Category Archives: In Our Time

It’s beginning to look a lot like pushing the season

holiday cups

Above is a cropped shot taken of three of my kids in Central Park in NYC on Nov. 23, 2007. It was the day after Thanksgiving, the day merchandisers call “Black Friday.” It was bitterly cold, and those cups of hot coffee were welcome.

I show you this in order to note that, to the best of my recollection, that was the first time I ever saw the red Starbucks “holiday cups.” Ever since then, I’ve been happy to see them come out again each year, because I have pleasant associations with that trip to New York.

I was a bit less delighted than usual to see them come out this year on Nov. 1, All Saints Day. Yes, when kids had hardly dented their candy hauls from Halloween.

That, to me, is going too far.

Nor was I thrilled to receive the below promotion on Veterans Day. The text with it said:

One Cyber Monday a year just isn’t enough. That’s why it’s a month-long event here at Musician’s Friend…

No, actually, one is quite sufficient, thanks. Or if you must have two, have the second after the usual one. Have three or four, if you like. I’m all for everybody making a living. But wait, please…


TIME: ‘The 140 Moments That Made Twitter Matter’


TIME must have had a lot of fun putting this together.

Maybe you don’t think Twitter matters at all. Maybe you think I’ve been wasting my time posting those 10,000 Tweets. Well, you’re wrong.

But don’t listen to me. Just peruse this collection of moments — with separate lists of #Fails, #Feuds, #Scoops, #Stunts, #Backtracks, #Rants, #Raves, #LOLz, #Debuts and #GameChangers — when Twitter really did matter.

Yeah, a lot of those are just fun, but many are serious. No one can doubt any more the power of Twitter as a medium that means business.

You can’t deny the power when…

Yeah, it’s a little less earth-shaking when a Hollywood star finds a fresh way to make a public fool of himself. Yeah, Alec Baldwin, I’m talking about you.

But there’s no question that Twitter matters now. And you don’t even need 140 characters to say that, to mean it — or too prove it.

Yes, that's Patrick Stewart posing in front of a sign that says "Picard." You sort of have to know about "Star Trek" to get this...
Yes, that’s Patrick Stewart posing in front of a sign that says “Picard.” You sort of have to know about “Star Trek” to get this. This is from the #LOLz category…

I just passed the 10,000-Tweet threshold! Is there a prize?


It happened when my last blog post automatically went out on Twitter.


It is perhaps fitting that the landmark Tweet was an instance of me asking you, the reader, what was going on. In the olden days — gather ’round, children, while Big Daddy tells you how it was — we, the journalists, told you, the great, passive, unwashed out there, what was going on.closeup

Not so in this era. Oh, sometimes I go cover something and tell y’all about it, but since this blog is not limited to things I’ve personally investigated and experienced, crowd-sourcing can often be the way to go. I mean, if you had to wait for me to go out physically and find 10,000 things to write about, you might have to wait longer than you’d like.

I’m excited about this milestone, and really feel like I’m entitled to some sort of prize for getting here. But I think I’m to be as disappointed as Calvin. Remember this strip?

Calvin (running in circles, throwing his arms up and exclaiming in delighted triumph: “Mom! Mom! I just saw the first robin of spring! Call the newspaper quick! Ha ha! A front page write-up! A commemorative plaque! A civic ceremony! All for me! Hooray! Hooray! Oh boy! Should I put the prize money in a trust fund or blow it all at once? Ha ha! I can’t believe I did it!”

Mom’s voice, from out of frame: “Calvin…”

A dejected Calvin, to Hobbes: “It’s a hard, bitter, cruel world to have to grow up in, Hobbes.”

Hobbes: “Cheer up! Did I tell you I saw a robin yesterday?”

Have YOU been harmed by the DOR hacking?

Or do you know anyone who has?

I raised this question, sort of indirectly, earlier — I was questioning the value of Vincent Sheheen trying to get everybody outraged over the hacking, which broke a year ago, when we don’t know whether anyone has been harmed. I was reacting to this passage in an AP story:

It’s unknown if anyone’s identity has been stolen because of the hacking. A Federal Trade Commission attorney has said the selling and trading of stolen information makes it virtually impossible to trace an identity theft case to any particular security breach.

