Monday, December 03, 2018

A Lack of (Contextual) Integrity


I must have the people over at Google thoroughly confused. They now think that I am an impoverished-but-wealthy black, gay, Jewish female who is into cooking and who races Formula I cars in France on the weekends. I'll get to why they think this in a moment. (This is assuming that there are people at Google, and that these days it's not simply a pulsating, gelatinous glob of algorithmically driven hive-mind protoplasm. Although that would be very cool too, and would make an awesome B movie. It's too bad that Tab Hunter is dead.)

You see, like Facebook, Twitter, and the rest, Google has always been about collecting, manipulating, and mining the data we happily supply it. The Goog then takes the data and sells it to people who use it to sell stuff to us, sometimes further manipulating and mining the data along the way. In this fashion, marketers can build up surprisingly accurate—and often chillingly complete—dossiers on us. These are used to present to us items for sale in which we may be interested. (This is only a little unsettling, and could even be helpful.) Sometimes the marketers use the information they've purchased from The Goog in order to sell us things related to things they know we like. For instance, if I've purchased vinyl records, it's probably a good guess that A) I'm interested in turntables and B) I may have a man-bun. If I've purchased (or even simply viewed) a baseball glove from an online vendor, it’s a decent bet that I could be interested in, say, sports memorabilia, season tickets to a sporting event, or perhaps a particular brand of sportswear. (That's getting just a bit creepy.) But what if I have not viewed or commented on or reviewed an item, let's say a guitar, but I have friends who have done those things? For a marketer or data salesperson, it's perfectly reasonable to assume that, since people with like interests tend to hang out together, I may begin seeing guitar-related ads on my various social media feeds or in sidebar ads on websites that I happen to frequent, not because I've looked at such items online, but because my friends have done so. (Okay, now we're getting a seriously creepy.)

What we've encountered here is what some social scientists have called "dataveillance." We're being surveilled digitally, based on the data trail we leave when we traverse the Web. Now, that's not always a terrible thing: sometimes these ads are helpful, just as Facebook's "people you may know" list is occasionally useful and surprisingly accurate.

But we have very little control (read: almost no control) over how that data is used. The real issue with dataveillance, as Cornell University's Helen Nissenbaum has noted, is that it often constitutes a violation of what she calls "contextual integrity." We give someone certain information with a particular understanding of the context in which that information is to be used. I don't mind giving my doctor very private information about myself and my (growing number of) physical ailments. But I would mind very much if she were to share that information with a drug rep or insurance salesman. I explicitly give The Goog data about my travels on the Web, but I did not (knowingly and willingly) give The Goog permission to mine that data, manipulate it, compare it to my friends' data, and then sell it to people who will further refine it and who may then turn around and resell it or combine it with other datasets, the existence of which I am unaware. (If you're dying to read more about Dr. Nissenbaum's work, I interviewed her for my book, which—not at all coincidentally—is available here.)

Of course, The Goog pretends that this is all harmless and that its data collection is benign, incidental, and in fact helpful.

Except that they're not even pretending anymore. You may have encountered a Google program called Google Opinion Rewards. If you sign up, The Goog will pay you to fill out "opinion surveys." For each brief survey, Google will add from 10 to 30 cents or so to your Google Play account; you can then turn around and use that money to buy books, music, apps, etc. on the Google Play store.

But these surveys rarely actually ask your opinion about something. By and large, The Goog doesn't want to know what you think; it wants to know what you are. How much money you make. Whether you rent or own. What sort of car you drive, and if you're likely to be in the market for a new one soon. Here are some sample survey questions:

  • What is the likelihood that you will get a flu shot this year?
  • Did anyone in your household get food stamps . . . In 2017?
  • What is the combined income of all members of your family in 2017?
  • Are you covered by any kind of insurance or health plan . . . ?
  • What medical condition or concern are you most embarrassed to ask your doctor about?
  • Which [of the following categories] best describes your political views?

These are sent to you with the disclaimer that they will be used "to show you more relevant advertising" or to "improve Google products." (Which is more than a little ironic, given that, in the end, you are the product.)

