Flashback, part 96 of n

The first time I remember seeking out actual caps was in my senior year of high school. Because you wanted to represent your future college, or at least that’s what I was thinking of at the time. I had a white cap from The Game, with their standardized circle-logo, for Vanderbilt – which got tossed to the back of the closet and replaced with the bar-style logo for my undergrad. Then, after I discovered sports, the floodgates opened. I accumulated four or five Redskins caps, at least two of which I still have. I bought a Braves hat, my first foray into fitted hats. An Alabama cap or two.

Then things really jumped off and I started buying stuff like a teal Florida Marlins hat or a red and black Atlanta Falcons hat, teams I didn’t even like. I had to have the latest Barons hat every year. I bought a 1938 Hollywood Stars cap from Ebbets Field Flannels. I finally got my mitts on an actual fitted undergrad baseball team hat and thought “this is the final hat”…until I got to Vanderbilt and hit reset. And they just piled up and up and up.

Then in my second year at Vanderbilt, I got a decent haircut for the first time. Cheri at SalonFX was able to use the scissors in such a way that people would stop me to tell me how good it looked. And that was mostly it for caps, not least because once I hit the real world and had to work for a living, the ball cap was no longer a viable item of clothing. The heat and humidity of Washington DC seven months a year was enough to keep me away from them for a long time, even as I occasionally picked up a Boston Red Sox batting-practice hat that became the de facto lid for softball or a cheap $3 replica Washington Senators cap that barely fit.

And then, like a harbinger of things to come, I bought a black-on-black Cal cap at Pier 39 in San Francisco to cover a sunburnt scalp. A couple of years later, whilst dating the inspiration for the purchase of said cap, I bought a Giants batting practice hat. And then, in 2005, when I finally gave in and chopped all my hair off, a cap suddenly went from a style choice to a functional necessity in the nine months of sun in NorCal. A year later, with the full embrace of Vanderbilt, a Vandy hat of some kind became the go-to, with occasional allowances for Cal or something to pay tribute to DC. And then…

The rise of Vanderbilt baseball meant a rise in Vanderbilt alums going to the bigs. And a rise in the amount of attention I paid to baseball. And suddenly I needed a new Giants hat. I needed an Oakland A’s hat. I needed a San Jose Giants hat. I needed to avoid orange in two of those three, and obtain black and gold where I could. And then the A’s had a retro throwback that was just a plain solid gray 5950, low profile, size 7 5/8, and I bought a box of them for future use. And then Vandy switched to a Nike Dri-Fit cap suitable for warm weather. And then it became possible to easily get a St Patricks Day themed cap, or a 4th of July themed cap. And then, and then, and then.

We joke about my wife’s accumulation of scarves, but it’s nothing compared to my hat collection starting to resemble Tony Stark’s wine cellar at the climax of Iron Man 3. There’s a Chicago White Sox BP cap, suitable for hot weather, a salute to Carson Fulmer and Barack Obama and thirty-plus years of Barons who went on to the bigs. There’s a gray Yankees cap, for Sonny Gray’s inevitable rise to glory in New York. There’s a Brooklyn Dodgers cap, because the farm system is chockablock with Vandy boys and there’s the legacy of Jackie Robinson but I’ll be damned if I put an LA on my dome. There’s a Boston Red Sox BP hat, both as a salute to David Price and a memento of those days in the late 90s when I had a shelf full of books about the Sox and identified with the hard-luck tradition. And also because Vanderbilt baseball is Fenway South, from the Green Monster in left to “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” and “Sweet Caroline” during the same and a Yaz patrolling the outfield.

There’s my 1960 Vanderbilt cap by Ebbets Field, too warm for summer but the final triumphant Vanderbilt hat for good. There are Irish and American-flag Giants caps, and a red-white-and-blue Barons cap against the day I want to be from Birmingham again, and there are so many Vanderbilt caps I can’t keep them straight. There are at least a couple boxes worth of caps with sentimental value that I’m unlikely ever to wear but will never get rid of, like the Tired Texan BBQ gimme cap or the one from my dad’s old hunting club or the 2014 College World Series hat or the 2012 SEC Champions hat or…

I think it’s starting to become apparent that in addition to the horses-for-courses hat for every occasion, the drive for the One True Hat is of a piece with my eternal quest for identity. Magnum had the Tigers cap. Indy had the brown fedora. The Bear, of course, had the houndstooth. I think the parade of hats is a trail of breadcrumbs toward being content with who I am and needing a signifier that yeah, I arrived, I made it. 

