…you have to wall off the stupid. You have to reduce it to the least possible background roar. You have to let your mind slip off of it to something else, make sure you don’t have a chance to focus on it.  That’s where the books come in handy. Or some really engaging television. That’s why pulling the plug on Twitter is crucial, and having pared down the RSS to just what you need to be informed without tipping the balance into wallowing in the misery.

You have to try not to think about how you left Alabama because you didn’t want to live in a place that venerated stupid, that made its decisions based on what stupid people thought was smart, that thought you were the problem because you “didn’t have any common sense,” as if failure to adopt everyone else’s inculcated prejudices was a shortcoming or as if you should have learned all the cues and clues of a social system that ejected you as soon as you could read in complete sentences ahead of time. You left all that. It wasn’t supposed to follow you. It certainly wasn’t meant to gain executive power over the country…

-21 March 2017

This Was Inevitable

You can blame this on the Tea Party if you like, or you can point to Sarah Palin as the wellspring of it all, or you can go back to Newt Gingrich and the predictable consequences of pairing a Southernized GOP Congress with an amiable dunce from Texas in the White House, or you can go all the way back to Lee Atwater running a Wallace campaign on behalf of a patrician New Englander with a Houston hotel suite. But really, it all goes back to Nixonland, and the explicit decision that the reactionary forces of 1964 could be combined with a rebellious South to build a new engine in the national GOP. This was the inevitable result of fifty years of nurturing the worst impulses of this country, and for the GOP establishment and its amen corner in the national press to suddenly look up and decry what’s happening to the Republican party is risible in the extreme. In the immortal words of Chris Rock, that tiger went tiger.

I mean, what did you expect?  You spend years if not decades telling people to live in fear, that everyone to the left of John Kasich is Joe Stalin and that the government wants to grind them all into free meatloaf for Mexicans, that they are the true salt of the earth and their racist impulses are to be indulged rather than overcome…this is not an accident, this is not a fluke. The Tea Party is the GOP. This has been the Republican party for the last 20 years. This was the plan all along. This is a designed play. A vast plurality of ignorance, racism and outright stupid, providing automatic response in reaction to constant stimulus from TV, radio and a million “Fw:fw:fwd:FW:FW” emails isn’t a bug, it isn’t a feature, it’s the whole goddamn operating system.

The thing that scares me most isn’t the necks, it’s the people who look sorrowfully on the mess that’s made and still pull the GOP lever anyway. Sure, these hayseeds are all gun suckers who think the country is at risk of Sharia law from ACORN-organized illegal immigrants, but Al Gore is fat and Hollywood liberals are dumb, so vote Republican. That’s exactly how we got here, and it’s the biggest scare going into 2016: that the likes of Donald Trump could wind up in the White House because enough people realize he’s a loudmouthed business failure who spun an ego into reality stardom, but they’re tired of Hillary, so whatever…

-Oct. 29, 2015


When I’m wrong, I’ll tell you, but I haven’t been wrong yet.

27 Sept 2018

“My friend and I talked for a while about drug therapy and whether it was better to send the kid off to East Butthole, Minnesota, to dry out or put him on methadone or cut his allowance or what. And it wasn’t until I’d hung up that I realized what we’d been saying. My friend’s kid didn’t need to suffer any consequences, not serious consequences, anyway. After all, addiction is a sickness and he needs treatment. Besides, he’s got personal problems and comes from a broken home. It’s not like he’s a criminal or anything. If he were a criminal, he’d be poorer and darker skinned. My friend’s kid lives in a well-padded little universe, a world with no sharp edges or hard surfaces. It’s the Whiffle Ball again. The kid leads a Whiffle Life, and so does my friend and so do I….In the meantime, if people like me-rich, white, privileged, happy-cannot even bother to abide by the legal standards of their freely constituted society, of a society that has provided them with everything a civilization can be expected to provide, then those people deserve their drug problems and everybody else’s drug problems, too…”

P. J. O’Rourke. Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government (p. 121-122). Kindle Edition. Grove Press, 1991.


