Category Archives: In Our Time

A continuation of the pattern

social madness

Here’s a follow-up to my previous post, “Millions of separate realities, destroying our common world.

I’m reading more and more of this stuff about how the way TOO many people consume the internet, and get consumed by it. Specifically, how they get their minds hopelessly warped by a couple of the standard features of social media and other web sites and services — the way these media keep showing you more stuff like what you seem to like, and — in this piece — the way the reinforcement of others (likes, retweets, shares, etc.) seduces people into insane new “realities.”

Here’s another item: A piece from the NYT headlined, “They Used to Post Selfies. Now They’re Trying to Reverse the Election.” The subhed says, “Right-wing influencers embraced extremist views, and Facebook rewarded them.”

This piece doesn’t make many broad observations about these phenomena; it mostly simply tells the story of how several individuals got sucked in. You’ll note the commonalities. The one place where the item touches upon the consistent themes is here:

He’s not alone. Facebook’s algorithms have coaxed many people into sharing more extreme views on the platform — rewarding them with likes and shares for posts on subjects like election fraud conspiracies, Covid-19 denialism and anti-vaccination rhetoric. We reviewed the public post histories for dozens of active Facebook users in these spaces. Many, like Mr. McGee, transformed seemingly overnight. A decade ago, their online personas looked nothing like their presences today.

A journey through their feeds offers a glimpse of how Facebook rewards exaggerations and lies.

But the rewards are trivial compared with the costs: The influencers amass followers, enhance their reputations, solicit occasional donations and maybe sell a few T-shirts. The rest of us are left with democracy buckling under the weight of citizens living an alternate reality….

Yeah, as I said the other day, I know this stuff isn’t new. We knew how the Web worked. You knew it; I knew it. But as I also said before, something just finally clicked recently when I was listening to “Rabbit Hole,” and for the first time in these last few years, I got Trumpism. I finally really saw how these people had become so warped, and so immune to facts and reason. What we’re seeing couldn’t have happened this way in any other time.

And frankly, I don’t know how we’re going to reverse this problem — a problem affecting people’s perception across the political spectrum (as I say, I know I’m vulnerable to it, too), but manifesting itself most threateningly among Trump followers. They’re the big problem now. (As I type this, I keep getting indications that there are people walking about downtown Columbia with semiautomatic weapons. There have been arrests. I might be writing more about it later, but I hope not. I hope the problem fades away…)

I don’t see how the toothpaste gets back in the tube, and people get sane again.

But I’m going to keep pointing out these glimpses of the problem as I encounter them. As I think I mentioned, I watched part of “The Social Dilemma” the other night. When I finish it, I’ll probably post about that, too. It starts from a perspective different from mine (such as worrying about addiction to social media, particularly among kids), but also gets into the problems I’m talking about…

Millions of separate realities, destroying our common world

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for weeks, but haven’t had the time, because it would be so involved. But I think I’ll throw out a few thoughts about it, and see if y’all take it up, and then add to the conversation as we go.

I’m prompted to go ahead and do so by a piece Jennifer Rubin had in The Washington Post today. It’s headlined, “We must end the post-truth society.” That’s fairly self-explanatory. It deals with a problem we all know exists. And in this case, she’s dealing not only with the grossly destructive tendency of Trump supporters to believe his lies, but other aspects we see in our culture today, such as all the nonsense about the “war on Christmas.”

All fairly obvious, as I said. We now live in a time in which people utterly reject Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” (He wrote it in a column in 1983, although it is apparently based on something James R. Schlesinger had said previously.) When he said it, people across the political spectrum would have nodded, because it’s so obviously true.

But not now. And the word “entitled” is particularly significant here. People out there really, truly think they are entitled to their own facts. After all, they dwell in a universe in which their belief in such “facts” is fully supported and reinforced.A_separate_reality

I’ve commented on this before. Everyone has. And I was conscious of the cause of the problem. But recently, I came to realize it, to understand it, to grok it, more fully. And it was as though I hadn’t thought about these things before.

It happened first when I listened to a podcast series from several months ago, called “Rabbit Hole.” If you haven’t listened to it, I wish you would — assuming The New York Times allows you to do so. (Since I’m a subscriber, I’m never sure what is available to non-subscribers.) It’s in eight parts. The most compelling are the first few, which deal in great detail with what happened to a young man named Caleb.

Caleb is a guy who initially perceived reality in a fairly “normal” way (judged from the perspective of my own reality), even though he was having a bit of trouble finding his way in the world I know. Then he got addicted to YouTube. He started watching it most of his waking hours. After he got a job that allowed him to listen to earbuds while working, he did it (or at least listened to it) ALL of his waking hours.

Meanwhile, YouTube was growing and refining its product. They were making the artificial intelligence that underlies its operation smarter and smarter, and better at constantly showing you more of what interests you. We’re all familiar with this, and I suppose that mostly, we appreciate it. It’s nice when I go to listen, say, to the Turtles play “Happy Together,” and YouTube suggests a video I had never seen of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” (Which it may or may not do for you in your reality.) I end up wasting time, but it’s enjoyable.

One day in late 2014, YouTube recommended  to Caleb a self-help video by Stefan Molyneux, a self-styled “anarcho-capitalist” who also had a political agenda. He liked what he heard; it seemed to speak particularly relevantly to a confused young man. So YouTube showed him similar things. And more similar things. And it got more and more out there, more and more into the terrain of, as the NYT put it, “conspiracy theories, misogyny and racism.” It essentially said to him, over and over, “Oh, you liked that? Then you’ll love this…”

It became his reality. His only reality, since he had no other sources of information about the world. (He didn’t make time for any other sources.) And he got in deeper and deeper. How this happened is charted quite precisely, because Caleb gave the Times access to his video-watching history. They could trace his descent into his own tailor-made madness clip by clip, hour by hour, day after day. For years.

