Decision day

This message is an open letter to Republican voters in Ohio and Florida.

Dear Florida and Ohio Republicans,

We probably don't agree on much, but I have to say this or I'll regret it forever: You have a choice today. You can vote for Cruz, Kasich, or Rubio, and deny the nomination to Donald Trump, which will probably result in a brokered convention and quite possibly the most violent convention since the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. It may also result in the destruction of the GOP, at least in the near term, possibly in the long term.

Or, you can vote for Trump, and virtually hand him the Republican nomination on a platter. This will probably avoid a chaotic convention, but will probably also sound the death knell for American democracy if he's elected in November and is able to consolidate his power. That may sound overly dramatic. It isn't. I have no love for his GOP opponents, but they aren't demagogues. He is.

You can destroy the GOP, or you can destroy our country and what it has always stood for.

Your choice.

Choose wisely.

And may God have mercy on all of us.

Historical parallels

Identify the time(s) and place(s) associated with the following:

  • A relentless drumbeat of outright lies and propaganda
  • Increasing division of the populace to extremes of left and right
  • Unwillingness of either extreme to compromise
  • The candidate who says, "It's not your fault--you've been screwed/stabbed in the back"
  • Demonization of a religious minority
  • Casual acceptance and tacit encouragement of violence
  • Advocacy of war crimes
  • Gradual acquiescence of Establishment figures to the demagogue because "he doesn't really mean it" or "he'll drop all that nonsense once he's in office."

There are two that come to mind, separated by about 80 years.

It's not too late to stop it from ending the way it did the first time.

The day the American political system broke

I've never really been a fan of the way our government is structured. It has always seemed to me that the Founding Fathers, fearful of tyranny, deliberately designed a system that guarantees gridlock. In order to overcome that possibility, you have to have people in government who are willing to reach across the aisle and work with the other side for the good of the nation.

In a Westminster-style parliamentary system, on the other hand, there is no such requirement. When the majority legislative party forms the executive, they can (theoretically, anyway) pass whatever legislation is necessary and nominate and confirm judges as they see fit. While this is not always the case, particularly in times of coalition government, it has been so often enough, particularly in Britain and in many nations of the Commonwealth.

Today, it's beginning to look like we should have kept the Westminster system, and like the GOP majority thinks that we did. With eleven months left in office for President Obama, the GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a statement that there would be no consideration of nominees for the vacant Supreme Court seat left by the death of Antonin Scalia until after Inauguration Day. This is despite the clear constitutional requirement that the President shall nominate a candidate to fill the vacancy, and the Senate shall consider the nominee and hold a confirmation vote.

To put it another way, the legislative branch has overstepped its bounds and is refusing to carry out its constitutional duty, apparently for no other reason than they do not like the current President. The effect of this is to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of a democratically elected President of the United States. It also places the political agenda of the Senate majority ahead of the Constitution of the United States, which they claim to honor--a claim that is now clearly a lie.

In retrospect, we should have seen this coming. The increasing political division in the United States since the 2000 election, which had to be decided by a Supreme Court decision, has been pointing towards this for some time. And let us be clear--the blame for this is not shared equally by both parties. Ever since the election of Barack Obama, the Republican Party has been very clear that it would attempt to obstruct and thwart this President at every turn, regardless of what he proposed. Time and time again, they have subtly encouraged those who would question this President's patriotism, his religion, and even his citizenship. While there is a time-honored tradition of each party attempting to thwart the political agenda of the other, it has never before taken such a clear step towards constitutional crisis. The last time that conflict between two branches of government resulted in a crisis of this magnitude was likely the Roosevelt administration's threat to pack the Supreme Court in order to carry forward the New Deal agenda. But even then, it was resolved without causing serious damage to our constitutional system.

Today, however, the damage is serious indeed. The Senate majority has abandoned all pretense of constitutional procedure and legal precedent, for there is no precedent for simply refusing to hold a confirmation hearing for the duration of an incumbent president's term. To the best of my knowledge, there is no clear path forward from this point. The President will nominate; the Senate will ignore the nomination, and most likely the President will make a recess appointment which the congressional GOP will then claim (incorrectly) is an abuse of his constitutional authority.

