Category Archives: Technology

Or, to put it more succinctly…

conspiracy

Y’all know how many words I’ve written lately to explain my epiphany that should have occurred to me years ago — how our descent into a post-truth society has been accelerated by technology that we all love, except when it’s making us insane.

I’ve written about insights gained from listening to “Rabbit Hole” or this other recent podcast, or watching “The Social Dilemma” or reading any of a number (too small a number) of articles I’ve run across.

That’s looking at it from satellite height, which is what I tend to do. The forest, not the trees so much.

But I was struck this morning while reading a piece in The Washington Post about one family, and how two daughters have been trying to pull their mother back from the precipice. It started like this:

In a country where disinformation was spreading like a disease, Celina Knippling resolved to administer facts to her mom like medicine­. She and her four siblings could do nothing about the lies that had spread outward from Washington since Election Day, or the violence it had provoked. But maybe they could do something to stop dangerous political fantasies and extremism from metastasizing within their family. Maybe they could do something about Claire….

Nice lede, but I’m mostly impressed by the first phrase:

In a country where disinformation was spreading like a disease…

Yep. Of course (he protested, seeking to defend himself with regard to the thousands of words he had written), that explains but one aspect of the “Rabbit Hole” problem. In fact, it’s one I can’t remember whether I’ve even touched on, because it’s one of so many. I definitely remember the point being made in my source material — I can picture this one guy in “The Social Dilemma” looking at the camera and explaining how much faster a lie travels around the world than facts do.

But you know, if that one thing were the whole problem, we’d still be in major trouble. First, we’re in a world in which every single person on the planet has more power to distribute ideas globally than any newspaper publisher who ever lived. (You remember newspapers, right? They were very big in the 20th century.) And to do it much, much faster. Instantaneously, even.

Second, people have become much more gullible than they were. For whatever reason, we’ve got millions of people who actually believe these two extraordinary, unlikely things: 1. That experienced, professional journalists who live by a code of accuracy and impartiality cannot be trusted to tell you they truth, ever; and 2. that you can completely believe, with a simplicity of childlike faith, what any idiot on YouTube tells you, as long as his patter is smooth, and he’s saying things you actually want to hear.

The lady in the story I read today fits that description completely. She and her husband (not her grown children’s father, this is the guy they blame for what’s happened to their mother) recently cut themselves off from reliable news source, and she finds the loonies like, say, Stefan Molyneux, very persuasive.

I urge you to read the story. But don’t expect a happy ending. This is a profoundly scary problem we’re dealing with, and it continues to tear us apart.

 

 

What a great resource for searching old papers!

Library of Congress

I want to thank Jim Catoe for pointing out something very cool the other day.

Remember my post about how fascinating newspapers were a century or so ago, with their unbelievably detailed and varied accounts of what was going on in their communities? Occasionally, Ancestry throws me “hints” that consists of pages from such papers, and I usually enjoy reading the rest of the page as much as I do the item that contains information about an ancestor. (It’s the same with other aspects of tree-building: It’s fun to find an Earl of Whatever as direct ancestor in the 15th century, but not nearly as much fun as checking out his Wikipedia page and learning the historical context of what was going on around him. I’ve learned a lot about history that was unknown to me before. But not enough. Gotta keep at it…)

Well, Jim posted this in response:

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, housed in the Library of Congress and available on-line, has been a valuable tool for me in researching my ancestors in Lancaster and Kershaw Counties. I’ve found both saints and scoundrels in the family’s past.

So I checked it out, approaching it as a genealogical tool, and immediately did a search for “Warthen.” But unusual as my last name is, that was a bit too wide a cast, so I narrowed it by adding the first name of my grandfather and uncle, “Gerald.”

And immediately, I ran across a page of The Sunday Star of Washington, dated Feb. 28, 1943.

And on it was one of the most fascinating clips I’ve seen, in family tree terms. Of course, the item about the Warthens wasn’t the dominant thing on the page. The visual focus was a photo from a social event, with this cutline:

SINCERE SMILES AND WARM HANDCLASP OF ALLIED FRIENDSHIP
A high light of the reception given last week at the Soviet Embassy was the warm welcome extended by the Ambassador and Mme. Litvinoff to His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador and Lady Halifax. The function was given in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the valiant Red Army.

