October 5, 2015

Very brief post-script to l'Affair du Kim Davis, the woman whose lawyers had us believe captured the heart of a Pope, and then gave her a rosary etc. etc.

First, is the middle of the noise and the hand-wringing over how the Pope was just faking to be cool, Charles Pierce reliably and coolly got to the root of it and went one further than speculating that it was a step-and-repeat meeting. He actually surmised that there was a bit of palace intrigue involved, and pointed at some likely suspect.

By Friday, the Holy See had had just about enough of this and said so out loud , in a bit of a Papal pushback. In fact, there was someone invited to have an actual audience with the Pope, but it was not Kim Davis. It was an old student of the Pope's, who dropped by with his partner of 19 years. Which is about as big of a Fuck You that you can imagine coming from an institution that would never ever say that phrase out loud.

And then the NYT drops the mic , as it were, by profiling the archbishop, Carlo Maria Viganò, likely to have been behind the whole plot from the beginning. Viganò, protege of the former pope and culturally conservative (and not to mention acquainted with Davis' Liberty Council attorney Mat Staver), had been banished stateside after the Vatileaks controversy of a couple years ago. Viganò met Staver at an anti-gay marriage rally, and personally invited Davis in mid-September, representing that the invitation was coming directly from the Pope. The kicker:

In January, Archbishop Viganò will turn 75, the age at which bishops must submit a formal request to the Vatican for permission to resign. These requests are not automatically accepted, and bishops often stay in their appointments long after. It seems unlikely, church analysts say, that Archbishop Viganò will be one of them.

I know, I know, new week, and this is the last thing on anyone's minds — what we're actually thinking about is how much we love guns and what's a few dead kids between gun lovers? — but I couldn't resist getting one last shot in, in case you missed it.

Posted at 11:48 AM

September 30, 2015

Here's what got me this morning.

And it's always the little things that get you, never the big things. Like the fact that every Western military power is taking potshots with air/drone strikes in either Syria or Afghanistan or Iraq? That should get me. But no, every generation gets the "Catch-22" it deserves. That's not what got me.

What got me is the lawyers of Kim Davis deciding that no news cycle is complete without some alleged news of Kim Davis, be it a sham support rally in Peru or some even more spurious appeal in the long line of spurious appeals filed in U.S. District Court. No, today, the news was that she had a secret meeting with Pope Francis in D.C. And why it got me is, well, here comes another day of talking about Kim Davis.

Which is the obvious strategy of the Liberty Counsel, her pro bono attorneys, who have been litigating this in the court of public opinion since the actual court has not been so receptive. And of course by "public opinion" I mean the opinions of people who already agree, think freedom is a tangible thing, know Obama is Muslim, etc. As for the rest of us, we all pretty much agree that the lady can do whatever she wants in her free time, but on the clock she needs to do her job. And if she doesn't like her job, she should quit. But the Liberty Counsel has no actual interest in the welfare of Kim Davis, but rather they were looking for a sucker in whose name they could file, and Kim Davis is the best they could do.

Anyhow, this is clearest explanation of what we know and what we can only surmise, and the only party talking about what happened is the Liberty Counsel, so it's pretty apparent that the Liberty Counsel is very interested in promulgating this story.

So I have no more insight than anyone other than the Pope on this one, as the Holy See is declining to confirm, deny or comment further. But I do know this: two people meeting and exchanging pleasantries for fifteen seconds is not a big fucking deal. I mean, in the four days he was stateside, how many fifteen second "meetings" do you think the Pope had? From my own personal perspective, just to skip in front of the decades of film premieres and 24 Hour Plays and ComicCons I've been involved with (and the celebrities that I "met" in connection therewith, in 1980 when the Duke Boys were all the rage I had my photo taken at some event in rural WV with John Schneider and Catherine Bach. I have not and will not take that as an endorsement of me by Bo or Daisy Duke, and I'm pretty sure that Schneider/Bach had/have no idea who on earth I am.

Happily, the logical conclusion of this is right there out in the open: Davis will quickly become more enamored with being a celebrity than being a dupe and will leave Liberty Counsel behind when she realizes that there are advocates she can hire that will actually get her paid and a radio show right before Joe the Plumber's without risking her to go to jail again. And then the Liberty Counsel, they'll have to go find another sucker, maybe concoct a meeting with the ghost of Ronald Reagan for the next one.

