Thursday, November 9, 2017


The tuxedo-clad musicians, over 100 of them, are in their places, tuned and ready.  The 2,200-seat auditorium, filled to capacity, is pin-drop silent. 10 seconds of unbearable tension.  Then, the legend, the Maestro, 81 year-old Zubin Mehta gingerly walks onstage to an eruption of thunderous applause.  He steps up to the podium, faces the audience and, with a heartfelt bow, acknowledges their unabashed admiration.  He turns around, nods a greeting to members of his (yes, his) orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic.  He looks at each section to make sure they are ready to play.  The auditorium is completely silent once again.  Then, with a burst of energy belying his age, the Maestro goes into a series of passionate gyrations that instantly bring the orchestra to life.  What follows is the most stirring rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” that I have ever heard.  

And I’m suddenly overcome with gut-wrenching sadness.  The sacred tones of the anthem that for so long has caused my chest to swell with pride today cause my heart to ache with disappointment.  Disappointment about where my country seems to be headed.  Disappointment about who we have become.  Melancholy.  Despair.  I look over at my wife. Her face reveals that, as happens so often, our minds are in exactly the same place.
But, just two days later, this:

Ravinder Bhalla is elected mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey.  

John Nichols, writing for The Nation:

If there is an American elected official who is the opposite of Donald Trump, it could well be Ravinder Bhalla. A Sikh-American lawyer with a record of fighting discrimination, Bhalla says, “I’m everything that Trump hates. A brown man wearing a turban, and a proud American with the know-how to stop his assaults on our country’s values.”

And this:

Samantha Schmidt, writing for The Washington Post:

Ashley Bennett didn’t make it to the Women’s March on Washington in January. She badly wanted to be there, but couldn’t take the day off her job, screening a 24-hour emergency crisis hotline in New Jersey.  Still, the 32-year-old Egg Harbor Township resident watched the march on television…

... Two days later, a friend emailed her a screenshot of the Facebook post that would change her entire career.  A local elected official, Atlantic County freeholder John L. Carman, had posted a meme on Facebook the day of the Women’s March, showing a woman stirring a pot over a kitchen stove.  “Just asking?” Carman wrote above the meme, which said: “Will the woman’s protest be over in time for them to cook dinner?”

Bennett was “furious,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It’s 2017. Really? Is that what we’re going to do?”.

… As she vented to her family at home that night, they asked her, “why don’t you run?” Bennett recalled. “I thought, why don’t I run?”  So she did. She campaigned for her first race ever, running as the youngest candidate on the county ticket.

And on Tuesday night, she won.

Bennett unseated Carman, a 58-year-old Republican elected in 2014 who has held various positions in local government for two decades.

And this:

Helena, Montana’s 16-year mayor, Jim Smith, who was caught attending a presentation by a white supremacist organization where he promised he would not sign off on welcoming refugees to Helena, was ousted by Wilmot Collins, a Liberian refugee.  Let me say that again.  The racist mayor of Montana’s capital city lost his reelection bid to a refugee.  Helena’s new mayor, quoted in Slate:

[There are] more decent people in this state than there are racists.  [The citizens of Helena] are not looking at color, at background and creed.  The country is still not what Mr. Trump wants it to be.

And this (I saved the best for last):

Robert G. Marshall, a 13-term incumbent Virginia state lawmaker who called himself the state’s Chief Homophobe, was ousted by the openly transgender Danica Roem.  Yes, let’s say that again as well.  A state lawmaker who adamantly opposes LGBT rights and doesn't recognize the legitimacy of transgender people was defeated by the first openly transgender person elected and seated to a state legislature in the US. Said Roem:

“Discrimination is a disqualifier.  This is about the people of the 13th District disregarding fear tactics, disregarding phobias . . . where we celebrate you because of who you are, not despite it.”

Fast Company recounts Roems’ pitch-perfect response to a reporter’s question about Marshall:

After the race, a reporter asked her [Roem] about her opponent. Her inspiring and graceful response? “I don’t attack my constituents. Bob is my constituent now.”

Last Tuesday’s election results were not about the triumph of one political party over another.   James Hohmann, writing for The Washington Post:

The results across the country represent nothing less than a stinging repudiation of Trump on the first anniversary of his election.

