Festivus 2017

The original sin was thinking we could buy and sell human beings. The next one was thinking we could make a deal with that sin to get ourselves a country. And when we went to war, it wasn’t to end that sin, but to fight the ones who broke the deal in the name of continuing that sin. And when the threat was past, we looked the other way while they got as close as they could to returning to that sin. And whenever they got close to the line, eventually we shook a finger when we should have brandished a stick, and brandished a stick when we should have swung it. We never stood up to correct the sin. Somebody always backslid. Somebody was always willing to make a deal with sin for their own benefit. The bill for our sin gets a little longer every day, and the day will come when we have to settle up. And it will cost. It might cost us a nation.

-Dec 18, 2012

With an engaged and educated population, the Internet could have been a useful tool of political discourse. But we don’t have that. We’ve venerated the stupid for a decade and a half, and instead, what we got was an electronic force multiplier for willful ignorance. Facts and lies on equal footing, and you’re entitled to your own reality. And an entire party went along with this because Donald Trump is an even more egregious version of what George W. Bush was meant to be: a matador with a signing pen so the GOP in Congress could loot the country for itself.

-Dec 23, 2016

Sixteen years ago, Osama bin Laden made Stupid Americans shit themselves. Then we spent every year after validating stupid. And after a wihile, Russia figured out how to exploit their fear. And Twitter and Facebook both lay back and allowed them to do it. The confluence of public stupid and technological free-for-all destroyed the 21st century before it could start. And now, because we didn’t push back on an electoral college that make the person with the most votes lose, because we didn’t push back on conspiracy theorists as “news”, because we decided the Internet was the free-speech wing of the free-speech party (whatever the fuck that means other than something to let tech bros get erect), we wound up where we are now. Comcast and Verizon have free reign to carve up Internet access like cable TV. There is no free market in broadband anymore. The budget is such a freakin’ disaster area that we don’t even know whether to pay off the property tax now so it’ll still be deductible on our federal return.

The really disturbing thing is…how do you come back from this? Elect a bunch of Democrats and then see if you can get away with impeachment, which will only put a bigger holy roller in the Oval Office and convince Ed Earl Brown that the job is done because Trump’s out? Run the table in 2020 and start trying to put things back like they were, only to get smeared by the catamites at the New York Times and take an ass-kicking in 2022? Do we have the time to wait for demographics to fix things or are we going to be too far gone by then?

So this is where I explain how you’ve disappointed me this year, America. Although it’s really been the last twenty years if we’re honest. I never want to hear “we’re better than this,” because mathematically we’ve kind of proven we aren’t.

The Shift

For a couple of releases now, there’s been a problem with iOS. Either it clings to bad wifi like a Demigorgon to a peripheral character’s throat (of which more later) or it won’t connect at all, especially where an interstitial page is concerned (the pop-up pages you have to click through to connect at Starbucks, or Whole Foods, or basically any hotel, or…) – and then, iOS 11 added cellular support for areas of poor wi-fi coverage, which is meant to help, buuuuut…

I pulled my numbers from work, where my cellular service is provided gratis as one of the few perks this job can offer. And sure enough, coincident with the release of iOS 11, my cellular data usage spikes by 25% and stays spiked. It’s not a function of the device, or going out of town, or anything else I can pin down – the shift happens with iOS 11. Which couldn’t be more annoying, because it’s not like you can easily stay on an older OS without compromising your security or your ability to interact with other users at some level or another. And obviously there’s no going back once you take the plunge.

But it brings up another point. My data use jumped from 8 GB and change to 10 or 11 GB and change. Which is enormous, because once you get over the 8 GB mark, you don’t really find inexpensive prepaid solutions for mobile phone data in this country. As little as a year ago, you could still get a 5 GB prepaid plan from T-Mobile for $30 a month. US Mobile will let you pick and choose, and if I throw 300 minutes and 100 texts on top of it, I can get 5 GB of data on VZW’s network for $37 a month or 8 GB on T-Mobile’s for $44 a month. But as soon as you go past 8, forget about US Mobile or Cricket or T-Mob…you’re in the realm of “unlimited” plans and your baseline just jumped from somewhere in the $45 range to somewhere $70 and north.

