Now You See Me

I like my privacy. I do have a Facebook presence, and I use my real name there, but lately, I have drawn back from that existence in the name of privacy. It all started a few months ago when someone I work with was perusing Facebook (while at work), and I asked him to look me up. He and I have no connection outside work, so I was confident what he was going to see was what any stranger would also be able to pull up on me. So there I was, toothy grin of a man who recently had braces removed in his forties.

Surprisingly, my public profile was oddly, well, public. I had things out there that I wasn’t comfortable with strangers knowing about. Furthermore, if I went looking for a job, prospective employers can and do look at our social media posts to collect as much information about us as they can before spending precious time in interviews. I was fully aware of this prior to my experiment, but I wasn’t prepared to realize how politically vocal I was in 2012.

That was the year of the general election, where Mitt Romney was challenging Barack Obama for the White House. Things got really heated, and the political landscape was being marred by a deepening divide between two opposing camps. Misinformation was the weapon of choice, and it separated families and friends. In many cases, healing has yet to commence, some 6 years later.

For my part, I decided to rid my Facebook feed of all political detritus. I began purging my profile and news feed, but it took a long time to clean it to my satisfaction. Now, my Facebook presence to an outsider will appear spartan and unadorned, all in the name of privacy and security.

facebook

When I think about keeping my information safe, I imagine it being locked away in a fireproof lockbox I keep in my house; my insurance policies, passport, and other difficult-to-replace documents and items I dare not lose. On the contrary, our information is quite public. Anyone can look you up, based on your license plate number or facial recognition, or any other data you and I might not be able to conceal from strangers. On the other hand, the Maryland newspaper shooting investigation was partially aided by facial recognition software which, though controversial, was very helpful in identifying the suspect, who was not cooperating with police.

So where is the balance between privacy and security? When I flew recently from Las Vegas to DFW, I was subjected to an uncomfortable array of security measures; I performed the requisite shedding of hat, shoes, belt – anything that might pose a threat, I suppose. Then I removed all items from my pockets and allowed myself to be bathed in radiation while a giant all-seeing robot looked into my soul. Now the TSA knows one of my testicles is larger than the other. I hope it was good for them, too.

These things I have come to expect, actually with some acceptance because I know that there are people who do want to harm innocent people. In order to assure the public of a sense of security, we put ourselves through this, even though there have been some pretty alarming mistakes. Still, I think we’re safer than we were before 9/11.

We allow authorities to have a look into our private lives. We accept it as citizens, but we rarely speak up when the gradual intrusion becomes too much, probably because by the time we notice it, it’s too late, like that proverbial frog in the boiling bath.

Do yourself a favor from time to time, and take a look at what the public can see of your social media presence. In Facebook, from your own profile page, click on the ellipsis next to the “Activity Log” button. Select “View As…” to see what strangers can see. Over the last few months I have been systematically removing old posts. It might be a bit obsessive, but I feel a little safer knowing some things are not out there for anyone to see. Do I worry about slipping into the oblivion of anonymity? Perhaps, but not enough for me to blast my opinions recklessly around the internet. I just hope no one mistakes my desire for privacy for a defiant stance against authority.

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Go for the Bronze

What have I done?

Last week, just as the 2018 Winter Olympics were winding down, I was thinking about how much work is involved in reaching the medal podium for a given event. The hours of training each day, the sacrifices, the failures, and the successes. For every athlete who paraded into the Olympic Stadium in PyeongChang (camel case was insisted on by the organizers to differentiate the Game’s host city from the capital of North Korea), there must be dozens, possibly hundreds, of athletes who might be as good, but did not make the cut.

Anyone who makes the team may be considered an elite athlete, with possibly one exception. Hungarian-ish freestyle skiers notwithstanding, I am always amazed to see the spectacle of human endurance and fortitude, played out so all the world can witness these achievements. Perhaps the most amazing story came when Simen Hegstad KRUEGER of Norway was knocked down and fell back to last place for men’s cross-country skiing. He would eventually win the race in what they’re calling the “Miracle on Snow” (actually there were a couple events that got this moniker).