But I've gamed the system: I simply give wildly inaccurate (and often contradictory) answers to the survey questions. Thus, The Goog is now completely confused about who I am, which is only fair, given that I am also confused about who I am. (I mean, in an existential sense, aren't we all confused about who we are, about our place in the world? My personal existential crisis begin in 1973 with an attempt to understand the lyrics to songs by the Steve Miller band.) I think it's only fair that Google's algorithms should be just as confused as the rest of us. Perhaps the algorithm in charge of all of Google's other data-mining algorithms has called an 8 a.m. meeting to discuss what went wrong and to argue about which of the junior algorithms was supposed to bring doughnuts to the meeting.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Facebook: Killing Us One Stone At A Time


They killed Margaret Clitherow on the 25th of March, 1586. They did it very slowly, by laying her own front door on top of her and then piling rocks on top of it until she was crushed to death, a process called "pressing." It took about 15 painful minutes for her to die. (Which is nothing compared to the ordeal of 81-year-old Giles Corey of Salem, Massachusetts. Corey was pressed to death for refusing to plead after having been accused of witchcraft. He was a stubborn old man. It took him 3 days to die, and each time his torturers asked him if he was ready to plead, he is said to have responded by crying, "More weight!") Margaret's crime was not witchery, it was that she belonged to the wrong religion at the wrong time. She was a Catholic (and was later sainted), which was not exactly a crime at the time, though it was mightily frowned upon. What was a crime was harboring Catholic priests and failing to attend the prescribed and approved church. (Keep this in mind when you hear someone argue for the compulsory presence of religion in schools, in politics, and in society in general. Be sure to ask them which religion they're talking about. After all, you wouldn't want to select the wrong one.) Margaret failed to attend church and she harbored priests, and then—like Corey—refused to plead. (They refused to plead because that way their families, including children, could not be called to trial and tortured until they gave "evidence," which would then give the authorities the right to repossess any land or other property belonging to the family.) Corey and Clitherow suffered excruciating deaths largely to spare their families; they were tougher than you and me.

The Black Swan Inn in York, where Margaret Clitherow is said to
have housed priests hiding from the authorities. Image copyright
Peter Church and licensed for reuse under the Creative
Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.
Naturally, thinking of huge, heartless entities crushing innocents to death made me think of Facebook.

Facebook collects information about us—about you and me. A lot of information. Then they sell that information (supposedly anonymized and aggregated) to their "partners," companies that wish to sell us goods.

How much data, you ask? Well, you can find out for yourself fairly easily. Just go to your Facebook settings; then select Settings and then click “Download a copy of your Facebook data.” The company will send you a ZIP file containing about 25 folders, each of which contains several HTML documents full of data the company has collected about you. (The complete process is nicely explained here: https://tinyurl.com/ybpp7drb.) I did that, and it was an enlightening process.


Here's just some of what Facebook sent me:

A 'Stuff About Me' folder containing face recognition data and address book info (friends, institutions, etc., going back 2 yrs)
An 'ADS' folder containing:
o   Ad interests: 41 pgs of data, 1329 items, ranging from academy awards to action movies, from MacBooks to Method acting, from Smartphones to Sonny Bono (?!), and from tattoos to time travel.
o   An ‘Advertisers Who Uploaded a Contact List With Your Information’ document, whiuch was explained thusly: "Advertisers who run ads using a contact list they uploaded that includes contact info you shared with them or with one of their data partners."
·  This included a list of 211 advertisers, from AARP to Zappos
o   Advertisers I've interacted with (which consisted of about 100 clicked ads)
An ‘Apps and Websites’ folder: Apps I've used Facebook to log into (stretching back to 2013)
A document containing every FB post on which I've commented—including the text of the commentgoing back to 2013
o   A list of every person I'm following and every person who's following me, every page I've ever Unfollowed, and every person I've "friended" and when (dating back to 2009)
A ‘Posts and Comments’ document that included every "like" (or any other reaction) I've posted on a post or comment
A ‘Location History’ folder. Mine is empty, since I've never "checked in" or otherwise informed FB of my location. (But you may have.)
A list of every FB message I've sent or received and from/to whom
A ‘Photos & Videos’ folder containing every… Well, you get the idea.
o   Security & Log-In Info that included session cookies updated (148 MS Word pages, about 7,000 or so cookies), all devices authorized to log in (back to 2013) , and a list of where I've logged in from and when
A document listing my complete search history
And a handy Index.html doc that lets you get to all of this stuff a lot more easily than poking around in every damned folder, which is what I did. Unfortunately, I found this document last.