It’s really something to listen to.

Of course, this was just Caleb’s reality — his, and that of others who were absorbed by the increasingly weird things that he listened to and was shaped by. Each individual, of course, would have a slightly different experience, while at the same time becoming members of new, bogus “communities” of people with similar beliefs in this or that area.

I mentioned this podcast, and recommended it, to friends, who recommended in turn that I go watch “The Great Hack” on Netflix. It examined the same phenomenon from a different angle, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, “in which the personal data of millions of Facebook users were acquired without their consent… predominantly to be used for political advertising.” Data that reflected you through your online habits, using an app called “thisisyourdigitallife.” I recommend that, too. Even if you don’t find it enlightening, at least the graphic effects are cool (such as a person walking down a crowded city street, while bits of data are shown flowing up from every smartphone he passes). Or I thought so.

I’d always been concerned about the thing that was working on Caleb. Back in the 90s, when I was first exploring the Web, I saw that a lot of sites — including newspapers, such as The Wall Street Journal — would invite you to create your own, personalized interface. “Mywsj.com,” or whatever. I found this disturbing, especially when newspapers did it. But I confess I didn’t see how bad things would get. My objection was simply that the point of a newspaper is to provide a community, or a state or a nation with a common set of information about what’s going on — something that in a free country will inevitably lead to fierce debates about what to do in light of the facts, but at least everyone was starting from a common set of facts, a common perception of reality, which at least provided some hope of an arrival at a rational course of action. Facts collected and passed on by professionals with a quasi-religious ethic of accuracy and impartiality, let me add, and curated by editors who had over the years demonstrated skill and insight into current events. (Now watch all the self-appointed media critics go ballistic on that one. Hey, it wasn’t perfect, but man was it superior to what we have now.)

To be a fully prepared citizen, capable of contributing constructively to the public conversation, you needed to see ALL the news, not just the bits that tickled your personal fancy. You needed a sense of the fullness of what was going on.

Now, we have separate realities, millions of them, curated by algorithms to tell us what we want to hear (as opposed to editors, who tended to irritate all of us with the unwelcome information they shared). Everyone on the planet is now an editor and publisher, with power the old-school professionals couldn’t dream of: Each person is able to cast out his or her versions of reality to the entire world, instantaneously. No matter how well- or ill-considered their perceptions are. And each person is informed by sources such as these — the particular ones that each person chooses, or has chosen for him or her by the algorithms.

More than 40 years ago, I enjoyed Carlos Castaneda’s series of books about his apprenticeship under the Yaqui Indian shaman called Don Juan, including a volume titled A Separate Reality. It was fascinating to read of his adventures in that separate universe, and enjoyable (rather than threatening) because I lived in the safe, mundane reality with most people. Castaneda’s universe was shaped by not just Don Juan’s tutelage, but a variety of hallucinogenic drugs. Which I avoided, satisfied simply to read about it. It was a nice escape.

But that was amateur hour compared to what surrounds us today. There are millions of separate realities — one shaped separately for each of us. And some of them are truly wild. Worse, they have rendered any sort of consensus-forming through our system of representative democracy practically impossible.

And that’s how you get things like the mob attacking the Capitol last week. A mob of people absolutely convinced that they were “patriots” saving the republic from something that threatened it. Because that’s the way it is in their respective separate realities.

It’s the Trump brand of reality that’s currently wreaking havoc on our country, appealing to each adherent in a different, personalized way. But of course there are billions of others around the globe.

I’m sort of wary of my own, and perhaps I should be even warier. Just the other day, after the failed revolution, I was noticing how everyone seemed to agree with me about what had happened, more or less, on Twitter. (Which, if you’ve spent decades as an editor fielding reader complaints, causes you to get suspicious.) This happens because they are brought together in a reality shaped by the people and institutional sources I have chosen to follow, and those who have chosen to follow me.

But I’m simultaneously aware that, despite the shocking violence last week, which led even Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell to go ahead and certify Joe’s election (something that would have been utterly unremarkable — would in fact not even have been prominently covered — in the world in which these separate realities did not yet exist), these views are not universally shared. It’s not just the abomination of Joe Wilson and the other members who voted against confirming the election. The almost half of the country that voted for Trump seems to be spread along a vast spectrum, from your Mitt Romney types to your Ted Cruzes. And they have all sorts of verdicts on events, shaped by their distinct online interactions.

Each and every one in his own, separate universe, shaped by its own separate facts. To which he is quite certain he is entitled….

No more anachronistic prices, thanks to Netflix!

updating

It’s not a big deal, but this happy notice from Netflix sort of cracked me up.

They’re “updating” our subscription price!

Finally! I had grown so sick of having to pay them every month in drachmas and Deutschmarks. We’ve all known the frustration of searching under seat cushions in the hope of finding doubloons, or at least pieces of eight, with which to finance our streaming. First, they were hard to find, and second, even having to look for them made me feel so passé, so… anachronistic.

Finally, modern prices, which apparently I can pay with modern money! I feel so up-to-date, so hip, so with it!

And only $13.99! Think of it! That would only have been $1.47 in the month when I was born. Sure, it’s a higher number now, but that’s because it’s updated! Take comfort from that…

Today is Alexa’s Christmas and Easter, all in one…

cyber

I just asked Alexa about the weather, and she told me what my glances out the window had caused me to suspect: Those little sunshine icons I saw on my phone yesterday were misleading. Today, it will be damp and cloudy, at least until mid-afternoon.

No big deal.

But then she added, unbidden:

By the way, it’s Cyber Monday. To shop Amazon deals, just ask.

For me, today is the day after the first Sunday of Advent. For Alexa, the universe is shaped differently.

