Saturday, March 23, 2013


The movie adaptation of Ender's Game is coming out this Fall.  It's a fantastic story, one I have read many times, and I'm excited to see what it could look like on the big screen.  It could be horrible or it could be wonderful.  This blog post isn't about that, however.  It's about the author, Orson Scott Card, and how his actions are going to impact my decision to watch this movie.  The book is wonderful; its author is not.

Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress recently posted an excellent article with recommendations for how to consume content created by awful people.  Rosenberg is specifically talking about Orson Scott Card, too, so let's get that part out of the way first.

I support the right for same-sex couples to marry and to enjoy all the legal protections (and joys and responsibilities and opportunities and adventures and ...) that heterosexual couples do.  This is a topic I feel strongly about.  So, apparently, does Orson Scott Card.  He speaks out against same-sex marriage often and serves as a member of the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage, a group founded specifically to undo the legal gains of same-sex marriage supporters.  I have read several of Card's writings on the topic and I find all of them abhorrent.

I love Ender's Game, but those other writings...  How do you separate the creation from the creator when you love the former but object to the actions of the latter, when your support of the creation enables the creator to continue those actions?  Orson Scott Card has made it quite clear that if I give him money he will use it to fight against same-sex marriage.  I'm not interested in funding that battle, not even the small portion of my ticket price that would actually reach him.

The solution is not as simple as boycotting the movie, although that is an option.  Rosenberg presents four suggestions for approaching this kind of ethical conflict.  She says it better than I could and, although your definition of "awful" may vary, I really do recommend you read her article regardless of your political leanings.  I think everyone would benefit from the kind of thoughtful consideration she advocates for content whose creators are at odds with our own moral choices, even when the content itself is not.

I'm not going to repeat her points here.  Instead, this blog entry is my effort to adopt her fourth suggestion: talk about it.  I want my readers to know that I support same sex marriage.  I want my readers to know that Orson Scott Card actively fights against marriage equality and that supporting Card's work (by, for example, buying a ticket to a movie he's producing based on a book he wrote) is likely going to contribute to his side of that fight as well.  I'm not okay with that.

I don't know yet if I'll watch Ender's Game when it comes to theaters but if I do I'll also follow Rosenberg's second recommendation and donate offsetting money to an organization that fights for marriage equality.

I recognize that I can sometimes be the kind of person who is more likely to talk about doing a thing than to actually do it.  I also recognize that bold statements about donating to a cause if I watch a movie don't do any good for that cause if I end up deciding not to watch the movie.  So, to put my money where my mouth is, I just donated to Freedom to Marry in support of their mission to end marriage discrimination.  I guess that means Orson Scott Card should now think twice about paying for one of my creations.  I'm okay with that.

Note: I recently turned on comment moderation although that honestly has nothing to do with this entry.  My "irregular" update schedule seems to have left me with bots as my only regular readers and they like to leave fun little advertisements as comments.  So I put a stop to that.  But regardless of the reason, it means any comments from real humans may take a little while to appear.  Just be patient (and civil and, you know, not an advertisement) and they'll probably get there.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Weighed, Measured, and Found ....?

So far today I have taken 4,064 steps.  I know this because I wear a pedometer provided by our health insurance company as part of a plan to promote healthy activity.  So they know it, too.

Today I have also been at work, at home, and at Target.  I know what times I was at each place because my phone keeps track of these things for me.  At the end of the month, Google presents me with a nice report that shows me, among other things, how much time I've spent at work and at home and what other places I've visited during the month.  They offered to do this for me, free of charge, and I agreed because I'm an engineer and I like charts.  The report also includes details about how many emails I've sent and received, what kinds of things I've been searching for online, and what browsers I use most often.  It's honestly not much use to me (although the authentication report portion is a nice double check of my account security) but it's "kind of neat" and I like seeing it.  But really, offering it to me was Google's way of getting permission to compile this data in the first place.  So they know it, too.

At Target, I took care of some returns and then bought a few more things.  I didn't have my receipt, but I had the card I originally used to make the purchase and they were able to look up everything they needed to give my money back to me right on the card, no hassle.  That's extremely convenient.  It's also an indication that Target knows every purchase I've made with that card.  What is very useful for me is much moreso for Target.

Many retailers have a customer card they want you to use to get additional details.  Target doesn't, but they do offer a check card and a credit card you can apply for.  It amounts to the same thing.  There's some profit in the card itself, I'm sure, but really I suspect the important bit to Target is that moment when you give them your name, address, and contact information during the application process.  Even if the application is not approved (and many are not), Target still gets the contact information to add to their customer profile.  Have you ever given your phone number when the clerk at the home goods store asks for it?  If you're in the phone book, they probably know where you live now, too.  Did you use a credit card for that transaction?  Now they can link your name and address with every other transaction that uses that card.  You used cash, you say?  Well, good for you.  You're safe from tracking... for now.

So what do they DO with this information?  Some companies don't use it at all.  There's a "needle in stack of needles" problem with data right now.  We have more of it than we know how to use, more of it than we are able to process effectively, and finding the useful bits (or more accurately, making the useful connections) requires diligence, intelligence, and dedication, something a lot of people (and companies) just can't muster.

Target is not one of those companies.  Go read this article.  I think you'll find it fascinating.  I did.

Or you could read this one, which is a (slightly sensationalized) synopsis of the first one, which itself is an excerpt from this book.  How much time do you have?

