Category Archives: Technology

If I were inclined to be a pessimist, here’s what I’d worry about

I hope Gary Larson doesn’t sue me for using this. I just saw it on Pinterest, and thought it a way better illustration for this post than the boring shot of Putin I originally put here.

Well, these are some of the things I’d worry about. Not all are even near the top of the list. These are just things that were in the news today — actually, all three were in one of the several papers to which I subscribe — so they’re on my mind at the moment.

So worry away, folks…

  1. Classic American tragedy — The headline was “Teen sought in Amber Alert dies in shootout after running toward deputies.” Basically, a 15-year-old girl that authorities were seeking to rescue from her armed-and-crazy, murderous father is now dead — shot by, well, authorities. So your initial reaction is, there go the stupid cops again. But then, if you care at all, you actually read about what happened. And you see it’s not so simple. What happened (so far as know at this point) was, shots were fired near a school. The school is placed briefly on lockdown. Then cops find a woman with multiple gunshot wounds, who is pronounced dead at a hospital. The call goes out to look for the husband, Anthony Graziano, and the couple’s young daughter, Savannah. Graziano’s Nissan is spotted, and pursued. He starts shooting, putting several rounds through a police car windshield. With bullets still flying both ways, someone, “wearing protective equipment, including a tactical helmet, emerged from the passenger side of the vehicle, ran toward sheriff’s deputies and then fell amid the gunfire.” When it’s all over, it’s discovered that someone is Savannah, and she and her father are both dead. What do you think should be done to prevent such things? This is very much like what happened to Breonna Taylor — someone with the victim starts shooting at police, and the victim is killed in the crossfire — but since she was black, a lot of people simplified it to “racism.” With Savannah being white, one is tempted to simplify by saying, “guns.” For instance, since I watch at LOT of British cop shows, I think, why can’t our cops go unarmed, like them? But of course that ignores the fact that there are 393 million guns in private hands in this country, and a lot of those hands belong to people who like to shoot first, like Graziano. So no, I don’t know that answer, but I’m pretty sure it can’t be summed up in one word.
  2. A big AI advance — I often sneer at artificial intelligence, noting that it may be artificial, but it certainly isn’t intelligent. Well, something like this makes me take a step back, and have “Matrix” thoughts. See that block of images below. None was taken by a camera. And they were generated not by hours of work by a CGI artist, but by “the artificial intelligence text-to-image generator DALL-E.” The one at the upper right came into being in response to the phrase, ““A woman in a red coat looking up at the sky in the middle of Times Square.” The only human input for the one at bottom left was, “Red and yellow bell peppers in a bowl with a floral pattern on a green rug photo.” I don’t know what the prompt was for the boy in black-and-white, but this is scary. Note that I say, “the phrase,” “input,” and “prompt.” Each time, I almost wrote “command,” but dare we speak of issuing orders to our future digital overlords?
  3. Ukraine dilemma — If you don’t spend too much time thinking about it, you can conclude that the thing to do is simply cheer for Ukraine to win, and Putin to lose. And I do. But I also worry. As I have since the start. Those of you who think Brad is just this wild warmonger — because I would sometimes use military force when you would not — may have been taken aback by the way I worried when all this started. I was running about like Neville Chamberlain, wringing my hands — sort of, anyway. Once it started, I continued to worry, while following the above formula. But while I rooted for Ukraine, and was pleased by that country’s recent successes, I continued worrying about the big picture, which goes like this: Putin needs to be humiliated, so he stops doing this. He didn’t pay a price in Georgia, or for his early moves on Ukraine. This has to stop. He needs to go. But he’s got all those nukes, and what will he do with them on his way out the door? Anyway, I urge you to read this piece, “Putin is limping toward an endgame in Ukraine. Should the West go along?” Read the whole thing, if you can. It basically asks, if fixing “elections” so he can save some face by annexing part of Ukraine — again — should we let him do this disgusting thing, to prevent a nuclear holocaust? My gut, of course, says the hell with him. But I don’t want nuclear hell unleashed on the rest of us, either. What’s the right move?

The first and the third problems are very similar. Any intelligent, or merely satisfying, response to either has enormous barriers in front of it. Get rid of those 393 million guns (the only thing that would really fix the problem)? Good luck. And imagine Joe Biden, in this poisonous political environment, trying to steer a course that does something enormously sickening to all sides, in order to avoid Armageddon. Forget about the consequences in the midterms — would it even be possible to do it?

Maybe we should stop worrying about 1 and 3, and let 2 happen, so the algorithms can make the decisions.

Anyway, as I said, if I were inclined to be pessimistic about life, the universe and everything, I’d spend all my time thinking about things such as these…

The upper-right was generated by “A woman in a red coat looking up at the sky in the middle of Times Square.”

Open Thread on Technology for Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Singularity hasn’t arrived, but we’re all pretty obsessed with the Matrix, as it currently exists…

Editor’s note: I wrote this on Tuesday, but didn’t post it because I thought it wasn’t very good. But today — Friday — I decided not to waste that time I spent typing it. So here it is, with only slight editing. But I didn’t take the time to edit all the places where it said “today,” which at the time meant Tuesday.

I have to be careful here. After all, there are already those who see me as an old guy (the insolent puppies). I don’t want to give them any additional reason to see me as Uncle Ben in “Spider-Man,” looking in the physical, dead-tree newspaper for a job (which shows you how long ago 2002 was), and seeing a help-wanted ad for a computer analyst, moans, “My Lord, even the computers need analysts these days!”

All my adult life, I was always on the leading edge of technology — when newspapers went from typewriters to mainframe, and then from mainframe to PCs, I was one of the people who learned it first and taught the others. I paginated the editorial pages before the rest of the newspaper followed. When I got canned in 2009, I was the only person at the paper actively blogging and regularly interacting with readers online.

But lately I’ve been noticing something a bit unsettling. Gradually, the news I read is less about what people do, and more about what their technology does. I’m not saying the singularity is imminent — artificial intelligence is still too stupid — but we’re moving in that direction, in terms of what we pay attention to. Maybe it’s because we’ve spent too much time observing stupid people, and no longer notice the intellectual limitations in the tech.