It applies to one hell of a lot more than just drugs.

strange things

We finished both seasons of Stranger Things in one huge binge a few months ago. It was as it has been described: a pitch-perfect recreation of 80s media with a generous splash of era-appropriate nerd culture. Things like Radio Shack, Dungeons & Dragons, video arcades (oh the indignity of plunking 50 cents into Dragon’s Lair and not making it across the damned drawbridge to start!) – and, to the never ending awe of post-Millenial Gen-Z kids, a world where you could go do whatever after school without your parents hanging over you or your whole free time scheduled to an excruciating fare-thee-well.

Except it wasn’t really like that for me, because I had the misfortune to live in a completely separate town from where I went to school. I was in day care because both my parents worked, so I was at the mercy of whatever was on offer there – as often as not, bad 4 PM syndicated TV like Gilligan’s Island or the Brady Bunch instead of 3-2-1 Contact. And since it was usually the Baptist church day care, forget about Dungeons and Dragons. You had to keep shit like that on the low.

Thing is, that day care afternoon really screwed everything up. You can say what you like about the misfortunes of latchkey kids, but even if you weren’t left completely to your own devices, most kids growing up had friends in the neighborhood. I had one. Who was a little older than me and almost certainly a little tougher than my parents would be entirely comfortable with, and I don’t recall ever seeing him again after about sixth grade. All my social life was carried out at school, in day care, or on the phone one person at a time. (Not that there were a bunch of people; it was mostly the three-years-older BFF from day care who was the principal D&D aficionado.)

So it required a lot of imagination. I mean, our video games didn’t exactly have plot and backstory and character development, so you had to make it up. RPGs were nothing if not pure imagination. We got one Star Wars movie every three years, and sci-fi on TV meant the random episode of Star Trek or Space:1999 (or, for a couple of years, Battlestar Galactica – which conflicted with Sunday night church – or Buck Rogers if the SAG strike didn’t take it out). You had to make shit up. Which was tough in a time and place that tended to treat imagination as something you’d hopefully grow out of when you got old enough to notice girls. Speaking of which, that last scene in season 2 gave me a bit of a flashback pang. I didn’t want a girlfriend when I was 12, I didn’t need to be kissed or anything – I just wanted some older attractive woman to acknowledge I was a valid human being and that I was on the right track. Some kind of fairy godsister who would give me a wink and a scatter of pixie dust and set me on the right track to a brighter future.

It’s not a nostalgia thing for me. I have absolutely no desire to be 10 or 12 or 16 again, unless there was some way to set me on course to a different college experience. I don’t want to go back to a time when you were limited to landline phones with call waiting, or throwing a letter in the mail and hoping for the best. And I definitely don’t have any desire to be in a small town without benefit of a driver’s license or the ability to buy beer and lock my doors at night. I appreciate the show the same way I appreciate Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow, or the WWII Memorial in DC – as a modern attempt to create a pitch-perfect artifact of the past. The Spielbergian DNA is all there. It’s on a par with Goonies or E.T. or the like. I guess it’s just nice to find that all of a sudden, my generation’s nostalgia is worthy of indulgence, after fifty years of boomer shit.

off the path

So Path has pulled the plug. Its roots were in the “all God’s children gotta start a new social media platform” era around 2010-11, when Google Plus was replacing Google Buzz and Instagram was still mainly an alternative to Hipstamatic and people were just getting the notion that maybe Facebook was a little too big and might not have your best interests at heart. The unique selling point on Path was that it would be limited to 150 friends (the famous Dunbar number) so that you would have actual friends on there, not acquaintances or brands or randoms.

It was a good idea, I suppose, and we dutifully signed right up, but it was tough to get traction – for one thing, everyone was also staying on Facebook and Twitter and Foursquare and Instagram and whatever else, so it just became one more thing to check or cross-post to. For another, Path had some serious privacy issues that made it untenable after a while. And it ran into the same issue as every other app like Peach or Diaspora or (and which Mastodon and will soon have to reckon with) – no one seems to be willing to dump Facebook and Twitter altogether. Getting your friends to all adopt this new service is damn near impossible to do; I would migrate my Twitter and Insta presence to tomorrow and never turn back except that I can think offhand of maybe maybe three other people who would give it a try as well.

