“Beware the ides of March.”
So said the soothsayer to Julius Caesar. The date was known to Caesar and every Roman because it, today, March 15, was the official day for settling debts. Which I suppose some of Caesar’s colleagues thought they were doing when on that date in 44 B.C. they multifariously perforated him with knives, rendering him dead.
The warning has stuck around and if current events are any guide it doesn’t hurt to pay attention to it.
In the last few days I’ve noticed a few things that could be, to adopt what’s possibly the best phrase ever written by James Taylor, signs that might be omens. It all weirdly coincided with something I watched, for the umpteenth time, on television.
“Good Omens” is a delightful and perceptive story by the late Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It was made into a six-part television series by Amazon a few years ago. I watch it each time Amazon forces a free month of Amazon Prime on me. (I immediately unsubscribe, which is a bit of a hassle, because it requires the subscriber — who in my case didn’t subscribe but was signed up anyway — to go through page after page of “I want to unsubscribe,” “No, I really want to unsubscribe,” “No, dammit, I really, really want to unsubscribe,” and so on, followed by the occasional email from Amazon to the effect of “c’mon — you aren’t serious about unsubscribing, are you?” and by the end of the month I have burning hatred for Amazon matched only by my distaste for ads on YouTube that interrupt what I’m watching long enough to break my concentration and urge me to go to Gatlinburg, Tennessee or to purchase undergarments suitable for obese women, neither of which I would have done but now will make a special point not to do — I don’t give my custom to anyone who advertises on YouTube. My growing dislike of Amazon was exacerbated by items that should have gotten free Amazon Prime two-day shipping taking a week to arrive.)
Where was I? Oh, yeah. I rewatched “Good Omens” to relieve my annoyance over an ongoing computer problem. For the last 15 years or so I have used the Ubuntu distribution of Linux. It was competently put together and extremely easy to upgrade, which I make a point of doing daily. It’s easy: I open a little terminal window and type “sudo apt update,” followed when prompted by my password. The system then checks the servers offering software I have installed and makes a list of those for which upgrades are available. I then type “sudo apt upgrade,” and the new versions are downloaded and installed. It is quick and convenient and fairly standard among the best Linux distributions.
Only recently Ubuntu has come to spew advertisements in the course of all this, listing security upgrades they would provide if I had signed up for their “free” “Pro” account, but since I didn’t they won’t. Then I found that Ubuntu phones home twice a day with information about my computer — I don’t know what information and don’t care, because they do not have my permission to do it — and have taken to pushing applications packaged in the “snap” format, the distribution of which is tightly controlled by Ubuntu. Canonical, the company that makes Ubuntu, has clearly gone over to the dark side.
After several hours of research and work I think I succeeded in confounding some of Canonical’s bad deeds against my machine, even though I fell short in my plan to let the calls home bear a personal message from me. (Just as well — they wouldn’t have been entirely fair. I mean, I’ve never even met the horse they rode in on.)
Time to say goodbye to Ubuntu. Poking around, I learned that there is a sanitized version of Ubuntu, called “Trisquel,” put together by a group of people who are — there’s no better word — rabid about “free” software.
There are several definitions of “free” in the software world. One is software that costs you nothing to use. Another — the one embraced by the Trisquel people, as I learned when I sent a note to their mailing list — requires absolute fealty to the software version of the Glorious October Revolution. The free vs. non-free people, second definition, have been at each other’s throats for decades. I thought they might have softened a bit. They haven’t. I was reminded of Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell in “Good Omens,” who is so focused on finding witches that he misses everything else going on around him.
No one is championing the freedom of users to put on their computers what they bloody well please and nothing more.
I was (well, am — haven’t done it yet) left with no alternative but to migrate to Debian. I should have run Debian from the start, but installing and especially configuring it is notoriously nontrivial. And the one true Debian guru I knew, Bob Bernstein, died of COVID-19 last year. So I’ll need to have a second computer running, allowing me to go online and sort out everything I just broke. It will take a week or two, with various effluvia becoming apparent over the following year or so and needing repair then.
Ubuntu’s behavior and that of the Trisquel cell or whatever it is called was, to me, a bad omen.
Then this morning I awakened to some alarming news. In January I switched after several years from the unsatisfying T-Mobile cellular company to something called Mint Mobile, which you might have heard about if only because it’s owned by the actor Ryan Reynolds.
The email message said, “Mint Mobile has reached an agreement to be acquired by T-Mobile.” We cannot know the full ramifications of the deal, but in my experience these things are never good news. Never.
As this digested I happened upon a story detailing how Microsoft Corporation, which has gained notice recently for the “artificial intelligence” it is using with its Bing web search site, has fired the group responsible for ethics in AI. I ought to be more alarmed, but having some knowledge of what Microsoft considers to be ethics I was left merely to wonder if that group had maybe spent its time testing the corporation’s sole sterling achievement, an unsurpassed solitaire game.
Still, it’s, well, a bad omen.
Let us not forget the banking mess. The situation with Silicon Valley Bank is pitiful on many levels, but can be pretty easily summed up: Investors gave money to companies who hadn’t and probably wouldn’t turn a profit. The companies put that money in Silicon Valley Bank. Silicon Valley Bank invested the money in long-term government bonds at a time when interest rates were very low. Inflation came along and low-interest government bonds lost market value — you could get a better return investing in newer, higher-yield government bonds — as interest rates rose. The companies, which were making no money, went to Silicon Valley Bank to make withdrawals to meet expenses. But their money was all tied up in the low-yield bonds. Silicon Valley Bank sought to sell them and, because so many customers were demanding their money, had to sell them at a loss. Depositors were demanding their money (actually, the money they’d gotten from investors), but the bank had run out of money.
The whole mess collapsed. Bugout Joe Biden rode in to the rescue, flinging down and dancing upon U.S. banking law and promising that the depositors would be made whole. Noted Brit Hume, “It seems this will be done at no cost to the taxpayers by the economic theory known as Magic.”
The stock market has not been happy about the bank problem, and bank stocks — even ones that maybe weren’t as creatively managed as Silicon Valley Bank — have fallen drastically. Investors, remembering the economic crisis of 2008, are selling shares and moving elsewhere, in what’s known as a “flight to safety.” Gold prices are heading up. This is a bad omen.
I’m keeping my money in banjos. They’re safe from Ubuntu, T-Mobile, Microsoft, sketchy banks, and sketchy government.
And though not fiddling while Rome burns (which happened 108 years after Caesar should have heeded the soothsayer), I can watch it all unfold while playing “When the Stars Begin to Fall,” which seems appropriate.
Though my playing has fallen off a little. My thumb joints have grown painful. Which for me is a bad omen.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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