flashback, part 99 of n

The official cutover is summer of 1983. A summer with the teenage babysitter converted my brother away from being an Alabama fan and me away from a reliance on country music. From the time WZZK came on the air, giving Birmingham an FM blowtorch to beat any of the AM stalwarts, the countrypolitan sounds of the early 1980s were all I had to listen to. But a summer listening to top-40 flipped the switch on my musical preferences just in time for sixth grade. Not even three years in Nashville would send me back to contemporary country, ever again.

That’s not what this post is about.

Two summers ago, I stumbled across Sirius XM’s “Yacht Rock.” It coincided nicely with the acquisition of the new car, and my commute was soon filled with Christopher Cross and Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers and, let’s face it, everything that ever had a Michael McDonald vocal on it. It was a smooth ironic throwback to an era of champagne and teak and Quaaludes and General Hospital, an era when Hall & Oates could top the R&B chart and Herb Alpert could be considered Top 40.

And the thing is, that whole era of soft rock was the last era before I arrived. It’s been mentioned before how I missed out on New Wave and the second British Invasion, but I wasn’t really around the first time for every song with a boat in it. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t hear it. On the contrary, it was always there in the background – at the swimming pool, on the tape players of other kids (and adults) at day care, out the windows of passing cars. WZZK might have been the Death Star of Birmingham radio, but it certainly wasn’t the be-all and end-all of music in town, and there were plenty of stations, AM and FM alike, still busy pumping out the adult contemporary sound of the early Reagan years.

And at some level, I retained some of it, because it’s not like I was hearing Toto or Rupert Holmes for the first time two years ago (well, I’d definitely heard the Pina Colada Song before, but not the entire Rupert Holmes Cinematic Universe; you can’t tell me the gag-gift-of-the-Magi story of “Escape” doesn’t begin with the kind of couple who would propose and accept via answering machine message and end with him finding her side piece’s cigarettes). There are in fact a few songs that I would swear had appeared on WZZK as well; the confluence of soft rock and folk influence with the post-Outlaws version of the Nashville sound in the Urban Cowboy era meant you were as likely to hear Boz Scaggs on country radio as Michael Martin Murphey on the pop station.

Maybe part of the appeal is that I’m just in the demo now for “adult contemporary” – hell, this is the music that was around when the “Easy Listening” chart changed its name, and I’ve got the “beautiful music/easy listening” channel on SXM fixed on button number 5 in the car. Smooth, soothing, the sort of thing I need to help ease me out of the world a little. But I think part of it is that there’s a section of my life that has been locked away for decades, as if my real world began in 2004 or 1997 or 1983. If I’m going to be 46 years old, I should have something to show for all 46.

Besides, the beach and the boat shoes have become a much bigger desire in recent years. Why not indulge them?

Clueless, but with dudes

Not a good month for the high and mighty of Silly Con Valley. First, Phony Stark made an ass of himself again when his toy sub was not the chosen instrument of rescuing a bunch of trapped kids in Thailand, and he may have left himself wide open for a legit libel suit. And then, Ol’ Fuckerberg thought he could go one-on-one with high tech’s cranky bullshit-proof lesbian aunt and coughed up the notion that Holocaust deniers were just misinformed in good faith (which, if nothing else, shows that the Jewish experience at Harvard must ain’t what it used to be). And I’m going to assume someone at Twitter is apologizing for something galactically stupid, because it’s a day that ends in Y.

I once said something to the effect of “beware the man who thinks the one thing he knows is the only thing worth knowing.” Thus the fallacy of “everybody needs to learn to code” (of which more later) because if all you know is code, then obviously Full Stack Developer is the only meaningful aspiration for anyone in society. There are way too many guys (and Elizabeth Holmes) who have mistaken the warm tongue-bath of an utterly credulous press for complete irreproachability in the wider world, and then flip out when the wider world confronts them with the holes in their thinking.

