Browsed by
Author: Steve

I live and work in the Philadelphia area. I am an ETL software tester by profession but I also enjoy writing, tabletop gaming, reading and thinking about history, binge-watching Netflix, and traveling with my BFF. We especially like going to the Big Apple to catch a show.
Book Review: The Master Switch

Book Review: The Master Switch

My latest reading escapade has me perusing The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, by Tim Wu. He is a law professor who is currently an official in the Biden White House, specializing in technology and antitrust. He is also, in fact, the coiner of the term “net neutrality,” which is just the legal concept of a “common carrier,” as has been applied to telephone communications, but extended to the Internet.

In The Master Switch, Wu analyzes technological and industrial development in the fields of telephony, radio, film, television, and computer networking. He identifies what he calls “the Cycle,” in which monopolist companies consolidate control over particular information technology markets (the empires), only to be challenged when new technologies emerge in periods of “creative destruction,” borrowing a term from Joseph Schumpeter. But whoever comes out on top in the new technological era simply replaces the previous monopolist. A good example is the telephone overtaking the telegraph, with the once powerful Western Union (powerful enough to decide Presidential elections) taken down – if not out – only to be replaced by a new dominant monopoly, in the form of AT&T.

The cycle as Wu describes it reminds me of the technological waves from Debora Spar‘s book Ruling the Waves, which I have already reviewed in a series of blog posts. They are very similar concepts, although to my knowledge neither author has ever recognized the work of the other. Despite the similar concepts which are their subjects, the two books are different in structure. Spar focuses on one technology at a time, whereas Wu jumps around between the technological fields, sticking to an overall chronological narrative. Either way, both authors end up in the Internet era, though Wu arrives ten years later. I noted in my review of Spar’s work that it would be great to get her opinion on how the Internet wave looks now, seeing as she was writing at the end of the dot com era (just around Y2K), but I don’t think she pursued the subject any further. Wu has followed up with additional books, though I haven’t read any of them.

In addition to the Cycle, Wu identifies what he calls “the Kronos Effect”, wherein an established monopolist uses its power, and usually its close relationship with government, to suppress new technologies, just as Kronos in Greek myth devoured his own children for fear of being replaced by them. A good example is how the NBC/CBS duopoly of radio broadcasting networks successfully prevented the development of television until the technology was firmly under their own control. This is why TV started with the “Big Three” networks already established in radio (ABC split off from NBC in 1943), not because there was any natural reason TV couldn’t have developed differently. There were independent television companies throughout the 1930s, but they were unable to grow their markets, because of the anticompetitive actions of the established radio companies.

I didn’t know much about the early days of television until I read this book, and it gave me a good overview. The story is just one of the many things I learned about the history of technology and of the people who were intimately involved with the invention and development of so much that we take for granted today. Wu’s book is well written, and with short chapters is a quick and easy read. The jumping around between the stories of different technologies can be a little confusing, but it’s made up for by the overarching narrative of “the Cycle” and the efforts of powerful interests to suppress it.

Interestingly, Spar didn’t include the dawn of television in her history of technological waves. When I read her book, I found it odd that she skipped from radio in the early 1900s straight to satellite television in the late 1900s. But I speculate now that it this was because she couldn’t fit the early history of television into her wave pattern. Like Wu, she identifies the invention and entrepreneurship phases of new technologies. But unlike Wu, she doesn’t cover the scenario where entrepreneurship is suppressed by a powerful entity maintaining its information empire, destroying competitors before they can even arise. The mid-1900s, a staid and conformist social era, was precisely such a period in the history of information technology.

Concern for this pattern of anticompetitive economics imbues Wu’s book. It’s particularly concerning for information technology, because the corporations who dominate it control not just how we access information, but also what information we access. For instance, during the so-called “Golden Age of Hollywood,” private interests, via both the vertically integrated industry of the studio system and the privately conceived and enforced censorship of the Hays Code, controlled the nature of mass media content available to filmgoers for a solid two decades or more. Eventually both the industry and the social constraints were broken down, but conceivably much creative potential was stifled and lost forever in the interim. Conceivably, political orthodoxy was enforced; it is not a coincidence that the McCarthy era in politics occurred at the same time.

Similarly, the dominance of “Big Tech” in today’s Internet economy means a small number of corporations might end up becoming the gatekeepers of what news and opinion is available for consumption by Internet users, if they haven’t already. What is cancelling and deplatforming in today’s social media environment if not another version of a private sector censorship committee controlling what is considered acceptable free speech? Is a Twitter mob much better an arbiter of what is morally correct than was the National Legion of Decency? And if it is a better arbiter, because it represents a majoritarian viewpoint, then are we not living under mob rule, as Paris was during the French Revolution?

That raises the question of whether the impetus for controlling and shaping information is supply-side – driven by profit-seeking corporations and power-seeking governments – or demand-side – driven by a social need for consensus and conformity. I think it could be both. If there is a demand for order and regulation from below, it would only make it easier for those providing the supply from the top. And if the demand from below is for the loosening of regulation, it would be easier for the spirit of entrepreneurship to flourish. In other words, there might be a social cycle working in conjunction with an industrial cycle.

