"Who Is in Control? The Need to Rein in Big Tech," from this past January's Imprimis magazine, deserves mention here. It's not one I would normally republish, not because I don't agree with it, but because the author is the senior technology correspondent for Breitbart News.  He has the credentials to be heard, but Breitbart's biases make me as wary as CNN's do, and I know many of my left-leaning readers would see that and stop reading.

Don't. Please don't. What he has to say about the uncontrolled power of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon, and the like should concern everyone. Right now, it's conservatives who are feeling the flex of Big Tech's muscles, but the tech leaders could easily turn around and bite the hands that are currently feeding them. If you believe in freedom and democracy at all, this is worth reading and pondering.

Like most Europeans, my son-in-law, who is Swiss as well as American, has always wondered why I am so afraid of the misuse of governmental power, and not concerned about Google. I, in turn, don't understand how he can be so worried about tech companies while having no problem with a level of government surveillance and interference that would shock most Americans. I still think he's wrong not to be worried about excessive power in governmental hands, but I have to admit that he's right about Big Tech.

My response used to be, "Who cares if Google uses my data to target ads? I just ignore them, as I've always done with ads in newspapers (I usually don't even notice them) and on television." But that was then. That was before Facebook took down my 9/11 memorial post because it included a photo of Saddam Hussein. That was before it became obvious that Facebook was troubled by posts that even hinted that they might be about COVID-19. (Click image to enlarge.)

That was before I noticed how much Facebook and YouTube censor viewpoints they don't like. How careful one must be not to run afoul of their "algorithms." And certainly before Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Amazon proved that they are powerful enough to shut down the president of the United States, as well as a service (Parler) that welcomed Donald Trump's participation.

This may look as if it's about politics. It's not. It's about power. And it threatens everyone on every part of the political spectrum.

In January, when every major Silicon Valley tech company permanently banned the President of the United States from its platform, there was a backlash around the world. One after another, government and party leaders—many of them ideologically opposed to the policies of President Trump—raised their voices against the power and arrogance of the American tech giants. These included the President of Mexico, the Chancellor of Germany, the government of Poland, ministers in the French and Australian governments, the neoliberal center-right bloc in the European Parliament, the national populist bloc in the European Parliament, the leader of the Russian opposition ... and the Russian government.

Common threats create strange bedfellows. Socialists, conservatives, nationalists, neoliberals, autocrats, and anti-autocrats may not agree on much, but they all recognize that the tech giants have accumulated far too much power. None like the idea that a pack of American hipsters in Silicon Valley can, at any moment, cut off their digital lines of communication.

It is important to remember that the Web, as we know it today—a network of websites accessed through browsers—was not the first online service ever created. In the 1990s, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee invented the technology that underpins websites and web browsers, creating the Web as we know it today. But there were other online services, some of which predated Berners-Lee’s invention. Corporations like CompuServe and Prodigy ran their own online networks in the 1990s—networks that were separate from the Web and had access points that were different from web browsers. These privately-owned networks were open to the public, but CompuServe and Prodigy owned every bit of information on them and could kick people off their networks for any reason.

...[T]he Web was different. No one owned it, owned the information on it, or could kick anyone off. That was the idea, at least, before the Web was captured by a handful of corporations.

We all know their names: Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon. Like Prodigy and CompuServe back in the ’90s, they own everything on their platforms, and they have the police power over what can be said and who can participate. But it matters a lot more today than it did in the ’90s. Back then, very few people used online services. Today everyone uses them—it is practically impossible not to use them. Businesses depend on them. News publishers depend on them. Politicians and political activists depend on them. And crucially, citizens depend on them for information.

Ah, the early days. We were early Prodigy users, and GEnie, before the Internet took off. Those were the days when it was easy to interact with famous people, because it was all so new and the numbers were small. GEnie's Education RoundTable was a great resource in our early days of homeschooling, and there I met Bobbi Pournelle, wife of science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle. We even arranged to meet when she came to Orlando, as did other of my ERT acquaintances. That was before we were warned against having meet-ups with people we only knew online, and it was a good deal of fun.

Big Tech has become the most powerful election-influencing machine in American history. It is not an exaggeration to say that if the technologies of Silicon Valley are allowed to develop to their fullest extent, without any oversight or checks and balances, then we will never have another free and fair election. But the power of Big Tech goes beyond the manipulation of political behavior. As one of my Facebook sources told me ... “We have thousands of people on the platform who have gone from far right to center in the past year, so we can build a model from those people and try to make everyone else on the right follow the same path.” Let that sink in. They don’t just want to control information or even voting behavior—they want to manipulate people’s worldview.

