flashback, part 111 of n

I locked the door. Not because I was up to anything untoward, because I genuinely wasn’t, but because I wanted privacy. I wanted it to be my own space, my trifling room with he red carpet older than I was, the guest room until I turned 12 and started spending time in it – and then my mother got the clever idea to swap around the furniture “so I would have more space.” If there had been more space every time she rearranged, I could have hosted NFL football in that room. That was probably part of my motivation, the endless furniture rearranging. So was the fact that every now and then she would “clean” and then, say, a whole binder of Dungeons & Dragons campaign notes and characters would go missing for good. As long as I was in the room and awake, it was mine, and that meant that I could lock anybody out I wanted to. And so I did.

There were bunk beds, pointlessly, the top one mostly used to hold dirty clothes or things I’d pulled off the floor. There was a stolen highway barrel in the corner, devoid of purpose, and a speed limit sign that had come out of my grandfather’s barn. Speed Limit 35, it said, my self-chosen number and also my ACT goal. I usually had it propped over the air conditioning vent, to keep the cold air blowing out to the sides instead of straight onto me, and it made a space where I could put an unopened can of Dr Pepper and be assured of keeping it mostly cold. There was a desk and chair that were part of the bookcase set, but they weren’t any good to sit at, and I had a card table on which I would do most of my actual work.

And the walls, pinned with all manner of stuff. Newspaper clippings of particularly pointed letters to the editor, of incisive cartoons, of random magazine quotes. The letters 7 C 6 off one of those changeable signs out front of a fast food place, which happened to be hex for 1990. Stuff from school, entire campaign signs from particularly amusing student government efforts. One person running for President based on the slogan “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Arguable, but it made me laugh, and up it went.

And there was the chair. A light-colored-wood directors chair with teal-ish fabric, from Pier 1, which to my primitive brain registered as the height of cool. Something in which I could sit with my feet up, on the phone with one of my tiny handful of friends or playing CDs on the boom box at a time when those – or cassette singles – had completely replaced the archaic practice of taping off the radio, in a market that had one classic rock station and no outlet for alternative music aside from a Sunday night show on Z102. 

I didn’t have a computer – wouldn’t have, until I got that first PowerMac 6100 in the summer of 1994, by which point half the stuff was missing from the room as carpet and curtains got replaced. I didn’t have a television either, until the summer after high school and before college, although I would occasionally grab the tiny 5” black and white TV that was meant for travel and use it to watch…what? Moonlighting? Max Headroom? It’s not like there was ever much on TV that I wanted to watch in those days. And staggering to think that I’ve spent the last two and a half years walking around with a bigger screen in my hip pocket. No computer meant no BBS dialup, no participation in the antediluvian “online” like my friend Scott. Which meant that for the most part, my world was bounded by four walls, a phone, and imagination.

I never snuck out. Not once. The nearest frenemy was a good two or three miles walk under the best of conditions, the nearest friend almost a ten minute drive at best, and my actual gang reposed mostly on the other side of Birmingham from me. You don’t have to worry about your kids sneaking out if there’s nothing for them to sneak to, and by never having school closer than ten miles away, I was free of the temptation of local friends. And most of my friends were far enough away that the phone was the only way I saw them after hours or on weekends…at times when all of them were closer to each other and could more easily do stuff. It would be well into 11th grade before I was routinely able to head their direction.

And then, senior year, when all my friends had graduated already, and the only people I wanted on the phone were all long-distance calls, and I could drive across town but those folks weren’t there any more, and the realization that I needed to get away to college and stop marking time anymore. That this wasn’t my room anymore, this was the place I slept when I was here and not there…wherever there was.

The problem, of course, was that I made the wrong call, and there turned out to be nowhere for a long, long time.

the end of an era

Mac OS X Public Beta was installed on a PowerBook G3 in my backpack one night in September 2000. I had been playing with it for maybe a week, in the middle of living in a corporate apartment after having been turfed out of my house and my relationship by a “tornado-like event” (I think they call that a derecho in the DMV now). And one drunken night at the Four Provinces, I forgot my backpack, which disappeared forever. I’ve never taken my work backpack to a bar since.

I suppose at some level we’d been waiting for Mac OS X ever since it was a notional System 8. Copeland, then Gershwin, then maybe purchasing BeOS, then the NeXT acquisition and the return of Steve Jobs, who turned System 7.6 into MacOS 7.6 and turned versions 7.7, 7.8 and 7.9 into Mac OS 8, Mac OS 8.5 and Mac OS 9. And NeXTStep became Mac OS X, coming Real Soon Now, and finally providing the modern features like protected memory and preemptive multitasking and multiple users and a POSIX-compliant command line environment. Mac OS X was supposed to unlock the potential of the G3 processor, the OS to match the futuristic new iMac hardware, the spark that would light the fire of Apple’s comeback. The huge photorealistic icons, the translucent dock, the whole look and feel that was different from anything in computing…it really felt like the future, just in time for the twenty-first century.