Many other interesting artifacts of life in 1943 were to be found on the page. But unlike with the pages from Ancestry, I was able to go immediately to the one I was looking for, because “Gerald” and “Warthen” were highlighted. And here, in the middle of an item about what various folks in the Maryland suburbs were up to, was this graf:

Mr. and Mrs. Gerald H. Warthen have leased their home in Kensington, where they resided for many years, and members of the family are now in various parts of the country doing their part in the war effort. Mr. Warthen is with the Federal Public Works Agency in Baltimore and Mrs. Warthen and three of their children. Miss Mary Bradley Warthen, Donald and Rebecca Jane are in Asheville, N. C., where Mrs. Warthen and Mary are with a branch of the General Accounting Office, which was recently transferred there. Another daughter, the former Miss Laura Moffatt Warthen, whose marriage to Lt. John B. Avery, Army Air Forces, took place February 13 at Rosswell, N. Mex., is now in San Antonio, Tex., where Lt. Avery is stationed. The Warthens’ older son, Lt. Gerald Warthen is with an Army engineer aviation battalion near Tampa, Fla. After the war they plan to be together again at their Kensington home.

It’s not all that well-written. It seems to say Grandma and three of the kids were in Baltimore with my grandfather, and then the next sentence notes that she was working for the GAO in Asheville, with the three youngest kids. And the latter was true, to the best of my knowledge.

But still: How often do you find an item like this, from almost 80 years ago, telling you what everyone in your father’s family was up to at this moment of great, historic import? Not often.

I knew most of this, just as I know my grandfather would join them in Asheville later, that Uncle Jack would go off to fly B-17s in the 8th Air Force and get shot down three times, and that my Uncle Gerald would be with the engineers in the Philippines (where he would later joke that he was building an officers’ club or something equally nonessential when MacArthur finally returned).

It doesn’t say much about what Dad and the other young ones were doing, because he was still a schoolboy — the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor on his 13th birthday. And as I say, there were no great revelations in the paragraph. But still, what a cool find!

And that was just from my very first search. I look forward to exploring further.

Maybe I’m just discovering something all of y’all knew about. But if not, I urge you to check it out, especially if you have the genealogy bug. Here’s the link. And thanks, Jim!

Warthens in WWII

More on the stuff driving us crazy

Click on the image to listen to the podcast.

Click on the image to listen to the podcast.

More in my quest to increase awareness of, and prompt discussion about, the ways that social media and other apps that are desperate for our attention are driving America mad — and leading to such unprecedented dysfunction as the presidential election of 2016, and the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol…

Any of y’all listen to Kara Swisher’s podcast, Sway? She had a good one last week with Sasha Baron Cohen. Yeah, it had some fun Borat stuff in it, but the main focus (for me, anyway) was on his ongoing crusade against Facebook. I recommend listening to it. To give you some of the flavor, here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave on the subject more than a year ago:

A sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threatens democracy and our planet – this cannot possibly be what the creators of the internet had in mind.

I believe it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies. Last month, however, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook delivered a major speech that, not surprisingly, warned against new laws and regulations on companies like his. Well, some of these arguments are simply absurd. Let’s count the ways….

You can read the whole speech here. And I recommend listening to the podcast — at the very least, you get to here Cohen speaking, for once, with his own North West London accent.

Cohen hasn’t cooled off on Zuckerberg since then. To quote a headline in The Hill right after the election, “Sacha Baron Cohen celebrates Trump loss, calls for Zuckerberg to go next: ‘One down, one to go’.”

That’s one thing. Here’s another…

Ross Douthat dug into the problem a bit in his column today:

No problem concerns journalists and press-watchers so much these days as the proliferation of conspiracy theories and misinformation on the internet. “We never confronted this level of conspiracy thinking in the U.S. previously,” Marty Baron, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, told Der Spiegel in a recent interview. His assumption, widely shared in our profession, is that the internet has forged an age of false belief, encouraged by social media companies and exploited by Donald Trump, that requires new thinking about how to win the battle for the truth.

Some of that new thinking leads to surprising places. For instance, my colleague Kevin Roose recently reported that some experts wish that the Biden administration would appoint a “reality czar” — a dystopian-sounding title, he acknowledged, for an official charged with coordinating anti-disinformation efforts — as “the tip of the spear for the federal government’s response to the reality crisis.”

Meanwhile, my fellow Opinion writer Charlie Warzel recently explored the work of the digital literacy expert Michael Caulfield, who argues that the usually laudable impulse toward critical thinking and investigation is actually the thing that most often leads online information-seekers astray. Instead of always going deeper, following arguments wherever they seem to lead, he suggests that internet users be taught to simplify: to check arguments quickly against mainstream sources, determine whether a given arguer is a plausible authority, and then move on if the person isn’t….

He went on to say he has his doubts about the “reality czar” thing. I’m with him there. Later in the piece he made some points some of us may also find dubious, but it’s an interesting piece, and I’m glad to see him address the problem…

I guess actual humans never even glance at these things before they go out

jamessmith

Why isn’t this site performing better, Jessica?