It’s good to hope.

Before we start…

I never cared for Captain America. Ever. I was always an X-Men guy, not an Avengers guy, and I was as surprised as anyone else when Marvel Studios spun a world-beater out of the latter after selling off the film rights to the former. Even among the Avengers, I was definitely more in the Iron Man camp than anything else (it was 1985, I figured I’d have my own armor within thirty years, right?) but Captain America was a big red white and blue Boy Scout who seemed like the most likely cop/narc/whatever to a teenage mind that identified far more with mutants than the government’s sanctioned superhero team.

The MCU portrayal softened that a lot, to be honest. I wrote about how seeing Cap starting his life over in DC as a man out of time rang true to my own experience. I appreciate the difficulty that comes with seeing things crumble under you and finding out that people – and employers – are not what you thought they were, or worse. I get it. I’ll buy it.

And then along comes Civil War. In which Steve Rogers somehow manages to take the eulogy for Peggy Carter – in fact let me just block-quote the whole thing, because this is what made me snap:

I asked her once how she managed to master diplomacy and espionage at a time when no one wanted to see a woman succeed at either. And she said, “Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, ‘No, *you* move’.”

So…what Steve Rogers manages to do is take a riff on how tough it was to be a pioneering woman in a male-dominated field and fight for your own worth, and turn it into “I’m going to do what I want to, in the face of opposition from my friends, my teammates, and the government and country I was pledged to defend, and instead I’m going to substitute my own judgement for the law and my obligations as an Avenger.”

What. A. Dick.

Seriously, Tony Stark has some pretty major personality flaws, but he’s seen the results of his arrogance, and paid the price, and realized that there have to be controls and checks on what he and his fellows do. He’s reacted out of a place of fear and trauma, and paid the price for doing so, and been humbled as a result. It’s a reckoning that should be coming for Steve Rogers, but I don’t know if it’s going to. I don’t know how much Captain America is meant to be an allegory for the country as a whole, but damned if they didn’t nail just exactly that. And now, with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance, it might be time for Steve to take a seat and let someone else do the heavy decision-making for a minute. Because I don’t trust him at all to think of anyone but himself.

Right now? Giant purple strength coach threatening the world? Put me on Team Tony.

Now…let’s see where it goes.


Proving once again that their messaging apps are the Silly Con Valley equivalent of the Spinal Tap drummer, Google last week announced their plan for something called “Chat” – which basically means unifying the competing standards for Rich Communication Services (RCS) around a single profile and getting carriers to adopt this. So instead of backing a specific app, Google’s plan is to take a ten-year-old standard and try to get carriers to actually standardize on it and adopt it and then just support that in Android rather than trying to compete with the message solutions that are out there.

In theory this is not a bad idea. RCS is supposed to be a clean-and-clear standard for the sort of things that messaging has evolved into since SMS took over the world outside the US. It’s a data service like MMS, not carried on the control channels of the GSM implementation, but since all cellular service is basically just data now that’s less objectionable than it might have been. RCS is meant to incorporate standardized support for file sharing, video calling, group chat, presence and location info – all the stuff that you expect now from a mobile messaging app like WhatsApp, only you could (theoretically) use any manner of application to communicate using RCS.


Every major company has at least one white whale that it chases forever with no success. With Microsoft, it was digital music. With Google, it’s social media. With Facebook, it’s mobile, although Zuckface finally learned his lesson and just bought companies that did mobile better than he did. It’s not coincidence that I use both Instagram and WhatsApp, despite their Facebook ownership, because each was independently developed to do what they do and do it well. Instagram – assuming you’re not a FOMO-crippled twentysomething measuring yourself against a Kardashian – is far less obnoxious and awful than Twitter or Facebook. WhatsApp, meanwhile, delivered what RCS promised: a data-based featureful chat standard that works across platforms and national borders alike. If I want to talk to someone in, say, Norway or Kazakhstan or Australia, and they’re on an Android phone, WhatsApp is the only real solution. And not least because everyone on those countries is already on WhatsApp. America didn’t go in big on WhatsApp because the iPhone’s own implementation – iMessage providing multimedia and read receipts and extended services between iPhones and SMS/MMS for everything else – made additional apps superfluous for most users. 

