Flashback, part 102 of n

Ironically enough for someone who has plied his trade in the tech industry for twenty-one years, two-thirds of that in Silly Con Valley, I was almost certainly part of the last cohort of American college students who could go through four years of undergrad without ever having seen or touched an Internet-enabled computer. My first email address was @eworld.com, in the summer of 1994 before grad school when I purchased the Power Macintosh 6100 that would be my primary instrument for almost five years.

But here’s the other kicker:  I was also almost certainly one of the last people for whom introduction to the Internet wasn’t mediated through the World Wide Web. eWorld, nice though it was, at its root was a thin-gruel AOL clone and an online service with no Internet access but a mail gateway. As I cabled up in the autumn of ’94 at Vandy, you still had to find and install all the bits and bobs yourself – either some way to dial into a terminal session on the VAX, or else figure out how to install MacTCP and then come up with a SLIP or PPP connection and then start piecing together a telnet tool, a USENET reader, a Gopher client, and of course the indispensable Eudora.

There wouldn’t be Ethernet in the campus apartments for at least a year or more. Fortunately there weren’t a lot of people using the handful of Apple Remote Access modems, so my pokey pathetic Geocom Teleport Adapter could always dial in (even if it dragged my computer to a halt in doing so). There was definitely a feeling that you had to go up into cyberspace, jacking in via the phone line in a sort of techno-astral-projection. The idea that it was a perpetual ethereal presence that you could never escape from was a good ten or more years in the future, and in an age when almost every ISP still metered by the hour or fraction thereof, the urgency of “every second counts” was real.

Of course, as I may have mentioned earlier, the big driver was email. The notion that instead of writing a letter and throwing it in the postal sea to wait days or weeks or longer for a reply, or calling and running up $10 an hour or more in long distance, you could type something out on a computer and get something back instantaneously? Mind-bending, especially for someone nursing a long-distance crush and enthralled with the notion of epistolary novels. There were two computers in the office at Calhoun Hall, and ten or so terminals in a round computing building off Library Lawn, and a whole lab of Macs in Payne Hall not far from my own apartment where the 6100 waited to tie up a phone line that never rang with anyone I wanted to speak to. I was checking my mail just before class, right after class, halfway home, and everywhere in between. Over that first Christmas break in 1994, I would actually drive two and a half hours back from home just to collect my email (and my physical mail, to be fair).

Thing is, for years, it took work to be on the Internet. It was a journey to an alternate dimension, another place with its own customs and culture. And it was a different and problematic place, but it was worth the visit and it was an interesting place to co-reside. And then we ruined it by making it easy enough for any redneck fossil with a cell phone to use it. Now that slab in your hand is more like the sunglasses in They Live – showing you the horror all around, some of which was brought to you by that slab.

Of which.

The Flickr-ing light

How old is my Flickr account? Older than this blog, which is saying something. It’s so old, the first picture on it is of me with a full head of hair in our first California apartment. I don’t think my account predates the Yahoo acquisition, but like Yahoo, Flickr is one of those things that everyone had once and in many cases probably forgot about – because it predated Superphone Time.

Much like Dodgeball ran on the rocks because it arrived before apps on GPS-enabled phones, Flickr needed you to upload your digital photos, presumably being taken on a nice camera and piped through your computer. Once you started to have a 5-megapixel point-and-shoot-grade camera in your hand all the time, though, the first mover was Hipstamatic, with its filters to make the best of shitty phone cameras, quickly passed by Instagram and its built-in social networking mechanism. Instagram was impossible before Superphone Time, but it dominated after, and even though Flickr got a lot of run from people who were committed to it, it sort of fell off the radar with the rest of Yahoo.