But since that was Friday afternoon, and things I post on Friday afternoons tend to drift off into a vague place, only a few comments were offered, none of them answering the question above.

So, let me know, straight up — do you know of anyone who has good reason to believe he or she was in any way harmed by the breach?

I know someone who has had a terrible time from having her identity stolen, although it happened well before any of this, so I don’t think it’s related.

Someone filed false tax returns for 2011 using my next-to-youngest daughter’s Social Security number and other info. It was a huge hassle getting it all straightened out.

Then, just over a week ago, she got this seriously threatening letter from the IRS saying that she had ignored their previous notices (she had received no previous notices) and that if she didn’t pay more than $7,000 RIGHT NOW her property was going to be seized.

There was no way she had at any time owed the IRS $7,000.

Supposedly, that is now straightened out, also. A guy at the IRS named “Mike” — no surname that I know of — said just to tear up that letter; it was all a mistake. OK, so we’re, um, somewhat reassured. (I assume that if there are any more threats from the IRS, we’re just supposed to say, “Fuggedaboudit. Mike says it’s cool….” We’re counting on Mike being the guy behind the guy.)

I don’t know whether that particular incident is related to the earlier theft or not. I think it is. I’m somewhat confused by the fact that my daughter was out of the country last month, and her purse was stolen — with passport, driver’s license, everything. She had to get a provisional passport from the embassy to get back into the country.

Oh, yes; one other thing — last week I got a notice from Adobe saying that when I bought PhotoShop Express from them several months back, my information was stolen. They want me to sign up for monitoring on their dime, I believe. I guess I’d better get on that; I’ve been busy the last few days and had managed to shove that to the back of my mind…

Unfortunately for Vincent Sheheen, I don’t blame any of these incidents on Nikki Haley.

My point is, people’s identities do get stolen, and it does lead to hassles. So has anyone had any such hassles that they know or merely suspect were related to the Department of Revenue hacking?

And if not, isn’t that sort of odd?

Snowden’s new employer kept secret ‘for security reasons.’ No, I am not making this up.

The Slatest brought this to my attention:

Edward Snowden has a new job. His lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, tells Russian outletRIA Novosti that Snowden has landed a new gig in technical support. Kucherena isn’t saying who Snowden’s new employer is, but did describe the company as a major Russian website. “He will be part of the support team of one of the largest Russian websites,” Kucherena told the Russian news agency. “I can’t say the name of the website now for security reasons.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

First, what employer on this planet would be so monumentally stupid as to hire Edward Snowden, someone who so famously betrayed every oath, every rule and principle held sacred by his former employers?

For a full reminder of the extent to which Snowden personifies the concept of betrayal, betrayal of everyone and everything around him, I urge you to go back at read David Brooks’ column of June 10. And I quote:

He betrayed honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity. He made explicit and implicit oaths to respect the secrecy of the information with which he was entrusted. He betrayed his oaths.

He betrayed his friends. Anybody who worked with him will be suspect. Young people in positions like that will no longer be trusted with responsibility for fear that they will turn into another Snowden.

He betrayed his employers. Booz Allen and the C.I.A. took a high-school dropout and offered him positions with lavish salaries. He is violating the honor codes of all those who enabled him to rise.

He betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more.

He betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods.

He betrayed the Constitution. The founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed. Snowden self-indulgently short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability, putting his own preferences above everything else….

“For security reasons…” Har-de-har-har-har.

Whose security? Edward Snowden’s? Who should feel any obligation to respect or protect confidentiality for his benefit?

It’s a hoot the way Pinterest thinks it knows me


Remember that picture I posted the other day of the protester from 1963?

Well, I posted it on Pinterest, too, and today I got a message from that social media service headlined, “Pins you’ll love!”

One of them was the picture above, with the caption, “Fashionable men.”

Pinterest thinks it knows me. It’s decided that what I want to see is natty young black men in skinny retro ties.