I didn’t think at the time that we’d have twenty years of Mac OS X. I guess technically we didn’t, because they started referring to it as macOS a few years ago. But the version numbers remained the same, from that original 10.0 all the way to the 10.15.6 beta on one of my work laptops.

Until today.

Sure enough, there it was, and I had a little bit of a moment when I saw the “About This Mac” dialog box in the demo that read “version 11.0”. At long last, after two decades, this one finally goes to eleven. And fitting, I suppose, because this is the one that will bring ARM hardware to the Mac and complete Steve’s ultimate vision in so many ways. He was fond of that Alan Kay quote about how people who are serious about software should make their own hardware, and he meant it – before he died, the iPhone and iPad were running on Apple’s own A-series system-on-chip processors. The last decade has basically been about getting Apple silicon good enough to become “Apple Silicon”, and I don’t know at what point it got good enough for the secret squirrels on Infinite Loop to try to build the macOS for the A-series – 

– but wait, didn’t the iPhone originally run on a cut-down version of Mac OS X? And hasn’t every release of macOS ever since they went to an annual schedule more or less corresponded one-to-one to an iOS release? And don’t the “this one is good/this one is shit” tick-tocks generally work the same? iOS 11 and macOS 10.13 were both shit on toast, iOS 12 and macOS 10.14 were both refreshingly stable, iOS 13 and macOS 10.15 could both have used a little longer on the smoker? If we’re honest about it, hasn’t the OS already been running on Apple’s own silicon from the day that Gray Powell lost that prototype iPhone 4 in Redwood City?

There may just be the ultimate tweener on the way. Look at the iPad Pro with the wackadoo new folding keyboard, and then look at the MacBook Air with the prospect of an ARM processor, and tell me this doesn’t end with a 12” touchscreen laptop running one OS that can run macOS or iOS apps interchangeably with an interface that can work like either the tablet or the desktop, depending on how you feel…and that’s almost certainly called a plain old MacBook.

Wherever you are, Steve, they finally got there. It’s only a matter of time.

to rule them all

The Dynabook is the vision. It always was, going back to the days of the original Macintosh team. Steve Jobs famously wrote “Mac in a book in five years” (it took longer; the Portable doesn’t count). He asked Alan Kay if the iPhone was good enough to criticize. And when that first iPad was launched in 2010, it really seemed like Himself had finally caught the car.

Ten years on, it’s become apparent the the iPad is the goal toward which everything is converging. iOS is arguably now a subset of iPadOS for slightly smaller displays. And the Mac is transitioning not only to the look and feel of iPad OS but to actual iPad processor SoCs under the hood, starting this Christmas. “Apple Silicon” is very nearly a back-to-the-future move, a RISC architecture like PowerPC was in 1994 with similar promises for running cool and fast. If an iPad Pro with an 18W power supply is faster than a MacBook Pro with a 61W power supply, then you could theoretically double up on the performance for even less power. And make no mistake: macOS has probably been running on ARM somewhere in Infinite Loop for years now, just like Mac OS X ran on Intel from the very beginning. “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again” – Apple is closing the last piece of the puzzle. Make the OS, make the hardware, and now make the actual chip. No Intel, no Qualcomm, this is going to be 100% Apple’s stuff, thus the “Apple Silicon” label.

iPad OS looks more like the Mac, with its drop-down menus and sidebars. MacOS looks more like the iPad, with its bubble notifications and free-floating dock. And hell, Catalyst be damned, you’re about to be able to run iPhone and iPad apps directly on the metal on the new Macs. There is one vision for Apple computing, whether it’s on your wrist, in your pocket, on your desktop or in a tablet or laptop under your arm. Love it or hate it, this is the way it’s headed, and you can merely choose the form factor that suits your needs.

A lot of the other changes in iOS seem to be mostly around closing the remaining gaps with Android. AppClips and Widgets are things that have existed on the other platform for a long time – widgets were a thing on my Moto X in 2014 – but a nice clean presentation that works with the rest of the OS will be good to have. And native sleep tracking in watchOS is the last piece of the puzzle for me to ditch Fitbit once and for all, now that they’re owned by Google. And this is not an idle thing – Apple is steering ever harder into privacy, with more disclosures for what data apps share and things like approximating your location.