I get a LOT of unsolicited emails from people offering to help this blog perform better.

Usually, they start with some nonsense about how the sender has been looking at my site, and finds it utterly fascinating, but could help me make it better for a very reasonable price. Then, it always, always, fails to give me any reason to believe that the sender has ever so much as glanced at the blog.

Sometimes I get one for some other site to which I have a connection. Today, I got this one:

Hello Jamessmith.com Team,
 
I would like to have a discussion with you regarding the web promotion strategy for your website Jamessmith.com. We wish to work out a proposal to strengthen the online presence of your website, via a strategically planned web promotion campaign. In today’s online era, you should be focusing on the new revolutionary ways of generating traffic (and subsequently, leads).
 
We are curious to know if you are aware that a few issues bugging your website and sorting out these will help you get the best returns out of your website.
 
1. Your website seems to be attracting traffic, but this traffic is almost stagnant and limited, which affects potential sales as you move forward.
2. Your website doesn’t feature in Google’s first search page for some of the major keywords in your niche, which affects visibility and your business.
3. Your website has been diagnosed with On-Page and On-Site issues, which affects the ranking.
4. Your backlinks profile is not efficient enough to help your search engine visibility.
5. Your website is currently not being properly promoted online according to Google’s new guidelines (after latest Google Panda & Penguin update), which is affecting your marketing strategy and goals.
6. Your presence in the social media platform is minimal. This is depriving you of a huge market of prospective referral clients.
7. Your website may be penalized by Google.
8. Social media profiles are not updated regularly.
9. A low number of internal and external quality links present on your website.
10. Not updating fresh contents for your website and blogs as per the latest Google guideline (Penguin & Panda).
And many more…
 
We are expert in running a promotional online marketing campaign for websites. We have a host of ethical services and techniques, which you can utilize to improve your website’s performance. 
 
Also, let me update you that our service prices are very affordable and cost-effective which will come up within your budget. 
 
We are also doing website designing and redesigning at affordable cost and fast delivery within 2 weeks. As we are familiar with search engine guidelines, so the website will be search engine friendly and technically sound. Also, we are giving 3 months of free website maintenance service.
If there is/are any bad reviews regarding you/your website, our ORM campaign will help you to push down the bad reviews from 1st page to 3rd page within 45 days of the campaign.
 
If my proposal sounds interesting for your business goal, feel free to email me, or can provide me with your phone number, Whatsapp number or Skype Id and the best time to call you.
I would be very glad to hear back from you.
 
Best Regards,
Jessica
Search Engine Consultant

These things crack me up. I mean, look at all those specific suggestions, meant to give me the impression that ol’ Jessica has been burning the midnight oil studying jamessmith.com with great zeal and intensity. She knows all about it! And she’s an expert! She’s going to fix it!

Of course, if an actual human being with a modicum of experience on this planet — or on the Web, for that matter — had looked at the site for 30 seconds, she would have concluded that:

  • This site is defunct, and has long stopped performing its original function. The homepage is a shell from which all links lead to empty pages without content. Which disappoints me because sometimes I’d like to refer back to those releases I put up during the campaign, but they’re gone.
  • This is not a site aimed at “sales.” It’s a political campaign site.
  • The campaign was in 2018. That datum might not be on that page, but a few seconds on Google would tell you right away. Which is a step any human wanting to know anything about this would take, long before sending anyone a 456-word email in an effort to make a “sale.”
  • “Your presence in the social media platform is minimal.” Say what?!?!? Assuming that this is 2018 — which is what you seem to be assuming — I’m pumping out social media like a madman! Social media is one of several full-time jobs I’m killing myself doing, day and night! Oh, wait… I had a little flashback there. You almost made me forget for a second that this is 2021….

And so forth…

Pretty much every bullet point can be dismissed with, “Yeah, that might be interesting if this were October 2018…”

OK, I know you’ll say, “Then why don’t you take down the whole site?” Well, first of all, I don’t have that job any more. I’m not even sure I have the access.

I don’t know why that shell is still operating. I don’t much care. It’s not bothering anybody. Maybe I’ll ask James next time I run into him (which doesn’t happen often, because pandemic). Or maybe I won’t. This isn’t a question likely to stay in my head long. For that matter, I have no particular reason to think he even knows that homepage is still up.

I have sympathy for Jessica, assuming there is a Jessica. Back during my newspaper career, I thought that having to sell something to people would be the hardest thing in the world (the people in advertising always had my pity). I had it slightly wrong. The hardest thing in the world is selling by way of cold calls. Mind you, this isn’t the worst kind of cold-calling — that would involve actually talking to busy people, in person or on the phone. But it’s still a thankless task.