People worry about increasingly intuitive algorithms knowing too much about them. I look at the way those programs actually work, and have to smile. They have a tendency, shall we say, to leap to thinly supported conclusions.

You especially get wild results when the principal medium of expression is photographs, which are so subject to misinterpretation. I’m a word guy; I was interested in the words on the protester’s sign. All Pinterest saw was the picture….

Why do political flacks risk the hazards of Twitter? Because they HAVE to


Talk about your nightmares.

White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer made an observation Tuesday on Twitter about how the changing media world was adding to political polarization in the country. Then he tried to add, to @jmartNYT, “also a much bigger factor on the right.”

Only his finger slipped, and he typed an N rather than a B on “bigger.” (Look at your keyboard; they’re right next to each other.) This was on an official White House Twitter account, mind you.

The Tweet was deleted, and he apologized. And the world moved on.

But then, some “veteran politicos” on the Hill started wondering why a senior adviser to the President was fooling around with anything as dangerous as Twitter anyway?

POLITICO explained, as would we, that he has little choice:

For years now, Twitter has served as the public square for political journalists, the place where the conventional wisdom is shaped before it turns into “the narrative.” Communications aides have always monitored that conversation closely, and some have long had an active Twitter presence. But many — top White House spokespeople, especially — often felt safer limiting their own remarks to carefully edited statements shared via press release. As a public forum, Twitter was too informal, too risky, too off-the-cuff.

Increasingly, however, flacks have come to see Twitter as a necessary tool in their communications arsenal. Instead of waiting to respond to reporters’ inquiries, Twitter enables them to influence reporters’ thinking and nip negative coverage in the bud.

“Twitter, like cable news, is another medium where the conversation in Washington gets shaped,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told POLITICO. “Given the current media environment, we engage in real time so that as many folks as possible understand our perspective. Twitter is simply another resource to get our message out, and we generally like to avail ourselves of every opportunity to do just that.”

Brendan Buck, the press secretary for House Speaker John Boehner, said Twitter was “what the Speaker’s Lobby used to be. You want to find and talk to assembled reporters, open your Tweetdeck.”


I am reminded of Trav Robertson who dealt with media for the Vincent Sheheen gubernatorial campaign in 2010. I ran into him (at Starbucks, of course) some months after Sheheen narrowly lost that contest, and he confided that there was one thing that he had been unprepared for: the fact that the old “news cycle” was gone, and that he had to pump out information, and counter stuff that was out there, 24/7.

I was surprised that he was surprised, and wondered if that played any role in Sheheen’s defeat. Probably not, but it was a close race, for a Democrat in South Carolina…

Profile in Courage, 2013 edition: Boehner promises to do the right thing to avoid default

First, I want to applaud Speaker John Boehner for promising to do the right thing, at least with regard to a default that could devastate the world economy:

With a deadline for raising the debt limit fast-approaching, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has been telling colleagues in recent days that he will do whatever necessary to avoid defaulting on the federal debt, including relying on House Democrats to help pass an extension, according to GOP aides familiar with the conversations…

But after I’m done applauding the speaker for his courage, let’s have a moment of silence to mourn how low the “courage” bar is these days.

What that says is that the speaker of the House promises he will work with all of his willing colleagues, regardless of party, for the sake of the nation — to make sure that a terrible, needless thing does not happen to the country and the world.

That should be business as usual. Once upon a time, it would have been (in support of that statement, I submit the fact that the United States has never before defaulted in its 237-year history).

But today — and this just makes me sick — it’s extraordinary. In the U.S. House Republican caucus, it is seen as political suicide to work with Democrats, even on something of critical importance to the country.

So yay, Mr. Speaker. And here’s hoping and praying that we’ll live to see the day when this sort of behavior is once again sufficiently common that we have no reason to take note of it…

Catering to America’s affinity for ‘soft’ news


I ran across a recent blog post that looked back at one from 2011 on The Daily Kos.

Showing several examples of recent TIME covers, Kos highlighted the dramatic difference between the American covers, and the corresponding ones from the same weeks in the European, Asian and South Pacific editions. Several weeks of examples were given. See the whole slide show.

