Radio Without Money Episode 6: Donnie Loves Chachi and God Damn Steam

Donny Loves Chachi

After a long layover, Radio Without Money, the official WritersWithoutMoney.com podcast, returns as Aloysius VI welcomes Daniel Levine back from his brief layover in a re-education camp. We discuss the fire and the world currently on it, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, leftist opposition to the idea of the existence of any kind of collusion between Donald Trump and the Russian government, the ever-closing walls that surround President Donald Trump, and some other stuff too probably, who knows?

Podcast recorded Thursday, May 11th through Friday, March 12th, 2017.

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The Talk Every Startup Employee Dreads

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I won’t fuck you but the company sure will.

During the height of the tech bubble of the late 1990s, pretty much anybody could get a decent paying job in IT, even someone like me with a worthless English degree from a shitty state university in New Jersey. But don’t get too jealous millennial kids. The economy of the dotcom bubble wasn’t as good as it may seem in retrospect. Even though I had been using FreeBSD for a decade and Linux almost since the beginning, that didn’t mean I was going to get hired at Microsoft or Goldman Sachs. That usually takes a B.S. from Stanford or MIT. Technically I was making a living wage. In reality, I worked for so many disreputable startups, and changed jobs so many times, I had to factor gaps in employment into my budget. I may have had health insurance once or twice. I don’t think I ever worked long enough in one place to use it.

Then there’s the talk every employee at every venture capital funded startup dreads. It goes something like this. The CEO calls a company wide meeting. There’s often food. If the food is good, get ready for the worst. There’s a presentation. This is a great company, the CEO maintains. You’re all valuable employees. Our time together has been rewarding and educational. We hope to continue to work together and grow as a company. You are all part of the — insert the name of disreputable startup here — family,  and there will always be a place for you at — insert the name of the disreputable and now defunct and long forgotten startup here — as long as I’m in charge of the company. Unfortunately while we believe that our business model is sound, the second round of financing has been delayed. We are currently seeking alternative sources of revenue, which we are confident will come through within the month. Unfortunately we do not have the revenue to pay your salaries at this time.

Employee: “Does this mean we’re all laid off?”

Tech Startup CEO: “You are not being laid off.”

Employee: “So you’re asking us to work for free?”

Tech Startup CEO: “Absolutely not. When the alternative second round of funding comes through you will all be given your back pay in full.”

There are few certainties in life. Democrats will never support single payer or stop talking about Russia. Republicans will continue to be racists. All cops are bastards. Dogs are stupid. Cats are assholes. The Israelis will never stop building settlements or oppressing the Palestinians. Windows 10 will continue to suck. All of these are certainties. But the biggest certainty of all is that once a startup employee gets the talk and is asked to work for free, even for a week, even for a day, he will never see another penny from the company. All “the talk” really means is that the cheap bastards you’re working for either don’t want to pay for unemployment, or haven’t filed the right paperwork that will allow their employees to collect unemployment after they’re laid off. The only purpose of the talk is to get you to quit. That way the company is off the hook, and you’re fucked. Sadly, the only thing to do once you get the talk is to quit. Keep your laptop. Send out whatever nasty e-mails you want to send out. Leak whatever inside information you can. Get your stuff and get out before they have the cops escort you out of the building.

The Fyre Festival’s employees just got the talk.

In my previous post on the Fyre Festival I said that I didn’t think Ja Rule and Billy McFarland were out and out scam artists, that a scam would have been better organized. But at some point you realize that the line between an out and out scam and a badly organized startup is never totally clear. Like so many tech startups in the late 1990s, the Fyre Festival was a company without a product to sell. They hired people probably knowing that at some point they wouldn’t be able to meet payroll. Judging by the leaked phone call, the Fyre Festival’s employees are onto the scam and intend to walk as soon as possible. Good for them. They’re in a lot better shape than most people who have heard “the talk.” Everybody knows about the Fyre Festival. The organizers are facing lawsuits from disgruntled ticket buyers. Those employees will probably not only get their unemployment claims accepted, they’ll probably get a cut of the money from the eventual court settlement. Let’s hope Ja Rule and Billy McFarland both do some jail time. Maybe in the future it will discourage these kinds of bullshit startups from ever getting any funding at all and hiring employees in the first place. It might also help put a stop to unpaid internships and the idea that a company’s success will eventually “trickle down” to its wage slaves.

