country music

The documentary snuck up on me. I don’t think I realized it was a thing until less than a week before it debuted, but everyone from my in-laws to my Vanderbilt tailgate crew to my Alabama relations asked if I was watching it. And I spent a good chunk of the spring re-watching the entirety of the Ken Burns Baseball documentary, so sixteen hours on the history of country music? Sure, I’ll give it a whirl.

This is a masterpiece.

I was raised on country music, obviously. WZZK, the powerhouse FM country station, was the soundtrack of most of my life from the time it went on-air until 1983 or so, and three years in Nashville sent me to WSM-AM occasionally, and when I was in DC I often found myself riding around to Eddie Stubbs on WAMU, sending a bluegrass show back to his old patch from Nashville, but I hadn’t really been plugged into it in any meaningful way for a long, long time. Not least because the current state of country music is kind of dire, what with bro-country as the newest Nashville Sound. Insert generic pickup truck dirt road cutoff jeans beer drinking here.

But in the background of everything is the fact that country music is what my family was raised on, from the forties to when I was born. I knew that it all went back to the Carter Family, and that a Vanderbilt professor once told me that if modern media existed in the 1930s that Elvis Presley would have spent his career as a third-rate Jimmie Rodgers impersonator, but I don’t think I ever grasped how Ralph Peer was basically the midwife of the popular music recording industry – or how the Bristol sessions were the Big Bang of country music. But I didn’t see the line of history. Jimmie Rodgers gives the world the singing cowboy as a concept, and thus Gene Autry, but also inspires Ernest Tubb (far more influential than I realized) and Hank Williams. I had no idea what a star Roy Acuff was in the 1940s, the bridge between the hillbilly Opry of Deford Bailey and Uncle Dave Macon and the cementing of Nashville as the capital of country music. I don’t think I’d ever heard of the Maddox Brothers and Rose, let alone that they were from Alabama and made their way to California during the depression – through the Bay Area, natch. 

And you could see the path. The Irish music I gravitated to these last twenty years, colliding with the songs of African slaves and freedmen. Fiddle meets banjo meets mandolin and guitar. You could make a case that the proto-American music first divided into hillbilly and jazz, based on whether it was rural or urban. Then hillbilly went west, found drums and electricity and the Mexican border, and became western and then honky-tonk, while hillbilly carromed off the black blues and became bluegrass, and then when that western music washed back up on the blues in Memphis, became rock and roll. Hank Williams Jr isn’t wrong when he points out that “Rock Around The Clock” is basically “Move It On Over.”

The funny thing is, as early as a few days before the series started, I glanced right past the “Boot Liquor” channel on SomaFM for “Americana” and roots music. Now it’s at the top of my favorites list. Willie’s Roadhouse on SiriusXM is in the preset where Yacht Rock was all summer. And I’ve rewatched the first two episodes over and over. It took me ages to get around to the final episode (which my wife still hasn’t seen) just because I didn’t want it to end – and because the seventh episode, all of which is basically living memory for me, was kind of a wrench in ways I wasn’t expecting.

Because this is the music of my people. This is the music that came down from the holler in East Tennessee and up from the cotton patch in north Alabama. This is music that came from the whole of the South, white and black alike, music that spoke of sin and redemption, of the assurance of better days in the middle of hard times. This is my patrimony. This is my inheritance. This is something that I didn’t realize was missing from my life, a part of the puzzle, something I can call my own – and something that makes me wish I’d gone to the Bluebird more than once, or the Ryman more than once (and for an actual show, not a play), or the Exit/In or the Grand Old Opry at all. 

I don’t even have to engage with the new stuff if I don’t want to. There are plenty of people still making it in the old ways, bluegrass pickers and Neo-traditionalists and Old Crow Medicine Show and a talented young woman from North Carolina named Rhiannon Giddens fronting out a band called Carolina Chocolate Drops who I’ll definitely be playing now. And there’s something as simple as Jimmie Rodgers singing from ninety-one years in the past, about hanging around a water tank waiting for a train, that still hits the nail on the head about being a long way from home and slowly finding your way back.

It’s a good thing to have again.


I know I said a while back that it felt like I had crossed the finish line on wanting stuff. And yet, in the last six months or so I have gone on a truly ridiculous binge. Setting aside the replacement of things under warranty that were no longer working – in some cases on vehicular scale – I have gone out and bought a bunch of things that were on the frivolous list for years, things which might have previously been reconciled to the “maybe if someone gets this for me for Christmas” scale. Things like an Ebbets Field Flannels Vanderbilt jersey, or a pair of LL Bean Chelsea boots, or a couple of Yeti containers. To the point that I don’t think there’s much left on my wish list any more.