This is not something Wu addresses directly, being as he focuses on corporate actions and law, as befits his expertise. But he does hint at it in his narrative, recognizing how loosening social morality contributed to the decline in compliance with the Hays Code (compliance with which was always voluntary – as in not coerced by law). The idea of connecting the social cycle with the technological cycle or wave deeply interests me, and is what I have attempted to do in these series of posts looking first at Debora Spar’s book, and now at Tim Wu’s. Both authors recognized the same pattern, which must be deeply connected to human nature and human needs.

To conclude the book review, this is a very good read with a lot of fascinating tidbits about the development of information and communication technology, including biographical information about key players. You always get this human element in these narratives about the invention and commercialization of technology; personality is part of how technology empires are created. As already mentioned, patterns in economics and industry are connected to patterns in social mores and social needs, and in any social era there always seems to be someone poised to take advantage of social and technological change. A “man for his time and place,” so to speak.

In The Master Switch, Wu worries about the tendency for entities like corporations to arise and establish monopolistic control of new information technologies. Writing in 2011, he wonders if it will be different for the Internet, since by its nature it encourages openness and interoperability. From the vantage point of 2021, I think he would agree with me that the new monopolies have formed; we don’t have the term “Big Tech” for nothing. There may well be inexorable forces of history and human nature at work here, driving us collectively toward this state. This means a big challenge for Wu, in his official policy role, guiding the President on technology and competition, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth the effort to mitigate against the downsides of information empires, or even try to stop them from forming altogether. I wish him the best.

Dee Em Vee

Dee Em Vee

This is the story of my recent visits to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) in an effort to acquire a valid driver’s license that meets Homeland Security’s Real ID security standards.

It all started when I moved to Pennsylvania and got my PA driver’s license, back in 2018. This license was set to expire in September of 2021, which of course is now, and had the address of my apartment in West Chester. Then there was a pandemic, and I moved to Morgantown. Being a good citizen, I let PennDOT know. When it came time to renew my license, they sent me a “camera card” with my new address. I was supposed to take the camera card to a PennDOT location to get a new photo taken and have my new license printed up. I put the camera card in my wallet, with my license, so that I had proof of my correct address with me when I was driving.

I delayed getting this done for a few weeks, but time was running out. My camera card was only valid until the end of September. I decided to get my new photo and license this Monday, during my lunch break. I had two locations to choose between, and I decided to go to the one that I figured would be less crowded. That morning after I awoke, I took a shower and put on a nice shirt. I did a load of laundry, then went to work (meaning upstairs in the home office). As it got close to noon, I logged off and got ready to go. I was so excited!

I had this vague idea that I would see if I could get a Real ID while I was at it, and I knew that required me to bring my birth certificate and my SSN card, both of which I had. My SSN card is really old and worn out; it’s from when I was a child. I got them together, and my checkbook in case I needed it to pay because they didn’t take cards, but where was my wallet? I realized that I had left it in my pants when I did the laundry! It had gone completely through the wash, and my camera card was in there!

I extracted the still damp camera card and stuck it between two paper towels. It still seemed legible to me, despite the ink being smeared. Maybe I would be OK. I took all the plastic out of the wallet, including my expired license, and with this pile of documents I headed out to Pottstown.

My maps software helpfully guided me to the PennDOT location, which was right in the middle of town. It was a small building. A sign on the door implored, “please wear a face mask,” which of course I was doing since the pandemic is not over. Inside the building there were two rooms I could enter; and since the one on the right had the camera setup, that seemed like the obvious choice. Maybe a dozen or so people were already there, most of whom were ignoring the mask sign. There was a dispenser to grab a ticket with a number on it, so I took my number and sat on a chair against the wall.

It appeared I was in the right place, and shortly my number was called. There was just a young guy behind a desk who took my ticket, and a woman who was behind a nearby counter doing most of the work (both employees were masked). I showed the young guy my laundered camera card and explained the situation. He made a little of fun of me for washing my wallet, then gave the card to the woman, along with my driver’s license. She tried to scan the card, but it wouldn’t read. She told me that she wouldn’t be able to help me. I would need a new camera card, but they had no way to get me that here, though I might be able to go across the hall and get one, or go to a “full service” PennDOT location.

So I went across the hall. It was another small room, with two employees behind a counter, neither one masked, but at least they had plexiglass set up. Each one was busy with a customer. Both of these customers had some super complicated thing to do involving tag or title transfer, and I stood there waiting for a good while. It was hot and stuffy, because the AC wasn’t working, which I overheard one of the employees mention. Behind me, a line started to form. I was the only one with a face mask, and feeling uncomfortable.

At one point the same employee who had commented on the AC not working called out to the people in line, to tell them that if they were here to get a photo taken, they were in the wrong room. She wanted to make sure they knew to go across the hall. I took advantage of the opportunity to engage her, even though her customer was still at her counter. I told her I was here to get a new camera card. She said that would be possible, but I wouldn’t get it right away. It would be mailed to me.

That was of no use to me, so I left. I drove back home, feeling cranky. Trying to keep a sense of humor, I joked to my housemates that our supposed advanced civilization doesn’t even have the capability to scan a camera card just because you decided to send it through one cycle in the washing machine. You couldn’t even do one cycle in the washing machine without the whole system breaking down! My BFF gently reminded me that it was my own fault and I should own the responsibility.

I went online and looked at what my options might be. I found the DL-80 form to get a new camera card, but it had to be notarized. So I couldn’t even conveniently request the card from home and just sit on the problem for another week or so; I would have to go out again. I resolved to go to the alternate location in Reading, which I believed was probably a “full service” PennDOT. I would leave first thing in the morning. It opened at 8:30 AM. I let work know I was going to be offline in the AM the next day.