Sympathy aside, though, this is ridiculous…

The engaging uselessness of Pinterest

Pinterest thinks momentary flickers of interest define me.

Pinterest seems quite sure that momentary flickers of interest define me.

I never have time for this, but sometimes when I think I do — standing in line at the store or whatever — I’ll open the Pinterest app on my phone and see what it’s offering me now.

Pinterest is a contender for most useless social medium ever. It’s neck-and-neck with LinkedIn, only more fun.

I remember, years and years ago, when I first signed up for it, spending an hour or so scanning through the images being offered, telling myself I needed to do that in order to make the app “work.” I was letting it build a portrait of me and my interests, based on which images I “pinned,” or simply called up to look at better.

I found it an interesting, idle spectacle. Like watching spots of sunlight filter through the leaves of trees in a light breeze. Or watching whitecaps dance on the sea. Or maybe flames in a fireplace.

Actually, the flames make the best comparison, because you can change the patterns somewhat by poking at the logs. And that’s how Pinterest works.

If there’s a practical use for Pinterest, it escapes me. But I suppose it’s mostly harmless, although the mechanism I see in operation is the same as what has made other social media, and sites such as YouTube, such a threat to our reason and our society. As I’ve written here and here and here.

The algorithm is doing that same thing: Asking me to tell it — by “pinning,” or simply by spending time looking — what interests me. And then it says, “If you like that, you’ll love this.” And shows me more and more of the same thing.

Which can be sort of comical, because it leaps to such odd conclusions. Remember that post I wrote about posters I had on my bedroom walls as a kid? Probably not, since it only got two comments, one of them written by me. But I enjoyed writing it — actually, what I enjoyed more was searching the web for the actual images. And the one I played the biggest was the one of Steve McQueen riding a motorcycle on the set of “The Great Escape.” Which may have been my favorite poster. I know that that was my favorite movie when I was a kid.

Anyway, in searching for it, I must have looked on Pinterest. Anyway, it caused the algorithm to assume that I am obsessed with Steve McQueen, especially when he’s riding a motorcycle. I inadvertently reinforced the McQueen thing by pinning a pic or two from “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” which was a favorite show of mine when it was on, 1958-61.

Ever since then, any time I call up the Pinterest homepage, I’ll see five or 10 or more pics of McQueen in a minute of scrolling, often on a bike. They may go away if the app is momentarily distracted by some other assumed “obsession,” but they always come back eventually.

Hey, I like Steve McQueen. Just not that much.

Actually, though, I’m not seeing him much today. Today, the app thinks I’m crazy about flamenco dancers. That’s because lately I’ve been putting random black-and-white pictures on a wide variety of subjects into my “Images” folder. And taking a quick look at the app this morning, I saw this shot with a little girl in the background framing by a wide skirt being flourished by a dancer. I didn’t even notice what kind of dancer it was; I just liked the composition and sense of motion, and thought my daughter the dance teacher might like it.

So now it just knows I’m nuts about flamenco, and I’m getting flamenco dancers left, right and center — especially if they happen to have on polka-dot dresses. It even thinks I want to see a flamenco guitarist, and close-ups of castanets.

Steve McQueen is gone, for the moment.

I’m also getting a lot of pictures of Ernest Hemingway from his late, white-beard phase. This happened because one of my kids really liked cats, so I had pinned a shot of Hemingway with one of his famous Key West cats. Now he’s all over the place, with or without cats, because of that one picture. A little while ago it showed me one of him with a dog (see image below).

It’s fun to mess with the algorithms head like this, if you assume for a moment that it has a head. It takes practically nothing, the smallest gesture on my part, for it to make huge assumptions about what motivates and animates me. And it’s all so wonderfully superficial, because it’s just pictures — the content is so shallow! There’s virtually no text, and what little there is seems to play little role in the process.

The machine isn’t completely stupid. It’s right, for instance, to believe I like Calvin and Hobbes, and Norman Rockwell. And it has an inkling that it can always grab my attention with the kinds of pinup pictures that adorned the noses of warplanes in WWII. But that’s hardly a personality profile.

I’ve been fretting recently about what artificial intelligence is doing to our politics. But I find a few minutes with Pinterest reassuring. Look where it’s going now!, I tell myself. And for that moment, I’m less concerned about AI’s ability to take over the world. Yet, anyway…

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yeah, I know I wrote about this before, years ago. But thinking recently about what these algorithms were doing to our minds, I started playing with this medium again — just to watch the way it works — so I wrote about it again.

