Weirdbook.org

A blog experiment by Brad Mills.

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Occam's razor

I've been running this site for almost eight years. There's a lengthy gap from the middle of 2013 through late 2014, and there have been fewer posts recently versus in its heyday. But, within the last few weeks, I got an SSL certificate, I added some much-needed navigation to the mobile version, and I renewed the domain for another year... so I guess it's still around, in a sense.

About that navigation. There's a (slowly) growing amount of content here, and I needed a way to present it without taking up a lot of room on a small mobile screen. At the same time, I wanted it to be pretty comprehensive and able to grow. After looking around at various hamburger menus / JavaScript monstrosities, I decided on a couple of standard html <select> blocks with <optgroup> sections for years in the month by month archives. It renders consistently, it doesn't take up a lot of real estate, and it can grow as long as needed. Surrounding this new section is a splash of medium green to match the sidebar I have in the desktop version of the site.

It's not the sexiest thing in the world, and it's very 1997, but it works extremely well, and it gets the job done.

Sometimes the simplest solution is the best.

Black Mirror as a cautionary tale

There's a series I've discovered on Netflix called Black Mirror. It is fantastic. It's best summed up as a Twilight Zone for the modern era, and it explores the technological and existential horrors of today's world, touching on topics like social ranking impacting real world interactions and vice versa, reaching the afterlife through technological means, constant surveillance and how it can be abused, and other topics in similar veins. It's right up my alley, in other words, and eminently believable.

I think we're moving too fast sometimes. We have incredible technology literally in our pockets and it can be both used and abused. There are companies out there pushing these devices because they're products, and the more products they get out there, the more money they make. And there are other companies out there pushing platforms and software, because those things are used for mining our personal data, and the more personal data they can collect, the more tailored and customized will be the advertising we are subjected to. This is also very much a profit-driven venture. And as long as the money is flowing, it won't stop.

We, the consumers, aren't stopping either. Everyone gets the new iThing even if the improvements over the old iThing are marginal. We gladly provide our personal data because our "friends" do too, and it's a way to "make connections". And we get notified when someone sends a message or comments on something we said, and we respond in kind, and on and on. Is there any deliberate thought behind any of it, or are we just pushing buttons and feeding data into an algorithm? Are we really connecting, or are we just linking records together in a database?

Maybe it's just me, but I feel people are not supposed to relate to one another with button clicks and linking their database records together.

Anyway... Black Mirror. I like it. It's got me thinking about the path we're all on, and how we seem to keep marching blindly along it. Just a few more episodes and I'm caught up on the entire series until the new season starts later this year. Given that people are most likely going to keep futzing around on Facebook, the chances of these cautionary tales having a positive impact are probably pretty low. Rather ironic, I think... but also part of the appeal, as it's circling very closely to the truth.

Under surveillance

A few nights ago I dreamed someone had compromised my phone. All my texts were accessible from afar, and the attacker was texting quoted copies of them back to me from an unrecognized number and asking questions about them. Through the nature of the questions, I knew exactly who the attacker was and handled them appropriately by ignoring them.

It was a pretty easy dream to brush off. I mean, my phone is secure, right? No one can access it like that.

The next night, I pulled up the AT&T app — which I've not used in months — just to see how many texts I've been sending lately. Curiosity, nothing more. I've been rather sociable, it seems... it was a large number. I'm very cool with this.

After that, I decided to check Twitter, about the only place I "hang out" online anymore. If you could even call it that... as I have the little lock next to my name now that basically means "do not disturb," or perhaps more correctly, "go hump a cactus." It's a walled castle. Or so I thought. Because upon opening the Twitter app, my timeline immediately filled with AT&T advertising.

The walls themselves have ears, it seems.

Trolls, Twitter, and the President of the United States

Today, the 45th United States President was inaugurated. He's a man who has never held any political office or had any military experience, the first time this has happened in American history. His only experience has been that of a businessman, and given the amount of wealth he's accumulated over the years, I'd wager he's a pretty goddamned good one. I don't know how well that translates over to the Presidency, or really to any political office (see also West Virginia Governor Jim Justice), but I guess we'll see.

Politicos and media moguls across the country — though perhaps not Fox affiliates — all but declared Hillary Rodham Clinton the winner apparent of the Presidency before the first vote was even cast on November 8. Every single one of them got it wrong. I sat up late enough on Election Night to see which way the wind was blowing and to watch the news commentators scratch their heads and wonder what the hell had happened. How could they be wrong? Not just wrong, but this wrong? Finally, one of them analyzed things like this: "Mr. Trump had a simple message which appealed to the people: 'Make America Great Again.' Mrs. Clinton didn't have any clear message, at least not one the voters who turned out could discern."

That's a very succinct and clean analysis, and there's a nice Occam's razor feel to it. How did Mr. Trump come up with something so pure and simple? The answer, I think, is as I stated before. He's a goddamned good businessman. He studied the market, he learned who his customers were, and he gave them exactly what they were looking for. They responded by buying his product.