Path was nice, though, at least at first. The pictures all had the “phone cameras suck so let’s filter the shit out of everything” aesthetic in retrospect (it was 2012, there wasn’t any getting around it), it leveraged Foursquare’s database for locations, it was possible to post just a status update, and the whole thing was optimized for mobile at a time when Facebook was incapable of it. All in all, it was a reasonably solid package, and the sort of thing I’d like to need, but it just didn’t work out.

Which is the thing. Right now, I try to push my primary Twitter almost entirely through micro-blog first, with varying degrees of success, and obviously I can’t read other people’s Twitter through that. I’d love to have a private instance of Mastodon and be able to read other people via federation, but that’s an awfully heavy lift. Deep down, the one indispensable social network these days continues to be Instagram, and I’m just waiting for Facebook to fuck it up beyond recognition – and I’m grateful that I’ve never taken step one to integrate them or even provide a way of connecting them (aside from possibly MAC address or UDID logging, in which case we’re all hosed).

But looking at the list of non-Chinese “virtual community” networks, it’s discouraging – Facebook owns four of the five largest and Google owns YouTube. Trying to avoid those two companies is like trying to avoid Standard Oil in the 1890s, or Microsoft in the 1990s – it can be done, but it’s not going to be easy or pretty. I can try to carve my own path with self-hosting and RSS and Signal and the like, but will anybody else come along? Probably not. Is it a social network if there’s no network?

Watch Out

So the Series 4, the fifth generation of Apple Watch, was announced at the Apple event on September 12. The most telling thing is that it’s Series 4 – the latest version of watchOS officially discontinues support for the original Apple Watch, retroactively declared “Series 0.” Which means that if you went out and dropped money back in 2015, your watch is now as good as it’s going to get, and at present, that ain’t real good.

Apple refined the paradigm a couple of times. When the watch launched, it was hard not to get the sense that it was meant to be a remote control so you didn’t have to take the gigantic iPhone Plus out of your pocket or bag or cargo shorts or wherever. Some of the features were absolute Samsung gimmick trash – sending your heartbeat, dedicating the one big button to picking someone to text – and the base UI underwent a couple of major refinements in the ensuing years. Problem is, now the Series 0 hardware is just not up to scratch even in watchOS 4, where it’s slow and unreliable (trying to use Siri or voice dictation varies between trying and impossible). Which means that in theory, I’m in the market.

Except I’m really not. Because when you get right down to it, the market has declared the core functionality that anyone wants from a wearable boils down to “fitness tracker with notifications.” And Fitbit has that market locked up, especially after the Pebble acquisition. It’s now possible to buy a device that will track your steps, track your heart rate (not with an ECG, but as good as any prior Apple Watch did), receive notifications from more than just text/phone/calendar, even do NFC payments – all for half of what Apple wants for the new watch, and with the added benefit that the battery will last you five or six days between charges. Meaning you can do sleep monitoring, the thing I want most – and a thing the Apple Watch simply can’t be used for in a reasonable fashion when it has to be charged daily.

What exactly do you give up? Well, you can’t actually answer a call from your Fitbit, or reply to a text, or trigger your 2FA app, or automagically unlock your desktop computer. That’s…about it, actually. Problem is, answering calls and replying to messages from this watch now are functions that work in name only; from a practicality standpoint, I can’t do it. The 2FA thing is nice, but when I’m at my desk, it’s a piece of cake to pick the phone up off the wireless pad (which is 3rd party as Apple is a year in arrears with theirs) and unlock with FaceID, tap the notification and hit “approve.” (If I’m working on the phone itself, it’s even easier to just pull down on the notification.) And I’m sure the security folks will thank me not to be automatically unlocking my work laptop with mere proximity.

And even if this functions were more important…are they $300 more important than the Alta HR my wife bought me on Amazon’s Prime Day? Apparently not, as I’m wearing the Apple Watch to work today for the first time in…a month? Maybe? I haven’t taken the Apple Watch on a trip longer than overnight since I had it; it didn’t go to London or Ireland or Disneyland or New York or Hawaii. In fact, wearing my mechanical watch rather than the Apple Watch became something of an act of cosplay, a gesture toward a time when the only piece of information I’ll need on my arm is the time. The Fitbit is on there all the time, pushing me to more steps, getting me more active in ways that are already beginning to show results – and giving me actionable information about my sleep.