Addendum: Nina Simone once tried to shoot a man for cheating her out of her wages. Just another reason she was a great artist and a great American.

The National Museum of Mathematics

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On my brother’s recommendation, I visited the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City. Founder and President Glen Whitney, an ex-math professor and hedge fund “quant,” graduated from our shitty high-school in Roselle New Jersey. My brother knew him. I didn’t, although his older sister might remember me singing “Back on the Chain Gang” in home room, the closest I could come as a teenager to a sociological analysis of of the American public school system.

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People who do remember me in high school will remember me as being very good in history. My eleventh grade teacher Mr. Kelley used to have a “stump Stanley” quiz on Friday afternoon. My fellow students could ask me questions about United States history. I suppose he was trying to combine the joy of bullying a classmate with the educational process, but the joke was on him. I never got a question wrong. Nobody ever “stumped Stanley.”

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I doubt anybody remembers that I flunked math. Interestingly enough, I got a respectable score on the math section of the SAT — it was good enough to get me into Rutgers and would have probably gotten me into one of the Ivies if I had had the grades — but I just couldn’t apply myself in geometry class. Eventually I got so sick of pretending to care I simply put a big “X” mark through the weekly quiz with the caption “I refuse to take this test” underneath. Nobody ever commented, or even noticed. I simply took the “F” and retook the course the next year.

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The purpose of the National Math Museum is to reach the kind of kid I was, someone who’s smart enough to pass high-school math but just finds it too dull to apply himself. Recently, I’ve gone through a few basic Algebra texts. I’m thinking about going back to school to get a computer science degree to supplement my useless BA in English. Little has changed since the 1980s. Math textbooks are almost always poorly written. I’ve worked my way through instructions on basic Algebraic equations I understand perfectly only to come out utterly confused. I don’t envy parents with children who get stuck with bad high school math teachers or text books. I shudder to think what it’s like now with “Common Core.”

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The National Math Museum doesn’t look like much when you walk in the front door. While it’s right down the block from the Flatiron Building and very easy to get to, it’s expensive, $16 dollars per person. That not only puts it out of the reach of most working class families, it makes you expect a lot more than what you see at first sight. Nevertheless, the more you explore the Museum, the more you realize how you can’t possibly experience the whole thing in only one visit. Every exhibit — and there are dozens — can take hours to get the hang of, but after you’re done, you’ve had a complex mathematical subject drilled into your head so thoroughly you’ll never forget it.

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I eventually settled on the “Pythagoras Puzzler.” The concept is easy. Among the three sides of a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. You get five flat, plastic shapes. There are three empty squares. All five pieces go into the two smaller squares and into the one larger square. Getting them to fit into the smaller squares is easy. Trying to figure out how to make them fit into the larger one looks easy, but is deceptively difficult. It has to work. According to the Pythagorean Theorem, the sum of the space inside the two smaller squares has to equal the space inside the larger square. It’s a “mathematical certainty,” but good luck making it work. I sat there for almost twenty minutes scratching me head before a helpful thirteen-year-old girl finally helped me figure it out.

“That’s OK,” she said. “I’m a Russian hacker and you’re not.”

(Note to liberals: All you’re doing by demonizing Russians is making American kids think they’re cool.)

In any event, sit at the “Pythagoras Puzzler” for 20 minutes and the Pythagorean Theorem is yours forever. Work through all of the machines in the National Museum of Mathematics and you’ll probably be ready for MIT or Caltech. It’s a great place you should go to over and over again. I only wish there were a family discount. Glen Whitney, like my brother and I, went to a working-class high-school in New Jersey. He should make his museum accessible to the kids who really need it, not just rich kids in Manhattan who probably have great math teachers in high school anyway.

Notes on an Impending Reichstag Fire

1) Donald Trump obviously colluded with Russia. I’m not really sure how any reasonable person could conclude otherwise after he’s fired three separate people investigating into it and multiple aspects of the Steele dossier we all thought sounded ridiculous a couple months ago have been confirmed. He also mentioned in his letter about Comey’s firing “You told me I wasn’t under investigation 3 times.”

2) Trump learned politics from Roy Cohn, one of the most toxic figures in US history. Cohn’s entire strategy was “Never back down on anything and attack anyone who questions you, personally.” Richard Nixon could eventually be cornered into stepping down. Trump will, when cornered, retaliate with any means at his disposal. He’s already done this throughout his life and in his short political career.