From a first-week-of-Advent perspective, we might ask ourselves, “Why did God make you?” turn to the Baltimore Catechism and be told that “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.”

But Alexa was created by Amazon, and Jeff Bezos made her to sell stuff.

It gives her a whole different perspective on existence.

All of that said, we might ask what meaning “Cyber Monday” has in the universe of 2020. I mean, isn’t every day kind of Cyber Monday? Or Tuesday, or whatever?

As I recall, the idea — as ecommerce first came into its own — was that after the execrable “Black Friday,” the first day that people were back at “work” and sitting at their computers, they spent a scandalous (from the perspective of their employers) amount of time ordering stuff online.

This seemed to fit with what I saw after I started blogging in 2005: People read blogs and commented during what we generally thought of as office hours. Nights and weekends? Forget it — no point in posting anything then.

But we’ve just spent a whole year in which millions worked from home. And in which people avoided stores and bought more and more stuff online every day.

So… what’s special about Cyber Monday now?

Maybe nothing. I went to Amazon on my browser, expecting to see a huge display showing how exciting Cyber Monday allegedly was… and was greeted by the rather boring display of administrative functions you see below. No mention of a special day of any kind.

I had to click again on the Amazon logo in the upper-left corner to see the deals you see above. And I had to scroll down the page to see those. The top of the page was a promo for some made-for-Prime movie called “Uncle Frank.” (I saw a preview for that, and couldn’t tell what it was about, so I’m kind of doubting I’ll watch it.)

So maybe it’s not such a special day after all. But no one told Alexa. Perhaps they didn’t want to spoil her childlike wonder. She’s young, so she’s like a kid this time of year. You say good morning to her, and she’s all “Santa Claus is coming!”

Which would be adorable, were she actually, you know, a child

routine

Tempted for once by the grocery checkout rack

Now THAT is tempting...

Now THAT is tempting…

I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything from the magazine racks at the grocery checkout.

But a publication devoted to “The West Wing?” Now that’s tempting…

But I still passed.

And you know, part of it is — why do I need a print product full of “West Wing” stuff? Don’t I have Google? Can’t I already access whatever I want about the show, or any of the characters, or analysis or full transcripts of any episode? Content that is available to me wherever I go, via phone or iPad, without carrying around something as awkward as a magazine?

Yep, it’s printed on nice, glossy paper. But here’s the thing… At some point in the latter part of the ’80s, I first saw a color picture on the screen of a Mac. And I was blown away — even though the resolution and color saturation on that screen was probably pretty pathetic, compared to, say, my phone today.

It was just so — bright and alive. Since then, I’ve never seen a hard copy photo that could compare.

Not to mention the fact that if you want to share something in the mag, the person you’re sharing it with has to be standing right next to you. There’s no sharing by text, email or social media.

So… what’s the appeal of the magazine version?

Everything I used to read on paper — the newspapers I subscribe to, magazines, what have you — I now read on my iPad. Which is always with me.

Compelling content. But the wrong medium…

I got a ruling from Rudy Mancke: It’s a copperhead

We went back and forth on that last post about the snake — here and on social media. We were starting to stagger toward a consensus that these creatures all over my neighborhood are indeed copperheads. But we were far from certain.

And you know, when I’m practically stepping on these things right in the middle of the street, I kind of want to know.

Rudy Mancke

Rudy Mancke

So I stopped fooling around. Last night I wrote to Rudy Mancke himself for a ruling.

I hated to bother him with something so common. On his segments on public radio, people have usually sent him a picture of something rare and interesting. But based on what I’ve been seeing, these snakes are as common as Republicans in my precinct — maybe more so.

But Rudy got right back to me, and I’m very appreciative:

Brad, The photo you sent is of a Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), the most common venomous snake in SC. The dark, wide-narrow-wide bands across the body and the copper-colored head are diagnostic. They are found throughout SC. I have seen more of these snakes this year than I normally do. They feed on any animal small enough to eat. During hot weather they are active mostly at night…

I thought that was really nice of him, especially since as he himself mentioned, these critters are, you know, common.

Which brings me to another subject…

Look at us. We’re pretty smart people, generally speaking. We have a lot to say about a lot of things, and we flatter ourselves that what we have to say has value.

But when it comes to something as simple as staying alive while walking down a suburban street — much less in the woods, or tall grass — we are shockingly ignorant. With the exception perhaps of Jim Catoe, who owns some land out in the country that has a crowd of snakes on it, we’re kind of a bunch of dummies.

What’s happened to us, people? Our ancestors used to know the creatures around them, and the names of the trees, and what was edible and what wasn’t (to us, “edible” means packaged for sale in a supermarket, but not on the detergent aisle).

But when confronted by an animal that can kill us — a common animal, in fact the most common venomous snake in SC — we are clueless!

In those books I love — as do Bryan Caskey and Mike Fitts — there are certain things Jack Aubrey assumed any man knew back 200 years ago. And when the smartest person he knows — physician and naturalist Stephen Maturin — asks him something any ship’s boy would know, such as, “When is the dark of the moon?”… Jack hesitates to answer, hoping that Stephen is making a joke by asking such a thing. (But he never is. Stephen’s more like us.)

Personally, I have no idea when the dark of the moon will be. Occasionally when walking with my wife at night, I’ll look up and recognize Jupiter in the sky, and Saturn off to the left of it, and I’ll say so in a vain attempt to be impressive. But she knows I only know that from wondering “What’s that bright thing in the sky?” and looking it up on my phone’s astronomy app. And she’s tired of my mentioning it.

The problem is, if you’re walking at night and holding up your phone to the sky to figure out what that bright thing is, you’re likely to step on a small creature that can kill you.

Sheesh.

Anyway, thanks very much, Rudy!