It’s also encrypted end-to-end. The one huge red flag that’s missing from the RCS spec is encryption. In 2018, that’s a massive hole in the spec. Five years ago, when RCS was being branded as Joyn and just starting to roll out in parts of Europe and South America, that might have been less of a big deal. But now that Signal is the gold standard for consumer secure messaging, and now that WhatsApp has become the dominant presence as a cross-platform solution using Signal’s encryption, it’s hard to make the case for an open standard that has no encryption offering of its own and no obvious way to piggyback one on there.

But then, just letting WhatsApp be the answer for everyone isn’t a big help either. Yes, it’s featureful and cross-platform and encrypted and used everywhere in the world except China (of which more later, probably), but it’s also a wholly owned and operated subsidiary of Facebook, the world’s most untrustworthy tech company. They were doing pretty good and actually charging money for their service, a slick $1 a year, but now they apparently have no clear plan to monetize…although you know Facebook isn’t going to let that lie. 

So what happens? Now we have an open standard – albeit one being driven heavily by a single company trying to patch its one big flaw – but missing the thing that makes it most reliable. But having an standard-based approach not controlled by a single company – even if it’s Apple or OpenWhisper – is far more desirable. But encryption is indispensable in 2018.

If ifs and buts were bros with nuts we’d all be running vasectomy clinics.

Speaking of things kept safe in the groin region, this is where I reluctantly admit that while the iPhone X has been mostly successful, and capable of displacing most every other device, it’s still just too unwieldy to use without both hands. Which is annoying. Until the iPhone 6 was foisted on me in 2014 to replace a thoroughly-compromised Verizon-spec iPhone 5 (never ever get a mobile phone from Verizon, the end), mobile phones meant a one-handed device, even my bulky Nokia 6620 or SonyEricsson P800. But the iPhone 6 was just a hair too big, which is why I raced to the SE as soon as I could and never looked back. A one-handed phone means you don’t need the Apple Watch for a remote control; it’s small enough that you can pull it out for ApplePay and notifications and such. 

And now my attempts to wish an iPhone SE2 into existence seem to be coalescing – right now, today, the Great Mentioner seems to think the iPhone 7 chipset (complete with no headphone jack) will find its way into the body of the SE. Same camera, same TouchID, same 4-inch screen. Maybe more waterproof. Maybe (MAYBE) wireless charging. Almost certainly a larger battery. Almost certainly no FaceID or 3DTouch or Animoji. The battery life from the 6S to the 7 was about the same, so not expecting any great improvement there, but the SE had fabulous battery as is. A price point a little higher is being kicked around – maybe $500 or so, maybe by Memorial Day sometime.

And I think I would go for it, probably trading in my existing SE for credit and just eating the rest. Warranty refreshed, probable lifespan of updates refreshed – it’s all about the promise of needing a one-handed travel-ready phone able to go off to London or Bangkok or Geneva at the drop of a hat, a phone that needs to have WhatsApp and Signal enabled and work with Oyster card readers as readily as the touchless payment terminal at Boots. It’s another artifact of the life I aspire to have, someday, when there’s actual retirement and ready money. Which makes it a figment of my imagination, obviously…but it’s a figment I can actually purchase and pull into the real world, like my Ricksons or the Ebbets Field cap.

So…I’m gonna.

The Timeline

So I spent the better part of an afternoon working on the timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Amazingly, almost everything fits on a relative scale and is pretty easy to figure out, but connecting it to an actual chronological date is a tougher lift. 

More or less, it looks like this, where variable X is the year in which Avengers takes place: 

(X – 1.5) Iron Man 

(X -1) Iron Man 2, Hulk, Thor 

{X-1 to X?} Doctor Strange – before Thor: Ragnarok, possibly before CA:CW?