So on Tuesday I woke up early, showered, and put on the same shirt. I had a cup of coffee and a protein bar, and headed out as soon as I could. I got to the PennDOT location at 8:45 AM. There as a huge line of people in front of the building, at least thirty or more. But I was resolved. I approached the building, and discerned that there were multiple lines. A man in a guard’s uniform was there, and when I went up to him he asked me what I was there for. I tentatively replied that I wanted to get a Real ID, and he directed me to the proper line.

Luckily, it wasn’t too hot out yet. Also, most, though not all, of the people in line were wearing face masks. The crowd’s mood was generally positive, and slowly but surely the lines advanced into the building. It seemed they were letting in one person from each line on a rotating basis. In about 45 minutes I was in the building, in a consolidated line at the entrance. It was a very large room, with rows and rows of seats with people in them on one side, and a row of counters on the other. Two different gentlemen were processing the newcomers at the entrance.

Suddenly I saw the same young guy who had first taken my number the previous day, walking right by me. He was working at this location today. I called to him that I recognized him from Pottstown, and excitedly told him that I was having a DMV adventure this week. He gave me a quick sideways glance and slight smile, then hurried off.

One of the two gentlemen in front summoned me up to his counter with a hand wave. He asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted to get Real ID, and also that I had a camera card that had gone through the washing machine. He made a little fun of me for washing my camera card, then told me I would be able to get a new one here, and listed what I needed to get Real ID. Birth certificate; I had that. Social security card, had to be the real thing, not a photocopy; I had that. Two proofs of address. Oh oh. I hadn’t brought that.

Not to fear, he assured me. The camera card had my address, so that was one. And if I had a vehicle registration or proof of insurance card, those could work, too. Those were in the car, I told him, and he had me run out to get them, then come immediately back to him. I ran out, clutching my precious bundle of documents, added the registration and proof of insurance to the pile, then returned. He was seeing another customer, but as soon as he was done, beckoned to me again.

The vehicle registration had my current address, so I was in luck, although the insurance card was old and did not. He gave me a ticket with a number and had me go sit down in the rows of chairs. I picked a corner, as far away from other people as possible. Waiting here, though, wasn’t as bad as it had been at the other location the previous day. Here, the air conditioning was working. The building was much more spacious, and almost everyone was wearing a face mask.

My number was called over the PA system, along with the number of the counter I was to go to. A woman there took all my documents and listened to my story and my request. She made gentle fun of the fact that I had washed my wallet. She also told me that, unfortunately, I would not be able to use my camera card as one of the two proofs of my address to get a Real ID compliant license, since it was associated with my old driver’s license which had my old address on it. I pointed out that the camera card itself had the new address on it, but she insisted that was not how it worked. If my driver’s license was current, with my current address, I would be able to use it. But not as things stood.

So wait, I continued, attempting an argument. I had everything I needed to renew my license, right? The answer was yes. And once I had a new license, with my current address, I would be able to get the Real ID, right? The answer was yes. So why not just let me get the Real ID with what I had, since it was the same information? That wasn’t how it worked. It was the federal government, you see. Very strict. But I could get my renewed driver’s license and come through again for the Real ID? Absolutely. She told me to do that, and just come directly to her after getting my license.

The path before me was now clear. The woman behind the counter printed me up a new camera card, which cost me 5 bucks. I returned to my seat to wait for my number to be called again, and when it was I was directed to one of the counters where the photos were taken. A woman there directed me to sit in a chair facing a camera. I set my pile of documents, now in disarray, down on the counter and then did as instructed. I did my best to smile cheerfully at the camera. Calm blue ocean. She snapped my picture, then had me come up to the counter to go through a brief questionnaire on a touch screen. It was hard for me to read, and I kept having to shift my glasses to see it properly. One of the annoying things about growing old.

Once that was done, I grabbed my document pile, seated myself near the photo section, and waited some more. My name was called, and I was given my license, which I had to verify and then sign for. I immediately went to the other counter where the first woman was, and hovered until she beckoned me forward. She processed me again, scanning all of the documents that proved to the federal government that I was who I said I was. She gave me yet another camera card, and charged me 60 bucks this time. She also gave me a new number for getting my photo taken.

Back to a seat to wait. I had been at the building for over two hours now. I looked around, wondering if I would recognize any faces of customers who had been there when I originally showed up. I saw one. This wait ended up being the longest, or maybe it just felt that way, since I was so close to the finish line. After half an hour, I was getting nervous. Maybe my new number wouldn’t work, because the woman at the counter hadn’t entered it correctly into the system. I was getting close to getting up to ask her if there was an issue, when a number very close to mine got called.

That gave me hope. There was light at the end of the tunnel. A little while later, my number was indeed called. I rushed up to the photo counter. It was the same one I had gone to originally. I couldn’t tell if the woman there recognized me from before. She just processed me like I was any other customer. Smile for the camera. Fill out the questionnaire, eyes squinting to read the questions. This time, that was the last step. My Real ID compliant driver’s license would come in the mail, and would be good for eight years.

The saga was complete. It had come to a fairy tale ending. Not only was I Real according to the federal government, I was going to have a driver’s license (if not eyesight) that was good until 2029! And I had a valid one in my wallet at the very moment. As a bonus, I had my amusing tale of hidebound bureaucracy and its cumbersome processes, which I told several times to my housemates and friends, and have now shared with you, dear reader. In all truth, PennDOT did a wonderful job, and bless them for keeping up with their work in this time of corona.

