News and Information

According to a report published by the National Center for Educational Statistics we have improved literacy to nearly 100% in the US. This is a great improvement from 1920, a hundred years ago, when, although high overall, literacy was lowest among non-whites, and the poor. This is still true globally, where education rates can be tied to economic status. But we are witnessing a generation where more people are able to read and write; and, more information is available right now to the average person than at any time in history. Only 30 years ago the best source of information was the library. Back in 1920 perhaps the best of only source, depending on geography, was the local newspaper. Radio broadcasts would not be around for a few years. And few people had access to a telephone.

Now we have more information at our fingertips (literally) than any generation before. But it seems we are no better informed than our parents or grandparents. The facts we accessed through reference material in the library was authoritative, but it was sometimes inaccurate. Good research demands multiple sources, citing different media, periodicals and books. Nowadays people tend to just believe a single source of data. Few of us bother to fact check. Some even dispute that when confronted by the truth, assuming there is some to be compiled. For instance, I see ads for decongestants that “won’t make you drowsy.” The fact is that some decongestants are actually stimulants. It is the antihistamine class of drugs that potentially cause drowsiness. That doesn’t stop manufacturers from underlining this property to convince people to buy their product. And uninformed consumers will assume that product is different from all the others, even though they all have the same ingredients.

Truth is a tricky thing. There might be one version that is valid for some, while another truth works for another, which does not entirely invalidate the assertions made, but certainly calls them into question. Being better informed never hurts, unless it serves to torment us. The familiar aphorism, “ignorance is bliss” comes to mind. Sure, there are some things I wish I had never known, like TSA’s dismal track record, or my (former) favorite restaurants’ health inspections. But imagine a world with no food safety laws. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. Travel a little bit within the US, or outside it, and you will see for yourselves.

Most of the misinformation out there is hearsay. “They say you have to wait 30 minutes after you eat before you can go swimming.” Remember that one? Old wives’ tales and urban legends have been with us since our early ancestors developed language. It’s probably ingrained in us to believe what we are told, especially by an authoritative figure like a parent or a teacher. Oh, how they were wrong! It’s not their fault, unless you can blame anyone for not being a skeptic. People just pass on what they think they know, sometimes with disastrous results. In one case, the explorer named Christopher Columbus was under some impression he was arriving in India, not understanding the scale of the planet; and when he arrived in the Caribbean and encountered the indigenous peoples there, he called them “Indians”. The appellation unfortunately has lasted these 527 years, not to mention the catastrophic destruction of their culture, language, and the people themselves.

Ignorance is indeed not bliss. It is criminal to willingly remain clueless in some circumstances. I am not suggesting that being ignorant of events and facts equates to complicity. But nowadays we are all held to a higher standard when it comes to being involved. There are now laws around the country that allow bystanders to be prosecuted if they refuse to help if, for instance, someone is being assaulted. And now passengers are tasked with being the eyes and ears of public transportation, but that’s just being a good citizen, some would say.

A few days ago I received an Amber Alert on my mobile, and (after reviewing the message and checking the news) I remembered the case of Amber Hagerman, who was abducted from her neighborhood in January of 1996 in Arlington, Texas. Her body was found a few days later. No suspects have yet been named. As a result of this case, which played out on local, then national media, the US government enacted federal programs, like the National Sex Offender Registry, and the Amber and Silver Alert (for missing seniors, mostly) Systems. Now anyone with a mobile device can be alerted of a potential kidnapping, and it’s possible that someone could have information that would prevent another tragedy like the Amber Hagerman case. When in the right hands, information is the best weapon against evil.

It’s hard to believe that anyone would willingly refuse to help someone in need. But I know they exist. I’ve seen them. I may know some of their names. If information can be a weapon, this could be the worst kind, the tool of the assassin. We need to remember not to use information against people, even though some deserve it. In the meantime, I plan to stay alert, paying attention to my surroundings, reading the news, being informed, and watching out for everyone else (in case someone runs a red light). I hope someone would do the same for me.