Last Tuesday’s election proves that we are not a nation overrun by angry white men.  We are not a nation of fear, and hate.  Most of us represent and treasure the values that elected Ravinder Bhalla, Ashley Bennett, Wilmot Collins, and Danica Roem, among many others.  

I’m pretty sure that if I listen to Zubin Mehta conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra playing “The Star Spangled Banner” again today, it would again bring tears to my eyes.  But after the election results of November 7, 2017, they would not be tears of despair.

They would be tears of hope.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

PC Journey

I came of age in the mid-1970’s, just as “personal computers” were beginning to emerge, so I’ve been privileged to witness the entirety of the PC’s history so far.  The first computer I ever interacted with was an Apple ][ running VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet, in 1979.  Fundamentally speaking, today’s Microsoft Excel is not much different than the VisiCalc of 38 years ago… but I digress.

In the early 80’s I moved to an IBM PC, and from there naturally progressed to the so-called “clones” of the era, made by the likes of Compaq, Dell, and Gateway, and from DOS to Windows.  1995 saw me switch to my first portable computer, a Toshiba Satellite running Windows 3.1.  I stayed firmly in the Wintel camp for over twenty years, culminating in a gorgeous IBM ThinkPad 600X running Windows 2000.  But on December 9, 2001, I walked into the brand new Apple Store at The Falls, and fell in love with (and walked out the door with) an irresistible Titanium PowerBook G4, running the nascent  Mac OS X.  (My “TiBook” had Mac OS X version 10.1 “Puma” initially installed.)

Just like that, Windows was out of my life, and Mac OS X (now macOS) was in.  For the next eleven years I used various PowerBooks, Macbook Pros, and MacBook Airs.

By 2012, all of my data had resided in the cloud for years, and I realized that I was vastly underutilizing my computers by running a complex operating system while only actually using the browser.  It seemed wasteful and unnecessarily rife with complications, potential pitfalls, and constant maintenance.  Enter Chrome OS, and the advent of inexpensive Chromebooks.  I switched  to a $249 Samsung Chromebook, and never looked back.  I happily used Chromebooks as my primary computers for the next five years, moving from the unapologetically cheesy yet totally functional Samsung to a much nicer Dell, and later to Google’s best-in-class Pixel series.  I even connected Chromeboxes to my TVs.  I delighted in using a hassle-free operating system that was precisely the right tool for the job.

During its 2017 Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced iOS 11, the newest version of the software that runs iPhones and iPads.  The major changes to this version of iOS specifically addressed iPad productivity, and the software featured a complete overhaul of iPad multitasking and the ability to comfortably work with two, even three apps side by side.  While watching the keynote, I felt that with iOS 11, Apple was clearly confirming that yes, as CEO Tim Cook is fond of saying, “The iPad is the clearest expression of our vision of the future of personal computing.”  A few days later, last June 19th, I walked out of my friendly neighborhood Apple Store with a new 12.9” iPad Pro and an accompanying Smart Keyboard.

My plan was to set my Pixel aside, and use the iPad exclusively for all of my computing needs.  And that I did, for almost five months.  Manipulating my data directly with my fingers, instead of indirectly through mouse and keyboard, felt liberating.  Many of the native apps I used were more polished and delightful to use than the corresponding websites I had used on Chrome OS.  The new multitasking paradigm brought on by iOS 11 worked beautifully, allowing me to quickly and easily work with multiple apps simultaneously.  And I still had browsers, so I could theoretically do everything I could do before on Chrome OS, except now I could choose between a native app or a web app, depending on which was better for each specific service.  Furthermore, the iPad was much lighter than the Pixel, and had built-in LTE connectivity.

All of that said, I’m writing this article on my new Google Pixelbook.  Here’s why:

I’m heavily invested in Google services.  By “invested in” I don’t mean “locked in” though.  I control my domain’s email, so I could use any email app instead of going through Gmail, as I choose to do.  I could easily transfer my files from Google Drive to Dropbox, iCloud, or anywhere else.  I could elect to open my Google Sheets in Excel, or my Google Docs in Word (which are both outstanding on iOS), and use those apps instead of Google’s.  There are many excellent iOS calendar apps that use Google Calendar (which I have used for over 14 years) as a backend.  But I use Google’s services because I find them to be unparalleled in terms of quality, reliability and feature set.  And I also find that the web and Google’s native clients on Android are the best ways to access Google’s services.