Consider “quality ratings.” Every Big Tech platform has some version of this, though some of them use different names. The quality rating is what determines what appears at the top of your search results, or your Twitter or Facebook feed, etc. It’s a numerical value based on what Big Tech’s algorithms determine in terms of “quality.” In the past, this score was determined by criteria that were somewhat objective: if a website or post contained viruses, malware, spam, or copyrighted material, that would negatively impact its quality score. If a video or post was gaining in popularity, the quality score would increase. Fair enough. Over the past several years, however—and one can trace the beginning of the change to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016—Big Tech has introduced all sorts of new criteria into the mix that determines quality scores. Today, the algorithms on Google and Facebook have been trained to detect “hate speech,” “misinformation,” and “authoritative” (as opposed to “non-authoritative”) sources. Algorithms analyze a user’s network, so that whatever users follow on social media—e.g., “non-authoritative” news outlets—affects the user’s quality score. Algorithms also detect the use of language frowned on by Big Tech—e.g.,“illegal immigrant” (bad) in place of “undocumented immigrant” (good)—and adjust quality scores accordingly. And so on.This is not to say that you are informed of this or that you can look up your quality score. All of this happens invisibly. It is Silicon Valley’s version of the social credit system overseen by the Chinese Communist Party. As in China, if you defy the values of the ruling elite or challenge narratives that the elite labels “authoritative,” your score will be reduced and your voice suppressed. And it will happen silently, without your knowledge.

If Big Tech’s capabilities are allowed to develop unchecked and unregulated, these companies will eventually have the power not only to suppress existing political movements, but to anticipate and prevent the emergence of new ones. This would mean the end of democracy as we know it, because it would place us forever under the thumb of an unaccountable oligarchy.

The author does have a suggestion, and I think it sounds reasonable. (I know my audience will not hesitate to let me know if I've missed something.) Some may think that I am against government regulation, but that's not true. I'm against unreasonable government regulation. (For my purposes, I get to define "unreasonable.") Most especially I am against regulations that fail to distinguish between large entities (in business, agriculture, education, medicine, and the like) and the small and individual. I don't know how to quantify "large enough" to need special regulation, but I have no doubt that our tech giants have crossed that line.

All of Big Tech’s power comes from their content filters—the filters on “hate speech,” the filters on “misinformation,” the filters that distinguish “authoritative” from “non-authoritative” sources, etc. Right now these filters are switched on by default. We as individuals can’t turn them off. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The most important demand we can make of lawmakers and regulators is that Big Tech be forbidden from activating these filters without our knowledge and consent. They should be prohibited from doing this—and even from nudging us to turn on a filter—under penalty of losing their Section 230 immunity as publishers of third party content. This policy should be strictly enforced, and it should extend even to seemingly nonpolitical filters like relevance and popularity. Anything less opens the door to manipulation.

I cannot say it strongly enough:  This is not a left-wing thing; this is not a right-wing thing. This is a big thing. A thing we must all come to grips with.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, May 1, 2021 at 6:49 am | Edit
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Thinking further about Cal Newport's Deep Work, here are two more valuable quotations I should have included.

First, on the importance of a "shutdown ritual" for ending the "work day" (however that is defined for us) and not letting it take over the rest of our lives. I see it as less about employment and more about being able to switch cleanly from one activity to another (including rest).

The concept of a shutdown ritual might at first seem extreme, but there's a good reason for it: the Zeigarnik effect. This effect ... describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention. It tells us that if you simply stop whatever you are doing at five p.m. and declare, "I'm done with work until tomorrow," you'll likely struggle to keep your mind clear of professional issues, as the many obligations left unresolved in your mind will, as in Bluma Zeigarnik's experiments, keep battling for your attention throughout the evening.

At first, this challenge might seem unresolvable. As any busy knowledge worker can attest, there are always tasks left incomplete. The idea that you can ever reach a point where all your obligations are handled is a fantasy. Fortunately, we don't need to complete a task to get it off our minds. ... In [a study by Roy Baumeister and E. J. Masicampo], the two researchers began by replicating the Zeigarnik effect in their subjects (in this case, the researchers assigned a task and then cruelly engineered interruptions), but then found that they could significantly reduce the effect's impact by asking the subjects, soon after the interruption, to make a plan for how they would later complete the incomplete task. To quote the paper: "Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits."

The shutdown ritual ... leverages this tactic to battle the Zeigarnik effect. While it doesn't force you to explicitly identify a plan for every single task in your task list (a burdensome requirement), it does force you to capture every task in a common list, and then review these tasks before making a plan for the next day. This ritual ensures that no task will be forgotten: Each will be reviewed daily and tackled when the time is appropriate. Your mind, in other words, is released from its duty to keep track of these obligations at every moment—your shutdown ritual has taken over that responsibility. (pp. 152-154, emphasis mine).

