Friday, March 30

There are plenty of arguments you can make for long distance train transit, but I think maybe the most compelling I know of is the sensation of drinking beer at your own table in the bar car, with power for your laptop, while you roll along through the night at interstate speeds, totally unconcerned with directing anything.

The 10 or 12 year old playing UNO with his dad a table over is quietly singing the lyrics to Culture Club’s “Chameleon”.

It’s Good Friday, for another half hour at least. Like every year I’m not in church on this night, I think of the Tenebrae service all the same.

Tuesday, March 27

some guesses

As an exercise in checking some intuitions, hopes, fears, etc., here are some statements I'd like to re-evaluate 5 and 10 years from now, if I'm around to do the evaluating.

This is just me being depressing; it's definitely not a coherent thesis about the future. You should skip reading it. If you're looking for depressing material about the future that might actually be worth your time, Charlie Stross has a blog. (Or if you really, really want to feel bad, there's always Peter Watts.)

1. Cryptocurrency (at least as formulated in 2018) is a scam, a nascent energy use disaster, and a probable driver of inequality in an already dangerously inequitable system. Blockchain-adjacent techniques will demonstrate various kinds of utility, but if everybody's still talking about "crypto" in a decade this utility will probably be overshadowed by the damage Bitcoin and all its children have wrought. I will still be irritated that "crypto" somehow became shorthand for "cryptocurrency".

2. Early 2018 is seeing stronger and more generalized public Facebook backlash than we've gotten before. (The flashpoint at the moment is the whole Cambridge Analytica thing.) Here's my prediction: Facebook isn't going anywhere, but even if it does suffer reversals, the model it represents will only have increased its actual dominance by 2023 or 2028.

2a. The movement to rebuild a more decentralized, federated, & protocol-driven network outside of surveillance capitalism isn't going away. It will gain adherents and build more robust infrastructure. It will also remain marginal, ideologically driven (as opposed to widely adopted on practical grounds), and incapable of mounting any fundamental challenge to a status quo dominated by megacorporations with control over most of the devices, most of the data, and most of the intensively-surveilled public and private sphere. Neo-Luddite tendencies will begin to more noticeably produce isolationist communities in the real physical world.

2b. US legislation affecting social media, networks, software, and privacy will have further entrenched, rather than limited, the power dynamic described in 2a. EU legislation on privacy won't prove entirely useless at protecting users, but mostly it'll just add some bureaucratic overhead without being drastic enough to really hamper actors at the scale of Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

3. Desktop computing won't be dead, but it'll be widely viewed as obsolete and on its way out. Physical keyboards will be increasingly seen as an affectation even for professionals. It will be getting hard to even buy a mouse.

4. Always-on cameras and microphones will be totally normalized across every family of widely-used consumer computing device, and almost no public space in the developed world will be free of permanent video and audio logging to cloud services.

5. Mass shootings will continue at more or less the same pace in the US, if not increase substantially. Aside from relatively minor concessions like banning bump stocks, no very effective restrictions on gun ownership will make it into federal law. Traditional gun culture's adherence will nevertheless have declined substantially, and an escalation in far-right racist power-fantasy gun culture among non-rural white people who have never hunted or gone sport shooting a day in their lives probably won't be enough to make up for it numerically.

6. Driverless cars will be happening for real, and like Uber or Lyft, they'll have serious practical advantages for prosperous (sub)urbanites and the professional class. They'll also gut public transit systems, increase congestion and passenger miles traveled, further marginalize poor people and "gig economy" laborers, and double as data sponges for various megacorps. Truckers will be looking real worried.

6a. There will still be no genuinely serious indications of a shift in the United States away from car-centric development patterns and lifestyles.

7. It'll become much easier to tell that skilled tech worker leverage against employers is going to decrease while automation ramps up and software power further consolidates. People in the industry won't be quite as nervous as truckers, but they'll be getting there.

7a. The window of available time for people in software to unionize with any effective power will obviously be narrowing. People in software will not have unionized at any scale and no credible efforts will be underway.

8. It will no longer be possible to trust any video, photo, or audio recording without cryptographically verified signatures from a reputable party. It'll be getting pretty easy to fake a lot of stuff in realtime.

8a. Fully machine-generated music will really start to take off.

9. In five years, weed will be well on its way to legal nationwide. In ten, it'll pretty much be there, or at least effectively decriminalized. There'll be some real casualties because lots of people are going to smoke a mind-destroying volume of concentrated THC all day long every day. On balance, it'll still probably be an improvement in public health. It will not, despite every stoned conversation you've ever had about legalization, fix the problems of mass incarceration.

10. No meaningful reforms of policing in America will have gained any traction. When I go to look at this list again, I will be able to recall one or more killings of an unarmed black civilian by law enforcement within the previous 2-3 months.

11. Various socialisms are going to become increasingly mainstream positions in the US. As an unfortunate corollary, the actual no-shit authoritarian left will be a recognizable factor in political life.