The original Apple Watch was bought after a single runaway heartbeat incident, at a time when I was seriously worried about what the job had done to my health and in fear that worse things might be coming. Right now, the Fitbit is helping me take charge of my health on my own terms. That’s a win. And that’s $400 I don’t have to spend, on top of the $500 I don’t have to spend on a new iPhone SE2 or the $500 I don’t have to spend on a new iPad mini (also discontinued).

It’s nice, to quote Voice of the Beehive, when what you have is enough.


Lost in the sauce with Apple’s move to the premium phone space is that iOS 12 is exactly what the iPhone ecosystem has needed for a couple of years. It’s not a true Snow Leopard-type “No new features” release but it does a LOT of cleaning up under the hood. The Internet is rife with reports of how four and five year old iOS devices were suddenly restored to the full flush of youth, and I can say that my vintage-Christmas-2013 iPad mini which was functionally unusable in iOS 11 is usable in iOS 12 again. The old quip about “snappy” holds true for sure. There are other nice touches, like the new accents in Siri or the fact that voice recognition works in low-power mode or that the utterly unintuitive second step to close apps on the iPhone X is no longer necessary. It’s a polish job for an OS that desperately needed one after the fiasco that was iOS 11/macOS High Sierra (for my money, the worst OS release since…7.5.2? Maybe?) and it seems rock-solid.

But the real magic is Shortcuts. 

Shortcuts began life as an app called Workflow, designed to bring some primitive scripting capability to iOS. And it could do some nifty tricks, like helping you select a picture and turn it into a LOLCAT-style meme or populating a tweet with ASCII art or parsing QR codes with the camera or just putting one-touch buttons in the widget pane to call someone or start a certain playlist. And it can still do all of those things. But Apple bought Workflow, renamed it, and integrated it with another bought product from eight or ten years back…called Siri. So now, not only can you craft your own workflows, you can trigger them through Siri with voice commands. You can nest scripts in other scrips. You can call system functions. And most interesting of all, Siri will parse things you do on a regular basis – on the phone, without sending anything to the cloud for processing – and offer them as options to integrate into other shortcuts.

The practical upshot of this is that at bedtime, I can say “hey Siri, time to go to bed” and it will flip the phone to Do Not Disturb and launch the white noise app. When I walk out the door in the morning, I can say “hey Siri, time to go to work” and it will turn on low-power mode, shut off the wifi (so it doesn’t try to grab the half-assed wifi on every passing bus) and start the mellow playlist that eases me into the day, while launching Transit to let me see what time the train is coming. Or, if I’m at home in the recliner with a pint or just settling into a chair in my favorite no-television bar, I can say “hey Siri, pub mode” and it will kick on Do Not Disturb, launch the Kindle app for reading and start playing my “This Are Two-Tone” list with Madness, the Specials, the English Beat, and all the other stuff I like to have in the background while sipping on a Smithwick’s and reading.

This. Is. HUGE.

Not just because it’s a huge step down the road to JARVIS. It can’t read your mind yet, but it can make educated guesses and offer things that you can approve and incorporate for it to use. And it can do it all with machine learning on the device itself. This is enormous, because unlike Google or Facebook, no offsite data mining and aggregation is necessary to make it work. It may not be as effective as other digital assistants, but it does its thing without compromising your privacy. In a digital world where privacy is a luxury good, this might be one worth paying for.

And at this point – when you can buy a device knowing the OS will be usably updated for four years, when it can be customized and shaped into the most truly personal computer yet, and when it obviates the need for tablet, Kindle, and maybe even television in addition to all the other things the smartphone replaced, you can start to see $800 for 4 years as a more reasonable arrangement. If Apple’s long game is “value for money over more time” and they can make it pay out, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to happen to this industry, especially when I’m balking at having to replace a watch after three years. 

Get back to me again after the iOS 14 launch when we see how this X is working.

Tesla Computer, Inc

I stand by my assertion that Apple has gone from BMW to Volkswagen to Tesla. If nothing else, the fact they’ve gone all in on the iPhone X price range – with no ship date for the cheapest model – should be as clear an indicator as you could ask for. The baseline “new” iPhone has gone up a hundred bucks or more in the last two years, and the top of the line has gone from $850 to $1100 – not to mention an absurd 6.5” display; no wonder they aren’t making the iPad mini anymore. With the cancellation of the SE, Apple has abandoned the one-handed phone market and gone all in on chasing the Chinese luxury market. How you feel about that probably depends on whether you came up in the era of “the computer for the rest of us,” even when it was more expensive than competitors. Because you could at least be assured you were getting value for money, rather than “premium materials” and a series of gimmicks that would make Samsung blush if they weren’t trying to imitate them.