If this were any other issue, the Supreme Court would eventually be called on to rule on the constitutionality of both the Senate's refusal to act and the President's recess appointment of a justice. But this is a Supreme Court which is now evenly tied between the conservative and liberal wings. It seems unlikely that they would be able to issue a ruling with a 4-4 split. And unless I miss my guess, the Democrats in the Senate will do everything in their power to stop the GOP from doing so much as passing a resolution to refill the toilet paper in the restrooms until they're able to move forward with confirmation hearings, which means that no business whatsoever will be transacted for the duration of this Congress.

And there you have it--absolute and unbreakable gridlock. Our political system has finally broken. And it gets worse. As I write this, the Nevada Republican caucuses are underway, and there are multiple reports of multiple voting, voting without ID, and caucus staffers openly wearing campaign T-shirts and hats for Donald Trump, a man who has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, who has openly condoned violence, and who at best is America's Silvio Berlusconi, at worst our Mussolini. It is difficult to look at the overall situation right now and say that this is our finest hour. It is, if anything, our worst.

Some may say I'm being unreasonably pessimistic. Am I? Democracy really only works when you have an educated and informed electorate. Today, much of the right wing espouses beliefs that are largely divorced from reality, which is not surprising when you get most of your news from talk radio (as Scalia himself said he did). It seems that increasingly, we have an undereducated and misinformed electorate. In circumstances like these, it's not surprising that people gravitate towards candidates and politicians who tell them what they want to hear.

Unfortunately, the historical precedents for this are uniformly bad. Nationalistic, xenophobic, reactionary, violence-condoning movements do not tend to lead to an increase in democracy and human rights. Rather the opposite.

To close out this cheery little post-mortem, I'd like to leave you with a thought. In 1940, with German troops overrunning France, the members of the National Assembly met for the last time in the resort town of Vichy. There, they ratified the surrender of French forces, voted dictatorial powers to Marshal Henri Petain, and then, as their last act, voted themselves out of existence. It was all done very officially and with perfect parliamentary form.

That didn't make it legitimate. And someday, historians may well look back at the United States in 2016, and say exactly the same thing.

Apple, the FBI, and the iPhone

From everything I've seen, here's a brief synopsis of what we know:

  • The iPhone belonged to the County of San Bernardino.
  • The county purchased, but did not install, the $4/month software that would have enabled them to access/wipe/unlock the iPhone.
  • The passcode on the phone was changed while in law enforcement's possession.
  • Had they not changed the passcode, it could have been backed up to iCloud and the information accessed on the back end by Apple without engineering a back door.
  • Because the County of San Bernardino and law enforcement both screwed up massively, they're now asking Apple to engineer a back door into the system that could render all iPhone users vulnerable.

Given all of the above, I can only say one thing.

Screw 'em.

My current favorite TV shows

Apropos of nothing, here are my top five favorite television shows that are currently being produced:

  1. Better Call Saul

  2. The Americans

  3. Longmire

  4. The Man In The High Castle

  5. ???

The fifth spot is currently open. Maybe 11.22.63 will show up there. I'll let you know after I've seen it.

Edit: I forgot to mention Deutschland 83, which is on Hulu and which I've heard good things about. Looking forward to seeing it also.

Life with iPhone and Android

I've been using both an iPhone and an Android phone - a Samsung Galaxy S6, to be precise - for the last several days. This is because my employer has provided me with both an iPhone 6S and the Galaxy S6 for testing at work, and I've chosen to make the Galaxy my work phone, in large part because I already have a 64 GB iPhone 6S, and the 16 GB model that work gave me isn't going to enhance my experience.

Also, I've used Android in the past, and liked it (mostly) well enough; it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit what a premium Android phone is like these days, and keep myself up to date. I've had a few surprises.

The first surprise is that battery life isn't better. With the deserved reputation that the iPhone 6S has for being a bit short in the battery life department, I would have thought the Samsung would show it up. It doesn't. It's worse than the iPhone (score one for the iPhone, sort of). It's not terrible, but without topping it up throughout the day, it would die by dinnertime. Fortunately, the Samsung has Qi wireless charging built in, so I can use the Qi charger I got for my old HTC Windows Phone. Score one for the Samsung: I wish the iPhone supported wireless charging.