I find I need to re-learn the following every day.

The science writer Winifred Gallagher stumbled onto a connection between attention and happiness after an unexpected and terrifying event, a cancer diagnosis. ... [A]s she walked away from the hospital after the diagnosis she formed a sudden and strong intuition: "This disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead." The cancer treatment that followed was exhausting and terrible, but Gallagher couldn't help noticing, in that corner of her brain honed by a career in nonfiction writing, that her commitment to focus on what was good in her life—"movies, walks, and a 6:30 martini"—worked surprisingly well. Her life during this period should have been mired in fear and pity, but it was instead, she noted, often quite pleasant. Her curiosity piqued, Gallagher set out to better understand the role that attention—that is, what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays in defining the quality of our life. After five years of science reporting, she came away convinced that she was witness to a "grand unified theory" of the mind:

Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.

This concept upends the way most people think about their subjective experience of life. We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us (or fails to happen) determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren't that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes, such as whether or not you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. ... [D]ecades of research contradict this understanding. Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. If you focus on a cancer diagnosis, you and your life become unhappy and dark, but if you focus instead on an evening martini, you and your life become more pleasant—even though the circumstances in both scenarios are the same. As Gallagher summarizes: "Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on." (p. 76-77, emphasis mine). 

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 22, 2021 at 10:43 am | Edit
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I don't write these posts to frighten or depress anyone. But a number of my readers have higher priorities than chasing down news stories, so I like to raise awareness when I come upon something important, interesting, or even just fun. This one's not fun, but it is important.

Why should I care what's happening in Canada? Leave aside for the moment that Canadians, too, are human beings made in the image of God and therefore we should care about them, and that Canada is the huge neighbor covering our entire northern border and one of our major allies. We should also care about what's happening with our near neighbor because the United States is not as far from this creeping danger as we might like to think.

One of our daughters and several of our grandchildren have for years been taking lessons in karate. One thing I have learned from them is that the first, and possibly the most important, key to self-defense is awareness of your surroundings. Never forget that a far better source also proclaimed wisdom as an essential accompaniment to innocence.

 


 

Half a century ago our family discovered Ontario's Arrowhead Provincial Park. We had only intended to spend one night there on our way to Michigan, but were so enchanted we stayed for three. It was quite primitive at the time: there wasn't much to do, and the bathroom "facilities" were a latrine. But we were almost alone in the park; most of the other tourists were staying in nearby Algonquin Provincial Park, which was more developed and very popular. Never have I breathed air so clean and invigorating. More memorable than that, however, were the stars. Not in all the rest of my life have I seen such a display, and such a show, as we lay on our backs on a huge woodpile and watched shooting stars streak across the sky at a rate of perhaps one every two or three minutes. I knew then that if I couldn't live in the United States, I'd want to go to Canada. Later Switzerland moved ahead, and that was well before we had family living there. But Canada stayed a solid second.

Well, that was then and this is now. There are many reasons why Canada has slipped far down on my list, but the following video would be enough.

A government (Ontario's, in this case) went too far with its pandemic restrictions, and finally the citizens—including medical practitioners and the police—rebelled, forcing the leaders to back down on the most egregious of the new rules. That's good news, but be sure to watch to the end to see the clips of Ontario's authorities and their "this hurts me more than it hurts you but it's for your own good" act. And their "it's your duty to snitch on your neighbors" response.

Ontario is a province of 14.5 million people, and 650 of them are currently in intensive care units. This minuscule percentage has caused such panic that the provincial government's response was (among other things) to issue a stay-at-home order, to close playgrounds, boat ramps, and other outdoor recreational activities, and to authorize law enforcement to stop and interrogate any people caught outside of their homes. Canada takes enforcement of these rules very seriously: the fine for violating Quebec's 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, for example, starts at $1500.

Part of the problem is that Canada's health infrastructure is not good. An ordinary flu season overwhelms the ICUs. I've known for years that Canada's healthcare system is broken, despite the fact that it has its passionate defenders. (Much of my information comes from Canadian nurses, who fled to the U.S., bringing horror stories with them.) Even a bad system—healthcare, government, business, church, marriage—can look reasonable when times are good. It's times of crisis, pressure, and stress that reveal the truth and call into account the leaders we have elected (or been saddled with).

I used to look at historical happenings in other countries—e.g. Austria-Hungary 1914, pre-WWII Germany, Communist Eastern Europe, the Rwandan genocide—and smugly think, "That could never happen here, not now." However, the past year has shown that it can, indeed, happen here and now. We're not there yet, but we've come a lot closer, particularly in the area of what ordinary citizens will do to their neighbors.

