Category - commentary

Acerbic observations on the state of the world, art, politics, and culture.

Dispatch from the Outskirts – Nov 13:
Zuckerberg, Meet Hindenburg

How do you say that in Russian?

I’ll just leave this here.  My sister sent it to me about a week ago.

Is your favourite technology actually pathological?

…what caught my eye in Regis’ book was his description of the Zeppelin as an example of a ‘pathological technology’, and his definition of that suggestive phrase. For Regis, there are four things that make a technology ‘pathological’. First, they are oversized in terms of their absolute size or effects. Second, ‘pathological technologies’ cast such a powerful spell on people that all rational evidence against them or to their contrary is rendered null and void.

Third, their risks and even their blatantly dangerous downsides are systematically minimised and underplayed. And fourth, a technology should be considered pathological when there is an extreme mismatch between benefits and costs.

It strikes me that many of our modern technologies fit this pathological profile. The likes of Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Reddit and Twitter create addictive feedback loops that keep us liking, swiping and in a state of ‘continuous partial attention’.

We now return your ‘partial attention’ to its regularly programmed distraction…

Dispatch from The Outskirts 11/05
WTF Is Going On In Saudi Arabia?

While y’all were getting all indignant (again!) over whether or not it’s “too soon” to do nothing (again!) about guns in the U.S., another seething cauldron or insane started boiling over…

“In sum, we know that Donald Trump is an existential crisis here in the US. But if you have any extra bandwidth, maybe pay attention to this. Because the Saudi-Iran conflict is reaching the boiling point, and if that fuckwit Jared doesn’t get indicted first, he’s going to lead us into yet another endless ground war in the Middle East.”

No, But Seriously! WTF Is Going On In Saudi Arabia?

Dispatches from the Outskirts, Nov 3 Edition – The Social Media Dilemma

What are you supposed to do when the elixir is sweet, but the bottle it comes in is toxic?

That’s how I feel this morning, reading this coverage of the Senate’s hearing with the representatives of the three biggest ad-based web platforms – Google, Facebook and Twitter:

“Russians have been conducting information warfare for decades,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in his opening remarks. “But what is new is the advent of social-media tools with the power to magnify propaganda and fake news on a scale that was unimaginable back in the days of the Berlin Wall. Today’s tools seem almost purpose-built for Russian disinformation techniques.”

I will confess (as will surprise absolutely no one) that despite my cute “no Facebook” cover-and-profile photos, I am not fully recovered from my Facebook addiction.  It’s made a huge difference taking the mobile app off my phone, but I still have it on my iPad, and the browser version is only an “f” key away. So, yes, I’m still looking in several times a day.  Like an alcoholic who keeps venturing in to the tavern…

My little sister is coming to visit

And when I do look over the wall, I see all kinds of things that I find appealing.  Like this post from Mary Gauthier about hanging out with Sarah Silverman. Or this thread from Rod Picott about the end of the baseball season (I even contributed a comment to that one).  Or this delightful photo my sister posted from our family photo albums as she prepares to visit Tennessee over the weekend.

All of that feels harmless enough.  But the whole time I’m wading through this digital swamp I can’t seem to shake this nagging feeling that something is just not right about all this.  There is something lurking beneath the surface, something deceptive, almost pernicious.  It’s the feeling you get when exchanging light-hearted digital banter, but slithering around our feet is a big-mouthed s culture-devouring beast.

In addition to reading the above linked “WIRED” commentary on the Senate hearings, I also listened yesterday to Terry Gross’s interview with  feminist writer Lindy West – who recently bailed on Twitter after being subject to entirely too much vicious trolling.  She nailed the essence of my own dilemma when she said:

My presence on Twitter felt like an endorsement of Twitter — and I do not endorse Twitter. I think Twitter has done nothing to protect this country against this catastrophe that’s befallen us, and I just couldn’t be a part of it.

But at the same time, I don’t get to be a part of these really, really important and often beautiful national conversations that are happening right now…I feel very behind…

I really loved being able to communicate with people, and learn from people and, you know, riff, joke around with people. And so in that way, I guess the silencing campaign succeeded. You know, I’m not there. I’m not part of that conversation. But it’s – my mental health and my personal life are much, much better not on – not being on Twitter.

That’s precisely how I feel about Facebook – that my presence there is an endorsement of a platform that is undermining the fabric of the our fundamental institutions, and that the relentless compulsion to open the app and “tune in” was somehow damaging to my mental health.

I say all this while fully grasping the ironies involved – not the least of which is using Facebook to declare how much I dislike Facebook.