The second surprise is that battery woes aside, I find myself preferring the Samsung in daily use. Not out of the box, mind you--I can't stand TouchWiz and the crapware it comes with--but the beauty of Android is that you can fix all that. After disabling the crapware, installing a new theme (Material Design), an alternate launcher (Action 3) and a custom icon pack (Rondo), I've got it looking and acting the way I want. In fact, it's mine in a way that my iPhone will never--can never--be. And the larger screen (compared to my iPhone) is great.

What else? I like the Google bar on the home screen. I like Google Now. I like that I can remove an app from the home screen without deleting it entirely. The NewsBlur app for Android works much better than the iOS version. I love that I can designate my own default apps--Signal for SMS, for example. And LastPass form filling is much better on Android.

That's not to say everything's perfect. Have I mentioned battery life? Well, that. The iPhone still is the king of apps. I miss Siri, which is a bit better than Google Now when I'm driving. There's no CARROT Weather for Android, and the Peach app is nowhere to be found. I wish Cloak existed for Android. The fingerprint reader isn't quite as good as that on the iPhone. As for updates, I'll get Marshmallow if and when Samsung and AT&T deign to release it (this, more than anything else, is why I recommend Nexus phones to those who want to go Android). And--¦well, that's about it. Everything else I use is either on Android, or there's something equivalent or better.

This is where you're going to say, "Yeah, well, what about privacy? Huh? HUH? Answer me that, smart man." OK, I will. If that's your biggest concern, then you should probably go get an Ubuntu phone and really stick it to the Man. As for me, I'm just not that worried. I use cloud services, which means I need to trust Dropbox and Google and Microsoft and even Apple. I'm not aware of any cases where any of those companies have horribly misused anyone's data. If it's the government you're worried about (coughNSAcough), well, good luck with that. Also, and just for the record, I regard Google, Apple, and Microsoft as being approximately equal in terms of their claims to the moral high ground. They're all multinational, billion-dollar companies. I consider this a draw.

And that's really the lesson here. From what I've seen in the last several days, the iPhone and Android have pulled even. Some things are better on the iPhone, some things are better on Android, and which way you fall is going to depend on your own personal preferences, biases, and needs.And that's as it should be. If you believe competition makes everything better, you want to have truly competitive mobile phone platforms. I think we're at that point now.

That doesn't mean I'm switching completely. I still have a lovely new iPhone 6S that I'll be paying off over the next year and a half, so I'm still an iPhone user.

But I'm also an Android user. And frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thoughts on the iPad Pro

A few observations about Apple's newest magical iThing:

  • I don't feel a need for one, but if it fills aneed for you, God bless you. Enjoy your new device.
  • There might be space in the market for somethingbetween the standard iPad and a laptop, but I haven't found it yet.
  • Whether or not you think the iPad Pro makessense, I have no doubt that Apple will sell a metric buttload of them.Investors, rejoice.
  • Yes, it makes me think of the Surface. TheSurface RT. Which everyone hated on, which failed miserably, and which isn't there anymore. Make of that what you will.
  • A screen that big and still only four icons perrow on the home screen in portrait orientation? Really? Really?

The "Foundation" of my beliefs

Today the App.net1 social network, of which I'm one of the remaining members, held a "Theme Monday" in which everyone was invited to change their avatar to a novel. For me, there could be only one choice.

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov, came immediately to mind. I first read it when I was eleven years old, and it taught me a worldview that has stayed with me until the present day. It's probably the most formative book I ever read.

For those who aren't familiar with it, Foundation takes place tens of thousands of years in the future, at a time when humanity has expanded to fill the galaxy. The Galactic Empire that they founded (not to be confused with the evil Galactic Empire of the Star Wars universe) is in its last throes, in a period of decay and disintegration. The hero of the book, Hari Seldon, is what is called a "psychohistorian" -- a mathematician who has worked out that the actions of individuals may be unpredictable, but the actions of large groups of people are very predictable indeed. Given the vast population of an inhabited galaxy, considerable accuracy of prediction is possible.