As you can see, that's a lot of information about me—and honestly, I'm a pretty boring person! Really. You can ask anyone.

He doesn't look like an evil person, does he? At least, he didn't back
in his Harvard days. Image licensed under the Creative Commons
Attribution 2.5 Generic license.
Something should be pointed out here… Near the top of this list is a document that lists advertisers who run ads using a contact list that I shared with them or with one of their data partners. Now, I am perfectly happy (well, moderately happy) to share data with companies that sell products in which I'm interested: computers, say, or archery or cars or motorcycles. But I have no idea who these "data partners" are. It turns out that when I share data with an entity, I'm in effect also sharing it with whomever they decide to share it with. And I have no control over who that might be.

I don't like that.

Really, most of these bits of data are relatively insignificant. If any one or two or five of them got out in public or were sold to a marketer, it probably wouldn't matter much. But, like the stones that killed Giles Corey and Margaret Clitherow, eventually, the combined weight of the stones reaches a critical mass and that one last stone finishes you off. Facebook has collected a LOT of stones, enough to build a fairly accurate—and quite valuable—dossier on every one of its over 2 billion customers. Eventually, we might end up being crushed by those stones.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Printing Death in 3D

I generally don't write about politics here; after all, this blog is supposed to be a discussion about technology and writing. But sometimes technology and politics overlap, as in this case.

In Ch. 8 of Leveling the Playing Field (which I'm sure you've all read!), I talked about the advent of 3D printing and how it has changed manufacturing, mostly for the better. But not always for the better. One significant worry I had (and have) about 3D printing is that it can enable the proliferation of homemade weaponry, including very accurate reproductions of weapons such as the venerable 1911 semiautomatic pistol and the AR-15-type rifles that have been used in so many mass shootings over the past few years.

Now, I own weapons. I like to think of myself as one of those "responsible gun owners" we hear about. I own guns for sport, for protection, and for hunting. But I don’t believe that just anyone should be able to own just any gun, nor do I think there is anything wrong with having to pass background checks in order to purchase a weapon or being required to register many types of firearms. I'm not anti-gun; I'm anti-idiot.

Lesley is not a big gun person, but she has gone shooting with
me a couple of times. Naturally, it turns out that she's an
excellent shot.
Of course, what I think doesn't matter much, and just how little it matters was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago when the Department of Justice surrendered to a "First Amendment" argument that a 3D data file representing a weapon was in fact protected free speech and could be hosted on (and downloaded from) a public-facing website. (The suit was filed by Cody Wilson, the inventor of the Liberator 3D-printed pistol about which I wrote in the book.) After a long, drawn-out court case, it appears that the DOJ has quietly settled with Wilson, whose stated goal has been to moot the gun control debate by showing that it can't be controlled. In the words of a recent Wired Magazine article, the DOJ promised to:

…change the export control rules surrounding any firearm below .50 caliber—with a few exceptions like fully automatic weapons and rare gun designs that use caseless ammunition—and move their regulation to the Commerce Department, which won't try to police technical data about the guns posted on the public internet.

Basically, this means that Wilson and his supporters have won the war. They've successfully blurred the line between the First and Second Amendments, guaranteeing that anyone can design and/or download-3D printer-compatible plans to just about any firearm. And, as any hacked corporation or repressive government can tell you, it's very, very difficult to police digital data. Even if you wanted to hide it (which Wilson and his allies do not), the data would get out; after all, it's just information. And these days, information (and misinformation) is pretty much everywhere.

It doesn't look like much, but this is a mockup of The Liberator,
possibly the first functional 3D printed handgun. Posting the
data file for this gun online is what got Cody Wilson embroiled
in a years-long lawsuit. The DOJ finally capitulated just weeks
ago. Image used under the Creative Commons Attribution-
Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
I don't really worry much about Wilson himself. He's an intelligent and seemingly stable young man, just one with whom I disagree politically. I'm not worried that he's about to snap and become a mass murderer. But I wonder how many mass murderers he's about to enable. Even one would be too many, I would think.

