Steve Jobs Owes Us All An Apology

I left college poor and under debt, so for awhile I crashed in my father’s basement. He lived on Long Island. Each day I took the train to the city to write advertisements and ghost articles for Prudential Securities. I loved the commute. I read a book a week and enjoyed the empty time.

In 1996 when I started commuting, cell phones were not yet ubiquitous. By 1997 they were everywhere. People got rude; lazy and rude. They stopped even trying to show courtesy. In a matter of months, the commute to the city became intolerable.

“I’m on the train. THE TRAIN.  What?  I can’t hear you.  WHAT?  I can’t hear you.  Can you hear me? HELLO?  I’ll call you when I get home.  Seven minutes.  No, six and a half.”

Yes we can hear you.

Cell phones weren’t always just a logistical device.  Sometimes, though rarely, you’d get to hear one side of a fairly interesting conversation.  Once I heard a girl sob into her phone that she kept getting drunk and sleeping with different men.  Three in the past week. She kept telling her phone that she had lost control.  The train car was silent.  People pretended to read their newspapers but we were all listening.

Half the car wanted to give her advice; the other half wanted to buy her a drink.

I got cranky and developed a bad habit.  Whenever someone loudly recited their number, I’d write it down.  Upon exiting the train I’d call from the nearest payphone (kids, google “payphone” to see what I’m talking about here) and tell them I was sleeping with their spouse.

Since the peaceful commute was dead, I started staying in the city, relying on the hospitality of my future wife and her roommate for a bed.  But I couldn’t stay with them forever, so I rented a place where I was tortured by my lesbian neighbors. One of them was a sex worker.  She’s one reason I became a stock trader.

Anyway, so here we are in 2011 and everyone is in love with their fucking iPhones.  They drive with them.  They eat with them.  They say they can’t live without them.  They get upset if you tell them to turn their fucking phone off during dinner.  They get even more upset if you throw their fucking phone in a pool.

They drive with them.

People don’t seem to care that their phones track their movements. People, the same people who are worried about saving for their retirement and their children’s college costs, think it’s perfectly normal to spend $200 a month on phone plans. I think it’s nuts.  $24,000 over 10 years for something that is not essential, steals your liberty, and makes normal human exchange anachronistic seems silly.

So why am I ranting about cell phones now? It’s because they’ve infiltrated my entire family and are starting to ruin the holidays.

When I was a kid we’d go to my Aunt Tina’s house after Christmas dinner.  My Italian uncles would fight about politics over coffee while the children clambered under the table.  There was one big table.  My grandmother sat at the head. She ruled the family until she died at 100. As children were born, square card tables were attached to the larger table in a Dr. Suessian sort of way.  After a couple of hours, we’d finally convince the adults to play a game together.

We’d stay around that large table all night, laughing, telling stories and getting to know each other. Things got crowded and it was always too hot but we were a family, and I was proud of my family.

Grandma’s birthday was January 1st.  So a week after seeing everyone on Christmas, we’d get together again. We still go to the same restaurant each year to honor her memory. This year, instead of all sitting together at one table the adults were broken into three circular tables while the children were sent far across the restaurant to their own table.

Kids being kids, under a table.

The older table made up of my uncles and aunts was the liveliest.  They were trading stories, old and new, and laughing.  My table consisted mainly of my immediate family.  My brother in law stared down at his “smart phone” for the entirety of the Jets game without saying a word.  I looked over at the table containing my cousins who are all about 20 years older than me.  A few of them were on smart phones as well.

I walked the quarter mile across the restaurant to where the children sat.  My daughter started out playing under the table and drawing pictures with her cousin.  That lasted about fifteen minutes. Then all the “devices” came out.  A ten year old held up two.

“You have two iPhones?” my daughter asked.

“No, this is my iPhone and this is my iPod.” The girl was ten.  She said this matter-of-factly as she pulled a handheld gaming thing out of her bag.

“You want to play a game?”  The ten year old spent 5 seconds teaching my daughter how to “make cookies” on the phone.  An hour later my daughter’s dinner went largely untouched and the sheets of paper upon which she had been drawing lay next to her bowl, blank.  No nice drawings for Aunt Tina to hang on her refrigerator.  The phone bleeped and blopped.  She made “cookies.”

There was a clear devolution of social interaction from the older tables down to the young. It was sad.  The NFL won.  Apple won.  The family lost.

George Packer wrote a great piece in the New Yorker this week about weariness.  His article was about political reporters having to knock back utter lies, but his larger point resonated with me and my attempts, even among my family, to put their phones down, to turn their televisions off.  He explains:

Certain forms of deterioration—like writers using “impact” as a verb, or basketball coaches screaming about every foul—become acceptable by attrition, because critics lose the energy to call them out. Eventually, people even stop remembering that they’re wrong.

The difference between me and political reporters is that I can’t stop remembering. Children should be plotting under tables and giggling.  Adults should be talking to each other.  Instead my family looked like a group of zombies, their faces lit by the blue-green screen glow as they poked at keypads.

Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow! or, I'm so sorry...

People shrug and say “Lighten up. This is the way things are now.” All kids have phones. All little pop stars are sluts. A few hours of television a week won’t hurt you. All toys are made of cheap plastic. Everyone eats fast food.

This is the way things are now because YOU’RE MAKING IT THIS WAY.  And it’s a worse way.

I wanted my 100 year old grandmother, or at least her authority, to be there so she could yell at everyone staring at their phones to wake the fuck up.  I wanted her to remind everyone that we’re only here for a limited time and on our death bed it’s not Siri that we wish we had spoken to more.