His calculations indicate that the Empire will soon fall, and that there will be an interregnum of 30,000 years until the conditions are right for the formation of a second empire. However, he works out that by isolating a small group of people out on the far edges of the galaxy, safely tucked away and dedicated to keeping the light of knowledge alive, the period of the dark ages may be reduced to a single millennium. He uses the pretext of establishing a foundation dedicated to creating an "Encyclopedia Galactica" to preserve the collected knowledge of humanity to convince the government of the Empire to give him a remote world on which to settle a chosen nucleus of people. The books that follow tell their story, as the rest of the galaxy falls into ignorance and superstition.

Foundation taught me to believe in the power of knowledge and science to make the world a better place. That's something that I still believe in, and something that is all too often forgotten as the world lately seems to be devolving into a smaller, more insular, more superstitious place. While I still think that religion can be a positive force, all too often it's used as a pretext for hate, violence, and fear, or as a tool for controlling others. Indeed, in Foundation itself, there is a point at which an invented religion, which cloaks scientific technology in religious terminology, is used quite effectively by the people of the small, under-defended Foundation as a means of defense, and as a tool to maintain control of those on the worlds around them.

Foundation also taught me that there are better ways of resolving issues than through violence. Possibly my favorite literary quote of all time comes from a character named Salvor Hardin, the mayor of Terminus (the world on which the Foundation is established): "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." Time and again, the biggest and most important victories in the book are won not by those who merely have the guns, but by those whose knowledge and wisdom allows them to prevail. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Foundation taught me that when religion and science disagree--when the world isn't the way that you'd like it to be, when the thing you've always believed in says one thing and the evidence says another--that you have to be clear-eyed and acknowledge what really is. There's a point in the book at which a character emerges who was not predicted--who by his very nature could not have been predicted--in Seldon's plan, and by this point belief in the Plan has become a form of secular religion for the people of the Foundation. In order to effectively deal with him, the Foundation must deviate from the previously-sacred Plan. This, too, is an important lesson to learn. Maybe the most important.

That's why, when I look around me today, and I see people retreating into religious certainties when the evidence says something quite different--whether that be about same-sex attraction, economic principles, or (ahem) what the Pyramids were used for in ancient Egypt, I am sad. And angry. And determined that I will not be part of it. Religion can be a valuable tool for good works, but when it's used to hurt people, or to promote a blind ignorance, its value has been lost, and we're better off without it.

Asimov eventually tied in the Foundation trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation) with his robot novels, creating a vast future history of the galaxy, writing further books in the series and in the process bringing his famous Three Laws of Robotics to Seldon's psychohistory. Above all, it was a hopeful and positive view of what humanity could become.

I'm proud to say I believe in his vision. Hope for the future is not yet lost. But its realization will depend on the things we say, do, and act upon today and every day going forward, and on who we choose to stand with.

I stand with Isaac.

  1. My blog software used to generate a link here, but as of this writing (April 2019) the site to which I referred no longer exists, and the owners have sold the domain to another company, which is using it for something completely different. Sic transit gloria mundi, I suppose.


By now, everyone's heard that Microsoft has reduced OneDrive storage allowances, eliminating unlimited storage in favor of a 1 TB limit for Office 365 subscribers, reducing the basic quota to 5 GB from 15 GB, and wiping out the 100 GB and 200 GB paid options. Apparently, they were surprised when people assumed that unlimited meant unlimited, calling it "abuse." Um, no. People using what they were told they could have is not abuse.That being said, they're mostly shooting themselves in the foot with this one, as most ordinary people probably don't use more than 1 TB anyway. Having that terabyte does, however, require that they be subscribers to Office 365. Most probably aren't; they do, however, need someplace to store the photos, music files, etc. that won't fit on the limited storage space on their Lumias, Surfaces, etc. You know, the kind of thing that Microsoft has been saying, "Don't worry, you've got 15 GB of free space on OneDrive for all that." Right. It's not clear how this latest move will help those customers, or how it enhances Microsoft's ability to be a "devices and services company," but I guess that's their business.