Some have drawn an analogy to an automobile--another tool that kills many thousands every year, pointing out that it is possible to build a motorized vehicle. But there are differences. The purpose of an automobile is not to kill people, of course. Like a hammer or other tool, it can be used to hurt people, but that's a misapplication of the tool, not its purpose. And it's certainly true that I could collect or (even build) parts and create a car. (Well, in my case, I'd have to make a few phone calls to my friend George Kelley, if I wanted the car to actually run.) But look what happens when I'm finished building this car, this tool capable of killing thousands every year: I'd have to license and register it. And I would myself have to be tested and licensed if I wanted to use the car.

This is Jeff Sessions. As US Attorney General, he is the
man in charge of the Department of Justice, the
cabinet department that just settled a lawsuit with Cody
Wilson that will result in the widespread proliferation
of 3D-printed weaponry. Image in the public domain.
I'm fine with having to register my car and license its driver. I'm also fine with having to register certain firearms and with having to license their users. But this technology—and the DOJ's capitulation to Wilson and the other plaintiffs—will make it very difficult to police the proliferation of this weaponry. Even if the authorities were to confiscate my weapon on some grounds (perhaps I'm a felon, perhaps I violated a restraining order, perhaps I've shown myself to have anger issues and have committed assaults), I could simply go home and (assuming I own the proper equipment), press a button, and go have dinner. By the time I'm finished with my after-dinner port (not that I would drink port—who the hell drinks port?!), I'd have a nice shiny new .45 pistol or an AR-15 receiver sitting in my printer.

And if I could do that, what could an angry ex-husband or wife do? What could a gang or a cartel do?

Monday, June 04, 2018

Jesse Pinkman: "It's SCIENCE, B*tch!"


Lesley and I have been crossing a lot of bridges lately. (I mean the literal kind, not the metaphorical ones.) First in our trailer and now in our motorhome, we've been doing a lot of driving throughout the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, and there's plenty of water hereentire oceans of it, in fact. And where there is water, there are—not surprisingly—bridges to enable us to cross that water.

Early on, this was nerve-wracking. Towing a 19' trailer across a bridge with a fairly small Chevy pickup truck, trying to stay in the middle of what seemed a terrifyingly narrow lane was, at first, pretty scary—especially if the wind was up. We eventually got used to the feeling of being suspended on this thin concrete-and-steel lifeline hundreds of feet above the water, dragging all of our worldly goods behind us. Eventually, we got to the point where we could cross a bridge, even a narrow one, without giving it too much thought. Now we do the same thing in a somewhat larger motorhome. And, as expected, it was frightening at first, but eventually became second nature. Other than making sure that it’s not too windy, we now cross bridges without giving the crossing a second thought.

But even at our most terrified, one thing we never worried much about was the integrity of the bridge itself. We might veer off of the bridge, or be blown off of it, or be pushed off by a trucker who'd lost his brakes or been blown into another lane, but we never thought, "Oh, my God! What if the bridge falls down?!" Circumstances might intervene to do us damage, but the bridge itself would stand, we could be pretty sure.

Sometimes the "guarantee" is implied by a sign that you can
see before you get on the bridge itself. (Image in the public
domain.)
That's because bridges are engineered. And with only a few exceptions, they are well engineered, designed by men and women who understand both physics and structural engineering. These people are civil engineers and architects, experienced designers who know how materials will react to a given amount of stress and to the wear and tear of wind and weather and traffic. How do they know? They know because they hypothesize and calculate and test and revisit the original hypothesis, all while taking into account the known properties of various materials. As Aaron Paul's Jesse Pinkman said so eloquently on Breaking Bad, "It's science, Bitch!"

Bridges are usually massive and are guaranteed to carry a certain amount of traffic. The Yaquina Bay Bridge, which we cross almost every week, was built in 1936, one of a series of bridges designed by Conde B. McCullough. It is over 3,000 feet in length, and it stands 133 feet above the water at its highest point. It contains 30,000 cubic yards of concrete and over 3,000 tons of steel. As I said, massive. (And this bridge is quite small compared to many other suspension bridges around the world.) And because it's so substantial and so well-designed, the bridge is guaranteed to be able to hold the weight of the traffic crossing it.