But they will keep losing in court. Because the law is not on their side.

Posted at 11:19 AM

September 25, 2015


First of all, I've got a little restaurant snapshot thingieup at Flung Magazine. Flung is a neat little start-up, a travel mag, and I'm intending to write some more stuff for them. So feel free to click around while you're there.

And I've been a bit too busy to do some of the things I would have liked to do, like a fond farewell to Scott Walker, who I thought was a purely comic character even though he did fuck up Wisconsin irreparably. Oh well! Current events are current eventing all over the place, and that's notwithstanding the fact that the Pope's been bigfooting left and right here in my hometown.

But since I'm here: the news broke that John Boehner was retiring from public service when I was on the train, on the way to work. (As big news usually does.) And so then there's the rush to the desk and Twitter is the usual forest of Breaking News and wisecracks and there's me without my machete. And this is all kinda funny because the footage of Boehner crying yesterday? He is of course a divisive figure and he is of course a retrograde monster when it comes to social conservative issues, but I have long thought that he is one charming old coot, one that probably smells like golf and whiskey. In fact, there was a thought percolating in my head that I wished that Boehner would hurry up and retire so then I could like him unreservedly and ignore all the political baggage.

But it was not until I actually read the story about him leaving did I realize: we are right and truly fucked. With just the little squirts of news, I had been under the impression that he was not running for reelection, that he would serve out the term. And that's important, because we're staring into the business end of yet another government shutdown precipice, in a couple weeks. Boehner is outta there come the end of October. I guess there's a good chance that he can get a Continuing Resolution done with the help of House Democrats, but there is zero chance that the next speaker will be more moderate than Boehner, and there's still a whole lot of governing to do between now and the next election.

In case I'm eliding the point of all this: House Republicans have a nice big moderate caucus but those guys are easily bullied by the Tea Party wackos, who are knuckle-dragging and shouty and are about to get what they've always wanted: the gavel.

I've been joking for three or four years that Boehner would eventually get tired of trying to keep the lunatic fringe from driving the party right off a bridge on purpose and just light a Camel, mix one last martini and then disappear, into the sunset, with nothing but a fuck you in his wake.

Now that it's happened it's not very funny.

Posted at 11:06 AM

September 21, 2015

Ben Carson got all the heat for insisting (and later confirming the insistence) that Muslims should be disqualified from holding higher office, and all-in-all it was a Sunday morning talking head-fest of Republicans running for president uncomfortably trying to find a palatable answer to the question, "What's all this you keep going on with the Islam thing again?" Which is a palatable answer they've had at least eight years to practice giving. (The NYT has a nice little explainer which gives you a little taste of all the candidate's flavors.)

And the thing unsaid is that all Ben Carson is doing is Saying The Thing Out Loud. I refuse to believe that Ben Carson, a board-certified neurosurgeon, is ignorant enough to so misread the Constitution as to see statutory reason to disqualify any religion of holding federal office. But on the other hand, for Ben Carson, and the types of folk who would vote for a person that says the things Ben Carson says, it just doesn't feel right. Republicans are scared of Muslims, just like they're scared of clocks, and rainbows. There's a pernicious little misplaced prejudice that runs rampant in these fellows, and Carson's thoughts are the blandest way to put it.

And it's useful to add that saying such thinking-to-self things out loud is not necessarily bad politics:

His campaign manager Barry Bennett told The Associated Press on Monday: "While the left wing is huffing and puffing over it, Republican primary voters are with us at least 80-20."

But it's interesting, the ways this mania manifests itself. My favorite is Paul Rand, trying, failing to be rational about this:

"I try to see that as a separate thing, someone's religion," Mr. Paul said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "I just think it's hard for us. We were attacked by people who were all Muslim."

It's just another version of what we've all heard before, that they hated us first, global jihad, etc. But also what we've heard is how this is such an outlier when it comes to how we treat the peoples that have actually attacked us. While we hate those of the Islamic faith for 9/11, we never hated Shinto adherents after Pearl Harbor, or Christians after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building twenty years ago. And for that matter, after 9/11 we did not begin to hate Saudis, even though the vast majority of the attackers were Saudi nationals.

