Category: current events

Looking for an Excuse to Ignore

It feels to me these days like more and more people are looking for excuses. For reasons they can simply ignore people who disagree with them instead of actually engage them in a real dialogue. Some of this comes down to labels. “Trump supporter.” “Social Justice Warrior.” Slap a label on a person who you don’t see eye to eye with, and suddenly you’re not dismissing an individual, you’re simply ignoring a person who’s obviously wrong.

This thought started when I got a political ad in the mail yesterday. A candidate was bragging about how he was the “Only Trump Supporter” among other Republican candidates running for Senate. I looked at the ad and couldn’t help but give it a mental eye roll. “How to guarantee I’ll not vote for you,” I thought to myself as I threw it away. “Trump supporter” was enough for me to dismiss the person without a second thought. On the other hand, clearly there is a non-insignificant portion of the state for which being an avid supporter of the President is an asset, not a liability.

Then you’ve got the case of Roseanne. She Tweeted a racist joke and had her hit TV show subsequently canceled hours later. In response, some people are very pleased. Finally! A consequence for saying awful things. Some people are quite upset. Comedians make fun of Trump all the time, they say, and yet there are no repercussions to them. They see this as liberals being hypocritical, wanting to silence speech that offends them but not caring when their speech offends others.

In still other situations, you have some people looking at society today and seeing continued discrimination toward minorities, women, and LGBT issues. Meanwhile, you have white men clamoring that *they* are actually the ones being discriminated against.

Honestly, the list continues from there, but that’s enough for now. In each case, both sides are polarized to the point that they can’t even see the other side’s point of view to engage with it. In each instance, both sides feel the matter is cut and dried. That there’s no room for any view other than the one they hold.

What’s caused us to get to this point?

Some of it is due to the 24 hour news cycle. News stations are on all day, and they need to fill that time with something, and so having it be a constant argument between differing sides is one way to do that. At the same time, they’ve also discovered they get better ratings by pandering solely to one side or the other, presenting a view of the world that at best downplays the other side and at worst ignores it or demonizes it completely.

Some of it is due to anonymity online. It’s much easier to label and ignore people you don’t have to talk to and interact with on a daily basis. It’s even easier when you have no idea who those people are to begin with. Just look at the way I judge people when I’m driving my car compared to the way I judge them in person. (Spoiler: I’m not a very charitable driver . . . )

But it’s one thing to identify a problem. What can we do to solve it?

I tend to think the solution isn’t to be found online. The anonymity and toxic comments from both sides make real discussion almost impossible. Facebook tends to enable real debate to an extent, but I’ve found too often it turns into me playing referee between friends of mine who don’t know each other and so feel a sense of that entitled anonymity kick in.

So for me, I believe the real solution is to be found in the real world. Once you get outside and meet actual people, it becomes harder to dismiss their ideas. I’m not saying we have to get out there and agree with one another. But understanding where the opposite side of the argument is coming from is important. Listening is the first step: being willing to let the other side say what they’re thinking, without attacking them and pointing out all the reasons they’re wrong. The next step is to look for common ground. Find the areas of the the debate where you’re on the same side, and then build outward from there.

I have friends who are Trump supporters. I have friends who are “Social Justice Warriors.” (Sorry. That’s still one of the lamest labels I’ve heard people come up with, and I cringe when it’s used. A topic for another time.) Neither side has a monopoly on being right or on being good. Charges of hypocrisy could easily stick on both sides. But the longer each side tries to just ignore the other, the worse this problem will get. I include myself in that call for toning things down. Playing to an audience might win us views and clicks in the short term, but at a very real cost to civil discourse.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Your Data Goes Way Beyond Facebook

One of the big stories this morning is that Cambridge Analytica, the firm behind the Facebook data scandal around the 2016 election, is going bankrupt. The company has issued a statement, claiming they did nothing illegal:

“Despite Cambridge Analytica’s unwavering confidence that its employees have acted ethically and lawfully, which view is now fully supported by [a third-party audit], the siege of media coverage has driven away virtually all of the Company’s customers and suppliers,” states the release. “As a result, it has been determined that it is no longer viable to continue operating the business, which left Cambridge Analytica with no realistic alternative to placing the Company into administration.”

Of course, there’s a difference between something being lawful and ethical, and something being the right thing to do. I’m not going to get into the ins and outs behind Cambridge Analytica’s case, because in the end, it just doesn’t matter.