The other stuff, like Siri improvements and spatial audio in my AirPods Pro and the overhaul of the springboard in the iPhone, is all stuff that if nothing else will feel like an actual change. Hopefully one with more functionality than the great iOS 7 flattening, when they did nothing but change the paint job and somehow manage to make everything less usable along the way. Hell, if the new Translate app can work with my AirPods and let me carry on a conversation with somebody, that would feel like we finally made it to the future.

That’s what it’s all for at this point, right? Feeling like we actually got to the 21st century. The first twenty years were not what I was promised in the My Weekly Reader.

Testing thoughts

In attempting to get free of Instagram, I’ve tried several different things, with what can charitably be described as “varying degrees of success.” Nothing has been an obvious solution, not least because of the platform lock-in that keeps most of Facebook’s apps on the top of the Free Apps chart in the App Store. But there have been some lessons.

For starters, the group chat is exactly what it says on the tin: a chat, among a group. It’s oriented toward text, not photos, and among a pre-defined group. Like it or not, the ability to be found and followed serendipitously is a big part of the social media experience. It’s how you find friends of friends and ultimately make them friends of your own, ideally. And that group model is a big part of where these pre-defined group apps run on the rocks: all your friends are not one big group, and in some cases you wouldn’t even want them in one big group.

So that kind of sticks a fork in building atop Signal, or Slack, or other chat-based apps. And the need for privacy kind of prevents building atop simple RSS or micro.blog or the like, because otherwise you’re just blogging. And honestly, the appeal of Instagram is in the pictures, seeing what your friends are up to. So that basically leaves you with other photo apps – things like Flickr or Cluster or the like.

Honestly, Flickr would get the job done, it’s been around forever, and it’s not in hock to the big powers. But it costs money now, and coaxing people back to it is a bit of an ask. The only pictures I see there are from people who have piped their Insta into Flickr with IFTTT. So it becomes a question of getting people to come back to an app and a website that hasn’t been at the forefront of thought for a decade.

And really, what I’m learning through this is that what I want isn’t a more perfect social media. What I want is to have my friends in my life, despite the fact that so many of them are over the hill or in another time zone or on another continent. I want to have a crew and a team around me the way I did in 1989, or 1994, or 2003. If I have fond memories of Vox, it’s because it included people from DC as well as the local high street dining club at a time when I had friends at work at Apple. There were years when we had friends living with us, none of whom are closer than Santa Cruz now. Drinks after work, club hockey at Logitech Ice, Sundays spent at Dan Brown’s Lounge or in front of NFL Red Zone at Farmer’s Union, or even the ability to just text and say “who feels like dinner downtown?” – all part of the past, even if the world were fully open for business.

Social media sucks. This is a fact, and it is indisputable. But in my case, I’m merely trying to find a way to treat the symptoms.

state of play, five months or so to go

On the face of it, it really looked like they were going to spin this as 1968 redux. Cops vs agitators, the police are the new Troops, and the virus was under control until Those People started spreading it again, and the triumph of the Administration over the Foreign Virus was undone by the Axis of Evil of Antifa, Illegals and Negroes. It sure seemed like they were lining it up, and that the usual Very Serious People were going to co-sign it.

But something funny happened. The protests continued. And they had an impact. All of a sudden the NFL is all for somebody signing Colin Kaepernick. There are huge block letters on 1st Avenue South in Birmingham hard by Railroad Park reading BLACK LIVES MATTER. Companies are falling all about themselves to give people Juneteenth off. Something snapped, and it’s hard not to feel like people are suddenly puking up the faux populism they’ve been overserved for the last five or six years. People who looked dourly on the notion that we had a racial problem after Ferguson or Charleston because “we have a black President, what more do you people want” are suddenly realizing that what we want is for everyone to enjoy the same expectations of life and safety that a rich white guy from Alabama has just going around with his normal life. And I think what people are finally reacting against is the plain evidence that such a life is not on offer for people of color in this country, and it’s been legitimized by four years of abject racism as the face of the GOP.

And, as I predicted, Facebook has more or less done for the First Amendment what the NRA did for the Second. It turns out that most people’s idea of “freedom of speech” doesn’t involve a nihilistic free-fire zone where harassment and abuse is “just the price of freedom” – and where the worst sort of toxicity is waved away under a flimsy banner of “satire” or “entertainment.” The problem is, when you build your whole philosophy on trolling – from Limbaugh to Beck to Jones to 4chan, and going further down the sewer hole with every turn – it’s like misusing opioids. What starts as keeping the rest of the bottle of Tylenol 3 just in case eventually winds up with Russian krokodil sloughing your scaly flesh off in chunks. And as Bush 43 alumni raise money for the Biden campaign and one prominent inside-the-Beltway pre-Trump Republican after another endorses the Democrat and campaigns for the Democrat and tells his fellows “suck it up and vote for Joe, it’s important”, all you’re left with is the people who got high on racism until the body rotted away.

