Original Fixture

Our little cottage in Stonington has been revised and reconfigured and redesigned repeatedly since it was first built in the early 1900s.  As a result of all of the renovation work, we think there’s only one original fixture still in the house — the ceiling light in the guest room.  We’re determined to keep it as the one interior connection to the original design of the place.

It wasn’t a hard decision, because it’s a nifty little pink glass piece that has a distinctly old-fashioned, cottagey vibe to it.  But what I particularly like is the design.  Unlike modern overhead lights, which require you to stand, aching arms stretched directly overhead, and loosen multiple screws and then remove a glass fitting to get to the light bulb, this design is open.  Remove one of the anchors, tilt the pink glass section down, and voila!  You can easily change the light bulb or, more frequently, remove the inevitable collection of fly carcasses that you’re always going to find in a summer cottage.

It’s as if the light fixture design was based on the practical realities of where the light fixture would be and how it would be used, and took into consideration making it easier and simpler for the user to do the basics like changing a bulb.  What a concept!

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A New Personal Best

This morning I got up a little before 7 a.m. and got right to work on a long list of chores. I was so busy cleaning, organizing, assembling, and rearranging that I didn’t check my email, internet news sites, or any social media until 11:49 a.m. — nearly five hours later. In fact, I didn’t even touch my iPhone during that dead zone.

It’s got to be a personal best for me, at least in the years since the advent of smartphones and immediate access to email and the World Wide Web with a few taps of my thumbs. And you know what? The world didn’t end while I was in social media silent mode. I’m confident no one noticed my absence. And focusing exclusively on completing simple, somewhat mindless chores, without trying to “multitask,” was pretty darned enjoyable.

With my vacation underway, I might just try to establish a new personal best tomorrow.

Selfie Soullessness

In northern Italy, a tragedy happened at a train station.  A Canadian woman was struck and badly hurt by a train. Rescuers and station personnel went to help her, and ultimately the injured woman was taken to a hospital, where her leg was amputated.

selfie1-870x418But while the helpless, injured woman lay prostrate on the track bed and rescue workers assisted her, a guy in white shorts and a white shirt positioned himself on the adjacent platform so that the woman and the workers appeared in the background behind him, flashed a hand gesture and no doubt a facial expression . . . and then used his cell phone to take a “selfie” of himself and the tragic scene.  The man’s act of cold-hearted callousness was captured by a news photographer in the photograph published above.  Police noticed the man in white shorts, too, and briefly detained him.  Although he was found to have committed no crime, they required him to delete the selfie — so we’ll never see the photo that he thought was so important to take.

The above photograph of the heartless selfie-taker has caused shock and outrage in Italy.  The photographer said the scene caused him to think that “we have completely lost a sense of ethics.”  A commentary in a popular newspaper spoke of a “cancer that corrodes the internet” and said that the man in white shorts had lost his soul and his personality; a popular radio said the scene showed that the human race is “galloping towards extinction.”

But should anyone really be surprised by the man in white shorts who thought a scene of personal tragedy would be an interesting and fitting backdrop for yet another photo of his face?  We’ve seen stories of people risking life and limb — and sometimes losing the bet — to take selfies, and we all know people whose first thought, wherever they may be, apparently is to take a selfie and publish it to their friends.  The selfie zealots have allowed their narcissism to overwhelm their common sense, and the guy in white shorts has allowed his basic sense of decency to be overwhelmed, too.

For the selfistas, the real world is just an abstraction, and nothing more than background for their self-absorbed grins and gestures.  For the sake of the guy in white shorts, let’s hope that if he ever is injured or needs help, there are people nearby whose first reaction will be to help him — rather than step back and take a selfie.

Big Zucker

Today I followed my time-honored morning routine.  I got my cup of coffee, pulled out my cell phone, and checked my work email messages.  My Facebook app was showing there were messages there, too, so I clicked on it.

“Good morning, Bob!” the Facebook page read, a little too cheerily.  “Skies are clearing in Columbus today, so enjoy the sunshine!”  It also gave the temperature in Columbus at a spring-like 25 degrees.

03facebook-xlarge1I recognize that, as a 60-something male, I’m not in Facebook’s target audience.  Perhaps 20-somethings feel warm appreciation for the fact that Facebook is so tuned in to their lives that it gives them personalized weather forecasts and wishes them a heartfelt good morning.

Me?  This increasingly cranky old guy gets a case of the creeps that Facebook thinks it knows where I am and presumes to provide weather forecasts for my assumed location and addresses me by my first name.  It also bugs me that Facebook does things like prepare slide shows of Facebook posts that happened in March, or videos celebrating the “anniversary” of the start of a Facebook friendship.  I feel like Facebook needs to back off and butt out.

The fact that Facebook has been implicated in the Cambridge Analytica story heightens the risk arising from the mass of data that Facebook is compiling about the people who use it.  Rather than making me feel warm and fuzzy that Facebook cares about me, Facebook’s little devices, like the weather forecasts and the slide shows, just remind me that Facebook holds all of that data and can use it however it wants.  It’s not an appealing prospect.

Perhaps George Orwell’s 1984 should have been written about huge, data-compiling social media companies like Facebook, rather than the government.  Instead of Big Brother, maybe we should all be worrying about Big Zucker.