Anyway, these were all in The Washington Post today:

  • You’re charging wrong: 5 ways to make gadget batteries last longer — Hey, I love my iPhone and my iPad, and am on decent terms with my PC. But I’ll respect them all more — especially the iPhone — when the batteries are better. Or at least, more reasonable. Here’s what reasonable would look like: When I take off my phone and am not using it — which means when I’m sleeping — it should be charging, and without damaging the battery. And please, don’t do this thing where you take all fricking night to charge. Ever since that started, I’ll wake up in the night and reach over to unplug it, because it’s been a couple of hours and should be charged — but it’s nowhere near done, because it’s aiming to finish around 5 a.m. I’ve tried turning off this “convenient” feature in the past, but failed. So it charges all night, but gradually. But what if I needed to grab it and go in the middle of the night?
  • How a photo of a woman yelling in a guy’s ear became a viral meme — That sounds stupid, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. Not as stupid, say, as ‘haul videos” were, but pretty dumb. Apparently, it’s news because as a meme, it is somehow evocative of other memes, and has meaning to someone who spends all his or her time thinking about memes instead of, say, great literature. It’s an actual international sensation, apparently.
  • Strangers rallied worldwide to help this Maryland mom find where she parked her car — In this case, the amazing part isn’t about the technology. The amazing thing is the way this lady managed to lose the car she had hurriedly parked on the way to take a child to the doctor. Which is reasonable to anyone who has had to spend a little time remembering exactly where in the lot, or the garage, the car was parked. That I get. What blows my mind is that she didn’t even know in which nearby parking garage she had parked it. Which means she arrived at the doctor so flustered that she didn’t know how she’d gotten there, even roughly. So after unsuccessfully searching, she posted something about it on social media, and went home, defeated. And people around the world jumped in to solve the mystery, and two days later, someone found it. Which is cool, and even nice. But how did this happen to begin with?
  • Down and out and extremely online? No problem: Just enter a new ‘era.’ — You’ll have to read a few grafs of the story even to understand what it’s about. But when you do, you may react as I did, wondering how anyone could become this lost in narcissism. (Which is really something, coming from a guy who blogs.) And then, you’ll wonder about something even more perplexing: Who would actually watch such a thing? Compared to this, haul videos actually made sense.
  • Former security chief claims Twitter buried ‘egregious deficiencies’ — I put this last, but this morning, this was actually the lede story on the app. So Elon Musk isn’t the only one complaining. But then, he’s looking for something in Twitter other than what I see, and enjoy. I use it all the time, and it works great. I post something, and it shows up, and people interact with it. Yeah, lying to regulators is a bad thing and all, but if you want to go after a social medium that really sucks, take on Facebook. Or Instagram. Or Snapchat. Twitter remains my fave.

This saturation in tech news today reminded me of another story about something I want to complain about, from last week:

How to send text messages from the comfort of your computer — The only reason I read this was because I use an iPhone for my phone, and a PC for my computer. Which means I’m up the creek, unlike people who use all Apple products — their texts are shared smoothly on all their platforms. So I started reading, thinking that maybe, just maybe, I won’t have to shell out a fortune to get a Mac when my Dell gives out. And I read on even though the subhed warned me what was coming: “The process ranges from ‘surprisingly simple’ to ‘ugh’ depending on your mix of devices.” Of course, they save the “iPhone + Windows” scenario for the end, at which point they say that it’s technically possible, but…

So I kind of wasted my time there…

I’m a bit obsessed with my iPad, and my iPhone knows it

I hardly go anywhere without my iPad.

Certainly not if I’m going somewhere work-related — a meeting or an interview or whatever — because it’s easy to carry and can perform most work-related functions.

But I don’t go on vacation without it, either. And in the past, I haven’t even left the hotel or B&B without it. When we went to Thailand and Hawaii several years ago, I carried it in a drawstring bad strapped across my chest (I long ago outgrew the trying-to-look-cool thing) or back. See the embarrassing image below.

But by the time we went to Ireland and then to Boston, I’d decided if I absolutely had to do something while walking about on vacation, my phone would do. If I can keep the blasted thing charged.

Still, the iPad goes with me nearly everywhere.

And my iPhone has noticed. Lately, it’s been acting a bit sarcastic about it. Every time I leave the house now — for a walk, or to go to the grocery — I’ve started getting these notifications, like the one above, as soon as I’m a few blocks from the house.

They’re like, “Hey, you — it looks like you left your baby behind! Don’t you want to run back home and get it?”

OK, so maybe this isn’t petulance on the part of the phone. It seems to have started when I allowed the iPad to update its operating system recently. And there seems to be an easy way to turn off such notifications.

But… maybe one of these times, I really would want to go back and get it. So I’m leaving it on for now. I’ll just have to see how much it bugs me going forward…

Here I am with me mate Mark, whom I met on the road to Kanchanaburi in 2015. He’s a retired roofer from England. Note that in addition to the drawstring bag, I’m wearing my tropical-weight travel vest. So I’m really not kidding when I say I’ve outgrown trying to look cool on the road.

 

And next, the email…

Now that I’ve spent every spare moment I could find for several days gradually putting that post about Boston together — determined to get that done once after one of my trips — I can turn to catching up on email.

Not work email — I’m up to date on that chore. I mean my personal email. The screenshot above from my iPad indicates the scale of the problem. Not exactly, but that “2,031” you see over the email icon is roughly how many I have sitting unexamined in my personal In box.

Which I hate. Of course, I’ll delete most of them — not even opening the overwhelming majority of those before I do — and save most of the few left to folders, also unread. You know, just in case they prove useful at some point in the future. Which they almost certainly will not. But even the system I have for committing unthinking mass murder to hundreds or thousands of messages can take me a couple of hours, when there are this many. Of course, it’s not the many that cause it to take so long — it’s the few I open and glance at, and perhaps even read.

Remember when — 25 to 30 years ago — we thought email was a convenience? And certainly it was, compared to snail mail, which takes so much time and physical effort to process even a single letter. It was made more seductive, there in the early-to-middle ’90s, by the fact that relatively few people out there had email, which really cut down on the volume.

Yesterday, I was talking about something else with an IT professional — no, not a funny one like this guy, but a real one — and he was talking about some new technology he was working with, and I asked him to let me know if he ran across any new technology that eliminated the hassle of email.

Trying to be helpful, he made a suggestion or two, but I had tried them already, leading to failure. For instance, he suggested creating folders in which to dump things that might require some action (or at least reading), so they can be addressed later. With bitter regret, I told him of my hundreds of such folders, which have done nothing to reduce the work — and which, of course, I pretty much never look back at. The junk just sits there.

Part of it is my personality. I’ve always been a pack rat, and I have a great, almost mortal, dread of having something in my hands at one point, throwing it away, and then desperately needing it at some later date. (This, of course, predates email. My office, or my desk if that’s all I had, would always be a forest of piles of paper. To this day, I defend this system because of something that happened once in the very early ’90s — Managing Editor Paula Ellis, knowing my habits, came to me and asked whether I had a copy of a memo that had been distributed in the newsroom several months earlier. Certainly, I said. I went immediately to the right pile and shuffled through it for a moment — then proudly handed it to her. See? My way was the right way. It may have only happened once, but it happened…)

Then there is the problem of my chosen profession — or rather, the profession that chose me. It’s very difficult for a journalist — at least this one — to throw away written information. It may not be useful later, but on rare occasions it can be critical later. This only got worse when I turned to opinion writing — and much worse than that when I took up blogging. At least, when I was a beat reporter 40-odd years ago, there was a limit to the range of things I might write about. No longer. And since I still blog, this perceived need to hang onto things has continued well past the end of my newspaper career.

Even the stupidest, most useless, boring piece of crapola — say, an appeal for money from a political campaign — can inspire me to write something, depending on my mood. Sometimes, I write only to share how stupid, useless and boring it is.