It's almost trite to bring any of this up because it has been rehashed and we're all sick of it, those of us that are not trying to make political hay out of it, turning a dog whistle into an actual whistle. But no matter how boring it is to repeat, it remains true: the entire concept of a War for Civilization is a childish fiction concocted by bin Laden and then drank like Koolaid by gullible bigots. I wish there were a nicer way to put it.

(Oh, there's a nicer way to put it. Mr. President? But that's not even that nice.)

Posted at 10:58 AM

September 19, 2015

This is a totally honest, snark-free question.

So, just in the course of last Wednesday's debate, a) Jeb Bush, in a moment presumably rehearsed, told Donald J. Trump to his face, I think while wagging his finger, that his brother, former President George W. Bush, "kept this country safe!" which, well, 9/11 duh; and b) Carly Fiorina, in a moment hopefully not rehearsed, detailed her opposition to Planned Parenthood by describing a gruesome moment she remembered from the (doctored) gotcha videos recently released, a gruesome moment that is in fact not in the videos, or any other videos.

Now I'm not sure how it is with you, but when I've committed such errors of fact (well, lied), the authority figure, Mom, a teacher, or an employer, would apprehend the lie, and then follow-up: You know that's not true? Why are you saying things that are demonstrably not true? And then I had to explain myself, poorly.

Jeb Bush even "doubled-down," as they say, and released a tweet repeating the sentiment, with a photograph of his brother standing in the rubble of two collapsed buildings, which buildings collapsed during such brother's presidency. Jeb Bush's Twitter account has 311,000 followers. Carly Fiorino also "doubled-down," so much, but in response to a polite enquiry about whether or not she might have been mistaken. So then who are the authority figures to examine this distortions of reality, promulgated purely for the purpose of popularity with those sort of people for whom fact is nothing but an inconvenience?

And once I had explained myself poorly, then I would be held to account. Variously, I was sent to my room or a principal's office, or I was warned that further such mistruths would result in separation from employment.

What then are the consequence for the press corps with opportunity to ask these follow-ups who fail to do so? Granted, George Stephanopoulos did give Fiorino a chance to walk it back, but she responded indignantly, that her easily-proven lie damn well was not a lie!

Is any of this then not news?

Posted at 1:14 PM

September 17, 2015

It's Thursday morning. That CNN debate is still going on, isn't it?

I have successfully led a blog post with a Tweet. Word.

So you no doubt are either drowning in takes — are we living in a post-Donald world? Was Carly Fiorino tripping balls? Is Scott Walker an actual ventriloquist's dummy? Either that, or you are so done with this already even though we are still FIVE YEARS away from the first state primary, let alone the general election.

Me? I was playing that game where I was keeping myself on my toes by not deciding whether or not to watch it until the very last minute, pro being I like to stay up on things and I like to poke fun, con being having to actually watch it.

I went con.

And I'll leave the implications for the fullness of time to actually unravel and we'll figure it out in hindsight. But I do not want to let pass the solid fact that CNN can go down in history for a combination of Worst Presidential Debate and Most Shameless Open-Arms Welcome of the Coming Dystopia.

Worst Debate? Well, that's largely due to the quality of the candidates, but CNN did nobody any favors by turning the debate into some sort of bastard child of a variety show and the Hunger Games. Jake Tapper (if he had any journalistic credibility I hope he wasn't attached to it) ran the event like what-if-Jerry-Springer-were-a-marriage-counselor, prodding intra-candidate spats, directing then redirecting and then over-redirecting the conversation, just generally looking like a man nervous that Brian Stelter would stage a palace coup against him if a bona fide Viral Moment were not delivered. It was the clowniest of clown-shows, and just a general embarrassment before the already-embarrassing "contestants" opened their mouths. CNN even captured a bit of nostalgic inanity by asking the field what woman they would put on money and what their Secret Service code-name would be. Maybe not quite a boxers-or-briefs moment, but these were alleged journalists asking questions and not a roomful of MTV teens.

