November 2015
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

New Iphone

For years I have hovered at the border of the Apple world, eying longingly the expensive, exclusive machines on the other side, believing the superiority hype. I darted across that border seven or eight years ago, buying a used Macbook, but the seller failed to tell me it had a discontinued chip and there would never be any new software for it, so that didn’t work out. Then, last month, when my phone refused to charge, and I felt particularly angry at Google and Samsung, I bought an Iphone.

As far as I can tell, a month later, Apple’s main appeal is that it is not Microsoft or Google. Otherwise I am not seeing the substantive difference. Some of the features I had on my old phone don’t exist or are screwed up. If you email me a phone number, I usually can’t click on it and dial it from within your message. On the other hand, and inexplicably, when I was clicking an index number on a court’s web site which should have linked to information about a case, the phone, instead of taking me to the page I wanted, tried to dial a phone number even though the link was in the format 73105-2015.

The phone has two different formats for incoming phone calls, one of which does not allow you to decline them (as opposed to just letting them ring). The battery only lasts seven or eight hours, better than the Droid but still not enough for a full walking-around-Manhattan day. And some of the apps appear to have been deliberately crippled for the Iphone. Amazon Music will actually not let me buy any songs unless I have subscribed to Prime, which I refuse to do. I do not know whether to blame Apple or Amazon for this.

The Iphone seems to be just one more poorly designed device, rushed into release, serving the interests of its manufacturer rather than intended to delight the user. My remaining question: does my Iphone spy on me less than my Droid? Does anyone know?

Amazon Prime

Speaking of Prime, I terribly resent the Balkanization of content and hiding it behind subscription paywalls. When Netflix began, it seemed to be that database I had dreamed of as a teenager in which you could find every movie ever made. Now, as Netflix shrinks and seems to concentrate more on recent Hollywood bachelor party laugh riots rather than Ingmar Bergman classics, you would need to subscribe to multiple services to have access to everything: Hulu, Prime and god knows what.

Philip K. Dick’s The Man in The High Castle is not only one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written, it is my candidate for one of the best American literary novels ever composed. I am extremely eager to see the series Amazon has based on it, and would happily pay several dollars an episode to view it. But I refuse to join Prime. Regal Theaters never tried to charge me an annual fee to go to the movies, nor did Barnes and Noble hit me up for a couple hundred dollars before I could walk into the store. In general, antitrust laws seem to have been abandoned for anything Internet, where monopolies, predatory pricing, and product and service tying are rampant.

Arbitration

As a young lawyer, I completely bought the hype about arbitration, that it was an inexpensive, fast, rational alternative to the slow dance of litigation. Today, I would never put an arbitration clause into any contract.

The New York Times just ran an interesting series about how arbitration agreements are being used to shelter large companies even against tort liability, and to make sure no class actions can be brought. The courts, which defer greatly to arbitration clauses, will even compel the parties to professedly Christian arbitration, buried in the small print of contracts of adhesion, in which arbitrators refer to the Bible to settle commercial disputes. In the brokerage world, you can’t sue stockbrokers who gamble away or steal your money, and specialist NASD arbitrators mainly give the financial companies a free pass. As a general rule, the arbitrators in all of these zones, lawyers who supplement their income through referrals from the arbitration associations, know that if they render rulings favoring business they will be asked to work over and over; if they rule for plaintiffs they may never work again.

The last sad thing is that the fees charged by the arbitrators for their hourly or daily work, and by the associations merely for filing, have multiplied so much that litigation may be more economical. In a short, simple short arbitration, you may spend ten or twenty thousand dollars in a few months. In a litigation handled by a solo practitioner or small firm charging reasonable rates, it might take a year or more to spend that much, with the possibility the case will settle in the meantime. Arbitration has truly become one more thing the rich are imposing on the less rich, completely for their own protection and benefit.