While history loves gold medal winners, 3rd place doesn’t feel as nice. But any medal is better than nothing at all. Silver medalists, forgive me for this list, but I have decided to honor the Bronze medal winners in each event. The original list was supplied by Leah Rocketto and Skye Gould, which I hope to be comprehensive. I did find a couple of typos or errors in places, but overall I found it useful. The events were originally listed in descending order of the day of the medal round or final results. All the names of athletes receiving a medal have links to their profile on the Olympic website.

If I have omitted anyone, please forgive me. As a reminder, I have included only Bronze medal winners. Some sports were surprisingly unusual so I provided links to the event in those cases (like doubles luge, which, it turns out, is a thing). Also, it is worth noting that on the English language version of the PyeongChang website, women’s events are sometimes referred to as “ladies'”, for no particular reason. (Incidentally, the French language version routinely uses “femmes”).

 

Biathlon, men’s 4×7.5km relay – Germany

Erik LESSER

Benedikt DOLL

Arnd PEIFFER

Simon SCHEMPP

Curling, men’s – Switzerland

Peter DE CRUZ

Dominik MAERKI

Benoit SCHWARZ

Claudio PAETZ

Martin RIOS

Valentin TANNER

Figure skating, women’s single skate – Canada

Kaetlyn OSMOND

Freestyle skiing, women’s ski cross big – Switzerland

Fanny SMITH

Speed-skating, men’s 1,000m – Korea

Alpine skiing, men’s slalom – Austria

Alpine skiing, women’s alpine combined – Switzerland

Wendy HOLDENER

Biathlon, women’s 4x6km relay – France

Anais CHEVALIER

Marie DORIN HABERT

Justine BRAISAZ

Anais BESCOND

Freestyle skiing, men’s ski halfpipe – New Zealand

Nico PORTEOUS

Ice Hockey, women’s – Finland

Eveliina SUONPAA

Isa RAHUNEN

Rosa LINDSTEDT

Jenni HIIRIKOSKI

Mira JALOSUO

Ella VIITASUO

Venla HOVI

Linda VALIMAKI

Annina RAJAHUHTA

Riikka VALILA

Minnamari TUOMINEN

Meeri RAISANEN

Petra NIEMINEN

Emma NUUTINEN

Sanni HAKALA

Noora TULUS

Sara SAKKINEN

Saila SAARI

Michelle KARVINEN

Noora RATY

Tanja NISKANEN

Susanna TAPANI

Ronja SAVOLAINEN

Nordic combined, Team Gunderson LH / 4x5km cross-country – Austria

Wilhelm DENIFL

Lukas KLAPFER

Bernhard GRUBER

Mario SEIDL

Short track speed-skating, men’s 500m – Korea

LIM Hyojun

Short track speed-skating, women’s 1,000m – Italy

Arianna FONTANA

Short track speed-skating, men’s 5,000m relay – Canada

Samuel GIRARD

Charles HAMELIN

Charle COURNOYER

Pascal DION

Snowboard, women’s big air – New Zealand

Zoi SADOWSKI SYNNOTT

Alpine skiing, women’s downhill – USA

Lindsey VONN

Bobsleigh, women’s bobsleigh – Canada

Kaillie HUMPHRIES

Phylicia GEORGE

Cross-country skiing, women’s team sprint – Norway

Marit BJOERGEN

Maiken Caspersen FALLA

Cross-country skiing, men’s team sprint – France

Freestyle skiing, men’s ski cross – Olympic Athlete from Russia

Sergey RIDZIK

Speed-skating, women’s team pursuit – USA

Heather BERGSMA

Brittany BOWE

Mia MANGANELLO

Speed-skating, men’s team pursuit – Netherlands

Patrick ROEST

Sven KRAMER

Jan BLOKHUIJSEN

Biathlon, 2x6km women + 2×7.5km men mixed relay – Italy

Lisa VITTOZZI

Dorothea WIERER

Lukas HOFER

Dominik WINDISCH

Figure skating, ice dance – USA

Maia SHIBUTANI

Alex SHIBUTANI

Freestyle skiing, women’s halfpipe – USA

Brita SIGOURNEY

Nordic combined, Individual Gundersen NH/10km – Austria

Lukas KLAPFER

Nordic combined, Individual Gundersen LH/10km – Germany

Eric FRENZEL

Short track speed-skating, women’s 3,000m relay – Netherlands

Jorien TER MORS

Lara VAN RUIJVEN

Rianne DE VRIES

Suzanne SCHULTING

Yara VAN KERKHOF

Bobsleigh, 2-man – Latvia

Ski jumping, men’s team – Poland

Maciej KOT

Stefan HULA

Dawid KUBACKI

Kamil STOCH

Speed-skating, men’s 500m – China

GAO Tingyu

Alpine skiing, men’s giant slalom – France

Alexis PINTURAULT

Biathlon, men’s 15km Mass Start – Norway

Emil Hegle SVENDSEN

Cross-country skiing, men’s 4x10km relay – France

Jean Marc GAILLARD

Maurice MANIFICAT