But, putting up a bad show, that's one thing. Gleefully wallowing in it for days before, that's positively pre-apocalyptic. The charge was led by the aforementioned Stelter, a blithely careerist cheerleader of everything plastic and facile. Did you know that the debate was likely to be the most watched CNN broadcast ever!! Stelter sure did. Of course, this is a presidential debate that we're talking about. Yes, the Fairness Doctrine is decades in the crypt, but presidential debates are on that fine line between journalism and public service. Objectivity must be kept in mind, and the event should be produced and presented to the electorate with the sobriety that the occasion demands. To treat it as a Nielsen event that advertisers are going to go gaga for, unapologetically, is to betray a cynicism that disqualifies one from being a reporter. And yes, I know that Fox News did the same thing a couple weeks ago, but that was Fox News. They know better, and they aren't even pretending. Maybe the problem is that knowing better is not Stelter's strong point.

But maybe this is the future and I am what was once called a fuddy-duddy. Maybe I just don't know how to have fun! In any event, while it's true that each election is the most expensive election ever, this one will surely be the most highly rated election ever, if for no other reason than the "news" networks are working hard to make it so.

Posted at 10:45 AM

September 15, 2015

What got me this morning was an NPR story on Bernie Sanders giving a speech at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, the Evangelical Christian university that is sort of an Bizarro version of a Jesuit institution, rigorously instructing its faithful student body how not to learn. So Sanders is down there as a sort of a thought exercise, speaking as he does of inequality, trying to bridge the gap, find the common ground, which common ground surely could be compassion? And the kids sat quietly on their hands, as Sanders talked about poverty and children with food security issues and at the conclusion the provost or whoever read questions submitted by the students, and went with, "Well starving poor children sure whatever what about THE UNBORN" and the place goes nuts. Just molten, like Elvis is back in the building. And then a few kids are interviewed, who seemed like they had nice tidy haircuts but to a one sounded like, "It's important to listen to other people PLANNED PARENTHOOD" or, "I literally cannot form an actual sentence ABORTION."

That there is this idée fixe that prevents presumably rational people to feel any sort of empathy or responsibility for 16 million children living below the poverty line is beyond my ken. And it's not even some moral compulsion. It's a learned behavior, and it's wielded like an applause line, a dog whistle so the kids know that Jesus says it's okay to applaud now.

That's what got me this morning.

Posted at 10:27 AM

September 14, 2015

Over on my Twitter feed I've been mildly obsessing over a certain labor dispute involving the start-up WeWork. They're a fully-fledged member of the sharing economy! They lease out office space and then rent it to you, and these spaces have all of the expected Silicon Valley/Alley amenities as everyone knows it's impossible to get any sort of work done unless there's a ping pong table on the premises, a door down from the meditation room. But yeah, WeWork has been having a spot with their cleaning staff, who were variously subcontracted and non-union and eventually just plain laid off.

Anyhow, in the NYT Sunday Business section there was a nice long write-up that gives a good bit of context for the contretemps. Basically, if you're the sort that likes spoilers, WeWork never intended to go out of its way to conspire against it non-union workforce, but at the same time they've done a piss-poor job of damage control and have never exactly said that they'd do anything different given the chance. Read it! You'll like it!

However in the midst of all this there is an illuminating passage that states a problem with these sharing economy creations quite plainly:

Unlike many start-ups in the digital age, WeWork seems to be making money. The company would not disclose its financial performance. But according to internal documents obtained by The Information, a technology news website, WeWork had $75 million in revenue last year, with $4.2 million in profits.

By any conventional measure, those figures do not support a $10 billion valuation. Like other start-ups, including Uber and Airbnb, WeWork is part of what many critics are describing as a new technology bubble. Yet WeWork is anticipating huge growth as it expands rapidly and gains corporate clients renting hundreds of desks each. It forecasts nearly $1 billion in profit on sales of $3 billion by 2018, according to the documents.

Let me suggest two ways to look at that. First, after the most recent round of fundraising, WeWork's valuation is up around $10bn. That's a lot of cabbage. So then, in 2014, WeWork's revenue was three-quarters on one percent of its valuation, while its profits were .042 percent of valuation. That's bonkers by any measure.

But on the other hand, WeWork is projecting that profits will increase to $1bn in four years. That would be an increase of nearly 24,000 percent. That is optimistic to the point of ignoring math.

