Saturday, May 1, 2021

Targeted

I should to be concerned: Facebook, Twitter, and Google know all about me. And they use this information to target me with ads. That's how they make their money.

But they are so bad at it. Not at making money, but at how they use information about me to influence my buying decisions.

I'm offered deals to pay off my college bills (I graduated 40 years ago). I buy something online and am bombarded with ads for the item I already purchased. I'm curious about something, so I check the internet and am hounded by big data for weeks.

I have come to avoid online ads like the plague. They hardly ever offer what I'm looking for. Who wastes money on those things? I don't claim to be normal, but am I that far out of the loop on this?

Does big tech know my every move, my every mood, but have no clue what to offer me? Or do they know next to nothing about me? Or do they just intentionally annoy me with stupid offers? These companies offer excellent services for info searches and socializing, but the way they make money seems sketchy.

It just might be a swindle. A recent Freakonomics episode suggests that every dollar spent on online advertising brings in about 40 cents worth of revenue. Is "value-subtract" a business buzzword? More study is needed, I'm sure, but this sure sounds like a scam.

Ads I find compelling are sponsorships of PBS and NPR programs. I used to go to Home Depot because they support This Old House, which I like to watch sometimes. Then I found out their founder spent a lot of money to promote the political candidacy of a guy who spent much of his time lying to us. So I figured he too might be untrustworthy and could influence his company. Now I mostly go to my local hardware and garden supply stores. Big box stores can be handy, and I don't boycott them, but I seldom need them. I get better service at my local stores, which seem to be doing OK, maybe because my neighbors have a similar view. Home Depot posts more ads than the local stores do, but these are easy to ignore.

I accept that advertising can be helpful. In 1906, Sweet's (now Sweets) first released a catalogue for architects and builders. Basically, they collected advertising brochures, organized them by product type, bound them into an encyclopedia, and provided a good index. It grew from a single volume to 50,000 pages in multiple volumes. Some manufacturers spent their entire advertising budget on Sweet's. For many decades, if you wanted something for construction, you checked Sweet's, compared products, got real data about those products, and chose what suited your needs. This was and is to me ideal advertising: useful information for making an informed choice. Sweet's comparative format encouraged manufacturers to provide helpful information. Slick cut sheets could influence one's view of a company, but without real information they were quickly passed over for a competitor.

Reprint of the original Sweet's Catalogue

The internet is where we go to get this type of information now. It's a messier, clumsier search than Sweet's was, but the internet peddles so many products that this is understandable. Google helps me search for products that I may need or want (although they are not great at it) but I hardly ever click an ad instead of an "organic" search result. If I do, it's likely a mistake, which just annoys me and makes me less likely to buy what they're selling, even if I feel apologetic for costing them a click.

Granted, online advertising is more complex than what I'm implying here. But I'm not convinced that a lot of sellers aren't being had. And, until I see evidence that they have me cased, I'm not going to worry that they know too much about me.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Farm Care

I admit some bias toward farms and farmers. Call it nostalgia.

We are told that the agricultural era replaced hunting and gathering. Then the industrial age took over from the agricultural age. Now we are in the information age. Of course these are simplifications intended to indicate major changes in society. But thinking in terms of a new age can diminish a previous one, which is too bad. We are still very much in the agricultural age. Given an option between meals and the computer I'm using to write this, I'd choose food. If I had to choose between electricity and food, I'd still pick food. Until we stop eating, we remain in the agricultural age.

I wonder if we appreciate the age of agriculture enough. Do we appreciate our farmers enough? Why, for example, do we honor soldiers over farmers? I find it hard to believe a bloated military-industrial complex is more important than eating. I'm not saying I don't respect soldiers, just that I respect farmers at least as much, probably more.

As a kid I grew up dreaming of being a Midwest bachelor farmer, and I spent high-school weekends and a couple of years after graduating working on farms. But my political views, which have moved center left, no longer match those of many of the farmers I worked for and with. For example, American farmers, for one reason or another, may disagree that universal healthcare is a good idea.

The Affordable Care Act helped insure millions of people who could not afford health insurance. I consider this a good thing. But I'm not sure it worked out great for farmers and small business owners. For one thing, subsidies are based on previous earnings, so in a down year healthcare costs can be a burden just when the money is needed for maintaining farm and family.

Recent tariffs hit farmers hard, so the government paid them subsidies. As so often happens, the largest agribusinesses benefited the most. If the government had started by providing healthcare for all farmers affected by the tariffs, the smaller, family farms would have benefited the most, since they are the ones least able to afford insurance.