Clement PARISSE

Adrien BACKSCHEIDER

Freestyle skiing, men’s slopestyle – Canada

Alex BEAULIEU-MARCHAND

Freestyle skiing, men’s aerials – Olympic Athlete from Russia

Ilia BUROV

Speed-skating, women’s 500m – Czech Republic

Karolina ERBANOVA

Alpine skiing, women’s super giant slalom – Liechtenstein

Tina WEIRATHER

Biathlon, women’s 12.5km Mass Start – Norway

Tiril ECKHOFF

Cross-country skiing, women’s 4x5km relay – Olympic Athletes from Russia

Figure skating, men’s single skate – Spain

Javier FERNANDEZ

Freestyle skiing, women’s slopestyle – Great Britain

Isabel ATKIN

Short track speed-skating, women’s 1,500m – Netherlands

Marrit LEENSTRA

Short track speed-skating, men’s 1,000m – Korea

KIM Tae-Yun

Skeleton, women’s – Great Britain

Laura DEAS

Ski jumping, men’s large hill – Norway

Robert JOHANSSON

Alpine skiing, men’s super giant slalom – Norway

Kjetil JANSRUD

Alpine skiing, women’s slalom – Austria

Katharina GALLHUBER

Cross-country skiing, men’s 15km – Olympic Athlete from Russia

Denis SPITSOV

Freestyle skiing, women’s Aerials – China

Skeleton, men’s – Great Britain

Dom PARSONS

Snowboard, women’s cross race – Czech Republic

Eva SAMKOVA

Speed-skating, women’s 5,000m – Olympic Athlete from Russia

Alpine skiing, men’s downhill – Switzerland

Beat FEUZ

Alpine skiing, women’s giant slalom – Italy

Federica BRIGNONE

Biathlon, women’s 15km – Germany

Laura DAHLMEIER

Biathlon, men’s 20km – Austria

Dominik LANDERTINGER

Cross-country skiing, women’s 10km – Norway

Marit BJOERGEN

Figure skating, pairs free skate – Canada

DUHAMEL Meagan

RADFORD Eric

Luge, mixed team relay – Austria

Madeleine EGLE

Snowboard, men’s cross race – Spain

Regino HERNANDEZ

Speed Skating, men’s 10,000m – Italy

Nicola TUMOLERO

Luge, doubles – Germany

Toni EGGERT

Sascha BENECKEN

Nordic combined, men’s – Team Gundersen LH/4x5km – Austria

Snowboarding, men’s halfpipe – Australia

Scotty JAMES

Speed skating, women’s 1,000m – Japan

Miho TAKAGI

Alpine skiing, men’s combined – France

Victor MUFFAT-JEANDET

Cross-country skiing, women’s team sprint – Norway

Cross-country skiing, men’s team sprint – France

Maurice MANIFICAT

Richard JOUVE

Curling, mixed doubles – Norway

Kristin SKASLIEN

Magnus NEDREGOTTEN

Luge, women’s singles – Canada

Alex GOUGH

Speed Skating Short-track, women’s 500m – Canada

Kim BOUTIN

Snowboarding, women’s halfpipe – USA

Arielle GOLD

Speed skating, men’s 1,500m – Korea

KIM Min Seok

Biathlon, women’s 10km pursuit – France

Anais BESCOND

Biathlon, men’s 12.5km pursuit – Germany

Benedikt DOLL

Figure skating, team – USA

Nathan CHEN

Adam RIPPON

Mirai NAGASU

Bradie TENNELL

Alexa SCIMECA KNIERIM

Chris KNIERIM

Maia SHIBUTANI

Alex SHIBUTANI

Freestyle skiing, men’s mogul – Japan

Daichi HARA

Ski jumping, women’s normal hill – Japan

Sara TAKANASHI

Snowboarding, women’s slopestyle – Finland

Enni RUKAJARVI

Speed Skating, women’s 1,500m – Netherlands

Marrit LEENSTRA

Biathlon, men’s 10km sprint – Italy

Dominik WINDISCH

Cross-country skiing, men’s 15km + 15km Skiathlon – Norway

Hans Christer HOLUND

Freestyle skiing, women’s mogul – Kazakhstan

Yulia GALYSHEVA

Luge, men’s singles – Germany

Johannes LUDWIG

Snowboarding, men’s slopestyle – Canada

Mark MCMORRIS

Speed Skating, men’s 5,000m – Norway

Sverre Lunde PEDERSEN

Biathlon, women’s 7.5km sprint – Czech Republic

Veronika VITKOVA

Cross-country skiing, women’s 7.5km + 7.5km Skiathlon – Finland

Krista PARMAKOSKI

Short-track, men’s 1,500m – Olympic Athlete from Russia

Semen ELISTRATOV

Ski jumping, men’s normal hill – Norway

Robert JOHANSSON

Speed Skating, women’s 3,000m – Netherlands

Antoinette DE JONG

 

 

 

Media, George Carlin, and Change