I think there are a couple different phenomena at work here. One is the whole notion of “look, we could be nuked tomorrow, why would you defer joy at this point.” I’ve been eyeing the Bean boots in some form or another for almost thirty years, an Ebbets jersey of some sort for twenty-five or more, my first attempt at Birkenstock-a-likes was in Nashville for godsakes. To some extent, going through and checking those things off is a matter of closing the loop, of collecting the trophies of a lifetime of patience and saying “screw it, treat yourself.” Jimmie Rodgers did say that money was no good until after you had spent it, for then it had furnished you and your loved ones with the fine things of life, and it’s hard to quibble with that. (More on him in a while.)

But the other stuff – like an 18 oz Yeti bottle that fits the cupholder and has a bag-safe drinkable lid option, and is dishwasher-safe and features two different California state emblems on its blue surface – feels like an attempt to purchase the artifacts of a life I wish I led and use them to try to obtain that life. I’ve never yet been able to carry a water bottle the way my wife does, but this thing seems to be close. I have a belt holster for it so that I don’t have to carry a bag to make it work, and there’s a bottle-filling fountain down the hall at work on the way into and out of the office. So long as I don’t do anything dumb like fill it with soda and pressurize it shut to the point of being inoperable, it’s good at keeping cold things cold until I drink them. And it serves as a talisman against buying something in a plastic bottle, which in turn cuts down the amount of random soda and bad things I’m likely to buy.

In a way, it feels like I’m whittling back. I have a pile of caps, but I wear maybe three of them. Everything is drunk out of the Yeti bottle or one of the two Yeti tumblers (one of which is devoted solely to coffee because of all the residue that resists any amount of hand scrubbing or dishwasher action). I wear more or less the same two pair of jeans, the same five T-shirts, the same flannel and the same work shirt, and if I could get away with it, the same pair of Birks every day. There’s actually a small pile that needs to go to Goodwill, and I strongly suspect at least half my closet could be dropped on top of it if I took out the stuff I actually wear and the stuff I actually need for future use.

Maybe I’m getting ready for a life where the can’t-part-with keepsakes live in a storage unit and the daily necessities live in a shipping container. But for now, it feels like “don’t shirk from spending the money on the one quality thing you’re going to use every day for three years running.” So bring on the 5.4” iPhone. And maybe some noise-canceling earbuds to go with it.

final impressions

There are things I wanted, especially on the gadget front, that I still kind of want after all this time. The PowerBook 1400. The SonyEricsson K700i (or K790, or T650). The original New Beetle turbo diesel. The Motorola Skytel satellite pager watch. They were perfect enough in their conception and execution that they still have a hold on my imagination.

Unfortunately, I think the iPhone SE may have fallen into that space.

Two weeks on, using it as my daily driver, there are a couple of problems that didn’t use to be problems in the era before iOS 13. The first one, obviously, is the screen – while the device itself is still a perfect size, the display is not. A modern SE would probably have a 5” AMOLED screen in approximately the same real estate, but the 4” LCD is cramped at best running an OS version designed for phones that are all around 6” on the screen. The keyboard is fiddly at best, some text actually requires me to lift my glasses and squint, and the display brightness just isn’t where it needs to be. And that’s setting aside the extent to which I have become accustomed to reading RSS feeds, website articles and even Kindle books on a larger display.

The other is battery. And this is kind of upsetting, because when I first got the SE, it had the power-sipping iPhone 6s processor with a display 30% smaller, and I could get through an entire day in low-power mode and come home with 50% of the battery left. Now, even with corded headphones instead of Bluetooth, an hour of normal use from my front door to my desk takes me down to 80%. And I had come to take for granted just how easy having a wireless charger made things (even if constant wireless top-up might have caused some of the battery issues on the X). 

I still love the SE. But I’m not sure it’s really an everyday phone. Travel phone, shutdown phone, sure, absolutely. But as a daily driver, it may finally be reaching the end of the road. A faster processor and larger screen (even if it’s too much larger than I strictly require) are too important to pass up, especially with domestic travel coming that will require the best available camera. So next week, I’ll probably be getting the X back from my co-worker, migrating everything back to it, and then leaving the SE without a number or a SIM card – possibly not even registered and configured. A true emergency backup, forcing me to live with one phone and one number like most people do. And they do all right.

Sometimes you just have to move on. A lesson I could have stood to learn a lot earlier in life.

quitting time

I honestly don’t know how a government that insists on maintaining an embargo against a mostly harmless speck of an island off Florida can reconcile that with the fact of massive trade – indeed, massive economic indenturement, to be blunt – to the hugest Communist dictatorship in the world. Yes, Communist. Yes, dictatorship. Just because everydamnthing in this country is made in China, because businesses get moist in their special places at the thought of 1.2 billion future customers, we’re willing to overlook the fact that IT’S A GODDAMNED TOTALITARIAN STATE.