Farmers and citizens in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, nearly all of Europe, Israel, and Japan are incredulous that America still doesn't have healthcare for all its citizens. Most of them see no reason you can't receive government-sponsored health insurance and still be a bonafide farmer.

I got this nutty idea the other day: let's try a national pilot project and provide healthcare for any farmer or small business with no more than 10 employees. The ACA works pretty well for low-income workers, so let's fill this other gap. If it works out well, we can expand it.

Many of the farmers I know are independent, not only as businesses, but in terms of giving instead of accepting help. "Don't make a fuss about us; we'll manage." And most do, most of the time. But for a pretty small investment we could make sure this one worry is no longer an issue for those keeping us fed.

It seems a pretty small thank-you in return for three meals a day.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Bland

The summer of 1977 I headed north, as far as the road would take me. The road stopped at the Yukon River, in Circle, Alaska. There I met another visitor, Bill, camping in his station wagon, but he had not come by road. He came in an aluminum canoe from upstream; the car was his home in Circle while he waited for a check to arrive from Seattle, where he had sent his annual take of furs.

Bill was talkative and friendly when he wanted to be, though perfectly satisfied with silence. He and I got along. He beat me at pool and I beat him at ping-pong at the local store/tavern. I told him that a friend and I had come from Michigan with plans to build a cabin in the woods and live there for a year. But the BLM told us they might come by when we were gone and blow up the cabin; we were not allowed to squat on government land. Bill laughed, "You want to live in the woods?" He pointed. "There's the woods."

A day or two after I arrived, a barge stopped in Circle. The barge owner/operator offered to hire Bill as a deckhand, but he wasn't interested, so I took the job. Richard, the other deckhand and sometime pilot, said Bill had a reputation for being a little crazy. He lived in a tiny cabin where he could barely stand up at the ridge line. Someone gave him a couple dogs once to help with his trap line. Bill ate the dogs.

A few weeks later, with the barge stuck on a gravel bar in the Black River north of Fort Yukon, I was back in Circle. Bill had gotten a check for about $1500, driven to Fairbanks to get supplies, and was getting ready to head back upstream to his cabin.

There's an excerpt in John McPhee's Coming into the Country that might refer to Bill:

I was in the Yukon Trading Post in Circle one time when a man about forty came up over the riverbank and bought six bottles of Worcestershire sauce, twelve packets of yeast, a case of matches, some Spam, sardines, hot dogs, three pounds of tea, a hundred and fifty pounds of cornmeal, and two cigars. He counted out three hundred and forty-four dollars cash, laid it on the counter, and went back to the river without so much as a word about the weather. Frank Warren--pilot, trapper, keeper of the Trading Post--remarked that he had happened by that man's cabin one day and had thought to pay a visit. It was a small cabin, eight by ten, without windows. As Warren approached, he heard a voice. The man was telling himself a joke. Reaching the punch line, he erupted in laughter. Warren tiptoed away.

If it was Bill, I think he would have appreciated a visit. Unless, perhaps, he and Frank were not on good terms.

I gave Bill a 3-lb. can of coffee in exchange for his stories and his appreciation. He talked about food. Beaver tail was especially good, he said, "really bland." Any meat he liked he referred to as bland, as if there were no higher praise. Compared to pine martin, lynx, and huskies, I guess bland would be welcome. (Not that I would know.)

For Christmas this year, my son and daughter-in-law gave us some thin slices of Iberico ham. We shared them at a post-Christmas get-together. We didn't know what to expect other than that we should be impressed, given the price. We agreed it was surprisingly bland.

Bill would have approved.



Thursday, January 21, 2021

By the People

On November 3, I walked to my polling place, voted, and walked out. My vote had as much influence as anyone's, but it didn't cost me much. In that sense it was less valuable than that of people I consider heroes.

We are inspired by stories of our frontier ancestors who made the long slow trip to town in bad weather to cast their votes. We can be equally inspired by urban voters who wait in line for hours to cast their vote. And it's not just in urban centers. A friend of mine in a small Pennsylvania town told me he waited in a cold wind for 7 hours to vote—along with his mother in a wheelchair. These people were convinced that their votes mattered and made considerable sacrifices to act on that conviction.

No one I ever voted for won or lost by a single vote. So whether or not I voted is irrelevant, right? Why bother to wait in line, especially if it means losing wages? It feels like our votes don't matter anyhow.

It takes millions of raindrops to start a flood. No one can say at what point, at which number of drops, the flood begins. But each drop is part of the flood. Every one is insignificant, I suppose, but together they are loaded with significance. Your vote is part of the stream, as is each of your neighbor's, and each of theirs. Significance is most often achieved as part of a group. We humans have our individual heroes, to be sure, but mostly we achieve together.

