The End Of Privacy As We Know It

The right to personal privacy isn’t a right that is specifically recognized in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, but it has been a recognized area of the law for decades, as well as a treasured ideal for many Americans.  For many people, the right to be left alone is an important one.

But this is another area where technology is simply changing the game.  Whether it is cookies left on personal computers that lead to pop-up ads that are specifically targeted to your website viewings, search engines that can sift through mounds of news stories, photos, and data in split seconds whenever a name is entered, tracking mechanisms on cell phones, surveillance cameras on every street corner, drones in the air, computer hacking, or listening devices that are routinely used by governmental entities, technology makes the ability to maintain some zone of privacy harder and harder.

20130203_adde1Social media also has had a significant impact.  Anyone who likes the convenience of Facebook as a way to keep in touch with their old friends, family members and colleagues is giving up a piece of their privacy.  And when technology and social media meet, the erosion can become even more pronounced.

Consider the news that a software developer has used the advances in facial recognition software to develop an app that allows you to take a photo of a stranger in a public place and immediately run a search for the identity of that person through Facebook.  It’s called Facezam, and it’s apparently going to launch on March 21, although Facebook is raising questions about whether the software is in compliance with the Facebook privacy policy.  But even if Facebook quashes the idea as to Facebook, you would imagine that the app could be modified to be applied to search through other sources of photos.

It’s creepy to think that random strangers, simply by taking your picture in a public place and unbeknownst to you, could then find out who you are and, if they’re so inclined, track you down.  One person in the story linked above describes that concept as the end of anonymity in public places, and I think that’s right.  If you want to guard against it, you can withdraw from any social media, refuse to get your photo taken, avoid going out in public except in disguise, avoid any travel, and stay in your room.  Those aren’t especially attractive options, are they?

Welcome to the Brave New World!


Ending The Email Chain

There’s a colleague at my office — we’ll call him the Young Fogey — who hates being thanked.

It’s not that he thinks people should be unappreciative.  No, he just hates getting that “thanks” email that frequently serves as an awkward effort to finally bring the lingering email chain to an end.  The first email poses a question, the response seeks clarification, the next email provides it, the following email gives an answer . . . and when the process finally ends, the Young Fogey gets that “thanks.”  He hates it, because it clutters his inbox.  “You don’t need to thank me!” he thunders.

I understand the Young Fogey’s point, because sometimes email conversations can be an exhausting, protracted process.  How are you supposed to end that long email chain in an appropriate way?  Just moving on after you ultimately get the answer to your question seems kind of cold and curt, like you’re ignoring what the other party to the conversation did.  On the other hand, the closure process can be . . . ungainly.

But I don’t think we should discourage people from saying “thank you” when they’ve been helped, either.  We could always use more manners and politeness in the world, and people who routinely say thank you just tend to be more pleasant to be around.  In fact, when I get the final “thanks” email, I often respond “No problem!  Happy to be of assistance.” — which no doubt would really drive the Young Fogey around the bend.

I’m not a fan of a cluttered inbox, and sometimes it can be a challenge keeping it to manageable levels.  Those “thanks” emails, though, aren’t really the problem.  I think the Young Fogey needs to take a deep quaff of Metamucil, accept those “thanks” emails with good cheer, and reflect on the positive fact that the people he’s working with feel the need to express their appreciation for his help and insight.

News Flash: People Who Talk On Cell Phones While Walking Aren’t Cool

Lately I’ve seen more pedestrians walking and talking on their cell phones at the same time.  It bothers me.

It’s not the lack of politeness, necessarily.  Although it is impolite — imposing your side of your inevitably loud cell phone conversation on every hapless person who unfortunately happens to be within earshot — anyone who lives in the modern world has long since learned to endure thoughtless louts who can’t conform to basic social norms in more ways than we can count.

popupNo, what really bothers me is that people talking on their cell phones while walking always act like they think they’re the coolest thing ever.  They’re inevitably walking, the elbow of the arm holding the phone jutting out just so, with the smuggest imaginable look on their faces.  It’s as if they think that getting or making a phone call in a public place is somehow an affirmation that they stand alone at the center of the universe.  “Look at me!,” their demeanor screams, “I’m an incredibly important person!  And I’ve got friends, colleagues, and clients who want to talk to me even when I’m crossing the street in a busy downtown area!”