Take Zuckerberg. Please. He somehow got in his head the notion that to deny Facebook’s platform to the likes of, say, Infowars would somehow be an infringement on free speech. Thing is, there are other platforms out there – like the San Francisco Chronicle, say, or KTVU channel 2, or KCBS radio. They don’t routinely broadcast Alex Jones and his spittle-flecked insanity, and yet nobody sane thinks they are abusing free speech. Time was, we were circumspect about radio and television and the press because the opportunity cost of access to the airwaves was enormous, and distribution of media was expensive. Nutters had to mimeograph their conspiracy theory and pass it out on the corners. Nobody considered that somehow the rights of the Klan were being abused because they weren’t freely given a half hour on NBC at 6 PM.

And comes now Mark Zuckerberg with the notion that somehow he is obligated to let the mental defectives who are destroying Western civilization run rampant on his platform. Which completely misunderstands how free speech works. They are entitled to their speech. No one is obligated to provide them with a soapbox, let alone the opportunity to monetize it. I have this blog through the good offices of a member of my family, and if he had concerns about how I was using it, I would certainly be obliged to take them under consideration, but I could also up sticks to some other hosting provider, set up shop there (albeit with some difficulty), and carry on with no regard for his opinion whatsoever.

It’s the same reason I have no objection to bloggers with no comment section, like John Gruber at Daring Fireball. The logic is that you’ve built this sandbox to broadcast your own speech and opinions, and if someone else wants to broadcast their speech and opinions, they are entitled to build their own sandbox. You are under no obligation to share your printing press with someone else. That’s where Zuckerberg, and Dorsey, and all the other “free speech wing of the free speech party” assholes run on the rocks. Twitter loses nothing by throwing the Nazis off the site tomorrow; they have their own elsewhere. Neither would Reddit, but then, if you were to give the Internet an enema, you’d feed the tube into Reddit. You’re entitled to your free speech, but nothing says I have to let you sit in the front seat of my megaphone truck and drive you around town and then defend you against the people you pissed off.

At some point, Silly Con Valley will have to re-learn these lessons, the same way they are with other forms of regulation. Too much of the tech sector in the 21st century has built itself on loopholes and dissembling about the obvious. A correction is way past overdue. As the Commander said, sooner or later the day comes when you can’t hide from the things you’ve done any more. And come soon Lord. Meanwhile, we run the very real risk that Facebook will do for the First Amendment what the NRA did for the Second: abuse and misuse it to the point that enough people start to think that other countries get along fine without it and maybe we should too.

in the books

Back in 2003, I bought a Moleskine notebook for the first time. It was another aspirational artifact, something I wanted to need for the life I wanted to live (which seems to be a recurring theme, as we will shortly see). That first Moleskine is an odd artifact, as it’s one of the things that actually bridges my time in DC and my time in California all the way past Apple and into the NASA contract. Which means it also covers my engagement, marriage, honeymoon, and the search for a new car to replace my beloved Saturn…and runs all the way into the beginnings of this very blog.

Like the Livejournal archive, it’s been a good thing – if a little unsettling – to have the record of days gone by suddenly dropped back in my lap. Not unlike the Christmas break when I had everything from about 1984 to 1996 dropped in my lap, this is a record of time that ended about a decade ago but covers a lot of eventful periods all at once. And there’s a lot in there. Not just about the previously-mentioned phone obsession, the quest for One Device To Rule Them All that only ended with the iPhone – when I finally got a device that had two-band coverage AND high-speed 2G AND Bluetooth AND speakerphone AND synced with my Mac – but about other things I was keying on. Like my eternal search for the perfect pen or lighter or shoes or jacket. Or how I could replace a laptop for travel purposes with the right phone and iPod combination. Or about the first attempts to clean up and consolidate my presence online.

That notebook was followed on by a bunch or Moleskine Cahiers or Field Notes – thinner paperback notebooks suitable to slide in a pocket, at a time when the contents of the phone’s Notes app were purely limited to the phone itself and didn’t sync with anything. It was also a time when I was actively tracking my work obligations in one such notebook (in the absence of any kind of actual ticketing system for help calls), and it was easy to just take one such book to London in 2007 and use it as a travelogue – a practice that has continued ever since with a separate book for visits to Europe, Japan, London and Ireland in the last eight or nine years. As early as 2007, I was wondering how I’d ever deal with flying abroad in steerage class ever again.

But I kept domestic notes as well.