That’s how you get to where we are now: where in the middle of the biggest public health crisis of the 21st century, a simple and obvious solution that costs very little and has a better preventive effect than any drug gets turned into a shibboleth of machismo for the smooth-brained idiots who gave us the current occupant of the White House. Wearing a mask in public is the easiest goddamn thing in the world, unless you are somebody whose identity is bound up in believing that whatever you hear from other than the Sacred Source is automatically bad. We have a good solid 27% Crazification Factor drowning in their own oppositional defiant disorder, and on current form, the people who were willing to hold their nose and pull the lever for Not Hillary are revolting at being confronted with the prospect of four more years of “how bad could it be” now that it’s really bad. 13% unemployment, a hundred thousand surplus dead, a joke to the rest of the world except for the dictatorships that Agent Orange begs to help him get re-elected?

Joe Biden just needs to pick a nice pleasant woman of color who will do exactly what he’s done: sit back, watch this Administration shoot us all in the face, and at the right moment, ask “are we done here?” Because it really looks like a solid majority of Americans want to say “yes, yes we are.”

more gadgetology

Tonight is the first night since receiving my new SE that I did any playing around with the other iPhones under my purview. I made sure my old SE was up to date and backed up, then put it in the drawer, possibly for good. It might go in the memory box with my original iPhone, my Moto X, my Z520 and my MOTOFONE F3 – the phones that captured my imagination and have memories attached to them – or it might get donated, assuming it gets updates to iOS 14. Which is why I pulled out the work-owned iPhone X, made sure it was wiped clean, then fitted it with my personal SIM and restored the contents of the old SE to it.

The SE had been configured as a shutdown-night phone, only equipped with the things I need to get through a pub evening: Kindle, notes apps, music apps (both RTE and SomaFM alike), something to stream minor league baseball games on if we ever get those again, basic stuff. No local media aside from Kindle books, no work or productivity software to speak of, none of the extra bells and whistles. I updated everything and topped it all up, charged it to 90%, and turned it off to await next week. Because with WWDC on June 22 will come our first look at the next iteration of Apple’s OS, whether the long-debated 10.16 for work or the equally-debated iOS 14. And I need a reasonably current device capable of running the developer beta, with enough software that I can usefully test against, but not on a production device or one with a bunch of iTunes content. I learned my lesson the hard way last year, when the highly-suspect iOS 13 beta basically duplicated my entire music library. Won’t be going down that road again, and glad of it. The X is still a reasonably cromulent device – it has all the modern accoutrements that Apple is looking for, an A11 processor, 40 GB of free space to work with, FaceID and the like – but is unlikely to compete with my sidearm SE.

For one thing, it’s still too big. The 5.8” display still looks good, but there’s so damn much of it and the main benefit is being easier to read some things, while the hand size is still uncomfortable in a way the SE actually isn’t. (The old gold SE is obviously one-handed and feels sleek and modern, but an A9 processor and clicky physical home button and 4” display are finally all too old for me to deal with.) This all ensures that the X will be the tackling dummy, the sacrificial device, something I use to see what’s doing and not to get serious work done. Which might make it a shutdown night device again, if I really want to get away from it all (there’s a lot to get away from these days, of which). 

But for another, it’s not mine. I’m happy to wreck someone else’s phone, even if it has my own SIM in it. I also took the opportunity tonight of putting all my work-required apps on the SE into a single folder, so when the time comes, I can delete that folder, delete the AirWatch profiles and app, switch the SIMs out and toss the X on my boss’s desk and walk away. And I could happily do so…on a mobile device. At home, the iMac is still viable enough for me to be typing this, and it’s my Zoom machine during the workday and the font of all media for my iTunes and the base station for iCloud and the like…but it’s a desktop iMac. And if I were to quit, I don’t know that I could get through life with just an iMac and an iPhone.

So what goes in between? I would have said iPad for a long time, even though my iPad mini is six and a half years old and my full-size iPad even older (and an 8-inch iPad is doubly worthless when you have access to a Kindle Paperwhite and your iPhone has a 5.8” display, as I learned these last two years). If I needed a personal portable computer, I would probably have just bought an iPad Air and maybe a Logitech Crayon and paired my cheap Amazon bluetooth keyboard to it for text work…until the rumors came out about what’s coming next week.