There’s nothing subtle going on here. To the extent that these weeks are a guide, we see that TIME has decided people in the rest of the world are more serious-minded than Americans. Foreigners get hard news. Americans’ penchant for “me” news, soft stuff, lifestyle features, is catered to without a shred of hesitation or shame.

It would be easy to blame TIME. But I think TIME knows what Americans want. If they didn’t have the research to back it up, they wouldn’t do anything this blatant. Would they?


Never give up on helping Republicans with their English-language skills

Yes, I suffer setback after disappointment, but when I get a release such as this one from SC Rep. Bill Taylor:

Abandon the “Government Plantation”

 Meet Louisiana State Sen. Elbert Guillory

Please join me in Columbia this coming Sunday afternoon as we give a SC  WELCOME to Louisiana State Sen. Elbert Guillory.


Sen. Guillory has became an Internet sensation after bravely voicing his disapproval of the progressive agenda and Liberal policies. Nearly a million people have viewed his video “Why I Am A Republican” in explaining why he switched from the Democrat Party to the Republican Party…

… I don’t rant, rave, or fulminate, in spite of the great insult to the language I love. I simply reply with a neutral, but firm, correction:

FYI, there’s a typo in there. You wrote “Democrat Party” where you meant “Democratic Party.”

This nonsense has been going on for far too long. I seem to recall George Will taking Bob Dole to task for it quite publicly, back in the ’70s, when Dole was going on about “Democrat Wars,”

One of these days, it’s going to get through. The important thing is, never let it just pass. When you hear it, speak up — as I said, calmly but firmly. Surely they will eventually pick up on it.

There are some Republicans out there who want English to be our official, statutory language. Well, if they want people speaking English, they should model the correct behavior…

Finally, a perfect job fit for me!

Back during my long period of unemployment, I signed up for a number of Internet services to help me in the job hunt. I still get emails from them.

Today, I got one that claimed, “An employer or recruiter on TheLadders just posted a job that matched with your profile.”

Exciting news, eh?

What was the job? Vice President of Logistics for Belk. An excerpt from the description:

This position is responsible for planning and coordinating domestic transportation and retail DC operations and includes operational and fiscal responsibility for these activities.  He / She will take a strategic leadership approach and will be accountable for creating plans to develop and integrate the capabilities of the organization in line with the current Supply Chain Mission.  The VP of Logistics ensures that internal and external customers receive the highest level of service, makes decisions that maximize the operation’s performance and cost metrics, and builds strong associate work teams with a positive work environment…

Yeah… that’s me all over.

This would be mildly amusing except for something else I know… algorithms that are no more sophisticated than the one that saw this as right up my alley are making decisions about who will get interviewed for jobs and who will not. I don’t know how many jobs I got rejected for before a single human being had looked at my application, but I assure you it would be a depressing number.

Gimme a break. Does a URL really have to be this long?

In a comment on a previous thread, I provided a link to an image that illustrated what I was talking about. Never mind what I was talking about; that’s not the point.

The point is, when I copied and pasted the URL for the image, I found it was, in my humble and uninformed opinion, longer than was necessary. Here’s the URL:


Really. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 9,903 characters. Or, to stretch it out, nine thousand, nine hundred and three.

Come on. Even if you assign a different combination of letters and numbers to every image ever created in the history of the planet, or ever will be created before our sun goes cold billions of years from now, you wouldn’t need that many characters to designate a specific one of those images.

That’s just ridiculous. TinyURL, anyone?

Bradley Manning escapes, having been replaced in his cell by someone named ‘Chelsea’

Are any of y’all watching “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix? No, wait, that’s an archaic question in the age of binge-watching, and of series being released all at once. It should be more like “Have any of y’all watched all or part of ‘Orange is the New Black’?”