And here’s the thing that’s really problematic: I don’t stream on the phone. So many people rely on Spotify or Apple Music, or constantly watch YouTube or Netflix or what have you, but I don’t. I do download a bunch of podcasts, and that’s gotten more difficult now that the Junks post them as hours rather than segments so I have to download more data to get the same content (thanks for nothing, donkeys), but that’s a development in the last week. The bigger issue is this: combine the FCC’s neutering of net neutrality with the increase in data usage across the board, and we’ve basically given AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter and everyone else free reign to squeeze the shit out of us. The baseline cost of what it costs to have a smartphone is greater than it used to be with no appreciable change in usage or consumption, and it is now free to go even higher.

Because let’s face it, there’s not a lot of competition. There are four cellular networks in this country, constantly trying to merge into three, and the MVNO dodge won’t save you any money if you can’t use it. And although phones are getting better, there’s still a lock-in where if you’re on Verizon’s network you can’t roam onto the lower-speed GSM options once LTE runs out, so (as I proved from 2012-14) if you fall off LTE you’re back to a battery-killing 1X network. Conversely, if you’re on AT&T or T-Mobile, maybe you can roam onto Verizon’s LTE, maybe you can’t (spoiler: probably not). But since this country went on multiple tracks instead of standardizing on GSM, and still sells mostly locked phones, you don’t have nearly the flexibility to move back and forth.

And here’s how it shows: when I went to Ireland, I laid down 20 Euro (at the time, about $23) and got unlimited calling for a month and 15 GB of data. Read that again. $23 for unlimited calls and 15 GB of data in Ireland vs $44 for 8 GB of data in the US via T-Mob or Cricket.  Twice the data for half the money. Go across the water to the UK and EE is offering 16 GB and unlimited texts for £30 (which today is about $40) while Three is offering 12 GB, 3000 minutes and 3000 texts for £20. Because phones are separate from service, and because all service uses the same technology, you’re actually in a competitive market and can go back and forth.

But in this country, the companies will actually argue that your cell phone is competition for your home broadband, which – unless you live somewhere with fiber – is a choice between The Baby Bell and The Cable Company if you’re lucky and one or the other if you aren’t. If you live someplace like Chattanooga, Tennessee (!!) you have cheap municipal fiber that can actually offer competition for the local duopoly, and if forced to compete they’ll bring down the price. But if they aren’t, you wind up paying ridiculous money. It wasn’t like this when the phone lines had to be free and open and you had dozens of dialup operators to choose from and the likes of Earthlink making $20 unlimited ISP service a routine thing, or when the incumbent local carrier had to open the loop to competitors and you could get DSL from other providers (like the late and dearly missed Speakeasy.net). But noooooo…now, somehow, the phone in your hand is somehow competition for the line in the wall. Maybe you want to squint at Stranger Things on a 5.5” phone screen, but most people would rather lean back and look at the big screen (without streaming it through the phone, because if one hour of HD video takes up 4 GB of data, that’s your phone reduced to dialup speed halfway through the first season).

The brutal fact of the matter is that everything that comes to your computer is just some sort of data over a dumb pipe. Bits are bits are bits.. The massacre of Net Neutrality is about allowing your cable and phone companies to slice and dice that data and charge you more for the stuff you want. It should be called the Middleman Protection Act of 2017. But then, when you let a Verizon shitpile determine what should be the policy for internet use, you should hardly be surprised that a dumb pipe company wants a nickel on everything.

But it’s just the price I pay, destiny is calling me

OK. In the cold light of noon, let’s have a look at this thing.

There will be plenty of analysis about how this was won: enhanced turnout among Democratic voters driven by a sustained and repeatable GOTV effort fully funded by the DNC and external donors, leveraged against a compromised candidate – and there will be a case that this cannot be done again barring the nomination of yet another holy roller pervert for statewide office by the GOP. I’m here to tell you it’s wrong. Roy Moore came within the population of Gardendale of a mandatory recount. His issue positions are not materially different from any other Alabama Republican. His voters were not that dissuaded by the allegations, because they already reject any reality that doesn’t fit their views. And his voters are dying. Old white men who remember life before desegregation are sinking sand on which to build a voter base.