American has no call to feel smug—or safe. We may not be as far down the road as Canada is, but it sure looks as if we are heading in the same direction. Should we panic? Despair? Absolutely not. But we'd darn well better be paying attention.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, April 19, 2021 at 9:45 am | Edit
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Do you see a man skilful in his work? he will stand before kings - Proverbs 22:29 (RSV)

Excellence is almost always a joy to behold. A well-crafted piece of furniture, a musical performance of great artistry, a fabulous meal, a well-run business, an amazing athletic feat—I think we are hard-wired to find great skill attractive. Something done well is not necessarily something worth doing, and it is all too easy to value the wrong things simply because they are excellently done. But the excellence itself is good.

I'm sure we could all be better at whatever we do, if we would only put enough time and focused effort into it. If we don't find that possible, or desirable, however, there's another attractive factor that can fill in some of the gaps: Enthusiasm. Often something merely "good enough," if approached with passion, can be delightful. Not always: Florence Foster Jenkins comes to mind, but even she had famous admirers and once sold out Carnegie Hall.

Passion for a subject often encourages hard work, long hours, and perseverance, which in turn can take native talent to greatness. When excellence and enthusiasm meet, the result is attractive indeed.

This is why I sometimes find myself really enjoying YouTube videos covering subjects in which I have previously had little to no interest. You'll see some of them in an upcoming series of posts featuring channels to which I've recently subscribed. The usual caveats apply: I like to make available to others books, articles, and videos I have found to be of some value, even if I don't agree with everything presented. Your mileage may vary. Take what is helpful to you; leave the rest.

I may not agree with, or even understand, all that I see and hear, but I love the skill and passion with which it is presented.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, March 11, 2021 at 7:01 am | Edit
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Last week the air conditioning came on; today we are back to heating. That's Florida Spring for you. One day you sleep with the ceiling fans awhirl; the next you are very glad you haven't gotten around to putting away the extra blankets.

Snce I love the cooler weather, I'm not sorry for its return. Of course, that's "cooler" as in mid-40's lows, and mid-70's highs, which qualifies as a warm spring day where I spent my childhood.  :)

Anything lower than that might discourage the blossoming citrus trees, whose heavenly odor is one of my favorite signs of Florida Spring.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, March 8, 2021 at 7:05 am | Edit
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O. J. Simpson, Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman, Donald Trump ... pick your favorite villain. There's someone out there who you are certain "got away with murder." It rankles, doesn't it? Makes you doubt our system of justice. Me? I'm just as guilty, though I worry more about the uncounted criminals who "get off on a technicality" when everyone involved knows they're guilty—including their own attorneys.

In the court of public opinion, we are all vigilantes. And that's a problem.

We have a lawyer friend who has seen our criminal justice system from several angles, having served for years as a prosecuting attorney, and for years as a defense attorney. I well remember a somewhat heated discussion with him, which started when I mentioned that I like the British system, in which a defense attorney, if he becomes convinced his client is guilty, must step down. (As I understand it, that was at least the case in the past. For all I know it might have changed.) Our friend is a gentle, mild-mannered man, but he vehemently disagreed, insisting that even the most guilty person is entitled to the best possible defense his attorney can provide. Maybe that's why the British attorneys stand down, figuring they can't do their best if they believe their client guilty. Apparently American defense lawyers have no such inhibitions. At least not the good ones.

All that to say, when a lawyer takes on what we believe to be the "wrong" side of a case, that doesn't make him a villain. And when a jury returns a verdict we disagree with, that doesn't make them wrong. They're all doing their jobs, and vitally important jobs they are.

In litigation, sometimes even when you win, you still lose. — David Freiheit.

In the American justice system, one does not need to be proven innocent to be acquitted. Because "innocent until proven guilty" is a bedrock principle, the burden of proof is on the prosecutor, who must show the accused to be guilty "beyond reasonable doubt." Small wonder that We the People, inflamed by media coverage, believe we know better than those who have seen the evidence and heard the arguments. We want to see our version of  justice done without any respect for or patience with the due process guaranteed every one of us. Yes, the system sometimes fails, sometimes makes mistakes; I've seen it fail among our own family and friends. But vigilante "justice" is a terrifying prospect. It's time to reprise A Man for All Seasons again.

Current society is taking vigilantism to new heights. It's long been true that many of those found not guilty in law courts have nonetheless had their lives ruined (or even ended) by the opposite verdict from the court of public opinion. Now, however, the "String him up!" reaction extends not simply to the former defendant, but even to his attorney, as you can see in the following video.