Netflix is trying to guilt me into bingeing. Really…

Netflix IT

In the course of my life, I’ve had many people try to make me feel guilty about many things — usually successfully. Often, this has involved tasks I started but had not, at the time of being nagged, completed. I have at times become a bit sensitive on this point, I’ll confess.

Now, Netflix has weighed in, via email. But this time, the charge of not having followed through is utterly unjust, and I stand before you an innocent — even laudable, in terms of having applied myself assiduously to the task — man.

I’ll have you know that when it comes to watching “The IT Crowd,” I am an over-achiever. I have “finished” it multiple times. I have watched certain episodes, such as the one Netflix attacks me for stopping on in this instance (“Are We Not Men?”), many more times than that. That is one of the very best in the series, if not the best. It shows what can happen to guys like us — I mean, guys like Roy and Moss — when they make deceitful use of a website that empowers them to talk about football (soccer, to American friends) and therefore seem to be “proper men.” The site teaches them to say things like, “Did you see that ludicrous display last night?” I’ve used that one myself on several occasions (but not always, I’ll admit, with impressive success).

I only stopped on that one this time because I wanted to save it to savor on another occasion. I didn’t want it to get stale on me. It was like not allowing myself to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” more than once a year, on Christmas Eve. That sort of thing.

I have never been a slacker when it comes to watching. I have not been a Roy. Whenever anyone has asked me to help him or her by watching “The IT Crowd,” I have not hesitated. I have not tried to put anyone off by saying “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” I have immediately stopped whatever I am doing — reading my iPad, playing a video game — and watched it from start to finish.

And I just wanted all of you to know that….

are we not men

The magical reason why Phil Collins is a hit again

This is just pure fun.

Heard this on NPR One while walking this evening, and had to share.

Phil Collins’ 1981 hit “In the Air Tonight” is currently the No. 2 best-selling song on iTunes.

Why, because of the above video, which has had 5.5 million views so far.

It’s 22-year-old Tim and Fred Williams of Gary, Indiana, just shooting video of themselves reacting to songs they’ve never heard before. Which is something they do:

The Gary, Ind., twins have also recorded their first time listening to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” which she responded to on Twitter. “No point in begging…Jolene already stole these two,” Ms. Parton said….

If you don’t watch the whole video, you at least have to watch until… well, you know what part I mean. Then, you’ll listen to the whole thing.

This is an illustration of a phenomenon that may be unexpected to you. Kids today actually have to go out and hunt for great old songs to listen to. I’ve written about this in the past — you know my shtick about how, back in the day of variety shows on TV, if it was popular you heard it, whatever the genre — rock, pop, soul, adult contemporary, Broadway showtunes. It was all out there for everybody on our relatively few broadcast outlets, and we heard it wherever we went.

Now, music has become so narrowly focused, and made available through such personalized algorithms, that to do what these kids are doing is rare — and kind of thrilling. To find something that hasn’t been preselected for you, you have to go out and dig:

“The algorithm is built around user behavior,” Ebro Darden, the global head of hip-hop and R&B at Apple Music, said. “As more consumption options became available for music lovers, platforms got narrower and more targeted.”

Discovering classic jams on the airwaves seems hard to do now, too, as radio stations have also become more personalized, Mr. Darden said.

“You are beholden to a platform, whether it is a radio station or a streaming service, whether it is a human curation or an algorithmic curation, but you can go into these services and start looking around,” said Mr. Darden, who also hosts Ebro in the Morning at the New York radio station, Hot 97.

On streaming services like Apple Music or Spotify, users can decide if they want to go down a rabbit hole and listen to music based on the era, genre, producer, or artist, but they have to take the first step, which seems to be a hurdle….

Anyway, never mind the why. Just watch the video, and enjoy. Enjoy the twins enjoying…

In the air tonight

Isn’t this a procedural problem, rather than ‘bias?’

algorithm

So I listened to The Daily yesterday, which I nearly always enjoy, but it seemed a bit… off to me. But interesting.

It was a detailed telling of the story about the innocent man in the Detroit area who got arrested because facial recognition software misidentified him as having been the guy who had stolen some watches from a store.

I’ve heard about this guy several times over the last few months, and each time the story has been brought up, it has been in the context of demonstrating that the use of facial recognition by the cops is highly problematic — and unfair to minorities, since the algorithms used in this country are way better at recognizing white men.

But is that really the case? After having listened to the story, I’m thinking the problem here is not that it’s bad or unfair technology, but that the cops used it improperly. I mean, they really screwed up here. But that would seem to call for better procedure, not abandoning the tool.

No doubt about it, what happened to Robert Williams was a nightmare. And inexcusable.

Cops came out of nowhere to arrest this guy on the basis of nothing but an erroneous digital identification. The software was SO bad that when they had him in interrogation and showed him the photo that was supposedly him, he held it to his face and “What you think, all black men look alike?” And the cops, to their credit, saw that it wasn’t him, and let him go.

But this was after he had spent the night in jail. It was after he had been disrespected, and cuffed, in front of his children at his home. It was after a cop told his wife that “we assume you’re his baby mama…”

It was gross. It was all kinds of cringe-worthy, and this man will carry around the humiliation of the experience for life. And it all happened because they had zeroed in on this man based on nothing but the facial recognition that was based on

But here’s the thing. The podcast started out by saying “In what may be the first known case of its kind, a faulty facial recognition match led to a Michigan man’s arrest for a crime he did not commit.”

So, it’s only happened once? That we know of, of course…

There’s probably a reason it’s a rare occurrence. As the NYT’s Kashmir Hill explains, the police use the technology because they “feel that face recognition is just too valuable a tool in their tool set to solve crimes. And their defense is that they never arrest somebody based on facial recognition alone, that facial recognition is only what they call an investigative lead. It doesn’t supply probable cause for arrest.”

So… it’s like hearing a name from a snitch or something. Or getting an anonymous tip on the phone. It’s a reason to look at somebody, but not a reason to arrest him.