Oh, well.

I’ll turn to it later, and get it done eventually. Right now, I think I’ll turn, however briefly, to some actual paying work…

 

 

 

Sometimes, robots try too hard, and assume too much

Those of you who travel more than I do (these days, I hardly leave my house!) probably noticed this before, but it’s the first time I’ve run into it.

As I mentioned, we took a quick trip to Memphis a few days back, and while we were there, I looked at my phone and noticed I had an appointment with one of my doctors set for the next day — which was the day we’d be driving back. The time was for right about the time we’d be leaving Memphis. (I knew I had an appointment that week, but I’d thought it was later in the week.)

So I called, and they called me back the next morning as we were about to leave, and reset the appointment for this coming Friday at 9:10. So I entered that into my iPhone.

At least, I think that was the time. I just looked at my calendar, and it says 10:10. (As you can see above, I smudged the doc’s name. Y’all know I usually don’t worry too much about my own privacy in a medical context, but I try to respect that of my physicians’.)

So… I’m left to assume that since I entered the time as 9:10 when I was in the CDT zone, my iPhone automatically “corrected” it when we cross the line back into EDT.

I fixed it earlier on my phone, but it still shows up on my PC as 10.10. (Which is another technical problem.) So now I’ve put in a call to the doctor’s office to make sure.

Anyway, I hadn’t known iOS could be quite that “helpful.” Or that presumptuous…

Roy Rogers and Wonder Woman! You can’t beat that…

OK, I was kinda ragging on Google Adsense the other day for the “older women” ad they put on my blog, but here’s one I actually like.

Not enough to click on it, mind you — that’s against the rules. I just like it as a visual enhancement of the blog.

My childhood hero Roy Rogers, with the best Wonder Woman! (No offense to Gal Gadot, but this one was pretty special.)

Can’t say I appreciate the slight suggestion that there’s something salacious going on (“opens up about his life”), this being Roy and all. I mean, he’s just being polite posing for a picture. The photographer probably said, “Pretend she’s Trigger!” and Roy obliged.

Of course, she’s not Trigger, but I don’t hold that against her. Not her fault at all. She’s doing her best, and her best is pretty good…

Hey, you promised me OLDER women!

AdSense won’t let me click on its ads, but at least I can occasionally make fun of them. I think.

Yesterday, they put the one you see above in the top position on my blog. I don’t know why. You probably didn’t see it (at least, I hope not), but for some reason the algorithm thought Brad Warthen wanted to.

I don’t have any guilty secrets that this reveals, or I probably wouldn’t post this. I haven’t been searching for anything remotely likely to lead to such associations. Here are some of my recent Google search terms:

  • no-knock warrant raid
  • npe
  • Ramesh Ponnuru
  • where is wordle on nyt app
  • hugh weathers

Over on Amazon, I’ve looked for:

  • Wrangler Authentics Men’s Classic Relaxed Fit Cargo Short
  • The Lincoln Highway: A Novel
  • Sun Joe SJH901E 18-Inch Electric Telescoping Pole Hedge Trimmer
  • Hourleey Garden Hose Washer Rubber, Heavy Duty Red Rubber Washer Fit All Standard 3/4 Inch Garden Hose Fittings, 50 Packs

Sexy stuff, huh?

OK, wait. This morning — after I saw the ad — Pinterest showed me this pic of Norma Jeane posing for a pinup painting (between pins of “Far Side” comics and Mickey Mantle), and the cutline used the name “Earl Moran,” and that made me curious enough to search for that name, which showed me this bevy of softcore images. And hey, all of those women, if still alive, are older than I am.

But that was after Google showed me the ad.

Personally, I feel cheated: If you think I’ve got some kinda thing for “older women,” why don’t you show me something like this, or this? You know, hubba-hubba stuff…

Don’t try to palm off some young babe on me. Give the customer what he wants — or what you, for inexplicable reasons, think he wants…

Anyway, this post is for my “AI is artificial, but not intelligent” file…

Doesn’t everyone do this? And if there are people who don’t, what is wrong with them?

This Tweet raised a number of questions:

My initial response was simply to reply, “I don’t know what this has to do with ‘parents,’ unless it was written by a child. Doesn’t everyone do this? And why isn’t IMDB mentioned?”

But seriously, people, when all of us are sitting there with smartphones, who doesn’t do this?

I don’t mean with Steve Buscemi. If you have to look him up, you should just quit partaking in popular culture altogether. I mean somebody a little harder, like Zoë Wanamaker. I see her all the time, of course (such as, recently, in “Britannia”), but I was thrown because she appeared in an episode from the first series of “Prime Suspect” in 1991, and I hadn’t seen her when she was that young. Also, she distracted me by stripping off her blouse to flash her breasts at a cop who was surveilling her.

Of course, some of us do it to a greater extreme than others. Like me. My wife goes, “Who is that? Where did we see her?” But then, she generally returns her attention to the show and follows the action.

Meanwhile, several feet away, I’m on my phone’s IMDB app, researching away. Which, of course, sometimes takes several steps. Sometimes with a TV show, simply calling up the entry for the show won’t tell you who this actor or actress, who may only have appeared in this episode, was (either because the person is buried in a long list, or, too often, is missing entirely from the main page). So I might have to look up the series on Wikipedia, and find the title of the specific episode, and then go back to IMDB and search for that episode by name, and that leads to success. I then call up a representative photo of that person, and show it to my wife, and tell her where she has seen him or her before.

And my wife says, “Yes,” and goes back to the show.

This presents a bit of a problem. Because even with my new hearing aids, I’m very dependent on subtitles to help me follow the dialogue. So after a couple of minutes of looking at my phone, I’m a bit lost as to what’s going on.

So I ask my wife. And tolerant as she is, this sometimes makes her a bit impatient with me. But she doesn’t call me a “parent.” She just, you know, thinks I’m a bit of a compulsive idiot.

But I can’t help it. In a world in which the computer — phone, tablet, laptop, what have you — is always right there, and always connected to the Web, I have to do this.

Before the Internet, I was sorta kinda able to focus on what was going on. The biggest problem back then was the dictionary. Always right there on the desk. Fortunately, I didn’t use it much, because I’m a fairly literate guy, and if I had to look the word up to be sure I was using it correctly, that was an indication that I probably shouldn’t be using it in the newspaper.

But I did look sometimes, and that meant I’d be lost for awhile. On the way to the word in question, I’d run across other words that would trip me and tie me down and force me to study them and the other words they led to, and it just went on and on from there. Eventually I’d get back to work, but it took awhile.

And the Web is millions of times worse, of course.

But it’s not because I’m a “parent.” It’s because I’m the most easily fascinated person on the planet. It’s like my superpower, although not very empowering…

Helen Mirren and Zoë Wanamaker in “Prime Suspect” in 1991.

The Stupid Decade, and how it happened

Well, I just used up my last free read on The Atlantic — if I were to take out one more subscription, it might be that one, but I’ve really been overdoing it, so I’m holding myself back — and the piece was worth it.