3) Trump doesn’t have any real incentive to back down in any capacity at this point because the only way this ends is with his total consolidation of power or with his going to prison/frying.

4) Don’t be surprised if it turns out McConnell and Ryan and others got in on it. Rumors are already spreading on twitter to that effect, and they’re not standing behind Trump at this point because it makes them look good.

5) Trump established a “committee” to investigate the completely bogus “crisis” of “voter fraud” this morning. Translated: there’s a committee figuring out how to fix the 2018 and 2020 elections through suppression of the vote. Anyone who thinks he isn’t going to try to convince his base to go to the polls next year armed to the teeth to scare off potential voters hasn’t been paying attention. Remember the “my second amendment people” comments?

6) You all know I’m about as far to the left as anybody. I don’t like the DNC, I don’t like how they handled the Sanders thing, I don’t like their connections to Wall Street, etc etc. However, the US falling into banana republic status doesn’t help anybody. The DNC doesn’t seem interested in taking all the chips off the table, and for now that’s the best we’re gonna do. You can save the “I told you so” whatever bullshit for later. This isn’t about you or me being right, this is about stopping a racist mad man from consolidating unilateral control of a massive domestic police force and the most comprehensive surveillance apparatus in human history.

7) Trump is only cornered this much so far and he’s already doing this stuff. He has no knowledge of policy or how government actually works. When his economic policies inevitably fail, he will attempt to consolidate power through appeals to violence. This is a common strategy of dictators-let the disgruntled population take out their anger on each other instead of going after the guy at the top. Mao did it, Duterte is doing it. Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort, was involved in the violent consolidation of power in Russia. Putin had his own Reichstag fire. Trump will inevitably try to declare a war/stage his own Reichstag fire/both in order to avoid having to back down. Trump has repeatedly voiced his admiration for authoritarian lunatics ranging from Duterte to even Kim-Jong Un.

I’m not really sure what we do from here.

When Does Late Capitalism End and Whatever the Other Thing is Start?

When does late capitalism end and whatever the other thing is start?

Now more than 100 days into the national embarrassment of the Donald Trump administration, the entire tide of everything seems to have changed. All these disparate problems we’ve been complaining about on this blog have recombined themselves into a seeming perfect storm. Nothing is quite like it was. If someone had sent me the phrase “Rape is a pre-existing condition” a year ago, I would have presumed it was a line from Andrea Dworkin, or an album by a hardcore band. But then…well…here we are.

Postmodernism, a body of theory dealing with the cultural logic of late capitalism, doesn’t quite cover it anymore. Trump is definitely postmodern in the extreme-here’s a guy whose public image is that of a womanizing playboy despite his, as his ex-wife put it, “difficulty maintaining and achieving an erection,” the ultimate businessman despite his having declared bankruptcy and generally having failed in any of his actual business endeavors, a Republican who was until a couple years ago a Democrat, the harbinger of “change” promoting ideas that seemed old in 1950. Equal parts Billy Mays, George Wallace, Zapp Brannigan and Jay Gatsby-a phantom whose teflon qualities seem to stem less from nothing sticking to him so much as there not being enough of a him for anything to stick to.

And across the globe we’re seeing candidates with a similar lack of substance beyond right wing anti-immigrant rhetoric and a day-time TV temperament.

Endless theories have been proposed to explain Trump’s base because none of them seem big enough to actually feel satisfying in the face of how stupid and pointless and tragic this all is. He’s clickbait in human form. A limp and dinky ground ball that slowly puttered between America’s legs. Maybe the thing after late capitalism should be called Bucknerism.