Elections are more than a toggle switch for one candidate or the other. If Trump had lost by just a few votes, I suspect his efforts before and after the election to overturn the vote would have been far more effective. As it was, a flood of 7,000,000 votes separated him from the winner. In each of the battleground states, his loss or win was decisive. This matters. Your vote and mine counted. Every vote added to the decision. The lies about the election would have been a little more effective for each missing vote.

It's true not all votes are equal. If you are from a state or district that goes heavily for one side, then it's hard to think your vote matters as much as those cast in battleground regions. But, long term, every vote matters in those other states as well. Votes from the past election influence candidates for the next. If their margin narrows, in the next election they may double down on nasty rhetoric to fire up the base, or perhaps they tone it down to attract independent and moderate voters. But they must deal with the reality of your vote.

I am inspired by people who were determined to vote in spite of the long lines and other obstacles. Organizers who told those voters what to expect and how to make sure their votes were counted give me hope. And I'm really pissed at people who claim the votes of those who paid most dearly shouldn't count. Some people of privilege complain that if voting is as easy for everybody as it is for them, then their party won't win a national election. Why do they fear democracy?

The turn-out for the 2020 election was terrific. A lot of people contributed to our collective voices, this time more diametrically opposed than in many past elections. But those elected—and all of us—need to deal with what they said. Which is why outright lies about those voices and about the outcome of the election is inexcusable.

We all hate to lose. That's no excuse for cheating or denying our loss. When a Republican member of the Michigan State Canvassing Board took a stand for truth, law, and democracy, the state GOP effectively fired him. They said loud and clear that he was being punished for not lying, for not denying us our vote. I don't know how much lower a political organization can go.

This year a lot of people paid a high price to have their voices heard. Others paid to ensure that those voices could be heard. They represent America. Thank you.

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Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.
-Edmund Burke

Monday, January 18, 2021

Big Lie

The storming of the Capitol was not excusable, but it was understandable. If I believed that the election was stolen and if a man I trusted told me that, because it was stolen, I should be angry and stop the vote, I might have done the same. Damn the consequences, let me stand up for what is right!

But there is zero evidence that the election was stolen. Or perhaps I should say there is only fictional evidence.

Amid the insurrection were many "people of faith." I too am a believer. Some of the things I believe are not provable, and yet I do believe. You might ask why I hold religious beliefs without demonstrable proof. That is a legitimate question. My answer, I confess, is that nearly everyone has religious beliefs, and not having them is beyond my ability.

But this association of fervent faith with an unfounded belief in a big fat lie is deeply disturbing. If someone believes in a crackpot conspiracy, it is hard not to assume that person is a crackpot.

My sister works with a man who believes the Earth is flat. A co-worker, probably hoping to be entertained by an outburst, asked him what he thought about those anti-vaxxers. The man replied, "Those people are nuts!" Which is a great story, because we expect the guy to fall for every cockamamie theory.

If I believe an utterly unfounded theory that is easily disproved, anyone knowing this is likely to assume my other beliefs are equally absurd.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Dear Tony


Open letter to Tony Perkins, President, Family Research Council.

24 November 2020

Dear Tony Perkins,

The first letter forwarded to my address after my Dad's passing was from your organization, asking him for money.

The letter alludes to an apocalypse, to weathering anxiety and chaos as God's remnant. I don't understand how your "remnant" could hold so many of the highest positions of power but still consider yourselves a lone Elijah, buffeted by "dangerous policies of the Left" as you "stand firm against a radical social agenda."

You promise to "seek and speak truth" but you have stood by a leader who has lied to more people more often than anyone in US history. Among the lies were many about the corona virus pandemic. (Consider reading "All the President’s Lies About the Coronavirus" last updated by The Atlantic on November 2.) Apparently, you are OK with these dangerous lies. 

I truly hope you will one day care about all families, not just those that hold to your skewed political agenda. If you were truly blind, you would have an excuse, but because you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

I cannot say whether my father would have been one of the ones spared had President Trump's administration made a reasonable attempt to curb the virus. I can say I am not proud of our nation's deplorable response. This letter from you praising the President, pretending to love truth, and begging for money from susceptible senior citizens was enough to prompt this written response of my own.

My father was ill for some time. COVID-19 only hastened his death. He will no longer be contributing to your organization. Please remove his name from your mailing list.

Sincerely,

Tim Slager
Grand Rapids, MI

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Confession

It is reasonable to believe there is no god, that our universe is accidental. I believe I could believe that; many reasonable people do. But I would also have to give up other beliefs, beliefs that reasonable people who don’t believe in God still do believe in. Being reasonable, for example. In an accidental universe, being reasonable may be “nice” but it is not particularly rational. It is after all an accidental way of thinking, and by what standard is that way better than its opposite?

Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests we devote ourselves to a higher cause to be happy. You don’t need to believe in God; you can believe in Life. But is belief in life any more rational than belief in God? I can’t see my way to that line of reasoning.

I can't seem to see how belief in life, goodness, or truth is any more rational than belief in a god who encompasses these good things, and more. (Why settle for less?) Of course life is more easily verified than a god, so that's something. But I don't think that's what Dennett means. If that were the case, I could believe in rocks. That's not a higher cause. I think he means that we should view life itself as a higher cause, worthy of our devotion. That is to say, make a god of life.

And then there is the possibility that I may want to devote myself to the higher cause of death, say, rather than life. It is just as prevalent. Is devotion to one more reasonable than to the other? Life is nicer than death, to be sure. But what makes niceness sacred?

My view, I suppose, could be considered utilitarian. I refuse to believe in no purpose other than accident, no ultimate value of truth over a lack of it, no kindness more sensible than cruelty. If, in the end, it is only so many chemicals interacting, then where is purpose or meaning? If goodness is nothing more than sentimental claptrap, then it's more than I can bear. I’m not strong enough to deal with this head on. I admit some admiration for the deadly honesty of Nietzsche and others who have accepted this view, but I am not among them.

Why is it irrational to believe in a God who provides meaning, defines goodness, and requires kindness but OK to believe in meaning for meaning’s sake, kindness for kindness’ sake, and goodness for goodness’ sake? That too is ridiculous. I choose to be the other sort of ridiculous, one who believes in a reason for these things and a purpose in pursuing them.

And yet Dennett is onto something. Believe in life. Believe in nature. Believe in the truth about these. Believe in goodness. Believe in kindness. These are honorable. They may well be more honorable in God’s eyes than many of our own misconstrued perceptions of God and Jesus if through our beliefs we deny truth, and life, and goodness. (If you take Richard Rohr’s view of Christ, belief in life or nature is belief in Jesus.) Very often (though not always) naturalistic belief comes without the serious downside of sanctimonious dogmatism that would destroy life and truth and kindness in its extremism. Is it possible that many who do not believe in a god believe in God more truly than many who make that claim?

The very act of reacting against the narrow-minded meanness of a history of religious people strikes me as spiritual (and therefore religious). It is a credit to those who see hypocrisy among religious folks as worse than for people who don’t give a damn. You are right: we ought to know better and care more! Pretty much the only people Jesus is recorded to have roundly criticized are the pious religious folks who thanked God that they were more godly than other people. It's quite the opposite, Jesus says.

And this is a lesson for those of us who insist you believe as we do: we may have it backwards. Your criticism of my faith for its vast history of cruelty and denial is, ironically, evidence to me of God’s mark on you—sensus divinitatis, in the words of John Calvin. If I am honest (and I believe I am called to be) I will admit that you may well have been closer to God all along. And my religiosity kept me from seeing you as God’s child, one closer to God than I am.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Nothing

A series of German video ads, recalling heroes in the fight against the corona virus, have gone viral. Before I spoil them for you, check them out
There is a worldwide emergency, and all we are being asked to do is nichts. Nothing.

You might think we could handle that. Doing nothing is an American specialty. In response to other emergencies, it has so often been our response.
  • Rooms full of schoolchildren are murdered in cold blood. What should we do? Nothing.
  • Church members at a prayer meeting are murdered for the color of their skin. What should we do? Nothing.
  • 460 people are shot at a concert. What should we do? Nothing.
  • Millions have no health insurance. Some of them have big medical bills after being shot while attending a concert. What should we do? Nothing.
  • Worldwide, millions of refugees seek safety, some at our borders. What should we do? Nothing.
  • Climate change threatens the globe in innumerable ways. What should we do? Nothing.
Now a pandemic is killing hundreds of thousands of our citizens. What should we do? Just what we are good at: Nothing.

Instead, we:
  • Declare it's not happening
  • Protest restrictions
  • Visit friends
  • Go out to eat
  • Mock people wearing masks
  • Have parties
  • "Rise up" against governors who are trying to save lives
  • Spread the disease
Sometimes I'm not so proud of my country, not nearly as proud as I'd like to be. But sometimes, if you ask me what's the matter, I just say, "Nothing."

Saturday, November 14, 2020

In the Cold

"The rich have their ice in the summer, but the poor get theirs in the winter."

Almanzo Wilder* uses this proverb to argue that things on the farm aren't so bad. It's a humorous take on inequality, with a measure of resignation. 