And then, SmugMug snapped it up, a site and service dedicated to more professional photography. Which means Flickr is that rarest of birds: a legacy service not in thrall to the Big Evils of Silly Con Valley. You can dump Facebook and all its pomps and all its works and all its empty promises, dump Google, divest yourself of Twitter, but how are you going to share your pictures with friends? And there, largely unchanged since 2005, sits Flickr, with the ability to offer an RSS feed and easy IFTTT integration so that everything you’ve been taking on Instagram goes there too. And when the time comes to cut off the last piece of the Facebook evil empire, you’ll still have a spot for pics.

Flickr predated the social media era and lingered half out of sight for years, but in doing so might have been saved alive from the worst of How We Internet Now. The retreat into siloed services, and Facebook as the 21st-century AOL, gave a handful of companies a ridiculous amount of control over our data and what we share. And yet, Flickr makes it possible for me to theoretically dump the last app that either Google or Facebook have on my personal device. That, plus the slow rumble around micro.blog and Mastadon, and the continuing enthusiasm for plain old RSS readers among the digerati, makes me think that it will still be possible for some time to get away with rolling your own blog, hosting your own email, and having a nice quiet life without the hassle and inconvenience of being bled dry by the Beasts of Mountain View and Menlo Park.

Only thing is, you have to hope Signal keeps getting money from somewhere. 

Dawn patrol

First things first: Nancy Pelosi deserves to roll up to that podium like Hela returning to Asgard, swinging a ball bat wrapped in barbed wire while Elton John blasts “The Bitch Is Back.” When the rest of the Democratic Party was feckless, hapless, scared of its own shadow and in thrall to the Golden Mean fallacy, Pelosi kept her caucus together and never bent and never buckled. There’s no Obamacare without Nancy Pelosi holding the line. She earned this, she deserves this, and I will probably spend the morning singing California Drinking Song on a loop.

OK. To business.

First, read this, and know that I endorse every word, letter, punctuation and diacritical of it. Every one. Key excerpt:

…The high-visibility Senate races Democrats lost (Missouri, Tennessee) were pipe dreams anyway. You already knew that Florida sucks, hard. So you’re not sad because “The Democrats did badly.”

You’re also not sad because Beto lost, or Andrew Gillum lost, or any other single candidate who got people excited this year fell short. They’re gonna be fine. They will be back. You haven’t seen the last of any of them. Winning a Senate race in Texas was never more than a long shot. Gillum had a realistic chance, but once again: It’s Florida.

No, you’re sad for the same reason you were so sad Wednesday morning after the 2016 Election. You’re sad because the results confirm that half of the electorate – a group that includes family, neighbors, friends, random fellow citizens – looked at the last two years and declared this is pretty much what they want. You’re sad because any Republican getting more than 1 vote in this election, let alone a majority of votes, forces us to recognize that a lot of this country is A-OK with undisguised white supremacy. You’re sad because once again you have been slapped across the face with the reality that a lot of Americans are, at their core, a lost cause. Willfully ignorant. Unpersuadable. Terrible people. Assholes, even…So I get it. It’s depressing. There’s no amount of positives that can take away the nagging feeling that lots and lots of people in this country are just…garbage. They’re garbage human beings just like the president they adore. These people are not one conversation, one fact-check, and one charismatic young Democratic candidate away from seeing the light. They’re reactionary, mean, ignorant, uninteresting in becoming less ignorant, and vindictive. They hate you and they will vote for monsters to prove it.

Remember this feeling. Remember it every time someone tells you that the key to moving forward is to reach across the aisle, show the fine art of decorum in practice, and chat with right-wingers to find out what makes them tick. Remember the nagging sadness you feel looking at these almost entirely positive results; it will be your reminder that the only way to beat this thing is to outwork, outfight, and out-organize these people. They are not going to be won over and they will continue to prove that to you every chance they get.

What are the really disappointing races? Governor of Georgia? Governor of Florida? Texas Senate? Those aren’t low-hanging fruit. Those are statewide races in Confederate states. Those are the last things that will flip. The fact that the Democrats covered the spread in every race is the win, especially if that enthusiasm and organization is harnessed to go again in two years, which is what it’s going to take. This level of participation and enthusiasm, every election, forever.