One thing I was looking for was a pub to settle on. While I started with both “Irish” establishments in Mountain View, I never knew about the dive bar across the street and down the alley from them – which has since come and gone a couple of times as a viable solution. Ironically, the one I dismissed out of hand for want of phone or music has become the one I prefer to pop into on the way home from work when time and circumstances allow for the indulgence. I was already settled on my favorite place – with cask ale and no TVs – as early as 2007, even though it was (and remains) a pain to get there and back. Oddly enough, in the two-year period where I forgot to go back there, I also forgot they had no TVs and what an appeal that was. In fact, it’s a consideration that would have saved many an attempted pub evening since.

In 2008 specifically, you also see a flood of notes about my mental state, my unhappiness with work, and maybe the first serious attempt to struggle with the black cloud in a meaningful way. It was obvious that I was so close to getting it – I knew that in the past, many of my problems stemmed from an inability to stop being the person I was and let me be the person I was becoming. But I couldn’t see that happening in the moment, and I was still trying to make those pebbles worth counting in a way that would take a decade to let go. I suppose this very post is part of that.

There are also lists. Constantly updated and scratched out and rewritten. Lists of stuff. Boots, jackets, things I wanted, things I wanted to need. A new pair of Solovairs, a tweed jacket, a netbook, an iPad. I might have licked the phone glee, but by 2012 I was struggling with battery life and trying to figure out how to make the phone last all day, because iOS wouldn’t have granular battery information for two more years. (Spoiler alert: delete Twitter. Although the combination of Verizon, iOS 7 and the iPhone 5 was legitimately a documented bad combination from the get-go.) There were positively aspirational lists of goods, lists of destinations like Switzerland or Ireland or Japan. Or Portland or Disneyland again. Or a football match the next time I went to London. And a quote from that trip in 2010, despite the burden we were dragging around with us: “don’t you feel cooler just for being here?” Which is actually a complex bit of information about me and travel.

The funny thing is, looking at those lists, so many things are ticked. I have an American-made wardrobe, complete with a couple of pieces I never anticipated having and enjoy more than any of the others. I have the tweed jacket at long last, and the Buzz Rickson bomber and surplus peacoat and the Filson trucker and an entire seersucker suit and two seersucker blazers of varying weight. I have Alden boots and Quoddy canoe mocs and Blundstone steel-toes and gray Chuck Taylors of two heights. I have an iPad (or two) and a Kindle (or two) and my beloved iPhone SE and Moto X, even if the latter isn’t working anymore. I have phone numbers in five different area codes (and need to pare down ASAP). I’ve stopped caring about pens, or lighters, or laptops, or bags and backpacks altogether. My FrivoList of stuff I might want on a whim is down to three minor things I’ve quietly wanted in some form for a couple of decades in some form or another. I’ve been to Tokyo and Murren and Dublin and Galway and to Fulham FC and Trader Sam and the Riptide.  One could argue I’ve even more or less sorted out my online presence, abandoning Facebook and Tumblr and Livejournal and watching Vox disappear and damn near ready to cut off Twitter for good. 

Through it all, there are themes and motifs that recur over and over. At root, it’s all about trying to assemble the life I want. Where it happens. How it happens. How it’s accessorized. The atmosphere, the setting, the theme. The larger meta-setting for who and what I wish I was, how I want my life to be. The same things over and over: cool, fog, a quiet pub, a comfy chair, or travel that leads to all of the above, and dressed up like I want to feel – whether that’s the tweed or the bomber or just the work shirt. And on reflection, looking at nigh on fifteen years of occasional scribbles, it looks as if I’ve almost arrived where I wanted to be – the wider world notwithstanding. Maybe that’s what makes me crazy about politics now: the notion that but for a hundred thousand votes in the right three states, my entire life could be 99% of the way to where it could realistically max out. Something I recognized was going to be a problem as early as 2014. Of which more later. 

Phone Glee: A History

One side-effect of last weekend’s Great 2018 LJ spelunking was looking at my phone obsession. It’s worth remembering that until about 2005 or so, most phones were on 1-year contracts, not 2, and it wasn’t unreasonable for people to get a new phone every year – because that was really your only window to upgrade, and since you were paying that subsidy whether you got a new phone or not, why wouldn’t you? 