One of y’all — was it Barry? — brought it to my attention the other day, and I just got around to reading the rest of it. The headline is, “WHY THE PAST 10 YEARS OF AMERICAN LIFE HAVE BEEN UNIQUELY STUPID.”

Which they have, as we all know. Or at least, all of us who were adults long enough before the last 10 years that we can tell the difference. If we were around that long, and really, truly paying attention, we know that a lot of really crazy stuff went down before the past 10 years, as a sort of a warmup, but we can tell that these last few have truly been stupid and yes, uniquely so.

Here’s a key bit that sort of sets up the piece. I include the subhed because always like to pat people on the back for citing Yeats. That poem has been profound since it was written, but more and more now the human race is living like we’re determined to act it out fully:

Things Fall Apart

Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?

Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. To see how, we must understand how social media changed over time—and especially in the several years following 2009….

Yep, you see where it’s headed, right? We’re getting back to the Rabbit Hole.

And each time someone explores the Hole more thoroughly, I nod a little more, as it becomes clearer that this explains so much of what had been puzzling me since 2016.

You know that book I keep talking about, Sapiens? This piece makes similar observations, such as the fact that before all this stupidity, human history could be largely summed up by saying, “there is a direction to history and it is toward cooperation at larger scales.” Yep, there was. But this piece is about how things suddenly — extremely suddenly — went wrong.

I was rereading Sapiens a bit more today, and suddenly realized that Harari didn’t realize that this megatrend had hit a major snag. That’s because his book was written in 2011 (and came out in English in 2014). So the unique stupidity hadn’t kicked in yet. In fact, Jonathan Haidt, the author of this piece in The Atlantic, considers 2011 sort of the arguable “high point of techno-democratic optimism.” Then things fell apart.

Anyway, if you’re already with me on the whole Rabbit Hole thing, you don’t need to read all of this to be convinced — although you might enjoy it.

But I know some of you aren’t convinced yet, so I urge you to read the whole thing. Yeah, it’s more than 8,000 words, but as newsroom wags used to say about an overly long piece, it reads like 7,000….

So you’re saying it’s the Raskolnikov Syndrome? Maybe, but that doesn’t explain 2016

Georgy Taratorkin as Raskolnikov in a 1969 Russian film adaptation.

As you know, people have been bat-poop crazy lately. We’ve discussed this a good bit.

It’s complicated by the fact that we’re looking at two separate developments, and sort of running them together.

I’ve been searching ever since 2016, trying to understand how this country elected — to the presidency — someone who at any previous time in our nation’s history would have been laughed off the stage the first time he stood up and said “I’m running.” A guy who had been known as a famous doofus since the ’80s. Elected to be the most powerful person on the planet.

I still haven’t arrived, although I did feel I got a lot closer to the answer when I heard that “Rabbit Hole” podcast.

Over the last year or two — starting in 2020, the year we (at least for a little while), corrected the 2016 insanity — we’ve been talking a lot about something else, which is the deleterious effect of the pandemic on human behavior.

I just read another good, thoughtful piece on that in The Atlantic: “Why People Are Acting So Weird.” It begins:

Everyone is acting so weird! The most obvious recent weirdness was when Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at the Oscars. But if you look closely, people have been behaving badly on smaller stages for months now. Last week, a man was arrested after he punched a gate agent at the Atlanta airport. (The gate agent looked like he was about to punch back, until his female colleague, bless her soul, stood on some chairs and said “no” to the entire situation.) That wasn’t even the only viral asshole-on-a-plane video that week.

In February, people found ways to throw tantrums while skiing—skiing. In one viral video, a man slid around the chairlift-boarding area of a Canadian resort, one foot strapped into his snowboard as he flailed at security guards and refused to comply with a mask mandate. Separate footage shows a maskless man on a ski shuttle screaming, “There’s nobody wearing masks on any bus in this goddamn town!” before calling his fellow passenger a “liberal piece of shit” and storming off.

During the pandemic, disorderly, rude, and unhinged conduct seems to have caught on as much as bread baking and Bridgerton. Bad behavior of all kinds —everything from rudeness and carelessness to physical violence—has increased…

You see what happened there? As you will find if you read on, most of the piece is a discussion of what’s happened “during the pandemic.” But the political problem that predates the pandemic by four years comes up as well: “…before calling his fellow passenger a ‘liberal piece of shit’ and storming off.” Do you wonder who that guy voted for? I don’t. I mean, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I know.

So yeah, behavior has been pretty bad during COVID, but that doesn’t explain 2016.

However, I did pick up something interesting that I hadn’t though of before, in terms of explaining the pandemic craziness, and that’s why I’m posting this. It comes up here:

We’re social beings, and isolation is changing us

The pandemic loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general. Sociologists think all of this isolation shifted the way we behave. “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, told me. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”

The turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state anomie, or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote. In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases we have stopped being moral, too….

Though it’s been a lifesaving tool throughout the pandemic, mask wearing has likely made this problem worse. Just as it’s easier to scream at someone on Twitter than in real life, it’s easier to rage at a masked flight attendant than one whose face you can fully see. “You don’t really see a human being so much as you’re seeing someone masked,” Sampson said. Though one study found that face masks don’t dehumanize the wearer, another small experiment found that they do impair people’s ability to detect emotions….

I read that, and it hit me: Whoa! They mean the Raskolnikov Syndrome! Why didn’t I realize this before? After all, I’ve been thinking about it, and sometimes talking about it, since I was in college — although I don’t think I actually wrote about it until 2012. Here, in part, is how I set out the idea at that time:

I’ve long had this theory that people who do truly horrendous things that Ordinary Decent People can’t fathom do them because they’ve actually entered another state of being that society, because it is society, can’t relate to.

Quite simply, people like James Eagan Holmes are able to spend time planning a mass murder, prepare for it, gather guns and ammunition and explosives and body armor, and actually go to the intended scene of the crime and carry it out, without ever stopping and saying, “Hey, wait a minute — what am I doing?” because they’re not interacting enough with other human beings.

This allows their thoughts, unchecked, to wander off to strange places indeed — and stay there, without other people making social demands on them that call them back.

I think there’s a quality in the social space between people that assesses the ideas we have in our heads and tells us whether they are ideas worth having, or so far beyond the pale that we should stop thinking them. This vetting doesn’t have to be conscious; it’s not like you’re overtly throwing the idea out there and seeking feedback. I think that in your own mind, you constantly test ideas against what you believe the people around you would think of them, and it naturally affects how you regard the ideas yourself. I think this happens no matter how independent-minded you think you are, no matter how introverted in the Jungian sense. Unless, of course, you are a true sociopath. And I believe a lack of sufficient meaningful interaction with other people you care about plays a big factor in turning you into one of those.

Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov was the perfect case, fitting all the criteria we keep hearing about. Brilliant young mind, but he suffered a series of setbacks that embarrassed him and caused him to draw away from his friends. Living hundreds if not thousands of miles from his family, he was forced by lack of money to drop out of school. Rather than make money doing the translations his friend Razumikhin tried to throw his way, he fell to brooding in his ratty garret, or wandering alone through the crowded city, thinking — and not sharing his thoughts.

His murderous plan started with a provocative, if not quite mad, idea that he wrote an essay about — setting out the theory that extraordinary people who were destined to do extraordinary things for the world had a right, if not a duty, to step over the normal social rules and boundaries that restricted ordinary people. Had he been in contact with friends and family, they would have challenged him on this, as Razumikhin did late in the book, when he learned of the essay. Maybe they wouldn’t have changed his mind, in the abstract, but if he had been having dinner each night with his mother and sister, and going out for drinks regularly with Razumikhin, it would have been impossible for him to have carried it to the next level…

I explained further, including sharing the passage that “proved” the theory to me, and I’d love for you to go back and read the whole thing. But that’s the essence.

So yeah, the piece in The Atlantic is referring to a form of that Syndrome. Which is cool, and helpful. I feel like I understand the pandemic-behavior problem a bit better now.

This is particularly an eye-opener to me because, as an introvert, I haven’t minded the isolation of the last two years at all. I haven’t found it stressful, and in many ways — such as not going to an office every day (or at all, really) — I’ve seen it as pretty awesome.

But I had forgotten about my own theory about Raskolnikov. Now I get it.

But to repeat myself, that still doesn’t explain 2016, or the fact that so many millions of people did that again in 2020, and can’t wait to do it again in 2024, whether the pandemic is still affecting our lives or not.

So, I’ll have to keep looking. Because helpful as it is, “Rabbit Hole” doesn’t explain it all — does it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stop nagging me, Netflix!

I get emails like this all the time. Do you?

They seem weird to me. I find myself wondering why Netflix cares whether I “finish 30 Rock.” I assume this is simply about making sure I’m watching Netflix, period. But if that’s the purpose, it seems to have at least a couple of problems as a strategy:

  • If AI has any actual intelligence at all — and I’m talking minimal smarts — it would know that I engage with Netflix quite frequently. Not all the time, because I have Prime and Britbox and Hulu and other streaming options. But often enough that I don’t need to be bugged about it — one would think.
  • Also, if you’re tracking me and my habits, why don’t you know that I’ve watched every bit of “30 Rock” multiple times? And I think I did so at least once on Netflix. This makes me less than impressed with your technology.

Maybe they just want to stay in touch with customers, and they don’t care how stupid the excuse is.

Anyway.

Do y’all get these? And do you have any idea why?

DeMarco: A prescription for treating mental obesity

The Op-Ed Page

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

The root cause of America’s obesity epidemic and the rise of political polarization are linked. The former is due to unhealthy food choices, the latter to unhealthy media ones. A side effect of living in a developed country where food and media are inexpensive and widely available is that we consume too much of the insalubrious types of both.

Our news and opinion diet is often filled with transiently satisfying but non-nutritive calories, producing a mental obesity. We pick up our phones and succumb to the same temptation that a bakery case provides.

Certain habits put you at risk for physical obesity. If someone eats fast food frequently, regularly consumes high-calorie snacks, and rarely exercises, he or she is at high risk for being obese. Similarly, if someone watches long periods of cable news that offer a liberal or conservative bias, solidifies that bias by viewing social media with that same slant, and does not expend the mental energy to challenge himself or herself with other viewpoints, mental obesity is likely.

One unique difficulty in combatting mental obesity is that it is hard to recognize in ourselves. There is no scale for this type of obesity. Try this as a diagnostic tool: Pick any common policy disagreement and cogently argue it from the other side. If you are pro-life, explain why someone might rationally choose abortion. If you are pro-choice, explain why someone might rationally oppose it. The inability (or lack of desire) to accept that people with whom you disagree are not universally evil, crazy, stupid or un-American is a cardinal symptom.

Most importantly, what do we do about it? The treatment of physical and mental obesity is similar.

Portion Control

For most of our history, Americans received our news in aliquots: newspapers, radio news at the top of the hour, TV evening news. In my early adulthood in the 1980s, before cable news was ubiquitous, a common pattern was to read the morning paper, go the whole day without any interruption by current events, come home and read the evening paper and/or watch the evening news. We weren’t hounded by “breaking news” that was neither, or sent unsolicited push notifications. The wonder of finding the latest score or stock price comes with an invisible threat to our mental health if we aren’t conscientious internet consumers. We become angrier, less tolerant, and more partisan, the chronic diseases associated with wanton media overconsumption.

Consume the Rainbow

Healthy plates are often filled with color. The wholesome green of vegetables and the many colors of a fruit salad are indications of their goodness. If your information diet is monochrome, take heed.

When I give patients medical advice, it is often based on what I try to apply (albeit imperfectly) in my own life. My advice here will be the same. I still get the newsprint edition of the Florence Morning News (I’m going to pause for a moment to let my younger readers’ laughter quiet). It’s a nice way to ease into the daily news. The articles are usually right down the middle, written by local reporters or the Associated Press. Then, properly nourished, I will often listen to the conservative talk radio show, “Wake Up Carolina,” on the drive to work. The show’s host, former lieutenant governor Ken Ard, and I have many things in common. We are both are husbands and fathers, we love our families, and we care deeply about our neighbors in the Pee Dee. We occasionally text about the issues of the day and share a mutual respect. Our political opinions are often at odds. For example, we disagree completely about Anthony Fauci, whom I admire and whom Ken wants to fire.

Our disagreements are not always so stark. Sometimes we find common ground, as when he talks about the plight of America’s blue-collar workers. Do I slap my head in frustration some mornings? Yes, but that’s the point. Ken is an opinion commentator, who is not bound to journalistic standards. The fact that he has many faithful listeners who trust him makes him someone I want to hear. If you listen to someone with whom you agree completely, you have accomplished nothing by having your already formed opinion buttressed. It’s the mental equivalent of mindlessly eating a bag of chips.

I balance “Wake Up Carolina” with NPR. I check the Fox News app and then the CNN app, recognizing the biases of both those outlets. I have digital subscriptions to the Washington Post and The New York Times. My next purchase will be the Wall Street Journal. I’m only hesitating because it gets expensive after the first year and I’m not sure I’ll have time to read it. I listen to podcasts of all stripes, and enjoy the depth and nuance that can be conveyed in that format. And of course, when I want scintillating opinion pieces and erudite commentary, I come here.

If you were my obese patient, I’d have some gentle advice and encouragement for you. As your columnist, I also have some instruction. If you agree with me most of the time, I prescribe regular exposure to a more conservative columnist. If you read my column every month and our stances often differ, I’m pleased. Consider me informational broccoli. Now, treat yourself (briefly) to a news source with which you agree.

Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, S.C. Reach him at pvdemarco@bellsouth.net. A version of this column (sadly without the reference to this blog) appeared in the Florence Morning News on 3/2/22.

Cut it out, Microsoft!