But accessing Google’s services via Google’s native iOS clients on the iPad is a subpar experience.  Gmail is severely limited, and so is Google calendar.  Google Sheets is frustratingly buggy and, again, severely limited.  But, wait a minute, I can just use an iOS browser, right?  Safari, or even Google’s own Chrome!

Not so fast.  Gmail and Google Calendar don’t work well on any iOS browser, not even Chrome.  When you try to access, say, Gmail on iOS Chrome, Google helpfully points you to their Gmail app.  Same with Calendar.  If you force the issue, you can actually run Gmail and Google Calendar on iOS Chrome, but again, neither works well.  Google Sheets and Docs (and, for that matter, Slides and Forms) will not work on iOS Chrome at all; the browser just punts to the native apps, which as enumerated above, lack essential features.

Loving the interaction with my iPad, though, I looked for workarounds.  I used Airmail, and Outlook, and Spark.  I used Fantastical.  I opened a few of my spreadsheets in Excel.  But none of this felt right.  So I had a choice:  use Google services as they are meant to be used, on a full-fledged browser on my Pixel, but lose the delightful and efficient iOS 11-on-iPad experience, or keep the experience but interact with my Google data in substandard or unsatisfying indirect ways.  Both alternatives had significant compromises.

Enter the Pixelbook.  The concept behind it is not new.  A so-called “convertible.”  A laptop that doubles as a tablet.  Microsoft has a whole line of Surface Pros and Surface Books.  Lenovo, Dell and others have their own takes on the concept.  But they all run Windows, not exactly a hassle-free, bulletproof operating system like Chrome OS, or, to a lesser extent, iOS.  There are four different ways to use a Pixelbook: as a laptop, a viewing stand, a tablet, and in “tent mode” (which is the same as as a viewing stand but upside-down.) And the kicker: the Pixelbook, besides running Chrome OS, also runs Android apps.

So with the Pixelbook configured as a laptop I can run Gmail, Google Calendar, Sheets and Docs as they were meant to be run.  I can then flip the screen and manipulate my data directly, whether using web apps or Android apps.  And using it in viewing angle mode, either on my lap or on a table, provides the best long-form reading experience of any hardware I’ve ever used, bar none.   I am certainly not implying that the experience of running Chrome OS and Android apps on my Pixelbook’s touch screen in tablet mode even approaches that of the iPad, but that is a compromise that, at least for now, seems justified in light of the benefits the full-fledged Google web apps bring, at least to me.  When using the iPad, I had to actually remote into a Mac (using the outstanding Jump Desktop) to sort a data range in a Google Sheet by one column and then by another, or to do a complex Gmail search, or to access calendar entries over a year old, or to edit my Strikingly site… you get the idea.

It seems that what I’m saying is that in an ideal world, native Google iOS apps would work as well on the iPad as their web counterparts.  And perhaps I am, but that seems highly unlikely.  When using Google apps on the iPad (or, for that matter, when using third party clients to access Google services), I get a feeling of fragility, of “strange bedfellows,” if you will.  Google obviously has to make iOS apps,  but they seem to do so with reluctance.  Microsoft made Excel for iOS with gusto.  Google made Sheets for iOS with disdain. You can feel it when you use the apps.  Google also makes rich APIs available to software developers so they can make apps that access Google’s services, but those apps frequently add unwelcome additional “functionality” to the services, fail to carry forward Google’s basic philosophies, or are prone to break if Google upgrades or makes changes to the back end.

I am not a fan of computer platform zealotry.  My thinking is that different platforms offer different advantages and different tradeoffs.  I love where Apple is going with iOS 11 on the iPad, and I hope they continue on that path.  As befits Apple’s hardware prowess, both iPads Pro (12.9” and 10.5”) are magnificent machines, and either of them is more than capable enough to be my primary computer.  But the Pixelbook is no slouch; it’s a pretty impressive machine in its own right.