For all my obsession, the phone glee didn’t really become A Thing until 2003. Because it couldn’t. You had to pay full freight for anything you bought out of band, you had to get the carrier to register your ESN to activate on your network – the only time you could get a new phone at all is if you broke the contract somehow, either through fiscal insolvency or moving to a different place. And you can track my phone changes that way. Phone in Nashville in 1995, phone in Nashville in 1996, phone in Nashville/Birmingham in 1997, phone in DC in 1997, phones in DC in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001. But then in 2002, when AT&T finally switched to GSM, the gloves were off.

Because, as I mentioned elsewhere, I couldn’t get a reliable signal at work. Nobody could, except for T-Mobile. It’s not like we were underground – we weren’t, we were on the sixth floor of an office building in Washington DC – but the weird overlap of signal and coverage and who had what where made it a challenge to use the same phone everywhere. At the time, there were six national carriers on FOUR different standards, and only two of those had low-band 850Mhz coverage – the ones lucky enough to have the original AMPS licenses. So Bell Atlantic becomes Verizon and Cellular One becomes Cingular, and one goes CDMA and the other TDMA, while Nextel uses iDEN and Voicestream uses GSM on the old Sprint Spectrum network, and meanwhile Sprint has CDMA and AT&T has TDMA and both only have 1900Mhz…

It was a shitshow. And I had a Siemens phone with TDMA and GSM both…which would shut off in times of low signal. Which was annoying. So in early 2003, I made the fateful decision to switch out for a rock-solid Nokia 3590…and the race was on. I would buy three phones and change carriers in 2003, then buy another phone and change back in 2004 when I moved to California (which, traditionally speaking, made sense). But by that point, the gloves were off, and between Expansys and Wireless Imports and all the dodgy Chinese cellphone shops in New York and Silicon Valley and the ability to just take the SIM out and pop it in another phone, I was enabled to develop the syndrome we now know as Phone Glee. It was about finding the most capable device possible, completely separated from service, with the promise of complete separation between hardware and network and not being dependent on either. Over the years, it would come to include things like number portability and maximum international viability as well. Phone Glee, in short, was just one more attempt to forcibly live in the world I wanted to live in.

Phone Glee lasted pretty much straight through without interruption from 2003 to 2010 and was only truly stifled for good by the coming of the iPhone 4. Since then, there have been occasional outbursts, like when work forced a Bold onto me for a couple of months or my one foray into Android with the Moto X or the need to have a working burner phone for shutdown night (like the F3, ultimately replaced by the new Nokia throwback). But mostly, it’s been waiting to see what the iPhone will do next, because that iPhone 4 was the last phone I spent my own money on for four years. Since then, I laid out for the original Moto X in 2014, the iPhone SE in 2016, and the Nokia 3310 3G last November. I went from an average of buying two phones a year from 2003-08 to buying one phone every 2.5 years.

And why’s that? Well, mostly because – as I have said ad infinitum – the modern smartphone has long since crossed the finish line. Once you accept that the phone has to be plugged in every day, everything since 2010 is just gimmicks and spec sheet bumps. The iPhone 4 had front and back cameras and could more or less replace a point-and-shoot for road trips, and the iPhone 4 was the beginning of my photo collection because I finally had a phone worth using for pictures. The iPhone 6 was a little too big, but the Moto X and SE were not, and the SE became my daily driver until I got the iPhone X. Which is as I have said a little too big to be a little too big, and which costs way too much for what you get…

…but here’s the thing: that screen is amazing. And it obviates the need for an iPad in pretty much every particular. And it idles low; I’ve pretty much confirmed it only draws battery power when I’m actually using it (aside from Slack, which does more background processing than any phone app should have to, what the hell Slack). And the processing horsepower isn’t bad either. I’ve used it in place of an iPad, in place of a laptop, in place of a Kindle, all with reasonable success. And then there’s what happens when I pop it into Google Cardboard, fire up Street View, and put myself on the Stage Road somewhere between Pescadero and San Gregorio…and find myself looking around a foggy day on the San Mateo coast in the middle of my living room.