And now for some Primus.

King of the Mountain

King of the Mountain

In psychology there is the concept of “loss aversion.” In essence, people experience losses more painfully than missing out on equivalent gains. In other words, they experience losing $5 as a worse outcome than failing to gain $5, although in some sense, either way you are out $5. Loss aversion has been affirmed in studies and controlled experiments.

I think it has to do with the perception of ownership, that somehow when something you “own” is taken from you, you lose a part of yourself. That’s what makes it more painful. It has to do with the ego and how the sense of self expands to incorporate the material goods which we consider to be our “property.” That’s what attachment to material goods means, and why losing a material thing feel like losing a piece of ourselves, and having someone take it without our consent (“steal” from us) feels like an attack on our person.

I only put some words in quotes to underscore how it’s all a matter of perception, not to deny or denigrate property rights. It’s OK to own things.

What prompted this musing is that, this summer, I helped to clean up a hoarder’s house. He is an elderly man who spends all day sitting in one chair, watching TV, and just lets stuff, including junk mail and packaging, accumulate all around him. It’s like he is sitting on a mountain of junk, a King on his throne. Over the years, much junk has accumulated and filled all the space in the house. What we were doing to help was going through piles of possessions and sorting them, organizing them and picking things to throw out. But trying to be discretionary about it, rather than rudely throw out everything (which would have been a lot easier).

Rather than dwell on this man and his hoarding, I want to think a little about my own habits of material accumulation. I’ve already blogged about that time the water spirits destroyed my house, and the effort it took for me to move everything I “own” into my partner’s home. “Why do I have so much stuff?” I wondered. I own a lot of books, board games, and discs of movies and music, and like to think I have a curated collection of the best of the best, all worth keeping. I’m loathe to lose any of it.

When I moved into my partner’s home, it took some Tetris skills to fit all my junk stuff into her space. I fought to have a space for my games and books, but even then there was only so much room and some of it still boxed. Furnishings and utensils were sort of shoehorned into place amidst what she already owned, and a little bit of it even got donated to Goodwill. More probably could; there’s stuff we never use. And then there’s the weird thing with the clothing, where I have entire wardrobe of business casual office wear that hasn’t seen use since March 2020. But I’m not sure if can get rid of it – what if the pandemic ends and I have to go back to the office?

I’ll say this about the stuff we never use: over time, the attachment fades. When I first moved it in, some random thing I brought was like a precious part of me. But now, if I discover something in a closet that hasn’t been used in a year, it feels less important. It’s just a piece of debris. But even then, to think of removing it from our lives feels like losing something of potential value. It’s painful, like picking off a scab. What King wants to lose even the smallest part of his Kingdom?

We all know from the Good Book that spiritual concerns should take precedence over material possessions. But in this consumerist age we can only forgive ourselves for our attachment to those material things which help define who we are.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:19-21
Finding Yourself in the Internet Age

Finding Yourself in the Internet Age

Do you remember life before smart phones? I sometimes have a hard time imagining what it was like. I mean, I was there; I should know. We had to write down the directions to drive places, since we couldn’t just bring it up on our phones. We had to have our music collections in some sort of recorded format, like tapes or CDs, and keep them in the car. You couldn’t just look up any fact you wanted to know in an instant. But you did you know a lot of other people’s telephone numbers.

My BFF tells me I’m too dependent on my phone now. My little pocket assistant. I get lost driving without it. I’ve tried to navigate on my own; to challenge myself to get somewhere without using Google maps. Usually that doesn’t work, and out comes the smart phone to rescue me.

It wasn’t always like this, but through the fog of time it’s hard for me to remember those ways of life, from even just fifteen years ago.

One thing I do remember is that back in the mid-2000s, when Web 2.0 was still new, I had a pretty good Internet presence, if I do say so myself. Granted, it was a Web 1.0 presence: a static vanity web site, a blog. I did a little bit of manual search engine optimization, editing the metadata on my static HTML pages in my text editor. It was good enough for us back in those days. A Google search of my name ca. 2006 would have had my pages on the top of the search results; I kid you not!

Today, that’s not likely. My Internet presence is lost in a sea of like named people, because everyone has a smart phone and multiple social media accounts now. I’m no microinfluencer, not even a nanoinfluencer. I never realized how many people with my name there are out there; I thought it was kind of unique. I was used to being the only “Barrera” in whatever social milieu I was in, outside of my family. Now that my social milieu is all of humanity on the Internet, I’m discovering that my name isn’t so unique after all.

It’s the same with usernames. Technically, I was on the Internet as far back as the 1980s, since I had user accounts and email addresses at Virginia Tech, where I went to college. I remember my email address was “sbarrera@vt.edu.” For a long time after that, I was used to being “sbarrera” or “stevebarrera” whenever I signed up with a new account somewhere. But no more; those usernames are always taken on any major site. I have to come up with something clever, or settle for a username with a string of numbers at the end.

As the global population continues to soar and the Internet continues to gobble up civilization, how will we have usernames for everyone? We’ll all end up named with numbers at the end, like in a dystopian sci-fi society. Like THX 1138. The future is here, I guess.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the Internet. I spend most of my waking time there. I’ve been fascinated by computers since I was a teenager, and chose computer work for my professional life. I’ve been on the world wide web since the beginning, and always had fun with it. The Internet is where I live; it’s surely where I’ll die. It’s always in our pockets, part of the background of life.