But inequality has serious consequences. A recent study from the University of Cambridge finds that 55% of millennials worldwide are dissatisfied with democracy. Why? Because of inequality. From the study's conclusion:

The broader question we are left with, then, is this: how can faith in democracy be restored in the face of systemic discontent and populist mobilisation? If there is an answer here, it may be to focus less upon “populism” as a threat and more upon democracy’s founding promise – to represent the concerns of citizens, and deliver effective and timely policy solutions. The rise of populism signals that existing structures have failed to address longstanding resentments in society, ranging from inequalities of wealth, to economic insecurity, to malfeasance among economic and social elites.

The study reports that the rise in populism—left, right, and even center—is a reaction to inequality and resulting inequities. This explains, in the US, the popularity of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Populism tends to villainize a group of elites. For President Trump that group has bounced around from liberal politicians to scientists and doctors to mainstream media, or anyone else who dares to criticize the big man. Even life-long Republicans, like Robert Mueller, are labeled crazy liberals if they fail to lick the boots of the grand pooh-bah. 

But the President has overwhelming support from most Republicans. They too want to dismiss evidence of the widening wealth gap and its causes. Promoting havens for themselves and their richest constituents trumps any concern over the failures of trickle-down economics.

A Reuters article about the Cambridge study sums it up: 

"The main reason behind the disillusion with democracy among young people was inequality of wealth and income, the report said, citing figures showing that Millennials make up around a quarter of the U.S. population but hold just 3% of the wealth. Baby Boomers held 21% of the wealth at the same age.

The group of elites that gets much of Bernie Sanders' ire goes unscathed by nearly all Republicans. The gap between rich and poor has expanded dramatically since the 1980s, while the share of taxes for the wealthy has declined. Discarding a reputation for fiscal responsibility, Republicans passed a tax reform bill that they knew would increase the deficit. That bill achieved their goal: taxes for the economic elite were reduced to the lowest rate since the 1950s, when the super wealthy paid a whopping 90% income tax rate. That tax rate has been dropping since the early 1960s, and the gap between rich and poor has grown dramatically.

To be sure, Republicans promote social causes that generate enthusiasm among some of the low-income population, but these are mostly props. Such ideals are dropped in a heartbeat if they hamper the promotion of wealth among the wealthy.

Now, as a result of the growing income gap, many people are fed up with a system that promotes the cause of the rich over that of the poor and middle class. Because this has happened in a great many democracies, this system of government has been tarnished with the results. Increasingly, the dispossessed are left in the cold.

Recently Utah Senator Mike Lee said, "We are not a democracy." Is he expressing solidarity with over half of the world's millennials? No, he seems unconcerned with growth in inequality. He is panning democracy to preserve inequality. On almost any issue, you can predict Republican policy by whether it answers yes to a single question: does it cater to the rich over the poor? 

As a Montana farmer used to say, "Don't that frost your biscuits?"

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"I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means—except by getting off his back."

-Leo Tolstoy

* Laura Ingalls Wilder, The First Four Years

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Bad Judgment

General consensus has been that Amy Coney Barrett is well-qualified. It's only the the process and the rank hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell (and herself) that's all wrong. I am among the radicals who disagree.

During hearings for her confirmation Senator Kamala Harris asked Barrett's opinion on climate change. She replied that it was disputed.

If you feel weak and are losing weight and suffering chronic pain, you might (if you can afford it) go see a doctor. Let's say the doctor says you have cancer; you would be reasonable to want a second opinion. The second opinion might be the same, so you try again. Let's say you belong to the wealthy class of Americans who can afford to get the opinions of 50 doctors. One of those doctors tells you that everything is fine and you should go home, get some rest, and quit worrying. The other 49 agree that you have cancer, even though some disagree on the specific type or cause.

If you stop seeking medical advice or treatment based on the opinion of the one doctor with good news, you could be accused of terrible judgment. If you decide that the cancer diagnosis is disputed, you might be technically correct, but if you choose to do nothing more, you'd still have terrible judgment. If it were one of your seven children suffering the symptoms and you chose not to care, you would be a negligent parent who deserves to have her children taken away by Child Protective Services.

If a concerned friend researches the optimistic doctor and finds that his practice was flawed, but you refuse to listen, I would challenge any sane person to vouch for your judgment.

Some of Barrett's fellow Catholics have said this is worse than bad judgment, it is moral relativism. Ms Barrett knows better, but it is pragmatic to pretend that there is no problem. Caring would be counter-productive. Better to risk widespread human catastrophe than jeopardize a dream job where she can promote the interests of the organizations that have promoted her career.

Supreme Court justices have sometimes surprised us. I see no likely surprises here. Just bad judgment.