It’s a close one, folks.  Both the iPad and the Pixelbook offer splendid computing experiences.
At this time, though, in my personal case, the Pixelbook and its no-compromise access to Google’s ecosystem and to other services that shine most on the web ekes out a win over the iPad and its superior tablet experience.

Your mileage may, of course, vary.  But one thing is certain: in my 38+ years of dealing with personal computers, no time has been as exciting as right now.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Republican Neros

Damon Linker, writing for The Week:

The nation is led by an ignorant, impetuous, tantrum-prone, pathologically insecure, narcissistically deformed man with the emotional maturity of a spoiled preschooler.

Many disparate factors conflated to result in this disastrous situation.  An unappealing field of Republican challengers during the primaries and a widely despised Democratic opponent in the general election.  The archaic and inherently undemocratic Electoral College system.  The emergence of “fake news,” and the Russians expertly wielding our own tools (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to perform the epitome of social engineering.  (This excellent article by Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlantic, details both.)

As much as the factors outlined above came together to form a “perfect storm” of sorts, and as much as Trump’s candidacy and election have measurably emboldened racists, anti-semites, white supremacists and others of that ilk, all of that would not have been enough to get a horrid man like Trump elected and kept in office were it not for what I consider the true tragedies of the 2016 election and its aftermath:

  1. The sheer number of Americans that felt disenfranchised enough to buy into Trump’s false populism.

  1. The naïveté of so many other voters who believed Trump was just putting on an act; that he would magically change from the person he had been for seventy years into someone completely different upon becoming president.  (I put the “lesser of two evils” voters, those who voted for Trump thinking that as bad as he would be, we would be better off with him than with Hillary Clinton, firmly in this camp, since there is no way that anyone could possibly believe Trump was the lesser of the evils unless they thought he would somehow “turn presidential” when elected.)

  1. The astonishing irresponsibility of the establishment Republicans, both during the election and the Trump presidency so far.  I don’t think there is one single Republican in congress that sincerely believes that Donald Trump is fit to be President of the United States, yet they all seem disconnected from the reality that they are the only ones that, as a group, can actually do something about it. Instead, they play the Nero of popular legend (if not necessarily fact), and stand idly by while everything that makes us proud to be Americans is under attack.

Larry Flynt, of all people, is offering $10 million for information leading to Trump’s impeachment and removal from office.  However, Messrs. Ryan and McConnell, you don’t really need that.  Conor Friedersdorf, again writing for The Atlantic, makes a pretty good case right here.  His conclusion:

Wherefore, Donald John Trump, through flagrant violations of the oath he took before God, country, and flag, warrants impeachment, trial, removal, and public disgrace.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

He Gets a Pass

The following exchange took place during last June 2nd’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, where Maher was interviewing Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse:

Maher: “I’ve got to get to Nebraska more.”
Sasse: “You’re welcome.  We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.”
Maher: “Work in the fields…. Senator, I’m a house nig**r!”

Outrage ensued.  There were calls for HBO to cancel Maher’s show.  HBO condemned what Maher said, calling it “offensive” and “unacceptable.” The Rev. Al Sharpton, of all people, called Maher “disgraceful,” saying what he said was “outrageous,” and that Maher should be “held accountable.”  

Please allow me to refresh your memory with regard to the “outraged” Mr. Sharpton.  David Fagin, writing for The Huffington Post:

Those of us who grew up in the eighties remember Mr. Sharpton’s rise to “prominence” rushing to the defense of Tawana Brawley, an African-American teenager, who, back in 1987, falsely accused a local prosecutor, and others, of rape. Mr. Sharpton was found guilty of libel as a result of that case and ordered to pay $65,000.00.

Hank Berrien, writing for The Daily Wire:

When radio host Don Imus uttered what many thought was a racist comment in 2007, Sharpton called for him to be fired, saying, “You cannot allow the airwaves to become the toilet of racist language in America.”

Of course, when Sharpton used the ‘N-word” for other blacks, or called whites “crackers,” or Jews “diamond merchants,” or called gays “homos,” that was quite another story, apparently.

Or, even worse, as when Sharpton’s incendiary rhetoric helped incite the Crown Heights riots in which a Hasidic Jew was murdered.