This was never going to be fixed in two years, because that’s not what our system allows. It wasn’t broken in two years. Donald Trump wasn’t the cause, he was the opportunistic infection that ultimately kills you once your immune system has been reduced to rubble. Our system broke when the GOP was allowed to run a five year fishing expedition until they could create an impeachable offense. It broke when Al Gore got the most votes and wasn’t allowed to win. It broke when the GOP went 100% scorched earth against Obama for eight years and leaned into racism and white supremacy and conspiracy theory. It broke when there was no accountability for anything that happened under Bush. It broke when a Supreme Court seat was held open for a year. Trump isn’t HIV, he’s Kaposi’s sarcoma.

Or to borrow from someone on Twitter: yesterday was America’s biopsy. What we have isn’t untreatable, but it’s definitely malignant. We have to fight it. Aggressively. And it’s going to hurt, and it’s going to take a lot out of us, and we’re not all going to make it, and we won’t be the same at the end, but the alternative is to lie there and wait to die.

What are we prepared to do? Because we’ve broken through. Now we can fight. Yesterday was the end of the beginning. We have to go like hell if we want it to be the beginning of the end.

One year on

So it’s now officially been a full year on the iPhone X. A year in which I’ve been trying to come to grips with the “this is your One Device” thing, where my Kindle and my iPad and my spare shutdown phone and hell, maybe even my laptop are all superfluous to requirement and all I need to get by is this one phone (and, let’s face it, an extra battery to top it up and the BeatsX headphones along with it). So…how’s that shaping up?

Better than I would have expected, to be honest. I still wish I had something a bit smaller, but I’ve learned to live with the bulk of the thing. At least it’s practically all screen, and I can hold it firmly in one hand even if I can’t safely use it one-handed (selfies off the side of the California Street cable car are scary). And the Downtime app really is working out to let me use it as its own shutdown-night replacement device; no need for a second phone to be the “let me unplug from everything” gadget while remaining just connected enough to hear from loved ones and catch a Lyft home. The problem I keep coming back to, though, is work. This is work’s phone, on work’s plan. I do have a connection for my own private VPN, but I don’t entirely trust that AirWatch isn’t snooping in the background. I also made sure that I’m backing up routinely in iCloud, and at home from time to time. And I took the plunge and signed up for LastPass, which is at least company-approved, and embarked on a complex program of changing passwords and making sure I don’t recycle the same strong password over and over.

Because here’s the thing: what am I doing that I’m not doing on either this phone, my work laptop or on the home iMac? Increasingly a password manager and a bunch of strong passwords are better than the old days when I might have to check in from some user’s browser, or be on a lab machine somewhere, or in a cyber cafe in London. If you kidnap me tomorrow and drop me in the middle of Tokyo with just my keys and a credit card, I can walk into the Apple Store, buy an iPhone 8, log in with my iCloud credentials and then use my Yubico key to open up LastPass, and as soon as the backup is restored I’m 100% back in business and ready to go. (Granted, I might have to place a call to find out what my 2FA code is for the iCloud account, but we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.) The number of places I need to randomly log in is not what it used to be.

I mean, let’s face it, the days of logging in pretty much went by the boards when smartphone time arrived. Instagram and Uber  and Foursquare made no sense before the smartphone, but pine and Hotmail and web portals made no sense once your credentials are stored in the hand-sized device that needs both a passcode to unlock and your thumbprint or retina scan or something to report out its stored login information. If you have strong passwords managed by a piece of software that can be conveniently unlocked on the fly, the thing in your hand is itself the key to the internet.  And this is where iTunes.app bites the dust. You can’t plug a device into your computer to manage it as a matter of routine anymore, not if that device is your primary tool, and now you don’t have to. Trying to sync with iTunes has become such a big bag of hurt in recent years that it’s easier just to set the device up and rely on the cloud for everything – and given how much streaming music is displacing the old model, that may be for the best, because you’re going to pay through the nose for a phone with enough capacity to hold your entire iTunes Media folder and it’s going to dump the contents every time you run an OS upgrade anyway.

