considering paris II

Posted November 21, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

It should be obvious by now that we are drowning in bullshit, as politicians, partisans, spooks, alleged journalists try to turn what happened a week ago in Paris into an all-purpose 9/11 part II.

My son pointed out the me that the one-step-away-from-not-breathing language we’re hearing is exactly like what we heard as the reaction to 9/11 morphed from grief, shock, anger and resolve into something worse. “This time it’s different” is a phrase uttered in haste, regretted for a generation.

So language counts, a lot. And this paragraph, from a longer, angry piece by George Packer in The New Yorker is worth doing the digital equivalent of cutting out and pasting on the bathroom mirror.

A lot of people in this country are disgracing themselves this week. They include politicians of both parties—though many more Republicans than Democrats—and all regions. Their motives vary: deep-seated bigotry, unreasoning fear, spinelessness, opportunism, or some unholy mix of them all. During the House hearings, Republicans kept demanding guarantees of absolute security. “I haven’t heard a single one of you say there’s no risk,” Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told Administration witnesses. There’s no such thing as no risk. Parisians could stop going out to cafés, Germans could turn back every single Syrian at the border, Americans could stop admitting anyone as a refugee, and there would still be risks. It’s absurd, and infantilizing, to demand that our officials promise to keep us absolutely safe. We don’t live that way, nor should we. Instead, we have to find the balance between safety and a decent life in a free society during an age of terror. Like every compromise, it will leave us unsatisfied. But the alternative is unfreedom and injustice.

Yes, exactly. In a sea of bull, pieces like Packer’s are life rafts. (Paul Krugman had a good one too.)

considering paris

Posted November 15, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

In the wave of news about the terrorist attacks Friday night in Paris, I was struck by a reference to a book – not available in English, unfortunately – from the French philosopher André Glucksmann.

Glucksmann wrote a book called “Dostoevsky in Manhattan,” in which “he insisted that modern terrorism, including Islamic terrorism, is nihilist before it is religious and even before it is political.” That’s Adam Gopnik’s description of the book, in a post for The New Yorker.

Gopnik continues, channeling Glucksmann:

He attached its motives to the terrorism of the century before—to the violence, which Dostoevsky and Conrad dramatized so well, which redounds not to a political end but with a wild vengeance and the existential message, “I kill, therefore I am.” Certainly, the communiqué in French from ISIS, taking responsibility for the mass murders—the blind assaults on the stadium, the rock concert, the cafés, none of them exactly haunts of the wealthy—had, for all its apparent political logic, a deeper ring of unleashed rage and blood madness, down to the ancient fury at the existence of Paris as a place of pleasure.

When George W. Bush posed the question in the wake of 9/11 “Why do they hate us?” he answered “They hate our freedoms.” Implicit in the former President’s answer was the idea that no rational, sane or decent person could hate freedom. Therefore, the terrorists of 9/11 were irrational, and the question of “why” was really a question of pathology, a way of diagnosing sickness.

Of course, there is another, more disturbing way of looking at this.

We wish to believe that freedom, secular society, progress, music, science, sport make up the natural tendency of humanity. The Islamic state is the most extreme incarnation of the counter-argument: if you take Glucksmann seriously – and you should – then the question is unavoidable: what’s behind “a deeper ring of unleashed rage and blood madness?”

Perhaps this. An alternate vision of how the world works, one awful to contemplate but with its own cold rationality. George Orwell’s 1984 is, as always, prescient. Here, the key speech of O’Brien, as he tortures Winston Smith:

Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy- everything.

Movements like the Islamic state will eventually fall apart, implode; they are inherently unstable. But what if they aren’t and don’t? What if they gain strength from the slaughter?

the not so great migration

Posted November 9, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

Missed this: the estimable John Anderson, writing at the end of October about the F.C.C.’s order on AM revitalization, the most important part of which is that AM station owners get more opportunity to grab FM translators in their markets – in other words, to effectively move their business from one band to the other.

Anderson, who is very smart and experienced on this issue, sums up AM’s future this way:

Once all the relatively minor technical tweaks to AM engineering have been exhausted, AM-HD proponents give up the ghost, and rising environmental interference functionally overwhelms smaller AM stations, we’ll begin to see the sunsetting of the band entirely. Broadcasters will argue that the economics of running an AM station are no longer sustainable, at which point they’ll lobby to “upgrade” FM translators into stand-alone primary stations along with a loosening of local market ownership caps to keep this ploy within the bounds of legality. In the end, these policy efforts should be categorized more accurately as migration, not revitalization.