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or has read some of my posts that I am not a fan of Facebook. Social media sites like Facebook have converted our would be electorate into a bickering mass who have resorted to proliferating misinformation, selling out for clicks and likes. We have allowed our voices to be drowned out; and, due to conniving and conspiring by foreign governments (and possibly our own), we have adopted a currency that is this illusion of security and community. We sit in front of keyboards or with devices in our hands, pretending to be connected to the world, but really making us more isolated than any generation has ever been. Meanwhile, we are fed lies and fear and distortion of the facts, made to look like truth, and we wonder what is wrong with the world.

I took a “media holiday” recently. For the entire week of Thanksgiving, I refrained from checking Facebook, viewing news stories, listening to talk radio. I listened instead to classical music. I played video games. I enjoyed people’s company. I felt like this was a good thing. I admit it felt odd not being “connected” as it were. Ironically, I was better connected to people when I was not looking reading their posts, rather looking them in the eye over lunch. It was liberating in a way. After a week, and after the kick-start of the American capitalism festival that is holiday shopping season, I reconnected with the world, catching up on the news, looking through scores of missed Facebook notifications, and scanning Twitter for juicy updates from all our favorite celebrities.

While I actually still recommend an occasional break from the unrelenting tide of news and information that has replaced our own original thought, I’ve reconsidered my position on Facebook’s – and all social media’s – role in our lives. Before 2003, when both Myspace and LinedIn were released, social media consisted of message boards, user groups, and group emails. There was nothing like what exists today that allowed for so many people to join together for a cause, or to organize and collaborate, or that would cause anything to “go viral”. It’s hard to believe that the state of media ubiquity is still in its infancy. Looking at the early days of television compared to today’s live streaming and video-on-demand, the possibilities for the future of mobile internet and its potential effect on the human race are astounding and terrific. If you are not frightened about this future, you should be.

Alarming and dystopian though this may sound, and inasmuch as I get the whole “don’t have the player, hate the game” sentiment when I complain about people taking selfies in front of a location where a tragedy occurred, I can safely say that people are the problem, but the internet plays some part. The internet – social media, email, SMS text, all of it – is a tool that people use for good, for profit, for self-indulgence, for pleasure, and for evil. By comparison, with a hammer you can build a house; with it you can also break into a car. This is a rather simplistic analogy, and it can be said that the internet is much more powerful and complex than a hammer. I agree. The internet, not just the web, but all parts of it, is vast and decentralized, which makes it beyond the reach of government. Governments can restrict access to it, but no one owns the internet.

This brings me to my caveat. While the internet is this wonderful and dynamic force that could be used for good, it can also be used to deceive and control people. We’ve been fed a steady diet of misinformation and outright lies for many, many years. We’ve all been led to believe many half-truths and falsehoods that we were convinced were true, because those who perpetrated them will have you see what you want to see. Some lies might have a nice crunchy shell of luscious truth, but at their heart are untrue. Those are the worst kinds of lies. For instance, studies in food safety will often be funded by food manufacturers themselves. Russia may have actually bought the 2016 US election. Urban myths and legends, mostly false, have been promulgated across many forms of electronic media since the 1980’s. As a result, sites like Snopes.com, Politifact.com, and others have arrived on the scene to help debunk all the misinformation we’ve been digesting all this time. What is the antidote?