Or better yet, speaking of dead people, how about a posthumous apology from Steve Jobs, a professed Buddhist. Surely he’d understand how awful it is that all of those meditative silences of a long train ride, or the shared laughter of a family dinner, are gone forever.

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Meanwhile, I don’t only rant. Sometimes I just buy mexican food.

Exit Music. 

Peak Sheen (or how $10 gasoline will save the world)

A few nights ago, I decided to torture myself and watch a movie about “peak oil” cleverly titled, “A Crude Awakening”.

I say “torture myself” because what can I do really? Drive a Prius?

Whatever, America is an oil society. George W. Bush got it right: we are addicted to oil. Almost everything we do involves oil. I’m not saying that Priuses aren’t great and a step in the right direction. The problem is that even if everyone was forced to drive a Prius tomorrow, and assuming our historical rate of economic growth, oil demand would rebound to current levels in only a few years.

It’s not going to be as easy as switching the car you drive. No, the real solution to our “addiction to oil” will be something closer to what Charlie Sheen is going through right now.

Some sort of ugly, embarrassing, strung-out withdrawal but without the glamor and pornstars.

“A Crude Awakening” debates and dismisses each of the major alternatives to oil: solar, wind, biomass, nuclear and hydrogen. Of these, hydrogen seems to have the most promise. Too bad a “hydrogen society” won’t be a viable alternative for another 30-50 years.

Until then, things don’t look pretty. In fact, one of the dudes featured in the movie was being interviewed in front of emergency crates of water manufactured by “S.O.S Food Labs”.

Seriously.

It was late. I was watching the movie alone. My mind began to race.

“Wonder if oil wars are our only future.”

“Dad drove a huge Plymouth in the 1970s. Is he a dick for doing that?”

“Are my kids going to become some sort of oil slaves?”

“Jesus. Am I already an oil slave?”

“Do I need to stock dried goods? Dehydrated vegetables?”

“Where can I buy a horse? For transportation?”

Like a good American, instead of freaking out any further, I just turned off the movie. I needed to smile. I pulled up the Charlie Sheen ABC interview.

 

I got to the part where the interviewer seemed to cast doubt on his ability to stop “using.”

“How do you know you won’t relapse?” she asked.

“Because,” he said, “I blinked and I cured my brain, everybody has the power.  It’s just because, you know… Can’t is the cancer of happen. Can’t is the cancer of happen.”

“Maybe Charlie Sheen is right,” I thought, thinking about the movie again. “Maybe we’re just saying we can’t change, get off oil, but we really could. Can’t is the cancer of happen. Yeah… Nothing is going to happen if we keep saying we can’t do it! Maybe we can have a hydrogen society in only 10 years and forestall world disaster! Maybe we need more leaders like Charlie Sheen!”

Charlie Sheen brought me back from the edge. Mind sufficiently calmed, I quickly fell asleep.

But the next morning, the movie re-entered my mind. Over breakfast, without telling my wife about the movie, I said, “I could totally see moving up to a quiet farm somewhere. You know, a small plot of land, grow our own food organically. Some chickens.”

I didn’t tell her my ideas about buying guns and stocking food.

“Really?” She said, rubbing her very pregnant belly. “I can’t.”

Trying to give the idea momentum, I continued. “Wouldn’t it be great to wake up, hear roosters, see dew on a meadow?”

“No.” she said. “I like our life here. All of our friends are here. Our family is close.”

“Yeah but what happens when trucks…” and here my voice cracked before I blurted out, “stop delivering food out here?” Shit! I reached for my fork, averted my eyes, and tried to play it cool.

The weapon of choice in Italian households.

But my wife was staring through me. She was quiet for a good 10 seconds, just staring at me, rubbing her belly menacingly. I could hear her hands going “swoosh, swoosh” over the fabric.

“What are you talking about?” She took a step towards me. She was holding a wooden spoon. “My god,” I thought, “I’ve angered a pregnant Italian woman and she’s holding a wooden spoon.”

Clearly, I was in danger.

She raised her voice, waving the wooden spoon around like some crazed conductor leading a group of crack-addled Charlie Sheens playing piccolos. “You’re getting all paranoid and crazy again?” Slam! The spoon hit the table. “While I’m eight-and-a-half months pregnant?” Slam! “Remember when you had me split our savings between 6 different banks and bought bullion?” Slam!

Ah, memories of 2008…

I got the fuck out of there and head back to my cave, the office. I closed and locked the door.

The first thing I noticed, was oil creeping close to $107 a barrel. Searching for the reason, I read an article about $200 crude calls changing hands.  Then I read about the upcoming “Saudi Day of Rage.”

$200 oil. Wow. Days of rage. $10 gasoline. Man! The movie was right! We’re at the beginning of the end!

I tried to calm down. Thinking back to the night before, I thought about Charlie Sheen. What would he say about this? I bet he’d say that worrying about $200 oil was boring and normal.

Could $200 oil actually be good?

Sure! $200 oil is only bad if we want to continue on the exact path we’re on, but that path is ending. Changing isn’t going to be an option. There are finite amounts of oil under the ground. That’s just a fact. “Drill baby drill” is nothing more than a weak slogan and useless policy unless it’s coupled with huge commitment to developing other resources as well.

If $200 oil gets us thinking harder about hydrogen, or about solar, or does anything to shake the entrenched interests in this country that are standing in the way of real change, then that’s actually a good thing.

The alternative is that, like the pre-awakened version of our friend Charlie Sheen, we continue chilling with pornstars and “banging 7 gram rocks.”  Then when our heart explodes in a couple of decades, we’re not going to have anyone else to blame but ourselves.

Not the liberals. Not the conservatives. And not the other terrorists.

Wonder if cars can run on #tigerblood?

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Exit music.