Sometimes the "guarantee" is fairly explicit, as in the
case of the Clark's Bridge, a covered bridge in New
Hampshire, which specifically states that it will carry
200 tons. (Image  licensed under the Creative
Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
license.)
Which brings us to software. 

When I was heading up the software development team for a publishing company in Texas, the powers-that-be (of which I was most assuredly not one) decided that all of our programmers would be given a new title: henceforth, they would all be known not as developers or programmers, but as "software engineers." I really didn't care what they were called, so long as they showed up at the office and did cool programmy things, preferably while wearing shoes and long pants. And to tell the truth, the programmers didn't care, either. You could call them whatever you wanted; as long as they got paid and had snacks and got to do cool software things, they were happy. (And most of them wore shoes and long pants most of the time.)

But one of my developers emphatically did not want to be called a "software engineer." This man—we'll just call him "John," because, well, that was his name—felt that as programmers, they did not deserve to be called engineers. The programming profession, he felt, was not precise enough, nor its results predictable enough, to be called "engineering." Engineering, he said, meant that the end result, the product, was designed in such a way that the builders could guarantee the outcome of its use.

The example he used was, in fact, a bridge. A bridge is designed and built and guaranteed to carry a certain amount of weight. If built correctly, it will in fact carry that weight, and it will do so for a specified period of time.

Software, on the other hand, is never guaranteed. It's too complex and used in too many different environments for the developer to absolutely guarantee that it will function as designed. And sure enough, if you go looking for guarantees for software you've purchased (or, more likely, licensed), you will find a lot of vague legal-ese that basically boils down to "This really should work, but if not, well, we're not responsible. Sorry." If you go looking for remedies for failure, you'll find that those remedies are almost always limited to replacement of the media on which the software was supplied. (Which is even more meaningless these days, since most of your software was probably downloaded or is provided as a cloud service.)

Code is complicated. And the interaction
of thousands (sometimes millions) of lines
of code with one another and with the
software and hardware environments
within which that code runs make it close
to impossible to guarantee that a software
product will behave as designed at all
times.
John felt that, until programming had evolved to the point where designers and programmers could guarantee their work, then it was not deserving of the name engineering, and he would rather just have his title listed as "Programmer" on his business card.

I sympathized with John and told him that I would convey his feelings to the aforementioned powers-that-be. I did so, and the PTB explained to me that they were going to do exactly what they had intended to do all along, that John's title was now "Software Engineer," and that I should now scuttle back to my dark and forbidding lair and prepare for the next in a seemingly endless series of product delivery deadlines.

I returned to John, gave him the bad news, and sympathized heartily with him, while patting him gently on the shoulder. Then I asked him to please put his shoes back on.

He was right, though.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Data Mining for Fun and (Mostly for) Profit

So, big to-do over Localblox, a Washington state-based data mining firm that built 48 million personal profiles by scraping data from social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Zillow, and the like. Much grumbling and gnashing of teeth over the "loss of privacy" and especially over the company's sloppy security: the collection of profiles, over 1.2 TB in size, was left unprotected on a public (though unlisted) Amazon storage server, where it was discovered by a security researcher. (Damn those pesky researchers, anyway!)

A couple of months earlier, it was Cambridge Analytica in the crosshairs of privacy supporters everywhere, after the data mining firm collected similar data and used it to help Republican candidates in their various bids for election. The catch there was that CA may have drifted into the realm of illegality by assigning non-US citizens to work on the campaigns. Technically, those non-citizens could in fact collect and analyze data, but the company was advised that it must not allow those non-citizens to "play strategic roles including the giving of strategic advice to candidates, campaigns, political parties or independent expenditure committees.” Which, of course, is exactly what they did. According to former CA employee-turned-whistleblower, Chris Wylie, ". . . there was no one American involved in [one campaign] . . . it was a de facto foreign agent, working on an American election."

Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica at Web Summit 2017
in Lisbon. Image used under the Creative Common Attribution 2.0
Generic license.
There's a big difference between these two scenarios. To take the second case first, had CA simply collected and analyzed data and then handed it over to a (in this case, Republican) campaign to use, no laws would have been broken; the data itself is out there for anyone to collect, aggregate, and use for any (legal) purpose. The company's mistake was in assigning foreigners to strategic duties that could affect a US election campaign. Some privacy supporters may have chafed at the use of PII (personally identifiable information) for purposes counter to their beliefs (read: we Democrats were not happy that the data was used to help Republican candidates) and without their knowledge or consent, but the reality is that you put that data out there. Why would various companies not collect and use it? (And let's be honest: Would the hue and cry among us libs have been quite as loud had the data been used to help Democratic candidates? I don't think so.)