Advertisements

Things You Didn’t Want to Know

I used to believe in certain things, like parents know what’s best for their children, or history books told the truth. This “truth” concept has really taken a beating in the last few years, and it doesn’t help that everyone – or most everyone – has a voice on one of many social media platforms, and they (we) are able to publish our opinions to whomever will receive them, sometimes brandishing them as fact or truth. Some truths come at us as  indefatigable assaults of unwelcome seductions on our perspectives, where we feel comfortable. But comfort is the way toward our undoing. There we will become lazy and corpulent and complacent. We will not go beyond our front door to so much as procure a meal. A drone can deliver everything we need or want right to our front porch. We believe we are better off.

Many of us in the US were taught that the practice of slavery was outlawed at the end of the Civil War. They showed us the page in our history textbook where the 13th Amendment to the Constitution clearly forbids slavery:

Section 1.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

What the book publishers and the school boards failed to mention is that slavery is alive and well to this day all around the world, including the US. I was skeptical when I learned this, and I expect many will not believe it. First, we need to understand how modern slavery differs from that of the sanctioned, institutionalized practice prior to 1865. (In fairness, that form of slavery didn’t really end after the Civil War, it just took a slightly different form). Modern slavery is defined as any situation where there is forced labor, bu the use of physical confinement, threats of violence, coercion, or other means that prevent workers from being given basic rights. Today there are many situations, including the outright buying and selling of human beings, for work in sweatshops, industry and agriculture, and the sex trade.

The Global Slavery Index also includes young women and girls in marriages where they are unpaid domestic servants and breeders. According to the findings, an estimated 40 million people live in slavery on “any given day.” Years ago I heard a story about workers in Brazil who were classified as slave workers because of the conditions. The men were recruited from the city with the promise of good pay, but they were forced to leave their communities and work in camps far from their homes, and there was no way for them to return. To add insult to injury, many of these work camps are involved in rapid deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

The sex trade is another industry which is particularly vulnerable to abuses. Sex workers in many countries, even “enlightened” nations, can find themselves involved in human trafficking. It’s happening all over the world, even in places like Fort Worth, Texas. Many people in nice neighborhoods think it can’t happen in their communities. They can’t believe human trafficking is going on, and they may even think the law is there to prevent this from happening. But even though there are laws, some of the most vulnerable in any illegal activity are undocumented people, and anyone who feels they have nowhere else to go. And there is no shortage of predators out there, looking for an opportunity.

People being bought and sold is nothing new, and it looks like slavery isn’t going away overnight. It may not surprise many to learn that North Korea keeps millions in some form of slavery in order to maintain tight control over the population. Some of the North Korean defectors who were interviewed over the years reported that forced labor was used as punishment for minor offenses. Workers would often be required to work regardless of their own circumstances, or be sent to perform hard labor in prison. But we can’t be that surprised about the inhumane treatment from the ruling class in DPRK, especially when we know about the atrocities committed by their leadership over the decades. Considering that the population in the North faces starvation and disease, slavery is probably not the worst situation an average person could face.

As we are faced with horrible truths in our lives we often feel overwhelmed and powerless to solve even our own little problems. I can’t seem to organize my house, and I dread making decisions about my retirement savings. And yet I seem to have taken up a cause which we all believed was resolved more than a century ago. It’s easy – for me, anyway – to say of humanity, “we will surely never progress as a species.” (Maybe I’m the only one saying that.) In any case, people who fight for what is just and right can make the world a better place, as long as we can bring ourselves to get moving to act, whether to write letters or to make phone calls, starting a campaign for awareness, or getting involved in the community. I don’t know if we will ever be able to bring an end to humanities most barbaric inventions, but I hope that everyone in the world will someday see justice or at least know what it looks like. Now I need to start believing that there is such a thing as justice.

 

 

Numbness

I’m…numb. I can’t quite put it any other way. I feel terrible that I can’t feel more sorrow or anger or sympathy after all the bad news this week. The worst part of it is when a mass shooting doesn’t make me feel something. That’s just depressing. I can remember when this kind of thing would shock me, and the politicians would offer their thoughts and prayers. Now there is a systematic blaming of the victims following a massacre.

I guess I am not really numb, as it were. I feel something. But what am I supposed to feel here? I seem to be angrier at what we’ve become, rather than feeling horrified that this could happen at all. For some reason I am not angry at the shooter. Or the would-be bomber. I don’t get angry lately. I don’t understand what that’s all about. And I don’t have time to delve deeper into my psyche to get an answer that probably will do nothing for me.