This must be a carryover from the early days of cell phones, when handhelds were rare and people were curious to see people talking on bulky wireless devices.  But those days ended during the Reagan Administration.  Now cell phones are like opinions and certain body parts — everybody has one.  The difference between the walking talkers and the rest of the world is that the walking talkers don’t have the decency to remove themselves from the public right-of-way, by sitting on a bench or standing off to the side while they complete their call.  Everyone else has the good sense and manners to not inflict their conversations on random passersby.  Unlike the walking talkers, everybody else has the instinct to not act like a churlish buffoon.

So here’s a news flash to the walking cell phoners — you’re not cool, you’re boorish.  Please recognize that, and if you can’t stop talking on your cell phone in public, at least have the decency to wipe that smug look off your face.

A New Approach To Waiting

Recently I was at the dentist’s office.  It was one of those dreaded midday appointments, where the odds are that some emergency or other complication cropped up earlier in the day, meaning that the schedule is out of whack and you’ll likely be cooling your heels while the dentist and the hygienists work to catch up.

smartphoneusers-300x200Like every waiting room — literally, a room specifically designed to accommodate people who are waiting — the dentist’s office had a full spread of magazines and a TV tuned to one of those home redesign shows.  But as I looked around the room, none of the people waiting was restlessly flipping through a magazine, or watching the TV, or fidgeting and constantly glancing at their watches.  Instead, they were all on their smartphones, checking their email, playing a video game, or letting the expectant Facebook world know that they were at the dentist’s office.

This is one of the little changes in modern life that happens without being noticed until somebody calls it to your attention.  But now, thanks to smartphones, waiting time doesn’t necessarily suck.  Sure, you’d rather not be sitting in some generic space in the company of a bunch of strangers — especially if they’re coughing or sniffling — but at least you’ve got a handy gadget in your pocket or purse that lets you be productive or see what your friends are up to or have some fun while you’re sitting on an uncomfortable chair.  I’m told that some people actually look forward to waiting time for this very reason.  What could be a bigger change than that?

I have no way of knowing whether this is true, but I’d bet that state license bureaus and federal administrative agencies and doctor’s offices get a lot fewer complaints about excessive waiting time than used to be the case.  Every office administrator who works in a place with a waiting room should be grateful to the inventor of the smartphone.

Working Out The Crook In The Arm

If you walk around your town, you’ve probably noticed this already.  I’m talking about the number of people who are going from Point A to Point B, carrying a coffee cup or water bottle.  I’d say at least half, and maybe more, of the people out and about these days are fully liquified and ready to immediately hydrate or caffeinate.

020107002It’s kind of strange when you think about it.  It’s as if these folks can’t bear to be away from the liquid of their choice for any length of time, so they carry it with them — even if they aren’t actually drinking from the cup, or mug, or jug as they walk along.  And I’m not talking about people who have just emerged from the nearest Starbucks with a pumpkin latte and are heading back to the office, either.  I’m talking about people who seem to carry their containers at all times.  One of my fellow walkers from German Village to downtown Columbus always carries a cup of coffee with him on his stroll to work, and he never takes so much as a sip.  Of course not!  If you try to take a drink when you’re walking you’re risking a spill, and coffee stains are hard to remove from clothing.  That begs the question:  if you’re not going to actually drink the liquid you’re lugging around, why carry it with you in the first place?

As somebody who prefers to walk unburdened by water bottles and coffee cups, I conclude that there are two potential explanations for this.  One is that the water-bearers have become emotionally attached to their liquid containers and their contents, and that constantly carrying them around provides some kind of comfort.  The other is that this is all part of some new exercise regimen. Somewhere, some fitness guru has decreed that the muscles surrounding the crook of the arm are under-exercised, and that the best way to deal with the issue is to carry around small containers and maintain the arm perpetually bent at the elbow, with the lower arm and the upper arm forming a 90-degree angle, for extended periods of time.  Only by doing so will the biceps and triceps, working with the ulna, radius, brachioradialis, tendons, extensors, and flexors, get the full workout that they really need.

Call it Coffee Cup Conditioning, or the Water Jug Workout.