(X) – Avengers –  Before Christmas 2012

[(2012) Iron Man 3 – after Avengers]

(X+1) Thor: The Dark World – after Avengers, before both CA:WS and GotG

(X+2) CA: Winter Soldier 

[(2014) Guardians of the Galaxy]
[(2014) Guardians of the Galaxy 2] 

(X+4?) Avengers: Age of Ultron – between CA:TWS and Ant-Man

(X+4.5?) Ant-Man – between AoU and CA:CW?

(X+6)  Thor:Ragnarok – 2 years after AoU (Hulk has been Hulk for two years)

(X+???) CA: Civil War (see below)
(X+8) Spider-Man: Homecoming –  3-6 months after CA:CW

(X+8)   Black Panther – after CA:CW


So here’s the thing: 

1) Despite when it came out, Doctor Strange has to take place fairly early on. For one thing, Stephen Strange is mentioned as a person of interest by Jasper Sitwell in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and one arrogant neurosurgeon with nothing else interesting about him probably wouldn’t rise to that level. For another, it defies logic that he could go from wrecking his car to Sorcerer Supreme in a year. My theory: the “powered armor accident” mentioned on speakerphone toward the beginning of the movie is the guy who wrenched himself (but survived!) in the video shown during the Congressional hearing in Iron Man 2.

2) Right now, we have at least a two year window between Ultron and Civil War. There are statements in the movie that make things very confusing – General Ross says “for four years you’ve had no supervision” which suggests four years since Winter Soldier (thus making it X+6), but Vision says “in the eight years since Mr. Stark revealed himself as Iron Man” which makes it X+6.5…but Spider-Man: Homecoming explicitly says it’s eight years since the Battle of New York, thus X+8, meaning that even with the most generous math Civil War can’t be less than X+7.75 or so.
3) The only hard dates we have are Iron Man 3, which takes place ~13 years after Y2K Eve (so Christmas 2012), and both Guardians of the Galaxy movies (which both take place in 2014 at separate times). Iron Man 3 has to happen after Avengers (so Avengers is definitely early 2012 or before), and Guardians of the Galaxy has to happen after Thor: The Dark World because of the Collector connection (so before 2014). 
Here’s my thinking: you can probably finesse Civil War as X+7. Vision is rounding down, Ross is rounding up, and the intro of Homecoming is just skipping ahead a bit. This makes things interesting because there’s at least a two-year and possibly three-year window between Ultron and Civil War, in which Ant-Man is able to do whatever he does but isn’t yet an Avenger and there’s no SHIELD investigating the weirdness in San Francisco (I mean, where would you start). You also need to allow for at least a year between Avengers and Iron Man 3, maybe more, because otherwise when does Tony have time to clandestinely manufacture 35 new suits of ever-increasing complexity? 
So that puts Avengers somewhere around summer 2011. Which means Fury’s Big Week (the meat of Phase 1) happens in 2010, which means Tony himself was first kidnapped and created Iron Man in 2009. If X = 2011, that means that Thor: The Dark World is roughly concurrent with Iron Man 3 and that Winter Soldier happens after Tony has “destroyed” all his suits. Age of Ultron happens in 2015, Civil War sometime in late 2017, and Spider Man: Homecoming and Black Panther in the fall of 2017. Which means we’re right on time for Avengers: Infinity War to take place as it comes out. That also lets Vision’s “eight years” statement work as well as Ross’s “four years without supervision” and kiiiiiiinda lets Homecoming still work if you round up to 8 years.  That was probably a botch on Kevin Feige’s part and should have been 7 years, but what can you do. It also suggests that the Guardians of the Galaxy have been a team for four years now, that the Avengers have only been dispersed for a year or less, and that we’re going to have some serious re-framing to do around Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Now, back to Doctor Strange. They mention the Avengers as a point of comparison when protecting the world from supernatural threats, so the Avengers are known by at least halfway through the picture. I’ll guess that Doctor Strange does start about six months before the Battle of New York and that the battle takes place while he’s in Tibet. Since most of the action is either indoors in the Sanctum Sanctorum, walled away in the Mirror Dimension, or else subject to rewind by the Eye of Agamotto, it’s plausible that it went unnoticed with all the shit that had just gone down in New York. Which means that Stephen Strange is a person of interest in time for SHIELD (and HYDRA) to have him on the radar during Winter Soldier, but also has enough time to really become the Sorcerer Supreme by the time Thor turns up looking for his father. And in between, the only thing that might have drawn his attention would be Sokovia, but there’s no reason he would have known in time to be of assistance and no reason he ever would have contemplated registering under the accords, because by his lights, he’s not a superhero, he’s just the watcher on the wall against mystical threat.
So there you go. I feel a lot better about having solved for X, because I am a gigantic fucking nerd and having an all-everything Marvel team-up movie is something I waited 30 years to see. Two weeks left.