What's my business is what I use. Coincident with this self-inflicted wound, I've been looking around for ways to save a few bucks. High at the top of my list of things to take a second look at is the $99 a year I spend on Office 365. Of course, that is also where my 1 TB on OneDrive comes from.

Nevertheless, it's hard to ignore the following:

  • I'm an Amazon Prime member, so my 10 GB of photos gets stored for free on Amazon Cloud Drive
  • Amazon's been doing a great job hosting my music collection, for what it's worth
  • Dropbox charges the same $99 annually for 1 TB, and that doesn't give me Office, but storage is their freaking business, it works more smoothly, and they're unlikely to reduce quotas
  • Microsoft keeps [email protected]#$%ing up what was a pretty compelling experience

About that last item, here's what I mean:

  • Whatever its faults, Windows 8/8.1 was a fresh take on a touch interface, and on touch equipment it worked well. Windows 10 drags those same devices back to a desktop-oriented paradigm if they have a screen size of 8 inches or larger. WTF?
  • Windows Phone was a unique and new UI with some neat features like the People Hub, but they killed off the hub paradigm for Windows 10 phones, taking away a unique selling point.
  • Microsoft purchase of Nokia's phone business resulted in more than a year's worth of mediocre, low-end hardware when what they needed was a flagship.
  • Windows 10 brings with it the death of the placeholder functionality that was the single best thing about SkyDrive/OneDrive.

The point here is that I've pretty much lost faith that Microsoft is actually going to get their s**t together and carry through with their promises.

Another, equally important point is that I feel like a damn fool. I've been preaching the virtues of the reformed Microsoft to anyone who will listen for the last few years, and they've been systematically proving that my optimism was misplaced. Like most people, I don't appreciate that.

So, this leaves me with a quandary. Do I keep throwing money at Microsoft for a service that is less than stellar, or do I bite the bullet and start migrating elsewhere?

The first thing to consider is whether I'm getting value for money by paying Microsoft that $99 a year. I'm getting the latest Office, but I'm not sure that's such a great deal when I can get a fully licensed copy of Office 2016 Professional through my employer's Home Use Program for a measly ten bucks. True, that's a one-time deal, but how often do you upgrade your office suite? At work (a major multinational corporation whose name you would recognize), we're still using Office 2010 and it works just fine.

So if we take Office out of the equation, we're looking at paying Dropbox the same amount of money for the same amount of storage space. You might say that it's a wash, but my experience is that Dropbox works more smoothly with fewer errors than OneDrive. Therefore, that's a win for Dropbox (Note: I'm not even going to consider Google Drive, because I don't trust Google with my stuff, and that's non-negotiable. I'm not considering iCloud because I'm a PC user at home, and Apple software on PCs is usually a bucket of hurt that I don't need).

I also have Amazon Prime, so I can back up my photos to Amazon Cloud Drive for the low, low price of free. And, of course, I can also back them up to Dropbox for good measure. Do I trust Amazon? Mostly. They've been doing a good job with my music collection, and I've had backup files on Amazon S3 for years now, so I am confident they won't lose my stuff. That being said, I'm going to keep my e-books backed up to Dropbox, because I want those stored somewhere out of their reach for what should be obvious reasons.

All of the foregoing is why I've spent the last couple of days upgrading to Dropbox Pro and moving my files from OneDrive (and moving my photos to Amazon). I will admit that I didn't see this coming. I really thought that I'd settled on a long-term storage solution. But, as Paul Thurrott said yesterday:

It's time to start comparing cloud storage services again, to start considering backup strategies yet again--and seriously, thanks a lot, Microsoft, what I really want to do is constantly reevaluate stuff that should just sit there and [email protected]#king work_.

Yep.Also, as a side note, this marks the official end of my previous philosophy of picking a platform and using the native services. That was obviously the incorrect strategy. From now on, I'm choosing services carefully, opting for the single-focus alternatives where they exist. No more jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none services for me.

I do occasionally learn, sometimes--as is the case now--the hard way.

The Santa Ana winds are back

And perhaps unsurprisingly, Raymond Chandler, the undisputed dean of L.A. noir, wrote the best description ever:

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana's that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."
--Raymond Chandler, Red Wind (opening paragraph)