In 2004, George Carlin gave an interview on Fresh Air following the publication of his book, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? About 37 minutes into the interview, Terry Gross asks him quite directly about his decision not to vote. Carlin’s response – flavored by the cynicism of his generation – is that he believes that the “ownership of this country” doesn’t want change to happen. Yes, we go to the polls every two years in an attempt at peacefully overthrowing our government, but as Carlin puts it, it’s like rearranging the furniture. The “ownership class”, as he puts it, really controls everything, and we voters are under the illusion that we can make a difference. This seems possible, even likely to be true. However, what about we take over ownership? What would that look like, and is it possible?

Social media might eventually change. Myspace might still be in use, and it doesn’t compare to its larger cousin, Facebook. Strangely, Google+ never really took off. But they haven’t been around long, and the way people use these sites has changed significantly over the 14 years they’ve been around. What if social media became a place to share ideas, to pursue understanding, to engage in civil discourse? What I mean is, what if we used social media in a way contrary to the way it is being used today? I like to imagine Facebook users sharing factual information, personal stories, truth. A Google search for “lies on…” will result in auto-recommendations, the top choice being “lies on Facebook.” Those hits are mostly links to sniveling and shaming retorts toward inaccurate posts. No big whoop, as it’s said. But polarizing memes, divisive language, hate speech, and utter bullshit have escalated all over the internet. People who believe the earth is flat have never had a larger audience. This despite the fact that scientists have known for thousands of years that the earth is not flat. Some of my friends and family members have shared posts that were clearly inaccurate. The misinformation was staggeringly obvious.

Why do we do it? Why do people continue to spread false information? How would we restore integrity to this medium? Even established news organizations have fallen to the trend of perpetuating rumors and hearsay. On the other hand, there are plenty of hard-working journalists who want to print or voice only the truth. Why couldn’t all media work for us rather than against us? The free flow of ideas doesn’t have to be constrained. We can still post videos of kittens. We can still take selfies. But my hope is that we would want more from ourselves. In my vision of the future people’s comments would be thoughtful and insightful. Social media would be used to call people to action. We could share ideas. We might organize change in our communities, our nations. We possess great power with this invention. Imagine what the great minds of the past would see in its potential. Maybe I don’t agree with George Carlin’s philosophy. Our world is not for sale. I believe regular people have all the power. I believe action and dedication can overcome any amount of money. I believe we are on the cusp of some colossal change in the world. When we have the sum of all knowledge ever collected throughout history, how can we not take advantage to educate ourselves and promote new, original thought? The human race needs to advance. We need to get past our petty squabbling and get to the business of healing our nations – all nations. We need to care for one another. We need to be invested in the future of humanity.

 

 

 

Disconnected

I just got back from an epic road trip halfway across the North American continent. Unfortunately, we drove across several southern states where everything is deep-fried. Oh well, it was only 10 days. But in that time we witnessed a total solar eclipse, took part in Cherokee rituals, saw elk sightings, a bent tree, and many other strange and beautiful wonders.

During this time, I realized the 21st century has a stranglehold on us. We are constantly connected to our world via mobile devices and wifi internet. For most of us, this is a relatively new phenomenon; many of us were born before the web was fully realized, and we can remember when instant messaging meant passing notes in class. But by the mid-90’s, things were changing quickly. The generations that followed may not feel the change, like that proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. For anyone born in the 1990’s, their expectation is that information is perpetually within reach, and like we modern, post-industrial, space-age humans who never knew a world without electricity, there is no going back. At least not willingly.

Deliberately ditching your mobile for a week is harder than you think. Being among the various parts of Appalachia, Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge, Pisgah, and so on, where wireless coverage is spotty at best makes it easier to keep one’s resolve to remain disconnected. I must admit, I failed to maintain absolute isolation; my phone would periodically find a signal every other day, and a deluge of messages would drain the battery, forcing me to scramble for my charging cable. As a result, I actually turned off the device – yes, it is possible – when I could not find the cable. Problem solved: no signal, no phone. The device was reduced to a pocket calculator and a low-resolution digital camera.