The Fyre Festival and the Culture of Late Capitalism

By now everybody on the Internet has had a good laugh about the Fyre Festival, the disastrous attempt by rapper Ja Rule and a young entrepreneur from Short Hill New Jersey named Billy McFarland to organize a deluxe edition of the Coachella Festival in the Bahamas. A few days ago, several hundred people, who paid anywhere from $1500 to $12,000, showed up on the island of Great Exuma expecting to spend two glorious weekends housed in “modern, eco-friendly, geodesic domes” where they would be served “gourmet celebrity chef meals.” The music seems to have been besides the point. Who would pay $12,000 to see Blink 182? If you read between the lines of the advertisements – Fyre Festival was heavily promoted by Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski and used Pablo Escobar’s connections with Great Exuma as a selling point – it was all about the drugs and the sex. Sadly, for Fyre Festival’s guests, no infrastructure had been put in place by the festival’s organizers. Instead of the “modern, eco-friendly, geodesic domes,” there were surplus refugee tents. There was no music, bad food, and almost certainly no children conceived in between lines of coke. A lot of very privileged young people had paid the equivalent of a semester’s tuition at a good state university to spend a couple of days at a construction site.

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In spite of the schadenfreude that most leftists, including myself, engaged in at the expense of so many trust fund brats whining on social media about cold cheese sandwiches, I don’t think the real issue for Fyre Festival’s guests was that they had to rough it for a few nights. After all, part of the original appeal of Burning Man was spending the weekend in the desert. What really angered people like Northeastern University student Lamaan Gallal was not only the lack of control – she got locked inside the airport – but the sudden realization that she had bought herself into a refugee camp. It’s also what delighted people on the left. Ja Rule had managed to scam the bourgeoisie into paying for their own gulag. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that the people who fell for the Fyre Festival’s advertising campaign weren’t the ruling class, but the children of the upper-middle-class. Wall Street tycoons don’t pay for weekend jaunts in the Bahamas. They get them for free. Celebrities like Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski usually get paid just to show up. Ja Rule and Billy McFarland weren’t selling gourmet meals. They weren’t even selling sex drugs and rock and roll. They were selling exclusivity, the chance to say “I was at the Fyre Festival and you weren’t.” What they actually delivered was humiliation. Young bourgeoisie like Lamaan Gallal usually like to believe they’re the smartest people in the room. Now everybody knows they’re as stupid as the typical West Virginia coal miner who voted for Trump.

Out of curiosity, I Googled the price of a ticket to the original Woodstock Festival. It was $18 dollars for all three days. That’s about $126 dollars in 2017. So what did you get for a weekend pass and the price of a tank of gas from the city up to the Catskills? First of all, you got to see Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane at their height. You got to see Santana, The Who, Janis Joplin the Grateful Dead, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Popular music was really good back then. Above all, however, you got the “experience” of being part of history. We all know the jokes about Baby Boomers who weren’t within a thousand miles of Max Yasgur’s Farm in August of 1969 claiming that they not only marched with Martin Luther King and protested the war in Vietnam, but that they were “at Woodstock.”

We now live in a dead culture that creates nothing original, but instead packages, reboots, and repackages the culture of the past. Millennials don’t want anything new. They want Star Wars with black people. As a result, popular music has become less about the music itself, and more about the “experience,” the desire to be part of a shared history. It’s not only the people who got scammed by the Fyre Festival. Pop “queens” like Beyonce and Lady Gaga are basically just reboots of Madonna. It costs big bucks these days to go see old man Springsteen growl his way through an acoustic version of Born to Run with his sixty something lungs. The Rolling Stones are still touring, essentially acting as a Rolling Stones cover band. You’ll never “experience” the Mick Jagger of the 1960s or the Bruce Springsteen of the 1980s, but you will have a ticket stub that says at least once before you died you got to see Springsteen or the Rolling Stones live.

Putting on an outdoor music festival takes work, but it’s not exactly a lost art. Even if they couldn’t have pulled it off themselves, Ja Rule and Billy McFarland could have just gone out and hired the Trump Organization to do it for them. Had they just delivered Blink 182 and a few other bands, they could have pocketed the money and laughed all the way to the bank. Instead, they’re probably both going to jail. Those kids who got stranded at the Great Exuma Airport have parents who have lawyers and friends in their local district attorney’s office. Yet I’ll take Ja Rule’s word for it that the Fyre Festival wasn’t a scam. An out and out scam would have been better organized. I think the Ja Rule and Billy McFarland probably believed their own hype. They would organize the Woodstock of the rich. They would be the impresarios behind an “experience” that thousands of young people would still be talking about in fifty years. When it all began to fall apart, the ambitious project had been so poorly and so vaguely conceived that nobody noticed until it was too late. Ja Rule and Billy McFarland, and everybody they cheated out of $12,000 dollars, basically got bit by the zombie that is American popular culture in 2017.