12. We'll have permanently lost a few more large mammal species, but the really telling numbers will be increasingly comprehensive evidence of massive decline in absolute numbers of birds, insects, fish, amphibians, etc.

monday, march 26

it's gray all day, somewhere in the 40s fahrenheit
rain starts some time in the late afternoon
and i'm glad i thought to tarp the rototiller
sitting by the fence out in the back yard
a friend comes over, his last visit before
leaving town; we drink box wine and eat
plates of fresh pasta as the rain shifts into
the wet, transient snow of a colorado spring

Wednesday, March 21

a lawn and garden report

It’s suddenly springtime: Robins on top of the house, fattening rabbits in the yard, a dandelion flowering alongside the back walk. I should have listened to my older relatives and planted flats of seeds for the garden a month ago. It may well be past time to get some of the hardier stuff in the dirt. There was a little rain and the lawn is if not exactly green, then also not exactly entirely dead. A couple of last year’s brassicas give some evidence of having survived the winter, mild and unsatisfying as it was.

Sunday, March 18

Cleaning out a handful of pens I haven’t used yet this year, before the ink can fossilize in them, I’m struck by how I’ve never learned any way to do this that isn’t just kind of a mess.

I still write quite a bit of the time with fountain pens. It’s impractical in a lot of ways, but nothing else quite matches the feel of it, or the results on a page.

I tend to carry fine-tipped pigment markers instead (Sakura Pigma Micron, Faber-Castell PITT Artist Pens, or a few other brands—drawing markers you can find in most art supply sections for a couple bucks a pop) when I’m leaving the house or traveling, because they’re easy to replace and much harder to get ink all over the place with.

Last year, though, I spent somewhere north of a hundred dollars on a Pilot Vanishing Point, this weird fountain pen with a clicky push-button retractable nib. It’s gone almost everywhere with me since then.

I’ve spent real money on pens before this, but I’ve usually regretted it. The last one quit writing after a couple of days and then literally fell apart. I’ve experimented with a bunch of things, but mostly to date I’ve had the best luck with cheap, simple plastic-bodied pens like the Sheaffer ones my mom got in school some time in the 60s or 70s—a design they probably still make some variation on for less than $10. If you wanted to get into fountain pens, you could do a lot worse than picking up one of their “calligraphy” sets.

The Vanishing Point is something else, though. It writes nicer than just about anything I’ve ever used (aside from maybe a vintage Parker 51), and the retractable nib is more than a gimmick. After a year’s pretty hard use, it’s started leaking some inside the body of the pen, which is kind of a drag, but so far it hasn’t leaked anywhere else and it feels safe to keep in a bag or a pocket. I like it so much that if it breaks, I’ll probably buy another one. In fact, the idea that it might break has me thinking about buying one right now, the way I stock up on the notebooks I like, because not having one available at any given time fills me with this kind of low-key agitation.

Totally worth it, if you are the kind of person who can somehow justify a thing as ridiculous as a luxury writing implement while the world burns and computers finish eating the physical act of writing completely.

Writing on paper crossed an interesting threshold for me recently: I’d been thinking of it as almost purely an affectation, a thing I persisted in for reasons of aesthetic stubbornness and simple physical attachment to the ritual—all well and good, but scarcely justifiable on any practical grounds beyond “I like it, and writing the way I enjoy writing helps me write at all”.

Lately, though, I feel a deepening appreciation for any technology that’s outside the reach of the network and software. Much like printed paper books live outside of Amazon’s surveillance machinery, stubbornly resist deletion, and can be freely lent out, paper notes are cognitive tools that don’t have Google Analytics and a sea of inscrutable machine-learning slapped on them. I guess that’ll only last until sufficiently high-resolution always-on cameras inescapably cover every angle in every building (or come with whatever augmented-reality system we all have to use in order to keep participating in society) but it’s no small thing for the moment.

Tuesday, March 6

I’m in the mountains, dog-sitting for family. They live in the kind of place that’s flooded with natural light during the day, where you can see the Continental Divide out the windows. Put wood on the fire, take the dog outside, startle as big corvids of some kind glide past overhead.

This is a long ways from the countryside where I grew up, but out in the mountains is still unmistakably in the country in some crucial way.

There’s a tension between how good I feel in this kind of place and how much and how often I’m told that the only survivable future for civilization is urban density, tall blocks of towers, and more or less the planned eradication of the communities where I’ve spent the better part of my life.

Part of the tension is that these ideas probably aren’t so far wrong, so far as they go. It’s at least pretty clear that commuting in cars across vast distances is destroying the world1 as much as anything, and the way I live my life now scarcely generalizes to 7 billion people, nevermind how I’d live it given a few more degrees of freedom. I may want me to have a rambling compound on a couple of hundred acres in the middle of nowhere, but everybody having that just devolves into Mad Max.

I can understand the idea that the most good for the most humans is to be found in thickly populated cityscapes, efficiencies of scale, and a rural infrastructure reduced to some bare minimum for sparsely-crewed giant farmbots. At any rate I’m sure the most good doesn’t look much like the vast automotive sprawl coagulating all along the I-25 corridor just a few miles east of here.

Still, there’s something missing between what I’m supposed to take away from the consensus of the various learned-and-wise and how I actually think and feel about the shape of these questions.

1 A paragraph from four years ago: "America is never ever going to stop running entirely on cars. Not until it kills us. Not even when it becomes completely obvious even to Republicans and retirees and farmers that it's killing us. We just don't care. We aren't even capable of imagining caring. We are going to drive until there is nothing left for driving to destroy, and then we are going to drive some more. The last American will die alone, huffing gasoline in the front seat of a late-model Toyota the size of a city block in the center of a vast, oil-stained pavement stretching from horizon to horizon."