He’s right, of course. There’s an inevitable quality about all this, a gravitational pull of money and incumbency which will end with yet more dross on the FM side, and an AM band mostly abandoned. Oh, well. One can hope that once AM is left for dead maybe squatters will move in, throw up some junkyard furniture and find new use for it.

no limits

Posted November 1, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

One thing trafficked in frequently these days – maybe the thing most frequently sold to us rubes – is the increasingly threadbare notion of “no limits.” They may not use those exact words, but they say the new iPhone 6s will do more, faster, better than any iPhone, or any other phone out there. Which might even briefly be true, but the hard limits of network and processor speed and  memory quickly outweigh the wow factor.

A phone is new for about a day. Then it’s 24 months of $30+ bills for something that is unlikely to get you a better job, a better relationship, a better anything. But we believe, or sort of believe, in the same way we used to believe a new car could solve our problems.

Still, maybe having something positive – no matter how false – in our lives that promises no limits is necessary, because on the other side of the ledger, no limits is a concept that is scarily real.

A Russian airliner crashed in Egypt Saturday, killing 224 people. The New York Times reported many of them were young families on vacation. A branch of the Islamic State claims responsibility, but it doesn’t look like they have the capability to do such a thing, so they may have taken credit for something awful that was not their doing. What is this?

What this is, is a world in which the wheels have come off, there are no adults left to settle things, and it’s every man, creed, political party for him or herself. In such a world, you shrug and say “Sure we did it. Because we’re right and no one else counts.”  In fairness, not much is new – for most of human history, there haven’t been any adults in the room, just brute strength and weakness. But imperfectly, sometimes – not often enough – we managed to get past that in the 20th century.

And the hits keep coming: a couple of mass shootings back – it’s easy to lose track – President Obama decried how routine the whole thing had become, from the grief of the relatives to his words to the reaction of the anti-gun control side. The shootings are no longer anomalies; they’re more like a constant, sick-making infection. Today, for instance, there’s “1 Dead, 1 Hurt” in a university shooting down south, my local paper says. It’s a Sunday so it might get a little more attention than usual, but it won’t be that big a deal on the news tonight. And there will be some “we’re so bored with this we can barely deliver our lines” business about it being a mental health problem not a gun problem, and how more weapons on campus is really what we need.

(Edit – Foolish me. I didn’t bother to see whether there were any other mass shootings this weekend and completely missed the one in Colorado Springs Saturday in which a gunman walked down the street, shooting people with a rifle until he was killed by police. Just another weekend afternoon….)

Finally, the New York Times has a fascinating investigation up about how big companies have systematically opted the rest of us out of the justice system – at least when it comes to suing the companies for wrong-doing – by forcing us to agree to binding arbitration when we do everyday things like sign up for a credit card or cable TV. This is, the newspaper points out, a historic change in the way civil law is carried out, as well as being a royal screwing of the public – and it has happened in plain sight, in all those agreements you click through to get to whatever thing it is you need to buy, to get.

You can take these few examples, and the many, many more piled up behind them every day, week, hour, as a test, an effort to find out just how much we can take, a “How low can you go?” Some Neuromancer-era bored scientist at work. That’s one option. But the other argument is that the people at the top of things understand how broken it all is already, and either aren’t able to stop, or see an advantage in not stopping –  an “if climate change is inevitable, why not burn more gas?” sort of thing. And “no limits” refers to depravity and poverty and the painful recognition that this just isn’t going to get any better.

doomed, but i like it

Posted October 14, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

After my last post, “The Future of Windows Phone,” I decided to take matters into my own hands. Out came the Lumia 822, the Windows 8.1 phone I carried until recently. Knowing that it will be a while, if ever, before Microsoft rolls out an official upgrade – much less Verizon sanctioning it – I downloaded the Windows Insider app, told it to go get the fast ring, and settled in for a lengthy transition to Windows 10 Mobile beta.

I was not disappointed.

I started early afternoon Monday, and was still patching and upgrading late Monday night. The install appeared to come in two or three stages – a first upgrade that got me to some early, incomplete version of 10 and a very unstable, basically unusable phone, followed by a second round of downloading and upgrading, which got me a much better result and then a final upgrade to build 10536.