OK, when I had to deal with this yet again on starting my laptop this morning, I decided to say something. Like Bull Randleman in “Band of Brothers.” Enough is enough.

I see the above blue screen — or another one like it that politely asks (actually, demands) that I restart, instead of going ahead and doing it — pretty much daily, maybe more. This started about the time Microsoft 11 was released, or a little after.

At one point, my computer kept asking me to “upgrade” to it for free, but of course, since I knew of no reason to do so, I did not, but went on with life. I did this because I did not wish to take the time, and also because I’ve noticed something in recent years about “upgrades” from the various technology companies I deal with — Microsoft, of course Apple, Facebook, Google, what have you (oh, and did I mention Apple, a company that increasingly seems to exist purely to do this sort of thing?) — don’t do “upgrades” to improve the product for the user. They do them for their own arcane reasons (probably to make more money, but also possibly out of sheer cussedness), and if they can make my life less convenient along the way, this seems to please them as well.

I became even less interested when I went shopping with my daughter — the one who lives on an island where you can’t just go out and buy a computer, and the shipping costs of ordering one are prohibitive — to help her buy a new laptop. All the PCs were on 11, and the salesman told us some disturbing things about 11. He said you could avoid the problems with some of the machines they had — something about their different configurations — but not with others. I forget now what the biggest problem was; I only remember that it was one that would have interfered hugely with the ways I use a PC.

Anyway, we got one on which the big problem wasn’t supposed to be a problem, and I ran into a smaller one when I spent time setting it up for her after we got home. (This was a tedious process since she and I had both just been diagnosed with COVID and we were in separate rooms and everything I did on her laptop meant a bunch of wiping down with disinfecting wipes before transferring it back to where she was.)

Of course, one of the first things I did was download Chrome and get it running for her. I mean, you know, it’s either that or Firefox, and I prefer Chrome. I’ve got a new problem with Chrome that I might write about separately, but mostly it’s been great. Whereas I have yet to see a good argument presented for why anyone (anyone who was not forced to) would use Edge or its unlamented ancestor, Explorer.

At every step, Microsoft 11 tried to stop me, insisting that I really, really wanted to use Edge. Except, you see, I didn’t. And if Microsoft offered me any reasons I should change my mind, I don’t recall them.

So, another strike against 11.

But ever since I declined to switch my perfectly serviceable laptop over to it, I’ve been getting these blue screens. That’s when it started. And for this, I blame the existence of 11 in the world, but I could be wrong. I just can’t think of anything else that’s changed.

Anybody know how I can fix this? I mean, by spending less time than I spent typing this, which was, as it turns out, much more time than I wanted to?

If so, I would appreciate it. Oh, and yeah — I see the blue screen offers a URL where I can go explore multiple things that might be wrong, and spend the rest of a day messing with them. I did, and stared at it for a couple of seconds. But I just want it to stop.

Or maybe I just wanted to say something, as did Bull. But unfortunately, Lt. Sobel — I mean Microsoft — hates us all…

No, it’s not about the cheese. But what IS it about?

Yesterday was January 6, and you know what that means, right? The Epiphany! Time to start putting away the Christmas decorations!

If you consume news the way I used to, you might think it means something else. A certain anniversary. News organizations have gone sort of nuts about anniversaries over the past 20 years or so. I mean, we were always kind of that way about Pearl Harbor Day or other historical dates, but news folks have gotten way more into it in recent years in the constant madness of filling the content beast. Seems like now, it’s always the first, or fifth, or 10th anniversary of something we are obliged to remember.

Not that what happened last year wasn’t significant. If this nation ceases to exist while some of us are still alive, we’ll look back on Jan. 6 as being the moment when everything changed. Never before in our history had it even been conceivable for actual American citizens to have attacked, trashed and briefly taken the citadel of our government. Sure, Andy Jackson’s supporters trashed the White House that time, but that was just a party, backwoods style. (That was significant, too, though. They were celebrating the greatest disaster in an American election that occurred before 2016. It was the preview of what our civilization would look like when it disintegrated.)

Of course, things had been changing for awhile before Jan. 6, 2021. And not just politically.

Note that last bit. Not just politically. As much of a disaster as Donald Trump was and is, he is not the problem. The problem is the phenomenon of which he is merely a prominent symptom.

Basically, the American people — and people around the world — had been going completely stark, raving mad for awhile.

We worry about COVID — and we should — but it seems that some kind of infection swept through our world several years back and caused some serious damage to our brains.

We’ve been seeing the evidence for some time, but I’d particularly like to call your attention to this piece that was in the NYT the other day. It’s been getting some attention; I see Jennifer Rubin wrote about it in the Post as well.

The headline was “A Nation on Hold Wants to Speak With a Manager.” The subhed was “In our anger-filled age, when people need to shop or travel or cope with mild disappointment they’re devolving into children.” By the way, if you click on the link as I intend you to do, I advise you to quickly scroll down to the main body of the piece, to reduce your exposure to the extremely irritating animated graphic at the top. As though we didn’t have enough things driving us over the edge.)

Here’s the lede anecdote, plus the nut graf (here’s hoping this falls within the range of Fair Use):

Nerves at the grocery store were already frayed, in the way of these things as the pandemic slouches toward its third year, when the customer arrived. He wanted Cambozola, a type of blue cheese. He had been cooped up for a long time. He scoured the dairy area; nothing. He flagged down an employee who also did not see the cheese. He demanded that she hunt in the back and look it up on the store computer. No luck.

And then he lost it, just another out-of-control member of the great chorus of American consumer outrage, 2021 style.

“Have you seen a man in his 60s have a full temper tantrum because we don’t have the expensive imported cheese he wants?” said the employee, Anna Luna, who described the mood at the store, in Minnesota, as “angry, confused and fearful.”

“You’re looking at someone and thinking, ‘I don’t think this is about the cheese.’”

It is a strange, uncertain moment, especially with Omicron tearing through the country. Things feel broken. The pandemic seems like a Möbius strip of bad news. Companies keep postponing back-to-the-office dates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps changing its rules. Political discord has calcified into political hatred. And when people have to meet each other in transactional settings — in stores, on airplanes, over the phone on customer-service calls — they are, in the words of Ms. Luna, “devolving into children.”…

Yep. The piece — all of which you should read — lists a lot of incidents like the one that was not really “about the cheese.”

If you look at the URL for the piece, you’ll see it includes “customer-service-pandemic-rage.” I think the problem predates the pandemic, just as it predates Trump, but there seems little doubt that, like Trump, COVID has helped bring it out.

Of course, it could just be the pandemic, and I’m just the wrong person to assess that. Whenever I read or hear about how horribly stressed people have been, I always have trouble identifying with it. There’s also the fact that since dairy is a deadly allergen to me — I think of what you call “cheese” as “spoiled bovine secretions” — I can’t imagine why someone would get in the car and drive to a store to buy someone anyway, whether it’s some special kind called “Cambozola” or not.

