Blundering What?

Some of you may be wondering why this blog is named “Blundering Oracle” and what’s up with the subtitle “Challenging Blind Obedience.”

Both phrases are derived from a single sentence in Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”:

“So much for blind obedience to a blundering oracle, throwing the stones over their heads behind them and not knowing where they fell.”

I had remembered the phrase “blind obedience to a blundering oracle” from prior readings and thought it had potential. So what does it mean? Merriam-Webster’s two main definitions of an oracle are “a person (such as a priestess of ancient Greece) through whom a deity is believed to speak” and “a person giving wise or authoritative decisions or opinions.”

Minor definitions include “a shrine in which a deity reveals hidden knowledge or the divine purpose through such a person,” “an answer or decision given by an oracle,” and an authoritative or wise expression or answer.”

Up until now I hadn’t thought too much about the oracle Thoreau was talking about, but knowing about it helps make sense of his comment. Google and Wikipedia helped a lot here. Thoreau referenced a Greek myth about the deluge. In it, Deucalion consulted an oracle about how to repopulate the world after the flood. The oracle told him “cover your head and throw the bones of your mother behind your shoulder.” Substitute rocks for bones and Gaia (Mother Earth) for mother, and you have it: Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha repopulated the world by being blindly obedient to an oracle, throwing stones — bones of Mother Earth — and not knowing where they landed. The stones turned into people. It seems that Thoreau didn’t have a very high opinion of the oracle.

Was there really a time when we read this stuff in American public high schools?

At any rate, “Blundering Oracle” felt like a perfect bit for someone offering opinions on an obscure blog. It is pretentious and self-deprecating at the same time. The world is full of people claiming to have some kind of authority and demonstrating little humility while being utterly (or at least arguably) wrong.

As to “Challenging Blind Obedience” part, I have a problem with authority. No, it’s not that I cannot acknowledge or respect credentials and qualifications. I have a problem with people who think or assert they can tell me what to do while lacking credentials and qualifications. You could say that I have a problem with self-appointed or sketchy “authorities”.

Really, I have a problem with authoritarianism.

I used to think that liberty was an American core value. We claim it is. We have a Statue of Liberty, the motto “Liberty” on our coins, and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in our Declaration of Independence.

What I’ve learned (and what the last presidential election demonstrates to me), is that some portion of Americans can be persuaded to vote for a candidate who promises — threatens, really — to impose his will on others. Essentially, we threw liberty under the bus for a populist authoritarian. Authoritarianism is one of the defining characteristics of the current American administration, in my opinion, and they’re not shy about it. It obviously resonates with somebody.

We also claim to have a high regard for facts and fairness. What was Superman fighting for? “Truth, justice, and the American way.” Yet our discourse is often untrue and unjust. Truth is labeled as “fake news” by people who hold opposing opinions, beliefs or interests. Fake is anything they don’t like. Justice is getting their way.

Blind obedience deserves to be challenged, not for the sake of being contrary, but for the sake of doing the right thing — speaking truth to power. Authority needs to be challenged and limited or there is no making America great for anybody other than the powers that be.

Know yourself. If you need help…

Ever hear of “Deteriorata”? It was a bit of pop culture in the 70’s — a parody of a spoken word recording of Desiderata. Those of us of a certain age will probably remember the poem, the recording, and the send-up. Posters of the parody text were a big seller for National Lampoon (particularly in 70’s head shops, as I recall). For a refresher, including a link to the text, go to the Wikipedia article here: Deteriorata.

One of the lines in Deteriorata reads “Know yourself. If you need help, call the FBI.” In 1972, you’d call the FBI. In 2018, there are a lot of people you can call.

Today marks my departure from Facebook. For nearly nine years I’ve used the social network, posting pictures, links and comments, joining groups, clicking on ads, clicking the Like button, finding and losing online friends… I spent countless hours expressing myself, and the social network dutifully recorded what I saw, did and said. All for free.

Except, of course, it wasn’t really free. Facebook got all that information and I lost control of it. Not only that, Facebook sold the information so it could be used to try to sell me stuff.

Ever look at your Facebook account data? You should. You can download a copy from the Settings page. The “Ads” section was particularly jarring. There were 223 separate Facebook advertisers who have my contact informaton. Advertisers are not supposed to resell data but there is no way for anybody to make sure they’re not doing it. Thus Facebook also lost control of my information.