It starts with the Watch, which you now have to replace if you bought the original and still want the latest version of watchOS. Which I guess is about par for the course given that the original iPhone only got updated to iOS 3.1.3. Only problem is, you sort of expect to have to replace a phone every two or three years. If that’s the expectation for a watch, that’s a big ask when you’re throwing down a thousand bucks on a phone. Then again, depending on who your market is, $1500 every two years might not be that big a deal.

The interesting thing is the FDA-certified ECG in the watch for detecting atrial fibrillation. Or hell, falls. There are seriously useful things about having medical-grade telemetry on your arm, and for $400, that ain’t hay. The only thing is, I don’t need those (yet), and the Fitbit Charge 3 will get me to 90% of the functions I need from an Apple Watch for half the money…and five or six times the battery life. Which means sleep tracking, something Apple still can’t do because “all-day battery life” means you’re still expected to plug the damn thing in every night.

And then there’s the phone. The iPhone XS–

Hold up.

What idiot seriously proposed calling this the XS? And what asshole seriously thinks people will pronounce it “Ten S”? You’re supposed to interpret the first letter as a Roman numeral and the second as a letter? And “XS Max”? Are we having this phone in 1996? And the “XR” – why R? Because it’s less than S? This is what we’re going with?

Never mind that the phone is basically the same. Slightly faster, 512 GB version if you want it, some gimmickry around the camera, but if you have an iPhone X, you’re good. Thank god my employer was enough of a dullard to be conned into paying for it. Because I’ll be damned if I lay out THAT much money for a phone – the most I ever spent on my own device was something over five hundred for a Sony Ericsson P800 in a shady Bowery cellphone shop in 2003, and laying down double that for something I can’t expect to get more than three years from is asking one hell of a lot. Not when my cousin is still getting by just fine on a Moto G3 he paid maybe $250 for.

And this is the risk Apple is taking. My wife needs to replace her 6S, but she’s not about to buy anything in the X line. So…what? Buy an 8 with last year’s processor for $600 and hope for the best? Buy a pre-aged 7 for $550 for the 128GB model rather than cut your storage in half?

All I know is, I’m laying down $29 for the battery replacement on my SE, and you’ll prise it out of my cold dead hand. Singular. And I’m going to wait another year and see if Cupertino can collectively pull its head out of its anus before the next phone release. I’m not hopeful.

He Won

For years, September 11 made me angry, because we still hadn’t gotten the responsible party yet. We allowed our eye to be taken off the ball so George Dubya Bush, the second-worst president of my lifetime (and I was born in the Nixon administration), could work out his Daddy issues in Iraq and ensure that the Middle East would be a disaster area for decades to come. (And miss me with the sudden rehabilitation now that Trump is worse. Fuck that shit. Dubya was Trump with a salad and a haircut and some semi-competent-if-evil people around him.) And so they pissed around for almost a decade until 2011, when justice was finally done. And I could breathe a little easier.

And then, 2016.

What makes me enraged to think about is that Donald Trump is the final victory for Osama bin Laden. That wormy bastard wanted to attack America, he wanted to bring it down from within, he wanted to destroy our standing in the world – well, here we are, seventeen years on, and he got everything he wanted. Maybe if Bush doesn’t have a war to rally everyone behind, he struggles with legitimacy and policy and we actually do something to ensure that the candidate with the most votes is the one who wins, but, nope. Maybe if there’s no ongoing panic by square-state yahoos whose fear fed the GOP’s ballot boxes for years afterward, Bush doesn’t win again and Republican politics doesn’t go down the Confederate-cryptofascist wormhole as quickly. Maybe without September 11, the whole “secret Muslim” bullshit can’t get traction against Obama, or at least the forces of paranoia and hate aren’t as readily mobilized. But because the rednecks shit themselves with fear, and the GOP came to rely on fear as their base, we got all the way to 2016.

