Why I Won’t See the Film Steve Jobs

Steve JobsI have no problem with Apple products. I have an Mac in my kitchen. I am an agnostic in the computer wars. Well, close enough. If I’m feeling generous, I think people who are partisans of Windows, Mac, or Linux are just silly. Otherwise, I think they are idiots. I can and do use all of the computers and I don’t much care which one you put in front of me. In all cases, I’ll install vi and be happy as a clam. But there is one thing that I do hate: the Apple culture.

I can hardly believe that I still have to hear people tell me that Macs are easy to use. So are Windows machines. So are Linux machines. People who think that Macs are so much better than other systems are still living in 1990. They remind me of supposed Japanese soldiers who were fighting World War II long after it was over. Hey everybody: stick you head up and look around! A lot has happened in the last 25 years! But isn’t the iPhone great?! Didn’t Apple single-handedly invent everything that is good and true in the high tech?! They are the most slappable people in the world.

But even if you did think that Apple products were particularly super-keen, how does Steve Jobs fit into it all? I see him as effectively no different from Bill Gates — except that Gates at least was a programmer. But they were both successful because they were ruthless CEOs — the reincarnation of the robber barons. They weren’t successful because they were visionary or even competent. They were — as the best CEOs are — people capable of taking a particular market advantage and milking it for all it is worth. If you had switched Jobs and Gates in 1980, there would be no change in the history of computing.

So I’m not interesting in seeing the film Steve Jobs. Who is he that he deserves a biopic? I really don’t know. A film about Steve Wozniak might be interesting, because someone who actually knows something about technology having to live in the shadow of the Steve Jobs myth might be interesting. But from what I’ve read, this film is all about what a terrible person Jobs is. But why then are are we interested? Well, I think Bob Mondello on NPR sums up the feelings of most of the critics who are fawning over the film, “The film feels so electric while you’re watching, it’s hard to believe that after two hours, it doesn’t even get to the iPod, let alone the iPhone.”

In case you missed that, he’s saying that Steve Jobs is such an amazing genius that we should care. Oh. My. God! The iPhone! Can you imagine?! The iPhone?! Why it’s just the greatest thing in the world! Steve Jobs is responsible for our whole way of life! You get the impression that Mondello is sad Jobs didn’t leave stool samples so we could literally get the bottom of his genius. And this is just what you should expect, because among the people I read, this kind of witless joy over Apple products is common.

So I’m not going to see this movie because it is predicated on the idea that Apple is something more than just another company selling just another product. Certainly if Steve Jobs had never been born, we would live in a different world. It might be worse, but it is just as likely that it would be better. Steve Jobs’ greatest trick was convincing the world that he was a genius. He wasn’t a genius. He was just another robber baron of the later 20th century.

California Leads the Way to Making the United States a Democracy

Voting 1945The big news over the past few of years has been the rise of voter ID laws and many other efforts designed to make voting harder than it already is. This is being done almost exclusively by conservatives. I don’t doubt the sincerity of conservative voters; they’ve been manipulated for years into thinking that if only voting were fair then Ted Cruz would be President for Life. It’s the conservative elites who have pushed this disingenuous narrative that voter fraud is a problem that must be fixed.

Think about it in the opposite way. If there is a legal voter who is stopped from voting, this is what I will call institutional voter fraud. Voting, as it is construed by most people, is a right. It isn’t something that one should have to earn. On the right, people are concerned about votes being “canceled out” by fraudulent votes, but there is no concern about votes being canceled out by them simply not being allowed. This is where the pathetic number of actual fraudulent votes is important: to stop a handful of cases of voter fraud, we create a hundred or thousand times as many cases of institutional voter fraud. That is what the voter ID campaigns are: a form of (currently legal) voter fraud.

Even as conservatives have been working to stop democracy, there are places where work is being done to expand voting rights. The Brennan Center for Justice puts out a Voting Laws Roundup each year with the good and bad news. And it isn’t all blue states either. For example, Louisiana recently passed a law that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote when they apply for driver’s licenses. And Oklahoma expanded access to absentee ballots to people living on tribal lands. But as usual, the only red state doing anything big was Utah, which established a “pilot program for election day registration.”

I’m very pleased that my home state of California has been on the leading edge of this, and we made a massive step forward over the weekend. The Los Angeles Times reported, Governor Brown Approves Automatic Voter Registration for Californians. It isn’t perfect. It is tied to the state DMV. When people get or renew a driver’s license, they will automatically be registered to vote. But given this is California, that is the vast majority of people. The system doesn’t require people to register, of course. They may opt-out if they wish. But the default will be to register them. This will result in up to 7 million more people registered to vote. The system will not be fully operational until June 2016.

I wonder about my own commitment to democracy. If I were a conservative, would I say what I hear so many conservatives say, “I don’t want people to vote unless they are well informed like me!”? I’d like to think that I would be in favor of democracy regardless. But I recall when I was a libertarian being fairly disinterested in voter turnout. Regardless, I think that most people in America do believe in democracy. And like so many things in US politics, the distinction between the left and the right is clear: the left believes in people voting and the right does not.

Morning Music: Franz Schubert

Franz SchubertNow that we enter the Romantic period, things fragment. It is a lot harder to see clear progressions. And since from here on out I’m going to pick pieces more or less randomly, I might as well start with a composer that I greatly admire despite his emotional excesses: Franz Schubert. He’s still very much in the Classical tradition. But by the end of his life — he died at only 31 years old — he was certainly a Romantic composer.

Today we listen to a personal favorite of mine, the String Quartet No 15. It could so easily have been written to accompany Wuthering Heights — even though it was written two decades before the novel. Harmonically, it is riveting. It starts with alternating major and minor chords that sounds totally different from anything we’ve ever heard. Of course, Schubert was an experimenter. It’s surprising that he doesn’t have a bigger reputation. But that seems to come from the fact that academics have tended to disregard him for the reason they have disregarded so many great composers: the man can write a melody!

Listen to this. Really, it is beautiful. Orchestral music never gets better than this. And it is performed by the exceptional Belenus Quartett.

Anniversary Post: Massachusetts Bans Quakers

Salem Witch TrialOn this day in 1656, Massachusetts enacts the first punitive law against the Quakers. The colony was set up in 1620, so that’s 36 years without systematizing their religious intolerance. Of course, that gives entirely the wrong idea, because the Quakers didn’t come until later. The only reason I find this interesting is because — like most Americans — from a young age, I had this idea crammed down my throat that the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom.

That wasn’t true, of course. The truth was that the Pilgrims did suffer oppression in England. So they moved to Holland. And there they found freedom of religion. But they found it economically difficult. The young people were wandering off to find jobs. Many of the older Pilgrims moved back to England. When things like this happen, you would think people would wonder if God really did have their backs.

Anyway, so they made it to America where they found it necessary to enact laws to stop other religions, because like most religious people, they don’t actually think that God has their backs. It’s all about power. And the best way to protect your particular form of religion is by not letting anyone compare it to any other form of religion.

It’s interesting that Philadelphia became the biggest and most prosperous city in America by the start of the Revolutionary War. Why? Because the Quakers settled it and governed it liberally. Meanwhile, Massachusetts became something of a backwater. By 1692, it was charming all the colonies with its Salem witch trials, where 20 people were executed.

Ain’t freedom of religion grand!