A blog experiment by Brad Mills.


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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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The three basic rules of money

When my dear daughter turned 18, she marched up to me and said, point blank, "Tell me how money works." So I went into a few basics — bank accounts, checks, credit cards, loans, and so forth. We're not talking about building a Trump empire or anything here, just Finance 101. I also advised her of a few people whose advice she should completely ignore, but we won't get into that right now.

She told me personal finance wasn't being taught in public school at all. This seemed very odd to me for two reasons — first, because when I was in school (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), we at least learned how to write checks and balance a checkbook. This was in my regular seventh grade math class and they just included it with the curriculum. Granted, this was well before I had my own checking account, but the foundation was laid down at that early age. Even if no one writes checks anymore (including me), it's important to see how to keep an eye on the income and the outgo. Which leads me to the second point: it seems very much that everyone who functions in modern society should have, at a minimum, a rudimentary understanding of how very basic money management works. There is no reason why personal finance couldn't be a required semester class at the high school level, and I believe the benefits far outweigh any additional training or staff needed to make it a reality.

Last night, this topic came up again, and since she's got a few more years under her belt now, I gave her the three basic rules for never having to worry about money. There really are only three, and they are incredibly simple to learn.

  1. Save 10% of everything you earn. Do this every single time you earn money. Do not vary from this, ever. Put it in the bank, put it in savings bonds, put it in the stock market, put it under your mattress, put it in a coffee can and bury it in the yard. Whatever. Just do it.
  2. With the amount you have remaining, buy whatever you need or want, but spend less than you have. This can be tricky, because credit card companies make it very easy for you to think that minimum payments are all you need to worry about, and they really don't even want you to think about that too much, either. You know all those slick commercials and mailings they send you, and all those nice offers of points and miles and cashback and such? How do you think they can afford to just give those things away? Answer: they afford it by collecting interest from chumps who make the minimum payments every month and nothing else.
  3. Understand the magic of compound interest. Here's how it works. Let's say you have $1000 and put it under a magician's hat which multiplies your money by 1.05 every time you lift the hat up. So when you lift the hat, there's $1050 there instead. Tada! Then, you cover everything again... and when you lift it again, you haven't added another $50, but instead, it's $52.50... because the $50 from last time magically multiplied too, giving you a grand total of $1102.50. And if you do it a third time, you get an extra $55.13, for a grand total of $1157.63. Everything under the hat is multiplying... faster than rabbits, even. That's how compound interest works. Protip: the aforementioned credit card companies use this to their advantage by collecting at a compounding rate. And again, they are making loads of money with this method. The important thing is understanding how it works so you can possibly take advanatage of it (or, in the case of credit card companies, minimize the damage they incur upon you).

That really is all there is to it. Seriously.

Now... there are a lot of implementation details one can start applying, like investing that 10% instead of just stuffing it under your mattress, or the pursuit of a high efficiency and low expense lifestyle in pursuit of spending less than you have, the time value of money, how expense ratios affect your mutual funds, Roth IRAs versus traditional IRAs, how your deductible impacts your insurance premium, and on and on and on and on. One can learn about it forever and still not know everything. Entire careers are devoted to it — nay, entire industries.

Keep learning and stick to it. The math is very basic, the fundamentals are very basic, and even though I referenced a magician's hat, there's no magic here at all. It can be taught in every public school in the country, and maybe it should.

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Going forward

Say what you will about 2016. I think it was a very good year.

I know... people died, and the Internet collectively lost its mind. Yes, some of them were surprises, but it's not like it was really surprising — isn't death the great uniter, after all, the one thing we all eventually have in common? Wasn't it just a matter of bad timing this year to lose so many pop icons at once? I mean my grandmother died this year too, the second of two in the last three years. I have lost three grandparents in the last five years, and generally speaking, none of it was easy. It never is.

But I'm a fighter. This was the best year of my life. I won an award for writing, I wrote more this year than any other year I ever have as an adult, and I submitted professionally for the first time ever. Multiple places. None of them took, but that's fine. Sitting on your hands guarantees failure in this realm. I am out there and trying, and thus, the odds are increased infinitely. I think the expression is "fortune favors the bold" — though I don't remember who said it, and I'm not going to look right now. Maybe it was Nicholas Cage.

And — it was very much a year of opening doors. I'm standing at a critical point in my life, one where everything afterward will be different, and it all revolves around a very simple truth I discovered earlier in the year. All things will flow from this truth and every action I take for the foreseeable future will have this truth at its heart and motivation. People will accept this or reject it — and those who reject it have no place with me. It's that fundamental. I know that sounds vague, and I'm ok with that. I know what it's about and what I'm about.

So here are some goals I have for 2017. Not resolutions, because that's trendy, and I don't follow trends. I don't even use Facebook anymore. I bet you never even noticed I deleted my account, did you? I deleted my Google+ account too, but I don't think anyone considers Google+ trendy anymore.

  • Keep going forward. The burning bridges shall light the path before me.
  • Zero bullshit. A low tolerance for bullshit has been the case for awhile now, but I've decided it's time for a zero tolerance policy. Life is too short and my time is far too valuable.
  • Keep writing. I already do so more days than not, so it's not a hard habit to maintain. It is, in fact, very much a welcome and comfortable place, one I wandered away from for too long. No more.
  • Keep pruning. I've jettisoned many things from my life which no longer serve me and purged a significant amount of junk which has held me back. This will continue.
  • Eat less, move more. Ok, this applies more to the last few weeks, which have been an endeavor in slothfulness and gluttony. And it's been great! I have no idea what I weigh right now, but in the morning, it's back on the scale and back to semi-regular exercise. (Dammit.)
  • Pay attention. This often goes by the phrase "be mindfully aware" — but let's not mince words here, time is short. Pay attention.
  • Cook more. You know, I love cooking, and I'm pretty good at it, or at least that's what I'm being told. Even when it's something as simple as oatmeal. And it's healthier and more economical to boot. Why not?
  • Grow a huge garden. This year's will be the best ever.
  • Love the right people. No further commentary is required here.
  • Begin the seven year plan. Bwah-ha-ha-ha. Wouldn't you like to know?

That's enough for starters. 2017 is going to be an even better year than 2016, and trust me when I say there's an alchemy at work here. Gold is everywhere.

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