And now here we are. There are a lot of things that would have to be done to remediate the damage, and I’m probably not going to live to see the job completed. But we’ve reached a point where the civilized world interprets America as damage and routes around it.  Which means that skinny fuckstick got exactly what he wanted, and we just handed it to him.

Thanks, Republicans.

Years In Review

I actively applied to three undergraduate institutions – Vanderbilt was the one I wanted, Alabama was the safety school, and there’s the one I ended up attending. Obviously, if I had it to do over, I would have taken the 75% tuition scholarship Vanderbilt offered, but for whatever reason, I didn’t feel like I could go somewhere that hadn’t really made much of a run at me when I had a full-tuition offer from a school that had been in my mailbox twice a week for two years.

And yet, there was a brief moment when I actively thought that Alabama would be a better choice than where I wound up. Which, well, no. Not a chance. To go from a gifted magnet school of 200 to a state university of 20,000 would have been an abject disaster, even before taking the Machine into consideration or the fact that I would be fitting myself even more for a life in a small and stagnant pond. Tuscaloosa was an hour’s drive away. Mostly the same TV stations. Hell, some of the same radio stations. I wound up going to college closer to home than I’d gone to high school, but even so, one county over wouldn’t have made enough difference.

But in retrospect, even though I was a horrible culture fit and never should have accepted my offer, my undergraduate institution was at least surmountable. I didn’t have to work appreciably harder at the academic side of things – sure, the papers were longer and I had to type them in WordPerfect and print them out, but I figured that out by the end of the first semester (the one good thing about calculus is that it didn’t have a lot of papers to write). Other than that? I’d been using the UAB library as my high school library for four years, and took nothing but AP classes my senior year, so it wasn’t a huge adjustment. And it was still Birmingham – there was nothing new to discover, but at least I knew where the malls and the grocery stores were.

Over this past summer, while the blog was down, I did play around with the notion of “what if I’d gone for UC San Diego?” I might could have gotten in, back in 1990, and might even have gotten some sort of scholarship. I could probably have established residence with my aunt, although I don’t know how the rules worked on that, and I would have at least had someone to go to for a home cooked meal and laundry help in a pinch. Maybe the system of residential colleges would have given me a more scalable experience than twenty thousand in undergrad. Maybe…

I remember corresponding with a dear friend far away in 1992, discussing my discontent, and she wrote that most colleges are pretty well equipped to help young men thrive and survive (I suspect there was feminist snark in that statement that I completely missed) and if mine wasn’t, she could only offer two words of advice: “persevere” and “transfer”. Nevertheless, it’s entirely conceivable to me that I could have found myself somewhere farther and better – Berkeley, Columbia, Brown, maybe even potentially (oh god) Stanford – and run headlong into the fish problem, and realizing that a solid if wounded shark in the Alabama pond would be a minnow in the ocean of a top national university. And I can completely see myself having a condensed version of my Vanderbilt experience, flaming out, and falling back to Earth in a way that I never would have recovered from.

There is an edit, in other worse, where I needed to achieve gradual escape velocity. Going too far too fast would have only resulted in a truly spectacular flame-out. And I’ll buy that, certainly. For someone who has lived for years by the credo of “things can always get worse,” a Lucifer-grade fall from heaven is entirely plausible.

The ironic thing is, a small residential liberal-arts college with division-III athletics is probably just what I did need. It’s certainly what I re-imagined for myself while I was there. In fact, the current state of my undergraduate alma mater, with its twee on-campus stadium for non-scholarship regional football, is just exactly the sort of institution I probably would have survived and thrived at almost anywhere else. Except for the minor fact that I actually did go there, and it was nothing of the sort, and I suspect deep down hasn’t changed at all where it counts.

It’s tough not to reflect on this in September, when the beginning of school has always been the pivot point of my fiscal year as student or employee or football fan. But there’s no fixing it, there’s no solving it, there’s no having it over again. Like so much of the black hole, all there is for it is to lay the plywood over and put up the safety fence and the orange cones, and make sure to go around rather than falling in. I suppose it’s human nature to look over once in a while and see what’s in the hole, but it doesn’t do any good to stare into it.

I’m getting better at that. More than it may seem. I don’t know that I’ll ever get well, but who ever really does?