Cut to the chase: much as the Pope is assured of the existence of the Blessed Virgin, I am assured that macOS has in fact been running on ARM-equipped hardware somewhere on Infinite Loop for years, just as it did on Intel for years before the jaw-dropper at WWDC 2005 (and the fifteen year old giveaway backpack from that conference presently reposes on my windowsill next to the iMac). I am further assured that there will be some sort of transition device; just as there was a PowerMac G5 body with Intel Pentium 4 processors, there is probably a Mac Mini configured with some sort of ARM chipset that will be available for developers who want to write close to the metal. I am even further assured that there will be an update to Xcode and it will have a tick box for compiling your app to run on ARM, just as there was once a tick box for Intel next to PPC in earlier versions. 

And this is where things get interesting. I’ve had the peculiar privilege to be on the bleeding edge of every Mac processor transition. My first Mac was a Power Macintosh 6100, the original PPC 601 pizza-box. When I was at Apple, I wheedled for – and got – the original MagSafe-equipped, camera-in-the-lid MacBook Pro with an Intel CoreDuo processor (which ran hot as balls) as my personal device. And now…what? Is it possible Apple might bring back something like the 12” MacBook, only with ARM under the hood instead of the feeble Intel CoreM? The old 12” PowerBook G4 was known as “the blogger’s delight” in the days when it first took off, and that size device has always held sway with me. I had the MacBook briefly at work, I never passed up an opportunity to trade down from 15” to 13” on a work laptop, and the 13” MacBook in black polycarbonate was my lovely parting loaner from Apple for years. 

So if there were to be an ultralight 12” ARMbook, something without a fan that could still run for 10 hours on a charge, something suitable for FaceTime calls and blogging and web browsing – would that be a better use of my money than an iPad at this point? Especially with the likelihood of more iPad apps making their way to the MacBook with ARM under the hood? A lot would depend on the backward compatibility for Intel apps though…if only because I would insist on Kentucky Route Zero being available on my new ARMbook before I spent my own cash on it. 

Tim Cook has insisted for years that there is no great convergence coming in which macOS and iOS (and hell, tvOS and watchOS) will be merged and converged and made one in a sort of appleOS to rule the all. Those denials are getting harder to credit with every passing year, as macOS becomes ever more security-restricted by default and MDM dependent for enterprise management and iOS gains file browsers and mouse support and multiple user options. But it’s possible we could settle on one confluent appleOS and be happy with it.

Not quite yet though. I would be content to still have iPhone, ARMbook and Apple Watch by Christmas, each with their own distinct OS. Easy does it, Auburn Man.

“…and take you to the ancestral plane.”

flashbacks of the cell phone ringing in the car on the way to work, the counter at Dulles, the halls of a hospital long since closed, the small dim room where they bring you to tell you the worst…and then waking up on the hill looking out over the old family church and the sprawling graveyards next to the fields, under a luminous purple sky full of puffy white clouds.

I’d want to ask what it was like all those years ago, whether the world really felt like it was coming apart at the seams in 1962 or 1963 or 1968. If that played any part in the nine year wait between marriage and childbirth. (I’d have a lot of explaining to do about the last twenty-two years.)

I’d ask about those evenings of piddling around the storage room with leather-working tools ,or melting lead and tying feathers for fly-fishing lures, or a jigsaw and C-clamp, whether that isolation was meant to be meditative and whether it paralleled what I’ve attempted for years with books and pints and streaming audio from Ireland as I attempt to punch out of the world for a while.

I’d ask about the motivations behind staying in a rural exurb instead of going closer to the city like my mother wanted – a more human scale? Just comfort and familiarity? Something as simple as lower house prices in a world where the interstate wasn’t going to be finished until 1985 anyway?

I probably wouldn’t have the heart to ask what it was like looking out an office window at the marchers in Birmingham, or seeing the world change completely in the South, or whether they were making a deliberate choice to try to bring me up in a way that would be a break from what I once heard him snap on in anger as “the redneck mentality” on election night in 1990. I would like to think he would be appropriately horrified by seeing the jump from 1998 to 2020 in one fell swoop, instead of being frog-boiled like his wife and taking the Host of the Beast (in Heinrich Böll’s famous formulation), but there is relief (if no comfort at all) in the thought “at least I’ll never have to know.”

And I guess at some point I’d just want to know about getting old. If you ever stop regretting the decisions you got wrong. How you plot a path forward as the doors slowly close one after another. How it’s possible as the years go by to keep doing the best you can and don’t be a horse’s ass…as each of those becomes ever more difficult with the passing of time.