What happened here, it seems, is that the cops grossly violated the rules, and made a lazy, unjustified arrest of an innocent man. Which you don’t have to have facial recognition to do. You just have to be a bad cop. You don’t need special equipment, you can base a false arrest on all sorts of sloppy police work.

In Williams’ case, the cops didn’t even go see the suspect to see if he looked anything like the picture. They called him on the phone, and when he refused to come in (reasonably assuming it was a crank call), they sent a patrol car to arrest him.

Seems to me having the software as a tool could be very helpful, as long as it’s used as a lead, and not as cause for arrest. The way it was in this one case.

This podcast kept referring to the “bias” involved. But isn’t the problem less one of “bias,” and more one of not following rules? Wouldn’t adhering faithfully to those rules eliminate the problem with using this tool?

I suspect some of my libertarian friends will disagree. But I’d like to hear the reasons…

Like with those cop stories the other day, I urge everyone to listen to the podcast, or at least read the transcript, before commenting…

What on Earth does this have to do with being ‘Christian?’

really

I’m reacting here to one of the ads Google Adsense placed on my blog. While I saw it, I’m hoping none of you did. But whether you did or not, I can’t help saying something about it.

See the screengrab above.

Really?

What on Earth does what you are trying to sell me have to do with being “Christian?”

This must be some special sense of “Christian” that I’ve never encountered in church. Maybe it’s aimed at the sort of “Christian” I keep hearing about  who would vote for Donald Trump after hearing him brag about getting away with grabbing women by the p___y.

Read the copy. You see the part asking whether you’re “over 65?” And did you see the girl in the picture? It’s hard to tell with all that makeup on, but I strongly suspect she’s closer in age to my grandchildren than to my children. Much less to me.

What the what?

Yeah, a man over 65 can be attracted — physically, anyway — to such a girl, but what does that have to do with being “Christian?”

Oh, and aside from the age thing, what is it in Google’s algorithms that caused that ad to appear to me? What is wrong with me that caused that to happen?

I don’t know about you, but I find myself living in a particularly insane world these days…

There’s no solution for email that doesn’t involve huge amounts of wasted time, is there?

just email

Hey, 1997 is calling. It says it has 9,374 emails for you…

I had had it with email about 20 years ago. You?

The worst thing about it is that it keeps coming, and there’s nothing you can do about it other than waste time on it — a certain amount (way more than you want to spend) each day, or gargantuan amounts now and then.

I saw a headline recently in The Washington Post that said: “The three worst things about email, and how to fix them.

I should have known better by now than to click on it, but I looked, and the blasted thing was 2,700 words long. In the amount of time it would take me to read and absorb that, I could delete a thousand emails. Also, I skimmed enough to see there were no real “solutions.” There were apps you could buy, of course, and the phrase “and pay $100 per year for it” persuaded me of the rightness of merely skimming.

Anyway, it begins like this:

Apologies if you’ve been waiting for an email from me. My Gmail has 17,539 unread messages.

Raise your hand if you have even more….

What, I’m going to take email-handling advice from a guy who has 17,539 unread messages?

Of course, I’d have that many in my In box if I didn’t take fitful stabs each day at at least skimming the first page of headlines, to see it there was something I actually needed to look at.

As it was, I had somewhere close to 9,000 in the various compartments of my In box (I refer to the way Gmail presumes to sort that box into “Primary,” “Social” and “Promotions.”) I don’t know exactly, because I didn’t add it all up before I started attacking it.

How much time did I expend on it? Well, I only got in about 8,000 steps Saturday, and basically I got NO walking or working on the elliptical in Sunday — which means I only got in the normal 2,860 from walking around the house.

I probably won’t make my steps goal for this month now (although I’ll try in these last four days — I had been on target before those two wasted days).

I won’t even start listing the things I needed to do and could have done OTHER than stepping if I hadn’t wasted so much time on email.

What did I get for that? Well, I deleted or filed (and in RARE instances read) the 1,300 or so in the “Primary” part of the In box. That’s the hard part. This morning, when I should have been working, I cleared out the “Social” section — none of that really needs to be looked at, although I filed away items naming members of my family or friends, in case someone asks “Did you see what I posted on Facebook?”)

That left the 6,000 or 7,000 in “Promotions.” This is 99 percent garbage, and the rest mildly interesting stuff I might want to glance at if I have nothing else to do, which of course is never the case.

I work through it pretty quickly. I highlight a page of 100 messages, and run my eyes down the whole list to at least give myself a chance of spotting something important that got placed in that category by accident — by which I mean, through the stupidity of the software — before deleting it all. Then I go to the next page. Ten pages for each thousand…

If I spend an hour each evening this week on it, I’ll probably have it cleaned out by the weekend.

I don’t think there is a solution to this, other than getting someone else to do it. Back when I was editorial page editor, I had a secretary. But I never asked her to do it (although I thought about it, many times), for two reasons:

  1. No one else can spot those odd things you sometimes need or want to read — say, a cryptic note from a friend from 30 years ago, or a release from some source you would normally ignore that contains critical info about something you’ve been thinking about addressing in a column — unless he or she can read your mind and know everything and everyone you know.
  2. I couldn’t bring myself to inflict that on another human being.

Anyway, there’s just no solution, is there? You just have to throw away significant portions of your life on it, don’t you?

(Please, please, please tell me I’m wrong…)

About to delete everything on THIS page...

About to delete everything on THIS page…

Well, I went and got a haircut. Here’s what happened…

long

Over the past month, my hair was pretty much out of control. For months before the pandemic, I’d been getting it cut really short — too short to comb — so as it grew out, it grew out kind of weird.

Finally, I recognized it.

Finally, I recognized it.