The iPhone X is the necessary leap into What’s Next, into the world of One And Only One Device. It’s worth making the jump from an SE in a way that every other iPhone is just not, where the tradeoff for the ridiculous size of the Plus or the battery sour spot of the non-Plus is more trouble than it’s worth. The SE is everything you need and nothing you don’t, and the iPhone X is tomorrow’s phone today, and there’s no percentage going in-between. Which makes me a lot less enthused about spending money on the notional SE2. If it were the SE-X, that might be different – a 5” version of the iPhone X would be the perfect device – but that looks a lot less likely than an LCD 6.1” phone, which sounds like the worst of all worlds. But that increases the possibility that I slap a new battery in the SE, get the performance improvements of iOS 12, and make 2018 the fifth year out of the last eight that I don’t pay for any phone at all.

And that’s kind of a profound thing. The Moto X was purchased at a time when I was fixated on the prospect of owning an American-made phone, and also thought I was going to be seeking out another job and would have to give my work phone back. $300 on a phone for the new hotness on Android – for the first time in four years – seemed like a good move both financially and in terms of professional flexibility. The iPhone SE was bought two years later with the ill-gotten gain of the legal settlement against Apple, and using that particular found money for the perfect phone felt right and natural. It was the contemporary current chipset in a one-handed device that had killer battery life and was perfect for everything. And the Nokia 3310 last fall was just for fun, to have a shutdown device and phone of last resort that would still work once 2G started to go away. Sure, I still have my SE as unlocked insurance against going abroad or unplugging, but “my phone” has become something I get from my job, which as I’ve intimated elsewhere I don’t see departing anytime soon.

Problem is, the only way I could have justified paying for the X myself would be if I were replacing the iPhone SE *and* the iPad mini 2. Which…there was a good case that I could justify replacing the iPad until the iOS 12 beta, which looks like bringing it ever so slightly back to life. Couple that with the $29 battery replacement on the SE and I’m just as glad I didn’t have to buy the X myself, because it would be $1000 to replace things that don’t really need replacing at present. Which is why it’s a good thing Phone Glee ended, because Phone Glee was about trying to get what you want. 2018 is more about wanting what you’ve got. If nothing else, it’s a lot less money to spend.

Flashback, part 98 of n

So a few days back, I had occasion to forget how many times I’d flown to California in 2003. Which led me down a Livejournal rat hole spanning from the beginning of 2003 to the end of 2007. Obviously this blog started during that time, and largely replaced LJ because people could syndicate this into their friends feed (what a novel concept!), but there’s a good case to make that LJ was my primary blog for 2003-06 inclusive, and there’s a lot there that had slipped my mind.

For starters, it was three times. March (right on the eve of a return to Iraq that hasn’t ended), May (because my wife’s production cycles in California were longer for some reason and I had to visit over Memorial Day if I wanted to see her) and November (for my second Big Game and second win). That’s after coming out FIVE times in 2002 (March for Tahoe, June for atmosphere and World Cup and the discovery of public wifi, October for a wedding, November for training/my first Big Game and December for my first Christmas with her family). And that doesn’t include FOUR trips to Alabama in 2003 or a weekend at Myrtle Beach with the DC gang or the annual New York run at Christmastime or the family excursion to Disney World and the side trip to Nashville to break up two weeks around them. 

It’s more apparent than ever why 2006 felt like a dull moment. It had to. I was down to one phone number, even if I kept whipping through phones (about which more later), I had a wife, I had a house, I had a staff job at Apple with an office, and I had no money to do anything else. We did go up to Portland briefly in ’06, and my surrogate big sister moved in with us, but 2006 was a lot quieter than usual, and it would be difficult for it not to be after the whirlwind life I led from the time I started dating my future wife. And to be honest, it’s hard not to feel like I was shot out of a cannon when Vanderbilt imploded under me, what with a summer in Ohio with occasional trips to DC or Boston before finding myself permanently in Arlington working for NGS, and then and then and then. 

I remember those days a lot more fondly than the journal indicates. I had forgotten just how personal it all was, dueling with antagonistic users on a regular basis. Not all of them, but enough of them, the ones who were departmental gurus or just “power users” and refused to acknowledge that the IT department might have a valid role in administering the company’s computers. The failure of upper management to support us in any way – and their frequent kneecapping – makes it ever more clear why I was so miserable here 2013-15, because it was very similar to my struggles to get systems onside for security compliance in the face of recalcitrant users and interference from other IT units and the complete absence of any sort of enforcement mechanism from upper management. All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again.