Point being, the ethical position of the darlings of the sharing economy aside, there are a whole lot of deranged valuations and projections for these companies that are largely solutions for problems that didn't actually exist. And granted, I don't think that these bubbles have reached the point where they're threatening anyone other than a bunch of venture capitalists, but when it comes to the share of the public attention being spent on these companies, there's a whole lot of smoke and not much fire.

I guess the Twitter feed is where I'm logging my mild obsessions? Along with the in-jokes and the public baiting of known rocket scientists like Scott Walker and Alex Jones.

[Credit where credit is due: I first heard of this topic thanks to the dogged reporting of Brendan O'Connor, who has been on this story like ugly on a gorilla.]

Posted at 11:14 AM

September 11, 2015

Well it's 9/11 all over again, and if you're like me (and I hope you're not), it is possibly the best time ever to avoid all social media, which means that I'm sitting here like a jerk soaking myself in social media. For some reason the whole of humanity feels even more desperate about sharing their thoughts on this day, and oh! the inanity.

Fourteen years is a long time. For example, my friend's child, born a week before 9/11, is now fourteen years old! Freaky! And we've had thirteen of these awful anniversaries, which presumably should be enough practice to get it right? But of course we don't. We're Americans, and 9/11 Day is the day we get to play victim and never forget and all that.

No doubt there is a certain amount of misanthropy at play (in the same vein as Balk's), but I still insist that the source of my misanthropy is not a gloomy disposition or an innate pessimism but rather that people are terrible. Yes there is all sorts of cruelty and unfairness inherent in nation, but no species has ever worked harder to find exciting new ways to be cruel and unfair (not to mention stupid). So much of the sentiment of the day, and each day like this for the past thirteen years, is genuine, or coming from an honest place. (And yes I know many of us experienced actual loss that day and that's a whole 'nuther.) Some of these honest-place thoughts are moving and beautiful and some of them are cringe-worthy, but it's an honest place so it's a good time to err on the side of forbearance. But much of it comes from not so much a nice, honest place. Some of it comes from really bad places, like the thoughts that want to beat up people wearing turbans, or thoughts that confuse belicosity with patriotism, or thoughts that remind you that jet fuel can't melt steel. Those thoughts are all just baseline stupid, and of course if one of these thoughts leave your mouth or keyboard then you might be stupid too!

So somewhere in between loathing the loathesomeness and trying to tolerate the well-meaning insipidness I just generally feel like someone in a dark room with a bunch of ninjas that are trying to karate chop me in the nose, and I just lash out at anything that moves.

Also: celebrating the anniversaries of tragedies? Isn't that sort of ghoulish? Could we not let that be the province of people that actually had to go to funerals fourteen years ago and not turn it into a national day of Can't You See Me Suffer? And there are of course the geopolitical aspects of this whole kettle of bees, which you can boil down into Monstrously Bad People Trick Dumb Superpower Into Doing Exactly What Bad People Want Them To Do. And all these thoughts and meanwhile every asshole in America is sharing some dumb Kill All The Muslims! Facebook post and really, fuck all that.

You know what? 9/11 used to make me sad. Now it just makes me cranky.

Posted at 11:05 AM

September 3, 2015

Frequency of posting here is going to be (has been) dropping off for a bit, but not because I'm a quitter like all those other blogger-quitters who closed up camp and went to one of those websites with names that sound like failed puns to write about positive things and/or the same damn Vine that everyone else is hitting publish on simultaneously.

Not me! I am far too dumb to quit.

However, some of the longer, more grown-uppier things that I'm writing I'm putting up on Medium , which seems like maybe a logical thing to do given that it's 2015 and I don't currently have any sort of a relationship with any sort of site that I'd like to have my name on. So Medium it is!

In fact (and it's a bit late now sorry) just this last weekend I published the thing that I've been trying to write for ten years, concerning (of course) Katrina. I think it's good!

But I'll still come back here for personal stuff, or stuff that's just too juvenile for public consumption, like a couple hundred words arguing that Uber ain't nothing but a taxi pimp.

But Labor Day weekend is almost here, so lets get the fuck offline. Thanks!