Glee, Another “Old” TV Show to Review

Glee, Another “Old” TV Show to Review

Some time back we were watching Smallville, and I noted in my mini-review that the family might move on to the popular television show Glee next. We did binge-watch the first season some time ago, but didn’t go any further. I guess we weren’t pulled in. We watched it on Netflix. The girl and her boys had already watched the series when the boys were young; they were interested in rewatching it and in catching me up on it. I’m always way behind on my pop culture consumption.

Here is my take on the show.

Glee revolves around a high school glee club and their competition with other better-funded and more talented glee clubs in other high schools, as well as their competition for status and funding with the more prestigious cheerleader club in their own school. If you don’t know what a glee club is, it’s a musical or choir group.

In this case, the club is co-ed and performs musical numbers with a significant amount of dance choreography, which are way more sophisticated than what you would expect a high school glee club to be able to pull off. You don’t even see them rehearse much! They kind of cheated with the casting; the star student of the show, Lea Michele, was a child actress on Broadway. As is typical for these kinds of TV shows, the cast of students is a bit older than high school age. This all leads to a very unrealistic portrayal of an extra-curricular activity, but if you think of this show as basically a musical, then it’s fine for it to be unrealistic.

Glee might also be unrealistic in how it portrays the rest of the high school experience; at least, that was my impression. The show covers typical high school concerns like bullying, cliques, overbearing parenting, teenage sex – but in over the top ways. I couldn’t help but wonder, “is that really what high school is like now?” I think it’s meant to be parody to some extent, but as I haven’t been in high school since the 1980s, I guess I could be wrong. I do think it captures one Millennial generation theme well: it emphasizes diversity and inclusivity, and the students always choose what is best for the group in the end.

Meanwhile the Gen-X teachers and staff are caught up in their own drama, and struggling to find their footing in their personal and professional lives. A career in high school education isn’t exactly glamorous or fulfilling, as it is portrayed. The one Boomer on the cast (Jane Lynch was born in 1960 so I’m giving her that) portrays the domineering cheerleader coach, and she is driven to the point of insanity. Again, one wonders, “could a teacher really get away with that?” She does have her redeeming qualities, however, which we discover as the season progresses.

The show aired from 2009-2015, which puts it squarely in this Crisis Era, and means that these characters are all in the second wave of their respective generations. In other words, the characters would have been born in the 1990s, since they are teens in 2009. The actors, however, are first wave Millennials, born in the 1980s. It’s odd, but it does allow the show to explore more mature themes.

Sadly, Glee’s cast seems to be cursed; no fewer than three cast members have died in the past decade, with one of them surrounded by scandal. Is it really a curse, or just bad luck? I guess that’s the same thing. It’s not enough of a taint to stop me from wanting to watch the show, which is what happened to me with regard to the scandal around the Smallville cast.

The Millennial generation is now on the cusp of middle age, so it is not surprising that tragedies befalling their individual members have accumulated. Things do seem less sunny for them now. But I’ll try to conclude this little review on a more positive note.

With it’s thrilling musical numbers, and fun energy, Glee is enjoyable even though its characters and plot are unrealistic. It’s like a relic of a not so distant past when there was more optimism surrounding the prospects of the young generation. Just think of it as a musical when you watch it, and hope, like I do, for a happy ending.

A Noir Sitcom

A Noir Sitcom

← My partner and I recently watched the first season of this intriguing show. We were drawn to it because it stars Annie Murphy from Schitt’s Creek, which is one of the best television shows ever made (I haven’t blogged about it before, but there you have it). Her new show is called Kevin Can F**k Himself, and is available on AMC+ streaming for all you cord cutters. Why she always ends up on shows with curse words in the title, I couldn’t tell you.

Kevin Can F**k Himself is a dark comedy and a parody of sitcoms that runs with the premise that a clichéd sitcom marriage is actually highly toxic. The wife and lead role, played by Murphy (b. 1986), is trapped in a living hell she is desperate to escape. The titular husband is played by Eric Petersen; I couldn’t pinpoint his birth year but I believe he is on the Generation-X/Millennial cusp.

The show uses an unusual contrivance to contrast “sitcom life” with “real life.” It takes some getting used to but I think the creators pull it off. It has good writing and excellent performances by the leads, as well as by Mary Hollis Inboden (b. 1986) in the supporting role of next door neighbor buddy.

Traditionally, sitcom television is “comedy of errors” humor deriving from misunderstandings/poor communication. Someone overhears something, misconstrues the meaning, and hijinks ensue. By the end of the episode everything is cleared up and back to normal (status quo ante). The characters are typically two-dimensional and stereotyped, foils for one another and fodder for repeated jokes.

In Kevin Can F Himself these tropes are twisted and the consequences become tragic. Kevin’s lack of communication skills and simplistic personality are a nightmare for his wife, Allison, who somehow is unable to break out of her own responsive patterns when she is in his presence. Miscommunication isn’t a fount of humor, it’s the corrosive destroyer of a marriage.