I remembered other things as well. There was a lot more in-person stuff, whether for football Sundays or last-minute 4P’s trips or, famously in 2005, just flying to LA and back without even leaving the 80 gates so I could keep the status I’d earned from the honeymoon flight in 2005.  I was apparently way more into NASCAR for a couple of years there, and was obviously still all in on the Washington Redskins. I was much more conversant with the fortunes of Alabama football than I remember being, although that was the era of the Franchione-Shula drama and the struggle to get over on Auburn or Tennessee; I clearly had far less interest in Vanderbilt for anything football-related (in fact, my running gag was that they should get out of the SEC and license the name and colors to the Tennessee Titans). And – maybe most poignantly – I was still devoted to the basketball prospects of Birmingham-Southern in a way that would end badly soon after leaving DC.

I was also similarly enraged at politics – not at the same scale and not with as much abject panic as now, but you could see the beginnings of it. Not just in me, in the actual politics. By 2006, it was apparent that the future of the GOP rode on making gays and immigrants the 21st century version of the South’s dusky menace from the Jim Crow era, and I was angry about it. But after the Congressional wave in 2006, and then presumably after the Obama election, I guess I must have thought the tide had stemmed and we could switch to containment.

But I was also a lot less secure online. This wasn’t yet the social media era, although I did put my first Twitter handle on LJ in late 2007 so people could see where I wound up (and which is defunct now…of which). I was putting our phone number and address in LJ – not necessarily public-facing, but certainly into their servers whilst being followed by a bunch of people whose real names I didn’t know. Which tempers my indignance at people who fed Facebook all their data blithely. In fairness, I did go first and risk the slings and arrows, and I probably dodged a few bullets from having that much out there at a time when I worked for Apple, so I learned better without necessarily paying the price for it.

In fact, you could argue that this blog belongs to the person I regenerated into at the end of 2005 when the ride came to a complete stop. The LJ belonged to the person I was between 1998 and 2005 – someone who definitely wanted different things and lived a very different sort of life. That person would never have even considered a cottage on the San Mateo coast in the fog belt as his highest aspiration. There might not be signal there, after all. (In retrospect, I went through eleven phones on two carriers during the LJ era, basically a new phone every six months, and almost all in service of being able to get a reliable signal at work – something I wouldn’t get until 2009, two years into the iPhone era. I also recalled why I ever ditched my 703 phone number in the first place: there was no porting it into Apple and I couldn’t justify $800+ a year for a second line for data service when we’d just put our whole ass into a mortgage. I’m sad I lost that number, but I don’t regret it. We couldn’t afford that $800.)

The practical upshot of all this is: there is an old cliche that nobody ever journals about the good times, much like no one ever asks to speak to the manager to say how good their experience was. But it’s important to note the good times too. And I have made my peace with work – I’d love it if it were almost anyone else’s name on the door, but I have reasonable job security, a ton of vacation time, I get all the equipment I need, I can work from home, I’m project driven and not user-facing, and there is an identifiable career path if I do choose to go elsewhere and professional development happening in the meantime. I would have gladly killed any number of people to get to this point for most of the past 12 years, and much of the seven years preceding that. So let me record that I am duly grateful that for the first time in God knows how long, work is (mostly) not a constant contributor to my stress or depression. Cheers.

Git Money

This article right here frames a lot of what I’ve been thinking about how we look at work and income in the new era. It seems pretty damn transparent that the Jetsons future means we all have to work less, but somehow that turns into “everybody has to have two side gigs through apps in order to make ends meet because we’re not going to give everybody a cut of the benefits that come from making work go away.”

The Democrats needs to be having this conversation right out loud, because a lot of the jobs like coal mining that people are rallying to a) were always shit jobs and should be done by robots, and b) aren’t ever coming back no matter how many brown people you treat like shit, rednecks. It’s not enough to say you’re going to retrain people, the work itself is going away. We need to see what that looks like and the people who are reaping the unexpected windfalls from work going away have to foot the bill for those getting left behind until we come up with a better scheme.

How hard is that to sell?