This idea that being in continual contact with the rest of the world is to me a little absurd. Bear in mind I remember a time when being unreachable was a distinct possibility when leaving the house. Before we all had mobile internet in our pockets, going out into the world untethered was not as scary as it might seem to some of you. Pay phones were ubiquitous, and you always carried some change in case you needed to call someone to check in or ask for a ride. By the way, I saw more than a few pay phones in Appalachian North Carolina. Apparently, this is still a good way to connect. Wifi was available in our motel. And I took advantage of it to plan a route back home. But I felt a little guilty doing this, even though we really needed help finding our way out of the mountains. Like I said, I wasn’t perfect.

2017 08 26_4390_edited-2
Chimney Rock viewed from Lake Lure, North Carolina

I have to recommend trying this for a few days at least. Go to the Smoky Mountains or Chimney Rock or any of the small, isolated communities surrounded by peaks, and when you realize maintaining a connection is pointless, simply turn off the phone. After one or two days you may see things differently. I am not saying that these devices are inherently evil, although some have gone as far as to blame mobile phone use for an increase in brain cancer. Maybe we are too dependent on mobile devices. It seems tragic that we forgot how to follow a map using a compass. Maybe we have devolved a bit by losing certain skills. Without our phones, what skills do we truly have?

Most striking, I found that without my connection to the internet, and thus, no ability to instantly share my experiences, I enjoyed savoring the moments in real time. The pictures I snapped would simply have to wait until I returned. The stories, updates, comments –  everything – were being stored mentally. The experience was just mine. Naturally, I shared the moments with my wife, and in terms of the eclipse, that was a mass event, so that was pretty cool. Also, we rode the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, and we listened to stories from the people with us on the train. These moments are what life’s all about. They can be documented digitally, but they become the planar, two dimensional aspect, less than an echo, and the experience cannot be transferred with the degree of fidelity as first acquired. In other words, you had to be there.

I have been converted. I am a believer now. I’m sold on the notion of unplugging, disconnecting if only for a few hours. I was fortunate to have been compelled into isolation. That made it impossible to cheat, at least for a while. But now there is a larger question looming: if being disconnected makes life a little better for a short time, should that be our natural state? I spend upwards of 50 weeks all year getting stressed out, then take off for a few days here and there to “unwind.” Why would I not want to live my life unwound? Well, some of us have to work for a living. But it does seem a shame to put off living until retirement.

One Star

I make purchases from Amazon.com a lot. I can get practically everything I need online. I shop around for the best deal, not necessarily the lowest price, and I value the customer reviews. On Amazon, customers are encouraged, rather, cajoled into leaving some feedback on their experiences with their purchases. It is important to note that not all Amazon reviews are from actual Amazon customers, and the site recently implemented a change that gives greater weight to verified purchasers. But I still think it’s worth something when I’m shopping for a product, and someone has something, anything, to say about their experience, no matter where they made their purchase.

When I’m shopping online, especially on Amazon (the rating/reviewing feature is ubiquitous on the web these days), I pay close attention to how many reviews a product has as well as the proportion of 1-star reviews there are to the total. For example, a Texsport 6 person dome tent has an overall rating of 3.2 out of five stars. More than half are 4- and 5-star ratings. But the number of 1-star ratings is 12%. By contrast, North Gear Camping 6 person dome tent has an overall 2.4-star rating. 60% of the reviews rate it 1 star, the lowest rating. To be fair, this tent is much less expensive than the Texsport product. But price is not an indicator of quality in all cases. Yes, you get what you pay for, but slapping a Kelty logo on a tent doesn’t always make it better. It’s worth noting that the North Gear tent received only 5 reviews.

I like to read the 1-star reviews. They’re sometimes off target, blaming the shipper, rating the product poorly because it arrived damaged. Sometimes a negative review is given because the buyer was unhappy with customer service, which is a valid reason to be dissatisfied. And once in awhile the customer is just telling us shoppers about their particular experience and not necessarily that the product is defective or inadequate. But I value the negative reviews almost more than the positive ones. That being said, it’s human nature to complain when something goes wrong rather than to sing praises when things are just okay.