More to the point, contra my remarks yesterday, the fact that Doug Jones won suggests there is a path to statewide Democratic victory in Alabama. Hang Trump around the GOP’s neck, get black voters to the polls, and get young voters mobilized and active. It will take extra effort to overcome the structural obstacles Alabama has spent years if not decades placing in the path of likely Democratic voters, but we now have the existence proof that it can be done. And if you can do it once, you can do it again – for the right gubernatorial candidate in 2018, and then beyond.

But more to the point…

Last night, the fans of Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires were crossing team lines on Twitter to exult in their victory, with Auburn fans posting Rammer Jammer cheers and Tide fans gleefully showing off the toilet paper fluttering in the trees at Toomer’s Corner. Grapico and special dogs and Milo’s were invoked and great oaths were sworn about how “We Dare Defend Our Rights” now means everyone’s and all of them. And I contemplated the fact that of all the places I’ve ever lived, 13 years in California and 7 more in the NoVA suburbs of DC, the only place that ever stereotyped me as a white man from Alabama was Jefferson County, Alabama…which went 3-1 for Doug Jones last night. 

That’s not nothing. That’s a meaningful marker laid down, that what was once a tiny blue dot in Southside in a sea of red is now a burgeoning and reliable blue county driven by African-American voting power. That in addition to baseball and wi-fi and recycling and craft beer, Birmingham is developing a politics that looks like America and pushing it ever outward toward the rest of the state. And the ones who resist, the ones who fight hardest to keep things like they are, the ones who are so wedded to how it used to be that they might as well be Vol fans…they’re dying. Every day.

I still don’t see ever moving back. But being able to visit, being able to enjoy it, being able to take pride in everything from the Barons to Avondale Brewing to Top Hat BBQ to a 205 area code? This morning, there’s a path back to the light that wasn’t there yesterday. And I am grateful for everyone who trod out that path and who fights to clear it today and tomorrow and the day after that.

It raises the possibility that before I die, I could live to see the state of my birth not showing its ass to the world. That for the first time in my life, it might just extend a hand and say “y’all come home.” That there’s a path back to Birmingham that doesn’t involve looking out the bay doors of the bomber during the Second American Civil War. That who I am, what I am, could actually be part and parcel of what the city and the state and the South is. That I wouldn’t have to hang my head and make excuses and disavow a state that disavowed me…because it wouldn’t, not any more.

Wouldn’t that be something.

Here’s the galling thing:

…this shouldn’t be close. It shouldn’t be within screaming distance of close. Roy Moore shouldn’t be able to see Doug Jones with binoculars. This should be about a 50 point spread, and in a sane state, it would be.  Instead, it’s 50-50. Instead, we’re back to hoping that a turnout of 25% and a third of the white vote will be enough to vote in a bog-standard blue-dog Democrat, a lauded federal prosecutor about as radical as buttermilk, so that we don’t get a literal religious fanatic who believes in Christian-flavored Sharia law and has literally been thrown out of office twice since 2000 because of it.

The man is manifestly unqualified for office. He sits far outside the mainstream of conservative thought, as difficult as that is to imagine in Alabama in 2017. He is manifestly unpopular with elected Republicans who view him as a show horse and a glory hound. He is a repository for the kind of performative redneckery that leads most people in Alabama to point and howl at New York City and California for slandering their Southern culture and heritage. Listen here, hilljacks: the libel is coming from inside the house. No one is stereotyping Southerners more than the Southerners who run on those stereotypes and get votes from them.

This, too, is exactly why Democrats write off Alabama. It’s hard, and it’s harsh, and it’s unfair on the nonwhite population or those precious few Caucasians who actually want better for their state. But this should be a layup. This should be a fish, a barrel and a smoking gun. Money has poured into this race, national help has poured into this race, everything that can be done has been done. Who knows, the Democratic Socialist purity flowers may even find a way to hold their nose and bubble in for Doug. This is throwing everything that can be thrown. If it doesn’t work now? If the bastard child of Boss Hogg and Yosemite Sam as sired out of the love scene in Deliverance can win through anyway? Then tell me exactly where the percentage is in throwing money into a Senate race in Alabama ever.