It was recently revealed that Facebook Messenger has been collecting call data from Android smartphone users. Why? Allegedly it was to improve the user experience (Facebook has not explained how grabbing a lot of cell phone data made anyone’s Facebook experience better).  Messenger also wants to continuously update contact information.

If you allow Facebook to access location services on your phone, it keeps track of your movements while the smartphone app is running. Undoubtedly there are other apps that have access to your Facebook data. Don’t believe me? Go take a look.

Social media itself is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to modern day privacy issues.

Just two days ago, BBC reported that the US is proposing to require virtually all visa applicants to give up their social media handles used during the previous five years. Don’t ask me how the government will know whether people are telling the truth.

However, privacy has been getting eroded for a long time.

Millions of Americans are subject to pre-employment drug tests and/or random drug testing after employment.

Employers and insurance companies require medical screening, which can include testing to determine substance use and even genetic predisposition to disease.

Think the government is on the side of privacy? Think again. FISA and PATRIOT acts are surveillance super powers that the government has bestowed upon itself, all in the name of security and counterterrorism.

Law enforcement wants DNA tests on people who get arrested, even if the subjects haven’t been charged with a crime where DNA evidence would be relevant.

Advancing technology enables ever greater data collection and analysis. Cameras are everywhere. We can record full-motion, high-definition video using our smartphones and share those images in real time. Facial recognition is being used to identify and track people. Our smartphones know our fingerprints, our travels and our contacts. Health and fitness devices know all sorts of stuff about exercise, sleep, and any number of biometrics. Businesses know our buying patterns.

We’re now embracing artificial intelligence applications and devices, which are getting to know us in ever more intimate ways.

Sounds overwhelming, right? For some people, it is. I know a lot of folks who scoff at the idea of leaving a social network over privacy concerns because it seems futile. What can we do when our information is already out there?

What we can do is start fighting back. We can let companies know that we’re not going to take this lying down. We can let them know that there is a penalty for mining our private information and selling it to all comers. We can remind the government that we have a constitutional right to be left alone and that they work for us, not the other way around.

New technology poses new challenges, but this problem did not just arrive. People were spilling their secrets on television and radio long before the Internet, smartphones and Facebook. They were talking on the phone, sending telegrams, writing letters, publishing. They were talking face to face. All along the way, there have been other people watching, listening and generally sticking their noses into things that were none of their business.

The 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was the founders’ answer to the question of privacy in the face of a nosy government: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

In 2018, it’s not just the government that wants to know all about us; everybody with a product, service or viewpoint to sell wants our data.

You are not a fluke of the universe and you should not give up. Know yourself. Stand up for yourself. Fight back.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Now before you get any crazy ideas, no, I am not contemplating a final farewell. “To be or not to be?” That is not the question.

The question is whether to continue on Facebook. This question arises once again in light of news this weekend that about 50 million Facebook users’ data was used surreptitiously to predict and influence voting behavior in the 2016 US presidential election. There are claims and counterclaims and calls for investigations. Facebook, as usual, is doing damage control.

Just as I had come to terms with staying on Facebook, along came another reason to drop it, as it were, like a bad habit.

I’m mad that information about millions of people was used largely without their knowledge as an experiment in psychological profiling and micro targeting, but I’m not surprised.

Is anyone really surprised? Are we surprised that a third-party application was used to coax people to answer a bunch of probing questions, to allow access to their Facebook data, and oh by the way, to throw in the data of friends who hadn’t locked down their own accounts? Is anyone surprised that academics, billionaires and ideologues worked together to try to install a president and wage a culture war? Anyone?

Is anybody surprised that Facebook made it so easy to do all that? Are we surprised that Facebook didn’t do more to secure user profiles? We shouldn’t be. Getting people to give up their own data is Facebook’s specialty — kind of a black art. Past and present insiders have admitted that they knew what they were doing. By giving people a little validation every time they shared something popular, people were encouraged to share more. With more people. They (we) were hooked.

What does one do with tons of data about a gazillion people? One sells it.

Last time I considered the stay or go question, I concluded that a lot of what was wrong with my Facebook experience wasn’t necessarily Facebook itself. I also identified a bunch of annoying tendencies of others that made it difficult to stay friends with people online.

Well guess what? It’s hard to stay friends with people in the real world, too. And people do a lot of egregious stuff online that we would never do in face-to-face interaction. Do you like hurting people’s feelings? If you do, then you have a personality disorder and need to get help. And for heaven’s sake, get off of social media!