If you are thinking of becoming a lawyer, and you are so sensitive to the thoughts of others that you sometimes require protection from them, you probably want to find a new line of work. — David Freiheit.

I never had aspirations of becoming a lawyer; I don't think I have the right personality. But even I can see that what this unnamed law school did to attorney David Schoen—rescinding a teaching offer in fear that Schoen's previous job as an attorney for President Trump would make some students and faculty feel uncomfortable—is doing a tremendous disservice to the students they hope to prepare for legal practice. Not to mention to society as a whole. Don't take my word for it; Freiheit says it better.

People don't seem to fully appreciate how dangerous a practice this actually is. — David Freiheit.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, February 22, 2021 at 7:09 am | Edit
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Remember what I said in my recent review of Nineteen Eighty-Four?

Most of the analyses I read online consider the climax of the book to be where Winston Smith and Julia betray each other. It seems clear to me, however, that the true climax occurs much earlier in the book, when they believe they are joining the Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to opposing the ruling Party.

"In general terms, what are you prepared to do?"
"Anything that we are capable of," said Winston.
O'Brien had turned himself a little in his chair so that he was facing Winston. He almost ignored Julia, seeming to take it for granted that Winston could speak for her. For a moment the lids flitted down over his eyes. He began asking his questions in a low, expressionless voice, as though this were a routine, a sort of catechism, most of whose answers were known to him already.
"Yes."
"You are prepared to commit murder?"
"Yes."
"To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?"
"Yes."
"To betray your country to foreign powers?"
"Yes."
"You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases—to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party?"
"Yes."
"If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child's face—are you prepared to do that?"
"Yes."

At that point any hope for the future is lost, those opposing evil having shown themselves to be no better than their opponents. Everything after that is dénouement.

That.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, January 10, 2021 at 7:57 am | Edit
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As a young child, I received an allowance of 25 cents a week. (A quarter was worth a lot more 'way back then.) From that I was expected to allocate some to spend as I pleased, some for the offering at church, and some to be saved into my small account at the bank. That was the beginning. My family had a culture of saving, as well as giving and spending. Saving was for the future—for larger-ticket items, and for unknown future needs.

Part of the excellent advice I received from my father as I was establishing my own household was to set up a regular savings plan, not only for future purchases but to ensure that I could handle at least a six-month period of unemployment—preferably a full year. Of course it took some time to save that much money when I had all the expenses of newly-independent living to meet, but by making it a priority I soon had a comfortable cushion against unexpected expenses.

Fortunately, I married a man with similar views, which were not uncommon among those of us whose parents had lived through the Depression days. For a number of years we were blessed with two incomes, but made a point of keeping our standard of living low enough that we could live on one and save the other. This stood us in very good stead when disaster hit the American information technology industry, and so many IT workers lost their jobs because the work was transferred to India and other places overseas.

But somewhere along the line the culture of saving was largely lost. Once considered a virtue, saving is now called "hoarding" and held in contempt. It seems to be considered a patriotic duty to spend all one's money—and more. (If true, we have been bleeding red, white, and blue during this pandemic.) However, the ugly consequences of this attitude are nowhere more apparent than in the large numbers of families facing financial disaster due to pandemic-related job loss. So many people have gone in the blink of an eye from enjoying comfortable incomes to standing in bread lines. If they had been encouraged to follow my father's advice and maintain a savings cushion of a year's salary, they would likely have been able to weather this storm with ease. But no one—not the government, not the media, not the schools, not our consumerist society, and apparently far too few parents—has been passing on this essential lesson.

I hope it won't take another Great Depression to recover our lost wisdom.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, December 30, 2020 at 8:09 am | Edit
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Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was pretty much the only children's television program seen in our house when our children were growing up. Not regularly, but occasionally, and we had several on videotape that were watched many times over. Unrelated, but interesting, is the fact that our children performed at least once in the Fred Rogers room at Rollins College, and one of them attended college in Pittsburgh and met Mister Rogers himself.

Fred Roger's legacy is enduring, and his calm, gentle, positive shows are even now being rediscovered by yet another, supposedly worldly-wise and jaded generation.

Yet I have to ask: What happens when the children grow up?

Suddenly their world is filled with people who do not like them "just the way they are"—angry, judgemental people who are quick to find fault, to mock, to sneer, and to revile. Suddenly how they look, how they think, what they believe, and how they vote sets them up as targets. Love and safety have disappeared. Mistakes are no longer seen as acceptible learning opportunities Even their Neighborhood of Make-Believe has turned dark, tragic, and frightening.

