, it was a new normal, in a way that left me wary of new normals for good.

I eventually made the money back. I eventually got out of field support. But it’s another situation where better choices would have gotten me there sooner, and it’s a useful reminder: be the person you’re becoming rather than trying to cling to the one you were.

Charlottesville and everything after

You can’t be surprised by this. This has been a long time coming, ever since the GOP hitched its wagon to the South in 1994, or 1988, or 1968 – pick whatever date you want. But it obviously wasn’t going to happen under George W. Bush – normally control of Congress and the White House means you can pursue your aims through political means. The villains in the piece here aren’t just the white supremacists and the President [sic] who enables them – it’s the party that thought they could keep using the opiate of racism just enough to get them by without getting hooked. And now, here we are: keep dog-whistling about the secret Muslim Kenyan usurper and that Democrats are out to destroy white people, and then when you get unified control of government, people like David Duke think it’s finally payday in the village.

And it’s kind of broadly based, because we decided somewhere that the Internet doesn’t count and isn’t the real world. Meantime, the alt-right and the GamerGate pukes and all the other arrested-development adolescent boys took it very very seriously. Now, matters are worse. A huge group can be rallied to Charlottesville with ease, whereas a tiny fraction of that number could be pulled to Birmingham in 1991 for me to elbow one in the dome at the Guns ’n Roses show at the race course. And more to the point, condemning the KKK and their polo-shirt ilk should be the easiest thing in the whole goddamn world for a politician to do. This is cartoon stuff, rookie-difficulty-setting, the kind of stuff you can point to as “REAL racism” to distract from redlining and cutting Obamacare and all the other things that hit nonwhites first and harder and longer for the benefit of folks with money. It should be a layup to condemn those pricks.

And yet.

Here’s an easy rule of thumb: anyone who hesitates to condemn the Klan, anyone who has to hedge their words around lashing out at white supremacists? It’s because they’re on their side. It’s because they rely on their support. It’s because that’s who they are. For decades, Democrats had to live down anyone to the left of the New Deal, had to hem and haw and apologize for rappers or undocumented immigrants or gay people or do some kind of po-faced dance around anything that cast aspersion on anyone white. Well, here you go. Payback is hell. The United Cracker Front in Charlottesville this weekend needs to hang like a millstone around the neck of every Republican from now until time immemorial. These are the deplorables.You want to defend that? This isn’t you? This isn’t what you stand for? Fuck you, prove it.

The dream is alive

Maybe by 2016, I really will be able to do the whole thing off an iPad while lounging on the patio at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans….”

-28 April 2010


It’s a fair thing to look back on, seven years later. Could I do the whole thing off an iPad? Probably not in the current environment. But with a MacBook Pro 13”…it’s starting to look that way. The administration for the JAMF server is all through a webpage. I can build packages locally and upload them from said laptop. There are test machines connected to an IP-based KVM solution which means that VPN, Firefox and a Java applet or two let me test actual reboot and external-thumb-drive imaging solutions from the balcony at Peet’s, or the couch at home, or…someplace else.

Nothing against New Orleans, but I’m rapidly running out of places in the United States to retreat to. The Pacific coast from Monterey north seems to be the last recourse now, whether it’s Santa Cruz or Princeton-by-the-Sea or the prospect of somewhere near Lincoln City, Oregon. The dream now isn’t a week at the beach house, relaxing in the blogging pit while staring out at the fog and idly updating a workflow – it’s Ireland. Or London. Or Switzerland. If you’re going to go for it, go big. Go somewhere that has coins instead of small bills and viable train transit and no NFL, someplace where the holy rollers are in check and they at least haven’t elected a sentient yam. Someplace with an outside shot at a fireplace pub that hasn’t been overrun by the kind of tech scum that think everyone goes to the Carousel at 40.

I took advantage of a sale last week and splashed out on a pair of BeatsX earbuds. They have basically the same pairing functionality as Apple’s much-debated AirPods, but in this case they were $99. (They also use Lightning rather than micro-USB as the charger, meaning one cable will do for phone and headset alike.) But one non-trivial consideration for me was that it’s the flick of a menu bar item to change the pairing from my phone to my work laptop so I can watch Twin Peaks instead of working…

And then Lyft announced a promotional pairing with Amtrak (enter code AMTRAKLYFT for $5 off your next four rides, through September 30), and although I’ve never had a Lyft account, I created one…because Lyft is now one of the services that integrate with Siri, and I can turn to my iPhone from across the room and yell “Hey Siri, order me a Lyft” and it’ll do it. Much like I’ve been known to idly ask of an evening “what’s the weather like tomorrow” and sigh at the news that I may have to wear shorts in the office again. Then there’s the Malibu, and its CarPlay integration which means that I can unplug the phone, have a pin mark where I parked the car, and when I forget whether I locked it, just touch something on the app and have it lock the car from…wherever. 

Don’t look now, but somewhere in there, we crossed a nodal point of some sort. You can now get all the crazy benefits of living in the future without having to live in Silly Con Valley to do it. We were always promised that the Internet’s magic would let you work from anywhere, that we’d need Swatch Beats as a unified time standard for our around-the-world friendships and lifestyle, that we’d be able to talk to our intelligent assistant to get a cab and schedule a meeting or that we could video-chat in the palm of a hand or call up movies and songs at random anytime. And it’s finally getting there. If you have enough money floating around, and line up the right services and the right devices, you can actually live in what 1993 thought of as “the future.”

And the nice bit is – you don’t even have to be in Silly Con Valley to make it happen. Sure, all the startups that do what your mother isn’t there to do start off in San Francisco first, but for a grown-ass adult, the devices and the cloud service are already in place. Amazon Prime will deliver to Nashville as readily as Palo Alto. WhatsApp and iCloud work in Scotland as handily as Mountain View, and the bar crowd is less irritating. Citymapper will guide you through London as effectively as the A to Z, if not more so, and tools like Slack and RSS and podcasts work most anywhere that doesn’t have a Great Firewall screwing with you. If you have wireless networking, VPN and a power outlet, the world is yours.

So I’m leaning into it. The phone is the main Internet access device. The AppleTV is the interface for the television, not the cable box. Pay through NFC at every opportunity. Ask Siri and at least give him the chance to fuck up. (In the UK, the default voice is male; I currently have Australian Male as the voice aka “Hemsworth mode”.) And start looking for the first opportunity to get out of bed, stretch, and look out the window at a different street and a different sky and a different country code before starting the workday.