Which brings me to the first case, one which involves a far more common—and perfectly legal—activity. We worry a great deal about privacy, but seemingly not enough to not place our entire lives out there on the Internet for the world to see. It's been said many times, but apparently it needs repeating: NOTHING YOU DO ON THE INTERNET IS PRIVATE. This is especially true when you post information that can be used against you or can be used to help people profile you and then use that profile to sell you things, including political candidates.

Alternatively, but quite commonly, such information is used by social engineers to scam you or talk you or one of your contacts into giving up names, passwords, and other data that ought to be kept confidential. Most so-called hacks actually start with a social engineering exploit, and most of those are predicated on data the scammer found on social media.
He looks so young and innocent, doesn't he? And he might
have been, back then. This is Mark Zuckerberg in his
Harvard dorm room back in 2005. Image used under the
Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

The thing is that a seemingly insignificant and innocuous Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat post can tell marketers and thieves (one assumes that there is a difference) a great deal about you, your habits, your location, your typical travel plans, etc. I can trawl (not troll; well, I suppose I could do that, too) through Facebook and know who is on vacation, where they went, and when they'll return. I know what you like to eat. What you like to wear. I know your marital status—and if I dig a little, I might even be able to figure out if that marriage is in trouble. Got a public Amazon wish list? I know your hobbies, your future renovation plans, what musical instruments you play, what pets you have, and what kind of books you read. I also know if you're into essential oils and have an Apple Watch. (Why else would you list an Apple Watch Stand and a wireless charger on your wish list?) I know if you curl your hair, and whether you're a Mac person or a Windows person. (All of this goes double if you click the little Facebook "I just bought…" icon that pops up when you make an Amazon purchase.)

I have security tools that some may lack, but I'm no security whiz. Nonetheless, if your phone has its geolocation turned on, I can see many of the Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, and other posts you make, and I can track them by name, by date, by keyword, and by the location from which they were sent. To do this, I use a piece of software that's often used by law enforcement officers, but the truth is that anyone can buy access to it. But the reason the software can access the data to begin with is that we put that information out there to be found.

If I were smart enough to write an algorithm that could collect, aggregate, and collate all of this information, I could know all about you. (No worries; I'm not smart enough. Then again, I know people who are.) That's all that Localblox did: the company wrote software that scraped information from social media sites, aggregated it, and created code that pieced the information together and built individual portfolios. (And then they stupidly left it out there unprotected for a security researcher to find.)

If you lived in New York in 1948 and were one of the few people
who owned a television, this woman really wanted to sell you a
faucet aerator. Image in the public domain.
All of this data is valuable. Why do you think Facebook exists? It's not a charity. It's not out to make the world better a better place by enabling more people to communicate. (Though some might argue that such a thing could happen. If it did, it would be a byproduct, a happy accident.) Facebook's purpose—and the purpose of all social media—is to collect marketable data and sell it. To anyone: retailers, other marketers, even political parties. That's how they make money. LOTS of money.

Facebook has over 2 billion users. WhatsApp has 1.5 billion. Instagram has almost a billion. These are big numbers. And big numbers translate to big dollars. Dollars they make by selling information about us, because we were dumb enough to put that information out there to be sold. As others have said, when it's being given to you for "free" (and this includes network television), you're not really a customer—you're the product.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Failing Retirement


My 9th grade Intro to Algebra teacher lied to me. I was given the impression that in my life there would be numerous occasions when I would be required to determine exactly when the blue train would meet the green train, both of them having left different stations at different times and traveling toward each other at different rates of speed. This has yet to happen to me. And it's a good thing, because I had no idea how to figure out when the trains would cross paths, and I still have no idea how to figure this out. If the occasion did suddenly arise, I would have to call my friend Rick, who knows all of this stuff. (I'm trying to figure out what could possibly happen that would cause this issue to arise; perhaps if I were tied to the tracks, it would become a matter of some import to me. I'm working very hard at avoiding such a situation.)