But it started looking sort of familiar. Finally, I recognized it: Charlton Heston as Moses in “The Ten Commandments!” Too bad people don’t make biblical epics in the 1950s style any more. If they did, it could have been my ticket to stardom, with Heston no longer around.

Anyway, a few days ago, I heard some encouraging news: A friend told me her husband had taken their son to another outlet of the same barber shop chain I go to, and had been impressed by the COVID security — everybody in masks, people not entering the shop until it was their turn, dividers between the chairs.

For the past year, I had been taking my Dad to get haircuts at that chain. It worked for us because we could just go when it was convenient for both of us — no appointment. You sign in on an app before you leave the house, and by the time you get there it’s your turn.

And I had come up with a system that meant it didn’t matter which barber I got — use a No. 4 clipper guard on the sides, and a No. 7 on the top. My haircuts would only take a few minutes, it took almost zero time to wash it in the shower, and I never had to comb it — I just let it lie down kind of like a classical Roman cut. It was veni, vidi, vici — I had the grooming thing beat. Et tu, Brad.

So this week, I decided to give it a try — alone. If I was impressed with the procedures, I could take my Dad another time.

Here’s how it went:

  • The shop we usually go to was closed, according to the app. Fine. I went to another that I’d never been to.
  • At first, it was awesome. Although when I left the house the app said I had 15 minutes to my turn, when I arrived it said zero, and I was the only customer there. Two women were at the counter, and both had masks. One of them accompanied me to a chair. Before we got started, she explained that she used to work at the shop I usually go to, that it would be reopening Saturday (so, today), and that she hoped to go back.
  • There was some confusion before starting because the computer told her to cut all my hair with a #3. I said I couldn’t imagine where that came from. It was a 4 and a 7. No biggie. She said she’d fix it in the computer.
  • Now the real concern: She had on a mask, but it was pulled down so it only covered her mouth. Every time I looked at her, I was looking up her nostrils. I didn’t say anything. I’ll try to explain why in a moment. I, of course, was wearing a mask, properly. I asked whether it was going to be in her way, and she said no, she was used to working around them. Fine.
  • Second problem. She did the sides and back with a #4, but then started working on the top entirely with a comb and scissors. Which meant it was going to take three or four times as long as usual. She asked if it was short enough at one point, and I said I didn’t think so, and mentioned, in a nice way, that maybe she should try using the good ol’ #7! She responded by, after trimming some more, taking the #7 and holding it to my hair to make sure it was the right length. I got this vibe that she was trying to show me how careful and skilled and artistic she was — something she had time to do, since there were no customers waiting (someone came in at one point, and I think the other woman handled him). I think she thought this was a good way to make a good impression on the client. But this was not what I wanted.
  • Why was I so reticent? Well, she spent the whole time telling me what a rough time she’d been having, and was still having. She couldn’t work for two months. She was still waiting to get her unemployment (she had finally learned, several days earlier, that it had been sent to her old address). She was also still waiting for her stimulus check (I was about to ask whether she’d checked to see whether that had gone to the old address, but I got distracted and we never got back to it, so I feel bad about that — surely she’s thought of that, right?). And the whole time, her landlord was being a total jerk and threatening to evict her. How big a jerk? When she learned a new unemployment card would be sent to her current address but would take seven to 10 days to arrive, she eagerly went to tell her landlord, who said, “I don’t see why it would take that long.” So, that big a jerk.
  • Also… sometimes I don’t trust myself to say things in a nice way. I had noticed that my hands were really tensed up under the sheet they put over you. Not fists, exactly, but tense. I know myself well enough that I didn’t think I’d be able to say, “You need to cover your nose with that,” or “Could you do the haircut the usual way so we can get done?” in a tone, or in the words, that would produce a constructive result. And I was very conscious that she was pouring out how she’d had a tough time. Now that she’d finally gotten back to work, I sort of figured she didn’t need the final straw of her one and only customer telling her she wasn’t doing the job right. I didn’t want to  be another landlord in her life.

Maybe I was overthinking it.

Anyway, I got home and figured my mission was accomplished when my wife laughed at me and said, “Your beard is bigger than your head now!”

But I don’t think I’m going to go back for another cut soon. I may not wait another four months, but I can wait a while

short

 

That seems a little desperate there, cable people…

My computer just made me watch this ad while I was waiting for something.

And all I could think was, “Wow, cable is really getting desperate.”

Streaming is so complicated, it’s… evil?

OK, so, if you’re very technology-averse, I suppose it’s a little complicated. But the complexity is wonderful. With cable, you watch what is “on” now. And in my experience, there is pretty much never anything “on” at a given moment that I have any interest in seeing. I don’t mind a bit of clicking around through various services to find something that interests me. I find myself watching more TV than I did in cable days. Which is not necessarily good, but I do it because the new way is much more appealing. It has a lot more to offer.

And claiming that it’s too expensive? Really? Have you actually checked out the pricing? I’ve got Netflix, Prime, Britbox and Disney+, and the monthly total is, what — about a fourth of what most people pay for cable? Maybe I’m doing the math wrong, but I don’t think so. Of course, at the moment I’m getting the Disney free because of… I don’t know… something to do with my Verizon account.

Not that there’s not the potential for things to get too messy, or too expensive. Once, there was just Netflix, and it seemed they had everything — or at least, more than I had time to watch. But now we’re moving toward every content producer pulling out their stuff and making you sign up for yet another service. And that’s not good.

But it’s still way better than cable, right?

monsters

How do you define ‘stay-at-home?’ What are you doing and not doing?

Sunday's dance recital in my parents' backyard.

Sunday’s dance recital in my parents’ backyard.

What does Henry McMaster’s sorta, kinda stay-at-home order really mean? The P&C has a fairly helpful explainer on that. When I read it, it seems like mostly stuff I thought everyone had quit doing weeks ago.

