Category Archives: Technology

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…

IMG_0492

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

Bishop Barron talks about the Rabbit Hole problem

barron video

As I went walking today, I checked my phone but didn’t see any really good NYT podcasts — as you know, there are several of those I generally enjoy — and just wasn’t in the mood to catch up on the latest news via NPR One. Then I had an idea.

Having not gone physically to Mass in more than a year, we’ve experimented around with different approaches via the web. We’ve joined our own church’s Masses via Facebook, and lately we’ve been checking out the ones from the National Shrine in Washington. Since the ones we’ve watched — from the “Crypt Church” at the basilica — are shorter than what we’re used to (under 30 minutes), we’ve added on the practice of listening to that week’s sermon from Bishop Robert Barron. And I’ve really been impressed by them. Here’s a recent one.

So today I thought, “Doesn’t HE have a podcast?” Yes, he does, I found it. And I listened to this recent one, headlined “Catholics, Media Mobs, and the Culture of Contempt.” It’s also available in video form.

It was good. Basically, it tied together my two most persistent recent obsessions: The political/cultural divide between Catholics, and the Rabbit Hole.

As for the Catholic part… the bishop talked about how back in the double-naughts, when the New Atheism was so active online, he got some pretty fierce comments from the followers of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, et al. He found some of it pretty rough going.

But that was nothing compared to the flak he’s received lately from both sides of the Catholic culture war. He said he’d take the atheists any time over these fellow Catholics. The atheists were way nicer.

Then he got into what was causing this, the Rabbit Hole problem, although he didn’t call it that. He mentioned The Social Dilemma, which I’ve mentioned recently in that context. And he explained how the algorithms — in the interest of keeping you on the sites and in reach of their advertising — are written to pull you into the hole, deeper and deeper.

Anyway, whether you’re Catholic or not, I recommend the podcast. (Actually, it’s really a recent recorded virtual speech he gave.) That’s because he goes beyond wringing his hands over the Rabbit Hole the way I do. He offers advice on what to do about it, how to free yourself from it, and stop being such an a__hole (my bleeped word, not his). Of course, his solutions are grounded in the faith. If you don’t like that because you’re an unbeliever, go yell at the bishop about it. He likes that better than hearing from us crazy Catholics.

OK, I was going to mention some of my favorite parts of the speech, but I’m too tired right now. I’ll just give you this quote that comes right at five minutes in: “I’m talking about this toxic, poisonous, fetid quality, to much of the social media dialogue — and I’m sorry to say it, but to a lot of Catholic social media in particular.”

He had me at “fetid.” Other really good bits are at 28 minutes, 35 minutes, 37 minutes and 40 minutes.

Live your life so Google doesn’t remember you this way

crazy

How did I get on this topic? The usual, roundabout way. I was skimming through Twitter this morning and ran across this:

… which got me thinking, what are they doing in California now? I had heard about the recall thing, but I paused to think, So what’s their beef with Newsom? I had no idea. I tried to remember whether I knew anything unsavory about him, and I thought of one thing: There was that bizarre woman with whom he was once connected, bizarre enough that it would certainly cause you to question his judgment.

But of course, I couldn’t remember her name. So I asked Google, using the only other thing I knew about her.

Into the search field, I typed: crazy woman who spoke at gop convention.

And I didn’t mean “crazy” in a pleasing, tuneful Patsy Cline sort of way. But Google understood me perfectly.

And you see what I got. Out of all the women it could have picked — such as, say, this one — Google knew exactly what I was looking for.

Having her name, I then looked her up on Wikipedia to confirm that she had been affiliated with Newsom, and found that they had actually been married. I had been thinking maybe they dated once or twice, but he married her?

Well, that would give any voter pause…

Anyway, there’s a life lesson here. Think about posterity. Try to live in a way that you are not remembered this way by Google — and therefore by the rest of the world. Just stop and think before you act. If invited to have a screaming fit during prime time at a national nominating convention of either major party, think very hard before you accept…

red

Or, to put it more succinctly…

conspiracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a country where disinformation was spreading like a disease…

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

What a great resource for searching old papers!

Library of Congress

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

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

Well, Jim posted this in response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warthens in WWII

More on the stuff driving us crazy

Click on the image to listen to the podcast.

Click on the image to listen to the podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s one thing. Here’s another…

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

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

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

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

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

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

jamessmith

Why isn’t this site performing better, Jessica?

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

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

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

Hello Jamessmith.com Team,
 
I would like to have a discussion with you regarding the web promotion strategy for your website Jamessmith.com. We wish to work out a proposal to strengthen the online presence of your website, via a strategically planned web promotion campaign. In today’s online era, you should be focusing on the new revolutionary ways of generating traffic (and subsequently, leads).
 
We are curious to know if you are aware that a few issues bugging your website and sorting out these will help you get the best returns out of your website.
 
1. Your website seems to be attracting traffic, but this traffic is almost stagnant and limited, which affects potential sales as you move forward.
2. Your website doesn’t feature in Google’s first search page for some of the major keywords in your niche, which affects visibility and your business.
3. Your website has been diagnosed with On-Page and On-Site issues, which affects the ranking.
4. Your backlinks profile is not efficient enough to help your search engine visibility.
5. Your website is currently not being properly promoted online according to Google’s new guidelines (after latest Google Panda & Penguin update), which is affecting your marketing strategy and goals.
6. Your presence in the social media platform is minimal. This is depriving you of a huge market of prospective referral clients.
7. Your website may be penalized by Google.
8. Social media profiles are not updated regularly.
9. A low number of internal and external quality links present on your website.
10. Not updating fresh contents for your website and blogs as per the latest Google guideline (Penguin & Panda).
And many more…
 
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I would be very glad to hear back from you.
 
Best Regards,
Jessica
Search Engine Consultant

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

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

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

And so forth…

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

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

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

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

Sympathy aside, though, this is ridiculous…

The engaging uselessness of Pinterest

Pinterest thinks momentary flickers of interest define me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve McQueen is gone, for the moment.

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

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

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

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

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

Pinterest 2