Why does it not matter? For one thing, the damage (whatever it was) has already been done. Even if what the firm did was illegal, it’s not like it’s going to change anything. There’s no big “Do Over” button for elections, so that ship has sailed.

But more important than that is the fact that all that data that Analytica may or may not have abused is still out there. Still being used and abused, and shuttering one firm might make the public feel better, but it does nothing for actually solving the problem.

This all makes perfect sense as soon as anyone stops to think about it. Every time you use Google, the company’s knowledge of you grows. It knows what you’re interested in. What you’re afraid of. What you search when no one’s around. Amazon knows what you shop for. What you search but don’t buy. Uber knows where you travel and when and how often. FitBit knows where you run and how you sleep. Your Echo is listening to every conversation you have around it, all the time.

Each of these things come with conveniences that make consumers tolerate them. It’s handy to just be able to ask your Echo a question and have it respond. And when you think of the normal things companies might do with the data (sell you more stuff, or at least market more stuff to you), it doesn’t seem so sinister on the surface.

But when data gets together, it starts to enable surprising things. For example, analysts can study the behavior of people on a large scale, and they begin to note predictors that indicate how someone will behave in any particular situation. They might see that people who like geckos are much more inclined to vote Republican than not. Or perhaps owners of Ford Mustangs have a propensity to like McDonald’s. At first, that seems quite innocent. It lets advertisers target their audience much more closely. McDonald’s can buy ads that go out just to Mustang owners. But as you think of the implications, you get a clearer picture of what can happen.

Future behavior of individuals at a large scale can be predicted by current behavior. And you don’t even need any data on the individual in question. You can build a character profile for a variety of types, and then ask a random person a few questions (“Do you own a Mustang?” “Do you like geckos?”) that seem unrelated to anything. But once you have those key indicators in place, you suddenly have a very good idea who that person is and how they would behave.

Even if Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple aren’t selling any of this information to anyone, the data is still there. Still waiting to be sifted through and applied. And sure, Google’s old motto is “don’t be evil,” but when you’re talking about data on this scale, sometimes it’s hard not to let a little evil creep into your business practices.

I’m not trying to say we should all go around with tin foil on our heads. I still use Siri and Alexa. I search using Google. I shop on Amazon. But I’ve been very relieved to see the public outcry over what went on with Cambridge Analytica. It’s great to see people take a stand on how data can and can’t be used. My worry is that this will be a single blip, and people will stop paying attention, brushing their hands off and thinking “Mission Accomplished” now that Analytica is gone.

Just because one company has gone under doesn’t mean the data is no longer there, waiting to be used. Continuing to press for laws that govern what data can and can’t be used for, and how it should and shouldn’t be stored, is important.

As if we needed one more thing to be worried about . . .

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Why Government-Enforced Censorship is a Bad Idea

I realize a lot of you (most of you?) read that title and thought right away: “Duh.” We’ve been generally trained to view censorship as bad. This is America. Freedom of speech!

But the thing about censorship is it’s only called censorship when it’s something you don’t want squelched. When something’s being said you strongly disagree with, then it can be really tempting to not use the word “censorship” when you advocate it not being said. This becomes much easier to discuss when a specific example is used.

Rhode Island has just proposed a law that I tend to think a number of you would support.  Internet Service Providers in the state would be required to block all  pornography and sites that have “patently offensive material” unless subscribers pay a one time $20 fee and acknowledge they know the risks of what they will let through their internet. Porn is bad, and this would end porn, so this must be good, right?

I am against this law, for a number of reasons.

For one thing, it wouldn’t actually do much to “stop” porn. The internet is huge and sprawling, and new sites crop up every day. A system could be set up where users report porn when they see it, and then the site where they saw it is added to the ban list, but then it turns into an arms race, with pornographers staying one step ahead of the censors. And yet this in and of itself isn’t a reason not to enact the law. Because while it wouldn’t stop all porn, it would certainly reduce the amount making its way through the interwebs of Rhode Island. After all, I’m in favor of stricter gun control measures, even though I recognize that won’t magically stop all shootings. It will help.

No, the bigger reason I’m against this measure is that it places the government in charge of deciding what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and it leaves far too much room open for interpretation.

Laws against child pornography are straight forward, but even they have caused some headaches recently, as the teen sexting craze has brought some teens in conflict with the child pornography laws. I’m still in favor of those laws, because they are fairly straightforward to define.