Posted at 10:48 AM

August 24, 2015

Those of you that care about this already know about it. Isn't that always the case? But it is yet another example of one of the scary ways that the world is changing around us as we rise each morning, go to work, care for our loved ones and generally persist.

It's about science fiction! (It's okay, I'll see most of you guys back here later.) To sum up, the same portion of humanity that got all upset about non-bro viewpoints in video games and harassed a bunch of women into hiding (y'know, the dingbats who pop up in threads with "Actually it's about ethics in video game journalism) decided that the Hugo Awards, the primary awards ceremony for the sci-fi writers out there, were being controlled in some sense by non-bros. So, led by a couple of decidedly-bro authors of the white-dudes-with-big-guns-variety, they decided to rig the balloting process for this year's Hugos. And they were successful! All categories were bro-heavy, and some categories were bro-exclusive. (For some reason the bros became known as the Puppy movement, divided, of course, into two factions: Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies. This is only important because it is ridiculous.)

So many thousands of words were written and there was actual concern in the air: would this brazen subversion of the process actually result in junk sci-fi winning awards?

Well, and here is what you should walk away with, the Hugos were last weekend, and the Puppies got beat like a drum:

The evening began with an appearance by a fan cosplaying as the Grim Reaper, and it turned out he was there for the Puppies. Not a single Puppy-endorsed candidate took home a rocket. In the five categories that had only Puppy-provided nominees on the ballot--Best Novella, Best Short Story, Best Related Work, and Best Editor for Short and for Long Form--voters instead preferred "No Award." (Here's the full list.)

But as you run off to read the (really good) Wired piece, you can't not have at least have a taste of the specific complaints of the Puppies factions. This is a strangely triumphal piece by one of the fellow travelers of the Puppies movement about how the Hugo Awards was in fact a victory for the Puppies. The author sums up:

Emboldened by the success of GamerGate in resisting cultural meddlers and authoritarians in video gaming, sci-fi fans resistant to identitarian politics are fighting back. Every year their numbers are growing, and they are more disciplined, more relentless and more determined than their social justice foes.

The real moral of this story is that the Puppies lost, in the same way that the GamerGaters lost, in the same way that this very vocal minority always will because for the time being actually good people outnumber them. There's no success to be emboldened with. There's just a sad little circle jerk of dramatically aggrieved men who could use therapy a lot more than this self-reinforcing crusade against whatever windmills took all their privilege away.

I only share this bit of verbiage because it's fascinating how these splinter cells of culture warriors quickly develop this argot that is dripping with seriousness and intent but really just a bunch of whiny rot. Fascinating like mildly diverting. Fascinating like just in case you were tempted to empathize.

But the Hugos were saved! And the next time these mistakes of history want to try to culture-jam some other damn thing, they'll lose that too.

Posted at 12:23 PM

August 19, 2015

This is the eighth presidential election that I paid anything resembling attention to (yes, little kid me thought the idea of the independent candidacy of John Anderson as neat) and the fifth one to happen as I've had access to this mechanism of instantly publishing my thoughts to the known universe. And for the last four, I did devote a dedicated if not compulsive attention to the matter, and yammered on and on in ways that sometimes bordered on comedy and other in outright advocacy.

I'm not hinting that this is about to change; oh no, you don't give this shit up any more than you give up doing the crossword every day. But there is a certain amount of jadedness and resignation that I'll admit too, even now, already, still fourteen or so months out. This might be the function of age. Hell, it might even be the function of me being smarter than I used to be (also because of age). Whichever!

I just wanted to chime in real briefly and say, Oh yeah, I'm paying attention, and I observe that if there's any one thing this election tells us is that having lived through a bunch of elections does not mean that you'll be better to predict what will happen any better than someone whose lived through none, because prior results in this instance are not indicative of future outcomes.

By way of illustration, I totally agree with Josh Marshall on this point:

We've gone far enough now with the Trump political phenomenon to know that it is no mere or momentary matter of name recognition which has placed him as the top contender for the Republican nomination, as bizarre an eventuality as that might appear. He now leads all national polls and all polls in the key early primary and caucus states - and by significant margins. We've also witnessed key GOP stakeholder Fox News try to derail Trump's campaign and fail miserably at it. Lots of top Republicans jumped on that bum-rush Trump bandwagon only to be damaged in turn when it collapsed. We're now in a categorically different phase. Trump is now defining the GOP policy agenda. And that makes him far more than a top candidate or even a nominee.