But at some point everybody you know is going to do or say something that makes it hard to stay friends. I think that’s one of the reasons that most of us have a pretty small number of actual, close, trusted friends.

It would be nice to think that we’re going to change people. That seems to drive a lot of behavior on social media. Unfortunately, it’s not realistic. My wife is an ordained minister. She recently reminded me of some episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom in which the central character, news anchor Will McAvoy, set out on his “mission to civilize.” It didn’t end well. Let’s just say our man on a mission got a lot of drinks thrown in his face.

So, if I’m not going to change human nature (I’m not and neither are you), then I’m back to the recurring thought that the biggest problem I have with Facebook is the way I use it.

But wait. We’re talking about a product that was designed to take as much of our time and attention as possible by rewarding interaction. It was designed to be addictive. Changing the way I use Facebook is like asking an opioid addict, an alcoholic or a compulsive gambler to change the way they use, drink or gamble.

I smoked cigarettes for a long time. Cutting down never worked. Using nicotine gum or patches didn’t work. Resolutions didn’t work. What ultimately worked was getting a short-term prescription for a smoking cessation drug (bupropion, in my case) and reading a book on cognitive behavioral therapy called The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. That worked.

Remember also that Facebook, like a lot of other addictions, has some risk even if one if not a hardcore addict. To borrow some wording from old school over-the-counter sleep medication ads, Facebook may NOT be “safe and effective when used as directed.”

I have a job in the real world. For years (decades, actually) I worked as a computer technician for companies large and small. I handled confidential information and I was usually working under nondisclosure agreements. In recent years I’ve worked in some other fields — more about that some other time, perhaps — but still under NDA’s. Since the rise of the Internet and social media, there have also been acceptable use policies.

I don’t even mention the name of my employer on Facebook. I don’t talk about work on social media.  And I’m mentioning this now only to highlight one of the other hazards of Facebook: the risk of losing your job and/or getting sued for talking about something you’re not supposed to talk about online (or at all).

This product steals our time and attention. It leads us to overshare our personal information. It tends to push us into opposing camps. We become clannish.  We obsess. Disagreements are often harsh, uncivil and unrestrained. On Facebook we’re always ready to rumble. We gang up on people. I’ve seen it all happen again and again. I’ve been a party to it more times than I’d like to admit. And for what? So somebody will click “like” on something I post?

Not everybody has trouble with Facebook, but I do.

I wish it were otherwise, because I often enjoy interacting with people online. I used to enjoy smoking, too. But it was bad for me and I couldn’t control it. I can have a beer or two, or none, and be fine either way. I don’t gamble anymore at all.

I am under no illusions that Facebook influenced my vote in 2016. It didn’t. I supported Hillary Clinton from caucus through the election. I was very outspoken online for a very long time about why I could never support Donald Trump and why I thought no one else should either. But I did lose friends who held other views. Family relationships were strained or interrupted. Facebook definitely played a role in that.

I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about a lot of things I posted over the years. I just don’t know if I changed any minds, which was one of the main reasons I got on Facebook in the first place.

It’s looking more and more like my days on Facebook are numbered. I’ll need to find creative and social outlets. Hopefully I’ll get more sleep.

Is there life after Facebook? For me there is.

Why Can’t We Be (Facebook) Friends?

I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. Not long ago I seriously considered leaving the social network completely. I was fed up with its incessant nosiness. I was concerned about its vulnerability to being abused. Facebook allegedly arose after Mark Zuckerberg’s adolescent tech savant misuse of technology to compare the hotness of collegiate coeds to take his mind off being dumped by one. It has become a money machine because it is addictive and it contains tons of data about zillions of people. The potential for abuse is staggering.

I was spending more time and enjoying it less, wondering if anything positive was coming out of it. I was hooked and miserable.

I backed up my data. And instead of just deactivating my account, I set about deleting my individual posts. Thousands of them. Status updates, pictures, links. And I actually re-read a lot of that stuff. Some of it was good, like “Wow, did I actually write that?” Some of it was bad. A lot of it was redundant and tiresome.

And I learned a few things. One of them is that repeating something over and over in a variety of ways is not necessarily persuasive. Another is that hammering the negative aspects of various candidates might be effective campaigning — I’m not actually convinced that it is — but it’s certainly not something that inspires me to go out and make the world a better place.