Well, we have been, and we’ve seen it through the third episode, which centers around a transsexual — a former fireman named Burset, now living as a woman, specifically as the inmate hairdresser — in the women’s prison in which the series is set. It’s a sympathetic portrayal in the fullest sense — sympathetic to him as a him (in flashbacks) and her as a her, as well as to Burset’s wife and child and the pain they’ve dealt with through the process. I also found myself feeling a bit for the criminal justice system and prison authorities, because of the questions they have to deal with: Do you put Burset in a women’s prison? If so, is the state obligated to provide continued hormone treatments? If the state withdraws such treatments (which it does, allegedly for medical reasons), should Burset still be kept in a facility for women? If Burset commits suicide because all that personal and family sacrifice was for nothing, is the state liable?

But at least in that case, Burset came to the system having already made the big change, and having paid $80,000 for it. (We are given to gather that the imprisonment has something to do with how that money was acquired.) Everybody knew what they were dealing with.

Now, we have the real-life case of Bradley Manning, a young man who served in the U.S. Army as a man, and was convicted and sentenced as a man, and now wants to become a woman. Or is a woman, as his missive on the subject states.

Wow. This has to be frustrating for the Army. Here they went to all this trouble to try and convict and sentence this guy named Bradley, and now there’s some dame in his cell instead.

That’s one of the slicker escapes I’ve ever heard of.

Has reality itself lost its dynamic vitality?

My dear virtual friends, here is something to mess with your head a bit, late on this Monday afternoon, which is so much like so many other Monday afternoons.

It’s a piece that I missed at the time (10 days ago, in the WSJ), checking it out only when I saw a letter to the editor referring to it. It’s by Pulitzer-winner Henry Allen, who says he “used to be Ziggy Zeitgeist, Harry Hip,” a guy sufficiently plugged into the Zeitgeist to write a book about what each decade of the 20th century felt like to life in.

Now, he is adrift:

Now I am disquieted. It’s not that I see things changing for better or worse, for richer or poorer, or even not changing at all. It’s something else: The most important thing in our culture-sphere isn’t change but the fact that reality itself is dwindling, fading like sunstruck wallpaper, turning into a silence of the dinner-party sort that leads to a default discussion of movies.

Is some sort of cultural entropy homogenizing us?

As novelist Douglas Coupland has pointed out, ordinary people in photographs from 1993 are indistinguishable from people in photographs now. Can you name another 20-year period in modern American history when this is true? 1900-20? 1920-40? 1970-90? His analysis: There’s not much geist left in the zeit….

I think he’s onto something, especially with that bit about how people look the way they did 20 years ago. You can look at pictures from the 60s (especially of famous, trendy people, like the Beatles) and pretty much tell what year it was. Every year felt and looked so different from those that preceded. Things slowed down a bit after that, but you could still recognize the decade. Until the last 20 years or so.

There’s more thought-provoking stuff in the piece:

We have individualism but we have no privacy. We are all outsiders with no inside to be outside of.

Or: We’ve lost our sense of possibility. Incomes decline, pensions vanish, love dwindles into hooking up, we’re not having enough babies to replace ourselves.

No arc, no through-line, no destiny. As the British tommies sang in the trenches of World War I, to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.”

I don’t know what’s going on. I doubt that anyone does. Is our democracy turning into a power vacuum? What will fill it?

Will organized religion die? I got talking to a girl from an Episcopal youth group in Missouri. “Episcopalianism is great,” she said. “You don’t have to believe in anything.”

Like most people I used to think the world would go on the way it was going on, with better medicine and the arrival of an occasional iPad or an earthquake. That was when I knew what was going on….

But you should just go read the whole thing

I couldn’t watch Werner Herzog’s anti-texting-and-driving video; it made my heart hurt too much

At the behest of AT&T, German filmmaker Werner Herzog made a half-hour video that shows the real-life human tragedies that texting while driving causes.

I couldn’t get through the very first story. It made my heart hurt too much. From the very first second that I saw that young woman holding her fingers out to her side, I knew that there was supposed to be a small child clinging to them, and that the child was gone.

It’s brutal. But as an updated, higher-quality film of the sort they made driver’s-ed students watch back in my day, it’s got to be effective. I hope.