Tipping the Scale

So Zuckbot 3000 has gone before Congress to attempt to impersonate a human being, and after two days of testimony it’s hard to shake the impression that some kind of regulation is coming sooner or later, if nothing else to ape the EU’s new requirements. Good, and long overdue. I’m still trying to think of a good reason to hang onto my barely-used Facebook account other than the fact that it’s probably the only means of contacting people from high school or the NGS days. I went nuts locking it down back in 2011, and that looks like a good move in retrospect.

People are talking about paying for an ad-free version of Facebook, which I don’t see happening for one simple reason: that would impede growth. Free shit propagates much more quickly than paid versions, and attempting to pay for the use of a social network – whether it be app.net or micro.blog – isn’t a valuable option when everything depends on how big that Monthly Average Users delta is. This was at the heart of Facebook’s original sin – offering a walled garden in exchange for your real identity, and then tearing down the walls to monetize it at the first opportunity.

But then, part of the problem is just scale itself. Take Ireland, for instance, which was a lovely country that I would go back to in a heartbeat…and where there were only two towns bigger than Mountain View. Or the San Jose Giants, the Advanced-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, with their WPA-era park that seats a few thousand and discounts beer by half when the Beer Batter strikes out. Or any cozy alley dive bar anywhere.

Or consider representative democracy, where we have 435 Congresscritters in the House. (Never mind the Senate, the least representative body in the Western world, and I include the House of Lords in that metric.) At current population, every member of the House represents roughly 800,000 people. Up from 565,000 when I was younger, and the staff hasn’t grown to match. Full time staff for a Congressperson is 14 (up from 9) plus four part-timers. To update PJ O’Rourke, you’d think a company with 800,000 customers would have more than fifteen full time employees. And that 435 number was fixed at a time when the US population was just over 92 million, so every notional representative has quadrupled his or her area served.


The problem that most social media options use – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – is that eventually the stream is too big to keep up with, so they start using algorithmic methods to show you what you need to see instead of just giving you the firehose in order. Because of course the stream will be too big to keep up with, because you have to add everyone. It’s not just friends, it’s friends of friends, or sports teams, or beer brands, or things your friends choose to repost, or eventually just things your friends liked. And then they decide what you should see “in case you missed it”.

There was a time when there were horses for courses. Twitter was basically a blast group text. Instagram was a mobile photography solution designed to make the best of the shitty cameras on early smartphones. Facebook was a cleaner version of MySpace or Friendster, which themselves were basically blogging solutions with nothing but a profile page. And Twitter added faves and retweets, and Facebook added the News Feed, and Instagram got bought by Facebook and somehow managed to avoid some of the stupidest modifications while being repurposed into a part-time Snapchat ripoff, and we got to where we are now. Every couple of years someone tries to roll out Path, or Ello, or Diaspora, or Peach, or whatever that thing was last month that was basically a Russian-flavored Zack Snyder promo, but nothing ever takes. Because we’ve got Facebook and Twitter and Insta already, and nobody wants to move to another service when everybody’s already on one.

And the thing is, Facebook grasped this, and then went out and bought the next thing. Which is why they have Instagram and WhatsApp now. Any sane solution to getting Facebook under control would force them to divest those two apps – engineering, advertising, they don’t have to be sold off but they have to be firewalled as if they were. Ideally, though, the Facebook fix involves portability of data and the ability to federate it. The web wasn’t a single company’s product. Neither was email. They were a set of standards that could be implemented in interoperable fashion. I’ve ranted about this before, and now it seems more obvious than ever: you can’t let your data be dependent on a single company, whether it’s Facebook or Google or Hooli or whatever comes next. No regulations meant unlimited consolidation meant imperatives to drive growth meant base emotional manipulation meant “we accidentally the election.”