I have my own interpretations of what I should be doing, of what is socially responsible. I suspect each of you do, too.

So what does that mean in your daily routine? Here are a few glimpses of what it means to me:

  • Early this morning, I went to Lowe’s while my wife went to Aldi. I did so anticipating that when Henry’s order went into effect today, I wouldn’t be able to go to Lowe’s. I was wrong. Anyway, I put on a mask and rubber gloves. Of course, of course, of course I was the only male in the place doing so. Several women had on masks, but none of those contractors did. I kept expecting some of the guys to give me the business (to use the “Leave it to Beaver” expression), but no one did (in my hearing). I just shrugged it off because I’m determined not to give this to my parents. Why did I feel I needed to go there? Well, you know that deck project I’ve been working on for much of the past year? Well, I finally tore down the old wooden steps a couple of weeks back, and I’m anxious to build the new ones. So I got everything I still needed to do that (mostly additional lumber). Then I picked up some seeds and pepper plants for my wife the gardener, since Park Seed was out of what she needed! I also got several bags of raised bed soil for my own okra bed I wrote about earlier. I thought it might be too late to plant by the next time I could go there. This was, to my shock, a $150 trip.alert
  • When I got home, I stripped off everything and left my clothes in front of the washing machine to await the next load, then showered. I do that whenever I go someplace like that.
  • My wife and I still take a long walk in our neighborhood every day. Others are doing the same. We veer away from people we encounter to maintain at least the six feet of distance. We don’t wear masks or gloves. We see WAY more people than we’re used to seeing. Speaking of Leave it to Beaver, in one respect I’m seeing the neighborhood revert to my own childhood. LOTS of kids are riding their bikes all over the neighborhood, and I didn’t realize how relatively rare that is now until they started doing so in numbers that rival the days when Boomers were kids. No really cool bikes like Pee-Wee’s, though. We’re watching spring progress. We’re wondering why the rabbits aren’t out yet. We are seeing LOTS of squished turtles and frogs in the streets. It’s good there are so many, but bad that they’re squished. We did find one live baby turtle a couple of days ago. See below.
  • What are these churches that Henry’s talking about that are having Easter services? Are you kidding me? Our masses have been streamed and we “participate” from home. Our bishop called off all in-person masses weeks ago. And seriously — a First Amendment issue? The freedoms of speech and the press aren’t absolute, and neither is the religion clause. There are considerations that override. This is a political exemption, not a constitutional one.

    We've been doing Mass from home for weeks.

    We’ve been doing Mass from home for weeks.

  • Of course I’m working from home. I think it will have been three weeks on Thursday. I’ve been extremely busy, or I’d blog more. Still expecting that to slow down, but it hasn’t yet. By the way, I like it. I find I’m getting more done. It will be hard to go back to working at the office — if I ever do. If we need to meet, we do Facetime. Seems to me like we’re getting everything done fine.
  • The one hard thing for me is I can’t hug my grandchildren. But we see them, at a distance. On Sunday, the twins went over to my parents’ (their great-grandparents’) house to perform some of the choreography they did during a recent recital my folks had missed (before all such things were canceled). They did so without music, but it was still great. They wore face masks they had made themselves. They are wonderfully smart, talented, capable girls.
  • My other two in-town grandchildren came over yesterday to stand in the front yard and say “hey.” As I say, it’s hard not to hug them. They brought their several-month-old puppy, Lucy. Lucy went straight for my wife, who was sitting on our front steps, and enthusiastically licked her face. This made me worry, and I urged her to wash her face after they left. Don’t know if she did or not. Good thing Lucy’s not a tiger. My granddaughter and grandson were very grownup about keeping their distance while we chatted. Sort of wished they hadn’t been, but I was proud of them.
  • My elder son’s band, The Useful Fiction, was supposed to have had a gig Friday night. So since that was out, he streamed a solo acoustic set from his front porch on Facebook. He did a mix of his own original songs, which I think are great, and some covers — Dylan and such. Everyone who reacted enjoyed it. Hope he’ll do it more.
  • I feel guilty that except for the occasional delivery of groceries or takeout (or to watch the girls dancing), I’m not visiting my parents. But I’d probably feel worse if I thought I was endangering them. I check on them by phone daily, but formerly I used to go every day and do little things around the house, and stand by to be a lifeguard while my Dad took a shower, in case he fell. They’re getting by OK without all that so far, I think.
  • I haven’t seen my in-town son and daughter who don’t have kids in a week or two, although we talk. I miss them, too. And of course, we watch the coronavirus situation closely in Dominica, where my youngest lives.

Those are sort of random, but I suppose they kind of give the flavor.

How about y’all? What are you doing and not doing?

My wife holds up the one live baby turtle we encountered.

My wife holds up the one live baby turtle we encountered.

Are you doing ANYTHING now that’s not related to COVID-19?

Today's headline of the day.

Today’s headline of the day.

I’m not. Even when it’s something I would normally do, the way I do it is affected by the pandemic.

I’m still going in to the office (for now; I might work from home tomorrow), but everything I do there is about the coronavirus. Starting last week — I’d say from Thursday morning on — all I have done is assist clients with virus-related communications. I’m writing press releases, social media posts, eblasts and the like telling people who normally interact with these clients things they need to be told relating to the pandemic. Closings, cancellations, or how to continue to do business remotely.

Even blog posts I’m writing for clients’ websites are about the coronavirus, and how it’s affecting that particular client’s industry and so forth.

My personal life is the same. I just came back from a lunchtime trip to the Five Points Food Lion to see if they had some items I was unable to find at the store nearer my house, on account of hoarding. (They did! And no, I’m not talking face masks or hand sanitizer. Nobody’s got those. This was some frozen vegetables I was looking for.)