So what is Amazon suggesting that Jeff Bezos buy next?

The credit for that headline goes to our own Bryan Caskey, who tweeted it to me yesterday (playing off of my earlier post wondering why Amazon would think I want to buy “geek” merchandise). How, indeed, would his own algorithms predict his future purchasing behavior based on his latest acquisition?

What, pray tell, is the founder of Amazon going to do with The Washington Post? Does he think he can make money where everyone else has failed? Does he seek influence? Or did he buy it as a hobby, sort of the way other people collect matchbooks or the like?

From his perspective, it doesn’t much matter, since he got it at such a bargain: $250 million. Less than 1 percent of his wealth. It’s about like me buying a single copy of the Post.

Let me elaborate on that figure.

Knight Ridder paid $300 million for The State and its smaller properties in 1986. As recently as 2006, when I speculated in a column about buy the paper myself, I was figuring it would still cost hundreds of millions — balancing the decline of the business against inflation. Mind you, this was just before the bottom dropped out of retail advertising.

Now, I just don’t know what it would cost. But I do know that, historically speaking, Bezos got the WashPost dirt cheap. Since the paper hasn’t changed hands before in modern times, we should look to the sale the other day of The Boston Globe by the NYT. Twenty years ago, New York bought The Globe for $1.1 billion. They sold it for $70 million. They ate a billion-dollar loss, and for all I know, consider themselves lucky.

So what is Bezos going to do with The Post? I don’t know. I wondered the same when Warren Buffett bought Media General. From what I’ve seen and heard, he hasn’t made any startling changes in the business operations.

But Bezos is more of an innovator. Is it possible that the guy who built a new kind of retail empire from the once-novel idea of selling books online has figured out, or will be able to figure out, the new business model for the news biz? I hope so. He’s got his work cut out for him. The collapse of newspapers’ business model is based on an economic trend that’s bigger than Amazon — and one of the secrets of Amazon’s success.

Newspapers — and local TV and radio stations — are the victims of a long-term trend in marketing (dating from direct mail in the early ’80s to the increasingly sophisticated targeting of the Internet) away from advertising in mass media to going after specific, individual customers. Advertisers became less interesting in reaching whole communities, choosing to be far more picky.

Since Amazon is the ultimate direct marketer to individuals, Bezos has to understand the phenomenon better than almost anyone. It will be very interesting to see how he applies his insights to The Post, if he chooses to do so…

The joys of a real bookstore

There was a thought-provoking little piece in the WSJ today by a bookstore owner in Tennessee:

The weather in Tennessee has been unaccountably beautiful this summer, with late July temperatures in the 70s rather than the 100s. The drive from Chattanooga, where President Obama gave his jobs speech at the Amazon warehouse Tuesday, to Nashville, where I am the co-owner of Parnassus Books, is a scenic two hours.

I wish he’d come by.

Thanks to the Amazon warehouse, there are about 7,000 new jobs in Chattanooga, many of them seasonal. But to celebrate Amazon as an employer is to ignore all the jobs that have been squeezed out of the economy as independent bookstores and other small businesses have been forced to close their doors, unable to compete with the undercut pricing the online retail giant offers. And with those shuttered bookstores go a big part of our community.

In the time-honored tradition of bookstores everywhere, our store is staffed by readers—people who want to talk about the books they love. We’re not handing out algorithms based on what books other people have bought. These aren’t widgets we’re selling….

Actually, it was more of a feeling-provoking piece than thought-provoking, I suppose. And my feelings were conflicted.

First, I felt sympathy for the person trying to operate a mom-and-pop bookstore in this age. At the same time, I noticed that this person didn’t get into the business until 2011. A former editor of mine retired more than 10 years ago and started an online used book business, so it’s not like this phenomenon snuck up on this person. This is somewhat different from the character in “You’ve Got Mail” who inherited a charming little bookshop.

Second, I felt identification with someone who would rather browse books in person than buy one online. That happens to be one of my very favorite leisure-time activities, when I have leisure time. So it is that I continue to root for Barnes & Noble to hang in there with the real, live bookstore thing.

