A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Singularity

Pioneer family in 1870

Historian John Lukacs once stated that between 1870 and 1920, the lives of people in the cities of the Western world changed more than they ever had before, or even after. He was writing in 1970, and so comparing 1920-1970 to 1870-1920.  To the people of the 1920s, much of world of 1970 was already in place. They had skyscrapers and subways, telephones, automobiles, airplanes, radio, motion pictures, and other modern appurtenances. The hologram had been invented. Computers using punched cards had been used to tabulate the Census. Both quantum mechanics and general relativity were already au courant. The first successful jet airplane had taken off (not the first successful jetlanding, however. Some trees intervened and Coanda moved on to fluidics.) LemaĆ®tre introduced the Big Bang in the 20s, though few people noticed. By 1970, everything had gotten better, bigger (or smaller) or faster. Airplanes had lost their propellers and movies gained color and sound. Radios had acquired pictures and you could carry a small AM radio in your shirt pocket. Telephones were becoming portable; but these were differences of degree, not of kind. Very little of 1970 would have gobsmacked someone from 1920, not in the way 1920 would have astonished someone from 1870..

1920 had a different vibe

Let's call this turning point "The Singularity." 

AD 1920 has the advantage of being an even 100 years ago, this year, a nice celebratory number. Earlier, over half of Americans lived in small, rural towns. Soon, more than half will live in big cities. A substantial number of American men had "seen Paree" in 1918, and it would prove hard to "keep them down on the farm" after that. The year 1920 was when the Modern came of age.

Let's take a cross section of 1920 by glancing at the Flynncestry of the time. These fall into two groups: the immigrant/children of immigrant working class in the small-town East, most working in factories of one sort or another, and two being killed on the job. The other group, ancestral to the Incomparable Marge, is Western, in small-town Oklahoma, most [but not all] farming.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Anti-social Media

 Here is a Blast From the Past. Remember the Cambridge Analytical scandal?

H. sociopatheticus
The estimable Joseph Moore points out the key role of sociopaths in today's society, one of whom he tags as Mr. Zuckerberg, founder of the Book of Faces. Really, sports fans, can anyone suppose that this device was ever intended as anything other than a vehicle for delivering personal information to various advertisers, commercial and political? How do we suppose they made their billions? Remember, the product is that for which someone pays cash money; and where Facebook is concerned, advertisers pay cash money for the eyeballs of the users. You, mi amigo, are the product.

Some advertising guru once noted way back in the days of Mad Men, in between sleeping with their secretaries and each others wives, that only about half of all advertising was effective. The problem was that no one knew which half. And so the public was spattered with twice as many ads as necessary in the hopes that half of them would stick. In the Fifties, it was believed that the sight of a man in a white lab coat using approval-words like "scientific" would entice people to purchase the desired shampoo or toothpaste; but this has changed to images of alluring models clinging to the product and using the approval-word "sexy," thus signalling a new mode of processing sales pitches.

The Lost Generation discovers
sex right in their back yard
A hundred years ago, advertising contained thick blocks of text with complete product specifications. Ho ho. How naive our great grandfathers were! Or else they were more hard-headed and no-nonsense and preferred their sexy babes live and in person rather than in magazines. (There were no televisions.)

The genius of the Book of Faces was to replace broadcast with narrowcast. People hated getting flyers and brochures for crap they didn't care about. So by carefully sorting through people's interests as expressed by themselves, advertisers could ensure sending adverts pretty much to people who had some interest in the material to begin with. So far, so good. No need for Big Brother to spy on us when we could spy on ourselves for free.

Well, you can't expect politicians to pass that up. After all, they are also in the advertising business, and this would enable them to spend their campaign money sending flyers, info, robocalls, and all the rest of that welcome and heartwarming outreach to people who might actually be inclined to listen. (TOF pauses to clean up the hot-beverage-snarfed-out-the-nose from your keyboards.)

So the Great Scandal of Cambridge Analytica was not that they scraped Facebook Data, but that they did so for the purpose of helping the Devil Incarnate, i.e., Donald Trumphiltler and/or Brexit. Had they done so to benefit Hilary Clintonstalin, we would never have heard squeak about it, for then it would have been in aid of Heaven's Purpose, i.e., the Worker's Paradise, or Venezuela. (We know this because no one had a cow about the Obama campaign scraping customer data back in the 2008 election, indeed they were lauded for being "tech-savvy.")

The one thing we have not heard is whether anyone paid the slightest attention to any of the ads that were intended to move them to get out for Trump. Indeed, the fact that people's eyeballs cruise over nasty (or nice) ads seems to have very little influence at all, despite either the boasts of providers of these services or the apocalyptic warnings of the fear-mongers. We are only told that folks were "exposed" to them, as if people were particles devoid of will, moved by mechanical forces. But since the whole purpose of the exercise was to identify those who were inclined to Trump in the first place, it's hard to see the horror of it all. Unless there is Something we're not being told beyond the "boo words" of our information being "weaponized."

Of course, the real danger of the giant rumor mill/echo chamber known as "social" media is that it is simply a set of bubbles and not very social at all. It's a way of sealing ourselves off under the illusion of being "connected." At least, in the old "broadcasting" paradigm you ran the occasional risk of a chance encounter with something that you were not already interested in. A point of view that was not already your own. A product or book or movie that was not already on your radar screen -- and you might, might, decide to give it a shot and find that it wasn't half bad. Or that what the Other Side said about itself was not the same as what Your Side told you that They had said. And your bubble might expand, even if just the tiniest bit.

Whoa, What's This?

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