Maybe I don’t want to feel anything. I have enough to deal with in my own life. It’s not that I don’t care about what happens to innocent people who are minding their own business. I think it’s tragic that just anyone can snap like that, pick up a weapon, and take out his angst on peaceful people who never did anything to him. The worst part of this is that there will be no justice. How can there be? The death penalty might bring some closure to some victims, but how does it serve those who were taken from us?

Victim blaming is now the fashion, and we hear plenty of “if they had armed guards…”

Bullshit!

I suppose I’m angry now. Well, that’s what I get for writing about it. I was looking for an appropriate quote from Shaw or Hemingway, but that was taking too long, and I was already distracted enough just thinking about how all this made me feel. It is now more apparent to me than ever before that human beings were never meant to have such global awareness. We cannot possibly digest all the information we receive everyday. Furthermore, there is not enough energy stored in one’s soul to withstand this level of senselessness.

Numbness would be preferable, coming from someone who normally feels something. Emotional anesthesia is not healthy, and I cannot recommend it. Perhaps we need to just plant a hedge for our protection, shielding us from the influences of the 24-hour news cycle. I don’t know what it would look like for most people. I avoid television for the most part. I watch subscriber services like Netflix, where I can watch what I want. I skip most. But that’s probably not enough.

Bad news will come from time to time. I guess we are powerless to prevent it. Positioning armed civilians everywhere cannot be a solution. The world crumbling around us is terrifying. It keeps me up at night – right now it’s ten till three in the morning. I feel my jaw tightening as I consider what to say. Nothing I say will help, actually. I would not attempt to speak to survivors; I cannot put myself in their position, not that I don’t care. I lack the empathy because I have not been where they are.

God help us, we humans have really fucked this up. What hope is there? Yeah, it’s too late now. I’ve run out of optimism. Actually, I think I never had any to start with.

You’re Doing it Wrong

I do a lot of things; singing, photography, cooking, making a spectacle of myself. But I make my living in technology, specifically the software side of it; however, I have helped out in other areas like networking and systems. Non-technical people just accept it when I tell them I work with computers. Then they ask me to fix theirs. That’s fair, I suppose. I sometimes get a nice meal out of it.

internet screen security protection
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Being asked to poke around in somebody else’s computer feels like going through their sock drawer; it’s more revealing than you might think. My friend’s grandmother invited me to come over to fix her home computer. Her other grandkids also used it, and it was almost completely unusable, riddled with malware and viruses. I knew from some of the spyware and adware on this machine that the grandchildren were up to no good. Some sites are like visiting a toxic waste dump. You come out of there with a lot of stuff on you, and it takes some effort to clean up. I spent about two hours cleaning up this computer. I installed a free pop-up blocker, as well as some anti-virus software and something to block spyware. I told the lady she should keep on eye on her grandkids.

That was a while ago. Many people are more savvy about the internet these days, or at least they listen to the stories and take some precautions. Still, I am confident that most people don’t know how vulnerable they really are. If you are cautious, maybe even a little paranoid, that can work in your favor. Being skeptical of whether a website is legit is at least the first step in protecting your self. It’s like knowing that taking a shortcut through a dark alley isn’t safe. It only takes one incident to teach a very valuable lesson. In the meantime, hackers and spammers are working just as hard, or harder, to break into systems and steal information. Big companies get attacked all the time, and they have to employ teams of experts – some ex-hackers – to stay one step ahead of them.

One simple way you can protect yourself is to choose strong passwords and change them periodically. That’s easier said than done, I know. There are several good password managers out there. They are trustworthy and secure. The idea is to keep all your passwords in a sort of vault or safe. The benefit is that you don’t have to write down any passwords, and you can have the password manager (PM) generate a complex password for you. Secondly, the PM program validates the site you are connecting to, keeping you safer from phishing and pharming attempts. When you log onto a website, the PM assures you that it is the correct one.

On the subject of secure passwords, security specialists have recommended passphrases as an alternative to randomly generated passwords. There is some debate around whether one is better than the other. In my experience, anything longer than 10 characters and containing some numbers and upper- and lower-case is secure enough to last a few months. I usually go with 21 to 25 characters, no special symbols, and 2 or 3 digits. How secure is your password? Here’s a variation of a password I no longer use: doorbell887Agitate. I entered this in the above link to check how secure it is. It was rated as “very strong”, with one suggestion to add a special character, and we know how I feel about that. On Howsecureismypassword.net the estimated time a computer needs to crack this password is 145 trillion years. I feel better. I’m changing my password again in a month anyway.