See? Working. Work, work, work.
That's all I do on these trips. (Photo
by Lesley Scher
.)
But all of this is just to say that life never quite works out as we expect. I had planned to be a psychologist. I really loved all the psychology classes I took—and also the related coursework in sociology, anthropology… You know. All of those -ologies. But then it turned out that psych majors had to take a statistics course. This is when I became an English major. (But the joke was on me. When I went to graduate school as an Education major, it turned out that I still had to take a statistics course!)

So, here I am many years later, retired. Sort of. It turns out that I apparently don't know how to be retired. I had the best of intentions. I was going to fish. A lot. I bought new fishing gear, some for freshwater fishing on lakes and rivers, and some much larger, more intimidatingly manly gear for surfcasting. The latter I have never used. The former I've used once, in a muddy river seemingly bereft of fish. (Though I did catch a very nice branch, which I had planned to take home and mount on the wall, until Lesley unplanned that for me.)

We even bought a beautiful little travel trailer; we take it all over and love camping in the beautiful state parks in Oregon and Washington. The private RV parks are a little pricier, but they often have amenities that are lacking in some of the parks. (Boondocking sites—places to park your RV for free or almost free—are often very beautiful, but generally lack all amenities, including showers, dump stations, or bathrooms. Since one cannot dump one's tanks at most such sites, the longest we can stay at a boondocking site is 3-4 days; after that it's time to dump our tanks and take a very long hot shower.) And we do take the trailer out as often as we can. In fact, we're currently planning a 3-week trip, which means that a new editing job will show up in my inbox exactly 6 hours before we leave.
 
There. See? Working. Slaving away while everyone
else is out hiking, sweating, mired in the mud, being
chased by bears and cougars and angry moose...
Actually, you know what? Never mind. I'm good.
(Photo by Lesley Scher.)
See, even though I do a lot of camping, and in spite of this theoretical "retirement," I'm still working. Even when I'm "camping" I'm often working. All I need, after all, is a cell signal. (Actual Wi-Fi is rare, but it does happen.) So, I've spent many an hour with our trailer nestled in the beauty of a forest of pines, blue skies overhead, the sounds of a rushing river in the background, the smell of fresh elk poop wafting all around—and there I am, hunched over our little dinette table, working away on my laptop, editing a book or writing an article.

In fact, I had planned to start my own little company (doing some very secret, cybersecurity-related stuff), but every time I get a few minutes to think about that project, in comes another editing gig. I'd really like to have another source of income, but I'm too busy working to figure out how to work.

And here's our cute little trailer, stopped for lunch
somewhere on the road. (Photo by Lesley. Or Rod.
Or possibly some passer-by, I'm not sure.)
I can't complain, really. I mean, the money is needed to help pay for Lesley's health insurance and to buy camping equipment and computer gear. And possibly a fully restored 1963 Austin-Healey 3000 convertible. (I just snuck that in there to see if Lesley was actually reading these blog entries. My plan, if she doesn’t read this, is to just buy the car and when she says, "Where—and WHY—did you buy that car, dammit?!" I can simply respond, "But Honey, I told you I was going to buy it! It was right there in blog post #37!" This is a foolproof plan, I can tell already.)

Still, I had always thought retirement would involve more fishing.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Power of Media Compels You

I don't care much for sports bars. They’re usually loud and filled with obnoxious people who've had a few too many beers, and everyone's yelling at each other and at various television monitors mounted all over the room as their favorite (or least favorite) teams cavort onscreen, running around on a field doing various . . . uh, sports things.

Of course, I have (and almost always exercise) the option of simply avoiding sports bars; that way I can have a nice peaceful lunch or dinner, and the sports fanatics among us can scream spittle-flecked invective at the television, eat wings, and smear various sauces all over themselves while watching the Falcons, Penguins, Cardinals, Orioles, Seahawks or other such avian-themed sports teams. (In America, there seems to be a weird association between ornithology and sports teams. I suppose there's a Master's thesis in there someplace. Or maybe the Audubon Society would sponsor a grant.)