Yeah, I know if you’re a very young person who has career ambitions that can only be fulfilled at the office, and your spouse works too, and you have young children who may or may not be going to school tomorrow, this imposes certain stresses. But since none of those things describe me, I can’t feel it. And I know if you’ve lost someone to COVID, this is a horror of almost unimaginable proportions.

But if you don’t have any of those factors in your life — if you’d MUCH rather stay home than go to an office, see a movie in a crowd of people, attend a sporting event (shudder), eat out in a restaurant, or travel somewhere in an airliner (something that, honestly, was never fun in the healthiest of times, and which I could only make myself do because I deeply wanted to go to the place at the other end of the ordeal) — then it’s hard to understand this stuff.

And I especially can’t understand how someone my age (“a man in his 60s”) who should be past a lot of those stressors in life could be that desperate to eat a piece of cheese.

So it doesn’t work. And I’m left trying to understand what started all this.

Of course, as you know, I’ve been struggling with the challenge of creating a forum ruled by civility ever since I started blogging in 2005. And it gets harder every year. Lately, I notice that a lot of people have been getting as concerned about it as I have been.

Yesterday, I was talking with a thoughtful person who was trying to analyze the problem. How could someone go into a store or a commercial airliner or a public meeting and act this way? He offered this analogy: “If I enter your house, and you have a rule that I take off my shoes, I either take them off or leave,” he said. “It’s a matter of respect.”

Yes it is. And it immediately struck me that, as I look around me at the problem, it seems we’re living in a world that is absolutely crammed — all of a sudden — with people whose mamas didn’t raise them right.

So what happened?

How are y’all doing with the supply chain these days?

Kind of moody and overly dramatic, don’t you think? But it was the only horizontal image I could find that I figured I’d be allowed to use.

This is an update to my July post on the supply chain problem. Then, I was celebrating the fact that my shoes I had waited for for months had finally come.

Now, this issue is fresh in my mind because I’m waiting for my new iPhone. It’s supposed to arrive today.

My “old” phone is an iPhone 8 that I got on my birthday in 2018, during the campaign. In fact, I think James and Mandy were the first people I spoke to on it, sitting in the parking lot in front of the Verizon store. I remember thinking there was something wrong with it because I wasn’t hearing as clearly as usual. That’s because I didn’t have the center of the phone over my ear, because I was used to the narrower iPhone 5. It was fine.

But not any more. Among other problems, the camera has been acting up. Sometimes, when I touch the virtual shutter release button, the camera app shuts down, and no image is recorded. Which is bad. We grandfathers have to have a fully functioning camera at all times. And I also frequently use the camera for work.

But HARK — the UPS man was just here, and the phone has arrived!

So I’ll get back to you later, beyond making my point: Which is that when I went to Verizon on Oct. 12, they told me I’d have to wait until possibly Oct. 29.

Oh, sure, if I’d wanted to spend almost two Gs on an iPhone 13 — for which they had displays all over the store — I’d have probably been OK. But since I’m a sensible guy who thinks the most insane thing Apple has ever done was get rid of the home button, I was getting an SE 2020. So I had to wait.

But apparently the chain wasn’t quite as stressed as they thought, since it just arrived.

So y’all go away and let me play with my new toy. In the meantime, how’s the supply chain acting for y’all now, beyond driving up prices and such?…

Enough with the threats, OK? I’ve got enough going on…

If this blog disappears, it will be because TSOHOST got fed up waiting for me to pay them, and shut it down.

Which will be amazing, since:

Despite all that, on Columbus Day (the real one, not the Monday), I received the first of not one, not two, but six emails telling me that an invoice for £10.99 was due on “14/10/2021.” Perhaps I should have written back to inform those folks that there are only 12 months in the year, but I wasn’t in the mood for facetiousness. I’ve been very busy dealing with a lot of stuff in recent days.

The last few messages were threatening. In an understated, British sort of way. No active statements such as “We will shut you down.” No, they said “suspension is imminent,” as though they were observing that the weather looked dodgy.

I logged into their site this morning and sent a “ticket response” to the earlier message from the guy who had acknowledged that I had cancelled, asking him to inform his colleagues and get them off my back. We’ll see if that produces action.

Barring that…

If they somehow succeed in carrying out the threat, well, goodbye. Otherwise, I’ll be seeing you later…

How about an ‘I ALREADY GAVE’ button?

I don’t mean to pick on Wikipedia here. I find it to be an amazingly useful tool, the handiest reference source to which I or anyone else has ever had access.

This is just something I wonder about sometime.

For instance, when I’m listening to the NPR One app. Not the radio, because the radio version can’t address the problem. But it seems that anything that comes to me over my phone, my iPad, my laptop, or any device to which I am logged in in a way that identifies me, should be able to leave me out of the “please donate” pitch, if I already gave.

So no more pitches that I’ve heard a thousand times urging me to give to South Carolina Public Radio. (Especially ones I’m forced to wait through — the app lets me click past a news story if I’m not interested, but that’s not an option during the begging segments.)

And, in the case of Wikipedia, no more having large portions of my screen filled with a fund-raising appeal when I look something up.

For you see, I am one of the 2 percent who give to Wikipedia. Oh, don’t think I’m topping it the nob or anything. It’s a pittance. But they said that’s all they need. Near as I can tell, I’ve been sending them $3.10 a month (although it’s not easy to find that out — I had to infer it from my bank account). I don’t know how I came up with that amount. It’s a money thing, which means five seconds after I did it, my brain had tossed out the information.

And for that wee bit, I don’t even expect thanks, much less a ticker-tape parade. But it would be nice if you would see that it’s me using Wikipedia on this Chrome browser through which I’m logged into my Google account (and all sorts of other things), and spare me the message. I wouldn’t even mind specifically logging into a Wikipedia account, if that would do it — as long as I only had to do it once.

Or, if you MUST show me the appeals, offer another button in addition to the ones that say “MAYBE LATER” and “CLOSE.” The new one would say, “I ALREADY GAVE,” and clicking it would make the box go away.

I mean, this artificial intelligence thing ought to be good for something, right?…

Gail Collins and Bret Stephens take on the Rabbit Hole problem

You ever read “The Conversation,” a weekly opinion feature in The New York Times? It’s very good.

It just consists of two Times opinion columnists — former NYT Editorial Page Editor Gail Collins and former Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens — kicking around a number of issues of the day, and having fun doing it. Even more than that, enjoying each other’s company. (I use “company” loosely — I think what they’re doing is writing back and forth to each other via email or instant messaging. If they’re just talking and saying these things, they’re both even smarter than I take them to be.)

Even though one represents the “left,” and the other the “right.” More than that, they represent different generations — she is 28 years older.

Gail Collins

It helps that she is known for her sense of humor (not always a thing in great supply among former EPEs) and he is a particularly thoughtful never-Trumper. In other words, neither is a representative of what you see today screaming at each other from either end of the spectrum. She’s more of an old-school liberal than “woke.” He’s more of a Buckley-style thinking conservative than a troglodyte.