Second Amendment

The Second Amendment has always been the First’s evil twin. In recent years, it has outstripped it. Justice Holmes’ “clear and present danger” test created a balancing act in which speech was not absolutely protected, but could be subject to “reasonable time, place and manner” restrictions. The gun folk are near achieving the absolutism that the free speech types only can dream of: its their way or the highway where concealed carry on campuses is concerned, stand your ground, private ownership of massive weapons firing many rounds. Where are the remaining reasonable restrictions on guns? Words are more regulated than bullets.

Locker rooms

The issue of “men in women’s locker rooms” has been one more despicable far right tactic for gaining political advantage, so I hesitated before I even said anything which fell short of absolute condemnation. However, the kernel of reality in this whole dispute is that there are now, in the world, people who are female for all intents and purposes who have penises, and also males with vaginas. On a certain basic apolitical level, before we get to the hatred and hypocrisy, the whole purpose of segregating rest rooms may be understood as a way of separating penises and vaginas, rather than men and women. In terms of the conservative social norms we have never questioned until now, the answer is not to require transgender people to use the rest room along with the sex whose genitals they have, nor should we require all public establishments to have even more kinds of rest rooms (you would really need four for comfort and to avoid confusion). My modest proposal is that we create true unisex bathrooms at long last, designed in such a way to maximize individual privacy. This isn’t hard to do; there is a Thai restaurant on 8th street in Manhattan that has a huge, sparse, pleasing marble space where men and women share a sink but then enter large toilet stalls. There are no stand up urinals, and who needs them?

Scrutiny of police

It was inevitable that a police chief somewhere would claim that if you watch us doing our job, we won’t be able to do it any more. It was less predictable someone high up in the FBI would say it. What that statement really translates to: “If we can’t harass, bully, and threaten people in the ghetto, and search them without probable cause, and if you insist on prosecuting us when we shoot them unreasonably, we will no longer be able to act as the thin blue line protecting you, the white middle class, from chaos and violence.”

Personally I don’t believe that. Never will. Equality is the cornerstone of democracy, and there is no equality when I can go anywhere and not be harassed and you are stopped every day. When I worked on ambulances, every African American partner had been harassed and searched by the police many times, even weary middle aged men, even walking down their own streets in uniform.

Bush One on Cheney

It was refreshing to hear the elder Bush admit what an evil, crazy man Dick Cheney is. Donald Rumsfeld too. Together, the damage they did us with that silly, pointless, self-deluded Iraq incursion will continue to multiply for the rest of the century. If we hadn’t destabilized the entire region, ISIS wouldn’t exist and refugees desperately clinging to every railing of small tilting boats wouldn’t be besieging the beaches of Greece. The double madness, of thinking it was a good idea and that we could manage it without putting millions of boots permanently on the ground, created a genie which can never be returned to its bottle.

Prices

This is a ridiculous world in which to be poor or living on a fixed income. I am old enough to remember when $1.75 was the average price of a sandwich. These last few years, that same sandwich is suddenly in the $9 to $11 range, but my income has not gone up by the same multiple (there will be no social security increase this year). I live in a part of the country where electricity is very expensive; my bill has sometimes been $800 for a winter month. It used to be that pasta dishes were the cheapest thing on a diner menu, $8.50 when an average entree was $12. Now it is hard to find a pasta for less than $18 (spaghetti with mere tomato sauce, no protein, is still $14). A bunch of grapes at the supermarket can add up to $8 (I saw a man my age surreptitiously plucking out half the grapes before taking his purchases to the cashier). We all complain but regard this, as we do so many things in life, as an Act of God: last week we had a cold spell, this year we’re having a pricey spell. But in reality, prices are not weather but the results of human agency (and so is weather, increasingly). It is a feature of Late Capitalism, and a very dangerous one, that prices are permanently high and incomes permanently low.

Exercise equipment

On a vaguely related topic, in the 1980’s you could still buy excellent and durable exercise equipment for $150 from companies like Tunturi and Nordictrack. I had a personal breakthrough back then acquiring some stomach muscles on a Tunturi rowing machine I used every day, and for years a beautiful wooden Nordicktrack ski machine was also part of my regular workout. Today, your only remaining choice is to pay $800 to $3,000 for soulless metal machines with electronics you don’t really need, as the inexpensive, quality end of the market no longer exists (you can still buy unusable tacky constructs that don’t work or break in an hour, from late night infomercials).