Show me anyone, working in the media, a Sunday morning talking head, or the loudmouth knowitall at the corner store, that saw that coming. And while you're at it, show me anyone else that sees how this is going to end.

Oh it doesn't bode well at all. The know-nothings are now an actual sweeping movement.

But at least it's not boring.

Posted at 3:11 PM

August 17, 2015

I want to be careful of this, because I know that I am too susceptible to stumbling upon an idea or a concept in one article or essay and then going nuts for it like it's the God's honest truth, but I stumbled upon a concept in one essay and I'm going nuts for it like it's the God's honest truth.

At the risk of blockquoting the entirety of the piece, let's let the author, Adam Davidson, do the talking. Background!

Forget the global fight against terrorism or the Internet and globalization: When historians come to write of our age, the time we are living through now, they may well call it the age of bonds. This age began in 1944, near the end of World War II, when sober men in suits gathered in Bretton Woods, N.H., to prevent future wars. What they wound up creating was the basic architecture of a new global financial system, in which rational economic calculus, not military and political power or ancient prejudices, would determine where money flows.

That, for me, is a Whoa if true! moment. It is something that I've known intuitively but never actively thought about. In fact in the last ten years I do remember thinking that, in light of the banking/austerity crises stretching from Cyprus to Spain, there was a certain bellicosity in the rhetoric of the IMF and the EU that seemed pretty close to sabre-rattling to me, and maybe this bickering over sovereign debt is something that totally supplanted the regional skirmishes that blossomed into either of the World Wars? Of course I had no idea that something like that was even remotely true let alone traceable to the Bretton Woods conference that we all learned about in high school but never really understood.

And how could we have understood? The premise of government bonds as the mechanism that actually controls how geopolitics works, forget the UN and diplomacy and all that stuffy stuff, is hard enough for a grown-up to wrap their mind around, let alone some impudent pup awash in an unimaginable hormonal avalanche. I mean, did the history professors get it, or were they mostly there for the military history and reading the boring stuff straight out of the book just like the students?

So yes, mind is at least preliminarily blown, and obviously, I have a couple wheelbarrows of research to do.

Moving right along! Now, the column is primarily concerning Greece, and the sovereign debt of Greece, and how possibly the poor judgment of those purchasing bonds issued by Greece are as much at fault as anyone else when it comes to the slow strangulation of Greece by austerity, that maybe its the dumb investors who should be taking it on the chin and not the people of Greece. This is a good point! But this is not why I'm writing this.

I'm writing this because of the following section:

The very nature of stock markets inclines them to collapse every decade or so, and when they do, it can be painful. But a stock-market collapse is not debilitating. If the world bond market were to collapse, our way of life would be over.

On Sept. 17, 2008, in the late afternoon, this almost happened. For a few dramatic days, prominent economists and other financial experts -- serious, unemotional people who had never before said anything shocking in their lives -- talked privately, if not publicly, about the real possibility of the end of the United States, the end of electricity and industry and democracy. When the bailout money flowed to save the banks, that was just the fastest way to accomplish the real goal: to save the bond market.

So my mind is already blown concerning the nature of government bonds and how they are the financial black blood of the earth and then there is this casual aside concerning 9/17/08 and how it was nearly the end of everything because of, yes, government bonds. (For the record, the 17th was a Wednesday, and the previous weekend the furious and lengthy meetings between Sec. Treasury Geithner and Lehman Bros. principals, the meetings that resulting in the Monday announcement of Lehman's bankruptcy filing, happened.)

I am very curious about this, because I can still to this day the first time I read about the various times that the U.S. actually nearly opened the silos on the USSR and/or vice versa, and it's a feeling that I recall without much in the way of pleasure. Obviously none of these events were publicly known at the time, and, even though you can find some old-timers that will tell you that many people were going to bed during the Cuban Missile Crisis unsure whether they would be waking up in the morning, the crises we've lived through (especially up to about fifteen years ago) were polite and mannered and nothing to keep you up at night. The concept that everything was very nearly irretrievably fucked up and no one knew about it is a sharp concept, and once you wrap your mind around it you realize that that is how the near-endings of the world operate, in the shadows, and further that should the world ever be irretrievably fucked up it will happen in the shadows and none of us will know about it until that particular wave breaks right on our heads.