Win the districts you can until the VRA lines get redrawn. Maybe pour some of this money into trying to retake the state legislature and work your way up from there. But give up on turning it blue. Retake the Congress and the White House by other means and then use the power of the federal government to do for those who deserve it despite the state’s best efforts. You know, exactly as we’ve had to do for the last fifty years, and will have to do until every white person born before 1970 lies dead in the cold red dirt.

If you can Argo the other folks, do. Rescue the ones who deserve better. But forget about the Roy Moore voters. They deserve nothing less or more than the consequences of their actions, and I have better things to do with my life. You see that sign outside my house that says Captain Save-A-Neck? You know why you don’t see that sign? Because saving necks ain’t my fucking business any more.

ghosts of christmas past, part 11 of n

Dashing through the stores, people every place

Up and down the aisles, sneezing in my face (achoo!)

There’s so much to choose, there’s so much to see

Wonder if what I got you cost more’n what you got me?


At Christmas in 1983 it was sixth-grade choir. We learned a number of songs and then found ourselves bused here or there to perform in December, one time at Western Hills Mall before it was written out of the pantheon of “acceptable white people shopping districts” in greater Birmingham. I remember the choke of the necktie, the pinch of the dress shoes, the discovery of the heretofore-unseen Discs of Tron standalone game in the mall’s arcade afterwards. And that Jingle Bells parody was, in fact, one of the songs we actually performed. And the bus rides to rehearsals, with that parody as the most popular song while other people chimed in with ripoffs of the Toys R Us jingle or similar, and a realization that something was happening.


Wrap your presents nice, pretty bows that shine

Take ‘em out to mail, gonna wait in line

Fight your way back home, and if you’re like me

Maybe by the twenty-fourth you’ll get to trim the tree!


I wasn’t in any sort of organized choir the next year, seventh grade, but I remember doing the same thing again somehow. This time I think it was Century Plaza, wearing more or less the same getup that I had sported as Chief Elf in my playwriting debut, “The Elves Go On Strike” – a Luddite celebration of anti-automation and industrial sabotage, in Alabama in 1984. (Never say the signs weren’t there.) And the van ride back, Duran Duran blasting as the girls all mockingly sang “Boys On Film,” and me more conscious than ever of…something. The obvious answer ought to be puberty, but that wasn’t it. It was the sort of moment that appears in memoirs as “when I realized I was gay,” but that isn’t it either. Just an awareness that there was a social structure here, and that I was on the outside of it – and for the first time, I was suddenly and acutely conscious of What That Meant.

I already knew I was different. I knew I didn’t have a hell of a lot of friends. I knew I was not exactly held in high esteem by most of my peers – awe at the freakish smarts and disgust at the smart freak, but not esteem – but leaking through in those Christmas seasons was the first ever realization that this might be turn into a problem for me sooner or later. That there were other things in life than just bringing home a report card full of A’s, and I had absolutely no idea how to do them. I had to learn to interact socially with people, and I had absolutely positively no idea how.

I learned. Slowly and painfully. I figured out that I had to sometimes just stop talking, swallow the point I had planned to make and let it go. I had to find things other people were interested in, which led to a decade of sports obsession out of nowhere. It took a long, long time, and if I’m honest it probably only really started to kick in at Vanderbilt, when I was thrust into a small clique that kind of had to take me in and willingly did so, and when I had the opportunity to hone my wit and repartee in a form that demanded cleverness at 70 words per minute and 33.6 Kbps minimum.

So now I can go out to one holiday party after another, with people I barely know, and I can find a way to hold my own. Find a hook, remember a name and a fact, spin a tale out of it or pull one out of someone else. Hop from pain management to the tax and finance issues around vertically integrated cannabis production to pedestrian tours and tales of band larceny, and in a pinch there’s always the ample ineptitude of American football, college or pro alike. I learned to finesse away that I must have met you at some point previously, it’s always nice to see you and not nice to meet you just in case, and years of trivia give me something to work with…

But it’s still a chore. It’s an effort. It’s something that I had to work at and struggle with and it doesn’t come easy at all, especially as I get older and ever more introvert, and it makes me wish I’d had this skill set in 1983 or 1984 or 1989. And it makes me ever more grateful for years like 1994 or 2006, when somehow I either magically had it or magically didn’t need it, and a glorious Christmas season just happened. But sometimes you can work your way into one too. I’m pulling for it.