The phone is completely usable now. It’s not as fast as it was on 8 or 8.1 – it feels like apps take a second to open instead of just being there instantly. But once you calibrate your expectations accordingly, the experience is pretty smooth. Given that the 822 began life as a no-better-than-midrange, utterly mediocre phone, I’m pleased it runs as well as it does.

And there are some obvious pluses. For me, having the new browser, Edge, is a big deal. Remember, I had to get off the Windows phone platform because my company’s app doesn’t run on it. Obviously, that’s still the case, but now the mobile version of our web site displays more or less correctly, which it could not do under Internet Explorer in 8/8.1. So I’ve regained the ability to somewhat monitor what we’re doing in mobile.

The 822 is a small phone, and under 8/8.1 the default was two columns of icons. That’s now three, with the option to extend some icons to fill two spaces or to shrink a “one space” icon down to a miniature. But even though the 822 doesn’t have a lot of real estate, and the resolution isn’t great, the three column screen doesn’t feel crowded or wrong. I still have no trouble scrolling down the front page one-handed and clicking on a program tile, even though in absolute terms the tiles are smaller. In fact, after a day of use I think I prefer things the way they are now. And the new look is lovely in a way the old one wasn’t.

Microsoft’s own apps are good; even though I don’t believe in keeping email on my phone, I set up Outlook and find it to be decent, if a little pokey. (Imagine that: Outlook slow…) I’ve opened a couple of things in Word and they seem fine as well.

There’s a really good Instagram substitute called 6tag. It says it offers “in-app purchases,” presumably to turn off the ads which are occasionally served, but I can’t seem to find how to pay, and to whom. My preferred podcast client, Pocket Casts, has a native WinPhone app which works about as well as the Android app. My other modest needs – TuneIn, Kindle, a few others – run fine.

The settings section is a little confusing: even though system —> notifications appeared to pertain to what shows up on my lock screen, I couldn’t make the count of unread Outlook messages go away until I found a separate “lock screen” section. The lock screen itself remains far better than what I have on the Note II. There, you type in the pass code and hit enter; here, you type in the pass code and the phone just opens, as it should.

I’m not completely sold on the revised texting app yet, (I thought the one in 8/8.1 was the greatest thing ever) but I still love the fact that when I get a new text it appears at the top of the screen. This is better than how texting is organized on the Note II, where – if you’re using the phone but not in the app – you’ll get notice of the message, but not the start of the contact itself. The typeface and size of the labels on the phone dialer strike me as too small, but nothing I can’t get used to.

More disappointingly, unless it’s a Microsoft app I don’t see a lot of interest in using “live tiles” to maximum advantage. Folks, live tiles are a big reason Windows phones are great – I’m talking to you, New York Times.

All that said, the fact that Win 10 runs decently on a modest, three year old phone is an achievement. That, and the fact that they’ve bent but haven’t broken any of the interface elements that make Windows phones the joy they are. Picking it up and using the phone during the day today just felt right in a way that the Android phone doesn’t. My plan now is to use this phone for a week, switch back to Android for a week, switch back to this, etc., etc., but I can already tell I’m going to be looking for excuses to stay right where I am, with my doomed, beautiful phone.


the future of windows phone

Posted October 12, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

A fascinating post and set of responses at, Windows expert Paul Thurott’s online home. Subject: the new flagship Windows phones and Microsoft’s plan to push them out through friendly carriers and directly through the Microsoft store.

“Friendly carriers” appears to mean AT&T and maybe T-Mobile. It does not include Verizon, my phone company and the company generally believed to have the best coverage nationwide.

The whole thing, Paul’s post and the replies, is worth a read – the responses get deep into the complexities of Verizon’s network vs. the other guys, and of what’s really in the guts of the phones. But here’s the short version:

Those carriers that were friendly to Windows Phone—like AT&T in the United States, I was explicitly told—would continue to be offered the chance to sell Windows phones going forward. Those that were not—Verizon, again, explicitly—would not.

(I didn’t discuss T-Mobile or Sprint with Microsoft, but their fates are pretty clear: T-Mobile is on the friendly side, if not as friendly as AT&T, and Sprint is effectively dead.)