In this case, however, it does make an attempt to define pornography: it’s anything that has “sexual content,” which the state statute defines as “depictions and descriptions of any act of sexual intercourse, whether “normal or perverted, actual or simulated.”” When you get into the Rhode Island law that prohibits obscene and objectionable publications and shows, it quickly devolves into language that makes my librarian spider senses cringe. There are exceptions to the law if the work has “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” What does that mean? Who decides? Is it your Great Aunt Zelma? I’m sure she’ll have a very different idea of what’s acceptable than Johnny the Frat Boy.

The thing is, what’s artistic to one person is porn to another. And once the government gets in the business of deciding what is and what isn’t, then you have all sorts of problems that can make things even worse.

I get it. People don’t like porn. They don’t want kids watching it. They don’t want to stumble across it in their Google searches. They don’t want people hurt by it, whether in the production of it (through exploitation or objectification of women) or consumption of it. I’m not writing a blog post saying I want porn to be even more widely available. But these laws aren’t going to do what you think they’re going to do. They start being used for one thing and end up being used for something entirely different.

Is there a parallel here to gun laws? Perhaps. I can see how someone might be alarmed by a law that prohibits “assault rifles” or “assault-style weapons” or “high capacity magazines”, when the devil is in the definition. And how that definition, once legally set, can be gamed by either side. (Though there are plenty of ways these two sets of issues are very different, and I’m not going to get into that here.)

To me, the best safeguard against pornography is a frank discussion with your family. Talking about what porn is, why it’s harmful, and what to do if you stumble across it by accident. The same sort of conversation you should be having about prescription drugs, bullying, guns, and any number of modern day evils. Relying on the government or an ISP to shield you and your family from porn isn’t going to solve it for you. And it might end up hurting more than it helps.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’m looking to get to $10/month to justify the amount of time I spend on this blog. I’m at $8/month so far. Read this post for more information. Or click here to go to Patreon and sign up. It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Dear Gun Lobby: If You’d Like America to Ban Guns, Keep Doing What You’re Doing

I didn’t always support a ban on guns. If you had asked me six years ago what my stance on gun control was, I would have been mostly ambivalent. I would have repeated some studies I’d read, reiterated the idea that I don’t personally want a gun in my house, but expressed a “to each his or her own” sort of mentality. Six years ago is not that long ago.

But I write this blog every weekday, more or less, and so you can actually trace the path I’ve taken to arrive where I am today. Let me break it down for you, blow by blow:

  • March 28, 2012: Trayvon Martin is shot and killed, and I wrote this piece called A Ramble on Race, Violence, and Uninformed Opinions. It focused mainly on the specific details of the shooting. A relevant quote: “I don’t want to turn this conversation into a debate on gun control laws. At this point, I’m not even sure where I want this conversation going.” I wasn’t prepared to discuss gun control in connection with this event. It seemed overwhelming, and it seemed like other factors should be addressed first.
  • December 15, 2012: Sandy Hook happens. I write a piece called Gun Control, Mental Illness, Shootings, and Blame. I attribute the cause of the shooting to a number of factors, with gun control listed first. A relevant quote: “Getting guns should be difficult. It should require a background check. It should require registration. It should require a waiting period. There should be limits on the types of guns you can own, the types of bullets you can buy. The number of guns you can have. The same holds true for body armor. Register for its use. Keep a database of who owns what. If someone has a bunch of guns and body armor, I think we need to keep an eye on them. At least be aware they’re out there.” I didn’t call for an outright ban or anything. Just wanted laws to be tighter. It’s important to note that after this post, a friend contacted me on Facebook and went into detail about gun control laws and why they would have been ineffective. I read the article he linked to, and I respected it. It made sense. I backed off my immediate knee-jerk reaction.
  • January 15, 2014: An elderly man shoots another man dead in a movie theater over a fight about texting. I write a piece called (appropriately enough) Guns, Movie Theaters, and Texting. A relevant quote: “I think the Second Amendment has reached religious proportions with some proponents, and it’s held far too holy and sacrosanct.”
  • June 18, 2015: Nine people are shot to death in a South Carolina church, and I wrote a piece called Mass Shootings: Everyone Else’s Problem. A relevant quote: “People like to view this as someone else’s problem. If you personally love guns, then it’s too easy to defend your passion and blame the other factors. The same holds true for video games, mental health issues, news media, Hollywood depictions–you name it.” I also came to the conclusion: “What can I do personally? I can vote for politicians who will make solutions a priority. I can withhold my money from movies that present a skewed vision of reality. I can take a look at the role violence plays in the novels I write, and make sure I’m handling the material responsibly. I can speak out online when people try to dodge the blame or pin it on others. It’s not just someone else’s problem. It’s our problem. And anyone who doesn’t admit that is only proving my point.” I began to seriously consider what I could personally do to make a difference, first in myself, and perhaps in others.
  • October 6, 2015: 9 people are shot and killed at Umpqua Community College (on October 1), and I write a piece called My Current Feelings on Guns and the Pro-Gun Lobby. A relevant quote: “I get it, folks. You like guns. You’re certainly entitled to like them. But as I keep seeing these terrible events unfold, I’m steadily losing my ability to understand why people continue to believe their love of guns somehow trumps the right of people to go about their every day lives without fear of being shot to death by a random stranger.” And another: “