Do I want myself rated? Not necessarily, but I do subject myself to feedback when I speak in Toastmasters. After some time you do develop thicker skin, not that people are brutally honest in their assessments. Maybe they should be, but we don’t want to scare anyone off. If we could speak face-to-face with those online merchants, would we be willing to be so frank, or in some cases, cruel? Probably not. The ostensible anonymity of the web makes it easier for people to be more “honest.” If you read Youtube comments, you will see that it often goes too far. And people are uncivil in their comments to what end? They very often do not offer constructive feedback, and they complain about things that cannot be changed. The worst of them are openly racist or homophobic. And it gets a lot worse.

That 1-star review might be a very good thing, when it is offered in earnest of making a difference. Telling someone that I didn’t like something without offering a suggestion for improvement is a pointless endeavor. I work harder every day to be more constructive. Of course, sometimes I just complain. I do it here. I’m probably doing it right now. There’s value in the negative. It enables us to hear about ways to improve, provided the review process is being handled the right way. We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, but we need honesty without too much emotion to get in the way. We shouldn’t be afraid to let our opinions be heard. And don’t use the word “humble”. Opinions are bold. They’re part of our makeup. And they matter, to us at least.

Most people won’t bother to offer feedback. It’s overwhelming, actually. The other day I was watching an awesome video on Youtube. It had, at the time, over 800,000 views. Disproportionately, it had 7,000 likes. That’s less than 1 percent! You might have noticed that many YouTubers solicit for likes and subscriptions. They practically beg. And it’s no effort at all. But people just don’t want to leave feedback, even if it means only clicking a button. But if they hate it, you’d better believe they’re going to say something. And that’s the power of the negative. I guess this is why we hold to the adage, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Even if this is a myth, it appears to have a little truth to it. Well, I’d give that at least 3 stars.

 

While You Were Sleepwalking

As I was driving through the parking lot at a local shopping center recently, I was stopped by some pedestrians leaving a shop. Courteous and watchful motorists should be on the lookout for people on foot always. This is especially true in crowded commercial districts that allow a mix of vehicular and foot traffic. What’s more, seasoned city dwellers will tell you that, essentially, pedestrians and cyclists alike are invisible to the average driver, and it is known among the non-motorists that extra vigilance is in order. On behalf of the casual urban ambler, it is the duty of every driver to be extra watchful, because for the occasional walker, we are their eyes and ears.

Back to my recent encounter. Various shoppers were crossing traffic to get to their cars, where, it is hoped, they would assume a commensurate position of vigilance while behind the wheel. A mother and her daughter were walking across my path, both captivated by tiny screens. I expected the pre-teen holding her mobile device would not be paying attention to the world around her. People born in the 21st century are not afforded any skills beyond those required for them to interact with the virtual world through technology. Human interaction is as foreign a concept to them as using technology would have been to my grandparents. This is not a judgement but an observation. A sobering, devastating observation.

The youth, engrossed by her smartphone, walking into the path of moving cars would be disturbing enough without the image of her mother, 4 meters ahead of the girl totally engaged with her own tablet and oblivious to me, also not looking up to make visual contact with, well, anything in her immediate vicinity, apart from the small screen, and especially not paying attention to her child. Now, the fact that this scene alarms me is testament to the rarity of such extent, and most parents probably do watch their children with eyes in the backs of their heads, like mine apparently had. So it is a bit of a relief that it is uncommon to witness such neglect, but imagine how much goes on without anyone watching.

Ever since the Palm Pilot came onto the scene, followed by the Blackberry, humans have been bowing their heads in adoration of the silicon god, the mobile device that connects us not to the person seated across from us, but to the technophile at the other end. Worse things can happen than simply missing out on human contact, I suppose, but we may be approaching the apogee of stupidity while glued to our screens. Meanwhile, the President of the United States seems to be leading that charge.

I believe the blind leading the blind will never really understand the peril they are putting themselves – and their children – in by blundering through life playing Pokemon. I don’t mean to say I disapprove of video games. I enjoy a few on my phone. But sometimes it’s good for us – maybe necessary – to put it away, if only until we make it across the street. I’ll just continue to be their eyes and ears. Oh, and next time, I’ll drive through a nearby puddle just to make it interesting.

 

What’s in Your Wallet?