There is also the fact that for most of my adult life, I have actively studied the history and evolution of communications technologies (why, I even wrote a book about it!), so I know that all this “social media” stuff is just something “new” that we have yet to fully grasp the meaning and value of.  And I get that by pushing away from it I am consciously participating in the next wave, the pitchforks-and-torches reactionary big-tech backlash we are now seeing unfold.

So yes, ironies abound.  But for now at least I still feel that getting an active handle on my “social media engagement” is a necessary element of my recovery.  And that in so doing, I am  shooting a tiny arrow of defiance at the ramparts of the big tech fortress.

That will have to do for now.

Oh boy, medieval imagery: We must storm the ramparts of Big Tech!


Bart Giamatti: “It Breaks Your Heart”

Once upon a time, a poet philosopher (and former Yale University president) named Bart Giamatti (and, yes, the father of actor Paul) served briefly as the Commissioner of Baseball.  A heavy smoker all his life, Giamatti died at age 51 after serving only 5 months as Commissioner.

Despite his brief tenure, Giamatti left a lasting mark on the game, In addition to being a scholar, a tough negotiator and a stalwart Defender of the Game (Giamatti oversaw the permanent exile of Pete Rose), Giamatti also wrote extensively about the game.  His writings were compiled in a 1998 book called A Great And Glorious Game.

Somewhere – it might have been at the Baseball Hall of Fame fame in Cooperstown NY, or maybe it was somewhere in Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary, I encountered the opening paragraph of that book.  Now that another baseball season has come and gone, that opening passage comes to mind once again:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

Last night, it stopped again.  The seasons now – like the games – seem to go on forever. Maybe it’s fitting that these interminable seasons, with their interminable games, stretch into November.  The World Series ends now just a few days before we return to “standard time”  –and the darkness descends before the afternoon is over.

Roy Campanella – the second black player in the Major Leagues, seen here with the first.

I used to be a big baseball fan.  I grew up with the “Mantle/Maris Yankees” of the 1950s and 60s.  I became a “closet Dodger Fan” in the 4th grade after reading a biography of Roy Campanella – the second black player in the major leagues.  I became an Atlanta Braves fan when I moved to Hawaii in the 1980s and Turner’s TBS was the only “live” television station.   TBS carried all the Braves games in those days, and I watched as they compiled one of the worst records in baseball through the 1980s.  But for that dedication the Gods rewarded me with tickets for the first World Series game ever played south of the Mason Dixon Line – Game 3 of the epic 1991 World Series between the Braves and the Minnesota Twins.

And I’ve always been a Cubs fan. I believed for a long time that all true baseball fans were cubs fans, because you always root for the team that has “gone the longest without” winning the whole thing.  And until 2016 that was the Chicago Cubs.  Somewhere there is a photo of me throwing a shoe at at TeeVee after the Cubs lost the 1984 NLCS to the San Diego Padres…

But somehow over the past few years I’ve become less of a baseball fan. I was still a Braves fan when I moved to Nashville, but Ted Turner sold everything Time-Warner and eventually the games stopped showing up regularly on TBS.  They were moved all over the dial.

And then… TiVo.  I think it was TiVo that wrecked my ability to watch long baseball games.  Because TiVo made it unnecessary to watch commercials.  And if you’re going to sit through a four-or-five hour baseball game, you’re going to have to suffer through a LOT of fucking commercials.

But I did watch as much of this year’s World Series as time would allow, and even though Houston was the team that “has gone the longest without” (like, forever), I was disappointed when the Dodgers couldn’t get out of the dugout in Game 7 last night.

And now the season is over, and the darkness descends.

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot…

…. like the morning after Halloween… as the Christmas kiosks and decorations start showing up all over the Mall.

And probably not much longer before the relentless mind-numbing reputations of “barumpa bump bump….” etc.

Just shoot me now.

Yeah, bah humbug.  Riiiiight….

Dispatches from the Outskirts
October 27 – #TMITM Edition

I encourage you to read Andrew Sullivan’s latest at

The money quote:

It turns out that Mark Zuckerberg’s real achievement will be the collapse of a rational public dialogue and the empowerment of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Our sacred institutions are at risk not only because of the would-be tyrant who sits atop them, but because of the technologies  that put him there

Every time we post something, or comment on something, or reply to a comment,  we are complicit in sustaining an rogue ecosystem that undermines both our selves and our nation.

Facebook cannot go the way of MySpace fast enough.  How do you say that in Russian?

And no, the irony of putting that on Facebook – even “indirectly, i.e. by “lobbing it over the wall from my own website – is not lost on me.  I just really have no idea what else to do about it.