Grownups need Mister Rogers' Neighborhoods, too.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, December 29, 2020 at 8:18 am | Edit
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This is not my own, but the person I learned it from can't remember where she first found it.  And it's not a direct quotation, because I've modified it to sound better in my own ears.  But the sentiment is exactly the same.

 "A writer is a writer not because he has amazing talent. A writer is a writer because, even when nothing he does shows any sign of promise, he keeps on writing anyway."

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, December 21, 2020 at 10:19 am | Edit
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This morning I read part of an article called "Is Florida the New Wall Street?" That link should take you to the same part, though to go any further you need to have a Business Insider subscription, which I don't. The beginning paragraphs were enough to get me thinking about the idea, however.

When the pandemic hit New York City, Florida was overwhelmed with people from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut who had decided to flee here. When our governor attempted to impose a quarantine period, he was overwhelmingly mocked, derided, and shut down by New York and other states, with cries of "overreaction" and "interference with interstate commerce." Of course, it was not long before New York and many other states turned around and decided to implement their own quarantines. It reminds me of the European assault on President Trump for closing our borders—and their subsequent decisions to do the same thing themselves. Mind you, I was not happy with the president's decision to close off traffic from Europe, since it happened just in time to cancel a long-awaited visit from our Swiss family. But the hypocrisy of the reaction (from both Europe and New York), without any apology when they decided to implement the same policies, is galling.

But this post is not actually about the pandemic directly. It's about another flood of New Yorkers who might be coming Florida's way.

The pandemic and the rise of remote work are accelerating movement from the Northeast to the Southeast, and that has some suggesting a tipping point has been reached.

“I suspect” Florida will soon rival New York as a finance hub, Leon Cooperman, the hedge fund manager who founded New York-based Omega Advisors, told Business Insider in an email. “‘Tax and spend’ has been [the northeast’s] policy. It has to change or New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut will become ghost towns.” 

It's not as if the business would not be welcomed: Florida needs solid jobs that are not so dependent on the tourist industry. But we do not need more people who are interested in making Florida into a second New York.

I lived in Upstate New York for much of my life, and recall well the division between New York City and the rest of the state, with the large-population City tail largely wagging the State dog. Hence New York's high taxes, strong unions, and onerous gun laws. Florida is in a similar situation, with the Miami/Palm Beach area being worlds apart from most of the rest of the state. If a large influx of New Yorkers comes to that part of the state hoping for more freedom, a better tax situation, and a lower cost of living, they'll find them—but if they bring with them the same attitudes that have led to the troubles they are fleeing, then we will all lose.

We have a friend who one year visited us from New York for the express purpose of trying to influence Florida's elections. His company was welcome, but I tell you, I'm a lot more worried about that than about whatever the Russians might be doing via our social media.

When we joined one of our previous churches, the pastor explained, "You do not have to agree with us to be welcome here. We only ask one thing: don't try to change us. If you feel the need to change our culture, you are released from your membership vows and are free to find another church that may be a better fit for you." When push came to shove, that's not exactly how it worked out, but the theory made sense to me.

I know whereof I speak. When we moved to Florida from New York more than 35 years ago, I was the quintessential Northeastern snob. It took me several years to realize that Florida was not (and is not) the backwards, ignorant place my prejudice had led me to believe.

I still miss New York and the Northeast. I especially miss great apples and unpasteurized cider. But the solution is not to plant apple trees here in Florida, but to appreciate citrus trees and unpasteurized orange juice. And to visit the places we have left behind.

We need to let Florida be Florida, New York be New York, Texas be Texas, and Montana be Montana. Just as Europe is realizing that they must not give up French, Norwegian, and Dutch culture for the sake of the European Union, we need to work for the United States to be united while remaining individual states. If we allow ourselves to become a homogenized monoculture, I can just about guarantee it will not give us the best of everything, but the worst—or if we're lucky, mediocrity.

Florida taught me that. Do you think you know what orange juice tastes like? What you buy in the store, even "fresh squeezed," is taken apart, put (somewhat) back together, cooked (pasteurized), and deliberately made so that every carton of orange juice tastes the same as every other. You haven't really tasted orange juice until you drink it raw, without all the processing, and with flavors that change as the season progresses and different varieties of orange go into the juice.

Florida does not need to be pasteurized and homogenized. I don't mean there aren't areas in which we can improve. But there's a huge difference between working for change from inside a culture you love, and running roughshod over a community to which you have fled, without regard for the local population. Cultural imperialism is no more palatable than any other kind.