The characters are Millennials (technically geriatric Millennials), and the show explores themes that resonate with their generation’s experience. In particular: the relative immaturity of men relative to women, the difficulty of forming satisfactory relationships, and the lack of economic opportunity for the working class. As staples of sitcoms about married, suburban life in a gentler past, these themes might have provoked light humor, suitable for a laugh track. But for Millennials in the throes of late stage capitalism, these problems of the middle class have mounted to the point of being unbearable, and the humor has become dark in turn.

Kevin Can F**k Himself thus ends up blending genres. It’s a sitcom that bleeds into a noir show more in keeping with the times. Unlike what usually happens in a sitcom, it does not return to status quo ante at the end of each episode, but has an ongoing, developing story arc. Whether the show is a tragedy or a comedy actually depends on the final outcome, which hasn’t yet been determined. Season 1 left us with a major plot twist, and I’m hoping that the show gets renewed for another season. It’s an out-of-the-box creative effort that deserves a longer run.

Subreddit of the Week: insaneparents

Subreddit of the Week: insaneparents

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the movie The Shining.

You may have seen the meme that Independence Day 2021 was the 100th anniversary of a famous fictional event: the 1921 July 4th Ball pictured at the end of The Shining. The event is depicted in a photograph that mysteriously features a younger version of Jack Nicholson’s character, Jack Torrance. In celebration of this anniversary, our family decided to watch the movie on the night of July 4th, even though we’ve all seen it multiple times, it being an excellent and iconic example of the horror genre.

The highlights of the film are Nicholson’s creepy, expressive performance, and the tense, suspense-building score which is artfully synchronized to the action. The camera work is great, too, and the film shows how much emotion can be generated just from pacing and music, with slow buildups to cathartic release. The strings slowly rise, and then the axe suddenly falls, and the viewer’s heart skips a beat. But frankly, the film is a little light on story, of which there is much more in Stephen King’s book. The sequel movie from 2019, Dr. Sleep, drawing more story from the novel which it adapts, is a supernatural horror action adventure with a much richer plot.

In The Shining, Jack’s son Danny is played by Danny Lloyd, who does a decent enough job of portraying a harried Gen X kid dealing with less than ideal parenting, not to mention bizarre otherworldly events. Here’s the scene from the end of the film where he escapes his deranged father. Note his inventive survival skills. That really marks him as a Gen Xer.

When I watched this scene, I couldn’t help but imagine how it would look as a post on the subreddit /r/insaneparents. Something like, “when I was a kid, maybe about 10, my Dad chased me through a snow-covered hedge maze with an axe – he really wanted to kill me, I’m not joking – but through some misdirection and careful hiding I managed to escape him. Never saw him again after that, I actually think he might have died that night. Can’t say that I miss him, but I will say that the experience really made me who I am today…”

If you don’t know about this subreddit, it is basically a place where people go to share the bizarre and unwholesome parenting behavior they have experienced. I imagine that most of it is Millennials calling out their Boomer and Gen-X parents; one can never be sure since reddit is mostly people posting anonymously. It is possible that older posters are bringing up their long ago childhood experiences, or that Homelanders (the post-Millennials currently in their early teens) are already sharing their own victim of parenting horror stories.

I imagine that this is mostly a subreddit for Millennials not only because reddit itself was founded by Millennials, but also because Millennials are champions of Internet reviews. It all ties into Millennials’ collective peer personality, which seeks rational consensus on the best choice. Here’s a post on LinkedIn that shows what I mean. More and more, choice in the marketplace is driven by communal decision making, rather than personal preference.

As this generation has risen into adulthood, they have helped drive the proliferation of reviews on commercial web sites like Amazon and on web directories which also function as review sites, such as Yelp. As students in higher education, they have access to resources to rate and review their educators – why shouldn’t they know ahead of time if a professor’s class is worth taking, or be able to give their feedback after taking a class? In a way, the subreddit /r/insaneparents is just a site for reviews – albeit anonymous ones – of parents.

Parenting, I believe, is the hardest job in the world. Everyone is expected to do it, but the only training anyone gets is a bad example. Since not everyone makes the strongest parenting choices, you get a subreddit like /r/insaneparents. So parents out there, do try to raise your children well, or you just might end up getting a bad review on the Internet.

War For The Planet Of The Covidiots

War For The Planet Of The Covidiots

‘The war has changed’ blares a Washington Post headline, referring to an internal CDC document reassessing messaging about the coronavirus in light of the new delta variant. What’s changed is that the prevalence of a mutated strain of the virus, which can spread even among the vaccinated, means it might make sense for masks to come back on and for people to start practicing social distancing again. But how well can the CDC influence people’s behavior, with the deep levels of mistrust in our society, and the fact that the CDC’s messaging has shifted around over the course of the pandemic? Never mind that the message changing actually makes sense, given that the science also changes, because we are dealing with a novel coronavirus.

Now look what’s happened to the prospect of herd immunity. As this cartoon by Kevin Kallaugher implies, there was just too much vaccine resistance to get to the levels that could have prevented the spread of this variant. And with the mad rush to “return to normal,” it’s probably too late.

So we don’t just have a war against a disease. We have a war against impatience. A war against ignorance. I’ve already blogged about what a shame it is that the pandemic became politicized. That was probably unavoidable, given that everything gets politicized these days. But political affiliation isn’t the only thing dividing the vaccinated from the unvaccinated. Race, income, and education level are also factors. The implosion of trust in our society has been very costly.