    The gun lobby has had its say, and it has been found wanting. It’s time to let the other side give it a shot. There’s a wide gap between “nothing we can do” and where we are now. You want to know why? Because we haven’t tried to do anything.”

  • June 13, 2016: 49 people are killed at an Orlando nightclub, and I write a piece called How Many Have to Die? A relevant quote: “Gun control for me is the single most important point of any political platform for me. Why? Because it’s hard to have a nation when we keep killing each other.”
  • October 4, 2017: 58 people are killed and 851 injured by a gunman at a Las Vegas concert (on October 1), and I write a piece called Unable to Kick a Gun Addiction. A relevant quote: “I encourage everyone to support Everytown for Gun Safety and other organizations working against the insanity of the NRA, an organization which still hasn’t made a statement about the Vegas shootings. At the very least, guns that are designed to kill people in mass quantities should be outlawed.”

Now 17 people have been shot and killed (including many students) in Parkland, and here I am again, reading the same tripe on Facebook from the same people. And here I am, writing another article. And once I post this, I anticipate some more people will come out and try to tell me I’m not seeing things the right way, or that I shouldn’t be close-minded.

But you know what? I’m not a close-minded person. You can read through through 7 separate posts tracing all the thought I’ve put into this issue. I’ve gone from being ambivalent to being hard-line against guns. I would vote to repeal the Second Amendment in a heartbeat, if the choice were between that and what we have now. Wouldn’t even blink an eye.

And each time another shooting happens, more people come to my side. More people are changed by their disgust by the utter lack of effort our politicians have put into trying to solve any of the causes at the root of mass shootings.

So if you want to avoid an outright ban on guns, please start supporting reasonable measures to restrict them. Because the approach you’re using now is making you far more enemies than friends.

And that’s all I can think of to say today.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’m looking to get to $10/month to justify the amount of time I spend on this blog. I’m at $8/month so far. Read this post for more information. Or click here to go to Patreon and sign up. It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out.

Don’t Feed the Trolls

I’m at a library meeting in Bangor today, so I’m short on time, but I wanted to hop on here to write a quick post about an article I saw yesterday. In a nutshell, Russian bots have been flooding Twitter in the aftermath of the school shooting yesterday, furiously Tweeting out pro-gun posts.

Even taking all the different arguments out of the equation, I hope we can all agree this is bad for our country. It’s clear Russia thinks it’s bad for us, since they’re certainly not doing it to try to help us out. (How despicable is it, that someone would use a horrific event to try and further their own designs? Though it’s such a hot button topic, many are doing it more subtly.)

What can we do to combat this? For one thing, I’d encourage people to share more than pithy articles. Engage in real debate, not generic articles that happen to fall in line with your preconceived notions. My stance on gun control remains firm, and I’ve written extensively on it. I personally feel it’s only a matter of time until the bulk of the country agrees with me, and we at least start trying some potential solutions, instead of merely wringing our hands and doing whatever the NRA wants us to.

But again, this isn’t about politics. (Not this post, at least.) It’s about recognizing that our country shouldn’t be so easily swayed that Russian bots can cause a serious problem to become even worse. Real discussion and discourse needs to take the place of retweets and shares.

Or maybe I’m just idealistic.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’m looking to get to $10/month to justify the amount of time I spend on this blog. I’m at $8/month so far. Read this post for more information. Or click here to go to Patreon and sign up. It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out.

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