March 22, 2008


Speaking even more of phones, looking at Apple’s situation, it’s hard to argue that they – and the West generally – got played for suckers these last twenty years. The promise of a billion new customers was too good to pass up, so the West signed China onto the WTO with assurances that business would lead to liberalization and that everyone would just go along with this. And then, after we spent two decades thinking this would all work out in the end, these companies find themselves tied in legal knots, aiding and abetting a totalitarian regime and their intellectual property being ripped off wholesale for profit. All so Silly Con Valley could have their widgets assembled for ten cents on the dollar. And now there’s not really a cost-effective alternative solution any longer, so we’re stuck until someone else can spin up modern manufacturing at scale in a different place – assuming, of course, that you have a physical product to sell. If not, you just have to wait and watch as Tencent and Alibaba do the same thing you can’t for those billion customers you assumed would be yours.

January 4, 2019


It’s time for Tim Cook to start putting some of those massive cash reserves toward figuring out where Apple’s going to move its manufacturing. As the only major tech company in America still dependent on hardware, they’re highly exposed by having the Chinese government having their manufacturing in a professional threat sandwich. Not to mention the fact that the Chinese government is completely unchanged from the era in which they gunned down their own citizens by the thousands.

We tried. It was a useful experiment. We have the results. It’s time to stop handing the family jewels over to butchers. Let them try to invent their own things without using Cupertino for R&D.

Get out, Tim. Start now.

days of future plinka

This is starting to shape up as I look at the present state of my phones, numbers and usage. I’ve shed two entire phone numbers since the first of the year, much to my wife’s relief, and I’m down to the streamlined presence I’d hoped for with two and a half months to spare on my 2019 resolutions. So without further nattering, let’s get on with it.

This iPhone SE came out as a 4-inch phone a year and a half after Apple stopped producing a current 4” phone. It had a current chipset and current camera in an older body with an older front camera, older version of TouchID, less bright screen. Basically a hodgepodge of parts from the 6S and the 5S, in the body of the latter. It seems like the SE2, so-called, will be more of the same on that front. Eighteen months after Apple makes the smallest phone in the current lineup a 5.8” full screen monster, they take the smaller size and put the newer chipset in it. From the sound of things, it sounds like the A13 and accompanying RAM in the remains of an iPhone 8, so the only feature gains you might get are some computational effects and improved performance. It doesn’t sound like the newer camera is coming at all, unless it’s the XR’s single camera, and we may not even see the 3DTouch stuff removed (which would suck out loud, as that represented at least another 100mAh of available battery space in the 6-to-6S move).

Now, for me to go from the SE to the notional 2020 5.4” iPhone Pro would be an enormous leap. Same size device as the 8, which is what I care about, but definitely more battery than 3DTouch would allow. Waterproof, haptic touch, all the amazing new A14 processor whizbang, maybe even 5G support – and dual-SIM capable. Which is potentially HUGE. If I could have the work number on the built-in e-SIM (which AT&T ought to be able to manage), I could pop my own VZW-backed USMobile SIM in the slot and have a nice little failover for places where one network fails but the other is fine, not to mention insurance against walking out the door at work. And you just take out the VZW SIM and you’re ready to go abroad without a hitch. 

Basically, the die is cast. I’ll wait a year. If the 5.4” Pro doesn’t materialize, I’ll get the SE2 in September, unless the benefits of the 5.8” 2020 phone are just too good to pass up. If the SE2 doesn’t materialize in Q1 as promised, I’ll wait until September. And come September, it’ll probably be time to hand in both the SE and the iPad Mini 2, which already didn’t get iOS 13 and has the most fleeting battery life as is. A single 5.4” phone the size of the iPhone 8 with all the bells and whistles would suit me down to the ground, especially personally owned with a built-in escape hatch.

And I’m reconciling myself to the the larger size. The Moto X was dead solid perfect and the 6  just a hair too big, but the SE actually feels a hair too small at this point – mostly for reading and keyboarding. Which I do a lot more than I thought. I might not be happy with the SE if I didn’t have the actual Kindle to work with. But the prospect of what will in essence be the lost iPhone 9, in 128 GB size for $500 or less, is definitely a plausible path of last resort going forward, four years after first taking the SE plunge.

It’s a good plan. I like it. I approve. Onward and upward, and enjoy the return of the pocket rocket in the meantime.

First impressions, revisited

Two years ago, I got the iPhone X from work almost as a goof, with the notion that if I didn’t get it, I would just keep using my iPhone SE for the foreseeable future. But I did get it, and the SE became the escape phone, the phone for going abroad or just getting away from the world. And other than having to replace it after crunching it in the seat of a 787 over Chile, it worked out pretty well.