Third, I felt guilty because, well, as much as I love browsing a bookstore, I’ve always had a preference for Barnes & Noble over the charming little mom-and-pop types. Even though Rhett Jackson was a friend of mine, I seldom frequented his shop. If I went there, it was to quickly find a book and buy it. There’s something, for me, about having the vast space and great variety of B&N to wander in, while sipping a hot Starbucks coffee. (Here’s another confession: When I go to the one on Harbison, the one I frequent most, I actually go to the Starbucks over across the parking lot, rather than getting my coffee in the bookstore cafe. Partly because I can use my Starbucks card there.)

Of course, as I’ve confessed before, I usually don’t actually buy a book at the end of those browses. But when I do buy a book — as I did just this last weekend — I buy it at B&N.

Finally, I felt out-bookwormed by this woman. As you would expect from someone who sells new books, she’s very up-to-date in her reading. I seldom read a book that was written in the last 10 years, or even 50 years — there’s just too great a wealth of old stuff that I’ll never get to, I have little interest in keeping up with the best-seller lists. Since I started reading the daily book reviews in the WSJ, I have gotten a little more interested in recent books — but when I get one of them, it still tends to sit on my shelves for months or even years before I actually read it. I like to let them age a little. So much of the rest of my life has been spent keeping up with the latest, and meeting deadlines. Part of the pleasure of a book is knowing it will sit there and wait for me indefinitely, and be just as rewarding when I finally pick it up.

I use Amazon for all sorts of things. Particularly phone accessories — USB cords, earbuds — which are amazingly cheaper than in a store. Or when I’m shopping for some particular item someone wants for Christmas or birthday, and I don’t immediately find it in the first store where I look — I’ll just stand there in the store and order it over my phone.

But books I want to hold in my hand before I buy.

Forget oxycodone. The most addictive drug is Google. And we’re past the point at which it’s just a ‘choice.’


Back on this post from yesterday, we were having the usual argument about the intrusiveness of private companies vs. the government, and as usual someone said “my use of Google Maps is voluntary,” an assertion which I questioned.

My use of Google Maps and other Google products is no longer in the realm of what I consider to be “voluntary.”

Google is as much a part of the daily infrastructure of my life, and the things I need to get done, as the streets I drive on. Its services are something I rely on, in a more direct, frequent and ubiquitous manner, than I do the direct services of the police.

I don’t see how to engage modern life without it — or something exactly like it. I couldn’t get through a day of ADCO work without it, much less publish this blog. Without Google, both of my active email accounts go away, my browser (the instantaneous searches that occur when you type into the URL field, making it unnecessary to know the address of anything, is indispensable) disappears; there’s no YouTube, no really utilitarian Maps program, and then all sorts of other useful things like Google Books, Translate (no longer can I just say, Well, that’s French and I don’t understand French… no excuse), etc. Without Google Images, I have to fall back on my highly flawed memory for names and faces.

One can attempt to drop off the grid and no longer use Google, just as one can drop out of society at large — quit paying one’s taxes, go live in the wilderness off the land. Theoretically, at least.

But the cost of doing either is pretty high…

Yes, there are other services that do these things. But that’s not the point. If Yahoo or AOL had succeeded in being what Google is, or if Facebook were to succeed in being what it wants to be, then it would be the same thing; we’d just be calling it something different. And why ever use competing services for any of these functions, when the very fact that they are all knit together seamlessly magnifies their utility exponentially? I would no more want to switch platforms than I would want to try to leave the roads and drive on a railroad track in my car.

Kathryn writes, “Google is a gateway drug.”

Yes. And more addictive than most.

I always had trouble with being distracted by looking things up. It was just too seductive. A dictionary on my desk was a dangerous thing. I couldn’t look up a word without running across several other words on the way that fascinated me, and each of them led to other words, and on and on.

Fortunately, I had a good vocabulary, and seldom really needed to look up a word.

But now that I can, instantly, look up anything, I cannot stop doing it. A thought about a word or a fact that causes my brain to wonder or doubt even slightly (something I have always done, constantly; it’s just that for the first decades of my life it was harder to scratch that itch) sends me on an immediate search.