Pinterest 2

Mr. President, here’s what makes the ‘uncivil war’ so vicious

Guillaume

I wish my headline said, “Here’s how to end the uncivil war, Mr. President.” But I can’t say that, because I don’t know how to undo the damage.

But finally, after more than four years of bewilderment, I finally feel like I have a grip on what has caused the problem, and I’m not letting go. If I keep saying “Here it is!” enough, maybe someone else will see what to do about it, even if I don’t.

I’ve written about this in two posts now, here and here. In the second one, I mentioned having watched part of the documentary “The Social Dilemma,” and indicated I might say more about it when I’d seen it all. I finished watching it about a week ago, and yes, it certainly reinforced the epiphany I’ve been writing about. But I got distracted doing other things, and didn’t get to it.

Today (yesterday now, since I didn’t finish the post until Saturday), I’m reminded of the urgency by a several things I’ve read — items that point to the continued rapid descent of most of the country’s Republicans into madness. There’s the case of that deranged woman from Georgia, and the House GOP’s deep reluctance to deal with her. (The Republican leader is too busy running down to Florida to beg forgiveness of his master.) There are stories about polls, showing how most of that party’s adherents are still shockingly lost in their delusions. There was a Frank Bruni piece about how Marco Rubio — and anyone else with designs on the GOP nomination in 2024 — has utterly degraded himself in the pursuit of the support of his party’s conspiracy wing. And more.

How did close to half the country lose its grip on reality? Well, that’s what I’ve been talking about in those previous posts, and return to today.

There’s a great moment near the start of “The Social Dilemma” when several tech industry veterans who are deeply concerned about what’s going on are asked to answer the question, “What’s the problem?”… and each of these otherwise articulate people stops, and stares vacantly, and for a long moment, fails to come up with an answer.

It made me feel better, because these were expert people who were here to talk about it, and had trouble explaining what the problem was.

As I said in my first post on this subject, I’ve been familiar with the problems for years, and felt stupid speaking of an “epiphany” when the basic facts were so obvious:

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…

That podcast helped the points sink in, to where it suddenly hit me that this was the explanation of Trumpism, specifically the explanation of how such a large portion of the country — close to half — had completely lost connection with reality, becoming immune to evidence to an extent far beyond old cliches about “confirmation bias” and such.

It was happening because they inhabited separate realities, which seemed as real to them as any other. And they were prepared to go to pretty much any lengths to defend their delusions, as we saw demonstrated so dramatically on Jan. 6, and in the willingness of so many to ignore the implications of those events. (By the way, these processes don’t just distort the perceptions of Trump supporters. It’s just that with Trump, you had a figure emerge who reinforced the tendencies of Qanon believers, white supremacists, and other whackos by repeatedly telling them it was all true, and that it was not only OK, but virtuous to embraces such insanity. This unprecedented situation caused that particular, easily deluded, segment of the population to go completely off the rails.)

Those experts momentarily lost the ability to address the Problem because it has so many aspects, all interacting with each other. But to simplify, these two factors are generally at the core:

  1. First, the fact that so many people now get all of their information that explains politics and the world to them from, shall we say, “nontraditional sources.” At the same time, part of what those sources have brainwashed them to believe is that the “traditional sources” — ones that operate according to procedures and ethics that require that facts actually check out before being reported — are “fake news,” and not to be trusted. Yes, this is very obvious, and doesn’t really explain things until you get to the second point…
  2. The way the Web works when it is successful. Success depends on keeping your attention, so that attention can be sold to advertisers. Which is the way newspapers, television, radio and other media monetized themselves — except that the Web is astonishingly better at it. And there’s one aspect of the algorithms that make them succeed more than anything: The simple matter of showing you what you like (or tell you what you want to hear), and then showing you more of it, to the point that you never get to anything else.

Ultimately, you end up living in a completely different reality from others whose predilections, in concert with the algorithms, have herded them into their own, distinct — and often diametrically opposed — universes. (Again, this works on MSNBC watchers as well as on the Fox people. But Rachel Maddow isn’t working in tandem with a POTUS who does not give a damn what the truth is. So things don’t get nearly as crazy. But it does mean that as Trump’s base gets crazier, people on the left move farther and farther away from them, and the Trump base sees that disdain, and gets crazier.)

Eventually, the deliberative processes that are essential to our system of representative democracy break down. Representatives who know their constituencies have no points of agreement on facts with people who live in other constituencies cast aside evidence and make themselves immune to persuasion, lest they lose their seats. Debate in legislative bodies is pointless, because it’s not about trying to achieve productive synthesis with the views of members on the other side of the aisle; it’s simply about proving one’s purity in adhering to the “reality” in which most of one’s constituents live.