My daily walks (got to get in those 11,000 or 12,000 steps a day) may look the same outwardly, but I’m listening to podcast about, you know, the pandemic.

When I go to check on my parents, I wear a face mask. And I urge them to stay in, and let me go out to get whatever they might need.

Pretty much all conversations with the rest of my family have to do with this or that detail of our new mode of life. And checking to make sure folks are OK.

We didn’t go to Mass this past Sunday. And now all Masses are cancelled. Don’t worry, the bishop has granted dispensation.

Anyway, how about you? Does your life in any way retain any normalcy?

Is originality dead? For that matter, did it ever exist?

all the tees

This morning there was this huge Google Adsense ad spread across the top of my blog, right under the header (this one), for something called “Chummy Tees.”

There was no picture, so, wondering what was being promoted on my blog, I Googled the company (I didn’t dare click on the ad, as Google forbids me to do that). And I saw, among the rather plain, gray tee shirts being promoted, one that said “SURELY NOT EVERYONE WAS KUNG FU FIGHTING.”

And that cracked me up. I might be meaningless to people too young to remember the song, but I loved it. A perfect low-key joke for, say, an editor — someone who has spent most of his adult life keeping reporters from making extravagant statements that can’t be backed up. (Which is another way of saying you might not find it funny, but I do.)

I kind of liked this one, too.

I kind of liked this one, too.

I wasn’t going to shell out $23.95 for the shirt, of course. I’m neither crazy nor made of money. But… maybe I’d like to put it on my Amazon list. So I go to Amazon — I didn’t have to hunt for it because I already had a pop-up window from Amazon begging me to go there for such shirts — and it seems that while everyone may not be kung fu fighting, everyone seems to make a sure with that line (although all these used “everybody” instead of “everyone,” which is truer to the song).

And it got me to thinking, and not for the first time, that in the Internet age, we are no longer allowed to delude ourselves into thinking we have had an original thought. You think of something clever — something that in eras past you would have congratulated yourself for coming up with, convinced that you were quite the wag — and then for whatever reason you Google it, and you find out an army of people got there before you.

And this is frustrating. It fosters fatalism — why even TRY to come up with something good?, you ask yourself.

Yesterday on a podcast I was listening to, there was a discussion of the many ways that the internet casts a pall on our lives, bringing ills previously unimagined, and making us dread the future.

Add this to the list. It takes any small attempt to be original, and slams it to the ground.

And it makes you doubt there was ever anything such as originality. We may have thought we were clever, but that’s because we didn’t have the Web to set us straight. Each time you patted yourself on the back for a happy thought back in, say, 1975, there were a million other people out there having the same thought and thinking they were clever, too.

And we were all happier…

chummy

It’s always interesting to watch tech behemoths try to be something they are not

Bing shopping

Anyone out there actually use Bing?

I never have, even though I use a PC most of the time, and am therefore frequently reminded of its existence. I mean, there’s Google, right? So what would I use Bing for — unless I was trying to throw cyber surveillance off my scent? I do enjoy some of the cool photos they use to try to engage my interest, though.

As for Google — remember its pathetic attempt to be a social medium? I tried it out. I even used Google Hangout once for a video conference. But if I wanted video conferencing, I’ve got Facetime on my phone, right? And I have vague memories of something called Skype, although I haven’t used it in years.

Today, on my lockscreen on my PC, against a beautiful photo of a snowy countryside, I saw an invitation to check out something called “Bing shopping.”

Curious, I called it up. And I found something singularly unappealing. Then, intrigued by what sort of e-reader Bing shopping was promoting, I clicked and to my amusement saw that the first three offered were Amazon Kindles.

So… why am I not looking for them through Amazon?

As for Amazon… it might be too early to mock it for its foray into bricks-and-mortar retailing, but perhaps the time will come ere long…

Kindles

The mob turned me into a NEWT! And I didn’t get better!

This is something new to me: a satirical video op-ed — in the Gray Lady, no less!

mobI loved it. It was accompanied by some text. Having read it, and followed the links, I’ve concluded that as just as these mobs have always been with us, they’re probably not going away any time soon — mainly because the current culprits are immune to irony.

Even President Obama’s gentle attempt to speak to them as a grownup should got the mob howling at him. As the subhed of one piece taking exception to his plea says, “Old, powerful people often seem to be more upset by online criticism than they are by injustice.”

Speaking of Barack Obama. Yeah.

I’m guessing that if cancel culturists see this video, when a character says, “Our anger makes us qualified,” or “I‘m a peasant, and I’m offended,” they don’t get the joke. In fact, they may even get… offended.

Anyway, to add to the fun, here’s the original:

Bill WHO? Sometimes Google mystifies me

without c

I was reading a Bret Stephens piece from over the weekend, about what he sees as lessons from the Clinton impeachment, which was accompanied by this file photo of Bill in 1998.

I was struck by how young he looked. And I was wondering how young he was, and went to Google it.

And I ran across something odd.

I typed “bill” followed by a space, and above were the results I got. Which mystified me. I wasn’t totally stunned that Bill Cosby came first. Even though he has been more thoroughly shamed and degraded by his actions in the public eye, he is someone who once enjoyed great fame and acclamation.

But I figured Clinton would surely come next. But instead, of the next four “Bills,” only one was someone I had even heard of — Bill Gates. I would have to click to learn who Bill Nunn, Bill Goldberg and Bill Burr are or were. Which I didn’t do.

Instead, I added a “c,” and sure enough there was Bill Clinton — although still second to Cosby. See below. (And no, I have no idea who the two Callahans or Cowher are.)

Usually, I can intuit why Google offers me certain results — they reflect what is in the news, or other things I’ve recently searched for.

But sometimes it stumps me. This is one of those times.

Any idea why those bills — Nunn, Goldberg and Burr — come up before “Clinton?”

with c