I'll take this a step further and suggest Twitter was the testing ground for Mr. Trump's research. Maybe he meant all those things he tweeted and posted, maybe he didn't. Either way, all the social platforms have analytics which let you see what messages are getting out there and which ones are being ignored. It's all available with the click of a button. And if what you're selling is the message, I can't think of a better place to find out what flies and what doesn't than Twitter. Well, guess who happens to have one the top 100 most followed Twitter accounts... none other than @realDonaldTrump himself, right up there with @Eminem, @NASA, and the @NFL. I would guarantee you the NFL has an entire social media team dedicated to delivering messages just so and making sure they're getting out there properly. The Real Slim Shady may even have one too, I don't know. Of note: though no slouch, @HillaryClinton does not have one of those top 100 most followed accounts; even @MariahCarey outdid Mrs. Clinton. (Though I bet Mrs. Clinton sings better.)

The point is: Mr. Trump was absolutely notorious on Twitter. He stirred things up. And he, or his people, watched for the reaction... learned... and fine tuned. The message got refined, tweaked, and perfected. I have absolutely no doubt Mrs. Clinton and her team did this too, but based on the number of followers, not to mention the way the election went, it looks like the shrewd businessman did a better job of selling it despite all the predictions and prognostications otherwise.

And he trolled his way right into the most powerful position in the country. Trump trolled to the top

In which I spook an elk

A few nights ago I was taking the kitchen compost out to the compost bin at the edge of the garden when I encountered a large creature in the yard. It looked like a deer but it was huge, much taller than any deer I've seen around here or remember seeing ever. I'm wondering if it was an elk. Elk have been reintroduced in West Virginia recently, and since there's a pretty strong contingent of "elk" names near me (Elk River, Elkview, and such), it seems reasonable to guess they lived here natively at one time. It wouldn't surprise me if the reintroduced herd migrated here, or perhaps some of them, or perhaps part of another reintroduced herd. For reference, there's a pretty sizable herd in Kentucky and at least some of it has migrated into West Virginia.

As soon as the animal saw me, it bounded off immediately, massive shape flying through the cold night air and heavy hooves slamming into the frozen ground. It leaped over the guardrail at the top of the property and disappeared. I heard the hiss and crunch of leaves as it ran up the hill across the street, but I didn't see any further sign of it at all.

I guess it could have been a deer, but damn if it wasn't the biggest deer ever, and just wandering around my yard like it owned the place. I guess the only real claim I have on this land is a piece of paper stating it's mine. Whether deer or elk or moose or whatever — this animal doesn't recognize my claim, or really, any. All it recognizes is the marking and scent of its own kind. And I guess predators like me.

Given the size of this thing, though — easily 500 pounds — I think I'll just stay clear of it.

Hey Jarvis, can I have some more breadsticks?

At dinner with the kids last night, I noticed this thing at every table:

Ziosk terminal Basically, it's a touch screen wireless device with a credit card reader and ordering system built in. For the record, I've actually known about and seen these for several years now, lest you think I've been living under a rock. I suppose at one level, it's an interesting development — you can order from the table without interacting with waitstaff until the order is fulfilled, and you can pay, tip, and leave at your convenience without having to wait around. Kind of neat, right?

However... I noticed there was a camera on the top of the device, and I wondered if it also had a microphone. I suspect it did. I don't know if those things are active or not while you're sitting there eating and enjoying family time with your kids, or discussing sensitive topics with a coworker, or even talking trash about the restaurant or your waitstaff. But it may be worth consideration.

Also — here's this new gadget with a bright shiny screen, drawing kids' attention, mainly contributing toward the restaurant's efficiency and profit while maybe shaving a few minutes off the customers' time. And restaurant tables being small enough as it is, when it wasn't in use, it was more in the way than anything else.

Once the novelty wore off, I picked it up and faced the screen outward, away from the center of the table. It was still sort of in the way, but it was at least less distracting.

I'm on the fence about this thing. I totally get the usefulness of automating things a bit, sure, and after a long time staying away from self-checkout cash registers, I do use them occasionally now if I just have a few things. That's a different context though, because the payment and interaction with the automated aspect of the process is minimized. With the device sitting right at your table (arguably watching and listening, too), it's subtly demanding. "Here I am. Play a trivia game! Order another drink! Would you like a dessert? Here's tomorrow's weather." Hence why I turned it around. I had two offspring at the table with me, flesh and blood and present, and far more interesting than a piece of metal and plastic and silicon. They are much more deserving of my valuable time and attention.

Despite this... I don't think that kind of technology is going away. Further, I think as time goes on, it's going to creep deeper into our lives whether we like it or not. If companies are making money from it, I would guarantee it. It can be a good thing if we're careful, but the key to it is being careful. And given our history as a species, that's the part that actually scares me.