The flip side, of course, is that if you’re going to consume all your media on the phone, you need a big screen. Which you’re kind of getting anyway, because a bigger screen comes with the bigger device that has to hold the entire new chipset and battery enough to run it for more than thirty minutes. It’s entirely possible that we won’t ever see an iPhone SE2, because the combination of AMOLED and 3dTouch and the graphics hardware and the battery pack needed to make all that last all day means you have to go large. Made worse by the revelation that each new iPhone for the last two years has gotten slightly worse at battery life, other than the iPhone XR…which gets its power from dumping the fancy tech and cramming a huge battery behind its cheap LCD. Some years ago I bemoaned the notion that we were inevitably headed toward the 6-inch phablet as the finish line for the phone. And sure enough, here we are: 5.8” small, 6.5” large and 6.1” economy size. Apple has given in and said that the future of the most personal computer is that very 6-inch phablet. I just had a year jumpstart on their vision, for better or worse.

I don’t necessarily like it, but I’ve learned to live with it, and if that isn’t the perfect metaphor for life in these United States in 2018 I’ll kiss your ass.

Election Day

Let’s not get it twisted. There are various names and party labels on the ballot, and there are all sorts of random things at the city and county level, and California’s proposition system is a KICK ME sign on the butt of democracy, but skip all that. Every state and Congressional election this year boils down to one simple question:

Are you okay with this?

Miss me with talk about tax policy, or education funding, or the Supreme Court, or whatever the foibles and predilections of the individual candidates. Because they are all buried under one question: is this okay? Are you good with America in 2018? With the foreign meddling, with the baldfaced corruption, with nurturing of white supremacists, with the complete disinterest in reason and logic, with the utter indifference to truth and reality? Is a nation on fire an acceptable price for a 21% corporate tax rate or a Supreme Court majority for whatever it is you wanted?

Because if it’s not, you have one and only one course of action open to you: you have to vote for every Democrat in every race.

You don’t have to like it. No one is asking you to approve of everything they stand for, everything they might want to do, and that’s fine – nothing serious could move for two years anyway. You don’t have to worry that Congress is suddenly going to nationalize Comcast and outlaw Baptists. It’s fine. This isn’t about granular issue positions any more. Those have to wait for later. This is about only one side being willing and able to stop the bleeding.

Because the GOP had plenty of chances to head this thing off, and couldn’t. Wouldn’t. Didn’t. For better or worse, this is what it means to be a Republican in 2018: I believe all of this is OK. Because nothing has happened to stop it. If the GOP was going to stand up to Trump, they’ve had two years to do so. And it didn’t happen, except for a gesture toward healthcare by a dying man who isn’t there anymore. Flake, Collins, all the sorrowful “moderates” – they’re there for him when it counts. Every single time.

The fact of the matter is, we functionally have a two-party system. You can vote for a third party if you want, but don’t kid yourself that you’re not actually throwing away your vote. The Green party isn’t going to save you, and there is no magical third way moderate who is going to lead us out of this. Your choices are yes, this is OK, or no it isn’t. And right now, today, in 2018, “no it isn’t” is labeled Democrat. Full stop.

Maybe if the sixty-something percent who say “no it isn’t” in polls could all get behind one party, we could do a deal. We’ll hash it out in the party, and when the rubber hits the road we’ll hold our noses and support what we decided to do rather than going all different directions and tolerating crazy – or worse, endorsing it – for the sake of getting our own way. And we’ll leave the nuts and the crazies and the assholes on the outside and wait for them to die, and contain in the meantime, because holding together a society is more important than burning it down for a bare advantage.

That used to be called democracy. If you still want it to be, you know what lever you have to pull. And keep pulling it, every race and every ballot, every election until the infection burns out.