So maybe that’s the solution. The urgency to grow, the need to achieve scale at any cost, has driven most of the bad behavior at Facebook and elsewhere. Google might have become the dominant email provider, but it doesn’t stop you using Hotmail or Yahoo or iCloud or your ISP’s service or your brother-in-law’s secure IMAP server. Nothing prevents you popping up a website or a blog on any number of free services which anyone with a web browser or RSS reader is free to access, to syndicate into a feed. Microblogging options like Tumblr or Typepad Micro can be thrown into Feedbin or Feedly. There are ways to do this by separating publishing tools and reading tools and hosting service. We did it for years, if not decades. We can do it again. We should do it again.

Too big to fail? Facebook might be too big to let live.

The Southern Thing, again

Maybe it would have been different if I’d left sooner. Maybe it would have been different if my dad hadn’t died. Maybe it would have been different if I had gone away and gotten to see what the world had to offer from a position of strength, and then come back to see high school friends and indulge in a city slowly growing into modernity. 

But the chain of events was wrong. I stayed for college, the biggest mistake of my life. When I left, I was still anchored to the bad stuff in Birmingham, and when my world fell apart, I started over from zero in a faraway place, and was rebuilt as a different person. And Birmingham wasn’t home for him, could never be home for him.  As it stands, half my heart is on the Orange Line Metro at 9 AM Monday morning, and the other half is watching the sun set on San Gregorio beach from the shoulder of Highway 1. Alabama doesn’t enter into it.

And yet.

Set me down on I-65, with puffy white clouds in the sky, somewhere between Montgomery and Huntsville…and I feel something. I don’t know how to describe it. It feels familiar, like something from another life, maybe the set of a movie I saw once, like another world that a previous incarnation lived in. Not deja vu exactly, because I know I’ve been there before, but it’s not really what I remember. I think the apt comparison is to Vanderbilt: I’m a fan and a supporter, but everyone concerned is completely different than when I was there and I haven’t had any contact since graduation with the people who were there when I was. Similarly, there are a handful of people in and around Birmingham who might remember me from way back when, but my family is a mess and what friends I had are scattered. And what makes Birmingham attractive now? Railroad Park, the new Barons stadium, half a dozen local breweries and a thriving foodie scene and Revelator Coffee and electric bike share?

I mean, think about it…that which makes someplace the “it city” is usually a smear of some kind of gritty authenticity on which is suddenly plopped a melange of craft beer, bike sharing, artisan bakeries, Instagram-friendly scenery (ALL THE MURALS), that sort of thing. And the “authentic” things of the place slowly get overrun by their commercialized imitators. Saw’s instead of the Tired Texan. Hattie B’s instead of Joe D’s Hot Chicken Club. Sure, there are great things to see in Birmingham, but do the list – local craft beer, like Good People or Avondale? Bike sharing? Neighborhoods with their vintage architecture and business street intact? And old theater with a Wurlitzer organ and old movies? Foodie dining? What is there in Birmingham that wasn’t already long established in Silicon Valley before the iPhone was invented? I’ll tell you: special dogs, Dreamland ribs and the Civil Rights Trail. That’s the list.

Again, there is an edit that sends me away for undergrad – not even necessarily to Vanderbilt, but maybe to Tulane or Columbia or Brown or Stanford or UCSD – in which I don’t even go to grad school, because I don’t need to launder my undergrad experience. And because I got out of Birmingham for college, I can go back home, instead of already being “home” as the black cloud grinds it into a fine misery. It’s tough to go back when most all the things that make it worth going back to are things you already had in 2006 where you live now.

I just don’t have the draw. I can make my own barbecue, I can drive three miles to Popeye’s, I struggle to get good collards but they never cooked collards in my house anyway. I don’t have the sidewalk alumni crowds that turn my college sports into a religious practice. I’m the only member of the family still carried on the rolls of our ancestral church, whose doors I haven’t darkened in twenty years. I can’t stand the humidity, there’s no one around that I’m legitimately close to, and you have to change planes to get there.

God bless whoever stayed in the blue dots, holding them down and trying to build for a better day. Whatever it is they found, whatever it is they have there, is something I just don’t have and maybe never did. And if that were ever going to happen, it would have happened by age 46.