JSTOR

Speaking of prices: JSTOR is a commercial repository of scholarly journal content that tends to want to charge you $35 to download an eight page article. That’s the company from whom Aaron Swartz, a brilliant young hacker, downloaded content to release it for free as a protest, then killed himself when charged with a felony which would have sent him to prison for decades. Probably under the pressure of some indignation from people who point out that not every researcher works under the umbrella of a university with a billion-dollar endowment, JSTOR created a crippled “free” version which allows you to read a subset of content. You can only access three articles every two weeks. I have been using that feature for some years in my free speech research and can report that JSTOR never worked very well for me; it tended to bomb out or freeze when I was doing searches on a variety of computers. I once called technical support and after forty five minutes of conversation, they were at a loss (whether honest or Official I can’t say). JSTOR has now further crippled the free service. They took offline a feature in which I created a list of several hundred articles I wanted to view later. Next, they appear to have dumbed down the search engine. If I do a search on JSTOR for (as I did a few days ago) Anthony Comstock, it turns up material mentioning his name in the body from 1915, but not articles written a year ago with his name in the title. I can now more easily find relevant JSTOR content using Google than I can using JSTOR’s own search engine.

Internet communities

I remember the first half of the ‘90’s with great nostalgia. We were all tremendously excited by the egalitarian, democracy and community-building aspects of this Internet thing. The iconic online community was the WELL, as described in Howard Rheingold’s beautiful, inspiring The Virtual Community: a place where smart, compassionate people spent hours online helping each other and exchanging pure Ideas with a capital i. Fast forward twenty years and the iconic online community is Facebook, where the average post is on the order of “I am washing my hair”. In the WELL days, you responded to an interesting post by composing a thoughtful twenty paragraph answer. Today you click “LIKE”.

The Anne Frank copyright

Marx said that all events repeat, first as tragedy, then as farce. I propose a subset of this rule: some people experience a tragedy, then become a brand (which is the farce). This has very sadly happened to Anne Frank and Dr. Martin Luther King, whose families translated murdered relatives into for profit business enterprises. In the 1990’s, I mentored some young Harlem residents constructing a web site about Dr. King, only to find that the King estate wanted almost eight thousand dollars for the words we quoted, which seemed to us to fall under the “fair use” doctrine as they did not include a single complete speech. If you can’t quote an inspirational dead person without paying someone, there is a problem. Similarly, Anne Frank Incorporated is jealously guarding the journal copyright, which should have expired by now, by making the disturbing claim that Otto Frank, Anne’s father, who survived her by many decades, is the co-author of the work. That’s either a despicable lie or a very distressing truth: to the extent any of the journal is actually his, we were never directly experiencing the daily life of a real girl under terrible stress, but a construct, a brand. The saddest, lowest moment for Dr. King came when the family licensed use of a snippet of the “I have a dream” speech for a telephone company ad.

The Israeli hospital raid

The ongoing degradation of war, proof that in its basic nature--in our basic nature--there is no recognition of any values or norms other than the insensate violence itself--is illustrated by the Israeli special forces raid on a West Bank hospital where Palestinian “terrorists” were being treated. There is no way, ever, to assault a hospital without the possibility of killing a doctor, nurse or innocent patient. It can’t be done. If this is allowable under the “laws” of war (which everyone should at this late date understand as an oxymoron) why would anyone ever operate a hospital in a war zone or go to one? The Hague Conventions, which suggest that we want even our worst enemies to have hospitals, food, humane treatment, are being rendered completely empty of any content in today’s world of perpetual war. The American bombing raid on the Doctors Without Borders hospital is another example. I don’t really believe the Official Narrative that we didn’t know it was a hospital, as we flew sortie after sortie.