So come, New York refugees. Live here, grow here, become Floridians. But don't bring New York with you. When I want to experience New York culture, I'll take a vacation there.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, December 13, 2020 at 8:57 pm | Edit
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I'm certain Facebook had no idea what it was doing when it banned my 9/11 memorial post. Suddenly I started looking into others who claimed unfair and unreasonable censorship, people I had previously ignored. Contrary to what I had been led to believe, I have yet to find anything extremist, evil, hateful, or even particularly objectionable—certainly nothing as egregious as other offenses that Facebook seems to have no problem with. What I've seen has been at worst annoying. Of course I find things I disagree with (what else is new?) but also a lot that is interesting, reasonable, and fits with the world as I know it. Nothing, that is, that could justify Facebook's censorship.

I doubt that Facebook's intent in banning certain content was to inspire me to investigate that content, but that's not an unusual reaction. Ban a book or a movie and you generate interest in what would probably have died an ignoble death on its own. Were it not that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and such are so massive, and virtual monopolies, I would be less concerned.

Here's just one example. Even if the following video were not about censorship, it would be amazing, as I have never before been fascinated by legal language.

David Freiheit is a Canadian lawyer who gave up litigation for full-time video commentary on current issues from a legal standpoint. From what little I've seen of his YouTube channel, his style is a little on the crazy side, but he makes legal issues and legal documents interesting, which qualifies him as a miracle worker as far as I'm concerned.

Two things particularly struck me in watching this. The first is that I had no idea how lucrative Facebook advertising can be—the advertising that I generally ignore. For me, Facebook is a place for communicating with family—or friends, since most of my family has now deserted the platform—and I ignore the larger picture. But there's another world out there, a world of high finance, a world where there are worse consequences for offending the Facebook gods than having your post deleted. Can you even imagine a world where Facebook can demonetize your post, which takes away the percentage of ad revenue that you normally receive, and thus cost you over a million dollars a month?

Secondly, I was unaware of the practice of not just cutting off, but actually stealing that ad revenue. If I have an ad-revenue contract with Facebook, and they delete my post, I merely lose the income. But if they leave the post up, and merely demonetize it, they can still run ads—but Facebook (YouTube, whatever) gets all the revenue, rather than having to share it with the content provider. In other words, by determining that your content is somehow "wrong" they can take for themselves all the ad revenue the post generates.

This is from my understanding of the process, not from the video below. What the video adds is the idea that the "independent fact checkers," in determining that a post is "false," themselves benefit by doing so, since they can include links to their own content and funnel income from the original content poster to themselves, which is a huge conflict of interest and a positive incentive to label something as false. I get that one would want to be able to click to the reasoning behind such a label, but at the very least the fact-checkers should not profit from it. Anyway, if you have 23 minutes and are curious as to how legalese can possibly be interesting, here it is.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, November 29, 2020 at 7:10 am | Edit
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Robert Heinlein wrote that the Year of the Jackpot was 1952. It's a pity he died in 1988, because he would have loved 2020.

In one of those serendipitous Internet moments, I recently came across the answer to a puzzle that has been nagging at me for months. Longer, really.

Every time I'd shake my head and say, "The world has gone completely insane"—which I have been doing a lot this century—I'd remember a science fiction story from my distant past. I couldn't recall the title, the author, nor enough of the plot to begin to find it, though I tried halfheartedly now and again.

Then it was handed to me on a platter, in the form of a notification from eReaderIQ that a book from an author I'm following (Robert Heinlein) was on sale for 99 cents. It was called The Year of the Jackpot and is in reality a short story, not a book. You can read it for free right here, at the Internet Archive.

I knew as soon as soon as I saw the title that this was the story I had been remembering. Heinlein is a mixed author: some of his works are brilliant and delightful, others quite frankly off-the-rails unpleasant. This one is not a happy tale, but it is fascinating and enjoyable.

Here's one of my favorite paragraphs:

He listed stock market prices, rainfall, wheat futures, but the "silly season" items were what fascinated him. To be sure, some humans were always doing silly things—but at what point had prime damfoolishness become commonplace? When, for example, had the zombie-like professional models become accepted ideals of American womanhood? What were the gradations between National Cancer Week and National Athlete's Foot Week? On what day had the American people finally taken leave of horse sense?

Pretty mild compared with the decades-long "silly season" we're in now, isn't it? But the ending, well....

Potiphar Breen is a statistician whose hobby is charting cycles. And in the year 1952 they are not looking good at all.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, November 21, 2020 at 8:22 am | Edit
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I've been having fun cleaning out computer files, and came upon some old photos that may me wonder just how much our personalities are determined at birth or very early in our childhoods.

Here I am at age five, drinking water after enjoying a hike in the Adirondacks, wearing comfortable clothes and not sitting cross-legged. Comfort remains my highest criterion for choosing clothing, I have always loved spending time in the woods, water is my beverage of choice, and I have never, ever been able to sit cross-legged without serious discomfort.