Sins Of The Silent Auction

If you’ve been to any kind of charitable fundraising event in the past 25 years, you’ve probably encountered a “silent auction.”  That’s where various items — signed sports paraphernalia, artwork, one-night stays at a hotel, golf bags, massage treatments, wine, weekend stays at a condo in Cancun, and other potentially enticing options — are displayed on tables for attendees to examine.  Rather than making bids at the behest of a live auctioneer, the interested parties write their bids on paper and then lurk around to see if somebody else outbids them before the auction closes at the designated time.

auction-from-golf-tableKish and I have bought things at silent auctions, but they’ve been tangible things that you can carry away, like a needlepoint stool or a small hand-painted table.  We’ve never been the prevailing bidder on any kind of silent auction item that involves any element of personal service.  I’ve wondered how, say, a guitar lesson or a restaurant visit obtained through a silent auction would work out.  After all, the proprietor who donated the item isn’t getting paid at the time you show up; they’re just redeeming the coupon they provided weeks or even months before and probably long since forgotten.  Would that fact affect the quality of the experience?

We’ve now seen different answers to that question.  Some months ago two of our friends won a silent auction item that allowed them to bring a group to a local place called The Kitchen to make a meal with the help of the gourmet cooks on hand and drink selected wine pairings with each course; they invited us to join and we all had a wonderful time.  More recently, other friends won a silent auction item that involved a special fixed-course meal at a local restaurant and graciously asked us to come along.  In that instance, the service of the food was very slow, with long gaps between courses even though the place wasn’t crowded.  With old friends for company the time passed very enjoyably, with a lot of laughs — but the delays were noticeable and remarked upon, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether we had second-fiddle status in the eyes of the restaurant.

So now I’ve developed a multi-faceted theory about silent auctions.  I think you’re always safe bidding on a tangible, displayed item, because you know exactly what you might be getting.  The signed, framed photo of your favorite sports star isn’t going to change.  But when it comes to the personal service options, I think you need to assess the source.  If you have reason to believe that the offeror has some skin in the game — because, say, they are offering one free yoga lesson and hope that you’ll be so impressed you come back for more, or they’re a new business and are counting on your positive experience to get a good comment on their Facebook page and help with their word-of-mouth — you’re probably on solid ground.  If it’s an established restaurant, though, and the items relegates you to an off-night, you might need to brace yourself for less than stellar service.


Recently I rode the office elevator down to the first floor at the end of a work day.  As the doors opened, I saw one of the janitorial staffers polishing a table a few feet away.

“Hello,” I said, aloud, because politeness dictates acknowledging the presence of another human being under such circumstances, and she mouthed something — probably “hello” — in response.

photo-24800461-talking-lips-of-a-womanEh?  What was up with the mouthing?  There was no one else around, and no apparent reason why the staffer wouldn’t speak.  The mouthing created a kind of weird imbalance in our communication, and I shuffled off into the wintry evening feeling vaguely shortchanged.

I can understand mouthing in certain, extremely limited circumstances.  If you were late to a speech, say, and sat down at a table while the speaker was talking, it would be perfectly acceptable for a table mate to mouth “hello” at your arrival.  If you were sitting in a meeting, clearly getting ready to interrupt the boss, one of your concerned co-workers could reasonably mouth “don’t” to try to prevent your blunder, or if you were at dinner with a group of friends your wife could properly mouth “No!” to try to discourage you from launching into an embarrassing story that she knows will otherwise be forthcoming.

But, really, that about covers the spectrum of appropriate mouthing scenarios.  In virtually any other setting, mouthing is not an efficient form of communication.  It presumes lip-reading skills, and almost always provokes a double-take from the recipient.  Why not just speak up, instead?  And yet, mouthing seems to be gaining in popularity for unexplained reasons, like some stupid internet meme.  What, are people now too cool to talk?  I’ve encountered it elsewhere, and I don’t know why.  All I know is . . . it bugs me.

I’m not blaming the janitorial staffer in this instance, I guess, because there may be reasons for the mouthing that I don’t suspect.  Perhaps her English is not good, or maybe a supervisor told her not to talk to the lawyers.  Who knows?  But from now on, if I am subjected to mouthing in a situation that doesn’t call for it, I’m going to say, aloud:  “Hey!  What’s up with the mouthing?”