Something else I learned is that links have an unknown shelf life in our digital age. A lot of links were dead. Oftentimes an article’s headline (and sometimes an image) might be embedded, but the article itself had vanished. Even the White House website is not maintained from one administration to the next, but rather the old site is archived and frozen in time. A lot of media sites have simply gone out of business, such as the late, beloved Rocky Mountain News.

Perhaps the most significant thing I learned is that my frustration with Facebook had a lot to do with me and how I was using it. I had clicked “like” on too many pages. I had joined too many groups. I had shared too much information. I was following, liking and commenting on too much negative crap in my news feed, especially relating to the current administration and its supporters.

I decided that I had met the enemy, and it really was us. You and me, dear reader.

After cleaning out almost all of my old profile content and changing some important security settings, I decided that for my sake and yours, I was going to lead by example in one very specific way. On Presidents Day I declared my Facebook page as a Trump free zone (TFZ). I’m not giving any more virtual ink to that individual. And to encourage others to do likewise, I’ve stopped responding to many things that I wouldn’t post myself, starting with anything that would violate the TFZ.

I’ve never been one to accumulate Facebook friends like some folks I know, famous and otherwise. For a few years my friend list has hovered somewhere around 600. Some folks have been friends, then got unfriended. Some have been re-friended. Some refused a new friend request (fair enough). And believe it or not, some have been unfriended for a second time.

Facebook friendship is a strange thing. It’s possible to become friends with people you’ve never met, including people who live thousands of miles away, based on some common interest or contact. This is one of the actual benefits of social media, in my view. However, as we’ve learned from disclosures about foreign efforts to agitate American society and manipulate American politics, it’s also possible to become friends with people who have hidden agendas or might not be real people at all.

What’s definitely not possible, for me anyway, is to be friends with everybody. If friendship, even online friendship, means anything, it means that not everybody is your friend. It’s enough for me to have a bunch of people I find interesting. It’s nice when something I share resonates with someone and that individual shares my work with their friends. It’s especially gratifying when that someone is a respected or admired individual who doesn’t share everything they see.

It would be great to create something that is shared and read widely. Whether it’s on Facebook or this blog or some other medium is hardly the point. The point is saying something worth the time it takes to read.

Changing my own behavior on Facebook is half of the equation. The other half is dealing with what my “friends” are throwing at me. At some point this becomes a question of whether we should be online friends at all.

So, why can’t we be Facebook friends? Here are some definite turnoffs for me:

  • You share 30 or 40 links and memes a day. Or an hour. I really don’t have time for that crap, do you?
  • You repeat yourself, sometimes re-sharing the same meme several times.
  • You quote yourself. If you’re an ordinary person, come on, who are we kidding?
  • You are dogmatic to a fault. Example: one former friend keeps saying that organized religion is a cancer. No, there are good religious organizations and bad ones, but there are no good cancers. It’s a bad, overly broad assertion. Figure out what you’re really upset about.
  • You are relentlessly negative. Ditto for outraged, hopeless, dramatic or sarcastic.
  • You refuse to be civil. Example: name calling, all the bloody time.
  • You post horrible stuff for its shock value. Just stop. Good intentions don’t justify this.
  • You are fanatical. Whatever it is, let’s put it in some kind of rational perspective. Let’s say your pet issue is Israel. People have been fighting over this for, what, three thousand years? Do you really think an extreme view one way or the other is going to do anything but keep the fight going?
  • You spread misinformation. Not cool. Do a little fact checking, a little critical thinking. If some else identifies something you’ve posted as likely false, do something.
  • You “vaguebook”. The meaning of this is fairly obvious, but I’d define it as posting general statements in an effort to get people to try to get meaningful information out of you. It’s a game for getting attention.
  • You actually view us as enemies. If so, please, unfriend me now.
  • You act as if the rest of us are too stupid to live. Who do you think you are, me?

It’s a big, wide, beautiful world out there. The online world could reflect that a lot better. Facebook is a great place to start.

If People Are The Problem

Last Tuesday most of us had stopped obsessing over the previous most awful mass shooting, and if you’re anything like I am, you may not remember what that was. Then, on Wednesday, it happened again. And suddenly everybody was horrified all over again. And we started the all-too-familiar pattern of grieving over something so awful.