A New Sign Of The Approaching Apocalypse: Melt-Resistant Ice Cream

We’re in the midst of an era of profound technological change, with advancements in “smart” technology, robots, self-driving cars, designer plant and animal breeds, and countless other developments that all have one overarching goal — to allow lazy, pampered human beings to move and do as little as possible while being amply fed, tracked, and tended.

thebslaproteAnd now there’s been a development that is the latest sign of the approaching apocalypse:  scientists have developed melt-resistant ice cream.  The scientists determined that “banana plant waste,” in the form of tiny fibers from the banana plant stem, can be mixed into ice cream compounds and significantly slow the rate of melting.  The resulting mixture also is supposed to be creamier and potentially healthier, because . . . . well, because banana stem fibers are bound to be healthier than the combination of sugar, cream, chocolate, and other totally empty calories that make ice cream so delectable in the first place.

Some might argue, as the article linked above does, that this is a significant positive development that won’t leave ice cream consumers with “sticky hands” and “stained pants.”  I think the exact opposite is true.  The meltiness of ice cream on a hot day is part of the fun, requiring inventive ice cream fans to develop highly technical strategies on how to approach their cones in a way that minimizes melt loss and maximizes actual consumption of ice cream, like regular use of the “around the top of the cone” lick, careful attention to telltale signs that parts of the ice cream scoop might be liquefying, and properly timing the decision to bite into the bottom of the cone itself to allow all of the cool, already melted ice cream to run into your happy, waiting mouth.

Now, thanks to banana fiber technology, we won’t have to worry about such things and instead will be able to take desultory licks of our cones without thought or fear of consequences.  Is that really something to be hailed as a profound advancement in the history of homo sapiens?

You’ll be surprised to learn that I’m not a fan of self-driving cars, either.

The Sap Test

The story of Cambridge Analytica is an interesting one.  Mother Jones has a fascinating article on how the British firm came to America making big promises to provide in-depth voter profile data and targeted marketing to Republican presidential campaigns — including the Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump campaigns — and not really delivering on its big promises.  Along the way, Cambridge Analytica got Facebook into trouble, because Cambridge claimed to “harvest” Facebook’s user profiles and other data to “exploit” what was known about them and to “target their inner demons.”

d40It’s a good read on several levels.  There’s a bit of a thrill in seeing, again, that political masterminds can be played for saps, and it’s always a rewarding reaffirmation of democratic values to read how people’s contributions to political campaigns are spent — or in this case, misspent — on efforts to manipulate voter views and carefully position candidates to appeal to them.  That the Cambridge Analytica big promises apparently went largely unfulfilled doesn’t alter the fact that political campaigns paid it huge amounts of money precisely to provide the kind of information that would permit the campaigns to appeal to voter biases and prejudices and preexisting views — in short, to “target their inner demons.”  And let’s not kid ourselves, either:  Cambridge Analytica was working for Republican candidates in 2016, but Democratic candidates no doubt hired similar research firms and consultants to try to use data to warp voter views in the opposite direction.  It’s worth thinking about that the next time you’re asked to contribute money in response to the latest in the endless fundraising appeals we get from candidates.

But there’s another good lesson lurking in the Cambridge Analytica story, too — about how apparently innocent “personality tests” and other social media staples can be used to assemble masses of data about millions of Americans that can then be used in totally unknown ways.  Every time you respond to the command on one of those annoying “like if you agree” or “share if you agree” posts, or take a “test” to show that you’re one of the people who would be able to identify TV stars from the ’80s, you are creating data that somebody is storing, accessing, counting, analyzing, and then using to develop targeted ads for products — or, potentially, some kind of targeted political message that is supposed to appeal to your likes, dislikes, and demographic category based on the data that you’ve voluntarily provided.

The Cambridge Analytica story, and what it tells us about the data being provided, is food for thought the next time you’re considering disclosing a little piece of your personal information in response to a Facebook quiz or other social media meme.  It would probably be better for everyone if saps like us keep the information about those “inner demons” under wraps.

3 Reasons Why Clickbait Headlines Use Numbers

You can’t go on the internet without stumbling into “clickbait” — those annoying yet tantalizing articles that you aren’t looking for, but that are designed to entice you to click on a link and see, for example, how “unrecognizable” some ’80s TV star is now.

If you pay attention to clickbait (and of course you shouldn’t, but you can’t really help it, now can you?) you notice that there are definite patterns to it. The headlines for many of the clickbait pieces advertise something that is supposedly “shocking” or “jaw-dropping,” but a lot of them — say, 50 percent — also feature numbers.  As in “6 reasons why your retirement planning is doomed” or “7 signs revealing that your boss actually hates your guts.”  Today’s MSN website page, from which the above photo is taken, includes a bunch of sports-related clickbait, and numbers are prominent.

Obviously, the clickbait brigade thinks numbers are likely to lead to clicks.  Why?

The article “Why We Respond Emotionally to Numbers: 7 Ways to Use the Power of Numbers in Your Designs” — which itself has a clickbait-like title — argues that humans respond viscerally and subconsciously to numbers.  Even numbers, for example, are supposed to reflect feminine qualifies, while odd numbers are purportedly masculine.  Numbers also are associated with luck and with religion.  More basically, many games, especially those where you gamble, involve numbers.  Obviously, numbers must have a deep intuitive appeal for homo sapiens, even those who didn’t like math class.

In the case of clickbait, though, I think it is more than that.  People on the internet are typically in a hurry, and clickbait by definition is something that you’re not actually trying to find.  Numbers in the headlines signal clear limits on the amount of time you’re going to need to spend to check out that provocative clickbait.  Typically the number in the headline is below 10, encouraging you to think that even if the article is a colossal waste of time, at least you’ll figure that out quickly.  The fact that there are only 5 reasons to believe that the cast of Hogan’s Heroes was cursed might just tip the balance and cause you to move that mouse and cursor and click away.