So yes, I would like to know more, both about how government bonds are the actual Trilateral Commission-level shit we were always told about, and about how we came thiiiiis close to the Big One and no one knew about it other than a buncha damn bankers.

Posted at 12:30 PM

August 7, 2015

I'm beginning to think that the tide is turning a bit? For the past five years or so (George Packer notwithstanding), there seems to have grown an aura of invincibility and Utopian do-gooding around the tech sector, and those start-ups that move fast and break things and get movies made about them. I personally have been a bit dubious of this, given that these businesses are actually just that — businesses, with no more imperative to save humanity from itself than a ham sandwich. But I have been in the minority, as this cult of the disruptor has grown into a small army of people who shout louder than the rest of us.

But in the last few weeks it seems to me that there have been published a number of pieces that question this orthodoxy, and not always politely. In fact, it seems to me that maybe the skepticism of Silicon Valley/Alley is becoming less of a rearguard action and more of a consensus position.

Of course, examples! Well, there is this Mic piece which is spurred by some Silicon Valley type asserting that things like laundromats are no longer needed because there's an app for that. Ha ha ha really! Silly millionaire, since your app does not actually wash clothes but induces other people to wash clothes for you, actually then laundromats are as needed as ever.

Free marketeers who fancy themselves "innovators" believe that by cannibalizing other services, they can prove that these old industries are clunky. They want to break apart the existing structure and start reassembling it into their own ideal. But in that world, not everyone benefits equally.

If we stop sharing risk and responsibility, only those who already hold wealth and privilege will benefit. Let's think about health insurance for a moment. We all buy into it by sharing risk, knowing that at some point it may be us whose number comes up and who needs medical attention.

And, more pointedly, the creation and smarts behind these "innovations" belie a deep and intractable dumbness. For example, a running theme in all the press coverage of the ride-sharing apps, the Lyfts and the Ubers and what-not, is the wide-eyed founders of these concerns asserting that, by bringing people together and with the eventual advent of driverless cars, these apps will someday replace public transportation!

Which is just idiocy if you think of it, given that one of the purposes of public transportation is to get cars off the fucking road.

Moving along! If this small dollop of trenchancy from Warren Ellis is not indicative of a disturbance in the Zeitgeist then I don't know what is:

It is that time in the cycle where the Libertarian App Future Brothers start living off the grid, buying guns and getting good and weird out there alone in the dark. I wonder how we'll look back at this whole period of the last five or ten years. At how the digital gold rush and the strange pressures of a new, yet accelerated, period of cultural invention cooked a whole new set of mental wounds out of the people swept up in it.

Well, I'm of the opinion that we'll look back at the period as some sort of Asshole Supervillain Incubator, but that's just me, waiting for the bubble to pop but good.

I mean of course the battle is not yet won or anything, but I think that the bloom is coming off the rose a bit as far as the lock-step hagiographies of the tech billionaires and those that worship them. Or at least the default position on these dingbat capitalists is no longer Virtuous Hero, and the voices that question such default position are rising.

Posted at 10:38 AM

July 31, 2015

This is just a brief not-for-nothing post, but a couple days ago over on Medium I published an interview I had with author Sarah Stodola, who wrote the book Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors. I know what you're going to say before you say it: "Why, Brent, based on the past eleven years or so of writing on this website, you've given the impression that a book like that is exactly the kind of book that would 'gag you with a spoon,' as it were."

Reader: I did not gag! On a spoon, or any other inconvenient thing!

I found it thoughtful and informative and not a little bit deft, and it left me with a lot of big thoughts, which big thoughts got batted back and forth by me and Sarah.

So maybe a long-ish interview about writing and the ineffabilities thereof (with an awful lot of Old Brooklyn nostalgia, most of which did not make the cut, as I recall) is not exactly what your own personal doctor order on a sweltery TGIF, but maybe it is!

In fact, you'll never know until you try.

Posted at 11:08 AM