Now, this is a bar. This is the Table Bluff hotel and saloon in Table
Bluff, CA. The photo was taken in 1889, so it may have been
spruced up some since. But see? Not a television in sight! Image
courtesy of the Sonoma County Library.
But I'm not immune to the allure of sports, just sports bars. Why, only yesterday, I watched the Super Bowl. I don't remember which Super Bowl it was, maybe Super Bowl MMMMCMXCIX. But the Patriots and the Eagles (see?!) "gave it everything they had," "brought their A game," "played to win," and all of them "gave 110 percent." And to be honest, it was a good game, especially since I didn't really care who won. Also, we had enchiladas and beer.

But even when I go out to eat at a restaurant that's NOT a sports bar, I can't escape the television on the wall. These days, most restaurants have a television or two or twelve scattered about. Given that I am a child of the 60s, my eyes are unavoidably drawn to any flickering image in a box. (Perhaps students today would pay more attention to teachers if we found a way to flicker.) This is unfortunate when eating dinner with my wife and/or a group of friends. I may be paying close, even rapt attention to what is no doubt a very important discussion about . . . uh, something, but then out of the corner of my eye I can see that flickering, blue-tinged image beckoning. I always turn to look. I must turn to look. I've been conditioned to do so. The power of media compels me. And when Lesley draws my attention by coughing gently and touching me on the hand (perhaps with the business end of a fork), I have to pretend that I was not absent during the last 30 seconds or so of the conversation. I usually just smile and nod and try to look intrigued and amenable to whatever has just been said. (Sometimes this results in me accidentally agreeing to go hiking. I don't really see the point of hiking. I spent a lot of money on a very nice truck. It has air conditioning, soft leather seats, and XM radio. Hiking does not have those things.)

But it's not just television; non-electric media also compels us. Lesley and her mother enjoy putting together jigsaw puzzles. (God knows why. Perhaps it's some Episcopalian form of penance. Like flagellation, but more painful.) These puzzles are usually laid out on the dining room table, because it's the most convenient large, flat surface in the house. But I have to watch Mom and Lesley very closely during dinner. We'll be enjoying our food and talking, and I can see their eyes beginning to steal away, glancing surreptitiously at the puzzle, just a few inches from our plates. Eventually they desert our meal (and me) and enter into a full-fledged puzzle-solving frenzy. Like me watching a television image, they can't not do it. At first, they were sheepish about it, but now they don't even bother pretending that they think it's weird to work on a puzzle during dinner.

Media, it turns out, is media, and none of us (well, few of us) are immune.
You've all seen this photo of commuters ignoring one another in order
to concentrate on their newspapers. It's supposed to make the ironic
point that it's not only modern media that has distanced us from one
another. Which it does, of course, but keep in mind that these folks
may well have finished their papers on the way and then spoken with
one another about what they had just read. Image in the public domain.

I don't think that the kids we berate for spending their lives with their faces in Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat (or whatever is big these daysI may be a few weeks out of date) are really any different than any of the rest of us; they too are compelled by media, but I suppose it's a matter of degree. They are all about being connected, all the time. It's very difficult for them to disconnect. I saw this during the college classes I taught; asking students to put their phones away for an hour was almost physically painful for them. The thing about other forms of media is that they're there and then gone. We read the newspaper (remember those?) and then we were finished and perhaps we even (God forbid!) spoke to people about what we'd just read. We would connect intermittently to television (perhaps after school or in the evening), we might read a book or listen to the radio, but then we were finished, at least for the time being. These days, though, people (not all of them kids) are connected to other people all the time. It must be exhausting! Who would want to be connected to everyone 24/7?! I don't even like people that much! (But I love dogs. If we could connect to dogs, now, that would be different. I could definitely connect with dogs all day. I would most certainly sign up for DogBook or InstaPaw or PupChat or something.)

My granddaughter is going on a medical mission trip to Guatemala this summer, during which she and other scientifically-minded students will teach basic hygiene, measure villagers' blood pressure and glucose levels, and do other science-y things for a couple of weeks. (All of this will be covered in greater detail in my upcoming book, entitled My Grandchild is Smarter than Your Grandchild and All of Your Entire Family Put Together—and Better-Looking, Too.) But on this trip, she has to disconnect for an entire 10 days! No phone. No texting. No Instagram. No computer. For almost two weeks, she will be in a foreign country, forced to interact with actual people in real-time. I shudder to think what this might do to her. What if she accidentally reads a newspaper?