I’ve worked in offices where people wrote their password on a post-it note and kept it under their keyboard. Others used variations of the word password (Password1 is very popular). This is probably the worst idea ever, and I want people to know. The thing is, I am guilty of being stupid. Years ago, I did these idiotic things, and someone scolded me, and now I know better. People are stupid. We walk around thinking we’re doing the right thing when it came to outsmarting the bad guys, when all along we were playing right into their hands. Thieves are working hard on ways to break in. Sometimes we make it very easy for them.

So lock your front door, unless you live in a utopian wonderland. Lock your car or keep it in the garage. Don’t leave valuable items in sight where someone could be tempted to break a window and take them. And don’t leave your personal information where anyone could just snap a picture – everyone has a camera these days. Lately, I’ve been using only cash, lest my card gets skimmed. It’s a constant struggle. Stay safe. Be alert.

Violent

Plenty has been published in literature, produced in films and television to depict (or predict) a world where violent behavior had all but been eliminated due to a draconian system of justice, where even petty theft or vandalism could result in severe penalties. It goes without saying this is the west’s impression of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), true or not. In the 1980’s we were instructed on what life in the Soviet Union was like, how the Russian people had no freedoms, no choice. The indoctrination of American youth during the Cold War could have been as equally oppressive as any Communist regime we imagined.

Singapore is famous for administering harsh punishments for seemingly insignificant offenses like littering or vandalism. They are very proud of their low crime rate, and it should be obvious why that is. So one might ask himself, why don’t more countries do this? Before attempting to answer this, I am reminded of something that puzzled me for years. Japan has very strict gun laws, severely restricting gun ownership, limiting sales, and granting the government shockingly sweeping authority regarding firearms, at least by American standards (but the US has fairly relaxed gun laws by comparison to most of the world). In Japan, perhaps as a result of these policies, nearly all gun violence has been eliminated. The big question is whether restricting gun ownership has resulted in a reduction of gun-related incidents, or was it something else?

I posed this question to someone who lived in Japan, and he told me something I did not expect. He is a gun rights advocate, and, like me, has had experience with firearms from an early age. Despite this, he and I don’t agree on every aspect of gun control. That said, he told me that the reason there is almost no gun violence in Japan is not because guns are hard to get hold of, but that the Japanese culture figures significantly into the equation. Of course, there are guns in Japan. But even the Yakuza gang rarely uses guns to commit crimes. Consequently, homicides in Japan are pretty uncommon. It’s worth noting that gun violence in Canada is also rare, even with dramatically fewer restrictions over gun ownership. What, then, is the explanation?

As a means to deter crime, I suppose courts in the US could throw people in prison for nearly anything, like spitting on the sidewalk or jaywalking. Many municipalities have passed some crazy laws that stay on the books, but we typically don’t incarcerate people for overdue library books. (I’m reminded that I need to write about Emmett Till, the black teen who was brutally murdered for allegedly making sexual advances toward a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham. In the Jim Crow South, and elsewhere in the US, simply being black was a crime.) Looking at our past, one must conclude that America possesses a most violent culture, one that can barely be contained. The US is chock full of guns. Our art is violent. We have been in a continual state of war since the beginning of the 21st century. We are constantly exposed to violence through video games, television, and film. Simply put, we are a violent people.

Could we eliminate crime by making the punishments so severe that they would serve as a deterrent? Many states still administer the death penalty, and yet capital crimes are still committed. This doesn’t appear to be the solution. One thing that is certain: violence tends to bring about more violence. I admit I have thought about making certain individuals wish they’d never been born. I won’t go into details. Is this something in the human genome? Are we taught to be violent? Can we unlearn this tendency? This may not be something we can overcome in the next 100,000 years. If that depletes your last hopes, do not despair. Humanity should be able to progress if we don’t destroy ourselves first. Carl Sagan was confident we could reach the stars with this contingency in mind. We are continually evolving, but that takes time, and our evolutionary gains have not kept pace with our technological advances. In other words, we’ve become efficient killers with our advanced weapons, but we haven’t developed the ability to conquer our base instincts. We are dangerous animals until that happens.