I don’t wish to alarm anyone, but our economy is a bit of an illusion. Goods and services are being exchanged for currency, which is mostly held in bank accounts as electronic records, instead of a proper certificates and legal tender. Many of us have abandoned cash, opting instead in favor of credit and debit for monetary exchanges. Putting aside the astounding amount of consumer household debt in the US for another time, I want to talk about the economy of everyday life.

A very long time ago, people exchanged one good or service for another in a bartering-type system. For example, a farmer grows cabbage and potatoes, but he needs other commodities, like rice and wheat, milk, cooking oil, and fuel. So he goes to the market and exchanges his goods for the things he needs. This works well until he decides to hire someone to help him pick his crops. The farm hand cannot realistically be paid in cabbages, so a form of currency is needed. The various precious metals, copper, silver, and gold, are established as acceptable remuneration for any debt or fee, and would eventually be codified to a standard we accept as legal tender.

Fast-forward a little, and we find ourselves in our current state where money is held in accounts, not in safes or mattresses. When we pay for something, we whip out a debit card (if there’s money in that account) or credit card and authorize payment. We don’t really think about it, but what’s keeping all this going? Maybe it’s just my mind being manipulated by watching Mr. Robot,  and I do get a little anxious with each episode, but I’m bothered by the way our modern banking system seems to control everything. And what’s stopping the whole thing from falling apart? (I’m searching for a specific passage in a science fiction novel where I read that the end of the world was not caused by plague or war, but by cascading failures of electronic banking computers. The entire world economy was in memory somewhere, and something went wrong, horribly, catastrophically wrong. I was sure it was Arthur C Clarke, but I haven’t found the reference.)

My point is that the economy is extremely vulnerable. If you recall 2008 when the housing market crashed, the whole thing was caused by bad loans and greedy investors. If it happened once (and it has repeatedly) it can, and will, happen again. Except this time maybe it will be caused by hackers like the ones in Mr. Robot. What will happen if money is useless? What is money, really? Like I said, that legal tender concept is nice, but it’s just paper. And coins are not worth much. They contain very little precious metal, and no silver or gold. Pennies aren’t even made from copper anymore. Money is only worth something if the authority backing it says so.

So, let’s imagine what the world would look like if banks stopped working. You couldn’t use a debit card, and there’s no electronic “wallet” or other e-payment. Online bill payment is not an option, and no one accepts checks. The little cash there is might be accepted, but it’s only paper, like I said. In post-WWI Germany, inflation was so high that people used bank notes as fuel to keep warm. Eventually, a new economy would appear. Food and firewood are the new currency. Maybe you can trade some commodity for either. If you have a particular skill like making soap or metalworking, that is definitely worth something. If you’re thinking Fight Club you’re following me.

This vision of the future frightens me. It should frighten everyone, because not many people will thrive in this environment, and those who can are dangerous. This is why the governments of the world are working hard to keep economies flourishing. They will even go so far as to artificially prop up currency valuation or offer bailouts to prevent the unthinkable. By 2009, the US had spent $700 billion from taxpayers to prevent catastrophe (according to the Forbes article, it’s much more). And I think we were closer than is generally known.

When I go to the supermarket to buy coffee or potatoes or strawberries, I am participating in global trade with many different players. Coffee plants do not grow in the continental US. They require a specific climate that is best found in mountain regions in the tropics (high altitude, lots of sun and moisture). Strawberries in February come from Chile. We have to assume that people are getting paid all along the way. But if we paid what is fair – and whose definition of “fair” are we going by – that coffee would cost five times more. And strawberries in February would be cost-prohibitive. But through a careful balance of trade deals and other machinations, we can get what we want, and we don’t worry about what we can’t see, right?

Now I don’t recommend hoarding cash. And I am not condoning a policy of austerity and self-deprivation. That said, I am not the consumerism fan-boy. Capitalism is highly susceptible to greed and corruption. Marxism is also deeply flawed. Wherever there is a monetary system, it seems that people tend to fuck it up. We could theoretically live in a society where everything is traded; no one takes advantage, and there is trust. Borrowing and lending are simplified yet rarely implemented, but everyone buys only what they can afford. In this utopian economy, would money exist? I guess if that world could exist, maybe not. But unfortunately, we live in the real world, and that world must get paid.