Back to the movie…

“The Social Dilemma” has a lot of flaws, the most obvious of them being dramatization. When it sticks to tech gurus talking about the problem, it’s great. When it uses actors to act out the problems, it gets kind of cheesy. Perhaps that keeps more people watching (hey, just like YouTube!) but it almost made me turn it off a number of times.

The dramatizations try to capitalize on parents’ concerns about their children’s Web addiction — a very serious problem that all parents should worry about, but not the reason I’m watching. There’s this fictional family of actors, and you watch one teenaged boy who starts out fairly rational gradually get seduced into extreme views, to the exclusion of everything else in his life.

Perhaps the cheesiest thing — but I understand that someone thought this would help us understand better the way the algorithms work — are these fantasy sequences in which you see the algorithms personified. This one actor appears as three different parts of the online code, and his three “characters” have conversations with each other about how they are manipulating the teenager, as they gradually assemble a more and more complete model of the kid as he spends more time online. These scenes are exceedingly creepy — and meant to be — and I finally figured out one reason why. The actor personifying the algorithm is the one who played “Pete” on “Mad Men.” Creepy is what this guy does. (You kind of wonder what happened to him along the way to give him a face like that.)

But eventually the film confronts the issues that interest me, the ones I’ve written about in those preceding posts. This initially happens when, out of the blue, the person being interviewed is Guillaume Chaslot (pictured above), the Frenchman who helped develop YouTube’s “recommendation” software — before he realized with horror what it was doing.

I recognized him when he used the phrase “rabbit hole” — because his was one of the more important voices heard in the podcast series of that name. In the podcast, it was described how two developments on YouTube led to the creation of conditions that lead people to become committed conspiracy adherents — first, the moment when YouTube started allowing long videos, entire talk shows and such, to be posted. Then, the development of the current “recommendation” system, which essentially says, “You liked that? You’ll love this,” which so easily pulls people deeper into the hole as they watch one whack job’s video, then another more extreme one, then one more extreme than that, and on and on…

Mind you, the experts — the elements of the film I prefer — all insist that there are no bad guys (although the environment thus created is a welcome mat to bad guys, such as Vladimir Putin, to step in and use it). The aims of the people making these separate realities possible are fairly innocuous. As one of the main talking heads explains, as we’re watching the creepy Petes manipulate the kid:

At a lot of these technology companies, there’s three main goals.

There’s the engagement goal: to drive up your usage, to keep you scrolling.

There’s the growth goal: to keep you coming back and inviting as many friends and getting them to invite more friends.

And then there’s the advertising goal: to make sure that, as all that’s happening, we’re making as much money as possible from advertising….

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that, I can tell you as an old newspaperman (at least, that’s what the people on the business side kept telling me — and of course I noticed that when they stopped making money, everything that was important to me disappeared. Which was bad…). But when Web-based businesses do the same thing, we start seeing processes that humanity has never seen before, and which evolution has not equipped us to handle.

Anyway, I urge you to watch this film as well. Because I think it’s important in the extreme for all of us to understand how people come to accept the most unlikely-seeming propositions, and cling to them with religious fervor — fiercely resisting any attempt to argue them back to reason.

Because it’s tearing us apart.

There are plenty of other ways in which these problems — or at least bits and pieces of them — are being examined. I was listening to a podcast yesterday in which a New York Times reporter who watched Qanon chats happening during the Inauguration on Jan. 20, with the true believers assuring each other that at any second, Trump would declare martial law and stop the “steal.” Did they wake up when it didn’t happen? Some did. Others told themselves they had simply misinterpreted Q’s prophesies. It’s an interesting examination of effects, if not causes.

Or the piece I read in the NYT this morning headlined “The Coup We Are Not Talking About.” The writer approaches the same problems from a different direction, that of the development of “surveillance capitalism.” I think it’s the wrong direction, but perhaps it’s because some of the connections he makes are unconvincing. But maybe he made a better case in his book on the same subject. Anyway, he touches on the problems I’m on about, although in the service of his thesis:

The third stage, which we are living through now, introduces epistemic chaos caused by the profit-driven algorithmic amplification, dissemination and microtargeting of corrupt information, much of it produced by coordinated schemes of disinformation. Its effects are felt in the real world, where they splinter shared reality, poison social discourse, paralyze democratic politics and sometimes instigate violence and death.

Yeah, he uses the word “epistemic” a lot. And in other ways, he fails to express himself with simple clarity. Kind of made me more sympathetic to the cheesy dramatizations of “The Social Dilemma.” At least they were trying to reach people outside of academia.

But hey, if it leads you to understand it better, try that approach. Because we all need to come to understand it.