Additionally, I was told that Microsoft would sell all of its new phones directly to customers from its own retail and online stores. These phones would be carrier unlocked and would feature “universal” radios, meaning that they would work with (virtually) any carrier worldwide. The point behind this design decision is obvious enough, but it allows Microsoft to make one version of a phone, rather than multiple versions (like Lumia Icon and Lumia 930) that target different markets and/or carriers.

As Microsoft’s distribution plans for the Lumia 950 and 950 XL have become clearer this week, some people—like Peter Bright, not to single him out—have reacted negatively. But this is because they haven’t come to terms with what I wrote in July: Microsoft has conceded the smart phone market. There isn’t some secret super-push to get Windows phones into the hands of carriers, folks. Microsoft is simply doing what it has to do. It is selling phones via friendly carriers and via its own store. And that’s it.

As of today, you can buy three Windows phones through the Verizon store: the not-bad-at-all Lumia 735 and the dirt cheap LG Lancet have been there for a while, and I just noticed the HTC One M8 has returned. Of those three, only the 735 is a lock to get the coming Windows 10 update.

I understand why Microsoft might not want to do business with Verizon; Big Red’s CDMA calling technology is the odd man out for U.S. carriers, meaning that any phone running on Verizon’s network has to be made especially for Verizon. Plus, getting a phone – or a software update for a phone – certified is a study in frustration. And that’s just the obvious part; I have no idea what kind of deal Verizon drives with a company holding a weak market position.

Granted also that Verizon’s customers are all Android and iPhone customers, and I suppose you could argue that in the unlikely event WinPhones catch on Microsoft and Verizon could pick up again without much damage to anyone.

And the idea of the computer company being the primary conduit for phones – as Apple is doing – is intriguing: It’s more and more obvious that for many people, their phone is their main, if not their only, computer. It makes sense for that computer to come from the people who make the machines, and leave the connectivity up to the specialists.

But when I step back, I’m not sure what the point is, other than Microsoft keeping the Windows phone platform alive at some low level. And if that’s the case, as it surely is, what’s the path forward? I suspect Microsoft doesn’t know either, and just wants time to get its bearings. Microsoft has said it plans to concentrate in three areas, on people who want cheap phones, on enthusiasts and on business users. Maybe, but you could say almost the same thing about Android and iOS devices, so the “strategy” doesn’t tell us much.

I also don’t see the ability of some phones to morph into sorta-kinda desktops as much of a plus; it’s more like a party trick – “Look what I can do!” – in light of the fact that more and more productivity is migrating from desktop to mobile. (Yes, I know there’s a whole lot phones can’t do. I’m a laptop guy myself, but I have to acknowledge phones can be more than consumption devices these days.)

And Microsoft has been busy making sure the crown jewels, Outlook and the rest of Office, run at least as well on Android and iOS. So no advantage for Windows phone there either.

There’s some small hope, I think, in Windows 10 universal applications. If it doesn’t cost developers additional time and effort to build something for phone, maybe they will. But these things are never as seamless as they appear to be, so maybe not.

What’s left? Mostly loyalty. Windows phone users are a stubborn lot. Once you’re hooked on the interface, it’s hard to be satisfied with anything else – I know. I’m in month two of getting used to an Android phone and I have yet to make peace with it. However, there aren’t enough of us to give Windows phone the momentum it needs.

Maybe success is what some have suggested; Microsoft does really well in tablets and other mobile settings, so Windows phones become proportionately less important. The problem with that argument is that phones are by far the first among equals when it comes to mobile; nothing else does everything – makes calls, texts, and works as a pocket computer. And controlling the platform is, if not everything, a really important thing. Microsoft can do as well as it wants in Android and iOS, and still be at the mercy of others.

On top of everything else, the phone market strikes me as maturing. At this point, it’s hard to imagine disruptive change, the kind of thing that would level the playing field and give Microsoft another chance.

If I were given this problem to solve, I’m not sure what I’d do. If there was enough money, I think I’d draw up a list of whatever apps the platform needs and doesn’t have – or that aren’t good enough – and either hire developers or offer bounties to get WinPhone up to some sort of parity. I’m talking top 25 here, not deep catalog. I’d relentlessly winnow the app store; the last thing Microsoft should care about is being able to declare “We have XXXXXX apps!” given how awful so many are. I’d do some kind of research to figure out what company/institution-specific apps are most popular and offer to write them for free. Finally, I’d do for creative apps what Apple did for office applications on the Mac; I’d have an in-house team write and maintain a “best of breed” set of audio/video/photo apps.