If GOP leaders would just get on board with a vaccination program, it would go a long way towards increasing vaccination rates and getting us to the other side of the war. Instead, we have to wait for the Republican con job to exhaust itself. Eventually the marks will all clue in, even if they have to sneak their vaccinations in behind their friends’ backs. You know, to save face. It’s truly pathetic.

I hope that we are in the winding down phase of this Crisis, and that the war will soon be won. From my vantage point, not leaving home much, it’s hard to tell if we’re in the darkest hour, or in the denouement. I think I’ll just be staying under lockdown and keeping my mask on for a bit, ’cause this ain’t over yet.

Theater Emerging

Theater Emerging

A year ago we were deep in the pandemic, and my best friend and partner, who works in the theater industry, was not able to work. All of the summer work that she had lined up in 2020 evaporated with the lockdown. She could have just stayed at home for all I cared, but she is too driven and needed to do something, so she ended up taking up a job as a census enumerator. This stressed me out a bit, as she spent the late summer and early fall wandering the area, visiting the homes of recalcitrant people. I mean, people who don’t do their census aren’t going to want to be bothered about the census, right? I thought she was very brave for taking on this job. After that gig ended, she worked for a high school as a Covid safety officer, which entailed patrolling the halls and making sure the kids were following protocols (they weren’t). That job ended with the school year.

Aileen Lynch McCulloch

Now it’s summer, and with the pandemic “over” – or at least “winding down” – she has gone back to work in her field. I’m glad for that, because she is clearly much happier. She just finished running a production workshop for teens, producing the musical Chicago: High School Edition. If you don’t know what this means: a production workshop is an educational program, like a summer camp, where each student pays a fee to participate. Chicago is a famous musical by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb which satirizes celebrity crime culture in the 1920s. “High School Edition” just means that the script is shortened and cleaned up a bit, so it is appropriate for younger people.

The fees the students pay cover costs like rent to the space, and the licensing fee to the rights holders. This latter cost is substantial – as in three figures – and depends on the number of performances. In this case, there were four live performances (as opposed to streaming online performances, which was a popular way to do it during the pandemic). Rehearsals started while there were still significant restrictions on group gatherings, so they were online at first. In fact, the auditions were all done by having the students submit videos. Note that every kid who auditioned was going to get cast (that’s kind of the point of an educational workshop), but auditions are still used to cast the specific roles.

Once restrictions eased, some time in June, rehearsals moved to the theater space. At first, many kids weren’t yet fully vaccinated, so everyone wore masks while rehearsing, and temps were taken. By the end of rehearsals, almost all of the kids were vaccinated. I got to see a couple of the dress rehearsals during tech week! If you don’t know what “tech week” means, it’s the final rehearsal phase when the lighting and sound is integrated into the show. Here’s a photo from dress rehearsal, of the merry murderesses performing the Cell Block Tango:

The show went up in early July, on the weekend after Independence Day. Audience members were required to wear masks, though the performers did not, except for two who wore face shields. Those were the two cast members who were not vaccinated. Some audience members refused to come see the show because masks were required. This was actually the desired outcome, and it was probably for the best, since the Delta variant is now spreading like wildfire.

Here’s a short review I posted after the first show:

It’s too bad there are only four performances of this show, since the cast and crew have pulled together a tight and energetic production, showcasing the talents of multiple young performers, directors and designers, and you won’t want to miss it. A teen production of Chicago HS Edition, on the heels of the pandemic, was a gutsy choice for director/producer Aileen Lynch-McCulloch, but as is usual for her, she has pulled it off. She demonstrates her knack for finding the perfect cast, and for translating a script onto the stage in a tight time window and with a shoestring budget. Minimalist set and costume choices, on a stark stage with smooth lighting, succeed in conveying the characterizations and the storyline, giving the talent the opportunity to shine. The director’s faith in the ability of youth and commitment to helping them find their voice have once again resulted in an amazing production. Get a ticket if you can!

I wrote this blog post to extol the talents of my good friend, Aileen, and to raise awareness of the challenges facing the theater industry as we emerge from the pandemic. This production of Chicago was slipped right in between the beginning of vaccinations and the surge of the Delta variant; it may have been a fortuitous occasion that can’t be repeated in the near future. In her role as Artistic Director at The Center Theater, Aileen would like to plan more productions, as part of her program called The Arts Bubble, “a healing project created to help audiences return to the live performance spaces.” But obviously this depends on the state of the pandemic.

I’ve been following Aileen’s work for many years, and it really is amazing to behold. She can handle all aspects of a production – directing, producing, costuming, set design, tech, PR, you name it. When she is working on a project, her commitment is total, and she seems to have an endless reservoir of energy on which to draw. But luckily she has people to help her, so she doesn’t have to do it all herself. She only needs to do three or four people’s jobs instead of ten or twelve.

She has people to help her because over her career she has built up a network of supportive friends, as well as young people who want to come back and work with her time and time again. Many of the teens and young adults who worked with her on Chicago have known her since they were children, when they first acted in a show which she directed. For a long time she ran her own theater company, Vagabond Acting Troupe, and she has also worked as an educator in schools and at other theaters. And she hasn’t changed her fees for over 30 years, while others around her have taken her approach and then raised the cost. Many of her students have gone on to Broadway tours, Cruise Ship entertainment and some have even started their own companies.