Final Impressions

“It’s too damn big. In every particular, it conveys SIZE like a Texas pickup with horns in the hood. I know intellectually it’s thinner than the Moto X, but it’s definitely taller and I suspect wider, with a top bevel that really doesn’t need to be that size…”

It’s too big. The bezels are gone, but they just stretched the screen awkwardly into them. And yes, there are UI conventions to try to work around it, but the swipe-down-on-the-bottom is far less reliable or responsive than the double-tap-the-home-button was to bring the top of the screen down, and having different swipe-down-from-top is incredibly awkward, and having the keyboard scooch itself to one side or the other is problematic even if the keyboard were reliably responsive and not the dog’s breakfast it’s been for several releases now.

No, my complaints of three years ago about the iPhone 6 are even more valid for a slightly larger device. The iPhone X is just too large to be anything but a two-handed phone. In that respect, Apple has clearly capitulated to our computing future: everyone is stuck with a two-handed phone at all times and you’d better have a jacket or a purse. I don’t like it, I don’t appreciate it, but then, it wasn’t my money and I still have the iPhone SE in a pinch. So get over that. What else?

Well, iOS 11 hasn’t shook the uncomfortable sense that Apple’s QA department all died in a tragic blimp accident. While it doesn’t have the gargantuan security nightmares of its Mac counterpart, iOS 11 is downright rickety in its UI choices (I still don’t get why the control center can’t just fucking turn off the Wi-Fi if I said so) and it’s still frequently easier to just turn Wi-Fi off altogether in favor of one bar of LTE, because it clings to bad Wi-Fi like a Demigorgon to a peripheral character’s face. FaceID works most of the time, except when the phone is laying on the table and you have to pick it up to look at it to unlock it or else tap in the whole code, neither of which was necessary with TouchID.

I alluded earlier to the fact that Beleagued Apple Computer presented itself as something like Mercedes or BMW, and that by the time they became Apple Inc they had become Volkswagen, and that now they’re aiming to be Tesla. And I think this exemplifies how they have done so. This new phone finally adopts a bunch of other tech other folks had, but does it in a sleek and sexy way, with superlative integration and flashy design and an absurd price tag and if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it. Meanwhile, Nokia and Motorola are over there grinding out perfectly serviceable devices for less than half the money (hell, Nokia just dropped a bare-Android smartphone for a hundred dollars at Best Buy. It’s practically an Android burner) if you’re willing to…

That’s the real trick, isn’t it? You either give your ecosystem over to the Beast of North Bayshore, or you pay through the nose to stay with Apple. The privacy of your personal data is now a luxury good. Sure, you can still get the iPhone SE for $350 and have a phone that doesn’t make you put your coffee down to use, but for how much longer (given its innards are two generations behind current now)? And with Tim Cook over there making nice to a Chinese government that has the kind of control over the Internet the FCC would love to give Comcast and the Baby Bell Twins, you have to ask if having your personal data vivisected for profit is just The Way We Live Now.


The other experiment is: if the phone is so damn big and unwieldy, can it actually be used in place of a Kindle or iPad? Well, I haven’t pulled the iPad out of its case since I got the iPhone X set up, and I can’t remember the last time I drew on the Kindle. The actual Kindle app for iPhone could use an update because it can’t take advantage of the whole screen, but even the iPhone 6-equivalent is slightly larger than what was available on the Moto X, and the combination of AMOLED and white text on black screen means I can read for an hour and only burn 5% of battery with no other remediative power solutions in play. So that’s nice, for what it’s worth. Only one device to carry. The downside is, when you’re down the pub and trying to read yourself out of the world for a while, your primary phone – with all its apps, and all its notifications, and all its empty promises – is not the best tool for the job.

Of which more later.