How awful? Umpteen people killed and many others wounded, thousands directly affected and millions around the world touched in some way. A bunch of innocent people, including kids, gunned down in a public school simply for being there.

This scenario is painful even in the retelling, partly because we’ve all been through it so much, so many times, in so many variations. These days a big part of the way we cope with life is by sharing our thoughts and feelings online via social media and other venues (like this blog).

Well, here we are again.

Fifty years after Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down, one by a hunting rifle and the other by a small handgun, we’re now seeing Americans gunned down wholesale by weapons that were originally designed for the battlefield.

And fifty years later people are still offering some variation of the tired old “guns don’t kill people, people do.” One stranger online said simply “People are the problem, not guns.”

This, to me, seems like a truly ridiculous position, because it is patently obvious that a person with a weapon is more dangerous than a person without one. Some weapons are a lot more dangerous than others. People have long debated whether anyone should have certain types of weapons or be able to use them, even in war.

People with guns kill a lot more people than people without guns.

So what about the people kill people part of this? What do we do with that? Since people have always killed people, do we simply say “Oh well” and move on? No thank you. Asserting that people are killers, always have been and always will be, is not a call to action, it’s a call to resignation. There’s nothing you can do. It’s always been this way, I have a right to my gun, get over it.

Not so fast.

Whatever your position on the 2nd Amendment, it’s pretty difficult to imagine that unregulated, armed mayhem is what the founders were trying to create. For one thing, the 2nd Amendment itself acknowledges the necessity of a well regulated militia. For another, the founders laid out their goals for the Constitution in its very first paragraph:

“…to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

Does the above, in any way, sound like an argument for an America in which we are constantly struggling with keeping anyone safe from fellow countrymen armed with ever more lethal weapons? Will we continue to be an America that is paralyzed into inaction by a tortured reading of the very document that was intended to make us united, just, peaceful, secure, prosperous and free?

If people are the problem, we are also the solution. It starts with rejecting the view that there is nothing we can do. Solving this problem requires getting past the dodge that the problem is someone else’s to solve. Who is responsible for making this work? We are.

The Oracle Speaks

Another Blog? Really?

Does the world really need another blog? Well, the world needs something.

There are a lot of blogs in the world — something like a hundred million, if what I read today is to be believed. OK, this is not an original idea. So why am I doing it, and more important to you, why should you read it?

I’ve been on Facebook since early 2009 or so, and I posted a ton of stuff there. Most of it was public. Recently I’ve done a lot of rethinking my Facebook experience and my approach to it. And Facebook is good for what Facebook is, but…

  • Facebook is built around commonality. We’re Facebook friends with people we know and/or people with whom we share some interest. Fine, so far. But there’s a reason that people refer to social media sites as echo chambers: we’re going for “likes”. Yes, I want to write something that people want to read, but like it? We tend to like what we agree with. We click like and our “friend” (who may be someone we’ve never met or haven’t seen in years) feels gratified and we keep reinforcing our biases and rewarding people who do that.
  • Facebook is built for brevity. You have to keep it short, or no one will read it. Can you develop a well-reasoned argument in a single, brief paragraph? Most people can’t. Some things take time.
  • Facebook is great for starting a fight, but lousy for finding resolution. Example: I say that posting a flag-waving profile picture at this time is offensive. Someone else says it’s something worse. And yet another says that his mom has one of those profile pics and, hey, that’s my mom you’re talking about! Argue, unfriend, block, fume…
  • Facebook encourages participation, but a lot of people don’t work and play well with others, at least sometimes.
  • Facebook was designed to be addictive and to keep us online as often and as long as possible – with Mark Zuckerberg and company watching everything we do, all the time. Facebook encourages us to give up all sorts of information about who we are and what we like (and dislike) so they and their advertisers can show us what we want to see.

So, this ain’t Facebook. I get to develop a thought, hopefully in a reasonable amount of space, but it takes as long as it takes. I’ll try to make it worthwhile for both of us.

Sometimes the world feels overwhelming, like what’s the point? Well the point is, here we are. Where do we want to be? How do we get there?

That’s why I’m doing this. Sound worthwhile? I hope so.

I have no idea what I’m doing as far as the mechanics of a site are concerned. In the dim and distant past I was an “early adopter” and I worked for a long time as a computer tech. But I was never a webmaster or site admin, so I’ll be figuring this out as I go.

The opinions expressed here are those of the person(s) expressing them.

Let’s go…