It’s mind-bending enough to know that I’ve been in California for a third of my life, but it’s more unsettling to know that in four years, I’ll have lived half my life without him in it.

nothing Venn-tured

The story on Venn, so-called, is a lot of what I DON’T want. I don’t want the entire world to be able to see all my posts; I want to control who does and have some granularity to it and define circles beyond just “public” & “friends.” I don’t want to ever see anything from people I don’t follow – no reposting, no bots, no things other people liked from randoms I don’t know. I also ideally don’t want the whole system to depend on one company and one app; I want interoperability like with email or web. But I also want security and encryption, which traditionally means you need one company holding the keys or else a complex public key sharing operation. It is honestly very difficult to square.

I want to prevent random unsolicited interaction. No trolls, no bots, no intruders. I want to let people follow without me having to follow them back or let them see everything I post, so that I don’t have to maintain multiple accounts. LiveJournal had this in 2003 for godsakes. I want a chronological list of every post from everyone I follow, rather than content surfaced out of order at the whims of an algorithm. I want as much of the intelligence as possible at the endpoint rather than in the server in between. I want a passive stream of posts that doesn’t notify me for EVERY SINGLE NEW MESSAGE the way a group chat does. I do want the ability to message 1:1 and get notified of that, though.

There are a lot of ways the current offerings fail. Let me think about it:

FACEBOOK: Too evil to require further elaboration.

INSTAGRAM: Evil, duh. No real granularity options beyond making the account private and using the “close friends” group in Stories. Algorithmic timeline, so who knows what you see when.

WHATSAPP: Evil, duh. Don’t know if the group chat can work without pinging you for every message. Facebook is pivoting to WA as a focal product and trying to bring in advertising, so expect it to get worse.


(smugly thinking That’s that sorted. The goal, after all, is to get away from Facebook. So what else is out there?)


TWITTER: Serious problem with evil. No granularity in posting aside from all-or-nothing private account. Algorithmic timeline, so some question whether you will even see everything, let alone in order. Constantly trying to snitch on your friends’ favorites and follows, to the point that it defaults away from just giving you the latest tweets.

TUMBLR: no real granularity or group model for visibility of posts. Just an option to password the whole thing and make it private.

SNAPCHAT: (this is not a viable option as I am 48 years old)


(Ugh. I don’t like the way this is headed. What if we get away from the traditional social media options?)


SIGNAL: Has some of the utility of WhatsApp, including the ability to create a group chat and mute alerts. Not suitable for adding large numbers of people esp. if loosely associated. 

MICRO.BLOG: basically aggregates public blog posts. You won’t see any reposts or anyone you didn’t follow, but everything you post is of necessity public with no way to narrow it down to your circles.

FLICKR: costs money after the first thousand pics or so. Almost everybody had it, but nobody’s logged into it for at least six or seven years. Only has friends and family as granular levels of access, but that’s more than Insta has.

SLACK: based on a chatroom model rather than a post model. Granularity only consists of separating rooms and topics. App traditionally pummels your phone battery even when not on screen.

CLUSTER: looks kind of like Instagram, consists of multiple private groups with posts locked inside a group, but seems more optimized for something like everyone in a tour group sharing pictures.


(Huh. Maybe there used to be something that would kind of work?)


PATH: out of business. Dodgy. Not automatically public, but only real control was in limiting your number of friends to 50 at first, then 150.

GOOGLE+: out of business. Evil. Late to the party. Bad security on APIs. Suffered from being shoehorned into every other Google product. Very good model for circles and granularity though!


(Okay, I think we’re starting to get somewhere.  What about a new app altogether?)


COCOON: very close to what I’m thinking of but limits a group to 20. Multiple groups even with overlapping membership don’t scale across multiple users.


And here we come to the problem: the most secure and reliable options, like Slack or Cocoon or Signal (or other group chats) depend on a pre-defined group that is not easy to add to and is all or nothing. If I want to follow a new friend, then everybody is going to see their posts, not just me. You more or less need the social media model for this to function – a passive stream that doesn’t notify you with every post, but also doesn’t have to be open to the entire world. If Instagram were owned by anyone else, it or even Twitter could each fill the role – so long as they ditched the algorithmic timeline. You can limit whether you see other people’s retweets in Twitter (and I have done so with a lot of folks in a private Twitter, using Tweetbot as its only interface, and very nearly curated an acceptable environment). The model already exists, but in the hands of people who have optimized for growth and clicks over safety, security, and simple human decency – and thanks to a lack of antitrust enforcement, it will be almost impossible to generate the critical mass necessary to lure people onto another platform. 