Incidentally, Mr. Sharpton considers Mr. Maher a “friend.”  But, "he doesn't get a pass because we're friends."  (With friends like that…)

You know what, Rev?  Bill Maher does get a pass.  And not because we’re friends, although I would certainly be delighted to make Maher’s acquaintance.  But because, as you well know, Maher is not only not a racist, but is a liberal who calls out racism in other people.  And because all he did was make a joke (a natural, almost automatic comedic response to Sasse’s bizarre phrase) that included a word that is considered offensive when used by non-blacks (yet somehow OK when used by African Americans in all sorts of contexts), and then, not only did he issue a public apology, but apologized again and again during his next show on June 9th, and then listened contritely and held his tongue while being condescended to and patronized by sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, rapper and actor Ice Cube, and activist Symone Sanders.   Such a squandered opportunity.  One (or more) of those three prominent African Americans could have easily transcended the bitterness that seems to pervade race relations (on both sides) now more than ever, and responded with grace and sensitivity to Maher’s heartfelt apologies, but, alas, Dyson, Cube and Sanders took the easy way out and simply trotted out the tired, destructive “us vs. them” bromides so tragically prevalent in our present day society.

Fagin continues:

Black, white, or purple, if you’re a believer in equality for all, you should absolutely be offended by the N-word. As, it represents a time, not that long ago, when inequality was law and the tragic mistreatment of an entire race of people was, by and large, tolerated. But it also needs to be judged in context. Is it being used to degrade a person or a nationality, such as when it’s painted on a prominent athlete’s front door, or used as term of condescension, say, by our current Attorney General? Or, is it being used to make fun of oneself in a comedic punchline? As in the context of how Maher, and a million black comedians before him, used it. What would have been the reaction if a Chris Rock, or a Richard Pryor, or Bernie Mac said it? Would there have been any reaction at all? At the very least, I doubt Al Sharpton would have uttered a peep.

I think the N-word needs to be, like Fagin says, “judged in context” no matter who utters it.  But right now, we have a situation where it is permissible for African Americans to use it, even in a tasteless or degrading manner, but it is not permissible for non-blacks to use it in any way whatsoever.  As Ice Cube said to Maher during the June 9th show (as quoted by Variety’s Sonia Soraiya):

“It’s a word that has been used against us — it’s like a knife. It can be used as a weapon, or it can be used as a tool. And it’s been used as a weapon against us by white people,” Cube said. “That’s our word now, and you can’t have it back,” he added.

That’s the issue. It’s “our” word now.  Fagin again:

For as long as I can remember, the N-word’s been, not only accepted by the black population, but embraced; in all forms of art, entertainment, and, most importantly, everyday speech. Whether it’s a ground-breaking Richard Pryor HBO special, a hilarious Chris Rock observation, a legendary NWA album - which, btw, proudly features the N-word in their name, a classic SNL skit, or a simple greeting amongst two friends, it’s been accepted, and even joked about, that, while white people are absolutely forbidden to even think about it, blacks can say it anytime, anywhere, in any context, and, for some reason, it’s perfectly fine.

This dichotomy is divisive, and perpetuates the N-word’s evil power to degrade and offend.  For the word to truly lose its venom, it must be permissible for everyone to use it in the proper context.  I’m not sure if we’ll ever get there.  As I wrote, in November of 2013:

I don’t know if the N-word will ever become an inoffensive part of our mainstream vocabulary, and I don’t know if the swastika will ever symbolize anything other than hatred.  But I do hope both things happen someday.  Because words and symbols have no power unless we bestow it upon them, and what we can bestow, we can remove.  If those victimized by the N-word and the swastika are somehow able to sap their evil, then maybe we would be closer to having moved on from those particular atrocities, and the heinous connotations of that word and of that symbol would become relics of a bygone era.

Given the relentless race-baiting of Al Sharpton and his ilk, the intransigent bitterness of Ice Cube and his ilk, and the barely under the surface racism and intolerance of our current President and his ilk, we have a long way to go.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with Fagin’s brilliant concluding paragraph:

... if we, as well as the media, were as quick to condemn with fury and outrage the actions of those around us, as we are the words spoken by a few comedians, we probably wouldn’t have a pu**y-grabber as our president. Wouldn’t you agree, Sen. Sasse?