I mean, just the fact that Aileen was able to get large audiences to see Chicago and all willingly wear face masks is impressive. And if you think that wearing a mask is just “pandemic theater,” then I submit to you this thought: not wearing a mask is “pandemic theater.” Because everything we do socially, how we dress and how we act, is meant as a signal to others; it’s all a performance. Life is theater, and theater is life. As Shakespeare put it, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

So please join me in congratulating my dear friend Aileen Lynch-McCulloch on another successful theater production. And please get vaccinated, because if we don’t get this pandemic under control, we may all have to climb back into our cocoons, and wait another year before live theater can emerge once more.

An Emerging Values Consensus?

An Emerging Values Consensus?

You might look at that title – “An Emerging Values Consensus” – and think, are you kidding?? The Culture Wars and the partisan divide between liberals and conservatives (or the blue zone and the red zone) have been a fixture in our society for decades now. I’ve already written a series of blog posts on the topic, in which I concluded that we were experiencing a “Red-Blue” identity crisis as a society. Which way will we break? Or could we even break into two – split into two societies altogether, possibly violently? There is serious discussion of impending civil war out there.

You’ve probably seen the above map before. It’s from the 2000 Presidential election, and shows the counties that voted for Bush in red and the counties that voted for Gore in blue. It’s around this time that the red zone-blue zone idea came about – the idea that there were two different “values camps” with competing visions of what America should be. Baby Boomers were in mid-life then, and their values-orientation dominated American culture. Their passion and moral zeal is what made the divide between the two camps so deep and so unbridgeable, damaging our political system to the point that many now wonder if it can be repaired. Just think of the events of January 6th this year to understand what I mean.

Back around that time, on an old fashioned web site that I built, I attempted to list out the differences between these two values camps. The list is a bit over-generalized, a bit stereotyped; I can’t deny it. I’m sure many people believe a little bit from column A, a little bit from column B. But to some extent these differences do define the partisan divide, and the thing is, as the partisanship has just worsened and worsened, it’s gotten to the point that it doesn’t really matter what your particular “nuanced” belief system is. The political struggle has become existential, and you have to pick a side and stick with it.

Or not, I suppose. You could just not belong to either side. I have a feeling that many of my generation, Generation X, are in that particular “values camp.” It’s the camp of people who mind their own business and just want to be left alone. As the map below show, if non-voters counted in the electoral college (I know, that makes no sense) then “Nobody” would have been elected President in 2016.

This isn’t to say that non-voters lack values or moral beliefs, just that they might be having trouble finding a political party to fit into. As I already suggested, most people probably take their beliefs a little from the red side, a little from the blue side. It’s even possible to show that the country isn’t so starkly divided geographically as the “red zone-blue zone” maps suggest, by measuring both Republican and Democratic votes per county and constructing a “purple” spectrum map like the one below.

Red v. Blue spectrum version from the 2016 Presidential election.

All I’m trying to say here is that the neat division of values into two columns doesn’t necessarily reflect how people think. And now that Boomers are aging out of mid-life, being replaced by Generation X, moral righteousness as a guiding principal of politics is losing its shine. As I already blogged, Boomer moralism has rendered politics dysfunctional. Younger generations yearn for a practical approach to politics, one that can solve the many thorny problems facing our society. It is perhaps unfortunate, then, that the current mid-life generation, Generation X, which is known for pragmatism, also eschews politics.

I’m just rehashing what I’ve already written about before, so back to the title of this post and the idea of a values consensus. Assuming America is not going to split into two societies, we’re eventually going to settle for some version of “a little bit of column A, a little bit of column B” that works for the majority of us. This will grow more and more apparent as the morally righteous Boomers, who pretty much can’t ever have their minds changed, age out of public life. Those who disagree with these values, who reasonably can claim that there is no “consensus” since they disagree, will be relegated to the sidelines of public life. In fact, you can already see this happening. Isn’t that exactly what hashtag movements, cancel culture, de-platforming are all about? Effectively, if unfairly, enforcing a majoritarian viewpoint?

So what exactly is the consensus that is emerging? I actually tried to predict what it might be way back in 2002 when I first created the red values v. blue values page. Then I tried again and again around the time of the 2016 election. How exactly am I doing this? Well, my admittedly non-scientific approach is simply to monitor discourse on major platforms on the Internet to see what’s going on. I check the reddit hivemind, since I really do think that is the premier site where Millennials are forging a consensus using the tools of social media.

Now maybe this puts me in a bit of blue zone bubble, since all the red zoners are moving to alternate sites like Gab and Parler (so I’ve heard). But doesn’t the fact that red zoners are shifting to less mainstream platforms tell you which way the consensus is going? Honestly, I think there are only two areas where the red zone’s view still has traction, and that is in the two most contentious points of the Culture Wars – gun control and abortion rights.

So here’s where I think we end up:

  • Pro-gun rights
  • Pro-marijuana legalization
  • Equal rights for LGBTQ
  • “Counter-culture” mainstreamed (everyone has a tattoo these days)
  • Pornography accepted
  • Continued restrictions on abortion, though it will never be fully banned
  • Justice and police reform
  • Reform to improve the lot of lower economic classes, even if it’s “socialism”
  • Pro-environmentalism policies to deal with climate change
  • A path to citizenship for “dreamers,” but immigration otherwise limited
  • Acceptance of a multicultural, multiracial, multi-religious society, to the chagrin of White Christian Nationalists

So now that this Culture Wars crap is out of the way, can we end the filibuster already and get some Universal Healthcare?