We are all hoist on our own petard.

Neener Neener

I got mine.  Did you get yours?

Of course, I had to stay up until 2AM to get it.

And the whole time I’m wondering, “is this really going to make my life better?”

I guess we’ll find out in a week…

But hey… it’s my job! (said the master of rationalizations…)

From “Halt and Catch Fire”
You Are Not Safe

The show is called Halt and Catch Fire.* It depicts the early days of what we now call “the tech industry,” first in Texas and then in Silicon Valley, in the early and-mid-1980s (when what we now call a “notebook” was known as a “luggable.”

I watched the first two seasons a couple of years ago.  I started to watch Season 3 last year, and have finally gone back and watched the entire season, and will soon start watching the fourth and final season which ended earlier this month.

One of the themes in the third season involves what can best be called “the pre-emergence” of the Internet. One of the characters has discovered ARPANET  and has contracted with a similar network hosted by the National Science Foundation.

[spoiler alert for H&CF S3 E8]

In the closing minutes of the 8th episode, one of the characters leaves a suicide note. He is in legal jeopardy for having released into the wild the source code for a valuable security software product. The Feds are closing in, and he has decided that going out a high window is better than prison. Before his departure, he leaves this warning on the dominant public BBS network of the day:


I, Ryan Ray, released the MacMillan Utility source code. I acted alone. No one helped me, and no one told me to do it. I did this because “security” is a myth. Contrary to what you might have heard, my friends, you are NOT safe.

Safety is a story. It’s something we teach our children, so they can sleep at night. But we know it’s not real.

Beware baffled humans. Beware of false prophets who will sell you a fake future – of bad teachers, corrupt leaders and dirty corporations. Beware of cops and robbers. The kind that rob your dreams. But most of all, beware of each other. Because everything’s about to change.

The world is going to crack wide open. There’s something on the horizon – a massive connectivity. The barriers between us will disappear. And we’re not ready.

We’ll hurt each other in new ways. We’ll sell and be sold. We’ll expose our most tender selves only to be mocked and destroyed. We’ll be so vulnerable and we’ll pay the price. We won’t be able to pretend that we can protect ourselves anymore. It’s a huge danger. A gigantic risk. But it’s worth it.

If only we can learn to take care of each other. Then this awesome, destructive new connection won’t isolate us. It won’t leave us in the end so… totally alone.

He says it will be worth it… and for the most part, it is.

But how much do we feel “connected” when in fact… we are alone?

And we are just beginning to get a sense what the Trojan Network has unleashed inside the city gates.

Ryan’s soliloquy sounds prophetic. It is “sent to us” from 1986 – but was probably written sometime last year.  The episode first aired on October 4, 2016 – before we had any real sense of what how the Russians had weaponized our “social media.”  So it actually seems even more prophetic, anticipating as it does the condition we find ourselves in just a year later – as we begin to learn of the vulnerabilities hidden in these networks.

The tech oligarchs who have brought us this “open and connected” environment have also unleashed the most pervasive surveillance system the world has ever seen, to which we willingly and gladly contribute.    Not even Orwell could have imagined…

And now begins “the tech backlash” – as leaders of all stripes try to get a rein on the beast.

The post and the  several that precede it are a part are probably part of that backlash.  Now I have to wonder if I’ve left one mob and joined another.


*The title “Halt and Catch Fire” refers to an early bit of code that could shut down a computer’s central processing unit.


Dispatches from the Outskirts of Facebookistan – October 23 Edition:
How To Self-Deport From Toxic Town

Facebook, meet MySpace.  Only… how do you say that in Russian? 

I’d like to be able to say I started something, or at least that I’m  an early un-adopter.

Then along comes this item from ReCode to tell me that maybe I’m just part of a growing trend:

How to quit Facebook (if the time suck, Russian ads or political noise has become too much)

There are many valid reasons you might want to quit Facebook. Maybe you spend too much time there. Maybe you’re tired of its cluttered app. Maybe you’re unnerved by all the Russia stuff.

I was an avid Facebook user for more than a decade. But due to a combination of the reasons above, I’ve almost completely quit Facebook over the past three weeks. No surprise, I have been much happier for it.

I haven’t actually taken any of the steps recommended above, but I have managed to reduce my visits to nearly nil.  I’m not really missing it.

I did stick my head through the portal this morning, and saw pretty much what I’ve been seeing for the past two or three years –  the same handful of people saying pretty much the same things.

And expecting different results?

And that’s definition of…. oh yeah… right.

I rest my case.