And do something about it. Again, I don’t know what to do, what with the toothpaste being fully out of the tube and everyone slathering themselves with it (kind of overdid that metaphor, didn’t I?). But I figure we need a diagnosis before someone comes up with the cure.

By the way, to head off certain obvious objections… before someone cries, “you’re acting like things were fine before this,” allow me to point out the obvious fact that I am not. As I have documented over and over in recent decades, things have been getting nasty in our politics for some time. There have been a number of milestones of our division into tribes that despise each other, and won’t listen to each other, thereby making the function of a deliberative form of government increasingly impossible. You could point to the emergence of negative campaigning in 1982 (which helped to produce the likes of Lee Atwater and his acolyte Karl Rove), or the moment in late 1992 when I first saw a new “Don’t Blame Me; I Voted Republican” sticker on a car before Bill Clinton was even inaugurated. Or Democratic lunacy over Clinton’s impeachment, leading them to defend the indefensible — or, two years later, their claims (very civil, nonviolent and short-lived claims, as opposed to what we’ve seen in recent days) in 2000 that the election was “stolen.” Or for that matter, BDS. Or the rise of the Tea Party or the Freedom Caucus, and the maniacal determination to stop anything Barack Obama tried to do — or, failing that, to undo it. (Remember the bizarre spectacle of all those utterly vain votes to “repeal Obamacare?”)

All before Trump. But not all before this phenomenon that I’m talking about, which certainly played a role in the things we saw in the earlier part of this past decade. In any case, this new problem, or set of problems, landed in a nasty partisan environment, and then exponentially accelerated the sickness, with a twist.

I could say a lot more, but at well over 2,000 words, I’d better stop….

creepy Pete

Creepy Pete in triplicate, manipulating the kid.

 

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….

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…

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…

Oh, drat these computers! They don’t have enough holes!

hub

As technology progresses, our devices have more and more features, something we’ve come to expect. We don’t have flying cars, but our phones do cool things.

But today I’m kind of frustrated that computer makers keeping taking features away.

Sure, mostly the stuff they ditch is stuff we don’t need any more. Like floppy disk drives. But even then, I hate to see them go. The first time I went to buy a computer after that trend started, I paid extra to have a floppy drive added in a vacant drive slot of the desktop.

But I only did it that once. On the next few machines I bought, I didn’t fret about the lack of such a feature. It still bothered me, though, that I had shoeboxes full of floppies containing data I could not access. Finally, a few months ago I bought an external floppy drive from Amazon — it only cost about 10 bucks — and when it came, I spent a couple of hours popping in disks from those shoeboxes, and I found that… I really didn’t need any of that stuff after all.

So I guess the industry knew what it was doing there.

I’m less sanguine about some of the more recent omissions. (Did I use that right? Should I have said “phlegmatic?” I get those confused.)

You know how I told you I bought a new laptop last month? It’s great and all that, but the freaking thing only has two USB ports! When I bought it, I decided that was OK. After all, my last laptop before that one only had three, which had worried me so much when I first got it that I ordered a USB hub that converts one USB orifice into four. And for awhile, I made heavy use of it, plugging in all sorts of peripherals.

But I had noticed that I hadn’t taken the hub out of my laptop bag in maybe a year, so maybe two would be enough. Maybe. Even though, if you’re me, that means you only have one. That’s because the other one is in use all the time for my mouse. I’m physically incapable of using a touchpad. The first thing I do when I sit down at a computer that has one is disable it, because I can’t keep the heels of my hands from touching it as I type, and making all sorts of insane things happen to the document I’m trying to write — including occasionally defining the whole document and deleting it (and I’m not even sure how I’m doing that, but it happens).

So, I have one free USB port.

And that would be fine if certain other features weren’t missing.

First, I got the computer home and had been using it for a couple of hours — installing software and the like — when something dawned on me: It didn’t have a DVD drive!

OK, that’s cool. I hadn’t used one of those in a year or two, either, so… no biggie.

But then, one of the first days I used the new machine at the office, I kept losing the wifi signal. One of my ADCO colleagues suggested that I plug in the Ethernet cable, which we still have in our offices.

Good idea! Except… there was no receptacle for an Ethernet cable! I kept turning the thing over, this way and that, and no — no hole that shape. Although there’s an HDMI port — why, I don’t know. (I mean, I already have a high-def monitor — it’s attached and everything. It even has a touch screen.) And while hunting, I also noticed there was no SD card slot for the card that goes to the old digital Canon I sometimes still use at work.