But after a couple of years, it rapidly became apparent that carrying two phones was never going to be a working proposition, and the nature of modern computing with two factor authentication and everything else meant that you were expected to have one phone and one number. And so the iPhone X reluctantly became my daily driver. And then, work became something else, and I decided I’d rather have my own device even if I have their service, and my work partner damaged his iPhone X beyond repair, and and and…

So here I am, having migrated everything to the SE. A phone with a four year old chip set in a six year old body, with a 4 inch screen running an OS where around six is the norm. A phone from the other side of the 3DTouch fiasco. And fortunately, this physical sample is less than a year old with a fresh battery, so this is about as good as can be expected to test with. It took most of an evening to get all the 2FA repaired and the music downloaded, but by morning, it was time to get started.

So what are we looking at?

For starters, the camera is definitely a step back, two generations behind the X, and you’re giving away FaceID and Animoji. But MeMoji still work, and TouchID is still a superior solution for me for actual usability. Given that I don’t think we have a lot of travel on the horizon – and certainly none abroad – the camera is good enough for Insta.

Text entry is going to be a challenge, although the smaller keyboard is offset not only by years of improvement in speech recognition but with the addition of the swipe function in iOS 13. It’s less of a pain to do this post than I had anticipated, but I wouldn’t want to bang out any significant posts on a regular basis. The screen size is fine for most things. although the 4″ isn’t a Kindle substitute by any stretch and it might not be the best for movies (which I’ve never watched on the phone to any meaningful extent).

There are other things. There’s no AMOLED, which might not be as much of a power saver anyway in the grand scheme of things. There’s no NFC reader capacity, which means using the Yubikey for 2FA is off the board for now. There’s no water resistance rating, which means no trips to Drown Town for this one. And I don’t think it can take advantage of the whole 18W fast charging.

But it’s one-handed. And it’s comfortable snapping a picture hanging off the cable car. And it fits a shirt pocket nicely. And so far the performance has been entirely acceptable. So we’ll see how it holds up during the work day. If I leave in low power mode at 100% and get home at the end of the day at 25% or better without plugging in, it’ll be as capable as the X. The question is whether a smaller battery only driving a 4″ LCD can last as long as a 5.8″ AMOLED pulling on the larger one.

But for the first time in I don’t know when (probably since the coming of the Moto X), I have one phone with one number. If nothing else, my lovely bride will be over the moon.

black october

Fifteen years ago yesterday, we were going to have an easy sort of day. We left our warehouse and drove to Apple main campus for breakfast and to see some people, with the thought that we’d have a light day. And then, the power went out in Cupertino. It ended with handwritten airbills, multiple FedEx runs, an attempt to get them to hold the plane, and me sitting on the curb next to the other contractor having a smoke and wondering if our badges would work in the morning.

It was the beginning of Black October. More management turnover, more chaos, a bunch of guys in a foxhole trying to hammer out a process and a plan and a methodology while the plane was plummeting to the earth. Me, dragging pallets of shipping containers to build a wall to escape behind while I started just cooking laptops, making myself the laptop specialist (where I would be for almost a year and a half and the backup for it thereafter). Just go down the list every day: here are the prioritized orders, get as far as you can. Lather, rinse, repeat until Thanksgiving.

Those guys are scattered to the winds now. The two I was closest to moved away from NorCal altogether before long, and I haven’t seen either of them in a good five years or more. Apple itself seems like something that happened in a dream, and to be honest, the most vividly remembered part of it is the first part, the contractor phase that ended in a public house with all the guys clapping me on the back as my boss and director handed me a white folder clearly labeled “THE OFFER”.

That’s the only full time job I’ve ever had that didn’t involve some kind of shady hookup or someone interceding on my behalf. I came to California with nothing but a resume and hope, put my name online in a couple of places, and got a call from a recruiter who didn’t know me from Adam and delivered me to Infinite Loop scarce days before I would have started on a contract all the way in South San Francisco. As a result, I can say I’ve never had a commute in the Valley longer than ten miles.

It was an extremely liminal moment. New job, new town, new state, new apartment, wedding coming in April, plus the chaos of an election season and the unreality of the Boston Red Sox on the path to the most amazing comeback since Our Lord rolled away the stone on the third day. The new car plan was on hold. I was still paying for XM radio and not really playing as much KFOG as I’d anticipated. Steel-toed boots and cargo shorts were work wear well into November. And Cal football was the most important sport in the house and it wasn’t even remotely close.

I know I point back to life in DC a lot, but that first couple years in California, before the dull moment and then the depression, are a sort of touchstone as well. They represent the one time that I took the reins of a fresh start and succeeded in a new workplace on my own without having to have someone hold the door for me. I was able to get in, prove myself, and achieve and accomplish something that came with rewards and got better as time went on.

Wouldn’t that be something.