I’d keep making good phones cheap, and push the price angle hard. At some point, people have to get that $800 is a lot to spend for a phone when you can get most/all of the value for a quarter of the price.

All of this is probably a recipe for pouring good money after bad, but if Microsoft wants to advance the platform I’m not sure what other choice it has. It can’t afford to lose more ground, it has no obvious path forward, and other than this brief respite, it can’t stand still. The next few months should be fascinating.

tales of the unexpected

Posted October 4, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

Although I have Republican roots and there are things I am conservative about, there’s no way you could call me a “conservative” in the modern (Goldwater, 1964 and after) sense of the word.

Conservatism has failed too many times to face up to the big issues, starting with the civil rights movement and carrying through to today. And of course, I think what gets called conservative on talk radio is really home-grown radicalism. The free market absolutists and original intent-ists have much in common with the radical left of the early 70s – an unswerving belief they’re correct, a sense of persecution, a commitment to be pure at all costs.

Still, I read conservative writers because I’m also uncomfortable with what passes for liberal, and because some of them are willing to engage in the task of raising difficult questions.

Two examples from this morning’s reading:

– Pat Buchanan, writing for The American Conservative, has a piece called “Syria and the Danger of Moral Imperialism.” It might also have been called “What if Putin is right?” and it’s guaranteed to send most conservatives, neo-cons, neo-liberals, liberals, moderates into a rage. It takes as its jumping off point President Putin’s speech to the U.N., in which Putin argued we brought on ourselves the mess that is the middle east. Buchanan doesn’t go quite so far as to say “I agree,” but he buttresses Putin’s words this way:

“Fourteen years after we invaded Afghanistan, Afghan troops are once again fighting Taliban forces for control of Kunduz. Only 10,000 U.S. troops still in that ravaged country prevent the Taliban’s triumphal return to power.

A dozen years after George W. Bush invaded Iraq, ISIS occupies its second city, Mosul, controls its largest province, Anbar, and holds Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, as Baghdad turns away from us—to Tehran. The cost to Iraqis of their “liberation”? A hundred thousand dead, half a million widows and fatherless children, millions gone from the country and, still, unending war.

How has Libya fared since we “liberated” that land? A failed state, it is torn apart by a civil war between an Islamist “Libya Dawn” in Tripoli and a Tobruk regime backed by Egypt’s dictator.

Then there is Yemen. Since March, when Houthi rebels chased a Saudi sock puppet from power, Riyadh, backed by U.S. ordinance and intel, has been bombing that poorest of nations in the Arab world. Five thousand are dead and 25,000 wounded since March. And as the 25 million Yemeni depend on imports for food, which have been largely cut off, what is happening is described by one U.N. official as a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

Read the entire thing here and marshal your arguments against Buchanan’s (and Putin’s) words, but set a condition for yourself – make your argument about the world as it is, not as you want it to be.

Even more surprisingly, I found myself agreeing with Laura Ingraham, about whom I’ll assume the reader already knows and has an opinion.

Ingraham wrote a column in which she calls out the Republican Party in detail about its down-on-both-knees obeisance to “the donor class.”

“Big givers stay close to their candidates through special apps, conference calls and intimate gatherings. The really big guns are treated to the holy grail of access — the cellphone number of the candidate.

Theresa Kostrzewa, a lobbyist who is also a Jeb Bush supporter, was refreshingly candid in summing up the dynamic.

“Donors are demanding a lot these days … (T)hey want answers and they want results, and a lot of them hit the panic button a lot,” she told the New York Times.

As for the rest of you sops who call the main House or Senate switchboards and expect to be heard? You have a better chance of hitting Lotto.”

Read the whole thing here. Of course, her bottom line, “The time has come for Republican politicians to quit letting others pull their strings and do a better job of representing the voters who put them in office,” would – if carried out – have interesting consequences for the GOP. The conventional wisdom is that paying attention to the actual Republican voter would mean another loss for President and probably losing the Senate as well. Probably, but I’m not entirely convinced.

(And for the record, this really is an issue on which the Democrats are as bad, though far subtler. They have largely abandoned the interests of middle class Americans over the last 30 years in the name of “free trade,” the “new economy” and the rest, all of which looks more and more like misdirection, while giving the donors what they want. Greed is not a party thing.)


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