I was pretty practiced at rationalizing away these problems at this point. I told myself I took better pictures with my iPhone, anyway — and I do. But in part of my brain, I’m going, I paid full price for this machine! Why doesn’t it have basic, relatively cheap, low-tech stuff that every other computer I’ve bought over the past decade had?

This nagged at me, and eventually I went back to Best Buy to see if I could take this machine back and trade it for one that still had some of these homely amenities. But the other models at the store were similarly bereft. I kept picking laptops up and turning them this way and that, and while a few of them did have SD slots, they weren’t overly endowed with USB ports, and none of them had Ethernet cable apertures.

So I kept the one I had bought.

A few days later, I needed to scan something from my home printer. I have this awesome Canon printer that does everything, and even has a multipage feeder on top, which is wonderful because I scan multipage documents pretty frequently. I love it. I’ve had it for four years, and just a couple of weeks ago replaced the toner cartridge for the first time!

But I couldn’t seem to get the drivers for it to load on the new laptop. Since I bought the super-duper Geek Squad coverage, I got them on it. One of those poor geeks spent a couple of hours trying to get me set up, but he finally installed a different scanner driver, telling me it was newer and better.

It isn’t. It’s OK for PDFs, but the scan quality on photos is really poor. And I’m really, really into good photo quality. This app was made for amateurs, for the kind of people who decades ago used Instamatics — and were satisfied — when I was starting to process my own 35mm film.

But wait! In the file cabinet in my home office, I found the original software DVD that goes with my printer!

Now, if only I had a DVD drive on this computer….

Fine. I’ll order an external one from Amazon. And eventually, I’ll probably get an SC reader and an Ethernet adapter for days when the Wi-Fi is acting up. Which, if I also add a thumb drive, will totally fill up my USB hub.

But it doesn’t seem like I should have to do all this. Computers should come with more holes in them. Is that really too much to ask?

drat

I want McAfee to go away. That’s all I want…

mcafee

So I got a new computer a couple of weeks ago, and things are going along pretty nicely with it.

Dude, I got a Dell.

And I got the Dell at Best Buy, and I went hook, line and sinker for the full Geek Squad coverage, which has already come in handy a couple of times as I worked to get this or that piece of software up and running. I call them, they take over my computer remotely, and they fix it.

And it comes with Webroot. So I don’t need McAfee. But McAfee keeps popping up on my screen trying to get me to subscribe.

So I decide to uninstall it. Turns out there are three separate McAfee applications. And whenever I go to uninstall one, I get a dialogue box that says it’s still scanning stuff and protecting me, and I think, hey, if get a backstop safeguard for free, why delete it? Then I decide to delete anyway, and I get another dialogue box saying I already have an active subscription.

Say what? I’m pretty sure my last three laptops have been protected by Webroot. So… what is McAfee protecting — that 12-year-old desktop that I used to keep plugged in in a spare bedroom but which my wife has put away, turning that table into a sewing machine station?

So… should I pull the trigger and get rid of it? And if I’m paying for it, how do I get that to stop? Or is the “active subscription” just the free coverage they give you at first with a new computer, as the red dialogue box above indicates?

I don’t know. I just want them to leave me alone…

active

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

I dropped my newspaper subscription today

"That's the press, baby!"

“That’s the press, baby!”

Of course, the emphasis there is on “paper.” I only dropped the print version of The State. I still get it online.

That lowered the price of my subscription from $46 a month to $9 and something. Maybe $9.99. I wasn’t paying that much attention. I was in the middle of my afternoon walk around the USC campus when they called me on account of my having gotten a new debit card to replace the one that expired this month, and the autopay wasn’t working.

So I said, while I’ve got you, I want to drop the dead-tree version….  I only read it online anyway. That’s the only way I read any newspapers. I subscribe to The State, The Washington Post and The New York Times, and read them all on my iPad. The New Yorker, too. I dropped The Wall Street Journal several years back because it got too expensive.

So nothing lost, and a savings of more than $400 a year. A good deal.

Still, I’m a newspaperman. That’s who I am, no matter whether I’m employed doing it or not.

So there seems something historic about this, from my own perspective, and thought I’d take note of it.

Of course, I was never really wedded to the paper part of the equation. Starting in about 1980 when we went from typewriters to a mainframe front-end system, I started wishing that when I hit SEND for a story to go to the copy desk, it would just go straight to the reader. And it only took what, a couple of decades for that to happen.

So it’s all to the good. But still, there’ll be a bit of nostalgia for the days when I was the guy who said “Stop the presses!” when something big happened (or when we realized we’d made a big goof on one of the pages), and it really meant something. It felt a little like being Bogart in “Deadline U.S.A.”

I guess, in a sense, what I did today was say “Stop the presses!” just one more time….

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