I’m going to keep looking for something that can be Venn, because I think it’s an insurmountable ask to make it myself given that I can’t get through the first lesson module on Swift Playgrounds. But we either need something else, or we need the hammer to fall on Mark Zuckerberg and force Insta to be spun off, and bring an end to the notion that you can avoid competition by buying up anyone who has a better idea.


rethinking social

OK, so we accept that Facebook and its employees are the Werner von Braun of Silly Con Valley, and we cannot in conscience continue to use Facebook (good riddance) or WhatsApp (who cares, we have Signal)…or Instagram.

OK, now we have a problem.

Twitter is doing some abortive cleanup work, a day late and a dollar short, but until it finds a way to eliminate all bots, it can never be cleaned up. Not least because there’s not a whole lot of granularity to it. You can set yourself private, and you can have lists to separate followers into certain categories, but I don’t think it has any mechanism for you to tweet privately to a subset of followers without resorting to DMs. And of course the priority is on everything being public. The problem is, this is not how real life works. Nobody wants to put all their business in front of everybody they know all the time. Google+ was kind of onto this, with its circles, but 1) how can you trust an ad company to build a social network and 2) they waited far too long until Facebook had critical mass and “everybody” was already there. But they built on some ideas that SixApart tried first with LiveJournal and then again with Vox – but those were blogging services, not social media as we now understand it.

I suppose it’s conceivable that you might be able to build something like this on top of Tumblr, for instance. It famously tried to split the difference around “microblogging” and ended up becoming famous mostly for porn and millennial fandom, but there’s a simple architecture there. Then there’s a new-ish app called Cocoon, built by ex-Facebook engineers – seems to be an effort at a small private space, no more than twenty participants per instance, with a steady stream for pictures and chat and even simple video calling, just a low-level shared presence. Which isn’t nothing, but it might be a little too private for what I’m thinking; it’s basically a group chat in an app. I still maintain that the group chat is the best current social media, but as opposed to Twitter or Insta, it makes it complicated to maintain multiple circles constantly. Chat is less ambient than social media is supposed to be, for that matter; I don’t get a notification every time someone I know tweets. I want to dip in and out – and that’s another thing, I want to see every post from people I follow in chronological order, not some algorithmic soup of what someone else decided should be floated to the top.

Then there’s a discovery problem. I don’t want reposting enabled, as that’s how you get viral bullshit to propagate. I also don’t want other people’s likes foisted on me; I’m tired of how Twitter dry-snitches on everything you like to your friends. (It goes without saying that the model of viral growth supported by ads is not going to be appropriate here, but I don’t know how you get around that. WhatsApp scaled on a $1 per year membership fee and that might be enough, honestly.) Basically, if I see something, it should be because I asked to see it. You should never see anything from people you don’t follow. But then, here is the problem: the weak-friendship-follow. You can’t build this on the back of something like Signal, because I don’t want to give Kara Swisher or Maciej Ceglowski my phone number but I do want to see what they say. But the model I just formulated doesn’t really have a public-facing vector; it’s all about sharing with your friends.

It’s entirely possible that what we need here is two separate things: a social media “Twinstergram” personal app and an RSS reader for public-facing content, no matter how short or long. (Time to pour another one out for Google Reader, the demolition of which was one of the most gratuitous acts of vandalism in the history of the Beast of Mountain View.) The RSS stream can be for interests and new discoveries; the Twinstergram can be about maintaining the close relationships you already have. It’s possible that something like micro.blog is the tool for that RSS, because it essentially puts the form of a social media stream on individual blog feeds – but of necessity, it’s based on public blogs, not private sharing. It gives blogs the utility of Twitter, rather than actually replacing Twitter. But let’s hang onto that.

I suppose in my life, the personal app would have to have circles for my self-selected family, for my friends in DC, the Bay Area and Nashville, maybe (if the architecture permits) for Vanderbilt stuff or tech stuff. And then, when you want to post something, you tick off what circles you want to be able to see it. So if I have a follower X, I may put X into circles for Bay Area and Nashville and Vanderbilt but not for tech or DC. That’s the difference: Twitter, as far as I know, lets you chop up lists of your followers for who you want to see about what, but not to whom you want to send. If you want to do that, you have to maintain multiple Twitter accounts, which people may or may not know you have, and have separate ones for friends, for sports and for technology, just for starters. In your life, you are many different people to the rest of the world, and as far as Twitter is concerned, each of them has to be a separate account, the end.