They do disagree. It’s just that they show us how civilized people disagree. That’s something we used to see all the time, but now it’s rare, and worth seeking out.

Anyway, I recommend the feature. I particularly enjoyed this week’s, in part because they touched upon the whole Rabbit Hole thing that I’ve spent so much time worrying about. An excerpt, as they were speaking of the collapse of consensus in the country:

Bret: Largely agree. There’s a small academic field called neurohistory, which uses neuroscience to help us better understand the distant past.

Gail: I love it when you expand my vocabulary. OK, “neurohistory” is my word for the day.

Bret: The field deserves more attention, because maybe the most important event of the past 20 years wasn’t how we changed the world, for better or worse. It’s that we created algorithms and digital platforms that scrambled our brains. The new technologies have shortened our attention spans, heightened our anxieties, made us more prone to depression and more in need of outside validation and left us less capable of patient reflection and also less interested in seeking out different points of view. It’s no accident that Trump’s favorite outlet was Twitter: The medium is perfect for people who think in spasms, speak in grunts, emote with insults and salute with hashtags.

Gail: Probably the biggest transformation since America got national mail service and people suddenly learned what folks in other parts of the country were really thinking….

A lot of people worry about whether our republic — or other Western-style liberal democracies — will survive. Well, this is the biggest reason it’s endangered. (You can make a case, of course, that the problem is rampant stupidity, but what we’re talking about here is the cause of that cognitive dysfunction.) Stephens takes it to another level, and questions the ability of our whole species to survive the Rabbit Hole, although he doesn’t use the specific term.

Bret Stephens

I think he’s right. We’re in a cognitive crisis. Technology has gotten way out ahead of our brains’ ability to evolve to deal with it constructively.

Ms. Collins disagrees, as is her wont. She basically says, Hey, kid, you don’t remember when things were really bad. After all, she remembers (better than I, since she’s eight years older) living in a country in which, for instance, racism actually was systemic.

But I think on this one Stephens has the stronger point. In any case, it’s enjoyable to watch while they kick it around, as usual. In days such as these, it’s balm for the soul to witness this sort of disagreement.

It’s artificial, all right, but let’s not call it ‘intelligence’

not smart (2)

As y’all know, I worry a good bit about what the internet is doing to us. But I don’t worry about “artificial intelligence” taking over the planet in some deliberate, organized way like in “The Matrix.”

That’s because I don’t see it as intelligent, either in a bad way or a good way. Oh, it’s capable of some impressive tricks. Some of them, like Google Maps, I think are pretty wonderful. But intelligent? Nope. I worry about the things it does that are the opposite of intelligent. And I worry about how it’s making us dramatically less intelligent. That’s what all those “Rabbit Hole” posts are about.

And on the good, useful side of intelligence, I’m never going to trust it to operate any car that I or people I love are riding in — or driving next to. Yep, it can react more quickly and often more logically than a human to many situations. But it is so very, very far from being able to see and understand everything we do.

My email today provided two examples that brought all this to mind for me, yet again.

First… I recently wanted to re-read Post Captain, the second book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, for the first time in years. But I had lost my copy of it. I figured if I bought another, I might lose that, too. So I bought access to a Kindle version, which I can read on my iPad’s Kindle app.

And now, using the “brilliant” capabilities of Amazon’s recommendation code, it sends me invitations to read some other books in the series, having no clue that all of those are sitting, well-thumbed, on my bookshelves.

OK, you say, that seems reasonable. A clerk in a bookshop could make the same mistake. Seeing me buying Post Captain, he might reasonably say, “Hey, if that interests you, have you read the other 20 books in the series?” And I wouldn’t think he was stupid at all.

But that clerk isn’t the vaunted, imperial technology of Amazon, which supposedly has instantaneous access to everything about me that’s on the Web, and possesses an uncanny ability to process all that information and act effectively upon it, even to the point of planting (with my help!) two spies — my Echo devices — to listen to everything I ever say in the privacy of my home.

Which should not make it hard for it to know that I am a compulsive blogger — something not hidden at all, since the blog bears my name — who bores the ever-loving crapola out of all my readers by mentioning my Aubrey-Maturin mania over and over and over again, for years on end.

No, again, I’m not saying a human couldn’t make the mistake. But if a human being was in touch with all that information, and was able to process it constantly with superhuman speed, he wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking I haven’t read HMS Surprise. (The Stasi wouldn’t have made that mistake in even a casual effort to manipulate me, and East Germany ceased to exist well before the rise of artificial you-know-what.) So he would just suggest something else.

No, Amazon isn’t stupid for doing this. It’s just utterly failing to impress me with its supposedly amazing intelligence.

OK, I sense I’m losing you on that one. The example doesn’t come across as sufficiently stupid to you, even after I explain why it drew a snort of contempt from me.

So here’s another one. My Ancestry app has recently stopped defaulting to my tree when I open it. I have to tell it I want to open the tree after it has shown me various offers of really cool stuff that’s supposed to make me super-impressed at what Ancestry has to offer me.

And the one it keeps offering first is something it calls “your Photoline.” And there’s one of my great-great grandfathers, along with his son my great-grandfather, my Dad, and me.

I infer that Ancestry expects me to react like this:

Wow! That’s me! And there’s my Dad when he was young! I wonder who those other, old-timey guys are! Am I related to them? Can Ancestry really tell me amazing things like that? Where did it find all these pictures?

And so forth.

But here’s the thing: Ancestry has these pictures because I put them on my tree. Every single one of them. I not only scanned them, but I recognize the way I cropped them in Photoshop. I remember wondering whether I should remove that streak across the picture of me, and deciding to leave it because the streak is part of the story of the picture.

(That’s a mug someone at The Jackson Sun shot in the newsroom’s studio in 1985 to go with a story for the business page about the fact that I, the Sun‘s news editor, was leaving to become news editor of the Wichita paper. The streak is there because the Sun had recently started trying to save photographers’ time by shooting such routine mug shots with a Polaroid camera. They’re quicker, but often they leave streaks like that — which I suppose makes them sort of like “artificial intelligence.” I’ve always liked the picture anyway, including the cocky grin I had, because I didn’t know yet what an awful place to work the Wichita paper would be.)

There’s some human stupidity here, too. A human thought this would be a great way to pull people into Ancestry, and wrote (or caused to be written) the code that would automatically skim the database for such pictures, and match them up. And it might have impressed someone utterly clueless, like those celebrity guests on that PBS show who are so amazed to learn who their grandparents were.

But why doesn’t this brilliant code know where it got the pictures, which was from me, the guy it’s trying to impress? It doesn’t seem like that would take many ones and zeroes at all. It seems like the one thing it ought to know the most easily. Even a pretty dumb human would know that.

Anyway, I’m not worried about this kind of intelligence taking over. Oh, it can perhaps destroy society, by destroying our ability to think clearly. But it can’t run the place… or drive a car to my satisfaction, either…

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Oh, and don’t even get me started on referring to a single person as “them.” Of course, plenty of human do that, unfortunately…