For instance, last night I watched “Looper.” Almost immediately, I wondered who the protagonist was. It looked remotely like , but the expression and even facial structure was wrong (It was him, but he wore extensive makeup to make himself look like a young Bruce Willis). Then I thought, “Isn’t Bruce Willis in this? Why haven’t I seen him?” So I checked, and yeah, he was coming up. I see Emily Blunt’s in it. Isn’t she the girl who… ? Yes, she is. She’s really something. Jeff Daniels is surprisingly good in this. What’s his character’s name again? And so forth… (By the way, the movie wasn’t very satisfying.)

OK, so most of that was IMDB, and IMDB isn’t Google. Yet. But the fact is, I often use Google to flesh out what I find in the movie database, because the info there is pretty sketchy. I like depth in my trivia. I used to do this with my phone, which is always clipped to my belt. Now, I usually have the iPad within reach as well.

In any case, now that it’s possible to look things up constantly, I can’t stop.

You can point to this as a character flaw (or perhaps an illness), and you have a good argument. But aside from the compulsive aspect, a certain amount of this is necessary to practically everything I do, everywhere I go.

Let’s say that a person only really needs to use these services a tenth as much as I do. I could concede that. But if a person doesn’t at least use them that tenth amount, he’s not going to be able to keep pace with the world and interact with other people at the pace that society demands — at least, not in anything I’ve ever done for a living. (Yes, I know that lots and lots of jobs today are still not information-based.)

That puts Google into the realm of essential infrastructure, again like the roads that are a function of government.

It at least gets us to where any assertion that one is not forced to deal with Google (or, for the sake of argument, with some other “private” entity that’s just as useful) on fairly thin ice.

Big Brother doesn’t need NSA to know where you’ve been

Several of the most amazing things I’ve seen technology do in recent years are associated with Google Maps.

Such as the traffic feature.

Look at Google Maps on your phone, and you’ll see how well traffic is moving — or whether it’s moving at all — on the road ahead of you.

Google does this by — Edward Snowden and the ACLU should brace themselves at this point — keeping track of all the Maps-equipped phones traveling on the road. Not only that road, of course, but all roads, all of the time. In real time.

Now, we see that law enforcement can do, and does, something similar by tracking license plates:

The spread of cheap, powerful cameras capable of reading license plates has allowed police to build databases on the movements of millions of Americans over months or even years, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report released Wednesday.

The license-plate readers, which authorities typically mount along major roadways or on the backs of cruisers and government vehicles, can identify cars almost instantly and compare them against “hot lists” of vehicles that have been stolen or involved in crimes.

But the systems collect records on every license plate they encounter — whether or not they are on hot lists — meaning that time and location data are gathered in databases that can be searched by police. Some departments purge information after a few weeks, some after a few months and some never, said the report, which warns that such data could be abused by authorities and chill freedom of speech and association…

You have to pity the ACLU, Rand Paul, et al. They are doomed to worry themselves to death. Because this toothpaste is not going back into the tube.

I liked the way it was put in an explainer of the Google traffic function:

So how does Google know what traffic is like on the roads, nearly all the time? From our smartphones, of course. Whether you like it or not, “telephone companies have always known where your phone is,” Dobson says, because cell phone companies need to use location to appropriately charge customers for calls. That means the companies are constantly monitoring location based on the strength of signal to a cell tower, which allows the phone to switch towers as it travels. Since 2011, the Federal Communications Commission has also required that phones come with GPS, so between the triangulation with cell towers and the GPS requirement, your phone is a marked man….

Now, this has stirred up some controversy about whether the process is an invasion of privacy. But both Dobson and Zhan Guo, a transportation policy professor at New York University, nearly laughed when asked about privacy concerns. That ship has already sailed….

Indeed. One might as well laugh.

Some will say that a private company keeping tabs on your every move, for its own greater profit (and utility, of course) is preferable to the gummint doing so.

I don’t think either is necessarily preferable, just different. And either way, ultimately inevitable.