I keep thinking back to Path, which was another ex-Facebook spinoff in the era of “all God’s children gotta start an iPhone social app with photo filters” around 2010. Their big solution was to have Dunbar’s number as a cap on how many friends you could have – there was definitely a presumption that this was for keeping in touch with friends, not brands. Path had some of the Foursquare sharing built in to go with its picture filters, wakeup/sleep count, weather status and music logging. Cocoon seems to have a lot of the same built in, albeit with a 20 person limit for each group – and, of course, it’s still not cross-platform. The interesting shit still always seems to be on iOS first. Which in turn begs the question of whether Apple might not be able to put something together with iMessage, Find My, iCloud Photos and maybe even Weather and Music to create some sort of presence-sharing app that comes with security and confidence…but then, you’re leaving out 80% of the world. But after Facebook and (waves all around), you can’t palm off security as a consideration for something this personal.

The other thing that’s out there, of course, is the whole “roll your own!” of Mastodon and federated instances. All I can say about that is I try logging into my mastodon.social instance about once a year and it’s just an utter !-ing disaster area. Absolute Wild West lawlessness, like Usenet without the structure and authority. And again, the presumption that everything you post is public. Trying to roll your own solution in Mastodon feels a bit like moving twenty miles outside the city walls and saying you’re going to build your own commune there. Mastodon, like Diaspora before it, doesn’t pass the Ed Earl Brown test. You have to get everyone in one spot, it has to be trustworthy, and it has to be private.

The wild card in all this is RCS. Rich Chat Services were supposed to be the thing that brought the advanced features of WhatsApp or iMessage to ordinary text messaging, independent of any particular provider. The fact that the current push is entirely driven by Google’s effort to finally have a working chat app of their own suggests that carrier/platform independence may not be feasible, and there’s also the small matter of encryption – which is table stakes for any viable chat model. Nevertheless, if there were some way to couple public key encryption to RCS and make it platform-independent, that would be the framework on which a bigger tool could be built to organize multiple RCS messages into a sort of social media platform…and there you have it. Like micro.blog, what you need isn’t necessarily a whole social media application, but a tool that will put the appearance of such an app around a series of RCS messages, individual or group, and let you more easily keep them straight and share content among them. It only works if you have encryption built into RCS, but once you do, you can have an app manage that framework without ever needing to see the content itself – arguably doing its work entirely on the device itself. Just as Signal on Android can be your SMS app in addition to secure chat, this app – which, because I am a clever dick, will be called Venn – merely keeps track of your circles as a means by which to send blast RCS messages. The effect is similar to the earliest days of Twitter, which at its dawn was essentially a service for mass-texting a group of subscribers from your primitive 2007 feature phone. You’re sending a message to the group chat, but Venn is basically keeping your lists for you and providing a one-touch way to paste in location data, local weather, or what song you’re currently booming on Spotify.

This would require a lot. It would require RCS to have a viable encryption model, and it would require Apple to go along with it (right now the iPhone does not support RCS and there are no plans for it to do so, given that everything RCS promises has existed for years with encryption in iMessages). And two years after Google decided that RCS was its messaging future, it’s still only really a thing if you use Android Messenger, with no carrier in the US but T-Mobile able to interoperate with Google’s own RCS servers – and forget about an iPhone. 

But Venn, at least, is a first cut at how you might go about replacing the most harmful creations Silly Con Valley ever barfed up with something at a slightly more human scale.

It’s not a difficult question

What everything comes back to is this: “is it all right for police to kill someone who hasn’t been charged with a crime, and go unpunished for doing so?”

Spare me a single word about looting or vandalism or anything like that. This time last week there weren’t people in the streets. Sometimes post hoc ergo propter hoc isn’t a fallacy. This is about whether it’s okay for police to kill a man falsely accused of passing a fake $20 bill. Or whether it’s okay to carry out a no-knock warrant and repeatedly shoot another uninvolved occupant of the house. Or whether it’s okay for a redneck to decide to take the law into their own hands and chase down (with guns!) someone who they think is “suspicious.”

Basically, does white privilege extend to extrajudicial murder or not? Don’t let broken windows and a couple of missing televisions distract you from that question, and don’t come back with “well, but” – because that’s the whole point. Racists are dying for you to be more concerned about a Target than about the fact that the police and their wannabe impersonators are able to do unaccountable murder. A political party that’s spent years of capital on “I fear my government” and “jackbooted thugs” and who could put hundreds of people with rifles in state capitals because they felt oppressed by quarantine should be SHITTING THEMSELVES at the notion that the police can kill who they want and get away with it.

But they aren’t. Ask why not. And pay attention to the answer.