We share a great deal of information with the companies with whom we interact.  Some of it, as with Target, is the record of the actions we take through normal behavior within that company's domain.  For sites like Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, or any other "sharing" interaction, we put much more personal information up for grabs.

Google has a pretty strict privacy policy, which I appreciate, and yes I did read it.  Reading it, however, is not the same as considering it carefully.  "Yep," I said, "nothing there looks too dodgy." and I went ahead with what I was going to do anyway and kept my life data tied deeply into their products.  Because that's convenient.

Sure, I could claim my data back, but then I'd have to stop using such useful programs.  Sure, I could make all my transactions in cash, but that's a pain in the tukhus. 

Also, as much as companies like Target and Google get out of this information, so too do I get something from their collection of it.  Did you read that article I recommended?  Did you see the part where Target's research allows them to send targeted coupons for things their clients specifically need?  Target was already sending me coupons; now they're sending me good coupons. 

This information, this personal data, is making companies more efficient.  That's why they do it.  They want to spend less money for more gain.  That gain comes from my dollars.  If they can better provide the things I want, they get more of my money.  So, yes, they're after my money, but they're doing it by meeting my needs more effectively.  I'm okay with that.  Their efforts to reduce their own waste (by, for instance, eliminating the coupons they send me for things I'll never buy), they reduce my waste, too.

Things get more complicated when I'm not the end customer.  This is the difference I see between Facebook or Google and retailers like Target.  Facebook and Google are selling access to me.  I'm not the customer, although I am the customer's customer so I do still receive at least partial value from the sale of my own information.  At the very least, I start seeing more useful ads on my websites, which is nice, I guess.

True personal information management is an immensely powerful development in the world of "productivity."  Companies can spend less to do more by better tailoring their services, their products, and their sales pitches to reach me directly.  That last one, the sales pitch thing, is the alarming one because this power is also capable of acting in some very subtle ways.  It becomes possible for a company to improve their ability to convince me to do what they want without actually improving their service to me.  We humans make far too many of our decisions automatically for me to ever be truly comfortable with "subtle" corporations.

I've actually been tinkering with this blog entry for a few months now.  Part of the reason (besides the usual ones) that this has taken so long is that I don't have a conclusion.

As a Systems Engineer trained in statistics and data analysis, and more generally as a man fascinated by the challenge of extrapolating big pictures from small bytes, I find the whole thing thrilling and exciting.  There's a computer program that can turn shared collections of tourist photos of Notre Dame into a complex 3D image of the cathedral (seriously, if you haven't seen that TED talk before, check it out).  This thing Target (and Google and Facebook) is working on is a similar process applied to a human life instead of a famous landmark.  It's amazing to me that we can do that.  And, in the general evolution of capitalist proficiency, it's a great step towards reducing all kinds of waste.

As a man who lives in a world where governments bomb their own people to stay in power, where the first weapons of cyberwarfare have already been unleashed, and where companies are knowingly flouting safety laws to get their wares out any way they can; I'm concerned about the development of a digital technology capable of mapping my life and preferences without my knowledge.

There are immense benefits here.  I think the knee-jerk fear of this kind of analysis is wrong, but I'm not going to claim it isn't without some fierce risks.  This knowledge hasn't exactly changed my behavior yet, but perhaps it should.  I'm going to have to keep thinking about this one.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Keeping Busy

The Smith household is a project household at the moment.  The previous owners took good care of of our house structurally but not so much aesthetically.  The orange short shag carpet in the basement was perhaps the most obvious and egregious attack on good sense, but it was far from the only example.  Most of the rest were just better hidden.  And by "hidden" I mean "painted over."   Every room in the house was a flat beige "neutral" when we arrived.  Well one room had wall paper but we're still not ready to discuss that particular atrocity.

Actually, lots or rooms had wall paper.  That one room is just the only place where they chose not to cover it with beige paint.  Elsewhere we keep finding bits of wallpaper beneath fixtures, behind switches, and tucked into numerous other places the contractors didn't think anyone would ever see.  Well we've seen it and let's just say we're glad the place was painted.  Their style and our style are not compatible.  At all.

So we have a house full of beige.  We don't mind the beige.  No one minds the beige, that's the whole point of staging with it.  It goes with everything.  Or to be more accurate: it doesn't clash with anything.  It's safe because it's boring.  So it's going.  Room by room we're clearing it out.  And we're getting the hang of it.

Sarah's sister painted the master bedroom for us when we first moved in.  Then Sarah and I tackled the basement.  Two weeks ago we painted the kitchen.  Last week, we painted it again.  See, we didn't like the first color very much.  We were aiming for pale green but hit a little too far on the pastel side of things. The result felt like living in a giant scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream.  It was almost right, but not quite.  So we redid it.  This act has met with surprise from coworkers and friends which has in turn surprised us.  We have to live with it and "not quite right" is just another version of "not right."  It never occurred to us NOT to repaint it.

Partly that's because we're having fun.  Turns out we're good at painting.  Or at least we're happy with our work.  Both of us have plenty of previous experience and we approach the project with very similar attitudes about how and what needs to be done (and were also armed with several helpful tips from an expert).  Fortunately, Sarah and I also have similar attitudes about color schemes and styles.  Although I suspect there are times she wishes I hadn't gone to design school (ask her about my issue with outlet screws sometime).

We're not crazy, though.  We don't paint ALL the time.  Sometimes we replace doors, switch locks, hang artwork, install fixtures, clear flowerbeds, repair banisters, or assemble furniture.  Right now it's a lot of fun to be us.