Here's evidence from age six that my mother did her best to nurture my feminine side and teach me to be a proper young lady of the times. It didn't take. You can see by the expression on my face my heroic struggle to endure privation and torture for completely unfathomable reasons. Nothing has changed.

As a young mother, Thanksgiving at my in-laws' place in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, usually found me collapsed on the hearth in front of a comforting fire. This picture from Christmas at my grandparents' house in Rochester, New York shows that when I was seven I felt much the same way.

When this swing was new, it graced my grandfather's house. When he moved in with my family in Pennsylvania, the swing came with him. That particular swing is gone now, but when Porter found one for all practical purposes identical at our local Lowes, I had to have one for our Florida back porch. North or south, for more than 60 years I have found it one of the most comfortable places ever to sit, rock, read, think ... and sleep.

I don't mean we can't change. Nature vs. Nurture should no longer be a debate, since the answer is so clearly "both/and." But it still surprises me when I come across evidence—in myself and others—that many of our present characteristics were manifested very early on, if we'd had the eyes to see. Mostly it's fascinating; it only becomes depressing when I look back and realize I'm still fighting battles it seems I ought to have long since conquered and moved on.

So I wonder: Should we, as parents, be more alert to problems in our children that could lead to trouble in the future, and deal with them, rather than letting them slide and hoping they'll outgrow them? If so, which ones are manifestly bad and need eliminating (e.g. lying, laziness, disobedience), and which ones are just part of what makes us individuals (such as a need for solitude, a sensitive nature, or a very logical mind), in which case our job is to help the child both take advantage of the good and develop coping strategies for the bad?

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, November 18, 2020 at 10:35 am | Edit
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Those of us who lived through what I think of as the "Carter Inflation" have a deep-seated fear of that economic disaster, and a greater fear that more recent generations don't take it seriously enough. (To be fair to President Carter, presidents get more blame and take more credit than they deserve for economic conditions. I think Carter, a good man, was a bad president with policies that made inflation worse, but it's far from exclusively his fault.)

Inflation under Carter was not a disaster for us, personally, since it was a time when salaries and investment income appeared to be increasing at a great rate. That felt good, though it only meant that we were barely keeping up with rising prices. It was not so merciful to people without good jobs and investments. We also knew enough history to fear the devastation inflation had caused in other times and places.

You might understand, then, why am frustrated when I hear reports of "inflation indices" that say we are experiencing little or no inflation—when I know darn well that prices in the grocery store have been rising steadily for a long time, most "half-gallon" ice cream packages now hold only three pints, and the price of automobiles has exploded through the roof.

I read with interest the article by John Mauldin called "Nose Blind to Inflation." It's long and gets complicated and I did start skimming as I neared the end, but it says a lot about the factors that go into determining a currency's inflation rate—and why it's so hard to come up with numbers that mean anything at all. As my economist husband says, it is important to understand that inflation is not a mathematically provable number, but rather a statistically, approximated number. Moreover, the numbers that are published are not immune to political pressure.

I'm not even going to try to guess what is going to happen to our currency now that the pandemic has encouraged us to hemorrhage money that we don't have and drive our national debt well beyond the stratosphere. Far more knowledgeable people than I haven't a clue.

But I can't resist one quote from the article, which begins the section on an inflation calculation factor called hedonic adjustment.

That’s where they modify the price change because the product you buy today is of higher quality than the one they measured in the past.

This is most evident in technology. The kind of computer I used back in the 1980s cost about $4,000. The one I have now, on which I do similar work (writing) was about $1,600. So, my computer costs dropped 40%. But no, today’s computer isn’t remotely comparable to my first one. It is easily a thousand times more powerful. So the price for that much computing power has dropped much more than 60%. It’s probably 99.9%.

The economists pull the same slight of hand with automobiles, and television sets, and any product in which it is claimed that you are getting more value for your money, and therefore it shouldn't count as a price increase. Which is utter nonsense. (I put the point a little more strongly when I first read about the concept.)

Sure, I often like the "improvements" that have supposedly added value to the item I am purchasing, but the real value of a car is that it gets me from A to B, and why must I pay for all the extra bells and whistles if that's all I want? It reminds me of a housing developer I know, who was chided for not providing more "affordable housing." "I could make housing affordable for everyone," he replied, "If people were willing to live in the kind of homes their grandparents did. But now that won't even begin to pass code."

So sure, go ahead and make things "new and improved." But if I can no longer buy the original version, don't try to sell me the bill of goods that when the price goes up it's really a price decrease.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, September 20, 2020 at 7:30 am | Edit
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